GHOST IN THE CORNER

TABITHA BLANKENBILLER

 
 

I was only a pencil’s-length away from Dave on the bar patio bench, but I could have been hemorrhaging my spleen and he wouldn’t have noticed. Not with Serena sitting across from him with one hand clutching a dewy pint of Pilsner, the other running through her sun-bleached hair that crinkled just enough to make her look wild. She was a lithe creature in a papery tank top with bohemian fray, so small she didn’t need to bother with a bra. When she wasn’t coordinating events for our company she was taming wild horses to race through Mongolia. She was as free and natural as I was neurotic and perfectionist.
 
The bar was right across the street from Renegade Brewing’s headquarters. It used to be an indie neighborhood joint where hop-heads ad-libbed with steeps and balances, sharing their successes on tap and dumping the dreck. It was, like everything in Portland, bought up and slaughtered and reanimated by corporate arms wearing their skins. In this case, Renegade snatched their neighborhood joint, flooded the kegs with their beers and made the place their unofficial conference room. This was my second week at Renegade and the first time I’d seen Dave in almost two years. Since before I’d moved to Tucson. I went on a Farewell Happy Hour and Lunch Date Tour to see all my Pacific Northwest friends and acquaintances I’d be leaving for the indefinite future. Dave was one of my stops.
 
That afternoon a few weeks before my U-Haul rolled out, we went out for sushi. We sat just as we did now, but that was three thousand miles and thirty pounds ago. I made him laugh and late to leave. It had been so long since I was the only girl in the room.
 
“This is the best salad I’ve ever had,” Dave said at the Renegade bar, stabbing the baby greens and grilled salmon filet with an inadequate biodegradable plastic fork. “C’mere, you have to try this,” he beckoned Serena. She rose from the bench like fluid, like mermaid, sauntering forward on her elbows. Her tank top hiked behind her granting a glimpse of immaculate crescent flesh—the same slip I’m terrified of letting anyone see, lest I bulge and roll and admit to the room that I’m just as fat as they think I am. Where I swelled, Serena concaved.
 
Dave held the fork inches from his own lips, teasing it backwards with every centimeter Serena drew closer. She laughed and lunged into the bite, lingering to chew and let her eyes flutter close. “Mmmm.”
 
“More?” Dave wanted to know.
 
“Please.”
 
Dave was Serena’s boss. He was my boss. He was everyone’s boss at this bar-table minutes after the workday dwindled. On the other side of the city his wife Beth was leaving her merchandising job at a flashy fashion retailer and battling rush hour traffic to pick up their two little girls at daycare. They were the flawless couple I’d spent the five years we’d known each other dreaming Matt and I could be.
 
My husband Matt was also leaving work. He was driving back home to the house we used to share, until I’d left him and our two cats and the entire Tucson experiment to return to our Portland home. I knew that he went through a fifth of Jack every two nights. He knew I’d do anything to go back to the house where I awkwardly rented a room. We didn’t discuss how the other survived because there was nothing we could do to change it. Not from 1,500 miles away.
 
With one office break, one lark of an email, I’d picked out a single random thread and unraveled our lives. Any chance you’d want to work with the best copywriter in the western hemisphere again? I’d emailed Dave from outside my Tucson workplace. Tucson is awful. I want to move back. It was a distraction from the heat and the loneliness and my failure to acclimate at all a year and a half after Matt’s job transfer. In the marooning and the helplessness, sending a petulant email was enough to make it through another day at a job I couldn’t stand in a time zone I didn’t want to live in. I didn’t expect a reply. I didn’t dream of a yes. He connected me with their hiring rep that same afternoon, and I was Skyping with her within days. The wistful idea of going home avalanched.
 
Just one month later at the Portland bar I checked my phone for the time. Six-twenty. Traffic was unsnarling around Southeast Portland’s Macadam Avenue as street lights and bike lamps twinkled in the bluehour. I could stop somewhere for dinner and kill another hour. Maybe pop into the store and grab yogurt for tomorrow’s breakfast. Float around the city in the new blue Prius that was my life raft.
 
My glowing screen caught Dave’s eye. “Tabs!” He cried out as if spotting me across the room at a party after a decade’s estrangement. “You have to try this salad. It’s incredible.”
He placed the fork neatly to the side of the plate, then pushed the platter toward me without glancing over. Without making sure I was even still there. His eyes never lost Serena while he nudged me his leftovers.
 
I looked at the plate and its nub of salmon flesh, flaking in pink petals onto dressing-wilted romaine. The fork waited idly by as Dave leaned into the electric current, begging her to tell him “everything about the horses.”
 
Dave wasn’t the first man to remind me that I wasn’t a girl like Serena. I wasn’t one they were trying to glimpse. To serve. My mistake was in thinking that Dave was different. That I was different, to him. I couldn’t tell if I was disgusted that Dave would ruin the marriage I adored from afar, or because he never considered stabbing it with me.
 
I knew the answer when I had to ask.
 
Neither of them noticed from breathing distance away when I got up to leave. I didn’t say goodbye; it was a move that was becoming my signature.
 
 

***

 
 
“A passing ship in the night,” Melody chided me like the daughter who didn’t return voicemails. She’d been retired from the office we once shared for four years. We hadn’t spoken since the company sent her off into the sunset with a Costco sheet cake the size of a Banker box. Working together we weren’t close—she was someone I ran into in the bathroom or in line at the summer barbecue. But when I posted a random “I’m moving back to Portland right now and if anyone is looking for a roommate, hit me up” message on Facebook, she was the only one who responded.
 
Melody didn’t need a roommate. She already had one in her four-bedroom renovation. A son my age who worked half the year up on an Alaskan fishing boat, ensnaring enough crab to pay for six off months of chilling on his mom’s couch watching The History Channel as men in Joseph A. Banks suits sketched lines between Illuminati aliens and the Nazis.
 
That wasn’t counting the ghost.
 
“A woman died in this house, you know,” I was told the night I moved in. “She was a hoarder, and you couldn’t even see into this room before we cleaned it out.”
 
That was the night Matt drove up from Tucson in the blue Prius stuffed to capacity with my clothes, favorite books, shoes and blankets and a framed silhouette portrait of the two of us from Disneyland. I couldn’t see the front of my car when we opened the hatch. “I got everything on the list,” Matt promised, handing me a printed copy of the email he’d kept in the passenger seat. He’d ticked off each item with a red colored pencil.
 
Purple shampoo for platinum blonde hair.
 
Miniature fringe writing desk lamp.
 
Candle shaped like an adobo house.
 
Write Like a Motherfucker mug.
 
My rented room was at the far end of the second floor, at the top of the stairs. We carried armfuls of supplies up the narrow staircase, then drove in the emptied-out car to Fred Meyer for duplicates of things I already owned in the house we shared. A cheese grater, cleaning solution for my retainers, an umbrella. The cart was filled with strange items we never bought while we were together—paper plates for easy cleanup, dinners you added water to and stirred. Easy for one.
 
I wanted to be untraceable to Melody. I didn’t want to mess up her kitchen or take up space in her refrigerator. I wanted to tiptoe on the periphery of her life in moccasins and make life indistinguishable from before I arrived. Leave money on her desk for rent but no footprint. The perfect roommate, I thought. I didn’t realize until later, after I’d moved out and left Melody scowling behind me, that my courtesy was cold. “It’s like you don’t even live here,” she had complained when I packed up on the weekends to visit my parents up in Seattle or drive Highway 101 along the Oregon coast by myself, and each time I stammered. Wasn’t that the point? The perk? I miscalculated every step I lurched.
 
“Do you mind if I use your hose to wash my car?” I asked Melody one night, and she looked at me as if I’d asked to use the bathroom.
 
“Of course—you live here,” she pointed out, and I reeled like a swarm of wasps had appeared. Whenever anyone asked me if I was at or headed “home,” my heart bucked.
 
“I’m on my way to The House,” I corrected slowly in a frustrated elementary teacher tone. “It is Not Home.”
 
It wasn’t her fault, but Melody and her house were my purgatory. I had a house. Two of them. The one I’d left behind in Tucson, and the one 25 miles south of Portland that Matt and I bought when we thought we’d live in Oregon for the rest of our lives. It was now rented to people who hung ugly wind chimes from my porch. To admit that I belonged anywhere in between felt like a betrayal. An acceptance of the royal mess I’d created instead of a whole-hearted dedication to bring back the life we used to share. I was a grown, married woman with her own family and address and pans. This living out of boxes, roommate life? It wasn’t mine. I wouldn’t let it be.
 
The night Matt moved me into The House we went for a hazy dinner where we tried not to bring up that this would be the last time we’d eat together in the foreseeable future, then went back to the house and started getting ready for bed. He was on the first outbound flight to Tucson in the morning. While I searched for my toothbrush he suddenly remembered, “oh! I got something for you!” Out of his backpack he brought a set of shampoo, body wash and conditioner in miniature bottles stamped with the La Quinta Inn sunshine. “I know how much you love stealing stuff out of hotels,” he said.
 
I held the tiny gifts in my palm, closing them into my fist until the caps left red moons on my palms. Perhaps I could absorb his love into my pores. The love that was enough to cleave us in two, to turn our marriage from a life into a variable.
 
I could be with him, or I could be home. I went with Door Number Two.
 
He held it open. Carried my bags. His unconditional heart was matched only by my selfish one.
The next morning he disappeared into the sky. That night I started to hear the voices.
 
 
***

 
 
Chatter. They were chatter.
 
Muffled conversations in the walls, like being in a quiet restaurant and overhearing a party you weren’t invited to in the bar. They’d roll late into the dead air after night expired and morning still hadn’t crested. They would wake me up.
 
“Hey,” I called out the first night, lightly tapping my fist on the wall that separated my room from Melody’s son’s on the other side. “I’m sorry, can you turn down the TV?”
 
It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned he wasn’t home. That even if he was, there was no TV in his bedroom. Only the living room set.
 
Must be a dream, I decided. A dream that repeated itself every night until I downloaded a White Noise app on my phone and played crickets and waves as loud as my volume would go. Like when I was still driving my old Corolla and on the weekends Matt would ask me, “How long has it been making that noise?”
 
“What noise?”
 
“Don’t tell me you can’t hear that.” He’d point to the dashboard. “That rattling in there?”
 
“Oh. I don’t know. I turn up the radio.”
 
“You can’t do that! You have to listen.”
 
“No I don’t. I have you.”
 
It’s amazing how thoroughly you can convince yourself nothing is wrong when you’re cornered.
 
 
***

 
 
My first week at Renegade Brewery was every shade of overwhelming. A new job working for an old friend. A new neighborhood in my adult life city. All of my things packed into a room I did not recognize. Walls that were the last a dead woman ever saw.
 
Our office was a loft in an old converted squash court from back when playing squash was a thing. Workstations were set up on salvaged tables, with a mismatch of a half-century’s desk chairs like a business casual mad tea party. Mine was an old forest green monster with a broken handle parked at an Apple computer so riddled with bugs that I could hardly log on to my email. “The last IT guy burned me,” the current IT guy half-apologized. “Downloaded some kind of virus right before he walked out of here. I’m working on it.”
 
I didn’t complain—besides, there was no one to complain to. If you opened up the HR Department door on the first floor, you’d come face-to-face with a spare toilet. Renegade didn’t believe in human resources bullshit. Or complaining. Or buying functional equipment. “A chair’s a chair, a desk’s a desk,” my manager Ellie explained on my debut Monday. “Renegade doesn’t want to waste money on stupid crap like furniture when they could be putting it into their beer, you know?”
 
Dave’s desk was at the head of the class peering over a kingdom of kids scarcely old enough to qualify as interns. Renegade hired recent college grads almost exclusively. I was considered a “mature” hire.
 
I wouldn’t be thirty until October.
 
Seeing Dave out of the corner of my eye on the way to the copy machine, the file room, the library was disorienting, like going up the stairs and finding yourself magically in your childhood bedroom. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help trailing him in my periphery when I had the chance. It was a jolt; a face I liked in a crowd I wasn’t sure about. “It’s such a trip to see you here, Tabs,” he said once, stopping mid-phone hunch next to my mismatched desk. “Every time I see you here I can’t quite believe it.”
 
“Why’s he so nice to you?” I heard rumbling on the other side of my screen. That’s where Allison had her slightly less paperweighty Apple plugged in. She was in charge of the Renegade Hard Cider project.
 
“Cider’s my favorite!” I gushed when Ellie introduced us. Allison didn’t look up or waste vocal cord vibrations on me.
 
“We used to work together,” I said.
 
“You must be a fucking masochist, coming in for Round Two,” the face behind the monitor crowed.
My weariness of Allison sunk another rung down into Early Stage Hatred. Dave had been the best boss I’d ever had. The best anyone could ever hope for. If she couldn’t see that, she wasn’t worth knowing.
 
I had enough red flags to slink out the door in my first week, but I wanted this job from the depths of my marrow. Telling people I was “a Writer at a Brewery” felt good enough to climax. I was an MFA unicorn, proving that a literary life could pay. Bartenders and seatmates on flights knew Renegade; conversations spun and pinballed when I dropped it. Feeling interesting and successful was a high. Reuniting with Dave was a bonus to claiming my Dream Job.
 
There was so much at Renegade to learn; so much culture to absorb. Culture, everyone said, was paramount. Either you were a Renegade or you weren’t. “There aren’t a lot of people who are cut out for this,” said Ellie. Said Dave. Said the massive manual I spent the first 72 hours reading—almost 30 years of Xeroxed memos from the company’s founder pointing out the mistakes of his fired employees and competitors, making random proclamations (“Renegade Humor = The Smartest in the Room = You Either Get It, or Get Out!!!”), and using the wrong your/you’re. Culture, it seemed, was rules. And I could learn rules.
 
As I walked to the parking lot on that first night, Ellie came bolting after me. “Tabitha!” She yelled, waving her arms as I unlocked the Prius. “Tomorrow is Tiki Tuesday.”
 
“Okay,” I said, half-smiling.
 
“You have to wear a Hawaiian shirt.”
 
“I don’t have one.” I’d never been to Hawaii, let alone worn one of their casual button-downs.
“You’ve got to find one.” There was no mirth in her voice, no smile hiding just behind her lips. She may as well be discussing time clock procedures. “If you don’t wear a Tiki shirt on Tuesdays you’ll be suspended a day without pay.”
 
“You’re serious.” Panic flittered to life in my chest. At home I’d have no problem; Matt had a veritable trove of hibiscus bloom fabrics from JCPenney sales on his side of the closet, but now they were in another time zone.
 
“I really don’t want to see you get off on the wrong foot,” Ellie said. I was too dazed, and she was too sincere, to untangle whether this could be real.
 
On the way back to the house I stopped again at the Fred Meyer, and combed the summer clearance racks until I found a hideous lily-patterned blouse two sizes too big even for my bloated Tucson depression, moving stress frame.
 
The next day, in teal and white petals, I watched as my fellow new hire showed up in a Renegade IPA tee and was promptly kicked out of the building. This was weird, I knew. But I had been through so much worse. Dave and I had been through so much worse.
 
 
***

 
 
The first time I met Dave, he was undercover. It was the grand opening celebration of Sunset Restoration’s Salem branch. Sunset Restoration was a disaster restoration company—the place your insurance company tells you to call if a curling iron gets left on and burns your master bathroom, or a pipe bursts while you’re spending Christmas in Florida and the entire basement floods. It was a company that ran on chaos, dramas and failures.
 
I’d been the Marketing Coordinator at Sunset for over a year since my own personal structure fire—losing my job in 2008 a month before I married Matt and all the banks crashed. I was 23. I could still squeeze “babysitter” and “Writing Center tutor” onto my resume. After nine months of trolling Craigslist job ads and refreshing my email and dialing into my voicemail just in case the technology failed to alert me that a message was waiting, Sunset said yes.
The Salem grand opening, I thought, was my breakthrough. In my first twelve months at the company I’d cycled through five managers, filled in for the vacancies in HR and reception (a liberal application of “other duties as assigned”) and scraped my way out of every rabbit hole the executive team sent me tumbling down. I’d tracked down the exact linen fragrance that kissed the president’s favorite golf course towels. I wrapped the vice president’s Christmas gifts in paper that didn’t appear “too girly.” I drove two hours out to a ranch for the naturally raised hamburger patties they wanted to serve at the company barbecue, and stayed up until midnight as they thawed in my bathtub. I Photoshopped their in-jokes and dubbed Rascal Flatts music into their hunting videos.
 
I remember Tasmanian Deviling around that Salem party, triple-checking every detail. The flower arrangements I ordered in company logo swatches. The yellow ribbon and giant novelty scissors. The owner’s favorite local country singer warming up for a set. The mayor was confirmed on his way to bless this new crop of municipality revenue and job growth. The neurotic woman in the pottery gallery next door neglected to call the police on guests taking her business’s parking spots.
 
Nailed it, I thought. They would have to notice, I thought. They had to finally see how capable I was, how I could do so much more than route their dumb phone calls or order their lunch. This was my Devil Wears Prada breakthrough. They’d have to promote me.
 
What I didn’t know was that Dave was standing at one of those green linen bistro tables I’d rented, sipping an IPA and taking stock. He was currently the mortgage lender for the company vice president who was looking for a beach house. Dave really knocked his socks off with his lending PowerPoint presentation. He had a strong handshake and an Oregon Ducks pedigree. On Monday they’d announce his hiring as the new Sunset Marketing Director, coupled with my backhanded demotion: “This is going to give you more time to concentrate on answering phones.”
I watched as this fresh new hire settled into the windowed office I’d coveted so hard, with his college town bartender good looks and color blocked Designated Office Creative Uniform. His emergence was my disappearance. I avoided speaking to him for almost an entire first week.
 
 
***

 
 
Here’s what happened, though. Dave needed me. Dave knew he needed me. I’d been running Sunset’s three-wheeled Marketing wagon by myself for longer than anyone in their turnover-happy lives. I knew where the bodies were buried and precisely how long they’d been rotting.
 
And I needed Dave. Dave was sane. Dave received the same ridiculous emails from upper management (“why can’t our phone number be 1-800-SUNSET?”) and rolled his eyes just as skull-deep as I did. I’d sit at his desk for impromptu vent sessions half an hour in the afternoons, where we’d unload about how stupid our Fearless Leader was and where we’d rather be.
 
“My friend from college works at Nike,” he’d say, “and last weekend they threw this party, and someone decided they should have white couches. Just sitting out in the grass. They bought white leather couches for the party. Like, that is their Marketing budget.”
 
We got yelled at when we ordered logo-ed ballpoint pens.
 
“Don’t you wonder what it must be like to come up with new ideas?” I echoed back, staring at the brochures we both knew were hideous but beloved by the President.
 
“You’ll figure it out,” he’d tell me. “This isn’t the end of the line for you, Tabs. This is a Podunk, bullshit, Smallville starting point.”
 
Our conversations would wander from work to our lives outside and find their way to our relationships. “Sometimes it’s like we’re not growing at the same time,” I tried to describe. “I feel like I’m finally figuring out what I want, and he seems stuck in one place that he doesn’t want to be.”
 
“Beth and I have a saying,” he’d tell me. “Because sometimes you aren’t going to be moving forward together at the same pace. We say, ‘Team Ellison,’” he said, referencing their shared name. “No matter what’s going on in that moment, if we still want to be on Team Ellison, we’ll figure it out. We’re working toward the same big life, just taking different paces.”
 
Team Blankenbiller I thought as my one-way Portland flight crested above Arizona’s Catalina Foothills.
 
When no one else noticed my details and effort, Dave did. “I never would’ve even thought of that,” he’d claim. “You’re awesome, Tabs.”
 
“I’d be a mess without you, Tabs.”
 
“You’re the brains of this operation, Tabs.”
 
My confidence soared. My body shrank. A year later I was transformed with four sizes smaller and squared shoulders and a portfolio brimming with my most shining accomplishments. The moment I was done bumming around Sunset, I got the first job I applied for. I walked out a success story. Dave’s Queen Tabs. The Mad Men sixth season Peggy Olsen to his Don Draper.
From this vantage I can’t help but wonder if Dave was simply masterful with people; if he came into Sunset and saw my lost, broken body in the office next door and knew how to tease it forward. He could see that I needed a gold star and brought a roll. He could get where he needed to go by tracing my track.
 
I fell in love with the way that Dave made me feel; like I was about to take flight.
 
 
***

 
 
“So,” Serena mused over a plastic cup of apricot-flavored beer, “what’s the deal between you and Dave?”
 
My first day at Renegade was Monday. This was Wednesday. A Wednesday that happened to be the opening day of the Oregon Brewer’s Festival. This was Renegade Christmas, a workday when each employee was let loose with a dozen beer tokens and a tasting mug and a promise that we could expense the cab fare home.
 
I’d spent six wooden tokens on the apricot beer. It was the closest thing to cider I could find. I was pretending to like beer, but Portland’s thick, hoppy IPAs felt like chugging milkshakes. It was barely lunchtime and I was already drunk enough not to feel awkward about the question, like a delayed reaction to a Rubik’s cube I’d need to fiddle with later. “We’ve known each other a long time,” I said, which was the truth. Six years since Dave lurked in my barbecue. “He’s an old friend.”
 
“Well just so you know, everyone wants to get with Dave.” She glanced around our little tent contingency, rows of Renegade yellow t-shirts. “Everyone.”
 
 
***

 
 
“Let me see the cats,” I asked Matt in my rented room. I’d bugged him all week to try Facetime. If I saw his face, I’d know it was still there and I did have a husband after all and my real life wasn’t a fever dream.
 
In the weeks since coming back to Oregon I was adjusting. I was learning to come back late and quietly to avoid small talk at the house (“any word on when Matt’s coming back here?”). To bring books or my laptop to restaurants so I could camp there longer by myself. If I ran around long enough I’d wind myself down to such a nub, I might sleep through the Wall Voices. Sometimes in between new bars with fresh cocktails or fried chicken windows painted Tiffany blue I was so happy to be back in my city that I forgot, for a moment, what I’d done to get here. Then I would catch myself half-smiling in a window reflection and my raging conscience would scream at my heart: you left your husband. My stomach seized and I’d feel like I was falling through the sidewalk, the world bending and funneling down into the disaster I’d so expertly crafted.
 
On my phone screen I saw a patch of fur brush across the lens. “Hi, baby!” I cooed to Max, our youngest cat. “Does he hear me?” I asked. “Does he know my voice?”
 
“I think he just wants to snuggle the phone,” Matt said. “The phone’s getting hot. I should probably go.”
 
“Your phone’s going to be fine,” I said.
 
“It’s burning my hand.”
 
“I’ve barely even seen you, though.”
 
“There’s not a lot to see.”
 
He disconnected. I kept the phone aloft above me as I lay on the bed. The camera switched on in front mode, looking down on me from above. This angle was always curious, what someone would see while they made love to me. I unhooked my bra and let it sink onto the hardwood floor and tipped my shoulders, pinching my breasts together. From here they looked round and full and gorgeous. Like something someone would want. I pressed the camera shutter button, and attached the image to a text.
 
Don’t, Matt wrote back.
 
Why?
 
It’s too hard.

 
I shoved the phone underneath the big empty bed’s opposite side. I rolled away from it like a live smoldering thing, not bothering to plug it in. If it died, no one would find me. I could disappear for days. I could slip into another home, another heart.
 
That was the night he came.
 
The apparition was silent, but yanked me out of dreams. I’m not a light sleeper. It takes determination to rouse me from bed I knew I wasn’t alone before my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I knew, even fogged by the dead hour and scarce consciousness, that he wanted me to see him. A headless figure looming in the corner next to the door made of nothing but shadow. Lightlessness that called and demanded. Darkness that needed me to notice.
 
I slid my body as far down the borrowed sheets as it would fold. You are not here, I repeated over in my mind.
 
You are not here.
 
You are not here.

 
Somewhere between my chant and the alarm, we both drifted back into our worlds. He was not here, my mind commanded. If he was here, he could return.
 
 
***

 
 
Three apricot beers later, the entire Renegade crew ended up at Mary’s Strip Club on Broadway. It’s a nook on the edge of Old Town at the crest of the Shanghai Tunnels, a labyrinth of cells and passages to the docks, where early 20th century drunkards were kidnapped from bars and sold as slaves on Chinese ships. Mary’s is almost as old, a vintage topless revue from the fifties with blacklight mural walls and photos of dancers past. Courtney Love is one of them.
I was violating my career-long ban of more than two drinks with coworkers. Dave was betraying the guy who wrinkled his lip at the Sunset executives who bragged about their steak lunches at Stars Cabaret. Who had we ever been, really? Was this the only night we’d allowed our actual selves?
 
“I need you to watch out for Dave tonight,” Ellie had told me. “I think he’s in a bad place. You’re his friend. He needs you.”
 
Dave was in the row behind me. Serena was in his lap. I tried to keep my eyes on the stage, on dancer Divinity and her skin that was so remarkably pale it made me wonder if she even lived outside this windowless strip club. There was nothing I could do for Dave or his marriage, nothing that he wanted from me. I was here and I was a woman and I was alone, but that meant nothing. I wasn’t a contestant.
 
Serena stood and flashed a fan of twenties at Divinity, who nodded. The song wrapped and she slid off the stage in a perfect 6-inch heel landing. The girls linked arms and headed to the silver fabric booths in the back. Dave leapt up to follow, almost toppling my table.
 
“Tabs!” He exclaimed, as if he’d forgotten the entire I’m-moving-back-to-Oregon-to-work-for-you deal. And why not? What did I matter anymore? I had no keys, no skeletons, no body worth digressing over. The week returned to him and I watched his expression clatter onto the sticky, colorless floor. “Don’t think less of me, Tabs,” he said, and disappeared into the magic box.
 
 
***

 
 
“You know that room I rented when I came back to Oregon? It was haunted.”
 
It was September of 2015. I’d already celebrated my one-year-back-in-Portland anniversary. We lived apart for four months, one of which I spent at Renegade before walking out. The brewery, it turned out, was another version of Sunset Restoration with more egomaniacal top brass and just as many disasters. In the years since our tenure together, I’d grown a spine. Dave hadn’t.
I went back to the company I’d been working for up until Matt and I moved to Tucson. It was the same place that I’d quit Sunset and graduated into, a company with an actual structure and oversight. A placid corporation that manufactured light switches and dimmers. File folders and consistency. Dave stayed at Renegade for another year. He left his wife. Serena left for her horses. He’s with a beer blogger, last I heard.
 
“You saw a ghost,” Matt repeated. We were unpacking the Halloween decorations for our favorite holiday. We had bloody candlesticks and a gothic tabletop village of iron mansions and creepy cottages. They emerged from their packing boxes like they hadn’t spent last season in our desert garage, waiting for a move we feared would never come. They were as flawless as if we’d never left.
 
“Yep.”
 
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
 
“Yes there is. I saw one.” I’d never told anyone about the night in the rented room, waking up to the figure in the corner, an apparition willing my consciousness. Drawing me out of sleep. His power like poles.
 
“What did he look like?” There was mirth on the edge of Matt’s voice, as if humoring a kindergartner. I let it slide.
 
“He didn’t look like anything. He was a shadow. But he didn’t have a head.”
 
“Was it night?”
 
“It was the middle of the night. I don’t know, maybe two, three in the morning.”
 
“Then how did you see a shadow in the dark?”
 
“I just could. It wasn’t a shadow. It was pure darkness.”
 
“Okay, then what?”
 
“I hid under the covers and told myself he wasn’t there.” I could still feel my hot breath inside of the covers in the stagnant summer air and the delirious sense that if I didn’t admit he was there, he wouldn’t be. I’d only feel his wrath if I invited it.
 
“You hid under the covers!” He laughed, unearthing an armful of fake spiderwebs. “Sounds like you had a great contingency plan in place.”
 
I didn’t mention the ghost again. I didn’t tell him about Serena or Divinity or the salmon salad, or the conversations in the walls. There is the life you live with another, and the life that you live apart. Our sadness and our fear and our desires are a shadowland beneath the kingdom we inhabit. To invite him in, I knew, would cast no light.

 

 
 

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