How to Discover that One is a Ghost
This morning you sailed a boat.
Not only that, but you taught your best friend how to sail a boat, both of your bare feet slipping on the floor of the Sunfish, leaning out over the Maine lakewater against the tug of the wind on the mainsheet, laughing as she wiggled the tiller back and forth, forgetting if left meant left or left meant right, throwing caution to the breeze until you scraped up against some underwater rocks and you—you, thirteen years old, heart beating faster as you discovered this opportunity for responsibility, imagining the shawl of your mother’s care finally slipping from your shoulders—climbed out of the boat and risked the soft pink soles of your feet against barnacles that could cut like knives, just to push the boat back into open water and save the morning.
In the afternoon the two of you are on a dock and your head is still buzzing with the thrill of adulthood (and of knowing how to do something she doesn’t, which is a warm pomegranate seed in your mouth that tastes slightly like poison) when the little girl stares at you from the end of the dock and says that her brother wants to take you on a date.
Which one of us? you ask, but she doesn’t know, so half an hour later you both end up in the woods with a boy named Dallas.
Your flip-flops weren’t made for forest paths. Twigs and pine needles squirm their way between your feet and your sandals, making your soles itch, but you don’t really mind because the whole thing is rather exciting, after all.
Dallas leads the way. Sometimes he says This way, and sometimes he just walks. He is a year younger than you both, but acts two years older. You’re giddy—a date with a boy!—but Cynthia is quiet, reverential even, as though showing respect for the sacred silence of the forest. So although you want nothing more than to giggle, to take off your flip-flops and skip down the path, you stay silent and count moss patches on trees. The air smells like damp wood and also dandelions and smoke.
It makes perfect sense, in a twisted way. You and Cynthia have pretended to be sisters all your lives. When you were a little bit younger and a little bit odder, you color-coordinated your outfits and walked around the mall speaking in over-precise British accents, telling anyone who would listen that you were twins. In your mind, you were identical. Never mind the hazel eyes, the brown; never mind the curly auburn hair, the straight black. And yes, sometimes you know things that she doesn’t know, but you teach her, when you can, because you want her to learn as well. If you pretend there is no pomegranate seed, there must not be one. There cannot be one, because then you couldn’t be twins.
This is what you tell yourself when you think about how you know things that she does not.
You are in a cemetery in the woods and the light is somehow both golden and grey, and this morning you taught your best friend how to sail a boat, and now you are both here, in a forest that smells like moss and dandelions, and you are with a boy but there are two of you, and you know that this is not how love stories go. You think about it and you decide that perhaps the boy is almost irrelevant. Neither of you will end up with him, no matter how giddy his blue eyes make you feel. The cemetery is what he wanted to show you, and it’s a strange place to go on a date, but it reminds you that he is younger than you and gets excited about strange things. No, he is just there as a symbol of your burgeoning adulthood, a figure for you to tell a story about when you get back to school.
You are examining the headstones ones by one, reading names, calculating ages, when you hear the giggle. Two rows ahead of you, they’re holding hands. Shh. 1892 minus 1878. Twenty-four? No, fourteen. Another giggle. Fourteen is only a year older than you.
When you reach the end of the row and look over towards them again they are gone and you’re alone. But there are more headstones to examine, more lives to imagine, more ages to calculate, more thoughts to suppress as you walk along each row.
It doesn’t take long—there are seven rows in total—so then you sit in the tall grass besides Ann Pennebaker and weave a dandelion crown. When the dandelion crown is finished, you make another one. Then you split a wide blade of grass in half as many times as you can before it barely exists anymore.
When you hear a rustle in the woods you jump to your feet, but no one’s there. And then it occurs to you that you are in a cemetery, unseen and unheard, with no proof of your own existence. You think about this for a while but can’t decide what it means.
And when you realize neither of them is coming back for you, you stand and begin to retrace your steps, taking that dirt path with your shoes full of pine needles and breathing in the damp air and trying to remember what it felt like this morning, when you thought you were older and wiser, with a warm pomegranate seed in your mouth. It tasted like poison and you thought it was forbidden knowledge, but now you know better.