If and I were kicking back in the garage loft, what a lot of people would call a “man cave.” My wife, Dee, used to call it my tree house, ’cause you gotta climb a ladder to get to it. Maybe she still calls it that. I don’t know.
Dee never breached the sanctity of the cave. But she did climb the ladder once to tape a crayon-written sign on the door: NO GURLZ ALOUD.
Cave or tree house, I got everything I need in the loft. Milk crate chairs, an icebox, and stacks of books: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Poe, Hawthorne, and Faulkner. Classic American literature is my passion and what I teach. There’s also a slew of mysteries and a few Westerns. Oh, and If even got me reading SF.
“Toss me a brew,” I said to If.
It was late night and Dee had gone to bed hours ago. If dug through the icebox and pulled forth a bottle. I sometimes thought about getting a mini fridge for my cave, but there’s something about a cooler full of ice that I like.
If tossed me the bottle. That’s another thing I like: bottles. Not cans. Beer from a can tastes like metal.
I caught the bottle, twisted the cap. Foam spewed. I sucked at the foam, not about to let good beer go to waste.
If made his usual homoerotic comment: “Suck that head, baby. Get it all.”
We lapsed into the comfortable silence of two men who’ve known each other forever, until If had to go and break it: “Don’t you ever wonder how I do that?”
“Throw you a beer like that.”
“Yeah, real Olympian feat there. You want a gold medal?”
“You know what I mean.”
I looked at If as if for the first time. His appearance changes slightly, depending on my mood. Sometimes he looks like how I remember my dad. Other times more like a character out of Hemingway. He’s always a manly man, but with an easy way about him. A guy’s guy.
Oh, I knew he wasn’t real. I’m not stupid. I knew that “If” stood for Imaginary Friend, a little pun my subconscious mind coughed up way back when I was eight years old. But damnit, we grew up together and he stuck around long after childhood. We were friends.
So why did he have to go and spoil things by reminding me of what he was? We sat in silence again, but this time it was very uncomfortable.
“I’m waiting for an answer,” If said.
I killed my beer and got up to fish through the ice for another.
“That was the last brew. The one I threw you. And you haven’t answered my question: how could somebody like me, who is purely a pigment of your imagination-“
“A pigment of your imagination, throw a physical object from Point A, the icebox, to Point B, your open and eagerly waiting hand?”
I glared at If. My good mood was ruined and the beer was gone. Time to call it a night. I headed for the door.
Then two solid-as-anything hands clamped down on my shoulders. I stopped and turned back toward If.
As I said, we grew up together. If showed up shortly after my father left. I was walking home from school one day when an older boy ran up to me.
“Hi. My name’s If.”
“Stupid name,” I said, and kept right on walking.
If walked with me and kept talking.
“Go away,” I said.
“Why? What’d I do?”
“Just go away.”
I got to my front door.
“Who are you talking to?” my mother wanted to know.
“Nobody,” I said.
And sure enough, If was nowhere in sight.
But now, many years later, he was standing right smack in front of me. I looked at him. Really looked at him. He seemed as real and solid as anybody I ever knew.
Only he couldn’t be.
“Okay,” I said. “To answer your question of how you threw me a beer. In short: you didn’t. I went over to the box, grabbed myself a brew, and sat back down with it. Then I blanked out the memory of me getting the beer, and filled in the blank with the false memory of you tossing it.”
“Dr. Z. would be proud. You explained it all nice and neat with a pretty little bow on top. And all without resorting to psychobabble.”
“One thing, though. If I didn’t throw the beer, why did it foam up like it did?”
I opened the door and looked at the NO GURLZ ALOUD sign. I knew Dee had meant it as a joke but was she also trying to say I had never really grown up? Hell, she was probably right. While she was snug in bed, I was in the garage loft arguing with my imaginary friend.
“I must have shaken the damn thing,” I said. “Just so it would foam up. I’ve been fooling myself for a long time. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
I stepped through the door and climbed down the ladder.
The next night I started for the loft out of habit and made it as far as the ladder before thinking about If. I turned around, returned to the house, and plopped down next to Dee on the couch.
“Get lost on the way to the tree house?” she asked.
“Thought I’d hang out here,” I said. “Or we could catch a movie.”
“Good plan. Give me five minutes to get ready.”
We hit a Stallone action flick, stopped for coffee on the way back, and stayed up talking, way past our bedtimes. It was a fun night.
When I sat on the couch the next day after work, Dee was confused. I told her I wanted to spend more time with her. So for the next few nights we dined out, went for long walks, and talked for hours on end. When Friday came, we stayed in, went to bed early, and made love all night.
At one point Dee breathed, “Do you love me?”
“Why would you ask me that? Of course I do.”
I wanted to say more but there is a wall inside that I can’t get past. I felt like one of Hemingway’s stoic characters and it pained me because Dee deserves so much more.
We got up Saturday afternoon and I suggested we go out for pancakes. Dee looked at me kind of funny. “What, the man cave broken now?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I like all this attention. I just want to make sure you’re getting your man time.”
“I’m full up on man time. Now it’s time for some woman time.”
I threw her to the bed and we wrestled playfully.
“I just hope If doesn’t start to feel neglected,” Dee said.
I froze. Yes, Dee knew about If. But we hadn’t discussed him for a long time. Sometimes I’d think about something If said but I never talked about him.
Dee wrapped her legs around me, trying to restart our little romp, but it wasn’t working. I wasn’t feeling it.
“If isn’t real.” I snapped.
“Oh, I know. I know. I just thought, well, I don’t know what I thought.”
“He isn’t real. I’m a grown man and I don’t need him.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought him up.”
“It’s okay. Really. I’m just being weird.”
“Weird is fine.”
“It’s just that you have this whole other life up in your tree house. And he’s part of it. And I’m not. So maybe I’m jealous.”
“Well he’s not real, so there’s nothing to be jealous of.”
We wrestled a bit more, but the spark had gone out.
We never did get those pancakes.
That night, after Dee went to sleep, I slipped out of bed and up to the loft. If was waiting.
“No beer?” he called out.
“I came here to be alone. Not to drink beer with somebody who doesn’t even exist.”
“Okay, okay! I’ll shut my mouth.”
“That’s not the same thing! You’re still here!”
“Except I’m not. As you so graciously keep reminding me.”
“You know, for an imaginary friend, you can be a real pain in the ass.”
“I try my best.”
We got to bullshitting around, like always.
“You do know,” If said after a while. “That I’m jealous of you. Jealous of your life.”
“Oh, that’s just great! Everybody’s jealous. Dee is jealous of you and now you’re jealous.”
“Hell yeah! I’m stuck up here in the loft all the time.”
“How tragic for you, stuck up here with all these books and all this free time. No job and no responsibility.”
“No wife and no social life.”
“No social life? What am I, Swiss cheese?”
We laughed and lapsed into another comfortable silence until If broke it: “We could do with a few beers.”
“What am I, your serving wench?”
“The serving wench is on strike. There’s a six-pack in the fridge downstairs. Get it yourself.”
We looked at each other for a long time. Then If whispered a single word: “Okay.”
He headed for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“You told me to get the beer. So that’s where I’m going. You gave me permission.”
“You need permission? What are you, five years old?”
“You know I need permission. Don’t you remember? Back when you built this cave you said you could no longer be seen in public talking to an imaginary friend. That if I wanted to continue existing it had to be up here. In the loft and nowhere else.”
“So yes. I need permission. Do I have it?”
“What if Dee sees you?”
“Do you want me to get the beer or not?”
I thought about it for a long time. What was happening here? Would I get the beer then wipe my own memory and convince myself that If had done it? Or was he now actually capable of interacting with the physical world?
“One minute. No more. Go down, get the beer, and come back in one minute.”
“Ah, the unforgiving minute,” said If.
Something stirred in me when he said those words.
If stepped out the door. I watched him climb down the ladder, smiling like a lunatic. He opened the door leading to the kitchen and stepped out of my sight. Seconds later he stepped back in the garage, the beer in hand. He made his way up the ladder, six-pack tucked securely under one arm.
He stepped back into the loft, set down the beer, and held out his hand. We shook and his memory of that brief excursion flooded my brain and I saw the world through his eyes. That menial task of retrieving a sixer of beer had been one minute of pure freedom and wonder.
Every year I embark on some wild adventure that I call my Annual Expedition: Sailing, whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, zip lining, that sort of thing. One time, I even descended in a shark cage. If’s trip to the fridge was as thrilling for him as all my Expeditions compressed into a single minute.
I love my job.
I love pontificating about how Hemingway compresses so much into a single sentence and how Poe’s distilled fears powered his stories. But mostly I love it when the students “get it,” when they truly understand that reading the Classics is a pleasure to be savored over a lifetime. Yes, sometimes I get on my soapbox until everyone thinks Hemingway and I should get a room, but usually my enthusiasm is contagious.
But every now and then I get an entire classroom of students who just don’t care. They are there for nothing but the credits and their apathy is as palpable as a dead fish.
I understand that my passion isn’t everybody’s passion. Truly, I do. But that doesn’t make it easier when I’m peering out over a sea of disinterested faces.
Fall came and fate threw me an entire semester of zombies. Zombies interested only in circling the right answers on the test so they can get the grade and move onto something else.
“I don’t want to go to work tomorrow,” I told If one night. “Don’t suppose you want to sub for me.”
If took a long chug on his beer.
“Don’t tempt me like that.”
“But you couldn’t anyway. Nobody can see you or hear you. Right?”
“Maybe and maybe not.”
“People used to think I was talking to myself when they saw me with you. So no, people don’t see you or hear you.”
“Unless things have changed. I’ve become more real to you, haven’t I? I can toss beers and open books. I read when you’re away. I feel real.”
“And I can’t help but wonder: what if Dee had woken up when I went down to the kitchen the other night? Would she have seen me? Haven’t you wondered about that?”
“Maybe she would have just seen the refrigerator door open and the beer float out of it.”
“I don’t think so. People tend to fill in the blanks too much for that. I think she would have seen me, only I don’t know how I would have appeared to her.”
“Maybe you would’ve looked like one of those hunky guys from her romance novels.”
“Or like a burglar.”
“A hunky burglar stealing beer.”
A few beers later If said, “What if you’re the imaginary friend and I’m real?”
“Go screw yourself!”
“Or maybe you’re Dee’s imaginary husband. She does love her romances.”
I considered this a second before kicking If hard on the shin.
“Ow! What was that for?”
“For getting me to think these crazy thoughts. For getting me to read all those Philip K. Dick books.”
“Somebody’s been getting too much Dick lately.”
“Ha, ha. Now I’m wondering if I’m the imaginary one. Like if Dee were to pop a clozapine, would I cease to exist?”
“That’s deep. Better have another beer.”
No, I wasn’t the imaginary friend. I went on living my life but as time wore on it became increasingly obvious I was just going through the motions. In class I gazed upon a tableau of blank faces, but maybe they were just reflecting back what they saw in me.
I was weighed down by things that hardly touched me before. I performed my duties as required but every day the hollow spot inside grew.
Maybe I just needed some excitement. I decided to embark on a bigger, scarier Annual Expedition than ever before. When Spring came, I would swim amidst the sharks and to hell with a cage. Or I’d hunt something truly dangerous, just as Hemingway had done.
But nothing really excited me.
Worst of all was that damn wall inside me when I was with Dee. I was a Hemingway character trapped behind a wall in a Poe story. I had feelings and passions but could never find the key to unlock them.
I kept thinking about If’s amazing minute of freedom and how pale my life felt in comparison.
Up in the loft I said, “I think you’re real, after all. Maybe you weren’t always but somewhere along the line something happened. I felt what you felt that day you went to the fridge. It was intense.”
“I try to live up to my name.”
“You try to live up to ‘Imaginary Friend’?”
“Do you really think that’s the only reason I’m called If? Because of that silly little pun?”
“You’re the college professor, you tell me.”
“The Kipling poem?”
If reached over and put his hand on top of mine and the memory flooded in.
“My God. Dad used to quote it. The part about filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.”
I dug through the icebox and handed If a beer but he shook his head.
“No thanks. I’m good.”
“That’s a first.”
From downstairs I heard the door open and Dee call out, “are you up there?”
“Aren’t you going to answer?” asked If.
I heard her climbing the ladder and I thought about the world outside my cave and how much I had come to dread facing it.
“Open the door, If.”
“Yes. Let’s see how real you are. Open the door, step outside, and talk to Dee. See if she can see you. It’ll be a fun experiment.”
“What do I say?”
“Whatever comes to mind.”
From outside Dee said, “Knock, knock.”
If looked at me.
“Go ahead. You have permission.”
If opened the door and stepped outside. He closed the door behind him.
Dee’s voice came from the other side: “Oh hey Sweetie. I know you need your cave time but I was getting lonely. Hope I’m not intruding.”
“You could never intrude,” I heard If say. Only it was my own voice. “You do know that I love you more than life itself.”
I heard it all then, heard it all: If kissing my wife in a way I had not kissed her for years and moments later the two of them climbing down the ladder. I heard Dee giggling. I heard the house door opening and closing.
I almost ran after them. But then I looked around my cave. I have everything I need up here. I have my icebox and my beer. I have Hemingway and Poe and Hawthorne and Steinbeck. This is our world. Like the sign says: NO GURLZ ALOUD.
© 2014 by Seth Chambers
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