“What’s wrong, honey?”
The young man had been waiting for this question, hoping someone would ask it, and yet he felt totally unprepared to answer it. He looked across the room at his mother with what must have been a dazed expression. “Huh?”
“You’ve been moping around all summer.” It seemed like a mean thing to say, but she looked genuinely concerned. “What’s wrong? You seem… off.”
The young man felt off. “I don’t know,” he said. After a while it looked like his mother might say something else. He didn’t think he could handle it if she asked him what was wrong again, so he blurted out, “I just don’t know if I’d be happy being a doctor.”
His mother looked surprised. Relieved. As if she’d been expecting something much worse. As if not wanting to be a doctor was just a phase every kid went through. “You don’t want to be a doctor anymore?”
“I just don’t know if I’d be happy.”
“Well, that’s all you’ve ever said you wanted to be.”
“When I was little,” he said. “Every little kid says he wants to be a doctor.”
“I think you’d make a great doctor.”
The young man did not mention his fear that he would make a terrible doctor. Or that he wouldn’t even get into med school. His biggest fear was that he would survive med school, make a passably decent doctor, but be unhappy doing it. As unhappy as he was now. “I guess.”
His mother studied him for a moment. “Is there something else?”
There were a million things. He didn’t know what he wanted from life. Every day, every hour, every moment just pulled him further along into a frightening, unknown future. A future he was not prepared for. He sighed. “No, just that.” He stood and stretched. “I’m gonna go shoot hoops or something.”
A quiet “Okay.”
He could feel his mother’s eyes on his back as he left the room.
During that summer, the young man was a lifeguard at a local pool. Every day, he sat and gazed at the small but crowded pool before him. Occasionally, he would yell at a little kid to stop running. Sometimes he let his mind wander. He did not think he was a very good lifeguard.
“What’s the matter?”
His father was asking. They had just finished dinner. The young man had been considering trying to explain to his parents how he felt. When everyone had finished eating, he’d let out a self-indulgent, self-pitying sigh. Now he felt embarrassed. “Nothing,” he said.
“You seem sort of… moody.”
The young man cringed. Moody was a preteen girl who hadn’t gotten the cell phone she wanted.
“What’s wrong, honey?” asked his mother. She looked tired and upset. Tired of asking, upset she had to.
The young man began to cry. How could he explain? He felt insubstantial, incompetent, uninteresting. He saw no future for himself. He was stumbling through life, trying to be someone, anyone. It was too hard to explain, so he said nothing. He just sobbed into his arms on the table.
His father said soothing words. His mother cried with him. After a while, she stood up, came and knelt by his side. Wrapped her arms around him. “I just want you to be happy,” she said softly.
There were good days. The good days made the bad days worse and the bad days made the good days not as good. On the bad days, he would remind himself of what his mother had said: I just want you to be happy.
One day at the pool, the young man overheard some lady talking about her recent visit to an art museum. It reminded him of a day long ago when his mother had taken him to see a Van Gogh exhibit. He had seen the real Starry Night. He remembered thinking he’d seen plenty of starry nights, but never one like in the painting.
Suddenly an image popped into his head. It was a painting, but not a real one. It was of a lifeguard slumped in his tower, looking dejected. He thought the depressed lifeguard looked silly, completely unlike the way he always used to envision lifeguards: alert and intense. It was a little depressing, maybe, but he liked this imaginary painting.
“I want to learn how to paint.”
His mother looked up from the book she was reading. “What?”
“I always wished I could paint,” said the young man. “I think I want to learn how.”
His mother did not smile. “When would you have the time?”
It was a legitimate question. He had a busy semester ahead of him. He didn’t like to think about that. “I don’t know. Don’t you think it would be cool, though?”
She humored him with a forced smile. “That would make a nice hobby.”
Hobby. So she was afraid he wanted to be a painter. She was afraid he’d forget about medical school and end up a struggling artist. It annoyed him she wasn’t trying to share in his excitement. I just want you to be happy, she had said. He had believed it, and probably she had believed it, too. But now he saw it was nothing but a pleasant untruth. She didn’t just want him to be happy. She also wanted him to be normal, successful, a somebody. She wanted to be able to say, Look at my son, didn’t he turn out right? And his happiness would never be more important to her than that.
He stared at his mother and she stared back. Then he smiled. “You know what?” he said, grabbing his keys and walking toward the front door. “Maybe I can teach myself. I think I’ve got enough cash for a canvas and some paints. I’ll start today.”
“Okay, honey,” said his mother, but the young man was already out the door.
David Alliger is currently a student at the State University of New York in Geneseo. He enjoys writing and lives in Albany with his parents and his brothers.