There was a time when I was a prisoner, though I never actually knew it. It’s a peculiar feeling. It’s the kind of feeling, somewhere in the back of your mind, that something is missing but you just can’t seem to put your finger on it. Sometimes, at the end of the day, you feel like you forgot to do something but you can’t remember or you’re too tired. Most of my days were like that, for years.
I was working as an accountant at the time. It was a career my mother had suggested because it was “economically stable.” That’s what she said to me when I was choosing my major, way back when I was filling out forms for college. “You should study Accounting,” she said over and over. “You’re good with numbers and everyone needs accountants.” So despite my personal aspirations (I wanted to be an ecologist), I majored in Accounting, with a minor in Environmental Studies. That was my attempt at having my own life.
All during college, the Environmental Studies classes were a like an open window for me. When I wasn’t doing Accounting homework, I would spend hours in the library, watching videos that depicted how a fish could evolve into a bird or reading books about the green earth and the growth rates of different plants and animals. These were times when I felt the most free, even though my mother kept telling me that I was wasting my time. I didn’t care. Besides, as long as I kept my homework done and my grades up, it was my time to waste.
After college, though, it seemed like that window of freedom closed for me. Although I had a positive knack for finding inexpensive ways for my clients to be environmentally friendly, the only real reason that they tended to hire me was so that they’d have an “expert” doing their books. Then, all my time was usually spent going over account after account, even in my spare time. I used to catch myself looking longingly out the window of my office, watching the birds and wishing desperately that I could be one with them.
It was when I was near the end of my rope that I met her. It was strange for me because, normally, I work indoors. That’s another hold over from things my mother taught me. She’d never let me go outside until my work was finished. However, two months previous, I’d gotten word that my mother had died quietly of a heart attack in her sleep. I remember thinking how that was so unlike her. I made arrangements for the funeral with what money she had left over, which considering her frugal lifestyle, was quite a bit, and went back to work the next week.
Today, however, I chose to take my work to the park. It had been years since I’d been outdoors. I spread out on a picnic table beneath a canopy of birch branches and began to do my work. That was when she walked up. Her arms were overloaded with rolls of paper and pieces of equipment. My first impression of her was that she was someone’s flunky, coming to set up for someone important. That is, I thought that until she spoke.
“This is not why I majored in Environmental Studies,” she griped, shifting the large armful of things.
“Is there some way I could help?” I asked, carefully closing the account book I was working on.
“Yes,” she grumbled. “You can shoot me for taking this stupid job.”
“Before I shoot you,” I said, stifling a laugh, “would you like to tell me why you took ‘this stupid job’?”
She stared at me for a minute, then said, “You really want to know?”
“Of course,” a said, a bit incredulously, “I wouldn’t have asked, otherwise.”
“Well,” she began, looking at me sort of sidelong, as if to make sure I was paying attention, “When I was in college, I was hoping I could figure out how cities can exist without creating so much waste, but there’s no money in that, so I can’t get any funding. What’s more, even if I could get funding, I wouldn’t know what to do with it since I’m lousy with numbers. So, instead, I’m stuck in this boring, dead end job checking the borderlines of the city parks to make sure nobody is building anything private on them and, though they’ve promised me help, I’ve been at this stupid job for an entire month by myself.” With each word, her voice grew louder and more angry. At the last word, she threw her cumbersome armload of equipment down on the grass.
“You sound so much like someone that I know,” I laughed.
“Oh?” she said, in challenging tones. “Who would that be?”
“Who else?” I said, gesturing to myself and then to my work spread out on the nearby table.
“You’re an accountant?” she said, excitement rising in her voice.
“Not by choice,” I said. Seating myself at the table again, I began, rather bitterly, to explain how I had come to be an accountant and all about my mother’s insistence that it was the best job for me and about my longing to be an ecologist, like her. I poured it all out. “But then, two months ago,” I finished, “Mother died and, now that I’m an accountant, I don’t know how I could ever live my original dream.”
“That’s great!” she said, grinning.
“How’s that great?” I asked, confused, “I just told you…”
“No,” she interrupted. “I mean it’s great that you’re an accountant who wanted to be an ecologist. You’re exactly the person I need.”
“I am?” I said, surprised.
“Yes,” she said excitedly, bending down to pick up her scattered equipment, “You know a thing or two about accounting and you love the environment. If we were to get together, I could explain my ideas to you and you could write it up in such a way that someone might buy it! That’s just the break I needed. Will you help me?”
I laughed again, “Sure. I’d love to.”
That was the best day of our lives. I knew my mother would say that we were making a mistake, but I didn’t care. Finally, we were both free.