Alana Massey | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,448 words)
It is fitting that I was on my way to a museum filled with ghastly medical objects and oddities when I realized most of us are more haunted by the living than the dead. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is a medical history museum that houses such prized specimens as Einstein’s brain, conjoined fetuses in a jar, President Grover Cleveland”s jaw tumor, and an expansive wall case displaying Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection. I was on my way to the wedding of my friends Helena and Thomas, the kind of tender, brilliant oddballs so in love that I’d believe them both if they told me the other had hung the North Star or can understand the language of animals. The kind of people who get married in the Mütter Museum not because they necessarily want to, but because there are simply no other places so tastefully macabre yet oddly tender, befitting their nuptials. I don’t believe this about love but I do believe it about wedding venues: It isn’t a decision, it is destiny.
So it was not a happy or selfless thought for me to have, this one about hauntings, on the drive there. My thoughts were not in envy of the couple or of selfish indignation aimed at the attached generally; they were entirely about a love I’d recently lost. Fourteen days prior officially, but 31 days before if going by what really counts. My boyfriend of nearly two years and I had last seen each other on Monday, Aug. 21 in the morning when I dropped him off at the bus station to go back to New York from my house in the Catskills. On Aug. 22, without a fight or explanation or a breakup, he simply stopped responding to text messages.
There was ample proof of life: His name appeared on Google Hangouts and he’d make Instagram stories from time to time, and his friends reported no death on social media. I waited 17 days for a response until I couldn’t grit my teeth any longer and asked him why. Though no answer would likely satisfy me, he wouldn’t even do me the courtesy of offering an explanation for this particularly cruel tactic. He would not answer my phone call, forcing me to speak my piece and say my goodbyes over text. If you had asked me before this happened if you can get over a difficult text exchange in 14 days, I would have told you, “Absolutely.” I wouldn’t tell you that now.
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The drive from my house in the Catskills winds out of the wooded enclaves of residential neighborhoods, then merges via a half-circle ramp onto the New York State Thruway 87. It veers right onto New Jersey-17 South after about an hour, and then winds around New Jersey for another two, first onto the Garden State Parkway and then the Jersey Turnpike. I had entered the directions into Google Maps on my phone and not checked the actual roads, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have registered that this was going to be a tour of some of my most bittersweet haunts.
My decision to move from New York City to somewhere quieter and further north was made on Jan. 1, 2016. I met the man who would quickly become my boyfriend Jan. 5, 2016. He supported the ambition of home-buying, of escaping New York, and shared the inclination to be among trees, visible stars, and in the kind of quiet darkness afforded by ground unstuffed with trains and roads unlined with electric light. I chose a farmhouse in the Catskills and moved in on Sept. 1, 2016. My boyfriend dutifully visited every other week via the Trailways bus line. He painted the dining room, assembled the couch, and gently took spiders into his hands from off my front door and released them off the porch and into the lawn. There they could live, but I could more easily forget that I was now surrounded by them on all sides, here in the woods.
My boyfriend of nearly two years and I had last seen each other on Monday, Aug. 21. On Aug. 22, without a fight or explanation or a breakup, he simply stopped responding to text messages.
In those first few months, we sampled all of the local restaurants, enjoyed the novelty of morning runs without crosswalks, and snow that didn’t gruesomely transmogrify to sludge soon after hitting the ground. We visited Opus 40, a stunning environmental sculpture park in walking distance from my house that spans 6.5 acres of a bluestone quarry built by Harvey Fite over several decades. We took a behind-the-scenes interview tour of the local haunted house for an assignment of mine where we asked performers at the attraction what scared them most. One said clowns. Another said death. He cut down a Christmas tree from my own backyard with his hands and a small saw. He taught me how to build a fire in my woodstove without chemical assistance. It felt like the elusive “adventure” allegedly sought by so many people on dating apps when they really mean going skiing or artisanal whiskey tasting. My new house wasn’t his home, per se, but I felt like I was, just like he was mine.
I was dutiful too. I drove to see him in Brooklyn every week, starting the first leg of the journey on the 87 South. It is not the most scenic highway in the world, but it is more than sufficiently breathtaking in the fall when the leaves change, in the winter when the snow covers the valleys and mountain tops, and in the spring when things begin to spring again. I could blast pop music at full volume and sing that way too. It is also this leg of the journey during which I was most filled with the giddy anticipation of seeing the person I loved, that anticipation made no less potent by virtue of the trip’s frequency. It is the only portion on the journey where the signage along the road counts the miles to New York City for you; ticking away at miles until I could open his house’s door with my own key and expect to be embraced. To be treated like I was home.
But our visitation vigilance waned. Winter was hard in more than the expected ways in which winter is hard. I discovered in April that the bus to New York City was cheaper and that I could park nearby the station for days. When I was not sitting in the front seat anymore, the foliage and the valleys were less visible parts of the journey. I refrained from listening or singing at full volume. I passively forgot about the joy of the 87 South. I didn’t even realize what a conduit for hope and love it had been until I drove it again, in a deep-V cut floor-length black lace gown and realizing I wasn’t on my way somewhere like home. I wasn’t even going somewhere I could rest my head. I was planning to return late in the night after the wedding. The road was not so much a place of grief as one of hollowness, emptied of any promise before I had a chance to realize it used to make one.
While I know that Mahwah is more than the strip malls featuring car dealerships and big box stores and gas stations that line the NJ-17 South, I have little to no curiosity about it as a city. Excuse me, I mean a township. New Jersey, despite its reputation for nouveau riche aesthetics and the punchlines that follow them, insists on this antiquated, charming term for its cities. The only thing I know about Mahwah is that there’s a Super 8 where they don’t ask a lot of questions. I know because with a different boyfriend in 2013, we were three-and-a-half hours into a trip back to the city from a getaway to the Adirondacks and couldn’t contain a lust peculiar to people in their mid-20s, swaggering with fresh tans and the kind of salt worth kissing off of each other so we pulled over to one on NJ-17 South.
My boyfriend asked the desk agent if there was an hourly option. He knew the answer before he asked but I knew it was to make me blush and giggle more than to inquire or make the desk agent cringe. Everyone present could tell the score. We took advantage of air conditioning we wouldn’t later have to pay for and proceeded to sweat there for hours until we ran out of condoms. On the drive out of the parking lot, he looked at me smiling and said, “You’re somethin’ else, you know that?” I said, “And what is that?” He laughed and didn’t answer. He never did figure it out.
There was ample proof of life: his name appeared on Google Hangouts and he’d make Instagram stories from time to time, and his friends reported no death on social media. I waited 17 days for a response until I couldn’t grit my teeth any longer and asked him why.
I passed the Super 8 as I made my way toward Philadelphia. I thought for a moment that they might have remodeled, but if they did, it was just to make it look like a new version of the same old kind of place. After several exits and merges, I was on the Jersey Turnpike for the first time since 2012.
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There is nothing sexy about the Turnpike and this leg of my trip was no exception. It was instead where I saw the exit to the hometown of my first real boyfriend. Three months after meeting him, I spent Christmas with his family in their suburban township, where I was welcomed with warmth and gifts and embarrassing childhood anecdotes about my boyfriend from his hilarious, beautiful sisters. The thing that jokes about the mafia and the nouveau riche and the Italians in Jersey don’t convey is that once they decide you’re family, they really act like it and mean it. I don’t know his whereabouts now, but I’ve crept upon his sister’s Instagram recently enough to know that they still spend time together more often than most families — they take advantage of the particularities of every season — and even the family members who weren’t notably photogenic are still profoundly beautiful. I pass the exit so quickly that it almost doesn’t register, but when it does, I feel something close to guilt that the yearning in it was more for board games and Pay-Per-View with him and his sisters and their family’s one tiny hyperactive lunatic dog and one gigantic depressive validation-seeking one. Maybe it’s because I missed my sister and wanted a cat, so other people’s sisters and a few dogs would do. Maybe it’s because he was the first man I ever thought should be the one to build a family with me.
When I got to Philadelphia, I found a parking spot mercifully quickly, and close by. I wiped the tears that had started to flow at the last Sunoco before passing into New Jersey, and that came in fits and bursts, mostly in tune with my intentionally devastating heartbreak playlist, as I crossed into Pennsylvania. I reapplied my makeup and made a promise to myself that if I were to cry it would be for other people’s love and not any lack of my own. The Mütter, an elegant and exceptional tomb (but a tomb nonetheless) had been transformed into something with an unmistakably beating heart. It beat ecstatically. Eternally. There was more life-giving verve there in that room than I knew could fit in non-stadium or cathedral spaces. I rushed in just as the vows were being said, honest but quavering voices exchanging tenderness and gratitude, somehow zapping all the love in the world onto words spoken from loose leaf. I believed every word, except the part about “as long as you both shall live.” I don’t think the ghosts of Helena or Thomas plan to be anywhere but by each other’s sides in whatever lies beyond our last breath. I remained tearless for the duration of the events. It was one of the rather minor miracles witnessed in the Mütter that night, what with all that love bringing a catacomb to such life.
Living ghosts have shelf lives; they can only survive as haunts until they are replaced by more reliable, enduring souls — the kind who will stay when I ask them to and if they do leave, will at least tell me their reasons and say goodbye.
On the return home, I cried tears only to songs I always cry to. The four hours felt shorter than they had the first time, and not just because of the late night emptiness of the Turnpike, NJ-17, or the 87. It was because the road led back to my house, a destination I have had brimming with friends and family and laughter that I was too busy ruminating over boyfriends and highways to tell you about earlier. He cannot haunt my house the way he could the 87 South because it is too crowded with other spirits. His emptiness doesn’t fill the space. Living ghosts have shelf lives; they can only survive as haunts until they are replaced by more reliable, enduring souls — the kind who will stay when I ask them to and if they do leave, will at least tell me their reasons and say goodbye.
* * *
Exactly one week shy of the anniversary of that date to Opus 40, I took my father there. I had fallen sick and slightly apart in the aftermath of the breakup and the few loose ends I hadn’t tended to were soon my walls caving in. My dad arrived 24 hours after he asked if I’d like him to come visit. I was afraid to go back to Opus 40. The date there the previous fall had been so perfect in my memory that I feared I would unfairly find it a ruin now. My dad did not remark on the sculpture using the art school vocabulary of my former boyfriend, or marvel at the design in quite the same way. Yet he cautioned me against tripping over rocks and identified more features of the experience as “neat” than was perhaps warranted, but it made me sure he was enjoying himself. He insisted that we take selfies with the central obelisk in the background. He joked about aliens having built the whole structure. Though it is a different kind of love entirely, I added my father to the list of people who has shared joy in my home and now in my favorite sculpture park.
It has made me more ecstatic than ever to open up my home and even more so my haunted places to the people who give me different kinds of love — love that can flood the bloodless vacancy that characterizes the places they, sometimes we, left behind. I might not force them onto road trips to Super 8s, but there are other journeys I have in mind to enforce supernatural evictions. The rebirth of these haunted memories as whole, living ones will restore me to a heart more characterized by beating than brokenness. And I will turn these catacombs into homes for guests rather than ghosts.
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Alana Massey is the author of All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen To Be Famous Strangers. She lives in the Catskills.
Editor: Sari Botton