Giving Up the Ghost

This is not a love story. It might have started out that way, but what began as meet cute turned into a tale of mutual haunting. I’m not writing this piece to prove the fact that I once had a lover who tried to ghost me and instead became my ghost. I don’t care if you believe me. Instead, I want you to know how I gave up my ghost, so that you can think about how you will achieve liberation from yours.

IMG_0395
Caption from Adam Fuss’ piece “My Ghost,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, May 2016

***

In college, we can acquire all sorts of ghosts. The enclosed bubble where we all live, learn, lust, and love can keep people, places, or things that we’d like to forget present in our lives. When I went to Wesleyan in May, a current student relayed that she and her friends have taken to playing “Usdan Bingo” in the cafeteria. The rules are simple – when you see someone who you or your friends want to avoid (due to romantic or sexual involvement), you shout, “Bingo!”

These young whippersnappers. In my day, we just called it” avoiding the salad bar because that guy I hate is getting tomatoes.”

I got a ghost in April of my junior year. Like many ghosts, he started off as my friend. Then he was more than a friend in quite a sudden succession of events. He made his intentions known from the first moment he entered my bedroom. Any girl would have believed the things he said. I certainly did. As e.e. cummings says, he swore by all flowers that his feelings had been there for a long time and that they were real.

It was exciting. We had a little secret for a couple of weeks. He bought me flowers on my birthday. We made plans to cook dinner. We read poetry together. I met his younger sister when we performed at an Easter service with a group of friends.

It was terrifying. In my previous years of college, I avoided vulnerability like it was a communicable disease. I made sure that no one knew how often I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never opened up to a romantic partner about how I felt, what I was afraid of, what challenged me. I’m a slow burner who needs time to get to know people before confiding in them, which the rapid and casual college scene does not foster. Though he had no problem expressing his feelings, I needed time to gain trust him in before I could articulate my admiration. Eventually, I decided that he was worth it.

I’m sure you want to know the details, the cute moments, the things about him that made my heart beat faster. But I’m not a sex writer. I don’t have a knack for portraying intimate scenes on paper, and more importantly I don’t want to. After my heartache was made public, as I’ll detail below, I need to cling to the stories that still feel like mine. This is where I need you to take a leap of faith. Believe me when I say that the three weeks I spent with this person set up a haunting dynamic that would span two years.

***

As quickly as it began, it was over. He ghosted me. Well, he tried to ghost me. I went through a rough week or so of “missed” texts and avoiding me in person until I asked him to come over to talk. He did, and let me know that we were through, in my living room, because he refused to enter any further into the house. And then, after delivering the news, he attempted to make conversation as if nothing had happened. I naively proposed that we could still be friends.

Well, wouldn’t that have been nice.

It would have been a typical boy-meets-girl, boy-fucks-girl, boy-dumps-girl type of story except for the fact that now I had to see him twice a week for the next year. I had to rehearse and sing a choral breakup song in front of him and our mutual friends, who remained happily in the dark. Over the summer, he was on campus just like I was. Senior year, he lived across the street from me with some people I was friends with. He acquired a new girlfriend faster than you could say, “Paulina who?”

Here’s the problem with my ghost: I could not, for the life of me, figure out why I was haunted by him. What was there to miss? He was rude to me in person. He ignored my presence in group settings. When he wasn’t ignoring me, he was being passive-aggressive. He would shoot down my suggestions, throw barbs, refuse to make eye contact, and other generally douchey behaviors. I just want to remind my dear readers at this point who dumped whom.

And even our rosy past was not all that rosy. Sure, there were really lovely moments. But, he had made racist and sexist comments, and also loved Hemingway (which is a major red flag in my book. When he told me he wanted to write like Hemingway, I said “wow,” when I should have said, “Oh, you mean in a way that fetishizes or ignores people of color, celebrates the patriarchy, and is devoid of any female perspective whatsover?” But I didn’t, because I wanted to get laid).

So why did he haunt me? Or rather, why did he insist on chomping into my Achilles heel on a weekly basis? Why wouldn’t he just go away so I could move on with my life and stop feeling angry? As Kate Nash asks, what was he being a dickhead for?

“Thirty five

People couldn’t count

On two hands the amount of times you made me stop

Stop and think why are you being such a dickhead for

Stop being a dickhead,

Why are you being a dickhead for

You’re just fucking up situations.”

And more troublingly, why did I care? Why did I let this ghost haunt me? I could have chosen to laugh him off and ride into the sunset like the badass lady that I am. I could have chased after every boy or girl on campus who looked my way and found myself a new bae.

But, I was dealing with a massive case of anxiety at the same time, which is another ghost for another essay. The long and short of it is this: in between trying medication, battling insomnia, mitigating social anxiety, and wrestling with a condition that had affected my quality of life since childhood, I had bigger ghosts to bust. I was not fit to be anyone’s bae or partner at the moment, because there’s really nothing sexier than a crying jag when you’ve been trying to fall asleep for four hours.

Finally, I still was hurt about the terms of our parting because I believed it was my fault. Though I could hide it from everyone else, he saw firsthand that I sometimes had insomnia. I convinced myself that my anxiety, inexperience, and cautiousness when it comes to vulnerability drove him away. When that’s the narrative your brain is feeding you, how can you not feel like crap?

Another solution would have been to kill my ghost with kindness. Honestly, I wasn’t very good at that. I was probably pretty transparent about the fact that I thought he was a dickhead. Also, if anyone has ever read Beloved, you know that being nice to a ghost is not a foolproof way to make it disappear. So ghostie and I lived crappily ever after until we graduated in May.

***

“It was done and there was nothing left to be

It turned out I’d been following him and he’d been following me.”

-Laura Marling, “Ghosts”

But, around October, six months after the haunting began, I suddenly had an inkling that there were two ghosts in this situation. A friend told me that she knew about our “thing” while I was on the elliptical. Have you ever received bad news on an exercise machine? It’s pretty awful. Neither your flight (run away) nor fight (pound something) instincts get you anywhere, and instead you’re trapped on a hamster wheel.

This friend later revealed that she had an inkling as to why this guy was being such a dickhead: Apparently, she and another mutual friend encountered the ghost in a drunken, tearful state shortly after he dumped me. He confessed the entire narrative to them, and was so distraught that they had to walk him home.

“I think he really had feelings for you,” my friend opined. “He got scared, couldn’t deal with them, still has them, and that’s why he’s being so awful.”

At this point, I immediately started crying. This alternate theory ran contrary to the pat narrative that I had constructed in my mind. I truly believed that I had brought the ghost upon myself due to my imperfections and inexperience. I wasn’t moved by the possibility of past feelings, or hope of reconciliation. Instead, I wondered if the whole thing hadn’t been my fault in the first place. Or if it had been my fault, so what? That did not mean that this whole situation hadn’t hurt him too, nor did it signify that I needed to continue fighting with myself. The possibility of self-forgiveness was more valuable to me than any apology I ever could have received.

Suddenly I saw myself as he saw me: a spectral, ever-present reminder of a time when he caused someone else pain. I seriously couldn’t imagine the emotional impotence that might cause my ghost to be unable to apologize, or the impulse to lash out at others for his own failings, but I recognized that we were both beating ourselves up in different ways. Slowly but surely, I decided to do what he couldn’t. I forgave myself.

“Well you have suffered enough

And warred with yourself

It’s time that you won.”

-“Falling Slowly”

As I moved on from my four year home and threw myself into a new city, new job, and new dating life, my ghost was truly out of sight, out of mind. He still popped up every now and then, mostly through social media. And I still felt twinges of our short time together. The pain I felt getting dumped via text by this OkCupid dude that I actually liked reminded me of the first time someone hurt me. But I got through it a lot quicker, partly thanks to the coping skills I developed as a result of my ghost.

Yet, it seems that my specter still haunted him even as we ceased to exist in the same bubble. At the time of the Super Bowl, I got a call from my friend, who ran into the ghost at a party. He was very intoxicated and confided in my friend that he was glad that our a capella group seemed to be going more smoothly this year.

My friend, who is the best, responded, “Well, that’s because you were a dick to Paulina last year.”

At this point, ghostie proceeded to:

-complain that I had unfriended him on Facebook

-ask if I hated him

-admit that he read my blog

-punch a refrigerator

-belligerently repeat that he was “not a scrub”

Readers, I have no way of verifying if this actually happened. I only know what was reported to me. And here’s what’s so weird about my ghost: whenever he seemed to be dormant, and I felt like I could finally move on, he’d pop up again in random circumstances. And it’s clear that I continued to haunt him. My friend suggested that if he felt so distraught about what happened between us, he should reach out. Given his radio silence (or drunken forgetfulness), it seems that he’s more content with haunting than with reconciliation.

But I’m not. I gave up the ghost.

I’ve given up all hope of getting an apology, or a reason for his dickheadery, or peace. More importantly, I’ve forgiven myself for being imperfect. I’ve gotten the problems that plagued me when I was with him under control, and I’ve learned and grown from other experiences with other partners.

I’m still on a journey to figure out what I want out of a romantic relationship, what kind of person I’d like to be with, and how I can be my truest self with someone else. At this point, I’m grateful that he helped me embark on this journey, and I’ve forgiven him for the roadblocks that he placed in my way. That’s all I can do.

I even spoke to him politely during our first reunion weekend. More surprisingly, he asked what I was up to, and ended with, “Talk later?”

I knew he was just saying that to end a conversation that, however short, was immensely awkward for him. So I said, “Sure,” when I knew it would never happen, and because it’s not socially acceptable to say “You don’t really mean that.”

We’re now in the same city, though I’m here temporarily, and I often wonder what I would do if I bumped into him on the subway. That’s where you meet everyone from college who has faded from your memory. I’m not quite sure what I would do, or what he would do. What I do know for sure is this: whatever the outcome, I would step out onto the platform and laugh out loud at the absurdity of the whole thing before taking my place in the stream of people who all have someone to forget.

***

As I started drafting this piece, Adele came out with her new music video, “Send My Love (To Your New Lover). It’s like she read my mind – she describes the process of starting something that seems real, getting hurt, and then giving up the ghost. She cheekily wishes him the best while dancing in a fabulous floral gown.

So, that’s what you can do. Put on your best flowery dress. Dance like the fucking goddess you are. Give it up. Forgive it all. Send love to his/her/their new lover. And I’ll make a quick correction to Adele’s lyrics here: while she insists, “you set me free,” I think we have more agency with our ghosts than we think. If we put the work in to get past what haunts us, and forgive ourselves as we forgive them, then we will eventually stand in our whole selves, ready to face whatever happens next.

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