The Gift That Keeps On Taking

My boyfriend is a ghost. He haunts my apartment on Avenue D in Alphabet City, what gentrifiers call the up-and-coming part of the East Village. Every morning he lingers in the kitchen and makes me coffee, whether I want it or not. On my way to the bathroom, I find my lucky tiger mug filled and steaming by the microwave, or he brings it to the bed, where I am drifting awake amid the rumpled sheets. Since I’ve been with him, sitting up takes all my will. Even after a full night’s sleep, my limbs are heavy, too weary to move.

He speaks and I imagine I can feel his warm breath. I move in closer, offering my lips to his, and when we touch, I drink, gulping at his heart. His kisses are deeply passionate. He crawls into my mouth; then he sinks into my body and I never know where I end and where he begins.

If I am honest, there is an aftertaste, a whiff of something sour, spoiled, leaking from his insides. I fold away that niggling thought like a Kleenex in a jacket pocket, forgotten but ready for a future moment. Instead, I choose to remind myself that his kisses are why I stay with him. But not even I know what is true anymore.

I first saw him while I was working at a trendy night spot called the Drowned Lotus, using the name Mystery. It was one of those ultra-private, themed hostess clubs with a discreet townhouse exterior, like a worm hidden inside the big fat apple. The best title to describe my job was “modern geisha.” The fact that none of the hostesses except Kimiko were Japanese didn’t much matter to the clientele.

Descending into the miasma of cigarette smoke and perfume, I was armed for social warfare in my stormy violet kimono, the one all the men admired. It was iridescent and shimmery like the wings of a dragonfly. My face, well hidden under a thick glaze of alabaster powder: smudged charcoal eyes, sticky glitter on my demon-red pout. I was there to charm, to serve, to entertain with my useless conversation as I coaxed egos by way of erections, accepting tips with my practiced, mysterious smile.

Twice a night, management made all us girls gather in a single-file line of platform geta and daddy issues. The tuxedoed band would blow its boozy horns and tickle the drums as we paraded across the stage for our moment in the spotlight. The emcee’s cloudy whispers brushed the microphone as he introduced us by false name after false name. We shuffled in a spectacular display, ready to be picked like juicy lemons in a market stall —all of us keenly aware that if we were the sweeter kind of fruit, we wouldn’t be working in a place like this.

Handsome, with a gentle smile, he pointed at me, my soon-to-be boyfriend. When I approached, he asked my name. I flirted by leaning forward hands resting coquettishly on my knees.

“Does it matter?”

“It does to me.”

“Then it’s whatever you want it to be.” He opened his thighs giving me enough room to dance. My fake eyelashes brushed my cheeks as I waxed and waned behind my hand-painted silk fans. I must have looked odd, wiggling in front of an empty chair, but both girls and customers shrugged, since it was not the strangest request they’d seen fulfilled.

I went home with him that night to his tiny apartment around the corner, and we lay together on his mattress until the stars were washed away by the rainy morning. He caressed my cheek and, in a whisper, recited, “Twice or thrice had I lov’d thee, before I knew thy face or name.”

John Donne, I murmured, recalling the name from my uncompleted college days. Instead of sinking into slumber, I should have recollected the verse properly. Then I’d have remembered: the next few lines of the poem made me “some lovely glorious nothing.”

My grandmother said it is a gift to have enough empathy to see the dead. She never spoke of the difficulty in telling the difference. When we started dating, I wrongly believed he had a pulse. He fooled me with the easy throbbing beat as his firm chest clasped against my back. Addicted to his sweet honey sweat, our tongues intertwined and I imagine that for the first time I found a new home.

He talks about his past and I can see him get smaller, shrinking into a frightened little boy with dark hair and maudlin eyes of gold and green, a leprechaun’s dream. Reduced to a fetal state, he descends into an uneven sleep, rocked awake by discarded memories. I curl around his tiny form each steamy summer night as he makes a shallow, wrinkled depression in the icy sheets.

When morning breaks, he is again grown, a milky figure that my hand cannot quite pass through. I ask where his body is. He looks at me thoughtfully and with a half-smile that deepens the dimples in his cheeks, assures me it’s somewhere safe.

After about a month, he presented me with my own set of keys. The grumpy Albanian landlord found me living there, and I took over the lease. Rent for the apartment was turn-of-the-century low, since he couldn’t keep a tenant because of the opening and closing of the refrigerator door and the angry scrubbing whenever dirty dishes were abandoned in the sink.

I unpacked my clothes and my new boyfriend told me that they didn’t suit my body. The ones he did not throw away, I placed in the one closet we shared. I took the right side and he pushed his things to the left.

A locked chest shoved toward the back crowded most of the closet space. It was large enough to fit a small child inside. I knelt to examine it more closely. My fingers traced his name intricately carved on the side, T-R-I-S-T-A-N. My hands moved to the brass latch. He appeared, sitting on the top as if he had enough weight to keep it closed, the clothes on hangers a makeshift movie screen for the projection of his face. His eyes smiled though his mouth did not. I felt like a child caught with candy in my mouth.

He said his father made it for him when he was young, and he would rather I didn’t pry. Come on, I teased, no secrets. The lock frosted over instantly, sticking as I impatiently tried to free the contents. The cold was a shock to my tender skin, and a thin layer ripped free to leave my fingertips raw and exposed. Not once did the flat expression leave his eyes. Some things, he said, are not to be shared. To neatly avoid the prickly beginnings of our first disagreement, I wholeheartedly agreed.

He told me to cut my hair. He said it would look much better with the shape of my face. He was right. He told me to overdraw my lip line when I applied the wine-colored stain he chose for me. I did. He told me that life and circumstance did most of the killing, but it was his last girlfriend, Ana, who finished him off in the end. Then I found a picture of Ana partially hidden beneath his wooden chest and saw that I was looking at what could be a version of myself.

His furniture was scavenged from construction sites and sidewalk trash. A gigantic wooden spool, once a cable reel, was now a television stand. A photographer’s light with a blue umbrella was now our only lamp. All romantically bohemian.

His whole lifestyle made sense when he said that he was going to be an actor. Not an action star but the soulful kind. He gave me an envelope. Inside was his Screen Actors Guild membership that he wanted me to pay. He told me they were never notified that he was gone.

“This arrangement is temporary, just until I finish my screenplay.”

I eagerly listened to his plan, which soon became mine. I could put school on hold another year to help my soulmate. We made misty love on a misty day. I’ll help you, I told him. In my heart, I believed that having this purpose would bring him back to life.

Every morning, he makes me tea whether I want it or not. On my way to the bathroom I find my lucky dragon mug filled and steaming in the microwave with the bag already steeped: Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast, Darjeeling, which I have grown to like only after years of his ignoring my polite refusals. Sometimes there will be a small plate holding a madeleine cookie.

He then makes the bed. Tugs open the mini blinds and gets dressed as if he has somewhere to go. With nothing more to do, he sits in his chair that overlooks the dingy courtyard where not even the sun cares to visit.

From my earnings, I bought him a computer and a writing program he claimed he needed for his new vocation. I called the electric company to turn on the lights and Time Warner for access to cable.

Each evening I kiss him goodbye as I walk around the corner to the Lotus. I return a shade before daylight to find him sitting in the same place I left him, staring at his screen, energetically mashing the mouse buttons while playing a multiplayer online video game.

He says he is hungry. I order pizza but he doesn’t eat. I shower and lie down, but he doesn’t join me to sleep. I wake during the night and look over to see him hunched in the chair, his face in his hands bathed in flickers of light left over from the brand-new television.

When the noontime sun pushes through the blinds, I find him wrapped around me and a steady pull coming from somewhere deep inside. An internal faucet of mine is open, and he is having his fill. Some invisible part of me ruffles the hair at the nape of my neck as my soul is siphoned into his waiting mouth. I am paralyzed until he smacks his lips, satisfied on whatever he has stolen.

Danger, I think. Danger. I struggle to hold onto the feeling that this is wrong, but he erases the feeling from my mind as he bonds with my skin.

I got upset. He had been playing video games for weeks, months. Normally I am patient, but I was growing tired of this stagnant life. There was no more talk of the screenplay. When I brought it up, he raised the volume on the television and raised the volume on his game until I could hear the sound effects leaking from his headphones.

We argued. Although it was not the first time, this fight was the loudest. It was only my voice anyone heard as I screamed toward the ceiling in frustration. He said my neighbors called me the crazy lady. I told him I became this way only after I met him. He sneered in my face and slammed me against the wall, pushing his words inside my head. He screamed that he was a gift and my small mind couldn’t comprehend what I truly had. Good-looking ghosts are rare, he said, and I didn’t deserve him. He said I was full of ingratitude, to take for granted the love that was in front of me. His words bounced around in my skull.

“I am a prince,” he shouted, “A PRINCE!”

Ana, he said, at least was supportive. Ana, he said, was inspirational. I could see only how anger had twisted his mouth and darkened his eyes into bottomless black pools. I tried to slap his face, but he made his flesh a brooding fog. I hit nothing.

In books and on screen, I had seen bodies splayed on the floor, gravity and physics taking their toll, eyes staring at some dimension beyond. There is supposed to be no ego in death. Suffused as he was by a pall of anger, his masquerade of love was momentarily abandoned, and for the first time, I truly saw who or what he was.

I begged him to find some useful employment, suited of course to his current state of demise. He said that he deserved a career equal in fame and success to that of the Barrymores or the Sutherlands. I tried to gently remind him that to be an actor, he must be visible. But you can write, I told him. You can pound the keys and produce a screenplay that can be sold. And wouldn’t that be something, I said: a script written by a ghost!

What would you know? he asked me. How would a trashy girl like you possibly know what quality is? He faded away, leaving me alone until a hard sleep engulfed me. Then he kept me awake by shaking the mattress and clanging pots and pans.

I dressed despite the hour, desperate to leave. The knob on the front door twisted endlessly in my hands and the deadbolts wouldn’t budge. My fists pounded uselessly as I screamed for help, but my neighbors just shrugged at the pleadings of the crazy lady. Imploring any residual humanity, I begged him to let me leave, but he refused.

I needed help, but where could I turn?

Speaking hoarsely into the receiver, I called in sick. Days slipped by until a week, then two, had passed. There was no food left, but thankfully the nightly tantrums disappeared. I lay on the bed, weak, wondering when it was exactly that I had made the wrong wish for this prince.

He once again appeared. In the flimsy shadows he mimicked a Modigliani, stretched by the dimness. He moved inside me and I knew my body was filled with our cancerous love. It gathered in my throat and made it impossible to breathe, impossible to swallow my revulsion. I sobbed into my pillow as little by little I felt what passed for this pathetic love escape.

He wept with me and apologized, telling me it was his parents’ fault and the world’s fault that he was like this. He told me the bruises on my arm were my fault. They wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t pulled away. In my thoughts I noted that the fault was never his own. He said he didn’t want to argue anymore, and when the door unlocked and the window opened, it was such a sad sound…because although the way was clear, I was still trapped.

On the outside, I gave him a tight smile. Inside, I silently screamed.

I readied myself for work, putting nothing suspicious in my bag. Everything I had in this apartment could be replaced. I tried not to look too eager to leave. After telling him goodbye, I walked down the three flights, where I found him waiting patiently on the sidewalk.

“Coffee,” I whispered as I nodded toward the Starbucks across the street. Inside, I was hoping his jurisdiction began and ended within this one-block radius. I paused at the crosswalk, even though I was eager to dash headlong into the moving cars. Bruises bloomed on my arm as his death grip stopped me from crossing. He herded me toward the club, and in my periphery, I saw him guarding the exit. Grudgingly, I headed to the dressing room.

Periodically through the night, I watched him watching me dance. If anyone at the Drowned Lotus noticed the difference in my demeanor, they didn’t say anything. The other girls just shrugged, because they had boyfriend problems of their own.

When my shift ended and the club closed, he was waiting by the sidewalk to escort me home.

New York elected a new mayor with new promises that enforced new zoning laws. This new bit of legislation banned all the hostess clubs from the snooty East Side, forcing all adult entertainment to relocate to tawdrier neighborhoods. The Drowned Lotus shut down.

I could no longer afford the rent. I couldn’t move in a roommate. How could I possibly begin to explain my relationship? The electricity was about to be shut off. Cable service was partially paid, and that only by overdrawing my checking account by three hundred dollars. He knew I was stuck. I didn’t have enough money to leave.

On top of it all, my boyfriend pouted daily. He grumbled about how we seldom ate together like civilized people. I tried to explain how difficult it was for me to stay upright, let alone use a fork, when he was draining my energy. He pointed out that with my job, I didn’t need a soul anyway.

I understood, I can’t live this way anymore.

Under the guise of searching for work, I kissed him goodbye and rode the subway around the city as I looked for a new apartment. I wanted to be far away from the creeping web of his extensive reach.

From an ad in craigslist, I discovered a lease takeover in the East Village. I put in a change of address at the post office and had the utilities set to be transferred at the end of the month. One Tuesday I left, and I didn’t look back.

For two days I sat in the dark in my new, empty place. I smiled at the thought of him realizing that this time, I was truly gone. I stretched wide, embracing my newfound freedom.

I went to the grocery store for the first time in months and cooked an actual meal instead of eating from folded Chinese cardboard or the plastic-topped foil containers. I took long airy walks and read books, something impossible to do with him always watching TV. I happily left dirty dishes in the sink and I had yet to make my bed.

After a week of useless job interviews, I strolled up to my new front walk and climbed my new stairs leading to my new apartment to find his carved wooden chest blocking my new front door. A shipping notice was affixed to the side. Boxes holding my recently abandoned things were stacked to the hallway ceiling and my next-door neighbor was in the hallway frowning.

My boyfriend opened the door and said offhandedly, “I always hated that apartment.”

I entered to find the apartment spotlessly clean and all the delivered furniture placed exactly as it had been at the old address. He began to groan and complain about the slovenly behavior of the previous tenant and the outrageous price of these new digs, as if he had to pay, and how the movers waited for hours, looking through my belongings for a tip.

Suddenly nothing had changed but the name of the street. My joy collapsed, falling to subterranean depths, probably to be consumed by the rumored alligators in the sewer.

I went back down the stairs and didn’t return until the moon had eaten the sun.

Under the name Echo, I found a job at the Litter Box, a newly opened club on a seamy street hidden deep in the bowels of the West Side. It was one of those surreal places with high heels and low morals, and it made my time at the Drowned Lotus seem tame by comparison. I knew it was degrading work, but it kept me away from home.

At the Box, I painted on whiskers and donned pointy ears. I clipped my Abyssinian tail to the back of my thong and huddled with the Tabbies and Calicos under the wan cone of light from the indoor streetlamps that line the selection hall. Like felines in heat, the girls rubbed up against every customer who passed by, hoping to be chosen.

Whenever a client paused and looked my way, I cringed inside and clenched the lamp pole as tightly as my paws would allow. I knew what went on in the shadowy alleyways that tunneled throughout the club. I’d seen the girls drop to their knees or press their faces against the pretend-brick walls as darkened figures pumped them rhythmically from behind. After poor attempts at smoothing ruffled fur, the girls would sniff what they call “kitty-nip” from their index claw and settle back under the lamp. I started drinking to get through the night as I scratched out living.

Tonight, like so many other nights, I’ll leave the club owing more than I made. In this world, respecting yourself does not pay well, and I fear it is too late for me to learn a new profession that requires anything else.

Weary of being in stilettos, I limp backstage. The splintered wooden bench in the dressing room snags a corner of my fishnet tights. The more I try to unwind the material, the more it just tangles. Looking at the twisted nylon threads reminds me of all the words I want to tell him, that living with him is like suffocating in a cave, groping in the dark for a rope.

And after months of searching, I finally stumbled across tattered end. Disregarding its decay, I climbed it, hoping it would lead me to the sunlight…but instead it unraveled between my fingers like the black strings of my cheap stockings. And I fell, further down from where I started, and the whole sordid business comes full circle.

I want to tell him that I am pregnant from one the times we had sex whether I wanted to or not. Who knew I needed protection with a ghost? I know for him there will be only one choice—one choice that I’ll have to pay for in three ways, financially, physically and emotionally. All the while, he’ll sit in that same corner, untouched by my new triad of pain.

I want to tell him all of this, to share my hurt, my loneliness, and the mountains of regret and shame that I see when I look at him. But I don’t. I don’t think I can survive another fight. Inside I know I am finally broken, while he remains immaculately preserved.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked a Russian Blue, feverishly brushing out the mats in her crusted tail fur.

I ripped my tights free and sank to the floor. “I need to get rid of a ghost.”

The Russian Blue just shrugged. “My cousin Brenda is a medium. She can help.”

The next day, Brenda knocked on the door, and as agreed, pretended to be a work friend. She mumbled something about borrowing a flask, but her words stopped as my boyfriend looked her way. Caught staring, she averted her eyes from where he was sitting immersed in the rapid gunfire of the latest version of Draft Dodger. I was ecstatic and my heart did a little flip.

“You can see him?”

“I can see him and touch him because I’m three-quarters dead. I’d be a hundred percent dead, but I didn’t let the fucker finish me off. You make him real and he probably does the same for you. You’re half dead yourself. Your spirit, anyway. Don’t look at me like that. From childhood, it looks like—that’s when you began to die. Two broken puzzle pieces pretending to match and make a whole.”

I pretended to show her around the apartment. From her bag, Brenda unpacked candles, chalk, dried herbs, stones. I left the refrigerator door open to block her actions as she drew symbols on the floor. She lit the candles and tossed what I presumed to be magical dust at the shifting flames. She told me to urinate on the stones. After I returned from the bathroom with them, she rolled them in the dried herbs. Under my breath, I uttered the incantation she had written out on a sheet of notebook paper.

We both looked toward the computer. His form wavered not one bit.

The medium just shrugged. “I don’t think he is all-the-way dead.”

“Yes, he is,” I assured her. He had to be.

She unwrapped a minty piece of gum and folded it into her mouth as she walked to the smaller bedroom closet. She opened the door and pointed at the carved wooden chest. “He’s clinging to something, sugar, and it’s not you.”

He materialized in front of the door. I stiffened and mustered a cheery farewell as he held it open for Brenda to walk through. The door slammed so hard on her back that she tripped forward and the windows in the bedroom rattled.

His wooden chest of possible answers filled up my mind. I needed to wear him out, force him to expend energy the only way I knew how.

“I hate you loser!” I screamed. I ran and stupidly attempted to lock myself in the bathroom. Instead of pushing himself through the wood, he battered and kicked the door.

The sudden quiet stole my breath. I waited.

The screws on the hinges rotated slowly outward, then clattered one by one to the floor. With one final shove, part of the jamb sheared off as the door finally gave way. I tried to crawl to the corner by the toilet. He was standing there as if he had read my mind. I turned and raced to the window, pushed it open swiftly, and tried to jump. My only thoughts were of escape. He yanked me by my feet before I got my head outside and locked the window behind me.

I once more huddled on the floor. He laughed loudly. “You think you can get rid of me? I will never let you leave.”

I gave up fighting back and became a ragdoll. The back of my head crashed into the wall tiles as he clamped my shoulders, painfully shaking me and screamed inside my skull. “You love me,” he said. “YOU LOVE ME!”

My plan was working but I need to distract myself. I retreat further into my mind focusing on how pretty the tiles are in their gritty blue and solemn white. Pretty, pretty tiles in what I once considered my pretty, pretty bathroom. There were so many things I wanted to say, but ragdolls don’t talk. They sit on beds and smile. I pulled up the corners of my mouth and grinned with my eyes.

My back felt stiff against the porcelain bathtub. The light above the sink exploded. Somewhere I heard an echo of his voice saying, “I’m not a loser. I’m more than that. I’m more than your puny mind can ever imagine.”

In that sunny place where I currently existed, I stretched out and enjoyed the comfort of that welcoming tub and the silence that enwrapped me. My senses insulated themselves in a thick layer of cottony gauze. I am not here.

My hair prickled, alerting me to his presence. I felt him sidle up next to me. He hated that there was no reaction. I must continue to stay passive. I was forced to remind myself that this ragdoll was somewhere else. He squeezes my chin between his thumb and index finger then tilted it upwards enough to glare into my empty lacquered eyes, glassy in the moonshine.

Unseen hands turned the shower on with the spout angled toward my face. I refused to move. Refused to let him see how much he was hurting me. Javelins of abusively hot water struck at my skin until it was numb. I turned my head and the spray pounded my ears like the drops were pebbles on a shell roof. He is a monster.

The bathroom window shattered outward and I didn’t even flinch. The winter wind surging through the falling water transformed it into cool mist drifting down. For an instant, the faint smell of chlorine transported me back to the pool I frequented when I was young. I could savor the moment because I was not here.

The cyclone abruptly ended and the unusual tranquility returned me to my senses. I turned off the water. From the bone-deep quiet, I could tell that for now he had gone. I peeled off my soaked clothes and hung them to dry on the bathtub rim and stood nude in the delicate moonshine.

If he was not dead, then I needed to find out what was truly going on.

Wet footprints left a trail on the wood floors as I rushed to the closet. I slid open the door and pulled his carved chest forward. I felt the hot breath of time panting down my neck as I opened the latch.

Inside the trunk were memories. Photos of his ex-girlfriends, most with him, some without, some taped back together. Jealous pangs sliced through me. We had no pictures. It was as if we never existed as a couple. I dug deeper. Pornographic magazines, one of my missing bras in a pile of other bras I didn’t recognize. Heavily outlined books on acting, letters from his father. One asking if Tristan liked the chest.

I found nothing incriminating, nothing telling, until I pulled out a red twenty-sided die and found a Bellevue wristband with the name John Doe and a patient-identification number typed underneath.

A short phone call to the hospital informed me that the patient was transferred years ago, and an hour later, I found myself walking through the glass double doors of a convalescent home in Tribeca. I gave the man at the desk the patient number and he gave me an odd look in response. He pushed forward one of those clipboards with an inkless pen attached. I pressed the nub to the blank sheet and scrawled out my least-favorite actress’ name.

Following the directions, I walked down the hall and tried not to inhale the sickly combination of pine cleaner and encroaching death. I slowed my pace to stop the echo my shoes made on the gleaming linoleum. From the looks of the instrumentation in every room, this place had to cost a fortune.

The door to John Doe’s room was ajar. I entered.

I recognized my boyfriend immediately, or rather his body anyway. He lay on the hospital bed, head propped up by fluffy pillows, with an expression of serenity I had never seen on his face. A respirator accordioned up and down with each push of breath. A machine beeped steadily as his vitals were graphed onto a nearby screen.

Tristan’s spirit appeared next to me and we both looked down on his inert form. “She was cheating on me,” he said. “I found the ticket stubs in her top drawer. It was almost as if she wanted to get caught. Now her rich husband pays for my care, hiding my identity to save her from prosecution.”

He swung over the railing and lined his bodies up together. I could see his ethereal mouth move while his physical one remained still. The sight was unnerving.

“Everyone in my life has let me down. I’m a great guy. I’m loyal and honest and I deserve to be loved. I deserve to be adored as I adore. All she could talk about was security and a future.” His shoulders shrugged upward past his body, then settled back down.

I was about to say, “That doesn’t explain how you got into this state.” But I stopped myself, because I was wrong. Ana probably bashed in his head, or ran him over with a car, or whatever happened to put him in a coma, in an attempt to make him understand that her needs existed too. He was here as a result of her frustration. Not my method, but I understood. His selfishness brought him here. His belief that he is the gold at the end of his own rainbow.

Tristan needs attention. He needs sympathy. He doesn’t want to have to try to be a complete person because failing in that would mean he is human. I shuddered at the realization. Part of this was my fault. I had been enabling him.

“You treat me poorly,” I said. “Our life together is unfair. I wasn’t placed on this earth to support you.”

He reached for my hand. I tried to pull away. “I support you, too. That’s what love is. Can’t you see? I’m just a little lost, is all. This isn’t me. Can’t you remember all the good times we had?”

What good times were those? We never went anywhere. Maybe to the park or that one time to the museum on my birthday. What I remember is having to go to housing court alone because I was late on rent. Or the days when I went hungry while he fed on me then comforted me with lies.

The uncontrollable bark of my jagged laugh even startled me.

He could see that his words were having no effect. His voice hardened in a way that was all too familiar. “You were nothing before me.”

Once again, he looked like a sad little boy. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to tell him everything would be all right. But I had already lived through this manipulation.

There never was a future to be had with a narcissistic ghost. He is lonely, but so am I. And you shouldn’t feel lonely in a relationship. He wants to live in the fantasy of his mind, but unfortunately there is a real world that barges through. A real world of hospital beds, bills, and accountability for your actions.

I tossed the found hospital bracelet onto his pillow. Everyone on this planet must face reality and eventually he has to face it too.

I made my heart indifferent and covered it with gathered stones. He was still talking as I turned to leave. Something about famous people being treated better, and if he were famous, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I would be showing him the respect he deserved. Deserve. I never want to hear that word again. Knowing that naming my abuser is the first step toward healing, next to patient 3306116 I wrote, “Tristan Ford.” And under it I scribbled my name. Not Mystery, or Echo or the double of Ana he wanted me to be. Those names were all dead to me and only the truth endured. “Brianna,” I wrote then as an afterthought followed it with the word “survived.”

Suddenly, the sterile air felt denser, and a dark veil settled over his body like a peaking eclipse. The profound pressure of a newly opened void threatened to burst my eardrums, but it passed, leaving a shadowy tether. An ember of hope flickered to life as he was wrenched back, our trauma bond severed, and for the first time he was unable to follow me down the hall.

My boyfriend is a ghost, but he doesn’t have to be. The tender part of my heart that fed his soul has cast itself in a silvery blue and is now scarred to osmium density, a lustrous trace element impenetrable both physically and spectrally. The leftover pity that now fills my hollow spaces has a frightening potency that leaves him sulking. The moody silence remains fixed, a barbed-wire tightrope forever separating us.

Every morning he makes me a drink, whether I want it or not. He says I’m more fun when I’m drunk. Lately it’s been straight vodka, but he is also known to use gin. On my way to the bathroom I find my pessimist mug filled to the midway line with warm clear liquor still crackling the ice. Directly below the line in white typeset letters the mug says, “this glass is now half empty.” And it is.

Today, after I dump out the cocktail, I brush my teeth, then place my toothbrush in my bag. I slowly pull on my clothes and pat my half-phantom belly, resigned to the lingering repercussions of this pile of poor decisions. Before me, he dissolves in a spiral as the prison of his body pulls him back. It has happened regularly since the hospital.

When I close the door behind me, the keys stick in the deadbolt. I just shrug and leave them where they are. Whoever takes over the lease will be needing them anyway. I don’t bother to look back as I descend the stairs.

Em Dupre lives in a state of fluid juxtaposition. She loves being published but hates writing bios.

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