Margret had never been normal by any stretch of the imagination. When she was a little girl, she imagined that a bird conversed with her every night. She would talk to her parents about the bird. Some days, Margret wouldn’t wake up for school. On other days she would be up and ready two hours before the bus left. She blamed the bird, who she claimed was named Karl but who preferred to be called Stanley.
When Margret was sixteen, she was in love with Bernice, though her name made Margret cringe. Bernice sounded like Bernie, which sounded like a sesame street character. Margret spent her days with her sesame street lover hanging out at the mall when they should have been in class, or having sex in Bernice’s studio, or putting substances in her body that made her feel like she could forget everything and fly.
Then came one day, when Margret and Bernice were laying by a creek, when Bernice said, “I love you,” to Margret.
Margret was shocked. No one beside her family had ever told Margret that she was loved.
“Why do you love me?” asked Margret.
“Because you’re so fun,” Bernice replied.
Margret had never considered herself to be “fun.” In fact, before she had met Bernice, Margret had been a bookworm. It was Bernice who suggested that they skip class, that they stay out to late hours of the night instead of doing homework.
“I’m not fun,” Margret told her.
“You’re fun because I want you to be.”
It never occurred to Margret, but it was after that conversation that she found the imaginary girl waiting for her when she got home.
Bernice moved away when Margret was seventeen and, after moving off to college, Margret realized that the only way that she could feel was through another person because two souls were stronger than one, and she was a succubus.
She met John and chose him because he was there, and she wasn’t picky about her lovers, so long as they got the job done. For a while, he filled a need in her, but only one need. Needs tend to occur in bunches like wild weeds and eventually they swallowed the city of Margret whole.
She decided that she could be fun for him as she had been fun for Bernice, but unlike her attraction to Bernice, she created her attraction to John in her own mind. Wealthy, not handsome but at least mediocre, John was everything that a girl who wanted to get married could ask for. Margret didn’t question the fact that one day she would get married. It was what she was always told she would do, so she did it.
When John proposed, Margret was twenty-five and working for a magazine, and had reservations about getting married. Tying herself down to one person felt like shackles and she would become a shadow to escape, but only in the night when being a shadow is dangerous and the cars cannot see you. Yes, she said to him, but she didn’t know if she meant it. She felt wrong but decided that maybe she could feel right, one day, like she would have someone to come home to when her life inevitably fell apart, but she still longed for the tinge of light that touched her when she had touched Bernice.
Her vows to John were generic because she didn’t have much to say about him, or to him. He was somewhat boring, dull, a financial officer at a local bank in the city. They got themselves a nice apartment, and their first year of marriage was uneventful except for the occasional struggle between them over who did the dishes or took the trash out last. Normal husband and wife things, thought Margret, I’m okay at this.
But she wasn’t okay at it. Eventually, she decided that she was not able to put dinner on the table every night, and she started to order bad Chinese takeout three times a week, which she saw as failure, and then something in her told her that she should let herself fail because her husband wouldn’t notice anyway. Or at least she hoped. Or at least the voice in her head, that imaginary girl who lived inside of her, told her that he wouldn’t.
The valve in her heart that made it beat for her husband became disabled, slowing her cardiological rhythm until her heart no longer worked and she became empty. She wondered how she could live without a heartbeat. She must have been a medical miracle, or she was dead, or she was God.
At night, the imaginary girl would whisper to her, tell her what she was going to do, and how she would keep her husband.
Then, there was a coffee pot flying over John’s head, and Margaret wondered if she would ever stop. The desire in her to be a perfect, model wife was continuously rifled by the chemicals that bombarded her synapses, that made her brain the perfect recreation of the Pearl Harbor bombing, only it was not the forties and she was not beautiful like women in black and white photos. Margret resided only in grey.
“Margret!” John screamed as he ducked.
Margret wondered why he ducked. The ducking enraged her beyond reason, and she began to feel hot. She was so hot that she became like lava, and she was going to melt anything in her path. Perhaps she would grow large and her feet would meld into the earth with the rocks fifty layers below her apartment building, and she would become a volcano. She had the slightest suspicion that the transformation had already happened, but she didn’t know how to dictate it in a way that John would understand.
“Baby! Are you listening to me?” John screamed with his hands on her shoulders.
Suddenly it was Tuesday and Margret, again, was standing in the kitchen, this time clutching a rolling pin. She couldn’t see any dough that needed rolling, so she proceeded to beat the rolling pin onto the counter as something flowed out of her, but she did not know what it was.
“Listen to me! You’re not listening!” Margret yelled back, hysterical and with a face wet from excessive tears. “You don’t listen!” She wasn’t sure what she was trying to say.
And then one day the last straw broke when Margret unceremoniously announced to John that she had accidentally slept with a few people who weren’t him in between shifts, and he confessed back to Margret that he was screwing his boss, Kelly, who was ten years older than him and owned a horse farm, and Margret was not stricken with grief right away but still, her brain used the opportunity to lapse into weeks of forgetfulness and disarray. She felt that the problem reached its peak when she could not remember the names of the strangers who had woken up in her bed. She didn’t know them, but she felt like she needed them. Each one filled a void that alcohol could not fill, and she remembered who she was momentarily. She wondered if it was truly her. Or something that she had made up. An imaginary girl who also lived inside the space of her body.
She could not look at horses, so after John left, she opted to stay within the confines of the city where there would be no horses.
The imaginary girl would only go away when Margret was drinking, and so she began to consume a bottle of Moscato a night, which then became a bottle of Moscato and Pino Grigio, which became three bottles of Cabernet. She ate up her savings, and her royalties, and her time, writing nothing, but feeling everything at once.
She began to feel physical pains in place of her normal emotions. Cramps in her legs and arms suddenly became heart attacks as the paranoia of hypochondria set in. The internet became her refuge as she searched for answers, searching the same phrase over and over, “what is wrong with me?” Sometimes she thought it would be easier if she had never existed.
Wondering when she was going to die- and if it would be alright if she did - became not only her obsession, but her religion. She kept a notebook with strange markings and phrases that did not make sense to anyone but Margret and the girl that lived inside of her. That girl who used her, and spit her out, who Margret wanted gone.
“Have you seen a doctor?” said Margret’s friend, Joan, when Margret told her that she could not stop thinking, or she could not think at all.
“No,” Margret replied, “I don’t need a doctor.”
Eventually, Joan stopped speaking to Margret, afraid that her affliction would rub off on her and that she too would lose herself to something inside of her. Margret spent the next few days on her sofa, unable to make it to her bed, but bounced back. She always bounced back.
And then one night, Margret went for a walk. She found a bar on the far side of town where no one would know her or notice her. She put on her most generic sweater, challenging herself to find some poor wandering one to take her home, and use her just to spit her back out, like the girl inside of her. She sat at the bar, making eyes at everyone in her sight because she didn’t want to feel like she was limiting herself. Maybe she would take home two, because that would be exciting, and she loved to feel excitement.
She downed a glass of whiskey, gathered herself up in the best way that she could and approached a stranger who had made eyes back at her, and she felt as if she needed him. His eyes were beautiful, and yet, she couldn’t name their color, or even remember them when they were not in front of her. She didn’t think he was attractive, but he turned her to ice nonetheless in all the ways that she wished John had. They shared their life stories with each other over too many glasses of liquor, and left arm in arm, as if they had always been lovers. She couldn’t tell if he loved her or the imaginary girl that lived inside of her. He loved her body, and Margret decided that was enough.
She lived for the days when she would wake up across town, unsure of how she got there, but then she would turn and realize that she had finally found a soul that needed to consume her as much as she needed to consume anyone else, but consumption untreated will eventually kill you even if you don’t feel the symptoms.
Most nights, they didn’t even sleep, and Margret could feel herself falling in love, or at least what she thought was love, which may have been lust, or maybe just an obsessive pattern of behavior that happened to involve this man from the bar who she hardly knew.
It couldn’t be love, she thought, because I do not know him, and you can’t love someone who you don’t know. Feeling that she was in love was enough. She had no desire to repeat her past. It went on for three months.
Then the man from the bar stopped returning her calls. He stopped loving her back. Suddenly, their souls parted, and Margret became a martyr in her own mind. The imaginary girl became all of her. Suddenly, she had no control.
That’s when she began her nightly jogs. She would lay in bed awake with her thoughts swirling like a whirlwind that she could not push away, or sail through. She thought of John, and the man in the bar, and even Bernice, and those lovers whose names she could not remember, and she felt as if she had used them in the worst way possible, but also that they had used her, and that they had known that her body was open for the taking, and it had never been about finding her soul under the imaginary girl.
The jogs would push away the painful memories of her outbursts, and the broken china, and the crushed bottles, and the thrusting, and the sweat, and the taste of salt on the skin of her lovers. They would also push away the pain of forgetting what the sun made her own skin smell like after a long summer walk, or the water beads that filled the air right after it rained, both of which were her favorite things. That was the split inside of her, that she could possibly love both the rain and the summer sun, and that she could be both cold and hot, lava and ice depending on who defined her at that moment.
The sounds of her footsteps, tapping, distracted her from thinking about how broken she was, and that she needed help, and that maybe Joan had been right. But then the thoughts would stop coming. She could go to work and feel normal. She could laugh and feel genuine happiness. She could define herself, but then the thoughts would come back, and it would be agony. When she passed the bridge across town that she had walked across with the man from the bar, she thought about hitting the water, that it could feel good to feel something hard collide with her body, that the water would swallow her up, but she wouldn’t be able to feel the cold.
Margret retreated into herself, afraid to interact with anyone normal because someone normal would never want to interact with Margret. The imaginary girl told her so. That perfectly fragile, pained, broken imaginary girl who told Margret that the secret to finding and keeping love was to be fragile. Constant fragility would always have its downsides, but it would also take Margret up. Margret, who the imaginary girl fashioned was a modern-day Marilyn Monroe, was depressed and melancholy in one moment, manic and charismatic in the next, but always possessing sex appeal; yes, she couldn’t forget the sex appeal.
Still, sometimes the man from the bar would creep into Margret’s mind. She still could not recall the color of his eyes, but she could recall the way he laughed, and sometimes she would imagine his voice instead of a friend’s asking, “how are you?” She had never gotten a “how are you?” from him, and Margret supposed that she should have known that he didn’t care and that she couldn’t make him care. That was her fault: Margret believed that if she could become a construction, someone’s imaginary girl, then she could make anyone love her.
And this painful realization made Margret’s chest hurt, and in that moment, she knew that no one had ever truly loved her, which made her want to crumple. She slid onto the floor, tears pouring from her face, and wrapped her arms around herself to keep the force trying to escape from her chest inside of her. She couldn’t remember John, or Bernice, or even the man in the bar. All she could see was the stark realization that she had lived her life entirely alone. She had lived her life as someone else’s imaginary girl.
So, she took a trip. She packed up her bags, loaded her car, and just drove. She ended up somewhere in the middle of the United States surrounded by a broken city and hot, humid weather. She saw buildings that were all but collapsed with people still living in them. She saw these people, living in squalor, but still, they had their own identity and she did not.
She browsed local bookstores, looking at covers, hoping to find something that spoke to her on a level that she would find intriguing enough to create herself out of it. She decided that it wasn’t enough, and she went home.
But taking a trip alone had sparked something for Margret: independence. She had tasted it and wanted more. She began to go out to cafes alone, instead of bars. She began to read more. She began to introduce herself to strangers, but no to take them home, just to speak to them. Independence became easy. It became second nature to her.
Before she knew it, Margret didn’t feel the need to latch onto anyone. The girl that was once ice and lava had calmed to become room temperature. Most importantly, Margret felt that the imaginary girl had left her alone. Every so often, the girl would return to mock Margret, but Margret would push her back down. She would scream at her to leave her alone, to stop taunting her.
A year later, Margret was wandering around the city at night, sober. She walked into that same bar where she had met the man. She was meeting a friend to discuss a business venture, and it wasn’t like it was a terrible bar. As she sat down at a table, she looked up, and there he was.
His eyes were no longer beautiful to her, but they locked with hers and he got up and approached Margret as if she was a magnet propelling him forward. Confidence, Margret had heard, was sexy on a woman but in a different way than the broken Margret had been.
“Margret,” he paused, “it’s been a long time.”
“Yes,” she smiled, and looked away, afraid that maybe he would once again become the most beautiful thing that she had ever seen.
“I’m sorry I never called,” he apologized.
“It was a year ago. It’s fine,” she insisted.
And then something inside of Margret snapped.
“How would you know that? We only knew each other for a few months.”
“Well, we were sleeping together,” he replied.
“Well that doesn’t mean that you knew me. What was my favorite color?” she asked him, heated.
“Burgundy,” he said.
“No, it’s chartreuse. I like the word,” Margret protested.
“But you always seemed like a burgundy girl to me. Dark.”
Lauren Fitch is a lifelong resident of Baltimore, Maryland, a feminist, a cat-lover, and an advocate for women’s writing. She is a recent graduate of High Point University with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing. She is an intern for SBR Literary Agency. Her non-fiction work has appeared in Baltimore Style Magazine and Baltimore’s Child Magazine.