David Foster Wallace once wrote that every love story is a ghost story. That phrase always had the ring of truth in it to me, but I’m afraid that I don’t fully understand what he meant by it. I’m afraid of not understanding that phrase in the way that only a closeted and fledgling art kid can truly be afraid. Unless I can successfully demonstrate my full comprehension of every layer of subtext, every referential nod if there are any, everything that he could have and did in fact mean by saying that “every love story is a ghost story” then I am…well, a fool. One of them.
But then, does it really matter what he meant when he first used that phrase? Or when he used it again and again and it kept resurfacing, dolphin-like, now in a personal letter, then again in the first draft of The Pale King, then one final time in a later draft? Or is the thing that matters most how the words affect the listener and then how well the listener can articulate that, how convincing they can be so that their meaning is listened to and accepted?
Thinking about this now reminds me of a story.
More than ten years ago my best friend and I were talking online. I think we were using AOL Instant Messenger, which we called AIM. “We gonna AIM tonight?” we would ask each other, nary a care in the world. Of course we would be AIM’ing tonight. Of course we would. The kind reader will recall that this all took place in a world before unlimited calling on nights and weekends, when “long distance” calling was still a thing. Not just a thing but also a cause for concern when your father was as sharp-eyed as mine was when looking over the monthly Sprint phone bill.
But let’s get back to the story.
My best friend, who I’ll call Brian, and I were AIM’ing away when he began to tell me about an English homework assignment that he had received from his high school English teacher earlier that same day.
“mr. adams gave us this assignment today, it was impossible. so subjective”
“what was it”
“we had to read this short story and tell him what we thought it meant”
“what was the story?”
“the story was about this woman who is having an affair and every day her lover comes to her house and they sleep together in the middle of the day when her husband is at work, and while they’re having sex she always says out loud ‘French film. French film.’ weird right”
“i’ll tell you what it means” I said.
“yeah? go for it”
“the words ‘French film’ remind her of a movie whose name she can’t remember that she saw with her father when she was really little, before he died. it is one of her only really good memories of her dad and she thinks that if she can remember the name of the film it will help her to put every piece of the memory in the right place and will give her some comfort now that her dad has passed away. the whole point of the affair from her perspective is to remember the name of this film and she thinks that if she can feel good, totally abandoned and free in the act of breaking all vows to her husband, it will put her mentally more in the place where she was before she ever took those vows, before she was married. When she was just a little girl watching a movie with her dad. And so she keeps trying to remember and she keeps failing. It has gotten now to the point where she tries every day, but she’ll never remember it. She’ll go on living and the memory will still be in pieces and the rest of her life will be too.”
For almost a minute there was no reply and I clicked on the Juno icon to check my email.
“Dude you should really be an English teacher.”
And that, I think, was the day I fell the rest of the way in love with stories.
I fell the rest of the way in love because I realized that what I had done wasn’t some kind of clever interpretation, because there wasn’t much to interpret. I had just started telling a story myself. It was like writing.
“This is something that I can do” I thought to myself. Later that year I wrote a paper in my own high school English class and my teacher, Mrs. Hanania, wrote across the top of it “Call me when you win the Pulitzer.”
It was some real feel-good BS but it was encouraging at the time and I kept writing.
So the first love story I can remember living out is between me and books. And the ghost? The ghost is that French film. The last nagging hole in the picture, the frayed end hanging from the sweater that you can’t stop wanting to pull on. The ghost is the story you haven’t written yet.
Maybe what the phrase really means is that we are haunted by what we love. That it will follow us, wake us up in the middle of the night with that bump of inspiration that seems to expand, to grow inside of you, as soon as you touch it until it fills you all the way up and you forget about the frayed sweater end because now it doesn’t matter. Now, you can just wear the sweater and be.