SELF-MADE MAN #29: Ghosts

By

It’s 11:30 on a brittle Saturday night. New York is a ghost town—good thing, I think, for these whiskey nips and the blurry memories I’ve got to keep me company as I head north. Hallelujah, I say, for the wispy redhead who came out of the bathroom at the poetry reading in Chinatown. She met my eyes and smiled like a big bang and I knew that was that, our lifespan a tiny moment. Bless all the women I’ve married on the subway, all the scratch marks that will never ghost my back. Thank god I saw her pretty teeth and kept on, right out the door; let me be a figment that loved and left you, all in the time it took to make a universe; praise be!

Here I am, outside, alone but not lonely, with the rats, a full moon, and of course the Empire State Building like a siren, reminding me that I am ever only a fool. I’m ghosting this whole city. It’s beautiful to be a bearded man here with his collar up in a pizza shop, a man with tattooed hands watching coolly out the window of a bar, a man pushing hard against the last winter wind toward that stupid, magic tourist trap I have allowed to haunt me because what are ghosts but pure dissonance? What is this but a true story I refuse to deny?

I dodge taxis and drunk college kids near Astor Place and think how sweet to be a man in motion on a Saturday night; a man formed of needles and a hundred sweaty locker rooms; a man without translation; a man who invents himself.

I see that redhead and the trail of light she streamed across the room and I wish her well. I gather my ghosts and put my earphones on and think

smile at me all you want, beautiful

I’m not the man

you think                    I am

   more.

            

On 23rd Street in Brooklyn I hear my ex’s voice: “Think about it: when have you ever actually seen a baby pigeon?”

Just like that I’m at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, my face smooth and jaw narrow, watching the boats come in on the choppy grey water. She turns toward me, ornery and freckled, bundled in her orange summer scarf. My eyes sting here in Brooklyn. My whiskers tickle my trembling upper lip, my heart in a vertigo that’s almost comforting.

“Have you ever seen a dead pigeon?” she’d asked, the water behind her churning.

Ghosts are wounds in need of tending, I think, as I stare at the dismembered, gutted pigeon splayed inexplicably on the sidewalk next to the elementary school near my new apartment. I am this body now, this life.

A man alone is without witness.

You won’t believe this, I want to tell her—but she’s here. She already knows.

 

The labor of being human is bearing one another’s ghosts. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, so we gather our losses into elevators and shoot up to the top floor, where we survey the city and they say whatever we want them to.

After the reading in Chinatown, I felt my heart turn over, an idling engine bursting awake. Ghosts are the fools we once were, in need of forgiveness. I felt the unfurling begin near the Bowery, sneaking sips of whiskey near the dorm in Union Square where the homecoming queen I fell for in college forever sprinkles rose petals into my suitcase, a cigarette dangling darkly from her lower lip. She couldn’t even imagine me now, the bristled hardness of my passing body, next to the Ace Hotel, where a woman I believed in still sits and waits for me with a glass of red wine and raw, heartbreak eyes. I walk on, past my teenage self, huddled around a shared cigarette with boys I wanted to be. I breathe in the taste of someone’s minty, whiskey mouth, some lost night in Koreatown, someone’s spiced perfume in my hair.

We choose our hauntings. I make out with mine in alleyways up and down Manhattan. I know myself—I can’t harden my heart. So this is how I lose you: I let you whisper through my mind until I find my tenderness, until you are more human than haunting—and then I let you go.

          

The pigeon parts go missing, one by one each day. Finally, there is just one wing left. I’m sure something important is at work. I tell no one.

On the day that wing disappears, I end up at a coffee shop near the Strand after work, drinking ginger tea and watching a very old man close his eyes between sips of his latte. I hold him in kindness, with his cataracts and angry, purple eye bags. I wonder who kisses his chicken hands, who tells him that he is still here. I wonder if he knows.

I dated a woman in college who heard ghosts that weren’t there, men stomping around our apartment. “I’m not sure what I believe anymore,” I hear her say, in our bed on the floor in Somerville.

Except then she speaks again, some muffle I can barely make out, over by the coffee stirrers, just across the room. I get up, I move cautiously. There she is, I’m sure of it. I can feel her hair tumbling onto my face, the weight of her. I watch her, now, the confirmation in small gestures all these years later: the curious way she cocks her head, the hesitancy laced through her laugh.

She turns to look at me and then away, her face blank. I feel a wind in my chest, the bedroom door of our last apartment slamming shut when I left to move to San Francisco. She meets my eyes now in Manhattan, but I am no one, a ghost with a beard and tattoos, love she sees right through.

             

In the Flatiron, I pass the terrible Irish bar where a woman picks at her French fries and says, over and over on a loop, that she can leave me now or leave me later.

I walk past, doing it right this time. I say okay, okay. I say goodbye.

At the Empire State Building I pay my $27 and ride the elevator with the tourists who eye me, a man alone, a man who is himself even when no one is looking—especially then.

I finish the whiskey out of the sight of the guards, staggered by the lights and the refusal of this city to bend to me. I know I’m the same shadow self that stood on this grate a few years and then a few months ago, and I am another man entirely. I’m the ghost I am and the ghosts I’ve been, and I’m the ghosts I trail, all of us dancing on this indifferent graveyard.

I put on some Stones and conjure them up: I let them shimmy against the gates. I say I will love you all into submission. I’m the boxer who holds the other guy like his own brother. I salute every permutation of every body we’ve been and I forgive us all our most brutal mistakes so

goodbye, my beautiful interruptions.

I know myself.

I’m not the man

you think                    I am

   more.


Thomas Page McBee's essays and reportage have appeared on TheAtlantic.com, VICE, BuzzFeed, Salon, and in the New York Times. Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, his memoir about violence and what makes a man, is forthcoming this fall from City Lights/Sister Spit, and he is now at work on a book about masculinity. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter, @ThomasPageMcBee, or visit thomaspagemcbee.com. More from this author →