The Pointless Forest • Empty Mirror

daydream on the forest pond / credit: dedaydream on the forest pond / credit: de

It’s assuming a lot to say we were in love. We loved each other, though. We were nearly the same person if we pretended hard enough. Two girls hiding in the most wasp-riddled part of the tire park, stashing tickle grass inside the tires and calling it wheat we had to store for winter. We didn’t get stung. We didn’t scream or chase or preen or do anything but make things up and pass them back and forth, growing each story larger by touching it.

Everyone else was a video game kid when we were draping ourselves in sequin fabric remainders in the yard, in the sun, pretending to be mermaids. I met her when I was three. I was too young to understand the class difference, her father a patent lawyer and her mom forever reading in the den, The Rape of Nanking the one title I can still see in shining gold leaf on the middle shelf of the built-ins. The den was moody despite its big windows and the dining room had a two-inch-thick Persian rug under the dark table, and their formal living room scared me to death with its stillness. There was a glass cabinet with only one breakable thing in the middle of each vast shelf and I wondered how the contents were chosen. The only time we ever sat in the formal living room was when we’d spend all day playing Monopoly, because it had the biggest span of bare carpet for us to spread out on, and Monopoly required laying on your stomach with your chin in your hands and deeply serious expressions. I remember the fanned-out play money, the rainbow we counted out for each other as we bought and sold the property looping the board. I was always the thimble. But the version of the game she had changed halfway through our childhood from classic Monopoly to a dog-themed reboot, and then instead of property, we were buying and selling pets.

Nothing in my house felt as reasonable as everything at Olivia’s. There was a place for everything. She had a wide bed we both slept in anytime I stayed over with a chenille blanket and gigantic down comforter that made excellent forts and an entire wall of closet where everything had a place to return to when we were done with it. Business Relationships, stuffed animals, costumes, all neatly tucked away as each game finished.

At my house, we were forever moving the furniture to make room for more furniture we found on the side of the road. My mom pulled the car over at any sign of something promising, checking to see what was solid wood and worth salvaging. None of our dressers matched the beds. None of the beds matched each other. I remember wandering discount furniture warehouses aspirationally, never buying anything. At Liv’s house it looked like everything was bought at once, or at least from the same catalog in the same stain color, all of it rich, dark wood still slick with varnish and unmarred by constant movement.

Everything in my house felt pieced together by panic. My dad was sick all the time. We spent more time in the car driving to and from the hospital, my mother cursing the George Washington Bridge every time we crossed it, than we did in my grandmother’s house, where we lived. I shared a room with my younger sister and my baby brother. The whole attic was ours, but it felt small with its sloped ceilings and crawlspaces hemming us in.

Liv didn’t come over much, but I was at her house at least twice a week, eating chicken soup with so many saltines crumbled into it, the soup looked like porridge. I was absorbed into her family when mine was half-dissolving, my sisters shuttled off to stay over with their own best friends too. We all had safe houses to go to when some new horror came up. A place to wait out my dad’s hospitalizations. Liv’s house was mine.

We watched Clue. We watched Iron Chef, reading subtitles, twirling with blankets on our shoulders, pretending we were both The Chairman taking theatrical bites out of bell peppers. We made hot pretzels with kits from the mall pretzel stand, licking salt off our fingers. We made microwave popcorn, popping it for too long so even the most stubborn kernels would submit to us and the rest of it would burn a little like we liked. More than anything, we watched The Point, a 1971 cartoon movie scored by the Harry Nilsson album of the same name, where the main character, Oblio, is banished with his blue dog, Arrow, from the town of triangles for being the only one around with a round head.

In the interstitial narration on the album, The Point, Nilsson lays out the problem of being different in a town full of same. Being different is a disruptive spectacle. As time passed, Oblio became increasingly aware of his difference, and so did everyone else, which made life in the land of Point rather uncomfortable for him and his parents. I was a quiet child, frequently preferring books to the company of people, or adults to the company of children my own age. I often approached strangers to ask them what they thought happened when you died because I was earnestly looking for a satisfactory answer and nobody would tell me what they really thought. I was close to death all the time, wandering around the transplant ward when I visited my dad in the hospital, knowing many of the people there might never get to go home, and if they did, that they might not be there for very long. It wasn’t easy being the only pointless person in the whole land of Point. I felt so lonely, knowing everyone could see how different I felt. But Liv never mentioned our difference. I didn’t feel scrutinized. Whatever was bothering me could be banished, at least while we were together.

I was afraid of Liv’s dog, Lacey, so her mom kept her in the basement rec room when I came over. When Lacey died, they got two chocolate labs named Tino and Fudge who scared me even more, barking and jumping anytime they saw or smelled someone strange. I was strange. I got so upset every time they frenzied. My family had never had any dog. Would never have a dog. There was too much chaos then to remember a walk schedule, no fence around the yard to hold in any running.

The dogs had electric collars to keep them from running off or getting lost. There was a perimeter buried at the edge of the yard that gave them a little zap when they came too close to it, but some days Tino and Fudge didn’t seem to care where the electrified edge of the yard was and ended up free and running around the cul-de-sac, wild. Also under the grass was a sprinkler system that kept the lawn alive on a timer. In the summer, we begged Liv’s dad to override the timer and turn the sprinklers on indefinitely so we could run through the water on the huge front lawn and pretend again that we were mermaids.

∘ ∘ ∘

In the third grade, our Catholic school class got big enough to be split into two classes, and when deciding the rosters, they separated us. I’ll never be sure if it was on purpose. If the way we were attached to one another was alarming, or something requiring intervention. We were both devastated when we found out, but I stayed that way, watching Liv befriend a new girl, Ariana. Ariana had just moved to the town next to ours. When the classes merged again the following year there were three of us, together always.

The three of us took ballet classes at the same dance school. Liv and Ariana’s parents took turns driving me everywhere. Liv and Ariana had cable, so we spent our afternoons at their houses doing homework together, watching as much TV as we were allowed. We had sleepovers where we’d watch shows made for kids exactly our age about crushes and bullying and feeling unstuck to the parts of life that have labels. You are child or a teenager. The in-between has no reasonable name.

We watched Boy Meets World and imagined our own lives distilled to a long chain of small problems, each taking only half an hour to resolve. Corey and Shawn were boys, but they were us too. There was never a hard thing they didn’t negotiate together. We loved watching them figure out how to be kids when everything happening around them felt life-ruining. Except that I felt more like Topanga. Ridiculed for being strange. Liv and I had always been strange together, but suddenly Liv and Ariana were so much more normal than me in ways that felt bigger every day.

Liv and Ariana went to the mall with their moms and asked for what they wanted and got it without pushing. Liv and Ariana bought lunch at school and got hair wraps on vacation and went to Disney World and Wildwood and always always always hosted the sleepovers we had. I went to the Gap with my mom and we bought what was on the sale rack if it fit. I still have the women’s corduroy toggle coat she bought me, size medium, when I was twelve, saying I’d grow into it. When my family went on vacation, we packed the car with groceries and books and drove the whole way, no matter how long it took. We drove twelve hours to the Carolinas. We drove most of the way to the Florida Keys. We ate inventive, sad, packed lunches. My favorite was cream cheese and saltines. Nobody ever slept over my house. It was already too full of people.

There was a fourth girl who floated in and out, disrupting our triangle. Danielle. Her parents had an ugly stucco mansion and she had an ugly impulse to lash out at anyone who didn’t give her what she wanted the first time she asked for it. She took dance classes at one of those shitty strip mall competition schools that dress all the girls in matching fringed lycra from a mail-order catalog and make them do rigid cheer routine choreography peppered with pirouettes on a traveling circuit for scores. Danielle had Spice Girls platform sneakers and an in-ground pool with a waterfall and two younger brothers and more clothes than anyone I’d ever met. She was nasty to me unless she needed something—the homework, my notes, someone new to gossip to.

Ariana and Danielle were good friends because they were. I didn’t understand it at the time and no amount of hindsight explains them. It’s funny to think loyalty was ever that simple, but we had no standards then. Everything was made up. Even when, and maybe especially when, someone was mean, you loved them anyway. We lined up in the hallways every morning at school to pray and forgave when we were told to, even if it didn’t make sense. No one knew there were other options.

The three or sometimes four of us were the point of every day until we went on to high school. Danielle went to Immaculate Heart. Liv and Ariana and I all went to Holy Angels. And then it was the three of us again, in new uniforms, still a world apart from everyone.

That first year of high school pushed us all to the edges of our triangle. I tested into all the highest level classes and shuffled through the halls in a sea of strangers, knowing no one on the roster in any of my classrooms, feeling stranger than I ever had. Liv and Ariana had almost entirely matching schedules. Liv joined the bowling team. Ariana and I auditioned for choir. I was president of the chess club. We would’ve all taken the same bus in the mornings, had we all taken the bus, but I was the only one, slumped down in my seat with my ugly orange Discman, lurching past their houses. Liv’s mom had gone back to work as we aged out of needing chaperones, was a teacher at our school. I was in her honors biology class. My dad was sick again, out of work on disability or maybe working from home, getting intravenous antibiotics every day in our living room, on the verge of losing another leg or maybe dying for real this time. My grandma was church friends with my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Geelan, and Mrs. Geelan told someone in the office about my dad, so at morning prayers his name came out of the speaker on the list of people to talk to God about and from then on, everyone stared. Liv’s mom was gentle with me when I didn’t turn in labs on time or ever do my homework. She gave me extra credit assignments when I didn’t deserve them. I dissected a squid after school for one of those assignments, cutting the cartilage faux-spine out of its mantle and using it to stab the ink sac and write my name on my lab report as instructed.

Somewhere in the silly mire of too-heavy textbooks and college application extracurricular overload, I said something nasty about Danielle, who had always been nasty to me. It was spring of our first year. I don’t remember what I criticized or why it was the first of many dominos but suddenly it was summer and I was calling Liv’s house every day around lunchtime to see if she wanted to go to the town pool or the movies or the beach with my family and every day her kind, gentle mom was picking up and saying she couldn’t come to the phone. I pretended it wasn’t happening. I kept calling every day, sometimes more than once, hoping the answer would change. But in the land of caller ID and secret screen names and summer reading and you can’t afford it, I was locked out forever. Back at school in September, we barely saw each other in the halls. I was taking two math classes simultaneously and got punted into the upper classmen’s lunch hour because of my frankenschedule. Ariana was an alto in choir and I was a soprano, staring at her from across the room twice a week, knowing. She’d told Liv in the spring we’re not friends with Emily anymore and Liv listened to her.

∘ ∘ ∘

The Point is important because Oblio and Arrow go through everything together. When Oblio is banished for beating the Count’s son at triangle toss, Arrow goes with him. He doesn’t have to. Arrow is plenty pointy. But neither of them prefers to be alone. Maybe neither could survive without the other, not the right way. So they go into the woods together. They meet all kinds of other banished folks.

In this very post-hippie movie, everyone in the Pointless Forest absolutely has a point. Oblio and Arrow included. After meeting everyone there is to meet in the Pointless Forest, they return to the city and challenge their banishment. The Count is furious, but a swell of public support for the boy and his dog force him to relent as the King overrules his rages.

∘ ∘ ∘

I am embarrassed that I have no surviving friendships from childhood. Ashamed. Undone by it. Everyone I love seems to have at least one somebody they’d follow into the forest. I know so many people who are still friends, even best friends, with people they’ve known their entire lives, and I feel wrong for not being among them. No, wrong is imprecise. I feel like a shit person. My sisters have these endless friendships. My brother too. My mother has been best friends with the same woman, my godmother, since before she can remember. What specifically do I do that unmoors me from sharing a history with someone?

My college best friend had been best friends with another Emily before arriving at school, and no matter what I was told, I always felt like a stand-in. After graduating, the three of us ended up sharing an apartment at the top of an old, poorly renovated house outside of Boston, and I saw then that I would never be called sister by either of them, the twin only children I was paying rent with. We did plenty together, a lot of it good. But there were little oddities. Proof I wasn’t invited, not really. They went grocery shopping as a pair and cooked for each other, rarely asking me to join. They traveled home to see their parents, leaving me alone with the angry cat. They spent all their holidays with each other, though one year I did get to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving. They loved gin and tonics and oysters and all the same TV shows and I was always several steps off of wherever their conversations rambled to, asking them too many clarifying questions, not remembering far enough back to truly belong. They had each other, their birthdays barely a week apart. They had their entire lives behind them, entwined, and whatever future ahead braided together too. I could try to keep up, but I was not important to that trajectory.

When the house dissolved, I lost both friendships. I moved closer to my job and in with my boyfriend, the ultimate betrayal of our feral girl code. It was a simple, clean break, but painful. It reminded me of losing Liv. I see my old roommates around sometimes and they blink at me like I am anyone. Not an auditioned sister or temporary intimate, just someone to recognize briefly, then push past.

∘ ∘ ∘

My older sister went to Liv’s neighbor boy’s wedding, but he’s not a boy anymore. He owns a house around the corner from where we all grew up and has a wife and is proof that everyone is suddenly old enough to realize they’ve lost track of each other. Liv’s brother, Chris, was one of the neighbor boy’s groomsmen. Chris and the groom used to play basketball at the park across the street with the groom’s brothers and the other neighbors from the cul-de-sac and Liv and I would hide from all the boys making Creepy Crawlers or laying under the table in the basement eating Chex Mix or locking ourselves in the laundry room and calling it The Dungeon or reading the illustrated version of The Picture of Dorian Gray out loud to each other for the umpteenth time, wondering why they didn’t just come out and say how gay everyone was.

∘ ∘ ∘

I have looked everywhere for the exact version of The Picture of Dorian Gray that Liv and I read to each other and it’s as if it never existed. I can see the cover so clearly, but no matter how long I scroll through endless online bookstores, no one anywhere has it for sale. It’s not in any libraries. I don’t know if it was condensed or abridged or paraphrased or invented entirely, but I do remember the drawings in it, like the drawings from a Nancy Drew novel in their bold flatness. I remember us laughing for hours about the painting, about Dorian and Basil’s relationship. We didn’t know anything about Oscar Wilde or queerness or embedding one’s transgressive life in a text. We didn’t even really know why we were laughing so hard, but it helped to laugh, so we did it. We pronounced Basil’s name like the herb on purpose, recited all the dialogue as dramatically as possible, with accents, swooning off the bed into piles of pillows and then laughing some more.

Knowing what I know now about myself, I wonder if Liv grew up and realized she was queer. I know it took me a long time to say that out loud as a personal identifier, longer still to say it out loud to anyone beyond me. I know not everyone comes to that same conclusion, the one where you feel safe enough to talk about desire. About your own desire and the ways it moves and changes as you age. I know that everyone at our high school insisted the bowling team was riddled with lesbians, as if that could be a bad thing, and I know that I joined the lacrosse team because I was in love with the captain and that her name was Emily too. I know that even though I was sure being queer wasn’t wrong, I didn’t talk about my own queerness until long after I left home. I know that me not talking about it didn’t keep people from seeing it in me anyway. Not just seeing it, but calling it out. Insisting it existed, no matter what I did to try to seem like everyone else. I know it’s wrong to out someone and that I was outed so many times by other people who didn’t want to wait for me to find my own way. I know Danielle was one of them, joining in the chorus of dyke that followed me everywhere from young childhood up until the minute I’m writing this from.

I should say I transferred high schools in September of my junior year. Went to public school, shaved my head, withdrew from almost everything. I was taking figure drawing classes with nude models and babysitting all the little girls from the ballet school and dancing three times a week and making espresso from tiny pods at a shop nobody ever stopped into and starving myself and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and kissing anyone who wanted to kiss me back. I would try anything that meant I could avoid being alone. I’ve read statistics about the incidence of disordered eating and dysmorphia and depression and anxiety and substance abuse and suicidal ideation in queer youth and I’ve cried at the way I see myself in those numbers. When I left Holy Angels, I was afraid of never seeing Liv again and also relieved to not see her and be reminded of how easy it was for her to chose everything but me.

My older sister told me that at the wedding, Chris told her that Liv has never had a job. That she’s never been in a relationship. That she graduated high school, then college, and just stopped. That she’s living in the midwest with some old guy she met on the internet who she says is helping her. That their relationship is murky.

In all of the hearsay, I can see where I could’ve still been her friend. I wish I was still her friend. I wish she’d loved me more than Ariana, or at least as much as her. I wish she’d given me a reason to stop calling besides silence. I hate the politics of teenage girls, still.

My mother visited me in Boston last summer and asked if I’d ever try calling again, and I didn’t know how to answer the question. I was trying to talk through why it felt scary to reach out, wanting to explain who Liv was to me to the other people on my porch as I reasoned through it, and that when she said it—you only liked her because her family had money. At the time, I changed the subject. But I wanted to correct it all. To say that money was never part of it, that I only loved her because we were both strange. Because we didn’t behave the way we were expected to. I loved going to her house because I was listened to there. When I was afraid of the dog, someone cared enough to shield me. I loved Liv because as long as we were together, we were safe.

It seems too late to call her or write to her now, after so much time has passed. It seems like doing so would be tantamount to calling again at lunchtime and having her mother answer the phone and say in her sweet, soft voice that she’ll pass along the message. After what my sister told me, I tried to find her online, and there are so many people with her name, but none of them are her. I scrolled through pages of search results and got my hopes up every time the face in a thumbnail photo had her nose or hair color, only to click through and find a total stranger. I have looked everywhere for an excuse to call the house, but now that I know she’s moved, it feels futile. I don’t know if her mother still lives there. The house line is one of the few phone numbers I will remember until I die, but I’m afraid to dial it, because what would I say? I could call to ask if they still have that copy of Dorian Gray, but how do I explain why I’m so desperate to know?

Ariana never moved away from our hometown. She’s an occupational therapist or some other useful thing. She still goes to the same church across the street from our now-shuttered elementary school and teaches CCD classes there and has a bland husband and a new baby. My mother watches the baby for her sometimes, for extra money. When my mom told me this, she couldn’t understand why I was upset with her. You loved Ariana, she insisted, and I looked away. Asked how her parents were. If they were lucky enough to be able to retire.

Liv’s father died this year, of cancer, and all I could see when I heard about it was her mother quietly walking out of my dad’s memorial service years ago, there because she was such a part of his sickness, mothering me through it too. Liv was not with her. I was surrounded by concern and family and wearing the dress I bought for my high school graduation four years after the fact, still thin enough for the harsh boning to fit like a glove. I was there in the front pew and afraid to turn around and look again at who was present, who of them I recognized, so angry that day to not see Liv there when so many other people came. People who mattered less. People who didn’t know how long I had been preparing to get up in front of everyone and try to explain how lonely it is to live next to death for your entire life. To grow up the child of someone who is threatening to leave not because they want to, but because their body does.

It’s easier to be strange this way when you aren’t alone with your difference. When you have someone who’d be banished with you. Someone to hide from that world with. I’ve lived as long as I have because of people who go into the forest with me, the ones who won’t let me be alone with what casts me out. I’ll never hate her for leaving, but no matter how much time passes, it still hurts to be in the trees without her. I am jealous of the life I could’ve had, the life I am having somewhere else, where Liv and I are mermaids still and pointless but together. Together we’d have everything we need stored away, ready.

Emily O’Neill

Emily O’Neill teaches writing and tends bar in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of two poetry collection with YesYes Books: Pelican (2015), winner of the 2015 Pamet River Prize and the 2016 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Series, and A Falling Knife Has No Handle (2018). She has published five chapbooks, most recently a revised edition of You Can’t Pick Your Genre from Big Lucks Books, and her recent work has appeared in Bennington Review, Catapult, Little Fiction, Redivider, Salt Hill, and Sixth Finch, among many others. Find her online @tabernacleteeth.

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