If you’re new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life. I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2. Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.
This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 2. Last week, I did the same for Year 1. Many of my current readers have not been with the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up. I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap. As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far. If this is your first time here, and you do not want to read all 88 episodes, you may want to read the recap of Year 1 first.
I went home to Plumdale for the summer and worked in a small bookstore. I got the job through the connection that one of the two other employees was a family friend. Mom volunteered me for the job without asking me, and while I hate when she does that, this time I did not mind because I needed something to do, and getting paid would be nice. I thought at first that working in a bookstore would be fun, but the store was very slow, and not exactly my clientele.
I had lost touch with most of my high school friends, although I saw a few of them. I watched a roller hockey game with Rachel, and I saw Catherine and Renee and some of Catherine’s friends from Austria in a choir and orchestra performance that she put together. I kept in touch with a number of Jeromeville friends, mostly through writing letters, although a few of them had access to email during the summer. My cousins Rick and Miranda came to visit for a week, and I went with them, my mother, and my brother Mark to Jeromeville for a day, to show everyone around. I got to see Taylor and another guy from my freshman dorm on that day.
I turned 19 in August. The lease for my apartment began September 1, and I moved back to Jeromeville the first weekend of September. Classes did not start until the end of September, but I preferred being bored in Jeromeville to being bored in Plumdale. I spent that September going on lots of bike rides and talking to lots of girls on Internet Relay Chat. As the school year approached, I was encouraged as I started seeing familiar faces around campus and town. Megan, the resident advisor from a nearby building whom I had gotten to know (and like) the previous year, was now an RA in a building in the North Area, and she invited me to have lunch with her at the dining commons.
I had plenty of new experiences that fall. I got a job tutoring calculus for the tutoring center on campus. Also, Danielle, my friend from last year who also went to Mass at the Newman Center, finally talked me into singing in the choir at church. Another student in the choir, Heather, lived near me, so we usually carpooled to choir practice and to Mass.
Liz, another friend from last year, had invited me a few times to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. I was hesitant , since I was Catholic and I knew that other Christians did things differently and sometimes looked down on Catholics. I was not sure that JCF would be the first place for me. But I finally decided to take her up on her invitation that fall; since I was living alone, I knew that I needed to do all I could to stay close with my friends. I quickly decided that JCF was a wonderful place for me. In addition to already having several friends who attended there, I started making new friends, and in addition to learning more about the Bible, I also started socializing with JCF people.
I started a new creative project that fall: a novel, about an 18-year-old who is not ready for high school to be over. He goes away to live with relatives and pretends to be younger so he can go through high school again and get a second chance at having a social life. I got the idea because I felt that way sometimes. As the winter went on, my classes continued, I worked on the novel, and the holidays came. I spent Thanksgiving with my family visiting the relatives in Bidwell. I spent Christmas back home in Plumdale with my family, where Mom volunteered me for something yet again without asking me. We made a last minute trip to Disneyland for the New Year, and on that trip we decided on a whim to drive by the house of an infamous celebrity.
I had still never had a girlfriend, and things never seemed to work out for me. It seemed like every girl I met always seemed to have a boyfriend. I was disappointed when Megan, the older girl who was an RA, mentioned at one point that she was dating someone. I found out something later that made me realize that Megan and I never would have worked out anyway.
While many positive things had happened so far that year, I still got discouraged and had bad days sometimes. One of those bad days happened on a Friday, the night that JCF met. As everyone trickled out of the room, I sat alone by myself. Two guys, Eddie and Xander, came over to talk to me and invited me to hang out with them afterward, along with Haley, Kristina, and Kelly, three girls who lived down the street from them. I made new friends that night, some of whom I am still friends with today.
The winter quarter was not easy academically. My classes all had their midterms on the same day. Then, a few days later, some jerk decided to steal my clothes out of the laundry. Just when despair was starting to get to me, I saw one of the JCF staff on campus; she told me exactly what it means to follow Jesus, how he died for our sins to bring us eternal life with God. I made a decision that day to follow Jesus.
With this new outlook on life, I started attending Bible study. I was learning more about my faith, really paying attention to God’s Word for the first time. My friend Melissa from high school told me in an email that she went bowling and got a score of 178, her best ever. This was exactly the same as my best bowling score ever, from the fall when I took bowling class. Melissa and I agreed to meet over spring break to see who was truly the better bowler, and that one game was legendary.
In April, the University of Jeromeville got a new ID card system. We all had to take new pictures, and mine was the worst ID card picture I have ever taken in my life. The following week, I got invited along on a road trip to Bay City with a mix of old friends, including Sarah and Caroline, and new friends, including Eddie, Xander, and Haley. We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, walked uphill to an amazing view, and then drove down the coast to Moonlight Cove and slept illegally on the beach.
Finding a place to live in Jeromeville is a very stressful endeavor. I heard Pete and Charlie say that they needed a third roommate for next year, but Mike Knepper came along and took that spot just as I about ready to commit. I asked for prayer about it at Bible study a couple weeks later. Shawn, the senior who co-led the study, almost immediately mentioned that he and his current roommate Brian were staying in Jeromeville another year with no place to live yet. God answered the first part of my prayer pretty quickly, giving me roommates for next year. I had trouble finding a house to rent, since we waited so long, but I found a nice apartment on the northern edge of Jeromeville, about two miles from the campus core.
I went to the Spring Picnic again, and I saw the band Lawsuit play. I also worked the Math Club table for a while, which took away from my time to wander around and have fun, so I learned that day never to volunteer during the Spring Picnic. I saw the Olympic torch pass through Jeromeville on its way to Atlanta. I saw Sarah and a few other students from JCF get baptized. And Haley had become my newest love interest, so of course I had plenty of awkward moments in front of her, as well as in front of other girls.
I was still doing very well in classes. Being a math major, I was now taking two math classes every quarter, and started taking upper division math classes in the middle of that year. Dr. Gabby Thomas was my favorite math professor so far; she spoke clear English and felt like a normal human being more than many of my other professors. As the year ended, I participated in the Man of Steel competition, a decade-old tradition among the men of JCF involving disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and a game of poker. I did not do too well. Fortunately, my finals went better than the Man of Steel competition, and I ended the year on a positive note, at a huge graduation party hosted by my new friends who were graduating, Brian and Shawn.
Here is the playlist of songs I used in year 2. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be doing next week; I will continue the story into Year 3 soon, but in real life, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or two, so I might need some more time off.
If you are new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life. I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2. Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.
This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 1, and next week I will do the same for Year 2. Many of my current readers have not been following the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up. I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap. As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.
In the summer of 1993, my parents took me on quick driving tours of universities, so I could start thinking about what to do after high school.
I lived in Plumdale, a semi-rural area on the West Coast of the United States. The University of Jeromeville, about a two and a half hour car trip from home, offered me a scholarship for my grades. They also invited me to be part of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, a program for honors freshmen who live in the same building and take general education classes specific to that program.
I chose to attend Jeromeville, and I moved there in the fall of 1994. I made lots of new friends in Building C, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program dormitory. Taylor, the friendly guy fond of deep conversations. Danielle, the girl just down the hall from me who sang in the school choir. Caroline, Danielle’s roommate who had lived in Australia for over a decade. Liz and Ramon, one of the first couples to form once the school year began. Pete, downstairs, who taught me the board game Risk. Sarah, a good listener with a kind heart. And dozens of others.
Growing up, my family was Catholic, but I did not attend church regularly. Mom told me to look for the Newman Center, a ministry for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities, when I got to Jeromeville. The Jeromeville Newman Center held student-focused Masses in a building just off campus; my dorm neighbor Danielle also attended Mass at Newman, and sang in the choir. Many of my friends from Building C attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational organization with small group Bible studies and weekly meetings with worship music and a talk. JCF was not affiliated with a church, but many of my friends in JCF attended an Evangelical Covenant church.
In addition to my Building C friends, I had other new friends as well. I discovered this newly emerging technology called the Internet while at UJ, and I used it quite often to talk to girls on IRC, the chat room system of the early Internet. I also met people from UJ not in my dorm: Jack, a mathematics major who was in many of the same math classes as me. Mike Knepper and Tabitha, two students who lived in nearby dorms and were in the same Bible study as my friends from JCF. And Megan, a friendly resident advisor in one of the other dorms near mine. Megan was a sophomore, my first older friend at UJ other than my own resident advisors. Our conversations around the dining hall and the Resident Help Window quickly developed into a crush on my part. I considered becoming a resident advisor for sophomore year: this would give me room and board for next year, and I would get to help create the same friendly dorm environment that I experienced. Also, I would get to work with Megan, since she would be a resident advisor again the following year.
The University of Jeromeville is a beautiful campus. It is located in the western United States, in the middle of a large valley that is a major agricultural area. The university was founded as a branch campus of the state’s flagship university, for students studying agriculture. Beyond the core part of campus, next to the city of Jeromeville, the campus extends west on about three square miles of farmland used for agricultural research. A dry creek bed along the south end of campus had been converted into a very skinny lake about a mile and a half long, with an arboretum planted along both banks, for both scientific and recreational purposes. I quickly discovered how much I loved exploring this campus on my bicycle.
I was not used to staying up late. Back home, I went to bed around ten o’clock, and it took me quite some time to get used to the schedule of dormitory life, with students being noisy late at night. Quiet hours began at 11:00 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, but the resident advisors enforced this with varying levels of accuracy. One night, after a particularly bad day, I was awakened by people inconsiderately talking in the middle of the night. I opened my door angrily and overreacted, then I ran away, ashamed of having lost my cool in front of my new friends.
During that year, living in a tiny, boring single room in the dorm, I did a lot of reading and writing. I had always had a creative side that I did not show often. I started writing poetry as a hobby during that year, both funny and serious. In the spring, I added some more creative projects. During UJ’s spring break, I visited my old high school, which was not on break, and that brought back so many memories that I wrote a short novel based on my experiences senior year of high school. Also, around that time, two free-spirited girls in my dorm, Skeeter and Bok, began regularly painting abstract watercolors in the common room, with others contributing sometimes.
With Jeromeville being a fairly small city next to a large university, the rental housing market in Jeromeville was extremely tight. Students were only guaranteed one year of living on campus, with there being so few dormitories, and my plan to be a resident advisor did not work out. When my friends were making plans to room together and get apartments for the 1995-96 school year, I was oblivious and missed out. My parents said that we could afford for me to get a small studio apartment, but apartments were filling up quickly. After weighing all the options, I chose to sign a lease on a studio apartment in a complex called Las Casas, about a mile north of campus and within a short walk of two other apartment complexes where many of my closest friends would be living next year.
As a student at UJ, I got to experience many of the campus traditions that have united generations of UJ students. I attended Jeromeville Colts football and basketball games and learned the cheers. I learned the hard way the importance of putting fenders on your bicycle wheels when it rains. But the best tradition of all was the Spring Picnic, the university’s annual open house that had evolved over the years into a huge festival. Dozens of academic departments, student groups, clubs, and performing groups had exhibits and shows during the Spring Picnic. In addition to all the fun I had wandering those exhibits, I also watched a band called Lawsuit, on Megan’s recommendation. The band was amazing, sounding like nothing I had ever heard before.
In school, I had always worked hard for good grades, and I was always one of the top students in my class, but never quite the top. I had kept up my good grades at UJ, with my lowest grade so far this year being one A-minus. I had not declared a major yet. My favorite classes in high school were always mathematics and classes involving mathematics, like chemistry and physics. I enjoyed computers as a hobby, but I felt my computer knowledge was too out of date for me to be a computer science major, and I grew up sheltered in an area without many high-paying jobs, so I never even considered anything like engineering because I had no previous exposure to engineering. The physics class for science and engineering majors starts in the spring, and after the first midterm, I decided to declare mathematics as my major. I still found mathematics relatively easy, as well as fascinating, whereas that physics midterm was the worst test score I had ever gotten in my life. It all worked out in the end, though.
Spring quarter was full of fun adventures. I experienced my first college party, sort of, when a bunch of people upstairs threw a party. I played Sardines in the strangest building on campus with my dorm friends. I went for more bike rides as the weather got warmer and discovered bike trails passing through some of the newer neighborhoods of Jeromeville. I got brave and called a girl from the Internet on the phone, and wrote letters to another who was going home for the summer and would not have email. But the greatest adventure of all happened on the evening of the last day of finals, when half of Building C all went out to Jeromeville’s best hole-in-the-wall burger place, and then bowling. It was the perfect end to a wonderful and life-changing year, and it left me looking forward to next year… if I could just get through three months of summer away from my new life.
Here is a bonus, something I just found a few weeks ago (altered for anonymity purposes): the only photo I have of myself in Building C. It was taken in Bok’s room at her birthday party; someone else took the picture and gave it to me.
Next week I will recap year 2. In case you missed it, here is the playlist of songs I used in year 1. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you.
Back in the 1990s, all of the hottest names in alternative rock played the Lollapalooza festival. The festival toured major cities around the United States every summer, bringing live music along with other performances and attractions. Critics called Lollapalooza an event that changed the history of music forever.
I never attended a Lollapalooza show. I did not go to big concerts back then, and I felt a little scared to do so, knowing the kind of people that an event like Lollapalooza attracted. In my life, the legacy of Lollapalooza was all of the advertising campaigns, small local events, and the like with names ending in “-palooza.” This was similar to the excessive use of the suffix “-gate” to name political scandals, after the burglary at the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. in 1972, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. If something had a name ending in “-palooza,” everyone knew that it was going to be life-changing… or at least the person organizing and naming the event believed that it would be life-changing.
A little over a week ago, I had been at the final meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for this school year, talking to people afterward about the upcoming finals week. Brian Burr approached me, handing out small postcard-sized flyers. He was tall and athletic, a high jumper on the University of Jeromeville’s track team, with reddish-brown hair. He was graduating this year, and next year he would be staying in Jeromeville to work with JCF part-time and apply to medical school. Brian and I were going to share an apartment next year, along with Shawn, my current Bible study leader and one of Brian’s current housemates.
“Grad-a-palooza,” Brian said in an overly dramatic and exaggerated tone as he handed me his flyer. I took the flyer and read it.
GRADAPALOOZA! A celebration of the graduation of the gentlemen of 1640 Valdez Street Mr. Brian Burr Mr. Shawn Yang Mr. Michael Kozlovsky Mr. Daniel Conway
Saturday, June 15, 1996 6pm until whenever 1640 Valdez St., Jeromeville
“Graduation party?” I asked. “At your house?”
“Yes. Saturday, the 15th. Right after finals are done.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be there.”
In hindsight, it was not entirely necessary for me to repeat back that it was a graduation party; this was obvious from the flyer. I suppose I asked because I was surprised; I had never been invited to a college graduation party. I did not know any seniors last year.
Yesterday, Friday, was the last scheduled day for finals, but my last final had been on Thursday morning. I had spent the last two and a half days doing a fat load of nothing. I went for bike rides, I read, I worked on my novel, and I wasted a lot of time on the Internet with Usenet groups and IRC chats. It was wonderful, and so far there had not been another incident like the one a few days ago.
When I moved to Jeromeville to start school, someone gave me a camera as a going-away present. The camera then spent twenty-one months in a drawer, unused. Yesterday I remembered that I had a camera, and I bought film and batteries, so I was ready to preserve some memories from Brian and Shawn’s party tonight.
Valdez Street was in south Jeromeville, on the other side of Highway 100 from me. I drove east on Coventry Boulevard and turned right on G Street toward downtown. As I approached downtown, I drove past progressively older houses and apartment complexes; after crossing Fifth Street, G Street became a commercial corridor. It was Saturday night, and I had to drive slowly, watching for pedestrians and bicycles. At least three households of JCF students were neighbors on Valdez Street and Baron Court, and as I got to know these people more, I often wished I could be part of that community. Most of these people who were not graduating would be dispersing to other parts of Jeromeville next year, though, so a community like that may not exist next year. I at least had the new apartment with Brian and Shawn to look forward to, even if we would not be neighbors with a large group of friends.
The student population of Jeromeville was gradually emptying as students finished finals, but I still had to park farther away from Brian and Shawn’s house than usual. I could hear muffled music and conversation as I approached the house; apparently this was a big party. I walked in and looked around; music was playing, and people were talking loudly. Hopefully I would be able to hear when people talked to me.
“Greg!” Brian called out, waving, as he saw me from across the room. “Come on in!”
I had been in this house four times before, and I had never seen it this full. People were sitting on couches, in chairs, on the floor, and on the stairs. A streamer that said “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 1996” hung from the wall.
“How’d your finals go?” Brian asked.
“I think I did well. What about you?”
“They weren’t great, but I passed.”
“Congratulations! Your ceremony was this morning?”
“Yeah. Mom and Dad and my sister came for the day. We went out to dinner, then they left about an hour ago.”
“Thanks! Enjoy the party!”
Someone I did not recognize got up and walked toward the bathroom; I sat in his vacated seat. I knew about half the people here from JCF, and I recognized some other JCF people whom I did not know well. I assumed that the guys who lived here probably had other friends, so not everyone here would be from JCF. I pulled out my camera and took a few candid shots of people sitting around talking.
Kristina, a sophomore who lived around the corner on Baron Court, walked past me. “Greg!” she said. “What’s up?”
“Not much. How were finals?”
“Hard! But they’re over now! How were yours?”
“I think I did fine,” I said. “Is–” I caught myself before finishing my question, Is Haley here? Six years ago, in eighth grade, Paul Dickinson had figured out that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and within a few days the whole school knew. Ever since then, any time I had any sort of romantic interest or crush, I treated it like a closely guarded secret which no one must ever find out. “Are any of your roommates here?” I asked instead. That way, my question would get answered without Kristina suspecting that I liked Haley.
“Kelly and Jeanette are here somewhere. Haley went home on Thursday after her last final.”
“Oh, ok.” I was a little disappointed that I would not see Haley for the next three months, but also relieved that, with Haley not here, I would have no opportunities to embarrass myself in front of her. “What are you up to this summer?” I asked.
“Taking classes. You?”
“Same. Well, one class first session. Probably just hanging out here second session. I’m going to my parents’ house next week.”
“Nice. I’ll probably see you around campus.”
I walked around, making small talk and asking people their plans for the summer. Most of the people here were not going to be in Jeromeville. That did not bode well for my hope of having a social life this summer. I knew that JCF was running one small group Bible study this summer, so that was something. And I would still be singing at church; I knew some people from church who would be around this summer.
I got up to use the bathroom. A decoration on the bathroom wall above the toilet said “We aim to please, you aim too please.” At first, my mind parsed that as “we aim to please, you aim to please” with a word misspelled. I did not understand why the phrase needed to be repeated. I did not get the joke until I flushed the toilet; the second part was supposed to say “you aim too, please,” as in “please don’t pee on the floor.” I laughed out loud at my sudden realization. Hopefully no one found it strange that someone was laughing in the bathroom.
I returned to the living room, realizing that I had not talked to Shawn Yang yet, although I probably knew him the best of all the guys who lived at this house. I saw Shawn on the couch with a middle-aged Asian couple. I approached him, and he said, “Hey, Greg. Have you met my parents yet?”
“No,” I said. “I’m Greg.”
“I’m John,” Mr. Yang said, shaking my hand. “And this is Judy.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Greg is going to be my roommate next year,” Shawn explained. “And he’s a math major too.”
“Oh you are?” Mr. Yang asked. “You gonna be a teacher too?”
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” I said. “I don’t really see myself as a teacher.”
“You’re not graduating this year?”
“No. I’m a sophomore.”
“You guys are from Ashwood? Is that right?”
“Yeah. What about you? Where are you from?”
“Plumdale.” Without thinking, I added, “Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.” Most people have no idea where Plumdale is.
“It’s nice out there!”
“Yeah. I’ll be in Jeromeville most of the summer, but I’m going home next week.”
After a lull in the conversation, Mr. Yang said, “It was nice meeting you!”
I was ready for another break from socializing, so I walked outside. It was a little before eight o’clock, and it was still light out; in Jeromeville, the sun does not set until close to nine this time of year. Two guys were throwing a Frisbee back and forth in the street, moving out of the way whenever a car approached. Eddie, Xander, Lars, and a guy I had met a couple times named Moises sat on a couch, which had been placed on the lawn for some reason.
“We’re done with another school year,” Eddie said. “Two down, two to go.”
“I know,” I replied. “I think I did pretty well on finals. How were yours?”
“It was a lot of work, but I passed.”
“Dude, mine were really tough,” Lars said.
“What are you doing this summer?” Xander asked me.
“I’m staying here. I have one class first session. When do you leave for India?”
“Two weeks. I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited! God is going to move!”
“I can’t wait to hear about it,” I said.
“Greg?” Eddie asked. “Have you decided yet if you’re going to Urbana?”
I had not decided, and now that Eddie was asking, I felt like I had dropped the ball. Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, puts on a convention every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about missions and service opportunities around the world. The convention was the last week of the year, after Christmas. “I haven’t decided,” I said. “But I’d like to if I can make it work. I don’t know if I’m ready to go on a mission trip myself, but now that I have a lot of friends doing stuff like that, I think it would help me understand what they’re doing. Xander’s trip to India, and Melinda’s trip to Russia, and Taylor and Pete and Charlie going to Morocco with Jeromeville Covenant Church.”
“Then what are you still thinking about? If it’s money, you can apply for a scholarship through JCF. Talk to Dave and Janet.”
“It’s more just the fact that it’s overwhelming. I don’t know how to book a flight or a hotel room or anything like that. And it is a lot of money, too.”
“I know a lot of people have been wanting to travel in groups and share hotel rooms,” Eddie said. “If I hear of someone who might be able to include you, I’ll have them contact you.”
“Thanks. That would be awesome.”
“Heads up!” shouted Alex McCann, a housemate of some of the guys on the couch, as a Frisbee sailed toward us. Lars stood up and caught the Frisbee in time; then, walking away from the couch, he shouted at Alex and threw the Frisbee back at him. Eddie and Xander stood up, and Eddie said to me, “We’re gonna go throw the Frisbee. Wanna come?”
“I might later,” I said. “Thanks.”
Moises stayed on the couch with me. “I think you should go to Urbana,” he said. “God is going to do great things through you.”
“Thanks,” I said, curious how he knew about God’s plan for my life when I pretty much just knew this guy to say hi to.
“Have you ever taken a spiritual gift assessment?” Moises asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“They handed one out at my church a few weeks ago. You answer questions about what skills you have and what you’re good at, and it tells you, like, if God has equipped you to preach or worship or pray or do administrative work. You can ask your pastor if he has one. What church do you go to?”
“It’s the student-led Catholic church.”
“My family is Catholic,” Moises said. “My family came here from Mexico; everyone is Catholic there. But then when I became a Christian, I realized just how much Catholics have wrong. Like, Jesus died on the cross for your sins already. You don’t have to confess to a pope.” I just nodded, not wanting to argue. Moises‘ knowledge of the inner workings of the Catohlic Church must have had some shortcomings if he believed that the average Catholic confessed to His Holiness Pope John Paul II on a regular basis. Also, although I did not think about it at age 19, I have also come to learn over the years that being a busybody like Moises is not the best way to share one’s faith with others. After studying the Bible more this year, though, I had come to agree with his point that salvation came from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not through following the rituals of Catholicism alone.
By this time, it was getting dark, so I went back inside, making more small talk and helping myself to snacks on the kitchen counter. Later that night, in the living room, Eddie, Kristina, Brian, and a few others were doing some kind of silly dance. I saw Tabitha, one of the first people I knew from JCF because she was in the dorm next to mine last year, sitting on the couch with an empty seat next to her. “May I sit here?” I asked Tabitha.
“Sure,” she said. “Actually, I was looking for you. Eddie told me a few minutes ago that if you go to Urbana, you’d be interested in going in together with someone on a flight and hotel room.”
“I was going to put something together later this summer. I’ll keep you posted.”
“I’m not going for sure yet, but I know the price goes up July 1, so I want to decide for sure by then. I’ll let you know, and you keep me posted on your plans.”
“Great! Sounds good!”
I stayed at the party until after midnight. By then, much of the crowd had gone home, the music had stopped, and I was getting tired. I said my final goodnights and congratulations to Brian and Shawn, as well as to their other graduating housemates, Mike Kozlovsky and Dan Conway. These four and all the other seniors here tonight were done with college, at least done with their bachelor’s degrees. And now I was halfway there, if I finished on schedule. It was hard to believe that it had already been almost two years since Mom and Dad helped me unpack in my tiny dorm room in Building C.
As I drove home through the dark but warm Jeromeville night, I kept thinking about how my life had changed so much, not only in the time since I came to Jeromeville, but just in this school year. I had a great time at this party, and unlike my few other experiences with college parties, people here were not getting drunk. At the beginning of this school year, I did not even know that any of these people existed, except for Tabitha, and she was not in my close circle of friends yet at the time. So much had changed for the better.
I lived alone in a small studio apartment this year because I was unable to find roommates among people I knew. Early in the year, I worried that living alone would be excessively boring and lonely, but indirectly, living alone ended up being the best thing for me. It prompted me to make more of an effort to stay connected with my friends from freshman year, which led to me finally accepting Liz Williams’ invitation to come to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. At JCF, I made so many new friends, including the people at this party, and my future roommates for junior year. And, more importantly, I learned what it really meant to follow Jesus, and how only his death on the cross brought eternal life, and hope, and inner peace.
I went straight to bed when I got home; I was tired. I would have time to pack a suitcase in the morning, and after church I would make the two and a half hour drive to my parents’ house in Plumdale. But unlike a year ago, the drive to my parents’ house would not mean the start of three months away from my friends. I was only staying there for a week this time, and I would go for another week in August after my summer class ended. For the rest of the summer, I would be here in Jeromeville. Plumdale was home, but Jeromeville was also home now.
As I drifted off to sleep, still thinking about how much life had changed during my sophomore year at UJ, I wondered what changes were in store for me in the next school year. Maybe I would find other new things to get involved with, as I had gotten involved with JCF this year. Maybe I would end up going to that Urbana convention and deciding to become a missionary. The possibilities were endless. At the time, I had no idea that the next school year would bring challenges to my faith and questions about my future. I would have to make difficult decisions. I would find myself getting involved in two new activities, one of which was not at all anything I expected to do until it happened, and the other of which I was only beginning to think about at that point. But I knew that, no matter what, with God on my side everything would work out just fine.
These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online. Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed. Or just use it to send emails with a new name.
In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it. Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away. Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it. However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.” This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers. I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service. Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.
I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer. The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be. My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine. That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that. About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus. I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil. About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me. She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts. I did not know her name.
“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.
“I think so,” she replied. “Good luck!”
“Thanks. You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.
While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously. I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name. The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished. The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about. I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.
I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow. I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating. I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final. I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips. I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.
All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian. Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.
Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening. I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen. I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning. I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.
When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer. Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done. I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it. And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too. He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.” My life is not my own. I was created to serve and glorify God. I believed. But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him? Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?
Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together. I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this. Probably not. I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still. I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong. I knew I was wrong. I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.
I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures. Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought. She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus. I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me. I was not trying to hook up with Sarah. And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys. I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.
No, I thought, this was not a good idea. I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret. I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again. If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.
I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages. I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient. This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else. On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.” The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number. This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person. I took a deep breath and started typing.
X-ANON-TO:email@example.com I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name. You may call me Joe.
I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message. As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was. When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it. I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.
X-ANON-TO:firstname.lastname@example.org I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name. I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to. You may call me Joe.
I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down. I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed. I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.
By now it felt too late to do homework. I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham. I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly. I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.
I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus. I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts. I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days. I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material. During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.
email@example.com Re: please read, this is real, you know me
Sarah had written back. I opened the message and began reading.
You are not a failure, and you have not let me down. You definitely have not let God down. You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t. We are all sinners saved by grace. Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.
I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up. Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse. Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t. Go for a walk. Clean your house. Do whatever it takes. But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up. Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.
Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I will keep you in my prayers. Take care and God bless.
I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened. I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners. I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked. I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.
I read Sarah’s email again. “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.” I did not play an instrument. I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played. But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album. I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen. The dishes had been piling up for far too long.
I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo. Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people. Sarah was on that trip too. I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.
What’s going on inside of me? I despise my own behavior This only serves to confirm my suspicion That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.
That was me. That was exactly what I had been feeling. Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.
Lord, be my light, and be my salvation ‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.
Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes. I never attempted to use the service again. I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email. She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.
I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind. I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians. Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that. Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway. I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience. One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
“Come in!” I heard a voice say after I knocked on the front door of 1640 Valdez Street. I opened the door and, surveying the scene, became slightly nervous. The living room was packed with around fifteen other guys, most of whom were speaking loudly enough that the ensuing cacophony jarred my senses. I walked to a quiet out-of-the-way corner.
“Greg!” Brian said, writing on a clipboard. “This is your first Man of Steel, right?”
“Yes. What do I do?”
“Just hang out for a while. A lot of people who told me they would be here aren’t yet. And don’t forget to grab a t-shirt; they’re in that box over there.”
“Yes,” Brian said. “Greg, do you know Mike Kozlovsky? He’s one of my housemates.”
“I’ve seen you around,” I said.
“Hi,” the large blond guy said, shaking my hand. “I’m Mike.”
“Nice to meet you,” I replied. I knew so many Mikes and Michaels that I would probably think of this guy as Mike Kozlovsky, not just Mike.
The Man of Steel competition had an entry fee, mostly to cover the cost of printing the t-shirts. I had seen a few older JCF students wearing Man of Steel shirts from previous years, but I did not know until recently what Man of Steel meant. I pulled an extra large size one out of the box Brian had pointed to; it was white, with a silhouette of Superman on the front. The shirt said, “To save the world, this MAN OF STEEL is faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But nothing he can do…” I turned the shirt over to see a silhouette of Jesus on the cross, and the rest of the sentence: “… can cover our sins. Isaiah 53:10-12.” I liked that. Hopefully no one would get in trouble for trademark infringement, for the unauthorized Superman references.
Eddie saw me and said, “Greg! You made it! Are you ready?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
As I mingled and talked to people over the next half hour, more guys trickled in, and over thirty young adult men packed the living room and kitchen by the time Brian called us all to attention at 10:30. “Welcome to the twelfth annual Man of Steel Competition,” Brian said. “The first event is Frisbee golf. We printed out directions, and the tees and targets are marked. Maximum score for a hole is six, so if you don’t hit the target in five throws, your score is six. You will be in groups of four for the day, and one group will leave every five minutes. The first group will be…” Brian looked down at his clipboard. “Raphael, Lars, John, and Todd.”
As those four left the house with flying discs, I wandered around the room, talking to people and snacking on chips and salsa, listening for my name. “Group 2: Eddie, Shawn, Mike Kozlovsky, and Brent,” Brian announced five minutes later. Five minutes after that, Brian announced, “Group 3: Xander, Matt, Greg, and Kieran.”
I stood up and walked toward Brian. He gave the four of us a copy of the directions for the course, a pencil, and a score sheet. “Do you need an extra Frisbee?” Brian asked me, noticing that I did not have one.
“Yeah,” I said. Brian handed me an orange flying disc with the logo of the Big 5 Sporting Goods store on one side and his initials, BMB, scribbled in Sharpie on the other side.
“The first tee is right outside the house,” Brian explained. “Good luck!”
“Thanks,” I said.
Twelve years ago, some guys from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship got together for something that they called the Man of Steel Competition. It was an all-day hangout consisting of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and poker games. Whoever was the most successful at the three events was crowned the Man of Steel and given a trophy to keep for the year. Whoever finishes in last place is named the Weenie and receives an extra-small t-shirt as a humorous consolation prize. The competition had been announced at JCF over the last few weeks, and Brian and Eddie had both specifically encouraged me to come.
In my group, Xander was my year, a sophomore. I had met him in January, when he and Eddie had kindly prayed with me and invited me to hang out at their house when I was having a bad day. Matt was a junior, who lived in the same house as Eddie and Xander, right around the corner from where we were now, on Baron Court. Kieran was an athletically built freshman; I knew him to say hi to, but not well.
“Hole 1,” Kieran read aloud. “The tee is the marked spot on the sidewalk, and the target is the fire hydrant down there. A long straightaway. Got it.” Kieran threw his disc down the street, using a technique I had never seen in my informal experiences of tossing Frisbees around. His disc sailed far down the street, landing about twenty feet from the fire hydrant.
“Nice!” I said.
Matt and Xander threw their discs accurately as well, but neither one ended up as close to the target as Kieran’s. Mine curved off course to a vacant lot across the street near where some new houses were being built, less than halfway to the fire hydrant.
“Your turn,” Xander said.
“I just went,” I replied.
“You’re the farthest away, so you go first for the second toss.”
I was not aware of that rule, since this was my first time playing disc golf. I threw my disc toward the fire hydrant; it went closer to the correct direction this time, but still landed far from the target. Kieran hit the target in two tosses; Xander and Matt, three each; and I got five.
The second target was around the corner on Baron Court, a tree in the yard of the house where Eddie, Xander, and John lived with a bunch of other guys. Baron Court dead-ended into a park connected to one of Jeromeville’s greenbelts; a light pole at the edge of the park was the third target. I hit it in four throws, my best so far, although I was still far behind the others.
“Hole 4,’” I read. “‘Dogleg around large oak tree, hit bench.’ What does ‘dogleg’ mean?”
“The disc has to go around the tree and then to the right. You can’t cut straight across on that side of the tree,” Kieran explained, pointing. He stood on the tee spot and threw his disc; it curved perfectly around the tree, exactly as it was supposed to.
“I see,” I explained. I threw my disc next; it began curving to the right far too early, landing in a position where I would have to throw it even farther to make it curve to the correct side of the tree. I groaned.
“It’s okay,” Xander said. “Just do the same thing you just did from the place where it is now, and you’ll end up on the right side of the tree with a straight shot to the target.”
“That would be nice, if I could throw straight,” I said.
As the morning continued into early afternoon, I became increasingly frustrated, and the others sensed this. A dead branch lay next to the lamppost that was the eleventh hole; I picked it up and threw it angrily after having scored the worst possible score of six for the third consecutive time. “Hey,” Xander said. “Calm down. It’s just a game.”
“I’m terrible at this,” I said
“Don’t worry about it,” Kieran added. “Just have fun.”
“But I’m going to be the Weenie. If I had known that this was just another way for the popular athletic guys to humiliate me for not being good at stuff, I wouldn’t have come. I got enough of that in elementary school.”
“Dude,” Xander said. “That’s not what this is at all. We don’t want to humiliate you. It’s just for fun. Besides, being named the Weenie is kind of an honor. It’s just silly.”
“If you say so,” I said. I tried to calm down and have fun. I took a deep breath and calmly threw my disc toward the twelfth target; it traveled far in a straight line, and I finished that hole in only three throws, my best so far that day.
The eighteenth hole took us back to Brian’s house, where we turned in our scoresheet and waited for the rest of the groups to finish. I asked a few of the people ahead of us what their scores were, and all of them made me feel more discouraged about mine, so I stopped asking and talked about other things instead.
After all eight groups had returned, Brian got our attention again. “The next step is the hamburger eating contest. You have sixty seconds to eat the first hamburger, fifty-five seconds to eat the second one, fifty seconds to eat the third one, and so on. It counts as long as the whole thing is in your mouth when time runs out, and your mouth is closed. You will go four at a time, in your same groups, called in random order.”
I watched as one of the groups began eating. The hamburgers were the basic 79-cent hamburgers from McDonald’s, nothing big or fancy. I did not like pickles, but for the purpose of this competition, I could make myself eat pickles this one time. Dan Conway, a senior who lived in this house with Brian, dropped out surprisingly early; he got something stuck in his throat and could not finish his third burger, drawing a chorus of “Awwwww”s from the crowd. James made it to eight, the most of anyone in that group.
When my turn came, I stepped up to the table with Xander, Kieran, and Matt. “Go!” Brian said, starting the stopwatch. I picked up the first hamburger and began taking large bites. “Forty-five seconds,” Brian said shortly after we started, and he continued to announce the time remaining every fifteen seconds, so I stopped trying to time myself in my head. I finished the first burger in plenty of time. “Go!” Brian exclaimed when it was time to begin the second hamburger; I finished this one easily as well. The third one was a little bit closer, but I swallowed the last bit of it just before Brian gave the signal.
I noticed some people dipping their hamburgers in a glass of water, presumably to make them softer and easier to swallow. I tried this with the fourth one; it did, at least it made it easier to get it in my mouth, but it also turned it into a gooey mess that did not taste as good. I swallowed the burger in the allotted time, though.
The fifth hamburger was more difficult. The time had decreased to forty seconds, and although the burger was completely in my mouth when the time ran out, I had not swallowed all of it. This left less space in my mouth for burger number six, which I now had only thirty-five seconds to eat. I got the burger completely wet before eating it, and just before time ran out, I managed to stuff the last bite in my mouth. But I knew that I would not make it much farther in this event, with chewed hamburger piling up in my mouth faster than I could swallow it. As I took my first bite of burger number seven, I noticed that Matt had not finished his sixth. I felt a renewed sense of motivation now that I knew I would not finish last in my group. I forced myself to start swallowing what was already in my mouth, so that I had room to begin chewing burger number seven and close my lips as time expired. I now had only twenty-five seconds to eat burger number eight, and as that time quickly passed, I knew I would advance no further. I tried my best to swallow what was in my mouth and make room for burger number eight, but I just could not. Xander also dropped out after seven, and Kieran, after shoving burger number eight in his mouth, ran to the garbage can and spit it all out without even touching number nine. I did much more respectably in this event, only one burger behind the leader in my group. Around half of the people who had gone so far did not make it to seven.
As the day went on, as much as I wanted to be encouraging, I secretly felt relieved every time someone did not finish seven burgers. Less competition for me. I needed all the help I could get. My score of seven felt less respectable as the event continued, though; Brian ate nine, and two guys named Lars Ashford and Alex McCann each ate ten.
I had overheard someone earlier say that Mike Kozlovsky set the record in last year’s hamburger event with eleven. As Mike’s group began, I tried to picture how that was possible, to shove ten hamburgers in one’s mouth and still have room to fit an eleventh hamburger in only ten seconds. Twelve was considered a perfect score, because at burger number twelve, the time to eat it would be only five seconds, and with the time decreasing by five seconds for every burger, there would be no time for a thirteenth.
Mike Kozlovsky was a pretty big guy, and he ate the first eight hamburgers effortlessly. He even appeared to be swallowing everything. Burger number nine, he easily fit it in his mouth, but he had not finished swallowing when his twenty seconds was up. He dunked burger number ten in his glass of water and tore off big chunks of it, pushing them into his mouth as he attempted to swallow what was already there. I watched in amazement as he did the same for burger number eleven; I could see his cheeks puff up from all the unswallowed burger inside. The rest of his group had all stopped by then.
“Possible new record,” Brian said, looking at the stopwatch. “Go!”
Mike grabbed a burger, dunked it in the glass of water, tore it into pieces, and hurriedly shoved the pieces into his mouth. As his five seconds ran out, he just barely closed his lips.
“Perfect score!” Brian shouted as the rest of the room erupted into applause Mike, his mouth still full, turned to the crowd and raised both arms in victory. Then, he stood next to the garbage can, bringing his hand to his mouth and pulling out a wad of chewed beef, bread, pickles, and onions the size of a softball. Mike tossed the wad into the garbage.
“Ew!” several in the crowd shouted.
My score of seven was somewhere in the middle for the hamburger event; hopefully that would be enough to keep me out of contention for the Weenie. Several had eaten less than seven hamburgers, but I was not sure if any of those people were as bad at disc golf as I was. One more event remained, poker.
I knew some of the common traditional variations, like draw poker and stud poker. I knew how to rank the hands. And that put me in an unfortunate position, because it left me thinking I knew how to play poker when I actually did not. To me, at the time, the way to succeed in poker was to have the good luck to draw a good hand; I knew little of the strategy surrounding bluffing and knowing when to bet or fold.
The rules were simple. We each got 100 pennies to use for betting, and we would play in our same groups of four for one hour. We took turns dealing, and the dealer chose the type of poker as well as any wild cards or special rules. If you ran out of coins before the hour was up, you were out, and the object was to finish with as many coins as possible.
We started with a few games of simple draw poker. I had some good hands, some bad hands, and one hand where I actually won with three of a kind, so I had about the same number of coins I started with when it came around to Kieran’s second turn to deal.
“Guts,” Kieran said. “Do you guys know how to play Guts?”
“I don’t,” I said.
“You ante one chip and get two cards. A pair beats no pair, and other than that it’s just the highest cards, like poker. If you want to stay in, you hold a chip, make a fist, and we all show at the same time if we’re in. Highest hand takes the pot, and anyone who stayed in and lost has to put in as many chips as there were in the pot, so it keeps getting bigger. If only one person stays in, they take the pot and the round is over. I’ll explain it as we go along too.”
I did not like this game. I did not have guts. But it was Kieran’s turn to pick the game, so I had no say in this. My first hand was a three and a five, so I dropped out. All the others stayed in; Kieran won, so he took the four coins from the pot, and Xander and Matt each had to put four more coins in the pot. My next hand was an ace and queen. This was a much better hand; the only things that beat this were ace-king or a pair. Although it was far from a guaranteed win, I decided to stay in. Kieran was the only other one who stayed in, and he had a pair of sixes; he took the eight coins in the pot, and I had to pay eight coins to make the new pot. My next hand was a four and seven; I was out, and Kieran was the only one to stay in, so he took my eight coins, and the game was over. I was the next dealer, and I chose to go back to draw poker. Guts was not my kind of game, especially in a high-stakes situation like this.
Over the course of the hour, I gradually lost money as I played conservatively. I had a few wins, and a few major losses. In one round of seven-card stud, I was dealt two queens in the hole, and after I got another queen on the second face-up card, I placed a large bet on the final round, struggling to keep a poker face. Xander, who had two aces showing, stayed in. He ended up having a third ace in the hole, but I finished with a full house and took the pot.
With about ten minutes to go, I had sixty-eight coins, and Kieran called Guts for the game. I dropped out on the first deal and lost on the second; no one else had dropped out, so the pot was now twenty-four coins. My next hand was two eights. This was a pretty good hand; the only things that could beat it would be a higher pair. I tried using what I had learned in Dr. Thomas’ combinatorics class to figure out my chances of winning, but I could not complete the calculation in time. I decided I was in; Matt and Kieran stayed in as well. We showed our hands; Matt had a king and queen, but Kieran had two jacks. Kieran took the pot, and Matt and I each had to put another twenty-four coins in.
In the next deal, I got a pair of queens. I felt pretty confident about my chances. Xander and Kieran stayed in as well; Xander had an ace and nine, but Kieran had a pair of kings. Kieran took the forty-eight coins in the pot, and Xander and I each had to put forty-eight coins in the pot. “I’m out of coins,” I said. “I lost.” I put all of my remaining coins in the pot and watched the other three continue playing.
When the hour was finished, I dejectedly told Brian that I had no money left. I also handed him the disc he had loaned me, but he told me to keep it. “It wasn’t very expensive.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I walked over to the couch and sat. Eddie saw me a few minutes later and asked, “How’d you do, Greg?”
“Not very well. I ate seven burgers, but I did terribly in the other two events. I really hope I’m not the Weenie. I spent enough time in elementary school being made fun of for not being good at things.”
“This is supposed to be fun. Don’t get discouraged. We won’t make fun of you.”
“I know. I’m just competitive. But it was fun. And hopefully I’ll do better next year.”
“I’m going to help count scores,” Eddie said. “But don’t feel bad.”
It took a while for Brian and Eddie to evaluate everyone’s scores. No one explained how exactly the scores for the three events were combined to choose a Man of Steel and a Weenie. I knew I was not going to win; at this point, I was just hoping not to be the Weenie.
Brian emerged from the back of the house and got everyone’s attention again. “Gentlemen, the 1996 Weenie is Dan Conway!” Brian gave Dan his Weenie prize, an extra-small T-shirt. “Next,” Brian continued, “the runner up… Alex McCann!” Alex stood up, and everyone applauded. Brian held up a small trophy and said, “And the winner of the 12th annual Man of Steel Competition, your 1996 Man of Steel… Mike Kozlovsky!”
I applauded, along with everyone else. I was not particularly surprised by this. Mike’s first ever perfect score in the hamburger eating event was certainly impressive.
I hung out for about another hour, talking to people, and I joined in another game of poker just for fun. Eddie actually told me years later that Dan and I had tied for Weenie, but that he and Brian decided to give it to Dan. Dan would get a good laugh out of it, and Eddie did not want to humiliate me, since I was new to the group and participating in my first Man of Steel.
Now that I knew what to expect, I would go into future Man of Steel competitions a bit more relaxed. I was doing this to have fun with friends. I would have no expectation of ever being in contention of winning this competition, because I was terrible at disc golf, my understanding of poker would only help me if I drew a few lucky hands, and while I was respectable at eating, I was nowhere near on par with Mike Kozlovsky or Alex. This was the first of four Man of Steel competitions I would participate in during the years I lived in Jeromeville, and after having been through this first one, going into future competitions with no expectation of winning made them more enjoyable. And, who knows… I just might surprise myself someday.
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.
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?”
“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”
“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.
“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” the voice on the car stereo sang, followed by some other mumbling words and then guitars and more words. At least it sounded like those were the words, although it seemed like an odd choice of lyrics for a rock song. The song contained that exact line several more times.
“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.
“DC Talk,” he replied. “I made this mixtape of Christian music for when I’m in the car.”
I nodded. I had once seen another student at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship wearing a t-shirt that said DC Talk, but I had no idea what that meant. Apparently DC Talk was a band that sang Christian music. Other than stuff we sang in church, the only Christian music I was aware of was this Christian soft rock adult contemporary radio station back home in Santa Lucia County, which I never listened to. But this Jesus Freak song was awesome.
For the first forty minutes after we left Jeromeville, headed west on Highway 100, we passed orchards and pastures and fields interrupted by a few small and medium-sized cities, Silvey, Nueces, Fairview, and La Yegua. After Fairview, the flatlands of the Capital Valley gave way to grassy rolling hills dotted with oaks. Eddie had offered me the front seat, since I was the tallest of the five of us; Sarah, Caroline, and Raphael were in the back. Just past La Yegua, we crossed a bridge over the mouth of the Capital River where it empties into the Bay. “Hey,” Sarah said when we were halfway across the bridge. “There’s the other car.”
I looked to the left, in the direction Sarah was pointing. A small sport-utility vehicle passed us with Tabitha looking at us through the window in the back seat, grinning, and Xander making a funny face over her shoulder. Haley sat in the front seat, smiling and waving. Five of the ten people on this trip were neighbors on Baron Court, and the rest of us met there to carpool. I had hoped that I would end up in the same car as Haley, but I did not want to be too obvious about it. Since Eddie had invited me on this trip, it had seemed more natural to be in his car. Kristina drove the other car, and I could see a silhouette of John behind Xander in the back seat. I waved, although I was not sure anyone could see me from the front passenger seat.
We continued driving through the hills lining the shore of the Bay, through an industrial area, then through several cities and towns that all ran into each other. In Oaksville, Highways 100, 150, and 88 all met at the entrance to another large bridge. Eddie drove across the bridge as we saw the lights and buildings of Bay City approaching.
“This is such a great view,” Sarah said.
“Yes,” Raphael agreed. “One of the greatest cities in the world.”
“I’m not used to seeing it from this side,” I said. “When we came to Bay City, we always came up 11, and usually it was for Titans games on the other side of the city.”
“Have you never seen downtown Bay City before?” Eddie asked.
“It’s pretty awesome.”
We turned onto Highway 11 north, which became a city street, Van Winkle Avenue; the freeway was never completed across the city. About two miles up Van Winkle Avenue, Eddie pointed across the street and said “There it is.” I saw the sign for the Hard Rock Cafe, on a building on the corner. We found a nearby parking garage and walked to the entrance, where the group from the other car waited for us.
The Hard Rock Cafe was loud and crowded. The walls were covered with music memorabilia, and music played loudly over speakers. While we waited to get our seat, I read a sign on the wall telling the history of the Hard Rock Cafe. Two Americans living in London in 1971 started the first Hard Rock Cafe as a place to serve American food and listen to great music. Eric Clapton became a regular customer, and he hung a guitar on the wall above his favorite seat. The restaurant incorporated this into their decor and soon opened other locations in big cities and tourist traps worldwide, with music memorabilia on the walls of all of them.
I got up to use the bathroom and took my time getting back to my seat, admiring photographs, posters, guitars, and fancy costumes on display, each with a plaque explaining whom it belonged to and its significance. I also saw a sign saying “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons Allowed.” I rolled my eyes… hippies. I could not find my friends in the lobby when I returned, so I walked around the restaurant, looking to see if they had been seated and admiring more rock memorabilia as I looked for them. When I found them, I smiled nervously at my good fortune; the seat that they had left open for me, coincidentally, was next to Haley.
“Hey,” Haley said when I sat down. “You found us.”
“Yeah. I was just looking at stuff on the wall. It’s really cool.”
“Have you been here before?”
“No. Have you?”
“Not this one. But I’ve been to one in Hawaii, on vacation with my family.”
“Nice. I’ve never been to Hawaii either.”
“I’ve only been once. It’s so beautiful!”
“I can imagine,” I said. “So how are your classes this quarter?”
“They’re definitely keeping me busy. I’m taking a lot.” Just then the server came and interrupted our conversation. I ordered a cheeseburger, nothing too adventurous.
All of us talked more about life and classes and things while we waited for the food to arrive. At one point, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” came on; I thought this was the Hard Rock Cafe, not the Hard Rap Cafe, but I did not complain. Kristina started rapping along with Coolio. “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she began.
“That’s in the Bible, you know,” Eddie said to no one in particular. I did not know the first time I heard the song, but I did now; it was from Psalm 23, one of the more famous passages in the Bible. The song was from the movie Dangerous Minds, and I still had a negative memory of that movie, because of what I saw a few rows in front of me when I watched it.
By the time the food arrived, I was starving. I ate my cheeseburger quickly. I looked around; Haley was eating a chicken salad, and John, on my other side, had the same cheeseburger I did. “How is it?” I asked Haley.
“It’s really good,” she said. “You must have liked yours. You ate it fast.”
“I did. And I was starving. I hadn’t eaten since noon. It’s after nine o’clock.”
“Yeah, we’re eating late. Do you know about this place we’re going next?”
“We’re going to sleep on the beach next, aren’t we?”
“Apparently we’re going somewhere else first,” Haley explained. “One of the guys’ other roommates told us we have to see this thing, but Eddie said it’s a surprise.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
Eddie jumped into our conversation. “Seriously, it’ll be worth it,” he said.
When the waiter brought our checks, he also gave us each a small button with the Hard Rock Cafe logo in flames. “1971-1996, 25 Years of Rock,” it said. Kristina pinned hers to the strap of her purse. I did not know what I would do with mine; stick in a box somewhere, maybe.
After we finished paying for the meal, we went back to our cars. Eddie worked his way southwest across the city, and at a red light he handed me an unfolded map. “I need someone to help me navigate; I have to watch the road. This is where we’re going,” he said, pointing at a green spot on the map labeled Bosque Hill Park. “Can you read maps?”
I grew up fascinated by maps, and up until that moment of my life, it had never occurred to me that some people could not read maps. “Yeah,” I said. It was a strange question to me. I was reminded of those first few days of freshman year in Building C, talking about my fascination with maps. I looked over my shoulder at Sarah in the back seat, grinning; she made eye contact with me and started laughing loudly. I laughed too. She was thinking of the same thing.
“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.
“At the start of freshman year, the day I met Greg,” Sarah explained, “someone told me that he loved maps. So he made me tell Greg the highways near my house, to see if Greg could guess where I was from. And he was right, and Greg and I have been friends ever since.”
“Good job!” Eddie said.
We arrived at Bosque Hill and parked on the street. Street parking is usually scarce in Bay City, and when Raphael saw another spot open, he suggested we stand there and save the spot for Kristina’s car. I wondered what was so special about Bosque Hill. I had seen it on a map, and I had read that it was the highest natural elevation in Bay City, around 1000 feet. I guessed that the surprise would be a spectacular view of the city lights at night.
After the other car arrived, we began climbing the hill on a well-worn dirt path. A few people carried flashlights. The path was surrounded by trees and brush on both sides, and the chirps and buzzes of bugs intertwined with the distant dull roar of the city. A few times, I could see sweeping views of city lights below, but that was not the surprise Eddie was showing us.
The path turned a corner, and I could see the top of the hill, where a giant cross stood, towering over us, taller than the six-story building where my mathematics professors’ offices were. What was this? Why was it here? I walked closer and read a plaque, identifying this cross as a memorial to pioneers who came from around the world and settled the area. I looked up and saw that all my friends had adopted postures of prayer, so I did the same. I looked up at the cross and prayed silently. Jesus Christ, I thank you for this reminder that you died on the cross to save me from my sins and bring eternal life. I thank you for the beauty of your creation, even here in the middle of the city. I thank you that these friends, these brothers and sisters in Christ, invited me on this trip, and I pray that we will have safe travels. No one spoke for about ten minutes. I wondered how long we were going to stay here, but I did not want to interrupt everyone’s prayers, so I just kept praying until I saw people start to walk downhill.
“That was pretty cool,” I said when we were back in the car. Eddie was driving toward the coast on the west side of the city, along the open ocean. “I had no idea it was there.”
“I was thinking on the way down,” Caroline said. “When we’re all standing there praying to a cross, couldn’t that be considered idolatry?”
“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily idolatry,” I answered. “We’re not praying to the cross. We’re praying to Jesus, and the cross is a symbol reminding us of him.”
“That makes sense,” Eddie said.
“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.
“Thanks,” I replied.
The coast south of Bay City was rugged and hilly, and we drove along the road that hugs the shore for about half an hour, to a town called Moonlight Cove. I had never been this way before. The town must have been named on a day unlike today, because tonight it was cloudy and no moon was visible. “How does this work?” I asked, being completely unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping outside. “Do we just put down our sleeping bags and sleep on the beach?”
Kristina’s car had beaten us here by a few minutes this time, and we parked next to them. “Look,” I said as we were unloading. “That sign over there says ‘No Camping.’ Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
“Yeah, but they never check,” Eddie explained. “My friends and I in high school came here and slept on this beach a few times.”
“My family lives just over those hills,” Caroline added, “and we came to this beach all the time. We never spent the night, but I don’t remember anyone patrolling the area or anything.”
“If you say so,” I said, still dreading the fact that we were doing something illegal. After staying up talking for a bit more, someone pointed out that it was almost midnight, and we decided to go to sleep.
Today, as an adult, I recognize the value of experiences, and I have stayed up all night enough times to know that doing so will not kill me. But in 1996, I felt like I desperately had to sleep, so when people kept talking as others drifted off to sleep, I felt a need to move somewhere out of earshot. I quietly told them so, and I dragged my sleeping bag inland about a hundred feet to a slightly more secluded spot near some large rocks. If the police caught us camping and hauled us off to jail, maybe they would not see me.
Even in my new spot, though, sleep eluded me. I always had a hard time falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, and I was uncomfortable sleeping on sand with the ocean roaring nearby and the wind blowing. After tossing and turning for a long time, I realized that I had to pee, but there was no bathroom. I carefully walked behind the rocks, relieved myself, and returned to the sleeping bag. I looked at my watch; it was 1:29. I tossed and turned as my mind raced. I felt somehow inferior to the others since I could not sleep outside, and since my life did not include sleeping outside in any childhood experiences. I also had homework to do at home. I tried to think happy thoughts. Eddie inviting me on this trip. Sitting next to Haley at the Hard Rock Cafe. Driving places I had never seen before. Haley’s pretty blue eyes. Hiking to the top of Bosque Hill. The way Haley’s whole face lights up when she smiles. I got up to use the rocks again at 2:11, then I began praying like I did at the top of Bosque Hill. I thanked Jesus Christ for all he had done for me and tried to listen to see if he was speaking to me. I closed my eyes.
The next thing I knew, it was light out. My watch said 7:02. I had slept for almost five hours, and given the circumstances, that was probably as good as it would get. As I returned from using the rocks as my toilet again, I noticed that no one else seemed awake. I lay in my sleeping bag, enjoying the view, for about forty-five minutes, until I saw Eddie clearly moving around. I walked back out of sight of the others and changed into the other clothes I had brought, then rolled up my sleeping bag and walked to the others.
“Hey, Greg,” Eddie whispered. “You sleep well?”
“Eventually, but it took a long time to fall asleep. I never sleep well in unfamiliar places.”
“But you did sleep.”
“Hey, guys,” John whispered, joining the conversation.
Everyone else woke up over the next fifteen minutes as we spoke in whispers. Once everyone was awake and speaking at a normal volume, Sarah asked, “What’s for breakfast?”
“I was thinking we could go into town and just pick up a few things at Safeway,” Kristina suggested. “Anyone want to come with me?”
“Sure,” Haley said, getting out of her sleeping bag.
This was my chance. “I’ll come,” I said.
“Great!” Kristina said. “Ready?”
As I walked with Kristina and Haley to the parking lot, I realized that I had not showered or brushed my teeth or put on deodorant. This may not be the best time to be talking to Haley. But, then again, she probably had not done any of that stuff either.
“I was thinking, get some bagels, and fruit, and juice. And we need cups for the juice. Does that work for you guys?” Kristina asked.
“Sure,” Haley said. I nodded.
We arrived at the store, took a cart, and walked through the aisles together. After Kristina walked forward to look at different kinds of bagels, Haley asked me, “So did you ever figure out where you’re going to live next year?”
“Oh, wow. Older guys. Isn’t Brian applying to medical school right now?”
“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”
“He’s on a waitlist at one place, so plans might change if he does get in, but right now he’s planning to live in Jeromeville another year. And there’s a fourth guy, Josh McGraw, he’s Abby Bartlett’s boyfriend, and he commutes to Jeromeville now and wants to move into town.”
“You’re living with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr next year?” Kristina said, putting bagels in the cart. “Awesome! Where?”
“We don’t have a place yet. We’re going to get together sometime soon to make plans.”
We returned to the beach with the food a few minutes later. This was not my usual routine of cereal in milk for breakfast, but it was food and that was the important thing. After we finished eating, Xander walked to the parking lot and returned with a guitar. “I’ve been learning some worship songs,” he said. He started playing some of the songs we sang at JCF large group, as well as a few that I did not think I had heard before. Tabitha asked for a turn with Xander’s guitar, and she played and sang a few songs too. We all just sat there for over an hour, praising God through music and enjoying the beauty of his creation.
In the early afternoon, we packed everything up and got ready to head back to Jeromeville. “What are we doing for lunch?” Kristina asked.
“I know this great sandwich place where I used to go with my family when we would come here,” Caroline said. “Does that sound good?”
We got back into the cars, and Caroline directed Eddie to the sandwich shop in Old Town Moonlight Cove, about two miles from the beach where we were. The others followed in Kristina’s car. This place was much smaller, quieter, and less flashy than the Hard Rock Cafe, unsurprisingly. I ordered a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese; it was very, very good.
“I like this place,” I said to Caroline. “Good suggestion.”
“So what was your favorite part of the trip, Greg?” Eddie asked me. He had been asking everyone this.
“Probably the Hard Rock Cafe,” I said. “I liked all the music stuff on the wall.”
“Do you play an instrument or anything? You said you sing, right?”
“Yeah. I haven’t really listened to a lot of Christian pop and rock music.”
“You should. I think there’s some stuff out there that you’d like.”
After lunch, we got back in the cars and began the two hour drive back to Jeromeville. Eddie put on a different mixtape of Christian music. As we crossed back east over the Bay City Bridge, leaving the city, I heard familiar guitar chords coming from Eddie’s mixtape. “Rain, rain on my face, hasn’t stopped raining for days,” the voice sang.
“Hey, I know this song,” I said. “I’ve heard it on the radio before.”
“Jars of Clay,” Eddie replied. “I know, I’ve heard it on 100.3. It’s cool to hear Christian music get played on secular radio stations.”
“Yeah,” I said. I had not listened to the lyrics closely enough to recognize it as Christian music, but it all made sense now. “Lift me up when I’m falling. I need you to hold me.”
Somewhere around Nueces, Eddie’s mixtape ended, and he put on the first mixtape with Jesus Freak again. I was definitely going to look more into this Christian music. We arrived back at Eddie’s house in Jeromeville in the late afternoon. Kristina’s car arrived a minute later and parked nearby, and everyone who did not live on Baron Court began unloading and moving their things to their own cars.
“Thanks for driving, Eddie,” I said. “And thanks for inviting me.”
“Thanks for coming!” Eddie replied. “Have a great rest of the weekend!”
“I’m glad you could make it, Greg,” I heard Haley say. I turned to her and saw the smile I had been thinking of earlier. She stepped forward to hug me, and we embraced.
“I’m glad you went too,” I said. “Have a good rest of the weekend.”
After everyone said their goodbyes, I drove back to my apartment in north Jeromeville. This was the best weekend I had had in a long time. Once I got inside with the car radio off, that Jesus Freak song started going through my head again. This was my life now. I was a Jesus Freak. The despair of the past was behind me, and I was following Jesus with a supportive group of brothers and sisters in Christ.
I knew that the point of following Jesus was not about being part of the in-crowd, but it still felt good that the in-crowd was including me. I had a group of friends who genuinely cared about me, something that I had not had for most of my life, and I was going to be living with cool older guys next year. Of course, God had a lot to show me about how life really works over the coming years, but for now, life was good.
Two years ago, when my university applications were being processed, I got invited to something called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at the University of Jeromeville. This was a program for around seventy high-achieving freshmen; among other things, we all lived in the same building, and we had to take one class every quarter specifically for IHP students, which counted toward general education requirements. I was particularly attracted to the idea of being part of a relatively small group of students. Jeromeville was a huge university, with around 25,000 students on a main campus that took up a square mile, adjacent to several more square miles of farmland used for research. I found my high school of 1400 already far too big to know everyone, so a school this big seemed intimidating. Being part of a small group of students who knew each other seemed attractive to me, and this was part of the reason I chose Jeromeville over Central Tech and Bidwell State.
Despite those numbers, however, UJ was starting to feel much smaller now that I had been around for a while. I encountered people I knew more and more often around campus and around town. In addition to my friends from the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, I had friends from classes, church, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, the Math Club, people I knew through mutual friends, and people who I just saw around enough that I started to recognize them and say hi for no other reason.
As I got on the bus that morning, I wondered if I would see Tiffany Rollins. Tiffany was a civil engineering major, and we had been in a few of the same mathematics and physics classes in the past. We had finished all of the classes that her major had in common with my mathematics major, though, so we would probably be seeing less of each other as time went on, but last week I saw her on the bus both Tuesday and Thursday morning. She lived in an apartment complex just down Alvarez Avenue from mine, at the bus stop just before my stop. I boarded the bus, showed my ID card to the driver, and spotted Tiffany sitting near the back of the bus.
“Hey, Greg,” Tiffany said as I approached her and sat next to her.
“Hey,” I replied. “How are you?”
“Not bad. One of my classes is really hard already. I was up late last night studying.”
“Yeah. Mine aren’t too bad yet. I’m just starting to stress over not knowing where I’m going to live next year.”
“I didn’t renew. I was hoping to find friends to live with. I almost had a plan, but it fell through.”
“I hope you find something!”
“Me too. I’ve been asking around.”
“I can let you know if anyone I know is looking for a guy.”
“That would be nice,” I said, although I was really hoping not to have to do that. I wanted to live with people I knew who would be fun to be around, not some strangers who happened to know Tiffany. Granted, those strangers could end up becoming friends, but they could also end up being my worst nightmare.
I was still thinking about this all through weight training class. Yesterday, when I got home from campus, I had a note in my mailbox at the apartment saying that I had a package to pick up. When I went into the office to get my package, the woman at the desk had asked me how I was doing, and I explained that I was worried about not having a place to live for next year.
“I have a note here from the other front desk person that someone came in here earlier looking for a roommate,” she said. She wrote “Alex Davidson” and a phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “I guess Alex renewed his lease but his roommate is moving out, so maybe you should give Alex a call.”
I gave some kind of noncommittal answer and returned to my apartment. I would not be giving Alex a call. Because Jeromeville was a small world and I knew a lot of people, I was familiar with the name Alex Davidson. The front desk person had not spoken to Alex directly, so she did not realize that Alex was a girl. I did not know her well, but she was in my Chemistry 2B class a year ago; I remembered seeing her write her name on something, and her name stood out to me because most people named Alex I knew were male. I did not feel comfortable with a female roommate. It would just feel weird, and also I ran with circles that would question the nature of the relationship of a single male and a single female living together. Sure, Heather Escamilla from church lived with her boyfriend, but I also knew people that had the same judgmental attitude toward that arrangement. I did not find Alex Davidson particularly attractive, though, so if somehow we did end up living together, we probably would not develop any kind of awkward sexual tension.
After weight training class, I walked across campus toward the Memorial Union. I had been coughing and sniffling off and on for the last few weeks, not enough to feel sick and stay home from classes but enough to notice. As I approached the Memorial Union, I saw a quiet short-haired girl sitting quietly on a bench reading. It was Skeeter, a friend from the IHP who lived upstairs from me last year. Just as I was about to say hi, I coughed, and Skeeter heard me and looked up. “Hey, Greg,” she said.
“Hi. How’s it going?”
“It’s funny. I recognized your cough.”
“I heard a cough, and I thought, ‘That sounds like Greg.’”
“Really,” I said. “I didn’t know I had a distinct-sounding cough.”
“I’ve never thought about it before. It’s really weird.”
“Yeah. I would not have thought of that,” I said. Have a good rest of the day!”
Last night, I went grocery shopping, and I had to use my credit card to pay because I did not have enough cash and I forgot to bring my checkbook. My bank had an ATM on the far side of the Memorial Union building, so I went there next. After I withdrew cash, I turned toward the east entrance of the building near the campus store. A guy at a table was enticing students to sign up for credit cards with free gifts. I recognized Autumn, a freshman girl who went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, filling out an application on a clipboard. I met Autumn a few months ago when I did a car rally with JCF; she got put in my group, and we failed miserably that night.
“Hey, Autumn,” I said.
Autumn looked up at me. “Greg!” she said. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” she said. She finished filling out the application and handed it to the guy. He gave her a baseball cap. “Do you like my hat?” Autumn asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. The cap was black, with the logo of one of the credit card companies that this man represented subtly stitched into the side. No other writing or decoration was on the cap.
Autumn put on the cap, with her hair coming out of the hole in the back just above the strap to adjust the size; she tied her hair into a ponytail. “I’ve never had a hat like this!” she said. “I’m excited!”
“It looks good,” I said. “I like it.”
“Free gifts!” the guy running the table called out to people walking by. “This guy got two free gifts yesterday!” he said, pointing at me.
“You signed up for two credit cards yesterday?” Autumn asked. “What free gifts did you get?
“The pen and the mug,” I said. After I filled out those two applications yesterday, I wondered why I had done it. I was never the type to spend money I did not own, so I did not need a credit card, although it would have been useful for an emergency, or for making large purchases without carrying around cash or a checkbook. I had a credit card through my bank, the same one I had used at the grocery store last night, but it had a very small limit. I had signed up for two more yesterday, but I stopped when the man with the applications, the same one who was here today, put a third application in my face. The new cards would have much higher credit limits than the one from my bank. In a fit of simplifying and downsizing, I canceled one of the cards about five years later, but I still have the other one, a Discover Card, today, and I use it as my primary credit card. Also, I still pay it off every month; I know too much math to carry a balance and burden myself with impossibly high interest rates.
“So how are things?” I asked Autumn when she finished the credit card applications.
“Good,” she said. “I like my schedule this quarter. How about you?”
“I’m doing okay. I’m kind of stressing over not having plans for where to live next year.”
“What are your roommates this year doing?” Autumn asked.
“I live alone. I don’t want to live alone again. I want to live with people. Having roommates seems fun. And it’s a lot less expensive.”
“Yeah. Have you asked around JCF?”
“Yeah, but I haven’t heard anything for sure. Pete Green and Charlie Watson were looking for a third person, but Mike Knepper got that spot before I told them for sure.”
“Bummer,” Autumn replied. “Well, if I hear of any guys looking for a roommate, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it. Do you know where you’re living next year?”
“I need to go, but it was good running into you. I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Bye!”
I walked into the Memorial Union building, going all the way across it to the Coffee House on the other side. I was done for the day, weight training was my only class on Tuesdays, but I usually stayed on campus until around lunch time, to get work done. This was a busy time of day, when finding a place to sit in the Coffee House could be difficult. But today, I just kept running into people I knew everywhere I went, and this would provide me with a place to sit. I saw a dark-haired girl named Lizzie sitting by herself at a table of four, putting a notebook away in her backpack.
“I’m good,” I said. “I’m done for the day, I only have one class on Tuesdays, but I’m going to hang out here and work on stuff for a while.”
“That sounds good. I actually was just getting up to leave. But you can have my table.”
“Thanks. Have a good rest of the day!”
I got out my textbook for Linear Algebra Applications with the intent of working on homework, but that did not happen right away. I had a feeling I was not going to like this class. The professor for this class seemed a little odd. In addition to so far just repeating things out of the book instead of actually teaching, she had told us that the entire grade would be based on unannounced quizzes. No midterm, no final, and homework was not graded. Something about that did not seem right, although I felt pretty confident about how I did on the first such quiz yesterday.
I then made the classic overthinker move of replaying all of this morning’s conversations in my head. I noticed that I had not mentioned my roommate search to Skeeter or Lizzie. I did not know Lizzie well, and I did not know anything about the guys she would know, so if my goal was not to live with strangers, I would have had no reason to tell her about that. And, although Skeeter’s nonconformity was part of why we were friends last year in Building C, I doubted that I would want to live with the kind of crowd she ran with. Granted, one of her roommates this year was Danielle, who had been a close friend since our first week in Building C, but Danielle had told me some stories about Skeeter as a roommate that made me wary of associating too much with her crowd.
The rest of my day went smoothly without any surprises. I came home in the early afternoon, took a nap, and wasted time on the computer chatting on IRC and reading Usenet groups. I went to Bible study that night, and Lillian, one of the leaders, asked at the end if people wanted to share prayer requests.
“I still haven’t found roommates or a place to live yet,” I said.
“We can pray for that,” Lillian replied. “Anyone else?”
The others shared their prayer requests: difficult classes, an upcoming summer mission trip to Mexico, a sick friend, a friend going through a difficult time. We went around in a circle, each person praying for the prayer request of whomever was on the left. After that, the group would normally end, and people would either leave or stick around for a while and socialize. This week, while people were socializing, the other leader, Shawn, approached me. “Hey, Greg?” he said. “I might have an answer to your prayer.”
“I’m graduating, but I’m staying in Jeromeville next year for the teacher training program. I didn’t make housing plans either, because I was waiting for some of my roommates to decide what they were doing next year. My roommate Brian applied to medical school, but he didn’t get in anywhere, and there is only one place he hasn’t heard from yet. He’s heard that school usually sends acceptances early, so he thinks he probably didn’t get in. He’s now planning to stay in Jeromeville next year, applying again and working part time on staff with JCF.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And Abby has a boyfriend who is moving to Jeromeville. You know Abby Bartlett?”
“Well, her boyfriend, his name is Josh McGraw, and he commutes to Jeromeville from his parents’ house in Oak Heights. He wants to move to Jeromeville and not have that long drive. I want to save money, but Josh and Brian want their own rooms, so we were thinking if we got a three-bedroom place with a master bedroom, then I could share the big room with someone. Are you interested?”
“Sure,” I said. “Keep me posted.”
“Definitely! We will! It’s hard to get all four of us able to meet in the same place at the same time, Josh has a really weird schedule, but I’ll try to get a meeting set up in the next week or two so we can work out the details.”
“Sounds good. Thanks!”
“I was going to ask you about this tonight, I remember you asking for prayer about that last week, but I didn’t get a chance yet. Then you prayed about it again. It’s cool how God works like that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It is.”
“Just so you know, there’s still an outside chance that Brian will get accepted to that one med school, so if that happens we might have to find someone at the last minute.”
“Right. That’s okay.”
Sharing a bedroom did not feel like an ideal situation, but most people had to endure doing that with a complete stranger during freshman year, and I had had the good fortune to avoid that. I thought I could handle it, though, especially with someone I already knew. Shawn seemed like a decent guy. I did not know Brian well, but he seemed very involved with JCF socially, and if he was going to be paid to work with the group next year, living with him sounded like a promising opportunity to make more social connections within JCF. Josh was a bit of a wild card, I had never met him, and although his girlfriend Abby seemed nice, I did not know her well. At this point, though, I would just have to take what I could get, and this situation seemed good enough.
I drove home a little later feeling much more at peace. I still did not have a place to live, but I had roommates, and to me that meant that the hardest part was over. This new plan was taking shape. I was no longer alone in my search for housing. I was not the most social or popular student in my circles of friends. I have a history of being a bit of an outcast and a loner. But I was starting to open up, to make friends from many different walks of life, and that finally appeared to open a door to a new home for next year that would be much more fun than this lonely studio apartment.
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.
“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.
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.