BY ELLIE KELLER
I had heard the song before, on car rides with my father and older sister. Dad exposed us to all sorts of artists – Don McLean, Bruce Springsteen, the Mamas and the Papas. “Real music,” he called it, “not that slit-your-wrists fest Judy Collins” our mother sang along with and wept to whenever she drove us anywhere. Dad liked his music and encouraged us to sing along.
One of my favorite songs was Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary. I knew all the words. I knew that Puff was a magic dragon, who lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist. I knew he had a human friend named Jackie Paper, who loved that rascal Puff, and they had loads of fun together, were the best of friends. I even knew that “one grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more, and Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.”
But because I was so young, I didn’t quite make the connection between the words and the story.
One Sunday night when I was four, my sister and I watched the cartoon version of Puff the Magic Dragon on TV. I assumed my television-watching position, lying on my stomach next to the dog, propped up on my elbows, very close to the TV screen as my poor vision had not yet been acknowledged. (Kind of unbelievable my parents and teachers missed it, as I was, I think, the only kindergartner with crow’s feet.)
I only remember a few details about the cartoon itself: The pastel-colored Puff, just how I envisioned him, had a lime-green body, magenta stomach, and ears the color of marigolds.
Without much warning in the cartoon, Jackie Paper left and Puff was alone, “his head bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain.”
I remember looking over at my sister at that point, surprised to find that she was unmoved. I wondered if we were watching the same show.
It got worse from there: “Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave. So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.”
And then it was over! The song and the cartoon ended just like that! No pat resolution! No neatly tied-up ending!
I was in shock. I wanted a refund.
My sister’s reaction upon the rolling credits was indicative enough: She stood, stretched, and skipped away, asked my mom what was for dessert. I began quietly weeping, wrecked by the story. I started off to my room to think about what I’d just seen when my Mom asked, “What’s wrong? What happened? Did Meg hurt you? Meggan, did you hit your sister again?” (Because when you’re that young, the worst kind of pain is still physical.)
“No,” I blubbered. “Why didn’t it work out?” I asked my mom. “Between Puff and Jackie?”
My mom shrugged, said gently, “Well, not all love works out.”
To a child of four, raised on fairy tales and happily ever afters, this is earth-shattering news. Hell, this is shattering news to most heartbroken adults.
My parents tried to soothe me, but I was inconsolable. I alternated between sadness and anger: “Where did Jackie Paper go?” I yelled.
“He grew up,” my mom said. “He outgrew Puff.”
“No excuse!” I shouted and ran up to my room, skipping steps if I could.
That night, the feelings-sparked spread like wildfire. I laid on my bed and cried all night - the kind of cry that aches, the kind of cry you remember. No one could calm me, ease my pain. Dad told me to get over it, it’s just a story. But it wasn’t. I had just learned that this sort of thing could conceivably happen: you could love someone with all your heart and it still might not work out. They could leave you.
The next day, a Monday, was Picture Day. My face was swollen, my cheeks hot and red, eyes bloodshot. My mother struggled to get me into my spiffy denim jumper and sharp orange turtleneck. She pulled my hair into two tight pigtails. On the bus ride to school, sandwiched between my sister and the window, I realized that my mom was probably trying to make me look as normal as possible. But I felt different. I had changed. I knew things now, and I didn’t like it one bit.
“Look at the birdie! Look at the birdie!” the school photographer coaxed in his sing-songy voice. My cheeks coated with tears, the photographer finally gave up, therefore forcing us to reschedule for the re-take day (no doubt a blessing, as my mother would have hated the shots, and she had ordered Pack A which was practically a cardboard cut-out of the child and included all the wallet-sized ones to give to your grandparents, if you had them).
That afternoon, the teacher pulled me aside, as I was trying but failing to participate in class. When she asked what was wrong, I muttered: “Poor Puff. He dies alone.”
I retreated to the arts and crafts table in the back of the class and colored. I drew pictures of Puff and Jackie Paper travelling on their boat with billowed sail. Then I drew a picture of Puff without Jackie, yet still having a good time, because I needed him to be happy. I augmented my creations with pipe-cleaners and confetti, lots of glue and pastels. Then I drew pictures of Puff’s face, at first sad, then gradually, with every new sheet of construction paper, I made the corners of his mouth go higher, higher, and higher, into a full-fledged smile. A flipbook into happiness.
After that, Puff the Magic Dragon was only a memory and a sweet, tinkly lullaby I avoided like the plague.
One Sunday almost 20 years later, the man with whom I’d shared a few wonderful years abruptly ended our relationship. We had been the best of friends, travelled parts of Europe together, had years of nights in my cave-like basement apartment in Boston, staying up talking, laughing, dancing. I had always been trying to fend off the knowledge that, for as much as I loved him and we loved each other, it might not work out.
And one grey day, it happened: sudden, unexplained, and unexplainable.
I came in from the stoop of my building, having watched the taxi drive away with him and all of his baggage. I went down the stairs, wondering what point there was in coming home. I laid on the carpet, where we had lain before, a danced-on carpet, a spilled-on carpet. I could still see his footprints. I moved to the bed. I sat cross-legged, christening my pillow with free-falling tears. I went through a roll of toilet paper, not having bought any Kleenex, not expecting this goodbye. That roll’s worth of toilet paper lay crumpled in bits and shreds on the wood floor by my bed--a kind of tally of my sadness. I spent four hours like this, vaguely remembering the Sunday I over-empathized with and mourned for Puff so many years ago. On this dark Sunday morning, I had lost my Jackie Paper - he went on the 9am flight. I tried to remind myself of the childhood song and story, tried to remember what Puff did when he was left behind. He ceased his fearless roar, could no longer be brave, and slinked away, utterly defeated by life and loss.
Even in my devastation and confusion, I knew this fate was unacceptable for me. The next morning, I awoke, reluctantly at first, ran a comb through my hair, then left my cave.
***Ellie Keller lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and daughter. She is currently working on a book of essays.