by C.S. Hanson

Journal where the ghost writes

No one is watching. Sometimes it feels like I’m in my own dream. My body wandering among the rooms of this apartment. 

Here in the living room, I rotate pillows on the two sofas. I move the patterned blue-and-gold ones to opposite ends of the light-blue sofa. The pillows with sparkles take up the middle and always will because they really pop when placed there. Yellow pillows with white stitching are now on the darker blue sofa. I’ve stashed the red ones in a closet, too dark for these times.

If I’m a ghost, do the new tenants find the pillow swapping unnerving? Do they notice? Or are they, like me before this time, too busy to notice? I used to run around this town with an energy that now seems unfathomable. How long ago was it? Does the new couple who moved in still get The New York Times delivered every day? I’m the last on my floor to do that, so most likely they read online. 

I wander from the living room, which is also a dining room and also an office, into the dining foyer, marked by a rug that has now become the place where this ghost does yoga and meditates. I try to save the bedroom for evenings, wanting to keep it as a place of rest. If that’s the case, does this new couple have difficulty sleeping? They don’t see me, but maybe they feel my presence.

Or maybe I’m alive. After all, would a ghost become aware that a 1000-sheet roll of toilet paper lasts her about five days? Would she bake yams and put a frozen, cauliflower-crust pizza in the oven and make a red cabbage soup for the first time in her life? 

Life. That’s the key now. From day one, survival instincts kicked in. I am not myself. I prefer third person. She surprised herself by opening The Joy of Cooking, a cookbook that might have been on her shelf for twenty years but appears to be brand-new. She made a white sauce from butter and yogurt and parsley and other seasonings and was overjoyed at her accomplishment. She is too afraid to order out. What to do with carton containers and plastic bags? It’s enough to wipe the threat of germs off grocery deliveries. 

There must be something in my DNA from Scandinavian ancestors pressuring me to work. It’s my first instinct every morning. If I am haunting anyone, it is with the pressure to work. For me, that means to write. Am I whispering to the new tenants, “Write what is in your hearts to write?” What if they’re not writers? The pressure feels like a demand—you must write, by the end of this day, by the end of this week, before the month is over. Finish the next draft. Finalize it. Write as though your life depends on it, for it does. You will starve if you don’t write. Just as your maternal grandparents would starve had they not tilled the land and sowed the seeds that kept a family alive and put its sons and daughters through college. I live far from that place where I was born. I always wanted to live in this city. My mother wanted this for me. I fulfilled the dream of anyone who wanted to be around interesting people…oh, this is becoming a conversation only fit for a ghost. 

Yet, the ghost tells herself there is something to learn from this. She wants to do something new, as though there isn’t enough new in the world with the numbers that escalate across the country, numbers that mark corners of the world in a way that somehow connects us more than ever.

New are the Lenten meditations from a booklet I picked up at Trinity Church Wall Street when I tapped into a co-working space a month or so ago. Some passages lead me to think of my two brothers. They have biblical names, from the New Testament. Brothers who ostracized me over matters of a family estate. This happened around the time of my divorce, during the year when my beloved mentor and boss died, followed by the loss of a job I loved. Community vanished, along with family. There is unimaginable grief when one is human. You never know when it will hit, and you’re never prepared. It sweeps in. 

If I am a ghost in this 900-square-foot apartment, the new tenants may hear a soft weeping in the night. For it’s always at night that I grow sad about my brothers and their absence from my life. One of the Lenten passages was about forgiveness. I said out loud, “I forgive you.” I wrote it in my journal.

This ghost is also haunted by a breakup with a man she dated for nearly two years. Did she end this relationship three years ago? She doesn’t remember, for whenever there is extreme pain, she can’t remember numbers. She doesn’t remember the age of her father when he died of cancer. She only remembers that he was sixty-something. Maybe the breakup was three years ago. A man who did the sweetest things, like take her to see the Big Duck on Long Island at the end of the summer, who bought her all sorts of colored pencils and tools for her doodling, who gave her the slippers for keeping her feet warm on wooden floors, and who loved her without making big declarations. She now sees him as a man of action. She loved him but she had some questions. Questions that she could never articulate very well. Instead she ruminated, hoping that time would bring her answers. This ghost had never learned to broach difficult subjects. She could blame her Scandinavian roots, but that isn’t the whole truth. This ghost is an observer, always taking in, writing, rehashing on paper, doodling. Message to the new couple living here: Don’t hold in your feelings, for they may grow to destroy you. 

This ghost has no idea whether she’s trying to move to the next realm, but she can’t seem to let go of the last evening she was out in public when the world seemed familiar. It was a Thursday in March, after teaching a class, when she met her old boyfriend for dinner at a beautiful Chinese restaurant on the East Side. She looked directly at him, as they were dining on what now seems like the best chicken with vegetables she’s ever consumed, and said, “Breaking up with you was the stupidest thing I ever did.”

She went on to say that her inability to talk about weighty emotional subjects was a problem, and she wanted him to know she owned it. She also had realized that he had broached, openly, difficult subjects early in their relationship. He wasn’t afraid to talk about them. I must be a ghost. I must have known I would not survive the pandemic, for why would I have talked to him like that? It was not premeditated—the talk, that is—but I had thought about him for months and months, as I started owning up to my own truth.

What year is it? Do the tenants remember the pandemic of 2020? Did they lose family members or friends? Will this couple stay together? If there’s another pandemic, will they survive or will one or both die?

I hear birds chirping. Every morning. When I hear birds chirping, it’s very personal. I always think of a man who died of colon cancer in his early 50s. He wasn’t my boyfriend, but I loved him and he loved me. If he were alive, he would be checking on me and many friends to make sure we were all okay. He would do it with humor, as though he really didn’t care. I knew his heart, and he knew mine, and he cared. He cared deeply.

My last physical human contact, other than elbow bumps, was with my old boyfriend after we left the Chinese restaurant. He helped carry my bags, as I had a load of things I’d cleaned out of a locker at the private library where I do most of my writing. He walked me to my bus. It came roaring down Second Avenue, so we hugged goodbye and then hugged again, each acknowledging that we were breaking the social distance rule. It was worth it.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story