My dead mom patrols the hallway outside my girlfriend’s condo.
We have a new doorbell camera. Regina bought it: I sit at her place all day, getting stoned, streaming sitcoms I memorized when I was a ten-year-old addicted only to Nick at Nite. Who would do such a boring thing for 113 days in a row? I must be lying, sneaking out. Regina needs proof I’m couch-locked and not ordering in lovers.
I watch the camera’s feed on my phone before she gets off work in case there’s a benign DoorDash encounter I’ve forgotten to mention (which she’ll use as proof of my affair with the dasher, rather than proof I’m too drug-addled to remember if I’ve eaten).
On the screen, I see an old woman, a nest of hair hiding her face. She ambles toward our door wearing my dead mom’s favorite dress.
I burned that dress the day after her funeral: too blue, hideous white polka dots; stretchy, unbreathable, leaving her soured and sweaty after church. On top of the burn pile, the dress hadn’t caught flame, just bubbled and melted like plastic, smothering the fire.
Every Sunday, she wore that dress. “Nicole! Zip me up!” she always yelled from her bedroom.
I’d teeter barefoot on the edge of her bed to match her height, my tiny, chubby hands yanking the flimsy zipper up her back. Her thin, sharp fingers waited at the top, pinning her dark hair up, away from the zipper’s teeth and off the sweat on her neck.
Fresh out of the shower on Sunday morning, Mom was already sweaty.
Regina sweats too. Anger must be a very sweaty emotion. I never sweat. Not anymore.
Regina says it’s ‘on account of all the weed’ I don’t get so angry now. I wonder if it’s on account of all the weed I’m seeing my dead mom in hallways.
Suddenly, the app crashes, the feed disappears. I reload, but it’s gone. Regina accuses me of deleting it to hide a daily tryst. We fight, and I let her win, again.
Regina has an alarm system – the paranoids with their shit together always do – but it doesn’t go off when my dead mom sneaks inside to lurk at the foot of our bed.
The room is dark, and I don’t hear her, I only see her swinging open our bedroom door because the television’s on, lighting her up. (Regina hates sleeping with the tv on, but I can’t sleep without sitcoms, my bedtime stories.)
Mom, wearing the same sweaty dress, raises one arm, bony like a cross, and points. My nose, crusty, bruised, tingles, then throbs, pausing deliberately between aches as if sending a complaint in morse code.
I elbow Regina, allow myself to whimper, hoping it’ll wake her, so she can tell me she’s sorry again, and how I’m insane, there’s no ghost, my perceptions can’t be trusted because I’m too mentally ill, shh, don’t worry: she’ll interpret the world for me.
But Regina never moves, like she’s the dead one.
I pull the comforter over my head and pray to Mom’s god, the one who thinks I’m disgusting for sleeping with women. I tell Sky-Dad I’m real sorry, but I don’t know any other gods to call. I beg him to take her away – she loves you, it’s me she hates, I tell him – but she steps closer.
Through a crack in my comforter, I see the hem of her dress sway at my bedside and hear the crackle of her wheezing. I can smell her sweat – thin, everywhere, on me, somehow.
I know if I move the comforter an inch, she’ll be standing there in her pit-stained church-dress; if she turns around, I’ll see a patch of indigo on her lower back, where the sweat pooled and stained the dress too blue, same shade as the marks she used to leave on my thighs with Dad’s belt.
“Nicole!” Mom hisses beside my bed. She jerks the comforter away, like she’s waking me up for school, leaving me quivering in the open air. Looking right at me, she says, “Where are you?”
I shiver and shut my eyes, tight, so the room is black and there’s nothing, crying until I fall asleep and know she’s a dream, or I’m going crazy, crazy can be cozy though, they’d probably let me watch so much TV in the institution…I dream of watching George Lopez from a folding chair while gluing macaroni to the back of an advent calendar.
I don’t remember the last time Mom hit me, but I remember the last time Regina did.
We’re in the kitchen, and she’s going on about her latest project – how her boss is, as usual, too stupid to notice her stellar efforts – how she goes above and beyond, as if these were actual places she trekked to and from.
Regina’s dad was like my mom, and now Regina’s always trying to impress someone, like if she does, it’ll make everything all right. Perhaps, if she’s a good enough worker, her boss will go to the cemetery, where her father is now buried, dig him up, shake his bones and demand atonement: how could you have beaten such an astoundingly productive middle manager?
When Regina’s sober, she never talks about her dad. I can’t talk about mine either. He never laid a hand on me, but he watched his wife scoop out his kids’ insides like pumpkins. The mug I gave him in 2nd grade that said #1 Dad was a bald-faced lie, immortalized in pottery. If we’re talking leaderboard rankings, he was down in the millions.
“Are you listening?” Regina says.
I nod. But I’m not listening. I’m tired of her talk, and I’m busy thinking of how she and I got the same prompt in life but each made a different story, a different character entirely. Is that all the difference: which of our parents didn’t save us? We are perfect foils.
I notice, like I’m watching us on a screen standing in the kitchen, how I’m scared of moving forward, like I’ll slip through a wormhole to the past, so I stay still, instead, trapped wishing myself into other families on TV, because the dad I got couldn’t save me – #1 Dad, hero of the sitcom. If the hero in my story couldn’t defeat the witch – didn’t even bother to try – what chance did a nitwit like me have?
Why get out of bed, says the voice who still knows we could’ve saved ourselves had we just been quieter, even more still. Just sit still; death is very still. Play dead, Nicole – fake it till you make it.
“Why that face.” Regina has lost the inflection from her sentences; she’ll be yelling soon. I’ve been drifting, missing the signs I’m usually so good at spotting.
“Are you bored… is my day not interesting enough for you?”
It isn’t. Regina’s days are not interesting. Regina is not interesting, because she is angry and anger is predictable, loud, destructive, always trumpeting its intention and spoiling the plot. Predictable things are not interesting, like sitcoms with pretend families playing out scripts I know by heart.
I don’t care that Regina isn’t interesting. I love her for her confidence, for everything I’m not, because she always knows what to do. Her anger is momentum, direction is irrelevant; I experience life as crossing a thinly frozen pond inch by inch, and Regina knows how to escape – she can lift us up with a helicopter, built from our bones.
Regina knows the value of action, and she’s never forgiven her mother for not taking any. Her dad’s a dead stereotype, drank himself into a befittingly horrific deathbed: debt paid. Her mom though, she’d just quietly slipped off in her recliner, caught a ride out on a freak aneurysm. That injustice is the seed of Regina’s rage. She wants revenge on a dead woman, and she only needs me to hold still, to be the stunt double while she punches.
Regina grabs me, pulling me back to right now, yanks my thoughts, twists my hair, and that’s the last time I ever see my mom’s ghost, pressed against the refrigerator, brown eyes guarding, watching what I do next.
I’m seeking the ghost, going right to her, again and again. The realization comes sudden like the fist in my face, something I’ve always known but forgotten only recently. I see, in a moment of blackness and stars, how every time I get high to keep from telling the truth, I’m walking toward the dead woman; every time I don’t even bother telling Regina to stop hitting me, because why bother – there she is again; every time I hide, choosing someone else’s fuzzy reality over mine, there’s spirit-mom, crossing dimensions to drag me home, to the present, the only place from which I can make things different. Her ghost is only a collage of painful memories that have cooperated, assembled, and assimilated to become a sentry who guards the borders of my well-being, patrolling and repeating: danger, protect yourself, do not live the same hell twice.
I surprise myself. I give no warning. I just leave that night. As I drive into the darkness toward a cheap motel, I wonder what ghosts Regina might see now she’s alone. I hope they scare her so much she heals.