My Imaginary Friends; or, The Metonymy of Desire

I roll the joint the way Duško taught me, like I believe rolling a bad joint is impossible. Most days I smoke out of boredom. Most days Duško doesn’t smoke at all, or roll me joints, or tell me meandering stories about how cool it is to work in a kitchen staffed entirely by the craziest, laziest people in the Greater Toronto Area.

I want to get as high as I used to when I first started smoking—half-reluctant, blushing schoolgirl—knowing it is impossible, with my higher tolerance, to ever soar like I used to.

I want elastic time.

There are people I could call to share the stifling mundanity of this moment. Their houses are so close a cheeky gust of wind could deposit me at their door and they would welcome me with one-armed bro hugs and ask me if I cut my hair and how my courses are going and whether I like my new job as if in sweet September we hadn’t huddled together in a greasy bathroom, tripping on thirty-dollar Rusty White Magic Mushrooms, as if they hadn’t rubbed my back as I screamed and screamed about the unbearable anxiety of being alive. But now, six months later, it would be absurd to call them. They have parties to get to, midterms to study for, spicy instant ramen to eat. The versions of them I used to know, my almost-friends, exist only in the archive of my faulty memory.

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In the 19th century, scientists conceived of the nervous system as densely interlinked into a single continuous network, like a startingly complex hairball. Spanish neuroscientist and artist Santiago Ramón y Cajal debunked this theory. He pored over stained brain tissues under a microscope, using his artist’s eye to unravel the tangled network and peek at the neurons underneath. His drawings showed that neurons exist as individual cells[1]. Neurons, like chaste lovers, don’t dare touch—they send each other electronic impulses across a synaptic gap. After this discovery, the collective became individual; intangible, electrical communication usurped physical connection.

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Kwaheri ya kuonana. The Swahili phrase, a customary reply to “Kwaheri (goodbye),” translates to “goodbye to see each other.” I didn’t say it to Aaliyah as she watched me leave because “kwaheri ya kuonana” is so formal, so ritualistic, the words would surely turn to cardboard in my mouth. Instead, as I wheeled my suitcase away from our dorm, I threw a languid “byeeeeeee” at her, not knowing—not caring—that we would never see each other again.

Covid-19 had reached the Kenyan stop on its electric world tour. Our president announced the closure of all schools and universities. The night before our school closed, wild laughter echoed from Subira’s room.

I walked in. My friends were sprawled throughout the room, their bodies forming a whimsical tableau: a charming blue room, black curtains, black women, the whiff of cheap Konyagi. They turned towards me with soft looks. I wondered if they’d all trickled into Subira’s room throughout the night, gently tugged by silky strands invisible to the human eye—invisible to my eyes, at least.

“Drink this!” Aaliyah said, pressing the nearly empty bottle of rum to my lips. She used her captain voice, the one she used in hockey games when we were 1-0 down and the other team was faster, stronger, and smiled like they ached to break our shins. That voice knew we were scrappy and slow, but we could win. We mostly lost. But that year, before the pandemic ended the tournament, we reached Nationals.

I grabbed the Konyagi bottle, but the remaining drops wouldn’t even get a squirrel drunk. Sarah brought individually wrapped edibles which the girls ate first. “Lick the wrapper and maybe you’ll get high.” Sarah said, her eyes marching over my face, waiting for a flicker of anything. I handed the bottle back to Aaliyah and crumbled into the nearest chair.

The clock hands raced forward.

Munchies kicked in, so the girls and I trooped into the kitchen. (Or is it me and the girls? Or: Me. The girls.) “I’ll miss you.” Aaliyah said, rummaging in the fridge for a precious package of sausages she was saving. The package was precious because the world had probably changed forever, even as I insisted that the pandemic panic would subside in time for exams and Aaliyah would regret wasting her sausages.

“I’ll miss you too,” hovered on my tongue, stuck to my palate, swirled around my mouth, then retreated into my throat.

“There’s so much about you I don’t know.”

Eternity passed.

“We’ll still be friends, right?” Aaliyah’s eyes captured mine.

“Yes.” I replied, meaning it, lying even as I meant it. Aaliyah turned the sausages and jumped backwards to avoid the sizzling oil that splattered near her face.

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Lacan says “desire is a metonymy” which means that desire is a never-ending substitution of an inexpressible want for a series of distracting, unsatisfying lesser wants[2]. Lacan, a good little psychoanalyst, thinks this inexpressible want is Oedipal.

In To the Lighthouse, the protagonist Mrs. Ramsay, in her peculiar beauty “resolved everything into simplicity.” She makes “out of that miserable silliness and spite, something which survived…complete.” Can this essay, in its peculiar beauty…?

Perhaps inexpressible wants can be made into expressible needs.

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Patience spent a lot of time putting on lotion, squeezing out precious dollops onto her palms as the bottle shrieked in alarm. Her fingertips slowly spread the white over her bumpy inflamed skin. I settled on her bed to gaze upon her meticulous ritual.

As Patience slowly became one with the lotion, I wove for her the epic tale of my recent bout of bacterial meningitis and cerebral malaria: the stiff neck, the hallucinations, the cold caress of the MRI, four white-coated doctors darkly murmuring about spinal taps and emergency antibiotics. Meningitis is caused by inflammation of the meninges, which are the three protective layers—the dura mater, the pia mater, and arachnoid—that surround the brain and spinal cord. A region in sub-Saharan Africa that includes Ethiopia, Chad, Niger, Kenya, and fifteen other countries is known as the African Meningitis Belt. More people contract meningitis in this belt than anywhere else in the world. One in 10 people who contract bacterial meningitis die[3], and 1 in 5 develop severe complications.

Patience didn’t interrupt me, not even with “Pole (Sorry)” or “Sucks for you”. She nodded and hummed in time to my speech. The most enduring memory I have of her—of us, back when we were Patience-and-Whitney—is of walking in silence at dusk, our steps like synchronized heartbeats.

When I tried to reconstruct my memories of Patience, I searched up “eczema” and looked at the scaley skin of puffy-cheeked infants, hoping her scarred hands and pock-marked face would suddenly appear, and we would be bound by the memories of our twelve-year-old bodies. I re-examined the illegible scraps of her inscribed in my memory, hoping they would eventually coalesce into something decipherable, and my Patience would be whole again.

Our friendship, like a well-worn black-and-white photograph, is frayed, tantalizing in its vagueness, its imaginary perfection—Patience and I were never as close as we are now that I have lost her last name and address and phone number, now that her face is rendered a vague blur by years of fraught reimagining.

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An infant’s brain contains over 100,000,000,000 neurons, 15% less than an adult brain. The density of synapses—the gaps that neurons use to communicate—increases rapidly after birth until 2 to 3 years of age. Afterwards, the brain culls synaptic connections, following the “use it or lose it” principle. Synapses that are more active (where neurons, like breathless new lovers, send each other a flurry of sweet messages) are more likely to be strengthened. Less active synapses are weakened and destroyed. This process, called synaptic pruning, means only the most vigorous, efficient connections remain. Weaker connections fade until eventually, it is like they never existed.

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The argument started because Patience bought spicy crisps even though she knew I couldn’t handle the heat. At twelve, our brains were in our bellies. The recommended calorie intake for girls aged 9 to 13 is 1,600 to 2,000 calories. The cooks at our boarding school never served more than 1,599 calories, even if you cried and needled and threatened to get them fired for starving you. Thinking about puberty sparks an urge to gorge on supersized foods: triple bacon cheeseburgers; a whole roast chicken; a mountain of ugali, big and round enough to arouse the ancestors’ jealousy. The first human thought: hungry.

When I buy those spicy crisps now, they taste like poorly mixed chemicals and cancer. Patience only bought the crisps because the meagre coins she and I pooled together for forbidden snacks kept teleporting from her pockets into the shopkeeper’s hands. Apart from the crisps, the shop’s shelves were so bare the sun’s rays reflected off them to assail her eyes…

The argument ended when Patience looked at me like I was a stranger who’d cut in front of her in line at the supermarket: a minor inconvenience, not worth the fight.

Perhaps Patience might say the argument was about other things I couldn’t handle—long walks in silence at dusk, the revelation that two consciousnesses might touch, that I could open up instead of waiting, dreading, recoiling from being pried open.

How much of our friendship flowered into being in my inflamed brain? Ten percent? Twenty-five? A hundred!? I have no way of knowing.

I have no way of being known.[4]

My spice tolerance is much higher now.

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Sometimes Aaliyah responds to one of my sarcastic Instagram stories with a laughing emoji. Whenever the message notification pops up, I remember her face on the last day we saw each other. She watched me walk away after a perfunctory hug, her face wrinkled as if she was watching someone reluctantly gnaw off their limbs. I should’ve gone back to hug her for half a minute longer. I should’ve called to ask for her chips mayai recipe. We would’ve talked for hours about how lockdown made us realize our parents were scared people, just like us, and someday our kids would be scared people too. I should’ve—

Ranjini Obeyesekere describes friendship as an “accidental intimacy,” as if friendship is a hidden sinkhole, waiting to swallow unsuspecting people as they stumble through life.

Aaliyah’s reactions to my stories lead to frustrating cycles of

Omg hi

Hi, how are you doing

Can’t complain. How’s uni?

Kicking my ass

Holy shit, do you remember [funny anecdote]

Haha those were the days

We were so crazy back then

[Crushing silence]

[In Convenience Store Woman, the protagonist Keiko becomes, in some ways, fused with a convenience store. She finds her place in the world by following the rigorous store manual and “playing the fictitious role of ‘store worker.’” Perhaps somewhere in the wild there exists a manual for ‘good friend’—fictitious role or otherwise—that would teach me how to respond to a laughing emoji with a depth that transcends two years of scant communication and “I miss you’s” left unsaid.]

and then I stop replying altogether.

Drawing of neurons
"Purkinje neurons from the human cerebellum" on an 1899 drawing | Cajal Institute, Madrid

Already nostalgia infects my memories of Aaliyah; our singular connection moves from vivid recollection to vague outline to sweet fever-dream. “‘You’ and ‘I’ and ‘she’ pass and vanish,” Lily thinks near the end of To the Lighthouse as she contemplates the picture she has spent the whole novel painting, an incandescent pastiche that is part bizarre memoriam, part experiment in misery, “nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint.”

The exact nature of my friendships will pass and vanish. I can’t stop it. I’m not sure I want to stop it. I am often confused about what I want, why I want, whether I should want at all. “Want” is derived from the Old Norse word “vanr,” which means “lacking.” I am lacking, as are my shattered memories: evidence of the possibility and power and fragility of being human. Even in absence, there is magnificent presence.

I want Aaliyah and Patience to live forever.

I need to share the beauty of their existence with you.

_____

[1] Instead of projecting microscope images onto paper and tracing, Santiago drew freehand. His drawings are both fairly accurate representations of neurons and works of art. Is it still possible (asking for myself) to exist simultaneously as artist and scientist?

[2] Can this essay help explain Lacan’s idea, or is Lacanian psychoanalysis indecipherable? Can desire itself—fervent, opaque yearning—possibly be demystified?

[3] What is non-existence like? I’m afraid of death, but also curious. I write to preserve my life, but also to problematize it, to disavow my aliveness as a coherent experience. Can we, as knowledge-creating, art-making animals, truly disappear?

[4] Rian Amilcar Scott’s “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies” follows a sometimes earnest, sometimes acerbic professor as his obsession with untangling loneliness descends into insanity. In her final paper for his first-year composition course, his student Rebecca writes, “to be hurt, to be lonely, is to be human. To want to eradicate the ache of loneliness is also human; to succeed is impossible and ultimately undesirable.” I wonder if I should be frustrated that my memory is so treacherous and incomplete. But the connections my memory holds—however brief, however hallucinatory—reach into the sublime, transcending concerns of realness. Must I be known?

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