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I started a joke, something vague and not at all funny, when she suddenly asked what I wanted. I didn't answer. Not because I didn't know, but because I couldn't. My throat choked and my eyes watered and I was unable to tell her the small, simple things I want: To be less restless. To buy a small house. To adopt a second child. To be happier with who I am.

After I hung up, I sat in the kitchen and thought about how many times people have asked the same question, and how many times I've shrugged and acted as if it didn't matter. As if I had everything I wanted. As if my needs weren't as important as keeping the peace or risking exposure or, most likely, having to face the idea that I haven't tried as hard as I might to make sure I have the things I certainly deserve.

I wasn't always this way. And more and more I wonder when I lost the ability to voice what I want. Maybe it was after I had my son and was forced to put his needs before mine. Or maybe it was much earlier, in that hazy, shadowy time between girlhood and adolescence, when my friends started wearing makeup and styling their hair and, afraid that I might be left behind, I believed I had no choice but to copy them. I'm sure it began slowly, the way deviant behaviors usually do, one small discarded need following another. Perhaps there was even heartbreak the first few times, and a feeling of anger; perhaps I even curled my hands into fists and raged against this betrayal.

I hope I put up some type of protest, however small, however inconsequential. I hope I didn't let her go easily, that fierce, headstrong girl I used to be. Though sometimes when I am hiking or messing around with my son, I can still feel her inside me, locked away and half-hidden by doubts. I recognize this in many of my women friends, the girls we used to be lost somewhere inside the women we've become. Pushed down further each time we casually, almost haughtily dismiss what we want.

"That wouldn't look good on me," we say with a wave of a hand, or, more pointedly, "No, really, I don't mind."

Of course we do mind; we mind terribly. It's exhausting always doing things for everyone else, pushing yourself aside and pretending you don't need something when you really do. And though it was a taboo subject for many years, now that we are getting older, we've begun to circle around it, narrowing in and then retreating with a laugh, a shrug, a small, embarrassed cry of recognition. As if the topic is forbidden yet compelling. As if, like the biological clock people speak of, we realize that time is running down and if we don't shake off our hesitations soon, we won't have time for a second chance.

Perhaps this is common among women my age, this fear that we won't be loved or admired if we're selfish enough to demand the things we want. Perhaps we're afraid we'll be seen as cold or heartless, the way women are often labeled when they speak up for the things they truly believe in. Or maybe we feel it isn't worth the guilt and confusion that accompanies change. Whatever the case, keeping silent about our needs has become so ingrained that it's like an elbow or a knee, something much depended upon but rarely given thought. Something we don't focus on until we feel a pain and realize, with a sudden spark of recognition, that yes, there really are things we want. Things we must allow ourselves to have.

I imagine asking for what I want will be much like beginning an exercise program: building up confidence one uncomfortable moment at a time. There will be pain, and times when I will fumble and fall and wonder about the point of getting back up. I will be sore and parts of myself will ache and cry for me to stop. Perhaps I will even bleed until I build callouses over weak areas. Still, it will be worth it. Anything will be better than remaining silent and watching the years float by with the dulled expectation of safe choices.

So when another friend called a few nights ago and asked, after a long conversation about relationships, childhood and mothers, what I wanted, I closed my eyes and thought: A chocolate brownie. A silk nightgown. A friend who will never leave.

"I want," I finally admitted, "someone to sit beside me and hold my hand."

It wasn't everything, of course. But it was a good way to begin.

Bio: Cinthia Ritchie is a freelance writer who lives in Alaska with her son, dog and stubborn cats. Her fiction, nonfiction and poetry publications include: Conspire, Clean Sheets, Horse Thief's Journal, Retrozine, Mind Caviar, Ice Floe: International Poetry of the Far North, Dare Magazine, Girlphoria, Inside Passages, Alaska Women Speak, and Scarlet. 'Wanting' was previously published in the Anchorage Daily News.

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