Letter to a Ghost


Do you look down at your stomach, and not see your star tattoo? That tiny, five pointed shape has been inked on you (and me) for longer than it hasn’t been. Getting them was our version of a blood brothers ceremony. It’s easy to overlook things that have been around for a long time.

Sometimes someone will see it—maybe I’ll reach for something and the hem of my shirt will rise up, or I’ll be changing in the locker room at the gym. “Did it hurt?” they’ll ask. “Yes,” I’ll say, “A little.” But the truth is, I don’t remember the feeling of the needle piercing and repiercing my skin. I remember that the woman who did it had short hair and a calm voice. I remember holding your hand as she tattooed my then-flat belly, squeezing whenever the needle pierced deeper. I remember the feel of your hand—warm, solid, a little clammy—more than the sting of the pain.


A few years ago, when Brian and I were deciding whether or not to move cross-country to northern California, I drove around the area, getting a sense of whether I could see myself in this community, or this one, or this one. I got to one—Sunnyvale—and something about the adorable cottages painted bright pinks and blues, with their porches just big enough for a swing and a potted plant, gave me déjà vu. I could picture driving a jeep into the driveway (a jeep I’ve never had), leaning a surfboard against the rail (a surfboard I wouldn’t know how to use), and sitting on the porch to play guitar (a guitar, well, you know….). You were beside me, drinking something pink with vodka. This was our dream, remember? The houses in California next door to each other, the husbands who were best friends and surfed together. That dream—it felt so real, it was like I had already been here, to the place where we will never live it out.


Now, in a city 3,000 miles away, you live a life I don’t know enough about to even picture. Do you live alone in a tiny studio in Manhattan again? Or are you still crashing with your mom while you finish your Ph.D. and she finishes her divorce? Or maybe you moved in with the guy I saw you with in a few Facebook photos.

After years of Google-stalking you, then finding you on Facebook, I stopped following you there. It was too jarring to have you pop up on my screen, in my life, as if you belong there. The feeling of connection I had with you would rush back, and then rush away, like an angry wave crashing into the shore and then getting yanked back out. You never posted anything more substantial than a note about a vacation you were about to go on. It was like seeing an ex from across the street every once in a while. Without stopping for a conversation, you’d have no idea who he had become now, but you would know—how interesting—he started wearing baseball caps.


Things that remind me of you:

  • That annoying noise that Siamese cats make. What was yours’ name again?
  • Whenever I get served ice cream by a teenager, her arms streaked the various colors of the stuff, rubbed off from the side of the cartons, I’m transported back to the Carvel counter, where we spent hundreds of hours making up stories about the customers, laughing when the soft serve machine dished out ice cream so watery it dripped from the cone to the floor, dancing to the cheesy pop music the manager liked, plotting our way out of our teenaged lives.
  • The term “drosophilidae,” which I heard the other day on NPR. I wanted to ask you if you remembered the smell of the formaldehyde that we used to kill all those damn fruit flies after we mated them in seventh grade biology class.
  • Most songs by most bands from the 90s.
  • When I kill time at certain types of home good stores—the high-end, independent types where they’ll charge $25 for a bright green can opener. Being in them, picking up stuff I know I will never buy, it reminds me of that time we were wandering around Manhattan, not sure what to do with our 19-year-old selves. We ended up in the Village, walking in and out of stores, looking at plates and pots we had no use for. As we discussed who would possibly buy orange dinnerware, a distinct thought entered my mind: Even when I have nothing to do, I am never bored when I’m with you. Years later, I realized that’s about as good a definition of love as I’ve ever heard.


Some things we didn’t talk about over the years:

  • How, the summer of our sophomore year in college, I decided to stay in Boston. I invited you to stay, too. “We’ll find you an apartment, a job!” I said. Boston in the summer was amazing—roomy, with so many of the students gone, their empty spaces filled with the sunshine you rarely felt in the winter. Not that I knew that yet. But we would be together—of course it’d be amazing. I went home to Long Island for a month between school’s end and my internship’s start. We went to Boston for a weekend. You came, of course. We hardly went anywhere apart then. Plus, you were going to hunt for a place, a job. But you didn’t really search for either, did you? You wouldn’t look at me when you told me about what applications you put in, or what apartments you saw while I did whatever I did. Maybe you realized you couldn’t afford to pay rent for the summer. Maybe you got scared. I don’t know. You never told me. I never asked.
  • How worried I was when, right after college, I went to visit you and you had a pile of CDs in your car by artists I had never heard of. Before this, when one of us found a new band we liked, we told the other about it, usually immediately sent a copy of the CD. Why had I not heard of the groups whose albums were strewn across the floor of your car? “Let’s listen to this,” I said, when I finally found something I recognized.
  • Why you didn’t come to the surprise birthday party my boyfriend, soon-to-be-fiancé, threw me the night he proposed. I called you walking home from it, still high on the sparkling wine and sparkling ring. You said: “I thought he was going to ask!” You marvelled at your prescience, while I marvelled at your absence. I didn’t ask why you didn’t come. I didn’t want to sound petty, to ruin my evening. I told myself, driving from New York to Boston for a birthday party where a proposal might take place is a lot to ask of a friend. And it is. But is it too much to ask? Our 16- or 17- or 18-year-old selves would have said “Hell no.” My 24-year-old self felt the same. Yours? I guess not.

Now, I wonder if I had known how to say any of this, if we would still be friends.


Eventually, after a series of hurts that came one after another like jabs in a boxing match, at a time when my emotions were ebbing and crashing on waves of white lace and vanilla fondant, I said something. Something along the lines of an email like: “You didn’t seem very into being a bridesmaid.” You wrote back, “Can’t you focus on what I did do?” I see now that yes, I should have been more grateful for what you did do–coming to Boston for my shower, giving me generous, if generic gifts. But what you did or didn’t do wasn’t the point. It was your lack of interest and excitement, how it made me feel like you didn’t care.

The same voice inside that told me that I had been expecting too much of you years ago told me not to press the point. I took another angle: I wrote a long email whose thesis was, “I think we’re growing apart, and I don’t want to.” I never heard back from you.


I mourned you for years, without ever acknowledging that that was what was happening. It was an aching sense of loss that hung with me always. People always say that friendships are important, right up there with our romantic relationships and families. But then so often we treat friends like clothes or cell phones or cars—keeping them around for as long as they’re easy, but saying goodbye (or not) when something stops working perfectly.

Because I didn’t understand what happened to us, I found it hard to talk to other people about it. And I was embarrassed. No one else ever seemed to be sad about friendships breaking up.

Then, I was lonely not only because you left me, but also with the fact that you had.


Things I believed from age 27 (when you ghosted me) to about age 30:

  • That when a friendship didn’t work out, it was because something was wrong with me. This was true whether I didn’t like the other person, whether she pulled back, whether she moved, or whether our schedules just didn’t align.
  • That I would never again have a close friendship.
  • That if someone who knew me so well could leave me, it must mean that there wasn’t much worth staying for.
  • That I must’ve done something incredibly wrong for you to just disappear like that. We had called each other sisters. And siblings always love each other, even if they don’t like each other. They don’t just disappear because they sense they’re growing apart. That’s something I still believe. That’s the one betrayal I am not quite over.


We met up once after all this. I contacted you via Facebook. I was going to be in New York for a month. We had lunch one of my first days there. We split two dishes at a Vietnamese place, just like we always did, though now I had to tell you I was vegetarian before we ordered. We caught up on things that had happened in the few years since we had last exchanged messages—breakups and a career change on your end, health issues and a house purchase on mine. It felt the same, but totally different. Sort of like visiting your childhood home after a long absence: the furniture is in different places, maybe you’ve gained a few pounds so the doorways seem smaller, but the layout, the smell—that’s all the same.

On the way to the subway, after we had talked about everything aside from what we should’ve talked about years ago, I asked, “So what happened between us anyway?”

You said, “You wrote that email that said we were growing apart. I mean, what was I supposed to reply to that?”

I could think of a few things: I know. I don’t like it. Or: I know. Let’s do something about it. Or: You think? Or: I know, sometimes these things happen. Or…. But I said, “So you just didn’t reply?”

“Yea,” you said. “What did you want me to say?”

I was shocked. I still wasn’t very good at saying what I was feeling in emotionally charged moments. (I’m still not, though I’m working on it.) So once again, I didn’t say anything. What do I wish I had said? “Something! I wanted you to say something!”


Why did we grow apart? I’ve thought about this a lot. Often I blame the fact that I met the man I would marry. I started telling him everything, in a way I hadn’t with other guys I dated. I didn’t quite know how to be that intimate with more than one person.
That’s true, but not the whole truth. We were changing, going in opposite directions. I was becoming someone who was happy to spend New Year’s Eve getting dinner at a hole-the-wall restaurant and watching the ball drop on TV. You would have judged that a lame plan for a Thursday night. And I judged you, too. How could you go home with strange men? Weren’t you scared? Didn’t you find it boring to get picked up in bars and have the same, lame conversations over and over again?

Our phone conversations, which I had once planned my weekend around, became more like monologues, where you told tales about your crazy nights out, your crazy job—stories about your students that felt like they had been told before and had nothing to do with me.

I sometimes let your calls go to voicemail.

I’d like to think now, we’d be able to see each others’ differences and be okay with them, that I’d be able and willing to steer our conversations back to the give and take I so loved with you. But we weren’t, and I wasn’t.

Now, I don’t even have your phone number. Though your childhood phone number? I bet I’ll remember that when I’m so old I can barely remember my own birthday.


If this were a movie, we would’ve been able to rekindle our friendship after that lunch. And we tried, a little. We sent a few messages through Facebook. But I was too pissed at you to keep up the banter. I forgave your disappearing act. What I couldn’t forgive was the fact that looking back, you didn’t even see that what you did was wrong.


Remember that guy I hooked up with a few times at the end of sophomore year in college, the one who just disappeared after he no-showed for an end-of-the-year party my roommates and I were having? We had met at a party and he looked me up afterwards, emailing to tell me how beautiful I looked. I swooned, of course, and wrote him back. We hung out a few times, even though timing was not on our side: he was taking the next year off to work out of state; he would leave a few weeks after we met. But even though I was always looking for long-term love, a little spring fling didn’t seem like the worst idea. Did I mention he said I was beautiful?

I left Boston a few days after he stood me up, went to New York to kill time until my internship began. You and I drank almost every night, toasting all the crappy boys we had met since we’d last seen each other, including the disappearer. The sad stories became funny when we retold them to each other.

And then, during that trip to Boston when you were supposedly looking for a job and an apartment, we went to the campus computer lab to check my email. There, in my mostly empty email box, was a long apology from the guy. I still remember some of the words he used, though I can’t remember his name. He said he was too “emotionally incompetent” to tell me the truth before the party: that he wanted to spend one of the last nights he’d be on campus with his friends, rather than some girl he just met. At the time, the email made me angry—who was he to reopen the wound I had mostly healed by that point? And it struck me—and you, who were reading this over my shoulder—as bitterly humorous, too. Emotionally incompetent? What 20 year old talks like that?

We rehashed the email for days, and you agreed that it was ridiculous both in its content and its purpose. You helped me write back a biting reply, using the phrase “emotionally incompetent” as much as we could.

Somewhere along the line, though, I changed my mind. That guy, whatever his name is, he was right to apologize. It’s always good to apologize when you do something shitty. And ghosting someone, even someone you barely know, is shitty—emotionally incompetent if you want to be formal about it. Just walking away without saying anything leaves the other person swimming in black jello. I imagine my 27-year-old self slogging through it, wondering, week after week, Is this the end of our friendship? Will she ever come back (write back, call back)? What did I do wrong? Or is there just something fundamentally wrong with me?

That emotionally incompetent guy? He didn’t make me slog.


The years I mourned you, I really mourned the you I knew back when we walked around the Village doing nothing together. I also mourned the idea of a best friend. Maybe it was too much to ask, I thought, having a friendship like that, and a marriage like I have, one where I can share anything I want with the person I’m also thrilled to sleep with. But I still ached for a best friend the way, I imagine, other women ache for babies. There are some meandering, illogical conversations that just do not suit my husband’s terse conversational style. Plus, I had no one to talk about him with.

I thought I just had to get over that need. The possibility that I could have another friendship like ours seemed impossible because, well, as of that time I hadn’t. I had lots of friends. But no one I would happily do nothing with for days on end.

And then I met someone. Her name is so shockingly similar to yours that if I wrote this as the plot of a novel, I’d be called out for the implausibility. We met when I was freelancing and teaching a writing class at a local college. She was taking summer classes. We both had the kinds of time to devote to hanging out that you don’t normally unless you’re, say, in high school or college. We spent afternoons having picnics on the beach, making collages, cooking intricate meals that often didn’t turn out well.

One day, the subject of heartbreak came up. I don’t remember how. But I remember we were at her house, that I was holding a mug of tea she had made me, the cup warm against the coolness of the air-conditioned air. I hadn’t told anyone the whole story of what had happened between us. That day, I took a breath and started.


I am writing this at a spa north of San Francisco, in wine country, laying poolside. You would’ve loved the pool—heated, with a bar close by. But you would’ve hated most everything else. The smoothies, the gender-segregated hot tubs, the yoga. I am here with a college friend you might remember—she flew cross-country from New Jersey to visit and get a break from her kids. We meet like this about once a year. She’s one of the friends I should’ve had in my wedding party but didn’t for some reason. She did so much for my wedding–postponing a vacation to come to the birthday/engagement party, driving five hours to come to my bachelorette party, stopping along the way to buy a tiara for me to wear.

When she got out of the pool and saw me scribbling in my journal, she asked what I was writing about. I squirmed a little on the inside at the idea of talking about it. It still hurts. I still feel embarrassed—both at what you had said, and what I had not. But I described it, because she’s someone I love, and what’s the point of loving someone if you can’t be real with them?

“Wow,” she said. “Was she always so…emotionally stifled?”
I cocked my head as my eyes filled with tears. She understood exactly what my problem with you had been. She got it better than I did—she could name it.

“I don’t know. Not when we were younger,” I said. “Well,” I corrected. “I guess we both were. We were teenagers, you know?”

She laughed. “Yeah. Thank God we’re not anymore.”

I assume she meant teenagers, though she easily could’ve meant emotionally stifled, too.


Romy and Michele’s high school reunion came out around the time we graduated high school ourselves. We watched it together, of course, trying to figure out which of us would be Romy and which would be Michele in twenty years. The fact that we would go to our reunion together was indisputable.

We didn’t, of course, though we saw each other there.

I almost didn’t go at all, what with Facebook letting my spy on so many people, I figured what was the point? But then I figured you usually regret what you don’t do, so I went. And it was great! I had interesting, meaningful conversations with people I had barely said hello to in high school. And caught up with people I had flowed in and out of friendships growing up. I had a half-way meaningful conversation with you, too, about how our minds and our mirrors told different stories when it came to how old we were. But just as we were diving deeper than “but you look great for 38,” one of your friends came by and bumped the conversation back up to that surface level, where it floated until you left, a little before the reunion officially ended. You were headed to another bar. Years ago, I would’ve been upset that you hadn’t thought to invite me, but now I would’ve said no anyway—I’m not someone who goes to an after party at midnight after five hours of socializing. I’m someone who goes to bed then, tired and happy to think back on the nice connections I had made. You? You’re someone different. And I’m mostly okay with that.


You got in touch recently, when you heard that my father died. It was nice to hear memories of the time you spent with my family–the trip you took with us to visit colleges up and down the east coast, sitting at my kitchen table listening to my dad’s dad jokes. You congratulated me on my pregnancy, too. “Strange to be writing condolences and congratulations in the same message, but here we are.” Here we are. In a place where I am truly and (hopefully) sustainably happy for the first time in years, despite my father’s death, despite the state of the world. It doesn’t hurt me to hear from you.

When I was deeply depressed a few years ago, I kept thinking about the choices I made that got me here. What if, in a parallel universe, I married my high school boyfriend and had kids in my twenties, would I be happy then? What if I somehow managed to avoid getting the chronic migraines that plagued my thirties, would I be happy then? What if I moved back to New York after college, would I be happy then?

I’m better now (from both the depression and the migraines), but I still think about parallel universes. In one, I imagine, we remained friends. You are one of the many women my child will grow up calling Auntie. Maybe in this world you live in California, too, like we had planned. We’re neighbors. You are pregnant by your surfer husband and we sit on the porch, drinking pink lemonade, watching the stars on our bellies stretch out, threatening to burst and scatter stardust everywhere.