April 20, 1996. Working a table at the Spring Picnic.

I biked to campus full of anticipation on that cool, cloudy Saturday morning.  Today was the Spring Picnic.  In the last three months, I had made a new group of friends and taken an overnight trip with them, and I had discovered my purpose in life, but if this year’s Spring Picnic was anything like last year’s, it would rival those days as one of the best days of the year. (I should point out that I had no idea in 1996 of the fact that today’s date, April 20, meant something to marijuana users. My day had nothing to do with marijuana.)

Last year, I had heard some older students say that it always seems to rain in Jeromeville on the day of the Spring Picnic, but the weather last year was perfect.  Today rain looked a bit more likely, but I was determined that even the ominous sky would not ruin this day for me.

I arrived early, parking at a bike rack next to Wellington Hall a little after nine o’clock.  I had stopped to pick up a schedule of events on the way in.  I turned the pages to see what was happening this early, and to my dismay, there was not much.  The alumni breakfast was for alumni only and required a ticket purchase.  The Chemistry Club show was later in the day, but people were lining up for distribution of tickets already.  I had heard good things about that, but spending a long time in line to get a ticket did not appeal to me enough to actually do it, at least not this year.  Other than that, not much was happening this early.  The opening ceremony was at 9:30 not far from here, which led into the parade; maybe I could find a good seat for that.

I walked north to the end of the block, where a grandstand had been set up just around the corner from the Quad.  It was full, but not completely full, so I found an empty seat and looked through the schedule again as I waited.  I read the article on the history of the Spring Picnic, about how in 1909, the small group of professors and the newly founded university’s student body of about a hundred invited the public to a picnic, so they could display their research and show off a new building.  Thousands of guests flooded the campus, and a new tradition was born, growing into a major open house event for the university.

Many musicians, bands, and performing groups play the Spring Picnic every year, and last year I had discovered a band called Lawsuit, with some members who had roots here in Jeromeville.  I read an article in the Daily Colt this week about highlights of this year’s Spring Picnic, and it specifically said that Lawsuit would be playing on the Quad Stage at 3:30.  I looked in the schedule to confirm this and found it quickly.  That was definitely the one part of today that I did not want to miss.  I would be busy for part of today, though, and I specifically scheduled that so as to be finished by 3:30.

At 9:30, someone came on stage and took a few minutes to introduce the grand marshal of the parade, gushing on and on about this woman’s academic accomplishments, whoever she was.  The grand marshal spoke next, talking about passing on traditions, and history, and finding a way to work in a bunch of politically correct mumbo-jumbo about diversity and affirmative action and the environment.

The parade began after that, and I followed along in the schedule of events to see who the groups were.  The Spring Picnic parade featured numerous student clubs, academic departments, and fraternities and sororities, as well as local businesses, community organizations, and a few high school bands from all over the state.  Parades are inherently fun, but part of the fun of the Spring Picnic parade is looking to see who all the different groups are and where they come from, like the giant cow on the float I saw approaching now.  I looked in the schedule; it was Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students.

About half an hour into the parade, the Campus Tour Guides marched through, walking backward.  That made me laugh; walking backward is an important part of being a tour guide after all.  Haley Channing, the girl from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship whom I secretly had a crush on, was a tour guide; I spotted her walking backward in the side of the group farthest from me.  I called out to her and waved, but she did not see or hear me.

The Interdisciplinary Honors Program marched in the parade this year, carrying a sign and wearing graduation caps.  I wondered how this year’s IHP got into the parade, because I was in the IHP last year and no one ever talked about being in the parade.  I knew one of this year’s IHP students, a girl named Yesenia; she was easy to spot, with hair almost all the way down her back.  I had better luck getting her attention than I did with Haley, because she was walking closer to me.  “Yesenia!” I called out as she passed by.  She looked up, saw me waving, and pointed at me.  “Greg!” she shouted, waving back.  I smiled and continued waving.

By 11:00, I had been watching the parade for an hour, and I decided to go do something else.  I wandered down the west end of the Quad, following the parade route, crossing Shelley Avenue at the south end of the Quad and entering the library.  The library’s Spring Picnic exhibit was always something out of the Special Collections; this year it was photographs from the early days of the University.  The campus had changed so much since the early twentieth century; I only recognized one building in the pictures.

I left the library a bit later walking in the opposite direction from where I came.  The art building was open with a sign out front, so I walked in.  The lobby and a hallway were lined with paintings and sculptures made by students.  Some of them were fairly recognizable, like portraits of human beings and landscapes.  Others were much more abstract: lumps of clay that made no recognizable shape, multicolored lines crossing and intersecting across a canvas, and splashes of color that looked like something that someone dropped a bunch of paint on a white piece of fabric but was still considered art, probably because of the statement they made or something like that.  It was still interesting to look at everything.

I had somewhere to be at noon.  I had about twenty minutes to walk back to the Quad, eat, then head to the walkway between Wellington and Kerry to the table I would be working.  The east side of the Quad was full of student organizations selling food; many were cultural organizations selling food from their parts of the world.  I got in line for the Filipino Club’s lumpia table, but the line moved so slowly that it soon became apparent that I would not get my lumpia in time.  By 11:55, there were still seven people ahead of me, so I left the line and walked back across the Quad toward the table where I was working a shift.

Four long folding tables had been arranged in a line next to the entrance to Kerry Hall.  A handmade sign on poster board that said MATH CLUB AT UJ stood propped up on one of the tables.  The tables held various math puzzles and games.

“Hey, Brandon?” I asked a tall blond guy standing behind one of the tables.  “I’m here.  What do I do?”

“Just pick a table and talk to people.  If you need solutions to any of the puzzles, if you can’t figure out how to explain it to someone, it’s in that box there.”

“Okay,” I said.  I walked to the table on the end farthest from the Quad, with a cardboard model of the Monty Hall problem and a Towers of Hanoi puzzle.  I had studied the mathematics of both of these puzzles extensively and felt qualified to explain them to passersby.

“Hey, Greg,” a junior girl named Susan said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good.  I didn’t do much today.  Saw the parade, and the old pictures in the library, and the art department exhibit.  What have you done so far?”

“I went to the Chemistry Club show.”

“What’s that like?” I asked.  “I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never been.  I don’t want to stand in line to get tickets.”

“It’s so worth it!  You should!  Lots of cool demonstrations.”

“Maybe next year.”

I started attending Math Club meetings off and on last year, although I have not been very active in the club.  I knew Brandon and Susan and some of the others to say hi to, and some of the younger people in Math Club I had been in classes with, but I was not particularly close with any of them.

“Hi,” I said as a boy walked up to my table, looking at the Monty Hall problem poster.  “What’s this?”

“The Monty Hall problem,” I said.  “Have you heard of this?”

“I don’t think so.”

I set up the game, putting a card representing a new car behind door number 2.  “Suppose you’re on a game show.  Behind one of these three doors is a new car, and the other two have a goat.  You choose one.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah.”

He thought for a few seconds, then said, “Number three.”

“So before we say where the car is, I’m going to open door number 1,” I said.  I showed him the goat behind the door.  “Now, do you want to stick with your answer of door number 3, or switch to door number 2?”

“Hmm,” the guy replied.  “I’m going to stick with my original choice.  Door number 3.”  I opened door number 3 to show the goat.  “Aww,” he said, as I revealed the car behind door number 2.  I wrote the results of his game on a scoresheet we had made for that purpose.  “What’s that?” he asked.

“We’re keeping track of everyone who plays today, whether or not you switched doors, and whether or not you won.  Mathematically, you actually have a better chance of winning if you switch doors.”

“Really,” he said.  “How does that work?”

I had a small poster explaining the problem mathematically that I was instructed to keep covered until after the contestant had played; I showed it to him now.  “Basically,” I said, “you had a 1 in 3 chance of being right when you said door number 3.  I opened a door that I know is wrong, but that doesn’t change your 1 in 3 chance of being right.  So if you switched, knowing that door number 1 was not the prize, you would have a 2 in 3 chance of being right.  At the end of the day, you can come back and look at the score sheet, to see if the people who switched were actually right more often than the people who didn’t.”

“Interesting,” the guy said.  “Why is this called the Monty Hall problem?”

“He was the host of Let’s Make A Deal.”  The guy gave me a blank stare, so I added, “That was a classic TV game show that inspired this problem.”

“Oh,” he said.

“I remember when it stirred up controversy in Marilyn Vos Savant’s column.  Do you know about that?”  He shook his head no, so I continued explaining.  “Marilyn has one of the highest known IQs of anyone, and she used to write a newspaper column.  She wrote about this problem a few years ago, and all sorts of people, some of them claiming to have math degrees, wrote to her telling her that she was wrong.  But she wasn’t.”

“Whoa,” the guy said, looking unimpressed.

“Enjoy your Spring Picnic!” I said as he walked away.  I had learned more and more these days that my peers just did not read news in print like I did, nor did they grow up watching game shows.

“Greg!” a familiar voice said a while later.  I looked up to see Sarah Winters, whom I had known since my first week at UJ.

“Hi, Sarah.  How are you?”

“I’m good!  How are you?  Did I tell you I’m changing my major to math?”

“No!  When did this happen?”

“I want to be a teacher, I’ve known that for a long time.  I decided that math is what I like teaching best.”

“Nice!  Maybe we’ll have some classes together someday.”

“Yeah!  What’s this thing?” Sarah asked, pointing to the Towers of Hanoi puzzle.

“You have to move all five discs on this spindle to one of the other two spindles,” I explained.  “But you can only move one at a time, and you can only put a smaller disc on top of a larger disc.”

“I see.”

“It’s significant because it’s an example of recursion.  Each time you get to the next bigger disc, you have to solve the same problem for one fewer disc.  And the number of moves you need follows a nice exponential growth pattern.”

“I see,” Sarah said, playing with the Towers of Hanoi puzzle, trying to move the discs accordingly.  “So you’re part of the Math Club?”

“I go to most of the meetings,” I said.  “But this is the first time I’ve ever done anything for Math Club.”

“What kind of things do you do in Math Club?”

“Math games, outreach, talking about careers in math, stuff like that.”

“I might have to check it out sometime!”

“That would be cool!”

“What else are you doing today?” Sarah asked.

“I’m going to go see the band Lawsuit after my shift here.”

“That’ll be fun.  I need to get going, but it was good seeing you!”

“You too!”


My shift ended at three o’clock, and I still had not eaten.  At one of the tables, we were giving out candy to people who could solve the puzzles, and I had been sneaking candy when no one was looking for the whole three hours I was there.  When I got back to the Quad, all the student-run food booths had shut down, but a truck with typical fair and festival type food was open on the far corner of the Quad near the library.  I went there and bought a hot dog.  Not as exciting as lumpia, but I was hungry.

I crossed to the east side of the Quad, across the street from the oldest buildings on campus, and watched a band finish playing.  I looked through the schedule of events while that band took their equipment and instruments down and Lawsuit set up, looking for something to do after their show.  Most of the events and shows would be shut down by then; the only thing going on that late was the Battle of the Bands, where the marching bands from UJ and several other universities in the region play on into the night.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone finally said on stage around 3:45, “the name of this band is Lawsuit!”  Paul Sykes, the lead singer, began rapping while the rest of the band played the background music of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” a song from the 1970s that had become popular again recently because it was in the movie Pulp Fiction.  This segued into “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” the song they had opened with when I saw them last year.

Lawsuit was a difficult band to categorize.  Their music crossed the boundaries of rock, pop, reggae, jazz, and something called “ska” which apparently meant rock with horns.  The band had ten members, and during a long guitar and bass solo, the members of the horn section did a strange dance.  I sang along quietly, since I knew this song, and cheered loudly at the end.

Lawsuit played for almost an hour.  I knew about half the songs, since I now had a bootleg tape of their newest album that I had copied from someone in my dorm last year.  Last year I knew nothing of their music, but this year I knew around half of the songs from that tape.  The others, mostly older songs of theirs along with one that they said was from a new album coming this summer, included one about a couch and one about Einstein.  One thing I always noticed about Lawsuit was that their music felt at times like one giant inside joke that I was not in on, but I enjoyed it anyway.  I had been looking forward to this show since the moment that Lawsuit’s show at last year’s Spring Picnic ended, a year ago.

“We have one more song for you,” Paul said after they had been playing for a while.  “Before you go, make sure you sign up for our mailing list, and we also have CDs and merch.”  He then went into a song from the tape I had called “Picture Book Pretty.”  In the middle of the song, I noticed that he sang “one thousand red roses would not be quite enough,” instead of “one dozen red roses” like he says on the album.  I was not sure why he changed it.

After the show, I walked to the table in front and put my name and address on the mailing list.  This was how bands stayed in touch with their fans in 1996; there was no social media or YouTube back then, and email and websites were themselves brand new technologies just beginning to break into the mainstream.  By filling out this mailing list, I would get a postcard in the mail every month or two from Lawsuit.  They did also have an email list, though; I signed up for that too, even though the postcards and email would probably say the same thing.

“Hey, Greg,” someone said as I turned to leave the merch table.  I looked up; it was Christian Channing, a senior whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the older brother of Haley, my tour guide friend whom I wanted to be more than a friend.  “I didn’t know you liked Lawsuit.  Is this your first time hearing them?”

“I saw them at last year’s Spring Picnic.  They’re so good!”

“I know!  My little brother, he’s 15, I gave him a tape of Lawsuit last year, and now he loves them too.  Last summer we went and saw them when they played back home.”

“That’s awesome.”

“Hey, I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”

“Yeah.  Have a good one!”

I walked to the lake in the middle of the Arboretum near Marks Hall, where the Battle of the Bands was, and stayed there for about another hour.  The band visiting from Walton University always played a song that was about forty minutes long; I left around six o’clock in the middle of that song dragging on and on.  Seeing Lawsuit was great, and working the Math Club table was something new, and it did not end up raining. But despite all that, this year’s Spring Picnic felt disappointing.  Because I had volunteered three hours of my time, I missed out on my favorite part of the Spring Picnic: walking around campus looking at random exhibits.  The University of Jeromeville was so huge that no one could possibly see everything, so there would always be new things to see every year at the Spring Picnic. I got to see very little of that this year, since I spent so much time at the Math Club table.  I learned my lesson from this, though; this was the first Spring Picnic for which I volunteered for something, and it would be the last.

This was also the last Spring Picnic that Lawsuit played, although I would see Lawsuit play live again.  But that is another story for another time.


Note from the author: When I wrote about the previous year’s Spring Picnic, in December 2019, I said that I would be spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic in April.  That prediction did not age well; the 2020 and 2021 Spring Picnics were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Not having the Spring Picnic for two years in a row has been difficult for me…

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April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove.

“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” the voice on the car stereo sang, followed by some other mumbling words and then guitars and more words.  At least it sounded like those were the words, although it seemed like an odd choice of lyrics for a rock song.  The song contained that exact line several more times.

“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.

“DC Talk,” he replied.  “I made this mixtape of Christian music for when I’m in the car.”

I nodded.  I had once seen another student at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship wearing a t-shirt that said DC Talk, but I had no idea what that meant.  Apparently DC Talk was a band that sang Christian music.  Other than stuff we sang in church, the only Christian music I was aware of was this Christian soft rock adult contemporary radio station back home in Santa Lucia County, which I never listened to.  But this Jesus Freak song was awesome.

For the first forty minutes after we left Jeromeville, headed west on Highway 100, we passed orchards and pastures and fields interrupted by a few small and medium-sized cities, Silvey, Nueces, Fairview, and La Yegua.  After Fairview, the flatlands of the Capital Valley gave way to grassy rolling hills dotted with oaks.  Eddie had offered me the front seat, since I was the tallest of the five of us; Sarah, Caroline, and Raphael were in the back.  Just past La Yegua, we crossed a bridge over the mouth of the Capital River where it empties into the Bay.  “Hey,” Sarah said when we were halfway across the bridge.  “There’s the other car.”

I looked to the left, in the direction Sarah was pointing.  A small sport-utility vehicle passed us with Tabitha looking at us through the window in the back seat, grinning, and Xander making a funny face over her shoulder.  Haley sat in the front seat, smiling and waving.  Five of the ten people on this trip were neighbors on Baron Court, and the rest of us met there to carpool.  I had hoped that I would end up in the same car as Haley, but I did not want to be too obvious about it.  Since Eddie had invited me on this trip, it had seemed more natural to be in his car.  Kristina drove the other car, and I could see a silhouette of John behind Xander in the back seat.  I waved, although I was not sure anyone could see me from the front passenger seat.

We continued driving through the hills lining the shore of the Bay, through an industrial area, then through several cities and towns that all ran into each other.  In Oaksville, Highways 100, 150, and 88 all met at the entrance to another large bridge.  Eddie drove across the bridge as we saw the lights and buildings of Bay City approaching.

“This is such a great view,” Sarah said.

“Yes,” Raphael agreed.  “One of the greatest cities in the world.”

“I’m not used to seeing it from this side,” I said.  “When we came to Bay City, we always came up 11, and usually it was for Titans games on the other side of the city.”

“Have you never seen downtown Bay City before?” Eddie asked.

“Just twice.”

“It’s pretty awesome.”

We turned onto Highway 11 north, which became a city street, Van Winkle Avenue; the freeway was never completed across the city.  About two miles up Van Winkle Avenue, Eddie pointed across the street and said “There it is.”  I saw the sign for the Hard Rock Cafe, on a building on the corner.  We found a nearby parking garage and walked to the entrance, where the group from the other car waited for us.


The Hard Rock Cafe was loud and crowded.  The walls were covered with music memorabilia, and music played loudly over speakers.  While we waited to get our seat, I read a sign on the wall telling the history of the Hard Rock Cafe.  Two Americans living in London in 1971 started the first Hard Rock Cafe as a place to serve American food and listen to great music.  Eric Clapton became a regular customer, and he hung a guitar on the wall above his favorite seat.  The restaurant incorporated this into their decor and soon opened other locations in big cities and tourist traps worldwide, with music memorabilia on the walls of all of them.

I got up to use the bathroom and took my time getting back to my seat, admiring photographs, posters, guitars, and fancy costumes on display, each with a plaque explaining whom it belonged to and its significance.  I also saw a sign saying “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons Allowed.”  I rolled my eyes… hippies.  I could not find my friends in the lobby when I returned, so I walked around the restaurant, looking to see if they had been seated and admiring more rock memorabilia as I looked for them.  When I found them, I smiled nervously at my good fortune; the seat that they had left open for me, coincidentally, was next to Haley.

“Hey,” Haley said when I sat down.  “You found us.”

“Yeah.  I was just looking at stuff on the wall.  It’s really cool.”

“Have you been here before?”

“No.  Have you?”

“Not this one.  But I’ve been to one in Hawaii, on vacation with my family.”

“Nice.  I’ve never been to Hawaii either.”

“I’ve only been once.  It’s so beautiful!”

“I can imagine,” I said.  “So how are your classes this quarter?”

“They’re definitely keeping me busy.  I’m taking a lot.”  Just then the server came and interrupted our conversation.  I ordered a cheeseburger, nothing too adventurous.

All of us talked more about life and classes and things while we waited for the food to arrive.  At one point, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” came on; I thought this was the Hard Rock Cafe, not the Hard Rap Cafe, but I did not complain.  Kristina started rapping along with Coolio.  “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she began.

“That’s in the Bible, you know,” Eddie said to no one in particular.  I did not know the first time I heard the song, but I did now; it was from Psalm 23, one of the more famous passages in the Bible.  The song was from the movie Dangerous Minds, and I still had a negative memory of that movie, because of what I saw a few rows in front of me when I watched it.

By the time the food arrived, I was starving.  I ate my cheeseburger quickly.  I looked around; Haley was eating a chicken salad, and John, on my other side, had the same cheeseburger I did.  “How is it?” I asked Haley.

“It’s really good,” she said.  “You must have liked yours.  You ate it fast.”

“I did.  And I was starving.  I hadn’t eaten since noon.  It’s after nine o’clock.”

“Yeah, we’re eating late.  Do you know about this place we’re going next?”

“We’re going to sleep on the beach next, aren’t we?”

“Apparently we’re going somewhere else first,” Haley explained.  “One of the guys’ other roommates told us we have to see this thing, but Eddie said it’s a surprise.”

“He didn’t tell me.”

Eddie jumped into our conversation.  “Seriously, it’ll be worth it,” he said.

When the waiter brought our checks, he also gave us each a small button with the Hard Rock Cafe logo in flames.  “1971-1996, 25 Years of Rock,” it said.  Kristina pinned hers to the strap of her purse.  I did not know what I would do with mine; stick in a box somewhere, maybe.

And then 25 more years will pass, and I’ll write about that trip and remember exactly where I put that button.



After we finished paying for the meal, we went back to our cars.  Eddie worked his way southwest across the city, and at a red light he handed me an unfolded map.  “I need someone to help me navigate; I have to watch the road.  This is where we’re going,” he said, pointing at a green spot on the map labeled Bosque Hill Park. “Can you read maps?”

I grew up fascinated by maps, and up until that moment of my life, it had never occurred to me that some people could not read maps.  “Yeah,” I said.  It was a strange question to me.  I was reminded of those first few days of freshman year in Building C, talking about my fascination with maps.  I looked over my shoulder at Sarah in the back seat, grinning; she made eye contact with me and started laughing loudly.  I laughed too. She was thinking of the same thing.

“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.

“At the start of freshman year, the day I met Greg,” Sarah explained, “someone told me that he loved maps.  So he made me tell Greg the highways near my house, to see if Greg could guess where I was from.  And he was right, and Greg and I have been friends ever since.”

“Good job!” Eddie said.

We arrived at Bosque Hill and parked on the street.  Street parking is usually scarce in Bay City, and when Raphael saw another spot open, he suggested we stand there and save the spot for Kristina’s car.  I wondered what was so special about Bosque Hill.  I had seen it on a map, and I had read that it was the highest natural elevation in Bay City, around 1000 feet.  I guessed that the surprise would be a spectacular view of the city lights at night.

After the other car arrived, we began climbing the hill on a well-worn dirt path.  A few people carried flashlights.  The path was surrounded by trees and brush on both sides, and the chirps and buzzes of bugs intertwined with the distant dull roar of the city.  A few times, I could see sweeping views of city lights below, but that was not the surprise Eddie was showing us.

The path turned a corner, and I could see the top of the hill, where a giant cross stood, towering over us, taller than the six-story building where my mathematics professors’ offices were.  What was this?  Why was it here?  I walked closer and read a plaque, identifying this cross as a memorial to pioneers who came from around the world and settled the area.  I looked up and saw that all my friends had adopted postures of prayer, so I did the same.  I looked up at the cross and prayed silently.  Jesus Christ, I thank you for this reminder that you died on the cross to save me from my sins and bring eternal life.  I thank you for the beauty of your creation, even here in the middle of the city.  I thank you that these friends, these brothers and sisters in Christ, invited me on this trip, and I pray that we will have safe travels.  No one spoke for about ten minutes.  I wondered how long we were going to stay here, but I did not want to interrupt everyone’s prayers, so I just kept praying until I saw people start to walk downhill.

“That was pretty cool,” I said when we were back in the car.  Eddie was driving toward the coast on the west side of the city, along the open ocean.  “I had no idea it was there.”

“I was thinking on the way down,” Caroline said.  “When we’re all standing there praying to a cross, couldn’t that be considered idolatry?”

“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily idolatry,” I answered.  “We’re not praying to the cross.  We’re praying to Jesus, and the cross is a symbol reminding us of him.”

“That makes sense,” Eddie said.

“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.

“Thanks,” I replied.

The coast south of Bay City was rugged and hilly, and we drove along the road that hugs the shore for about half an hour, to a town called Moonlight Cove.  I had never been this way before.  The town must have been named on a day unlike today, because tonight it was cloudy and no moon was visible.  “How does this work?” I asked, being completely unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping outside.  “Do we just put down our sleeping bags and sleep on the beach?”

“Pretty much.”

Kristina’s car had beaten us here by a few minutes this time, and we parked next to them.  “Look,” I said as we were unloading.  “That sign over there says ‘No Camping.’  Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

“Yeah, but they never check,” Eddie explained.  “My friends and I in high school came here and slept on this beach a few times.”

“My family lives just over those hills,” Caroline added, “and we came to this beach all the time.  We never spent the night, but I don’t remember anyone patrolling the area or anything.”

“If you say so,” I said, still dreading the fact that we were doing something illegal.  After staying up talking for a bit more, someone pointed out that it was almost midnight, and we decided to go to sleep.

Today, as an adult, I recognize the value of experiences, and I have stayed up all night enough times to know that doing so will not kill me.  But in 1996, I felt like I desperately had to sleep, so when people kept talking as others drifted off to sleep, I felt a need to move somewhere out of earshot.  I quietly told them so, and I dragged my sleeping bag inland about a hundred feet to a slightly more secluded spot near some large rocks.  If the police caught us camping and hauled us off to jail, maybe they would not see me.

Even in my new spot, though, sleep eluded me.  I always had a hard time falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, and I was uncomfortable sleeping on sand with the ocean roaring nearby and the wind blowing.  After tossing and turning for a long time, I realized that I had to pee, but there was no bathroom.  I carefully walked behind the rocks, relieved myself, and returned to the sleeping bag.  I looked at my watch; it was 1:29.  I tossed and turned as my mind raced.  I felt somehow inferior to the others since I could not sleep outside, and since my life did not include sleeping outside in any childhood experiences.  I also had homework to do at home.  I tried to think happy thoughts.  Eddie inviting me on this trip.  Sitting next to Haley at the Hard Rock Cafe.  Driving places I had never seen before.  Haley’s pretty blue eyes.  Hiking to the top of Bosque Hill.  The way Haley’s whole face lights up when she smiles.  I got up to use the rocks again at 2:11, then I began praying like I did at the top of Bosque Hill.  I thanked Jesus Christ for all he had done for me and tried to listen to see if he was speaking to me.  I closed my eyes.


The next thing I knew, it was light out.  My watch said 7:02.  I had slept for almost five hours, and given the circumstances, that was probably as good as it would get.  As I returned from using the rocks as my toilet again, I noticed that no one else seemed awake.  I lay in my sleeping bag, enjoying the view, for about forty-five minutes, until I saw Eddie clearly moving around.  I walked back out of sight of the others and changed into the other clothes I had brought, then rolled up my sleeping bag and walked to the others.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie whispered.  “You sleep well?”

“Eventually, but it took a long time to fall asleep.  I never sleep well in unfamiliar places.”

“But you did sleep.”

“I did.”

“Hey, guys,” John whispered, joining the conversation.

Everyone else woke up over the next fifteen minutes as we spoke in whispers.  Once everyone was awake and speaking at a normal volume, Sarah asked, “What’s for breakfast?”

“I was thinking we could go into town and just pick up a few things at Safeway,” Kristina suggested.  “Anyone want to come with me?”

“Sure,” Haley said, getting out of her sleeping bag.

This was my chance.  “I’ll come,” I said.

“Great!” Kristina said.  “Ready?”

As I walked with Kristina and Haley to the parking lot, I realized that I had not showered or brushed my teeth or put on deodorant.  This may not be the best time to be talking to Haley.  But, then again, she probably had not done any of that stuff either.

“I was thinking, get some bagels, and fruit, and juice.  And we need cups for the juice.  Does that work for you guys?” Kristina asked.

“Sure,” Haley said.  I nodded.

We arrived at the store, took a cart, and walked through the aisles together.  After Kristina walked forward to look at different kinds of bagels, Haley asked me, “So did you ever figure out where you’re going to live next year?”

I’m going to live with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr.  Shawn is going to be student teaching, and Brian is going to work with JCF part time and apply to medical school.”

“Oh, wow.  Older guys.  Isn’t Brian applying to medical school right now?”

“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”

“Really.”

“He’s on a waitlist at one place, so plans might change if he does get in, but right now he’s planning to live in Jeromeville another year.  And there’s a fourth guy, Josh McGraw, he’s Abby Bartlett’s boyfriend, and he commutes to Jeromeville now and wants to move into town.”

“I don’t know Josh, but Shawn and Brian are great guys.  You’ll like living with them.”

“You’re living with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr next year?” Kristina said, putting bagels in the cart.  “Awesome!  Where?”

“We don’t have a place yet.  We’re going to get together sometime soon to make plans.”

“That’s cool!”

We returned to the beach with the food a few minutes later.  This was not my usual routine of cereal in milk for breakfast, but it was food and that was the important thing.  After we finished eating, Xander walked to the parking lot and returned with a guitar.  “I’ve been learning some worship songs,” he said.  He started playing some of the songs we sang at JCF large group, as well as a few that I did not think I had heard before.  Tabitha asked for a turn with Xander’s guitar, and she played and sang a few songs too.  We all just sat there for over an hour, praising God through music and enjoying the beauty of his creation.

In the early afternoon, we packed everything up and got ready to head back to Jeromeville.  “What are we doing for lunch?” Kristina asked.

“I know this great sandwich place where I used to go with my family when we would come here,” Caroline said.  “Does that sound good?”

“Sure!”

We got back into the cars, and Caroline directed Eddie to the sandwich shop in Old Town Moonlight Cove, about two miles from the beach where we were.  The others followed in Kristina’s car.  This place was much smaller, quieter, and less flashy than the Hard Rock Cafe, unsurprisingly.  I ordered a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese; it was very, very good.

“I like this place,” I said to Caroline.  “Good suggestion.”

“So what was your favorite part of the trip, Greg?” Eddie asked me.  He had been asking everyone this.

“Probably the Hard Rock Cafe,” I said.  “I liked all the music stuff on the wall.”

“Do you play an instrument or anything?  You said you sing, right?”

“I sing at my church.  And I’ve always liked listening to music.”

“You seemed to like my mixtape too.”

“Yeah.  I haven’t really listened to a lot of Christian pop and rock music.”

“You should.  I think there’s some stuff out there that you’d like.”

After lunch, we got back in the cars and began the two hour drive back to Jeromeville.  Eddie put on a different mixtape of Christian music.  As we crossed back east over the Bay City Bridge, leaving the city, I heard familiar guitar chords coming from Eddie’s mixtape.  “Rain, rain on my face, hasn’t stopped raining for days,” the voice sang.

“Hey, I know this song,” I said.  “I’ve heard it on the radio before.”

“Jars of Clay,” Eddie replied.  “I know, I’ve heard it on 100.3.  It’s cool to hear Christian music get played on secular radio stations.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I had not listened to the lyrics closely enough to recognize it as Christian music, but it all made sense now.  “Lift me up when I’m falling.  I need you to hold me.”  

Somewhere around Nueces, Eddie’s mixtape ended, and he put on the first mixtape with Jesus Freak again.  I was definitely going to look more into this Christian music.  We arrived back at Eddie’s house in Jeromeville in the late afternoon.  Kristina’s car arrived a minute later and parked nearby, and everyone who did not live on Baron Court began unloading and moving their things to their own cars.

“Thanks for driving, Eddie,” I said.  “And thanks for inviting me.”

“Thanks for coming!” Eddie replied.  “Have a great rest of the weekend!”

“I’m glad you could make it, Greg,” I heard Haley say.  I turned to her and saw the smile I had been thinking of earlier.  She stepped forward to hug me, and we embraced.

“I’m glad you went too,” I said.  “Have a good rest of the weekend.”

After everyone said their goodbyes, I drove back to my apartment in north Jeromeville. This was the best weekend I had had in a long time.  Once I got inside with the car radio off, that Jesus Freak song started going through my head again.  This was my life now.  I was a Jesus Freak.  The despair of the past was behind me, and I was following Jesus with a supportive group of brothers and sisters in Christ.

I knew that the point of following Jesus was not about being part of the in-crowd, but it still felt good that the in-crowd was including me.  I had a group of friends who genuinely cared about me, something that I had not had for most of my life, and I was going to be living with cool older guys next year.  Of course, God had a lot to show me about how life really works over the coming years, but for now, life was good.

April 9, 1996. Friends all over campus and a new plan.

Two years ago, when my university applications were being processed, I got invited to something called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at the University of Jeromeville.  This was a program for around seventy high-achieving freshmen; among other things, we all lived in the same building, and we had to take one class every quarter specifically for IHP students, which counted toward general education requirements.  I was particularly attracted to the idea of being part of a relatively small group of students.  Jeromeville was a huge university, with around 25,000 students on a main campus that took up a square mile, adjacent to several more square miles of farmland used for research.  I found my high school of 1400 already far too big to know everyone, so a school this big seemed intimidating.  Being part of a small group of students who knew each other seemed attractive to me, and this was part of the reason I chose Jeromeville over Central Tech and Bidwell State.

Despite those numbers, however, UJ was starting to feel much smaller now that I had been around for a while.  I encountered people I knew more and more often around campus and around town.  In addition to my friends from the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, I had friends from classes, church, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, the Math Club, people I knew through mutual friends, and people who I just saw around enough that I started to recognize them and say hi for no other reason.

As I got on the bus that morning, I wondered if I would see Tiffany Rollins.  Tiffany was a civil engineering major, and we had been in a few of the same mathematics and physics classes in the past.  We had finished all of the classes that her major had in common with my mathematics major, though, so we would probably be seeing less of each other as time went on, but last week I saw her on the bus both Tuesday and Thursday morning.  She lived in an apartment complex just down Alvarez Avenue from mine, at the bus stop just before my stop.  I boarded the bus, showed my ID card to the driver, and spotted Tiffany sitting near the back of the bus.

“Hey, Greg,” Tiffany said as I approached her and sat next to her.

“Hey,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“Not bad.  One of my classes is really hard already.  I was up late last night studying.”

“Yeah.  Mine aren’t too bad yet.  I’m just starting to stress over not knowing where I’m going to live next year.”

“You aren’t keeping your studio apartment?”

“I didn’t renew.  I was hoping to find friends to live with.  I almost had a plan, but it fell through.”

“I hope you find something!”

“Me too.  I’ve been asking around.”

“I can let you know if anyone I know is looking for a guy.”

“That would be nice,” I said, although I was really hoping not to have to do that.  I wanted to live with people I knew who would be fun to be around, not some strangers who happened to know Tiffany.  Granted, those strangers could end up becoming friends, but they could also end up being my worst nightmare.

I was still thinking about this all through weight training class.  Yesterday, when I got home from campus, I had a note in my mailbox at the apartment saying that I had a package to pick up.  When I went into the office to get my package, the woman at the desk had asked me how I was doing, and I explained that I was worried about not having a place to live for next year.

“I have a note here from the other front desk person that someone came in here earlier looking for a roommate,” she said.  She wrote “Alex Davidson” and a phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.  “I guess Alex renewed his lease but his roommate is moving out, so maybe you should give Alex a call.”

I gave some kind of noncommittal answer and returned to my apartment.  I would not be giving Alex a call.  Because Jeromeville was a small world and I knew a lot of people, I was familiar with the name Alex Davidson.  The front desk person had not spoken to Alex directly, so she did not realize that Alex was a girl.  I did not know her well, but she was in my Chemistry 2B class a year ago; I remembered seeing her write her name on something, and her name stood out to me because most people named Alex I knew were male.  I did not feel comfortable with a female roommate.  It would just feel weird, and also I ran with circles that would question the nature of the relationship of a single male and a single female living together.  Sure, Heather Escamilla from church lived with her boyfriend, but I also knew people that had the same judgmental attitude toward that arrangement.  I did not find Alex Davidson particularly attractive, though, so if somehow we did end up living together, we probably would not develop any kind of awkward sexual tension.

After weight training class, I walked across campus toward the Memorial Union.  I had been coughing and sniffling off and on for the last few weeks, not enough to feel sick and stay home from classes but enough to notice.  As I approached the Memorial Union, I saw a quiet short-haired girl sitting quietly on a bench reading.  It was Skeeter, a friend from the IHP who lived upstairs from me last year.  Just as I was about to say hi, I coughed, and Skeeter heard me and looked up.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.

“Hi.  How’s it going?”

“It’s funny.  I recognized your cough.”

“Wait, what?”

“I heard a cough, and I thought, ‘That sounds like Greg.’”

“Really,” I said.  “I didn’t know I had a distinct-sounding cough.”

“I’ve never thought about it before.  It’s really weird.”

“Yeah.  I would not have thought of that,”  I said.  Have a good rest of the day!”

“You too!”

Last night, I went grocery shopping, and I had to use my credit card to pay because I did not have enough cash and I forgot to bring my checkbook.  My bank had an ATM on the far side of the Memorial Union building, so I went there next.  After I withdrew cash, I turned toward the east entrance of the building near the campus store.  A guy at a table was enticing students to sign up for credit cards with free gifts.  I recognized Autumn, a freshman girl who went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, filling out an application on a clipboard.  I met Autumn a few months ago when I did a car rally with JCF; she got put in my group, and we failed miserably that night.

“Hey, Autumn,” I said.

Autumn looked up at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” she said.  She finished filling out the application and handed it to the guy.  He gave her a baseball cap.  “Do you like my hat?” Autumn asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  The cap was black, with the logo of one of the credit card companies that this man represented subtly stitched into the side.  No other writing or decoration was on the cap.

Autumn put on the cap, with her hair coming out of the hole in the back just above the strap to adjust the size; she tied her hair into a ponytail.  “I’ve never had a hat like this!” she said.  “I’m excited!”

“It looks good,” I said.  “I like it.”

“Free gifts!” the guy running the table called out to people walking by.  “This guy got two free gifts yesterday!” he said, pointing at me.

“You signed up for two credit cards yesterday?” Autumn asked.  “What free gifts did you get?

“The pen and the mug,” I said.  After I filled out those two applications yesterday, I wondered why I had done it.  I was never the type to spend money I did not own, so I did not need a credit card, although it would have been useful for an emergency, or for making large purchases without carrying around cash or a checkbook.  I had a credit card through my bank, the same one I had used at the grocery store last night, but it had a very small limit.  I had signed up for two more yesterday, but I stopped when the man with the applications, the same one who was here today, put a third application in my face.  The new cards would have much higher credit limits than the one from my bank.  In a fit of simplifying and downsizing, I canceled one of the cards about five years later, but I still have the other one, a Discover Card, today, and I use it as my primary credit card.  Also, I still pay it off every month; I know too much math to carry a balance and burden myself with impossibly high interest rates.

“So how are things?” I asked Autumn when she finished the credit card applications.

“Good,” she said.  “I like my schedule this quarter.  How about you?”

“I’m doing okay.  I’m kind of stressing over not having plans for where to live next year.”

“What are your roommates this year doing?” Autumn asked.

“I live alone.  I don’t want to live alone again.  I want to live with people.  Having roommates seems fun.  And it’s a lot less expensive.”

“Yeah.  Have you asked around JCF?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t heard anything for sure.  Pete Green and Charlie Watson were looking for a third person, but Mike Knepper got that spot before I told them for sure.”

“Bummer,” Autumn replied.  “Well, if I hear of any guys looking for a roommate, I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate it.  Do you know where you’re living next year?”

“Yeah.  I’ll be in south Jeromeville with Leah and two other girls she knows.”

“That’ll be nice.”

“I need to go, but it was good running into you.  I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Bye!”

I walked into the Memorial Union building, going all the way across it to the Coffee House on the other side.  I was done for the day, weight training was my only class on Tuesdays, but I usually stayed on campus until around lunch time, to get work done.  This was a busy time of day, when finding a place to sit in the Coffee House could be difficult.  But today, I just kept running into people I knew everywhere I went, and this would provide me with a place to sit.  I saw a dark-haired girl named Lizzie sitting by herself at a table of four, putting a notebook away in her backpack.

“Hi,” I said.  “May I sit with you?”

“Hey!” Lizzie replied.  “How are you?”

I met Lizzie in the fall through a mutual friend, a math major my year named Jack who had gone to the same high school as Lizzie.  She had a class in the same classroom as our class an hour before, and Jack would always say hi to Lizzie as she was leaving class.  She became a familiar enough face that I had started saying hi to her around campus.

“I’m good,” I said.  “I’m done for the day, I only have one class on Tuesdays, but I’m going to hang out here and work on stuff for a while.”

“That sounds good.  I actually was just getting up to leave.  But you can have my table.”

“Thanks.  Have a good rest of the day!”

“I will!”

I got out my textbook for Linear Algebra Applications with the intent of working on homework, but that did not happen right away.  I had a feeling I was not going to like this class.  The professor for this class seemed a little odd.  In addition to so far just repeating things out of the book instead of actually teaching, she had told us that the entire grade would be based on unannounced quizzes.  No midterm, no final, and homework was not graded.  Something about that did not seem right, although I felt pretty confident about how I did on the first such quiz yesterday.

I then made the classic overthinker move of replaying all of this morning’s conversations in my head.  I noticed that I had not mentioned my roommate search to Skeeter or Lizzie.  I did not know Lizzie well, and I did not know anything about the guys she would know, so if my goal was not to live with strangers, I would have had no reason to tell her about that.  And, although Skeeter’s nonconformity was part of why we were friends last year in Building C, I doubted that I would want to live with the kind of crowd she ran with.  Granted, one of her roommates this year was Danielle, who had been a close friend since our first week in Building C, but Danielle had told me some stories about Skeeter as a roommate that made me wary of associating too much with her crowd.

The rest of my day went smoothly without any surprises.  I came home in the early afternoon, took a nap, and wasted time on the computer chatting on IRC and reading Usenet groups.  I went to Bible study that night, and Lillian, one of the leaders, asked at the end if people wanted to share prayer requests.

“I still haven’t found roommates or a place to live yet,” I said.

“We can pray for that,” Lillian replied.  “Anyone else?”

The others shared their prayer requests: difficult classes, an upcoming summer mission trip to Mexico, a sick friend, a friend going through a difficult time.  We went around in a circle, each person praying for the prayer request of whomever was on the left.  After that, the group would normally end, and people would either leave or stick around for a while and socialize.  This week, while people were socializing, the other leader, Shawn, approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” he said.  “I might have an answer to your prayer.”

“Yes?”

“I’m graduating, but I’m staying in Jeromeville next year for the teacher training program.  I didn’t make housing plans either, because I was waiting for some of my roommates to decide what they were doing next year.  My roommate Brian applied to medical school, but he didn’t get in anywhere, and there is only one place he hasn’t heard from yet.  He’s heard that school usually sends acceptances early, so he thinks he probably didn’t get in.  He’s now planning to stay in Jeromeville next year, applying again and working part time on staff with JCF.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And Abby has a boyfriend who is moving to Jeromeville.  You know Abby Bartlett?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, her boyfriend, his name is Josh McGraw, and he commutes to Jeromeville from his parents’ house in Oak Heights.  He wants to move to Jeromeville and not have that long drive.  I want to save money, but Josh and Brian want their own rooms, so we were thinking if we got a three-bedroom place with a master bedroom, then I could share the big room with someone.  Are you interested?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Keep me posted.”

“Definitely!  We will!  It’s hard to get all four of us able to meet in the same place at the same time, Josh has a really weird schedule, but I’ll try to get a meeting set up in the next week or two so we can work out the details.”

“Sounds good.  Thanks!”

“I was going to ask you about this tonight, I remember you asking for prayer about that last week, but I didn’t get a chance yet.  Then you prayed about it again.  It’s cool how God works like that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It is.”

“Just so you know, there’s still an outside chance that Brian will get accepted to that one med school, so if that happens we might have to find someone at the last minute.”

“Right.  That’s okay.”

Sharing a bedroom did not feel like an ideal situation, but most people had to endure doing that with a complete stranger during freshman year, and I had had the good fortune to avoid that.  I thought I could handle it, though, especially with someone I already knew.  Shawn seemed like a decent guy.  I did not know Brian well, but he seemed very involved with JCF socially, and if he was going to be paid to work with the group next year, living with him sounded like a promising opportunity to make more social connections within JCF.  Josh was a bit of a wild card, I had never met him, and although his girlfriend Abby seemed nice, I did not know her well.  At this point, though, I would just have to take what I could get, and this situation seemed good enough.

I drove home a little later feeling much more at peace.  I still did not have a place to live, but I had roommates, and to me that meant that the hardest part was over.  This new plan was taking shape. I was no longer alone in my search for housing.  I was not the most social or popular student in my circles of friends.  I have a history of being a bit of an outcast and a loner.  But I was starting to open up, to make friends from many different walks of life, and that finally appeared to open a door to a new home for next year that would be much more fun than this lonely studio apartment.

April 3-5, 1996. I look like a deranged serial killer.

Back in 1996, only rich people had mobile phones, because they were large and expensive.  If I wanted to call someone in another city, I had to make a long distance call from my landline telephone, and I would get billed for the call by the minute.  The University of Jeromeville got some kind of deal with MCI, a major company in the telephone industry at the time until they were acquired by Verizon in the early 2000s.  MCI provided new state-of-the-art student identification cards to all of us students, and in exchange, we got to use MCI to make long distance calls at a slightly discounted rate.  I had no plans to use this service; I already had long distance service on my phone with another company, and I did not make long distance calls very often except to my parents.  But because we were getting new ID cards, all students had to get our pictures taken again at some point during the first week of spring quarter.

“You said it looked bad!” Danielle was saying as I walked into the Newman Center chapel Wednesday night for choir practice.  I looked up to see what was going on; Danielle was holding one of the new student ID cards.  “I think this is a good picture.”

“No I don’t!” Danielle’s sister Carly exclaimed, trying to take the card away as Danielle held it away from her.

“Greg!” Danielle called out as I approached the others.  “Isn’t this a good picture of Carly?” Danielle asked as she tossed Carly’s ID card to me.

I caught the card and looked at it as Carly said, “Eww! Give it back!”  In the picture, Carly was smiling, and her straight brown hair looked neatly groomed.

“Here,” I said, handing the card back to Carly.  “I think you look just fine.”

“I should have taken my glasses off,” Carly said.  “But, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  I smiled.

“Can I see your new picture?” Danielle asked me.  “Did you get it yet?”

“I didn’t.  I’m probably going to go tomorrow.”

Phil Gallo turned toward us.  “I heard that people are upset because apparently MCI has all of our personal information now.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  That sounded a bit unsettling, but there was not much I could do about it at this point, except possibly boycott MCI and not use their service.

“How’d your week go, Greg?  What classes are you taking this quarter?” Danielle asked.

“Two math classes, Computer Science 30, and Anthro 2.”

“Is that the same Anthro class that Claire’s taking?”

“Yes.  I saw her in class today.”

“What?” Claire said, turning toward us. “I heard my name.”  Claire Seaver was a junior with a background in music, and although there was no formal leadership structure in our church choir, she performed many leader-like activities for the group.

“You’re in my Anthro 2 class,” I said.

“Yeah!  And we have to miss it on Friday because we’re singing here for the Good Friday Mass.”

“I know.  I hope we don’t miss too much.”

“Do either of you guys know someone who you can ask to take notes?” Danielle asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Tabitha Sasaki is in that class too; I already asked her today if I could copy her notes for Friday.  I’ll ask her if I can make an extra copy for Claire.  Danielle, do you know Tabitha?  She goes to JCF, and she lived in Building B last year?”

“Oh yeah.  I remember her.”

“Okay, everyone, we need to get started,” Claire called out.  “We have a lot of new music to practice this week, because we have Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.”

Choir practice that week took much longer than usual, over two hours.  We had more music to practice for the upcoming Holy Week services, as well as songs specific to Easter Sunday.  By the time I got home, it was nine-thirty, and I was too tired to do any more homework.

Fortunately, the next day was Thursday, my lightest day of the week that quarter.  I was done with lower division mathematics, so for this quarter I signed up for Combinatorics and Linear Algebra Applications, two upper-division classes for which I had taken the prerequisites.  The mathematics major also required one of two possible lower division computer science courses, and being one who liked to play around with computers, I was excited for that class, Introduction to Programming.  I completed my academic schedule with Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.  This would satisfy a general education requirement, and I already knew the professor, Dr. Dick Small.  He taught a class I took last year for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program that I was in, about the literature and culture of South Africa. I always thought that Dr. Dick Small was one of the most hilariously unfortunate names that one could possibly have.

When I was signing up for classes this quarter, I noticed that all four classes that I took were only offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  And, without realizing it, I noticed after the fact that I had left my Tuesdays and Thursdays completely empty, having chosen an anthro discussion on Wednesday and a computer science discussion on Monday.  Since I had also decided to take the quarter off from my part-time job tutoring at the Learning Skills Center, I had no reason to get out of bed on a Tuesday until Bible study in the evening, and no reason to get out of bed on a Thursday at all.  Some of my friends had told me that they would be perfectly happy with a schedule like that, but I did not think it would be good to be that lazy and antisocial.  The UJ physical education department offered a number of half-unit classes twice a week, and I decided to take weight training this quarter just to give me something healthy to do on these days.  I had taken bowling in the fall, for a similar reason.

The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds that Thursday morning, so I rode my bike to campus instead of taking the bus.  I parked outside of the Recreation Pavilion, where the weight room was.  Those first few classes the first couple weeks of the quarter, we learned a little bit about technique, and the rest of the hour we just lifted weights.  After class, I changed into normal clothes.  I also put on the jacket I had bought a couple months ago when a theft in the laundry room had forced me to buy new clothes; I had worn the jacket on my bike but taken it off for weight training.  This jacket had a black torso made from the same material as athletic wear and lined with something warm, but the sleeves were gray, made out of the same material as sweatshirts.  The jacket also had a dark green hood, but I did not put the hood on that morning.

I got back on my bike and decided to try something new today.  I rode east across campus, past the Memorial Union and the Death Star building, on the path that became Third Street.  I crossed A Street, which marked the border between the university and the city, and parked my bike about a hundred feet past A Street.  Next to this bike rack was a coffee shop called Espresso Roma.  I walked in and continued to the counter, where one person was in line in front of me.

I did not drink coffee, but at that time I had a bit of a curious fascination with coffee shops.  It seemed like hanging out in coffee shops was the cool thing to do, and I wished I could experience that, despite the fact that I did not like coffee.  The Coffee House on campus at the Memorial Union was more like a student union than an actual coffee shop.  I had seen Espresso Roma before, to my knowledge it was the closest coffee shop to campus, so I figured I would give it a try.

“May I help you?” the cashier asked.

“Hot chocolate, please,” I said.

“Whipped cream?”

“Yes.”  The hot chocolate at the Coffee House on campus did not come with whipped cream, so this place was better in that sense.  I found a table and took off my jacket, placing it on the back of the chair.  I got out my backpack and combinatorics textbook, and looked around.  Last week, I was back home in Santa Lucia County on spring break, and I went to a coffee shop in Gabilan called the Red Bean with my friend Melissa.  Espresso Roma did not look much like the Red Bean.  Although in an old neighborhood like the Red Bean, Espresso Roma was in a much more modern-looking building.  The interior had a concrete floor with electrical conduits and air ducts visible in the ceiling above.  Floor-to-ceiling windows, with wood borders around the glass making them look more like doors, faced Third Street; one of them actually was a door, leading to outdoor tables.

I got my hot chocolate a couple minutes later and sat back down.  I had plenty more to do after I finished my combinatorics homework, since I got nothing done after choir practice last night.  I spent almost two hours in Espresso Roma reading and studying and doing homework.  I went back there several more times over the next couple years for hot chocolate and a different place to study other than the Coffee House in the Memorial Union and the library.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays that quarter, my only class was the weight training class.  I could go back home any time I wanted. But today, I had one more important thing to do before I left campus: I had not yet taken my photo for the new student ID card.  The photographers had set up in the Recreation Pavilion on the basketball court; I had seen them on the way to weight class this morning.  When I unlocked my bike, I noticed that the sky had turned gray; it had mostly been blue when I arrived at Espresso Roma two hours ago.  I felt what seemed to be raindrops on my head; that was not a good sign.  By the time I rode past the Death Star building a minute later, the rain had become much more steady.  I pulled my hood on, hoping that wearing my hood would not make my hair look funny for my picture.

It only took five minutes to get to the Recreation Pavilion by bicycle, but in that five minutes the rain quickly became a heavy downpour.  By the time I walked into the building, I was drenched.  My jacket had kept my torso sufficiently dry, but the sleeves, not being waterproof, had soaked through to the long sleeves I was wearing underneath

“Your old card, please?” a woman asked as I walked inside.  I handed over my old card, and the woman who took my card pointed at a line for me to stand in.  I could have come back tomorrow when it might be dry, but by giving her my old card, I had made my decision.  I would be looking a little bit wet in my new student ID photo.  It was no big deal.

A few minutes later, I set my jacket and backpack down when I got to the front of the line to get my picture taken.  “Looks like you got a little wet today,” the photographer asked.  “Is it raining?”

No, I thought, I was wading in the creek and I dropped something, so I had to reach in with both arms and get it.  But somehow my torso stayed miraculously dry.  “Yeah,” I said out loud.  “It just started coming down hard all of a sudden while I was on my way here.”

“You sure you want to take your picture like that?” he asked.

“It’s ok.  It won’t really show.”

I stood and looked where he told me to.  In every ID card and school picture I had taken, I always tried my best to smile, and I hated the way I looked in every one of these pictures.  So I deliberately did not smile.  I kept my face in as much as a natural position as possible, and not smiling was natural for me.  I stared at the spot that the photographer had told me to until I heard the click and saw the flash.  “Thank you,” the photographer said.  “Go over there, and they’ll have your card ready in about ten minutes.”

A while later, I heard someone call my name from the table with the card printer on it.  A guy sitting there handed me my new card, along with a sticker to put on it to show that I was registered as a student this quarter. Whatever look I was going for, being wet and disheveled and not smiling, it did not work at all.  My face appeared angry and unstable, my hair was messy, and my wet arms were visible on the sides of the picture.  Smiling for school pictures did not work, and apparently not smiling did not work either.  The photos on ID cards just did not look good, and this was something I would have to come to accept.  And as if to drive home the point that I was just cursed with bad luck when it came to ID card photos, the weather was dry by the time I left the Recreation Pavilion, and it stayed dry for the rest of the night.


(Author’s note: This is a reconstruction, made with the help of Bitmoji. I still have the original card, but the photo is smeared and scratched after having been put in and taken out of my pocket for years, and the original card has personal information on it that I do not wish to copy here.)

The rest of the week went as planned.  I sang at both the Holy Thursday and Good Friday Masses.  Friday night I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, hoping that Tabitha would be there and that she had remembered to bring her notes from anthropology class.  I noticed a few of the regulars were missing, probably because it was the weekend of Easter and some people had gone home to be with their families for the weekend.  Tabitha was there, and after the last worship song, I walked over toward her.  She was talking with Eddie, Haley, Kristina, and a guy whom I had seen around but had not met yet.  I walked up, not saying anything, not wanting to interrupt.

Eddie acknowledged me first.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “Did you get your new student ID yet?  We were just talking about that.”

I pulled my new ID card out of my pocket.  “I look like a deranged serial killer,” I said sheepishly as I handed Eddie the card.

“Why is there a shadow on your arms?” he asked.

“My arms were wet,” I said, explaining the sudden downpour and my jacket.

“I want to see the deranged serial killer!” Kristina shouted.

“Is it ok to show the others?” Eddie asked me.

“Sure,” I replied.  Eddie passed the card to Kristina; Haley and Tabitha also looked at the card.

“You’re not smiling,” Haley pointed out.  “How come?”

“I smiled for my driver’s license, and all my high school yearbook pictures, and my old student ID, and I never liked the way those looked,” I explained.  “So I tried something different.  That didn’t work either, apparently.”

“It’s not bad.  But I think you would look better if you smiled.”

“Thanks,” I said, making my best attempt at a smile.  Then, turning to Tabitha, I asked, “Tabitha?  Do you have your notes from anthro today?”

“Yeah,” she said, reaching down under her chair and picking up a notebook, which she handed to me.  “I think I got all the important things Dr. Small said.”

“Can I give this back to you Monday in class?  Or do you need it sooner?”

“Monday is fine.”

“Greg,” Eddie said.  “I was going to ask you tonight.  Are you busy next weekend?”

“I don’t think so.  Why?”

“We’re planning a sophomore class trip.  We’re going to go to Bay City on Friday night, eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, then find a place to sleep on the beach.  We’ll be home Saturday night so everyone can go to church Sunday.”

This invitation came as a surprise to me, I had never done anything like this, but I was intrigued.  “Who all is going?” I asked.

“All of us,” Eddie said, gesturing at himself and the others I had been talking to.  “I’m going to invite a few more people, but I don’t know yet who is going for sure.”

This was not my usual reality.  I had never been to a Hard Rock Cafe, I had never slept outdoors, and taking a trip like this was not something I normally would do on short notice.  But I learned the hard way recently that hesitating on a big decision had consequences.  Also, this trip would be a chance to spend time with friends; my 19-year-old boy mind was specifically excited about the thought of spending time with Haley.  “Sure, I’m in,” I replied.  “I should bring a sleeping bag?”

“Yeah.  I’ll call you in a few days with more details.”

“Sounds good!  May I have my ID card back?”

“Oh yeah,” Kristina said, handing me the card.

I really was okay with the fact that I was stuck with this horrible picture on my ID card for the next few years.  Everyone seemed to have a bad student ID or driver’s license picture at some point in their lives, and now I had one with a good story behind it.  I had learned two important lessons that day.  First, my jacket was not completely waterproof, and second, I may as well smile in pictures because I did not look better not smiling.  Smiling still did not feel natural to me, but maybe I could just make myself think happy thoughts when I was posing for a picture.  And now Eddie had included me in this upcoming trip, and Haley was going to be on the trip too, and all of that certainly gave me a reason to smile.

March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

All the cool kids in 1996 hung out in coffee shops  The characters in the popular TV show Friends hung out at a coffee shop, bringing coffee shop culture into the mainstream.  A coffee shop served as a communal meeting place, where people could interact or just hang out while enjoying a nice drink.  Artists and performers showcased their work at coffee shops.

Unfortunately, I felt left out of this coffee shop culture, because I did not drink coffee.  I had tried to drink coffee before, and I just could not stand the taste.  And I had never seen Friends; from what I had heard, the people on the show probably would not be friends with me.

When I moved to Jeromeville, it was full of unique locally owned coffee shops, each different from the others.  But soon after that, large corporate coffee shop chains began moving in, and many of the independent coffee shops closed.  By 2020, the city and university campus had a combined total of around 80,000 residents and eight Starbucks locations, with only a couple of the independent coffee shops from 1996 remaining.

Plumdale, where I grew up, was never cool enough to have a coffee shop, although Plumdale did get a Starbucks in the early 2000s.  But Gabilan, the nearby medium-sized city, had a coffee shop in its historic Old Town called the Red Bean that would go on to survive the onslaught of the corporate coffee shops.  On the Thursday afternoon of my 1996 spring break, I found myself at the Red Bean, waiting for someone, after what felt like one of the most legendary accomplishments of my life.

This all started a little over a week ago, when I had gotten an email from Melissa Holmes, a good friend from high school.


From: “Melissa Holmes” <m.l.holmes@sanangelo.edu>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 19:23 -0800
Subject: Re: hi

Hi!  How are you?  Do you have finals this week too?  I had two today, and I have two more later this week.  I’ve been so busy studying, but I needed a little break today, so I’m actually checking my email for once.  How did your classes go this quarter?

Are you going to be home at all next week for spring break?  I’m doing something with my family down here on Sunday, but then I should be home Tuesday through Friday.  We should hang out and catch up.  Give me a call.  Maybe we could go bowling again.  I’ve been bowling a lot lately.  Some of us from the pre-med club went bowling a few weeks ago, and I bowled 178 – it was the best game of my life!  Hopefully I’ll see you soon!


The number 178 caught my eye.  I took a bowling class fall quarter, and the best game I bowled during that class was a score of 178.  By some bizarre coincidence, Melissa’s new personal best in bowling was exactly the same as mine.  I told this to Melissa in my reply email and said that I definitely wanted to go bowling when I was home for spring break.

Melissa told me to meet her at the bowling alley in Gabilan at one in the afternoon.  One game, to see who was really better.  One o’clock seemed like a strange time to me, but she was free then, and we were students on spring break with no schedules to work around.  I walked into the bowling alley; it was mostly empty at this time of day.  I saw someone with long brown hair sitting at a table looking away from me; I was pretty sure it was Melissa, and she turned her face toward me before I had to choose between awkwardly staring to make sure it was her or possibly embarrassing myself by taking to a stranger.

“Hey, Greg!” Melissa said, getting up to give me a side-hug.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“Good.  Enjoying your spring break?”

“I haven’t been doing much, but it’s been good.  What about you?”

“Same thing.  Just hanging out.  You ready?”

“Sure.”

We got our shoes and balls and went to our lane.  “So what kind of things did you learn in that bowling class?” Melissa asked.

“A lot of stuff.  Throwing technique, strategy for how to aim, a little bit about the history of the game.”

“That must have been fun!  I don’t know if we have a bowling class at San Angelo.”

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“Yes!  Are you?”

“Sure.”  Trying to be dramatic, I continued, “One game, just like we said.  You versus me.  One-seventy-eight versus one-seventy-eight.”

“Good luck!” Melissa said.

“You too!”

Although this game was strictly for fun, and nothing was actually riding on the game, I felt like this was the most important game I had ever bowled.  Melissa set the tone from the beginning, getting a strike in the first frame.  I hit eight pins with my first roll and converted the spare.  I tried to continue making conversation, but I realized quickly that this was the wrong environment for that.  When bowling with a big group, it is easy for the people waiting their turn to talk to each other, but with only two of us, talking would be too distracting to whomever was bowling at the time.  This game was too important to lose focus, and distracting Melissa on purpose was playing dirty.  I wanted to win this fairly.  Our words during the game were limited to comments like “nice shot” and “oooh, almost.”

Both of us were bowling our best that afternoon.  After five frames, Melissa had bowled three strikes and two spares.  I had a strike and two spares in my first four frames, but she was clearly bowling better at that point.  When my turn came in the fifth frame, though, I bowled a strike.  “This isn’t over yet,” I said, chuckling.  Melissa bowled her first open frame in the sixth, with seven pins on the first roll and two on the second.  With no strike or spare, the scoreboard showed her full score of 113 for the first six frames.  That was more like what I usually got for my final score.  I stepped forward for my sixth frame and rolled another strike.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “You’re heating up!”

“Thanks,” I said.

Melissa bowled a strike in her seventh frame, and I answered with another strike of my own, my third in a row.  “Turkey!” I shouted.

“Huh?”

“Three strikes in a row.  They call that a turkey.”

“Oh yeah.”

In the eighth frame, both of us bowled spares.  Because the score after a strike or a spare depended on the next roll it was impossible to know the exact score after the eighth frame, but by doing some quick adding in my head, I could tell that this was going to be a very close game, and I said so.

“I know,” Melissa said.  “You’re doing really well.”

“So are you!  This is already a better total than I usually get, and we still have two frames left.”

“That bowling class really helped you.”

“I hope so.  All the practicing has helped you too.”

Melissa bowled another strike in the ninth frame, giving her a total of 153 for the eighth frame and a minimum of 163 now.  My hand slipped as I made the first roll of my ninth frame, and the ball only hit four pins.  I did not come anywhere close to converting the spare, only hitting three pins on the second roll and giving me a score of 160.  I still had a chance to win, but Melissa was clearly ahead now.  Even if I finished the game with two gutter balls, though, this would still be my third best game ever, and that was nothing to be ashamed of.

Melissa began her tenth frame with a 7-10 split, leaving the two pins in the back corners.  Her second roll hit nothing, passing between the two upright pins and just missing the one on the right.  “Field goal!  It’s good!” I said, raising both of my arms straight up as if signaling a score in a football game.

“Yeah,” Melissa said, chuckling.  “I don’t think bowling works that way.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the scoreboard.  “It’s your best game ever.”  Melissa’s final score was 179, one better than either of us had ever bowled before.  “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” Melissa replied.  “Now let’s see what you can do.”

I looked at the scoreboard.  Since the score for a strike or spare requires knowing the next roll, and there is no next roll after the tenth frame, rolling a strike or spare in the tenth frame results in bonus rolls to resolve the score.  I was down by 19, so I could still win this game and get a new personal best too.  But I would have to get a strike and a spare at the minimum.  I stepped up to the lane, rolled the ball, and knocked down nine pins, all but the number 10 pin in the back right corner.  I still had a hard time hitting that pin, after all the practice in bowling class.  I had no room for error remaining.  I picked up my ball, carefully rolled it toward the one remaining pin, and knocked it over.

“I’m still alive,” I said to Melissa.

“Pressure’s on,” she replied.

I began to feel nervous as I moved my hand over the fan.  I picked up my ball, hoping that my hand was sufficiently dry.  I brought the ball to my face, carefully aligning my body and the ball with the pins.  I thought of the time I was in bowling class, when the red pins appeared at the front of the lane, and I won everyone in the class a free game by bowling a strike.  If I could do that, I could do this.  I brought the ball high, began walking toward the lane as I swung the ball forward, and released the ball just before my feet reached the foul line.  The ball rolled down the lane to the right, curved slightly toward center, and hit the front pin hard just to its right.  I watched all ten pins fall, pumping my fist in the air.

“180!” I said as I watched my final score of 180 appear on the scoreboard just below Melissa’s final score of 179.  Melissa had beaten her previous personal best by one, and I had beaten my identical previous personal best by two.  I stared at the scoreboard for a while, grinning from ear to ear; I still could not believe that this perfect ending was happening.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “Good game.”

“You too,” I replied.  “That was amazing.”

“It was.  I guess you really are the better bowler.”

“Don’t say that.  It was just one game.  We both did really well.”

“I kind of feel like I want a rematch, but we agreed, just one game.”

“Yeah, we did,” I said.  “You want to do something else?”

“Sure.  Red Bean?”

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you there.”

The Red Bean and the bowling alley were on the same street, about a mile apart.  I found a parking place across the street and walked into the building.  The 100-year-old buildings in this block of Old Town Gabilan touched each other, with no space in between, and parking either on the street or in the back.  The front wall of the Red Bean was mostly large windows, with tables and chairs visible inside; an older man sat inside next to one window reading the newspaper, while the table by the other window was empty.  The front door was recessed a few feet from the front windows.  I walked in and looked around.  Paintings hung on most of the walls, some with small signs stating the title and name of the artist.  Two women sat talking at a table toward the back of the room.  The counter was on the left; I was debating whether or not to order a hot chocolate when I saw Melissa walk in.

“Hey,” she said.  “What are you getting?”

“Hot chocolate.”

“You don’t drink coffee.  That’s right.”

“I’ve tried drinking coffee.  I just don’t like the taste.  I can’t.  I wish I could.  I feel like not drinking coffee stunts my social life.”

“How so?”

“Because if I’m hanging out in a fun place like this, I feel out of place not drinking coffee.  And it’s weird to think of asking a girl out for coffee if I’m not going to drink coffee.”

We got our drinks and sat at the empty table by the window.  Melissa looked at me and smiled slyly.  “So, who is this girl that you want to ask out for coffee?”

“What?”

“You mentioned wanting to ask a girl out for coffee.  Who is she?”

“Well,” I said, “I just meant in general.  There is a girl, but… I don’t know.”

“Does she know you?”

“Yeah.  She goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  But I just met her a couple months ago.  It’s probably too soon.  And I don’t know how to ask girls out.”

“You just ask her.  You’ll never know unless you try.”

“I suppose,” I said.  “So how’s school going for you?”

“My grades are still good.  And I’ve started to get involved with the pre-med club.”

“Good!  I remember you saying last year you felt kind of isolated because you lived off-campus with your grandma.  I’m glad you found a group to get involved with.

“Yeah!  It’s fun.  What about this new Christian group you’ve been talking about?  What denomination is it?”

“It’s part of a national organization called Intervarsity, but it’s nondenominational,” I explained.  “The weekly meetings have music, and a talk kind of like a sermon, and then there are small group Bible studies too.”

“Are you still going to Mass?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it weird that you’re hanging out with Protestants now?”

“I don’t think so, really.  It’s the same Jesus, and the things that Catholics and Protestants have in common are so much more important than the differences.”

“I guess.  That’s true.”

“And I’m learning a lot from reading and studying the Bible.”

“Good.”

“Oh, yeah.  A guy from my Bible study named Evan Lundgren said he knows you, and told me to tell you hi.”

“Evan!” Melissa exclaimed.  “I forgot he went to Jeromeville!  How’s he doing?”

“He seems to be doing well.  He’s a really nice guy.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“How do you know him anyway?”

“One summer, we both volunteered at the hospital,” Melissa explained.

“Oh, okay,” I said.  After a pause, I asked, “Do you still hear from a lot of people from high school?”

“I still see Deanna around campus pretty often,” Melissa said.  “I hear from Renee and Catherine occasionally too.  Anthony and Kevin haven’t written me in a long time.  Didn’t you go visit Renee in Valle Luna?”

“Yeah.  Back in the fall.  That was a fun trip.”

“Who else are you still in touch with?”

“Just you and Renee and Rachel Copeland.  I haven’t heard from Catherine in a while.  Tell her I said hi if you hear from her soon.”

“I will.  Where is Rachel now?”

“She’s at St. Elizabeth’s, in Los Nogales.”

“Is she Catholic?”

“I don’t think so.  She just said she liked the school.”

Melissa and I spent about an hour and a half catching up at the Red Bean.  I did not like the taste of coffee, and I was not exactly part of the Red Bean’s trendy clientele, but I appreciated the niche that places like this filled.  It was a perfect place to sit and catch up with an old friend.

In Jeromeville, where I lived during the school year, I followed the local news, and I knew that many residents of Jeromeville opposed corporate chain stores, wanting to keep Jeromeville a unique and quirky university town.  As one who generally supports a free market, I thought at first that those people were un-American.  If a corporation wants to open a new location in a new city, they should be allowed to, and if the people of the new city really do not want the corporation there, then they can vote with their pocketbooks and not patronize that business. I also came to realize over time that Jeromevillians were a bunch of hypocrites on this matter, only opposing corporate chain stores that they perceive as low-class.  They have never allowed Walmart in Jeromeville, but few people fought the arrival of Starbucks, Gap, or Trader Joe’s.

While I still lean toward less government regulation, I have come to appreciate what small businesses do for a community.  If corporate chains were to take over everything, then cities and towns and neighborhoods would be one step closer to all looking the same.  I now live about 30 miles from Jeromeville in a sprawling suburb on the other side of the Drawbridge, and while there is much about the culture and political climate in Jeromeville that has kept me from moving back, I do miss the uniqueness and quirkiness sometimes.  But no matter where I am, I can find local businesses to patronize, and I can do my part not to be exactly like everyone else.

March 13-15, 1996. I need time to think about big decisions.

I do not do well with cold weather.  Of course, compared to the rest of the United States, winter in Jeromeville is mild; the coldest winter days still have high temperatures close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature only rarely drops below freezing at night.  But even in those mild winters, some of my extremities stay cold when the rest of my body is under multiple layers of clothing, and I have such dry skin that my hands start cracking and bleeding spontaneously.

Every winter, a brief reprieve arrives in late February or early March, which I call Fake Spring.  The weather turns beautiful, with a week or two of sunny, warm, dry days.  The many flowering trees on the University of Jeromeville campus burst into bloom, and the rest of the trees grow bright green leaves.  The weather had been so nice for the last couple weeks that I had been eating the lunch I packed while sitting outside on the Quad instead of inside the Coffee House as I usually did.   After my Abstract Mathematics class got out, I walked across the street from Wellington Hall to the Quad, searching for a place to sit.  I had walked more than halfway across the Quad when I saw my friends Taylor, Pete, and Charlie sitting on the grass; I walked up to them, waving, and Taylor waved back first.

“Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I replied.  “Can I sit here?”

“Sure.”  Taylor and Charlie scooted apart to give me room to sit, and I sat between them.

“So where is this apartment you found for next year?” Taylor asked.

“B Street,” Pete replied.  “Right across from Bakers Square.”

“It’s a really old-looking building with six apartments,” Charlie added.  “But it’s perfect.  Just a couple blocks from campus.  We’re still looking for a third person, though.”

Finding an apartment in Jeromeville could be a daunting and stressful task.  Most property owners and apartment management companies in Jeromeville used the same lease with the same terms.  Jeromeville was a university town, and the terms of this lease were ostensibly intended to be convenient for the university students who make up the overwhelming majority of renters.  Almost all apartments in Jeromeville would go up for lease in March for a 12-month term beginning the following September.  Last year, I kept to myself most of the time while my friends were making living plans for this year, and by the time I figured out that I needed to do something, everyone I knew had plans already.  I managed to find a small studio apartment still available in April; I spent a bit more on rent than I would have ideally liked, but I made it work, with help from Mom and Dad.

I had seen enough Roommate Wanted ads around campus year-round to know that, if I was not picky, I would at least be able to find a place to live for next year.  But I really wanted to room with friends, hoping that that might give me more of a social life.  Eddie Baker from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship lived with seven other guys in a four-bedroom house.  More people from JCF lived near Eddie: Haley Channing and her roommates lived down the street, and Shawn Yang, my Bible study leader, lived around the corner with some other upperclassmen.  I had only been to their houses a combined total of maybe five times, but living with friends seemed so much better than living alone.  It was like that TV show Friends that so many of those people loved, except that unlike the TV characters, all these friends were nice people who did not make me want to punch them in the face every time they opened their mouths.  I had never actually watched Friends, but that was the impression I got from commercials.  And, although I would never say this out loud, the thought of living right down the street from Haley was definitely appealing to me too.  She was cute.

“I might be interested,” I said to Pete and Charlie.  “I don’t have a place yet for next year.”

“Sure!” Pete replied.  “Can you let us know in the next couple days?”

“I will.”  Living with Pete and Charlie would not be the same as having a huge community like Eddie and Haley and Shawn, but it would be better than living alone.  And being so close to campus would be nice as well.  I asked a few more questions about the apartment, mostly how much the rent was; I would be paying quite a bit less to share this place than I was currently for my studio apartment.

“So what’s everyone’s finals schedule look like?” Taylor asked.

“I have two in a row at the earliest two possible time slots, on the first day,” Charlie said.

“Yikes,” Pete replied.

“Still not as bad as when I had four midterms on the same day,” I said.

“I know.  That was crazy!”

“Four?” Charlie asked, incredulously.

“Yeah.  I had all my midterms on the same day.  One of the professors let me take it the day before, but I still had to take them all within twenty-four hours.”

“That’s rough.”

“My finals are pretty spread out this time,” I said.

“I have a paper due on the last day of class,” Taylor said.  “And another final that’s going to be a timed essay.”

“That’s rough,” Matt said.

I noticed out of the corner of my eye a large group of people walking down the concrete path that bisected the Quad, headed toward the library.  Someone leading the group was explaining the surroundings to the group; it appeared to be a group touring the campus, probably prospective students, just as I had done two years ago.  Something seemed familiar about the tour guide’s voice; as my brain was trying to process this, Charlie said, “Look.  It’s Haley.”

I looked up.  Haley was walking backward, leading the tour group; the familiar voice I had heard was hers.  She wore a white shirt under denim overalls.  I never knew Haley was a campus tour guide; she certainly appeared comfortable in her position, like she knew what she was doing.  “Haley!” Charlie called out, waving; the rest of us waved too.  She saw us and waved back.

“You know what would be fun?” Charlie said.  “We should go join Haley’s tour and ask silly questions.”

“Yeah!”  I replied.  “Let’s do it.”

“You wanna?”

“Sure.”

Charlie and I got up and walked to the back of the group Haley was leading across the Quad, stopping at the southwest corner.  “And this large building behind me is Shelley Library,” Haley explained.  “A few departments have their own libraries, but most of the campus collection of books and periodicals is here.  The library also features many study spaces, including an after-hours quiet room that is open 24 hours a day.  Does anyone have any questions before we continue?”

I looked at Charlie, and he raised his hand, pointing toward the oddly-shaped Social Sciences Building across the Quad from us.  “That building over there that looks like the Death Star,” he said.  “Does it actually contain a green laser that destroys planets?”

I raised my hand next and began speaking without waiting to be called on, right after Charlie finished.  “Do cows ever stampede across the campus, and if so, how hard is it to avoid stepping in poop afterward?”

Haley laughed.  “These are my friends, Greg and Charlie,” she explained to the group.  “They’re just being silly.  If you come to the University of Jeromeville, you’ll meet fun, friendly people like Greg and Charlie.”

“Yeah, you will,” I said.  “And you guys are lucky.  You got the best tour guide ever.”

“Thanks,” Haley replied.

“Have a good one,” Charlie said, waving at Haley.  “Enjoy the rest of your tour.”

“You too!  See you guys later.”

“Bye, Haley,” I said.  We turned around and walked back toward where we had been sitting with Pete and Taylor.

“So what classes do you have the rest of the day?” Charlie asked.

“English and physics,” I said.  “And one tutoring group.  What about you?”

“I’m done.  All my classes on Wednesday are in the morning.”

“That must be nice.  I’ve never had a good schedule like that.  I’ve always had classes early in the morning, and I’ve always had classes Friday afternoon.”

“That’s a bummer.”

When we arrived back to where we had been sitting, Pete said, “You guys are crazy.”

“I know,” I replied, nodding.

“What time is it?” Taylor asked.

“12:50,” I answered, looking at my watch.

“I better get going to class.”

“Me too.  But it was good seeing you guys.”

“You too,” Taylor replied

“Have a great day,” Charlie said.

“I will,” I said.  “You too.”


I finished my English paper on Thursday night.  On Friday, the sky was gray and threatening and stayed that way all day.  It did not actually rain, although it looked like it was going to.  Fake Spring had departed as suddenly as it had come.  I decided not to take chances on my bike; I took the bus to school that morning, and I drove to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that evening, paying to park on campus.

I have never done well with big decisions.  Anything involving spending a large sum of money or a long-term commitment, I needed time to think about.  I could not make such decisions impulsively.  Usually it was not a matter of needing time to do research, or perform a cost-benefit analysis.  Sometimes this was part of it, but often I would just need time for thoughts about the decision to form, to know whether or not it felt right.  And I had a bad habit of second-guessing myself on big decisions.

Pete and Charlie needed a third person to join them in their new apartment for next year, and I needed a place to live.  I had known Pete and Charlie since the day we started at UJ, and I trusted them not to be the weird and creepy roommates that were the makings of people’s roommate horror stories.  I had no reason to keep hesitating, and after having this in the back of my mind for the last couple days, I felt ready to commit.  I would tell them tonight.

By the time I arrived at the JCF large group meeting, the music was starting.  I did not have time to talk to anyone.  I found an empty seat near the front of the room and began singing.  Cheryl, one of the JCF staff members, was doing the talk tonight.  I tried to concentrate on her talk, and on the words of the song, but I could not get out of my mind the fact that I had to talk to Pete and Charlie about next year.  That upcoming conversation weighed heavily on my mind the whole night.

After the last song and the closing prayer, I stood up nervously.  I always got like this whenever I had something important or difficult to tell someone.  I looked around the room for Pete or Charlie, and I saw them in the back of the room, talking with Taylor and Mike Knepper.  I nervously walked toward them, waiting for a chance to jump into the conversation.

“So we’re going to sign the lease tomorrow afternoon,” Pete explained.

“Sounds good,” Mike replied.  “I’ll be there.”

Oh, no.  This was not what was supposed to happen.  No one told me that I had competition, or that there would be a consequence for waiting more than two days to make a decision.  I spoke up anyway, although at this point I was pretty sure I knew the answer to my question.  “Pete?” I asked.  “Are you guys still looking for another roommate?”

“I think we just found one,” he answered.

“Oh, okay,” I said.  I stood there silently for another minute or so as the others talked, then I went back toward where I was sitting before.  I missed my chance.  I wished Pete and Charlie had told me the other day that I had a deadline.  I probably would have been more decisive, since I had been thinking all along that I would tell them yes, that I wanted to live with them.  But now they gave the remaining spot to Mike Knepper instead.  And that meant I had to start stressing about finding a place to live.  I sat down where I had been sitting earlier, staring at the wall in front of me as the worship band put their instruments away.  A few minutes later, I saw Haley walking toward me out of the corner of my eye.  I looked at her and waved, halfheartedly smiling.

“Hey, Greg,” Haley said.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Mostly.  Pete and Charlie needed a third person to live with them next year, and I told them I might be interested.  I was just about to tell Pete tonight that I wanted the spot, only to find out that Mike Knepper took my spot.”

“Oooh.  That’s rough.”

“I don’t think they betrayed me on purpose.  I never committed to anything.  I just feel like they should have asked me first if someone else was interested.  We just didn’t communicate.”

“Makes sense.”

“It’s kind of my fault.  I should have committed earlier.  I hesitate and second-guess myself, and I miss out.”

“Yeah.  I know what you mean.”

“But I just can’t bring myself to make a big decision that’ll involve a year-long commitment on a whim like that.  I need time to think about it and let the decision set in my mind.”

“And that’s important.  Having the right roommates is a big deal.  One of our roommates, the one you probably don’t know, she got into a big argument with Kristina the other day.  And it was over something little.”

“Yeah.  Hopefully you guys will work that out.”

“Hey, if I happen to hear that any of the guys need another roommate for next year, I’ll let you know.  Okay?”

“That would be awesome.  Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome!  Hey, that was funny what you and Charlie did, jumping into my tour.”

“Thanks,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah.  It caught me off guard, but I needed a good laugh.”  Haley smiled, her blue eyes looking right at me, and I smiled back.  “How’s school?  Getting ready for finals?”

“Yeah.  My finals are spread out this time.”

“That’s good.  Mine are all at the end of the week.  That gives me time to study, but I can’t get any of them out of the way.”

“Good luck on those.”

“You too.  Hey, have you seen Kristina?  I need to ask her something.”

I looked around the room; I did not see Kristina.  “I don’t know where she is,” I replied.

“That’s ok.  But I need to go look for her.  You have a good weekend, okay, Greg?”

“I will.  You too.”

Haley got up to look for Kristina, and I stood up and walked around, saying hi to other people and talking about school and finals.  I honestly did not think that Pete and Charlie pulled the metaphorical rug out from under me intentionally.  They needed to find a roommate, and since I was not ready, they found someone.  But, as I had told Haley, I felt that it would have been nice if they had checked with me, since I had expressed interest.

With all of these people around, I should be able to find someone else who needed a roommate.  Bible study was not meeting this coming week because of finals, but I would mention it when we got back after spring break.  Maybe I would even ask my friends, or send an email, to let me know if they heard of anyone.  I had already told my current apartment management that I would not be renewing my lease next year, hoping that I would be able to find a place where I did not have to live alone, so the option of staying where I was no longer existed.  But there would be something out there for me.  The key, as I said before, was a willingness to not be picky.

Although I had the sense that I had no reason to feel hopeless, my missed opportunity to live with Pete and Charlie in the apartment on B Street next year hung over my head all weekend.  I was frustrated with myself for being so indecisive.  When I was applying to universities two years ago, most of them had fixed application deadlines in November and December, and when I received acceptance letters in the early spring, I had around two months to make my decision.  Of course, in this fast-paced world, everyone wanted their results immediately, and sometimes I would need to know what I wanted and go for it.  I wondered if I was missing out on any other opportunities by not acting decisively…

P.S… this week marked two years since the first episode of this blog. Happy blogiversary to me!

February 29 – March 6, 1996. That time I thought it was a good idea to give my home address to some underage girl from the Internet whom I had only known for a couple hours.

Finished.  Done.  This English paper was due tomorrow, and I was expecting it to take all night to finish, because earlier in the week I just could not get myself motivated to write it.  But I was finished now, and it was not even eight o’clock yet.  I had a few good hours left before bedtime, and I planned on spending them not studying or doing homework.

I scrolled back up to the top of the document I had been typing in Microsoft Word, making sure my name was on the top of the paper.   Gregory Dennison.  English 101 – Dr. Paris.  February 29, 1996.  I always felt some odd fascination with writing the date February 29.  I only got to write it once every four years, after all.

After my English paper finished printing, I connected to the Internet, listening to the familiar beeps and whistles and clicks as my computer dialed the number to connect.  I hoped that those sounds would bring me a cute girl to talk to and flirt with on Internet Relay Chat.  I went to my usual channel and looked at the list of names; no one I recognized was on there.  There was someone in the room named “floridachick”; I assumed she was a girl, since she had “chick” in her name.  I sent Floridachick a message, and she never replied.  I said hi in the main chat, and a few other people greeted me back.  Someone named Psychogirl, typed “hi how r u?”

“Psychogirl, good, how are you?” I typed back.  As the messages scrolled past, I saw Psychogirl tell me that she was “not so good.”  I switched to private messages to continue the conversation with Psychogirl.

gjd76: what’s wrong?
psychogirl: my mom and i got into a fight and i ran away
gjd76: oh wow.  so where are you now?  are you safe?
psychogirl: ya im at my dads
gjd76: what’s your asl?
psychogirl: 15/f/ok

Nowadays, with it being such a big deal to protect children from sexual predators on the Internet, it makes me uneasy to remember that sometimes I used to talk to and flirt with underage girls when I was in my late teens and early 20s.  Granted, I was not that much older than Psychogirl, but by today’s standards a 19-year-old boy talking to a 15-year-old girl seemed inappropriate.  None of that crossed my mind in 1996.  I do not know if that was because it was not a big deal in 1996, or if online chat and messages were still far enough out of the mainstream that the general public did not realize that the problem existed.  Or maybe I was just sheltered.  Probably some combination of all of those.  I replied to Psychogirl, telling her where I was from, and that I was a 19-year-old male.

psychogirl: whats ur name?
gjd76: greg.  what about you?
psychogirl: stephanie
gjd76: hi stephanie, nice to meet you 🙂
psychogirl: u too
gjd76: i haven’t seen you in this chat before
psychogirl: i dont get on much.  my mom doesnt have internet.  i come on here sometimes when im at my dads but that isnt very often
gjd76: i see.  what do you look like?
psychogirl: 5ft5, 130lbs, dyed black hair, kind of pale, green eyes.  u?
gjd76: 6’4, dark brown hair, brown eyes, about 220lbs
psychogirl: oh ur tall, i like tall guys 😉
gjd76: aww thanks 🙂 do you have a boyfriend?
psychogirl: no. i was with this guy for a while but we broke up.  he said he didnt think we were right 4 each other but i think he was cheatin on me
gjd76: wow, i’m sorry.  sounds like it was his loss
psychogirl: aww.  what about u? gf?
gjd76: i don’t have a girlfriend
psychogirl: y not?
gjd76: i liked this girl last year but she was a lesbian and i never knew it
psychogirl: wow that sounds awkward
gjd76: it was kinda
psychogirl: what do u do? like do u have a job or r u in school
gjd76: i’m a math major at the university here, and i tutor math too
psychogirl: u can be my tutor, i failed math last semester.  what university?
gjd76: jeromeville
psychogirl: i havent heard of that.  what’s that by?
gjd76: just outside capital city.  it isn’t very well known outside of the state

Maybe I was biased, but Jeromeville was a world class university, consistently one of the top-rated public universities in the United States.  It was unfortunate that it was not more well known; I suspected that this was because of sports.  The Jeromeville Colts were not a Division I athletic program, and football and basketball seem to be where the general public outside of academia hears about colleges and universities.

psychogirl: oic. have u ever been to oklahoma?
gjd76: i haven’t
psychogirl: ur not missin much.  i cant wait 2 get out on my own
gjd76: haha.  i know the feeling, that’s why i moved here as a freshman
psychogirl: my grades arent good enough to go away to college
gjd76: that’s a bummer… are there any classes in school that are your favorites?
psychogirl: english, i guess i hate english the least
gjd76: i was never good at english.  in high school i got a b-minus in 10th grade english, that was the lowest grade i got in all of high school
psychogirl: ur crazy, a b minus was the highest grade i got last semester, u must be smart
gjd76: i don’t know, school was just always easy for me
psychogirl: i wish school was easy for me. im not good at anything
gjd76: that’s not true
psychogirl: im not.  im a loser.  i only have 1 friend at school
gjd76: well you seem nice to me, all the people who aren’t your friends are missing out
psychogirl: thanks
gjd76: so, if i may ask, why did you run away?
psychogirl: my mom hates me, she doesn’t understand me
gjd76: what do you mean?
psychogirl: like i like to wear black and im into really dark stuff and she just doesnt get it.  she tells me to just be happy and go make friends but the kids at school dont want to be friends with me.  i dont wanna be like the other kids, theyre dumb
gjd76: haha i get that
psychogirl: but yesterday my mom was cleaning and she found an empty bottle of whiskey in my room
gjd76: oh… do you drink a lot?
psychogirl: so now shes yellin at me saying im an alcoholic and an addict and she threatened to send me to rehab.  i dont even drink, it was just that 1 time, my friend brought it over when she stayed the night and i didnt even like it that much
gjd76: i see
psychogirl: and i was crying and crying all day yesterday and she still came in just to yell at me.  so i packed a bag and got on a bus and went to my dads house but i still cried a lot
gjd76: you live with your mom? any siblings?
psychogirl: i have a little sister.  and moms bf is over all the time, he doesnt like kids
gjd76: that’s too bad 😦
psychogirl: my dad wants custody of us, but my mom doesnt trust him because he hit her once
gjd76: oooh
psychogirl: he never hit me or my sis but i dunno if i wanna live with him.  i dont really wanna live with mom either.  i feel so alone.  sometimes i wish i was dead
gjd76: please don’t say that
psychogirl: but whats the point, mom doesnt care about me, dad only wants custody because he hates mom, and kids at school dont like me

It hurt to read what Psychogirl was writing.  I had felt alone before.  I had been through times when I felt like no one was there for me.  And I certainly knew how it felt for my parents to not understand me.  I always felt like they spent a lot more time and money on my brother Mark’s hobbies and recreation than they did mine.  That was probably because Mark was into things that my parents understood and enjoyed, like basketball and baseball, and I was into things that they did not understand, like math and computers and video games.  But my parents were still together.  I had no concept of being stuck in the middle of a contentious custody battle. And I had never been in trouble for hiding alcohol or drugs in my room. I believed Psychogirl that she was not an alcoholic, but I hated to think that all that was going on in her mind might drive her to more risky behavior in the future.  I continued typing.

gjd76: i’m your friend. i know we just met, but i would miss you
psychogirl: aww thanks 🙂 ur sweet
gjd76: so are you.  the world needs people like you in it
psychogirl: but all i do is go to school and come home and cry, no one wants that
gjd76: it’s hard feeling alone.  i’ve been there.  i couldn’t find anyone to room with this year, my parents were willing to get me a small studio apartment by myself, but i get lonely.  last year i was in a dorm so a lot of my friends were right there in the building, and now i hardly ever see them.
psychogirl: ya
gjd76: i sing at my church, and i started going to a bible study last week through a nondenominational christian club at school.  i’ve made a lot of new friends there.  i will pray for you. 
psychogirl: im not really religious but thanks
gjd76: it’s ok.  you’ll be ok.
psychogirl: i just feel like such a loser, no one wants me around and i hate it at home
gjd76: you’re not a loser.  you’re a unique personality that some people don’t understand because they are too shallow to appreciate someone who doesn’t follow the crowd.  i’d probably be friends with someone like you
psychogirl: really?
gjd76: yes… i’m glad we met tonight… i wish i could give you a big hug and just hold you and tell you everything was going to be ok
psychogirl: and i would hug u back so tight… ur such a great guy… i dont deserve this
gjd76: stop.  you’re my friend, i’m here for you
psychogirl: thank u so much… this means a lot 2 me
gjd76: so will you be ok?
psychogirl: i guess.  i still dunno what to do, mom is probably still mad at me
gjd76: here’s what i think you should do.  it’s late.  go to sleep.  do you have school tomorrow?
psychogirl: ya but i dunno if im gonna go
gjd76: so in the morning, go back to your mom’s house.  and calmly tell her what happened with the empty bottle, that you just tried it once and didn’t like it.  tell her you understand why she’s upset, but you wish she would listen to your side of the story.  and also listen to her side of the story
psychogirl: i guess
gjd76: maybe your mom will still be upset and yelling.  if so, that’s her problem.  but if she’s calm, maybe you can make some progress
psychogirl: maybe
gjd76: you’re going to be ok.  really you are
psychogirl: 🙂
gjd76: i give you a big hug and little kiss on the cheek
psychogirl: thanks but my cheek has tears streaking down it, you dont wanna kiss it
gjd76: that’s ok.  i kiss it anyway.  we all have rough days
psychogirl: thank u so much 🙂 ur so nice
gjd76: 🙂 am i ever going to talk to you again?
psychogirl: i dunno, i dont get on here very often and i can only get on at my dads house
gjd76: i wish we could keep in touch
psychogirl: i know 😦 id get in so much trouble if i called u, phone calls are expensive
gjd76: do you have email?
psychogirl: no 😦
gjd76: if i gave you my address, would you write to me? like in the mail?
psychogirl: sure!

I hesitated a little before I typed that last part.  One can never tell who is on the other end of an Internet chat, and horror stories about personal information falling into the wrong hands were becoming more and more common as the Internet became more mainstream.  But in the last year, I had already given out my address to girls I met on the Internet four times.  Two of those were girls who wanted to stay in touch but would not have access to email for a while, and the others were to exchange pictures, since scanners and digital cameras were not yet things that everyone had.  No one had broken into my house or stolen my identity yet, and Psychogirl really did not seem like a scammer to me.  If she was, she would have offered promises of sex or money, not a story about a distraught teenage girl running away from home.  I typed my address in the chat.

psychogirl: thank u so much 🙂 🙂 🙂 ill write u for sure
gjd76: good, i look forward to hearing from you 🙂 you’ll be ok, i care about you and so do other people.
psychogirl: so will u! i need to go to bed but i really liked talking 2 u tonight
gjd76: likewise 🙂 take care… i tuck you into bed and kiss you on the forehead and smile
psychogirl: 🙂 good night!


Life continued to move on for me, with classes, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and singing in the choir at church. I had two weeks left before winter quarter finals, and all my midterms had wrapped up.  I still had physics labs, and I had one more paper for Dr. Paris’ English class due a couple days before finals.

On the following Wednesday, March 6, I got home from a long day of classes and checked the mail on the way from the bus stop to my apartment.  Along with advertisements and coupon books, I saw a small envelope in my mailbox that looked like the kind of envelope my grandma would use to send a letter.  Upon closer inspection, however, the handwriting was not my grandma’s.  I noticed the postmark next: TULSA OK 741 – 2 MAR 1996.  Tulsa, Oklahoma?  I did not know anyone in Tulsa.  Next I looked at the return address in the corner: it was from someone named Stephanie O’Connell, with an address at an apartment in Tulsa.  Stephanie O’Connell, Tulsa, Oklahoma, I thought… Psychogirl!  That is who this is!

I opened Psychogirl’s letter as soon as I got back to the apartment.


March 1, 1996

Greg-
Thank you for listening to me and especially for letting me have your address… that meant a lot to me, more than you’ll ever know.

After I got home, my mother talked with me about what she saw and how it made her feel when she saw it, and it went well, I thought – no yelling or screaming from her or from me.  So I’m feeling happy about that today.

Daddy still wants to get custody of me and my sister and mom is really scared because of it.  I don’t know who I want to live with, honestly I don’t, and my mother doesn’t understand. I feel terrible, and I feel like crying a lot.  But you really did make me feel better last night.

Well, I have more things to do today, so I should get started on that now.  Bye!

Thanks again!

Stephanie (Psychogirl)


Stephanie wrote her address again at the bottom of the page below her name.  To me, that was an invitation to write back and stay in touch.  I did just that a few days later, starting my letter between classes on Friday and finishing it over the weekend.

Unfortunately, I never heard from Stephanie again, and I do not know what happened to her.  Hopefully things started to get better in her life.  Did she stay with her mom, or did her dad get custody of her and her sister?  Was there less yelling between her and her mom in the future?  Did she stop writing because something bad happened to her, or did life just get in the way?  Did she move on to something else like a typical whimsical teenager, or did she get in trouble for writing to me?  Was she actually a 55-year-old man named Chuck? If not, she would be around 40 today… was she still into dark stuff and wearing black, or was that a phase she grew out of?

Sometimes people only cross paths for a brief time, but that brief moment can make a huge impact.  I hope that I was like that for Stephanie.  Maybe she just needed someone to talk to, someone to care for her and tell her that everything would be okay, so that she would make it through the night.  Maybe God put me there to rescue her that night, because he was planting a seed for something that would come to her later.  I would probably never know, but maybe, just maybe, Stephanie was still out there somewhere, with a memory of the night she made a new friend who helped her see life, and herself, from a new perspective.

February 20-21, 1996. Studying the Bible and disapproving of political correctness.

“We have a new member tonight,” Lillian said.  “Would you like to introduce yourself?”

“Sure,” I said, looking at the mix of new and familiar faces in front of me.  Some of my friends from last year were in this Bible study, but I did not recognize everyone else.  “I’m Greg,” I announced.  “I’m a sophomore, majoring in mathematics.”

“Hey!” Shawn, the other leader, said.  “I’m a math major too!”

“Really?  I don’t meet many other math majors.”

“What do you want to do with it?” Shawn asked.  “Are you going to be a teacher?”

“Probably not.  I’m not really sure.  I just know I like math.”

“I’m going to teach high school.  I don’t think I can deal with kids younger than that.  And I would have summers off to train.”

“What are you training for?”

“I do triathlons and marathons.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I definitely do not have that kind of athletic endurance.”

“It takes practice.”

“I’m sure it does.”

After the others all said their first names, we said an opening prayer and sang a few songs.  Pete Green, whom I had known since my first day at the University of Jeromeville, got out his guitar and started playing as people passed around lyrics.  I recognized the songs from JCF large group.  Before the last song started, Shawn said, “Greg, our theme for this quarter is that we’re looking at the Scriptures in some of the songs we sing at JCF.  Tonight we’re going to be doing Create In Me.”

I followed along with the words on the lyric sheet; I had heard this song before, but it was not one we sang often.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” I sang.

After we sang the song through twice, since it was a short song, Lillian opened her Bible.  It was much thicker than mine, with many papers, bookmarks, and Post-It Notes stuck inside.  It appeared to be a study Bible, with extra notes and commentaries built in.  I wondered if I should get one of those someday.  I had noticed a lot of students at JCF who had big study Bibles.

“The song is from Psalm 51,” Lillian said.  “So open your Bible to Psalm 51.”

I found the passage quickly, since I knew approximately where the Psalms were found in the Bible.  A few weeks ago, I made some new friends hanging out after JCF.  It came up in conversation that night that I did not have a Bible, so one of those new friends, Kristina, gave me an extra Bible that she had.  Ever since Kristina had given me that Bible, I had been reading it often, occasionally just flipping through it for fun, familiarizing myself with all the different books.  I was glad I had done this, because I would have been embarrassed to have to ask someone for help finding a book.  Psalms, containing worship music and poetry from the Old Testament time period, was one of the longest books in the Bible, so it was easy to find.

JCF ran many small group Bible studies, and I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, that none of the new friends from that night were in this one.  With so many JCF people in their neighborhood, I figured there would be other Bible studies meeting on that side of town.  I really wanted to get to know that group better, both because they were very nice people, and because they seemed to have full social lives revolving around other Christians.  They were the cool kids of JCF.  One of the new friends from that night, Haley, was really cute; I especially wanted to get to know her.

After we all found Psalm 51, people then took turns reading a few verses at a time.  The song came from verses 10 through 12:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
  and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

“Any initial thoughts?” Shawn asked.  A few people went around and shared things.  Liz Williams, a friend from last year who had invited me to this Bible study, asked what “hyssop” was.  That word appeared in verse 7, and I did not know it either; someone thought it was a plant with medicinal properties.

I noticed that the beginning of the Psalm said, “A psalm of David.  When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”  I knew what adultery meant, but it sounded like that was referring to some other incident in King David’s life that I was unaware of.  I wondered if this other incident was mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, but I did not ask since I did not want to look dumb.  Maybe this was something that everyone else who was not Catholic knew about.  JCF was not affiliated with a specific denomination, and there were very few Catholics in the group that I knew of, just me and one other guy who showed up occasionally who was not in this small group.

Fortunately, I did not have to ask, because after we discussed our initial thoughts, Lillian said, “So at the very beginning of Psalm 51, it says when David wrote it.  Turn to 2 Samuel, chapter 11.”  I flipped through my Old Testament, looking for that book; it was long enough that it did not take long to find.  The backstory for Psalm 51 made up two entire chapters, so Lillian and Shawn paraphrased, adding direct quotes from the Scripture for emphasis.  Apparently King David saw an attractive woman bathing, so he had sex with her and got her pregnant.  Her husband was fighting in a war, so David devised a military strategy that ensured that her husband would get killed.  God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke David, and the child died, although David later married the woman and had another child with her, the future King Solomon.  I had never heard that story before.  Apparently the Bible was full of interesting stuff.

We spent the next hour talking about Psalm 51 in great detail.  We discussed sin and repentance, and restoration and forgiveness.  Someone noted that parts of this Psalm seem to foreshadow Jesus coming to be our sacrifice once and for all, replacing the system of temple sacrifices that dated back to the time of Moses.  We talked about the wording of the song being different from the Bible.  I did not say much, since I was new to this, but I did have one thing to share.  At one point, a tall, deep-voiced guy named Evan, whom I had just met that night, said, “Why is it that the end of the song says ‘renew a right spirit,’ but the Bible says, ‘grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me?’”

No one answered after a couple seconds, so I said, “Probably just the songwriter matching the words he used at the beginning, for poetic effect.”

“That makes sense,” Liz added.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  “Probably.”

After we finished discussing Psalm 51, Shawn said, “Does anyone have prayer requests?”  We went around in a circle sharing, and when it came to my turn, I said, “I have three midterms on Friday.”

“Ouch,” Shawn said.

“Again?” Pete asked.  “Didn’t you just have a bunch of midterms on the same day a few weeks ago?”

“I did,” I replied.  “I have the worst midterm schedule ever this quarter.”

“We’ll definitely pray for you,” Lillian said.  We each took turns praying for someone else, and I was assigned to pray for Liz, who asked for prayer regarding a mission trip to Mexico in the summer.  “Jesus,” I began, “I pray for Liz’s trip to Mexico.  I pray that the plans will come together, and that she will have safe travels.  I pray that you will be with her as she works with the church down there, and I pray that you will give her wisdom.”

Pete’s turn to pray for me was next.  “Lord, I thank you for bringing Greg to our Bible study,” he said.  “I pray, Father, that you will continue to work in Greg’s life, as he grows closer to you and studies your word.  I pray that you will take away the stress that he is experiencing with these midterms.  I pray, Lord, that you will help him remember what he knows when the tests come, and that he will remember that you love him unconditionally, and that his worth does not depend on his grades.”  I liked that.  My worth did not depend on my grades.  I wanted to succeed in school, but God loved me no matter what.

When we finished praying, I stuck around for a bit to talk to people before I went home.  “So what did you think?” Liz asked.

“It was good.  I like the way you guys do things.”

“Are you going to come back next week?”

“Definitely.”

Evan, the deep-voiced guy whom I did not know, walked over to us.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “I’m Evan.”

“Hi,” I replied, shaking his hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Liz told me you’re from Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I replied, wondering where he was going with this.  Did I know him back home and not remember him?

“I’m from Gabilan.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said.  I probably did not know him, but I wondered if my mother did, or if she had heard of his family, since she grew up in Gabilan and seemed to know everyone.  But I did not feel comfortable saying this now.  (I mentioned Evan to Mom a few weeks later, after I learned his last name, and I was correct; Mom did know of his family.)

“Do you go back home very often?” Evan asked.

“Not really.  Usually just quarter breaks.”

“Same with me,” he said.  “Did you go to Plumdale High?”

“Yeah.”

“I have a friend from there.  I wonder if you know her.  Her name is Melissa Holmes.”

“Yes!  I know Melissa!  She’s one of my best friends.”

“Wow.  That’s cool.

“She’s one of only a few high school friends left who I still hear from.  I’ll have to tell her I met you.”

“Yeah.  Tell her I said hi.  I haven’t heard from her in a while.”

“I will.  I should get home, I still have to study.  But it was nice meeting you.”

“You too, Greg.”


The following night I had choir practice at the Newman Center.  I usually carpooled with Heather, another choir member who lived in the same apartment complex as me.  It was Heather’s turn to drive, and when she knocked on my door that night, she was with Melanie, another choir member.

“Mel and I are hanging out tonight,” Heather explained, “so she’s driving.  Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I replied.  We got into Melanie’s car and drove to the church.  When we walked in, Claire Seaver, a music major who was informally the leader of the choir, was getting our sheet music organized; she handed me my copies of this week’s songs.  I set them up on a music stand.  Sabrina Murphy, the cute redhead who, unfortunately for me, had a boyfriend, began setting up the music stand next to me.

The first song we practiced was called Hosea.  We sang this one once before, back in the fall, and I liked it, although I did not understand the title back then.  I did now, though, or at least I knew what Hosea meant.  As if on cue, as if God knew that I was waiting for the chance to demonstrate my newfound knowledge, Sabrina pointed at the word Hosea in the title and whispered to me, “What does that mean?”

“Hosea is a prophet in the Old Testament,” I replied, smiling.

“Oh,” Sabrina said.  I doubted that my knowledge of the Old Testament prophets would make Sabrina leave her boyfriend and go out with me instead, but I could dream.  It did not seem to matter, though, since that would never happen.  Besides, I liked Haley Channing from JCF now.  And my knowledge of the Old Testament still was not much.  I had not yet read the Book of Hosea in the Old Testament, nor did I know how these lyrics, which began “Come back to me with all your heart,” related to the story or writings of Hosea.  But I had seen that name while flipping around my recently acquired Bible over the last few weeks.

“What’s next?” Matt Jones asked after we finished.  Like my new friend Evan, Matt was from Gabilan, and my mother knew his family.  I always felt weird about my mother knowing my friends, just because she talks about people behind their back so often.  But nothing weird had come up with Matt so far.

“‘On Eagle’s Wings,’” Claire replied.  “We’re singing the female version.”  I was not sure what “female version” meant, but I knew this song well; it had been around for a while.  I looked at the fine print at the bottom of the sheet music, as I had been doing recently now that I was reading the Bible; it said “Copyright 1979,” and also mentioned that the text was derived from Psalm 91.  I had not read Psalm 91 yet; I would have to look that up.

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life,” I sang.  Something sounded off, like everyone else had been singing something different at one part.  It almost sounded like the others had said “in her shadow for life.”  I remembered at that moment that there was a time last year, before I had joined the church choir, when I thought the choir had sung “hold you in the palm of her hand” at the end of the chorus, instead of “palm of his hand.”

At the next lyric containing a pronoun, I abruptly stopped singing so I could hear everyone else.  “And she will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” everyone else sang.

“Wait,” I said.  “Is that what the female version means?” Everyone else stopped singing and playing instruments.  “We sing feminine pronouns instead?”

“Oh, yeah.” Claire answered.  “Remember, everyone, feminine pronouns!”

“Why?” I asked.  This made no sense.  Catholics did not believe in Goddess.

“We always do certain songs this way,” Heather said.

“But why?  Is that allowed?  To call God ‘she?’”

“Sister Mary Rose wants it that way,” Claire explained.  “Especially when we do a lot of songs with ‘he.’”  I shrugged my shoulders, and we continued practicing, but I mumbled every time we sang a feminine pronoun.  Calling God “she” just felt wrong to me.  To be clear, I never thought of women as second-class citizens, and my understanding of God was that he transcended the human idea of sex and gender.  But it seemed arrogant and disrespectful to fly in the face of thousands of years of tradition just to keep up with liberal college town political correctness.

After we finished choir practice, Heather and Melanie and I got back into Melanie’s car and headed home.  As we pulled up to the red light at Andrews Road and Coventry Boulevard, Melanie was telling a story about having been in a coffee shop studying yesterday while enjoying a latte.

“I hope it was actually a latte, and you didn’t grab someone else’s drink by mistake,” Heather said.

“Oh my gosh,” Melanie laughed.  “That happened one time.”

“Did you ever find out what you actually drank that night?  You were so messed up!”

“No!  It was strong!”

“Remember when you went up to that guy and kissed him on the cheek?”

“That was so embarrassing!”

I was not there for whatever happened that the girls were talking and laughing about, but it sounded like it would have been fun to watch.  The light turned green as the two girls continued laughing.  The two cars in front of us drove through the intersection as we remained stopped in the middle of the street.  “The light is green,” I said.

“Oh my gosh!” Melanie said, laughing loudly.  “That night was so crazy!”

“You were so funny!” Heather exclaimed.

“The light is green!” I repeated, trying unsuccessfully to get Melanie’s attention.  

“What was it that you kept saying that night?” Heather asked, still laughing.

“GREEN LIGHT!” I shouted.

“No, that wasn’t it,” Heather answered.  “Greg, you weren’t even there!”

“Oh!  Green light!” Melanie finally said.  As she started to pull the car forward, the light turned yellow; it was clear she would not make it through before the light turned red.  She pulled up to the intersection and stopped again.  All three of us laughed.

“Good thing there’s no one behind us,” Heather said.

“I was saying ‘green light’ the whole time,” I said.

“Sorry!” Melanie replied.

After we finally made it across Coventry Boulevard, Melanie dropped me off at my apartment.  I had three midterms coming up on Friday, but I did not feel like studying anymore tonight.  I turned on the computer and decided to unwind on an IRC chat for the rest of the night.  As I listened to the whistles and chirps of my dialup Internet connecting, I thought about the events of the last two days.  I did not want to sound like some kind of sexist pig, but using feminine pronouns for God really bothered me.  There seemed to be no precedent for that in the Bible, as far as I knew, and going against Scripture and Church teaching seemed to be a dangerous slippery slope.

As I looked through the list of people chatting on this channel, looking for possible girls to flirt with, I kept thinking about Bible study last night.  “Create in me a pure heart, O God,” King David had written.  He wrote that Psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba.  I had not committed adultery in the technical sense, but I felt just as guilty sometimes when I talked dirty with girls on the Internet.  That was a slippery slope as well, and I did not want to fall into old patterns that were not God’s will for my life.  I read Psalm 51 again and kept my chat clean that night.

February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

As a child, February 15 was always a significant date to me.  I was one of those kids who ran around telling people that I was “six and a half” years old, instead of just six, and February 15 was my “half-birthday,” six months from my actual birthday.  I outgrew giving my age as a fraction sometime in my preteen years.  But ever since my half-birthday my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had a much more important reason to remember February 15, since it was the anniversary of one of the most important things to happen to me.

I turned nineteen and a half years old on a Thursday, and the day started out pretty lousy.  I worked part time as a tutor for the Learning Skills Center on campus, where I would meet with small groups of students taking beginning math classes.  I was tutoring precalculus this morning, and none of the students in the group could figure out my explanations of how to prove trigonometric identities.  Proofs came naturally to me, and I had been studying the process of how to write a proof in my Abstract Mathematics class, but this did not work for precalculus students.  After that, I walked around the Memorial Union and the Quad looking for a friend to have lunch with.  Finding none, I ate alone outside, where it was sunny but cold.

My only class on Thursdays was physics lab, in the early afternoon.  After lunch, I walked from the Quad to the laboratory classroom in Ross Hall; the walk was about the length of four city blocks.  The weekend started to feel close on a Thursday, and I had Monday off for Presidents’ Day, but I was not looking forward to this weekend.  At this point in my life, a three-day weekend just meant three lonely days of moping around the apartment alone, trying to pick up girls in a chat room whom I would never meet, who may not even be real girls.

That week, I had really been missing the life I had last year in the dorm.  I had tons of new friends last year, and when I felt lonely and bored, I could just walk around the building and see who else was around.  That was a little more creepy to do in an apartment complex where I lived alone and knew few people.  Thirteen friends from my dorm lived less than half a mile from my apartment, and I went to visit them sometimes, but this was more difficult when they were not right in my building.  Living alone, I avoided roommate drama but missed out on all the socializing.  Soon the time would come to make housing plans for the 1996-97 school year, and I really hoped that I would be able to find an awesome group of roommates.  Maybe some of my new friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.

The JCF large group meeting on Friday nights had become the highlight of my weekend most of the time, but the group was not meeting this week.  The staff all had to go to some kind of retreat, which for me meant no hearing a talk about the Bible, and no hanging out with friends afterward.  JCF is a chapter of a national organization called Intervarsity; the chapters are led by staff members whose salaries are paid by raising monthly contributions from supporters and churches, much like how missionaries are paid.  I did not know all of that in 1996, though.  I just knew that there were four adults in their 20s out of school who led the group: a married couple named Dave and Janet McAllen, and two single women named Cheryl and Maggie.

Most importantly in my young man mind, though, no JCF meant no chance to talk to Haley Channing, the sweet girl with the beautiful blue eyes whom I had met a few weeks earlier.  Last Friday at JCF, Haley left early, so all I got to say to her was hi.  I felt completely inept at interacting with girls, especially ones I found attractive.  I did hear someone say that, since there was no JCF this week, people would be meeting for a time of worship and prayer at someone’s house instead.  I was not sure if I was going to go; I did not know those people.

I still felt grumpy and frustrated when I left my physics lab.  I had no more classes, so I walked back toward the Memorial Union and the bus stop on the other side, cutting through the side of the building where the Coffee House was.  As I walked through, I looked around at the people sitting at tables, and I spotted Janet McAllen from JCF staff with a blonde girl I did not recognize.  Janet waved, so I walked over to say hi.

“Hi, Greg,” Janet said, smiling.  “How are you?  Want to sit down?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you know Mary?” she asked, gesturing toward the other girl.

“Hi, I’m Mary,” the other girl said.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  “I’m Greg.”

“How’s your day going?” Janet asked.

“Honestly, not too well.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just feeling discouraged,” I said.  “I’m lonely.  I wish I knew how to have a social life.”

“Do you have roommates?  Do you have a group of friends?  I’ve seen you sitting with people at large group.  Liz and Ramon, Pete, Sarah, Taylor, those people.”

“They were all in my dorm last year.  I still hang out with them sometimes.  They all live not too far from me, in north Jeromeville.  But I live by myself.  By the time I figured out people were making plans for this year, everyone I knew already had roommates lined up.”

“That’s tough.  Hopefully you’ll figure something out for next year.”

“Yeah.  I’ve always had a hard time making friends.  I was teased and bullied all through elementary school.  I kept to myself a lot in high school.  And I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Do you know Jesus?” Janet asked me.  I thought that was an odd question.  I had never been asked this before.

“What do you mean, exactly?” I replied.  “I know Jesus is the Son of God, and he came to earth, and he was crucified and rose from the dead.”

“But do you have a relationship with Jesus?”

Here we go.  Another thing where Catholics and Protestants were different, and I was not in the mood to be told how wrong I was.  I simply answered, “I don’t know.”

“May I explain what that means?”

“Sure.”

Janet pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a horizontal line about halfway down and an inch or so across, then drew a line downward at right angles to the first line.  She drew the mirror image of this on the other side of the paper, then drew a stick figure on top of each side, so that they appeared to be facing each other with a chasm between them.  She wrote “Us” on one side and “God” on the other.  “God created Adam and Eve, and they disobeyed him.  Sin entered into the world, and sin brings death.”  Janet wrote “Death” at the bottom of the chasm.  “So because of sin, humans are separated from God.  We can’t cross over this chasm to God’s side because of sin.  Our sin separates us from God and his holiness, and since everyone has sinned, nothing we can do on our own can bring us back to God.”

I had never heard sin explained that way before.  I had been to Reconciliation a few times back home, and once last year with Father Bill at the Newman Center.  I always thought of it as a pardoning for sins and a promise to do something good to make up for it.  But Janet was saying something different.  I had never studied the theology behind the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I did not know if these two views contradicted each other.

Next, Janet drew a large cross in the middle of the chasm, with the horizontal part of the cross connecting the two sides of the chasm.  “But Jesus came to Earth to make a way, a bridge across this chasm.  Jesus was the Son of God, born without sin, and he took our sin to the cross and died in our place.  And now, because Jesus died on the cross, we have a way back to  God.  Jesus conquered death and rose from the dead.  And he offers that gift of eternal life to all who come to him.  If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved from sin and have eternal life with God.”

“Hmm,” I said.  “I’ve never heard it explained that way.  What do you mean, ‘accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior?’”

“That means you believe that Jesus died to save you from your sins, and rose from the dead, to give you eternal life with God.  And he is the Lord of your life, and you will live the rest of your life for Him.  Do you want that?”

I always thought I believed in Jesus, but apparently I had gaps in my understanding of what that really meant.  I knew this was right, though.  Everything I had learned from JCF over the last four months had convinced me more and more that following Jesus was the right way.  And I had seen God’s love for his people manifested in the way that my Christian friends, old and new, treated me and others with love.

“Yes,” I said.

“And do you believe that you are a sinner, separated from God, and Jesus is the way to eternal life?”

“Yes.”

“Can you pray with me?  Is that okay?  Tell God what you just told me.”

“Yes,” I said, bowing my head.  Janet bowed her head as well.  “Jesus,” I said, “I am a sinner.  And you are the only way to eternal life.  I believe that you are the Lord and Savior, and I pray that you will guide me and give me hope.  I thank you for all the new Christian friends you have put in my life.”

“Father, God,” Janet said after a pause, “I thank you that you have brought Greg into your family.  I thank you so much, Father, for our new brother in Christ.  I thank you that the angels are rejoicing that Greg has found his way home.  I pray that he will stay strong and live his life for you.  Fill him with the Holy Spirit.  Lead him in the way he should go.  And transform his heart to make him more like you every day.  In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.”

I looked up.  Janet was smiling.  “Welcome to the body of Christ,” she said.  “Congratulations!”

“Yes,” Mary said.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward because I had forgotten that Mary had been sitting there this whole time.

“There’s no large group tomorrow, but the guys who live at 1640 Valdez are hosting a worship and prayer night.  Are you going to go?”

“I heard about that.  I wasn’t sure if I was going, but if there is no large group, I won’t be doing anything else tomorrow night.  So I’ll probably be there.”

“I think it’ll be good for you.  Also, are you in a Bible study yet?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“I don’t have it with me, but I’ll get you the list of off-campus Bible studies.  You said you live in north Jeromeville?  I know one of the guys from the house where the worship night is, Shawn, he leads a Bible study that meets not too far from you.  Maybe talk to him tomorrow.”

“I will.”

“Do you have a Bible?”

“Yeah.  A few weeks ago, I hung out with Eddie and Xander and Kristina and Haley and Kelly after JCF.  Kristina gave me an extra Bible she had.”

“Good!  I want you to look these up when you get a chance.” Janet wrote three Bible verses on the paper that she had drawn on earlier and handed it to me.  I put the paper in my backpack.  “Are you going to be okay?” Janet asked.

“Yes, I am.” I smiled.

“Do you need to get home?”

I looked at my watch; I missed my bus by a long shot.  Another bus was probably there now, getting ready to leave in a few minutes.  “I probably should,” I said.  “But thank you for sharing and listening.”

“You’re welcome.  Jesus said to share the good news, after all.”

“Enjoy your retreat this weekend.”

“I will!  I’ll see you next week!”

As I walked toward the bus, went home, and made dinner, something felt different.  Jesus had called me away from the pity party I had been throwing myself that morning.  He had something better for me, a life of peace and hope.  When I got home, while my frozen chicken pot pie was in the oven, I looked up the Bible verses that Janet had told me to read.

Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

Romans 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

John 7:37-38 “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’”

This was me.  I had the Spirit of sonship.  I was God’s child.  I came to Jesus today and experienced the streams of living water.  And the Holy Spirit brought hope which did not disappoint.  I taped Janet’s drawing to the wall behind my desk, the wall that I stared at for much of the time that I was in the apartment, so that I would be able to look at it and remember what it meant to be a child of God.


The next night, I drove to the address of the worship and prayer night. I was pretty sure that this was the same house where the ill-fated car rally a few months ago had ended, so I had been here before.  But tonight I had arrived late, on purpose, because I did not know what to expect and I was nervous about being alone in a room full of people I did not know well.

I knocked on the door, and someone on the inside opened it.  It was dark inside, and around forty people were packed into the living room, on every available couch and chair and on the floor.  I recognized many familiar faces from JCF as I quietly tiptoed to a spot on the floor big enough for me to sit.  Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year, were sitting nearby, and they immediately came over to me when they saw me walk in.  “Congratulations,” Sarah said, giving me a big lingering hug.

“I’m excited for you!” Krista added.

I was a little confused at first, but I figured they must have found out about my decision for Jesus yesterday.  “Thank you,” I said, smiling.

The three of us sat singing along with the worship team as they played and sang a song called “Shine Jesus Shine.” I had heard this song at JCF large group before, and I liked it.  “Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory,” I sang along.  “Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire.”  That was where I was tonight.  The Holy Spirit was setting my heart on fire as I began my new life as a Christian, living for Jesus.

We continued singing for a couple hours, until well after nine o’clock, pausing after every few songs to pray silently.  Sometimes people prayed out loud, and during one of the pauses, we were instructed to pray with the people sitting near us.  Sarah and Krista prayed for my walk with Jesus, that I would continue to follow him and grow closer to him every day.

After the music and prayer ended, I stood up.  Liz Williams and Ramon Quintero, who were also in my dorm last year, approached me.  Liz smiled excitedly and said, “Hey, Greg.  Janet told me about yesterday.”

“It seems like a lot of people heard about that,” I said, chuckling and blushing a little.

“Earlier this week, I was hanging out with Sarah, and we were talking about how you’d been getting more involved with JCF.  Sarah said that she thought you were close to really coming to know Jesus, and that after that you would just be on fire for Jesus.”

“I know.  That’s how I feel tonight.”

“Are you involved with a Bible study yet?”

“No, but Janet emailed me a list of all the off campus Bible studies.”

“You should come with us to ours.  Shawn and Lillian are the leaders.  That’s Shawn, this is his house,” Liz said, gesturing toward an Asian guy with an athletic build.  “Lillian isn’t here tonight.”

“I will,” I said.  “Janet mentioned Shawn’s group yesterday when she asked if I was in a Bible study.  And now you mentioned it.  Sounds like God is telling me to go there.”

Eddie Baker, one of the guys who had originally invited me to hang out the night Kristina gave me her extra Bible, walked up to greet me next.  “Greg,” he said, pulling me into a hug.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, wondering just how many people knew.

“How are you?”

“I’m feeling much better, just about life in general.”

“That’s Jesus.  He changes your life.”

“I know.”

“I need to go talk to some people, but I just wanted to say hi.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too.”

I drove home later that night feeling encouraged and excited.  It no longer mattered that my upcoming three-day weekend would be lonely and boring, because I had Jesus, and Jesus brought hope and peace.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; that was in one of the verses that Janet gave me to read.

Janet told me a few weeks later that Mary, the other girl who had been at the table in the Coffee House when I made my decision for Jesus, was someone who had come to JCF with a friend, and Janet and Mary had been intentionally meeting to talk about Jesus.  Seeing me make a decision for Jesus was exactly the kind of thing that Mary needed.  I do not know what happened to Mary; I only met her once or twice more that year.

To this day, I wonder if Janet made a mistake with the verses she wrote on that drawing.  Romans 5:6, the verse after the one about hope, says “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”  That seems like a much more appropriate, and commonly used, verse for a new Christian learning about God’s grace and the significance of Jesus dying on the cross.  But even if Janet wrote the wrong verse number, God made no mistakes; he knew that that verse about hope was what I needed on that long, lonely Presidents’ Day weekend in 1996.  That was the first verse that I memorized.

In those first days after I made a decision for Jesus, I wondered if this would create tension with my Catholic relatives on my mom’s side.  Mom herself would probably be fine with it; she always respected the beliefs of Christians we knew who were not Catholic.  And I was not personally worried, because Catholics and other Christians follow the same Jesus, and the things we have in common are so much more important than the things that the different branches of Christianity fight about.  I had no plans to stop attending Mass at the Newman Center.  (I did eventually leave the Newman Center, but that is a story for another time.)

I spent most of the rest of the weekend relaxing, studying, running errands, and doing housework.  The only time I saw people the rest of that weekend was at Mass on Sunday, and just like at the worship night at Shawn’s house on Friday, the words of the songs all seemed more meaningful now.  Sure, I did not know what the future held.  I might fail out of school, I might not be successful in the working world, and I might never get a chance to get to know Haley or ask her out.  But even if all of that happened, I still had Jesus, and that meant I always had hope.

Early February, 1996. I was robbed.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said after opening his door.  “Come on in.”  I walked into the apartment that Taylor shared with Pete and Charlie.  When I was looking at apartments for this year, part of the reason I chose my current studio apartment was because over a dozen of my friends from my dorm last year, including these three, would be within a ten minute walk.  It was Saturday afternoon, I was still unwinding from having just taken four midterms in a span of less than 24 hours, and I felt the need for human contact, so I walked to this nearby apartment complex where some of my friends lived.

“So what’s up?” Taylor asked.  “You said you just had four midterms on the same day?  How’d that go?”

“My physics professor let me take his a day early, so I at least had them a little more spread out.  I think they went okay.  Nothing particularly difficult.”

“That’s good.”

I heard a door close elsewhere in the apartment, then footsteps.  Pete walked into the living room.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s up?”

“I just came by to say hi.  What are you guys doing?”

“Just studying,” Pete said.  “I have a midterm Monday.  And tomorrow we have a long meeting at church about this summer.”

“Did we tell you?” Taylor asked.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.  “Tell me what?”

“We’re going on a trip to Morocco with our church this summer.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.  We’ll be gone for over a month, with a group of students from all over the world.”

“That sounds really cool!”

“We’ll be sending prayer letters,” Pete said.  “You’ll get one eventually.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

Taylor and Pete and I continued talking for about an hour, about classes, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and church activities, and whatever else came to mind.  Charlie, their other roommate, was not home that day.  Eventually, Taylor said, “I should probably get to work now.  But thanks for hanging out.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I should get back home.  It was good to see you guys.”

“Stop by any time.”

“See ya, Greg,” Pete added.

“Bye!” I said, waving, as I got up and walked out the front door.

When I got back to my apartment, I picked up my laundry basket and walked to the laundry room.  I had left a load of clothes in the dryer while I went to see Taylor and Pete.  But when I opened the dryer, it was empty.  I was certain that this was the dryer where I had put my clothes, but they were not here now.  I opened every other dryer, and all were empty except for one containing women’s clothes, definitely not mine.  I searched the washing machines as well, to see if maybe I had forgotten to move the clothes to the dryer, although I distinctly remembered putting coins in a dryer and starting it.  Only one washer had clothes in it; this one was still running, and the clothes were definitely not mine.

Someone stole my laundry.

Someone actually had the nerve to remove my clothes from the dryer and take them.  Why?  What would anyone want with the clothes of a 19-year-old student who lived alone and had no sense of fashion?  I was furious.  Thoughts continued to swirl around in my head as I stormed back to my apartment.  Do I call the police?  Will the police care about some kid’s clothes?  If I could not feel secure leaving my laundry behind for an hour, could I really feel safe at all here at Las Casas Apartments?  Or was it dumb of me in the first place to leave my laundry unattended for an hour?  What would I have to do differently in the future?  Would I have to sit with my laundry the whole time?  Would I have to take my laundry to an actual laundromat if I could not trust the apartment laundry room?

I picked up the phone, but not to call the police.  Instead I called my parents’ house.

“Hello?” Mom said.

“It’s me.  Someone stole my laundry.”

“What?”

“Someone stole my laundry.  I washed my clothes, then I moved them to the dryer, and I went to go see Taylor and Pete for about an hour.  When I got back, everything was gone.”

Mom paused.  “What all was in there?”

“Four pairs of jeans, a sweatshirt, a few shirts, and a towel.”

“I can send you money if you–”

“I don’t need money,” I said angrily.  “I want whoever did this to be brought to justice.  And I want to be able to leave my laundry in peace.  I don’t want to have to sit in the laundry room for two hours every time I need to wash clothes, just to make sure no one takes my clothes.”

“I understand,” Mom replied.  “That is inconvenient.”

“It’s not fair!” I said, now fully shouting.

“Calm down.  It’s not the end of the world.”

“Right, but now I have to sit there and wait for my laundry to be done.  That’s going to be so boring!”

“Yeah,” Mom said.  “Can you bring something to read?”  I said nothing, brooding and staring at the floor, so Mom continued, “Hello?  Are you there?”

“I’m here,” I replied indignantly.

“I know you’re angry.  But don’t worry about spending money on clothes.  I can pay you back.  And maybe you can do homework in the laundry room while you’re waiting.”

“I was actually thinking that too.  But it’s still inconvenient.  And infuriating.”

“I know.”

“Should I call the police?”

“You can if you want.  But I’m not sure if they’d be able to do anything about it.  One load of laundry isn’t really a big deal, and there is no evidence.”

I let out a long sigh.  “You’re probably right.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“Are you calm?  You know I worry when you get upset like that.”

“I’m calm.”

“Okay.  When you do get new clothes, just tell me how much money you need.”

“You don’t have to send me anything,” I said.

“But I want to.”

“If you say so.”

“Are you sure you’re ok?” Mom asked.

“Yes.”

Mom spent another twenty minutes telling me about some kids from my brother Mark’s school, some old lady that Grandma was mad at, and a flaky unreliable coworker.  I did my best to listen and not lose interest.

After I hung up the phone, I put a Hungry-Man dinner in the microwave.  Then I turned on the computer, listened to the whirs and whistles and twangs of a dialup modem connecting to the Internet, and connected to my usual IRC chat channel.  I griped to a few strangers and one girl I had talked to before about my clothes being stolen.  I spent the rest of the night eating, chatting on IRC, and reading, and when I undressed for bed that night, I realized that the pair of pants I took off was now the only pair of pants I owned.  I hoped they would not be too dirty or smelly for church tomorrow.


The next morning was sunny but cold.  I walked over to apartment 239 and knocked on the door.  My neighbor Heather Escamilla and I were in the church choir together, and we often carpooled to church.  “You ready?” Heather said when she opened the door.  She wore a long sleeve sweater and pants.

“Yes,” I replied.

The two of us walked toward my car, and as we were getting in, Heather asked, “Aren’t you cold?  You’re wearing short sleeves with nothing underneath.”

“My laundry got stolen yesterday,” I said.  “I don’t have anything with long sleeves anymore.  And this is my only pair of pants left, because I was wearing these when it happened.”

“Oh my gosh,” Heather replied.  “Are you serious?”

“Yeah.  I left my clothes in the dryer for about an hour, and when I went to get them, they were gone.”

“That sucks.”

“I know.  I feel like now I’ll never be able to leave clothes unattended again.  Now I’m going to have to sit in there the whole time when I have clothes washing and drying.”

“I’ve never had that happen before, but I’m sure it’s happened to other people.”

“I guess I have to go shopping this afternoon.”

“Look on the bright side.  It’s an excuse to get new clothes.”

“I guess.”  And Mom said she would pay me back, although I did not say that part out loud.  I did not want to advertise the fact that I was mooching off of my parents, nor did I want to grow up to be a lazy bum.

When we got to church, we walked over to where the choir was assembling.  Danielle and Carly Coronado were talking to each other.  They were sisters; Danielle had lived right down the hall from me last year, and now she lived in the same apartment complex as Pete and Taylor.  Both Pete and Taylor had seemed romantically interested in Danielle during freshman year, to the point that I could never tell exactly what was going on with them, but now she and Pete seemed to be in a full-blown relationship.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said.  “Pete said you were over at their place yesterday?”

“Yeah,” I answered.  “I just went on a walk for a study break.  I would have come to your place if they hadn’t been home.”

“That sounds nice.  How was your weekend?”

“Frustrating.  Someone stole my clothes.”

“What?”

Sister Mary Rose walked past at that moment.  “Stole your clothes?” she repeated.

“Yeah.  From the laundry room at my apartment.  This is the only pair of pants I have left, and I don’t have anything with long sleeves.”

“Oooh.  That’s not good.  Can you get new clothes?” Sister Mary Rose asked.

“I think I’m going to have to do that this afternoon.  It’s just frustrating that someone would do that.  And now I’m going to have to sit in there and wait while I’m doing laundry, every time.”

“That is frustrating.  But maybe someone less fortunate really needed the clothes.  Maybe it will help to think of it that way.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Don’t stress about this,” Danielle added.  “Sometimes that’s just life.  You learn things the hard way.”

“I know.”

After church, I dropped off Heather, ate a quick sandwich, and got back in the car.  I headed north on Highway 117 toward Woodville.  It is commonly said that one cannot buy underwear in Jeromeville, because Jeromeville has no major department stores.  The aging hippie intellectuals who ran the local government in Jeromeville seemed obsessed with the delusion that Jeromeville was a small town and should stay one forever.  One recent example that had been in the news lately concerned a dirt alley in the old part of the city, just a block away from church.  The packed dirt was uneven and full of potholes, and during the winter these holes would fill with rainwater and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  The city’s Transportation Department had proposed paving the alley, a plan supported by all of the residents whose property backed up to the alley.  But the City Council vehemently disagreed, on the grounds that these historic dirt alleys are more in character with a small town like Jeromeville, and paving the alley would carelessly throw away our history and encourage runaway growth and crime.  Ridiculous.

This sort of mentality among the Jeromeville City Council led to my current situation: I had to buy clothes, so I had to either drive to Woodville or cross the Drawbridge into Capital City.  I chose the first today, because Woodville was closer, and I only wanted to buy what I needed and leave, rather than browse all of the huge two-story mall in Capital City.  This made no sense to me.  This was America.  More than 50,000 people lived in Jeromeville, and they needed to buy clothes, so the free market would suggest a need for a department store in Jeromeville.  But according to the Jeromeville City Council, a department store was inappropriate for their small town, so the nearest clothing store was seven miles outside of the Jeromeville city limits in the slightly smaller city of Woodville.  It was an easy drive, with Highway 117 being two lanes in each direction the entire way.  Here in the agricultural heart of Arroyo Verde County, I drove past cow pastures, nut tree orchards, and fields that would be planted with corn and tomatoes in the appropriate season.  A newly installed sign named this stretch of road the “Vincent Fiore Freeway,” after this area’s long-time member of the United States House of Representatives who had recently announced that he would retire after this term and not seek reelection.  For a couple years in high school, I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s political talk show when I was home from school in the mornings; he always said that Vincent Fiore was a liberal who was out of touch with the American people.

Woodville had a very small shopping mall with J.C. Penney, Mervyn’s, and Target as the anchor stores.  I parked the car and walked toward Mervyn’s.  Mervyn’s was a major department store in the western United States for much of the late 20th century, and I seemed to remember it usually being my mother’s preferred store for buying clothes.  It remained my preferred clothing store until the company went out of business in 2009.

I bought four pairs of Levi’s 550 jeans in my size, in three different colors.  I am not normally one to insist on brand name clothing, but I have been loyal to Levi’s jeans for years.  The 550 and 560 styles fit me better than the more traditional 501 and 505.  I bought a plain gray pullover sweatshirt; the sweatshirt I had lost was a University of Jeromeville sweatshirt, and I could buy one of those at the campus store on Monday.  It was okay to have two sweatshirts.  I bought two polo shirts, one navy blue and one dark green, replacing the ones which had been stolen.  I bought a towel that resembled the one that had been stolen. After this, I looked around the store a bit more to look for anything else I might need.  I found an interesting jacket; the torso was made from shiny black athletic wear material, the kind of material that a track suit would be made of, but the sleeves and hood were made from sweatshirt material.  It looked comfortable, and I had come to realize recently that I did not have enough cold weather clothing, so I bought the jacket too.

 I brought my purchases to the cashier.  When she told me the total for my order, I cringed inwardly as I handed her my credit card.  I always paid off my credit card at the end of the month, never carrying a balance, but this was the most money I had ever spent on clothing in one sitting, as well as the highest credit card bill I had ever had so far in the eleven months since first getting this credit card.  I had enough money in my bank account to pay the bill, and Mom said she would pay me back, but I still hated spending money and I felt bad accepting help from Mom.  Once I was done with school and working full time, I would make a point to take care of myself and not accept Mom’s unnecessary handouts.

The next morning, Monday, I waited for the bus wearing all new clothes: the green polo shirt, one of the new pairs of jeans, and the new jacket.  Although wearing new clothes can be fun and exciting, today it just felt irritating.  I could have avoided spending all of that money if some jerk had not stolen my laundry, or if I had just taken the time to wait in the laundry room until my clothes were finished.  But, on the bright side, I had a new jacket, and I definitely felt warmer than usual waiting for the bus today.

When I did laundry again a week later, I waited in the laundry room the entire time.  There was no chair, so I sat on the table intended for folding and sorting clothes.  I brought math and physics homework to work on, and I finished almost all of my homework for that weekend.  Yes, it was annoying having to wait in the laundry room, but I could get used to this.  The laundry room was much less distracting than my apartment.  I never left clothes unattended in the laundry room at Las Casas Apartments again.  After that school year, at my next apartment, I started risking leaving the laundry room while the washer and dryer were running, but fortunately, I never had clothes stolen again.

As I got older, I never did get better at dealing with this sort of minor inconvenience.  Making a mistake that ends up costing money is just as frustrating to me as ever.  I know, though, that I need to put this kind of thing in perspective.  Buying new clothes to replace those stolen was no big deal for me, but millions of people all over the world are much less fortunate.  I tried to convince myself that Sister Mary Rose was right, that someone less fortunate needed my clothes.  That still did not make what happened right in the eyes of the law, but this could have been one of those times when God works in ways that I cannot understand.