I am a mediocre ventriloquist. I move my mouth to speak on behalf of my backpack, Lenny, a stuffed pink snail with two long stalks balancing eyes the size of pool balls. We travel long school hallways together. One word to describe us: inseparable. When I leave him in my locker, I worry about him being alone in the dark that reeks of rust. So he’s with me most of the time.
I don’t have a packaged explanation for how he became my best friend. Like most substantial relationships, it was just meant to be. My friends purchased Lenny for me before I moved away to California with my mom and two siblings. At thirteen, I was perhaps a little too old to start fussing around with an inanimate friend, but for the most part Lenny was well received and my sanity was left unquestioned.
Lenny has a zipper and a pouch that drops deep into his cushioned shell. But it’s important to remember he’s so much more than storage for my makeup, cigarettes, and house keys.
He’s also a secret keeper. Lenny is with me whenever I decide to ditch first period, sit on a stump in the woods behind my school. Lenny hates the smell of smoke, and I always apologize profusely for subjecting him to such a smelly habit. But I explain to Lenny that the alone time really calms my nerves. Lenny understands this.
Lenny was with me last year, when this kid Mike and I snuck away during a spirit building assembly to fuck in the hallway leading to the pool, which was being renovated my entire sophomore year. I wore a skirt, so I only had to peel off my underwear, which I then stuffed into Lenny. Mike lay on the tile floor with his back pressed against a wall. I was worried about his ass getting too cold, but he said he was fine as he hoisted me on top of him, and I began to bounce up and down. I had rested Lenny on the ground. I noticed how his eyestalks drooped more than usual.
When people ask me questions, I first consult Lenny. Of the two of us, Lenny is the whiz kid. I have told him he is a borderline genius. At this, Lenny usually gives me a blank stare. I can’t tell if he knows he is really smart or not. I have a feeling he doesn’t know, even though I compliment him all the time on his intellect. Whenever my teachers call on me for answers, I will tilt my ear and say, “what’s that you say, Lenny?” and sure enough, Lenny will know. A few teachers have prohibited me from speaking on Lenny’s behalf in class. They find Lenny inappropriate and distracting. There are others who find my usage of Lenny as “creative” and refer to him as a separate entity like most of my classmates and I do.
I have come to realize that most of my fellow classmates are in constant need of good jokes and reassurance. Luckily, Lenny brings both.
We have this vending machine with little slots in the hallway adjacent to the cafeteria. I get a bagel and cream cheese from the machine some mornings. So, Lenny came up with an idea that I should swap out the bagel with something of my own. I rifled through Lenny and my fingers stumbled upon a tampon. I could hardly contain myself. Lenny and I were choking on our tongues as we rounded the corner, hearing the responses of amusement, awe, and distain behind us. One of the school’s security guards pounded down the hallway, keys banging against her thigh, and fished out a $1.50 of her own wallet to rid the obscenity.
This year Lenny and I have decided to do a routine for the school’s variety show. Lenny is working hard on his part, providing most of the inspiration and setups. We’ve been going straight to Ed’s apartment to work.
Ed is this middle-aged man who lives alone and has the largest movie collection I’ve ever seen. He lets me come over whenever I want to watch his movies and eat his food. I’m usually there when he’s at work. Sometimes, Lenny and I will ditch first period and chill out on Ed’s couch and eat pop tarts. Ed is lonely, but he’s never tried anything funny, though, once we slept in a bed together. We recited all the lines to Dumb and Dumber until we both trailed off.
Anyway, so Lenny and I have been have been working on our material, though sometimes we can’t help but break character. We roll around on the carpet in agony whenever one of us comes up with a real kicker. A few times, I confess to Lenny that I’m a little afraid to go on stage in front of people. Lenny bashes me on the hand with one of his eyes, and says that we’ve come too far not to be brave lunatics. I hug Lenny tight.
Two days before the big show, Lenny goes missing. I tear apart my room, dumping my dirty laundry onto the floor, ravaging my drawers. I barrel into my mother’s room. She’s sitting on her made-up bed and smoking a cigarette. I ask her if she’s seen Lenny. She says she gave him away to the Salvation Army, calmly, then blows out smoke. Tears sting my eyes as I demand to know why. She tells me she’s worried about me. I don’t know what to do, so I pick up a candle from her nightstand and throw it against the wall. I flee. I hear her screaming after me, but before I can make out the words, I’m outside.
I sprint to the Salvation Army a few blocks away from our apartment complex. The door to the facility is no longer automatic; its tired mechanics drag and grind as I push it open with my shoulder. Musty air fills my nose, and I panic, thinking about what a treasure Lenny is, how googly-eyed and adorable he is, and how it may be too late. I have the urge to scream his name, but know how that may come off to people who don’t have a context. I search the shelves lined with chipped knick-knacks for my best friend.
A man pushing his mop down an aisle calls out, “Closed, folks, fifteen minutes!” so suddenly he almost barks it. It startles everyone standing around him. A woman fumbles with a drawer she was pulling from a jewelry box, and it falls to the floor. She sighs relief when she realizes it didn’t break.
I shuffle through all the spots I already checked once. I feel so fragile and small without Lenny. I keep remembering the naked spot on my back. I wish I were dreaming that I was naked instead. A reality without Lenny surpasses nightmare. How will I amount to anything without him coaching me through? He’s so much a part of me, he could be my hippocampus. He stores everything. He’s also the weapon I brandish on a daily basis. All the things that I don’t like bounce right off that shell of his. Together, we dodge the world.
“Five minutes!” The man with the mop seizures these words. He slaps the mop to the floor in sharp, deliberate movements. His head is down, and his shoulders are scrunched tight to his body. If I were to guess, he’s holding it together like the rest of us.
I give up. I pick up a neon orange fanny pack with a grease stain that’s dangling from a rack and snap it around my waist. What I need is a hat, I think, and sure enough there’s a golf hat, green as AstroTurf. Wait. I need . . . beads. I saunter on over to the dusty glass counter and twiddle through the costume jewelry. The one with white marble beads the size of coal, with spiral seashells in between each bead, calls to me. Its clasps seem complicated. And the shells jut out like little daggers. I drape the heavy string around my neck. I put my arms on my waist and survey myself in a body mirror. I’m a demented queen, I conclude.
The woman who was messing with the jewelry box passes behind me, and does a double take. I catch her gaze, and she quickly looks away, her short bob snapping to the tune of her neck.
I turn around and face her, completely decked out in my temporary ware. She’s standing in line now, trying hard not to look at me. I suddenly want to challenge her. I want to ask her why everyone is so fucking afraid of each other. I want to ask her why we have these neat little roles, when we’re all messy and tangled. But most of all I want to ask her her name and fling it back at her like I’ve always known her.
“Hey, kid, we’re closing,” says the man with the mop, who is now pushing a shopping cart filled to the brim with odds and ends. “And if you want what you’re wearing, you’re gonna have to get in line now.”
I shriek. Inside the cart the man is pushing there’s what appears to be an eyeball poking out at me.
“Lenny, is that you?” I suddenly plunge my arms into the cart. I’m a machine left to my own devices, craning toward the prize I will win the first time my hands touch it and grab hold.
“Uh, what?” asks the man, who looks around the store as if to call for a co-worker or help of any kind.
“I want to purchase this,” I say and smile like a two-year-old who just took a dump in the toilet for the first time. I can feel Lenny snickering into my hands. He probably finds the whole situation hilarious. I give one of his eyes a squeeze, then stroke the side of his shell.
I feel like I owe the man an explanation. “This belongs to me. It’s hard to explain, but it’s one of the most important things to me.”
“Just take it then. It’s yours. But you have to leave now.”
I look into the man’s eyes. They are foggy and desperate to shut. His long black hair hangs on his face, which is covered in acne scars, scars of his youth.
“Thank you,” I tell him.
Lenny and I go back to work at Ed’s place. We practice for a little bit, but are more interested in just staring at one another and being silent together. We want to say things but don’t have to. We stay up late watching cartoons. I open up Lenny’s pouch. My mother had removed all of his contents and left them on the kitchen table. He’s shrunken, emptier. I rest my head on Lenny as we hunker down.
It’s opening night. Lenny and I beef each other up backstage before the opening act. I slap Lenny in the face, and he slaps me back. I pluck a stray thread stuck to the bottom his shell, and he checks my breath (“stank-free”).
Our routine starts off bumpy. I choke on my salvia under the blazing stage lights within the first thirty seconds. Lenny saves the day by calling attention to it, asking me why I insisted on the last shot of bourbon back stage. Then we slide right into our bit. We take on the persona of Holden Caulfield, receiving a few knowing nods from fellow students in the crowd. We capitalize off our third-period English class, using especially wide-open classmates as inspiration and calling them all old phonies. It’s pure roast material that gets some chuckles. This is followed by a moderated burping contest. Lenny and I are neck-and-neck, but he makes it all the way to the letter V. We hand each other ribbons for our success. He gets a gold one, and I get blue. Farts and burps never fail to entertain.
Like I said, I’m not too gifted at ventriloquism; actually, I’m the opposite. I widen my eyes. Annunciate my words. Open my mouth to reveal expansive gums and gaps between most of my teeth. Lenny doesn’t even have a mouth, yet for some reason everyone can hear him loud and clear. He rattles off pure filth.
Then we go to our special place; we slip into our high. Lenny and I tell stories on stage like we’re alone in my room–the only audience is my magazine collage of defamed celebrities on my wall. Eminem decked out with pink hair and a Hello Kitty tattoo. Amy Lee wearing a crown of thorns. The audience is not my peers. They are not my friends, competitors, enemies, or a mix of all three. They are the rustling of blinds, wind pouring in through my bedroom window. They know everything and nothing about me. Every now and then I can hear a laugh from the crowd that’s rockier, louder, fuller than the rest. It’s not a laugh at a punch line; it’s my mother screaming my name from the other room. It’s me laughing while climbing out the window and thinking of her face when she realizes I’m gone. I have a laugh track always playing inside my head alongside my plan to get out alive.
I signed everyone’s yearbook the same. I wrote, “I will remember you in my heart and in my pants.” Then I scribbled a drawing of Lenny as my signature.
I went to college. The students had me pegged. The teachers knew what I was all about. No one was amused, rather they waited patiently for me to step aside or take myself seriously. I met a girl who escaped a war-fallen country. She came to the U.S. desperate, washed ashore with her entire family. She wrote beautifully; little symphonies. I met a guy who lived in a car whose poetry sawed me in half. A professor who tended the sick and dying alongside Mother Teresa.
I had an internship where I tutored elementary school kids whose parents had signed them over to the state. We watched movies with happy endings, learned about presidents, checked the butterflies in their cocoons, made farting sounds. These activities were punctuated by crisis intervention, which is simply one adult putting his or her body on top of a flailing child’s body so that the child doesn’t hurt anyone. There was nothing funny about restraining a child who has already lost everything. When angry little bodies went limp underneath my weight, I didn’t feel like I won anything. It’s amazing how allowing myself to be touched by other people’s pain dulls my own.
I stopped bringing Lenny everywhere I went. A little part of me shriveled up and turned gray as I took my place in line.
And yet, I refuse to throw Lenny away. Rather, he sits propped up on one of the shelves in my closet. He’s brown and worn from the years of upside-down and cross-eyed love. I notice him whenever I pick out anything from my closet. He tells me what to wear, to dress the part of myself. He winks three times, which means something in the language we once created.
SARAH CIMARUSTI is an editor for a plumbing/HVAC publication. She lives in Roselle, Illinois with her boyfriend who is a videogame enthusiast, two rabbits, and a green-cheeked conure who bathes while her owner tries to do dishes. Cimarusti writes, reads, and dances in her living room with or without music.