were rushing in and out of stores and on and off of buses, mittened
hands clasped tightly together. The occasional lone man hurried
past, dressed in a business suit with matching scarf and gloves,
shopping bags under one arm, not looking to either side, just
anxious to get home to his wife and kids. Scattered here and there
were groups of women pulling brightly colored sweaters and shiny
gold and silver watches from bags and boxes, comparing the riches
they would soon bestow on their husbands, boyfriends, lovers.
was one woman walking slowly down the sidewalk all alone, arms laden
with the fruits of a long day of shopping. She was not a thin
woman; she was quite heavy, in fact, full and round, softly curved
and womanly, but she floated along the sidewalk as if she weighed
nothing at all. She moved confidently through the crowds with a
smile on her face, nodding or waving at any whose eyes she caught
along the way.
smile wasn’t quite reflected in her eyes. And if anyone had really
looked at her, had stopped to talk and looked into her eyes instead
of flitting past with a quick hello, that person would have seen
tears there, unhappiness, loneliness. And that person would also
have seen her taking her cell phone from her pocket every three or
four minutes and studying it carefully, then replacing it with a
sigh. Carole was happy that no one took the time to really look.
It let her hold on to the illusion a little while longer.
was supposed to be ringing, had been supposed to ring two hours ago,
when Michael was finished with work for the day. No such luck.
Apparently Carole had been stood up and their first in-person
meeting was not to be.
across the busy Chicago sidewalk and ducked into a clothing shop
decorated with sparkling white lights, red velvet bows, and faintly
scented pine cones. She went through the doorway just to avoid all
the people outside who were holding hands and walking arm in arm and
obviously succeeding where she had failed, but as she did she
narrowly missed a couple who had stopped to share a lingering kiss
under the mistletoe that hung above the door. Tears rushed into her
eyes and she swatted them away with one green mitten.
she’d gotten to come into the city for the day, finish most of her
Christmas shopping. She supposed there was always an upside, even
to the bleakest of situations. Carole took her phone from her
pocket once more. Over two hours since he had gotten out of work.
Even if he had run home after, or stopped to do some shopping, he
should have called by now. Her shoulders slumped as she stopped in
front of a jewelry display near the cash register and pretended to
study the gleaming gold and silver necklaces and rings inside.
attention was really drawn, however, to a man and a woman who were
standing shoulder to shoulder in front of a rack of soft pastel
sweaters. The woman gently rubbed her fingers over one of the
sweaters then took the sleeve in her hand, looked down at the price
tag, sighed, turned away. The man, who had been silently watching
her, put one arm around her shoulders and bent his head to softly
nuzzle her cheek. She smiled and tilted her head to kiss him. When
she did, the man reached his free arm out and removed a sweater from
the rack, holding it close to his side out of her sight. And when
they made their way to the cash register, he swiftly took the items
the woman was holding and deposited them on the counter with the
sweater at the bottom of the pile. He directed the woman’s
attention to the opposite side of the jewelry display Carole was
watching them through as he handed the cashier a credit card and
motioned for her to put the sweater quickly into a bag.
backed away from the woman’s face, maybe two feet away from her
through the glass case. The only thing worse than being all alone
and enviously watching a couple in love was to be caught doing so,
and to be pitied. She approached the rack of sweaters cautiously.
She wanted to feel their softness for herself, but she could almost
hear the cashier’s thoughts: What are you doing here? Can’t you
see we don’t have anything here in your size? Those sweaters won’t
hurried away from the sweaters and quickly left the store. She
stood waiting at the bus stop on the corner, wondering why happy
things like people in love seemed so much happier at Christmastime,
and why loneliness seemed so much lonelier.
It began to
snow large, sparkling flakes as she got on the bus. It was dark
now, and the city buildings, all lit up with Christmas lights and
glowing through the snow, were so beautiful that it almost hurt to
look at them. And when she got off the bus at the train station,
Carole stopped outside for a few minutes to feel the snowflakes
tickling her skin as they landed on her face. The snow seemed to
hush all the sounds of the city. The peaceful moment of magical
silence gave Carole one last flash of hope and she looked at her
cell phone one more time to be sure she hadn’t missed Michael’s
call. She even flipped open the phone to check her missed calls
list, just to be sure. He hadn’t called, though, so she forced
herself to accept that he wasn’t going to and went inside to wait
for her train. A glance at her schedule told her that the next
train wasn’t coming in for a little over an hour, so she settled
onto a bench in the corner.
notice that she had nodded off until she woke with a start. Her
immediate reaction was to check the time and make sure she hadn’t
missed her train, but before she could find a clock, she noticed a
man sitting on the bench next to her. The most beautiful man in the
world, with pale skin and dark curls and almost translucent blue
eyes. He was well-dressed and appeared perfect in every single way;
it almost took her breath away to look at him. She couldn’t stop
looking at him, though. Which probably explained why he decided to
speak to her. It didn’t explain, however, the words that he said.
“Uh—hey—hi,” Carole stammered, sure that she must still be sleeping,
dreaming. Beautiful? Why would this perfect angel of a man think
she was beautiful? Who was he? She struggled to shrug off the
cloudiness of sleep in the hopes that it was the source of her
confusion, that everything would make sense in a few minutes when
she was more awake. She looked around the train station—the train!
What time was it? She spun her head around wildly, looking for a
worry about the train. You’ll be fine. You need to spend some time
with me. I have some things to share with you.”
train—who are you?”
is rather difficult to explain. Can I be completely honest with
Sure.” Carole touched her leg and wiggled her toes, trying to
determine if she actually was awake yet.
good. I’m a ghost.”
The Ghost of Relationships Past, to be more exact.”
Right. What is this, ‘A Christmas Carol’ or something?”
yes. Very similar. I’m glad you’re familiar with the story. It
will help you understand this all a little better.”
Yeah. So say I did decide to believe you instead of screaming for
help. What are you going to do, drag me around to look at all my
past relationships and show me how stupid I was?”
Although I would never use the word stupid, and I think the things I
point out to you will not be the things you would expect me to.” He
rose and walked a few steps, then turned to see if Carole was
following. She shrugged her shoulders, gathered her shopping bags,
leave those here. Your body is still here sleeping. No one can see
the part of you that is coming with me.”
Carole hesitated, uncertain. She figured either that either she was
dreaming, this guy who claimed to be the Ghost of Relationships Past
was nuts, or she, herself, was nuts. Something, some voice or
feeling inside of her, though, made her want to trust him. She left
her bags under the bench, where her body did indeed appear to be
sleeping. Seeing herself from the outside that way made a chill run
up and down her spine, but something made her turn and follow him
left the building, the air flew out of Carole’s lungs all at once.
They weren’t standing on Canal Street, where she thought they’d be,
at all. Not even close. Instead, they were on a quiet street in
the town she had grown up in. She hadn’t see the street in years,
but she recognized it immediately.
do that?” she asked. “How did we get from there to here, just by
walking out the door?”
“I told you
I was a ghost. It comes with the territory. Especially if you’re a
down the street side by side. It was dark out, and Carole could
hear children’s voices in the distance. They turned a corner and
came upon a group of children. There were five of them: a thin
blonde girl who Carole recognized as her best friend Monica from the
seventh grade, Monica’s little sister and one of her friends, a
tall, broad-shouldered, blonde-haired boy who looked a little older
than the rest, and Carole herself, chubby and smiling broadly.
children ran laughing down the sidewalk until they turned onto the
sidewalk in front of an old gray house that appeared to be falling
apart in various places. As soon as she saw it, Carole remembered
who the blonde-haired boy was. Her middle school boyfriend, her
first one ever. James.
watched, the children ran around the back of the house, unaware that
anyone was following them. Because we’re invisible, Carole
reminded herself. She and the ghost rounded the house just in time
to see Monica and the two younger girls sliding a board across the
door of the shed. She and James were nowhere to be seen.
where we are. We’re in the shed. They locked us inside as a joke,
because they knew he liked me.”
you like him?”
course I did. I ended up dating him—okay, no. I really didn’t. I
was just so excited that a boy liked me that I said yes when he
asked me. But he wet the bed at night and came to school without
showering, and he wasn’t all that bright, wasn’t interested in the
same things as me… I didn’t really like him that much at all. In
fact, when he broke up with me, I laughed at him. Didn’t mean to,
just couldn’t help it.”
doesn’t seem like a very good relationship.”
were in the seventh grade. I don’t suppose any are then.”
about it. Now let’s move on.”
out of the yard through the alley and when they turned onto the
street, their location had once again changed.
now in another neighborhood that Carole recognized easily. It was
the neighborhood that her close friend Stacie had lived in until
just a few years ago. Carole herself had lived just down the
street, but it was her friend’s house they were approaching. There
was snow on the ground in which they left no footprints, and there
were white lights and red paper hearts in the windows of the house.
Valentine’s Day, thought Carole. The flickering blue light
of the television played over them as they approached the window.
house, Stacie and her husband were on the couch and their young
children on the floor. Across the room, Carole was on the love
seat. There was a man sitting next to her, arm draped over the back
of her shoulders and head resting practically on her chest. That
was when she had, briefly, been dating a man named Colin, who was
from Maine. They had met online and he had come to visit her for a
week. Carole cringed at what she was sure she was going to see.
And she saw just what
she had expected. Carole—not ghost-Carole, outside the house, but
real Carole, from three or four years ago, inside the
house—was staring intently at the television, which prevented her
from seeing exactly what Colin. First, as he alternately watched TV
and stared at Carole’s chest, he absent-mindedly lifted his hand and
rubbed his nose. And then he actually slipped his finger into his
nose. And then into his mouth. Ghost-Carole shuddered as she saw
Stacie and her husband stare at him in horror while she, herself,
remained obliviously glued to the movie that was on.
“Ugh, I can’t believe I
dated him. What’s wrong with me?” Carole mumbled, almost to
“Well, you broke up
with him after that, though, right? After you realized he wasn’t
right for you?”
“I broke up with him.”
Carole paused. “Okay, but not right away. I just couldn’t bring
myself to do it. I didn’t want to hurt him. And I didn’t want to
be alone, either.”
“Why did you date him
in the first place? You had to have some idea that he wasn’t the
one for you.”
“Why? I don’t
know—because he asked me to.”
“What do you mean, you
see? It wasn’t my fault. There just wasn’t anyone else there, and
he was. I’m not the type of person who can just go around turning
guys down. I don’t get that many chances and I can’t risk bad
“Let’s go look at one
more thing. Then I’ll leave you alone.”
He stepped away from
the window and, once again, Carole followed. This time, when they
magically changed locations—Carole still couldn’t quite comprehend
how that was even possible—they were inside of a building. The
hallway they stood in was flanked on either side by matching rows of
identical doors. It was an apartment complex. And again, she knew
exactly where she was. It was her ex-boyfriend Craig’s building,
and a few seconds later, they were standing in his kitchen. Craig
and Carole were sitting on the couch watching television. Carole
recognized what they were watching as a sitcom by the laugh track
coming from the television speakers.
The two of them were
laughing, but Carole looked distracted. Again, she knew what was
coming, and again she cringed.
“Craig? Babe?” she was
“Yeah?” he asked.
“I think we need to
talk about something.”
“No, I mean, really
talk. You need to listen.”
“I’m watchin’ TV.
“No, I won’t!”
Carole was surprised at
the strength of her voice. She didn’t remember that she had ever
been that forceful; she only remembered doing whatever she felt like
he wanted her to, up until she had been so desperate that she
couldn’t anymore. She definitely remembered the desperation. That
desperation must be what had created her sudden assertiveness.
“I think that—that
maybe we aren’t right for each other. I think you want someone who
is different from me, and you should be able to have that.”
“What the hell are you
“You know what I mean.
You’re always talking about all the other girls that want to be with
you, and how hot they are. What are you doing with me? You don’t
“That’s just ‘cause
you’re so fat. I like your hugs, though.”
Carole watched herself
struggle to hold back tears.
“O-okay. But you
should be with someone you like every part of. And I should be with
someone who likes me the way I am.”
Her voice dropped so
low at the last sentence that Craig didn’t hear it. She cleared her
throat and squared her shoulders before she spoke again.
“If that’s the way you
feel, I think we should break up.”
“No. I don’t want to.”
“We need to.”
“Can we try again?”
“Try again? We haven’t
even finished breaking up yet! I don’t understand why you care.
You never act like you care about me at all.”
“But no one else wants
“You only like me
because you can’t do any better than me? Craig, I can’t even
believe you just said that.”
“Well, yeah, I like
skinnier girls. Like the one in that poster.” He pointed to a
poster of a swimsuit model on his living room wall. “But that’s
okay. You might lose weight. You work out sometimes.”
Now ghost-Carole felt
her eyes tearing up, just as real-Carole’s were. She remembered how
much she had hurt at that moment, how she had felt like something
inside of her was going to explode with anger and pain and sadness
and fear. She watched herself stand up.
“I’m leaving. We’re
done. Like or don’t like me, but make up your mind how you feel and
feel it all the way.” She put on her coat and walked out the door.
Ghost-Carole was sure that they would follow, but they stayed where
they were. Craig got up from his place on the couch. Carole hoped
that he would have tears in his eyes or go punch a wall or
something, anything to show that he had been anywhere near as upset
as she had been. All he did, though, was pour himself a glass of
milk from the refrigerator, stop at his computer to send an instant
message, and re-settle himself in front of the TV, remote control in
hand. He didn’t look upset in the least.
“Damn him! When I left
there that night, I was so depressed all I wanted to do was die!
And all he did was keep watching the stupid television. I kept
wondering if the things he said, about liking my hugs and not being
able to get anyone better, were his way of saying he really cared.
When I talked to him a couple days later, he wanted to get back
together and made it sound like he was all broken-hearted, and I
felt so sorry for him.”
“And did you get back
together with him?”
“Yes.” Carole felt her
cheeks flush and wondered for just a second if it showed on her
ghost self. Then she looked at the Ghost of Relationships Past
again. “I did. I felt sorry for him, because he couldn’t get
anyone else. And I felt sorry for me, because I couldn’t get anyone
“So, let’s see. James,
Colin, Craig—you dated all of them for the same reason.”
“Not really. I dated
James because he asked me to and I figured no one else would. My
friend’s little sister even told me I should, because no one else
would ever want me.”
“And why did you date
“Well, I didn’t know
him that well. He seemed like a nice enough guy at first, and I
wanted to give him a chance.”
“So you really weren’t
attracted to him, either, then?”
Carole flushed again.
“No. No really,” she
“Yeah, I hear ya. I
was only trying to give him a chance, too. But it was because I had
so few chances. It wasn’t just about him.”
“Let’s get you back to
the train station. I think you have enough to think about for one
They walked through the
door of the apartment and back into the train station. The first
thing Carole noticed was herself, still sleeping, on the bench. She
looked at the clock. Only five minutes had passed since she had
settled herself there. Apparently they were timeless as well as
invisible. And it still made her a little weak-kneed to be watching
herself from the outside. She turned to her ghostly escort.
“So that was it? I get
to look at all the losers I’ve dated, realize that I was just as
much of a loser, and now we’re done?”
“I was showing you what
has been. You have yet to see what is, and what may be.” And then
he was gone.
“But wait—how do
I—get—my body?” Carole shut her eyes tightly, hoping he would be
standing in front of her again when she opened them. Instead, when
she opened them again, she was looking out from her physical body
again, seated on the bench. She looked around for the man, the
ghost, but he was nowhere to be seen. Had it been a dream? It
hadn’t seemed like it. She glanced at the ground near her shoes for
evidence that she had recently been walking through city streets and
snowy yards, but there was nothing. And the clock said that she
still had almost an hour before her train arrived; she’d hardly been
there for any time at all. Confused, she leaned her head back
against the bench and closed her eyes once more.
Seconds later, movement
next to her made her open them again. There was a gray-haired man
sitting next to her. He was looking in the opposite direction.
Carole’s first instinct was to get up and run. She was fairly
certain that the other man had been nothing more than a weird dream,
but she wasn’t quite ready to take any chances on that. Her dream
had left her feeling hollow and depressed, and she didn’t think she
wanted to take on whatever might come next. Because she was just
the tiniest bit afraid that it hadn’t been a dream.
She wished as hard as
she could that she would hear an announcement over the loudspeaker
that her train had arrived early, so she could go settle safely into
a seat and get away from the man, who had now turned to look at her.
“Well, hello,” he said.
“Hey,” Carole replied
dully. Sleepiness and confusion were impairing the part of her that
censored her words and she found herself saying, “I suppose you’re
the Ghost of Relationships Present?”
“You catch on quickly,
my dear. That I am.” While the first ghost—or dream, or
whatever—had been about her age and treated her almost as though he
were himself a man who might be interested in her, this man was
older and spoke in a more distinguished manner, almost as if a
father figure. Carole wondered if that was significant, or if each
ghost was randomly selected for his particular job. Man. Dream.
Not ghost. It had to have been a dream, which would make this
“Are you ready to come
“I see your meeting
with my friend has left you a little out of sorts. That happens
often. It is tiring to be led out of your body and then allowed
back in, and the things you see can be emotionally draining. I am
just going to show you a few things and then I will bring you back
here and let you sleep.” He rose and began to walk away from the
bench. Carole reluctantly got up and followed him.
Just as she
anticipated, they left the train station and entered a neighborhood
that was most definitely not supposed to be outside of it. This
time, however, it was a neighborhood that she did not recognize.
The houses were large and old, but in a grand and beautiful way.
Many of them had been made into apartments, she guessed, by the
number of cars parked in the driveways. She also guessed that this
time they had not changed the time in which they existed, only their
place, because the snow was exactly the same as it had been outside
of the train station, and the cars she could see were current
She followed behind the
ghost as he walked along the sidewalk, having to desire to walk
beside him. If they walked together, they might also talk, and she
felt as if she had already heard quite enough, was afraid of what
else she might learn. They turned a corner and continued to walk.
Because she was trying not to think about anything important, Carole
occupied herself with wondering why she they were walking so far.
It seemed as if these ghosts could come and go wherever and whenever
they pleased, but she was still so sure that the situation was pure
fiction that she imagined maybe they were walking so that when
someone made the whole thing into a movie, they would have a chance
to show off all the beautiful Christmas lights that were in the
neighborhood. She was looking at the lights so intently, in fact,
that she almost ran in the Ghost of Relationships Present when he
stopped. He was in the yard of a large brick house. Swiftly, he
put an arm around Carole and they were both suddenly standing on the
porch roof looking into a window.
They were looking into
a man’s kitchen. The man was inside the kitchen, sitting at the
table with a laptop computer. Like the neighborhood, he was strange
“Who is he?” she asked.
“Look at his computer
screen. Here.” And a second later, they were standing inside of
his apartment. Carole’s stomach felt a little queasy from the
sudden switch, but she managed to push the nausea back.
“I thought that you
were supposed to be the Ghost of Relationships Present. I don’t
even know that guy. I think you made a mistake.”
“No, my dear. I am the
Ghost of Relationships Present, but ‘ghost’ is the most important
word. I am showing you the ghosts, the shadows, of relationships
that could be yours. Look at his computer screen.”
Carole obeyed. The man
was looking at the website belonging to the company Carole worked
for. Specifically, he was looking at her picture and profile.
“I don’t get it. Why
is he looking at me?”
“Because he likes you.
He worked with your supervisor for a few weeks over the summer, and
he noticed you then. He e-mailed you once, while he was there, but
you read it and deleted it. I believe your exact words to Stacie
were, ‘Some freak e-mailed me at work today and asked if I wanted to
get together sometime.’”
“And then later in the
conversation, you mentioned how sad you were, how depressing it was
that you couldn’t find any men who were interested in you.”
“Oh. Well, I mean,
there really aren’t.”
“This man was. He
e-mailed you. You did not respond. And now, four months later, he
is still looking at your picture and wondering about you.”
“Well, no one close to
me. And he never even really met me in person, so how can he know
he likes me?”
“That’s what dating is
for, my dear. Come. It is time to go.”
Before Carole could
even answer him, they had reappeared in the living room of a
completely different house. This one, Carole recognized. It was
the home of her boss, Marie, which confused her. Marie was a
fifty-something silver-haired woman with two married sons. What did
she have to do with Carole’s relationships?
Just as the she was
beginning to wonder, Carole noticed that there were other people
there, too. Other people from work. Carole remembered an e-mail
going around about a get-together at Marie’s house, but she hadn’t
paid attention because she had already set her date with Michael by
the time it was announced.
Carole and the ghost
approached a group of people who were deep in discussion.
“You think you have it
bad? I drew Carole for the Secret Santa exchange. How do I
know what I’m supposed to get her?” one woman was saying.
“Oh, I feel your pain,”
another woman responded. “She never talks to anyone or anything,
how could you know what she might like.”
“You could get her a
screwdriver,” suggested a man. “Or one of those jar lid gripper
things, maybe. Because she could sure use to loosen up a little.”
The group broke into laughter. “She’s pretty stuck up, isn’t she?
the man continued. “She never talks to anyone, and if you try and
talk to her or even walk up to her when it’s not work-related, she
gets that look on her face. It’s almost enough to scare you away.
I don’t know what we ever did to her, but she hates us all.” He
finished talking and tipped his wine glass to his lips. Carole
looked at the ghost.
“No! That’s not me. I
don’t hate anyone. and I’m not stuck up at all! It’s them. They
don’t like me. No one ever talks to me or invites me
anywhere. I just started avoiding them because I don’t want them to
feel like they have to try and be nice to me. I figured it would
save us all a lot of trouble if I just stayed out of the way.”
“Perhaps you didn’t
take your cues from them at all. Perhaps you didn’t give them a
chance to give you any cues and just assumed they would have a
particular set of perceptions about you.”
“Well, of course I
did. People always have perceptions about me when they meet me. I
am fat, so I am obviously lazy, and probably dirty, and chances are
I’m hungry all the time, too, and of course, I’m single, because fat
people always are. I know what people think of me, I’m not stupid.”
“Or maybe you’re only
projecting your own opinions or perceptions onto them. But let’s
not discuss this any more right now. We have one more stop before I
can bring you back. Come.”
And again they were
gone from one place and entering another before Carole had time to
draw a breath. They were in a basement apartment this time, and the
only occupant of the room they were in was a man lying on a bed,
fully dressed. He was staring at the TV but didn’t appear to be
seeing what was on the screen.
As they walked around
to the opposite side of the bed, Carole suddenly recognized him. It
was Michael! While they watched, he lifted his phone, looked at its
screen, and placed it back on the bed. He sighed, put his hands
behind his head, and closed his eyes.
“What’s he doing? What
am I supposed to be getting out of this? The man I was supposed to
be out with right now is lying home on his bed, alone. I don’t see
how this is going to help me.”
“Oh, but I am going to
tell you more. See, today when he got off of work, he was going to
call you. But then he lost the courage. He came home instead and
spent some time looking at the picture you sent him. He was mainly
trying to figure out why someone young and attractive like you would
want to meet an old guy like him, and he just didn’t feel like
dealing with it. The truth is, he just lost the courage.”
“But why? I never said
anything to make him think that way. In fact, I really like him,
what I know of him so far. And he should have gotten my voicemail
by now, asking him to call me.”
“He did. And he can’t
decide if you actually went home, or if you were just blowing him
off. He decided to wait and see, that if it was really important to
you, you would call him again before you left. He didn’t want to be
the one to make the move, just in case you had changed your mind
about him, you see.” Carole looked at the ghost in disbelief.
“But—I was the one who
was afraid. What does he have to be afraid of? I’m just me. I’ll
give anyone a chance, and I already know I like him.”
“We all have our own
fears. They are what make us human. We must hurry now.” And
again, they disappeared. Carole felt her head droop and snapped it
up before she was caught sleeping. She was once again on the train
dream. She must have been watching too many old Christmas movies,
or been drinking something that was spiked. What a night. She
closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall. And felt a
flurry of motion next to her. Sighing, she spoke without opening
“Let me guess—the Ghost
of Relationships Future. And tell me, why do you all have to invert
your adjectives? What’s wrong with just the ‘Ghost of Future
Relationships’?” There was a pause, and then some nervous
laughter. Carole supposed there was possibility that it was a real
person this time; if so, she must sound like she was doing a lot of
drugs. She lifted her head and squinted her eyes open. Just as she
did, though, a wobbly old voice answered her. It was coming from a
wobbly old man.
“Night’s been wearin’
on ya, I reckon. I don’t know why they name us what they do, never
thought to ask.”
“Aren’t you a little
old to be the Ghost of Relationships Future, anyway? They seem to
have mixed something up.”
“Depends who’s been
workin’ at it longest, I s’pose. I been doin’ it since I don’t
right remember when. I was in the first ‘Christmas Carol’ movie
they ever gone an’ made, in fact. I ‘member, back in—”
“Can we just get this
over with?” Carole interrupted him. He seemed as though he were
settling down to tell a long story, and she just wanted to get
finished. If her dream or whatever was following the whole Scrooge
theme, then this guy should be the last ghost.
Carole stood up and
started walking toward the door.
“Wait up! I ain’t as
fast as I used to be. And I gotta go through first, or it won’t
work. You’ll jus’ be standin’ on Canal Street.”
The stooped little man
caught up to her and she let him take the lead. She hoped he was
just going to have them show up wherever they needed to be, because
of they had to walk, it was going to be a long night. Relief
flooded her when they stepped out of the train station and into a
There was no one in the
room. And Carole could see why. It didn’t seem a very pleasant
room to be in. There were dirty dishes stacked on the coffee
tables, dirty clothes on the floor, dirty curtains hanging from the
windows. In front of the couch, there was a pile of used Kleenex.
“Whose house is this?”
“It can’t be. I’d
never let my house get this way.”
Soon, a woman walked
into the room. She was wearing dingy-looking sweatpants and a
stained t-shirt. When she turned to face them, Carole saw that the
woman, although ten years older and probably fifty pounds heavier,
was definitely herself. Her eyes were red and her face streaked
“What’s wrong with me?
What happened to make me so depressed?” she asked the ghost in a
“Weren’t jus’ one
thing. ‘Twas lots o’ things, over time. Ya do this a lot, ya
“Not a lot. Sometimes,
I do. I get lonely. But it never lasts very long, and it doesn’t
seem like it’s this bad.”
“I mean in the future,
girl. Ya get this way a lotta times. Two er three times a week.
All ya gotta do is see someone walkin’ ‘n holdin’ hands, er see a
love movie, er even hear the word love, and yer all upset and ya
can’t even function.”
Carole watched her
future self go to the couch and cover herself with a bedraggled
blanket. She flipped through channels for a few minutes before she
settled on something. Seconds later, the show faded to a commercial
in which a man and a woman were lying in bed. As it did, tears
filled the future Carole’s eyes and she used a wad of Kleenex to
soak them up.
“That’s pathetic! Did
someone just break up with me or something?”
“Nope. Ya never let
anyone get ta know ya, how could they? Ever’one that tries ta make
nice with ya, ya push ‘em away. All ‘cause ya see yerself sittin’
here on nights like this and can’t figger out why they like ya. And
I’m sure I could find someone else ta take ya ta see, someone who’s
wishin’ ya weren’t so pigheaded and standoffish, but I think ya’ve
seen enough. I ain’t like them other two knuckleheads they sent ta
see ya tonight. I tell it like it is. Yer stupid if ya think ya
can jus’ sit aroun’ feelin’ sorry fer yerself and someone’s gonna
come ‘n force ya ta see the light. Ya gotta get out and ‘n out ‘n
do somethin’, reach out a little.”
“Is this—is this how it
is? End of story? Like, ten years from now, I’m going to be
sitting home alone crying every night and not have anyone in my life
at all, ever?”
“Ain’t gotta be. It’s
up to you.”
And with those words,
the scene in front of Carole, and the Ghost of Relationships Future
himself, disappeared. She was once again sitting on the bench in
the train station. A glance at the clock told her that it was
finally late enough to board the train. Looking around cautiously
to see if there were any signs of her three visitors, Carole
gathered her shopping bags. She made her way to the train that
would take her back home and got into the first car with an open
seat. The train was just as crowded with Christmas shoppers as the
city had been, even this late at night, and the seats were filling
up fast. She placed her bags on the seat next to her in the hopes
that no one would sit there. She always felt as though she took up
too much space on the seat, and wondered why anyone was stupid
enough to sit next to her. As the car filled, though, and she saw
the conductor coming, she picked the bags up and arranged them on
her lap. The conductor was sure to ask her to anyway.
She took her iPod from
her pocket, slipped the earbuds into her ears, and turned it on.
She wanted to block out the noise of the train and rethink
everything she’d seen—or dreamed—that night. It was a lot to
process. All the losers she’d dated—she knew that part was true
enough. And the ones she was missing out on? She wasn’t so sure
about those ones; it was hard for her to imagine that there were
people out there who liked her that she didn’t even know about, and
even harder to imagine that the only reason she didn’t know about it
was that she, herself, was pushing them away. She’d always thought
she was open to anything, and assumed that she came across that
way. And the last scene, herself, aged to depression, she didn’t
even want to think about. The dream was still too new for her to be
able to get it into any manageable set of ideas and put her finger
on what it meant; thoughts were swirling around in her mind the same
way the snow was swirling around the train window, with no solid
place to land.
The train started
moving as Carole watched the swirling snow. She was just getting
ready to place her bags back on the seat, thankful that no one had
come to sit with her, when she heard the car door open and footsteps
approaching, then felt someone drop into her seat. She carefully
avoided looking at whoever it was and pulled her arms more tightly
against her body, pressed her legs together, huddled into the
window. It was horrible to sit in a train seat pressed up against a
stranger, almost hearing that stranger thinking about how unfair it
was that they got stuck sitting with the fattest person on the
train. Carole’s only defense was to stare out the window at the
snow and pretend she was somewhere else.
But that was not meant
“Hello, how are you?”
asked a man’s voice.
Carole’s first instinct
was to shrug her shoulders and mumble something unintelligible
without even looking at him. She didn’t want him to feel as if he
had to talk to her.
But he had already
talked to her. No one had made him. And besides, whether the
ghosts she had seen were dreams or real, wasn’t there point to make
her change? Carole suddenly had the thought that whether or not
people hated her on sight, if she treated them as if they did, it
was all the same. If she kept treating them that way, never letting
them do anything but hate her, she really would be the lonely
woman she had seen in the messy living room.
But if she didn’t treat
them that way, maybe things could be different.
It was hard. But if
nothing else, the man was trying to be friendly. And friendly is
good. It isn’t scary. No more pushing people away, mistrusting
them without even knowing what their intentions were. Carole drew
in a breath.
“Not too bad. It’s
been a long day. You?”
“Pretty good. Just
stuck around to do some shopping after work.”
And they lapsed into a
comfortable conversation, an easy give and take. He wasn’t a freak
who had no one better to talk to. He wasn’t some guy that only
wanted to find a fat girl to fulfill some sexual fantasy. He wasn’t
someone who’s goal was to humiliate her. He was just a guy that was
being friendly, and Carole was enjoying him. Ghosts were useful
When he stood up at his
stop, he handed Carole a business card.
“It’s been good talking
to you. Give me a call sometime if you feel like it. Maybe we
could hang out or something.”
As he walked away,
Carole smiled for the first time since five o’clock, when Michael
hadn’t called. The opening strains of Joy To The World played on