I'd Really Love to, But . . .

AVE YOU EVER attended a dreary social event simply because at the moment of invitation you couldn't muster a plausible alibi to excuse yourself? Worry no more, because I am the queen of social avoidance and I'm about to share some of my best techniques with you. It gets pretty fancy, but you can stop at any point along the line of prevarication.

First, let's start with some all-purpose excuses for those on-the-spot invitations that leave you tongue-tied. These are also excellent for you queasy types who can't contrive a convincing fib no matter how much advance notice you've been given.

  1. I'd love to, but I'm already meeting nonexistent.
  2. I promised to call my ailing any living relation tonight.
  3. I'm pouring coffee at a circumcision.

On that first one you'd best be careful in case your inviter decides that joining you and nonexistent sounds like the better time. You may have to appear at your fictional rendezvous and wait all night with your real friend who actually believes you when you tell her something. She may also take so much pity on you for being jilted that she'll vow to spend more time with you in the future. You can see that these things, to quote the Wicked Witch of the West, "must be done delicately."

Remember that the risk of your being exposed as an inventor of imaginary friends increases the tighter your circle of intimates is. Therefore I suggest to all my new clients that they not introduce any of their friends around. That way your pals will be nothing more to each other than abstractions with names, and so your fictional additions will never be perceived as such.

But I digress. What's the use in having imaginary amigos? I mean the kind you are mentally alert enough to know are imaginary? Let's say you are trying to avoid Jane, a good friend, but certainly not someone you want to spend a lot of time with. Announcing that you are going out with "Carole" strikes Jane as plausible even though she has never known Carole, or—and this is the key—any of your actual friends, as a material form. Therefore, in no more time than it takes to utter a sentence you have avoided hours of listening to Jane's wildly original fantasies about the two of you opening a coffee house.

Your phantom pals also allow you to manipulate the psychology of the real people in your life, a tactic to be employed only when they are not quite measuring up to your exacting standards. If you're like me—altogether a good thing—that happens to be most of the time.

Let's say that your real friend, Burt, gets into a tizzy every time it comes up that you can't stand any violin music whatsoever. He doesn't care that it invariably makes you think of mental patients lining up for their medication. Well, you can say to Burt, funny, but Adriane has always understood my keen sensitivity to music and therefore always lets me move the radio dial to anything that will cure my aching soul. Adriane believes that one of my incarnations was that of an impoverished, brilliant violinist during the French Revolution, and that my seeming repulsion is actually the pain of love and loss. So he lets me listen to any damn thing I please. Try that on for size, Burt-the-pain, you're tempted to add, but Burt is already looking guilty and inadequate. I'll bet from now on Burt will change the dial for you.

Inevitably, we are led to considering the option of creating entire groups of pals who don't exist. Here I must caution that this far more complex tier of social avoidance requires of you a truly vivid imagination and good-to-excellent spatial manipulation skills. As I lack the latter I keep imaginary friends to a tasteful minimum, and in a crunch have them take extended business trips. For those more gifted, adventurous souls out there, you will be expected to recite, off the top of your head, the names, ages, and professions of all your faux buddies, where they live, and why, in believable detail, none of them can ever seem to make it to anybody's house but yours.

Remember that with the above approach you do run the risk of getting hopelessly tangled in a web of overlapping, implausible alibis. Should this happen, your only choice is to move the entire gang right out of the country, or if you're into tragedy, to kill them off in a group outing, such as a pilgrimage, or a freak event, such as everyone accidentally clubbing each other to death in a spirited croquet match.

Therefore, try not to get carried away. These counterfeit confreres can be just as tough to part with; even tougher, I'd say, than the real thing. Think of the time they've freed up for you—those hours of blissful quiet—and the jealousy and insecurity they've instilled in real people. Pretty much irreplaceable, so don't dive too deep in a moment of dizzy overconfidence.

Now I would love to spend eons more time with you but it appears that, ah, Josephine has just left her number on my pager, marked urgent, the little scamp. Must go.