"When does it start to like, get better?"
Gods above and below, no, this pink-eyed sad young girl is not asking me for advice about living with death, not now. Please just activate my new cell phone and we can both go home and cry there, not at this dumb T Mobile store.
A strange fact nothing and no one prepared me for: the majority of my conversations about my dead family would be with complete strangers, most often in retail settings. I never seek these conversations, but they seem to find me. All I wanted was a new phone plan, and to make that transaction in the cloud of anonymity I've fostered. In my pre-ghost years, I was that customer who would strike up conversations, in the manner I'd learned from my very amiable and charming Mid Western father. Now I strive to be unnoticeable in public, forgotten as soon as I leave the parking lot.
Dana N. of T Mobile and I got along though, via an instant in-group vibe I can only describe as "young girls who are over it but stuck here but whatever." We were casually chatting about perfume samples and lame Sephora employees as she switched my SIM card, when she said "Sorry I'll have to check in the back real quick." She returned with misty eyes and a small sniffle before sighing "Sorry, my mom called, I have to take her calls." A pause, another sigh. "My dad just died two months ago and we're still waiting on tests."
In that second I wanted to say "That's so terrible, I'm so sorry" and leave it at that. But we had slipped so easily into a micro-sisterhood within that loud, overcrowded store. And, I instantly, deeply recognized this moment- wherein you are overwhelmed yet again, when another blanket of "fuck" just lays down on top of all the layers you already accumulated and smothered you can't help but not give two shits about social propriety or manners and you just breathe out the words you never want to ever say, you can only manage to breathe them out to a complete stranger in an unfamiliar place, just to get them out of you. I inhaled and breathed back. "I'm so sorry. My dad's first death anniversary is next month, and it's on my mind all the time. It's so shitty, I'm so sorry."
That sweet 20-year-old little Lebanese girl looked up like I'd just told her a terrible secret password from the borders of badlands that we both tried to hide our history with. Within seconds I was going through the programmed answers- cancer, 62, I'm 26. As soon as those three were out, I knew to take control and ask her questions before she could get further. She has two younger brothers, 12 and 16 and the 16-year-old seems to just hate her right now but she's telling herself it's just a phase and she's just started the new school semester this very Monday and her mom keeps calling all the time and it's hard being the oldest.
She kept working on my phone as her words spilled out, both of us staring at the pile of SIM cards. "Do you find it's really hard to just be like," she rolled her eyes and smirked, "happy, about anything?" "Yes, it's difficult because you never go back to the way things were before, you just adjust to this new place that looks like the old place but it isn't." I asked about her friends, and she sighed. "I know," I found my mouth working without my permission, against the anonymity m.o. "It's really hard when your friends can't understand, and you can't make them understand, and you just have to feel... far away from them." I became aware that my possessed tongue was moving far too much for my liking. I still didn't stop, because she was obviously responding to my ghost words, and this is a force that tugs both ways. "It's good to know it's not just me. Sorry to just say all this." "No, I get it."
And I do get it, that weird aspect of lingering that no one knows how to respond to. People stop asking how you're doing pretty quickly, and it's not something to be brought up in regular conversation. Sometimes the suffocation gets to be too much and strangers bear the steam of release. "Last year I randomly broke down in my dentists' office and bawled at his assistant, who had no idea why I was suddenly so emotional." This made her chuckle. "Is your mom doing ok?" She asked. Fuck, she did it, she went there. I paused, rapidly searching my mind for a reply. Typically, in anonymous public settings, everyone's alive and fine. But I couldn't lie to her, I just couldn't. "It was actually just my dad and us." "Oh I'm so sorry. You have siblings though?" "Yeah," and the words just blindly flew like bats out of a cave, "two brothers."
She managed a small smile before the store phone rang. I could tell this statement, something else we had in common, strengthened the solidarity she felt with me, another normal, sad human. But to me it signaled how fake I felt, about everything I'd just told her. No, not everything, just the unspoken sentiment I was trying to convey and she was wordlessly seeking out: that it will all eventually be ok, one day. A new normal. But, I'm not there yet, and I don't know when or if I will get there. The immediate horror of a loss floods violently into every crevice of your life; that can evaporate over time, but then condensation still lingers, stuck to the sides of all the surfaces, invisible to everyone but you. I am still a ghost, and I don't have any real ground to stand on, to tell her the sun will come out again, some tomorrow or other.
"Sorry, someone asking about store hours even though they're right there on the website." She gave another of her half-hearted smiles and snapped the SIM card in. "Should work now, you want to try a call?" Here is where, in a different setting, I may have pretended to call my Dad, when I really would dial my office number. I was growing more fake, more ghostly by the second, and I had to get away from her. "Ah actually it's so late, I'll just take your word for it, I mean I'm pretty sure you managed to set up a simple android brick." She chuckled at this, and right as she was about to say something, a very irate lady shoved me aside to demand Dana N. fix her phone in the 9 minutes before closing time. I saw my coward's exit and took it, waving goodnight as I backed out the door and into the subatomic landscape of echoes and ghosts and useless, taunting, melted clocks.