Every once in awhile, another ghost moves into the pool house. They like it there, curled up behind the floats and tucked into inner tubes, since it’s January and nobody uses the pool house in January. At night, when they think we’re not watching, they creep about the trees, as white and pale as the leaves of the beeches. Sometimes Mark likes to turn on the pool lights to startle them, which is cruel and could also wake the children, which would startle them, too: they don’t know about the ghosts. The ghosts are our secret, one of the few we have left.
The first ghost moved in at the beginning of September, the night we pulled the tarp over the pool. We made Sidecars and let Allison and Astra swim after dark and invited over the Goldbergs, because Mark has a crush on Stephen’s new wife. She is the kind of girl who wore halter tops in college and still uses the phrase “freaking out,” so I am less jealous than I otherwise would be. Additionally, she was a Marketing major, which embarrasses Mark. We noticed the ghost after Stephen and the Marketing major had left, smelling of Cointreau and lemon juice and chlorine. We watched through the sliding doors as it approached a citronella candle and fingered the tablecloth.
Do you think it’s hungry?, I asked.
It’s not a dog, Mark said. Actually, I think it went to my high school. Christopher Bruno! That’s Chris. It doesn’t look like him, but I know it’s him.
We called all the ghosts “it,” wondering if this was disrespectful but unable, in the end, to refer to them as if they were neighbors or old friends, even if they were. We made up a bed for Chris in the pool house and I, feeling guilty, left him toast in the morning, but he ignored both. The second ghost came a few days later, one we didn’t recognize. The two made quiet roommates, sleeping next to each other, using water wings as pillows. Three more came in with December and the first snow, gusting lightly through the trees. At night they explored their new home, ducking under branches, plucking the red, vulgar fruit from the yews.
They’re just dropping the berries all over the ground, Mark complained. We’re going to have to pick up after them all the time.
Yew do it! I said.
I better, Mark said, or we’ll be berried alive.
Oh, yew, I answered. Oh, yew.
We liked to drink while we watched the ghosts, sending the girls out on sleepovers and staying up late together like we were still in college. We made popcorn and puns and felt like our old selves.
The latest ghost changes all this. At first, we don’t realize a sixth has joined the others, and we play with the pool lights as usual. Then we notice it, thinner and sadder looking than the others, asleep in the deflated wading pool.
Let’s just wade it out, Mark suggests, but I don’t answer: this is Conor O’Malley. This is my old boyfriend, this is my first man-friend, who had hair on his chest and worked with me, one summer, at a Wild West-themed amusement park. He wore a denim vest and I wore my hair in braids, even though I was just a cashier girl, until fall came and we fell apart. This is Conor and he is in my backyard.
I tell Mark all this, but he’s not so impressed; after all, Chris came first. So what? he says. He hasn’t bothered us yet.
This is true, but I’m still worried. I stay home from work and sit with binoculars in Astra’s room, which has the best view of the pool house. Through the lenses, the garden is enormous: I can see the bumpy nipple of the beach ball and the buds of the sugar maples, pronged like deer hooves. I can see two of the nameless ghosts napping in the pool house, neatly folded upon themselves like clean towels, and then I see Conor, looking back at me. I drop the binoculars and call Mark immediately.
Well, he says. Is he really looking at you?
Yes, I say.
Just distract yourself, he says, and I am surprised to find he sounds jealous, but not surprised that I am pleased. When he comes home, he kisses me in front of the sliding doors, and I know he is hoping that Conor can see us.
This lasts a few weeks, until Penelope arrives. Penelope is Mark’s college girlfriend, and I have seen pictures of Penelope: Penelope was very beautiful. Now she’s a ghost, like all the other ghosts, but Mark becomes wary and distant, and once I catch him returning the binoculars to their drawer in the kitchen. Now I am jealous too, and I cat around the house, trying to get Mark’s attention. Even when this works, though, I worry he’s thinking of Penelope—narrow hips, black curls, the leather strap of a purse pressing into her shoulder—or, worse, the ghost of Penelope—not just a little waist, but no waist at all. No waste at all: she cannot do anything to become less loved.
We go back and forth for a whole season. Spring comes, tentative and yellow, and then retreats. More ghosts come, some strangers, some we once knew or kissed or even loved, and as the days grow warmer, so do they. One violet evening in June, just after we’ve opened up the pool, we see Conor and Penelope holding hands. They look out over the pool, the surface reflecting nothing, and into the house. More ghosts gather around the edge, all of them paired off, everyone who had once loved us loving someone else.
What can we do? Fill the pool? Sell the house? Instead we go swimming, surrounded by ghosts, the last choice remaining for us, for whom everything has been chosen.