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.