‘Becoming a Ghost’ is a literary nonfiction series by UI English instructor Daniel Boscaljon.
Revelers rush in the empty space between the buildings. Liars find dark lairs, their carefree bodies careening past the playground intended for careful toddlers. I stared downward, avoiding eyes bright with the allure of the everyday world and its promise of partial immortality: Death never enters when parties never end. Provoked by the threat of novelty, they look up with half-sated eyes incapable of surprise, over-acclimated to a life of instant delight. Time freezes in explosive, expansive sameness, extending from their initiation into a twilight world of adult adolescence, into their emergence into one weighted with regret and responsibility.
I laugh, disturbing nearby passersby. The sound contains too much meaning. A darkhaired man with muscles bulging under a tight polo shirt stares vacantly, then shrugs his indifferent contempt. A smile returns as he nods, returning to the dance of undying life. The women do not differ in indifference, eyes wide with a hunger for pleasure that swallows all need to care. The men join in joyless pleasure that ignores questions of worth. They are not my brothers. I add nothing to their union. My attempts at joy, too feeble to nourish my lover, were too heavy for the heartless party around me. I belong nowhere. I leave, knowing my absence will impress them as little as it did her: Any body brought more pleasure than mine.
I wander, then sense an interruption of their vampiric now: A solitary man sweats in a suit, right hand clutching a book. His voice arcs with ache: Love and sorrow beseech pedestrians to heed the call of God. Without judgment, he shares the compassion of a deity who watches humans pursue destruction instead of creation, folly instead of wisdom, control instead of love.
I am moved by his language’s cadences, though they’re ineffective. His prayers reverently revile the emptiness that the revelers embrace and that I wish would consume me. I consider giving money to the preacher. I consider feigning repentance and thus consoling him in the face of failure … but his face beams, enraptured by the love he hurls like lightning into the darkness clouding around. He lives eternity with every instant. Neither he nor my former lover can accept my love, my nothingness. Neither has space for me.
I depart past peppy panhandlers and painted park benches toward a glass tower stretching into the darkness. It covers where old men once played chess, where young women once broke for lunch. Even in its transparency the tower erases the physical anchors of my memory. I think of the other sights and landmarks of my life that time has pushed from my grasp: the underground sandwich shop that had infused the telemarketing center with the smell of bread, the telesurvey team talking to pedrats, the parking lot that was never full. I look in my present and realize that my past has been stolen by the whims of progress that alter the surface of my world. Everything important in my past has become unthinged, and the future has no space for me.
In the whirl of the living dead, the world discloses something truly dead: discarded behind a dumpster, a puppy with heart and head split wide. It cannot narrate what it meant, what it wanted, what it lost. Its story is created in the splash of color surrounding it. If it was once tormented, it now knows peace; if it was loved, it avoids the horrors that visit the vulnerable. Its remains will not remain—it, too, will be erased like my memories, like my time, like my heart. I listen. It tells me that all things lost to the past are dead. The words ring true: I am only an object in her past, denied her future. What am I but already dead? I am the corpse of a dead hope rotting outside of time.
The throngs avoid suffering by compressing past and future into an amnestic now, injected with unceasing pleasure. The preacher sacrifices suffering by moving prematurely into God’s near hand. All see death as interrupting their blissful present: I await it as a cure for pain. Living requires suffering. I reject the undying examples surrounding me. I hearken to the puppy, who shamelessly displays unedited torment. Its broken body makes room for my company and instructs my timelost being. My world ashes, the past erased, the future lost, I become the present of my own sufferings.
Daniel Boscaljon, author of Vigilant Faith, is a theologian and a literary scholar who will spend the year teaching about secularism in the Department of English at the U of I.