Author's request: If you've never seen what a blobfish looks like in the water and out of the water, please take a moment to look up a picture of both. It will help you understand one of the story's metaphors. Thank you!
“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat.”
Nathaniel Graben’s sister told him that a very long time ago, back when he was twelve.
She’d been leaning against his doorframe, like a dad, brownish hair falling out of her ponytail. Her hair was always in her face. He hadn’t quite understood what she meant back then. Lissa was a very confusing person, so naturally, everything she said confused him. He’d asked her what she meant, but she just walked away.
Imagine Nathaniel’s surprise when those words shot out of his mouth fourteen years later, while he was sitting next to a student’s hospital bed.
The student, who was receiving IV treatment for Scleroderma, immediately stopped bemoaning how he’d never achieve his goals and went quiet. For a good minute, the only sounds were that of the babble from the hallway and the squeaking of shoes against tile.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Mr. Graben?” Grayson asked at last.
Nathaniel let out a sigh. “I don’t quite know myself. My sister told me that a very long time ago.”
Grayson reminded him a lot of his younger self: small, happy, almost insanely obsessed with marine biology, almost insanely obsessed with sharks.
“I think, however,” Nathaniel smiled, “I might be starting to understand what she meant. Mind if I tell you?”
“Yeah, sure, go right ahead.” Grayson shifted his position to get a little more comfortable.
Nathaniel paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “Did you know that I didn’t always want to be a science teacher?”
The look of shock that passed over Grayson’s face nearly made him laugh. He looked like a little deep sea fish caught in the lights of a minisub, stunned and dazzled by the brightness.
“You’re not serious!” Grayson exclaimed.
“Yep, I wanted to be a marine biologist,” he replied, “Specializing in sharks, like you.”
Grayson started fidgeting with his sheets. “Why, why didn’t you then?”
Nathaniel leaned back in his chair, rubbing his bristly chin, and wondered how much he should tell, how much would actually be helpful. “Do you know what CREST Syndrome is?”
Grayson shook his head. “That’s not going to be on the next test, is it?”
Nathaniel shook his head and laughed. “No, it’s not. It’s an autoimmune disease, a sickness you’re born with. When I was about twelve, my family took me to a doctor, because I was having trouble eating and my fingers were turning weird colors. It turns out I had CREST Syndrome.”
Grayson’s knuckles whitened as he curled them around the blanket. “And that’s why you didn’t become a marine biologist?”
“When I was about your age,” Nathaniel replied, “That’s what I would have said. CREST made my life miserable back then. I couldn’t eat the foods I wanted to. My hands would turn purple when I washed them or held a glass of milk. I had to wear gloves and a jacket a lot, even in the summer. I tried to hide it from the other kids, but they were weirded out by my purple fingers. I felt...a little bit like a blobfish out of water I guess. Y'know, weird looking and alien, like I wasn’t quite like everyone else up out in the open air. Took me a while to realize that I was swimming with the wrong shoal of fish in the wrong type of habitat. All they told me was how ugly and weird blobfish were, nothing about how cool they really are. They didn't help me get back in the water, into my proper habitat, and they weren't willing to come with me."
Nathaniel took a breath and continued. “When you have CREST, if you get too cold, bad things can happen to your fingers and toes,” Nathaniel continued, “And we both know that the ocean can be a very cold place.”
“So you didn’t think you’d be able to become a marine biologist because the ocean’s cold?” asked Grayson, squinting, “But not all oceans are cold, and I’m sure they make extra warm wetsuits.”
“Yes,” said Nathaniel, “They do make stuff like that, and yeah, some oceans are pretty warm. Back then, I didn’t care. I thought that CREST had ruined my life, so for me, it didn’t matter if there were solutions.”
“You see, Grayson,” Nathaniel leaned closer, “the real reason I didn’t become a marine biologist is because I gave up.”
Ouch. It hurt Nathaniel to say that. It wasn’t some cruel twist of fate that made him let go of his dream, let it drift away into a world without light. It was himself.
Nathaniel had watched his dreams slip between his purpled fingers into the water, languidly drifting down between his feet, through the Daylight Zone, through the Twilight Zone. He had watched them finally come to rest on the ocean floor in the cold darkness of the Midnight Zone, where all the little bits of trash and debris ended up. They lay among all the things that no one cared about, even down there, in the ravenous deep. He had done nothing to stop it.
Nathaniel took a deep breath. “I let my dream go. It wasn’t CREST that took my dream away. It definitely made my dream more difficult to achieve, but at the end of the day, it was me.”
“I think that’s what my sister was trying to tell me, in her own way, that if I was so obsessed with my problems that I couldn’t see the solutions, even when someone pointed them out to me, then I’d lost, and it was my own fault.”
Nathaniel met Grayson’s young eyes. “I guess...what I’m trying to say by telling you all this, is...don’t let it stop you. Scleroderma, I mean. It’s hard and difficult and painful, and I'm not say that it's not. People may look at you weird, and you may feel a bit like a blobfish out of water at times. Get back in the water, find your shoal, and swim with them. They'll help you out. Don’t let Scleroderma take over your life, like I let it take over mine. That’s what CREST is, you know, a kind of Scleroderma.”
Grayson stared up at his teacher with that fish-in-the-headlights look again. “So...you’re like me then?”
"And you found your own shoal, and the right habitat?"
Nathaniel cracked a smile. "Yep, nice spot near the Marianna Trench. Found a couple of nice blobfish like myself, a few sharks and rays, even a good ol' giant squid. Don't tell him I called him old, though."
They laughed for a minute.
Tears welled up in Grayson’s eyes. “When I get my doctorate in marine biology, will you to come to my graduation?”
Nathaniel felt his own eyes grow wet and nodded, “‘Course, Grayson, I promise.”
Years later, Nathaniel was savoring his morning coffee as he went to check the mail. The chill air stung his lungs as he breathed. His gloved hand had some difficulty grabbing up the envelopes. One of them, small and ornate looking, slipped through his fingers and drifted down between his feet. Nathaniel stooped to pick it up, but stopped when he saw the sender’s name. Almost nervously, he set his coffee down on the pavement, picked up the envelope and opened it.
Dear Mr. Graben,
Time to fulfill your promise. Time and place on the back. Don’t be late. Blobfish forever.
Grayson Harlem, (almost) Phd
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Disclaimer: This story and Nathaniel’s experiences are based off of my own. I’m a CREST Syndrome patient, like Nathaniel. Please don’t think I’m saying that all you need is optimism, and your problems will just go away. I’ve lived long enough to know that optimism is helpful, but no panacea. I’m also not trying to say that everyone’s experiences with Scleroderma are all the same, because they’re not. What I’m trying to say is that I never again want to be what Nathaniel was: so blinded by the bad that I couldn’t see the obvious solutions in ...