What Do You Wish For?

by EMILY ORTON

 Me at 5, which is 3 years younger than this story, but you get the idea

Me at 5, which is 3 years younger than this story, but you get the idea

My mom and grandma took me to a women’s conference and then out for cheesecake.  I don’t remember caring about the conference.  I was about 8 and it was my first slice of cheesecake. I was already a fan of cheese and cake, but the combo sounded weird.  I was dubious.  The waiter set before me the thinnest slice of cake I’d ever seen.  Maybe that’s because it’s so dense, but it seemed like a rip-off before I’d tasted it.  After I’d tasted it—inhaled it—I knew that sliver wouldn’t satisfy. 

I asked if I could have a second slice.  Mom said I could only have seconds if I paid for them myself.  I thought my grandma might spot me.  She could be a softie, but with Mom sitting right there, there was nothing she could do.  I was on my own.  So, I excused myself to use the restroom.  Instead of turning right to the ladies’ room, I left the restaurant.  I’d noticed a wishing fountain out front when we arrived.  Grandma had given me a penny to make a wish.  I needed it back and then some.

A child of the 70’s who spent her leisure time outside unsupervised was not afraid of a pair of wet shoes.  I stepped right into the fountain and started collecting coins.  It was a good thing I wore a dress because there were a lot of coins in there.  I caught my hem up in one hand for a makeshift basket.  I worked quickly until I thought I had enough treasure to trade for a piece of cheesecake.  Though my face was flushed and my once tidy hair was falling loose, I returned to the table in soggy triumph. 

“Now, can I have another piece of cheesecake?”  I asked. 

A smile cracked all over Grandma’s face.  She was obviously proud, but wisely looked to my mother without saying anything.  Mom’s face flashed with recognition, realizing everything that must’ve happened leading to this moment.  Surely, patrons passed me as they came and went from the restaurant.  Surely, everyone wondered who this ill-mannered rascal was and even more to the point, who were her parents? 

The pile of coins—other people’s wishes—sat on the tablecloth waiting as the moisture spread in an ever-widening circle.  Mom's mouth became a line.  She didn’t say anything.  I don’t know if anyone was looking at us.  I was in elementary school.  I was too young to care what other people thought or wonder if they were looking at me.  I just wanted to know if I had met the pre-requisite for another slice of cheesecake.

          “You said she could have another piece if she paid for it herself,” Grandma said. 

            “Okay,” mom softened.  “How much do you have there?”  I was probably the only customer who paid in coin, but I had enough. I knew then I would probably never have enough cheesecake.  I wondered about the other people’s wishes and if they wouldn’t come true since I had used up their wishes for my wish. 

“I expect those people would want a little girl to have another piece of cheesecake,” Grandma said.

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I like to think about wishes.  It’s so important to have them—to name them specifically—to plant them in the universe.  Erik and I tell our children, ‘If you have a wish, don’t keep it a secret.  Tell people about it.’  I know that if I want my wishes to come true, I can’t let them sit in a fountain, or hang on a star, or whisper over a birthday candle or even in somebody’s ear.  I have to get to work.