Rachel Kranz

Haunted


ISSUE 75 | IMAGINARY FRIENDS | MAY 2017

She was surprised that the ghost’s presence made her so happy. She hadn’t thought ghosts were supposed to do that. But this one did.

She hadn’t even thought it was a ghost at first. Just an active imagination. Or something worse.
      She still wasn’t sure. But that feeling of being loved, held—adored. How could she give that up?

As she achieves each landing below her Lower East Side sublet, something slips by her, quick and narrow. It’s the neighbor’s cat, sleek, gray, underfed, though Sasha has seen empty cans in the stinking white bag hung illegally on the doorknob, their flat gray interiors rimmed in rancid reddish-brown. Even real things spook her now: in that first instant, she’s never sure. It’s supposed to be the other way around: the real world the assumption, the phantoms required to win her over. Phantom, singular, she’s only ever seen the one. Still. Suddenly everything strange and sudden is obliged to convince her that it’s real.

“. . .and here. . . and here. . .”
     Marjean, showing her the corrections she’s forgotten to make. Depression rises delicately from every desk, curling around the long fluorescent bulbs like creepers. Later it will turn damp and thick, but it’s only morning, half the shift still somewhere else. Drug Store Retail. At every desk, a failed journalist; at every drafting table, a failed designer. Four guys who’ve been here since eight cover the East Coast; the noon-to-eight crew takes the West; Midwest and Mountain States are split. Men in their thirties, they all want to know: When is too old to get a real job?
     Sasha is the proofreader, Marjean the layout artist, forty-five with paint-stained hands. Sasha’s the only one who knows she won’t be here forever, and even she is not so sure. It would help to have a vision, she knows that much. But all she has is the ghost, his hands, his hair. He won’t even visit her in the office, waiting outside the door to walk her to lunch.
     Why, she asks. Why won’t you visit me? Score one for him; so far she’s refused to admit anything more than a reluctant tolerance, the refusal to be terrified, though she prides herself on that. Why not, if you like me so much? He only smiles and shakes his head, glossy black ghost hair falling over his eyes. This office is too depressing even for him.

She goes to singles night at the 92nd Street Y—Date Bait, as though they’re offering something delicious and enticing. Everyone is lonely, but Sasha doesn’t feel at home. She thought at least she’d meet a girlfriend, someone to commiserate with or ride the Staten Island Ferry, but the women are all lively and glossy, or else defeated and old. What did she expect? A gangly redheaded boy with stubble and a pouty lower lip, but he won’t make eye contact during the mandatory mingling. An older man, thirty-five at least, scornful and self-contained, but he shakes his head as Sasha approaches the refreshment table, refusing to let her past him to the Entemann’s pound cake, its chocolatey top crust so moist, it’s beaded with sweat. Nervous, thinks Sasha.
     The ghost won’t visit here, either: I don’t want to interfere. He’s pouty, too, sulking, jealous. When she walks outside, she half expects him not to be there, and for half a block he isn’t. Then a cushion of warmth against, inside her shoulder, her arm, her thigh. Cuddling, snuggling, a ghostly arm around her waist. No luck? he says. Maybe next time.
     Shut up, she says, knowing she could push him away.

In bed, always. At night and in the morning. In her bathroom. Beside her cup of tea. Not on the subway. At the lunch counter, leaving her liquid five hours a week, her inner lips, her breasts. She sees him in pieces, fading in and out, the silky hair, the poet’s forehead, the long sensitive hands. Not her type at all; she likes skinny guys, it’s true, but geeks. Am I your type, she asks, but that’s another question he refuses to answer, though the way he smiles at her when she says it is another thing that makes her melt.

Sometimes he calls her Heather. See, she says, you’re in the wrong place. Go away. But he keeps smiling as though he knows her. It’s hard to resist that kind of certainty. Always strolling beside her on her right side, or walking backwards so he can face her, a few steps to the right above the sidewalk. If I had made you up, she asks him one day, wouldn’t you be my type?
     This time he answers. You haven’t made me up.

Once he sends her an email. At least she thinks it’s him: heather i am coming please wait for me please. The letters are tiny and black in a cramped little font that looks like script.
     When she tries to print it out the printer jams. Then her email freezes. Of course when she reboots the message is gone. If I had made you up, she says in annoyance, wouldn’t you call me Sasha?
     That smile again, steadier than any light. I know you, he says. Heather. You haven’t made me up.

She starts to date, a mournful Russian émigré named Pavel whom she meets when he comes to fix her sink—the landlord too cheap to hire union labor. He doesn’t seem interested the whole time he’s in her apartment but when he stands safely in the hall, wiping his hands on a damp blue rag (Blue? An old workshirt, maybe?), he asks her out. She can’t tell if he’s being deliberately casual because he’s protecting himself from rejection or trying not to come on too strong—after all, he’s been in her apartment, a situation in which romantic pursuit could all too easily look like something completely different. Or maybe he’s actually not that interested, just giving it a try. Anyway, she says yes, and things proceed from there.
     She’s had three other boyfriends—one in high school, two in college—all of whom she knew by their smell. But Pavel doesn’t smell. She wonders what kind of soap he uses, to erase every exhalation from his skin, as though he’d rubbed off his fingerprints. No scent from his pores, his ears, the fair, wiry hair curled in his armpits like shredded brillo. You’re only twenty, she says to him. Two years younger than me. He shakes his head and smiles. In Russian years, I am four years older. Maybe five and a half. Even after sex, no part of him smells, as though he’d made some deal with the devil to carry away his scent.
     Or maybe it’s her. Maybe his smell is something she’s deaf to.

Pavel, too, refuses to meet her in the office, though unlike the ghost, he at least walks her back from lunch. (Too close, the ghost said when she asked him about that. She could feel him shudder.) She takes Pavel to a different restaurant, a dill-scented East European place in the midst of Little Korea, but he screws up his face. Polish food, he says in his rich accent. Ukrainian. She tries to talk to him about the literature degree he says he had been pursuing before he came over—his favorite books, or maybe an inspiring poem? He shakes his head and she can’t tell if he’s upset by the topic or simply bored. The ghost sits at the next table and laughs.

Do you have a name? she asks him. At night, in her bed. He’ll come to Pavel’s bed, too, but he waits politely by the lower lefthand corner, talking to her only after Pavel falls asleep. Pavel isn’t here tonight, but the ghost is, tender, insistent. She’d forgotten that feeling, of being desired so specifically. Pavel’s passion is more—generic.
     He brushes his hand slowly from the roots of her hair along the down of her cheek. Every little hair stands up. More, she says. More.
     Leo, he whispers. Leo and Heather.

It should bother her that it’s the wrong name. That it’s not an actual body. It should bother her that she has no dream, no vision, no plan of escape from the creeping vines of Drug Store Retail. No hobby, no calling, not even a best friend.
     Leo, he whispers again. You say it.
     Leo, she whispers back. Leo.

And then he’s gone. She’d’ve thought it would happen gradually, or at least that she’d notice gradually, but she sits bolt upright in bed one night in the midst of a caress. Leo. Leo. Her ears cocked, her cheek intent, her hand stroking the empty air. His absence louder than his absent presence.

She misses him more than she’d ever thought possible, though she refuses the sorrow as proudly, as uselessly, as she’d pushed away the terror. Pavel doesn’t notice anything different, nor Marjean, nor the neighbor’s cat. Having no witnesses makes her grief feel ghostly, waves of emotion looking for a source.
     I should have a hobby. A calling. A real job. But what I miss, is nothing.

She finds comfort in trudging across town, from the grimy Fourth Street at Avenue A to the touristy Fourth Street in the West Village. And then the highway. And then the water. Gray and unforthcoming throughout February, March, small metallic waves sketching triangles on the Hudson. And then another draft, and another—is the artist obsessive? Compulsive? Or simply stupid, no short-term memory, condemned to make the same old drawing again and again and again?

You should have been more interesting, a sprite, a fairy, she tells him, trying to elicit a response. Maybe a unicorn. A dragon? She can imagine his answers, but that’s not the same as hearing them. One night she goes to a Tarot reader, one of those narrow lighted storefronts set back from Seventh Avenue. When she shuffles the cards, she feels their edges fray against her fingers, and for a moment, she thinks she’s located his voice in the far left corner of the store. Inside, she contracts, but then there’s nothing. Does he not want to come, or is it that he can’t?
     A girl named Lee, the fat old woman says distractedly. And a reddish-brown cat, and a river. Does that mean anything to you, honey? And a man with the name P, Peter? Paul? He’s your angel, isn’t he? Your guardian soul mate?
     I can’t smell him, Sasha says to herself. The hairs inside her nose stand up.
     And a flower, pink, or maybe purple, says the fortune-teller. Lavender? Hyacinth?
     She’s reading my mind—badly, Sasha says to herself. It doesn’t mean a thing.

Once more by the river she hears him. I wish I could stay, he says, his smile sadder and steadier than ever. I could. I could. But I can’t.
     What? What? I can’t hear you.
     Hea-ther, he says hesitantly, his voice making the word into two separate syllables. I wasn’t wrong about that.
     She wants to say his name, loud, inside her head. But she thinks that if she doesn’t call him back, he won’t go. She thinks he’ll wait for her to answer. She thinks she can hold him with her silence.
     I wish you could, he says. But you can’t.
    I can’t hear you, she says again, though every word is clear. One part of the Hudson is pelted with rain. Another is stabbed with sunlight. Sasha stands beneath the clouds, steamy and damp.
     There’s no sound to the farewell, nor to the absence that follows. Without turning her head, Sasha plumbs the silence, dense and gray like the river. She hears the rain, and the waves, and the traffic, and the—what? She hears the sun and the clouds and the light and the shade. She hears the air and the ground and the depth and the height. She hears the atoms dancing, crackling, dazzling, bright. And then everything is ordinary, herself included.
     I need a plan, she tells herself, and a place to go and a home. The smell rises off the river, salty and rank, and she breathes it in again and again, again and again, until she’s sure there’s no danger of using it up.