Taking on another WordPress prompt: what I wanted to be when I grew up. At first I wanted to be an architect. I liked building with Legos and blocks, and especially these cool wooden “castle blocks”; they were round, for building turrets galore, and had tiny windows painted on, and red pointed roof blocks too. They felt wonderful in my hands, small and smooth and slightly heavy. I thought actual construction wouldn’t be too far from how I meticulously stacked one piece on top of another. The raw materials were probably just as attractive as my little blocks. I didn’t think about the temporal scale of buildings; my castles and Lincoln Log cabins lasted a few days, a week at most (before I knocked them down); actual buildings didn’t seem to age, or have any specified length of existence. They were there, and then, one day, they weren’t anymore.
Gradually I lost interest in blocks, and thus, architecture, though I still liked watching “This Old House” on Saturday mornings with my dad. Then I wanted to be a doctor, because it seemed like they instantly garnered respect, and also the rooms they worked in had interesting things everywhere: stethoscopes, spinning stools, mouth flashlights and metal baskets for weighing babies. Doctors got to be a little mysterious too; no one ever seemed to know their first names.
I held onto this possible occupation for a long time, all the way until my freshman year at college, when I took a work-study job in the biology department. I was also taking biology, and doing rather well (though I dreaded chemistry, physics and every other pre-med science requirement); it was what I had to do working in the bio lab that turned me off medical science forever. Setting up frogs, worms, and various cow parts for dissections was difficult but endurable–they didn’t really look like their former selves. The overpowering formaldehyde fumes were the hardest part of setting up the trays (my eyes watered & my throat burned); but, they distracted me from thinking about where these animals came from and how they ended up in a New York City freshman biology lab. Dissecting them in class, with a partner and a list of things to find/record, all their former history was suppressed, ignored; there was too much to do in the two-hour lab to think about these specimens as living beings.
My dream of being a doctor when I grew up died the day the fetal pigs arrived. I walked into the lab to find dozens of innocuous white buckets; I was told to open them and sort the “contents” by sex. I pried off the first lid and there, swimming in brine, were three dead piglets, drained of all color except a sickly yellow tinge from the embalming fluid. I remember picking one up and finding it surprisingly heavy, and firm; this was a pig pulled from its mother before it was born. I asked my supervisor, a hundred year old, partially discombobulated lady, where the piglets came from, and she wouldn’t tell me. Much later I learned they were taken from the bellies of pigs killed in slaughterhouses far away and driven hundreds of miles up to Manhattan.
I got through two or three buckets of dead baby pigs before running out of the lab and vomiting in the bathroom. The bio lab was on the tenth floor of an ugly concrete building; I looked out the little window in the bathroom at rows of buildings, layers of smog, lines of traffic. I’d never felt such a strong sense of pollution: industrial, epidemic, inescapable. I left my job and didn’t come back. After an hour-long shower I still reeked like embalming fluid. I somehow talked my way out of having to perform the dissection, I think I told the overweight, lustful lab assistant my religion forbade the dissecting of pigs. Maybe looking at and cutting up cadavers wouldn’t be so bad, I tried to tell myself. Utter bullshit: I knew it would be much worse. I just didn’t have the necessary equipment to study dead bodies, and thus, could never study, let alone cut into, a live one. My skin is too thin, my mind is too active. I’ve dreamt about those fetal pigs for years.
Thirteen years later, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I have an MFA in poetry, and so I call myself a writer, but really I just see myself as a displaced artist. I paint and collage a lot and never sell what I make, because I alternately lack the desire or means to sell my paintings. I write every day, but haven’t worked on my novel in a long while. My great employment hope now is a quiet job in this small rare books store, right next to the city hospital.