Auburn hair and freckles sprinkled across his face, a red hat that he was never without and grubby sneakers that were ripped and torn, I first met Alvin when I was say, three or four. Alvin simply emerged in the middle of the grocery store parking lot that was really a sandbox that only I could see. He tapped on my shoulder as my mom was loading bags into the backseat of the car and from that moment on, from the second I laid eyes on his crooked teeth and goofy half-smile, we were inseparable.
I didn’t care that no one else could see him, and he didn’t seem to mind that he went ignored by the rest of the world. We did everything together: read books, drew pictures or even played tag. Yes, we played tag all the time, and he didn’t always let me win.
Once I introduced him to my parents, Alvin had a place at the dinner table and his own seat in the car, except on the rare occasions when we had to carpool. When I turned five and went to kindergarten, Alvin came, too, and he sat next to me during long lunches spent on the edge of the playground when none of the other kids would.
He was my best friend, my co-conspirator, my fearless partner in crime and in return, I was his advocate to the rest of the world.
“You stepped on Alvin’s foot!” I said to my mother one morning shortly after she had yelled at me for not cleaning my room.
“I guess I didn’t see him there. Sorry, Alvin,” my mom said as she spoke to the empty space to my left. Her lips pulled back tight, worry lines drawn, she searched my face for a way to decipher our special game but she couldn’t find one.
“Alvin only talks to me,” I asserted. “He told me he doesn’t like how you tell me what do.”
I remember my mother’s eyes brimming with tears, the way she quickly retreated to her bedroom and closed the door. But I also remember not feeling bad because Alvin had been the one to say it and not me.
My mother used to sit and watch me play with my friends, first Alvin and then Jessica and Monique and Blue. Her brows furrowed, forehead beaded with sweat, as I stood oblivious before her and created kingdoms out of thin air.
She took me to a child psychologist the day after my sixth birthday. I remember I wore a brand new dress that I had received as a present the day before, one with pink ribbons threaded through the hem of its denim skirt, a big matching bow tied around my hair like a crown. Alvin came with us, and although he helped me on every test, I was never diagnosed. The doctor told my mother that I was fine, that there was nothing to worry about. No schizophrenic tendencies that he could see. He even said that my imaginary friends were a sign of creative intelligence and that they should be welcomed instead of scorned, openly loved instead of hidden, that if Alvin still went to school with me when I turned ten then we should come back and see him.
After that Alvin became an honored houseguest who had his own stocking at Christmas time. He went with us to the park and sat on the pew next to me in church, his chores suddenly listed alongside mine on the refrigerator. He fed the golden retriever that we didn’t really have and cleaned the litter box of the cat that lived underneath my bed but emerged only in the middle of the night. He stole candy from the gas station and shared it with me. He took the blame for all of my shortcomings and then hugged me whenever I cried about them.
For most of my childhood I was happy playing on the edge of the playground. I had Alvin, and if anyone else had been able to see him they would have known that he was enough. My mother, on the other hand, was never quite able to come to terms with the fact that her daughter accepted figments of her imagination as friends. She threw me lavish birthday parties in hopes of luring other kids to our house, made it abundantly clear that I could invite whomever I wanted, fictitious or otherwise, over to our house after school, and always made sure that I was dressed in accordance with the latest fashions in an attempt to outmaneuver the ostracism I inflicted upon myself. All of her efforts were to no avail, however, and when I was in the fourth grade, she jumped at the chance to sign me up for Girl Scouts.
Troop #489 had been around for a while. When I arrived at the house the meeting was to be held, my blue apron freshly ironed and blank except for my name in the top right hand corner, all the other girls were clustered together in a tight circle. They stood around, shifting their weight from one leg to the other, talking about all the patches they’d earned without me. I walked in and the herd of them went completely silent. They stared, looked me up and down as though I were nothing more than an old dog that had wandered in from the other room, and promptly returned to whatever conversations they had been having.
For a few minutes I stood awkwardly off to the side and prayed for someone to talk to me. When that didn’t happen, I slipped into the backyard and hid in the abandoned jungle gym that lurked there.
As always, Alvin was my saving grace. Together we laughed about what had just happened and ignored the troop leader calling my name from the back porch. After what seemed like a long time, a girl named Mikayla Turner climbed up the side of the jungle gym and shook the very foundation upon which I stood. Mikayla was everything that I wasn’t. Tall, blonde, and beautiful. Confident and self-assured at the age of ten. She happened to come upon the landing of the slide at the exact instant I leaned over to whisper something in Alvin’s ear.
Mikayla gasped as though I’d slapped her and rearranged her face into one of pure disgust.
“That,” she declared, pointing to the space Alvin occupied, “is why you’re out here and everyone else is in there.”
It wasn’t that I particularly cared what Mikayla thought. I don’t even remember my feelings being all that hurt. What I do remember is the realization that washed over me. For my entire life I had been a loner, and I had thought it was because of this that Alvin revealed himself to me. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that I might have been a loner because of Alvin.
Mikayla didn’t wait for me to respond and walked back to the house without looking back. I, on the other hand, sat on the highest ledge of the jungle gym and said my goodbyes. Alvin knew before I said anything. He walked away so that I didn’t have to.
After Alvin left, I did what I thought I was supposed to. I spoke more, voiced my opinion less, and eventually won Mikayla Turner over. I wore the clothes my mother bought for me and smiled whenever it was warranted. I made real friends, ones that my mother could actually see. But in spite of the fact that they were made out of actual flesh and blood, none of them ever lived up to Alvin, and as I grew older, I realized that they probably never would. These “real” friends couldn’t hold my hand without anyone noticing. They never whispered stories into my ear when I couldn’t sleep. They never showed up exactly when I needed them.
Days before Christmas, on the eve of the year I turned twenty-one, I didn’t sleep for fifty-two hours. At the end, right before they knocked me out, the psychiatrist asked me an unusual question. “What do you do to comfort yourself? Can you remember when you were happiest as a child?” Lines wrinkled her forehead and her pen tapped against my chart in the silence that served as my answer.
But once I was asleep, chemical concoctions pulsating through my veins, memories surged behind my eyelids in fragmented clumps: The first time I showed Alvin my room. The last time I saw him slide down the slide. The sideways glances and pointed stares of all the ones who had led to me being strapped down in that particular hospital bed.
And when I woke up, Alvin was the one sitting at the foot of my bed—smiling.