He comes calling in the thinness of night, in that fragile time before sleep, as things wind down. A breeze outside worries a puddle. Lamplight glowers. A moth pats dumbly against a window. And there I am, in the dark, being visited by myself.
It’s me, but it isn’t me. It’s a version of me that did something wrong. Or, at least, a version of me so inextricable from wrongness that I have to turn away, my neck and shoulders contracting, my teeth itching. There’s that rush, the nausea of adrenaline, of not just remembering, but re-living one’s past wrongs. The chastenings, the humiliations, the malapropisms, mistakes, bête noires, the sins.
A smell wafts in, too: the oaken asking of the Confessional. A purple curtain whispers behind a grille.
Here he comes, then: me. Past me. He doesn’t come to me; instead I must watch him. Like the moth, it is now my turn to patter dumbly at glass. I watch him do the inevitable. I watch him fail. Fail? Yes. How? I watch him fail to be the person he was supposed to be.
That’s where they come from, these nightly auto-hauntings. These visitations from old selves are precipitated by memories of when we were supposed to be or do something, and instead were or did something else. But such logic begs the question: who wrought the ‘supposed’? By whose metrics are we measured? Say I am watching Past Me do something publicly embarrassing. The embarrassment is of my own design. I have decided what others must think of me and I have designed an appropriate emotional scourge for myself. I’m not saying I’m free of wrong — far from it; old Catholic me would never permit it — but I am saying that the ‘wrongs’ I watch past me enact aren’t worth the horror they bring.
Joan Didion wrote that ‘we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up at night and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m.’ My mind’s door is crazy with clawmarks. Didion does it by keeping a notebook. I’m trying to do the same.
But writing the self is hard. Try writing a job application cover letter. Try writing a journal entry. Try writing a description of your own face. Read it back, feel the ice fingers of horror at your face. Shrink back, aghast, from yourself. How can this self, with whom you spend so much — all! — your time with, be so alien to you? Why don’t you know him intimately? Why aren’t you comfortable with him? Why do you shrink and recoil in his presence?
It’s because you don’t know him. That’s the trick. You think you do; you have to think this, or you’re done for. But you spend a good deal of your short earthly tenure weaving stories about yourself that cast you as hero. How could you be anything else? Nobody is a cameo in their own life. No. The camera is on you, all the time. No takes, no cuts. So you act. You take your cues from the others. You shape yourself in what you think you’re supposed to be while everyone else silently does the same.
So you know the self you made in the image of others. There can be no other. But this means that when you write that self, something is off.
He who visits me at night is a fiction. He is someone I’ve made up. That doesn’t mean he isn’t real, but it also doesn’t mean he is. There’s little point getting hung up on this distinction. What there is, though, is a chance to take a breath. To think. To realise that when he comes, a lot of him will be lies. Memories always are. There are glimmers of truth, but a lot of it is just our mind filling in the blanks. Sleep comes. The wishing of blood seems to still and cool.
In that moment, there is nothing you’re supposed to be.