Lately, my mind has been on my mind a lot. Do you know what I mean? Like I can’t stop thinking about the way I’m thinking, and I’m worried that all of the thinking I’m thinking about might drive me to the point where I’m not able to properly think anymore. Does that make sense? I think it does.
I need to break up with my imaginary friend. It’s harder than that might seem.
I don’t even remember “meeting” Olly for the first time. He’s just always been there sitting next to me on the couch, or critiquing my sandcastle architecture at the beach, or gratefully eating the piece of imaginary cake I made my mother leave out for him at every one of my childhood birthday celebrations. My parents thought Olly was adorable—a little figment that I’d come up with to help me navigate life and express myself. They’d ask me about him every day: How is Olly this afternoon? Does Olly want some lemonade? Is Olly excited about going to Grandma’s this weekend?
Olly just made faces at me while I made up stories to please them—and tease him: He is feeling great! He does NOT want any lemonade, thank you! He is very excited about Grandma’s house, because she has crystal doorknobs on the bathroom doors, and he finds that very glamorous.
In reality, Olly never showed excitement about much. He was just there, hanging out. He seemed to enjoy the impossible process of existing more than anything else. Sometimes he’d cheer me up by walking through walls or changing his hair color mid-conversation, brown to green to purple to blue and back to brown again. But it was up to me to present him to the outside world, and though the two of us could talk for hours and hours, he never had much to say to anyone but me.
My parents stopped asking me about Olly once I started elementary school. Whenever I brought him up, they immediately started asking me about my school friends, as if to emphasize that my “real” friends were more important than the one they couldn’t see. I started to understand that imaginary friends were a phase—my “real” friends laughed about theirs, embarrassed that they’d ever let themselves get so carried away:
I used to pretend I had an invisible friend named Muffin Febreze.
I used to pretend a lion named Albert protected me from the monsters under my bed.
I used to pretend I had a friend named Caroline who used to steal all of the cookies during our tea parties.
That was the common link between all of them: I used to pretend, I used to pretend, I used to pretend. I listened to their stories, fascinated, wondering how they moved from active to passive. Olly listened too as he sat beside me, wide-eyed and smelling like gingerbread, soaking in the tales of the imaginary kids who didn’t last.
“Where do you think they all went?” he once asked me, and all I could say was “away,” as if that were a vacation destination and not a deep dark place that nobody returns from.
I’ve noticed that people don’t like talking about imaginary beings unless they can be sure that you’re not being serious—that you recognize the split between fantasy and reality. When you’re four, it’s adorable to have an imaginary friend. But when you’re 15, it’s a little creepy, I guess.
By age 10, I had stopped telling people that I still saw Olly, and I don’t now, either. They’d think I was crazy, and, to be honest, I have enough to deal with right now. I mean, I have to write a 10-page essay on the psychological aspects of Hamlet this week and I don’t have time to, you know, terrify everyone by casually mentioning to my parents over dinner that, Hey! My childhood imaginary friend never went away, no big deal, pass the chicken please!
A few weeks ago, I told Olly that I thought there might be something wrong with us. With me, really.
“Like, I think I might be crazy,” I told him. “But not necessarily the bad kind of crazy?”
“I don’t think ‘the bad kind of crazy’ is a thing,” he said.
“Most people don’t think you’re a thing, though, in fairness.”
“But you do,” he said.
“That’s kind of the problem, kid.”
And then Olly said what he always says, what he’s said since he first appeared: “Remember the rules.”
When I was little, I used to ask Olly all kinds of questions about himself. Like, was he dead? Was he actually a ghost this entire time? Is that why he stuck around when everyone else’s imaginary friends disappeared? He always replied the same way: “Remember the rules.” The Rules, according to Olly, are as such:
1. I exist because you allow me to exist
2. Which means: I don’t know anything you don’t know
3. No oatmeal raisin cookies, ever.
He claims that because he comes from my imagination, I get to control everything he thinks, says, does, and essentially is. And he is always quick to point out that, up to this point, anyway, our co-existence has not hurt anyone.
“It’s not like I show up like some demon and tell you to burn down the supermarket or something,” he shrugs. “I just want to hang out.”
The problem with hanging out with Olly is that he ages at the same time I do, and somewhere around 13, I started noticing that he was absolutely beautiful. I mean, kudos to me, I guess, if indeed he did spring directly from my mind, because he’s absolutely perfect-looking, with black hair and brown eyes and the kind of smile that shifts to the side when he’s embarrassed about something. He does that smile a lot lately. When I’m embarrassed, I pretend I’m chewing gum, even if I’m not. Now that we’re both 15, there are a lot of crooked smiles and invisible pieces of gum floating around between us.
Prior to this weirdness, our relationship hadn’t changed much over the years: Olly showed up in my room while I was doing my homework, I’d give him an imaginary piece of pizza, and we’d just talk about whatever. But he started acting weird a few months ago when I kept gushing about this kid named Alex who sits in front of me in bio class and sometimes smells like evergreen trees and Gatorade, and how that’s both intoxicating and nauseating, kind of like the feeling itself.
Olly doesn’t have much to say about Alex. He doesn’t come to school with me, so that part of my life stays out of his reach. But when he does say something, it’s usually something like, “He sounds nice.” Or, “Which kind of Gatorade? Because there’s a major scent difference between flavors.” He is both encouraging and disconnected, like he wants to say the right things but doesn’t have the heart to back them up.
When I see Alex at school, I wonder what he’s like when he’s alone with someone. I wonder how his brain works and how he feels about oatmeal raisin cookies and if he ever accidentally spits when he talks, the way Olly used to when we both had braces in seventh grade. I am still living on the fumes of him telling me he “liked my brain,” last week after I read a poem about that garbage island in the ocean (title: “Waves of Waste”) during biology class.
“I like how you made the garbage island seem both scary and pretty,” he said. (That is EXACTLY what he said, I will never forget it, I could have it tattooed on my face.)
“Oh, thanks. I mean, it’s not supposed to be pretty,” I stammered, making intermittent eye contact between long stretches of staring at linoleum. “It’s a garbage island.”
And then he smiled at me and said: “I like your brain, Laurel.”
I don’t really remember what happened after that because my brain turned into a pinball machine and all of the lights and bells were going off at the same time. But it was a good day in biology class, that is for sure.
I rushed home to tell Olly about it, how Alex had talked to me, and not only that, but had said the most romantic thing in the world. But he wasn’t interested in talking much.
“I told you you shouldn’t worry so much about your brain,” he said.
“Yes, but you’re saying that because you come from my brain, right? Or do you not? Because I need to know if my brain is OK, and I think it may be? But you never give me an answer about anything so I also think maybe it isn’t. What do you think?”
“Remember the rules,” he said.
Olly has only stopped by twice this week. On the other nights, I’ve been texting with Alex, who always starts with some biology question that I’m pretty sure he knows the answer to before turning the conversation to whales or Saturn’s moons or some band he wants to ask me about. I’ve also been hanging out on my own, without either of them, and I’m coming to find that I like my brain just as much as they do.
I used to be afraid that I’d forget Olly if he ever went away for good—that certain parts of me would get locked up and I wouldn’t be able to get to my own secrets anymore. But, lately, I don’t worry about him as much, and I don’t think he worries as much about me. We allow each other to exist in our own ways. I can exist without him, and it’s not just because I like a boy that smells like a sports drink. It’s because I feel like I’m ready to exist on my own now, Alex or no Alex. I’m learning to just space out and enjoy being myself instead of having someone—imaginary or human—to help me with that.
Tonight I have to study, though, so I’m trying not to think about that stuff. Olly is visiting, but he quietly glides around my room while I finish my biology homework. My assignment is all about cells and other little floating things that make up lives that are invisible to the average eye. When I finish, I notice that he’s standing by the window, looking out at the street.
“Anything good out there?” I ask him.
I walk over and stand next to him, and together we stare out at the pavement, lit by streetlights and porch lights and a small sliver of moon. He turns to me and smiles. “I don’t know,” he says. “Just trying to see if there’s anything good out there.” I don’t have to say anything, because he knows what I’m thinking: There is, there is, there is. And then he’s gone again. ♦