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.


On Loving Contemporary Horror Movies

On Loving Contemporary Horror Movies

And so what’s the final temple? What’s our last defense from horrible death? After we have left our homes, all that we’ve got are our bodies. Which is why, so often, possession films are the most terrifying of all: The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Shining (sort of), The Conjuring. The reason we’ve seen such an oversaturation of these stories in recent years is because the horror industry has exhausted all its precedent anxieties. We’ve reached the end of a cycle in which the horror movies have systematically broken our sanctuaries down, violated them, reminded us we aren’t ever safe.

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Chill, Baby

by Nadia Owusu

There was, as is often the case, no warning that the G train would not be running past midnight. No flyers or posters. No announcements on the A train telling passengers not to bother getting off to transfer. Nothing. The woman on the microphone at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street station sounded thrilled about this inconvenience even as she apologized for it.  

I was pissed off because nobody came into the restaurant for dinner that night so I didn’t make any money. I only had two thirds of my rent that was due in a week. I was going to have to pick up shifts during finals. I stood around all night polishing wine glasses and folding napkins instead of studying for my statistics exam. Tonight would be another sleepless one. There would probably be crying. I usually cried when I studied for math tests because I’m very bad at math. Doing things that I’m very bad at makes me sad about all the things in the world that I will probably never really understand, like electricity and Einstein's general theory of relativity.

During my shift, the bartender I was in the process of breaking up with had gotten drunk and annoying. He flirted all night with that blonde woman from across the street, and not just in the compulsory bartender way. She came to see him every night, even in this snowstorm. Usually he was polite to her, but disinterested. She had thick, square, acrylic French-manicured nails. She wore sticky pink lip gloss. She always started out her evening with a Sex on the Beach. Her voice sounded like her acrylic nails on a chalkboard. But, he leaned over the bar and looked into her eyes. He probably talked to her about his art, how he’d dropped out of law school for it. I did not like the thought of him sharing that part of himself, the part I liked, with her. So what if I had ignored his phone calls for three days? I was supposed to be the one ending it, not him. And now the stupid G train wasn’t running.

I kicked an empty forty bottle that someone had discarded on the platform. It was still wrapped tightly in a brown paper bag. It rolled unsatisfyingly for a few seconds then stopped at a middle-aged Rasta’s feet. He had his head tipped up as though waiting for further instruction from the MTA. I was not holding my breath for any such thing. We were, I knew, on our own.

“Chill, baby,” he said.

I hate it when random men call me ‘baby,’ especially when they’re telling me what to do. I might have told him as much. I thought about it. I was in the mood for it. But I had kicked a bottle at him so I didn’t exactly hold the moral high ground. I scowled at him instead.

“I hear ya,” he said, even though I hadn’t said anything. “How we supposed to get home?”

“Yeah,” I said.

There was a bus that would get me close enough to walk to my apartment. Not as close as the G train, but closer than the A train. I had never taken that bus but I knew it existed because my friend Sarah who lived down the street was always going on and on about how she took it everywhere. She talked about taking the bus the way people talk about juice detoxes and meditation which is weird because there’s nothing about the bus that is healthier than the train. At least nothing I can think of.

Outside, the snow was still coming down in heavy, sharp white pellets. It was the kind of snow that made opening an umbrella look pitiful. I buttoned the coat button that pinches the skin under my chin. I had to do that so my hood would not blow off in the whooshing wind. Google on my cellphone told me that the bus stop was six blocks away. The bus, I thought, better be running as usual. My brain said this in threatening tones. I needed the universe to know that I meant business.

What’s nice about walking in a snowstorm when you’re somewhat unreasonably miserable is that it makes your misery more reasonable. I don’t mind snowstorms when I don’t have to go anywhere except down the street to my favorite hole-in-the-wall for a hot toddy, or when I can stay indoors reading books and making soup. I do mind them under most other circumstances.

There were very few cars out that night; very few pedestrians. Downtown Brooklyn didn’t feel peaceful though. It felt abandoned. It felt like everyone was safe and sound at home except for me. I blamed a lot of people for this. I didn’t care if my reasoning was irrational. I was not interested in considering association versus causality. Perhaps this tendency is why I was having such a hard time with Statistics II.

It was my landlord’s fault for raising the rent by $150 when I was already struggling to pay it. I knew that this would happen when the hipsters moved in. I blamed those hipsters and their rich parents. I blamed my parents for not being rich. I blamed the university I attended for being so expensive. I blamed financial aid for not covering my whole tuition. It was the bartender’s fault for flirting with that blonde woman and making me jealous enough to stay at the restaurant for an hour after closing time to drink whiskey with him. The MTA was the worst institution that ever existed. Never mind that it ran trains and buses twenty-four hours a day so that I didn’t have to own a car. The G train wasn’t running right now. I also had a bone to pick with the mathematicians who developed theoretical and applied statistics.

I was walking with my head down so that the snow didn’t attack my eyeballs. They’re very sensitive. Walking in that way made it difficult to see where I was going. I had to stop every block to check whether or not I had arrived at the corner where I was supposed to turn left. My sense of direction is very poor. I was standing on Atlantic and Nevins when something large and brown leapt past me and into the street. A bus, perhaps my bus, rolled over it. The bus kept going, leaving the street empty and white again, except for a mangy mutt that was now bleeding red into the snow.

The mutt was silent. I rushed over to where it was lying. Its belly had been crushed and split open. The sight of its exposed flesh and guts filled my lungs with freezing oxygen. It—he—was dead.  As far as I could see, there hadn’t been anything or anyone chasing him, nothing to spook him. I wanted to touch his nose but as I bent down and reached out my hand, I started to shake.

“Hey sweetheart,” called out a man wearing a backpack with a hard hat tied to it, “you okay?”

I don’t like it when off-duty construction workers I don’t know call me ‘sweetheart,’ but it didn’t seem important in that moment.

“There’s a dead dog in the road,” I yelled at him.

“Why?” he asked.

That the mutt had been hit by a bus was not the answer to that question. It was only a consequence.

“I don’t know,” I yelled. I didn’t need to yell. He wasn’t very far away. Maybe I wasn’t yelling at him.

I felt ridiculous standing in the street now, so I joined the construction worker on the sidewalk. The two of us stood in silence, looking at the mutt.

“That’s the way it is sometimes,” he said after a while. “It was probably the snow.”

What he meant by that last part, I did not know. But, I nodded and started walking towards the bus stop again. This time, I let it snow into my eyeballs. The snowflakes didn’t feel as sharp as I imagined. They just felt like cold water. I blinked and let them drip onto my cheeks. I had to accept that the storm would keep storming until it was over. And when I got to the bus stop, the bus would come or it wouldn’t. There would be reasons for whatever happened just as there must have been reasons for the mutt in the road. But, I might never know them. And they wouldn’t necessarily mean that any of it made sense.

So Go the Ghosts

So Go the Ghosts

I think the common misconception with Schrödinger’s experiment is that its findings can encourage indecision. But choosing to make no decision, to take no measurement, to send no text, are still in themselves active resolutions. I’ve consciously left the ghosts of those affairs in the box, cryogenically frozen, petrified in amber. They’re still there. In having done so within the Schrödinger framework, I elected for their life. Rather, I chose life and death and everything else; I elected for their infinity.

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Table for Four

by Sarah Eisner

We don’t always eat together—a necessary downside to our dual entrepreneur, Silicon Valley household—but we try to often, and tonight we do. We eat in the faded drape of winter evening light, all of us returned to each other from our busy days, at the dinner table. We eat in the same seats as always: ten-year-old Wilson across from me, eight-year-old Ben across from my husband, Noah.

Wilson is eating oiled broccoli with his fingers. Noah wipes his hands on a paper towel and says, “Hey buddy, use your fork please.”

Wilson is mid-chew, and Ben giggles and says to his dad, “You didn’t.” Ben is jolly, and right—we all love to eat with our hands. We take an irrational pride in not being formal, and we don’t dine so much as heartily consume.

Noah picks up his fork and spears a floret. “You got me,” he smiles at Ben.

“Hey,” Wilson says. “Let’s play thumbs up, thumbs down.”

We nod and Wilson starts. “Soccer,” he says. Our thumbs go up. We’re all on teams. Noah and I play in the co-ed adult league, our version of church, on Sundays.

“Donuts,” Ben says. He often dreams about chocolate glazed. I like apple fritters and the other two just eat plain.

Technically, it’s Noah’s turn next, but Wilson interjects.

“Divorce,” he says.

I look at Wilson across the table, surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be, while getting my thumb in a low down position.

***

Until I was twelve, my family ate dinner together. I don’t mean usually, or on most weeknights. I mean every night. In our suburban family room in Concord, California, we sat in the same seats—Rick across from Mom, and Dad across from me.

With a classical music record on low and the TV off, we ate slowly, with our utensils, and we discussed our days as we listened to each other, just like studies—not yet conducted—now recommend.

Dad got home from San Francisco every night at five-thirty. At six o’clock, give or take five minutes, Mom would call Rick and me to the table by clanging her oversized, festive wall-mounted dinner bell, though our little house hardly called for such fanfare. We were usually just a few feet away doing homework or playing Chinese Checkers. Once seated we were not, under any circumstances—aside from the threat of death, destruction, or bladder emergencies—to get up, especially not to answer the telephone. That was fine with me, until boys started calling in junior high. I loved dinnertime and moved toward it like a sanctuary throughout my days.

The only part I didn’t like was saying grace. At six-o-five-ish, we held hands around the table, four voices together, and said thank you God for our food, Amen. I had no use for the flimsy promises of church or God and Jesus. I had faith in dinnertime, and the reliable calm of Rick, Mom, and especially Dad.

Every night we sat at the monumental oak table Dad had restored from a cast-off Boeing office desk, once used for blueprints of warplanes, jets, and cruise missiles. The surface was smooth enough to bowl on. Its deep drawers now held decks of cards. In California, earthquakes came, and the table sheltered us, Dad leading us with controlled urgency to duck, cover and hold on beneath our breaded veal cutlets and his single nightly Anchor Steam beer.

Then one September evening in 1986 after a dinner I don’t remember, the earth didn’t move, but Mom told us Dad was going to.

“We love you both very much,” she said, somber but composed, “but your dad and I have decided to get a divorce.”

Dad didn’t say a word. I suspect he couldn’t. He bowed his head and brought his white cotton handkerchief to his eyes. We’d given it to him, Rick and I, for Christmas.

I looked at Rick. Rick looked at Mom. “Can I go to Craig’s now?” Rick asked.

Mom told him to be home in an hour. She understood the disorientation, his nine-year-old desperation to escape. I sat there a bit longer, watching Dad try to lower the handkerchief, breathe, and raise it again, but Rick’s anxious exit marked the last time we all four sat at that table together. It’s the last thing I remember until I watched Dad labor to heft the table—that amber altar of my childhood—into a U-Haul six days later.

My dad’s wedding gift to us was the worn, oatmeal-crusted table we sit at now. I plan to keep it always.

***

“So,” Wilson says. “You and Dad won’t divorce, right?”

I don’t think Wilson is overly worried about Noah and me. But, with Noah’s divorced and remarried side too, Wilson has eight grandparents. He has three close friends that split their weeks even-steven, and not always amicably, between Mom and Dad. Over the years he has asked me questions: “Did Grandma ever love Grandpa?” and, “Does Ethan’s mom hate his dad, now that they’re divorced?” And I wonder how often he imagines what he could lose.

I’m not overly worried. My relationship with Noah is good. We are devoted to each other, our kids, and also to our soul-crushing business affairs. Our love and care for our startups, our employees, and to some extent our investors, is intense and heady. What makes us solid is that we have our own lives while loving one another without omission.

We’ll be mulling around making peanut butter and jelly for school lunches—I assemble, Noah cleans up—and he’ll say to me in front of the kids, “It’s amazing how many cities you’ve launched,” or to the kids in front of me, “Boys, Mom’s in the news again.” And I will pull him into my chest and promise myself to make more than five minutes to lay with him that night.

But lately, in what has seemed like a series of small misfortunes I couldn’t control, it’s become clear that I will lose my company. Now that it’s in jeopardy, I’m surprised to find myself wondering about the permanence of everything else. When my business fails—when I lose one of the routine mirrors I rely on to see myself—what else might I lose?

“Right Mom?” Ben says. He smiles at me, raises his eyebrows.

I reach across my near-empty dinner plate to rearrange the decaying nectarines in the bowl at the center of the table and look at Noah. He crosses his eyes at me and sticks out his tongue.

“Nope,” he says. “No divorce for us.”

“No,” I say. And I mean it.

While I don’t say it, I also mean “probably not,” and “I will work hard to prevent it.” Because a parent cannot say to a child: “We are a family. Husband, wife, brother, sister. This is our home. We live together, love each other, and we are forever. Thank you God for our food Amen.” Then say: “Actually, no. We are not a family. Ex-husband, ex-wife, part-time son and part-time daughter. Together, we have no home, Mom and Dad don’t love each other, and we will take turns with you. Let’s eat at the counter.” Or, a parent can say these things. Mine had. When they did, they taught me things about permanence and faith.

They taught me that the spoil of a marriage can be a gradual mellowing, a plum that goes soft inside before the bruise appears on the surface. It can sit protected in the silver coiled fruit basket for days before the small flies circle and one or the other of you finally reaches over, feels the rot, and says oh! And in this knowledge I am lucky, even thankful for what I gained, by the breaking of my home.


Two National Book Award Nominations, and a New Novel

These first few weeks of autumn have brought some exciting news to Southern New Hampshire University's MFA faculty. First of all, we’d like to congratulate to our newest faculty member, Angela Flournoy, whose debut novel, ‘The Turner House,’ has been long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award in Fiction. Also our affiliate faculty member Sy Montgomery, whose book ‘The Soul of an Octopus’ has been long-listed for the award in nonfiction. Angela and Sy are each one of ten finalists for the award in their respective categories.

Angela has also been nominated for The National Book Foundation's Five Under Thirty-Five award.

We’d also like to congratulate Chinelo Okparanta on the launch of her highly anticipated debut novel, 'Under the Udala Trees,' which came out this past Tuesday. The novel chronicles the story of two girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war. Chinelo was born in Nigeria and lived there until she came to the United States when she was ten. The Wall Street Journal says the novel ‘draws on the Nigerian folk tales from her childhood, and her family history.’ Kirkus calls Chinelo’s voice 'masterful.’

Acclaimed novelist Taiye Selasi, author of ‘Ghana Must Go,’ writes: ‘Under the Udala Trees interrogates constructions of womanhood, of nationhood, and of sexuality. In these elegant folds of restrained prose lies a searing condemnation: of violence, religion and patriarchy in modern day Nigeria. Raw, emotionally intelligent and unflinchingly honest, Under the Udala Trees is a triumph.’ Selasi joined Chinelo at the book launch event on Wednesday, September 23rd at Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City at 7PM.