As a child landlocked in Great Falls, Montana, I was fascinated with the ocean, that vast space where men with long, tangled hair once searched for islands and the promise of buried treasure. I would pull an encyclopedia off the shelf and read about conch shells, coral reefs, and Mother of Pearl. I imagined parting through the salt water in scuba gear searching for star fish, jagged coral, and the mysterious giant squid.
When I was ten, I overheard a story of two American men who were stranded on an island in the Pacific. They wrote out a note pleading for help, put it inside a Coca-Cola bottle, and let it drift out to sea for someone to find. The note contained vital information about the men’s whereabouts and so forth, and I don’t remember if anyone ever found it. One windy day after school, I decided to see if it was possible to make connections with such a message.
In black ink on several sheets of clean white paper, I scrawled a sentence requesting immediate assistance. The sentence read: “Help!! If you find this piece of paper, please return it to its proper owner.” I listed my name and phone number and marveled at the way each sheet rattled up into the wind as I let them loose across the school playground near the tractor tires and monkey bars where we boys pillaged loose change during recesses. Many of the sheets fluttered across the street toward the quiet houses around the neighborhood.
For two nights I waited near the phone, hoping strangers would call claiming they had found a piece of paper with my urgent message and wished to respond. I imagined faces: a boy my age with curly brown hair who had tried once to send a similar message but failed to get a reply; an older girl with shiny pink lips who liked to French kiss in the dark; an older couple who always wanted to adopt a boy, which saddened me.
The story of the stranded Americans is still vivid in my mind. I can picture the men stripped down from their business suits, sweating under a hot, relentless sun. I can see the glass bottle and the familiar cursive Coca-Cola lettering buoying in the nearby surf. If I focus I can smell salt and seaweed, and feel wind whip across my small ten-year-old frame. It is a scene so entirely real, as if I had been among the two men, and yet I know the details are partially fabricated, that it is a narrative I must have constructed over and over until it lodged somewhere deep in my memory.
Who am I to say how much of these things are real?
This was sometime after my father’s second marriage. My birth mother was an addict of sorts and my only real memory of her in our household is of the day she packed her purse with fat markers and bingo money, slammed the front door shut, and pulled our blue sedan out of the driveway.
When my father remarried, his new wife brought three children into my home. In all, I grew up with two brothers and three sisters. Our house swelled with noise and for a long time we were a family. Our father tended to our small yard-wounds and our mother mended our clothes.
And yet with a house so full I often felt alone, a child trapped on open land, hundreds of miles from the nearest shoreline. How difficult it is to explain that child, or to explain my childhood, how I sometimes felt so much that I wanted to escape the confines of my own body?
Once, while exchanging class photos in grade school, I asked my friend Jared if he thought we started our lives as spirits in Heaven pleading with God, saying “God, please, can we go down there and play?” I pointed down to the earth below our feet and Jared just stared at me, confused.
“And then God finally says ‘Okay, sorry, but you have to be this guy.’” I slid my photo across the table so Jared could see what I saw in myself—a boy, all freckles and teeth, sheepishly grinning at the camera.
Jared looked down at my photo and then went into a convulsive laughter. “Shit, man, that’s great,” he said, slapping my back. “‘You have to be this guy!!’ Seriously, hilarious.”
Really, I was just a boy trying to figure things out. Who was I? Why was I here? These are common questions kids ask. I obsessed about them and my obsessions turned into fantasies. I made myself dream and I believed in my dreams. In many ways I believed I knew the man I would be for a long time becoming, and I knew that to become that man I had to escape childhood. And so I often looked out towards the horizon imagining I could see the curved ends of the earth.
When we read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in sixth grade,I wished desperately to find a world without adults, to be stranded on an island, surrounded by sand and sun and that perfect oceanic blue I’d seen in so many books and movies. When I closed my eyes, I was standing barefoot in the hot sand, blowing through a giant shell, gathering my tribe who danced half naked around fires and believed, unlike Ralph and Piggy, in the beast that lurked outside our camp.
In class, I thought about exploration and time travel. I studied the world map and planned trips across continents, navigated between meridians and tropic lines, pinpointed the smallest dots of land surrounded by the swirling blue sea. I wrote poems with perfect rhymes and hid them inside my notebook, imagining someone years later would find them and print them in volumes that would eventually swell book bags and library shelves.
I used to daydream during math and grammar lessons. Once, between recess and lunch, I created a whole philosophy on the concept of sleep. I concluded when asleep in this world, our minds awaken in another where we live another life in another body. Likewise, when we’re asleep in that world, our bodies reawaken in this one. This explained, too, why we had good and bad dreams, our sleep affected by the moods of our alternate lives.
Once, I even figured out what happens to missing pairs of socks.
In the basement of our Great Falls home where my siblings and I played make believe, I remember dressing in my father’s clothes, wrestling on a tie, while my sister, Jamie, brushed through the yarn hair of one of her dolls. We would imitate our parents, fighting with one another and sending our other siblings to timeout for talking back or not eating the plastic food we prepared. Then the timeout spot would quickly transform into the peak of a dingy castle and my brothers and I would have to fight with vacuum cleaner hoses through demons and dragons in order to reach the top and save our sisters.
In that same basement, I used to listen to music and write down lyrics: Slippin’ and a-slidin’, peepin’ and a-hidin’ /Been told a long time ago-ho-ho-oh-who. Line by line, I wanted my sister, Becky, to believe I was a songwriter and, inadvertently, by stealing lines and making her believe I wrote them, I too began to believe. And so I entered into my notebook rock songs and rap lyrics—all the obscure music I knew she had never heard. Her admiration encouraged me and when I ran out of music to perform, I switched to the poems I had read in school and practiced jokes from comedians I saw on television.
I wanted to be someone else, someone other than the boy with the encyclopedia who lived vicariously through stories, who fought five siblings for attention. Because my sister was the youngest, she was great at suspending reality, and I often clung to her, especially on dreary days when the rain drummed against the house and there was nothing else to do but stare out a window at the sheets of running water and dream.
Once, I was sitting on our front porch singing Oh baby, won’t you come out tonight when two neighborhood girls came up and told me I was cute and had a nice voice.
“Where did you learn that song?” one of the girls asked.
I tilted my head to the side and threw my hand in the air pretending to be embarrassed and said, “I just finished writing it.”
The girls giggled and swooned, encouraging my confidence. I sang every song I could think of, told them I had written them all, and they each kissed me on the cheek before they left. I never broke character, and I believed sincerely at the time they took me for a rock and roll star.
Make believe involves letting go. It allows your mind the freedom to empty out its pockets, which requires more faith than discipline. Open the school doors and watch the children scatter. If you open a book, if you read about pirates and conch shells, if you are able to feel the warmth of sand, smell the salty earth, for a moment, however slight, is it not worth experiencing? Sad is the boy who scoffs at the imagination, who does not understand his mind is planted with possibilities. He has everything he needs and yet continues on his way toward adulthood where time travels more quickly and there is little, if any, to daydream about.
At some point, perhaps after my first real kiss or my father’s second divorce, long after those wind-whipped papers with my urgent message, I stopped dreaming. Not completely of course, but definitely I did not daydream at the pace I used to. In college, I learned to walk slowly and hold my shoulders high; in graduate school I learned to compose myself in front of large crowds and rehearse words before I spoke them.
After spending an entire childhood imagining who I was or who I might become, I was suddenly in my twenties, in college and married. My wife Katy and I were expecting our first child, then our second. As low-income students, we spent entire paychecks on rent and diapers and formula and barely had enough food to feed the neighborhood cat.
Once, Katy and I scraped change from under the couch cushions so we could feast on Chef Boyardee. We sat in the living room passing a spoon and a hot can between us while the television flickered over our faces. We were hungry and so the food was delicious. When I moved to clean up, Katy reached for my arm and smiled.
“Let the maid get it,” she said.
And we laughed.
These are the moments I remember most clearly when I think about my entry into adulthood. And yet in photographs, I notice something entirely different: a young man with deep concentration, preoccupied. He is staring off into space, but he is not daydreaming. He is doing something entirely different, more solemn, more life-weary than when he was a boy.
And so I find it strange that I’ve spent the first part of my life wanting to escape childhood and now as I near my thirties all I want to do is slip back.
I close my eyes and I see my son Jack in his diaper dancing around with a cookie or my daughter Gracie painting with her watercolors, making collages, and I imagine a world full of adults acting just as they do, dancing naked, mashing Oreos into their faces. I imagine college students cutting out shapes and pasting them together to form awkward looking houses and trees. I think of taking my children outside and letting loose messages scrawled on sheets of paper, watching them drift away in the wind towards the faces of people I imagined as a child, allowing myself to believe they will call to let us know they’ve been waiting to hear from us and are ready to join in our game.
I ask my children to help me build a fort, and we begin to take blankets and drape them over the living room furniture. We tuck corners into drawers and secure loose ends with heavy books until the roof is taut and they crawl inside.
I poke my head into the fort and watch the change in my children’s faces as they seem unsure of what I am doing.
“Yes, officer daddy?” Gracie says.
“Officer? I ask. “Where did you get that?”
She pushes at me with her feet and snaps a look that says it’s time for me to leave.
“I am not the officer,” I say and enter the fort.
I find a place between them, lower my voice, and in an overly serious tone say, “I am the king and this is the land of Purple-Pink.”
We all giggle and suddenly I’m back in the world of imagination, playing make believe with my children, trusting in my faith, trusting in theirs, until the walls begin to cave in, and we close our eyes and fall into blackness and dream of a world filled with nothing but what we’ve brought to it, our hands empty of anything, but holding on.
Bryan Fry received his MFA from the University of Idaho. He currently teaches for the English department and the Honors College at Washington State University and is the co-editor of the online literary journal Blood Orange Review. His work has appeared in Brevity.