Back in Plumdale, I didn’t live near any of my friends. Plumdale is a semi-rural community in a hilly area. Our neighbors were hundreds of feet down the road, and the few neighbors I had didn’t have kids my age. So being in Building C, with seventy peers my age in the same building, and eleven other buildings sharing the same dining hall, was a new and exciting experience for me.
Often when I was bored, I would just walk down the hall and see if anyone was around to talk to. If someone had their door open, sometimes I would poke my head in and say hi, and for the most part people didn’t seem too annoyed by that. That’s why doors open and close, I suppose. This also seemed a bit out of character for me, because until my mid-teens, I was very shy and quiet and reserved. I think it had a lot to do with kids being so mean to me in elementary school, and it took until the middle of high school to realize that some people were actually going to be nice to me.
On Wednesday of the first week in the dorm, the night before classes started, I was walking around on the first floor. The first floor only had about half as many bedrooms as the other floors; the other half of the first floor was taken up by a common room, a study lounge, and a locked closet for the custodian. I walked past a room with an open door, one of the larger rooms that held four students, girls in this case. I had only met two of these girls. As I walked by, I saw a small group of people sitting on the floor in a circle. Mike from the second floor saw me first. “Hey, Greg!” he said. “Come on in!”
Mike was there, and so was Keith. Next to them were Cathy and Phuong, two of the girls who lived there. A guy named Pete, who lived next door to the girls, sat next to Phuong; he was short with bushy brown hair. Next to him was a girl I hadn’t met before; she had medium-brown shoulder-length hair and a warm and friendly smile. I guessed that she was probably one of the other girls who lived in this room.
“Hi,” I said to everyone.
“I don’t think I’ve met you yet,” the brown-haired girl said. “I’m Sarah.”
“I’m Greg,” I replied.
“Nice to meet you!”
“Greg knows a cool party trick,” Mike said. I looked at him and laughed, because after our conversation in the dining hall on Monday, I was pretty sure I knew what he was talking about.
“Oh yeah?” Sarah asked.
“Tell him what highways run through your hometown, and he’ll tell you where you’re from.”
Sarah looked a little puzzled, but she went with it. “Well, the main highway is 9.”
“Okay,” I said. I knew highway 9, but it ran almost the entire length of the state, so that didn’t narrow it down much.
“Wait,” I said. “I know this one.” I searched the depths of my brain trying to remember where highway 136 was. It took me between five and ten seconds. “You’re from Ralstonville.”
“I am from Ralstonville,” Sarah said. “How did you know that?”
“I don’t know. I just like looking at maps. And I pay attention to road signs.”
“Where are you from?”
“Plumdale. Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”
“I’ve never heard of Plumdale. I’ve heard of Santa Lucia.”
“That’s usually what people say.”
“I bet you never get lost,” Cathy said.
“You’re right, I don’t,” I said. “At least not when I’m driving.”
A recurring theme for me those first few months at UJ was learning just how much I still had to learn. Even my cool party trick didn’t always work. One time during that first week, I had my door open, and someone knocked and poked her head in. She was slightly shorter than average, with chin-length brown curly hair and glasses. She smiled.
“Hi,” I said.
“You’re Greg, right?”
“Yes. Danielle, was it?”
“Yes. It’s nice to meet you for real.”
“May I come in?”
“Sure!” Since I had a single room, there was only one chair in the room. I gave it to her and pulled the pillow off my bed, using it as a cushion to sit on the floor.
“So what’s your major?” she asked.
“I haven’t decided yet. I’m thinking something like math or physics or chemistry. Those were the classes I was good at in high school.”
“I’m a psych major,” she said. “It seems like there are a lot of science-y people in IHP this year. A lot of engineers and stuff like that.”
“I’ve noticed,” I said.
“Have you considered being an engineer?”
I paused. “Not really,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“I guess you don’t have to know yet.”
“Where are you from?”
“Plumdale,” I said. “Near Santa Lucia and Gabilan.”
“That’s nice. I like that area. We went to see the aquarium in Santa Lucia last summer. I loved it!”
“It’s nice,” I said.
“It didn’t get as hot in the summer as it did back home.”
“Where are you from?”
I paused. Desert Ridge. I had asked dozens of people this week where they were from, and for the first time, I replied with, “I don’t know where that is.”
“About five hours from here, in the Los Muertos Desert. There’s an Air Force base there.”
“I learned something new today,” I said. “I’m usually pretty good with knowing where places are, but I hadn’t heard of Desert Ridge.”
“It’s not that exciting, trust me.”
“Neither is Plumdale.” We both laughed.
Danielle and I talked for several more minutes. She lived in room 216, the four-person room on my floor. Danielle was in choir. One of her roommates was Caroline, the girl from Australia. And she went to high school with Spencer on the first floor, but they weren’t great friends. I had seen Spencer in passing, but I didn’t really know him yet.
“I should get going,” Danielle said. “I have a class coming up soon. Are you done with classes for today?”
“I have one more later this afternoon,” I said. “But it was good talking to you.”
“You too! See you around, Greg.”
One Saturday night, I think it was two weeks after I had moved in, I came back from the dining hall and saw Pete, Taylor, Keith, and a guy named Charlie who lived down at the other end of the second floor sitting around a table, where they were playing a board game. I walked over to see what they were playing.
“Hey, Greg,” Pete said. “Want to join us? We’re just starting.”
“What are you playing?”
“I’ve heard of that, but I’ve never played.”
“It’s a long game, but it’s a lot of fun. You want to learn?”
Pete explained the rules of the game to me, about placing armies on the map, how to attack and defend, and when to get more armies. The object of the game was to take over the world by conquering the armies in every country. “You ready?” he asked eventually.
“I guess,” I said. We took turns placing armies on the board at the beginning. I wasn’t really sure what to do, but I at least understood how the game worked now. And, miraculously, I wasn’t the first to die. Pete wiped out Keith and took over Northern Europe, Keith’s last country, after only five turns around the board. He then attacked Ukraine, which was held by Taylor.
“Come on, give me some good numbers!” Taylor said to the dice as he rolled.
“You can hang on, Taylor!” Keith said. At this point, we could all see that Pete was the most experienced player and would probably win. Everyone wanted to stop Pete.
“DE-FENSE!” I started chanting, then clapping twice, as if I were at a football game. “DE-FENSE!” Clap, clap.
“DE-FENSE!” Taylor joined in, chuckling. Clap, clap.
“DE-FENSE!” Clap, clap. Pretty soon, everyone was chanting in support of Taylor defending Ukraine against Pete’s invading army, including David, Taylor’s roommate, who had walked down a few minutes ago and wasn’t even playing. Our chants were to little avail; Pete took Ukraine eventually and went on to win the game. I was the second player eliminated, after Keith.
Even though I didn’t win Risk, I had a lot of fun that night. Sure, college wasn’t all fun and games; I had classes and homework and studying and all of that. And I had some really tough times over the years. But the memories that have stayed with me the most after almost a quarter-century have been the times I spent with friends. These days, I am living in Capital City, and whenever I drive across the river and through the fields that separate Capital City from Jeromeville, I always remember these college friends. And each of these three stories directly impacted my life again later on. My cool party trick would resurface a year and a half later, a hundred miles away, in a car with Sarah and Caroline and two people whom I had not even met yet at this point. Something that Danielle said, which held no special significance to me on that day, would later lead to a new experience outside of my comfort zone. And I would learn many new strategy games from Pete over the years.
I didn’t have a lot of friends for most of my childhood, so having friends was still new to me, and I still had to learn how it worked. And I didn’t realize at the time how hard it would be to make friends as an adult, so I didn’t fully appreciate just how special these bygone days would be. But I can learn from the experience, and I can look for times when I can be that new friend to some other lost, lonely, confused soul.