Ghost by Elizabeth Niedra

 

            The bar this night has no walls. No walls, only a thatched-roof ceiling draped in cut-out pennants and Christmas lights hung like fishing nets, casting spackled light in red and blue, magenta and sea-green. There are no walls and so the walls are the colours of the darkness. They are palm fronts backlit in the fluorescent lights of shanties, motorcycle grease and moonlit dirt and painted concrete crumbling away. 

            Vivaan has nearly turned for the better from a worrying shade of green, after days of the moans and groans, of the was it the fish or was it the cocktail or was it a virus or the oh God at last, maybe syphilis or cancer or gangrene. His belly had rolled and settled to a precarious stop in the early evening, a dull thud against the shrimp a la diabla. We ate by candlelight and the roar of unseen waves at the beach restaurant; the restaurant which was plastic coca-cola chairs sinking helplessly in the sand, which was nowhere near home and so was perfection, to him and me. We had both blushed and laughed at the romance of it. It was the date of the century for the dearest of friends, for beautifully queer Vivaan and prudishly married me. 

            It had been a bad year- or a good one, depending on who you ask. Depending, are you a what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger type, a the-wound-is-where-the-light-enters-you type. Are you a character-building type. Or maybe you’re more the type that does believe that the weight of the world on your shoulders can sink you into the ground. That a friend leaving without notice can shatter your heart into a thousand shards. That you can love more than once at once, and that soreness and swell of your heart, no matter how you hold it, will in time pummel the essence of you into nothing. Into heavy, dusky, sickly ink. And yet you go on, because the ink, the exhausted gum of you, it keeps breathing. The air is thin in the morning and the sun is kind. You must, as the mountain dreamer says, get up after the night of sorrow and despair and do what needs to be done, to feed the children. And so you do. But not because you are strong or good or willful. Because, what else is there. If you’re the kind who believes this, you might understand the year it’s been. You understand what I mean.

            Vivaan’s year was perhaps different, though I feel from him it was the same. At least we were, it’s sure, both older now. More arrogant, more anxious, more uncontrollably changed. We both had stronger bodies, more tired minds. We had more money – much more money – and it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. The money was what we could show, for the lines drawn in sorrow and fight on our two different faces. His was at last self-loving, for his heavy brow and amber skin and thick, broad build like a stiff-limbed mountain; providing comfort, soberness and shade. My face at last thinning, but ever-shrinking with worry from an already miniature height. Finally forgiving of its rounder, pinker, paler bits, but only as they faded with anxiety and age. It was thus and there, after the long night of the year before, that Vivaan and I found ourselves together again – weary and sun-starved at the beach.

            At the pool, Christobal had stopped writing back on the app. So had Hugo and Cael, and Vivaan wished it made no difference to him. Vivaan had wanted Christobal most, with his writerly thin moustache and unhumbly told editor’s perch at a fine art magazine. Hugo was a too-pretty throwaway. Cael had little to give; Cael he just wanted for the weed.

Christobal had so far been little more than a fever dream. He was transmitted in flash pixels and sound bites through unseen radiation, from the far-off spots of light of the town by the sea. Take some ginger for your virus, darling. Oh, me I’m just lying naked; I like to do it all the time, when I’m nearby the beach. Sensual intrigue in an ironic poncho and skinny jeans. Here he is in a shirt with pineapples. His self-deprecating caption begs us to forget the three buttons undone to show just enough sternum, slick with sweat and Adonis-clean. Here he is, a smiling charm at the wedding of a friend. Here he is, in a photoshoot for the important magazine. He says, I hope you feel better, darling. Maybe tonight, we can meet? 😉 Vivaan glows with flattery and possibility. But in the pool on the hill, as we warm ourselves sick with golden beer and the delirium-pink of a silent sunset, we hear the last of Christobal. As darkness falls over Zipolite, he disappears into the same purple haze that fades the beach into a deep black sea.

At the bar, Vivaan feels better. He is giddy, he is nervous, too aware of the angles of his thick shoulders from sides unseen. He’s worn his new shirt, the one I picked for him at the shop on the camino pavimentado. The one that is woven cotton in the colours of the street here and the sea. He had not known which earring to wear. No to the Diana Ross silver chandelier, the one he borrowed from his mother. No to the beaded pearl-drop, it felt far too formal, far too sweet. Yes to the thin gold hoop, like the one on the nose of the shiva writ large across his back in ink. He looks startlingly femme, with his thick shoulders and low brow and newly sun-warmed skin. He looks magnificent. He had tried to lend me earrings for my dress. I declined them, in the end; they were far too female for me. We would switch roles for the night, be the way we liked to be. We order the special from a barman, scatty like a cachectic jelical cat. It is the only thing on the menu because there are no menus, and we are nervous to ask and the Supremes are wailing and so in any case we can barely hear. The special is a flight of micro-distilled mezcal, which sounds to be a hair’s breadth from moonshine to me. It comes with hot red salt and a stack of sliced orange, and we drink it to Donna Summer. A petite local boy in a woven crop-top plays piano with his fingers on the arm of an old American. The rainbow room slowly fills with a kaleidoscope of stumbly, handsy, close-talking men. The first mezcal is drinkable in the sense that peroxide is drinkable, if you cut it with enough water and drown it in salt. The second we agree is like getting punched in the gut by a man armed with Lysol and seawater and cigarettes.Vivaan’s greasy stomach does a somersault as the glass lands heavily on the table, and we do not touch it again. The jelical cat, who is now shirtless with ribs like leathery driftwood, tells us this one is the most expensive. Especial. The third tastes like pure agave and is the colour of Chanel perfume. After the struggle that came before and with our shamed desperation to find mezcal enchanting, we guzzle it. Vivaan washes in and out of shades of pale. I drift in and out of the noisy place, retiring for long moments at a time to the sun-struck back rooms of my mind.

            Suddenly, a glimpse of a pineapple shirt in the kaleidoscope swell. A thin moustache and a dazzling smile, a nose bigger than the photos suggest. An arm around a too-pretty, familiar thing. Christobal and Hugo, hand in hand. Vivaan sees them when I do. He starts and closes his shoulders around me, building a close, warm room over the high-top between. His smile registers pure adrenaline – betrayal, embarrassment, dread. He cannot bear a response from me. Well God, he grins, imploring me to buy his indifference. I’m going to have to say hi now, I guess. He breathes in and turns his broad torso to the aisle, his woven cotton so close it bristles against pineapple polyester blend. Christobal breaks form from Hugo, pivoting effortlessly into the current between our seats. Vivaan’s face flashes with expectation. But Christobal does not stop or even slow. He makes for the bar, his opaque eyes passing through us as if, in fact, the ghosts were we. 

            Vivaan is sick again. His gut soars in a triple-backflip, landing into a deep, crunching ache. Oh God, Bea. Christobal whispers close in Hugo’s ear, in audible Spanish that pushes us a world away. Hugo feigns a stretch, scanning us deliberately from our painted eyes to our sandaled feet. He grins. Christobal laughs. Vivaan’s pretty earring catches the blood-red light; he smiles as his stomach doubles down viciously. My friend orders two mezcal margaritas, winking hopelessly at me. We linger until the margaritas are reduced to warm glass and crusts of salt, until Hugo and Christobal are lost in the surf of warm skin and close touch and laughter. Until they are less of each other and us, and more of a place neither Vivaan or I want to be.

 

Thank you for staying, he says, as we march up the long, cicada-lit steps to our place.

No problem, I say later, as we lull into sleep. You were wonderful tonight, I think.

 

On Friday I walk out into the water. It is the windiest day we’d had that week. The sun is strikingly hot, beating down in sine waves on my pale chest and arms and face. My skin is slick with saltwater – of myself or the sea, the same. The waves come in with a menacing approach. They rise slow but unrelenting to towering heights, full iterations from where I thought they could be. They are far too high for safety, storming the sand bar with a thunderous, overwhelming beat. The water is up to my ankles; just as suddenly, up to my knees. For a moment at a time I stand chest-deep in a pillowy plateau, white surf oozing lacy foam across a perfect bed of mint blue-green. Only then to be gone again, to leave me without a trace of its fullness, even the sand under my feet rushing out in a sucking vacuum to the sea. I stand there and the sun is white and the surf is white and my skin feels white-hot like iron. For the first time in days, my mind is as blank as the blinding glare off the waves.

Out of nowhere, there too is Christobal. He strolls languidly into the water some fifty feet up coast from me. He looks my way. I drop my eyes, back toward the surf sucking the earth out from under me. I regret not holding his gaze longer, forcing him to bear the full brunt of my rage. Instead, I let him wander from my mind. I fill the empty space with the sound of the crashing waves, coming in to wash me clean.

I look back and Christobal is gone, from where he had wandered in too deep. I imagine that I do not know, if he had left the surf or was pulled beneath the sea.

 

 


Elizabeth Niedra is a writer and home-visiting physician in Toronto, Canada. She writes about memory and loss, the labor of caring and the dark magic of everyday life. Her work has appeared in Canadian Family Physician and CBC Opinions. 

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