American Dream

When my abuela was my age, she moved from Santiago, Chile to Boston, Massachusetts. I’ve only been to Boston a couple of times, and I’ve never been to Harvard where she attended school, but I imagine her spending her free time at the harbor. She was already a glamorous woman at twenty-three, so I’m sure she wore her highest heels and her most expensive furs as she strutted along the docks in winter, ignoring any sailors or fishermen that ogled her. She was too proud to even blush.

I picture her searching for a secluded place, somewhere without many boats, and sitting on a bench that looked out over the water. She didn’t paint yet, but she always had an artist’s eye, and I know she saw what regular passerbys could not. She saw her great-great-great grandfather Bartholin sailing from Denmark to Chile, then crashing on the shores of the country, and making his home in a small town with an ocean view and a beautiful girl. She saw her mother, who died at twenty from influenza, running along the beach as a child, chased by seagulls and an overworked nanny. She saw her father, drunk on the docks of Lisbon, a woman young enough to be his daughter draped over him, not a fraction as vivacious as his dead wife. Maybe she saw Charlie, her lab partner at Harvard who would become my grandfather, and imagined his timid hand reaching to touch hers at twilight on the beach in Gloucester.

All of these characters troubling her mind in her quietest moments, and yet my abuela was completely alone in those years. I can’t help wondering if she was that alone most of her life: a woman of science in the mid 20th-century years of Bewitched, an immigrant who spoke with a heavy accent and whose dark skin stood out among the milky-faced Northerners, and a wine-drinking Catholic surrounded by tea-totalling Protestants. She was also an heiress who grew up with servants, but whose father spent her fortune on booze and women. She had a family coat of arms, but no family in this new country. Even when I was a child, and she had almost disappeared into her dementia, she would remind me that my blood was blue. She informed my father I’d go to Harvard, learn three languages like her, and that my writing would rival her countryman Pablo Neruda.

I didn’t go to Harvard. I only know two languages fluently, but I’ve stored the remnants of her broken Spanish for moments of crisis, like a shouted “cuidado!” when someone I love is in danger, or “siborouenza!” when I am exasperated with them. My writing will never measure up to the Chilean bard’s, but it has brought me to a new country, on the opposite side of the continent where I grew up. I, too, am alone in the Emerald City of Seattle, where the ocean interrupts the land unexpectedly every few miles, creating the illusion that I live on an island and not the mainland.

Yesterday, on a run, I took the Burke-Gilman trail through Fremont, the neighborhood I’ve adopted as my home. Once I hit the Aurora bridge, the landscape travels back in time from today’s industrial, tech-infused city, to the harbor of the fishing town Seattle once was. Sailboats and fishing vessels create the symmetrical lines Abuela once painted in greasy oils on the coast of Halifax. I’m not wearing furs or heels, but I stretch my running tights-clad hamstrings on the bench, and recall my parents and I at Boston harbor years ago, en route to an art museum, but stopping to admire the boats. This is the first year we don’t live together, just the three of us in our cottage in the Canadian capital. They’ve never been here. My grandparents are all gone, and while each one of them lived in America for a time, none of them came here to stay.

Last week, I walked the Burke-Gilman trail with my fiancé, an American. He’s coming to live here in a few weeks, and I won’t be alone like this for a while. I don’t think I’ll ever be as alone as my abuela was. I live in a place and time where there are working women like me, and I speak this language with only a slight Eastern lilt. Maybe my blood is Bartholin blue, but I blush at the catcallers, and I can’t repeat the family name to comfort myself when I am embarrassed. I may not be American, but I am the American dream. I’m the product of an immigrant who worked much harder than I did to be here, and who didn’t get the reward she hoped for. I received the world she helped to build. Leaving home did not wreck me the way it did her. It’s made me.

She may never see it, but I hope she knew that her work would pay off. Even if I didn’t go to Harvard. Even if I’m not a doctor. Even if all I am is not alone.

The Blessing of "Go Be Great"

About two months ago, I had my first glimpse of a major opportunity. Back then, it was just a twinkle of a possibility, but it slowly grew more and more substantial. Now, it’s happening: I’m moving to Seattle.

The opportunity is a dream of mine coming true — a job that will not only fulfill me intellectually, but emotionally. A job that will empty and fill me daily, and push me to my limits. The best job I could have imagined at this stage of my life, right out of college and ready to prove myself.

The only catch? It’s on the other side of the country.

Three years ago, the distance would have been exciting, and only exciting. All I wanted back then was to move to the west coast and make my own life for myself by the Pacific. But then I met the love of my life, and he lives in New York. My dreams changed to include him, and they still do.

When I called him at the first glimmer of this opportunity — a request to apply for a job in Seattle as the Marketing Associate for my favorite literary journal — I wasn’t sure what he would say. I assumed he would pause, take a moment to think about it, and then reluctantly say, “Well, if that’s what you want.”

Instead, his enthusiasm crashed over me.

“You have to take it,” he said. “If you get it, you have to take it. Go, be great.”

“Go, be great” is something my fiancé says to me a lot. When we first met I was still struggling with significant social anxiety, and he would say those words to me before seminar classes where I needed to speak up. He texted them to me throughout my training as a Resident Assistant during my senior year of college. He said them over the phone as I applied to elite grad schools, studied for final exams, and wrote first drafts of my Senior Capstone thesis. He said them when I didn’t get into the MFA programs I’d hoped for, and when I told him I wasn’t going to accept my only offer at a school in Montreal. He believes in me when I’m not able to.

I know I don’t need his permission to leave. I have just as much agency now as I did when I was single, and I would make the same decisions and steps forward if I wasn’t part of a couple. But the strongest part of my relationship with my fiancé is how much we support and encourage each other. My confidence, as well as my own self-knowledge, has skyrocketed since we met. Most of that comes from those three words: Go, be great.