Today was one of those days where I had to turn the windshield wipers on and off multiple times. I wish the weather would just make up its mind sometimes. It rained hard enough for a few minutes that I needed to have the wipers on all the way, then the rain tapered off into showers requiring only intermittent wipers. Then it was dry for a few minutes, and when the wipers started making an irritating squeaky noise, I remembered to turn them off. Then, a few minutes later, it would start raining again, and I would start the whole cycle again. Of course, the trip from Plumdale to Jeromeville involved driving over hills and across valleys, which also accounts for part of the reason the weather changed so much.
This was now my fifth time making this trip since beginning classes at UJ. I was learning these roads enough to know where I was and what was coming next. Highway 11 north from Plumdale north to San Tomas. That usually took about 45 minutes. Then north on Highway 6, through East San Tomas and Irving, and over a big hill. The highway winds east through the hills, and then north through the outer suburbs of San Tomas and Bay City. After a city called Marquez, Highway 6 passes through an industrial area on the shore of the Capital River. The river at this point is over a mile wide, and the bridge is very high, because of bluffs on either side of the river and ships passing underneath. The bridge is narrow, just barely wide enough for three lanes in each direction, with no shoulder and a narrow concrete barrier in the middle. It was built in 1962 when traffic was much lighter.
Across the bridge is an industrial area on the outskirts of the town of North Marquez. The highway continues north for another ten miles, with hills on the left and a marshy grassland on the right, before merging with eastbound Highway 100. Somewhere around there, I heard a song on the radio that I had never heard before. At first I thought it sounded like Pearl Jam, but I quickly realized that the singer, although having some similar vocal mannerisms to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, clearly was not him. This guy had more of a soulful bluesy sound, and the melody wasn’t dark and angsty like a Pearl Jam song. It was more like folksy pop-rock, but with still a little bit of an Eddie Vedder sound to the vocals. Kind of like a Pearl Jam of the South, if such a thing could exist. “And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be,” the singer who was not Eddie Vedder sang. That line stuck out in my mind all day. I would have to find out what this Pearl Jam of the South was called.
I drove northeast through Fairview and Nueces, but took a little side trip instead of continuing straight to Jeromeville. A sign on the east side of Nueces says “TRAFFIC ALERT AM 1610,” with flashing yellow lights on top, and for the first time I saw the flashing lights on. I tried turning my radio to AM 1610 to hear the TRAFFIC ALERT, but there were power lines nearby, and the radio was mostly picking up static. I panicked, wanting to avoid this TRAFFIC ALERT at all costs, so I could hurry up and get back to Building C and, more importantly, pee. I was getting to the point where I couldn’t hold it much longer, and I didn’t want to stay stuck in traffic.
Because I liked to read maps, I was pretty sure I could get back to UJ on back roads from here. So I turned onto Pittman Road and then east on Grant Road, through nut tree orchards and cow pastures and tomato fields. Grant Road eventually became West Fifth Street on the outskirts of Jeromeville, and I headed back to Building C the usual way from there.
What I did not realize at the time is that those TRAFFIC ALERT signs are not alerting me to any traffic in or near Jeromeville. About 40 miles east of Jeromeville, Highway 100 begins climbing into some very high mountains, and this time of year, snow often affects driving conditions. Each of these TRAFFIC ALERT signs is attached to a low-power radio station, the one I tried to turn on but couldn’t get clearly, and the radio stations play a recorded message about winter driving conditions in the mountains. Carry chains in case of changing weather conditions. Chains required from such-and-such point to such-and-such point. Highway closed. Stuff like that. In the 21st century, there are electronic message boards that serve this purpose, but this technology had not yet implemented by the state Department of Transportation in 1995. It doesn’t snow anywhere near Plumdale, and I didn’t grow up taking trips to the snow, so I had no concept that the TRAFFIC ALERT was about this and not a giant traffic jam approaching Jeromeville. I figured I would rather take about 10 minutes longer to get home than risk getting stuck in traffic.
I called Mom as soon as I got home. “Hi, it’s me,” I said. “I’m home. It took a little longer because I took a side trip to avoid traffic–”
“You’re home?” Mom said, interrupting me.
“And you’re safe?” Mom sounded like she had been crying.
“Yes… what’s going on?”
“You weren’t in an accident on the bridge?”
“What? Bridge? What are you talking about?”
“I was listening to the traffic report on the Bay City news station, to see if you were going to hit any traffic on your trip home, and I heard there was a really bad accident on the Marquez Bridge–”
“Really, Mom? You hear there’s an accident, and you just assume it’s me?”
“I just knew it was you,” Mom replied, clearly in tears. “I’ve been terrified this whole time. They said a car almost went over the bridge. It ran into a truck. And there was a big pile-up behind it. You didn’t see or hear about any of this?”
“It must have been right behind me. I didn’t have any traffic at all crossing the bridge.”
“I’m so glad you’re safe. I need to call Grandma and tell her you’re ok.”
“Seriously, though. Thousands of people cross that bridge every day. You hear about one accident, and you just know it was me? You don’t have a lot of faith in my driving skills.”
“I worry about you. You know that.”
“I do. But I also wish you would treat me as an adult.”
“I’m sorry,” Mom said. “It’s just what I do.”
“What’s your first class? You start tomorrow, right?”
“Math, at 8 in the morning. Again.”
“Do you know anyone who is in your class?”
“I haven’t asked.”
“Well, I’m glad you got home safely. Enjoy your first day of classes tomorrow. Just think; you’ve been through one quarter of college classes already, so you know what to expect.”
“I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”
I hung up the phone and went to get lunch… or, more accurately, Sunday brunch. On Saturdays and Sundays, the dining commons was not open for breakfast, and during lunch time, they served “brunch” instead. Students often stayed up late on Friday and Saturday nights and did not eat breakfast the following mornings; at least that was my guess as to why the schedule was different on weekends. I didn’t see many familiar faces at brunch. For that matter, I didn’t see many faces at all. The dining commons was mostly empty. Most students were probably waiting until the last minute to return to the dorms.
I spent my afternoon being lazy. I wrote some emails to a few girls I had been talking to online. I read some Usenet newsgroups and got on an IRC chat for a while. I took a nap. I played Tetris and Sim City, during which I heard footsteps and voices outside. More people were returning from the holidays.
The dining commons was open normally for dinner on Sundays, and it was much more full than it had been at brunch earlier in the day. I chose a chicken patty sandwich and got French fries to go with it. I looked around and saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, and Liz at a table with a few empty seats, so I sat with them.
“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said.
“How was your break?” Taylor asked. “Did you do anything special?”
“The usual, pretty much,” I replied. “I was with my family for Christmas. My aunt and her family were visiting. I spent New Year’s with some friends from high school. It was good to see them.”
“I bet it was,” Liz said.
“What did you guys do?” I asked.
“I went to see my grandparents in Washington,” Pete said. “That was a lot of time in the car, but it was fun.”
“I was back home in Ralstonville,” Sarah said. “And my boyfriend and I broke up.”
“Aww.” Liz looked at Sarah, her face conveying serious concern. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. It was hard, but it needed to happen. It’s the best for both of us. He was definitely getting in the way of my relationship with God.”
I had never heard anyone give that reason for breaking up. What exactly did that mean? Maybe it has something to do with that Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that everyone else at this table was part of. If Sarah said that her boyfriend was getting in the way of her relationship with God, that sounded to me like she was saying he was a bad influence on her in some way. If that was the case, then this breakup was probably a good thing in the long run, even if it was difficult now. I did not say any of these thoughts out loud, though, because relationships and breakups weren’t anything I had ever experienced personally, so I didn’t know what I was talking about.
“So apparently there was an accident on the Marquez Bridge this morning,” I said.
“I heard about that!” Liz said. “It was on the news. A car hit a truck and almost fell off the bridge! Did you see it happen?”
“No. It happened right after I drove across, apparently. I didn’t see anything unusual on the bridge But when I got back to the dorm, I called my mom, and apparently she had heard about the accident and just assumed it was me. It’s like she has no faith in my driving abilities; she hears of an accident in the vague area where I am, and she just knows I was in it.”
“That’s kind of sweet of her to care like that, though,” Sarah reminded me.
“But she doesn’t respect me as an adult. She worries about me too much.”
“Yeah. But that’s what moms do. You shouldn’t get mad at her. Just let her be.”
Just let her be, I thought. Like it says in that song by Pearl Jam of the South. Yes, it was true that Mom could be a little annoying in the way that she worries about me and doesn’t let me be independent. That was the reason I never considered applying to Mom’s alma mater, San Tomas State. I was worried that, with Mom less than an hour away, she wouldn’t give me a chance to grow up on my own. But, as Sarah said, this was all perfectly normal behavior for a mother. Mothers, at least the good ones, worry about their children because they love their children and want them to be safe. And I knew that I should be thankful to have parents who cared enough about me to send me to the University of Jeromeville, and to help pay for what my academic scholarship didn’t cover. Not everyone gets opportunities like that.
After a few more hours of playing around on the computer, I went to sleep, thinking about how fortunate I was to be in this position, and hoping to find a balance between getting to be independent but still having a healthy relationship with my parents. And that song by Pearl Jam of the South was stuck in my head, with that one line repeating over and over again since I didn’t know the rest of the song very well. And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be.