Tales of the Unexpected

Auguste Renoir, In the Meadow, 1888–92, oil on canvas.


Although I have never seen a ghost, I have claimed to have seen one. This was when I was a child, and mistakenly believed this sort of lie gave me a certain obscure cachet. I wasn’t a habitual liar—I was never very good at it. In fact, as an adult I believe I can remember every lie I ever told. At the time, I was very troubled by my own wickedness. At six, I remember telling my reading group that I was going to be a flower girl in a wedding—I think there was a little boy I wanted to impress with my importance—and then, when I did end up at a rather crummy and impromptu wedding party later that summer, I grabbed a bunch of flowers off someone’s lawn, and threw them, just to make my lie true.

There was a girl on my block who was an inept and inveterate whopper-teller. Her name was Emily. She wore a lot of pink sweat suits and had a long, reddish braid. I knew she was “disturbed,” as we said in those days—something to do with her parents’ “bad divorce”—and I had been told to be nice to her, but the foolish and incessant nature of her mendacity irritated me. She’d do things like claim to have seen The Blue Lagoon and to have been in near-fatal helicopter accidents, or that her house—which I’d been to—had an improbable number of rooms. Obviously she was one of the first people I knew to say she had a mythical boyfriend. “He gave me a diamond necklace,” she told me once. “I’ll show it to you. My mom’s going to say it was from my grandma, but that’s just because she doesn’t want me dating someone older.” I did not like being taken for a fool; I despised her. We were probably eight. 

Obviously, Emily said she’d seen ghosts: dozens of them. Relatives, a “neon-green wizard,” a dwarf whom I later realized she had cribbed directly from the movie Willow. I knew she was making it up, but I still felt a grudging resentment. Despite a brief obsession with the ghost of Ty Cobb, and despite telling myself that a small plastic baby doll I’d lost had been taken by the fairies, I’d never actually had an encounter with the supernatural. A part of me certainly felt it was my due.

Whatever the reason, I told this girl I’d seen a ghost. Not just that: I said I’d traveled back in time. I remember I dropped the information casually, appalled at my own daring yet satisfied by her reaction. It had happened, I claimed, at the pamphleteer Thomas Paine’s cottage in New Rochelle (a place I’d actually been.) I’d been on a guided tour, I said, and wandered off by myself, and suddenly, there was a little girl in seventeenth-century dress! And we’d become friends. And then, she’d sort of disappeared into the ether, in the approved spectral manner. And, I concluded, with a faraway look in my eyes, I’d never really been the same since.

This preposterous story owed a lot to books I was reading then; one where an orphan escaped into the past via a root cellar, another where a girl (possibly an orphan) traveled to the past via a milk truck. Both were immeasurably changed by their experiences, and if it had not actually happened—as I told it I became half-convinced that it had—it seemed like the sort of thing that probably would have happened to me. My neighbor was very impressed. Besides, even if she knew it wasn’t true, she was in no position to call anyone out for lying. And then that summer ended, and as kids do, we drifted apart, and while I heard she’d had some mild teenage troubles, our paths didn’t cross again.

That might have been the end of it, but then, only a few years ago, I saw her wedding announcement. The wedding was very fancy and elaborate; it had taken place in an Italian palazzo (although no one involved seemed to be Italian) and featured a small army of bridesmaids. Her groom appeared to do something businessey. I studied the picture closely: she had become very thin and was wearing, of course, a gown. And at her throat glittered diamonds.

I pored over that wedding announcement. I wonder if she saw mine?


Sadie Stein is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.