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The love story starts here.

I am dreaming of Orlando Bloom when I’m awakened by an icy poke into my bare shoulder.  It feels like a cold bony finger pressing deliberately into my flesh.  Flurries swirl outside, bathing the room in a white glow. I catch my breath. I should panic: I live alone; there’s no one here. I awake long enough to decipher the situation and exhale, pulling up the down comforter to my chin and snuggling deeper into the pillows. “Thanks,” I say, closing my eyes. I’m thanking my ghost for waking me up because, of course, who else would it be?

For the past month, I’ve been convinced I have a ghost. It started with a pile of books left on my doorstep. A doorstep at the top of the building, at the end of the hall, nowhere near anyone. They are random books with no discernible connections: medical school study guides, a coffee table book on Greek history, an illustrated tome on trains, Irish folklore, and an audio CD on Harry Truman. The books likely came from the apartment lobby: discarded by vacating tenants, snuck onto the shelves while hoping no one noticed. I talk to the apartment manager about it.  He suggests it was an apparition. “We do live next to a graveyard,” he says.

There are other things: a magnolia seed bud left on top of my morning newspaper, although there are no magnolia trees around the apartment. Items go missing – scissors in particular – and reappear. The phone rings in the middle of the night with Bruce Springsteen or Aerosmith on the other end. There was even some chain rattling. I tell my ghost that it’s trite and he can do better.

“Orlando,” my friend Rachel says when she hears about my nocturnal visitor. “Your ghost’s name is Orlando.”

“How do you figure that?”

“You were dreaming of Orlando Bloom before you woke up.”

“That makes sense.”

The adjacent cemetery has a self-guided walking tour, marking the interments of local famous midwest persons. I have the guide and wander around the markers. I’m looking for the Chinese headstones. The brochure tells me these are unusual because at that time the Chinese usually sent their dead back to China for burial. I march toward the designated area and feel an urge to look left. I stop cold. Protruding from the earth is a gray granite slab, with “Orlando” written across its shiny face.  Was it a coincidence?  I’m traipsing around a cemetery and suddenly Orlando appears. It has to be him. He exists.

I am smitten on the spot and hopelessly devoted.  I comb through archival newspaper clippings on microfiche for his obituary. I piece together his life. Where he was born, where he died. Where he went to school and what he majored in. The librarian at his school finds him in the yearbook but he didn’t pose for a picture. He is, in my head, a tall, gangly twenty-year-old, with chocolate brown eyes and a mop of dark curly hair. Truth is, I have absolutely no idea what he looked like.

I learn he was deaf. That he committed suicide. The librarian tells me suicide was common in those days for people with disabilities. I convince myself it was an accident. I decide he had a toothache and drank carbolic acid for the pain or treatment. One day, at dusk, out of the corner of my eye, a figure walks along the cemetery fence. Dark pants, white shirt, dark hair. I blink. He is gone. Did I see someone, or was the twilight mist playing tricks on me?

The thing with hundred and thirty-year-old ghosts: you can make them up. There’s no context and no one around to refute you.  I talk to him, feel his presence. Orlando is real: loved into existence. I am vaguely aware I am skirting the edges of sanity.

Another ghost appears. A living breathing man of my past. He’s half a world away in a Middle Eastern desert. He, like Orlando, is a disembodied spirit. He, unlike Orlando, enters my life with instant messaging. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he says, winking.

I’m smitten on the spot and hopelessly devoted. I dive in, trying to remember a boy I barely knew thirty years ago. I recreate him through old photos and yearbooks. He is real: loved into existence.

The horror story starts here.

I fuse the two men: attributing the made-up qualities of Orlando to the real person in the internet ethers. My runaway mind fabricates, blends, imagines; I create the perfect person. Neither man is real.

I’m caught up in the idea of being in love and the idea of being in love is so strong I don’t see anything else. My normally astute radar breaks down and I miss the real cues. The real man turns out to be a bad man. I find myself sliding down the wall, collapsing in a puddle of tears, with a crippling stabbing in my chest.

Suddenly, I am surrounded by ghosts. A gang of idealized lovers bearing shame, embarrassment, and humiliation.  How many more were there? Crushing on cute guys I didn’t really know, so I made up personalities for them.  How many awkward encounters? Fumbled conversations? The relationships I misread, or so desperately wanting it to work out that I overlooked things. Refused to see them. Couldn’t see them.

If I had to do it over,  I’d pick the unknown man, the phantom presence whose reality can’t and never will hurt me because he’s dead. He’s not flesh and blood, not able to do me physical harm. He can stay in my imagination where he is who I need him to be.

Diane Kraynak is a pediatric nurse practitioner in Washington, DC with her husband and step-children. She is working on a collection of nursing essays.

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