Fantasy worlds of children trying on futures for size.
While traveling down the east coast, we stayed at a hotel in Florida. In the morning I was walking through the parking lot with my coffee and this little girl, probably about seven, was walking along holding car keys in her little hand. She was by herself and you could tell she was on an entrusted, big-kid mission to get something from the family car. She was walking purposefully, head high, kind of sashaying along.
“Good morning!” I said to her cheerfully, because I remember being this little girl, feeling important, wanting to be seen in my independent moment.
“Good morning!” She said back to me, in a thick British accent.
When I was small, I remember that in the rare moments I was away from my family — away from our busted up old Volkswagen bus that smelled like dogs, away from my annoying brother and his sci-fi novels, away from my bickering parents who seemed to always be leaned over a torn up map trying to figure out directions or leaned over the car engine pouring water into the radiator.
In those moments, I would sometimes pretend I was someone I wasn’t. I wasn’t Gwen from State Road 601 and the gravel driveway, but I was Rachele Greene (though you couldn’t see them, the E’s on the end made me fancier in my mind) and I had a horse. Sometimes if I had the chance for a small conversation with someone, a store clerk perhaps, I would pretend I didn’t speak English, but French. Now, I clearly didn’t know much French (Bonjour, Je m’appelle Rachele avec un “e”, Au contraire mon frere) but I was counting on the fact that most other Americans at any given gas station didn’t either. I would slide a wadded-up dollar bill across the counter for my Gobstoppers, standing with my feet slightly outturned in the hopes that someone would mistake me for a ballerina, and when I scooped up the change in my dirty, country-kid hand, I would say: “Ahhhhh, merci.”
I loved my family and have learned to love and cherish where I am from even more as I have grown. But I always yearned for the exotic, the foreign, the remote… who doesn’t? Since we often lived way out in the country, I had plenty of time while in the backseat of the Volkswagen to imagine other worlds and my potential place in them. As we drove past miles of cow pastures and scraggly eastern forests, past trailers and burnt out houses, past Family Dollars and Speedways, I would squint my eyes and press my nose up against the glass so everything would become a blur of color rushing by.
I’d imagine Rachele as a fast talking journalist living in the big city (she had a rooftop garden and could afford rent). She’d hop on trains and planes to get to a breaking story, wearing high heels that clicked on the sidewalk while she walked so you could hear her coming long before she arrived. I’d imagine Rachele the marine biologist, diving in a coral reef inspecting a brightly colored eel before gesturing to my camera man to swim back to the surface where Jacques Cousteau was waiting to ask me about my discovery. Often Rachele was an ecologist being interviewed after my expedition into the Amazon and when a handsome colleague asked if my last name, Greene, inspired my career… I would laugh and, swinging myself onto the back of my horse say, dismissively and looking off down the trail, “Perhaps we will never know,” before riding away.
When given the chance, I would test the fantasies out in the real world. Like practicing my French with store clerks, I would also sometimes test things out on the people I identified as fleeting in my life. A substitute teacher was an opportunity to explain my growing concern over my father’s career as a spy, sent in to investigate western Virginia’s local politician's corruption and links to hazardous waste disposal, or my cousin’s connections to the Pinochet resistance. A babysitter might hear about my difficulty the adoption of my brother had caused on our otherwise close knit family where I had been the favored child, or she might be fascinated to hear that I was in the process of learning a five languages at once and had begun to dream in Tamil. I slept fine at night given these fibs; fibs which I did not consider lies but instead a way of young girl trying on a potential future life for size.
So when this girl in the hotel said “Good morning” to me in a British accent I immediately remembered what it was like to get 10 minutes away from your family and become anyone you wanted to be, to transport yourself to a different place and a different history and, ultimately, towards a different future. “Top of the morning!” I exclaimed back to her in my best Cockney accent “Right fine out here, fancy a cuppa?”
Then I bowed a long, deep bow.
Right there in the parking lot of the Hampton Inn.
She smiled and scurried away, probably because she wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers but also, as I realized later, probably because she was actually British.
So anyway, that’s how I just made fun of a perfectly normal seven-year-old child who will now go home and confirm to her mates that Americans really are terrible.