I am fucking terrified of children. And I don’t mean just the creepy Omen-esque Damiens with their immaculate little suits and deep dead eyes, and I don’t just mean that creepy ghost girl from The Ring. I mean all children. Your children. Your friends’ children. You as children. The thought fills me with deep, abiding dread.
Every kid I meet senses this about me. They see through me. They know I am not okay. Just two weeks ago, I was in the Murder Kroger, buying Pizza Lunchables because sometimes I get overwhelmed by emotions and they lead me places and this time they led me to a Kroger where I bought about a dozen Lunchables and I know what you’re thinking and yes, of course you’re right, I was very, very high. Like, higher than a Whitney Houston note on the Bodyguard soundtrack. I’d just received some news – a phone call from an old lover that started with “how’s the kudzu out there.” And this news, I’ll get to it, this news hit me like a sharp rock shattering a ship headed toward land, tossed in the grip of a storm.
Pieces of me were still washing ashore.
And so yes I got high and went to the Murder Kroger somehow convinced that Lunchables could save me and there I am shoving them into a basket when this kid appears out of nowhere.
He’s eight? Ten? I don’t know. He looks familiar, and this bothers me. I guess a lot of kids look familiar. When something frightens us every instance of it looks the same, right? Some metonymy of a larger, hidden leviathan, just below the surface of our conscious minds. This kid.
He’s staring at me. Damien-style. Deep, dead eyes. How long has he been watching me? I look around for parents, see none. He doesn’t break the stare. I feel it like an insistent push. As if the walls are lurching forward, like I’m Han Solo in that Trash Compactor in Star Wars and I’m deciding to turn – slowly, slowly, don’t show fear – when this kid says “Hey.”
I freeze. Not a deer in headlights freeze, more like my nerves are a house of cards in a drafty room and the wind’s about to whoosh through the windows.
“Hey,” I say.
“Give me one of those.” He says.
We’ll get back to this in a second.
First, let’s talk about kudzu. It’s living the American Dream, a stranger from a distant land who thrived against all odds. Kudzu traces its roots – get it? – all the way back to China. It’s one of the most successful immigrants in the American South. A kudzu vine can generate a foot of new growth in a single day. When it first arrived in 1876 it was lauded as a porch decoration. Soon it escaped, cast off its domestic shackles and spread across the landscape at a pace unparalleled by anything except, arguably, railroads and war.
New diseases, belligerent natives, lightning strikes and forest fires all went up against kudzu, and they all lost. Today this vine claims more than 7 million acres across the South, gobbling up more each year. Kudzu doesn’t fit into neat definitions. It almost doesn’t feel like a plant. I think of kudzu more like a ghost, like it doesn’t sprout in places so much as haunt them, and if you think about ghosts that way the world is full of them, the past is paved with ghosts, history is a palimpsest and Faulkner is right when he says the past isn’t over. Ghosts are everywhere, in our memories, in our decisions, in our mistakes. They are not content to sit. No, like kudzu, real ghosts stretch and spread and increase, and they can cover your life. They can strangle you.
So back to this phone call, the one I don’t want to think about, it starts with my ex-wife, and she’s saying “how’s the kudzu out there” and I’m saying “it’s great, I’m surprised it hasn’t reached you yet,” and we both fake laugh and she says “that’s just a story. I read in the Smithsonian that kudzu really isn’t a big deal.”
And I say “oh,” because I know I should say something but I don’t know what to say and I know she didn’t call to fight the good fight for kudzu. Some part of me knows what she’ll say next is bad news—
“I’m pregnant.” She says.
I pause. Fumble for good things. “Wow,” I say. “Congratulations!” Something more is on the cusp of my tongue, how I know she always wanted kids and she knows I never did, and how we never talk about that, and how we never really say anything but good things and most importantly how we never, ever talk about the thing that happened and I think it will play out this way again but—
She says “Do you ever think about how old he would have been if—“
“Ten,” I say. It’s true. He would have been ten. This is the longest conversation we have ever had about that moment.
I remember how one time I’d thought, “Hell, I’ll be the best parent. I’ll get that kid Lunchables every damn day.” But I don’t say anything.
The pause rides out between us, a continent’s worth of silence. She says single motherhood may be tough but not as tough as grad school right and her voice fades into the distance, or I fall into myself because I hear a voice fake laugh again and realize that voice is mine, coming from my mouth, and we hang up. I’m so far away from myself that I’m watching my hand like an astronomer peering through a telescope at the stories of long-dead stars.
This is all happening at once. I’m thinking of kudzu and I’m thinking of kids and ghosts and Lunchables and the panic that started 10 years ago and hasn’t left me since and I could tell this kid to get his own Lunchable, or tell him to bug off, or just. . . give him one. And that’s what I do. He takes it with a solemn air, walks away. As I’m watching him I’m wondering if I have seen a ghost – if the thing we never, ever talk about has somehow returned to haunt me.
Here I am breaking down in the aisle of a Murder Kroger – Murder, of all names! – wondering about ghosts. Because we so often think of good things when we hear the word “grow,” don’t we? But all things grow, good and bad. Children grow. Plants grow. But so does distance, so does cancer; so do ghosts.
And I have sat alone in the dark over the past two weeks. Picking up the phone, putting it down, afraid. We all stroll through our own dark places. Ghosts haunt each of us, just behind the next corner of time’s endless, twisting hallway. Maybe your ghosts are different. Maybe your ghost is a single moment, a swerve of the steering wheel, a time you didn’t say I love you, a phone call that never came.
Maybe you are someone’s ghost.
Kudzu, hard to define, make me think of two things at once – a growing ghost, yes; but also of you and I, alive, the sums of all our triumphs and failures, still growing nonetheless.
Because if all things, even ghosts, grow, we grow, too. We don’t have to be frightened, to wait in hushed, terrified silence for the things that haunt us. I don’t have to avoid children in fear of seeing the face of a son I never had. We can grow like kudzu. We can spread thriving and strong and unstoppable beyond the boxes and the porches of what people and the past expect us to be. We cannot unmake the past. But we can move beyond it. The future waits for each of us and I promise you this: We can grow faster than our ghosts.