Rattling, thin glass panes threatened to break, give in to the wind and electricity, and I woke up, easily, from my defensive half-sleep in an unfamiliar, old house. The storm outside was a rare rain, I’d been told earlier, the town in drought, needy soil, and the thunder was performative in the manner of uncommon violence, putting on a show, desperate to be remembered. I stepped into the hall and into the purview of the cat, a former stray, on its little jungle gym, vigilant, surveying. On my way back from the bathroom, my hands reading the walls like Braille to navigate, chatty wooden floorboards threatening to wake the others, I felt someone behind me, near; I whirled around to face a void, the hallway’s clammy darkness, nobody, just me. I glanced to my left and could barely see the cat’s pupils dilated, hard planets, staring into the nothing I’d just run into. I don’t believe in ghosts other than their metaphorical power–usually. I fled back into bed, listened to the storm, tried to self-soothe, focused on the fact of my temporary cocoon, fell back into an uncomfortable sleep.
I was awakened, again, by hard, quick breathing, loud and frayed symptoms of a distilled panic I recognized immediately as one I am a veteran at embodying, but I hadn’t had a nightmare, this wasn’t me. I was sure it was the woman I was staying with, who I’d stayed up late talking with the night before about our respective shitty hometowns, exchanging strategies on dealing with up-skirt photographers. She casually disclosed then that she has panic attacks. We’d had a stressful day; I was sure it was her. I creaked my way through the hall to the room she was staying in, and the gasping static wheezing stopped just as I reached the threshold, door ajar. She was lying on an air mattress on the floor with one of the lamps still on. “Hey,” I whispered. But she was asleep, peaceful, chest rising and falling normally, everything still and fine. The cat watched me quizzically from the couch, my animal witness, not verifying any discord.
I went back to bed. It’s paranoia. It’s always paranoia. What kept Sarah Winchester building. The “jealous” abusive lover or the suburban homeowner putting up security cameras, looking to protect property. My online 3AM credit card lifejacket purchases. It’s all in my head, neuronal misfiring, exhaustion. Not ghosts. “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen,” says Ken, talking emotional truth, of course, the kind venerated and privileged by artists and other unreliable narrators. But I get it, Ken Kesey, and I get it, Tim O’Brien; there are only so many ways to discuss insanity and war, and trauma invites unsteadiness, a baseline uncertainty to navigate. Something happened even if it didn’t. But what? It’s impossible. Here I am, always, trying to reach out over the expanse of my own mind, to bridge the gaps.