Author: Aileen O'Connell

Katherine had plans when the ghost got through, her birthday party on Friday and a date with Henry on Saturday. But near midnight on Thursday, the phone rang, terrifying her, in the way of sudden noises shattering sleep. Kate lifted the receiver and the hairs on her arm stood on end. The electrical charge pulsed through her like an ancient heartbeat. He had been missing her for weeks, sending messages through the computer and into her phone to which Kate hesitated to respond.

“Come here,” he said. “It’s so close, and I’m seriously starved for good conversation. These guys I’ve been with, they’re so tedious.”

Katherine breathed. She was prepared for Christopher to be in New York, a brief magical moment she had looked forward to for nearly a year. But this other city was more dangerous. It was a city that didn’t exist for either of them, and so anything could happen. It frightened her in the way that the ghost’s sheer existence should have.

“You can’t imagine,” the ghost said.

“My party is tomorrow night,” she said.

“Oh. Well. You don’t have to. I wouldn’t want you to upset your plans.”

Kate looked out her dirty window into the street, harshly lit by a single street lamp, and still said nothing. She wanted to go, but she was afraid to want. It always lead to disappointment.

“But it’d be wicked if you were here, Katie. And I have these two days between shows.” He breathed and it sounded like promises and sadness. “With nothing to do. The road gets a little lonely.” He laughed. “But no worries.”

Katherine did what he wanted because nothing real made her feel anymore. She was fairly sure she was broken.

She dreamed of him that night. They were wandering through Grand Central Station, and even though she kept putting him on trains, they kept winding up on the same platforms together. The metal clocks above the marble archways always read 3:21 and she always knew it was Christopher, not because of what he looked like—because that changed, from her mother to a girl from her fourth period class, to her brother and then to a vague approximation of Christopher—but because of the deep feeling of peace that was the cessation of time when he held her hand or brushed the hair out of her eyes. When Kate woke up, she expected him to be in the bed beside her. She had read that ghosts don’t sleep, but will happily lie next to the living. She stretched her arm out to hug him and found air. Waking up after doing that always felt empty, like the day was too long and cold to fill all by herself.

***

Christopher had a wife and family in England. He said he didn’t remember her name, but when Katherine was lost between their worlds and tried to anchor herself by asking questions, he’d only say they still celebrate the anniversary. They make a family pilgrimage to the cemetery to pray and look morose, to leave rocks on the tombstone as reminders of the solidity of the living. Living is fascinating and terrifying to the dead; mostly they prefer not to remember, because to juxtapose the two is to realize how security and death go hand in hand.

Christopher will not say how he died, but when he lies beside Kate in the hotel rooms and then her bed, with his eyes closed, he shakes and whimpers. She wonders if he is remembering the times he incessantly walked the road of loneliness, because maybe he wasn’t ready to be dead, she thinks. It would be too awful to think that none of the dead were content, that death was just a concentration of the dissatisfactions felt on earth. To quiet him, she puts her hand on his belly, the way she did to Barley when he had nightmares and ran in his sleep, but Christopher pushes her hand away roughly and jerks to, as if he really has been sleeping.

“You talk in your sleep,” she says.

He blinks. “What do I say.” His eyes are blue stars, half veiled in the eggshell early morning light.

“Your wife’s name,” she says.

“Zelda never told me I talked in my sleep. She was a deep sleeper. Like the dead.” His grin creeps up, the way St. Michael’s Cemetery does as Kate speeds along the Grand Central Parkway.

“Ha. You said you didn’t know her name anymore.”

“Matilda?” He tickles Kate and grins the irresistible grin. His fingers are a feather storm. She giggles.

“Francine? Constance?” He laughs a British laugh and she curls into him.

“What were you dreaming?”

“I don’t dream,” he says.

“Tell me.”

“Katie,” he whispers meaningfully. She knows it isn’t real. “Kitty cat Katie.” It is hard to deny him.

“Everyone dreams,” she says. She will look up ghosts and dreams later to see if this is his particular dilemma or the truth for all ghosts. He is her font of endless fascination.

***

Katherine wonders if her mother is bored or at peace, if she will grow lonely. And if she is lonely, whom she haunts. Right after her mother died, Katherine wanted to be haunted, but the psychics she went to never realized she had a dead mother. They asked if she was an aspiring actress or told her that one day she would speak before large crowds. Not a one ever asked, “Did you lose your mother?” As if she were wandering through a mall somewhere, or along an unnamed highway. Like she was retrievable.

Katherine liked to think of Diana as sleeping between stars, so heavily, the way she loved to on their couch after dinner, or after she had made dinner, but before Katherine’s father had come home to eat. She could believe that her mother enjoyed death, the peace and stillness. Diana would be too tired to haunt her. Even in life, she would say she was too exhausted to entertain Katherine’s latest drama. Still, sometimes, when Katherine wanted to talk to her again very badly, and it was dark and the energy in the room hummed, she would be afraid, and wish away all her wishing to be with her mother. Years later, when the mediums realized she had no mortal mother, they said, “Your mother is always with you. She’s with you now. She’s worried about you.”

Katherine never felt it.

She wondered if her mother had sent Christopher. An emissary. He was easier to accept, with his British hair and his smile that looked like the root of all mischief. He began by making little things disappear, like letters and books, old plans, incomplete dreams and socks. He left dirty glasses and remnants of songs in the oddest places, on windowsills and in plants. He dropped crumpled up bits all over her apartment and scrawled tendrils on envelopes and in the steam of her bathroom mirror. He laughed about everything. He didn’t scare her.

She dreamed of him and felt the contentedness of his loving her well before she began to see a sandy-haired man in crowds and on subways who always disappeared before she could walk up to him and introduce herself. But he was there. She felt the bliss that was the knowledge of his omnipresence. It was a blanket that made it easy to be alone. Easier.

Then one day in a September rain, he didn’t disappear. He hovered near Katherine, amidst the crush of a Doves’ show, marked by a circle of solitude almost three feet in diameter. Katherine approached him, certain it would be like the other times, or that when she spoke to him he would have no teeth, or make a comment about her breasts, only call them tits, or in some other way annihilate the perfection of his presence. Only he didn’t.

She asked him a question, and in response, he laughed his undeniable laugh. “Yes,” he said.

“Want to come hang out with me and my friends?”

She introduced him around the circle of girls she had come with, none of whom recognized his significance or interrupted her conversation long enough to let him register. They all retired to the stadium seats, but his three-foot circle remained; only now Katherine was inside of it. She wondered momentarily whether her friends knew where she was, but then succumbed to Christopher’s propinquity in a way that made time, space and matter irrelevant.

He spoke about music and traveling in a voice that was haunting and handed her a CD of songs he had written. He searched her face for recognition and she realized how long it had been since she had looked anyone in the eye. It was more naked than sex, this staring. She looked down at his handwriting, uniform and square, obviously artistic, then waved the disc gratefully in the air before sliding it into her bag.

“I’ve never seen New York before,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve slept the entire time I’ve been here. Too much energy. Too much to do. Have you ever gone up the Empire State Building at night and just looked at the city?”

“You can die from not sleeping,” she said. “I think it takes nine days or something like that. The chemicals in your brain start to break down and eat each other. Then you go into a coma. Then you just go away.”

He laughed at her like she was mad and madness was adorable.

“I’m pretty much a zombie if I don’t get at least eight hours every night. I come from terminally sleepy people,” she continued.

“You took your jacket off,” he said and ran an icy hand down her arm. She shivered pleasantly. His chill felt familiar. “It’s cold out. It’s November,” he said.

He wore two sweaters and a leather jacket. Katherine wore a sleeveless top. Ghosts were always cold and brought the cold with them like a present no one wanted. It was part of their charm. Their lack of humanity.

“It’s September,” she said.

He raised his eyebrows. They met in a bushy V above his nose. It should have been repulsive; instead it was being added to the rather long list of his attractions.

“Isn’t it?” Katherine shook her head to try to find some sort of equilibrium, to stop sliding down the slope of attraction to him. “I just feel like we’ve known each other for awhile.” She blushed. “Like forever.”

He grinned with his eyes in a flash that you would miss if you weren’t utterly smitten. “Forever’s a long time.” His teeth were like the upside down crooked fence outside of her mother’s cemetery, arched like a half-moon.

“Do you want to talk to my friends?” she said, to try to save herself.

He laughed again. It sounded like flicking empty glasses with a fingernail. They looked over his shoulder at her friends who were drinking beer and eating pretzels and talking about a marathon. She let her chin rest on his shoulder for a half blink that felt as deep as a week. “I think I prefer having you to myself,” he said.

She looked at him hard. His pupils dilated into the faint blue of his eyes and he stopped smiling. It was strange to think he had ever been human. There was too much to him, as if he came from the Renaissance or Bethlehem. He sang and composed, played piano, guitar and the harp. He had read Wuthering Heights by candlelight in the courtyard of a Tudor grange because it was more Romantic that way. He played football and had beautiful hands, thin and long with nails bitten to the quick. He knew who Foucault was and brought him up in conversation without seeming pretentious. His father was a failed rock star and his mother was a saint who loved him best of all her boys. It showed on him in the way he glowed with something like the expectation of love, which is always golden. Golden like it had never entered his mind that the world wouldn’t want him. The sky behind him was orange and death blue above the horizon of the East River.

“How long are you here?” She felt like time was closing in on them. She thought for a second she could see through him to her friends beyond, lighting cigarettes now and gesticulating with them to punctuate useless points.

“Not exactly sure. Not long.” His voice broke a little and he smiled a sad smile, like he knew a lot of things she would never know.

“You aren’t real, are you?” she said. “You’re too perfect.” She rested her head against his shoulder. He was warm and wintry all at once. “I always find boys who aren’t real. Boys who disappear.”

“Sometimes a day can last forever,” he said. “It all depends on how you look at it.” He put his finger below her chin and made her meet his eyes. He stared at her as if he would kiss her. The last bits of day winged around their shoulders like autumn butterflies and Kate yearned toward him with a feeling that was dusty and just pulled down from the top shelf. It made her breath catch in her throat.

But then he didn’t.

They watched the rest of the show, drinking watery beer and leaning in to knock heads and exchange silly observations. He smelled like the first boy Kate had ever kissed and she looked for excuses to touch his skin because it sent sparks through her fingers and left stains that felt like shivers. She wished he was real, that he could stay for longer or that she could disappear with him to wherever it is the dead go, but she knew it couldn’t be. It never got to be the way she wanted.

***

Katherine cannot remember what she wore to her mother’s funeral. She knows she went shopping specifically to have something appropriate for the occasion, but she can’t remember what it was, and when she’s feeling morbid, she looks down at her black dress or gray sweater and slacks and wonders, “Is this it? Is this the one?” She never goes to the cemetery, but when she does, it always seems to be raining. A pissing drizzle like in London. She tiptoes through the soaked, sadly groomed grass that should be allowed to overgrow and tries to feign sobriety. She and her brothers leave rocks on the tombstone. Sometimes, to make Timmy smile, she takes rocks off of other stones and places them on her mother’s. She winks and Timmy gives her a thumbs up, as if their team has just gone up a field goal in the last 20 seconds. Danny hugs the tombstone while he pretends he isn’t crying. This prompts Kate to throw the grave an air kiss and spend the entire ride back to the city wondering whose genius idea it was to put stones up to remember bodies.

At her mother’s wake she tried to hold the corpse’s hand and it felt like stone, but when her mother had been in the coma in a rented hospital bed in their living room, her hand was warm like bread and soft. Kate could sit beside the bed in the afternoon shaft of sunlight, listening to Celtic music and every few minutes her mother would squeeze her hand, which meant, “I love you. I always loved you. I love you.” Kate could have kept her in that coma forever.

Or a little longer.

***

Months after the concert, Kate decided to visit the ghost’s parents in England. She looked them up and phoned to say she was a friend of Chris’ from University, from her year abroad, and they extended an open invitation. Yorkshire is known for its hospitality. When she arrived, after taking two wrong trains and misreading a few signs in the tiny city, his mother bled into the background of their sprawling Tudor grange while his father teased her mercilessly. When she walked through the ancient wooden doors, Edward barked, “Who the fuck gets lost in Leeds?” She knew it meant he liked her, and she cozied up to him as if she were his favorite cat, nestling into the crook of his elbow and basking in his taunting.

At lunch, they sat at a round table where everyone talked at once and Edward passed her pickles, olives and pasta salad. His hands were callused, and he was solid like a bricklayer. He made fun of the way she cut with her right hand, then put her knife down to switch to her fork to eat. “Americans,” he said gruffly. He smiled at her with his eyes. He had longshoreman ways and the certainty age leant him was comfortable and familiar. Reminiscent of the ghost. It felt like a fuzzy blanket.

Across the table, the ghost appeared next to his widow and looked for all the world like death. Her name was Ethel or Gertrude or Clare. They all meant small, round and domestic, easy and uncomplicated, supportive, not draining. She was dead boring, Katherine was sure. She was even kind to Katherine, as if it had never crossed her mind that Katherine was dangerous. Or maybe it had. Maybe this was how Mays and Marys waged war. Silently. Smartly. Without passion.

The ghost watched Katherine flirt with his father and discovered no excuses to touch Enid or Eunice, whom he sat beside as if she were a tombstone with an empty blank for his name. Katherine felt fraught with compelling horrors, like a siren that sings men to their deaths. This was all she had to hold onto at the perfectly circular table of perfect couples, Edward and wife, at cross ends, Christopher and his widow, his brother and a girl, and another brother and another girl with hair like a horsetail.

Edward refilled Kate’s wine glass without her asking, and she didn’t know if it was this or the subtle sense that everyone at the table was somehow lying to themselves that made it all seem so muzzy and vague. She had the distinct feeling that she was the only one who was really alive. And she was angry with herself for being uncertain whether she was glad she was just visiting or if she would like to stay forever and learn how to die as well.

This sense continued down in London where the ghost walked along the Thames with her and went to the Tate with her, and crossed bridges with her and sang her songs and played his guitar for her and traveled up and down escalators either above or below her, always turned to talk to her, while the widow went to work and made money that went to candles and prayers for the dead. She possessed a peace and certainty that Katherine had been sure only existed in the grave. Katherine wondered what the ghost found compelling in this, and secretly believed that the widow’s passivity was the ghost’s impetus for haunting Katherine, who was nothing if not dramatic. Tiringly dramatic.

In the widow’s apartment, photographs fell from the wall to the floor, shattering, and once a glass hovered above the kitchen table. The widow never suspected the ghost, but Katherine knew. The widow’s lack of insight or speculation was another mark against her in Katherine’s book. It balanced out her hospitality, hosting a long-lost friend whom she must have suspected was once Christopher’s lover. A girl whom his spirit preferred to that of his wife.

On a bright, cloudy Wednesday, while the widow was at work, Katherine and the ghost found a portion of the river that they both agreed looked like Paris, and shared sandwiches and beer from Tesco on a forgotten bench dedicated to Admiral Lord Nelson. London was letting Kate go in a few days and she was pretending this wasn’t so.

“You only have so much time, you know what I mean?” the ghost said.

She nodded. His shoulder nuzzled against hers. All week she had been collecting accidents of intimacy and analyzing their character. This seemed intentional yet platonic. Or maybe just intentional. She knew ghosts grew envious of the living. This could be his subtle way of stealing her spirit. She didn’t really mind. He could have it. That was what living was about—letting go. The ghost had no idea, with his talk of music and life after death, as if he were Shakespeare.

“And I want to make my mark,” he said. “I want to leave something behind. Something important, you know what I mean? I think about my music incessantly. It drove her crazy sometimes. But she understands. She’s really understanding of my music. I shouldn’t have said that.” He handed Kate the bottle, brushing her cold fingers with his, and watched the river.

“You really think that makes you eternal? That you live on after death because your songs live?”

“Well, yeah.” He said it like Kate was dim.

“If you believe your body rots, then what do you care what happens with your songs? If you’re dead, you don’t care. You don’t anything. You don’t be. A song isn’t a person. Trust me. You can’t kiss a song. Or hold its hand.” Kate chucked a sandwich crust at English pigeons and wished the day would grow grayer. It seemed like the sun was going to come back out.

“Thanks, Kate,” Chris said. He made an ungrateful face.

She could forget so easily that he was dead; she preferred to pretend he was her boyfriend and that the few moments they could find to be with each other were all the time in the world. She had an amazingly easy time of fooling herself in his presence.

“Maybe I didn’t mean it,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe my mom cares.”

“You think romance is the most important thing in the world,” Christopher said. “Maybe that’s why you’re alone. You want it too much.”

She looked at him sadly and he relented. It was so awful how even he could misunderstand her.

“So what’s the secret, Kat?” he said. “If I’m the one who’s wrong?”

The river ran gunmetal gray under the bridges, reflecting buildings from forever ago and from the age of space eggs.

“All time happens at once. So you’re never dead. Or you’re always dead. It just depends how you look at it,” she said.

He looked like he was going to kiss her, smiling the special smile that adored her madness but stopped one breath short of understanding, hovering in a way that was nicer than complete understanding, because complete understanding would lead to boredom and death. But he didn’t. He took her wrist, softly, as if it were his, with the fingers of a lonely ghost, and looked at her watch. “She’s going to be out of work soon. We should find a phone.”

He sat nearly on top of Kate in the tube and then on buses where he shared music with her, touching his ear to hers, and almost held her hand late at night in a bar, and touched his knees to hers underneath tables and leaned into her on his widow’s couch, smelling like salt and possibilities, the scent of cemeteries on summer nights, but always, always disappeared when she had to go to bed.

Ghosts.

Kate cried the night before she left London anyway, listening to the song he had written for her on repeat. She brought three days of torrential rain back to New York. It had been almost sunny in England in every town she went.

***

When the season of death approached a second time, the ghost grew insistent. He used the radio and the telephone. She skipped her own birthday party to meet him in an enchanted hotel room where he greeted her soaking wet in a towel. She didn’t touch him, in her winter coat and red woolen stockings. She had her reasons. They were intellectual and she knew, even with her sad intellect, that they would never stand up to her emotions. Her emotions were barbarians.

“This place is the best yet,” the ghost said. Outside the window were a golden dome and a Georgian hotel. She wandered to the edge of the room and sat in the window, pressing against the cold sky. The ghost had invited her to heaven. The room was half windows; they were part of the clouds. Katherine knew it wasn’t real.

As Kate waited for him to get ready, she realized that the ghost was different, not so golden, loneliness apparent in the curl of brown hair at his temple and the curve of his fingers when he lay on the bed and picked out a tune that sounded as light and ephemeral as fairies. He said he’d never felt more alive. Maybe it was true. Maybe living took the life out of a person. He seemed worn out and lonely, not so much like the ghost she had known at all. Kate told herself that this made her like him less, but she knew she was lying.

They watched a movie in the hotel and Christopher touched knees with her under the blankets, then took his shirt off for the massage he asked for, and ultimately plied her with three bottles of good white wine at a sidewalk bar, and finally, when none of this worked, said simply, “Don’t you want to hug me?” in the back of a fast-moving cab. Because Kate had told herself it was best to leave the dead alone. She had told herself this when Christopher called, told herself this as she cancelled her party and drove four long hours down, pretending it was under protest and somehow beyond her control.

But the incarnation was completed when Christopher tilted her chin up in the fast-moving cab and kissed her, kissed her into the street and onto the elevator and against the hallway wall and in the window to the sky where they talked about his father and her mother and got lost in conversation, until he kissed further words away, and slowly her confusion slid aside (so it could consume her more completely upon its return) and she had to acknowledge that maybe she wasn’t really broken after all.

Katherine decided they were only alive because death loomed just outside the windows and she finally admitted that in this world, eternity can only last for a weekend, otherwise it turns into the tediousness of sleep. So she didn’t let herself cry as the orange gold sun set inside the hotel room and Christopher played the magical song and she noticed that his perfectly white shoulder had eleven freckles and he smelled like heaven and bread and she would never be so happy again in her life, even though she wanted to be and everything in her was pushing and yearning and longing. She had reached her peak.

When she drove home in the dying Sunday light, she remembered the way Christopher had haunted her for several nights prior, possessing her phone when she was out with friends or Henry. The ghost had a way of expecting your full attention, and then, if he didn’t get it, pretending it didn’t matter and he was happy you had a life. But really, all his “no worries,” and his “I don’t minds,” amounted to an obvious sense of entitlement to any love he thought he wanted, which was any love available. She hated the fact that she knew he deserved it, too. Christopher was deeply, unfairly loveable. He did things that human beings didn’t know how to do. Like he accidentally dialed her number when she was five minutes outside of the city. When he realized it was Kate, and asked, “Why did you think I’d be calling you so soon?” she replied, “To check on me?” Once the idea had been presented to Christopher, he called her three more times to make sure she was okay before she got home. He made her crazy.

***

Katherine hated November. She didn’t know if her mother had died on November 8th or 9th because it had happened at 3:21 AM when Kate was sleeping. Things that she found out right after sleeping never became clear. In fact, they sometimes grew into fairy tales or premonitions, as when in college, an ex-boyfriend would prank call her in the middle of the night and she would come to believe that the twisted things he said were predictions of her future or messages from the dead. It was as if when tearing the veil between sleeping and waking, she would stumble onto the mysteries of existence, mysteries that still remained somewhat muddied, because they had to be digested and analyzed while conscious. When the phone rang in the dead center of that night in November, Kate knew her mother was dead, so she didn’t answer. It didn’t make it not happen, but when she was sleeping, it did. Her father said he sat alone with the body until the sun came up and the morticians arrived.

***

Time with the ghost had called all of reality into question. There were the usual penalties to pay, the week following his disappearance when Katherine succumbed to the sleeping sickness every night at 7:03 PM, to dreams that were sweeter than waking life, and then the other nights when she lay awake in bed, examining the darkness, well aware that nothing actually exists, not the way we think it does. Not with any sort of solidity.

She started having a hard time remembering if the things that had happened, actually had, or if she had dreamt them. Part of this she blamed on the sleeping sickness. Some of her dreams, too, were becoming confused with events that other people could corroborate. She couldn’t remember what Christopher had worn to the cello concert in St. John the Divine, though she could remember how he looked glancing over his glasses at her, exactly the way he would look at 63. But she didn’t know if they had walked along the Hudson and said it felt like Paris or if she had dreamt of them saying that on the Thames. She told her colleague, Renata, that she felt like she was coming unstuck, “You know what I mean?” she said.

The ghost had said “you know what I mean” after almost every sentence when he was passionate. Though when he did it, Kate noticed it and knew that if a real person had done it, it would have bothered her, she didn’t mind the way it was creeping into her own vocabulary, or the way her body had started to smell like him after he had disappeared. She took these occurrences as signs that would point to some eventual significant meaning. She collected them.

“What are you talking about?” Renata said. “Do you feel all right? You look a little pale.”

Kate looked at her nails. They were all uneven lengths and the cuticles were growing.

“You know, you haven’t seemed totally yourself lately,” Renata said.

“I told you about the sleeping sickness,” she said.

“You made that up, though. That’s not real.” Renata opened the paper tray on the copier and stacked two new reams of paper without even looking. She studied Kate.

Kate liked this. The scrutiny. The ghost had really seen her, in a way she hadn’t been perceived since before her mother died. People in her department never believed Kate’s illnesses. They told her she read too many Victorian novels. Whenever she said she didn’t feel well, they asked if it was the TB again and laughed. Even before the ghost, Kate had only had one foot in everyone else’s reality. This is probably why she had seen him in the first place. She had never mentioned him at work when he was haunting her, only when he vanished. And then she called him Christopher. Her friend from England with the angelic voice. She didn’t let anyone know he was a ghost.

***

She only felt strange being back with Henry the Sunday after Christopher dissolved into the nighttime sky, saying, “I’ll see you when I see you,” the lovely curve of his back turning away from Kate into the swirl of a revolving door, and Kate thinking the thought she always did when the ghost went away. “I don’t want to remember, because maybe this is the last time. Maybe I’ll never see him again.” She didn’t want a shabby memory of a revolving door turning to tatters in her mind from incessant worrying.

Then she wandered back to Henry’s apartment. She had known the ghost was fading. She would reach for his hand sometimes and feel her own fingers, how cold they were. Christopher would smile sadly. When he told her stories about his band or his wife, she cast her eyes down and away. Chris said she reminded him of Bob Dylan. Petulant. Moody. They pretended to laugh, but they were eating her frustration. It was a meal they consumed at the gunpoint of his departure. And she could explain none of this, because part of the haunting made her choked on her own words. The ghost made her achingly aware of all the limitations of human love.

It was the ghost’s idea that she should say goodbye to him and then go to Henry’s. Chris seemed worried about her, the way her grandfather had in the dream where he handed Kate the block of emptiness that was her mother’s death. Worried, but unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it. The ghost could be like an angel sometimes, an angel with a devilish streak.

They sat on Bleecker Street drinking their last glasses of wine and Kate tried to keep her passion tightly in her hands like a squirming mouse while the ghost told her she should take vocal lessons, and spend time with people who were more her kind. Girls walked by in legwarmers and the gray sky hovered near their heads, waiting to deepen into black.

“What if I didn’t live across an ocean? What if it were some other world?” she said.

She knew Chris thought she should be content with friendship. In some sick, ghostly fashion, he valued friendship over romantic love, because it was immune from vagaries. He cultivated bloodless attachments for their solidity. Chris smiled the sad smile and didn’t answer. She knew they had somehow torn the fabric of friendship, anyway, and it would never be the same. It was one more thing Kate couldn’t save.

“What if it was an alternate universe and all the stuff we can’t control was suddenly perfect? What if you were alive? Or we were dead together?” She hadn’t been going to say it. She didn’t want to admit, even to herself, that it was what she really wanted. Even if it was sometimes boring, even if it meant that single moments lacked a poignant intensity. She could deal with that. All she wanted now was an answer that would feel like a worry stone in her pocket, something she could touch when she was scared or very alone.

A motorcycle rumbled past, shattering the air. Kate flinched. The ghost did not. He stared at her with eyes that said he wouldn’t give her even that. She sipped her wine. Across the street, a man in a light jacket twirled a metal pole, retracting a summer awning. “Well, anyway, I don’t think I’m going to sleep with Henry tonight,” Kate said.

“That’s just crazy,” the ghost said. “Why would you deny your boyfriend sex because of this? We don’t really exist.”

So she arranged to wind up at Henry’s. She even pretended to look forward to the ghost’s disappearance, bustling around her apartment while he packed and jokingly instructed her on the proper way to roll socks. Kate said little to him after the accusation of insanity. She remembered how the ghost had made her promise not to pick a fight with him just before he left. He knew she had a deep bag of tricks developed to ward off the pain of loss. But before Christopher disappeared, he did not invoke the promise and their final moments were silence.

***

Henry was wedded to his work and didn’t seem to realize or care that Kate had indulged in a torrid affair with a ghost. When she got to his apartment he didn’t see her, because he was halfway inside his computer. She tried to push herself close to him to remember reality, but she felt nothing, not a single shiver. And then she was sure the real world was ruined for her forever, like a garden that still existed for everyone else, but that she had lost the magic words to find. Like her ghostly friendship. Like her mother. This made Kate glad. It was concrete and certain. It was only right that the ghost would mean something lasting. Henry didn’t break her heart down the center with beauty and finitude and the beauty of finitude. He didn’t make her feel eternity at all. She discovered he even had hair on his back. She left for home knowing it was over.

But reality resumed, even though Kate didn’t believe in it, just because so many other people were fervently, devoutly making it so. The power of combined belief was causing Henry to still phone Kate. And now she felt strange that she didn’t mind, because he still didn’t melt her heart or dissolve her edges the way the ghost had. He took her to dinner and held her arm when they walked in the street. He made strange noises when they made love, but never became her, not the way the ghost had. They never made the kind of happiness that closes your throat and constricts every cell, so that you know what death will feel like, and that you’ll want it. Kate’s moments with Henry never deepened; she didn’t know why she still talked to him. It made no sense.

She tried to remind herself how heavy and complete she had been when she meandered through the city as if it weren’t hers, because it had been new to the ghost — how he had mashed a water bottle into the shape of the Chrysler Building and made her laugh, and how the streets that used to only be the places she hung out in college were now Chris’s wonder-filled stories of Dylan and Kerouac. How time hadn’t existed, except as the black edge of all her happiness, the tinge that made her know it would end, and made it better and more important because it would end. Now she was light and confused. Everything since the haunting served to overwhelm Kate. Her response was an emotional coma.

When she was in the moments she loved, she knew they would pass, and when they were gone it was like they never were. She wanted to be haunted again, but slowly, the sheets she hadn’t changed and the towel she wouldn’t wash, the couch where he had played his guitar and the kitchen table where he had made dinner, were all losing their hold of him. Chris wasn’t a powerful or even persistent ghost. He had no staying power. She decided to tell herself the ghost wasn’t real. He is not anywhere else, confusing another girl’s boundaries or plunging her in mysteries. He doesn’t exist.

***

When Kate was sure that the ghost was truly gone, was in the place where the dead do not haunt and their voices don’t slip through, not even over airwaves, she also gave up Henry and his promise of a living death. She imagined this place was something like a dilapidated English mining town, where the women are shades and all of the couples stay together forever, because they have no passions to tear them apart. Kate saw it in dreams. Sometimes, in the dream, she sat at the edge of a fast moving stream with Christopher. The air around their shoulders was orange and gold, heavy with the promise of rain, and their seat was primordial, wet and dark like a Druidical forest, as the gray water rushed. Chris was Kate’s mother. And the Eiffel Tower loomed behind them like a threat. They shared a sandwich, and when their warm fingers touched Kate felt small and safe, like a bean or a pea.

“It’s only natural to miss Paris,” the ghost said. Kate cried because she didn’t miss Paris and she didn’t think her mother understood. She pressed herself against the pleather of the backseat of a fast-moving cab as the beautiful world raced through the window behind them, every building the shape of a memory. The ghost pushed the hair out of Kate’s eyes. His fingers were warm and soft and he wanted to hear everything she had to say. He found Kate’s hand, a little butterfly fluttering near her chin. The ghost’s hand was bread and stone, the same consistency as eternity.