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She was never a risk taker. She lived her life by the rules, growing up in a normal family in a normal suburb in that bastion of normality, Southern California. She went to normal schools, took normal classes with normal friends. Her skirts were always normal length—not too long and not too short—and she had no tattoos, piercings, or dyed hair. She often considered making such a statement with her appearance, as a way to set herself apart from the crowd, but she never followed through with it. Her parents wouldn’t let her, she told herself, though she never thought to ask. The real reason was that she was too scared to seem anything but normal.
But she wasn’t normal—she had known that for as long as she could remember. The way she saw the world was unique; she had ideas that were entirely her own, that just couldn’t come to anyone else. She felt as though she knew everyone better than they knew themselves. She would look at her father, her mother, her best friend, and she’d think she knew what they were feeling. She’d stare at strangers on the street out of café windows, letting her eyes follow them until they disappeared out of the window frame, and she’d feel she knew them too, deeply, intimately. She knew their hopes, their fears, their pet peeves, their disappointments. The plump woman in the red scarf’s frustration at her oldest son’s laziness. The man in the leather jacket’s guilt-ridden desire for his brother’s fiancée. The boy in the green baseball cap’s fear that if his father found out he was gay, he would kick him out of the house.
At night, when she finished her homework and her parents thought she was asleep, she would take out her laptop and write, for hours sometimes, about the people she knew or thought she knew. Sitting there, hunched over on her bed with her electrically-charged fingers flying over the keys, she would feel more alive than she ever felt during the day, her imagination finally breaking loose from its bonds. The characters and situations she constructed on the page often seemed more vivid, more real, than the world that surrounded her. She would write and write until her eyes blurred and her fingers ached, and then she would lie back, exhausted, onto her pillow.
Her senior year of high school, she entered a writing competition sponsored by the University of Edinburgh. She had never sent her writing to anything public before—she only wrote for herself—and it was only because her English teacher recommended it that she’d entered this competition. It was a strange feeling, dropping the envelope into the mailbox. It felt as though a part of her were going off to be judged. She didn’t know if she could handle it; she almost contemplated reaching into the mailbox and trying to pull her envelope out. She looked around her. There were people walking by on the sidewalk who would wonder what the hell she was doing if she stuck her arm deep into the mail chute. Also, she told herself, removing her entry would be weak, a complete cop-out. If she wanted to be a writer, she would have to be just a little bit brave. Her parents and friends wouldn’t even have to know about it.
Naturally, when she got a letter from Edinburgh whose first word was “Congratulations,” it took her a while to believe what she was reading. They liked my writing! she half screamed, half whispered, a smile spreading across her nervous face. She read on. The winners were invited to Scotland to accept their prizes and attend a series of workshops led by creative writing professors. Scotland! I’m going to Scotland! But an asterisk with a note at the bottom put a damper on her elation: “Winners are expected to pay their own airfare and hotel costs.” The possibility of persuading her parents to pay so much money for something she hadn’t even told them about was slim. She would ask, though.
Over the next week, she spent hours after school in the public library, poring over Scottish history and literature, gazing at pictures in the travel books: the windswept moors, ancient cathedrals, picturesque villages, the grave of Robert Burns. It all seemed so romantic. The lochs and crumbling castles, the air itself, seemed rich with mystery and meaning. Scotland was definitely not a normal place.
But when she worked up the courage to ask her parents, their reaction was what she had feared it would be. Scotland! You’ve been invited to Scotland?! Honey, you never told us the award included that…we understand what an honor it is, we really do, but that’s a huge amount of money. We need to save all the money we have for your college fund…we can’t afford to send you across the ocean right now. End of discussion. As much as they rankled, their arguments made sense. Still, she felt a strong urge to ask where they had come up with the money to buy her dad’s new Lexus and the flat screen TV. However, not one to argue, she bit her tongue and nodded. As she lay in bed that night, bitter disappointment burned in the pit of her stomach. They couldn’t possibly have understood how much it meant to her.
The next year, she went to UCLA and was persuaded by her parents and her own better judgment to major in business. She had to face the facts: there were no jobs in writing, especially in this economy. Living off your own creativity was a luxury that only the super-talented or the super-rich could afford, and though she sometimes fantasized that she was the former, she was definitely not the latter. After college, she was accepted to Stanford’s business school, and two years later she graduated with an MBA. She landed a job at an investment banking firm a few months after graduation. The pay was pretty good, and everyone said she was lucky, really lucky, to get such a good job so soon after graduate school. There were times, though, when she would wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, and ask herself what she’d done with her life, wonder if she’d made the right choice.
And then she met Adam. He worked in a different branch of the firm and was slightly older than she but not by much. The first time she saw him, as he was giving a presentation at a meeting, his dark brown eyes had met hers and lingered there for a moment. She later ran into him at a holiday party, and he asked her out to dinner. The first couple of months after they started going out were great. He seemed to be truly in love with her in the beginning, and she convinced herself that she loved him too. Adam’s family was rich and had connections, so he took her to parties, auctions, and art shows, where she met and mingled with people whose names she sometimes read in the society page of the newspaper. These events were fun at first—evenings filled with champagne and glamour—but after a while, she opted to stay home while he went out. Honey, is anything wrong? he would ask. No, she’d reply, of course not. I just don’t feel like going out tonight. He would look at her for a moment, and for the first time she began doubting her ability to read people. Was he truly hurt, or was his disappointment growing less strong every time she told him she didn’t want to go?
On those occasions when Adam was gone and the house was quiet, she took out her laptop and wrote. She found herself looking forward to those occasions more and more, and that disturbed her. Shouldn’t being in a relationship mean wanting to be together? She didn’t understand why she wanted to be alone, why she wanted to write so much, when her life had taken a decidedly different course. She couldn’t help it. She wrote a particularly good story that turned into a novel, about a Scottish man who lived alone on the heaths. She toyed with the idea of sending the manuscript to someone, but quickly abandoned the notion. She was not a writer anymore, she reminded herself. Not a serious one, at least.
She would still wake up at night sometimes and just lie in bed and think. In the dark, her mind cleared itself of illusions so that the bare facts shone through. When she got up in the morning, she would reflect on her musings of the night from a distance, almost as if they were the thoughts of another person.
On one of these nights, she woke up and looked at the clock; the hands read 3:30. She heard gentle snoring next to her. Adam had come in late from one of his parties, long after she had gone to bed. She turned over and looked at him; he was sleeping soundly, his head almost face-down on the pillow. As she watched him sleep, a strange feeling of benign indifference came over her. She was not in love with Adam. She never had been. The simple fact floated down to settle around her shoulders, and she lay back under its weight. Where would she go from here? Her boss had told her she was doing a good job, which meant that in the near or not-so-near future, she would get promoted. She would get promoted and maybe get promoted again, and would spend the rest of her professional career managing the money of rich people she neither knew nor cared about. The emptiness of this prospect stretched out before her. Was this really what so many people wanted?
And then it came to her. In one flashing, golden piece, it hit her. She tiptoed out of bed, went to her office, sat down at her desk, and flipped her computer open. Its glowing light filled her dark room. She clicked on the Safari compass icon on the bottom of the screen, and typed “Scotland” into the search bar. Drunk with the wild brilliance of her idea, she scrolled through picture after picture, town after town, castle after castle, her longing from high school flooding back into her. She was going.
The next month passed with giddy excitement. After countless hours of research during her lunch break and at night when she came home, she found a second-story apartment to rent for a month or two in a decent but not-too-expensive neighborhood in Edinburgh. She talked to the owner over the phone, his beautiful Scottish accent filling her ears, and they settled the rent and logistics. If she decided to live there, she could find a more permanent place. She had enough money saved to hold her over for a few months, and she could wait tables, she told herself, take any kind of job until her writing took off, which would happen, she was sure of it. Whenever any doubt seeped into her mind, she held it firmly at bay and moved on quickly to the next step of her plan, because she knew that if she stopped to think about it, doubt would paralyze her. For the first time, she was doing something reckless, the kind of thing that, all her life, she had only given the characters in her stories permission to do. She would look at the people at work, in elevators, in shopping malls, and want to tell them, I’m getting out of here. I’m going to make something of my life. Me, of all people. Me!
Of course, the hardest part was telling Adam. I don’t understand, he repeated, searching her face for an explanation that would make sense to him and finding none. I just don’t understand. There were no tears in his eyes, yet the concern that laced his voice made the precarious rationality of her plan come crashing down before her. It was ridiculous, the idea that she could make her living by writing in another country. The only time she had ever been published was in high school. It was rash; it was imprudent; she wasn’t the kind of person who did things like this. Adam was right: her plan made no sense. Yet the rest of her life had made sense, and sense had not made her happy. I can’t explain it, she finally told him, but I have to go. She felt it, viscerally, the kind of feeling you can’t ignore or push aside. They would both have to be satisfied with that.
Now, there she was, in her studio apartment, her suitcases stacked neatly in a corner of the room. The shades were drawn, and the little bedside lamp cast a soft yellow glow on the faded green quilt on the bed her landlord had provided until she could buy her own. A map of Scotland she had picked up at the airport sat folded on top of the quilt; she would look at that tomorrow. Tonight she would just enjoy being here. She sat at the quaint little wooden desk, her laptop perched on its smooth wooden surface. A Word document was open; she was working again on her story about the Scottish man after many months. This time, she would send it in. She stood up and pulled the shades up on the window next to the bed, then pushed on the window. It was stiff, as though it hadn’t been opened for a long time. It finally slid out from the frame, and she leaned her head outside, resting on her elbows. Cold, crisp air met her nostrils—that same air she had believed would hold so many answers for her in high school—and right then, as she breathed it in, she believed in its power more strongly than ever. She looked up at the opalescent moon that would be full in a few days, and suddenly realized how alone she was. Her boyfriend, her job, and her sense of security were all thousands of miles away. But, in that same instant, she felt something she had never felt before. Here, looking at the moon from a window of a tiny apartment across the ocean, for the first time in her life, she felt free.