Ghosts: on writing the truth, performance of identity, and trauma
The soil is cold and damp in my hands. Throw it onto the casket. My mother has just been lowered, and I am throwing the first mound of earth on top of her body encased in wood. From the earth, back to it. My sister stands across from me, her hair parted but falling in front of her face like stringy curtains.
The cross at Saint Louis de Montfort Church was the first one I remember gazing up at, and the first body I remember loving. We did not have a cross at home, but we came and sat in front of this one on Sundays. Above the Altar the life-sized cross held a figure that represented Christ. His head downturned, hair perfectly tangled in that near-death manner. His painted eyes. Him sagging from the nails in his palms, wrists. He looked so disappointed in me as I gazed up at him. I couldn’t tell in the darkness but I believed he had grey eyes the same shade as my mother’s.
On Wednesdays I had religion class in the basement. There was linoleum flooring in square tiles and the lights were always off. The walls felt like concrete. Suffocating. In the furthest side, a stage carved into the wall. On both sides, there were classrooms with foldable partitions. These rooms were always illuminated. They were separated, but could be combined into long open spaces. The yellow lights in the ceilings filled them, and felt warm as we sat at the table with Catechism workbooks.
I snuck away, as if to the bathroom, but actually to the lonely chamber upstairs. So wide, but no one but me below the cross. I liked being in the main church when no one but him was there. The lights off. In the darkness, only the yellow light from the sacristy behind the altar. The empty, wooden pews. The body of Christ. I reached towards the taut skin stretched over his ribs, pale and soft meat. The priest said soon we would eat this body, and drink that blood. My mouth hung open, salivating. His papery skin hung from plaster thigh bones. The soles of his feet were pierced with aching holes and bonded flush against the imitation wood. In those moments, I knew what the Priest meant when he spoke of the Holy Ghost.
Put the body in a box, and the box in a hole. Bury it in an unmarked grave that no one will remember. This burial never happened because my mother was burned. My sister and I did not attend her funeral.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
I walked with the poet on the Upper East Side, and he told me about his novel. In one of my favorite poems by him, Hart Crane pays him a visit in a public bath, pets his hair. In another poem he drinks alone, wondering.
My mother kept pet cats in the basement, her secret. She was terribly allergic and broke out into hives whenever the dander of their furry bodies floated against her skin.
I don’t know how long she kept them. The poor kittens must have been scared out of their minds in the damp, suffocating air. The half windows near the ceiling let no light in; they were obscured by the house’s wrap around porch. The two charcoal kittens clawed in vain against the concrete floor. A bare bulb was left on for them.
When I was in fifth grade, I got my ear pierced at one of those pagodas in the mall. A diamond stud. It caught the light and split it into rays, cutting in different directions and shades. My stepmom used it as one small piece of a total makeover that didn’t excite my father one bit. She took my distracted, ambling, loner self and turned me into a little punk. First was the mohawk haircut, spiked with hard setting gel. Next she bought me blue high top Chuck Taylors. I laced them tight enough to feel my blood pulse against the canvas, tight enough to feel something. Finally, a couple of new outfits, camo shorts and ironic tee shirts with sayings like, “Rock is dead, Long live Paper and Scissors.” The transformation was almost complete, but there was still one tiny piece missing.
For the final touch, she asked me if I’d want to pierce my ear. I’d had a dream, recurring, where I did in a mall like this. I thought I must want it. A dream is what you secretly want, even if you can’t feel it in your chest yet. I imagined a hole in my flesh as I said the word. Yes. It felt right. I scowled when the woman laughed into my left ear, the one that boys got pierced, always. Gritted teeth.
The outfits, of course, did not change me. Neither did the earring, but the hole never closed. Even years after I stopped wearing it, I could fit a stud or a thumbtack through it. I tried, maybe once every few years, to see if the hole in my cartilage was still there. I liked to press my thumb and forefinger against either side of the missing part of my earlobe, as a reminder.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I often ask. People usually respond with a noncommittal answer:
“In theory, but—“
“Oh, you know. If I had to say, I might.”
I do believe, because I swear that I’ve been visited by them. Embodied by them. Two different ghosts. I summon them in the mirror when I feel the most alone. I pray to the ghosts of my mother and Hart Crane.
We held each other the whole night. It was easy inside a fog of alcohol and lust. When I kissed him my mouth migrated to the corners of his skull, the curves behind his jaw. I bit the poet’s earlobes. He rolled into me. We talked about power, or I did. I couldn’t explain the answers to his questions but I felt no need. Sleep, talking, our mouths all blended together into steam. it was a warm night.
“And I felt like—“
“—you’re projecting. Onto me.”
Aren’t we all? And I forgot the rest of the conversation.
“—your pretty eyes.”
The soil is cold and damp in my hands. It is clumped into fragile shapes that fall into particles. Shiver down my spine. The loose grains fall between my fingers.
My sister holds a long stemmed white rose in one hand. She will throw it in after I drop my handful. The rose will return to the earth. I cannot see if she is crying because I divert my eyes before the wind blows the hair away from the smooth skin of her face.
Before we made our First Communion in second grade, we had to complete Reconciliation. It was during the regular Catechism class session, so there was a rush to fit all of the kids in during that evening hour. We lined the stairs leading to the basement, filing down for our individual turns. The turns lasted only a few seconds, but it made you worthy again. A mass production.
Enter, sit, confess, three Hail Mary’s. Earn the right to consummate with your Lord. Repeat. Eat the body. Repeat. Drink the Blood. Run my hands on his skin, wine veins dripping and soaking through bread. The Body of Christ. Hold the wafer in my mouth, be blessed. The Father, the Son, The Holy Spirit.
The line extended through the main part of the church. I felt Jesus’s eyes longing, lips despairing, gravid body sagging behind me as I descended, one small step at a time.
The priest waited in the brightly lit classroom, sitting in a metal folding chair to hear the sins of each seven year old in the Parish. I bit my lip and did not speak as I sat opposite him. There was no table, only open space between us. A small crucifix was affixed just for the confessions in the corner of the room. I could see it as I leaned back to look at the top of the Father’s head. My brain buzzed as I tried to remember all my sins. This crucifix was made of real wood, with a golden body. It was not my body. It was not my Christ. I was not alone with him, and I felt ashamed. He glistened, reflecting the florescent light like a halo around the priest’s bald spot. The priest looked at me, urging me to hurry. The other kids were so loud, chatting and laughing outside the door. I could barely see through the blazing light fixture above our heads. It burned into my eyes.
When Hart Crane visited me, I split myself. My soulbody, stringy like cheese. I didn’t notice at first because I do this all the time: peel my consciousness away from my skin, pick out the bones of my brain and grind them into dust.
But my hand, this time, was moving. I floated above my own body and watched as those fingers caressed, so gently, a foot. Mine. Well it was, but the fingers were not.
When I realized, I ran to the mirror and begged him to stay. I loved him for filling my body, even so briefly.
My mother wore long sleeved turtleneck sweaters the entire time she kept the cats, to cover the scratches they overzealously gave her. In the darkness, late at night, they reached towards their captor and only protector. Yellow cat eyes longed into her grey-streaked blue. Dust colored kittens hovered in the cold, underground. Mother gathered the litter into her bare chest, relishing their soft fleshes. Red bumps raised on her skin. Welts. A wheeze tightened evenly around her throat. When her eyes watered, broke with histamine-induced tears, the kittens purred.
The overwhelming mix of sensations to her body eventually overtook my mother, and she would release the tiny creatures. As she retreated up the creaking wooden steps, the bulb cast long shadows to the dim house above. The cats meowed so loudly then, whining with either satisfaction or desire.
When my mother visited me, I remained in my body with her. She said wanting is okay. Wanting to stay alive. I stood as still as I could and focused on the yellow centers of my irises.
“Well, since you ask, that’s a part of my novel.” He said this flippantly as we walked past another row of brownstones.
As usual, noncommittal. Write about it, instead of believing. Why is it that even poets won’t easily admit to believing in ghosts?
“I’ve been toying with this idea, I don’t know if it will work. The main character will be visited by the ghosts of dead poets. You know, Whitman. Dickinson. Hart Crane.”
The night was finally autumn that evening, and the arrival of the cold shocked everyone. It burned into my eyes as he spoke. My lungs emptied in anticipation, wanting. The chill of bones.
Have you ever imagined a funeral you have not been to? I meant to ask. If I don’t cry, sew my eyes shut. Bury me under the heaviest stones you can find.
He changed the subject before I could ask more.
It was the whining that caught attention, and how my father eventually found them. One morning, returning so late from his third job as a security guard at an auto parts store, he heard them yowling. When he found the basement door wide open, he descended carefully to avoid the loudest sections of each step.
Two pairs of yellow eyes entreated him. Their shadows shifted, dark windblown curtains, as the kittens circled their half-naked mother. The marbled skin of her belly had turned red in pointed circles, as if she’d grown extra nipples. Splayed open, supine, she’d finally fallen into self-inflicted sleep.
She woke up. The cats were gone. The concrete throbbed dull, moist, cold on her shoulder blades and the back of her head. The light of the hanging bulb flickered. My father had closed the door at the top of the stairs. My mother cried, alone on the floor of the basement.
In the dream of my mother’s funeral, the early December morning is coated with frost from last night. I wonder if the gravediggers worked when the ground was still hard, frozen. Did the ground resist? Does the soil ever reject a body?
“Your novel sounds an awful lot like memoir.”
We were a few blocks from Madonna’s mansion, which the poet cited as a perfect reason live on the UES. Imagine living so close to that fame, that power. Where else in the world? I wanted lick the side of his face on the sidewalk.
He snapped, “But it’s not. It’s fiction, and they’ll call it fiction because I tell them it is.”
Fictions, non-fictions. We went to the drugstore so he could buy toilet paper and I didn’t know whether to stand next to or behind him.
My favorite earring had been a flimsy piece of silver shaped into a cross. It was so thin I could bend it with a gentle touch. My grandmother gave it to me with a set of another single stud and a hoop that she’d bought on clearance at Walmart or Sears. The earring shocked her, as it had my father when my stepmother brought me home with that glistening diamond. He looked down at my new Converse sneakers and shrugged, defeated although disappointed. My stepmother always got what she wanted. He scowled.
I scowled, a punk. A miniature version of an idea my stepmother had. I always molded myself into whatever I admired but could never know. Then I smiled despite myself. I felt my bloody ankles vibrating. Too tight for comfort. The fog inside my head was cut by bright light when I shook my head from side to side. My father used to rub his hands together when he got excited, to dispel that nervous energy. I did it then, because I’d picked the habit up on purpose after my stepmother made him stop doing it.
Grandma gave me the box of earrings for Christmas, a few months later. She thought the diamond was too dramatic, and figured if I was going to wear an earring it may as well be a cross.
After I’d lost all the backs to all of my earrings, my cross fell out into a corner of my desk. I accidentally crushed it with a book. I didn’t wear another earring for ten years.
When I am depressed, I drink red wine. When I drink red wine, I am visited by ghosts. I have been visited by two ghosts in my life. I have been visited by Hart Crane and my mother. I am not depressed. I will drink white wine. I will not see them. I will burn away all of my ghosts.
I drop the clump, and it hits with a thud. A wind we all felt before is now visible by the trail of dust. The flower is dropped, rolling from my sister’s fingers. It is done.
The first time I went to see the poet, my stomach vibrated as I emptied myself for him. The uber zoomed up Second Avenue in the middle of the night. The streetlights and occasional bright window blurred together, soothingly. I was drunk after trivia night, which we lost. The winning team had shared their cheap prize champagne with us anyway. It felt good to drink with strangers in the dark bar. It felt okay to be shrouded in mindfog when my stomach was full of champagne. I was cock-headed with my teeth digging into my tongue when he’d texted, come over.
I didn’t want to seem eager, but I answered right away. I felt that he only wanted my body, but I was willing to give it to him. He had told me that he wanted to be worshipped. I had become a transaction—I’ll give it to you, if you give me what I want, he’d said. He meant he’d give me the intimacy of knowing him if I let him have my body and attention. I guess that is what I’d always wanted.
A self-professed goth, the poet wore black leather and explored foreign countries by visiting the residences of the dead. I double tapped a picture of him scowling on top of a granite grave in Paris. He had long black hair and translucent skin that glowed. Casually unruly, the hair fell in distinct strands around his pink and slightly downturned lips. There are no pictures of him smiling. I imagine holding his wrists on either side of the bed, stretching him defenseless to my teeth on his neck. The faint light of the evening would shatter on his papery skin. He would be unable to look away from me, or my grey streaked eyes.
I did not want him, really. I wanted to be filled by him. I wanted to be him. I wanted him to let me.
As the car stopped, I became acutely aware of the silver cross I’d begun wearing again in my left ear. I scowled, a Goth.
I don’t know if the ghosts were real.
I don’t know if my memory’s real.
I don’t know if my want is real.
But I know what I want.
I know what I want to believe.
What’s the truth and does it matter?
I put the glass of Riesling, chilled and crisp, on the bathroom counter with a clink. The lines of moisture on the mirror look like the bottle sweating in the fridge. All I can look at of my face are my pink lips and swollen cheeks.
I say a name five times fast. My own, and my mother’s, and a poet’s. The steam of breath fogs the first layer of glass. My vision is clear.
Inch by inch, I allow my gaze to reach my eyes. They are soft, and grey, and mine. For a single painful moment I pray, but not to a god or a ghost. I look into, and pray to, myself. I rub my empty earlobes.
I’ll believe in whatever I want. I will be everything.