Here Comes Your Ghost Again
by Tara Isabella Burton
You meet him after dark. You do not remember what he looks like at all. You never will.
But, all the same, when he sees you, you look up.
He asks you about your accent.
It is a very strange accent, he says.
This does not offend you. You do not know why. Plenty of things offend you. All it does is make you want to explain yourself to him.
You tell him about your upbringing, your scholarships, your summa cum laude from Brown, how you are the only person from your school to have ever even gotten into Brown, and instead of impressing him as it should (you are very good at impressing people) or intimidating him (you have made yourself good at this, too) this has no effect on him whatsoever.
He doesn’t even blink. At least, you don’t see him blinking.
Okay, he says. That makes you want to impress him more.
His accent is impeccable.
He buys you a few more drinks. He does not tell you anything about himself. He does not ask you anything about yourself, either, but somehow you find yourself telling him everything. Like if you only come up with the perfect story about yourself, the one that explains that you are not only clever but also kind and soft-hearted, that explains that you are not only ambitious but successful and well-thought-of, you will alter his smile in either direction.
You keep bringing up this one short story of yours that was published.
He tells you you have told him about it already.
You cannot see your reflection in his eyes.
You keep talking, anyway.
He makes you laugh, too. You remember that part, even though you don’t remember him saying anything.
He takes you home.
He doesn’t say anything then, either.
You don’t even have to think about it.
He puts his hand on the small of your back, and it is the first time all night he has touched you, and you are so savagely, wildly happy that he has touched you that you close your eyes, which he comments upon, and this makes you a little bit ashamed but still, still, you follow him down the stairs, which are flanked with red velvet, and you stumble just a little bit just so he will prop you up, and then he calls you both an Uber and you do not recognize the turns you take, nor the streets, nor the bridge, and because you are drunk you will not shut up about this time you were a little girl and thought because your mother had told you once to scare you that if you went out after midnight in New York the only people you’d see were ghosts, although you are not so drunk that you do not know, while you are telling it, that this is a very stupid story, and that he will not care about it, either.
He just looks at you.
You could die like that, with him looking at you.
His apartment is exactly what you’d expect.
It has huge windows and no furniture. It has no art on the walls. It has no books on the shelves. The sofa is black. It has a California kitchen and a refrigerator full of vodka and bottled water and nothing else. It has a closet full of identical white shirts.
You ask if it’s a sublet and he looks at you like you’re very, very stupid.
He says: I have always lived here.
You think you are in Williamsburg, but you aren’t even sure.
The sex, too, is strange.
You’d call it bad sex, except that you like it.
You’re not sure why you like it.
He’s touching you. That’s why you like it.
He gets on top of you and he thrusts in a very methodical way and looks straight ahead and it’s like he’s doing you a favor, which he isn’t, because the one time you ask him to do this one thing, this very particular thing, that you like and that gets you off, he gives you that discerning look again and says he doesn’t do that and then keeps going, but you do not come, and you are not sure he does either.
He calls you a good girl. He kisses you. He kisses your forehead. He takes you in his arms.
You are so tired, after. You feel dizzy.
For the first time, you have made him smile.
He lets you sleep a few hours, like that, with your head against his chest. You don’t even know why this makes you so happy. You can’t sleep, but just lie awake and try to make sense of how happy you are.
You are so happy you start to list all the tragedies of this world (the big ones: like nuclear war and terrorism) and also of you personally (you will never be an astronaut) because you think if you stay this happy for another second you will die.
He wakes up before dawn.
He has to get to work early, he says. He’ll call you an Uber.
He tells you to write your number down for him.
When you get home you do not remember where you have come from. You do not remember his name. You have no way to contact him.
When you get home you lie in bed and stare up at the ceiling.
You do not shower. You take the day off work (you freelance, so you can do this). You do not eat. You wait.
It hurts so much – the waiting.
You’re a big girl. You knew what you were getting into. You knew from the second he looked at you that you were the person who cared more, and whoever cares most, loses; you knew that.
Your friend Jess texts you to ask if you’re still on tonight, and this makes you you hate her, because when she does your phone goes off and when your phone goes off your heart stops and then you cannot forgive her for not being him.
But you check your phone three hundred twenty separate times, that day. On ten separate occasions you make sure it isn’t on silent, so that if he does decide to text you – to tell you what a nice time he had, say, or to ask you out again, or to tell you that the story you told him twice about being published that one time made him decide to Google you and once he did he found your story and once he did he read it and once he did he fell in love with you.
Anyway, he doesn’t do that.
He makes you wait until Friday night to hear from him again.
It is the perfect length of time. It means you have had a week to feel his mouth on you (you do not remember this, but you feel it every time you wake up). It means you have one week to dream about him (you have the same dream over and over: his mouth is on your neck; his teeth scrape your collarbone; he is draining you but God how you like it).
It means you’ve had a week to go over the few fragments of conversation that you remember and try to ascertain exactly where you went wrong, impressing him, exactly what it was that you said that made him decide you were not worth seeing again (was it because you told him about the story? Did he think you were arrogant? Was it because you mentioned your mother? Did he think you wanted him to meet your mother?) You try to remember every detail he told you about himself, because in one of those details you think you will find the devil you need. You can’t remember one. (He works in finance? Did he say he worked in finance?)
Anyway, he texts.
He tells you to meet him at this bar, in an hour.
Like you don’t even have plans.
You never have plans.
You take an Uber to this bar on North 9th Street. It’s surge pricing and you can’t afford this either, but this is how desperate you are, because if you are late he might get bored and leave and this, this is how the world ends.
On the way over, you realize it’s too late to ask his name.
So you put him in your phone as Ghost.
You tell yourself you’ll update it as soon as you know. You won’t.
He is twenty minutes late, but he smiles when he sees you, and this is the closest you have ever come to having an effect on him.
He is so charming, over cocktails. He orders you something with mezcal and deer velvet – it’s an aphrodisiac from the scrapings of the antlers, he says, illegal in most places. He orders himself an Old Fashioned. He doesn’t drink it. He orders you another drink and then another and then you are drunk, again, and telling him another one of your self-serving and infantile stories – this one about this fight two of your friends are having over whether or not one of them was texting too much at the Standard and maybe you had a point when you started (was it to let him know that you have friends? Was it to let him know that you are the least dramatic one in your circle of friends?) but by the time he takes out his phone and stops looking at you you know you have forgotten it.
But then he puts his hand on the small of your back. Then he touches you.
Come on, he says.
The car’s waiting.
Everything he does to you he does again.
It hurts a little more, this time, but you enjoy it.
He calls you a good girl again and again you enjoy it.
Then you cuddle for a few hours and those are the happiest hours of your life.
He gets you another car, before another dawn, and this time you spend three days in bed with the shutters drawn, and you don’t even have the strength to order food from your phone.
You text him first, this time. You know you shouldn’t but you do it anyway. You text him a funny article you think he’d appreciate about men who drink Old Fashioneds. He doesn’t answer.
You see him typing a few times (you open up the text box to see if he’s typing) but he never says anything.
Thirteen hours later, he sends you a laughing emoji.
You keep your next Friday night free, anyway.
He keeps doing this to you.
Correction (you’ve been around the block enough times; you should know this): you keep letting him do this to you.
He texts you an address and a midnight bar. He buys you drinks. He pays for everything. He takes you home and then he fucks your brains out and then he feeds (after a few weeks, actually, he stops even fucking you, but this stops mattering because at least he’s touching you) and then you cuddle, for a little while, although he’s never awake enough for you to tell whether he likes the feeling of your body specifically or he’s so used to sleeping next to a girl that he’s developed a default sleeping position, and then a couple of weeks later he starts calling you the Uber earlier, and then stops cuddling with you altogether, and still, still, you keep letting him do this to you.
You keep dreaming about him, afterwards, with his teeth in your neck.
You stop eating.
You tell yourself: his job is really demanding.
You tell yourself: he’s just not in touch with his emotions.
You stop answering work emails.
You tell yourself: he doesn’t even know how much he likes me.
You stop hanging out with your best friend.
You stop sleeping.
You stop breathing.
You stop going outside during daylight.
He stops texting.
Your heart stops beating.
You start to look for him.
He doesn’t have Facebook (he told you, once, he doesn’t like people thinking they have any insight into his private affairs). He doesn’t answer his phone (you even call him, once, with actual voices, and drunkenly leave a voicemail telling him to come over but he never answers.
So you do the only thing you can do.
You go out after midnight. You prowl. You hunt.
You go to the bar he met you at, the first times. You don’t enjoy the music anymore, and you don’t even have an appetite for drink, so you order something anodyne that you can just stand with and hold so it doesn’t look so pathetic when you scan the room, searching.
You stay out until dawn.
You sleep all day.
You’re always, always hungry.
You do not know which Friday night it is that you meet him – the other one. All you know is that the one you want to text you hasn’t texted you for fifty-two days. All you know is that you cannot leave the house all day and all night, all night, you cannot stand to be alone, so you go to the last bar he took you too, the one you know is a 5 minute Uber ride from his house and not a 35 minute one, the one where maybe, maybe, he might just be.
This is where you meet the other one.
There is nothing wrong with him. He is not your type.
He has wide girlish eyes and a stiff and formal way of approaching you, like he’s afraid of you. He’s wearing a bow-tie.
Nobody wears a bow-tie in Crown Heights, on a Friday night, not unless you are being ironic, and probably not even then.
But you are so lonely, waiting, that you take a seat next to him.
You haven’t talked to anybody in so long.
So you talk to him.
He is so happy that you’ve talked to him.
It is not that he isn’t handsome. It’s not that he isn’t clever or quick or that he doesn’t know what to order at a bar (you do not let him buy you a drink, because you can no longer eat or drink, but you offer to buy him one but because he is such a gentleman he demurs and buys you the most expensive glass of sparkling water on the menu and asks the waiter to put a slice of lemon in it).
He is a good man. He is a schoolteacher. He worries about his students even when he is not being paid to. He did his master’s at NYU. He is wearing a bow-tie.
You make him talk to you.
You do not have the energy to say much. Walking as much as you do leaves you incapable, for the most part, of forming words. But you have made yourself beautiful (for the other one; always, always, for the other one) and he thinks you beautiful; he is the first person in so long that thinks that you are beautiful and so you smile for him and this smile is so enchanting that you do not have to say anything else. He keeps talking to you. He keeps telling you stories. You keep smiling.
You know his whole life story by the time you get into the cab.
“God,” he says, when you are both in the Uber, heading west. “That’s why I love New York. Anything can happen here!”
You don’t even have the energy to reply.
“I’m so glad,” he keeps saying, into your fingertips and also your knuckles, also your palms. “I’m just so glad I met you.”
You don’t say anything.
You take him back to your place.
There is nothing in your place. You haven’t shopped for groceries in a month and you don’t buy anything, anymore, and you don’t bother going to any event you might need new clothes for and nobody sends you any mail. You donated all your books to a charity shop, the first week you didn’t hear anything back from him. You wanted to destroy something and you were afraid to set an actual fire so this was the closet you got.
He compliments you on your view, which its funny, because all it is is a garden courtyard with a single tree that doesn’t have any leaves on it, anyway, but anyway, he likes it.
You pour him a drink.
Now that you don’t drink, you have a lot of bottles left over for strangers.
You keep smiling.
“I haven’t done this in a while,” he says. Not since his divorce. He pushes up his glasses. He asks if you mind that he’s forty.
You have sex with him.
You call him an Uber. You take his number. You do not give him your name.
It’s not that you’re a monster. That’s not the reason you do not text, or call, even though you are also not stupid and you know that he is waiting for you. You do not text or call because you know that it is wrong for you to text or call, when you don’t love him, when you don’t like him, when you don’t even remember his name or where his master’s from.
Also, you aren’t hungry yet.
You do other things, that week. Like pacing. Like looking out your window at the full moon. Like going onto the top of your roof and howling and then jumping down onto the pavement and flying back up, over and over and over again.
The one you want doesn’t text you.
You don’t text anybody.
Until you get hungry again.
Then you do.
You’ve done this part before. You meet him in every bar you now know you like. You wait until the last possible second to text him, both because you think you can genuinely resist how hungry you are but also because you know (you know) that you can text him at 11:45 on a Friday night and he will only ever be home waiting for you.
He comes. He talks. He drinks.
Sometimes you feel bad, doing this to him. Sometimes you don’t.
Sometimes you think of the other one, who has not texted you now in sixty-eight days, and who has not fed on you in seventy-three, and you think that what you are doing is only fair, and that if the one you do not love does not deserve it now, at this exact point in time, then at the very least he has, or he will.
You get bored.
He sends you texts, the one you don’t care about.
Just wanted to say hi, he says.
Hope you’re having a good day.
He uses cat emoticons. You can justify yourself to yourself: who could love a man who uses cat emoticons?
Hey, just wondering if we’re still on for next week?
Hey, I’m a little worried about you – is everything okay?
Are you okay?
Just let me know you’re okay, okay?
You aren’t. But that has nothing to do with him.
He has less dignity than you did. He texts you more often than you texted the one who didn’t want you. He doesn’t let you ghost easy.
You think, sometimes, that you should put him out of his misery: that he will suffer less if you just say I am bored of you. But you still get hungry, sometimes, and there is no guarantee that some other stranger will sate you the way he does (which still, still, is not much) so you do not say anything because if you decide, at 11:59 on a Friday night, to text him an address, you know he will still come.
You take to hunting again.
You don’t even know what you’re hunting for.
Bars bore you and the people you meet in bars bore you and everywhere you go you’ve already been and if you haven’t fed on someone you have fed on someone who looks like them, and you have fed on everyone who shares something, however tenuous, with the one you really want (blonde hair, a collared shirt, blue eyes, ten fingers) and you have fed on everyone who is so unlike the one you want that you will not think about him when you are feeding on them and so you take to strangers.
You find them in subways. You find them in the park. You find them stumbling out of the back of a cab on your street.
You leave them a little worse off than you found them.
You don’t know how long this goes on for. You sleep all day, anyway, and you lose track of nights.
Except that your nights are a little more crowded than you’re used to.
The first time you see another one, you’re on the High Line, looking down (it is a good place to hunt from: it is easy to fly up and down from the High Line, and keep your eyes on whoever is tottering out of Les Bains). He is standing next to you. You picked him up in TriBeCa two months ago. He told you all about his mother, who was severely mentally ill, and about his sister, whom he worried had inherited it. You saw him three times. The third time you thought you’d drained him.
He doesn’t look at you. He just stands next to you, with his hands on the railing, looking down.
The second time you see two of them: the one who developed an eating disorder on his crew team in boarding school and the one whose first girlfriend had died after joining a paid medical trial without realizing the extent of her allergies. They are standing outside this burlesque variety show on the Lower East Side where midgets shit into a bucket on stage, at opposite ends of the line, and although they do not acknowledge each other they seem to have developed a system by which they divide equitably their kills.
You see more and more of them. You see four on a subway car coming home from Bushwick at five in the morning, and ten underneath the Williamsburg bridge.
You see the one you did not love.
He is in the back of an Uber. In his lap is a blonde girl with eczema and smeared lipstick that you are not even sure is eighteen.
There are so many of you, now, most nights, every night, that it becomes remarkable that there are any people left to feed on at all.
But the thing is: there always are.
You get used to there being so many of you.
You do not like it, at first, but after a while you find it comforting.
You never look at them. They never look at you. At most you will, wordlessly, disperse through a bar (through a club, through Penn Station, through the Metropolitan Museum) in such a way that none of you is competing directly with any other.
Still, you like knowing that they’re out there.
You develop your routine. They develop theirs. You stake out territory. You send texts. So do they.
Then, one night, you are feeding in Central Park. You don’t know his name, either.
You hear a rustle in the bushes. The twigs snap like bones.
Someone else is feeding, too.
The girl is moaning. She comes out of the bushes with her skirt hiked up and thistles in her hair. Her lipstick is smeared and her mascara runs and he comes out, behind her, and tells her he’s ordered her an Uber, that it will be waiting for her in Columbus Circle. She asks him if she will ever see him again.
He says maybe. She sniffles. She goes.
The two of you look at each other, a while.
It takes you so long to recognize each other.
Truth is, there’s nothing more to say.
He turns into a bat and flies straight towards the moon.
You walk all night, that night. You do not feed. You walk past the High Line where the man with the mother is jumping down and flying up, and down, and up, which he always does, now, and which he will do until dawn. You walk past the club where the one with the eating disorder and the one with the dead girlfriend scavenge from opposite sides of the line. You turn a corner and then you pass the one who loved you most, waiting at a street-light, and he keeps walking, and you keep walking, and once you reach the river you see him again, the one you loved, coming down the footpath, and although you notice each other you do not stop for him, either, nor he for you, but just keep walking, in opposite directions, until dawn.
Tara Isabella Burton‘s first novel, Social Creature, is forthcoming from Doubleday in June 2018. She is currently the staff religion writer at Vox.com.
Image source: Wikimedia via Creative Commons