I suppose the idea burrowed into my brain during my first upper-division literature course, which makes sense. It was Victorian literature, and the professor was a midwestern transplant who wore loafers to class and introduced Dickens in a way that actually made him interesting to me. She had mentioned her plans to spend the summer abroad in England, touring the homes of all her favorite Victorian writers. You can do that? I thought to myself, as if I had just discovered I was an adult and could eat all the candy I wanted. My imagination began stirring up a misty future that up until that point had been rather blank.
That idea never really left, eventually growing into an elephant that knocked about in my head, taking up every inch of space; space that should be devoted to the idea of having and raising children, if I’m following the prescribed formula. That is what most of the women I know did. However, I’ve learned that the elephant does not give a shit about what I “should” be doing.
The fantasy of the traveling lit professor has never truly gone away, no matter how many times I’ve tried to chase it out with bullhooks and life experience. You can’t help what you want from life. I’ve learned that, too.
Strangely enough, one of my sisters spent her twenties trotting the globe, just as I had planned to. Stranger still, I rarely felt the usual nip of jealousy because I knew someday I would get my turn. I just had to follow the steps, gaining degree after degree, just like when I was a kid passing levels on Sonic the Hedgehog. I never imagined that after defeating level 12, the screen would darken and Dr. Robotnik would steal all my gold rings.
“Sorry, sucker, it was all a trick!” he’d laugh thickly. “Take another turn on the low-wage job wheel and watch everyone else’s dreams come true while yours turn malignant! Do not pass ‘go!’ Do not collect $200!”
Or something like that.
She went to Romania, to Haiti twice, to Africa twice, collecting photos of real elephants, memories and souvenirs of a life well-lived. I worked hard, patiently grinding away until it would be my turn. Friends around me have made their realities reflect their dreams. Each year I grow older, lose another job, gain a debt in my lifetime earnings. With each year that passes, I fear I’ll never catch up.
Work now resembles a wavy fun house mirror image of what it is I set out to do. Much like a dream where you run but you don’t go anywhere, the reality is distorted in a carnivalesque way. It’s not right, but it’s not exactly wrong, either. No literature classes to teach, no travel on the horizon, for a variety of complex reasons that hurt every day. They are not unique to me, these reasons; in fact, it’s sort of a professional epidemic. That doesn’t lessen the pain, though.
All I want is my own Victorian lit class, my own trip to England, my own tasselled loafers. I’d teach Collins instead of Dickens, though, because I’m my own woman and Dickens is still a tough pill to swallow.