According to an old saying, people come into your life for either a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Some of the people I met in Jeromeville only crossed my path for a reason; I only met Moises a few times, and he showed me the gross misconceptions held by other Christians about Catholicism. For the people who came into my life for a season, the season varied dramatically in length. Megan McCauley, my older friend who became a hopeless crush, was part of my life for a little over a year, but Sarah Winters, one of my best friends at the University of Jeromeville, we were friends for about thirteen years until life got in the way and we gradually grew apart in our early thirties. And, of course, some of the people I met in Jeromeville, like Taylor Santiago and Eddie Baker, have become lifelong friends whom I am still close with today.
One person who came into my life for a literal season, the summer of 1996, sat in a lawn chair reading one afternoon in front of apartment 224 at Las Casas Apartments, the apartment directly above mine. The class I was taking had just started a few days earlier. I rode my bike home from campus, checked my mail, and rode up to my apartment. “Hi,” I heard a voice say above me as I walked my bike up to the door. “Do you live downstairs from me?”
I looked up at the balcony and saw a short, stocky African-American woman with short curly hair and glasses looking at me. “Yes,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.” As far as I knew, the leases at Las Casas ran from September 1 to August 31, to correspond with the UJ academic year. I was not sure how I could have a new neighbor at the end of June, but she promptly answered my question.
“I’m Marie. I’m Dan’s friend, I’m subletting this apartment from him; he’s gone doing research for the summer.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Greg. I never actually knew Dan; I kept to myself a lot all year.”
“Nice to meet you too! So what do you do? Are you a student?”
“Yes. I’m a math major.”
“Yeah. I just finished sophomore year. What about you?”
“I’m just working at a temp agency. I’m kind of at a point in my life where I’m trying to figure out the next step. I’ve been moving around a lot, working here and there until I figure things out.”
“Where were you before this?”
“Southern California. I liked it there, but I was just ready to move on.”
“That makes sense. Have you been to Jeromeville before?”
“No! But Dan has told me about it, and it seemed like a nice place to check out. So here I am! Are you from around here originally?
“Plumdale. Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”
“Oh, okay. I’ve been to Santa Lucia a few times. It’s so pretty there!”
“Yeah. What about you?”
“I’m originally from North Carolina, but like I said, I’ve lived all over the country.”
“Are you taking classes this summer? You’re wearing a backpack.”
“Yeah. I’m taking Introduction to Software. I don’t need it for the math major, but it’s a prerequisite for an upper-division computer science class that counts toward the math major. And I like fiddling around with computers.”
“Wow. I’m not a techie at all. I’ll come to you next time my computer isn’t working.”
“I don’t know if I’m that good,” I said, chuckling.
“It was nice meeting you! I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.”
“Yes! It was nice meeting you.”
The next time I saw Marie was about a week later. She knocked on the door as I was typing an email to my mom, who had just recently gotten Internet access for the first time and was writing to me almost every day. “Hi,” I said after I opened the door.
“Hi, Greg!” Marie said. “How are you?”
“I’m doing okay. What about you?”
“I’m good! Have you had dinner yet?”
“No,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
“I decided to try this new chicken and rice recipe that I got from a friend, and I made too much for just me. Want to come upstairs and try it?”
“Great! Come on up!” she said. I locked the door behind me and followed Marie up the outside stairs into her apartment. The apartment above me was a studio apartment with a loft; the loft was set up like a bedroom, but open to the living area downstairs. A small dining table was next to the entrance to the kitchen, where I had my bookshelf in my apartment. I was not sure which of the furniture and pictures on the wall were Marie’s and which belonged to Dan, who had the apartment the rest of the year.
Marie went into the kitchen and emerged with two plates. Each plate had a chicken breast on top of rice with vegetables mixed in, and other vegetables on the side. “Sit down,” she said gesturing toward the table. “I’ll get you some water.”
“Thank you,” I said. I waited for Marie to sit back down before I started eating, and after she did, I took a bite. “This is really good.”
“Thank you! Would you like the recipe? I can write it down before you leave.”
“Sure,” I said. “Honestly, though, I’m not very good at cooking. I don’t know if or when I’ll make it.”
“That’s no problem. It’s there if you need it.”
“So how is your class going? What are you learning about?”
“The programming language C,” I explained. “It’s set up differently from the other programming I’ve done, but it’s ultimately a lot more powerful.”
“Interesting,” Marie replied. “I told you before, I don’t know any of that stuff. Why didn’t you major in computer science if you’re into that? There’s a lot of good jobs out there for computer people.”
“Because most of my computer knowledge is out of date, so most of the people in my classes would be coming in with more knowledge of the basics than I have. Also, I didn’t want my hobby to become work.”
“That makes a lot of sense.”
“I taught myself BASIC on a Commodore 64 when I was nine,” I explained, “but that’s useless already in today’s world. Technology moves so fast.”
“That’s true,” Marie said. “How old did you say you were?”
“I’m 19. I’ll be 20 in August.”
“That’s right. You said you were a sophomore.”
Marie paused, then said, “How old do you think I am?”
Uh-oh. I did not like being put on the spot like this. “I’m not good at guessing people’s ages,” I said.
“I’m just wondering, because people say I look younger than I really am.”
That made it even more difficult, because she looked a little big older than me. Was she actually a lot older than me? “25,” I guessed hesitantly. Marie pointed upward. “Older than 25?” I asked. Marie nodded, and I guessed, “27.” She pointed upward again. She really did not look older than 27. “30?” I guessed, apprehensively.
“Yes. I’m 30.”
“Whoever says you look younger, they’re right.”
“Thanks,” Marie said, smiling. “So what are you doing this weekend?”
“Probably just studying,” I replied.
“I’m thinking I want to go see a movie this weekend. You want to come with me? Maybe Saturday afternoon?”
I was not expecting this; instead of Yes or No, the first thing to come out of my mouth was, “What movie?”
“Have you seen Independence Day yet? I’m seeing ads for it everywhere. It looks interesting, for sure.”
“I haven’t, but I want to. That sounds good.”
I stayed in Marie’s apartment for about an hour and a half that night, just talking about life. She looked up the movie times at some point, so we could make plans for Saturday. After I left, I sat in my apartment, trying to make sense of what was going on. Marie was kind of acting like she was interested in me. At least this is what I assumed it was like when a girl was into me; since no girl had ever been into me as far as I knew, I was not quite sure. But she was thirty years old. Surely she was not interested in a young kid like me. She was just friendly.
On Saturday afternoon, I climbed the stairs to Marie’s apartment about half an hour before the movie started and knocked on the door. “Hey!” she said when she opened the door. “You ready to go?”
“Sure. Want me to drive, or are you?”
“How about you drive, and I’ll pay for the tickets. Does that work?”
“Sure,” I said. “That’s my car down there, the red Bronco.”
“Nice,” she said. As we headed down Andrews Road and turned onto Coventry Boulevard, she asked, “So do you ever take this thing off road?”
“I don’t,” I said. “Well, this was our family car for five or six years before I moved here. We used to visit my great-grandma in Bidwell a few times a year, and she lived at the end of a dirt road about a mile long. Sometimes we’d use the four-wheel drive on that road. But that’s about it.”
“You should go off-roading! It’s so much fun!”
I turned right on G Street, just past Community Park, and headed south toward downtown. The movie theater in Jeromeville was on the corner of G and First Streets, six blocks from the old part of campus. I had not seen many movies in the last couple years, at least not during their first run in theaters; I had only been to this movie theater twice before. It was in a gray building with a two-story parking garage above it. I maneuvered my large vehicle through the narrow ramp leading up to the parking garage, barely wide enough for a car going up to pass a car going down.
“Can you fit in here?” Marie asked.
“I’ve done it before,” I said. “Hopefully an even bigger car doesn’t come down at the same time.”
Marie laughed. “Then we’d be in trouble.”
The stairs leading down from the parking garage were on the outside of the building, not a typical scary parking garage stairwell. We walked to the box office, where Marie said, “Two tickets for Independence Day, please.”
“Are you sure you want to pay for both tickets?” I asked.
“Sure! I asked you. And it’s afternoon matinee prices.”
“Seven dollars, please,” the cashier said. Marie gave the cashier the money, and he gave us our tickets, which the person at the entrance promptly tore in half a minute later. We sat near the middle of the theater; seats were already starting to fill up.
“Do you like these kinds of movies?” Marie asked.
I had to think about this. “I guess I don’t really have one specific kind of movie that I like best,” I said. “Some movies I just like, and some I don’t.”
After sitting through several minutes of previews, the movie began with giant alien spaceships coming to Earth early one July. The aliens positioned themselves over major cities, destroying them all simultaneously with massive energy beams. A Marine played by Will Smith led attacks on the alien spaceships, which failed. Jeff Goldblum’s scientist character eventually found a way to deactivate the force fields protecting the aliens, and Bill Pullman’s President of the United States character gave a rousing speech. He said that July 4 is Independence Day in the United States, but now it would be the day that the whole world fought back against the aliens. People watching the movies cheered on the fighter pilots on the screen.
After the movie ended, I turned to Marie and said, “I’m excited. That was a nice feel-good movie.”
“It was!” She grabbed her purse, then said, “So what do you want to do now? Want to get something to eat? Lyon’s is right across the street.”
“That sounds good.”
As we stepped outside, I had to squint, since my eyes had become accustomed to the dark theater. We crossed the street and walked into the restaurant. Lyon’s was a chain of restaurants serving American diner food. When I was very young, I remember a few times going to breakfast with my dad at Lyon’s in Gabilan. I usually got waffles.
“What are you getting?” Marie asked as we each looked through the menus.
“Probably a cheeseburger.”
“I’m going to get this chicken salad. It looks good.”
“Sounds good,” I said. I did not admit that I was not a big fan of salads.
“So what did you think of the movie?”
“It was a lot of fun. But I’m kind of suspicious that the alien spaceships would be compatible with a human computer virus.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. You’re the computer guy.”
“A computer virus is just a program that does something destructive,” I explained. “If the computer can’t understand the instructions, the virus can’t do anything destructive. If you took a virus for a PC and ran it on a Mac, nothing would happen; it would just look like gibberish to the Mac operating system. The movie writers apparently don’t know how computer viruses work.”
“That makes sense.”
The food arrived a few minutes later. I tried to break up a lull in the conversation by asking, “So how long will you be in Jeromeville? Are you just here until your friend gets back?”
“Yeah. He comes back in the middle of September.”
“And he has the same apartment for next year?”
“Yeah. Do you?”
“No. I’m moving into a bigger apartment with roommates, at Sagebrush Apartments on Maple Drive.”
“Oh, ok. So, around the corner from Las Casas? Past the shopping center?”
“Right. What about you. Where are you going next?”
“I’m gonna take some time off for a while. I’m going to travel, see some of the National Parks in the Southwest and the Rockies. I haven’t seen the Grand Canyon since I was little, and I’ve never been to Zion, so I’m definitely going to those two. I haven’t really figured out where else.”
“That sounds fun! I’ve never been to either of those places. Where is Zion?”
“Yeah. We didn’t really travel much growing up.”
“Really? You gotta get out there and see the world!”
“I will someday.”
“What’s the farthest away you’ve been?”
“Vancouver,” I said. “My family took a long road trip to the Expo ‘86 World’s Fair when I was nine. We went to Spokane first, to see Dad’s mother, then we all went to Vancouver in a rented RV. That was my only time out of the country.”
“That sounds fun!”
“Oh! And I’m going to Illinois in December. That’ll be the farthest away I’ve ever been. It’s for a Christian student and young adult convention, to learn about mission trips and service opportunities.”
“Are you looking to do that? Be a missionary someday?”
“I’m not sure. But I have friends who do things like that in the summer, and I want to learn more about what they’re doing, and stuff like that.”
Marie and I finished our meals, talking more about my faith journey and her options for life after she finished her trips to the Grand Canyon and Zion. It must be fascinating to live that way, to wander the country working short-term jobs, never putting down roots. I did not see that kind of lifestyle as my future. I hoped someday I would settle down with a wife and children. But there was nothing wrong with Marie’s way of life, if it worked for her.
My favorite part of the Jeromeville Bulletin local newspaper was the daily column written by Bill Dunnigan. He often poked fun at the City Council and other prominent local figures. One member of the City Council was an aging hippie named Jill Popovich, who had ideas like making long straight avenues curved so drivers would slow down. Ms. Popovich was vocally against paving a muddy alley downtown that became a breeding ground for mosquitoes in the winter, because dirt alleys enhance the small-town character of Jeromeville, and she was a major proponent of adding a tunnel for frogs to a new overpass that opened that summer. Bill Dunnigan often joked that she was an alien. A few days after I saw the movie with Marie, Bill Dunnigan wrote, “If the City Council thinks that Jeromeville is so important, why didn’t the aliens in the movie Independence Day attack Jeromeville? They probably feared the wrath of Jill.”
I ran into Marie around the apartment several more times between then and the end of August, when I moved out. She was always friendly, and I always enjoyed talking to her. In late September, in the new apartment, I got a postcard from Zion National Park. It said:
I’m enjoying my travels very much! It is so beautiful here. Utah looks so different from California. So good to be out in nature again. I’ve been on so many great hikes here! I leave for the Grand Canyon tomorrow morning. I hope you’re doing well, and that you like your new roommates. Have a great school year! –Marie
That was the last I ever heard from Marie. To this day, I still do not know if she liked me or if she was just being friendly. She was nice, but I just would not have felt ready to be in a relationship with someone a decade older than me. We probably would not have worked out anyway, because of that. Marie was part of my life for a season, but also for a reason: I got lonely sometimes that summer, and I needed a friend.
2 thoughts on “Summer 1996. The friendly neighbor. (#93)”
Marie seems super cool!
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Yes! I don’t know whatever happened to her…
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