The first time I met Preston, he was huffing nitrous oxide at a high school party. He took a long gulp and passed out on the floor. I thought someone should administer CPR. His hair was neon orange and shaved close to his scalp. I remember thinking he looked like he belonged in a dystopian movie where everything was held together with layers of duct tape, spray paint, and human hair. I remember thinking he looked dangerous. He didn’t look like my type.
I liked shiny blonde boys who didn’t like me back (bonus points if they also played a musical instrument).
Fast forward to the summer of my inadequacy: I had just graduated with a BA in English and no one wanted to hire me except an interior design magazine sighing its last raspy, print journalism breath. For $13 an hour, I wrote stories about Lucite chairs and claimed to understand why people paid other people to create garlands of netted bows, tiny glass peppermints, and Santa Claus baubles.
I was also in crush mode with a hometown boy named Matt (shiny, blonde, played the drums). After a suggestive round of text messages, I drove three hours to see him in the middle of the night. On the ride over, I fantasized a frisky make-out scene and some deep, wine-fueled conversations about how we were made for each other. When I arrived at his apartment, he was dead asleep after smashing a handful of hydrocodone. He opened the door for me and then passed out again, drooling into his pillow. Somehow this ultimate snub made me more interested. I left a frilly, pink thong on the floor as a reminder for him to call me (he didn’t).
I was still pouting over hometown boy, and neck-deep in an article about foiled wallpaper when I got a Facebook message from Preston. Could we get together?
I ignored Preston’s message. I told my roommates about the time he had passed out on the floor. Saying, “No thank you,” in an overblown, holier-than-thou mumble. (I guess Preston’s whippets were an unacceptable form of recreational drug use, but Matt’s fistful of opioids was cool?)
Anyhow, I was seeing this other guy, Cory (slippery, musician). Cory and I met at a bar on Austin’s east side. I tried to slide him a Lone Star across the crowded bar top and to my surprise, the can sailed the length of the counter and landed in his cupped hand like it had been teleported. This action was miraculous because I have zero hand-eye coordination. I thought it somehow meant Cory and I fit together, like his palm and that beer can. But we both spent the remainder of our short relationship trying to live up to that one swift and impossibly cool action. A few dates in, after we got naked together for the first time (I saw his Erykah Badu tattoo; he saw my Oklahoma-shaped birthmark), he stopped responding to my text messages. Turns out we weren’t that cool, and we just didn’t fit together.
I was slogging through a piece on antique festivals when Preston messaged again. This time he offered to buy me a drink. Or, how ‘bout a sandwich?
I looked at his Facebook profile. In his pictures, he still had a tiny fringe of hair. He was on a street in Costa Rica, overgrown with elephant ears and spiky palms, handing a monkey a piece of mango.
In other photos, he was in the desert somewhere — Afghanistan, maybe — wearing camouflage. A cigarette dangled from his mouth, and his skin was pink, like it had been scrubbed and scrubbed with sand. His teeth gritted into a stark-white smile, bleached by the sun.
In later photos, he stood in a wedding procession inside a shiplapped chapel. The AC appeared to be broken. Beads of sweat made everyone glisten and frown, but he smiled under an arbor of orange and blue artificial flowers.
He wasn’t shiny, blonde, or musically inclined. But there was something about him. And there were no traces of nitrous oxide.
I agreed to meet.
I sat alone at a flimsy bistro table guzzling mineral water. Preston walked in, and I was surprised to see he had a thick beard and a long wave of red curls instead of the high-and-tight haircut I had been expecting. Also, he had grown measurably larger since high school. He was sturdy, but bent a little at the neck.
I felt surprised. I felt small. I felt attracted. I screeched out of my wobbly chair and gave him an awkward side hug. I ordered something gluten-free with beansprouts. Taking measured bites, I tried to chew in a cute way, as if I was a woodland creature whose teeth were too large, as if I could impress him with my meekness and noshing power. But it didn’t matter. Because he ate his hamburger in a few minutes of fury, spilling mustard on his lapel, wiping it off without apology.
An easiness unfurled. Talking with him was like taking a familiar drive. There was a sort of muscle memory to it. And I didn’t want the conversation to stop. I suggested we go for a drink.
We ended up back at my place. And over a bottle of cheap red, he told me about his time in the Marines. About how they helped build a school for girls. About how it was promptly blown to bits by the Taliban. About how the desert became a grow operation for marijuana and opium. The stark contrast of rows and rows of pink poppies and men barely in their twenties toting automatic rifles. He talked about the Afghani kids and how they thought the Marines were ghosts. He thought, momentarily, maybe they were ghosts. He talked about the shape of the bullet that went through his forearm. About how an IED wasn’t fire but force. War machine. What was the purpose.
I felt small. And I didn’t feel like I had anything to say in response. We listened to Otis Redding. And we were quiet. And it was okay. The silence became comfortable eventually. So comfortable we started singing along.
He told me I still drive like I did in high school. I thought it was a strange thing to say. And I wondered how I had driven in high school — too fast I assumed. He talked about memories I didn’t have. Memories of me.
“Remember when the group of us went to Pizza Shack and you ate a slice of cheesecake?”
No, I didn’t remember. But I was strangely flattered he did. This felt like a compliment. But better than the compliments I was accustomed to getting.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked. I nodded, and we kissed. And then I pushed him away. He said he was sorry. But there was nothing for him to be sorry about.
It was me. I didn’t want to be part of another fling. I didn’t want to be un-flung. And I told him so.
Preston said he would get a ride, head home. He understood. But I backpedaled. Saying it was late. Saying he could just stay on the couch and drive home in the morning. He agreed and gave me a hug goodnight.
I woke up the next day — somewhere near noon — with a wine headache. Preston was still asleep on the couch, his feet hanging off the armrest, a small, wheezing snore escaping his mouth. His socks were sliding off his feet, probably from tossing on the sagging sofa.
He woke and started putting on his boots, started getting ready to go in a way that looked like I might not see him again. And I knew this was one of those cosmic-fork-in-the-road moments. I could explore this relationship with Preston or I could keep texting boys with guitars and avoidant attachment styles.
“Do you like pancakes?” I blurted out.
Of course, he liked pancakes. We went to Kerbey Lane Cafe, and we ordered queso and pancakes and orange juice. And when he knocked over the carafe of OJ with his elbow, when the table went orange, and he mopped up the mess with his napkin and then my napkin and then his shirttails, a subterranean animal deep in my chest confirmed this was not a fling, but the right fit. I had found someone to sit with, sing with, spill with, and be silent with. I found someone who knew what it was to feel like a ghost.