(CW/TW: content of sensitive nature including HIV, the supernatural, and death mentioned)
October 4, 2017
It’s been nearly a year since I moved in. The hat’s gone. He hasn’t visited either. Three times the hat and he appeared, sometimes arriving separately and sometimes together. I feel as if I’ve lost something. Is it odd to consider losing that which may never have been here? I’ve been thinking of this more and more since their presumed departure.
“They leave us,” he had told me, specifically referencing his hat. He felt the hat had left him, but truthfully I believe it went searching. It had a mystical mission, looking for someone to provide him the closure he needed. Don’t we all deserve that? Shouldn’t we all feel comfort as we pass beyond this life? How strange that a ghost and his hat could teach me so much.
October 18, 2016
Craigslist search: apartments, Boston
Filters: one bed, one bath, under $1000
Top result: Apartment for rent, October to ??? in Brookline
“One bed/one bath apartment for rent in Brookline area. Easy access to Green Line transportation. Great option for medical students, residents, and physicians in the Longwood Medical Area. Fully furnished. W/D in basement, coin operated. Off-street parking. No smoking. Pets permitted by request. Inquire at the number listed below. Leases open for a 12-month signing.”
November 2, 2016
Ms. Prillo stopped me at the mailboxes as I returned from the hospital. After a quick reminder of upcoming rent dues, she took a calculated glance through the halls. With the coast clear, she asked in a hushed voice, “is it true?” As I stared quizzically, she then asked, “have you seen it?”
“Excuse me?” After my 48-hour shift at the hospital, I may have misheard her.
“The hat in 205.” After a pause to see my reaction, she added, “the haunted hat.”
The referenced hat had in fact been seen but just once a few nights prior, I’d stumbled from my room after snoozing my evening alarm. “Time to prep for another nightly shift,” I spoke aloud, still shaking off my slumber. I began brewing coffee to caffeinate me back to reality. Allowing the Mr. Coffee to brew, I drifted toward the bathroom for a quick shower.
Here, it caught my attention as I looked down the hall while rounding the corner from the living room toward the bathroom. Near the front door and for the first time since my arrival at 205, there hung a cap on the old furnished hat rack. The hat looked worn and strangely anachronistic. This detail was further revealed as I grabbed it to examine an aged Boston Red Sox logo. My best guess pegged it circa 1970’s. I turned the cap in my hands, feeling the fabric and appreciating its uniqueness. “Where did it come from?” Under the bill, I found a small inscription along with a phone number reading, “Call me, sexy!”
Placing the cap back on a peg, I proceeded to the bathroom for my shower where I milled things over. Was it all just a hallucination? Was I dreaming?
Wishing for another glance, I stepped back down the hallway as I toweled off. How surprised I was to find the cap had vanished without a trace!
“Nope, not sure what you mean,” I responded to Ms. Prillo. With that, I said a quick goodbye and departed. Was it wrong for me to lie to her? I didn’t feel much remorse. No need to continue feeding the building’s rumor if I had no physical proof of the so-called Haunted Hat of 205.
March 15, 2017
The clock’s arms encroached on 3:00PM as the meeting continued past its point of completion. I began to move through my living room, snatching up empty snack trays and cups to drop the subtle hint: time to go. With this, several others joined in my clean-up endeavor.
New faces had joined us today to discuss upcoming hospital events and fundraising ideas. Being a new member of the physician philanthropy board, I felt compelled to use my space for the gathering. Slowly, the rooms emptied and the door made frequent clacks as it closed behind departing guests.
It was a surprise, then, that after several minutes of quiet I realized I was not alone. In my last clean-up trip to the living room, I spotted a head sticking over the top of the recliner, angled away from me to keep an anonymous identity. Curious why they’d stuck around, I inquired, “umm, hello? I don’t think anyone left anything behind, but if you’ve forgotten something I can help find it.”
“Oh no, I’m quite fine thank you,” came a subdued voice. It continued with a sarcastic tone, “I love what you’ve done with the place. Previous owners haven’t spent the time to add their own tacky design touches. Very…eclectic if not sloppy.”
Struck by his statements, I slowly approached from behind to get a better view of my visitor. Had he slipped in between leaving guests? Noticing thin wisps of cigarette smoke emerging above the chair backing, I bounded forward. “I’m sorry to be rude, but there is a strict ‘no smoking’ policy here!”
As I whirled around the chair snatching at his held cigarette, I gasped. My hand swept straight through his hand!
Before me sat, a translucent figure. A ghost! He seemed young, but his face bore the weight of years lived. My main interest, however, fell on the object in his lap: the hat. He seemed to notice this as he jokingly asked, “are you interested in the cap or my lap?”
“Where did you get that?” My voice shook with surprise.
“This old thing? It’s mine!”
“But,” I broke my statement to calculate my response. “You’re dead, right?”
“And what gave away my secret?” He laughed, proceeding to take long drags from the cigarette.
I stuttered, “so…a ghost with a ‘real’ hat? I mean how does that happen?”
Releasing a plume of smoke between pursed lips, he said, “in my case, because I fell in love. A love that killed me in more ways than one.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to understand.
He turned to glance through the window before launching down a cryptic soliloquy, “first came the news. He had HIV. Soon, there came a lack of correspondence. Eventually, I read his name in the obituaries. I’d learn that he’d never been faithful with me. I’d been one of many college pickups, the temporary boyfriends collected over the years. I hated him for this, but I also grieved. The heart, it seems, has a tendency to cross emotions. It multiplies them together, creating madding emotions with no sense though enkindled with a momentary fire of passion.”
This all seemed disjointed, like I’d stumbled into an ill-timed monologue. I tried to comprehend this as he continued.
“As I grieved, I chose to get tested.” After a brief pause, he began, “I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t. Maybe I’d have enjoyed my ignorant bliss. Yet I think the horror from finding out my truth helped ameliorate the pain of losing him.”
“It may seem silly to place such an emotional weight on what others have called a ‘quick fling.’ But that ‘quick fling’ was my guide into a world of realization. He gave me, though brief before testing positive, a world without fear. A world dreamed of on sad, lonely nights hoping to never be ‘outed’. I loved him in a way, and I loved the life he gave me. Even now, I love that life and lament how brief it was before things took a dire turn.”
“And the hat?” I asked. “How does that fit into the story?”
He smiled and choked back a few tears to answer. “It caught his eye the night we met. He thought I looked cute in my Red Sox hat, cruising around the bars for a free drink with some BU mates along Commonwealth Ave. He grabbed the hat and quickly scribbled on the bill. I felt as if I’d snagged a famous autograph! But that autograph, priceless at the time, would cost me everything: family, friends, and my life.”
I looked down, suddenly feeling a bit woozy as I attempted to piece these puzzle pieces together. Imagine the look on my already gaunt face as I peered upward to find he and the ephemeral hat had vanished.
“It must have been some bad food item. Or maybe it’s in my head.” I tried to convince myself, to find a reason for what I’d just witnessed. But somehow I knew there was a reality in our meeting. It was the hat, as I thought back to how I’d held it those months ago, that convinced me. It had been too tangible to blame this on a bad canapé. The only way I’d find my answer would be to wait patiently for a return visit. Either from the hat…or my new ghostly friend.
June 11, 2017
He stopped by again. I found him seated in the recliner, smoking his cigarettes. He’d foregone my insistence to drop this habit. It didn’t seem to bother me. Was it even real smoke if it came from a ghost? It seemed to give off an acrid odor, but perhaps I was simply losing my senses? I even tried warning him about the risks of smoking, realizing afterward this statement’s ridiculousness: telling a ghost about the risks to life. He, however, found this amusing.
We began to talk. Funny how one meeting had left me feeling close to him. Maybe this was a trait learned in my training as an internist. I would see patients in the hospital so briefly that when they left in better health, I resigned myself to the fact I’d done my job.
He asked how I’d been. I shared some memorable moments from recent shifts at the hospital. There were bizarre cases requiring days of investigation with further labs and cultures. There were emotional cases with harsh diagnoses and tough topics to swallow. But mostly, there were run-of-the-mill cases involving heart failure, kidney failure, diabetic complications. The sort that bog down physicians’ schedules.
“Don’t all people deserve to be seen in the same light and shown quality care?” he asked calmly. I felt myself blush amid his altruism.
Trying to deter my guilt, I turned to today’s nagging question. “Where’s the hat?”
“You think I need an accessory today?” He calculated an answer before starting, “it comes and goes, leaving me when I least expect it before showing up on a whim.”
“So it’s not tied to you? Or to this place?” I didn’t seem to understand his cryptic response.
“It was mine and also never was mine.” He must have understood my annoyance at this confusing answer as he continued, “the hat was meant for someone else, or I should say for a different version of me. Once I changed, it too changed in a way that now keeps it close to me but yet never completely with me.”
“But why the hat?” I asked. “Why the Red Sox hat of all things to leave behind for others to find?”
His usual smile faded as he glanced toward the hallway. “We don’t leave such things behind.” A long pause followed this before he added in a solemn voice, “they leave us.”
And so he told me the hat’s true history. Before the inscription and the illness.
“It was the last gift I received from my folks. We had an annual ritual of heading to a Sox game in the late spring as their season kicked off. Ten years we’d gone as a family. Mom, dad, and me. The three musketeers since I was eight years old.”
“Everything changed after that. My diagnosis came within the following year, and the hat became the last piece of love I received from them.”
“I kept it by my side, hoping that like some talisman it may alter reality for better news. I hoped that things could go back. Back to a life without the deep cuts I’d received from my family's disownment. But nothing changed.”
“I waited at appointments, first with a few friends who tried to comprehend my situation. No one really knew the ramifications in those days. Slowly, I found both myself and my small entourage diminishing. I still held onto the hat, hoping it might help me. But the disease progressed, destroying everything in its path: family, body, spirit.”
“At some point as things worsened, I ended up in the hospital. It seems odd how tainted I felt in a den of disease. Several nurses had their own opinions about my diagnosis. Sure, they tried to keep their feelings to themselves. Eyes, however, have a nasty way of revealing truths we attempt to hide.”
“As I began to actively die, first in a hospital bed down and then at home away from the judgment of others, I learned the meaning of isolation. All I could do was hold that hat and remember better days. The sting of fading memories, though, helped me forget the pains of decay.”
“The hat failed to transport me away, it failed to give me comfort when I craved it most, and it left me alone with myself.”
He paused, finding it hard to continue the conversation’s flow. I sat helpless and admittedly mortified that I’d been the one to dredge up these memories.
Suddenly, he finished his thoughts with a final statement. “And so I died.”
August 15, 2017
He didn’t look well. Even for a ghost, he had an air about him suggesting pain or a silent unease.
It had been some time since our last encounter, and I worried there may have been something left unsaid after his prior tale. Today, he’d appeared in his usual place. No noise announced his arrival as I discovered him sitting in my recliner. As I entered the living room, he continued to stare out the window leaving me unacknowledged for what felt like minutes until I broke the silence.
“Is something the matter?” I asked.
Slowly, he broke from his trance and turned toward me. “It’s funny, I haven’t felt this way in a long time.” Raising his arms from their folded position in his lap, he examined each hand. “I feel…,” and he paused.
“You feel…?” I interjected.
He lowered his hands and looked at me with a light in his eyes, not of delight but from the reflected tears welling up. “I feel alive. Yes, and I’m in pain. Like the hollowness I’ve borne through the decades of afterlife’s wandering is beginning to leave me. My translucent state is peeling like wallpaper from an old edifice, revealing the scars from a life previously lived.”
“And you know what?” He took a deep breath in, and with a drawn out exhalation said, ”it feels sad. Like I’d forgotten how damaging it is to the spirit to feel things. Emotions!”
As he lowered his head, I felt a pang of ineptitude. What could I do? Can one console a ghost?
I shook the idea and instead let my conscience guide me. Walking to him, I knelt down and without difficulty grasped his waxen-like hands. He gazed at my face. He looked tired. Surprising me amid our unspoken yet shared sentiment, he whispered, “I’m tired.”
“Here,” I said, motioning that we rise together. But he begged, “please, I don’t think I can. I’m just…,” and he paused again searching for the right words. “I’m too weak.”
I’m not sure what prompted my actions, but slowly I leaned forward and grasped him gently in a fireman’s carry. Yes, grasped him as he was now a semi-corporeal being. How light he felt in my arms, like a delicate child tense and anxious. I took my time walking to the bedroom.
He curled on his side as I lay him gently into the sheets of my unmade bed. A sigh emitted as he closed his eyes. His muscles seemed to visibly relax beneath the gaunt, thinned skin that with each passing moment seemed to me more realistic.
“I know it may sound strange. But, no one ever stayed with me in my final days here in this very bedroom. Would it be too much to ask...” Again, he searched for the words that I knew could finish his thought.
To this I answered, “I’ll stay with you.” And he slowly smiled.
I relaxed next to him. It may seem unreal, perhaps lacking any sense. But that is what made the moment a true mystery. I reached around his body where our hands joined, clutched together over his fluttering heart, palpable beneath a bony exterior. Together, we rested in peace. No worries plagued our minds as our synchronous breaths brought us into a meditative state. I thought of the story he’d shared, and the pieces strung together in the last months of residing here. His home. My home. Our home.
It was then that I noticed the hat, resting near his legs. It had come back. He may have believed it left him those years ago, but perhaps it knew its purpose to return. Here it was, having brought us together so he could share his tale, find a friend, and reach solace.
“Thank you,” he said as I drifted off. “Thank you for seeing me. For knowing me. For being with me. For healing me.” And as I fell asleep, he departed this world with a smile, his hat, and a sense of belonging.