You can be whatever you set your mind to,
my teachers were fond of saying.
Sit down, son.
The counselor pointed to a chair,
pulling out brochures like a travel agent.
Where are you headed?
As if no destination were outside the realm of possibility;
we just had to plug it into the computer,
check flights,
book tickets far enough in advance.
You can be whatever you wish,
my father said — meaning,
 lawyer, teacher, engineer, MD,
RN, CPA — speaking in that voice
parents use, knowing
they’re being more understanding
than their parents were. Tell me,
what do you really want to do?

What could I say? I want to be a boy
adopted by vultures. Or a blind girl
who lives in a cave.
Or a hermit who speaks to lizards.
I wanted to be washed up,
a castaway searching
for the crew I’d been separated from,
shipwrecked on this planet,
marooned in a human body.
Maybe that was why I touched myself so often —
to see if I could feel a fragment
of who I really was, a piece of light
buried in me, broken off from the star
I spent so much energy trying to get back to.
Maybe that’s why I lit matches
and pressed the flames into my palms,
as if pain held the answer
folded up in its petals.
Maybe the only way back
was to hurt, to rub against broken glass.

What’s on your mind?
asked the doctor. Don’t be afraid. You can
tell me anything. I was thinking
of what I’d have to give up,
what every young man or woman
serious about making a living has to give up:
gazing at leaves, those elegant distractions,
or the creek’s long, run-on sentences,
its exclamations, its
parentheses, its tireless questions.

What if we made graduation a little more honest,
held a ceremony
where every eighteen-year-old dragged onto the field
all he’d hidden in his closets,
all that could prove embarrassing,
all she loved but had no excuse to hold on to anymore?
Final exams would require every student
to write down the idle thoughts
she’d promised never
to think again, every word
it excited a boy just to write:
wastrel, changeling, maelstrom, cataclysm, galaxy,
alien, naked, vampire, crucible, relic.

Fire would grade the papers,
and everybody would get the same mark,
flames correcting the notebooks
filled with spaceships
or Greek gods
or the names of sweethearts written over
and over in different scripts
or drawings of horses —
all a girl had to do was look at them, then close her eyes,
to feel the power ripping
under her, carrying her into the sky —
or pictures of dogs too important to die,
of movie stars or rock bands
into whose faces a young man or woman gazes
till afternoons open like doors
they’d thought shut tight.

You can be whatever you set your mind to.
But at what cost?
Sit down, son.
Tell me what you want to do with the rest of your life.