December 10-13, 1995. None of this made any sense.

“Let us offer each other the sign of peace,” Father Bill said.  Congregants turned to each other, saying “Peace be with you,” and shaking hands.  I turned to Phil Gallo and shook his hand.  “Peace be with you,” I said.  Phil said the same to me.  I turned around to Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell with their guitars behind me and shook their hands.  “Peace be with you,” I said.

I walked to my right.  “Peace be with you, Greg,” Danielle Coronado said as she hugged me.  Danielle had lived down the hall from me last year in the dorm, and she had encouraged me to be part of the church choir in the first place.  Danielle’s younger sister, Carly, was also in the choir.  “Peace be with you,” Carly told me, also giving me a hug.

I walked around making sure to wish everyone in the choir peace.  Sabrina Murphy walked up to me and smiled.  “Peace be with you,” she said, putting her arms around me.  I hugged back and wished her peace in return.  This was the first time Sabrina hugged me; before we always just shook hands.  Maybe that meant something… hopefully.

Just before the final song, during announcements, Sister Mary Rose held up a small box about the size of a soup can.  “We are taking up a collection for our sister parish in El Salvador,” she explained.  “You can pick up one of these piggy banks, and over the holidays, when you have change in your pocket, remember our brothers and sisters who need to do some repairs to their chapel.  We will be collecting the money you raise during the January 14 service.”

After the final song, everyone around me seemed to be engrossed in conversation, so I walked over to where Sister Mary Rose was handing out the piggy banks.  About ten minutes later, I approached Heather Escamilla, because we were neighbors and we had carpooled that morning, and I wanted to ask when she would be ready to go back home.  But she noticed me and began speaking first.  “Greg!  Do you need to go home now?  Because some of us from choir were just talking about going to Bakers Square for lunch.  You want to come?”

“Sure,” I said.

Bakers Square was a chain of restaurants that were essentially like Denny’s with pies.  In the early 2000s, most of the Bakers Square locations in the western United States closed, leaving the chain with only a few locations far from here.  But in 1995, Bakers Square restaurants were common in suburban neighborhoods around here.  The one in Jeromeville was only a few blocks from the Newman Center, so those of us from the choir all walked over in a big group.  When we arrived, they put a bunch of tables together in order to accommodate our group of twelve.  I walked toward the nearest empty seat and was pleasantly surprised to see Sabrina taking the seat next to me a few seconds later.  “Hi,” I said as Sabrina sat down.

“Hi, Greg,” Sabrina replied.  “How are you?”

“Not bad.  My physics final is tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll probably be studying for that.  I’m not too worried about it.”

“Which class?”

“9B.”

“That wasn’t too hard.  I took that last year.”

When Sabrina said that, I realized that I did not know what her major was, or what year she was.  She was probably a junior if she had taken Physics 9B a year ago.  “What’s your major?” I asked.

“Aerospace engineering.”

I was not expecting that.  Sabrina did not at all look like an aerospace engineer to me.  “That sounds interesting,” I said.

“It’s hard, but I really like it.  And my boyfriend is an aerospace engineer too, so we get to take classes together sometimes.”

“That sounds nice.”

The server came to take our orders; she started at our side of the table.  Sabrina ordered a chicken salad, and I ordered a cheeseburger.  I was too disappointed at Sabrina’s mention of her boyfriend to rejoin the conversation for the next few minutes.  It seemed like it always happened like this; I would meet a cute, friendly girl, and she would immediately bring up her boyfriend, almost as if she was telling me not to get interested in her.

“Greg,” Danielle said a few minutes later.  I realized that I had not talked to anyone except Sabrina since I got here.  “How are you?  What’s your finals schedule like?”

“Physics tomorrow afternoon, math Wednesday morning, and chem Friday morning.  Nice and spread out.”

“You only have three finals?  That’s nice.  I have four, and three of them are tomorrow and Tuesday.”

“Two of my classes don’t have finals.  Your finals schedule sounds like mine was last spring quarter.  Good luck.”

“What classes are you taking that don’t have finals?” Heather asked.

“Bowling, and math problem solving seminar.  Bowling is half a unit, and the math class is 2.”

“Oh, ok.  I was going to say, two classes without finals?  How lucky!”

After we finished eating, I took Heather home and went back to my apartment.  I spent the rest of the afternoon studying physics.  I thought I understood it pretty well, but my first physics midterm in the spring had caught me off guard.  I still ended up with an A in that class, though, after working extremely hard for the rest of the quarter, and I have made sure to study hard for every physics test since.

Around eight o’clock, I turned on the TV to watch The Simpsons, but it was a rerun, so I turned on the computer and went to an IRC chat channel, only half-paying attention to The Simpsons in the background.  A few people whose names I recognized from having spent a lot of time in this channel said hello, and I said hi back.  I watched the messages scroll by; someone was talking about getting stoned at a party over the weekend, someone was bragging about the size of his penis and got quickly banned by the channel administration, and someone was trying to start normal conversations and getting ignored.  I replied to the person’s normal conversations, making small talk, but that lasted a few minutes before that person stopped replying.  I looked through the list of people in the room and tried messaging someone who might have been a girl my age, and got no reply.

A few minutes later, someone named “musicgirl” entered the room and said hi to everyone.  I sent her a private message.

gjd76: hi 🙂 how are you?
musicgirl: hi! i’m doing ok!  how was your weekend?
gjd76: good.  studying for finals, taking a break for the rest of the night.
musicgirl: i have finals coming up too! but i’m graduating in the spring so i’m excited about that! one more semester after this one!
gjd76: i’m only in my second year.  so why is your name music girl? is that what you’re studying?
musicgirl: i’m studying elementary education.  i want to be a teacher.  but i also play guitar in a band with two of my friends.  we play shows at this coffee shop sometimes.
gjd76: that’s so cool!  i’m studying math.  and i don’t play an instrument, but i sing
musicgirl: math was never my best subject.  i’d need you to tutor me 😉
gjd76: i could do that 🙂 what do you look like?
musicgirl: 5’9”, brown hair, blue eyes, slim.  what about you?
gjd76: cute 🙂 brown hair and blue eyes, i like that combination… i’m 6’4” with dark brown hair, almost black, and brown eyes
musicgirl: nice! i love tall guys!  a lot of guys think i’m too tall.
gjd76: good 🙂 do you have a boyfriend?
musicgirl: no, i’m single.  you?
gjd76: no girlfriend for me.  and all the guys are missing out, you seem really nice
musicgirl: thanks! you do too… and tall, dark, and handsome 🙂
gjd76: if i were there, i’d probably want to get to know you better 🙂
musicgirl: i’d want to get to know you too!
gjd76: what’s your name?
musicgirl: Laura.  you?
gjd76: greg.  nice to meet you 🙂
musicgirl: nice to meet you too!
gjd76: laura, if i asked you to dinner, would you go out with me?
musicgirl: of course!
gjd76: then afterward we’d go for a walk… and i’d try to hold your hand… is that ok?
musicgirl! yes! i would love that! i love holding hands 🙂
gjd76: me too 🙂 so when we got back to my apartment… would you like to come in?
musicgirl! yes… i look into your eyes and smile 🙂
gjd76: i put my arm around you and pull you close and kiss you
musicgirl: mmm… i kiss you back passionately
gjd76: i pull you closer and kiss you again… i take your hand and take you to my bed
musicgirl: i lie down and pull you close and kiss you again and pull my body close to yours

The rest of the conversation went… well.  I don’t need to share the details.  After we finished, Laura said it was late, and she needed to go to bed.  I did too; I had a final in the morning.  But I was so aroused after my dirty conversation with Laura that I needed to finish myself before bed.  And when I did finally get to bed, I lay there awake for almost three hours, feeling guilty about what I had done.  I liked it.  Laura seemed nice, and it felt good.  But afterward, it felt wrong.  I was Catholic, and I was not supposed to be lusting after women like this.

By about 1:30 in the morning, I had to pee.  On the way back to my bed, I saw the piggy bank for our sister church in El Salvador.  I had a pile of change on my desk, close to two dollars.  I put it all in the piggy bank, then turned out the light and went back to bed.  If I was going to be misbehaving like this, I could at least do something to help out the less fortunate in El Salvador.  Maybe that would make up for it.

My physics and math finals were pretty easy.  Laura had emailed me back Monday night; I was afraid that she was going to say I was out of line for our sexually explicit conversation on Sunday, but instead she said I was a total sweetheart and she could not wait to hear back from me.  I wrote back telling her about my finals, and she replied while I was at school today, saying that she would be on IRC tonight.  But when I got there, in the late afternoon, she was not on.  I checked again after dinner, but I never saw Laura in the chat.  I wanted to talk to Laura and continue where we left off the other night.  But she never got on.  After about half an hour of frustration, I walked away from the computer and fantasized about Laura the same way I had Sunday night, leaving me burdened with guilt and a mess to clean up.  After I was done, I put another handful of change in the piggy bank for the church in El Salvador.

What was I doing with my life?  This could not possibly be healthy.  It probably would not help me find a girlfriend in real life.  I checked my email.  I had two messages from Mindy Jo, my friend in Georgia whom I had met on this same IRC channel last year.  Back in 1995, there were no hashtags and no social media, and viral posts spread through chain emails that people forwarded to all of their friends.  Mindy Jo’s first message was one of these chain emails; I had to scroll down for a while, because these forwarded emails would start with pages and pages of headers, containing dates and recipients of the message as it had been sent from person to person.  I scrolled down and saw light bulb jokes about different college majors.

How many psychology majors does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the bulb has to want to change.

How many French majors does it take to change a light bulb?
Un.

How many philosophy majors does it take to change a light bulb?
What does it really mean to change a light bulb anyway?

How many aerospace engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one.  Come on, it’s not rocket science.

I laughed loudly at that one, thinking of Sabrina being an aerospace engineer.  Maybe I could tell her that joke someday (I did), and she would think that it was so funny that she would leave her boyfriend and fall in love with me instead (she didn’t).

After I read the rest of the light bulb jokes, I read Mindy Jo’s other email.  In the last email I sent to her, I mentioned the time we had spoken on the phone and asked if I could ever call her again sometime.  She said in this reply that I could call tonight or tomorrow night, and that she would be up until at least midnight.  I looked at the phone, and at the clock; it was still well before midnight in Georgia.  I dialed Mindy Jo’s number and waited nervously as I heard ringing.

“Hello?” a tired voice said.

“Mindy Jo?  It’s Greg.”

“Hey!  How’re you doin’?”

“Not that great.  I dope I dint’ wake you up; you said I could call until midnight.”

“You’re fine.  I wasn’t sleepin’.”

“That’s good.”

“What’s wrong?  Why aren’t you doin’ great?”

“I’ve just been discouraged and frustrated about being alone.”

“You haven’t met a nice girl yet?”

“Most of the girls I really like are taken.  It happened again just the other day; I was talking to a cute girl I know from church, and she said something about her boyfriend.”

“I hate when that happens.  I had a crush on this guy freshman year, and I was about to tell him that I liked him when he said he was going to go see his girlfriend.”

“Exactly.  And I don’t really know how to ask a girl out.”  I did not tell Mindy Jo anything about my shame I was feeling about masturbating; she did not need to hear that.

“Just relax and be yourself.  Ask her to have lunch, or get a coffee, or something.  Wait, you don’t drink coffee, right?  You can get tea.  Or hot chocolate.”

“I don’t know.  It’s just all so confusing.”

“I wish you could just relax and not worry about this.  You’re a really great guy.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “It doesn’t always feel like it.”

“Promise me you’ll try to keep your chin up.”

“I’m trying,” I said.  “How have you been?”

“Well… this week has been interestin’.”

“How so?”

“Well… I was at the bar on Saturday, and I ran into this guy that I had a class with sophomore year.  We just got to talkin’ for awhile… and he said some nice things about me… and I don’t know if it was the alcohol or what, but he came over and… yeah.”

Came over and what?  I was confused.  I was missing something… Wait.  Was Mindy Jo trying to tell me that they had sex?  Would she do something like that, have sex with an acquaintance she picked up in a bar?  “At least I used a condom,” Mindy Jo continued, which answered my question.

“Hmm,” I replied, not sure what else to say.

“I need to get another AIDS test,” Mindy Jo continued.  “This is, umm, four guys now since last time.  And I didn’t always use a condom.”

I was still not sure how to reply to any of this.  “What do you have to do for that?”

“They just take blood.  I don’t like needles, though.”

“Well, I hope you’re okay.”

“Thanks.”

Mindy Jo and I talked for about another twenty minutes, mostly about other things.  We talked about our respective experiences with finals and our holiday plans.  When we were done talking, I was still feeling ashamed of myself from earlier, so instead of getting back on IRC I studied for my chemistry final that was coming up Friday morning.  This whole concept of having to get an AIDS test had never really intersected my reality at any point.  I knew all about AIDS, of course; I had taken health class in high school.  But I tended to associate it with lifestyles such as heavy drug use and extreme promiscuity, not the kinds of things I associated with my friends.   I did not know that Mindy Jo had been with so many guys, and I was unsure of what to do with this information.

But I had no right to be so judgmental.  My conversation with Laura on Sunday night proved that; I had slept with someone I barely knew, just like Mindy Jo had.  Of course, Mindy Jo’s tryst had been in real life, whereas Laura and I were ultimately just fantasizing, talking in a chat room.  And was that wrong?  I was not sure.  I felt conflicted, and I felt ashamed because of it.

A month later, when I turned in my piggy bank for the church in El Salvador, I handed it to Sister Mary Rose, and by then it had become heavy enough with coins representing my shame and penance that she had a visible reaction to its unexpected weight.  “It’s mostly pennies,” I lied.  I was not already going to hell for my lustful behavior, certainly lying to a nun would not help my case any.

Mindy Jo told me a while later that her AIDS test came back negative, thankfully.  I just did not understand the way that many young people lived these days.  None of it made sense to me.  By not doing drugs and not having sex, I never had to worry about things like getting AIDS, or using contraceptives, or getting someone pregnant with a child I was not ready to raise.  Drugs had no appeal to me.  But why did I feel like I wanted sex so much?  Someday, hopefully, I would be married, and having sex with my wife would not feel shameful.  None of this made any sense, and I wondered if the reason girls did not like me was because I did not understand how to live like a reckless college student.  I eventually drifted off to sleep, my head full of some mix of shame and conflict.

December 4, 1995. A silly new shirt and the best day of bowling class.

In early 1993, when I was in high school, a new television show took the world by storm… at least it took the teenage boy world by storm.  Beavis and Butthead was a cartoon on MTV about two not-so-bright high school boys.  The show featured the boys failing miserably while trying to act cool or meet girls, with clips in between of the boys delivering pointed commentary on some of the weirdest music videos ever made.  The usual public voices complaining about the lack of morals and virtue in entertainment were all up in arms about this show.  I, however, enjoyed it for the brilliant satire it was, and I also laughed at the dumb jokes about poop, sex, and private parts.  At the beginning of my senior year of high school, my friends talked me into playing Butthead in a school skit.  It was the first time I had ever performed in front of a crowd that size, and it felt so freeing.  I did not have cable at my apartment in Jeromeville, but I still watched Beavis and Butthead sometimes when I was at my parents’ house.

On the last day of Monday classes  of fall quarter of my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, a week before finals started, I got out of the shower and got dressed. The previous Saturday afternoon, I received an unexpected package in the mail from my mother, something soft in a large envelope.  Inside was white folded fabric, with a note saying, “I saw this at the mall the other day and thought you would like it.  Love, Mom.”  I unfolded the fabric; it was a T-shirt, with a picture of Beavis with his shirt pulled over his head, his arms bent upward at right angles, and a crazed look in his eyes.  I AM THE GREAT CORNHOLIO! was printed at the bottom in the usual Beavis and Butthead font.  A recurring plot line on Beavis and Butthead involved Beavis consuming too much sugar or caffeine and transforming into his alter ego The Great Cornholio. He would then go on incoherent rants about bungholes and Lake Titicaca while responding to others with “Are you threatening me?”

I wore the shirt for the first time that morning, although I put on a jacket over it before I left the apartment.  I could see blue sky behind the clouds outside, but it was too cold at 8:25 in the morning for one layer, and it would probably not warm up much today.  I started to walk outside to catch the bus, but then, remembering something I had to do later that day, I walked back inside and grabbed a postage stamp from my desk, putting it in the front pocket of my backpack where it would not get lost.

I walked to the bus stop across the street on Alvarez Avenue.  A large crowd was standing there; I had a bad feeling I would not get a seat on the bus.  When I boarded the bus, I stood with one hand grabbing the rail at the top, almost falling over once when the bus made a sudden stop later.

About halfway through my first class, math, I took off my jacket, appearing in public with the Great Cornholio shirt for the first time.  As class was leaving, Jack Chalmers made eye contact and pointed at my chest.  “Nice shirt,” he said.

“Thanks.

“That show’s funny.  It’s so dumb.”

“I know,” I replied.  I told him about the time I played Butthead in high school.

“That’s great.  That must have been fun.”

“It was!”

Bowling class was right after math on Mondays and Wednesdays.  I left Wellington Hall and walked to the far side of the Memorial Union building to the bowling alley in the basement.  I did not know anyone from my bowling class well, and none of them said anything about the shirt when I took my jacket off.

Frank, the instructor, got our attention a few minutes later.  He had told us at the beginning of the quarter to just call him Frank, but it still felt strange to me.  He was an instructor, I felt like I should have called him Dr. White… but can you even get a Ph.D. in bowling?  Maybe Mr. White.  But he said to call him Frank, so I would call him Frank if that was what he wanted.  “We have two classes left,” Frank said, “and there is no final for this class.  So we’re just going to bowl, like we did last week.  Get in groups of four to a lane, and use what you learned.  But I added something special for you today.  I put a few red pins in with the regular white pins, and if the head pin is red and you bowl a strike, you get a coupon that you can exchange here for a free game in the future.  If all three pins in front are red, and you bowl a strike, everyone in the class gets a free game.”

I could hear a few students audibly excited about the prospect of winning free games.  I was frustrated at the beginning of the quarter, as I had had to unlearn all of the wrong ways I had bowled in the past, but I thought I was getting used to some of the techniques we had learned from Frank.  I found a ball that fit me and brought it to lane 9, which was not yet full.  On my first frame, I hit four pins with my first roll and two with my second… maybe I had not learned as much as I had hoped.

About three frames in, I heard Frank call out, “Red pin over here!” I looked, and someone on another lane had a red pin in the front.  If she bowled a strike, she would win a free game.  I watched as her ball rolled wide of the head pin.

Every couple minutes, I could hear someone getting Frank’s attention when a red pin showed up in the front of the lane, and two bowlers had won free games by the time a red pin was placed in the front of my lane.  It was not my turn when it happened, though, and the student on my lane missed the strike.

I did get one strike and a few spares in that first game, and I finished with a score of 109, about average for me.  I bowled a second game and scored 102.  It appeared I would have time for one more, but my arm was getting sore at this point, as often happened after I finished two games.

The reason I found it difficult to control the ball the way Frank taught was the same as the reason my arm was sore: the ball was heavy.  Frank said at the beginning of the quarter that the ball should be one-tenth of my body weight.  But I was a pretty big guy, and one-tenth of my body weight was around 22 pounds.  The heaviest bowling balls were 16 pounds, and I could not control a 16-pound ball well.  I thought a lighter ball might be better for me, but most of the lighter balls had finger holes too small.  My right thumb naturally has a wide spot that requires an unusually large thumb hole.  I found a 14-pound ball that just barely fit my thumb and brought it back to my lane.  I was not sure if I would get in trouble for using a lighter ball, but the rule about one-tenth of my body weight did not seem to be an official rule of bowling.

Switching to a lighter ball paid off.  I bowled a spare and a strike in the first two frames of the next game.  At the start of the third frame, a red pin appeared in the head position for the first bowler on my lane; his roll went just about an inch wide of the head pin.

“Nice try,” I said to him.  “You’ll get it next time.”

“Thanks,” he replied.  “You’re off to a good start.”

“Thank you.  I hope I can keep it up.”  When my turn came, though, I hit five pins on my first roll and three on my second.  In bowling, a strike or spare is scored as 10 pins, but for a spare, the total of the next roll is added to the score for the spare frame.  For a strike, the next two rolls are added to the strike frame.  So my strike in the second frame was scored twice, as a bonus of 10 added to my first frame spare, and as my score in the second frame when I actually rolled the strike.  Because I got a strike, the score for the second frame would include an additional bonus equal to whatever my next two rolls hit.  The result of this scoring system is that these boni add up quickly with consecutive strikes, or with spares followed by strikes.  After three frames, my score was 46.  That was not a bad score for me for three frames, but I had cooled off after my good start.

It did not take me long to heat up again.  I got another spare in the fourth frame, and consecutive strikes in the fifth and sixth.  I was not the only one heating up in the bowling alley; by the time I rolled my consecutive strikes, three more students had won free games with red pin strikes.  When I stepped up to the lane for my turn in the seventh frame, I let the fan blow on my hand for a few seconds, as I always did, while the pinsetter machine swept away the previous bowler’s pins and placed new ones for me.  I grabbed my ball, looked up at the end of the lane, and gasped.

There they were.

Three red pins in the front.

“Frank,” I called out, waving my hand to get my instructor’s attention in the noisy bowling alley.  A few seconds later, he looked up, saw me waving, and then looked at my pins.

“Three red pins over here on lane 9!” Frank called out.  “Free game for everyone if he gets a strike!”  The students who were getting ready to take their turns stopped and put their balls down, all so they could watch me.  I noticed that Frank did not call me by name, probably because he did not know my name.  In a class like this, Frank and I had not had much one-on-one interaction of the type where I had to say my name.

I put my hand in front of the fan for another few seconds, to dry the sweat that had started to accumulate from the pressure of free games for the entire class riding on this one roll.  Everyone was watching me, in my Beavis and Butthead shirt.  I did not want to let everyone down.  I had bowled two strikes in a row; why not just do the same thing I had been doing?

I took a deep breath.  I positioned my feet where I had been positioning them all day.  I lined up my arm where I had been lining it up, a little bit to the left of where Frank had taught us, because doing it my way had been working better for me all quarter.  I brought the ball behind me above my head and began approaching the lane, as I swung the ball down, releasing it and stopping my forward movement before my feet crossed the line.  The ball went sliding and spinning down the lane, headed straight for the cluster of red pins in the front.

CRASH.

As I heard my ball loudly knocking down pins, I watched all ten pins tumble to the lane.  The entire class erupted into applause.  I pumped both fists into the air as I turned around.  The others on my lane all high-fived me as I walked back to my seat.

“Free game for everyone!” Frank announced.  “I’ll give you your coupons as you leave class today.”

That would be the last strike I would bowl that day.  On the eighth frame, I hit seven pins with my first roll and two with the second.  Since I did not bowl a strike or spare, no bonus from the next frame would be added, and I could calculate my score so far: 151.  That was already my second highest bowling score ever, in my life, and I still had two frames to go.  I bowled a spare in the ninth frame and began the tenth frame with a 7-10 split, leaving only the two pins in the far corners.  It was almost impossible to hit both of those pins with one roll.  I knocked over one of the two pins on my second roll, for a final score of 178, my best game ever.

Frank stood at the base of the stairway leading outside as we left class a few minutes after I finished my third game.  “Good job,” he said as he handed me the coupon.

“Thank you,” I replied. “That was my best game ever.”

“Good for you!”

I had an hour until my next class.  The campus store was right next to the stairway to the bowling alley, and I had an errand to run there.  I walked to the greeting cards and looked through birthday cards, trying to find something simple.  This card was for someone with a very different sense of humor from mine, someone who did not appreciate the kind of sex- and poop-based humor that I had come to associate with birthday cards.  I found one with a drawing of a cake that simply said “Happy birthday!” at the top and “Enjoy your special day!” inside.  I paid for the card and took it to the Coffee House at the other end of the building, looking for a table with an empty seat.  I did not find one, this was a busy time of day, so I sat on the floor against the wall.  I took out my binder to use as a hard surface to write on and filled out the inside of the card.

Dear Grandma,

Happy 75th!  I hope you have a great day!  I just got out of bowling class, and I bowled 178, my best game ever.  Finals start in a week; I think I’ll do okay with these classes.  I’ll be home for Christmas soon.  See you then!

Love,
Greg

I licked the stamp I had brought with me and placed it on the envelope.  I wrote my return address in the corner and Grandma’s address in Gabilan in the center of the envelope.  I put it in my backpack and got out my math book, doing homework for about 45 minutes until it was time to go to chemistry class.  When I finally stood up, my foot was asleep from having sat cross-legged for so long.  I shook my leg, trying to get the blood flowing, and began awkwardly walking toward the mailbox, having to stop and lean against the wall after a minute as my foot became numb again.  After the feeling returned a minute or so later, I continued walking, dropping Grandma’s birthday card in the mailbox.  Next, I walked diagonally across the Quad in the general direction of chemistry class in Stone Hall.

I looked up and saw Liz Williams, my friend whom I knew from my floor in the dorm last year and also from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, approaching.  I saw her look up, and I smiled and waved.  “Hi,” I said, as Liz pointed toward my chest and began laughing.  I looked down to see what she was pointing at.  The shirt.  Beavis.  Of course.

“Oh my gosh, that shirt,” Liz said, chuckling.  “Where’d you get that?”

“I just randomly got a package from my mom the other day.  This was in it.”

“Your mom gave you that?  That’s hilarious!”

“I don’t have cable now, but my brother and I used to watch that show all the time.  And senior year of high school, I played Butthead in a class skit.”

“You?  No way!”

“It felt great, to finally be able to get up in front of a crowd and do something silly.”

“That’s awesome!  I just can’t picture you doing that.”

“That’s why it was so much fun!  How’s your day going?”

“Pretty well, except I have a paper due tomorrow that I still need to write.”

“Good luck with that.”

“How are you?”

“I’m having a great day!  I had bowling class this morning, and I bowled the best game of my life.  There were some red bonus pins, so if we got a strike when the bonus pin appeared in front, we got free games.  I won free games for the whole class!”

“That’s great!  I need to get to class, but hey, I’ll see you soon?”

“Definitely!”

I was in a great mood for the rest of the day, all through chemistry and physics classes and the two groups I tutored in the afternoon.  It was my last full Monday of the quarter, my last full Monday of 1995, and my winter break was in sight.  Only three of my classes actually had finals, and math, chemistry, and physics all were typically pretty easy for me.  And after coming through and winning a free game for my entire bowling class, I felt like a hero.

After the bowling class ended, I never really bowled on a regular basis again.  For much of my young adult years, it was something I would do socially every couple months or so.  I used the free game coupon later that school year when some people at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship invited me to go bowling with them afterward.  By the time I reached my 40s, bowling had become something I do very rarely.  I have no specific reason for not bowling anymore; I would enjoy it if I did.  I just don’t make time for bowling, and I don’t hang out with people who bowl much.  That game of 178 is today the third-best game I have ever bowled.  My two games that were higher than that also happened during my UJ years, stories for another time. 

The night after I bowled 178 was uneventful, in a good way.  I went home and studied and did homework for most of the time.  I got a lot of work done, and I went to bed happy and satisfied with how my day went.  As Beavis and Butthead would say, this rules.  Huh-huh.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I walked into the lobby of Evans Hall, got a name tag from the people sitting in front, and went into the back of the lecture hall, room 170.  I looked around the room and saw Taylor Santiago, Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Mike Knepper, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis mingling about halfway down the room, so I walked over to sit near them.  All of these people except Mike had been in my dorm last year, and some of them had invited me multiple times to come with them to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I finally went with them about a month ago, and JCF’s large group meetings here in 170 Evans had become my Friday night routine.

“Hey, Greg,” Krista said, seeing me first.  The others said hi to me as well.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” Taylor replied.  “Are you coming to the car rally tonight?”

“Probably.  I’ve never done a car rally before.  How does it work?”

“You get clues, and you drive around to the places the clues tell you to go.  Then people are hanging out afterward.  There are prizes for the team that finishes first.”

“That’s kind of what I thought.  It sounds fun.”

The large group meetings for JCF usually lasted about an hour and a half.  The worship band played a few songs, with one of the staff making announcements after the first song.  Then someone would give a talk, kind of like a sermon at a church service, with more music at the end.  Cheryl, one of the staff, did tonight’s talk.  After the band finished their last song, Cheryl got back up front, something that did not usually happen in a normal week.  But this was not a normal week; the group had put together this car rally as a social event to take place after the meeting tonight.

“If you have a car, come up to the front of the room,” Cheryl said into the microphone.  “Once you have enough people on your team to fill the car, go out to the lobby and get your clues.  And you want to make sure you have at least one upperclassman on your team.  We’re going to start at about 9:30.”  It was a few minutes after nine now.

I did not know any upperclassmen.  Scott Madison, the drummer who, like me, was also a tutor for the Learning Skills Center, was the upperclassman I was closest to knowing, since I knew his name and had said hi to him before.  But it looked like Scott had his own car and was assembling his own team.  Most of my friends were also assembling into teams; I saw Sarah and Krista leave with two older girls I did not know, and Taylor and Charlie left with two older boys.  I retreated to a corner, watching people I knew form teams with people I did not know and proceed out of the room.

Pete and Mike, the two remaining people from the group I sat with, walked up to me about a minute later.  “Greg?” Pete asked.  “Are you on a team yet?”

“I’m driving, and I don’t have anyone on my team yet.”

“Can we join your team, then?”

“Sure.”

“Mike was going to drive, but it looks like they have more drivers than they need.”

“Sounds good.  Now we just need some upperclassmen.”

The room was emptying as more and more people either went home or got in their groups.  Two girls walked up to us a few minutes later.  One of them asked, “Are you guys still looking for people in your car?  Do you have room for two more?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can fit five.”

“I guess you’re on our team, then,” Mike told them.

“Great!” the girl said.  “I’m Leah, and this is Autumn.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  “I’m Greg.  Do you know these guys?”  Leah and Autumn shook their heads no, and Pete and Mike introduced themselves.

The five of us walked to the lobby, where someone handed us two envelopes and instructed us not to open them until someone told us to.  We waited with the other completed teams for about another five minutes until all the teams had formed and were ready.

“Listen up, everyone,” Cheryl announced at around 9:30.  “There will be five places you need to go, and you’ll get the next clue at each place.  People will be hanging out at the last place.  The envelope that says ‘don’t open unless you are stuck,’ don’t open that unless you are absolutely stuck and you want to give up.  That tells you where the party is, but if you open it, you won’t win the prize.  The other envelope, the first clue, open that now.  Go!”

I heard the sound of about fifteen to twenty envelopes opening as people began reading the first clue and running to their cars.  I opened the clue and read it:

 

One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!

 

Virgin?  But stop?  What did any of this mean?  I handed the paper to Pete, who read it and looked about as confused as I was.  “Let’s go to the car,” I said.  I jogged to the parking lot, since after all this was a race, and motioned for the other four to follow me.

“One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but, stop,” I said out loud once we were in the car.  “Do any of you know what that means?”

“I have no idea,” Pete said.

“The Venus!” Mike shouted.  “That’s it!”

“What’s The Venus?” I asked.

“The coffee shop.”

“Where is that?”

“B Street, between First and Second.  There’s this sign outside that’s supposed to look like that painting of Venus in the seashell.”

“Let’s go!” I said.  As I drove my way out of the parking lot toward downtown, I realized that I still had no idea how Mike made the connection between this coffee shop and the extra virgins and the but stop.  “So what do the two rows of virgins in the clue mean?” I asked.

“The painting.  Venus emerged from the sea as a virgin,” Mike explained.  “And they have a patio outside with outdoor seating.  Maybe two rows of seats?”  I was not entirely on board with Mike’s interpretation of the clue, but he was familiar with this place and I was not, so in the absence of any other ideas, it was worth checking out.

I followed Mike’s directions and pulled over to the side of the road next to the building he pointed out.  The Venus was the kind of unique coffee shop that belonged in a college town like Jeromeville.  It was common in downtown areas of cities this size around here to have restaurants and offices in buildings that had once been single-family homes, and The Venus appeared to be such a building.  The front yard had been paved and converted to outdoor seating, with towering trees planted decades ago when this was a house providing shade.  A sign was painted to look like a replica of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, with Venus covering her lady parts in the same pose, but emerging from a cup of coffee instead of a seashell.  One of the other goddesses in the painting held a banner which said “The Venus – Coffee House & Pub.”  The place appeared to be open; it was Friday night, after all.

“I’ll go get the clue,” Mike said, hopping out of the car.  Mike looked around the patio for a minute, then went inside.

“I don’t know if this is it,” I said.

“Me either,” Pete agreed.

“This place looks cool,” Leah observed.  “I’ve never been here.”

“I haven’t either,” I said.  “I don’t like coffee.”

“You don’t like coffee?”

“Why not?” Autumn asked.  “I love coffee!”

“I just don’t like the taste.  I’ve tried coffee drinks with other stuff in them, like mochas, and I can still taste the coffee.  I feel like I’m missing out on the coffee shop experience because of that.”

“You can get other drinks,” Leah suggested.

“I know.  It’s just kind of sad not being able to do things that everyone else does.”

“No one is here,” Mike said as he arrived back at the car.  “This isn’t it.”

“You looked everywhere?” Pete asked.

“Yeah.  Inside, outside, out back, I didn’t see anyone here from JCF.  I even asked a few people who looked like they were waiting for someone.”

“Bummer.”

“So where should I go now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike said as the rest of us looked confused.

“We must be missing something in the clue,” I said, holding the paper and reading it again.  “‘One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!’  What’s a but stop?”

“I wonder if it’s supposed to be ‘bus stop,’” Leah suggested.  “Is there a bus stop here?”

“There’s one down there,” Autumn said, pointing a block down the street.

“There are hundreds of bus stops in Jeromeville,” I said.  “How do we know which one it means?  And there isn’t really a prominent bus stop here, outside The Venus.  That must be important, or else it wouldn’t be written on the clue.  And why is STOP! capitalized?”

“Virgin,” Mike said, thinking out loud.  “Maybe something to do with the Virgin Mary?  A Catholic church?  Is there a Catholic church called Virgin something around here?”

“There’s the Newman Center, and there’s St. John’s,” I answered.  “No virgin.”

“We don’t have any better ideas, so maybe we should just drive past there,” Leah said.

“All right.”

The Newman Center was only a few blocks away from The Venus.  I continued up B Street to Fifth, then turned right.  I parked in front; the building looked completely deserted, and no one was outside.  St. John’s was about half a mile away on the corner of B Street and 15th, and it looked equally deserted, both from the street and from the parking lot.

“I’m out of ideas,” I said.  “Unless anyone can think of anything, I’ll just drive around aimlessly and hope we see something.”

“I guess,” Pete replied.

“Leah?  Autumn?  Do you guys know anything?  You’re the upperclassmen in the group.”

“Upperclassmen?” Leah repeated.  “We’re freshmen.”

“Wait.  Weren’t we supposed to have an upperclassman on our team?”

“We thought you guys were upperclassmen.  You look older.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.  “We’re all sophomores.  That’s why our group doesn’t get this.  The upperclassmen know something we don’t.”

“I think they just said that to make sure that someone in your group knows their way around Jeromeville,” Pete said.  “And you know your way around.”

“I don’t know.”  I was getting more frustrated by the minute.  It was 10:02, and we had made no progress in half an hour.  The clues were probably all inside jokes among the people who had been involved with JCF for a long time, and I had no idea what extra virgins and the but stop were because I was on the outside of the cliques.  However, Pete and Mike did not understand the clues either, despite being better connected within JCF.

“Virgin Megastore,” Autumn said as I drove around Jeromeville aimlessly.  “That big record store.  Is there one here?”

“I think there’s one in Capital City,” I replied.  “But the directions specifically said all the clues were in Jeromeville.  They’re not going to make us cross the Drawbridge.”

I continued driving aimlessly around Jeromeville, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins or a but stop, whatever that was.  I drove through the parking lots in the two shopping centers near my apartment.  I drove up Andrews to where it meets G Street near the pond.  I drove back down G Street toward downtown, driving slowly, looking at every landmark and sign.  We made of small talk while we drove around.  I learned that Leah was majoring in psychology, and that Autumn had not decided on a major yet.  I also learned that Mike was from Morgantown, about a half hour drive from my hometown of Plumdale.

“Did you go to Morgantown High?” I asked Mike.

“Yeah.  Why?

“They played my high school for our Homecoming football game senior year.  You guys beat us pretty badly.”

“Did you play football?”

“No.  I just watched a bunch of games.”

“I didn’t really follow football,” Mike said.

After I had driven up and down several streets downtown, Leah and Autumn decided that it was time for them to go home and go to bed.  “Can you drop us off?”

“Okay,” I said.  “Where do you live?”

“Reynolds.  In the North Area.”

“Sure.”  I drove west down Fifth Street, left on Colt Avenue, and made an immediate right into the long narrow parking area separating the North Residential Area from Fifth Street and residential neighborhoods off campus.  I stopped when I got close to Reynolds Hall, one of four identical five-story dormitories that were the tallest residential buildings on campus.  “Good night,” I said.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too!” Leah exclaimed.

“Bye,” Autumn said, smiling and waving.

After they left, I had a thought.  “If it is ‘bus stop’ instead of ‘but stop,’ maybe the clue is either at the MU or the Barn, since that’s where the buses stop on campus.”

“It’s worth a try,” Pete said.  I turned around and drove to the Memorial Union bus station.  Then, since cars are not allowed in the campus core, I backtracked all the way to Leah and Autumn’s dorm, turned onto campus on Andrews Road, and worked my way from there to the parking lot closest to the Barn.  No one was handing out clues at either place.

“This night has been a bust so far,” I said, looking at the clock.  10:36.  “It’s been over an hour, and we’ve made no progress.  And now we lost forty percent of our team.”

“It’s just a game,” Mike said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“Keep driving, I guess,” Pete suggested.

I did keep driving.  I worked my way around the west and south edges of campus back to downtown, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins.  I drove under the railroad tracks on Cornell Boulevard, past Murder Burger and over the freeway.  I continued east on Cornell to the easternmost edge of Jeromeville, then north on Bruce Boulevard across the freeway to where it curves around to the west and becomes Coventry Boulevard.  I was out of ideas, Pete and Mike and I were out of small talk, and by the time I had driven all the way back across Jeromeville to the west, it was after eleven o’clock, and we were ready to give up.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out the clue,” I said.  I had failed my team miserably

“That’s okay,” Pete replied.  “Are you ready to open the envelope that says ‘Do Not Open?’”

“Sure,” I said.  Resigned to my fate, I opened the envelope and removed the paper inside.  “‘1640 Valdez Street,’” I read.  “I know Valdez Street.  That’s in South Jeromeville.”

“I think that’s the house where Shawn Yang and Brian Burr and those senior guys live,” Pete said.  “They must be hosting the after party.  But I kind of just want to go home now.”

“Me too,” Mike said.  “Can you just take us back to the parking lot by Evans?”

“Sure,” I answered.  “I’m still going to go to the party.”

“I hope it’s fun,” Pete said.

 

After I drove back to campus and dropped off Mike and Pete, I headed back to South Jeromeville, the same way I went earlier.  I did not know these guys who lived on Valdez Street, but hopefully the rest of my friends at JCF would be at this party.

I walked up to the door and knocked.  A tall upperclassman with reddish-brown hair answered the door and said, “Hey, come on in.  You made it.”

“Kinda,” I said.  “We got stuck and had to open the envelope.  The rest of my group just wanted to go home.”  I remembered meeting this guy last month, the first time I came to JCF; his name was Brian, and he was on the UJ track and field team.  I made a connection in my mind; Pete had mentioned that a senior named Brian Burr lived in this house.  This was probably the Brian he was talking about.

Taylor saw me walk in and waved.  He was with Charlie, Sarah, and Krista, the rest of the people I sat with earlier.  “Greg!” he said.  “We were just taking off.  Where were you?”

“I’ve been driving around this whole time.  I had to open the Do Not Open envelope.”

“Which clue did you get stuck on?”

“The first one!  We never found anything!”

“You never even got to the first checkpoint?” Taylor repeated.

“We were supposed to have an upperclassman in our group, and it was just me and Pete and Mike Knepper and two freshmen!  Whatever inside joke the juniors and seniors have that has to do with extra virgins, I’m not in on it.”

“Olives,” Sarah said.  “Like extra virgin olive oil.”

I paused, trying to assimilate this new piece of information.  My regimen of cereal, lunch meat, and frozen dinners did not include olive oil anywhere.  But now that Sarah mentioned it, I remembered having seen the term “extra virgin” on the label on a bottle of olive oil at the grocery store.  “Olive Way,” I said.  “That path on the west side of campus.  Two rows of olive trees.  Is that where it was?  What’s a but stop?”

“But stop?” Sarah asked.  I pulled the clue out of my pocket and showed it to her.  “I think that was supposed to say bus stop,” she explained.  “The clue was at the bus stop by Olive Way and Darlington Apartments.”

“That makes so much sense now,” I said.  I would learn later that Brian Burr and some of his roommates here on Valdez Street had lived in those apartments the previous year.  One of them probably wrote the clue.

“We’ll see you later,” Taylor said, shaking my hand.  “Have a good weekend.”

“You too.”

I looked around me at the rest of the people in the room.  About twelve people remained in the house, but this party definitely had the look of a party that was winding down.  No one else that I knew was here.  I tried talking to a few other people, but mostly I just felt embarrassed that I had not even solved the first clue.  I also felt like I had missed a fun time of hanging out, since most people arrived an hour ago.

I left the party about fifteen minutes later, feeling disappointed.  This night was supposed to be fun, and it just left me frustrated, because I could not even solve the first clue.  Even my skill of knowing my way around Jeromeville could not save us from that typo or my lack of familiarity with olive oil.  I still felt on the outside of the cliques.  But I met two new friends, Leah and Autumn, and I got to know Mike better.  I had only been part of JCF for a month, and I was still getting to know people.  And I was learning more about God and the Bible.  All of these were positive things that would take time to grow.  Reaching a goal is nice, but sometimes the things that make life worth living happen while wandering around lost.

2020 olive way
Olive Way, 2020

November 10-12, 1995.  Creating a fantasy world.

The first World War ended on November 11, 1918, and many of the countries involved now observe a holiday on November 11.  The holiday goes by different names around the world; in the United States, we call it Veterans Day.  Many government offices are closed on Veterans Day, and students are off school.  When November 11 falls on a weekend, as it did this year, schools close on the nearest Friday or Monday.

Except for the University of Jeromeville.  We got no day off.  Even last year, when November 11 was on an actual school day, we got no day off.  I never knew why.  I wondered if this was a legacy of universities traditionally being full of anti-war hippie types who did not want to celebrate our military.  But we did get a day off in May for Memorial Day, the holiday commemorating those who died serving our country.  And the building I was walking through right now was called the Memorial Union, or the “MU” for short, named to remember UJ students who died in military service.

It had been a typical Friday so far.  My day started waiting in the hallway of Wellington Hall for math class, because another class occupied the classroom immediately before our class.  Jack Chalmers from my class said hi to a girl named Lizzie as she left that class and we entered the room for ours, just as he did every day.  Math was easy.  I crossed the street to the MU at 10 and did homework for an hour.  I met some tutees in 102 Wellington, the tutoring room, at 11.  I just learned that word this quarter working for the Learning Skills Center: “tutee,” meaning one who is being tutored.  Tutee is a great word.  At 12, I walked down Colt Avenue to 199 Stone for chemistry, and then back to the MU to eat lunch.  I got up, went to the bathroom, and walked back through the MU on the way to my physics class in Ross Hall when I saw her.

When I see a familiar face in a setting that this person is not normally connected to, my brain always takes a few seconds to register what I am seeing.  At first all I saw was two young-looking girls walking toward me.  They were both a little on the short side.  One wore a dark red sweatshirt with a hood and a brand name logo unfamiliar to me, and the other wore a black jacket with white sleeves, and a large letter P on her left side.  I recognized that this was a Plumdale High School letter jacket.

What is a Plumdale High School letter jacket doing in Jeromeville?  Who is this person?  Do I know her?

Holy crap, it’s her.  What is she doing here?  What do I say?

Just before she walked past me, I said, “Annie?”

The two girls stopped.  Annie, the one in the Plumdale High jacket, looked at me, looking just as surprised as I was at first until recognition came over her face a second later.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.  “Visiting your brother?”

“My boyfriend goes here now too,” Annie replied.

There it is again.  The B word.  I wondered whether she was still with the same boyfriend as last year, or if this was some new guy.  Either way, though, Annie’s boyfriend was not me.

“It was good seeing you,” I said.  “Have a great weekend!”

“You too!” Annie replied.  The girl she was with waved at me; I recognized this girl’s face, she was from Plumdale High too, but I could not remember her name.

My mind raced as I walked away from them, toward my physics class.  Annie Gambrell was here, in Jeromeville.  I had a chance to talk to her, and I felt like I blew it.  Should I have said more?  She seemed busy, and she was not here to visit me.  She had a boyfriend; she was not coming here to meet guys.  But I did not know when, or if, I would ever see her again.  Maybe I should have talked more.  Or maybe she doesn’t really care about me, and all that nice stuff she wrote in my yearbook senior year was just for the sake of being polite and she didn’t really mean it.  Should I tell Annie’s brother next time I see him that I ran into her?  Does he think it’s weird that I have an unrequited crush on his unavailable little sister, even though I haven’t actually told him anything other than that I know her?

After physics class, I had another tutoring group back in the study room at 102 Wellington.  “Hi,” the tall blonde guy who was just finishing a tutoring group at the table next to me said as I walked in.   I knew from looking at the schedule of tutoring groups in this room that his name was Scott Madison.  He looked familiar for some reason, but maybe I was just used to seeing him here.

“Hi,” I replied to Scott.  I then turned to two of the three students in my group who were already waiting and asked, “Are you ready to get started?”

My tutoring group went as they usually do.  These students were in Short Calculus, Math 16A, for majors which do not require any math above calculus.  Their work focuses on finding and applying derivatives of functions without studying the theory and proofs behind derivatives.  I did not enjoy tutoring the Math 16 series as much as I did the 21 series, for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, because it was difficult for me, as a math guy, to gloss over the theoretical stuff.  But I got paid to do so, and I did my best, hoping not to confuse the students too much.

At four o’clock, when the tutoring group was finished, I walked diagonally across the Quad to the Learning Skills Center in Krueger Hall to turn in my time sheet for tutoring, as I did every other Friday, then back along East Quad Avenue to catch a bus home from the MU.  A few hours later, after napping and eating, I returned to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I drove this time, because parking is easy to find and slightly less expensive in the evening.

Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis were standing around talking on the far side of the lecture hall where the group was held; I walked over to them and said hi.  The four of them all lived in the same apartment complex, the boys in one apartment and the girls in another, and all of us were in the same dorm last year.

“Hey, man,” Taylor said.  “How’s it goin’?”

“Pretty good,” I replied.

“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.

“One of my friends from high school, she’s a senior this year, I saw her and her friend walking around campus today.  It was unexpected.”

“What was she doing here?” Krista asked.  “Touring the campus?”

“Her brother goes here.  I know him.  And she said her boyfriend goes here too.”

“So was she skipping school?” Taylor asked, adding sarcastically, “I don’t know anything at all about skipping classes…”

“She probably didn’t have school today,” I explained.  “Tomorrow is Veterans Day.  We always got that off in high school.”

“Oh yeah.  It’s a holiday.”

“Why don’t we get Veterans Day off?” Charlie asked rhetorically.  “It’s not fair.”

“It’s supposed to be a holiday?” I heard Jason Costello’s voice say behind me.

“Tomorrow is Veterans Day,” I explained, turning around.  Ramon Quintero and his girlfriend Liz Williams were with him; they were all in our dorm last year as well.  “I don’t know why Jeromeville doesn’t get it off, but I noticed that last year too.”

There had been no JCF the week before, because the group had been on a retreat with sister chapters of this organization at other colleges and universities in the region.  I had not attended the retreat, but most of my friends here did.  Taylor and Charlie were talking about something that happened to Pete Green, Taylor and Charlie’s third roommate, at the retreat.  “Where is Pete tonight anyway?” I asked.

“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.

“Visiting his family there?”

“Yeah.”

I heard someone from the worship band welcoming us to JCF and saying that it was time to get started.  As the band played, and sang along to lyrics being displayed on an overhead projector, my eyes scanned the front of the room, watching the people on the worship team.  I saw the drummer and realized something: it was Scott Madison, the other tutor who had said hi to me this afternoon.  That was why he looked so familiar; this was my third time at JCF, and I had probably seen him play drums here before.  At the end of the night, I said hi to him and formally introduced myself; he seemed like a nice guy.  (A few years later, Scott would become the first non-relative to invite me to his wedding, and I still get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.)

 

Although my Friday had ended on a good note, I woke up feeling down again on Saturday morning.  It was a cool and gloomy day, with gray skies that threatened rain.  Summer in Jeromeville is sunny and hot, and winter is relatively mild compared to much of the United States.  It only snows high in the mountains, snow here on the valley floor is very rare, but rain is fairly common in the winter.  And the transition period from summer to winter is very short, usually occurring around early November.  Winter had arrived earlier this week, and it was supposed to rain intermittently all weekend.  Rain made me sad and anxious.

I spent the morning doing homework and reading.  By mid-afternoon, some patches of blue sky had appeared, and the threat of rain had passed, so I went for a bike ride.  I started riding through the Greenbelts, then back down G Street toward downtown, but despite keeping myself busy, I kept thinking about my chance encounter with Annie yesterday.  Why hadn’t I asked for her address or phone number, so I could try keeping in touch?  I subconsciously knew that there was no point, though.  I had given her my address at Plumdale High’s Homecoming a year ago and never heard from her, and knowing that she had a boyfriend made it feel futile to pursue anything, although I would have been happy just being friends.

Two years ago, I was a senior at Plumdale High, and I felt like I grew a lot that year.  I finally had a social life, and I made new friends, including Annie.  But then I graduated, I moved away, many of my senior class friends moved away in different directions, and I lost touch with many of my friends.  There was no texting or social media in those days, and only a few of my friends used email, so it was difficult to keep in touch.  And despite all that, I still felt like I was on the outer fringes of the social circle in high school, not really one of them.

I wished that the events of my senior year had happened during sophomore or junior year instead.  That way, I might have had time to solidify some of those friendships before we scattered.  Maybe I would have learned how to actually ask a girl out.  Maybe Annie would have broken up with her boyfriend, and I would have been able to use those new skills.

What if I just ran away and pretended to be in high school again?  What would that be like?  What would it take?  A fake birth certificate would probably be hard to find.  Maybe I wouldn’t need one.  Maybe I would just need fake transcripts to show to the new school.  Being 19 and still in high school was unusual, but not exactly unheard of.  My birthday came right at the start of the school year, so I started kindergarten when I was barely 5.  Some parents would have chosen for me to start kindergarten the following year.  My parents did that with my brother Mark; with his birthday in October, they chose to wait until he was almost 6 to put him in kindergarten.  Mark would turn 18 in the fall of 1999, early in his senior year, and someone his age who had repeated a grade in elementary school would be a 19-year-old senior.

Could I do this?  Would it be possible to fake my identity and get a second try at my senior year of high school?  Probably not.  Lying on important documents like transcripts seemed too dishonest and illegal for me to be comfortable with it.  But, I thought, all of this seemed like a great premise for a work of fiction.

I had been writing again in my spare time recently.  Last year, I wrote a short novel called The Commencement, based on all the growing up I did as a senior in high school.  I had been revising and expanding it lately, and it was up to 62 pages.  I was running out of ideas for how to expand The Commencement, so maybe it was time to work on something new.

As I continued riding my bike that afternoon, along the entire length of the Arboretum and back up Andrews Road toward home, I kept thinking about faking my identity and going back to high school.  How would that be possible?  Maybe this story would take place at a different point in life; going back to high school now seemed like too much of a stretch, and none of my thoughts led to anything realistic.  Maybe my character would run away while he was a senior in high school, and go to a new school in a new town, pretending to be two years younger.  I would focus my writing on everything he dislikes about life, and all of his unfinished business, to make the desire to run away real.  But if he is not an adult, how can he just do this, and where would he go?  That was easy; I could make him turn 18 early in his senior year.  And I could give him divorced parents living far from each other, so he would have the option to go move in with the other parent.

When I got home from my bike ride, I showered and put a frozen dinner in the microwave.  I put on some music from high school, starting with Pearl Jam’s Ten album, and began writing.  I started my novel, which was still untitled at this point, by quoting a song lyric, as Stephen King often did with his novels, then proceeded to set the scene of a character who felt like he did not fit in with his friends.


“I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life”
—Pink Floyd

1

“Where were you this morning?” Ryan asked Sara.

“I was…” Sara paused.  “Sleeping in,” she said, with a mischievous grin on her face.

Sleeping in? Jon thought.

“You missed class?” Becky teased.

“He said we didn’t have to come today,” Sara said defensively.  “He was just doing a review for the test tomorrow.  I needed a break, and I feel prepared for the test.”  Jon began to feel somewhat angry after hearing this.

“How did you get out of band?” Kate asked.  “Does Mr. Jackson know you were gone?”

“He knows,” Sara said.  “He knows I had to see the dentist.”  Sara and the others laughed.  All except Jon.  Some people could just do whatever they wanted and not get caught.  But if Jon tried it, he would get stopped at the gate because ___ High School was a closed campus.  It wasn’t fair.


I left the name of the school blank.  I had not decided yet where Jon and his friends lived.  I usually wrote about places familiar to me, so they would have to live somewhere back home in Santa Lucia County, or Jeromeville, or maybe across the Drawbridge from Jeromeville in Capital City, or maybe Bidwell where my dad had family.  But it would make more sense to have Jon run away to one of those places familiar to me, and to have the story open somewhere else, somewhere more interesting.  I thought about different cities and states that had been on my mind recently and settled on San Diego, California, where my friend Pete had once lived and was currently visiting his family.  I could ask Pete next time I saw him to suggest a good name for a high school in San Diego.

I continued writing about Jon’s day.  Jon heard his friends talk about college applications, and about movies they liked that Jon had never seen, and movies they hated that Jon liked.  I wrote about Jon’s feelings of inferiority regarding a lack of extracurricular activities for college applications, and a conversation he had with the school counselor about this, and more laments in Jon’s head about not belonging and not feeling good enough.  I thought back to yesterday when I ran into Annie Gambrell and wrote this scene for the end of Jon’s school day.


“Jon! What are you doing?”  He looked up at Kelly ___, one of the few underclassmen he knew.  He met her last month while interviewing her for the yearbook, doing the page on the women’s’ JV cross-country team.  Sometimes Jon thought that the fact that women’s’ JV cross-country got two whole pages in the yearbook was just part of an international conspiracy that ensured that certain people, who were labeled “popular,” got in the yearbook at least twenty times every year whereas other people only got in once.  This was the same conspiracy that invented Homecoming Queens and the modern system of student government.  Jon had nothing against women’s sports, or unpopular sports; he just didn’t like being unpopular.

“Hi.”  Jon looked up and saw that she was with a friend.  He thought the friend’s name was Nicole, but he did not know her.

“What are you doing?  Waiting for someone?” Kelly asked.

“No.  Just…” he paused.  “Thinking.”

“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.

“I’m all right.  I just kind of had a rough day.”

“Don’t worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Jon replied.  “See you later.” Jon really liked Kelly.  She seemed really nice, and she was pretty too.  She had a beautiful smile.  Unfortunately, she already had a boyfriend.  Jon got in his truck and drove home, thinking about what it would be like to have a relationship with Kelly.


I thought about making the last name for the Annie character something that sounded like Annie, or like Gambrell.  The only thing I could think of was “Aniston,” the last name of one of the actors on the TV show Friends.  There was no way I would name someone in my story after Friends, so I left it blank and moved on.

I spent most of the rest of that weekend writing, finishing chapter 1 and half of chapter 2, establishing the mood of Jon feeling out of place and wanting to start over, wanting more time to live the high school experience.  I also mentioned that Jon’s father lived five hundred miles away in Capital City, with a second wife who had two children of her own.

I never did see or hear from Annie again after that day.  I could have asked her brother to get in touch with her for me, I saw him at church the next day, but that just felt weird.  Annie was off limits because she had a boyfriend.  But I continued to work on this novel for the next several months.  I had no plans to act out the premise of this novel, to run away and go back to high school, nor did I have a realistic way of doing so.  I knew that that would never happen.   But it was interesting to think about, and fun to put these thoughts on paper.  If they could not happen in real life, I could create a fantasy world where these things happened, as long as I knew that it was just fantasy and did not let it consume my life.


Author’s note: Yes, these are actual excerpts from a novel I wrote in 1995-96.  More about that later.

Also, in real life it’s my birthday!  Well, yesterday was.

October 31 – November 9, 1995.  In a funk.

I was in a funk.  I had been in a funk for a while by the time my physics lab got out.  My funk had stretched into its fourth day, and one of those days was an hour longer because of the end of daylight saving time.  One small consolation was that it was Halloween, and I had the pleasantly silly experience of seeing many full-grown college students come to campus in costume.  Earlier I saw a guy walking across the Quad in a very accurate costume of Jack from the Jack in the Box restaurant commercials, with a perfectly round clown head as from a child’s jack-in-the-box toy over a business suit.  I also saw at least three different Batmen walking around campus.

Batman… that reminded me of last Saturday, when this funk started.  I still was unhappy with myself about Saturday.

Friday night went okay.  I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship again, which was good, but I felt more like an outsider.  I talked to all my friends who were there, but I did not talk to anyone else, and everyone was talking about the Fall Conference next weekend, which I was not going to.  I woke up Saturday morning still feeling down, and that feeling worsened as the day dragged on.  I got some homework done, but I also moped around the apartment doing nothing quite a bit.

Saturday evening, I decided to go to campus, where second-run movies play on weekends in 199 Stone, the largest lecture hall on campus at the time.  Batman Forever was playing that night.  I had seen the movie once, and honestly I did not like it that well.  Jim Carrey, who at the time was building his career on annoying mindless movies where he made a lot of faces and funny loud noises, played the Riddler.  He played the character like the annoying people in his other movies, and I did not like it.  The movie did not help me get out of my funk, and I left about two-thirds of the way through.  That was the first time I ever went to a movie alone, and to this day, it remains the only time I have ever walked out of a movie that I paid for.  I went home, down two dollars and fifty cents and still in my funk.

Despite having won Best Costume my senior year at Plumdale High, I never got too excited about Halloween.  I outgrew trick-or-treating around fourth grade and spent the rest of my childhood staying home handing out candy.  The only reason I even dressed up at school that day two years ago was because Melissa asked me to.  She dressed as Mona Lisa, with a drawn replica of the painting and her face sticking through a hole in it, and asked me to be Leonardo painting her.  I had a big crush on Melissa at the time, so I probably would have dressed up as dog poop if she had asked me to.  The problem was that, during the one period that we were not in the same class, her costume worked by itself, but no one could tell what I was without her.  No, I am not Charlton Heston playing Moses.  No, I am not Father Time.  And during the costume contest at lunch, we were introduced as “Mona Lisa and Michelangelo,” which says something about the quality of education at Plumdale High School.

When I got home from my physics lab, I made sure the porch light was off.  Mom taught me as a kid that this tells trick-or-treaters not to come to your house, although many do not seem to know that rule.  I had no candy to give out tonight.  I did not know whether the local children of Jeromeville even went trick-or-treating in apartment complexes full of students.  (None did that night.)

I signed on to the university computer network after dinner that night, intending to get on Internet Relay Chat and find some girl to talk to.  But before I did that, I checked to see who else was signed on to the exact same server, as I occasionally did back then out of curiosity.  Every once in a while, I found someone I knew.  I looked through the thirty or so names and account numbers that scrolled past, and my pulse briefly quickened when I saw this:

stu042537 Megan McCauley

I typed “talk” and sent “hello :)” to account stu042537.  Megan replied about a minute later.

stu042537: Hi, Greg!  How have you been?  I haven’t seen you in a while!
stu049886: i’m doing ok, just busy with school.  it’s a lot of work but i’m doing pretty well in my classes.  what are you up to?
stu042537: Just the usual.  This chem class is kicking my butt!  But I knew chemical engineering would be a hard major.  Didn’t you say you were a tutor for the Learning Skills Center this quarter?
stu049886: yes!  that’s going well.  i’m working 10 hours a week with small groups of calculus and precalculus students.  i enjoy it.
stu042537: Good!
stu049886: how is your building this year?
stu042537: It’s definitely easier being an RA the second time around.  I have more of an idea of what to expect.  But, of course, my residents are full of surprises too.  I like this group so far.
stu049886: that’s good
stu042537: How is it being in your own apartment?
stu049886: it’s nice and quiet.  but i miss seeing my friends from last year.  some of them are involved with jeromeville christian fellowship, i’ve started going to that sometimes with them
stu042537: It’s important to find things you can be involved with.
stu049886: definitely!  any plans for halloween tonight?
stu042537: Not this year.  What about you?
stu049886: nothing.  halloween was never that big a deal to me.  i thought it was funny, though, i saw three people on campus today dressed as batman
stu042537: That’s great!  I should actually go in a few minutes.  I need to pick up the person I’m dating from the airport.  But it was good to hear from you!

I stared at that last message, heartbroken and crestfallen, typing my closing line in the conversation much more apathetically than I had typed earlier.

stu049886: you too, drive safely
stu042537: Bye!

I stared at those four words again before I closed the window… “the person I’m dating.”  Nothing can drain the last bit of hope from a crush more quickly than that.  I knew I probably had no shot with Megan anyway, but at least I could hope that maybe she liked me too.  Not anymore.  I could not compete with some cool guy who traveled on airplanes and knew how to talk to girls.

I turned on the television later that night.  It was Tuesday, so Home Improvement was on.   I liked that show, but Tim Allen’s stereotypical guy antics were not enough to lift me out of my funk.  I returned to the computer and signed on to the IRC chat channel I had wanted to go to earlier when I messaged Megan instead.  No one there was talking to me, and no one I knew I was on.  I halfheartedly replied to an email, but I needed to talk to someone in real time, not by email.  I could not get the image out of my head of Megan and some guy driving back from the airport in Capital City, across the Drawbridge and to his apartment, where he would probably invite her in and go to bed with her.  I wanted to be doing that, not whoever this jerk was.

I was tired of this.  I was tired of being alone, not knowing how to talk to girls.  I hated being different and not having grown up with all the experiences that the people around me had, like having friends and taking trips on airplanes and doing fun things on Halloween.  I wished I could quit life and start over again.  Or maybe go back to high school for another few years; I was finally starting to have some of those experiences or having friends senior year, but then everything else ended too soon, and I lost touch with everyone except Renee Robertson, Melissa Holmes, and Rachel Copeland, none of whom lived in the same place as me or as each other now.

Around 10:30 that night, desperate and with nowhere else to turn, I picked up the phone.  I had seen public service announcements for a suicide prevention hotline with a local phone number.  I was not sure if I was actually feeling suicidal, but at least these people could talk to me.  I dialed the number quickly.

“Suicide Prevention,” said the voice on the other end.  “This is Anna.  To whom am I speaking?”

“Greg,” I said.

“And how are you feeling tonight?” Anna asked.

“I need someone to talk to.”

“What’s going on?  Why do you say that?”

I told Anna the abbreviated version of my thoughts on feeling different, being alone, and not knowing how to talk to girls.  I explained that there was one girl I really liked who I did not have much of a chance with, and how I had found out tonight that she had a boyfriend (at the time, I did not understand that there was a distinction between the words “person I’m dating” and “boyfriend”).

“That is a lot weighing on your mind,” Anna said.  “Are you taking any medication for depression or anxiety, or other mental health medications?”

“No.

“Are you in any sort of therapy or treatment?”

“No.”

“How often do you use alcohol or drugs?”

“Never.”

“Are you thinking about ending your life or harming yourself?”

“I don’t know.  I know I shouldn’t give up like that, but I don’t want to go on like this either.”

“That is understandable.  Is your life in danger right now?”

“I’m sitting at home in my apartment.  So probably not.”

“Have these thoughts you’ve been having interfered with your day-to-day functioning?  Like your ability to work or attend class?”

“Not really.  I’m a student at UJ, and my grades are still good.”

“That’s good.”

“I guess.”

Anna asked me more questions about how I felt about things, as well as my day-to-day life and my history with mental health and medication.  After talking for another ten minutes, she said, “We are meant to be a one-time service, so I can give you names and phone numbers of some mental health professionals in your area, so you can call someone to set up an appointment and meet more regularly?  May I do that?”

“I guess.”

I got a pencil and paper and wrote down the names Anna gave me.  “So tomorrow, give one of those people a call, and set up an appointment.  Can you do that?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you going to be okay tonight?”

“I think so.  Thank you.”

“Thank you for calling.  I hope everything works out for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Good night!”

“Bye,” I said, hanging up the phone.  I did not feel great about this.  I was not looking forward to seeing a therapist, and I did not even know if that was what I wanted.  But I had calmed down to the point that I might be able to sleep now.

 

I arrived about five minutes before my appointment.  It had been a little more than a week since the night I called the Suicide Prevention number.  It was a cool, cloudy, depressing Thursday afternoon.  The address was in a small office building at the corner of Maple Lane and West Coventry Boulevard, less than half a mile from my apartment, behind a nondescript door with the names of two therapists on it.  The waiting room was small, about the size of my tiny dorm room from last year.  A few chairs were arranged around a table with outdated magazines on it, and two doors on the other side of the room led farther into the building.  I picked up a Time magazine from July with former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell on the cover.  I started reading through the magazine in order until a man with graying brown hair, a mustache, glasses, and a button-up shirt emerged from one of the doors.

“Gregory?” he said.

“That’s me,” I replied.  “You can call me Greg.”

“Hi, Greg.  I’m Ron Kilbourne.”  Ron extended his hand for me to shake it.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand.  I followed him into his office and sat down.

“So tell me again what brings you here.”

“I feel down a lot,” I said.  “I feel alone, I don’t see my friends as often as I used to, I don’t have a girlfriend, and I don’t know how to talk to girls.”

“Okay,” Ron said, apparently waiting for me to say something.”

“I haven’t seen a therapist in a couple years.  I was in and out of therapy all my life, going back to second grade.  We saw a therapist as a family for a while, because I was getting teased a lot at school and having trouble behaving, and my dad was dealing with a lot being a newly recovering alcoholic.”

“And how old are you now?”

“19.”

“Okay.”  Ron scribbled some notes on a clipboard, then looked at me.

“What?”

“I’m waiting for you to tell me more.”

“I told you.  I don’t know what to do.”

“I can’t help you if you aren’t going to tell me anything.”

Who was this jerk?  Why am I paying him all this money just to sit there?  I did not know what to say to him.  I told him more about not having friends in school growing up, about how being in the dorm was good for me but I lived alone now, about never having had a girlfriend, and about what happened with Megan.

Ron kept writing on his clipboard.  “What else?” he said when he was done.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” I said angrily through clenched teeth.

“Then I guess we’ll just sit here until you’re ready to talk,” Ron replied calmly.

“Fine.”  I sat in the chair and stared at Ron for almost ten minutes, saying nothing.  He just sat looking at me, occasionally writing on his clipboard.  “Why does anyone pay you all this money not to do anything?” I finally said.

“Why did you?” Ron asked.  “Why are you here?”

“I’m here because I’m depressed and alone and I don’t know how to make friends or have a girlfriend.”

“What else?”

“I need to know what to do.”

“What are you doing now?” Ron asked.

I told him about my friends from the dorm last year, and tutoring, and singing at Mass, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  After he finished writing in his clipboard, Ron sat there looking at me, waiting for me to say more.  “And I don’t know what else to do.”  We stared at each other for another five minutes, saying nothing.  I clenched my fists, fighting every urge to punch this man in the face.

About forty minutes into the appointment, before the end of the hour-long session, I pulled out my checkbook and paid him for the session.  “This was a waste,” I said, walking toward the door.

“Greg,” Ron said in a flat tone.  “I can’t help you if you’re going to walk out.”

“And you can’t help me if I’m here either.  So what’s the point?”

“I don’t know.  You tell me.”

I left the check on his desk and walked out of the office, slamming the door and throwing the stack of old magazines against the wall on my way out.  I was still hot-headed and angry when I got back to the apartment.  I lay on the bed for about an hour, at which time I did homework for a while, and then ate dinner.  Was I really beyond help?  Was I so messed up that even going to a therapist could not help me?

I never saw Ron Kilbourne again.  I got a letter in the mail from him a few days later encouraging me to continue to seek therapy; I tore it into small pieces and threw it away.  I never did call any of the other names that I had gotten from Anna at Suicide Prevention; after my experience with Ron Kilbourne, I was convinced that there was no point to seeking therapy.

After Ron Kilbourne, I did not attempt to seek therapy again until 2002; by that time, I had long since graduated and moved from Jeromeville to Pleasant Creek.  I now know as an adult that I have had therapists who were good fits for me and others who were not; Ron Kilbourne was not, and I should have at least tried a different therapist at the time.  Although I have grown, and life has changed, many of the issues for which I sought therapy in the past are still struggles for me.  I have also learned that seeking therapy is far more complicated than just going through motions and having all of my problems fixed.  Therapy only works when the patient wants help, and to this day I feel like in some ways I do not want help.  I want the rest of the world to change around me, or to find a place where the world makes more sense than it does here.  This remains an ongoing issue for me.  On the day I walked out of Ron Kilbourne’s office, I knew that the only way I had left to deal with that funk was the way I have usually dealt with being in a funk all my adult life; just ride it out, put one foot in front of the other, and go through the motions, hoping that better days will come.


(Author’s note: I know that “talk” on a Unix-based system from 1995 did not format conversations the way my conversation with Megan was formatted in this story.  I changed it to make it easier to read.)


October 21, 1995. The day I went to visit Renee.

I turned right into the parking lot.  The sign said that Chardonnay Village was somewhere among the cluster of nearby buildings.  The directions that Renee had emailed to me had been very clear; I had no trouble getting here, even though the second half of the trip had been anything but a straight shot, zigzagging over hills.  It was around 11:00 on a Saturday morning.  I left Jeromeville at 9:30.  For the first half of the trip, I drove straight down Highway 100 to Fairview, where it merges with Highway 212 for a few miles.  Where the two routes split again just south of Fairview, I took 212 over a hill to Silverado and followed many other two lane roads until I arrived at Valle Luna State University.  Renee said that one of her roommates knew that drive because she used to date a guy in Jeromeville, and that this was the fastest way.

This part of the state was known for growing grapes and making wine, which was why the dorms at Valle Luna State had names like Chardonnay.  I thought it was unusual for buildings on a university campus to be named after alcohol… to me, this seemed to send the wrong message.  Once I got to Silverado, the rest of the drive here passed through rolling hills covered with grapevines, with the occasional cow pasture.  The indigenous people of this area called it “moon valley,” the 18th century Spanish missionaries translated the name from that language into Spanish. Americans arrived in the middle of the 19th century and bastardized the pronunciation; “valle” in proper Spanish was pronounced more like “bah-yay,” but most Americans pronounced it like its English cognate “valley.”

As I walked up to Renee’s building, I saw her outside waiting for me.  I waved, and she waved back.  “Hey, Greg,” she said once I was in earshot.  She gave me a hug from the side.  She looked the same as I remembered her, short, with long red hair, blue eyes, and freckles, but I had just seen her two months ago, so that was to be expected.

“Hi,” I replied.  “It’s good to see you.”

“How was the drive?”

“Your directions were good.  I found everything just fine.”

“Good!”  Renee paused, then asked, “You wanna see my apartment?”

“Sure.”

I noticed Renee’s use of the word “apartment” instead of “dorm room.”  It fit, because Renee’s building was an on-campus apartment, with each room having an entrance directly outside instead of opening into a hallway.  When I walked inside, I saw a small living room and kitchen, with two bedrooms and a bathroom opening onto it, just like an actual apartment.

“Greg, this is Nicole,” Renee said, gesturing toward the dark-haired girl on the couch.  “Nicole is my roommate.  I mean, like, we share an actual room.  Nicole, this is Greg.”

“Hi, Greg,” Nicole said, looking up from the television.

“Hi,” I replied. 

Renee led me toward one of the bedrooms.  “This is my room and Nicole’s,” she said.  “Jenn and Marisol live in the other room.”

“Nice,” I said.  The bedroom had a window looking out on the grassy area between this building and the next one.  I noticed a bulletin board on the wall by one of the desks, with pictures of people on it; I knew this was Renee’s, because I recognized the people in some of the pictures.  One picture was of Renee and her boyfriend, Anthony; one was Anthony’s senior picture from two years ago; and one was of Renee and our mutual friend Melissa.

“The Where’s Waldo picture,” Renee said.

“Huh?”

“Melissa always thought she looked like Waldo in that picture.”

“Hah,” I laughed, seeing Melissa’s red and white striped shirt differently now.  “I can see it.”

As we walked back to the living room, where Nicole was still watching television, I asked,  “This is a nice place.  Are all the on-campus residential areas at Valle Luna more like apartments?”

“Not all of them,” Renee explained.  “I lived in a regular dorm last year, with one bathroom for the whole floor and stuff like that.  The regular dorms are for freshmen.  Older students get first priority for the on-campus apartments.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “Jeromeville just doesn’t have enough on-campus housing for its student population.  The school took over some apartments just across the street from campus, and even then you only get housing on campus for one year.  So it’s pretty much all freshmen and incoming transfer students in the dorms.  I would have lived on campus another year if I could.”

“I remember that,” Nicole added.  “My ex-boyfriend goes to Jeromeville, and he lived in one of those apartment dorms last year.”

A tall girl with long blonde hair emerged from one of the bedrooms.  “Hey,” she said to Renee.  “Is this your friend?”

“Yeah,” Renee replied.  “Greg, this is Jenn.”

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Jenn said.

“I was thinking we could start with a walk around campus.  Does that sound good?” Renee asked.

“Sure,” I replied.  “I’ve never been here before.”

“Great.  We’ll be back in a bit,” Renee told her rooommates.

The first thing I noticed about Valle Luna State University was that the campus was much smaller than that of the University of Jeromeville.  On the drive in, I noticed that the dorms and on-campus apartments at VLSU were on the west and south sides of the campus.  “This is my walk to class every morning,” Renee pointed out as we walked east toward the center of campus.  She pointed out the library and the buildings where most of her classes were.  The non-residential buildings were mostly in a gray concrete style of architecture, more uniform than the varied heterogeneous architecture of UJ but, in my opinion, less interesting.  We then turned south toward a building that she pointed out as the “student center.”  As we got closer, I took a closer look and saw a vast expanse of tables next to a few on-campus restaurants and ATM machines.

“I was just curious what this was,” I said.  “At Jeromeville, the building like this is called the Memorial Union.”

“Yeah.  I think every college has a building like this, but they’re all called something a little different.”

“Actually, UJ has two buildings like this, the Memorial Union and the Barn.”

“The Barn?”

“It used to be an actual barn, and there is a silo attached to it.  Because, you know, Jeromeville started out as a school of agriculture.”

“Yeah.  I’ve heard Jeromeville is pretty big.  That would make sense that there are two Student Centers.”

“It is.  The main part of campus is bigger than here, and there’s also a huge rural part of campus where they do actual agricultural research.”

“That’s interesting.  Like what kind of agricultural research?”

“I’m not sure exactly.”

Renee and I continued walking around campus.  She showed me the building where the department of psychology offices were located, since psych was her major.  She showed me the theater, the student recreation center, and the sports fields on the eastern edge of campus.  “We only have a few sports teams that compete against other schools,” she explained, “and we usually don’t get big-name athletes here.”

“So are you Division II?  Or Division III?  Something like that?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure.  I don’t really follow sports.  But I know they have student teams that play just for fun.”

“Intramurals?”

“Yeah.  Jenn does that for volleyball.”

“Do you and your roommates get along okay?” I asked.  “No conflict or anything?”

“We do.  It took a while to get used to each other, but everything is good now.”

“Did any of you guys know each other before this year?”

“No, we didn’t.  We were just picked randomly.  At first, we weren’t sure if we were going to get along, but it has worked out great.  Actually, didn’t you tell me you had some friends with a weird combination of religions in their apartment?”

I thought for a minute.  “Oh yeah,” I said.  “Danielle is very Catholic, Theresa is Methodist but not very active at church, and Bok and Skeeter are atheists.”

“That reminded me of our apartment.  Nicole went to Catholic school and goes to Mass every week.  Jenn is an atheist and will make a big deal of it if you try to push your beliefs on her, so we learned pretty fast not to talk about religion around her.  And Marisol and I each grew up going to church sometimes, but not every week.”

“It’s good that you found a way not to let that make conflict between you,” I said.

 

After heading back to the Student Center, where Renee and I had lunch at a sandwich shop, we went back to the apartment.  I did not have anything specific planned that I wanted to do.  Renee mentioned that she and Nicole and Jenn had been talking about going miniature golfing, and that there was a coffee shop they really liked, so that was our plan for the rest of the day.  VLSU was located right on the eastern edge of the suburban city of Valle Luna, with a rural area to the east and hills just a few miles beyond that.  We took Nicole’s car into town along a wide suburban boulevard and pulled into a shopping center.  I could see an overpass just beyond the shopping center, where this street intersected Highway 11.  This was the same Highway 11 that passed through my hometown of Plumdale, 150 miles to the south.

Hanging out at coffee shops was all the rage in 1995.  A year ago, a new television situation comedy called Friends had rapidly become popular.  The show featured six single adults living in New York City who often went to a coffee shop.  This quickly brought artsy hippie coffee shop culture into the mainstream.  As Renee, Nicole, Jenn, and I walked into the coffee shop, I looked around.  Some customers sat at tables, and some on couches and comfortable chairs.  Some were in couples and groups, talking, and some sat alone, reading.  Paintings covered the walls.  I wanted to be part of coffee shop culture like everyone else, but I could not for one important reason: I did not like coffee.  I could not stand the taste.

“You don’t like coffee?” Jenn repeated incredulously after I said this out loud.

“I want to like coffee.  I feel like not liking coffee stunts my social life,” I explained.  Jenn laughed.

“Do you want to go somewhere else?” Renee asked.  “We don’t have to hang out here.  I just suggested it because we go here a lot.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Renee asked.

“You could get a mocha,” Jenn suggested.  “Have you ever had a mocha?  It’s like coffee with chocolate in it, so it doesn’t really taste like coffee.”

“I think I’ll do that,” I replied.

After we ordered and got our drinks, we sat at a round table with four chairs.  I took a sip of the mocha.  “Ouch,” I said.  “That’s really hot.”

“You might want to let it cool,” Renee said quietly.

“So you went to high school with Renee?” Nicole asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“So then you also know Anthony?”

“Yes.”

“Anthony,” Jenn said, slightly shaking her head.  “Did Renee tell you about last weekend when she spent four hours on the phone with Anthony?  I was waiting for someone to call me!  We only have one phone!”

“It was not four hours!” Renee exclaimed, turning red.  “It was more like three.”

“Still!  Three hours!”

“How are things with Anthony?” I asked.  “How’s he doing?”

“He’s good,” Renee explained.  “We’ve been together long enough that we’ve found how to make long distance work for us.”

“Good.”

“He’s really busy with school right now, though.  He’s taking some really hard classes.”

“Well tell him I said hi.”

“I will!”

I took another sip of the mocha, now that it was not quite so hot, and swallowed it.  Even with the overtones of chocolate and an added sugar packet, I could still taste the coffee.  As the four of us talked about school and life in general, I drank about half of it just to be polite, but as I had suspected, I really did not like this drink because I could still taste the coffee.  Oh well.  Live and learn.

We spent about an hour at the coffee shop, then we got back in Nicole’s car and headed north on 11 to the miniature golf place, off the next exit.  “I feel kind of bad that Marisol had to miss miniature golf,” Jenn said as we pulled into our parking place.  “She loves coming here.”

“Did she say when she was getting back?” Renee asked.

“Not until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Where is Marisol today?” I asked.

“She went home for the weekend,” Renee explained.  “She has a boyfriend back home, in San Tomas.  She goes home a lot of weekends.”

After we got our putters and balls, Renee handed me the scorecard and pencil.  “Here, you do this,” she said.  “You’re good at math.”

“Sure,” I replied.  Being good at math is what I am known for, after all.

The first two holes were fairly straightforward, just a few obstacles to putt around, but I got stuck in a corner on the second hole. It took eight strokes for me to get the ball in the hole.

“Aren’t you supposed to just move on after six?” Nicole asked as she saw me write 8 on the score card.

“Oh,” I said, quickly looking over the instructions.  “But I want to finish the hole.  It’s just who I am.”

On the next hole, Jenn went first, then Nicole.  “What are you up to the rest of the weekend?” I asked Renee as we waited for our turn.

“I have a big midterm in my psych class on Monday.  I’ll just be studying for that, after you leave tonight and all day tomorrow.”

“Good luck,” I said.  “Same with me, just studying.  I don’t have anything too big coming up, though, so I can wait to get started until after church tomorrow.”

A while later, we arrived at the sixth hole, which featured a ramp leading up to a small building.  The building had a door that opened and closed on a timer.  Hitting the ball through the door would put the ball next to the hole on the green beyond, possibly even in the hole if everything was just right.  Hitting the ball wide of the door would put the ball farther away on the green.  Jenn made it through on the first try and got a hole-in-one.  Renee’s ball went wide of the door and landed in the position farther away but still with a straight shot to the hole.  I hit the ball perfectly straight, only to have the door slam on the ball, knocking it back to the start.  On my second attempt, the same thing happened.  On the third attempt, the ball went wide and bounced down to the worst possible position on the green.

“Gaaaahhh!” I screamed.

“Are you okay?” Renee asked.

“Yeah.  Just frustrated.  You know how competitive I can get.”

“Just have fun.  It’s like at the graduation all-nighter, when you were Rollerblading and getting frustrated.  Remember?  Melissa and I told you to just have fun with it.”

“You’re not trying to win any competitions,” Nicole added after overhearing our conversation.

“You’re right,” I replied.  “I know.  I’ll try to let go and have fun.”

And I did let go and have fun.  I did not have the best score after we finished our 18 holes, but I enjoyed trying to hit that ball around all the silly obstacles.  The four of us shared more stories about fun college adventures on the drive back to the apartment and for a while in the living room after we got back.  By now, it was late afternoon.  “It’s probably about time for me to head home,” I said after a while.  “I know you wanted to study tonight too.”

“Yeah, I should get started soon,” Renee replied.  “But thanks so much for coming.”

“Thanks again for inviting me here.  It was good seeing you.”

“You too,” Renee replied, standing to give me a hug.  The top of her head only came up to my chin.  “Drive safely.”

“Take care.  And say hi to Anthony for me.”

“I will.”

“And it was nice meeting you guys,” I added, gesturing to Jenn and Nicole.  “Maybe I’ll see you again someday.”

“Yeah,” Jenn replied.

“You too,” Nicole said.

I had a good day, and I felt content as I made the drive back home to Jeromeville, following the directions Renee sent me in reverse.  But I never did see Jenn and Nicole again.  Renee and I stayed in touch off and on for the rest of sophomore year, but by junior year we started growing apart.  We didn’t argue or fight, we never had a falling out of any kind, but growing apart is just a natural part of the cycle of friendships.  I went through many changes sophomore year, changes in living situation and lifestyle and friendships, and many of my friends did too.  Renee and I still emailed off and on for about another year after my trip to Valle Luna, but I did not see her in person again until 2014, at our 20-year high school reunion.  We have been Facebook friends since then, but she does not post often.

It makes me sad how many people I have grown apart from over the years, for no apparent reason, but I have come to accept it as part of life.  We were meant to grow and change over the years, not stay stuck in the same life forever.  Even though I grew apart from some people that year, I also made many new lifelong friends.

 

October 14-20, 1995.  Come, follow me.

Saturday morning.  Time to sleep in, relax, enjoy the weekend, and go out with friends and enjoy life.  At least that is what a normal person would say.  I rolled out of bed at seven in the morning, my head still hurting from having been so upset last night.  I wanted to stay in bed longer, I had no desire to get up and face my problems, but the urge to pee was too strong.  On my way to the bathroom, I carefully stepped over the trail of tissues and napkins that had scattered when I kicked over the wastebasket last night in a frustrated fit of rage.

In the bathroom, I saw my dirty underwear from last night tossed in a corner.  Just more to be ashamed of.  I am Catholic.  I know what I did was bad.  But I was tired of being alone every night, and that chat room girl last night was really hot… at least that’s how she described herself.  You never can tell with the Internet, of course.  But she disappeared, stopped talking to me just as it was getting interesting, and I had to finish using my imagination.  All this shame for a night that wasn’t even very good to begin with.

I stepped back over the scattered trash again and got on my hands and knees to clean it up.  It did not take long, and nothing wet had spilled.  I lay awake in bed for another half hour.  Then I tried reading for a while; I had recently finished Stephen King’s The Green Mile and was now reading another Stephen King book, The Dark Half.  This book was about a writer who once used a pseudonym but stopped writing under that name, and now the false identity somehow came to life to haunt him.

My mind was in too dark of a place that morning to concentrate on reading, even reading a book with “dark” in the title.  I ate a bowl of cereal and turned on the computer, getting back on IRC chat.  No sign of the girl I was talking dirty with last night.  Most of the people signed on this time of day were from Europe and Asia, where it was currently late afternoon and evening.  My friend Renee, from high school, emailed me yesterday, telling me about her classes this semester at Valle Luna State University.  She mentioned that maybe I could come visit sometime.  I wrote back, telling her that would be fun and asking what her schedule was like.  Valle Luna was an easy day trip from Jeromeville, only 70 miles away.  I did not tell Renee anything about how miserable I was feeling.  At least a possible trip to Valle Luna was something to look forward to.

Maybe a bike ride would make me feel better.  I rode through the greenbelts to the north edge of town.  I zigzagged through all of the greenbelts in north Jeromeville.  I took 15th Street west to the park with the pedestrian crossing over Highway 117 and took city streets to the greenbelt in west Jeromeville.  I headed east on Coventry Boulevard back home.  I showered and dressed.  I did not feel much better.  I did math homework, then chemistry homework.  If I was going to have a crappy day, at least I was being productive.

After lunch, I decided to try something different.  I walked down Andrews Road, across Coventry Boulevard, and turned on Hampton Drive behind the Lucky grocery store.  I had four friends from my dorm last year who shared two apartments there, one on top of the other.  Liz and Caroline lived upstairs, and Liz’s boyfriend Ramon lived downstairs with Jason.  I suddenly realized that this might not have been the best idea.  Since I was just wandering around looking for people to hang out with, and not looking for any one of the four specifically, which door should I knock on first?  I was still trying to make up my mind when the downstairs apartment came into view.  Beside the regular front door was a sliding glass door leading to a patio; the sliding door was open, and I could see inside.  Liz was in the downstairs apartment with Ramon and Jason, so I knocked on the front door of the downstairs apartment.

Ramon opened the door.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “Come on in.”

“Hey,” I said, looking around.  The three of them were watching TV.  A textbook and notebook lay closed on the coffee table.

“How’s your weekend going?” Liz asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.  “Hmm,” I grunted.  “I’m doing okay, but I had a rough night last night.”

“Aww.  What kind of rough?”

“Well,” I said, “honestly, I was just really down and frustrated about life.  Feeling lonely and bored.”

“You should have come to large group.”

“Large group?” I asked.  “Is that the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship thing?”

“Yeah!  We sing worship songs and hear a talk about the Bible.  And during the week there are small group Bible studies too.”

“Large group is every Friday?”

“Yes.  In 180 Evans.”

“Maybe I’ll give it a try sometime.”

“You should!  We’ll all be there next week.”

A minute later, Ramon asked, “So how do you like your new apartment?”

“I like it.  It’s quiet.  Small, but I don’t need a lot of space.”

“That’s good.”

“You’re by yourself in a one-bedroom?” Jason asked.

“Studio apartment,” I said.  “Just one big room, with a small kitchen and bathroom.  No separate living room and bedroom.”

“That’s weird.”

“It works for me, being by myself.”

“Yeah.”

“Where’s Caroline today?”

“She went home,” Liz explained.  “Just for the day, though.  She’ll be back late tonight.  Did you need her for something?”

“No.  Just wondering.  Tell her I said hi.”

“I will.”

 

I hung out with Liz and Ramon and Jason for about two hours that afternoon, just talking about things and watching TV with them.  The following week was uneventful; I spent most of it studying.  I had exams in both math and chemistry; I felt like I did pretty well on both of them.  I also made plans to go to Valle Luna on Saturday to visit Renee.  But something else had been in the back of my mind all week since my conversation with Liz, Ramon, and Jason.  On Friday, I got home from campus mid-afternoon as always, but a few hours later I attached the headlight to my bike and rode back to campus.  I parked my bike next to Evans Hall and slowly, nervously walked inside.

A sign read, Welcome to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship; smaller letters beneath this read, A ministry of InterVarsity.  My friends who were part of JCF had explained to me that the group was a chapter of a national nondenominational Christian organization called InterVarsity, and that they had sister chapters at thousands of universities in several countries.  Two students with name tags that said “Eddie” and “Raphael” sat at a table with markers and blank mailing labels, making name tags for students who walked in.  Two stacks of papers were on this table; one appeared to be a newsletter, and the other was a sign-up sheet for something called Fall Conference.  When I got to the front of the line, I took a copy of the newsletter.

“Hi,” Eddie said.  “Welcome to JCF.  What’s your name?”

“Greg,” I replied.

G-R-E-G, Eddie wrote on a label.  “Double G on the end or not?”

“No.  That’s right.”

Eddie peeled the label off and handed it to me.  “Have a great night!” he said, as I stuck it on my shirt.  I nervously turned toward room 180, a medium-sized lecture hall with close to two hundred seats.  People were standing around mingling.  Guitars, drums, an electric keyboard, and microphones were set up in front, where the lectern would be during an actual class.  I scanned the room for familiar faces.  I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Sarah, and Krista from my dorm last year, and a guy I knew only as Mike From Building J standing around talking.  My friends who attended JCF had introduced me to some of their JCF friends who also lived in the South Area; this was how I knew Mike.

“Greg!” Sarah exclaimed when she saw me walking toward them.  “You’re here!”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Liz keeps inviting me.  I figured I’d actually try it and see what it’s like.”

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Krista added.

“I think you’ll like it,” Sarah said.

“I hope so,” I replied.  “Where are you guys sitting?”

“Probably just here,” Pete explained.  “We don’t really have a usual spot.  But you can sit with us.”

“Thanks.”

I looked around the room again while the others talked.  I recognized Tabitha, whom I knew the same way I knew Mike From Building J (Mike Knepper, I learned his last name eventually), and a skinny guy whom I had seen at Mass at the Newman Center.  I thought his name was Sean, but I did not really know him; however, it felt comforting to know that I was not the only Catholic here tonight.  I saw Liz, Ramon, and Jason walk in, and I waved at them.

“Greg!” Liz called, approaching us.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I replied, thinking about how I still felt out of place even though I knew at least eleven people in the room.

A few minutes later, one of the musicians began speaking into a microphone.  “Welcome to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship,” he said.  “We’re gonna get started now, so find a seat, and greet someone near you.”

I looked around.  Sarah looked at me and shook my hand.  “Greetings!” she said.  “Welcome!”

“Hey,” I replied.  She turned to greet other people, and I did too.  I turned behind me and saw a tall guy with reddish-brown hair, probably an upperclassman, wearing a Jeromeville Colts Track & Field shirt.  “Hi,” he said.  “I don’t think I’ve met you.  I’m Brian.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking his hand.  “It’s my first time.  Nice to meet you.”

“You too!  Welcome to JCF.”

“Thanks.”

The band started playing a song called “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High,” with the lyrics on an overhead projector transparency.  I did not know the song, but the melody seemed pretty simple, so I sang along the best I could.

After the song, a woman who looked a little older, got up on stage.  At first I assumed she was a senior, but as her announcements went on, I wondered if she might be a post-college young adult who worked or volunteered with this group.  She had shoulder length brown hair and bright blue eyes, and she wore denim overalls over a green shirt.  “Hi, everyone!  Welcome to JCF!  I’m Cheryl, and we have a few announcements.  Who remembers what is coming up on November 3rd through the 5th?”

“Fall Conference!” someone shouted.

“That’s right!  If you haven’t paid yet, we need your money and sign-up form!  Next Friday at large group, October 27, that is the deadline to sign up and turn in your $100!  If you want to go but money is a problem, talk to any of our staff or your Bible study leader about scholarships.”  Cheryl continued with a few other announcements.  I assumed that Fall Conference was a retreat of some sort, a trip that included opportunities to learn about Jesus and the Bible, something like that.  I did not know where, though, and being brand new to this group I was not ready to commit a hundred dollars and an entire weekend.  If I stuck with this group for a while, maybe I would be at next year’s Fall Conference.

The band played two more songs.  I noticed during the music that some people clapped along to the faster songs, and some made other gestures like raising their arms.  Why are these people doing this?  Was this like those songs for little kids that have hand motions?  Did those people come from the kinds of churches where people made a lot of unusual movements?  Was it okay for me to just stand and sing and not move my arms?  I hoped so, because that is what I did.  No one seemed to have a problem with me.

After the music, a man with light brown hair whom I had not noticed before walked up to the stage holding a Bible.  He introduced himself as Dave.  Dave looked older than a student, probably around thirty, and he wore a wedding band.  Was he like a pastor of a church, someone whose job was to speak to this group?  Was he a student who came to UJ later in life?  I put those questions aside for now and listened.  “Turn to Matthew 4:18,” he said.  Sarah noticed from the seat next to me that I did not have a Bible, and she shared hers.  I knew from Catechism back home at Our Lady of Peace that Matthew was one of the four Gospels, telling about the life of Jesus, and one of the Scriptures every week in Catholic Mass was always from one of the Gospels.  But I did not have a clear overall picture of the life of Jesus, I just knew bits and pieces.

Dave read aloud and I followed along, about Jesus calling his first disciples.  “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men,’” Dave read.  “Peter and Andrew, they were just hanging out there, doing their jobs.  They were fishermen.  And Jesus… who is this guy?  He just shows up and says ‘Come, follow me.’  Why should they follow him?  But they do.  Jesus is God in the flesh, and God spoke a calling into Peter and Andrew’s lives.  And they listened.”  Dave continued for some time, speaking on this concept of God’s calling, mentioning other examples elsewhere in the Bible.

Dave’s talk was interesting, much more thorough than the brief sermons given on Sunday mornings by Catholic priests.  He explained the historical context of the passage in more detail than I had ever heard before, and he did so using language that felt much more accessible to an ordinary secular university student like me.

After Dave’s sermon and one more song, the lead vocalist of the band said, “Pray with me.”  I closed my eyes and folded my hands as he continued.  “Lord, as we leave this place tonight, I pray that we will listen for your calling on our lives.  Speak to us, and let us all hear your voice.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

People then began talking and getting out of their seats, mingling as they had at the beginning of the night.  “So what’d you think?” Taylor asked me.

“That was good,” I replied.  “I liked the talk.”

“Are you going to come back next week?” Sarah asked.

“Probably.”

“Good!”

The others began talking about something else.  I sat and watched people mingle for a few minutes, not really joining in conversations since I did not know these people.  At one point, I saw Tabitha walking toward me and waved.

“Hey, Greg,” she said.  “How’s it going?”

“Good,” I replied.  “This is my first time here.”

“Really?  You never came to JCF last year?”

“No.  I just have a lot of friends in this group.”

“Huh.  I didn’t realize that.  What did you think?”

“I liked it.”

“Good!  I need to get home, but it was good seeing you.”

“You too.”

After about half of the group had trickled out, I said my goodbyes and rode home on my bike.  What would that have been like, being an ordinary simple fisherman meeting Jesus, hearing him tell me to follow him?  How would I have known that this man calling me was the Son of God?  If something like this happened in my life, how would I know if the call was actually from God?  Would I obey?  Maybe one just knows these things when they happen.  Maybe coming to JCF that night was part of God’s calling on my life.  Liz told me at her apartment six days ago to come to JCF, and I did.  This was not exactly the same as the disciples dropping everything to follow Jesus, since Liz had invited me to JCF two or three other times and I never went until now.  But one thing was clear that night for sure: I would be attending JCF again next week.

 

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

I locked my bike outside Wellington Hall and walked down the hall, joining about five other people waiting outside room 109 for the 9:00 Math 22A class.  Another class met in this room at 8:00, and I always arrived early enough that the other class had not been dismissed yet.  I learned the hard way on the first day of class not to open the door this early.

“Hey, Greg,” Jack Chalmers said.  I knew Jack from last year; we had had two classes together, and we lived in nearby dorms and ate at the same dining commons.

“Hi,” I said.

“Finding inverses of matrices is hard!” Jack exclaimed, speaking quickly and eliding syllables here and there, as he normally did, but I understood what he was saying.  “The homework took me forever!”

“I know.  It seems like there should be an easier way.  Maybe we’ll learn one later.”

As Jack continued, I became aware of the classroom emptying.  “I just hope every assignment in this class isn’t gonna be that long.  I’m already pretty busy this quarter.  Hey, Lizzie.”

“Hey, what happened last night?” a girl leaving the classroom asked Jack.  I recognized Lizzie, because I had seen Jack say hi to her before as we waited for her class to finish and ours to start.  Lizzie was fairly short, with brown eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail.

“I had so much homework!” Jack told Lizzie.

“That’s too bad,” Lizzie replied.  “Hopefully I’ll see you this weekend?”

“Yeah.”

Lizzie looked at me for a second before she turned to walk away.  “Bye,” I said, waving, even though I did not know Lizzie at all beyond always seeing her leave this class, and I had no idea what plans Jack had missed out on.

“Bye,” she replied, smiling.

I walked into the room along with Jack and the others waiting for our math class.  I spent the next hour listening to the instructor, a curly-haired man named Anton, explain properties of matrices and their inverses.  Anton demonstrated how to prove the invertibility of a matrix, in his usual broken English.  He told us to call him Anton; I was not sure if this was because his last name was difficult for English-speakers, or because calling professors by first name was the norm in his home country.  I never did figure out exactly which country this was.

As soon as math class finished, I crossed West Quad Avenue and walked to the far end of the Memorial Union building, near the campus bookstore, to a stairway leading down.  The basement of this building contained a game room with 16 lanes of bowling, along with pool tables, pinball machines, and coin-operated video games.  Here at the University of Jeromeville, students got two appointments to register for classes, three weeks apart, using an automated telephone system.  On the first appointment, students may only register for up to thirteen and one-half units, enough to be classified as a full time student, but limited so that not all classes fill up before everyone has had a chance to register.  I registered for bowling and weight training just to make sure I had enough classes, intending to drop these once I added chemistry on the second pass, but I ended up keeping bowling and only dropping weight training.

Today, the bowling coach, Frank White, demonstrated the proper release of the ball, with a flick of the wrist giving the ball a bit of spin.  We began learning this last time, on Monday, and I was terrible at it.  My mind began to wander, and I spent a few minutes starting at a plaque on the wall with names of everyone who bowled a perfect game on these lanes.  So far, there were eight perfect games.  This was the fourth time bowling class had met this year, and I had been bowling down here a few times last year, but today one of those names jumped out at me that I had never noticed before.

FRANK WHITE
4/29/89

Frank White was my instructor, the man standing here in front of me explaining how to release the ball.  Apparently he bowled a perfect game here six years ago.  That was quite an accomplishment.  I watched carefully, paying close attention to what he was doing.  By the end of class, though, it seemed like my technique was worse than ever.  I had not bowled this many gutter balls since I was a child.

I had an hour between bowling and chemistry lecture, which I used to work on the new math assignment due Friday.  After chemistry, I had another hour before physics lecture; I spent it sitting on the Quad, eating the lunch I packed and reading the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt.  After physics, I returned to Wellington, where my math class had been in the morning.  Room 102 was a large study room, with a row of comfortable chairs, and six cubicles each containing a table and a small chalkboard.  A few students sat quietly in the chairs, and two students worked together in one of the cubicles.  I noticed the cubicles had signs with numbers on them.  Four other signs placed in prominent places around the room announced that These cubicles may be reserved by the Learning Skills Center.

That was me.  This was my first day on the job for the Learning Skills Center.  I walked to table 3, where two students named Yesenia Fonseca and Kevin Dunnigan were assigned to meet me.  A short girl with olive skin and long brown hair most of the way down her back sat at the table.  I wondered if she was waiting for me, or if she just sat there not knowing that the table was reserved.

“Are you Yesenia?” I asked.

The girl’s face lit up.  “Yeah!” she exclaimed enthusiastically.  “You’re my tutor?”

“Yes.  I’m Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!  Is it just us or will there be a group?”

“There’s one other person signed up, a guy named Kevin Dunnigan.  Do you know him?”

“No,” she said.   “But he might be in my class.  It’s a huge class.”

“I think usually they put students together from the same class, so he probably is,” I explained.  Yesenia and Kevin were taking Math 21A, the beginning quarter of calculus.  Students who begin calculus fall quarter get a large lecture hall class..  I skipped a quarter since I had taken the Advanced Placement test in high school, so I started fall of my freshman year in 21B, and since fewer students take 21B in the fall compared to 21A, my classes were smaller.

“We can wait a few minutes to get started, see if Kevin comes,” I said.  “It’s early.”

“How does this work?”

“Honestly, I’m not really sure,” I said.  “This is my first time tutoring, ever.  I think I just answer any questions you have about anything you’ve been going over in class.  Or we can work on stuff from your homework.  You can do it while I’m here, so you can ask for help if you need to.”

“That sounds good.  So what year are you?”

“I’m a sophomore,” I said.

“I’m a freshman.”  Yesenia smiled apologetically, as if to say that she knew that freshmen were traditionally on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  I did not care that she was a freshman.

“How do you like Jeromeville so far?” I asked.

“I love it!  I’ve already made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Good.  Which dorm?”

“South Area.  Building C.”

“Building C!” I exclaimed.  “I was in Building C last year!”

The IHP!”

“Yes!  I loved it too!  I felt like the IHP gave me a smaller community within the large university.”

“That’s a great way of describing it.”

 A boy with dark hair and an athletic build approached our table, looking at a sheet of paper on which he had written something.  “Are you Greg?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Kevin?”

“Yeah.  You’re my tutor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  Kevin Dunnigan did not look like what I expected of someone with an Irish-sounding name; I wondered from his appearance if his mother was Asian.  “Do you two know each other?”

“No,” Kevin said.

“I’m Yesenia,” Yesenia said, extending her hand.  “I think I’ve seen you in class.  10:00 with Dr. Hong?”

“Yeah.”

I spent the next fifty minutes working with Yesenia and Kevin, talking about limits of functions and how to calculate them.  This was the class that I had skipped; I had not technically taken it before.  I was familiar with most of what they were doing, of course, but one question on their assignment involved the epsilon-delta proof of finding the limit of a function.  My calculus class at Plumdale High did not go that in depth.  However, I was able to figure it out; I had done enough similar problems in other classes since then.

“It’s about time to wrap up,” I said at the end of the session.  “Any other questions before we leave?”

“I’m starting to understand this a lot better,” Kevin replied.

“Me too,” Yesenia added.  “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “See you guys next week?”

“Yeah!

 

It was almost 4:30 by the time I finally got home.  I spent some time on the computer catching up on emails, and I put a frozen pot pie in the oven for dinner.  I still had to do my pre-lab for physics tomorrow.  But my night was not over yet, because it was Wednesday, and I had choir practice at church.  Last week was the first time I had ever sung at church, and one of the others in the group, Heather Escamilla, had mentioned carpooling since we were neighbors in the same apartment complex.  At 6:40 that night, after eating the pot pie and writing my pre-lab, I walked to Heather’s apartment and knocked on the door.

“Hey, Greg,” Heather said, opening the door.  I could see a guy with long brown hair inside the apartment, sitting at a computer typing; he looked up at me.  “This is my boyfriend, Gary,” Heather said.

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” Gary replied.

“You ready?” Heather asked.

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

Heather locked the door behind her, and I followed her to her car, a Jeep Cherokee.  The way Gary sat at the computer made me wonder if he and Heather lived together.  Being Catholic, there was all that stuff about fornication and adultery and things like that which suggested that it was wrong for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together.  Maybe they lived together in separate bedrooms.  It was none of my business, so I did not ask.  On the way to the church, I told Heather about my first day of tutoring, and she told me about the midterm she had in the morning that she would be up late studying for.

When we arrived, I noticed that Danielle was there with her sister, Carly, a freshman.  I had met Carly twice before, once at church this year and once last year when Danielle’s family came to visit her in the dorm.  I thought it was interesting that Carly was singing too.  Danielle had told me over the summer that Carly was coming to Jeromeville, and Danielle was a little bit upset that Carly had chosen the same major and was in one of the same classes as her.  And now Carly was following her big sister to choir at the Newman Center.  I hoped that there was no drama going on with them.

“Hi, Greg,” Danielle said.  “You remember my sister, Carly?”

“Yeah.  Good to see you again.”

“You too,” Carly replied.  Carly was a few inches taller and somewhat thinner than Danielle, with straight brown hair.  They did not look very much alike, but considering that my brother Mark does not look like me, I no longer found it surprising when siblings did not look alike.  For as much as Danielle was a good friend, I had to admit that Carly was better looking.  I wondered if, growing up, Carly got more attention from boys, and if this had been part of the reason Danielle felt uneasy about Carly being in the same major and one of Danielle’s classes.

A few minutes later, Claire, a junior who seemed somewhat to be in charge of things, gave us all a stack of papers.  It was an address and phone list of all of us doing music at 11:00 Mass.  I scanned the list to make sure that my information was correct; it was.  I read through the other names.  I recognized some of the names.  Danielle Coronado.  Carly Coronado.  Matt Jones.  Heather Escamilla.  Some of the last names were unfamiliar to me, because I had only met these people by first name last week.  Claire Seaver.  Sabrina Murpy.  That was an unusual last name; I wondered if it was a typo and her name was actually Murphy.  (It was, I would learn later.)  I continued reading.  Phil Gallo.  Ryan Gambrell.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through my body, and I did a double take and read the name again.  My brain made a flurry of connections between things said a year ago and things said last week.  Matt said last week that Ryan was his friend from high school.  Matt went to St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, so Ryan also went to St. Luke’s.  Right near where I grew up.  I looked at Ryan, now seeing his mysteriously familiar toothy smile with new eyes.

“Ryan Gambrell,” I said.

“Yeah?” Ryan replied.

You’re Annie’s brother.”

Ryan looked confused for a second, then surprised; clearly he was not expecting me to say that.  “Yes,” he said.  “How do you know my sister?”

“I went to Plumdale High.  A class I was in and a class she was in did a project together my senior year, her sophomore year.  And now I remember I told her I was going to Jeromeville, and she said her brother goes there.”

“How funny.  Small world.”

“Tell her I said hi.”  I wanted to tell Annie so much more than hi.  I wanted to tell her all about how I was doing here.  I wanted to know where she was applying to school, since she was a senior this year.  I wondered what to make of the fact that she was always so nice to me when I was a senior, and she wrote something really nice in the back of my yearbook, but she had not stayed in touch at all.  I wanted to tell her to come visit me if she ever came up here to visit Ryan or to tour the campus.  And I was curious if she and her boyfriend were still together, because as long as they were, all these feelings I had felt wrong and forbidden.

“I will,” Ryan said.

Choir practice continued uneventfully for the rest of the night.  One song I did not know well, but I figured it out fairly quickly and felt that I would be able to sing it with everyone else in front of the congregation on Sunday morning.  On the way home, in Heather’s Jeep, I mentioned to her about knowing Ryan’s sister from high school.

“Whoa,” Heather said.  “It’s weird how that kind of thing happens.”

“I know.”

“Gary told me once he was in Capital City, and he ran into this guy he knew from when he used to live in Arizona as a kid.”

“Wow.  That’s even crazier.”

I got home and listened to music while I opened an IRC chat on the computer; although I was messaging a girl on there, I could not stop thinking about Annie Gambrell.  I wondered if I would ever see her again.  Even though she had not written to me, I had a connection with her again, in that I knew her brother.  But I also felt that this crush was one I needed to keep secret, because the entire time I knew her in person, she had a boyfriend.  Annie’s boyfriend was one of the popular guys from the class a year older than her and a year younger than me.

In the time that I knew Ryan, I ended up not talking to him much about Annie.  Annie was off limits.  Most of the best girls were off limits.  It was not my place in life to be romantically involved with the popular girls.  The concept of high school popularity does not carry over to the culture of a large university, but still felt, deep down inside, that I probably did not have much of a shot with friendly and attractive girls here either.

 

 

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.  My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments.  It was a Tuesday morning.  About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today.  A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City.  Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible.  After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.

My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

A few of my classmates gasped.  This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected.  O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend.  For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy.  All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted.  To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.

When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building.  A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad.  A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore.  A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk.  Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.

i will argue table

Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything.  Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “Thanks for signing up to work today.”

“No problem,” I said.  “So what do I do?  Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”

“Yes.  Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets.  “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”

“I can do that,” I said.  I looked through one of the pamphlets.  It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman.  The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.

A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign.  “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Can I help you?”

“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.

“We are the Newman Center.  We are a Catholic student community.  We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”

I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it.  I was curious what made him stop at our table.  Does he come from a Catholic background?  Is he just interested in Catholicism?  Was he just being friendly?  I did not ask.  I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.

“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.

“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.

“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

“No.  I have physics lab at 2.  I had chemistry lab this morning.”

“Two labs on the same day.”

“Yeah.  That’s all I have today.  This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict.  I thought that was kind of funny.”

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

“Yeah.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely.  I’m just sick of hearing about it.”

“I know what you mean.”

Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair.  “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet.  “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages.  “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”

“There is also St. John’s.  They are a more traditional Catholic parish.  The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Would you like to sign up for our contact list?  We can send you more information.”

“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Have a great day.”

“You too!”

“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off.  “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”

“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing.  I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”

“Good for you!  I think you’ll love it.”

“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people.  But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo.  And I need to get more involved in things.  I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”

“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice?  You two know each other besides just church, right?”

“Yes.  She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”

“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”

“Thank you.”

 

The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road.  I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th.  I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.

“Greg!” Danielle called out.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.

“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater.  I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well.  “Danielle told me you would be coming.  We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week.  Grab a songbook.”

I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass.  I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones.  He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home.  He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.

There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble.  The others introduced themselves to Phil and me.  There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina.  An olive-skinned girl named Heather.  A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together.  And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students.  Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past.  Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.

Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass.  Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings.  In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together.  The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service.  When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics.  The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.

The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts.  For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing.  Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman.  “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.”  “We used to sing it at my church back home.”

“Mine too,” Danielle replied.  “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”

After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” she asked.  “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas.  Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this.  Was she stalking me?  Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?

“I do too.  Might you be interested in carpooling?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of.  Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary. 

“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number.  And my apartment number.”

“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays?  Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”

“Sure.  We can do Sundays too.”  Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me.  Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239.  I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.

“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked.  “Want me to drive?”

“Sure!”

 

The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass.  I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.

“Hey,” I said after opening the door.  “You ready?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Which car is yours?”

“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment.  “Well, technically not mine.  My parents own it.  You know.”

“Yeah.”  As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from?  Are your parents around here?”

“No.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  How far is that from here?”

“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”

“That’s not bad.  I’m from down south, near San Angelo.  On a good day it takes six hours.”

“Sounds right.  What year are you, and what are you studying?”

“I’m a junior.  Psych major.  And you’re a sophomore?  Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”

“Yeah.  She lived one door down across the hall from me.  And I’m a math major.”

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

“I’m sure they do.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, but it was boring.  Went for a bike ride yesterday.”  I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.

“That sounds nice,” Heather said.  “Mel and I were at a party on Friday.  It was, well, interesting.  You know.”

“Mel?”

“Melanie.  From choir.  You met her on Wednesday.”

“Oh, okay.  I still don’t know everyone.”

When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty.  The early service had left already.  We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music.  Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived.  “You ready?”

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be.  Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat.  You’ll be fine.”

Danielle was right.  I just sang, and it was fine.  We sounded good.  There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be.  The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song.  Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.

“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Great!  I’ll see you Wednesday then.”

“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather.  She was talking to Melanie.  After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.

I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely.  With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year.  That meant it was time to get involved in more activities.  With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.

After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor.  Songs get stuck in my head easily.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says.  Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord.  Maybe he finally heard me.  Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends.  And in the process, I was serving my community.  Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.

 

 

 

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

I did not like to admit it, because it felt like I had no chance, but the truth was that I had a crush on an older woman.  Megan McCauley was a junior, a year and three days older than me.  Last year she was a resident advisor in a dorm near the one where I lived.  Amy, one of the RAs in my building, introduced me to Megan one night at dinner when we were all sitting at the same table.  After that, I just started saying hi and being friendly when I saw her around.  Megan was really nice, and friendly, and cute, not in the glamorous supermodel way, but in her own way I could not explain.  Then again, I was a little girl crazy; I found most girls physically attractive.

Megan had stayed in touch for part of the summer; she was in Jeromeville taking summer classes.  We wrote emails for a while, but her work load got in the way eventually.  Now summer school was over, fall classes started in a few days, and earlier this week, Megan emailed me for the first time in a month.  She invited me to meet her for lunch today, so we could catch up.  I had been sitting around the apartment all morning, reading, doing dishes, and trying not to be too nervous.

I left my apartment at 11:36 and rode my bike to campus along the same route that I used the day before, when I bought books and looked for part-time on-campus work.  I headed down Andrews Road for about a mile to the North Residential Area, then east to the Memorial Union.  I turned on East Quad Avenue to the Student Employment Center in the basement of Old North Hall, where I dropped off two job applications, one to work as a tutor and one to work in the bookstore.

I then returned the way I came and parked at the bike rack outside of Raymond Hall.  The North Residential Area had two sections, four high-rise buildings to the west, and seven smaller buildings to the east.  These smaller buildings only had bedrooms and bathrooms, no common room or study room.  Raymond Hall contained a study room, a lounge with a television, a computer lab, and mailboxes, intended for use by residents of all seven buildings.  Behind Raymond, five of the buildings faced a lawn with concrete paths leading to each building’s main entrance.  Another path led past the building on the east side of the lawn to two more dorms behind it.

The twelve three-story buildings of the South Area, where I lived last year, were all identical, except that some were mirror images of the others.  But these seven dorms where I was today were not identical.  Three of them had two stories, and the other four had three stories with fewer rooms on each story.  Despite having different floor plans, all of the buildings were painted in identical colors, a golden mustard color with brown trim.

Megan was the RA for Carter Hall.  I had been inside Carter once, a long time ago, and I did not remember which building it was specifically.  I could see the name on the three-story building straight across the lawn from me: Ryan Hall.  Last year, a student who lived in Ryan named Raphael Stevens painted a mural next to his room, two hands of different skin colors gently holding Earth, a message of peace and unity.  I have never seen this mural up close, only in pictures, and it had nothing to do with my lunch plans with Megan today.  But I would meet Raphael later that school year, and he knows about my writing now, so I mention him now just to say hi to an old friend.  As of 2017, the mural was still there; Raphael’s freshman year roommate, whom I would meet later this school year and stay in touch with, visited Jeromeville with his family in 2017 and shared a picture of the mural on Facebook.  At that time, I had not communicated with Raphael in many years, and the comments on that picture were how I got back in touch with him.

I looked for a name on the building to the left of Ryan; this was Carter Hall.  I had no access to the building, and I could not knock on Megan’s window because I did not know which one was hers.  I could not call or text Megan and tell her I was here, because this was 1995 and texting did not exist, and only drug dealers and ostentatiously wealthy people had cell phones.  So I figured I would wait by the front door until I saw someone inside, and then knock.  I was a little early, but Megan knew I was coming, so she would probably come find me.

I saw Megan walk into the lobby about a minute later.  When she saw me, she smiled and waved and walked over to open the door for me.  “Hey, Greg!” she said, approaching me to give me a hug.  She wore a black t-shirt that said “HEAVY METAL” in writing that resembled a rock band logo; below HEAVY METAL were pictures of gold, lead, platinum, mercury, tungsten, and uranium, and each heavy metal’s atomic mass and atomic number.  Chemical engineering humor.  Very nice.  Her short jean shorts and Birkenstocks gave me a great view of her legs, but I made a point not to stare.  Her dark blonde hair had grown back quite a bit since she cut it spiky and dyed it green last winter.  It was shorter than it was when we first met, but there was no longer any trace of green.

“Hi,” I replied as I put my arms around Megan.  I could feel my pulse quicken a little as our bodies pressed together for a few seconds.  “That’s a funny shirt,” I said after we let go of each other.

“Thanks!  You can put your backpack in my room,” Megan said, motioning toward the hallway.  She walked to her room, the first room to the right of the lobby, and I followed her.  A sign on the door said “Megan,” written in large letters in marker on construction paper.  A sign on Megan’s door had helpful phone numbers for various student services.  This was probably something that all resident advisors had on their doors.

“Where should I put my backpack?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” Megan said.  I put it on the floor against the wall at the foot of the bed.  Her bed was adjusted to the highest level possible without the extra piece needed for a loft or bunk bed; her chest of drawers was under the bed, along with a miniature refrigerator.  I was not sure if the refrigerator was her own personal property or an RA privilege; I just knew that it was not standard issue for all dorm residents.

“I’ve been in this building before,” I explained.  “A long time ago.  Senior year of high school, I was invited to a presentation about the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, and that year’s IHP students lived in Carter.  They showed us what the dorm looked like.”

“That’s right.  This was the IHP building for a while, but the IHP your year had so many students that they needed a bigger building.  Amy was supposed to be the RA for Carter last year, but when the IHP moved to Building C, they moved her with it because she had been in IHP the year before.”

“That makes sense.”

“You ready to eat?”

“Sure!”

Megan and I left Carter Hall together, walking past Raymond Hall and the bike rack where I parked, around to the high-rises.  “What are you up to the rest of the day?” I asked.

“I have a meeting with other RAs at 2,” she said.  “And I’m hosting a meeting with my residents at 7 tonight.”

“I’m not doing anything,” I said.  We passed two of the high-rises and walked toward a small building easily accessible from all four high-rises; this was the North Dining Commons.  It was a one-story building, unlike the South Dining Commons where I ate last year.  The South Dining Commons also included the mail room, game room, study room, and computer lab, but in the North Area, these services were in different buildings.

Megan scanned her card, using one of her monthly allotment of guest meals for me.  We sat down a minute later; I had a chicken sandwich, and Megan had a salad.  “So what classes are you taking this quarter?” Megan asked.

“Math 22A, Math 90, Chem 2C, Physics 9B, and bowling.”

“Bowling!  That’ll be fun!  Do you bowl?”

“Not very well.  I signed up for the class in order to have enough units to be full time, in case I didn’t get into everything.  But after I did get into everything, I decided to keep it.  It looks fun, and I always liked bowling.”

“Yeah!  Is it at the bowling alley in the MU?”

“Yeah.”

“You said Chem 2C also?  Do you need chemistry for a math major?”

“I don’t.  But I didn’t decide for sure on math for my major until I was halfway through 2B, and I like chemistry, so I just figured I’d finish the 2 series.”

“That makes sense.”

“Oh.  And I also applied at the Learning Skills Center to be a tutor.  And I applied to work at the bookstore.  I haven’t heard back from either of those yet; I just dropped off the applications this morning.  If I get both jobs, I’m probably only going to keep one.”

“That would be cool.  I could see you being a tutor.”

“Yeah.  In high school, my friends always came to me when they needed help with homework.”

“Are you going to be a teacher?  Is that your career goal?”

“I don’t know what my goal is,” I said.  “But I don’t think I would like being a teacher.  Too much politics in education.”

“Yeah.  It’s too bad it has to be like that.”

“I just kind of assumed I’d stay in school forever and be a mathematician someday.  School is what I’m good at.  But I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to have it all figured out right now.”

“I know.  But it would be nice to figure it out, so I can make some long term plans with classes.”

“The worst that can happen is you’ll have to stay here a fifth year.  And that means another year with your friends, doing what you’re good at.”

“I guess.  That’s one way to look at it.”

“I’ve accepted the fact by now that I won’t be able to finish a chemical engineering degree in four years.”

“Yeah.  I’ve heard it’s a lot of work.”

“One of the most intense majors at UJ,” Megan replied.

“What are you taking this quarter?” I asked.

“P-chem, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and writing for engineers.  It’s going to be a lot of work.  And I have all my RA responsibilities too.  That’s another reason I won’t finish in four.  I can’t take a ton of units each quarter because I need time to do RA stuff.”

“You seem to have it figured out, though,” I said.

“Yeah, we’ll see,” Megan replied, chuckling.  “So did you do anything else the rest of the summer?  Did you go to any more of those roller hockey games?”

“I did.  The Mountain Lions won the roller hockey championship this year.  I went to some of the home playoff games with my family.”

“That sounds like fun!  I didn’t even know there was professional roller hockey.”

“It is fun.  And the rules are a little different, so that they score more goals than in regular hockey.  I mean ice hockey.”

“Makes sense.”

“I didn’t do much else.  The bookstore job.  And, oh yeah, my friend from high school, she was an exchange student in Austria for a year, she got some of her friends from Austria to come here for a couple weeks and do a performance.”

“Nice.  How was that?”

“They were really good.  I don’t know a whole lot about classical music, but I enjoyed it.”

“That’s good.”

“What about you?” I asked.  “How was the rest of your summer?”

“Busy.  Mostly just school.  My classes were really, really hard!”

“But it’s over now.”

“Yes, it is.  The only really fun thing I did in the last few weeks was when it was my friend’s birthday.  She and I and two other friends took a road trip up to the Great Blue Lake.  We drove a lap around the lake, ate at a McDonald’s there, then turned around and went home.”

“All that way for McDonald’s,” I said.  The idea of driving over a hundred miles just for McDonald’s seemed a little unusual to me.  But in addition to that, I was also surprised for another reason.  McDonald’s was not exactly fine dining, and many of the people I had met here in Jeromeville seemed to be the type to think that eating McDonald’s was beneath them.  But it was also a bit of a relief that Megan liked McDonald’s, or at least was willing to eat there, because I grew up eating a lot of fast food, and I loved McDonald’s.  I suspected, though, that McDonald’s was not the main point of Megan’s story.  “But I’m sure a trip like that was more about your friends than the food,” I said.

“Exactly.  I’ve done stuff like that with these friends before.  We’ll just take a random road trip somewhere, and then turn around and come back.”

“Nice,” I replied.  A random road trip did sound fun.  As a road geek, I enjoyed exploring new places.  And I had never been to the Great Blue Lake.  It was one of the top vacation spots in this part of the country, but most of its tourism appeal involved skiing, camping, and other outdoor activities that my family did not participate in.

After a while, when both of us had been done eating for several minutes, Megan asked, “You ready to go back?”

“Sure,” I replied.  We took our plates and silverware to the conveyor belt that sent dirty dishes back to the kitchen, then left the dining hall and walked back toward Megan’s dorm.  I looked at my watch; it was 1:04.

“If you’re not busy, we can hang out in my room until my meeting,” Megan said.

“Sure,” I replied, smiling.  I wanted so badly to hold her hand we walked up to Carter Hall, but I did not.  That would be weird, especially since I did not know if she liked me back, and I did not know how to ask her.  Megan let us into the building, then proceeded to her room.  She sat on the end of her bed where the pillow was, her legs dangling off the edge.  She smiled and motioned for me to sit on the other side of the bed.  I got up on the bed, sitting cross-legged and facing her.  “So how are your residents so far?”

Megan turned to face me, also crossing her legs.  “Good, so far,” she said.  “I still don’t know everyone yet, of course.  But it’s definitely different being the only RA.  Carter, Serrano, and Irwin are the smallest dorms on campus, so they each only have one RA.”

“Yeah.”

“But from what I’ve seen so far, it looks like a good balance of science and humanities people.  It’s interesting how some dorms will be heavy on humanities majors, and some will be more sciencey, stuff like that.”

“Yeah.”

“My freshman year, I had mostly engineers around me.  I was like, yay, you guys are my people!  Then last year, when I was in Building K, there were a lot of artsy people.  You know Tiffany Rollins, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Part of the reason we got along so great was because she was another woman engineer.  There weren’t many of us in K last year.”

“We had a lot of engineers and science people in C last year,” I said.  “Dr. McGillicuddy, she’s the director of the IHP, she said that some years are more science people and some years are more art people.”

“Hey, Megan?” a voice said from the hallway.  A girl leaned into Megan’s open door from the hallway.  She stopped and looked slightly embarrassed when she saw me on the bed.  “Oh,” she said.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

“It’s ok,” Megan said.  “What do you need?”

Obviously it was the sight of me in Megan’s room that surprised the girl.  Maybe she assumed I was Megan’s boyfriend, and that she had interrupted a romantic moment between us.  I wish.  It felt kind of nice to think that this girl might have thought that a cute, smart, older girl like Megan would have a boyfriend like me.

“Sorry about that,” Megan said a minute later after she answered her resident’s question.

“No problem.  You’re doing your job.”

“So are you glad school is starting?”

“I am.  It’s been a pretty lonely summer.”

“Have you gotten to see all your friends back here?”

“I’ve seen some of them.  It’s going to be different, though, living by myself, not having a built-in community like I did last year.”

“Yeah,” Megan replied.  “I’m an RA, so I have a built-in community every year.”

“I know.  I applied and interviewed to be an RA, because of that, but I didn’t get it.  Remember?”

“Oh, that’s right.”

“I probably wouldn’t be a good RA, though.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I just don’t feel like a leader,” I explained.  “I grew up kind of sheltered.  I don’t know what a lot of students’ lives are like.  And I’m still having trouble living on my own; I’m not ready to help others do it.”

“You never know,” Megan said.  “It wouldn’t hurt to apply again.  If you really want to be an RA, you could learn those leadership skills.  And you’ve grown since I first knew you.”

“You think so?”

“I do.  You’ve figured out a lot about living on your own.  Give yourself more credit.”

After we had been talking for a while, Megan turned her head in the direction of her clock.  It was 1:50.  “I should probably head over to that meeting,” she said.  “Did you park your bike next to Raymond?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll follow you that far.”

“Sounds good.”  I grabbed my backpack and followed Megan out of the building and across the lawn.  “Thanks for treating me to lunch,” I said.

“Thanks for coming!” Megan replied.  “It was good seeing you!”

“Have a great first week.”

“You too!”  Megan gave me a hug, holding me a little tightly.  “I’ll see you around, Greg,” she said as she patted me on the back.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Take care.”

“You too.”  Megan let go of me and watched me get on my bike before walking into Raymond Hall for her meeting.

As I passed the high-rises and rode north on Andrews Road, I thought about what Megan said.  I really had grown over the last year.  I was confused about many things and lacked street smarts and knowledge of how things worked in the world when I first came to Jeromeville.  I had to figure out some basic life skills on my own.  I was not good at making friends or having a social life.  And now, here I was, living in my own apartment and meeting friends for lunch… specifically, cute older female friends.  Things were definitely moving in the right direction.  I felt optimistic that maybe this would finally be my year, the year that life finally started going my way and I became one of the cool kids who gets invited to parties and gets attention from cute girls.  And, looking back, my sophomore year at UJ definitely was an unforgettable and life-changing year.

Just not entirely in the ways I expected.