Look At Me
People always look a few inches past my face. I have gotten used to the lack of eye contact. Most people don’t see me, but Cooper does. His crystal blue eyes always look my way. I know he is capturing every fleeting part of the world with those eyes. Sometimes when he falls asleep on the dinosaur sprinkled sheets I strain myself and hope, more than a person should, that he wakes up and still notices me.
Daphne lives here too but she forgot my black hole eyes years ago. Every once and a while, a darting glance comes my way but she never acknowledges me. Laying on the shag carpet in Cooper’s room on the nights like tonight when I can’t sleep, I picture when she laughed with me. The hours stretch with every memory. Daphne started to avoid me when she met Brian. I hate Brian. I hate his fractured words. I hate his crooked smile. He could never bring the same joy I brought her when we were friends. She would never admit it but her bouncing shushed tones long for him. I hate him and she loves him.
Cooper is still unscathed by time. I wish I had his carefree whims. He floats over the envy and loneliness I am accustomed to. When he listens to me it’s like I can be lifted into the sky next to him. Sometimes I glance below and worry if he will forget me too. Will he walk past me without remorse? Will he find someone like Brian who will replace me? Shaking my head to knock away the anxiety, I look at Cooper.
Before he even opens his eyes, his jaw expands to swallow the air in one gulp. His little fingers explode in the air. He turns to me and looks right at me.
“Good morning,” He stretches the phrase around another yawn.
“Hi, Cooper. Did you have any cool dreams?”
“No. How did you sleep? Did you get the insom-nom?” I laugh at the mispronunciation. A while ago, I told him I don’t sleep much because of insomnia. It was easier to explain than longing for Daphne’s friendship. When I explained it, his tiny eight-year-old nose scrunched up like it was a bad smell. Daphne made the same face when I told her that a tomato is a fruit. They are similar in these small ways. Similar enough that I could get lost in the childlike joy that emanates from Cooper. Similar enough that I can pretend Daphne never stopped looking at me.
“I slept a little, but I am so tired. I could sleep all day,” I sit up from the nest of blankets and pillows Cooper’s mom left for me. She is a wonderful lady. While most people wouldn’t put in the effort to make me feel comfortable, she does it with a smile. I have no mother and no father, but I would consider Cooper’s mom to be that parental figure. It’s a bittersweet relationship, though, as she doesn’t look at me like Cooper does. She pretends to talk to me for Cooper’s sake, asking me questions she doesn’t wait around to hear answered. Whenever she does that, Cooper gets frustrated at the insincere interactions. But I always tell him that it is okay. It’s okay that she has hollow remarks towards me. At least she tries, unlike Daphne.
Cooper swings his legs off of his bed. His feet dangle two inches above the floor. I remember when he would have to jump down from his bed, the ground being miles below.
“No time for sleep, I want pancakes,” this idea wakes him up, and he sprints down the hall yelling, “Mom mom mom mom mom, I want pancakes.” He really does love pancakes. I remember one time he tried to eat pancakes exclusively, but his mom disagreed with that diet. However, he still learned how to make them and would have the batter ready for his mom to heat on the griddle.
She would say, “Oh, what a surprise, it’s pancakes. I didn’t think you liked pancakes,” in that sarcastic tone every parent adopts. Cooper would always give a wide eye look at her and scream, “Mommy! I love pancakes,” and stomp his foot in protest. This happened almost every week, and he never lost his enthusiasm for pancakes. Daphne used to make them on occasion, but now her time is filled with Brian. Brian likes french toast. Daphne only makes french toast now.
I walk down the hall into the kitchen, where Cooper has already convinced his mom to make pancakes. The flour and eggs leave debris on the counter when they are added to the mix. Her eyes are glued to the batter.
She takes a moment and strains a smile, “Will Lucas be joining us?” Her voice does this uncomfortable curl at the end, making it hard to feel welcome.
Cooper doesn’t hesitate, “Of course, mommy, he is right behind you.”
Her eye twitches, and without moving her gaze from the pancake mix, she says, “Yes, of course. I’m so sorry I didn’t see you there, Lucas.”
She scoops the runny goop, and it sizzles as it touches the griddle. With so much practice, she can produce the perfect golden pancakes. Each one is the size of a CD and makes your taste buds dance.
“Cooper, please set the table,” his mom dictates while scraping the last of the batter into tiny pancakes. Cooper loved those the best. He would take the penny-sized pancake and pretend he was a giant. His little fingers would transform into branches on his tree-trunk arms. “I am the king! I will eat you, tiny pancake, because I am the giant king!” And I would believe it; he would be this giant being sitting at our kitchen table for a few moments. So as Cooper’s mom places the plate of stacked golden pancakes with mini ones on top, Cooper begins to grow into that being and plucks the mini ones from the top. It doesn’t take long for them to disappear, as if they were never there.
“Okay, Cooper, you had your fun. Use the fork and knife for the rest. Please use a napkin; your shirt is filthy.” His mom reaches across the table and brushes the runaway crumbs from his shirt. She places two pancakes on his plate and pours an amber syrup over them.
“Mom, you forgot Lucas’ pancakes. He didn’t sleep well, so he needs them.” I shake my head violently at Cooper. I know how this will play out. She will serve me with a strained smile, I will be too anxious to eat, and she will look at the plate as if it is growing mold in front of an empty chair. “Stop Lucas, you need pancakes too,” he doesn’t understand. His mom does what I predicted. ,
Daphne comes into the kitchen with a phone in hand. Brian is on the phone. Daphne’s laugh echoes and I try to focus on the pancake in front of me. It makes me nauseous, and I decide I won’t eat it. I feel bad about Cooper’s mom staring at the same plate I am. She looks up when Daphne steals a pancake from the center of the table. Daphne’s eyes glance at the plate we all seem interested in. She quickly looks back at her phone and giggles at something the muffled voice in her earbuds says.
“Hey, Daph, do you want to go shopping for school clothes tomorrow?” I sense familiar desperation in her question. Daphne widens her eyes. She points at her ears then at her phone in a rapid motion. Her “I’m on a call” gesture shuts her mother up. Daphne walks back to her room with a half-eaten pancake in her mouth. This is all we see of her, and Cooper is the only one who doesn’t care. His mom looks at the untouched plate in front of me once more and takes a deep breath.
“Look, Cooper, I need to talk to you about something.” She is scary at times like this. Her face has no humor, and her eyes have no child behind them.
Cooper is licking syrup off of his sticky fingers, “What?”
She points to the plate. “Have you noticed that Lucas never eats?”
Cooper’s face twists up like it’s a trick question, “I don’t know, maybe he isn’t hungry?”
His mom rubs her temples and then folds her arms tightly across her chest. “Listen to me. You are eight years old, and I think it is time for you to realize something.” She chews the side of her cheek, “Lucas isn’t real. Lucas is imaginary, and you are getting too old for him. I don’t want to keep setting out food for this imaginary person. I know this is hard to hear, but it’s true.”
Cooper had abandoned his lollipop fingers and started looking back and forth between his mom and me. “What? No, Lucas is right here. He just isn’t hungry, mommy. He is real!” He turns to me, his voice breaking from the confusion. “Lucas, you are real. Tell mommy that you are real. Just eat the pancake, so she knows she is real.”
I was confused by all of this too. I looked at my hands and touched my head feeling for any clues. I am real. I am Lucas. I am real. Why would she say that? Because I didn’t eat her food? There is a particular horror when someone doesn’t believe you exist. I feel myself fading, and I try to grasp anything to keep myself from disappearing. Having someone ignore you then tell your only friend that you aren’t real is unimaginable pain.
I try to shake the confusion off of me. If she wants me to prove I exist, then I’ll eat her stupid pancakes. I stare at the cold form on my plate. My hand reached out.
“See, look! He is eating the pancake, mommy. See? He is real. Say you are sorry, mommy.” Cooper is ecstatic and points at my plate.
“Cooper, look at the plate. The pancake is still there. No one has eaten it.” I looked down, and it was true. It was untouched, I thought I ate it, but it was still there, mocking me. Cooper grabs his plate and pushes it away from him. His eyes fill with tears, and he is stuck repeating the same mantra, “He is real. He is real. He is real.” His mom stands up and comes around to his side of the table. He protests, but she gives him a big hug anyway. _________________________________________________________
I wake up on Cooper’s rug, but it is cold here. There are no more pillows and blankets. There are no more morning talks. It’s like Daphne all over again. His eyes started to look farther away from mine. It was slow, but now he doesn’t see me anymore. I don’t know who I am, but I am considering that his mom was right. I don’t know why I stay here as a shadow. I can’t be here anymore.
I walk by Daphne’s empty room. She moved to college a few months ago. Brian is out of the picture, but she still didn’t see me when he broke up with her. Her room is poisonous. The air is thick with loneliness and I have to leave. I walk into the kitchen to see pancakes on the griddle, but Cooper makes them this time. He grew up and is allowed to use the stove on occasion. His mom is sitting in the spot I used to occupy. She flips through the newspaper as Cooper brings over a plate of pancakes.
“You are getting better!” his mom praises the semi-burnt pancakes.
Cooper just smiles and shrugs, “Guess we will have to make more. You know, for practice.”
They both laugh, and I know this is my last breakfast with them. No one sees me when I leave the house. No one says goodbye. I don’t know where to go. I feel hollow. I don’t belong here.
I am walking down the sidewalk, seeing a little girl and her father ahead of me. I watch as they pick up a flower and release it to the wind. I hunch my shoulders, trying to hide my invisible body that still takes up too much space. The father avoids my gaze. It always hurts. I begin to walk past them when the little girl says, “Don’t be sad.” She can’t be talking to me, but I see her looking right at me.