I have always had a good ear for music, but I rarely did anything with it other than sing along in the car. I played piano for a few years in elementary school, but according to Mom, I quit because I thought music was for nerds. I do not remember saying that, but it definitely sounds like something that 10-year-old Greg would have said, not yet mature enough to embrace being different. I did not perform music in front of people again until three months ago, when I started singing at 11:00 Mass at the Newman Center.
Our experience levels in the church choir ranged from people like me who just liked to sing for fun all the way up to Claire Seaver, a third-year music major who had been performing all her life. I did not have much formal training in music, but I would occasionally try different harmonies with some of our usual familiar songs, because my ear could pick up harmonies easily. I was excited this week when Claire brought a new song for us to learn, with four parts. We had been practicing it all night, and the sopranos and altos had just finished doing their parts all together. “Let’s hear just the guys now,” Claire said.
Phil Gallo and I sang the bass parts, while Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell sang tenor, Matt playing guitar as well. We sounded okay, although there were a few wrong notes sung and played. After this, we tried the entire song with every part singing, and after three times, it seemed like we finally had perfected the song.
“I thought that sounded good,” I said afterward.
“Yes!” Claire agreed. “I think we’re ready for Sunday!”
“Yes,” Danielle Coronado said. “Now I get to go home and write a paper.”
“Already?” Claire said incredulously. “It’s the first week of class!”
“It’s only one page. Not really a paper. Just an assignment.”
“Good luck,” I said.
“Thanks,” Danielle replied.
“See you guys Sunday,” I said, turning back to Phil, Matt, and Ryan.
“Take it easy, man,” Phil replied. I waved at the guys and went to find Heather, since we were neighbors and had carpooled here, but she and Melanie Giordano were busy talking, and I did not want to interrupt. I stepped back, waiting, when I heard a soft female voice behind me say, “Hey, Greg.”
I turned around and got nervous when I saw Sabrina Murphy looking up at me. There was just something about her that was cute, but I knew that she had a boyfriend, so any of these thoughts were hopeless. I was not sure how to explain it, she was not drop dead beautiful by Hollywood standards, but I found something about her attractive. “Yes?” I asked awkwardly.
“I just wanted to say you really have a strong bass voice,” she said. “It really comes out well when we sing harmony like that.”
“Thank you,” I said, smiling and blushing a little.
“Have you ever thought about being in University Chorus? They always need more male voices.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I never thought about singing in any kind of group at all until Danielle talked me into doing this a few months ago. She’s in chorus, right?”
“Yeah. And Claire. I did it freshman year, but I haven’t been able to fit it into my schedule since then.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
“You should. I think you’d be good.”
“You ready?” Heather asked me, having walked up beside me and Sabrina a few seconds earlier.
“Sure,” I said. “Sabrina? I’ll see you Sunday?”
“Yes,” Sabrina replied. Have a great week!”
In the car on the way home, Heather asked me, “So what was Sabrina saying you would be good at?”
“She asked if I had ever done University Chorus.”
“You totally should!”
“I don’t know. I sing in the car, but I’m not good at, like, real singing.”
“I’ve heard you sing, I think you’d be great! Give yourself more credit.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Twenty-four hours later, I was sitting in my apartment alone, doing math homework. It was a Thursday night, and I was in a good mood. Thursday was my lightest day of class this quarter, and my tutoring job did not start until next week. But my good mood was mostly because I was still on a high from Sabrina’s compliment last night. Maybe I sang better than her boyfriend, and she was going to leave him for me. My attention drifted from my math assignment as I played out this scenario in my head, imagining what I would say if Sabrina came out of nowhere and confessed her love for me. I heard a knock at the door, and with this on my mind, my heart rate spiked and I almost jumped out of my chair.
I got up and peeked out the window; it was not Sabrina. Heather Escamilla stood in the dim glow of the porch light. I opened the door, wondering what she wanted, since there was no choir practice or church tonight. “Hi,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I was just thinking, I forgot to tell you last night. Saturday we’re going to have a birthday party for Gary at our place. And you’re invited.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sure! What time should I be there?”
“I’ve been telling people 7. I don’t know when everyone will get there, though.”
“That sounds good. Do I need to bring anything?”
“No. Just yourself.”
“Great! I’ll see you then!”
“Have a great night!” Heather said, waving as she turned back toward the parking lot. I closed the door and went back to my homework. I just got invited to a party, my first actual college party, other than the one in the dorm last year that I had walked in on uninvited.
As I worked on homework, I kept thinking about Heather and Gary’s party. I wondered if I would know anyone there. I wondered if anyone else from church would be there. Maybe Sabrina would be there. That in and of itself was enough to make me want to go.
My high had worn off by the time I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on Friday night. All day on campus, the universe seemed to be throwing in my face the fact that other people had boyfriends and girlfriends and I did not. I saw a lot of couples acting coupley all over campus today. This all-American jock type guy sitting across from me on the bus home was making out with a hot girl in a sorority sweatshirt the whole time. At JCF, I sat next to Liz and Ramon, who were two of my best friends, and had been a couple since early in our freshman year, but something about them being a couple bugged me tonight. And I overheard someone saying that this junior girl named Amelia Dye was going out with Scott Madison now, which meant one fewer girl left for me to possibly end up with.
As I sat at my desk listening to the whirs and whistles of the modem connecting to the email server, I saw in the corner of my eye the contact list for the Newman Center choir. Sabrina’s name was misspelled on the contact list; it had her listed as “Sabrina Murpy.” I would have spelled it right had I typed the list; maybe Sabrina was into guys who could spell. Maybe I would call Sabrina sometime this weekend, just to talk, to be friendly. Was that okay? I did not know. She probably would not be home. Her roommate would answer and tell me that she was out with her boyfriend. Sabrina and her boyfriend were out there driving a knife through my heart, unknowingly digging my grave.
“She’s out there, unknowingly digging my grave,” I said to myself. Very poetic. That has a nice rhythm to it. It was 9:45, I was home alone on a Friday night; maybe tonight would be a good night to write poetry. I put my sweatshirt back on and took a walk around the apartment complex and through a little bit of the Greenbelt behind the apartments, trying to think of more lines for this poem. When I returned about twenty minutes later, I wrote down all of the words that had come to mind, and by the time I went to bed, I had this:
“Hello, kid! How are you? How’s everything been?”
I’m really stressed out, if you know what I mean.
And how about you? Got exams coming up?
“I’ve got one on Friday, I need to catch up.”
I called you to see if your roommate was home.
“She’s not, at the moment, I’m here all alone.
Today, it’s not homework that keeps her a slave,
She’s out there, unknowingly digging your grave.”
In November, I had started writing a novel; it was about a high school student who changes his name and goes to live with relatives to make a fresh start. I had written around forty pages so far. I had named the novel Try, Try Again, referencing the old saying about what to do if at first one does not succeed. The character, Mike, felt like he was not succeeding in his old life, so he is trying again. I worked on Try, Try Again for a few hours the next morning. It had been a month since Mike had made his new start, and he had found his way into a popular group of friends. A girl named Erin had taken an interest in him, and after spending a lot of time together at and after school, Mike got brave and asked her to a movie.
Three previews came on before the movie. Mike did not think any of the movies previewed looked good. When the movie itself started, he got comfortable in his seat, placing both arms on the armrest. A minute later, Erin placed her hand on top of his. Mike looked at her and smiled. He liked Erin. After a while, while he was watching the movie, he felt Erin’s hand move from his hand to his knee. He liked it there too. Eventually Erin moved her hand off of Mike for good. Mike, instead, reached over the armrest and took her hand in his, placing it on the armrest.
Mike took his eyes off the movie and looked at Erin. She did the exact same thing a few seconds later. He tightened his grip around her hand for a couple seconds, then loosened it again. Erin began to kiss him. He liked it a lot. It was nothing too unusual for most kids his age, but he had never been kissed so passionately in his life. He tried to return it the best he could, and he felt that Erin liked it as well. Their mouths slowly separated. “Thanks,” Mike whispered. Erin gave him a huge smile.
Mike’s eyes turned back to the movie. He reached his right hand over to her right shoulder and touched it. Erin moved her body a little to the left, closer to Mike. They stayed in that position for the rest of the show.
I wished I could be at a movie with Sabrina, kissing her lips, running my fingers through her pretty red hair, and seeing her cute smile as she looked at me afterward. What did her boyfriend have that I did not? A few months ago, I wanted to be kissing Megan McCauley, until I found out that she also was with someone. And before Megan there were lots of other girls who either had boyfriends or were just not interested in me. Sometimes it felt like the entire single female population all over the state were conspiring to make sure I never had a girlfriend.
Later that night, I left my home and walked to Heather and Gary’s apartment, in the same complex as mine. The party started half an hour ago, but I did not want to be the first one there, since I did not know if I would know anyone. I knocked on the door, and Heather answered. “Hey!” she said. “You made it!”
“I did,” I said. “Happy birthday, Gary!” I called out across the room when I saw Gary wave at me.
“Thanks!” Gary replied.
I looked around the room. Six other people were there besides Heather and Gary. I recognized Melanie from church, but no one else; Melanie was there with her boyfriend. Sabrina was not there. I made small talk with Heather and Gary for a bit, talking about school and my trip to Disneyland with my family.
“You actually drove past O.J. Simpson’s house?” Gary said, laughing. “That’s hilarious!”
“I know. Mom kept saying she couldn’t believe we were actually doing that.”
“What about O.J. Simpson’s house?” a girl I did not recognize said, walking up as she overheard us. She had long straight hair and olive skin. I repeated my story in abbreviated form, and she said, “My apartment isn’t too far from O.J. Simpson’s house.”
“This is my sister, Mariana,” Heather explained. “She’s visiting from California.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “I’m Greg.”
“So how do you know my sister?” Mariana asked.
“From church. We both sing in the choir.”
“How fun! I wish I could hear you guys sing in the morning, but my flight back home leaves at 12:15, so I need to be on my way to the airport by then.”
“I was in choir in high school and college, but I graduated last year, and I’m not doing any kind of singing right now.”
“Where’d you go to school?”
“Santa Teresa,” Mariana said as Heather and Gary went to greet more people who were just arriving.
“That’s cool. I’ve never been there, but two of my friends from high school go there.”
“Oh yeah? What are their names?”
“Paul Dickinson and Jackie Bordeaux. They would have been freshmen last year.”
“Nope, I don’t know them. It’s a big school.”
“That’s what I figured.”
“You go to Jeromeville? What are you studying?”
“Math,” Mariana repeated, making a face. “That was not my class.”
“A lot of people say that,” I said, laughing.
“Well, if you’re good at it, go for it! Do you know what you want to do with your degree? Do you want to be a teacher?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think I want to be a teacher, though. Too much politics involved in education. I just figure I’ll stay in school until I figure it out.”
“I understand that. I majored in English, but I’m not really using it. I work in an office.”
“Yeah. I was never very good at English in school. I never understood what I was supposed to get from the novels and poems that we had to read.”
“I did a lot of BS’ing on assignments like that, to be honest.”
“I see,” I replied, chuckling. “But the weird thing is, even though I was always bad at English class, I like to write.”
“Oh yeah? What do you like to write?”
“Sometimes I have a thought stuck in my head, and it’ll become a weird poem. And last year I wrote a short novel. I had a really interesting year when I was a senior in high school, so I turned that into a novel.”
“That’s so cool!”
“And right now, I’m working on another novel. It’s about a guy who runs away to live with relatives, because he wants a fresh start. But he pretends to be sixteen instead of eighteen, because he realized he missed out on a lot of experiences in high school, and he wants a second chance.”
“That’s interesting. Where’d you get that idea?”
“Probably just because sometimes I wish I could do that.”
“You feel like you missed out on a lot?”
“Yeah. Like I said with the first novel, I grew a lot my senior year, but then we all graduated and moved away. I feel like if everything that happened my senior year had happened earlier, I would have graduated as an entirely different person.”
“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Mariana contemplated. “Hmm. Interesting.”
“If you want, I can send you some of my writing,” I said. “Or at least I’ll send you what I have so far.”
“Yeah! That would be so cool!”
“Do you use email?”
“I don’t,” Mariana said, disappointedly. “Is that a problem?”
“You can give me your address, and I can mail it to you.”
“Sure! I’ll do that. Let me go get a piece of paper.” Mariana walked off and came back a minute later, handing me her address.
“Thanks!” I said.
Mariana and I talked for about another hour, about life, the past, the future, and many other things on our minds. I could not help but wonder, could there be something here? Might she be interested in me that way? She was a few years older than me, that would be different; hopefully she did not see me as some immature little kid. I had a way to keep in contact with her, and that was the important part at this moment.
“I’m going to get another drink,” Mariana eventually said. “But, hey, it was really good talking to you! Send me your story!”
“I will. Thanks.” I smiled.
“We’ll probably talk more later tonight.”
“Yeah,” I said.
No one else that I knew ever showed up to the party. I talked to Melanie for a bit about my winter break, and one of Gary’s engineer friends was drunkenly asking me about math at one point. The party got louder as the night went on, and I went home around 10:30.
As soon as I got home, I printed out a copy of the unfinished Try, Try Again to send to Mariana, and I excitedly mailed it with extra stamps the next day. This weekend sure turned into a great one. I met a girl who talked to me for a long time and was interested in my creative work. Maybe I did not need to hope for Sabrina to leave her boyfriend after all. Life was finally looking up for me.
Except it never happened. I never heard from Mariana again. I never found out if she read my story. She never wrote back, and Heather never mentioned her around me again. I could have asked, of course, but I never asked others about girls I was interested in. I was embarrassed for anyone to know that I liked a girl, ever since eighth grade when Paul Dickinson told the whole school who I liked.
Why did Mariana act so friendly if she did not want to talk to me again? Things like this had happened before. Jennifer Henson had been friendly to me all through senior year of high school, then that summer she moved away suddenly without leaving me a way to contact her. Many other girls would treat me like this throughout my life, and I had a tendency to misunderstand the intentions of others. People are complicated, reading and understanding them is hard, and I still had a lot to learn. Maybe I would figure all of this out someday. Until then, I had plenty of material for poetry and fiction.