Cataloging Ghosts

I started writing “Cataloging Ghosts” in a creative nonfiction workshop class, and it was one of the first times I explicitly pulled from my personal and family history instead of the imagined fiction writing I had been doing up to that point. This transition made me reflect on a lot of things, but mostly my friendships, family, and myself. In a particularly stressful week during the semester, I thought about writing down the myths running in my family but ended up creating a more personal piece about the ghosts in my bloodline, of past versions of myself, and the impression I’ll leave behind. I haven’t stopped thinking about them since. Thank you for reading!

My favorite family myth involves my grandfather being awoken by brawling ghosts. But before I tell it to you, you need to understand that by the age of fifteen, Carlos—my grandfather whom I never met—had been tossed from household to household in indentured servitude because his mother couldn’t guarantee dinner every night. So at the time of this haunting, he was working at a worn-down corn mill in Antigua, Guatemala, waking at around three in the morning to prepare the flour for breakfast tortillas. Either because he had no choice or saw no purpose in returning home for a few hours, he slept in a makeshift room on the second floor of the mill. He tried making it a home, adorning the walls with posters of long-dead musicians like Pedro Infante, but his decorations couldn’t hide his desire to break free from those four walls.

One night, already in bed, Carlos heard fighting in the attic above him. I imagine he heard punches whiff through the air, with boxing shoes rattling the floorboards, before their echoing impact cascaded dust from the overhead rafters. I don’t know how many lips have molded this story since the first time it was told. In the still of night, I don’t know if he could have noticed dust spilling from the ceiling. Perhaps he started sneezing or his eyes burned, or maybe the moon bloomed full and distant starlight bled into that tiny room. I just know he heard something crash through the ceiling, and he ran outside before his aching soles reminded him of the shoes he left at his bedside.

He didn’t have anywhere else to run off to, so he couldn’t have gone too far. Close enough to return by morning, sunlight weeping through the window frame. He found nothing. The ceiling was intact, and dust still littered the floorboards in the attic above, undisturbed. He never slept in the room again. Though it may have been a wild animal or some nightmare disguised as his reality, every time the story is told, those creatures who make noise are called ghosts. 

We often use ghosts as scapegoats; it’s a convenient label to toss onto the inexplicable.

Ghosting is a term used whenever a person in a relationship seems to disappear. No calls, no texts; their absence whispers goodbye. I don’t feel that we need to justify or announce every departure, but I find myself wanting to have this conversation whenever it happens to me. Every romance I’ve taken part in ends with a sudden cease of communication. I try not to be anxious about it—we’re adults and busy and need our space—but the moment someone takes longer than usual to reply, I brace myself for it. The hole their absence will create.

Most media I’ve seen depict ghosts as impressions of their living form, just transparent or with their bottom half missing; occasionally, a cartoonish entity that looks like a marshmallow or a sheet with holes for eyes. I haven’t pictured a form for myself after I’m gone, but I expect to be free from the shackles of my skin. I wouldn’t mind incomprehensible shapes or winged angels; I’d love to shine with the colors of starlight. Whichever shape I may take, I cannot wait to become a ghost. Don’t worry, dear reader; I am not looking forward to dying, I just think being an incorporeal entity unbound by shallow ideas of gender and labor sounds like a more pleasant experience than living.

While I’m writing this first draft, my best friend has been replying to my messages about once a day. Well, it’s more like she sends me a message about something happening to her before ignoring anything I send back. Through high school, college, and half a decade, we grew up and grew closer only to swiftly fall into silence. It’s nothing, really. I can step back and shake the figure standing in my place, telling them they’re overreacting, clingy, codependent. Even so, I don’t enjoy carrying this feeling. I don’t want to idly sit by, watching our futures ghost away.

My father once stepped into a museum and was confronted with a portrait of Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras—the man who led the colonial conquest of Guatemala. Because of its commonality, I wasn’t concerned when I realized we shared a last name; however, dread creeped in after he mentioned how much the portrait looked like his own father. It’s been hundreds of years, so nobody in our family believes we’re connected to him, but it’s a frightening, intrusive thought to imagine my bloodline being responsible for restless spirits lying in the Guatemalan soil.

When I was nine years old, I huddled around the tiny monitor of my cousin’s computer, watching YouTube videos “confirming” the existence of ghosts. Those were the years when the loading time was longer than the video itself, when I idolized older boys and mimicked their movements, when my cousins bullied me enough to avoid Guatemala for half a decade—but for one shining moment, the oldest cousin called me to the dining room because he had something cool to show me. I pulled a chair up beside him and watched dashcam footage of a truck driver slamming his breaks after a pale specter manifested before the windshield. Since the camera caught it, it must’ve been real.

Months after we broke up, my ex-girlfriend returned a sweater I lent her. I was still nineteen, listening to Blonde and Twin Fantasy religiously. When I returned home, I held the sweater in my arms as if hugging a ghost. Its scent was strong enough to almost convince me the relationship wasn’t all that bad, and years later, I would accidentally buy detergent that was strong enough to remind me that it was. I don’t remember missing her in those months, but if the room was ever quiet enough, I would notice, just outside my periphery, the ghosts of the people we once were.

My father tells me hauntings aren’t as common anymore because we’re so occupied by everything else, we don’t notice the paranormal around us. Sometimes he’s referring to how distracted we are by our phones, but other times he’s describing how we seem to have lost touch with a world just out of reach.

While revising this essay, my best friend calls me and we speak as if nothing happened because nothing happened. There was no weight behind her absence. I carry shame in grieving something not even lost, but anticipation can hurt more than the inevitable wound.

It’s taken over twenty years for my father to catalog his ghosts. He’s a writer in secret, and the only project he’s undertaken in my lifetime is a linear narrative of how we came to be. He’s writing about our family. He claims to always be working on the final draft, and that the only thing keeping him from finalizing it is his bank account. He loves reading, but doesn’t read. He loves writing, but rarely writes. His manuscript was going to be my graduation present in high school, but it wasn’t ready before my bachelor’s degree arrived in the mail. It’s still in its final draft. His ghosts have unfinished business.

My family tree casts a shadow I’ll never see the edges of. I cannot name anyone older than my grandparents on either side, and even then, I don’t know them as if they were people. I don’t know if I’ll ever have great grandchildren—and even if I do, I cannot know if they will ever learn my name.

After the first “final” draft of this essay, months away from being twenty-two, and in a pub in Chicago, I glance at my best friend as she speaks with her friends who I’ve only just met. We haven’t crossed the threshold into acquaintances yet, so they feel like friendly strangers. I understand the workplace gossip from repeated names, but it doesn’t stop me from being the ghost in the room. My eyesight is clear, but my presence slips from my body until I’m left Kubrick-staring at the saltshaker at the edge of the table.

My best friend asks if I’m okay and I nod because I’m not about to tell her that my dissociation is acting up again—as it always does—and this time, it makes me wonder whether I’m still asleep in Texas, dreaming of conversations that I will never be a part of. It doesn’t feel like I am in the state of Illinois, much less in a lonely pub filled with the noises of televisions talking over each other and muted conversations. She looks back to her friends.

Weeks later, I’ll find the words to explain to her how I feel, but I’ll tell you now: Dripping wet from the evening’s rainfall and hungry but not starving—I am a camera. Unobtrusive and only here to capture the moment.

Time has passed and I no longer worry about the stability of our friendship, but I dread the relationships I’ll create in the future. This isn’t the first time an absence has created an avalanche. I’ve shattered relationships with the desire of coming closer; a possession doesn’t work without a host. I’ve wanted to live in another person’s skin. To cut a hole in their chest and crawl inside. I thought this pandemic convinced me I could survive on my own, but when do I not carry somebody else on my mind?

An unkept spirit doesn’t need much to keep going. An altar in the corner of a bedroom. A place to sleep and dream. Some food. A way to pass the time. I want to love and be loved, but it’s easier to assume the worst than to trust. Sometimes, it’s easier to haunt than to live.

Writing nonfiction is a process of cataloging ghosts. Either literally in discussing those who have already passed, or figuratively in bracing for our eventual departure. I’m here, alive and writing, but unsure if I’ll still be breathing once you’re reading this. Writing is a call to a void, demanding an echo. Writing is a ghost in the doorway, hoping you’ll turn around.

I choose to believe in ghosts. Objects graced with the presence of a loved one always feel heavier; and once they’re gone, I choose to believe the weight of their actions still affects the soil. There’s something comforting in knowing the afterlife is closer to our world than we think.

I choose to imagine my grandfather knows who I am. He died before he could learn I was named after him, but maybe he’s aware of my presence in a different shape or form.

I choose to believe in myself, who haunts but tries to do better. I want to love without possession; I want to shake the table and release the tension in the water. I want to trust and find the strength to command my body in the morning. I want to sleep.

Carlos Contreras (they/them) is non-binary, Guatemalan, and working on a way to make it out of Texas. They are the lead fiction editor of Alien Magazine, and their recent publications can be found in Complete Sentence, The Lumiere Review, and Passages North. They also exist on Twitter @cafaco_.



2021 Prose Chapbook Winner
Resistance, Sue Mell (an excerpt)
A Conversation with Sue Mell and Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar, Prose Chapbook Winner and Finalist, Maria S. Picone, Managing Editor

Cataloging Ghosts, Carlos Contreras
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