Tonight, as I walked my dog on a quiet path, nobody around except for a couple of lone men, the sky rushed too quickly with the last pink dust of the day, and I thought suddenly about S.
Years ago, my friend called one afternoon to say that she and another woman were headed to the beach that night to burn things, release things, let them go. Did I want to join?
We parked the car and walked through tall grass and monsters of trees, the full moon above us as alert and bright as the eyes of a woman on a street corner who watches until every shadow disappears.
Once at the beach, we read poems, ate pretzels, breathed in the briny sea. Salt and sand in our mouths, on our knees and faces. Above us, a lace of clouds, woven, as if to protect us from something.
We spoke of our brimming-over hearts, of relationships gone, of the dubiousness of homes. And then my friend’s friend unzipped her bag and unfurled a dress that flapped and slapped against the wind, dancing as if a body was inside it. It had belonged to their friend S, who had been raped and killed years before. It was time to burn the dress.
Since that night on the beach, I’ve seen photos of S smashing her voice against a microphone, her fingers curled around the strings of a banjo. I’ve read about how she had been traveling, went to a small bar, needed a ride. A man told her he could drive her. They drank a beer together. Maybe she didn’t know what else to do but say yes. Not yet twenty-one. I read about the way her body looked after. Found decomposing. Missing pieces of herself.
The wind was too vigorous to keep a fire going, so we watched the dress stammer with sparks, the smoke its own kind of ghost. In front of us, the beach shone the color of bright bones and the ocean spooled into darkness, black as velvet, its emptiness relentless. I looked at the churn of tide and wondered what it would be like not to always see everything as disappearing.
I didn’t know S, but many of the people I love did, and so she stays with me, a reminder. As I passed each lone man on the path tonight, all these years later, my body stiffened and I tightened my grip on my dog’s leash, images of S flaming in my mind.
Are all women haunted by dead girls?
After I’ve walked through my gate, turned to look around, and bolted the door behind me, I text my friend who was there on the beach that night. She lives across the country now, drawing girls skateboarding, climbing trees, looking through telescopes. Remember the night we burned S’s dress? I ask. That wasn’t S’s dress, she says. She tells me it was the dress of a girl who had died in a car accident, someone else I didn’t know. How could I confuse one dead girl with another? But the world is full of real ghost stories, and maybe every dead girl has a ghost story that is larger than she is. We must have talked of S that night, and while it was her story that would stay with me all these years, it was the image of the other girl’s flapping, empty dress that would remind me again and again of the perilousness of my own flesh.
Sometimes I touch my body to remember that I have one. A finger on my belly button or against a collarbone’s empty crevice. Sometimes I want to extend my arms across the bowl of my ribs and howl.
What about the living girls? Can I be haunted by them instead? By the way they write letters to themselves, spread their art supplies across the living room floor, sit on stoops and talk shit about boys. The way they play music, like putting a stethoscope to their heart, the bass loud, surround-sound, hands thumping against their chests. Girls with life running in their eyes, so tired of being broken, will break you. They will singe you while singing. I wish I had known S as the fire she was and not just as the ghost of a flame.
Under that full moon, the ocean pulled at us like we were knots asking to be unraveled. We read poems, maybe Naomi Shihab Nye—“So much of any year is flammable”—or Mary Oliver—“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is”—until the cold came like it always does, billowing and sharp. We clambered up the rocks, back to the path, and heard an owl wail with the kind of softness that can break a night open. The three of us girls. None of us would have gone there alone, but together, we trusted the vast dark, the empty beach, the narrow paths between the trees. It was almost as if we were safe.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
Join the Mailing List