I’m waiting for the walls in my apartment to vanish, for my work clothes to turn into bedsheets, for my mother to call me in for supper. I’m waiting for the sandbox to reappear. I’m waiting to tell my mom what an enchanting world I’ve discovered.
I’ll regale her with stories of grand palaces where hundreds of people dance in rainbows of flickering lights to music loud enough to get you in trouble. She will remind me that turning the lights on and off too fast will burn them out faster, and that loud music will hurt my ears. I’ll argue with her that these lights are different—they do it by themselves—and that the music is supposed to be that loud. Duh.
There will be tales of magic medicine that makes you happy when you are sad, of places where strangers share bedrooms, of movies that show what strangers do in those bedrooms.
“The birthday parties are bigger there, Mom,” I’ll suggest kindly. “But no one ever has birthday cake. They like sparkly water instead.”
They all think they’re too fat. They don’t clean up their messes when they make them. They go to bed too late. They yell a lot when they don’t get their way. They cry. They all have secrets.
I’ll be sure to tell her about the bullies I ran into. The ones who break promises they make. The ones who like to see you cry. If only they were real, she’d go take care of them.
They look like grown-ups, but they can’t be. They look like me….
It’s a game I’ve gotten pretty good at playing. It’s a lot of playing teacher’s pet, and lots of keeping the monsters at bay. It doesn’t always feel like a game, though. Most of the time is spent doing things you do in real life, like eating vegetables and brushing your teeth.
Of course, I won’t tell Mom about everything that happened. Best to keep some things a secret—I wasn’t exactly always nice, and she’d be disappointed to hear that her character dies pretty early on.
While we all wait to hear our names for supper, we just go on pretending. It must be pretend, right? Some of the things we do can only exist in imagination. No way would our moms let them happen in real life.
So, I’m waiting for this moment to share all these things with my mom when it strikes me that she wasn’t there to protect me like she usually is. I don’t get a Band-Aid for my scrapes and bruises anymore. I never saw her after…. But the characters always come back, right? It’s like a cartoon. No one really dies.
It sinks in that maybe this isn’t pretend anymore. Somehow, somewhere along the way, we stopped pretending. All the things we got in trouble for as a kid multiply by a thousand, and slap us all in the face.
Our parents had something after all when they punished us for misbehavior. They saw what would come of it. They lived it.
Maybe, then, all that pretending wasn’t really about playing at all. It was about toughening us up.
On the playground, we learn to deal with bullies in a controlled environment. The teachers are there as guardrails until we suffice on our own. The friends we make there shape us into the men and women we one day will become. Any education is consequential.
Then, one day—quite suddenly—we return to the playground to find that the lines in the sand have grown into walls, that the jungle gym houses two cars, that the climber is the setting for memories to be made and lessons to be passed to our own.
Yes, the game is over. The training wheels are off. The birthday cakes are fattening. The bullies are bigger and badder. And if you want a Band-Aid, go get one your damn self.
Don’t count the pretending out, though—it’s still in full force. We funnel it now into innovation that defies imagination. Remember when it was called the Information Superhighway? Oh, and what the hell did we do without cell phones, Facebook, apps, iPads, 3D TV, or…? Well, you get the picture.
The need to go on pretending follows us into Botox treatments and tanning booths. It rides alongside us in our over-the-top cars and can’t-afford-it lifestyles. It’s in the pockets of our suit jackets when we give presentations and speeches.
Pretending keeps us silly. It gives us hope. It gives us…us.
We’re still in the sandbox. We’re still learning how to share and how to play nice.
We never really grow up. We just get better at pretending.