Every day on my way to class, I walk past Notre Dame’s cemetery. In keeping with my eight-year-old self’s mythology, I hold my breath for as long as possible to prevent any uninvited hauntings. This was how my friends and I distracted ourselves on long bus-rides to the Milwaukee Museum of Art or Old World Wisconsin: We scouted the edge of the road for tombstones and gasped when they appeared in neat rows. Together we mocked whoever deflated first, looked for evidence that they had inhaled an eighty-three-year-old woman. Arielle would say, “By golly,” goading us on, and we would name her newfound spirit. Sometimes, I confess, I would purposefully lose the game. I’d offer up the name Adelaide and tell stories of her life, as though it were unfolding behind my closed eyelids.
As a kid, I often found myself yearning to embody others, especially in those moments when people left me alone to my thoughts. Call it escapism, but when I was nine years old, Xena Warrior Princess used to take over my body. She would save a busload of children after a catastrophic car accident, pulling them from windows just as fire hit the gas tank and the vehicle exploded in the background. These heroics never actually belonged to me. I always separated myself from the action, conversed with Xena in my head as she contorted my body into a superhero pose for the camera. I felt a desire to relinquish control of my body to someone older, wiser, and, most importantly, bolder.
When I was thirteen, my therapist told me that this brand of dissociative fantasy was common to children who had experienced trauma. She also observed that I had become more open over the year I had spent with her, that in my first few sessions, I would pull my legs up against my chest and hide from her gaze. I had no recollection of this comportment. It was here that it first occurred to me that I may already be haunted—not by strong, beautiful women, but by my family’s shortcomings. I had inhaled all of their anxieties, their depression, the remnants of their poor judgment.
My sister called recently to relay rumors she’d heard of our father. Someone had seen him hanging around under-age boys. Our mother thinks he may be offering them alcohol in exchange for “their company,” my sister said. When I expressed some doubt, she told me a story. Shortly after our father lost his custody rights, he had “an affair” with a fifteen-year-old boy. My family deals in euphemisms. I sometimes find myself wishing after ignorance, wishing that I believed my father simply was making new friends of teenagers.
My sister radiates disgust, but all I can think is that he sounds lonely.
I can’t help it.
I want my father to know he is loved.
I just don’t want to be the one who loves him.
Abby Burns is a queer feminist currently residing in Indiana where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Notre Dame. Her work has appeared in Entropy, (b)OINK zine, Microfiction Monday Magazine, and (now) Longridge Review. Follow Abby on Twitter: @_AbbyBurns.