“Marie, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I ask my daughter.
She’s lying on her stomach, slowly kicking her feet as if swimming through the thick carpet. Her small, blonde head is propped up by a skinny elbow, and she is lazily dragging a felt marker over a crisp sheet of paper. I can’t tell what she’s drawing, but her pictures always start as random shapes that congeal into something surprising.
“I don’t know what I want to be,” she sings the words with so much gusto that her ponytail bounces with each syllable.
“You like dinosaurs. Maybe you should be a paleontologist.”
It’s a summer afternoon and we’re both procrastinating on the list of chores that are stuck to the refrigerator. The patio door is wide open and a warm breeze is sneaking into the house, impishly tussling the curtains and spreading my newspaper across the sofa cushions. My mother is coming over for dinner tonight, and it will be just another example of my inadequate parenting if my seven-year-old daughter isn’t at least contemplating her future career. It’s a ridiculous demand, but an easy fix. No need to give my mother more excuses to pry into our lives. She’s been relentless since my wife died two years ago.
“Why do you always use big words? Little ones work fine for me and people always know what I’m saying,” she says, flicking her long bangs out of her eyes with the back of the marker.
“Some ideas are complicated and require a specific jargon or term to capture the expanse of the meaning.”
I know I will lose this argument.
“More big words. How can something hard to understand be important when having fun is easy?”
She giggles to make her point.
Sid, our chubby Labrador, wakes up from his nap and gazes around the room with his droopy eyes, searching for the source of the excitement. He exhales deeply as if irritated, and then he spreads himself across the rectangle of sunlight cut into the floor by the open door and goes back to sleep.
“Paleontologists are scientists that study fossil remains, such as those of dinosaurs,” I explain.
“I don’t know if I like dinosaurs anymore. Besides, they’re dead.”
“The correct word is extinct because you are referring to a type of animal that no longer exists rather than a specific individual animal that has passed on.”
Her drawing is beginning to resemble a dinosaur with a round body and a long tail that stretches off the page.
“Dinosaurs would be neat if they were still alive,” she replies. “They’d try to eat us, so we’d have to put walls around our cities. But we’d be trapped behind the walls, so nature would be safe. The trees would grow extra tall and all of the plants and animals would come back. Or maybe we’d live underground. Yeah. That’s a better idea. We’d live underground and play in parks with fake grass. And at night we would dream about living on the surface. And sometimes we’d sneak out when the dinosaurs were asleep to pick flowers.”
The fragrance of the gardenias in the backyard is being carried inside by the breeze. She always notices beautiful things like that before I do. So did her mother.
“What about an entomologist?”
She loves to draw, but I don’t want her to be an artist, always struggling. No, I want her to be happy, and build a wonderful life on the foundation of a solid career. Marie stops kicking her feet, and glares at me. Even Sid opens his eyes and stretches out his neck to look at me.
“Sorry. Littler words. An entomologist is a scientist that studies insects.”
“Bugs would be better if they were huge and in space, and I could watch them with my telescope. Yeah. Armies of ants would wander around the galaxy collecting asteroids, and dragging them back to their home in a black hole. And butterflies would flap their wings and make the stars swirl, and a dung beetle would roll the moon away. Now that would be neat.”
“You can observe the smaller varieties of insects under a microscope, which is similar to a telescope,” I propose, noticing that her drawing now resembles an embellished beetle. The tail of the dinosaur has become a pair of antennae and a dozen squiggling legs now sprout from its plump round body.
She doesn’t even bother to reply, and her head is now drooping down and resting on her arm.
“Well, if you like space, maybe you should be an astronaut.”
“Okay. I guess I’ll be an astronaut,” she declares, as if deciding which pair of sandals to wear to the beach. She’s bored, but I press her because I know my mother will.
“Are you sure? It’s extremely difficult. You have to become an exemplary fighter pilot and risk your life serving your country. And even if you’re the best, you’ll still need a little luck and maybe even the intervention of a few politicians.”
“That doesn’t sound hard. What planets will I get to visit?”
The beetle’s antennae have become a neck, the wiggling legs have multiplied and become locks of hair, and the body has become the face of an astronaut with bright blue eyes and a stern, serious mouth. I’m excited. I’m getting through to her.
“Astronauts don’t go to planets yet, and it’s been years since we’ve been to the moon.”
“Then I don’t want to be an astronaut. What’s the point of going all the way to space if you just turn around and come back?”
“Wait. No. Maybe by the time you’re an astronaut we’ll be visiting…”
“Hey Daddy, look,” she interrupts, holding up her picture. “I drew a picture of you.”
Robert Norton lives in Portland, Oregon. Please check out his website for more of his stories.