January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

A few months ago, during October of my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had gotten involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a chapter of an international nondenominational organization called Intervarsity.  JCF had weekly meetings on Fridays with worship music with someone giving a talk about the Bible, and attending these was the extent of my involvement so far.  I knew that there were also small group Bible studies and a few retreats every year, but I had not gotten involved in those yet.

As a relative newcomer to the group, I was still learning the etiquette.  Some people stood up during worship, some waved their hands, some sat quietly.  I was having trouble doing any of those right now because I had to pee, and I was not sure if getting up to use the bathroom during the music was frowned upon.  I walked quickly to the bathroom as soon as the last song and closing prayer ended, and when I got back to my seat, Liz and Ramon, Jason, Sarah, Caroline, and Krista were standing where I had been sitting.  I stood quietly next to Sarah.  All six of these people had been in my dorm freshman year, and they were how I first knew about JCF.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said.  “What are you doing tonight?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“We’re going to 199 Stone to see Dangerous Minds.  You want to come?”

“Sure,” I said.  “When does it start?”

“10.  We don’t need to leave quite yet, but we should probably leave soon, to get there early.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Good idea.”

A little while later, the seven of us left Evans Hall and walked to Stone Hall.  Evans and Stone were right next to each other on Davis Drive, so we did not have far to walk.  A division of the Associated Students organization called Campus Cinema used the large 400-seat lecture hall in Stone as a second-run theater on weekends, showing movies that had played in theaters a few months earlier but were not released on video yet.  Tickets were three dollars, less than even matinee prices at actual theaters.

Two lines extended from the front of the building, a relatively short line of people waiting to buy tickets, and a longer line of about 50 people who already bought tickets and were now waiting for the earlier show to get out.  The seven of us paid for our tickets and moved to the back of the longer line.  “This is based on a true story, right?” Krista asked.

“Yeah,” Sarah replied.

I did not know a whole lot about this movie, except that it was about an inner-city teacher, and that the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” came from this movie.  I only knew that song because of Mark, my younger brother who loved gangsta rap.  I did not realize that the movie was based on a true story.

About five minutes after we arrived, more people trickled in and moved to the back of the line where we stood.  At one point, I spotted a familiar face walking toward me, and my mind flooded with thoughts.  What do I say?  I have not seen her in a while, and our last conversation was kind of awkward on my end.  Maybe I should–

“Megan!” I called out, waving, interrupting the voices in my head.

Megan looked around for the source of the person greeting her.  She saw me and smiled.  “Greg!  How are you?”

“I’m doing ok.  Classes are going well.  How are you?”

“I’m great!”

“How’s your building?”

“It’s good.  It’s a pretty calm group of people so far.  There hasn’t been a lot of drama.  I have to go, I need to find the people I’m meeting here, but hey, it was good seeing you!”

“You too!” I said, smiling.  Had I been asked yesterday, I would have said that I was making progress in getting over Megan.   When she mentioned two months ago that she was dating someone, I was devastated, but I did not think of her as often since I did not see her as often anymore.  Last year, she was an RA in a dorm in the same campus residential area as mine, and I saw her frequently around the dining commons.  This year, she was an RA in a different residential area, and I lived off campus.

As I stood there in line, I found that I could not help but wonder if Megan and this guy were still together.  Maybe that was who she was meeting.    To my knowledge, Megan had no idea how I felt about her, since I never knew how to tell girls that I liked them.  In the time since I found out that Megan had a boyfriend, I had also found out that another girl I liked had a boyfriend; this was a common theme in my life.

I saw a crowd of people leave the building as the early show ended, and a few minutes later, our line started moving.  We climbed up to the building’s front entrance, walked across the lobby, and then down the aisle of the lecture hall.  “Is this okay?” Liz asked as she gestured toward a mostly empty row in the center section toward the back.

“Sure,” I said, nodding.  The others assented as well, and we sat down in seven consecutive seats.  I watched as advertisements for other Associated Students services flashed on the screen, mixed with a few silly announcements.  “Want to learn to be a projectionist?  So do we,” one of them said.  I laughed.

I looked around me at people filling in the seats.  I saw Megan and her friends walk past us; they sat three rows in front of us.  I looked back up at the screen, watching the advertisements, occasionally looking around but unable to stop myself from glancing at the back of Megan’s head.  She was talking to one of the people she came with, an Asian girl with shoulder-length hair; they were laughing about something.  Megan put her arm around the girl and leaned forward, and they kissed on the lips.  Megan pulled back, smiling, then leaned toward the girl and kissed her again, leaving her arm around the girl after their lips separated.

Wait, I thought.  What just happened?

Megan never told me that she had a boyfriend.  Her exact words were “the person I’m dating,” and apparently the person she was dating was a girl.

The movie started, and I tried to pay attention to what was happening on the screen.  Although it was dark in the building once the movie started, I could still see the outline of Megan and her girlfriend cuddling.  I tried to look away.  Looking at her felt wrong.  Not only was she in a relationship, but it was a same-sex relationship, and that she was not even into guys in the first place.  I forced myself to watch the movie, at times even putting my hands over my face to cover just enough of my field of vision so as not to be able to see Megan and her girlfriend.

I became more absorbed in the movie as it went on, watching Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Ms. Johnson, struggling to connect with the city kids in her class and relate to their experiences.  In one scene, the mother of one of the students called Ms. Johnson a vulgar name and told her that she should not teach these students to be academically successful.  I could not understand how someone could possibly have such low expectations for her own child.  I would have just as hard of a time as Ms. Johnson understanding the world that these students lived in, and she was much more patient with the students than I would have been.

At the end of the movie, Ms. Johnson’s character was unable to save one of the students from the dangers of street life.  She seemed to feel that all her efforts were futile.  Futility felt familiar tonight.  All of my efforts to get closer to Megan, the late night conversations, sitting with her and her friends in the dining hall, exchanging birthday cards, the time we had lunch and hung out in her room, none of that mattered.  I did the best I could, but I was doomed from the start just because I was a guy.

When the movie ended, people began standing and filing out of the theater.  I realized that I could turn toward my friends so that Megan would be behind me, and I would not have to see her as she left the building with her girlfriend.  But I also did not want to be conspicuous or rude about this.  I stood facing forward as I normally would, waiting for the people around me to leave,and as Megan and her girlfriend walked up the aisle past me, I made eye contact with Megan and waved.

“Good night, Greg,” Megan said.  “Have a good weekend!”

“You too,” I said, trying my best to act the way I always did, hiding the disappointment in my voice.  I turned to my left, to the people I came with.

“What did you think of the movie?” Sarah asked.

“I liked it,” I said.  “Sad, but that’s life sometimes.  Sometimes, no matter what you do, things don’t work out.”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Krista added.  “But I thought it was cool how much effort she made to relate to the students.”

“It wasn’t bad, but there are already a lot of movies like this,” Jason observed.  “Kids from rough neighborhoods and teachers trying to relate to them.”

“Yeah,” Krista agreed.

“You ready to go?” Liz asked me.  I realized that I was standing closest to the aisle, so I would have to leave first in order for the others to get out.  The crowd of people filing out had begun to thin, so I nodded walked toward the aisle.  We stood outside in the cool night for a few minutes, talking about weekend plans and classes.  Eventually, we all said our goodbyes, and I walked back to my car and returned to my apartment.


The next day was Saturday, and I did not have to wake up early for class.  I lay in bed for over an hour after waking up, processing the events of the previous night.  Megan McCauley was a lesbian.  I saw her kissing a woman.  Sometimes, in the back of my mind, I was still holding out hope in my mind that things would not work out with the person Megan was dating, and that I might have a chance with her.  Last night had put an end to that hope.  All it took was one look, last night while I waited for the movie to start, for what hope I had left to be put to death quickly.  I supposed, though, that finding out the way I did had its advantages.  Had I actually been brave enough to ask her out, she would have had to tell me that she did not like guys, and that interaction would have been awkward and embarrassing.

I put on a sweatshirt and went for a bike ride, trying to clear my head.  I rode south on Andrews Road toward campus, intending to ride the entire length of the University Arboretum east to west.  But as I approached, I realized that my route would take me right past Carter Hall, Megan’s dorm, and the North Area Dining Commons where we had met for lunch in September.  I turned left on Fifth Street and entered campus on Colt Avenue instead.  I did not want to ride past Megan’s building and think about her and her girlfriend in bed together.  But it was too late; the thoughts were already there.

One look.  All it took was one look to ruin my hope and my weekend.  What if I had not looked up while I was in line and seen Megan outside of Stone Hall?  Or what if I had made an effort not to look at her once I got to my seat?  What if I had not gone to the movie last night at all?  Then maybe I would have still been blissfuly unaware of Megan’s sexual orientation, and I would not have felt this awkwardness over having spent a year of my life having a crush on someone whom I did not even realize was not into guys at all.  One look can turn happiness to sadness.  That sounded poetic.

I stopped when I arrived at the east end of the Arboretum, behind the art and music buildings.  Perhaps my mind was giving birth to another poem; I had been writing a lot lately.  I did not like the “happiness to sadness” part, though.  I continued riding my bike a short distance through the Arboretum and sat on a bench overlooking the small lake next to Marks Hall.  The sky was blue, without a cloud in sight, but it was still January, and many of the trees in the Arboretum had shed their leaves.  One look can turn summer into winter.  No, that was not quite right.  One look can turn the blue skies into gray.  Iambic pentameter, very Shakespearean, but still not quite right.

One look can turn the daytime into night.

That was it.  That was going to be the first line of my poem.  Two years ago, in high school, we had studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I had become fascinated with their rhythm and rhyme pattern.  I also found it interesting how much had been speculated over the years regarding who they were written to, or about, although I had not studied this in great detail.  I continued my ride west through the Arboretum, thinking about how one look ruined my night last night, and how if I were to gouge out my eyes, I would not be able to see uncomfortable truths in the first place.

When I reached the oak grove at the end of the Arboretum, I continued on Thompson Drive across Highway 117 to the rural part of campus, past the sheep barn in the middle of the agricultural research fields.  At the south end of Hawkins Road, I stopped again and stood for a few minutes.  Olive trees lined both sides of the road.  Behind me was Arroyo Verde Creek, with oaks and sycamores and various small bushes along its banks.  Riding my bike on this route always made me feel so peaceful.  Despite still being on a large university campus, I felt like I was miles and miles from civilization, not worried about girls rejecting me, or upcoming exams, or my uncertain future.

In Mr. Jackson’s AP English class at Plumdale High, we studied a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets in detail.  Sonnet 29, the one that begins “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” was my favorite.  Today I felt like I was in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.  Life just sucked sometimes.  Shakespeare used fourteen grandiloquent lines of iambic pentameter to say, essentially, that when he felt discouraged, hopeless, or envious of others, he simply thought of a certain special someone, and having this person in his life was more important than everything that was bringing him down.  Scholars had spent centuries speculating about the identity and gender of this special someone and the nature of his or her relationship to Shakespeare.

But, now that I took the time to get out of my head and think about things, there was no mystery to the identity of my special someone, or in this case, multiple special someones.  Sure, I had never had a romantic partner.  Megan had a girlfriend.  Sabrina Murphy had a boyfriend.  Back home, I never got anywhere with Rachelle Benedetti or Kim Jensen or Melissa Holmes or Jennifer Henson or Annie Gambrell.  But I had people who cared about me, and that really was important.  Sarah and Krista and Liz and Ramon and Jason and Caroline had invited me to the movie last night.  Taylor Santiago and Pete Green and Charlie Watson always welcomed me to their apartment when I just needed to get out of my apartment and interact with human beings.  I had my friends from the Newman Center, I was making new friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, I made friends in my dorm last year, and I had a few friends from classes or just from seeing them around campus.  Sure, none of these people was my girlfriend, but they cared about me, and in my darkest moments, they had been there for me.

As I rode my bike back home, I continued thinking of ways to put my feelings into iambic pentameter.  I was now modeling my poem on Sonnet 29, using the first eight lines to lament the illusion-shattering experience of seeing Megan kiss a girl, but then reflecting on the positive things in my life in the final six lines.  I wrote down what I had so far when I got home, then after making lunch and spending a few hours studying, I logged onto an IRC chat in one window with my poem open in another window, writing my poem as I waited for people to reply to my messages.  I finished a little after midnight.


“One Look”

One look can turn the daytime into night,
A happy day into a tedious chore;
One misdirected glance, and all’s not right,
The ships I’ve tried to sink arrive at shore.
I think that I will gouge out both my eyes
And lay this possibility to rest;
No more will I see through some grand disguise
To find that things are not as I’d have guessed.
But then my eyes would shut to all the love
My friends have shown in times of great despair,
And blind I’d be to gifts from God above,
And times I’ve persevered when life’s not fair;
One painful sight is quite a modest price
To pay to live a life of things so nice.


Megan and I did not stay close for the rest of the time we were at UJ.  I had of course not ruled out the possibility that she was bisexual, interested in both women and men, but that was not something I wanted to think about, and it was beside the point.  Although I did not grow up with much exposure to the LGBTQ community or lifestyles, I did not reject her out of prejudice.  We had already started growing apart now that I did not eat at the dining hall anymore.  I also made less of an effort to stay in touch with her once I found out she was dating someone, because I knew she would not be interested in me.  I did not avoid her intentionally; I still saw her on campus over the years and said hi occasionally.  But we just ran in different circles, and sometimes people just naturally grow apart.

After this, I only have one more specific memory of an actual conversation with Megan.  It was early in my senior year, her fifth year, when I passed her on the way to class.  She told me she had two more quarters left to finish her undergrad degree, I told her about what I had done over the summer, and she told me that a friend of hers had done the same thing as me a few years earlier.  Additionally, in 2014, I was looking at the website for a place where I had a job interview coming up, and I saw a mention of an employee named Megan McCauley .  I do not know if it was the same person, but Megan’s degree was in chemical engineering, and this person’s position was related enough to chemistry that it was possible.  No picture accompanied the name.  I decided to let sleeping dogs lie and not try to figure out if this was the same Megan McCauley; it did not matter in the end, because I was not offered the job.  If Megan and I are ever meant to cross paths again someday, I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty good,” I replied.

“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah.  It’s a holiday.”

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

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

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

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

“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.

“Visiting his family there?”

“Yeah.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1

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

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

Sleeping in? Jon thought.

“You missed class?” Becky teased.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

“No.  Just…” he paused.  “Thinking.”

“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

September 18, 1995. New frontiers and new area codes.

Sleeping in was always a foreign concept to me.  I was a light sleeper, and I was used to waking up early for school.  Even when I wanted to sleep in, I woke up early.  But after two weeks in the new apartment, having no class or job to wake up for, and regularly staying up late reading, looking for girls to talk to on IRC chat channels, or just playing around on the computer, my body was gradually getting used to sleeping later.  This morning, I did not wake up until 9:30; I could not remember the last time I had slept in that late.

The morning was uneventful.  I spent a couple hours on IRC.  I had nothing to read, since I had recently finished part 5 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile and I had yet to make it to the bookstore to buy part 6.  I had been playing around with teaching myself HTML, the code used to make websites, although I had no way to share the files anywhere on the Internet for others to see.  University of Jeromeville student accounts did not have this feature.  A guy I knew from IRC said he could give me an account on his server, but he had not done this yet.

Around five o’clock, I went for a bike ride.  This had become part of my routine over the last couple weeks.  It was very hot during the daytime, and it did not begin to cool until around five at the earliest.  It was a dry heat, and the sun was low enough by five that it actually felt nice being outside.  I had explored much of Jeromeville on my bike over the last two weeks.  I had ridden extensively through the greenbelts of North and West Jeromeville.  I had seen all of campus, including the outlying agricultural areas and research buildings.  I had explored a new neighborhood still under construction at the northeast edge of town, and I had even explored some of the rural areas north of the city limits.  But one last frontier of Jeromeville remained mostly unexplored to me, and this would be my destination this afternoon.

I began my ride on very familiar routes.  I took Andrews Road all the way south into campus, past the Recreation Pavilion and Thong Bikini Hill, following it east through a 90 degree turn to the water tower.  From there, I took the narrow path into the Arboretum, continuing northeast to downtown Jeromeville.  I turned right on First Street.  At the next traffic light, where E Street became Cornell Boulevard, I turned on Cornell.

Cornell Boulevard headed diagonally southeast under a railroad track, through a very narrow underpass.  This part of the road was built in 1917, part of the first paved highway to connect Capital City with Bay City.  This road was no longer a main highway, having been bypassed by a freeway in the 1960s, but it was still the only connection between downtown and that freeway, and it had never been widened, resulting in horrific traffic jams at certain times of the day.  A pedestrian and bicycle path ran parallel to the street through its own small tunnel under the railroad track, allowing me and my bike to bypass the traffic jam.  I had walked through this smaller tunnel three months earlier, when a large group of people from my dorm had eaten at Murder Burger on the last night of the school year.

On the other end of the tunnel, pedaling uphill, I rode past Murder Burger, a hotel, an Italian restaurant, and, on the opposite side of the street, a gas station.  I continued against gravity as Cornell Boulevard crossed the freeway on an overpass, then I stopped pedaling for a while and coasted downhill into South Jeromeville.  The area known as South Jeromeville was actually southeast of downtown, but the name stuck because it was the only part of the city south of Highway 100.

I continued east on Cornell Boulevard, past some large office buildings, sprawling apartment complexes, and vacant lots yet to be developed.  When the road curved north back toward Highway 100, I turned south on a street called Valdez Street, which then curved east.  This was a residential neighborhood, with houses mostly on culs-de-sac, and it was still under construction, full of vacant lots and houses in various stages of completion.  At the end of one of the culs-de-sac, I saw what appeared to be a connection to a bike path, reminiscent of culs-de-sac in North Jeromeville that connect to the greenbelts.  The short connecting path led through an opening in a fence.  Could there be another greenbelt here?  I turned that way to investigate.

Behind the fence, I found a much longer path, running east-west along a dry creek bed.  On the other side of the creek was open farmland.  I knew where I was now.  In the late 19th century, after multiple floods in Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek was diverted into a parallel channel two miles to the south.  Later, the part of the old channel running through campus was dammed at both ends to make a long narrow lake, and the Arboretum on campus was planted around this lake.  But downstream from campus, the dry creek bed, called North Fork Arroyo Verde Creek on maps, remained dry, except to collect storm drain runoff during the wet season.  This is what I saw in front of me.  A park bench was on my right.  Trees grew between the path and the creek, oaks and wild walnut trees and others that I could not identify.  The ground was covered in grasses and weeds that had turned brown over the hot summer.

I turned left, heading east.  The creek was on my right, and to the left was a fence separating me from the construction site, a fence which would eventually be the back fence of people’s houses.  A couple hundred feet beyond this, another greenbelt split off of this one to head north.  I made a note to come back and explore that way later.

2019 south jville greenbelt
(Photograph taken June 2019.  The trees behind the fence at the upper left were much smaller in 1995 when the neighborhood was new.)

Short connecting paths to three more streets branched off to the left.  This neighborhood was complete, and the view to my left looked much like the greenbelts near my apartment: a thin strip of vegetation next to the path, and beyond that, fences separating the greenbelt from backyards, interrupted every few hundred feet by a path connecting to a residential street.  After this, the greenbelt path came to an end.  To the left, this street was a narrow residential street that continued some distance to the north, and to the right, the street crossed the creek bed, becoming a private dirt road leading to the farms beyond.

I turned around the way I came, back along the creek bed, and turned north to follow the other greenbelt that intersected this one.  I passed a playground, a field that looked big enough for soccer, and tennis courts.  A large apartment complex was behind the tennis courts, probably the same apartments I had seen on the corner of Cornell and Valdez.  An empty field lay across the path from the tennis courts.  Continuing north, I felt the path incline downward as it led into a tunnel under a street, and beyond that, back on ground level, I saw trees and fenced backyards on either side.

I followed the path about another half mile to Cornell Boulevard, running right next to Highway 100.  I wanted to continue exploring.  I had not seen much of this side of Jeromeville, and I had not explored the other direction of the creek.  But I also knew I had to get home.  I had been gone for well over half an hour, and I was still quite some distance from home, and I was getting hungry.

I turned west on Cornell toward home.  The road ran adjacent to the freeway for the first few hundred feet, with only a small barbed wire fence and a line of leafy, shady walnut trees between them.  I squinted a little, riding close to the direction of the setting sun, inhaling the scent of dry vegetation.  Something about this made me feel peaceful.  The weather was pleasantly warm with the sun shining at a low angle.  I was back in Jeromeville where I belonged, and this town still had a lot of unexplored territory for me.

I crossed back over the freeway and through the tunnel into downtown.  Instead of going back the way I came, I turned right on First and left on G Street, past the movie theater, the train station, a hardware store, and a few blocks of restaurants and bars, into a very old residential neighborhood.  I eventually turned left on 15th Street and right onto the path leading to the North Jeromeville greenbelts.  I crossed Coventry on the bike overpass and turned left on the part of the greenbelt that headed west, past tall leafy trees that cast shadows over parts of the path, eventually taking me right to the parking lot by my apartment.

I had been on my bike for a little over an hour, and I was drenched in sweat, but it was a good feeling.  After showering and eating a microwaved frozen dinner, I turned on IRC and went to my usual chat room to look for anyone I recognized, or possibly meet someone new.  I saw that Mindy Jo was in the room.  

gjd76: hi :)
MindyJoA: hey you
gjd76: how was your day?
MindyJoA: it was monday, nothing exciting.  i had class.  have you started classes yet?
gjd76: no.  thursday the 28th.
MindyJoA: i just don’t understand your school’s schedule.  i mean, you explained it to me, but it’s weird that you start so late
gjd76: we go later than you too, until the middle of june.  i kind of like it though, having september off has been really nice, it’s perfect weather here
MindyJoA: that makes sense. it’s really hot and humid here today

Mindy Jo was a fifth-year undergraduate at West Georgia College.  I had never been to Georgia, or anywhere in the eastern half of the United States, and when people from there described the weather as “hot and humid,” I had no concept of what that felt like.  I grew up with cool humid Pacific coast weather in Santa Lucia County, and now I was familiar with the hot dry summers here in the Valley, but hot humidity was a completely foreign concept to me.  I did not know how to react.  The next thing I typed was not about weather at all; it was a spontaneous thought that had popped into my head a few minutes earlier.

gjd76: hey, can i call you?
MindyJoA: huh? you mean like on the phone?
gjd76: yeah, i just feel like doing something different tonight
MindyJoA: sure.  770-555-0130
gjd76: ok.  give me a minute

After the incident earlier this month with Allison DarkSparkles, I was definitely not ready to meet another girl from the Internet in person.  But talking on the phone felt much safer than meeting in person.  I was not putting myself physically in unknown surroundings, and I had nothing to lose but the cost of a long-distance phone call.  It would be fun to finally hear the voice of someone I had been chatting and emailing with for several months.

I picked up the phone and dialed the number, pressing buttons quickly so I did not talk myself out of doing this.  It was fairly late at night in Georgia, but Mindy Jo was expecting my call, so I was not worried about waking her.

“Hello?” a voice said through the telephone.  Even with that one word I could tell that she spoke with a different accent from mine.  This was not surprising, since she was from Georgia, but when reading emails from her I never imagined her speaking like that.

“Mindy Jo?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Is this Greg?”

“Yes it is.”

“It’s good to hear from you.  It’s interesting to hear your voice.  It’s not quite how I imagined it.”

“Same with you,” I said.  “I didn’t think about the accent.”

“That’s funny.”

“This is going to sound weird, but did your area code just change recently?”

“It did.  About a month ago.  How did you know?”

“I’ve always had this weird fascination with area codes.  I used to want to memorize every area code someday.”

“Interesting.  I could see you doing that.”

“Yeah.  So I noticed once that all area codes have a middle digit of either 0 or 1.  That’s how the phone can tell that you’re dialing a different area code.”

“Really.”

“Yes.  But there aren’t any area codes left.  More people, more phones and stuff.  So apparently the technology is here now that area codes don’t have to have 0 or 1 in the middle digit.  I always look at the area code map in the phone book every year, and just this year I started seeing some new area codes that don’t have 0 or 1 in the middle.  Like your 770.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever dialed an area code without 0 or 1 in the middle.”

“I never would’ve thought about that.  It’s interesting the way your mind works.”

“Yeah.  I know.  And that’s probably why I can’t find a girlfriend.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mindy Jo said reassuringly.  “You’ll find someone.  I don’t understand why you’re still single.  You seem like a really great guy.”

“Well right now it’s because a lot of students haven’t moved back here yet.  But I just don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just ask.  If there’s a girl you like, just talk to her.  And say something like, hey, you want to go grab coffee after class, or something.”

“I don’t like coffee.”

“You can get hot chocolate.  Or something else.  Or go get ice cream or eat lunch instead.”

“I guess.  It just seems weird.”

“What’s weird about it?”

“She probably won’t like me.  Or,” I said, trailing off.  I had sudden flashbacks of lunch time in 8th grade, when I would sit vaguely near Rachelle Benedetti and look in her direction, but never actually say anything.  Paul Dickinson noticed me and asked if I liked Rachelle, I told him that I did, and by the end of the week the whole school knew.  Even some teachers knew.  I was embarrassed.  “Someone might find out I asked her out, and that’s embarrassing,” I continued.

“So what?  This isn’t junior high.  You’re an adult.  No one cares, and everyone gets turned down sometimes.  But you’ll never know what’ll happen until you try.”

“I guess,” I said.  “What about you?  Any guys in your life?”

“I’ve been on a few dates lately.  But nothing serious.  I need to concentrate on school this semester, so I can graduate at the end of the year.”  I wondered what she meant by a few dates but nothing serious.  Was she just hanging out with these guys?  Were they kissing?  Were they doing other stuff together?  These ordinary words about dating made no sense to me.

I stayed on the phone with Mindy Jo for another half hour.  I told her about my bike ride today, the time I met Allison DarkSparkles, and my classes for the upcoming quarter.  She told me about her classes, a terrible professor, and an awkward moment from last week when she ran into an ex-boyfriend.  After that, she told me she had to go to bed.  “But hey, I’m glad you called,” she said.  “I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yes.  Sleep well.”

“Good night, Greg.”

“Bye!”

Mindy Jo was the third girl from IRC whom I had spoken with on the telephone, and once she answered I did not feel nervous.  That was mostly because she was expecting my call, though.  Calling a girl out of nowhere and asking her to get coffee still terrified me.  Maybe it would be less scary if I liked coffee.  Maybe I needed to teach myself to like coffee, so that I would be able to ask girls out.

But Mindy Jo was right that I would never know what would happen unless I tried.  And I was trying new things.  I was exploring.  I was finding new parts of Jeromeville I had never seen before.  I tried meeting Allison DarkSparkles in person, and it did not go well.  I tried calling Mindy Jo on the phone, and it did go well.  And maybe someday, I would meet a girl and figure out a way to ask her out.  A new school year was about to start, I would be meeting new people in new classes.  Maybe when the right girl comes along at the right time, there will not be anything to figure out, and everything will just fall into place naturally.  Maybe she will open the metaphorical door, and all I will have to do is step through it.

Something kind of like what happened the following week, in fact; at least it felt that way at the time.  But I will save that story for later.

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

(Author’s note: this post was edited eight months after I wrote it because, I realized through shoddy recordkeeping, that I had used the same song twice, so I had to change the song in one of the two posts in question.)

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 4, 1995. Friendship is special.

Previously, on Don’t Let The Days Go By, Greg was having a terrible day, in which everything was going wrong.  His friends rudely woke him up in the middle of the night; he went into a rage in front of his friends and ran outside.  Read the whole story here.


 

I had a terrible day today.  Well, technically the terrible day was yesterday now, since it was after midnight, but to me it doesn’t feel like the next day until I actually wake up.  Everything went wrong today. I didn’t understand something from the math homework that was due today. The book I needed at the library for my paper was checked out.  Mom sent me on an errand to go shopping for a present for someone back home, and I couldn’t find what she needed. And then, to make it worse, my friends were sitting right outside my room at 1:00 in the morning talking loudly, and they woke me up.  I lost it at that point. I threw a tantrum and ran outside after throwing a cardboard box that almost hit Sarah. And now I felt terrible that I lost control in front of my friends.

I had been sitting outside in my car for about fifteen minutes.  I started walking back to the building, ashamed, holding my head low.  I was tired. I needed to try to go back to sleep. I would apologize to everyone in the morning.  I knew that someone would tell me that what I did was wrong, even though I knew that already. But I deserved to be scolded and shamed after the way I had been behaving.

I slid my ID card and opened the door to the lobby, and I stepped inside, quietly and slowly walking straight ahead toward the stairs.  But I didn’t make it to the stairs.

“He’s back!” Sarah said in a loud whisper, jumping up and giving me a hug.

“Greg! Are you okay?” Krista asked.  I nodded, slightly confused.

“Thank you, Jesus, for bringing Greg back safely,” Pete said, as Sarah and Krista sat on the floor and gestured for me to sit next to them.

“Yes, Jesus,” Krista added, placing her hand on my back.  “Please give Greg a sense of peace, and calm whatever is on his mind right now.  Take away his burdens, and clear his mind so he can hear from you.”

At this point, my brain finally started to process what was happening to me; maybe this was the clear mind that Krista had prayed for.  I was still in the lobby; I hadn’t made it to my room yet. The six people who had seen my tantrum were all here. Pete, Caroline, and Charlie were on the couch; Sarah, Krista, and Taylor were on the floor with me.  And they didn’t seem to be upset at all. They were praying for me. I wondered if they had been praying for me since they saw me run away, over fifteen minutes ago.

“God,” Taylor said, “I pray that you will send your Holy Spirit upon Greg, that he might know your love for him.”

“And I thank you for bringing us all here to Jeromeville, where we can get to know each other and be part of each other’s lives,” Sarah added.  “I thank you for Greg, and all the unique gifts you have given him. And I pray that he will know that he is loved.”

“Praise the Lord,” Pete said.  The others nodded and murmured in agreement.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Sarah said as she put her hand on me and rubbed my back.

“Thank you,” I said between sobs; I had started crying a minute or so earlier.  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lost control. And I didn’t mean to throw the box at you.  I wasn’t aiming for you.”

“It’s all right.  I know you didn’t.  We all have bad days.”

I closed my eyes.  I still didn’t want to face these people after the way I had lost control in front of them.  Now they’re going to think I’m some kind of crazy person for the rest of the year.

Pete began to pray again after about thirty seconds.  “Father, God, whatever is on Greg’s mind right now, I pray that you will bring peace about it.  I pray that you will comfort him and calm his fears.”

“Yes, Father,” Caroline added.  “Bring peace in the storm.”

“And I pray that he will never forget that he is loved,” Sarah said, her hand still on my back.  The others replied “Yes,” and “Amen,” and things like that.

“I can’t do this,” I said.  “I want to give up. I shouldn’t be here.  I should be locked up somewhere, where I won’t hurt anyone when I get like this.  I’m sorry. You guys don’t have to stay up for me. You can go to bed.”

“No!” Krista said.  “We’re your friends.  We’re here by your side no matter what.”

“Yes, Greg,” Taylor added.  “We’re here for you. And we should apologize for waking you up too.  That wasn’t nice of us.”

“Yeah,” Charlie said.  “I’m sorry.” The others all voiced their agreement.

“Don’t give up,” Sarah said, embracing me from the side from where we were sitting.  “Jesus, I pray that you will show yourself to Greg, and give him hope, and strength to keep running the race.  Take away these bad thoughts from his mind, the thoughts of giving up and not belonging here. Those thoughts come from the pit of hell, and I pray that you will bind Satan and stop letting him get inside Greg’s head.”  The others again replied with a chorus of “Yes”es and “Amen”s as she let go of me.

I took a few more deep breaths, as the others sat in silence with me.

“You gonna be okay?” Taylor asked eventually.

“I think so.  But I should probably go back to bed.  We all should.”

“Seriously, though, we’re here for you,” Sarah said.  “If you ever need to talk about things, just come find any one of us.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Thank you so much.”

 

I woke up around seven-thirty, still a little tired since I hadn’t gotten to sleep until almost 2:00.  It was a Saturday morning, so I didn’t have a class to get to. After lying around in bed and reading for a while, I bundled up in a sweatshirt and got on my bike.  It was early enough in the day to still be sweatshirt weather, although it was sunny, and being that this was the week of Fake Spring, it looked like it would get warmer in the afternoon.  I rode out to the Lodge in the Arboretum and took the trail on the south bank all the way west to the end of the creek, which was really just a very long lake. I followed the trail around the end of the creek onto the north bank, past the oak grove.  I followed that trail east as far as I could, along the same route where I had taken my parents when they had been visiting a couple weeks earlier. I rode through the redbud grove, past the large succulents, past the live oak with the Native American meditation garden next to it, past the water tower and the law school and the administration building, and to the spot where the creek bed widens into Spooner Lake.  I continued past the drama and music buildings through a grove of redwoods, crossing under the Old Jeromeville Road bridge. (I had heard that locals used to shorten the name of this road to “OJ Road,” but this name was falling out of favor now because it made people think of O.J. Simpson, the retired football player and actor who was currently on trial for murdering his ex-wife.)

East of Old Jeromeville Road, the landscaping in the Arboretum became much more sparse.  The waterway looked more like a ditch with large patches of algae, and a paved trail immediately adjacent on each side.  The ditch ended in a wider spot that resembled a cul-de-sac. (The word “cul-de-sac” literally means “bag’s ass” in French, I always thought that was funny.)  I turned around, headed back west, and took a side path leading back to ground level. This path turned to the north, to the intersection of First and B Streets in downtown Jeromeville.  The streets downtown made a grid, with number and letter street names; the buildings were mostly old houses from the early twentieth century, mixed with a few newer structures. Some of these old houses had been converted into offices and restaurants.

I headed north on B Street, past the two block long Central Park, much smaller than the similarly-named park in New York.  I continued north to 15th Street, and then turned west past Jeromeville High School, through a neighborhood that looked newer, probably from the middle of the twentieth century.  I turned south on Andrews Road, crossing back on to campus, and at Thong Bikini Hill, which was closed for the season, I turned left on Davis Drive. I turned right toward the dairy and the South Residential Area, and I went back to my room and showered.

I saw Danielle in the hallway later that day.  “Hey, Greg? Are you okay?” she asked me. “Caroline told me about what happened last night.”

I looked down at my feet, avoiding eye contact.  “I’m okay,” I said. “I was just having a bad day for a lot of reasons.  And I kind of blew up when I was trying to sleep and they woke me up.”

“She said everyone was really worried about you.”

“I know.  And I feel bad.  They didn’t need to worry about me just because I was acting childish.  I don’t want to be a burden on everyone else.”

“Don’t say that.  We do worry about you.  You’re our friend.”

I made eye contact with her again and saw a look of sincerity.  “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

 

I didn’t have any plans for the rest of that day.  I found Sarah, Krista, Pete, and Taylor at the dining hall with open seats next to them, so I sat down.

“How’s your day going?” Taylor asked me.

“Better,” I said.  “I rode my bike and did some homework, and that’s about it.”

“Where’d you go?” Krista asked.

“The entire length of the arboretum, then up B Street to where it ends by the high school, then 15th Street back to Andrews.”

“How long of a ride was that?”

“Not that long.  Took about half an hour.”

“That’s a pretty good ride,” Pete said.

“We were just talking about going downstairs to play pool when we’re done eating,” Taylor said.  “Want to come with us?”

“Sure,” I said.

A while later, we all went to the South Area recreation room, downstairs from the dining hall.  We were allowed to take a soft-serve ice cream cone from the machine outside of the dining hall with us, and I had one now, as did Sarah.  We walked into the mail room, and Taylor and I walked to the Help Window where we could check out pool balls and cues. Megan, the RA from Building K with the fading green hair, was on duty.

“Hey, Greg,” she said.  “How are you?”

“Doing better than yesterday.”  I handed her my ID card in exchange for the pool equipment; I would get it back when I returned the balls and cues.

“Did you figure out that math problem?”

“No.  And that’s okay.”

“Now you’re sounding like a true college student!” she said.  Taylor laughed, and I chuckled.

“Do you know Taylor?” I asked.  “He’s in my building.”

“Hi, Taylor.  I’m Megan, from Building K.”

“Hey, Megan.”  Taylor shook Megan’s hand.

“Have fun!” Megan told us as she gave us the pool equipment.

“I will!  Thanks!”

When we were back in the room with the pool table, Taylor asked, “How do you know her?  Is she in your math class?”

“No,” I explained.  “I just know her from seeing her around.  And there was this problem I couldn’t figure out, so I asked everyone I knew who had taken 21C before.  She’s a chemical engineer, so she would have taken it last year.”

We took turns playing, with Pete and Krista first, which gave me and Sarah time to finish our ice cream cones.  I played against Taylor next. I came close to winning, but I still had one colored ball on the table when Taylor sank his last striped ball and the 8 ball.  We continued taking turns, two of us playing and the other three watching and just talking. We spent over an hour there, and then walked back in the dark to Building C.  We sat in the common room for another hour, just talking.

“What’s everyone doing tomorrow?” Krista asked at one point.  “This is the week you’re going to start doing worship for 20/20, right, Pete?”

“Yeah,” Pete said.  “I think I’m ready.”

I wasn’t familiar with this 20/20 that they spoke of, nor had I heard the word worship used in this sense.  “What’s this?” I asked.

“20/20 is the college group and Sunday school class at our church, Jeromeville Covenant,” Pete explained.  “I’m going to play guitar tomorrow for the class, when we do worship music.”

“Oh, nice!”

“Are you still going to church at that Catholic Newman place?” Krista asked.  “And Danielle goes there too, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“How do you like it?”

“It’s good.  It’s not all old people like the church I grew up in.”  The others laughed.

“That’s good,” Taylor said.  “So you have friends there.”

“Yeah.”

The conversation reached a lull, and everyone just kind of looked around.  Sarah was smiling. “Friendship is special,” she said. “Tonight was fun.”

“Yeah, it was,” Krista concurred.

“Thanks again for inviting me along,” I said.

“Any time, Greg,” Sarah said.  “You’re always welcome to hang out with us.”

“Yeah,” Taylor added.  “And we’re here for you if you ever need to talk.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “I really mean it.”

 

We went back to our rooms shortly after this.  I lay on my bed reading. Currently I was reading the book Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom.  The book, written about a decade earlier, was relatively obscure until last year, when it was adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks.  The movie went on to win numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. I had seen the movie once, back home with Catherine Yaras about a month before I left for Jeromeville.  I really liked the movie, and I thought it would be fun to read the book that it was based on.

As is often the case with books made into movies, the movie was significantly different from the book.  Many of the details of the story were completely rewritten for the movie, but the basic premise remained.  Forrest was a man with low intelligence who tells the story of his childhood in the 1950s and his young adulthood in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War.  Forrest’s naive perspective on the world gives a unique perspective on historical events unclouded by many of society’s biases.

I felt a bit like Forrest at times.  I didn’t always understand the world around me.  I often missed a lot of subtext and unspoken communication behind various situations.  And sometimes the way that I viewed certain situations showed a lack of understanding of the cultural background of such situations.  In the movie, there is a scene where Forrest is the only white man in a lively African-American gospel choir, and Forrest’s first person perspective never mentions any of the social implications of this.  He’s just doing his thing, going to church, praising the same God he grew up with, and spending time with the family of his deceased African-American friend.

I wondered if I would stick out like that if I ever went to Jeromeville Covenant Church or Jeromeville Christian Fellowship with my friends.  I still wondered if these were the kinds of Christians who got up and danced, or clapped to music, or spoke in tongues, or weird stuff like that.  But even if I did stand out, if I was a little different, after tonight I knew one thing: my friends’ love for God and for others was real, and they would accept me unconditionally into their lives, no matter what.  No one had ever gathered in a group to pray for me like that, not even my Catholic friends at the Newman Center (although, to be fair, they never saw me that angry).  If Taylor and Pete and Sarah and Krista and Caroline and Charlie were still standing by me after what they saw last night, and if treating me like this was part of what being a Christian meant to them, I knew that we would stand by each other for the rest of our lives.  That kind of love lasts through hard times, through bad decisions, through life handing out the proverbial lemons, and even through not understanding Lagrange multipliers.   This tiny bedroom in which I was reading right now wasn’t exactly luxurious, but for now, at least, Building C was home.

1995-03-04 lagrange
Photo: Stein, Sherman K. and Anthony Barcellos.  Calculus and Analytic Geometry, 5th ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992.

 

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.