Stars in a Bottle
When I was a kid, I thought photography was one of the coolest things in the world. At the press of a button—click!—you'd just captured the world with your hands. You could develop it and keep it forever, to compensate for that annoying thing called forgetfulness.
Being the kid I was, though, I was not only at the mercy of forgetfulness. I'd been graced with a name as gratifying as "Butterfingers" by my parents, who were so fed up with the way I dropped things for no direct reason. (They'd become aware of my flow the moment I accidentally dropped my mother's favorite china set on the kitchen floor when I was six.) The nickname was a guarantee to me that, for twelve long years, I would never be able to step into the presence of any item of value—cameras included. That was probably the first time my faint dreams of being a photographer were crushed; I could no longer imagine my eight-year-old self on a boat out at sea, capturing pods of dolphins or seagulls in flight onto a roll of rapidly burning film. I guess dreams that are weak in countenance are hard to hold true to.
So I had to make do. While I was at a used book sale with my dad one day, I stocked up on all the National Geographic magazines I could get my hands on (and were within the same price range that my father's pocket carried). When I showed him my findings, he peered down at what I had in my hands, pushed up his glasses, and observed, "National Geographic?"
I nodded vigorously and told him about how I wanted to be a photographer. I promised that I would study up on it before I committed myself to said dream.
He smiled at me and said, "Okay then, we'll see what we can do."
II. Photos Are Compensation For The Real World
On the first day of fifth grade, our teacher reminded us that we only had just over a year left before we moved onto... middle school. I found moving up in the ranks about as terrifying as Ōtori seemed to find it. Hiyoshi, on the other hand, was completely indifferent to the whole matter. I remember asking him how he planned to deal with the change from elementary to middle school, but he just said something about moving up in the ranks and being able to "usurp the stature of the seniors." I had no idea what he was talking about.
But moving up wasn't the only issue we were expected to be grappling with as fifth graders. Our teachers said that, someday soon, we'd all be entering something she called the "real world" as full grown-ups, and if we entered the real world without having any idea what we wanted to do, we would be in for "a time as rough as the seven seas"—that was an analogy that Hiyoshi later came up with, to put things into perspective for me; if his intention was to scare me into fearing the "real world," then he's succeeded with flying colors.
So, that fateful day, our teacher tried to plant all sorts of strange ideas into the "soul of our heads" (courtesy of Hiyoshi, once more). She talked about jobs I'd never even heard of, like "archaeologists" and "cartographers" and "geologists." What's more, she didn't even make mention of photographer in her long list of possible future dreams. I wondered if that meant she's just forgotten to mention it, or if being a photographer was an incorrect term. I didn't know, but I wasn't about to speak out of turn.
At the end of class, our teacher decided to assign us some "special homework." She told us to write a story about how we saw ourselves in twenty years time. Would we be pitchers on famous professional baseball teams? (That one got most of the boys to look at each other in agreement.) Would we become famed authors who wrote acclaimed, international bestsellers? (Ōtori, who was my seatmate, smiled in my direction.) Would we be simple people, working diligently as tradesmen in our humble country? (Our teacher paused here and coughed, almost deliberately.) I wanted none of these dreams, but it was impossible to refuse the paper that the teacher was handing out specifically for our homework. And it was hard to refuse that knowing look that Ōtori was giving me.
I started to panic around lunch time, scared that my life would turn into some kind of joke the moment I decided to pursue an incorrect dream. It was an inconvenient thought to have, in seeing that I was trying to read a book that Hiyoshi had lent to me called Merlin's Beard. He was giving me a time limit to finish the book, and if I didn't finish it by tomorrow, he said he'd never let me read it again. Since I was at the best part, I wasn't willing to let the chance to finish the book slip, but I couldn't bring myself to concentrate on the words. My brain was too busy panicking over what I was supposed to do for homework. I tried to think of a way to justify what would happen if I wrote about an incorrect dream. Could I say that because it was just a story about how I saw myself in twenty years, and therefore, I didn't think it had to be true? Would something like that work on our teacher?
Somewhere between the moment I stopped reading Merlin's Beard and the moment I started to outwardly panic, Ōtori noticed that I was not of sound mind. (Hiyoshi noticed it, too, but obviously he didn't care. Maybe he thought I was panicking about the time limit. Wait, was that a smirk I saw on his face?) "-san, are you okay?"
I didn't think I felt comfortable enough sharing my worries with him, so I tried to divert the attention way from myself and throw it onto him instead. "Have you thought about what you're going to write?"
"You mean for homework?"
He looked thoughtful, either completely oblivious or too kind to observe that I'd thrown the spotlight over to him. "I don't know. There are a lot of things I want to do, but I'm not sure which one to pick." He smiled at me. "You're lucky, -san. You have it all planned out."
I jumped. "Me?"
His eyes rounded with curiosity. "Aren't you going to be an author?"
Oh. I'd almost forgotten. Actually, I'd completely forgotten. "Oh..."
He smiled again. "You would be good at it," he said, and for some reason, the words he said sounded faintly familiar.
Towards the end of lunch, Ōtori said he had to go and meet someone, so he ran off before the rest of us. As Ōtori's footsteps pattered off into the distance, I could have sworn I heard Hiyoshi mumble under his breath, "I want to be a historian."
I felt a pang of guilt, knowing that neither Ōtori nor I had paid much attention to Hiyoshi during that conversation. Well, in seeing that Ōtori and Hiyoshi were already best friends, I figured that Ōtori already knew, and I was the one at fault. I wanted to ask Hiyoshi what his dream was, so that he could answer loud and clear, but I didn't know what a historian did. It felt wrong to say, "That's a cool dream." And even if i did say that, I got the inkling that Hiyoshi would just stare at me, knowing that I didn't know what it was.
In the end, I turned to Hiyoshi and asked, "Did you say something, Hiyo-kun?"
He just stared at me. "No."
And then he went back to reading.
- x -
Every step of the way home, I felt more and more compelled to make a big, fat lie out of my future story. A big, fat lie was better than a wrong dream, right? When I got home, I watched hours and hours of TV shows before I pulled out our homework from today. I gave the sheet one long, unblinking stare. This was okay, wasn't it?
I picked up my pencil.
In twenty years' time, I wrote, I see myself sitting at a desk. This is where I write all my stories, and when I finish them, the best ones get published so that all the children around the world can read them. I'll become famous, and when I'm old, I'll have so many books published that I could fill a library with them.
I put down my pencil.
All I could do as I put my homework away was hope that it was convincing enough. No teacher could say "no" to dreams larger than life... right?
- x -
I was a bundle of nerves when I shuffled into class the next day. Ōtori, on the other hand, looked to be brimming with confidence. He was in such a good mood that he came over to my desk and said, "Good morning, -san! Look, I wanted to show my paper to you before we hand it in!"
In twenty years' time, it read, I see myself in a big concert hall filled with people. I'll play Allegro de Concert and Copin's Ballades for them, and when I'm finished, everyone rises and the room thunders with applause. Hiyoshi-kun says that it's called a "standing ovation." In the crowd, I see my two best friends, Hiyoshi-kun and -san, and they are applauding me. -san, who is an author, writes a book about the concert. She calls it The Boy and His Piano, and it becomes her most famous book.
I looked up to see him smiling.
"I ended up writing a little bit about your dream, too." He said sheepishly. "But it fits in with your paper, right?"
And then he bounced away.
I was overwhelmed, knowing that Ōtori had chosen to write not just about himself being a piano player (which was kind of a dream that I hadn't remembered hearing the teacher mention yesterday), but he had made the effort to write me into his little dream. My mouth was stuck somewhere between a gratified smile and a look of bewilderment. I wanted to go up and say something to him—even if it was just a thank you—but I was dry of words. My mind had run out of graphite.(1)
Ōtori never asked to see my paper, and I was glad of the reprieve. He didn't even ask what I wrote; I think he just assumed I would write about being an author. Either way, I hadn't written nearly as much as he had, and I was glad that my meager sentences would never have to see the light of day. When the teacher came around to collect our homework, I was eager to get the paper out of my hands. I never wanted to see the paper again, nor did I want to witness the correct dream contained within it.
- x -
It goes without saying that eventually, my dream to become a photographer dissipitated. I wasn't sure if it was the guilt of deceiving Ōtori, or the fear of having a false dream, or if I merely lost interest in capturing the world with my hands. Either way, I told my dad I didn't want to become a photographer anymore, and he asked me why. Having never been a good liar, I could only say to him, "It's the wrong dream."
He must have misinterpreted, because he smiled at me and patted my head. "One day you'll find the right dream for you, -chan. It just takes time."
For the longest time, I wasn't sure what I would do with the National Geographic magazines that i had bought from the book sale. I tried to foist them off on my sister at one point, but, needless to say, it didn't really work. They sat at the back of my bookshelf, collecting dust alongside my empty luck jar and wasting away.
It wasn't until the appearance of a fateful Thursday that I saw a hopeful light. Fridays were the only day of the week that most people in the class looked forward to, because it was the day on which we got extended art. Instead of doing history and art in the afternoon, our teacher let us spend the duration of said time just doing art. (In Ōtori's eyes, this upset Hiyoshi greatly. I never noticed a substantial chance in face between normal Hiyoshi and sad Hiyoshi, but every time our teacher reminded us that Friday's last lesson would be spent doing art, Ōtori would cast a worried glance in Hiyoshi's direction.) This week, she said, our Friday art lesson would be about travelling; we would be making a poster that featured all the places we wanted to go, and who we wanted to go with. Everyone was encouraged to bring along travel-related magazines that they had at home, to be cut into itty bitty pieces and stuck on posters.
She was probably very grateful when no one but me turned up with a huge box filled with National Geographic. It was so big that my dad had to drive me to school (despite the fact we lived no more than three blocks away from the school) and carry the box into class for me. The magazines were distributed amongst the classmates, and our teacher told us to separate into groups of however many people we liked, for once. I went with Ōtori and Hiyoshi to the back of the room with a stack of magazines. Hiyoshi had taken most of the magazines that featured historical sites and "archaeological ruins" (whatever they were), Ōtori grabbed a few that had pictures of old buildings and big churches. I grabbed a bunch of different kinds, and we set to work cutting. Hiyoshi, who had the neatest writing, wrote our names at the top.
Though his face didn't show it, Hiyoshi was the most eager to cut and paste. The very first picture he pasted on the poster paper was of some old ruins on a really tall mountain. It was called Machu Picchu. Hiyoshi liked it because of something to do with the history of the place, but Ōtori and I liked it because it was fun to say. Machu Picchu, Machu Picchu. We went on like that until Hiyoshi told us to be quiet.
Ōtori's big pick was a big old building, the roof lit up like a big candle. It was called Canterbury Cathedral. He said that he wasn't a big Christian himself, but he had been to a few before, and they always made him feel very calm. I had never been in a cathedral before. Hiyoshi said he had, and it was nothing spectacular; I couldn't help but disagree with him. I had never seen a building so old, and I liked the way that it lit up like a candle.
My pick was something a little different. I thought for a long time about what I wanted to put; there were so many places I could have picked. Hiyoshi and Ōtori even gave me some suggestions. Hiyoshi suggested I do one of the sea, so that I could conquer the real world. Ōtori suggested I do one of a really big library, for obvious reasons. But I ended up doing neither, even though both were very good suggestions. After much page turning, I finally found something that caught my interest. They looked to me like a bunch of stars caught in big wisps of smoke and banners of clouds. I didn't know what they were until Hiyoshi told me that they were nebulas. I asked him how he knew what they were, and he pointed to the title of the page.
My favorite nebula was called the Horsehead Nebula. I guess it was called that because the wisp of smoke looked like a horse raising its head before it would stampede off to war. Hiyoshi said it looked like a beheaded lady rising from the dead. Three guesses what I would go on to dream about later that night.
"I think I want to cut this one out." I said, putting scissors to the Horsehead Nebula.
Hiyoshi looked at me blankly. "I've never met anyone who wanted to go fifteen hundred light years away to meet a dead lady in the stars." I heard Ōtori whimper at that. "Why do you want to go to space? It's really far away."
It wasn't a question that I could answer immediately. If Hiyoshi and Ōtori knew me—which they did—they knew that I wasn't the type to venture very far from home without company. The very thought of me travelling fifteen hundred light years away (the way Hiyoshi said it, it sounded like a lot) seemed very unlikely then.
In the end, the only thing I said to them was, "But wouldn't it be cool if we could go to the end of the universe? How many people have been to the end of the universe and back?"
Hiyoshi and Ōtori looked at each other.
"Space is really far away." Ōtori said worriedly.
"Well..." I couldn't really reason with that.
The silent conversation was ended by Hiyoshi, who said, "It's just a poster." He shrugged, and went back to looking for pictures of ancient ruins to stick on to our poster.
- x -
In the end, our poster consisted of 90% ancient ruins, 9% of big old buildings in England and 1% space. I didn't really have any qualms with it. I couldn't. Even I couldn't convince myself that going to space—which was so far away—would be worth it.
Twenty minutes before the art lesson was supposed to end, the teacher told us to pick one member from each group to present our poster. This, of course, caused me to have a moment of inward panic, and I almost wanted to discretely rip the Horsehead Nebula off our poster. I couldn't, though, because Hiyoshi was holding the poster and he was eyeing me warningly, as if he knew what I was up to.
When it came to our group, Ōtori and I looked expectantly at Hiyoshi. He was the only one in our group who could stand in front of a group of people without quivering or stuttering. Actually, when Hiyoshi slowly went up to the front of the room with our poster, he made most of the class quiver and stutter with his blank squint. My head started to pound, like a countdown to the doom of my embarrassment, as Hiyoshi opened his mouth to speak.
First, of course, he pointed out all the ruins he pasted on his poster. "These are all the ruins that we're going to study. Ōtori and are going to help me document my findings." Then he pointed to Machu Picchu. "The place we want to study most is Machu Picchu."
Then he pointed to all the old buildings that Ōtori had pasted. A lot of the contents of the buildings varied, but a few of the same: the buildings were either a cathedral, a library, or a concert hall. "Ōtori's not a Christian, but we'll go to Canterbury Cathedral when he thinks he wants to be calm. Not that he needs any more of being calm." He paused. "When he's rich and famous, we'll go to the Harpa and watch him play piano for lots of people. He'll play Chopin and get a standing ovation. and I will be in the crowd, and we'll be clapping."
A few people asked what a standing ovation was. Hiyoshi told them to be quiet, they were interrupting his presentation. They stopped asking, for fear of what would happen if they didn't.
He went on: ", who's an author, will write a book about Ōtori's piano. She'll become rich and famous off it, and then we can go to the Reading Room in the British Museum to see all her works collected there."
Then, finally, he gestured to the picture of the Horsehead Nebula, obscured by the edges of Hiyoshi's "Giza Necropolis" (whatever that was) and Ōtori's British music schools. For a moment, I thought it was all over for me.
But then Hiyoshi said: "This is the Horsehead Nebula. It's a big cloud of gas and dust out in space, and we're all going to go and see it when we've fulfilled our dreams. That means we can go to the edge of the universe, and we'll come back unscathed. It'll be a long journey, but we'll get there somehow."
And then he left the spotlight. Everyone applauded. I wish they gave him a standing ovation, but, then again, no one ever got to find out what a standing ovation is.
- x -
Since there was only one poster and three of us, our teacher gave us the last five minutes of the lesson to fight over who got to keep the poster. I felt sorry for some other groups, who had five or six people that all wanted the poster to hang up in their rooms; within our group, it was a very easy decision: Hiyoshi didn't want it. He said he had plenty of good pictures of Machu Picchu and Giza Necropolis printed in his books. Ōtori smiled politely and said rather sheepishly that he wasn't able to put posters up on the wall of his room. That, of course, allowed me to take the poster home without any qualms.
I didn't really have much wall space to put the poster; most walls of my bedroom were obscured by my dresser, bookshelf, desk and some windows. So, since the poster was small, I rolled it up and stuck it in my luck jar. I hoped that if I did this, then maybe, just maybe, our wishes to travel the far reaches of the earth would come true.
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Princo & Ribbon
June 26, 2014.
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(1)Graphite: I was going to put ink, but then I realized that most kids write in pencil, not pen. I can't use lead, either, because pencils are made out of graphite nowadays, not lead. So. There you go. HAHAHA.
Ribbon: So, I was having a lot of debate about how I should continue from siabby after the first chapter. Actually, I had the same exact dilemma as I did with Room Service. Siabby, unlike RS, was more easily fixed, since I could just write most of these chapters in flashback mode before I went to future mode. RS... is not so easily fixed. Sorry, but I just have to fix my extensive issues with RS before you get an update on that. HAHAHAHAHA.
Princo: Finally, amirite?