“A man could not be prevented from making himself a big wax doll and kissing it.”
– Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Complexity is anathema to fantasy. One tragedy about the human brain is that, in all its luxuriant complexity, with its million invisible arms, there’s so often a fundamental weakness to what it creates to connect with other human beings; maybe it allows too much to originate from within, or maybe it allows too much to intrude from without. Either way, the ratio is off.
From about the usual age I started wanting to know about girls. And I formed this fantasy of a quiet, pretty, smart girl, my best friend, profound in understanding, always by my side, so close as to make the question of us becoming lovers – a concept I only thought of distantly at that time – besides the point, because it was assured on the level of a natural law; just like we know that a mustard seed sproutling won’t grow into a cedar.
This fantasy grew in me from two separate instances, two cultures from the outside world that replicated inside of me, growing into this third thing, my particular wax doll.
In the grocery store I used to see, but never ask to buy, the boxes of Kashi cereal. On the front of the box they always had two people, of different genders and ethnicities. One box had a picture of a young white boy with tawny hair in a shiny bowl cut. Next to him was an Asian girl, of about his own age. The lighting for the picture was rustic, beatific, autumnal; they were wearing wholesome whole grainy-type sweaters; I imagined that they were eating off a coffee table in a living room that was darkly wood-paneled.
When you look at a picture without context – without knowing who’s in it or when and where it was taken – what you’re actually looking at is almost always a liar, or at least enables a shallow, reflexive fiction-making process. Your mind begins to make a story out of it. Sometimes these stories pass from the foyer of your brain into its inner chambers; that’s what happened with me in this case.
And then, in school, the teacher read Bridge to Terabithia to us. The character of Leslie Burke finished the image of this partner I was imagining for myself.
Then I met a girl in school. She had short hair, like Leslie Burke, and maybe that was all it took for me to graft this persistent fantasy of mine onto her, and to convince myself that she was the person I sought. And when you overlay a fantasy onto a person, everything they do corroborates to whatever it is you are, fruitlessly, hoping they are.
Stupid and dogged with hunger for my created ideal, I tried to make friends with her, orchestrating ways to spend time with her and proceed, slowly it felt like (even though it was probably only a month’s worth of work), through the outer rings of social intimacy and into friendship.
One time she invited me to her house. This was when my parents were still living together, although the divorce was already in progress. We lived in a big house in Aurora, in a neighborhood called Woodview Estates. Woodview was one of the newer developments, full of big boxy houses that gestured in the direction of architectural style without actually embodying it, and were emblematic of what Aurora wanted, desperately, to become. My friend lived close by, in one of the older developments, full of small ranch-style houses nestled up against one another, that Aurora had to build its newer dreams like Woodview around.
Her house smelled like smoke, and stalely, because both her parents smoked inside of it. Her mom had short hair like she did, and a similarly toothy smile; and her dad was lounging in work jeans, and he had a gray-black mustache and a gray stubbled chin and cheeks. Her brother was a fat kid, like I was, and had the apple cheeks and high-pitched voice that lots of fat boys have.
Immediately, I slid comfortably enough into a standard social register around them all; but underneath I was disappointed. It had nothing to do with my surroundings: there was nothing wrong or gross or depressing about where she lived, and everyone was kind and welcoming and warm. I was disappointed because I recognized the permanent disparity between this living person and any raw fantasy from my skull – between it and any other being, in fact. There was a final otherness in everyone that separated them from everyone else, and the hopeless ideals were no ways to come to a reckoning with this enduring divide.
By high school we had drifted apart as friends. That’s when I met you, and you consumed my attention. But years later, when I was in college, in one of those unfollowable, sequences of events that bring a random person back from your past for a strange cameo role, I ended up going on a single date with this friend. I was back in Aurora for the weekend, and we went to the same movie theater we would’ve gone to if we had dated in middle or high school, the same theater that is open today (or was before the pandemic, anyway), with its galaxy-themed carpet and wall hangings, and the satisfying white flatness to its lobby lights, and gigantic parking lot anticipating crowds of a size it never achieves. She laid her head (still with short hair) on my shoulder during the movie, and we laced our fingers together.