I walked around the dining hall with my tray of food, looking for a place to sit. I saw some people I recognized at a round table that did not look full, so I sat with them. Rebekah was to my left, then Rebekah’s roommate Tracy, Mike, Ian, David, Gina, and an empty seat.
“What’s everyone up to this weekend?” Mike asked
“I have to study,” Gina said. “I’m so behind in all my classes.”
“I’m going home,” David said. “I’m leaving tonight.”
“I’m going to a party tonight,” Tracy said. I took a big bite of my hamburger and began chewing just as she asked, “What about you, Greg?”
“I hmmf turr-rahhh a vay-vah urr Rye mm Faah,” I said, chewing.
“What?” Tracy asked.
“He has to write a paper for Rise and Fall,” Rebekah said without missing a beat.
I swallowed and looked at Rebekah. “How did you understand that?”
“I don’t know,” she said, smiling. “I just did.”
“You’re good. I’m impressed.”
“Thanks! It’s one of my many talents.”
“I can’t believe we only have one week of classes left before finals,” Gina said. “This first quarter seemed to go by fast.”
“We survived!” Mike shouted. “We survived one quarter of college!”
“I’m nervous,” I said.
“Why?” Rebekah asked.
“Because of finals. What if I fail? I’ve never taken a college final before.”
“Relax. You’ll do fine.”
The next few hours were uneventful. I read for a while. I checked a few online newsgroups I was following. I had a good talk on IRC chat with a girl from Florida. She signed off around 9:30, because it was after midnight where she lived and she had to go to bed, but she gave me her email so we could keep in touch. After she left, I decided to walk around and see if anything exciting was happening.
On the first floor, I noticed that the door to room 116, the big four-person suite, was open, and I heard voices inside. I poked my head in the door. “Hi, Greg!” Sarah said. “Want to come in? We’re just hanging out.”
“Sure,” I said, sitting on the floor against a wall. Sarah, Krista, Pete, Taylor, Caroline, Liz, and Ramon were all squeezed into the room; four of them sat on chairs, and the rest on the floor. Two other people I did not recognize were also there, a tall guy with wavy sandy-colored hair and a dark-haired Asian girl with a name tag that said “Tabitha.” I knew everyone in Building C by name and face by now, and I knew that these two did not live in Building C.
It seemed that these people had come from some event where people wore name tags, because Tabitha was not the only one who hadn’t taken hers off. Taylor wore one that said “Taylor,” and Krista wore one that said “Christa.” I pointed at Krista’s name tag and said, “There’s a typo on your name tag.”
Krista looked down at the name tag. “Yeah,” she said. “I noticed that earlier.”
“Is it really a typo if you’re not typing, though?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t think so,” the tall guy said.
“So there’s a writo on my name tag,” Krista said, laughing. “Is that a word?”
“Writo,” Tabitha repeated. “Nice.”
“Greg? Have you met them?” Krista asked, gesturing toward Tabitha and the guy I didn’t know.
“This is Tabitha. And this is Mike. Tabitha lives in Building B, and Mike lives in J.”
“Hi,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
Mike, or more specifically its full form Michael, was the most popular name for males around my age. There were already two Michaels in Building C, Mike Adams whom I saw at dinner and Mike Potts from the second floor. And now I had a third one to remember, Mike From Building J. Sometimes I think that if I ever forget a guy’s name, I should just guess that his name is Mike, because there’s a pretty good chance I’d be right. And I could do the same thing for girls by guessing Jennifer; there were two Jennifers in Building C. I didn’t know either of them very well, though.
“How do you guys know Tabitha and Mike?” I asked the group, not directing the question at anyone in particular.
“From JCF,” Sarah explained. “Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s like a church group?”
“What church do you go to?”
“I go to Jeromeville Covenant, but the people at JCF come from different churches. We have a large group meeting on Friday nights, where we sing worship songs, and someone gives a talk.”
“That sounds nice.”
“And we have a small group Bible study one night a week,” Taylor added. “They have a couple of groups in each dorm area, and a bunch of them off campus too.”
“You should come to JCF large group sometime,” Krista suggested. “Do you think you would want to?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”
“You’re Catholic, right?” Caroline asked in her mild Australian accent. “Didn’t Danielle say you go to church with her?”
“Let us know if you ever want to come,” Krista said. “Everyone is welcome.”
The group in Sarah’s room stayed there for almost another hour, just talking about life and school and the upcoming end of the quarter. After that, I went to bed, thinking about tonight. Mike From Building J and Tabitha both seemed nice. But I really didn’t know what to expect from this JCF group. I remember learning at some point that there were other churches that followed Jesus besides the Catholic Church; Mom probably mentioned that at some point when she was talking about someone we knew who was Christian and not Catholic. In 10th grade world history class, I remember learning about the historical reasons behind this. I should be glad that I learned anything in that class, because Kim Jensen was in that class and I spent a lot of time daydreaming about her and ignoring the fact that she was dating an older jock.
I wasn’t the type to go out and say that one church is more right than others. But I didn’t really know what other churches were like. Is JCF the kind of group where people dance around and clap their hands? Do they convulse on the floor and speak in tongues? Are they going to recruit me to go door to door and try to convert people? Were they a cult, where I would have to leave everything I knew and isolate myself and pledge myself to them for life? I didn’t know. But I did know that all of my friends who were in Sarah’s room tonight didn’t seem like cultist types, at least not on the outside.
After an uneventful and damp Saturday spent studying and doing homework, Sunday morning was dry, although still mostly cloudy. Back in September, Mom told me that once I got to Jeromeville, I should look for the Newman Center. A Newman Center, named for the 19th-century priest and theologian John Henry Newman, is an organization for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities, although there was no standard for exactly what each Newman Center at each university was like. It didn’t take me long to find the Newman Center in Jeromeville, because they had a table in the Quad during the first week of school. I took their flyer and found that, in addition to being a student club-like organization, they also had a priest who gave regular Mass services twice every Sunday morning and once more in the evening.
Back home, Plumdale does not have a Catholic Church. Gabilan has three, and my family went to the one in Old Town, called Our Lady of Peace. I should rephrase that to say that Mom went every week, but I went maybe once a month, and Dad and Mark even less often. I grew up going to Catechism through about sixth grade; the other kids were really mean to me, just like at school, and Mom eventually let me stop going because I wasn’t really getting much out of it. By the last half of high school, though, I had started going to Mass more often, although not every week, and there were two reasons for this.
First of all, Catholic Masses are pretty boring when you’re a little kid and you have no idea what is going on. I thought about how much more difficult it would have been for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations to attend Mass as children, because Catholic Masses were said entirely in Latin until the 1960s. By my mid-teens, however, I had a little bit more of an idea of what all the words and prayers and songs meant. I got more of a sense of peace of being there, like it just felt like something that was right to do. But also, Melissa Holmes from school, who was my next major crush after I had moved on from Kim Jensen, started going there, and I wanted to see her. Most Catholics from Plumdale went to Good Shepherd on the north side of Gabilan, because it was closer, but Melissa and her mom liked Our Lady of Peace better. I remember mentioning all of this once in front of one of the JCF people, I think it was Sarah, and she said that this was God knowing exactly what would get me interested in going to church. She was probably right, because I didn’t stop going to church once Melissa moved to San Angelo and I moved in the opposite direction to Jeromeville.
I had been to Mass at the Newman Center pretty much every week since taking their flyer at the table in September. The Newman Center met three blocks from campus in downtown Jeromeville, on East 5th Street, in a beautiful old brick chapel-like building. I would learn later that this building was the original building of St. John’s Church, the main Catholic church in Jeromeville. At some point, St. John’s had built a new, larger building and an elementary school half a mile away, and the old building became the Newman Center.
Danielle, who lived right down the hall from me in 216 in the same four-person suite as Caroline, was the only other student from Building C who attended the late morning Mass at Newman. She was already there when I got there, but Mass had not started yet. I sat next to her.
“Hey, Greg,” she said. “Guess what?”
“Next week I’m going to start singing in the choir at Mass.”
“That’ll be fun.”
“Claire, you know Claire?” Danielle gestured toward an older student setting up music stands. I knew Claire by face, but I didn’t really know her. “We’re both in the school chorus, and she’s been encouraging me to do this all year.”
“I’ve heard you sing. Have you ever thought about singing in the choir here?”
“I can’t sing in front of people,” I said. “I only sing in the car.”
“I think you sing well. Don’t sell yourself short.”
“I don’t know.”
“Think about it. It looks like they need more strong male voices.”
I had a good ear for music. I played piano for a few years in elementary school. I don’t remember exactly why I quit; Mom said it was because I wanted to be cool and I thought piano was for nerds. That sounds exactly like something that ten-year-old Greg would have said. But I also think that part of the reason I gave up music was because Mom would never leave me alone about it. We had an old out-of-tune piano in our house; it had belonged to Dad’s mother, who moved out of state after all her children were grown and whom I had only met twice before she passed away a year ago. Every time we had company over, Mom would make me perform for them. She would record me playing on tape and send it to relatives sometimes. And I really wasn’t that good compared to musical child prodigies. I just wanted to be left alone to play without an audience and without Mom having to make a big deal of it.
I thought about this as the choir began singing for Mass. Here, they sang some of the same songs that I grew up with at Our Lady of Peace; today’s opening song, “Here I Am, Lord,” was one I was very familiar with. They sounded nice, but singing in the choir just wasn’t for me.
I kept thinking about this as I rode my bike back to Building C after the service. I went to Mass. I prayed about passing my classes and any sick relatives I knew about, and I asked God to help me meet a girl. But I wasn’t the type to get super-involved in church stuff. There was nothing wrong with it, I didn’t have a problem with people who did, but that just wasn’t my style.
And looking back now, it’s amazing to think about my thoughts on that afternoon all those years ago, and how unaware I was of the direction my life would take over the next few years.