No, I can’t recall the precise moment when Frank and I got together; it was five, maybe six years ago. But I do know that it was in the back of a London cab, one that I was taking at the end of a night - any of a hundred nights, it could have been - because I was returning home alone to my flat in a slightly dodgy neighborhood.
‘Where’s your boyfriend?’ said the driver, as so many taxi drivers had asked me before, leading to a range of helpful advice from ‘you’re a pretty girl, you’ll find someone’ to ‘career women like you need a man who will beat you up and then make love to you afterwards.’
I paused before responding. This time, I decided, this time I would not be drawn into a conversation with a complete stranger about my romantic life.
‘My boyfriend is out of town,’ I said, ‘Frank. His name is Frank.’
(Frank seemed like a nice, average name; like a name you wouldn’t make up.)
‘Oh,’ said the driver.
We continued home in silence. For me, it was bliss.
It’s not that I don’t like talking to strangers; it’s just that I resent it, just slightly, that my relationship status is so often the default topic when the air needs to be filled with some chat. It’s comparable, I suppose, to how men sometimes talk about sports: a subject that’s assumed to be of universal interest, always available to fix dead air between two people who know nothing about each other. I have several male friends, in fact, who have confessed to me that they’ve made purposeful decisions to accumulate basic knowledge about football teams in order to have something to talk about in these moments; so that they don’t seem strange. Frank is my Manchester United.
No one ever asks me for any details about Frank: invoking his name shuts down conversations, rather than opening them up. Frank freezes things whether it’s in a situation with someone who’s just being nosy or a man who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer: the latter scenario an odd one where telling the truth - ‘No thanks, I’m not interested’ - often feels less socially acceptable, more fraught with potential difficulty, than namedropping a man who doesn’t exist.
Post-Frank, silence prevails unless I break it. The search for a partner is a narrative with universal appeal; once it’s concluded, it seems, there’s nothing left for us to talk about. Except, of course, everything.
It’s not just men who have heard about Frank: he’s come up when I’ve been buying a dress from a chatty shop assistant and while I’ve waited in line for a long-delayed flight at an airport. Frank is never present at any family gatherings, alas, but should any long-lost third cousin press me with too much persistence about why I’m attending alone - well, it’s because Frank’s just so busy saving lives on his double shift as a globetrotting fire-fighting neurosurgeon. Or whatever it is that seems most appealing for Frank to be doing at any given time. What can I say? Frank is pretty perfect.
There was a time when I feared that admitting to the existence of my non-existent boyfriend would cause others to glance askance; no more. ‘I’m writing an article about my fake boyfriend, Frank’ I said to a friend this evening. ‘Oh, I have one of those,’ she said with utmost ease. ‘Jack.’ They protect us, these imaginary men, prophylactics against criticism, pity and even harassment.
Of course, it’s been on and off with Frank over the years: more than once, he’s been replaced, for varying periods of time, by an actual man. Sometimes I forget about Frank completely, like the other day, when the barista in the cafe where I pick up coffee every morning grinned at me across the counter. ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said, with knee-jerk honesty. The grin turned to something like a leer. ‘Husband!’ I blurted out. Frank is back, I realized. And until I met someone more worthy than he: well, I guess it’s serious.