I had made this trip enough times in the last couple years that it had become familiar by now. I left Plumdale on a Saturday morning heading north on Highway 11, my 1989 Ford Bronco full of boxes and bags. I passed through many different landscapes on the two and a half hour drive. Plumdale’s hills dotted with live oaks, covered by golden-brown grass that sprung up during the spring rains and had long since died in the dry sun of late summer. A long stretch of flat farmland surrounding El Ajo and Morgantown. The sprawling suburbs of San Tomas, where I turned onto northbound Highway 6. Another stretch of brown hills. Thirty miles of hilly suburbs that all run into each other: Sullivan, Danielsburg, Los Nogales, Pleasant Creek, Marquez, and others. The Marquez Bridge. Ten miles of marshy grassland. Fairview, where Highway 6 ends, merging into eastbound Highway 100. Another long stretch of flat farmland broken up by the city of Nueces. And, finally, the exit for northbound Highway 117, with the University of Jeromeville water tower visible in the distance.
I instinctively merged to the right lane, getting ready to take the first exit, Davis Drive. I caught myself just in time and drifted one lane back to the left. Davis Drive was not my exit anymore, because I did not live in Building C anymore. I passed Davis Drive, I passed Fifth Street, and I took the next exit, Coventry Boulevard. I turned right on Coventry, left on Andrews Road, and into the back parking lot of Las Casas Apartments on the corner of Andrews and Alvarez Avenue.
Mom and Dad were on their way with the rest of my stuff in Dad’s pickup truck. I left Plumdale a few minutes before they did, and we made no attempt to stay together. Trying to stay in a caravan is not worth it, especially when everyone involved knows where to go. Mom is good with directions, and she had been to the apartment before; she should be able to find it.
I realized that I did not have a key to the apartment. Nowadays, if this happened, I would just be able to send Mom a text and say that I was going to the apartment office, but texting did not exist in 1995 and none of us had cell phones. I just had to hope that Mom would be smart and wait for me. By the time I got back from the office with the key, Mom and Dad were just arriving.
“I just got the key,” I said as Mom got out of the truck.
“Good,” Mom said.
“Well? Let’s see inside,” Dad added.
I opened the door and walked into Apartment 124. It was a studio apartment, with one large combined living room and bedroom. On the right was a closet with three sliding doors. The closet stuck out into the living space, leaving a small nook in the front of the room to my right. “That would be a perfect place to put the chair,” Mom said, pointing to the nook.
“Yeah,” I replied. “And the TV can go over here.” I pointed to my left, across from the nook, in the direction my eyes would point when I would sit in the chair.
The door to the bathroom was in the back on the right, and a small kitchen opened into the room in the back to the left. Mom walked into the kitchen and looked around. “No dishwasher,” she said after about a minute.
“I didn’t even think about that,” I replied. “But I lived for 19 years without a dishwasher, so it’s no big deal. And you’ve lived for even longer than that.”
There was a dishwasher in our house in Plumdale, but it did not work for my entire life. I never knew why. We stored things in it. It was not until sometime in the middle of elementary school when it occurred to me that the cabinet with the weird racks and pull down door was called “the dishwasher” because its actual intended purpose was to wash dishes.
“Are we ready to get started?” Dad asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
I began carrying boxes toward the general vicinity of where each box belonged. Toiletries went to the bathroom. Clothes went to the closet. I left books against the wall between the kitchen and bathroom; that would be a good place for a bookcase. As Mom carried a box of plates and bowls toward the kitchen, I noticed that Dad had finished removing the straps holding the furniture to the truck bed. As he maneuvered the mattress out of the truck, he asked me, “Can you grab the other end?”
“Yeah,” I said. This was a brand new mattress, and it was heavy. Dad and I carefully maneuvered it between Dad’s pickup truck and the Bronco and almost tripped when I failed to notice the curb at the edge of the parking lot.
“You got it?” Dad asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
Dad and I carried the mattress through the front door, where it bumped against the top of the entryway and I bumped into it. “Ow!” I shouted.
“Lower,” Dad said.
I squatted down and carefully attempted to keep my balance while pushing the mattress through the doorway. As I was stepping over the threshold of the door, Dad turned, and the mattress turned with him, pinning me against the side of the doorway.
“Ow!” I said again.
“Where do you keep the dishes?” Mom asked from the kitchen.
“I don’t know!” I shouted. “I’ve only lived here for ten minutes! And I can’t move right now!”
“Huh? You can’t move?”
I made some unintelligible noises as Dad moved the mattress away from me. I dropped it; at this point it was in the apartment and could be pushed. Mom stood there looking at me. “Where do you keep the dishes?” she repeated.
“I told you, I don’t know yet!” I shouted.
“You don’t have to yell at me,” Mom said indignantly.
“I was getting slapped in the face and pinned to the wall by a heavy mattress. I’m sorry, but where to put the dishes is not exactly my priority at the moment.”
“Well… I couldn’t see that.”
“That’s what happens when you’re moving furniture. But I’m sorry I yelled.”
“Are you hurt?”
I hated carrying furniture. It felt like sensory overload to me. I was trying to make sure I did not drop or break whatever I was carrying, and that I did not hurt myself, and I had to work hard to tune out distractions like Mom. Carrying large pieces of furniture was exhausting both physically and mentally.
In hindsight, this day of unpacking took less time than any of my future moves, because I had not yet accumulated as much stuff as I would in the future. But it still felt exhausting. By early afternoon, the cars were empty, although the inside of the apartment was full of unpacked boxes and the furniture was not all in its proper place.
“Is it time to take a break for lunch?” Mom asked.
“Sounds good to me,” Dad said.
“Where do you want to go for lunch? Are we going to go to our usual McDonald’s?”
“Sure,” I said.
We got back from McDonalds about an hour later. McDonald’s was on the other side of Jeromeville, about a ten minute drive each way. I did not yet have much experience with local restaurants. I knew Murder Burger from that one time last year, but that was almost as far away, and I liked McDonald’s.
As we headed west on Coventry Boulevard back toward the apartment, Mom said, “We’re also going to take you grocery shopping before we leave. Our treat.”
Mom paused for a second. “Sure, if you want.”
“Where are we going?”
I could see the intersection for Andrews Road approaching. “U-turn here,” I said. “Then make an immediate right. Lucky, right over there.” I pointed in the general direction of the Lucky grocery store, across the street from where we were at the moment.
We spent well over a hundred dollars at the store that day. We went up and down every aisle, and I placed in the cart everything I saw that I would probably eat. Bananas. Mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. Bread. Sandwich meat. Saltine crackers. Cereal. Milk. I had an empty refrigerator; I needed everything.
“Do you like these?” Mom said in the middle of the frozen food aisle, gesturing toward a frozen chicken pot pie. “That’s something easy you can make for dinner, at least for now until you try cooking more things.”
“Sure,” I said grabbing a few chicken pot pies. I eyed the shelf of Hungry-Man frozen dinners next to them and said, “What about these?”
“Yeah, those too.” I got one of turkey and mashed potatoes and one of fried chicken and put them in the cart. I ate way too many Hungry-Man dinners that year, and after I moved out of that apartment into another apartment with roommates, I don’t think I ever ate a Hungry-Man dinner again.
After we got home, I set up the computer while Dad built the new bookcase, which we brought to Jeromeville still in a box. When he finished, I put the bookcase against the wall between the doorways to the kitchen and bathroom, as I had planned to earlier. Mom and Dad and I visited for a while as Dad was putting the bookcase together. Mom asked a lot of questions about school and my friends from last year; I did not know the answers to all of them.
A while later, in the late afternoon, Mom said, “Well, if you have everything under control here, it’s probably time for us to go. I think you can probably finish unpacking.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thank you again for everything.”
“Here,” Mom continued, writing a check and giving it to me. “In case you need anything more.”
“Enjoy the new apartment,” Dad said quietly. “Dad loves you.”
“You too,” I said. “Drive safely.”
After Mom and Dad left, the first thing I did was connect to IRC chat and go to the room where I always used to chat last year. I scanned the list of people in the room and recognized someone, a girl from Georgia named Mindy Jo (that name sounded very Southern to me) whom I had kept in touch with off and on by email but had not actually chatted with since moving out of Building C in June. I messaged her.
MindyJoA: greg! you’re back!
gjd76: yes! i moved in to my new apartment this afternoon
MindyJoA: yay how is it?
gjd76: i like it so far. mom and dad took me shopping
MindyJoA: that was nice of them. you said you live by yourself?
MindyJoA: have your friends moved back yet?
gjd76: i don’t know. i don’t think so. i still have another three weeks until school starts.
MindyJoA: why’d you move back so early? last year when i moved home for the summer i didn’t go back to school until the night before my first class
gjd76: because it’s boring back home.
MindyJoA: yeah, that makes sense
I stayed up until past midnight talking to Mindy Jo and a few other people in the room, and catching up on the Pink Floyd Usenet group, which had died down in general since it had been three months since new music was released and there were no more Publius Enigma posts. The bed was right next to the computer table in the large main room, and while it took me a while to fall asleep, as it often does in a new place, I slept fairly well after that.
“Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said when she saw me walking into the Newman Center the next morning for Mass. “Welcome back!”
“Thanks. It’s good to be back.”
“School doesn’t start for another few weeks, right? Are you in summer session?”
“No, I was just bored at my parents’ house, so I moved here as soon as my lease started.”
“Was your summer good, even if it was boring?”
I looked around during Mass and noticed that, while I recognized some faces in the congregation, most of the people here whom I actually knew well were not here. I was hoping they might be. I knew Danielle was not moving back to Jeromeville this early, and I suspected many other students had not moved back yet as well.
After church was over, I stood watching people leave. Normally now was the time I would go talk to people I knew, but with most of the people I knew not in attendance today, I decided after a minute to just go home. When I got home, I made a sandwich with the groceries Mom and Dad had bought last night while I answered a few emails.
Later that afternoon, I went for a bike ride. I had been waiting a long time for this. My bike had been pretty much sitting in the garage the whole time I had been home. Plumdale is hilly, with many curvy roads where people drive fast, the polar opposite of Jeromeville as far as ease of cycling is concerned.
I rode south down Andrews Road across Coventry Boulevard. The weather was sunny and hot, around ninety degrees. By the time I crossed Fifth Street onto campus, about a mile south of my apartment, I was sweating, but it felt good. I continued south past the Rec Pavilion, and I stopped at a red light at Davis Drive next to the recreation pool, which Dad had nicknamed Thong Bikini Hill. I turned, trying to look at the sprinkling of sunbathers on the hill, but staring felt inappropriate, and I did not have a good view from where I was. When the light turned green, I continued south, past the dairy, all the way to the oak grove at the west end of the Arboretum. The campus looked quieter and more deserted than usual; I figured this was probably normal for summer. The campus had also looked more deserted than normal when I was here in July with my cousins, and most campus activity would be in the older part of campus to the east anyway.
My route that day was very familiar. I rode east through the Arboretum and emerged downtown on B Street. I headed north on B Street to Community Park, to the pedestrian and bicycle overpass over Coventry Boulevard, and into the Greenbelts. I had been here a few times before last spring, but after being away for almost three months, it felt new all over again.
About a mile north of the pedestrian overpass, I passed the pond and crossed Andrews Road, which curved to run east-west through this neighborhood. I continued down a residential street; I discovered last spring that this street connected to another greenbelt and bike trail running along the northernmost edge of Jeromeville. I stopped to drink from a water fountain next to a small playground that intersected another bike heading south. I looked north, through the chain link fence that ran along the edge of the trail. A drainage ditch ran parallel to the bike trail, with fields spreading as far as the eye could see on the other side. The neighboring city of Woodville was about eight miles to the north, and Bidwell, where my dad was born and some of his relatives still lived, was about ninety miles in the same direction. I wondered what else was out there in the North Valley. I had seen roads and towns on maps, but I was not very familiar with any of them up close.
The trail continued next to the drainage ditch for a while, until it turned southward through a park tucked between two neighborhoods. This park had a playground and basketball court at the north end, closest to the ditch, then a long grassy area and a sculpture that looked like dominoes at the other end. Public works of art were strange sometimes, and Jeromeville had no shortage of them, being a university town. These dominoes appeared to be permanently frozen while falling, although not in the usual configuration of falling dominoes. The thought of falling dominoes got me thinking about how one small decision could affect so much, just like how pushing one domino could lead to many others toppling. What if I had decided to go to Central Tech or Bidwell State instead of Jeromeville? What if I had not accepted the invitation to the Interdisciplinary Honors Program last year, and had not made that group of friends in the dorm? What if I had decided to run away and quit school that night that I got so upset? What if I had paid more attention and found a roommate for this year, or decided to answer an advertisement and room with a stranger, instead of getting a little studio apartment? My whole life could be different.
A little way past the dominoes, I turned off the trail onto a path which I knew led directly to the Las Casas Apartments. I locked my bike and headed straight for the shower. I had been outside in hot weather for 45 minutes, and I was sweaty. I showered in mostly cold water, then I got dressed. I turned on the stereo, now on top of the new bookcase next to the kitchen, and played the Hootie & the Blowfish CD as I put a Hungry-Man fried chicken dinner in the microwave.
All was starting to feel more right with the world. I may not have understood exactly why my dominoes fell in the direction they did, but they did, and now I was back in Jeromeville where I could start moving my life forward again. I grew quite a bit freshman year, and I was ready to build on that growth, and maybe push over a few more metaphorical dominoes in the process.