Last night, A (not her real initial) and I took the T into Boston, where we took an afternoon stroll down Newbury Street, across the Public Garden, and up and down Charles Street, where we explored the lobby in the swanky Liberty Hotel before refreshing ourselves with tea, dessert, and conversation at the Cafe Bella Vita.
When my then-husband and I lived in Beacon Hill more than a decade ago, we spent a lifetime measured out in coffee spoons at the Bella Vita. I was a graduate student at the time, and my ex was a computer programmer, so we’d sit at a table for two with our individual work: I would sit with a textbook, notebook, or stack of student papers, and he would sit with his laptop. We were young and hungry, and the Cafe Bella Vita was a clean, well-lighted place where we could engage in our individual pursuits together, in public, as if to persuade ourselves that we weren’t just toiling alone.
I’ve written before about my married days in Beacon Hill, the place where I learned to realize the depths of hunger. When my ex looked back on the lifetime in coffee spoons we’d spent at the Bella Vita, he remembered it as the happiest time in our marriage; when I recall those days, I recall them as being among my darkest. How can two people share the same tiny apartment, the same neighborhood, and even the same tiny table for two and still live in entirely different universes?
The swanky Liberty Hotel used to be a prison, and that fact gave A a creepy feeling when we walked into the lobby, trying to maintain the illusion that we were actually guests at the hotel rather than sightseeing locals. A is sensitive to the psychology of shared spaces: to her sensibilities, the very walls around us were imbued with the decades of suffering accumulated by the place’s previous, unwilling occupants. How could you check into a room (or even sit swilling drinks in the hotel bar) knowing that countless souls before you had wept and wailed behind these walls?
To my eye, the Liberty Hotel is an interesting example of prison architecture, a topic that has interested me since I read Michel Foucault in graduate school and later visited Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. Whether you re-purpose a jail as a hotel or a museum, you are making a conscious decision to redefine the emotional architecture of the place, redeeming it from a lifetime of bad memories. A and I walked into the same swanky lobby last night, in other words, but we inhabited completely different spaces therein, with me marveling at an architectural wonder and A feeling the ghosts of time past.
I can understand A’s discomfort, for all of Beacon Hill is a haunted place for me, given the lifetime in coffee spoons I once spent there. If I allowed myself to focus on the psychology of the neighborhood’s shared spaces, I’d find reason to weep on every street, there being ghosts behind every lamppost and old bones under every cobblestone. There’s no need, in my mind, to search for the paranormal, as there’s not a single spot on God’s green earth that isn’t haunted by heartbreak. Why else can’t I enjoy the simple refreshment of tea and dessert with a friend without remembering the woman I was all the other times I sat in the same cafe?
Last night, as A and I refreshed ourselves at the Bella Vita, there was a twenty-something couple sitting at the next table from ours, each of them working individually on their own laptop. The entire time they sat beside us with gadgets and coffee spoons crowded onto their tiny table, I found myself wondering about the psychology of that shared space. Will one day they look back on last night as being the best of times or the worst of times? Will they someday agree about this time in retrospect, or will they each someday discover that sharing a single table doesn’t mean you’re inhabiting the same world?
I didn’t take any photos during yesterday’s trip to Beacon Hill, so the photos illustrating this post come from my photo archives: a whole other kind of ghost.