Swallow Your Tongue
This is the mundane power of a name. A thing they call you, and when they say it, you turn your head. Whether you turn toward them to acknowledge or turn away, keep shuffling forward as if you didn’t hear, it doesn’t matter. A name is a tug on a leash.
This is the enduring flow of a name. The source can be the slightest spark of imagination inside a kid’s head, just one look at you and he makes some connection in that underfed brain of his, somewhere in that primordial muck of cartoons and big daddy’s drunk talk. And when it pops out of his mouth, everyone else picks it up and spreads it around because, however clever or inane it is, it’s catchy—quick and apt. Toss it around the playground, make sure everyone knows. And, years later, when everyone’s forgotten that afternoon when you first got your common name, when whatever was on your birth certificate got erased and redrawn in scrawling, elementary letters, when all aspects of that day—falling, scattered leaves, tough rubber ball, the scrape of girls’ shoes on the pavement—have faded only one thing will remain. Intangible as it is, they grip it tight like a ticket, their admission into the culture. A name is the longest unit of time.
Ghost, he called you.
And this is the intimate thrust of a name. How, really, you never thought of yourself as a ghost, how you think of E.T. in his sheet or the winding, open-mouthed shriekers from Poltergeist. How your idea differs…but you can see where they’re coming from. Your skin is visible at night, wriggling white fingers in front of your eyes when you can’t sleep. You don’t say much, and when you do the intermittent time has made your throat dry and your tongue clumsy. Ooooaaaah, the kids imitate. Ooooaaaah, may I go to the bathroom, Mrs. Kinney? And so, soon enough, you find yourself living it a little bit. You let the name direct your actions. Walk along the farthest edge of the soccer field. Your breathing starts to slow and quiet down. You let people see right through you. You start to prefer dark places. You keep the lights in your bedroom off. And, one night, fifteen and nervous, you pull out the thin J, light it, and breathe it like you think you know how. Next thing you know the stereo comes on by itself (you think) and you will it louder (it seems) and the bed reaches out and pulls you down and you sink right through it, enmeshed in the mattress, breathing fabric, head drowning in music (Obscured by Clouds), swimming in a mass, and the eyes of every girl you’ve liked show up and see right through you and it’s kind of calming (you don’t really need them, do you?).
By the time you show up at college, three states away, you’re comfortable in this existence, and it’s a dark little town with its own secrets, its own spirits, a romance of its own making that both precludes and allows reinvention, reassertion, renaming. On the first day, you take down from the door into your dorm room the little construction paper star bearing a foreign, old name. And when your roommate shows up and shakes your hand you’re already high, and you say, jaw stuck a little, “Ghost. Everybody calls me Ghost.” This is you chewing through the leash.
Walking along Royal Street, tobacco biting through the cold, scentless air, you are eighteen and invisible, wrapped up in a warm jacket and a warmer set of headphones, the Walkman pushing the decibels—your bone’s got a little ma-chine!—and at the corner you see a girl waiting for a stoplight. You think nothing of it, save the initial primal reaction to her figure, but you pause a half-step behind her, bathed in the authoritative red light. Last thing you expect, she turns around after a minute of waiting. Her mouth moves and her eyes say something, too. You pull off one side of the phones, oooaah-what?
“I like that song.”
“I love it.”
“You could hear it, huh?”
“Yeah, you have it pretty loud, there.”
“This town is spooky without some tunes.”
She smiles and knows what you mean. She tells you it’s okay to look by telling you her name.
The light turns green and then red again.
Her house is across the street. Later, you will climb these stairs a thousand times, rush up them, confidently and maybe two at a time with your long legs. But now, this first time, you’re taking them in small steps, shifting your weight to avoid creaking, and thinking the whole time, I’m about to be visible.
And it changes you, your emotions are rushing along, filling up your heart with double-spaced thoughts and responses. For the first time, no one’s looking through you and there’s no easy way out, no dropping back into the shade because she’s always searching for you, seeking out your hand, her thumb on your wrist and your pulse signaling back. Even though you’re as white as ever, your skin feels colored and alive when her belly slides against yours or her hair sweeps a blank stare off of your face. You like it so much and you like her paintings and every cassette on her shelf and you’re finding out, more and more every night, that the kid back there on the playground didn’t know shit. He had a loud mouth and no brains, because if there’s anything that you’re not, it’s dead. So you hand her the leash and you reassign time to her beat and you tell her your real name, the one you thought you’d packed away and forgotten. And she uses it, but only when no one else is around, because with you two, nothing is more important than the language you are creating for yourselves.
That language. Who has a record of it now? Where is the translating dictionary? Is it still written on your heart or are those words gone from modern memory, existing solely as indecipherable glyphs and staticky chatter now that those people have disappeared? The past and present argue with each other in differing tongues. Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen years gone, now. It seems silly now, all the code and all the confiding. But that’s what first loves do: reassign all stored power, rename all the species, refute all evidence. Because back then it seemed all right to be a ghost in that glorious afterlife of childhood, restless and in pieces.