Ghost in the Graveyard
Darling don’t you wait for me
‘Cause I can see the promised land
But I can’t do no promising
— J. Cole
He died on the sidewalk after he asked a stranger for help. I was in the movies when I got the text, but I didn’t read it until I was walking to my car. It was a sympathetic January evening, and I didn’t need a coat. My phone vibrated in my back jeans pocket. The text was from my old neighbor on Willow Avenue. I hadn’t spoken to her in years. I was surprised we both still had each other’s number. Then I read the message. Lucas died.
I waited on an obituary to get information about the funeral. I searched for clues on the internet. I read elegies on Facebook from family and people we’d grown up with. Someone wrote on the morning Lucas died, he’d asked a customer outside of 7-11 to get him some water. When the person came back with the bottle, Lucas was laying on the sidewalk, already gone. People replied how do you know this? but the original poster never responded.
I met him twenty years earlier at the World War II memorial graveyard that rested behind a playground in our neighborhood. We were both there with friends, but not together. He asked me for one of my Newport Lights I kept in my purse. Later, he told me it was sexy when I lit the cigarette in his mouth for him. When we first started going out, I held all the power in the relationship, but I didn’t feel that until it started to slip away.
His first posts online were from five years earlier after serving time in prison for some vague crime. He made it sound like no big deal—he made friends, got promoted at his job in the kitchen, read every book in the makeshift library. He asked me to visit him when he was released, but anytime I agreed to go, he’d start sexting me some bullshit that I ignored, and he’d get pissed at me. We stopped speaking two years ago.
I stalked Lucas’ childhood best friend Benny on Facebook to see if he’d post the obituary. Growing up, Benny scared me. His dad was rumored mafioso. Benny supposedly owned a gun. He was a white boy, but he hung out with Latin Kings. Benny was always fighting. If he came over to my house with Lucas, he remained silent, then would whisper in Lucas’ ear. A minute would pass, and Lucas would tell me they had to go, and he’d call me later.
Lucas was my boyfriend for one year. His parents were never home. I walked to his house every day and we’d play Nintendo or make out in his room or go get pizza. He smelled like a lawn after it was mowed, wet asphalt, and Dove soap. We started having sex after a few months of dating. Once we started doing it, I wanted us to get closer, but Lucas started to pull away. We broke up freshman year when I started to hook up with one of his boys.
We got confirmed together at church in eighth grade. I visited him at the reform school he was sent to in tenth. We secretly got back together three times before I went away to college. We took my car to the beach, to New York City. We always fought. Sometimes he’d shove me against a wall and pound the spot next to my head. It took me years to understand how fucked up that was, but I never believed he would hurt me when we were together.
Lucas punched a kid named Shawn in the face after they argued about something stupid. A week later Shawn and some of his dirtbag friends surrounded us in a McDonald’s parking lot. Lucas took off on his bike. He looked back at me as he sped away, an apology. Shawn and his friends escorted me back to Lucas’ house. They said they had no problem with me. I was pissed they cared more about my safety getting back then Lucas did.
Benny posted pictures of Lucas every day. Crying and broken heart emojis were the only caption underneath the photos. A week passed and no funeral details were mentioned so I sent Benny a DM. Yeah you’re the girl whose dad had an Acura Legend. He got my number, saying he’d get in touch about the funeral. He texted me every couple of hours. I’d wait to reply longer than I wanted to, and sometimes he’d write again where did you go?
I went to Bloomingdales to buy something new for the funeral. The service was an hour away, in Allentown, where his parents and younger sisters had moved. I wandered around the womens department and picked out a short black dress and a matching pair of suede stiletto ankle boots. I don’t know where we go when we die. But if Lucas was able to see me at his funeral, I wanted to make sure I looked hot for him.
He stopped being nice to me when he met new public school girls in ninth grade. I was at a Catholic school across town. His friend Anthony started to flirt with me and come to my house without Lucas, and I got the nerve to break up with him. One day I pulled away when Lucas tried to kiss me. What, you’re not my girl anymore? I shook my head no, and that was it. I’ve never been able to remember the rest of that afternoon’s conversation.
Later that year my school was playing his in basketball and he came to our gym to watch the game. I walked by him on purpose to ignore him, but he grabbed the hem of my uniform skirt and pulled me down next to him. He had no hard feelings, asked about my mom, told me I looked good as hell. I made some smart ass comment about not knowing what he had until he lost it and he became cold. You broke up with me, remember?
I bought a pack of cigarettes to smoke on the drive to Allentown. My chest was a cluster of knots. I wondered who I’d see at the service. When someone from our hometown died the wakes were class reunions. But Lucas barely had two dozen people at his service. His mom cried and gave me a tight hug, not letting go. Lucas said if he ever died, only me and Benny would go to his funeral. But you came, Lauren, you came.
Benny was the first person I saw when I walked into the funeral parlor. His black beard was freshly trimmed and his bloodshot eyes held minuscule inky pupils. He opened his arms to hug me, and I kissed his cheek before whispering hello into his ear. He pointed me toward the room Lucas’ body was in and said I’ll come find you in a little while. Benny had circled my orbit for two decades but this was the first conversation we’d ever had.
I was 33 when Lucas died. He was 32. His Facebook was my map to track what he’d been doing since we last spoke two years ago. I scrolled backwards to locate the date I cut him off, when his posts were mostly memes degrading women. More recent pictures were of his kids, his bike, his mother, and pictures of his girlfriend. The morning he died his profile picture switched to a selfie of him scowling, middle finger raised with pride.
I sat alone for most of the service, legs crossed, foot anxiously kicking at nothing midair. A funeral director stood up to say a few words while a slide show projected on a screen. The only pictures were of Lucas as a kid, and then the more recent Facebook pictures. Nothing from his teenage or young adult life. One picture rotated on a loop, his birthday party before freshman year. I’m not in the picture because I’m the one who took it.
I paid condolences to Lucas’ parents again before leaving. Benny was still in the hallway. I asked him to have a cigarette with me outside. We stood underneath a green and white striped awning chainsmoking. I told him I wanted to meet him for coffee sometime. I said to catch up. Like we were old friends. In a way we were. He said he’d call me in a few days to make plans. I left without looking at Lucas’ body in the casket.
Lucas got out of rehab junior year, around the time I started driving. One weekend I saw him standing alone on a corner. I pulled over, asked who he was waiting for. He opened the door, got in my car. When he said his Prozac wasn’t working, I explained it takes two weeks to kick in. Oh well. I finished them all. I said these feelings would pass, and he’d only feel this way for a little while. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Benny didn’t contact me for a week. I texted him after the funeral but the Iphone text box turned green instead of blue. I daydreamed about Lucas whenever I was alone. I read in a cafe and pretended he was sitting across from me. In the car I put on songs we loved by Mobb Deep and Nas. Imagined put that back on when I turned off Radiohead. Imagined when I read his last email asking for help again that I called him instead of deleting it.
I took a detour after the funeral, drove through the town we grew up in. I went past the graveyard where we met, my old house on Willow Avenue. I drove by the spot we always got pizza and drove the streets we walked to get back to his house afterwards. I stood on the sidewalk near his driveway, searching for the spot he etched our initials, but a big chunk of the concrete was gone, and so was LR+LG.
Benny asked to meet for coffee. An hour later I sat across from him at a diner. He backtracked his week. He’d been released from the hospital, where he was in a medically induced coma after fighting pneumonia. He got pneumonia from choking on his vomit after he overdosed. On what? He said heroin in the same tone he used to order his coffee. If there was a moment I could have walked away unscathed, that was it. But I stayed put.
A week later we were on his bed kissing after a night of driving around, listening to music, smoking cigarettes and eating fast food. I wasn’t trying to recreate how it felt to be with Lucas, but that’s what happened anyway. He unzipped my jeans. I said I wasn’t going to sleep with him. I want to fuck you with my mouth. For the next week Benny lived with his head in between my legs, somewhere Lucas had never visited.
The mother of Benny’s son found out he was seeing someone new, and she started telling their friends he owed her child support. He thought that getting some of his female friends to jump his ex outside of her job was the solution. You can’t do that. I said it would scare his little son to know his mom got attacked. I hoped that would get through to him. He didn’t go through with it but still told me We weren’t brought up the same way.
He lost his job when he got hospitalized. I paid for all our dinners. I paid his phone bill so we could stay in contact with each other. A month into dating he left for Florida to build condos with a friend and make a ton of money that he never got. I flew to Florida and kept him company on the drive home paying for gas, hotel, tolls. He felt bad being broke all the time. He never asked me for a penny but took everything I offered with a thank you honey.
Lucas called me an hour before my senior prom. He needed a ride to his friends house. I picked him and the friend up with my hair swept into a curled updo. His friend asked me where I was headed all dolled up. I felt shy admitting I had a new boyfriend. Lucas cradled my neck and bit my lip kissing me goodbye when I dropped them off. I cried driving home and had to redo my makeup before my new boyfriend came to pick me up.
Meeting the people in Benny’s life left me with an uncomfortable insight into who he was. His mom acted like Benny better not screw this up. His cousins were dying to tell me stories about him but Benny told them they better fucking not, so they didn’t. The girlfriends of the guys he met in jail and rehab didn’t give me the time of day. They’re intimidated by you. If I asked him to meet my friends he gave an excuse and said no.
An ER nurse called me in the middle of the night and asked me to come pick Benny up. He’d started a fight at a bar, cracked his face on a sidewalk and been in surgery. He’d been restrained for trying to escape a few times. When I arrived Benny’s bloodied, crusted mouth smiled then immediately winced in pain. Driving home I said I thought you weren’t drinking. He stared out the window and replied Yeah. Well. I am now.
He couldn’t get a job. He laid around. Watched The Wire. I took him to my family beach house for a weekend but he slept most of the time, or scrolled his phone. An ex of his started commenting on his Instagram posts. I was prettier than her. But he never posted any pictures of us. He’d go days without saying much but could be brutally honest when goaded. I think you’re trying to turn this into something I‘m really not capable of handling.
On Memorial Day he admitted he’d been getting stoned and fighting an urge to go to a crack house in Newark. For one dumb second I felt safe. He couldn’t buy crack since he had no money. He laughed his ass off. Pulled a gun and a crack pipe from his jeans and said that getting money wasn’t a problem for him. I felt like he was cheating on me. But drugs were the other woman. I left crying, but I didn’t break up with him.
We went out for steaks, loaded baked potatoes, drinks. Afterwards he asked to go home. He was tired and missing Lucas. I dropped him off but didn’t leave. I shut my headlights off, parked across the lot, and watched him leave his house a few minutes later. I followed him onto the highway but lost him among the traffic. He wasn’t surprised when I broke up with him the next day. Said I deserved better and that he was going back to sleep now.
Benny told me he couldn’t put an ounce of effort into our relationship when he wanted so badly to be left the fuck alone. I wanted to be around people who knew me when I was with Lucas. I had lunch with my childhood best friend. I confessed it was agonizing never knowing if Benny ever gave a shit about me or not. She said I should focus on the bigger issue here. I asked what she thought the bigger issue was. The fucking gun and the crack pipe.
I thought if he found a job, got sober, missed me, loved me, or just felt like reaching out, he would come back and we’d go to diners, listen to music, kiss, act like we were sixteen years old again. All I wanted was to stay friends. Weeks turned into months. I sleepwalked through the summer, obsessed with noticing the walls people built around themselves, only revealing what they wanted others to see.
It took me months to realize I’d been dishonest with Benny. He never hid who he was, what he struggled with, where he placed his values. The first night we hung out he’d told me he overdosed on heroin. I ignored it because I liked the way being around him made me feel. Did I love Benny, or did I love the person he reminded me of. Did I regret that things fell apart between us, or did I regret that my bridge to Lucas was gone.
Anytime someone I love dies, I develop an obsession with telling myself a story about how their death is my fault. I can stretch for meaning, my place in their death, in the most absurd ways. It’s the only way I can manage how out of control I feel when I am faced with any sort of loss. To think. If I’d only replied to that email. That somehow my reply would mean two years later he wouldn’t have died on that sidewalk.
I don’t know how young we were. But we were fighting again. I wanted something that he wasn’t willing to give me. You’re such a fucking brat, you think you can have whatever you want. If only this was the truth. I would concede of his death under the condition that I got to talk to him for just a little while longer. Imagine all of the things that could be said if I knew it was the last time. If we were so close that I didn’t even need to think about.