Haunts

I.

Here’s the thing: I’m a serial re-visitor. I like to chase my own tail.

I’ve made this list of all the places I want to see. I add to it all the time. But then instead of booking a flight to Cairo or wherever I suggest we go back to Fez, say, where we’d been three years earlier, on our first holiday together. We had a nice time then; we drank a lot of black coffee and walked round and round the medina until we’d earned the beginning of a sense of direction. At night, after a too-big meal and a final coffee, we’d climb to the rooftop of our cheap backpacker’s hotel and watch the lights glinting. We’d flick through the photos we’d taken on our digital cameras, reliving the frozen moments, assimilating them.

It was a good time to go on holiday: we had no shared past and no particular compulsion, yet, to speculate about the future. I remember that at the end of the trip, on the bus back from Luton, I made a list in a little leather notebook of all the things I needed to buy when I got back to Boston, things I needed to furnish the new studio apartment I was moving into. I had this excitement-tinged-with-sadness feeling, but I made the list anyway, and then fell asleep on his shoulder like we had been together for years and would always be together, like we weren't from opposite ends of the world. I think this is maybe what people mean when they talk about being present, about inhabiting the present. We were there and that was it: we were there, and still unbothered by the logistics of living, or living together, or making a living, or making a decision about our future. I had a semester left of college to complete, so life was full of invisible possibilities - I trusted implicitly that they were there, even if I couldn’t identify what they were.

You can’t return to that time; you can’t return to any time. But you can return to a place. So I return to places. So we go back to Fez, or New York, or the same village in Wales, over and over again. A poor sort of time-travelling, but there it is: it’s the best we’ve got.

In most cases I trick myself into believing that it’s because these are places that need revisiting - they’re complicated, demanding, worthy of a relationship. They’re marriage material, not one night stands. I say there’s too much to Fez to be found in a single visit; we need to go back, give it the time it deserves. Upon second visit I find that I am comfortable enough here, walking in my own footsteps; I am someplace familiar, deliberately seeking out familiar landmarks - squares, cafés, that restaurant we really liked. But this sense of familiarity is more disquieting than calming. At one point I find myself fighting a panic attack. I pretend it’s the heat, the travel, the heady smells, the crowded dusty streets, the donkeys pushing past, the chickens waiting patiently to be slain. We climb up out of the fray and sit on a low wall at the edge of the medina and I identify at last the strange feeling, the disquieting feeling: the feeling that I am haunting myself, following my own ghost, inhabiting the space she inhabited three years previous in an attempt to somehow be her again. It’s the feeling that I am jealous of myself as I was then: that I am both with myself and outside myself. I’m not unhappy now, in this present - far from it; I’m in love and it’s summer and things have turned out okay. But I know more about the me in that previous present: I know what happens to her, I know how she gets from there to here. Whereas I don’t know how I get from here, now, to there: I don’t even know where ‘there’ is.

So we sit on a wall and I feel simultaneously right and wrong. That evening we have a beer with a friend and watch the nightly migration of birds cloud the sky. Later in the week we take a taxi out of town and hike to a waterfall, where the air is clear and cool. And then we go home again. Three more years elapse. I consider another trip.

***

Notice that to write about this, I use the language of the supernatural. Familiar, as in the familiar spirit, assisting witches. Ghosts. Haunts. I do this instinctively but also knowingly. A few years ago, a friend sent me a link to a paper by Steven Connor. “As a term, ‘haunting’ has an almost disappointingly innocuous past,” Connor writes:

Well into the eighteenth century, a ‘haunt’ could be simply a place to which one had frequent recourse...As a noun, a ‘haunt’ signifies not exactly a home, but rather a sort of second home, a place to which one has periodic recourse from one’s regular home...Over the last couple of centuries, it seems to have become more common for places to be haunted than persons...A haunted place has become stuck in time, or time has been scored into it.

***

Oxford always seemed to me a haunt of long-dead phantoms, living off its past and alien to anyone with energy and a mind on the future; now I walk among its ghosts and see them as my own.

- Pico Iyer

We are always sharing space with ghosts. "All landscapes are haunted by ghosts,” the geographer Patricia Price writes. Sometimes the ghosts are versions of ourselves; sometimes the ghosts are people we never knew, people who never even existed except in the minds of others or the pages of books. When I moved to Oxford I finally read Jude the Obscure for the first time. I’d tried before and always abandoned it about two pages in, but now there was a shared geography, and certain passages and sentiments stayed with me, particularly as Autumn took the city in its wicked fist, shook the trees and turned the stone grey with worry. The city became Christminster, Hardy's University town - and I, I suddenly came to understand, had moved here, like Jude, to be close to something that I wasn’t quite a part of.

I took long walks after dark; I felt very Hardy indeed, walking in the cold abandoned nights: "There were poets abroad, of early date and of late, from the friend and eulogist of Shakespeare down to him who has recently passed into silence, and that musical one of the tribe who is still among us..." One night, on St. Giles, wide and empty, a woman with a black eye came lilting towards me, as if she was walking on a ship in stormy waters. We stood under a streetlamp while she asked for change and I refused to give her any. I don't know why I refused: I was broke too, but broke in a different way; I could have reached into my bag and discovered a few coins. But I walked on, I guess because sometimes the things we imagine we see somewhere seem more real than the things we actually see. I’m not proud of this, but it’s how I spent a lot of time feeling when I first moved here, I think: like if I tried hard enough I could make every ghost manifest itself, like I could literally build my own version of the city.

I stopped in a café for a glass of wine. It was warm and smelled of salt and onions inside. Jude Fawley had lived in Jericho, I remembered. I had read a lot - too much - about this city. I knew what fate awaited Fawley, as I knew what becomes of the sorry lovesick undergraduates in Zuleika Dobson’s Oxford. Through the fogged café windows I could just make out all the doomed heroes, phantom figures slouching home on twisted roads. I loved this place, but I never knew if I belonged to it or if it belonged to me; never knew if I haunted it or if it haunted me.

"We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places," writes Robert Macfarlane, "-- but we are far less good at saying what places make of us."

***

So I revisit places. At least once a month, maybe less in the winter, and often by accident, I find myself in Christ Church meadow, sitting on a particular bench near the bridge to the boathouses. I sat here the week I first arrived, nearly six years ago now. It was a hot, clear day, the start of summer, the VIIIs in full swing, the banks crowded by spectators. I wore a sleeveless dress and sucked on a zinc lozenge, trying to ward off a cold that was threatening to ruin my plans to meet my new almost-boyfriend for drinks later. And now, whenever I find myself nearby, I like to mark the spot, acknowledge the memory, so I pause midway through a run, or on a chilly January walk. I have no idea if the view has changed, if the trees nearby have grown, if the shape of the river has changed at all, if the path ringing the meadow is more worn than it once was. I don’t notice the surroundings at all: I only notice myself being there, again and again, year after year.

II.

We go to New York again and again, too. I didn’t like New York at first; it took me maybe a dozen visits to warm to it. This is another argument for revisiting: sometimes you have to give a place another chance, or another dozen chances. Sometimes the relationship needs to be nurtured, requires great patience.

We go back to the same Brooklyn bars, claim some kind of ownership. We feel the half-memories we made here (too much whiskey, popcorn strewn across the floor, frantic, heavy conversation with friends we only get to see once a year) bind us to the physical location in which they were made, even though the physical location, if it had the capacity to remember, would have long forgotten us by now. Do you know how many people come here every night? And you show up two times in as many years and think, “this is our place”! So fine: our place and everybody else’s. It belongs to us, and to the girls communing with the toilets, and to the dudes sliding off barstools, stumbling away, holding up the doorframe, dissolving into the shout-infused night. It’s ours, to share.

We go to Coney Island. I know: us and every other hip young thing with an SLR and a pair of Converse. The first time I visited it was April, and I was 12 years old. My mother and I had come from California via a hazy layover in Las Vegas. I think I must have slept, but when we arrived, I didn’t feel like I had slept; I wasn’t yet accustomed to the sensation of trans-continental travel, hadn’t learned how to overcome the particular weariness that follows a red eye flight. So when, in the early evening, after a day of aimless wandering, we took an F train to Coney Island, I fell asleep and woke up disconcerted, wondering if this was a thing you were allowed to do on subways. Did grown-ups fall asleep on the subway? Later, living in Boston, juggling schoolwork with jobs and internships and long nights of drinking, I would learn the art of sleeping gently between stops, slipping fully awake at just the right moment, disembarking like an automaton. But then it was a new sensation, and the time spent asleep gave Coney Island a kind of magical property: I couldn’t identify exactly how we’d gotten here, I didn’t know how long the journey had taken, I didn’t know, geographically, where we were in relation to where we had been. All I knew is that it was a place my mother had visited in her youth; she’d spoken often of it, of New York in general, and now here it was.

There are a few photographs of us on that evening, taken by a friend. We’re silhouettes against the backdrop of the sea. I’m wearing a leather jacket and a pair of ugly khaki cargo pants. I have a pimple on my cheek. What I remember is being cold and windswept and reluctantly having a ketchup-slathered hot dog from Nathan’s, hunger overriding my erroneous and newly developed adolescent desire to preserve the child’s waiflike figure I’d previously taken for granted.

***

Years later I came in December. We’d been out too late the night before and we sat mutely on the train, shifting through stations. The journey seemed to take forever, it seemed to take longer than the journey from England had taken. I observed a man across the aisle from me reading a book, the title of which was obscured by his gloved fingers. I looked out over the frosty rooftops. The air grew cold as the doors hissed open, then hot again as they steamed shut. And then we were there, at Stillwell Avenue, crossing the street. My partner had never been here before and, like I said, my memory of it was mostly not my own at all: the photographs, the stories my mother had told me, about being here as a teenager and being compelled to ride the Cyclone even though she hated it, telling her boyfriend after that he could ride it again, if he wanted, but it would have to be alone. Not my memories at all. My memory was of the limp hot dog, the wind and the cold, and here again was the cold, only ten, a hundred times more ferocious. My face went pink and hot and then numb. My fingers in their thick gloves were burning, then numb. Outside Nathan’s a wedding party posed for photos. The bride wore a long strapless white gown but stood stoically while the photographer, encased in a heavy duffel coat, attacked the scene from a dozen different angles.

We went along the boardwalk, taking our own photos. As I could no longer feel my fingers or my toes or my nose, it didn’t seem to matter if we stayed the whole afternoon. We passed one or two other people, drifting along, but they looked unconnected to the rest of the world, like maybe they were imagined figures. I took a photo of a plastic palm tree, planted in the sand near the ice-grey Atlantic. When the cold became unbearable we sought refuge in Nathan’s. We ate hot dogs with onions. Outside it grew dark and when we left, pulling our scarves up over our mouths to try to take some of the bitterness from the wind as it shot down our throats, the neon signs lit up and we took blurry photographs of the way they glowed.

***

We were back the following year. This time it was hot, 84 degrees at midday. I wore shorts and sandals and tried to take photos as we had before, but found that everything looked washed out, dull. Even though the weather was good and it was a weekend, the place was sparsely populated, mostly by shiny sun-bronzed old men on bicycles who had left their shirts at home. We watched some friends ride the Cyclone; I got a photograph as they came down one of the lesser slopes, hands in the hair, faces aghast or delighted or perhaps both. I stood at the frothing line of the Atlantic, watching two swimmers gliding up and down, completely parallel the shore, admiring their strokes.

Although it felt and looked like midsummer, it was nearly mid-October, and everything had been decorated with ghouls and goblins and giant spiders and bloodied zombies in anticipation of Halloween, of cold nights and warm scarves and the smell of rotting leaves and sickly sweet smoke machines. I posed for a photo in front of a zombie-like figure with blood down his shirt and at the corners of his mouth and his bloodshot, perfectly round eyes. My own eyes were shrouded by the Ray-Ban aviators I’d bought off eBay a year or two ago, when I had been working full time in an office and felt like I could finally afford to be frivolous (now: a full-time freelance writer with no clients and no projects; this trip felt like something I’d stolen, but it was the best we could do: meet my parents in the middle, spend a week in someone else’s Brooklyn Heights apartment, have beers on the rooftop looking out at the skyline, imagining that things would soon be different, easier, clearer). If you looked up you could see the shredded witch-figures hanging from lampposts. Everywhere was the eerie, the haunted, the haunting. A place to which one has periodic recourse from one’s regular home.

For lunch we went to Nathan’s and had lemonade and hot dogs outside in the sun.