When I was younger I used to talk to myself in my front yard every day for hours.
I had an incredibly specific enchanted world mapped out in which each pine tree was a massive apartment building and the oaks were houses. I’d climb an oak to visit my imaginary pal, Poppy Gallagher, where I’d chatter out loud to him, describing my day in vibrant detail. My legs swung up over the branches easily and in the world that I’d created, nobody’s doors had locks. Usually Poppy had had a quarrel with somebody else in the neighborhood (I actually used that word, “quarrel.” Little House on The Prairie had taken its toll on my vocabulary) and it was my job to mediate.
My mom would always press for me to invite friends over after school but usually I said, “I can’t ‘cuz Poppy and Lucille got in a fight and they’re waiting for me to help them fix it or else they’re gonna yell at each other all night and not sleep.”
Or “Edna and Alice are mad at Sassy cause she’s not letting them go to the whale soccer game on Saturday cuz she’s with her new boyfriend so they invited me to hang out with them in their house.”
Worried that I would grow up right into a straitjacket or evolve into one of those people who rocks back and forth mumbling to themselves in Barnes and Noble, my mother suggested I invite a school friend over to hang out with me in my world.
But at eight not all of us are blessed to be the emperors of secret lands and I felt that any peer would grow jealous or worse, mock my place and ruin its magic. So for a long time I kept my second grade social life—the terrain of coloring horses and playing Barbie, and my real, inner life, separate entities.
In school all day I wondered what was happening with Lucille and Poppy and Shimmer and Glimmer, what they were doing without me. My mind would often wander to their kitchens in the treetops and their bedrooms in piles of maple sweet pine needles. It seemed unfair that I had to leave them for extended periods of time to attend classes with sleepy, boring people who scratched their butts and screamed the lyrics to cartoon network theme songs. I didn’t dislike anybody at school. I just liked my real friends better.
On some level I was conscious that they were in my head but I preferred to ignore this version of the truth. My people and my place possessed a sacred quality that I knew nobody else in the world would feel but me. Still, sometimes I’d forget myself and mention Sassy or Lucy or Montezuma to a stranger and my mom would be forced to explain, “they’re her imaginary friends.”
“INVISIBLE. THEY’RE INVISIBLE FRIENDS.” I would scream.
The invisibility aspect was frustrating. Some days I closed my eyes and squinted so hard my temples ached, trying to perfectly form their faces. I could hear their voices sputtering in the air around my ears but there were days when their faces went and all I could see was bodies with holes in the heads. Pale white like blank paper. This happened so gradually until the day I lost Lucille. She was the best and closest friend. She looked like the ad on the Wendy’s sign mixed with Raggedy Anne, and her father sent her letters from Hawaii every week. One day I came home and stood under her tree but couldn’t see her face anymore no matter how hard I shook my head or squeezed my eyes shut. I lay on my stomach with my face pressed up against the grass and sobbed.
That weekend my mother successfully convinced me to throw a party — the kind where every girl in the class gets invited so nobody’s left out. She baked a cake from the mix and I got to lick chocolate frosting off the spatula. It tasted like birthday and cheered me up although I was in a peculiar stage of mourning. When the girls arrived in their Hello Kitty sweaters they appeared to me as foreign as aliens shuffling out of their space shuttles and into my home. We played girl friendly games carefully overseen by grown-ups: Sticking Polly Pockets in their houses, putting clothes on Barbies, a few fatally boring games of dress-up. We were then handed popsicles and left alone to entertain ourselves on the back porch while the adults got a break.
Armed with a cherry popsicle that was melting into red watery fruit dye juice all over my hands and a captive audience of twelve second graders I began to speak.
“I never told you guys about the witch who lives next door, right?”
They all shook their heads. I pointed to the dilapidated Victorian-era shed that resides in the woods right off my property.
“That’s where she lives. Her name is Morbidda Destiny and she turns little girls into worms.”
“We don’t believe you!” they said, suspicious as second grade girls are wont to be. “You’re lying! Witches don’t even exist.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Believe whatever you want, but I’m telling you the truth. You better be careful, or you’ll end up as worms too.” I stared at the ground where a rain puddle had gathered on the driveway cement. A little worm floated, dead, in the corner.
I pointed. “That’s Lucille. She used to be my friend too, and look what happened to her.”
Twelve seven year olds screamed and fled back into the house where they proceeded to clutch their mothers’s legs and shake for the remainder of the gathering. Later that evening my mom made me call them all and apologize, but I could see her laughing from the other room while I sat with the receiver pressed way too close to my mouth, revealing someone else’s reality in a deeply resigned tone.