September 2-3, 1995.  Moving back to Jeromeville for sophomore year.

I had made this trip enough times in the last couple years that it had become familiar by now.  I left Plumdale on a Saturday morning heading north on Highway 11, my 1989 Ford Bronco full of boxes and bags.  I passed through many different landscapes on the two and a half hour drive.  Plumdale’s hills dotted with live oaks, covered by golden-brown grass that sprung up during the spring rains and had long since died in the dry sun of late summer.  A long stretch of flat farmland surrounding El Ajo and Morgantown.  The sprawling suburbs of San Tomas, where I turned onto northbound Highway 6.  Another stretch of brown hills.  Thirty miles of hilly suburbs that all run into each other: Sullivan, Danielsburg, Los Nogales, Pleasant Creek, Marquez, and others.  The Marquez Bridge.  Ten miles of marshy grassland.  Fairview, where Highway 6 ends, merging into eastbound Highway 100.  Another long stretch of flat farmland broken up by the city of Nueces.  And, finally, the exit for northbound Highway 117, with the University of Jeromeville water tower visible in the distance.

I instinctively merged to the right lane, getting ready to take the first exit, Davis Drive.  I caught myself just in time and drifted one lane back to the left.  Davis Drive was not my exit anymore, because I did not live in Building C anymore.  I passed Davis Drive, I passed Fifth Street, and I took the next exit, Coventry Boulevard.  I turned right on Coventry, left on Andrews Road, and into the back parking lot of Las Casas Apartments on the corner of Andrews and Alvarez Avenue.

Mom and Dad were on their way with the rest of my stuff in Dad’s pickup truck.  I left Plumdale a few minutes before they did, and we made no attempt to stay together.  Trying to stay in a caravan is not worth it, especially when everyone involved knows where to go.  Mom is good with directions, and she had been to the apartment before; she should be able to find it.

I realized that I did not have a key to the apartment.  Nowadays, if this happened, I would just be able to send Mom a text and say that I was going to the apartment office, but texting did not exist in 1995 and none of us had cell phones.  I just had to hope that Mom would be smart and wait for me.  By the time I got back from the office with the key, Mom and Dad were just arriving.

“I just got the key,” I said as Mom got out of the truck.

“Good,” Mom said.

“Well?  Let’s see inside,” Dad added.

I opened the door and walked into Apartment 124.  It was a studio apartment, with one large combined living room and bedroom.  On the right was a closet with three sliding doors.  The closet stuck out into the living space, leaving a small nook in the front of the room to my right.  “That would be a perfect place to put the chair,” Mom said, pointing to the nook.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “And the TV can go over here.” I pointed to my left, across from the nook, in the direction my eyes would point when I would sit in the chair.

The door to the bathroom was in the back on the right, and a small kitchen opened into the room in the back to the left.  Mom walked into the kitchen and looked around.  “No dishwasher,” she said after about a minute.

“I didn’t even think about that,” I replied.  “But I lived for 19 years without a dishwasher, so it’s no big deal.  And you’ve lived for even longer than that.”

“True.”

There was a dishwasher in our house in Plumdale, but it did not work for my entire life.  I never knew why.  We stored things in it.  It was not until sometime in the middle of elementary school when it occurred to me that the cabinet with the weird racks and pull down door was called “the dishwasher” because its actual intended purpose was to wash dishes.

“Are we ready to get started?” Dad asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

I began carrying boxes toward the general vicinity of where each box belonged.  Toiletries went to the bathroom.  Clothes went to the closet.  I left books against the wall between the kitchen and bathroom; that would be a good place for a bookcase.  As Mom carried a box of plates and bowls toward the kitchen, I noticed that Dad had finished removing the straps holding the furniture to the truck bed.  As he maneuvered the mattress out of the truck, he asked me, “Can you grab the other end?”

“Yeah,” I said.  This was a brand new mattress, and it was heavy.  Dad and I carefully maneuvered it between Dad’s pickup truck and the Bronco and almost tripped when I failed to notice the curb at the edge of the parking lot.

“You got it?” Dad asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

Dad and I carried the mattress through the front door, where it bumped against the top of the entryway and I bumped into it.  “Ow!” I shouted.

“Lower,” Dad said.

I squatted down and carefully attempted to keep my balance while pushing the mattress through the doorway.  As I was stepping over the threshold of the door, Dad turned, and the mattress turned with him, pinning me against the side of the doorway.

“Ow!” I said again.

“Where do you keep the dishes?” Mom asked from the kitchen.

“I don’t know!” I shouted.  “I’ve only lived here for ten minutes!  And I can’t move right now!”

“Huh?  You can’t move?”

I made some unintelligible noises as Dad moved the mattress away from me.  I dropped it; at this point it was in the apartment and could be pushed.  Mom stood there looking at me.  “Where do you keep the dishes?” she repeated.

“I told you, I don’t know yet!” I shouted.

“You don’t have to yell at me,” Mom said indignantly.

“I was getting slapped in the face and pinned to the wall by a heavy mattress.  I’m sorry, but where to put the dishes is not exactly my priority at the moment.”

“Well… I couldn’t see that.”

“That’s what happens when you’re moving furniture.  But I’m sorry I yelled.”

“Are you hurt?”

“Not really.”

I hated carrying furniture.  It felt like sensory overload to me.  I was trying to make sure I did not drop or break whatever I was carrying, and that I did not hurt myself, and I had to work hard to tune out distractions like Mom.  Carrying large pieces of furniture was exhausting both physically and mentally.

In hindsight, this day of unpacking took less time than any of my future moves, because I had not yet accumulated as much stuff as I would in the future.  But it still felt exhausting.  By early afternoon, the cars were empty, although the inside of the apartment was full of unpacked boxes and the furniture was not all in its proper place.

“Is it time to take a break for lunch?” Mom asked.

“Sounds good to me,” Dad said.

“Where do you want to go for lunch?  Are we going to go to our usual McDonald’s?”

“Sure,” I said.

 

We got back from McDonalds about an hour later.  McDonald’s was on the other side of Jeromeville, about a ten minute drive each way.  I did not yet have much experience with local restaurants.  I knew Murder Burger from that one time last year, but that was almost as far away, and I liked McDonald’s.

As we headed west on Coventry Boulevard back toward the apartment, Mom said, “We’re also going to take you grocery shopping before we leave.  Our treat.”

“Right now?”

Mom paused for a second.  “Sure, if you want.”

“Sounds good.”

“Where are we going?”

I could see the intersection for Andrews Road approaching.  “U-turn here,” I said.  “Then make an immediate right.  Lucky, right over there.” I pointed in the general direction of the Lucky grocery store, across the street from where we were at the moment.

We spent well over a hundred dollars at the store that day.  We went up and down every aisle, and I placed in the cart everything I saw that I would probably eat.  Bananas.  Mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup.  Bread.  Sandwich meat.  Saltine crackers.  Cereal.  Milk.  I had an empty refrigerator; I needed everything.

“Do you like these?” Mom said in the middle of the frozen food aisle, gesturing toward a frozen chicken pot pie.  “That’s something easy you can make for dinner, at least for now until you try cooking more things.”

“Sure,” I said grabbing a few chicken pot pies.  I eyed the shelf of Hungry-Man frozen dinners next to them and said, “What about these?”

“Yeah, those too.”  I got one of turkey and mashed potatoes and one of fried chicken and put them in the cart.  I ate way too many Hungry-Man dinners that year, and after I moved out of that apartment into another apartment with roommates, I don’t think I ever ate a Hungry-Man dinner again.

After we got home, I set up the computer while Dad built the new bookcase, which we brought to Jeromeville still in a box.  When he finished, I put the bookcase against the wall between the doorways to the kitchen and bathroom, as I had planned to earlier.  Mom and Dad and I visited for a while as Dad was putting the bookcase together.  Mom asked a lot of questions about school and my friends from last year; I did not know the answers to all of them.

A while later, in the late afternoon, Mom said, “Well, if you have everything under control here, it’s probably time for us to go.  I think you can probably finish unpacking.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Thank you again for everything.”

“Here,” Mom continued, writing a check and giving it to me.  “In case you need anything more.”

“Thank you.”

“Enjoy the new apartment,” Dad said quietly.  “Dad loves you.”

“You too,” I said.  “Drive safely.”

 

After Mom and Dad left, the first thing I did was connect to IRC chat and go to the room where I always used to chat last year.  I scanned the list of people in the room and recognized someone, a girl from Georgia named Mindy Jo (that name sounded very Southern to me) whom I had kept in touch with off and on by email but had not actually chatted with since moving out of Building C in June.  I messaged her.

gjd76: hi
MindyJoA: greg! you’re back!
gjd76: yes! i moved in to my new apartment this afternoon
MindyJoA: yay how is it?
gjd76: i like it so far.  mom and dad took me shopping
MindyJoA: that was nice of them.  you said you live by yourself?
gjd76: yeah
MindyJoA: have your friends moved back yet?
gjd76: i don’t know. i don’t think so.  i still have another three weeks until school starts.
MindyJoA: why’d you move back so early?  last year when i moved home for the summer i didn’t go back to school until the night before my first class
gjd76: because it’s boring back home.
MindyJoA: yeah, that makes sense

I stayed up until past midnight talking to Mindy Jo and a few other people in the room, and catching up on the Pink Floyd Usenet group, which had died down in general since it had been three months since new music was released and there were no more Publius Enigma posts.  The bed was right next to the computer table in the large main room, and while it took me a while to fall asleep, as it often does in a new place, I slept fairly well after that.

 

“Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said when she saw me walking into the Newman Center the next morning for Mass.  “Welcome back!”

“Thanks.  It’s good to be back.”

“School doesn’t start for another few weeks, right?  Are you in summer session?”

“No, I was just bored at my parents’ house, so I moved here as soon as my lease started.”

“Was your summer good, even if it was boring?”

“Yeah.” I told her about the bookstore, watching roller hockey games, and Catherine and Renee’s Voices of Austria show, until she had to go get Mass started.

I looked around during Mass and noticed that, while I recognized some faces in the congregation, most of the people here whom I actually knew well were not here.  I was hoping they might be.  I knew Danielle was not moving back to Jeromeville this early, and I suspected many other students had not moved back yet as well.

After church was over, I stood watching people leave.  Normally now was the time I would go talk to people I knew, but with most of the people I knew not in attendance today, I decided after a minute to just go home.  When I got home, I made a sandwich with the groceries Mom and Dad had bought last night while I answered a few emails.

Later that afternoon, I went for a bike ride.  I had been waiting a long time for this.  My bike had been pretty much sitting in the garage the whole time I had been home.  Plumdale is hilly, with many curvy roads where people drive fast, the polar opposite of Jeromeville as far as ease of cycling is concerned.

I rode south down Andrews Road across Coventry Boulevard.  The weather was sunny and hot, around ninety degrees.  By the time I crossed Fifth Street onto campus, about a mile south of my apartment, I was sweating, but it felt good.  I continued south past the Rec Pavilion, and I stopped at a red light at Davis Drive next to the recreation pool, which Dad had nicknamed Thong Bikini Hill.  I turned, trying to look at the sprinkling of sunbathers on the hill, but staring felt inappropriate, and I did not have a good view from where I was.  When the light turned green, I continued south, past the dairy, all the way to the oak grove at the west end of the Arboretum.  The campus looked quieter and more deserted than usual; I figured this was probably normal for summer.  The campus had also looked more deserted than normal when I was here in July with my cousins, and most campus activity would be in the older part of campus to the east anyway.

My route that day was very familiar.  I rode east through the Arboretum and emerged downtown on B Street.  I headed north on B Street to Community Park, to the pedestrian and bicycle overpass over Coventry Boulevard, and into the Greenbelts.  I had been here a few times before last spring, but after being away for almost three months, it felt new all over again.

About a mile north of the pedestrian overpass, I passed the pond and crossed Andrews Road, which curved to run east-west through this neighborhood.  I continued down a residential street; I discovered last spring that this street connected to another greenbelt and bike trail running along the northernmost edge of Jeromeville.  I stopped to drink from a water fountain next to a small playground that intersected another bike heading south.  I looked north, through the chain link fence that ran along the edge of the trail.  A drainage ditch ran parallel to the bike trail, with fields spreading as far as the eye could see on the other side.  The neighboring city of Woodville was about eight miles to the north, and Bidwell, where my dad was born and some of his relatives still lived, was about ninety miles in the same direction.  I wondered what else was out there in the North Valley.  I had seen roads and towns on maps, but I was not very familiar with any of them up close.

The trail continued next to the drainage ditch for a while, until it turned southward through a park tucked between two neighborhoods.  This park had a playground and basketball court at the north end, closest to the ditch, then a long grassy area and a sculpture that looked like dominoes at the other end.  Public works of art were strange sometimes, and Jeromeville had no shortage of them, being a university town.  These dominoes appeared to be permanently frozen while falling, although not in the usual configuration of falling dominoes.  The thought of falling dominoes got me thinking about how one small decision could affect so much, just like how pushing one domino could lead to many others toppling.  What if I had decided to go to Central Tech or Bidwell State instead of Jeromeville?  What if I had not accepted the invitation to the Interdisciplinary Honors Program last year, and had not made that group of friends in the dorm?  What if I had decided to run away and quit school that night that I got so upset?  What if I had paid more attention and found a roommate for this year, or decided to answer an advertisement and room with a stranger, instead of getting a little studio apartment?  My whole life could be different.

 A little way past the dominoes, I turned off the trail onto a path which I knew led directly to the Las Casas Apartments.  I locked my bike and headed straight for the shower.  I had been outside in hot weather for 45 minutes, and I was sweaty.  I showered in mostly cold water, then I got dressed.  I turned on the stereo, now on top of the new bookcase next to the kitchen, and played the Hootie & the Blowfish CD as I put a Hungry-Man fried chicken dinner in the microwave.

All was starting to feel more right with the world.  I may not have understood exactly why my dominoes fell in the direction they did, but they did, and now I was back in Jeromeville where I could start moving my life forward again.  I grew quite a bit freshman year, and I was ready to build on that growth, and maybe push over a few more metaphorical dominoes in the process.

dominoes

May 26-28, 1995. Friends far away.

By the time Memorial Day weekend arrived in late May, the weather in Jeromeville had become quite summer-like.  The bike ride from Wellington Hall to the South Residential Area only took five minutes, but I was doing that bike ride in 88-degree sunshine, so I was already starting to sweat by the time I got back to my dorm room.  It was the Friday before a three-day weekend, and I was drained from a long week of classes.  I unlocked my door and turned on the air conditioning.  Cool air began blowing into the room.  I took off my shoes and lay face down on the mattress, dozing off for about an hour.

I spent a couple hours writing emails and catching up on Usenet groups, and reading for fun.  Shortly before six o’clock, I walked to the dining commons. I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Ramon, Liz, Caroline, and Sarah at a table.  Next to Charlie was an empty seat with a half-empty glass of water on the table next to it. I could not tell if anyone was sitting there.

“May I join you?” I asked.  “Is that seat taken?”

“Go ahead,” Charlie replied.  “There’s always room for hydrochloric acid.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.  Charlie laughed. “That was random,” I said.

“I know.”

“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.

“I’m good,” I replied.  “It’s a three-day weekend, and they turned the AC back on.”

“I know!” Sarah said.  “It feels so nice!”

“So, Greg, what are you doing this summer?” Taylor continued.  “Will you be back home in Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Working?  Doing anything like that?”

“My mom told me the other day she found a job for me.  One of my brother’s friends, his mom works at this small bookstore.  I guess it’s just her and the owner working there. She wants to cut her hours for the summer to be around more when her son isn’t in school.  So Mom told her that I was going to be home for the summer, and I could use a part-time job.”

“And do you want to do this?”

“I wish Mom would have asked me first, although she did say I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to.  But I’m not going to be doing anything else all summer, I’ll be getting paid for it, and it’s a job I don’t have to go find and interview for.  So I’m ok with it.”

“Yeah,” Taylor replied.

“Good point,” Pete said.

I really would have preferred for Mom to have consulted me first before volunteering me to a commitment of several hours per day.  However, the thought of having to go find a job was terrifying, and this way I had something lined up without having to look for it, as I had told Taylor and Pete.  Besides, working in a bookstore sounded fun. Maybe I could sample the merchandise and read on slow days, and maybe I would get an employee discount.

We all went downstairs to check the mail after dinner.  When I saw an envelope with handwriting on it, I felt my heart race.  I had written that letter almost two weeks ago, not knowing what would happen, not even knowing for sure whom I was writing to.  How long did it take for a letter to travel from one end of the USA to the other anyway? And after she got it, she would need time to reply, and then her letter would have to travel back across the country to Jeromeville.  Would she write back right away? Maybe I sent it too early. She was still in the middle of finals when I wrote; she hadn’t moved home yet. Maybe her parents got it and interrogated her about why she was getting mail from this strange boy in another state.  Maybe her parents threw it away.

I removed the letter from the mailbox and looked at the envelope.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the return address. It was from Carol Allen in Plumdale. This was not the letter I was nervous about.  This was from someone I had known for years, who had already written me once this year.

I noticed that my friends were moving toward the Help Window, which meant that someone had to pick up a package too big to fit in the mailbox.  I walked over to where they were. “Someone got a package?” I asked.

“It’s for Caroline,” Sarah said.  “You got a letter from someone?”

“It’s from Mrs. Allen.  She was my English teacher in both 7th and 8th grade.”

“And she writes to you in college?  That’s so sweet!”

“I know.  This is the second time she has written.  My mom ran into her somewhere back home a few months ago, and she told Mom to tell me to write to her.”

“She sounds nice.”

“She is.  I was in her class when I was going through a really rough time.  I was at a new school in the middle of 7th grade, and I had had a lot of problems at my other school before that.  She really made me feel welcome and accepted. A lot of the teachers at my old school acted like they didn’t want to deal with me.  And I know that ‘a lot’ is two words, because Mrs. Allen always made a big deal of it whenever someone would write ‘alot’ as one word.”

Sarah laughed.  “That’s funny!”

“I knew ‘a lot’ was two words before Mrs. Allen’s class, but I still remember her making a big deal of it.”

“It’s funny how some teachers stay in your memory forever.  Like I had this math teacher who would always make the dumbest jokes.  He’d say, ‘What’s 4y minus 3y,’ and you’d answer ‘y,’ and he’d say ‘because I asked you.’”

I chuckled.  “That’s great.  And then there are some teachers who you remember for all the wrong reasons.  Like Mr. Milton, my history teacher from junior year. He made fun of Catholics and Republicans all the time.”

“That’s not nice.”

“I still remember all these random things I learned about history from his class, though, so he did something well, but I didn’t think he was very nice.”

I opened the letter from Mrs. Allen when I got back to my room.  

 


May 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

Sorry it has taken so long to write back, but I’ve been busy.  You know how it is. I’m sure you’re busy too. Jeromeville is on trimesters, if I remember right, so you should still be in your dorm room.  When is the school year over? Our last day is June 8.

I’m going to get a new computer and get online soon.  Mr. Coburn got us America Online at school, and he has been showing me how it works.  Once I figure out how to set it up, I’ll send you an e-mail. It looks like there are all kinds of interesting things you can do.

I went to the Titans game yesterday.  I got a partial season package again, so I have a ticket to 20 games.  I have a much better seat this year because a lot of people didn’t renew.  I knew that would happen after the strike. I’m so happy the strike is over!  I missed the Titans. I thought of you because the University of Jeromeville band played the pre-game show.

I hope everything is well with you.  Take care of yourself and good luck with finals!

Love,
Carol

P.S.  I think it will be OK for you to use my first name now.


 

The postscript at the end made me laugh.  Everyone knows that one does not address a teacher by his or her first name.  Mrs. Allen said it was okay to call her Carol, but I just would never be able to bring myself to do that.  It was okay now, because I was an adult, but it still sounded wrong. Mrs. Allen would always be Mrs. Allen to me.  That was just how things worked when addressing a teacher, even years or decades after being in that teacher’s class.

I did not know that the University of Jeromeville Band had played a pre-game show at a Titans game.  I had grown up watching Bay City Titans baseball, traveling up there with my family about three or four times a year to attend games in person.  But I had not been keeping up with the Titans, or baseball in general, this year. The end of the previous season had been canceled because of a players’ strike.  There was no World Series that year. Furthermore, Matt Williams, the Titans’ third baseman, had hit 43 home runs by the time the strike began in early August, possibly putting him in position to set a new record for home runs in one season.  The record at the time was 61. But the season was canceled, he had no chance to hit any more home runs, and in two more seasons with the Titans and seven with other teams, he never reached this level of power hitting prowess again. The strike had continued on into the 1995 season but was settled early in the season, and baseball had finally resumed at the end of April, a few weeks later than the usual start of the season.  I did get interested in baseball again eventually… but that is another story for another time.

 

The next morning, I got out of bed around nine.  That was sleeping in for me, the best I could do.  I studied and did homework for about two hours, then decided to reward myself with a bike ride.  I rode north to the Coventry Greenbelts, where I had ridden last week, and discovered a bike path skirting the northern edge of the city.  Riding west, the path passed fenced backyards on the left and some kind of drainage or irrigation canal to the right, with open fields on the other side.  The path turned south, with ends of culs-de-sac connecting to the path, before zigzagging west again and then south one more time. At this point, the drainage canal  entered the Jeromeville city limits, with a neighborhood of large luxury homes visible on the other side of the canal. I was not sure where this neighborhood was or what it connected to.  I saw a pedestrian and bicycle bridge cross the canal into that neighborhood, but I did not go that way.

The path turned south along a park with a playground, basketball courts, and an open grass area.  I rode past a sculpture of dominoes. The park then narrowed, so that fences of backyards came close to the path on either side, much like the other paths I had discovered last week.  After making several more turns, and not being sure of exactly which direction I was going now, the path narrowed to a small sidewalk, next to a parking lot. I appeared to be in the back of a large apartment complex.  I wondered which one; I probably had heard of it, from when I was looking through that apartment guide trying to find a place to live next year.

Suddenly, as I got closer to the actual buildings, riding through the parking lot, I realized that I knew exactly where I was.  Not only had I heard of this apartment complex, but I had looked at these apartments. I had even signed a lease here. This was Las Casas Apartments on Alvarez Avenue, and I was looking right at my home for next year, apartment 124.  This was convenient; my apartment for next year was right next to the Greenbelts. I would have a lot of opportunities to explore Jeromeville on my bike from my new apartment.

When I got back to campus, I checked my mail before going back up to my room.  All the anxious excitement I felt yesterday when I checked the mail came back when I saw the letter that I had been expecting the day before.  The return address said “M. Boyle,” with a box number and rural route in a town I had never heard of, called Muncy, Pennsylvania. My name and address had been handwritten on the envelope, in black ballpoint pen.

I started to hide the letter under my shirt, but then I remembered that I was all sweaty from having ridden my bike in warm weather for an hour.  I slid the letter in my front pocket and walked back to the building with half of the envelope sticking out. I made sure that no writing was showing on the part sticking out.  Something still felt weird about having this letter, and I did not want to have to talk to anyone about it.

I made it back to my room without seeing anyone and began reading.


May 23, 1995

Dear Greg,

Hello!  It’s nice to hear from you, and I hope this finds you well.  I’m good, except there’s a storm here. It’s raining pretty hard, with lightning.

Good luck on finals!  I got my grades a few days ago.  I ended up with two Bs, two Cs, and a D.  Not as good as I wanted. I’ll have to work harder next semester.

I’ve been bored and lonely much of the time since coming back home.  When I was at school, I was used to having everything within walking distance, but we live out in the country so everything is a 15 minute drive away.  And since I don’t have a car, I don’t get away from home that much. Most of my friends from college live far away, and my friends from home are either still in high school or have jobs.  I looked for a job, but I haven’t found anything yet. The bookstore you told me about sounds like it’ll be fun for you. Mostly I just want to get a job so I can get out of the house. But I need the money too or else I might not be able to go back next semester.  I know how you feel about not looking forward to summer, being away from your friends. I thought I would have a job by now, not stuck at home all the time.

I’ve pretty much given up on finding a boyfriend.  The only place I go is church and the guys there are either not interested or too old for me.  There are some dance clubs, but I don’t have a car so I can’t go to them.

Well, I hope I’m not some 37 yr. old pervert!  Just the idea makes me sick. Would your mom like to see my drivers license or school ID?  Anyway, write me back when you can I know you have finals coming up so I’ll wait until after that to expect something.  I’ll write maybe another letter before then. ☺

Bye,
Molly


 

When I wrote to Molly, I said that I was a little nervous, because my mother was fond of reminding me that all these girls I was meeting online were probably 37-year-old perverts named Chuck.  Molly was the first person I met on the Internet whom I had any sort of offline contact with. Apparently Molly did not find the image of Chuck as funny as I had.

Molly was my age, a freshman at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania.  Molly had already finished the school year, because Lock Haven was on a semester schedule, both starting and ending earlier in the year than Jeromeville with its quarter schedule. (Jeromeville quarters were technically trimesters; Mrs. Allen had correctly called them trimesters in her letter).  Molly moved back home, where she would not have access to email, so in her last email to me, she had given me her address.

And she actually wrote back.  I now had proof that someone I met on the Internet actually existed in real life.  Of course, technically she could have been lying about her age or gender or any number of things, but there was a real person behind those messages who took the time to write back.  Hopefully this summer I would be able to look forward to getting letters in the mail. And hopefully she was not really Chuck.

 

I spent most of Sunday studying, although I did make it to church Sunday morning.  In the late afternoon, when I finished everything I had hoped to get done, I got on my usual IRC chat channel.  Kim, a girl from Florida I had been talking to for a few months, was online, so I messaged her.

gjd76: hi
Happygirlkim: Hi Greg! How are you?
gjd76: doing well, it’s been a good weekend.  it’s been warm here, i like that
Happygirlkim: I bet!  I’m done with the school year, back home in Ft Lauderdale, but I’ll be working at a summer camp for kids for six weeks, I leave on June 16
gjd76: that’ll be fun, that’s the weekend i’ll be moving home
Happygirlkim: Yay! Any big plans for the summer?
gjd76: moving back home and working in a bookstore.  my mom knows someone there who got me the job
Happygirlkim: That’ll be fun!  Will you be hanging out a lot with your friends back home?
gjd76: i’m not sure.  i lost touch with a lot of them when i came here, and i didn’t see them often anyway when i was back home.  i don’t even know for sure who will be around for the summer.
Happygirlkim: I wish I lived closer to you!  I’d hang out with you! 😉
gjd76: that would be fun!
Happygirlkim: I think you’d like my friends!  You could come to the beach with us, we’d build a bonfire and stay up late just talking…
gjd76: 🙂
Happygirlkim: Maybe someday!
gjd76: hey, random thought, can i call you?

I typed that last line quickly and pressed Enter before I could talk myself out of it.  It was a sudden fleeting thought that passed through my mind, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask.  Now that I had gotten a letter from Molly, it seemed less scary to try to communicate with these girls from the Internet in other ways.

Happygirlkim: Sure!  Did you mean right now?
gjd76: sure, it’s sunday afternoon and long distance calls cost less on the weekend
Happygirlkim: 305-555-0115
gjd76: great! let me get off here, i’ll call you in just a minute

I logged out and disconnected.  Back in 1995, people connected to the Internet through telephone lines, so being logged in meant that I could neither send nor receive calls.  As soon as the computer was disconnected, I dialed Kim’s number, and just like when I had asked her if I could call, I pressed the buttons quickly, so I would not be able to talk myself out of completing the call.

“Hello?” a female-sounding voice said on the other end of the call.

“Is Kim there?” I asked.

“This is Kim.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.”

“Hi!”  Kim paused.  “It’s good to finally hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“So why don’t you see your friends back home very often?”

“Where I live, it’s kind of semi-rural and spread out.  And I didn’t really do much except go to school. I didn’t really have friends at all until the middle of high school.”

“You didn’t have a best friend in childhood or anything?”

“Everyone was mean to me.”

“I’m sorry.  And you said you didn’t have a girlfriend, right?”

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve had a lot of crushes on girls who were either out of my league or didn’t like me back.  One of my crushes from high school was named Kim too.”

“Girls named Kim are the best!”

“I know.” I chuckled.

“You haven’t met anyone in college?  Didn’t you tell me you were going to a movie with some girls recently?”

“One of them, we’ve had two classes together, I feel like we’re just going to be friends.  The other one, she’s really cute, and she’s been nice to me all year, but she’s a sophomore, I don’t know if she’d be interested in a younger guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”

“You never know.  It wouldn’t hurt to ask.  You’re such a sweetie. I bet all the girls like you, and you don’t even know it!”

“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get something to eat?’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go see a movie?’ or whatever.  You can do this. I believe in you.”

“I don’t know.  What if she already has a boyfriend?  Then I’ll look like an idiot.”

“But what if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but you never ask her?  You never know unless you try.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really didn’t know. Kim made it sound so simple, but it was so confusing and scary.  I had a sudden thought, something I had to know. I took a deep breath and asked, “If you lived nearby, and I asked you out, would you go out with me?”

“Yes, I would!”

“Thank you.  I wish we could.”

Kim and I talked for about another 20 minutes, just about life in general.  She told me more about her friends and about her summer job at the camp. I told her about my classes, exploring the greenbelts, and my upcoming finals.  I hoped we would have more conversations like this.

I have had other female friends from the Internet besides Kim telling me that I should have no trouble meeting a girl.  Things did not work that way in my world. It seemed like every girl I was ever interested in always seemed to have a boyfriend already, and without having ever had the experience of knowing that a girl liked me, I had no idea how to know if a girl liked me, and no reason to believe it would ever happen to me.  It was so easy to talk to girls I met on the Internet. Maybe I would have to go to Fort Lauderdale to get a girlfriend. Or Muncy, Pennsylvania.

Today, when kids go away to college, they have a much easier time staying in touch with their friends back home.  Today’s college students have text messages and social media and video chat and technologies that we only dreamed of twenty-five years ago.  I have found that I tend to remember most of my friends back home not staying in touch once I moved away, but when I really think about it, that is not entirely true.  Melissa and Renee and Rachel had been keeping in touch regularly. Janet Bordeaux, the girl whose mother and my mother often gossiped, had written me twice. Jessica Halloran had sent me a postcard from Guatemala.  And now Mrs. Allen had written me twice. I did eventually lose touch with all of those people until social media came along, but it did not happen as suddenly as I tend to remember. I think I also remember people not writing me because I focus on the fact that I had two new female friends and crushes who did not keep in touch.  Interestingly enough, I did not make much of an attempt to stay in touch with guys; I was just more comfortable communicating with girls, because boys were always so mean to me in elementary school.

Mrs. Allen and I have been in touch semi-regularly ever since then.  She did eventually get her email set up. She is now in her early 70s, retired from teaching.  A few years ago, the band AC/DC was touring, and she took her grandchildren to see them when they played Bay City.  I can only hope to be that badass at that age.

I lost touch with Kim sometime during sophomore year.  She just got busy with life, I guess; we never had any kind of falling out. But Molly and I stayed friends for a long time, well into our 30s.  In my late 20s, I did a lot of traveling around the USA, and I saw Molly in person twice when my travels brought me to her part of the country. We also never had any kind of falling out; we just grew apart as life got in the way.  The last time I heard from her was in 2009, and by then she was married and expecting her first child. Being a parent definitely changes one’s priorities.

Someone asked me once, as an icebreaker question, if I could have anything I wanted, without cost being an obstacle, what would it be?  I said I wanted a private jet with an unlimited supply of fuel, because I had friends all over the world that I wished I could spend time with.  It all started during that school year, my freshman year at UJ, meeting girls on the Internet. I still do have friends from all over the world. I don’t meet many people on the Internet anymore, because I gave up chat rooms in 2007, but I still have friends all over the world who I used to know in person that I wish I could visit, as well as chat room friends who I met before 2007 who stayed in touch.  And in three weeks, I would be back home in Plumdale, away from all my new Jeromeville friends. Hopefully at least some of them would write to me. And I would not be gone forever; I still had at least three more years at UJ.

1995 molly's first letter

 

May 18, 1995. The Coventry Greenbelt.

I parked my bike outside of Wellington Hall, a rectangular brick building which consisted only of classrooms used for many different subjects, and headed to Room 17 in the basement for my chemistry discussion.  Chemistry 2B was a large class of around four hundred students held in 199 Stone Hall, the largest lecture hall on campus in the 1990s. Labs and discussions met in smaller groups of 24 students, all from the same lecture section, led by a teaching assistant who was a graduate student from the chemistry department.

The desks in Wellington 17, as was the case with most classrooms at UJ, were just chairs with a little retractable piece of wood that a student could pull up and use as a hard surface for writing.  I sat in a chair, pulled the desk up into place, and put my head down on it with my eyes closed. I was tired. I had been up for a while. I started class on Thursday at 10:00 in the morning, but I woke up early enough to be ready for class at 9, because every other day I had a 9:00 class.  It was now 9:57, and I was ready to go back to sleep because I had not slept well the night before.

A couple minutes later, I heard someone sit next to me and begin to speak.  “Hey, Greg! Are you okay?” I recognized the voice; it was Marissa, my lab partner.

I opened my eyes and looked up.  “I didn’t sleep well. The fire alarm went off at 2:30, and it took me almost an hour to get back to sleep.”

“What? Fire? Where?”

“My dorm.  Building C in the South Area.  We all had to evacuate.”

“What was on fire?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think anything was on fire.  There wasn’t any smoke or anything, at least I couldn’t see anything on fire.”

“So what set it off?”

“I don’t know.”

“Weird.”

“Oh yeah.  It was hilarious.  I was climbing down the stairs, and Amy, the RA from the third floor, she goes, ‘If you see or smell anything strange, let me know.’  My friend Rebekah, she’s also on the third floor, she says, ‘I see and smell Amy. Should I let you know?’”

“She actually said that?” Marissa asked, laughing.  “Oh my gosh!”

“Yeah!  She’s hilarious.  We had the same math class fall quarter, and the professor posted grades by ID number.  She figured out which one was me, because she knew what I got on all the other midterms, so she knew what I got on the final before I did.”

“No way.”

“And she told me, ‘Next quarter, I’m going to freak out just like you did, and maybe then I’ll get 99 percent just like you.’”

“That’s funny!  Did you freak out on your math final?”

“I think she just meant how I was really stressed about the final, but I probably didn’t have to be, since I did so well.  It was my first final here, so I didn’t know what to expect.”

“That makes sense.  Are we getting the chem midterm back today?”

“I think so.  I don’t think I did very well on this one.  At least not as well as I usually do.”

In Chemistry 2B, the TA passed back the midterms and took time in the discussion to answer questions about the midterm.  It was not like Physics 9A, where I had to get my own test paper off of a shelf. A few minutes after class started, the TA began passing back the midterms.  I nervously looked at mine when I got it.

86, out of 100.

Not bad like that physics midterm from a few weeks earlier, but not as well as I usually do.  I was a little disappointed in myself, but not panicking.

Marissa got her midterm back shortly after I did.  She looked through it excitedly. “This is the best I’ve ever done on a chem midterm!” she said.

“Mine was the worst for me.  But good job.”

“I got 86!  What did you get?”

My brain took a second to process what I had just heard.  This certainly put things in perspective. “86,” I said sheepishly.

“Really?” Marissa asked.  I showed her my midterm. “My best score is your worst score.  That’s kind of sad.”

“No it isn’t,” I said.  “It puts things in perspective.  Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about always being perfect.”

“You really shouldn’t.  86 isn’t bad. And you’re still going to ace the final, probably.”

“I don’t know.  We’ll see. But you’re right.  86 isn’t bad. Good job.”

“You too.”

 

I had one more class later that day, and when that was done, I got back to the dorm shortly after 2:00.  The chalkboard in the stairwell still said COMMUNITY ASSESSMENT MEETING. The resident advisers, Gurpreet and Amy, had not erased this announcement yet.  The meeting was two days ago; we had discussed how things had been going, and Gurpreet and Amy had given us information about procedures for moving out, which we would be doing in four weeks.

I sat down to check email, and I started to nod off while I was reading, so I turned off the computer and lay down for a nap.  The fire alarm and evacuation last night had thrown off my sleeping, and I had had trouble staying awake in both of my classes.  I was done for the day, though, and although I had math homework due tomorrow, I was in no shape to do it now. I closed my eyes and drifted off.

When I woke up, I could tell that I had been asleep.  I checked my watch; it was almost 4:00. The sun was out, and it was fairly warm today.  I had been wearing jeans this morning, but by now it was warm enough to wear shorts. It felt like a good day to be outside.

After I changed into shorts, I got on my bike.  I headed south toward the Arboretum and the Lodge, then I turned east toward the law school and Marks Hall.  I had done this bike ride several other times in my year at UJ. The long, narrow, park-like Arboretum, following a dry creek bed which had been converted into a very long lake, was a peaceful oasis in the middle of a busy campus.  Just past Marks Hall, a large grassy area sloped gently down to the waterway, which widened into a more lake-like shape, and I saw several students lying on the grass reading. I was not the only one who felt like being outside today, apparently.

Near the east end of the Arboretum, I turned on a path that led to the intersection of First and B Streets downtown.  I continued north on B Street, past Central Park and through an old residential neighborhood. This was all familiar territory; I had done this ride a few times before and driven parts of B Street in the car.

B Street ended at the intersection with 15th Street.  In front of me was Jeromeville Community Park, the largest park in the city, which bordered the Veterans Memorial Hall, the public library, a public pool, Jeromeville High School, an elementary school, and the Jeromeville Arts Center.  The Veterans Memorial Hall was visible in front of me along 15th Street, with a bike path to its left. I had never noticed that path before. I crossed the street and continued north on that path.

I rode past Veterans Memorial Hall and the public swimming pool on my right, with part of the parking lot for the high school on my left.  Behind this I rode past tennis courts and soccer and baseball fields. I could see ahead that this path led to an overpass crossing Coventry Boulevard.  I had driven under that overpass before, but I never knew anything about the path on top, where it came from or where it led.

On the other side of the overpass, north of Coventry Boulevard, the path led down into a park.  I saw backs of homes and yards and apartment buildings, and streets adjoining the park on the left and the right.  A number of short paths led to adjoining streets, one leading back to Coventry Boulevard. The path I rode on continued north, and I also noticed a long path to the west which, like the one I was on, continued for some distance instead of ending at a street.  A sign attached to a lamppost said “COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 8.”

I chose to continue north.  I rode past grassy areas and many different kinds of trees, past a playground and tennis courts.  The path turned to the right and then left again, outside of the park and into a very different landscape.  The path was straight, with a large vacant lot on the left, and on the right, fences separating the path from backyards and short paths branching off to the ends of culs-de-sac connected to some unseen street to the east.

After three such paths leading to other streets, the path I was on crossed a street at a crosswalk.  On the other side of the street, fenced backs of yards and paths branching to other streets now lined both sides of the path, with a thin strip of landscaping on either side of the path.  I had never seen a neighborhood like this before, with dead-end streets connecting to a continuous bicycle and pedestrian path. Jeromeville advertises itself as being a bicycle-friendly community, and apparently in Jeromeville this slogan means more than just bike lanes on major streets and parts of the university campus being closed to cars.  This part of Jeromeville, a fairly new subdivision, seemed to be constructed entirely around bicycle travel.

About a quarter mile after I crossed that street, the bicycle path entered another large park.  This one had a small playground to the left of the path, with soccer fields beyond. On my right, to the east, was a pond, with rushes and reeds and bushes growing along its shore.  A boardwalk extended about a hundred feet to the right, with some kind of informational sign at the end, probably about wildlife or plants or something like that. Straight ahead of me was another smaller pond, and the path curved to the right between the two ponds. I continued along the path as it curved northeast, then abruptly ended at a street, with the northern tip of the large pond to my right, an office building to my left, and a residential neighborhood across the street straight ahead from me.

I looked at the name on the street sign across from me.  This was the corner of Salmon Drive and Andrews Road. I knew where I was now.

Andrews Road is a major street running north-south on the UJ campus and in west-central Jeromeville, parallel to Highway 117 about half a mile east.  In the northernmost part of the city of Jeromeville, Andrews Road curves through recently constructed residential areas onto a more east-west route, ending at G Street a couple hundred feet to the right of where I was now.  I was very close to the northernmost point of the city of Jeromeville, where the geography changes from residential neighborhoods to the flat farmland that Arroyo Verde County is known for.

I turned around and headed back to the small playground on the other side of the ponds, but instead of going back the way I came, I rode to the west along the soccer fields.  A sign called this part of the path COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 3. I had seen other signs like this along the path I had ridden, the numbers changing each time. I was, and still am to this day, unsure if the numbers have a pattern or what they mean.

At the end of this path, I turned south on another path, through more numbered areas of the Coventry Greenbelt, again with fences separating me from backyards on both sides.  I crossed a street, and the greenbelt widened, with the houses on either side of me farther apart. The path curved a bit. I saw a statue of a dog near the sign saying that I was in COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 5. I rode through grassy areas spotted with trees, continuing south.  Another path and greenbelt branched off to my right, and as I passed a playground, yet another path and greenbelt branched off to my left. I continued south, into a thick grove of pine trees, the ground covered with dead needles. I made a mental note that I had a lot more exploring to do in the future, to figure out where those other paths went.

I entered a tunnel under a street and emerged at Coventry Boulevard, where the pine trees suddenly cleared.  I knew this must be Coventry Boulevard. I was pretty sure there were no other four-lane divided streets in this part of Jeromeville.  And if this was Coventry Boulevard, the tunnel I just emerged from must have crossed under Alvarez Avenue. My apartment for next year was on Alvarez Avenue, but farther west, to my right.

I turned right on Coventry and left on Andrews Road, back toward campus.  When I got back to Building C, about ten minutes after emerging from the tunnel, I locked my bike and entered the building from the back, into the stairwell across from the lobby.  Someone had changed the announcement about the COMMUNITY ASSESSMENT MEETING by selectively erasing letters. It now said COMMUNITY ASS EETING. I laughed out loud.

“Greg!” I heard a voice say.  “What’s so funny?”

I looked down.  Sarah Winters, who had asked the question, and Krista Curtis were sitting on the stairs talking.  One of the quirks of university dormitory culture is that people can sit and socialize just about anywhere.  Sometimes that was annoying, as I discovered two months ago when I was awakened from my sleep, but other times, like now, it gave me socializing opportunities that rarely ever happened at any other point in my life.

I pointed at COMMUNITY ASS EETING on the chalkboard.  Sarah groaned, and Krista rolled her eyes.

“You’re all sweaty!” Krista said.

“I was on a bike ride.”  I looked at my watch. “I’ve been gone for about 45 minutes.”

“Wow!  Where’d you go?”

“Through the Arboretum to downtown, then up B Street to that park by the high school.  There’s a path that crosses over Coventry Boulevard and leads to a greenbelt. Like a bunch of interconnected parks behind the neighborhoods in North Jeromeville.”

“Cool!”

“I’ve heard about the greenbelts,” Sarah said.  “I’ve never been there, though. Was it nice?”

“Yeah.  And it’s a great day to be outside.  I love this weather.”

“I know!  It feels like summer!”

“I have four weeks left to enjoy this weather.  And now I have a new place to explore on my bike.”

“What do you mean, four weeks?” Krista asked.

“After that I’m going home for the summer.”

“Why can’t you enjoy summer at home?”

“Plumdale doesn’t have this weather.  We get coastal fog at night sometimes, and it doesn’t burn off until around noon.  And it doesn’t get as hot as it does here.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It’s hard to believe we’re almost done with the school year,” Sarah said.

“I know,” I replied.  “It seemed to go by fast.”

“Are you looking forward to summer?”

“I’m not sure.  I’m looking forward to no classes, but I’m going to miss all of you guys.”

“Me too!  You’ll have to write to me.”

“I will.  I hope to write a lot of letters this summer.  I’ll try to get email over the summer too.”

“I won’t have email at home,” Sarah said.

“Me either,” Krista added.

“I feel really sweaty and stinky,” I said.

“Eww!” Sarah replied, laughing jokingly.

“I’m going to go upstairs and take a shower.  I’ll see you guys later.”

“We’ll probably be going to dinner around 6.  Want to come with us?” Krista asked.

“Sure!”

 

That day changed my life, to some extent.  I went for several more bike rides in the Coventry Greenbelt and other adjacent greenbelts and parks over the next few weeks, exploring more of North Jeromeville.  I found a greenbelt in West Jeromeville about a week later, and one in South Jeromeville shortly after I moved back sophomore year. Today, a quarter-century later, I have never gotten out of the habit of exploring on my bike.  When I was in my early 30s, I once told someone about a 25-mile bike ride I had done one Saturday. My friend asked me how I got into cycling, and I said it just kind of happened by default when I lived in Jeromeville, and I never really stopped.  I did not ride my bike very far when I was growing up in Plumdale, because Plumdale is hilly and can be cold at times. This is not exactly the best environment for cycling. It turned out that the upcoming summer of 1995 was the last summer in which I would spend the majority of the time in Plumdale, although that was not entirely related to weather or cycling.

I currently live in the suburbs south of Capital City.  There are a few greenbelts around here, but not an extensive network of them like I found in Jeromeville.  (Of course, Jeromevillians pay higher property taxes as a result, so there’s that.) I still do a lot of exploring on my bicycle.  Once every year, I return to my cycling roots, riding my bike 28 miles from my house across the Drawbridge to Central Park in Jeromeville, where I take a break to eat the lunch I packed.  After resting for a while, I continue riding around Jeromeville, riding through some of the greenbelts, as well as part of the Arboretum and my happy place along Hawkins Road. By mid-afternoon, my clothes are covered in salt left behind by dried sweat, my butt hurts, and I am exhausted, so I then take my bike on a bus to Capital City and on another bus back to my own neighborhood.  My total distance for the day on one of these trips totals between 50 and 55 miles.

My bike isn’t anything fancy or expensive.  For that matter, my bike isn’t the same bike I had on that day when I first explored the Coventry Greenbelt; I got a new bike in 1999 and another one in 2008, when the previous bikes broke beyond repair.  And I’m not in great physical shape; I love junk food too much for that.  But cycling has provided hundreds of hours and thousands of miles of outdoor recreation for me over the years. I’m writing this in January of 2020; it is cold, and I haven’t been on my bike in a few days. I don’t ride much this time of year, but I really need to. Maybe I’ll get to do that this weekend.

greenbeltCoventry Greenbelt Area 5, taken in 2016 the first time I rode my bike from South Capital County to Jeromeville.

March 1, 1995. Exploring.

The weather for the last few days here in Jeromeville had been unusually pleasant.  It had been a wet winter, with large puddles appearing all over on campus. After almost four months of some combination of cool, cold, overcast, and rainy weather, the sun had finally come out, and temperatures approached 80 degrees.  I was sick of winter, and this felt really nice.

I walked into Building C, unlocked the door to Room 221, and put my backpack down.  I needed to work more on that paper for the South Africa class, and I had a pre-lab to write before chemistry tomorrow.  I got out my textbook and lab notebook and started reading about tomorrow’s experiment. I usually kept my window curtain closed, but today I opened it, so I could see the sunny sky outside, beyond the skyline formed by the tall trees of the Arboretum.

I wrote my name, date, and section number on the top of my lab report paper.  That was as far as I got. I didn’t belong here in this room today.

I got on my bike and started riding south toward the Arboretum.  I crossed the creek and turned right, past the Lodge and the grassy area surrounding it.  The Arboretum Lodge was an event hall-like building that held various conferences and fancy luncheons and such.  The day before classes started, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program hosted an event at the Lodge where all of us in the program got to meet some of the professors we would work with this year.  I remember meeting Dr. Dick Small, the professor for the South Africa class I was currently taking, at that event. I remember because you just don’t forget meeting someone with a name like Dr. Dick Small.

The banks of the creek became steeper, and the trail climbed and descended a few times, by about fifteen feet, as I continued west through a grove of pine trees.  Eventually the trail climbed to the top of an earthen dam, making a 180 degree turn from the south bank to the north bank. The creek running down the middle of the Arboretum was actually a very long and narrow lake, not a creek at all, collecting storm drain water in a dry creek bed that had been dammed at both ends.  Arroyo Verde Creek had been diverted a century ago, before the university existed, to direct floodwaters away from the town of Jeromeville, which at the time had a population of around 1000.

Some people say that they are bothered by the term “ATM machine,” because the M in ATM already stands for machine, so “ATM machine” actually means “automated teller machine machine.”  I felt the same way about the name Arroyo Verde Creek, which translates from Spanish as “Green Creek Creek.”

At the west end of the Arboretum, on the north bank, was a grassy park-like area with benches.  To my left was a grove of oaks, different kinds of oaks from all over the world, without the landscaping of the lawn area that I was riding through.  I stopped to look at the oak grove, which had a wild, rustic look to it, somewhat out of place on a large university campus, but in a good way. I saw giant towering valley oaks from California with moss on the bark, gnarled white oaks from the East Coast, wide spreading live oaks from the Deep South, European cork oaks with thick pockmarked and ridged bark, and many others.  Some of the oaks were types that kept their leaves through the winter; others had shed their leaves and looked like they were just beginning to sprout for the upcoming spring.

Instead of continuing east on the north bank of the Arboretum, I turned left on Thompson Drive and crossed an overpass to the west side of Highway 117.  Highway 117 runs north-south through Jeromeville below the elevation of the surrounding land, so that roads crossing the freeway become overpasses without having to climb upward.  I knew that there was an overpass here, but I had never been on Thompson Drive west of 117.

The University of Jeromeville was founded in 1905 as an extension campus of the University of the Bay, specifically for agricultural research.  The Bay campus is in the middle of an urban area, with water on one side and mountains on the other, and nowhere to actually practice farming. Agriculture was and still is a major industry on the other side of those mountains, so the university regents chose a small town called Jeromeville as the site of their new agricultural campus.  The Jeromeville campus grew over the years, eventually adding academic departments other than just agriculture and becoming an independent university within the same system as Bay, Santa Teresa, and San Angelo. The campus, as it is now ninety years later, primarily exists in the space between 117 and downtown Jeromeville, but the majority of the campus property actually lies west of 117, on three square miles of fields used for agricultural research.

This is what I saw before me now as I crossed to the other side of 117.  Despite the history of the campus, most UJ students today get degrees in subjects that are not related to agriculture, and many of these people barely know, or don’t know at all, that the part of the campus west of 117 exists.  On my right was a field of what appeared to be corn, and a patch of dirt with nothing growing and a mysterious-looking building off of a side road. On the left, the dry bed of the former creek had been fenced off and used as a sheep pasture.  The road on this side of campus was notably rougher, probably because it gets much less traffic.

A street called Environmental Lane branched off to the right, past a number of buildings with metal siding, a few buildings that resembled portable classrooms, and some kind of large radio tower.  I never did learn what those buildings were used for.

Thompson Drive then crossed the dry creek bed and turned along the south bank of the creek, making a wide gradual turn to the left following the creek.  A grape vineyard was on the left, and a bunch of very tall trees stood along the creek bed to the right. Next to a large oak tree on the left were a cluster of benches and what appeared to be those white boxes that beekeepers used.  I could see the creek bed on the right through the trees at some places, and at one place there was a pool with marshy-looking plants growing in it.

Thompson Drive ended at a T-intersection with a road called Arroyo Verde Road.  The road was gravel to the left and paved to the right. Arroyo Verde Road ran alongside the actual free-flowing Arroyo Verde Creek; where I was right now appeared to be the point where the creek was originally diverted from its original flow.  I turned right onto the paved section, crossing the dry fork of the creek for the last time today. A cluster of tall, leafy trees grew on both sides of the road, with their leaves and branches partially hanging over the road. Beyond this, on the right, was a small building with a sign that said “Aquatic Weed Research Facility.”  That would explain the marshy-looking pool.

I rode past more grape vineyards, corn fields, and fruit tree orchards on the right, and the small trees typical of a creekside riparian area on the left.  I felt very peaceful out here. Had I not known, I never would have guessed that this bucolic country lane was part of a large bustling university full of people and bicycles trying to avoid running into each other.  My unwritten paper and all the studying I had to do faded from my mind as I watched the trees and fields pass by around me.

  About half a mile ahead, Arroyo Verde Road became unpaved again, with a paved road called Hawkins Road branching off to the right, heading north.  Hawkins Road was lined with very old olive trees on each side, and pits and bits of olive flesh, remnants of years of uncultivated fruit production, had fallen along the sides of the road.  (I would read years later in the alumni magazine that the university had begun making olive oil from these olives and selling it at the campus store. That was a great idea, but it wasn’t happening yet in 1995.)

Most of the buildings on the west side of campus lie along or just off of Hawkins Road, behind the row of olive trees.  Some of them had signs indicating that they were used for very specific purposes; the signs said things like Honey Bee Research Facility, Historical Agricultural Machinery Collection, and University Plant Services.  I also saw a large group of cows and pigs at feedlots on a side road to the right.

Hawkins Road was a little over a mile long, and it ended at Davis Drive, the main east-west road on campus.  I had driven and biked on this part of Davis Drive before, but today was the first time I had seen any part of the west side of campus other than Davis Drive.  I turned right, heading east toward 117 and the main part of campus, but then I turned left on the next cross street, Olive Way. Olive Way was about ten feet wide, only open to bicycles and pedestrians, and like Hawkins Road, it was lined with olive trees on both sides and littered with remnants of fallen olives.  I headed north on Olive Way. There were no buildings on Olive Way, just fields behind the olive trees. I passed by someone running with her dog; I said hi, and she said hi back.

Olive Way ended at West Fifth Street, the northern boundary of the campus.  The street was lined with walnut trees along the south side that lined the campus agricultural area, and another bike trail ran between the walnut trees and the fields.  I turned right and followed the trail east, back across Highway 117, then turned right at Andrews Road and headed home from there.

I walked back into the building.  Taylor, Pete, and Sarah were sitting in the common room, the two boys apparently making puns with Sarah’s names.

“I’m dying!  Sarah doctor in the house?” Taylor said.

“Sarah way I could get my order to go?” Pete said, chuckling.

“Come on, guys,” Sarah said.

“My pants don’t fit.  I need a Taylor,” I said.  “What’s that? I can’t hear, because your voice Petered out.”

“Yeah,” Sarah added, glaring at the boys.  All of us started laughing.

“What are you up to?” Taylor asked.  “Just getting back from class?”

“Actually, I got back an hour ago,” I explained.  “I was on my bike, exploring the west side of campus.  I went out Thompson Drive and Arroyo Verde Road and Hawkins Road.”

“I have no idea where any of those are,” Pete said.

“What’s out there?” Taylor asked.

“Fields, and big trees, and the real Arroyo Verde Creek.  The free-flowing one, not the fake one in the Arboretum. And what looks like agricultural research facilities.  And sheep and cows,” I said.

“Interesting,” Sarah said.  “I never thought about what’s out there.  But you seem like you would. You and your maps and roads and stuff.”

“Exactly.  It’s who I am.”

“And that’s what makes you special.”

“Yeah.”

“And it’s such a nice day today!  A perfect day for a bike ride.”

“I know.  I hope the weather stays like this for a while.”

The weather did not stay like that for a while.  What I would realize over the next few years was that around late February or early March, Jeromeville and the surrounding area always experience a weather phenomenon that I’ve come to call Fake Spring.  For about a week or two, the weather turns pleasantly warm and sunny, but then it cools off again with usually a few more significant rainstorms occasionally passing through during the rest of March and April.  I always enjoyed Fake Spring while it lasted, though; it was a nice break from the cool weather, and the sunshine and lack of chill in the air always seemed to make me happier.

I sat downstairs talking to Taylor and Pete and Sarah for a while, and we all went to the dining commons together for dinner.  The sun had just set, leaving a spectacular pink-orange glow to the west, spotted with a few lines of small puffy clouds. All felt right with the world today.  I was at peace, and I had plenty of time later to deal with the lab write-up, and next week to deal with the South Africa paper, and all my life to deal with the fact that I still felt like a scared little kid with no idea how to make it in this big scary world.  But I had found a happy place. Today was a good day.

2019 hawkins road
Hawkins Road, photographed in 2019.  This is still my happy place, when I happen to be in Jeromeville with time to kill.

 

November 9, 1994. The Freshman Stripe.

So far, for the six and a half weeks I had been in Jeromeville, the weather had been perfect.  Summer in Jeromeville is hot and dry; I remember that from that one summer day last year when I was with my family, and we visited the campus.  Also, I had been to Bidwell during the summer to see Dad’s relatives there, and I knew that the weather in Jeromeville was similar to the weather in Bidwell.  By the time I arrived in Jeromeville, in late September, the warm days had cooled off a little; it was still shorts weather, but the heat was not quite as intense.  Also, evenings were cool, a nice break from the heat of the day.

All of that changed suddenly this week.  Monday night, the weather became cloudy and windy, and by the time I woke up today, Wednesday morning, it was cool and windy and steadily raining.  I went to breakfast and read the newspaper after I got back to my room. The weather was terrible, but I was in a good mood, because yesterday was Election Day, I was old enough to vote for the first time, and my candidate for governor won.  This also meant I would stop hearing all of the annoying political ads.

I got on my bike and headed toward my math class in Wellington Hall, next to the Quad.  I didn’t have a jacket, and now that I think about it, I really don’t know why. For some reason, I did not own a jacket in the fall of 1994.  I guess I just never really thought about it. I didn’t go outside in the rain very often. So now, here I was, riding my bike across campus, in the rain, wearing a light gray hoodie that said UNIVERSITY OF JEROMEVILLE COLTS in navy blue, and a t-shirt underneath, and jeans.

I locked my bike outside of Wellington Hall and saw a group of frat boy types walking toward the door from the other direction.  I entered the building first, with the frat boys behind me. As I walked down the hall toward the room where my math class was, I thought I heard them laughing, and I thought one of them mockingly said, “Nice stripe.”  Their tone brought back flashbacks of elementary school, when the other kids in class were so cruel to me. I didn’t know what “nice stripe” meant, though, so maybe they weren’t talking to me.

I walked into my classroom and took off my backpack.  A guy named Jack Chalmers sat behind me; in addition to math class, I had also seen him at the dining hall.  I think he lived in Building F. I wasn’t sure where he was from, exactly, but I got the impression he was a beach bum or a surfer dude.  He wore shorts and sandals even today when it was raining. Another thing I always remember about Jack is that he talked unusually fast.

“Greg,” Jack said quietly.  “You got a stripe on your back.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I felt blood rushing to my face in a mixture of anger and embarrassment as I realized that the frat boys in the hallway had been making fun of me after all.  “What?” I replied.

“You were riding your bike in the rain,” Jack explained.  “Water on the road splashed and made a stripe down your back.”  I took off my sweatshirt; sure enough, the stripe was there. I was cold, but I didn’t put the sweatshirt back on.  Too embarrassing at this point. “You should put fenders on your bike next time,” Jack said. I was about to ask him more about this when Jimmy Best, the instructor, walked in and started teaching.  I quietly started taking notes.

I was a lot quieter than usual in class that day, and I spent the whole fifty minutes trying to concentrate on math, but being less successful than usual because of my dirty sweatshirt.  When class was dismissed, I waited until most of the class had left before I got up; I didn’t want to take the chance that someone else would see my dirty sweatshirt. Rebekah from upstairs and Andrea from Building B were both in this class, and I especially didn’t want them to see me like that.

Even though I was cold, I left my sweatshirt off as I walked upstairs to the classroom for Rise and Fall of Empires.  I had that class back to back with math, and it was in the same building, so I got there before most of the rest of the class.  I had plenty of time to hide my sweatshirt in a way to make the stripe inconspicuous.

By the time class got out, I had forgotten about the events of two hours earlier.  But when I put on my sweatshirt, Mike was behind me, looking at me, and said in his naturally loud voice, “Greg has a Freshman Stripe!”

“Yeah,” I said bitterly, sitting back down and staring off into space.  “I know.”

Taylor noticed what was going on and walked over.  “Greg? You all right, man?”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry,” Mike said.  “I didn’t mean it. Just get some fenders for your bike.  Then the dirt won’t go flying up.”

“But how does everyone know about this but me?” I asked.

“I heard about it from my friend who’s a sophomore,” Mike answered.

“I got some fenders a few days ago from the Bike Barn,” Taylor said.  “They weren’t very expensive.”

“I guess I’m going to have to do that, then.”

I put the dirty sweatshirt back on and got on my bike.  There was no point in not wearing it at this point. I headed back home, the way I came, but I stopped at the intersection of Colt Avenue and Davis Drive.  A cluster of buildings that had once been actual barns and silos had been repurposed; the area included a student union with tables and meeting places, a few fast-food express restaurants, and the Bike Barn.  This was a full-service bicycle sales and repair shop, run by the Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, the same organization that has the student President and Senate and runs a number of other student groups and business-like establishments on campus.

I looked around, trying to find fenders.  I turned my back to the cashier for a minute, and he said, “Looking for fenders?  Your back looks like it got splashed.”

“Yeah,” I said.  He pointed out where the fenders were displayed and even offered to lend me a screwdriver to install them.  I paid for them, brought my bike inside, screwed the fenders on, returned his screwdriver, and rode back to Building C.

I had one more class in the afternoon; by then it had stopped raining, so I didn’t wear the dirty sweatshirt, even though the air was still cold enough to make short sleeves uncomfortable.  Later that afternoon, I went to the laundry room on the first floor and did a load of laundry, including the dirty sweatshirt. My laundry was still drying at dinner time, so when I went to the dining hall, I was still wearing just one layer of short sleeves.

I looked around to see if anyone I knew was eating.  I saw Amy, the RA from the third floor, sitting next to three people I did not know: a guy with facial hair, who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent; a tall, thin Asian guy; and a girl of fair complexion with shoulder-length dark blonde hair.  “May I sit here?” I asked, approaching them.

“Sure!” Amy said.  “Do you know any of these people?”

“No.”

Amy gestured to them from left to right.  “This is Ali, Victor, and Megan. They’re RAs in Building E, G, and K.  Is that right?” The three of them nodded and murmured assents. “And this is Greg,” Amy continued.  “He’s in my building.”

“Hi,” I said to all three of them collectively.

“Aren’t you cold?” Amy asked me.  “You’re just wearing a shirt in this weather.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but my sweatshirt is dirty.  I have laundry going right now. Apparently your back gets dirty when you ride your bike in the rain.”

“Oh, yes,” Victor said.  “The Freshman Stripe.”

I looked down at my plate, the humiliation returning to my face.

“It’s okay,” Megan said reassuringly.  “We all went through it as freshmen too.  Some things you just don’t think of until they happen to you.”

“I guess.  I got fenders from the Bike Barn on the way home.”

“Good!  See, you’re learning.”

“You’re right.”

“And I’ll give you another pointer,” Megan continued.  “Slow down. A lot more bike accidents happen when it’s wet.  I know from experience.”

“Thanks for the tip.“  I smiled at Megan, and she smiled back.

After I was done eating dinner with the other RAs, I walked back to my room; it was dark outside now.  I took my laundry, now clean and dry, back upstairs. The dirt had all gotten out of my sweatshirt, so I put it on; it was nice and warm.  I sat on the edge of the bed, thinking, putting off my math homework, as I heard the rain start again. Today was a little embarrassing. I’m learning new things, and sometimes you have to learn the hard way.  The frat boys walking behind me in Wellington tried to put me down in order to make themselves feel better. Screw them. I don’t need people like that in my life. There are plenty of more helpful older students, like the cashier from the Bike Barn, and Megan, the RA from Building K.  I’m learning and growing. And someday, hopefully, I will be that helpful older students, passing on pointers of value to freshmen.

But first, I needed to get a jacket and an umbrella.