(Author's note: The following is a chapter that originally appeared near the end of Flashback Girl. I was advised to edit it out, for various reasons (interrupted the flow, repeated some themes, went back in time too much. But, as many authors can relate, just because the chapter had to be edited out doesn't mean it wasn't worth sharing. So, I am happy to share this chapter here.)
One way to survive an unsurvivable childhood is by not being in it. As a child, I spent years pretending to be someone else, who lived somewhere else. In my games, I was happy, strong, safe, and loved. Any dangers emerged from my own imagination and faded away by the end of the game. I was an orphan, the eldest of six, rescuing my siblings from starvation. I was a World War II spy. I led a wagon train across the Dakota plains. My escapes into fantasy didn’t fully end until I married, finally establishing a safe home and family for myself.
Sometimes I had playmates. I played Batman with Marc, I played I Dream of Jeannie with Michael. Many times, I imagined alone. I sang along to my show records, imagining myself to be Nellie Forbush or Peter Pan. I played alone, sending my fashionably-dressed Barbies off on dates with Marc’s old G.I. Joes. But I met my true imagination partner when I met Melissa.
Melissa was the daughter of my dad’s old friend, Patty. Like me, Patty had a difficult childhood, full of neglect and fear. She became a gifted ballerina. My dad met her at his college job, playing piano for her ballet classes. They kept in touch over the years, my mom and dad, Patty, and her husband, Talis.
I remember the first time Melissa came to Glen Ridge. She was so pretty, with straight blonde hair, wide blue eyes and an angelic face. She was an athlete, unlike myself, who could never catch a ball, my eyes squeezed shut with anxiety. So, Melissa was lovely and I was ugly, and she was athletic and I was a dork. None of that mattered though, because Melissa knew how to play. She had the same all-encompassing imagination that I had. We clicked.
Melissa lived in Bayside in Queens, New York. I lived in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Soon after meeting, we became fervently devoted to seeing each other as much as possible, which did not make things easy. This problem was quickly solved by our parents declaring that we were old enough to take public transportation. Thus, I began traveling to New York City by myself by the age of nine.
The first time, my mother took me. We walked to the bus stop and waited on Bloomfield Avenue for the #33 to come. In Port Authority, we took the subway downtown to Penn Station. She taught me how to buy a ticket for the Long Island Railroad, and how to find the correct train platform. Then we rode the train, and she showed me the stop to get off for Melissa’s house.
We did this trip together once. The next time, my mother wrote out all the travel steps on a little piece of paper and sent me off. I clutched that paper fearfully in my hands, anxiously triple checking every step I took along the way. I tucked the paper deep in my pocket, terrified that I could lose it. Still, I made it, all the way to the heaven that was Melissa’s house.
Melissa lived in an elegant four-bedroom house with sunny windows and beautiful artwork. There was always music playing. Sometimes it was Patty, playing one of her many records. Sometimes it was Melissa’s brother Mark, an excellent pianist, practicing for admission into music conservatories. Talis, Melissa’s dad, was often painting. He was an artist, and he had a home studio, where he spent most of his time. Unlike my mother, Patty was always home, taking care of everyone. I adored her.
Patty made a place for me in her house. I came at least once a month, often more. You would think she might have gotten tired of taking care of me, cooking for me, mothering me. If she did get tired of me, she never showed it. Patty would smile so warmly whenever I arrived. Sometimes after dinner, we would linger in the kitchen, the two of us chatting away. I always felt that she loved me so much.
When I was with Melissa, I could be in another world. Sometimes we pretended we were dogs. We had an entire cast of dog characters, with various relationships and issues. She was Rontu, named after the dog in the The Island of Blue Dolphins, and I was Rusty. The Rontu and Rusty game came early, when we were about nine and ten. I’m pretty sure that game was her idea because I was not into dogs at the time. Still, Melissa made everything fun.
Sometimes we pretended we were horses. In our play, we created a well-established horse world, loosely based on the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. There was Black (Melissa) and Flame (me). We galloped around my front lawn, whinnying for our horse friends, escaping various perils, making our way to safe meadows. My large yard in Glen Ridge became a clearly defined horse world, in which various zones had their own names, with different horses living in each area.
Our imaginary feats rose to a grand crescendo when we forsook horses and fell in love with The Beatles. This happened during middle school and lasted about three years. It was not unusual for middle school girls to be obsessed with bands. However, this being Melissa and me, we went far beyond that. In our minds, we became the actual Beatles.
I really don’t know how it started, but I was Paul McCartney and she was John Lennon. This was the opposite of our personal preferences, because I was a John fan and she was a Paul girl. It was more fun to pretend to interact with the Beatle one adored, so that’s how we did it. Sometimes we were John and Paul, writing songs together. Sometimes the game was about Paul and Linda McCartney. Sometimes it was Paul and Jane Asher. Sometimes it was John and Cynthia Lennon. Sometimes it was John and Yoko Ono.
Almost all the time, we were pretending in this elaborate fantasy world. We listened to the Beatles constantly, and knew every song. We would sing the harmonies together, or rather, we valiantly tried. I could always sing, and I had a good ear, so it was easy for me to pick out all the vocal parts. Music was not Melissa’s gift. I never understood why she couldn’t just sing the harmonies that John sang. It seemed so easy to me. (Perhaps this is how she felt about me, every time I failed to catch a ball.)
Things reached an intense pitch in seventh grade. This was the dreadful year when my parents separated, my cat ran away, Marc dropped out of MIT, my Pepere got cancer, and I was being tormented in school. My primitive way to survive this time was to simply not be there. Every possible minute, I pretended I was in the Beatles world. I paid enough attention to get decent grades. When I had to interact with another person, I could. But when I was left alone (which was most of the time, as a neglected, bullied kid), I immediately pretended I was a Beatle again. I wrote Melissa very long letters, ten double-sided pages at a time. I scribbled the letters in school, so I didn’t have to think about where I actually was. I wrote to her constantly. The envelope would be addressed to Melissa, but the letter would be written to John, or Jane or Linda.
Dimly, I knew that perhaps this Beatles thing was a bit much. On some level, I understood that it was not healthy to live every day in a fantasy. However, pretending to be a Beatle seemed preferable to complete despondency. Although I was lost in fantasy most of the time, I was not psychotic; I knew it was pretend. I just vastly preferred pretend to real.
In eighth grade, my mother and I moved to Oyster Bay, Long Island. One of the good things about moving was that it made it easier to see Melissa, and we did see each other even more. However, when I moved to Oyster Bay, I made actual friends for the first time in years. I began to want to see my new friends, and to live in the world as it was truly happening.
I started to pull away from Melissa a bit. I didn’t want to play Beatles anymore. I am entirely sure that I didn’t communicate this to her in a clear, helpful or kind way. I think I just started to be more distant and less interested in our mutual world. I could feel her anxiety, which was a new dynamic. For years, she was the top dog (Rontu, for example). Now it was me.
My brother Marc jumped off the Green Building at MIT right when I started 9th grade. Along with my shock and grief, I made an immediate self-assessment. I was 14. In a flash, it came to me, as clear as anything ever has… if I retreated into fantasy now, after Marc's death, I would not remain sane. I had survived all my traumas by pretending to be someone else. But I knew that I had face Marc’s death, or I would go crazy.
It is hazy to me, but somehow I told Melissa that I couldn’t be close with her anymore. I don’t know how I said it. I am confident that I didn’t say it in the best way. I was 14 and completely traumatized. I know I didn’t convey that our intense escapist relationship was now dangerous to my mental stability.
This was my first time terribly hurting someone, but not my last. In my life, I have detached three times from an intense relationship in order to be emotionally stable. Each of these ruptures was gut-wrenching, leaving me a lifetime of remorse and second-guessing. My ability to detach with modulated kindness has improved over time, but the rupture is still awful.
The feeling reminds me of the end of the movie Titanic, when Rose has to let Jack go. The two of them can’t fit on the floating door in the Atlantic, and she will only live if she lets him go. Jack has no chance to survive and he pleasantly accepts his fate. That is nice and touching in the movies, but in actual life the feeling is very different. The Jacks in my life have not been so sanguine.
My fantasy life with Melissa was over, and I did my best to stay sane. I went to therapy and I didn’t kill myself. Over time, with help, I healed. I no longer needed to escape reality, just to get by.
After our rupture, I lost touch with Melissa for many years. I kept in contact with Patty, who had been like a mother to me. Melissa and I were only distantly connected. I knew she had married, and had a daughter, and that’s about it. I tried to Facebook friend her, but she never responded. I didn't blame her. I understood why she might not want to be my friend.
A few years ago, Patty died. I wrote a long letter to Melissa and Mark, expressing my condolences and sharing my appreciations of Patty and everything she did for me. I didn’t hear back from them. Again, I didn't blame her. I understood why.
Awhile after my mother went to Switzerland and took her life, I got an email from Melissa, saying she was very sorry to hear about my mother, and asking if I wanted to talk. I was stunned to hear from her. Nervously, I called the number she had written.
“Hello?” she answered, in a voice that I would have known anywhere. We fell into conversation effortlessly, as if 40 years hadn’t gone by. We talked about my parents’ deaths. We talked about her parents’ deaths. We caught up on our marriages and our kids and our work. We talked for an hour.
At some point, I took a deep breath. “I am sorry, Melissa. I am so sorry for breaking off our friendship the way I did.”
“Oh, that was so long ago,” she said breezily.
“I know, but I think about it a lot, and I am very sorry.” There was a pause. We were quiet together.
“I was really devastated.”
“I know. I’m so sorry.” I went on to explain that I couldn’t stay in our friendship because of the level of fantasy, and my fear for my sanity.
“We were just pretending. Kids pretend.”
“Yes, but I was pretending ALL THE TIME. I was pretending at school, at home, and everywhere I went, even when I wasn’t with you. It was all the time. I really thought I might go crazy.”
“Oh!” she said, with a surprised laugh. “Wow!”
“That’s why. But I didn’t handle it well and I’m really sorry.”
Now, we are friends again. We remind each other of our exploits from many years ago. We sing old camp songs to each other. It is sweet how well our adult brains click together, just like we used to when we were little. Now, instead of horse game ideas, we talk about dogs (real dogs!), daughters, work, and family. I never would have guessed it, but here we are.
Rontu and Rusty forever!
Lesson: Fantasy and pretending is a way to get through trauma, imagining a better life for yourself. Keep your feet on the ground though.
The author's memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.