The Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, ASUJ for short, was the organization responsible for student activities at UJ. They held two major festivals every year. They were less than a month apart, since both involved traditions specific to spring. The Spring Picnic, which began decades ago as the school’s open house and grew into a major festival, was interesting and fun. The other festival was called the Mother Earth Festival, held on Mother’s Day weekend. It was a bunch of hippie stuff, not really my thing.
I attended the Mother Earth Festival exactly once, in 1996. It was a Saturday afternoon, I was bored, and I decided to check it out, so I got on my bike, parked it on campus, and walked around the Quad.
The Quad was packed. Craft and vendor booths lined the edges of the Quad, with a sea of humanity in between. I walked along the row of booths, peeking at what was happening inside. Face painting. Beads. Tie-dyeing. Henna tattoos. These round things with feathers on them that the sign called dreamcatchers. At the south end of the quad, the temporary stage where I saw Lawsuit at previous Spring Picnics was set up, and two musicians were playing instruments I could not identify while some lady in a long skirt with armpit hair frolicked and pranced on the stage. I walked up the other side of the Quad, looking at other booths, before deciding that nothing here particularly piqued my interest. The most memorable thing I remember seeing in the fifteen minutes I spent at the Mother Earth Festival was this girl with big boobs sunbathing in a bikini. She and her flat-chested friend were not dressed as hippies at all, and their armpits were actually shaved. I looked at them for about five seconds, then moved on so it would not look creepy.
As I approached the place where I had parked, I walked past a bench and saw a girl named Maria who was in my Advanced Composition class last quarter, sitting on a bench looking away from me. I took my rolled-up copy of the Mother Earth Festival schedule of events, and I tapped her on the shoulder with it.
Maria turned to look at me, except it was not Maria. This girl had a similar build, hairstyle, and coloring, but otherwise looked nothing like Maria.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought you were someone else.” I walked away before the other girl could respond.
Why did I do that? I kept replaying the embarrassing incident in my mind as I rode my bike back home. Maria had not been not looking at me, I had no need to go out of my way to say hi to her, and I did not really want to talk to Maria anyway. The angry political messages on the buttons all over her backpack clearly indicated that she was not the kind of person I wanted to get to know, and I did not find her attractive. And now some other girl probably thought I was a weirdo, all because I had decided to be friendly.
Unfortunately for me, I tended to be just as awkward around girls I actually did find attractive. Two days later, during a break between classes, I was walking around the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit. I held a slice of pepperoni pizza on a paper plate and a Coca-Cola in a reusable large plastic mug. Some division of ASUJ was handing these mugs out free a few weeks ago, to encourage people not to fill up the landfills with disposable cups. Drinks were 25 cents less at the ASUJ Coffee House for customers bringing their own cups. Of course, I had a disposable paper plate, but at least that was biodegradable, and bringing an actual plate to campus would be somewhat unwieldy.
I looked out the window to a courtyard-like area, which was surrounded on three sides by the building. A large round fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard, but it was dry and had been ever since I began attending UJ. Metal tables and chairs were arranged around part of the courtyard. I felt that familiar jolt of excitement and nervousness as I saw Haley Channing sitting at one of those tables, alone. Finally, this might be a chance to talk to Haley one-on-one with no one else around. I almost spilled my drink as I opened the door leading to the courtyard, but caught myself. “Hey,” I said as I walked up to Haley. “May I sit here?”
“Hi, Greg!” Haley replied, smiling. “Go ahead!”
I placed my food on the table and sat down. “How’s your day going?” I asked.
“Pretty good, except I have a paper to write. I’m gonna be busy tonight. You?”
“I’m good. I have a lot of math homework, though.”
“What math class are you taking?”
“Applied Linear Algebra and Combinatorics. Two classes.”
“I have no idea what either of those mean.”
“Linear algebra works with matrices.”
“I kind of remember matrices in high school, a little bit.”
“And combinatorics is about problems that come up with counting combinations and things like that. If I have license plates with three letters and three numbers, and I need to figure out how many possible license plates there could be, that’s a combinatorics problem. At least that’s what we did back in the first chapter.”
“It is. I also really like the professor for that class.” I looked up and saw a familiar face walking toward us; it was Claire Seaver from church. I waved, and Claire walked over to our table.
“Hey,” Claire said to me. “How are you?”
“I’m doing well. Claire, this is Haley–”
“Hi, Haley,” Claire interrupted, smiling.
“Hi,” Haley replied with a tone of recognition.
“How do you two know each other?” I asked, trying to hide my shame in not knowing this and being caught off guard.
“Chorus,” Haley replied. “I used to do that last year.”
“I keep telling Greg he should join chorus,” Claire said.
“You should!” Haley told me. “I’ve heard you sing. You have a good voice.”
“Maybe,” I replied.
“How were your weekends?” Claire asked. “Did you guys call your mothers for Mother’s Day?”
“I did,” Haley said.
“I saw this thing on the Internet the other day where you can send someone flowers by email. You get an email, and it’s a picture of flowers with a personalized message,” I said. “My parents just got email recently, Mom loves email, so I sent one of those to Mom.”
“That’s fun,” Claire replied.
“If I’m going to send flowers to my mother, she’s gonna get real flowers,” Haley said. “No emails and pictures for my mother.”
“I need to get going, but I’ll see you guys later,” Claire said. We both waved and said goodbye as she walked away. As I took a bite of my pizza and chewed it, I kept thinking that I was probably blowing it with Haley. I had tried to introduce herself to someone she already knew, and she disapproved of my Mother’s Day gift. After I swallowed my pizza, I attempted to resurrect the conversation, asking, “Do you still do chorus now?”
“No. I did last year, but I have too much going on now.”
“That makes sense. I played piano as a kid, but I was always so self-conscious about performing for others. But I’m starting to get over that. This year I started singing in my church choir; that’s how I know Claire.”
“Nice! Chorus is always looking for guys.”
“Maybe I will for next year,” I said. We continued making small talk as we finished eating, and I hoped that she could not read disappointment in my body language. I could not help but feel like I had embarrassed myself in front of her.
Whenever I introduce two people now, I always ask them first if they know each other; this is a direct result of that incident all those years ago when I tried to introduce Claire and Haley. But that was still not the worst awkward moment I experienced that week.
I was back in the Memorial Union a few days later, looking for a place to study, and I saw a familiar brown-haired face sitting at a table by herself. It was my friend Lizzie, one of those people whom I initially crossed paths with just because we knew someone in common. Lizzie went to high school with Jack Chalmers, another math major who had been in multiple classes with me. Last fall, Jack and I had linear algebra together, and Lizzie had a class in the same classroom right before ours. Jack and Lizzie would say hi to each other as we waited in the hall and her class exited the room. Jack talked a lot, and he talked fast, and sometimes he would say hi to Lizzie in the middle of a sentence with me. He would say something like, “Hey Greg I’m totally not ready for this test and I blew off studying last night Hi Lizzie! so I hope I don’t bomb it because I totally need to keep my grades up.” Eventually, I started saying hi to Lizzie when I saw her around campus, and we had actually had conversations beyond hello a few times.
“Hey,” I said, approaching Lizzie’s table. “Mind if I sit here?”
“Hi!” Lizzie exclaimed enthusiastically. “Go ahead!”
“How’s it going?”
“I’m doing okay. Just busy with classes. What about you?”
“Same with me. I have a midterm tomorrow. But the school year is almost over!”
“I know! Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”
“Just going home and working. I need the money. What about you?”
“I’m staying here, taking a class. This will be the first time I’ve been in Jeromeville for the summer.”
“I hear it gets really hot!”
“I kind of like the heat, though.”
“What class are you taking?”
“Computer Science 40,” I explained. “I’m taking CS 30 now, it’s required for the math major, and I love it. There’s an upper division CS class, Data Structures, that counts toward my degree in place of a math class, but it requires 30 and 40 as prerequisites. It’s really hard to get CS classes because there are so many CS majors, and not much computer lab space, so they put a cap on how many can enroll, and CS majors have priority. Enrollment wasn’t restricted for the summer class.”
“Smart!” Lizzie replied. “You’re a math major, right? That’s how you know Jack?”
“Why didn’t you major in CS, if you like it that much?”
“Because I didn’t want something fun to turn into work. Also, my computer knowledge was several years out of date by the time I got here, and I knew I’d be competing with kids whose knowledge was much more advanced.”
“That makes sense. So you’re just taking the one class?”
“Yeah. First session. I’m not taking any classes second session. I’ll probably just hang out here and try to find something fun to do.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve discovered over the last couple years that I like to write. I’m working on a novel now, when I have time and I’m in the right mood.”
“That’s so cool!”
“Just for fun,” I said. “I know, I’m a math guy, I’m not supposed to be a writer.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being both! What’s your novel about?”
“There’s this guy, he’s a senior in high school, but he needs a fresh start, and he wants to leave his past behind. So he goes away to live with relatives. And he feels like he isn’t ready to move on to the next part of his life, so he pretends to be younger so he can have a couple more years in high school.”
“Wow,” Lizzie said. “Where’d you get the idea for that?”
“I guess I’ve kind of wished for that myself,” I explained. “I feel like I really grew a lot my senior year of high school, but then just as life was getting interesting, my friends and I all graduated and moved away and lost touch. I wonder how I would have turned out if I’d had another year or two to grow in that environment, if I would have gotten to experience more things I missed out on.”
“Well, I think you turned out fine.”
“Thank you,” I said. Then, after a pause, I added, “You can read it if you want.”
“Yeah! It sounds really good!”
“I could email you some of what I have so far. Does that work?”
“Sure. Let me give you my email.” Lizzie tore off a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote on it, then passed it to me. I opened it and read what she wrote, very confused for a few seconds, then suddenly frightened and embarrassed as I began to realize the full implications of what I read.
Lindsay’s email. I had known this girl, whom I had been calling Lizzie, for over seven months, and this whole time her name was Lindsay. I had never seen her name in print before. I knew her through Jack, who talks really fast, so when I heard Jack say “Hi, Lindsay,” it came out sounding like “Hi Lizzie.” I suddenly tried to recall every time I had actually spoken to Lindsay, trying to remember if I had ever called her Lizzie to her face. I could not remember. I looked up at her, trying to put the name Lindsay Vandenberg to this face, and it felt weird, because she was still Lizzie to me.
“Greg?” Lindsay asked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was just thinking about something. No big deal. But I’ll send you my story.”
“Great! I look forward to reading it!” Lindsay looked at her watch. “I need to get going, I have class, but I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”
“Yeah! Have a great day!”
I never found out if Lindsay knew that I thought her name was Lizzie for seven months. She was never in my inner social circle, and we did not stay in touch after we graduated, but we always said hi to each other on campus.
For some reason, I have always disliked using people’s names out loud. It just feels uncomfortable to me, and I do not know why. But this odd quirk may have worked to my advantage on that day, because it was entirely possible that I had never actually called Lindsay Lizzie outside of my own head. When I saw her, I was much more likely to just say “Hi” instead of “Hi, Lizzie.” But even if I had ever accidentally called her Lizzie, there was not much that I could do about it now. Besides, while my realization that Lindsay’s name was not Lizzie felt awkward and embarrassing, much of that embarrassment was in my own head. If it was unlikely that she ever heard me call her Lizzie, she would have no way of knowing that I did not know her real name for so long.
Most guys have had their share of awkward moments around girls; and, of course, this statement applied to other combinations of genders and orientations as well. I always felt particularly prone to awkward moments, mostly because I had never had a girlfriend, and I seemed to lack successful non-awkward experience with girls. Over the years, I would have many more experiences of getting someone’s name wrong, or saying something that was misinterpreted. But I have seen enough over the years now to know that I certainly was not alone in this. And many others have had awkward moments that primarily happened in their own heads, unnoticed by those around them. I just had to accept the fact that I was not perfect, and the right people in my life would accept me, flaws and all.