As a child, I read a book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. In the book, everything goes wrong for Alexander, from the moment he wakes up until he goes to bed. Some of the bad things involve his older brothers or kids at school, and some of them are just freak accidents. Alexander repeatedly makes comments about wanting to run away to Australia, presumably to leave his bad day behind.
I felt like Alexander today.
I had math class in the morning, and I had to turn in an assignment incomplete. The problem in the textbook used something called Lagrange multipliers, another way to do minimization problems. The example in the book was to find the dimensions of a can that has minimum surface area for a certain volume, which I already knew how to do a different way. Lagrange multipliers in the example looked simple enough, but the technique didn’t work at all with this one problem on the homework. It was possibly the first time in my life that I didn’t understand something from math class. I sent emails to my instructor, and to everyone I knew who had taken the class before. Pete Green, who was two quarters ahead in math instead of one quarter ahead like me; the Interdisciplinary Honors Program was full of students who were ahead in their college coursework. Gurpreet, the RA down the hall who was a computer science major. Megan McCauley, the cute RA with the green hair from Building K who was a chemical engineering major. And a girl named Mary Heinrich whom I had only met twice; she was the President of the Math Club, a senior, and also an alumna of the IHP. Pete had told me that he never understood Lagrange multipliers either, and Gurpreet said that his instructor skipped that lesson.
After math class, I went to the library to work on that paper for the South Africa class that was due in less than a week. A couple years before I started, the UJ library stopped using a physical card catalog and switched to an electronic system. I remember feeling frustrated last quarter, trying to figure out how all that worked and how to find materials in a large university library that used the Library of Congress classification system rather than the much simpler Dewey Decimal System used in local and school libraries. By now, though, I had figured it out. I wrote down the locations of a few books that would be helpful.
When I went to look for these books, though, two of them were already checked out, and the others had very little information that I could actually use in my paper. I asked at the circulation desk when those two books would be back, and found out that one of them was due back next week, the day before my paper was due, and the other most likely wouldn’t come in by then.
I was having a bad day.
My day felt like it was starting to turn around when I got to chemistry class. We had gotten a midterm back, and I got 100%, better than I had done on the first midterm. After class got out, I was hungry, so I dropped off my backpack in my room and walked to the dining hall. After I got my food, I looked around for a place to sit. Megan was sitting with a few other girls, probably some of her residents from Building K; she saw me and motioned for me to sit with them.
“Hey, Greg,” Megan said. “Come sit with us.” She gave me a friendly smile, which I tried my best to return. Early this quarter, Megan had cut her hair short and dyed it green; I liked her hair before better, personally, but I wasn’t going to say so out loud. Her natural color, on the darker side of blonde, was growing back at the roots, and there was something strangely familiar yet out of place about that combination of hair color.
“Hey, I got your email about Lagrange multipliers,” Megan said after I sat down. “I don’t think we learned that. I still have my Math 21 book, and I looked through that section, and none of it looked familiar.”
“A guy in my building who is ahead of me in math said the same thing. He took 21C last quarter, and he didn’t remember learning it either.”
“Yeah. But you said it was on your homework?”
“I don’t understand why it would be on my homework if no one learns it.”
“Me either. Sorry I can’t help,” Megan said. “How’s your day going other than that?”
“Honestly, it’s been a frustrating morning,” I explained. I told her about not finding the book I was looking for in the library. While I was telling the story, suddenly I made a connection in my mind that caused me to have to put a lot of effort into holding back a giggle. Fortunately, I was smart enough not to say out loud what I had realized.
Megan’s hair, with the fading green and the roots growing back, looked like lawn that needed watering.
“I’m sorry you’re having a rough day,” Megan said. “But hopefully it’ll start to get better. And it’s Friday! Are you doing anything this weekend?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Probably working on that paper, if I can find any sources that aren’t already checked out.”
“Just relax and take it easy. Or do something fun with your friends.”
“We’ll see. I don’t know if any of my friends will be around.” Besides, I thought to myself, I don’t really know how to make plans with friends. I kept this thought to myself.
“We’re going to head back to the building now,” Megan said when I was about halfway done with my meal, and she and the others had all finished. “I hope your day gets better, Greg.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “Have a good weekend.”
A few minutes later, as I was climbing downstairs out of the dining hall, I saw Andrea from Building B, who was in my math class, with a guy wearing a sweater, looking more well-dressed than the typical college student. “Hey,” she said, seeing me.
“That problem on the homework today with the Lagrange multipliers,” I said. “Did you get that? Because I didn’t.”
“I had no idea what was going on with that problem,” she said. “I don’t think she ever went over that in class.”
“I know. I’m confused too.”
“Greg? Have you met my boyfriend, Jay?”
“Hi,” I said, hoping the disappointment wouldn’t show in my voice. “I’m Greg.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jay said, shaking my hand.
“Have a great weekend!” Andrea said.
“Thanks. You too.”
I walked back to my room and lay down on the bed, face down with my head in the pillow, for a few minutes. The cute girl from math class has a boyfriend. And the cute older girl couldn’t help me with Lagrange multipliers. So much for the day starting to turn around.
I got off my bed after about fifteen minutes and checked my email. None of the girls in other states and countries I’d been talking to had written back. I had one message, and it was from Mary Heinrich, the president of the Math Club.
Date: Fri, 03 Mar 1995 12:44 -0800
Subject: Re: Lagrange multipliers
Hi Greg! I’m pretty sure my professor skipped that section… sorry I can’t be more helpful! 😦 Hopefully I’ll see you at the Math Club meeting next week.
So there it was. Everyone I knew to ask about Lagrange multipliers couldn’t help me. Shelley Bryce, the instructor for the class, hadn’t gotten back to me yet. Her office hours were exactly the same days and times that I had the South Africa class with Dr. Dick Small, so I wouldn’t be able to go there either. I never did figure out Lagrange multipliers, by the way.
Maybe my day would get better if I did something else. It was time to go on an adventure. I got in the car and headed east on Highway 100, toward Capital City. Mom had given me an errand last night when we were on the phone. My brother Mark’s youth basketball season was ending soon, and the kids’ parents wanted to get a present for the coach. The coach’s favorite player was future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond, who currently played for the Capital City Royals. The Royals had just changed their logo and color scheme for this current season, and Mom got the idea of all the parents chipping in to get the coach a Mitch Richmond jersey with the new color scheme. Mom told me that, since I live near Capital City, I could go get the jersey for her, and bring it home at spring break, and she would pay me back. Normally I would be a little irritated at Mom sending me to do something that didn’t concern me, but this time I didn’t mind, because I had the money, and it meant I got to explore somewhere new.
I crossed the river into downtown Capital City on a high freeway bridge. I saw the original Capital Drawbridge, with its two tall towers and triangular girder pattern, about half a mile upstream. The Drawbridge was no longer the main route into Capital City; it was bypassed in 1966 by the freeway I was currently on. I could see the tall buildings of downtown Capital City on my left. The older neighborhoods of Capital City were known for having old, tall trees along the sidewalks, and a sea of these trees, with islands of rooftops on tall Victorian and early twentieth century houses, spread out to my left between the freeway and the even taller buildings in the distance.
After passing through downtown Capital City, I turned north on Highway 51 and got off four exits later at the mall. This mall was two stories high, over twice as big as the one back home in Gabilan. I parked the car and walked in, looking around and taking in the fact that this mall was huge compared to what I was used to. I went through a phase in my early teens when I liked going to the mall in Gabilan, but I wasn’t so much interested in shopping as I was in the video arcade there and this really yummy cookie shop. In fact, in 2005, I just happened to be in Plumdale at my parents’ house when I read in the newspaper that the cookie shop was closing for good. I drove into Gabilan and bought one last dozen cookies there, and I never did tell my family about that because I didn’t want to share.
I walked up and down the entire length of the mall, just to browse, and also to people-watch, or in my case, cute-girl-watch. I walked into a music store to do more up-close browsing, and I ended up buying R.E.M.’s Monster and Soundgarden’s Superunknown. There were a few other CDs I wanted to buy, but I didn’t feel right spending all that money.
Upstairs, I found a shop that sold sports merchandise. I looked through the basketball jerseys and found some with names of many of the best players of the day: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Charles Barkley. But no Mitch Richmond. That didn’t make sense. The Royals had just moved to Capital City about a decade earlier, and Mitch Richmond was the best player who had ever played in Capital City so far. He was an All-Star, and moreover, he was the only All-Star from the local team. What kind of store doesn’t carry merchandise of an All-Star player who plays just a few miles away?
“Looking for something?” a store employee asked me, walking up next to me.
“Yeah,” I said. “A Mitch Richmond jersey.”
“Hmm,” the guy said, with a look on his face that suggested he knew little about basketball, and that the name did not ring a bell. “Let me go try to find one for you.” He walked into the back room. I didn’t really follow basketball all that closely in 1995; basketball was Mark’s thing. Baseball was still on strike, and hockey wasn’t very big here in the Valley, so Bay City Captains football was the only sport I followed closely at the time. But I knew enough about basketball to have at least heard of Mitch Richmond.
“Yeah, we don’t have that,” the employee said when he came out of the back room.
“He plays for the Royals! We’re in Capital City! This store doesn’t make sense! It’s like a store in Chicago that doesn’t selling Michael Jordan jerseys!” I turned my back and left the store in a huff.
At the other end of the mall was another store that sold sports merchandise. I had the opposite problem here: there were numerous Mitch Richmond jerseys in many different sizes and in all three designs that the team used this year. I didn’t know what Mark’s coach would want. I didn’t even know what size he wore.
“May I help you?” the guy behind the cash register said, noticing that I seemed to be having trouble with this.
“I don’t know,” I said angrily. “I was sent here to buy a gift for someone I don’t know, and I’m not sure what he wants or what size he wears.”
“Hmm. What is it that the person wants?”
“A Mitch Richmond jersey.”
“You kind of need to know the size for that one, don’t you. Can you find out?”
“I’ll be back,” I said, again storming out of the store. I hated this. I didn’t understand what I was looking for, and I didn’t need to have been sent on this errand in the first place. I was in way over my head, and I didn’t even ask to do this, and I wasn’t even going to get anything new for myself. Well, I got the two CDs, but I could have gotten those at Tower Records without having to leave Jeromeville.
I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
I think I’ll move to Australia.
I could ask Caroline for some pointers, since she was from Australia.
But I didn’t go to Australia, or to another store in the mall. Instead, I went to a pay phone. Back in 1995, only the extremely wealthy had cell phones, and long distance phone calls cost money. Fortunately, my parents had something called a calling card, where they could make a call from any phone in the country and have it billed directly to them. They gave me the PIN number (PIN number is a redundant expression in the same sense as Arroyo Verde Creek), so I could call them from anywhere and they would pay for it. I did this now.
“Hello?” Mom said, answering on the second ring.
“Why did you send me on this stupid errand?” I shouted, starting to cry.
“Whoa. Where are you?”
“I’m at Capital East Mall, in Capital City. I came here to look for a Mitch Richmond jersey, like you asked me to. I don’t know what size he wears, or what design or color he wants.”
“Don’t worry about it! If you don’t want to get it, I’m sure we can order one from that catalog Mark gets all his sports stuff from.”
“I’m all the way here. I don’t want to leave empty handed.”
“Get any of the designs. I’m sure he’ll like it. And he wears extra large.”
“But I don’t want to get him something he doesn’t like.”
“I’m sure it’ll be okay. And it’s a gift. He’ll appreciate the gift.”
“Maybe. I’ll go back to the store and see.”
“You do that. It’s okay. How was school today?”
“I’ll call you sometime over the weekend from home, so it’ll be cheaper. And I don’t want to have a personal conversation out in public.”
“Good idea,” Mom said. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll talk to you this weekend, then.”
I hung up the phone and sat on a bench. I tried to wipe my eyes so it didn’t look like I’d been crying. It didn’t work. But I went back to the last store where I had been anyway. I got a Mitch Richmond jersey, size extra large, and I picked out the black one. Mom said get anything, so if the coach didn’t like it, it wasn’t my fault anymore.
The rest of the night was pretty boring. I sat alone at dinner. I didn’t meet any cute girls on IRC. There were no new interesting conspiracy theories on the Pink Floyd Usenet group. I listened to my new CDs. They were good, but R.E.M. seemed to be going in a different direction from what their last two albums sounded like, and the Soundgarden album generally sounded darker as a whole than the two songs that were familiar to me. I read for a while. I went to bed at the usual time, between 11 and midnight, and fell asleep quickly.
I woke up with a start when I heard voices and laughter. They were coming from the hallway. The clock said 1:21 AM. Whoever was talking was doing so after hours and thus breaking the rules, and I was furious because they woke me up. Could this day really get any worse? I lay in bed for a few minutes, but the voices were just loud enough that there was no way I’d be able to go back to sleep. Who were these rude people who wouldn’t let me sleep? Probably those weird stoners and partiers who lived upstairs at this end of the third floor.
In one corner of the room near the closet was a large cardboard box, shaped like a cube about two feet on each side. The box had originally held my computer, but now all that was inside was the foam packing material. I used the box as a small table now. There was nothing on it, and more importantly, it was the first non-lethal object I could find to throw at whomever was being so inconsiderate outside my doorway. I picked up the box and opened the door, squinting at the sudden brightness coming from the hallway.
Taylor, Pete, Caroline, Charlie, Krista, and Sarah were sitting in the hallway. This was not at all who I expected to see, not the partiers from the third floor. And in a way, this made the whole experience feel even worse, because these people were some of my closest friends. And they couldn’t even be considerate enough to let me sleep.
I threw the cardboard box at the wall as forcefully as I could, while glaring angrily at the others and screaming incoherently for about two seconds. The box hit the wall and almost fell on Sarah, bumping against her shoulder. Sarah looked at me, stunned, as did the other five. I ran across the hall to the stairwell and stomped off downstairs and out of the building.
It was cold and dry outside, and it smelled like poop because the dairy barn was nearby. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything now. Without thinking about what I was doing, I walked to the car. I knew I had blown it. I had made a big mistake, and everyone had seen my true colors, my inability to control myself. It didn’t matter that I was a successful student at a prestigious university anymore. I was just that scared little kid who blew up and lashed out when life got to him, just like I had been all through elementary school.
I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
I think I’ll turn on this car and drive all the way to Australia.
I had always struggled with these kinds of outbursts all my life, although not as often as I did when I was in elementary school. I was constantly bullied and teased all through school, called horrible names for no reason other than that I was an easy target, because I was different. No one ever taught me to stand up for myself or to fight back. No one ever taught me how to be confident or how to find people who would build me up. So I would take it and take it and take it for days, for weeks, until I would finally explode, throwing furniture, and pushing and hitting people (and I would often get hit back even harder). Then my teacher and my parents would scold me and say that I needed to learn to control myself, and once I got old enough that school suspension was an option, I would get suspended for a few days. That happened all through elementary school, and twice in high school as well.
I had been that kid all my life, and I always would be. And there would always be people around me to tell me condescendingly that what I did was wrong, as if I didn’t know this already. And some adult authority figure would come along eventually and tell me that I couldn’t do this, and that I needed to be pumped full of pills to fix me. And the pills wouldn’t work either, because they never do, just like they didn’t work before when I was younger.
This year was supposed to be different. I was finally free of everything that held me back in Plumdale, and I could make a fresh start in Jeromeville. But this wasn’t a fresh start. It was the same old dumpster fire that my life had been for eighteen and a half years. I didn’t know why I was here or what I wanted to study. I didn’t have a girlfriend. And neither of those things would change as long as I kept making mistakes like this.
I didn’t drive to Australia, obviously. I sat in the car for about another fifteen minutes, thinking about these things and trying to calm myself down. I closed my eyes for a while. I opened them again. I took a deep breath. Whatever I messed up tonight, whatever mistakes I made, giving up wasn’t going to make things any better. I had nothing to lose by learning from this and moving forward. This experience really wasn’t worth quitting school over.
I was ready to put this behind me for the night. It was late, and I was tired, and it was time to go back to bed. I would apologize to everyone in the morning, but I knew it probably didn’t matter. I had blown it in front of my new friends. They had seen me for what I was. I knew that what I did was wrong, and I also knew that they were all going to tell me anyway that I was in the wrong, and make me feel worse about it. I had violated the rule about quiet hours, so Amy or Gurpreet, or both of them, would probably get involved. And I deserved all that. I was just going to have to bite the bullet and let them scold me and tell me how badly I had behaved. I just hoped I wouldn’t get kicked out of the building, or kicked out of UJ entirely, for this.
I stepped out of the car and took a deep breath of the aromatic dairy air. I walked back to Building C, like a dog with my tail between my legs, ashamed of the way I had behaved. I got to the front door and scanned my key card. The door clicked, and I pulled it open.
And nothing I had seen or experienced in my eighteen and a half years of life so far had prepared me for the scene that was waiting for me in the lobby.
To be continued…
I still have The Box in 2019. It’s in my garage, storing a bunch of old T-shirts with too much sentimental value to get rid of.