At first Benny and Lisa thought their daughter Jane had named her doll Violet. She was always talking about Violet. It was Violet, Violet, Violet. For example she would say something like, “Last night I had the most wonderful dream about Granny and Violet.”
“That’s marvelous, Jane.” Trying not to roll the eyes, because Lisa tried to be an encouraging mother. Her model was the late ex-First Lady Mrs. Onassis, who, whatever else you might say about her, had obviously been an exemplary parent because she gave birth to two children who adored her. Jane was a handful. She was a constitutionally slow riser and it was a hell of a project to get her to the sitter by eight.
“Granny was holding Violet in her arms. She kissed her and kissed her.”
“Granny was always a very loving person,” said Lisa. “Into your shoes now, come on. You can do it. Left, right.”
Nothing odd about a dream that included both Granny and the doll. After all, it had been her last gift to Jane before the cancer took her. The doll was a “cabbage patch” knockoff – a “preemie”, just as Jane herself had been. She even had little glasses just like Jane’s. On the other hand, her hair was still blond, while Jane’s by this time was decidedly ash, soon to be the rather depressing brown Lisa’s would be if she didn’t take care to color it.
But Jane’s statements about Violet continued on an arc of increasing peculiarity until they were something even a busy parent can’t ignore.
“Violet says she forgives you,” Jane told her mother over lunch. This said in public over salad and juice at The Yogurt Break.
Lisa gasped out loud – anyone listening might think she had really done something really awful, so she tried to make fun of it, saying, “What did I do – leave her face down on the sofa again?”
Jane gave her mother a strange look. Such an unlikely expression on a four-year-old face. Lisa felt sure the late Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had to contend with nothing similar from her children. For one thing, it was way too mature – just as if some other spirit looked out of her – a sort of polite cynicism flickering with amused contempt. Lisa was awarded that look as she struggled to recall the names of the children in Jane’s playgroup. Wasn’t Brendan the one who always pushed and Mystique the one who always cried?
“You haven’t left her anywhere,” Jane said. “You can’t touch her. She doesn’t like being touched.”
Creepy. She must be talking, obviously, about something different from a doll that spent all its time suspended from its owner like a baby koala. But Lisa refused to think about it. She was not one to indulge in “mind games” as she called them. The employees she supervised were always eager to waste time in long conversations in which motives and memories were examined from every angle and then stood on their head. It wasn’t the same as getting the work done.
“Well,” she said, astutely changing the subject, “We’re here to buy a party dress! Let’s go!”
Ben’s brother was finally getting married after many false starts, and Jane, as the only niece, had the exciting role of flower girl. Lisa, by pleading how difficult her daughter was to fit, had managed to acquire the dress purchasing job with the following proviso: long, lace, off- white. A pleasant afternoon of fashion choice meant that it wasn’t till dinner that Lisa finally found out who Violet actually was. Lisa and Ben were on their second glass of Chablis, enjoyably discussing future plans while the somewhat over-steamed shrimp curled in its dish, when Jane said, “Violet doesn’t look anything like Daddy.”
This silenced Ben, whose face showed confusion, so Lisa said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.
It’s revolting.”“I guess I’m flattered that I don’t look like a cabbage patch doll, “ said Ben finally. But he had lost his train of thought. Just when he was agreeing that a Disney cruise for Christmas would be so nice.
“Violet is NOT a doll,” said Jane, loudly as if communicating with deaf people, “Violet is MY
Ben’s forehead creased. “Is she the one who’s always crying?”
“Violet is my PRIVATE friend. “
“I fail to see why your friends should look like Daddy.” Lisa served everyone more salad just to keep busy, even though they hadn’t yet cleaned their plates.
“Violet’s my sister,” explained Jane. “She has red hair just like you, but her eyes are green.”
Lisa rose abruptly from the table and turned away. She began dishing out dessert too forcefully. The flan would collapse if forced to just sit here, but the hell with appearances. Jane had no sister. No brother. She was an only child. Lisa had had an abortion at fifteen, which was something she never thought about, and she had gotten the idea at the time – either from something someone told her or just out of her head – that the child had been a girl. That was why when Jane was a girl she had been so relieved. If Jane had been a boy she would have felt the need to go on questing for that lost little girl. But now her family was complete, because now everything was all right again. This was not something Jane — or anybody — had any reason to know.
Lisa’s hair had never been red, that was just the most flattering shade agreed on by customer and colorist. On the other hand that boy – Lord she could not even recall his name, she must be blocking it – had fiery red hair. And very freckled skin. Even though they were still in the middle of dinner she began unloading the dishwasher, because physical activity always made her feel better.
“Sounds like Violet is one of those imaginary friends,” she said, amazing herself with the calmness and placidity of her own voice. “Lots of children have them. It shows…” she couldn’t think of anything. Her brain was parched. A desert. “Imagination.”
“I had one,” said Ben.
Amazing! The things you find out about a person you’ve been married to for fifteen years! At first she was beyond grateful to him just for participating; then she wondered if he was lying to make everyone feel normal. That would be a very Ben thing to do. But it helped Lisa for one to feel calm enough to sit back down and give the others a big smile. Inside she was thinking, “God I’m a lousy mother. I probably talk in my sleep. And Jane can see totally through me and knows just how to push my buttons at only four years old.”
Unfortunately Ben felt a need to build on his success. Since there were only three of them at a table with four chairs, he joked, “Why don’t you set a place for Violet? I always did with mine. It used to drive my mother crazy!” He laughed. “I hope she likes shrimp.”
“She isn’t allowed to have shellfish,” said Jane. “She’s allergic. She’s allergic to a lot of things.”
Poor Lisa’s face collapsed like the flan. She thought she was going to burst into tears. Calloway — that was the boy’s goddam name, Crispin Calloway III. How could she ever have forgotten it? He came from a very snooty family. And he was allergic to everything. His parents were allergic to becoming grandparents, that was for sure. But at fifteen years old, what choice does anybody have?
When husband and wife were finally alone upstairs, Ben sat on the bed watching Lisa do sit-ups. She had a theory that if you exercised right after a meal the fat wouldn’t “take”. It was uncomfortable and unpleasant, but that was true of virtually everything worthwhile in life.
Ben cleared his throat loudly. He must know from experience that she wouldn’t stop just to talk to him, but he went right ahead anyway, asking,
“What happened to you at dinner? I have never seen you so thrown.”
She did stop. She stopped in mid sit-up, her gut aching, and leaned against the bed, thinking, I am never going to do another sit-up again. What is the point? What is the point of anything?
How could she tell him after all these years? It was an ugly, stupid story she had done her best to forget – had forgotten until this bizarre concatenation of circumstances had somehow brought it back into the present, a situation as unlikely and yet possibly as inevitable as a group of chimps typing in a room until they produced a scene from Shakespeare. What was the point of bringing it up now? Eons of time had passed, everyone and everything was different. Yet Ben was so sweet, so sympathetic, looking at her so lovingly. He would never hold it against her. Yet if she told him, it would be like giving birth to the thing she and her mother had stopped. It would be out there in the world.
Lisa, who never cried, who hadn’t cried even when her beloved father died, amazed herself and Ben by bursting into tears. Ben slid to the ground to hold her tightly against his suit, and she choked out, “I’m such a CRAPPY MOTHER!” Because that’s what she was always feeling. Jane knew she was faking it. That’s why she was torturing her. That was the accusation in Jane’s eyes.
Ben was still talking, on and on, while he rocked her. He said things like, “How can you say that? You’re the best mother I know. You’re with Jane a lot more than I am…and she’s a smart kid…she’s like a little crystal radio set…she tunes into your anxieties, all of them, even the ones that aren’t about her and she picks at them like scabs. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. Imaginary friends are perfectly OK. She’s learning to “self-soothe”. That’s what we want, isn’t it? To set her free from us emotionally. It’s probably harder on us than it is on her. We can’t just invent people to make ourselves feel better.
“I think the best thing to do is to ignore it. That’s what my parents did. There will come a time when Jane and her “sister” part company. Trust me. All little kids long for a brother or a sister….till they have them. You know what the books say about single children. They’re more verbal, they have more resources, they’re happier and more successful when they grow up…”
Thank God for Ben! He was so wonderful! What slam-dunk it was the day she married him! He never really knew what the issues were but he dove in bravely anyway, smoothing the roiled waters with his charm. Or trying.
She gasped, “You don’t think… we have to find a child psychologist… bend the insurance…”
He said, “No. I’m sure of it. Jane is fine and so are we.”
And she felt so much better. Much, much better.
The morning they went to the airport to catch the plane to Ben’s brother’s wedding was one of those family nightmares that becomes the stuff of legend. It was a perfect storm of unreeling disaster. First there was oversleeping; everybody overslept. The there was quarrelsomeness; everybody was quarrelsome.
Ben ate the last of the raisin bran in the middle of the night – the last of it – knowing full well it
was the only thing Lisa could tolerate for breakfast. She tried to eat oatmeal with the others but it was just the most disgusting stuff. Ben forgot the tickets and they had to go back, because they weren’t e tickets, which they should have been. Jane kept asking if she could wear the gloves that came with the dress and it made Lisa’s head ache to even think of trying to clear this past a bridezilla obsessed with trying to match the flower girl exactly to the ring- bearer. It was always dangerous to lie to Jane but “we’ll see when we get there” wasn’t cutting it.
Jane, although strictly forbidden to do so, had been trying the dress on and parading around in it so much she had managed to tear one of the ruffles at the bottom. Already. Lisa would have to mend it on the flight if it wasn’t bumpy – she was scared enough of flying as it was – or maybe in the hotel room later while the rest of the world partied. Ben was warned against bringing his coffee into the car, did so anyway, and then spilled it on himself. He was so angry he threw the mug out the window, right in front of an inquisitive four year old who had been told to grow out of tantrums.
Thank God the plane was late. It gave them a moment to regroup, to calm down, to walk more slowly, to speak to each other without biting and snapping. But when it was finally time to proceed to the tarmac, Jane began suddenly convulsing, her body jackknifing like an epileptic’s, bringing the flight attendants running – in short, it was awful.
“We can’t go!” shrieked Jane. “We can’t go without Violet and Violet’s not coming! She just stands there waving goodbye!”
They had not seen anything like this since the terrible two’s.
“Stop it!” said Ben sternly. “We are getting on that plane. Violet will join us later. You’ll see.”
“If not, good riddance,” said Lisa. “Everyone has to grow up sometime.”
The tiny blue-eyed flight attendant twisted her face up with concern. She was thinking what an awful mother Lisa was, Lisa could just tell. Everyone must be thinking it.
“The airline sponsors a Fear of Flying group,” she said. “But with a child this young maybe a doctor can prescribe something.“
See? They were all telling her she’d ruined her kid and it was time for medical intervention.
“She’s getting ON THE PLANE,” said Lisa, trying to pick up a forty-eight pound thrashing weight, but it was like battling a beached marlin in full public view.
“I’m sorry,” said the flight attendant firmly, “She can’t get on while she’s shrieking like that. It would disturb the other passengers. If you have medication—“
Ben had Prozac if Lisa could just remember which bag it was in. She was demoralized enough to say to the flight attendant, “Any idea what dose…?”
The woman pulled back as if they were all crazy.
“But under the circumstances, you’ll have to take a later flight. I’m sure she’ll have calmed down by then.”
Lisa wanted to burst into tears herself. Jacqueline Onassis’ children never did anything like this. They did cute things on the tarmac, like saluting and shaking hands. Ben, who had been standing there helplessly, finally spoke up.
“I’ve got to go!” he cried, the vein in his forehead pumping like a water-hose. “I’m the best man! They’re relying on me!”
“There’s two more planes today,” the flight attendant soothed.
Jane broke away and ran wildly back to the terminal, shouting, “Violet! Violet!”
Lisa felt she had never been so humiliated in her life. Everyone’s attention was focused on her. She was the one preventing this plane from leaving the runway and making all of their connections.
Lisa kissed Ben hastily, and rushed after her.
She found Jane curled up on one of the hard molded plastic seats; sobbing so hard she had difficulty speaking. She hadn’t cried this way since infancy.
“I can’t find Violet, Mom,” she gasped. “She’s gone! She said if we left we’d never come back. Well here we are but where is she? Where did she go?”
Lisa sat beside her daughter wondering if there was enough Prozac in the world for the two of them. Did she really even want to go to Ben’s stupid brother’s stupid wedding? It had been so long since she had done anything because she wanted to do it that she hardly knew what it was to want any more.
“Don’t worry, Jane. It’s like we’re having a bad dream while we’re awake. It will all be over soon. If we take a later flight, maybe Violet will meet us there.”
“She said not to go,” Jane sobbed. “I tried to do what she said. We’ve got to go look for her!”
Lisa took her hand. “All right,” she said, “Let’s go find Violet.”
She steered her daughter towards the airline desk where they could change their tickets, thinking, Taking care of children is like living in an asylum. You try humoring the inmates, then you realize you are an inmate. In that moment she surrendered the late Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her own imaginary friend, thinking, We’re all crazy here.
On the escalator she looked out through the wall of glass, glancing mechanically in the same direction as everyone else, craning her neck to see the source of the sirens, or at least, their objective. When the escalator arrived at the top she lost Jane’s hand, tripped over the people ahead of her, unable to walk any more under her own steam, borne aloft by the panicking mob.
Violet had certainly been right about it. One of them at least would not be coming back.