A Tree Peony (The Lives They Lived)

Like so many from the old country, my parents were hard workers. They led quiet lives and poured their hopes into their offspring, of whom I was the eldest.

I was teased when I was young. Others used to call me “monster,” and though it hurt my feelings at the time — so many tears! — looking back I can understand why. I was quite gangly, always tripping over myself, and I had a disproportionately large head.

My parents encouraged me and I persevered. I began to show signs of possessing a rare beauty, which of course is superficial and has very little to do with what goes on in the soul. In short, it was a difficult period for me: like many adolescents, I tended to look back at my younger self — and more hurtfully, my parents — with poisonous disdain.

Still, I blossomed into a flower such as I had always dreamed about. I felt the world owed me something, and miraculously it was delivered. This was a period of exhibition that verged on narcissism. So many others told me that I had achieved something unprecedented, as if beauty were some kind of technological advance. I don’t mean to sound dismissive. This was a wonderful, heady time for me, when everything seemed possible, and in some ways, it was. Also? It went by in the blink of an eye.

I’m sure I’m not the first to say I hung on for too long, ignoring all the signs that should have led me to make a graceful exit. Whenever I’m asked about it now, I always say it’s possible to get what you want, but that you will also lose it. Some rules can never be changed. It can be consoling to know that you are no different than anyone else.

The end was not pretty — there was a lot of falling apart — but I don’t regret it, either. It was a time of reassessment, of taking stock in what I had accomplished. Did I change the world? That’s not for me to decide.

All you can do is drop your petals on the floor with the hope that someone will pick them up and think about the way life used to be, even if — like every generation — they long for something different.

Matthew Gallaway lives in Washington Heights and is the author of The Metropolis Case — available on an Internet near you.