January 28, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
The Second Ghost is “Jennifer,” an American girl I knew in Stavanger, Norway. I played a part in her downfall, which you can read on pages 15 to 17 of Ghosts and Ballyhoo.
I still have a few notes she wrote me, two photos I snagged from a box of rejects left over from the making of a high school yearbook, and one family Christmas card.
The image I’d lost was the one Tim took of Jennifer and me in 1981, the year I worked for an Exxon shore-support base. My job was loading and unloading ships that supplied oil platforms in the North Sea.
Tim took the photo when the three of us were at the neighbors’ palatial house. The family was gone for the summer, and Tim had been hired as a groundskeeper. Jennifer and I joined him one day when he went over to shoot photos of the Versailles-like lawn.
I thought I’d thrown the photo away, the way I had nearly all images of the Cardinal Ghost Carmen, slides I took of scale models I built, and tapes of my bass playing. At the time these things were too painful to keep, so I tossed them.
What I once thought of as unendurable pain was absolutely nothing compared to what came later. Now, I compare all travail to 2013. As a result I can see that most of what I used to find unbearable was actually a picnic. The year 2013 gave me vital perspective. From now on I view everything through the prism of last year.
This is the reason I’m not crippled with anger that Mike Albee and Lura Dold defrauded me of $40,000 by exploited the suicides of my parents. As bad as that is, I’ve survived much, much worse. Also, before before Mom and Dad killed themselves, I was able to shed my rage and become grateful for the good things I’ve experienced.
One of my worst sins is what I facilitated for Jennifer. It had a context: We were both deeply unhappy teenagers looking for escape. A phenomenally intelligent, funny, sensitive girl, she was three years younger than I am. Though I was deeply in love with her, she preferred bad boys. Even so, she was a genuine pal. She did like me.
I’d forgotten how much she liked me until I found the lost photo last night. It was tucked away in a curio shelf here in my house, an extremely odd place for it to be. I have no memory of putting it there. It was still in the cheap Norwegian frame, from which I extricated it after thirty-three years. The contact between the glass and photo caused discoloration. But otherwise, the image is how I remember it.
I’m a little over six feet, and Jennifer was only five-two, but what always struck me about this photo was that our legs are exactly the same length. It’s a combination of her legginess and my abnormally long torso. Buying shirts has always been hard. The ones that are long enough end up hanging like muumuus on me.
Despite my long torso, my hips are short, like my legs. Pants ride way too high. I stopped wearing jeans in 1987 or so. They always felt like those 1940s trousers.
My belly button ends up right at the belt line, which is really uncomfortable when I sit. Now, I wear only shorts with strings at the top to tie them. No more belt lines!
The year 1981 was the only time in my adult life that I didn’t have a spare tire. In the rediscovered photo, Jennifer’s hand is around my waist; you can see her fingers on my left side, right above the waist of my jeans. Normally I would never let a girl touch my spare tire. Since I didn’t have one in 1981, Jennifer’s hand was fine where it was. That’s what walking six miles a day and loading and unloading ships does to you.
Jennifer was self-conscious about her own body. She habitually layered herself in clothing to hide her eye-popping curves. The lower edge of her sweater under her coveralls makes it look like she’s got a little belly roll, but she didn’t. She was a fanatical athlete, incredibly strong. Though she didn’t want to go out with me, we wrestled. I’m crazy for physically powerful women.
You can see by the way my hand drapes over her shoulder how much I love her. I’m pulling her against me. It took me years to figure out why she didn’t want me as a boyfriend: The answer is I knew her too well. She didn’t like herself, so that made her automatically suspect the motivations of those who were attracted to her. Self-loathing is what makes us go for people who abuse us in one form or another. I know from where I speak.
Nobody is born in a state of self-loathing. It’s learned behavior.
Jennifer came to a terrible end, but that’s what she chose for herself. It has nothing to do with “weakness.” Tim and I talk a lot about what made us always want to improve. We think it’s something innate, so I can’t take credit for it. Jennifer simply didn’t have that inborn drive to stop destroying herself. She internalized the constant refrains she heard from morning to night. They became her identity.
One of my favorite Suzanne Vega songs is “Frank and Eva,” from Beauty and Crime.
I’d amend Vega’s observation slightly: It’s not enough to love. In fact, loving someone can drive her away. It wasn’t me and my weird body, as I thought for so long.
“Look at those midgety legs and that extended torso! What a freak!”
Noreen told me that her nickname for me was The Torso. See, because I bought my short legs and overlong torso at Wal-Mart. My body proportions are perfectly legitimate targets for ridicule. The length of your legs and torso determine the kind of person you are, so of course we can make fun of them. And the people laughing at someone’s looks are always exceptional physical specimens themselves.
No, I couldn’t have saved Jennifer, even though she was my ideal at the time. And yes, I contributed to her demise. It wasn’t my intention, of course, but that’s no defense. If it’s any consolation to her, the path I helped set her on also caused me incredible damage. We both sought oblivion. Eventually, I realized that destroying myself would only validate my early training. My goal was to not be who they said I was.
This is the hardest thing a person can do. Rejecting everything you’ve been told—genuinely believing that they’re wrong and you’re right—is almost impossible. I don’t know how I did it. There’s no secret formula. But ever since I was a child I knew that things were really askew. It was only as a middle-aged adult that I finally understood the full extent of the mangling.
What I loved most about Jennifer was her smile. It advertises her heartbreaking vulnerability.
Even now, thirty-three years later, I can feel my hand on her muscular shoulder. I remember her scent as though it were just this morning that we stood there on the lawn, pressed together.
When I visited her house, she’d play me this on her piano.
It choked me up then, and it chokes me up now. Still, I’m glad Jennifer is a ghost rediscovered. We were both very happy at the moment the photo was taken.
Though fleeting, these brief interludes of happiness continue to exist, forever. It’s nice to find the records of them.
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