Monday, April 26, 2010

Friendly Ghosts and Other Apparitions


I am fond of many ghosts.

It's shocking to me how much time has passed sometimes. Other times, I realize that, yes, all things told, it's about exactly right. A lot of life has taken place in between the bookends of then and now. I have a partner, a child, a house, my passions, my path. I have a life that I've built over time.

With this much life under the belt, one starts to collect some ghosts. Most of my ghosts bring with them a lot of warm feelings. There are a few, though, I have been trying to shoo away most of my life, racing to slam shut the door on them as fast as I can, only to realize that, of course, they've slipped right through. Doors cannot hold them. The ones I'm writing about today, though, I have warm feelings about. Not too long ago, I went with my son and husband to a town full of ghosts for me, some that sprung up unexpectedly when I turned a corner and others that I consciously sought out, walking down familiar, well-trod paths. I even saw myself as a ghost quite a few times there, still lingering, engaged in a wonderfully rambling conversation or exhilarating romance that never quite ended. In truth, we moved on. We stopped communicating well, we had a fight, he said something that gave me incontrovertible proof he was a misogynist, we grew apart, I stopped answering his calls, I gave his t-shirts to Goodwill, we both moved away. When dealing with a ghost, their corporeality has been flattened and you are left with whatever you care to see, no more messiness. I like this aspect of ghosts.

A ghost is really a neutral thing, though our instinct, honed through years of horror movies, is to be frightened at just the mention of them. In reality, most of the ghosts I saw on our trip made me smile to myself, basking in the warm memory that washed over me, heating me up like a candle inside. These ghosts discretely materialized, abruptly jumped out (they laughed, startling me), winked at me, walked along side me for a moment or two, knocked the wind out of me. Lawrence, Kansas is crawling with ghosts for me - along with some very vigorous flesh-and-blood mortals - so much so that I felt as if time were warping around me occasionally, felt its three-dimensionality. (Lawrence was also the birthplace of psychedelics for me, so the sense of time warping is also a strong sensory recollection.) From moment to moment, the memory perceptions transported me in an instant: back to being mopey like Rapunzel locked away in my dorm to skipping tipsily down the hill to my apartment, giddy with excitement, in love for the 17th time that month. As I walked around the campus and downtown, climbed the same hill in sensible shoes that I once clambered up in my beloved platforms, I never knew what ghosts - or fleeting fragments of half-forgotten ghosts - would appear. And though I relived the emotions these ghosts brought with them, it felt more like I was watching a movie than anything. Even the recollections that still had the power to make me cringe all these years later had the cordial cushion of time and distance between me and them, thankfully. Any visceral response I had to these ghosts was benign and positive for the most part.

There was B, little bits of mascara flaked around her light blue eyes from having passed out in her makeup the night before, holding court from the Crossing's transcendent front porch - the scene of many evenings filled with debauchery - now the site of a hotel. She threw a beer in some guy's face at a party near there once because she didn't like the look of him and then went skipping down the hill like that was the most natural thing to do. La dee da! B was my closest friend for some time, a wealthy former debutante with a distant, cool family and a serious drinking problem. We would find where we'd left her car after a night of bar-hopping (she'd often crash on my couch) by examining the stamps on our hands and try to discern which one was on top. One time, cleaning my apartment one Sunday afternoon after she'd left, I found a check she'd accidentally left behind, along with a note from her grandmother: Just a little gift, her grandmother wrote, regarding a check for $10,000. For a time, the two of us had so much fun. I have distinct memories of us stumbling down the street, squinting in the cruel light of a Sunday morning, and collapsing around a table for brunch. "Hair of the dog," we'd say, clinking mimosa glasses and then wince in unison, giggling as we relived whatever we could piece together from the night before. Finally, B became too much for me; going out with her became too dangerous as she baited rednecks with her biting sarcasm. It was a sport for her, for us. "Let's go make fun of some idiots!" When it became too much, when I felt more like a babysitter than a friend, I just started disappearing, pulling myself away. She sensed that things were different and asked me point-blank if I was leaving her behind. I regret that I denied it. I just stopped returning her calls and then, over time, B became a ghost to me.

Down the hill, in that sort of natural bowl behind the campus, there were a lot of ghosts all along the paths. There was C, the most conservative and preppy of my friends, the son of bikers, and a really sweet soul. We had some sort of falling out when it became clear that my feminist awakening was here to stay, that it wasn't just a passing stunt designed to piss off my parents. His ghost was there, in John Lennon glasses, a scarf around his neck, talking, talking, talking, mostly about Ayn Rand. In the bowl, there was also my friend K, laughing as she told me about the time she started punching her boyfriend because he'd begun drinking again, and how a passerby stood there like a deer in the headlights, gaping at them, unsure what of protocol to follow when a woman was beating up a man. The stranger finally just took off in the opposite direction. A ghost of myself skipped past in a black dress with Medusa-like curls flying everywhere, a whirling dervish of books and loose papers and self-absorption. I admire her audacity. She will always be nineteen and think that she is the most exotic, fascinating creature to ever have landed in Kansas.

Up on campus there were too many ghosts to count, so many I felt like my head was spinning. I saw my roommate, S, who blurted out to me as we walked to class on September morning that she was dating my ex-boyfriend. She was shaking and almost hyperventilating and all I could say, after a delicious pause, was, Well, good luck to you. She seemed obviously deflated to not get more of a response out of me. There was L, dramatic and unhinged even for a sophomore theater major, careering down the sidewalk to catch up with me and yell about this or that indignity she suffered. There was A, the ardent feminist with the beautiful, stick-straight brown hair and bangs, waiting for her boyfriend, a long-haired professor, in love with a male for the first time. She's still sitting on the long cement bench, the sun glinting off her hair, incredulous that she could actually love a man.

At the art building, where there were more ghosts than anywhere, trapped in the charcoal dust, and they rushed out to greet me before I even walked in the doors. This was the bench where I sat to get away from all the sprays and solvents. There was my boyfriend for a time, walking me to the door and then away with a kiss. There was the bike rack where I parked the first bike I'd bought on my own, a Cannondale, bought from my friend, K, the one who beat up her boyfriend that time. Inside, there was P, the older woman who worked the little concession stand there, crabby and barky at first but who warmed up to me within the matter of a year. There was B, the gorgeous, graceful Michigander who worked in the gallery and had all the boys staring at her, tripping over themselves. There's JT, the impish, magical printmaker who loved me and my favorite friend K even though we were hyper beyond belief. One day, the two of us were just talking on and on about something when JT, who was trying to have a conversation elsewhere, abruptly shouted, "Shut up!" The room went silent. If anyone else had done that to me, I probably would have started crying, but with JT it was different. After that initial thunderclap and moment of stunned silence, we all started laughing and resumed with what we were doing. Upstairs, I walked by the old studio where I spent so much time and I think I caught a glimpse of myself with globs of oil paint smeared on that old grey smock I always wore when I painted, black fishnets and Doc Martins underneath.

Downtown on Mass Street, still more ghosts, this time the glaring absence of shops long-gone haunted me; these were bittersweet ghosts to see, the saddest of all for some reason. Maybe because they're completely gone and the human ghosts actually live on? Maybe its the reality that time does not stand still? There was Natural Way, full of diaphanous skirts and the Spring Rain perfume you could detect almost anywhere on campus. There was the Casbah, a perfect boutique in three rooms including the one upstairs, with the little café in back. There was Paradise Café, Tin Pan Alley, and, down the street, Cornucopia with its sublime, miles-long salad bar and thick-cut French fries my friend J taught me to eat with a side of their homemade dressing. Oh, for that old metabolism. There were so many conversations in those old booths, so much laughter, so much intimacy. Eating out with friends at Lawrence's various restaurants finally made me feel like an adult. These and so many others - The Glass Onion, Drake's - are gone now like they never existed. Vanished. No one consulted me on this.

I remember writing to my friend C after I had moved - yes, in the old days, we used to actually write letters by hand, something that makes me fatigued within minutes these days - that while I was gone, no one could change a thing about Lawrence. No one would be allowed to move, no businesses could close, that purple Victorian house on Kentucky Street (or was it Tennessee?) would have to remain purple. I wanted it all to be frozen in time, enclosed like a terrarium. I wanted to be able to return to my friends all these years later and sit with our legs curled under us in front of Yellow Sub on a beautiful spring day, shriek about the centipede we saw in the bathroom, and pet the blasé dogs from the apartment building across the street. I wanted the co-op to remain that dusty little haven where that very intense lesbian who worked there intimidated everyone. (Today that co-op is big and shiny and sells Coke, something that would have been akin to high treason in the old days.) I wanted those tables in the student union where my feminist friends and I gathered on the lunch hour to laugh, talk, conspire to always be there, open and waiting for us. There are others occupying them now, and I just hope they're making good use of those tables like we did.

In truth, as the expression goes, you can never go home again. Because even if you retain to the physical environment, you have changed, it has changed in the intervening years. This is not a bad thing, but it is bittersweet. It is better to have changed than to try to clutch on to what once was because that's an exercise in futility. The world will still change around you and clinging will just make you feel pathetic, sad. So instead you live your life and accumulate ghosts as you go. Thankfully not everyone will become a ghost to you. For those that do, though, be grateful for them. They've helped to make you who you are today.

I am fond of many ghosts.

2 comments:

Vegan Burnout said...

This is beatiful, Marla. It's fun to see that you were a hell-raiser even then :) Fishnets and Doc Martens, oh my! Our memories have such weight, like winter blankets. My own thinking about ghosts and memories is much informed by Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior." I think I need to re-read it now.

Marla said...

Thanks, VB! I've never heard of that book. I'll have to check it out. In truth, I was much more of a hell-raiser back then because I didn't have any sense of long-term damage. :)