Joel and I met in the blue bathtub in Mrs. Odin’s second grade classroom. Large, filled with pillows, and faintly smelling of spray paint, the tub was the space to which know-it-alls were banished. Joel and I were ushered there one afternoon, handed two copies of Stuart Little and left to our own devices.

I liked Joel. He won my heart when he giggled at my Stuart Little voices; my brand of humor was often under-appreciated by the second grade crowd.

The two of us read Stuart aloud to each other for the next week. And for the next two years, I did almost nothing without him. Joel was the archetype for a girl’s very first best friend. I introduced him to the fine art of constructing a cootie catcher; he taught me that Wartortle evolved into Blastoise. He was the city mouse to my country mouse, the Peter to my Wendy, the Arthur to my Lancelot, the Jesse to my Leslie.

ndrewOne of the most memorable phases of our friendship was the month we discovered mystery novels. Joel and I devoured Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and The Bobbsey Twins. Child detectives were our heroes. We were sure that if we just carried around a spiral notebook and said things like “Gee golly, Ned!” a mystery was sure to follow.

In the fall of our third grade year, Joel and I stood in my front yard one afternoon, raking leaves because, as we both knew, mysteries always present themselves to people with crew cuts when they’re either doing yard work or playing tennis. The day was a sticky one for early fall. Every ten minutes or so, a car rolled down the street at a little faster than a bicycle’s pace.

I watched each car closely. One car. Two car. Red car. Blue car. No-more-Dr.-Seuss-for-you car. My imagination was itchy; it felt like a mosquito bite right in the middle of my back. As I half-heartedly tapped my rake against the ground, my eyes followed a red car that was driving slowly down the street.

A little too slowly.

It was familiar.

All too familiar.

As the car began to round the corner, I got an almost completely obstructed view of the driver. There was just enough visibility for me to decide that his eyes were probably dark and sinister and he almost certainly had a moustache. I knew, in that moment, that he was the enemy.

“Joel!” I hissed out the corner of my mouth, “A sinister man in a red car just drove past. Don’t. Stop. Raking.”

Joel excitedly dropped his rake.

“Follow that car!” he shouted.

So we followed that car to the end of the street, where it escaped us due to the fact that it was a car and we were eight years old. Our next order of business was to locate our little red steno pads and write down the license plate number of every car parked within a block of my house. Our sample set was limited by the fact that we weren’t allowed to cross streets, but we covered our beat thoroughly.

We were devoted to the mystery all that week. During slow stretches without traffic, we took more notes on our surroundings and Joel interrogated me for more information on the original incident.

It must have been a Thursday or a Friday when I grew sick of the game. Joel and I rode our bikes to my house after school and he began the barrage of questions that had become routine.

“Describe the moustache.”

“Weeeellllll…”

“Ok, talk about his sinister eyes again. The sinister eyes were cool.”

“His eyes were um… sinister.”

“What else? What color moustache?”

“I don’t know.”

“What color?”

“Joel, I don’t remember if he had a moustache.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes. You said he had a moustache.”

“Well, it was hard to see, okay?! I don’t really think he was really all that suspicious. There wasn’t really any mystery, I guess.”

Silence.

“What?”

Silence. “You lied?”

“What? No I didn’t!”

This time, it wasn’t a question. “You lied.”

I had been in trouble before, countless times, but it was the first time that a friend directly accused me of anything. The word “lie” stuck to me, like syrup in my hair.

I didn’t understand. Of course I hadn’t lied, not any more than King Arthur or Peter Pan or Dr. Seuss was a lie. For me, the wall between reality and fiction was as thin as the page of a book. When the red car had driven past my house, possibility made a story truer to me than if I had known any facts.

I sometimes struggle with that difference still. I love the possibility of the things that lie beneath a story. I hate the explicit, because to me, it seems so limiting. I’d rather choose to believe in something that isn’t there than recognize something that is proven.

Ernest Hemingway had this idea that the best stories are just the tip of the iceberg; if we only read the words on the page, we aren’t reading the real story. The heart of the story, the way your eyes well up like the River Anduin when Sam refuses to leave Frodo, or the way all the hairs on your arms stand at attention when Atticus Finch walks tall out of the courtroom, all of that is somewhere beneath the surface. I’ve always believed in the rest of the iceberg; the world seems so much bigger to me than what I can see.

My heart was with Hemingway that day on the autumn pavement. Of course, Hemingway was a notorious liar. And that was something that I couldn’t stand to be. I had a hazy grip on the idea of truth; I think I actually believed in it more than most people. The thing I had failed to realize at eight years old, however, was that Peter Pan was real because childhood was real and growing up was real, not because a tiny British boy in green spandex had run away from home. I could believe in a mystery because I wanted one, but there was nothing about that car or that man or that moustache that was true. And I can continue to buy and sell lies because they’re easier to swallow, but my heart will break on the day that I believe in Facebook more than I believe in Narnia, and it will break on the day that I believe in Narnia more than I believe in what it stands for. Some of the best things in the world are more real than what’s verifiable, but I began to learn when I was eight years old that there’s nothing in the world that’s more real than what’s true.

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This is so lovely. I feel like this — “Peter Pan was real because childhood was real and growing up was real, not because a tiny British boy in green spandex had run away from home.” — is just about as good an explanation as I’ll ever need for why I think literature is so important.

    Reply
  2. Mary Margaret

    Beautiful writing (and stunning figurative language)! Unrelated, but I had the weirdest sense of deja vu while reading this.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      I remember listening to a draft of this on the bus back from the Writers’ Retreat. I was sitting right next to Bill Vande Kopple and when you finished reading, we looked at each other and nodded our heads. Well done making BVK proud.

      Reply

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