The Make Believe Empire

“In the water. Did you see that?” I asked Janet as ripples spread across the pond near our hotel. A nearby sign warned, “Do Not Feed the Alligators” in big letters. I had heard that alligators could be found inhabiting any body of water in the South, but then again, I was known for letting my imagination run wild a bit too much. In fact, “Timmy is very much a dreamer” is what my teacher wrote on my fifth grade report card. I remember thinking that was a compliment until I showed my parents.

“I did see something,” I repeated as we hauled our luggage up the to the second floor of the hotel which over looked the pond in question.

“Uh huh,” Janet mumbled as she looked for our room number.

We were in sunny Orlando, Florida, and in Orlando it was impossible to ignore that the Mouse ruled supreme. The Magical Empire of make believe was just down the road if we wanted to partake. But we didn’t really. The Mouse brought up conflicting memories of childhood. All the movies and cartoons it produced thrilled the young me, as they did many other children. They taught me that love was happily ever after and that Tim Conway had a career outside of the Carol Burnett Show. Eventually though, as I grew older, I saw the Mouse become a monstrous juggernaut of soulless marketing. Or perhaps it always was, and the cold hard reality of adulthood simply opened my eyes to it. Eventually, we all take a peek at that “man behind the curtain”—we see that Life is never as simple as happily ever after.

“Room 12-b, here we are,” Janet said as she shoved the key into the lock. I looked at the pond below and imagined an alligator with a clock in its stomach lurking below the surface. I liked not knowing what was behind the curtain.

Ironically, our trip was partially about make-believe. My then-girlfriend we are calling “Janet” was attending a school we’ll call “Impressive North Eastern Ivy League Veterinarian School.” She learned of some school funds available for veterinarian students to escape February, fly down to Florida, and attend a big veterinarian conference. Everything was free for us except my plane ticket. I simply had to make-believe I was a veterinary student to indulge in the free food and events.

How could a committed artist/day dreamer like me pull this off? My dog was young and hyper, while Janet’s dog was a senior with degenerative myelopathy. A progressive disease of the spinal cord, it causes the affected dog to lose control of its hind legs, bladder and/or their bowls. See how smart I sounded there? I was very familiar with this horrible affliction, watching her dog struggle with these symptoms everyday. Likewise, I had been helping Janet study for her board exams, inexplicably retaining only the useful knowledge that bulls need to have good visual acuity in order to be aroused and successfully engage in copulation. I think. I used this limited amount of information to pass as a vet student when we mingled at the conference.

“How do you like the Florida weather?” Dr. Donaldson asked me as he shook my hand.

“Oh, my dog would love it down here,” I would answer. “She has such a hard time up north. The cold weather isn’t good for her degenerative myelopathy.” If I couldn’t find a way to wedge bull copulation into the conversation, I would simply create an imaginative reason to excuse myself and move on.

Janet managed to get us invited to a semi exclusive-party at the suite on top of the convention center, where we eagerly indulged in all the free wine, beer, and an unending supply of shrimp salad. Janet was a poor student and I was a poor artist, so this was lunch and most of our dinner. Due to the limited number of people at this party I had to use my myelopathy line sparingly. Eventually, moving out to the balcony with my full plate in an attempt to escape the small talk, I encountered a joyous celebration of the Magical Empire.

“See that?” A smiling older fellow in a suit said gesturing out towards the horizon. “That’s the Mouse out there. Going to be a new part of the park!” he grinned at me as if he were giving me a present.

Turning my eyes toward the horizon I let out an “Oh!” The sky was full of black smoke and the forest in the distance glowed red and orange. “Imagine that,” I said under my breath as the suit continued telling me about the wonderful new addition to the Magical Empire.

“Once that forest is cleared there’ll be new rides, pavilions, and parking lots!” he said with a Cheshire cat smile. I glanced through the glass doors to see Janet in animated conversation with people who were important to her career. Thus, pretending not to be revolted was the most make-believe attitude I could come up with. I had lost my appetite.

I looked at the body of water near the burning forest. “Do you imagine there are alligators in there?” I asked him.

We returned to the exhibition floor to check out all sorts of new veterinarian equipment but my mood was now sour. We both liked the idea of me as a make-believe vet, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I did my best and tried out a new endoscope type device to surgically go inside a pepper and remove a seed. “That was…nothing like I imagined.” I told the salesman “I recently had some…bull copulation situations where this would have come in handy.” Janet pushed me onward, as I obviously wasn’t even trying any more. Disappointed in my poor showing, she put me out to pasture by the pool with a book and returned to her seminars.

Sea World was pricey, but you could get free tickets by taking a timeshare tour. All you had to do was pretend to be a happy couple, which was not always true for us, interested in a timeshare and then NOT buy a timeshare at the end of the tour. Everyone who took the tour received two free tickets to Sea World. This is what we did after the conference was over. I admit we weren’t thrilled with zoos and seeing large animals in enclosed areas, but it seemed less vulgar than the Magical Empire.

“I’ll be the bad cop!” I said seriously. “You act like you like the place and I’ll be all pissy and act like I hate it. You can bitch at me and be all angry.”

“Right.” Janet agreed with a laugh and a roll of her eyes. “You’re a bad cop.”

“Yes I am.” I said. I wanted to redeem myself after my failed attempt at being a make-believe veterinarian. This I could do. Driven around the timeshare village in a golf cart, we were shown a variety of homes to buy. Most houses had complementary food and we took more than our fair share when nobody was looking. “Love the booth-like seats in the kitchen.” I said because . . . I do kind of like booths. I thought the remote televisions hidden in the walls were pretty cool also. “Very nice indeed.” I said as Janet gave me a look that stopped me in mid sentence and reminded me about my promised bad cop persona.

In the golf cart again our sales rep rambled on, about a pool or something, as we drove past a large lake which sat in the middle of timeshare village. “I don’t think I care for that lake,” I said, giving Janet my best bad cop look. Too little, too late.

Eventually, we ended up in their office with a perky sales woman who gave us various options for affording a timeshare. She smiled, laughed, and tried to charm us, but my mind was on asphalt parking lots and the food stashed in our bags. “I can’t afford a timeshare.” I told her bluntly. “I’m a poor artist. I’ve been day dreaming most of the time you were talking as it is.” Her face instantly changed from sweetness to solemn annoyance as she quickly filled out the paper work involved in getting us our Sea World tickets. That was the highlight of the trip for me. Seeing her look at me with such disdain, a face filled with real emotion for just a few moments.

As we left the office Janet burst out, “You gave them your real phone number! You’re supposed to give a fake. They’ll be annoying you with phone calls now. What were you thinking?”

“Oh right. A make-believe number,” I said as we headed off to watch dolphins jump through hoops for fish treats.

Long after Janet and I broke up, I would receive phone calls from the timeshare sales people in Florida just as she warned. These unexpected calls brought up conflicting memories of my short stint as a make-believe vet and how elusive happily ever after was with Janet. Even after I moved they would track my new number down and solicit me. “Can you guarantee an alligator in the lake?” I would ask after they gave me their pitch.

By the time I received some of the last calls from them, my once young and vibrant dog was now a graying senior who struggled to her feet and dragged her unresponsive hind legs along behind her. I could pretend not to notice, but the cold hard facts where obvious. Degenerative myelopathy.

Tim Hamilton is an artist who has adapted Treasure Island and, most recently, Fahrenheit 451 into graphic novels.


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