who's Haunting Who

kayla kumari upadhyaya

I didn’t think I was running away from anything when I moved to New York. I was running toward something, tired of long-distance dating and ready to commit geographically to my new girlfriend. But I’ve been running ever since I graduated high school, determined to live anywhere but where I grew up. In the span of three years, I lived in four cities: Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Chicago, and finally, New York. I wasn’t running away from home—it wasn’t that dramatic. But every time a person from my past shows up when I least expect it, I realize how much effort I put into maintaining safe distance between me and those living ghosts.

Nobody told me that running into people from your past is a regular part of living in New York even when you aren’t from here. I thought it was something that only happened in movies like When Harry Met Sally. It wasn’t a deciding factor when I moved here, but the fact that neither of my ex-girlfriends live in New York was a bonus. For a while, I believed they were the only people of the past that could throw me off with a chance encounter. But it didn’t take long before I started running into people I rarely thought about—many of them mere supporting characters in my life, others more significant. Ripped away from the context in which I used to know them, they look out of place, make me feel out of place and out of time.

I tried on a lot of personalities in my youth, as most teenagers do. I pretended to be a lot of things I wasn’t—including, for example, a straight girl. I was particularly good at that performance. So good in fact that even I believed myself. Queer people are not and should not be defined by our queerness, and yet the first thing I want to say to anyone I encounter from my past is “I’m a lesbian!” I don’t owe anyone any explanations, but I do feel this weird pressure to set the record straight, so to speak. Social media keeps people from the past around, but it’s different when they’re in front of you, when they show up in your new life and you in theirs.

After moving to New York, I kept running into people everywhere I went. My girlfriend couldn’t believe it. “How does this keep happening to you?” she asked.

I ran into the first queer friend I ever had, the person who introduced me to Sleater-Kinney and skinny jeans, on the sidewalk in Williamsburg. and just pointed at each other and laughed in an awkward state of disbelief. We exchanged a few words, agreed we should get together some time, and then forgot to get each others’ numbers. For the rest of the day, I didn’t feel nostalgic so much as confused. Our big reunion had been short, stiff, incomplete.

I ran into the girl who made me cry when we were partners for an 8th grade civics and economics project. First, when I saw her coming out of the West 4th subway station, I quickly turned the other way before feeling stupid for having such a dramatic reaction. Then I ran into her twice more in two different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and finally one of us said something.

I ran into my ex-best-friend’s ex-boyfriend less than a block from my apartment in Crown Heights, and just after he gave me his number, I realized it was already in my phone, had probably been there for three years.

I ran into a girl from high school whose dance performances I used to work the sound booth for. She still dances. She’s good. I watch her videos on Instagram. She asked if I still did theater, and I laughed, made some joke about retiring at 16. I went to a performing arts high school on the east coast, so it really shouldn’t surprise me when I open up a Playbill and see someone’s familiar face, but it does every time. What surprises me most is how many of them are doing the same things they were doing then, that they had so much figured out at 14.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I strolled into the Mexican restaurant where my girlfriend and I regularly get take-out, and there they were: two girls I went to middle school with. They were best friends then, and they appeared to be best friends now. Their hair hung in the same blonde ponytails I can remember bouncing down the soccer field. They looked exactly the same as they did all those years ago. How could that be possible? I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had stepped through a portal, that I was no longer anchored to the time in which I belonged. Everything felt just ever so slightly off, like when you spend an entire Thursday thinking it’s Friday or when you wake up from what was supposed to be a nap only to find you’ve slept through the day.

I looked right at one of them that afternoon, the one I had been closest with back in the day, and she looked right at me, and I could see there was no flicker of recognition. There was a time when it felt like she knew everything there was to know about me, a time when we stayed up late at sleepovers and plotted elaborate after-school outings. Now she knew nothing about me.

I was different. I looked different. Maybe she was different, too. Everybody changes. But I couldn’t believe she had the same best friend, that they were roommates now (something I learned later after some social media detective work). I know that it’s perfectly ordinary for people to stay best friends since childhood, but I’ve still never been able to wrap my mind around it. I don’t burn bridges everywhere I go, but I do build new ones. Someone who was best friends with me then couldn’t be best friends with me now.

It’s a different feeling entirely, of course, to run into someone from the past who hurt you. That happens enough, too. I was at a party with college friends in Bushwick, so I should have been prepared to see plenty of people from the past, but I still wasn’t ready to run into him—the guy who, when I said I didn’t want to have sex with him, first asked if I was a virgin and then started crying, forcing me to console him. I hadn’t yet said the words “I’m gay” out loud to anyone except my on-and-off secret girlfriend’s older sister when I was drunk.

He said “hi, Kayla,” when I ran into him at the party, and I said “hey” when what I really wanted to say “I haven’t forgiven you for the time you told a bunch of people we worked with that we dated all summer and also had sex. I haven’t forgiven you for anything.” I had foolishly thought I’d never see him again, but he materialized in a supposedly safe and familiar setting like an unwanted ghost. Then again, he’s from New York originally, so who’s haunting who, really?