Lots of people invent imaginary friends at some point during their childhood, even if it‘s just to pass the time on a particularly boring rainy afternoon. I was no exception. Except that my imaginary friend was actually an imaginary older brother. And he stayed with me for almost four years.
Though it was long ago, I remember the day that he entered my life. I remember that I was seven years old. It was the summer before 2nd grade, and I was where I could usually be found on a summer day - on the creaky little swingset in my parents’ backyard.
I had passionate feelings about the swingset. Swinging was fun. I enjoyed it. But it was also serious work. I would often swing from just after sunrise (when my mother slipped outside to water her plants and sing to her rose garden) to right around dusk (when mosquitoes and a fear of the dark drove me back indoors). Hands aching and rust-colored, with chain-link indentations molded into each palm, I would fix myself a glass of chocolate milk or sneak a few good-sized lumps of rock salt from the box in the highest kitchen cabinet (I had a salt addiction. Still do.) and retreat to my bedroom to continue whatever fantasy my imagination had spun while I was swinging all day long.
That particular day, my imagination had conjured up a big brother. I could picture him as clearly as if he was a real person. He looked just like my actual brother (tousled brown hair, olive skin, dark eyes framed with mile-long lashes), only older. Taller. Stronger. Quieter. He stayed beside me all day as I worked my swing, pushing me higher when I needed it and swinging right alongside me when I found my pace.
When I finally headed back into the house for the evening, my invisible brother was close behind. I didn’t ask it of him or make a conscious effort to imagine it. He just stayed with me. He followed me from room to room, watching over me silently like a bodyguard. He stood nearby and observed as I stole my little portion of rock salt and pocketed it. I could sense his disapproval, but I ignored it and walked - new brother in tow - to my bedroom. Once safely inside my room, I retrieved a chunk of salt from my pocket and popped it into my mouth, sucking purposefully. My imaginary brother watched and frowned.
“What?” I said defiantly. “I can have some if I want to. Mom and Dad never use it. They won’t know that I took it.”
His silence was condemning, and I became furious. I had created him, but it never occurred to me that I should be able to control him. He had a mind of his own. We began to argue, me defending myself aloud and him responding with mute reprimand.
A knock on my bedroom door, followed immediately by my father’s face peering between door and frame.
“You okay in there? Who are you talking to?”
It never occurred to me to lie. I was a skilled thief, that was certain. I could sneak rock salt into my pockets on a regular basis without my parents ever suspecting a thing. But when presented with a direct question, I found it impossible to come up with anything but the truth.
“My big brother,” I replied.
My father, being the wonderful man that he is, was unfazed. “Oh, okay. What’s his name?”
Because humans have a natural instinct to want to name things, I knew that he needed a name. But like the ability to control my imaginary brother’s actions or lie to my parents, it had not occurred to me that my creation needed a name. At least, not until someone inquired about it.
“No name,” I told my father, meaning that I had not decided on (or discovered) his name yet.
My dad smiled at the space beside me, behaving as though he could actually see the invisible boy in my room. “Nice to meet you, No-Name. Be nice to Jennifer.” And he was gone, shutting the door gently behind him,
And that was that. My father unknowingly named my imaginary brother, and for years he was a very real part of our family. Always looking out for me. Guiding me to do the right thing. My own strange version of Jiminy Cricket. I’m convinced that even my parents gradually began to think of him as real.
We’d be at the dinner table, and I’d be pushing tomatoes around on my plate. I hated tomatoes when I was a kid. Absolutely hated them.
“Eat your tomatoes,” my mother would command.
I’d avert my eyes and keep playing with my food.
My mother would squint at me, sigh, and say, “No-Name says to eat your tomatoes.”
And I’d eat them. Every bite of them.
No-Name stayed with me until sometime around the middle of 5th grade, when I became too distracted by friends and crushes and “growing up” to need a protective, imaginary older brother any longer.
I still remember him, though. I think back on those years fondly. And to this day, every time I’m tempted to do something that I know I shouldn’t, or every time I hop onto a swing (You’re never too old for swings, you know), I can picture No-Name there beside me. Just as he was when I was a kid.
Good ol’ No-Name.