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Essay

Ghost in the Machine

He Met Her In a World of Endless Fantasy. It Wasn't Her Real Address.

August 24, 2003|C.J. Bahnsen | C.J. Bahnsen recently relocated from Ohio back to Southern California.

I am standing at the doorstep of her beach bungalow, about to give the ghost flesh, as she had put it once, referring to our first face-to-face. We had traded photos several times but this is living color, the culmination of 29 months of e-mail correspondence. The door stands wide open. Breathe.

The haunting began more than two years ago when I walked into a coffee shop on Balboa Peninsula. I had just sat down with a tall drip when a jazz combo broke the downbeat. Shadowed and detached, the guitar player was shredding on an F blues.

I stayed for the whole set. Afterward I introduced myself. Being a music journalist, I told the guitarist I wanted to profile his trio for an online publication. He agreed. "I'm not much for computers," he said, "but you can contact me through my wife's e-mail."

I wrote the profile a few weeks later from 2,500 miles away, using his wife's e-mail for follow-up contact. I had decided to leave Southern California's bullet pace, returning to my Huck Finnian home turf, Point Place, Ohio, to write a novel. I didn't see the guitar player again until two-plus years passed, the same day I met the ghost. His wife.

She and I birthed a cyber-friendship. It started harmlessly enough. But our e-mails grew more intense as intimations crept into the subtext of our wordplay. After some months I noticed a tug happening that struck me as outlandish. How could I be pining for a woman I had never met?

I tried to cool down. Not stoke the ghost heat that had crept up on me. But our bond became a free radical cell that multiplied without conscience. I rationalized that in cyberspace no one could get hurt. Then she told me her husband had begun to sense something faraway in her bearing. Getting home late and faded one night, he sat down at his wife's computer and peeked at our e-mail trail. When he couldn't harness his rage any longer, he stormed the bedroom and hassled her awake.

The confrontation was ugly, moving all through the house. He threatened to walk if she didn't cut off all contact with me. She raged at his invasion of her privacy. They argued and talked 'til dawn, the guitar player ending it, saying that while I had her mind, he still had her body.

Within the week, they were enrolled in marriage counseling. When she told me about all this, it was mortifying, being trounced with the reality that our spiritual infidelities were inflicting almost the same amount of damage as if we'd been caught in a cheap motel. We tried to let it rest. But going cold turkey after daily e-mail contact gave me withdrawals. Above all, I felt we'd become great friends. The ghost was feeling the same way. During the passing weeks she talked to her husband about letting us remain in contact. He eventually surrendered.

Our monitored correspondence began again, this time without any intimations. It beat having to say goodbye. Only one thing remained: After all we'd been through, we wanted to meet in person. The curiosity was killing us, and a meeting seemed the only way to quell the emotional tension that had been sucking us in for endless months. What was across cyberspace?

A legit opportunity finally came when I had to return for a visit to Southern California. It was the guitar player's idea that I come to their house, so here I stand at her open front door, trying to breathe.

She appears in the kitchen doorway. She curves inside a black dress, hair stacked in a soft swoop. She smiles, waves me in and gives me a nervous hug. I notice the way her neck glides into her collarbone, her skin tawny against black. Our eye contact is swift, almost secretive.

We stand in her tightly packed kitchen exchanging skittish words while she busies herself preparing dinner. Her young son bursts in, then whips back outside. I know the guitar player is close. He had agreed to let us meet only if he could be on the premises. He materializes in the kitchen. We shake hands, but I am no longer the music journalist. I am the man who has stolen his wife's mind. His crackling eyes size me up, sending an unnerving message: You're not going to take her.

We trade stiff pleasantries until he makes coffee for us, to my relief. Anything to get his lasers off me. His three-day shadow and askew T-shirt seem bawdy against the ghost's elegance.

The conversation grows more relaxed. The guitar player seems to have sidelined the idea of my being a threat. We talk music.

The four of us sit down to dinner on the patio. I absorb the dark-eyed woman across from me, catch myself and look away. I am about to pick up my fork when I notice the table has gone quiet. The guitar player holds one hand out on my left, his son extending one hand on my right. After a few epochal seconds I understand, grasping the boy's hand. When I take the guitar player's, my chest contracts. While he utters grace, it hits me that, however tentatively, this man has welcomed me into his home and is about to break bread with me. Even after all I'd done.

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