Imaginary Friend

Wheelock’s dreams—those he recalled—often involved nonsensical complications. He’d be trying to find his way back to his suite in a hotel with misdirecting hallway signs, in order to recover presentation materials he urgently needed for a lecture to a hostile audience on a subject of vital importance that he knew nothing about. Tonight’s had a similar flavor of desperate, continuously unfolding futility, yet it must have been something else that launched him suddenly out of sleep. He switched on the lamp to see his watch dial. Even odder than being wide awake and energized at four twenty was the fact that the light didn’t blind him; evidently his eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the darkness though he’d been asleep for over three hours.

Something had inspired him, one of those inchoate phenomena of mental life—call it the unconscious or the still, small voice of an angel or his former lives or telepathy from aliens or Kokopele or what you will—the idea came to him that he should email Susan, his son’s girlfriend or ex-girlfriend. In the week since David had moved back into the house, to his old room only until he found an apartment of his own, Wheelock hadn’t consciously thought about communicating with Susan until that instant. The next moment he was out of bed, in his slippers, reaching for his terry-cloth robe.

The first point to make was that he was in no way meddling with their decision—whether it was mutual as David had said, or really her unilateral decision that he should move out. Perhaps both mutual and her own: She might have been the first to acknowledge what both knew. On the other hand, Susan, who owned the condo, may have had reasons to throw him out. Love had its limits, as Wheelock well knew.

He had liked her very much; Susan was good for David. Enlivened him, to some degree. Wheelock occasionally talked to David’s mother, whom they had buried ten years ago, father and son bereft and angry at themselves, at each other, and at her. He had long since forgiven Marilyn, as much as he expected he ever would, and when he talked to her about David’s girlfriend it was in a tone of assurance. You would like her, he said. You’d approve. She looks a little like you, I think, her petite figure at least. More self assured, of course. Not a depressive. Someone David can count on. And he loves her, that’s what matters.

He hadn’t found anyone, himself. It was all he could do, more than he could do, to get their son through adolescence and himself sufficiently beyond stunned grief and the hole Marilyn had drilled through his heart, to be able to carry on. He’d told a therapist once—there had been two, and support groups for himself as well as David—that he didn’t know whether having to be there for his son was the blessing that saved him or a block of concrete that kept him from moving on.

Wheelock would have been glad if, in the future, assuming David got his act together, Susan became a permanent addition to their two-man family. He’d said as much to Susan a few months ago, not the marriage part but that he liked her and she was good for David. She had thanked him. Sweet girl, head on shoulders, a pretty Irish redhead on freckled shoulders, only two years out of Vanderbilt and already Allstate was offering to pay for her business school. An MBA from Kellogg? She’d be able to write her own ticket. Of course, she was too sensible to marry David unless he, too, took his life seriously, as he had begun to do under the girl’s influence. If he went back to Northwestern (or anywhere; he only needed three more semesters), with his intelligence and creativity and the self-esteem this relationship seemed like it was beginning to give him, graduating at twenty-five he, too, would have opportunities galore. If only.

By no means questioning her decision. That was the first point, he thought as he switched on the living room floor lamp, tapped the mouse and sat down in his swivel desk chair. His Outlook was already open. Two messages during the night, both spam. Perhaps that was what woke him, the ding tone announcing the arrival of mail in the silent house? Could there be such a thing as spam dreams? Dreamspammers, hacking into your unconscious if you left Outlook open near your bed during the wee hours. Neither of the subject lines, though, made reference to Susan or the suggestion to send her a nice note. They were intentional misspellings like hott stokk buyy and vyaggra; he deleted both messages without opening them.

Acceptance of her decision, of course; merely a kind of condolence and goodbye. Or would congratulations be more appropriate, congrats on your new step in life? This would require more thought than the sort of note one could simply type and send. From the cubbyhole of his desk he took a yellow pad, and with a blue ball point pen withdrew to the sofa.

Dear Susan, just wanted to say how sorry I was, just wanted to not, just thought I’d

Keep it light, but sincere. Dear Susan, I know how hard breakups, or I can imagine this has been, Are you sure there isn’t some, no. Breakups are always hard, just wanted you to know how much I liked or how fond of, just, Dear Susan sorry to hear things didn’t work out for you and David, you were a, seemed like a wonderful or cute or great couple or I’m glad you were part of our family, part of David’s life for as

He would get back to that opening sentence. Second paragraph, I have a favor to ask which I hope won’t seem weird. I feel we had, have, had a good enough relationship that I can ask you candidly and if you feel it’s inappropriate you’ll say so or just not reply, more likely, I hope won’t seem weird or inappropriate. If you can, it would be a great help to me as a father if you could let me know what hap, know your side of the story. David’s heartbreak is my heartbreak too, I feel so helpless once again to, your side of the story. As I’m sure you know, David is devastated, not that he, I, he or I blame, not that I, devastated. I have great have always had great respect for you and know that your decision if indeed it was yours as I suspect even though he says mutual, decision painful as it was, decision was well thought out and for the best. But because these things are so hard for my, for David, I want to be supportive in the most constructive, it would help me as a father to help him learn from this experience and

Learning, formal school learning, had been hard for his son. David had the ability, his teachers insisted and all the psychoeducational testing showed. The ability, yet not the patience. He was never lazy. On the contrary, would work long hours, around the clock even in middle school, on a project of his own devising, creating a website or composing music on his synthesizer—earlier, with his Lego. No attention deficit, as long as it interested him. But an assignment? Pulling teeth. Deadline? Forget it. And he hadn’t changed: The girl had told Wheelock, I have to nag him a million times just to get him into the shower and out the door in the morning. She said it affectionately, but still.

At least David was working, had held a job for over a year, eight thirty to five, five days a week. A night person, he could have had the noon to nine shift but said this was better, it forced him to get up when Susan did and gave them the evenings together. She was his alarm clock. One of his work days was Saturday, and Wheelock often stopped in at the library on Saturdays. As a patron, not merely to check on his son; but there David would be, always at the counter scanning books in and out. He wasn’t good at shelving, he said—found it annoying. Shelving was a job for one of the real librarians, people who wanted to spend their lives working in a library. To me it’s just a job, he said, I do it in my sleep.

I’m sure you know that I would do anything to help David get his, help David find his anything I can to help him through the disappointment and sadness and excruciating I wonder if you really ever

One of many moments of desperation in Wheelock’s archive of failed parenting was the night he told David, then sixteen, that he’d chop off his own left arm if it would give his son the strength to quit smoking pot. Along with every other parent’s concern about them, so-called recreational drugs (misnamed, because David never seemed to be having fun), counteracted or interacted with his antidepressant medication. Not, of course, that an extra left or even right arm would be of any use to the boy, but it conveyed the price a father would pay if it were possible to bargain with the gods of human development for his son’s safe passage. Only afterward did he realize the unfortunate association between limb-severing and wrist-slitting.

He tapped his pen on the pad of paper. The room was still in shadows, only the space around his desk and chair and the white ceiling above him illuminated by the single lamp. This was a silly notion, he now realized, writing to the girl with whom he had only an indirect connection and, in fact, from the moment she became ex-girlfriend to his son, no connection at all. He would probably not send the letter, if he did get it written. What could it possibly accomplish? A reminder, maybe, that while David could be irresponsible and exasperating he was always a sweet boy, a good soul with good intentions. He loved her, you could see that. No, it wasn’t to move Susan, it was to ask her whether his worries were grounded, that her breakup with David would trigger or be the excuse for his going off meds and sliding back into chronic depression. A question not even a shrink, he supposed, could answer. It was David’s choice now, to take his meds or not. As it had been his mother’s choice.

The question really was the same as always: Is there something I could do to motivate him? How can I help? Nothing ever came easily to the boy. As a child, he didn’t want it easy, he wouldn’t have been content checking out books to others all day, he’d have wanted to read them himself. Now he read no books. The magazines he bought, read, and saved were about Nascar and Formula One racers and classic car restoration. David had never been to an automobile race, as far as his father knew, or met anyone who collected or restored cars. He’d taken the auto mechanics class in school, but that was all. Could it be his passion, if encouraged to pursue it in some way?

Surely it would not be good for David to live here long-term. It was a step backward for both of them. Yet, what if Susan’s problem with him was about drugs? He assured his father that a regimen of no more than one joint and one beer a day had proved compatible with the prescription meds. But had he escalated that, slipping back to the all-day buzz in which he’d experienced (barely) college? Even if that wasn’t the case, might this breakup with Susan, the loneliness, the despair set him back down that road? If Wheelock let him live here, he would at least see the boy every day. Those were questions on which Susan, if she replied to this email, could shed some light.

Nothing had ever come easy to David. That was true: Even as a child, he set the bar high for himself to trip over. If the assignment was to make a cardboard model of a Roman villa, he wanted to make a whole town with fortress walls surrounded by besieging Visigoths. It was brilliant—a genuine representation, if somewhat abstract, of the advantages of the Romans’ technology—but the poster board he glued everything to was impossible to transport to school without Vesuvian tremors. The collapse of all permanent structures left standing only the plastic army men representing barbarians. Wheelock smiled as he recalled the fifth grade teacher declaring the project a successful illustration of Rome’s fall. Nonetheless, displayed on Parents’ Night next to the other children’s dioramas, some showing the obvious craft of a talented mother or father, David’s was a mess and he knew it. That same year or perhaps the next, his mother doing well on the antidepressants she would soon deliberately forgo, he talked his best friend, Kevin, into Trick-or-Treating as a two-boy Pushmepullyou out of Dr. Doolittle. They spent all day at her machine, stitching the costume together out of a set of green bed sheets, reptilian-looking heads over chicken wire frames, each with a treat bag suspended below its mouth like a cart horse’s feed. Few adults, let alone children in the neighborhood could have identified the creature. After an hour, the quadruped returned home as two bipeds, bagless and empty-handed. High school kids had mugged the Pushmepullyou. They didn’t even have costumes, David wailed, just went as themselves, mean bullies out robbing younger kids! That the world, let alone his own neighborhood, could harbor such unfairness and cruelty shocked the boy. It incensed the father: boys, get in the car, we’re going to find them and … but they refused to go out into the spooky, chilly autumn night, even in the cause of justice. Wheelock understood. It would only have added to David’s humiliation to confront the bullies, having run crying to his Daddy.

Nor, he realized, was there any way to intervene in David’s relationship. He merely wondered what went wrong with Susan. Maybe nothing. Young couples broke up for good reasons. That’s what you were supposed to do, how you’d avoid marrying the wrong person and finding yourself helpless to overcome her devils and then alone, except for a child you can’t protect for the rest of your life.

Still, such a nice girl.

Susan, it probably seems crazy that I’m even, the only reason I ask, Susan, if you know of something David needs at this, if you, if the problem is if he needs to go in rehab again I don’t know if he’d admit it to me. I hope you would feel comfortable any

He’d been too strict with his only child. Or not strict enough. And he shouldn’t have rushed him into therapy after his mother … he’d since read that a child needs to process that kind of tragedy in his own way, and you should wait for his behavior to show he needs to talk about it. On the other hand, maybe the depressed mother and inept father should have seen David’s own problems earlier. They’d been told to ignore his stuttering, as a four-year-old, and indeed he did get over it after a few years. But did he really get over it? Or would his whole life be a perpetual stutter? How much was a consequence of losing his mother, of coming home from school and hearing her music in the bathroom, pounding on the door for an hour before finally calling his father at work, or was it simply his own congenital depression?

If David had stayed in college, had finished by now, would it have made any difference with Susan? Perhaps he’d have felt better about himself and thereby …. If he hadn’t been fired from that job—not the last one he got fired from but the previous one, the cell phone store. He was crushed, after feeling so proud of himself. Assistant manager, in charge of opening the store four days a week. A month into the job he came home and said his manager apologized for having to let him go, said you’re a great employee, I know you made some real good sales, you’re smart, you’re a nice guy. But I cut you slack twice when you opened late, my district manager won’t let me keep you. Couldn’t he have moved him to the afternoon-evening shift? David might have overslept no matter how late the shift—but they should have given him a chance. Of course, there’s lots of bright kids out there eager for employment. I’m a businessman myself, Wheelock would have said if he’d gone to have a talk with the man. Lots of bright kids you can hire. But are the others as creative? Do they have David’s imagination? Unlikely.

At five, he told his parents he had a friend named Frank. Frank was a grown-up, ten years old. Frank wore a mustache. Frank lived in the house, played with David every day. Frank had a train. No, not a train set, a big train he drove to New York. Frank had taken David along to New York and back in his locomotive, yesterday. Yes, it was surprising they’d never noticed Frank.

Wheelock knew his son had to live his life now. Yet the father could imagine, like an imaginary friend, a David who bounded out of bed in the morning and kept his appointments and felt good about his work and whom no young woman in her right mind would let go. A dream son who found his way back to the room in the big hotel and made his perfect presentation, stood on stage expounding brilliant solutions for a receptive audience. As his father, and mother, sat in the back, content. Proud. Relieved.

I’m just asking, Susan. You’re not his mother, you have your own life to live, believe me, I understand. But what can you tell me? What can I tell my wife?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was your very moving graduation piece -- loved reading it again. Hope you're going to keep submitting to print media!