February 23-26, 1995. Shooting the moon and a penalty for talking.

One evening, I had been eating at the dining hall by myself. Two girls I didn’t know, one blonde and one with short red hair, were sitting at the table next to me, speaking loudly enough that it was impossible not to overhear their conversation.

“So how’s Justin?” Blondie asked.

“I don’t think he’s interested,” Red said. “Oh my god, we’ve been on three dates, and he hasn’t even made a move yet. All we did last night was make out.”

“How long have you known him?”

“Almost two weeks. When I was with Shane, we were already sleeping together at this point.”

“Hmm. I thought Justin seemed really into you.”

“I thought so too. I guess not. I don’t think I’m going to call him back. What about you? How’s What’s-his-face?”

“Ryan,” Blondie said. “I really like him, but he’s too clingy. He called me today.”

“Eww!”

“Like, we just went out yesterday. He didn’t even wait three days.”

“Who does that? Why is he calling you back the next day?”

“I know, right?”

None of that conversation made any sense to me. If Blondie really liked Ryan, why was it a problem that he called her the next day? Wouldn’t she want to talk to him? Is this waiting three days thing really a rule? And does anyone write these rules down? And sleeping with a guy you’ve only known two weeks is not normal to me. Sleeping together is for husbands and wives. I would have said that Justin moved too fast, making out on the third date, and apparently he moves too slowly for these girls. People are confusing. I wished I knew Justin and Ryan, so that I could tell them they dodged bullets.

I came back to my room and did homework for chemistry, even though it was Thursday night and the assignment wasn’t due until Monday. Homework wasn’t even graded for that class, but I always did it anyway. I liked chemistry, and I didn’t want to fail. After I finished, I checked email, and I didn’t have anything, probably because I had just checked it before dinner. Molly from Pennsylvania wrote me this morning, but I didn’t really feel like replying yet. I didn’t have much to say.

I walked down the hall. No one had their doors open, and I didn’t want to bother anyone. So I climbed to the third floor. I heard voices coming from Taylor Santiago’s room, and one of the voices was loud and enthusiastic enough that I recognized it as belonging to Mike Adams.

“Hey, guys,” I said, poking my head in the door. Taylor, his roommate David, Mike, and Gina Stalteri were sitting around a table playing some kind of card game, using an ordinary 52-card deck. “What are you playing?” I asked.

“Hearts,” Taylor replied. “If you want in, you can take my place after this game. I need a break.”

“I don’t know this game.”

“I’ll teach you after this round is over. It’s not hard to learn.”

I watched as the others played. Hearts appeared to be a trick-taking game, where each player plays a card, and one player takes the trick according to some rule about certain cards outranking others. I hadn’t played games like this often, but I knew of their existence. There appeared to be some special rules other than just the highest card winning, though. Twice during the game, the others seemed to react strongly: the first time a heart was played, and again when Mike played the queen of spades. David took that trick, and the others’ reaction made me think that this was a bad thing, although I was unsure why.

After the game, Taylor explained more about the game. He explained about following suit, and breaking hearts, and how the object was to avoid taking a trick with a heart or the queen of spades (“the bitch,” as Mike called it). Each heart was worth one point, and the queen of spades 13 points, and the object was to have a low score.

“You want to take a turn?” Taylor asked me.

“Jump in, Greg,” Gina said.

I took Taylor’s seat at the table; he got on his bed and watched us from there. After the first three rounds, I had no hearts, and I thought I was in good shape. I led the fourth hand with the ten of clubs; David played the nine of clubs, Mike played the five of clubs, and Gina played the jack of hearts. Gina apparently had no clubs left, which enabled her to play a different suit, and now that a heart had been played, players could lead the hand by playing hearts first. I played a diamond next, and apparently Mike had no diamonds, because he played the queen of spades. I was stuck with the worst card in the game, and I also ended the game with six hearts.

“Play again?” Mike asked.

“Sure,” I said. Now that I had played once, I was starting to think about strategy, although part of the game just depended on what cards you were dealt. In the second game, I finished with five hearts, but David got stuck with the queen of spades. The third time we played, I only got three hearts.

Gina took a break after that game, and Taylor took her spot at the table. We played for almost another hour before the others decided that they had things to do. I walked back to my room, hoping that more games of Hearts would happen soon. That was fun.

 

The next night, I saw Liz make eye contact with me at the dining commons. “Hey, Greg,” she said, smiling and gesturing to an empty seat next to her. “Come sit with us.”

I put my tray of food down at the empty seat next to Liz. Ramon, Caroline, Tabitha from Building B, Taylor, Pete, and Mike from Building J were all at the same table, and I had taken the last open seat.

“How’s it going?” Taylor asked.

“Pretty good,” I replied. “Glad it’s the weekend.”

“I think everyone is,” Ramon said.

“Did you have class today?” Liz asked.

“I did,” I replied. “Just math and chem today. So I spent the afternoon in the library, starting to work on my paper for Dr. Small’s class.”

“Why?” Pete asked. “That isn’t due for a long time.”

“Because it’s a six- to eight-page paper. I need time to do research and get my ideas organized.”

“When I have to do a six- to eight-page paper, I usually start around eight o’clock the night before,” Taylor said, chuckling.

“Me too,” Caroline agreed, “if not later. You don’t need to be stressing about that paper yet. Just relax and have a great weekend, and worry about the paper later.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, frustrated. “That’s just not the way my brain works. I can’t do a six- to eight-page paper at the last minute.”

“You don’t just BS your papers?” Tabitha asked.

“No. I can’t.”

“That’s too bad.”

I stopped talking for a while and listened to the others as the topic changed. I wished that I could BS my way through six- to eight-page papers like pretty much every other college student ever. Apparently that was some kind of unwritten rule of college. But I was honest when I told Caroline that my brain didn’t work that way. I couldn’t do a good job on a paper if I didn’t actually learn about the material. And even outside of school, I wasn’t good at faking things.

I started listening again when I heard my name. “Greg?” Liz asked. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Probably nothing. What about you guys? You have that Christian group tonight, right?”

“Yeah. JCF. You want to come with us?”

I paused. “I don’t know. Maybe another time.”

“That’s ok. You’re always welcome to come with us.”

Later that night, as I was sitting in front of the computer on an IRC chat trying to get girls to talk to me, I thought about that conversation with Liz. That group had invited me to come to the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship multiple times in the last few months, and I had always turned them down. Liz said I would always be welcome in that group, but I just wasn’t convinced. I was Catholic, and I knew that some Protestants and other Christians often said that Catholics were wrong and not real Christians. And were the JCF students the kind of Christians that were basically like Catholics but without recognizing the Papacy, or were they the kind who danced and clapped with the music, or did they all wear suits and ties and long skirts everywhere they went? I didn’t know. And I’d never really thought of myself as a church guy. Yes, I’ve been to Mass most Sundays since I’ve been in Jeromeville, but back home my church attendance was very sporadic. And church guys certainly didn’t spend their Friday nights sitting in front of an IRC chat hoping that some girl would come along and want to talk dirty.

 

The next morning, I woke up early but stayed in bed until almost nine o’clock. After I got back from using the bathroom, I replied to the email I got yesterday from Molly from Pennsylvania. I told her about playing Hearts and starting my paper, and asked her how her midterm went. My life wasn’t exactly very thrilling at the moment. After that, I spent at least an hour staring at the same IRC chat I was in last night, hoping that SweetGirl4 would get on and talk dirty to me like she did last night. She didn’t.

At one point in the middle of the afternoon, I went downstairs and heard voices in the common room. Pete, Taylor, Caroline, Liz, Ramon, Krista, and Charlie were playing some kind of card game, using what appeared to be three standard 52-card decks with different backs, shuffled together. “What are you playing?” I asked as I approached them. No one answered. Liz looked at me with her finger on her lips, motioning for me to be quiet. I sat quietly and watched their game.

The game play seemed to be similar to Uno and Crazy Eights, playing cards that matched the suit or rank of the previous one. But every once in a while, Taylor would say “Penalty!” and give the player an extra card. Sometimes Taylor would give back the card that was just played, and other times he would leave it on the top of the deck. At one point, Ramon placed a two of hearts on top of a six of hearts, and Krista, whose turn was next, played a three of hearts. But Taylor gave her a penalty and gave her the three of hearts back along with her penalty card. After about three more seconds, Taylor gave Krista another penalty, saying, “Penalty for not saying thank you.”

“Thank you,” Krista said indignantly.

Taylor then turned to Liz and gave her a card. “Penalty for delay of game,” he said.

“Wha–Thank you,” Liz said, interrupting her initial confusion over why she was being penalized.

“Point of order,” Krista said. Everyone put their cards face down on the table. “Ramon played last. So it’s my turn.”

“Ramon played this,” Pete explained, pointing at the two of hearts on the top of the stack. “Right?”

“Correct,” Taylor said, in an authoritative tone of voice. “So Krista played improperly, and Liz got a penalty for delay of game. No further discussion is necessary. End point–”

“Wait,” Liz interrupted, turning to me. “Greg, to answer your question from earlier, this game is called Mao.”

“Mao?” I asked. “Like the dictator?”

“Yes. I can’t tell you any more.”

“Watch and pay attention, and you’ll figure out what’s going on,” Taylor said. “End point of order.” Everyone picked up their cards. Liz played a nine of hearts, and then Caroline played a nine of spades, knocking on the table and saying “Nine of spades” without getting a penalty for talking. Taylor played a three of spades, saying, “Three of spades.”

Based on the assumption that Mao was derived from Uno or Crazy Eights, I had already discovered a few things. I thought I might had figured out why it was Liz’s turn and not Krista’s turn when that first point of order was called. Also, apparently, talking was not allowed, except in certain situations which I had yet to deduce.

The game I was watching ended when Pete played his last card and said, “Mao.” By that time, I had figured out a few more rules, specifically why the players sometimes would name the card they played, and that you have to say “thank you” after receiving a penalty card.

“You want in, Greg?” Taylor asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m not really sure what I’m doing.”

“That’s ok. But I can’t tell you the rules.”

“I kind of figured something like that, because of all the penalties, and the way your discussions were so vague.”

Taylor began dealing cards to all of us. I reached down to pick up my first card and look at it; Taylor interrupted me and said, “Penalty for touching the cards early.” He gave me an extra card, which I thanked him for. Apparently I’m not allowed to do that. After everyone had been dealt seven cards, or eight, in my case, we picked up the cards and began playing. I was between Charlie and Pete. Charlie played a four of diamonds and said, “George.” I thought I had this game figured out, but there was no one named George anywhere nearby, and I hadn’t yet figured out a rule involving saying George.

“Four of spades,” I said, playing on top of Charlie’s four of diamonds.

“Two penalties,” Taylor said, handing me two cards, which I thanked him for. He did not make me take my four of spades back, though, so the penalty apparently had to do with what I said, not with the card I played. Two things I said, specifically, or perhaps didn’t say. The turn order had reversed by the time of my next turn, so my turn came after Pete’s. He played a jack of clubs and said “Hearts.” I couldn’t remember what to do on a jack, but hearing what Pete said, and guessing because of similarities with Uno, I very hesitantly played a five of hearts, slowly placing it on the pile. I received no penalty, even though the card did not match the jack of clubs. This was the first time I had not been penalized.

Taylor won that game eventually. By the third game I had played that day, I had figured out quite a bit more. I knew what was going on with the jacks. I was pretty sure I knew which cards were like the Skip and Draw Two cards in Uno. I knew when to knock on the table. And I was starting to figure out what had gone wrong with my four of spades play from the first game. There was still something going on with playing a 10, and I hadn’t figured that one out yet, but in this particular game, I had not drawn a 10 yet. I was getting all the cards I needed, and playing by all the rules I understood by now. I had two cards left, a four of spades and a jack of hearts. The cards being played were neither spades nor hearts, but I got extraordinarily fortunate when Krista played a four of clubs, saying “Ringo,” and Charlie played a four of hearts, knocking on the table and saying “Paul.” I had finally figured out who these names were and which cards to play them on, and I knew when to knock. It was time to see if I had learned well enough to do this correctly.

“Four of spades, John,” I said, knocking and putting the four of spades on top of the deck. No penalty. On the next time around the board, Charlie played a jack of diamonds. “Hearts,” he said. It was my turn, and I had exactly one card, and it was a heart. I triumphantly placed my jack of hearts on top of the stack.

“NEVER EVER EVER PLAY A JACK ON TOP OF ANOTHER JACK!!!” all seven of the other players began chanting loudly in unison. Taylor gave me penalty cards continuously through the chant, ten cards in all.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Also, another penalty for not ending the game. And for something else.”

“Thank you, thank you,” I said, trying to organize my brand new hand of twelve cards. Caroline won that game a few rounds later, and I politely excused myself to go back to my room. I found that Mao was a fascinating concept for a game, but it was so frustrating, and I still didn’t understand parts of it.

 

Later that night, I was on an IRC chat. Internet Relay Chat was a very decentralized system with no one specifically enforcing rules or anything like that. Certain people would be designated as operators (“ops” for short) in a chat channel, and they had the power to kick people out who were being obnoxious or inappropriate. The first person to create a channel would be an op by default, and usually the major channels had a group of people who would automatically be made ops whenever they were in the channel. Op privileges could be given temporarily as well, as had been given to me for the first time a few weeks ago by a guy named “JimK” who would occasionally engage me in small talk in the channel.

Tonight, I was in my usual room, “#friendlychat,” asking SweetGirl4 in private messages about her day, and about what she was wearing. I was picturing her in the pajama top and panties that she had described when I noticed that JimK had made me an op again. I thanked him and started making more of an effort to talk to people in the chat channel. I was now officially an operator of the channel, and I should act like it instead of just lurking in private messages. I didn’t ignore SweetGirl4, though.

About fifteen minutes later, someone new entered the channel.

Todd3 has entered the room
<JimK> welcome todd3
<gregd94> hi todd
<cc> what’s up todd
<Todd3> can someone make me an op

JimK was nice enough to make me an op, so I figured I would extend the favor to someone else. I typed the command to make Todd3 an op, and half a second later, he removed everyone else’s op privileges and kicked all of us out. Oops. That was officially the dumbest thing I had ever done on the Internet so far, even dumber than the time I forwarded a bunch of chain letters, or the time I used a fake name to play a mean-spirited prank on Schuyler Jenkins upstairs.

While I looked for a new channel to join, I continued my private conversation.

gregd94: oooh i pull your body close to me and kiss your lips passionately
SweetGirl4: u stupid f***ing noob u got us all kicked out. dont ever talk to me again.

I noticed a new channel called “#friendlychat1” and joined it; it appeared to be all of the people whom Todd3 had kicked out of #friendlychat. I joined the chat and apologized to everyone; a few people ignored me, and the rest had mean replies, some of which made SweetGirl4’s reply sound nice by comparison.

I deserved it, though. I didn’t understand that being a channel operator is a responsibility, not just a status symbol. Operator privileges are not to be handed out lightly to one’s buddies, or even worse, to complete strangers. I didn’t fully understand my responsibilities as an operator, and I didn’t fully understand the kinds of jerks that trolled the Internet.

 

The next day was Sunday. After dinner, I was in Taylor’s room playing Hearts again. Taylor, Mike Adams, Keith, and I were playing, with David and Karen and Pat watching. Keith, who had not been there on Thursday when I first learned the game, had taken the first heart, and Taylor took the next trick with no hearts in it.

Taylor led the next hand with a five of diamonds. Mike played the four of diamonds, and Keith played the seven of diamonds. I had no diamonds, so I played the queen of spades.

“Oooooh!” the entire room shouted.

“Keith gets the Bitch!” Mike enthusiastically proclaimed.

As the game continued, I couldn’t believe my luck. I had not taken a single heart, and it seemed like poor Keith, who had been in last place going into this round, was getting all the hearts. The game would be over after this round with Keith getting all of those points, and while my total score wasn’t the best, it was a close second, the best I had done so far.

“What did we get?” I asked as the last trick was taken.

“Did he do it?” Mike wondered aloud.

“I think he did,” Taylor said, as Keith spread out the queen of spades and all thirteen hearts on the table.

“He shot the moon,” Mike said. I watched Mike write 26 points in Keith’s column on the score sheet… except he didn’t. He wrote 0 for Keith, and 26 for the rest of us.

“Good job,” Taylor said to Keith.

What was going on? Keith got 26 points, not the rest of us. Keith lost; he didn’t finish in first place with the lowest score. I didn’t understand. No one had ever told me about shooting the moon, that if a player finished the game with all thirteen hearts and the queen of spades, that player scores 0 and the other players all score 26 points. I was about to say something when I realized that apparently this was a rule that everyone else knew except for me. I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the rule, since I would have been able to stop him and at least take one heart had I known about this. I didn’t stick around for another game; I just made an excuse to get out of there as soon as possible.

I walked to the other end of the hall and into the stairwell to go downstairs to my room. I heard voices above me, and I looked up to investigate. This stairwell went up to a locked door leading to the roof; someone who lived here in the past had written “Stairway to Heaven” in chalk on the front of the steps. Danielle, Caroline, Pete, and Charlie were sitting on the Stairway to Heaven, just talking.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, scooting over to make room for me. “Come join us.” I sat next to Danielle, and she leaned her curly-haired head on my shoulder, taking me by surprise. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I was just playing Hearts, and Keith shot the moon.”

“Shot the moon?”

“He took all of the hearts, and the other players get points instead of Keith,” Pete explained. “Points are bad in Hearts.”

“I could have stopped him,” I said. “But no one ever told me about that rule.”

“It’s just a game,” Danielle replied.

“I know. But I’m just frustrated. Like that Mao game you guys were playing yesterday, I still don’t get all of it. And I did something really stupid on the Internet that made a bunch of people mad.”

“What did you do?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s not a big deal. Just hang in there.”

“The whole point of Mao is to learn the rules as you go along,” Caroline added. “And sometimes that’s just how life is.”

“I guess you’re right. It’s just frustrating that I seem to know so much less about how life works in general.”

“Don’t get down about that,” Danielle said, smiling. “Everyone is still learning about life.”

“None of us were born knowing everything about life,” Caroline said. “I moved here from Australia when I was 12. I didn’t think it was going to be a big transition, because I spoke English, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”

Pete looked at me. “You’re doing fine. Just don’t let this get you down.”

I stayed in that stairwell for about another half hour talking to them, then I went back to my room. Life seems to have so many unwritten rules, and even though Pete and Caroline were right that no one knows all the rules, they all seemed to know so much more than I did. I grew up so sheltered, and I don’t read unspoken communication very well. This world, where having sex with someone you just met, waiting three days to talk to someone you like, and writing a six- to eight-page paper at the last minute are considered normal, was very strange to me. For that matter, even Danielle putting her head on my shoulder was strange to me.

But I was learning, and I was finding my place. I had new friends here in Building C, and there was nothing to do at this point except start learning these things that everyone else seemed to know. And, much like with the game Mao, I would learn by watching what other people do, and there would be much trial and error involved, and probably a few hilariously awkward moments along the way.


Author’s note from 2019: I have an Instagram specifically for this site now, so go follow me! www.instagram.com/greg_dontletthedaysgoby/


 

February 2-4, 1995.  News from home and Sarah’s package.

I got back from my classes Thursday afternoon, and I spent the next few hours answering emails, chatting on IRC, reading, and napping.  Around quarter to six (that’s how we old people sometimes say 5:45, because there is a quarter of an hour left until six o’clock) I was awakened by loud music playing down the hall, loud enough for me to hear it even though my door was closed.  That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had been asleep for over an hour, and my afternoon naps usually didn’t last that long anyway. As I lay on my bed trying to relax despite the noise, trying to get up the energy to go eat, I realized that I recognized this music.  It was that band I had heard on the radio and thought of as “Pearl Jam of the South,” the one with the guy who had the gravelly slurred grunge-like voice, but singing over much more Southern music. As the album continued playing past the songs I recognized, I heard a really interesting song with a distinct fiddle part in the beginning, followed by a few other mid-tempo Southern rock pieces.

Eventually I got out of bed and looked down the hallway.  The music was coming from Liz’s room. Instead of walking to the dining commons, I walked the other direction to Liz’s room and poked my head in the door just as Pearl Jam of the South was singing about the past being gone and the future being far away.  Liz was sitting on the bed, talking to Ramon, who was sitting in Liz’s desk chair. “Hi, Greg!” Liz said, waving. I stepped into the room as she asked, “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “I was just curious about the music.  Who is this? I’ve heard some of these songs on the radio.”

“Hootie and the Blowfish,” Ramon said.  “I borrowed this CD from my roommate.”

“Hootie and the Blowfish,” I repeated.  “That’s a great name for a band.”

“I know!  Isn’t it?”

“I’m hungry,” Liz said.  “Greg? Have you eaten yet?”

“No.  And I’m hungry too.”

“Want to come to the DC with us?”

“Sure.”

“I’m going to go downstairs and see if Sarah wants to come too.  Earlier she said to come get her when we go eat.”

 

I followed Liz and Ramon downstairs to Sarah’s room, and then the five of us walked to the dining commons; there were five of us now because Krista had been in Sarah’s room, and she came with us too.  For dinner, some food items were available every day, and some of them would rotate from day to day. Tonight, one of the rotating dishes was Country Fried Steak; I grabbed a slice and put it on my plate.  It tasted more like Country Fried Cardboard.

“I need to check the mail,” Ramon said after we finished eating.  “You guys want to come with me?”

“Sure,” Sarah replied.  “I haven’t checked mine either.”

“Same,” I said.

We all walked downstairs, past the room with the pool table, into the room with the mailboxes and the Help Window.  I saw something in my mailbox, and I got excited as I turned the key and noticed that it appeared to be a handwritten letter, addressed to me in a handwriting that was not my grandma’s.  I didn’t recognize the handwriting at first. I took the letter out of the mailbox and read the return address; it was from Rachel Copeland.

“I got a package!” Sarah exclaimed excitedly.  When a dormitory resident received a package, someone put a ticket in the mailbox, which the resident would then take to the Help Window to receive the package.  Sarah came back a minute later with her package. “I got a package!” she said again.

As we walked out of the dining commons building with our mail, Sarah was still excited about her package.  “I got a package! Isn’t there a song about a package?” she said.

Everyone kind of looked at each other, wondering if anyone else knew the package song that Sarah was thinking of.  “I don’t know this song,” I said.

“I think it goes like this,” Ramon prefaced, as he began singing to the tune of the “neener-neener-neener” chants popular among preschoolers and elementary school children.  “I got a package!  And you did-n’t!” Ramon sang.  I laughed.

“Who’s the package from?” Krista asked Sarah.

“My mom.  I don’t know what it is.  But it’s a package!”

I never did find out what was in Sarah’s package.  When we got back to Building C, I went to my room because I was more interested in the fact that Rachel had written to me.  Rachel was a year behind me, a current senior at Plumdale High. She was friends with a lot of my classmates; I knew her to say hi to for a long time, but she had started sitting with my group of friends at lunch during my senior year, and I had gotten to know her better.  I opened the letter and started reading.

Jan. 28, 1995

Hey Greg,

How are you?  (sorry I started out so generic.)  I hope you’re doing well. It’s a funny thing, two different people talked about you today.  Señora Rodriguez and Mrs. Jackson mentioned you. You sure are a well liked guy from what I hear.  In English we only talk and critique other people’s writing. This is my last year so it is really sad to leave Spanish.  I’ve had Señora Rodriguez for all four years and I think she is my favorite teacher. She let us watch all our old video projects.  It made me want to cry because I remember all the good ol’ days. You were in one. It was the one where you were the bully beating up Jason Lambert and he turned into Ken Haley and beat you up.  All day I was in a really good mood. In my second class I cracked up and said lots of funny things. I laughed the whole time. I guess I had a “I feel like standing out” day. Most of the time I like to be another pair of eyes in the wall and think about how no one even has a clue that I’m watching them and that I know all about them.  Today was so funny. My friend said she wanted to be one of those people that use flares to direct airplanes when she grows up. She did the motions too. It was so funny but I guess you would have had to have been there. Life is full of stress. I guess you have to take it one step at a time. I truely truly believe that every cloud has a silver lining.  You know, I can find something good in everything and everyone.  It helps life to be worthwhile. I have to remind myself more and more all the time as life gets tougher and tougher.  In my class the other day I was so funny. Everyone within earshot was laughing at the things I said. It makes me happy to be in the spotlight.  When I went out to lunch with my friends I felt like I was invisible. They all had things to talk about like trips and new hairstyles. They all have things to share.  Sometimes I feel like there is an inside joke and I’m the only one on the outside. It only makes it so much better when I can finally really bond. You can’t know true happiness if you haven’t experienced true sadness.  Time presses on. I’m sure you’re bored of me by now, so I’ll go put this in the mail. Hope to hear back from you soon!

Love,
Rachel Copeland

Below Rachel’s signature was her address and phone number.  I think she had already given me her phone number when she signed my yearbook last year, but I hadn’t called her.  Talking on the phone made me nervous. But maybe I would actually call her this time.

Rachel shared a lot of nuggets of wisdom in that beautiful run-on paragraph.   I knew that feeling about being on the outside of an inside joke. I felt this way quite often around friends.  And if it is true that one can’t know true happiness without experiencing true sadness, then I guess I was ready for some true happiness.

I was happy about getting Rachel’s letter.  I spent the rest of the night doing math homework and answering some emails from chat room girls.  I went to sleep around 11:00 and slept fairly well.

 

My Friday was relatively uneventful.  I had a midterm in chemistry, and I felt like I did well.  Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Liz, Ramon, and Krista were all on a retreat with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship until Sunday afternoon, so I was expecting this weekend to be more uneventful than usual, with a lot of time alone.  Around 7:00 at night, after I got back from dinner, the phone rang. When I answered it, I was not surprised at all that it was my mother. No one else ever called me, for that matter.

“I had lunch with Mary Bordeaux today,” Mom said after the usual pleasantries of asking how many day went and how my chemistry midterm was.  “I heard some interesting things.”

Once Mom said this, I knew exactly what was coming for the next fifteen minutes or so.  I had a friend from school whom I met in eighth grade named Jackie Bordeaux; tall blonde girl, really sweet.  Mary was Jackie’s mother. I don’t remember how Mary and my mom met. I think maybe they had a mutual friend unrelated to the fact that Jackie and I went to school together.  Or maybe they met at some school event for parents. I don’t know, and I don’t really care, honestly. Whenever Mom had lunch with Mary, she would always return with tons of gossip about people from Plumdale High.  Looking back, I recognize now that it was not emotionally healthy for anyone to be gossiping that much about other people’s lives, especially in Mom’s case where she barely knew, or didn’t know at all, the people she gossiped about.  But Mom’s updates that she gave me from Mary did actually serve a somewhat useful purpose for me. Since there was no social media in 1995, I had lost touch with many of my high school friends very quickly after we graduated, and stories from Mary were often the only connection I had to some of them.

“Have you heard from Jackie at all?” Mom asked.

“She sent me a postcard back in October, shortly after she started at Santa Teresa,” I said.  “I wrote back and didn’t hear from her after that.”

“Well, apparently she has this older boyfriend.  None of the rest of the family likes him. Mary thinks he’s a bad influence.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“And Mary said that Jessica Halloran is in Guatemala.”

“I remember you said that you heard she was going out of the country somewhere.”

“She was going to go to Santa Teresa with Jackie, then she was going to go to Valle Luna State, but she decided at some point to spend some time traveling in Central and South America.  She’s volunteering at an orphanage now.”

Sometimes, someone would say something that would set off a chain reaction in my brain, reminding me of something not directly related to the conversation at hand.  I had one of those moments as Mom was telling me about Jessica. “I just realized,” I said. “I’m pretty sure today is Jessica’s birthday.”

“How funny that we would be talking about her today.”

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” Mom started in again.  “Remember how I said that I was paying attention to news about the Santa Lucia City College volleyball team, because Allison LaPierre was playing for them?  But then it looked like she wasn’t on the team, and I didn’t know why?”

“Yes.”

“I always thought she was nice.  Anyway, I asked Mary what Allison was doing these days, and she said, ‘Getting married because she’s pregnant.’  I said, ‘What?’ Because I always thought she was a nice Mormon girl.”

“People do stuff,” I said.

“I guess so.”

I sat through about five more minutes of stories Mom had heard from Mary about people I didn’t know very well, and another ten minutes of Mom telling me about people from her work, whom I didn’t know at all.  My ears perked up when Mom finally said something relevant to me. “Dad and Mark and I were talking about coming to visit you sometime soon, for the day,” she said.

“Sure,” I replied.  “That would be good.”

“Does Sunday the 19th work?  That’s Presidents’ Day weekend.  Do you have Monday the 20th off?”

“That should work.  And yes, I have that Monday off.”

“Sounds good!  I’ll talk to Dad and Mark, and we’ll figure out exactly what time we’re coming.”

“Okay, then.  I’ll plan for you to be here on the 19th.”

“Well,” Mom continued, “that’s about all I have to say.  So I guess I’ll let you go. Are you doing anything this weekend?”

“Probably not.  Some people are gone this weekend, on a retreat with some church group they’re a part of.”

“Well, I hope it’s a good weekend anyway.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”  I hung up the phone, still a little shocked that Allison LaPierre was pregnant.  I hadn’t seen that one coming. And while I would have found it surprising a year ago that Jessica Halloran would be volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala, it did sound like a great experience for her.

 

Today, no one ever thinks about what time to make phone calls, because everyone has unlimited long distance calling on cell phones.  It wasn’t like this in 1995. Local phone calls from what are now called land lines were unlimited. From my dorm room, I could call anywhere on the UJ campus, or in the cities of Jeromeville, Woodville, and Nueces.  Calling farther away than that required making a long distance call, which was provided by a separate service from local calls, and billed by the minute. The exact cost of a long distance call changed depending on when the call was placed; usually it was least expensive late at night and on weekends.  For this reason, I had waited until Saturday to make the call I wanted to make now instead of Friday. And I waited until mid-afternoon Saturday, because phone calls made me nervous and I kept procrastinating, plus I knew that most people slept in later than I did on Saturdays.

I sat in the chair at my desk, staring at the phone.  I picked up the receiver, got nervous, and put it back down.  This happened pretty much every time I made a phone call, especially one where I didn’t have a specific purpose for calling.

I stared at the ceiling, rehearsing what I was going to say, playing out scenarios in my head depending on who answered the phone.  I took a deep breath, thinking I was ready. I looked at the number I was calling, dialed the area code and a few more digits, then hung up.  I wasn’t ready for this.

I got up and walked to the drinking fountain down the hall, next to the bathroom.  I got a drink of water and walked back to my room, still rehearsing in my head what I was going to say.  I picked up the phone and started dialing, but hung up before I even finished the area code. In the next fifteen minutes, I made four more attempts that I aborted somewhere between picking up the receiver and dialing the last digit of the phone number.

Finally, I took a deep breath and decided this was it.  I picked up the receiver and pressed the buttons so fast that I would not have time to stop myself.  The phone was ringing… it was too late to hang up now, because the people on the other end of the line had already heard the phone ring, and I wouldn’t want to be rude.

“Hello?” a female voice said inside the phone.

“Is Rachel there?” I asked.

“This is Rachel.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.  I got your letter.”  There was an awkward pause on the other end of the line; I wasn’t sure what that meant.  “Greg Dennison,” I clarified.

“Greg!  Hi! How are you?”

“I’m doing pretty well,” I said.  “Not much to do this weekend. Just math homework, and that never takes long.  I had a chemistry midterm yesterday, and I think I did pretty well.”

“Good for you!  I’m not doing anything this weekend either.  Maybe going out with some friends tonight.”

“That sounds fun.”

“So how is college?  What’s your life like now?”

“I’m in a dorm called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  Every quarter, we have to take a class specifically for students in this program that counts as general ed requirements.  And everyone in the program lives together, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of my building.”

“That’s great!  It sounds like that’s a good place for you.”

“It really is.”

“How are your classes so far?”

“I had straight As last quarter.”

“I’m not surprised,” Rachel said as I chuckled.

“How are you?” I asked.  “Do you know what you’re doing next year?”

“I really like St. Elizabeth’s College in Los Nogales.  I visited there, and it just felt like a nice place for me.  Do you ever get that feeling?”

“Kind of,” I said.  I didn’t know Rachel was Catholic, I thought.  Maybe she isn’t, and she just likes the school.  “I kind of got that feeling the first few times I visited Jeromeville,” I continued.

“It might be a little weird for me going to a Catholic school, but I know not all of their students are practicing Catholics,” Rachel said, answering my earlier thought about Rachel’s religious affiliation.

“Yeah.  My whole mom’s side of the family is Catholic, I’m going to Catholic Mass here, but I’ve never been to Catholic school.  So I can’t really relate.”

“I haven’t either.”

Rachel and I talked for about another half hour.  I told her about my classes. I told her what I liked about the Jeromeville campus itself, about the Arboretum and the big trees and the way you can see the easily identifiable water tower from the freeway.  I told her about how Jeromeville is a fairly small town, but close enough to Capital City to feel like it isn’t in the middle of nowhere. She told me about AP Spanish and Señora Rodriguez (to which I told her to tell Señora Rodriguez that I said hola).  She told me that she and Paul had broken up during the weekend of Thanksgiving because long distance just wasn’t working, but she was okay with it and still very close with Paul. She told me about the vacation her family had taken for Christmas, and how they were going to go to Hawaii in the summer.  She told me about volleyball season and how they had made the playoffs last fall. And regarding volleyball, I didn’t say anything about having heard that Allison LaPierre was pregnant.

“I should probably let you go,” Rachel said eventually.  “It sounds like my dad needs me to help him with something.”

“Sounds good.  But it was really good talking to you.”

“Yeah!  It was!  I’m really proud of you.  It sounds like you’ve grown a lot this year.”

“Thank you!”

“And I’ll let you know as soon as I get email set up.”

“Sounds great!”

“Have a good rest of the weekend, Greg,” Rachel said.  “Don’t stay home tonight. Go find some friends to be with.”

“I’ll try.”

“Bye!”

I hung up the phone and smiled.  Yes, I did lose touch with many of my high school friends once we all graduated and dispersed.  But the ones who really mattered stuck with me and made an effort to stay in my life and keep me in theirs.  I didn’t entirely understand that concept at age 18, though. I felt like senior year I had finally started growing and developing a social life, and I also made a fair number of new friends during senior year.  I kept feeling like I wished I had had more time to develop those friendships. But there really was no point to living in the past and wishing things could have been different. Things will not be different; the past is in the past.  All I could do was the best I could with the opportunities I had in the present. Some of my past stayed connected to me in some form, but all of our lives were heading in different directions. I left for Jeromeville as my classmates left for Valle Luna, Santa Teresa, San Angelo, even Guatemala, and each of those places presented new opportunities for us.  The IHP was the right place for me at this time, and being here had caused me to grow a lot this year, as Rachel said.  My road of life was passing through Jeromeville with no U-turns, and I never would have guessed some of the turns my road of life would take during the next few years.

1995-01 rachel's letter smaller
Rachel’s actual letter

November 19, 1994. The Help Window.

After being in Building C for eight weeks now, it was inevitable that couples would begin to form.  And being that I was generally oblivious to this sort of thing, I’m sure there was probably more going on than the two obvious couples I knew about.  And, sadly, as usual, I was not a part of any of these couples.

It was a Saturday night, and I saw one of those couples, Pat Hart and Karen Francis, at the dining commons.  Pat was tall and athletic, with blond hair and a stereotypical golden-boy appearance. Karen was short and sassy, with brown hair and eyes and an occasional hint of Southern mannerisms, because she had spent the first half of her life in Georgia.  She was younger than the rest of us, since she had finished high school early.  But I didn’t know if any of that made Pat and Karen a typical couple, or an unlikely pairing, or what, because I knew nothing of relationships and was oblivious to a lot of things.

Pat and Karen sat at a table with Mike, Keith, and a girl named Gina Stalteri who lived next to Mike on the third floor.  Two other people who did not live in Building C were with them as well; one was Pat’s twin brother, Nate, but I did not recognize the other one.  There was one empty chair at the table; I approached and asked if I could sit there. They looked like they were almost done eating, so I might have the table to myself eventually.

“Go for it,” Mike said.

I sat quietly eating and listened to their conversation.  “We’re gonna have to take two cars there,” Pat said. “It’s too far to walk.  Can anyone else drive?”

“I will,” Mike offered.  “Where did you say he lives?”

“An apartment in north Jeromeville, on the corner of Andrews and Alvarez.  Las Casas Apartments, he said it was called.”

“‘Las Casas.’  That’s kind of a dumb name.  It means ‘The Houses.’”

“That’s kind of like one time, I was visiting my relatives in Bidwell,” I said, “and we went to this Mexican restaurant called ‘La Comida.’”  Everyone laughed, except Karen.

“What does ‘La Comida’ mean?” Karen asked.  “I took French in high school, not Spanish.”

“‘The Food!’” shouted Mike.

“There’s actually a restaurant called ‘The Food?’” Gina asked.

“It’s real,” Keith said.  “I’ve been there. My sister went to Bidwell State.”

“We should probably get going,” Pat said.  “You guys ready?” The others nodded and answered in the affirmative.  “Greg? You want to come with us?” Pat asked.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“My friend from back home, he’s a senior, he’s having a party at his apartment.  I’m sure he’d be ok with more people showing up.”

A party off campus was probably not my scene.  It was probably going to be loud, with lots of drinking.  But maybe I needed to get out of the dorm for a night. “Maybe,” I said.  “I was going to get stuff done tonight.”

“Just show up if you decide to.  It’s at Las Casas Apartments, number 109.  Somewhere near Andrews Road and Alvarez Avenue,” he said.  “Sorry I can’t give better directions. That’s what my friend told me”

“Greg will be able to find it,” Mike said.  “He’s good with maps and directions, remember?”

I chuckled.  “For sure,” I said.

“Bye, Greg!” Gina said as the seven of them began picking up their food trays.

“Maybe we’ll see you there?” Pat asked.

“Maybe.”

 

I got back to my room around fifteen minutes later.  I really didn’t want to go to that party. I didn’t hang around with partiers growing up.  If anything, the mere existence of these kind of parties made me angry that everyone else seemed to know how to get alcohol when younger than the legal drinking age, except for me, and that there were no consequences for these lawbreakers.  And yet, I had no desire to drink; I had seen and heard about too many lives ruined by alcohol.

I didn’t have any other plans tonight.  This was the last week of football season, and it was an away game, so there was no game to go to.  I had a very small TV in my dorm room; I got six channels from its antenna, four of them came in fuzzy, and none of them was showing anything good on a Saturday night.

I got on the computer.  I checked my email; I had a message from a girl in Wisconsin whom I had met in an IRC chat a couple weeks earlier. I wrote her back, nothing too important, just telling her about my day and answering some questions she had about what classes I was in and what UJ was like.

I got on IRC next.  Nothing exciting was going on in my usual chat room, nor did anyone I knew appear to be on.  I tried unsuccessfully to talk to a few people over the course of about fifteen minutes, after which I gave up and signed off.

I went to the bathroom.  I walked all the way up and down the second floor.  It was quiet. The only door that was open was Pat and Charlie’s room, and it was only open a crack.  I poked my head in the door to say hi, and Charlie told me that he had a huge paper to write by Monday, and he was thankful that Pat was gone for the night, so he could have the room to himself.  I figured he probably didn’t want to be bothered.

I went back to my room and played a few games of Tetris on the computer.  After I got bored with that, I walked down to the first floor. The common room was empty, and the only person I saw was Phuong, who was also busy writing a term paper.

I walked up to the third floor and thought about how lifeless Building C was tonight.  There weren’t many signs of life on the third floor either. When I got to the other end of the hallway, where the other staircase was, I saw the other Building C couple that I knew about: Liz Williams, thin with straight brown hair, who lived just down the hall from me, and tall, curly-haired Ramon Quintero, who lived in the room which he and Liz were just leaving when I saw them.  They were holding hands as they approached the stairwell. “Hey, Greg,” Liz said. “What’s up?”

“Nothing.  Just bored.  What about you guys?”

“We’re going out to dinner,” Ramon said.

“Have fun!” I said.

“You too!” Liz smiled.  “Hope you find something to do.”

“I’ll be fine.”

I walked back downstairs and down the hallway to my room.  I tried reading the chapter I had to read by Monday for Rise and Fall of Empires, but I couldn’t concentrate.  Something just felt discouraging about all these happy couples and drunken revelers out having fun, while I was here being bored.

I put the book down.

Depression sucks.

I got back on IRC.  I messaged a girl in the room.  “Hi! How are you?” I typed.

“Leave me alone, you ugly fat virgin,” she replied.

How did she know?

I signed off after about an hour of wasting time with nothing interesting happening.  I checked my email again; no one had written.

I tried reading for pleasure for a while.  I was currently working my way through all 1100-plus pages of Stephen King’s It.  This had been one of my mom’s favorite books, and I borrowed it when I had been home three weeks earlier.  Creepy book, but in a good way. That kept me occupied for about an hour, but I couldn’t become completely immersed in the story because I kept thinking about how I hated being lonely like this, and I wished I knew how to be more social.

Maybe I should have gone to that party at Las Casas Apartments after all.  Maybe it’s not too late.

No, I don’t belong there.  That’s not really where I want to be.

I went to the bathroom and walked up and down all three hallways again.  Still nothing going on.

I went back to my computer and played a few more games of Tetris.  By now, it was after ten o’clock, and I was starting to get tired. I tried going to sleep, but my mind was racing, and I couldn’t fall asleep.  I kept thinking about Liz and Ramon, Pat and Karen, the party at Las Casas, all the cute girls I didn’t know how to talk to, and all my friends back home who had mostly abandoned me.  The situation with my friends at home wasn’t all bad, though: Renee had finally gotten her email set up, so we had been back in touch for a couple weeks, and I had gotten a second letter from Melissa.  However, that wasn’t going to help me tonight

I eventually decided to give up on trying to sleep for a while; the clock said 11:19.  I was tired of being cooped up in this boring room. I put on the jeans I had been wearing earlier and my UJ hoodie, and I walked outside.  I circled the entire South Residential Area, then came back toward the dining commons building.

The dining hall was on the second floor, and it was dark this time of night.  The first floor entrance opened into a lounge with a pool table; no one was there.  In fact, the whole building appeared to be empty. To the left of the room with the pool table, a door opened up into a study room and small sandwich and yogurt shop called Betsy’s.  I had no idea who Betsy was, but her shop was closed this time of night. Behind the pool table, another door led to the mail room, and to the only place where I knew I would definitely find a conscious human being in this building.

The Resident Help Window was open all night, every night.  One or two of the twenty-five resident advisors for this area would take turns staffing the window at night, so that residents would have a place to go for questions and concerns after hours, when the RAs in their own buildings would (theoretically) be sleeping.  I walked through the door, looking down at the ground, into the space that contained the mailboxes and the Help Window. I had already checked my mail today, so in my mind, I was expecting to just peek up at the window and then leave after a few seconds, and if I got asked if I needed help, I would just mutter something about not being able to sleep.  But instead, I heard a friendly “Hi, Greg!” coming from the Help Window.

I looked up.  The RA on duty tonight was Megan McCauley from Building K.  I met Megan a couple weeks ago, when I sat with some of the RAs at dinner and Megan gave me some tips for biking in the rain.  Since then, I had seen her and said hi to her a couple of times around the dining hall. A textbook was open on the desk in front of her.

“Hey,” I said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good.  It’s a pretty slow night so far, so I’m studying for physics.  This class is a lot of work.”

“Which physics?”

“9B.  Are you going to have to take that?  What’s your major?”

“I haven’t decided yet.  Math and physics and chemistry were my favorite classes in high school, and they all need the Physics 9 series, so I’ll be taking it next year.”

“Sounds like you’ve at least narrowed down your potential majors to things that have a lot of the same freshman classes.”

“Yeah.  What’s your major?”

“Chemical engineering.”

“That sounds hard, but interesting.”

“Exactly!  A lot of Chem-E majors don’t finish in four years without taking really heavy class loads.  I’ve kind of accepted that I might need five years.”

“I feel like I need to hurry up and decide.  Most of the people I know in my building know their majors already.”

“There’s nothing wrong with not having a major right away, but the sooner you decide, the sooner you can plan ahead, and you’ll be more likely to graduate on time.”

“That’s true.”

“Are you considering engineering at all?”

I paused.  “I don’t know,” I said eventually.  But in those few seconds of thinking, I realized something: I grew up very sheltered, in a mostly blue-collar part of the state.  The true reason I hadn’t considered engineering as a major was because I really had no idea what an engineer was. But I didn’t say any of this to Megan.  It was a little sad and embarrassing.

“It wouldn’t hurt to look into it.  But engineering has different grad requirements, remember.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you going anywhere for Thanksgiving?  Where are you from?”

“Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.  But I won’t be going home probably until Christmas.  For Thanksgiving, my parents will be picking me up on the way to my grandpa’s house in Bidwell.”

“I love Santa Lucia!  Growing up, we’d go there every summer to go to the beach.  It’s so pretty there!”

“Yeah, it is.  Where are you from?”

“Not far away.  Oak Heights, just outside of Cap City.  I can get home in half an hour if there’s no traffic.”

“Are you going home for Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah.  Nothing too big. Just my family.  And my great-aunt.”

“That’s nice.  We used to have it at my great-grandma’s house.  This is our first Thanksgiving without her. She was my last great-grandparent.”

“I’m sorry,” Megan said.  “Were you close?”

“Kinda.  We went to visit her twice a year, and we stayed at her house for a few days.  She lived up in the hills outside of town. There were great views from her house.  We’d go up there for Fourth of July, and from her front yard we’d be able to see two fireworks shows off in the distance.”

“That sounds nice!”

“It was.”  I yawned.

“Getting tired?” Megan asked.

“Maybe I should go try to sleep.”

“I think that’s a good idea.  I hope you’re able to sleep this time.”

“Me too,” I said.  “And, hey, it was good talking to you.”

“It was good talking to you too!”

“Thanks.”

“Any time, Greg.  You go get some sleep.”  She smiled.

“Good night,” I said, awkwardly smiling back.

“Good night!”

I walked back to Building C, swiped my ID card at the door, climbed the stairs, went to the bathroom, returned to room 221, and went back to bed, a little after midnight.  As I drifted off to sleep, I kept thinking about what had happened tonight. Megan seemed really, really nice, at least from our few interactions so far. She was cute too, with her dark blonde hair slightly above shoulder length and pretty blue eyes.  I usually like longer hair on girls, but that length worked on her. It seems like I think a lot of girls are cute, but in Megan’s case, talking to her didn’t really feel weird, like it did with some other girls. Was it bad that she was older? Could there be something there more than just friends?  Could she ever see me that way, or was I just a silly freshman to her? I didn’t even know how much older she was, although I guessed it was probably just one year, since the Physics 9 series is usually taken in the spring of freshman year and first two quarters of sophomore year. Was I mature enough to date a sophomore?  Of course, I was getting way ahead of myself, but these thoughts comforted me as I finally drifted off to sleep.

The resident advisors’ jobs were to help dorm residents with anything we might need, as well as to make sure that people were being quiet after eleven o’clock, and the Resident Help Window was open all night for any concerns we may need help with.  Now that I think about it, I don’t remember if I ever actually used the Resident Help Window for its intended purpose. But sometimes, a friendly face and a listening ear were all the help I really needed.