The boy I used to be: The world would look at me and see Leslie -- they don't know I'm really Peter Pan

By the time I was older, Peter was no longer my pretend self, my brash, heroic alter ego; he’d become a part of me

Published June 27, 2015 11:29PM (EDT)

Peter Pan    (Walt Disney Pictures)
Peter Pan (Walt Disney Pictures)

When we started dating, my boyfriend and I had already known each other for seven years. As friends we’d traveled to family Thanksgiving dinners, gotten drunk in seedy bars, crashed on each other’s couches, exchanged an untold number of books. We didn’t see each other very often (we lived 2,000 miles apart), but when we did, the world seemed to fall quickly into place. When we began a relationship (both nervous, surprised), we didn’t have many secrets left to divulge. We already knew each other so well. We had talked about the friends that we missed, our great regrets and broken hearts, our abiding love for our families.

And yet I still couldn’t bring myself to tell him about Peter.

I didn’t want to tell him that Peter had come into my life at a formative age and forever changed its direction. I didn’t want to tell him how resilient Peter was, how fair-minded and brave. How he followed his own heart and didn’t care what others thought of him. How he was sensitive and elusive, and could sometimes disappear; and how, when he returned, I felt unbreakable, complete.

Most of all, I didn’t want to tell him that Peter was me.

It began quite simply, with my love for Peter Pan. My grandfather took me to see the play when I was 2 years old. It’s my earliest memory – sitting in a plush seat, in patent leather shoes and a ruffled blue dress, transfixed. For the next few years I checked the book out of the library every chance I got – it was an old edition with red binding, split at the spine and missing its jacket. Barrie must have been stamped on it somewhere, but all I remember is the golden boy embossed on the cover. Before I was even old enough to read, that’s how I knew it was my book. It became not just my favorite story, but a way in which I began to experience the world around me. Early on, still playing with language, I started calling everything green Peter – my broccoli, my rain slicker, the pegs in my preschool’s cobbler bench. Then, a little later, it became a term of endearment for everything I loved: our sulky old Akita, my little sister with her moon-face and bowl-cut. I’d climb our orange tree and practice flying from its branches. I carried a toy dagger like Peter’s, which I’d found in a shop on Olvera Street. (The plastic blade would disappear into the hilt whenever pressure was applied; eventually it got stuck in there altogether, but I still carried it around in case I met up with a codfish.) My parents read me the book first, and then I read it myself, memorizing favorite sentences: When he saw she was a grown-up, he gnashed the little pearls at her! But then the infatuation became something else. I fell under the spell of the Artful Dodger, Elliott from E.T., Perseus (or at least Harry Hamlin in "Clash of the Titans"). I began to identify with something in all of them. I began to see myself – or a part of myself – not as a performer any longer, but as an adventurer. As a boy.

Outside of home this could be confusing. Occasionally at summer camp or on vacation, other kids would ask, Are you a boy or a girl? This always startled me. It wasn’t that I was humiliated at not being recognized – although that could rankle me at times – it was the dread that I had to choose. I’d never thought of myself as someone suspect or strange or ambiguous. But over the years I began to understand that what had once made me strong now made me vulnerable. Four or 5 years old, I tried to join a boys’ game at the public pool – you’re just a stupid girl! a boy screamed and shoved me against the wall, cracking my head on the cement. Another boy lifted up my jumper as I bent over a water fountain, checking to see if I had a wiener. Camping in the desert, 4 years old, I peed standing up and a family friend screamed, disgusted: Don’t do that, Leslie. You’re not a boy! Terrible fights in the dressing room with my mother – how I bawled openly, in some kind of fitful panic, at the thought of getting dressed up. When we had to draw self-portraits in kindergarten, I would draw myself as another creature: a mermaid, a bee. A boy in green. Only to be sent back to my desk and told that I was wrong; I had not drawn myself as I really was.

“They don’t know,” I’d say righteously under my breath, every time I was shaken by others’ scorn or fury, “that I’m really Peter.” And it became a secret, a kind of game. The world – poor, foolish people! – would look at me and see Leslie, a freckled, urchiny girl, sitting in a fruit tree with a pair of paper binoculars and scanning the California sky. But I had another power entirely. I was someone else, just living in disguise. And it was only a matter of time before I would be revealed, before I would lift off the ground in front of them all, then turn a somersault in the air and fly away.

I grew into a daydreamy kid, a bit of a ham, prone to musical interludes and baroque slapstick routines, reading books about séances, invertebrates, the Loch Ness Monster. I spent hours writing plays in my little room in Pasadena, looking out at the wild parrots in the spruce tree, talking aloud to an 8 x 10 glossy of Bela Lugosi, my first crush. When I was older, a self-conscious teenager, the memory of those Peter years nettled me. My sheer obsessiveness, my happiness at being alone with my wandering, over-hot mind, the way I had announced my new name and strutted around in green sweat-shorts with sprightly immodesty – it all made me cringe. I wondered if it was an early indication of something wayward – after all, at 16 I still wore my hair in a pixie cut; I dressed a little boyishly in band T-shirts and corduroy pants. I was far more interested in dissecting episodes of "The X-Files" with my friends than in going on dates or reading fashion magazines. My best friend and I gave each other pet names – men’s names. We fancied ourselves bon vivants in the order of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. Around this time my mother asked me if I was gay. I answered plainly that I was not – though I hadn’t given much thought to sexuality at all; I was too preoccupied with everything else in my life: school, theater, learning the guitar. But I understood why she’d asked. There was something … well, different about me. (But what? Not soft enough, feminine enough? Too glowery? Not enough of a joiner, a pleaser? An avoider of makeup, skirts, pep squads? Not a good Wendy?) I sensed – despite my mother’s good intentions – that I had done something wrong. I had not succeeded at being a woman (or at least the right kind of woman, someone easy to identify and feel safe with). It was another reminder that I had to choose: There were categories in life, and if I was a little different, a little queer, I’d have to explain why. But no classification felt right to me: masculine or feminine, gay or straight. I only felt like myself.

The best I can say is that I felt doubled: by the time I was older, Peter was no longer my pretend self, my brash, heroic alter ego; he’d become a part of me. Only I didn’t know what to do with him.

I took refuge on the stage. I went to a girls’ school, where we were expected to play the men’s roles in theater productions – and I did so with relish.  Onstage I didn’t need to slump my shoulders or lower my eyes. My gait was confident; my face upturned. I got to wear suits! And I could express all of the shadowy, complicated, bizarre parts of myself that I might otherwise have hidden away. I loved playing men who hovered on the same luminous threshold as I did: who were wounded but passionate, tough but still elegant, men who were sometimes too sensitive for the world they were expected to live in. This was how I felt best: doubled, under hot lights, for no one to question and everyone to see.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that, when I had seen the play as a child, Peter Pan had been played by a young, pixieish blond girl – just like me.

I met my boyfriend, a librarian, at a party in Chicago that I had every intention of skipping. That night I arrived in my usual getup – jeans, blazer, a worsted sweater. We were briefly introduced but didn’t talk much – just a clumsy exchange about books. He was handsome but terribly aloof; I felt about as charming and kittenish as Mama Fratelli. We moved on to other conversations, then other relationships, but over the years we became friends. Because we thought there was no prospect of romance between us, we didn’t try to seduce each other. I didn’t have to worry about being arch or mysterious or sexy; I babbled freely about my love of pulpy paperbacks, cheap rosé, Newsies. My attachment to him was familial and deep. I thought I could just be myself.

But sometimes that self was troubled. There were periods in my life – confused or rejected, deeply depressed – I tried to make myself as ugly and sexless as possible. Bad clothes, plain hair, a body growing sick from lack of appetite and sleep. A body no one would look at or want. A body that would eventually just disappear. My thoughts became dark and inward; I pulled away from friends. Alone, I went to the theater; I read into the night. I tried to find my way back to something I’d lost.

Being Peter had made me feel safe and strong as a little kid, despite everything around me. I missed that feeling of invincibility – the grandiose, head-spinning thrill of falling from the tree. For Peter, I understood now, had always been more than just the boy half – he was the wild creature, the free one, the renegade. The soul.

But I was scared to explain any of this to the man I now loved. I’d been hurt before. I’d confided in others, only to have my innermost sentiments  – the mad bloom of those Peter years – brought up later as a crass punch line, a joke. I worried that, for all of his kindness, my closest friend would turn away if I told him the truth.

Instead he sent me a gift. It arrived at the doorstep of my home in Los Angeles. I took it upstairs, unwrapped it. It was an old red book with a golden boy on the cover.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and see a flicker of something I used to know. A wry smile, a cheekiness, a little gnash of the teeth. Peter, I wonder, are you still there? I watch for him; I wait. There, just now – that’s you, isn’t it? The briefest of winks; the proud tremble of the chin? Or is that just me? I don’t know that I can tell the difference anymore. Maybe, after all, there’s no a difference to tell. It was that he and his shadow, when brought near each other, would join like drops of water.

I grew up, in the end. Happy. And I hope, wherever he is now, Peter did too.

By Leslie Parry

Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received an O. Henry Award, a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in "The Best American Short Stories 2013." Raised in Pasadena, California, she now lives in Chicago. Her novel "Church of Marvels" was recently published by Ecco.

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