When I was little, about 6 or 7, I had an invisible friend. His name was Doo-doo. Yes, Doo-doo. I am admitting this in a public forum. Not only that, but he had a family. His wife was Dee-dee. His son? Doo-dee. And the daughter? Dee-doo. Surely you can see the nomenclative prowess I possessed at such a young age.
Lots of little kids have invisible friends. They’re the ones who stick with us even when we’re the odd one out at recess, or have parents who just don’t understand. They play with us when we’re lonely. They’re a foil, an alter ego, a second medium through which to experience the world. And they’re important, visibility be damned.
But they’re just kidstuff. Right?
People are inclined to storytelling. It’s not always something done in the written form, at the podium or around the fire. Just walking around, living our lives, we are figuring out our own story. But at the same time, or perhaps as a function of that, we’re also figuring out the story of those around us.
Or making it up, as it were. Who hasn’t done it? You see a guy in a suit walking briskly down the street, but he’s carrying a stuffed bunny — what’s his story? Or the woman in the stonewashed jeans and off-the-shoulder sweatshirt? The middle school kid lugging a tuba down the street? They all have stories, and when we don’t know them, we fashion them out of whole cloth and lay them over the scenes around us.
There are varying levels of this, however. There are the fleeting characters who slide in and out of the picture, their stories nothing more than thumbnail sketches. But what about the ones we see everyday, usually during our commutes? Something about them sticks out or catches our eye, and immediately the mind begins weaving together the loose threads it has been exposed to. We have a chronic urge to make sense of the world around us, and part of that process is filling in the gaps for the half-told stories that swirl around us.
For me, my storybook is the bus. I don’t live near the train, so the bus is my lifeline. Lucky for me, it is always full of characters. There are the special guest stars, like the woman who dashed across Broadway and ran in front of the bus trying to catch it, but the driver wouldn’t go because she had endangered her life. (A standoff ensued, her standing in front of the bus, him threatening to call the police. “For all I know, ma’am, you were trying to kill yourself,” the driver explained. “Why would I kill myself?” the woman retorted. “It’s my birthday!”) But I prefer the recurring cast, like the woman who always read ancient Latin texts, wearing long skirts and hair pulled back in an uninspired ponytail. Or the two dapperly dressed gentlemen who always wait for the bus together, one bearded and often clad in a Sherlock Holmes-type chapeau and the other always holding the newspaper inches from his face. Or even, more darkly, the disturbed-seeming man who would always sit at the front of the bus and, occasionally, raise his hands to his face and seem on the verge of tears — shaking, stricken — before the hands fell back to his lap and his expression softened. How can you not help but let these folks linger in your minds and let them take on lives of their own?
Some of them, though, are more than anecdotes or character sketches. With some of these strangers, I feel a connection. Sure, it is one-sided, inarticulate and not reciprocated in the least, but in the story I tell, there is a friendship there nonetheless.
Perhaps the best case is with a woman about my age that I’ll call Blue. Blue caught the bus at my stop for a while before moving a bit further down the road. She always dressed very modestly and demurely, usually in shades of blue, grey and brown. Not particularly fashionable, but quite sensible. She had a travel mug from a nearby college and always had a Boston Globe with her. I had a feeling we would get along — isn’t that usually how these things start out? But it’s a poorly kept secret that I can be cripplingly shy at times, so I never engaged her in conversation. In my mind, however, our interests meshed, our personalities clicked, and we became fast friends. When she started getting on at the bus stop down the road, my mind raced with speculation. Did she move? Is she dating someone?
I didn’t notice the day Blue stopped riding my bus. But in time, her absence became apparent. I have my real life, of course, full of people with whom I have reciprocal connections and meaningful exchanges. But, is it weird to say? I miss Blue. I wonder, now and then — usually on the bus — what she’s up to, where she works, if she still buys the newspaper.
Maybe it’s a good thing to have these late-in-life imaginary friends. Perhaps we need them in the same way we needed our imaginary friends of yore — in these idealized, contrived, fictitious relationships, we can have the perfect friendships, or the kind of friend we always wanted but never found. We can start the conversation we would never dare to start in real life, and carry it on for as long as our bus routes coincide. Or maybe it’s just a way to pass the time or distract ourselves during one of the more solitary parts of our day, forging phantom connections with total strangers and writing fictions until our stop comes up, and we get off and go on with our lives. It’s just another way to process the world around us. If nothing else, it makes those mundane moments more interesting.
Lately at my bus stop, there have been two women about my age, and they seem pretty cool. But they are bus stop friends in a truer sense — they actually chat with one another! Who’da thunk? I can tell, somehow, that their acquaintance began at the bus stop. But unlike Blue and I, it became something real, forged in the fire of shared delays and complimented outfits. (This is, of course, not unprecedented. Take the case of the commuter rail couple who recently got married on the train where they met. Too cool.)
Part of me wants to interject in their conversation one morning, clue them in to the fact that I would be an excellent addition to their bus stop brigade, that we could be friends. But I don’t think it is meant to be. I’m too shy. It’s OK, though. I’ll just pretend.