On imaginary friends waiting at the airport
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
The woman stood scanning the faces of the people walking out of the door for international arrivals. Upon arriving there herself she had been appalled at the lack of sufficient seating, how, for the most part, people had to stand huddled together, heads poking sideways in fear that someone would be missed, that the person they were waiting for would somehow slip out of the airport unnoticed and unseen. Weren't they supposed to be six feet apart? Most had masks on, but worn in the most improbable ways: under the nose, under the chin, hanging from an ear. The woman was no epidemiologist, but she was fairly certain that crowding together with uncovered faces like that couldn't be good. She wanted to shout at the people, but she knew they wouldn't listen, what with her being invisible and all. Besides, she wasn't even wearing a mask at all, having been born in a time when that just wasn't a thing.
Tired of standing, she imagined a stool and sat down. It was one of those tall chrome things upon which a chanteuse might have been perched in a 1970s television special, starting the song off slowly and then jumping off the stool to finish the song with a key change and an upbeat disco beat. She looked down and realised she was dressed (in Bob Mackie) for the disco part; should she imagine a kind of feather shawl for her seated-self which she could then dramatically shuck when the boy arrived? This struck her as oddly inappropriate, especially in the presence of the people wearing masks. And she wasn't even sure how it all worked anyway, even after all these years. What if she imagined the shawl but the boy imagined something else?
She smiled. The boy he was to her even if by her estimates he was now fifty-three years old. But she came to him when he was four and stayed with him for just over two years, so she couldn't help but freeze him in that time, with his big brown eyes and cowlick, his crooked smile and sense of wonder.
She fidgeted a bit on her stool which, though it hit the appropriate visual note, was not terribly comfortable. It didn't help, of course, that her Bob Mackie silk lamé gown was rather tight and eminently impractical. She would probably have chosen something different to wear, but the outfit was for the boy. He would expect to see her in it. Even her hairdo – swept high and sprayed with so much hairspray as to render it crunchy – was for his benefit. Half measures just would not do; she was committed to her vocation.
Suddenly she had the sensation that she was being watched, which struck her as irrational given that she was invisible. But she felt it, a kind of pleasant weight on her shoulders where the feather shawl was not. It struck her as odd at first that she felt it there – on her shoulders – and not elsewhere, but then having the feeling that one was being watched was odd anyway, she guessed (especially if one was invisible) so why not on the shoulders? She reached up and touched one of her shoulders (the Bob Mackie was a halter gown, so they were bare) and smiled; what did she think to find there?
The feeling of being watched remained, so she slowly swivelled around in her stool to see if among the masked and waiting crowd she could see if anyone saw her. She scanned the eyes of the people and none of them were looking at her; all seemed to be fixed on the door through which every so often clusters of people would emerge. She was mid-swivel when her eyes locked with another pair of eyes which lit up with genuine excitement.
The eyes belonged to a bear. He was tall – she was wearing impossibly high heels and probably stood at five feet eight or nine with them on – and the bear must have been a good foot taller than that as he was standing upright. His fur was a light brown and curly – clearly made of plush material and not actual fur – and he wore a yellow vest on which was sewn a red heart. He was holding a group of balloons (did they call them bouquets? she wondered – it sure looked like a bouquet).
The bear winked at her – she noticed for the first time that he was wearing round wire-rimmed glasses without lenses – and she gave a small wave in return, thrilled and slightly embarrassed in equal parts. The bear touched his chest and pointed to her, presumingly asking her if he could approach her. She smiled and nodded and – worried that bears might not be attuned to subtlety – immediately followed the nod with a sweeping of her right arm towards herself.
The bear came over and stood in front of her, giving an oddly formal bow which elicited nervous laughter in both. “Hullo,” he said. “I'm Hefferson Lee Begonia, but most just call me Heffy.” He extended his paw, which the woman took and shook warmly.
“And I'm –” she began to say but was immediately interrupted by the bear.
“ – you're Diana. You've got to be Diana. I mean, just look at you! Same slim body. Same gorgeous coffee-coloured skin. Same dazzling white smile. And are you wearing Bob Mackie?”
The woman smiled even more broadly. “Yes, I am, and yes, I'm Diana. Lovely to meet you, Heffy.”
“You look exactly like her. I love her music! Although I tend to prefer her earlier things with the Supremes, even the later disco stuff is fabulous. But – judging by your hair – you seem more in line with her earlier stuff. Maybe the bridge between the Supremes and her solo stuff. Am I right?
“I've never thought of it,” Diana said. “But, yes, I guess you're right.”
“When were you imagined?” Heffy asked, and Diana had never heard that phrase before, as she had theretofore never met another imaginary friend and such talk never came up. She loved the thought of it: not being born but imagined.
“Well, let me think. 1970.”
“Wow! You look fabulous – just fabulous. I mean, I know we don't change and all that, but I've never met another one of us who has been around for so long. We tend to retire before, of course.” Heffy looked down slightly embarrassed, hoping he hadn't offended her.
“Yes, quite,” she said, not offended. “I was in retirement myself, but I guess I can say I am temporarily coming out of retirement. And you? When were you imagined?”
“Oh me,” he said with a dismissive way of his paw, “only about eighteen months ago. But really – enough about me! My story is rather ordinary. But I've never met an imaginary friend who has come out of retirement after so long. Spill it, sister! I need to know that deets!” He imagined himself a beanbag chair and plopped down on it but realising that Diana's stool towered over him had to imagine the chair taller. Soon they were sitting on the same level, although both couldn't help but note that Diana's sitting situation seemed more elegant.
“Where do I begin?” Diana asked.
“To tell the story of how great a love can be!” sang Heffy, before quickly adding: “Sorry! Wrong singer! Well you begin in 1970 and tell me about your partner.”
“Partner? Is that what we call them?”
“Well,” said Heffy, wrinkling his brow. “I think we used to call them simply boys or girls – you know 'My boy is Adam' or 'My girl is Sally' but then that all changed when we realised that some boys and girls who really need us might not think of themselves in those terms. So now I think we just say 'partner' to be safe. I have no idea how it works in your case. Maybe you're kind of in a grandfather clause situation.”
“Well, I never called him my boy,” Diana said smiling, slightly irked to be grandfathered into anything. “He was just always Eddie. Or my Eddie, I guess. Yes, I called him my Eddie.” Her eyes immediately misted up. It had been a long time.
Heffy grabbed her hand in his paw. “How wondrous it must be to have known him for so long.”
“It has been a gift, indeed,” said Diana, touching her hair in a gesture she hoped demonstrated some composure.
“Soooooo?” asked Heffy, shaking his head from side to side in a comical mode that seemed to trumpet the opposite of a desire for composure. “You were imagined in 1970. Was it divorce? Many of us are imagined because of homes breaking up.”
“No,” said Diana, smiling sadly. “Cancer. His mother. The usual story: remissions and returns, lots of confusion surrounding the frequent hospitalisations and treatments. Eddie needed me to help him make sense of it. I was glad to have been imagined.”
“Aren't we all?” replied Heffy, shifting his weight on his beanbag to try and be more comfortable. “My next question,” he said, “is, well, just look at you! Most imaginary friends I know tend to look like me – bears or ponies or even dogs. Most partners don't get their own diva!”
Diana blushed, happy to be referred to as a diva. “Eddie used to spend a great deal of time at his grandparents' house. And each afternoon his grandmother would put him down for his nap to the music of – you guessed it – Diana Ross and the Supremes. He would lie on his back on a little pallet of blankets made for him on the floor and rock his head back and forth until he fell asleep. On one end of his head's arc were the album covers and at the other end was the glow that came from the kitchen where his grandmother was cooking. He just kept swivelling back between those album covers and that glow until he fell asleep. And eventually – because I was needed – I was imagined like those album covers.”
“Interesting,” replied Heffy. “And it was always just the two of you? Eddie never had anyone else?”
“No,” replied Diana. “Do the boys and girls – the partners – often have more than one of us?”
“Well I'm no expert,” Heffy said in a way that made Diana think he sort of thought he was, indeed, an expert. “In my case there are three of us, although – I hope I don't sound boastful here – I think I'm what I'd refer to as the best imaginary friend. Mind you, one of us is turtle and the other a ballet slipper who hardly ever talks, so I don't think the bar's been set too high. But I know and Gracie – she's my partner – knows that we're all here, so there's something nice about that even if we're talking about turtles and ballet slippers.”
Diana nodded. Although she could see how some might think it better to have colleagues, she was always just so happy to have Eddie all to herself that she was quite sure that she had had the better arrangement. “And you?” she asked, “Why were you imagined?”
“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Heffy sang before quickly adding, “I know, I know! Wrong diva!”
Diana smiled. “How old is Gracie?”
“She's five. It's been rough on her. I think the parents probably should have called it quits eons ago, but they just kept at it. I guess I can understand why, but it meant that Gracie was raised in a home with far too much shouting and silence than she should have had to endure. Her mother – Sadie, she's English – took Gracie to see her grandparents in London while Sam – her Dad – moved his things out. They thought it would be better that way. It's a tough call, and even more difficult now because of the complications with the virus. At any rate, I wasn't really invited to London – there was a lot planned there that took Gracie's mind off things – but now that she's going to return to a home where her father is no longer living … well I'm needed more than ever. No, wait: strike that! We're needed more than ever. Trevor Fanfario Tortolonia and Slipper will be at home when we get there.”
“Just 'Slipper'? Asked Diana. “No other name? I mean Hefferson Lee Begonia and Trevor Fanfario Tortolonia are some pretty deluxe names.”
“Yeah, just Slipper. I think maybe one of the reasons that they – Slipper's preferred pronouns are they and them – one of the reasons that they don't say too much is because they're a little upset at having been imagined with a such a basic name. But now that I've met you, I'll have to tell them they're not Slipper because they're unremarkable but rather they're Slipper like Diana or Liza because they're a bonafide diva. I think they'll get a kick out of that.”
A group of passengers exited from the doors, prompting a woman standing nearby to ask one of them if they had arrived from London. “No, Frankfurt,” responded a man.
“I didn't even think to ask,” said Heffy, turning his attention from the exchange back to Diana. “Where is Eddie arriving from?”
“London as well,” replied Diana. “He lives in the UK now.”
“And?” Heffy drew the word out and raised his eyebrows above the rim of his glasses. He obviously was waiting for more.
“And what?” asked Diana teasingly.
“Well why are you meeting his flight? Why are you coming out of retirement after nearly a half a century? I've just got to know!”
Diana smiled, but was certain that she was unable to cover the sadness she felt. Like so many around her, she thought, her mask was probably ineffective.
“Well – all those years ago – even though Eddie was the only person who could see me, his mother – God rest her – and his sister believed in me.”
“How wonderful!” exclaimed Heffy. “I would think that that's almost just as good as being seen.”
“If not better.” Diana continued, “For one reason or another, Eddie no longer needed me during the last nine or ten months of his mother's illness. I wasn't hurt – that's kind of the whole point of imaginary friends, if you think about it: to become no longer needed – but at his mother's funeral his sister Kathy asked him if I was there. I hadn't been, but her question seemed to bring about my reimagining and so I came. And – I have no idea of knowing if this is even possible or not – I think that Kathy could even see me at one point. I mean, she looked right at me, mouthed Thank you and took her little brother's hand. Do you think that sounds crazy?”
Heffy smiled. “Guuurl! I'm a six-foot-four tall invisible bear talking to an invisible Diana Ross look-alike in an airport. Who am I to call anyone crazy?”
“True 'dat!” responded Diana because she wanted to sound saucy. “And I looked at Kathy and nodded. I think I even blew her a kiss. It dawned on me that I was looking at the person who in part would be for Eddie what I had been for him. We were sisters. My heart felt expanded.”
“That must have been amazing,” replied Heffy. “I've not had anything like that. Sure, I've got the turtle and the slipper to support me, but connecting with a real live person other than my partner? Well, I can barely imagine it. I'm no expert, but I bet that doesn't happen very often. But what's the connection? Why are you meeting Eddie again after all these years?”
“Kathy's dying,” Diana said softly, head tilted down as if in prayer.
“I'm so sorry,” Heffy said, taking her hand in his paw once again.
“And – I don't know, maybe because of the connection I've had with Kathy – I've been reimagined once again. But the strange thing is that Eddie isn't the one who has imagined me this time. I don't think he even knows I'm here. Kathy has imagined me.”
Heffy held his arm out in front of her. “Do you see this? I've got goosebumps. They're kind of hard to see due to the nature of my fur but – trust me – they're there. I bet such a thing has never happened. Ever.”
Diana smiled. “I don't know. It's hard to say with these things, isn't it? I wish our kind could get together more often. Share stories. You know, that kind of thing.”
“I hear you. But that might take our focus away from our partners. Maybe, in the long run, it's good we don't have meetups. Although it can certainly make life lonely. This is really exciting! But wait a second. I'm just thinking out loud here. If Eddie didn't imagine you, isn't it possible that he won't be able to see you?”
“Oh dear,” said Diana, visibly pained. “I hadn't thought about that. But you're quite right. If Kathy brought about my reimagining, maybe only she can see me. What if I'm waiting here in vain?”
“I don't know – we're clearly in unchartered waters here,” replied Heffy. “But,” he continued as if coming to a realisation in that moment, “maybe it doesn't matter. You'll be able to see Eddie and maybe that's enough. I mean, he'll certainly remember you and he believes in you. That's probably more than sufficient.”
Diana nodded but thought “Not for me it's not.” Because although she couldn't really say what life had been like in those nearly fifty years since she last saw her Eddie, she worried she might be devastated if he didn't see her. When one is imagined to help others it would seem cruel if others couldn't see that. See her.
Another group began streaming through the doors. “Were you on the London flight?” asked the same woman as before. “Yes,” replied a couple in unison.
Heffy jumped off his beanbag chair and imagined it gone. “It won't be long now!” he said. Both of the imaginary friends turned their attention to the arrivals door.
“Oh look! There she is! There's my Gracie!” exclaimed the bear, jumping up and down causing the balloons to bounce together in an erratic rubber rhythm.
“Which one?” asked Diana, standing now.
“There, with the Peppa Pig t-shirt. Isn't she beautiful?”
“Oh look, she's seen me! She's seen her Hefferson Lee Begonia! I know I should sit with you until your Eddie arrives, but I've just got to go to her. She needs me! She sees me!”
Diana kissed the tip of her fingers and gently placed them on Heffy's furry lips. “Of course, you've got to go,” she said softly. “Thank you for the chat. Thank you for seeing me.”
He kissed her cheek and, though hesitant to leave her, turned and skipped away through the people, following his partner. The girl looked behind her, saw her imaginary friend, and knew that she could keep moving forward. That is, of course, the way it's supposed to work.
Diana looked back to the arrivals door. For the first time a thought occurred to her. In addition to the possibility that Eddie might not be able to see her, she suddenly wondered if she would be able to recognise him. Nearly fifty years had passed; who knows how time had made its mark on the little boy with the big brown eyes, the cowlick, crooked smile, and sense of wonder?
Then she saw him. He had come through the door and stopped, fidgeting with a faulty wheel on his suitcase. His smile was covered by a mask, but the eyes remained unchanged; he was still very much her Eddie. She felt her heart expand and she wished Hefferson Lee Begonia had been able to stay around just a few moments longer because she would have loved to sing Whenever you're near I hear a symphony because she just knew Heffy would get the reference and they would probably hoot and maybe even high five. But Heffy had gone where he was needed, where he was seen.
“How glorious to be needed and to be seen,” purred Diana to no one in particular as, luggage wheel fixed, her Eddie walked towards her.