Pacman’s Ghosts


Miss Pacman, bulimic, throws up cherries and pretzels off-screen. Pacman, afraid of what he knows, eats. Both of them think they are full but continue to wander the corners of their lonely dark yard, looking for any overlooked power pellets.


In one version of this story, Pacman is a salaryman. Pacman eats and works in capsule hotels. We can assume this because he is rarely seen on screen with Miss Pacman and his levels are small, tight like a commute. Pacman makes a competitive salary yet his ghosts are never satisfied. Pacman is always running, always eating, always tired. Pacman drinks every night with his coworkers, binging on cherries and wondering if he will ever achieve happiness.


Pacman thought Blinky was his friend until Blinky bit into his shoulder, and nothing was the same after that.


The first time Pacman met Miss Pacman she was eating a cake. She was a few booths down at the local Denny’s. Pacman could relate; he ate all sorts of things: fruit, deserts, ghosts, people’s time.  Everyone knows what it feels like to eat and be filled, to need to be filled. Maybe they could get along, Pacman thought.

Miss Pacman ate beautifully. What did she enjoy, Pacman wondered—what does any woman enjoy? 

He studied the cake, the way it folded under her fork like linens.

Was she also eating and eating, trying to be filled? Or with that cherry-red bow and perfect lipstick, had she found an answer Pacman had missed?

Maybe I should join her, Pacman thought, but remained in his booth and continued to watch.


Miss Pacman’s dementia is getting worse. She asks her husband: who are you? She finds herself running into walls, forgetting where she is going. She is off-screen because she is tired. Her husband eats to forget. He fills himself with fruit to keep himself busy. Idle men get eaten by ghosts. He runs until he gets tired and then his memories eat him.

Whenever Pacman tries to run off-screen he loops. Pacman is running in circles.


Miss Pacman wasn’t Pacman’s first lover. There was Pinky, Blinky, Inky and then Clyde. Even though those relationships ended years ago, they linger behind Pacman wherever he goes. He doesn’t want Miss Pacman to know this, yet she sees them too. She sees them in how quick Pacman’s pace is, how he answers her questions briskly, how he always is looking over his shoulder, as if  being followed.


Pacman wonders what happened between him and Clyde. Years ago, they were friends when they suddenly drifted apart. They tried to talk, but it felt forced, like a ritual. Pacman thinks about what he’d say to Clyde, if they were sitting down in a café, catching up. Clyde’s never been a man of many words, but neither has Pacman. He likes to think that whatever they once had can be fixed. When it’s late at night and the world feels overwhelming and too large to be consumed, Pacman thinks about this.


Pacman has dreams where he and Clyde still talk, where Blinky apologizes for biting him, where there’s closure with Pinky, and Inky forgives him for being a juvenile jerk back in the day. Pacman has so many dreams about his past that he begins to feel the separation between his past and present selves. He walks in parks, picking up all the trash on the ground, as if in a trance. Miss Pacman will find him in the middle of a park without his shoes, sitting on a park bench. Miss Pacman has tried to express her worry, telling Pacman he should consider seeing a therapist. Pacman tries to tell her that everything is fine, but after driving him home from the park that day, Miss Pacman won’t take no for an answer.


After several years of goal-setting with his therapist, Pacman has finally decided to eat his own ghosts. He has prepared for this day. For years he has gone through exposure behavioral therapy, has chased hypothetical ghosts for practice. He faces them today, and they become small. He eats them, and they disappear briefly, but return the next day. After several days of this, Pacman gets tired. What will it take to make his ghosts disappear? It’s funny, he tells his therapist, how one minute, I feel in control, and the next, I’m overpowered by the same fears as before. It’s like my life is a never-ending cul-de-sac.


In Pacman’s childhood, his father asked him every day what he was going to do, and provided unsolicited answers.

Pacman’s father never stood still, but was always in-transit.

Pacman’s father was never on-screen, but was a necessary part of the story.

Pacman still thinks about his father whenever he goes from cherry to orange to cake. He wonders what his father would think of his dietary choices, if his father would approve of his career choice as a professional food-gatherer. We’re not in the stone-age, his father would say. And even if we were, women are the gatherers, men are the hunters.

Pacman’s never been much of a hunter. He prefers long walks at the beach and conversations with good friends.

It has taken Pacman years to acknowledge that he doesn’t need his father’s approval.

Even so, his father’s words trail behind him continuously, and make him second-guess where he’s going.


For as long as he can remember, Pacman’s been bullied. He never turns around to see their faces but hears their voices ricochet in his head. As an adult, Pacman knows that they have no power over him, but he still finds himself on instinct running.


Pacman is remembered as the top man of his class. Everyone remembers Pacman. Voted “most likely to suceed” as well as “most likely to eat all cakes in sight.” Pacman always had his shit together. Pacman got the hot girl. Pacman became an arcade classic. Pacman is the American dream.

At his high school reunion, Pacman opens up after a few drinks. Miss Pacman remembers how he was in the car ride here: nervously tucking his stomach into his pants, over and over, checking his hair in the mirror.

But now, he laughs again. The world is in Blue Mode, and Pacman is eating it all up. He recreates the Pacman everyone remembers.

But Miss Pacman knows this is only brief:
that this is just a game, a show,
that the ghosts will return,
that we are all cycling the same floor of our lives,
looping in new rooms to deceive ourselves
into thinking we have changed something
by our own strength.