Let’s talk about “The Ghost,” because there’s a history to the song that is perhaps more interesting than the song itself.

In the fall of 2005, I lived in Nagoya, Japan as a student at Nanzan University. It was a brief stint, but the densest four-and-a-half months of my life. It seemed that nearly everything I did, I was doing for the first time. Among these firsts was the first time I’d ever set out on a lonely walk and returned home less lonely. I made lifelong friends at a tiny and dim but loud bar, the Rosetta Stone, home to men’s men, honky-tonk women, rock ‘n roll, and a great many Western spirits, all juxtaposed by the enormous cemetery across the street, which was itself home to a great many Eastern spirits.

The Rosetta Stone.

It was at Nanzan that I also met M, who was to be my first overseas sweetheart. She was hard won, but I’ll get to that.

It was early in the semester when I was walking home from language class and I heard, faintly, the call of my name. “Faintly” because I was wearing enormous, sound-blocking headphones, meaning that she was actually calling quite loud. I turned to see a Korean girl I recognized from class.

She told me that she and her friend had been talking about how scared they were to speak to Americans, and so she’d resolved to go out of her way to try and face her fear. I supposed she could think of no better way to put the wheels in motion than to shout randomly at an American on the street. Her initiative impressed me, and I suppose my congeniality vindicated her resolve, and before we could account for consequences, we had hit it off.

We spent evenings talking for hours in her dorm room, boy and girl alone, something which she confessed was a first for her. When the pieces all fit, though, she retracted. The inevitable was that we would both be due back to our respective countries in a matter of months. I thought that was her only reasoning at the time, but now, looking back, I know that there was more to the puzzle.

For M was a girl chased down at every turn and badgered by death and despair. Details too painfully personal to reveal here left M with no reason to trust others or believe in good fortune. Death pursued her aggresively, deliberately, comically, like a sentient antagonist coaxing her with horrific imagery. Even in the short time that I knew her, she saw a cat meet its slow, writhing demise by the wheel of a bicycle, and a neighbor fall past her apartment window to his death.

Still, she wore a sort of vibrant charm that you’d be blind to miss, and she opened her heart to me in time. She was a wavering but lively stem in an otherwise wilted garden. After learning her traumatic past, I marveled at her resilience. We enjoyed an intense romance, and we made it our own. We shared slow dances to Damien Rice. We snuck onto campus rooftops after dark listening to Nat King Cole, looking out over the entire urban landscape. I asked her on multiple occasions how anyone so haunted could be so alive, and she would reply,

“That’s easy. It’s ‘cuz I’m a ghost.”

An ethereal beauty, accented by two subtly different eyes, lent itself well to this notion, and “The Ghost” became her secret alias. “You’re larger than life,” I’d say to her. “You must be a ghost.”

One evening after a visit to the Rosetta Stone, I took her for a stroll through the cemetery. The place was more vast than any cemetery I’d ever seen in Japan or back home, but was blanketed with a serene beauty that I found mesmerizing. Within, sounds and voices would be muffled as they are in snow, so that despite the openness of the place, you seemed to be enveloped in something unseen. Maybe this makes me strange, but it was one of the most romantic places I’ve ever been.

The "spirit garden," as it is known, in daylight.

But M was a struggling girl. It must have taken all she could muster to think positively, but her resolve was not unshakeable. She was prone to drastic changes of heart and sudden outbursts of anger spurred by mistrust. I tried reasoning with her in those times, but ultimately it was always her own whimsy that brought her back to the light side; I couldn’t see as to how I had any part in it. One moment she’d be shouting and accusing, the next she’d be in my arms.

One night entering the late weeks of autumn, she and I were in her room studying separate subjects. Me, language, she, literature. She read a photocopied packet of excerpts from Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. Periodically she would mutter some objection to the reading material: “I really don’t want to be reading this.”

“Just go a little further and we can take a break,” I said. But when her persistent objection to the widely-celebrated book struck me as odd, I looked up to discover that she had polished off most of an entire bottle of sake while I’d had my nose in my own book.

“M, you all right? You’ve been drinking,” I said. She burst into tears. Not literally, but close. It was here that she said something to me that I’ll never forget.

“My life is written in this book. It’s all exactly the same.”

It was then that M revealed several of the devastating events of her childhood and teenaged years, but also specified that those were not the events depicted in the book. Those were separate, and for some reason, she wouldn’t tell me about them. I realize now that if I had loved her the way she needed to be loved, I would have skipped class the next day, gone to a bookstore to obtain Norwegian Wood, and immediately devoured the book in its entirety before sprinting full-speed back to her to tell her everything was going to be all right. But I was young and unaware of the power that I held. She didn’t want me to know what had happened to her, because she had never been truly known by another.

After some consoling, we buried the incident. In the coming weeks, my impending departure from Japan loomed close and tension grew. We fought viciously the day before I was to leave, but made up by the day of. A freak snowstorm sent my morning flight down a path of delays until it was finally postponed to the next day. Exhausted, we found ourselves on the airport floor, the sun already down.

She took me back to her dorm that night, our walk back from the train decorated by the blankets of snow. And with that extra night together that surely Someone had planned out for us, we shared yet another first.

M needed someone to be “all in” for her. I wasn’t that. I was simply too young. Too liberal, perhaps. Too energized by my experiences in Japan to commit to someone so prone to changes of heart, so in need of help. I was neither strong enough nor convinced enough to be her rock, and it was a matter of a single month of living apart before our relationship ended–quite bitterly. In a final email (a breakup method we’ll never live down) she vowed to “return the scars” I’d inflicted on her.

In the following months, I explored new, liberal avenues of young adulthood. I took chances when the presented themselves, and compromised my morals a hearty handful of times. At bookstores, I would pass by copies of Norwegian Wood and sometimes feel the gaze of the girl on the cover, hot and inquiring. Sometimes I would stand and stare at the book, deliberating. I was scared to know the truth about M, now that she was in the past. What good would it do now?

Eventually, though, I did buy a copy. I bought it and planted it by my bed, where it stayed untouched, gazing at me nightly.

This book haunted me for upwards of a year.

A subsequent series of romantic false starts and shattering realizations brought me to my college graduation. After graduation, there was nothing. I lived with my parents, jobless and peerless. The summer was relaxing enough, giving me time to finally get readjusted to life in the States. But over time I realized how empty and alone I had become. With a degree in Japanese, I’d seen Japan once and wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go back. I spent the bulk of my time in my room, wallowing in nostalgia but with no drive to create new experiences. My thoughts turned paranoid and trepidacious. As if overnight, I developed an acute fear of my own heart, not the metaphor but the actual, physical organ. I felt it was a ticking timebomb.

Terrified, I tried my best to explore available outlets. My interest in Japanese film soared. I watched as many movies as I could get my hands on, the recommendations of Tom Mes, Snowblood Apple, and of course, the late Rodger Swan acting as my guides.

Of note, I watched Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s grimly confrontational Séance and Pulse. Pulse, in particular, would prove to be one of the most influential movies I’d ever seen. Its sublime, overwhelming subject matter confronted me with harsh suggestions–that we are all necessarily alone, and will always be alone, even after death. That death is eternal loneliness and nothing more. That the internet, which at the best of times has a seemingly divine ability to connect people with one another, ultimately fails to save us from our solitude, which is impermeable. As the film’s heroine, Harue, points out, we seekers of human companionship who are glued to our machines are barely even alive. We may as well be wandering ghosts ourselves. When the specter delivered his devastating line late in the film, straight into the camera, it was as though he was gazing straight into my eyes and speaking to me.

“Death is eternal loneliness.”

I cowered beneath my covers, my eyes glued to the screen.

I put the film’s hypothesis to test first-hand by obsessively checking Facebook and email. I longed to get back in touch with M, whom I hadn’t seen in most of a year at that point, but who suddenly I missed desperately. She was the last person with which I felt I had shared something special, and I had little faith in any sort of bright future, what with my ticking timebomb–my hammering heart.

At last, I picked up Norwegian Wood and devoured it. The truth was shocking, but I will let you discover that on your own or else feel content that perhaps you now have a taste of what it was like for me, not knowing the truth for all that time.

Reflecting on M, I remembered fondly her nickname, “The Ghost,” and wondered what she were up to now. I wondered if she’d ever gotten over her pain, or if she’d succumbed to it. Perhaps her antagonist–Death–had caught up to her by now. Perhaps she had found new love, someone who could understand her better. Meditating on the possibilities, I wrote “The Ghost” and dedicated it to her. But it was through this musing and the challenges raised by Pulse that I came upon the key realization of the song–that it was I who had become like a ghost, a shade of my former self wandering and wallowing in fear. Then, like a horror movie’s final twist, the song’s last line brings an admission of this.

Are you a shade of the thing you used to be?

Or was that me?

The terrifying twist--The Ghost was me.

Whether it works as a song is perhaps not for me to decide, but its final realization was very truly a realization I had as I wrote it, and as such, a pivotal moment in my life. I knew it was time to pick up and do something–anything, if only for the sake of not giving in. Like Pulse’s own protagonist, Kawashima, I could only “go as far as I could go,” but I realized then that that was all I needed to do.

Full lyrics:

Where are you?
What are you up to?
Where are you now that I’m so far?
What are your rules, now that I don’t know where you are?

Are you on a plane?
Are you staring with disdain at yet another man who could not look you in the brain?
Are you still calling yourself “The Ghost”?

Are you still making the most of it,
Or are you gently gliding above the floor in vain?
By any chance, are you back in the land?
Will I see through you or crumple at your glance?

‘Cos you had these hands that I won’t soon forget

Like I forgot to bet my whole life on a situation that required it.
But I digress,
‘Cos what about that borrowed dress and those eyes,
Those eyes, those one-of-a-kinds?
And all those crazy hypocrites accuse you of a craziness
That they wouldn’t dare to condone
But you’re the belle of the ball, you’re the sanest one of all
They may say you’re “off your rocker,” but I’d see you in a throne!

Where are you?

What are you up to?
Where are you now that I’m so far?
What are your rules, now that I don’t know where you are?

Are you in a limousine, being treated like the queen,

And have you done away with all the evidence of me?
Are you stuck in dire straits or have you since been liberated
Of all those painful memories?
Locked in a room and you tossed out the key

Where are you?

What are you up to?
Where are you now that I’m so far?
What are your rules, now that I don’t know where you
Are you in a Christian steeple,
Learning to abandon people?
Are you getting any sleep,
Or do you stay up late, deliberating?
Are you cursing me a pig?
Or paying for your own grave-digger?
Have you found another love,
Or only dirt, decay, and rigor?
Are you still calling yourself The Ghost
Are you now fully engrossed in the role
Of taking out your rage on the verb “to be”?
Are you breaking through the atmosphere,
And do perhaps you find it queer,
Your whole damn death confined to melody?
Are you a shade of the thing you used to be?

. . . . Or was that me?

Notes: 

  • Some lyrics have changed slightly since the above version was recorded. I’ve typed out the lyrics as I sing them now.
  • The howling at the end of each chorus is to represent that of The Ghost, of course.
  • Looking over this now, I realize the significance of the line, “Will I see through you or crumple at your glance?” which was a suggestion that I no longer knew how I felt about her. If we were to meet again, would I even notice she was there? Or conversely, would the mere sight of her devastate me? A covert reference to Ringu and others.