Monstrous Femme

There are rumors that Boston is haunted. People pay to tour famous cemeteries in the hopes of encountering some lost spirit trapped here on its way to the afterlife. I sometimes watch—rolling my eyes and sipping my iced coffee—as the restless tourists seek out the ghosts of people they never knew. I’m not sure what they think they see: a trick of the light, a rustle in the trees. All I know is there are no ghosts for these people, no past lives lurking around dark corners in a city they’ve only just begun exploring. The ghosts here only haunt people like me, people who have been here too long.

The real ghost tour begins in the Public Gardens, where the leaves are turning gold. They are beautiful, still, even after so many autumns, but they don’t stir my soul like they used to. When I first arrived in Boston, I was like a newborn baby seeing the world for the first time, brimming with curiosity and a feverish desire to uncover the mysteries around me. Born and raised in California, I had never seen real fall before, as all my new friends from the East Coast liked to remind me, and the sunlight peeking through the rusty leaves reflected the newly lit fire in my heart. I remember writing about every experience in as much detail as possible, as if capturing them perfectly on paper would allow me to live in those moments forever.

I was so young back then, drinking in my new reality with moony eyes. Now I feel like a character in the fourth season of some poorly written TV drama. I have become predictable and stunted; my storylines feel forced and my arc is flat. The child I was when I first walked through these gardens is a ghost to me now. She peers over my shoulder as I cross the lamplit bridge where he kissed me so long ago. She and I watch together as two spirits twirl in circles, laughing and in love. He whispers something in her ear; I can’t hear it now, but I know what he says: It’s the highlight of my day, just hearing you laugh.

I am lost in them for a moment, lost in the way he is watching her, but without warning they dissipate into the frigid night air. I am alone again.

I walk along the Charles River, feeling the wind twist through my long, brown curls. The sun has set and the air is cold, another humid summer gone just like the rest of them. The circles we travel in, all of us, the patterns we follow day in and day out, are getting so difficult to bear.

I remember when it all felt so new. The night before the first day of freshman year, I walked out to the river for the first time. Every street corner along the way brought a new, tiny wonder: an old brick church covered in ivy, the golden shimmer of the capitol building. I watched people feed squirrels from their hands in the garden with delight, and tapped my feet to the buskers’ music. It felt magical, every stranger a note in the harmonious song of the city, and I was a part of it, trailing my fingers along the wrought iron fence around the Gardens.

But now my movements are mechanical; I cut corners without thinking and shoulder my way past the predictable strangers. This path is familiar, well-trodden, and my boots fit perfectly into the prints left behind by the phantoms I follow. I trek onto the dock where I sat all those years ago, eating cupcakes and snapping photos. That night was a blissful pink, the sun reflecting softly off of the water just as the moon does now. I watch myself and the girls who would soon become my best friends nervously chatter about what college classes would be like.

The girl I was lays her back on the warm dock, staring up at the sky in wonder, giggling at a joke her friend makes. She takes a picture of the swirling colors in the sunset and sends it to her family, but I know she doesn’t miss them quite yet. She is blissfully unaware of all that is before her. She has yet to find a need for what was left behind.

I close my eyes for a moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.

I move on, strolling along the water, and eventually make my way to Fenway, to Loretta’s Last Call, where they used to play live country music on the weekends. My friends and I hated cowboys, but we always loved to dance. I see our ghosts spinning around in circles, holding hands and giggling, hair sticking to their faces in the midst of all the sweat-soaked bodies. They bump into the table, spill their drinks all over the floor, and stumble, laughing, into the night. They topple onto the ground, fall on top of each other, and then laugh some more. I hear their shrieks as the rain begins to fall and they scramble off of the ground to twirl in it, certain they are the stars of their own movie, knowing their stories have just begun.

I reach out to touch it, wanting to know the perfection of that moment again, to grasp onto it in the hopes that their euphoria will return to me, but the spirits fade away. The glow where they stood becomes dark again, and I feel the dry, icy night, the sharp wind cutting my cheeks. The rain falls now like it did before. I pull up my hood and keep walking.

No place in this city is left unaffected. I am caught in a time loop, trapped in a gray purgatory between the past and the future. I am spinning in nostalgia, haunted by versions of myself I no longer know. A car passes and there I am: sobbing in the Uber, wondering why I can’t just be happy anymore. Then I am drunk alone in the night, puking on some street corner. I am touching him one last time, pretending I am not falling apart. I am at the same bar, with the same people, drinking the same drinks, but the magic is gone. I love these people, and I love this place, but I am haunted by them all.

So I walk to my apartment, fit the key in the lock, and sit down at my desk. I remember when I first sat in the gardens to write so long ago, my newfound freedom catalyzing an irresistible impulse to create. I didn’t believe in ghosts then, didn’t know that the memories I was trying to capture would be the same ones haunting me now.

I want to be free like that again, lay my past to rest. I want to remember how it felt to stand beneath the golden trees and see my life unfolding before me, to be filled with such an intense passion that I have no choice but to put pen to paper. I know I can no longer find that here, and I know it will be difficult to uproot this life and find another, to step forward into the unknown, but I must move on. I must let my ghosts find their peace, leave them behind, and go to some other city where the strangers are still surprising and my heart is not so heavy.

All that is left of Boston is a ghost town, and I have been haunted long enough.