Sunday
Jul032016

Guardian

Lee Conell


 

The afternoon Joan first spawned Cind, she was supposed to be helping her mother clean. Joan's father was due home from another business trip in the evening, and all day long Joan's mother had clung to a variety of scrub brushes and dusters. She had ordered Joan to her room, to pick up her shoes and dolls. But Joan was more interested in spending time in front of the forbidden TV. When she was sure her mother was fully occupied cleaning the bathroom and coordinating her scrub brushes, Joan crept to the living room, turned the dial, and watched a syndicated episode of The Brady Bunch come to glowing life.

In the episode, it was near Christmas and Cindy Brady asked a shopping mall Santa Claus to give laryngitis-stricken Mrs. Brady back her voice so Mrs. Brady might sing in church. Mrs. Brady's face on TV was a perfect equilateral triangle, a hunk of head displaying all the properties of a harmonious composition. Joan's mother's head was round and shapeless and her face was often frown-twisted and Joan wished very much for a mother more like Mrs. Brady, a mother who was beautiful and kind and super blonde, a mother without such a strong Long Island accent, a demure mother who sang in church. Joan's mother did not even go to church, although she did possess a serious love of cherubs. Their living room walls were covered in framed portraits of second-rate knock-off Raphaels, angels with polished apple cheeks and penitent saucer eyes. Nothing weird like that hung up in the Bradys' house, so far as Joan could see.

Joan must have gotten swept up in the show, or perhaps the laugh track blotted out the sound of footsteps, because suddenly there her mother was, marching forward toward the Bradys. She lifted up her arms, sheathed to the elbow in clammy blue latex cleaning gloves, and with her hands covered the faces on the screen (though Joan could still spy bits of Brady girl hair peeking blondely out between the webs of her fingers).

"I said no TV." Joan's mother frowned. "Didn't I say no TV? Joan. It's brain-rot. Do you know it'll rot your brain? There are studies." She stopped covering the TV with her hands in order to face Joan and cross her arms over her chest. Her cheeks puffed out, granting her already round face a cartoonish appearance. "What are you gawking at?" she asked Joan.

"Nothing."

"Keep your eyes to yourself. Aren't you supposed to be cleaning your room?"

Joan looked away, shrugged. Disobedience felt like a new toy, a brilliant baby doll that spoke words more wondrous than "Mama." After nearly a minute of tense inactivity, Joan's mother did not just turn the TV off but unplugged it altogether, the screen sizzling in static exhalation. She hoisted Joan up from the rug, dragged her down the hall to her room and shut the door. Her cleaning gloves had left their damp latex smell on Joan's skin. Joan covered her nose with her ponytail until she smelled her own self again. In other houses, she knew, The Brady Bunch continued. Somewhere problems were solved. Long hair was swung. An invisible audience laughed. Fell silent. Laughed again.

Out of boredom that day, and envy of those invisible audiences, Joan created an invisible friend and named her Cind. The name came, of course, from the youngest, blondest, most ringleted Brady daughter, Cindy. Joan shortened the name because she didn't want to completely conflate the child she was imagining with the real TV one. She wanted to acknowledge from the start that hers was the lesser creation—a sort of compensation.

Although Cind was technically a spin-off, she quickly evolved into something very different from her television counterpart. Cind was cute like the Brady daughter, sure, with big blue eyes (much more charming than Joan's brown eyes), tufts of gold hair gathered into pigtails (Joan had dark hair always put in braids), and deep dimple dents (Joan's face was excessively freckled). But for all her cuteness, Cind was also kind of creepy. Joan had ended up imagining her into the three-dimensional space of her bedroom covered not in the skin of a small child, but the surface of the small screen. Cind's face crawled with what seemed a tight net of glimmering multicolored insects—oversized pixels instead of flesh. Her eyes, also, Joan had imagined too literally: They flickered with electricity and sometimes resembled kaleidoscopes, the lambent blue flecks of the irises swimming, flowing, moving constantly with strange symmetry. Because Cind was an imaginary child carved from another imaginary child, she seemed exponentially more phantasmic, spectral to the second power.

She was not TV-perfect, but she would have to do.

After introductions, Joan ordered Cind to hide with her under the bed because a monster was coming. Together they crawled beneath Joan's mattress, poking at the diamonds of its frame, breathing in the claustral under-the-bed stink. Once they were properly settled, Joan jabbered to her about how gross the monster was, booger-colored and slimy, too. Cind did not say a thing, but stayed close as Joan pictured the two of them running from the monster in the thick of the forest beyond the backyard. Joan shifted her arms a little under the bed, and kicked her legs to simulate their flight. They stayed there, twitching together like dreaming dogs, right up until Joan's mother opened the door to Joan's room and sighed at the mess and announced Joan's father's arrival.

When Joan went to hug him, he smelled like another family's fabric softener. He moved in with that other family a few weeks later. Other than occasional weekend dinners in the city, she saw him rarely. However, Cind, unlike Joan's father, kept up her regular appearances all summer, until school began and Joan forgot about her entirely. Cind, too, eventually vanished.

But she showed up again, decades later, in the hospital—right next to the machinery measuring Joan's unconscious mother's heart.

 

Of course, Joan did not know what to say to her at first.

Cind—still blond, still pigtailed—was breathing hard, as if she had just run a great distance. Her exhalations sounded like a snowy TV that had lost a transmission. Her inhalations just sounded kind of gross and wheezy. She wore overalls and a pink shirt and pink sneakers, and she still looked like a five-year-old girl, although by this point, technically, she was in her thirties, like Joan, who sat there in slacks and a sweater the color of split pea soup.

A whole minute passed between Joan and Cind in silence. At last, Joan cleared her throat, which was very dry. "Wow, Cind!" Joan's voice wobbled from her great effort at enthusiasm. "Wow, wow, wow. You haven't aged a bit!"

Cind tilted her head. "You definitely have."

Joan had not thought to imagine what Cind's voice might sound like now, after so many years. If someone had asked her to guess what an invisible child's voice resembled to an adult, she would have gone with the lyrical. Wind chimes in a suburban spring, maybe, or birds singing on a summer morning. But, at least in this hospital room, Cind's voice was actually closer to the laugh track from a sitcom going off in an empty room. Joan could sense the static at its core, a sound designating her as nothing more than signal, electrical output. Should she treat this Cind like so much white noise? Should she treat her as a symptom, a preemptive sign of grief? The doctors had told her that her mother might not wake up, and that must be why Cind was here, of course. It was simple, it was grossly Freudian, yes, just a sign of grief. But how do you interact with a sign of grief, when it approaches you so audaciously? What do you say to a branch in a thicket of the brain's figments and fictions?

"Want a Coke or something?" Joan tried. She lowered her voice. "From the cafeteria?"

"'Kay," Cind said.

Joan rose to her feet. Her legs, to her own surprise, were steady.

She and Cind walked together into the hallway.

 

Not long before Joan's mother had been hospitalized, she had called up Joan and they'd had a pretty shitty conversation. Joan had told her mother she'd ended things with Jeff and her mother had said, "What, honey," and before Joan could say more, her mother had said, "Joan, you're getting older, what about kids?"

And Joan had told her mother what she herself had known for some time: She did not want children.

Silence. On the phone, Joan could not see her mother, but she could imagine an array of facial expressions that might pair with the breathy sound of her speechlessness. A sneer. A smirk. A pout. Joan imagined her invisible mother shaking her head, mouthing a curse to the fleet of kid-angels hanging on the walls.

At last, her mother had said, "You'll regret that choice."

"I won't regret it, Mom."

"Later on, you'll regret it."

"I've thought it over."

"Me, I wanted a big family, always. I wanted lots more kids besides you. But your father didn't feel the same way. And of course, then he left."

"I know, Mom."

"And so I thought grandchildren, yes, those will do. Lots of those."

"I know, Mom."

"I just don't understand. It's a woman's privilege."

"So because I don't want kids, I'm not a woman?"

"I am saying you are a woman. And it's your privilege."

Joan hung up the phone and breathed into the quiet of her apartment.

Since her mother had lost consciousness, Joan had thought over the conversation again and again, and each time she imagined that silence, it seemed different in her memory. Newly final.

 

But now, here, in the hospital hallway, walking besides her: The only child Joan had ever created. She seemed more real, more vivid, than Joan's mother, who was pale and unconscious, stretched out, not speaking.

 

The line in the cafeteria consisted of a bald man, a large woman, a silent couple in button-up shirts. None of them seemed to see Cind. But then none of them seemed to see Joan, either.

Joan bought only a coffee, a Coke, and some M&Ms. At the long white cafeteria table, Cind ran her thumbnail over the candy wrapper. One of her overall straps looked ready to fall off her shoulder. The shoulder's flesh shimmered like the scales of a rainbow trout; the pixels that covered her had acquired, with the years, a new iridescence. Joan couldn't bring herself to reach forward and readjust the strap. Instead she poured another packet of half-and-half into her coffee and watched the cream dissolve, melding with the greater mass around it.

Joan and Cind sat without speaking. They sat for a long time. The woman ahead of Joan on the cafeteria line had finished her food and was placing her empty tray on top of a flat trashcan. The bald man who had been behind Joan in line was wiping his mouth with a napkin. Also, he was looking at Joan. When Joan caught his eyes, he shifted his gaze and his forehead crinkled. He appeared, now, to be looking at Cind. Straight at Cind.

Which was impossible. Wasn't it? Only what if, over the years, Cind had acquired new skills, like visibility? What if, when invisible children went through their adolescence, they did not grow hips and breasts, but just matured enough so that they could in fact be seen? And if the man saw Cind, what must he think of her? Perhaps that she was Joan's slightly strange-looking child. Was he really seeing her? He definitely did seem to be staring at Cind, although after a minute he grew bold enough to look at Joan again, to stare back at her. His eyes were pink.

Her mother, if she were here and awake, would say, "Joan, don't look at strangers." No, no, that wasn't right. Her mother would say, "Joan, keep your eyes to yourself." How could Joan forget that line, even for a moment? She repeated it again and again under her breath, like a prayer. Keep your eyes to yourself, Joan, keep your eyes to yourself, keep your eyes. All her mother had wanted was a grandchild with whom she could share such a warning. All her mother had wanted was a big family, noise, children playing together, underfoot, shouting. It was not an extravagant desire, but it was not something Joan had been willing to fulfill. She was not that obedient. Still, right now she was sorry. She was sorry she had not been able to give her mother the family she had wanted.

The bald man was staring at Cind again. Was he? She wanted to get up and ask him but she was nervous he would look at her funny. If she knew for sure that he didn't see Cind, Joan would begin to feel crazy. But the way he was looking—it seemed possible that he was staring at more than empty space. After another minute, he finally got to his feet and left the cafeteria. Joan looked around. Nobody was watching her. Still, she covered her mouth partway with her hand when she muttered, "Cind?"

Cind was contemplating her Coke.

"Cind." Joan's breath was hot on her palm. "I've got a question for you. Are you listening?"

"I guess," said Cind.

"It's a very, very important question, so I want you to be entirely honest. Can you be entirely honest?"

"I guess," said Cind.

Joan took a deep breath. "Can other people see you now? I mean, people besides me?"

"Yes. Sometimes."

"Sometimes?"

"When I want them to."

A new idea formed then, and although ideas, too, are invisible, this one had such a weight that for a second Joan bowed her head a little, so that her nose nearly grazed the Styrofoam rim of her coffee cup.

She recovered herself, lifted her head again. Glanced across the cafeteria table.

Pretending to examine the nutritional information on the Coke, she whispered, "Listen. Are you listening, Cind?"

"I guess."

"It's a real long shot, but I have a plan. If my mother wakes up and notices you, I want you to act like you're my daughter."

"Huh?"

"Make her see you, and act like you're mine. Okay? Call her grandma or something. Can you do all that?"

When Joan had been a child, Cind had obeyed her every word. She ran through woods full of sludge monsters. She scaled castle walls in pursuit of mythical birds. She built with Joan little cities out of clumps of under-the-bed dust. But now Joan was a changed person and Cind was a changed sort of imagining.

"Why should I?" she asked.

"She's drugged up, she's dying." Joan glanced down again at the coffee. "There's a chance she'll accept you as reality. And if she does, she'll be really happy. She'll think I obeyed her. She'll think I had a kid, just like she wanted."

Cind stared at Joan with such directness, Joan was taken aback. She had looked at Joan before, but this was a different look, as if someone behind a TV screen had reached out and grazed Joan's face with the back of their hand and left a buzzing electron-y feeling all across Joan's skin.

At last Cind said, "Don't you have a real child to pretend with?"

"That's none of your business, Cind."

"Okay."

"But no. I don't have kids."

"Is that because you only take imaginary lovers?"

"What?"

"You know you can't have children with imaginary lovers, right? Some women don't know this." Cind smiled with a strange triumph. "It's their sperm."

"What?"

"Imaginary sperm have this weird texture. Like silk thread. Not sticky enough to make a baby. Just sort of spools around in you. All gyre-y."

"All . . ."

"I may not look like I've gotten any older," said Cind, "but I have gotten older." She slurped up the rest of the Coke noisily through the straw.

Joan took another measured breath. "But will you do it? If she regains consciousness? Will you make her see you?"

Maybe it was all the sugar in her soda, but there was a new gleam to Cind's eye now. "We'll see," she said. She stood up, headed toward the elevator.

Joan followed.

 

When they got back to the hospital room, Joan's mother remained unconscious. Equipment continued to monitor her with a trill of beeps, an elaborate soundtrack of alerts and chimes, indicators of invisible dangers that rose and fell and seemed still only half-real. Joan sat down beside her bed once more. She said to Cind, "Let's wait here a little longer. She might wake up."

Cind sat down in a folding chair. "Okay."

"Don't go anywhere, Cind."

"I'll go where I want," Cind said, but she didn't move.

From the hall came the sound of rushing, of small efficient metal wheels clicking and clacking like sets of metallic teeth. Joan counted each set of teeth she heard pass. After a while, her head began to feel very heavy. It was getting late. She looked at Cind who was still alert as ever, her weird eyes trained on Joan's mother.

"Okay," Joan said. "Okay. It's time to be leaving. We can try tomorrow. She may wake up tomorrow and then we can see if she sees you. Okay? We can try tomorrow. She may wake up tomorrow. We don't know. Okay, Cind?"

And Joan's mother's eyelids fluttered.

Joan grasped the edges of her chair so hard, even the little bones in her wrist seemed to acquire a timorous heartbeat.

Her mother's eyes slowly opened. It was a miracle on the scale of a made-for-TV Christmas movie special, beyond the Bradys, even. It was a wonder. Her eyes were very dark.

"Hi," Joan said once she'd caught her breath. "Mom. Oh, God."

Joan's mother stared hard. Then her gaze traveled to the space next to Joan, the folding chair occupied at the moment by Cind. Did she see her? Joan tried to read the expression on her mother's face. She appeared, staring at Cind, bewildered, her eyes asking, "Who is this?"

So Joan turned to Cind. But Cind seemed changed. She looked now like the cherubs that hung on the walls of Joan's mother's house, her eyes bright, her ringlets extra golden. Perhaps Cind was not just an old imaginary friend, but also a guardian angel, an external guide who had arrived to lead Joan through the hospital wings, to give Joan the chance to lie sweetly to her mother, to offer her mother a sense of peace by assuring her that her genetics would trundle on.

"That's my child," Joan said in a very loud voice, pointing at Cind, but looking at her mother. "I have a daughter. It happened after all! See?"

Joan waited for a thin smile, or a look of amazement to dispel the confusion on her mother's face. Instead she blinked and Joan saw her eyes say again, "Who is this?"

She was looking at Joan. Cind looked Joan's way too.

"Oh," Joan said.

"Who is this?" said the eyes of Joan's mother, and Joan realized that it was Joan herself that her mother could not place, Joan who she could not recognize.

After another minute her mother's eyes closed again.

Joan got to her feet. She needed to leave. She did not want someone to come in and tell her to leave. She would go before then.

"Come on, Cind," Joan said softly. "Let's get out of here."

But Cind didn't move. She stayed beside Joan's mother's bed, swinging her legs, waiting for some new game to begin, maybe, or some old monster to appear. She did not look Joan's way. So Joan left the room without her and took the elevator downstairs. The bald man was exiting the hospital too. He looked at Joan and she had the sudden awful sense that he was working up the courage to give her his number. She rushed past him before he could speak to her. She did not want to know the sound of his voice.

An empty plastic bag swooped bat-like around the hospital parking lot, displaying the red supermarket logo on its front. Joan was shivering. It took her a minute to find and recognize her car, and another minute to make her feet move toward it. Had that happened? Had her mother woken up? Had she looked at Joan, with no recognition? As Joan drove out of the lot, she glanced back at the white bulk of hospital. Some of its windows seemed to stare back at her and others windows blinked. A few windows were dark.

The Cind inside that hospital was not Joan's Cind. She was not her old friend. And she was not a guardian angel. She was a prophet, foretelling what Joan's mother would become to Joan: A half made-up being without real breath. A person whose image shifted in Joan's mind like shadows on a screen. "She'll live on in your memory." Wasn't that what people would say, once it was all over? But Joan's mother would not be preserved solely in memory. She would also be preserved in imagination, and that was the scarier place by far.

A thick fog was gathering under the streetlamps and Joan's hands were shaking. She pulled over into an empty lot just to be safe. There she breathed deeply into the special quiet generated by locked-up strip mall stores. She leaned her head for a moment against the car window. When she lifted it again, she saw the smudged print of her right temple glow in a burst of passing headlights, taking on its own life.