The night Olivia’s dead ex-boyfriend rises from the grave we’re drinking in her room, in the attic of the brick house on Howe Street, and Daniel, the boy I think I could be in love with, is smoking a cigarette.
He’s pacing the room, wearing a sweatshirt and a pair of boxers that say “HARVARD SUCKS,” but he has a wedgie, so it looks like “HARD SUKS” is what’s written on his ass. The smoke from his cigarette rises and joins the low cloud hanging below the sloped ceiling, separated by a finger’s breadth of clean air from the painted rafters. Soon enough Liv is going to turn her ceiling fan on and everything will dispel, like a dream—the way the next week will feel like a dream, too, even as we live it—but for now the cloud hovers, heavy and blue.
I can see the line of Daniel’s dick through the fabric of the boxers; it jostles as though alive and slightly sentient. We hooked up two days ago but neither of us have said anything about it; I still feel half-caught inside the moment of it. If I try hard enough, I can make out his musky scent beneath the smell of smoke in the room. To distract myself I get another beer from the case sitting on the floor, popping the can open. It makes a sharp, clean, tearing noise.
“Hey, can you open one for me too?” Liv asks.
She’s working on a new project for the semester’s final critique, crocheting with her fingers—the same way children do, and call it finger-weaving. Her left hand acts as the loom, the soft yarn looping around four fingers. From the base of her palm snakes a ropy-looking braid, hollow in the middle, already long enough to curl into a neat pile on the floor.
Daniel shimmies over to where she’s sitting cross-legged on the floor and kisses her on the forehead. A smile blooms across her face in response, and I envy both of them so much in that moment, their easy, unfettered intimacy seeming to draw up a wall between us. I open another beer and pass it to her.
“Thanks,” Liv says, pursing her lips at me politely. When she pauses weaving to take a sip, her plum-colored lipstick leaves a cloudy purple mark on the rim of the can.
Liv dyed her hair blonde a few months ago, but she never bothered to redo it. The dark roots are long and unkempt: almost an inch long, two inches. When she looks down to loop another round of yarn around her fingers, the top of her head looks like it’s been crowned with gold, her roots the remnants of a crater, a dark, deep pit. The white scalp of her part is jagged like an EKG line, and when I look at it I’m reminded of babies’ delicate skulls, of animals so soft and small they must be carried from room to room. It’s an unbearably tender sight, and I have to look away until she glances up again, her orderly, pretty face re-settling into the contours of itself. Her fingers fly away, looping and tugging yarn automatically, like something other than Liv is conducting their work.
“How long are you going to make this one?” Daniel asks.
“Long enough to double over,” she says.
“From where to where?”
Liv shrugs. The yarn she’s using is a rich scarlet.
I’m enamored with Daniel to an embarrassing degree, even though I hate his paintings—they’re Richter knockoffs, muddy colors squeegeed together, scribbles scratched on with the end of a paintbrush making little valleys in the thick paint. I know what he’s trying to do with them, but they just feel clumsy to me, and off-puttingly obvious, like someone referencing a movie that was popular a long time ago. I feel even more shy around him now that we’ve had sex, like somehow him being inside me has gotten stuck in my throat and I don’t have anything to say to him. Now that he has gotten what he wants. Now that we’re no longer mysteries to each other. Instead, keeping quiet, I watch him and the way he moves, as if there is maybe something I have yet to understand in his body, something that I can learn without words. When his bangs fall over his face he pushes them back, absently, his blunt fingers making tracks in his greasy, dark hair.
He sidles over, plopping down next to me on Liv’s bed, and something quick and dizzy lights up in my stomach. When his leg presses against mine I think about moving, doing that quick calculus in my head to see if we are close enough, if he wants me like that, if he will still want me like that, but he is warm. And I stay. Up and down my thigh run tiny prickles of aliveness, the heat of his body entering mine, and I wonder if on the other side of our skin he feels the same way.
“Daniel,” Olivia says.
“What,” he says.
“It reeks in here. Can you open the window?”
He gets up to do as she says, rising and yanking the window open in one swift movement. It’s so cold and windless outside that the night seems perfectly still, a velvet mouth opening into the interior of Olivia’s attic room. For a brief, jarring moment, I want to throw myself out of it, tangling my arms and legs in the branches of the cherry tree that squats outside the window.
“Thanks, babe,” Liv says.
I still don’t know Olivia that well, even after two years of being in the same department and sharing studio space. Not, I suppose, that time means anything. She isn’t an easy person to know. A lot of people here like to share of themselves because they think it might be interesting, or relevant, or they’re secretly hoping to find someone who wants to hear what they have to say. They put their interior lives on display, preening like birds with extravagant plumage, making art for the sole reason that they think their art should exist in the world. But if anything, Olivia’s the opposite, which confuses me. Her work is distinctive. It’s even beautiful. She makes sculptures of thickly knotted rope, like the one she’s weaving on her left hand, dip-dyeing the cord in rich gradients of color and suspending her sculptures from the ceiling—white to blush-pink, deep crimson to ultramarine. They look like guts, like something interior dragged into the light, but Liv herself is unreadable. There seems to be nothing of her in her work, no colors or richness transferred over—even though the tips of her fingers are perpetually stained from fabric dye, she still seems like something mute and inert and colorless, like one of those translucent creatures scientists find deep under the sea.
Daniel goes back to sit next to me, which is when the doorbell rings.
“Are you expecting anyone?” he asks.
The doorbell rings again.
“No, I don’t think so,” Liv says. She unfolds herself and stands up, padding to the doorway and flicking on the ceiling fan.
“I’ll get it,” she says.
She goes downstairs, her red rope trailing behind her like a tail, holding the skein of yarn in her other hand. Daniel puts his hand on my knee, like he’s playing a game. I wonder if he’s only interested in me because I seem difficult. I know that were I to offer myself up to him willingly, he would no longer want to play.
How can I possibly tell you what it’s like when someone comes back from the dead? Liv, screaming, screaming, screaming, like the house on Howe Street has been set on fire. Then, nothing. Then, somehow, it’s normal. The ghost’s name is Jake. He has come a long way to be here. It is suddenly the pinnacle of humor that he rang the doorbell, that he waited for her to answer—can’t ghosts walk through walls? I want to ask, laughing hysterically. Daniel is upset, his nostrils flared. He is pacing. In the low light of Liv’s room, his shadow rears up on the wall.
“Go, go, please, you should go now,” Olivia says to me. In this low light, too, her red cord looks like a puddle of blood.
And when I leave the apartment I am surprised by how late it is, by how quiet the streets are. The sky is that hazy, sickly pink it gets when there’s too much pollution in the air and the night is cloudy. I want to see just one star, any star, but it’s impossible tonight and for some reason that makes me incredibly sad. I stumble home, drunker than I thought, and my roommate is out or asleep, so I kick off my boots and lie in my bed with all my clothes on. I feel bruised. Daniel didn’t stop her, didn’t ask me to stay over and, I don't know, I was hoping that he would. In the foggy moonlight my ceiling is a strange, deep purple.
So instead of fucking her roommate, I imagine Liv and her dead ex-boyfriend in her attic room on that first night, the night he rose and went to go find her. I imagined them lying together on the mattress on the floor that serves as her bed. Liv must, even in winter, sleep naked; she has that lewdness about her that suggests no alternative. She piles on blankets—silk comforter, fuzzy velvet throw, a patchwork quilt her mother mailed to her—until only the tip of her nose, peeking out from the covers, feels the chill. This is her way; it delights the men she beds, who grope for her slender body, sight unseen. But with Jake there, she changes into a t-shirt, something soft and faded. She doesn’t take off her underwear. Still, there are her long legs, freed of denim, pale as wax. He shivers at the sight of them, is filled with a dense, liquid yearning. He, being dead, doesn’t feel the cold; he takes off the shirt he died in, which trembles, immaterial, in his hands, and drapes it over her chair. He asks her if he should keep his pants on.
“Yes,” she says, her voice faint. She draws the covers up.
He crawls into bed next to her. He asks if he can hold her and she says “Yes” again. Even though it’s him, she wants to be held.
When he puts his arms around her she feels as though she is slowly asphyxiating, as though the air she is breathing has been replaced by some other substance more viscous. His touch is cool, anesthetizing. She wonders if dead men get erections. She falls asleep.
In the morning, Olivia wakes up hungover. Her head hurts, insistently, her pulse beating loudly beneath the thin skin of her forehead. Daniel is already gone to class: she can tell by the dull silence that sits atop the floorboards. Beside her, Jake is awake, either because dead men don’t sleep, or because they are dead, they are always sleeping. He has his eyes closed, out of politeness. Mutely, he opens them when she rises and watches as she stumbles out of bed. There are empty cans placed on the floor in haphazard clusters. The smooth white of her legs is shocking in the morning light and it makes his mouth hurt to witness her as she navigates her room, stumbling slightly, like a baby animal. She twists open a pill bottle and takes an ibuprofen; then, considering it, she swallows another. She washes it down with a gulp from a stale beer that has been left out overnight and makes a face at the taste, but it’s her fault, so she doesn’t complain. In this moment he feels even more in love with her than he did last night.
“How are you feeling,” he asks her, though he’s sure he already knows.
“Fine,” she says. “God, it’s weird to see you again.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. That’s not what he wants to say.
The sun refracts over and through him, the way it might illuminate a cloud of smoke or dust motes floating in an empty room, and it stirs in her a new wave of revulsion, seeing this version of him, mixing with the memories she thought were fixed and immovable. She studies his narrow face, his freckles, his long nose, his thin lips and green eyes. To him, she’s still seventeen. That’s where he’s stuck, dead man’s float, ha-ha.
She doesn’t say anything. She gets dressed, shivering, the cold winter air raising goosebumps on the soft flesh of her arms and legs. She loops the red cord back onto her left hand: pinky, ring, middle, forefinger.
“How did he die?” I ask Daniel. It’s evening. There’s still some light in the sky, though the sun has already set, and it washes his room in shades of muted blue. We’re fucking; more properly, we’re in between fucks. I’m naked next to him in bed, admiring the way the hair curls damply below his navel and the clean line of his chest. It still seems impossible to me that he might want me, and yet.
“Suicide, I told you,” Daniel says.
“But how,” I ask.
“God, you’re so morbid. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask?”
It hasn’t taken me long to realize I don’t like Daniel but I want to keep sleeping with him anyway. Paradoxically, I find myself wondering if, though I still don’t like him, it’s possible for me to love him. I suspect that I’m merely trying to find someone to sink my adoration inside.
“Fine,” I say, and reach for his dick, clenching him in my hand, running my thumb across the tip. He groans, exaggeratedly, with pleasure, leaning his head back and closing his eyes; it’s as though he’s meant for this. “Maybe I’ll go upstairs after.”
“Don’t stop,” he says.
“Fine,” I say again. I bend down and skim my nose along his stomach, inhaling the smell of him, running my tongue over the taut muscles that band across his hips. I take him into my mouth—he tastes like sweat and earth and more sweat—and feel his breath hitch in his belly. His hand snakes into my hair.
“Don’t stop,” he says again, and I wonder if, upstairs, Olivia and the ghost can hear us.
Jake’s been here for two days now. He’s mostly quiet and nervous and keeps to himself; the same as he’d been in life, Liv explains. She’s still going to class and keeping up her regular routine, still weaving her red rope on her finger-loom, which blossoms longer and longer each day. Sometimes, he trails behind her into lecture or sits on a stool in the corner of her studio while she weaves or knots rope or dyes yarn. Usually other people don’t notice him unless they're really looking.
I’m fascinated by him, not for his spectral qualities—though it's amazing to see how light bends around his translucent form—but by how his devotion to her cleaves to every action of his, his every movement and every gesture. He is here because he loves her. Because he missed her. Because one day, as he tries to explain it to us, as we are sitting in her room and Daniel’s cigarette smoke passes right through him, he woke up—if a ghost can be said to wake; maybe he merely sat up again in the citadel of himself—and his only thought was of Olivia.
And so he went to go find her, with his singular message of pure devotion, like a signal transmitted from source to reception. Like how an animal finds its way home.
Daniel is already sick of having Jake around and hasn't bothered to hide it from anyone. He plays mean, dumb pranks, like pretending to walk through him, though he’s too scared to see what it would be like to actually pass through a ghost. He’s afraid, I think, of what might be taken from him. There are some things the living aren't meant to know.
But he still pretends.
“Oops, didn’t see you there,” he says, callously, as we’re maneuvering around each other in their narrow kitchen, making lentils and potatoes and brown rice. Daniel and Olivia always cook dinner together and by now they move around each other with an assured, comfortable grace that Daniel is messing with on purpose. “Almost went right through.”
“Come on, Daniel,” Liv says.
“Let me help you cook,” Jake says to her. “Tell me what I can do.”
She glances over at him and then away and for just a moment, a terrifying, angry expression flits across her face, frantic, like a moth in the night. And then it’s gone, disappearing into some darkened corner of the room, her features sealing over themselves, pretty, blank and hermetic.
“It’s okay,” she says. It’s not as though he can do anything. He can’t pick anything up. He’d pass right through.
I say nothing, dicing the potatoes into finer and finer pieces, the blade of the knife dancing under my hands.
I wonder what Liv and Jake talk about, late at night when they're lying together in bed. Daniel has stopped entertaining my questions on the subject. “I think it’s creepy,” he says, that night, after the potatoes are fried and the lentils simmered and Jake has hollowly watched us eat a meal that would drop out of his stomach, not that he still has one. We’ve already had sex. I didn’t come, but he did. “The way he follows her around. I don’t get it. I love Liv, too, but no one’s worth returning from the dead.”
Maybe it isn’t Liv, I want to tell Daniel. Maybe his love has nothing to do with her. Maybe it’s all in his head. It’s possible.
I look at his beautiful body and I think about how bad his paintings are. I think about how I’ve been in their house about as long and as constantly as Jake the ghost has since he first rejoined the living. I think about how sometimes Daniel doesn’t even kiss me when we have sex and I have to pull his face down to meet mine otherwise I feel empty and sick inside, and sometimes I still do even after because I had to be so pathetic as to ask.
I feel sick now.
“What’s the alternative?” I say to him.
“Staying dead,” he says, rolling away from me. “In the ground. Where he belongs.”
I stare at Daniel’s perfect back, at his shoulder blades and the tight cords of muscle. I know he’ll be hot to the touch, burning.
“How sad,” I say, and reach forward to press my cold hands against his skin.
And then on Friday I get a beer with Jake—really, it means I drink a beer to loosen my tongue, while he watches and we awkwardly sit in Olivia’s living room—in an attempt to have a friendly chat with him and take some pressure off Liv, but he’s not forthcoming. He’s self-conscious to the point of being frustrating, and keeps trying to turn the conversation back to me.
“I’m boring,” I tell him. “I want to hear more about you.”
“You’ve lived more life than I ever did,” he says glumly.
All I’ve learned about him is that in life he used to be a real outdoorsman. He won’t say a word about any of the interesting things. He won’t tell me about what death feels like, or what color it is on the other side, or if an other side even exists—I haven’t considered this, that perhaps there’s nothing there. He won’t tell me what it’s like to come back, or how he got here, or how he made it all this way. He won’t tell me what he does when he’s not haunting Liv; he won’t tell me if there’s anything to enjoy when you’re dead.
“Ghosts don’t do anything,” he says.
“We look at stuff.”
“And we remember all the stuff we did when we were alive.”
I can’t tell if he’s sad. He seems like he is.
“Let’s go say hi to Liv,” I suggest, draining the rest of my beer. “She’s still home, right?”
Daniel’s door is shut, and I can’t hear anything. I try not to think of him. I hope he isn’t home.
“Haven’t seen her leave,” Jake says forlornly. For a guy, even a dead one, who’s supposed to be in love, he’s awfully depressing.
He lets me lead the way upstairs, and in retrospect perhaps I should have known something was off. Up in the attic, the door to her room is closed; I knock first, and then without waiting for a response, I open it.
They’re there, of course, the two of them. They’re not fucking, not at the moment I enter the room, though the air smells like sex, and they’re naked—I see the familiar lines of Daniel’s body, half obscured by the duvet, already so familiar though the number of times we’ve spent the night together can yet be counted on one hand—and Olivia looks at me, her chest exposed, her beautiful pale body exposed, and says, sadly, disappointedly, “Why didn’t you wait?”
I notice that her nipples are small and brown. I notice that she has an ouroboros tattoo on her stomach, below her ribs. I notice that her hand is in his and that it remains in his. I notice that the long red rope she’s been weaving is zig-zagging across her bed, as though it is alive, as though it has a consciousness of its own. I realize that they’ve always belonged to each other and that I have never been anything but a lens for them to magnify their feelings.
After that, Jake left. Vanished like the morning dew. He’d finally understood, I suppose, that he had no chance with Liv, dead or alive, and that there was no sense in hanging around.
I think about that night with Daniel. “How sad,” I’d said.
I don’t know if Liv said anything specific to Jake, to make him leave. I’m not sure when exactly he left, either, because I stopped hanging out at their apartment, too—of course I did—and it took a long time before I could really speak to Daniel or Liv again. I was so mad at both of them, so very hurt and upset, and I didn’t know why, because it’s not as though I belonged to either of them or them to me. It’s not as though I didn’t understand, long before I walked in on them, that what they shared was something that I could never, not on any level sexual or emotional or psychological. I’d known that. I’d known that all along.
Liv did tell me, though, how Jake had died. Eventually, after we started talking to each other again. It was the way a lot of kids died where she was from, a climbing trip accident that happened to be an accident-on-purpose. He’d gone alone, already a bad sign, and brought along a rope too short, the worst of all climbing sins, and tied what was called a suicide knot—because you’d have to be suicidal to do it. And he’d disappeared down a cliff that went too deep, and his rope wasn’t long enough, and that’s the way he’d wanted it.
Sometimes, even now, I lay awake and imagine how he must have felt. How he’d set up his belay, knowing he wasn’t to see the other side of it; how he’d descended down the face of some mountain, somewhere, to strand himself—I hope there were trees. I hope there was a sweet coastal breeze. I hope that the pine needles were soft and still green.
Larissa Pham is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn. She writes essays and criticism at The Nation, the Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She is the author of Fantasian, a novella from Badlands Unlimited.