Did Everyone Have an Imaginary Friend (or Just Me)?

Adventures in Boyhood

About the Book

Jay Ellis, star of HBO’s Insecure, tells the story of growing up with an imaginary best friend you will never forget—part Dwayne Wayne from A Different World, part Will Smith from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—in this hilarious, vulnerable memoir.

“So funny, poignant, and personal. I loved this and you will, too.”—Mindy Kaling, author of Why Not Me? and Nothing Like I Imagined

What to do when you’re the perpetual new kid, only child, and military brat hustling school to school each year and everyone’s looking to you for answers? Make some shit up, of course! And a young Jay Ellis does just that, with help from his imaginary friend, Mikey.

A testament to the importance of invention, trusting oneself, and making space for creativity, Did Everyone Have an Imaginary Friend (or Just Me)? is a memoir of a kid who confided in his imaginary sidekick to navigate parallel pop culture universes (like watching Fresh Prince alongside John Hughes movies or listening to Ja Rule and Dave Matthews) to a lifetime of birthday disappointment (being a Christmas-season Capricorn will do that to you) and hoop dreams gone bad. Mikey also guides Ellis through tragedies, like losing his teenage cousin in a mistaken-target drive-by and the shame and fear of being pulled over by cops almost a dozen times the year he got his driver’s license.

As his imaginary friend morphs into adult consciousness, Ellis charts an unforgettable story of looking inward to solve to some of life’s biggest (and smallest) challenges, told in the roast-you-with-love voice of your closest homey.
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Praise for Did Everyone Have an Imaginary Friend (or Just Me)?

“Nothing is more annoying than knowing that a handsome movie star like Jay Ellis is also a talented writer. His debut collection of essays is so funny, poignant, and personal. I loved this and you will, too.”—Mindy Kaling, author of Why Not Me? and Nothing Like I Imagined

“Not only affirming but also transporting, a true beacon for both our younger and older selves who were once lonely, and perhaps are still lonely at times, but always capable of wielding our immense imaginations . . . This is a joyous, celebratory, fluorescent, and fully alive book.”—Hanif Abdurraqib, author of A Little Devil in America

“Heartwarming, heartbreaking, and seriously hilarious, this book is an ode to imagination—that which dwells inside all of us, waiting to run free. Jay Ellis has written a brave, necessary book, filled with coming-of-age stories packed with solid life lessons. I wish I’d read this as a young person, but am even more grateful to have found it as an adult.”—Mateo Askaripour, author of Black Buck 

“Poignant and delightfully nostalgic with a perfect blend of humor and candid self-reflection . . . This is an essential reminder to nurture the worlds we build in our minds as children—and as adults, too.”—Zakiya Dalila Harris, bestselling author of The Other Black Girl

“Pairing youthful exuberance with the nostalgia of a man looking back on his formative years, this book is told with verve, charm, and joy. By the time you finish, you’ll wish you had an imaginary friend like Mikey, too.”—Maurice Carlos Ruffin, author of The American Daughters
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Did Everyone Have an Imaginary Friend (or Just Me)?

Act a Fool Wit’ It

Tampa, FL; East Austin, TX

Yo donna South Carolina.”

For a stretch, Mikey was a big concern for my young parents. It started out innocent enough—I was an only child with a colorful imagination, and then one day I came in talking about Mikey, my imaginary friend. Based on the fact that we had literally caused a small sandstorm and ruined someone’s wedding, it was clear that if left to our own devices for long enough, we probably would have decimated entire city blocks of whichever random city we were living in at that time.

Dear bride, whose wedding Mikey made me ruin, if you are reading this and still married to that square in the ill-fitting tux, I apologize for ruining what was supposed to be the best day of your life . . . but those seagulls on the beach had it coming. They were taunting me all day with their stupid, squawking laugh and Mikey said the best way to shut them up was to teach them a lesson. They had to learn. By throwing sand bombs, seashells, and beach trash at those cackling seagulls. Your dress was an unfortunate casualty of war.

While communicating with each other through telepathy and the sides of their eyes, my parents decided to question me.

“Sit down right here,” my dad said. They interrogated me for about twenty minutes about Mikey’s location in the house, what he looked like, when he came around, and what—if anything—he was telling me to do. They needed to know he wasn’t a grown man sneaking into our house. They didn’t seem convinced by my explanations, but after a few nights of sleeping with one eye open, they realized Mikey wasn’t a ghost or a man crawling into the house through a hidden passage. They not only tolerated me having an imaginary friend, after a while my mom was even encouraging. One year, she baked two cakes for my birthday. She thought we had the same birthday, we didn’t, I was pissed. If you’re an only, you get me.

I like to think of my childhood years as “behaviorally challenged.” The popular lore I stick to is that Mikey got me into a lot of trouble, but the years before Mikey were filled with plenty of transgressions. When I was three years old, my mom got a call that she needed to come pick me up from preschool. When she arrived, the teacher informed her that I had bitten three kids since the school day started. Even after being separated from other kids, I would find someone to sink my cannibal teeth into the moment I was released back to gen pop. This had been going on for weeks. And it seemed the situation was getting worse. They couldn’t control me and I had bitten so many of the kids that pretty much all of them were scared to play with me. Apex predator or not, the teacher told my mom that she needed to find a new school to take me to because I was no longer welcome at Small World.

My mom and dad began to trade days off with their coworkers like kids trading Ken Griffey Jr. and Bo Jackson baseball cards, in order to be home with me until they could find a new daycare to send me to. It wasn’t until months later that I was enrolled at Little Stinkers.

The daycare operated out of the owner’s home. She had added an addition to the back of her ranch-style house, which is where us kids spent most of our time. And on Fridays she always brought an outside activity to the daycare. Like a petting zoo where we rode ponies (see the pic of me on a pony with a cowboy hat from the previous chapter). I had been at Little Stinkers incident-free for about four or five months when one day I woke up and chose to upend all the hard work and self-control my four-year-old self had put in; I chose violence.

Just before our afternoon nap, my mom got a call at work again. One embarrassing conversation with her boss and two bus rides later, she showed up to find me sitting in a corner by the front door, bags packed.

Before my mom could ask what had happened, my teacher sang like a falsetto in the Mississippi Mass Choir.

“Ms. Ellis—”

“Mrs. Bryant-Ellis,” my mom corrected her.

The teacher narrowed her eyes. “Mrs. Bryant-Ellis, your son has expressed a colorful use of his vocabulary today by dropping several f-bombs even after I had spoken to him and asked him not to.” My mom looked at me, expressionless like a cold-blooded killer.

“He what?” she said.

“He repeatedly used the f-word throughout the day within multiple contexts. He yelled it when another student dropped paint during craft time, he said it when he sat on the toilet after breakfast, and when I told him for the second time that we don’t use that language here, he said, ‘Eff you.’ Mrs. Ellis—Byrant-Ellis—I’m not sure what you allow in your home, but I will not tolerate that behavior in mine.” With that, she handed my mom my bag and showed her the door.

I was basically the four-year-old Samuel L. Jackson of Little Stinkers Daycare—a badge of honor I still carry to this day.

Daycare had become a place of chaos and confusion, of learning how to exist in the world with others, of no longer being the “only one.” I spent most of my childhood until my tween years acting out to maintain my sense of control, of centerdom. I wanted attention. More specifically, my parents’ attention. They were young. They had lives. They partied. They worked a lot. They were exhausted from working. They were trying to figure out how to make a marriage work. I thought doing crazy shit would get my parents to be home more. And if I couldn’t get their attention, I was going to get somebody’s.

When Mikey entered, my goal may have been the same, but it was a lot more fun doing it with a partner in crime. It also took my antics up a notch (like the time I tried to fly a plane). There was a gap of time, from six to eight, where they tried everything to get me to drop Mikey: bribes, whoopings, groundings, as well as baseball, karate, and football. They even threatened me with Christmas gifts—explaining that if I didn’t start “acting right,” Santa wouldn’t bring me anything. But none of it worked. I was loyal to a fault—still am—and Mikey was my ride or die.

Oddly enough, I gave up on believing in Santa Claus way before I gave up on believing in Mikey. I shanked Ol’ Saint Nick in the back so quickly he didn’t even get to turn around and see that I dealt the lethal blow with a sharpened candy cane. Although, this wasn’t by choice. My dad was over giving credit to a jolly ol’ white dude who lived in the coldest place on the planet, removed from the people he supposedly served, so he sat me down when I was around seven years old and told me his truth:

“Aye man, look. I can’t keep giving credit to another man for all the work I do around here.” My eyes opened wider than Bernie Mac’s.

“Huh?” My dad’s eyes pierced into mine.

“What I’m saying is, me and your mom are Santa Claus.”

As soon as he said this, without skipping a beat, Mikey and I agreed that what he was trying to say was that my parents were actually Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They must have been waiting until I fell asleep to get in my dad’s maroon Mazda RX-7 to fly to the North Pole, where they would work until the early hours of the morning until it was time for me to wake up. Why else hadn’t they gotten rid of the heavy coats in the closet? We were living in the South! Mikey, who at this point was unable to contain himself because he finally knew the truth behind one of the greatest mythologies of all time, whispered into my ear, “Ask them to take you with them to the North Pole.”

“Can I go to the North Pole with you?” I asked my dad.

“North what? No. There is no North Pole . . . There is, but . . . Dammit. I wasn’t saying . . . I was saying Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Paula, talk to your son.”

“Baby, what your father is saying is that Santa Claus isn’t real,” my mom said slowly. “We buy you all those gifts and put them under the tree.”

Mikey and I stood there with blank stares, until Mikey pushed me along. I left the room and crawled into my Batman sheets, shutting the door and listening to Mikey spin down a Christmas miracle conspiracy theory hole. “This is the greatest cover-up in history! Your parents are Santa and Santa’s wife, man! They had to try and tell you it wasn’t real because they have to keep the secret.” Slowly, I started to feel better, and that night we devised a plan to catch them in the act. We were certain that they were lying to us, covering up the fact that they worked with elves, gave gifts to every kid in the world, and that my dad grew and wore a beard down to his knees. Our plan was to stay up late, sneak into the trunk of my dad’s Mazda, and ride with them to the North Pole.

On the first night, we crawled out my bedroom window facing the street and stood at the back of my dad’s car waiting. The moon was so bright it lit up everything in a pale glow. Mikey and I waited and waited but my parents never showed up. Mikey had to pee, so we crawled back through the window and didn’t come back out. We never did catch my parents, but we did learn that it was easier than we expected to sneak out. We also learned that f-bombs get the point across, but they didn’t get us the exact attention we were looking for.

About the Author

Jay Ellis
Born in Sumter, South Carolina, to a military family, Jay Ellis spent his childhood inventing new personas for every town he landed in. After college, he decided to take his one-man show to Hollywood, where he got his start in a recurring role on BET’s The Game. Now an actor, philanthropist, and entrepreneur, Ellis is best known for his role as Lawrence on HBO’s Insecure, for which he won an NAACP Image Award. He appeared alongside Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick. More by Jay Ellis
Decorative Carat
Random House Publishing Group