It’s an overcast spring day in Chelsea, purple and gray-blue tinted everywhere like a bruise finally deciding to refuse its body’s resistance to healing. I have many kinds of family, including queer family, but today I am walking along in Manhattan with my blood family; a funny expression to use given that my little sister is adopted, but somehow, still, it feels right to me and maybe it does to her as well. So here we are, sort of bug eyed and tender hearted as we try to find a diner. My immediate family moved to the Philly area just shy of a decade ago and I have been here in New York this whole time, never having wanted to follow suit. It’s a semi distant relatives wedding weekend (a second cousin of mine whom I probably couldn’t pick out from a crowd if my life depended on it—) and I am with them here, born out of a desire to make stronger efforts to see my mom and sister more frequently, the day after the wedding.
We turn a corner somewhere in the twenties and a man in red, wearing deep blue shades, nods my way and jubilantly proclaims, “Zeli! Brooklyn Museum!”
It takes me a beat of a moment to recognize who he is underneath the too-cool-for-a-hazy-sky sunglasses, but when I do, I reach out to hug him. He is referring to my day job wherein which I stand eight hours a day either at a gift shop jewelry box with my elbow resting on the glass, or at the register, asking customers whether or not they are a member of the museum so I can then provide for them a small discount, or not, as they purchase items inspired by the museums various collections.
This man calling my way on the Chelsea corner is striking mostly because of his kindness and his soft curious eyes. He must be my mother’s age, but his soul generates the feeling of being younger. Whenever he frequents the gift shop I work at, he is quick to gush over my fashion choices, or greet me with jovial recognition as though we were old friends, or perhaps distant family eager to celebrate one another’s accomplishments on the journey of life. To put it simply: we are near strangers to each other, in a city filled with seeming strangers who pass each other by every day, but our queerness attracts a kind of deja vu recognition, and more precisely on his end, a kind of compassionately masculine urge to empower me on the job.
[Credit: Steven Pisano via flickr.com]
I don’t ever remember telling this man my name, but somehow he knows it, and if he’s ever told me his, it has escaped me. The last time I remember seeing him at the museum, he had tapped my shoulder while I was staring out into the museums lobby, and I turned around startled to see him looking at me with a toothy smile, proclaiming that he had missed seeing me around. In all actuality, I didn’t remember him but I tried to trust an inarticulable radiance of his presence that felt familiar.
I often tell people that New York is more of a small town than an actual small town if you’re paying attention. I say this both to New Yorkers who might not yet realize the mysterious truth of my brilliant belief (ha…!), and I also say it to people I know who don’t live here or who have moved away from here. Sometimes people will nod in a subterranean recognition, and other times they’ll just laugh and I’ll lunge my head forward, laughing right along with them.
My boyfriend and I met about three years ago in a bar on the night before New Years eve. I still joke with him by saying that he was either haunting me or stalking me because somehow, months after we met, he would find me in places throughout the City–unannounced. Once it was on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th avenue, and all he did was tap my shoulder. I turned and he was in front of me smiling a toothy grin, not unlike the smile of the museum stranger, and greeted me with a “Hi, Lady.”
That early summer night, we made out on a wooden chair left outside someone’s apartment building as give-away garbage. We were in the middle of the Village and crowds of party goers walked past us for what must have been an hour or two. At the time, I found the whole thing amusing, not to mention freeing. It was June and just a week or two prior, news had broke of 49 LGBTQ+ lives lost by the hands of a vigilante at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. There must not have been a queer person in the world whose sense of safety and celebration hadn’t been disrupted by some degree by the tragedy.
Paul and I never exchanged numbers that night. He found me in nightclubs on two occasions after that, moving up behind me under the pulsing music with that whispered refrain, “Hi, Lady.”
Paul and I often debate, theatrically, about local community politics as well as larger world issues. Sometimes this takes the form of LGBTQ safety and inclusion, which we both take very seriously, other times we talk about god and the universe, and sometimes we are just animatedly shouting about the relevance of things like the Trump-Russia probe. Recently we have been talking heatedly about a city not our own in lieu of recent turmoil there. When the initial story broke of Jussie Smollett’s alleged false hate crime report, I found myself utterly depressed about the social media reaction that the story received. Instead of concern about Smollett’s story or curiosity about what could be a nuanced and complex reality, I saw a lot of invectives and hurried proclamations about Smolletts morality, no less his worth as a human being. I remember one of the Facebook statuses I read, with some article attached, used the word “phantom” to describe Jussie; a kind of villain with no life and nothing to live for.
I have another mantra that I repeat often, only this one I don’t speak out loud nearly as much: That in New York, America, anywhere really, their are ghosts everywhere and that it is a particularly queer experience to notice and listen to them. Of course, I don’t mean that the kind man who empowers me on the clock at the Brooklyn Museum, and whom I bumped into on a Chelsea corner, isn’t alive or real. He is very much human and to say otherwise would rob our tender hearted connection as strangers in awe of each other. However, something that exists within this awe, that I’m certain we both feel, must have everything to do with ghosts.
In an interview with Toni Morrison recorded in her Manhattan apartment, “Toni Morrison’s ‘Good’ Ghosts,” the famed now eighty-eight year old novelist once spoke about her clear eyed relationship with the spectral: “I think of ghosts and haunting as just being alert. If you are really alert, then you see the life that exists beyond the life that is on top. It’s not spooky, necessarily. It might be. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s something I relish, rather than run from.”
[Credit: unknown via pxhere.com]
On social media, in news outlets, or just the gossip born from everyday life, the idea of ghostly presences and absences haven’t all been explicitly metaphysical. The word “ghosting” has seemed to slip into our twenty-first century ethos, particularly when it involved interpersonal intimacy and trust. When someone– most usually a romantically entrusted someone– disappears without a trace from another’s life without a trace of an explanation, we call it ghosting. Earlier in the year, The New York Times published an op-ed solely dedicated to this phenomenon. It is entitled “Why People Ghost– and How to Get Over It.”
I, like many others, am no stranger to the haunted heartache of this occurrence. When I was twenty years old (I’m twenty six now–), my first love ghosted me in the most literal twenty first century way imaginable. His name begins with M, and I loved him with the kind of naive, glossy-eyed purity that ever young teenager must bring to their first love. For months he drove me around the City talking all about his suburban Philadelphia childhood, his Son, his best friends, and his profound love for Quiet Storm and R&B music. Of course, he would have the radio gently tuned on the whole time, yellow and red dashboard lights washing over the symmetry of his lion face.
This was all before I found a queer family to make a New York City home with. I have that kind of love in my life now, but when I was twenty I didn’t. I had wrapped myself up in fantasies of fashioning a family with M; meeting his Son and his beloved parents who knew nothing of his queerness. Gradually he grew more and more distant and I would find myself sleeping with the lights on or keeping myself awake at night to wait for unfulfilled promises of his arrival to the apartment I lived in, and still live in today. Sometimes I would catch him in lies; how he would explain to me that he had rung the buzzer to my unit at 4am but that I must have been asleep, not hearing him. I didn’t know how to tell him that I had waited up for him all night, well passed 4. Back then, I had very little fight in me. When M would sometimes refer to me as a man over the phone, my trans-femme, gender nonconforming, heart would fold inside me, not understanding how to process what intimacy we had.
I should have seen it coming that Spring day in late April or early May when M ghosted me from everything. I turned on my devices and realized my number was blocked from his phone, I was ‘blocked’ from his Facebook, and I had no way of getting into contact with him. I went lengths that some would deem as obsessive or unhealthy to try to reach him and willed myself to imagine every kind of catastrophe, other than his apathy and decision not to love me, that could have triggered this series of ghostings. I asked friends to text him and took trains to his shared apartment in Cypress Hills, ringing his bell and peering up into his bedroom window for the faintest suggestion of a shadow that could be his. I even contemplated waiting all day at his train station, although I thankfully decided against this. On my last visit I ever took, I managed to talk to his best friend and roommate. She urged me to forget about him, and while I didn’t know how to take her advice, I somehow did enough to give up trying.
“M is busy. He has a family.” She said. “You should move on and get on with life.” Crying on the train rides home, I still clung to some misguided conviction that M’s roommate herself was a kind of ghost– someone not to trust who might be miraging the reality of the love I felt I had with him.
[Credit: unknown via pxhere.com]
Looking back now, I know M’s friend was right. She was exactly right and had given me sound advice. What was this mirage, this mistrust, that I was willing myself to see in her quite human advice telling me to drop him? What kind of belief in my own ability to love and be loved was I robbing myself in wrapping up all my life’s yearnings into one person who chose that mirage- kind of love over the human kind? I tell myself that to be human is to make oneself known to others, the way strangers who recognize you from some other course of time stop you suddenly and strive to have you remember them, or the way we reach out to our kin who’ve lost their way or perhaps made a terrible mistake. Still, we try despite ourselves to make them remember something about the love we feel in their company.
Really, M entered my life much in the same way that he took an exit from it. Even though there were signs that he would leave, their were no real warnings. We literally met on the street, similar to how the man who I know from the Brooklyn Museum claimed to know me. It was a tap on the shoulder and a turning back towards another. Something like memory, something like a haunting maybe but without the dying. Like how Paul brushed my shoulder on another corner and I, again, turned back.