Image: Denisen Family via Flickr
Is pretend fake? I thought so, but now I’m not so sure. It depends, I think, on whether you believe that what lives inside our heads is fake. Lots of people do; that’s part of why some people don’t think of things like depression as Real illnesses. “It’s just in your head,” we’re told, of stress-related illness. Just. That’s it. Only in the most complex, least understood part of you.
In college, I had a painful rash across my face for nearly a year. I went to private doctors and research hospitals, desperate to be rid of it. No one could diagnose its cause, so many of them decided it wasn’t Real, despite it being undeniably there, on my face. “It’s just in your head.”
Then I found a beautiful dermatologist on the North Side of Chicago, who handed me a small tube of cream and told me, “Why would it mean any less if the cause is in your head? Your head is part of your body.” I used the tiny tube of cream from the beautiful woman who did not dismiss what she could not immediately understand and the rash disappeared.
The rash was not pretend—my roommates who watched the pain with which I washed my face that year can attest to that. But when I set out to write about my relationship to pretend over the course of my life, I realized that maybe I was wrong to think pretend synonymous with Fake, just because it lives in our heads. Maybe pretend belongs in a different category, somewhere more tangential to Real than to Fake. Somewhere between, say, a human-made lake and an oasis that turns out to be a mirage, or even a hallucination.
I don’t know when I first learned about pretend. I’m told when I was very little, I had a pretend-friend named Koopi Kappa with whom I spoke a made-up language that sounded to my mother like various iterations of his name. It’s possible I learned that from my father, who also had an imaginary friend, a mischievous troublemaker named Torkoum. I think I recall Koopi Kappa being kind, a confidante, and not appreciating Torkoum’s attempts at belligerent friendship—but I was so young, it’s possible I concocted that memory from stories my father told me. It’s possible my sense that Koopi Kappa and I were our own team, my feeling that my dad and Torkoum could take their Three Stooges act elsewhere, was made up after the fact.
I know I played House with my cherubic preschool boyfriend Peter Cohen, because there are photos of us doing so. I’m told I had a variety show I performed for my parents and their friends, which mostly consisted of lengthy pre-show lectures about smoking and threats to have a bouncer eject my father—but I don’t think I have Real memories of this, memories formed from experience. I will try to stick, here, to memories I could not have formed after the fact. Memories of pretend that are Real insofar as they were formed in the moment, rather than from photos and stories later.
As an eldest sibling, I took my responsibility to teach my little brother about pretend seriously, and he in turn took seriously his responsibility to engage. While with adults he was skeptical and literal, he never questioned the backseat car-games I made up for him, back in the days when parents were less concerned with seatbelt-wearing so long as the kids were quiet. We could kneel, peering out the rear window, and I would tell him elaborate stories of how we were child spies on a mission. “See that car? They’re with the enemy. Duck!”
My brother was such an agreeable collaborator in games of pretend, it was a shock when I first encountered a kid who wasn’t. Out at my grandparents’ house in Long Island, I showed my friend Jessica the trees around our back deck and told her about a family of red robins I had befriended. We set to creating a picnic of acorns and bits of twigs and bark on blankets of leaves, and I told Jessica all about the family of birds—the mother, the father, the baby, their personalities and likes and dislikes. Jessica kept asking me, “Is this real? Are you really friends with the birds? Can you really talk to them? Will they really come?” I said yes over and over, because how could I not? It would ruin the pretend.
But then the yeses started to weigh on me. Jessica was getting impatient. Where were my bird friends? Couldn’t I call them, if we were such good friends? I was in over my head, all of a sudden. I felt a rising nausea, my insides roiling with guilt, dread, panic. I excused myself and went to find my mother.
As soon as I saw her, I burst into tears. I confessed that I had lied. I told Jessica I could speak to birds and now she wanted to see the birds and I told her I could make them come, but I can’t. My mother looked at me like I was a strange creature she was seeing for the first time. “That’s not a lie, Danielle. You were playing pretend.”
I tried to explain that I knew that, but Jessica didn’t, and Jessica kept asking me if it was pretend and I kept saying it wasn’t because to say it was would ruin the pretend. “I lied,” I sniffled pitifully. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m so sorry I lied.”
My mother led me back outside and explained to Jessica that we’d been playing pretend, that of course I couldn’t speak to birds, but it was a fun game, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it a good story?
Jessica looked at us both like we were a pair of war criminals, shouted that I had lied, and burst into tears. She demanded her mother be summoned and my mother complied, going inside to retrieve the cordless phone and, I imagine, wonder at the oddity of little girls.
The Jessica incident might have been the end of my love of pretend, if not for my best-friend-since-birth, Hank. Hank and I played pretend far longer than was age-appropriate, but we didn’t care. We were still playing Power Rangers when we were nine, which I remember knowing at the time was far too old. We would never tell our school friends about it, but we were summer best friends—I spent summers with my grandparents in Long Island, and his parents had a second home nearby. As long as it was just us, we could do whatever we wanted, unabashed. One of the only times I remember us ever disagreeing was when he tried to insist I had to be the pink Power Ranger because I was a girl. I hated the color pink. Under no circumstances was I going to play by some silly rules that said girls had to be pink. The whole point of pretend was there were no rules!
Other than that, we only ever fought once, when we saw the movie My Girl and he cried and I didn’t. I was the crybaby; he was usually stoic. He could watch scary movies; I had to hide in a different room with a book or call my mom to be taken home. So when I was unmoved by My Girl, it was a point of pride. I was so confused by his embarrassed anger at me, I laughed in surprise. For years, I laughed while retelling the My Girl story, not fully noticing that he never quite laughed as hard as he usually did. For someone with such an active imagination, that lack of empathy is appalling, even if I was young. Hank died a few years ago and occasionally I wake up at night still angry at my child-self for not understanding how much it would hurt him that I didn’t cry at a movie where a girl lost her boy best friend.
His mother Cathy was a full-time mom, so she was my summer mom, especially during the week while my own parents were in the city working. Cathy was a master of pretend. For an adult to be so good at pretend was enthralling. Some days she would drive over to my grandparents’ house, knock on the door, and when I answered in my bathing suit, she would say, “Where’s your party dress? Did you forget it’s Kids’ Day, you silly goose?” It was Kids’ Day whenever she decided it was; we never knew it was coming, which was part of the fun. Every Kids’ Day was different, too; the activities were whatever Cathy felt like doing that day.
Maybe that’s why Hank was so good at pretend for so long. We were freaks, him and me, for being friends at ages when boys and girls were not supposed to be so close. I wonder now if that unconventional closeness was related, somehow—enabled, maybe?—by our love of pretend, our limitless imaginations. Maybe it was our deftness with pretend that gave us the imagination to see past expectation, to defy convention, to not care that according to social regulations, we were not meant to be best friends.
On Thursday nights, Cathy took us into town, to these outdoor concerts on a big lawn around a gazebo. She would set up a chair on the lawn around the gazebo with the other grownups and command us to go play. “Scram,” she’d say, in her charming, indelicate way, if we lingered or clung to her legs. Sometimes she would make friends with adults near her, sometimes she would just sit and relax. Thinking about those concert nights now, I wonder if they were for her as much as for us—a few hours when she got to be a grownup woman, alone with her thoughts. I can’t know for sure, because I can’t ask her. She died suddenly when we were 10.
But as far as I knew at the time, those Thursday nights were for us, just one more thing Cathy did to create fun in our kid lives. The lawn was encircled by huge trees that looked lush from the outside, but inside the branches were spindly and bare, making them like giant tents in which the kids could gather. We would go inside the trees with all the other kids, but as it got dark, we would run from tree to tree, sometimes ending up on the loading dock of a store nearby, breathless. We were running from the other kids, who hated us.
Or did they? I don’t remember. It’s possible that was pretend, too. We were outcasts at summer camp, because of our gender-bridging closeness. But maybe it was just a giant game of tag, and in our love of pretend, Hank and I created more depth to it than there really was. I asked my mom, but she doesn’t know. I expect that we didn’t matter as much to the other kids as we did to one another, that our importance was something inflated between us. But I can’t know for sure. That’s the problem with some of my memories of summers with Hank and Cathy, the problem of being the only living keeper of memories. They’re gone now, it’s just me, and sometimes I can’t help but feel like I failed them by not remembering well enough. I know the reality is that I’m the only one who is let down, the one left behind, but it is too lonely to really think that. The guilt of being a bad rememberer carries with it their company. It helps to pretend it matters to them, too. I’d rather feel bad than be without them.
Fears are an interesting thing, especially so-called irrational ones. Fears that live in one’s head, you know? Those fears, I think, are pretend run amok. The pretender is no longer in control of the game of the pretend; her imagination has turned against her.
The first time I remember my imagination turning against me was when I was five, after my little brother Nat was born. I brought a photo of him to my kindergarten class and the teacher put it above the chalkboard. When she started that day’s lesson, I couldn’t stop staring at the sleeping face of my new baby brother, and suddenly a dark and terrible realization flooded me. I did not know where my brother was at that moment, and something could happen to him and I would not know and I would not be able to stop it. My usually fun imagination ran wild, my mind turned into a dark and terrible place. My throat still closes up when I remember this. My head still involuntarily shakes, as if to loosen the dark thought, to get it out.
I started crying, panicked, and my kindergarten teacher calmly directed me to the pillow corner and continued the lesson. I was a known crier; I made my first friend, Sophia, because she and I both cried every morning before our mothers tore themselves from our clinging arms and left us. Our second friend was a sweet girl named Ralston, somehow motherly at all of five years old. Ralston asked the teacher’s permission to join me in the pillow corner and came over to pat my back as I continued to cry. I could not tell her why I was crying. When I eventually was sent to the principal’s office, I could not tell any of the grownups there either. When they called my mother, I still couldn’t tell her, could only ask desperately if my baby brother was okay, if she was sure, when was the last time she checked? Somehow I had decided that if I said my fears aloud they would come true. I don’t know how this idea occurred to me, though I remember an adult once scolding me when I angrily said I wanted something bad to happen to someone mean: “Don’t send those thoughts out into the universe.” It was, in hindsight, formidable strength for a child to assign her own voice: the ability to call reality into being.
For the rest of my childhood and even into my adulthood, I was haunted by fears I could not bring myself to name, fears that lived in my head. Sometimes I would try writing them down in secret, but even that seemed too dangerous. As adults, we call these “anxieties,” and there are medications we can take to make them feel less sticky in our brains, to help with that effort to shake them free. But as a kid, they felt so much bigger than that word conveys. When I would be overcome by them, my mother would advise me, “Mind over matter.” For a long time, I didn’t know how to explain to her that my mind was the matter.
There are fewer opportunities for pretend for adults, at least for those of us who are not sociopaths, pathological liars, con artists, grifters, professional actors or fiction writers. Pretend for adults is generally restricted to responses to three-word phrases: how are you and are you okay and I love you.
Opting to engage in pretend in our responses to those phrases can be motivated by a desire to avoid awkwardness for ourselves or discomfort for others, or a specific sort of hopefulness, maybe a relative to that fear that kept me from speaking my anxieties aloud as a child. A hope that if we say we’re okay, if we say we feel love in return, maybe it will become true. Unfortunately, saying you love someone to avoid causing them discomfort in the moment only postpones and sometimes seems to deepen inevitable discomfort, and saying you love someone in the hope that it might one day be true similarly seems to rarely result in anything other than hurt. Perhaps this should be evidentiary balm against my fear of speaking ghosts aloud: It seems rare that talking truly calls something into existence.
New York City, my hometown, is a place indulgent of pretend. You can be anyone you want to be in New York City! People say that, I think. We pretend it’s true, even though the real truth is that New York City is very expensive, which makes it hard to be anything at all, let alone someone you want to be. To live here, we have to pretend it’s not so hard. We pretend the train is going to arrive on time, that our commute will not be a nightmare. We pretend to be surprised when it is, to justify our outrage. A lot of pretend takes place on the subway. We pretend someone with a sad story is not asking us for money. We pretend a mariachi band is not performing six inches from our face at 7 a.m. We pretend it isn’t Showtime. We pretend not to see the pregnant woman standing while we sit comfortably scrolling through our phone. We pretend the man talking to himself has company.
Sometimes the pretend isn’t so nice, it’s true. But sometimes, it’s borne of a generosity of spirit that I think is essential to New Yorkers, that we have because we live like sardines, crushed up against each other so much of the time. We travel everywhere in public instead of sealed away in our cars like the beautiful people of Los Angeles. We spend so much time in public: Sometimes, it’s unavoidable, we have to have emotions in public.
Unlike a lot of native New Yorkers, I don’t really think New York is the best city in the world—except when it comes to having emotions in public. Specifically crying in public. Here is the thing: Sometimes we can’t pretend anymore. Sometimes, everything in our brains is too sticky or someone said something cruel or wasn’t who we needed them to be or some great disappointments happened all back to back. like a long line of dominos collapsing against each other. It all becomes too much and it is a human thing that when it all becomes too much we sometimes have to secrete stinging, salty water from our eyes, sometimes noisily, sometimes accompanied by snot from our noses.
In these moments, New Yorkers are so good at pretend and it is a crucial gift. They look away. They pretend you are not noisily sobbing on a crowded platform at Times Square or in the train car for 17 consecutive stops. Sometimes they ask, Are you okay? Through your sobs, you lie, yes, or nod vigorously, and instead of calling you out for being a bold-faced liar, they nod along, they pretend along. They rally beside you in your act of hopeful pretend: you will be okay, it will become true, one day. And in the meantime, you are not crying on the train, you are fine, you are a-okay.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.