Published on 2 November 2019 in the Philippine STAR.
For all that Halloween is my favourite holiday, I have never been a fan of horror. When forced to watch horror films or series, I unapologetically spend the entire duration with my hands over my eyes. I scream along with every audio cue even though I can’t even see the jump scares; a waste of money at the cinema, a source of amusement during the Netflix segment of Netflix and chill. I don’t care how good The Haunting of Hill House is. I am not watching it.
But hot on the heels of All Hallows’ Eve and All Souls Day, I’ve been thinking a lot about ghosts. Real ghosts, the kinds of ghosts that truly haunt you.
Haunting, by definition isn’t actually necessarily scary. Haunting is about frequency. You refer to a place as a haunt when you’re there often. Haunting is a recurring manifestation, it’s something that keeps appearing to you. But also, haunting is about persistence and presence, perhaps a little unwelcome or unwanted.
What are the things that haunt us? How are we haunted?
I remember returning to Berlin — my favourite city in the world — in 2018, after a devastating breakup and two years away. I remember what it felt like to walk through all my old haunts again, all the places I’d been before, and how I felt so very haunted by the shade of my ex-boyfriend, because the last time I had been there, we were still together, both of us in love with Berlin and each other. ‘Your spectre is all over this city,’ I remember writing then. Almost every single memory I had of the city had him indelibly stamped upon it. And though I didn’t want him anymore — I hadn’t, not for a long time — there was a pang there, a part of me that still wanted all the things that I had lost when we lost one another.
It’s sitting in a friend’s living room late at night (or early in the morning), chatting over bottles of liquor with someone’s Spotify selection playing over the speakers, when a song comes on. Not just any song. A song. Maybe it’s a song you and someone who used to be important to you shared a love for. Maybe it’s a song you turned to for comfort in a moment of need. Maybe it’s a song you and a former partner dedicated to each other. (“I can’t do without you,” it says. But as it turns out, you could, and you did.) And in that moment, for just an instant, you snap back through time. Whether or not you want to, you’re taken there instantaneously.
It’s catching a whiff of a fragrance someone used to wear, someone who meant something to you once, as you make your way through a crowd. Or seeing someone’s back and wondering if it’s who you think it is. You can’t help yourself; you start looking around, head turning left and right to see if you can spot them. A tousled head of hair, perhaps. The flash of a familiar tattoo peeking from under a sleeve. Out of the corner of your eye, a smile you still know so well despite not having seen it for a while now. You don’t find them; they’re not actually there. But they might as well be.
The real ghosts aren’t like the ones in the movies. The real ghosts live inside you. They’re in your head. Your memories. But not all memories are ghosts. Just the ones that still hurt a little.
I suppose you’re haunted by the things you haven’t entirely healed from yet. You’re on your way there, which is why they’re not constantly present, but also, they keep coming back when you least expect them to because you’re not quite there yet.
That’s what it was like for me in Berlin in 2018. It was so strange to return to a place I loved that seemed so unchanged, but also so fundamentally different. In the early days, it really felt like something integral about it was missing — my former lover, maybe, the space he used to occupy. But as time passed, naturally, new memories were made. New stories, built upon the foundations of the old ones. New friendships, and old friendships renewed. I returned to every place I used to go and wrote fresh chapters of my story there — a story that used to have him in it, but didn’t need him in it any longer.
And by the end of that month, I didn’t feel haunted in Berlin anymore. I felt like I had made it my own again. I walked through all the places we used to walk and felt nothing but warmth and affection for good times gone by. I finally exorcised those old ghosts, and then the memories became just memories. Good memories, finally healed of all the old hurt I once held so closely.
There was a time when I would literally run out of a bar or club when certain songs were played. The Tale of Us and Mano Le Tough remix of Caribou’s “Can’t Do Without You,” all my closest friends knew to never play that song around me. Even a newer romantic interest knew to skip it if it popped up on Spotify, though I don’t think he ever knew exactly why. He just knew that I didn’t like it.
It’s not that I didn’t like it. It’s that I loved it, and someone else loved it with me once.
But this has happened with other songs before, and I go back to them all eventually, because when the resentment finally fades, the music is still as beautiful as ever.
I don’t exit stage right anymore when I hear that song. I sit (or dance) through it now, and listen to it, and think of how wonderful it was to have felt that way about another person at some point in my life. Love, even love you’ve lost, is a beautiful thing. You never run out of it; you can always love more. Love is infinite, if you allow it to be. And so, perhaps, I hold on to a small hope that I might feel that way again about someone else someday.
It’s strange and fascinating, the things that haunt us. But also, the ways that we find closure.
One day, one day soon, I know I will stop looking at the door, wondering if he is about to walk in. It’s only a matter of time.