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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re welcome.”  I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  I saw her in class today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah.  I remember her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I help you?” the cashier asked.

“Hot chocolate, please,” I said.

“Whipped cream?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s ok.  It won’t really show.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Monday is fine.”

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

“I don’t think so.  Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

All the cool kids in 1996 hung out in coffee shops  The characters in the popular TV show Friends hung out at a coffee shop, bringing coffee shop culture into the mainstream.  A coffee shop served as a communal meeting place, where people could interact or just hang out while enjoying a nice drink.  Artists and performers showcased their work at coffee shops.

Unfortunately, I felt left out of this coffee shop culture, because I did not drink coffee.  I had tried to drink coffee before, and I just could not stand the taste.  And I had never seen Friends; from what I had heard, the people on the show probably would not be friends with me.

When I moved to Jeromeville, it was full of unique locally owned coffee shops, each different from the others.  But soon after that, large corporate coffee shop chains began moving in, and many of the independent coffee shops closed.  By 2020, the city and university campus had a combined total of around 80,000 residents and eight Starbucks locations, with only a couple of the independent coffee shops from 1996 remaining.

Plumdale, where I grew up, was never cool enough to have a coffee shop, although Plumdale did get a Starbucks in the early 2000s.  But Gabilan, the nearby medium-sized city, had a coffee shop in its historic Old Town called the Red Bean that would go on to survive the onslaught of the corporate coffee shops.  On the Thursday afternoon of my 1996 spring break, I found myself at the Red Bean, waiting for someone, after what felt like one of the most legendary accomplishments of my life.

This all started a little over a week ago, when I had gotten an email from Melissa Holmes, a good friend from high school.


From: “Melissa Holmes” <m.l.holmes@sanangelo.edu>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 19:23 -0800
Subject: Re: hi

Hi!  How are you?  Do you have finals this week too?  I had two today, and I have two more later this week.  I’ve been so busy studying, but I needed a little break today, so I’m actually checking my email for once.  How did your classes go this quarter?

Are you going to be home at all next week for spring break?  I’m doing something with my family down here on Sunday, but then I should be home Tuesday through Friday.  We should hang out and catch up.  Give me a call.  Maybe we could go bowling again.  I’ve been bowling a lot lately.  Some of us from the pre-med club went bowling a few weeks ago, and I bowled 178 – it was the best game of my life!  Hopefully I’ll see you soon!


The number 178 caught my eye.  I took a bowling class fall quarter, and the best game I bowled during that class was a score of 178.  By some bizarre coincidence, Melissa’s new personal best in bowling was exactly the same as mine.  I told this to Melissa in my reply email and said that I definitely wanted to go bowling when I was home for spring break.

Melissa told me to meet her at the bowling alley in Gabilan at one in the afternoon.  One game, to see who was really better.  One o’clock seemed like a strange time to me, but she was free then, and we were students on spring break with no schedules to work around.  I walked into the bowling alley; it was mostly empty at this time of day.  I saw someone with long brown hair sitting at a table looking away from me; I was pretty sure it was Melissa, and she turned her face toward me before I had to choose between awkwardly staring to make sure it was her or possibly embarrassing myself by taking to a stranger.

“Hey, Greg!” Melissa said, getting up to give me a side-hug.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“Good.  Enjoying your spring break?”

“I haven’t been doing much, but it’s been good.  What about you?”

“Same thing.  Just hanging out.  You ready?”

“Sure.”

We got our shoes and balls and went to our lane.  “So what kind of things did you learn in that bowling class?” Melissa asked.

“A lot of stuff.  Throwing technique, strategy for how to aim, a little bit about the history of the game.”

“That must have been fun!  I don’t know if we have a bowling class at San Angelo.”

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“Yes!  Are you?”

“Sure.”  Trying to be dramatic, I continued, “One game, just like we said.  You versus me.  One-seventy-eight versus one-seventy-eight.”

“Good luck!” Melissa said.

“You too!”

Although this game was strictly for fun, and nothing was actually riding on the game, I felt like this was the most important game I had ever bowled.  Melissa set the tone from the beginning, getting a strike in the first frame.  I hit eight pins with my first roll and converted the spare.  I tried to continue making conversation, but I realized quickly that this was the wrong environment for that.  When bowling with a big group, it is easy for the people waiting their turn to talk to each other, but with only two of us, talking would be too distracting to whomever was bowling at the time.  This game was too important to lose focus, and distracting Melissa on purpose was playing dirty.  I wanted to win this fairly.  Our words during the game were limited to comments like “nice shot” and “oooh, almost.”

Both of us were bowling our best that afternoon.  After five frames, Melissa had bowled three strikes and two spares.  I had a strike and two spares in my first four frames, but she was clearly bowling better at that point.  When my turn came in the fifth frame, though, I bowled a strike.  “This isn’t over yet,” I said, chuckling.  Melissa bowled her first open frame in the sixth, with seven pins on the first roll and two on the second.  With no strike or spare, the scoreboard showed her full score of 113 for the first six frames.  That was more like what I usually got for my final score.  I stepped forward for my sixth frame and rolled another strike.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “You’re heating up!”

“Thanks,” I said.

Melissa bowled a strike in her seventh frame, and I answered with another strike of my own, my third in a row.  “Turkey!” I shouted.

“Huh?”

“Three strikes in a row.  They call that a turkey.”

“Oh yeah.”

In the eighth frame, both of us bowled spares.  Because the score after a strike or a spare depended on the next roll it was impossible to know the exact score after the eighth frame, but by doing some quick adding in my head, I could tell that this was going to be a very close game, and I said so.

“I know,” Melissa said.  “You’re doing really well.”

“So are you!  This is already a better total than I usually get, and we still have two frames left.”

“That bowling class really helped you.”

“I hope so.  All the practicing has helped you too.”

Melissa bowled another strike in the ninth frame, giving her a total of 153 for the eighth frame and a minimum of 163 now.  My hand slipped as I made the first roll of my ninth frame, and the ball only hit four pins.  I did not come anywhere close to converting the spare, only hitting three pins on the second roll and giving me a score of 160.  I still had a chance to win, but Melissa was clearly ahead now.  Even if I finished the game with two gutter balls, though, this would still be my third best game ever, and that was nothing to be ashamed of.

Melissa began her tenth frame with a 7-10 split, leaving the two pins in the back corners.  Her second roll hit nothing, passing between the two upright pins and just missing the one on the right.  “Field goal!  It’s good!” I said, raising both of my arms straight up as if signaling a score in a football game.

“Yeah,” Melissa said, chuckling.  “I don’t think bowling works that way.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the scoreboard.  “It’s your best game ever.”  Melissa’s final score was 179, one better than either of us had ever bowled before.  “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” Melissa replied.  “Now let’s see what you can do.”

I looked at the scoreboard.  Since the score for a strike or spare requires knowing the next roll, and there is no next roll after the tenth frame, rolling a strike or spare in the tenth frame results in bonus rolls to resolve the score.  I was down by 19, so I could still win this game and get a new personal best too.  But I would have to get a strike and a spare at the minimum.  I stepped up to the lane, rolled the ball, and knocked down nine pins, all but the number 10 pin in the back right corner.  I still had a hard time hitting that pin, after all the practice in bowling class.  I had no room for error remaining.  I picked up my ball, carefully rolled it toward the one remaining pin, and knocked it over.

“I’m still alive,” I said to Melissa.

“Pressure’s on,” she replied.

I began to feel nervous as I moved my hand over the fan.  I picked up my ball, hoping that my hand was sufficiently dry.  I brought the ball to my face, carefully aligning my body and the ball with the pins.  I thought of the time I was in bowling class, when the red pins appeared at the front of the lane, and I won everyone in the class a free game by bowling a strike.  If I could do that, I could do this.  I brought the ball high, began walking toward the lane as I swung the ball forward, and released the ball just before my feet reached the foul line.  The ball rolled down the lane to the right, curved slightly toward center, and hit the front pin hard just to its right.  I watched all ten pins fall, pumping my fist in the air.

“180!” I said as I watched my final score of 180 appear on the scoreboard just below Melissa’s final score of 179.  Melissa had beaten her previous personal best by one, and I had beaten my identical previous personal best by two.  I stared at the scoreboard for a while, grinning from ear to ear; I still could not believe that this perfect ending was happening.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “Good game.”

“You too,” I replied.  “That was amazing.”

“It was.  I guess you really are the better bowler.”

“Don’t say that.  It was just one game.  We both did really well.”

“I kind of feel like I want a rematch, but we agreed, just one game.”

“Yeah, we did,” I said.  “You want to do something else?”

“Sure.  Red Bean?”

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you there.”

The Red Bean and the bowling alley were on the same street, about a mile apart.  I found a parking place across the street and walked into the building.  The 100-year-old buildings in this block of Old Town Gabilan touched each other, with no space in between, and parking either on the street or in the back.  The front wall of the Red Bean was mostly large windows, with tables and chairs visible inside; an older man sat inside next to one window reading the newspaper, while the table by the other window was empty.  The front door was recessed a few feet from the front windows.  I walked in and looked around.  Paintings hung on most of the walls, some with small signs stating the title and name of the artist.  Two women sat talking at a table toward the back of the room.  The counter was on the left; I was debating whether or not to order a hot chocolate when I saw Melissa walk in.

“Hey,” she said.  “What are you getting?”

“Hot chocolate.”

“You don’t drink coffee.  That’s right.”

“I’ve tried drinking coffee.  I just don’t like the taste.  I can’t.  I wish I could.  I feel like not drinking coffee stunts my social life.”

“How so?”

“Because if I’m hanging out in a fun place like this, I feel out of place not drinking coffee.  And it’s weird to think of asking a girl out for coffee if I’m not going to drink coffee.”

We got our drinks and sat at the empty table by the window.  Melissa looked at me and smiled slyly.  “So, who is this girl that you want to ask out for coffee?”

“What?”

“You mentioned wanting to ask a girl out for coffee.  Who is she?”

“Well,” I said, “I just meant in general.  There is a girl, but… I don’t know.”

“Does she know you?”

“Yeah.  She goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  But I just met her a couple months ago.  It’s probably too soon.  And I don’t know how to ask girls out.”

“You just ask her.  You’ll never know unless you try.”

“I suppose,” I said.  “So how’s school going for you?”

“My grades are still good.  And I’ve started to get involved with the pre-med club.”

“Good!  I remember you saying last year you felt kind of isolated because you lived off-campus with your grandma.  I’m glad you found a group to get involved with.

“Yeah!  It’s fun.  What about this new Christian group you’ve been talking about?  What denomination is it?”

“It’s part of a national organization called Intervarsity, but it’s nondenominational,” I explained.  “The weekly meetings have music, and a talk kind of like a sermon, and then there are small group Bible studies too.”

“Are you still going to Mass?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it weird that you’re hanging out with Protestants now?”

“I don’t think so, really.  It’s the same Jesus, and the things that Catholics and Protestants have in common are so much more important than the differences.”

“I guess.  That’s true.”

“And I’m learning a lot from reading and studying the Bible.”

“Good.”

“Oh, yeah.  A guy from my Bible study named Evan Lundgren said he knows you, and told me to tell you hi.”

“Evan!” Melissa exclaimed.  “I forgot he went to Jeromeville!  How’s he doing?”

“He seems to be doing well.  He’s a really nice guy.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“How do you know him anyway?”

“One summer, we both volunteered at the hospital,” Melissa explained.

“Oh, okay,” I said.  After a pause, I asked, “Do you still hear from a lot of people from high school?”

“I still see Deanna around campus pretty often,” Melissa said.  “I hear from Renee and Catherine occasionally too.  Anthony and Kevin haven’t written me in a long time.  Didn’t you go visit Renee in Valle Luna?”

“Yeah.  Back in the fall.  That was a fun trip.”

“Who else are you still in touch with?”

“Just you and Renee and Rachel Copeland.  I haven’t heard from Catherine in a while.  Tell her I said hi if you hear from her soon.”

“I will.  Where is Rachel now?”

“She’s at St. Elizabeth’s, in Los Nogales.”

“Is she Catholic?”

“I don’t think so.  She just said she liked the school.”

Melissa and I spent about an hour and a half catching up at the Red Bean.  I did not like the taste of coffee, and I was not exactly part of the Red Bean’s trendy clientele, but I appreciated the niche that places like this filled.  It was a perfect place to sit and catch up with an old friend.

In Jeromeville, where I lived during the school year, I followed the local news, and I knew that many residents of Jeromeville opposed corporate chain stores, wanting to keep Jeromeville a unique and quirky university town.  As one who generally supports a free market, I thought at first that those people were un-American.  If a corporation wants to open a new location in a new city, they should be allowed to, and if the people of the new city really do not want the corporation there, then they can vote with their pocketbooks and not patronize that business. I also came to realize over time that Jeromevillians were a bunch of hypocrites on this matter, only opposing corporate chain stores that they perceive as low-class.  They have never allowed Walmart in Jeromeville, but few people fought the arrival of Starbucks, Gap, or Trader Joe’s.

While I still lean toward less government regulation, I have come to appreciate what small businesses do for a community.  If corporate chains were to take over everything, then cities and towns and neighborhoods would be one step closer to all looking the same.  I now live about 30 miles from Jeromeville in a sprawling suburb on the other side of the Drawbridge, and while there is much about the culture and political climate in Jeromeville that has kept me from moving back, I do miss the uniqueness and quirkiness sometimes.  But no matter where I am, I can find local businesses to patronize, and I can do my part not to be exactly like everyone else.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I walked into the lobby of Evans Hall, got a name tag from the people sitting in front, and went into the back of the lecture hall, room 170.  I looked around the room and saw Taylor Santiago, Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Mike Knepper, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis mingling about halfway down the room, so I walked over to sit near them.  All of these people except Mike had been in my dorm last year, and some of them had invited me multiple times to come with them to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I finally went with them about a month ago, and JCF’s large group meetings here in 170 Evans had become my Friday night routine.

“Hey, Greg,” Krista said, seeing me first.  The others said hi to me as well.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” Taylor replied.  “Are you coming to the car rally tonight?”

“Probably.  I’ve never done a car rally before.  How does it work?”

“You get clues, and you drive around to the places the clues tell you to go.  Then people are hanging out afterward.  There are prizes for the team that finishes first.”

“That’s kind of what I thought.  It sounds fun.”

The large group meetings for JCF usually lasted about an hour and a half.  The worship band played a few songs, with one of the staff making announcements after the first song.  Then someone would give a talk, kind of like a sermon at a church service, with more music at the end.  Cheryl, one of the staff, did tonight’s talk.  After the band finished their last song, Cheryl got back up front, something that did not usually happen in a normal week.  But this was not a normal week; the group had put together this car rally as a social event to take place after the meeting tonight.

“If you have a car, come up to the front of the room,” Cheryl said into the microphone.  “Once you have enough people on your team to fill the car, go out to the lobby and get your clues.  And you want to make sure you have at least one upperclassman on your team.  We’re going to start at about 9:30.”  It was a few minutes after nine now.

I did not know any upperclassmen.  Scott Madison, the drummer who, like me, was also a tutor for the Learning Skills Center, was the upperclassman I was closest to knowing, since I knew his name and had said hi to him before.  But it looked like Scott had his own car and was assembling his own team.  Most of my friends were also assembling into teams; I saw Sarah and Krista leave with two older girls I did not know, and Taylor and Charlie left with two older boys.  I retreated to a corner, watching people I knew form teams with people I did not know and proceed out of the room.

Pete and Mike, the two remaining people from the group I sat with, walked up to me about a minute later.  “Greg?” Pete asked.  “Are you on a team yet?”

“I’m driving, and I don’t have anyone on my team yet.”

“Can we join your team, then?”

“Sure.”

“Mike was going to drive, but it looks like they have more drivers than they need.”

“Sounds good.  Now we just need some upperclassmen.”

The room was emptying as more and more people either went home or got in their groups.  Two girls walked up to us a few minutes later.  One of them asked, “Are you guys still looking for people in your car?  Do you have room for two more?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can fit five.”

“I guess you’re on our team, then,” Mike told them.

“Great!” the girl said.  “I’m Leah, and this is Autumn.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  “I’m Greg.  Do you know these guys?”  Leah and Autumn shook their heads no, and Pete and Mike introduced themselves.

The five of us walked to the lobby, where someone handed us two envelopes and instructed us not to open them until someone told us to.  We waited with the other completed teams for about another five minutes until all the teams had formed and were ready.

“Listen up, everyone,” Cheryl announced at around 9:30.  “There will be five places you need to go, and you’ll get the next clue at each place.  People will be hanging out at the last place.  The envelope that says ‘don’t open unless you are stuck,’ don’t open that unless you are absolutely stuck and you want to give up.  That tells you where the party is, but if you open it, you won’t win the prize.  The other envelope, the first clue, open that now.  Go!”

I heard the sound of about fifteen to twenty envelopes opening as people began reading the first clue and running to their cars.  I opened the clue and read it:

 

One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!

 

Virgin?  But stop?  What did any of this mean?  I handed the paper to Pete, who read it and looked about as confused as I was.  “Let’s go to the car,” I said.  I jogged to the parking lot, since after all this was a race, and motioned for the other four to follow me.

“One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but, stop,” I said out loud once we were in the car.  “Do any of you know what that means?”

“I have no idea,” Pete said.

“The Venus!” Mike shouted.  “That’s it!”

“What’s The Venus?” I asked.

“The coffee shop.”

“Where is that?”

“B Street, between First and Second.  There’s this sign outside that’s supposed to look like that painting of Venus in the seashell.”

“Let’s go!” I said.  As I drove my way out of the parking lot toward downtown, I realized that I still had no idea how Mike made the connection between this coffee shop and the extra virgins and the but stop.  “So what do the two rows of virgins in the clue mean?” I asked.

“The painting.  Venus emerged from the sea as a virgin,” Mike explained.  “And they have a patio outside with outdoor seating.  Maybe two rows of seats?”  I was not entirely on board with Mike’s interpretation of the clue, but he was familiar with this place and I was not, so in the absence of any other ideas, it was worth checking out.

I followed Mike’s directions and pulled over to the side of the road next to the building he pointed out.  The Venus was the kind of unique coffee shop that belonged in a college town like Jeromeville.  It was common in downtown areas of cities this size around here to have restaurants and offices in buildings that had once been single-family homes, and The Venus appeared to be such a building.  The front yard had been paved and converted to outdoor seating, with towering trees planted decades ago when this was a house providing shade.  A sign was painted to look like a replica of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, with Venus covering her lady parts in the same pose, but emerging from a cup of coffee instead of a seashell.  One of the other goddesses in the painting held a banner which said “The Venus – Coffee House & Pub.”  The place appeared to be open; it was Friday night, after all.

“I’ll go get the clue,” Mike said, hopping out of the car.  Mike looked around the patio for a minute, then went inside.

“I don’t know if this is it,” I said.

“Me either,” Pete agreed.

“This place looks cool,” Leah observed.  “I’ve never been here.”

“I haven’t either,” I said.  “I don’t like coffee.”

“You don’t like coffee?”

“Why not?” Autumn asked.  “I love coffee!”

“I just don’t like the taste.  I’ve tried coffee drinks with other stuff in them, like mochas, and I can still taste the coffee.  I feel like I’m missing out on the coffee shop experience because of that.”

“You can get other drinks,” Leah suggested.

“I know.  It’s just kind of sad not being able to do things that everyone else does.”

“No one is here,” Mike said as he arrived back at the car.  “This isn’t it.”

“You looked everywhere?” Pete asked.

“Yeah.  Inside, outside, out back, I didn’t see anyone here from JCF.  I even asked a few people who looked like they were waiting for someone.”

“Bummer.”

“So where should I go now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike said as the rest of us looked confused.

“We must be missing something in the clue,” I said, holding the paper and reading it again.  “‘One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!’  What’s a but stop?”

“I wonder if it’s supposed to be ‘bus stop,’” Leah suggested.  “Is there a bus stop here?”

“There’s one down there,” Autumn said, pointing a block down the street.

“There are hundreds of bus stops in Jeromeville,” I said.  “How do we know which one it means?  And there isn’t really a prominent bus stop here, outside The Venus.  That must be important, or else it wouldn’t be written on the clue.  And why is STOP! capitalized?”

“Virgin,” Mike said, thinking out loud.  “Maybe something to do with the Virgin Mary?  A Catholic church?  Is there a Catholic church called Virgin something around here?”

“There’s the Newman Center, and there’s St. John’s,” I answered.  “No virgin.”

“We don’t have any better ideas, so maybe we should just drive past there,” Leah said.

“All right.”

The Newman Center was only a few blocks away from The Venus.  I continued up B Street to Fifth, then turned right.  I parked in front; the building looked completely deserted, and no one was outside.  St. John’s was about half a mile away on the corner of B Street and 15th, and it looked equally deserted, both from the street and from the parking lot.

“I’m out of ideas,” I said.  “Unless anyone can think of anything, I’ll just drive around aimlessly and hope we see something.”

“I guess,” Pete replied.

“Leah?  Autumn?  Do you guys know anything?  You’re the upperclassmen in the group.”

“Upperclassmen?” Leah repeated.  “We’re freshmen.”

“Wait.  Weren’t we supposed to have an upperclassman on our team?”

“We thought you guys were upperclassmen.  You look older.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.  “We’re all sophomores.  That’s why our group doesn’t get this.  The upperclassmen know something we don’t.”

“I think they just said that to make sure that someone in your group knows their way around Jeromeville,” Pete said.  “And you know your way around.”

“I don’t know.”  I was getting more frustrated by the minute.  It was 10:02, and we had made no progress in half an hour.  The clues were probably all inside jokes among the people who had been involved with JCF for a long time, and I had no idea what extra virgins and the but stop were because I was on the outside of the cliques.  However, Pete and Mike did not understand the clues either, despite being better connected within JCF.

“Virgin Megastore,” Autumn said as I drove around Jeromeville aimlessly.  “That big record store.  Is there one here?”

“I think there’s one in Capital City,” I replied.  “But the directions specifically said all the clues were in Jeromeville.  They’re not going to make us cross the Drawbridge.”

I continued driving aimlessly around Jeromeville, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins or a but stop, whatever that was.  I drove through the parking lots in the two shopping centers near my apartment.  I drove up Andrews to where it meets G Street near the pond.  I drove back down G Street toward downtown, driving slowly, looking at every landmark and sign.  We made of small talk while we drove around.  I learned that Leah was majoring in psychology, and that Autumn had not decided on a major yet.  I also learned that Mike was from Morgantown, about a half hour drive from my hometown of Plumdale.

“Did you go to Morgantown High?” I asked Mike.

“Yeah.  Why?

“They played my high school for our Homecoming football game senior year.  You guys beat us pretty badly.”

“Did you play football?”

“No.  I just watched a bunch of games.”

“I didn’t really follow football,” Mike said.

After I had driven up and down several streets downtown, Leah and Autumn decided that it was time for them to go home and go to bed.  “Can you drop us off?”

“Okay,” I said.  “Where do you live?”

“Reynolds.  In the North Area.”

“Sure.”  I drove west down Fifth Street, left on Colt Avenue, and made an immediate right into the long narrow parking area separating the North Residential Area from Fifth Street and residential neighborhoods off campus.  I stopped when I got close to Reynolds Hall, one of four identical five-story dormitories that were the tallest residential buildings on campus.  “Good night,” I said.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too!” Leah exclaimed.

“Bye,” Autumn said, smiling and waving.

After they left, I had a thought.  “If it is ‘bus stop’ instead of ‘but stop,’ maybe the clue is either at the MU or the Barn, since that’s where the buses stop on campus.”

“It’s worth a try,” Pete said.  I turned around and drove to the Memorial Union bus station.  Then, since cars are not allowed in the campus core, I backtracked all the way to Leah and Autumn’s dorm, turned onto campus on Andrews Road, and worked my way from there to the parking lot closest to the Barn.  No one was handing out clues at either place.

“This night has been a bust so far,” I said, looking at the clock.  10:36.  “It’s been over an hour, and we’ve made no progress.  And now we lost forty percent of our team.”

“It’s just a game,” Mike said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“Keep driving, I guess,” Pete suggested.

I did keep driving.  I worked my way around the west and south edges of campus back to downtown, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins.  I drove under the railroad tracks on Cornell Boulevard, past Murder Burger and over the freeway.  I continued east on Cornell to the easternmost edge of Jeromeville, then north on Bruce Boulevard across the freeway to where it curves around to the west and becomes Coventry Boulevard.  I was out of ideas, Pete and Mike and I were out of small talk, and by the time I had driven all the way back across Jeromeville to the west, it was after eleven o’clock, and we were ready to give up.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out the clue,” I said.  I had failed my team miserably

“That’s okay,” Pete replied.  “Are you ready to open the envelope that says ‘Do Not Open?’”

“Sure,” I said.  Resigned to my fate, I opened the envelope and removed the paper inside.  “‘1640 Valdez Street,’” I read.  “I know Valdez Street.  That’s in South Jeromeville.”

“I think that’s the house where Shawn Yang and Brian Burr and those senior guys live,” Pete said.  “They must be hosting the after party.  But I kind of just want to go home now.”

“Me too,” Mike said.  “Can you just take us back to the parking lot by Evans?”

“Sure,” I answered.  “I’m still going to go to the party.”

“I hope it’s fun,” Pete said.

 

After I drove back to campus and dropped off Mike and Pete, I headed back to South Jeromeville, the same way I went earlier.  I did not know these guys who lived on Valdez Street, but hopefully the rest of my friends at JCF would be at this party.

I walked up to the door and knocked.  A tall upperclassman with reddish-brown hair answered the door and said, “Hey, come on in.  You made it.”

“Kinda,” I said.  “We got stuck and had to open the envelope.  The rest of my group just wanted to go home.”  I remembered meeting this guy last month, the first time I came to JCF; his name was Brian, and he was on the UJ track and field team.  I made a connection in my mind; Pete had mentioned that a senior named Brian Burr lived in this house.  This was probably the Brian he was talking about.

Taylor saw me walk in and waved.  He was with Charlie, Sarah, and Krista, the rest of the people I sat with earlier.  “Greg!” he said.  “We were just taking off.  Where were you?”

“I’ve been driving around this whole time.  I had to open the Do Not Open envelope.”

“Which clue did you get stuck on?”

“The first one!  We never found anything!”

“You never even got to the first checkpoint?” Taylor repeated.

“We were supposed to have an upperclassman in our group, and it was just me and Pete and Mike Knepper and two freshmen!  Whatever inside joke the juniors and seniors have that has to do with extra virgins, I’m not in on it.”

“Olives,” Sarah said.  “Like extra virgin olive oil.”

I paused, trying to assimilate this new piece of information.  My regimen of cereal, lunch meat, and frozen dinners did not include olive oil anywhere.  But now that Sarah mentioned it, I remembered having seen the term “extra virgin” on the label on a bottle of olive oil at the grocery store.  “Olive Way,” I said.  “That path on the west side of campus.  Two rows of olive trees.  Is that where it was?  What’s a but stop?”

“But stop?” Sarah asked.  I pulled the clue out of my pocket and showed it to her.  “I think that was supposed to say bus stop,” she explained.  “The clue was at the bus stop by Olive Way and Darlington Apartments.”

“That makes so much sense now,” I said.  I would learn later that Brian Burr and some of his roommates here on Valdez Street had lived in those apartments the previous year.  One of them probably wrote the clue.

“We’ll see you later,” Taylor said, shaking my hand.  “Have a good weekend.”

“You too.”

I looked around me at the rest of the people in the room.  About twelve people remained in the house, but this party definitely had the look of a party that was winding down.  No one else that I knew was here.  I tried talking to a few other people, but mostly I just felt embarrassed that I had not even solved the first clue.  I also felt like I had missed a fun time of hanging out, since most people arrived an hour ago.

I left the party about fifteen minutes later, feeling disappointed.  This night was supposed to be fun, and it just left me frustrated, because I could not even solve the first clue.  Even my skill of knowing my way around Jeromeville could not save us from that typo or my lack of familiarity with olive oil.  I still felt on the outside of the cliques.  But I met two new friends, Leah and Autumn, and I got to know Mike better.  I had only been part of JCF for a month, and I was still getting to know people.  And I was learning more about God and the Bible.  All of these were positive things that would take time to grow.  Reaching a goal is nice, but sometimes the things that make life worth living happen while wandering around lost.

2020 olive way
Olive Way, 2020

October 21, 1995. The day I went to visit Renee.

I turned right into the parking lot.  The sign said that Chardonnay Village was somewhere among the cluster of nearby buildings.  The directions that Renee had emailed to me had been very clear; I had no trouble getting here, even though the second half of the trip had been anything but a straight shot, zigzagging over hills.  It was around 11:00 on a Saturday morning.  I left Jeromeville at 9:30.  For the first half of the trip, I drove straight down Highway 100 to Fairview, where it merges with Highway 212 for a few miles.  Where the two routes split again just south of Fairview, I took 212 over a hill to Silverado and followed many other two lane roads until I arrived at Valle Luna State University.  Renee said that one of her roommates knew that drive because she used to date a guy in Jeromeville, and that this was the fastest way.

This part of the state was known for growing grapes and making wine, which was why the dorms at Valle Luna State had names like Chardonnay.  I thought it was unusual for buildings on a university campus to be named after alcohol… to me, this seemed to send the wrong message.  Once I got to Silverado, the rest of the drive here passed through rolling hills covered with grapevines, with the occasional cow pasture.  The indigenous people of this area called it “moon valley,” the 18th century Spanish missionaries translated the name from that language into Spanish. Americans arrived in the middle of the 19th century and bastardized the pronunciation; “valle” in proper Spanish was pronounced more like “bah-yay,” but most Americans pronounced it like its English cognate “valley.”

As I walked up to Renee’s building, I saw her outside waiting for me.  I waved, and she waved back.  “Hey, Greg,” she said once I was in earshot.  She gave me a hug from the side.  She looked the same as I remembered her, short, with long red hair, blue eyes, and freckles, but I had just seen her two months ago, so that was to be expected.

“Hi,” I replied.  “It’s good to see you.”

“How was the drive?”

“Your directions were good.  I found everything just fine.”

“Good!”  Renee paused, then asked, “You wanna see my apartment?”

“Sure.”

I noticed Renee’s use of the word “apartment” instead of “dorm room.”  It fit, because Renee’s building was an on-campus apartment, with each room having an entrance directly outside instead of opening into a hallway.  When I walked inside, I saw a small living room and kitchen, with two bedrooms and a bathroom opening onto it, just like an actual apartment.

“Greg, this is Nicole,” Renee said, gesturing toward the dark-haired girl on the couch.  “Nicole is my roommate.  I mean, like, we share an actual room.  Nicole, this is Greg.”

“Hi, Greg,” Nicole said, looking up from the television.

“Hi,” I replied. 

Renee led me toward one of the bedrooms.  “This is my room and Nicole’s,” she said.  “Jenn and Marisol live in the other room.”

“Nice,” I said.  The bedroom had a window looking out on the grassy area between this building and the next one.  I noticed a bulletin board on the wall by one of the desks, with pictures of people on it; I knew this was Renee’s, because I recognized the people in some of the pictures.  One picture was of Renee and her boyfriend, Anthony; one was Anthony’s senior picture from two years ago; and one was of Renee and our mutual friend Melissa.

“The Where’s Waldo picture,” Renee said.

“Huh?”

“Melissa always thought she looked like Waldo in that picture.”

“Hah,” I laughed, seeing Melissa’s red and white striped shirt differently now.  “I can see it.”

As we walked back to the living room, where Nicole was still watching television, I asked,  “This is a nice place.  Are all the on-campus residential areas at Valle Luna more like apartments?”

“Not all of them,” Renee explained.  “I lived in a regular dorm last year, with one bathroom for the whole floor and stuff like that.  The regular dorms are for freshmen.  Older students get first priority for the on-campus apartments.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “Jeromeville just doesn’t have enough on-campus housing for its student population.  The school took over some apartments just across the street from campus, and even then you only get housing on campus for one year.  So it’s pretty much all freshmen and incoming transfer students in the dorms.  I would have lived on campus another year if I could.”

“I remember that,” Nicole added.  “My ex-boyfriend goes to Jeromeville, and he lived in one of those apartment dorms last year.”

A tall girl with long blonde hair emerged from one of the bedrooms.  “Hey,” she said to Renee.  “Is this your friend?”

“Yeah,” Renee replied.  “Greg, this is Jenn.”

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Jenn said.

“I was thinking we could start with a walk around campus.  Does that sound good?” Renee asked.

“Sure,” I replied.  “I’ve never been here before.”

“Great.  We’ll be back in a bit,” Renee told her rooommates.

The first thing I noticed about Valle Luna State University was that the campus was much smaller than that of the University of Jeromeville.  On the drive in, I noticed that the dorms and on-campus apartments at VLSU were on the west and south sides of the campus.  “This is my walk to class every morning,” Renee pointed out as we walked east toward the center of campus.  She pointed out the library and the buildings where most of her classes were.  The non-residential buildings were mostly in a gray concrete style of architecture, more uniform than the varied heterogeneous architecture of UJ but, in my opinion, less interesting.  We then turned south toward a building that she pointed out as the “student center.”  As we got closer, I took a closer look and saw a vast expanse of tables next to a few on-campus restaurants and ATM machines.

“I was just curious what this was,” I said.  “At Jeromeville, the building like this is called the Memorial Union.”

“Yeah.  I think every college has a building like this, but they’re all called something a little different.”

“Actually, UJ has two buildings like this, the Memorial Union and the Barn.”

“The Barn?”

“It used to be an actual barn, and there is a silo attached to it.  Because, you know, Jeromeville started out as a school of agriculture.”

“Yeah.  I’ve heard Jeromeville is pretty big.  That would make sense that there are two Student Centers.”

“It is.  The main part of campus is bigger than here, and there’s also a huge rural part of campus where they do actual agricultural research.”

“That’s interesting.  Like what kind of agricultural research?”

“I’m not sure exactly.”

Renee and I continued walking around campus.  She showed me the building where the department of psychology offices were located, since psych was her major.  She showed me the theater, the student recreation center, and the sports fields on the eastern edge of campus.  “We only have a few sports teams that compete against other schools,” she explained, “and we usually don’t get big-name athletes here.”

“So are you Division II?  Or Division III?  Something like that?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure.  I don’t really follow sports.  But I know they have student teams that play just for fun.”

“Intramurals?”

“Yeah.  Jenn does that for volleyball.”

“Do you and your roommates get along okay?” I asked.  “No conflict or anything?”

“We do.  It took a while to get used to each other, but everything is good now.”

“Did any of you guys know each other before this year?”

“No, we didn’t.  We were just picked randomly.  At first, we weren’t sure if we were going to get along, but it has worked out great.  Actually, didn’t you tell me you had some friends with a weird combination of religions in their apartment?”

I thought for a minute.  “Oh yeah,” I said.  “Danielle is very Catholic, Theresa is Methodist but not very active at church, and Bok and Skeeter are atheists.”

“That reminded me of our apartment.  Nicole went to Catholic school and goes to Mass every week.  Jenn is an atheist and will make a big deal of it if you try to push your beliefs on her, so we learned pretty fast not to talk about religion around her.  And Marisol and I each grew up going to church sometimes, but not every week.”

“It’s good that you found a way not to let that make conflict between you,” I said.

 

After heading back to the Student Center, where Renee and I had lunch at a sandwich shop, we went back to the apartment.  I did not have anything specific planned that I wanted to do.  Renee mentioned that she and Nicole and Jenn had been talking about going miniature golfing, and that there was a coffee shop they really liked, so that was our plan for the rest of the day.  VLSU was located right on the eastern edge of the suburban city of Valle Luna, with a rural area to the east and hills just a few miles beyond that.  We took Nicole’s car into town along a wide suburban boulevard and pulled into a shopping center.  I could see an overpass just beyond the shopping center, where this street intersected Highway 11.  This was the same Highway 11 that passed through my hometown of Plumdale, 150 miles to the south.

Hanging out at coffee shops was all the rage in 1995.  A year ago, a new television situation comedy called Friends had rapidly become popular.  The show featured six single adults living in New York City who often went to a coffee shop.  This quickly brought artsy hippie coffee shop culture into the mainstream.  As Renee, Nicole, Jenn, and I walked into the coffee shop, I looked around.  Some customers sat at tables, and some on couches and comfortable chairs.  Some were in couples and groups, talking, and some sat alone, reading.  Paintings covered the walls.  I wanted to be part of coffee shop culture like everyone else, but I could not for one important reason: I did not like coffee.  I could not stand the taste.

“You don’t like coffee?” Jenn repeated incredulously after I said this out loud.

“I want to like coffee.  I feel like not liking coffee stunts my social life,” I explained.  Jenn laughed.

“Do you want to go somewhere else?” Renee asked.  “We don’t have to hang out here.  I just suggested it because we go here a lot.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Renee asked.

“You could get a mocha,” Jenn suggested.  “Have you ever had a mocha?  It’s like coffee with chocolate in it, so it doesn’t really taste like coffee.”

“I think I’ll do that,” I replied.

After we ordered and got our drinks, we sat at a round table with four chairs.  I took a sip of the mocha.  “Ouch,” I said.  “That’s really hot.”

“You might want to let it cool,” Renee said quietly.

“So you went to high school with Renee?” Nicole asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“So then you also know Anthony?”

“Yes.”

“Anthony,” Jenn said, slightly shaking her head.  “Did Renee tell you about last weekend when she spent four hours on the phone with Anthony?  I was waiting for someone to call me!  We only have one phone!”

“It was not four hours!” Renee exclaimed, turning red.  “It was more like three.”

“Still!  Three hours!”

“How are things with Anthony?” I asked.  “How’s he doing?”

“He’s good,” Renee explained.  “We’ve been together long enough that we’ve found how to make long distance work for us.”

“Good.”

“He’s really busy with school right now, though.  He’s taking some really hard classes.”

“Well tell him I said hi.”

“I will!”

I took another sip of the mocha, now that it was not quite so hot, and swallowed it.  Even with the overtones of chocolate and an added sugar packet, I could still taste the coffee.  As the four of us talked about school and life in general, I drank about half of it just to be polite, but as I had suspected, I really did not like this drink because I could still taste the coffee.  Oh well.  Live and learn.

We spent about an hour at the coffee shop, then we got back in Nicole’s car and headed north on 11 to the miniature golf place, off the next exit.  “I feel kind of bad that Marisol had to miss miniature golf,” Jenn said as we pulled into our parking place.  “She loves coming here.”

“Did she say when she was getting back?” Renee asked.

“Not until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Where is Marisol today?” I asked.

“She went home for the weekend,” Renee explained.  “She has a boyfriend back home, in San Tomas.  She goes home a lot of weekends.”

After we got our putters and balls, Renee handed me the scorecard and pencil.  “Here, you do this,” she said.  “You’re good at math.”

“Sure,” I replied.  Being good at math is what I am known for, after all.

The first two holes were fairly straightforward, just a few obstacles to putt around, but I got stuck in a corner on the second hole. It took eight strokes for me to get the ball in the hole.

“Aren’t you supposed to just move on after six?” Nicole asked as she saw me write 8 on the score card.

“Oh,” I said, quickly looking over the instructions.  “But I want to finish the hole.  It’s just who I am.”

On the next hole, Jenn went first, then Nicole.  “What are you up to the rest of the weekend?” I asked Renee as we waited for our turn.

“I have a big midterm in my psych class on Monday.  I’ll just be studying for that, after you leave tonight and all day tomorrow.”

“Good luck,” I said.  “Same with me, just studying.  I don’t have anything too big coming up, though, so I can wait to get started until after church tomorrow.”

A while later, we arrived at the sixth hole, which featured a ramp leading up to a small building.  The building had a door that opened and closed on a timer.  Hitting the ball through the door would put the ball next to the hole on the green beyond, possibly even in the hole if everything was just right.  Hitting the ball wide of the door would put the ball farther away on the green.  Jenn made it through on the first try and got a hole-in-one.  Renee’s ball went wide of the door and landed in the position farther away but still with a straight shot to the hole.  I hit the ball perfectly straight, only to have the door slam on the ball, knocking it back to the start.  On my second attempt, the same thing happened.  On the third attempt, the ball went wide and bounced down to the worst possible position on the green.

“Gaaaahhh!” I screamed.

“Are you okay?” Renee asked.

“Yeah.  Just frustrated.  You know how competitive I can get.”

“Just have fun.  It’s like at the graduation all-nighter, when you were Rollerblading and getting frustrated.  Remember?  Melissa and I told you to just have fun with it.”

“You’re not trying to win any competitions,” Nicole added after overhearing our conversation.

“You’re right,” I replied.  “I know.  I’ll try to let go and have fun.”

And I did let go and have fun.  I did not have the best score after we finished our 18 holes, but I enjoyed trying to hit that ball around all the silly obstacles.  The four of us shared more stories about fun college adventures on the drive back to the apartment and for a while in the living room after we got back.  By now, it was late afternoon.  “It’s probably about time for me to head home,” I said after a while.  “I know you wanted to study tonight too.”

“Yeah, I should get started soon,” Renee replied.  “But thanks so much for coming.”

“Thanks again for inviting me here.  It was good seeing you.”

“You too,” Renee replied, standing to give me a hug.  The top of her head only came up to my chin.  “Drive safely.”

“Take care.  And say hi to Anthony for me.”

“I will.”

“And it was nice meeting you guys,” I added, gesturing to Jenn and Nicole.  “Maybe I’ll see you again someday.”

“Yeah,” Jenn replied.

“You too,” Nicole said.

I had a good day, and I felt content as I made the drive back home to Jeromeville, following the directions Renee sent me in reverse.  But I never did see Jenn and Nicole again.  Renee and I stayed in touch off and on for the rest of sophomore year, but by junior year we started growing apart.  We didn’t argue or fight, we never had a falling out of any kind, but growing apart is just a natural part of the cycle of friendships.  I went through many changes sophomore year, changes in living situation and lifestyle and friendships, and many of my friends did too.  Renee and I still emailed off and on for about another year after my trip to Valle Luna, but I did not see her in person again until 2014, at our 20-year high school reunion.  We have been Facebook friends since then, but she does not post often.

It makes me sad how many people I have grown apart from over the years, for no apparent reason, but I have come to accept it as part of life.  We were meant to grow and change over the years, not stay stuck in the same life forever.  Even though I grew apart from some people that year, I also made many new lifelong friends.