When I was a little girl, I used to sneak off to my bedroom, close the door, and imagine I was in a castle or gothic manor. My bunk bed became an elegant four-poster, my IKEA dresser an oaken chifforobe. Our apartment’s dull brick walls changed to ones made of creaking stone. The street outside, littered with empty soda cans and plastic bags, transformed into some romantic Victorian moorland.
I wanted to live in a haunted house. I wanted to be something like the damsels in my favorite ghost stories, trapped in a castle with a villainous ghost. Or Mrs. de Winter, newly, tragically wed, watching the Manderley gates clang shut behind her. Or Jane Eyre sneaking through the halls of Thornfield Hall, candlelight flickering over the walls. I wanted to be trapped in those wild houses with whistling windows, echoing corridors, and deliciously dreadful secrets.
As I grew older, I lost much of my flair for the theatrical. I still love gothic literature, but I love more mundane pleasures too, like breakfast sandwiches from the bodega or going out dancing with friends. Generally, I love my life here in the 21st century.
Or I used to. Right now, our 21st century life looks very different than it did a few months ago. Brooklyn, my Brooklyn, the world where I love spending lazy days lingering on stoops, watching neighbors grill jerk chicken on the corner or kids skateboard down the block — has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools have closed, stores shut down. Grocery store employees wear masks and face shields, their eyes hollow as they work. Nurses and doctors and other hospital staff are angry and afraid — and they should be angry and afraid. Our leaders are lying to us. Our government’s failing. The sirens blare on and on.
As a little girl, I dreamed of being trapped in a gothic castle; well, here I am, trapped. I’ve been ordered to shelter in place, so I’m sheltering in place. I live in a small apartment with warm yellow walls and African violets on the sill — hardly a romantic gothic manor. But somehow this apartment has become a haunted house, and I am the ghost.
The ghosts and monsters of haunted houses are mad, passionate things. They are too angry to retire to the land of the dead. These are creatures who slam doors and shriek in lonely corridors. They’re so wild and fierce that they animate their homes; they move things that should be still. Curtains drifts, floorboards creak. An eldritch knock sounds at the window.
Here in Brooklyn, I walk from one side of the apartment to the other. I do the dishes, put them away. I open the window, close it again. I walk, again, from the wall to the window, where I look down at the empty street. I turn away.
I’m not wild or fierce. I’m not anything. I’m nothing.
I’ve been nothing before. The day I watched my father die, I took a Lyft back to my apartment. I’d been in the hospital for hours, and I still didn’t understand what had happened, but I knew it was time to go home. As I buckled up, I noticed that someone had left their keys in the car.
“Oh, man,” the driver said when I passed him the keys. “Must’ve been the girl before you.” He turned around. “Mind if I try to catch her? Are you in a rush?”
I leaned back in my seat. “No,” I said. “I’m not in a rush.”
He drove up to Williamsburg, miles out of my way. I didn’t mind. It was late at night by now and the street was filled with young people laughing, holding hands and touching each other, eating sloppy slices of pizza. When we reached the bar, I watched the driver dash in to find the girl who’d forgotten her keys and I waited, calmly staring out the window, thinking over and over again, My dad is dead. My dad is dead.
The words didn’t mean anything yet. They would someday. But that night, in that moment, they meant nothing, and I felt nothing.
These days, sheltering in my apartment, I feel some intense emotions, of course. I’m paralyzed by the anxiety of missing my friends and worry about my family, my community, my city, my world. But even in those days, the feeling seems to come from far away, from some dream reality I don’t yet understand.
So, I go grocery shopping. I attend Zoom meetings. I scroll through the news while I’m brushing my teeth. I hit refresh. I refresh again. I study graphs of infection rates and hospitalization numbers as if I can control them. I can’t control anything. I attend another Zoom meeting. I ask my coworkers how they’re doing.
“Oh, you know,” they say. “The same.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Me too.”
I walk from one side of the apartment, back to the other. I put on a mask to walk around the block, then return. I refresh the news again.
How many of us will lose our jobs? How many of us will lose someone we love? I don’t have kids, but what about the kids I love, the sons and daughters of my broader community—will they be all right? Will their parents? My city will be changed forever, I know—but how? Which museums and gardens and restaurants will never open again? Who will be left?
“You know what I realized?” I said to my mother on the phone last night, after eating cold leftover chicken alone in my empty kitchen. “I haven’t cried yet. Not about any of this.”
“Me neither,” she says. “Of course not. When would I have started? And when would I stop?”
Haunted house stories describe spirits in limbo, that unsettled horror space between life and death. We’re in limbo too, but I, at least, am not moved by some romantic wild anger or gothic passion. Because how can I grieve when I’m not yet sure what I’ve lost? What we’ve all lost?
I don’t know. But I will someday, as I have before with other losses. I know there will be some moment when I’m standing at a crosswalk, staring at a once-familiar street corner, and I’ll know what should be there but isn’t. Who should be here but is gone.
Until that moment, I wait. I walk from my couch, to my bedroom, then back again. I touch the curtains. Upstairs, someone is playing the piano.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, is available for purchase here.
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