Brief Note on the Nearness of Ghosts
SF is cold in the summer
Since my divorce, I’ve been living on planes, in borrowed rooms, on air mattresses. I’ve enjoyed the kindness of friends. My routines have absolutely gone to shit. I write at 2 AM, on a futon on the floor, or on buses in the morning, and then miss my stop, get off, and look around. I am full of joy, but also confusion, jumbled and unpossessed, like a damp umbrella left by a series of entrances. People I don’t know who read my stuff on the internet see me at parties and offer me condolences, and I hear the strangeness of “thank you” as it falls out of me.
Yesterday evening, at sundown, I stood waiting for a streetcar at the Montgomery stop in San Francisco, which is an x distance from y location where I’ve been staying. The street was cold and empty except for a police car and some kid eating fries out of a bag. I was having one of those moments Wallace Stevens wrote about, hearing “…the same wind that is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener, who listens in the snow / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” (But there wasn’t any snow, obviously, just the wind.)
And in that moment I thought of my friend Daniela, which is not her real name, which sounds less fabricated than her own very extravagant name. We were friends in Toronto about five years ago. She frequently served me drinks at her establishment, I complained, she complained. Then we were briefly intimate—it was a lonely Canadian winter, so we drifted together for a second, and then we drifted apart. It was nice and friendly and not a big deal on either end.
She died while I was abroad, having a marriage and a book and doing other things. I hadn’t been notified of her death at the time—I found out when I was coming back to Toronto—I was scrolling some of my old acquaintances’ feeds to get the temperature of the place, a sense of where people were hanging out these days, and I saw a memorial post.
At first I wondered whether it was a joke, of course. Realizing it wasn’t, I dug around for information, but only found out that there were “medical complications,” and that it was very sudden, and I decided not to do much more sleuthing.
I’d expected to run into her in Toronto, not on purpose necessarily. She was a fixture in a neighborhood I spent a lot of time in. She wasn’t one of the fifty people I valued most in the world, probably. But she was lovely and boisterous and sharp and refreshing. To those who were fortunate enough to love her closely, the loss of her was obviously immense. To me it was a little stranger—her presence in my life was small but definite. She was, in a little way, integral. Finding out she was gone was like discovering a bit of decay in the foundation of existence. It just flakes away like that, apparently.
My first impulse was to send her a text. And then I pushed it out of my mind, until yesterday.
It’s maybe wrong to say that I thought of her in San Francisco. It felt more like she chose that second for a little visit—a mental vacancy she could occupy. Her presence was suddenly obvious. The knowledge of her life slid into my consciousness, a slightly dissonant frequency above the fundamental tone. It made itself manifest in the waxy half-tension of my face tensing against the light. The lightness of her step was contributed to my body, making it, for a moment, a little heavier.
Ghosts are real and they are near. One night she’d tried to get me to vomit. It was New Year’s Eve. I was drunk and nauseous and vomiting was the thing to do but I couldn’t bear to do it when she was in earshot, in my tiny apartment. She laughed about how I couldn’t. She often, with immense kindness, mocked my pretentiousness.
As more people I love in large or small ways die, more frequencies will be added to the silence between streetcars. This will keep pace—assuming that I lead a long life—with the disappearance of institutions I’m accustomed to, storefronts I’ve lingered by, gardens where I’ve stopped to rest in midday. As the years go by, there will be this marshaling of a quiet chorus in my mind, whose music only I can understand. It will, one day—I hope many decades from now—affirm my status as a stranger in the place I’m about to leave.