The way that I met Christina was a total fluke, like most of the best things in life are. Sometime in the fall first semester of my sophomore year at Baylor Jennie and I had just broken up, but she was committed to remaining friends (she was still a freshman, and I was her best friend on campus apart from her roommate Rose) and had decided that we and my next door neighbor Jay and his girlfriend Brandy should all go to a movie together. Rose was invited but wouldn’t attend; she didn’t like me very much, or she was busy that night, or both. I dreaded what seemed essentially like a double date, so I began inviting everybody and anybody without any sort of filter.
The person I was most excited about having invited was a guy named Grayson. He was handsome and smart, built like a linebacker and as quick to answer classroom silence (with the correct answer, no less) as me–just the sort of person I’d like to know. We were taking the BIC’s Social World I class together, which meant every Tuesday and Thursday we would meet for an hour and a half in one of Tidwell’s old classrooms, and this was before my switch to the Great Texts program so I was only so acquainted with the building at the time. From outside it had the undeniable look of a phallus with a transept as long as the central tower was tall, meaning it had two bulbous two-story wings skirting a five-floor tower. I believe we would have met in the west wing, second floor.
I asked Grayson to the movie, and he said yes, and I smiled and asked a few of the people around us if they’d like to come too, and Christina said yes. I hadn’t noticed her much before, but she had an easy (if small) smile and straight brown hair draping vibrant brown eyes, and her skin had an almost iridescent glow. I believe she sat behind Grayson a row. I accepted, and she wrote her number on the inside cover of my Republic paperback, and we coordinated.
Of all the people who accepted my movie invitation, only Christina actually attended. She showed up at the doorstep of my shitty, wood-panneled, straight out of the 70s apartment with an awkward smile to spend the evening with a group of people she’d never met before, one of whom was my very recent ex-girlfriend who may or may not have been trying to keep the relationship alive.
We clearly got along, Christina and I, laughing and talking and getting to know each other, mimicking all the movement of a first date in front of Jennie, Jay, and Brandy, who had to content themselves to together playing third wheel. I was so interested in this new person and the sweet sound of her laugh and the softness of her hair that I didn’t pay my friends any mind. After the movie, Jennie went home in a huff–she wouldn’t forgive me for weeks–and Brandy went home at some point, which left just me, Christina, and Jay in my living room getting to know each other.
The movie we had gone to see was The Ring. I had never particularly liked horror–one of my childhood memories is my parents’ second honeymoon, when they left my sister and I at home with a live-in babysitter who made me watch Witches and screamed at me very like a witch every time something scary happened; I also remember the shivering fear I felt during Arachnophobia–so I didn’t pay it much mind at the time except to feel a few jitters under my skin and to act brave in front of this girl I was beginning to desperately want to befriend. Little did I know that I had just bought myself three years of nightmare fodder.
When I woke up on my couch in the morning, Christina and Jay were both gone. I must have fallen asleep while we were all still chatting, and they left me to go to their homes and sleep. I yawned and stretched and prepared to wake up, and then my TV turned on–
To static. Loud white noise filled the room.
I blinked at the TV for a minute and looked around the couch for a remote before remembering I didn’t have one. I squinted at the TV for a moment, remembering next the drowned girl crawling and the water spilling out of TV screens before each murder in The Ring. Ghosts aren’t real, I chided myself. This is just some fluke. I got up and went and turned the TV off, shrugging. I walked to the kitchen wondering whether I had woken up to the TV and its noise. Maybe Jay and Christina had tried to watch some cable and screwed up the TV settings before they left for the evening and just hadn’t turned it off. I shrugged again.
When I cracked open my fridge to grab some breakfast, the white noise filled my apartment again. I poked my head around the corner to see the TV playing static. I squinted suspiciously at the TV again, trying to figure out how it had turned back on. I resolved: I’ll turn off this TV again and stand a few feet back for a minute–in case of groping, ghostly arms looking to pierce me or drag me down to hell–and if it turns back on again, I’m fucking bolting. Fuck whether ghosts aren’t real or not.
So I walked up to it and I turned it off again. I stepped back out of arm’s reach of the TV. I waited.
It turned on. I bolted.
Outside, Christina and Jay had begun to laugh big belly laughs. I heard them before I had opened to door of my apartment. When I got outside, I saw Jay crouched under my living room window with a smart remote in his hand, which he and I had programmed to my TV the week before. Christina looked at me somewhat sheepishly. I suppose from my current vantage she was waiting for my reaction as a sort of social test, to see whether I had a sense of humor or would react violently or whatever she was waiting for. At the time, it seemed like an innocent reaction to their perfectly played prank. I cracked a smile, and I took a deep breath, and I said with a nod, “Good one.” Then we packed up and went to Denny’s.
I had only had one recurring nightmare before: My (unnamed, anonymous) friends were trapped on a docked submarine with a green-faced witch chasing them. I entered the submarine to help them escape, but all I found was the terror of long corridors and outstretched, sharp-nailed hands. I couldn’t help anyone, and the witch pursued me (and my friends?) around the submarine until it left dock, and submerged, and we were all trapped together forever. Sometimes my mother would wake me up before the witch caught me; sometimes I would wake up with a gasp as the hand finally stretched for a grab I couldn’t escape. I dreamt this maybe every few months between eleven and thirteen; I remember it occurred one morning before my family attended a regular Custer Road United Methodist service, and we only attended those for a year or two.
The witch from the submarine never permeated my waking life the way the drowned girl of The Ring came to. I saw her bloated rotting hand every time I closed my eyes in the shower. Sometimes in the dark of night before bed, I could see her silhouetted against the textured plaster of my bedroom. When Christina and I would take one of our cars and drive out into the darkness of a Texas night to kiss and fondle and chat under the stars, sometimes Christina’s straight brown hair would drape around her face to shadow or cover her features, and fear would stab my heart, and I would remind myself to breathe, that I shouldn’t fear a movie, that Christina and I were in love and her kiss and her hand softly resting on my chest was the fuel of my life. After I admitted my fear to her–with a laugh, pure posturing and silliness–Christina would climb on top of me in bed and move her hair into her face and lean over me, and the drape of it would tickle my cheeks, and always I found this electric, though sometimes with endearment and sometimes with fear.
I never dreamed again of the submarine witch. Instead, it became a drowned girl with damp brown hair for a face standing in the expansive lawn of some autumnal manse, brown leaves covering the grass between the road and the half-circle gravel driveway. She would stand there in the lawn and watch me from behind her hair, and I would bask in the utter terror of her presence, and leaves would rustle peacefully around us. Every few months I had that dream, me and The Ring’s ghost standing under fall skies in the lawn of some wealthy house.
Years passed before these dreams broke, before I could close my eyes in the shower without succumbing to a dreadly suspicion and opening my eyes to suds to make sure no girl had appeared in my tub. Still more years had to pass before I could think of Christina outside the scope of sheer dread. I didn’t (and don’t) think of her this way often, but as an introduction: It has been so difficult for my to write about college because behind this funny circumstance is a nugget of terrible truth: I fear that I lost happiness in college, that I sold it for a few tragic months, that I lost my ability to engage and empathize, which had always defined my idealism, itself my defining quality. What shell of a man must I be to lack those things today, and how (or even did I) lost myself so thoroughly along the way?