Let’s say you have a little sister–one that’s only around when convenient for you. She’s less like a sister than an imaginary friend. Let’s say that’s what we call her: your imaginary friend.
You grow up in a house that many call nice, no distinguishing good or bad features. In this house, the two of you sleep in the same room. In the morning you wake up to the slippers phwapping against the kitchen tiles, mugs and cups rattle in their drawers. In precisely six minutes the coffee will be brewed and then Mom is in the bedroom, calling your name with that early morning severity that makes her voice go deep, and you cold. –Time for school, she says kindly. Then less kindly: –Get up. Your imaginary friend races outside, but stops just short of climbing onto the bus. –No, your mother says to her, holding her back with one arm. –You’re too young.
When you come back home, straps of your backpack sliding off, your imaginary friend is there, waiting for you. You don’t ask her what she’s done all day—who cares?—here the two of you are now. You run outside, you make her watch as you do handstands on the pavement, careful that Mom doesn’t see. You go back inside, plug in the black box, and she sits and claps her hands as you defeat the bad guy. Before bedtime, when the twilight makes you introspective and there’s nobody around to coax you back out, you sing and ask for her opinion, on a scale of 1-5. She only occasionally gives you a less than perfect score, but it’s okay because those are the ones you anticipate. Your flaws are never surprises.
One of your earliest memories of your imaginary friend was at this very house you grew up in. You had just drawn a hopscotch court with chalk and had jumped over it so many times that the lines had started to blur. You drew it again, and when the chalk broke in your hand, there she was, sitting on the pavement. She got up to try for herself and ran through each of the lines. –No, you laughed, raising one foot. –You have to do it like this. You got up and jumped through the squares again, your tongue between your lips in fierce concentration. With all that focus and how silent she was, you forgot she was sitting there, watching.
You’re older now, old enough to stop drawing hopscotch. You’re old enough to wear converse. You’re embarrassed now when your imaginary friend comes around. She still thinks her light-up sneakers are cool.
You try to reason with her. You’ve brought over someone for the very first time and you’re anxious for privacy. Even Mom has left you and your guest to yourselves, though not without warning you first to leave the door open. Why don’t you go upstairs, you ask, and Mom will give you a cookie, a cupcake. You’re desperate to get her to go. You’ve never had to bargain with her before. She is so used to being around to watch and applaud you that she doesn’t understand what you mean when you ask to be alone. When she finally leaves, you are unsettled. How many more times will this happen?
It’s long before she learns. You come home another time with a boy in camouflage pants and you hide out behind the house, careful that the leaves under his combat boots don’t give you away. Had you been too loud? There is your imaginary friend, just having turned the corner. He points at her with one long middle finger, his eyebrows turned question marks. Excusing yourself, you move away from him, towards the enormous elm tree that shields you from view.
–Go back inside, you say, and you see her cheeks are flushed. In her hurry to see you, she forgot her coat. –Jesus, you’re going to catch a cold, you tell her, –and then I will be blamed.
And you think of course you’re to blame. If only you had drawn a firmer, less chalky line, made it clear when and where she was welcome. You decide you must do it now; the boy in the pants is already shifting, the leaves cracking like fire beneath him. –Just go away!
To your great happiness, it works. She slinks back towards the house. You go back to the boy, who has lit up a joint, one that leads you to believe you’re an astronaut and every step you take is one closer to the stars. When you go to sleep that night you see yourself on the cheese grater surface of a far-away planet, irradiated not by the light from the sun, but by an aura, you realize, that is coming from you.
When you first went away to college, it startled you at first to come home and see that your parents were older. But soon you were used to it, and each time they opened the door, you became a little less frightened. You had grown to accept they would die; your mind went to work and made preparations, you even envisioned just how they would go.
It’s been years since you’ve moved out of their house and now you spend nights coming home to your apartment, other nights in strangers’ beds. It isn’t hard to find adult friends. Whenever you seek solitude, there it is, curled like a cat. Whenever you want company, the voices surround you, like the flicker of a TV screen.
Your imaginary friend still lives at the old house, but you don’t go by there anymore. During college breaks, you’d see her tip-toeing around the house, but mostly, she stayed holed up in the basement, behind a computer screen. You knew, from your own life, this was typical of a teenager. You both still live in the same city but it somehow doesn’t occur to you that outside holidays, it’s possible you could cross paths.
It stuns you when it finally happens one weeknight in June. You are sweat-slickened with the day’s residue. If it weren’t for that animal instinct, for that propensity for recognition, you wouldn’t believe it were her. Her eyes are white like satellite dishes, a signal you can’t see being transmitted from one point of her body to another. First, she is leaning on a telephone pole. Then she is on the ground.
You try to pick her up, and she is crying, her face sunken into your shoulder. She has outgrown you. You struggle to keep her upright, and something in you is breaking. Her mouth is swirled in froth.
When your parents arrive in the station wagon, you are only grateful to be out of those lights, from the policemen you have to ward off like kittens. Your parents peel her body away from yours carefully, place her inside the car. Something in you is still disbelieving. –How can this be her. you explain, seeing where the holes in her arms have bruised. –When I only ever imagined good things for her?
That night, you are vigilant. You sleep in your childhood bedroom with her, in the house that you left behind. You’re afraid for her, because you haven’t thought of her in so long, and the body that was once round and taut—the belly of a child—is now deflated into the mattress. Throughout the night, you keep waking up, straining to listen. She breathes.
In the morning, everyone sits around the dining room table, just like old times, when your father used to have the family gather for bible readings. Just like when you’d read Psalms and she’d read Matthew, everyone will be given a role. –We’ll fix this, your mother says. –Everything will be alright. For a moment it’s like you are ten years old again, your mother on one knee redressing a wound after one of your handstands ended badly. But then you look at her, and you see the crow’s feet like picket lines and you can’t help but wonder how and when it happened. How, even after all your accounting, your mother has continued to age.
Because your parents believe they will save her with love and love alone, every weekend is tasked with taking care of her. But no matter how much you see her, or take her out for lunch, or ask her how she’s feeling, nothing seems to change. She still has that flight in her eye –the satellite, the look that seems to be on and around you at the same time. On the afternoon she overdoses and spends two days at the hospital hooked up to the IV, your parents suggest you move back to the house. So you can be closer. So you can never stop observing. So you can be sure she’s still in existence right now, and at every moment. –Don’t you love her, your mother says.
It does nothing but make you resentful. After all, you have your own life to live. The lover, newfound and warm, a welcome fixture in what was once a big bed, supports your decision to offer an intervention instead.
But all you know of interventions are what you learned from the TV. You don’t even know where to look. One website leads you to another to another, until soon, you are receiving pop-ups at work with numbers of suicide hotlines. Frustrated, you call someone, anyone. You explain that between your parents’ schedules and mistrust, going to the office is impossible. You arrange for a visit to the house.
It takes an outsider to identify, and castigate, an enabler. To explain that their love is wreckage, that they are like ammonia to bleach, a slow killer, a chemical burn. On TV, they call them “enablers”. People who worry about looking away. They hand over dollars and car keys, desperate to make things okay. You’re enabling, the interventionist says. You must set strict boundaries and limits. No money. No concessions. Boundaries–hard and fast. And then she’ll be cured. From the living room, you have the sensation of watching yourself through sheaves of water. Like a dream, your hands look like they are running onto the floor.
Your imaginary friend is asleep in the bedroom, where you can shake her awake if need be. She is in such a deep, prolonged sleep that she does not hear the interventionist speaking, nor does she hear your mother crying in the living room of this house when he leaves, this house of so many past years. –Where did I go wrong? your mother asks, sniffling. Her sobs are already making pools in her skirt, the triangles in its pattern darkened so that they reveal the shape of her thighs. You’ve never seen a woman unravel so neatly, so intentionally into herself.
Your parents start buying pre-paid Mastercards instead of giving her cash for food. For a while it seems like she’s doing better, but you know you’re only deluding yourself. Ever since you told your mother that you can’t handle her hourlong phone calls anymore, she has stopped giving you status updates from home.
Still, sometimes, there’s a lapse in how long you can avoid knowing the truth. You turn to your lover and ask how it happened. You ask how it’s possible that she grew into something so unlike you. You let your guilt rush out of you until the lover feels it on her own body like wool, and the itch is too much to not scratch. –Those thoughts, lover says, help nobody. Mostly, you sleep okay.
The weekends you spend at the old house become less frequent. But this Saturday, the first in a month, you’re back, to take her to lunch. You’re in the driveway for thirty three minutes when you realize she’s probably standing you up. It’s happened before; you make plans via text message only to get there and find out she’s not even home. But now you see her run out of the front door, draped head to toe in layers, a thick, knit scarf strained across her neck.
–It’s 80 degrees, you tell her, certain that she must not know.
–Yes, she says, –I’m cold.
Something in you cringes, but you look forward and drive.
After lunch, which you pay for, you ask if she’d like to see a movie. You know there’s nothing out that either of you would want to see, but you invite her anyway. She declines, predictably. –I have plans this afternoon, she says. Relieved, you don’t ask what they are. You have plans this afternoon too; your lover is reclining on her side of the bed. You take your imaginary friend home, and you pull out from the driveway once you see that she is inside the house, her shadow retreating into the place you know as your bedroom. You correct yourself: her bedroom too. Another correction: her bedroom alone.
The following week, you receive another phone call. –It’s not working, your mother says, her voice suggesting sleeplessness. –You need to see her more often. So you will make another lunch date, she will make you wait another hour, you will ask if she wants to see a movie. Nothing will have come out since the week before, so she will decline. You will drop her off back home. Your lover will be waiting for you. Your lover is always sweet to return to, like grapes you loll her around in your mouth.
On your way home, you see your faith form in front of you, it drips like cold rain onto the windshield. You see it right there: how much you believe in your existence, from day one to day two to day three. You believe as long as you’re somewhere, so she will be somewhere too.
When you find out, you ask –when? –where? You want to know the exact time, the minute to the hour. You will write it down in a bound journal, for safekeeping, and try to remember where you had been. Something banal will seize you, spooning chicken tortilla soup from a can. Did you know she was leaving in that moment, as you freed a piece of sweet corn stuck inside a metallic ridge? Did you feel it when she was gone, did the air become any lighter, like they say?
It is useless to try to remember, though your lover says nothing, knows you will come to the conclusion yourself. There is no conjecturing left. She’s not there when you look, and she’s not there when you don’t. Of course you hadn’t felt it.
The next Saturday, at the time that you once drove her to lunch, the lover and you sleep in. No phone call from the house, from the landline, rouses you from your bed.
Let’s say you lose a little sister, for failure of imagination. Let’s say this sister no longer exists, despite her relation to you. How you keep going on, moving, breathing. How clearly your life will be lived.
Stephanie Jimenez is a NYC-based writer and former Fulbright recipient. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, O! the Oprah Magazine, Vol 1 Brooklyn, Yes! Magazine, The Acentos Review, Label Me Latino/a, and Vibe. This past November, she completed a novel-writing intensive at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity on a merit scholarship. She is currently at work on her first novel.