September 29, 2003 12:00 PM

There’s baggage—think suitcases—and then there’s baggage: pull-the-plug-four-days-before-the-wedding-with-the-whole-world-watching baggage. And on Sept. 16, as he boarded a Savannah, Ga.-bound private jet at Burbank Airport, Ben Affleck—accompanied by his two dogs and his brother Casey—appeared to be shouldering both. Headed for the $7.1 million estate on the Georgia coast he bought in April, Affleck’s cross-country journey was an attempt to escape the media frenzy—and a possible step toward a face-to-face summit with Lopez, who had decamped to her home in Miami Beach days before. “They’re going to sit down and talk,” says a Lopez pal. “They’ve spoken on the phone, but it’s different in person. They need to do it away from the glare of New York and Los Angeles.” And even as the mid-Atlantic coast braced for the arrival of Hurricane Isabel, a different sort of tempest seemed to be brewing. “Only the two of them know how it might turn out,” says her pal. “Either way, she’s one to confront her problems. I’m sure they’re going to scream, cry and laugh and maybe figure this out.”

Affleck’s journey capped the most chaotic week yet for the Hollywood power couple known as Bennifer. On Sept. 10, with everything from the flowers to the cake to the translucent dance floor already lined up, the two announced their decision to “postpone” their estimated $2 million wedding. They blamed the media frenzy—but it quickly became clear that the move was part of a much larger relationship crisis. As People first reported on Sept. 13, sources close to the couple, who were engaged last November, say that Affleck and Lopez have split—though a reconciliation would surprise no one. “I don’t think Jennifer and Ben have actually sat down and said the words, ‘It’s over,’ ” says a source close to Lopez. Even Affleck’s dad, Tim, 60, was puzzled by the sudden turn of events: “I couldn’t possibly tell you one way or the other what’s going through Jennifer’s mind or Ben’s mind.”

What, indeed, was going through their minds as they prepared to tie the knot before 200 guests in Santa Barbara, Calif.? “As the [wedding] date got closer, reality set in,” says a friend of the 31-year-old actor, “that this may not be the person Ben wants to spend the rest of his life with.” A confidant of Lopez’s pins the blame on “a helluva lotta stress,” adding that those close to Affleck—including his mom, Chris, 60—were raising questions about whether the marriage was a good idea. “He started getting scared,” says the source. Nonetheless, after the postponement, this friend says, “he called her every couple of hours, asking her to come back.”

For her part, Lopez, 34, “loves [Ben] deeply,” says a friend. And she is hardly prepared to give up. Says a source close to the situation: “She still thinks there’s a chance.”

Friends of the couple offer words of caution. “Ben and Jen live in an unrealistic world,” says an Affleck pal. “Your decision-making skills are affected when the whole world is watching. Perspective flies out the window—there’s too much chaos.” Adds Lopez’s friend, actress Vivica A. Fox: “I hope in her future relationships she’ll try to be a bit more guarded. That way, if things don’t work out, she won’t have to face so many people’s opinions.”

From the very start in March 2002, when Affleck took out a full-page ad in Variety extolling Lopez’s “beauty” and “true grace” (at the time she was still wed to second husband Cris Judd), the duo have taken publicity courting and conspicuous consumption to new heights—and the romance’s unraveling was no different. On the day the postponement was announced, the couple dined at the Ivy, L.A.’s ultimate see-and-be-seen restaurant. After Lopez hopped on a private plane to her $9.5 million Miami Beach spread Sept. 12, the two continued to nurse their wounds in public. Following a bikini-clad dip in the surf on Sept. 13, Lopez headed out that night to see Once Upon a Time in Mexico; next came club-hopping at crobar and Opium Garden/Privé, where the teetotaling actress—her famous 6.1-carat engagement rock conspicuously absent—seemed glum. “She looked unhappy,” says Opium Garden/Privé spokesman David Grutman. The next day she relaxed at the Mandarin Oriental spa and then hung out with girlfriends at her house “laughing until 3 or 4 a.m.,” says a source.

Meanwhile, Affleck stayed on at Lopez’s mansion in Los Angeles, dining out at a Studio City branch of the Mexican food chain Baja Fresh on Sept. 14 looking more casual than he has in months, his chic Jen-influenced polish replaced with rumpled weekend gear and a goatee. The next day he stood backstage at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno with his brother Casey, 28, while Rain Phoenix (sister of the late River and Casey’s girlfriend Summer) performed with musician Leona Naess.

While the pair attempt to sort things through, the question remains: Where did it go wrong? There was plenty of talk following Affleck’s July 17 visit to a Vancouver strip club. Affleck later called the incident an impromptu bachelor party, and Lopez claimed not to mind. But the groom-to-be surely must have known that the outing—alongside actor Christian Slater and Hollywood party girl Tara Reid—would have raised eyebrows. Says one of his friends: “How much more overt can you be than to go to a strip club with other celebrities? That’s not subtle.” The friend also says that Affleck’s newfound sobriety—he underwent rehab two years ago—has had a major impact. “Ben is still trying to figure out who he is,” says the pal. “He’s changed for the better, but he’s still getting to know the new Ben.”

Yet the actor remains unabashed about another vice: gambling. In recent weeks he has been spotted at Foxwoods casino in Ledyard, Conn., and Larry Flynt’s Hustler Casino in Gardena, Calif., where he arrived at 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 12 and proceeded to play high-stakes poker until 6 a.m., sipping only water throughout. “For someone who might have broken up with his fiancée,” says Flynt, “he looked mighty fine to me.”

Unlike Affleck’s poker habit, which friends say had little effect on the relationship (“Ben’s always loved playing cards,” says a pal. “It’s no secret”), the public scrutiny was a significant source of stress. With everything in place for the wedding, the decision to postpone, which came about after a lengthy heart-to-heart on Sept. 9, grew ever more tense—and costly, as much of the $2 million spent was nonrefundable (see box, p. 59). Still, “what’s worse—marrying someone you don’t want to marry,” asks the Affleck pal, “or calling off the wedding before it happens?”

As they pick up the pieces and decide what to do next, more questions are swirling: Will J.Lo keep The Ring? And most of all, will the couple rekindle their flame? One thing’s for sure—gifts planned for the wedding party, including pink-sapphire Neil Lane necklaces for the bridesmaids, haven’t been returned. A sign of their future intentions? “There are genuine feelings here,” says a source close to the pair. “It’s not dead. You know when the fire burns out, there are still a few embers. That’s where we are now.”

Michelle Tauber

Todd Gold, Marisa Laudadio, Elizabeth Leonard, Julie Jordan, Ron Arias, Kwala Mandel, Brenda Rodriguez and Pamela Warrick in L.A., Elizabeth McNeil and Ashley Williams in New York,’Mindy Marques, Linda Marx, Siobhan Morrissey and Linda Trischitta in Miami, Steve Helling in Orlando and Jeff Truesdell in Savannah

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