The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Ghost Lives


I had my nervous breakdown behind the restaurant where everyone went out to smoke once the tables had their food and seemed to be as happy as they would ever get during a meal.

It was that little secret cove for the smokers that I found salvage in, oddly enough. I leaned against that red brick wall and slowly slid down it onto dirty butts.

My chest heaved. About a hundred years passed and I started to drown in cigarette butts. There were millions of them and they were smothering me with ash and nicotine and lipstick stains and sticky bird shit that also had been on the ground. There might have been bubble gum too, but when you are drowning you don’t pay attention to anything except oxygen and that is what I couldn’t find anywhere. Somebody help me my brain told my mouth to say but my mouth was drowning and closed.

Nothing came out except the word Enough.

Enough waitressing. Enough guilt. Enough anorexia. Enough pretending I don’t have a hearing problem. Enough numbing myself. Enough sleeping to numb myself. Enough eating to numb myself. Enough starving to numb myself. Enough drinking to numb myself. Enough saying what I don’t want instead of what I do want. Enough sex with people I don’t love or even like very much. Enough living in the past. Enough worrying about the future. Enough wearing 6 inch platform shoes because I feel being short means I am inadequate.

Enough self-hatred.

Enough. That one word slipped out and traveled down Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood, past all the shops and the traffic, and I saw just for one brief second where it was headed before I lost sight of it behind the roller skating homeless man.

And then it was gone and I was pumping my heart back to life.

Table 32 needed me for Cholula sauce and a chicken quesadilla was ready for table 30. I crawled out of the ruins of old cigarettes and stood for a moment looking into the restaurant where I had spent my entire 20’s with such a hatred I almost passed out from its power and stench.

Did you know hatred smells? It smells like dead animal.

It smells like nothing could ever beat inside it anymore, although it once might have, but had long since rotted.

So I stood there and almost passed out from the smell before I gathered my apron and tried to inhale.

Nothing entered my lungs.

I was slowly dying.

I walked back into the restaurant and up to my table.

I would have thought you would have made something of yourself by now, the woman who stared at me like I was a ghost muttered as she half-looked at the menu and half at me, her ghost waitress.

How can you still be here? What’s it been? Ten years? Twelve? How is that even possible? This is L.A. She was eyeing the chicken pot pie on the menu like there was a possibility she wouldn’t get it. She always got the pot pie. I remembered 100_2835everything everyone ordered.

To her I was a ghost. I couldn’t possibly still be there.

I represented all of her lost dreams and fuck-ups, because that’s what we do to people. Isn’t it? We size them up in direct relation to our own lives. When they are doing well we use it as a gage, our own small lives falling away and when they are failing we either feel like we are failing too or else we feel like we’ve won.

We’ve won the competition of life.

I’ll have a red wine. What do you have by the glass? She said looking at the menu and not at me.

I wanted to scream: You are looking at the menu, woman! Look and see what we have.

Instead I said: We have a nice Pinot. I love our Pinot. You had it last time.

I haven’t been here in a year! I can’t believe you remember. Honey, did you hear that? She remembers what I drank, she said to either her husband or her boyfriend or her gay husband. He looked gay. She was a gossip columnist. I remembered that and her penchant for potpies.

I am sure he was gay.

You had the chicken pot pie last time.

Maybe you are a career waitress, after all! She said it like it was funny or ironic as she pushed her glasses up her nose to look at me like she was just seeing me for the first time.

I wonder what I looked like to her, this failed ghost?

A career waitress. A ghost.

People don’t change my gay friend who worked with me at the restaurant used to tell me. I believed, up until then, that gay men knew everything. How to dress, what to eat, what women want, what was funny and what wasn’t.

I’d felt scared when he said it.

My heart fell out of my body and as soon as the busboy came by he swept it up, and, just like that, it was gone. No more heart. Just a hollow cave where everyone could see my insides. They could all see that I dropped out of college. That I was a failure.

That I was going to be here at this restaurant forever.

Do you think Rodney will ever change? I asked about the guy I had been sleeping with for almost two years and whom I loved or thought I loved but who wouldn’t let me say I was his girlfriend. My gay friend, T, was African-American like Rodney, so aside from already knowing how relationships work because he was a gay man, he would tell me how black men worked because he was a black man. 

Never, T said as he did his sidework of refilling hot sauce bottles.

I knew he wouldn’t change. And everytime I let him have sex with me I cried when he left because I knew he would never change.

And that I wouldn’t either.


After my father died we fled New Jersey.  We left the house in Pennsauken to my aunt and her two daughters much to my chagrin. My youngest cousin and I didn’t get along and the thought of her having our house made me lose sleep at night.

That same cousin bit me in the leg in the laundry room and used to masturbate on the den floor of the house in New Jersey where my father had died. Curled in front of the television in her flimsy nightgown and Care Bear sleeping bag she would rock back and forth, rubbing herself. As I traced the purple outline of her teeth on my thigh, I watched her roll around on the ground, a mummy wrapped in polyester, pressing her privates. She would grind until she fell asleep.

I never understood what it was she was trying to achieve, what it was she was trying to feel. At the time, I couldn’t feel a thing.

I tried the rubbing, the rollicking, the undulating, and still, I could not feel a thing.

I hated that cousin.

She overdosed on heroin 3 years ago at age 34.

I tried to remember a time where we loved each other, where we got along or played as kids. I couldn’t.

She left behind four beautiful children whom I love dearly.  I did not love their mother however, except maybe as an idea, and not until after she had died. She was the same from childhood until she overdosed at age 34.

My aunt says that she died the first day she did heroin at age 17.

People change, people change, people change.

Do they?

What if we are stuck? What if who we once were is who we always are? 

I think we change people. In our own minds. After they die or leave us, we glorify them, or, we worship them, but they are still who they were. Our memories simply slip into wine or nostalgia or sentimentality.

Had my father, or my cousin, actually wanted to change badly enough, could they be sitting in my living room right now watching tv? Could he have not choked on his own vomit? Who’s to say? Maybe she would have stayed on the methadone and not gone back to heroin just one last time.

One minute you are in your bed watching an episode of M*A*S*H  and the next, you are drowning in your own bodily fluids.

That is someone who did not want to change. Who simply decided that they had had enough, that life was too much to bear and I think I will take some more amphetamines.

How can death be that easy when life isn’t?

To dislodge means to leave a place previously occupied. This is what happens with death.  (I imagine.) You dislodge yourself from your body.

And that’s that.

If it weren’t for the things that stuck, things like your smell, or rather the smell of an old leather wallet and how it has become your smell, and your sheep’s laugh, that high cackle and how it would run around the room before it landed back in your throat. If it weren’t for things like the four kids left behind, it would be like you never existed. And if you never existed then you would never have to change.

Maybe that is what it’s all about. I won’t exist. I will be a ghost and therefore incapable of change. I will not be accountable.

I will be undone.

The moments just before my father died: He feels like nothing now. Like he does not even exist in the world as anyone’s father or husband or son, that he is just a head on a pillow that is yellow with green leaves and a body on a bed and that they aren’t even attached anymore.He can feel everything now and at the same time nothing.

What he said as he was dying: Is this what it feels like? My mother. The nursing home in Philadelphia. Can people really hold you accountable for every Godamn thing you say? Where is my mother? My arm is a bell. That fucking ringing. Please forgive me for the despicable. My God, I have made mistakes. I need to sleep. I don’t even need a cigarette. I would like a doughnut. Where is my bell? I don’t need the cigarettes and the Almond Joy. Come back. 

You don’t have to kill yourself to change. You have to want it. My cousin didn’t want it. My father didn’t want it.

The will to grow but must outweigh the need to feel safe.

I can’t promise that you, or me, or anyone, will change. Promise. The word itself sleazy. Hard at first, then sizzling out at the end like something that can’t last. A snake. A word that can’t get up off the ground. You. You promised. I promise you. We promise. I promise. 

You have to stop being a ghost though. You have to get up from that brick wall and wipe the bird-shit gum and dirty cigarettes from your feet and you have to walk back into that restaurant and say I am here.

Elizabeth Bishop knew how the world worked:

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,

and that every so often the world is bound to shake. 

You’ve been told the world is bound to shake but until it did you didn’t believe it. You simply strolled along as if you were unscathed.

You were never unscathed.

How can you defend yourself against this shaking? you might wonder.

You can’t. You can only decide when you are ready to stop being a ghost.


I stopped being a ghost when I finally let myself become undone.

After 13 years, I left the restaurant. I became a yoga teacher. I started writing again.Pastiloff1.byRobertSturman

We have to want it so bad that it overrides the taste or the heroin or whatever else it may be that kills us.

We have to want it so bad that it cleans up the papers on the desk and starts writing every single day no matter what the pile of shit says. And the pile of shit will talk. It will say things like You can’t do this. You don’t finish anything. You will never change. You are always going to be a waitress. You haven’t changed so far so why do you think you can?

Here’s what you do when that pile starts taking. You light a match. Light it all on fire and watch it burn with a combination of sadness and elation.

Unless you want to keep letting all the piles of shit run your life. Then don’t burn it. Let it keep you the same as you have always been. At least you will be a reliable and predictable ghost.

To Hell with predictable.

Burn that pile of shit and say I am as capable as raw bone. I am the bead. I am bone to bead and beyond. 

What I know to be true is that as human beings, we sometimes forget our own humanness. We stop letting our own humanness astound us.

We live as ghosts.

So sometimes, when someone or something reminds us, when they literally shove it in our face like a crumpled up coffee stained map and we have no choice but to pull over in the car and stop on the side of the road to read the map with its coffee stink and fingerprints and out-of-dated-ness, we somehow find our way.

Jen is a writer living mostly on an airplane. She leads her signature Manifestation Yoga Retreats/Workshops all over the world. Jen and Emily Rapp are leading a writing retreat in Vermont in October as well as a "Writing + The Body" Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch in Ojai winter 2015 as well as her annual invite only Italy retreat. Jen will also be joining Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp, Rob Roberge & Stacy Berlein at "Other Voices Querétaro" in Mexico May 2015. She is the founder of the The Manifest-Station website. She is currently finishing her first book Beauty Hunting. More from this author →