Discover more from Griefbacon
The day after Halloween I walk through the rain to see friends the way one sees friends now: Outside, at a distance, and, increasingly, in the cold. The day after Halloween used to be one of my favorite days. It often feels much spookier than the holiday itself, grey and final, nothing but a spare month between us and winter now. Decorations in the shape of vampires and zombies and ghouls hang awkwardly in doorways and hungover partiers stagger home clutching bagels and gatorade, halfway transformed backward from a witch or a pumpkin or a slutty topical reference into a normal person washing off their makeup, falling asleep on a couch or putting on a face for work, back into the dull and known world again.
I don’t see anyone dragging their costume home across Sunday, but it’s afternoon by the time I get outside and I may have just missed them. I want to say it’s this year, the circumstances, the pandemic, but I know that isn’t really it. The same parties are still happening this year. The ghost of everything that happened every other year follows us around, hums underneath the day. Costumes and parties embody the stubborn, blindered desire to act like everything is normal, to assert that some gleaming and glorified normal ever existed at all, as though our good lives were a fixed point to which we might return, and not a fiction nurtured by distance. The expectations that we refuse to let go of are a type of ghost too, dead things hanging around past their relevance.
Somewhere there are still parties, and on the day after Halloween, I am sure people still struggled home hungover in decaying costumes at daybreak. Pretending that nothing has changed is a way of living with ghosts, or maybe a way of being a ghost oneself. We are haunted by the futures we imagined for ourselves, and by the year we were supposed to have. The ghost of the old year, of the old story, runs right underneath this one, following us incorporeal from room to room and from day to day.
When the president calls New York a ghost town he’s right, just not in the way he means. Friends post photos of verdant parks and crayon-colored streets, of neighborly stoop-sitting and well-populated restaurants spilling festively off the curbs. They sarcastically title these photos “ghost town.” They mean to say how wrong he is about the city. But New York has been a ghost town from its inception, which began in theft and violence. Injustice always creates ghosts, leaves behind the untold stories straining to be heard and hungry for vengeance. “Ghost town” is a sincere and accurate caption on any photo of New York, or anywhere in America, or anywhere at all. All we have are ghost towns; that’s what societies are. We live soaked in the sins and the compromises of the people who made our places, walking thin sidewalks over the piled-up bodies below.
After Halloween the end of the year crashes in, the cold-weather a reminder that nothing endures, that everything becomes ghosts. Skeletons and puffy styrofoam graves absorb the rain on the stoops of building along the small blocks on the dreary first day of November, when it feels like winter and gets dark earlier. Everything has come too fast this year, every season a rude surprise without fanfare. I am always lagging behind, unfinished, waiting for someone to give me a cue, to tell me what is happening next.
It shouldn’t be winter yet, it shouldn’t be October, and it certainly shouldn’t be November. Halloween shouldn’t be over and neither should summer. Somewhere it is still the second week of February and I am at a party in a short dress, I am having one of those shot-though-with-gold perfect days, the night is chilly and kind and it’s a new year and everything is going to be redeemed, everything is going to work this time. All my plans will at last come to fruition, all my old wishes will come true.
It rains and it’s November and the end of the year is coming, the days are shorter and the weeks and months and years themselves get faster. Blaming a year is an excuse; for me to blame most anything is an excuse, even when I’m right about it. I have spent most of this year shut up in small rooms with my excuses, which means I am lucky, which means I have the capacity to come in from the cold and stay there, and which means I am, to greater or lesser degree, monstrous, haunting my own apartment, swimming in comfort and calling it privation, awake at night, eyes glowing in the darkness, full of rage.
Last year around Halloween some friends and I went on a ghost tour downtown; it was cute, and not really scary, and then we walked to the subway and pointed out all the places where we had had nights out together ten years before, the street corners where we had kissed someone, had a bad conversation or a great one, gotten dumped, gotten the text we were waiting for, gotten very bad news, the places lit up loud across the map, skewering it into aggressive meaning. A ghost town is a place where the past never recedes, where we are always living in our own stories, dragging our memories around behind us, making a horrible scraping sound across the floor in the middle of the night.
The ghosts here are much older than that; this year’s sort of tragedy is nothing new to New York. Somewhere under the gracious sidewalks and million-dollar homes are the dead from yellow fever and cholera and Spanish flu, from wars and poverty and colonization, piled up in indiscriminate heaps in the former potter’s fields and more official burial grounds that lurk underneath much of the city downtown. Most cities are mass graves; New York is not unique in this. Places acquire history and history acquires a body count, quickly losing the details of names and faces, too busy with getting on to the next thing.
In a year when we have been denied collective mourning, what else is there but ghosts? What else is the world we move through but a ghost town, hoarding the record of what has been lost? We try to numb out tragedy by talking about it incessantly, so that death is just the weather, oh look, it’s raining again, small talk to start up conversations. The end of the world is a polite background noise, a new way of asking if the email has found us well. It would be easier if tragedy were a costume, a role we step into or don’t, something only to be willingly assumed.
But what it is instead is a haunting: The things we have lost come for us whether or not we invite them in, they invade the corners of the rooms, they hang in the doorways and at the ceilings, they fill the space and swallow us whole. Loss is always threatening to eat up the whole picture, to leave nothing else behind. Grief is a stain that spreads across the landscape. Grief is the early dark in November. It digs in its heels, refuses to be metabolized so easily into our conversations and our schedules and our days. The numbers tip over into the unreal. The streets are full of bodies and the cities are full of ghosts. Neighbors forget to take their Halloween decorations down; I walk home and think about lonely Christmases, the arriving winter, the rushing dark, the swelling list of names, and whatever is coming for us next.