A Year Before
Conversations with you were never dull (it was one of the main reasons I wanted to marry you), but that night things had taken a random turn from flirty innuendos and our cat’s sudden-onset sneezing attacks to more macabre fare.
You’d just told me about a dangerous incident that happened on the work site, and that if things had been left running a little while longer, you could’ve lost a limb or worse from exploding shrapnel.
I’m probably not gonna make it past sixty, you texted, before insisting that ‘when’ you died before I did, I had to remain in lifelong mourning and embrace celibacy wholeheartedly. I told you that was ridiculous—on numerous counts—because our parents were older than that already, spry in that middle-class, Boomer way that propelled them haughtily on through retirement, golfing and brunching and perpetually driving five miles under the speed limit wherever they went.
Well if I die first, I’m going to haunt you, I joked. The text exchange was one of thousands we’d shared during our year-long marriage and two years of dating before that. They were a godsend to me, those (usually) cheerful blue bubbles coming in spurts (interspersed with the occasional NSFW Snapchat pic), to offer a comforting, digital tether for the two weeks of every month when work took you out of state.
Don’t even say that.
It could happen, Dan! Don’t live in denial! And I’m nice, because I want you to get remarried and everything.
It better not, and I wouldn’t. But fine, I guess you can haunt me. Just promise you’ll be a friendly ghost.
What, exactly, is a ‘friendly’ ghost? I munched on a Milano cookie as I typed, pausing my reality show on the flat-screen—a show you unwaveringly refused to watch because of the cast members’ ‘arguments about a chihuahua named Lucy Lucy Apple Juice’ that comprised most of the season’s overarching plotline. I had this sudden craving to know what sort of ghost you’d deem ‘tolerable,’ and added another message to our text stream—the ghost emoji, draped in white with its tongue stuck out, arms raised in mid-scare. Boo! I see you. Do you see me? it implied, a lighthearted caricature of the real thing for kids and still-honeymoon-phasing couples to send one another on Halloween.
One who helps the person they haunt.
What, like in the movie Ghost, with Patrick Swayze? For justice and all that? I texted, digging in the bag for another Milano and coming up empty with a disgruntled sigh; reality shows always made me ravenous. They were a modern-day, gluttonous feast of drama and intrigue, except that the fighters in the arena had been replaced by diamond-draped, viper-tongued housewives.
No, not like that, you replied. I could almost hear you utter it aloud, the threat of sorrow deepening the tenor of your voice, one normally so animated with jest. The topic had edged into depressing territory, especially when we were a thousand miles apart.
Then what? I typed, still acutely curious of your definition, for this was a page as-yet-unturned in the book that was your thoughts and feelings. What kind of ghost would you like me to be?
Maybe you’d been called away from your phone to tend to an issue on the construction site, or a manager had come into the office and scowled to find the team’s star supervisor engrossed in his phone at the start of another nightshift—but you didn’t respond for a while, and by then I’d finished my show, tucked the cat in, and lay curled under the covers of the king-size bed we shared only part time.
I promise, baby, I texted to conclude the discussion, for I knew you well, and while you were the epitome of showy masculine verve—you lived to lift weights at the gym, used gag-inducing “bro”-ish terms too often for me to count, and could grill up a perfectly smoked brisket in your sleep—you were the more sensitive of the two of us; your center was ooey-gooey, and I had to be careful not to jostle your insides while you were away. I’d be a friendly ghost, I asserted via text, and that was it, followed by a quick goodnight, I love you so much!!!! with lots of exclamation points because you liked them. Tomorrow we’d resume our conversation on those benign issues between newly married couples—paycheck amounts and which bills were coming up next, small health concerns centered around bowel regularity that kept us laughing and did much to close the gap of physical space between us in one perfectly timed poop emoji.
I’m happy to say that all these months later, I’ve kept my promise.
A Week After
It’s my funeral today, but goddamn if it doesn’t look like yours.
It’s awful to see you like this—eyes as bruised underneath as over-ripe plums, thick dark hair gelled to one side by the budget-salon stylist you visited this morning at the request of your mother (and I’m thankful she insisted, because you haven’t washed it yourself in nearly a week). I’ve only ever seen you looking this haggard once before, following our first and only separation eight months into the relationship, when I still wasn’t sure we were right for each other. I’d showed up right after a long, expletive-and-tear-filled post-breakup phone call, because I missed you and it stung to hear you so distraught. As I walked up that narrow sidewalk to find you in the suffocating heat of midsummer twilight, the way your wilted stance against the doorway made me ache was evidence enough that regardless of our differences, I was deeply in love and never wanted to let you go again.
This hurts too—worse, because back then I’d chosen to separate from you, something I could (and swiftly did) remedy. These circumstances are unequivocally more permanent.
Your eulogy is nice, if a little short, and you don’t cry. You haven’t much, and it’s concerning, but not because I’m worried you don’t care. There’s a place inside that I think you’ve gone to, burrowed deep, deep down to hide, even deeper than that time I ended it and you said on the phone you hadn’t been able to sleep or eat properly in weeks, and didn’t really see the point in changing that. You need someone to coax you from that insidious, inviting darkness before it seeps in and poisons you to the bone—and I’m not going anywhere until I lead you out.
Two Weeks After
I’m still learning the rules of being a ghost.
You shiver if I touch you, but that’s about it. You only seem to hear me at night while you’re sleeping, and every time I’ve whispered “I love you” and “I’m going to help you through this,” you’ve just moaned or whimpered, as if the mere lilt of my voice is a minor but still very present kind of torture.
I wander the house once you’re asleep—wary of the glowing doorway that appears in the corner of every room I enter, softly lit along the edges of the closed door and inviting me to approach, but never demanding it.
I visit with the cat instead, who can definitely still see me based on the way his protuberant eyes follow me in the dark, wary and appraising, as if he’s forgotten I was his beloved caretaker mere weeks ago. Maybe I look different; maybe my ghostly form has retained the gruesome injuries sustained during my death, and they frighten him. For all I know, an array of lacerations still spider-webs across my forehead, a bit of exposed gristle hanging where the truck burst through the driver’s side to split the lower part of my face in half. There’s no reflection in the mirror to confirm this, but when I run my fingertip across my chin, its journey is reassuringly smooth.
I don’t need sleep or sustenance, but I’m able to perch on furniture well enough, and can even turn the TV on if I slam my hand against the remote enough times. It took me more than an hour to get the damn thing to work playing the latest episode of my favorite show—you haven’t dismantled the DVR preferences yet, though when I was alive you bemoaned the fact that our limited recording space was always full of bullshit squabbles in fancy restaurants and phony attempts at finding the ‘one’. These shows give me comfort in the silent hours of the night when you finally find rest—what I hope to be true rest, not the hours spent catatonic in bed until your mom or mine shows up and forces you to eat some of their homemade empanadas and pozole, before busying themselves with gathering up the growing, untouched pile of dirty laundry strewn about the house and momentarily freezing when they find a pair of my socks or underwear in the fray, before hurriedly tossing them in the washer with the rest.
It’s not long before the cat joins me on the couch for our nightly viewings, moving between you in the bedroom and me on the sofa to purr and knead the thick, wooly blanket we used to nestle under for Game of Thrones marathons—a child in the midst of two parents separated by far more than divorce.
One Month After
You are acting strange.
I notice it first when you call your boss and quit out of the blue, even though they’ve been exceptionally understanding about it all, offering three months’ worth of paid leave following the funeral.
It’s when you try to give the cat to your parents that I realize my nightly stream of encouragements beside you in bed haven’t ameliorated your grief in the least.
“I don’t want him anymore,” you slur on the phone, a full tumbler of whiskey in hand. You’ve been drinking all day, unaware of my reprimands to at least eat something between aggressively thrown-back shots of liquor. “He was hers. I don’t fucking want him! I HATE THIS FUCKING CAT AND I DON’T WANT TO CLEAN UP HIS SHIT ANYMORE!” you bellow into the receiver.
That’s a complete lie—I know it, you know it, for god’s sakes, the cat knows it. He’s scowling at you right now, having just left you another smelly gift in his litterbox.
Whatever your mom says on the other end sets you off. You shout again and throw the phone at the wall hard enough to shatter the screen, before storming into the hallway toward the medicine cabinet.
“What are you doing?” I cry as I follow you, watching as you rummage through the bottles of ibuprofen and Midol and Sudafed with trembling fingers.
You pivot and stride through me to return to the kitchen. Reach for a glass from the cabinet and fill it with water from the sink.
“What the fuck are you doing?!” I repeat as you fumble with the childproof lid on the bottle. “Hey! Stop it right now! Stop!”
I slam into you and it’s like fighting against wind, like passing my hands through a cloud of smoke for all the difference it makes. You’ve got a palmful of round orange pills now, at least three dozen, and you’re bringing them to your lips with a hand that’s suddenly steadier than I’ve seen in weeks. I scream so loud and shrilly that it frightens the cat and he’s off like a shot under the couch, but you’re undeterred, they’re in your mouth now, you’re about to chase them down with water—
“DANIEL HERNANDEZ, YOU STOP IT RIGHT FUCKING NOW!”
My shriek shatters a nearby trio of glass bottles full of seashells we gathered on a Puerto Rican trip to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, splinters of blue-green glass and shells exploding across the kitchen table in all directions.
It also breaks the glass in your hand.
You stand there, stunned, bare feet strewn with fragmented glass, bottom lip split and bleeding from an errant slice. You bend over the sink and spit the pills out, a hunk of saliva-slicked half-white, half-orange rounds, and back away to survey the mess.
Your brown eyes are wary, wide.
You say my name—mouth it, soundlessly. Like a prayer.
You finally start to cry, torso-shattering sobs that bring you to the kitchen floor. I bend to take you in my arms, forgetting for a moment you can’t feel a thing.
Eleven Months After
You’ve just returned to your new apartment from the gym, sipping on a protein shake. You’ve been lifting at this new gym a lot recently, and it shows in the supple sinews of your back and arms, the renewed vibrancy of your light brown skin.
It’s all new, as if scouring me from your surroundings will also scour me from your memories: apartment, city, job, furniture, clothes. You sold the house, donated our stuff to charity, got a new position in another state—but you kept the cat. I encouraged each step, talking to you day and night about why you should stay alive, how much more there was for you to do. A fresh start was what you needed and what you got, but all that newness didn’t mean I was ready to leave. You were still alone (the cat didn’t count), and I’d decided that in order to really make it better—to live up to my promise—you deserved a full life with someone new.
I was concerned about a forced disconnection before my goal was achieved; perhaps I was bound to the house and not you, and when you drove off I’d have to say goodbye for good and finally go through the doorway I’d staunchly been avoiding for nearly a year.
On the day you packed your few remaining belongings and set off with the cat for the big city and the new job, I waited in front of the house, watching until your car’s red brake lights were only an echo, a smeared corona when I shut my eyes; a ghost of what had once been concrete, been there. I paced the driveway, ignoring that damned glowing doorway ever-present in the corner of my vision.
“I’m not ready yet! He’s not ready yet! Fuck off!” I finally hollered at the door, and it shrank and shrank, to the size of a doggie door and then a mousehole and then a pinprick, until it winked out completely for the first time since the car crash.
I paced that driveway in your absence, searching my memory for how I’d gotten from that fluorescent-bathed hospital room to the funeral and back to the house, but I truly couldn’t recall.
It wasn’t too long before I did end up where you and the cat were, suddenly going all misty like vapor passing between someone’s lips on a cold night, only to come together again in your new apartment just in time to see you shuffling inside with the cat carrier and a suitcase.
“So I do haunt you, then,” I said, thoroughly relieved. I still had a lot left to do.
A Year and Nine Months After
You’re checking yourself out in the bathroom mirror, and I laugh.
“I told you you’d start losing your hair one day,” I say as you gather a bit of gel in your palm and attempt to wrestle your brown strands into a coif that somewhat hides the thinning at your temples and crown. You’ve got a date tonight, the first since I died, and I’m not trying to be a brat, but she looks a bit…basic. That’s my jealousy talking, I know—I was the one who prompted you about this online dating stuff anyway, murmuring in your ear night after night to make sure you heard me. But then you went and matched with some Basic Blonde who looks nothing like me and wore a goddamn bathing suit in every single one of her pictures (if you can call a strip of fabric up your ass-crack a suit), so your selection has me questioning whether this was all a huge mistake.
While you’re gone I putter around the apartment, tidying up in ways I know from experience you won’t notice. I’m watching the latest housewife mayhem when you start to unlock the front door, and I manage to turn the TV off just in time to see you tripping over the apartment’s threshold with the Basic Blonde in tow.
“Christ, you’re drunk,” I mutter as you fumble for the light switch and quickly give up on finding it. “Better not have driven home—” I stop myself there; you’ve done a few questionable things since my death, but committing the very same act my killer did isn’t one of them.
Without preamble, BB yanks you toward your bedroom. You leave the room’s door open—no one lives here but you and the cat, right?—so I’m forced to listen to what happens next, glancing every so often at the ethereal doorway to my right with a sneer (it reappeared a few weeks back, just as incandescent and pleasant-looking as ever).
“This isn’t exactly what I meant when I said you should start dating again,” I chide, watching the cat vacillate between licking his butt and peering sympathetically in my direction.
When it’s over, the blonde has the audacity to think it’s time to talk. I waltz into the bedroom and lean against the wall—this is too rich a conversation to miss.
“So,” she begins, spread-eagled on the mattress beside you. She’s pretty (if generic) in person, and this irritates me to an unexpected degree. I snarl in her direction, and the drapes nearby ripple. “Am I the first?”
“What?” you say, breathless, but already sobering up, by the sound of it.
“Am I the first since…you know.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” I snort, crossing my arms like I’m hugging myself, but it’s really because I’m filling up with rage—a rage I’ve never felt before, a poltergeist level of rage. “You told her? This chick? Really?”
You squint in disbelief. It must be the alcohol that’s loosened your tongue, because you actually respond to her moronic inquiry. “Y-yeah. You are.”
“Nice.” She says it as if she’s won a prize, and I mean yes, you are, but the fact she’s made it her mission to be the first to bed a handsome widower makes me want to hurl. Just as I’m preparing to gather all of my ghostly powers and attack this girl any way I can—shit, I might even be able to throw a knife from that fancy block in her direction if I try hard enough—you kick her out yourself. It’s glorious to watch, really, how you tell her with such authority to ‘get your shit and get out’. The way her Juvederm-plumped donut lips fall open in shock is one of the favorite things I’ve witnessed all year.
When she’s gone—in a tornado of slamming doors, incensed cursing, and half-donned clothing—you lock the front door behind her, bare-assed, brown-skinned, and Adonis-like in a swatch of moonlight through the foyer window. You break the thick midnight silence with a word: my name.
For a moment I’m weak-kneed, convinced somehow you know I’m here. The prospect frightens me—I’ve done this detached dance of communication with you for so long—that it feels strange to imagine interacting directly with you.
And so I hug the shadows and admire your familiar form, one I used to embrace from behind as you cooked us dinner, or cling to at the airport before you left for another two weeks away from home. I’m no longer able to do either of those things, but I’m still your friendly ghost—your first love, your wife—and one who’s determined not to be your last.
Two Years and Eight Months After
“I have a good feeling about this one,” I say as you stand before the closet and dress for the evening in a navy-blue suitcoat, slacks, and tan leather lace-ups. It’s a getup you wouldn’t have been caught dead (har, har) wearing when we were married, but you’re a fancy executive now, and this girl is special. Your date tonight sort of looks like me, too—shoulder-length, wavy brown hair; petite; attractive in a composed, Type-A kind of way—which I take as a compliment, if a bit masochistic-leaning on your part.
She’s another online match, a lawyer who seems too smart for you (although we thought that about me too). Her first message was polite and personalized, asking about your favorite food. You’d actually seemed to heed my suggestions as I told you each night how best to communicate with her during that pivotal introductory period—not too infrequently, not too often, always with proper grammar and punctuation, laying the wit and self-deprecating humor on thick—and you’d arranged a date at an upscale Brazilian steakhouse in downtown by the third day of chatting.
You’ve got a spring in your step now as you pour some more kibble in the cat’s bowl, adding a spritz of cologne to that naked patch of skin above your collarbone I used to nuzzle on sleepy weekend mornings.
“Have fun,” I call out in your wake, but you’re already through the door—and if I’m not mistaken, you’re whistling.
Four Years and Three Months After
The wedding was understated, chic, and an altogether classy affair I would’ve approved of myself. The reception was nice too, and there was dancing and music and cake-smashing in each other’s faces, and you looked so goddamned happy baby, so happy, happier than I could remember you looking on our wedding day. I cried about that, but only for a little while.
Once you two leave for your honeymoon, I materialize back in the apartment. The cat’s at your parents’ place for a week, so it’s lonely here now; your laugh and her laugh and your shared inside jokes and frequent lovemaking sounds have become a somber kind of music to me, a melancholic soundtrack that hurts to listen to but that I’m still not ready to turn off.
I watch a reality show as a distraction (she likes them too, and records my favorites), but it doesn’t diminish the swirling, unsettled sensation where my stomach used to be.
“Is it time?” I say aloud to the silver-haired TV show host on the screen. You’re married now, I’ve been replaced; my plan, for all intents and purposes, is complete. Yet I’m still not ready to go.
I recline on the sofa and ignore the silvery doorway in my periphery, checking every so often to make sure it’s still there.
Five Years After
Normally I’d avoid going to another hospital, but today’s a special occasion.
Your new wife’s a champion, I’ll give her that; I never wanted kids and so you said you didn’t either, but based on the way you’ve doted on her for the past nine months, rubbing coconut butter on the stretched skin of her belly while murmuring in baby-speak to the little life growing beneath your hand, I’ve been convinced otherwise.
When the labor’s over and a high-pitched squeal reaches everyone’s ears, your expression is the one I look at as the baby comes into view—and it answers the question I’ve been asking since the day I died.
Later in the recovery room, all is quiet and still, the low, beige-pink lighting of the room far less invasive than it was during my visit years back. The baby is at your wife’s breast, periodically eating and falling asleep, and your wife’s drifting off too. You sit in the rocking chair to their left, studying them with a slight frown.
“It’s scary, isn’t it,” I muse from the other side of your wife’s hospital bed. “So much to take care of. So much to protect; that’s why I didn’t want one.”
You wipe some tears from those beautiful brown eyes, and I know what you’re thinking.
“Don’t do that,” I warn, more forcefully than I’ve spoken to you in a long time. “Stop it right now. That day wasn’t your fault or mine, and there’s nothing you could’ve done. You can’t worry each day you might lose them too, okay? You can’t.” I round the hospital bed to kneel in front of you, and you stare right through me as usual. “I kept my promise, and now you need to keep one—you need to be free, Dan. You need to live. Because you’ve got so much to live for.”
You wipe at your cheeks, at the wetness gathering in the patchy dark stubble along your jawline.
Five Years and One Day After
She’s one cute baby; takes after you the most, I think, but I’m biased. You’ve always been the best-looking person I’ve ever met.
The nurses are taken with her, remarking on what a good baby she is, so mild-mannered and sweet and smiley. You and your family are all ready to go; everything’s packed, and the baby’s received the health check go-ahead to send everyone home.
There’s a shimmering doorway here in the hospital too—I’ve already seen several people go through it during our last two days here. I tried to peek around them to what awaited there, to read by their body language whether it was good or terrible, but I didn’t really need to—it leads somewhere nice, and I think I’ve always known that.
The doctor just said it’s time to go. Everyone is ready; the baby’s wrapped up tight in a cream-colored onesie, and your wife’s all settled in the wheelchair.
“What’s her name?” the doctor asks, grinning down at the sleeping baby in the crook of your wife’s arm. I expect you to respond the way you have been this entire time—that you both want to spend a few days with her first, to see what feels right.
But you don’t say that.
Instead, you say “Eva,” and I go rigid where I’ve been standing in the corner of the room.
“Her name is Eva,” you say again, but you’re not looking down at the baby, or at the doctor, or at your wife. You’re looking at me.
“Eva,” the doctor says, surveying your daughter with a smile. “I like that.”
Your wife looks a little taken aback, but not for long. “I like it too,” she replies, removing one arm from the swaddled baby to reach out and squeeze your hand. She knows who I am, obviously, and as far as I can tell this decision was never settled on—it was always, “Let’s just wait and see.”
“I’ve always liked you,” I say to your wife as she cradles the baby close, cooing the girl’s newly christened name a few times. “Keep taking care of him, okay?”
The doctor leaves, followed by the nurse wheeling your wife and daughter down the hall toward the parking lot. You stay here though, and so do I.
“Goodbye,” you whisper, eyes unfocused and roving around the small hospital room. We were in a place like this once, for a much more heartrending reason than this. It’s time we were both freed of it.
“Goodbye,” I reply, and you dip your chin down, an infinitesimal nod, an acknowledgement. A letting go of that which is already gone.
When you walk out and down the hall the way your family went, I don’t follow. Instead, I turn toward the doorway, which grows in size as I approach it, getting brighter around the edges, humming lowly, like the distant crash of waves while napping on the sand in bright sunshine, or that wondrous rumble of imaginary surf accessible at any time if one just cups a seashell to their ear. I grasp the door handle and it’s warm in my palm; the first real, identifiable sensation I’ve had in years.
It feels wonderful.
And I go through.