From behind her mask she whispered to Hugh, “Hated your last book.”

by Hugh Gilmore

Felice and I had been going at it for a couple of weeks, I guess, when I first decided to share some things I’d learned from her with my wife, Janet. Felice, you may remember, is the name I’m giving la femme mystérieuse, the anonymous woman I’d met online who’d been such a boost to me. So generous with her time too. We really hit it off.

But when I decided to tell Janet what Felice had told me, I realized Janet would not know who I was talking about. I began blushing from”possible” guilt that very instant. Not real guilt, the marital kind: feeling you must explain something that seems innocent to yourself, but may be interpreted as a crime. The kind where you must find the proper casualness with which to drop into your 27-year, ongoing conversation a female “friend’s”’ name never mentioned before.

Hmm. This calls for a throat-clearing drink of water and some mental rehearsing. Ahem. It also called for wondering if it was worth it. Really, why serve up ten sentences in order to state the only one you wanted to say: “Felice says I should go on this website called, and find some blogs I could guest on.”

Even the dullest student in playwriting 101 could write the next page of dialogue from there, however, so I donated the 10 sentences ending with, “So, Janet, that’s who Felice is, and she told me all about Sounds interesting, n’est-ce pas?”

I guess that was the right way to handle things because I’ve not had anything thrown back at me, like, “Why ask me? Why don’t you ask Felice where you left the remote control?”If you’ve been reading along with me, you’re probably wondering why Felice was so … secretive. Good question. Perhaps that’s too strong a word, but we exchanged 32,759 words in 11 weeks, and I never learned her name, address, phone number, email address, age, marital status, physical or style type.

And you know what? I was curious, but after spending very little time trying to figure out those things – indeed, I have no proof Felice was even a woman – I really didn’t care.

Once the correspondence was underway, we developed a relationship that was pure “mind.” I had obtained no visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory or gustatory sensations of her as a human being living inside a corporeal body.

We communicated solely on the equivalent of her having scratched in the mud with a stick. I scratched back. She scratched again. Sorry if that metaphor seems strained. I mean to say, all I had to know her by were the black shapes on the white computer screen. But these were the outpourings of her mind. So that’s what I got to know.

I liked it. If I hadn’t, I could have refused to go along with it. The exchange would have ended or I might have persuaded her to reveal more. But I didn’t. I asked two questions, both inane, though they were intended to be invitations to tell me more.

One: are you in the sciences? (I asked that because Felice struck me after a while as fairly strict in her sense of how things should be done. Also, fairly literal. She said, yes, she was a technology person. In fact: a software tester.) Two: Are you athletic? (asked to see if she’d talk about her tennis game or her days as a field hockey star). She said no. I was content to let it go at that.

It struck me, as a married man, that it wouldn’t be right to start probing for more information than I was offered (like, What are you wearing right now?).

Why did Felice want to be anonymous? Without my asking, she volunteered one night that her Facebook name was not her true name. She’d joined FB for several reasons, none of them serious. There were certain online activities she enjoyed. But she had another presence on the Internet that was professional. She did not want fellow professionals to know that side of her, so she’d tricked FB into granting her another name, her fun name.

Once she’d begun living that shadow life, she also found she enjoyed joining forums and using her anonymity as a shield that allowed her to be honest and occasionally flippant. Thirdly, she liked going around to various sites and being helpful to people who were having technical problems, kind of like an Internet Robin Hood-meets-AAA-Roadside-Assistance. That’s how she met me. I had posted a FB plea for help with maintaining the FB site I was trying to use to promote my new book, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour.”

Here the story gets another twist: the reason Felice confessed she’d been less than honest with me about her persona. She knew me through my column for this newspaper. She enjoyed my writing, both for its style and content. And, because I write about my personal life, she knew a lot about me.

That being the case, she felt guilty for deceiving me. I began wondering if I knew her, or had met her. But I refused to ask. I enjoyed feeling noble. The whole affair was taking on the atmosphere of a masked ball. Although my own face was quite naked, I would not spoil the fun by asking the lady to remove her mask.

We danced on. The lady relaxed. Enough to move the conversation to another level of honesty. She leaned forward that night and whispered, in effect, “I love your columns, but I couldn’t stand your first book and doubt I’ll want to read the new one. I will buy it though.”

Before long, I had cause to regret that she did.

See you next week.

The book Felice hated and couldn’t finish, “Malcolm’s Wine: A Noir Crime Novel of Rare Books, Vintage Wine and Sneaky People,” is available exclusively through in both paperback and Kindle formats. Hugh Gilmore says it’s the best bibliomystery out there.