Authors: Julie Gonzalez
To Cecile and Herning
Kate and “that rabbit”
And imaginary friends and enemies everywhere
You never liked to get
The letters that I sent.
But now you’ve got the gist
Of what my letters meant.
AND SHARON ROBINSON
t’s not unusual to have an imaginary friend. Many people do (or did, at any rate, somewhere in their histories). But me? I can honestly tell you that I have no imaginary friend. Not one.
What I have is an imaginary enemy. He’s such a satisfying companion—very therapeutic to have around. He’s helped me through a number of personal disasters and misadventures over the years. I call my imaginary enemy Bubba—short for Beelzebub, which is a biblical devil’s name. Pretty good way to address an enemy, wouldn’t you agree?
Bubba’s not necessarily physically unattractive, but this is one of those “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” situations. ’Cause that’s where Bubba reveals his true colors—on the inside. He’s a sneak and a liar and a troublemaker who delights in seeing my life go wrong. My miseries are his homemade ice cream. My heartbreaks are his Godiva chocolates. My failures are his double cheeseburgers and deep-dish pizzas. You get the picture.
When Bubba makes me angry, I write him a letter expressing my displeasure. The first time I wrote to Bubba was in second grade.
You spilled milk on the lunchroom floor. I slipped in it and ripped a hole in my new overalls. My knee bled. Everyone laughed. I don’t like you.
Gabriel isn’t my real name. It’s just the name I use in my relationship with Bubba. No point in being overly familiar with an enemy, especially an imaginary one. Gabriel, like Bubba, is biblical—one of the heavenly superstars, along with his pals Michael and Raphael. Gabriel is chief of the archangels—God’s right-hand halo polisher. Kind of like vice president if God is top dog. I imagine him to have beautiful ivory-colored wings tipped with moonlight and a halo of red gold that undulates like the ripples on the surface of a pond.
With my Bubba letter clasped in my hand, I asked my teacher, Mrs. Perkins, for a piece of tape, but when she realized I wanted to hang my message on the classroom wall, she refused. “Jane, why are you writing Buddha a letter about spilled milk?” she asked.
“The founder of the religion Buddhism. He was a very wise spiritual leader.”
” I replied insistently. Cold air from the air conditioner breezed though the hole in the knee of my overalls.
Mrs. Perkins raised her eyebrow. Just one eyebrow. That was the coolest thing about her—she could raise her left eyebrow like a marine raising the flag up the pole. “Then you inverted your lowercase
s again.” She tapped the letter. “Who’s Bubba?”
“A dirty rotten milk-spilling creep,” I answered.
“Go sit down and behave yourself, Jane.” Mrs. Perkins sounded exasperated. I stalked back to my seat clutching Bubba’s letter and stashed it in my math folder. A fairly modest beginning to what has proven to be a long and fruitless relationship.
Since you know my name’s not really Gabriel, I might as well tell you the three embarrassing appellations my parents attached to my birth certificate sixteen years ago. I can’t believe they did me such dishonor. Start with Jane. That’s
As in Plain Jane, which the more poetic schoolyard bullies have called me since kindergarten. Along with Birdbrain Jane, Migraine Jane, and Jane the Pain. All because my parents named me after this prehistoric aunt of Mom’s who they particularly admire.
My middle name’s even worse. Venezuela—like the South American country. Great name for a country. Very lyrical and seductive. But a middle name for a girl? Venezuela? That’s where my parents met. It was nothing terribly romantic if you ask me. My mother was visiting her college roommate, a beautiful but unsuccessful South American poet, and my recently divorced father was on a fishing vacation with his brother, my uncle Grayson. Dad’s cooler of semifrozen baitfish leaked on Mom’s suitcase in the hotel elevator, and she insisted he buy her a new one because of the awful smell and the stains. Who knew they’d end up with a bunch of kids and a dog? When I complain about my name, Dad thinks it’s a real laugh to say, “We could have named you Caracas instead of Jane.” (For the geographically impaired, Caracas is the capital of Venezuela.)
Now (drumroll, please) for my absolutely generic last name: White. Like clouds or snow or cotton. Like flour or sugar or milk. Like boredom.
When I was just over a year old, my parents got frisky. My brother Lysander was born nine and a half months later. He’s named after one of the confused, love-struck youths in Shakespeare’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Dad’s a Shakespeare freak). My brother hates his name. Go figure. He tells everyone to call him Zander.
Sixteen months after Zander came my sister, Carmella, whose name evokes visions of bonfires, gypsy music, starlit nights, and silver bangles. Me Jane, Plain Jane—You Carmella. Talk about a prize-winning recipe for some vicious sibling rivalry.
Shakespeare might have his “What’s in a name?” thing, but he wasn’t dubbed Jane Venezuela White. Why would you ever allow anyone to go through life being addressed so blandly? And you claim to love me.
A rose by any other name,
My half brother, Luke, who’s five years older than me, sat by my side on the sofa playing a video game. He’s the offspring of Dad’s youthful marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Sandy. “Gotcha,” Luke said as his character zapped mine. The screen lit up in neon blue flashes as my player sizzled and lost a dose of power.
“Bully,” I snarled.
He laughed. “No crybabies allowed.”
“I’m no crybaby,” I protested.
was the ultimate insult someone could hurl at an ornery seven-year-old.
“Pay attention, loser!” He detonated his weapon and my character strobed once again.
I pushed a pulsating radioactive boulder over him. “Take that!”
His character fizzled out in a puff of purple smoke. “Yikes!” he exclaimed, laughing.
“I like it when you come over,” I said. Luke spent Wednesdays and alternate weekends with us. And sometimes he came for unscheduled visits. This was one of those. He’d ridden his bike to our house after school.
“I like it here. And you have a dog. Mom won’t let me have a pet,” Luke said, tossing the game controller aside and dragging his fingers through Banjo’s fur.
“Maybe she’s allergic. Like Peggy next door. Dogs make her sneeze and itch.”
“Naw. Mom says we’re not home enough for a dog. That they need lots of attention. And Marty thinks they’re a mess. All that fur and stuff bugs him.” Marty is Luke’s stepfather.
“Well, Banjo’s your dog, too,” I said, feeling a generosity of spirit at the time.
“Dad says he’s okay.”
“What does he know?”
“Why don’t you like him?”
Luke shrugged. Something about his demeanor made me feel like I was the older sibling. “I just don’t.”
“Is he mean?”
Luke shrugged again. Banjo, so named because as a pup he was described by our neighbor Elliot as being “wound tighter than a banjo string,” climbed into Luke’s lap and nuzzled his neck. “He’s just…I don’t know…he’s always telling me what to do. And how to do it. And what not to do. And how not to do it. It’s not like he’s my real dad.”
“My mom tells you what to do when you’re here.”
“Yeah, sometimes. But not in the same way. She treats me like she treats you and Zander and Carmella. Marty—he never makes his little princess do anything.”
“You mean Lainey?”
“Who else? And why should I get stuck babysitting
kid? I hate it when she’s there.” Lainey, Luke’s stepsister, is around my age. I’d played with her a few times. Just a week earlier, she’d been with Sandy when she brought Luke over for the weekend. All the adults were talking, so Lainey and I ran around the yard collecting leaves.
“I think Lainey’s nice,” I told Luke.
“She’s boring. And spoiled. All she has to do is whine and she gets whatever she wants. I can’t believe my mother lets her get away with that stuff…. It sure never worked for me.”
“Maybe you’re a brat, too, and just don’t know it.”
“Funny, Jane. Too funny.”
It’s always weird to imagine my father married to someone other than my mother—to picture pleasant little family scenes like we have but with a different supporting cast. Not Luke so much, because he’s been around my whole life. But Sandy…Did my father really have a life before us? Did they go on picnics and gather around Christmas trees? Did he come up behind Sandy and wrap his arms around her waist when she stood at the sink washing dishes? Take her to those family functions at Grandma’s that Mom attends now? In some irrational way, it seems traitorous to me.
The yard next door to ours has always been the most tangled musical paradise on earth. The lawn, which is exceptionally large, slopes gently away from the house. The grass is thick and lush and nearly always overgrown, which used to make it a spongy cushion for our wild childhood games. I loved the way it felt when it brushed my bare legs with feathery tickles. I liked the wild rabbits, snakes, beetles, and katydids that hid in its green carpet. Studding the yard are several ancient live oaks wrapped in vines that weave their tendrils into the bark and dangle from the heights like serpents in a snake-a-phobe’s worst nightmare. But all that’s only part of what sets the deMicheal property apart from everyone else’s.
Our neighbor Elliot deMichael is a musician. He and his family moved in next door before I could walk. Back then, Elliot was working on his PhD. His thesis had something to do with major and minor scales in nature. That was what inspired him to turn his yard into a musical theme park. The trees are festooned with a smorgasbord of wind chimes he made from things like sticks and stones and alligator bones. He recorded the songs the wind wrote there and somehow worked them into his dissertation.
Palm trees line the back fence. “I don’t care so much for the way they look,” he once admitted, “but there is nothing to compare with the concerto of the rain and wind in their fronds.”
Elliot built fountains and waterfalls whose music he records and charts. I used to sit at the patio picnic table with his kids and watch as he rearranged the stone tiers of some water garden to get a new progression of sound. He’s wired bird feeders to steal the secret conversations of hungry but unsuspecting blue jays and finches. He has even bugged a wasps’ nest with a miniature microphone. He’s like the CIA of the natural world.
Elliot checks the weather report daily. If a storm or strong winds are predicted, he’ll drag fancy equipment from the garage and set it up outside, covering it with tarps or plastic bags, and snake waterproof microphones to locations all over the yard to catch Mother Nature singing in the shower. He records thunder and rain and wind. Twilight with its dance of insects. Crickets fiddling the night away. Frogs croaking in deep bass tones.
To earn a living, Elliot teaches at the university and has a studio at home where he gives private lessons to aspiring musicians. When his students are there, his children are banished to the backyard, where my siblings and I often join them.