Poet Langston Hughes called it a raisin, one of the similes he used to describe what happens to hopes and visions we create that get put aside and dry up. Granted, he also compared the dream deferred to rotten meat, over-sugared candy, and an oozing wound, but at least a raisin is something that, while disappointing, sad, and the last element chosen from any trail mix, is something you can chew and swallow while figuring out what went wrong.
A raisin is a raisin, though. No matter how you hide it in that waxy film mysteriously called “yogurt” or dip it in cheap chocolate, it’s still a wasted end to fruit that once had potential. Costco at least sells freeze-dried grapes, ones that are preserved and sweet and a borderline sacrament for anyone who dreamed of becoming an astronaut but who now sits in a cubicle with a computer and a deadline. Freeze-dried grapes remind the white-collar worker that there is still a moment of escape to be found in my-god-I-bet-Neil-Armstrong-would-have-endorsed-this astronaut food, brought to you by America’s favorite progressive box store.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a librarian-hyphen-astronaut. I loved books with the same sanctity that rightwing Christians claim to have when it comes to the age of the Earth. Books needed to be loved and cared for, defended against the tears and dog-ears and gum of the nonbelievers, so my calling would be the one who sat behind a desk and reminded children that books did not belong at the dinner table or around sticky brothers and sisters.
The hyphen-astronaut part came in 1985--fourth grade--when Christa McAuliffe was chosen out of 11,000 people to be the first teacher in space. A regular person. If a teacher could shoot into the darkness and float and see Earth from thousands of miles away, then I would be the first librarian to do it. I would even land on the moon and leave a copy of Jacob Have I Loved (the best book in the Greenwood Elementary library, no question) next to the reinforced American flag there.
But McAuliffe’s dream was deferred forever. In early 1986, I saw that part on TV with everyone else in my classroom and with my teacher Mr. Parkes, who cried in front of us that January day and no other day. Langston Hughes wondered if the deferred dream explodes, and I saw the Challenger do that, swirling and pluming into clouds of debris and fuel and human life.
I didn’t stop reading, and I would teach like Christa McAuliffe did, but I would stay on Earth instead of float in zero gravity. And sometimes I would feel that other part that Hughes mentioned, the sagging and heavy load of deferring, especially when someone else wanted his dreams more and convinced me that I could have a turn. Eventually. Someday. Nine years of marriage. Nine years of moving after another job was lost, another employer was blamed, and another promise was vowed of “in a few years you can start your Ph.D. I just need to establish myself here. Give me five years.” And I waited. Because a good wife always supports dreams, or at least the dream wife does. She defers with a smile.
And the sagging deepened. I stopped writing, stopped reading, stopped caring. And then one day, a phone call to Earth from 800 miles away where his latest job had begun and a new promise had been made and a new move was in the works.
“I don’t want to be married anymore,” he said, and I exhaled. The burden lifted, the rotten meat replaced, the wound treated with a cleansing antiseptic, the sugary candy tossed. What happens to a dream remembered and put within your grasp one more time? It’s no dried-out remnant of what went wrong. It’s astronaut food.