One fall I was a ghost in my own house. That time, when divorce was imminent but my husband and I were still living together, only the children could see or hear me. The laundry floated downstairs to the basement, then floated back up to the second floor, washed and folded. The dishes floated from the dishwasher and into the cabinets, chiming as they nested inside each other. I floated through the house, practically transparent. Maybe my perfume stayed behind when I left a room. I tried to rattle my chains, but what chains?
I half wanted to be a ghost. I remember thinking, then telling a friend: I want to cut a hole in the air and climb inside.
A few months later, I was trying to calm my son, then six years old, at bedtime. He said, “I know, I know. I have a mom who loves me, and I have a dad who loves me. But I don’t have a family.”
I felt the wind go out of me—felt myself emptying, falling, a balloon drifting down from the ceiling—because he was right. He still had all of his family members, but our family unit, our foursome, was gone.
When people ask how the children are doing, I tell them fine. It’s mostly true. I tell them I’m grateful at least that the children didn’t lose anyone. They still have their parents, and they have each other.
What I don’t say is when I lost my family, I lost someone, too. The person I’d called my person. In this way, my house is haunted.
We’ve lived apart for seven months when I discover Glitch. It’s an Australian show. Episode one begins with people clawing their way from their graves—naked, muddy, disoriented. They have no idea what has happened, no idea that they died five or twenty or even a hundred years earlier. The six of them are inexplicably alive again, the age they were when they died. For them, no time has passed.
Their bodies have been restored. A woman who’d died of breast cancer unbuttons her shirt before a mirror and sees her breasts—the ones a surgeon had removed. They’re perfect.
Spoiler alert: Her husband is the police officer called to the cemetery.
Spoiler alert: After the woman died, he married her best friend.
Spoiler alert: The new wife—the old best friend—is nine months pregnant.
The woman, her breasts buttoned up inside her shirt, is a witness to the afterlife. She returns to the life that continued without her.
In one scene she is in the baby’s nursery in the house that was her house. Who wouldn’t touch the mobile above the crib? It spins. She haunts. I cry when I watch the show as if for her.
Sometimes my ex picks up the children from my house after work. He parks his car and walks up in his suit. He has a beard now, so he looks like a doppelganger of himself. Or like a dream, when someone looks almost like the person you know but something is off: they are suddenly left-handed. Or their laugh sounds recorded and played backwards. I keep waiting to wake up, but I am awake.
I know the time will come when I’ll witness the afterlife. The new house, certainly, with some of our old things inside. The new wife, likely—someone else who will tuck my children in.
This is a story of becoming embodied, impossible to walk straight through. When their father comes to collect them, I kiss my son and daughter and send them toward the waiting car. I close the door and lock it. If I had chains to rattle, I would rattle my chains.
Maggie Smith is the author of four books, including Good Bones (Tupelo Press 2017) and Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change (One Signal/Simon & Schuster 2020). Smith’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, POETRY, the Washington Post, and the Paris Review.