In 1987, as a newly married Jewish housewife living outside Boston, I had never heard of Near Death Experiences, let alone the fact that people who return from them are prone to run-ins with the world of spirits. Already a restless, irritable, and discontented drunk despite my husband’s wealth, I was consumed with infatuation for a 23-year-old Chinese-American instructor from the spa, Fitness Unlimited, where I taught aerobics.
Few people could have been less interested in the paranormal than I was at this point. Not only was I a staunch materialist atheist who had managed to cram whatever surreal drug trip she’d experienced at the Peppermint Lounge five years earlier into the most remote corners of her mind, but I was so self-absorbed, so focused on pulling Janie into my world, that I had no attention to devote to anything else. I did not believe spirits walked the earth. I did not believe in the other side, the realm of spirit. And I’d label anyone who did a loony. Nonetheless, into my experience came another paranormal event, something even less explicable to me than whatever had happened when I “died.”
The FU bookkeeper, Edith, had a beach house in Gloucester to which she regularly invited the FU crew for weekends of “partying” – i.e. getting fucked up. As I’ve said, my husband eschewed these gatherings, so when Edith invited us all out there for a winter visit, he didn’t come along – although he came to pick me up there on Sunday, as we had to be somewhere. Janie’s boyfriend, Jerry, came down that weekend with her, and luck put them in the bedroom next to mine, where I could hear their springs rhythmically squeaking as I tried to sleep. The sound was torture to me. I loved Janie. I had no earplugs. I was filled with jealousy and despair – how would I ever win her away from a man? All my clandestine hopes seemed foolish, and I cried.
I woke very early the next morning to their voices, a soft exchange of tonalities coming through the wall. I would endure no more squeaking. I got up and went downstairs. The living room was filled with sleeping guests. Since it was only about seven o’clock, I couldn’t so much as whistle the kettle, what with people passed out on all the sofas. Outside, a winter storm was casting sheets of rain at the large picture windows. Inside me was a turmoil of frustration and despair over Jerry and Janie’s lovemaking. To me it seemed perfectly fitting to venture out alone in the storm à la Wuthering Heights or King Lear, to rage against the gods who denied me what I so poignantly longed for. I bundled up in some of Edith’s family raingear and went out.
The clouds hung so low I could see only a hundred yards ahead of me. To my left were beachside houses getting pelted with rain, and to my right, wind-whipped waves pounding the beach. I walked for some time, immersed in rain and wind, feeling hopeless and empty. Gradually the row of houses gave way to grassy sand dunes that stretched back for some distance. There was some kind of estuary behind them, some place no one could build. And out of these dunes came a man.
He emerged from the tall clumps of grass about fifty feet in front of me, walking straight toward the water as if intent on some business, with a purposeful stride in high black boots. I could see from this distance that he was stocky, maybe in his sixties, with a beard more grizzled than not. But what I admired about him as I got closer, him coming down from the upper sands as I approached him perpendicularly, was his boss raingear. It was vintage yellow, just like the old Mackintosh raincoats and rainpants my parents kept in the front hall closet when I was a child, their rubber half rotted. His hat, too, was old school Mackintosh – which I admired. Now I felt a kinship with him in two ways: not only were we the only two people crazy enough to be out at this ungodly hour in horrific weather, but we both appreciated the good, old fashioned value of vintage stuff. In New York, I’d made many trips to the Alphabet streets to find quirky old garments. Clearly, this guy did the same for rain gear.
But what was he so intent on? We were almost going to bump into each other, I saw, if we both kept to our current paces. His face carried some kind of intense apprehension about whatever he was looking for out on the horizon. Reflexively I checked in that direction, too, though there was nothing to be seen out there but tumultuous waves and mist. I decided I would compliment him on his duds. I made those inner preparations we make to address a stranger. But even within a yard of me, he kept ignoring me to stare fixedly toward the horizon.
“How’s it going?” I shouted cheerfully over the wind.
At that his head rotated just a few degrees in my direction, but he still refused to look at me and didn’t alter his pace a bit, even as he passed so close that I could have grabbed his shoulder.
Which was just plain rude, I thought as I walked on. Here we are the only two people crazy enough to be out in this weather, I make the friendly effort to say, “how’s it going,” and he blows me off like some too-cool teenager? What the hell? He couldn’t even smile or nod or anything? Anger burbled up. Excuse me, Mr. Fucking Fish Sticks! I turned to look at him in disgust—
– and there was no one. The beach was empty.
I looked out at the breaking waves. Had he sprinted down and dove straight into them? The water curled and churned without a trace. Was he determined to drown himself by staying under? Was that why he’d seemed so tense and absorbed, because he’d been suicidal? I’d wait him out. No one could keep even their back from breaking the surface; it wasn’t possible. Surely I’d see something – his hat? It would float. It had to float.
Nothing. My eyes swept the beach. Weird! There was no place to which even a young guy could have disappeared so fast. Even if he’d booked full speed, there was no way he’d make it back up all the way to the dunes. And the beach itself offered no hiding places. He’d simply vanished.
I took a few more steps…. and then I stopped again. Vanished…like a ghost.
But ghosts were an absurd and corny notion. An old fisherman ghost, too, that was just ridiculous. Fuck that. I’d get to the bottom of this right now. I went to look for his tracks. I followed mine back to about where his should cross them. There were none. The sand was undisturbed but for my footprints. Maybe I’d walked further than I thought after we crossed? So I went on, I kept looking.
Mine were the only tracks on the beach.
Help! What do you do when something completely inexplicable needs to be explained? When something categorically impossible has just occured? This was no hallucination. The panther I’d seen in my half-wakened panic attack, that had been like a dream, indistinct and more about feeling than physical details. This was a human being. An individual man. I’d been calm. I’d seen his crowsfeet, the broken capillaries of his skin, the way his eyes shifted when his head turned just a bit toward my voice. He’d walked at a continuous pace, as mundane as any squat older man.
Except for the vanishing part. The zero tracks part. Human beings did not do that. Yet it didn’t matter how long I searched; every track bore my imprint. I, Louisa P–, had seen a ghost walk the earth.
I hurried back to the beach house where I found a few people now awake. I babbled out what had just happened.
“Fuckin’ A! Awesome!” everyone said. “That’s so rad!” “A seafaring ghost? Right on!”
Nobody understood that this not awesome. There was nothing rad, right on, or righteous about it because it had actually happened to me. To live an experience you can’t understand is an upheaval, a deep disturbance. I did not, would not, could not believe in ghosts!
“Oh, there’s all kinds of ghosts around Gloucester!” said Edith, who was mixing scrambled eggs. She spoke as though I’d spied the state bird. “So many ships went down, so many men drowned. They have a monument at the esplanade – there’s, like, a thousand names.” Then she concerned herself with cooking breakfast.
Everyone acted as though I should just marvel, shrug, and let it go. What they didn’t understand was, while you can do that with something unlikely or remarkable, you can’t do it with something impossible. Impossible requires a rewrite of reality. And, once again, I was not prepared to go there. Now I didn’t give a crap about Janie and Jerry’s screwing. I didn’t care if Janie and I never got together. All I wanted was for the world to behave itself – according to my rules, my dad’s rules, the rules of anyone who knew how reality worked.
When Ethan came to get me later that morning, the weather had cleared enough that he was willing to come out on the beach and help me look one more time for tracks. Mine were all over the place, smoothed by rain, and other people had added theirs since. None, however, originated from the dunes. I wanted to cry with frustration: I had seen him! A real person. Eventually, Ethan pried me away. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was guessing my “ghost” had been either a pink elephant or some kind of adolescent ploy for drama and attention.
Eventually I had no alternative but to leave the incident behind me as an inexplicable experience, not knowing it to be the first of fourteen equally explicable phenomena –i.e. my Fourteen Weird Things – scattered over the course of my life to date. Why I experienced it, I wouldn’t learn for twenty-some years, when I at last attended the Seattle chapter meeting of the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS), and began to learn from fellow NDE survivors that they, too, had paranormal experiences similar to mine. In fact, seeing spirits, prescience, and accidentally reading others’ thoughts are all common side-effects of having crossed over. In the company of my fellow NDE survivors, they’re not even a big deal. Today I wonder if I may have seen other dead spirits in passing but assumed, as I did with the vintage-rain-geared fisherman, that they were living. In few places would a vanishing be so evident as on an open, sandy beach.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. For now, I still refused to believe I’d ever crossed over anything, let alone come back with a rupture in my energetic capsule that occasionally let in spiritual phenomena. What a bunch of hooey!
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