When I run into Sophie coming through the thick fog, I am uncertain whether she is a real person or a figment of my own imagination. In any case, Sophie has a sort of ethereal quality about her, as though she might slip through a portal to another realm at any moment.
"Late night?" I ask, as we shake hands like comrades of war, which in a way we are, since we are both misunderstood and often resented for being a little different from the other residents at the high-rise we live in downtown. We talk about channeling, extraterrestrials, and past-life experiences as casually as others decide what to eat for breakfast the next day. We are not the only alternative people who live here. There is a kind of underground network of people like us and somehow we find and recognize one another, or possibly we are led together by forces we ourselves don't understand.
Sophie has a twinkle in her eye. "Actually I had a wonderful night," she says. "I slept in the cemetery."
"What cemetery?" I ask, as though it were the most normal thing in the world to sleep in cemeteries.
"Gray Cemetery," Sophie replies.
"I love that cemetery," I say, thinking wistfully of chill, gray autumn afternoons spent wandering there alone, stopping by a grave of a 2-year-old child with an elaborate tombstone, a lamb on it, and wondering if I might be standing on the grave of myself in a previous incarnation.
Black, skeletal trees rise up out of the thick morning fog, graceful and mysterious, like beings from a celestial dimension. We amble together towards Market Square hand in hand, without forethought or discussion, like two third-grade best friends on their way to school. Sophie rolls two cigarettes while walking as deftly as though her hands were taught from birth to perform this very task, and she hands me one. We walk silently like wraiths past the Crowne Plaza down Summit Hill to Gay Street, where we sit in front of the Sterchi Building on a bench. Sophie pulls two cans of beer out of the knapsack she invariably carries on her back, cracks them open, and hands me one. White foam oozes out of the can and I watch mesmerized by the way the street lights transform such a simple thing as drops of beer on a can into something extraordinary.
"When I sleep in the cemetery, the voices stop," Sophie says, inhaling on her cigarette. She throws her head back with abandon as she watches the trails of smoke from our cigarettes criss-cross, like tiny dancers, before vanishing with the fog. "The alternative to that is banging my head against the wall repeatedly. That shuts them up, too," she says, letting the entire beer roll into her mouth and down her throat in one fell swoop, after which she wipes her mouth on her sleeve and opens another.
I met Sophie last week in my apartment building. I was out of cigarettes and she rolled me cigarette after cigarette—I didn't even have to ask—as we drank beer together and she told me her story: "I lived a pretty normal life until I was 13. That's when I became inhabited by ghosts."
"Ghosts. What do the ghosts do?" I asked, wondering to myself if this women was schizophrenic, had multiple personalities, or was, in fact, taken over by ghosts.
I could not disbelieve her, having gone out to Amityville, N.Y., after the horror of multiple deaths allegedly caused by people inhabited by ghosts. I was living in Manhattan at the time and drove out to the house where the bizarre tragedy had occurred. The entire property was roped off, with investigators of all kinds—from the city and state police, to the FBI, to newscasters, to specialists of the paranormal. After that, I could not doubt that ghosts and experiences from a realm other than the one we see with our senses exist. It's real, and ignorance of such matters is not bliss, but... ignorance.
Sophie looked at me in her fearless way. "They tell me what a horrible person I am. You cannot imagine the things they say to me."
She is right. I cannot imagine it, nor what torment it causes my new friend, who does not tell me her stories in a self-pitying way, but as matters of fact that she deals with in the best way she can. If she has to bang her head against the wall to stop the voices, she will do it. If sleeping in a cemetery brings peace to her, she will do it. She does whatever it takes to get by, like many of us do, but she does it with more grace and skill than most. Certainly, she does it with courage.
"I can't kill myself, for then I would become part of them and attach myself to someone else like they do," she said. "But I would do it anyway if it were not for my mother. I want to be here for my mother."
Later in the afternoon, I see Sophie leading her mother, who is recovering from pneumonia, down the hall. Gently and with great love and patience. I pray that she will find another solution to the torment she suffers rather than banging her head against the wall. As for sleeping in cemeteries, I might just go along with her for the experience of it. We're all going to be there someday, so what's the big deal?
As I watch Sophie disappear around the corner with her mother, I marvel at what she has had to endure. With a little luck and help from benevolent spirits, perhaps Sophie will find a psychiatrist who cares, who can lead her out of the labyrinth of confusion, pain, and the certainty that the only way out is by taking one's own life.