If you need to be mean
be mean to me
I can take it and put it inside of me
-Mitski, “I Don’t Smoke”
I have a picture of us from when we were ten years old — Rose, Audrey, Sam, and me. We’re standing on the gravel shoulder of the highway that cuts across our hometown like a life line across a palm. Our arms are wrapped around each other, affectionate and possessive with the weight of preteen desires. Have you noticed the way young girls cling to each other in photographs? Maybe we knew then the terrible possibilities of separation. If we hadn’t held on to each other so tightly through childhood, how would things have ended?
That was all before we grew apart. That was before I hopped on a plane, before Rose came to meet me, before we ended up in the mountains of Italy, alone in a 300-year-old farmhouse. That was when we still lived in our small universe of Halfmoon Bay, in homes secluded from the highway by long gravel driveways and undisturbed forest. What would have happened if the ghost had shown up then, when we were still so connected, instead of a decade later, across the world when there were just two of us in the middle of the night?
I am standing on a street corner in Rome, facing an Australian man who I met at the hostel where Rose and I are staying. I stand just off the sidewalk; he stands on the sidewalk looking at every part of me. There is no traffic, just bare legs and sandals and a million menus pressed into our palms. We wait for our friends and he looks me up and down and he asks, Do you work out? Around us, there are countless people happy to sell us our dreams, starters and main courses and bottles of wine, romance and plastic keychains. They swarm and push their offers towards us. Sure, I say, even though I hate working out. I lift, he says, and offers his bicep. I squeeze and nod, hmm. I offer mine because I haven’t yet learned how to accept something without the need to return. Good God that’s a weak arm, he says. He pinches my skin and then our friends catch up to us.
Ghost Girls in Three Parts
I am 22 and newly graduated and still nursing the remnants of my first real broken heart. I am trying to remedy all of these things by disappearing into Europe.
Later, when I’m walking back from his hostel with my shirt on backward, I realize I forgot my key and I bang on a door that I think looks familiar. A disgruntled man answers and starts yelling at me in Italian as I wander into his foyer. He doesn’t try to stop me, but he continues to yell in alarm. I am weightlessly drunk — if I lost balance, I’d regain my gravity and fall as hard as anyone ever did. I stumble far enough into the room to look out the window and see the decidedly dark sky, the bare moon. It’s a miracle that Rose wakes up when I knock.
Rose and I are here together after many years apart. Once upon a time, there were four of us. Together we made up half of the group of girlfriends we’d grown up with, though I’d considered myself to be closer to Sam and Audrey when we were kids. A sense of ease and adventure had settled over Rose and I, and so there we were, united in Europe while Sam and Audrey were back in Canada. We’d, for the most part, been secluded from one another for many years as well, our relationships existing primarily over Facebook. Things were light enough but familiar enough with Rose that we wound up in Europe together, embracing each other in front of the Trevi fountain like one or both of us might get swept up in the crowd and float away.
Five years earlier, I kissed a boy under a streetlight while blood streamed from my face. The boy, Dev, and I had been seeing each other for a few months by that point, but it was a secret. I was bleeding because a friend had been piggy-backing me outside a party we’d just left, and he’d tripped and we’d both fallen face first into the pavement. The pavement was the kind that was made up of thousands and tiny sharp stones. We stood up and he turned to me in the streetlight and asked if he was okay. Yes, I told him. Then he touched his hands to his face and held them out, mouth agape at the sight of all that blood. I lied because I knew in childhood this same friend had fainted at the sight of blood and hit his head on a desk. He had a deep gash across his forehead that drained down over his eyes. What a stupid thing, to try to hide that kind of blood.
We were secret because before me the boy had dated my best friend, Audrey, throughout high school. I had broken all those unspoken rules of young female friendship — I’d fucked someone’s boy, I’d lied, I had no intention of stopping, I knew the consequences of this. What a stupid thing to try to hide.
The friend and I, drunk and shaking with adrenaline, found a men’s washroom in the basement of the Student Union Building where we tried to stop the bleeding. We balled up fistfuls of single-ply toilet paper and mopped each other’s faces in vain. The blood was coming too fast to quell.
Back outside, our friends offer to pour beer on our wounds, and I laugh and I decline and I seek Dev out in the darkness and I pull him aside.
These two things — the blood and the secret — lead us to where we stood below the street light, where I looked up at him, drunk but not drunk enough for the split lip and road rash that bled down my chin. Still think I’m pretty?
He kissed me, and across the street our friends stopped and looked, nudged each other. Someone got out their phone and texted Audrey. I became that girl so swiftly.
A toast: to the stinging pain of those particular kinds of wounds. Razors, small stones, cat claws, girlfriends scorned. They’re always so unexpected (whether you know better or not), and they never seem to stop bleeding.
I should have known not to book us a hostel near the station. Hostels near points of entry or exit have a frantic feeling to them — everyone is clambering to get out or in, and sometimes it’s difficult to step through the doorway of a new place because of this. I’d been traveling for a few months by then, but we’d just left Sardinia and I was travel-fatigued and couldn’t imagine arriving to Rome at night and navigating the streets to a far-off Hostel.
Our room has four single beds that are placed close together. Without the feigned privacy of a top-bunk bed, Rose and I try to sleep in later than the men in our room so that we can avoid their eyes as we get dressed. We huddle in bed, and I tell her about the Aussie, who had apologized on behalf of all men everywhere for his mediocrity and speed. We hide our heads under the cover until the room is quiet and then we get up and start our day, so far from home.
Rome is a hangover. Rome keeps shoving menus into my hands and leading me into dark restaurants that looked brighter from the outside. Rome tastes just like I heard it was supposed to taste. Rome is a protest in the streets, union workers spilling in on the back of scooters. Rome is light rain. Rome is red wine on a yellow silk shirt that I bought on the side of the street. Rome looks bright against my dull skin because I haven’t washed properly in months. Rome is walking into a hostel bathroom at night to find a skinny man watching porn on his laptop. Rome is a different language so he just holds his palm up to protest, or maybe to invite me in. Rome is retreating down a hallway that’s lit with a single bulb. Rome is turning a lock where I keep my important things. Rome makes me wonder about my important things. My important things look dull against Rome because they haven’t been examined properly in months. Rome is a poster stapled to a building that advertises plastic surgery and tattoo bundle deals. It’s a bald man kissing my friend on the mouth as we pass him on the sidewalk. Rome is an Australian man undressing me in the middle of a room where other people are sleeping. Rome hits me on the fucking head and says you have no idea what you want. It says if you’re here, really here, in this moment right now, give us proof.
Rome is meant to be a palate cleanser before the seclusion of a farm that waits for us in the North. Brisighella, the three-hills village, and a pianist who lives in an orchard await us. We spend our last night in the hostel near the train station getting very drunk on a small balcony that looks out on a deserted courtyard. The wine is so acidic I can feel my organs twist away from it with every sip. A cat darts in and out of the shadows below us and I ask her in alcohol-scrambled words whether she felt the same unbearable loneliness that I had when I was a little girl, and she says that yes, she’d felt it too. We grow louder and louder until the man from downstairs, the one whose apartment I’d wandered into, bangs on his window. When I raise my glass to him, he avoids eye contact. We lean into each other and Rose exclaims over and over, I just didn’t know you felt like that. I just never knew.
We look down on the empty courtyard and then keep drinking and talking until the man opens his window and yells something in a threatening tone and we retreat back to our single beds and the darkness and the breath of strangers. A decade too late, we loosen our armor and find a way to wait out the long minutes together.
It takes three trains to get from Rome to Brisighella. The medieval town sits on a mountainous hillside between Florence and Ravenna in the River Lamone Valley in the North. The Australian walked us to the station and said he planned to never set foot in Italy again. I feel sick, and we almost miss every connection. The more I try for intimacy, the more alone I feel. Rome is every sound and every question and then suddenly it is nighttime in the North, and the train station is a small platform with a single man waiting. An apparition in the dark.
He is a world-renowned pianist who bleeds love for his country and who turns that all-embodying love into organic wine on the top of a mountain. He speaks softly and smiles calmly and takes a toolbox off the back seat of his truck so that we can climb aboard. He steers us through town in silence. Except there isn’t really a town, just dark roads. For most of my travels, I arrived or I left at night, so I have no memory of the entrance to places or what signs there were leading us down the road. We climb up and up into the mountains on a sharp-cornered road.
We hadn’t anticipated the seclusion of the farm. There is no cell reception, no internet, no neighbors. Maybe because of where we grew up, in a small town on a peninsula hugged by the ocean, we don’t fear the silence of the place.
The farm produces mostly wine but there are pigs as well and five or six kittens that roam freely and only appear in the moonlight, swishing around my ankles as I climb the stairs to the old guesthouse we’ll be staying in for the next two weeks. He tells us that the house 300 years old. Inside, there are remnants of past North American guests: a pack of Juicy Fruit gum under the couch, the autobiography of an American comedian tucked under a pillow. The house is stone and cold even in early September. There is a narrow hallway that’s lit by one bulb. A single bookshelf with mostly English books, pages dog-eared by a hundred travelers hungry for something to help them wait out trains and planes, for a divine message or a sign that might never come.
Really, I always choose to arrive in the dark. I just want to get there, to be there already, to sleep through the first hours of discomfort and wake to a sheet of light thrown over a mountainside.
The first thing I do when we arrive is shave my legs in the relative privacy of the guesthouse bathroom. Rose sits on the floor outside the open bathroom door while I shave and we talk about nothing, the way old friends do. The bathroom isn’t much — a shower head connected to the wall with a curtain arranged haphazardly around it. A drain in the center of the floor. I drag a chair in from the desk in the bedroom and I turn the water on hot and sit in the chair and prop my leg up against the wall. Rose takes my picture.
For months, we’ve documented each other through photographs — in an airport at three a.m., next to the Eiffel tower, looking over salt flats in Calgiari, on the blue deck of a ship. Rose and Audrey and Sam have collectively taken hundreds of pictures of me, spent hours talking about me, recognized and tried to describe the smell of my home and my hair and my sweatshirts in ways that solidified our closeness. And I them. If all my questions have been answered by girls in the dark, all my documentation has come to fruition through them too.
When we were kids, we made collages and scrapbooks for each other for every birthday. Constant proof of our existence, decorated with magazine cutouts of glittery sunglasses and horoscopes from the early 2000s.
The flash catches on what she chooses to capture: me, skinny and bare-legged, black tank top and hair tied back, sharp edge poised.
The bedroom in the old farmhouse where we sleep is set up for travelers passing through: narrow twin beds against opposite walls, a third one raised up on the wall perpendicular to them so that it covers our feet as we sleep. A single window looks out towards the house where the farmer and his girlfriend sleep — beyond that there are hills and uninhabited space.
We missed the grape harvest so we spend our days cutting down sinewy, hollow vines with machetes. The vines grow on a steep hill next to the farmhouse. We wear men’s gumboots that make the climb harder but protect our toes. We sing songs in falsetto and laugh at the absurdity of us, clomping up and down a hill in northern Italy with machetes in our hands.
Like all young girls, we knew the power of three, so there was always one left out. Often, that was Rose. Sometimes me. Rarely Sam or Audrey. When we finally talk about this, first in Rome and then again later, we talk about wanting to be a part of something, we say the word alpha and agree that really three is the worst number and that we are over it, past it, all equal now, there are no groups of three or any other number. We’re happily on our own, even with all these facts in our head like favorite singer, favorite time of day, favorite drink, worst habit. We drift and drift and drift away from the time when we held hands and cast the spell of girlhood on each other. Rose says, Did you hear that? Or maybe it was me.
Sometimes I feel unrecognizable, like I change shape every time I leave a room. Often, people tell me I look different from one day to the next. I can’t blame people when they don’t remember my name at first. Sometimes, I look in the mirror and wonder if those freckles have always been there, if my nose has always taken up that much space, if my eyebrows didn’t use to be thinner, if other people recognize themselves immediately and unapologetically.
If a boy is made of gathered things, a girl is a vision that changes depending on where you stand. From above, she can appear malleable, or delicate. From behind a glass window, she’s a mean bitch. From any point, she’ll insist she’s fine. From the ground, she can describe in a calm tone the loneliness that can be felt acutely as a physical ailment in her side, and then you’ll notice that she presses firmly into the space under her left front rib as she walks. She is a vision who, no matter your viewpoint, can perform the mystifying act of calcification. She can turn into something that doesn’t shed or absorb anything. She can turn into stone, or better yet, thin air, and then you’ll wonder whether you ever saw her at all.
We settle into the farm. For lunch and dinner, we gather in the communal kitchen and the farmer makes us pasta. For our first lunch, I watch him boil broccoli florets and spaghetti in a pot together before adding tuna and roasted tomatoes. He retrieves two bottles of wine for the table — new and unlabeled, in green glass bottles. He piles our plates with slices of bread and soft white cheese and he opens the windows next to the kitchen table and we sit and we eat and we wonder what work there is for us. We lick olive oil from between our fingers.
The farmer shows us how to wash the dishes with ashes. This way, the water won’t become polluted with chemicals and everything that grows around the farm will remain pure. “Truly, it cuts grease better than soap,” he says. I take a handful from the tin on the ledge next to the sink. It gets under my nails. It gets into the tiny creases in my hands that I hadn’t noticed until then. It reminds me of a childhood game we used to play: Make a fist. Look at the pinky side of your hand. Count the little lines that appear — one, two, three. That’s how many babies you’ll have. The lines will be deep for boys. For girls, they’ll be shallow. Faint, barely there.
Some days, we walk down the mountain into the town. The streets are cobbled and narrow, and we don’t pass any other people. It’s a ghost town. We perch on a ledge outside the closed-down library and set my camera on timer. We take a picture with my arms wrapped around Rose’s shoulders.
At night, we sit on the steps outside the house and roll cigarettes. Rose takes my picture, one hand smoking, one hand cradling my head. When I look up, the sun’s setting behind her.
Did you know that girls’ voices rise like heat? Particularly in the dark. Particularly when they are the only voices speaking, or when it’s so late that it’s early morning. They rise up and tangle together. They surround us, a midnight blue atmosphere that fills the trees, our lungs, our telephone lines, our bathtubs, the hours after a first heartbreak, the silent space when you wish you’d said something different.
Were we afraid on the farm in the mountains? If childhood was about drawing out our fears, taunting and rebelling against our parents’ worries, then our early 20s was when we threw ourselves into them fully. I was oblivious and numb to possibilities of danger or harm. I saw only the light thrown across the mountain.
Because the harvest has passed, the farmer is running out of work to give us. One afternoon, he has us assemble furniture for his daughter’s bedroom. She is 11 and lives with her mother in the south. She doesn’t visit often. The period since her last visit has been so long that he’s decided she needs furniture — something more suited for a young woman than a child.
Her quarters are on the opposite side of the farmhouse where we sleep. Here he leaves us with IKEA directions unfolded amidst the pieces of an armoire. For two hours, Rose and I take turns reading the instructions and holding pieces steady or tight together while the other hammers. We laugh because we’ve traveled the world and up a mountain to assemble an IKEA bedroom for a preteen girl, and maybe it’s the bottle of wine we drank at lunch but we get to the last step only to realize that a small piece — a slat of wood below one of the drawers — is upside down.
“Well that’s not very pretty,” the farmer says. “You’ll have to start over.”
And so we disassemble the whole thing, piece by piece, and we put it back together the way he wants it and in that way, we build his daughter’s space, and we use up the rest of the afternoon.
That night we play foosball together — the farmer, us, his girlfriend. The table sits on the porch and is lit by a single bulb. The darkness outside of the foosball area is something like the darkness of the forest that surrounded my old home. It feels natural to slip back into it. We play in teams and at first we are timid about our competitiveness, but eventually, our roles slip away and we laugh and play until we’re tired.
His girlfriend is from Finland. As we depart back towards our room, she tells us that where she’s from, it’s dark more often than it’s light during the winter months. We’re all lucky to be here, in the mountains of Italy, she calls as she disappears up the stairs and into the main house.
There are black cats everywhere around the farm. Sweet kittens that I try to hold onto while Rose takes pictures, but they always manage to squirm out of my grip and appear in the photos as dark blurs.
When we were kids, we used to turn all the lights off in the girls’ bathroom at school and try to call on Bloody Mary. She was one of those old stories passed on from older siblings or even parents, one that we were fairly certain didn’t exist but were still secretly terrified of. We’d turn the tap on in the sink and spin around three times while calling out her name. Once, after the third call, we tried to take a picture of the mirror where she would have appeared if the call had worked. We turned the flash on and snapped a picture with the old camera I’d found in the junk drawer at my house. Weeks later, after the roll was developed, the picture was just a grey gradient, a searing white flash in the corner of the screen.
We were so confident in our ability to prove the unknowable. We held so tightly to the realm of possibility that hung just outside our small worlds.
The farmer drives us down the side of the mountain and up the other side. He drops us off at a neighbor’s farm. A family lives there with their grown children. They’re sitting around the kitchen table doing homework when I arrive and everyone quiets as I tread lightly through the dining room. We’re there to pick acorns. Out in the shed behind the house, they give us baskets and point us in the direction of the trees. The tall trees that surround the farmyard cast shadows on the ground. We stoop and drag our fingers along the gravel, scooping up handfuls of acorns in plastic buckets. We repeat this motion for hours, stooping and gathering in the shadows before leaving our full baskets in the sun next to the pickup trucks. For lunch, the farmer arranges a circle of stools in the shed next to the house and offers us thick slices of bread with olive oil and basil leaves. He pours us glasses of wine that is so fresh it still fizzes.
One of the sons of the new farmer is handsome, and I can’t look at him. He waves we descend back down the steep driveway in the back of the farmer’s truck.
“Tomorrow, you’ll come back,” he tells us on the drive back to the vineyard. The acorns will feed his pigs and make their meat sweeter. “You can take the bikes, but they have no brakes so you must be careful going down the hill. Watch for cars and for animals. Take breaks if you must.”
What do you call the time spent bending and stooping, feeling for acorns amongst gravel? What do you call the comfort you find in the shadows? The energy it takes to move through the world? The pursuit of sweetness?
“He traded us for acorns,” Rose says.
It’s hard to pinpoint when I developed the habit of shedding lives and fleeing without thinking twice. When I was 20, I fell in love with someone that Audrey used to love. I convinced myself that my sentimentality was a moveable thing and that nothing had to be said and then one night I fell and I hit my face on the pavement outside a friend’s apartment building and I found the object of my desire, of Audrey’s desire, and I kissed him under a streetlight and I got blood on his face and it only made sense that our tongues were metallic and slow and when I looked up, it was all over — I’d opened a door that led to a new world. I thought he was with me, but in the end, I was alone, and when I called out no one answered.
I decide I want to run away. I want to scale down the side of the mountain in the night while the farmer sleeps.
“We’ll leave him a note,” I say.
“And then what?” Rose asks. “The train comes once an hour and stops running by 10:30 p.m. You wanna sleep in the station?”
“Tomorrow we’ll go,” she says. “I’m sick of sleeping in stations.”
“He traded us for acorns,” I say. I put my bag down, and I sit on the edge of my bed. I surrender to another night in the farmhouse. Rose takes another picture of me then — I’m holding one of the kittens, an all-black one, and the light behind my head spreads out until my features are yellow and overexposed. Faint, barely there.
In the farmhouse on the mountain, in the middle of the night, a ghost enters our room. Maybe it’s more apt to say that a ghost was in the room, and we had entered after, and it just took until then for us to notice it. Some things are like that. Sometimes you see what you want to see. It stood at the foot of our beds. It wasn’t alarming or upsetting, it wasn’t what I’d thought it would be. If I had to give it human qualities, I’d say it was a woman, and that she was wearing a heavy coat. But she wasn’t a human and it wasn’t what I’d thought it would be like — which was fear and panic and a scramble across the floor away from her. Instead, the fear was silent and steady, a thing that passed as I counted out the seconds and eventually fell into sleep.
When we were kids, I sometimes dreamt about Audrey’s bedroom, and sometimes do still. I thought about it, the skylight and the warm smell of the place, as I pulled the blanket over my shoulder. Rose was asleep, and I listened to her breath next to me. Her breathing grew more and more labored until she started to whimper and rasp, and then she whispered to me: Don’t let them take me. I don’t turn around. I face the wall as hard as I can and after a while, I fall asleep. Across the world from everyone who knows us or knew us, Rose and I sleep huddled in twin beds, and I wonder if every conversation we’ve ever had is a conversation about survival and whether we were ever friends or just accomplices.
In the end, it’s never what you expect it to be like.
After I kissed the boy with bloody lips, after I lost all my girlfriends and didn’t hear from them for months, I looked back and expected to see him following me into the unknown, but I was alone.
I lie to the farmer and tell him I’m needed in Paris, a family emergency. He seems to expect it, and he doesn’t seem to mourn the loss of his acorns. If I was a different person, I would have told him that we were leaving because we are worth more than acorns, or that we were leaving because there was a ghost that sat at the foot of our beds, but I didn’t know what I wanted, and I didn’t know how to ask for something I couldn’t imagine. We packed our bags, we left together, exhausted and unsure of where to go next.
Later, I find a picture that Rose took of me in the farmhouse on our last night. The light around me is warm, I am smiling with a closed mouth. The exposure is so high that my features look ghostly. I emerge from the background like a trick of the light. •
All images created by Emily Anderson.