Anatomy of a Ghost

Nonfiction / Brian Clifton

:: Anatomy of a Ghost ::

A young woman bolts out of her house; she appears to be chased by some­thing invis­i­ble. As she zigza­gs around the street, her focus shifts from some­thing fol­low­ing to what is in front of her. She gazes at the cam­era. Her face is both ter­ri­fied and des­per­ate. She looks simul­ta­ne­ous­ly at the view­er and her invis­i­ble chas­er because, for a moment, they are the same. She jukes and darts back into her house, and the cam­era pans to fol­low her. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, she reemerges and runs to a car. She peels out and down the block.

This is the first scene of It Fol­lows—a movie that fol­lows a young woman, Jay, and her friends as they are ter­ror­ized by an invis­i­ble mon­ster whose blood­lust seeks the newest per­son added to a long chain of sex­u­al encoun­ters. The mon­ster is slow and relent­less. It can imper­son­ate any­one, but often it takes the appear­ance of those famil­iar to its tar­get. Through­out the film, char­ac­ters sub­tly break the fourth wall—both in the pres­ence and absence of the imposter that fol­lows.

In the film’s next scene, the cam­era is perched in the back­seat as the young woman dri­ves down a high­way. She white-knuck­les the steer­ing wheel. As if by twitch, she turns to look behind her.

*


                              S-O-S 
                              she’s   in disguise. 
                              S-O-S 
                              she’s   in disguise. 
                              There’s a 
                              she-wolf 
                              in 
                              disguise.

*

One night, after crash­ing my bicy­cle, I booked an Uber to dri­ve me from West­port, the swift­ly gen­tri­fied bar dis­trict of South Kansas City, to where I lived in the His­toric North­east. My apart­ment lurked behind the inter­sec­tion of Glad­stone Boule­vard and Inde­pen­dence Avenue, which put it very east of Troost (the street that the Nichols fam­i­ly used to red­line Kansas City in order to keep African Amer­i­cans and Jews pinned between high­ways and sep­a­rate from the WASP‑y pop­u­la­tion they desired) and a smidge east of Prospect, which was often cit­ed, despite the inter­mit­tent opu­lence and pover­ty east and west of the street, as the bound­ary between those who had and those who had not.

I loaded my bike into the Uber’s van and got into the front seat. The dri­ver cruised down Paseo, inch­ing clos­er and clos­er to my neigh­bor­hood. We drove under a high­way; the dri­ver looked around as gourmet donut shops were replaced by pay­day loans, as bars dis­ap­peared and con­ve­nience stores filled their places. He looked at me. He said, This is not you.

Yes, I respond­ed. He pushed fur­ther, repeat­ing this-is-not-you like a hook. At first, I tried to explain that I did in fact live in this part of town. Unable to con­vince him, I qui­et­ed, try­ing instead to con­vince myself—a sit­u­a­tion made more dif­fi­cult by my recent accep­tance into a grad­u­ate pro­gram, a return to the insti­tu­tion that I had fled years before.

Is this me? I asked myself as I wheeled my bicy­cle into my apart­ment. Is this me? I asked my stu­dents when I lec­tured about “the the­sis.” Is this me? I asked my plan­ner, its days filled with “assign­ments.” Is this me? I asked my school email address, its seams split­ting with the uncat­e­go­rized waves of announce­ments, ques­tions, adver­tise­ments, and sur­veys.

*

“Even Bri­an has been pub­lished!” I over­heard one PhD stu­dent say to anoth­er. It was at night. We were at a bar. My first year of the pro­gram and fresh from a string of man­u­script rejec­tions, I already had a bad case of Imposter Syn­drome. Approach­ing 30, I was often embar­rassed by it—I thought I should have grown out of the feel­ing by now, but here it was like a sheep­ish child peer­ing out from behind me.

I con­tin­ue to social­ize with this man. He is a poet I admire. Our con­ver­sa­tions are slight­ly awk­ward, but no more so than any two peo­ple who have only a vague connection—a base­ball fan and a beach vol­ley­ball fan bond­ing over their love of “sport.” He is nei­ther hos­tile nor resent­ful; I nev­er hear him say any­thing sim­i­lar about me or any­one else again.

Some­times, I won­der if that was what was said at all or just what I heard. Oth­er times, I won­der if that dis­tinc­tion mat­ters.

*

Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no. I whis­per-sing on a friend’s bal­cony. These are the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a song that lands rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly in Bieber’s oeu­vre. I have nev­er heard the song: not on the inter­net, not on the radio, not at par­ties. Yet, the hook, which I’ve tak­en to whis­per-sing when I need to vocal­ize but have noth­ing to say, is some­how ingrained in my mind. My friend says that I’m singing it wrong and pulls out her phone to find a video of the song on YouTube.

Please, don’t do that, I plead. Baby, baby, baby, no, baby, baby, baby, oh. I con­tin­ue to say the words out of sync as the song’s first bars twin­kle through her iPhone. A man sticks his head out of the apart­ment and calls for her. She leaves. I stay on the bal­cony, say­ing again Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no.

I think about the moment’s uncan­ni­ness. What is more sim­i­lar to Justin Bieber, his record­ed voice, dig­i­tized and squeezed through the air, some cir­cuit­ry, the almost mol­e­c­u­lar sized iPhone speak­er, or Bri­an Clifton whis­per-singing the hook to a song Bieber had sung near­ly a decade ago when puber­ty had not yet carved away his boy­ish­ness? Which enti­ty is the imposter?

*

Between my first and sec­ond year of my PhD stud­ies, I had two jobs. I was a teach­ing assis­tant for a lit­er­a­ture class. I washed dish­es to make ends meet over the sum­mer. My sched­ule was Fri­day through Mon­day 5:00pm to 2:00am. The work was short, rep­e­ti­tious, and gru­el­ing. Often, I found it hard to grip things dur­ing my days off because my hands were so sore. My feet shriv­eled from being con­stant­ly wet. Because I lived in a col­lege town, most of my cowork­ers attend­ed the uni­ver­si­ty I attend­ed. One of the servers, Fran­cie, I knew from the lit­er­a­ture class I taught direct­ly before I washed dish­es.

When Fran­cie came back to the dish pit, we would talk about lit­er­a­ture, her immi­nent grad­u­a­tion, and the oth­er stu­dents in the class. At first, we orches­trate this show each shift we have togeth­er. Slow­ly, our words become clipped. Slow­ly, there ceas­es to be a need to express our­selves.

*

In sev­enth grade, AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger (AIM) enthralled my friends. We chat­ted online; we made away mes­sages from the lyrics of our favorite songs; we sent each oth­er the screen names of strangers. One evening an AIM win­dow popped up on my com­put­er, “hey.” “hey. whos this?”

The gener­ic screen name, bedaz­zled with punc­tu­a­tion marks, responded—it belonged to a girl (was her name Mad­die?). We chat­ted for weeks. We divulged secrets. We devel­oped some­thing akin to feel­ings. We agreed that we were dat­ing. We had nev­er met each oth­er. We were text bounc­ing through cir­cuit boards.

*

Anato­my of a Ghost was also a screamo band from the ear­ly aughts. The group nev­er achieved wide­spread suc­cess, dis­band­ing after their first album in 2004. A cou­ple mem­bers went on to start Por­tu­gal. The Man, an indie pop out­fit that now crafts com­mer­cial-ready licks. Their fourth album, The Satan­ic Satanist, is a col­lec­tion of down-tem­po soul­ful indie pop.

One day after dri­ving my car, my dad runs into our house and demands I burn him a copy of what­ev­er CD was play­ing in the dash. As I do, he raves about the band’s sound, about how it is music. I give him the Mem­o­rex disc, “Por­tu­gal. The Man – The Satan­ic Satanist,” writ­ten in Sharpie on it.

My dad nev­er speaks of this album or them again, and so, in our brains, the band returns to its pre­vi­ous oth­er-life: a dis­mem­bered specter, a dia­gram of a mem­o­ry.

*

We   hear
the   night
watchman
click   his 
flashlight, 
ask if it’s 
him      or 
them 
that’s 
insane.

*

After Jay and her para­mour have sex in an aban­doned park­ing lot, he drugs her, ties her to a wheel­chair, and brings her into a dilap­i­dat­ed build­ing. Jay ques­tions her lover, who explains the monster’s motive and the sim­ple rules by which it abides, name­ly that it fol­lows who­ev­er had sex with the most recent­ly cursed per­son. The two then see an approach­ing fig­ure. As the boy wheels Jay around, the two face direct­ly into the cam­era. Jay screams, “What do you want?”

Soon, Jay real­izes that the boy was not lying. The mon­ster enters her home, caus­ing her to flee to a park on a bicy­cle. Her friends and her neigh­bor, Greg, run after her. They tell Greg some­one had bro­ken into her house. Sob­bing in close-up, Jay says, “I need to find him.” The cam­era shows Jay and her friends fac­ing the view­er while Greg’s right tor­so fills the left side of the frame. It is as if the char­ac­ters are hud­dled, delib­er­at­ing, in a cir­cle under a street­light and the cam­era hangs in the space between being occlud­ed from the group and com­plet­ing the hud­dle. Respond­ing to Jay’s demand, Greg says, “The per­son who broke into your house.” His inflec­tion makes his words both a state­ment and a ques­tion. He removes his hand from the pock­et of his den­im jack­et and ges­tures behind him. His thumb points into the cam­era.

The group finds the boy who had cursed Jay with the mon­ster. Real­iz­ing the mon­ster is real, they dri­ve to Greg’s family’s lake house. When the mon­ster arrives, it chas­es Jay and her friends into a boat shed. It busts a cir­cu­lar hole into the shed’s door. The group looks through it as if through a viewfind­er at the beach where they had just been. The only dif­fer­ence between what the group sees and what the view­er had just seen is the absence of them­selves.

*

No Brain­er” fea­tures Justin Bieber—his voice being more impor­tant than his lyrics, which any­one can find online. Dust­ed by post-pro­duc­tion mag­ic, Bieber’s vocal track is otherworldly—simultaneously strain­ing to sound con­fi­dent and sex­u­al while remain­ing lock-step and mech­a­nized. Life­less yet relent­less, Bieber’s vocals are a mall pop­u­lat­ed by repli­cants.

The uncan­ni­ness that envelopes Bieber’s voice increas­es through­out “No Brain­er,” cul­mi­nat­ing in an intri­cate war­ren of Bieber’s hook with a slew of falset­to har­monies and trilling whoas. The tan­gled melodies ghost mul­ti­ple Bieber’s and mul­ti­ple, frag­ment­ed moments with­in Bieber’s ser­e­nade.

Lis­ten­ing to the song is to under­stand that its mes­sage doesn’t come direct­ly from one (or many) human beings but instead is a string of sounds pro­duced to imi­tate human con­nec­tion via lan­guage. “No Brain­er” is a love song sung by no one to no one.

*

I read a book of gar­ish sen­tences. I do not bring up my judg­ment in class (or I do). Even I roll my eyes at this type of per­for­mance.

*

In morn­ing traf­fic between Dal­las and Den­ton, I sit at a stand­still in the left-most lane. I am alone. The sun has come up (I know by the time I get back home it will have gone down). On the shoul­der, near the con­crete bar­ri­er between I‑35 North and I‑35 south, is a dead pit­bull. Its body is rigid but not bloat­ed. Its fur is gore-stained. I think, because it was hit on the high­way, it must have died near instan­ta­neous­ly; I do not know how these things work.

The dog corpse is next to me. We hov­er near each oth­er for what seems to be an eter­ni­ty. The dog’s pelt does not appear bro­ken, though its insides jut angu­lar­ly, sug­gest­ing the chaos that the col­li­sion must have ini­ti­at­ed with­in the pitbull’s body. As I stare at the dead body, I bring my hand to my mouth and my eyes water—my mind still sting­ing from, weeks before, believ­ing my own pet was about to die.

Traf­fic lurch­es for­ward, dis­si­pates. I speed off to drop off rent and then to teach fresh­men the neces­si­ty of a the­sis. I hear myself say, Why did you cov­er your mouth? Go through the per­for­mance of tears and then not cry?

*

Fran­cie was not the only stu­dent I worked with. As I would find out in the fall, Claris­sa would also be a stu­dent of mine. Over the sum­mer, Claris­sa watched me dance to songs about how sex on a sofa can be a type of yoga, about want­i­ng men in Timb’s, about basic bitch­es think­ing I’m a head case.

On the first day of class, I walked into class and see Claris­sa in her black, cat-eyed glass­es. She sat near the back. I told her specif­i­cal­ly hel­lo. I imme­di­ate­ly became a dish­wash­er mas­querad­ing as a pro­fes­sor. I tried to restart my per­for­mance of a “laid back” prof. I stum­bled. I got through class. After­ward, I asked Claris­sa if she is alright being in my class. She said she was. Great, I said.

*

In my ear­ly twen­ties, I saw Por­tu­gal. The Man play a small venue in Lawrence. I had dri­ven there from Kansas City with an ex-girl­friend and her new boyfriend who was a friend of mine. We smoked weed in the car. I was unsure what to say, so I drove faster, hop­ing soon the venue would be so full of music I could feel safe­ly alone. When the band struck up, I snuck into the crowd and twitched like a sad virus.

*

After work, I dri­ve an hour home. My car’s check engine light flash­es at me (indi­cat­ing mis­fires). Anoth­er light on the dash informs me my airbag sys­tem is mal­func­tion­ing. For the past four­teen miles, a small orange gas pump has shone next to my fuel gage. When I pull off the high­way, my car strains and rat­tles; things grate against each oth­er; met­al squeaks when I stop. My car is its own imposter, and a poor one at that.

*

I am that 
bitch, 
I'm-a, 
I'm-a that 
bih,   yeah 
You  know 
I'm     that 
bih,   can't 
get  off   of 
this      dih, 
yeah

*

I tilt­ed my head and bobbed it back and forth. I said with a smile, “Nice.” I let my body go slack. I repeat­ed this action, say­ing var­i­ous pos­i­tive phras­es: fuck yeah, sick, that’s rad. It was dark. Dal­las unfurled into bits of halo­gen. I con­tin­ued to imi­tate the friends I believed sup­port­ed every­one.

*

It Fol­lows ends with Jay and Paul hold­ing hands and walk­ing down a neigh­bor­hood street. The mon­ster that fol­lowed had not been defeat­ed so much as rerout­ed; scenes ear­li­er Paul dri­ves to a seedy and indus­tri­al part of Detroit to vis­it a sex work­er. It is implied the plan was to pass the crea­ture to some­one who rou­tine­ly had sex with a vast array of peo­ple.

One of the most com­pelling ambi­gu­i­ties of the film, for me, is its mes­sage. Is It Fol­lows anti-sex? There are plen­ty of indi­ca­tions that this is the case—a mon­ster that is sent to pun­ish the sex­u­al­ly active, the reduc­tion of human sex­u­al­i­ty to a trans­ac­tion for sur­vival (the sex scenes in the film play out self-seri­ous and duti­ful with more des­per­a­tion than pas­sion). Yet the sex­u­al con­tent of It Fol­lows is shown neu­tral­ly. Nei­ther Jay nor Paul are shamed for their sex­u­al­i­ty once becom­ing sex­u­al­ly active. And in one scene the two char­ac­ters rem­i­nisce about find­ing pornog­ra­phy and look­ing at it as a group on one of their lawns. Paul says, “We had no idea how bad it was.”

This sen­ti­ment, cou­pled with how often the fourth wall is bro­ken, seems to push the film’s mes­sage away from being anti-sex into being a more nuanced cri­tique of social­ized sham­ing. Maybe the film’s mon­ster then becomes not a pun­ish­ment for sex but an embod­i­ment of the inse­cu­ri­ties Jay and Paul project onto indi­vid­u­als of their repressed and repress­ing society—what would my neighbors/mother/cousins/friends think if they knew I had had sex? Or maybe it is the inse­cu­ri­ties these peo­ple have of per­form­ing sexually—did I enjoy this encounter enough or was my plea­sure a show?

*

I pulled into our dri­ve­way around 2:45am. I had fin­ished a clos­ing shift wash­ing dish­es. The radio’s rapid twitches—extreme met­al-click-Viet­namese lounge-click-bub­blegum pop-click-neo-lib­er­tar­i­an con­spir­a­cy theories-click-trap-click-advertisement—wafted like dust around my still and silent hatch­back.

I show­ered and drank a Topo Chico. I sat, my hair wrapped in a tow­el. I refreshed my email. I checked my bank account. I stum­bled into the dark bed­room; Rowen, my part­ner, was curled on her side, already asleep. We spooned in the way long­time lovers must on a full mat­tress.

My body still vibrat­ed from the quick suc­ces­sion of repet­i­tive tasks I had done for the past eight and a half hours. I won­dered if, even while sleep­ing, Rowen could know I was the one in the dark with her. Was there an essen­tial aspect to me, my touch that let her know I was there and not anoth­er? Was this the case with every­one? If so, why did my eyes watch the door ready for a ter­ror to waltz through when­ev­er Rowen left to use the bath­room, why did I imper­cep­ti­bly jump when she clutched my body in the dark?

As I thought and thought, I sat up and craned my head over so I could see around her shoul­ders, her hair. In the dark, I squint­ed at her, find­ing what made this sleep­ing face hers. Yes, the body next to me was Rowen. Yes, I am myself. I fell asleep.

*

A few days before a mid­dle school mix­er, I mes­saged Mad­die, “we should meet at the dance.”

…”

… ☺”

ok”

I wait­ed, but Mad­die didn’t show. Our par­ents arrived. Mad­die dis­ap­peared from AIM. A few weeks lat­er, a friend told me Mad­die was real­ly Justin, a boy in our class, the whole thing was a joke, and many peo­ple were aware of it.

I looked at Justin, at the oth­er kids in the class—aware of the dif­fer­ence between how they saw me and how I had seen myself in the past weeks, aware of the dif­fer­ence between how I had seen them before and how I saw them after.

*

Years after first see­ing Por­tu­gal. The Man, I rode my bicy­cle around Kansas City and came across a free con­cert series on top of hill that ris­es between I‑35 and Broad­way Boule­vard. Head­lin­ing the event was Por­tu­gal. The Man. I locked up my bike and made my way to the front of the stage. I hard­ly rec­og­nized the band—the singer, who used to posi­tion his mic side­ways so he wouldn’t have to look at the crowd, direct­ly addressed us, his hair recent­ly cut short, his lips accen­tu­at­ed with a neat mous­tache.

Por­tu­gal. The Man played songs I did not rec­og­nize. All around me were peo­ple I did not know bop­ping along in flip-flops, cut-offs, tank tops, and ungod­ly flu­o­res­cent rimmed sun­glass­es. I drift­ed back, watch­ing the space I had occu­pied in the crowd slow­ly dis­perse, like a ghost into the stained walls of a haunt­ed house.

*

A man mes­sages me on Face­book. He tells me Rick Barot sent him a per­son­al rejec­tion for a group of poems he sub­mit­ted to the New Eng­land Review. He, this man, men­tored me dur­ing my first stint in grad­u­ate school.

In a pre­vi­ous mes­sage, he asked, “Do you know an edi­tor there? Or is it just that your poem was THAT good?” A year pre­vi­ous, he told me that it was great that I was using my per­son­al con­nec­tions to get pub­lished.

I con­grat­u­late this man. I say good things are com­ing.

*

For a time dur­ing my com­mute, I repeat, Why did you cov­er your mouth? Go through the per­for­mance of tears and then not cry? It is true: there was no one else in my car and I doubt any­one in traf­fic was mon­i­tor­ing me, I felt no con­nec­tion to this ani­mal oth­er than the one all ani­mals feel, I will not be both­ered by this expe­ri­ence a year from now. As if by twitch, I look behind me. I switch lanes. I look in the mir­ror and see myself look­ing back. Maybe every­one per­forms a lit­tle for them­selves, for the micro­scop­ic feed­back loop between the synapse and the eye, the ear, the hand, the nose. Maybe this per­for­mance is nec­es­sary, but why? And for whom do we bring our hands to our mouths—the future self or the past? Are they so dis­tinct?

*

 I’m 
different. 
Yeah,   I’m 
different 
—pull    up 
to          the 
scene   with 
my   ceiling 
missing.

*

A pro­fes­sor posts a ques­tion in an online dis­cus­sion board. I answer his ques­tion with a series of ques­tions. In class he ref­er­ences Rosen­crantz and Guildenstern’s game of ques­tions. I don’t get the ref­er­ence, but I laugh and say I hadn’t thought of it that way.

*

Mov­ing up an onto­log­i­cal lev­el, It Fol­lows unspools like a dream, a pro­jec­tion of the viewer’s inse­cu­ri­ties onto the suc­ces­sion of dig­i­tal images. The sound­track aids this effect. Crys­talline and dis­tort­ed synths dis­solve into ethe­re­al amor­phous swells; it is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a prod­uct of a Vase­line-smeared 80s aes­thet­ic and dis­tinct­ly sep­a­rate from it (a ghost of the future the 80s pre­dict­ed that nev­er came). The sound­track becomes most haunt­ing­ly poignant in the film’s final scene. Its syn­thet­ic tex­tures fade into crisp ren­di­tions of birds and yard work—close yet uncan­ni­ly dis­tant from sound­ing nat­ur­al like how a voice in a dream booms with­in the dream-self’s mind rather than emanates from the mouth of its speak­er.

Jay and Paul walk, hold­ing hands. Their heads casu­al­ly rotate from each oth­er to the cam­era, to the side­walk, to the hous­es around them as does ours—another instance of the bro­ken fourth wall. Like the sound­track, they become immersed in the nat­u­ral­is­tic sounds. Jay’s sex­u­al his­to­ry is known to us, the view­er, and to Paul. Paul’s sex­u­al his­to­ry is known to Jay and to us. We exist, the three us—Jay, Paul, and viewer—aware of each oth­er, con­clu­sive­ly our­selves as we gaze as if there were noth­ing before our eyes—absences ready to be filled.

*

One night dur­ing clos­ing, I put on Dead in the Dirt’s The Blind Hole. The songs pum­mel their feed­back-laced riffs and snare-heavy blast beats into every­thing 50 sec­onds at a time. I tow­el melt­ed ice cream from the dish rack. I hose bits of bacon and grilled chick­en cling­ing to the side of the dish­wash­er. I squeegee a grey-white liq­uid from where the walls meet the floor to the drains in the cen­ter of the room. Dead in the Dirt grinds. Dead in the Dirt screams. “I was a dog on a short chain and now there’s no chain.”

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Between semes­ters of the PhD pro­gram I was a dish­wash­er at a restau­rant where two of my stu­dents also worked. I had been feel­ing like I didn’t belong in acad­e­mia and this, to me, fur­ther insin­u­at­ed that. I want­ed to show a mind wrestling with the con­stant­ly mutat­ing per­for­mance of self that is asked of a per­son in pub­lic no mat­ter where that is. Who am I in the car? Who am I at my job? Who am I at the gro­cery store? Are all these selves com­pat­i­ble?

I also thought using song lyrics from musi­cians that had gone through dra­mat­ic per­sona shifts—Shakira’s move from Span­ish-lan­guage to Eng­lish-lan­guage pop star, Bob Dylan’s chameleon-like iden­ti­ty, Qveen Herby’s move from Dis­ney star to raunch rap, 2Chainz’s move from Tity Boi to trap star—would trou­ble the idea of per­for­mance and authen­tic­i­ty. What does it mean when the peo­ple whose words infil­trate a lot of my day are play act­ing as some­one oth­er than them­selves?

 

Bri­an Clifton is a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas. His work can be found in: Pleiades, Guer­ni­ca, Cincin­nati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Jour­nal, Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal, and oth­er mag­a­zines. He is an avid record col­lec­tor and cura­tor of curiosi­ties.