A long time ago, I had an imaginary friend who was a clown.
Then he shape-shifted into a ghost, then into my parents, then into a gaggle of coiled cobras that happened to look and act a lot like my parents.
But first he was a clown.
His makeup ran and his tongue tended to loll, but he was a happy clown with high cheekbones painted in scarlet circles. His ears were elephant-huge, like LBJ’s, like his floppy, upturned shoes.
He and I used to talk about things that mattered, or didn’t, like why does the moon always turn its back on us? Why are there forest fires in some people’s eyes, crushed ice in others? Why do my aunts and uncles call me a skinny drink of water, then later do that thing to me? Why do my parents?
As I say, this was a long time ago.
The clown had a name—Ezra. I gave it to him. Ezra didn’t like his moniker, said it sounded itchy, biblical, or like a pharmaceutical for elderly people with bowel issues.
Ezra resembled me in many ways. He was in touch with his feminine side. He didn’t have a problem with pink. He cried at Folger’s Coffee commercials. He had trouble tying knots on blown up balloons and sometimes wet the bed, waking up before dawn to wash the sheets and huff huff huff his breath on them so they’d be kind of dried before the parents woke.
Ezra said he was my best friend and I believed him. I had to. I had no other friends.
The thing is he disappeared about the time I turned nine, when the dam broke for the final time, when the lights went out in Georgia, or Spokane, Washington.
I told myself Ezra had been hit by a car, that a landslide had crushed him, a train had run him over, he’d committed suicide. I told myself every kind of lie because I didn’t want to believe I’d been dumped again, left stranded and all alone again.
It’s hard to lose something you trust that much, something you rely on so fervently. I could liken it to death, but it’s worse than that, because when it happens, you’re still alive, carrying that gigantic cavity around with you like a ghost that weighs too much.
So maybe it was more like betrayal.
A few years ago, at a resort in Mexico, a trio of clowns unexpectedly appeared out of nowhere while everyone was eating dinner. One clown juggled plates, one bowling pins, one old-fashioned toasters with dangling rubber cords.
People reacted. People thought: this is some stunt, this is hysterical. My family did, too.
At one point, I watched my son reach out, trying to touch the flouncy striped pant leg of the clown nearest him, but I caught his hand just in time.
“He’s not real,” I told him. “They’re not. Finish your burrito,” I told him, “then we’ll go to the beach and build a sandcastle.”