There’s a ghost who lives in my head.
A pale thing, a remnant of a long-lost relationship from the flurry of youth. Only an echo, devoid of substance, a shadow wholly disconnected from the body of the young man I used to love.
What I mean is this: Somewhere, he lives a life I cannot imagine. Somewhere, he is a real person who wakes up, eats breakfast, brushes his teeth, and goes to work.
In truth, we are strangers now. Our lives have diverged down long years.
But in my head, the crumbs of his memory remain. Like this: When the hot wind dances, I remember the taste of your kiss. My nostrils flare; I inhale your half-remembered scent.
This ghost is a nuisance.
I know he’s a ghost; I know he’s unreal. But his touch sets my memory aglow—twining fingers, my head against his chest, feeling his heartbeat in my ear.
He visits me most often in the liminal space between waking and dreaming, when my sleep-clogged brain is too slow to batter him back, and he slips past my defenses.
His presence makes me weak—and angry.
Can’t you leave me alone? I say to him. He says nothing back.
Now there is a flesh-and-blood young man before me. We pick at our plates.
“What else, what else?” he mutters, casting about for words to fill the air. I half-smile. His extrovert personality seizes up during silence; he needs sound, sound, sound.
He wasn’t like this, my brain notes.
The new young man is shorter, bulkier. He was tall and lanky, with blue blue eyes.
We leave the restaurant and wander through a bookstore. I point to titles I’ve read; he says, again and again, “I wish I read more.”
“So read more,” I say, only half-joking.
He liked to read.
When I come home, my roommate says, “Was there any touching? A hand on your back?”
I shake my head. No.
Am I ready for physical contact? Even the brush of fingers? At the thought, I recoil.
The last hand I held was his.
When there’s a ghost in your head, his memory stains everything.
When I dismissed the boy after a year together, I never dreamed his ghost would linger on, needling me. It’s a kind of poetic revenge, though I’m sure the actual young man harbors no malediction for me. I doubt I occupy any space in his head—as it should be.
We disentangled our lives from one another at a pivotal point: The cusp of college, four years stretching forward into the unknown. I’m glad for the timing; I’m almost sure I wouldn’t have grown into the person I am now had I been tethered to him.
After we broke up, I never dated, a decision that was four-fifths mine and one-fifth determined by the lack of intriguing prospects around me. I like being single; it affords a unique freedom to travel, learn, and grow.
But when I look to the future, I see myself with a husband, an equal partner. And there’s no room for a girlhood ghost.
How do you exorcise a ghost? How do I banish this frozen-in-time specter? Maybe I need to shed blood, or burn his image, or draw symbols in chalk. The candles will burn down to stubs; the wind will howl and moan.
Or maybe I simply shut him out, refuse to rent space to him, bar him from my brain.
Maybe I move on.
I like to look at the new young man; his eyes are liquid and his smile bright.
He drinks his coffee quickly; I sip at mine. The caffeine makes me shake—my shoulders tremble and I try to hide it.
Our conversation rambles, stretching for hours. I learn about him—he used to take photos, but now works for a financial company. He loves country music and line dancing. His laugh is mellifluous, infectious.
When we part, I fumble through my emotions. Do I feel anything? Am I drawn to him? Can he make the ghost go away?
(Why can’t I make him go away?)
To answer these questions, I turn to the ghost. How did I feel when I met you? I ask. He obliges.
A rush of memories: A tall, sandy-haired boy with a perpetual smile. A bonfire at the beach, my gaze sliding toward him again and again, insistent. A particular ache in my chest, to be near him, to be with him. A question posed to me, his half-hopeful, half-agonized face lit by the moon.
The feeling when I said yes.
I collect my memories—the memories of the ghost boy and of the new young man. I hold them close, then fan them out, the better to see.
Do I feel anything? Am I drawn to him?
No, I conclude. I scowl at the ghost. Can I ever be rid of him? Will he always color my perceptions of other young men, force me to compare?
And the most terrible question: Will I ever find the kind of love I once had?
A thought occurs to me, belatedly. This new young man may not be suited for me, may not be the one I want to pursue.
But perhaps the next one will be.
A friend tells me that thinking of past relationships sparks the same pathways in our brains that respond to drugs. I can be forgiven, then, for turning again and again to the memories that dump dopamine and serotonin into my synapses.
But I’m not comforted by the fact.
In the end, it won’t be another young man who vanquishes the ghost. At least, I hope it won’t be, lest that relationship also fails and I end up with two stubborn spirits rattling around in my head. God forbid.
It has to be me, doesn’t it?
I don’t like my odds—I’ve always been more of a feeler than a thinker; a raging Romantic (that is, the big-R, literary Romanticism of Byron, Shelley, and Keats)—but I don’t have much of a choice.
One way or another, I’ll take that recalcitrant ghost into my arms—the ghost who is also a time capsule of my high school years, a vestige of the girl I used to be; the fearful, starving girl who didn’t know the strength of her own voice—and kiss him goodbye for the last time.
And finally be free.
Hope Anderson is a writer and reader from Orange County, California. She doesn’t go to the beach as often as she should. Currently (and perpetually) waiting for the next installment in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy series, the Stormlight Archive.