When I was little I would sit on the toilet and wonder if ghosts were watching me. Hovering near the mirror, standing in the tub, poking their heads out of the closets — my eyes would scan our black and white tiled bathroom, convinced I was not alone.
This isn’t to say I was terrified in the traditional scary ghosts sense: for some reason I assumed the dead were mostly benevolent, nonthreatening presences (and not scary like, say, witches, which roamed the shadows of my bedroom wall). What I took issue with was their potential invasion of my privacy. I had, after all, just become aware of nakedness and modesty, and it had only recently occurred to me to close the door when I used the bathroom. The thought of that being ignored appalled me. Grandpa could be in here, I thought to myself, and I wouldn’t even know.
I mean, obviously he didn’t intend to observe me using the bathroom or anything — I didn’t think the grandfather I’d never met was a pervert, sitting around and waiting for little girls to go poo. But he was dead, and therefore a ghost, and therefore walls meant nothing to him. I envisioned my mother’s father floating nebulously throughout the house, humming to himself and absentmindedly wandering into our freezer, drifting out as we grabbed popsicles, sinking into the plush carpeting and rising into the ceiling lights. “Doo dee doo doo doo,” he’d sing lovingly, happy to be around the people he loved. He probably didn’t have all of his wits about him, being translucent and all. He could take a wrong turn down our hallway, and bam — there’s his granddaughter, using the bathroom! How awkward.
This began a downward spiral. I began thinking about how many dead relatives I had. Christ, I couldn’t even count all of them, no one had ever shown me a family tree, there were probably billions. And they probably all traveled together, because that’s what live families do. What if hundreds of ghosts, thousands of ghosts, millions and billions and trillions of ghosts, a whole caravan of them, made that wrong turn? I thought of their grey hair and pearl necklaces, their canes and bow ties, and the laughter I could never hear. They followed one another into the bathroom like a mass of sheep, each one suddenly screaming and covering their eyes the moment they realized their mistake — “turn back, turn back, there’s a girl in here, oh my!” They bottlenecked and squirmed, each trying to turn back as the others fell in like dominoes. I used the bathroom as quickly as I could, the way most children my age ran into bed for fear of lurking monsters. Only, I was terrified of embarrassing moments in another dimension.
Of course I’ve changed since then: as I’ve grown older, my fear of the dark has appropriately developed with my neuroses. I don’t think about ghosts. Instead of witches I fear my own negative thoughts and worries, which pile up like ice-encrusted snowbanks in the dead of winter. The sun begins to set at four and I dread the long dark walk home, the unfathomable blackness that greets me as I open the door to our apartment.
I tried explaining my fear to a therapist in college. I told her, “darkness manages to simultaneously make me feel claustrophobic and trapped, as if it were a black wall on all sides, and tiny and surrounded by infinity, as if I were floating alone in space. I don’t know how to move in a dark room.” She said “do you have any candles?”
Last weekend I rented a car and drove to suburbia, Massachusetts, where I could find a Home Depot and lighting solutions. Bulbs, timers, night lights activated by dusk and sunrise: a whole cart of them. I imagine it’s wonderful to be in our apartment in the early evening, as the ticking timers click power into our living room and kitchen, and strategically placed night lights burst into a warm glow, one after the other like a syncopated Christmas display throughout our hallways. Tick, tick, tick. I come home to a softly lit apartment, our kitten slumbering on the couch. One hour after we fall asleep they turn themselves off. Magic.
But the bathroom, that room is tricky. We’ve placed two night lights in that outlet in twice as many nights: they’ve burnt out one after the other.
I know it must be a power surge in that outlet, something reasonable; but part of me holds on to this idea of my entire family tree, wandering blissfully through my apartment and goddamn sick of all these embarrassing moments.