At My Back I Always Hear
Written By: Amy Smith Linton
We broke up over a ghost. Or ghosts. Any sort of apparition might have served, I guess, but in the end it was the ghost of my father that caused us to divide our property and stop talking to each other.
My father. Imagine that. A reluctant transformation brought on by the ghost of Daddy-O, just like Hamlet. Or actually not just like, since Hal had a country to protect and the perfidy of his royal uncle to uncover. All I had at stake was a dank little college apartment full of hand-me-downs and a frowsy old cat who dropped hanks of dust-colored fur whenever she left her spot on the couch. And oh, not to forget, the man I loved.
It was inevitable that I loved Xavier. At first sight. Deeply. Like a bolt of lightning. Naturally. If you’re falling, you might just as well fall hard, embrace every cliché, dive deep into that oily water. I thought he was brilliant, amazing, fascinating. I imagined his genius would change the world. He was the smartest person I’d met. Might be the smartest I will ever meet, though I have since come to value this quality less, one way and another.
Even now, ages later, I remember falling in love with him as a series of astonishments, as if Xavier were a pulsar strobing light into the universe. Everything dark then LIGHT, dark LIGHT, dark LIGHT, a set of facts frozen and flashed into memory. These things surprised me inside-out: His long legs and narrow chest, his thousand interests. His hair the color of varnished cherry-wood. He was a science-fair kid, the kind who made a parabolic reflector to cook hot-dogs and designed experiments to test ESP and the effect of positive thought on plant-growth. Even when they weren’t chapped, his lips were ruby-red in his pale face. He double-majored in biology and philosophy. He practiced his trumpet, star-gazed on clear nights, and kept a life-list of birds. In his junior year at college when we met, he wrote a paper about mitochondrial structure and function that he ended up presenting at a conference in Germany the following summer. He read Emmanuel Kant for extra credit.
Oh when I think of it now: the smell of autumn wood-smoke, and the pairs of our chapped lips kissing, the dopey pumpkin-colored corduroy jacket he wore. He kissed with his eyes open and his trumpet-playing hands on either side of my face, strong fingers controlling and inexpressibly tender. We were Andrew Marvelling our way through first love: we spent a month, I think, just kissing. Wherever we went, we drifted together like continents and kissed until it was time to go to the next place. Had we but world enough and time, we might have spent two hundred years on second base, and another three on third.
Never enough world and time, however, so we moved in together by Christmas, breaking the news to his parents carelessly, so certain in our decision to be together that we probably never took our eyes off each other the whole weekend we spent under their roof. I can’t say we hoped for a star-crossed or forbidden love but we were prepared to sever domestic ties in a huff had they offered any argument.
Resistance however, was unlikely: his family’s church-going Catholicism had already been put to the sword by his older siblings and there was little left of my family to forbid anything. I was –– and am –– an only child. My father died when I was a freshman in high school. My mother simply shuffled along the mortal coil, sighing, gentle and perpetually dispirited. When I told her that Xavier and I had rented an apartment, she sighed and said, “You might want to wait before you…” She let the sentence hang unfinished as we washed dishes.
I remember thinking then, if this lamp-lit moment in her kitchen had a subtitle: As if I could hold back. As if I would want to wait. As if there could ever be another love like this. Instant fire in every pore, indeed.
Xavier and I found –– not the cold, writerly garret of my dreams –– but a depressing subsidized housing unit just a little too far from campus. With thin walls and undersized appliances that never looked clean, our cramped apartment was half basement, tucked into the hillside. It smelled of someone else’s coconut oil and saffron and fenugreek. The neighbors on each side had loud arguments in the middle of the afternoon when I was toiling at my pink thrift-store desk.
The floors were bare because we had no rugs and the walls were bare because we could not settle who was better aesthetically at picking and placing pictures. Strangely enough, I thought the issue would simply resolve itself: either Xavier or I would make a compelling case for superiority and the matter would be decided.
When neither of us would give in, and we came to an impasse, I attempted to give in. I used that bellwether phrase, “Whatever,” but Xavier wouldn’t take the hollow victory.
“If I put that picture up, you’ll still hate it,” he said.
“You’ll be passively aggressive.”
“Something will accidentally happen to it.”
“Only if I’m lucky.”
And so we lived in an industrially bare apartment, dark with gloom save for the 45 minutes each day when –– if the skies were not overcast –– the sun shot the gap between the next building down the hill and the overhanging balcony of the apartment above us. If this story had a happy ending, I would explain how passion trumps all and that none of these petty details could cast a shadow on our love.
But no, we were student-poor and we argued about whether to buy Dinty Moore or make our own stew in the Crock-Pot his mother shipped to us as a garret-warming gift. We disagreed about paper towels: were they intrinsically –– morally and economically –– wrong, or were they a staple we should buy each week? We disagreed about my motor scooter, which I grant you had a limited season of use in Ithaca, New York, but which had a great deal of verve and charm, even parked in a corner of the small, damp living room. And we disagreed about school.
Why is it that the first thing young lovers do after coming up for air is to start attempting repairs on the other half? Amorous birds of prey tearing strips from the corpus between us.
Those trumpet-playing fingers counted out a thousand better options for me. Those red lips formed questions about all the decisions made prior to his ascension into the dark arch of our shared sky. “I don’t know why you are studying Shakespeare with that professor.”
I think he was genuinely puzzled. He frowned. I think he meant it sincerely when he asked, “What possible use is it to you to read all of L. Frank Baum?”
And he had suggestions that were aimed toward improving my fate. I believe he was sincere when he said, “You should switch to biology for your major.”
And, “You could still drop History of the Book and pick up something more practical.”
And, “Why not give yourself at least a chance to have a decent career?”
I searched for the formula that would illuminate the logic of my past choices and my current preferences, but it eluded me. Xavier was right: that particular Shakespeare professor was hidebound and stupidly old-fashioned and made the most appalling personal comments about the students.
Though I reached again and again for a rhetorical tool that could break loose the stubborn bolt of our argument, in truth it was of very little practical use to read all of the Oz books. Xavier was right: I could switch majors; I had done quite well through two years of biology before taking on the stack after stack of delicious reading material that is the obligation and privilege of an English major. And I did not have a plan for any career, let alone a decent one. It seemed Xavier was right. Of course. It seemed Xavier was always right. He was so very bright. It was only natural.
These discussions –– reasonable, never anything but reasonable –– started slowly, the occasional flick of dust off a sweater that could just as easily be the start of a caress. I shrugged it off at the beginning, but then took to rehearsing my defense during the too-long hike to school from the housing unit. I retraced the rocky, Socratic ground of these discussions as I trudged along the slippery clay track behind the polo arena, up the asphalt walkway to the first gorge foot-bridge, and past the engineering quad. Sometimes while re-thinking and back-tracking through the steps of logic and argument from the night before, I’d miss my turn and find myself at the footbridge by the other gorge at the far end of campus, late for class and not a single step closer to finding a solution.
Back in our dark little living-room the conversations never fitted into the discussion I prepared. My logic never held. I was not able to find the way to win even a single argument.
And that’s how it became. Our love’s long day spent in unending talk about what I should do instead of what I was currently doing, or what I wanted –– against all logic –– to continue doing. The snow turned grey and then melted with rain and instead of hurrying home after class, I walked farther. I tramped long meandering loops around Beebe Lake, the Ag quad, past the vet school, and through the bare-branched woods and plantations at the edges of the University.
Andrew Marvell was slipping away, all our pleasures wrapped in a ball and pitched instead out the door. The clear pulsar reversed, collapsing into a gravitational sink that gulped light instead of shining. Light DARK, light DARK, DARK DARK. All conversation with Xavier felt like sliding down a gravel hill, like being painted into a smaller and smaller corner, as if a dusty burlap bag were closing around my head. I could feel myself growing smaller, stupider, slower, the sensation of diminishment as specific and physical as a menstrual cramp. I developed asthma and claustrophobia that spring, which I blamed on the damp apartment with its brief, chancy slice of sunshine.
Xavier blamed my cat. In early April, in what probably seemed to him a reasonable and sensible choice, he attempted to find the cat a new home with one of his vet-school pals. I admit it roused an irrational response. The ensuing discussion devolved into a rare shouting and swearing argument, one that shocked the neighbors into listening silence on the other side of the flimsy walls of the apartment. My anger was red-hot and self-righteous. Both “How dare you?” and “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” rolled out of my mouth with theatrical but honest loathing. He accused me of bullying. I suggested that he grow a heart.
We broke up at an end-of-finals soirée put on by some theater geek friends a month or so later. It was a rare and wonderful party; Rob and Carmen served something with a flaky pastry crust and rich cheeses, rather than the ubiquitous College-town pizza, and instead of scooping vodka fruit punch from a stainless salad bowl stolen from the food service, we drank red wine from actual glass goblets. The conversation was wide-ranging and clever. I was just slightly drunk.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Carmen asked the table. Around the room people chimed in with their stories, the friend-of-a-friend who’d had an inexplicable experience, a chill, an undeniable coincidence. I’ve noticed that people who have first-hand experience of ghosts –– or possible ghosts –– don’t jump up to tell their stories. Probably because of people like Xavier.
“Ghosts are manifestations of hysteria,” Xavier announced, generally. “They can’t exist, and they don’t exist.”
After a momentary pause as collective breath was drawn, the shower of rebuttal started to pour down. He countered every argument with the louche air of Errol Flynn parrying his way through a troupe of unnamed henchmen. Bringing up particle and wave theory, citing cognitive dissonance, he skewered statements with cogent questions until not a single opponent was left standing. He appeared cool, detached, unpinked by the mélee, smiling and smiling with those red red lips, and I could see that some of the people around the table adored him for it.
Every now and then comes an instant of clarity when everything seems to slow down. Perhaps perception speeds up. One recognizes, with real clarity, that there is neither world enough nor time. Time’s winged chariot bucks over a little rut. The clouds part, and it’s obvious: the moment has come not just to do or die, but to be or not to be. The question –– whatever essential question that’s been lurking unaddressed –– gets answered in that fraction of a second.
I felt it happen as I sat next to Xavier that night at the party. I had the sensation of being set aside from the moment like a chair being pulled away from a table, as if I were watching the proceedings with the telescope reversed. Space opened for me so I could breathe and for the first time I could imagine that my time with Xavier might end. That it might end badly. And not because of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, either.
I said, “I believe in ghosts.”
He turned to me with that faint mocking smile, Errol catching up to the real villain at last. His voice had an edge, “Because you’ve had a personal experience with a ghost?”
I did. I had reason to, but Xavier knew nothing about that. I said, “Because I believe in ghosts.”
“You believe because you believe?” The edge in his voice sliced into contempt. “Isn’t that a tautology?”
If there is one thing theater geeks recognize and admire, it’s drama. Especially over a good meal. Especially if it smacks even slightly of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The room was all expectant silence.
“Just because,” was my feeble, playground retort. “Just because it’s a tautology doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“No, it just means it doesn’t make sense.”
With hindsight giving me a boost, I have come to know that –– most of the time –– opinion is just opinion. Another true tautology.
But consider: who can say why one prefers raspberries to blackberries or Austin to Thackeray? It’s not sensible. Logic is not, at heart, the power that drives opinion. One can make a science of taste, but there’s no factual merit in choosing ginger over cinnamon, dry wit over slapstick. And while taste can be shaped and educated, I don’t think one can ever shake a preference for raspberries, no matter how little sense it makes.
In the year following my father’s death, I am mortally certain that he visited me and offered advice. I decided then, in high school, that it didn’t matter if he was a separate ghost or the result of my imagination. Whether ectoplasm or illusion, wishful thinking or long habit, residual energy or neurons firing at random, ultimately –– either way or any way –– an explanation could not matter: because one very sad afternoon weeks after his funeral, I felt my father’s hand on the back of my neck and heard him tell me that everything would be all right. I saw him or heard him a handful of times more and to this day I am not interested in nailing down the how and why of it. More things in heaven and earth, after all. The way I see it, it happened, or I believe it happened, and that’s enough.
“In point of fact,” I said, knowing how Xavier disliked the phrase, and feeling my voice rising, “In point of fact, I don’t need it to make sense.”
“Of course you don’t. You don’t need anything to make sense.”
“You’re right. As usual.” I played to the crowd. “Xavier is always right.”
And how does anyone argue being told he is always right? It’s like trying to take arms against a sea of troubles.
Thus I thrashed my way out of the burlap bag. Not by winning the argument, but by stepping away from it. I might easily have gone on sliding down the gravel hill, getting painted into, finally, that thin line that divides one wall from the other, save for the ghost. The ghost of my father. Or the ghost of the ghost. Or something.
Another reason –– just as unsuitable as the rest of my reasons –– to believe in ghosts.
We never really talked again, Xavier and I; within a few days, I moved the Vespa, the old cat, a straining plastic sack of clothes, and three cartons of books and papers into a tiny sub-lease on the other side of College-town. I left behind everything else, including my half of the damage deposit, the pink desk from the thrift store, the cheap housewares we’d bought together, and a cardboard tube of un-hung posters. I considered that I got away clean.
I think about him from time to time. Of course I do. Naturally. I might still be rehearsing for a final discussion –– the one that I might win –– whenever I think of clever Xavier with the red red lips. Nevertheless, I continue to be disappointed by the memory of him. The smartest man I ever knew.
Amy Smith Linton lives in Tampa, Florida. She has published fiction most recently in 4’33” audio magazine and Rosebud magazine, and has a thick file of clippings from Sail and Sailing Magazine, The Tampa Tribune, and Publishers Weekly.
Her blog is located at www.amysmithlinton.com. When not writing, she can often be found racing small sailboats.