I believe in ghosts. Not in the usual way, not the ones who haunt the places they lived trying to resolve issues left behind (though, actually, okay – I believe in those, too). No, what I believe in are the ghosts of the lives we would have led, of choices we could have made.
Like the other ghosts, though, I think the only people who believe in these are the ones who have faced them head on. Those of us who are haunted.
What’s strangest, maybe, is that unlike any other haunting, you’re doing it to yourself. The presence you feel beside you is not your long-dead so-and-so or some vengeful spirit trapped between worlds. No, it’s simply the you that was or may have been or, perhaps, should have been.
Even now I’m not sure which. Our lives always feel inevitable – that’s not to say they are, but that we structure our own narratives that way. A leads to B because it had to, we think, but we only think it had to be that way because it happened that way. Had something entirely different taken place, we’d tell ourselves that was inevitable.
Months ago (or was it a lifetime?) I was on a bus in a familiar town, positive I saw the ghost of myself wandering the streets in a caffeine-deprived haze, about to run into a Welsh boy who couldn’t seem to find his way out of a coffee shop. Looking out the window, I debated with myself if, were I able to, I should have stopped myself. If I should have wished myself away, if I should have wished the life I’ve lived since I met that boy in that town away. I’d accepted that it wasn’t inevitable, and since it wasn’t, I was free to wonder if I would have wanted it any other way.
No, I decided. I got too much good out of it to regret it.
What a cruel way to look at things. What does it mean to look at two years of my life – of love, investment, and commitment – and turn it into something completely transactional as if I could comfortably reduce the time we spent together into just what I got out of it? But I wanted to, so it was easy to tell myself that’s all that it was to me. That what I needed out of that relationship is what I got: Edinburgh.
It’s comfortable that way. Easy. But what happens when that doesn’t stand up? When suddenly the story I’ve been telling myself feels wrong?
Because what I hadn’t realised was that other ghosts were waiting for me. Really, I should have known they were there. I should have remembered.
When things ended with my Welsh boy, too much was going on for me to really process what it would mean for me. I didn’t give myself enough time to process and mourn and so when I suddenly had all the time in the world I’d given myself too much else to work through to notice.
But she was always there, the ghost of who I’d wanted to be. She was always alongside me, looking at housewares and rugs and planning Christmas parties, picking out decorations and a trying to figure out how many strings of lights she can get away with buying before being accused of trying to outshine the sun. (17, I think. 17 is often the answer to these things.)
She was beside me in pubs and coffee shops and a tiny deli 4 doors down from my flat with cake and crepes and free wifi. But I didn’t just feel her, you know? I felt him, too. Anywhere he’d been, his ghost lingered. The ghost of who he could have been. Should have been? But who he isn’t.
(Leave it to me to be haunted by the ghost of the subjunctive. Ebenezer Scrooge only had to deal with simple tenses – past, present, future – but me? No, I get stuck with the freaking subjunctive.)
Everything is inevitable, except when it’s not. We talked about it a bit when I was there last week, we asked ourselves the big question – is this what had to happen? Fault lies on both sides, but our issues were the same. And for that, I’m haunted. Things could have gone a different way, and because I wanted them so badly for so long, they linger. Because my deep, dark secret is this: I’m not convinced there will ever be a life I want more than I wanted that one. 2.5 years on and I still think back to the life I wish I’d had and wonder if everything will always be slightly greyer than that.
But then, everything else has one thing that life doesn’t have: everything else is still possible because ghosts belong in shadows and we cannot change the past.