The father rarely said anything to us, or me, at least. Sometimes at dinner, after Simone or one of the others had given a lecture on how they envisioned their future, he'd ask what it was I planned to do in life. It made me nervous when he asked. I'd mumble something about not being quite sure yet. I thought I only had one shot at the answer, that coming up with the wrong one could loom over the rest of my life.
I tried to get serious about coming up with a vocation, for the next time he put the question to me. At the school library, I went through a guidebook that listed all the professions in existence. It actually said "all the professions" on the cover, but then there was a warning on the back, in small print, that said new professions were invented on a regular basis and that others disappeared, but that the reader should nevertheless rest assured the ones listed in the booklet should at least have a good twenty years of existence ahead. The list was four years old already. It bore 443 items, I counted, in alphabetical order. I tried to guess which ones would expire. Cartography sounded like a doomed business. Anthropology did too. I thought places and groups of people only existed in a limited number, and that once you'd studied a particular land and mapped it, or spent some time with a tribe and written about it, there was nothing to add, you'd done the job and crossed something off the list of places to map and people to study, and that the list had to be extremely short by now, if there was anything left on it at all.
Each professional title appeared in italics and was followed by a brief description of what it entailed, what kind of education you needed, how many years. I imagined the longest descriptions had to be for the most impressive jobs, and I skipped them.
I wanted to come up with something conceivable, not too showy, something my siblings wouldn't right away try to discourage me from pursuing. On the other hand, too modest a pick would expose me to their mockery. They despised salesmen and politicians, as well as anything too useful (like plumbing, for instance) or concerned with precious things (flowers, stationary, babies).
I thought I would read the whole booklet and find a vocation in one sitting, but by D I got bored and headed home. I didn't see the rush in making a decision anymore. I was still pretty young. I could wait for the booklet with the new professions to come out.
The only thing I was good at was holding my breath. In fact, I'd had a brief taste of what the rush of athletic performance might be during gym class when I'd held my breath underwater for the whole length of the pool. It impressed my classmates, I could tell. When I resurfaced at the other end, they all stood small in the distance and didn't say anything. All of them had gone up for air midlength. Though I hadn't saved anybody's life or done anything of importance, and though I'd always despised those who stuck out their chests, I walked back to them like a hero, in my flip-flops (I left a different pair at each end of the pool), and, halfway there, realized that, had I been gifted any real talent, I would probably have been a terrible person.
One night, it came up again, "What about you, Dory? What do you want to be when you grow up?" and it struck me right then that the answer should be that I wanted to be a German teacher. It was Sunday, and the father had just spent two hours helping Simone with her German homework. He'd helped all my other siblings with their German over the years, not that they were bad at it, they just weren't as good as they were at everything else. When they'd had papers to turn in, they'd always run them by the father. He was happy to help, and since German was the thing with which he felt he could be of most use to his children, he discussed every little translation choice they made in more detail than my siblings were comfortable with. Only because my father excelled at it was German mandatory in our family. He tried to make us believe that German was important—the language of Hölderlin and other people like that—but I think what he liked about it was really that he understood it and that it was more impressive than English or Spanish—which he spoke as well—because everyone spoke English and Spanish. German teacher was the perfect answer, I thought. An achievable goal. Respect would pour forth from all around the table.