Encounters with Imaginary Husbands

As a matter of fact, I've known quite a few women with imaginary husbands.  They are not so easy to detect.  By nature, they are exacting people, though occasionally a woman goes about it so sloppily that people soon suspect a delusional mental illness.  But the good and careful ones can go years without being detected by even close neighbors and colleagues.  I myself was duped by a woman I considered a good friend. Though we rarely saw each other, when we did, it was delightful.  From all she told me "Brian is a firm believer in efficiency" and "Brian is shy, but he always dances at weddings" and "Brian makes the most delicious pies," he sounded like a very good husband.  When I once joked, after months of being friends without having met Brian, that perhaps he was one of those imaginary husbands, my friend gave such a natural laugh and witty remark that I was convinced the very idea was ludicrous.

But not too long later, I became friends with a woman who reminded me of my friend, "Brian's" wife, though they didn't look a bit alike. I asked my husband if he thought they resembled each other, and he said not at all. But men don't understand these vapors that pass between women.  It was the way she explained why her husband is never home, complaining but also prideful about the fact that he is always working. One day, I noticed the smallest tick on the left side of her mouth every time she said something about her husband. And I realized that was the exact gesture of my friend who was allegedly married to a man named "Brian."

I was ten years old when I first learned of imaginary husbands, my mother reading aloud to me every article about Alicia and "Max" Hardington, a story that, at the time, was all over the papers.  My mother was particularly obsessed with the case though she never told me why.  At the end of each article, she would light a cigarette, hug her knees and stare at the sky like a dreaming child.  Not too long after that, my parents divorced.  Decades later, after my mother died, I found her diaries full of details of a life with a husband she called "Barton." I was shocked to learn of this man, having believed my mother never remarried. After months of investigation, it became clear that no one else had ever met the man either. Her case seemed unique because she, having successfully invented a complete and convincing imaginary husband, never told anyone. But who knows, maybe she isn't so unique after all.

Articles I've read led me to believe it's a phenomena isolated to my parents' generation, for a number of reasons, the war being one.  But these friends I've told you about are my age. Apparently it is easier now than ever before.  And as these things go, once one woman breaks the taboo, others naturally follow. Recently, at a cafe, I overheard a trio of women discussing a service that, for several thousand dollars, will create and maintain an imaginary husband. "Is it really as difficult as all that?" asked one. "Why would anyone do such a thing?" asked another. "Isn't it obvious?" said the third. "For the sex." The women laughed and then fell into whispers.

I brought up the subject to Mary the next time we saw each other. Mary and I first met at a book signing and have been meeting about once a month ever since, to attend a lecture or film. She has been married for five years to a man named Lewis who I have yet to meet. "Why do you think they do it?" I asked.  Mary lit her cigarette and sat staring at the sky, looking startlingly like my mother.  Finally she said, "We all do things that appear ludicrous to those who lack the compassion to understand us." And before I could even reply, Mary turned her fine eyes to me and said, "And how about you?  Is your Robert you speak of so fondly real or imaginary?  Will you tell me the truth? Or is the truth so entwined with illusion that it is impossible, even for you to know for sure?"

I heard myself laugh a bit too loudly and say something, in an attempt to be witty, that came out sounding strangely defensive, sending my heart to pounding so hard, I could hear it. 

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