The Sultry Older Sister of My Imaginary
BEST FRIEND was my
imaginary friend, a boy named Rod, short for Rodney, friend of my own
invention. I based him on a boy that I met by chance one day, a runaway
boy who was passing through Babbington
on his way to somewhere else, anywhere, nowhere, who-knows-where. I brought
him to meet my great-grandmother Leroy, because I happened to be on my
way to see her, and later, long after the runaway boy had left town, one
day when Great-grandmother and I were trading secrets, I confessed to her
that I considered him my best friend.
“What was his name again?” she asked.
When Great-grandmother asked me a question, I was never
quite sure whether she was testing me or simply wanted to know something.
Did she know that I didn’t really know the boy’s name? Did she suppose
that I would have made one up?
“Rodney,” I said. “Rod.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I remember. And what was his last
I was ready for this. I had a last name for him. It had
been given to me, gratis, one day in the schoolyard. I had witnessed the
taunting of a sullen, dark-haired girl by a group of other, livelier girls.
Over and over they repeated, in singsong voices, something that may have
been “Koochie-koochie-koochie-koo. Would she take it off for you?” The
lively girls laughed. The sullen girl stared at the ground and turned and
walked away. As she passed a line of boys leaning against the schoolyard
fence, they took up the chant, too. I had no idea what all of this might
have been about. I was seven, and the actors in the little drama might
have been thirteen. On the way home, however, I found myself repeating
the chant, as well as I remembered it. The distortions of memory and repetition
twisted it into something like “Koochie Koochikoff,” and, eventually, in
the days that followed, into what I used for Rodney’s last name.
“Lodkochnikov,” I said.
“What?” she said.
“Lodkochnikov,” I said again, slowly.
“Hmm,” she said. She stared at me long and hard, then
gave a little shudder and said, “Well, we’ll see.”
After that day she asked me about my friend Rod Lodkochnikov
often, and when I described the imaginary adventures we had, the games
we played, and so on, she always seemed relieved, as if she feared that
he would be an unsuitable companion for me. She never got his name quite
right. She was convinced that he was called Raskolnikov, and that’s the
name that stuck as a nickname, Raskol
for short. When I was little, I thought of this Raskol as a wanderer,
sent by luck or fate to be my friend, but as I aged, or, possibly, as I
matured, I came to see that he hadn’t come from anywhere; he had been with
me all the time. Although I had made the shell of this friend from bits
and pieces of other people—scraps, used parts that I’d picked up here and
there from the junkyard of my memory and imagination—his head and his heart
were mine from the start, and that’s why we got along so well.
Most children give their imaginary friends up after a
while, ignore them, send them away, or let them go, but I kept mine, and
along with him I kept his entire family: his enormous half-witted brothers,
his sturdy and long-suffering mother, his violent father—a battered, belabored,
and disappointed man—and his sultry sister, Ariane. When
I was a boy, I was in love with Ariane. She was fascinating, dark and
shapely, luscious as a ripe plum, and if she were here now, looking over
my shoulder as I write these words, she’d be likely to say, “Take it easy,
there, boy. Don’t spread it on quite so thick. Control yourself.”
For a few months when I was eleven, Ariane and I spent
our afternoons together, afternoons that seem incredible to me now, the
two of us alone in a dark little room at her parents’ house, watching movies
on television. She allowed me, now and then, to brush against her, to lean
against her, or even to give her a fleeting caress, if I disguised it as
an accidental blunder, and she allowed me, with no restrictions at all,
to look at her. I was allowed, even invited, to enjoy the sight of her,
to appreciate the way she looked. In that sense and that sense alone she
gave herself to me, and I took what she offered—regarding her, considering
her, contemplating her for hours. The television set was always on during
our afternoons together, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I spent
my time watching Ariane. A work of art needs a viewer.
I entertained—and endured—uncontrollable fantasies about
her. I imagined a reciprocal affection and even—I’ll be delicate—a consummation
of that affection, but I was just a boy, six very significant years younger
than she. I was disheveled and ignorant, sweaty, loud, half-baked. Still,
I like to think that she recognized my childish love for her and understood
it, and that it pleased her.
A COUPLE OF YEARS later, when I was beginning to escape my childishness,
I began to flirt with Ariane in a more overt way that she couldn’t have
failed to recognize. I began to try to tell her what I felt for her, but
my complex, fragile feelings were drowned out by the thunder of my roaring,
snorting, charging adolescent lust, and the stammered protestations of
affection that I managed to get out always wound up coming out as the sort
of thing that made her say, “Take it easy, there, boy. Don’t spread it
on quite so thick. Control yourself.”
At about that time, Ariane got a job at a resort, though
“resort” is really too grand a term for the place. It was a motel with
pretensions. She worked there for about a year and a half, as a maid, a
waitress, and hostess—and then something happened to her, something that
I didn’t understand. She distanced herself from everyone—her family, her
school friends, me.
I blamed myself, of course. I accused myself of having
gone too far with her. I must have said the wrong thing, something that
made her draw a curtain. She seemed to turn inward, but she moved outward,
leaving home and moving into an odd house of her own down in the scruffiest
part of town, the shadowy warehouse area near the docks. I visited her
down there, now and then, passing an evening with her at her place, but
I found the surroundings and her circumstances unsettling. Paradoxically
(but she would disapprove of my use of that word), although she was living
by herself, I no longer felt the splendid isolation from the prying world
that had made our earlier afternoons so sweet, and I felt none of the old
privileged freedom to view her without shame or self-consciousness. In
fact, I felt almost nothing but self-consciousness when I visited
her there, and that self-consciousness dulled my senses, muffled me. We
still enjoyed each other’s company in a shallow way, but often when we
spoke she seemed to be thinking about something entirely different from
what she was saying, and no matter how many hours we might chat, there
were still so many things deliberately left unsaid that they made an insulating
hollow between us, like the dead air in an outside wall. The evenings we
spent together ended alike: the silences would lengthen and finally I would
say that I had to go. She would show me to the door, and after I heard
it close behind me I would walk away with my head down until I was out
of sight, in the shadows.
Sometimes, I would walk to her part of town without telling
her that I was coming. I’d find a spot where I could see her, and I would
watch her for a while, just watch her sitting in her living room or puttering
in her kitchen. I might watch her for an hour or so, but after a while,
when I had decided that I wasn’t going to walk around to her kitchen door
and knock, I’d give up and go home.
I WENT AWAY to college, stayed away for graduate school, and then returned
to teach molluscan biology, local history, folk etymology, and recreational
mathematics at Babbington High. When I returned, Ariane was still in town,
at the same place, down by the docks, but I didn’t see much of her. I just
never seemed to have the time. Then one night her house burned down and
Ariane was killed.
Again, I blamed myself. If I had been there—who knows.
Perhaps the fire never would have started. Perhaps I could have put it
out. Or perhaps we would have died together. When I start a thought with
I tend to get lost in a maze of possibilities, and soon I’m furious with
headstrong fate for having, in haste to get from then to then,
chosen a single route, and a wrong one at that, an unacceptable one, when
so many others would have served, such as the one that I have described
in the pages that follow, which provides a fire extinguisher at the critical
moment and allows her to telephone me one night, a few years after the
fire extinguisher saved her.
I WAS READING when the phone rang, and I was reluctant to answer, but
I’ve never been good at ignoring a ringing phone, so I picked it up after
the third ring.
“Hello?” I said.
“Peter?” said the voice at the other end of the line.
“Yes,” I said.
“I bet you don’t know who this is.”
It sounded like Ariane, but I wasn’t sure, and when people
ask you to guess they usually have some trick up their sleeve.
“It’s Ariane,” she said, without requiring me to guess.
All my boyish feelings for her came back to me, and for
a moment I saw her in my mind’s eye just as she had been—back when I was
eleven and she was seventeen, when she was somewhere between girl and woman—as
if I had seen her earlier that day, but because the truth was that I hadn’t
seen her for months, I immediately felt guilty about it.
“How are you?” I asked, and I heard in my voice a phoniness
that embarrassed me.
“Fine,” she said.
“I haven’t been down there to see you in a while,” I said.
“I—” I could taste the lame excuses in my mouth.
“Oh, never mind about that,” she said. “I called you to
tell you something that—well—that I can hardly believe.” She paused. Apparently
she was waiting for some response from me.
“Oh?” I said.
“I’m leaving Babbington.”
“Wow,” was all I could think of to say. I had regressed
to early adolescence. I had begun to feel the same aching yearning for
her I had felt so many years before. “I—I—really don’t know what to say,”
I said. This happens to me, sometimes. It’s not really that I don’t know
what to say, but that I can’t seem to get hold of it. Everything I might
say seems to be on the other side of a fence, guarded by a drooling dog,
inaccessible to me.
“It’s time for something else,” she said. “Time for me
to do something else, maybe it’s even time for me to be someone else. Anyway,
it’s time to go.”
“I—I’m—astonished. It’s hard to think of Babbington
without you. You’re an institution.”
“I know,” she said. “Think of the broken hearts! But I’ve
had enough of it. Anyway, before I go, I want to see you.”
“Oh, sure! I want to see you, too! I’m not letting you
out of town without a good-bye—”
“I don’t mean just to say good-bye. I want—well—I have
some stories that I want to tell you. Maybe I just want to get nostalgic.
Maybe I miss your attention. I don’t know.”
“I’ll come over.”
“This will take a while,” she said. “It’s not a one-night
I’m sure I was blushing.
“Do you mind spending a few evenings with me?” she asked.
I had the pleasant feeling that time had reversed our roles, that she was
flirting with me. Perhaps I was flattering myself, but a guy needs some
of that now and then.
“Not at all,” I said.
“Maybe we can curl up together on the sofa and watch television.”
I could hear her smile.
“For old times’sake,” I said.
“Tomorrow night? Seven?”
“I’ll be there,” I said. I hung up. My palm had left an
interesting pattern of sweat on the handset.
FOR ABOUT A MONTH, in my version, I saw her nearly every night. Most
of the time, she talked, and I listened. I took notes; she did not. I tried
to get a word in now and then, and now and then she allowed me to, but
most of the time she did the talking. She had a lot to tell me. When she
had told me all her stories and we had, finally, said our good-byes, I
went home, a little dizzy from it all, put the notes into a carton, labeled
it “ARIANE’S STORY,” and put it in the cellar. Years passed. She wrote
to me, long, rambling letters that arrived at irregular intervals from
distant, exotic places as she meandered halfway around the world. I saved
In December of 1992, Gregory Tschudin’s film On Display
was released and a fierce northeast storm struck, the third severe storm
in a few months. The storm battered this old hotel where I make my life,
and flooded the cellar, and the film jarred my memory. While I was cleaning
the cellar, sorting through the mementos I stored there, many of them now
destroyed, I came upon the notes I had taken during the month I spent listening
to Ariane. Now sodden and fragile, they were all but illegible. Her letters,
which I had packed in a bundle, fared better. I was able to dry them out
and read them. As I read, I found myself reminded of those nights that
we had spent together and our conversations, and I was not at all surprised
to find that as I recalled the things we had talked about and the time
we had spent together I was already beginning to think of writing this
book. By the time I had finished the last of her letters I could see the
book. I could picture it finished, almost feel it in my hands. I was astonished
to discover how much of what I am now I owe to Ariane. In so very many
ways, she made me what I am today, even though I made her up. For me she
exists at an intersection that is the confabulation of many myths, the
anastomosis of several narrative lines, a crossroads in a labyrinth of
tales where secret doors lead from one story to another, and she’s waiting
there for me. It was she who taught me the sustaining value and rewards
of a rich inner life, lived in the imagination. It was she who taught me
the clarifying power of words. It was she who taught me to look beyond
myself to find myself. She taught me all the things that were essential
to my creating a life for myself, and to my creating a self, and she also
taught me—largely through example, rereading the letters showed me— how
very many things can be explained in terms of clam
chowder. Along the way, I see now, she groomed me to tell her story,
and so I have. I hope I’ve done it justice. I hope it would have made her
July 26, 1993