I had friends, a few of them, but I had much more time on my own, and I was fine with it. Happy to be alone, in fact. I focused on animal figurines; I never cared for dolls. One day, I cleared all the books out of one set of built-in shelves and created a makeshift house. Ponies, upright bears, rabbits, and animals of all kinds populated the shelves. They rolled gobstoppers up and down the shelves and created a pulley system with a toy bucket for moving the candies up and down levels. Most often, I talked to myself and narrated what was happening. Other times, I was quiet, and the events unspooled in my head. If I switched between the two I would get upset with myself for messing it all up, and I would start again.
At night in bed, I would conjure up families of snakes by wetting tissues with the glass of water from my nightstand, then carefully rolled the soggy pieces into long, snake-like strands. I created snake families of all shapes and sizes, but of course, the longest and most impressive snake was the daddy, the next largest was the mommy, and there were varying lengths of sibling snakes. I slithered their snake-like bodies all around my headboard, up and down the sides of my bed, whispering their adventures in the near-dark. I had a thing for snakes, because I used to also throw up fake snakes into tree branches and leave them there. Not to scare anyone. I called them my outside friends. I currently have no strong feelings about snakes.
One night, I constructed a castle out of over-sized, primary color cardboard boxes printed to look like bricks. In the castle’s labyrinthine passages and tunnels, I placed my second most precious belongings: blown glass animals. (My most precious belongings were made up of the impressive collection of unicorn figurines I had acquired. Those were strictly to look at and admire, but not to touch.) I had a large collection from who knows where and I loved to admire their translucent beauty. During the day they were displayed on top of my radiator, but at night, they came out to play. That night, castle inhabitants included a spry fox, a tiny skunk, a purple pony, an aquamarine dolphin riding a crest of wave, a shockingly green frog, and my favorite: a dull brown round-headed whale with a tail that came to two perfect points. That night, I zoomed the whale along the castle precipices, leaning out of the side of my bed. If I didn’t get out of bed I was in bed and therefore not going to get in trouble for playing when I was supposed to be sleeping. My spindly arms orchestrated a flurry of royal animal activity. The dolphin zoomed down corridors, followed closely by the brown whale. The frog leapt from battlement to battlement. It was all very exciting! Then, I leaned too far and tumbled out of bed, dropping the whale and crashing down upon my castle and all of its inhabitants.
“Leigh! What is going on up there!?”
I shakily stood up, tears already running down my cheeks as I surveyed the damage. Everything looked mostly okay. A few cardboard bricks had been squashed in the disaster, and animals lay strewn everywhere, but the castle still stood. I stumbled to the door, ready to call down to my mother that everything was fine, but the light spilled up from the living room and illuminated the blood trickling down my calf. I shrieked and followed the trail upward to the outer edge of my right knee, where half of the brown round whale’s tail was protruding. I know this sounds hard to believe and I don’t remember the physics of how this happened, but its little dopey tail was actually embedded in the side of my knee. My small brown whale friend had betrayed me.
I still have that scar today, 30 years later. It is a reminder that I like to play alone no matter the cost. My mom plucked the tail out of my leg, slapped a band-aid on it, and told me to go the fuck back to bed.
My sister was born when I was six. I was not happy. My grandparents took me out for ice cream right before I found out, which was not unusual. What was unusual was, when I got home, my parents were both in the living room and they told me they had to tell me something. I remember the ice cream sickly swirling in my stomach, my mom reaching out to touch my shoulder and saying I was going to be a big sister.
“Oh, okay,” I said but didn’t understand.
Then Danielle came and I understood. It was annoying. The best part was that I had asked if I could name the baby, before she was out. I read books all the time and had delusions of grandeur when it came to naming my unborn sibling. Something like Aurora or Delphinia. My mom said hell no, but I could decide on her middle name. I came up with Rose, for a couple reasons. I loved flowers, and I especially loved the rose bush we had in the backyard. I loved this rosebush because on occasion I would sneak out of the house when there was a full moon and sit under it, waiting for a unicorn to come and nuzzle me. I was certain this would happen, because it said it would in a book I had about unicorns. This never happened, but I still held out hope, and naming my sister Rose seemed like a way to get into the good graces of a unicorn. My mom agreed to this and I was thrilled. I had done it! (Years later I found out that was also my mom’s middle name and she was planning on using Rose anyway, so in retrospect, I didn’t really contribute much.)
Once my sister was born, I was told I would have a friend. I was not that interested. I had friends and they were okay, but I mostly just gave them strict parameters of acceptable behavior when we played, which ended up irritating both of us.
Infants are not really friends. They wriggle and scream and babble but they are hardly any fun. I was unimpressed. I actually blocked out the first two years of Danielle’s life because of all the crying. She was constantly sick with whooping cough, croup, milk allergies. I remember looking my mom in the eyes and saying, “She would never survive out in the wilderness like this, she’s sick all the time.” My mom just said, “Neither would you,” but I knew I would survive like Mowgli from The Jungle Book. That book was pretty much my dream. I dreamt of the day I could live alone with only animals as my friends. The only way that book could have been better was if a unicorn was somehow involved.
When Danielle got old enough to actually be a friend, she was not a fun friend. She had a speech delay and couldn’t talk much until she was around five. I didn’t mind that. In fact, I loved it, because I used it as an opportunity to be her interpreter. I spoke for her and relished it. I think I was good at it, actually, because she seemed quite content with my services. She was not fun because she was six years younger and didn’t care like I did about reading, unicorns, or David Bowie. I wanted to pretend to be a velociraptor; she didn’t know what a velociraptor was. I wanted to watch Beetlejuice; she wanted to watch Barney. I wanted to pretend to do a seance; she cried.
One summer, before Danielle could really speak much, we had a heat spell that lasted a few weeks. We didn’t have air conditioning, and I honestly don’t even remember a fan in the room Danielle and I shared. I had recently read an entry about spontaneous human combustion in an encyclopedia of strange phenomena and I was terrified this was going to happen to me and everyone I knew. The weather conditions were perfect: dry and hotter than hot. I remember lying in my bed, across the room from my sister, and thinking, I have to do something. I have to save our lives. Though I wasn’t thrilled about the fact that I had a sister, I wasn’t a murderer. Poor, sweet, mute Danielle had no idea the horrors that awaited her if I did nothing.
So, I grabbed the glass of water I always had by my bedside, walked over to Danielle, and looked down at her. She looked up at me innocently. “It’s okay,” I said, pouring the water all over her limbs. “Now you won’t die.” Satisfied, I crept downstairs, got more water, and then lay in my bed and repeated the ritual. I felt pleased with myself. I had prevented my mother and father from the inevitable: their two children dying horrible deaths from spontaneous human combustion.
All summer I repeated this nightly ritual. It worked. My sister and I are still alive, doing well. A few years ago I relayed this story to my mother and she gasped. “All this time!” she said. “I remember that, how wet you would both be when you woke up. I remember thinking you both just had a sweating problem! I was about to take you to the doctor when it stopped!”
Today, I am not much different. Regretfully, I gave up my unicorn collection, but I still love David Bowie and reading. I would never attempt a seance today, real or otherwise. I no longer fear spontaneous human combustion but I totally believe that it happens. My sister and I are much closer and she is raising a tiny peanut of her own who is remarkably like her. I still enjoy mostly being by myself but I do not play with animal figurines any more. I really wish I still had all those unicorns.