For a long time, it was almost a play we would enact every time someone new visited us. But only if they saw him. This time, a friend was visiting from London and seeing our apartment in New York for the first time. We were seated in the living room, and she came in, a funny smile on her face. “It’s the strangest thing,” she said. “I could have sworn I just saw a cat. Do you have one?”
My husband laughed. “We sort of do.” She raised an eyebrow. “You saw Francis.”
He looked at me. “Charlie knows this one. He saw him too. Francis was my cat.”
I nodded, smiling, playing my part. I told the story of the first night I spent here, back when we were new to each other. David, my husband, had lived here in the same apartment for 29 years when we met. I had been walking in from the kitchen, the same as my friend, and saw what seemed to be a gray shadow flicker across the floor by the door. I had asked almost the exact same question. And David smiled the little smile I now knew so well. And he’d said almost exactly what he said now. “I called him Frankie, though. Everyone sees him but me.”
This was our little vaudeville act, carrying on as it always had. But this time, the friend from London asked us if Frankie was a nuisance ghost. And we both sat there, a little surprised.
“No,” David replied. “I mean, I can’t think of anything he does besides appear at the door.”
A nuisance ghost, if you don’t know this, is considered a relatively harmless spiritual creature. The conversation on this particular day turned to the one in the Penelope Fitzgerald novel, The Bookshop, where the main character has what she calls “a knocker,” a ghost who just enjoys knocking on the wall. They’re the most benign pranksters of the afterlife and usually just take things, eventually returning them. If you’ve ever put something down and then can’t find it when you go back for it, pulling your house apart before finding it again, that is possibly a nuisance ghost, though it is possibly also just your forgetfulness.
The friend left, but the suspicion did not. I kept thinking about the missing keys that eventually turned up, or the phone cord or wallet, more or less fine as missing things that return go, though they’d often made me late with friends, giving me a reputation for forgetfulness or lateness that I didn’t like. But then, shortly after this visit, a favorite wine key went away and stayed away. One my brother had given me, made in France, an elegant tool with a perfect heft. This was the first really personal price. Or so I thought.
A few months after that, I noticed that some new favorite shirts were missing — as if they’d never come back from the laundry. But there was no record of them there when I checked, and as I searched for them, the familiar feeling of missing new shirts came over me, and I remembered that it happened every year. Each year, I would get a few new good shirts, and they would at some point, a month or so in, just not be in the house. I had a reputation as someone who didn’t buy new clothes often, as I have some shirts that have lasted a decade, shirts that I like just fine. The new shirts were always the shirts that made me feel handsome, though. Elegant. Not average. Like the wine key.
Those old shirts, I understood then, as I puzzled over it all, predated my time in the apartment and with David. I’d moved in with them.
When I mentioned the lost shirts to my husband, he rolled his eyes. Only when I pointed out that all of the clothes that were missing were mine and not his, and then listed them off, did he really seem to take it in. Yes, how odd, he agreed. But when I blamed the laundry, he took offense and defended them — they didn’t take his shirts — at which point I observed that my missing shirts were nicer than his, which did not go over well. I apologized, and we moved on.
The news that my husband had never lost his shirts, however, began to eat at my previous somehow placid acceptance of their loss. How much money had it cost me? But also the person I had wanted to be in those clothes was gone with them. I had entered into some terrible pact with each disappearance, to accept it as a cost of my own nature. That I was to blame, for being forgetful, or stressed out, or working too hard — all true. But I lived on a track, essentially, one that I stayed on, most days, that led from the apartment to the office to the gym and back to the apartment. Most things I lost, I left in a car, on a train, or it fell from my hand as I walked. Or it was in my apartment, waiting for me to pull everything apart and find it. This wasn’t like that.
A few days went by, and a few more, and then weeks—who knows how long? Maybe a month or more. The feeling of being cheated by the nuisance ghost or even the suspicion that we had a nuisance ghost eventually faded again — it always did. I bought new shirts that were exact replacements, and they arrived and mocked me by not being lost.
The wine key was somehow the hardest to lose. Every time I searched for the wine key, and then couldn’t find it, I remembered the possibility of the ghost. I was tired of losing things, so I decided to learn, just in case, how one went about getting rid of a ghost.