Breath & Shadow
Fall 2019 - Vol. 16, Issue 4
"The Ghost Who Loved Me"
Susan M. Silver
Have you ever missed someone long departed, one you have never even met?
If it had hardly been a winter of deep discontent, neither had it been a time of unreserved joy. Cold-weather confinement had lent itself to excess contemplation—of the flaccid-cheeked Facebook image of a once-beautiful ex-beau or the absurdly glorifying obit of another, finally lost to drugs.
So abandoning the talking heads on cable news was a sweet spring bon-bon. I always find myself nurtured by walking familiar Manhattan streets while disguised in my mind as a stranger. Now I was among the warring elements of late March in the city: frozen ground versus struggling buds; sacred bird riffs commingled with grinding construction sounds; a suddenly incandescent sun co-existent with a sharp wind.
My writing had been suspended. I had too many words at my command and not enough. Already in a mild blank-page crisis, I had been seduced away from work on a new story by the introduction, through a low-budget made-for-TV documentary, to an eighties rock group that is the stuff of legend. I found myself marinating in their music, their performances, their personalities. The most charismatic band member by far was the spellbinding frontman, a self-styled genius-deity whose excesses doomed him to a protracted, tortured demise. It turned into an addiction. I couldn’t get enough of the lead singer’s killer-clever lyrics, wedded to catchy melodies, sprung from a lightly veiled tormented heart.
I wish we could have worked together, I thought wistfully, bathing in Bismillas, Beelzebubs, and Galileos. Impossible dreams are among the most powerful .
“We can work together,” he said. The voice was chocolate-laced brandy.
Next to the black patent-leather piano was the Presence, gleaming in the half-shadows. Standing there sporting a black leather biker jacket, dark aviators, and a semi-smile, he was confident, a champion, at once bold and gentle.
“Why would you help me?” I asked, elated but naturally skeptical. It was fairly ludicrous on its face. After all, here was a singer-songwriter whose electrifying performances had hypnotized hundreds of thousands in live stadium concerts and whose music continued to captivate through the decades.
“Because you asked,” he said. “Because you have set up roadblocks that interfere with your passion to get your message out. And because we have more in common than you may imagine.”
How odd it was, conversing one-on-one with the sedate, well-mannered individual before me, who showed flashes of profound shyness. Prowling the stage in a silver catsuit that outlined his assets or parading as a bare-chested raja of rock in robe and crown, he turned every audience member into his love slave.
Frankly, I wondered how this collaboration could possibly thrive. In addition to my other distractions, I had lately fallen off the wellness path, tripping into the little black hole familiar to the chronically ill: a setback. Irresistible poppy-field sleep led to irresistible poppy-field sleep, occurring at any time of the night or day, further narrowing my precious window of productivity--not to mention my inability to focus. I couldn’t discuss it with the Presence; he had gone poof. But I understood at that moment that he lived in my one-bedroom NoHo apartment.
The following day at four fifty-eight, with the late afternoon April sun spilling through the see-through curtains, the Bose radio across from the desk spontaneously burst out singing, in the chocolate-brandy tenor: “It’s a kind of magic…”
“Let’s get to work,” the Presence instructed, with charming authority, leaning over the computer screen. “Or, as I might have said at one of my concerts, let’s fool around a bit!”
And so each day at four fifty-eight precisely, just as the radio issued a message about magic, the mustached Presence, whose shiny blue-black hair matched the baby grand, showed up for a writing session. He always wore aviators. Contrary to my fears, the collaboration boosted me with energy to spare, like an IV of inspiration. It was a genuine give-and-take partnership, often easygoing, sometimes mildly contentious.
“Too British,” I protested about the style.
“More Boho!” he insisted.
He objected to an imperfect rhyme.
“It’s assonance,” I explained.
“Asinine!” he harrumphed.
After fits of giggles, we always ended up reaching a reasoned decision, alternating leadership roles. In truth, it was often hard to get him to give up the controls. I would gently remind him that he was there to guide, that it had been my original idea, and that my name alone would appear below the title.
The way you quickly bond with a newly adopted pet, I grew used to having him around. I found myself counting hours until “magic” time and the camaraderie of co-authorship. He was gay, of course, but his alpha-male confidence was not to be underestimated, and it seemed to transfer itself to me. The story hurtled forward; at times I felt possessed by it. After many polishings, I was convinced that the piece was among my finest. With the prodding of the Presence, I let it go, pressing “send” to submit it.
To some degree, I had been deliberately stalling. Would the end of the story mean the disappearance of the Presence from my life? Instead, he slid nimbly across the piano bench and, quite unexpectedly, saturated the living room with Chopin.
“Fantaisie-Impromptu is one of my special favorites,” he said. “My whole life was a fantasy—although hardly an impromptu one.” It was one of those moments when I had the impulse to pull off the sunglasses. What were his eyes saying?
“You never needed me to produce the story,” he stated flatly. “Creativity moves through you; it’s effortless. You don’t have to work to attract something to you that already shines from within, if you will only let it.” And he added, “Now the mentoring begins.”
I no idea what he had in mind. But I knew I had burned out on verbal jigsaw, and sought necessary escape. Over the past two weeks, fireworks of flowers had exploded in the parks and along the sidewalks, and the trees had leafed out in a hundred shades of green. I was sipping bone broth while seated on a wooden bench at a trendy health-food haven off Sullivan Street. The rousing voice of the Presence flowed through a speaker, singing one of the group’s hand-clapper anthems. Improbably, a bare lightbulb suspended from the ceiling was flashing in time to the music.
Like a sudden fog rolling over the Hudson, toxic doubt crept into my thoughts. Is the story good enough? Is it any good at all? Will it make a difference? Will anyone even read it? What if all that work turns out to be a waste?
The Presence slipped himself onto the bench between me and a neighboring guest, the high-fashion model type often seen around this neighborhood, tall and plank thin, with several shopping bags at her feet. He accidentally bumped her, provoking an irritated glance. As she stood up to move away, her multi-color cropped suede jacket and black leggings, which could have been borrowed from his closet, were fully displayed.
“I always admire sartorial flair,” he remarked dryly, eyeing her clothes with a touch of envy.
“Of course the story is good enough, and you’re good enough,” he said. “If you try to look at things through the lens of others’ perception, therein lies torture. You know, I was scrawny, with beaver teeth, and I was gay. Full of self-loathing,” he continued. “So, the way the ancients layered one civilization on top of another, I disposed of the person I was--which I considered a ‘little freak’--by building an outrageous stage persona on top of it.
“Even becoming a quote-quote legend didn’t bring me contentment,” he went on. “I needed more, more, more—hit albums, concerts, adulation. Indulging in drink, drugs, and sexual conquests to numb the pain. The more success, the more misery I experienced. I threw away love in favor of the high I got from falling in love again and again, so, ironically, I found myself utterly alone.
“All the while, peace was right at hand: simply accepting my true self, an insecure little boy driven to bring the light of his music to the world. So by all means, chase your dreams. But don’t allow them to destroy you.”
We made our way north on Broadway, each engulfed in a swirl of thought. Among a small colony of homeless people, a fiftyish woman was sitting on the pavement. Her hair fell to her shoulders in greasy strings of pink and blond, with gray roots, and the dirty sheepskin coat she wore, a likely Goodwill find, had probably been light gray before being used as a sleeping bag. In front of her was a cardboard sign written in marker: “NEED FOOD, NEED HOPE, NEED HELP…PURRR-ITY PLEASE?” This referred to the contents of a nearby neon-yellow milk crate, a nest for a green-eyed cat nursing three tiny offspring.
“Make a donation?” she asked pleadingly, revealing jagged front teeth.
“The darlings!” squealed the Presence, impulsively squatting down to scoop up a gray kitten.
“No, no, no, don’t disturb them now!” I cautioned.
Head lowered, he backed away, embarrassed, and handed me two hundred-dollar bills for the woman’s Starbucks-grande donation cup.
The joyous encounter with the feline family was actually a bittersweet moment. The crushing demands of illness, including self-care and forced down time, denied me the chance to nurture or be nurtured by an animal. Once again, the haunting leitmotif of disability…
“Have you ever considered that chronic illness is a gift?” the Presence asked. These words caught my attention. “You could say that the lives of the so-called ‘normal’ people are vivace, or lively, even presto, extremely fast-paced. Your life is adagio, stately and slow. You have been given the time to savor tiny miracles: study a single petal, fall in love with a phrase, appreciate an act of kindness. You may not realize it, but you have already absorbed the lesson of the half-full glass.”
Circling back to my place, we stopped at a secret playground nestled between buildings. In bubble-gum pink, my friend Leila, age six, a master interpreter of my children’s books, was riding a tire swing with light-hearted abandon. One of my earliest memories was of my mother pushing me on a swing. I remember thinking I might swing to the sky, which became a metaphor for my life. What if, what if…? So many mistakes and missteps before the stunning interruption…
We continued home in silence through a fine netting of spring rain. Preoccupied, the Presence threw himself on the couch in front of the window.
“The answer is: Live it, learn from it, let it go. Forgive yourself, forgive others, and move forward.
“You know, when I became ill, I seemed to others to be physically disintegrating before their eyes. But I never let sickness define me or deter me. Knowing I was dying, I pressed on, doing some of my best work. Anyway, all lives are finite. It’s just that most people fancy themselves as exceptions.”
With a sigh, he paused. “But I caused a lot of suffering. Feeling invulnerable, protected by superstardom, I was both naïve and in denial about sexually transmitted disease. I suspected the diagnosis much earlier than is known. I was reckless. Just as I was reckless with people’s hearts, I was careless about exposing others to risk. Who knows how many were harmed by my behavior?”
For the first time, he removed his sunglasses. His eyes, dark and penetrating, were moist. One tear dropped. He crumpled into a bent seated position, and the superficial sophistication and false charisma fell away. In place of the celebrity was the vulnerable child.
“For this, I still feel regret. I’m working on it. We are all working on letting it go.”
That he had shared these intimate feelings with me was an inestimable honor. His torment was so intensely personal, I looked away, out of respect. A hug seemed in order. But the couch was empty. The Presence was gone.
Rarely had I experienced this degree of kindness in a friend, and it touched a place within the inner lining of my heart. When I think of him—which is often--the music starts again at four fifty-eight, but he has moved on, the crazy little ghost who loved me enough to point out the path. Now I am just another aging groupie-fanatic, grieving the loss, grateful for the legacy, absorbing to the marrow his recorded songs that seem to glide past the stars into infinity .
Susan M. Silver is a New York City-based freelance writer with credits in People magazine, Us Weekly, the New York Daily News, and The Saturday Evening Post. In addition to Breath and Shadow, her fiction has appeared in Wordgathering, Lifestyles magazine, and Short Stuff.