I looked up Box Elder Court on a map before I left the apartment. It was a few miles away, in east Jeromeville, just past Power Line Road. I was told that the party started at seven o’clock, but I did not leave the apartment until 7:17, and it was almost 7:30 by the time I turned onto Box Elder Court. I did not feel comfortable being the first to arrive at a party where I knew few people.
But I wanted to go. I saw Alaina and Whitney on campus a few days ago between classes, and Alaina had reminded me, “Greg, you’re coming to the coffee house party, right?” Besides, I liked this new group of friends.
In hindsight, I sometimes humorously referred to early 1997 as my Rebellious Period. Right around the same time I got frustrated with the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, I had made some friends who went to another college-age Christian group, University Life. I went to University Life a few times, although I did not stop attending Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, or my church. I had not been around U-Life enough to notice if cliques were a problem, but I did seem to notice that they were not obsessed with putting people in categories like JCF was. Everyone at JCF wanted to lead Bible studies for future student leaders, or for transfer students, or for students of a certain ethnic or cultural background, or for women, but there were no specific groups for any category I fit into. I had heard that there would only be one small group at JCF next year that was not category specific. I wondered if there were others like me who did not fit into the categories; if so that would be a very large small group. More like a medium group.
Box Elder Court was a cul-de-sac, long enough for eight houses on either side. (Every time I use the word “cul-de-sac,” I have to mention that the term literally means “bag’s ass” in French.) Both sides of the street were mostly lined with cars already, so I had to park at the opposite end of the street from the house where the party was. Either this party was going to be crowded, or many people with cars lived on Box Elder Court, or both.
I walked along the east side of the street, now in shadow. The sun had dropped below the houses on the opposite side and was just setting. Twilight was descending over the neighborhood. I approached my destination, a pale blue house with a garage protruding from the front right side, the number 1402 on the wall next to the garage door. As I walked to the left of the garage toward the front door, I could hear muffled noises suggesting a large crowd inside. A sign on the door, on a sheet of poster board of the kind typically used for school projects, said “BOX ELDER HOUSE OF JAVA – OPEN! COME ON IN!” Next to these words was a drawing of a mug of coffee.
I opened the door slowly and peeked my head in, then I quietly walked forward in the direction that most of the noise seemed to come from. The house had a small living room on the left, with couches and a television; two people I did not know sat on the couch talking. Straight ahead was a dining room area, opening to a kitchen on the left. A hallway to the right of the dining room led to what appeared to be a bathroom and at least one bedroom, and to the right, a stairway descended from what were probably more bedrooms upstairs. This house looked big for three girls; I did not know how many lived here in total.
Someone had pushed the dining room table aside and set up a bar stool with a microphone on a stand in a corner of the dining room. A sign near the stool said OPEN MIC NIGHT, keeping true to the coffee shop theme. About ten or twelve people were milling about the kitchen and dining room; a few faces looked familiar, but the only people I recognized for sure were the three girls I knew who lived here: Alaina, Whitney, and Corinne.
Whitney spotted me first. “Greg!” she said. “You made it!”
“Yeah,” I replied, looking toward the kitchen. Alaina stood over an espresso machine making some kind of drink; next to the espresso machine was a conventional coffee machine.
“Hey, Greg!” Alaina said, sounding excited to see me. “Can I get you a drink?” Alaina gestured toward a white board, on which had been written a menu of coffee drinks.
“I’m probably not going to have coffee, but thanks,” I said.
“There are other drinks in the refrigerator if you want. Help yourself.”
“Sounds good.” I opened the refrigerator and took a can of Dr Pepper. I noticed a few drawings and paintings adorning the walls around the dining room; I was no trained judge of art, but they appeared to be intentionally silly. “I love the coffee shop decorations,” I said. “Right down to the art on the walls.”
“Yeah,” Alaina replied, pointing to a piece of paper that had been profusely scribbled on with crayons. “That one is mine.”
I looked more closely; a sign next to the drawing had indicated that its title was Studying for Finals, and that Alaina was the artist. “Studying for Finals,” I said. “That’s fitting.” Next to Studying for Finals was a drawing in black charcoal of some kind of monster with large eyes, abstract amorphous spots vaguely suggesting a nose and mouth, and no limbs. This drawing had been attributed to Corinne, and its title was Alaina.
“Corinne drew you as a monster?” I asked Alaina.
“Huh?” Corinne said, overhearing me call her name.
“Your drawing,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. You know how it is, how sometimes your roommate can act like a monster.”
I chuckled at this, then noticed a sign that said PAINTINGS $5 – ALL PROCEEDS GO TO JEN’S MISSION TRIP TO BRAZIL. “These paintings are for sale?” I asked.
“Yeah!” Corinne said. “We thought this would be a fun way to help Jen raise a little money.”
“I don’t know if I know Jen,” I replied. Jen was usually short for Jennifer, the most common name for college-aged girls in the United States in 1997, so there were probably multiple girls named Jen who the girls in this house knew.
“She’s coming later,” Corinne explained. “She had something else to do today.”
“Oh, okay. I still think this is a great idea, though. Can I buy this one?” I asked, gesturing toward Corinne’s Alaina.
“You want to buy my painting? Yeah!”
“Should I give you the money?”
“Just put it in the tip jar over by Alaina. We’ll give you the painting after the party.”
“Sounds good,” I said. I walked to the tip jar and put five dollars in it.
“What’s that for?” Alaina asked.
“I’m buying Corinne’s art.”
“Really? Are you sure you don’t want to buy mine?”
“See?” Corinne told Alaina. “Greg thinks you were acting like a monster the other day too!”
“I don’t want to get involved in any drama!” I said. “I just thought it was funny.”
“We’re just messing around,” Corinne said reassuringly. “Do you and your roommates ever argue?”
“Not really that much,” I said. “Our apartment has been pretty peaceful. And I lived alone before that; this is my first time having roommates.”
“And I don’t know where I’m going to live next year. People always seem to make their housing arrangements without asking me.”
“What about your current roommates?”
“They’re older. I don’t think they’ll be in Jeromeville next year.”
“That’s too bad,” Corinne said. “But, hey, if I hear of any guys from U-Life who need a roommate, I’ll let you know.”
“No problem! I’ll be right back. Corinne left toward the bedrooms, then returned with a sticky note that said SOLD and placed it on the Alaina drawing.
I found a chair and sat and watched people for a while. Ben Lawton had arrived while I was talking to Corinne, and Carolyn Parry was just walking in now, carrying a guitar case. Corinne took Carolyn’s guitar back to the bedrooms, presumably to keep it out of the way of everyone. That made a total of five people I knew by name at this party. Carolyn looked in my direction, and I waved.
“Hey, Greg,” Carolyn said. “Good to see you here! What’s up?”
“Just the usual,” I said. “Are you singing later? Is that why you brought the guitar?”
“Yeah! I’ll be singing a song I wrote.”
“That’s so cool!”
“How do you like the pieces for chorus this quarter?”
“I’m learning them okay. I like them so far. I don’t know German at all, though, so that’ll take some practice to pronounce right.”
“Yeah. You’ll pick it up fine with practice.”
Around eight o’clock, Alaina got everyone’s attention and announced, “Make sure you sign up for the open mic! We’ll start at 8:30.” She put a clipboard on the dining room table, and when she saw that I was watching her, she said, “You’re gonna do something on the open mic, right, Greg?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Yes! Sign up! Just, like, get up there and do a math problem or something, and say it’s a poem about math. That would be hilarious!”
“You know,” I said, “I think I’ll do something like that.” I signed my name on the clipboard.
I did more people-watching and mingling until eight-thirty, at which time everyone gathered in the dining room around the microphone. Carolyn went first, with the guitar she had retrieved from the bedroom. “This is a song I wrote,” she said. “It’s about God’s love for us.” She then proceeded to play a fast rhythm on the guitar, singing from the perspective of God, calling someone who has been running away back into the love and hope that he offers. I knew how it felt to want to hide from God, and his love and truth. Carolyn was quite good as a singer, and these lyrics showed her to be just as good as a songwriter.
Next, a guy I did not know walked up to the microphone and began reciting a poem. “Once, there was this kid, who got into an accident, and couldn’t come to school,” he said. This was a dark poem, I thought. “When he finally came back, his hair had turned from black into bright white. He said that it was from when the cars had smashed so hard.” As he continued reciting words, next about a girl with an embarrassing birthmark, I realized why this poem had sounded familiar. He was reading the lyrics to a strange song that was popular a few years earlier, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies. Despite being so dark, I always thought the song was oddly catchy.
A few more performers came up, performing various types of music and poetry readings. Some were serious, others were silly, and others involved inside jokes among the U-Life crowd that went over my head. After about seven or eight performers had gone, Alaina called out, “Next up, Greg!”
Hey, that’s me, I thought. After signing up, I had prepared something according to Alaina’s advice. “This is a dramatic reading of the Pythagorean Theorem,” I said. A few in the crowd giggled, and when the giggles stopped, I began. “In a right triangle!” I shouted dramatically. “The square! Of the… hy-pot-en-use!” I continued, taking frequent breaths and carefully enunciating each syllable of “hypotenuse.” “Is equal! To the sum… of the squares! Of… the other. Two… Siiiiidessss.” I drew out that last word, pronouncing it slowly. I walked away from the microphone, and everyone applauded.
“Good job!” Corinne told me as I returned to the crowd. “That was perfect.”
“Thanks!” I smiled.
I stayed at the coffee shop party for another couple hours, until it wound down and the girls who lived there had begun cleaning up. I took Corinne’s Alaina drawing off the wall when I left and hung it up in my room at the apartment, right next to Tear Down the Wall, the painting I had made freshman year with Bok and Skeeter and some others from my dorm.
The next day was Sunday, and by mid-afternoon I was still in a good mood after having had so much fun at the party the night before. It was a beautiful day, sunny and a little on the warm side, but not hot. Josh, the roommate I did not know as well as the other two, was actually home for once, and he seemed to be the only one home. “Hey, Greg,” Josh said as I came downstairs to the kitchen for a snack. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. I’m just relaxing the rest of the day. I don’t have any homework or studying.”
“You wanna come play disc golf? I was just thinking, this is a perfect day for it.”
“Sure!” I said. I grabbed the flying disc that I had gotten from Brian on the day of last year’s Man of Steel competition and got into Josh’s car. Josh had an entire bag of discs of different shapes and sizes; he was obviously a more experienced player than I was.
We drove about a mile and a quarter south on Maple Drive and parked next to a city park near a cluster of apartments just north of campus. I followed Josh to a concrete slab marked with a number 1. “There’s the hole over there,” Josh said, pointing at a pole with chains around it, making a cage-like structure, and a tray below.
“So this is an actual disc golf course? And the goal is to get the disc in the tray there?”
“Yeah. You’ve never done disc golf here?”
“I haven’t. The only time I’ve played disc golf was last year at the Man of Steel competition, and they just made up a course where the holes were trees or poles you had to hit.”
“Aim for those chains,” Josh said. “Your disc hits the chains, they’ll slow it down, and it’ll land in that tray.”
“Cool,” I said. Josh got his disc in the hole in two throws, using a different disc for the second, shorter throw than he used for the first throw. My first throw went wildly off course, and it took me a total of five throws to make it in the hole.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” Josh said as we walked to the next tee area.
Uh-oh, I thought. This was a classic move; Josh got me alone, just him and me, because he wanted to talk to me about something serious. Maybe I was being a bad roommate, and he wanted to call me out. Maybe I was acting inappropriately in front of the youth group at church. Fortunately, it was not a bad thing at all that Josh wanted to ask.
“Do you have a place to live next year?” Josh asked.
“No, I don’t. Why? Do you need a roommate?”
“I do, actually. You know Sean Richards, right?”
I attended Catholic Mass until about six months ago, when I got involved at Jeromeville Covenant Church instead. Sean was one of the few other Catholic students who also attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. “Yeah,” I said. “I know Sean.”
“What about Sam Hoffman? Light blond hair, physics major like me, he goes to JCF sometimes?”
“I think I know who you’re talking about.”
“Anyway, Sean knows four guys who live in a three-bedroom house, and their landlord approved Sean to take over their lease. So, Sean and Sam and I are going to live there, but we need a fourth. You would be sharing the large bedroom with Sean. But you two would have your own bathroom. Are you interested?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That sounds great!” Sharing a bedroom was not ideal, but I had been doing it all this year, so it would not be that difficult of a transition. It was somewhat amusing that I would go from sharing a bedroom with someone named “Shawn” to sharing a bedroom with someone named “Sean.” “Where is the house?” I asked.
“It’s on Acacia Drive. Across the street from the Acacia Apartments.”
“That’s a great location!” I said. Three different groups of people from my freshman dorm lived in the Acacia Apartments sophomore year, and I used to visit them there occasionally. I knew the area. “I could walk to church from there,” I added.
“Yeah! We’re gonna take a look at the house sometime next week. I’ll let you know for sure when we do. But we’re all pretty sure we’re gonna go for it.”
“Sounds good! This certainly takes a lot of stress off of me.”
“I think we’ll be a fun group of guys. And it’ll be nice having an actual house.”
“Yeah!” I said.
Josh continued to dominate our game of disc golf. He tried to teach me to throw more straight; his pointers helped a little, but I obviously needed more practice to throw a disc straight. The Man of Steel competition, among the men of JCF, was coming up in less than two months, and I would need to throw much straighter than that if I wanted to avoid repeating my near-last-place finish. I found myself getting a little frustrated, but we were not strictly keeping score. This time was more about hanging out with Josh. He told me that he would be doing the teacher training program next year, to be a high school science teacher. I told him about my internship helping in a math class at Jeromeville High, and about the summer internships I had applied for, so I would be able to decide between teaching and graduate school. Josh also asked if I had heard that Shawn, our roommate who was currently doing teacher training for math, had become disillusioned with it and was considering leaving teaching. I told Josh that I had heard this, and that it was unfortunate.
I answered emails from a few Internet friends when I got home, and I had told each of those people that I had a great weekend. I went to a fun party with new friends, and my housing plans for the following year had fallen into place nicely. And no one seemed to care that I was part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship but hanging out with University Life people. It was okay to have multiple groups of friends. It was a good thing.
Readers: Have you ever performed at an open mic night? Tell me about it in the comments!