La Zona Fantasma: Ghosts and Ancient History

As I write this I suddenly realize that All Souls’ Day, November 1, might have been a more timely date for the publication of this article, but alas, that is one of the (very few) inconveniences of not being a religious man. Life is life, however, and certain truths do not always dawn on us in a timely fashion; they come when they come. And in the end, there is so much more to be pondered in November, the month that Herman Melville always associated with melancholy, as he so succinctly expressed it at the beginning of Moby-Dick, through the voice of Ishmael, his narrator who said that “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can,” since the sea was his “substitute for pistol and ball.”

In my case, a few days ago I decided it was high time I clean up my old address book, with its dog-eared oilcloth cover and its haphazard, chaotic content—last names starting with “C” that had long since overflowed into the “E” section because the “C” and “D” pages were entirely filled up with other names, just like “M,” “R,” and so many other sections. As I contemplated this tedious task I realized that it had been twenty-five or perhaps even thirty years since I had last updated my address book, not ten or twelve as I had first thought. Or perhaps the last time around I had simply decided what I knew I would inevitably decide this time as well: not to eliminate a single name, not even those of the dead people whose telephone numbers and addresses were no longer of any use to me. This is entirely possible. It is also possible that ten or twelve years ago, I may have felt it disloyal or unfair to erase those names that had once been a part of my life, albeit in the briefest or most tangential way.

In my address book the most arbitrary of entries are the names and numbers of several people who live abroad, people I met perhaps once in my life, if at all— the kind of names and numbers that, when you are very young and embarking on a trip somewhere, parents and friends pass on to you in case something terrible or mildly unpleasant happens to you, and you don’t know who to call. I have no idea who any of these people are, though their names remain on the tattered graph-paper pages of my book. Roberto Oltra. Beatrice Brooks, whose address somewhere in San Mateo, California, is a place I have certainly never visited in my life. Vibeke Munk, whose name stirs up the vague recollection of a young Danish woman I must have chatted with on a train ride, though the place and time escape me now. Nelson Modlin and Freddy Melgar, Maria Panos from Massachusetts, Piers Rodgers in London or Valerie Lejeune… as I look at these names now I am bewildered to think that I once knew who they were and that I had a reason to jot down their telephone numbers on some distant night that suddenly flashes through my mind as I glance down at their names, written down in my very own handwriting. And I hope they forgive me if I should remember them more clearly than I am able.

There are other names still that I may recognize, but the memories are so distant and diluted that I can no longer recall the faces attached to them, the faces of people who passed through my life as rapidly as I surely passed through theirs. I see the name of my university classmate Angeles Carrasco, a sweet and slightly awkward girl with blue eyes and red hair who later died after falling out of a window in the city of Glasgow— whether or not she jumped, I don’t know, nor can I remember who told me about her sad end, but the fact has stayed with me all this time. I see the name of Roberto Pujadas, an Argentinian, I believe, who without even knowing me was kind enough to get me a free pass to the Cinemathèque in Paris when I was sixteen years old. I never saw him again after our one interchange, and a few years back when I learned of his death I suddenly felt that I had never thanked him enough for his tremendous and very altruistic favor. And then I see the name of Laurie Cunningham, the British winger who once played for Real Madrid whom I once interviewed on behalf of a girlfriend who knew nothing of soccer; he died in a car accident many years later. I see the names of Edouard de Andreis and Gilles Barbedette, my first editors in France, two charming and brilliant men who died within a day of each other, both at the end of long and harrowing illnesses. I also see names that don’t make me particularly sad, though their place in my address book is something of a mystery to me. Philip and Jane Rylands from Venice, for example: I believe I visited them there sometime, though I cannot possibly say that I know them in any real sense. And then of course there are the telephone numbers of women I must have met some night in a bar, and whom I either never dared to call, or called but never succeeded in dating despite the promising telephone number that had been handed to me.Who were Suzanne Weldon and Caterina Visani, whose names I gaze at now? I couldn’t possibly put a face to their names the way I can, for example, with Muriel Sieber and Mercedes Vivian, though I can’t recall much more about them, either.

And then there I am, a name in my own address book, listed in the foreign countries I once lived in, attached to street names and telephone numbers I would have surely forgotten had I not written them down here. Via della Lupa 4, in Rome: that must have been 1975. Horton House, 666 Washington Street: Massachusetts, 1984, some twenty years ago. 22 Woodstock Road: Oxford, a much clearer memory

Now, perhaps, you can understand why I have decided against updating my old address book: I think I’d rather stick with the one that I have, filled with demighosts and ancient history, more and more dogeared and confusing with each passing day. Perhaps it is because there are so many things that recede from the mind without any effort at all that it seems somehow excessive to voluntarily eliminate the vestiges and echoes of people that were once present, and important in my life, distant as they may seem now.

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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