I’ve never seen a ghost, exactly, but I’ve heard their whispers for as long as I can remember. Maybe even longer than that.
When I was a little girl, I thought it was normal for my imaginary friends to introduce themselves by name and have real conversations with me. Mama would listen to me prattling on about Audrey from Maine who lived in a lighthouse with her father and thought the fog horns were singing just for her, or Joshua from Florida who warned me never to let my poodle outside alone when the hawks were in the sky.
“He said his neighbor’s dog was taken by a real live ‘gator!” I exclaimed as I climbed into the front seat of our ancient Dodge. Mama hated that car, but I loved the way it always smelled like summer inside, probably because we never got all the beach sand out of the ridges in the seats. “And Gazelle said we hav’ta put lots and lots of sunscreen on when we go down the shore, because our skin is an organ, too.”
“An alligator, really? Where do you come up with these things?”
But Mama never believed me when I told her that my invisible friends told me these things. She’d just tug on one of my braids and tell me I was lucky to have such a vivid imagination, and maybe I’d be a writer someday.
The whispers faded as I got older. I guess the more you know about the real world the harder it is to hear the voices that emanate from the not-quite-real. It’s like the Peter Pan thing – you get old enough and you stop believing in magic and fairies and friends you can talk to but not see.
Oh, they still managed to grab my attention when it was important.
Joshua was the one who warned me that Paul Sanchez wasn’t as sweet as he wanted me to think. He was the second-hottest boy in the junior class when I was a sophomore and I was so excited when he asked me out. We saw a movie and got drivin’-through burgers and fries and went to the cliff over the ocean… and I knew – I knew – he was gonna kiss me, and I couldn’t wait to find out what all the fuss was about.
But he tasted like stale soda and cigarettes and after we kissed a couple times, he slid his hand under my shirt, and started to push me backwards on the bench-seat of his Daddy’s old Ford pickup, and when I told him “Stop!” he refused.
Joshua was there though. He told me to lift my knee at exactly the right time, and then he whispered into Paul’s ear, and Paul apologized and took me straight home.
After that, he never talked to me again, but sometimes when we were both in the quad during lunch he’d look at me funny, like maybe he thought I was touched… or he was.
Of all my ghost friends, Joshua was the oldest. He’d been twenty-three when he passed, he said. He’d been studying marine biology at Florida State, and he’d been stupid and gone on a bender the night before a boat trip. He didn’t remember all the details of his dying – or he never shared them with me, anyway – but he made me promise that if I was ever gonna get super-drunk I’d do it in the safety of my own space, and not ever go driving or sailing after.
It was an easy promise to make. Booze and weed only ever loosened my tongue to the point where I’d forget that not everyone was as gentle and kind as my Mama about the stories that got whispered to me.
When I was twenty, and in my third year at Bennington working on a self-designed course of study involving folklore and fantasy and creative writing, it finally clicked in my head that Joshua had a kind of crush on me, and I knew I had to send him on his way.
I’d done that for Audrey, when I’d turned ten and she couldn’t follow. And I’d done it for Gazelle when I’d turned fourteen and realized I liked boys (she didn’t). And I missed them fiercely, especially when I was alone at night in my chilly dorm room and I hadn’t made any friends yet.
But Joshua… he was the boy I wished I could kiss, kind of like Cristina Ricci did in that Casper movie, when Casper makes himself solid for her.
Except Josh could never be solid.
And then I met Aurelio.
Aurelio was the son of the Ambassador from Spain, and he was made of sweetness and sex appeal, inside and out. He wrote poetry and played guitar, and he had this thick, curly hair that just begged to be finger-combed, and he let me do it with my fingers. He had soulful blue eyes and this accent that was kind of like Mexican Spanish mixed with French and when he kissed me, it felt like coming home.
Joshua was jealous.
Joshua said I was too young for a serious relationship and I’d end up being hurt and why wasn’t I listening to him?
Joshua started whispering to me about girls Aurelio was hooking up with behind my back, but I could tell he was making it up, because I’d known his voice since I was a little girl, or longer, and I knew what lying sounded like.
Finally, I locked myself in the bathroom and ran the shower at full pressure and I called Joshua to come talk to me.
He’d never been there when I was naked before, and he whispered that I shouldn’t let my boyfriend know about him, or he’d have to kill him.
And that’s when I told him to go.
“You’ve always been a friend,” I told him. “You kept me safe when I needed a guardian and you nudged me to write and explore and you saved me from being lonely during my darkest times, but I’m a grown woman now, and there’s a reason people my age don’t have imaginary friends anymore.”
He yelled at me, and he made my Gillette Swirl Razor pop its suction cups and fall off the shower wall and he ran his chilly ethereal hands over my bare skin, and I forced myself not to react to any of it.
“I’m gonna step in the shower now,” I told him when he’d had enough. “And by the time I’m finished, you need to cross over. You’ve done your duty by me, Joshua.”
He didn’t have any choice but to agree.
Aurelio arrived home just as I was wrapping my hair in one towel and the rest of me in another. He had a bag of Chinese food from the place that made the good kind of pot-stickers and he’d stopped at the flower stall on the corner and picked up a bouquet of purple carnations that smelled like innocence and cloves.
We sat on his second-hand Oriental rug in front of my ratty eggplant-colored couch and pigged out on moo shu pork while we watched The Artist, and then he took me to bed and we satisfied a totally different kind of appetite.
And afterward, he pulled his guitar into the bed with us, and leaned against the leather headboard, strumming lightly as he recited his latest poems to me. In between stanzas he told me nonchalantly, “It’s nice to be alone with you, finally.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Joshua and Bianca finally moved on,” he said, as if I’d known he’d had a whispering friend, too.
As if people talked about their invisible friends every day.
And who knows?
Maybe they do.
Inspired by Selena Taylor
And the song “Whispers and Some Kind of Understanding,” by GhostLight