I was four or five or six when my best friend informed me that wishing had rules. We were sitting on the blacktop surface of our elementary school’s playground, drawing misshapen flowers in colored chalk. The pavement’s ridges left indents in our knees.
“Close your eyes,” Caroline whispered to me as she leaned forward, plucking a stray eyelash off my cheek. She held it out between her thumb and forefinger, her lips breaking into one of those little-kid half smiles: “Gotta make a wish!”
I closed my eyes and thought really hard about what I wanted. What did I want? Maybe, just for today, my mom would pick me up from school, her bags nudging my arm as we walked. Or maybe we would go see the boats on the Hudson River. “Oh just wish already!” (Caroline was the impatient type.)
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I wish my family would move to the country so that I can have a dog.” I looked at her, expectantly. I really, really wanted a dog. Caroline swiveled her head back and forth. “Nuh uh, that’s not how it works. You can’t actually tell me what you wish for.”
Apparently wishing had regulations. Caroline counted them off on her fingers:
1. It really has to be about important stuff.
2. No telling.
3. If you tell, it will never, ever come true.
That day, I went home after school and asked my mom what wishing meant. She gave me some sort of explanation that came out of the Mom Dictionary of Simple Definitions for Ideas You Think Your Kids Can’t Understand. A wish is something special you hope for harder than anything else. Puzzled, I asked her what kinds of things she liked to wish for, but I realized that those were secrets I couldn’t know, wisdom she couldn’t teach me.
I was worried I wasn’t doing it right—wishing for the wrong things, or not wishing hard enough, or wishing and then giving it away. What if I was accidentally revealing too much about the things I wanted in snippets of lunchtime conversation, letting them slip between turns at double dutch? My hopes became intimidating then—but magical too—in their secrecy. They were no longer the small, friendly things I could dream of as I blew apart a dandelion, convincing myself it was okay if it took two tries. A move to the country wasn’t enough.
In search of simplicity, and some sort of grandiose desire deserving of the hype, I began to change my approach to wishing. I needed one thing to place my hopes behind. I didn’t want to spread my wishes thin. Eventually, I decided: this big, existential desire I figured I wanted pretty badly, and was important enough to warrant being kept a secret for my whole life.
I try not to think about all the other wishes out there, all the other people who learned the rules sooner. What insight might they have that I don’t? I can’t help but hope that they will disregard the second premise, even though I know the consequences of the third. So sometimes, when it’s 11:11, or when I find an eyelash, or when I’m standing in front of almost-extinguished birthday candles, I whisper, “make a wish.” I watch my friends’ eyelids press closed, their slow intake of breath, the moment of pause. I am now the impatient one. I almost ask what they’re thinking of, or if they’re wishing for anything at all. Almost.
But you’re not supposed to ask. At least not once you graduate from light up shoes and heavy summer mornings spent dashing through playground sprinklers. The minute passes, the eyelash flutters to the ground, the candle flames disappear into wisps of smoke. You don’t stand up to ask what they wish for, because wishes are secrets and secrets are never to be told.