For the last six months my son has had an imaginary friend he calls Secret Anna. They do everything together — she goes with him to school; she follows him to baseball; she even helps with homework. I know I should be happy. Six months ago he didn’t have any friends, and now that he has Secret Anna kids have started coming to the house — they’ve already met Secret Anna of course, but they wanted to see where she lives.
When this whole thing started I did what any parent would do and I pretended I was happy to make Secret Anna’s acquaintance.
“Where are Secret Anna’s parents? They must be worried she’s not home for supper.”
“Secret Anna doesn’t have parents,” said Traxel. He had turned nine that very day, the day he came home carrying a Tupperware container full of funfetti cupcakes, Secret Anna having apparently ridden the bus as well.
“She doesn’t have parents? Then how did she get her name?”
“She did have parents,” said Traxel. I watched him thinking it over, inventing her life on the spot. “But they forgot to bring her with them. And now she’s here with us.”
That night, after tucking Traxel and Secret Anna in bed, I looked into imaginary friends. Apparently nine is still a typical age to be having a made-up friend. Sometimes there are sixteen-year-olds who think they have made-up girlfriends. In rare instances, sometimes these friends follow you through life, though in less severe cases you only talk to yourself. There was a moment of outright panic when I imagined Traxel pushing a shopping cart full of trash and castaway tires down the side of the highway, conspiring with Secret Anna how they were going to blow up the insurance companies and beget a whole society of imaginary, made-up citizens, but then I told myself he was just going through a phase — this too shall pass, just like the one where he ate only SpaghettiOs, stuffing, and Bagel Bites, just like the one where he insisted on being called Edison — this is just something he has to go through to become a mature adult. And we’ve been stuck with Secret Anna ever since.
“How was school?” I say.
Tonight Traxel’s new friend Jerome is joining us for dinner.
“Good,” say both of them.
“Jerome scored a touchdown today at recess. He did his touchdown dance. Show her your touchdown dance, Jerome.”
The child shimmies up and down in his seat like he is bowing and running at once, and Traxel watches Jerome with delight.
“Touchdown mambo, touchdown bongo,” intones the child, a chant as much as a song.
I too am delighted. For a while it seemed like he’d never have any friends. I’d ask him what he did that day at school, and he’d say, “Nothing,” and then I’d ask him who he saw, and he’d say, “Nobody,” and then I’d ask him how he was feeling, and he’d say, “Okay,” and that was the extent of our conversation for the first six months.
“Tell her what Secret Anna did today,” says Jerome, abruptly halting his dance.
“What did Secret Anna do today?”
“She did,” recollects Traxel, looking up from his corn on the cob (thankfully I have never had to set out a plate for Secret Anna; all that is required of me in my part of the charade is that I give her a goodnight kiss on her invisible forehead that lies next to his on the pillow and tell her to have a good day at school), “Secret Anna kicked Miss Hutchins!”
“She kicked her?”
Both boys giggle.
“Miss Hutchins tripped down the stairs, and it was because Secret Anna kicked her in her big old bohonkus,” explains Jerome.
“It’s not nice to laugh when people end up hurting themselves,” I say. “Miss Hutchins could have twisted an ankle or broken a leg.”
“Miss Hutchins was being a boo. She was saying Toby couldn’t have recess, and then, when she walked us to PE, Secret Anna ran up behind her and kicked her in the hiney.”
“Secret Anna’s parents should have taught her better manners,” I say. “She’s lucky Miss Hutchins didn’t put her in timeout.”
“Secret Anna can do whatever she wants,” says Traxel.
After Jerome’s father takes home his son, Traxel and his stuff are spread out over the carpet so he can work on his homework. On his fingers he is counting out numbers, the words of which are whispered into the air, no more substantial than, say, a faint reunion of ghosts. I assume Secret Anna is somewhere near beside him.
“How’s it going?”
“I’m almost finished.”
I sit on the couch and try to remember how I told myself to begin.
“Are you somewhere where you can take a quick break?”
Traxel’s baby blue eyes look up.
“Look,” I start, “I want you to know how proud of you I am. You’ve been such a trouper this year about doing just what you’re doing now. Your grades have really improved; you’ve made so many cool friends, like Jerome. I’m so happy you’re finally making traction as Mommy’s favorite young man.”
He looks at me like he knows all this, like I am explaining to him how to tie his shoelaces or how cats’ claws extend and retract.
“But I’m a little worried about Secret Anna.” Now his face starts to fall. “I’m proud of her too, but … don’t you think her parents are wondering where she is? She must miss playing with her favorite toys.”
“I told you: They left her.”
“Okay, right. But doesn’t she have an aunt or an uncle somewhere who are wondering what all’s happened to her?”
He is staring at me as if he expects me to know the answer, as if the answer were as evident as Secret Anna is to a nine-year-old.
“Secret Anna is fine with us. Aren’t you?” he turns and inquires, inquires of the air right beside him. Either Secret Anna is recounting her whole life’s saga or Traxel assumes I must have heard the answer as well.
“Well, what did she say?”
“She said she wants to stay here forever.”
That night I dream I am on a tropical island, where I have gone for the day on a date. Suddenly I remember Traxel, but then in a burst of relief I recall I have hired a sitter to stay with him, so it is okay I am on the island, okay I am on my date. The sea is surging limpid billows of clear and mudless water, and the sky above me is blue and serene and pure. I am wearing my new bathing suit, and I am going for a swim, and the water feels warm and inviting, like something that has come out to play. I am floating on my back. When I open my eyes I am in the arms of a beautiful man whose name, I know, is Handsome, and I realize we desperately want one another. I am in his arms; I am on his bed. His chest is a tan waxed triangle. “What are you waiting for? Get over here, Handsome.” Now he is sitting on the edge of the bed in the hotel, staring at his fluffy pink slippers, looking quiet and quite forlorn. “What is it?” Suddenly I remember Traxel: It is now almost nighttime; I have told the sitter I would bring her home by ten, which is far too soon for me to get back in time from Hawaii. “It’s just that,” says Handsome, his downcast handsome head in his downcast handsome hands, “I’m sad I’m not really real.” I can feel my wonderful night of pleasure beginning to slip away — Traxel is waiting for me and the sitter — and I try to think of anything I can do to ensure it may last, if only another minute. “No,” I say, “that’s not true,” no matter that I can feel the slightly upward tinge to my voice that reveals what I am saying is not true. “You’re just really sad.”
“I’m sad because I’m not real.”
And when I go over to the edge of the bed to comfort him, to console his sinewy back, and sure enough, on squeezing him, I squeeze until he disappears to a memory.
I wake up feeling frustrated and as sad as Handsome.
One afternoon Traxel and his friend Marvin are playing down by the creek, and I get a call from a neighbor, who tells me they are shouting the f-word, each shout louder than the one before until they end up screaming pure vowels.
“Thanks,” I say. “I will deal with it.”
I know for a fact that someone has written that word in cement over there by the creek, which is where the boys must have discovered it.
When they come home an hour later, their rubber boots caked with mud and smelling of young-boy sweat, which is not so much repugnant, the way it will be once they go through puberty, as adorable and innocuous, like it was watching him do taekwondo when he was six, I clear my throat and commence my speech.
“Boys, Miss Ellerby called and said you were shouting by the creek. Is that true?”
“Yeah,” says Traxel, taking off his boots in front of the carpet. “We were shouting f— ” And I hear my son say for the first time in my life the word of hip-hop songs and pornographers. All of me goes cold, but I know I cannot get angry at him for saying something he doesn’t know is meant to be bad, know I must approach this coolheaded and calm.
“But you don’t know what that word means, do you?”
Both boys shake their heads.
“Good. For the time being all you need to know is it’s a very bad word. From now on if you say it you’ll be in a lot of trouble. Is that understood?”
Both boys nod their heads.
“Secret Anna taught it to us,” says Marvin, and if he were my kid, if Traxel had said that, I would probably push back a little and tell him where he saw it was scrawled in the cement by the creek, but because he is not my son I am willing to let this pass. Then as they are debating whether to play in the den or the bedroom, Traxel says, “Secret Anna, she said you can’t keep saying that!”
“Is she saying it still?” says Marvin, showing his mouth full of big white teeth.
“It’s all she’s saying. I told her she has to stop, but she won’t listen.”
Traxel looks back, glancing at me in the corner, waiting to see what I’ll say.
“Stop, Secret Anna. No, she said you have to quit saying that. Stop it. Stop it! STOP!”
They both look back.
“Trax, you and Secret Anna are both going to get a long timeout. Now I don’t want to hear that word from either of you. Is that understood?”
He says that he understands, and he and his friend run off to play in his bedroom, and as they scamper away I hear Traxel, in a voice he thinks is beyond earshot, tell Marvin, “She still won’t quit saying the bad word.”
At dinner there is this weird tension. We sit and eat our Stouffer’s lasagna and Green Giant green beans not with a silence oppressing the room but with the loud prevalence of the f-word, the echo of my son’s cursing by the creek, still rippling through the air like a tide roaring and flowing, never to ebb. It is not as if they have murdered somebody and buried the body by the creek; there is no blood or sin on their hands, only the tossed milestone that a child is getting older; there will be other milestones, more prevalent and more sinister, in the process of time, I assure myself, and if I am not ready to confront them, I very well should be.
“Miss Oliver, may I have some more lasagna, please?”
“Yes, of course.”
I get up from my chair at the table with the boy’s plate in my hand, go to the counter by the stove, cut another square of lasagna with the spatula, put it on the boy’s plate, which I set on his alphabet placemat, and as I go to sit on my chair I land flat on the ground on my rump. Above me, screened by the tablecloth, I hear their uproarious laughter. In that moment I was going to sit, those frail microseconds of the planned loss of control of a blind backward free fall, I assumed I would be caught by the seat of the chair, but I landed right my rump, landed on the hard tile floor. From now on I will be distrustful of sitting.
Having returned upright in my chair, the shock still smarting in my tailbone, I say: “There’s your entertainment for the evening, free of charge.”
“Secret Anna,” says Traxel, “that was great.”
“Huh?” I say. “What was that?”
“Secret Anna pulled the chair out from under you when you were going to sit.”
“No,” I stare at him until he finds me looking at him, “I missed the chair and I fell.”
“Nuh-uh. She pulled the chair out from under you. Secret Anna that was awesome!”
“Look!” I say, striking the table so that the silverware shudders in place. “Secret Anna isn’t real! She doesn’t exist! She’s just a figment of your imagination. And if I hear one more word out of you about Secret Anna tonight, you’ll be grounded for the rest of the week, is that clear?”
The way he is looking at me — shocked, effectively disappointed — I have hamstrung him in front of his friend — says he cannot believe me: either believe his made-up friend isn’t really real or believe I want nothing to do with her, with him.
For the rest of the night, after we drop off Marvin at his house a few streets away, Traxel will not talk to me. He does his homework with the concentration of a tinker repairing a watch, and at my attempts to check in he either nods or shakes his head. Aloofness is his game. He is as silent as Secret Anna. I worry that, as a result of my slip, now his friends will all abandon him, that maybe it really was Secret Anna who was vital to his success, that soon will go the good grades, soon will dissolve that burst of brightness, this season of relief we have enjoyed. If Secret Anna was the price of Traxel’s adjustment, could I really not afford paying her? Is my vanity really so fragile it could be shattered by a person who doesn’t exist? When I go to kiss him goodnight, I kiss the spot where Secret Anna usually sleeps, but on my doing so he says, “No.”
“There’s nobody there.”
“Aw, honey,” I say, stroking his hair, part of me recognizing that I am merely touching him in order to comfort myself that my son is no figment of my own imagination. “Look, I’m really sorr— ”
“Just go,” he says. “Please.”
What can I do but go?
The next day he and Jerome return together from school. I have made oatmeal-raisin cookies to help atone for last night’s outburst, and when they smell what awaits them they come scurrying to the counter. Jerome has eaten three before Traxel takes his first bite.
“How was you boys’ day?”
“Okay.” He shrugs, and soon the two of them are off down the driveway, Traxel on his bike, Jerome following on Traxel’s skateboard. I do the dishes with the seriousness of a penitent monk, making sure every fleck of batter has been rinsed down the drain and that the bowl and sheets are pristine, shining. As I wash and dry, I think about whether there is any way I can convince him that Secret Anna truly exists. “No, you see, just because she isn’t physical, doesn’t mean she has no bearing whatsoever on reality.” But I cannot think of a line of argument that doesn’t sound overly contrived and like a theological discourse on a principle of grave contention, so I decide the best I can do is offer a heartfelt apology and the promise of a nice vacation for the two of us this summer after he finishes fourth grade.
When they return, there is mud on their sneakers that displays the reluctant fact they have been playing again by the creek. Jerome is proudly touting a skinned knee, and I go for the band-aids and disinfectant while the two of them take off their boots and discuss moccasins. For the rest of the afternoon and then through dinner there is no reference to Secret Anna. No knowing glances or allusion that would suggest her presence about the table. Finally I cannot refrain from coming right out and asking: “Did you boys have fun today playing with Secret Anna?”
Both of them quit chewing. For a second they stare at me as though I were daffy, like I had told them underwear doubles as a nice hat or had posed the question in a foreign language.
“What? Isn’t Secret Anna — ”
“Secret Anna is dead,” says Traxel. He pronounces the fact without expression, emotion, or narrative.
“What?” I say, unsure whether I have heard him correctly.
Jerome’s mouth is partly open: I can glimpse the unchewed food that he has tasted but yet to swallow. Whether their seriousness is a matter of disinterest or grief at the loss of their friend lies beyond my ability to judge.
“But … how can … why did she die?”
“Secret Anna was hit by a bus,” says Traxel, suddenly enlivening with enthusiasm.
“She was hit by a bus!” cries Jerome. “That’s awesome!”
“Yeah!” says Traxel, envisioning what were the circumstances, what were the last moments of her unseen demise. “I told her she had to look whenever she’s crossing the street — I told her she always had to look out both ways — but she never listened. She was crossing the street and WHAM! Secret Anna was hit by a bus.”
“Hit by a bus!” sings Jerome. “Secret Anna was hit by a bus! Secret Anna’s dead as a doornail!”
“As she was hit I heard her scream f— ”
For that I have to send him to his room, but I do so, punish him, laughing. I’m glad Secret Anna found a nice way to die.
Featured image: CatJB / Shutterstock
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