All of us play characters. Some are truer than others.
When’s the last time you threw on an outfit you’d never wear in regular life, looked into the mirror, and tried out some phrases…
“You talkin’ to me?”
…just to see how those words sound coming out of your mouth?
We all played this game when we were kids. Not just standing in front of the mirror and trying on clothes— no, I mean something much bigger than that. I mean trying on characters.
When I was a kid, every household chore was a journey into a different life. Pulling weeds from the lawn, I became a frontier settler, trying to coax crops from the hard soil. Slogging through my math homework, I was a tormented mathematician proving an uncrackable theorem.
Maybe you told yourself these kinds of stories, too. But unlike a lot of kids, I never stopped. All through high school and college and the career grind of my twenties, I was a dozen different people on any given day.
Those people — those lenses on the world — usually stayed inside my mind. But sometimes, when a certain role got too compelling to contain, it’d make a public appearance.
In my sophomore year of college, for example, I saw The Godfather and decided Don Corleone was the coolest person ever. I took to strolling around campus with a black coat draped over my shoulders, scratching absentmindedly at my cheek, nodding thoughtfully in conversations, whispering orders no one would or could carry out. “Tonight he sleeps with the fishes.”
That hurts to remember. Ouch. Physically.
But here’s something interesting: A few of my friends played along in earnest all semester, whispering council in my ear and calling me “Don.” There we were, a crew of skinny 19-year-old film nerds strutting around school like Sicilians, feeling untouchable. I think those roles gave us something we’d been looking for.
I dropped the Corleone act when the semester ended, and didn’t let any other characters out for a long time — except for one: the serious adult. I figured out exactly how that character should dress and move and speak, and I got into the role pretty deeply. Degree, apartment, car, steady job, bills, contributions in meetings.
And then… into that world fell a girl.
She aspired to be a mad artist. I wanted all of her. She wanted to tell me everything. We got into some very strange conversations very quickly.
One night we lay on the bed and she told me she wasn’t from this world at all. She’d been cast out of somewhere so beautiful it hurt to remember. I’d always had a vague sense of the same thing, and I told her so. She asked what I remembered about the other world. I told her about the cathedrals whose tops pierced the clouds. She told me about the gardens where flowers bloomed from marble columns. She asked if I remembered anyone I’d known in the other world, and I told her about a girl I’d loved, and then, in a flash, we recognized each other. We remembered everything. We cried and held each other close until sunlight came through the window.
In those frantic sleepless days and nights, our bodies seemed to hum. We told each other all our secrets, memories of this world and the world we’d fallen from, all twined together on the bed. We knew we were imagining some of the stories, but we lost track of which those were. We told all the stories as we remembered them, because they were all true. We belonged to that world we wove together.
Then I went back to my serious job, and she a got a serious job of her own, and we shared secret smiles now and then because we knew something no one else did. We got tired of the lost-world game eventually, so we tried new characters — bohemian artists; European nobility; cryptozoologists. Sailor and mermaid. Professor and student. Warrior and captive. So many characters, so much truer than the ones we played in public.
And all those worlds, all to ourselves.
One day at the lake I wanted us to be Homo habilis learning to make stone tools; she wanted us to be seventeeth-century explorers; we argued. We were arguing about a lot of things lately. I wanted to live in a cabin and grow crops; she wanted to be worshipped in nightclubs. I was a Sumerian scribe; she was a senator’s wife. All these worlds, and not a single one we both wanted to live in. I started sleeping on the couch, then at my own place. We were telling different stories. We were seeing other people.
All this was years ago. It feels like longer. We’ve been so many characters since then, in so many different worlds. Sometimes I wonder if she ever thinks of our cloud-and-cathedral home.
Maybe we could’ve made it work if we hadn’t felt the need to become all these characters; to fly off into all these worlds. Maybe the same goes for my childhood chores; maybe I didn’t need to play a genius mathematician just to do my best on my homework. Maybe I could’ve learned self-confidence without playing the Godfather.
But what fun would that have been?
All these characters are part of me now. I’m still a frontier settler when I plant my tomatoes. I’m still a bohemian artist and a European noble and a very serious business person when I need to be. I’m not any of these people. Every one of them is me.
Call it fantasy or role-play or whatever you want; all I know is that I’ve reminisced about marble gardens in the sky with a girl who remembered the very same world, and we cried together for our lost paradise, and we didn’t ask if it was real or not because we knew it was true — which is different, but just as important.
Sometimes we have to become someone else to learn who we really are.