I was eleven years old when I realized that my mother was a ghost. I can remember the exact moment of this realization, but I wish I could better explain how it came about. It was like I had all these broken pieces of the truth, like shards of a white bowl, and in one moment, the pieces flew together, reforming the bowl, like the instant of its shattering running in reverse.
Here were the pieces I had:
My mother wore the same dress every day, white and filmy, speckled with small blue and green flowers.
My mother never went outside.
My mother never touched me.
My mother spent most of her time cleaning, and yet the brown, blotchy stains under the white rug in my parents’ bathroom never went away.
My mother had a terrible memory, and was never sure what day of the week it was.
My mother’s eyes were the same color as her hair, a restless grey.
Here is what happened, up to the moment of my realization:
I was sitting at the kitchen table, using watercolors to paint within the penciled lines of a sketch I had drawn of my mother. It was a spring afternoon. I had just gotten home from school. My mother was off somewhere in the house, cleaning. I was having trouble finding the right colors.
I smelled something burning, and then smoke began to pour out from the sides of the oven, as if the casserole or roast my mother was cooking had erupted into a volcano. This happened a few times every week. I did not stand up. I did not leave the room. The smoke seemed welcoming. I wanted to be enveloped by it: the grey swirls, unfolding and unfolding, as if the wealth of shapes in the smoke were endless.
Then my mother was there. “Oh,” she sighed. “Again.” She stood, her back to the oven, her hands behind her back. I imagined that she was wringing her hands, that they were frantic rodents that she did not want me to see. “Brian, honey, let’s not tell your father about this, okay? How would you like to go out for some ice cream after dinner?” The smoke outlined her in clouds.
I looked down at my unfinished painting, at the absent colors of my mother’s eyes and hair. I looked back up at my mother, at the smoke. My mother’s eyes, my mother’s hair, were the same color as the smoke, exactly. My mother was a ghost.
It is only now that I’m at college that I’ve shared this information with anyone else. I could only trust someone whose own life had been shaped by something bizarre, something which officially, scientifically, does not exist.
My best friend Allison was abducted by aliens. She loves to talk about it. Actually, she loves to talk about everything. She also loves eating toast with mustard, and singing along with videos of old Broadway musicals, and riding her bike at night.
I didn’t tell anyone that my mother was a ghost because I was scared that if I told anyone, she would vanish. At first, this was pure instinctual superstition.
But as I got older, the fear endured, shifting forms. I became scared that if I told anyone, they would call a priest, who would come to my house and banish my mother to the afterlife. Or a scientist, who would conduct an experiment in our living room and prove that my mother did not exist. Or a New Age lightworker, who would position crystals around our windows and convince my mother to let go, to see through the illusion of fear and move towards the light.
Allison understands. She tells me, “I know what you mean. I don’t know how to feel about the aliens. I mean. . . I don’t trust them at all. They took me right out of my bed and I screamed and screamed but there was something intangible in my throat. And yet. . . they know so much that we don’t. They’re beautiful in a way I can’t describe, like the pinnacle of some art form I’d never heard of before, the masterpiece that draws on centuries of culture and symbolism I just don’t know, but I can still tell it’s a masterpiece, you know? And they gave me some of that beauty, put something of their making inside of me. I don’t know what it is, but I know that it. . . it lets me know some of what they know.”
We sit for hours in my dorm room, talking and talking, not caring about sleep deprivation and our classes the next morning. She has this way of seeing the world that fascinates me.
“I don’t really think that they are extraterrestrials,” she says, “I think the human mind is more powerful than we know. It’s like, in ancient times, the natural world was unknown, full of danger and possibility, so the stories we told were about giant animals and tree spirits and humans who could become animals. But now it’s technology that has become so complicated it’s unknown, unfathomable to most people. And I think, in the past, those beings were more than just stories, I think they were really out there, in the darkness beyond the campfire. Science and the Enlightenment probably killed off most of them, but now they’ve created their own monsters and faeries. You know, aliens and robots and artificial intelligence.”
“But what about my mother?” I say. “Are you saying she only exists because people still tell ghost stories?”
“Oh, Brian, I don’t know. I don’t think there is one theory that can explain everything. You have to figure out your story for yourself.”
I am trying to figure out my story for myself. But of course my life isn’t finished yet. How can I see the patterns when so much of the whole is undone? Maybe that’s why my mother is sticking around, so she can look at the totality of her life after it has finished, can finally comprehend it before she allows her consciousness to dissolve into oblivion or to be transformed unrecognizably by the Great Blender of reincarnation. But, does she know that she’s a ghost?
And is the task impossible anyway? I mean, is she preventing her story from ending by lingering in this world?
“I want them to come back,” Allison tells me. “I have dreams about them.” She blushes.
“What kind of dreams?” I ask.
“Uh, well… wet dreams,” she says.
“Did they. . . you know. . . when they abducted you?”
“No,” she says, “none of it was sexual. Even my dreams now aren’t sexual in the usual way.”
I want to ask her if she ever dreams about me.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I think I want them to take me with them.”
“But,” I say, “if they are manifestations of human stories, where would they take you?”
“The land of post-modern mythology?” she says, grinning. “The realm of the collective unconscious, maybe. Where Wonderland meets Valhalla meets the Matrix.”
When I was a little kid, I loved Alice in Wonderland. I read it over and over again. I begged my mother to read it to me every few weeks. She would shut off the vacuum cleaner and sigh, or leave her hands submerged in the sink full of suds and dishes while she listened to my pleas. She would always relent eventually, and often ended up reading me the book with her hands still wet, so the pages got all crinkled. Sometimes, I would run my fingers along the surface of the pages, thinking about my mother’s touch. I didn’t care that my favorite book was being slowly destroyed.
After I realized my mother was a ghost, I began to obsessively wonder if anyone was solid. In sixth grade, I kept a list of my classmates and would check their names off after I had arm-wrestled them, or tagged them, or slapped them high five. The girls were the hardest to find excuses to touch. I was the only boy in my class who eagerly sought out partners at the school dance, who was excited about doing the do-si-do in gym class. I never found anyone who wasn’t warm, solid: human. The funny thing is, I’m not even sure what a ghost feels like. I’ve always been too scared to try to touch my mother.
I’m scared to touch Allison. I don’t know what would happen.
“It makes sense that you’d be scared of finding out exactly what your mother is,” Allison says.
“I know what my mother is,” I say. “She’s a ghost.”
“Ah,” Allison says, “but what is a ghost?”
“I see what you mean,” I say.
“I can think of lots of different possibilities,” Allison says. “But I’m going to be quiet. I know I can talk too much, and I don’t want to impose meanings on you, on your mother.”
We are sitting in a Denny’s at one in the morning, lingering over hash browns and greasy omelettes. I watch Allison’s fingers drumming her spoon soundlessly against her napkin. She can never sit still. Her foot taps the same beat, dangerously close to my foot. How can I contemplate the nature of ghosts when I am haunted by the specter of the possibility of contact? Accidental or intentional, I know it would be electric.
I didn’t ponder the nature of ghosts at the beginning, or for the first few years. I didn’t know any other concept of ghosts other than the classic lingering soul.
When I first heard the theory that ghosts were merely echoes, imprinted on the fabric of reality by extremely intense emotions, I was shocked. Had my mother been even less present than I had thought? Than I had even imagined could be possible?
Those were bad, bad days. Once the thought, the question, entered my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
If my mother was simply an echo, an illusion, how could I know that anything was real?
How could I know that cars were solid? Or bridges? From there, it was a short step to worrying about the enduring reality of the pavement. I walked exclusively on the cracks and the grass, as much as I could, for three months. Everyone thought I was crazy. Then I lost faith in the ground itself, and I refused to leave my bed for a week.
Lying there, I had nothing else to do but worry, and my thoughts began to eat away at themselves, like a starving rodent devouring its own hands. I realized that even my questioning of reality could be an illusion. How did I know that my questions were real? How did I know that I was real?
I would spend hours trembling in bed, consumed with the thought that I might be intangible but too scared to touch myself to make sure. And then I would touch myself, and feel the reassurance of solid flesh against solid flesh, and sigh with such deep relief. But, within minutes, my doubts would start up again.
Even now, I’m not sure how I found solid ground again after that horrible spinning time. I can recount the logic, the shape of the structure I built, but I cannot explain how I regained that visceral faith in the solidity of the world. My solution, my faith, was based on my mother, as the doubts had been.
Here it is:
Despite my mother’s poor memory and repetitive actions, she could not be an echo. She could remember some things; she learned how to type on a computer keyboard as a ghost. She responded to the world, to me, with more intelligence and empathy than a loop stuck in time ever could. For example, she had stopped her cleaning to read Alice in Wonderland to me. Because of this, I was certain she loved me. If my mother loved me, the world must be a solid place.
But sometimes the fear comes flooding back. Especially when I’m walking in the dark alone. Even now, I’m frequently scared that the floor or sidewalk or dirt, which seems so stable in the light, will suddenly change shape or consistency and my foot will plunge into something I can’t understand, some monstrous jello. And I still can’t walk across bridges.
The problem with telling a story is that stories are hardly ever finished, so the people you tell the story to are in danger of becoming characters in the story themselves and changing the trajectory of the plot. I think this might be happening with Jane. All because of one simple question.
Jane is in my web design class. Since the rest of the class is relentlessly mainstream, we sit next to each other. Jane is goth, but in a Victorian black lace and dried roses kind of way rather than a black leather pants and Nine Inch Nails kind of way. She’s surprisingly computer savvy. She alternates between snobbish cynicism and morbid romanticism, like she can’t decide which bittersweet ice cream flavor she prefers.
One day, we’re walking together after class and she asks me, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
I have no idea if I can trust her with the truth. I don’t know if she has ever experienced anything strange enough that she would have some basis for understanding.
So I say, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I don’t know,” she says, lowering her eyes. “I don’t know what–” She looks up, her eyes flashing like bobbing lights in the dark. “Can I tell you something?”
Allison is sitting upside down, her head on the couch cushion, her legs over the top. She says it both allows more blood to flow to the brain and gives one a substantially different view of the world. I am trying not to stare at the inch of skin between her pants and shirt, the hint of her underwear.
I start to tell her about my conversation with Jane.
“I think I found someone else who’s as strange as we are,” I say, grinning.
“Oh, yeah?” Allison returns my grin.
“I’ve told you about this girl Jane in my web design class, right? The goth?”
“I’m not sure,” Allison says. “Is she cute?”
“She’s pretty cute,” I admit. But not as cute as you are.
Allison has never asked that about someone before. Is she testing to see if I like her? Is she jealous?
“Anyway. . .” I go on. I tell her the story.
“So, then she tells me that she got this e-mail from a friend she hasn’t talked to in forever. They’d only known each other online, but they were really close. I guess he was actually a semi-famous hacker or something. He used to hint to her that he had some really serious physical problems, like some deteriorating muscle disease or something. And talk about the idea of uploading himself to the Internet, but she never took him seriously. They lost touch after she started college, and didn’t talk for years. Then, yesterday, she gets an e-mail from him claiming that he had successfully uploaded himself, that he was now a ghost in the machine. She was sure it was a sick joke. Then she read online that he had killed himself. She wrote an e-mail back, demanding proof. Then she gets this instant message from him. They talk, and he tells her all this stuff that only he could have known about.”
“So it really worked?” Allison says. “That’s amazing.”
“I don’t know if it’s amazing,” I say. “But it seems a lot different than my mother. There’s something at least potentially exciting about it.”
“So, did you tell her about your mother?” Allison asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “But I’m not finished talking about her story.”
“Okay,” Allison says. She turns herself right-side up with a grace I could never match. I don’t know if that makes me want to have her as my girlfriend or to be her.
“She doesn’t think it’s amazing. She’s not even sure that it’s true. You know, that stage.”
“She wants to believe it. She wants to believe that she hasn’t lost her friend. And, really, since they only talked online before anyway, she hasn’t lost him. . . The weird thing was, she wouldn’t tell me his name. I offered to talk to him for her, to see if I could tell if he was really a ghost. She totally flipped.”
“Maybe she doesn’t trust him,” Allison says.
“It’s hard to trust someone who’s dead,” I say.
“You don’t trust your mom?” Allison asks. She sounds surprised.
“She hasn’t changed since I can remember,” I say. “So I know I can rely on her. But, Allison, the point is, Jane asked me this question and. . . I’m really scared.”
Allison takes my hand and my heart flips over. My eyes are swimming. What does this mean?
Before I can ask, or settle my thoughts, Allison asks, softly, “What did she ask you, Brian?”
“How she died,” I say. “She asked me how my mother died.”
How did my mother die?
I don’t know the answer to this question. The astounding thing is that I haven’t even thought about it until now.
“Maybe that’s why she’s still here,” Allison says. She is still holding my hand. “Maybe she needs to tell the world how she died. Or maybe she’s trying to figure out for herself how she died.”
“Does she even know she’s dead?” I ask. I think of her in the bathroom, scrubbing and scrubbing the irrepressible stains. Why didn’t I offer to help her, even once? I’m sure I could have thought of some better method, some new chemical or tool to scrape with, or, if nothing else, replacing those damn tiles.
“You could ask her,” Allison says, watching me carefully.
“Why haven’t I thought of this before now?” I say, gesturing sharply with both hands. I realize a moment too late that I have pulled my hand away from Allison’s.
I remember something new. Once, when I was five, I left a toy car on the kitchen floor. I was sitting a few feet away from it, playing with pink Musclemen figures. My mother walked into the room and stepped on the car. She tumbled towards me, and I pulled away. She caught herself with her hands. “Oops,” she said, and smiled a goofy smile at me.
But the important thing is, I pulled away. What does that mean? I thought that I wanted nothing more than my mother’s touch, but when the opportunity literally fell towards me, I ran from it. Did I know even then, as a child of five? Did I know what would happen if my mother and I touched?
“Tell me honestly,” I say to Allison, who is happily munching on her falafel pita, “if the aliens came back, would you really be happy? What would you do?”
“I don’t know,” she answers. We are sitting in a local non-corporate restaurant on a lazy Saturday afternoon. “My answer keeps changing. I decide for sure that I’ll demand an explanation from them, and then my mood will shift or I’ll read a new book and I’ll decide that I’ll ask them to take me with them, after all.”
“But how can you live with that uncertainty?” I ask, dipping a fry in her hummus. I don’t need to ask permission.
She laughs. “Brian, life is uncertainty.”
“No, it’s not,” I argue. “Lots of things are certain.”
“Well,” I say–
“Hi, Brian.” It’s Jane, looking fetching in a black gown. “I hope I’m not interrupting?”
“Not at all,” Allison assures her, smiling. Has she ever smiled at me in that way? “I’m Allison.”
Jane squeezes into the booth next to Allison. As I watch their bodies touch I feel like they’re putting pressure on one of my internal organs. Like my heart. This is the last time I’ll get to see Allison for the next week or so, and I really don’t want our private time interrupted, but there’s nothing I can do.
This is what happens over Thanksgiving break:
My mother is absorbed in her scrubbing. Every muscle in her body seems to tense and relax with the motion of her arm. We are in my parents’ bathroom. She is scrubbing the stains normally hidden by the white rug, which is hanging on the shower rod, drying.
“Hi, Mom,” I say.
Her back flinches. “You shouldn’t be here. You have your own bathroom.” She does not get up.
“I know,” I say, “But I wanted to talk to you. And it seems like you’ve got a full time job cleaning your own house.”
“It’s our house.”
“I wanted to ask you something.”
Her back ripples, as if she is sighing, but there is no sound. She turns around, scrubs towards me for a second, and then stops. She looks up at me. I’ve never been able to read her eyes.
I am silent. “What?”
“How did you die?” I ask. I wonder what tone of voice I just used.
Her face flickers, and, for a moment, the grey of her eyes and hair spreads into her face, like ectoplasm spreading through water, like smoke filling a soul. Then, she is herself again, the grey neatly contained within the proper lines. “There are some questions we don’t ask in this house.” She bends down again, continues her endless Sisyphean scrubbing.
And I know. My mother is not trying to decipher her story, to see it in its totality. She is trying to erase it. She is still on her hands and knees, after death, still scrubbing away. Or maybe my mother, the ghost I mean, the ghost of my mother, maybe that is what my mother could not scrub away in a lifetime of scrubbing: the irreducible, the unbelievably stubborn part of the soul. Is the mother I remember nothing more than the stain under the white rug in the bathroom?
I call Allison. Her mother, or at least some older woman I assume must be her mother, answers the phone. She says she will get Allison for me.
“Hello?” Allison says. Her voice is a rush of welcome familiarity.
“Hi,” I say. “It’s me.”
“Oh, hey Brian!” she says. She sounds happy to hear from me. “What’s up?”
“I just talked to my mom,” I say.
“You mean talk talked?” she asks. “Listen, I’m really sorry, but I can’t really talk talk myself right now. I’m in the middle of a game of Scrabble.”
A game of Scrabble is more important than what might be the most important conversation of my entire life? “Oh, okay,” I say, “that’s cool.”
“Do you want me to call you tonight?” Allison asks.
Yes, of course. “No,” I say, “I have plans.”
My plan is not to have imaginary conversations with Allison for hours while listening to ’80’s albums that I left at home, but that’s what I end up doing.
“I just talked to my mom.”
“Wow. I know how important that is to you. I want you to tell me every word that the two of you exchanged. And then we can analyze it for hours.”
“Well, there’s not really all that much to analyze.”
“Don’t be shy, Brian. Have I ever told you how sexy your voice is?”
“No, you haven’t. I, uh, think your voice is kind of sexy too.”
“Really? How about now?”
“Allison, I’m a little hurt that you played Scrabble rather than talked to me.”
“I’m sorry. I should have told you that my aunt has terminal cancer. Playing Scrabble is a family tradition. And, this might have been her last year.”
“Oh. God, I feel like a jerk for even–“
“Brian, don’t. I know we haven’t known each other for that long, but I almost feel like you’re already more important to me than some aunt I see once a year.”
“Yes. This might sound crazy, but will you marry me?”
I realize these imaginings are a little over the top. But everyone has fantasies like these though. Right?
I try not to think about them when Allison calls me the next day. I think I’m blushing with the effort.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” she says after we exchange hellos. “My mother is a real tyrant about board games.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I forgive you.” As I say this, I realize that it’s true. I would forgive Allison anything, as long as she doesn’t leave for good.
“I’m not like that,” Allison says. “Am I? I don’t fixate on details?”
“No,” I say, “not at all. Can I tell you what happened?”
“Sure,” Allison says.
Am I my mother’s son? I don’t mean this in some cheesy, fantasy novel way, like I was conceived post-death, and am literally a half-ghost, with one smoky grey eye and one normal brown one. I mean, am I erasing my own story? Am I scrubbing with words by telling this story, using graceful, circular motions to distract my audience, myself, from some stain? Is this story the white rug? Is there another story I am not telling?
Allison says, “The problem with that metaphor is that storytelling is fundamentally different from cleaning.”
“That’s true enough,” I say.
“But,” Allison says, “is there another story you’re not telling?”
I nod, then realize we’re talking on the phone. “I think so.”
“Why don’t you ever talk about your father?” Allison asks.
I hate my father. “There’s not much to say,” I say. “He’s at work most of the time. He’s the strong, silent type.”
“So, your father’s a cliché,” Allison says, “and your mother’s a ghost.”
“That’s not funny,” I say, even though I have to admit that it is sort of funny.
“Is he a workaholic?” Allison asks.
“Probably,” I say.
“Does he know that your mom is a ghost?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you seen them touch each other?”
“I can’t remember,” I say. I can’t even remember seeing them in the same room together.
I know that telling a story is fundamentally different from cleaning, from sweeping or mopping or doing the dishes. What I don’t know is, what is storytelling like? Is it like an archaeological dig, burrowing down to the lost city of truth? Or building a bridge, that spans now and then? Or weaving a tapestry, every sentence a thread?
What I think, what I would like to think, is that we all become ghosts in order to tell stories. We all allow ourselves to be abducted by aliens, so that, for a time, we can step out of the bounds of our lives.
For a few days, I thought this story was over. But it’s not. Maybe it should have been, and I botched it up by telling Jane the story and making her into a character. The details don’t matter, or at least they’re still too painful to relate. I’m sure you can guess what comes next: Allison and Jane hook up, and the tremors of their shared orgasms threaten to destroy the foundations of my world.
I am sitting on my bed, with my knees huddled up to my chest. I can’t look at Allison. Thank God my roommate isn’t in the room.
“I just want to be held,” I say. “I just want someone to hold me.”
Allison stands up. “Of course I’ll hold you,” she says. “Silly.”
I have no reply to this. My heart is pounding. I feel like I have to struggle to remember how to breath. She sits behind me. She is so warm. She encircles my waist with her arms.
I relax, let my muscles relax, allow my body to be held up by Allison and the bed. “Shhh,” she says, even though I am silent. “Shhh, it will be okay.” I am astonished by how comforting the simplicity of her warmth, her body against my body, is. I feel a little sexual flutter in my crotch.
And then I realize that this isn’t the touch I want. This isn’t my salvation, arriving years late but still decked out in shining armor and splendid on a sexy stallion. This isn’t a movie, this isn’t the shining moment at the end followed by a blissfully black screen and some imaginary audience shuffling and putting on their coats.
Because, even if Allison and I become lovers, none of her caresses will be the touch I’ve been yearning for. Nothing can be. Even if I somehow managed to bring my mother back to life. Even if my mother is reincarnated, and I somehow find her and recognize her, and convince some stranger-who-was-my-mother to cradle me in her arms.
Nothing can erase all those times my mother did not touch me. Nothing can fill that hole, put those broken shards back together into anything resembling what should have been.
“Brian?” Allison says. “How are you doing?”
I pause. I expect the comfort to have vanished, I expect my insight to have soured the haven of her arms. But it hasn’t. Allison is still warm and alive, my best friend. Allison is still holding me. Some things remain solid.