If this is your first time here on Don’t Let The Days Go By, welcome. DLTDGB is a continuing story set in 1997 (currently), about a university student making his way in life. I am currently on hiatus from writing; the story will continue sometime in June. Today’s post is a recap of the highlights of year 3.
I spent a week at my parents’ house at the beginning of summer, in which my brother and I made a board game based on all of our silly inside jokes. I then returned to Jeromeville to take a summer school computer science class.
After making lots of new friends the previous year, summer was more lonely. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship did not have their weekly meeting, although there was one Bible study for students still around in the summer. Many of my friends had left Jeromeville for the summer, including my crush, Haley Channing. A few interesting things happened around my apartment complex, including accidentally hitting someone’s taillight, a friendly new neighbor, and an interesting conversation with the TA for the computer class, whose girlfriend lived at the complex. Ramon, Jason, and Caroline, my friends from freshman year whose apartment I could walk to in five minutes, were still around for the summer, and I shared with them a new creative project I began.
The college pastor of Jeromeville Covenant Church got married that summer. I did not attend J-Cov, nor did I know this pastor, but many of my friends did, and I got to see a lot of them that weekend. I also got to see Lawsuit, my favorite local independent band, two more times that year before they broke up. Shortly before I moved out of my little studio apartment, my Bible study surprised me with cupcakes for my 20th birthday.
I went to my parents’ house again for a week. My brother and his friends had a tournament for a game called Moport, a hybrid of several sports that we used to play in the yard. When I returned to Jeromeville, I moved into a three-bedroom apartment with three other guys. I shared the large bedroom with Shawn Yang, my Bible study leader from the previous year. Brian Burr, one of Shawn’s previous roommates, also lived with us; he was working part time for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship while applying to medical school. Josh McGraw, the boyfriend of our friend Abby, lived in the other room; I did not know him as well, because he kept odd hours. Shawn and Brian and I pulled off an epic toilet-papering prank, the first one I was ever involved with; then the week after that, Brian and I went to Outreach Camp with dozens of other JCF students.
I began classes for the fall the week after that. Notably on my schedule, I was in University Chorus for the first time. I did not have a background in voice or classical music, but I had been singing at Mass at the Newman Center for about a year at the time, and I had several friends in chorus who had been encouraging me to participate.
I had grown up Catholic, and I had been attending Mass more regularly since coming to Jeromeville. But I had also gotten involved with JCF, which was nondenominational, and after learning more about what it really means to follow Jesus, I noticed some things happening at the Newman Center that left me feeling like it might not be the best place for someone really wanting to learn about Jesus and the Bible. But I also did not want to start going to church with my new friends just because it was the cool place to be; I wanted to make the right decision. So for about a month, I went to church twice every Sunday, at Jeromeville Covenant with my friends and then at Newman where I had been for two years. After much thought and prayer, I decided to attend J-Cov full time.
The more I got involved with JCF, I started to see a lot of cliques within the group, and despite being more involved there, I was still on the outside of the cliques. A ministry within JCF purporting to train students for future leadership selected its students by invitation only, and I felt excluded sometimes by the students in this group. It was a particularly sensitive issue for me because Haley was in the group, and other guys seemed to be paying attention to her. I got brave and told her during the last week of the quarter how I felt about her, and she did not feel the same way about me.
A lot of other, less depressing things happened that December. I had my first concert for chorus, and my parents came up to see it. And I traveled farther east than I ever had before, the first time I remember being on an airplane although Mom says I was on one once as a baby. Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF, hosts a convention every three years in Urbana, Illinois, and as a newly practicing Christian, I wanted to learn more about ministry opportunities. I was not ready to serve Jesus in some other country myself, but many of my friends were doing those kinds of projects during the summer, and I wanted to learn more.
I found my place to serve soon after that, but it was not through any connection I made at Urbana. One Sunday afternoon after church at J-Cov, three teenage boys randomly walked up to me and asked if I wanted to go to McDonald’s with them. I said sure, and we had a great time hanging out that afternoon. Taylor Santiago, one of my friends from freshman year, was a volunteer with the junior high school youth group at J-Cov, but he was going to be gone all spring and summer doing urban ministry in Chicago. After Taylor noticed me hanging out with those guys, he suggested that I try out being a youth group leader, taking his place while he was gone. I did, and I loved it. I knew several of the other youth group leaders from church, and my roommate Josh, the one I barely knew, was a leader too.
That winter was when the Star Wars movies were rereleased with new footage, and Brian was a huge Star Wars fan. I was not anti-Star Wars, but I did not grow up with Star Wars like many other boys born in the 1970s did. But with the movies in theaters again, and Brian as a roommate, I was instantly hooked. I had never seen Return of the Jedi as a child; I saw it for the first time on the day it was rereleased, one of the few times I ever skipped class. But that night, my Star Wars-fueled excitement fizzled as I struggled to deal with my lingering feelings for Haley and her apparent interest in Ramon.
I had been doing a lot of thinking about my future that winter and spring, since I was well into my third year of university studies without a clear goal for what to do after graduation. Two of my favorite professors offered welcome suggestions. Dr. Thomas told me about the federally funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs at various schools all over the country. I applied to some of those, got accepted to two, and chose the one in Oregon because it was the closer of the two. My other favorite professor, Dr. Samuels, had done a lot of work with education and suggested that I would make a good teacher. I had never considered being a teacher, because of all the politics involved, but I decided to give it a chance. Dr. Samuels set me up with an internship helping out in a precalculus classroom at Jeromeville High School.
During the time I was frustrated with the cliques within JCF, I got to be friends with people from University Life, the college group of another local church. I attended their group a few times, and although ultimately I stuck with JCF and J-Cov, I made some new friends through that experience.
I also got to be friends with the other youth group staff. Although we were primarily there to teach the students about Jesus and build relationships with them, part of what made the group so great was that we were also close with each other as a staff. Sometimes, my relationships with the other staff involved pranks.
Ever since Haley’s rejection, I was without a girl to think about and try to get to know. I’d had a few random encounters with cute girls that never went anywhere. Toward the end of that year, two freshmen girls from JCF caught my eye: Carrie, who was sweet and easy to talk to, and Sadie, whose outspoken conservatism was a breath of fresh air to a conservative-leaning student like me at a liberal secular university. The year ended on a good note; I was not as awful at this year’s Man of Steel competition compared to the previous year, and JCF threw Brian a nice going away party as he prepared to move to New York for medical school. I myself was headed off to Oregon to do mathematics research, but I was only leaving for eight weeks. I looked forward to whatever new adventures awaited me.
Of course, since I’ve just finished another year, that means another playlist of the music I used for this year.
So what did you guys think of Year 3? Do any of you have any burning unanswered questions going into Year 4? Thank you again for all of your support this year, and I hope that my stories have brought something positive into your lives. Let me know how you’re doing in the comments, and what you are up to these days.
Last week, I asked for people’s assumptions about me, and I would answer (in character, from 1997) whether or not your assumptions were true. I got very few submissions, but I did promise I would answer. If you still want to participate, let me know in the comments and I will reply.
From Bridgette: “I assume Greg has an extensive CD collection and perhaps wears lots of band t-shirts.”
That seems like it would be true, but it’s actually not. I have a CD collection, but I’m also a student who knows enough about math to not spend money recklessly. I want to be absolutely sure I’ll like the CD before I spend that much money on it. And I don’t really go to a lot of concerts (I still regret having passed on the chance to see the Grateful Dead with my dad), and I don’t feel right wearing band shirts if I haven’t seen them live.
I should point out, however, that everything you assumed is correct for adult Greg in 2022.
From Lily: “You play the violin or some other instrument in an orchestra. You like fishing. You prefer bowties to actual ties. You sing second bass in the college choir.”
I don’t play an instrument. I took piano lessons for a few years as a kid, and one year I took a music class at school and learned to play saxophone. I quit because music was for nerds, according to 10-year-old me. I hadn’t yet embraced being a nerd. I didn’t do anything with music for several years, until I started singing at my previous church during my sophomore year at UJ, and then singing in University Chorus the year after that.
I’ve never been fishing. I grew up with a mom who is not outdoorsy at all and a dad who spent all his time working.
I don’t prefer ties at all, to be honest. That bow tie just came with the tuxedo. I usually wear t-shirts, or if I’m at church, a polo-type shirt.
Yes, I sing bass! We haven’t sung anything that had more than four part harmony, though, so all the basses sing the same part; there aren’t separate first and second bass parts.
That’s it… no one else replied… but if anyone has any other assumptions about me, let me know in the comments and I’ll reply. Also, be sure to follow Greg Out Of Character; I’ll be posting there soon asking for assumptions about adult Greg, as well as some other thoughts about writing. Next week on here I’ll be posting the year 3 recap, hopefully.
And, just so I have something to post, here’s a picture of Danny Foster, one of the youth group kids at church, giving me a piggy back ride. Strong guy.
Eddie Baker and Raphael Stevens walked into room 170 of Evans Hall as Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s weekly meeting was about to start. “Hey, Greg,” Eddie said when he saw me. “Ready for tomorrow?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied. “I just hope I don’t do horribly like I did last year.”
“Dude,” Raphael replied. “Don’t worry about that. Just have fun.”
I mingled and said hi to more people as they arrived, and I eventually sat down when the band started playing, in a seat on the aisle. Sarah Winters and Liz Williams, whom I had been friends with since my first week at the University of Jeromeville, sat next to me a few minutes later. When the second-to-last song began, I walked up the aisle and out of the room, hoping that Sarah and Liz would not ask where I was going. I wanted this to be a surprise. I walked to the table in the lobby where Amelia Dye and Melinda Schmidt were filling out name tags. I had hidden a garment bag under their table, which I asked Amelia to retrieve for me. She handed it to me, and I took it into the bathroom and changed. The garment bag contained the only nice clothes I owned, the tuxedo I wore for chorus performances.
“You look nice,” Melinda said when I emerged from the bathroom.
“Thanks,” I replied. I stood in the lobby next to Darren Ng, Lars Ashford, and John Harvey. Darren wore a mask of Mr. Clean, the mascot from the eponymous brand of cleaning products, but his face was painted green underneath. Lars wore a tight-fitting sleeveless shirt, and John wore a suit. Someone announced, “And now it’s time for another episode of ‘What Would You Do!’” John, in his best game show host persona, walked to the front of the room and introduced the contestants, played by Todd Chevallier, Kristina Kasparian, and Autumn Davies.
“Now, let’s meet our celebrity judges,” John continued. That was my cue. “First, we have actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger!” Lars walked out in his muscle shirt as the crowd cheered. John continued, “Next, we have one of the richest businessmen in America, Donald Trump!” I walked out in my tuxedo as the crowd continued cheering. Finally, John said, “And our last judge is Mr. Clean!” Darren walked to the stage with no explanation of why his face was green under the mask.
Playing Donald Trump in a skit in 1997 did not elicit the same reaction from students at a liberal secular university as it would today, after his term as President of the United States. Back then, Mr. Trump was mostly known as a businessman, not a controversial political figure. I also had not put a lot of effort into my costume. I did not attempt to color my skin or style my hair exactly like Mr. Trump, nor did I impersonate his voice; I just wore formalwear and got introduced on stage as Donald Trump.
“It’s time for our first question!” John announced. “You are driving down the street, on the way to an important business meeting, and you see your friend stopped on the side of the road, trying to change a flat tire. He seems to be struggling with it. What would you do?”
“I’d wave and keep driving,” Todd said. “I don’t want to be late.”
“I’d pull over and help him,” Kristina said.
“Well,” Autumn explained, “I’d probably be wearing nice clothes, and I wouldn’t want to get them dirty. So I’d just let him wait for a tow truck.”
“Judges?” John asked us. “What do you think? Who gave the best answer?”
“Todd,” Lars said, imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent. “Your friend can’t change a tire? He’s a girly man.”
“I also pick Todd,” I added. “You can’t be late to a business meeting! Your million dollar deal might fall through!”
“I think Autumn gave the right answer,” Darren said, in character as Mr. Clean. “Because she wants to stay clean.” Kristina looked indignant that no one chose her answer.
This continued for two more rounds. As judges, we gave points to Todd and Autumn for ridiculous reasons. Kristina gave answers consistent with how followers of Jesus Christ should treat each other, and she got no points. As Mr. Clean agreed with Autumn that she should not lend power tools to her neighbor, because she might fall in mud in the neighbor’s yard, a loud voice in the back of the room shouted, “Zoinks! Like, that’s not Mr. Clean!”
Brian Burr, my roommate who was on staff with JCF, stood in the aisle, wearing his costume from a previous skit in which he played Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, and carrying the cardboard Mystery Machine van from that skit. The crowd cheered as Brian walked to the stage. “Like, let’s see who you really are!” Brian said, removing Darren’s Mr. Clean mask. Darren’s green painted face emerged, and long pointy cardboard ears that had been tucked out of sight now pointed outward.
“Yoda!” the three contestants gasped in unison.
“What is right, you know,” Darren said in the voice of Yoda from the Star Wars movies. “Help your friends, you must. Hmm. Show Jesus’ love, you will.”
The skit naturally led into a talk about showing Jesus’ love through serving others. I stayed in my tuxedo for the talk, since I did not want to miss it. I changed during the closing song and slipped back into my seat next to Sarah and Liz just in time.
“You did a good job as Donald Trump,” Sarah told me, laughing.
“Thanks. Brian wrote that a few days ago; I was there when he was working on it. The part with Shaggy and Yoda was so random!”
“I know!” Liz replied. “I loved that!”
“You got to be in a skit,” Sarah said. “I guess that’s a perk of living with a staff member.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“What are you up to this weekend?”
“Man of Steel is tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s right!”
“I did pretty bad last year. I’m hoping to do a little better, although I don’t think I have any chance of winning.”
“You never know,” Liz said.
“Yeah, but I’m pretty bad at Frisbee golf,” I explained.
“Maybe the wind will carry your Frisbee just right.”
“Maybe. Who knows.”
The 13th Annual Man of Steel Competition began at ten o’clock on Saturday morning, at the house where Eddie, John, and Raphael lived in south Jeromeville. When I arrived, Eddie checked off my name on a list, and I sat in the living room, waiting for further instructions. “We’ll start sending people out for Frisbee golf at around 10:30,” Eddie explained.
John, who was absent when I arrived, walked in a few minutes later carrying a large number of bags and boxes from Taco Bell. “Wow,” I said. “How many tacos is that?”
“A hundred and ten,” John announced proudly. “I hope that’s enough.”
Some time ago, a group of men from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship held an all day event called the Man of Steel Competition. The event consisted of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and games of poker. When the founders of the event graduated, they passed on the hosting duties to their younger friends, and the tradition had continued, being passed from Brian’s house last year to Eddie’s house this year.
This year’s event was slightly different. In the hamburger eating contest, competitors were given progressively less time to eat each hamburger, beginning with one minute and decreasing by five seconds with each hamburger. Last year, Mike Kozlovsky had gotten a perfect score in the eating competition, shoving a twelfth hamburger into his mouth in five seconds, then spitting out a wad of half-chewed hamburgers the size of a softball. Mike had graduated, but his thorough conquering of the eating event had prompted the change from cheap McDonald’s hamburgers to cheap Taco Bell soft tacos.
I got assigned to a group with Lars, Todd, and a guy named Chad, one of Todd’s roommates whom I did not know as well. Each group got instructions for eighteen “holes,” specifying where to begin the first throw, and where the disc had to land or hit in order to complete the hole. The first hole was to hit a garbage can in a park down the street. I waited for a car to move out of the way, then launched my disc as hard as I could throw it. It sailed straight and landed in front of the park. “Dude!” Lars shouted. “Sweet throw!”
“Thanks,” I replied. My second throw was not on target, but I managed to complete the hole with my third throw, tying Chad for the lead so far. Lars completed the hole in four throws, and Todd in five.
This park connected to the south Jeromeville Greenbelts, and the second hole was a few hundred feet down one of these trails. As the game continued, we crossed Willard Avenue to a larger park, which was also part of last year’s course. My lead did not hold; I began throwing the disc erratically more often as the day went on. But I definitely did a little better than last year. After our group returned to the house, I tried to pay attention to the others’ scores, to get an idea of whether I was in last place. I did not see every score, but I did notice that a sophomore named Rob had more throws than me.
Eating, my strongest event from last year, came next. Todd, Lars, Chad, and I gathered around the kitchen table with a big pile of tacos in the middle. The rules were the same as for last year’s hamburger competition: sixty seconds for the first taco, five seconds fewer for each successive taco, and lips must be closed when time ran out. I noticed last year that many of the serious competitors would get their hamburgers wet before eating; I suspected this strategy may not work as well with tacos, since tortillas did not absorb water as well as hamburger buns.
“Ready… Go!” Eddie announced, looking at his watch. I took large bites of the first taco and was able to finish it easily in the time limit, with plenty of time left to swallow and breathe. The challenge felt easy until the fourth taco, which I had forty-five seconds to eat. When time expired, my lips were closed, but I had not swallowed the last bite. I needed to eat faster. I finished swallowing the fifth taco just as time expired, but I was taking larger bites, and my mouth and stomach were filling up faster. From what I remembered from last year, my body reacted in a similar way to the hamburgers.
Both Todd and Lars were unable to eat the fifth taco, and Chad did not finish the sixth. I was surprised; I remembered Lars lasting much longer in the hamburger competition last year. I had outlasted the rest of my foursome, and this felt like a major accomplishment. “Taco seven, thirty seconds, go!” Eddie announced as I took large bites of a seventh taco with half of the sixth taco still in my mouth. I tried swallowing small bits of taco, but I knew that the end was near. Fortunately, though, I managed to fit all of the seventh and eighth tacos in my mouth and close my lips before the time limit. I continued trying to swallow, but it was too much. With only twenty seconds to eat the ninth taco, and a mouth full of multiple half-chewed tacos, I only managed one bite of taco number nine before time ran out. John walked up to me with a garbage can, but I shook my head. From behind the mass of unfinished taco in my mouth, I made sounds that resembled the words “I wanna finish. I’m hungry.”
“Okay,” John replied.
“Todd and Lars got four, Chad got five, and Greg jumps out to an early lead with eight,” Eddie announced. The others in the house applauded. John, Darren, Rob, and Raphael went next, eating their tacos while I finished swallowing all of my unfinished tacos. No one from that group beat my score of eight; Raphael came the closest with six. A quarter of the way through the competition, I still had the lead.
After one more group went, Eddie walked up to me. “Hey, Greg?” he asked. “We’re gonna need more tacos. Can you go get some more, since you’ve gone already?”
“Sure,” I said. I kind of wanted to watch to see if anyone would beat me, but I also liked the idea of feeling useful.
“Get as many as this will buy,” Eddie said, giving me a twenty-dollar bill.
“Sounds good. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Taco Bell was about a mile and a quarter from Eddie’s house, just off of Highway 100 at the Bruce Boulevard exit. Two people were ahead of me. When I got to the front of the line, I handed the cashier Eddie’s money and said, “Can I get as many soft tacos as this will buy?”
“Yes,” the cashier replied. She pressed some buttons on the cash register. “That’ll be twenty-three tacos. But you might have to wait a minute. We had an order this morning for a hundred and ten tacos, so we don’t have as many ready as we usually do.”
“I’m with the same group, actually,” I said. “We’re almost out of the hundred and ten.”
“Really,” the cashier replied. “What are you doing with all of those tacos?”
“An eating competition.”
“That sounds intense.”
I had to wait about twenty minutes for my tacos. By the time I returned to Eddie’s house, the taco competition had paused, with two groups left, because they were almost out of tacos. My score of eight tacos ended up being second overall; Chris, a senior who had been my Bible study leader when I stayed in Jeromeville last summer, ate nine.
We all took a break of about twenty minutes to digest our tacos, then began the final event, poker. We each started with a hundred chips and took turns dealing, with the dealer getting to choose the type of poker for each round. Anyone who ran out of chips scored zero for that round and did not play any more. I knew the mechanics of how to play poker, but I was not good at the strategy of deciding how much to bet, or whether or not to stay in the game at all.
It was my turn to deal first. “Just regular five-card draw,” I said. That was the first kind of poker I learned. I had no good cards, so I bet one; when Lars raised the bet to three, I folded. I was not happy about losing my one chip, plus the ante, but it could have been worse.
About twenty minutes in, with about half my chips gone, I had an incredible stroke of luck. Lars was dealing a hand of seven-card stud, where each player has some cards face down and some face up, with four rounds of betting as more cards appear. My two hole cards and my first two face-up cards were all clubs; I had a fair chance to get a flush. My fifth card was the nine of diamonds, not a club. I also had the nine of clubs showing face up; with a pair showing, I got to bet first that round. I pushed three chips into the pot, hoping that that would not scare anyone enough to fold. Todd folded, but Lars and Chad remained in the game.
The sixth face-up card I got was another club. I had the flush. I bet five chips this time. Chad folded, but Lars raised the bet to ten chips. I looked at Lars’ cards. Five of spades, eight of hearts, two of diamonds, and jack of clubs. It was not possible for him to have a flush, a full house, or four of a kind with those cards showing, and any other hand would lose to me. Why was he staying in the game? I raised the bet to twenty, and Lars raised again, forcing me all in. If I lost, I would be eliminated. We each received one more face down card, and then made the best hand we could from our seven cards. “Three of a kind!” Lars said, revealing his first two face-down cards to be jacks. “Jacks beat your nines, unless you have all four nines.”
“No,” I replied, “but I have a flush.” I showed him the two clubs I had face down.
“Wow,” Todd remarked. “Well played.”
“Aw, man!” Lars exclaimed as he pushed the pile of chips my way. “You started betting big after you got the nine, so I thought for sure you had a third nine down there, and my jacks beat your nines. I didn’t even think about a flush.”
My luck at poker did not continue for the rest of the afternoon, but that one big win gave me enough chips that I could go back to my typical conservative wagers and still have some left at the end of the hour. I was getting frustrated by then, but I finished with forty-two chips, and several people had lost everything. I really did think that I improved this year.
While we waited for Eddie and John to tabulate the scores, Raphael passed out this year’s T-shirt. Last year’s shirt had a sentence and image comparing Superman with Jesus, and a Bible verse, but this year’s was a much simpler design. On the front, it said “Man of Steel,” and on the back, “FRISBEE, TACOS, POKER, FAITH.” I loved that shirt, and I wore it for years until it wore out and started to tear.
Chris, the guy who ate more tacos than me, was the overall winner; he placed near the top in the other two events as well. Rob, the guy who definitely did worse than me in disc golf, finished in last place after eating only three tacos and losing all his chips in poker. Rob was given the title Weenie of Steel and an extra small T-shirt, the traditional prize for the Weenie.
“Thanks for your help with getting more tacos,” Eddie told me after the winner was announced. “I think you did better this year. You were near the middle overall.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I did too.”
“I have to be honest with you. Last year it was pretty much a toss-up between you and Dan Conway for the Weenie. We gave it to Dan, because he was a senior, and we thought he’d get a good laugh out of it. And I didn’t think you should be singled out like that.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I really appreciate that.”
“But you definitely weren’t the Weenie this year. If we had a Most Improved award, you’d be in the running for that.”
I was in a good mood as I drove home a bit later, across the overpass with trees in it. This year had been a struggle in some ways, with all the cliques I had run into at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. But at times, I also felt much more included at JCF now than I had a year ago. I had a defined job at the weekly meetings, as the worship team’s roadie. I had performed in two skits this year, as the resident director for the Scooby-Doo gang’s dorm, and as Donald Trump. And Eddie was good at making me feel included. He trusted me to get more tacos for Man of Steel, and he made sure not to humiliate me with the title of Weenie.
I had accepted the fact that I would probably not be in the running for Man of Steel, ever. I was content being near the middle of the pack overall. Hopefully, next year as a senior I would do a little better.
Next year, as a senior. Saying those words to myself just felt surreal. In two short weeks, I would be finishing my third year at the University of Jeromeville. Pretty soon I would be graduating and getting an adult job, or maybe going on to graduate school. What would my life be like then? As if on cue, this annoying but catchy song I had been hearing a lot on the radio came on. Some girl sang hard-to-understand lyrics seemingly about how things and people pass in and out of lives quickly. I could not tell if that was really the message of the song, though, since the chorus degenerated into nonsense syllables.
I wondered about that for myself. Eddie, John, Sarah, Liz, all of my friends who were also going to be seniors next year, would they still be a part of my life, or would they gradually disappear like my high school friends had? These moments at UJ would not last forever. I would finish school someday. I would perform in my final JCF skit someday. I would compete in my final Man of Steel and attend my final JCF large group meeting someday.
Of course, I had no idea how my life would turn out. Maybe some of these friends would stay in my life forever. Maybe I would go to graduate school, or maybe I would become a teacher. Maybe I would have the best Frisbee-throwing day of my life, and have a streak of amazing luck, and win Man of Steel next year. Not knowing the future is part of what makes life interesting. After all, two things from this stream of consciousness already turned out differently from how I thought: I had already performed in my final JCF skit when I played Donald Trump last night, and the person singing all of those nonsense syllables on the radio was not a girl.
Readers: What’s the most ridiculous huge meal you’ve ever eaten? Tell me about it in the comments!
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For the last few months, I had been volunteering as a leader with The Edge, the junior high school youth group at Jeromeville Covenant Church. Every year, the students go to Winter Camp over a weekend in January or February, and Adam, the youth pastor, gives them all a mixtape of Christian music from many different artists and genres. Back in 1997, there was no Spotify or YouTube for people to share their favorite music with friends. Instead, we Generation X-ers would play songs from compact discs or cassette tapes, one at a time, and record them on blank tapes. I had begun volunteering with The Edge shortly after Winter Camp that year, so I did not get a copy of Edge Mix ’97, but I borrowed it from the youth group music library and made a copy for myself. I discovered many Christian bands and musicians through Edge Mixes over the years.
One of the more intriguing songs on Edge Mix ’97 was called “Hitler’s Girlfriend,” by a band based in Bay City called the Dime Store Prophets. It was a slow rock song, with lyrics that I found a little mysterious. The chorus said, “I’m not myself until you are you, if I close my eyes, I’m killing you.” I thought the song had something to do with lamenting the un-Christlike tendency to look away when others were in need. The song also contained the line, “I feel like Hitler’s girlfriend, I’m blind to this and numb to that.” Some have suggested that Eva Braun, the real-life Hitler’s girlfriend, lived a sheltered life and did not know about the Holocaust, although other historians find this unlikely.
I played that song three times last night while I did math homework. Although it was the only Dime Store Prophets song that I knew, I wanted it to be fresh in my mind, because the Dime Store Prophets were playing a free live show right here at the University of Jeromeville today, outdoors on the Quad. University Life, the college group from a large church nearby, not the church I attended, had put this show together, and they had been promoting it at all the local churches and college ministries. Nothing was going to stop this from being the best day I had had in a long time.
Except maybe for pouring rain.
I did not expect rain this week. Last Monday had been the first day of hundred-degree heat for 1997, and it felt like the hot, sunny, dry weather of summer had arrived for good. But today was cool with heavy rain. A dramatic cooling trend in late May was rare for Jeromeville. As I rode the bus to school, and sat through my early class, the rain continued to fall, the thick gray sky showing no signs that the rain would clear up any time soon. Would I have to stand in the rain to watch the Dime Store Prophets? Was the band even coming anymore? Would the show be moved indoors? None of those sounded preferable.
After class, I walked to the Memorial Union to find a place to sit. The tables were crowded, as was usually the case on rainy days. Alaina Penn and Corinne Holt from U-Life were sitting at a table with empty seats; I walked over toward them and sat down.
“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said. “What’s the capital of Morocco?”
“Rabat,” I replied. I was about to ask why she wanted to know when I saw the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt, on the table in front of her, opened to the page with the crossword puzzle. Alaina started filling in letters in the puzzle, then paused. “How do you spell that?”
“R-A-B-A-T,” I said. “Hey, is the Dime Store Prophets show still happening? You guys were putting that on, right?”
“It’s canceled,” Corinne answered. “They canceled yesterday when they heard it would rain.”
That’s right, I thought. Some people check weather reports in advance to find out if it will rain, so they would be less surprised than I was right now. “Bummer,” I said.
“What are you up to this weekend, Greg?” Alaina asked.
“I was gonna see the Dime Store Prophets, but now that’s not happening. So just studying, I guess.” I could tell that the irritation in my voice was showing.
“JCF meets tonight, right?”
“Yeah. I’ll be there.”
“See? You are doing something. Enjoy that.”
The rain had lightened up a bit by the time I got home from campus, and it was not raining at all when I got to Evans Hall in the evening for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. The worship team was about to begin playing, and I had not yet decided where to sit, since I had been mingling and talking. I looked around and saw Carrie Valentine sitting alone not too far from me. My brain began overthinking, trying to decide if asking to sit with her was too forward, if it sent the wrong message, if I was setting myself up for disappointment. I thought about what I would say to save face if she said no. I took a deep breath, told my brain to shut up, and walked toward Carrie. “Hey,” I said.
“Greg! Hi!” Carrie replied.
“Mind if I sit here?”
Carrie was a freshman; I had seen her around JCF for much of the year. Two weeks ago, we had had a long conversation at a party after JCF, alone in someone else’s house while we waited for the rest of the partygoers to return from the grocery store.
After the opening song, announcements, and a few more songs, Liz Williams walked to the stage and mimed turning off an alarm clock. A skit. I liked skits. JCF’s skits had been unusually good this year. Liz looked at a Bible and said, “I need to read the Bible and spend time with God, but I’m gonna be late for class! What should I do? I’ll just take the Bible with me and squeeze in some time between classes.” I definitely resonated with what Liz’s character was feeling.
I got excited when Ajeet Tripathi and his roommate Darren Ng entered the stage, dressed in suits and ties with dark glasses. These were recurring characters who had appeared in several other JCF skits this year. They called themselves Angels of the Lord, but they dressed and acted more like secret agents.
“Time to help her out?” Darren asked.
“Affirmative,” Ajeet replied.
Brent Wang walked past the Angels of the Lord, carrying books and notebooks. Ajeet and Darren lightly tapped his back. Brent started coughing and said, “I’m not feeling well. I need to cancel my class.”
Liz’s character returned to the stage area and looked at the wall, as if reading a note. “My professor is sick and had to cancel class,” she said. “Now I have time to do what I’ve been meaning to do all day!” Liz searched through her backpack, but instead of getting her Bible, she pulled out a folded copy of the Daily Colt. “The crossword puzzle!” she exclaimed excitedly. The crowd chuckled at this humorous turn of events. Liz sat down looking at the newspaper, holding a pencil, as Eddie Baker walked by. Liz looked up and asked Eddie, “Hey, what’s the capital of Morocco?”
I laughed loudly, remembering my conversation with Alaina earlier, but then stopped suddenly when I realized that this quote was not as hilarious to everyone else. Carrie looked at me, wondering why I found this so funny; I wanted to explain, but I did not want to interrupt the performance. Now was not the time.
The skit continued, with Liz continuing to make excuses not to read her Bible. This led into a talk by Dave McAllen, one of the full-time staff for JCF, giving a talk about making time to be with God. He referenced Luke 5:16, in which Jesus, despite being God in the flesh, still made time to get away from the crowds and pray to his Father.
I turned to Carrie after the final song. “That was a good talk,” I said.
“I know,” Carrie replied. “It’s so easy to get caught up in everything you have to do and forget to read the Bible.”
“I’ve been doing a little at this lately, at least during the week. I take my Bible to the Arboretum every day after my first class and read and pray for a while.”
“That’s so cool! I should find a spot like that.”
“It’s a peaceful little spot in the middle of God’s creation,” I said. “But, yeah. The skits have been really funny lately. This morning, I walked up to some friends who aren’t from JCF, and one of them was doing the crossword puzzle, and when she saw me walk up, the first thing she said to me was, ‘What’s the capital of Morocco?’ So I laughed when they put that same clue in the skit tonight.”
“Oh my gosh! That’s hilarious! I don’t usually get very far when I try to do the crossword puzzle.”
“I can usually finish most of it,” I said. “But there’s usually a few letters at the end that I can’t get. I finish the puzzle maybe once every week or two.”
“Wow! That’s good!”
“Ajeet and Darren are funny when they play the Angels of the Lord.”
“I know! Remember the one where they shaved Todd’s head? I had no idea they were gonna do that!”
“Me either! That was amazing! And remember that series of skits they did at the beginning of the year, where Brian or Lorraine would interrupt and put up a sign with the night’s topic?”
“And at the end of that series, when they both started appearing with signs. I thought that was funny.”
“I think I missed that one.”
“There was one where Brian put up the sign, then a few minutes later Lorraine walked out to put up the sign, and she tore down Brian’s sign and put up her own. Then the next week, they both showed up with signs at the same time. They saw each other, and they started fighting with lightsabers.”
“Whoa,” Carrie exclaimed.
“Yeah. They were fighting, then they stopped and looked at each other, and they embraced and made out.” Carrie gave me a horrified and confused look as I said that last part, and I realized that I had misspoken. “Made up! I meant made up!” I hurriedly explained. “Like they weren’t fighting anymore!”
“Oh!” Carrie replied, laughing. “I was gonna say, this is a Christian group; they did what?”
“Wow. That was embarrassing.” I hoped that Carrie would quickly forget that part of the conversation. “What are you up to tonight?” I asked.
“I should get home,” Carrie said, slumping her shoulders. “I have so much to do. I have a paper to write this weekend, and I haven’t started it.”
“But I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Yes. Take care.” I looked into Carrie’s dark brown eyes and smiled, and she smiled back. Whatever I did tonight after JCF, it would not include Carrie, but at least we got to talk again. Hopefully my accidental statement about making out would not do lasting damage.
Head-shaving had suddenly become all the rage over the last few months. It seemed like every week or so, another one of my guy friends had shaved his head. My brother Mark started shaving his head that year. Even Lorraine had shaved her head. A few weeks ago, Ajeet and Darren’s Angels of the Lord characters had appeared in another skit. Todd Chevallier, a third roommate of theirs, played a character who knew that a girl who really liked him, but he did not like her back. Todd prayed before he went to bed that God would make that girl realize that he was not the one for her. As Todd lay supposedly sleeping, Ajeet and Darren appeared in their secret agent costumes. Todd awoke and asked, “Who are you?”
“We are Angels of the Lord,” Ajeet replied. “The Lord has heard your prayers. We have come to make you ugly.” Darren pulled out an electric razor and shaved an asymmetrical stripe across Todd’s hair as the hundred-plus students in attendance gasped and cheered. Todd’s character woke up the next morning; the girl who liked him saw him, then ran away screaming. After the talk at the end of the night, Ajeet and Darren finished shaving the rest of Todd’s head, right there in 170 Evans in front of everyone.
On Sunday at church, two days after the rained-out concert, the high school youth intern, a guy named Kevin, got up to make an announcement. “Last week, the high school group had a car wash, to raise money for a mission trip this summer. I told them that if we made two thousand dollars, they would get to shave my head. Well, guess what? We shattered that goal and raised over three thousand dollars. So you can watch a bunch of high schoolers shave my head right after the service.”
Of course, I thought. More head shaving. At least this one was for a good cause. I hoped, as a youth group volunteer with the junior high school kids, that I would not get chosen to have my head shaved at any point in the future. I had read a column once by the humor writer Dave Barry, who wrote that black guys with shaved heads looked cool, but white guys with shaved heads looked like giant thumbs. I definitely did not want to look like a giant thumb, and I had no plans to follow everyone else into this shaved head craze.
Despite that, though, I was not opposed to watching others shave their heads. I wandered into the youth room after church, where Kevin sat in a chair in the middle of the room, and four high schoolers took turns running electric razors across his head, watching random clumps of hair fall to the floor.
I had a lot of reasons why not. Instead of telling Samantha about the giant thumbs, I told her about something that had happened two months earlier. “When I went home for spring break, my brother had shaved his head, and I told my grandma about how all my friends were shaving their heads. And Grandma told me I better not shave my head.”
“Oh!” Samantha said, an understanding smile breaking out on her face. “So you have to wait until she dies!”
Wow, I thought. Out of the mouths of thirteen-year-olds… “That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” I replied. “Wow.” I turned back to watch Kevin as the kids finished shaving his head, not really sure how to follow up Samantha’s comment.
When I got home after church, I turned on music while I finished my math homework. Edge Mix ’97 was currently in the stereo; I left it in and pressed Play. The Dime Store Prophets song came on midway through the second side, and hearing that song made me feel disappointed all over again that I had not gotten to see them. The weather that led to the show’s cancellation was just strange. Two days later, the weather turned sunny and warm again, like it was at the beginning of last week.
The opportunity was not lost forever. The band rescheduled their show and came to Jeromeville in September, the first weekend after classes started, and I saw them a second time later that school year. In my late twenties, two counties away, I attended a church where one of the former band members was the worship leader. I found a box of old Dime Store Prophets CDs when I was helping him throw away old things he did not need anymore, and he let me keep one of each album.
The conversation with Samantha, about my grandmother not wanting me to shave my head, had an odd postscript. I would soon learn that my grandmother, whom Samantha had practically wished death upon, shared a birthday with Samantha, sixty-three years apart. And although I never shaved my head completely, as my brother and many of my friends had, I did start gradually getting it cut shorter as I got older. I typically would go to one of the cheap walk-in haircut places, and depending on who was available to cut my hair, some would cut it shorter than others. Once, in 2021, my hair got cut longer than I wanted, so the next time I went to get it cut, I got brave and tried having it cut with clippers. This was the closest I had ever come to shaving my head. And my grandmother died a few hours later.
I made the connection between Grandma’s death and using clippers on my hair later that week, as I was thinking about everything that had happened. Of course, it was a complete coincidence; I do not blame my grandmother’s death on my use of hair clippers or on Samantha’s statement twenty-four years earlier. My grandmother was one hundred years old, her health had been declining for quite some time, and sometimes a body just gives out after such a long life. But the coincidence still stuck out in my mind.
Author’s note: Have you ever gone along with a hairstyle that was trendy for its time? Share an interesting story about that in the comments.
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“So my cousin is getting married on the beach this summer,” Lars said in his usual boisterous voice as he adjusted the heights of the microphones at the front of 170 Evans Hall. “She wants everyone to wear beach clothes. That just seems weird for a wedding.”
“Yeah,” Tabitha said as she plucked strings on her guitar, paying attention to a battery-operated tuner and tightening or loosening the strings accordingly. “You don’t wear beach clothes to a wedding.”
As the worship team’s roadie, I arrived early each week to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, to help Lars, Tabitha, Brent, and the others on the worship band set up their equipment. I got this position by virtue of having a big car, a 1989 Ford Bronco, that could fit a lot of instruments and amplifiers in the back. We used to pull my car right up to the building, someone told me at the beginning of the year that it would be okay, but a few weeks ago I got a a parking ticket for having done so. Since then, I had parked in the nearest legal space, about two hundred feet away, and we had had to carry the music equipment a much farther distance. I felt annoyed every time I drove into that parking lot and paid two dollars for evening parking, because it reminded me of the time I got a ticket, so far the only ticket I had ever received.
“So are you gonna wear shorts and flip-flops to the wedding?” Brent asked.
“I don’t know,” Lars replied.
“I’m gonna ask people to wear jackets to my wedding,” I said. Brent, Lars, and Tabitha looked at me confused. “Because hell will have frozen over if I ever get married.”
After a second, the others chuckled and groaned. “Come on, dude,” Lars said. “Don’t say that.” I shrugged. These days, it certainly did feel like I would never meet anyone special. It had been five months since Haley Channing rejected me, and nothing had happened to give me hope that things would change any time soon. I had great friends, I was enjoying being a youth group leader at church, but I had not met any girls who seemed interested in me that way. The University of Jeromeville was full of cute girls; they either did not like me back, or they already had boyfriends. I saw graffiti on a bathroom wall a few days ago that said, “Jeromeville girls are like parking spaces: the good ones are either taken or handicapped.” I had never before resonated so well with bathroom graffiti.
A few hours later, after JCF ended, I was helping the worship band unload equipment to its usual storage place, Lars’ garage on J Street. Tabitha said, “Are you guys going to Dave and Janet’s tonight? They’re gonna hang out and play games.”
“I’m going,” Brent replied.
“I hadn’t heard,” I said. “But that sounds like fun. Sure, I’m in.”
“I think I’ll pass,” Lars added. “I need to be up early tomorrow. Gonna go to the Great Blue Lake with Armando for the day.”
“That sounds like fun!” I said. The Great Blue Lake attracted tourists from around the world. I was about a hundred miles away, and I had never been there or seen it. Hopefully someday.
“It looks like we’re done,” Tabitha said, looking at everything in the garage. “I’m gonna head to Dave and Janet’s now. Greg, you’re coming?”
“Sure. But I’m gonna go in and use the bathroom first.”
“All right. See you there!”
Dave and Janet McAllen were older than me, around thirtyish. They worked in full-time ministry as the lead staff of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, overseeing the campus group along with a few other recent graduates who were paid part time. In addition to their duties as leaders of an organization, part of their job also involved building relationships with university students, as a way to create a welcoming organization where students could learn about Christianity and Jesus Christ.
I talked to Xander, one of Lars’ housemates, for a few minutes before I left, then I drove to the McAllens’ house on West 15th Street. It was almost ten o’clock by the time I finally got there. I walked to the door and knocked.
After almost a minute, someone opened the door, but it was not either of the McAllens, or Tabitha, or Brent. A freshman girl named Carrie Valentine stood on the other side of the door, wearing blue denim overalls with a light purple shirt underneath. Carrie was somewhat tall, with straight brown hair extending a little past her shoulders and dark brown eyes that smiled at me. I had met Carrie a few times before, but I had not talked to her much. Music played faintly in the background.
“Hi, Greg!” Carrie said, smiling. “Come on in!”
The McAllens lived in half of a duplex with roommates, including Cheryl who was also on JCF staff; this house was commonly referred to as the Staff House by JCF students. The front door opened into a hallway, with bedrooms on the left and the living area to the right. I followed Carrie toward the living room and kitchen and looked around. The music was coming from a stereo in the living room, playing a local radio station. The house appeared empty except for Carrie and me, which surprised me. I was under the impression that a large group of people would be there. Tabitha and Brent had left Lars’ house about five minutes before me, and many others had left JCF earlier and not had to unpack music equipment. Surely they should be here by now. “Where is everyone?” I asked.
“They walked to the store to get snacks,” Carrie explained. “They just left a minute ago. I said I’d stay back in case anyone else showed up.”
“That makes sense,” I replied. “So how’s your quarter going?”
“Hard! But it’s good. I’m taking this really fun class for my major.”
“What is your major?”
“That’s cool,” I said. Carrie was the first design major I had ever met, and I was not sure exactly what that was, other than that it probably involved designing things.
“What about you?” Carrie asked. “What’s your major?”
“Eww. I was never very good at math. I take it you are?”
“Yeah. It just makes sense to me.”
“Do you know what you want to do with your major?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” I said. “I always thought I didn’t want to be a teacher, but one of my professors thinks I would make a good teacher, so he set me up with an internship helping out in a high school class. I’m doing that this quarter”
“That sounds so cool! What’s it like?”
“It’s been good so far. I’m just walking around helping students when they have questions. And I’m taking notes on how the teacher teaches, because I’ll have to write a short paper at the end of the year.”
“So do you think you want to be a teacher now?”
“I don’t know. I want to look into all the options. Another professor told me about these summer research internships that other schools offer, and students from anywhere in the country can apply to, where you do research in small groups with a professor supervising.”
“So, like, math research? How does that work?”
“Proving new theorems and stuff like that, I think,” I explained. “I’ll find out. I’ll be going to Oregon for eight weeks this summer. I applied to four of these programs, I got into two of them, and I chose the one at Grandvale State University because it’s closer. And also my great-aunt and uncle live nearby.”
“That’s so cool! Oregon is nice. Are you excited?”
“I am. I’ve been to Oregon twice before, but I haven’t been to Grandvale specifically. It’ll be nice to be somewhere new. And it’ll be nice to learn more about what grad school in math will be like, to know whether or not that’s what I want to do.”
“Do you know what you want to do with your design degree?”
“Interior design,” Carrie answered. “I’ve always been interested in how other people’s houses look.”
“That’s cool. I’ve never really thought about what kind of education goes into that.”
I was vaguely aware of the music still playing in the background. The song on the radio changed to a familiar-sounding song that opened with a guitar, strumming back and forth between two chords, including a note that did not usually harmonize with the other notes in those chords. A female voice began singing. Whatever this song was, I knew I had heard it before, but not in some time. “Eww, I hate this song,” Carrie said.
“What is it?” I asked. “I know I’ve heard it before, but I can’t place it.”
“‘Here’s Where The Story Ends,’ by the Sundays. Something about it just always bothered me. I can’t really explain it.”
Right after I heard Carrie name the song, I heard the girl on the radio, who I would learn years later was named Harriet Wheeler, sing the line containing the title, followed by the line “It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year.” “Okay, I remember the song now,” I said. This part sounds familiar.”
“I never liked her voice. And I could never tell what she was saying. It sounded like ‘telephone ear’ to me.”
“Telephone ear,” I said. “That’s a good one. What is she saying, anyway? ‘Terrible year?’”
“I think that’s it. Seriously, do you mind if I turn it off? I really don’t like it.”
“Okay,” I said, although now that I recognized the song, I realized that I never particularly disliked it. It was kind of catchy. Carrie turned the music off entirely. “What about you?” I asked. “Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”
“Just going home. Probably getting a job.”
“Where are you from?”
“Westridge. It’s between Bay City and San Tomas.”
“Oh, yeah, I kind of know where that is.”
“Nothing exciting like you going to Oregon, though.”
“Thanks! I hope it’s exciting. I’m kind of nervous, too.”
“Just because it’s something new. And I’ve made a lot of new friends here this year, and I won’t be around them.”
“Yeah. But you’ll make new friends there, right?”
“I hope so.”
I heard a knock at the door a minute later. “Come in!” Carrie called out. Todd Chevallier and Ajeet Tripathi walked in. Carrie said hello to them, and as all of them started talking, I felt a bit of disappointment that my time to talk to Carrie alone was over. A minute later, Dave and Janet McAllen, Cheryl, Tabitha, and several others returned carrying grocery bags full of snacks.
“We’re back,” Dave said as the group sat in the living room. “Hey, Greg,” he said, noticing that new people had arrived. “Ajeet. Todd.’
“Hi,” I said.
“So I was thinking, maybe, let’s play Pictionary first?” Janet suggested. That’s a fun, easy game. And then we can play something else later if we get tired of that.” People responded in the affirmative. Janet got the Pictionary box and placed it on the coffee table. “I need to go find pencils and scratch paper,” she said. “You guys divide into teams.”
Pictionary was a fairly simple party game in which one player would have to draw something, silently, without speaking or writing words, and that player’s teammates would have to guess what was being drawn in a certain amount of time. I looked at Carrie, since she was still standing next to me, at the same time that Tabitha and Brent looked at us. “We’re a team?” Tabitha suggested, pointing at the four of us.
“Sure,” I replied, nodding.
After Janet finished setting up the game, we rolled the die to see who would go first. The team consisting of Dave, Eddie Baker, Autumn Davies, and a freshman girl whom I had not met went first. Dave drew a stick figure with a very prominent ear; he kept circling the ear and pointing. “Ear! Earring! Ear wax! Eardrum!” others on his team shouted; none was correct. Time ran out, and Dave’s team did not get to advance on the board.
“Earlobe!” Dave said. “Come on!”
“Oh,” Autumn replied. “It looked like he was wearing hoop earrings!”
“It’s our turn,” Tabitha said. “Who’s gonna draw for us?”
We all looked at each other. Carrie’s deep brown eyes met mine, and I looked away quickly. “I’ll draw,” I said, almost immediately wondering if I would regret having spoken up. I took the pencil, drew a card, and silently read the word I had to draw. Sheep.
Brent turned the timer over, and I drew a circle for the head, then a fluffy body. “Cloud,” Brent said. As soon as I put four legs on the fluffy body, Carrie shouted, “Sheep!”
“Yes!” I said. Carrie smiled excitedly, and I gave her a high five.
“How did you two get that so fast?” Tabitha asked.
“It’s clearly a sheep!” Carrie explained, gesturing excitedly to the drawing. “It’s got all the wool, all curly like this, and it has legs!”
“Thank you!” I said, smiling. Carrie smiled back. I rolled 5 on the die and moved our piece ahead five spaces. Pictionary was not normally my best game, but our team worked together unusually well that night, and we ended up winning.
A few people left after we finished Pictionary, and not too long after that, Carrie said that she was leaving too. “I have a lot of homework to do tomorrow, and I don’t want to be up too late,” she said. “It’s already almost midnight.”
“Good luck with that,” I replied. “It was good talking to you earlier.”
“Yeah!” Carrie replied, smiling. “I’ll see you before you leave, but I hope you enjoy Oregon!”
“Thanks.” I smiled back. “Have a good weekend!”
I stayed at Dave and Janet’s house for a while after Carrie left. Janet asked me what Carrie meant when she mentioned Oregon, so I explained about my internship to the others. I had mentioned to some of them that I was applying to these programs, but I had not told everyone that I had been accepted.
Several of the people at the party would be going to China for a month this summer, on a mission trip sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. Someone asked how fundraising was going. I had received several prayer letters about this trip over the last few weeks, from many of the students going on the trip; since I knew all of them, I made one lump sum donation of $118.24. In the memo line of the check, I had written, “This is the day the Lord has made. Psalm 118:24.”
“It’s funny, Greg,” Eddie said. “At the last meeting for the China trip, we were going over fundraising totals, and every time we look at the numbers, it’s always, like, whatever dollars, and twenty-four cents.”
“Because of me,” I said, laughing.
“Yeah. I’ve never seen anyone do that before, with the Bible verse.”
“It just came to me. I was trying to decide how much to give, and I had read that verse recently.”
“That’s cool. That’s why you’re a math guy, always seeing numbers.”
I eventually said goodbye to everyone and left the party around 12:30; things seemed to be winding down by then. I had a midterm in my computer science class Monday that I needed to study for at some point over the weekend. I had the radio playing as I was driving home, but as I lay in bed, the song playing in my mind was Here’s Where The Story Ends, not anything I had heard on the drive home. I did not know every word and every sound of the song, so the same few lines I did know, like the part about the terrible year, kept playing over and over in my head. I kind of wanted to hate the song now that I knew Carrie hated the song, but I also found it too catchy to hate that much.
A lot of great things had happened this school year, but it also felt like a terrible year in some ways. Haley had rejected me, I had often been left out of the cliques at JCF, and I had come to realize that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my mathematics degree. But maybe things were turning around. I had been invited to hang out with those people tonight, so I was not completely on the outside. I was exploring options for my career. I was making new friends in different places, and maybe one of these new connections would lead to something special. Maybe it would involve Carrie. Maybe here was not where the story ends; maybe here was where the new story begins. Maybe this was not such a terrible year. Or not such a telephone ear, whatever that means.
Author’s note: What’s a song you absolutely can’t stand?
I’m not going to name mine, but I will say that there is a certain band that was very popular during the time in which DLTDGB is set which I have never mentioned once in any episode, because I really can’t stand them. I feel like their lack of existence makes DLTDGB a little inauthentic, but I justify it by saying that DLTDGB takes place in an alternate universe where this band never made it big.
“Is that everything?” I asked as Lars Ashford and I finished loading a heavy guitar amplifier into my Ford Bronco.
“I think so,” Lars answered. “Let’s go!”
We left Lars’ house, in the old part of Jeromeville on the corner of Sixth and K Streets, and drove multiple cars across downtown to campus, to haul all of the equipment. I turned on the radio; the song “Roll To Me” was on, by a one-hit wonder called Del Amitri. We parked on the south side of campus in the lot next to Marks Hall, the administration building, and unloaded the equipment into room 170 of Evans Hall, a medium-sized lecture hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met. A few months ago, I had been praying that God would find a specific way for me to get more involved with JCF, and the prayer was answered almost immediately, when Tabitha Sasaki asked if I would be willing to volunteer my time and my large car to be the worship band’s roadie.
Most of my duties as the roadie involved carrying equipment from Lars’ house to Evans Hall before the JCF large group meetings, and back to Lars’ house afterward. With five of us working, it really did not take long. I usually arrived early enough to hang out and talk with Lars, Tabitha, Brent Wang, and Scott Madison for a bit before we started working, and, honestly, this was my favorite part of the experience. I had made so many new friends last year when I started attending JCF, and through them, I had learned a lot about what it means to really follow Jesus. However, I also felt like JCF was still cliquish, and I had not broken into the group’s inner circles, despite being part of the worship team. I had found out recently that JCF was phasing in a new exclusive invitation-only small group ministry that, from my perspective, entrenched cliques into the fundamental structure of the group, and of course I had not been invited to participate in that ministry.
“‘Look around your world, pretty baby, is it everything you hoped it’d be?’” Tabitha sang as she assembled a microphone stand. I attached the snare drum to its stand as Tabitha continued, “‘The wrong guy, the wrong situation, the right time to roll to me.’”
“We had the same station on the radio on the way over,” I said to Tabitha. “I just heard that song too.”
“Haha! That’s funny.”
As I worked on reassembling Scott’s drum set, Lars plugged cables into the guitars, keyboards, and microphones. Tabitha and Brent spoke into the microphones to make sure everything worked. When we had all finished, Tabitha said, “All right, guys, let’s pray.” The five of us stood in a circle and bowed our heads. “Father,” Tabitha said, “I pray, Lord, that we will glorify you through our music tonight. I pray, God, that you will be with Dave as he gives the talk tonight. Give him the words he needs to say, Father, and open people’s hearts who need to hear that talk.” Tabitha paused, then added, “Amen,” which the rest of us repeated.
I looked up and turned around, still in the front of the room but now facing the seats. The time for the meeting to start was approaching soon, and about twenty people had trickled in so far while we were setting up. I noticed a group of about eight of my friends gathered in the back in an unusual way, with serious looks on their faces. I walked toward the back of the room to see what was going on.
Haley Channing sat in the center of this group, looking like she had been crying. Eddie Baker, Kristina Kasparian, Lorraine Mathews, Ramon Quintero, and a few others sat and stood around her, some with their hands on Haley’s back and shoulders. They took turns speaking softly and just sitting in silence at times.
“Haley?” I asked, approaching the group. “Are you okay?”
Lorraine looked up and glared angrily at me, making me wonder exactly what I was doing wrong. Haley looked up next, not angrily but with the puffy-eyed look of one who had been crying. “My mother died this morning,” Haley said.
My heart sank. This was something far more tragic and heavy than I was prepared to deal with. “How?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” I told Haley as Lorraine and now Kristina glared at me. “I’m here if you ever need to talk, okay?”
“Thanks,” Haley replied. I walked away; I was clearly interrupting, and some of the others seemed to be unhappy with my presence, even though I was only trying to help, just like everyone else was.
I prayed for Haley and her family while the worship team was playing that night. I remembered meeting her parents once last year; they had come to Jeromeville for a weekend, and they had come to JCF that Friday. Haley had an older brother who had recently graduated from the University of Jeromeville and still lived here, and a younger brother in high school on the other side of the state. They must all be going through a very difficult time right now. I did not know how long Haley’s mother had been battling cancer, if it was something that the family had time to prepare for emotionally, but it was not easy to deal with either way.
I thought back to when I met Haley’s parents; I remember noticing that Haley’s mom was wearing a big straw sun hat indoors at night, but I thought nothing of it. I thought maybe she just liked the hat. Now, though, it made more sense: she had probably lost her hair from cancer treatments, and she wore the hat to hide her missing hair.
After the meeting ended, I walked around, mingling and saying hi to people. I noticed that Haley left early, which was completely understandable. After about fifteen minutes, I noticed the worship team working on putting the instruments away. I grabbed two guitars in cases, brought them out to the Bronco, then stared at the sky for a few minutes, thinking about Haley. I would not know what to do if I lost one of my parents; for as much as I felt like they got in the way sometimes, I really was not ready to live completely on my own. I wanted to be there for Haley, to listen and to have something comforting to say for my friend. I wanted to help her feel better, and I wanted her to see what a nice guy I was and maybe be more than just friends. But apparently this was a bad time for that.
“Greg?” Tabitha said, bringing me back to reality. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just thinking about stuff. Sorry.”
I followed Tabitha back to 170 Evans to finish loading the musical instruments and gear. After we finished unloading everything at the house on K Street, I just went home and read a book for the rest of the night. I was feeling sad enough that I did not even try to find people to hang out with afterward.
I spent all day Saturday careful not to divulge a secret. A few days earlier, I was at home watching TV while Josh ate at the dinner table. It was a rare occasion that Josh was actually home. I felt like I still barely knew him, despite living in the same apartment for over two months, because he worked odd hours.
Shawn walked into the apartment after a run. “Hey, guys,” he said. “Brian’s birthday is coming up. I’m going to surprise him with a trip to Redwood Valley Saturday night. And he doesn’t know this, but one of our roommates from last year who lives out that way will be meeting us there for dinner. Greg, you remember Mike Kozlovsky, right?”
“Are you guys free Saturday? Can you come?”
“I have to work,” Josh said.
“Bummer,” Shawn replied. “What about you, Greg?”
Saturday night… Let’s see… I have a date with a really hot girl, then I’m going out clubbing with my friends. No, that is definitely not happening. “Yeah, I can go,” I said. “That sounds like fun. What time are we leaving?”
“Five o’clock. I’ll drive.”
“Sounds great,” I said.
Now, shortly after five o’clock on Saturday, Brian and I were in Shawn’s car, driving across downtown Jeromeville headed toward Highway 100. Brian had been contemplating out loud where we might be going, and Shawn and I had not revealed anything. Shawn drove under the railroad track on Cornell Boulevard, driving straight toward the freeway overpass, toward south Jeromeville and the ramp to eastbound 100 and Capital City, but then made a sudden swerve to the right, as if he had been feigning that we were going one way before actually going the other way. Shawn turned onto 100 westbound.
“We’re going west!” Brian exclaimed as we entered the freeway. We continued driving west for about half an hour, past Fairview. Shawn’s car did not have a CD player, so Brian had brought a bunch of tapes he made from his CDs; he put on ABBA’s Gold greatest hits album first. I did not know much of this group growing up, but apparently they were still popular among students here in Jeromeville, despite having broken up over a decade earlier. Brian sang along enthusiastically to some songs, which I found quite amusing.
In Fairview, Highway 212 merged with Highway 100 for a few miles, and when the highways split again, Shawn took 212. “We’re going to Silverado-Valle Luna!” Brian said, reading the two destination cities on the sign. I had only been this way once before, when I had gone to visit a friend from high school a year ago, but I could not enjoy the scenery much because it was dark by the time we got there. Brian had grown up in Valle Luna, so this was a familiar drive to him, and Mike Kozlovsky, the guy we were meeting, was also from this part of the state.
We drove through Silverado and into the hills to the west. This was a world-class wine producing region, and even in the dark I could see grapevines covering the hills. About halfway between Silverado and Valle Luna, we passed through a town called Redwood Valley. I had never been here before; the center of the town featured a number of historic buildings, including what was once a mission from the Spanish colonial era. We parked about a block from the mission and walked toward an Italian restaurant called Calabrese’s, where a tall, stocky blonde guy and his curly-haired girlfriend of average height and build stood outside waiting for us.
“Mike!” Brian said as the two embraced. “Hey, Jeanette,” Brian said to the curly-haired girl, who said hi back. Mike said hi to Shawn, then to me, and shook our hands. I said hi back, then said hi to Jeanette. Mike, like Shawn and Brian, had graduated from the University of Jeromeville the year before, when they had all shared a large house with a few other guys. Jeanette was my age and still lived in Jeromeville; I figured that she had probably come to see Mike for the weekend.
I looked around inside the restaurant as the server led us to our table. The room was dimly lit and full of candles, with red and white checkered tablecloths on all the tables. I imagined this was the kind of place where people would go on romantic dates. It was definitely not the kind of restaurant I was familiar with.
I ordered lasagna; it was fairly expensive, compared to most restaurants I had been to, but it was very good. Much of the conversation at the table involved Shawn and Brian catching up with Mike. I did not know Mike as well as the other guys knew each other, so I did not have much to say. Mike did ask me how my classes were going at one point, though, so I did get to talk about those. As the night went on, Mike and Jeanette seemed to tune out the rest of the conversation, getting sort of lost in their own little couple world. I kept looking at them, wishing I had someone to get lost with.
I enjoyed the evening away from Jeromeville, but on the way home, I could not get the thought out of my head of Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette being cute and coupley. I wanted so badly to know what that felt like. I wished I knew how to talk to girls, how to ask someone out. Even the fun road trip music on the drive home was not enough to shake my discouragement.
We got home from Redwood Valley a little after midnight. I woke up around seven-thirty on Sunday morning, a normal amount of sleep for me, and drove to church in time for 20/20, the college class on Sunday morning. Haley was there, and I said hi, but I did not try to intrude any more, since I did not want to repeat the awkwardness of Friday. After 20/20, I went to the regular service, and after the service, Pete Green mentioned that a few people from 20/20 were going to have lunch at Dos Amigos. I had never been to this place, but it sounded like Mexican food, so I said sure.
Five of us ended up going: me, Pete, Noah Snyder, Mike Knepper (a different Mike from last night, I knew a lot of Mikes back then), and a friendly blonde freshman girl named Courtney. As I waited in line, looking at the menu, I felt in over my head; this was different from the Mexican food at our go-to Mexican restaurant back home, Paco’s Tacos. There I usually ordered a bean and beef burrito with sides of beans and chips. I found the beans and chips on the menu, but most of the burritos did not appear to have beans, and some of them had ingredients unfamiliar to me. I ordered something called a Southwest Burrito with steak, with sides of beans and chips. (I would learn years later that Dos Amigos was inspired by a trip to Santa Fe, and that Santa Fe-style Mexican food was different from most of the Mexican food in this area, but that distinction was lost on me at the time.)
“How was your weekend, Greg?” Pete asked when we got to the table.
“Pretty good,” I said. “Last night Brian and Shawn and I went to Redwood Valley for Brian’s birthday. Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette met us there.”
“That sounds like fun. How do you like having those guys as roommates?”
“It’s been good,” I said. Good enough that I’m getting over missing out on my chance to live with you guys, I thought without saying it out loud. I heard loud giggling from the other side of the table; apparently Mike Knepper had said something funny, and Courtney laughed.
My food arrived on three separate plates; I was not expecting this. One plate had the burrito along with a small handful of chips; a second, smaller plate held my side of beans; and the third plate, the same size as the first, was full of chips. “I think I got too much food,” I said. “I didn’t know there’d be chips with the burrito. The Mexican restaurant we always go to back home, you have to order chips separately.”
“On the bright side, now you have a lot of chips,” Noah said. “And these chips are really good. You should go try the pico de gallo.” Noah gestured toward the small cup of chunky tomato salsa next to his plate, fortunately, since I had no idea what “pico de gallo” meant except that it was literally something about a rooster.
Noah was right; the pico de gallo was excellent. So was the rest of the food. I definitely wanted to come back to this place. Noah and Pete and I talked about life and classes and things while Mike Knepper and Courtney made googly eyes at each other and giggled the whole time. It sure looked like something was going on between them, or at least that one or both of them was interested in the other. I looked down dejectedly at my plate for a while, but tried to keep up with the conversation and not give away what was on my mind.
After I got home from Dos Amigos, I spent most of the afternoon studying, although my mind was elsewhere and I could not focus. I kept thinking about Haley, about the passing of her mother, and how I wanted to be there for her, but I did not get the chance. I wished I knew some way to spend time with her. And I really hoped that nothing was developing between her and Ramon, and or anyone else. I did not know how to tell her that I liked her, and I also did not want to mess things up so badly that we could not salvage a friendship afterward. Friendship was important to me too; she was there for one of my darkest nights last year.
I felt like the world was conspiring against me to shove it in my face that so many people around me were in relationships, and I was not. Of course, I was overreacting, but I still felt frustrated and angry that everyone else who had normal childhoods seemed to know some secret about how to talk to girls and go on dates, and I did not. Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette had been in a relationship for a long time. Mike Knepper and Courtney seemed to have something going on. I wished I knew how to tell Haley how I felt.
Maybe that was the wrong approach, I thought. Maybe I just needed to forget about her and move on. She and her friends certainly did not seem to want me around Friday night. Maybe it was time to find out for sure. I love you, but I’ve never let you know, I said to myself in my head, realizing immediately afterward that this phrase was iambic pentameter. I excitedly stood up and started thinking of other phrases in iambic pentameter relevant to the situation. By the time I was waiting for the bus home Monday afternoon, I had an entire Shakespearean sonnet.
I love you, but I’ve never let you know, My secret crush I’ve buried deep inside; I fear the time has come to let it go, These days it causes pain I cannot hide. The time has come, it seems, to run away, To change the subject running through my mind; You have so many friends that I would say You’ll never know I’ve left you far behind. But how can I desert a friend like you? I cannot leave you in this time of need; As jealousy I’ve buried now breaks through I must be strong, and not succumb to greed; Though lovers we will likely never be, Our friendship is worth more than eyes can see.
By the time I finished writing the poem, I was starting to consider telling Haley directly how I felt about her. This kind of conversation was painful and difficult for me. I had done this once before, with Melissa Holmes our senior year of high school. She did not feel the same way about me, but she was honest about it, and I did feel free to move on once I got over the rejection. Melissa and I did stay friends after that, and we continued to stay friends for about twenty years, until we just grew apart naturally. It felt like a long shot with Haley; I did not seriously expect her to tell me that she liked me back. But if she did not, I could at least know for sure and get on with my life. And on the bright side, maybe she would give me a chance. I was not ready to do this right now, but the whole situation had me so messed up in the head that I was ready to consider the option as the next few weeks unfolded.
I did not grow up attending concerts, and I do not know why, considering how I have always loved listening to music. I just assumed that going to concerts was something that rich people did, or adults who had cars to drive to wherever the bands played. My parents went to concerts; Dad saw the Grateful Dead many times, and my parents went together to see bands of their generation who were still touring, like Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
The University of Jeromeville hosts a large open house festival event called the Spring Picnic every April. In the days leading up to the Spring Picnic freshman year, I heard people talking about a band called Lawsuit that would be playing there. I listened to their show, and I was blown away. I had never heard music like this before. Lawsuit had ten members: in addition to the usual vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, they also had a second drummer who played congas and bongos, and several horn players. Many of the members of Lawsuit grew up in Jeromeville, and they had a bit of a following locally.
After I watched Lawsuit at the following Spring Picnic, sophomore year, I signed up for their mailing list. That was a little over three months ago, and I had been getting postcards and emails about upcoming shows. One of the flyers a few months ago mentioned something called One Thousand Red Roses, a benefit concert to raise money for the Art Center in Jeromeville. I had no strong feelings either way about the Art Center, but I did have strong feelings about seeing Lawsuit, especially since the show was on a Saturday after a week when I had absolutely no plans. I went out and bought a ticket as soon as they were on sale.
As the show approached, it was difficult to hide my excitement and anticipation. Two days before the show, I was at Bible study, and as people were arriving, someone made small talk by asking what everyone was doing for the weekend.
“I’m going to see Lawsuit!” I exclaimed.
“Lawsuit, the band?” Amelia Dye asked.
“Yeah. I’ve seen them at the last two Spring Picnics, and I really like them.”
“They’re good,” Ramon Quintero said. “I saw them at the Spring Picnic once.”
“Who’s Lawsuit?” Tabitha Sasaki asked.
“A local band,” I explained. “Their music is… well, hard to describe. It’s like rock with horns. But not really. Kind of like jazz sometimes too. And reggae.”
“Interesting. Have fun!”
On the corner of Coventry Boulevard and G Street, adjacent to the large park where I had watched fireworks on July 4, stood a small building called the C.J. Davis Art Center. In this building, named for a local philanthropist who was instrumental in its founding, children and adults took classes in various forms of art, music, and dance. Among those heavily involved in the local arts scene in Jeromeville was the Sykes family, and the siblings, siblings-in-law, and cousins of this large family included several members of Lawsuit. The band put on a concert every summer, called One Thousand Red Roses, on a temporary stage in the parking lot of the Art Center, to raise money for it.
Although I knew from reading the CD booklet and the band’s website that some of the members of Lawsuit were related, I learned much more about the Sykes family from a tragic occurrence a few months ago, when a Sykes sibling not in the band died in a car accident. The obituary in the Jeromeville Bulletin local newspaper mentioned much about the family’s philanthropic and artistic endeavors, including Lawsuit.
The show began at eight o’clock; I left my apartment at 7:15, since I did not know what to expect in terms of crowds. I also walked, since I did not know how hard it would be to find a place to park, and the Art Center was only about a mile from my apartment. The weather had been warm, but it was just starting to cool off as the sun sank lower in the sky. I was sweating a little as I arrived at the Art Center, but if this concert was similar to Lawsuit’s performances at the Spring Picnic, I expected to get sweaty as the night went on, with people standing and moving around to the music.
A temporary fence around the parking lot had been installed so that only ticketed guests could see the stage. I handed my ticket to the person at the door and walked inside. About a hundred guests were already mingling about the floor in front of the stage; there were no seats, as I suspected. Roadies were setting up the stage, which was already full of guitars, drums, horns, microphones, amplifiers, lights, and speakers. The back of the stage appeared to be a chain link fence, decorated with banners and road signs. A large fan blew air across the stage, probably to keep the band cool on the warm Jeromeville night surrounded by hot equipment.
Since I still had time before the show started, I walked over to the merchandise table and looked at the band’s t-shirts. Most of them had the band’s name accompanied by some sort of random drawing, which apparently had some significance that I was not aware of. I pointed to one shirt, light gray, with a drawing on the front of a surprised-looking man with his hat falling off. On the back was the name of the band, LAWSUIT, accompanied by a collage of newspaper headlines containing the word “lawsuit.” That was clever. “Do you have that one in an extra large?” I asked.
“Let me check,” the man behind the table replied. He turned around, looking through boxes, for about a minute, then turned back toward me. “We’re out of that one in extra large,” he said. “We have some of the others in extra large. And I know we’re getting a new shipment in soon, so if you want to pay for it now, and leave your name and address, we can mail it to you.”
“That’ll work,” I said, a little disappointed but hopeful that the shirt would arrive soon. He got out a spiral notebook and wrote “Gray Headline Shirt XL” and handed it to me. I wrote my name and address and handed it back to him along with the money.
I looked back toward the stage, where instruments were being tuned and amplifiers were being connected. I was not sure if the people on stage were band members or crew, since I did not recognize all of the band members by face. I would have recognized Paul Sykes, the lead singer, from the two other times I saw them play live, but he was not currently on stage.
By the time eight o’clock approached, the crowd had grown in size considerably, as several hundred people and their alcoholic beverages packed into that fenced-off parking lot. I was starting to feel a little bit crowded by the people around me on all sides. Eventually, about fifteen minutes after the show was scheduled to start, a master of ceremonies walked on stage and gave a short speech about the C.J. Davis Art Center, its importance in the community, and the generosity of the Sykes family. He finished his speech by announcing, “The name of this band is Lawsuit!”
The crowd began cheering wildly; I joined in, clapping. The ten members ran up the stairs on the side of the stage, one by one, and took their positions, getting their instruments ready. They began the show the same way they did when I saw them in April at the Spring Picnic, by playing the music from the song “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang, with Paul rapping, his lyrics fast enough to be barely intelligible to me. After Paul rapped about Lawsuit not being a rap band, the hand drummer began playing a faster rhythm, and the rest of the band segued into a song of their own called “Thank God You’re Doing Fine.” This had been the first Lawsuit song I ever heard when I saw them at the Spring Picnic freshman year, and to this day it is still my favorite song of theirs. Toward the end of the song, I started mouthing some of the words: “When it comes to the end of the world, you’ve got only one thing left to do, and that’s thank God, thank God you’re doing fine.” I had heard the song dozens, if not hundreds, of times by then, and it just occurred to me in that moment that Lawsuit may have been making an intentional allusion to R.E.M., who famously sang nine years earlier that “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
About half an hour into the show, I realized that I only knew about half the songs they were playing. Lawsuit had five albums, and I only had the two most recent ones. I did not know if the unfamiliar songs they played were from older albums, or originally by other artists, or new songs they had written but not recorded yet. Some of the unfamiliar songs sounded delightfully catchy, whereas others were just strange. One of the songs was about a couch, told from the first-person perspective of the couch. The crowd’s enthusiastically positive reaction to hearing that song made me feel somewhat like the song was a big inside joke, and I was the only person there who was not in on it.
Midway through the show, as one song entered, Paul and another band member began bantering about the daytime TV drama Days Of Our Lives, and a few of the instrumentalists played the beginning of the show’s theme song. Yet another inside joke I was not part of, I supposed; I associated Days Of Our Lives with old women and housewives, not the kind of people who were in one of the coolest bands ever. After that, they transitioned into an uptempo song about a girl who had an ugly butt. I laughed out loud when I heard them say that the first time. This band was amazing. They had everything… they had songs that sounded like regular pop-rock, songs that sounded more like punk with horns, songs that had more of a jazz-swing beat… and songs about an ugly butt. Why did this band not get more attention in the mainstream? Sometimes, their monthly postcards with information about upcoming shows said at the bottom, “Don’t forget to bug your radio stations!” This band was better than a lot of stuff on the radio.
After the song about the ugly butt, one of the horn players apologized to anyone who actually had an ugly butt who might have been offended by that song. Then another of the horn players, I think she was Paul’s sister, or maybe sister-in-law, sang the first verse of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” as a segue into “Useless Flowers,” a song of theirs that I knew well with Paul back on vocals. The last line of Useless Flowers was “All the money I failed to make can’t buy me love,” with those last four words sung and played on the exact same notes, in the exact same rhythm, as the classic Beatles song of that title. I always thought that was a clever reference.
The concert continued for what seemed like a blissful eternity. The other two times I had seen Lawsuit in person were at the Spring Picnic, where bands only played for around 40 minutes before clearing the stage to prepare for the next band playing. But this show was all Lawsuit, and it lasted for over two hours. As much as I enjoyed the two hours of music, though, this long concert carried a downside: the people around me became progressively more drunk, raucous, and clumsy as the night went on. I was just standing there, trying to enjoy the music, and I got bumped by the people around me numerous times. I had moved progressively farther from the stage as the night went on, as I got jostled and crowded out of my spot, and someone’s spilled beer had splashed on my shirt. And although the weather cooled somewhat after the sun went down, the stage area still radiated with the body heat of hundreds of concertgoers, and I still felt a little sticky and sweaty.
Toward the end of the night, Paul sang and the band performed a song where the character in the song was trying to convince a girl of his desirability, punctuated by the more direct phrase “let’s go to bed.” This prompted cheers from the drunks around me. After that song ended, Paul gestured for everyone to get quiet. After about ten seconds of silence, he looked upward, as if toward heaven, and shouted into the microphone, “Hey, Dave! This one’s for you!” That was nice, I thought, a fitting tribute to his brother who had died in the accident. Then, as the band began playing “Picture Book Pretty,” a song I knew from one of their albums I had, I wondered how such a loud shout was legal, considering that Jeromeville had strict laws about loud parties. Maybe the law didn’t apply to events put on by those who were well-connected locally, like the Sykeses. The title of this annual benefit concert came from a line from this song: “One thousand red roses would not be quite enough, ‘cause she’s picture book pretty.” The album version of the song said “one dozen red roses,” but they always changed it to “one thousand” in live performances.
After Picture Book Pretty ended, Paul said, “Thank you so much! Don’t forget to support local arts and music! We have a mailing list and merchandise at that table in the back.” As he pointed toward the merchandise table, he continued, “Thank you, and good night!” The band began filing off the stage as the crowd cheered loudly. I started to step backward away from the stage to head home when I noticed that no one else was leaving; everyone just kept cheering loudly. I wondered if they knew that something more would happen after the last song. This felt like another of those moments where the band and most of the others here were in on some inside joke that I was not aware of.
Of course, this was not some Lawsuit inside joke; the crowd wanted an encore. It was standard practice at the end of a concert like this to cheer loudly until the band came back out to play another song or two. But I had never been to an actual concert, so I knew none of this. The band did come back out after about two minutes; the drums, bass, and horns began playing a low, quick, repetitive melody. Paul began rapping atonally about Albert Einstein, combining historical facts about Einstein’s life with whimsical comments about his hair and silly statements about Einstein playing football and baseball. This was a strange song. They followed this with one more song that I did not recognize and ended the show for real this time.
The people around me mingled and talked, and some headed toward the merchandise table. I noticed some of the band members walking around talking to fans. That would be fun, to meet the band. I looked around to see if Paul was anywhere nearby, and I saw him talking to a few other people in front of the stage. I worked my way over to where Paul was standing and politely waited my turn. After a few minutes, the people in front of me left, and Paul turned to me. “Hi, there!” Paul said.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a flyer about upcoming shows that I had taken from the merchandise table before the show started, along with a black ballpoint pen that I carried around in my pocket sometimes. “May I have your autograph?” I asked.
“Sure!” Paul replied, smiling. He took the flyer and pen, turned the flyer to the blank side, and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Greg,” I said.
Paul began writing. “G-R-E-G?” he asked.
Paul scribbled a few things on the paper and handed it back to me. “Here you go.”
“Thanks so much,” I said. “It was a great show. I had fun.”
“Thanks! I hope to see you at another one soon.”
I stepped away as Paul turned to talk to other people waiting for him. I looked at the back of my flyer to see what he wrote:
To Greg- Have fun!
Love, Paul Sykes
The name on the bottom was barely legible, like most celebrity signatures. But I know who it was and where I got it. Later that night, when I got home, I retired the pen Paul touched and never used it again, keeping the pen and autographed flyer in a box so that I could remember the time I saw Lawsuit live and met Paul Sykes.
I looked around and noticed that some people had begun trickling out of the gated stage area, headed home as well, while others were still standing around with their friends. I had met Paul, I had no other accomplishments to complete that night, so I began walking toward the gate.
In keeping with the One Thousand Red Roses theme, someone stood at the gate and handed a long-stemmed red rose to everyone leaving the show. I took mine and walked back down Coventry Boulevard toward my apartment, on an excited high from the amazing live music I saw that night. The walk home took about fifteen minutes, and it was mostly quiet and peaceful, since the people leaving the concert were dispersing in multiple directions. It was around eleven at night, and a cool breeze had picked up, cool enough that I would not normally be outside wearing shorts in this temperature. I was not uncomfortable, though, because at the concert I was surrounded by other sweaty people, and now I was moving, expending energy to walk back to my apartment.
I unlocked the door and took off my shirt, which smelled of sweat and other people’s beer, and put on a new shirt. Then I walked to the kitchen. I was not sure what to do with a cut rose. I had seen people put flowers in vases of water. I was not classy enough to have a vase, particularly since I pronounced vase to rhyme with “base,” not like “vozz.” I found an empty 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola in the box I used to hold recyclables, rinsed it out, filled it water to make a makeshift vase, and put the rose inside. I then sat down at the computer, because it was not particularly late and I was used to staying awake much later than this. I typed an email to a girl in New Zealand whom I had met on the Internet recently, replying to her email about classes and telling her about the concert.
Paul had told me that he hoped to see me at a show again soon. I hoped to go to a show again soon. Lawsuit played all up and down the state, but they played in this area fairly often. They also played in Bay City frequently, still within a day trip distance. I would definitely be watching the monthly flyers I got in the mail for shows I might be able to go to. And I would tell people about this band. Once that t-shirt I bought tonight came back in stock, I would wear it around campus and to class and to the grocery store, so I could tell people about Lawsuit, and be identified as a Lawsuit fan to any other Lawsuit fans I might meet. That plan did not get off the ground as I had hoped, for reasons including the t-shirt taking two months to finally arrive. But I tried. I had already told one person on the other side of the globe about this band, so that counts for something, and Lawsuit is still in my music collection and playlists today.
The Dennison family got cable television in 1984. I was in second grade, and we now got thirty channels with very clear pictures. This was a vast improvement over the six channels we got before, two of which were full of static and one of which was in Spanish. I grew up watching MTV in the 1980s, and my mother absorbed knowledge of much of the popular music of that day. However, my mother also had the habit of not paying close attention to lyrics and misunderstanding the meanings of songs. To her, for example, “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper was about dancing, rather than masturbation, and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen was a proud patriotic anthem, not a criticism of the United States government’s past involvement in Vietnam and subsequent neglect of veterans.
In 1996, after getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and making new friends there, I discovered the new world of Christian rock music. Bands like DC Talk and Jars of Clay filled two of the three discs on my CD changer, and I copied both albums to cassettes to listen to in the car. A few of those Christian rock hits were getting played on mainstream secular radio stations, and in an attempt to connect with me, Mom would tell me whenever she heard one of these songs. Mom would also tell me whenever she heard some other song that had a lyric that sounded religious and ask if that song was by one of my Christian bands, despite the fact that many of these words had meanings in ordinary English and were used by non-Christian musicians as well. No, Mom, “Salvation” by the Cranberries is not Christian music.
My family had recently set up Internet access, and Mom had made the humorous email name “Peg Not Bundy” for herself, in reference to Peg Bundy, the wife from TV’s Married With Children, and the fact that her name was Peggy also. I opened an email from Peg Not Bundy and read it.
From: email@example.com To: “Gregory J. Dennison” <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Sat, 27 Jul 1996 09:33 -0700 Subject: Re: hi
I finally have a few minutes to sit and write. It has been such a busy week! I’ve had a lot of work to do. Today Mark has a baseball game, so I have to take him to that, then Cody is coming over afterward p[bdfg6t7sdvg78ysvd (Davey says hi).
Davey was a cat, and that gibberish meant that he climbed on the keyboard as Mom was typing. This was not the first time this had happened, but it always made me smile when I read that in Mom’s emails. I continued reading.
I heard a song on the radio today that I kind of like. The chorus said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God.” Do you know that song? Is that one of your Christian bands? How is your class going? One more week, right? Talk to you later. Love, Mom
I replied to the email and told Mom that the song was “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla, and it was definitely not Christian music. If Mom had listened to the next line, she would know that the song actually said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ‘cause I’d really like to meet her.” A real Christian band would not be referring to God as “her”; this would be extremely unpopular with listeners of mainstream Christian music, although the idea was not unheard of among liberal feminists in the Church.
Liberal feminists in the Church were not hard to find in a university town like Jeromeville. I attended Mass at the Jeromeville Newman Center, and one time last year, before I was part of the choir, I remember we sang a familiar song called “On Eagle’s Wings.” Since its publication in 1979, this had been a popular song for Catholic Masses; I had heard and sung it many times growing up at Our Lady of Peace Church. The line at the end of the chorus said “and hold you in the palm of his hand,” with God doing the holding, but the first time I heard it at Newman, it sounded like they were saying something a little different, almost like “palm of her hand.” Some time later, when I got to church, I looked at the sign that had the numbers of the day’s songs in the songbook, and next to the number for On Eagle’s Wings was a female ♀ symbol. Just like the time before, the choir sang female pronouns for God. I noticed as the year went on that they would occasionally change other lyrics to refer to God in the feminine. I was a little surprised at this, because in my experience, the radical feminists and hippies who used female pronouns for God were not Catholic.
The day after Mom asked about Counting Blue Cars, I drove myself to church. I usually carpooled with Heather Escamilla, who lived in the same apartment complex as me, but she had blown off church to spend the weekend at the Great Blue Lake with her boyfriend. I heard Counting Blue Cars on the way to church and promptly changed the station. Hearing that song reminded me that we were singing On Eagle’s Wings with feminine pronouns today, and this still made me uncomfortable. God did not have a gender or biological sex in the way that humans understand the concept, but making a point of using feminine pronouns in church, going against centuries of church tradition, just seemed arrogant to me. The Bible was the Word of God, and if masculine pronouns were good enough for those who wrote it, why are they suddenly not good enough for Jeromevillians in 1996? Changing God’s gender felt like a slippery slope toward changing God’s teachings.
“Hey, Greg,” Claire, the unofficial leader of the choir, said as I approached the other choir members. “How are you?”
“Doing well. One more week of class.”
“Nice! Are you taking a class second session?”
“No. I’m just going to hang out. And I’m moving at the start of September.”
“Me too. I’m getting an apartment with Sabrina and one other girl we know. I’m going to have my own room for the first time! I’m not going to need my bed loft! Do you know anyone who wants to buy a bed loft?”
“Actually,” I said, “I might be interested. I’m going to be sharing a room. How much?”
“I was thinking fifty dollars. We can talk about it later. I’ll let you know.”
I walked to my usual music stand, next to Ellen Stark. “Hi,” I said. “How are you?”
“Good! We’re taking a family vacation this week, up to Portland to visit relatives. I’m excited about that!”
“Fun! I have my final exam on Thursday.”
“Good luck! I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“When do you go back to California?”
“Middle of September. So I’ll still be here for a while.”
“Good,” I said.
Claire whispered at all of us to be quiet as Father Bill and Sister Mary Rose walked up to begin Mass. On Eagle’s Wings was the offertory song, sung about halfway through while the offering plates were being passed. I had sung it with feminine pronouns before, because that was just the way things were done at the Jeromeville Newman Center, but today, with Counting Blue Cars still on my mind, it felt especially wrong.
“And hmm will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” I sang, purposely making the pronoun unintelligible. “And hold you in the palm… of mmm hand.” I looked at Ellen next to me to see if she noticed; she was looking straight forward, not at me. Probably not.
After Communion, as Father Bill and others were making announcements, I noticed Lisa, another singer from our choir who sang at the early service during the school year, coming out of the back room with Sister Mary Rose. Lisa walked back to her music stand. I wondered what she was doing; she had been singing with us just a few minutes ago, and I did not notice her step away. We sang the final song, and after Father Bill dismissed the congregation, we began putting our sheet music and stands away. Lisa accidentally knocked over her stand, then almost tripped over it trying to pick up the scattered sheet music.
“Sorry!” Lisa laughed. “There was a lot of leftover wine today.”
“What?” I asked, certain that I had misheard.
“After Communion, Sister Mary Rose and I were finishing the bread and wine,” Lisa explained.
“You have to eat and drink the rest of it?” Matt Jones asked.
“Yeah,” Lisa explained. “You can’t just throw it away, it’s the Body and Blood of Christ!”
“I guess I never really thought about that,” Matt said.
“I know sometimes I need to get a little tipsy from the wine to finish the last song,” Lisa said, laughing. Matt and Claire laughed with her, while I just stood, shocked at this blasphemy I was hearing. I had recently read in First Corinthians where Paul wrote that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” My understanding was that, unlike many other Christians, Catholics believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, while retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine. This is why, as Lisa said, it could not just be thrown away.
Joking about getting drunk off of the blood of Christ had no place in a house of worship. At this point, though, I did not expect much reverence from a congregation that prioritized being good feminists and calling God She over church teaching. I immediately walked over to Sister Mary Rose.
“Hi, Greg,” Sister Mary Rose said. “How are you?”
“Can I talk to you sometime?” I asked. “I have some things I’ve been thinking about.”
“Sure. What’s your schedule like this week?”
“I have class Tuesday and Thursday from 12 to 2, and Wednesday from 10 to 2. I’m free tomorrow.”
“How about you just come by here tomorrow afternoon? Around one o’clock, maybe?”
“That sounds good. I’ll see you then.”
“Yes. See you tomorrow.”
I decided to ride my bike to the Newman Center the next afternoon to talk to Sister Mary Rose, instead of driving. That way I could continue on a recreational bike ride afterward. The ride took about ten minutes, but it was hot enough that I was starting to sweat when I arrived. I locked my bike and walked into the church office, slowly and carefully.
“Hi, Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said. “Take a seat.” I sat in a chair across from her at her desk, trying to get comfortable, as she asked, “So what’s going on?”
I took a deep breath, and then another one, trying to make the words come out right. “When we sing songs like ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ with the feminine pronouns, that isn’t right to me. It’s like you’re putting politics above church teaching and the Word of God.”
“Well,” Sister Mary Rose replied, “how do you think you would feel if you were a woman?”
I paused. It seemed like she was setting me up to make me feel guilty for being a white male, a standard tactic used by liberals to make conservatives look bad. I did not feel guilty for being who I was, but I also did not want to start an argument or say anything that Sister Mary Rose would find offensive. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I would probably notice that God is usually spoken of as if he were male, but I would like to think that I would submit to Scripture and Church teaching on the subject.”
“Well, God is not a man. God has both male and female attributes.”
“Then why is this a problem for you?”
“It just feels…” I shifted my position in my seat. “Kind of arrogant, like you know better than hundreds of years of Church teaching, and the people who wrote the Bible.”
“Church teaching has changed. And so has language. It was normal at one time to use a word like ‘mankind’ to mean all men and women, but today we would say ‘humankind.’”
I nodded, but inwardly cringed. I thought “humankind” was kind of a dumb word, when “mankind” did just as well with fewer letters and syllables. It had only been twenty-seven years since Neil Armstrong’s famous use of the word “mankind,” and the language had already changed? I remember being home at Christmas and noticing that this year’s songbook at Our Lady of Peace had replaced the word “mankind” in one of the later verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with “humankind,” breaking the rhythm by adding an extra syllable. Forcibly changing the language like that felt too much like George Orwell’s 1984 to me.
However, Sister Mary Rose brought up an important point: I was not a woman. I did not know how it felt to live in a culture that historically treated women as second-class citizens, and while women had made a great deal of progress toward equality, old habits and scars remained at times.
“But,” I asked, “isn’t church teaching supposed to be based on the Bible? And the word of God doesn’t change.”
“The word of God doesn’t change,” Sister Mary Rose reiterated. “The Church will never do anything that goes against the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus. And changing the language we use doesn’t go against any of that. You agreed that God has male and female attributes. So using male and female language to refer to God does not go against any teaching.”
I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know.”
“Pray about it. Pray that God will give you peace about this.”
“I just don’t know if I belong here anymore.”
“What do you mean? Where?”
“The Newman Center. I’ve been getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, they are nondenominational, but the more I learn about the Bible, I see a lot of people here who don’t really seem to take their faith seriously.” I shifted in my seat again, debating telling her about Lisa getting tipsy from the Communion wine; I decided not to.
“Greg, no one is perfect. Everyone sins. That is why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And if you are concerned about them, you can be a good example and take your faith seriously, and pray for them.”
I nodded. “That makes sense,” I said.
“You’ve been a part of Newman for, how long? Two years now? I would hate for you to feel like this isn’t your spiritual home anymore.”
“May I pray for you?”
Sister Mary Rose folded her hands and looked down, and I did the same. “O Loving Parent, I pray for your blessing on Greg. I thank you for bringing him to the Newman Center to be a part of our community. I thank you for blessing us with his voice on Sunday mornings. I pray that you will give him peace about these things that have been on his mind, and that he will listen for your guidance.” She continued, saying the Hail Mary prayer, then lifted her head and opened her eyes.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Just find a quiet place and listen to God.”
“I’ve been trying to do that.”
“Good! Keep doing that.” We made small talk for a few minutes, and I left, feeling a little bit better, but still unsure of what to think of all this.
Later that night, when I got home from my bike ride, I turned on the radio and went to the kitchen to make dinner. My sink was full of dirty dishes, and my little studio apartment did not have a dishwasher, so I began washing the dishes by hand. Counting Blue Cars came on a few minutes into doing the dishes. “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” lead singer J.R. Richards sang, “‘cause I’d really like to meet her.” My hands were too wet and soapy to walk over and change the station, so I left it on. It really was not a bad song, other than the use of female pronouns for God.
I will tell you all my thoughts on God, J.R., I thought. God created the universe and inspired holy men to write the Bible. Those holy men referred to God with masculine language, so I will do the same. A huge part of knowing God is knowing and obeying his Word, and not placing the cultural norms of this liberal university town above God’s Word. I hope you do meet him someday.
But that in no way makes women second-class citizens. Men and women are both created in the image of God, and both have roles to play in God’s kingdom. And I had to admit that I had not studied the original languages of the Bible, so I did not know how gender and language worked when the Bible was originally written.
I still felt unsettled about all of this, and uncomfortable with the idea of a church referring to God in the feminine. I felt just as uncomfortable, if not more so, with church choir members getting tipsy from Communion wine. “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” J.R. continued, “‘cause I’m on my way to see her. Tell me, am I very far?” I was going through the same process as the character in the song, seeking God and wanting to know how to get closer to him. Maybe that would happen at the Newman Center, or maybe I was looking for something else, but I was asking the right questions and moving in the right direction.
Welcome! If you are new here, this is not a typical post. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student, set in 1996. It is a story of living, learning, growing, and self-discovery, amidst a world of alternative rock and the emergence of the Internet into the mainstream.
Last week’s episode was the Year 2 season finale. I will be taking some time off, during which I will be planning for year 3. Also, in real life things may be kind of busy and unpredictable for the next few months, so I could use one fewer commitment. I do not know right now when I will start writing again, but I will someday soon. If you are new here and hoping for more episodes soon, you can always go here to read the first episode and then just read in order from there by clicking Next.
Just as with Year 1, I made a playlist with all of the music I used in Year 2:
I also added a new “Music” page to this site, with links to the playlists for each year. And I updated the Dramatis Personae, adding character bios for Abby Bartlett, Amelia Dye, Josh McGraw, and Dr. Gabby Thomas. I also added a number of new characters to the lists of other characters, and updated some other characters’ bios. I will be starting a new Dramatis Personae for Year 3 soon, removing people who are not part of the story anymore. I wonder sometimes if the large cast of characters makes the story more difficult to read or follow, or if I need more character development for the other main characters. However, in real life a university student is likely to know a lot of people, and this is primarily one person’s story, not a story with an ensemble cast. On a related note, I have considered, someday when I am done telling the main story, going back and retelling some of the more interesting episodes from another character’s point of view. Or maybe I could start doing that during these interludes, when I am taking a break from the main story.
I take a break like this after every June and December in the fictional timeline. One of the recurring topics has been the community shared by some of the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship students. Eddie and his housemates had Haley and her housemates right down the street, and Shawn and Brian and their housemates around the corner, to the point that it was almost like living in a Christian dorm. In real life, I have come to learn that that kind of community among Christians is very difficult to find in adulthood, outside of the context of being a university student. I have had a lot of struggles finding a church and a community as an adult, and in talking with people I have come to the conclusion that most Christians just do not have this as adults. Instead, they have families of their own around which their lives revolve, and outside of that, church friends are just one among several compartments into which life has been divided. Will I ever find that sense of community again in real life? I do not know (and COVID has thrown more complications into this, of course).
I have often found that I need to keep reminding myself that, first and foremost, DLTDGB is a work of fiction. Much of it is based on true stories, but I stress too much about getting every detail right. Maybe two people who are in the same Bible study in DLTDGB weren’t in real life; that’s okay.
Thank you all for your support. Please leave comments. I wish people would comment more often on this blog; I enjoy interacting with my readers. If you have any questions at all for me, about anything, please ask. If I get a lot of interesting questions, maybe I’ll share them as a question-and-answer post next week. Or offer suggestions and thoughts on my writing. Some of you a while back told me that my posts were too long, and ever since then I have kept them under a certain length. Or just say hi and introduce yourself and tell me how you are doing. I want to hear from you.
“We have a big announcement tonight!” said Cheryl, one of the staff members of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. The projection screen began descending, and the lights went out a few seconds later. What was this? I had been attending JCF since October, and we never watched videos. Some of these meetings included a silly skit after the first worship song; I wondered if that was what was happening here, but with the skit on video. But as I watched the first few seconds of the video, it quickly became clear that this was something professionally produced.
The video was about two minutes long, full of large groups of students singing worship songs and praying, adults lecturing, and scenes from other countries of people being fed and churches being built. Music played throughout the video, and text indicated that this was a promotion for some large event called “Urbana,” sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF. By the end of the video, it had become clear that this “Urbana” was a large convention where students and young adults could learn about Christian missions and service projects. The convention was held during winter break every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, with the next one this coming December 27-31.
A few days ago, Xander had asked me for my address, so he could send me a prayer letter. He would be going on a mission trip to India for part of this coming summer. Having grown up Catholic, concepts like “prayer letters” and “mission trips” were very new to me, and now that I was taking my Christian faith seriously, I felt more of a desire to learn about the subject. Maybe this Urbana convention would be a way to learn more about that. But the whole idea of traveling to Illinois, two-thirds of the way across the country, just to learn about traveling even farther away to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other countries, seemed geared toward super hard-core Christians who were actively searching to do a trip like that. Getting to Illinois would require riding in an airplane, and I had never been in an airplane. I had no idea how to get airplane tickets, or what to do once I got to the airport. The convention itself would cost three hundred dollars to attend, and I was not sure I wanted to spend that much money on something that might not be right for me.
Eddie was sitting next to me that night at JCF. He and Xander were housemates, and their whole house seemed like the kind of hard-core Christians who would be attending Urbana Surely enough, when the night ended, the first thing Eddie did was turn to me and ask, “So what do you think about Urbana? Are you gonna go?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think it would be good to learn more about missions, since I didn’t really grow up around that. And now, like, Xander is doing that trip to India this summer. And Taylor and Pete and Charlie are going to Morocco. So it would be cool to learn more about missions.”
“But I don’t know if I want to spend that much money.”
“That makes sense. You have a while to think about it and save up for it. The price goes up in July, but registration is open through November. Think about it.”
“I will. Are you going?”
“I’m planning to. Someone I knew from my church back home went to Urbana ‘93 and spoke about it. It sounded really great.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Eddie went to go look for someone he needed to talk to, and I continued wandering around looking to see who was around. I saw Melinda Schmidt and Amelia Dye, two junior girls, sitting behind me talking to a few other people whom I did not know well. Melinda saw me first and waved. “Hey, Greg!” she said. “How was your week?”
“It was good,” I said. “I have a paper coming up that I need to start working on.”
“I just finished one. I hope I do well. Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Come over! Amelia and I are having a birthday party for our cat, Alvin.”
“A cat birthday party,” I repeated. “How does that work? Do I bring a present?”
“No. Just bring yourself.”
“I should be able to make that. Where do you live?”
“Pine Grove, number 202. Do you know where that is?”
“Pine Grove Apartments? Yeah, I know where that is.”
“Great! Come over any time after six.”
“I’ll be there! Sounds good!”
A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment for sophomore year, Pine Grove was my second choice. The studio apartment at Las Casas Apartments, where I lived now, was less expensive than the one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove, although it was also smaller. Also, thirteen of my friends from Building C freshman year lived within walking distance of Las Casas, and I did not know anyone near Pine Grove. This had been a deciding factor for me. But as I got to know people from JCF this year, I had met at least three households of JCF regulars in Pine Grove, and because of this, I somewhat regretted not having chosen to live there.
Pine Grove Apartments was on at the end of a cul-de-sac about a mile south of me, backing up to Highway 117 and just across Fifth Street from the outer reaches of campus. I found a place to park on the cul-de-sac and walked around the apartment grounds until I found number 202. I knocked at the door, and Amelia answered.
“Greg!” she said. “Come on in!”
I was one of the first ones to arrive, as usual. Scott Madison, who was Amelia’s boyfriend, and Scott’s roommate Joe Fox were the only other people in the apartment besides the girls who lived there. Scott and Joe also lived in Pine Grove.
“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.
“Not much,” I said. “I got all my homework done for the weekend. But I have to start thinking about my anthro term paper.”
“When’s it due?”
“Not until the 29th.”
“Then why are you thinking about it now?”
“I have to study a group of people the way an anthropologist would. That’ll take time.”
“Yeah, but you have the whole month. It’s not going to take that long.”
“You’re going to be an anthropologist?” Joe asked. “That sounds awesome! Is that your major?”
“I’m a math major. I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a general ed class. And I know the professor.”
“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”
“I hope so. Tabitha is in that class too.”
“What?” Tabitha said. She had walked in a couple minutes earlier.
“I was talking about the anthro project. I said you’re in that class too.”
“Oh, yeah. Do you know what you’re going to write about yet?”
“Smart,” Tabitha said. “I was thinking I might do University Life.”
“That would be funny,” Joe said. I did not understand at first; I thought she meant that she was going to do a project on the life of a university student. That seemed too broad for the scope of this assignment. What I did not realize at the time was that University Life was the name of another large Christian student group, affiliated with the Baptist church in Jeromeville, and that University Life had a bit of an ongoing friendly rivalry with the nondenominational JCF.
Over the next hour, more people trickled in. I recognized most of them from JCF; some of them I knew better than others. Many of them were juniors and seniors, but a few sophomores were there too: Tabitha, Eddie and his housemate John, and a girl whose name I thought was Alyssa. There was also one guy whose grade and age were unknown to me. As I ate chips and pizza and talked to people, I noticed someone who was conspicuously missing: the birthday boy, Alvin the cat. I turned to Melinda and asked, “Where’s the cat?”
“He’s in my room. He gets kind of shy when we have a lot of people over.”
“But this is his party!”
Melinda turned close to me and lowered her voice. “That was really just an excuse to have a party. We’re not even really sure exactly when his birthday is.”
“Oh,” I said. That thought had honestly never crossed my mind. I was seriously expecting a cat birthday party, not just an informal get-together.
Some people started a game of Uno at the table, and I joined them. After we got tired of Uno, we played Taboo, and I was complimented for my ability to give clues and get people to guess correctly. My favorite part of Taboo was holding the little buzzer, so I could buzz people from the other team who say words that are not allowed. Others generally found the buzzer annoying.
Even though Alvin the cat’s birthday was just an excuse to throw a party, according to Melinda, she did bring Alvin out for a few minutes later in the evening. He had mottled black and white fur and blue eyes, and he clearly seemed intimidated by the sixteen additional people in the apartment. Amelia went to the kitchen and emerged with a cake with white frosting and the outline of a cat drawn in black frosting. She led us all in singing “Happy Birthday.” As the song ended, Alvin began squirming; he broke free of Melinda’s arms and darted back to her bedroom.
“Well, I tried to bring the birthday boy out,” Melinda said. “Who wants cake and ice cream?” Hands went up and people said “Me!” as Amelia cut the cake and Melinda scooped the ice cream. Eventually they handed me my plate, and I began eating. I overheard Scott ask something about music, and shortly afterward I became vaguely aware of music playing in the background.
When I finished the small slice of cake and single scoop of ice cream on my plate, I asked Amelia if it was okay to get seconds. “Sure!” she replied. “There’s plenty.” I got my second, larger plate of cake and ice cream and brought it to the living room, sitting on the floor and listening to the conversations around me. A few minutes later, a familiar song came on: “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” by the local independent band Lawsuit. “I love this song!” I said enthusiastically.
“You like Lawsuit?” Scott asked. “I made this mixtape for this party.”
“Yes. I discovered them at last year’s Spring Picnic.” I started singing along when the vocals came in, but stopped after one line when I noticed no one else was.
A few minutes later, Melinda approached me holding an envelope. “Greg?” she asked. “Can I ask you something?
“Yeah. What is it?”
“I’m going to be going on a mission trip to Russia for three weeks this summer. I wanted to give you a copy of my prayer letter, so you will know how you can be praying for me. Also, if you want to give to my trip, it has the information for that.”
“Sure,” I said. It sounded like this was the same kind of thing Xander wanted to send me for his trip to India this summer. I continued, “I don’t know a whole lot about mission trips, being a new Christian and all, but I want to find out.”
“Are you going to Urbana? You’ll find out a lot there.”
“The video last night was the first I had heard of this. I’ve never traveled that far before, and it’s a lot of money. I don’t know.”
“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”
“I know. And it would be good to learn more about what opportunities are out there.”
“Totally! Here’s the letter,” she said, handing me the envelope. “I mailed these a few days ago, but I didn’t have your address.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I’ll read it.”
U2’s “One” was the next song on Scott’s mixtape. I continued eating cake and ice cream as I watched people talking and eating around me. Bono, U2’s vocalist, began singing higher notes toward the end of the song. The conversations in the room all seemed to reach a simultaneous lull, and I happened to make eye contact with Scott as Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the first of four consecutive times. We shared an unspoken moment in which the same idea passed through our heads.
“Haaa-haaah!” Scott and I sang along, loudly and in a bad falsetto. Everyone else in the room looked at us and started laughing. When Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the third and fourth time, the entire room sang along with us.
“That was awesome,” I said, extending my hand to give a high five to Scott. He smiled and returned the high five.
As I looked around that room, I realized something. None of the others at this party were people whom I had lived with last year in Building C; they were all new friends and acquaintances I had made through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. (I knew Tabitha to say hi to last year, but only because we had mutual friends who attended JCF.) I wondered if this signaled a coming shift in my social life away from my Building C friends, or if there was room to expand my inner circle to include these new friends. By the time I got home that night, I was feeling a little worn out from all the socializing, but also excited to have made so many new friends this year.
Claire Seaver was a year older than Danielle and me. “I really haven’t found a good Mexican place in Jeromeville,” Claire replied. She had been around Jeromeville longer, so she would know more about the Mexican food here. I had not looked for Mexican food other than Taco Bell and the Tex-Mex Grill in the Coffee House on campus, so I had no opinion on this yet.
“How was your weekend, Greg?” Danielle asked.
“It was good,” I said. “Some people from JCF had a party last night.”
“Was that the one at Pine Grove Apartments? I don’t remember the people’s names.”
“Yeah. Amelia and Melinda.”
“Pete got invited to that, but he decided to come over and watch a movie instead.
“‘Watching a movie,’” Claire teased. “I’m sure that’s not all you were doing.”
“Shut up!” Danielle said, playfully slapping Claire. “We were just holding hands. Anyway, Greg, were you at JCF on Friday? Because Pete was telling me about that big conference coming up.”
“Urbana? Yeah, I saw the video. I don’t know if I’m going to go. It’s a lot of money, and farther away than I’ve ever been before. But I would like to learn more about mission trips.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Pete’s thinking about going. He has the Morocco trip coming up too.”
“Greg? What are you gonna do for your anthro project?” asked Claire. She was also in my anthropology class.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I was thinking I might do the IRC chat room where I hang out a lot when I’m bored.”
“That would be interesting! Timely, too. Chat rooms haven’t been around long, so their culture probably hasn’t been studied.”
“True. What about you?”
“I’m not sure. I have a few things in mind, though.”
I ate quickly, and I felt a great sense of relief when I got back to the car. Although I was enjoying these once-in-a-lifetime moments with friends, I was exhausted by this time and looking forward to a night of sitting at home by myself. When I got home and entered my apartment, I noticed I had a telephone message on the answering machine.
“Hello,” the disembodied robotic voice said when I pressed the button. “You have one new message.” The machine’s voice was replaced with my mother’s voice, asking me to call her when I got home. I dialed the numbers and waited.
“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.
“Hey,” I said. “It’s Greg.”
“Hello! Where were you?”
“I went out to lunch with some people from church. And yesterday some girls from JCF invited me to a birthday party for their cat.”
“Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes. “And how exactly do you have a birthday party for a cat?”
“They said it was really just an excuse to have a party. The cat didn’t like crowds, and I only saw him once.”
“I see. And you said these are people from JCF? That’s that Christian group you’re part of?”
“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”
“Good for you. I’m glad you’re making friends. See? I knew you could do it.”
“Thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes again.
Mom and I continued catching up and making small talk for about another twenty minutes. Even though I rolled my eyes, Mom was right; I was making a lot of new friends this year. By getting involved with JCF over the last seven months, I came to faith, but I also found a social life. But even though I was new to practicing my faith, I already understood that I should be focusing on Jesus rather than on my social life. Nothing was wrong with having a social life, and it was a nice added bonus that came with being part of a new group. But my social life should never become the main reason I attend JCF or church. This tension between being part of a community of believers but putting Jesus above my social life would become a recurring theme throughout my life But no matter what happened, I knew that my new friends were a blessing from God.