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A Ghost Story


“She came in through the bathroom window /
Protected by a silver spoon.”

They came into my cottage every night over one long summer, years ago–until I thought I was losing my mind.

Every morning offered a rational explanation. It was stress. It was overwork. Narcolepsy. Apnea. I was then teaching high school students at one of the UVA summer school programs, and in a mood to be alone in the evenings. I ate my take-out dinner in front of the local news. The light of the TV threw shadows on the walls and made my solitary life seem eerie. Unlike Scrooge, though, I could not point at my visitors and say, “Why, you’re nothing but a bit of un-cooked hot dog, or undigested Mac and cheese.” The reason was simple–my ghosts were real.

They flowed in through the living room window, with a sound of wind on the leaves, which trained me to to turn my head just as the digital clock clicked over to 2:30 a.m. I never saw them with photographic clarity, but the luster of their shapes filled my cottage. They were conversing, and laughing, telling stories. Dismissing them as a dream, I would turn away until one young man would lean over and yell at me to wake up–and tell them a story! Dance. Drink. The room jived with jazz music, and I recognized a blurry Charleston and heard shoes scuffing the wooden floor. I managed to sit up, eyes open, and see their clothes dated from the 1920s. The young women were flappers, with strings of beads around the hems of their dresses and those cute strap shoes. The men had slicked-back hair. They wore me out every night, but they vanished always with the dawn.

They were narcoleptic hallucinations, it seemed to me: dream images projected from waking eyes into my room while my mind continued to sleep. Though alarming, they were not the worst dreams I have endured.

As a child I used to love bedtime, because it meant that I could go and dream, which was like watching movies. With Dreamland awaiting me, I would snuggle under the sheets, prepared to meet and explore whatever was coming. My dreams went through phases, stepping from the things I had seen or heard that day, then easing me still deeper into a thrilling realm where I found a new alternative reality. It was realer than real. Bluer than blue skies. White and pink clouds of summer sunset. I could feel the cobblestones. See the horse carriages, hear the clank of chains, the clop of hooves. Touch the damp stone walls. Cities of the past. Cities of the future.

It wasn’t always fun, however. My first dreams were a nightmare that went on for months, until my parents sought a doctor’s advice. We lived then in a Flintstones neighborhood. The toy houses on our street were interrupted by an original farmhouse that stood next to our house. Set back from the street, turned away from the street at an antisocial angle, it faced the woods, as if something scary was in there. Worse, the woman who lived there wore orange or green wigs, which we stared at from our bikes in the road. Those bizarre wigs, combined with her rudeness, gave us kids a feeling of creepy dread. If she was not exactly offering us cookies to our doom, she was nevertheless frightening, and her house, menacing.

In the nightmare, I am throwing stones through the crotch of her big elm. One rock hits the tree, falls and hits her while she is tanning in her wig. She rises, turning toward me, and takes transmogrifying steps, lurching and burgeoning into a behemoth two stories tall who hoists her massive hands to kill me.

Night after night she chased me, and I would awaken in a sweat. Until one night. On that exceptional night, I made the dream stop like a film, and I made myself grow. And grow. And grow. Soon, I dwarfed her. And it was she who gazed up in horror at the behemoth six-year-old boy stalking toward her this time. She fled from me, and soon after the nightmares went away.

From then on, lucid dreaming was my favorite hobby. I slept only to dream, to get to that other realm, where I could play dreams backward, re-writing their plots, and seeing them blow up after too much manipulation. I was Superman. Spiderman. And at times I flew too high. At others I came crashing down. I would start the dream over. To countermand reality in that world, to touch, see and control it–that was a kind of secret love life from my earliest years.

That is, until the summer when the partiers came in through the window. Unlike figures in my lucid dreams, this crowd would not react to my thoughts. They would not obey me. I could not make the dream stop, or go backward any more than I could insert myself into the action. They were stubborn, playing out their own script, as if they originated from outside my dream. At the end of two months, I had to wonder if this situation is what we used to call “haunted.”

“Thank you so much for letting me stay! I’m sorry to ask, it’s so awkward…I know…”

Some months earlier, on a cold spring day, I had taken a road trip to see a friend two hours south. On a walk that day we passed an experimental farm at the local university. The cows all had glass portals in their sides, like laundry machines, allowing us to see green mush churning in their stomachs. It was a weird afternoon that ended with heavy rain and lovemaking, and put us onto an awkward new footing. When she called, inviting me to join her at a party in my town, she was offering an ideal midsummer night’s respite. Change your luck, go to a party.

And so, with a lovely psychic escape in the offing, we went to that forgettable party. We shook our bodies and waved our arms to “Rock Lobster,” and other New Wave hits. On the balcony, she surprised me by asking if she could stay at my place, though she had planned to drive home. We were back in our own rainy afternoon awkwardness, dancing around a relationship that we could not live out. When we arrived in my cottage, I thought it best not to say a word about ghosts, given her anxieties. She looked around at my meagre world, and seemed sorry she was there, after all. Yet here she was, trapped in this dumb destiny for the night.

I tapped into my inner gentleman.

“Look, why don’t you take my room? And I can take the couch. Seriously, no problem.”

We both knew we were tired and that there was no spark between us. She nodded okay, stepped into my room, and pulled the door closed behind her. Soon, the cottage fell silent then motionless, as I stretched myself out on the couch.

“So, how did you sleep?” I called out from the kitchen. My bedroom door was opening.

It was morning. My living room greeted me with July heat and relief. I awakened from the first night of perfect sleep in two months. I got up early, made coffee, and met her in the living room. We sat at the rickety card table. We sipped coffee, enjoyed local bagels, and woke up together.

“Okay, I guess.” She shook her head, blinking. “The mattress is comfortable, so it’s not that.”

I set down my coffee. “It’s not what?”

“Well, it’s weird.” She buttered a piece of bagel. “I never remember my dreams, right? But, oh, my God, last night.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I didn’t dream last night at all. I should have given you the couch.”

“That’s not what I’m saying. You know how you can have dreams that seem real? It was like that, but ten times worse. It was, like, all night long, the room was full of people having a party.”

I looked at her across the card table. “Well, we went to a party. Makes sense, right?” I was pretty sure I knew exactly what she was talking about.

“It’s like they kept trying to make me wake up, tell them stories, and dance. They were all so drunk. And it wasn’t like last night–they were flappers, you know? Like the 1920s. Weird.”

A stillness settled into the sunlight in my cottage, as I absorbed what she was saying. She went on about her dream, each coincidence as astonishing as the one before it. I had not said a word about the ghosts invading my bedroom. She pulled the robe close around her throat.

She repeated each event, as if she had seen my own dreams. What I heard was the definition of incredible. It was simply impossible. I have never heard of two people having even similar dreams, much less identical dreams. She saw my characters. The same people whom I had seen in my dreams. She had heard their voices and stories, also. She had seen the beads on their skirts, the slicked back hair, the loud laughter. This could not happen. Yet it did happen.

At what point was this a dream, or, instead, an external experience that we had both witnessed, separately?

“You said they were dancing? How? What kind of music? You remember?”

“Yeah, actually, I do,” she said. “It was…old time. You know–that dance, what’s it called?”

I drummed my fingers on my cup. “The Charleston?”

She tucked in the lapels and cinched the belt, eyes alert. “That’s a leap. How did you know?”

I leaned over the table and began sharing my sleepless nights.

She nodded and listened with interest. She heard me describe the dancers and drinkers, and gave me pure amazement. “No way!” she said a few times, and then carried her cup into the galley-style kitchen. While I was enjoying this, it came to me that maybe I was obsessing a bit much.

“You know, this is so weird,” she called out to me. “The same dream? Wow. No one will believe it.”

She came back in, wholly professional, starting to disconnect, if only to focus. She had her own life, her own career, and as she glanced around my cottage and my frustrated life, I imagine it confirmed her feeling that she knew who was haunting this house, and it wasn’t ghosts. She smiled brightly, though. “You know, I think I’m just going to skip a shower, and hit the road. I’ve got so many papers to grade for Tuesday. But thanks. It’s been great. Totally strange…”

It wasn’t long after that, I headed out for my own summer break. A week of family, hikes, and new routines pushed everything behind me. For ten days I slept hard, without one dream. And when I pulled into my cottage driveway again, I was ready to start trying to make a life for myself.

My landlord stood in the driveway, nodded hello, and I walked over the September rent check.

“So, what’s the story with this cottage? Did you all build it, or has it been here a while?”

“Oh, no, we didn’t build that,” he said. A man who grew up in Charlottesville, and a life-long employee at the university, my landlord was also an affable historian on all things UVA. “I don’t know when it was built, but it was popular with the students back in the 1920s. They would ride out here in their Model Ts, and it became quite the road house back in its heyday.”

For the first two nights home again, I slept fine and my apprehensions eased. Then on the third, it happened again. Wind in the leaves prompted me to open my eyes. The digital clock read 2:30. I craned my head back toward the living room. And two bright adults came stumbling through the doorway into my bedroom. They yelled for me to wake up, dance, tell them a story. I managed to roll up on one elbow. They were hilarious. They were drunk. They were alone, however, and they wanted to know where the party was–

“Where is everyone?” the young man brayed at me, waving one hand at the empty room.

Somehow I knew the answer he needed. “Paris,” I told them. “Everyone’s in Paris.”

“Great!” The young man turned to the woman. “Let’s go! He doesn’t need us bothering him.”

It was my first intervention in these dreams. “Actually–I do. You’re welcome to stay.”

The woman called to me over her shoulder. “We’ll see you when you get to the other side.”

He took her hand. Their shapes flashed as they touched the wall–and disappeared.

For the next night, the night after, and the next year, I waited for them. Even when the nights turned cold, I left the window open a crack in the living room, as if it were a beacon. I would miss them. They didn’t return, of course, but what surprised me was just how much fun they had been and how much I actually did miss them–which was more depressing than their final departure through the wall. Some of the people I have told about the visitations have believed me; others have not; but I can always point to my friend’s independent validation of a coincidence that is too over-the-top to take seriously. Although I have never figured out what held the revelers in the cottage that summer, their haunting has never left me, and to this day, more than 25 years later, my desire for another equally intense experience has prompted me to haunt more than a few places myself.

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