June 1, 1996. Sarah got baptized, and we saw real sheep.

“So how’s everyone doing today?” Taylor asked as I drove west beyond the Jeromeville city limits, where Fifth Street becomes Grant Road.

“I went grocery shopping,” Danielle said.  “And I saw my abnormal professor in the store.”

“You saw who?” I asked.

“My professor for Abnormal Psych.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Abnormal Psych.  You said ‘my abnormal professor,’ and I didn’t know what that meant.  I was gonna say I’m a math major, so all of my professors are abnormal.”  The others groaned and chuckled.

Grant Road continues west in a near-perfectly straight line for about three miles after leaving the Jeromeville city limits, past an idyllic landscape of fields, pastures, and orchards.  Beyond that, the road turns sharply; I was caught off guard by the coming right turn, so I pushed the brake pedal hard.  Some of the others in the car reacted audibly to the sudden change in movement.  “Sorry,” I said, as I turned sharply to the right, then to the left a short distance later.  “I never understood why this road has all these curves in it.  Everything is completely flat here.”

“To follow property lines, maybe?” Pete suggested.

“That could be it.”

“Have you been this way before?” Danielle asked.

“Once,” I said.

“You know where we’re going?”

“Yes.”

“Of course he knows where we’re going!” Taylor said.  “Greg doesn’t get lost, remember?”

I had only been this way once, when I took a side trip on the way back from my parents’ house just to see what this part of Arroyo Verde County looked like, and I had never been west of the town of Summerfield.  But a bunch of us had met in a parking lot in Jeromeville about ten minutes ago to carpool, and Cheryl of the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff had been there to hand out flyers, and the driving directions were very clear, just straight west on Grant Road for about twenty miles.

I had been hearing announcements at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship over the last few months about baptisms in the creek near Lake Montecito at the end of the school year.  I had not expressed interest in being baptized.  I had started to take my faith seriously this year through the nondenominational JCF, which was not affiliated with a specific church.  The students in JCF attended a few different churches around Jeromeville, but very few of them were Catholic like me.  I did not know enough about baptism at that point to know if I needed to be baptized again, and I did not want to turn my back on the Catholicism of my childhood and family without knowing the details of what I was doing.

However, I wanted to attend this baptism event.  I knew most of the people in JCF on an acquaintance level, so I wanted to be there for the people being baptized.  Also, one of those people was Sarah Winters, one of my close friends.  I had known her since the first week of freshman year, and when I heard that she was getting baptized, I definitely wanted to be there for her.

In addition to friends from JCF, other friends and family of the people being baptized were attending this event.  Danielle was not part of JCF; she was Catholic, and attended mass at the Newman Center with me.  But all of us in my car were friends with Sarah from our freshman dorm, and all of them also lived in the same apartment complex as Sarah.

 I continued west on Grant Road, through more occasional sharp turns and zigzags over the next few miles before the road straightened out again, now heading southwest.  The midafternoon sun was still high enough that I did not have to put my visor down.  “This may be a dumb question,” I asked, “but what exactly happens at a baptism in the creek?  I’ve only seen Catholic baptisms, when you’re a baby, and they just sprinkle water on you in church.”

“I was going to ask the same thing,” Danielle said.

“You proclaim in public that you’re a follower of Jesus,” Charlie explained.

“And then you get dunked!” Taylor added.

“That’s pretty much it,” Charlie said.

“Why is it that Catholics baptize babies, and other Christians don’t?” I asked.

“Because if you get baptized as a baby, you’re not really making a conscious decision to identify as a Christian,” Pete said.  “So if you wait until someone is old enough to make their own decision to be baptized, then it really comes from them, and it’s more meaningful than if parents just baptize a baby because you have to.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“It’s not just Catholics versus Protestants, right?” Charlie added.  “Aren’t there some Protestants who baptize babies?”

“Yeah,” Pete said.  “I know Presbyterians do.”

We continued west past Summerfield.  The road turned to run directly adjacent to the redundantly named Arroyo Verde Creek as the hills, which I could see from home off in the distance to the west, rose around me.  Oaks dotted the hills, surrounded by grass that sprung up green and bright every year during the rainy season, but was now in late spring turning brown.  The hills would remain golden brown, as they did every year, until around the following January, when the rains of November and December had sunk in.

Twenty miles west of Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek once passed through a narrow canyon just downstream of a valley.  This canyon was identified long ago as a perfect place for a dam, which was built in the 1950s.  The relatively small dam across the canyon flooded the entire valley behind it, creating Lake Montecito and providing a reliable water supply to the vast agricultural areas to the east.  We stopped at a public parking lot just downstream from the dam; I recognized a few JCF people standing around.  “There they are,” Taylor said.

The five of us walked toward the crowd.  People trickled in as we mingled among the crowd, saying hi to our friends, until about a hundred people stood among the rocks and sand on the bank of Arroyo Verde Creek.  I could see the dam about half a mile upstream from where we were, towering three hundred feet above the creek and spanning the entire canyon.

Dave McAllen, who with his wife Janet were the head staff of JCF, waded a few feet into the creek and announced, “Welcome.”  He stood in ankle-deep water, wearing a t-shirt with swimming shorts.  “You have come to watch four of your friends make a public identification as part of the Body of Christ.  Baptism is an outward and public sign that you have decided to follow Jesus.  Baptism was commanded by Jesus himself, as part of the Great Commission, in Matthew 28: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’  In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, Luke writes that the people who heard Peter’s message were baptized.”  Dave continued for another few minutes talking about the theology and history of baptism, about how being submerged in the water and resurfacing is symbolic of dying to your old life and being reborn in Christ.  I wondered about my current situation, having been baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church, and whether or not that was acceptable to these people as a valid baptism.  My question was answered as Dave said, “Before we begin our baptisms, Kieran would like to say something.”

Kieran, a freshman who had been in my group the previous weekend at the Man of Steel competition, stepped forward, not quite getting into the water.  “Hi,” he said.  “I’m not one of the people getting baptized today.  I was baptized as a baby.  But I didn’t really know Jesus until high school, when my friend brought me to youth group.  Since I was already baptized, I don’t feel like it’s right to get baptized again, like it didn’t count the first time.  But I just wanted to say in front of all of you that I am living for Jesus Christ.”  People applauded as he finished that last sentence, and I joined in.  I did not know if I would ever be brave enough to say that in front of the crowd, but Kieran’s proclamation suggested that I did not need to be baptized again.

Dave stepped aside as Janet, took his place in the water in front of the crowd.  “First, I would like to welcome Sarah Winters.  She’s a sophomore.”  Janet gestured to Sarah to begin speaking.

“I didn’t really go to church growing up,” Sarah said.  “I was a good student, I stayed out of trouble, but I also made some decisions that weren’t so great.”  Sarah paused, clearly not wanting to talk about the suboptimal decisions.  “But then I started going out with a guy right at the end of high school, and he was a Christian.  They say missionary dating isn’t a good idea, but it brought me to Christ.”  Laughs and chuckles spread throughout the crowd.  I had never heard this term “missionary dating,” but I figured out from the context what she was saying.  “He shared with me what it meant to really follow Jesus, and he lived it out in his life.  We broke up on good terms last year, but it was for the best.  And now I’m ready for whatever Jesus has for me.”

“Sarah?” Janet asked.  “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”

“I do,” Sarah replied.

“Then I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  Janet put one hand on Sarah’s back as she lowered Sarah backward into the water.  After being fully submerged for a few seconds, she brought Sarah back up, and everyone cheered.  Sarah smiled, dripping wet, as she climbed out of the creek and wrapped herself in a towel.

Three more people were baptized that day.  Each had a different story, but all of their stories ended with finding Jesus and making a decision to follow him.  I had a story like that now too, and it was humbling to know that this united me with so many millions of Christians throughout the centuries.

After the last baptism ended, I walked around looking for Sarah.  Janet McAllen found me first.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Wasn’t that good to hear everyone’s stories?”

“Yes.  It’s always good to hear how God works in different people’s lives.”

“Have you been baptized?”

“I was baptized Catholic as a baby.”

“Oh, okay,” Janet said.  “We usually don’t recommend you get baptized again if you were already baptized as a baby.”

“I had been wondering about that earlier today, and then when Kieran shared about that, it was perfect timing.  Like he answered the question I didn’t even ask.”

“Yeah!”

“Do you know where Sarah went?”

“I think she’s over there,” Janet said, pointing to a cluster of people standing a little ways upstream.

“I’m going to go find her.”

“Sounds good.  I’m glad you could make it here, Greg.”

“Me too.”

I walked in the direction that Janet had pointed and eventually found Sarah.  The people I came with had found her first; they were all standing together, along with Sarah’s roommate Krista and a few others.

“Congratulations,” I said as Sarah noticed me approaching.

“Greg!” Sarah exclaimed.  “Thank you so much for coming!”

“I’m glad I could be here,” I said.  “It’s always so good to hear stories of how people came to know Jesus.”

“Yeah.  God works in everyone differently.  We all have a story.”

I stood around listening to people make small talk for a while.  Later, I started walking around to talk to other people, and I congratulated the other three who had been baptized as well.

The crowd gradually thinned, and we left about half an hour after the last baptism.  We returned the same way we came, along Grant Road.  At one point, near the inexplicable sharp turns, Danielle excitedly exclaimed, “Look!  Sheep!  And they’re real!”  She pointed out the car window to a flock of sheep grazing in a pasture.

“Did you say ‘they’re real?’” Pete asked.

“Yeah!  Right there!”

“‘They’re real,’ you said?  So do you normally drive past fields full of fake sheep?” Taylor added.

“What?  No!” Danielle said.  “You know what I mean!”

“I don’t,” I said.

“Never mind.”

I never did figure out why Danielle was so excited about the sheep being real.  Sometimes things make sense in someone’s head but do not get explained properly.  But, as we drove home, my mind was more on what Kieran had said, how he had been baptized as a baby and did not feel it was appropriate to get baptized again.  Although I had not studied the issue in detail or prayed about it, that was my current position.  I did not want to turn my back completely on the Catholicism of my family and generations of my mother’s ancestors.  Jesus commands his followers to be baptized, but from what I had learned this year from really studying the Bible for the first time, the act of baptism itself is not what brings salvation or eternal life.  Catholics consider baptism to be a sacrament, but I could not find anything directly in the Bible stating that baptism affected one’s eternal fate.

It was surprising to me, therefore, when a few years later JCF held another baptism event, and Kieran was one of the people getting baptized.  He made no mention of having been baptized as a baby that time.  I never asked him what made him change his mind.  By that time, I had had enough encounters with Christians who disparaged and belittled Catholicism that my position had become further entrenched that I did not want to be baptized a second time.  I did not want to acknowledge these people’s mischaracterization of Catholicism, and getting baptized a second time felt like taking their side.

However, I did change my mind eventually, in my early thirties.  By that time, I was no longer attending Catholic Mass.  I knew that many churches that do not baptize babies require baptism as a condition of becoming a full church member and being able to vote on the church budget and new pastoral appointments.  I had made up my mind that this would not be a dealbreaker to being part of a church, that I would get baptized as an adult if I found a church requiring adult baptism that I was otherwise ready to commit to.  In the first letter to the Corinthaians, Paul wrote that, as a follower of Christ, he is no longer under the Old Testament law, despite having a Jewish background.  It is not necessary for Christians to follow the rituals and customs of the Jews.  However, when ministering to Jewish communities, Paul would follow their customs anyway, in order to be part of their community and build the relationships necessary to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I felt the same way about baptism by this time; being baptized as an adult was not necessary, but if I was going to become part of a community that believed this, I would be willing to follow their customs.  In 2007, the church I had attended for over a year called a new pastor, and I really liked this guy, so I was baptized and became a member in order to be able to vote in favor of this new pastor.  And I know that my parents did not see my second baptism as an act of turning my back on my upbringing, because they were there on that day to support me, just as I was there to support Sarah on the day she was baptized.

May 3-5, 1996. Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly.

“We have a big announcement tonight!” said Cheryl, one of the staff members of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The projection screen began descending, and the lights went out a few seconds later.  What was this?  I had been attending JCF since October, and we never watched videos.  Some of these meetings included a silly skit after the first worship song; I wondered if that was what was happening here, but with the skit on video.  But as I watched the first few seconds of the video, it quickly became clear that this was something professionally produced.

The video was about two minutes long, full of large groups of students singing worship songs and praying, adults lecturing, and scenes from other countries of people being fed and churches being built.  Music played throughout the video, and text indicated that this was a promotion for some large event called “Urbana,” sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF.  By the end of the video, it had become clear that this “Urbana” was a large convention where students and young adults could learn about Christian missions and service projects.  The convention was held during winter break every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, with the next one this coming December 27-31.

A few days ago, Xander had asked me for my address, so he could send me a prayer letter.  He would be going on a mission trip to India for part of this coming summer.  Having grown up Catholic, concepts like “prayer letters” and “mission trips” were very new to me, and now that I was taking my Christian faith seriously, I felt more of a desire to learn about the subject.  Maybe this Urbana convention would be a way to learn more about that.  But the whole idea of traveling to Illinois, two-thirds of the way across the country, just to learn about traveling even farther away to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other countries, seemed geared toward super hard-core Christians who were actively searching to do a trip like that.  Getting to Illinois would require riding in an airplane, and I had never been in an airplane.  I had no idea how to get airplane tickets, or what to do once I got to the airport.  The convention itself would cost three hundred dollars to attend, and I was not sure I wanted to spend that much money on something that might not be right for me.

Eddie was sitting next to me that night at JCF.  He and Xander were housemates, and their whole house seemed like the kind of hard-core Christians who would be attending Urbana  Surely enough, when the night ended, the first thing Eddie did was turn to me and ask, “So what do you think about Urbana?  Are you gonna go?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think it would be good to learn more about missions, since I didn’t really grow up around that.  And now, like, Xander is doing that trip to India this summer.  And Taylor and Pete and Charlie are going to Morocco.  So it would be cool to learn more about missions.”

“It would!”

“But I don’t know if I want to spend that much money.”

“That makes sense.  You have a while to think about it and save up for it.  The price goes up in July, but registration is open through November.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Are you going?”

“I’m planning to.  Someone I knew from my church back home went to Urbana ‘93 and spoke about it.  It sounded really great.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Eddie went to go look for someone he needed to talk to, and I continued wandering around looking to see who was around.  I saw Melinda Schmidt and Amelia Dye, two junior girls, sitting behind me talking to a few other people whom I did not know well.  Melinda saw me first and waved.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.  “How was your week?”

“It was good,” I said.  “I have a paper coming up that I need to start working on.”

“I just finished one.  I hope I do well.  Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Nothing.  Why?”

“Come over!  Amelia and I are having a birthday party for our cat, Alvin.”

“A cat birthday party,” I repeated.  “How does that work?  Do I bring a present?”

“No.  Just bring yourself.”

“I should be able to make that.  Where do you live?”

“Pine Grove, number 202.  Do you know where that is?”

“Pine Grove Apartments?  Yeah, I know where that is.”

“Great!  Come over any time after six.”

“I’ll be there!  Sounds good!”


A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment for sophomore year, Pine Grove was my second choice.  The studio apartment at Las Casas Apartments, where I lived now, was less expensive than the one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove, although it was also smaller.  Also, thirteen of my friends from Building C freshman year lived within walking distance of Las Casas, and I did not know anyone near Pine Grove.  This had been a deciding factor for me.  But as I got to know people from JCF this year, I had met at least three households of JCF regulars in Pine Grove, and because of this, I somewhat regretted not having chosen to live there.

Pine Grove Apartments was on at the end of a cul-de-sac about a mile south of me, backing up to Highway 117 and just across Fifth Street from the outer reaches of campus.  I found a place to park on the cul-de-sac and walked around the apartment grounds until I found number 202.  I knocked at the door, and Amelia answered.

“Greg!” she said.  “Come on in!”

I was one of the first ones to arrive, as usual.  Scott Madison, who was Amelia’s boyfriend, and Scott’s roommate Joe Fox were the only other people in the apartment besides the girls who lived there.  Scott and Joe also lived in Pine Grove.

“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.

“Not much,” I said.  “I got all my homework done for the weekend.  But I have to start thinking about my anthro term paper.”

“When’s it due?”

“Not until the 29th.”

“Then why are you thinking about it now?”

“I have to study a group of people the way an anthropologist would.  That’ll take time.”

“Yeah, but you have the whole month.  It’s not going to take that long.”

“You’re going to be an anthropologist?” Joe asked.  “That sounds awesome!  Is that your major?” 

“I’m a math major.  I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a general ed class.  And I know the professor.”

“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”

“I hope so.  Tabitha is in that class too.”

“What?” Tabitha said.  She had walked in a couple minutes earlier.

“I was talking about the anthro project.  I said you’re in that class too.”

“Oh, yeah.  Do you know what you’re going to write about yet?”

“I was thinking I might do a chat room on IRC.  That way, when I’m wasting time on the Internet talking to strangers, I can tell myself I’m doing homework.”

“Smart,” Tabitha said.  “I was thinking I might do University Life.”

“That would be funny,” Joe said.  I did not understand at first; I thought she meant that she was going to do a project on the life of a university student.  That seemed too broad for the scope of this assignment.  What I did not realize at the time was that University Life was the name of another large Christian student group, affiliated with the Baptist church in Jeromeville, and that University Life had a bit of an ongoing friendly rivalry with the nondenominational JCF.

Over the next hour, more people trickled in.  I recognized most of them from JCF; some of them I knew better than others.  Many of them were juniors and seniors, but a few sophomores were there too: Tabitha, Eddie and his housemate John, and a girl whose name I thought was Alyssa.  There was also one guy whose grade and age were unknown to me.  As I ate chips and pizza and talked to people, I noticed someone who was conspicuously missing: the birthday boy, Alvin the cat.  I turned to Melinda and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

“He’s in my room.  He gets kind of shy when we have a lot of people over.”

“But this is his party!”

Melinda turned close to me and lowered her voice.  “That was really just an excuse to have a party.  We’re not even really sure exactly when his birthday is.”

“Oh,” I said.  That thought had honestly never crossed my mind.  I was seriously expecting a cat birthday party, not just an informal get-together.

Some people started a game of Uno at the table, and I joined them.  After we got tired of Uno, we played Taboo, and I was complimented for my ability to give clues and get people to guess correctly.  My favorite part of Taboo was holding the little buzzer, so I could buzz people from the other team who say words that are not allowed.  Others generally found the buzzer annoying.

Even though Alvin the cat’s birthday was just an excuse to throw a party, according to Melinda, she did bring Alvin out for a few minutes later in the evening.  He had mottled black and white fur and blue eyes, and he clearly seemed intimidated by the sixteen additional people in the apartment.  Amelia went to the kitchen and emerged with a cake with white frosting and the outline of a cat drawn in black frosting.  She led us all in singing “Happy Birthday.”  As the song ended, Alvin began squirming; he broke free of Melinda’s arms and darted back to her bedroom.

“Well, I tried to bring the birthday boy out,” Melinda said.  “Who wants cake and ice cream?”  Hands went up and people said “Me!” as Amelia cut the cake and Melinda scooped the ice cream.  Eventually they handed me my plate, and I began eating.  I overheard Scott ask something about music, and shortly afterward I became vaguely aware of music playing in the background.

When I finished the small slice of cake and single scoop of ice cream on my plate, I asked Amelia if it was okay to get seconds.  “Sure!” she replied.  “There’s plenty.”  I got my second, larger plate of cake and ice cream and brought it to the living room, sitting on the floor and listening to the conversations around me.  A few minutes later, a familiar song came on: “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” by the local independent band Lawsuit.  “I love this song!” I said enthusiastically.

“You like Lawsuit?” Scott asked.  “I made this mixtape for this party.”

“Yes.  I discovered them at last year’s Spring Picnic.”  I started singing along when the vocals came in, but stopped after one line when I noticed no one else was.

A few minutes later, Melinda approached me holding an envelope.  “Greg?” she asked.  “Can I ask you something?

“Yeah.  What is it?”

“I’m going to be going on a mission trip to Russia for three weeks this summer.  I wanted to give you a copy of my prayer letter, so you will know how you can be praying for me.  Also, if you want to give to my trip, it has the information for that.”

“Sure,” I said.  It sounded like this was the same kind of thing Xander wanted to send me for his trip to India this summer.  I continued, “I don’t know a whole lot about mission trips, being a new Christian and all, but I want to find out.”

“Are you going to Urbana?  You’ll find out a lot there.”

“The video last night was the first I had heard of this.  I’ve never traveled that far before, and it’s a lot of money.  I don’t know.”

“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”

“I know.  And it would be good to learn more about what opportunities are out there.”

“Totally!  Here’s the letter,” she said, handing me the envelope.  “I mailed these a few days ago, but I didn’t have your address.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll read it.”

U2’s “One” was the next song on Scott’s mixtape.  I continued eating cake and ice cream as I watched people talking and eating around me.  Bono, U2’s vocalist, began singing higher notes toward the end of the song.  The conversations in the room all seemed to reach a simultaneous lull, and I happened to make eye contact with Scott as Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the first of four consecutive times.  We  shared an unspoken moment in which the same idea passed through our heads.

“Haaa-haaah!” Scott and I sang along, loudly and in a bad falsetto.  Everyone else in the room looked at us and started laughing.  When Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the third and fourth time, the entire room sang along with us.

“That was awesome,” I said, extending my hand to give a high five to Scott.  He smiled and returned the high five.

As I looked around that room, I realized something.  None of the others at this party were people whom I had lived with last year in Building C; they were all new friends and acquaintances I had made through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  (I knew Tabitha to say hi to last year, but only because we had mutual friends who attended JCF.)  I wondered if this signaled a coming shift in my social life away from my Building C friends, or if there was room to expand my inner circle to include these new friends.  By the time I got home that night, I was feeling a little worn out from all the socializing, but also excited to have made so many new friends this year.


The next day, Sunday, after singing in the choir at church, I went to lunch at Bakers Square with some of the others from choir.  Danielle Coronado, one of the people from Building C last year who remained in my inner circle, sat across from me.  “We should have gotten Mexican food,” she said.  “It’s Cinco de Mayo.”

Claire Seaver was a year older than Danielle and me.  “I really haven’t found a good Mexican place in Jeromeville,” Claire replied.  She had been around Jeromeville longer, so she would know more about the Mexican food here.  I had not looked for Mexican food other than Taco Bell and the Tex-Mex Grill in the Coffee House on campus, so I had no opinion on this yet.

“How was your weekend, Greg?” Danielle asked.

“It was good,” I said.  “Some people from JCF had a party last night.”

“Was that the one at Pine Grove Apartments?  I don’t remember the people’s names.”

“Yeah.  Amelia and Melinda.”

“Pete got invited to that, but he decided to come over and watch a movie instead.

“‘Watching a movie,’” Claire teased.  “I’m sure that’s not all you were doing.”

“Shut up!” Danielle said, playfully slapping Claire.  “We were just holding hands.  Anyway, Greg, were you at JCF on Friday?  Because Pete was telling me about that big conference coming up.”

“Urbana?  Yeah, I saw the video.  I don’t know if I’m going to go.  It’s a lot of money, and farther away than I’ve ever been before.  But I would like to learn more about mission trips.”

“Yeah, that’s it.  Pete’s thinking about going.  He has the Morocco trip coming up too.”

“Greg?  What are you gonna do for your anthro project?” asked Claire.  She was also in my anthropology class.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I was thinking I might do the IRC chat room where I hang out a lot when I’m bored.”

“That would be interesting!  Timely, too.  Chat rooms haven’t been around long, so their culture probably hasn’t been studied.”

“True.  What about you?”

“I’m not sure.  I have a few things in mind, though.”

I ate quickly, and I felt a great sense of relief when I got back to the car.  Although I was enjoying these once-in-a-lifetime moments with friends, I was exhausted by this time and looking forward to a night of sitting at home by myself.  When I got home and entered my apartment, I noticed I had a telephone message on the answering machine.

“Hello,” the disembodied robotic voice said when I pressed the button.  “You have one new message.”  The machine’s voice was replaced with my mother’s voice, asking me to call her when I got home.  I dialed the numbers and waited.

“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.

“Hey,” I said.  “It’s Greg.”

“Hello!  Where were you?”

“I went out to lunch with some people from church.  And yesterday some girls from JCF invited me to a birthday party for their cat.”

“Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  “And how exactly do you have a birthday party for a cat?”

“They said it was really just an excuse to have a party.  The cat didn’t like crowds, and I only saw him once.”

“I see.  And you said these are people from JCF?  That’s that Christian group you’re part of?”

“Yeah.”

“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”

“Yeah.”

“Good for you.  I’m glad you’re making friends.  See?  I knew you could do it.”

“Thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes again.

Mom and I continued catching up and making small talk for about another twenty minutes.  Even though I rolled my eyes, Mom was right; I was making a lot of new friends this year.  By getting involved with JCF over the last seven months, I came to faith, but I also found a social life.  But even though I was new to practicing my faith, I already understood that I should be focusing on Jesus rather than on my social life.  Nothing was wrong with having a social life, and it was a nice added bonus that came with being part of a new group.  But my social life should never become the main reason I attend JCF or church.  This tension between being part of a community of believers but putting Jesus above my social life would become a recurring theme throughout my life  But no matter what happened, I knew that my new friends were a blessing from God.

April 3-5, 1996. I look like a deranged serial killer.

Back in 1996, only rich people had mobile phones, because they were large and expensive.  If I wanted to call someone in another city, I had to make a long distance call from my landline telephone, and I would get billed for the call by the minute.  The University of Jeromeville got some kind of deal with MCI, a major company in the telephone industry at the time until they were acquired by Verizon in the early 2000s.  MCI provided new state-of-the-art student identification cards to all of us students, and in exchange, we got to use MCI to make long distance calls at a slightly discounted rate.  I had no plans to use this service; I already had long distance service on my phone with another company, and I did not make long distance calls very often except to my parents.  But because we were getting new ID cards, all students had to get our pictures taken again at some point during the first week of spring quarter.

“You said it looked bad!” Danielle was saying as I walked into the Newman Center chapel Wednesday night for choir practice.  I looked up to see what was going on; Danielle was holding one of the new student ID cards.  “I think this is a good picture.”

“No I don’t!” Danielle’s sister Carly exclaimed, trying to take the card away as Danielle held it away from her.

“Greg!” Danielle called out as I approached the others.  “Isn’t this a good picture of Carly?” Danielle asked as she tossed Carly’s ID card to me.

I caught the card and looked at it as Carly said, “Eww! Give it back!”  In the picture, Carly was smiling, and her straight brown hair looked neatly groomed.

“Here,” I said, handing the card back to Carly.  “I think you look just fine.”

“I should have taken my glasses off,” Carly said.  “But, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  I smiled.

“Can I see your new picture?” Danielle asked me.  “Did you get it yet?”

“I didn’t.  I’m probably going to go tomorrow.”

Phil Gallo turned toward us.  “I heard that people are upset because apparently MCI has all of our personal information now.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  That sounded a bit unsettling, but there was not much I could do about it at this point, except possibly boycott MCI and not use their service.

“How’d your week go, Greg?  What classes are you taking this quarter?” Danielle asked.

“Two math classes, Computer Science 30, and Anthro 2.”

“Is that the same Anthro class that Claire’s taking?”

“Yes.  I saw her in class today.”

“What?” Claire said, turning toward us. “I heard my name.”  Claire Seaver was a junior with a background in music, and although there was no formal leadership structure in our church choir, she performed many leader-like activities for the group.

“You’re in my Anthro 2 class,” I said.

“Yeah!  And we have to miss it on Friday because we’re singing here for the Good Friday Mass.”

“I know.  I hope we don’t miss too much.”

“Do either of you guys know someone who you can ask to take notes?” Danielle asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Tabitha Sasaki is in that class too; I already asked her today if I could copy her notes for Friday.  I’ll ask her if I can make an extra copy for Claire.  Danielle, do you know Tabitha?  She goes to JCF, and she lived in Building B last year?”

“Oh yeah.  I remember her.”

“Okay, everyone, we need to get started,” Claire called out.  “We have a lot of new music to practice this week, because we have Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.”

Choir practice that week took much longer than usual, over two hours.  We had more music to practice for the upcoming Holy Week services, as well as songs specific to Easter Sunday.  By the time I got home, it was nine-thirty, and I was too tired to do any more homework.

Fortunately, the next day was Thursday, my lightest day of the week that quarter.  I was done with lower division mathematics, so for this quarter I signed up for Combinatorics and Linear Algebra Applications, two upper-division classes for which I had taken the prerequisites.  The mathematics major also required one of two possible lower division computer science courses, and being one who liked to play around with computers, I was excited for that class, Introduction to Programming.  I completed my academic schedule with Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.  This would satisfy a general education requirement, and I already knew the professor, Dr. Dick Small.  He taught a class I took last year for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program that I was in, about the literature and culture of South Africa. I always thought that Dr. Dick Small was one of the most hilariously unfortunate names that one could possibly have.

When I was signing up for classes this quarter, I noticed that all four classes that I took were only offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  And, without realizing it, I noticed after the fact that I had left my Tuesdays and Thursdays completely empty, having chosen an anthro discussion on Wednesday and a computer science discussion on Monday.  Since I had also decided to take the quarter off from my part-time job tutoring at the Learning Skills Center, I had no reason to get out of bed on a Tuesday until Bible study in the evening, and no reason to get out of bed on a Thursday at all.  Some of my friends had told me that they would be perfectly happy with a schedule like that, but I did not think it would be good to be that lazy and antisocial.  The UJ physical education department offered a number of half-unit classes twice a week, and I decided to take weight training this quarter just to give me something healthy to do on these days.  I had taken bowling in the fall, for a similar reason.

The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds that Thursday morning, so I rode my bike to campus instead of taking the bus.  I parked outside of the Recreation Pavilion, where the weight room was.  Those first few classes the first couple weeks of the quarter, we learned a little bit about technique, and the rest of the hour we just lifted weights.  After class, I changed into normal clothes.  I also put on the jacket I had bought a couple months ago when a theft in the laundry room had forced me to buy new clothes; I had worn the jacket on my bike but taken it off for weight training.  This jacket had a black torso made from the same material as athletic wear and lined with something warm, but the sleeves were gray, made out of the same material as sweatshirts.  The jacket also had a dark green hood, but I did not put the hood on that morning.

I got back on my bike and decided to try something new today.  I rode east across campus, past the Memorial Union and the Death Star building, on the path that became Third Street.  I crossed A Street, which marked the border between the university and the city, and parked my bike about a hundred feet past A Street.  Next to this bike rack was a coffee shop called Espresso Roma.  I walked in and continued to the counter, where one person was in line in front of me.

I did not drink coffee, but at that time I had a bit of a curious fascination with coffee shops.  It seemed like hanging out in coffee shops was the cool thing to do, and I wished I could experience that, despite the fact that I did not like coffee.  The Coffee House on campus at the Memorial Union was more like a student union than an actual coffee shop.  I had seen Espresso Roma before, to my knowledge it was the closest coffee shop to campus, so I figured I would give it a try.

“May I help you?” the cashier asked.

“Hot chocolate, please,” I said.

“Whipped cream?”

“Yes.”  The hot chocolate at the Coffee House on campus did not come with whipped cream, so this place was better in that sense.  I found a table and took off my jacket, placing it on the back of the chair.  I got out my backpack and combinatorics textbook, and looked around.  Last week, I was back home in Santa Lucia County on spring break, and I went to a coffee shop in Gabilan called the Red Bean with my friend Melissa.  Espresso Roma did not look much like the Red Bean.  Although in an old neighborhood like the Red Bean, Espresso Roma was in a much more modern-looking building.  The interior had a concrete floor with electrical conduits and air ducts visible in the ceiling above.  Floor-to-ceiling windows, with wood borders around the glass making them look more like doors, faced Third Street; one of them actually was a door, leading to outdoor tables.

I got my hot chocolate a couple minutes later and sat back down.  I had plenty more to do after I finished my combinatorics homework, since I got nothing done after choir practice last night.  I spent almost two hours in Espresso Roma reading and studying and doing homework.  I went back there several more times over the next couple years for hot chocolate and a different place to study other than the Coffee House in the Memorial Union and the library.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays that quarter, my only class was the weight training class.  I could go back home any time I wanted. But today, I had one more important thing to do before I left campus: I had not yet taken my photo for the new student ID card.  The photographers had set up in the Recreation Pavilion on the basketball court; I had seen them on the way to weight class this morning.  When I unlocked my bike, I noticed that the sky had turned gray; it had mostly been blue when I arrived at Espresso Roma two hours ago.  I felt what seemed to be raindrops on my head; that was not a good sign.  By the time I rode past the Death Star building a minute later, the rain had become much more steady.  I pulled my hood on, hoping that wearing my hood would not make my hair look funny for my picture.

It only took five minutes to get to the Recreation Pavilion by bicycle, but in that five minutes the rain quickly became a heavy downpour.  By the time I walked into the building, I was drenched.  My jacket had kept my torso sufficiently dry, but the sleeves, not being waterproof, had soaked through to the long sleeves I was wearing underneath

“Your old card, please?” a woman asked as I walked inside.  I handed over my old card, and the woman who took my card pointed at a line for me to stand in.  I could have come back tomorrow when it might be dry, but by giving her my old card, I had made my decision.  I would be looking a little bit wet in my new student ID photo.  It was no big deal.

A few minutes later, I set my jacket and backpack down when I got to the front of the line to get my picture taken.  “Looks like you got a little wet today,” the photographer asked.  “Is it raining?”

No, I thought, I was wading in the creek and I dropped something, so I had to reach in with both arms and get it.  But somehow my torso stayed miraculously dry.  “Yeah,” I said out loud.  “It just started coming down hard all of a sudden while I was on my way here.”

“You sure you want to take your picture like that?” he asked.

“It’s ok.  It won’t really show.”

I stood and looked where he told me to.  In every ID card and school picture I had taken, I always tried my best to smile, and I hated the way I looked in every one of these pictures.  So I deliberately did not smile.  I kept my face in as much as a natural position as possible, and not smiling was natural for me.  I stared at the spot that the photographer had told me to until I heard the click and saw the flash.  “Thank you,” the photographer said.  “Go over there, and they’ll have your card ready in about ten minutes.”

A while later, I heard someone call my name from the table with the card printer on it.  A guy sitting there handed me my new card, along with a sticker to put on it to show that I was registered as a student this quarter. Whatever look I was going for, being wet and disheveled and not smiling, it did not work at all.  My face appeared angry and unstable, my hair was messy, and my wet arms were visible on the sides of the picture.  Smiling for school pictures did not work, and apparently not smiling did not work either.  The photos on ID cards just did not look good, and this was something I would have to come to accept.  And as if to drive home the point that I was just cursed with bad luck when it came to ID card photos, the weather was dry by the time I left the Recreation Pavilion, and it stayed dry for the rest of the night.


(Author’s note: This is a reconstruction, made with the help of Bitmoji. I still have the original card, but the photo is smeared and scratched after having been put in and taken out of my pocket for years, and the original card has personal information on it that I do not wish to copy here.)

The rest of the week went as planned.  I sang at both the Holy Thursday and Good Friday Masses.  Friday night I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, hoping that Tabitha would be there and that she had remembered to bring her notes from anthropology class.  I noticed a few of the regulars were missing, probably because it was the weekend of Easter and some people had gone home to be with their families for the weekend.  Tabitha was there, and after the last worship song, I walked over toward her.  She was talking with Eddie, Haley, Kristina, and a guy whom I had seen around but had not met yet.  I walked up, not saying anything, not wanting to interrupt.

Eddie acknowledged me first.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “Did you get your new student ID yet?  We were just talking about that.”

I pulled my new ID card out of my pocket.  “I look like a deranged serial killer,” I said sheepishly as I handed Eddie the card.

“Why is there a shadow on your arms?” he asked.

“My arms were wet,” I said, explaining the sudden downpour and my jacket.

“I want to see the deranged serial killer!” Kristina shouted.

“Is it ok to show the others?” Eddie asked me.

“Sure,” I replied.  Eddie passed the card to Kristina; Haley and Tabitha also looked at the card.

“You’re not smiling,” Haley pointed out.  “How come?”

“I smiled for my driver’s license, and all my high school yearbook pictures, and my old student ID, and I never liked the way those looked,” I explained.  “So I tried something different.  That didn’t work either, apparently.”

“It’s not bad.  But I think you would look better if you smiled.”

“Thanks,” I said, making my best attempt at a smile.  Then, turning to Tabitha, I asked, “Tabitha?  Do you have your notes from anthro today?”

“Yeah,” she said, reaching down under her chair and picking up a notebook, which she handed to me.  “I think I got all the important things Dr. Small said.”

“Can I give this back to you Monday in class?  Or do you need it sooner?”

“Monday is fine.”

“Greg,” Eddie said.  “I was going to ask you tonight.  Are you busy next weekend?”

“I don’t think so.  Why?”

“We’re planning a sophomore class trip.  We’re going to go to Bay City on Friday night, eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, then find a place to sleep on the beach.  We’ll be home Saturday night so everyone can go to church Sunday.”

This invitation came as a surprise to me, I had never done anything like this, but I was intrigued.  “Who all is going?” I asked.

“All of us,” Eddie said, gesturing at himself and the others I had been talking to.  “I’m going to invite a few more people, but I don’t know yet who is going for sure.”

This was not my usual reality.  I had never been to a Hard Rock Cafe, I had never slept outdoors, and taking a trip like this was not something I normally would do on short notice.  But I learned the hard way recently that hesitating on a big decision had consequences.  Also, this trip would be a chance to spend time with friends; my 19-year-old boy mind was specifically excited about the thought of spending time with Haley.  “Sure, I’m in,” I replied.  “I should bring a sleeping bag?”

“Yeah.  I’ll call you in a few days with more details.”

“Sounds good!  May I have my ID card back?”

“Oh yeah,” Kristina said, handing me the card.

I really was okay with the fact that I was stuck with this horrible picture on my ID card for the next few years.  Everyone seemed to have a bad student ID or driver’s license picture at some point in their lives, and now I had one with a good story behind it.  I had learned two important lessons that day.  First, my jacket was not completely waterproof, and second, I may as well smile in pictures because I did not look better not smiling.  Smiling still did not feel natural to me, but maybe I could just make myself think happy thoughts when I was posing for a picture.  And now Eddie had included me in this upcoming trip, and Haley was going to be on the trip too, and all of that certainly gave me a reason to smile.

February 20-21, 1996. Studying the Bible and disapproving of political correctness.

“We have a new member tonight,” Lillian said.  “Would you like to introduce yourself?”

“Sure,” I said, looking at the mix of new and familiar faces in front of me.  Some of my friends from last year were in this Bible study, but I did not recognize everyone else.  “I’m Greg,” I announced.  “I’m a sophomore, majoring in mathematics.”

“Hey!” Shawn, the other leader, said.  “I’m a math major too!”

“Really?  I don’t meet many other math majors.”

“What do you want to do with it?” Shawn asked.  “Are you going to be a teacher?”

“Probably not.  I’m not really sure.  I just know I like math.”

“I’m going to teach high school.  I don’t think I can deal with kids younger than that.  And I would have summers off to train.”

“What are you training for?”

“I do triathlons and marathons.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I definitely do not have that kind of athletic endurance.”

“It takes practice.”

“I’m sure it does.”

After the others all said their first names, we said an opening prayer and sang a few songs.  Pete Green, whom I had known since my first day at the University of Jeromeville, got out his guitar and started playing as people passed around lyrics.  I recognized the songs from JCF large group.  Before the last song started, Shawn said, “Greg, our theme for this quarter is that we’re looking at the Scriptures in some of the songs we sing at JCF.  Tonight we’re going to be doing Create In Me.”

I followed along with the words on the lyric sheet; I had heard this song before, but it was not one we sang often.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” I sang.

After we sang the song through twice, since it was a short song, Lillian opened her Bible.  It was much thicker than mine, with many papers, bookmarks, and Post-It Notes stuck inside.  It appeared to be a study Bible, with extra notes and commentaries built in.  I wondered if I should get one of those someday.  I had noticed a lot of students at JCF who had big study Bibles.

“The song is from Psalm 51,” Lillian said.  “So open your Bible to Psalm 51.”

I found the passage quickly, since I knew approximately where the Psalms were found in the Bible.  A few weeks ago, I made some new friends hanging out after JCF.  It came up in conversation that night that I did not have a Bible, so one of those new friends, Kristina, gave me an extra Bible that she had.  Ever since Kristina had given me that Bible, I had been reading it often, occasionally just flipping through it for fun, familiarizing myself with all the different books.  I was glad I had done this, because I would have been embarrassed to have to ask someone for help finding a book.  Psalms, containing worship music and poetry from the Old Testament time period, was one of the longest books in the Bible, so it was easy to find.

JCF ran many small group Bible studies, and I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, that none of the new friends from that night were in this one.  With so many JCF people in their neighborhood, I figured there would be other Bible studies meeting on that side of town.  I really wanted to get to know that group better, both because they were very nice people, and because they seemed to have full social lives revolving around other Christians.  They were the cool kids of JCF.  One of the new friends from that night, Haley, was really cute; I especially wanted to get to know her.

After we all found Psalm 51, people then took turns reading a few verses at a time.  The song came from verses 10 through 12:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
  and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

“Any initial thoughts?” Shawn asked.  A few people went around and shared things.  Liz Williams, a friend from last year who had invited me to this Bible study, asked what “hyssop” was.  That word appeared in verse 7, and I did not know it either; someone thought it was a plant with medicinal properties.

I noticed that the beginning of the Psalm said, “A psalm of David.  When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”  I knew what adultery meant, but it sounded like that was referring to some other incident in King David’s life that I was unaware of.  I wondered if this other incident was mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, but I did not ask since I did not want to look dumb.  Maybe this was something that everyone else who was not Catholic knew about.  JCF was not affiliated with a specific denomination, and there were very few Catholics in the group that I knew of, just me and one other guy who showed up occasionally who was not in this small group.

Fortunately, I did not have to ask, because after we discussed our initial thoughts, Lillian said, “So at the very beginning of Psalm 51, it says when David wrote it.  Turn to 2 Samuel, chapter 11.”  I flipped through my Old Testament, looking for that book; it was long enough that it did not take long to find.  The backstory for Psalm 51 made up two entire chapters, so Lillian and Shawn paraphrased, adding direct quotes from the Scripture for emphasis.  Apparently King David saw an attractive woman bathing, so he had sex with her and got her pregnant.  Her husband was fighting in a war, so David devised a military strategy that ensured that her husband would get killed.  God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke David, and the child died, although David later married the woman and had another child with her, the future King Solomon.  I had never heard that story before.  Apparently the Bible was full of interesting stuff.

We spent the next hour talking about Psalm 51 in great detail.  We discussed sin and repentance, and restoration and forgiveness.  Someone noted that parts of this Psalm seem to foreshadow Jesus coming to be our sacrifice once and for all, replacing the system of temple sacrifices that dated back to the time of Moses.  We talked about the wording of the song being different from the Bible.  I did not say much, since I was new to this, but I did have one thing to share.  At one point, a tall, deep-voiced guy named Evan, whom I had just met that night, said, “Why is it that the end of the song says ‘renew a right spirit,’ but the Bible says, ‘grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me?’”

No one answered after a couple seconds, so I said, “Probably just the songwriter matching the words he used at the beginning, for poetic effect.”

“That makes sense,” Liz added.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  “Probably.”

After we finished discussing Psalm 51, Shawn said, “Does anyone have prayer requests?”  We went around in a circle sharing, and when it came to my turn, I said, “I have three midterms on Friday.”

“Ouch,” Shawn said.

“Again?” Pete asked.  “Didn’t you just have a bunch of midterms on the same day a few weeks ago?”

“I did,” I replied.  “I have the worst midterm schedule ever this quarter.”

“We’ll definitely pray for you,” Lillian said.  We each took turns praying for someone else, and I was assigned to pray for Liz, who asked for prayer regarding a mission trip to Mexico in the summer.  “Jesus,” I began, “I pray for Liz’s trip to Mexico.  I pray that the plans will come together, and that she will have safe travels.  I pray that you will be with her as she works with the church down there, and I pray that you will give her wisdom.”

Pete’s turn to pray for me was next.  “Lord, I thank you for bringing Greg to our Bible study,” he said.  “I pray, Father, that you will continue to work in Greg’s life, as he grows closer to you and studies your word.  I pray that you will take away the stress that he is experiencing with these midterms.  I pray, Lord, that you will help him remember what he knows when the tests come, and that he will remember that you love him unconditionally, and that his worth does not depend on his grades.”  I liked that.  My worth did not depend on my grades.  I wanted to succeed in school, but God loved me no matter what.

When we finished praying, I stuck around for a bit to talk to people before I went home.  “So what did you think?” Liz asked.

“It was good.  I like the way you guys do things.”

“Are you going to come back next week?”

“Definitely.”

Evan, the deep-voiced guy whom I did not know, walked over to us.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “I’m Evan.”

“Hi,” I replied, shaking his hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Liz told me you’re from Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I replied, wondering where he was going with this.  Did I know him back home and not remember him?

“I’m from Gabilan.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said.  I probably did not know him, but I wondered if my mother did, or if she had heard of his family, since she grew up in Gabilan and seemed to know everyone.  But I did not feel comfortable saying this now.  (I mentioned Evan to Mom a few weeks later, after I learned his last name, and I was correct; Mom did know of his family.)

“Do you go back home very often?” Evan asked.

“Not really.  Usually just quarter breaks.”

“Same with me,” he said.  “Did you go to Plumdale High?”

“Yeah.”

“I have a friend from there.  I wonder if you know her.  Her name is Melissa Holmes.”

“Yes!  I know Melissa!  She’s one of my best friends.”

“Wow.  That’s cool.

“She’s one of only a few high school friends left who I still hear from.  I’ll have to tell her I met you.”

“Yeah.  Tell her I said hi.  I haven’t heard from her in a while.”

“I will.  I should get home, I still have to study.  But it was nice meeting you.”

“You too, Greg.”


The following night I had choir practice at the Newman Center.  I usually carpooled with Heather, another choir member who lived in the same apartment complex as me.  It was Heather’s turn to drive, and when she knocked on my door that night, she was with Melanie, another choir member.

“Mel and I are hanging out tonight,” Heather explained, “so she’s driving.  Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I replied.  We got into Melanie’s car and drove to the church.  When we walked in, Claire Seaver, a music major who was informally the leader of the choir, was getting our sheet music organized; she handed me my copies of this week’s songs.  I set them up on a music stand.  Sabrina Murphy, the cute redhead who, unfortunately for me, had a boyfriend, began setting up the music stand next to me.

The first song we practiced was called Hosea.  We sang this one once before, back in the fall, and I liked it, although I did not understand the title back then.  I did now, though, or at least I knew what Hosea meant.  As if on cue, as if God knew that I was waiting for the chance to demonstrate my newfound knowledge, Sabrina pointed at the word Hosea in the title and whispered to me, “What does that mean?”

“Hosea is a prophet in the Old Testament,” I replied, smiling.

“Oh,” Sabrina said.  I doubted that my knowledge of the Old Testament prophets would make Sabrina leave her boyfriend and go out with me instead, but I could dream.  It did not seem to matter, though, since that would never happen.  Besides, I liked Haley Channing from JCF now.  And my knowledge of the Old Testament still was not much.  I had not yet read the Book of Hosea in the Old Testament, nor did I know how these lyrics, which began “Come back to me with all your heart,” related to the story or writings of Hosea.  But I had seen that name while flipping around my recently acquired Bible over the last few weeks.

“What’s next?” Matt Jones asked after we finished.  Like my new friend Evan, Matt was from Gabilan, and my mother knew his family.  I always felt weird about my mother knowing my friends, just because she talks about people behind their back so often.  But nothing weird had come up with Matt so far.

“‘On Eagle’s Wings,’” Claire replied.  “We’re singing the female version.”  I was not sure what “female version” meant, but I knew this song well; it had been around for a while.  I looked at the fine print at the bottom of the sheet music, as I had been doing recently now that I was reading the Bible; it said “Copyright 1979,” and also mentioned that the text was derived from Psalm 91.  I had not read Psalm 91 yet; I would have to look that up.

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life,” I sang.  Something sounded off, like everyone else had been singing something different at one part.  It almost sounded like the others had said “in her shadow for life.”  I remembered at that moment that there was a time last year, before I had joined the church choir, when I thought the choir had sung “hold you in the palm of her hand” at the end of the chorus, instead of “palm of his hand.”

At the next lyric containing a pronoun, I abruptly stopped singing so I could hear everyone else.  “And she will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” everyone else sang.

“Wait,” I said.  “Is that what the female version means?” Everyone else stopped singing and playing instruments.  “We sing feminine pronouns instead?”

“Oh, yeah.” Claire answered.  “Remember, everyone, feminine pronouns!”

“Why?” I asked.  This made no sense.  Catholics did not believe in Goddess.

“We always do certain songs this way,” Heather said.

“But why?  Is that allowed?  To call God ‘she?’”

“Sister Mary Rose wants it that way,” Claire explained.  “Especially when we do a lot of songs with ‘he.’”  I shrugged my shoulders, and we continued practicing, but I mumbled every time we sang a feminine pronoun.  Calling God “she” just felt wrong to me.  To be clear, I never thought of women as second-class citizens, and my understanding of God was that he transcended the human idea of sex and gender.  But it seemed arrogant and disrespectful to fly in the face of thousands of years of tradition just to keep up with liberal college town political correctness.

After we finished choir practice, Heather and Melanie and I got back into Melanie’s car and headed home.  As we pulled up to the red light at Andrews Road and Coventry Boulevard, Melanie was telling a story about having been in a coffee shop studying yesterday while enjoying a latte.

“I hope it was actually a latte, and you didn’t grab someone else’s drink by mistake,” Heather said.

“Oh my gosh,” Melanie laughed.  “That happened one time.”

“Did you ever find out what you actually drank that night?  You were so messed up!”

“No!  It was strong!”

“Remember when you went up to that guy and kissed him on the cheek?”

“That was so embarrassing!”

I was not there for whatever happened that the girls were talking and laughing about, but it sounded like it would have been fun to watch.  The light turned green as the two girls continued laughing.  The two cars in front of us drove through the intersection as we remained stopped in the middle of the street.  “The light is green,” I said.

“Oh my gosh!” Melanie said, laughing loudly.  “That night was so crazy!”

“You were so funny!” Heather exclaimed.

“The light is green!” I repeated, trying unsuccessfully to get Melanie’s attention.  

“What was it that you kept saying that night?” Heather asked, still laughing.

“GREEN LIGHT!” I shouted.

“No, that wasn’t it,” Heather answered.  “Greg, you weren’t even there!”

“Oh!  Green light!” Melanie finally said.  As she started to pull the car forward, the light turned yellow; it was clear she would not make it through before the light turned red.  She pulled up to the intersection and stopped again.  All three of us laughed.

“Good thing there’s no one behind us,” Heather said.

“I was saying ‘green light’ the whole time,” I said.

“Sorry!” Melanie replied.

After we finally made it across Coventry Boulevard, Melanie dropped me off at my apartment.  I had three midterms coming up on Friday, but I did not feel like studying anymore tonight.  I turned on the computer and decided to unwind on an IRC chat for the rest of the night.  As I listened to the whistles and chirps of my dialup Internet connecting, I thought about the events of the last two days.  I did not want to sound like some kind of sexist pig, but using feminine pronouns for God really bothered me.  There seemed to be no precedent for that in the Bible, as far as I knew, and going against Scripture and Church teaching seemed to be a dangerous slippery slope.

As I looked through the list of people chatting on this channel, looking for possible girls to flirt with, I kept thinking about Bible study last night.  “Create in me a pure heart, O God,” King David had written.  He wrote that Psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba.  I had not committed adultery in the technical sense, but I felt just as guilty sometimes when I talked dirty with girls on the Internet.  That was a slippery slope as well, and I did not want to fall into old patterns that were not God’s will for my life.  I read Psalm 51 again and kept my chat clean that night.

February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

As a child, February 15 was always a significant date to me.  I was one of those kids who ran around telling people that I was “six and a half” years old, instead of just six, and February 15 was my “half-birthday,” six months from my actual birthday.  I outgrew giving my age as a fraction sometime in my preteen years.  But ever since my half-birthday my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had a much more important reason to remember February 15, since it was the anniversary of one of the most important things to happen to me.

I turned nineteen and a half years old on a Thursday, and the day started out pretty lousy.  I worked part time as a tutor for the Learning Skills Center on campus, where I would meet with small groups of students taking beginning math classes.  I was tutoring precalculus this morning, and none of the students in the group could figure out my explanations of how to prove trigonometric identities.  Proofs came naturally to me, and I had been studying the process of how to write a proof in my Abstract Mathematics class, but this did not work for precalculus students.  After that, I walked around the Memorial Union and the Quad looking for a friend to have lunch with.  Finding none, I ate alone outside, where it was sunny but cold.

My only class on Thursdays was physics lab, in the early afternoon.  After lunch, I walked from the Quad to the laboratory classroom in Ross Hall; the walk was about the length of four city blocks.  The weekend started to feel close on a Thursday, and I had Monday off for Presidents’ Day, but I was not looking forward to this weekend.  At this point in my life, a three-day weekend just meant three lonely days of moping around the apartment alone, trying to pick up girls in a chat room whom I would never meet, who may not even be real girls.

That week, I had really been missing the life I had last year in the dorm.  I had tons of new friends last year, and when I felt lonely and bored, I could just walk around the building and see who else was around.  That was a little more creepy to do in an apartment complex where I lived alone and knew few people.  Thirteen friends from my dorm lived less than half a mile from my apartment, and I went to visit them sometimes, but this was more difficult when they were not right in my building.  Living alone, I avoided roommate drama but missed out on all the socializing.  Soon the time would come to make housing plans for the 1996-97 school year, and I really hoped that I would be able to find an awesome group of roommates.  Maybe some of my new friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.

The JCF large group meeting on Friday nights had become the highlight of my weekend most of the time, but the group was not meeting this week.  The staff all had to go to some kind of retreat, which for me meant no hearing a talk about the Bible, and no hanging out with friends afterward.  JCF is a chapter of a national organization called Intervarsity; the chapters are led by staff members whose salaries are paid by raising monthly contributions from supporters and churches, much like how missionaries are paid.  I did not know all of that in 1996, though.  I just knew that there were four adults in their 20s out of school who led the group: a married couple named Dave and Janet McAllen, and two single women named Cheryl and Maggie.

Most importantly in my young man mind, though, no JCF meant no chance to talk to Haley Channing, the sweet girl with the beautiful blue eyes whom I had met a few weeks earlier.  Last Friday at JCF, Haley left early, so all I got to say to her was hi.  I felt completely inept at interacting with girls, especially ones I found attractive.  I did hear someone say that, since there was no JCF this week, people would be meeting for a time of worship and prayer at someone’s house instead.  I was not sure if I was going to go; I did not know those people.

I still felt grumpy and frustrated when I left my physics lab.  I had no more classes, so I walked back toward the Memorial Union and the bus stop on the other side, cutting through the side of the building where the Coffee House was.  As I walked through, I looked around at the people sitting at tables, and I spotted Janet McAllen from JCF staff with a blonde girl I did not recognize.  Janet waved, so I walked over to say hi.

“Hi, Greg,” Janet said, smiling.  “How are you?  Want to sit down?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you know Mary?” she asked, gesturing toward the other girl.

“Hi, I’m Mary,” the other girl said.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  “I’m Greg.”

“How’s your day going?” Janet asked.

“Honestly, not too well.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just feeling discouraged,” I said.  “I’m lonely.  I wish I knew how to have a social life.”

“Do you have roommates?  Do you have a group of friends?  I’ve seen you sitting with people at large group.  Liz and Ramon, Pete, Sarah, Taylor, those people.”

“They were all in my dorm last year.  I still hang out with them sometimes.  They all live not too far from me, in north Jeromeville.  But I live by myself.  By the time I figured out people were making plans for this year, everyone I knew already had roommates lined up.”

“That’s tough.  Hopefully you’ll figure something out for next year.”

“Yeah.  I’ve always had a hard time making friends.  I was teased and bullied all through elementary school.  I kept to myself a lot in high school.  And I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Do you know Jesus?” Janet asked me.  I thought that was an odd question.  I had never been asked this before.

“What do you mean, exactly?” I replied.  “I know Jesus is the Son of God, and he came to earth, and he was crucified and rose from the dead.”

“But do you have a relationship with Jesus?”

Here we go.  Another thing where Catholics and Protestants were different, and I was not in the mood to be told how wrong I was.  I simply answered, “I don’t know.”

“May I explain what that means?”

“Sure.”

Janet pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a horizontal line about halfway down and an inch or so across, then drew a line downward at right angles to the first line.  She drew the mirror image of this on the other side of the paper, then drew a stick figure on top of each side, so that they appeared to be facing each other with a chasm between them.  She wrote “Us” on one side and “God” on the other.  “God created Adam and Eve, and they disobeyed him.  Sin entered into the world, and sin brings death.”  Janet wrote “Death” at the bottom of the chasm.  “So because of sin, humans are separated from God.  We can’t cross over this chasm to God’s side because of sin.  Our sin separates us from God and his holiness, and since everyone has sinned, nothing we can do on our own can bring us back to God.”

I had never heard sin explained that way before.  I had been to Reconciliation a few times back home, and once last year with Father Bill at the Newman Center.  I always thought of it as a pardoning for sins and a promise to do something good to make up for it.  But Janet was saying something different.  I had never studied the theology behind the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I did not know if these two views contradicted each other.

Next, Janet drew a large cross in the middle of the chasm, with the horizontal part of the cross connecting the two sides of the chasm.  “But Jesus came to Earth to make a way, a bridge across this chasm.  Jesus was the Son of God, born without sin, and he took our sin to the cross and died in our place.  And now, because Jesus died on the cross, we have a way back to  God.  Jesus conquered death and rose from the dead.  And he offers that gift of eternal life to all who come to him.  If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved from sin and have eternal life with God.”

“Hmm,” I said.  “I’ve never heard it explained that way.  What do you mean, ‘accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior?’”

“That means you believe that Jesus died to save you from your sins, and rose from the dead, to give you eternal life with God.  And he is the Lord of your life, and you will live the rest of your life for Him.  Do you want that?”

I always thought I believed in Jesus, but apparently I had gaps in my understanding of what that really meant.  I knew this was right, though.  Everything I had learned from JCF over the last four months had convinced me more and more that following Jesus was the right way.  And I had seen God’s love for his people manifested in the way that my Christian friends, old and new, treated me and others with love.

“Yes,” I said.

“And do you believe that you are a sinner, separated from God, and Jesus is the way to eternal life?”

“Yes.”

“Can you pray with me?  Is that okay?  Tell God what you just told me.”

“Yes,” I said, bowing my head.  Janet bowed her head as well.  “Jesus,” I said, “I am a sinner.  And you are the only way to eternal life.  I believe that you are the Lord and Savior, and I pray that you will guide me and give me hope.  I thank you for all the new Christian friends you have put in my life.”

“Father, God,” Janet said after a pause, “I thank you that you have brought Greg into your family.  I thank you so much, Father, for our new brother in Christ.  I thank you that the angels are rejoicing that Greg has found his way home.  I pray that he will stay strong and live his life for you.  Fill him with the Holy Spirit.  Lead him in the way he should go.  And transform his heart to make him more like you every day.  In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.”

I looked up.  Janet was smiling.  “Welcome to the body of Christ,” she said.  “Congratulations!”

“Yes,” Mary said.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward because I had forgotten that Mary had been sitting there this whole time.

“There’s no large group tomorrow, but the guys who live at 1640 Valdez are hosting a worship and prayer night.  Are you going to go?”

“I heard about that.  I wasn’t sure if I was going, but if there is no large group, I won’t be doing anything else tomorrow night.  So I’ll probably be there.”

“I think it’ll be good for you.  Also, are you in a Bible study yet?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“I don’t have it with me, but I’ll get you the list of off-campus Bible studies.  You said you live in north Jeromeville?  I know one of the guys from the house where the worship night is, Shawn, he leads a Bible study that meets not too far from you.  Maybe talk to him tomorrow.”

“I will.”

“Do you have a Bible?”

“Yeah.  A few weeks ago, I hung out with Eddie and Xander and Kristina and Haley and Kelly after JCF.  Kristina gave me an extra Bible she had.”

“Good!  I want you to look these up when you get a chance.” Janet wrote three Bible verses on the paper that she had drawn on earlier and handed it to me.  I put the paper in my backpack.  “Are you going to be okay?” Janet asked.

“Yes, I am.” I smiled.

“Do you need to get home?”

I looked at my watch; I missed my bus by a long shot.  Another bus was probably there now, getting ready to leave in a few minutes.  “I probably should,” I said.  “But thank you for sharing and listening.”

“You’re welcome.  Jesus said to share the good news, after all.”

“Enjoy your retreat this weekend.”

“I will!  I’ll see you next week!”

As I walked toward the bus, went home, and made dinner, something felt different.  Jesus had called me away from the pity party I had been throwing myself that morning.  He had something better for me, a life of peace and hope.  When I got home, while my frozen chicken pot pie was in the oven, I looked up the Bible verses that Janet had told me to read.

Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

Romans 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

John 7:37-38 “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’”

This was me.  I had the Spirit of sonship.  I was God’s child.  I came to Jesus today and experienced the streams of living water.  And the Holy Spirit brought hope which did not disappoint.  I taped Janet’s drawing to the wall behind my desk, the wall that I stared at for much of the time that I was in the apartment, so that I would be able to look at it and remember what it meant to be a child of God.


The next night, I drove to the address of the worship and prayer night. I was pretty sure that this was the same house where the ill-fated car rally a few months ago had ended, so I had been here before.  But tonight I had arrived late, on purpose, because I did not know what to expect and I was nervous about being alone in a room full of people I did not know well.

I knocked on the door, and someone on the inside opened it.  It was dark inside, and around forty people were packed into the living room, on every available couch and chair and on the floor.  I recognized many familiar faces from JCF as I quietly tiptoed to a spot on the floor big enough for me to sit.  Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year, were sitting nearby, and they immediately came over to me when they saw me walk in.  “Congratulations,” Sarah said, giving me a big lingering hug.

“I’m excited for you!” Krista added.

I was a little confused at first, but I figured they must have found out about my decision for Jesus yesterday.  “Thank you,” I said, smiling.

The three of us sat singing along with the worship team as they played and sang a song called “Shine Jesus Shine.” I had heard this song at JCF large group before, and I liked it.  “Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory,” I sang along.  “Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire.”  That was where I was tonight.  The Holy Spirit was setting my heart on fire as I began my new life as a Christian, living for Jesus.

We continued singing for a couple hours, until well after nine o’clock, pausing after every few songs to pray silently.  Sometimes people prayed out loud, and during one of the pauses, we were instructed to pray with the people sitting near us.  Sarah and Krista prayed for my walk with Jesus, that I would continue to follow him and grow closer to him every day.

After the music and prayer ended, I stood up.  Liz Williams and Ramon Quintero, who were also in my dorm last year, approached me.  Liz smiled excitedly and said, “Hey, Greg.  Janet told me about yesterday.”

“It seems like a lot of people heard about that,” I said, chuckling and blushing a little.

“Earlier this week, I was hanging out with Sarah, and we were talking about how you’d been getting more involved with JCF.  Sarah said that she thought you were close to really coming to know Jesus, and that after that you would just be on fire for Jesus.”

“I know.  That’s how I feel tonight.”

“Are you involved with a Bible study yet?”

“No, but Janet emailed me a list of all the off campus Bible studies.”

“You should come with us to ours.  Shawn and Lillian are the leaders.  That’s Shawn, this is his house,” Liz said, gesturing toward an Asian guy with an athletic build.  “Lillian isn’t here tonight.”

“I will,” I said.  “Janet mentioned Shawn’s group yesterday when she asked if I was in a Bible study.  And now you mentioned it.  Sounds like God is telling me to go there.”

Eddie Baker, one of the guys who had originally invited me to hang out the night Kristina gave me her extra Bible, walked up to greet me next.  “Greg,” he said, pulling me into a hug.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, wondering just how many people knew.

“How are you?”

“I’m feeling much better, just about life in general.”

“That’s Jesus.  He changes your life.”

“I know.”

“I need to go talk to some people, but I just wanted to say hi.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too.”

I drove home later that night feeling encouraged and excited.  It no longer mattered that my upcoming three-day weekend would be lonely and boring, because I had Jesus, and Jesus brought hope and peace.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; that was in one of the verses that Janet gave me to read.

Janet told me a few weeks later that Mary, the other girl who had been at the table in the Coffee House when I made my decision for Jesus, was someone who had come to JCF with a friend, and Janet and Mary had been intentionally meeting to talk about Jesus.  Seeing me make a decision for Jesus was exactly the kind of thing that Mary needed.  I do not know what happened to Mary; I only met her once or twice more that year.

To this day, I wonder if Janet made a mistake with the verses she wrote on that drawing.  Romans 5:6, the verse after the one about hope, says “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”  That seems like a much more appropriate, and commonly used, verse for a new Christian learning about God’s grace and the significance of Jesus dying on the cross.  But even if Janet wrote the wrong verse number, God made no mistakes; he knew that that verse about hope was what I needed on that long, lonely Presidents’ Day weekend in 1996.  That was the first verse that I memorized.

In those first days after I made a decision for Jesus, I wondered if this would create tension with my Catholic relatives on my mom’s side.  Mom herself would probably be fine with it; she always respected the beliefs of Christians we knew who were not Catholic.  And I was not personally worried, because Catholics and other Christians follow the same Jesus, and the things we have in common are so much more important than the things that the different branches of Christianity fight about.  I had no plans to stop attending Mass at the Newman Center.  (I did eventually leave the Newman Center, but that is a story for another time.)

I spent most of the rest of the weekend relaxing, studying, running errands, and doing housework.  The only time I saw people the rest of that weekend was at Mass on Sunday, and just like at the worship night at Shawn’s house on Friday, the words of the songs all seemed more meaningful now.  Sure, I did not know what the future held.  I might fail out of school, I might not be successful in the working world, and I might never get a chance to get to know Haley or ask her out.  But even if all of that happened, I still had Jesus, and that meant I always had hope.

Early February, 1996. I was robbed.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said after opening his door.  “Come on in.”  I walked into the apartment that Taylor shared with Pete and Charlie.  When I was looking at apartments for this year, part of the reason I chose my current studio apartment was because over a dozen of my friends from my dorm last year, including these three, would be within a ten minute walk.  It was Saturday afternoon, I was still unwinding from having just taken four midterms in a span of less than 24 hours, and I felt the need for human contact, so I walked to this nearby apartment complex where some of my friends lived.

“So what’s up?” Taylor asked.  “You said you just had four midterms on the same day?  How’d that go?”

“My physics professor let me take his a day early, so I at least had them a little more spread out.  I think they went okay.  Nothing particularly difficult.”

“That’s good.”

I heard a door close elsewhere in the apartment, then footsteps.  Pete walked into the living room.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s up?”

“I just came by to say hi.  What are you guys doing?”

“Just studying,” Pete said.  “I have a midterm Monday.  And tomorrow we have a long meeting at church about this summer.”

“Did we tell you?” Taylor asked.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.  “Tell me what?”

“We’re going on a trip to Morocco with our church this summer.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.  We’ll be gone for over a month, with a group of students from all over the world.”

“That sounds really cool!”

“We’ll be sending prayer letters,” Pete said.  “You’ll get one eventually.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

Taylor and Pete and I continued talking for about an hour, about classes, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and church activities, and whatever else came to mind.  Charlie, their other roommate, was not home that day.  Eventually, Taylor said, “I should probably get to work now.  But thanks for hanging out.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I should get back home.  It was good to see you guys.”

“Stop by any time.”

“See ya, Greg,” Pete added.

“Bye!” I said, waving, as I got up and walked out the front door.

When I got back to my apartment, I picked up my laundry basket and walked to the laundry room.  I had left a load of clothes in the dryer while I went to see Taylor and Pete.  But when I opened the dryer, it was empty.  I was certain that this was the dryer where I had put my clothes, but they were not here now.  I opened every other dryer, and all were empty except for one containing women’s clothes, definitely not mine.  I searched the washing machines as well, to see if maybe I had forgotten to move the clothes to the dryer, although I distinctly remembered putting coins in a dryer and starting it.  Only one washer had clothes in it; this one was still running, and the clothes were definitely not mine.

Someone stole my laundry.

Someone actually had the nerve to remove my clothes from the dryer and take them.  Why?  What would anyone want with the clothes of a 19-year-old student who lived alone and had no sense of fashion?  I was furious.  Thoughts continued to swirl around in my head as I stormed back to my apartment.  Do I call the police?  Will the police care about some kid’s clothes?  If I could not feel secure leaving my laundry behind for an hour, could I really feel safe at all here at Las Casas Apartments?  Or was it dumb of me in the first place to leave my laundry unattended for an hour?  What would I have to do differently in the future?  Would I have to sit with my laundry the whole time?  Would I have to take my laundry to an actual laundromat if I could not trust the apartment laundry room?

I picked up the phone, but not to call the police.  Instead I called my parents’ house.

“Hello?” Mom said.

“It’s me.  Someone stole my laundry.”

“What?”

“Someone stole my laundry.  I washed my clothes, then I moved them to the dryer, and I went to go see Taylor and Pete for about an hour.  When I got back, everything was gone.”

Mom paused.  “What all was in there?”

“Four pairs of jeans, a sweatshirt, a few shirts, and a towel.”

“I can send you money if you–”

“I don’t need money,” I said angrily.  “I want whoever did this to be brought to justice.  And I want to be able to leave my laundry in peace.  I don’t want to have to sit in the laundry room for two hours every time I need to wash clothes, just to make sure no one takes my clothes.”

“I understand,” Mom replied.  “That is inconvenient.”

“It’s not fair!” I said, now fully shouting.

“Calm down.  It’s not the end of the world.”

“Right, but now I have to sit there and wait for my laundry to be done.  That’s going to be so boring!”

“Yeah,” Mom said.  “Can you bring something to read?”  I said nothing, brooding and staring at the floor, so Mom continued, “Hello?  Are you there?”

“I’m here,” I replied indignantly.

“I know you’re angry.  But don’t worry about spending money on clothes.  I can pay you back.  And maybe you can do homework in the laundry room while you’re waiting.”

“I was actually thinking that too.  But it’s still inconvenient.  And infuriating.”

“I know.”

“Should I call the police?”

“You can if you want.  But I’m not sure if they’d be able to do anything about it.  One load of laundry isn’t really a big deal, and there is no evidence.”

I let out a long sigh.  “You’re probably right.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“Are you calm?  You know I worry when you get upset like that.”

“I’m calm.”

“Okay.  When you do get new clothes, just tell me how much money you need.”

“You don’t have to send me anything,” I said.

“But I want to.”

“If you say so.”

“Are you sure you’re ok?” Mom asked.

“Yes.”

Mom spent another twenty minutes telling me about some kids from my brother Mark’s school, some old lady that Grandma was mad at, and a flaky unreliable coworker.  I did my best to listen and not lose interest.

After I hung up the phone, I put a Hungry-Man dinner in the microwave.  Then I turned on the computer, listened to the whirs and whistles and twangs of a dialup modem connecting to the Internet, and connected to my usual IRC chat channel.  I griped to a few strangers and one girl I had talked to before about my clothes being stolen.  I spent the rest of the night eating, chatting on IRC, and reading, and when I undressed for bed that night, I realized that the pair of pants I took off was now the only pair of pants I owned.  I hoped they would not be too dirty or smelly for church tomorrow.


The next morning was sunny but cold.  I walked over to apartment 239 and knocked on the door.  My neighbor Heather Escamilla and I were in the church choir together, and we often carpooled to church.  “You ready?” Heather said when she opened the door.  She wore a long sleeve sweater and pants.

“Yes,” I replied.

The two of us walked toward my car, and as we were getting in, Heather asked, “Aren’t you cold?  You’re wearing short sleeves with nothing underneath.”

“My laundry got stolen yesterday,” I said.  “I don’t have anything with long sleeves anymore.  And this is my only pair of pants left, because I was wearing these when it happened.”

“Oh my gosh,” Heather replied.  “Are you serious?”

“Yeah.  I left my clothes in the dryer for about an hour, and when I went to get them, they were gone.”

“That sucks.”

“I know.  I feel like now I’ll never be able to leave clothes unattended again.  Now I’m going to have to sit in there the whole time when I have clothes washing and drying.”

“I’ve never had that happen before, but I’m sure it’s happened to other people.”

“I guess I have to go shopping this afternoon.”

“Look on the bright side.  It’s an excuse to get new clothes.”

“I guess.”  And Mom said she would pay me back, although I did not say that part out loud.  I did not want to advertise the fact that I was mooching off of my parents, nor did I want to grow up to be a lazy bum.

When we got to church, we walked over to where the choir was assembling.  Danielle and Carly Coronado were talking to each other.  They were sisters; Danielle had lived right down the hall from me last year, and now she lived in the same apartment complex as Pete and Taylor.  Both Pete and Taylor had seemed romantically interested in Danielle during freshman year, to the point that I could never tell exactly what was going on with them, but now she and Pete seemed to be in a full-blown relationship.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said.  “Pete said you were over at their place yesterday?”

“Yeah,” I answered.  “I just went on a walk for a study break.  I would have come to your place if they hadn’t been home.”

“That sounds nice.  How was your weekend?”

“Frustrating.  Someone stole my clothes.”

“What?”

Sister Mary Rose walked past at that moment.  “Stole your clothes?” she repeated.

“Yeah.  From the laundry room at my apartment.  This is the only pair of pants I have left, and I don’t have anything with long sleeves.”

“Oooh.  That’s not good.  Can you get new clothes?” Sister Mary Rose asked.

“I think I’m going to have to do that this afternoon.  It’s just frustrating that someone would do that.  And now I’m going to have to sit in there and wait while I’m doing laundry, every time.”

“That is frustrating.  But maybe someone less fortunate really needed the clothes.  Maybe it will help to think of it that way.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Don’t stress about this,” Danielle added.  “Sometimes that’s just life.  You learn things the hard way.”

“I know.”

After church, I dropped off Heather, ate a quick sandwich, and got back in the car.  I headed north on Highway 117 toward Woodville.  It is commonly said that one cannot buy underwear in Jeromeville, because Jeromeville has no major department stores.  The aging hippie intellectuals who ran the local government in Jeromeville seemed obsessed with the delusion that Jeromeville was a small town and should stay one forever.  One recent example that had been in the news lately concerned a dirt alley in the old part of the city, just a block away from church.  The packed dirt was uneven and full of potholes, and during the winter these holes would fill with rainwater and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  The city’s Transportation Department had proposed paving the alley, a plan supported by all of the residents whose property backed up to the alley.  But the City Council vehemently disagreed, on the grounds that these historic dirt alleys are more in character with a small town like Jeromeville, and paving the alley would carelessly throw away our history and encourage runaway growth and crime.  Ridiculous.

This sort of mentality among the Jeromeville City Council led to my current situation: I had to buy clothes, so I had to either drive to Woodville or cross the Drawbridge into Capital City.  I chose the first today, because Woodville was closer, and I only wanted to buy what I needed and leave, rather than browse all of the huge two-story mall in Capital City.  This made no sense to me.  This was America.  More than 50,000 people lived in Jeromeville, and they needed to buy clothes, so the free market would suggest a need for a department store in Jeromeville.  But according to the Jeromeville City Council, a department store was inappropriate for their small town, so the nearest clothing store was seven miles outside of the Jeromeville city limits in the slightly smaller city of Woodville.  It was an easy drive, with Highway 117 being two lanes in each direction the entire way.  Here in the agricultural heart of Arroyo Verde County, I drove past cow pastures, nut tree orchards, and fields that would be planted with corn and tomatoes in the appropriate season.  A newly installed sign named this stretch of road the “Vincent Fiore Freeway,” after this area’s long-time member of the United States House of Representatives who had recently announced that he would retire after this term and not seek reelection.  For a couple years in high school, I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s political talk show when I was home from school in the mornings; he always said that Vincent Fiore was a liberal who was out of touch with the American people.

Woodville had a very small shopping mall with J.C. Penney, Mervyn’s, and Target as the anchor stores.  I parked the car and walked toward Mervyn’s.  Mervyn’s was a major department store in the western United States for much of the late 20th century, and I seemed to remember it usually being my mother’s preferred store for buying clothes.  It remained my preferred clothing store until the company went out of business in 2009.

I bought four pairs of Levi’s 550 jeans in my size, in three different colors.  I am not normally one to insist on brand name clothing, but I have been loyal to Levi’s jeans for years.  The 550 and 560 styles fit me better than the more traditional 501 and 505.  I bought a plain gray pullover sweatshirt; the sweatshirt I had lost was a University of Jeromeville sweatshirt, and I could buy one of those at the campus store on Monday.  It was okay to have two sweatshirts.  I bought two polo shirts, one navy blue and one dark green, replacing the ones which had been stolen.  I bought a towel that resembled the one that had been stolen. After this, I looked around the store a bit more to look for anything else I might need.  I found an interesting jacket; the torso was made from shiny black athletic wear material, the kind of material that a track suit would be made of, but the sleeves and hood were made from sweatshirt material.  It looked comfortable, and I had come to realize recently that I did not have enough cold weather clothing, so I bought the jacket too.

 I brought my purchases to the cashier.  When she told me the total for my order, I cringed inwardly as I handed her my credit card.  I always paid off my credit card at the end of the month, never carrying a balance, but this was the most money I had ever spent on clothing in one sitting, as well as the highest credit card bill I had ever had so far in the eleven months since first getting this credit card.  I had enough money in my bank account to pay the bill, and Mom said she would pay me back, but I still hated spending money and I felt bad accepting help from Mom.  Once I was done with school and working full time, I would make a point to take care of myself and not accept Mom’s unnecessary handouts.

The next morning, Monday, I waited for the bus wearing all new clothes: the green polo shirt, one of the new pairs of jeans, and the new jacket.  Although wearing new clothes can be fun and exciting, today it just felt irritating.  I could have avoided spending all of that money if some jerk had not stolen my laundry, or if I had just taken the time to wait in the laundry room until my clothes were finished.  But, on the bright side, I had a new jacket, and I definitely felt warmer than usual waiting for the bus today.

When I did laundry again a week later, I waited in the laundry room the entire time.  There was no chair, so I sat on the table intended for folding and sorting clothes.  I brought math and physics homework to work on, and I finished almost all of my homework for that weekend.  Yes, it was annoying having to wait in the laundry room, but I could get used to this.  The laundry room was much less distracting than my apartment.  I never left clothes unattended in the laundry room at Las Casas Apartments again.  After that school year, at my next apartment, I started risking leaving the laundry room while the washer and dryer were running, but fortunately, I never had clothes stolen again.

As I got older, I never did get better at dealing with this sort of minor inconvenience.  Making a mistake that ends up costing money is just as frustrating to me as ever.  I know, though, that I need to put this kind of thing in perspective.  Buying new clothes to replace those stolen was no big deal for me, but millions of people all over the world are much less fortunate.  I tried to convince myself that Sister Mary Rose was right, that someone less fortunate needed my clothes.  That still did not make what happened right in the eyes of the law, but this could have been one of those times when God works in ways that I cannot understand.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

I had been in a bad mood all week.  I woke to rain Tuesday morning, and since then clouds had covered Jeromeville the entire time.  My week had been boring and uneventful, and I was feeling particularly grumpy about not having a girlfriend.  Earlier today, I saw Sabrina Murphy from church on campus, and she introduced me to her boyfriend.  I knew she had a boyfriend, I had been through the disappointment of learning that a month ago, but meeting him felt like a reminder that I was not good enough to date a girl like Sabrina.

It was now Friday evening, and once I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship tonight, I would be alone studying the entire weekend.  The National Football League championship game was coming up Sunday afternoon, but this year I would probably be watching it alone in my apartment.  Maybe that was a good thing; the team I despised the most, the Texas Toros, was heavily favored to win.

Dave McAllen of the JCF staff team spoke that night.  “‘I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel,’” Dave said, reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  “If you look back in Acts chapter 19, it tells about when Paul first visited Philippi.  The first Philippian to receive the gospel was a woman named Lydia.  It says, ‘When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.’  Paul and his companions did not just baptize her and take off.  They started a church that met at her house.”

I had been attending JCF since October.  At first, most of my thoughts during the group meetings were on learning people’s names, figuring out how the group worked, and wondering whether they would have a problem with me being Catholic.  But now that I had been part of the group for a few months, I was paying more attention to the actual content of the message.  I got a different perspective on Scripture from JCF than I got from Mass at the Newman Center.  Father Bill’s homily was usually something fairly brief and general, vaguely related to that week’s Scripture, but the messages given by Dave and the JCF staff applied specific Scriptures in relevant ways for university students in 1996.  Relationship was a big part of spreading the Gospel at a large university.  It was also, unfortunately, something deficient in my life.

After Dave’s talk and the final worship song, I stood and turned to my friends.  I had been sitting next to Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, and Jason Costello, all friends from my freshman dorm last year.  “How’s it going, Greg?” Charlie asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  “Except all my classes have midterms this week.”

“Good luck,” Caroline said.  

“Where are Liz and Ramon?” Charlie asked.

“They went to go see Ramon’s parents this weekend,” Caroline replied.

“Ramon said they’ll be back Sunday morning,” Jason added.  “I need to get going.  I had a midterm today, and I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Yeah,” Caroline said.  “I need to go too.  I need to start my paper.  It’s due Monday.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.  “Is anyone else doing anything tonight?”

“Not me,” Pete replied.  “I have to study all weekend.  I’m so behind in all my classes.”

“Pete’s my ride,” Charlie said, “and I’m behind too.”

“Good luck with your studying,” I said.  “I’ll see you guys later!”

The others said their goodbyes, and I walked around the room.  I knew that learning about the Bible should be the most important part of these meetings, but I was also enjoying the social aspect.  Dave spoke tonight about building relationships, so being social is important too, apparently.  Last week I went to a movie with those friends after JCF, and I was hoping something like that would happen tonight too.  If it did, though, it would not be with them; my opportunity had been stolen by studying, and by Liz and Ramon doing couple stuff.

A freshman named Brent Wang saw me and waved.  I approached him and the others standing next to him.  “Hey, Greg,” Brent said.  “How’s it going?”

“Not bad.  Just busy with school.  How are you guys?”

“I had a midterm today.  I don’t think I did too great.”

“I had one too,” said a tall curly-haired boy whose name I thought was Todd.  “I know I didn’t do too great.”

“That’s too bad,” I replied.  “But you never know.  What are you guys up to tonight?”

“We’re having an overnighter at our Bible study leader’s apartment,” Brent explained.  “Just something for the guys of our group to get to know each other.  We should actually get going; we told him we’d be there in just a minute.”

“Have fun!” I said.  “See you guys next week!”

Over the next twenty minutes, I had some positive small talk experiences but was ultimately unsuccessful in finding something to do.  By now, only ten people remained in the room, and most of them seemed to be helping clean up.  I sat in a seat by myself away from people and put my head down.  What was wrong with me?  Why was it so hard for me to make friends?  I hated being me sometimes.  I hated living alone and feeling out of the loop, and the only reason I lived alone was because I was out of the loop when people were making housing plans for the following year.  And would I ever know the feeling of being in love?

I looked down at the floor, fighting back tears, as I heard more and more of the few remaining students putting things away, saying goodbye, and leaving the room.  When the room was silent, as the last people were getting ready to leave, I heard footsteps approaching, probably to tell me that it was time to go, that they had to lock up.

“Are you okay?” a voice asked.  I looked up to see two guys of average height and build now sitting next to me.  The closer one had black hair and olive skin, and the one behind him had light brown hair and pointed features.

“I’m okay,” I said.  “I’m just having a rough night.  I feel like I don’t fit in around here.”

“Why’s that?  Did something happen?” the dark-haired guy asked me.  He was the same one who had spoken before, and I had seen him around JCF; I was pretty sure his name was Eddie.  I did not know the other guy.

“I haven’t been going here very long.  I don’t know a lot of people.  And the people I do know, sometimes I feel like I’m not really part of their group.”

“Your name’s Greg, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Eddie, and this is Xander.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Who would you say you know here?”

“Pete Green, Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, Jason Costello, Sarah Winters, Krista Curtis… we were all in the same dorm last year.  A lot of them weren’t here this week, though, and the ones who were went home early.”

“Sometimes people just have stuff going on,” Xander said.  “Don’t take it personally.”

“I know.”

“So you’re a sophomore?” Eddie asked.  “We are too.  Do you have roommates?”

“No.  I was in a single room in the dorm last year, and when everyone was making their plans for this year, I didn’t know what was going on until everyone had plans already.”

“Living alone can be nice,” Xander said.  “We live in a big house with eight of us total, and it gets noisy sometimes.”

“Yeah, but it gets lonely too.”

“Can we pray with you?” Eddie asked.

“Sure,” I said.  I found this to be another difference between students at JCF and students at the Newman Center, the willingness to pray for people openly in public like this.

Eddie placed his hand on my back and began speaking.  “Father God, I thank you for bringing Greg to JCF and having our lives intersect tonight.  I pray that Greg will know that he is loved.  I pray that he will experience your love in a whole new way this weekend.  I pray that you will come in and transform his life.  Wash away all the hurt and the pain and show him your blessings anew.”

“Jesus,” Xander added.  “I pray that you will help Greg find his place in our community.  I pray that he will hear from you and know your plan for his life.  I pray that you will bring him into the community you have prepared for him, and I thank you that we got to talk to him tonight.”  After a pause, he concluded, “In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Do you have any plans this weekend?” Eddie asked.

“No.  Just study and homework, but it won’t take the whole weekend.”

“Tonight we’re going to play games with some girls from JCF who live down the street from us.  And we’re going to watch the football championship on Sunday.  You want to come hang out with us?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Where do you guys live?”

“I’ll draw you a map.”  Eddie tore off a piece of paper and drew a map to a street called Baron Court, near Valdez Street and Cornell Boulevard.  He marked two locations at opposite ends of the street, labeling one of them “2212 – Eddie & Xander” and the other “2234 – Girls.”  “Do you know where that is?” he asked.  “It’s in south Jeromeville.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can find my way there.  Are you guys going there now?”

“Yeah.  We said we’d be there a while ago.:

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you in a bit then.”



Baron Court was about two miles from campus on the other side of Highway 100.  I had explored this neighborhood on my bike a few months earlier.  On one side of Baron Court was a large apartment complex with its main entrance around the corner on Valdez Street, and a row of duplexes lined the other side, ending in a cul-de-sac opening up to one of the Greenbelts.  The girls lived in the second to last duplex.  I did not know who these girls were, and I did not know if Eddie and Xander had arrived yet.  If I knocked, and they were not expecting me, would they be comfortable letting some strange man into their home at ten o’clock at night?  After waiting in the car nervously for over five minutes, I had not seen Eddie and Xander arrive, so I assumed that they had gotten there before me.  I walked up and rang the doorbell.

A shorter than average girl with dark curly hair opened the door.  Behind her I could see Eddie and Xander sitting on a couch, looking at the door as if they were expecting me.  “Greg!” Eddie said.  “You made it!  Come on in!”

“Hi, Greg.  I’m Kristina,” said the girl who answered the door.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  We shook hands, and I walked to the couch and sat next to Xander.  On a second couch, placed against the front wall out of view of the doorway, sat two other girls, one small and thin with brown hair and an athletic build, and one average height, but the tallest of the three, with bright blue eyes and straight light brown hair just past her shoulders.  I could not remember ever having met any of these girls before.  Around 150 students attended JCF on an average Friday, so I had not met everyone yet.  “These are my roommates, Kelly and Haley,” Kristina said.  “Six of us live here, but the other three went home for the weekend.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You too,” Kelly, the small athletic one, replied.

“So you go to JCF?” Haley asked.  “I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

“I’ve only been going for three months.  I don’t know a lot of people yet.”

“I didn’t have that experience.  It seems like everyone knew me the first time I went to large group,” Haley said, and the others chuckled.  I got the impression that she was referring to something specific that I did not know about, and just as I was about to ask, Eddie explained, “Haley’s brother goes to JCF too.  He’s a senior.  Do you know Christian Channing?  Glasses, goatee, about the same color hair as Haley.”

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” I said.

“Are you a freshman?” Haley asked.

“Sophomore.”

“Me too.”

“All of us are,” Kelly added, gesturing toward the six of us in the room.

“How’d you find out about JCF?” Kristina asked.

“A bunch of my friends from my dorm last year invited me.”  I told Kristina which JCF people lived in my dorm, and she and the other girls nodded.

“Are you in a Bible study?” Xander asked me.

“I’m not,” I said.  Hoping that this would not make my new friends gasp in horror, I added, “I actually don’t even have a Bible.”

“I think I have an extra Bible,” Kristina said.  “I’ll go look for it before you can leave.  You can have it.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “That would be nice.”

“So what do you want to play?” Eddie asked.

“We can always start with Uno,” Kristina replied.  “Is everyone okay with Uno?”

“Sure,” I said.  Kristina got up and returned a minute later with Uno and a few other games.  She dealt the cards, and we began playing, taking turns trying to match the color or the number of the previously played card.  We made small talk while we were playing, about classes and other things going on around JCF.

Xander played a red 3 card.  My turn was next, but Kristina jumped in and played the other red 3 card, out of turn.  “What?” I said.  “It’s my turn.”

“I had the other red 3,” Kristina explained.

“What do you mean?  Why did you play out of turn?”

“Because I had the exact match.”

“I don’t think that’s an actual rule,” Eddie said.  “Greg, you don’t play that way?”

“No.  It’s not a rule.  I read the rules when I was a kid.”

“That’s how we always play,” Kristina argued.

“That’s fine, as long as I know about it.  Are there any other made-up rules?”

“What about adding to draw cards?” Eddie asked.  “Like if I play a Draw Two, then instead of drawing two, Xander can play another Draw Two, and you would have to draw four.  And if you play another Draw Two, Haley would have to draw six.”

“I don’t know that one either, but that sounds interesting.”

We played three long games of Uno with these house rules that were new to me; I did not win any of them, but it was fun, especially when Kristina, after a great deal of playful trash-talking, had to draw twelve when three Wild Draw Four cards were played consecutively.  After Uno, we played Scattergories.  In this game, each player was given a list of categories and a short amount of time to write things in each category beginning with a predetermined letter.  Only unique answers, different from those of all other players, counted for points.  For the first round the letter was B.  I read the categories and began writing.

Heroes: Batman, but I made a note to change it if I had time, since someone else would probably say that.  Terms of endearment: Babe.  Same thing, someone else would probably say it.  Tropical locations: Bikini Atoll.  Items in your purse/wallet: Bucks.  As in money.  That was creative.  Things that are black: Barry Bonds.  Not exactly politically correct, but good for laughs, and I would get two points for using something with two B words.  I started to panic as the timer inched closer to 0.  At the last minute, I crossed out Batman and put “Bueller, Ferris” for Heroes.  In the movie, Cameron calls him his hero, so I thought I had a good argument.

When the timer went off, we began reading our answers.  “Heroes,” Kristina said.  “Batman.”  Kelly and Xander both groaned that they had also written Batman, so I had made a good choice to change mine.  “Bueller, Ferris,” I said.  Imitating Cameron from the movie, I added, “Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero,” in an exaggerated nasal deadpan.  The others laughed and agreed that my answer counted.

“Items in your purse,” Eddie said.

“Big bills!” Kristina shouted.  “Two points!”

“Isn’t that only one point?” I asked.  “Because ‘big’ isn’t really a necessary part of the answer.  It’s just ‘bills.’”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “I think you only get the point for ‘bills.’”

We continued reading our answers; I scored eight points that round.  We chose a new list for the next round, and Kelly rolled the alphabet die; it landed on C.  I read my new categories and tried to think of C words.  Famous females: Christina Applegate.  Things made of metal: Crowbar.  Medicine/Drugs: Cocaine.  Names in the Bible: This is where my lack of a Bible might hurt me.  I wrote Caleb; I was pretty sure there was a Caleb in the Bible.

“Famous females,” Eddie said as the timer went off.

“Christina Applegate,” I said.  No one else had that.

“Sheryl Crow!” Kristina exclaimed loudly.

“That’s only one point,” I said.  “Sheryl is spelled with an S, not a C.”

“Well, aren’t you the king of not letting me get two points!” Kristina said with mock indignation.

“And you’re the queen of answers that don’t count,” I replied.  Everyone laughed.

It was past midnight by the time we finished the third and final round of Scattergories.  “We should probably get going,” Eddie said.  “It’s getting late.  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Probably,” Kristina replied.  “Wait.  Hang on.”  She walked out of the room, then returned a minute later holding a Bible, which she handed me.  “Here, Greg.  You said you needed this.”

“Yes!  Thank you!”

“It was nice to meet you, Greg,” Haley said, smiling.

“You too.”  I looked at her and smiled back.

“Yeah,” Kelly added.  “Nice meeting you, Greg.”

As we left, walking outside toward the sidewalk, I pointed to my left and asked, “So your house is right down there?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “We’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes.  I’ll be there.  Thanks for inviting me.”

“Drive safely,” Xander said.  “See you Sunday.”

“See you guys then,” I replied.

I got in my car and put Kristina’s Bible on the front seat.  Things really turned around tonight.  Dave spoke tonight about the ministry of the early Christians being built on relationships, and Eddie and Xander heard that message loud and clear, reaching out to me to build friendships that have lasted to this day, even though we now live far apart.  Decades later, I was given the chance to pass on this message about ministry through building relationships.  I was invited to speak at JCF’s Alumni Night in 2016, and I told the students about the night I got upset and threw a cardboard box at Sarah Winters and my friends prayed for me, as well as this night, when Eddie and Xander invited to play Uno and Scattergories.

I went to bed shortly after I got home that night.  It felt like pieces were finally falling into place.  I had many more pieces to go to solve this great puzzle of life, but I felt a little closer to figuring things out tonight than I had earlier.  As I drifted off to sleep, I felt at peace, thinking about my new friends, how Eddie and Xander had included me in their life tonight.  I was going to see them again on Sunday, and it was going to be awesome.

And I also thought quite a bit about Haley Channing and her beautiful blue eyes.  I really, really hoped that she did not have a boyfriend.

The actual bible Kristina gave me on that day, a bit more worn now.

January 10-13, 1996. Another hopeless crush and a party.

I have always had a good ear for music, but I rarely did anything with it other than sing along in the car.  I played piano for a few years in elementary school, but according to Mom, I quit because I thought music was for nerds.  I do not remember saying that, but it definitely sounds like something that 10-year-old Greg would have said, not yet mature enough to embrace being different.  I did not perform music in front of people again until three months ago, when I started singing at 11:00 Mass at the Newman Center.

Our experience levels in the church choir ranged from people like me who just liked to sing for fun all the way up to Claire Seaver, a third-year music major who had been performing all her life.  I did not have much formal training in music, but I would occasionally try different harmonies with some of our usual familiar songs, because my ear could pick up harmonies easily.  I was excited this week when Claire brought a new song for us to learn, with four parts.  We had been practicing it all night, and the sopranos and altos had just finished doing their parts all together.  “Let’s hear just the guys now,” Claire said.

Phil Gallo and I sang the bass parts, while Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell sang tenor, Matt playing guitar as well.  We sounded okay, although there were a few wrong notes sung and played.  After this, we tried the entire song with every part singing, and after three times, it seemed like we finally had perfected the song.

“I thought that sounded good,” I said afterward.

“Yes!” Claire agreed.  “I think we’re ready for Sunday!”

“Yes,” Danielle Coronado said.  “Now I get to go home and write a paper.”

“Already?” Claire said incredulously.  “It’s the first week of class!”

“It’s only one page.  Not really a paper.  Just an assignment.”

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thanks,” Danielle replied.

“See you guys Sunday,” I said, turning back to Phil, Matt, and Ryan.

“Take it easy, man,” Phil replied.  I waved at the guys and went to find Heather, since we were neighbors and had carpooled here, but she and Melanie Giordano were busy talking, and I did not want to interrupt.  I stepped back, waiting, when I heard a soft female voice behind me say, “Hey, Greg.”

I turned around and got nervous when I saw Sabrina Murphy looking up at me.  There was just something about her that was cute, but I knew that she had a boyfriend, so any of these thoughts were hopeless.  I was not sure how to explain it, she was not drop dead beautiful by Hollywood standards, but I found something about her attractive.  “Yes?” I asked awkwardly.

“I just wanted to say you really have a strong bass voice,” she said.  “It really comes out well when we sing harmony like that.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling and blushing a little.

“Have you ever thought about being in University Chorus?  They always need more male voices.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I never thought about singing in any kind of group at all until Danielle talked me into doing this a few months ago.  She’s in chorus, right?”

“Yeah.  And Claire.  I did it freshman year, but I haven’t been able to fit it into my schedule since then.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’ll think about it.”

“You should.  I think you’d be good.”

“You ready?” Heather asked me, having walked up beside me and Sabrina a few seconds earlier.

“Sure,” I said.  “Sabrina?  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes,” Sabrina replied.  Have a great week!”

In the car on the way home, Heather asked me, “So what was Sabrina saying you would be good at?”

“She asked if I had ever done University Chorus.”

“You totally should!”

“I don’t know.  I sing in the car, but I’m not good at, like, real singing.”

“I’ve heard you sing, I think you’d be great!  Give yourself more credit.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Twenty-four hours later, I was sitting in my apartment alone, doing math homework.  It was a Thursday night, and I was in a good mood.  Thursday was my lightest day of class this quarter, and my tutoring job did not start until next week.  But my good mood was mostly because I was still on a high from Sabrina’s compliment last night.  Maybe I sang better than her boyfriend, and she was going to leave him for me.  My attention drifted from my math assignment as I played out this scenario in my head, imagining what I would say if Sabrina came out of nowhere and confessed her love for me.  I heard a knock at the door, and with this on my mind, my heart rate spiked and I almost jumped out of my chair.

I got up and peeked out the window; it was not Sabrina.  Heather Escamilla stood in the dim glow of the porch light.  I opened the door, wondering what she wanted, since there was no choir practice or church tonight.  “Hi,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“I was just thinking, I forgot to tell you last night.  Saturday we’re going to have a birthday party for Gary at our place.  And you’re invited.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Sure!  What time should I be there?”

“I’ve been telling people 7.  I don’t know when everyone will get there, though.”

“That sounds good.  Do I need to bring anything?”

“No.  Just yourself.”

“Great!  I’ll see you then!”

“Have a great night!” Heather said, waving as she turned back toward the parking lot.  I closed the door and went back to my homework.  I just got invited to a party, my first actual college party, other than the one in the dorm last year that I had walked in on uninvited.

As I worked on homework, I kept thinking about Heather and Gary’s party.  I wondered if I would know anyone there.  I wondered if anyone else from church would be there.  Maybe Sabrina would be there.  That in and of itself was enough to make me want to go.

My high had worn off by the time I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on Friday night.  All day on campus, the universe seemed to be throwing in my face the fact that other people had boyfriends and girlfriends and I did not.  I saw a lot of couples acting coupley all over campus today.  This all-American jock type guy sitting across from me on the bus home was making out with a hot girl in a sorority sweatshirt the whole time.  At JCF, I sat next to Liz and Ramon, who were two of my best friends, and had been a couple since early in our freshman year, but something about them being a couple bugged me tonight.  And I overheard someone saying that this junior girl named Amelia Dye was going out with Scott Madison now, which meant one fewer girl left for me to possibly end up with.

As I sat at my desk listening to the whirs and whistles of the modem connecting to the email server, I saw in the corner of my eye the contact list for the Newman Center choir.  Sabrina’s name was misspelled on the contact list; it had her listed as “Sabrina Murpy.”  I would have spelled it right had I typed the list; maybe Sabrina was into guys who could spell.  Maybe I would call Sabrina sometime this weekend, just to talk, to be friendly.  Was that okay?  I did not know.  She probably would not be home.  Her roommate would answer and tell me that she was out with her boyfriend.  Sabrina and her boyfriend were out there driving a knife through my heart, unknowingly digging my grave.

“She’s out there, unknowingly digging my grave,” I said to myself.  Very poetic.  That has a nice rhythm to it.  It was 9:45, I was home alone on a Friday night; maybe tonight would be a good night to write poetry.  I put my sweatshirt back on and took a walk around the apartment complex and through a little bit of the Greenbelt behind the apartments, trying to think of more lines for this poem.  When I returned about twenty minutes later, I wrote down all of the words that had come to mind, and by the time I went to bed, I had this:


“Hello, kid!  How are you?  How’s everything been?”
I’m really stressed out, if you know what I mean.
And how about you?  Got exams coming up?
“I’ve got one on Friday, I need to catch up.”
I called you to see if your roommate was home.
“She’s not, at the moment, I’m here all alone.
Today, it’s not homework that keeps her a slave,
She’s out there, unknowingly digging your grave.”



In November, I had started writing a novel; it was about a high school student who changes his name and goes to live with relatives to make a fresh start.  I had written around forty pages so far.  I had named the novel Try, Try Again, referencing the old saying about what to do if at first one does not succeed.  The character, Mike, felt like he was not succeeding in his old life, so he is trying again.  I worked on Try, Try Again for a few hours the next morning.  It had been a month since Mike had made his new start, and he had found his way into a popular group of friends.  A girl named Erin had taken an interest in him, and after spending a lot of time together at and after school, Mike got brave and asked her to a movie.


Three previews came on before the movie.  Mike did not think any of the movies previewed looked good.  When the movie itself started, he got comfortable in his seat, placing both arms on the armrest.  A minute later, Erin placed her hand on top of his.  Mike looked at her and smiled.  He liked Erin.  After a while, while he was watching the movie, he felt Erin’s hand move from his hand to his knee.  He liked it there too.  Eventually Erin moved her hand off of Mike for good.  Mike, instead, reached over the armrest and took her hand in his, placing it on the armrest.

Mike took his eyes off the movie and looked at Erin.  She did the exact same thing a few seconds later.  He tightened his grip around her hand for a couple seconds, then loosened it again.  Erin began to kiss him.  He liked it a lot.  It was nothing too unusual for most kids his age, but he had never been kissed so passionately in his life.  He tried to return it the best he could, and he felt that Erin liked it as well.  Their mouths slowly separated.  “Thanks,” Mike whispered.  Erin gave him a huge smile.

Mike’s eyes turned back to the movie.  He reached his right hand over to her right shoulder and touched it.  Erin moved her body a little to the left, closer to Mike.  They stayed in that position for the rest of the show.


I wished I could be at a movie with Sabrina, kissing her lips, running my fingers through her pretty red hair, and seeing her cute smile as she looked at me afterward.  What did her boyfriend have that I did not?  A few months ago, I wanted to be kissing Megan McCauley, until I found out that she also was with someone.  And before Megan there were lots of other girls who either had boyfriends or were just not interested in me.  Sometimes it felt like the entire single female population all over the state were conspiring to make sure I never had a girlfriend.

Later that night, I left my home and walked to Heather and Gary’s apartment, in the same complex as mine.  The party started half an hour ago, but I did not want to be the first one there, since I did not know if I would know anyone.  I knocked on the door, and Heather answered.  “Hey!” she said.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.  “Happy birthday, Gary!” I called out across the room when I saw Gary wave at me.

“Thanks!” Gary replied.

I looked around the room.  Six other people were there besides Heather and Gary.  I recognized Melanie from church, but no one else; Melanie was there with her boyfriend.  Sabrina was not there.  I made small talk with Heather and Gary for a bit, talking about school and my trip to Disneyland with my family.

“You actually drove past O.J. Simpson’s house?” Gary said, laughing.  “That’s hilarious!”

“I know.  Mom kept saying she couldn’t believe we were actually doing that.”

“What about O.J. Simpson’s house?” a girl I did not recognize said, walking up as she overheard us.  She had long straight hair and olive skin.  I repeated my story in abbreviated form, and she said, “My apartment isn’t too far from O.J. Simpson’s house.”

“This is my sister, Mariana,” Heather explained.  “She’s visiting from California.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

“So how do you know my sister?” Mariana asked.

“From church.  We both sing in the choir.”

“How fun!  I wish I could hear you guys sing in the morning, but my flight back home leaves at 12:15, so I need to be on my way to the airport by then.”

“Aww.”

“I was in choir in high school and college, but I graduated last year, and I’m not doing any kind of singing right now.”

“Where’d you go to school?”

“Santa Teresa,” Mariana said as Heather and Gary went to greet more people who were just arriving.

“That’s cool.  I’ve never been there, but two of my friends from high school go there.”

“Oh yeah?  What are their names?”

“Paul Dickinson and Jackie Bordeaux.  They would have been freshmen last year.”

“Nope, I don’t know them.  It’s a big school.”

“That’s what I figured.”

“You go to Jeromeville?  What are you studying?”

“Math.”

“Math,” Mariana repeated, making a face.  “That was not my class.”

“A lot of people say that,” I said, laughing.

“Well, if you’re good at it, go for it!  Do you know what you want to do with your degree?  Do you want to be a teacher?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t think I want to be a teacher, though.  Too much politics involved in education.  I just figure I’ll stay in school until I figure it out.”

“I understand that.  I majored in English, but I’m not really using it.  I work in an office.”

“Yeah.  I was never very good at English in school.  I never understood what I was supposed to get from the novels and poems that we had to read.”

“I did a lot of BS’ing on assignments like that, to be honest.”

“I see,” I replied, chuckling.  “But the weird thing is, even though I was always bad at English class, I like to write.”

“Oh yeah?  What do you like to write?”

“Sometimes I have a thought stuck in my head, and it’ll become a weird poem.  And last year I wrote a short novel.  I had a really interesting year when I was a senior in high school, so I turned that into a novel.”

“That’s so cool!”

“And right now, I’m working on another novel.  It’s about a guy who runs away to live with relatives, because he wants a fresh start.  But he pretends to be sixteen instead of eighteen, because he realized he missed out on a lot of experiences in high school, and he wants a second chance.”

“That’s interesting.  Where’d you get that idea?”

“Probably just because sometimes I wish I could do that.”

“You feel like you missed out on a lot?”

“Yeah.  Like I said with the first novel, I grew a lot my senior year, but then we all graduated and moved away.  I feel like if everything that happened my senior year had happened earlier, I would have graduated as an entirely different person.”

“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Mariana contemplated.  “Hmm.  Interesting.”

“If you want, I can send you some of my writing,” I said.  “Or at least I’ll send you what I have so far.”

“Yeah!  That would be so cool!”

“Do you use email?”

“I don’t,” Mariana said, disappointedly.  “Is that a problem?”

“You can give me your address, and I can mail it to you.”

“Sure!  I’ll do that.  Let me go get a piece of paper.” Mariana walked off and came back a minute later, handing me her address.

“Thanks!” I said.

Mariana and I talked for about another hour, about life, the past, the future, and many other things on our minds.  I could not help but wonder, could there be something here?  Might she be interested in me that way?  She was a few years older than me, that would be different; hopefully she did not see me as some immature little kid.  I had a way to keep in contact with her, and that was the important part at this moment.

“I’m going to get another drink,” Mariana eventually said.  “But, hey, it was really good talking to you!  Send me your story!”

“I will.  Thanks.” I smiled.

“We’ll probably talk more later tonight.”

“Yeah,” I said.

No one else that I knew ever showed up to the party.  I talked to Melanie for a bit about my winter break, and one of Gary’s engineer friends was drunkenly asking me about math at one point.  The party got louder as the night went on, and I went home around 10:30.

As soon as I got home, I printed out a copy of the unfinished Try, Try Again to send to Mariana, and I excitedly mailed it with extra stamps the next day.  This weekend sure turned into a great one.  I met a girl who talked to me for a long time and was interested in my creative work.  Maybe I did not need to hope for Sabrina to leave her boyfriend after all.  Life was finally looking up for me.

Except it never happened.  I never heard from Mariana again.  I never found out if she read my story.  She never wrote back, and Heather never mentioned her around me again.  I could have asked, of course, but I never asked others about girls I was interested in.  I was embarrassed for anyone to know that I liked a girl, ever since eighth grade when Paul Dickinson told the whole school who I liked.

Why did Mariana act so friendly if she did not want to talk to me again?  Things like this had happened before.  Jennifer Henson had been friendly to me all through senior year of high school, then that summer she moved away suddenly without leaving me a way to contact her.  Many other girls would treat me like this throughout my life, and I had a tendency to misunderstand the intentions of others.  People are complicated, reading and understanding them is hard, and I still had a lot to learn.  Maybe I would figure all of this out someday.  Until then, I had plenty of material for poetry and fiction.

December 24-25, 1995. I really wish Mom would ask me first before volunteering me for things.

“Time to open presents,” I said as I put my dinner plate in the sink.

“First I have to do the dishes, then I have to go upstairs and finish wrapping them,” Mom replied.  “I told you, I’d tell you when I was ready.  Go watch Jeopardy! or something.”

“Mark is watching basketball.”

“Then go watch basketball with Mark.”

“I don’t care about those two teams,” I said, climbing the stairs to my bedroom.  I turned on the computer.  My parents had no Internet service, so the only way I could use the Internet was to dial the same number I used to connect to the Internet in Jeromeville.  Mom told me that it was okay to check my email a couple of times per day, but I did not want to tie up the phone line for hours at a time with an expensive long distance call, so I was not chatting on IRC or reading Usenet newsgroups from my parents’ house.

I listened as the modem made the sounds associated with checking my email.  It began with a standard dial tone, followed by the tones of the number I had to call to connect to the University of Jeromeville network, but this time there were eleven tones, not seven, since I was calling from outside the area code.  A series of hisses, clicks, high-pitched beeps, whirs, and other unintelligible sounds followed this, until I saw a progress bar indicating that my messages were downloading.  When the messages had all downloaded, about a minute later, the computer clicked and disconnected.  I had last checked my email when I woke up this morning, and four new messages had come in since then.  Three of them were jokes that people had forwarded me from someone else, and I had seen all of them before.  The fourth message, which was sent early this afternoon, I paid more attention to.  It was from Brittany, a girl in Texas who was one of the first friends I made on the Internet, a year a half earlier when this computer was brand new.  This was the first I had heard from Brittany in about a month.


From: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Sun, 24 Dec 1995 01:44 -0600
Subject: Re: hi

Greg!  I’m so sorry I haven’t been writing.  I’ve been really busy with school.  Classes this year have been so much more work than high school was.  I feel like I did ok on all my finals though.  Studying for finals pretty much took up all of the last few weeks.  But now I can catch my breath until spring semester starts.  How did your finals go?  Are you back with your family for Christmas?

–Brittany


I used to get emails from Brittany just about every day for most of the last school year, my freshman year at UJ and Brittany’s senior year of high school.  But over the last several months, I had heard from her less and less as her life got busier. I clicked Reply and began typing.


From: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
To: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
Subject: Re: hi

Hi!  It’s good to hear from you!  I’m glad you did well on finals.  What are you taking next semester?  Do you have any fun plans over break?  Do you know yet where you want to transfer after you finish community college?

I think I did well on my finals too.  I only had three this year.  I’ve been at my parents’ house for about a week.  We’re going to open presents later tonight.  We always open presents the night before Christmas, because the night before my 9th birthday, I was so excited to open presents that I couldn’t sleep, and I kept Mom awake all night.  Ever since, so that I’d be able to sleep when I was a kid, we always open birthday and Christmas presents the night before instead.  Tomorrow, we’re going to church, and then my grandma’s house in Gabilan, the next town over.  My aunt and uncle and cousins will be there, so we’ll have more presents to open.

My mom also wants to go see my grandma’s neighbors.  Their daughter is a senior in high school, she’s taking physics, and Mom volunteered me to tutor her.  I don’t particularly want to spend my break doing homework with some stranger.  I really wish Mom would ask me first before volunteering me for things.  That’s how I ended up with the summer job at the bookstore.  But at the same time, maybe it won’t be so bad, because I get to hang out with a girl.


“I can’t find bows,” Mom called from her bedroom.  “Do you care if one of your presents doesn’t have a bow?”

I minimized the window in which I was typing my message to Brittany and opened the door.  “Mom, I tell you every year, we look at the wrapping paper for like two minutes and then tear it off.  I don’t care what the wrapping looks like.”

“Well, I want it to look nice.  Gifts are supposed to have bows.”

“I really don’t care.”

“If you really don’t care, then, I’m done.  Are you ready to open presents?”

“Sure.”

I saved my unfinished message to Brittany and turned the computer off, following Mom downstairs.  I would have more to write after I was done opening presents.

“I hope this is the one you asked for,” Mom said as Mark opened a box.  Inside was a University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball jersey.

“Yeah, this is it,” Mark said, admiring his present.  “Thank you!”  Mark lived and breathed basketball, and he had favorite players on many different teams as well as several favorite college basketball teams, none of which were anywhere near our house in Plumdale.  I preferred to be a fan of local teams, but most of the top college basketball programs were on the other side of the country; North Carolina, for example.

I grabbed a box with my name on it next; from the size and weight, I guessed that it continued clothing.  I pulled out a gray shirt with red writing and tan highlights: BAY CITY CAPTAINS, it said.  “Thank you,” I replied.  The Bay City Captains were my favorite pro football team, the only sports team that I followed closely that year.  The Captains won last year’s championship and, despite having lost the final game of the season that morning, would advance to the playoffs again this year. I made a note to myself not to mention the Captains shirt when I finished my email to Brittany, given what I knew about her football allegiances.

We continued opening presents.  I got a new pair of jeans, and some blank audio cassettes, for making copies of CDs and listening to them in the car.  My car had no CD player.  Mom handed me one final gift, a box about the size of a book, but much less heavy.  “You didn’t ask for this, but I saw it and figured I had to get it for you,” Mom explained.

“Ha!  This looks hilarious!” I shouted as I tore the wrapping paper and read the label underneath.  It was a computer game, Beavis and Butthead: Virtual Stupidity.  I read the description on the back of the box.  It was an adventure game; the player controlled Beavis and Butthead as they walked around the streets of Highland, making mischief and trying to impress Todd, the local delinquent who the boys misguidedly admired.  But then I saw something on the label that made me feel panic mixed with disappointment.  “I can’t play this,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Mom asked.

“It’s for Windows 95.”

“Oh… and that means there’s no way it’ll run on your computer?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Can you get Windows 95 for your computer?”

“That would be expensive.  And my computer isn’t very powerful; it would probably run very slowly.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “I didn’t even think to look.”

You never do, I thought.  I considered bringing up the time Mom completely missed the “explicit lyrics” warning label when she got Aunt Jane one of Adam Sandler’s comedy albums a few Christmases ago, but I decided not to say anything.

“We’ve been meaning to get a computer for us,” Mom continued.  “So you can play it here when you come home for spring break.  Right?”

“Yeah.  That works.”

After we were finished opening presents, I went upstairs.  I was disappointed that I would not be able to play the Beavis and Butthead game, but I tried not to let my disappointment show.  Christmas was always stressful for Mom, and I already felt a little frustrated with Mom because of the way she had volunteered me to tutor Monica Sorrento in physics without asking me.  I turned on the computer and finished my email to Brittany.


We just finished opening presents.  Mom got me the Beavis and Butthead computer game, but it requires Windows 95 and I don’t have that.  I feel bad, because Mom is going to think I’m upset with her.  When I was 13, my computer was broken, and my presents that year were all computer games, and I got so upset and threw a tantrum because I couldn’t play with any of my Christmas presents.  I feel terrible, because now Mom always has to apologize over and over again if any of us asked for something for Christmas and she wasn’t able to find it, or if something she got wasn’t quite right.  I’ve told her every year I’m more mature now and she doesn’t have to worry about it, but I think I traumatized her for life.

What are you doing for Christmas?  Have a great day!

gjd


The next morning, as we drove to church, Mom was rattling off a bunch of things about people whom we might see at church this morning.  “The Lusks all went to midnight mass, so we won’t see them, but they’ll be at Grandma and Grandpa’s house this afternoon,” Mom said.

“Good,” I replied.  Jane Lusk was my mom’s younger sister, and seeing their family, particularly my cousins Rick and Miranda, was always a highlight of Christmas for me.

“And the Sorrentos usually go to Mass first thing in the morning.  But we’re still going over there this afternoon.”  I nodded silently, prompting Mom to ask, “Right?”

“Yes,” I said.  I did not want to make the situation worse, but I felt like I really needed to speak up.  “But I really do wish you would stop volunteering me for things without asking me first,” I said.

Mom paused, taken off guard by my question.  “Are you saying you don’t want to go see Monica Sorrento today?”

“No.  It wouldn’t be nice to back out now.”  Besides, I thought, it isn’t every day that I get to talk to girls, but I did not say that part out loud.

“Okay,” Mom said, sounding bothered.  “But when have I volunteered you to do things before?”

“When you told Paula McCall that I could work at the bookstore over the summer.”

“You were home, you had nothing to do, and you even said you should get a job.”

“I know, but maybe that wasn’t the job I wanted.  I mean, I probably would have said yes if you had asked me, but you still should have asked me first.”  Mom did not reply to that, so I continued.  “And remember fourth grade, when most of my class was mean to me, and you invited all four of the kids who weren’t mean to me over for play dates.”

“I thought that’s what you wanted.  I was trying to help you make friends.”

“I wanted to make friends, but I wanted them to be nicer to me at school.  I didn’t want them at our house.  And in sixth grade, when we had to babysit Jonathan Hawley once a week because you thought I might want to play with someone from my class.  He was so annoying!”

After a few seconds of silence, Mom replied, “He was annoying, wasn’t he.  I’m sorry.”

“Just ask me first next time you tell someone you think I’d like to do something.”

“Okay.  I promise I will.”

“Thank you.”

“And you’re sure you’re still okay with going to the Sorrentos today?”

“Yes.”

After church, we exchanged presents from the rest of the family at my grandparents’ house.  Grandma got me new socks, and Aunt Jane got me another Bay City Captains shirt, a little different from the one I had opened at my parents’ house.  Rick’s present from Mom was a Captains hat that looked very similar to my shirt.  I suspected that Mom and Aunt Jane had bought all of the Captains merchandise together when they went shopping together earlier in the week.

After about another hour of sitting around eating and playing games, Mom asked if it was okay to go next door to the Sorrentos’ house now.  “Okay,” I said.  I got up and followed Mom next door, waiting nervously on the porch behind Mom as she rang the doorbell.  The Sorrentos were a large family, and they lived in a large two-story house.  They had five girls; Monica was 17, the oldest, and the youngest was in elementary school.  Mom had known the Sorrentos for years; Mom and Aunt Jane and Mr. Sorrento and his sister all went to high school together.

A few seconds later, I heard footsteps and the clicking of a door being unlocked; the door opened, with Mrs. Sorrento on the other side.  “Hi, Peggy!  Hi, Greg!  Merry Christmas!” she said.  I could not remember if I had ever actually met Mrs. Sorrento, but everyone at Our Lady of Peace Church seemed to know who I was, because they knew Mom.

“Hi,” I said.

“Monica is in her room.  I’ll go tell her you’re here,” Mrs. Sorrento said, walking down the hallway.  I stood awkwardly, staring at Mom and looking around at the part of the Sorrentos’ house that I could see from the doorway, until Mrs. Sorrento returned with Monica about a minute later.

“Hi,” Monica said, smiling.  Turning to me, she said, “Nice to meet you,” and shook my hand.  I returned the handshake.  Monica was short and thin, with curly brown hair and brown eyes.

“You needed help with physics?” Mom said to Monica.  “Greg always liked physics.”

“There was something I didn’t understand,” Monica explained, “but I went in to talk to the teacher about it.  I think I get it now.”

So Mom dragged me all the way here to tutor Monica in physics, and now she says she does not need a tutor.  Now I really did not understand the point of all this.  “That’s good,” I said to Monica.  Trying to think of something to say, I added, “I had a bad physics test last year.  High school physics was easy for me, so I didn’t study very hard.  But I started going to my professor’s office hours, and I studied really hard for the next one, and that time I had the highest grade out of the whole class, about 200 people.”

“Wow,” Monica replied.  “I know that’s normal for you, but 200 people in a class sounds kind of crazy.”

“Yeah.”

“So how do you like Jeromeville?”

“I like it.  It’s a huge school, but I’ve found smaller communities to get involved with.  That’s important.”

“Yeah.  I’ve been thinking about colleges, but I’m going to stay home and go to Hartman for the first two years.  I’m probably going to apply to Jeromeville, though.  And U of the Bay, and Capital State, and Central Tech.  I know those for sure.”

“That sounds good.”

“Greg applied to Central Tech too,” Mom added.  “But not Capital State.  Right?”

“Yeah.”

We continued making small talk with Monica and Mrs. Sorrento for about another fifteen minutes.  Mom and Mrs. Sorrento talked about people from church whom I did not know, and Monica and I talked about school and classes.  Mr. Sorrento and two of Monica’s sisters also appeared to say hi.

“Are you ready to go back to Grandma’s house?” Mom asked.

“I think so,” I replied.  Turning to Monica, I added, “And you’ll let me know if you need help with physics or anything like that?”

“Sure!” Monica answered.  “Let me get your contact information.”  She went back to her room and returned with a pen and paper, on which I wrote my address, phone number, and email.

“Can I get yours too?” I asked.  “Well, I know your address.  Do you have email?”

“My dad does.  If you write me there, he’ll pass it on to me.”  Monica wrote her phone number and Mr. Sorrento’s email on the piece of paper, tore that part of the paper off, and gave it to me.  I put it in my pocket.

“Thank you,” I said.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“Nice meeting you too!” Monica said, smiling.

“Thanks for coming over,” Mrs. Sorrento added.  “It was good seeing you guys.”

“You too,” Mom said.

As soon as we were out of earshot, walking back up to Grandma’s front door, Mom said, “See?  That wasn’t so bad.”

“I know,” I said.

“And I promise in the future, I’ll ask you before I tell someone you’ll do something.”

“Thank you.  Can we just drop that now and enjoy the rest of Christmas?”

“Sure.”

I still thought it was a little strange that Mom seemed to make such a point of Monica needing help with physics, but then Monica told me she did not even need help.  I could think of two possible explanations for how this happened: either Mom misunderstood whatever Mrs. Sorrento had originally said about Monica not doing well in physics, or the physics thing was entirely made up and Mom was just trying to help me meet girls.  Either one was very possible, knowing Mom.

Monica and I kept in touch off and on for the rest of that school year, and I saw her in person occasionally on future visits to my grandmother’s house over the years.  We never did become close lifelong friends, nor did anything else happen between us, but that was just part of the cycle of people meeting each other and growing apart naturally.

Since that day, though, Mom really did get better about not telling people I would do things for them without asking me first.  When situations like that came up in the future, Mom would say things like “I’ll ask Greg” instead of “Greg would love to do that.”  And that was what I really wanted, to be treated like an adult and be allowed to make my own decisions.  Being a parent and watching children grow up is a difficult transition, but a willingness to communicate and listen helps everyone get through it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

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

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

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

“Which class?”

“9B.”

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

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

“Aerospace engineering.”

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

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

“That sounds nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?” a tired voice said.

“Mindy Jo?  It’s Greg.”

“Hey!  How’re you doin’?”

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

“You’re fine.  I wasn’t sleepin’.”

“That’s good.”

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

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

“You haven’t met a nice girl yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well… this week has been interestin’.”

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I hope you’re okay.”

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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