All the Imaginary People are Better at Life
Amber Sparks

Ruby can’t stop driving, because if she stops she’ll be somewhere. If she’s somewhere, she’ll be real. All the Ruby atoms in the vicinity will come to a screeching halt in the general shape of her. Then she’ll have to deal with all the issues real people deal with.

No thank you.

So she does another loop around town and ends up sitting in traffic, watching a traffic cop in a florescent green vest wave cars through the intersection. A mosquito flies in and examines the vinyl seats of her car. She smacks it sharply and watches it crumple against her dashboard, shudders at the bright scarlet smear on her palm. She can’t stand the sight of small amounts of blood. Big blood, no problem. Buckets of blood, rivers of the stuff, that’s okay. But it’s the little bits that freak her out—that remind her that you bleed and you bleed and you bleed and eventually that will kill you but so slowly you don’t even notice until you’re dead. Then while you’re rotting, you wonder when you could have stopped it, what you could have done to stanch the little bleeding bits. Death by a thousand cuts.

Now finally in front of her apartment, she has to stop. She hates Home, ever since the boyfriend more or less moved himself in. Or not really Home. It’s just Here. Just another Here she finds herself in for a while. She parks behind his hideous station wagon and sighs; he must be inside waiting for her. She has explained to him before how much she hates this. It’s my apartment, she always says. I need my privacy. He doesn’t understand the word my. He eats her privacy like most people eat popcorn.

He is sitting in her favorite chair, the big maroon and gold striped monstrosity left over from her dumpster-diving days. He is sipping Coke through a straw (this makes her crazy, crazy, crazy) because his dentist told him the soda was rotting his teeth. He is watching the Home Shopping Network. He is laughing at what the host of some Home Shopping Network program has said. He is the only person she knows who could laugh at the Home Shopping Network. Take my cubic zirconia, please, she says, and flings her purse onto the couch.

He looks up, smiling and puzzled, his face a fleshy question mark.

Never mind, she says. She touches the couch, the table, the coffee cup left out from last night. She gives these things names in her head: Couch, Table, Cup. They don’t seem to fit, the names and the things. She wonders if perhaps this is what people mean when they talk about losing your mind. Perhaps bits of her mind are spinning away from her now, the bits containing Couch and Cup and Table and also Boyfriend and Conversation and Paying Attention to What I Am Talking About.

Are you paying attention to what I’m talking about, he asks.

No, she says truthfully. I’m sorry. She is, too. Sorry for him. She sits on the couch next to the chair, her favorite chair. Chair. Talk.

You’re thinking of other things, he says.

Yes, she agrees. Yes, probably. Is she crazy, she wonders?

Please, he says. His eyes look shiny, like marbles. Can we just have a normal conversation for once, Ruby? Just talk like people do? We can do that, just talk like people do, right?

Okay, she says, and looks out the window, anywhere but at him. She knows she’s not people but she does not mention this to him. His eyes are too blue; they remind her of Blue Moon ice cream, her least favorite flavor next to Bubble Gum.

Are you cheating on me? He blurts it out and stops, looks embarrassed but doesn’t take it back.

She doesn’t say anything.

Well, he says, are you? Are you seeing anyone else?

She pauses, wishes she could say yes, wishes she could be so cruel. No, she tells him.

He stands up then, his denim work shirt not quite covering his thin wrists. His wrists are skinnier than hers. I don’t know what this is, he says. This isn’t a relationship, is it?

She decides not to answer that. She wouldn’t know how, anyway.

***

Caleb, her imaginary best friend, calls on the space wires from Chicago to complain about the weather. The best part about Caleb is that he has a direct line into her head so she doesn’t incur any phone charges. Ruby has made Caleb an actor, big and blond and very gay, and she loves him more than anyone else in the world. He is not-people and she is not-people. They work well together. He is gay because sex is more exhausting than marathons.

Did you know, he says, did you know that we can’t really predict the weather at all? We’ve polluted the air too much and the greenhouse effect is too far gone or something. We’re basically living in a constant state of surprise.

I hate surprises, she says. A few years ago one of her co-workers planned a surprise birthday party for her, and she threw up on the sofa out of shock.

Caleb sighs. I just hate this rain, he says. It makes me feel like somebody wants us quiet down here.

***

Ruby never really had a mom. Her mother was an exotic dancer who ran away right after Ruby was born, leaving nothing behind but three packages of diapers, her wedding ring, and her own name hanging on her daughter’s hospital ID bracelet. Ruby Virginia. Ruby hated her name, even though her dad said it meant she was a beautiful jewel. She would have rather been just Jane, plain Jane, like her best friend in elementary school. It seemed like a sensible name, a name that meant nothing and could never make anyone cry.

They say, Ruby, you’re like a flame, her father would sing to her. Into my life you came. When he sang that song, she always felt funny; he would look straight at her but his eyes were filled up with tears for somebody else. And though I should beware, still I don’t care. You thrill me so, I only know, Ruby, it’s you.

But it wasn’t her at all. She knew that. It made her sad with someone’s else grief.

***

She buys a latte and a newspaper. She finds a table, sips her drink and circles things that have nothing to do with her. Ruby is a compulsive list-maker, note-taker, and circler. She buys computer magazines and circles models she likes, peruses classifieds and circles garage sales she doesn’t intend to go to, and used cars she doesn’t want to buy. Now she circles an ad for heartworm medication. There is a worm in my heart, she thinks.

He doesn’t move from that chair anymore, says the woman at the table next to her. Yep, he just sits there and rocks back and forth, watches CNN sometimes.

I know, I know, it’s depressing, says the woman’s companion. Two women at the next table, sipping iced coffees and discussing their…father? Grandfather? Brother? It is easy enough to overhear their conversation. They speak with the long, rounded vowels of the upper Midwest, too loudly and with an abandon that embarrasses Ruby. Some people suck so badly at being alive, she thinks.

One of the women, the younger one, has frizzy dark blonde hair tucked behind her ears and wears an oversized T-shirt with sweat stains under the armpits. She shakes her head, setting frizzes flying in every direction, and says, He’s just completely sedimentary now. The other woman nods in agreement, and Ruby snorts. She pictures the man in question slowly calcifying, bits of rock building up on this arm, on that toe. His chest soon looks like the Rockies without the climbers and so he goes to see his doctor.

Doc, he asks (of course his doctor is ‘Doc’), Doc, what’s wrong with me?

Not to worry, Ted (or Bill or Fred or George or Bob), you’re just sedimentary. No big deal. Just watch out for the tectonics. They might give you a little heartburn.

She laughs and laughs at her scenario, knocking over her latte, and the two women turn and stare along with half the cafe. She sobers then. She has drawn far too much attention to herself. They will see she isn’t like them. She feels her arms, suddenly colder. It’s not a worm at all, she thinks. Her heart is slowly turning to stone. Even now, it seems, her heart is calcifying at so rapid a rate that soon there will be nothing left but a strange, slightly pliable boulder.

***

Sometimes she wonders if Randy is using her for her apartment. Somehow all of his things are migrating here, like strange species in the process of relocation. A nail clippers here, a couple of shirts there, until her place became more full of him than her. She wonders sometimes if she properly exists anymore, or if through some unconscious philanthropic gesture she’s given too much of her space to Randy to occupy it herself.

When Randy gets ready in the morning he tries too hard to be quiet and it always wakes her. She can hear his ‘quiet’ walk, slow and stretched and out of time like astronauts on the moon. His huge feet scrape the carpet and she always sighs loudly, flings the pillow over her head, sometimes groans for extra effect. Sorry, he’ll whisper. Sorry, Beautiful, didn’t mean to wake you. She hates that he whispers even though she’s awake and there’s no one else in the house, hates that he is always sorry, hates that he calls her Beautiful, hates that he says the same things over and over until her nerves vibrate and snap like guitar strings. When they do it he thinks she’s crying because she loves him. He licks her tears and calls her Ruby, baby, and she thinks about how the back of his head would look blown off with a shotgun.

This morning she waits until she hears his car pull out, then calls in sick to work. This is the fifth time in two weeks, and she thinks she may be fired soon. Caleb calls and she turns up the frequency in her head to listen. Are you okay, he asks. He sounds truly concerned, and she is touched.

When you and Lorenzo are doing it, she asks, does he call you Beautiful? Lorenzo is Caleb’s imaginary boyfriend. He is dark and tall and excitable, and he kisses Ruby’s cheeks when they see one another. He smells like Europe.

What? No, he doesn’t say much of anything, Caleb says down the wires. Ruby, what’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you at work?

You and I can’t pretend to do the things people do, she says. We don’t need to go to work. We don’t need to provide for our families.

Look, Caleb says. I’m imaginary but you’re a real person. Jesus, Ruby. You have to eat real food. You have to pay real rent. You’re not imaginary, dude. You’re just crazy, that’s all. You just really suck at being alive.

Fuck you, she tells him. She hangs up her imaginary phone. But angry as she is, she envies Caleb. He seems so much more put together than she is. Probably because he only has to get his shit together within the small spaces she’s created for him. But still. He’s better at life, that’s for sure.

When she was five, Ruby’s father built her a child-sized house of cards, just big enough for her. The sides were cardboard boxes painted to look like playing cards; a jack, a king, a queen, and an ace on four walls. All hearts.

She would take her book in there and sit for hours, tucked away in a house inside a basement inside a house. She thinks now that she has always been a person that needs layers. Not a scarf or a sweater, but walls between her and other people. A series of homes within homes. A series of places to hide.

She decides to spend the day at the bookstore again. She heads for the section marked ‘Travel’ and finds a hardbound road atlas. She sits on the floor and balances it in her lap, her hair brushing over an Iowa the color of corn. She watches the smallish balding man leafing restlessly through a copy of The Really Unofficial Guide to Disney World, and she drops down, lightly, into the land of Other People. She tilts her head, regards him with curiosity.

What’s your favorite state? she asks.

He turns to her and frowns a little, and she begins to be disappointed. She is just starting to think that he is too much like her, too dependent on layers, too much in love with his Personal Space– when he smiles a little and says, Maine, I think.

Really, Maine? Why? She knows nothing about Maine.

We used to go to my grandparents’ cottage up there when I was a kid, he says. It’s really beautiful. He shakes his head, and with embarrassment she sees that his shirt is unbuttoned too much, reveals too large a patch of flabby white chest, maggoty-looking and hairless. She looks down at her book, flips the pages until she finds the map of Maine. The man leans down and stabs his stubby finger down on a dot near the coast. Great Pond, he says. That’s where the cottage was. He smiles again and she begins to worry a little now. She thinks he can probably see down her shirt from there. She shifts a little and her long hair falls into her eyes, and when she brushes it back she is sure he’ll take this for flirting.

Then she notices a ring on his left ring finger and relaxes a little. So what happened to it?

Maine? It’s still there, I hope, he says.

No, your grandparents’ cottage. She tries to smile encouragingly, finds this a foreign sensation. It’s like her muscles have forgotten the trick of it. Do you still go there, she asks.

His face has changed. She’s asked the wrong question. She is always asking the wrong questions. He straightens and picks up his book, starts to walk out of the aisle. It’s gone now, he says, mostly to himself, and she wishes she could feel bad but all she feels really is relief because she doesn’t have to look at his maggoty chest anymore. She thrusts her face into the book and pretends to be absolutely engrossed by Maine’s highway system.

And then she is engrossed. Not by the highway system, but by the idea of Maine as somewhere she could go. She would like to drive to Maine, maybe live in a cottage on the ocean and catch lobster and never see any people at all unless she goes down to talk with the local fishermen or something. She could get a dog and walk it. Yes. Ruby can picture herself in deepest July, wearing floral print dresses and walking everywhere, everywhere barefoot and sea-salted and hardened as hardtack. Yes. It sounds right. It sounds like a place to be. A refuge.

She lugs the big book to the checkout counter and drops it in front of the cashier, a woman in a terrifying sweater. It’s one of those boutique-y things, probably handmade, with what may or may not be a cluster of grapes embroidered in a bright purple thread on fake denim. It looks like it’s winking at her. She tries hard not to be distracted by the sweater, but it’s difficult, when one does not fully exist, to concentrate on much of anything.

I’m going to Maine, Ruby tells the woman and her sweater.

Neither the woman nor the sweater responds.

I’m going to live there, Ruby says, in a cottage by the sea.

Mmm, says the clerk. That’ll be $39.99, please.

Ruby hands her a fifty. I’m finally having a nervous breakdown, she says. I think this must be part of it. I’ve been expecting it for so long, it’s almost a relief.

The woman nods and gives her the change. She tosses the receipt into the bag and hands it to Ruby.

Ruby turns to go, then stops and turns back. She feels she should say something else, something really meaningful and lasting. A farewell of sorts. But as usual, she can’t think of anything. The sweater, too, remains silent, in its own jovial, winking way. She feels a kinship with it.

***

Ruby calls Caleb on the space wires when she stops at the gas station. What are you talking about, Maine, he says. Or rather, she has him say.

I’m going there. To Maine. Right now, she tells him.

For how long?

Indefinitely, she says. She can tell he doesn’t believe her, but because he loves her he will humor her slightly. And also because he is a figment of her imagination.

And what, exactly, he asks, do you plan to do in Maine with no money, no job, and no place to stay?

How do you know I don’t have any money? Anyway, I don’t need any money, she says. I’m going to run around barefoot and catch lobsters for food and wear Liberty print dresses and make all the local fishermen fall in love with me.

A long sigh from Caleb rustles down the wires. Ruby, he says. He sounds very serious. People don’t actually do those things.

She is quiet, says nothing. The speaker wires fizzle and fade out. Even her imaginary person is exasperated with her now.

Ruby knows she is selfish and silent and stark-raving. This is why she has to go away from everyone. This is why she has to go away from Randy; this along with all the other reasons that she can’t be with him. For starters, he will want to marry her, and then they will officially be Randy and Ruby Richter. They will have to start wearing matching track suits with puffy designs sewn on. They will have to start watching sporting events, and eating chips ‘n dip, and they will have to say it just like that: chips ‘n dip. Eventually they will have children, and they’ll have to give them names that start with R, like Ruthanne and Remus and Roxy and of course, Randy, Jr. They’ll acquire a minivan. They’ll use the minivan to shuttle children back and forth to soccer and baseball games, carrying loud and terrible musical instruments to band practice. She will go slowly mad until they have to put her in a padded cell shaped like a kitchen, because all she’ll want to do by then is bake brownies and cookies and cakes with names painted on in frosting, blue for the boys and pink for the girls and yellow for the ones who haven’t yet decided what they want to be, beautiful or strong because in this world you can’t be both.

She stands with her cell in her hand, debating whether or not to call him. She decides to text him instead, hoping he’ll be too busy at work to check his phone. Then she goes inside to pay for her gas. She flirts a bit with the young guy at the counter, a flaming-haired, freckled type she’d never seriously consider. She feels so good, in fact, that she gives him her last five as a tip and purchases some wrap-around Oakleys with her credit card. With the sunglasses firmly wrapped-around her head, she strolls out the door.

What a piece of work is a man, she says grandly, loudly. People turn and stare. At first she smiles at them all, but then she gets depressed because the only Shakespeare she knows by heart is the same Shakespeare everybody knows by heart. Then she gets even more depressed, because the only opportunity she has to quote Shakespeare is to a bunch of people pumping gas and trying to avoid eye contact with her.

A couple of teenage boys in a beat-up blue Honda pull up to the curb, their music forced through crappy speakers so hard it squeals and cracks against distorted beats. Two doors slam. The first slam of a door is the kid in the white baseball cap stepping out of the passenger side. Go fuck your mom, he says to the kid driving the car. They both suddenly giggle and she turns to see what they’re giggling at and it’s Randy, oh, god, standing in the rain and sniffling.

He’s wearing his stupid Broncos sweatshirt that’s about ten sizes too small and leaves his hairy skinny wrists exposed. He looks as if he can’t decide whether to smile. He looks constipated. How is he here? Is he really here? Or has she begun to conjure even the people she loathes, her imagination so broken it can no longer do anything helpful?

What a piece of work is a man, she repeats, and fingers the keys in her jacket pocket. It has begun storming in earnest. The sky has turned a purplish-blue color, like a bruise. People are running for their cars, now, diving under the awnings, but Randy doesn’t move. He just stands there, water washing his features away and turning his face red and mushy-looking. Ruby thinks she could run past him to her car. Maybe she could distract him somehow? Throw something over there, then run quickly in the other direction?

I love you, he says, and she thinks she could stab him with her keys. She could say he was an attacker. No one would know. There is nothing to link him to her: no bills with both their names, no apartment lease, nothing. There is nothing permanent about their relationship, nothing that’s left to last.

Well, he yells, over the thunder. Her jeans are already so soaked they tug and threaten to fall right off. She feels distracted by this, distracted by everything. She pictures herself in judgment, standing before God or whoever, shrugging when asked, Why didn’t you accomplish anything in your time on earth?

I just got distracted, she imagines herself saying. She knows, of course, that she is full of shit, full of excuses. Everything that’s ever happened to her has been an excuse to retreat into her worst personality. To close herself off and build a new exterior; an endless set of matryoshka dolls wearing her face and saying nothing.

I’m sorry, she says now, because really there’s never anything else to say about life. Then she slips sideways past Randy and gets into her car. She shuts the door and watches as the wind blows rain around his outline, smudges and then blots it out.



Amber Sparks has work published or forthcoming in a bunch of different places, some on paper and some on the interwebs. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and can be found here most days.