When I was six years old, I told my mom I wanted to be a hairdresser when I grew up. She was a hairdresser and at the time she was French braiding my hair, so the announcement was most likely prompted by circumstances. She told me I didn’t have to be a hairdresser. I smiled my creepy jack o’lantern smile with one prominent gray tooth and said, “I want to be a hairdresser because I want to be like you.”
Just days before, I wanted to be a circus elephant because I wanted to be like Dumbo. I spent a lot of time standing on a soccer ball in front of the TV perfecting my circus act for the day when my blood, sweat, and tears earned me the role of sideshow pachyderm. All I needed was a congenital skin disorder. My career ended abruptly when I fell off the ball and slammed my face into the corner of a dining room table. I lost and probably swallowed a tooth. It was replaced with a fake one which faded to gray and eventually fell out.
Then I wanted to be a veterinarian. Why be an animal when you could just provide them with emergency healthcare? I was inspired by my cat Zoe, with whom I shared a special connection. By special, I mean psychic. We could read each other’s thoughts and speak each other’s language. We meowed at each other and neither of us thought it was weird or delusional or anything but beautiful. Someday when I got a job at the cat hospital, Zoe would come with me and wear a matching white lab coat. While I examined a patient, she would observe and assist me in making the diagnosis.
I dropped the veterinarian idea when I realized that sometimes animals die and also humans die and everything we know is someday going to die and not even all the veterinarians in the world can stop it. Someone really should have encouraged me, though, because veterinary medicine was my very last attempt at a practical career path and it ended before I turned ten. If my family ever complains about me having a useless degree, I could just shrug and say, “I could have been a veterinarian, but nooo…”
For a while my family encouraged me to sing, motivated by the sudden celebrity of a certain other Britney, and signed me up for the church choir. I wasn’t very enthusiastic because I already knew what I wanted to do with my life: be an Olympic gymnast, like Dominique Moceanu in the 1996 Olympics. I was an unstoppable athlete with boundless energy, phenomenal biceps, and six-pack abs. They called me Gumby because my flexibility knew no physical limits. I was also The Strongest Girl in the World. I did handsprings and handstands and straddle splits for anyone who would watch me and be amazed. I got into trouble in school once for lifting another girl in the air during a math lesson. I didn’t give her any prior warning. I just did it, because who needs math anyways when you’re The Strongest Girl in the World?
Then I had to quit gymnastics. My world exploded around me and I was ejected in my escape pod into an existential crisis. The unknown abyss before me was terrifying. I was eleven years old and not getting any younger. Who was I? If not the future youngest member of the 2004 USA gymnastics team, then who? I imagine this is how divorce must feel.
I formed a number of contingency plans that I thought might bring me comparable satisfaction. I wanted to be a choreographer, but I had no background in dance and no rhythm whatsoever. I wanted to be a Radio City Rockette, but I wasn’t tall. I wanted to be a Chinese acrobat, but I wasn’t Chinese. I gravitated towards art, interior decorating, fashion design, jewelry-making. I dreamed of running away to the circus, or Africa. Everything would be different in Africa. I wanted to go on some sort of safari and never come back.
If life worked out the way I imagined, I would be drinking protein shakes and wearing track suits for the rest of my life. I would also be retired by now. In the world of gymnastics, your body has an expiration date and it’s an early one. I remember when I watched the 2008 Olympics and how I thought about an alternate universe Me doing a floor routine to some Dashboard Confessional song. I felt deeply sad and started sobbing into Kleenex in front of the TV. A once-treasured prospective self was officially dead and buried. RIP.
By this time, I had been writing regularly for a while. I was working on my first novel, a coming of age story about a four-inch-tall middle school girl who had to kill her evil principal to save everyone she knew and loved. As I penned the last page of the novel, my heart pounding as the protagonist plunged a pair of safety scissors into the neck of her evil principal (She had disguised herself as a hot dog and he swallowed her whole in a bun, along with the inconspicuous pair of scissors), I dropped my pen. Breathing deeply, I looked back my lengthy manuscript and fingered the pencil-scrawled words of each of its eighteen pages. I finally realized that this is what I want to do with my life. The way I felt writing page eighteen was the way I wanted to feel all the time.
I’ve toyed with a lot of other career ideas, keenly aware that writing isn’t the key to pyramids full of gold. But neither is interior decorating, fashion design, singing, radio show hosting, or film directing. I’m not very good at this adult thing. Just a couple of years ago I was considering going back to school for holistic nutrition and doing a certificate course in herbal medicine and learning how to make women’s lingerie. I will probably always be the kind of person who wants to do everything. I have to write so I can live twice as much.