Last weekend was the one-year anniversary of the last time my ex and I saw each other. I mentioned this in passing to several friends when I was in New York, and each one in turn sucked in her breath and said, "Oooh. How're you feeling about that?"
I guess such an announcement merits such a response, but I wasn't feeling anything in particular; I just think, always, in units of time. I'm continually counting up hours and days, looking forward or back, and calculating anniversaries. It's normal for me to stop suddenly and say, "a month ago I was having drinks with Sara in St. Louis!" or, "just 48 hours from now I'll have returned those papers!" I must feel that such measures are meaningful, but they aren't emotional occasions; I've never been a big one for celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, either--I just take pleasure in knowing when they are and ticking them off as they pass.
Still, I've been thinking lately about the ghosts in our lives: all the people who are no longer actually there, and yet who seem to have unfinished business with us or we with them. They flutter on the edges of our peripheral vision, disappearing just as soon as we turn--but that overturned glass and the door that drifts open and sometimes slams suddenly shut? They're there alright.
After my breakup, I was surprised by the number of friends--people who have been married or partnered for years--who told me matter-of-factly that they still had dreams about their exes or found themselves holding long, imaginary conversations with them. I mentioned this to my shrink and said something about how oddly comforting that was to hear--to know that such things meant something. She smiled and said, "or maybe it's that they don't mean anything."
What she was trying to say, I think, is that it's natural for anyone from one's past occasionally to float through one's consciousness, and that it shouldn't be taken as a major cosmic sign. But what I meant was that it's reassuring to find that the people who mattered to us don't disappear entirely; they lived with us and loved us and helped to shape us, and as such they'll always be present somehow, even if their presence isn't wholly welcome.
Not all the people who once mattered to us and are no longer in our lives qualify as ghosts; some just drift away, and although we may not be in touch with them, there's no sense of unfinished business: when we think of them we smile, and readily tell other people their stories or appropriate their jokes. We may think, "Gee! I wonder what so-and-so is up to?" but we don't bother to find out. They're safely dead, which is to say, still alive in some fixed and unchanging way as a part of our past.
The ghosts are the ones with whom something went wrong. I have a high school friend whom I adored--admired--idolized--but from whom I became gradually estranged. And I have a college boyfriend who will always be, in my mind, That Boyfriend: the bad one. Each played an enormous role in shaping who I was and how I saw myself, and I still think of them when I read certain books or go certain places. For a long time, thinking of either made me wistful or angry--but then, years later, I had the opportunity to revive friendships with both, and in both cases the friendships just didn't take: I didn't really like either one. Talking to them didn't interest me. Eventually I stopped returning their phone calls. And now when I think of them I feel sad for different reasons: they're gone, and maybe they weren't worth the importance I placed on them in the first place.
Some of the ghosts are those we feel have wronged us, but those we feel we've wronged are even more tenacious: there are several people I did fairly minor wrongs to, five or ten years ago--coworkers, guys I briefly dated, no one of any lasting importance--who still show up and rattle the windowpanes occasionally.
Other people's ghosts can affect us, too. For the past few months, I've been dating someone who's been divorced only a bit longer than I've been broken up. We knew this about each other from the beginning, and each sketched out our respective narratives, decided that the other's didn't raise any red flags, and proceeded from there. But when you're just starting to date someone you don't want to ask about his or her ex and you don't want to talk about yours--if only for fear of not seeming sufficiently Over It. And yet the presence of the other person's ex, that ghost, is as palpable as your own.
I don't particularly want the ghosts I have--I'd prefer for my memories to be untinged by a sense of loss or anger or regret--but I don't think I'd drive them away if I could; they're a reminder that people matter, and that they leave a mark. And if others exist in our lives as ghosts, surely we do, too, in theirs.