A Digital Ghost Story

by Nadia Owusu

I have been haunted for five years and six months. The voice first came to me through my Blackberry and then through my iPhone. Mostly there is just raspy breathing and incoherent whispering. Sometimes the voice hums my name and laughs. Sometimes there is nothing but background noise—horns honking, a fork clanking against a plate. Once I heard a baby cry and then the call was ended.

Occasionally, I am haunted through my Gmail. The sending address is always different. It is always a man’s name like Fred or Robert or Carl followed by seven or eight numbers. The messages are not especially interesting. Often there is just a question. What did I have for lunch? Was I enjoying the beach weather? Recently, Larry7678919 wanted to know what I thought about the Republican presidential debate. In 2013, the emails were mostly one-sentence directives. Let love in. Don’t be afraid of what you really feel. Open up to new possibilities.

I assume that the voice on the phone and the words in my Gmail are from the same person. It might be the guy I went on one date with in the summer of the year that I got the first phone call at 1:30 in the morning. The guy’s name is Rob. It’s not really Rob, but I don’t want to use his real name because he has a wife and two children now. I know this because I looked him up on Facebook. I was looking for evidence. I don’t know what kind of evidence I expected to find on Facebook, but you have to start somewhere.

On our date, Rob told me that, years earlier, he had stalked a woman who he was too afraid to ask out. He didn’t do anything to her, just followed her around as she ran errands and met friends for brunch. When he told me this, his voice was gurgling in the way that comedians’ voices gurgle when they are telling a joke that they think is really clever. We were eating lasagna and drinking white wine on the patio of a restaurant in the West Village. It had been one of those sticky New York days when you feel like you are breathing in dirty steam instead of normal air. But, now that the sun had set, there was a breeze that tickled the romantic candlelight at our table. The breeze and the perfect crescent moon made everyone happy and beautiful with rustling hair and luminous skin. But, Rob looked like he had smoked a lot of pot. His eyes were red and half-closed.

The stalking happened before he knew how to talk to women, he said. He didn’t have trouble with that anymore because he had taken a weekend-long seminar with a man who wrote a book about picking up women at parks and bookstores. I met Rob at the Guggenheim. I was annoyed that he approached me to let me know that I furrowed my brow when I looked at paintings and that might give me permanent wrinkles in the future. But, after that, he started talking about Analytic Cubism in a way that was endearingly nerdy. Later, I learned that the book about picking up women written by his seminar instructor encourages readers to say something mean instead of something nice as an opening line. This is supposed to change the power dynamic and make the woman feel as though she needs to impress the man. I think that is stupid advice. I agreed to go out with Rob because of the endearing nerdiness and because I liked the idea of telling people that I met a man at the Guggenheim. It had nothing to do with him informing me that I was going to be wrinkly.

I did not go on a second date with Rob. He said “Stop being so uptight” when I told him that all the talk of stalking was making me uncomfortable. Then, he said, “Why do women have to make everything such a big deal?” I got up from the table without saying another word to him. I walked home, looking over my shoulder whenever I heard footsteps close behind me. The breeze no longer felt enchanting. Now, it felt ominous. A shiver worked its way up my spine despite the heat. At home, I told my roommate the story, laughing. I left out the part about being scared.

Rob is at the top of my list of potential haunters. Also on the list are:

1. The guy I worked with at the Pizzeria Uno at South Street Seaport during my freshman year of college. He got my phone number off the schedule that was posted on the staff changing room door and called me to tell me he loved me. I told him that I was flattered but I did not love him. He told me that he would wait until I did. Two weeks later, he started dating the pretty hostess with very large breasts, but sometimes he looked at me when he kissed her hello or goodbye.

2. The ex-boyfriend who showed up in front of my job to say that he was getting married to the woman he cheated on me with unless I told him not to. I did not tell him not to. I had let him break my heart for long enough. He got married at City Hall and texted me a photo of his smiling wife. I texted him ‘congratulations.’ I really wanted to text him ‘you’re an asshole.’

3. The creepy yoga teacher from the studio I used to go to on the Lower East Side who asked a lot of students out, including me. He could easily have gotten my information from the registration system. He got fired for masturbating in the acupuncture room.

4. A robot.

The calls generally come between 1:30 and 3:30 in the morning. They come from a blocked number. I answer because what if it is my brother calling me from Ghana or my friend Pascal calling me from jail? My brother sometimes forgets about the time difference between Accra, where he lives, and New York. Pascal is one of the kindest souls I have ever known when he is sober, but he gets too drunk and fights people in front of bars.

The only thing I ever say to the voice on the phone is ‘hello’ and ‘who is this?’ and ‘stop this.’ I say these things several times, then I listen for a few seconds before hanging up. I never respond to the emails.

I do not believe in ghosts, but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a feeling that something is in my room, floating above me or standing silently in a corner. I have had this feeling since I was a little girl who was afraid of the dark and had to sleep with a nightlight. It is a thumping of heart, a tightness of throat. Recently, I jolted awake and saw a man-like thing sitting in the armchair by my bed. When I turned on my lamp, the shape of the man became a pile of unfolded laundry. Fear is an unpredictable and, at times, irrational emotion. It can be caused by dangers both real and imagined.

The number one lesson in the book about how to pick up a woman is to keep her wanting. Smile at her but then talk to her friend instead. Pretend that you have somewhere important to be so that she thinks that she has to sparkle to convince you to stay. Very slowly increase physical affection. Wanting is perhaps the opposite of fear, but they are both urgent forms of anticipation. The book aims to teach men to create in women the kind of wanting that works like a phobia—a type of persistent fear (want) of a being, object, or situation that the affected person will avoid (pursue) in a way that is disproportional to the actual danger (appeal) posed.

My ghost is a seemingly benign presence. It never threatens or rages. Sometimes, months will go by in which I won’t get a call or an email. Then, the familiar ringing in the dead of night, the realization that I have been waiting for it. The goal of a haunting is the same as the goal of a seduction: to become embedded in the consciousness, to not be forgotten.

Perhaps this is why I am convinced that my ghost is the voice and words of a man who failed to seduce me. Perhaps this is why, once in a while, a summer breeze against my back as I walk home at night makes me pick up the pace, makes me turn to see who is at my heels, makes me, still, just a little afraid of the dark.