I fume in the doorway, my bag of Chipotle grease-stained and heavy with prospective vomiting, as the ghosts turn their glass-gazes on me. As the sun through the window refracts wild off their eyes for a few moments, beams blinding, scattering, before settling and spreading warmth. Something dark curdles beneath my stomach.
We’re here to help, Right says.
“Why?” I ask. “Why won’t you go away?”
I don’t wait for the answer—it’s my home, my room, those are my boxers on the floor, so I go inside and sit at my desk, hoping the decidedness of those actions stanch their not-words. My ghosts don’t talk, they just levitate the words in my brain. Each letter lifts shining from the dark.
You need help, Right says.
Yes, echoes Left. If you’d talk about Ryan—
“No.” I slam my fist down for emphasis, curled flesh a pretty good gavel, and turn my back. I tremble, though, such a shitty tremor, giving myself completely away, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop this time.
Grief is a haunted cupboard, Right says after a spell. It is us tying your shoelaces so tight you cannot get them undone. Sometimes, that is all it is. Annoying. Harmless.
But sometimes, Left says, more cheer to the not-words on his not-voice, grief is swimming with E. coli.
The window unlocks and opens all on its own, and there is a breeze, and then my dinner is borne up on it and taken out and away and down the street. I watch it float to the end of the road before it makes the turn and I lose it. Gone.
“How come some things disappear?” I ask, everything shaking so bad now. Junkie bad. “Why do some people blink out? Go to ash on the wind? How come some shitty ghosts can barge in here and just…?” My nails dig into my palms. My jaw aches. “I—”
There’s wet on my face. On my wrists. Whole oceans start spilling down my cheeks, man, fucking tadpoles too, because then I remember what Ryan said, and it’s a damn spear through the gut.
“He forgot the word for tears one time.” I turn to the ghosts, snot and spit everywhere, face a fault line. “Once, he forgot, and he pointed to his skin, you know? And his lips were so pointy, if that makes any sense, and he ran those fucking pretty fingers right down his face, and he goes, ‘What do I mean, James? What are they? Tadpoles? No wait, that’s not right. Is it?’, and I was the smug asshole who laughed and wouldn’t give him the word. And he laughed with me, so freaking composed, before he grinned like the lover of a smug asshole and tackled me on the bed.”
Did you kiss? Left asks.
I tip my head back to stare at the shifting lights on the ceiling, hoping I snap off at the neck. That is what grief is now.
“Yes,” I say. “We did. We kissed until he was fluent in English. We kissed until I swiped the Portuguese right off his tongue. We did everything we could.”
Grief is his family having his funeral back in Portugal and not having the cash for the flight.
Grief is packing his stuff up—pressing that one comfy sweatshirt to my nose one last time—before his sister comes, wearing regret like a shawl, and floats her loaded car to the end of the street before making the turn.
“Grief,” I say to them, “is two ghosts sitting on my bed. Two ghosts, coming every day for the past three months. Two ghosts, making me bear my soul. Throwing away my food.
Drawing baths with lavender bubbles.”
We care, Right whispers, eyes like the sun. I can’t meet them.
We care, Left doesn’t whisper, but rises, body an ocean’s foamed swirl. We’re no longer content with rearranging cupboards, James.
Left sets a hand on my right shoulder, and Right follows to place a hand on my left, and I look at the two of them the best I can through my squinting—the two of them passing light between them, through me, off the mirrors they are, the mirrors they’ve been forcing me to look at myself in, the mirrors I’ve been fearing for so long, too long, along with my ugly reflection stuck inside the glass, until today when something broke to shards or opened like the wardrobe to Narnia or fuck, I don’t know—but I do feel love beneath my stomach now. In my chest. Head. Heart. I tell them this, my friends, my ghosts, and even though their mouths are perfect Os, I think they’re smiling. I think they’re happy they’re making progress with me. Grief is as unpredictable as anything I’ve ever known.
Tears, Right says.
Tears! Left says.
And I can’t help but sob again, less hysterical now, more cleansing, taking in deep, deep breaths of light and cold air, like I used to before, with Ryan, as they turn my tears to tadpoles. As my ghosts and I watch those tiny levitating bodies swimming patterns through my head, vowels and consonants going every which way, mimicking life, transient, an echo spreading wide, wide, wide.
Jared Povanda is a writer, freelance editor, and avid reader from upstate New York. In addition to SOFT CARTEL, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Riggwelter Press, CHEAP POP, briars lit, Silver Needle Press, and Sky Island Journal, among others. The winner of multiple literary awards, he also holds a B.A. from Ithaca College in Creative Writing. Find him online @JaredPovanda