The Phantom Tollbooth

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The Mirror of Erised: On Death, Harry Potter, and Retreating to Childhood Reads

I’d known Monica 20 years when her sister was killed in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident. We spent our childhoods in a tiny Bay Area town that I left at 14. I only went back to visit twice.

In the years between, Monica and I sent each other videos, talking into our phones’ cameras for the three-minute limit. She told me about moving back into her parents’ house, the engagement of a friend from our previous life, earning a master’s degree from her sister’s alma mater. I told her of New York, my job in publishing, how it exhausted me to the point of revisiting the books of our childhood—Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth.

And then, one afternoon, I missed a call from Monica.

What is it? What is it? What is it? I chanted as she began to cry. She told me her sister was dead. I remember watching myself from somewhere up above, wondering if she said my sister and not Marie because she was also dissociating, or if this was an act of precaution in case I’d forgotten Marie’s name.

I bought a plane ticket for the day of Marie’s service. In the interim, I told Monica I would send her a video every morning, with no obligation to reply. Three minutes of consistent comfort seemed all I could offer from the opposite coast. Dispatches from Brooklyn, I called them, recounting various scenes—at 2 a.m. I woke up to “Crazy in Love” outside my window; there goes a firetruck—that I imagined were different from her suburban California life, the one I used to share. I’m also rereading the Harry Potter series, I said.

I’m reading that to the kids I babysit, she sent back.

Monica and I were introduced to the Harry Potter books in the same way: Our second-grade teacher read the first installment aloud to us at lunch. She was forced to stop when the cranky nun assigned to our Catholic school banned the series, citing heresy.

Now, 18 years later, we were reintroduced to the infant with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead abandoned on a stoop in Surrey, England. We knew who he was, but the pages couldn’t tell the difference between us and those who didn’t. Marie was dead, Monica and I on opposite coasts, but this story was the same.

We spent our videos debating plot points that Monica believed Rowling planted early in the series. I disagreed. The narrative was too intricate; Rowling must have referred back to the first three books while writing the last four. I cited how Harry’s best friend Ron is often described holding his pet rat, which by the third book is revealed to be a man disguised as a rat. In the first book, Harry wonders if a dour-looking professor can read his mind. By book five, Monica reminded me, this same professor will teach Harry the art of Occlumency—accessing the minds of others while also blocking yours from intruders.

Monica choked up for the first time during the introduction of a character who will die in the final book. She stopped reading altogether after Harry finds the magical mirror—the Mirror of Erised—that reflects the viewer’s deepest desire back to them. Harry sees his dead parents. Monica knew she would see Marie.

Perhaps because this world felt as familiar to us as each other, we didn’t notice Harry had in fact changed: He left the realm of our shared childhood and took up the form of Monica’s solitary grief.

Though best friends, Harry and Ron are quite different. Ron has both parents and many siblings; he struggles with common teen issues like fear of inadequacy and failure. So when Harry drags Ron out of bed and to the mirror, Ron doesn’t see Harry’s dead parents. In fact, Ron doesn’t see anything he’s lost, but instead goals he hopes to achieve—winning a wizard sport, becoming a leader at the school.

For a long time, Monica and I saw reflections similar to Ron’s—milestones we wanted but hadn’t yet reached. As high school dissolved into college and college dissolved into adult life, our paths remained aspirational: degrees, jobs, life partners.

But when Marie died, Monica’s unachieved goals became secondary. Instead, what she desired most was what she’d lost. This shift in her life’s longing was so obviously different from mine that we could no longer avoid the fact of our 12-year separation; three-minute videos weren’t enough to close the gap between the different people we became. I was just Ron—best friends with a person who knew death in a way I didn’t. I could only stand next to her in the darkness.

After Marie’s service, I drove by my old house. The small cul-de-sac yielded snapshots of the childhood books where I’d recently found refuge: the crabapple tree I crawled up holding my hefty library copy of Anne of Green Gables (all eight volumes in one); the mailbox where I dropped a letter addressed to Madeleine L’Engle (she wrote back); sitting on my mother’s lap as she carefully pronounced “dodecahedron” from a hardcover of Phantom Tollbooth; sobbing alone in my living room over the death of Harry Potter’s headmaster.

I spent 12 years believing this home was a part of my history that was gone in the way a person is gone in death: absolute. Only when I went back as an adult to attend a funeral did I realize I could buy plane tickets and book Airbnbs there just as I did other places. Monica and I needed the familiar world of Harry Potter to close the distance between our deepest wants, different in object of desire—or loss—but similar in their unachievable nature. What is gone—my childhood home, our childhood friendship, her sister—is gone forever. In their place are memories, towns, where we cannot stay for long.

A few months later, Monica comes to New York. One night we have dinner with my friend who tells Monica she’s from Ohio, followed by a quip about how New York is more exciting than the Midwest. Monica says, “Yeah, but it’s your home. That’s what makes it good.”

What we’ve lost is taking up a new form; it’s changing, as all stories—and lives—do. Childhood books and childhood friends are the same in this way: homes we can always visit, companions we drag out of bed to stand next to us in the darkness as we wait for the light.

Surprise Me!

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