Most of my family is gathering at my parents’ house for Memorial Day weekend, including my youngest brother who’s visiting from New York City. I look forward to seeing him, of course, and hearing his twenty-something adventures amidst the pulse of a city as ever shifting as New York. At the same time, his stories serve as a mirror—reflecting back to me a parallel life I did not live.
When I first left for college, I thought I’d graduate into a life writing and editing from a sunlit, book-strewn studio in the city. I made other choices, one after the next carrying me further from that life, but the idea of that life— and the energy and excitement that life might’ve forged— never fully faded. A deep groove of what-if carved its way across my memory. The “memory” of what-if is triggered here and there because it’s never been covered over in my mental map the way other, lesser-desired paths not taken have been.
A handful of those what-ifs remain and, when triggered, rub a bit against the groove, reminding my neurons of this pathway’s existence and creating anew a tiny heartbreak for the choice I did not make, for that life I did not lead.
I keep hoping each instance of this will, instead of a deeper groove, smudge it out, so I’m not still sitting here wondering each May when I see high schoolers in shimmering ball gowns and up-dos why no one ever asked me to a single school dance.
Why isn’t it like the grit of sand to pearl or the river rock smoothed by the current? Is it just that gradual of a process that perhaps my what-ifs are shifting into something else so slowly that I won’t notice the change until it’s staring me right in the face?
I harbor the grit of sand for now, not because I’m sure I’m forming potential pearls of unknowable worth, but because the grit of sand found its way in and remains with me, a bittersweet abrasion that is the discomfort of growth, of transformation.
Maybe I have been looking at it all wrong. Maybe the unlived lives aren’t etched wounds in my memory but small grains of promise that I should cherish and hold delicately because they will at some point reveal themselves to be beautiful pearls gleaming in the sun just as brightly as any prom dress or city skyline.