“I’ll see you tonight at JCF?” Sarah Winters asked as we left our math class in Younger Hall and crossed the street toward the Quad.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Have a great day!” I watched Sarah walk toward the Memorial Union as I walked diagonally in the other direction, crossing the Quad from northeast to southwest. It was a sunny but cool November Friday morning, and many of the trees on campus were in the process of shedding their leaves. Beyond the Quad, walking past the library and across Davis Drive, I noticed piles of leaves accumulating along the edges of walkways. I continued south beyond Evans Hall, where I would go later tonight for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship; apparently Sarah would be there too. I walked past the law school building to the University of Jeromeville Arboretum, a park-like public garden of trees and plants from around the world planted along a mile and a half of dry creek bed that had been converted into a long, skinny lake. I walked past some succulents, their fleshy spiked leaves radiating from the ground, to a bridge a few feet wide connecting the north and south banks. I stayed on the north side of the waterway and continued walking west on the path to the next bench, about fifty feet past the bridge, and sat, overlooking the waterway and a tall oak tree of the type that grew naturally here in the western United States.
Last year, I attended a convention in Urbana, Illinois, hosted by the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. The convention was for university students and young adults to learn about missions and opportunities to serve Jesus around the world. I was a newly practicing Christian at the time, many of my friends were doing these kinds of projects during the summer, and I wanted to learn more about what was out there. Every attendee received a Bible that included in the back a plan to read through the Bible in a year, with a few chapters to read each day from three different parts in the Bible. Next to each day’s readings were a checkmark. Yesterday I had checked off August 8; I knew that I was a few months behind, and I had stopped trying to finish in a year. I would just get through the entire Bible in as long as it took.
I read the verses for August 9 and prayed about what I read as I looked up at the oak tree. Coming to this bench to read the Bible between classes had become my routine on school days for several months. I had often heard talks and sermons about the importance of spending time with God first thing in the morning, but this routine seemed to work better for me.
On Fridays, I only had my two math classes. I worked part time as a tutor that quarter, and I had one group that met on Fridays, in the afternoon after my other class. After I finished reading, I headed back toward the Quad and the Memorial Union. I planned to look for a table in the MU where I could sit and do homework until my other class started. I had math to do, and it was the kind of assignment that did not require my full concentration, so I could work on it and not get distracted inside a busy student union. Maybe I would even find friends to sit with, I thought.
As I looked around the tables, I did in fact find friends to sit with. I saw Todd Chevallier, Autumn Davies, Leah Eckert, and John Harvey from JCF talking to Cheryl Munn, one of the paid staff for JCF. They had pushed two tables together, and there appeared to be room for me to join them. As I approached, Autumn smiled and waved. Cheryl, who was sitting with her back to me, turned to her left, waving her arm toward me, holding her palm out at arm’s length, and said, “Out.”
What did I do? I thought. Did I accidentally say something inappropriate that had made me a pariah within JCF? Was this another one of the cliques that had formed within JCF, doing some kind of exclusive Bible study that was only open by invitation? Maybe no one was mad at me or trying to exclude me; maybe someone was just sharing something sensitive and did not want to share with people beyond a close circle of friends. “Sorry,” I said, starting to back away. Maybe I would not be sitting with friends this morning after all.
“Greg,” Cheryl said, motioning toward the table. “Come sit!”
“You just told me not to,” I said, confused.
“Huh? I was just telling Leah that she was on that side of the table, with her back to the wall, and she could see out.” Cheryl made the same sweep of her arm, gesturing in my direction toward the rest of the room where others sat and a continuous stream of people walked by.
I stood for a second, puzzled, then laughed. “Oh!” I exclaimed. “I didn’t hear any of that. I just saw you put your arm up, and all I heard you say was, ‘Out!’ I thought you were telling me to get out.”
“No, no!” Cheryl said. Autumn laughed. “Please, sit down!” Relieved that I had done nothing wrong, I sat in an empty seat on the end of the table. Cheryl and Todd sat on my left, Autumn and Leah sat on my right, and John was facing me on the other end. “How’s your morning going?” Cheryl asked.
“Good. Only two classes today. Then I have a tutoring group this afternoon.”
“How’s tutoring going? You like it?”
“Yeah. It’s good experience, now that I know I want to be a teacher. I’m going to do another internship in a classroom at Jeromeville High winter quarter. I did that last spring, and I really liked it.”
“Did you guys hear Jeromeville is getting an In-N-Out Burger?” Todd asked excitedly.
“No!” Autumn exclaimed.
“Is that place good?” Leah asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“I used to live in California,” Todd explained. “It’s huge there. It’s so good.”
“There’s one now in Gabilan, near where I grew up,” I said. “My parents went there and said it wasn’t all that good.”
“That’s weird,” Todd replied. “Everyone loves In-N-Out.”
“I’ll have to try it sometime. I love burgers.”
“Hey, are you going to JCF tonight?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Romeo + Juliet is playing at 199 Stone tonight. We’re probably gonna get some people together to go. You wanna come?”
“Sure. Is that the new Romeo and Juliet movie that came out not too long ago?”
“Yeah. With Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.”
“Okay,” I said. Those actors’ names did not mean anything to me, I did not follow movies closely, but I was always looking for opportunities to hang out with friends, especially those that did not require a lot of work on my part to plan.
“Isn’t Leonardo DiCaprio in that Titanic movie that’s coming out soon?” Autumn asked.
“Yeah,” Todd replied. “That one’s gonna be good too. I heard they built a replica of the actual Titanic for the movie, just to sink it.”
“Wow,” I said.
I was running a little late when I got to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that night, since I made spaghetti for dinner and spilled it all over myself, necessitating a change of clothes. The worship team was already playing when I arrived, and the room was mostly full. Maybe the spilling of the spaghetti had been divine intervention, I thought, because as I walked into the room, I found myself looking directly at the back of Carrie Valentine’s head. She sat a few rows down, one seat in from the aisle, with an empty seat next to her. I walked over to her, pointed to the empty seat, and nervously asked, “Is anyone sitting there?” Hopefully she understood what I was saying over the music.
“Go ahead!” Carrie replied, smiling. I sat next to her. As we sang along, then listened to announcements and a talk delivered by Cheryl, I realized the great irony of this situation. I was sitting next to a cute girl. This would provide an opportunity for a conversation afterward. But I could not make plans with her, because I already had plans tonight, to go to the movie with Todd and Autumn and all of them. Go figure. Nevertheless, after the ending song, I asked Carrie how her week was going.
“Good,” she said. “I just had a midterm today. I don’t think I did very well.”
“Maybe you’ll surprise yourself,” I said. “I’ve been trying to get ahead on reading and studying, because I’m gonna miss class Thursday and Friday next week.”
“Some of us from Jeromeville Covenant are taking a road trip to San Diego, for the National Youth Workers’ Convention.”
“That sounds like fun!”
“It will be. Apparently a lot of big-name speakers will be there. And a lot of Christian bands play live there.”
“DC Talk. Audio Adrenaline. Five Iron Frenzy. The OC Supertones. I don’t remember who else.”
“Wow!” Carrie said. “San Diego is nice! Have you been there before?”
“I haven’t. I’ve only been as far south as Disneyland. So this will be a new experience for me.”
“Have fun! I’m jealous.”
“Thanks. I’m excited!”
“How is that going, working with the youth group at church? You work with junior high kids?”
“Yeah. It’s a lot of fun. Over the last few weeks, I did an unofficial project, not an actual church activity, where I made a movie based on some characters I created several years ago. I got a lot of kids from the church to be in the movie. And I filmed some of it at church, like we used the youth room for a school dance scene.”
“That sounds like so much fun! How did the movie turn out?”
“Pretty good. A little unprofessional looking in some spots, but it was fun. We had a watch party after youth group this week. Not a whole lot of people stuck around, but it was fun to watch the movie on the big projector screen in the youth room.”
“Nice! I’ve never done anything like that. My sister and I used to make home movies sometimes when we were kids, but nothing as complex as what it sounds like yours was.”
“That sounds like fun too,” I said. I smiled, looking into Carrie’s big brown eyes, desperately trying to think of something to say to keep this conversation going. I wondered if Todd would be okay with me inviting her along to see Romeo + Juliet? “What are you doing tonight?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Carrie replied. “I heard some people were going to see Romeo + Juliet, but I don’t know if I want to go.”
Perfect, I thought. Carrie knew about the movie without me having to be awkward. “I’m going,” I said. “I think you should too.”
“I’ll wait and see how I feel later. I need to go talk to some people from my Bible study before they leave. But maybe I’ll see you at the movie tonight?”
“Yeah. I’ll talk to you soon.”
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, spelled with a plus sign but pronounced “Romeo and Juliet” like the play it was based on, was the movie that made actor Leonardo DiCaprio a household name. I did not know much about the movie, except that I vaguely remembered hearing about its existence last year. The lecture hall at 199 Stone Hall showed second-run movies on weekends, and this was often a destination for people hanging out after Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on Friday nights.
Carrie did end up coming to the movie. A group of eight of us walked down Davis Drive from Evans Hall to Stone Hall, the next building to the west. When we left, I was in the middle of telling Autumn about the Dog Crap and Vince movie that I made with the kids from church. Autumn and I were near the back of the group, and Carrie was closer to the front. As we walked into the theater, I could not position myself next to Carrie without looking conspicuous and awkward. When I sat down, Todd was to my left, then Autumn, then three more people between Autumn and Carrie. The aisle was on my right. Carrie was here, but I was not sitting next to her.
When I was a freshman, movies at 199 Stone would be preceded by classic cartoons, an experience normally associated with past generations of moviegoers. This tradition had fallen away at some point since then; tonight the screen showed a silent slideshow of advertisements before the movie started. The lights darkened, I saw the name of the movie studio appear on the screen, but I became confused when a television with a news broadcast showed up on the screen. Was the movie starting? Was this the movie? Surely this television was not part of the movie, since Shakespeare’s play was set in the sixteenth century.
The reporter began talking about the Montagues and Capulets. Those were Romeo and Juliet’s respective families, so this was definitely the movie, but why did Verona look like a city in a gangsta-rap music video? What were these police cars and helicopters? I quickly realized that what I was seeing was not going to be a faithful reproduction of Shakespeare’s work. Instead, the story had been adapted to a modern urban setting, with the Montagues and Capulets rival crime families. As the movie continued, I noticed that all of the characters still spoke their actual lines, unchanged, from the Shakespeare play.
It was kind of brilliant, but it was really weird.
As the movie continued, I noticed more and more creative interpretations of Shakespeare’s words for a modern-day context. The police chief was named Prince, for example, and it took me a while to realize that he filled the role of the actual Prince of Verona as written by Shakespeare. The characters fought with models of guns named after the blade weapons used by Shakespeare’s original characters. Even with these changes, though, it still seemed odd to me that these gangbangers spoke in Shakespearean vocabulary and iambic pentameter.
When the movie ended, as the credits played, I stood and stretched. “That was weird,” I said disdainfully.
“That was so good!” Todd exclaimed.
“It was weird!” I repeated, louder.
“You didn’t like it?”
“It just seemed really unnatural having modern characters use Shakespeare’s language.”
“That’s what makes it so good!”
“I don’t know. I guess it just wasn’t for me. Thanks for inviting me, though.”
As we walked out toward the parking lot, many of the others talked about how much they loved the movie, and I remained silent. I tuned out the conversation, so I did not find out what Carrie thought of the movie. I did not want to say any more bad things about the movie, in case Carrie loved it as much as Todd did. I may have already ruined any chance I had with Carrie by not liking the movie, and I did not want to open my mouth again and make things worse.
I never watched that movie again, although now, with a quarter-century of hindsight, I would not rule out giving it another chance if the opportunity arose. Maybe I would enjoy it more knowing from the start that the movie was a combination of Shakespeare’s words and a modern-day setting, and not having my thoughts darkened by the frustration of not getting to sit next to Carrie.
Why was it so difficult to ask a girl out? Why was this process so difficult for me to understand? Romeo and Juliet had no such problems. Romeo crashes a party because he wants to bang some other chick who he knows will be there, he and Juliet see each other, he goes to the balcony, and boom, they were in love that night and married the next day. What was wrong with me that love never dropped into my lap like that? Of course, as a direct result of all of this, Romeo and Juliet both end up dead after a few days. Maybe it was for the best that my life did not turn out like Romeo’s life; this story was, after all, a tragedy.
Readers: Was there ever a movie that all your friends liked but you didn’t? Tell me about it in the comments.