May 11-16, 1996. A montage of awkward moments.

The Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, ASUJ for short, was the organization responsible for student activities at UJ.  They held two major festivals every year.  They were less than a month apart, since both involved traditions specific to spring.  The Spring Picnic, which began decades ago as the school’s open house and grew into a major festival, was interesting and fun.  The other festival was called the Mother Earth Festival, held on Mother’s Day weekend.  It was a bunch of hippie stuff, not really my thing.

I attended the Mother Earth Festival exactly once, in 1996.  It was a Saturday afternoon, I was bored, and I decided to check it out, so I got on my bike, parked it on campus, and walked around the Quad.

The Quad was packed.  Craft and vendor booths lined the edges of the Quad, with a sea of humanity in between.  I walked along the row of booths, peeking at what was happening inside.  Face painting.  Beads.  Tie-dyeing.  Henna tattoos.  These round things with feathers on them that the sign called dreamcatchers.  At the south end of the quad, the temporary stage where I saw Lawsuit at previous Spring Picnics was set up, and two musicians were playing instruments I could not identify while some lady in a long skirt with armpit hair frolicked and pranced on the stage.  I walked up the other side of the Quad, looking at other booths, before deciding that nothing here particularly piqued my interest.  The most memorable thing I remember seeing in the fifteen minutes I spent at the Mother Earth Festival was this girl with big boobs sunbathing in a bikini.  She and her flat-chested friend were not dressed as hippies at all, and their armpits were actually shaved.  I looked at them for about five seconds, then moved on so it would not look creepy.

As I approached the place where I had parked, I walked past a bench and saw a girl named Maria who was in my Advanced Composition class last quarter, sitting on a bench looking away from me.  I took my rolled-up copy of the Mother Earth Festival schedule of events, and I tapped her on the shoulder with it.

Maria turned to look at me, except it was not Maria.  This girl had a similar build, hairstyle, and coloring, but otherwise looked nothing like Maria.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I thought you were someone else.”  I walked away before the other girl could respond.

Why did I do that?  I kept replaying the embarrassing incident in my mind as I rode my bike back home.  Maria had not been not looking at me, I had no need to go out of my way to say hi to her, and I did not really want to talk to Maria anyway.  The angry political messages on the buttons all over her backpack clearly indicated that she was not the kind of person I wanted to get to know, and I did not find her attractive.  And now some other girl probably thought I was a weirdo, all because I had decided to be friendly.


Unfortunately for me, I tended to be just as awkward around girls I actually did find attractive.  Two days later, during a break between classes, I was walking around the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I held a slice of pepperoni pizza on a paper plate and a Coca-Cola in a reusable large plastic mug.  Some division of ASUJ was handing these mugs out free a few weeks ago, to encourage people not to fill up the landfills with disposable cups.  Drinks were 25 cents less at the ASUJ Coffee House for customers bringing their own cups.  Of course, I had a disposable paper plate, but at least that was biodegradable, and bringing an actual plate to campus would be somewhat unwieldy.

I looked out the window to a courtyard-like area, which was surrounded on three sides by the building.  A large round fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard, but it was dry and had been ever since I began attending UJ.  Metal tables and chairs were arranged around part of the courtyard.  I felt that familiar jolt of excitement and nervousness as I saw Haley Channing sitting at one of those tables, alone.  Finally, this might be a chance to talk to Haley one-on-one with no one else around.  I almost spilled my drink as I opened the door leading to the courtyard, but caught myself.  “Hey,” I said as I walked up to Haley.  “May I sit here?”

“Hi, Greg!” Haley replied, smiling.  “Go ahead!”

I placed my food on the table and sat down.  “How’s your day going?” I asked.

“Pretty good, except I have a paper to write.  I’m gonna be busy tonight.  You?”

“I’m good.  I have a lot of math homework, though.”

“What math class are you taking?”

“Applied Linear Algebra and Combinatorics.  Two classes.”

“I have no idea what either of those mean.”

“Linear algebra works with matrices.”

“I kind of remember matrices in high school, a little bit.”

“And combinatorics is about problems that come up with counting combinations and things like that.  If I have license plates with three letters and three numbers, and I need to figure out how many possible license plates there could be, that’s a combinatorics problem.  At least that’s what we did back in the first chapter.”

“Interesting.”

“It is.  I also really like the professor for that class.”  I looked up and saw a familiar face walking toward us; it was Claire Seaver from church.  I waved, and Claire walked over to our table.  

“Hey,” Claire said to me.  “How are you?”

“I’m doing well.  Claire, this is Haley–”

“Hi, Haley,” Claire interrupted, smiling.

“Hi,” Haley replied with a tone of recognition.

“How do you two know each other?” I asked, trying to hide my shame in not knowing this and being caught off guard.

“Chorus,” Haley replied.  “I used to do that last year.”

“I keep telling Greg he should join chorus,” Claire said.

“You should!” Haley told me.  “I’ve heard you sing.  You have a good voice.”

“Maybe,” I replied.

“How were your weekends?” Claire asked.  “Did you guys call your mothers for Mother’s Day?”

“I did,” Haley said.

“I saw this thing on the Internet the other day where you can send someone flowers by email.  You get an email, and it’s a picture of flowers with a personalized message,” I said.  “My parents just got email recently, Mom loves email, so I sent one of those to Mom.”

“That’s fun,” Claire replied.

“If I’m going to send flowers to my mother, she’s gonna get real flowers,” Haley said.  “No emails and pictures for my mother.”

“I need to get going, but I’ll see you guys later,” Claire said.  We both waved and said goodbye as she walked away.  As I took a bite of my pizza and chewed it, I kept thinking that I was probably blowing it with Haley.  I had tried to introduce herself to someone she already knew, and she disapproved of my Mother’s Day gift.  After I swallowed my pizza, I attempted to resurrect the conversation, asking, “Do you still do chorus now?”

“No.  I did last year, but I have too much going on now.”

“That makes sense.  I played piano as a kid, but I was always so self-conscious about performing for others.  But I’m starting to get over that.  This year I started singing in my church choir; that’s how I know Claire.”

“Nice!  Chorus is always looking for guys.”

“Maybe I will for next year,” I said.  We continued making small talk as we finished eating, and I hoped that she could not read disappointment in my body language.  I could not help but feel like I had embarrassed myself in front of her.


Whenever I introduce two people now, I always ask them first if they know each other; this is a direct result of that incident all those years ago when I tried to introduce Claire and Haley.  But that was still not the worst awkward moment I experienced that week.

I was back in the Memorial Union a few days later, looking for a place to study, and I saw a familiar brown-haired face sitting at a table by herself.  It was my friend Lizzie, one of those people whom I initially crossed paths with just because we knew someone in common.  Lizzie went to high school with Jack Chalmers, another math major who had been in multiple classes with me.  Last fall, Jack and I had linear algebra together, and Lizzie had a class in the same classroom right before ours.  Jack and Lizzie would say hi to each other as we waited in the hall and her class exited the room.  Jack talked a lot, and he talked fast, and sometimes he would say hi to Lizzie in the middle of a sentence with me.  He would say something like, “Hey Greg I’m totally not ready for this test and I blew off studying last night Hi Lizzie! so I hope I don’t bomb it because I totally need to keep my grades up.”  Eventually, I started saying hi to Lizzie when I saw her around campus, and we had actually had conversations beyond hello a few times.

“Hey,” I said, approaching Lizzie’s table.  “Mind if I sit here?”

“Hi!” Lizzie exclaimed enthusiastically.  “Go ahead!”

“Thanks.”

“How’s it going?”

“I’m doing okay.  Just busy with classes.  What about you?”

“Same with me.  I have a midterm tomorrow.  But the school year is almost over!”

“I know!  Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”

“Just going home and working.  I need the money.  What about you?”

“I’m staying here, taking a class.  This will be the first time I’ve been in Jeromeville for the summer.”

“I hear it gets really hot!”

“I kind of like the heat, though.”

“What class are you taking?”

“Computer Science 40,” I explained.  “I’m taking CS 30 now, it’s required for the math major, and I love it.  There’s an upper division CS class, Data Structures, that counts toward my degree in place of a math class, but it requires 30 and 40 as prerequisites.  It’s really hard to get CS classes because there are so many CS majors, and not much computer lab space, so they put a cap on how many can enroll, and CS majors have priority.  Enrollment wasn’t restricted for the summer class.”

“Smart!” Lizzie replied.  “You’re a math major, right?  That’s how you know Jack?”

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you major in CS, if you like it that much?”

“Because I didn’t want something fun to turn into work.  Also, my computer knowledge was several years out of date by the time I got here, and I knew I’d be competing with kids whose knowledge was much more advanced.”

“That makes sense.  So you’re just taking the one class?”

“Yeah.  First session.  I’m not taking any classes second session.  I’ll probably just hang out here and try to find something fun to do.”

“Like what?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I’ve discovered over the last couple years that I like to write.  I’m working on a novel now, when I have time and I’m in the right mood.”

“That’s so cool!”

“Just for fun,” I said.  “I know, I’m a math guy, I’m not supposed to be a writer.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being both!  What’s your novel about?”

“There’s this guy, he’s a senior in high school, but he needs a fresh start, and he wants to leave his past behind.  So he goes away to live with relatives.  And he feels like he isn’t ready to move on to the next part of his life, so he pretends to be younger so he can have a couple more years in high school.”

“Wow,” Lizzie said.  “Where’d you get the idea for that?”

“I guess I’ve kind of wished for that myself,” I explained.  “I feel like I really grew a lot my senior year of high school, but then just as life was getting interesting, my friends and I all graduated and moved away and lost touch.  I wonder how I would have turned out if I’d had another year or two to grow in that environment, if I would have gotten to experience more things I missed out on.”

“Well, I think you turned out fine.”

“Thank you,” I said.  Then, after a pause, I added, “You can read it if you want.”

“Yeah!  It sounds really good!”

“I could email you some of what I have so far.  Does that work?”

“Sure.  Let me give you my email.”  Lizzie tore off a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote on it, then passed it to me.  I opened it and read what she wrote, very confused for a few seconds, then suddenly frightened and embarrassed as I began to realize the full implications of what I read.


Lindsay’s email:
lkvandenberg@jeromeville.edu


Lindsay’s email.  I had known this girl, whom I had been calling Lizzie, for over seven months, and this whole time her name was Lindsay.  I had never seen her name in print before.  I knew her through Jack, who talks really fast, so when I heard Jack say “Hi, Lindsay,” it came out sounding like “Hi Lizzie.”  I suddenly tried to recall every time I had actually spoken to Lindsay, trying to remember if I had ever called her Lizzie to her face.  I could not remember.  I looked up at her, trying to put the name Lindsay Vandenberg to this face, and it felt weird, because she was still Lizzie to me.

“Greg?” Lindsay asked.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I was just thinking about something.  No big deal.  But I’ll send you my story.”

“Great!  I look forward to reading it!”  Lindsay looked at her watch.  “I need to get going, I have class, but I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yeah!  Have a great day!”

“You too!”

I never found out if Lindsay knew that I thought her name was Lizzie for seven months.  She was never in my inner social circle, and we did not stay in touch after we graduated, but we always said hi to each other on campus.

For some reason, I have always disliked using people’s names out loud.  It just feels uncomfortable to me, and I do not know why.  But this odd quirk may have worked to my advantage on that day, because it was entirely possible that I had never actually called Lindsay Lizzie outside of my own head.  When I saw her, I was much more likely to just say “Hi” instead of “Hi, Lizzie.”  But even if I had ever accidentally called her Lizzie, there was not much that I could do about it now.  Besides, while my realization that Lindsay’s name was not Lizzie felt awkward and embarrassing, much of that embarrassment was in my own head.  If it was unlikely that she ever heard me call her Lizzie, she would have no way of knowing that I did not know her real name for so long.

Most guys have had their share of awkward moments around girls; and, of course, this statement applied to other combinations of genders and orientations as well.  I always felt particularly prone to awkward moments, mostly because I had never had a girlfriend, and I seemed to lack successful non-awkward experience with girls.  Over the years, I would have many more experiences of getting someone’s name wrong, or saying something that was misinterpreted.  But I have seen enough over the years now to know that I certainly was not alone in this.  And many others have had awkward moments that primarily happened in their own heads, unnoticed by those around them.  I just had to accept the fact that I was not perfect, and the right people in my life would accept me, flaws and all.

September 9, 1995. The night I did something crazy and spontaneous.

In my life so far, I have had a long history of not being popular with the ladies. No one taught me anything about dating and relationships growing up, and my teen years were a string of awkward failed crushes. Rachelle Benedetti, whom I never understood why I liked her in the first place. Kim Jensen, an outgoing popular cheerleader in a few of my classes, but she dated older football players, not guys like me. Melissa Holmes, a good friend who did not like me back that way. Jennifer Henson, a popular girl who started treating me like a good friend when we were seniors, but then moved away without saying goodbye. Annie Gambrell, a younger girl I met through a class project we did together, but she had a boyfriend. And last year there was Megan McCauley, my first older friend in college; she was really nice, but I felt intimidated just by the fact that she was a year older, and currently I did not know how to interpret the fact that she had not emailed me back for the last three weeks.

After waking up and doing absolutely nothing productive for several hours, I walked to the mailboxes. Maybe I had a letter from a girl, I thought. And I did have a letter from a girl. I actually had gotten a letter from a girl yesterday, the first letter I received since moving into this apartment a week ago. It was from Sarah Winters, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year. I opened the mailbox and saw another letter from a girl… except today, the girl in question was my grandma. It was always nice to hear from her, but I wanted to interact with girls my age.

From the mailboxes, I could see the pool. A girl was lying face down on a pool chair. She had brown hair, put up in a bun, and perfectly shaped legs. She appeared to be wearing nothing but black bikini bottoms. I looked closer and noticed that she was wearing a bikini top, but she had untied it in the back, presumably to avoid having a tan line. The strings hung down over the side of the pool chair, exposing the side of a fairly large and round breast.

After staring for about thirty seconds, I walked back to my apartment, trying to think of a way I could look at the sexy girl by the pool and maybe get her to notice me. Back inside, I read Grandma’s letter, but I was only half paying attention because my mind was formulating a plan.

I picked up the book I had been reading, part 4 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and took it outside with me. The pool was open to everyone; why couldn’t I sit and read by the pool? I found an empty pool chair, on the other side of the pool from the girl, and began reading. Stephen King originally wrote this book as a serial, in six parts each around 100 pages long, published about a month apart. Mom had gotten me parts 1 through 5 for my birthday last month, before part 6 had been published. I would get part 6 at the campus bookstore when I finished part 5, or order it in advance if it had not been released yet.

It was a hot day, and after about ten minutes, I was sweating uncomfortably. Do people really sit by the pool like this? That can’t be right, I thought. I noticed a spot a few feet from me that was in the shadow of a nearby tree. I moved the chair into the shadow; it made noise as I moved it. I looked at the girl, hoping that what I was doing looked natural and ordinary and that the noise would not attract attention. She did not react, and I sat back down and continued reading.

After about another ten minutes, the girl reattached the string in the back of her bikini top. She put on shorts and a tank top over her bikini, slid her feet into flip-flops, gathered her belongings, and began walking toward me. I looked back down at my book, trying not to stare, then looked up as she walked past me. I smiled at her. “Hi,” I said.

“You know you’re lying in the shade,” she replied.

“Yeah,” I said as the weight of her words sank into my brain. She was right. Normal people do not lie in the shade. I was pretty sure I blew it with this girl, and just made myself look like a pervert, or at best a weirdo.

After the girl was gone, I took my book back to my apartment, leaving the pool chair in the shade.  I was too embarrassed to move it back and make any more noise that might get me noticed. I lay on the bed, dejected and discouraged. I was bored. Moving back to Jeromeville early was not as exciting as it had been in my head all summer, mostly because most of my friends had not moved back yet. Since I had just gotten a letter from Sarah, I knew that she would be moving back on September 17, a week from tomorrow, but then leaving right away on a retreat with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship until Friday the 22nd. Several of my friends were involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, so I suspected most of them would be back on the 22nd as well.  The first day of class was Thursday the 28th.

I continued reading The Green Mile lying on my bed. When I finished part 4, I put a frozen pot pie in the oven and spent the rest of the night wasting time on the computer. I wrote emails, I played SimCity 2000, I checked my Usenet groups, and I got on IRC chat, in that order. I had been spending a lot of time on IRC lately, and I had even met two girls my age who lived nearby: Colleen, who attended University of the Bay, and Allison, who was a student right here at University of Jeromeville. Around quarter to nine, I saw Allison enter the channel I was already in, and I messaged her.

gjd76: hey
darksparkles: hi
gjd76: what’s up
darksparkles: not much
gjd76: me either. i’m bored. i got a letter from my grandma, that was the highlight of my day
darksparkles: aww how sweet

I decided not to tell her about making a fool of myself in front of the girl at the pool. No one needed to know about that.

gjd76: i moved back to jeromeville early because i was bored at my parents’ house. now i’m bored here, but at least i’m on my own
darksparkles: i know what you mean. my roommate isn’t moving in until right before fall quarter starts. so i have the place to myself until then. i like it though
gjd76: that’s good
darksparkles: i’m a little scared to have a roommate again. i hated my roommate in the dorm last year
gjd76: ugh, roommate drama
darksparkles: but she moved out at the end of winter quarter and i had the room to myself the rest of the year
gjd76: they can do that? and just leave the room empty?
darksparkles: i guess
gjd76: how do you know your roommate from this year?
darksparkles: she lived down the hall from me. she was one of the few people in my building that i talked to, although we weren’t really close friends
gjd76: aww… hopefully living together works out
darksparkles: i hope so too

An outlandishly spontaneous idea popped into my head.  In real life, if I want to say something that makes me nervous, in which I am apprehensive about the other person’s possible reaction, I usually blurt it out loudly, so as not to hesitate or second-guess myself. I typed the next sentence very quickly and pressed Enter, the typing equivalent of blurting something out. It was a crazy idea, but boredom and loneliness can occasionally drive me to desperation.

gjd76: you want to meet in person?
darksparkles: huh? you mean like now?
gjd76: yeah. we can stay outside or in public if you’re worried about being alone with some guy from the internet
darksparkles: sure, there’s a picnic table by the pool in my apartment complex, i’ll meet you there
gjd76: where is that? we both live in north jeromeville, right?
darksparkles: yeah, redwood grove apartments on alvarez, there’s only one way into the parking lot, and the pool is right there, you’ll see it. you know where that is?
gjd76: yes i do. i’ll be there in about 10 minutes. i’m wearing jeans and a green shirt
darksparkles: i’m wearing a black shirt and jeans with holes in them
gjd76: ok, see you in a few minutes

Allison had told me the last time we talked that she lived in north Jeromeville. I did not realize until now that she was only a quarter mile away. I could have gotten there much faster than the 10 minutes I told her, but before I left I brushed my teeth and used the bathroom, and I changed out of my shorts into the jeans I told her I was wearing.  It was not warm enough this late at night to be outside in shorts for a long time. I also scribbled a note on a sheet of paper and placed it on my desk:


9/9/95 9:28pm

In case I don’t come back alive, and the police need leads, I’m going to meet a girl from the Internet named Allison. We’re meeting by the pool at Redwood Square apartments; she told me she lives there. I don’t know her last name, but her IRC name is darksparkles and her account ID is stu050637@mail.jeromeville.edu


 

It was a nice night outside, not too warm but not cold either. My short-sleeve shirt and jeans felt physically comfortable as I started to feel nervous about this situation which I had suddenly put myself in. I had only talked to Allison two other times. I had a rough description of what she looked like, and I had the impression that she was quiet and kept to herself a lot, but other than that I had no idea who to expect. I was pretty sure from our previous conversations that we had never had a class together, and we would not have run into each other at the dining hall since she lived in a different dorm area with its own dining facilities.

I walked into the parking lot of the Redwood Grove Apartments. I could see the pool about a hundred feet back from the sidewalk, and as I approached the pool more closely, I noticed a girl sitting at a table inside the pool area. She turned her head and saw me, and she got up and opened the gate.

“Allison?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Greg?”

“Yes. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she said, smiling halfway and leading me back to the table where she had been sitting. She was shorter than me, about five foot five, and thin. Her black shirt had the name of something I had never heard of, maybe a band, maybe a brand of clothing, I did not know. It was a unisex shirt, fitting loosely on her body. Her skin was pale, and her hair appeared to be dyed black, although I could not tell for sure with the lack of natural light and the only illumination coming from a few outdoor light posts. I got the impression that she did not smile much in general, so the awkward half-smile with which she had greeted me was probably the best she could do.

“So what’s up?” she asked, speaking quietly.

“I’ve never done this before.”

“Done what?”

“Met someone off the Internet.”

“Oh. I did once last year.”

“Oh yeah? Was it also someone from Jeromeville?”

“No. He flew out here from Oklahoma.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. He said he really liked me and wanted to be with me. But when he got here, he wasn’t really the nice guy he acted like online. He was kind of a jerk.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah. He made me give him a blow job the first night he was here. I didn’t want to.”

“That’s messed up,” I said. I was not expecting such a graphic description.

“He tasted nasty,” Allison continued. I just nodded, not really sure how to reply to that.  “So you’ve just been sitting around all day since you moved back here?”

“Mostly. I’ve been riding around on my bike, and reading a lot too.”

“You like riding your bike?”

“Yeah. I’m not really competitive or athletic or anything. I just like exploring.”

“I don’t even have a bike,” Allison explained. I thought that was unusual, with Jeromeville being a Bicycle Friendly City and having one of the highest rates of bicycle ownership in the United States. “I take the bus to campus.”

“I’ll probably do that on rainy days. You said you’re taking a class this summer session?”

“Yeah. An English class. One more week.”

“How is it so far?”

“It’s easy.”

“That’s good.” After a few seconds of silence, I asked, “So how has your weekend been?”

“Good. I didn’t really do much.”

“Me either,” I replied.

We made small talk for a while. She told me about this underground band she liked and something she had to read for class. I told her about the bookstore job and what my summer back home in Plumdale had been like. She told me that she liked to draw and paint, and I told her about Skeeter’s watercolor set and the paintings we made in the common room in the dorm last year.

After a while, Allison said, “I should probably go back inside. It’s getting late.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Thanks for hanging out. It was nice meeting you.”

“Yeah. You too.”

“I’ll talk to you soon?”

“Sure. Good night.”

“Good night,” I answered. I walked out of the gate, back toward the street. I had a feeling that I left a bad impression on Allison, and that we probably would not be seeing much of each other in the future. However, this did not feel like a blown opportunity, like sitting by the pool earlier today had been. Allison just was not my type. We were not interested in the same things, and with us both being so quiet, neither of us was able to get the other to open up much. I often pictured my ideal girlfriend being more talkative and outgoing than me, for that reason.

I got home a few minutes later; I had been gone for about an hour. I turned on the computer and thought about getting back on IRC chat, but something about that felt wrong, particularly if I were to see Allison online again so soon after seeing her in person. Instead, I played SimCity 2000, and went to bed around midnight.

I did talk to Allison a few more times on IRC. I did not want to be rude and stop talking to her altogether just because I did not think she was my type. But we never saw each other in person again, and I stopped seeing her on IRC around the time fall quarter started. As I drifted off to sleep that night, I kept replaying in my mind everything that had happened tonight. I felt sad that things had not gone better with Allison, but I had probably done nothing wrong. Maybe it was more of a feeling of disappointment, in the sense that I had wished Allison had been different and that we would have clicked better. But there was nothing I could do about that. It was perfectly normal for a guy and a girl not to click. At least I tried.