As my husband Joe and I walked over the Gowanus Canal on our way to the spiritualist messaging ceremony at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, I held my breath against the customary canal stench, a mix of rusted metal and rotten garbage. The decaying smell seemed an appropriate herald for the evening ahead, which we were to spend fielding communiqués from the spirit world. It was my first time attending a messaging service or anything like it—up until this point, I’d never even experimented with a Ouija board. Yet the supernatural had always held a special thrall for me; the idea of an existence beyond our mortal one so magnetic that I still held my breath when passing a cemetery. I’d always believed in ghosts, a belief primarily based on my inability to reconcile the fact that people like my parents, my friends, my husband—people like me—could just disappear, cease to exist.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Gowanus was a modern-day River Styx that night, separating my life then from my life now. Just eight months later, Joe would tell me that something had changed for him that night, and there would be no crossing over to the way our lives were before.
We stopped at a bar to meet some friends and fortify ourselves with liquid courage. “Every messaging service is different,” our friend Tiffany explained as we sipped bourbon. Having attended a couple of services, she was the closest we had to an expert. “Sometimes the medium will connect with a spirit and describe it in detail until someone in the room claims them, and sometimes they’ll just call on people.”
I glanced at my husband, sitting on the barstool beside me, and wondered what it meant to lay claim to someone, dead or otherwise. We’d been married for a little over six months, and though I loved him more than anyone else in the world, I suspected there were parts of him, entire vast swaths of his internal geography, that remained unknown to me, unmapped.
We’d been friends for years before dating, had confessed to sins both minor and significant, had spun tales of our childhoods, had shared our favorite songs and movies and books with each other. Even so, there were times when I would look up into his eyes and the color would shift, from green to hazel and back again, and I’d get scared, a pit of doubt hard in my stomach. I told myself that marriage was a journey of getting to know someone, laying a claim on them like a pioneer. But can you ever really know someone who doesn’t want to be known?
My grandmother saw my grandfather’s ghost shortly after he died, in the winter of 1981. She said he was wearing his “uniform”—a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants—and he’d been standing in the tiny hall at the top of the stairs in their house. She never saw him again after that, though every time a door slammed or a light flickered, she’d yell, “Cut it out, Bill!” It was a story I’d heard often as a child—my grandfather died before I was born—and that hall at the top of the stairs always frightened me. The idea of seeing a ghost, even the ghost of someone you loved, made my hair stand up. That’s the odd thing about ghosts—after the person you loved dies, they become something new and strange and unknowable.
My grandmother was a practical woman, never prone to romance or sentimentality, but she believed my grandfather was watching over his family. She was also a devout Catholic. I think the two beliefs, in ghosts and in God, are linked by the human need to believe in something bigger than our mortal lives.
The hope that there is another realm where our loved ones go, where eventually we will go, led to the growth of spiritualism in the nineteenth century. It is based on the belief that spirits can, and do, communicate with the living, and anyone who is “open” can receive these messages. These people, typically called mediums, hold séances and messaging services to bring the knowledge of the dead to the living. Begun by two teenagers, Margaret and Kate Fox, in upstate New York, spiritualism first gained popularity in the late 1800s, with ad hoc gatherings, tours, and lectures. The Fox sisters claimed to have communicated with the ghost of a man who’d been killed in their house years before. This belief that spirits could communicate with the living was especially attractive to grieving families of the millions of deceased soldiers during the Civil War and World War I. According to spiritualists, spirits continue to change after death, rendering them more knowledgeable about the ways of the world than the living.
Today, there are only a few clusters of spiritualists remaining, meeting in places like Lily Dale, a community in western New York that began as a spiritualist camp in 1897. Though its year-round population numbers around 275, the community draws thousands of visitors each year—tourists and believers looking to participate in workshops, mediumship demonstrations, and lectures. No matter your religion or lack thereof, there’s no denying the compelling romance of having a mysterious stranger tell you they have a message for you from the spirit realm. It is this hope that we can somehow get the answers we desperately need from our dearly departed that drives the modern spiritualist movement and filled a room in the Morbid Anatomy Museum that night in April 2013.
Joe and I met in graduate school in Boston and dated long-distance for a year before I decided to relocate to Brooklyn in the summer of 2010. Though Joe’s friends were welcoming and warm, I craved friends of my own so I would feel less like I was inhabiting his world and more like I was living my own life. By the night of the spiritualist ceremony, I was proud of the life I’d built for myself in New York, with my husband and our dog and our friends.
It was our friend Tiffany’s old roommate who’d invited the medium to lead the messaging service, so many of the faces in the audience at the Morbid Anatomy Museum that night were familiar. My friend Alex had recently broken up with her boyfriend and I knew she was still reeling, so I took a chance and invited her. I’d met Alex in the office restroom when I told her I liked her boots. She was part of a clique of four other women in the office, and I was jealous of their friendship—how they would sit in the cafeteria together every day, go to parties together on weekends. Alex and I started talking more when she was promoted to my team of development editors; soon I was eating lunch at the cool girl lunch table, too.
Alex and I remained close after she left the company. She asked to join my book club, and later I invited her to join my writing group. I told Joe how happy I was that I had found a friend like her. “We’re basically the same person,” I joked, but internally, I believed she was better than I was because she was skinnier; because now that she was single, men flocked to her in a way I couldn’t explain; because she was reckless where I was cautious, channeling her heartbreak into smoking cigarettes and kissing strangers in dark bars.
Later, it made a kind of sense when Joe began chatting with Alex online, inviting her out for drinks with us. We got in a fight at our joint birthday party because he’d been smoking with her in the bar’s backyard. I tried to explain that it wasn’t the smoking that bothered me, but that he had been sharing it with someone else while hiding it from me. He said he understood, but months later, I found a carton of tobacco and rolling papers in his sock drawer when I was putting away laundry—another secret, another sign I didn’t want to see.
The Morbid Anatomy Museum, with its high ceilings and exposed brick walls, appeared at first glance to be just another Brooklyn loft space—until you noticed the jars of medical specimens, the taxidermied animals, the skulls mounted on the walls. It was dimly lit, yellow light flooding cabinets housing specimens in jars so tiny you needed to stoop to see what was inside. Pinned butterflies sat amongst archaic medical instruments and weirdly unsettling wax models of human hands, one cupping a collapsed baby doll. It was a celebration of the macabre, the weird, the taboo.
After paying our ten-dollar admission, we wandered around the library before squeezing into folding chairs in an overwarm room facing a projector and screen. Joe and I took seats near the back of the room. While I was expecting a Stevie Nicks-like woman, wearing a diaphanous dress and headscarf, the medium was a short middle-aged woman with dyed black hair who reminded me of my ninth-grade typing teacher. She didn’t look like someone who could communicate with the dead, but maybe the spirit realm is more forgiving than our own when it comes to appearances. She began the service with a short slide presentation on spiritualism and messaging. After taking a sip of water, she launched into her reading.
“I’m feeling a spirit here who died in a motorcycle crash—does that sound familiar to anyone?” she asked. People looked around the room at one another, waiting for an epiphany that never came. There was an awkward silence, as though she’d just asked us all for money.
She went around the room, appearing to choose people at random, asking them questions, allegedly elicited from the spirits she was conducting, and waiting patiently for memories to surface. She told our friend David, sitting a few rows in front of us, that he needed to be more vigilant about his vision and his back problems. He gamely nodded and said he’d been meaning to get his eyes checked. It went on like that for about fifteen minutes, some people more into it than others, until what I’d both been dreading and hoping for happened.
“How about you, in the turquoise necklace and yellow shirt?” My cheeks flamed as her eyes fell on me. “Are you open to communication with the spirit world?”
I nodded, though I wasn’t sure.
“There’s a woman, older, always laughing and smiling,” she said.
My heart squeezed—if she hadn’t died two years earlier, that night would have been my Auntie Angie’s ninety-fourth birthday. I have a framed black-and-white picture of her and my Uncle Billy on my bedside table. In it, my uncle is handsome in his Coast Guard uniform, grinning into the camera, while my aunt’s head is thrown back with laughter, her face frozen in joy. She is sitting in a baby carriage, my uncle’s arms wrapped around her. They had been married for sixty-six years when she died, and their love had always been my model of what it meant to really love someone. At her funeral, my uncle had asked, “Isn’t she beautiful?”—one last demonstration of his complete adoration. Auntie Angie had been the happiest woman I’d ever known. Was she here, now, trying to give me a message?
“She’s asking me if you remember the lipstick. Do you know what I’m talking about? It was a kind of joke—she’d do it to make you laugh. It was a running joke, oh there she goes with the lipstick again. She’d get it all over her teeth, anywhere but where it was supposed to be. Do you remember?” the medium said.
I tried, but couldn’t. My aunt had worn lipstick, but I couldn’t drag this particular memory up from the deep. I shook my head.
“What about cats?” she persisted. “There’s a lady who loved cats.”
“No, it wouldn’t have been the person I’m thinking of,” I said. My aunt and uncle had never had pets.
“Well, it could be anyone,” she said. We stared at each other from across a great void, both of us striving to meet in the middle. She continued: “I’m seeing a small farm—nothing big, just chickens, some vegetables. Does that sound familiar to you?”
“Maybe,” I said, trying to sound encouraging, to keep the skepticism from my voice.
“Is this something you believe in?” she asked, perhaps sensing my growing discomfort, my draining faith. “I ask because I feel like you could be a medium, if you were interested in pursuing it. I am getting that sense from you.”
Confused, afraid I was in danger of being recruited into some kind of cult, I smiled and nodded nervously. I was disappointed, but I didn’t fully understand why. I hadn’t really had any expectations going into the experience, so why was I left feeling so empty? Perhaps because I feared that my inability to connect with the medium meant there was nothing else after all—we were all just doomed to our mortal existences. Or perhaps I interpreted our disconnection as a failure to understand—what if my aunt, or someone else, had had a message for me, and I was too closed-minded to understand it? Later, I thought about asking Uncle Billy if any of what the medium said sounded familiar to him, but I worried it would upset him, thinking of his beloved trying to communicate something and failing. The dead shouldn’t be saddled with a failure to communicate—it seems like something that should only plague the living.
After leaving the museum, Joe and I returned to the bar, this time with Alex and her roommate. We got beers and sat around a candle-lit table, our conversation a postmortem on the evening’s events. “Did any of what she was saying to you make sense?” Joe asked.
“Not really,” I said. “I really wanted to believe in her, but . . . I just didn’t.”
We ended up staying for multiple rounds, though we all had work in the morning, talking about death and ghosts and the living. Emboldened by the strange experience we’d all just shared, I asked Alex about the circumstances of her breakup, and she told us about how her boyfriend, the man she believed she would marry, had turned out to be someone she didn’t know at all.
Walking home, I grabbed Joe’s hand and held it tight. “That was a sad story, about Alex and her boyfriend,” I said, trying to break the silence I hated so much, that quiet reverie he would fall into sometimes.
“Yeah,” he agreed. He sounded far away, but I reasoned that it was late and we’d been drinking. I couldn’t have known that our marriage, still so fragile and new, would soon be just another dead thing, a specimen preserved not in a tiny glass jar but in the amber of memories, photos, and Gchat logs.
Eight months later, on the same day Joe told me he was in love with Alex, he told me it was the night of the messaging service when things started to shift for him. It was something he’d seen in her, some shared sorrow, something he thought he could heal and fix. That night I’d been trying to field messages from the dead, and had missed signals from the living.
After he told me our marriage was over, I left Brooklyn and he became a stranger. We never talked. He deleted every photo of me from his social media accounts, as though I’d never existed or our life together was a dream. Sometimes, when I see a tall man with dark hair and colorful sneakers, for a split second my heart skips and I think it’s him—but it never is.
Telling people what happened was difficult, but perhaps the hardest conversation was with my Uncle Billy, sitting at his kitchen table the day after Christmas. “And where’s your husband?” he asked. “Did he go see his family in Florida?”
“Well, yes.” I said. “But he’s not—we’re not—he’s not here because we’re not going to be married anymore. He told me he loves someone else, so we’re getting a divorce.”
I felt like a failure. I believed I’d found my soul mate, the person I’d spend the rest of my life with, and we hadn’t even lasted a fraction of the time my aunt and uncle had been married.
My uncle, ninety-three years old, opened and closed his mouth, the shock on his face cartoonish. “No.”
“Yes,” I said, as forcefully as I could, as though by helping him understand it I could begin to understand myself. “He’s gone.”
My uncle got angry. “Give me my phone. I’m gonna call and give him a piece of my mind. How dare he? Doesn’t he understand what marriage is?”
I told him no, though I secretly hoped he would call Joe after I’d left, tell him what marriage means. Tell him that you don’t go back on your vows after fifteen measly months.
Joe married Alex less than a year after our divorce was final. They moved across the country and had a baby. I know this because of our technological modern-day mediums, bearing messages from the unknown—messages that are perhaps best left unheard.
I used to believe that marriage meant you were able to claim someone’s love, if not their life or their soul. I thought you could truly know a person if you slept beside them every night, if you just loved them enough. But it turns out there’s always the possibility of something unknown, something beneath the surface, so quiet you don’t always believe it’s there. Even if you are willing to listen, there’s the danger that you won’t hear the messages; that you’ll be haunted by all the things left unsaid.