Rules for Communing with Spirits
by Christopher R. Alonso
Illustrated by Charis Loke | Edited by Julia Rios
- Your intentions must be clear before initiating contact.
Before we broke up, Caro and I used to attend funerals together so that we could talk to spirits before their bodies were locked away. That was the closest they were to their bodies before they went away to wherever it was spirits or ghosts go. Some of them stayed behind. I could never talk to them, but Caro did. I only saw them. She’d ask me what they looked like, and I’d describe them, and I’d ask her to tell me what they said. They were all different. We listened to their stories, or Caro would. I’d gauge their reactions. Most stood still, some looking at their caskets. “Are they wearing anything?” Caro would ask. Most times they did, usually the clothes they were buried in. Other times they were wearing something they liked, at least that’s what it seemed like to me. One older man would be wearing a guayabera and khakis. An older lady would have a simple blouse and a skirt or pants, or sometimes they’d be wearing casual clothing. That was more common with the younger ones. Some of them were so loose and smoky that it was hard to tell whether or not they were wearing anything at all. Caro always said I was chismosa. I always found out something about someone, her sister who went on dates with guys just so they could treat her to drinks and dinner, my tío-abuelo who had an affair with his secretary and his mechanic (the family doesn’t talk about that one), but Easter at the Fumero house was filled with lots of wine and beer, and there’s something nice about being the niece who could handle her liquor. y abuela told me that there was such a thing as being too chismosa, that I shouldn’t go looking for things that weren’t there. At the time, she didn’t know about what Caro and I did on our days off, but she knew why I’d sit with family. I liked listening.
“Cuidado,” she said. “You may end up finding someone’s ghosts.”
“Like un muerto?” I said, smiling. If only she knew. “Chica, people aren’t the only ghosts lingering around,” her lips going stiff.
Abuela found out I could see spirits at her own funeral. During the wake I caught her making faces behind family and friends. She seemed surprised, eyes growing wide when she saw me staring. Then she put a finger over her lips and smiled. Everyone in the family knew her as una tremenda jodedora. I was glad to finally see that side of her. This is how it started. Caro and I would stop at Versailles for an afternoon treat, maybe something sweet. She always had her café with plenty of sugar. We’d listen in on the old men having their coladas and pastelitos, most of them about Cuba, or about the friend of a friend who was a dentist at some point, fled the island and left everything behind but secretly cleaned and removed teeth from his kitchen a few blocks away. Police cars and fire trucks and ambulances were common on Calle Ocho, speeding through at every hour, sirens wailing loud enough to shake the dead in the cemetery about two blocks away. One day at the cafeteria four months into dating, I turned to Caro and asked what she’d think if we followed the sirens, see what would be waiting for us when we got there. “Xenia,” she said. “Your chismosería has reached a whole new level.”
“But think about it, you don’t know what you’ll find unless you go there and do it.”
“I don’t know,” she said, clicked her tongue in that way that told me she’d end up doing that thing she was thinking about not doing. “It’ll be fun,” I said. “Maybe we’ll find a robbery or a street fight or some kid who burned his hand trying to light a firecracker.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. That felt safe here. We drank our coffee and listened to the old men shout. A few days later, someone from my graduating high school class passed away, and while I didn’t know him personally, I had friends that did, so I asked Caro to come with me, if she could. She didn’t ask me why. She just nodded and squeezed my hand.
That was when we communicated with our first spirit together. I had to tell Caro where he was. She could hear him better the closer we got to him, until he stood next to us. Caro and I linked our arms together thinking the air around us would grow cold, but it didn’t. We ended up sweating more, the heat from our bodies melting through us.
Danny was always a good-looking guy, a nice smile that took up the whole bottom half of his face, but he looked sad, almost disappointed. According to Caro’s conversation with him, Danny wanted us to know that he loved his parents very much, that he’d be sure to party with the other Cubans and Dominicans wherever he ended up. He also told her to please tell his mother he was sorry about breaking her grandmother’s vase and blaming it on the dog. Caro told his mother, who burst into sobs. She reached out for Caro, shaking and whispering, “thank you” and “perdón” over and over again. Caro decided never to relay another message after that. We never could know where they ended up, and I tried my best not to think about that. After that, Caro and I scrapped the idea of following the police cars and ambulances. We started digging around online to learn how to properly communicate with ghosts. We attended every funeral we could, friends of friends of friends, the tía-abuelas of the kids I used to tutor for the SAT while I was in college. We went even though we didn’t know the dead. We went because I wanted to know what they wanted.
We attended different funerals. Most of them were for the elderly, some with huge families where we could blend in, and some with small families where we’d sit in the car and debate whether or not to be seen. We went to funerals for middle-aged men, middle-aged women, young mothers and fathers. Some funerals were for children. Those were the most difficult. “I know we don’t deliver messages, but think of what they’d want to tell their parents,” I told Caro one day. “Xenia,” she’d said. “I don’t think I want to know that. It’s just too much. Can we go get coffee?”
“You don’t have to get off the car,” I said. “We’ll turn around the moment I see a kid standing alone.”
One day, I finally convinced Caro to go with me. I looped an arm through hers, and we stayed at the back of the crowd. When the priest began to speak, Caro tugged on my arm and asked to leave.
In the car she said, “Xenia, I can’t. That boy, he couldn’t stop crying, and no one could hear him.” She wiped tears from her eyes, and when I tried to wipe them for her, she nudged my hands away. People grieved, and we watched them. It was hard sometimes. Family and friends don’t always accept things so quickly. One time an older lady flung herself on the casket. I watched the ghost of her sister shake her head. The ghost of the woman turned to Caro and spoke to her. Ghosts want to be listened to. I wanted to listen.
- You should be clear in body and mind for safe communication.
We went out for dinner the night Caro and I broke up, or the night Caro broke up with me. “I don’t think I can see you anymore,” she said. “Why?” I said. The wine wasn’t even served yet, and there we were at Hillstone’s because we had been dating exactly two years, and I wanted to take her out some place nice. “I just don’t think I like you in the same way I did when we started this,” she said.
“So that’s it?” I said, my chest tingling and growing hollow. “I think so,” she said. She reached for my hand, and I let her take it. “Xenia, I’m sorry. I don’t think my heart is in the same place yours is.”
“I’m trying to understand all this. I thought we were enjoying everything.”
“You weren’t listening hard enough.”
The server came around and poured the wine. I pushed my glass toward him and asked him to please fill it. Caro didn’t drink. Her gaze dropped to her lap, and she turned her head to her right, to the profile I saw so many times sitting in my passenger seat, spritzing herself with Dolce and Gabbana, the yellow-gold bottle with the red cap because her mother taught her a woman should always smell good. I wanted to reach out and tuck a loose curl behind her ear. The server left.
“Are you okay?” Caro said. I heard her, and it all came down like a hurricane that was predicted to pass us by but crashed into land at last minute, and I was caught at the shore, swept out in the surge.
She dug into her purse and slid a twenty-dollar bill across the table. “For the wine,” she said.
I shook my head and passed it back to her. She stood, kissed my cheek, and walked away, and left the money on the table. I finished my glass, poured myself another and drank that one. When the server came back, I asked for the bill. I took the wine and left him Caro’s twenty dollars. It rained in the few minutes I was in the restaurant, the air heavy and humid and steamy. I sat in my car and drank some more, and with my head lighter than smoke, thought about finding something to follow.
- Be sure to control your emotions before calling to spirits.
I sent Caro a message a week after our dinner. “Hi, I just wanted to know how you were doing, so hello. I hope you’re well.”
She responded with, “I am, thank you,” and that was it. I waited a month before I sent another message saying, “Hey, it’s been a while. I went to Versailles today and had a cortadito. Remember those times?”
She wrote back, “Yes, I do. Take care.”
Then I offered to buy her some coffee and take it to her, wherever she was, but she said that she felt she’d owe me something if I did, and she didn’t want that kind of pressure. I reminded her of the twenty, and she never responded. She pulled a Matías Pérez, floated away into the air and the sea, and I couldn’t find her voice in the wind no matter how hard I tried. She made me think of a hurricane, how it comes and goes, how sometimes their aftereffects linger and haunt. Maybe that’s why storms have names. We call them something to remember them by. I thought of abuela’s warning about finding ghosts. I never expected Caro would become mine.
Caro and I met through a mutual friend, two days before Hurricane Sandy formed. Our friend’s girlfriend planned a birthday party for him on a yacht, and we sailed up and down the coast, around South Beach. Caro was wearing a white dress because it’s Miami, and we’re allowed to wear white after Labor Day. I asked her what she was drinking, and we ended up trading sips of her whiskey ginger and my Cuba Libre. We held onto each other and shouted and cheered at the tourists and locals walking by the marinas along the coast. The DJ played Celia Cruz. We danced on a ship the way I imagined my ancestors did, swaying to their salsa and guaguancó because they were finally free and still didn’t know how difficult exile would be. That could be why my grandparents had music playing from their Hialeah kitchen every afternoon.
- Have courage when communing with spirits. Eliminate all fear.
I continued to send Caro a message every month, just one. Sometimes she’d respond. Most times, she didn’t. I started going to all the places we used to call ours, hoping to find some form of her lingering there, the traces we left behind. The bay at Deering Estate where we skipped rocks and watched old men fly fish, waved at the couples kayaking over glassy water. There was Twelfth Street on South Beach where the crosswalk is painted like a rainbow and we’d chugged bottomless mimosas with drag queens dancing on the sidewalk. I lingered on the corner of Miracle Mile and Salzedo, taking walks by myself after the sun set. I’d go at 2:37 in the morning, when people are leaving or have left the Gables, where Caro and I kissed at the intersection after our first date.
I started attending funerals alone, stood close to caskets hoping to hear the spirits. I whispered to them, prayers for miracles that I couldn’t perform. I’d wait in my car, waited for everyone to leave so I could approach the plot and see the spirit standing over their own grave. I’d ask questions, like how they felt, if they remembered anything, if they could reach out and say something, anything. Sometimes I felt I wasn’t listening hard enough, and sometimes I felt I was listening too hard. One day while I picked up coffee at Versailles again, I saw a length of cars escorted by policemen on motorcycles and led by the that one station wagon with the body inside. They filed out of the Caballero Rivero funeral home and drove west. I ran to my car and followed them, inserted myself into the end of the line and followed them through Coral Gables, then way south to the cemetery just off the Palmetto. It was a huge a procession of several dozen cars, eight motorcycles, maybe ten, and I wanted to know who it was that was going to be given to the ground. From the number of police escorts and the cars entering the cemetery, whoever was in the hearse must have been an important person. People parked along the curb deep into the cemetery. They were all dressed in black, some men in casual suits, some ladies in pantsuits because even if someone died, people still had things to do. Once they were all out of their cars, I jumped into the backseat and pulled a black dress from the emergency going-out-after-work bag I kept hidden, something Caro had taught me. Then I slipped on a pair of heels, made sure my makeup was still okay, and splashed some perfume on my neck.
I heard sobs and sniffles, saw a few viejitas dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs, the occasional burst of color from one of their blouses or the jeweled brooches older Latina women seem to be so fond of. They all reminded me of my abuela in some way. Then I wondered what my family would think if they knew I was there, attending someone’s funeral without being asked to because I didn’t know them, but I wanted to know who they were. Maybe this time things would be different between me and the spirit. I wondered what Caro would have said if she knew I was here. I don’t think she’d be happy. I stepped to the back of the gathering anyway, listened to the priest say his prayers, bless the casket, sprinkle holy water on it from the aspersorium. Close family and friends each laid a rose on the casket. Some of them let their hands linger, gave it two taps the way friends would pat each other on the back after a hug. An older man was the last one to leave a flower on her casket. He seemed to be in his sixties, very grey hair, wrinkles around his mouth and neck, a ring on his left hand. He placed his hand on the casket and stayed that way for a while. A woman’s spirit stood next to him. She placed her hand over his.
Most people there stepped up near the casket, crossed themselves, and nodded their goodbyes. Words flew through the air, more crying. Some people took the flower arrangements, mostly the abuelitas. I thought that maybe I would too once I reached that age.
An older woman came and stood next to me, large glasses hiding her face. She was short and thin, and her roots were going gray. She held white roses in her right hand.
“You see her, too,” she said. I thought my voicebox might fall into my stomach. “How did you know?” I asked.
“They told me,” she said, pointing at her ear. “What’s your name?”
“Gabi,” I said, using the fake name I’d use when I’d go to clubs. “Mentirosa. No, it isn’t. What’s your real name?”
“Xenia,” I said. “Ah,” she said and turned to her side, like talking to someone who wasn’t there. “Por fin, she tells the truth.”
“What’s your name?” I asked. I didn’t see any spirits other than the dead woman’s. “Nuria,” she said. “You shouldn’t be here, not because you didn’t know Marta but because you aren’t ready to listen.” It didn’t sound like a warning, more like a pleading. “ Did they tell you that, too?”
“Claro,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t change things, tú sabes?”
I wished Caro was with me. I wished she could speak to Marta, listen to her words, listen to the spirits around Nuria and tell me what they told her. More than that I just wanted her next to me. I know Caro never wanted to relay messages between the dead and the living, but I think dead things need to be acknowledged.
- Be prepared for anything.
I started sending Caro messages every two months instead of every month. Sometimes it was a song that I heard and thought she’d like. Other times it was something I laughed at, so maybe she’d laugh at it too. We still followed each other on social media, which I thought gave us some kind of friendship or relationship. Like always, sometimes she’d respond and sometimes she wouldn’t. After ten months, I asked her if she’d like to meet, just to talk. I’d bring coffee, but she refused. After that I stopped reaching out. I still checked up on her social media just to see if she was alive, which I knew she was, but I finally listened to her silence. She didn’t want to talk. I didn’t reach out to her when her tía Alejandra passed. I didn’t want to be a bother, but I remembered the first time Caro brought me to a family party. Most of her family wasn’t thrilled to meet me, but Alejandra gave me a glass of the rum she reserved for special occasions, and no one said anything after that. Caro used to tell me how much she asked after me, that she better take me to dinner at her house. I had to go.
I missed the wake but not the funeral service. The next day, I parked at the Sedano’s near the funeral home, bought a bouquet of white roses, and waited for the procession to make its way out of the parking lot. I trailed behind the last car and turned on my hazard lights. The police escorts stopped at all intersections as we headed west through Coral Gables. Several people crossed themselves when they saw the procession. Mamá always said it was a very catholic thing to do, especially with the older generations, like if they didn’t, the dead would find them and cause trouble in their lives. We kept driving westward on Calle Ocho, past the Palmetto. We turned north and drove into Doral. I was thankful for the police escort. Caro always said if anyone wanted to know how not to drive in Miami, they should head to Doral. La creo. I followed the procession into Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery, the only Catholic one in the city.
People filed out of their cars. Men stood at the back of the hearse, and with the help of the driver, pulled the casket out and carried it onto the prepared tent, flowers arranged around it, red and white roses, lilies and carnations shaped into giant crosses with messages in small yellow and pink flowers. Alejandra walked behind her casket, wearing a black dress.
There was Caro, black pants and black blouse, her hair tied and draped over her right shoulder. Alejandra turned around to look at the people gathered for her, because of her. I stepped out of my car and caught her looking at me. Spirits always seem surprised when they realize someone can see them. Her gaze flickered between me and Caro. She must have known. I felt sweat drip down my back. My whole body was a heartbeat. She nodded and smiled a half smile. I walked toward the casket. I met Caro’s eyes, bright and brown and light. I looked at the ground, at the dewy grass. Then I heard a voice so faint I couldn’t tell if I was imagining it. “Thank you for coming.”