I’ve always been a What-if asker.
It began way back. I was a pretty good kid and straight arrow student, but in my off hours, of which there were plenty since this was before the age of cable TV and internet (at least in my tiny town), I wondered…
What if I became a famous movie star and had to have a private tutor follow me everywhere and all the other kids wanted to be my friend?
What if I was convicted of a crime I didn’t commit and had to go to jail for life because of a conspiracy set in motion by the real me who was actually swapped at birth?
What if a great aunt I never met, died and left me ten million dollars because my mom sent her a picture of me when I was five and she liked my freckles and cat eye glasses?
I ran through these scenarios while riding the bus, raking the endless leaves that fell on my father’s imaginary lawn surrounding our house in the forest, or sweating it out on the other side of the fence while my parents played tennis on the public courts.
Stories spun through my head on an endless loop. As I grew older and began to pay attention to people other than myself, I wondered about their stories. Waiting in the orthodontist’s office, I studied the other teenagers. What if I had acne like that? What if I was as cool as her? What if my mom was mean like that woman?
I got a job as a hot walker at the nearby Delaware Park racetrack, and spent my mornings making lap after lap around the shedrow cooling down horses. There was plenty of time to wonder and plenty of people to wonder about at the track. Most track workers lived in the shacks next to the manure pits, with no heat, no A/C, piled in on top of each other. What if my family died in a house fire and I had to live in one of those houses? Short Hispanic men smoked and made eyes at me, but could barely speak English. Exercise riders too big to be jocks and jocks so tiny they only came up to my chest and made me self-conscious, but they also made me wonder about their lives. What if I married one of them? There were also rich owners who showed up on race day with an entourage of wealth following them daintily through the muddy backside. What if I married one of them? Maybe I’d only be a mistress….
Wondering What-if as an adult has gotten me grief at PTO meetings, volunteered for political campaigns, and a third child who rendered us outnumbered. Asking what if when my youngest child developed an autoimmune disorder led to a healthier lifestyle. It resulted in chickens in our backyard, a breadmaker on my counter, and a lemon tree on my porch (that we have to drag inside every winter).
I can’t help but imagine the lives of the strangers I encounter on a daily basis, impatiently loading the check-out belt in front of me at Tractor Supply or flipping us off when I accompany my son driving on the interstate for the first time. Who are these people? What makes them so grumpy/impatient/mean/funny looking? What if I was one of them?
I’m still asking what if. What if people stopped being so mean and judgmental and self-righteous and learned to be kind? What if people were more open-minded and cut each other some slack? What if I wrote a story about walking in someone else’s shoes and it became a best seller? It could happen. What if it did?