Melissa Darcey Hall
We meet on the first night. Sandy-eyed, thirsty, and half awake, I tip-toe to the kitchen, careful not to wake Wesley, and there she is, sitting at the kitchen table painting her toenails and humming a song I don’t recognize. She’s so obviously a ghost that it’s almost disappointing: milky and translucent, like a foggy bathroom mirror after a long shower. I’ve heard some ghosts can be quite imaginative in form, and others so lifelike you’d think they were real. But not this one. It’s my first ghost meeting and I feel unprepared and naked, wearing only an oversized t-shirt and underwear. I try to back out of the kitchen without her seeing me, but she turns and looks me in the eye.
“You must be the new one,” she says.
Instead of responding, I run back to the bedroom and wake up Wesley.
“There’s a ghost in the kitchen,” I whisper, shaking his arm.
He rolls onto his back and sighs as if I’m a child who just told him I wet the bed.
“That’s Ingrid. My ex. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”
Before I can answer, he rolls onto his side, his back facing me: a wall of goose-pimpled olive skin and curly hair. I count the hairs on his back until I fall asleep again.
I’ve been dating Wesley for two months, which isn’t long enough to move in together according to the Internet, but Wesley is smart and handsome and bathes me in I love you’s so I’ve thrown the rules out the window. My younger, manicured, twenty-something self would liken him to a Saltine cracker—forgettable yet reliable, appealing only when ill or the pantry is empty—but in your thirties, “reliable” also means “committed,” which has a whole different shine to it. Besides, if I enter my thirty-fifth year (in one-hundred-and-seventy days) single, I’ll change my name, knock ten years off my age, and start a new life in a city where there’s bound to be available men, like a farm town in Nebraska or retirement community in Florida. After fourteen years of countless first dates, a dozen breakups, and seven different dating apps, I don’t even care about marriage or kids anymore. I just want to know that I’ll have a date for the next wedding I’m invited to, so I can avoid the singles’ table and the “you’ll find someone someday” condolences.
Now that I have Wesley, I’m determined to make it work all the way to the grave. Sometimes, I pinch him to see if he’s real. It doesn’t seem possible that I found one of the last eligible single men in the greater metropolitan area. When I told my best friend and only unmarried friend, Thérèse, about Wesley, she said I hit the jackpot.
You had me at “employed” and “homeowner.” Don’t let him get away.
I, too, couldn’t understand how a man like him was single, and when I told him this last week, he laughed and mentioned his ex-girlfriend had died in a car accident a few years ago. Wiping a tear from his cheek, he asked me to move in with him, and I said yes. And when I arrived yesterday with my life packed away in four boxes and he asked if I was happy, I said yes.
Our first morning together is not the romantic breakfast-in-bed-après-love-making Saturday I envisioned when he asked me to move in. I don’t know how Wesley can sleep past eight knowing there’s a ghost downstairs. After watching him sleep for two hours, I gently poke his arm, then his shoulder, then his back. He turns around to face me, eyes half open, with a lock of hair clinging to his forehead.
“Tell me about the ghost,” I say.
“It’s pretty simple,” he responds. “She lives here.”
He tells me the story, condensing a two-year relationship into a two-minute summary. They were set up on a blind date and fell in love. She went for a drive one night and had a car accident. She didn’t make it. A few days after the funeral, her ghost returned to the house. She told Wesley she wasn’t ready for the Big Sleep, that she missed him and wanted to make sure he was okay.
“This has been a deal breaker for some women,” he says, waiting for me to reassure him I’m not like them.
I swallow. If it’s not alcohol abuse or a football obsession, it’s a ghost. I’ll take the ghost over the other two.
“I’m not like them,” I smile.
He squeezes my hand and kisses me, his lips wet and hungry, and tells me he’s the luckiest man in the world.
Ingrid isn’t around during the day. I’m not sure if it’s a ghost rule, and I don’t know how to ask without it sounding like I want her gone. Wesley tells me it’s best if I forget she’s even here.
“Think of her like a bee,” he says, sensing my unease. “Ignore her and she’ll leave you alone.”
One man I dated kept the ashes of every pet he’d ever had—even gerbils—in urns scattered throughout his house. Another lost his job as a pizza delivery driver for stealing buffalo wings and garlic knots from customers’ orders. My most recent ex-boyfriend liked to go to Barnes & Noble and rip out the last two pages of lengthy fantasy novels as punishment for supporting big business. Even with “ghost girlfriend” added to my mental list of cons, Wesley’s pros—“attentive,” “gentle,” “nice eyes,” “secure job,” and, added as of this week, “clean house”—outweigh a spectral house guest.
I confirm this with Thérèse, who reminds me of the current drought of eligible men.
Last night, my date said he wanted to dip my toenail clippings in honey and eat them. But his dating profile said he travels twice a year to France for work, so I said I’d think about it. I’ve never seen Paris.
She says there are worse skeletons in a closet, especially if they only appear at night.
On my third night at Wesley’s, I creep into the kitchen where I find Ingrid reorganizing a cabinet shelf. She tells me I put the mugs back wrong.
“They should be face down, not up,” she lectures. “Do you want to drink a spider? Would Wesley?”
“Wesley says you died in a car accident,” is all I can think to say.
“Interesting,” she grunts.
“Is that not what happened?”
But Ingrid just laughs and shoos me out of the kitchen, tsk-tsking me for nosing into business that isn’t mine. I hurry upstairs, two steps at a time, and slip into bed. Downstairs, I hear her singing the same song she was humming the first night, but I can’t make out the lyrics. I listen to my heart rattle in my chest like colliding marbles, ricocheting into other directions without a clear destination.
Ingrid is in the kitchen every night, but she also wanders the house frequently. One night, while Wesley and I are at the movies, she rifles through my closet and tosses all of my white clothing on the floor. On one shirt, she scribbled (using my new $39 YSL lipstick!) AS IF. I hold the shirt up to Wesley for an explanation.
“She was raised Roman Catholic,” he says. “She prefers if women abandon wearing white after, well, you know.”
I tell him I have a few of my own beliefs I’d like to share with her, that I have questions about her real purpose here. But Wesley says it will upset her, and we don’t know what she’s capable of when she’s angry.
“Think of her like a house pet,” he says. “But feral. A coyote or raccoon that insists on you feeding it. Just give it what it wants and it’ll leave you alone.”
“But what does she want?” I ask.
“To be here,” he says. “Before she died, I promised I’d never leave her. That’s not something I can just take back.”
I add this to my list of cons.
Is this still worth it? Did things work out with France man? I text Thérèse.
Thérèse tells me France man was arrested for tax evasion, but he offered to marry her once he’s released.
If I’m still single when he gets out in five to seven years, I’ll take him up on the offer.
Meanwhile, her date last night needed a ride home to his grandma’s house because he’s had three DUIs and working freelance as a balloon artist at birthday parties doesn’t pay enough to afford rent. He dumped her the next morning, texting her he couldn’t date someone who was too narrow-minded to see the value of balloon art as a serious craft.
I’ll take the hostile ghost girlfriend any day, she says.
The next morning, I wake up early to make Wesley breakfast before work. I’m not the domestic type, but if cooking and cleaning can convince Wesley to choose me over Ingrid, toss me an apron and call me Julia Child.
“He is kind, he is employed,” I chant like a meditation while dipping ghost-white bread into the buttercup-hued batter. “He pays taxes, he likes The Lumineers.”
And that’s the thing with Wesley. There isn’t anything not to like about him (other than the whole ghost thing). He lets me control the remote when we watch TV. He takes me out to dinner every Friday night. When I suggest we redecorate the living room, he smiles and says, “whatever you want.”
Wesley enters the kitchen just as the bacon finishes on the griddle and I hand him a plate of French toast. He squeezes my hand and says he’s the luckiest man in the world, and everything feels better again.
Ingrid appears most nights at seven, but sometimes she’s late and I don’t find her until eight. I start going to work earlier so I can leave by four and have dinner ready by six, giving me an extra hour with Wesley before Ingrid appears. For three weeks, I savor the time alone with Wesley. We discuss politics and music and the latest Wes Anderson film. But when tax season arrives, Wesley, one of the top accountants at his company, comes home later and later—seven, eight, then nine.
When I’m home alone, I try to keep busy around the house, but Ingrid follows me everywhere. If I sit on the couch to read, she swats at the pages. When I vacuum, she points out the spots I’ve missed. I’ve taken to drinking from a lidded tumbler to avoid Ingrid bumping into my glass and spilling wine on the white carpet. Tonight, I attempt to reorganize the bookshelf, arranging the books by color, but Ingrid tosses each one on the ground and tells me to put them back in alphabetical order.
“This isn’t a house of bohemians,” she snarls, eyeing the hem of my paisley dress before tossing a book at my head. The sharp edge of the hardback hits my head, leaving a two-inch cut above my eyebrow.
“Look what she did!” I cry to Wesley when he gets home. He pulls my head into his chest and strokes my back, planting kisses on my head. I look over at Ingrid and smile when I see a flicker of jealousy race across her eyes. If this is a game, I’m determined to win.
The next night, Ingrid is bashful and apologetic. She offers to help with dinner, pretending to follow my instructions until I catch her dumping a heaping spoonful of salt into the lemon marinade for the salmon. I reach for her wrist but catch nothing but air.
“Tell me what you want,” I demand.
“You won’t last much longer,” she laughs. “They never do.”
“I’m not like them. I’ll never leave,” I say. “If you think a ghost is a deal-breaker, you haven’t dated recently.”
“I’m not the first one, you know,” she says.
“Not the first what?”
She tells me that even in the afterlife all the good men are taken, but I shirk any sympathy.
“Not the first what?” I repeat. “Ghost?”
“Not the first, not the first,” she parrots, smashing every plate in the kitchen before storming off and hiding from me.
I text Thérèse, asking if he’s heard from France man, if he got out early, if she’ll marry him, if there’s still a chance.
No updates yet. Currently on a date with a man with a third nipple.
I ask her how she knows he has a third nipple. She says he told her about it, that he has fantasies about women sucking on it, as if he were the mother and his date a baby.
I haven’t seen it yet myself, she texts. But the calamari appetizer just came and now all I see are areolas.
I tell her she should pretend to have an emergency and leave, but she says the man is one-hundred percent single with his own apartment and a full-time job.
It’s too good to pass up, she says. My luck is finally turning around.
I ask Wesley about the last ghost, but he deflects. It takes three days of badgering him before he reveals Ingrid isn’t the first ghost. We’re at a restaurant for Saturday brunch, so he speaks low, as if worried the table next to us will hear. Shoveling runny eggs into his mouth, he explains he had a girlfriend before Ingrid. She also died in a car accident and showed up at his house a few days after her funeral. Ingrid didn’t get along with the ghost, much like how I don’t get along with Ingrid.
I ask him how they both died in car accidents, how they both became ghosts.
“Just bad luck, I guess,” he says.
“Then where’s the other ghost?”
He shrugs and says she disappeared the day Ingrid’s ghost appeared. Maybe it’s a ghost rule and there can only be one ghost in the house.
“But don’t you care?” I ask, confused how indifferent Wesley is to the whole thing.
“I guess I’d rather focus on us.” He squeezes my hand.
Wesley hands his credit card to the server, swatting my wallet away. He pulls me in for a kiss and tells me he’s the luckiest man in the world for finding such an accepting and understanding girlfriend. I’ve learned this is his way of ending a conversation he no longer enjoys.
One night, while Wesley is still at the office, I call a truce with Ingrid, apologizing for intruding on her territory. I play nice, complimenting her house decor and complaining about Wesley’s snoring.
“It really is awful,” Ingrid agrees.
I tell her about Thérèse’s terrible dates. The latest—after nipple man ghosted her—was with a man who collects snakes and dresses them up in wigs and hats for photoshoots. He posts the photographs on a WordPress site that gets a few thousand hits every month. During their third date, he explained to Thérèse that his most popular post, according to his Google Analytics, is a photograph of the African house snake dressed like E.T. with a blonde wig and bowler hat. Ingrid insists I prove it, so I pull up the blog on my phone and, hovering over the screen, we scroll through the posts, snickering like two teens at a sleepover who just hid their friend’s bra in the freezer.
For the next week, I invite Ingrid to sit with us at the dinner table, not saying a word when Wesley compliments her dress, or she takes credit for making the coconut cream pie. After two weeks of buttering her up, I approach her again about the ghost stuff.
“Do you ever wonder what happened to the last ghost?”
“Oh. You mean Greta,” Ingrid sighs.
She’s painting her nails. I pretend to read a cookbook.
“It started with Vera. She’s the first ghost,” she starts.
Ingrid explains there was another woman, Vera, who came before Greta (a fourth woman!), who died. Let me guess how, I think, and Ingrid confirms. Yes, in a car accident.
“Greta told me that Vera practiced witchcraft and put a curse on the house so her ghost could remain with Wesley forever. But Greta, who also studied witchcraft, found a loophole and discovered you can replace the ghost if you die the same way Vera did.”
Greta did it, and then told Ingrid, who also did it. Yes, Wesley will eventually replace you because a ghost can only offer so much attention compared to a warm body, but most women won’t put up with the ghost and will leave.
“Who wants to live with their boyfriend’s ex?” Ingrid asks. “There were two women before you. I got them all to run within two weeks. And then Wesley likes to take a few months to lick his wounds.”
I think of my last few dates before Wesley, of Thérèse’s recent encounters, of how tired I was of being single. Also, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle: the established girlfriend. I can go braless and wear sweatpants on a Friday night. I haven’t shaved my legs in a week. Last week, I sprouted three new gray hairs and have no plans to dye them.
“And then it’s just me and Wesley, together again,” Ingrid sighs. “I may not be Wesley’s first ghost, but I’m his only—once you finally bail—and that’s what’s most important.”
She must not think I have what it takes. Or maybe she’s lying to get rid of me. Why else would she reveal the truth? I know nothing about magic or witchcraft, but it sounds logical enough.
I recount the story to Thérèse. She says she wouldn’t mind being a ghost if it meant she could be with France man, even in jail.
At least I’d never have to attend another wedding. Plus, no more washing your hair or counting calories.
It’s a warm night, two weeks into a heat wave. Brownouts blanket half of the city, including our neighborhood, abandoning us to the mercy of the winds to provide any comfort. Wesley opens the windows in every room. I light candles, leaving a trail of light to follow throughout the house.
Ingrid starts singing, and for the first time, I register the lyrics.
“I am your last, I am your only,” she repeats over and over again, bouncing a tennis ball against a wall like a metronome.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” I ask Wesley while massaging the back of my neck. I can feel a headache building from the combination of the heat and Ingrid’s noise.
“I guess I don’t notice it much anymore.”
Of course Wesley doesn’t mind. Ingrid never seems to upset him.
“We could move. Do you think she’d follow us?”
He shakes his head, tells me we could never do that.
“I told you, I promised her I’d never leave. I’m a man of my word.”
I don’t respond, and the silence tightens around both of our necks.
“Things will work out,” he says. “They always do.”
I take stock of the living room—the new West Elm furniture, tasteful wall decor, a man with a full head of haair reading a magazine that isn’t about fantasy football. It’s any woman’s dream. I have a man who loves me, who doesn’t have a criminal record or a third nipple or a collection of ashes. The only problem is Ingrid. I know she’ll never stop trying to drive me away. But she forgets that I’m not like the others. She may be the only ghost now, but she won’t be the last.
I wipe the sweat pooling above my lip and peel my sticky body from the couch. The tan leather clings to my skin and, when I look back down, I see a sweaty shadow of where I sat and watch the darkened Rorschach-shaped blot disappear, as if I was never even there.
“I’m going for a drive,” I say.
Wesley looks at me strangely. I can’t tell if it’s disappointment or indifference—if he knew it would come to this all along or if he thought I was different from the rest of them.
Backing out of the driveway, I look at the house, alive with the flickering of light from the candles, as if we were holding a vigil. I wonder if Wesley will weep at my funeral, how long he’ll wait before he starts dating again, how I’ll make each and every one of them run.
I break the silence with a hum, finding the tune Ingrid was humming and then the lyrics.
“I am your last, I am your only.”
Melissa Darcey Hall
MELISSA DARCEY HALL is a writer and high school English teacher in San Diego, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Santa Fe Literary Review, Fugue, The Coachella Review, Five South, The Florida Review Online, and elsewhere. View more of her work at www.melissadarceyhall.com.