A squirrel came to me while I was sitting on a bench and said that I was no good, that I’d better stop trying and leave things to the professionals. “You’re wasting your time,” he said. “You’ll never figure it out.”
“Who are you?” I said.
“Me? I’m a squirrel. Look at me. Look at my tail. I’m awesome.”
I could see that he was.
“Give up,” he said, and he ran up the nearest tree.
I had decided that in the summer I’d make a personal goal to try to walk every inch of the city, up and down all the hills, until I had been to every corner. I wondered if I could do it.
“No,” said the squirrel.
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m looking at you.”
I told him to get lost. I didn’t see him again, but I knew that he knew his words would always stay with me.
* * *
The reason I wanted to walk to every corner was because I had exhausted all of the places I’d already been to. I wanted to be somewhere new. What if I turned down this road, or through this park?
I had the strong feeling there was something I was supposed to be doing, and the something was for a reason, but the things I ended up doing never matched up. I had the sense of purpose but not an actual purpose.
The other day a friend of mine handed me a book. “You’ll like it,” she said. “It’s good.”
I took her word for it, took the book home, and put it on a shelf. A week later I took it off the shelf and handed it back and said, “You’re right. I did like it.”
* * *
Walking through the park one night I met a dolphin. He was grey, with two big flippers, a dorsal fin, and a tail. He was lying in the fountain, eating fish. “Hey,” I said, “What are you doing here?”
“Mind your own business,” he said.
I walked around him. “Not looking for a fight,” I said.
But for some reason I couldn’t get him out of my head, so before I came back through the park I bought some sardines. I fed them to him one at a time as he swore at me, flapping his tail. He didn’t refuse though.
A few nights later I asked him if he could teach me how to swim. “Why don’t you know how to swim?” he said. “Are you poor?”
I told him I’d just never learned. I used to go to a beach when I was younger but I never got in the water, only sitting in a folding chair and reading.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
A week later we went out to the river. “Okay,” he said. “Don’t sink.” Then he pushed me into the water, and it was so cold that I thought I would freeze to death. But I managed to tread.
“Can I ride you?” I said.
“You can drown,” he said.
I tried to swim alongside him, halting, clumsy, figuring out slowly that maybe I should put one arm in front of another, and maybe kick my legs. “Quit splashing,” he said. “I hate that.” I wasn’t a very good swimmer. But I didn’t die, so I considered it a success.
“Do you ever sleep?” I asked him.
“Sort of,” he said. “I can kind of shut my brain off a bit. But I’m always awake. Got to keep swimming. And look out for sharks and things.”
“Have you ever met a shark?”
“Am I alive right now?”
I assumed he was alive.
Even though he never invited me back I kept hanging out with him. Eventually he showed me a few things that I could do to avoid looking like an idiot. I did my best. There wasn’t any reason for swimming. I would never do this while in a pool or at a beach. But I kept coming back.
The dolphin was eventually killed.
* * *
At the end of the summer I went into the river and swam far out until I couldn’t see the city anymore. It felt good now, knowing how to do it. I never did walk to every corner.
Why did it take me so long to learn? But there was no point in wondering, because there was nothing I could change.