‘RECOGNISING ONESELF AS A GHOST, AND TRYING NOT TO BE ONE ANY LONGER’
The following is true, in a sense:
I have realised I am a ghost. I am in bed, weeping and consumed with the problem, when the sound of a party, loud music and the buzz of conversation, floats up the corridor towards me. This is not conducive. Here I am in tears, in my underwear, in bed, under what feels like a profound weight, and there they are—
I spring from bed without thinking, leave my room without dressing, walk down the corridor without ceasing to cry, to interrupt the party interrupting my breakdown. If you are a ghost it is best to be a disruptive presence, a poltergeist. I locate the source of the noise and knock. A guy opens the door whose easy grin vanishes for nervous laughter upon seeing me there almost naked, whose expression sours on seeing the tears. Bewilderment. (Since I am sick of my own feelings I am focusing on his.)
The guy turns away to catch the eye of someone, anyone, for counsel on how to react to this, and I feel almost good. He is obviously drunk, and not a sensitive person to begin with, how could he be? His instinct is to preserve the social equilibrium of the party, not to help the person (only a ghost) in front of him.
I think for a moment that I should have cut my wrists, made the danger more manifest. This is the only way you can make people touch you, as a ghost. If only paramedics. (I will regret not touching anyone, I know in advance. Even in this fantasy—none of this is happening, I remain in bed glowering in resentment—I cannot touch anyone.) But then I think he would have reacted better, a medical emergency is easier than an emotional one for this kind of person (the kind of person, capable, straightforward, who gets invited to parties). And the point of this is for him to respond poorly. I don’t want to be proven wrong about people. I can’t do anything with that. I am where I am, and it’s easier if I can be resentful about it. The thing they say about ghosts who are able to make peace with the world and finally rest, is I think just marketing.
At this point people are stirring behind the guy, trying to avoid having to do anything about the situation, but visibly discomfited by it, and I am running out of ideas. I am nauseous from my long-wished-for and new-found visibility, which is too strong a drink for me, which has thrown me off-balance. The guy has maybe said something by now but I have gone on wailing obliviously in the meantime. I shake myself and in my best tearful croak tell them to keep the fucking noise down before turning away. I walk back to my room before the guy has time to react, glad to have decisively spoiled the mood. The party will start up again in five minutes, probably louder (in an attempt to drown the tension), but I’ve made them uneasy, haunted the place, which is what counts, in ghost terms.
You might think I am being too harsh on them, that in that guy’s place I would be exactly as helpless. But I’d never be in his place, because you don’t invite a ghost to a party.
If I didn’t harass people, rudely force my way into their lives and consciousnesses, they would forget I existed. (It is harassment, inherently, when I talk to people. It doesn’t matter what I am saying or in what voice. I am inadmissible.) Nobody has ever been spontaneously attracted to me. Nobody has ever touched me. (This is factually untrue, but feels true.) I have to bargain, negotiate, haggle, for people’s attention; I have never simply been entitled to it.
I try very hard to be a person. Part of trying to be a person, instead of a ghost, is pretending not to recognise yourself as part of an underclass, pretending that people don’t look at you differently, or try to avoid looking, pretending that your presence and contributions are as valuable as those of a person, that you are not a burden, a fog hanging over any social occasion, a net loss, that you are not something to be escaped from or looked straight through, a ghost. It is pretending that all these things are true in the belief that they might eventually become true. It is as yet unclear whether it is possible to succeed in becoming a person.
I am trying. Tonight was a lapse, tonight I walked the corridor as a ghost, but tomorrow I will wake up happily forgetful of this dream, and set about my business trying to be a person, and only later, broken by small failures, will I remember, and crawl into bed before sunset, and return here.
When the others pace about outside my room as I try to sleep at night, I become fearful of being called upon roughly and abruptly to answer for my sins. I know instantly that I am to be excommunicated, though not what I have done wrong. The fact of a presence in the next room seems incontrovertible proof that I am at fault; they cannot be there for any other reason than to discuss my wrongs, weigh judgment. I consider myself the only possible topic of their low whisperings. I take inventory in my head of all the things I have recently touched, all I might have broken or misused, list all the gaffes I may possibly have made, while I wait for voices with anger in them to shatter the suspense and my fragile peace, utterly. It is better for me when I imagine them shrieking, faceless beasts clawing at the door, meaning me blank harm. Then I don’t have to reckon with their reasons. Of course they have never scolded me yet, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t, and I invent flimsy but unshakable reasons on their behalf, in anticipation of the event.
As a child, I did not have a moral imagination. It took a very long time to develop. I was a weepy, pathetic infant, but I do not remember ever crying for anyone but myself. My instincts were base: fear and self-pity and greed, nothing that required me to think myself into the position of an other. I am ambivalent about the recollection. In a way I envy the self-absorption of the child I was, and a certain nostalgia for the period lingers. But at the same time there is something repulsive about it. My tools for getting what I wanted were whining, tantrums, bold and completely incredible lies. My mother and father would make ridiculous concessions to me, ones they should not have, simply because of my tenacious wretchedness. If I said I was ill, of course I could stay home from school, and have whatever I wanted. I was not ill, and the counterfeit was never convincing. Yet despite being a poor liar, I was also an exhaustingly stubborn one. I was tenacious, but only when doing something that degraded me. In more noble pursuits that might actually have improved me, I insisted only on giving up at the first obstacle. (I do not have a clear picture of my prepubescent self in my head, but I always imagine him as possessing a singularly dull, dead-eyed stare, one fit to recognise nothing but objects.) If I began to cry, the realisation that I was no longer truly upset could not stop me; I would remain wretched and belligerent all day, though the initial provocation had diminished radically in my mind and my tears earned me nothing but shame. I was inconsolable to a fault. I never felt sorry for anyone but myself. If I felt bad after I got what I wanted, it was only discomfort from the heat of implicit censure in my parents’ acquiescence. I saw in their resignation that I had beaten them by being worse than them. I never made it right, or changed my ways; I simply became more miserable, harder to please. I should have been beaten.
Years later I sometimes think, in my darker moments, that my whole moral and intellectual being is nothing more than a very thin veneer covering this naked and appalling self.
Jack Caulfield lives in Amsterdam. You can read his other writing on Medium: https://email@example.com