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Learn to Forget

A Christmas ghost story.

She was hip, showed me everything—Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix. I remember long afternoons in her room with its tapestries, its Kali, its green clouds, and always a thin filament of smoke from an incense stick on her dresser. But more than that, I remember her record collection. Three white wooden boxes lined up under the window on the far side of the room, inside of which were nestled LPs like pages between bookends. 

We met at Ohio University. Like everyone, we pretended it was Berkeley. I took some sociology course just to fill my schedule. That was her major. Michelle’s, I mean; I might as well start calling by her by her Christian name. She won’t leave me alone either way.

Whatever we called the opposite of hip—isn’t it funny how certain things stay and not others—well, that was me. I was studying English, content sitting with books to “expand my mind”; doubly content in my firm resolution that doing so made me superior to people who needed controlled substances. That’s not to say from time I didn’t fill my guts with cheap beer and brown liquor. But for my friends and me, it was a different kind of kick. There was no spiritual meaning. It was just arguing about books and sports and women for the fun of it.

And then I met her. Then I met Michelle.

This was all long ago, of course. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that time is porous, and if I’m going to talk about the present I can’t not talk about the past, as her presence back then was as intruded upon by an even earlier past which, too, encroaches on me tonight— the night most call Christmas Eve.

The fact that I’m alone only shows how shallow my reaction was and is to Michelle and all she proclaimed. For while I turned up my nose, probably rightfully so, at the means by which she and her friends sought their ends—peace and love, that it is; indeed, I found deficient their very conception of those ends—at least they were aimed at something greater than themselves, whereas my fetish for order was insular; I wanted to see society structured like my bedroom.

My poor friend, crazy as a cockatoo. She tried to show me everything in life, and has recently come back after some much-appreciated intermission in which my father died and I almost married two women before each, in turn, got to know me too well.

Michelle, with her auburn hair split down the middle and falling over either side of her head in two half-moons. And then, after we were friends for months, how she shaped some into a bowl that covered the forehead above her amber eyes and the brown constellations on her cheeks. She loved life and spoke wildly about the universe which was in her and in me more than we were in it. Sometimes she’d disappear into herself, and not leave her room for a week, when the universe became a straitjacket in which she could not live.

I confess I forgot about her. She, wherever she is, wasn’t content to let that happen a second time. It started with the music. 

I don’t believe in digitized audio. In my living room, which doubles as my office, against the wall there’s a state-of-the-art record player and sound system. Tall black speakers. Now I haven’t listened to The Doors in ages, probably not since their last album with Jim, which I bought in silent solidarity with Michelle already in the asylum, so it’s not like the record was already on the deck.

December 3 the sky was white all day. That’s how it is in Ohio, like heavens are blocked off by an old sheet. I’d taught my last class of the day (Romantic Poetry) at five, and by the time I drove home, the world around me was dark.

I heated up a frozen lasagna and sat in my swivel chair at my desk against the adjacent living room wall. My mom would’ve been mad at me; she was fanatical about eating dinner at the kitchen table. Outside the front door—the door through which one walks to find my living room on their right—the night was cold. As ever, the cold seeped through the crack between the door and the hardwood. I always ignore it with a portable heater pointed right at my feet while at my desk I grade low-effort essays and write academic articles no one will read.

But that night, no—I first heard a click; a black switch raised from OFF to ON. Then the anticipatory soft static of a record player getting louder as the volume is turned up. This was coming from behind me. Before I had a chance to turn around, I heard the warm nostalgic rumble of needle dropped onto vinyl. The verb “sentire” in Italian means to feel or to hear depending on the context; I had the experience that night of both at once. The sound was as though it were coming out from my lungs, scraping my back with one long yellow fingernail. I didn’t turn around. I was turned around.

The base and the wheels of my chair stayed solid where they were. The seat with me in it—no time, even, to grab the armrests—whirled around a hundred eighty degrees. It stopped. I saw the room—white lamp on next to the record player; to the left, tall wide windows above an old Seventies couch; to the left more, in the corner, a modest TV turned off. I barely made out my car in the gravel driveway through the curtains. My breathing shallowed to where it stopped entirely. My evolutionary darting eyes landed for a half-second on my TV. In the black reflection of its screen I saw Michelle standing at the record player. Her hair was stringy and unkempt, her eyes wide and round as cold planets. She was barefoot and wore a long medical gown that stopped above the ankles. She was looking back at me.

I was spun around again, back at my desk, heaving heavy breaths in my lungs. I smelled the kind of incense she used to burn day and night. And then the music started: that first staccato organ riff of “Soul Kitchen” then the left-hand bass. The drums and lead lick came in. 

“Forget about me?”

It was Michelle’s screeching voice coming with the music, coming through the music. Just like in life, you couldn’t tell if she was happy or mad, crying or laughing; her energy was often agnostic.

The song kept playing and my chair started moving. The wheels shook violently under and the seatback was rocking forward and backward as though being pushed by a child. Then I started to turn around, slower this time. I couldn’t just jump out of the chair. It’d be like jumping out of a car. More than that, there was this feeling of take-over. I was back under her thumb.

I was going round and round in my chair. The music was blaring now. I thought that someone could definitely hear me outside. They’d stop and come in and save me. I then regretted living in the country. 

The world was topsy-turvy. I felt I was going to be sick from how fast things were going. It was a blur of orange. My chair was pushed forward in front of the TV. A movie started playing from which I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to. I felt absorbed into the images; more a part of them an observer. And in a sense, I was.


A green lawn under a blue sky. College kids sprawled out on blankets, some smoking, some playing guitar. There’s Michelle. She’s wearing light-blue jeans and a white blouse that comes off the shoulder. She’s sitting with her legs crossed, in a circle of her friends. I’m there, awkward, with my arms resting on my knees out in front of me.

A kid in blue button-down work shirt says, “But that’s the thing, we can’t leave society. Why? Why? What do you mean, why? Because that’s not going to change anything for those who can’t! Please, I’m begging you, alright? Enough of this poetic shit. It’s institutions we’re talking about, Michelle, we can’t all just drop out like you.”

“You have a problem with poetry?” I say. The kid looks over to Michelle as if to say, “Who’s this guy?”

“Don’t worry about Richie,” she says. “He’s an English major.”

“Oh,” the kid says. “That’s nice. Yeah. OK. Enjoy your poetry, alright?” He turns away from me. “Anyway…”

I can see it on my face: forget this. Michelle told me to come along and meet her friends. We’ve only known each other a short time. I have better things to do than listen to this clown pontificate.

I get up. “I will. Good luck changing institutions sitting here smoking dope.”

“Hey, we will, man while you’re…”

I’m gone, walking away. Michelle comes after me. From behind she grabs my right palm.

“Where ya goin?” she says with that musical lilt, up and down: GOin.

“Not my crowd.”

“Oh, come on, don’t take yourself so seriously all the time.”

I take myself even more seriously. “Forget it,” I say and keep walking. She follows.

“Well, what are we gonna do now?”

This takes me by surprise. I don’t know what to say.


“Are you hungry?”

“No, I ate before I came. You?”



“You’ve already seen my room. Why don’t you show me yours?”

The sun is in my eyes. “Shoot, Michelle, I would’ve cleaned the place, I can’t take you there.”

“Come on, I don’t mind.”

“Listen, you don’t know how guys live.”

“Show me! I wanna see your room.”

A girl doesn’t have to twist your arm.

We walk off campus, past downtown, to where my place is, up the steps into my apartment. I try to make a loud of noise on the way up and opening the door so that if my roommate is walking around with no pants or shirt on, he will make himself scarce. There is no sign of him; only leaning towers of dishes in the sink, bowls on the table, dust on the white tiles. She is looking around like she was walking through a museum.

“My room’s down the hall,” I say. I make her wait outside for a second and throw all the underwear and socks and shirts that were on the floor into the hamper, then I open the door.

She giggles. “It’s so…”


“I don’t know…austere? Ooh, let’s see what records you got.”

She flips through my meager collection. “Are you serious? Frank Sinatra?”

“What?” I shrug.

“I’ll sort you out. We need some Beaatless, some St”—

“I have The Beatles.”

She looks at me. “You have ‘With The Beatles.’”


“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Oh, wow, but look at all these books!”

She starts taking ones off the shelf, briefly examining it, then taking out another. It’s making me insane.

I start to say, “Hey,” to be finished with, “stop touching all my stuff!” but right as I go to, she turns around to me standing there and asks, “Which one’s your favorite?”

I begin stuttering. She mock-stutters back to me and says, “Come on, you just made such a big scene walking out like a macho man now you can’t tell me anything about ‘em?”

She goes and sits on my bed.

“It’s a hard question.”

“Oh, because you’ve just read so many, right?”

“No, it’s not that, it’s”—

“I’m just teasing. Well, you like poetry you said. Who’s a good poet?”

“This guy.” I walk over and pick the collection on the floor next to my bed. I hand it to her.

She reads the cover: “William Blake.” She looks up at me. 


With a loud pop and a flash, the TV shut off, the record scratched and the music stopped, and I was alone with just my shaking hands once more.

There was nothing to do. I didn’t want the lasagna. I couldn’t grade. I walked upstairs, undressed, and went to sleep. In the morning, I brushed my teeth. I didn’t like looking at myself in the mirror. 

It was scary to go back through the area of the house where everything happened the night before. I thought maybe it was a psychotic break, I was overworked or something. When I opened the front door, and saw on my welcome mat a single rose, I knew I was haunted.

Not interminably. She left me alone for a little while. Sometimes, while walking I’d feel in my nose the faint tickle of incense or grass, but that’s not exactly rare on a college campus today. We set the precedent and no generation since has defected from it.

The next Friday I had a French film I was waiting all week to watch. There’s this streaming service I pay a pretty penny for that has a lot of good arthouse and foreign selections. I had changed from dress pants and dress shirt into sweatpants and sweatshirt, I had my bowl of my popcorn next to me on the couch.

It was the critical moment (insofar as there is one in these movies, nay, films, where nothing happens): the girl with the bob stared existentially and Marxistly off into the distance as a single tear left a mascara streak down her cheek. And then from my TV speakers came a bassline which I recognized. I was seized by a fear the likes of which I had never before felt. It came on as soon as I realized what was happening.

The bass was followed by a tantalizing, suspended guitar riff as the black-and-white scene on the TV faded. A smooth, confident voice sang, “My eyes have seen you.” The whole house started to shake and rumble. I was shot right back into the screen.


Something between a bar and a club. Low lights and loud music. We are on the dancefloor, each with a brown bottle of beer. I am bobbing back and forth, sipping for something to do. She is swaying, turning, twirling, singing along, pushing and shaking her hair out of her flushed face. She grabs my hand sometimes to get me to play along and I try my best.

After our hands let go, she spins around. I see it now: a man in a jean vest grabs her flesh where only one other person should besides her and her doctor. She recoils, goes to turn back around. The man grabs her wrist like one grabs their child who’s going to run into the street. She screams and pulls away. Her eyes are wide as she turns and looks at me.

“Get him!” she says.


“That guy just grabbed me!”

I don’t know what to say or do. I hesitate a second too long. She runs away, pushing through a crowd of bodies. I go to follow, calling her name, but the sea does not split for me as it does for her. I run into faces that look distorted in the light, sweat coming off them like they’re fresh out of the shower. I run into clouds of perfume and bad breath.

She is outside, crying on a bench in the lamplight. I think that drunk girls are the worst. There’s nothing to cry about. I sit next to her and ask her what’s wrong. She cries harder.

“Let’s go home,” I say. She nods and stands up and her sobs slow. She’s wiping her eyes as we begin walking down the sidewalk towards her place. We don’t say much, just catch excerpts of songs and conversations of people having fun.

Then she starts talking, unprovoked. She’s talking not to me but I just happen to be in the audience. And I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything except “Oh my God” until she’s done and even then I still don’t have anything to say.

She has one uncle on her mom’s side. He has long brown hair and thinks he’s so groovy. She tells me what happened with him and I never doubt evil, the complete lack of goodness, a day for the rest of my life.

We get to her door. A different organ now plays; something lifted from Bach about a shade of pale. She has since stopped crying but she’s still sniffling. She asks me if I can stay. 

The camera shot is above us. It’s zooming out, moving away as we get smaller. She’s lying on her side on her bed and I’m on my back. She’s sleeping. I’m awake. We haven’t touched. I don’t know if I’m feeling love or pity. It’s strong. I should say I don’t know what kind of love I’m feeling. I just want everything for her to be perfect. The shot moves up through the ceiling as we disappear, and then up, up, into the cloudy night as the houses and bars shrink to dots on a black canvas.


The TV shut off with the same pop. I came to and found my eyes were; not a bad movie. 

Michelle and I never once talked about what she told me that night. I knew she was embarrassed about the whole scene, every part of it, and so I never brought it up. Sometimes there’s nothing to say; it’s just that you listen. Now I knew she was trying to speak to me, not just scare me but communicate something. That often requires some scaring to break through the initial skepticism. I just didn’t know what it was she wanted to say. And that’s not to underplay how much she was scaring me. I started walking around the house cautiously, like a dog kicked one too many times, afraid that inside the fridge I’d find her head on a silver platter or that she’d hiss her pain and anger at me from the faucet every time I turned on the shower.

My world, in which I was complacent but not necessarily happy, became smaller and larger; smaller in that I felt safe and comfortable only in a few places (anywhere in the English department where I was surrounded by students and faculty); larger in that other realities were now interloping and beating down on the one I thought I knew so well. Naturally, I avoided my TV and my home-office.

Michelle was not to be outsmarted by anything so obvious. She saw swirling geometry where most saw carpet. She grew less predictable, showing up anywhere. I’d see her standing in the road in front me while I drove or sitting in a seat in the back of my class. My office began to reek of incense to where I could barely breathe. I attacked it with Febreeze and open windows, neither of which seemed to have an effect. She always looked the same; in the robe, barefoot, and her hair all frizzy.

That must’ve been how she was when she went out. No, that’s not how to say it. When she passed. When she died. There.

Nothing is ever caused by just one thing. For Michelle, I think it was a lot of things. Genetics, to be sure, the true inherited original sin that often can’t be expunged. The trauma of her childhood. This was the boiling potion inside of her when she went away to college. 1967 was the final ingredient that makes the whole thing go boom. 

I think she was so open to life and experience and she moved in circles that sat around in circles and no one really thought anything of it back then. It was hip. She was cool. There was feeling that even I felt that the future was now; as the governments moved into space, their citizens were exploring the corridors of consciousness and the universe in their door rooms. Michelle’s frontier was inside her head. She just got lost in it.

The first time she told me about her drug experiences, we were in a coffee shop. This was before I knew about her uncle, before I knew much about her at all, really, except the fact that I liked her but wasn’t sure about her; as my friend said of her, “She’s kinda…witchy.”

I remember her veiny hands wrapped around a wide black mug as she leaned across the table to describe it to me. 

“I saw things,” she said.

“Ok,” I said. “I’m seeing things right now. I see a cup and a door”—

“No, no, like things that aren’t there, but they are.”

I must have given her a quizzical, skeptical look. 

“Things that are here.” She pointed to her temple. “Became here.” She pointed around the room. “And patterns. The walls were like a rhythmic pattern.”

“It sounds like you’ve had too much coffee.” I pulled her mug closer to me. She pulled it back.

“I’m serious!”

Unlike so many hippies and burn-outs to come, she never called me a square (except for one time) or tried to make me feel bad that I couldn’t dig what she was on about. If anything she was second-hand sad for me that I couldn’t go where she had been. 

It just went too far. She was stuck in a loop one night where she kept seeing her uncle. She told me it was horrible. She decided to kick the drug scene. But that’s hard to do when it’s one of the few around and by then, the damage was already done. This is no scared-straight horror story. I’m just telling what happened.

Her condition, whatever it was, worsened. She wasn’t leaving her place and was saying scary things. Her friend, Anna, caught me on campus. She asked me if I’d go to their apartment to try and talk to Michelle. Michelle wasn’t talking to anyone. I had all but given up on her after I’d called and called and heard nothing back. I’d assumed our time together was one of those brief interludes between acts of boredom with which people like her direct their lives.

And this was after that night walking back from the club, after the coffee-shop, after she told me about the bad trip, everything. I just thought that I thought wrong—we weren’t as close as I imagined; as I hoped. 

I told Anna I’d go over that night, I had some stuff to do, and then I did. I knocked. Anna answered. The place reeked of pot. I thought about saying maybe they shouldn’t be smoking all much all the time.

Anna shrugged at me. “Maybe she will answer for you.”

“Michelle,” I said after two knocks. “It’s me.”

Nothing but the intentional silence of forced frozenness.

“Hey,” I said and knocked twice again. “Come on, I miss you.”

Again, nothing. “I’ll break down this damn door if you don’t answer it, now come on.”

“Go away.” 

I walked over to Anna. “Haven’t you tried to pick the lock?”

“We don’t want to make her mad.”

That was smart. When someone’s in a corner, you don’t force them inside the walls. I was stupid. I walked back to the door and pounded and said, “Michelle, if you don’t let me in right now you’ll never see me again, understand? Never. It’ll be like we never met. Now, answer.”

She didn’t so I said, “Alright, thanks for letting me know now who you really are before I started to care about you.”

A week later Anna asked me for a ride. Michelle agreed to be checked into a mental hospital, but neither of them had a car. This was right outside the student center, on a grey October afternoon. I remember scanning between Anna’s dark hair and dark eyes for a few seconds to think about my answer—that rapid internal dialectic.

“She needs a ride, huh?”

Anna nodded. “Yeah. This is just so scary and unexpected but I’m glad that she”—

“Well then why didn’t she ask me herself?”

Anna was visibly taken aback.

“Tell her to have a nice stay,” I said and walked off.

I never saw her again. Until a few weeks ago in the reflection of my TV screen.

Not long after that last day talking to Anna, I ran into the kid whom I met sitting in a circle on the grass, the New Left change-the-institutions kid. We were in line at a bar. He realized it was me. He was definitely drunk.

“Did you hear about Michelle?” he asked after a brief salutation in which he called me “poetry boy.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“She’s in the loony bin! If you ask me, between us, she was always kind of crazy.”

“I didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“Didn’t ask.” We stared at each other. 

“Oh, you loved her!” He started laughing. “Hey, we’ve all been there.”

I wished I had it in me to give him a bloody nose. Now I see, even if I would have, it wouldn’t have accomplished anything but showing how much I loved myself and how little I loved Michelle. For I never visited, never wrote. I was engrossed in literature and my Young Sophists national conferences, one of which was scheduled during the same weekend as her wake and funeral. I don’t have to write which I chose to attend.

So this, then, is my Christmas revelation: that I haven’t been haunted by Michelle for one Advent but for half a decade. She hasn’t been revealing spooks and things that go bump in the night—nothing out there—she’s been manifesting out there what’s in here.

We all only have so many chances to love in this life. She was my great opportunity and I missed her. I’m an old man, now, and I see this and I know she won’t haunt me anymore. Don’t ask me how I know; some things are ineffable. She’s still with me—the veil between us and them is paper-thin at best—but she won’t be coming in the stereotypically Halloween way. For there are two things that need doing and I’m doing them both tonight.

First, memorial. I forgot her and she made me remember. Now I’ll have to remember her again so I can forget her again, as Beckett would say. 

The last time I saw Michelle it was one of those long, lazy afternoons when we relied on the sunlight through the windows to let us see. She was sitting on her bed and I was sitting on her floor. I was working on something, let’s call it my French conjugations.

“I read your Blake,” she said, unprompted. I looked up.

“Oh yeah?”

She nodded. “Yeah.”

“And what’d you think?”

She readjusted her position on the bed and breathed in and out heavily.

“I don’t know. A lot of it I just didn’t get. Some of it’s beautiful. Some of it’s scary.”

I was looking at her but she wasn’t looking at me. “Mhm,” I said.

“There was this one, let me find it.” She leaned over and pulled out a thin, tattered book. She opened it and flipped around for the page.

“Ah, here,” she said, and began reading “The Sick Rose” in a perfect, cool, expressive voice. When she finished, her eyes were just a little wetter than they would’ve otherwise been. We didn’t say anything.

“Yeah, I like that one,” she said, breaking the silence. “I like that one…What are you working on?”

That was her. 

What am I supposed to do, now? Now, out of all days? Like the old blues song, I can’t quit her so I gotta put her down for a little.

Michelle in a sickly gown with her bloody arms—no, Michelle in a sun dress sitting on the grass, with her music, with her laughter: this is how I’ll leave her.

May the sick rose at last be made well; and me too for I’m the worse off, as she’s gone now into eternity, past all earthly action and only in need of that final push—I, also, will need it soon and will have no one to ask for it for me. For this I write: remembering bubbly, supernatural Michelle. And let my ghostly song be a supplication.