CW: Mention of eating disorders
We sent each other pictures of Bjork wearing a swan dress. Within three months of meeting her, she had become my closest friend, my confidant, my ‘clever and my lovely, kind with joy’ type of a person. I cooked her pasta for lunch and burnt the pine nuts, we drank rosé and we talked about writing books. It felt like a friendship to write about, one that would carry with it adventures of late nights, texting and long phone calls. A Vita-Sackville-West/Virginia-Woolf type of friendship.
I mean: &, intertwined.
We texted, we called and we emailed. Every day. The burst of intensity was something I was not unfamiliar with – after all, I had dated upon dated and dated. I’m a serial monogamist, how could I mistake the feelings of love and lust that I was suddenly sharing with her for anything else? I text her: “Do you know much about Michelle Tea?”
After two days of silence, when I was becoming most concerned, I received a message from her:
I’m anxious about many things.
I need a break from social media and texts to get through the
next few months.
You might not hear from me for a while, thanks for understanding.
I didn’t understand, and I don’t still understand, but I texted back, I do understand. I waited and waited and waited. I think I am still waiting to hear from her. I messaged to wish her a good new year, a good Christmas, how I hoped she was okay, how I wanted to know what I said or what I did to upset her so much.
As it turned out, she needed a permanent break from me: she informally closed off all channels and currents between us and has continued to keep the dam up. I don’t know what I did, what I said, or why. I was texting a dead person, a ghost, and there was no point waiting for a response. I blocked her and then unblocked her. I put her on mute and pretended she didn’t exist. The thorn of the thought has been nestled deep for months. I cannot itch it out.
I miss her, and I don’t regret sending her messages but now and then, I remind myself to reassure myself: we all text dead people sometimes. To others, we might be the dead people they text.
From Sackville-West to Woolf, on Thursday, January 21 in 1926:
I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it.
I think it’s ironic that the last time I saw her she took my copy of Grief is a Thing with Feathers. I wish I could email her to give it back. She left me with a copy of Inferior.
I’m cautious about making friends because I am followed by many ghosts. A strife of grey. Blurs, messy, cross-hatched shadows. I feel heavy. I am cautious about being vulnerable.
I have always been the intense person in friendships. My longest friendship lasted for more than a decade, the only friend I carried from high school. She was clever and had naturally red hair. She was anorexic and bulimic, and she cast her self-doubt around, seeded it thoroughly among her friends. She had moments of kindness, but in hindsight ladled with my bitterness, I remember little of it. In 2015, I split up from my long-term partner and felt dirty and soiled after it. That’s what I told her too, in a park in Oakleigh South, just a street from her parent’s house. I had been crying. She had returned from abroad, a year spent interning at the Smithsonian. She was without a job, had little hope for her near future, resented living with her parents after that streak of independence. I had moved in with friends from work, a tiny space at the bottom of their three-storey apartment. I didn’t have much (again), but I was glad I had her and her friendship.
She dropped me quickly after she checked off boxes of her list: boyfriend; tick: full-time employment; tick: not mentally fucked-up; tick. It’s as though our friendship ceased to mean anything to her. Her sudden departure – when she was once a constant in my life, my Messages app, my Phone app and my Favourites list. My photo albums, my Photos app, my wall-adorning Polaroids – she became my first ghost. I went into shock from grief.
Grief is tied to so much in my life. ‘[Grief]” is everything’ – Max Porter in Grief is a Thing with Feathers. ‘It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic.’ A book about the death of a mother and a wife, Grief is a Thing with Feathers wants you to understand grief through parallels, manifestations and the way it fucks up your life. Grief is nebulous, and it morphs itself into different forms. I intensely experienced loss and didn’t understood how to isolate myself from it. So instead I embraced it: I have ‘eaten sorrow’ and I have created ghosts.
And ghosts haunt. That is their function.
In Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, ghosts act as lighthouses, warning the weary traveler-heroine Edith and telling her to change direction, to go back. The ability to see ghosts is given to her as a gift and she uses it to survive. But the ghosts themselves are grieving when they warn her. They carry the heavy burden of past horrors: they are bloody and they are black, frightening figures because their grief is veneering their very fabric and presence, living on the cusp of life and death. Contrastingly, in Grief is a Thing with Feathers, Max Porter writes ‘ghosts do not haunt, they regress.’ They are imitations of a life lived behind the veil. In Crimson Peak, I was perplexed by the weaving of trauma and existence into embodiment. The ghosts that follow Edith are more than memories of a place – they reverberate the very real horror of the past. Like our own ghosts. And like, Edith, I don’t deal well with paler imitations of existence.
Grief and ghosting are polyphonic; they echo, they are caves, and absent shells. They are hollowed out, and they are absences.
Ghosts. I’m sick of fucking ghosts.
From Woolf to Sackville-West, on Thursday, July 24 1927:
… how nice it is of me to be writing to you, when you’re not writing to me.
I have always been an intense person. I struggle with withholding myself from other people, worry that I come off too strong, too obsessive. Too too too. Over time what I did seemed normal, still seems like the natural response: I withdrew from interactions, withheld a large part of me. Became the listener instead of the talker, became the observer who watches people. I envied people who came off as hearty. The mere word heart has become difficult to bear, especially when I envisage it as something specially crafted, a tender morsel of shape and feeling within a person. My fingers itch, desiring to carve something similar out of the stone in me.
I am harbouring a stone, a small, hard seed that resists growth, is barren. I have supposed this was the filling feeling I was missing.
I have been learning that being vulnerable is like carrying a kitchen knife. A blade to spill feeling. Carving oranges out of stones. Carving pips, seeds. Feeling juice on my fingers. Feeling.
She was the second woman I have ever fallen in love with. The first was a girl back in high school, in Year Eight. She had long, dark brown hair, the same shade as Harry Potter’s, and she wore round spectacles, too, which only enhanced her image in my mind as Harry Potter. I assumed that my obsession with her was due to my infatuation with the lightning-scarred hero of the Rowling legacy. I never really spoke to her, and we were always in separate classes. I don’t even remember her name.
I am beginning to understand that, in 2008, I confused myself purposely to exist with myself. By explaining myself away and in lacking the vocabulary to exist with myself – I did not really have a full form. I saw a mirage of myself and kept walking towards it. I did not know what else could exist beside me, specifically, because I didn’t – but I could imagine. I only lacked a language to understand.
When I think I am in love with someone – someone gentler than I, someone who hesitates and retracts after they’ve uttered a terrible word about someone, who recoils physically when gossiping despite taking immense pleasure in the act – I remember how pleasurable guilt feels. I like the pleasure of not understanding why I feel guilty. I think about kissing her. I do love someone else. I feel guilty.
Over the following decade, I searched for ways to explain myself. I dated men, became friends with boys, became friends with girls, became a woman. I was not aware of the distinction between friendship and infatuation – until I became painfully aware of it. I was quietly afraid of my passion for women – girls who look dorky dancing, who look over their shoulders when they hear me call their name, especially the ones who spoke kindly of others, girls who look, with their velvet eyes. I didn’t know what to do with my love. It was like writhing in bed.
From Woolf to Sackville-West, on Monday, 7 June 1926:
Not much news. Rather cross– Would like a letter. Would like a garden. Would like Vita.
Feelings are not always something you can justify, actions are easier to. Feelings come from the heart, actions are more forced, less reactionary. I realised I had the capacity in me to love more than one person at once; one love did not invalidate the other, it did not feel like I was shifting love from one mould to another. I did not divide it.
I have no concept of love’s structure or what a heart should feel like in my hands. Whether it should follow rules. I find the emotional architecture of a heart to flounder, like sands slipping through fingers. My grief and my love are intrinsically the same thing. For years I have felt as though I have been on the cusp. Anatomically speaking, the cusp is a fold in the wall of the heart. It is a pocket in a blood vessel that opens and closes with the flow of heart. It is a necessary function of the heart. It is an edge the heart operates to survive.
Instead of operating the valve like the heart, I simply decided to stop pumping blood. I decompressed elements of myself that needn’t live on, nor require reflection. This is how I dealt with it: I confused the phenomenon of grief, and its multiplicity, for its paler sister, vulnerability, dwelling within it. I closed on her like curtains after a performance. My grief became sinister, inherently fragmented.
The common understanding of ghosts is that they have not yet ‘crossed over’; they sit at the border. In Artful by Ali Smith, in an essay titled ‘On Edge’, she explains:
‘Edges involve extremes. Edges are borders. Edges are very much about identity, about who you are. Crossing a border is not a simple thing. Geopolitically, getting anywhere round the world in which we live now requires a constant producing of proof of identity. Who are you? You can’t cross til we’re sure.’
I keep myself from crossing over. Am I alone? Do I have company? Have I been dealing with myself this whole time – my own self, a manifested ghost?
In a breakfast meeting with another friend, I feel a reverberation at the table next to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a hustle, a newspaper folding underneath arm – she’s leaving. It is a seismic earthquake wave, so gentle, still crushing. I see her; my heart flutters. I want to say hello, hi, how are you? How do I make you love me again? I hunt for strange solutions to my yearning: I am a reverberated chorus – If I’m butter, if I’m butter, then (s)he’s a hot knife / (S)He makes my heart a cinema scope – will the tender superficiality of apathy betray me – will the exposure of my heart entitle me to more love – I am watching Rock n Roll and get turned on by the interracial kiss – I am questioning my desire and realising that my desire will be exposed as saccharine, there’s so much so that it’s actually disingenuous – I want love and adoration, it can come at any cost – but what woman will accept the amount of ghosts that come with me, another way of saying, what woman would love me?
Marta Skrabacz is a writer, literary critic and arts producer based in Melbourne. She is the Commentary Editor at The Lifted Brow and the podcast producer for Meanjin Quarterly.