My eyes followed the languid procession of the sea bass through their glowing blue tank. Their mouths opened and closed intermittently, but their eyes remained wide open in a look of perpetual fear – as if continually amazed by the prospect of their neon-lit prison. I looked upon them with envy. When had I fallen below the level of a fish? Trapped in the glass display case of a Chinese buffet, they had nothing better to do but swim around and gaze at their gaudy surroundings. I, on the other hand, had the entire world to myself. But each of them had hundreds of companions to share their insignificant lives with, whereas I had none. I envied them. Sighing heavily, I turned away. As I took one last glance at the aquarium, someone walked through me.
As usual, I felt nothing. I only realized what had happened when the young woman stopped in front of me, shuddered and exclaimed, “It’s so cold in front of the fish tank.”
Her companion, another woman with a pink pixie cut, tugged at her sleeve and answered, “It’s probably beneath the air conditioning. Come on, I need dim sum.” The first woman lingered there, then proceeded to follow her friend into the restaurant.
I stood there listlessly. As a ghost, I was intangible, invisible. People passed through me from time to time, but I usually avoided such encounters by dwelling in remote places such as cemeteries, abandoned lake houses, or the forest. Sometimes, when I longed for a particularly empty setting, I visited a nearby K-Mart. But once in a while I would feel the urge to witness life again – to pretend to be what I once was and walk through cities like a physical human being… not some aimless spirit doomed to walk the earth.
Sometimes ghosts get bored, too.
I stroked the glass of the fish tank in farewell and shuffled into the bustling dining area. Across the room, I saw the two women sitting in a booth. In front of them was a cart full of steamed buns and dumplings. The pink-haired one seemed particularly animated, pointing to dishes faster than the poor waitress could keep up with. I glided over to them and seated myself next to the woman who had walked through me. Her hair appeared more natural than the other’s – dark brown, pulled into a ponytail – and she wore a painfully bright, orange jumper. She also wore glasses that were slightly too large on her, frequently pushing them back up the bridge of her nose only to have them droop down again a moment later.
The two women devoured their orders with a relish that awoke in me a sensation I thought I had forgotten: hunger. Desperately, I reached towards the soup dumplings. As expected, my hand fell through the bamboo steamer as if it were made of mist. What had I eaten last, before I died? I think it was a cup of microwave ramen. If I had known, I would have feasted. Dined at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Ordered everything I never tasted before. What a waste of a last meal.
As I dreamt of fine-bred cows and wallowed in self-pity, the friends chattered away. Their conversation only piqued my interest when the pink-haired one gasped as if she had remembered something of the utmost importance: “Lily, did you see the new episode of Out of Sight yet?”
“No,” the bespectacled woman admitted after a slight hesitation. “What happens?”
“I won’t spoil it for you,” the other coyly responded. She popped a shrimp dumpling into her mouth and relished the expression of mixed excitement and frustration on her friend’s face.
Lily frowned. She irritably snapped her chopsticks together. “Fine, I’ll just watch it when I get home.”
The pink-haired woman swallowed her food and said, “Well, I will tell you this – Jessie finds out that Alvan is a ghost.”
A ghost? A snicker escaped from the back of my throat. Imagine, the life of a ghost portrayed on TV! If accurate, people would have paid just to take such a boring program off the air. My derision, however, was soon replaced by curiosity. What would it be like to watch a human rendition of my miserable, posthumous life? Given the two girls' enthusiasm, it must have been somewhat interesting. Perhaps, I decided, I will join Lily in her viewing plans later.
Lily’s jaw dropped, causing her glasses to slide to a precarious angle at the edge of her nose. She blubbered, “Angela, you just… that’s… you spoiled it…” But I could tell she was excited to have received this revelation. Soon, she composed herself and demanded, “Quick, let’s finish eating. I need to see this episode now.”
With quiet determination, she consumed the remaining food on her plate and waved over a waitress to pay the bill. Angela grinned and sat back in her chair. She appeared to be very satisfied with herself.
I followed Lily after she left the restaurant. She rode the bus home – a crowded, jolting experience during which I sat in the back with an old man who reeked of cigars. He examined the rest of the passengers with a sort of sullen interest, concentrating entirely on the scene in front of him. When I was alive, I would have been unsettled if I caught someone with such a groggy, disheveled appearance staring at me; now, I felt a strange affinity to the old man. After all, I was much creepier: an invisible spirit who could latch onto and haunt any unsuspecting person upon a mere whim. For the next fifteen minutes, the man and I watched the flurry of life before us together.
Lily deboarded the bus after five stops. I followed her off. With a wheezing puff, the bus left us in front of a shabby brick apartment complex. Lily entered the building and proceeded to the third flight, where her tiny residence lay tucked away at the end of a long hall. When we entered, I saw that it consisted only of a bedroom and bathroom, both of which appeared small but well-kept. The space was so cramped that I swore my coffin - wherever it was - could have offered more leg room.
Lily hung up her bag and keys on a little hook behind the door. She kicked off her shoes and then threw herself face-first onto the bed. A laptop appeared from under the sheets, which she immediately powered on. Her fingers furiously typed into the keyboard. Within one minute, a dark, brooding theme played filled her apartment and the words Out of Sight materialized onto the screen, only to fade away within seconds. Poetic cinema, I thought sardonically to myself. Then the episode began.
You know that feeling you get when you are in the middle of a K-Mart and realize that, not only are you the only person in the entire store, but also the only dead spirit wandering this earth? At that point, all the absurdity of your existence comes crashing down upon you like a wave. The questions you used to keep pushed back charge to the forefront of your mind, demanding to be addressed. But no one can answer them. No one can tell you the reason you ended up here – why the higher orders of this universe consigned you to this fate. Why is it only you who must bear this permanent role, the world’s unobserved observer?
From that moment forward, a crushing, unshakable loneliness sits on your chest. You are forced to shoulder it as time crawls forward. Meanwhile, the living scurry around you in an infuriating frenzy, and you know they will never, ever be able to acknowledge your existence. You vacillate between bitter anger and excruciating despair. You wonder what terrible sin you committed in your lifetime to deserve such a cruel punishment. You wonder if this state of perdition will ever end. You wonder if this is all a mistake, or worse, a dream.
You wonder, because thoughts are all you have left.
In that cramped, two-room apartment, this feeling of existential dread, which up to then had consumed my ghostly being with a seemingly hopeless indelibility, vanished from my mind as I peered over Lily’s shoulder. Who knew a fictional, 2D world could ever feel so real? I laughed at Jessie and Alvan’s humorous banter. I grieved for Alvan’s parents, who only wanted to find their son, unaware that he had already died. I smiled when Alvan used his ghostly powers to haunt Jessie’s mean boss. I felt an indescribable warmth when the show revealed Jessie was the only human who had the ability to see Alvan. (They were made for each other, I thought.) I lamented when Jessie, upon discovering Alvan’s secret, became frightened and ran away. My heart leapt when, at the end of the episode, they reunited on a bridge with the sunset behind them, hugged, and kissed each other. Tears were shed on both sides of the screen. The dead and the living rejoiced together.
Sometimes, a brief escape is all we need to feel alive again.