Pavel Danilyuk

I’m Done Learning Strategies To Play By Someone Else’s Rules

For all my life I’ve been learning strategies to play by someone else’s rules.

When you realize that your lifelong passion may cost you your life, “risk taking” becomes more than just a slogan. It becomes a haunting reality, the constant reminder that you must be brave even if you don’t want to. Some passions burn inside you. They quite literally warm you up and tear you apart at the same time. For me, that passion was science.

It was May 22, 2022. I pushed another tablet of Zyrtec down my throat. Following Chicago opening night, I had lost track of how many allergy meds I’ve taken. It was past 3 a.m. and I finally managed to collapse onto my bed without the help of my usual melatonin gummies. I slept through the next 12 hours in the deepest state of unconsciousness, my throat dry and scratchy, my mind submerged in a scent of fluffy, candied sweetness, the lingering aftertaste of a dream I can no longer recall.

I woke up at 3 p.m. the next day to the vibration of muted alarms and over 20 missed calls from my parents and unread texts glaring at me in all caps, “COME TO BIO! Edgar’s getting worried!” In a limbo state between awareness and sleep, in the deep cracks between two heavy boulders of life and dreams—cracks from which the secrets shed weight and flow—I, too, was floating. It was a nice feeling, waking up in altered states, isolated, not remembering enough to worry.

I dialed my mom’s number. The second she answered the phone I was snapped ruthlessly back to reality. The clocked picked up the pace and swept me along—I still have homework, Chicago round two, and open lab tonight. Somehow, just somehow, she found out I was heading to lab yet again after the seeming saviors of my ethanol allergy attacks betrayed me, stabbed me with the blade of my own prop once the stage lights went out. Perhaps under three layers of costume, I had been slowly disintegrating under the incandescent heat of those beams.

I was expecting to hear a string of snappy scolding shoot through the speaker like bullets, knowing that her volatility could easily be plugged one second and loaded the next. I wasn’t expecting the conversation to take such a serious turn, though, when she advised me to never go back to the lab again.

“It’s not too late to switch majors.”

Allergies had never held all that gravity. For all my high school years, I had been in active denial of medical conditions to keep my spot at the lab, even lying to the nurse that pollen was the culprit for my constantly stuffed-up nose. It was hard to view a life decision in such a serious light when “giving up” was never even a part of my vernacular.

“No.” I didn’t know what else to say, but my answer was adamant.

“Then you are mad!” My mom’s voice began to crescendo and bounce against the walls.

I was at a loss for words. I had lived for the madness in me without knowing what I had been living for. For her, the thought of losing me to science was agonizingly real, and for the first time our fears aligned as I had felt firsthand what it was like to risk losing something you love. You’re already losing me, I thought, so you might as well let science do the work. I wasn’t sure which was sadder, living until you stop or stopping so you can live, and it never occurred to me that I’d ever have to choose. I’ve always hated taking chances, but all I wanted then was for the universe to flip a coin for me, tossing it so high so it never lands. Hearts still pounding, the call still blasting through thin walls of my skull from a different world, I detached and fell, safe and deep into the claustrophobic chasms where I spend my nights.

And I fell back to the Gillette Stadium retreat from the dance floor, eight pairs of laser focused eyes around the casino table landed on one particular boy, as if he was high. He had hit on a twenty, a move that the dealer remarked, with a sneering sarcasm, was a first in blackjack history. I remember standing awkwardly at the table, the only one who didn’t laugh, because I knew it wasn’t stupid like they made it out to be. Different people played by different rules, and some made sense to no one but the players themselves. John stood on a seventeen, Julianne on a sixteen, and I on a nineteen. When the dealer flipped over his last hand, I stood by four tall stacks of casino chips.

Though I won the game that night, the prized chips and cheers spawned an irrational sense of shame—I never once dared to hit on anything over a 17.

As I dreamed my way through another night, I could only begin to unravel my peculiar thoughts. Life, as it turns out, is nothing more than a blackjack game, cards face up on the table betting our fates, except no one knows where the chips are hidden. Floating along the cracks between life and dreams, I gathered the courage to bring my cards straight to the lab bench and hit on a twenty for the first time since I set my eyes on science ages ago. It was once a simple passion, no bets on the table. Today the stack was heavy, and I wasn’t hoping for blackjack in the rare case that I get dealt an ace. I smashed my jack of spades and queen of hearts against the table for a new card, prepared to be dazzled by a few more beams of “Chicago stage lights” gleaming from within. At last, I was ready to bust.