You stop talking to me three months before my thirty-seventh birthday. You have just had a baby with a relatively new guy, who we all think, at the time, is simply amazing. You meet him immediately following your divorce, in what you think would be a one-night stand to help you forget the dissolution of your marriage. I am so happy it worked out for you, that you both want children, that he understood the immediacy of this desire for you.
When you stop talking to me, we’ve been friends for over thirty years. In kindergarten, I attend your birthday party at your house where we play the fishing game, the one where a surprise toy is attached to the end of a rod. Your dad crouches behind the green leather couch and we pretend we don’t know he’s there, securing the toys onto the rod. When he tugs on the line, as if we just caught a fish, there is mounting excitement as we reel up our bounty. Voices of other kids asking, “What did you get?” It is in those days, when we are five years old, before the development of breasts and the intrusion of periods, that I first think we’ll be friends forever.
Our families live five minutes away from each other in a suburb of Vancouver and we attend all the same schools. After seventh grade, we start hanging out even more and soon we become inseparable. You are quiet to my dramatic, Asian to my Jewish, tears to my anger. When you laugh, your nose wrinkles. One of your talents is to flare your nostrils wide and wiggle them. You can also belch the alphabet better than all the boys. In tenth grade we tape our pubic hairs to letters, along with two other friends, and mail them to each other. We want to see whose is curlier. I bet on mine since in junior high my short curly hair has earned me the nickname Pubic Toadstool, and sure enough, I win. I stare at your pubic hair taped to your letter and am surprised by the long coarse black strand.
You have always been creative, and after you get accepted into art school you are screen printing sushi on underwear and baking magic mushrooms into chocolate Hello Kitty molds for us to consume at outdoor rock concerts. (They still tasted terrible, and I still have the underwear.)
I am there for you through the illnesses of both your parents, but you stop speaking to me a couple of years before your dad dies. When I try to reach out after his passing, you don’t respond. Your mom doesn’t either, which I find surprising, since she is friends with my mom. My mom still talks to you. I find that nice of her.
When you stop talking to me it feels like my guts explode and hollow out. I feel empty, like a large dark endless pit that can’t be filled. Instead of feeling pain, I can’t feel anything. I am confused. I don’t understand. How is it possible for a person to cut another person off without an explanation? How is it possible to be friends with you for over thirty years and it all ends with a snap of your fingers?
Being ghosted happens when one person in the relationship ends it without explanation. It’s a phenomenon that is apparently rising in our increasingly digital world, when texts go unanswered and phone calls unreturned. It’s also known as the coward’s way out. It is an extreme version of the silent treatment.
When I realize you aren’t returning my phone calls or emails, I try contacting you through your partner. We are employed at the same company, and so he is easy to find. I walk up to him and say, “Can we talk?” and he follows me into an empty conference room, and we sit down. My body and voice start to shake.
“Why isn’t she talking to me?” I ask. “What did I do wrong?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
He shrugs, his eyes meet mine and then bounce away. I know this look. It’s the glance a shady character gives. I know he is hiding something.
“Can you please ask her to call me?”
He nods. “Maybe she just needs a little time.”
“Time?” I ask. “Time for what?”
“As in space,” he says.
For a second his eyes meet mine again and then they drop to the floor.
“I have to go,” he says.
He stands up and opens the door and I watch as he walks out of the room.
One of the problems with ghosting, other than everything, is that it makes the person being ghosted feel rejected and ashamed. After you stop talking to me, I am left with this restless energy that alternates between feeling like I need to run a marathon and feeling completely immobilized. Lying on the floor my brain buzzes as it searches through memories of our last conversation. Have I said or done anything to offend you? It’s my fault, I think. What’s wrong with me?
Ghosting feels like death, one article says. Social rejection activates the same areas in the brain as physical pain, says a study. I feel that this is true. There is an intense grief to losing a friend this way. By definition, you would be the ghost because you are the one who has disappeared from my life. But it doesn’t feel like you died. It feels like I died. I’m the ghost. It feels like I’m the one who’s dead to you.
Because most of my family was murdered in the Holocaust I already have issues surrounding death and not existing. Some days I feel like I don’t deserve to take up any space. Sometimes I feel like I am invisible. When you ghost me, I stop existing. If I’m dead to you, then I’m not really here.
When I dream about you in the middle of the night, we are friends again. I am at your house and we are skinny dipping in your hot tub while your parents are out. I am puking up my purple Flintstone vitamins along with the contents of the beef chili dinner and cornbread your mom left for us, after I drink the twelfth-grade boys under the table with nine shots of whiskey. That night, when you are drunk, you ask me to kiss you, but I decline. I am in love with a Greek boy, but mostly I am probably scared.
When I dream about you, you are at my house celebrating Passover with my family, eating Matzah and bitter herbs, tears streaming down your face from consuming too much horseradish that my mom dug from the garden the day before.
When I dream about you, we are together digging through your mom’s closet, looking for costumes to wear for Halloween. She kept all her clothes from the 1960s. You choose a flowered jumpsuit and I wear a colorful romper with fishnets and black platform boots. We both glue on fake eyelashes and are high on mushrooms. When we’re at the party, I laugh so hard that I cry, and my tears become cartoon raindrops falling from the sky and I don’t know what to do because there are so many, and I’m scared everyone will drown.
When I wake up and realize it was a dream, that’s when I miss you.
When you stop talking to me, my mind tells me stories, makes up all kinds of stuff because it craves information. It wants an explanation from you. I punish myself with these stories. I’ve been too preoccupied with my family and with work. I haven’t been checking in with you as often as I should. You don’t like my new friends. Your partner doesn’t like me. I go on too many nice vacations and my house is too big. I said something to offend you (even though I can’t remember what) and now you hate me. When I start believing these stories, when they get stuck in a loop in my head, they begin to eat me alive.
I run into you at an outdoor store a few months after you stop talking to me. You are looking at a large yellow tent that is set up on the floor.
“Anna?” I say.
You look at me and your eyes grow wide and your mouth drops open. Your kid opens the flap of the tent and I see your partner inside sitting on the floor. He is wearing a baseball cap and he looks down at his hands.
“Hi, Henry,” I say.
Your son smiles at me and closes the flap. Your partner says nothing.
“How are you?” I ask. “I’ve missed you. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.”
“I’m sorry for whatever I did,” I say. “Please just talk to me.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” you say.
“I think I would,” I say. “Can you give me a chance?”
My insides are heaving, and I feel like I might vomit but I manage to keep calm on the outside. At least I think I do.
“We’re moving,” you say, looking at the ground.
“Oh,” I say. “Where? When?”
“Next week,” you say. “To the island.”
This is the island I suggested a few years earlier because you were getting priced out of Vancouver. Families were leaving in a mass exodus. We were planning on moving there in a few years, too.
“Wow,” I say. “Well that’s great. I’m happy for you.”
You give me a sad smile and then look down at your white sneakers. I can feel my heart in my throat. The rest of me has gone numb.
“Can I ask you something?” I say. “Do you still want to be friends?”
You shake your head no.
“Okay,” I say. “I will leave you alone.”
As I start to walk away, I panic and take deep gulps of air until I make it to the hiking boot section where I sit down and then someone asks how they can help me today and what shoes I would be interested in trying on, but I can’t speak so I walk away into the blaring light of the spring sun.
Two years later when we move to the same island, I send you an email to let you know and ask if you want to have coffee. I don’t hear anything back. One year after we move, I see you at the Country Harvest Fair. You are with your son and a friend and you walk right by me like I don’t exist. Ghosted. I stand there feeling the familiar punch in the gut and then I turn around and watch you walk away. You don’t look back at me.
Once, just before you stop talking to me, when I lent you Meg Wolitzer’s book The Interestings, you return it to me, your eyes flashing with accusation.
“Did you lend me this book because you think you and your husband are the successful couple and we’re the other couple, the ones who have nothing?” you ask.
“Is that why you lent me the book?” you ask. “So you could rub it in?”
Two years after you ghost me at the Country Harvest Fair, I see you in the ferry lineup. You are in the passenger seat. You have thick black square sunglasses on, like a movie star. We are driving identical cars. For a moment, when I return with my cup of coffee, I think your Honda is mine and I’m about to open the passenger door and then I see you. For a moment, I look at you, your long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. You keep reading. Even with my nose pressed to the window, you don’t look up from your book.
For years I keep chasing the dream of you. My mom gives me updates about you, about your son. But nothing can quench my desire for you. I am running after someone who no longer wants me. I feel both unloved and unloveable.
The next spring, we are in the same ferry lineup. I am by myself and you are with your partner and your son. We are both driving our Hondas. I text my husband with exclamation marks and I give him one guess as to who he thinks is on the ferry with me.
“Anna?” he texts back.
I call him.
“I’m going to go up to them and say something.”
“Good for you,” he says.
“I’m going to put on my big girl pants and do this.”
“I support you, baby.”
“I’ll call you when the job is done.”
“Good luck,” he says.
After he hangs up, I sit there for a few moments, and stare at the dark screen of my phone. I can feel my heart thudding. The waves of nausea. The sweat of anxiety. Clammy hands.
I open my door and walk to the driver’s side of your car. Your partner doesn’t look up from his phone. I tap on the window. He hides under his baseball cap. When he finally looks at me, he frowns but rolls down the window anyway. A woman I don’t recognize is sitting in the passenger seat.
“Is Anna here?” I ask.
He points to the back seat. I step over to the back window. You roll it down and I see your son is with you. You are drawing in your Moleskine sketchbook with a black felt-tip pen. A tiny snail. A caterpillar. A ladybug. I smile at your son. He doesn’t recognize me.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” you say.
“I just wanted to say hello,” I say.
You’re not crying but I notice you have tears in your eyes. You hunch over your sketchbook, protectively, as if you have stomach cramps, your fingers flick the blank pages.
“You going to the mainland?” I ask.
“Yes,” you say. “We’re taking our friend for a visit.”
“Nice,” I say. “I’m off to see Hannah.”
You nod. “How is she doing? I haven’t seen her in ages.”
“She’s good,” I say. “Her son is a year younger than yours.”
You stare at me, your eyes wet, shining.
“I just wanted to say something because we have a history together and because I don’t want to pretend that we don’t exist for each other.”
You look at me and wipe a tear from your cheek.
“That’s all. I hope you have a good trip to the mainland.”
“Thanks,” you say. “Say hi to Hannah for me.”
“I will,” I say. “And if you ever want to have coffee, I’m around.”
I turn and walk towards my car and hear the whirring of your window being rolled up. Instead of getting into my car, I walk towards the washroom and stand in the lineup. I stare at the ocean, watch the dark rolling waves, feel the cool prick of wind as I dig my hands deep into my jacket pockets.
Two months later, our Hondas are placed side by side on the ferry. Today you are driving, and your partner is beside you, your son in the back seat. I am by myself again. I can see directly into your driver’s side window. You’re so close that we could chat if you rolled your window down and I could reach out and grab your hand. Instead you tilt your chair back so that I can’t see you, and your partner does the same. You’re wearing your thick dark square movie star sunglasses. He is wearing his baseball cap. I feel a surge of restless energy because you are doing it to me again. You are ghosting me for what seems like the thousandth time. When I can’t stand it anymore, I get out and walk to the washroom and when I return, I spend a few moments staring into your car. You and your partner are facing each other, talking. Neither of you glance up.
When you invite me to decorate your Christmas tree, like you do every year, I don’t know it will be for the last time. We add the finishing touches to the gingerbread people you make, my son smearing extra icing and glueing extra smarties. We listen to your dad’s Kenny Roger’s Christmas CD and we still roll our eyes but secretly we love it. We drink spiced rum and eggnog out of heavy crystal glasses and my son climbs up the ladder, wanting to put the hand blown glass pickle ornament I bought you a few Christmases ago way up on a high branch. You laugh and take photos while I hold his legs to steady him. At Chanukah, you come over for latkes. The kitchen is thick with smoke because my parents don’t have a hood fan. In the fried greasy air, we light the candles and play the dreidel game with gold foil wrapped chocolate gelt.
A month after I see you on the ferry, the time you tilt your chair back and ghost me, I am visiting my parents in Vancouver. When I walk down their brown steps, I see your mom getting out of her car. “Shit fuck,” I say under my breath. She has a wide straw sun hat with a bow in the back. I keep walking to my car, my husband with a big grin on his face, like he finds this whole scenario amusing. He walks right up to your mom and gives her a big hug. I stand behind him but then reach out to do the same. She pats me lightly on the back, the way someone does when the touch feels forced, when there is no love there.
I open my trunk and put my cooler bag inside.
“Isn’t it funny that Anna and I have the same car?” I say.
“Well, actually, you have the luxury model,” she says. “Hers is the base model.”
I swallow and take a long, deep breath in.
“After my husband died, we sold his camper van and she used the money to buy her Honda.”
My heart is drumming in my ears and I feel like I need to get out of there as fast as I can. I am scared she will keep going until there is nothing left of me. I walk to the driver’s side and open the door. My son is already in the backseat waiting. My overly chatty husband understands the cue.
“Bye,” I say. “It was nice to see you.”
“Bye for now,” she says.
The dictionary defines a ghost as the spirit or soul of a dead person. In a photograph, I would be the out-of-focus image in the background, like the photos captured of the Loch Ness monster or the Sasquatch, where you have to squint in order to see me. Although I am invisible to you, I keep haunting your life, appearing when you least expect me.
In German, poltern means “crash” and geist means “ghost.” Perhaps I am a poltergeist, one of those noisy ghosts who torments one person, knocks over furniture and gets into mischief. Some experts say that poltergeists are an energetic creation of the living person, a buildup of emotions caused by stress. If I am indeed a poltergeist, can you blame me? I walk by you, stare into your car window, and you ignore me. When I speak, you refuse to listen. You’re indifferent to my howling. I imagine smashing the heavy crystal glass onto your white tiled floor, the satisfying sound of sharp shards and irreparable shattering. You created me with your cruel silence. But I am ready to be heard.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.