Talking to ghosts has its dangers — and its rewards.
J. kicked the door shut and deposited hir armload of grocery bags on the floor. From the squat bedside table, one of the three pieces of actual furniture included in the price of rent, the rattling buzz of hir phone filled the room—a petite cacophony, but grating. And then it stopped. For a moment, one hand on the countertop and the other hanging limp, J. stood frozen in the silence. The shop below the apartment had closed in the afternoon. The building, though aged, did not obligingly ping and moan and settle. In the space of held breath the weight of quiet was suffocating, until the gentle burble of a bird’s call broke the tableau. J. twitched like a horse shaking off flies and moved to the window to peer out, placing hir chewed fingertips on the warm glass. On the ledge between gutter and wall there was a nest—tufts of fluff and prickly twigs. A pigeon rustled in it, one eye turned to the window, and cooed again.
“Some company, I guess,” si murmured and turned to lean a hip against the window frame, surveying hir domain: a trash bag full of clothes listing sideways in front of a shallow closet at the foot of the compact, hard bed; a laptop on the dining table; and a battered carry-on case with the handle still raised, pushed up against the side of the kitchen counter. Si nudged open the drawer of the bedside table—inside, a slim black smartphone and a stack of twenty-dollar bills not much bigger—and closed it again, then shut hir eyes and sagged against the thick, old wall.
As the sun crept down, taking with it the bird’s soft, continual communication, J. paced across the creaking hollows of the uneven floorboards from fridge to bed and back, counting steps against the quiet. Si lost count at sixty-seven and collapsed onto the mattress, breathing careful and slow through hir nose. The sheets still smelled like long nights of sweat and restlessness. Si hadn’t washed them before bundling them up and stuffing them in the trash bag. The streetlights below illuminated the cracks in the ceiling plaster; si rolled onto hir side and reached out, fingers resting on the drawer handle.
It slid open with a whispery squeak. Si picked up the phone and thumbed it on, swiping past the missed calls and texts, found the photo gallery, and opened it. C.’s smile—C.’s arm around hir shoulders—C.’s shock of dark hair wild and caught in a private wind. A wolfish sound ground its way from between hir teeth, breaking into a choke-breathed moan and the wrenching gasps that followed. J. cried ugly, cried alone, cried hot-skinned and lying on top of unwashed sheets in a shithole apartment downtown. The hard edges of the phone cut into hir palm.
Then came a crackle of plastic and a thud from across the room, followed by the sound of something rolling across the floorboards. J. lifted hir head, swallowing hard. A can of condensed soup bumped to a stop at a split board. The side of the plastic sack had been pulled down as if a curious hand had tugged it to peek at the contents. Skin tingling with a mixture of horror-movie curiosity and raw pain, J. staggered from the bed and circled the shopping bags, seeing no way for the culprit to have tipped itself open.
C. used to watch marathons of Haunted Hotels in the fall. They’d done it together. It had become a joke, but the sort that maintained a sincere sort of childish hope: that it could happen. It would be almost too much for that mutual shred of belief to come to fruition, now, too late. Still, si waited, lips pressed into a thin line, for the brush of a cold hand or the whisper of a voice—some sort of theatrical confirmation—and nothing. The air felt like air; the room, empty. Finally, si unzipped the carry-on and snagged a notebook from the assorted junk inside, opened it to write:
I would know if you were C., and you’re not. I guess you’re my roommate now.
I’m writing because I don’t want to hear the sound of my own voice.
Hope you don’t mind.
Si left the note on the table and stripped out of hir jeans and shirt, crawling beneath the covers and burying hir face in the pillow. Eighteen for two days—days like wrack-strewn islands—and already writing notes to imaginary ghosts. It made hir feel close to C., for a moment. Hir hand found the phone again, cradling it to hir chest: a fragile slip of circuits and plastic, a box of memories.
The vertiginous sensation of waking under an unfamiliar ceiling with the sun at the wrong angle to the eyes: J. swallowed it down with a dry mouth and cracking lips. The second morning was not precisely easier than the first, only less of a surprise. The body-hot phone dug into hir hipbone, where it had slipped in the night. Si fumbled for it with loose hands and placed it on the bedside table, then sat up and swung bare feet down onto the sun-warmed boards. Before leaving behind hir bedroom and books and self, si often woke without remembering that it had happened, as if hir mind had shunted that knowledge off to the side in self-defense. But then as si would reach out, drowsy, to text C. good morning, synapses would fire quick and merciless—his fingers white and cold in the coffin molded around the striped hat he’d loved, the discreet agony of messages sent and not ever answered. Comparatively, waking already gutted and dizzy was preferable to being wounded fresh each time.
Going through the motions—clothes, bathroom while avoiding hir reflection in the mirror, a bowl of cereal—took barely twenty minutes. After, J. sat slouched at the table, hands in hir lap. The notebook sat open by hir empty bowl, its scrawled note stranger still in the daytime. There was no clock in the apartment. Time passed; the room grew warmer as the sun filled it more and more aggressively.
J. stood, walked back to the bed, and lay down. Si wrapped one arm around the pillow and hugged it to hir stomach. As if in an attempt to distract hir, the phone buzzed for attention on the nightstand. Si did not move.
“Fuck’s sake,” J. croaked as the phone went off for the sixth time in a row, buzzing incessantly. Si sat up, ignoring the twinge in hir lower back from so long spent lying on the unyielding mattress. The screen read: Mom. Si waited until the call stopped, picked up the phone, and toggled it to silent. These two days were probably the most hir mother had tried to talk to hir in years.
What am I doing? si thought.
Nerveless fingers scrolled through a handful of unread texts from people whose desperation could not touch hir. Si had nothing for them—no answers, no apologies—any more than si had for hirself. The thought of opening one, of facing the blinking cursor and a blank box into which si had to compress some sort of rational answer, was unfathomable.
But what am I doing—
On the table, the notebook wasn’t open. Si dropped the phone onto the bed and crossed the room, thinking blankly of shut windows and still air, of a notebook that could close itself in a locked room.
The page with the note was the same. No spectral hand had scribed a response. All the same, J. sat down hard at the table and took up hir pen once more, flipping to the next blank page. The cheap, crisp paper wrinkled gently under the pressure of hir palm holding the notebook open. Si waited, poised to begin but unable to find the thread, the explanation, for what had put hir in the cramped studio downtown with a silenced phone and no one in the world to whom si felt accountable.
I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know who you are, or what you’re sticking around for. I won’t know your name. That’s kind of a relief: I don’t have to know you. I am unconnected to you, and you are unconnected to me. Just some disembodied something hanging around, maybe trying to figure me out. Good luck.
There are some things I do know, though:
- I’ve paid two months’ rent here
- I don’t have a job and I don’t have much money left
- My best friend is dead
- I don’t know how I’m supposed to be
- Above all, I am seriously fucked
The aching in hir eyes recalled a three-day hangover, bruised and tingling. Si blinked, stared up at the ceiling until the dampness and burning passed, and took another look at the note. I don’t know how I’m supposed to be—and next to that, si had scribbled in addendum: without C. Below the signature, si continued: It was us against the world, right? The aching spread in a shiver across hir skin from eye sockets to sinuses and out. Si shoved the chair back and stood, swallowing down bile and tears. The chasm inside hirself—a trench home to some devouring leviathan, waiting for the right moment to surface and consume—was like a physical wound, the kind it was best not to look at. A cut down to bone: the shock doesn’t set in until you see the striations in your tissue and muscle and fat. So don’t look.
The setting sun hollowed out the room, highlighted the bare lack of personalizing detail. Si wandered to the window while hir pulse pounded in ears and tongue. The pigeon wasn’t in its nest; there were two eggs, pale and speckled as if with flecks of ash. Si watched, waiting, devoting hir energy to the complex task of breathing. Finally the pigeon returned and landed on the ledge with a few clumsy flaps, then hopped up into its nest. It settled in, fluffed up, blinked, all small bones and dynamic reality chugging along the tracks of its life. The pigeon didn’t know how easy it had things. After standing until hir knees ached, J. dragged the chair to the window and sat instead, watching the pigeon watch the world. On the street below, the river-flow of people moved and moved, colorful and drab by turns, all alive and vital. J. rested hir head on the glass, gently, feeling its warmth.
Dear ghost, si wrote later in the dark, seeing by the reflected yellow glow of streetlights.
The question isn’t necessarily if I want to live.
It’s whether or not I can.
The next morning, there were chicks.
Their naked, miniature bodies had appeared suddenly—eggs during the night, birds come noon. J. wondered with a dull ache in hir gut if it was all right that the adult had left them so bare and alone, freshly extant in the world. Si took up hir post in the chair by the window to keep an eye on them. They didn’t move much, huddled together, only a little twitch here and there. The stillness was agitating in and of itself, long moments of dread where those barely-birds seemed too motionless.
When the pigeon finally returned, si breathed out what felt like hours of tension. It cuddled into the nest with the chicks, hiding them from view. Released from vigil, J. paced to the fridge, bed, and back. After seven circuits, si flipped open the notebook on the table and wrote:
There’s a line about the terrible boredom of pain that seems really appropriate right now. I wonder how you deal with being dead. I guess I’m your pigeon—something to watch that’s still moving.
Si paused, shifting on the creaking floorboards.
You’re probably not real; this is a device, me giving myself therapy badly.
But if you are, we’re both in limbo. Not so unconnected after all, I guess.
You know, we got into college together. Same program. We had a future.
Seems like a different world. Not real.
J. spread hir hand over the words, pressing them down. Si had been so ready; they both had been, full of strategies and tactics. The world an oyster, a peach, a sun-hot raspberry from the bushes behind C.’s parents’ house—and now husk, pit, bitter. No plans. Instead, the dedicated free fall of a life with the bottom torn out.
Goddamn, I am so melodramatic.
There was a thin-fingered handprint in the steam on the bathroom mirror. Towel in one hand and wiping water out of hir eyes with the other, J. attempted to correlate the odds that si was hallucinating against the odds that the ghost was real and—judging from the print—petite. Or it had been left in body oils by some previous tenant and never wiped down. That seemed as improbable as the phantom; tiny and old or not, the apartment had been clean when si moved in.
“Are you going to communicate with me now?” si murmured, voice rough from disuse and echoing strangely in the closet-sized room.
The steam on the mirror didn’t streak to life with words or finger-drawings.
Si wasn’t, precisely, disappointed.
That seems like an appropriate name for a ghost. I feel like if I’m going to keep writing you it’s too weird to do it in the generic.
It’s not that I’ve never experienced loss. When I was a kid my dad left. Two years ago, my grandpa died. It hurt. But this is so far beyond hurt I can’t explain it to you. It’s like being skinless, having your eyes put out, I don’t know. Something you should die from. To be honest with you, maybe I’m a ghost too. I am dead and this has killed me. God only fucking knows why I’m still walking around staring at birds.
C. was a part of me. I came out because I had him to lean on, because there was one person in the world I could bare myself to like that the first time: hey, this is who I am, I know it’s fucking weird, can you deal? And yeah, of course he could deal.
His whole business was dealing. We dealt.
And then he maybe killed himself, and I don’t know what to do with that.
It’s absurd: your other half, your significant other. I had one of those even if it wasn’t the kind most people think—C. didn’t have to be my goddamn boyfriend to be the thing I most cared for. Binary system, self-supporting, closed loop. Then it goes and ruptures, one day to the next, and you’ve got nothing and no one. Because you’re a weird motherfucker and—yeah, teenage angst, whatever, but really—nobody else gives a shit about you and nobody else understands you.
I don’t even know if I can feel betrayed.
The last half of the letter was jagged, words crawling over lines and sliding sideways off the page.
There was a time limit in place, si reflected, slouched on the chair with one bare foot propped on the windowsill. The rising and setting of the sun ticked one more day off—one more day where the rent was paid, gone; one more day with food to eat, gone. The time limit was some comfort, though, a guarantee that this state of purgatory was not and could not be permanent, that si wouldn’t find hirself still mourning and half-alive in the tiny studio in three years. On the ledge, the pigeon was preening. Si hadn’t seen it feeding the chicks yet, but assumed it must be. Those birds had time limits, too, whether or not they knew about them. So long to grow feathers, so long to learn to fly, so long to live, then—nothing.
Si took up the notebook again, finding a fresh page.
Here are some clichés and some truths, or both:
(1) I don’t know how to live without him.
(2) I am lost and alone.
(3) I miss C. so much I could die.
(4) Life is too short.
(5) Life is meaningless.
(6) I am a coward.
(7) I just want some answers.
(8) Ghosts can’t move on properly.
The notebook slapped to the floor, the pen clattering next to it. Si tipped hir chin up and wobbled the chair on its back legs, playing at risk. The chicks made the softest yelping chirps outside, barely audible, crying out at the wide blue sky.
I’m starting to really identify with these birds. Probably a sign of my oncoming psychological collapse. I write letters to ghosts and I spend all day watching pigeons grow up. That’s what I have left.
The question is: did he kill himself?
I don’t know—maybe, maybe not on purpose. Keeps me up nights. Haunts me, even. I can’t say that you’re haunting me. I think I might be haunting you. Probably why you won’t respond to these letters. There’s a good enough mirror to write on if you wanted to.
The pigeons are getting bigger—they’ve got fluff and feathers. They wobble around in their nest and head-butt each other seemingly by accident a lot. I’ve lost track of what day it is, or what else I’m doing except lying around in the bed or watching the birds. That should worry me, and it doesn’t.
Maybe I don’t need answers. Maybe I just need to man up and make a decision. It’s a big world out there and it seems to chug along just fine without me.
One more thing: there’s nobody left to tell me how much I have to live for.
Thanks, C. You’re the best friend a person could have.
There was no more milk. J. stood in the chill wafting from the open fridge door, sweat prickling hir scalp, and stared at the empty shelves. The box of cereal on the table was the last of the actual food that remained from hir initial and only trip to the corner grocery. Si realized with a sick, swooping sensation that si had not left the studio since that day. The gray wash of preceding mornings and afternoons and nights blurred, indistinct—countable only in terms of the dwindling supplies. Hir hair was a nest not unlike the pigeon’s; toenails grown out; clothes unwashed. Si closed the fridge and took a calming breath before wandering to the spill of still-possibly-clean laundry from the tipped-over trash bag next to the empty closet. Si found a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, and tugged them on despite the summer swelter. A glance out the window revealed a bustling afternoon crowd passing on the street below.
Si walked to the door and put a hand on the knob. Hir fingers shook. Hir guts cramped—equal measures hunger and terror. There were, of course, people down that narrow staircase. There would be more at the grocery, and more at the checkout, and yet more on the walk back. Each would have their own manners of seeing and judging, their brief cruelties and petty aggressions. With C., there were certain possibilities: a reckless bravado, a bolstering effect—the crowd of two, ready to put backs together and fight. C. knew hir and needed hir, would be there to the end, no matter bodies or pronouns or the harshness of strangers. Alone, J. was—si let go of the knob and banged hir head twice on the door—vulnerable. The shape and not-shape of hir had mattered less, before. Before, si had armor. Before, si hadn’t felt raw as bone and dangerously visible.
But this was now.
Si picked up the box of cereal and poured a glass of water from the tap, then went to sit by the window. The pigeon babies, grown plump, cooed and twittered at each other and their parent. The three of them could no longer all fit in the nest together. J. ate fistfuls of the dry cereal, washing them down with lukewarm, iron-tasting water. Dear Cordelia, si thought, I am fucking terrified.
J. paced, slept, ate the dwindling box of cereal to quiet an aching stomach. Life had come down to those simple but ineffably complicated behaviors, and the ticking of a phantom clock, the pressure of a phone that held more and more unanswered messages juxtaposed against the frightful silence of the void. In hir bones si felt it, the coming to a close.
The ghost had been neglectful, invisible; the pigeons were growing to look like their parent, no longer so devastatingly helpless and delicate. The rent would be due soon. The food was nearly gone. C. was still as dead as he’d been weeks before, and would be for the rest of the weeks in the world.
Footsore and stiff from pacing tight cage-circles for hours, J. sat down to the red sun of evening in the chair by the window, notebook balanced open to a fresh page on hir knee. Si took in the stifling warm air of the apartment in one long inhale; let it out slowly. The city, their city, moved through life below.
If you were the real C.’s ghost, there would be some things I’d want to tell you. Some things that need to get said, I guess—I feel like doing it now.
I should have said it more, that I loved you. I should have said it into the stupid mess of your hair when we sobered up at dawn in the backseat of your car. I should have made you understand what I would have sworn to fucking god you did understand: without each other we’ve got nothing, because you’re the whole world and all I wanted out of it.
You left me.
You made some promises, to me, and you broke them.
I don’t care. If I could have you back for five minutes, just five forever, so I could say goodbye—it wouldn’t be enough but it would be something. It wouldn’t be my stupid text “sup” and you not responding. It wouldn’t be almost blacking out at your funeral and your fucking parents not caring, not understanding, that I had lost half of me.
I miss you. I miss you. I miss you. You heartless fuck.
I don’t know how to go on, how to go do the shit we should be doing together—you should be in this apartment with me, crammed into that tiny bathroom in the morning and maybe having to get a second bed or just a bigger one we could share or whatever felt all right.
Nobody else had to get us, what we were for each other. I thought you thought it was funny, when kids couldn’t decide to call us faggots or what. I got us. I thought you did.
You should have thought of me.
What would you tell me to do, without you? Couldn’t even leave me a fucking note.
I loved you.
J. trailed off, silence overtaking the scritch of pen on paper, and heaved a chest-cracking breath. It felt as if the ink had crawled up from hir guts and ripped free onto the page, splattered there in a horror show of anger and need and pain. This was what it was like, in words—insufficient, flat, a belly-shaking cry distilled into a page of symbols. This was what it was like to yank at the edges of the gash and look at the insides.
It, si thought, hurts.
The ticklish swipe of a hand brushing hair back from J.’s face woke hir to wide white cracks of lightning in the outside sky and the sound of thunder. Si froze, one hand clutching the pillow, as the nearly imperceptible touch skated across hir scalp, ruffling bed-wild hair and smoothing a hank of it away from hir face. Hir heart raced. The ghost—silent for days, more figment than phantom—had been stroking hir head.
This was not a handprint on a mirror.
It was less eerie than si would have expected, more of a comfort. Si waited a moment for another touch, amidst the thunder’s rumbling, then, when none seemed forthcoming, climbed out of bed and went to the window. Si looked out on the rain-washed street through the distortions of wet glass. Realized that the ever-present nest to the right on the ledge had only two occupants—and one was the adult—struck by the blaze of an arc of lightning from the sky. J.’s stomach dropped. The wind howled outside; the two birds huddled close together through the deluge. “Shit,” si whispered.
The chick must have fallen out. Si wasn’t sure how long it took pigeons to fledge; they looked big, but si didn’t know enough to judge. What if it was lying on the ground below, trapped in the runoff water, cold and alone? The constriction in hir chest tightened inch by inch. Si threw on a pair of sneakers and a sweatshirt, shivering with adrenaline, and leapt to the door. There si balked, drawn up short. The knob was cold in the warm room, somehow, as if a chill hand had held it moments before—one equally as incorporeal and helpless to open the thing as si felt in this moment. Outside was outside. Si ground hir teeth hard enough to ache. Hir metaphorical clock had stopped ticking, all hands pointing to midnight.
Si turned the knob and clattered down the dark staircase, opening the metal door at the bottom onto the courtyard. The rain hissed down in sheets. Si ducked into it, head down and hands up to shade hir eyes; the downpour was cold, soaking hir to the skin in an instant. Si traced the back side of the building along the garden row with the shop owner’s flowers flattened and jerking under the assault of the wind and rain. Each step si took without finding the little bird was like a blow to the ribs.
It mattered. Si absorbed that knowledge while searching, water sloshing into hir shoes to freeze hir toes. It mattered whether or not si found the pigeon, whether or not it was all right. This was an individual act si had to perform to assure the continuation of some particular small world.
Then, beneath a brambly bush that was doing nothing to protect it, si found the palm-sized bird, scrunched miserably into itself, as tiny as it could become. “Ssh,” J. whispered, bending down and taking a knee to reach it. It did not respond to hir looming close; its eyes remained closed. When hir fingers gently closed around its warm, thrumming body, it struggled as if to flap away, but si held it tenderly. Hunching over and holding the bird close to hir chest, si struggled back to the stairs and inside the building.
The sudden cessation of rain was like surfacing from drowning. Si wanted to gasp for breath but held the urge so as not to frighten the bird quivering in hir hands. Si bumped the door shut with hir hip and walked up the stairs to the studio. Water trailed behind the pair, pooling under J. as si stopped inside the doorway. Si slopped across the room to the pile of clean laundry and, trembling with uncertainty, sat the pigeon there, opening hir hands slowly to release it. The bird flapped, agitated, and kicked at the old shirts for a moment. J. stepped back and it made a quiet noise that seemed thankful in the dark night, settling in.
J. stood in the center of the room, goose-bump-spangled and soaking, and there: the soft weight of fingers resting on hir shoulder, the lightest grip of reassurance, silent and small and whisper-faint. Si closed hir eyes against tears, thought of the letters si’d written, and knew it didn’t matter who had received them—just that, impossibly, someone had. The touch dissipated from one breath to the next, and si felt the wet and cold again, moved to strip off the sweatshirt, jeans, shoes, underclothes, each layer a weight and a symbol. Si lay down damp on the still-sleep-warm sheets, then shifted, head to the foot of the bed, and pillowed hir chin on hir arms to watch the pigeon. It slept, bird-sized breaths making its body rise and fall.
One small world, one inexplicable life.
“Thank you,” si whispered, not entirely alone.
In the morning, si opened the window onto the beginnings of a crisp, clean-breezy summer day. Stealthily, si approached the pigeon and took it up, shirt and all, in loose hands; more than the night before, it rustled and fought. Hir heart fluttered like its trapped wings as si approached the window and leaned out, hip on the sill, to reach for the nest where the sibling bird rested. Si waited until the pigeon quieted slightly then opened hir grip a fraction at a time. It hopped onto the ledge, wobbled for a breath-stealing moment, and stepped into its nest again.
The fist-clenched tightness in J.’s chest eased, bit by bit, like hir own hands. Si closed the window and sat down in the chair to take up the notebook. Si wrote briefly:
The pigeons are okay.
After a long moment, si leaned over and picked up the phone from the bedside table to scroll through the message box. C.’s name, there, and si knew what was in the thread: laughter, light, loneliness. Instead, si flicked up to hir own unanswered texts and messages. Hir thumb tapped, deliberate and trembling, “return call.”