The pleasant summer sun shimmers down on the grasses of the front lawn of my grandparent’s house. My young cousins perch on either side of me on the end of the wooden dock that stretches out past the greenery. The fading light dances around their strawberry blond hair, giving it a glossy shine. Our toes dangle over the edge, and when I look over, Alexandra swings her feet to the same tempo of mine. As we sit there, I note their innocence as I listen to their simple views of the world. They walk to the rhythm of their own drums.
Whenever the heat starts to get to us, the cool waters of the lake cleanse us. If the water of the lake doesn’t cool them off, then the incentive of riding our bikes to the nearest ice cream stand hangs in the back of my cousins’ minds. I always go with them, just for the sheer pleasure of feeling the wind rush through my hair, our muscles straining as we pedal up that one steep hill. I always feel fine just to sit there with them as they lick their ice cream cones. I never have one anymore, but that doesn’t bother me. Now, the sun starts to dip lower on the horizon and I can feel the warmth of day slowly fading away. I smile while Alexandra and Isabella jump in the water. They urge me to join them.
Sometimes, a lake creature fascinates them. Screams of “Look, it’s a turtle!” pierce the evening tranquility. This time, I ask them to let the creature go. They’ve trapped the poor animal inside of a plastic bucket. Their faces shine in awe of the little turtle, crawling around inside its artificial cage. They ask me why they can’t keep it; I explain, “Because that turtle wants to live, just like you.” Without another word, my little cousins let the turtle go and it crawls out of the bucket tipped on its side. It disappears into the murky water with a satisfying plop.
The clang of the kitchen echoes through the screen door as the adults call my cousins and me to come inside. For just a minute more of clarity, we pretend not to hear them over the gentle rolling waves from boats milling around the lake. Bounding like deer, we finally race our way across the dock, throwing off damp towels onto the chairs near the porch door’s white frame and flimsy screen to keep the bugs out. The buzzing of mosquitos and fireflies coming out to greet the dusk fills our ears. The screen door springs back into place with a quick snap as we enter the artificial cold of the large house by the water. We wait impatiently as my grandma serves the potatoes, chicken, and vegetables. While ladling food onto our plates buffet style, I feel a yank on the shirt I have just hastily thrown on. I look down at my smallest cousin, Alexandra, and note her wide, hopeful eyes as well as her confused expression. “Hannah, why aren’t you eating any of the chicken? All you have on our plate is green beans.” My chest fell as I realize the inevitability of an uncomfortable conversation. “Um…” I stall, “I don’t like to eat that, Ale.” I feel unsure of what to do once she furrows her brows and asks me once more, “But why not?” Again, I feel my throat tighten. Could I possibly be self-conscious just because of what I eat? “You can tell them,” my mom urges. I nod, though I am still unsure of what to do. I inhale a deep breath and look up and around the table. “I’ve just tried a new lifestyle change. I’m not eating any meat. Or anything that comes from an animal.” I try to say it like it’s no big deal to avoid a hostile reaction.
At first, though I get some weird glances from my male cousins, to the rest of them, it feels like it isn’t going to be a big deal. “But Hannah, that can’t be healthy,” I hear my brother chime in, “and we’re higher up on the food chain anyways. It’s natural.” I can’t formulate a response to this without sounding like someone preaching my beliefs like some sort of PETA activist. On the outside, I feel like a part of my family, a cohesive unit that believes in all the same things. Except I’m not exactly the same as them, I start to realize. Did that distinction necessarily have to be an uncomfortable thing? I take the opportunity to explain myself.
“I recently watched a documentary about factory farming in the United States and the torture of animals. I don’t want to eat something that once lived and breathed and wanted to survive like me,” I reason. I notice some partially concealed disapproving glances from my grandparents. I can tell what they are thinking. I already know they think that living in California has caused my family to stray from tradition of the family they had raised my dad to be a part of. “But meat has been a part of our diet for so long,” my dad says, “and it’s good for you.” I feel my heart drop, but to make my point I ask them, “Would you kill a dog if you saw him wandering around on the street?” I pause to wait for an answer, and my dad finally provides one. “No, of course not. Are you really worried about that? Because none of us would kill a dog,” he assures me. I can feel my temperature rising as I think to myself, “Then why is the chicken we’re eating now any different?” I hold my tongue, because I have to be careful. No one dares to look me in the eye. I hear the scraping of knives on porcelain plates. “Hannah, please just eat the chicken,” orders my father. “You’re ruining dinner. Nana made this for us, so please be grateful.”
“No, thank you,” I respond, as politely as I can. In that moment, I realize that no matter how hard I try I cannot change anyone’s beliefs and morals to fit along with mine, even my own flesh and blood’s.
“I think that it’s cool,” Isabella informs me, “Good for you.” Alexandra reaches out and holds my hand. Even confronted with something new, they accept me unconditionally. I look first to her hand that grasps tightly onto mine, and then up to her face to find more comfort. I see a little pink forming on her cheeks from staying out in the sun too long. Her freckles are almost lost in the light burn.
That moment reminds me that everyday, I wear this second skin. On the outside, I blend in with everyone else because there’s nothing different or extreme about me on the outside. But once that second skin sheds, people treat me like a whole different species all together. I hope one day, I will not feel cast off as a label. In the year since I have made this lifestyle change, I have imagined the two roads Robert Frost spoke of in his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” I imagine myself turning my head to peer at the easy way out—the one that everyone ambles down everyday. The other road, full of obvious obstacles, hardships, and false expectations, would never prove easy, but I still would never change my choice. Tradition’s roots tell us that an animal has to die in order for a human to eat one meal. I guess I belong to that small minority that chooses to stray from that tradition. I don’t know how to save the world, but everyday I can live with the fact that by making conscious choices, I can change our world for the better. Of course, these beliefs I hold close to my heart do not make me better than anyone else at all; they just make me different, and one day I want to feel like I can be a part of a world that does not try to change me to be just like them. Acknowledging these beliefs almost feels like I’m coming out of my shell for the first time, and the world feels full of possibilities again.