Scrape, scrape. The ear-torturing sound of a metal spoon hitting a glass bowl fills the kitchen as I aimlessly mix my low-fat, Greek yogurt. I stare into the white substance as if it holds the answers to my problems. I try not to think about my problems, though. I try not to think about anything. That's why I'm trying to drown out the productive noise of my older brother and my father discussing ways to make their private business even more efficient. They are sitting at the kitchen table, mugs of black coffee cradled in their manicured hands. I'm also trying to ignore the happy humming of my mom as she chops and peels vegetables and fruits and measures rare and strange ingredients. Every once in a while, her humming is broken up by a sudden burst of scribbling. She is working on her tenth cookbook, Smoothies for Success. Her previous nine were best sellers. My younger sister skips down the stairs in cute skinny jeans and a crop top. Her chocolate hair bounces and is curled to perfection; her makeup is flawless.
"Good morning, sweety!" my mom calls in her sing-song voice. "How did you sleep?"
My sister smiles brightly, "Oh, wonderfully!" She kisses my mom on the cheek. "Ooo, this looks delicious!"
My mom beams at her. "Give me one second, and you can taste some."
With that my mom closes the lid to her blender and pushes a button, making it roar to life. My dad takes a break from his productive conversation to yell at my sister,
"How did that chemistry test go?"
"Oh, it went great! A 99. I'm gonna ask my prof about the question I got wrong though... I think there must have been a grading mistake because I double checked and I know my answer was right..."
My sister rambles on, positivity oozing from her honey-sweet voice. But why shouldn't it? She's an excellent student at an excellent university. She's a Biology major on a pre-med track; she's passionate about what she learns, and her future is bright. Just like the rest of my family. Scrape, scrape. I keep stirring my yogurt. Life bustles around me, but I am not part of it.
"Would you stop that hellish sound!"
My grandfather strides in, a brief case in one hand, a cane in the other. He is dressed in a charcoal suit, his white hair is combed back, and his shoes seem to shine. Yes, even my 85-year-old grandfather lives a more successful life than me. Today, he's off to give a Ted Talk about population ecology. He's the first person to address me this morning and 21 years of listening to his sophisticated voice makes me immediately put down my spoon.
"Better," he praises, his voice dark and serious.
"Good morning, Father!" My mother smiles as she finally turns off her blender and pours tall glasses of an eerie green liquid.
She places one in front of me but does not say anything to me. Why would she? There is nothing happy or good or positive to say, and those are the only types of conversations she has. Instead, she asks her dad about his speech. She knows he will do great! Oh, and his suit looks so spiffy and his shoes so spotless. At the table, my sister is gushing over the smoothie. She knows it will give her a great start to her day, a day for which she has so many plans and goals. My brother gets up from the table, says he will meet my dad at the office. He leaves with keys to his BMW and a proud pat on the shoulder from Dad. A scream builds and builds and builds inside me. I look down at my bowl of yogurt, and it gazes up at me in disappointment. “How could you be such a failure?” it seems to ask. Failure, failure, failure. A scream as frustrated as it is ugly scrapes out of my throat. All eyes turn towards me. They all look shocked. They look surprised to see me, to hear me, surprised to have such a dirty, unmannered, failure in their family. Tears of embarrassment and shame and anger well up, and I hop off my stool and run to the front door.
"Honey?" My mother calls, her voice unsure.
"I'm going to work!" My voice sounds hoarse.
"In your pajamas?"
"It's pajama day!"
I don't care that my answer doesn't make any sense, nor do I think about the fact that I have no work to go to. The door slams behind me, and I head for my car before remembering that it has no gas and I have no money to refill it. So I run. I run past manicured lawns and perfect houses with shiny cars. I run past wealth and success and everything I am not. My eyes blur with tears, and all I hear is my heart beating wildly and my flip-flops slapping concrete.
SCREECH! HONK! HONK!
A red convertible swerves to a stop in front of me, its nose just bumping me. I tumble to the ground. A car door slams.
"Em! Emely! Emely, are you ok?"
I look up, feeling dazed. And then I wish I hadn't. Crouched next to me with a hand on my shoulder is Ian Patrick. He moved here when I was eleven and he was twelve. We were good friends all the way through high school, and we even stayed in touch the first year of college. We thought we would be friends forever. At a point, I had hoped we could be more. But that was before I turned out to be such an epic failure. I groan and hide my face in my hands.
"Em? Em, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm gonna call an ambulance, ok? Just hang on..."
He looks up from dialing his phone, and his green eyes flood with relief. He always had been over dramatic.
"No." I repeat, trying to push myself back to my feet, "No, I'm fine. Just shocked."
"Are you sure?" He hurriedly grasps my arm, helping me stand back up. "You look terrible."
"No! I didn't mean that! And you don't look hurt, you just look... you look..."
He gestures at my over-all appearance, not sure what to say. I get what he means. I'm in penguin print pajamas with blue flip-flops and tangled hair. I'm also standing in the middle of a small intersection. He looks into my eyes, then, really looks.
"Em?" his voice is gentle, soft, but also real. "Are you ok?"
I look away.
"Yeah. Just an unlucky day, I guess. Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, didn't notice I was still in PJs, that sort of thing. Heh, heh."
I add on a weak laugh. He doesn't look convinced, but he was raised to be polite and would never accuse someone of lying.
"Ok... can I give you a ride?"
"No, no. Heh, heh. I'm just walking..."
He looks me over one more time, a dark strand of hair falling over his eyes.
"OK. I'm so sorry, Em. So sorry. Be careful, ok?"
He tries to catch my eye, "Stay off the street." He's serious, but he puts on a teasing smile.
"You got it!"
Inside, I slap myself for my fake cheery voice and ridiculous line. But he smiles and hops into his car.
"Oh, and Em?" he calls as I turn away. "Make your own luck."
I think about his words as I walk. Make your own luck. It's something he had always believed in. He had always thought of luck as something you could form. I had always thought of it as something that formed me. I hug myself as the first few drops of cold rain plop onto my bare arms. Make your own luck. Maybe I will. But Luck seems to disagree, for at that very moment, the clouds begin to sob gallons of pent-up tears.
I squeal and run for the closest cover, but I'm soaked and shivering by the time I make it to Clover Leaf Cafe. I pull on the door, but it refuses to open. “Closed,” a sign cheerfully informs.
“AHHHG!” I shout into the rain. And then I see the black cat.
He is sitting behind me, watching me. His eyes seem to glow with evil intent.
“No, no, no…”
My voice is a whimper. Luck is chasing me, stalking me, but it is the dark kind. Slowly, I back away from the cat, my heart thumping out its terror. Then, for the third time that day, I run. Change your luck, luck, luck… I chant as I race through the storm. Finally, as the rain begins to stop, I fall to my knees at the park.
"Where are you, where are you, where are you?!" I mumble as I search frantically through a clover patch, my hands trembling.
I turn around with a start. It was him. Again.
"H-hi!" I squeak out.
"What on earth are you doing, Em?"
"Heh, heh, heh... you know, that's actually a really funny and really long story... Heh, you know?"
I look down, trying to avoid his eyes.
"And yeah, heh, heh... you probably don't have time to hear it..."
And that's when I see it: a perfect four leaf clover. Time seems to freeze, all sound drowns out, and a spotlight seems to illuminate that perfect, life changing clover.
"YES!" I scream and dive for the clover. "Yes! OOOOhhh, yes! Yes! Yes!" I laugh with delight. "Yes!" I feel happy tears squeeze out of my eyes. Finally, my luck will change.
That's when I notice that I'm lying on my belly, cradling a weed, at Ian's feet. Like, literally at his feet. The clover had been plucked from right by his shoe. I slowly look up at my old friend and feel a blush cover my face. Embarrassment and shame rush up, and all my ecstasy leaves me like air from a balloon. I pull myself to a sitting position and look back down at the grass.
I refuse to look up at him as he crouches down beside me for the second time that day. But then his hand gently touches mine.
"Can I see it?"
I jerk, surprised by his touch but more surprised by his gentle voice. He keeps his eyes on my closed hands. Slowly, I unclench my fingers. It's funny: the clover that had looked so magical to me less than a minute ago looks dead and useless now. I feel so stupid. Had I really believed a weed would solve my problems? Had I really thought clenching it in my hands would give me luck? What had I even planned to do with it? Carry it around in my pocket? My shoes? But Ian doesn't call me stupid. Ian doesn't ask me these questions. Instead, he gently picks it out of my hand and turns it in his fingers. Finally, he meets my eyes.
"I'm so stupid."
"Em, the last thing you are is stupid."
I look down at my hands. "Desperate, then."
"Yes," he agrees, "desperate. The question is, why?"
"I don't know."
I don't know why I feel so lost, why I'm chasing luck when I'm not even sure it exists. I don't know why I became like this. I don't even know exactly when or why it started. With a long, gentle finger, Ian lifts my chin.
"What happened, Em?"
What happened, Emely? I've been asked that question so many times by now. Why are you getting bad grades? Why can't you control your emotions? Why can't you keep a job? What happened? How did you become such a failure? No one, though, had asked it the way Ian did. No one else had asked it wanting to actually listen. So, I tell him everything.
I start all the way back at my freshman year of college; I had been an English major. I had wanted to become a teacher, to inspire others to write, to show them the power I thought I had found in grammar and words. Everything was great at first. I loved my classes. I had friends. My roommate was the best. But slowly things just got worse. I missed home: my mom's constant positivity, my dad and my brother's endless discussions, my sister's passion, my grandfather's solemn voice. Sometimes I couldn’t make it out of bed; sometimes I couldn’t sit still. I thought it was just from the pressure--finals were near and my family expected nothing less than perfection--so I pushed through, passed my classes decently, and crashed home for winter break.
"Emely," my father had said after calling me into his giant office.
"We understand that the first semester was tough and that you had to adjust; that is to be expected. But you need to pull yourself together now, alright? Your future depends on it."
So, I went back to school in the spring and tried, but every time I failed, every mistake I made piled on top of me like bricks until I had built a house of failure. A house that I could not escape. Everything got worse: I would go a whole week barely leaving my room and then one where I could barely stay in it. That's when my roommate, a psychology major, made me go to the Wellness Center. They helped me set up an appointment with a psychiatrist, and he diagnosed me with Bipolar 2. It made sense. It made me feel better. I was prescribed a medication and met up with the psychiatrist several times. Somehow, knowing what was going on made everything more manageable. I was even able to pass all my classes. But then I came home.
My family is perfect. They are all beautiful and polished and healthy and successful. They seemed to have always been that way. A perfect chain made up of strong, shiny links. Until I came home and revealed that I was the weak link. No, they said. This is ridiculous. You just have to toughen up, stop being so weak, stop buying whatever you are told, my father thought. Sleep more, maybe, said my mother. Eat more healthy. Maybe she just isn't driven, wondered my brother. Maybe she has no passion, questioned my sister. Whatever it is, decided my grandfather, she most definitely does not need a shrink! So, I stopped seeing the psychiatrist and stopped taking meds. I went back to school in the fall, but I was dropped from my classes by mid-term. Then Emely the Failure came home once again. I worked at Starbucks for a while, then Food Lion. McDonald's then Walmart then a tiny gas station. Finally, my family gave up on me, and I gave up on myself. I was just the unlucky one. I was just unlucky.
Ian is still beside me when I finish my tale, still twirling the four leaf clover in his hand. I try not think about the way I look: tangled hair, half in a messy-bun, half falling down my shoulders; rain-soaked pajamas with grass stuck all over; stupid tears trailing down my cheeks; and snot dripping from my nose. I wait to hear him speak. He must be disgusted by me, but I know he is too nice to say so. I know he will let kindness speak. He’ll tell me he’s sorry, just like this morning.
Slowly he lifts his eyes from the clover and looks straight into mine, straight into me.
"Make your own luck."
I inhale a quick, sharp gulp of air. Make your own luck. He said it as if there was still a chance. He said it as if I wasn't hopeless, as if I could still form my own fate.
"Alright," I shout over the noise of students scrambling to pack up their notebooks and pens.
"Don't forget that your final drafts are due this Thursday! After that, it's just finals! You're almost at the end! You got this!"
With that my students leave. Some hurry off to their next class without looking back, while others send me a wave or a smile or a "thank you."
One student, Lydia Sidel, steps up to my desk as I erase the white board. A few others line up behind her.
"Can I ask you a question..."
Once I have helped them all, I walk down the hall to my small office to wait for my next class. I talk to a few other professors and students as I go.
"Professor Patrick! Remember me from the spring?"
Of course I remember him; I remember all my students. I talk to him for a few minutes, and he tells me about his plans. I smile because I know that his future is bright. He has to go, but as he walks away, he calls one last thing over his shoulder:
My heart is full of sunshine and dancing flowers when I finally make it to my office. It's the same one I've had since I started teaching here, seven years ago. It's also the same community college that changed my life. After that day with the clover leaf, I started seeing a psychiatrist again. I worked any job I could get until I had saved enough to start taking classes part time. It has been a long journey, filled with many more days of running and rain and tears, but also days of laughter and triumph. The journey isn't over yet.
I sit down at my desk and look up at the wall across from me. There, pressed against a white paper and surrounded by a wooden frame, is the four-leaf clover I found at Ian's feet. Above it, on the white paper, are the words "make your own luck."