We would do it because we love you. We would carry in your bags, give you a change of clothes, and look around for an extra blanket. We would sit next to you on the couch and say, Hey, Is that show on, even though we don't watch television very often. That show, although it is meant for children, is usually good for a laugh. It could hopefully cheer you up, if you were down, or distract you, if you needed distraction.
We would speak softly, trying to say the right things. There are certain conditions with which we cannot fully empathize, because we've never been in the circumstances ourselves. The two of us would decide, without saying so, that our plans to see a local theater group would need to be postponed.
We would watch the children's programming. So would you.
We used to paint self-portraits with you. We developed a routine in which we queued up a playlist of music, poured tall glasses of cranberry juice, then sat ourselves down in a circle. Sometimes you drew yourself to resemble us—hypothesizing cheekbones and browlines and a chin-cleft—but more often you were an abstract mess. You used to smear each painting when you were finished, saying, Oh, well. At least that killed some time. The task of representing oneself is, we suppose, different for one who is already a caricature.
We used to wish that you could stay for a bit longer, but you were always on the way to someplace else. We used to walk you to the door and say that we hoped your night would be fun. Those were the days when we made silent assumptions about your visits to our neighborhood. We used to believe that our letting you inside showed something impressive in our moral character.
We would look closely at your skin. How strange, we would think, It's hard to get over the strangeness, knowing that this skin was painted by one of our kind. One of us, probably Jane, would put an arm around you. Daniel would be trying to keep eye contact. I've seen a lot of bruised-up cartoon girls, Jane would say. I've seen too many, Daniel would add, frowning and then quickly standing up. The two of us would be momentarily divided, then: he would be distressed, while she would be nurturing. Meanwhile, the relationship between us and you would already feel closer, more genuine, and more psychically transgressive than ever before.
We might have listened to our parents. We were lectured: They're dangerous, we were told, They never age, they aren't bound by our society, and some of them don't even leave shadows behind them. We might not have spoken with you on that first night, when we stood at the window and watched you through curtains.
We might have stifled our horror at how the neighbors could do such things to you, a smiley-faced girl who was begging door-to-door. Again and again, it happened—mallets flattened you into a waddling pancake, TNT was exploded in your face, or you were swung around like a lasso. Sometimes you were pulled into one of those homes, where you were subjected to things about which we can only assume. You were booted off steps, kicked so that you flew an improbable distance. We might have laughed. We might have given up, knowing as we always have that laughter brings us great rewards.
We would find you asleep. One of your arms would dangle off the side of the couch. We would prepare a breakfast while exchanging looks of hesitation. At the smell of frying bacon you would slowly awaken, rolling over and stretching a few times before standing up. It would be a new sight for us, a cartoon girl in a domestic scene like this. You would surprise us by putting an arm around each of our waists, pulling us into a huddle, and then saying, Thank you.
We would be struck by your casual devotion. You're welcome, we would say. You would wander off to the bathroom. We would consider different solutions.
We never saw you outside our apartment. The rest of the world never interfered, and so the dynamic between us and you, when you visited, could feel almost natural. We were excited and nervous around you, no matter what you put forth. We handled you in the way our grandparents once handled photo albums, as a key to our identity that seemed irreplaceable.
We never spoke of emotions around you. We discussed cartoon culture, instead. You sat still during these conversations, politely nodding your bulbous, grinning, yellow head. As still and as quiet as you always were, we loved having you around. You weren't the most beautiful cartoon, but you were our cartoon, our secret connection to a forbidden world.
We would close the door to the bedroom and whisper. Daniel would say, This is my fault, it's me who's always making himself upset about cartoons, I get hung up thinking about what if they do have feelings in the way that we do, and if it's just because they're scripted a certain way and we can't understand it. Jane would say, No, Honey, I agree with you. I'm glad. I'm actually glad that I'm with someone who wants to do the right thing. It's just that we can't. Daniel would say, I know, it's not going to make a difference. It's just going to cause problems. Jane would say, For all of us. Daniel would say, I know, I understand.
We are good people. She is sensitive, but strong; he is strong, but sensitive. Still, we are not exceptional: anyone who saw you through our curtains the way we saw you that first day would share our gentle fantasy of you.
And fantasies only go so far. We will see you again, our smiley-faced girl, and we know that you'll be as happy as ever. You'll still be walking these streets and facing these indignities: these are the conditions to which you've been accustomed. Our kind has given you a smile, and you have learned to use it wisely.
We wish that we could better demonstrate our love for you, but really, we wouldn't understand how.