Today I saw someone I have not seen in many years. She passed by me in a shop as we swam through an undulating sea of people searching for bargains. I do not know if it is customary on this day, Black Friday, to be haunted by your past as you inspect coffee makers and candlesticks, but such it was for me.
I looked up just as she was walking toward me. I think I looked up because I sensed her first. A premonition? A chill run up my spine? Even after all these years could I still recognize her footfalls?
She passed by me, through me, like a spirit on a parallel plane. Although it’s been a decade, she looked exactly the same. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that time only really ravages the young, renders them unrecognizable to themselves and to others. At some point, and I’m not sure when, you are no longer getting old — only older.
But she didn’t look old — she looked exactly the same.
I, however, do not.
She did not glance at me. I doubt she even saw me. Had she, it would not have mattered much because I don’t look like the girl she knew, took in under her roof for a time. If she had looked in my eyes, though, she would have known me. I’m sure of it.
I could not find my voice in that moment when she passed through me like a silent bullet, stilling my heart. But I turned, very slowly, like a well-timed camera pan set to a somber, ascending piano melody. I watched her walk away. Reaching down, I braced myself against a rack of shoes. She hovered for a moment, inspecting some sweaters, suspended in time.
An entire part of my life that I had forgotten about surfaced, and I felt myself begin to cry. I was torn between trying to find my voice to call out to her, and sitting quietly with my grief, my guilt.
If I had called out her name, she would have looked up. She would have seen me. But would she have wanted to?
When we last saw each other, it was not on tender terms that we parted. I needed too much from her, and she was exhausted. I drew from her marrow, like a fine needle aspiration, the love and affection that my mother couldn’t give me. I was desperate for her to guide me, to teach me, to reassure me — because she, not my mother, was there during my adolescent years when I was as unsteady and uncertain of my legs as a foal.
Even if she had not minded seeing me after all this time, she would still have hated what I’ve done to my hair. She would have been disappointed to find me still hiding behind thick-rimmed glasses. She would have thought me too thin. She would have tsk-tsk’d aloud at the absence of make-up and the brows that needed shaping.
My eyes unfocused, as they often do these days, and by the time I managed to recover the horizon she had disappeared. I blinked, turning my head too quickly as I searched. I saw her just another moment, walking out the front door into the parking lot.
My throat burned with tears and unasked questions. Was it just my curiosity or did I still care about her? Did I still want to think she cared for me? It wasn’t as though I’d never thought about her, wondered if she was okay, hoped that she was happy and healthy.
Frequently I hear her voice in my head, and at times, emerging from my own mouth. She had a very particular timbre to her voice because she looked after little children for a living. They were always scampering around underfoot, and the room I slept in with the slanted roof was next to the nursery. Those babies, who all looked alike then, are ten, eleven years old now. I wouldn’t even recognize them if I saw them on the street, and they never knew me at all.
I can still hear her pushing into the nursery at the end of nap time, her steps making the floorboards creak. Blankets rustling as she reached into the crib to soothe the curls of a baby girl — “Time for waking up,” she’d coo. I’d hear the tiny murmurs of protest from the tot whose name I don’t remember — but she had the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen and threw up in the middle of the living room floor semi-regularly. That little girl must be twelve or thirteen now.
I hear my own voice cooing down at my nephew — years ago when he was still just a warm, unspeaking weight in my arms as he slept: Time for waking up.
I’ve even caught myself doing it to my dog, in the darkness of winter mornings when my alarm has gone off and she burrows under the blankets. I reach down to stroke her soft ear and go: Time for waking up.
I wonder what, if anything, this woman has kept of me.
I wandered aimlessly around the store for a while, adding to my basket holiday trinkets and full-priced guilt. When I leave, at last, I sit in my car for several minutes as the sky darkens, and winter rain begins to tap on my wind shield. I rummage around in my glove compartment for a pack of cigarettes — the same ones she smokes (smoked?). I crack my window, put the key in the ignition, and begin to drive home, taking long drags as I do.
I find myself doing this very thing on occasion — the scent of those cigarettes a push-button for time travel. Perhaps most frequently in the last year when I was trying to write about her (as is requisite in memoir writing).
She is forever immortalized to me standing on the back porch of her house, cigarette between her long, pale, elegant fingers. I’ve never seen someone who looked as glamorous smoking a cigarette as she did. Now I realize there was never any glamour in smoking — she just looked glamorous doing anything.
I’d hover in the doorway, my toes curled against the chill of the porch in mid-winter. I would watch her and think of a million things I wanted to ask her — mostly about how to be alive.
In those years I felt like a ghost haunting other people’s houses; only to be exorcised, disappearing into the night. Years have passed, and I’ve tried to plant myself firmly in the world of the living, only to realize we’re all ambling toward the land of the dead. Some sooner than others, I suppose.
All these souls I’ve known are now the ghosts that haunt me.