When I graduated from college, everybody seemed to be interested in what came next for me. The classmates whose names I barely knew and who certainly didn't know mine would pepper me with questions about what lies ahead. Professors who had never bothered to seek any answers from me other than those relating to my routine tardiness suddenly wanted a light shone on my future. The cafeteria lady was all ears when it came to discussing what I might do next despite having never heard me tell her that I was a vegetarian every day for four years.
The intrigue only swelled once my diploma was issued. I was walking across the emerald grass of the quad, my graduation gown catching the wind around me like a sail, when an academic advisor of mine hurried to intercept my path.
"Well," he said with a lilt of expectation. "What's next?"
He stared at me, eyes fully alert to the vibrant prospects there for the picking for someone at the beginning of their adult life. I paused to consider my answer.
"I guess I need to sell my bed."
I've found myself back on that quad over the past year because divorce is a little like graduating from college. You move into a place for which you pay rent. You quickly lose some weight. You get new forms of identification. But mostly you are met with the question, "What's next?" The answers to that question rarely come easily, and I spent most of the summer evading that question the way people of war-ravaged countries step around the landmines buried beneath their feet.
While at a 4th of July party hosted by friends, I was struck by the irony of celebrating national independence when I was struggling to accept my own. Drifting from conversation to conversation, careful to keep my mouth filled with guacamole and to plot my exit when I felt the air become heavy with "what's nexts." I heard the timbre of a child's voice through the crowd.
My brain registered a safety in the "who's next" rather than the "what's next." I looked through the pulsing mob of guests until my eyes landed on the asker of the question. There stood my friend's daughter, Ruby, water streaming from her hair and her life jacket, looking alive in a way that only 10-year-olds can.
"Who's next for tubing?"
I put my hand up, like I was at an auction, bidding upon something indescribably necessary. And in that moment it was. I looked up at my own hand, which was still grasping a tortilla chip, expecting it to be lost in an ocean of other hands. Only mine, however, was raised. As I walked toward Ruby, the eyes of friends, some dear and some not, flickered with confusion. I'm known in most circles -- well, all circles -- to be the sort of girl who waves fervently from the dock at those tubing. The last time most of these folks had borne witness to me boarding watercraft, I did so holding a volleyball upon which I had written the name Wilson in anticipation of shipwreck.
This time I'd come far less prepared for ruin. It wasn't until I was stepping onto the inflatable red doughnut that I realized I was wearing a dress rather than a bathing suit. I lowered myself beside Ruby, like two comrades settling into a bunker. I gripped the rubber handles as the blood in my veins turned a temperature more chilling than the waters of Norton Pond. I was still processing the perfunctory tutorial on hand signals when the tube lurched forward.
When the boat skittered to a stop, I rolled off the tube, relinquishing my grip on the handles, and welcomed the cold water as the salve to the burn across my palms. I rolled onto my back, arms stroking through the water, and began to laugh. A helpless and satisfying laugh like I hadn't experienced in months. Struck by the unlikely catharsis of tubing in a dress, I could do nothing but chuckle. I looked over at Ruby, bobbing beside me, and she began to laugh, too.
Ruby forced me to follow up my maiden tubing voyage with more tubing. The subsequent exploits lacked the same spontaneity as the first, mostly owing to the fact I wore a bathing suit, but each time out elicited those water-logged bouts of laughter that reminded me there was a trace of life still left in me.
Toward the close of summer, Ruby doggedly pursued me to join her in a two-person raft headed down the physics-defying slope of a water park slide called The Taco. My love of Mexican food was tested that day as we hurtled down the plastic siding, out of control and out of words. We were violently spat out at the bottom into a gently bubbling pool from which I needed help from the attendant to exit. My legs, void of all sensation and muscular control, barely carried me to the bench that stood across the way from the death we had narrowly escaped.
Ruby dropped into the space beside me, her body visibly vibrating with adrenaline. We stared in silence at the thing we had just conquered, nodding slowly and solemnly, imagining ourselves plunging our flags of victory into the pitiable grass beside that slide.
"So," started Ruby, slicing the pregnant silence between us.
I turned my head to find her grinning back at me.
For the first time in a long time, the question didn't feel treacherous and loaded with agenda. For the first time in a long time, I could face those two words without a grimace and let them clang around without bumpers in the cluttered space inside my head. I allowed myself to think about the expanse of life ahead of me, and it no longer seemed like an impassible thicket of thorny branches. It finally seemed like terrain I could pass.
"I don't know," I finally answered.
Because I don't. I have no idea what's next for me. But I have a feeling Ruby does.