'One of the hardest things you will ever have to do, my dear, is to grieve the loss of a person who is still alive.’
- Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
I thought you were dead.
This the first thought that crosses my mind when I catch sight of you crossing the street with your head bowed from an invisible weight of a gilded crown and a rubbery smile that stretches all the way from here to India. You’re supposed to be dead, aren’t you?
I almost didn’t see you at first. It’s too dark out, and it’s easy for me to trap myself in the four corners of my mind as my thoughts scrape the clouds above, but you’re still the blinding spotlight that the wide-eyed audience always follows.
An invisible thread that traces back and forth between you and me, demanding my undivided attention while the rest of the world fades away.
I want to cut it.
I can’t bring myself to speak though. All of the heartfelt speeches and angry rants I practiced by myself in the shower seem small and insignificant now that I’m seeing you in the flesh under the light of the moon, and there’s just not enough room in these crowded streets for uncomfortable silence.
Instead, we pass by each other like two ships in the night that have lost their way, and reality proceeds as usual. You disappear around the corner of the street, as quick as a shooting star across the night sky. I head towards one of the few parts of myself that you haven’t bore witness to: home.
You never saw me in the crowd of people that day, but it’s okay. I wouldn’t have wanted you to see me anyways, not when I’d be caught like a deer in the headlights. Not with you, looking like someone who was born to break hearts. I’d seen a glimpse of your face, and it doesn’t quite fit you right anymore, like there’s a ghost wearing your face and your skin and clothes.
A new kind of Halloween: me, invisible. You, a ghost re-learning how to be human, like the plot to all of those cheesy movies we’d always watch together during the tail-end days of October. Except, I hate the taste of M&M’s now, and I’ve learned the difference between being scared of the dark and what’s in it.
In the dark, there was you and me, until it was just me.
In the dark, there was a car and a key and the feeling of never looking back.
In the dark, you are dead to me.
Now that I think about it, growing up, I’d always believed that your house was haunted. Your basement, to be more specific. You’d always tell me I was wrong, with sweeping gestures and your trademark eye-roll: attics are supposed to be haunted, stupid. Not basements.
Your attic was empty, though, and I was certain that your basement was haunted instead because it was littered with never-been-used suitcases and your parent’s old high school yearbooks and beer bottles. I knew, because your brother was never home and there was a ghost wearing your mother’s face, too. That must have been where you got it from.
Our lives seemed to be marked with the footsteps of fleeting phantoms, and I guess that’s why I wasn’t too surprised to see you standing there as if you’d never left. Like it’s only natural that you’ve come back to reclaim the tattoos and scars of this town.
Like it’ll never be dark again.
When I eventually ease into bed later that night in my apartment, I’m still thinking about you, and I hate everything about it. I hate the way you and your shadows can still reach me here, even under the comfort of my sheets, even when I’m surrounded by the familiar yellow walls I painted myself.
This is a place without you, a place I made on my own, with weeds in the sidewalk below and air conditioning that never works. This is the one place you aren’t supposed to haunt, and I want to keep it that way.
My phone is blowing up with texts from concerned friends, asking me if I know that you’re back in town, but I can’t bring myself to reply. Of course they know. Of course I know. Do you know, though? Do you know you’re here, in this town we grew up and not just another pit-stop on your endless adventure with pools of champagne and a tank full of gas?
I don’t think you ever knew, even before you left.
I suppose I’m making your departure to be a lot bigger than it actually was. It was just the strike of a match, after all. Not a cannon boom, or a fiery explosion. You left during the quiet hours of the night, not in the roaring daylight, where I could have forced you to meet my eyes.
It’s my own fault, for wanting to hold onto you in that way, but it was only a matter of time before someone cut your wings. Before you were forced to return to the town that made you.
It still hurts, all the same.
You are supposed to be dead, I tell myself firmly one last time before I fall asleep and the darkness of my bedroom becomes a second skin.
I wish I could say that was the last time I saw you, but it wasn’t.
We cross paths again at the gas station that’s only one block away from my apartment, and I’m hiding behind the Mountain Dew display in my track pants and flip-flops, a jug of Arnold Palmer that I’ve been craving all day on the floor beside me. It’s the middle of the night, and we’re both here, looking like different versions of the same nightmare I’ve been replaying over and over in my head ever since I last saw you.
You’re supposed to be dead, but you’re here in the gas station I’ve come to think of as my own. You’re here in the same space as me, even though I’ve spent the last three days stalking the streets of this town warding you off with a pair of kitchen scissors, ready to cut the thread that holds us together.
You’re here, despite all of this, and you’re buying expensive cigarettes and cheap food with that stretched out smile of yours and too-easy going movements and nice clothes that weren’t bought at the Goodwill across the street like mine were.
I’m hiding like a scared, little kid, and the cashier’s giving me a strange look that almost makes up for the fact you still haven’t seen me yet. The look he gives me balloons up inside of me, until I’m certain it’ll rise and pop, but this Halloween in July seems to be lasting forever, and so I continue to remain unseen by you.
It’s a scene straight out of one of those sitcoms with the bare bones plot you used to turn your nose up at, but with the clandestine view of you I’ve been given, all I can think of is how different you look from the version of you I'd created in my head before you left.
The boy I used to know hated the taste of snow peas and kept a jar of shiny pennies under his bed. The boy I used to know carried dreams of hotel swimming pools in his eyes and knew the words to every Belle and Sebastian song in existence but still couldn’t sing for shit. A boy who went from best friend to boyfriend to no friend at all.
Your eyes are empty now. Cold as Neptune, and twice as far away from me. Maybe you've always been like this, I realize, now that I can see you without looking through my warped lenses of childhood and nostalgia. A ghost, always waiting to burst beneath the layers of lies you wedged between us.
We'll make it work.
I'll never leave.
I love you.
The boy I used to know and love went along with my dreams of a simpler life, here in this town. With weeds and yellow walls. A version of yourself you killed off that night when you drove away like a shot in the dark. When your visions of the future became different from mine.
There is a ghost before me now, with plastic hands and a plastic smile, and that’s how our story seems to go, bare bones plot and all.
You never did learn how to properly put these old bones down to rest, did you?
You are not the boy that I used to know and love, and I’ve become the girl you used to know but never did love, who hides behind twisted allegories and shadows cast by sagging cardboard boxes, a girl who’s armed with nothing but her teeth and a pair of scissors crossed over her heart.
It goes like this and this, a boy and a girl in the dark, a story I wish you never decided to tell, a story with an ending that lingers like a dying star.
You are supposed to be dead, I remind myself one more time long after you’ve left the gas station, after I make an exit of my own, leaving thoughts of Arnold Palmer and snow peas behind. The boy I used to know is dead.
This time, you can see me. I’m the invisible girl no more.
I hate the way you say my name, like it’s an inside joke and I’m supposed to laugh along with you. A trap in disguise. I only offer you a slight nod in return, and it’s all I can give you without falling apart. My respects for the dead.
We’re at a gathering for a friend we both share, and it’s late at night. Usually when there’s a break-up like ours, friends are forced to pick a side and run with it, but they’ve seem to have drawn a fine line between the two of us, especially because we were friends for so long before we started dating. They all cross over into this uncharted territory with ease, begging for me to forgive you and for you to settle down.
I don’t see either of those things happening, if I’m being honest, but our friends carry these high hopes like torches, and I don’t want to lose them, either.
It’s been two days since that night at the gas station, and now there’s nowhere for me to hide. Up close, I can see that your eyes aren’t as empty as I had thought them to be. There’s a scorpion hidden inside each of them, lying in wait with their venom ready.
The night makes you bold and powerful and it’s reminiscent of when you left for greener pastures and shimmering lights without a single trace of the love and dreams I had thought we had shared.
The night makes me want to bury myself.
I try to fold in on myself, to vanish within the creases of my dress, to hide my farmer’s tan I got from wearing shirts that hide my elbows all summer long, but it’s over as soon as it has begun. You say my name and it’s a flick of a light switch, a poltergeist calling out to me, and soon you’re gone again, walking away as if you own the place, a lit cigarette already hanging from your lips.
You leave me again, but this time I’m certain you’re not headed for golden skies. This time, I imagine you’re headed for desolation and smoke, towards a fire that’ll burn you and your withered hornet nest of a heart up from the inside.
I go home not too long after, and when I fall asleep in my bed, I dream of Antarctica.
There’s another party, a week later, and you’re there again, too, but this time I don’t mind as much because we’re outside and it’s the middle of the day when things aren’t as scary as they would be at night. When you aren’t as scary, and all of your bravado has vanished.
Suddenly, everything looks different to me during the day, and I hold this new understanding close to me like a shield against you.
There’s a lightness I carry with me, and you’re trying to catch my attention and draw me back to you like a moth with your shiny stories from your travels away from me and this town, trying to weasel your way out of an apology or anything remotely close to a white flag rippling through the breeze. You think you still have me wrapped around your finger with your pretty words and silver-laced lies, but I don't hear a single thing you say.
You’re not as brave as you usually are when the sun has set. It’s a startling change from the indifference you’ve given me before, but it still doesn’t do anything to change your burnt off fingertips or the scars on my back.
I’ve never been like that, the kind of person that needs to fill up their life in the way you’ve had. Our story may be a labyrinth of mistakes and heartbreak, but my own story is simple. I don’t need the large house with an ocean view. You won’t find the contents of my life spilling out onto a sprawling front lawn with rose bushes or other signs of new money.
Instead, I have my broken AC. I have my yellow walls. I have my weeds. I have my home.
You seem to have forgotten that part about me, and I almost want to remind you, especially because you chose that that house with an ocean view over me, but I don’t because it truly does not matter. Dead or alive, it does not matter.
I’ve spent all of this time marking your grave and cursing your name, hiding in my denial. I put your name at the top of my list and crossed it out in black, but I don’t even owe you any of that. You're alive, so very much alive, and you’re making rash mistakes and leaving tire marks on every road you’ve ever driven down, but I’d rather be haunted by the memory of you, not your ghost. I’d rather put you behind me this time around.
A dying star. A wavering dream. That’s the story I’ll tell when I think of you.
The party reminds me that these are supposed to be our roaring twenties, but I think we’ve been living through them differently. I’ve grown accustomed to long walks by myself and to screaming underwater in the bathtub with the light fixture above pulling me up like a tractor beam. Yours have been more Gatsby, more fireworks fizzling out of your lungs and into the sky, more “boats against the current.”
If you could, you’d change the ending until our story is nothing more than the hollow feeling that fills one up when they wake up in dead of the night, until I'd become as empty as you, but just like it was too late for Daisy and Gatsby and Nick, it’s too late for us. And now that I’m seeing you in the light of day, I think I’m okay with that.
(You should learn how to be okay with that).
The next time I see you, the world goes quiet.
I’m standing in front of my apartment, ready to go on my usual morning walk, and you’re walking by with all of the nighttime shadows still clinging to you like tar. The sun hasn’t risen yet, but it’s only a breath away.
You’re still trying to hold onto your bravery, to maintain that stability you never had as a child, so you don’t see me at first until I call out to you.
“You’re dead to me, you know that?”
I don’t really mean it, not anymore, but I can’t think of anything else to say, not after all the hell you’ve given me. It sounds like a good final line to yell out when facing the abyss that makes up the rest of my life, just like they do in the movies.
The silence that follows hangs in the silent, dead air between us, and you turn around to face me in surprise. That familiar Cheshire cat smile of yours that I’ve come to hate reappears, and it’s the last thing I see of you before you walk away as you shake your head, leaving me once more without a second thought because you still haven’t learned any better.
In the end, you’re no better than the ghosts that used to haunt your basement. You're no better than than the ghosts of wealth come and gone.
You think you know the ending to this story, but you don’t.
This time, we’re not in the dark. This time, it’s not the strike of a match but instead it’s the gentle kiss of the sun rising over us.
This is the story I want to tell. A boy with a hornet’s nest for a heart. A dying star. An invisible girl. Endless ghosts. A quiet journey that ends with a new beginning. It’s not profound or awe-inspiring. There are no green lights or mysterious billboards with double-edged meanings, no story about the dying American dream.
The story is simple, and you can always find it in the weeds outside of my apartment.
Overhead, the sky becomes stained gold and pink as the sun begins its ascent, and so I take my scissors and I cut the string that ties you to me, and I let it go.
(I step out into the morning light, and I let go).