ghosts

My first real boss was a successful TV writer, and I was hired by the studio to be her assistant. With her jet black hair and tight jeans, she looked more like a rockstar than a sitcom writer, and she had the surly attitude that went with either. On a busy day, my job had only three responsibilities: bring her lunch, answer a phone that never rang, and make coffee in a pot I only said I washed. I was amazingly good at not answering the phone. But getting her lunch order proved too difficult to me.

“Did you remember to bring a side of lemon?” she’d ask.

“Was I supposed to remember?”

“Such a failure,” she’d joke. But she was right. Fresh out of college, I was grateful to have a job, but resentful of what it was. I was an entitled millennial long before that was even a thing. My bad attitude was old school. No longer a student, and not yet a working writer, I was experiencing the unease of being stuck between two worlds. The hardest part was not knowing if or when I’d finally stop being an assistant and cross over to being a professional. Would I ever fulfill my potential? And what if I already was living my full potential, but just didn’t know it.

With no friends or family in town, work was the only place where I had purpose. And yet, I still didn’t want to be there. On the weekends, I was at a complete loss, often giving myself assignments to fill the day. I’d walk to Virgin Records to listen to CDs I had no intention of buying. Once, I tried to make eye contact with a cute girl across the aisle. She wasn’t having any of it. I accidentally dropped the case on the floor, and her eyes when straight to the spot where it hit, but not to me. I was like a phantom angrily throwing candlesticks off a bookshelf— she didn’t see me at all.

It was just as well. I wasn’t ready to date. I had recently broken up with the girl I loved after discovering she no longer loved me.  Not much of a discovery, actually. It was kind of obvious. But I was struggling to let go of her, which is the hardest part of any relationship, be it good or bad.

My work relationships weren’t quite as difficult. Despite how inept I was, I could tell my boss liked me. When we walked to the soundstage, she’d confide how crazy the star of her show was, something she wouldn’t do if she didn’t trust me. Crazy, of course, is relative in Hollywood. Part of my job was to carry an umbrella over my boss’ head so the sun’s rays wouldn’t touch her alabaster skin. People would shoot her looks, which she was oblivious to. But I was protective of her and sneered back at them. “It’s for your protection, too!” as if she were a wild animal that only I could keep at bay.

As much as I shielded my boss from the world, she tried to push me into it. She kept nudging me to ask out another assistant that worked nearby, a girl who I considered way out of my league.

“You don’t understand. She doesn’t want to go out with me. Why would I put her in that position?”

“No, you don’t understand,” she’d scoff. And I didn’t.

And so I remained caught between worlds. But my boss was making an effort, which was more than I was doing. So when she asked if I’d housesit for her, I had to oblige.

The first time I put the key into her front door, I did it with the reverence reserved for someone who had succeeded where I had not. “This isn’t mine to touch,” I thought.  “Not even with my eyes.” I decided the only chair I would allow myself to sit in was the one by the front door. Right next to her umbrella. Yeah, that felt right.

Her home was an old English Tudor, which are known for their dark hallways and creepy wood floors. It’s as if they’re supposed to feel haunted. But this one felt different. The spookiness somehow felt more authentic. I was already regretting my decision to housesit.

My main chore awaited me in the kitchen, and as I passed the living room, a sense of discomfort washed over me. Most living rooms don’t feel lived in. But there was something about this particular living room that made it feel like it wasn’t for “the living.” It wasn’t the furniture, and it wasn’t the high ceilings. It was something else. I quickly turned my head to look behind me. Nothing. There was something wrong about this place, of that I was certain.

The kitchen felt slightly more comfortable. It was more confined and familiar. Being the home of a single woman, there was none of the mess and disorder that comes with having a family. Here, everything was neat and in its place. Every drawer shut. Every cabinet closed. Except for one.

I gently closed it when a loud GLUNK, GLUNK caused me to quickly turn around. It was an enormous air bubble working its way up the bottled water dispenser. Jesus, this place had me on edge.

On the counter, I found the supplies left for me: a large pile of syringes, fluids, and latex gloves. One might assume they were a care package for me, in case I needed to euthanize myself should the creepiness of this house overwhelm me. I drew the fluid into the syringe and tiptoed upstairs.

“Come here, Ramón!” I said faintly. “I won’t hurt you.”

That was a lie. The giant syringe was meant to be plunged into his back, part of the subcutaneous IV treatment that was keeping him alive. Ramón, of course, was my boss’ cat, and the reason why I was housesitting. Tiptoeing was my idea, and it made me feel like a psychopath.

I found Ramón right where she said he’d be: upstairs, hiding beneath the master bed. His little black and white face stared back at me as I coaxed him out. Despite the fact that I was a stranger holding a large needle, he didn’t look scared. He almost looked relieved. If he wasn’t hiding from me, then what was he hiding from?

I spoke to him as I gave him his shot, more to keep myself calm. Filling the house with voices… even if they were my own… made it feel less ominous. I was talking just above a whisper as I carried him to the kitchen for his meal when I stopped by the living room. In a few hours, it would be night, and the thought of being in a house with a room this dark gave me the shivers. I spotted a tall lamp, but it was tucked far away in the corner.

“Why’d she have to put it on the other side of the planet?” I thought. “Ever hear of a light switch on the wall?”

This really posed a dilemma for me. If I turned the lamp on, I’d have to venture deep into this living room, which easily could’ve been billed as “The Scariest Place on Earth… Unless You’re Already Dead.” But at least the room would be lit when night came. On the other hand, if I let the living room fall into darkness, there’s no telling what horrors could be lurking beyond the davenport.

There was a third option, of course. I could’ve left the light on all weekend, but tragically, I was raised to turn off the lights when not using them, and I wasn’t yet mature enough to waste electricity without first getting my parent’s permission.

I stood at the threshold to the living room, deliberating. Eventually Ramón and I decided (but mostly Ramón) that the prudent thing was to turn the lamp on now, under protection of daylight. Summoning all my courage, I set Ramón down and slowly ventured into the living room. I stepped lightly so as not to alert any evil spirits of my presence. If I could’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs, I would have. This living room was no place to get lost.

I finally arrived at the lamp, some twenty feet away, and was impressed that I had made it all the way without a safety rope attached to my waist. I studied the lamp’s on/off system. It was a simple black stem located at the base of an incandescent bulb. Piece of cake. I’d been turning on lamps like these since I was a child. All I had to do was twist the stem, run back to the safety of the hallway, and years later I’d have a story of incredible heroism to tell my grandchildren.

My eyes gave the room one last look. The only sound I could hear was my accelerated breathing. I dried my sweaty fingers on my pants and slowly… every so slowly… turned the stem.

“CLICK!” it screamed.

“Holy shit,” I whispered. “Keep it down, Lamp!”

I quickly glanced around me. Did I awaken the dead, or were they still slumbering? “Screw this,” I thought.  “There’s no way I’m turning this lamp off at night. Too damn loud. Better turn it off now, while it’s still light outside.” I gingerly turned the stem, hoping to stifle the noise.

“CLICK!” shouted the lamp in anger. Only the light didn’t go off. It got brighter.

“What the fuck?  Its a 3-way bulb!” This was a bad idea getting worse by the minute. I started to panic. Keep it together. This is no place to black out. You’ll wake up to goblins chewing out your eyeballs.

I called for backup. “God? God, can you hear me?” No response. My direct line to God had been cut off. I was in this alone. Before my mind could spiral out of control, I gave myself a much needed pep talk.

“Look, I know this seems impossible, but you can do this. You can turn off this lightbulb.”

I nodded in agreement. I could turn off this lightbulb.

“Now listen carefully. You’re going to click this stem one more time. Its going to be loud, but not too loud. It’s going to be just the right amount of loud.”

“There’s no right amount of loud,” I interrupted.

“Shut up! Did I tell you to talk? Why are you talking?”

Begrudgingly, I held my tongue and let myself continue.

“Now, after the click, you’re going to take two steps towards the coffee table. Then one more step to the left. There, you’ll find a medium-sized armchair. Do not try to walk though the armchair, walk around the armchair. Then you’re going to move briskly, but not guiltily, to the hallway and never look back. Ever. Are we clear on the plan?”

I hesitated for a moment. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”

I circled to the other side of the lamp, to keep an eye on anything scary that might grab me by the neck and throw me headfirst into the fireplace. Slowly I twisted the stem, only this time, it turned so much easier. Hmm. I twisted a little more, but still no click. What’s wrong with the thing? I gave it one last twist, when POP. The stem came off in my hand. I had confused my muscle memory, and twisted in the wrong direction!

“No!!  No, no, no, no, noooooooo!” I shouted at the black stem I was now holding in my fingertips like the pin to a hand grenade.

I frantically tried to screw it back into the lamp. Clockwise? Counter-clockwise? How does this thing go in?! By now, I was certain that a thousand bats from Hell were descending upon me. So this is how I die. The initial police report would list the cause of my death as “heart failure,” but then the coroner would notice the lamp stem in my frozen grip and change it to “electrocution.” Idiots. No one does their job right these days.

I continued on. With not a moment to spare, I screwed the stem in, abandoned the idea of turning the light off, and ran to the kitchen where I slammed the door behind me. Phew.  That was a close one.

I took a moment to catch my breath and reflect on the magnitude of what I had achieved. In the course of five minutes, I managed the herculean task of walking into a living room and turning on a lightbulb. And for this, I was proud?

Shame washed over me. I had let fear completely take over my brain. Monsters and hauntings, these were the things I was afraid of? What about never getting another girlfriend, isn’t that scary enough?  Or even worse, how about a lifetime of underemployment? I was a college graduate and my future was no brighter than the 3-way bulb I couldn’t figure out how to turn off. Good luck making it in this town, loser. Don’t let the revolving door hit you four times on the way out.

Pathetic, I removed the cat food from the pantry. What was my encore, figuring out how to use a can opener? Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the door to the cabinet was open again. Egad! A message from the underworld warning that the clasp on the cabinet needed to be replaced! I shook my head in disgust.

I decided I need to leave. I didn’t beg the house for permission.  And I didn’t dive through the stained glass window clenching a crucifix in my teeth. I just opened the door and walked out.

The area she lived in was perched along the Hollywood Hills. With a short drive, you could look down on a city of twinkling lights. You might even think you’re on top of the world, when in reality, you were just housesitting for someone on top of the world. This is what I struggled with. I had recently graduated from Princeton University with what many would consider to be a free ticket to anywhere respectable. Most of my classmates were cashing it in for medical school, or law school, or high paying jobs at prestigious firms. When I checked in with them, they were well on their way to greatness. I, on the other hand, couldn’t remember what toppings to put on my boss’ garden burger. (Wrong again, dummy. It was the chicken sandwich.) One friend sent me a photo of his fancy Wall Street office, where his Princeton diploma hung proudly on the wall. I never even framed my diploma. Not because I wasn’t proud of it. I was. I just didn’t want to be reminded that I wasn’t using it. In Hollywood, no one cares if a writer holds a degree in English literature. They just want to know if they can make the talking dog say funny things.

Of course I didn’t know that when I first drove out to Los Angeles. I had absolutely no idea how one becomes a television writer. I had never even met a TV writer. Were they well respected? (No.) Were they well paid? (Sometimes) Did they have any job security? (Absolutely not.) I didn’t have any contacts in Hollywood. I didn’t even know anyone who lived in Los Angeles. For a kid who was supposed to be smart, none of this was very well thought out.

Amazingly, my parents didn’t grab me by the throat and yell, “What the hell are you doing?!” But they didn’t need to. I was constantly asking myself the same thing. As a child, people always told me I was smart, that I should follow my dreams and become whatever I wanted. But they didn’t realize I’d been conning them all along. I wasn’t smart, I just did whatever the teachers told me to do. I followed instructions well. But showbusiness doesn’t come with homework, tests and grades. If you wanted to succeed, you had to figure it out yourself, and I wasn’t equipped to do this kind of thinking. Follow my dreams? This felt like a nightmare.

         *  *  *  *  *  *  *

By the time I returned to her house, it was dark. As I entered the front hallway, I chided myself one last time. “Let’s stay in reality, okay? This is Hollywood. No one’s going to hire a writer with an active imagination.”

Oddly, the house no longer felt foreboding. With the lights on, it almost felt warm and inviting. I made my way to the kitchen with a sense of composure that was bordering on masculinity when suddenly, something compelled me to turn around. Something unmistakably sinister.

There, at the bottom of the staircase, I saw a dark shadow slowly moving up the wall, changing shapes as it crawled away.

My heart skipped a beat. I felt a chill as the blood left my skin, rushing deeper into my muscles. My body was urging me to run. But I remained still.

Behind me was a phone. I slowly retreated backwards, keeping an eye on the wall. I had to call someone, but this was long before cellphones and I had only one number committed to memory. It was my ex-girlfriend’s. The girl who broke my heart. I deliberately hadn’t spoken to her in months. Every time we talked, I was reminded why I loved her, and why I shouldn’t love her. I had finally mustered enough strength to let her go, and I was going to throw that away simply because a specter from the underworld was waiting for me in the guest room?

I dialed anyway, and my pulse began racing again. Not from the ghost, but from the pain my heart was about to feel.

Her phone rang once, and I wondered where she was.

It rang again, and I wondered who she was with.

It rang a third time, and… ohmygod, she picked up!

Instantly, I was at a loss for words. Unlike my little mishap with the lamp stem, I didn’t have a comprehensive and well conceived contingency plan.

“Hi, it’s me.” I fell silent. Would she even know who “me” was?

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I explained everything to her. Even as I said it, I couldn’t believe the word “ghost” came out of my mouth. When I was done talking, there was a long pause on her end. Finally, she blurted, “Do you want me to stay with you?”

Well, that was a loaded question.  All I ever wanted was for her to stay with me. I thought I made that clear with all the teary messages I left on her answering machine.

But still I didn’t know how to answer her. Should I be strong or should I be weak? And which was which? If Ramón had an opinion on this, he was nowhere to be found. Probably hiding under the bed, preferring to be stabbed in the neck by a stranger than confront the unknown terror lurking in the stairwell.

Within the hour, she was at my side. We sat at the kitchen table, eating a bag of cookies she brought with her. I no longer felt the need to shut cabinets or turn off lamps without making noise. I felt safe now.

She spoke, happily sharing details from her life that I no longer was a part of. But as she talked, I caught my mind wandering. So much about her had changed. Not just little things, like her haircut or the tattoo on her shoulder. Bigger things, like references to friends I didn’t know and new hobbies she’d taken up. The girl I fell in love with was slowly fading away. In time, she’d be nowhere to be found.

Occasionally, I’d catch a glimpse of an old mannerism. Like the way she looked at the floor when searching for words. And I’d smile, “There she is.” We stayed up until the early morning, talking about the phantom that tried to murder me, the lamp that couldn’t keep a secret, and the cat that saw it all yet did nothing. Absent from the conversation were all the painful moments from our past. And although I claimed I was too scared to sleep because of the ghost, it’s possible that I was scared of something else: a future that no longer included her.

Morning came too soon. As I walked her to her car, I thanked her for giving me one final kindness, and she thanked me for giving her the chance. Then I watched her drive away.

A few days later, I was back at work. When my boss asked how everything went, I almost didn’t tell her what I saw. It felt absurd, and I didn’t want her to think less of me. But for some reason, I confided in her. When I was done, she just nodded. She, too, had something to tell me. Something she almost didn’t share for the same reason.

“The ghost you saw… is real.”

I was half expecting she’d laugh, but she didn’t. She told me that visitors to her house felt unexplained cold spots, and reported eerie sensations of being watched. They heard noises coming from the end of the hallway, but could never find the source.

“And I’ve seen him,” she confessed. “There have been a couple of times when I’ve woken up in the middle of the night. Completely paralyzed. And he just stands at the end of my bed, looking at me.”

I could feel my eyes water as she spoke, because I knew it was true.

“What does he look like?”

“Just some guy. A guy wearing a 1970s tracksuit.” She was quick to add, “But he didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt me. He just looked lost.” She smiled weakly. “He’ll probably move on.”

Despite her assurances, I told my boss I’d never stay in her house again, and she understood. But she did give me new responsibilities. I was now driving her Volvo to the car wash and booking her plane tickets. I almost felt like a grown up.

At night, I continued to work on my writing samples. My mind ran in circles as I tried to discern my future. In order to make the leap to writer, someone had to believe I could succeed, and be willing to take the heat if I failed. One evening, my boss happily informed me that she’d be that person. She and her writing partner would commission a freelance episode for a show they were running. I was no longer a useless lackey. I was a professional writer now.

I was overcome with emotion. Not quite elation. More like profound relief. I was eager to share the big news with everyone, no one more so than my ex-girlfriend. She’d scream for joy, I’d laugh, and maybe we’d even get together to celebrate. This would be so much fun!

I picked up the phone sitting on the milk crate I used as a nightstand. My thumb stood poised over the buttons which I could easily dial by rote. 

And then I hesitated.

It had been over a year since the last time spoke. That was the night I discovered a ghost caught between two worlds. I gently set the phone down and did something the ghost couldn’t do.

I moved on.

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