where every party is a ghost story
After Halloween, all the ghosts come out. Nobody is expecting them now, so this is their time to shine. Things thrive when no one is looking. Life doesn’t happen in doorways, but in the spaces beyond them; it’s the rooms that ask something of us. A doorway is just the first hour of a party. Way in the back of the room is where the bargains and the conversations are, where the ghosts live. November is a month of ghosts, a time for reckoning with the things shut up in the attic, what you left behind, what already happened, what is leftover in rooms after parties and at the end of long days.
When it gets cold outside I clean my house, but once you’ve lived somewhere long enough, the floors are never actually clean. Too much has already occurred; the ghosts have long since been made welcome. November barrels into the calendar, wearing its costume from the night before, walking home through the hungover morning, dragging the end of the year behind it, broken heels and smeared makeup.
The Tony Hoagland poem I keep meaning to frame and hang up in my house is one of those poems where the title functions as a line in the poem. It doesn’t work, read aloud, without the title. “Reasons to Survive November.” November is my favorite month, and I have also worried that I would not survive it. I have often believed I might not survive my own ghosts, the buried things risen back up in the early dark.
I’m here again, back where I was when it all started. All the leaves are turning yellow, and falling off the trees. I go back to Aaron’s house, the first and last place in the world that feels familiar. I count on it to be unchanged. It is changed. I expected it, but seeing it I realize that there are some things it is impossible to expect. I sit on the couch, between the papers and the rearranged backyard, in the traces of the long year that is really two years now. The house is full of leftover ways to survive. I arrive with my own leftovers, my reasons to survive the year, and the next one, the long oncoming winter that offers no light down through the afternoons. I go out into the grey sky, on the street full of small rooftops. The air here still smells like a fireplace, like someone else’s house must be so warm.
The first time I was ever here, my story felt so big. I was so stupid, and I believed in everything. I would join any religion that smiled at me. There are parties again, and the parties want you to think that there have always been parties. Parties are a religion; my faith falters and fails. In the morning and then the afternoon, light cuts across the floors from the blue corner of the skylight where cats walk between skinny eaves and chimneys. The dust shatters into light; the leftover things reveal themselves.
I do not want to have changed. I never agreed to this. I want to be the room when I first saw it, gleaming like a magazine. I want to be the version of the past the future invents, innocent and possible, the whole floor clean, even the corners, without thinking about how it gets that way.
But it’s November, and everything is haunted. I am six ghosts in a trenchcoat, walking around an unfamiliar city smiling at people. In the park, the colors are turning, and it’s so beautiful that I feel dizzy. I reel myself down the broad walk, between the huge trees and the curved-back benches, the pillowy piles of leaves and the open fields beyond them, casting their wide arms out for the sunlight. At several younger junctures of my life I thought that I would live here. I planned whole other versions of myself for it. I was ready to become whomever it would change me into. Sometimes I miss her like a real person, like someone I knew and loved and then hurt too badly to know anymore.
Nobody wants to have changed; nobody knows how to talk to each other at parties anymore. But nothing happened to me, I want to say. Something happened to all of us, though, even those of us to whom nothing happened. That’s how we get ghosts, and that’s why the ghosts stay, populating the back corners of parties. In this weather, at this descending-chord time of year, people gather in rooms. It is cold outside, it gets colder. People arrange themselves into little balls of light and tight huddles of warmth, a gesture against the cold. The first time I was here I was a teenager and the thing I remember most is that one night I walked by a house on a square where at the top of a long stoop the door was open to the second floor and people in shiny puffed-up clothes were going in and out and gathering without their coats on the balcony. I wanted it the way you want to go home when you’re tired, the way you want the weather to change, the way you want someone to touch you when they haven’t in a long time, and maybe won’t ever again.
I’ve been inside that room now, but inside of the room almost never feels like the room. I can remember exactly one night when it did. But now it’s November and we are all looking for reasons to survive our ghosts, following the way down to the darkness at the bottom of the year. I walk home late; I put on tall shoes and do my hair. I don’t own any lipsticks anymore. Everything feels like a costume; everything feels like a dance out of an another era. I walk around dressed up as myself from two years ago, a ghost costume a day late for Halloween.
In a city where we don’t live, Thomas and I talk about the version of our life that would have made this street and these windows and these rooms home. We imagine the vocabularies of the everyday, going up and down the stairs, taking off our shoes, going outside and making a phone call in the cold. I wonder if we’re too old to keep imagining new versions of our life. I wonder when that stops, and if I’m already beyond it. Ghosts are an ache, the spaces where things were and now are not, the incorrectly caulked-up gaps that let the wind through. I guess every year I think the end of the year will never come, but this year I really did. We all age like houses, faster than we can do the necessary upkeep, faster than we want to acknowledge.
Overhearing conversations on the street, more than half of them include phrases like “coming back to the world.” But we were always in the world, I want to say, we never left it. Now we just drag our ghosts along with us, down into the belly of November, with its parties and its hauntings and its dust in the corner of the floor. The edges of the sky darken as winter comes in, setting in stores for a long approaching cold, when every warm room is a party, and every party is a haunting.
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