"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
The question is abrupt and seems to come from out of nowhere, but I've been zoning out the conversation so I suppose that's my own fault. What were we talking about? Homework? Teachers? Summer? It's not hard to guess; add 'gossip', 'fashion', and 'whining' in there, and that pretty much covers our entire repertoire.
"I don't know," I say, and shrug.
I don't like how people use the word 'be', as if it isn't enough to simply be myself, but I know that I use the phrase as well, because it's all too easy to parrot what you hear.
I don't like how people expect me to know, already, what I want to be when I 'grow up' - because, for God's sake, I'm only fourteen. I've never done a real chemistry lab or even been in a law court. How should I know what I want to be? Churning out answers to 'x+42x' is no closer to being a mathematician than our junior high basketball teams are to the NBA.
I don't like the phrase 'when you grow up', because I know I'm fourteen and naive and stupid, and I don't need a bloody reminder, thank you very much. Besides, this all hinges on my not being an idiot when I'm 'grown up', and if I turn out to be a wash-out it'll just serve to rub it in. 'You could be the one to save the world!' 'You could grow up and win the Nobel Prize!' 'You could discover the cure for cancer!' You could, yes, but most likely even the brightest of you will live utterly mundane lives.
I don't like much of anything, really, but I am a teenager and that is my prerogative. If I've got a chance to get away with hating the world, I might as well seize it before I've 'grown up' and impropriety cannot be brushed off as adolescent rebellion.
"What about you?" I ask, speaking the words without even thinking. Teenage girls, I believe, are a new evolutionary step for the human race: our vocal cords operate independantly from our brains, allowing us to scheme and speculate and plan - or, in my case, enjoy the fuzzy white nothingness of utter emotional exhaustion - while our mouths prattle on and keep up the façade.
She shrugs, looking dubious, and for a split second I wonder if she regards that question the same way I do. Then her answer comes, "A lawyer, I guess," and I realize how pathetically foolish I was to hope.
"Why?" I ask, even though I already know the answer and I do not want to hear it. I ask anyways, with a dogged, sadistic need to hear her admit what we both know is true.
She shrugs again, and grins. "To earn megabucks," she says, borrowing an oft-used phrase from our teacher.
I have an overwhelming desire to get out of there, to burst out the doors and run and run and run, to feel the comfortable, brainless rhythm of my feet hitting the ground, to feel myself suck for air and know that it's all working, it's all in order, except for that hitherto useless grey matter known as the neocortex.
But I stay seated, even though it makes me slightly lightheaded, and instead push on with an obstinate determination. "But you hate public speaking." I don't know where I'm trying to go with this; I just know that for once, I want someone else to understand how ridiculous this whole world we've crafted for ourselves is. We may be rich and smart and privileged but we're so utterly without meaning; how can we want when we already have everything? And if we don't want, can we even be human?
"Well, I don't want to be a doctor," she says.
The bell rings, and the protest on my lips is trampled down by the clamour of students changing classes. I follow her out into the hall, but there's no point pursuing the issue. She doesn't have the answers I want, and if I try to give them to her, she'll choose a fine moment to be honorable and look away.
So I stand in the hall and let the shifting bodies of people envelope me, and I fight down the urge to throw up or cry or show any outward sign of how much it hurts to feel my soul crumbling into dust. In English class today we learned about Sartre and Sisyphus, and at that moment - floods of people crashing around me, water wearing down the rock - I realize that Jean Paul was right: you either embrace the absurdity or you are crushed by it. You trick yourself into thinking that this is normal and this is okay, no matter how degrading it becomes, or you lose yourself to the hollowness of despair. And what happens when you become so empty there's nothing left but a tissue paper shell, subject to the whims of the winds?
And I'm revolted by myself, because even as I think it, I'm moving, pushing and elbowing, because I'll be late for math if I don't hurry, and…
And who cares?
I need to keep moving, I need to go to math and sit down and factor polynomials, because you need something small and insignificant to focus on when you catch a shadow of a glimpse of a fragment of infinity and it makes you feel so small you can hardly breathe.
So I sit down and ignore the teacher as she gives us notes and instead concentrate on page after page of my workbook, which is harder than it sounds because I keep slipping out of focus and going fuzzy white for a few seconds, like invisible, soundless static in my brain. I find x and y and z but I don't manage to find myself, lost in the clouds of societal delusion.