Vancouver is a young city, and a city of few ghosts. The dead have had little time to find purchase among its blue skyscrapers. Yet that morning I looked across the street and saw Ana standing under the rain, water droplets sliding off her translucent skin. Dead more than ten years and still wearing her little yellow sundress with the heavy, laced boots.
I shook my head and added another sugar to my coffee. I’d have to move. Ghosts may follow the living, but the farther you go, the longer it takes for them to arrive. I had not seen Ana in three years but she was persistent in life, and persistent in her death.
I stepped out of the coffee shop, avoided looking at her and headed to work.
Ana was there the next morning, rather wretched and wet, head bowed, her hair dripping onto her shoes. The little yellow dress looked frayed, the boots were caked with mud.
She looked silly haunting this street, so busy and bustling, no hint of Gothic in the architecture. Though, if you think about it, where can a ghost haunt in Vancouver? Yaletown, in the industrial buildings turned ritzy abodes? Or Gastown, the original heart of the city, the one place where brick buildings rise in orderly fashion across the streets? Without a European backdrop Ana resembled the party girl who has arrived four hours late after everyone has started putting on their coats.
A dog tied outside the coffee shop began to bark and I knew it could see Ana. I felt embarrassed. I thought – though it’s impossible, only I can sense her – someone was going to politely tap my shoulder and ask me if that was my ghost. Sir, would you please leave and take the ghost with you.
I tried to read my book. Sometimes, if you ignore the dead, they go away. When I looked up after twenty minutes she was still there.
I searched for plane tickets online and tried to calculate how many boxes I’d need to move my things, but by the time I got home the desire to escape had been reduced to a simmer.
She might leave. Perhaps.
I have no pictures of Ana. I burned them long ago: physical possessions of loved ones may draw them back. I have literally nothing of hers. Not her CDs, nor her clothes, not even the ferns she bought for the apartment.
I have nothing of Ana but she returns to me, like the tide, always begging for a kiss.
When Ana was alive, I told her I loved her one April Monday. It was not my doing. I do not like those three words and I was not truly, really, in love with her. But Ana insisted. First she had asked it as a joke: “Tell me you love me, won’t you?” When I did not answer it turned into pleading, later a threat, it devolved into a fight and I ended saying it.
Sunlight streamed through the curtains and the air smelled of lemon, and I said it and then she asked if I’d love her forever.
I promised I would.
Ana stood outside the coffee shop all week, sniffling in the rain, her skin growing more crystal-like with each day. Her heart and lungs glowed a soft green and showed through her dress, pulsating to the rhythm of my watch.
Ghosts can acquire the semblance of life. Their flesh can have the appearance of muscle and bone again and they may even taste, breath, feel the world. All it takes is a kiss. But every kiss from your phantom lover is a bit of life trickling out your body.
When I exited the coffee shop Ana raised a hand towards me, as if reaching for my shoulder.
I walked away, hands in my pockets.
Ana and I did not share similar tastes in books, movies or music. Convenience and youth brought us together. We met in the standard way: university, through friends. Four semi-dates later we were living together.
I left a year later out of boredom and no-good reason, which was as much as I could stomach.
By the time she died in a car accident we had been separated for nearly six months. I did not expect her ghost to roam into my room. She tiptoed in one night, snuggling next to me under the covers. Her skin was like a block of ice and had the grayish appearance of meat that has been freeze-burned. But she looked so damned sad, shivering and pouting and begging me to hold her because she wanted to feel alive again.
I kissed her and she pressed a hand against her chest.
“I think I feel it again,” she said. “Yes, it’s there.”
Her heart, she meant.
She’s been following me ever since.
I saw Ana on the bus, late one night. It was almost empty and she was not hard to spot, even half-visible. She was sitting at the back, holding her head between her hands, and rocked back and forth at certain intervals.
When I prepared to step down she stood up, almost looking happy, and spoke.
“Do you remember that summer we went to Amsterdam?” she asked. “We went with Alto and the others and you got sick at that little restaurant. Remember?”
We had never gone to Amsterdam. She was remembering wrong, a sign of her worsening condition. Maybe she’d fade for good, soon.
I did not reply.
Ana followed me home like a stray dog, standing guard outside my apartment. I looked outside and saw her with her head bowed, shivering though the rain should make no difference to a ghost because they are never warm.
She cried in the way ghosts cry, without tears, crystal face turned up towards the rain.
I wondered what it might feel like to kiss her thin lips, cool as glass, and breath warmth into her icy limbs.
I felt old and tired.
When I used to kiss Ana she came back to life for an hour, for two; maybe even a day. She’d sit in my kitchen and have a cigarette and she’d speak just like Ana had spoken, forgetting she had died, talking as though time had turned back and we were together.
I’d watch her, sitting at the edge of the couch. I’d watch as the colour drained from her body and her skin grew translucent and then she cried, she knocked my paintings down and rattled the furniture like a cheap poltergeist. I sat at the edge of the couch, rubbed my jaw and wondered why she’d decided to haunt me.
I went to Granville Island and she was there, standing in the aisles of the public market, lurking in the corners, sitting on a bench next to a solitary seagull.
I sighed and thought about kissing her and giving her the minutes of life she craved. She would be cold like ice, like a window pane in winter, and her smile would glimmer faintly in the dark. She’d wrap her arms around me, smelling faintly of lemon and the grave, sorrow and stagnant water, and I’d comb my hands through her thin hair.
I stretched out my hand. Ana lifted her head and stood up, as if to meet me. Her green, throbbing heart glowed very faintly and she opened her lips.
My fingertips rested against her chest and I shoved her back.
She shattered like sugar candy, little gleaming shards spilling all over the ground.
The gull shrieked and flew away.
I opened my umbrella and walked home.