BY JOHN TIMM
Copyright is held by the author.
Lots of kids have an imaginary friend. I was now 24 years old and still had mine. Fridley.
In the beginning, Mom and Dad looked upon Fridley with typical parental amusement. “It’s just a phase.” “Isn’t it adorable?” “He’ll get over it.” As time passed and I didn’t “get over it,” their amusement morphed into mild concern, gravitating from there to increasing degrees of distress, especially for my father who was a no-nonsense type with zero tolerance for what he considered foolishness, meaning anything that wasn’t on a spreadsheet.
Mom was more accepting, more understanding of my special relationship with Fridley. When she’d come into my room to clean, I’d warn her, “Don’t dust over there! You’re in Fridley’s space.” Mom would reply, “Tell Fridley to get out of his space. Right now, it’s mine,” and she’d always say it in that good-natured, maternal tone of hers. Other times, when my father was out of town, she’d set a place for Fridley at the dinner table, once even prepared one of his special dishes. To this day it remains a secret between Mom, Fridley, and me.
With each passing year, there was the unspoken hope that this would be the milestone, the year when all mention of Fridley would cease. Second grade, third grade, fourth and fifth grades came and went. Fridley remained. My parents didn’t mention Fridley outright, but I knew where they were going when they dropped their less than subtle hints. “Aren’t there any friends from school you could play with? They could come over here after school for a while.” Or, “ Don’t you think you should make some friends your age from the neighbourhood?” Or simply, “Don’t you ever get lonely?” I was an only child, but only never meant lonely. The answer was no on all counts. I had Fridley.
At one time there was deep concern in the mental health community about imaginary friends, especially those who hung around too long. Some thought it a form of childhood psychosis. A delusional disorder. Over time, that changed — like every other scientific opinion. Nowadays, the so-called experts tell us we invent invisible friends as a pathway to social interaction, that it’s essential to developing our brains. I have one comment for either theory: Bullshit.
All those people who set the terms for what’s normal and what’s not, who’s to say their reality is any better than my reality? Did it ever occur to anyone that some of us are simply bored with the companions that come our way? After all, are they not mostly accidents of chance, of time, of place?
Fridley and I shared so many interests. From little on, I was much happier carrying on an intelligent conversation with Fridley, a constant companion of my own making, than, say, listening to Chad Barker from two houses down the street carry on about skate boarding, or where he’d been riding his bike with his buddies, or how he caught a big fish over the weekend with his father. Big whoop. Give me an afternoon surfing online with Fridley. Give me a good book, or a video game with Fridley. Maybe a Saturday morning at the library, the city museum and Fridley. By sixth grade, I tested four years ahead of my peers in reading and math. Chad Baker and all those buddies of his ended up in remedial classes. Who’s right and who’s wrong, the experts or me? It’s pretty clear.
At the outset of puberty, my testosterone-driven frustrations sometimes turned aggressive, and I’d take them out on Fridley. I don’t exactly remember the reason, but one morning I lost it with him. “You stupid son of a bitch. Do that again and you’re dead. I mean it. D-E-A-D. Dead. Got it?”
Hearing the commotion, my mother came running into my bedroom. She wasn’t half as concerned about my language as the thought I could be entertaining homicide — even if the intended victim was only a figment of my imagination. Mom always had an appropriate saying for every situation, especially my behaviour. In that moment, she was reliably quick with her words, “You know, if you kill an imaginary friend, it’ll become real and one day get revenge.” I was never sure if she was repeating something she’d heard, or just made things up on the spot. If I pressed her on it, she’d say, “It’s a gift, a gift passed down from your great-great-grandmother in the old country,” and when finished, she always added a wink and a smile.
For a short time in middle school, I found other distractions besides Fridley, namely girls. The fall mixer was coming up, and I had a crush on Lisa Chalmers who sat across from me in English class. I’d never asked a girl on a date before. In fact, I’d never been alone with a girl for more than five minutes until then. With trembling hand and thumping heart, I asked Lisa and was amazed when she accepted. For the next several weeks, I blundered my way through our newfound relationship until I felt for sure I had another confidant, someone besides Fridley to share my deepest thoughts, concerns, secrets. Lisa was a good listener, not judgmental, at least not at first, Until I told her about Fridley. The next morning, she slipped a note through the ventilation slot of my school locker. It was the eighth grade equivalent of a Dear John letter. She didn’t mention Fridley, but I could sense she was jealous. Couldn’t stand the competition, I guess. But in the end, it was all for the better — better to find out early than later if one of us was going to be overly possessive.
That afternoon, a bunch of preps came by my locker between classes, “We heard you have an imaginary boyfriend. Is he gay?” I could hear the echoes of their laughter as they continued down the hallway. I still can.
Nobody seemed to get it. Nobody. When I got to high school, there was this other girl, Erikka. She claimed to be a witch and tried to dress the part, With her funky outfits, black fingernails and overdone eyeshadow, to me she looked more like an amateur drag queen. Anyway, one day she came up to me in the cafeteria.
“I heard a rumour.”
“That you and me and some friends of mine may have a shared interest.”
“Interest in what?”
“The dark arts. Wicca.” She broke the word into two distinct syllables: “Wick-ka,” ending in a whisper.
“Sorry, you heard wrong.”
With that, she returned to the goth table where her friends were seated and made a “he’s crazy” motion, circling her finger around her ear.
From then on, I learned to keep my dealings with Fridley private during school hours. It wasn’t worth the hassles with my classmates. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t hassled in other ways.
The therapy sessions took place in the school nurse’s office. It was small, stuffy and smelled of rubbing alcohol. I swear you went in there in better health than when you left. The office walls were covered with cheaply framed diplomas and certificates. There were several anatomical charts. Male and female reproductive, the circulatory, nervous and digestive systems, the human skeleton. There was also an illustrated, bilingual poster on how to perform the Heimlich Manoeuvre and another that warned about STDs. By the end of the first two sessions, I had the walls memorized. They were like a refuge for me, helping to keep my mind off the waste of time this was for everyone concerned.
I think the school psychologist, Dr. Pemberton, was a quack. No, I’m sure of it. At first, I wasn’t defiant or anything. I tried to be open with him and told him whatever he wanted to know. By the second session, I thought I could trust him enough to tell him about Fridley. Big mistake. He couldn’t hold back his amusement. It wasn’t the same loving amusement my mother had always shown. He was mocking me, I could tell. He couldn’t hide the snickering behind all that well-trimmed facial hair and those half glasses of his. He wore them low on his nose and was always peering over the frames at me like a judge from on high. I’d had enough and started to get up from my chair. I suppose he figured out I was getting pissed and quickly changed his approach.
“Now you’re sure this Fridley of yours isn’t a ghost or a demon?”
What kind of a question is that? You’re as bad as that obnoxious Vikki. “No, he’s not a spirit, if that’s what you mean. Did I ever say he was? And he looks as real as you or me.” My voice cracked, heat rushed to my cheeks.
“You need not be defensive. The reason I ask, I find a lot of students your age are exploring the paranormal, are you?”
“I’m not, and you aren’t taking me seriously.”
It went downhill from there. He asked if I was experimenting with drugs or alcohol. The truth was, when you don’t have close friends in high school, you don’t get invited to any of the parties where there’s liquor or pot. I’m sure he’d already figured that out for himself—the question was just a formality.
At the third session, I was greeted by a different psychologist. “Dr. Pemberton has a scheduling conflict. I’m Dr. Meyers. We’ll be working together from now on.” Dr. Meyers was a slight woman about the age of my mother, her hair pulled back tight and wearing little makeup. She offset some of the severity with a soft smile and a warm voice. Maybe now we could get somewhere.
She opened with, “Let’s begin at the beginning.” From there she played things close to the vest, not revealing what she’d gleaned from Dr. Pemberton’s session notes. Eventually. we got around to the subject of Fridley. It was I, not Dr. Meyers, who brought it up. I thought, why keep circling around it? Let’s get to the point, the one thing that makes everyone think I’m a little nuts, or acting out, or a druggie, or whatever.
The change in therapists made little difference. Dr. Meyers didn’t buy the idea there was a Fridley any more than anyone else. When I quit therapy for good, she suggested to my parents it might be some kind of dissociative disorder, or simply ADHD. I’d have none of it. No way was I going to spend the rest of high school a chemically dependent zombie. The good news for all concerned, I was now a junior. I’d be graduating in a year and be out of the system, out of their hair, off their charts, and they could move on to deal with a long list of kids who were screwed up in more socially acceptable ways.
After graduation, I had a good job, a few prized possessions, and a decent place to live. And I still had Fridley. Problem is, Fridley was taking up more and more of my time. He’d developed a growing list of hang ups and thought I should help resolve them when I was dealing with issues of my own, like trying to finish a college degree while working 40 or 50 hours a week. It was really getting to me, and I needed to confront him about it like you would any other roommate.
“Look, Fridley, I’ve got enough on my plate already.”
“Well, pardon me for living. You got me into this.”
“What do you mean?”
“It if weren’t for you, I wouldn’t exist. I didn’t ask you to create me, you know.”
“That’s your equivalent of ‘I didn’t ask to be born’? Is that what I’m hearing? You sound like some whiney teenager.”
“You’re hearing whatever you want to hear. Like always.”
“Well, maybe it would be a good idea for me to un-create you, if that’s what’s bothering you.”
“Be my guest.”
It was hard after all those years, but from then on, little by little, one day at a time, I managed to push away the image of Fridley, the sound of his voice, the feeling of his presence, to focus on me and me alone.
Our police department is located in the Municipal Building, along with the fire department, the courts and other city offices. I’d been there for a tour back in grade school, even went through the jail section. They used to do that with us. For its deterrent value, I suppose. They’d put us in a cell and lock us in there with an officer for a couple of minutes. He’d day, “You wouldn’t want to spend your days in here with just a cot and a toilet, would you?” We’d all say “no” in chorus, and then move on to look at the fire trucks. As we headed down towards the fire department entrance, we passed the police interrogation room. Maybe they thought we were too young to take us in there — or maybe it was occupied — but the older and wiser of us knew what it was and made smart-ass remarks about it to each other. Now, as an adult, I was finally going to see what it was like inside.
“Tell us about Fridley.”
“You know who we mean. Dennis Fridley.”
My Fridley was just “Fridley.”
“Dennis Fridley?” What the hell was that about? I was as insistent as they were. “I Don’t know any Dennis Fridley.”
“We think you do. And we think you killed him.”
“We have fingerprints, and DNA from under the victim’s fingernails. We think they’ll tie you into the crime scene. So, pull up your shirt.”
“Why should I pull up my shirt?”
“Pull it up.”
“Fine. Have it your way.” I peered down at my gut. There were scratches and dried blood.
“Just as we thought.”
They put me in a cell overnight, one of those with just a cot and stainless steel toilet. The next morning, they were on me again, as insistent as the day before.
“Just like we thought. We processed the prints from the weapon, and they’re a match with yours.”
“What weapon? I don’t own any weapons.”
“Don’t play dumb.”
My father showed up with his lawyer around eleven. He’d come back a day early from meetings out of town. I said, “Look, Dad, you’ve never believed Fridley existed. Now there’s some dead dude with a similar name, and all of a sudden they think I killed him. And apparently you do, too.”
“You’ve been mixing fantasy and reality all your life. It’s finally caught up with you, and it’s serious.” I don’t know what bothered my father more, my being in jail or his embarrassment.
“So, have you seen a picture of what this Fridley character looks like?”
“Yes. It’s all over TV.”
I said, “Get me a photo.”
“Because I’ll tell you in an instant if it’s Fridley. That should put an end to it.”
“Damn it all, this person is — was — flesh and blood. For one minute, forget all that imaginary Fridley nonsense, will you? Life in prison — or even the death penalty — isn’t imaginary.”
The next morning, my mother brought a newspaper to the jail. She lifted it up to the glass partition that separated us. The photo was blurry, but then so was everything else at that moment. She put the paper down.
No mistake about it. It was. It was Fridley. It was my Fridley. Mom didn’t have to say those words again, and they remain forever indelible in my memory: You know, if you kill an imaginary friend, it’ll become real and one day get revenge.