Fig Trees and Futures
by: Liz Loughran
The first time I thought about my career was at my eighth grade graduation party. I remember the sticky heat mixing with the sound of my dad barbecuing and my mom’s nervous laughter as she chatted with his second wife. Kids were screaming and jumping in my pool, but my friends and I lounged on the expansive grass, occasionally getting the energy for a round of badminton.
One of the weird older relatives cornered me at the fruit bowl. Her eyes were faded, but I could tell they were once some spectacular shade of green. Her short, severe haircut made me wonder: Will I think that’s attractive when I’m older?
“So what do you want to do when you grow up?” she asked. Her voice sounded like cigarettes.
What did I want to do? Certainly not whatever she was doing. “I want to be an actress,” I said. There, a quick and sure decision.
“Well, you’re pretty enough.” I stood, clutching my plate, as the grapes rolled off and lay forgotten in their bed of grass. Was being pretty, enough?
The next time someone asked me that questions, I was more careful. My guidance counselor shifted through my depressing high school file. “What field do you want to go into?” “Law. I want to be a lawyer.” He studied me critically. “That’s a hard job. ‘Cause I mean, once you have kids your career will be over.” No sense of maternal feeling had come over me since I was a little girl; now I was eighteen and jaded.
“I don’t want kids.”
“Right now. But you will.” His smile was condescending.
I wanted to throw up and punch him at the same time. “Thanks for the advice.” I threw my backpack over my shoulder and snatched my folder off of his desk; I didn’t need help planning my future.
When I got to college, I ruled out law. I rested on what I loved: English. What I was going to do with that field of study was of little to no consequence to me my first two years of college. I wrote and wrote and wrote and knew whatever I did, I wanted it to include writing. I thought about publishing and then, maybe later in life, becoming a professor myself. I distanced myself from others to lose myself in words, and I started to fear that is how it would always be; existing in a stiff world of black and white, as people lived fluid lives of color around me.
I discovered the works of Sylvia Plath. I wanted to eat men like air and scream at the awkward pictures of me and my daddy and most of all, I wanted to eat figs. I wanted all of them. When I read The Bell Jar, Plath’s autobiographical novel, I could see my history and my future folding out before me:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor… I saw myself… starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. (Plath, 68)
My figs were law school, publishing programs, graduate school, starving artist, teacher, professor, friendships, my boyfriend, being single, my family, and somewhere on a low hanging branch, motherhood. Did I want all of these things? No. But I hungered for the chance to want them.
At a Christmas party, after my boyfriend fig had shriveled up and fallen off, one of my guy friends remarked, “Do you think any guy can handle you? Because I can tell you what, I
can’t. Don’t get me wrong; I think you’re going to be successful. Personally, you might just be a mess.” I chewed on the edge of the plastic cup of spiked eggnog and tried to not picture more figs disappearing.