My first night in America, I couldn’t sleep. Arriving at twilight, I exhausted and nodded off on the trip from the Bradley International Airport in Connecticut to Easthampton, a town in Western Massachusetts. I felt warm when a graceful-looking woman welcomed me with a hug and led me into her cozily lit home. What I didn’t know was that a month of terror would follow.
After placing my bulky suitcases in an upstairs room, my host, Janice, and I went down to her spacious living room. We sat across from each other on a reddish and yellowish checked couch with my back to an upright piano.
“My husband’s behind you,” she said softly after asking me about my first overseas trip.
Immediately her words sent a chill down my spine. No one was there. I wrestled with what to do. I knew it would be impolite if I ignored what she said.
I turned around. All I saw was an upright lamp with a bright amber light shining onto the piano’s keyboard and the round wooden stool.
My eyes stopped at the piano cover, which feautured two candles in brass holders, a small photo of a grey-haired man inside a star-shaped frame, and a green earthen urn.
“You mean…,” I turned back.
“Yes, his ashes are inside.”
I felt shivers running down to my crossed legs. I knew of her husband’s recent death, but I didn’t know she had saved his ashes at home. In my culture, which believes that the spirit lingers if we save the ashes at home, the practice is uncommon.
Our talk lasted until almost 10. I went upstairs, stopping by the bathroom adjacent to my room, which faced Janice’s. After cleaning my tired face, I looked at the mirror and started at another small photo of her husband on the wooden cabinet behind me.
I spotted another on the bookshelf parallel to the bed. The somber look of the high-browed man with tidily-cut moustache made me decide to go to bed hungry and unshowered.
First, I turned the photo frame to the wall. But I still tossed and turned all night. The two thick blankets failed to keep chills from shooting down my legs. I couldn’t eliminate this man’s look from my mind. I feared meeting his spirit.
It was a fear that didn’t go away.
The following morning, Janice guided me around her wood interior house. We went to her tidy office next to the living room, to the dinning room between the living room and the kitchen, to the basement, to the tool shed, and the gazebo in the side garden full of blue hydrangea flowers in their prime.
Each time when my eyes caught her husband’s photos, my chill returned. Not only did they fill the living room and the office but the surfaces of the white fridge in the kitchen and the toilet facing the back door.
So did his belongings.
His wooden cane was placed against a corner behind the entrance to the living room. His beige belt was hung along the jamb opposite the door of the downstairs toilet. His checked shirt was stretched across the chair adjacent to the basement desk:
“This was where Ed worked. He was a carpenter,” Janice said.
“That shirt must be his.”
I had come to stay at Janice’s house to attend a pre-academic training at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts (ILI) in a neighboring town of Northampton. ILI said she was the first that signed up as my host when they sent out a homestay request to four local people, They chose her because we shared the same profession: journalism.
Now I locked myself in the room when I was home alone. The second night, and many that followed, I couldn’t sleep even with lights and music on. I trembled at strange sounds at midnight. I trembled when the ceiling light gradually dimmed (that I didn’t know resulted from my lying unintentionally on its remote control). I trembled recalling the time the belt fell beside the downstairs toilet.
On the 25th night, about 3 a.m, I heard gentle footsteps close to my room. I felt someone staring at my room. “Has his spirit came?” – I asked myself.
I decided to step out towards the stairway. In the darkness, I saw a somber look similar to the one I caught in the living room photo.. Holding my breath, I tried to extend my hand to a light switch on the left.
“Eli, you scared me. Why are you sitting here?” I said trying not to scream after seeing Janice’s grandson squatting there looking up at me.
“Chau, I want to pee,” he said.
I left Janice’s house for Boston after Hurricane Irene receded, never telling her of my fears.
“Chau, feel free to return whenever you want.”
“I will, Janice.”
“But next time, you might stay in my room. A Mexican student will come in September.”
“Then I will stay in the hotel,” I said.
“Because I can’t share the bed with you and your husband,” I replied thinking of the night she said she felt close to her husband only at night.
“How about the basement room?”
“Never in a million years Janice.”
“Because I just like my room,” – I refused to tell the truth to avoid deepening her grief.
My first night in Boston, I slept like a log.
(Easthampton, July & August 2011)