This Is Us

My Roommate, the Ghost

She doesn’t pay rent, but we’re doing okay

Detail from “The Bowden Children,” John Hoppner, 1803

My dead roommate broke a dish the other day, so we had to have a talk. I’ll call her Annie, since she’s a ghost and can’t consent to being included in this essay. I like to ask permission for things like that. But I will tell you about our chat.

Annie decorated this home, when she was alive. She was the original owner and purchased the place about 30 years ago when this suburban New Jersey development was built. It’s a very nice apartment with a soaring three-story great room, two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and one half-bath. It’s got a smallish kitchen, a nice living room, and a washer/dryer on the second floor. Everyone agrees this is a design flaw, so, on the advice of the neighbors, I keep the water line on the washer turned off when it is not in use.

The rent on this 1,600-square-foot palace is a little less than what I paid for a 580-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in a walk-up building in Los Angeles. That apartment had no central air, although it had a dishwasher. It had no washer/dryer, though there was a tiny laundry room on site. One of my psychic friends stayed in my apartment in Los Angeles and said, “There’s some spirit activity, but nothing negative.” That felt about right.

When I adopted a cat, she would stare at seemingly invisible things that were either bugs or ghosts, but I was prepared. People told me that’s what cats do.

I expected to pay high rent in Los Angeles because you’re really paying for the price of access to all that city had to offer, right? (Right?) Also, inflation in most American cities is absurd, never commensurate with the local median pay.

I dealt with skyrocketing rent in New York City in my twenties, and in my thirties, I moved to Los Angeles, where it was cheaper. Soon, the rent shot up there, too. But still, I got to be in Los Angeles. Los Angeles. Sparkling behemoth by the sea, and the desert, and the mountains, and all the other shit people wax rhapsodic about when they tell you why they love it. That one view on that one trail. The haunted mansions. The music, or the stories about the music that used to be there. The people, and their tales — they’ve got a million of them, just listen. The food. The taco trucks. The Dodger dogs. The doro wat at that one place and the hand-pulled noodles at that other place. Canter’s. Or Langer’s. Or Greenblatt’s. Or Nate ‘n Al’s. (But really, c’mon, Canter’s.) And did you know you can put avocado on that, and that, and also that? You can and you should.

Part of my choice to move back to New Jersey in late 2020 was absolutely an economic one. Though I’m fortunate to have a middle-class income, I couldn’t justify spending 50% of it on rent and utilities each month, especially when I could hardly do anything in that bright, shining, mad city I adore. And with the risk of illness and even death so close, I also couldn’t justify being so far from my family at a time when they might need me, or I might need them. A not-too-distant cousin died of Covid-19, and I had to wonder if it would get closer.

Plus, in the early autumn of 2020, the signs were clear — though not as starkly horrific as they’d become — that the governor of California and mayor of Los Angeles were not interested in a cohesive, consistent, and effective approach to preventing the spread of Covid-19. Their wild incompetence, and the lack of preexisting infrastructure to handle a mass disaster, gave me far more cause for concern than did the earthquakes or even the 120 degree temperature days.

Between that, and a full-court press by my family to get me to return to my unglamorous but reasonably sensible state of origin, it felt like it was time to leave. And anyway, I was about to turn 40, and soon to welcome a new nephew. If I were with my family, I could have a little pod of community, at least.

Do you see how I feel guilty that I left before it got so bad? Do you hear me trying to explain it to you without apologizing? As if I could’ve helped somehow to change what has happened.

It is late January of 2021. The crematoria are backed up. The coroner is slammed. They’re opening the restaurants and zoos and malls again anyway. I am unspeakably fucking angry, like somebody is beating the shit out of my best friend.

It is such a great fucking city. It will survive. I am still enraged.

Enough. Back to last October.

I put my things in storage with a local small business, I kept my beloved Los Angeles Times newspaper subscription, and I moved to New Jersey to an apartment whose owner had passed away a month before the pandemic hit. I did not know she would still be in the place, but I was not surprised when I discovered she was.

I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I don’t not believe in them. I don’t know if I accept the idea of energetic remnants of folks who’ve passed, but I don’t not accept it. Philosophically, I am half-Mulder, half-Scully.

I am comfortable with this contradiction, which is typical among ex-Catholics. We had to hold these things together in our minds in order to survive. Lies are real, except when they are not. Facts are false, except when they aren’t. Children are sacred, except when they are defiled without apology, and it’s your fault for bringing it up. Move the sinner to the next parish. Maybe he’ll keep himself under control there. There is always another parish.

Sometimes I hear footsteps upstairs in the bedrooms, when I’m downstairs on the couch, watching the candles flicker and listening to an audiobook. As I have thankfully seen no indication of a home invasion, I can only assume it’s Annie walking around the bedrooms, or that I’m hallucinating.

If I am, perhaps it’s genetic. The women in my family are prone to madness. So are the men, but it’s less colorful and more terrifying. I have a long-dead relative, Saint Catherine Benincasa of Siena, who claimed that Christ proposed to her with an invisible engagement ring finely crafted of his very own foreskin. (She said yes!) She became very famous for her eating disorder, which they called a miracle.

I’ve never been engaged, much less to a charming Jewish man who is both a teacher and a doctor, so I can’t really knock her for telling everybody about it. And we all have our food issues. I am a single woman in her forties. I love bread and I hear ghosts.

Sometimes I hear noises downstairs in the dining room, when I’m upstairs in bed. This scared me quite a bit when I first moved in, sometimes jolting me awake. It happens less now.

If Annie needs to open some cabinets or pace the floor at 3 a.m., well, so be it. I can’t sleep most nights anyway, due to stress, depression, and mourning for a friend for whom we can’t have a funeral and for the ones who may follow him. Plus, I drink too much coffee too late in the day.

Once, I opened the walk-in closet that contains some of Annie’s things — sweaters, shoes, boxes of stuff. The light was on. I hadn’t turned the light on in there.

“Okay,” I said, and turned the light off.

The noises continued now and again. I slowly began to unpack, to fold my clothes, to get the hang of things. The washer and dryer broke, and my mom paid to have them fixed. The dishwasher mostly did alright. The appliances, all 30 years old, needed some help, but then they kicked into gear. I figured maybe they were tired, too.

Annie’s place has prints of portraits everywhere. She liked art. I like art, too. Our tastes are not identical, but I enjoy a certain Golden Girls flavor, so the seascapes from Cape Cod don’t perturb me. There is a jazz album cover reproduced in a larger scale, jazzing up the downstairs half-bath (what luxury! Three toilets in one home!).

There is one picture for which I did not much care when I first moved in. It’s a reproduction of The Bowden Children, an 1803 portrait by the English artist John Hoppner. It depicts a small blonde girl clinging to the back of her slightly older blonde brother. I have a friend who finds small pale British children frightening, as she believes them to all actually be ghosts. I’m almost certain she is incorrect, though I can’t prove it.

The painting does not stand out to me as particularly extraordinary, but I don’t know much about that sort of thing. John Hoppner lived in London near the Bowden family, and painted the kids when little Mary Anne was three, and John William was five. Behind the children, in the distance, is a church — perhaps the one in Fulham, where they lived. John William was apparently asked how he wanted to be shown in his portrait, and he said that he would like to be seen “drawing a church.”

How utterly Protestant of him. Snoozeville. Get back to me when you want a deftly constructed piece of jewelry made out of an incarnate deity’s discarded private parts, kid. Catholics do spooky right.

Mary Anne Bowden died at 19, but her brother went on to study at Trinity College, Oxford, and became friends with the activist John Henry Newman, who apparently commented favorably on the significance of the church in the background of the picture. John Henry Newman was an even bigger church fan, you see.

Newman was a member of the Oxford Movement, a group within the Church of England that recommended a return to early Catholic doctrine on the grounds that it was somehow better and purer than what the contemporary Church of England members were getting into. The pretense of authenticity by way of return to something allegedly ancient and unsullied is, of course, a tried and true marketing tactic among evangelicals, fundamentalists, and people who manufacture organic skincare products. They’re just making it all up.

Later, Newman converted to Catholicism and became a priest, and then a cardinal. In 2019, he was canonized as a Catholic saint. I didn’t look up what miracles he allegedly performed, but I’m sure they were basic and boring.

Back to the painting of the Bowden children. The original has its provenance with, naturally, the Bowden family, after which it went to Herbert Stern, 1st Baron Michelham (1851–1919), London, in 1906. After he died, the sale of the painting was handled by London, Hampton & Sons. Acquired by Mr. and Mrs. William A. Fisher of Detroit, the painting was eventually donated to the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1951. The institute sold it to Sotheby’s on May 21, 1998, where it was soon purchased by Bernadette and William M.B. Berger of Denver. Their philanthropic trust listed it for sale in 2017, and Sotheby’s estimated it should go for $25,000 to $35,000. I don’t know if it ever sold. I do know it’s not my favorite painting in the world.

In an effort to make the place my own, I hung some of my favorite things — a calendar by Effin’ Birds, a mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe purchased at the San Antonio Book Festival after a panel I did there, a banner by Rayo and Honey. It says “LET THE WORK SPEAK.” I put it up over one bed, the new mattress with the new frame (the other bedroom has a new mattress in Annie’s old wooden bed frame). I wondered if that banner would cure the writer’s block that had prevented me from writing anything creative besides personal essays for the past several months.

“That’s not writer’s block,” a friend said. “That’s writer’s preference. You prefer to write essays, right now.”

“But they don’t make me any money, hardly,” I said. “I used to write books, before I got sober. I used to write articles all the time. And scripts. Coffee isn’t helping. The doctor says I don’t have ADD. What do I do?”

“The world will survive without another listicle,” she said. “And there’s a reason you have a fucking day job. You even like the day job! Who likes their day job? And who the fuck just writes essays all day, for money? Be grateful for what you have. You could be sick or dead.”

“But I want more,” I said.

“Everybody wants more,” she said. “Except more grease on your scalp. Please take care of that, on the off-chance you ever have sex again. Who wants to run their fingers through that?”

The friend was me, did I mention that? I was talking to me, in the shower.

I decided to put the new place in order, really put my stamp on it. I decorated for Halloween, skipping the colonist cult terror celebration theme in favor of general autumnal resplendence (leaves, mostly).

In November, I made a home decor move that was not favorably received by my spectral roommate.

I took down the portrait I’d taken to calling My Dead British Children and replaced it with a portrait of a cat. Not my cat, although I do have a portrait of Polly, sent to me by my former neighbors in California (and a notebook with her face on the cover, sent to me by a friend in California). This cat portrait was a fun, funky thing rendered in bright colors on a piece of tin, purchased at a small shop in Houston by my best friend.

I wanted to put it up where I’d be sure to see it every day, and besides, I was tired of dead people.

Down came the kids. Up went the cat. It didn’t quite look right, and I almost missed Mary Anne and John William, but I figured I’d get used to the new arrangement.

As it turns out, I didn’t have time. A few days later, as I stood at the stove, cooking something or other, I heard the sound of a dish being smashed against the floor behind me.

When it comes to loud noises, I have a certain delayed reaction characteristic of adults who were once children raised in a particular type of environment. When a waiter drops a tray in a restaurant and the clattering cacophony attracts the attention of other diners, I rarely turn my head or even startle. My dining companions sometimes find my lack of response somewhat odd.

I am not tough. I am not unflappable. I am often worried, sometimes irrationally so. It is just that accidents, disasters, and explosions are to be expected. If we react visibly, we may draw attention to ourselves, and this may be very dangerous. I find it annoying when people get scared or jump up in their chairs in the restaurant.

Don’t you know it can get so much worse? To pretend it’s not happening is a luxury you won’t always have. Be grateful. Fix your face. Don’t let it move.

This preternatural pseudo-calm can be a problem, as when a friend recently grabbed a small plastic Christmas tree I’d accidentally set on fire by placing it too close to a candle.

We were right near the back door. There was no time to waste. He grabbed it with his bare hands, and wanted to get it out before the plastic melted all over the carpet, or before something else caught fire.

“Open the door!” he said. The back door was two feet away. But my reaction was to calmly ask if he meant the front door or the back door, as if we were discussing his preference for gouda or gruyere. It was illogical, but I had to be precise, just in case.

If you don’t ask for exact directions, you could do something wrong, and somebody could get very angry at you. Your countenance must remain calm. If you panic, they panic.

“Whatever door this is!”

I opened the back door. Flames were shooting up, and he ended up with a small burn on his hand. He stepped on a melted piece of plastic, and got a little burn on his toe. I apologized, a lot. I got the first aid kit. He was a former EMT, and he has a high pain tolerance, and he was fine. We are still friends, I think.

This is all just to tell you why I didn’t react to the sudden crash in my kitchen. I should’ve. I stood still. Then I turned off the stove, and calmly turned around.

My cat’s food dish was broken in two pieces on the floor, as if somebody had picked it up and dropped it from a few feet up. I looked up at the ceiling, but nothing had fallen from the ceiling — a lighting fixture, a piece of plaster, nothing. I hadn’t accidentally stepped back onto the dish. My cat was nowhere to be seen, and even if she’d been in the room, she couldn’t have broken the dish in that way.

It had not previously been chipped, or cracked. If it’d had some invisible hairline fracture, why would it have suddenly and loudly burst into two jagged pieces at that exact moment? I was cooking on the stovetop, but I’d done that plenty of times before. There had been no significant change to the temperature, or to the air pressure.

I understood then that I would finally have to deal with this roommate situation. I don’t like passive aggression, and this was escalating into aggressive aggression.

“Okay,” I said aloud. “Fine. I get it.” It wasn’t fine and I didn’t get it, but I knew I could ask people who would help me understand.

Naturally, I asked the internet. One person said that the dish, a repurposed item from the ’90s, probably just had a hairline fracture that made it explode, though they provided no examples of that ever happening in their own presence. Clearly, this stranger on the internet was an unreliable narrator.

Everybody else told me it was a ghost.

A few people seemed properly frightened, but most were quite matter-of-fact about it. I knew these were my people.

“What do I do about it?” I asked the ones who were down to normalize chaos.

Some people had ghost-busting suggestions. These generally involved shouting “BEGONE!” or “GET OUT OF HERE!” in various languages while making assorted hand gestures. These were the people with witchy grandmas. Several international villages were represented through these recommendations.

Others argued in favor of rationalizing with Annie, encouraging her to cross over to The Other Side, as she might be agitated and truly not understand why I was even in her home.

Still others said to treat it like any roommate conflict and have a chat, woman-to-ghost. I liked that. It was sensible.

I prefer living alone unless I’m having excellent regular sex with the loving co-occupant of my abode. I certainly don’t mind having a good platonic roommate. But alive or dead, she’s got to mind her manners.

My psychic friend, the one who felt the vibes in my Los Angeles apartment, advised me to vacuum my living room, say a little prayer, tell Annie to be respectful, promise I would be respectful of her, and to light a candle. Then I would move on to the next room, and the next, until I had covered the whole place.

Different cultures have different practices related to burning herbs or wood or incense; I could pick which felt relevant and powerful to me, or skip that part.

At the end of it all, I should go to the front door, open it, and sweep out any lingering negative energy (or vibes, etc.) with a real broom. But I must make sure to vacuum along the way.

“Is this because you were in my last apartment and know I probably need to vacuum this one anyway?” I demanded of my psychic friend.

“No,” she said. “But it helps.”

I really did need to vacuum.

I did what she said. It felt good. Vacuuming is kind of therapeutic, and burning stuff is fun when it creates a nice scent and doesn’t melt your friend’s skin. I didn’t feel a big energetic release or spiritual epiphany, but ritual is good. Ritual can heal on a level we can’t process intellectually. Ritual is not for the intellect.

I swept everything, or nothing, out the front door. It was cold, the kind of late fall evening that smells like woodsmoke and the promise of frost.

“It’s kind of a hard year,” I said into the night air. “You left at the right time.” I shut the door and went back into the kitchen.

I didn’t quite know what to do with the broken dish. Should I recycle it? Throw it out? That felt unkind. I thought about old things, ancient things: pouring libations on altars, making sacrifices to the gods, giving gifts of honey and sacred objects. I thought about what I would want if I were a phantasm in need of pacification.

I put the two pieces of the dish on the butcher block counter and stuck a leftover mini Kit Kat from Halloween between them.

“Here you go,” I said aloud. “This is my favorite candy, except for Coffee Crisp, which is Canadian. I don’t have any. It’s like Kit Kats but with coffee flavor.”

Silence.

“It’s really good. I don’t know why we don’t have them down here.”

I paused.

“I know you were mad. I know you put a lot of work into this place. But I’m alive and I get to do things.”

My cat walked past the kitchen, stopping only to stare at me. All was quiet.

“I’ll put the kids back,” I finally said. “But I get to decorate other stuff the way I want. Because I’m alive and you’re dead and that’s how it works. Okay?”

No response. Thank God.

I put the Bowden children back in their place. The groovy cat painting was moved to replace a print of a boat. I slept well that night, on the new mattress on the new bedframe in the room Annie reserved for guests. My cat slept beside me, snoring quietly.

The next morning, I ate the Kit Kat for breakfast. I’m mad, but I’m alive, and I get to do things.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast. Patreon.com/SaraBenincasa

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