When my parents moved into our house in Massachusetts, the house I would grow up in, it was filled with the furniture of the dead people who lived there before, and maybe with some of the stuff of the dead lady who lived there before the most recent dead couple. Layers of deaths. They had to clear a lot of things out and away. They had to make it their own. My mother was getting wheezy because of the dusty runner on the stairs, and so she and my father decided to rip it up. When they did this, they discovered a package, or maybe a few packages, of letters. They were love letters. They were written to someone who had lived in the house, but they weren’t from the person’s spouse; they were from someone else. An other.
It’s a little gossipy and scary to tell this story, because my parents knew the descendants of the dead, of the person who had had this extra love. Therefore, they also knew the descendants of the person who knew nothing about their love’s extra love, but walked up and down on the words of that love every day, not knowing that little strips of their partner’s heart were underneath their feet, promised to someone else.
The letters were written by a man who sailed the seas. He was a sea captain. A male male, maybe stoic and rough, so that he could stand the seas, but still crackable even while craggy, because he had been caught up in this forbidden love. My father took the letters to his office, thinking that he would write about them.
This is the first step toward seeing a ghost: Discovery, followed by meddling. Taking something into your life, something that is clearly a powerful object from another’s life experience. That night, or a few nights later, my mother smelled my father’s pipe smoke. It was late at night and she called out for him to come to bed, but when she turned over, my father was there, snoozing away. So she said, “You left your pipe burning. You’re going to burn down this new old house that we just bought.” But my father said that he hadn’t smoked his pipe that night. My mother then came to the natural conclusion that there was a robber in our house, and that the robber was smoking a pipe while he stole our things.
My father went out into the hallway, to do what to the robber? I’m not sure. But what happened was this: My father stood there in the hall, smelling that pipe smell, and watched as a sea captain-type person smoked a pipe and climbed the stairs. My father says that he saw the man, but didn’t see him, but saw him. I don’t know what my father said to my mother, but somehow she ended up knowing that he had seen a ghost, which is not great for anyone, especially a couple with a young daughter asleep in her bed.
My father knew somebody who knew some things about ghosts. This person said the thing that now we all know is true about ghosts: “They have unfinished business. Those letters aren’t any of your business. Burn the letters and the ghost will go away.” And he did. He, my father, burned the letters, and he, the ghost, went away, as far as I know. But sometimes we would smell the smell, and I would wonder why it was coming back at just that moment.
My mother and sister also saw the form of a woman wander out of the den and ascend toward the light fixture in the hall, but I can’t seem to find any connection to that story except that it is terrifying, and I put it on my list of events that I’m glad I missed.
But back to the sea captain and his broken heart. I somehow always felt that this was my story as well. Maybe because I was so obsessed with what it would feel like to one day fall in love, to have another person who loved you the most, and loved you so much, voluntarily, that it became involuntary. I thought of what his ghost brain must be saying. Was he sad and mad, saying, “You made me live without you and so I died this way, living without you, looking for you. And now I am quite literally dead on my feet.” I think I am afraid of this happening to me. Taking the risk, believing that love and its people are not predatory, and being a part of the sharing of hearts, only to have to be separated and spend all of my living life waiting for the sharing to really turn into the joining of hearts.
Each time I fall in love I feel fear that the world won’t let me be in the world with it, that I either have to pick the world or the love. Did the sea captain pick the love, and now he regrets that choice? Is he stuck walking up a staircase for all eternity, stepping with each step on the words that he sent with all his heart, crushing them under his own invisible foot, feeling his real heart break? Did he choose love and it didn’t take, and now is he stuck in the world without the love, forever?
I didn’t fall in love until many years after I left the house. Sometimes I would fall in love and it would fall apart, and I would return to the house to catch my breath, still alive, still alive. I don’t know what makes a ghost a ghost and why they seem to be interned in a weird, repetitive, emotionally fueled prison. I spent so much time in my childhood trying to figure out why the ghost was even in our house, considering that during his life he was probably on a big wooden boat most of the time. Maybe he came to our house one afternoon and they had an affair in our house, in one of the bedrooms where we all slept like normal people.
Maybe he never came to our house, but came there in death, because he followed his letters, essentially following his heart. Maybe he was trying to get his heart back from our house. I get that. I get why he would go back there for his heart. I love the house, and every time I go out into the world and get my heart busted up, I retreat back to the old ghostly house in Milton, hoping to become myself again, and to have one more chance, just one more chance to share my heart, and to share it successfully enough that if I become a ghost one day, there’s at least another ghost right beside me. And I have its heart and it has mine, and we had the world together. This is what I believe can happen to me. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I believe that this can happen to me.
Jenny Slate, a native of Milton, is a stand-up comedian, actress, author, and creator. She will perform at The Wilbur in Boston on November 30. This story was excerpted from her forthcoming book, “Little Weirds,” to be released November 5. Copyright © 2019 by Birthday Basket Inc. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown, New York. All rights reserved. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.