In the waning days of summer 2013, my toddler calmly announced, “I have a friend named Black Hand. He’s here right now. You can’t see him.”
I’ve read enough fantasy and horror that my first thought upon hearing this was, Oh my God, the malicious undead have found a portal to this world through my innocent child. I really hope this doesn’t turn into a thing where we’re facing off against the forces of evil. Zelda Rubenstein has been dead for a while.
What actually came out of my mouth was, “So is he staying for dinner? Where do you think he should sit? Will you be setting a place for him?” (If you’re dealing with malice from beyond, best not to tip your hand that you’re on to it, right?)
Black Hand did stay for dinner. And like Sheridan Whiteside, this imaginary man who came to dinner has insinuated himself into our everyday life, and the surprises haven’t stopped.
It’s not what it sounds like
They met in a party dungeon — don’t ask how or why a 32-month-old child was at one of those things because I’ve never been able to find out — where Trixie was apparently in attendance in her professional capacity as “Dr. Hammer, the doctor of hammers.” Whatever the meet-cute situation was about, Trixie and Black Hand have been fast friends since.
“Black Hand?” one friend asked. “Like the Serbian terrorist group that assassinated Franz Ferdinand?”
“Black Hand?” my mom asked. “Like the Mafia racket?”
“Baby?” I called one day while Trixie was playing, “Has Black Hand ever talked about Gavrilo Princip?”
“No,” she said. “He mostly cries when I put him in time-out.”
“How about omerta, honey? Has Black Hand ever talked about the code of silence?”
“No,” she said.
“Good,” I replied. “Let’s pick up these bristle blocks and start making dinner.”
“Black Hand doesn’t want to clean up. He’s crying right now. He might go home.”
And that was the moment I was reassured that my daughter was not the plaything of fell forces from beyond the grave. If Serbian nationalists were trying to reach from beyond the veil to carry out their mission, they wouldn’t be thwarted by my toys from the 1970s.
Obligatory Harlan Ellison reference
We got more details about Black Hand in dribs and drabs. At first, Trixie dropped tidbits casually, while talking about something else. That’s how we learned Black Hand was a 21-year-old man. He loved doing craft projects. He was frightened of doing somersaults by himself. (What a coincidence! Trixie was also struggling to master somersaults at the time!) He was very good at yoga, and routinely did the triangle pose with my daughter.
As my daughter rounded the corner from two to three, Black Hand began popping up more frequently. On car trips, he remained curled up in the wheel well below Trixie’s seat — unless he was hitting my child, in which case we gave him a time-out, which he served by floating like a balloon outside her car window.
As if that weren’t unnerving enough, Black Hand had no eyes and yet was able to weep. “He has no mouth and yet must scream,” I replied when I heard that, and Trixie hastened to assert that yes, Black Hand had a mouth and smiled a lot. He also had long black hair and wore makeup. Those clues — plus his flair for the dramatic — thereby guaranteed that in my imagination, Black Hand was a dead ringer for Johnny Weir, circa 2006.
Black Hand frequently employed the powers of levitation and teleportation. Alas and alack, he couldn’t unlock the power of the alphabet. Trixie told us Black Hand would like to learn to read, but he didn’t know his letters. “Is that because he can’t see them?” I asked. “No, he just cries because he doesn’t know them,” replied my daughter. Then she spelled out the words in a traffic sign, which was our first clue that the power dynamics in her relationship with Black Hand were about to shift.
But at that point, Black Hand still filled a unique niche: he had physical powers that obviously exceeded anything that we, her parents, could do — yet we had the power to put him in time-out or speak very sternly when he refused to behave. It was fascinating to realize that our preschooler was using Black Hand to work out any uncertainty she had about the limits of our parental affection for her or our willingness to maintain the rules that we expected everyone in the family to follow.
Every happy family is the same
Once Trixie began negotiating the mind-blowing idea that not every family is alike, we learned more about Black Hand’s family life. After a playdate with a family headed by a lesbian couple, Trix bounced on my bed and told me that Black Hand had been raised by two mothers (Linda and Lola) and two fathers (Lewis and Cindy).
“Do they all love him?” I asked, as she rocketed from corner to corner of the bed.
“Yes,” she said. And that was all that needed to be said.
But let’s not confuse parental quantity with quality: I once wasted two hours on a Saturday afternoon repeating, to an increasingly irate three-year-old, that I would not be buying Black Hand a bunk bed. My trump argument — “Your mommy is not buying Black Hand a bunk bed because he has two mommies who can do that for him” — was immediately invalidated when Trix threw herself to the ground and sobbed, “No! His mothers buy big hair and capes! He has no bed!”
I try not to judge other parents, but I feel very strongly that one ought to be able to make exceptions for the imaginary variety. Especially when they’re forcing their child to sleep on a pile of beehive wigs.
The unseen hand of change
The year between three and four unfolded, and we continued to talk to and about Black Hand, covering everything from the best way to cross a street to the wisdom of not freaking out when the nice lady at Costco runs out of Aidell’s sausage samples.
Then, a month ago, Black Hand found love.
“Black Hand has a boyfriend,” my daughter informed me.
“A friend that’s a boy? Or —“
“No. A boyfriend,” my preschooler said.
“Well, what does Black Hand do with his boyfriend?” I asked, because you never know the proclivities of an imaginary 20-something man who befriends small children in a party dungeon.
“They mostly walk around the city and do art projects together.”
Later that day, I told my husband, “You’ll be thrilled to know Black Hand’s become part of the 1980s art scene in SoHo.”
And then, I admit, I wondered if Black Hand would ever seriously challenge the values I try to demonstrate in my everyday parenting. It’s one thing to be an invisible, levitating, makeup-wearing, omnisexual imaginary best friend. But what if he turns out to be a climate-change denier or a big fan of fracking? Would I push back? I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of explicitly forbidding my child from thinking anything. To regulate her relationship with Black Hand seems like a violation of her personhood on a fundamental level.
Welcome to the liminality
Black Hand has always been the ambassador from the borderlands of Trixie’s interior empire. When he first joined the family, it was fairly evident that his role was to act as Trixie’s surrogate in hypothetical situations. I used to think of her inquiries — “Black Hand’s not going to hold your hand when we cross the street! What will happen?” — as the toddler equivalent of the velociraptor testing the fences in Jurassic Park: are there consequences for every action?
As Trixie’s gotten older, her regard for the boundaries of her life has become more complex. So has her relationship with Black Hand. He’s rarely an instigator or a surrogate in hypotheticals. Instead, Trix explains things to him. They’ve flipped the script in their relationship.
I will be sad if Black Hand ever leaves us. He’s been a great friend to everyone in the family: He helped my shy toddler be brave by being the voice she needed. He taught her how to be silly, how to be funny, how to control her feelings, how to frame what-if questions.
But it’s not my say whether or not Black Hand continues to levitate outside the kitchen window during dinner. The relationship is, and always has been, between Trixie and her friend.
I am deeply, profoundly grateful to her protean pal, because he’s given me the gift of unfiltered access to my daughter’s inner life. There will come a day — sooner than I want, on a timeline I’ll never accurately predict — when Trixie will decide to keep her dreams and fears private. She’ll draw an immutable line between her most private self and the stories she tells everyone else.
On that day, her friendship with Black Hand will have run its course, and she’ll tell him goodbye. I don’t expect we’ll know. Days or weeks after the fact, it will dawn on us; I hope I have the good sense to quietly mark it in the bittersweet series of last-of-this milestones.
But we’re not there yet. For now, when Trixie launches into whatever’s on Black Hand’s mind, I’m there to listen and to believe what she says.
Illustration by Lucy Bellwood.
Lisa Schmeiser fell into a newsroom by accident in the 1990s, and hasn't been off deadline since. She relishes covering the area where business and technology intersect, but adores swerving into cultural criticism. Her writing has appeared in the Minneapolis City Pages, the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, Television Without Pity, Investor's Business Daily, Macworld, and TechHive.