Ever since I was a kid, my mother and I knew my dad was attracted to men. My mom
would stumble upon matchbooks with strange handwriting, phone calls, and, toward
the end of the marriage, text messages. Most were from men, some from women,
some she knew, most she didn’t. She knew the larger issue. My father was a garbage
disposal with teeth. He wanted to consume everything. Before turning 50, he ran
twenty marathons, stepped onto all known continents, and rented a storage locker
for all his excess cologne bottles. He wanted to mine life of all its blessings, all its
turmoil, all its love and loose change. Inevitably, he wanted nothing more than to
pass his vociferous appetites to me. As I lurched toward high school graduation,
he pushed me to pursue medical school, law school, liberal arts school. I chose
to remain undeclared.
My first year of college, I began to believe in ghosts. I felt them all around, so much
so that I started to feel like one. That was the year my dumb lawyer dad hired an
assistant named Christopher Collins, who was the same age as me but six inches
taller and spoke in complete sentences. He often wore a vest and tie and dark red
shirt, which made him look like a theatre usher. Every night, he and my father would
stand in the dining room with their sleeves rolled up, file folders scattered, laptops
set up like Battleship, and Christopher Collins saying, “You do know what habeas
corpus is, right?” and my father would say, “Uh, yeah, of course, well, why don’t you
explain it to me?”
One night after class, I sat at my desk in the dark, waiting to fall through the wall and
become one with the nighttime sky. The two voices from the dining room floated up
through the air vent at my feet. I thought to myself, “Christopher Collins, Christopher
Collins, Christopher Collins.” I didn’t realize I was typing it into a search engine over and
over again. When I finally looked at my laptop screen, it startled me. My finger pressed
Enter before I did.
The first result was a blog called EatingSeveralOfOneThing.com. The top entry said,
“June 30. Today we are going to tackle… pizza.” Below was a photo of Christopher
Collins and a guy I didn’t recognize. They sat at a table with nine pizza boxes stacked
between them. They made grr faces at the camera. I scrolled. Photo after photo
showed the two guys devouring the pizzas, slice by slice, box by box. The last photo
showed the other guy bent over the empty boxes and holding his stomach in the
background while in the foreground, Christopher Collins’ sauce-covered face just grinned.
It was the first time I’d ever seen him up close. His pixelated eyes said, “I know the secret
to living because it’s been sitting in the core of the earth since the beginning of time, and
I’m the only one who went to the Marianna Trench with a shovel.”
The next entry: “June 16: Today we are going to tackle watermelons.” “June 4: Banana
cream pies.” “May 25: Baked salmon.”
“You found it,” his voice said, and I jumped in my seat and saw him standing in my
doorway, hands in pockets and eyes hidden in curves of shadow.
“I couldn’t imagine eating so much of one thing,” I said. “I would hate it. I’d get nauseous.”
“Nah,” he said. “It’s all about acceptance. You focus on one taste, one texture, one truth,
and you learn to own it. Breathe it in, you know?” He took a stride forward. I closed my
laptop shut, which was pointless. All it did was flick us into darkness. “You, on the other
hand, don’t seem to breathe anything in. You just sit up here.”
“I read,” I said and started playing with a book about ghost sightings in the Ukraine.
With a barely perceptible grin, Christopher Collins asked, “Do you want to see
something?” Taking my ten seconds of silence as a response, he took me by the
wrist. It was the first time another guy had ever touched me like that, and I felt a surge
of electricity connect my wrist and eyes and pounding heart, and I felt shame at the fact
that I was wearing cargo shorts and not something cooler, like cargo pants.
He dragged me to my full-length mirror, which hung from plastic hooks on my closet
door. He let go of my wrist, which I never wanted him to do ever. “Just trust me,” he said,
which I did and didn’t.
Standing behind me, he grabbed my shoulders and looked at both of us in the mirror.
He twisted me into position, like setting a yard sign into place.
He took a plastic lighter from his jean pocket and flicked it. One spark. Two spark.
Three, and the flame went aglow. The ball of light and its brimming heat pulsed
against my hand, traced up the side of my dumb skinny arm, and stopped behind my
head. He held it there. In the mirror, all I could see was the hairs on the side of my neck,
and his floating nose behind me.
I gulped and said, “If you want to smoke, I have a cigarette.”
As if quoting papyrus, he said, “You hold the light of a candle behind you, gaze into a
looking glass, and after a minute, your face becomes the face of a ghost.”
My heart jumped while my feet sank into the ground. This was a prank, wasn’t it?
“Come on,” he whispered. He stuck his thumb on the mirror and removed it,
leaving a thumbprint on top of my reflection. “All you have to do is look into
My driver’s license said gray, but that night, against Christopher Collins’ flame, my
eye looked navy blue. I looked deep into the flickering pupil, the well, the tunnel,
the black hole. Soon I felt myself tumbling, a stray astronaut struggling to find
something that isn’t himself. The sea of gray-black went on for miles and years.
I heard breathing that timed itself to earthquake rumbles. I saw a speck in the
distance. A beacon. A warning. A signal of surrender. It got brighter. It took shape.
It grew rays and glowed yellow. Star of beauty, star of night. I swam closer. The star
became a face, and it was my face. All the features were there: the navy blue eyes,
my dumb big forehead. My fat nose. My hair that looked like a sick raccoon. And
then it wasn’t my face anymore. It melted. Creases formed. The hair shrank and
thinned. The eyes grew harder and hungrier. This was the ghost Christopher
Collins promised me, and the ghost was my father.
I screamed. A hand reached out from the black and I grabbed for it. It pulled me
to the surface and back to three boring dimensions. I regained my senses. Only
then did I realize I was embracing Christopher Collins. He stroked the back of my
head. “Hey, sorry about that, man. It’s just something I read on a gum wrapper.
Whatever you saw was just your brain messing with you. There’s no ghost.” But
there was, and after all these years, I saw it. I dug my face into the pinstripe slope
of his vest, and I breathed him in. He placed his lips on my forehead, and then
onto my lips, and it felt like forty thousand years of happiness. And that was the
night that I began to solidify.