I’m late to the imaginary horse group. All the other girls already have multiple horses, which they ride up and down the playground, by the time I ask to join. I’m forced to borrow Cinnamon, Robyn’s second horse, until I’m allowed to get my own. There are a series of tests I have to perform with Cinnamon, such as jumping over a stick one of the other girls holds in the air, before I am deemed worthy of having my own imaginary horse. I pass quickly: I’m a natural at the imaginary game, and soon I have three horses with the rather unimaginative names of Rock, Paper, and Scissors. Eventually, Paper goes on to beat Sugar, Robyn’s number one horse, in both the dressage and showjumping contests.
Everyone is surprised at my quick rise through the ranks. But, what the other girls don’t realize is that I’ve had a lot of practise in the imaginary world. I’ve had an imaginary mother for years.
When my real mother forgets to pack my school lunch and my tummy rumbles, I lie and say it’s because I’ve been so busy playing with Paper that I’ve forgotten to eat. But if my imaginary mother was in charge she would never forget, and sometimes she may even pack jellybeans, like Robyn’s mom does, but not all the time because she wouldn’t want me having too much sugar.
If Robyn asks to come round to our house I decline, because my imaginary mother and I are going to the movies, or the swimming pool, depending on the weather. When she takes me to the pool I know how to swim because she’s taught me. And when we ride our horses I don’t fall off like I did when my real mother took me for my sixth birthday. And if I was to fall she would be there ready to comfort me instead of off somewhere fighting with my father. She wouldn’t find me, hours later, in a bathroom crying and running cold water over my hands to soothe the grazes on them.
One afternoon, when I’m seven, my real mother is over three hours late to fetch me from school. Robyn’s mother stays with me and we ride our horses for a while. She asks if I want to go over to their house, but I say no.
“My mom will be here soon,” I say, and just as Robyn and her mother leave my imaginary mother arrives. We play on the jungle-gym while we wait, something my real mother would never do. My imaginary mother is trying the monkey bars and when her arms reach out of her sage-green sleeves to grab the metal there are no bruises on her skin. I’m climbing up a tree and as she turns around, after jumping to the ground from the bar, she says, “That’s high enough.”
My real mother arrives after six. Her eyes are red and she shouts, “We’re going to be late for dinner, Daddy is taking us out.” I look to my imaginary mother, I don’t want to go but she can’t help me with this and my real mother is getting cross, “Hurry, I need to pick Daddy up.” My imaginary mother nods at me. She says she will see me later, she will read me a story in bed. “Okay,” I say to both of them and get in the car.
My real mother and I have dinner with my father. She spends the night talking in low tones and I wonder what my imaginary mother is doing. After we finish eating he orders another beer, and we sit for a long time. No one talks until, eventually, my mother says, “I think we need to pay, it looks like they want to close-up.” He walks to the counter without looking at her and she drags me with her to wait at the car.
As he comes towards us my mother nudges me and I say, “Thank you for dinner, Daddy.”
“Give me the keys,” he says and she hesitates before giving them to him as she walks round to the passenger’s seat. On the ride home he reprimands her, saying, “Next time I take you out for dinner don’t rush me.”
They go to bed without checking to see if I’ve brushed my teeth or put on my pajamas, but my imaginary mother is there, waiting for me.
“What did you do while I was gone?” I ask her.
“I read over my students’ work,” she watches me as I get into bed. She’s a teacher and she often helps me with my homework. My real mother used to be a teacher too, but now she stays home and makes sure things are neat and tidy for my father.
My imaginary mother and I lie in bed and look through a book until I get sleepy. She kisses me on the forehead.
“Night,” I say.
“See you in the morning,” she says back, and I know that when I see her tomorrow she won’t have a thick layer of make-up covering a slowly purpling face. She waves as she walks to her own bedroom because she doesn’t share a room with my imaginary father.
She doesn’t share a room with my imaginary father, or have to go for dinner with him, or tidy things, like my real mother has to do for my real father. My imaginary mother doesn’t have to do these things because, although I have three imaginary horses, I have no imaginary father: in my imagination I have no father at all.