January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

A few months ago, during October of my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had gotten involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a chapter of an international nondenominational organization called Intervarsity.  JCF had weekly meetings on Fridays with worship music with someone giving a talk about the Bible, and attending these was the extent of my involvement so far.  I knew that there were also small group Bible studies and a few retreats every year, but I had not gotten involved in those yet.

As a relative newcomer to the group, I was still learning the etiquette.  Some people stood up during worship, some waved their hands, some sat quietly.  I was having trouble doing any of those right now because I had to pee, and I was not sure if getting up to use the bathroom during the music was frowned upon.  I walked quickly to the bathroom as soon as the last song and closing prayer ended, and when I got back to my seat, Liz and Ramon, Jason, Sarah, Caroline, and Krista were standing where I had been sitting.  I stood quietly next to Sarah.  All six of these people had been in my dorm freshman year, and they were how I first knew about JCF.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said.  “What are you doing tonight?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“We’re going to 199 Stone to see Dangerous Minds.  You want to come?”

“Sure,” I said.  “When does it start?”

“10.  We don’t need to leave quite yet, but we should probably leave soon, to get there early.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Good idea.”

A little while later, the seven of us left Evans Hall and walked to Stone Hall.  Evans and Stone were right next to each other on Davis Drive, so we did not have far to walk.  A division of the Associated Students organization called Campus Cinema used the large 400-seat lecture hall in Stone as a second-run theater on weekends, showing movies that had played in theaters a few months earlier but were not released on video yet.  Tickets were three dollars, less than even matinee prices at actual theaters.

Two lines extended from the front of the building, a relatively short line of people waiting to buy tickets, and a longer line of about 50 people who already bought tickets and were now waiting for the earlier show to get out.  The seven of us paid for our tickets and moved to the back of the longer line.  “This is based on a true story, right?” Krista asked.

“Yeah,” Sarah replied.

I did not know a whole lot about this movie, except that it was about an inner-city teacher, and that the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” came from this movie.  I only knew that song because of Mark, my younger brother who loved gangsta rap.  I did not realize that the movie was based on a true story.

About five minutes after we arrived, more people trickled in and moved to the back of the line where we stood.  At one point, I spotted a familiar face walking toward me, and my mind flooded with thoughts.  What do I say?  I have not seen her in a while, and our last conversation was kind of awkward on my end.  Maybe I should–

“Megan!” I called out, waving, interrupting the voices in my head.

Megan looked around for the source of the person greeting her.  She saw me and smiled.  “Greg!  How are you?”

“I’m doing ok.  Classes are going well.  How are you?”

“I’m great!”

“How’s your building?”

“It’s good.  It’s a pretty calm group of people so far.  There hasn’t been a lot of drama.  I have to go, I need to find the people I’m meeting here, but hey, it was good seeing you!”

“You too!” I said, smiling.  Had I been asked yesterday, I would have said that I was making progress in getting over Megan.   When she mentioned two months ago that she was dating someone, I was devastated, but I did not think of her as often since I did not see her as often anymore.  Last year, she was an RA in a dorm in the same campus residential area as mine, and I saw her frequently around the dining commons.  This year, she was an RA in a different residential area, and I lived off campus.

As I stood there in line, I found that I could not help but wonder if Megan and this guy were still together.  Maybe that was who she was meeting.    To my knowledge, Megan had no idea how I felt about her, since I never knew how to tell girls that I liked them.  In the time since I found out that Megan had a boyfriend, I had also found out that another girl I liked had a boyfriend; this was a common theme in my life.

I saw a crowd of people leave the building as the early show ended, and a few minutes later, our line started moving.  We climbed up to the building’s front entrance, walked across the lobby, and then down the aisle of the lecture hall.  “Is this okay?” Liz asked as she gestured toward a mostly empty row in the center section toward the back.

“Sure,” I said, nodding.  The others assented as well, and we sat down in seven consecutive seats.  I watched as advertisements for other Associated Students services flashed on the screen, mixed with a few silly announcements.  “Want to learn to be a projectionist?  So do we,” one of them said.  I laughed.

I looked around me at people filling in the seats.  I saw Megan and her friends walk past us; they sat three rows in front of us.  I looked back up at the screen, watching the advertisements, occasionally looking around but unable to stop myself from glancing at the back of Megan’s head.  She was talking to one of the people she came with, an Asian girl with shoulder-length hair; they were laughing about something.  Megan put her arm around the girl and leaned forward, and they kissed on the lips.  Megan pulled back, smiling, then leaned toward the girl and kissed her again, leaving her arm around the girl after their lips separated.

Wait, I thought.  What just happened?

Megan never told me that she had a boyfriend.  Her exact words were “the person I’m dating,” and apparently the person she was dating was a girl.

The movie started, and I tried to pay attention to what was happening on the screen.  Although it was dark in the building once the movie started, I could still see the outline of Megan and her girlfriend cuddling.  I tried to look away.  Looking at her felt wrong.  Not only was she in a relationship, but it was a same-sex relationship, and that she was not even into guys in the first place.  I forced myself to watch the movie, at times even putting my hands over my face to cover just enough of my field of vision so as not to be able to see Megan and her girlfriend.

I became more absorbed in the movie as it went on, watching Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Ms. Johnson, struggling to connect with the city kids in her class and relate to their experiences.  In one scene, the mother of one of the students called Ms. Johnson a vulgar name and told her that she should not teach these students to be academically successful.  I could not understand how someone could possibly have such low expectations for her own child.  I would have just as hard of a time as Ms. Johnson understanding the world that these students lived in, and she was much more patient with the students than I would have been.

At the end of the movie, Ms. Johnson’s character was unable to save one of the students from the dangers of street life.  She seemed to feel that all her efforts were futile.  Futility felt familiar tonight.  All of my efforts to get closer to Megan, the late night conversations, sitting with her and her friends in the dining hall, exchanging birthday cards, the time we had lunch and hung out in her room, none of that mattered.  I did the best I could, but I was doomed from the start just because I was a guy.

When the movie ended, people began standing and filing out of the theater.  I realized that I could turn toward my friends so that Megan would be behind me, and I would not have to see her as she left the building with her girlfriend.  But I also did not want to be conspicuous or rude about this.  I stood facing forward as I normally would, waiting for the people around me to leave,and as Megan and her girlfriend walked up the aisle past me, I made eye contact with Megan and waved.

“Good night, Greg,” Megan said.  “Have a good weekend!”

“You too,” I said, trying my best to act the way I always did, hiding the disappointment in my voice.  I turned to my left, to the people I came with.

“What did you think of the movie?” Sarah asked.

“I liked it,” I said.  “Sad, but that’s life sometimes.  Sometimes, no matter what you do, things don’t work out.”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Krista added.  “But I thought it was cool how much effort she made to relate to the students.”

“It wasn’t bad, but there are already a lot of movies like this,” Jason observed.  “Kids from rough neighborhoods and teachers trying to relate to them.”

“Yeah,” Krista agreed.

“You ready to go?” Liz asked me.  I realized that I was standing closest to the aisle, so I would have to leave first in order for the others to get out.  The crowd of people filing out had begun to thin, so I nodded walked toward the aisle.  We stood outside in the cool night for a few minutes, talking about weekend plans and classes.  Eventually, we all said our goodbyes, and I walked back to my car and returned to my apartment.


The next day was Saturday, and I did not have to wake up early for class.  I lay in bed for over an hour after waking up, processing the events of the previous night.  Megan McCauley was a lesbian.  I saw her kissing a woman.  Sometimes, in the back of my mind, I was still holding out hope in my mind that things would not work out with the person Megan was dating, and that I might have a chance with her.  Last night had put an end to that hope.  All it took was one look, last night while I waited for the movie to start, for what hope I had left to be put to death quickly.  I supposed, though, that finding out the way I did had its advantages.  Had I actually been brave enough to ask her out, she would have had to tell me that she did not like guys, and that interaction would have been awkward and embarrassing.

I put on a sweatshirt and went for a bike ride, trying to clear my head.  I rode south on Andrews Road toward campus, intending to ride the entire length of the University Arboretum east to west.  But as I approached, I realized that my route would take me right past Carter Hall, Megan’s dorm, and the North Area Dining Commons where we had met for lunch in September.  I turned left on Fifth Street and entered campus on Colt Avenue instead.  I did not want to ride past Megan’s building and think about her and her girlfriend in bed together.  But it was too late; the thoughts were already there.

One look.  All it took was one look to ruin my hope and my weekend.  What if I had not looked up while I was in line and seen Megan outside of Stone Hall?  Or what if I had made an effort not to look at her once I got to my seat?  What if I had not gone to the movie last night at all?  Then maybe I would have still been blissfuly unaware of Megan’s sexual orientation, and I would not have felt this awkwardness over having spent a year of my life having a crush on someone whom I did not even realize was not into guys at all.  One look can turn happiness to sadness.  That sounded poetic.

I stopped when I arrived at the east end of the Arboretum, behind the art and music buildings.  Perhaps my mind was giving birth to another poem; I had been writing a lot lately.  I did not like the “happiness to sadness” part, though.  I continued riding my bike a short distance through the Arboretum and sat on a bench overlooking the small lake next to Marks Hall.  The sky was blue, without a cloud in sight, but it was still January, and many of the trees in the Arboretum had shed their leaves.  One look can turn summer into winter.  No, that was not quite right.  One look can turn the blue skies into gray.  Iambic pentameter, very Shakespearean, but still not quite right.

One look can turn the daytime into night.

That was it.  That was going to be the first line of my poem.  Two years ago, in high school, we had studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I had become fascinated with their rhythm and rhyme pattern.  I also found it interesting how much had been speculated over the years regarding who they were written to, or about, although I had not studied this in great detail.  I continued my ride west through the Arboretum, thinking about how one look ruined my night last night, and how if I were to gouge out my eyes, I would not be able to see uncomfortable truths in the first place.

When I reached the oak grove at the end of the Arboretum, I continued on Thompson Drive across Highway 117 to the rural part of campus, past the sheep barn in the middle of the agricultural research fields.  At the south end of Hawkins Road, I stopped again and stood for a few minutes.  Olive trees lined both sides of the road.  Behind me was Arroyo Verde Creek, with oaks and sycamores and various small bushes along its banks.  Riding my bike on this route always made me feel so peaceful.  Despite still being on a large university campus, I felt like I was miles and miles from civilization, not worried about girls rejecting me, or upcoming exams, or my uncertain future.

In Mr. Jackson’s AP English class at Plumdale High, we studied a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets in detail.  Sonnet 29, the one that begins “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” was my favorite.  Today I felt like I was in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.  Life just sucked sometimes.  Shakespeare used fourteen grandiloquent lines of iambic pentameter to say, essentially, that when he felt discouraged, hopeless, or envious of others, he simply thought of a certain special someone, and having this person in his life was more important than everything that was bringing him down.  Scholars had spent centuries speculating about the identity and gender of this special someone and the nature of his or her relationship to Shakespeare.

But, now that I took the time to get out of my head and think about things, there was no mystery to the identity of my special someone, or in this case, multiple special someones.  Sure, I had never had a romantic partner.  Megan had a girlfriend.  Sabrina Murphy had a boyfriend.  Back home, I never got anywhere with Rachelle Benedetti or Kim Jensen or Melissa Holmes or Jennifer Henson or Annie Gambrell.  But I had people who cared about me, and that really was important.  Sarah and Krista and Liz and Ramon and Jason and Caroline had invited me to the movie last night.  Taylor Santiago and Pete Green and Charlie Watson always welcomed me to their apartment when I just needed to get out of my apartment and interact with human beings.  I had my friends from the Newman Center, I was making new friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, I made friends in my dorm last year, and I had a few friends from classes or just from seeing them around campus.  Sure, none of these people was my girlfriend, but they cared about me, and in my darkest moments, they had been there for me.

As I rode my bike back home, I continued thinking of ways to put my feelings into iambic pentameter.  I was now modeling my poem on Sonnet 29, using the first eight lines to lament the illusion-shattering experience of seeing Megan kiss a girl, but then reflecting on the positive things in my life in the final six lines.  I wrote down what I had so far when I got home, then after making lunch and spending a few hours studying, I logged onto an IRC chat in one window with my poem open in another window, writing my poem as I waited for people to reply to my messages.  I finished a little after midnight.


“One Look”

One look can turn the daytime into night,
A happy day into a tedious chore;
One misdirected glance, and all’s not right,
The ships I’ve tried to sink arrive at shore.
I think that I will gouge out both my eyes
And lay this possibility to rest;
No more will I see through some grand disguise
To find that things are not as I’d have guessed.
But then my eyes would shut to all the love
My friends have shown in times of great despair,
And blind I’d be to gifts from God above,
And times I’ve persevered when life’s not fair;
One painful sight is quite a modest price
To pay to live a life of things so nice.


Megan and I did not stay close for the rest of the time we were at UJ.  I had of course not ruled out the possibility that she was bisexual, interested in both women and men, but that was not something I wanted to think about, and it was beside the point.  Although I did not grow up with much exposure to the LGBTQ community or lifestyles, I did not reject her out of prejudice.  We had already started growing apart now that I did not eat at the dining hall anymore.  I also made less of an effort to stay in touch with her once I found out she was dating someone, because I knew she would not be interested in me.  I did not avoid her intentionally; I still saw her on campus over the years and said hi occasionally.  But we just ran in different circles, and sometimes people just naturally grow apart.

After this, I only have one more specific memory of an actual conversation with Megan.  It was early in my senior year, her fifth year, when I passed her on the way to class.  She told me she had two more quarters left to finish her undergrad degree, I told her about what I had done over the summer, and she told me that a friend of hers had done the same thing as me a few years earlier.  Additionally, in 2014, I was looking at the website for a place where I had a job interview coming up, and I saw a mention of an employee named Megan McCauley .  I do not know if it was the same person, but Megan’s degree was in chemical engineering, and this person’s position was related enough to chemistry that it was possible.  No picture accompanied the name.  I decided to let sleeping dogs lie and not try to figure out if this was the same Megan McCauley; it did not matter in the end, because I was not offered the job.  If Megan and I are ever meant to cross paths again someday, I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thanks,” Danielle replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should.  I think you’d be good.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You totally should!”

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

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

“Maybe,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.  Just yourself.”

“Great!  I’ll see you then!”

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

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

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

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

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


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



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


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

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

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


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

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

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

“Thanks!” Gary replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aww.”

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

“Where’d you go to school?”

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

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

“Oh yeah?  What are their names?”

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

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

“That’s what I figured.”

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

“Math.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s so cool!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!  That would be so cool!”

“Do you use email?”

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

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

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

“Thanks!” I said.

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

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

“I will.  Thanks.” I smiled.

“We’ll probably talk more later tonight.”

“Yeah,” I said.

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

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

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

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

December 30, 1995 – January 1, 1996. A family vacation that did not involve boring relatives.

As I have said before, most Dennison family vacations revolved around visiting boring relatives.  The idea that a family vacation could involve going someplace to see and do things other than extended family sometimes seemed lost on my parents.  But one of the rare exceptions to this happened during winter break of my sophomore year at Jeromeville.  Around the time I first got home for winter break, Mom said, “I was thinking, maybe we should go somewhere fun for New Year’s this year, since we aren’t doing anything else.  Like Disneyland.”

“Yes!” I shouted enthusiastically.

“Do I have to?” Mark complained.

“Disneyland is fun!  You liked it the other time we went.”

“Yeah, because I was in kindergarten,” Mark said sarcastically.

“I promise, if you aren’t enjoying it, and you think of anything else you want to do on that trip, we can,” Mom said.  Mark grunted unenthusiastically.

Within the intervening twelve days, Mom booked a hotel and found someone to come over and feed the cats, and on the morning of December 30, we hit the road headed south.  Disneyland was in Orange County, California, about a six and a half hour drive from Plumdale in perfect conditions.  It took us more like eight hours, including stops for meals and all the bathroom breaks necessary when traveling with 19- and 14-year-old boys, in addition to traffic, although it was Saturday and traffic was not quite as heavy as usual.

When I was younger, road trips with the family always seemed so long and boring.  Being a roadgeek, I always enjoyed traveling roads I had not seen before, but usually I just wanted to hurry up and get where we were going.  As I got older, though, I began to appreciate road trips more, and I discovered that just looking out the window at scenery can be inherently fun.  This trip was interesting because, starting from my parents’ house in Plumdale, Disneyland is in the opposite direction of San Tomas, Bay City, Jeromeville, Bidwell, and just about everywhere else we regularly go when on road trips as a family.  I only played hand-held video games for about an hour on that trip.

There was one thing I did enjoy about road trips when I was younger compared to now, however.  Before, we all mostly agreed on each other’s choice of music.  But about three years ago, Mark discovered gangsta rap; now he listened to little else, and that often started arguments when we were all in the car together.  Mark brought headphones to listen to his own music, but Mom decided it would be fair to give him a turn to listen to his music through the car speakers.  So he got his turn to play Snoop Dogg and 2Pac in between my turns to play R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish.

“So what are you most excited to ride?” Mom asked as we waited in line at a McDonald’s drive-thru, about an hour before we would reach our hotel.

“Space Mountain!” I said.

“I hated that ride,” Mom replied.

“And Pirates of the Caribbean.  Remember, it was closed the other time we came.”

“Oh, yeah.  Did you ride it when you came here for your senior trip?”

“Yeah, but that means I’ve only been on it once.”

“There’s that new Indiana Jones ride too,” Mom said.  “That one is supposed to be good.

“I haven’t heard about that one,” I said.  “But, sure, that sounds good.  I’ve also only been on the Matterhorn once.  I didn’t ride it when we went before.”

“You didn’t?  That one is a little too fast for me too.”

“I know.”

Dad turned off the freeway when we reached the exit for our hotel.  “Maybe we’ll see someone famous at Disneyland,” Mom said.  “Sometimes you hear of people going to Disneyland and seeing famous people.”

“Maybe we’ll see O.J. Simpson at Disneyland,” I said sarcastically, trying to think of the most obnoxious, joke-worthy famous person possible.  “He’s not going to jail, you know.”

“I don’t think so,” Mom replied.

“We should go find O.J.’s house.  I remember which highways he was on when we watched the police chase in the white Bronco.”

“Yeah,” Mark said, speaking up for the first time since we left McDonald’s.  “Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”

“We’re not going to find O.J.’s house,” Mom said.

“Mom,” I said, “you told Mark that if there was anything he wanted to do to make this trip more fun for him, that we could.”

“Yeah,” Mark added.  “You said we could do something fun for me.  Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”

“We’ll see,” Mom said reluctantly.

In 1995, the Disneyland resort had only one park.  California Adventure and the Downtown Disney shopping area would not appear until 2001.  Those were built on land that was the Disneyland parking lot in 1995, and a giant parking garage would eventually replace these lost parking lots.  We parked and walked past the sea of cars toward the park entrance.  A large group of people was already gathered waiting to get in; we joined them, waiting until the park opened, then moving forward.  About forty minutes after we left the car, we finally walked through the entrance gate and continued through the tunnel under the Disneyland Railroad to Main Street.

The reality that I was at Disneyland hit me as I looked down Main Street, with the statue of Walt Disney at the other end and the castle behind the statue.  I had only been to Disneyland twice before.  The first time was in sixth grade, also with my family, and I enjoyed it except that I got diarrhea at one point during the day, and I hated pooping in public bathrooms.  The second time was my senior trip.  During May and June, Disneyland will close to the public early on certain days, then stay open all night specifically for senior trips.  Melissa Holmes and Kevin Liu were making a joke that night about how Anthony Tejeda always got separated from the group on marching band field trips, so one of them found a helium balloon with a string on it and used it to tie Anthony’s wrist to Renee Robertson’s wrist.  By the end of the trip, as the sun was rising, the balloon was long gone, but Renee and Anthony were still attached at the wrist, holding hands, and they were still together a year and a half later, now in a long distance relationship.  Looking back at the way all those people acted that night, I suspected that either Anthony and Renee had liked each other for some time, or that the others had been trying to set them up for some time.  But it made me feel awkward, because, if this thing between Anthony and Renee had been going on as far back as April, I never would have asked Renee to the prom, even though it was clear we were just going as friends.

We began the day riding a few of the low-speed rides.  Autopia, the ride with the miniature cars on a fixed track, was much less exciting at age 19 than it was at age 11, since now at age 19 I drove a real car all the time.  Star Tours, the spaceship simulator set in the Star Wars universe, still felt very real, even though those of us on the ride did not actually move during the ride.  The Submarine Voyage was fun once I overcame the initial claustrophobia of having to climb into the ship.  The Mad Tea Party made me feel a little bit nauseated.

“Where to next?” Mom asked after we got out of the teacups.

“I want to go on the Matterhorn,” I said.

“I don’t,” Mark said.

“Maybe we should split up,” Mom said.  “You and Dad can go on stuff together for a while, and I’ll take Mark.  Then we can meet up again in a couple hours.  Let’s say one o’clock, right here, and we can get lunch then.”

“That sounds good.”

As Dad and I waited in line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride, he asked me, “So are you having fun today?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Good,” Dad said.  Being with Dad was always much quieter than being with Mom.  Mom was much more talkative than Dad, and because of that, I have a slight discomfort with silence in the presence of others that continues to this day.

After we finished the Matterhorn, Dad and I went to Space Mountain.  This had been the first roller coaster I ever experienced when I came here the first time.  On the few occasions in which we visited amusement parks in my childhood, Mom drilled into my mind that roller coasters were scary, so I never rode them.  We all went on Space Mountain when I was 11, not knowing what it was.  I loved it, and Mom hated it.

The line was long; Dad and I waited for over half an hour.  Space Mountain is a completely dark roller coaster, with only projections of stars and flashing lights, beginning with a climb like many roller coasters, but then twisting downward with many turns instead of having a large drop.  The first time I rode it, I kept my eyes closed for most of the ride, even though it was dark, but this time my eyes were open.  “I love that ride!” I shouted to Dad as we got off and walked outside.

After we met up with Mom and Mark for lunch, we all walked over to the Adventureland section of the park and got in line for the Indiana Jones ride.  This was the newest attraction at Disneyland at the time of our visit, and unsurprisingly, we stood in line the longest for that ride, almost an hour and a half.  Much of the line was inside the ride, in corridors designed to look like an ancient temple that Indiana Jones was exploring, along with short videos in the style of 1930s newsreels, telling the story of Indiana Jones’ discovery.  The ride itself resembled the old rides based on movies, but this one had much better special effects.

After Indiana Jones, we split up with the opposite parent and child combination.  Mom and I went on the Jungle Cruise, located right next to Indiana Jones, and Dad and Mark went off by themselves.  We sat leisurely in the boat as our tour guide narrated and told bad jokes.  As we got out of the boat, I told Mom, “I really want to go on Space Mountain again.”

“You already rode that with Dad.  Make him take you again.”

“Please?” I said.  “Just give it another try.  I’ve been on it every time I’ve been to Disneyland, and nothing has ever happened to me.”

“All right,” Mom said begrudgingly.  We walked back across the park to Tomorrowland and got in line for Space Mountain.  “Captain EO!” Mom exclaimed as we walked past the theater next to Space Mountain.  “If you’re going to make me go on Space Mountain, then I’m going to say we’re going to Captain EO next.”

“Sure.  That’ll be fun.”

The line for Space Mountain this time was longer than it was when I came with Dad; it took almost an hour to get on the ride.  About ten feet in front of us in line, I saw a teenage girl with red hair who resembled a cute girl I had had in a few of my math classes.  This definitely was not that girl.  She wore a skimpy tank top with her pierced belly button showing, and she had torn jeans and a green dyed streak through her hair.  She was with a boy who had spiked hair, ear and nose piercings, and equally shabby jeans.  They began kissing passionately, and I looked away.

“Look at those two,” Mom said quietly, gesturing toward the teenage couple.  “I’ve been watching people today, and it seems like Disneyland is letting some rough-looking people in these days.  They wouldn’t have been allowed in back in my day.”

“Hmm,” I replied, unsure of how to respond to that.

The ride was just as thrilling as it had always been.  I enjoyed every second of it.  “See?” I said as soon as Mom and I were outside.  “You’re fine.  That was fun.”

“That was ten times worse than I remember it!” Mom shouted.  “I felt like I was going to die!  Never again!”

“If you say so.  Let’s go watch Captain EO.”

Mom and I did not have a long wait for the next showing of Captain EO.  I had only seen Captain EO once, the first time I came here with my family, and I barely remembered what it was like, so seeing Michael Jackson and his weird alien puppets defeat bad guys by turning them into backup dancers, complete with special effects in the theater, made for a nice enjoyable break from rides that move quickly.

Dad and Mark met back up with us a couple hours after Captain EO, and we rode as many rides as we had time for the rest of the day.  At 11:00 that night, after leaving the Haunted Mansion, Mom said, “We should probably go head over to where the fireworks are going to be.”

“Good idea,” Dad said.

“It’s only 11.  This early?” I asked.  “I guess it’ll probably get crowded.”

Disneyland had been getting steadily more crowded all day, and the plaza at the end of Main Street facing the castle was a solid mass of people when we arrived there.  The next hour was one of waiting, standing uncomfortably in the cold night, and sitting on a curb when it got too cold to stand.  I complained about being cold a few times, and Mark did too.  I checked my watch: still 39 minutes to go.  I stood up again.  I sat again.  I checked my watch again: 31 minutes to go.

Finally, at around 11:55, music started playing.  People turned toward the castle in anticipation of the fireworks starting.  The surrounding area got dark a few minutes later, and eventually I heard people counting down.

“Ten!  Nine!  Eight!” I shouted along with thousands of people in unison around me.  “Seven!  Six!  Five!  Four!  Three!  Two!  One!  Happy new year!”  Toward the end of the countdown, the unison broke down, and some people started cheering.  Auld Lang Syne began playing as the fireworks show started, followed by music from various Disney movies.

I loved fireworks.  We did not watch fireworks shows often when I was growing up; I am not sure why.  But there was something impressive about watching these giant explosions in the sky.  I watched every one, full of awe and excitement.

After the fireworks show ended, voices came on over speakers asking us to leave the park.  We walked, carefully among the huge crowds, down Main Street back to the parking lot.

“That was fun,” I said when we got back to the car.  “Thank you for bringing us.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Mark complained.  “It was boring!”

“We’ll be home tomorrow night,” Mom said.  “And we’re still going to go see O.J.’s house, remember.”

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

“I can’t believe we’re actually going to do it.”

The next morning, we exited Interstate 405 at Sunset Boulevard, following the route we remembered from the news.  In June of 1994, retired football player and television personality O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her male companion, and a few days later, a special report showed police chasing Simpson on the freeway, following him to his house.  The murder case dominated the news until October of 1995, when he was found not guilty.

“Star maps,” Mom said, pointing to a kiosk just off the side of the road.  “Should we get one?”

“Sure,” I said.  Dad pulled over, and Mom walked to the kiosk, paying its occupant and returning to the car with a sheet of paper.

“I still can’t believe we’re doing this,” Mom said again, looking at the star map.  I looked over her shoulder.  “There he is.  O.J. Simpson.  And there’s Nicole Simpson, ‘deceased.’”  Next to their names were printed their addresses, O.J. on Rockingham Avenue and Nicole on Bundy Drive, along with about a hundred other addresses of celebrities.  On the other side was a map of the area with main streets, less detailed than an actual street map from AAA.

We continued down Sunset Boulevard for about a mile, starting to wonder if we were going the wrong way.  But then Mom exclaimed in a foreboding tone of voice, “There’s Bundy!” as we crossed the street where Nicole Simpson had been found murdered in her home.

“O.J. lives on Rockingham,” I said, reading the map.  We got to Rockingham Drive about a mile later, but I noticed that several white concrete barriers were blocking the street.  “It’s blocked off,” I said.  “Probably because too many people have been doing what we’re doing.”

“Yeah,” Mom agreed.  “That was disappointing.”

Dad turned the car around and started to head back toward the freeway.  Just as we began driving east, I said, “Wait.  Take the next left, and see if we can get around to Rockingham from the next block over.  We came too far to give up now.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dad said.  He turned left on the next street over, Bristol Avenue, then left again, and as I had hoped, that street intersected Rockingham Avenue.  We turned right, watching street numbers, until we arrived at the address printed on the star map.  It was a large house on a corner, surrounded by trees and a tall stone wall, with a white wooden gate across the driveway.

“Who’s that?” Mark asked, pointing.  Someone with a camera was attempting to climb the wall.  A private security guard was running after him.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.  “Cool!”

“Not for him, once he gets caught,” Mom said.  “Come on, we’ve seen it.  Let’s go, before we get caught up in whatever else is going on.”

We returned down Bristol Avenue to Sunset Boulevard and back to the freeway to begin the long drive home.  We drove through mountains, suburbs, more mountains, and long, desolate, isolated stretches of road.  As the scenery passed outside the window, I thought of all the girls I had been talking to on the Internet in the last year.  Brittany from Texas, Molly from Pennsylvania, Mindy Jo from Georgia.  None of the three of them had ever been west of the Rockies.  I hoped someday that they might be able to visit me, so that I could welcome them to my home and show them my side of the country.  So far I had only once met a girl in person whom I had talked to on the Internet, Allison DarkSparkles, and it did not go well, but I was closer to those three than I was with Allison.  It was a new year, and maybe 1996 would bring a new opportunity like that.

The year was starting on a good note; I now had a funny story to tell, about the time I drove past O.J. Simpson’s house and saw a paparazzo trying to sneak in.  With all the sad nights I had spent alone in my little apartment toward the end of 1995, I was glad 1996 was beginning on a good note.  I had much to look forward to in the coming year.  In June, I would be halfway done with my studies at the University of Jeromeville, assuming that I graduated on time.  In August, I would finish my teenage years and begin my twenties.  And I had made a lot of new friends recently, leaving me hopeful for fun times to come.

It turned out that I would not meet any of my Internet female friends in 1996.  But some of the biggest and most lasting changes of my life would happen in 1996.  This led to a number of new experiences, including traveling farther from home than I ever had before, for a reason that was not even on my proverbial radar at all that day.  It was a new year, and it would be an unforgettable year.

Disclaimer: The Walt Disney Company was not involved in the writing of this story, and I received no compensation for it. All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

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

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

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

“Mark is watching basketball.”

“Then go watch basketball with Mark.”

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

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


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

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

–Brittany


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I really don’t care.”

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Mom asked.

“It’s for Windows 95.”

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

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Can you get Windows 95 for your computer?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  That works.”

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


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

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

gjd


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.  I promise I will.”

“Thank you.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Hi,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“So how do you like Jeromeville?”

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

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

“That sounds good.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too,” Mom said.

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

“I know,” I said.

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

(October 2020. Another interlude: blog awards.)

Friends… I promise there will be an actual post up in the next couple of days. I know what the next two episodes will be about, for sure.

I’m having a pretty great weekend so far. Something really awesome happened at work on Friday involving some meaningful compliments from someone whose path crossed mine at my job in the past. And that reminds me, in case you’re new here, one topic I do not discuss on WordPress is what kind of work I do. I’ve been in this same career since I graduated from UJ, and later on I will have a lot of stories to tell about my process of considering future careers. So I’m basically just helping you avoid spoilers.


Bekah (who hasn’t written anything in a while, what happened to you?) nominated me for the Brainstorms Award. Thank you!
https://brainsstorms.wordpress.com/2020/06/02/introducing-the-brainstorms-award/

The rules:

Thank the one who nominated you
Tag your post with #BrainStormsAward and follow BrainStorms if you are willing!
Display the BrainStorms Award logo.
Talk a bit about your blog, why you started it, what you write on and your goal for your blog.
Answer the five questions you have been asked
Nominate five other amazing bloggers
Ask them five new questions

Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story set in 1995 (so far) about a university student trying to make his way in life. I have been writing DLTDGB for almost two years now, since December 2018. It is based on my actual past, and I borrowed the title without permission from a line from a song popular at the time. If you have several hours to spare, you can start from the beginning and read the whole story.

I will be answering your questions in character from 1995.

  1. What is your most precious memory?
    Two years ago, I was a senior in high school, and I had a really bad day. It wasn’t anything serious, just friend drama and a general feeling of not fitting in. But my friend Jessica saw me sitting outside upset and talked to me for a while. She invited me to go to McDonald’s with her and her sister and another girl. I wasn’t used to people actually being nice to me like that. (Jessica is the one who went to Guatemala after high school, I’ve mentioned her before.)
  2. Where would your dream vacation place be?
    I’ve met a lot of girls on the Internet whom I would want to go out with if I didn’t live so far away. So my dream vacation would be to go visit one of them.
  3. Do you like to sing or play an instrument?
    I played piano in elementary school for a few years, but I quit. I don’t like singing or playing music in front of people. My friend Danielle sings in the University Chorus and in the choir at our church, and she keeps telling me I should sing with them; she’s heard me sing at church and she says they always need guys. Last week she reminded me when church choir practice is… I don’t know, but I told her I’d think about it. [I did eventually start singing at church, which I wrote about after I answered Bekah’s questions… hmm, looks like that happened exactly 25 years ago today.]
  4. If you had to live in a different country, which country would it be?
    I’ve never really thought about living somewhere else. I’m inclined to think I would want to be somewhere that people speak English, so I can communicate.
  5. What is your favorite thing to do?
    That’s a hard one, because it changes depending on what mood I’m in. Lately it’s been riding my bike.

Prutha nominated me for the Mystery Blogger Award. Thank you!
This award was originally created by Okoto @ Okoto Enigma’s Blog.

Rules
Put the award logo/image on your blog [I lost it, I don’t feel like looking for it now]
List the rules.
Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well
Tell your readers 3 things about yourself
Answer the questions asked by your nominator
Nominate people
Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog
Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question
Share a link to your best post(s)

Answering in character from 1995.

3 things about myself:
I have gotten an A in every math class and every science class I have taken, going back at least as far as middle school.
I have never been in a different time zone.
I am the oldest of two brothers. I was in kindergarten when my brother was born.

Who is your current favourite artist or band?
Hard to say; I like a lot of music that doesn’t really go together. I got really into Pink Floyd last year when their Division Bell album came out; I’ve been listening to a lot of their heyday stuff too. I’ve listened to R.E.M. a lot the last few years too. And as for recently emerging artists, I got the Cracked Rear View CD by Hootie and the Blowfish last month for my birthday, and I’ve listened to it so many times.

How has blogging helped you grow as a person?
It’s 1995. What’s a blog? That word hasn’t been invented yet. (Answering as an adult: it has helped me look back on a meaningful time in my life and think about the lessons I’ve learned over the years.)

How many books have you read so far this year?
I read more than usual this year, and I haven’t been counting. Probably at least 10 for pleasure. And I’m a university student, so I read a lot of textbooks.

Tell us about the last movie you watched.
I don’t even remember the last movie I watched. I watched Quiz Show at the second-run theater on campus in the spring; that was probably the last time I saw a movie on a big screen. It was a true story about a game show in the 1950s that was fixed; the producers gave the contestant the questions and answers beforehand because he was a likeable figure who would draw a lot of viewers. [In the time since this award nomination a few months ago and the current present moment of the story, I also saw Batman Forever on campus.]

What languages are you fluent in?
Just English, although I know Spanish well enough to get by. There are a lot of Spanish speakers here in the western USA.

Bhagyashree nominated me for the Vincent Ehindero Blogger Award
THE RULES:
Thank the person that nominated you with a link to their blog
Make a post of the award (with photo)
Post the rules
Ask 5-10 questions of your choice
Nominate 10-30 other bloggers (or more) and notify them.
Follow Vincent Ehindero @ vincentehindero.wordpress.com (to qualify for free blog promotion and shoutout) and more blogging opportunities

MY QUESTIONS:
I’m going to answer as an adult, because most of the great answers I can think of happened after 1995.

Is there a cheesy movie you secretly love to watch?
It’s not a secret, I don’t really make secrets of cheesy movies I love, but… Orange County. In 2002, when this movie was new, I passed up a chance to see it on the big screen with someone I knew. The ads I’d seen made it look like just another dumb teen stoner flick; I was 25 and felt like I had outgrown that kind of comedy. A few months later, when it was first released on DVD, my brother, who was 20 and loved all those dumb comedies, asked me to watch it with him when I was visiting my family back home. I instantly fell in love with the movie. The teen stoner culture is just the backdrop; it’s really a very relatable story about a confused kid who can’t wait to break free from his dysfunctional family and hometown, but learns some important things about life along the way.

What is the funniest thing you have seen a stranger do?
Stranger 1: (checks to make sure his phone keypad is locked)
Stranger 2: Dude, why do you always make sure to lock your phone? Do you butt-dial people a lot?
Stranger 1: Last week I butt-ordered something off Amazon.
Stranger 2: (laughs) What did you order?
Stranger 1: A One Direction CD.

What would you choose; an act of chivalry with your favorite hero or a chance to read the personal diary of your most loved villain?
Both would be intriguing, but I’m going to go with hero. Reading the thoughts of a villain would be too dark.

Which is the one thing (item) you never share with anyone?
Underwear.

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you come across an amazing blog?
I wonder if the author is as cool in real life as the blog is.

Which is your spirit comic character?
Superman, because people say I look like him.

How would you describe your blogging journey so far in three words?
Introspective, nostalgic, friendly.

Joshua nominated me for the Outstanding Blogger Award
Provide the link to the creator’s original post. Outstanding Blogger Award by Colton Beckwith.
Answer the questions provided.
Create 7 unique questions.
Nominate 10 bloggers. Ensure that they are aware of their nomination. Neither the award’s creator, nor the blogger that nominated you, can be nominated.
At the end of 2020, every blog that ping-backs the creator’s original post will be entered to win the 2020 Outstanding Blogger Award.

1: What was the exact date when you started your blog?
December 9, 2018. (The date in my story’s timeline was July 5, 1993.) I had another blog before that (I think you followed me over from that blog) which I started in the spring of 2014, although I don’t remember the exact date. (It was May 2, I looked it up.)

2: Do you remember how you became a Christian?
I do, but I can’t tell that story here, because that will be a future blog post. But these episodes tell stories that have led up to that moment so far:
https://dontletthedaysgoby.home.blog/2019/04/14/december-2-4-1994-jeromeville-christian-fellowship-and-the-newman-center/
https://dontletthedaysgoby.home.blog/2019/08/29/march-3-1995-throwing-the-box/
https://dontletthedaysgoby.home.blog/2019/09/07/march-4-1995-friendship-is-special/
https://dontletthedaysgoby.home.blog/2020/07/23/october-14-20-1995-come-follow-me

3: What kind of music do you like?
I listen to a lot of stuff. Classic rock, 80s and 90s pop-rock, some country, some Christian music although not as much as I did in the 90s and 2000s, and some stuff that I just can’t categorize. I don’t particularly like most rap, nor do I like pop from about 1998 onwards (and about five years ago, some country music started sounding too pop for me).

4: Have you ever evangelized or passed out tracts to anybody?
Not exactly like that. I’ve done service projects and things like that.

5: What place in the world would you like to go to someday?
The world is so big, and I’m the type of person who finds anywhere that I’ve never been inherently interesting. I took a day trip to Ashwood in 2019 just to drive around and see stuff (well, there was a little more behind the trip than that); everyone hates Ashwood, but I loved it just because it was someplace I had never seen beyond the freeway. So I guess pretty much anywhere new is somewhere I’d like to go someday.

6: How often do you watch videos on YouTube?
Not very. If I’m watching something on YouTube, it’s usually because I was looking for something specific. I don’t usually get stuck down a rabbit hole of clicking on suggested videos endlessly… except sometimes if said videos are music.

7: Do you listen to songs on Spotify?
No. I do things the old fashioned way and buy my music, although these days I buy most of it digitally rather than on physical media, especially since all the used music stores around me have shut down.

That’s all… like I said, I’ll have a new episode up in a day or two. And feel free to ask me anything in the comments. Or just say hi.

Edited: I forgot that I’m supposed to nominate people and ask them new questions. I don’t like to nominate people for these, because I don’t want people to be left out, so if you want to do any of these blog awards, pick one and do it. My questions for you are:

1. Do you eat breakfast every morning? If so, what, and if not, why not?
2. What is an opinion you hold strongly that most of the people around you disagree with?
3. Have you ever seen anyone famous out in public? Tell the story. (Interpret “famous” broadly – if you’ve never seen a movie or sports star out in public, tell about a time you saw a local TV news person, or a local elected official, or maybe when you were a kid you ran into a teacher from your school shopping at the grocery store, something like that.)
4. What is something positive that has happened to you because of COVID19?
5. What is your LEAST favorite color? Everyone wants to know your favorite, but no one ever asks this.
6. What do you miss the most about childhood?
7. When you were in school, did you have a teacher/instructor/professor who you really liked, but you did not like the subject they taught? Tell me about that teacher.

If you do one of the awards that only requires 5 questions, pick any 5 from this list.

(September 2020. An interlude and a story about the time I got recognized in public.)

A while back, after I wrote the post about my last week of freshman year at UJ, I decided that every six months in my fictional chronology, I would take a break from the story and write about something else. Six months has passed in the story, so it is time for a non-story post. Last week’s episode ended on kind of a dark note, but the beginning of sophomore year was kind of a dark time for me. I spent a lot of time alone and wishing life was different. But some big things will be happening soon.

Anyway, if you are new here, welcome, and say hi. It is very nice to meet you. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story set in 1995 (so far) about a university student trying to make his way in life. I have been writing DLTDGB for almost two years now, since December 2018. It is based on my actual past, and I borrowed the title without permission from a line from a song popular at the time. If you have several hours to spare, you can start from the beginning and read the whole story.

I updated the dramatis personae a few days ago. I have introduced a lot of new people in the last few episodes. One thing that has kind of struck me as I have written this is how people come and go, in and out of the story. Sometimes I will realize that a certain story will be the last appearance of someone and wonder whatever happened to them. There is not always a good story behind someone’s disappearance; the most recent episode will probably be the last appearance of Mindy Jo, for example, and we just kind of grew apart for no particular reason as she stopped emailing as often. And I got the sense that a few of you who chose to comment were really rooting for me and Megan, but obviously that didn’t happen, and there will only be one more Megan episode. But that is life. If I am going to take on a project chronicling at least five and a half years of my life, there will naturally be people who were not an important part of all five and a half years.

Although I’m not doing this to get followers or be famous, I do enjoy comments on my posts, and it seems like I haven’t quite gotten as many recently. WordPress says I have 285 followers, but most of them I don’t know and don’t interact with. I suspect quite a few may be spam pages and the like. I know it goes both ways, though, and I try to read as many of your posts as I can, but I don’t have time to read everything, unfortunately. I’m glad I’ve made so many friends through blogging.

So, please, say hi. Leave a comment. Ask me anything that you are curious about. I will finish this post with an interesting story about the only time I’ve ever been recognized in public as a writer (kind of). I posted this on Facebook and Instagram back when it happened, in July, so some of you might have heard this story already. I was going to post four blog awards I have been tagged in over the last few months, but I’ll save those for a separate post in a few days so as not to make this too long.


I had an interesting encounter this morning (this is adult Greg writing in July 2020).

I found myself on the road on no schedule heading in the general direction of Jeromeville. I decided to turn off the freeway and drive through on city streets to the Happy Place (pictured below; see the 3/1/95 episode for more).

A while ago, I bought a huge pack of socks that didn’t fit me well, so I kept those socks in my car to give to homeless people. Yesterday, I approached the intersection across the railroad track from where Murder Burger used to be, and I passed two guys holding a sign. While the light was red, I rolled down the window and asked if they needed socks. One came up to me and said yes. He thanked me, and I told him to have a nice day. I was a little nervous at this point, wondering if the light would turn green soon, so I thought I wasn’t quite understanding when he said something that sounded like “I remember you.”

What could that mean? How can he remember me? I’ve never seen him before; I don’t even live here. Wait, who is this guy? Did he know me when I lived here 20 years ago? I just smiled and nodded, confused; maybe I told him to have a great day or something.

“I remember you,” he repeated. “You’re an author, right?”

Wait, what?

And then I remembered. Ten months earlier, I was in Jeromeville for a game night with people not connected to the fact that I used to live there. Before going to my friends’ house, I stopped at Murder Burger and took pictures of the newly vacant building, knowing that I would use them for the blog (I eventually did in the Mid-June 1995 episode). This guy saw me and asked if I knew what happened to that place. I told him I had just read in the local news that they closed a month ago. I told him a little about my writing and how I used to live there. He asked, “You’re writing a book?” I said no, I was just an amateur writing a blog just for fun.

Back to yesterday. “Yes,” I told him. “I remember now. I saw you last year by Murder Burger, and we talked about my writing.”

“Yeah,” he said.

The light turned green. “I have to go, but I’ll see you around,” I said. “Take care.”

“You too!”

I felt bad that this guy recognized me after one chance encounter that happened almost a year ago, and I didn’t remember at first. I’m not good with faces. I don’t know his name, and he doesn’t know mine. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, and if I do, I don’t know if I’ll recognize him again. I don’t know what I can do for him. But I can watch for him on future trips to Jeromeville, since he apparently knows me now.

About a minute later, I turned on OJ Road and realized that this whole encounter happened with neither of us wearing masks. I was in the drivers’ seat, and he was at the passenger side window, so we weren’t exactly breathing on each other, but that’s still less than six feet, and these days [COVID-19] you never can be too careful. I wiped down the part of the car that he may have touched, I sanitized my hands three times, and I rolled down the windows and left them down for half an hour. And this is one of the things I hate most about this pandemic, that we all now feel like we have to be afraid of each other like this. It isn’t natural or healthy to be so afraid of close contact.

When I got to the Happy Place, I prayed for this man, that his life would turn around and he would get back on his feet. I don’t know what I can do for him, but God made our paths cross for a reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

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

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

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

“Which class?”

“9B.”

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

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

“Aerospace engineering.”

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

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

“That sounds nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?” a tired voice said.

“Mindy Jo?  It’s Greg.”

“Hey!  How’re you doin’?”

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

“You’re fine.  I wasn’t sleepin’.”

“That’s good.”

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

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

“You haven’t met a nice girl yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well… this week has been interestin’.”

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I hope you’re okay.”

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

December 4, 1995. A silly new shirt and the best day of bowling class.

In early 1993, when I was in high school, a new television show took the world by storm… at least it took the teenage boy world by storm.  Beavis and Butthead was a cartoon on MTV about two not-so-bright high school boys.  The show featured the boys failing miserably while trying to act cool or meet girls, with clips in between of the boys delivering pointed commentary on some of the weirdest music videos ever made.  The usual public voices complaining about the lack of morals and virtue in entertainment were all up in arms about this show.  I, however, enjoyed it for the brilliant satire it was, and I also laughed at the dumb jokes about poop, sex, and private parts.  At the beginning of my senior year of high school, my friends talked me into playing Butthead in a school skit.  It was the first time I had ever performed in front of a crowd that size, and it felt so freeing.  I did not have cable at my apartment in Jeromeville, but I still watched Beavis and Butthead sometimes when I was at my parents’ house.

On the last day of Monday classes  of fall quarter of my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, a week before finals started, I got out of the shower and got dressed. The previous Saturday afternoon, I received an unexpected package in the mail from my mother, something soft in a large envelope.  Inside was white folded fabric, with a note saying, “I saw this at the mall the other day and thought you would like it.  Love, Mom.”  I unfolded the fabric; it was a T-shirt, with a picture of Beavis with his shirt pulled over his head, his arms bent upward at right angles, and a crazed look in his eyes.  I AM THE GREAT CORNHOLIO! was printed at the bottom in the usual Beavis and Butthead font.  A recurring plot line on Beavis and Butthead involved Beavis consuming too much sugar or caffeine and transforming into his alter ego The Great Cornholio. He would then go on incoherent rants about bungholes and Lake Titicaca while responding to others with “Are you threatening me?”

I wore the shirt for the first time that morning, although I put on a jacket over it before I left the apartment.  I could see blue sky behind the clouds outside, but it was too cold at 8:25 in the morning for one layer, and it would probably not warm up much today.  I started to walk outside to catch the bus, but then, remembering something I had to do later that day, I walked back inside and grabbed a postage stamp from my desk, putting it in the front pocket of my backpack where it would not get lost.

I walked to the bus stop across the street on Alvarez Avenue.  A large crowd was standing there; I had a bad feeling I would not get a seat on the bus.  When I boarded the bus, I stood with one hand grabbing the rail at the top, almost falling over once when the bus made a sudden stop later.

About halfway through my first class, math, I took off my jacket, appearing in public with the Great Cornholio shirt for the first time.  As class was leaving, Jack Chalmers made eye contact and pointed at my chest.  “Nice shirt,” he said.

“Thanks.

“That show’s funny.  It’s so dumb.”

“I know,” I replied.  I told him about the time I played Butthead in high school.

“That’s great.  That must have been fun.”

“It was!”

Bowling class was right after math on Mondays and Wednesdays.  I left Wellington Hall and walked to the far side of the Memorial Union building to the bowling alley in the basement.  I did not know anyone from my bowling class well, and none of them said anything about the shirt when I took my jacket off.

Frank, the instructor, got our attention a few minutes later.  He had told us at the beginning of the quarter to just call him Frank, but it still felt strange to me.  He was an instructor, I felt like I should have called him Dr. White… but can you even get a Ph.D. in bowling?  Maybe Mr. White.  But he said to call him Frank, so I would call him Frank if that was what he wanted.  “We have two classes left,” Frank said, “and there is no final for this class.  So we’re just going to bowl, like we did last week.  Get in groups of four to a lane, and use what you learned.  But I added something special for you today.  I put a few red pins in with the regular white pins, and if the head pin is red and you bowl a strike, you get a coupon that you can exchange here for a free game in the future.  If all three pins in front are red, and you bowl a strike, everyone in the class gets a free game.”

I could hear a few students audibly excited about the prospect of winning free games.  I was frustrated at the beginning of the quarter, as I had had to unlearn all of the wrong ways I had bowled in the past, but I thought I was getting used to some of the techniques we had learned from Frank.  I found a ball that fit me and brought it to lane 9, which was not yet full.  On my first frame, I hit four pins with my first roll and two with my second… maybe I had not learned as much as I had hoped.

About three frames in, I heard Frank call out, “Red pin over here!” I looked, and someone on another lane had a red pin in the front.  If she bowled a strike, she would win a free game.  I watched as her ball rolled wide of the head pin.

Every couple minutes, I could hear someone getting Frank’s attention when a red pin showed up in the front of the lane, and two bowlers had won free games by the time a red pin was placed in the front of my lane.  It was not my turn when it happened, though, and the student on my lane missed the strike.

I did get one strike and a few spares in that first game, and I finished with a score of 109, about average for me.  I bowled a second game and scored 102.  It appeared I would have time for one more, but my arm was getting sore at this point, as often happened after I finished two games.

The reason I found it difficult to control the ball the way Frank taught was the same as the reason my arm was sore: the ball was heavy.  Frank said at the beginning of the quarter that the ball should be one-tenth of my body weight.  But I was a pretty big guy, and one-tenth of my body weight was around 22 pounds.  The heaviest bowling balls were 16 pounds, and I could not control a 16-pound ball well.  I thought a lighter ball might be better for me, but most of the lighter balls had finger holes too small.  My right thumb naturally has a wide spot that requires an unusually large thumb hole.  I found a 14-pound ball that just barely fit my thumb and brought it back to my lane.  I was not sure if I would get in trouble for using a lighter ball, but the rule about one-tenth of my body weight did not seem to be an official rule of bowling.

Switching to a lighter ball paid off.  I bowled a spare and a strike in the first two frames of the next game.  At the start of the third frame, a red pin appeared in the head position for the first bowler on my lane; his roll went just about an inch wide of the head pin.

“Nice try,” I said to him.  “You’ll get it next time.”

“Thanks,” he replied.  “You’re off to a good start.”

“Thank you.  I hope I can keep it up.”  When my turn came, though, I hit five pins on my first roll and three on my second.  In bowling, a strike or spare is scored as 10 pins, but for a spare, the total of the next roll is added to the score for the spare frame.  For a strike, the next two rolls are added to the strike frame.  So my strike in the second frame was scored twice, as a bonus of 10 added to my first frame spare, and as my score in the second frame when I actually rolled the strike.  Because I got a strike, the score for the second frame would include an additional bonus equal to whatever my next two rolls hit.  The result of this scoring system is that these boni add up quickly with consecutive strikes, or with spares followed by strikes.  After three frames, my score was 46.  That was not a bad score for me for three frames, but I had cooled off after my good start.

It did not take me long to heat up again.  I got another spare in the fourth frame, and consecutive strikes in the fifth and sixth.  I was not the only one heating up in the bowling alley; by the time I rolled my consecutive strikes, three more students had won free games with red pin strikes.  When I stepped up to the lane for my turn in the seventh frame, I let the fan blow on my hand for a few seconds, as I always did, while the pinsetter machine swept away the previous bowler’s pins and placed new ones for me.  I grabbed my ball, looked up at the end of the lane, and gasped.

There they were.

Three red pins in the front.

“Frank,” I called out, waving my hand to get my instructor’s attention in the noisy bowling alley.  A few seconds later, he looked up, saw me waving, and then looked at my pins.

“Three red pins over here on lane 9!” Frank called out.  “Free game for everyone if he gets a strike!”  The students who were getting ready to take their turns stopped and put their balls down, all so they could watch me.  I noticed that Frank did not call me by name, probably because he did not know my name.  In a class like this, Frank and I had not had much one-on-one interaction of the type where I had to say my name.

I put my hand in front of the fan for another few seconds, to dry the sweat that had started to accumulate from the pressure of free games for the entire class riding on this one roll.  Everyone was watching me, in my Beavis and Butthead shirt.  I did not want to let everyone down.  I had bowled two strikes in a row; why not just do the same thing I had been doing?

I took a deep breath.  I positioned my feet where I had been positioning them all day.  I lined up my arm where I had been lining it up, a little bit to the left of where Frank had taught us, because doing it my way had been working better for me all quarter.  I brought the ball behind me above my head and began approaching the lane, as I swung the ball down, releasing it and stopping my forward movement before my feet crossed the line.  The ball went sliding and spinning down the lane, headed straight for the cluster of red pins in the front.

CRASH.

As I heard my ball loudly knocking down pins, I watched all ten pins tumble to the lane.  The entire class erupted into applause.  I pumped both fists into the air as I turned around.  The others on my lane all high-fived me as I walked back to my seat.

“Free game for everyone!” Frank announced.  “I’ll give you your coupons as you leave class today.”

That would be the last strike I would bowl that day.  On the eighth frame, I hit seven pins with my first roll and two with the second.  Since I did not bowl a strike or spare, no bonus from the next frame would be added, and I could calculate my score so far: 151.  That was already my second highest bowling score ever, in my life, and I still had two frames to go.  I bowled a spare in the ninth frame and began the tenth frame with a 7-10 split, leaving only the two pins in the far corners.  It was almost impossible to hit both of those pins with one roll.  I knocked over one of the two pins on my second roll, for a final score of 178, my best game ever.

Frank stood at the base of the stairway leading outside as we left class a few minutes after I finished my third game.  “Good job,” he said as he handed me the coupon.

“Thank you,” I replied. “That was my best game ever.”

“Good for you!”

I had an hour until my next class.  The campus store was right next to the stairway to the bowling alley, and I had an errand to run there.  I walked to the greeting cards and looked through birthday cards, trying to find something simple.  This card was for someone with a very different sense of humor from mine, someone who did not appreciate the kind of sex- and poop-based humor that I had come to associate with birthday cards.  I found one with a drawing of a cake that simply said “Happy birthday!” at the top and “Enjoy your special day!” inside.  I paid for the card and took it to the Coffee House at the other end of the building, looking for a table with an empty seat.  I did not find one, this was a busy time of day, so I sat on the floor against the wall.  I took out my binder to use as a hard surface to write on and filled out the inside of the card.

Dear Grandma,

Happy 75th!  I hope you have a great day!  I just got out of bowling class, and I bowled 178, my best game ever.  Finals start in a week; I think I’ll do okay with these classes.  I’ll be home for Christmas soon.  See you then!

Love,
Greg

I licked the stamp I had brought with me and placed it on the envelope.  I wrote my return address in the corner and Grandma’s address in Gabilan in the center of the envelope.  I put it in my backpack and got out my math book, doing homework for about 45 minutes until it was time to go to chemistry class.  When I finally stood up, my foot was asleep from having sat cross-legged for so long.  I shook my leg, trying to get the blood flowing, and began awkwardly walking toward the mailbox, having to stop and lean against the wall after a minute as my foot became numb again.  After the feeling returned a minute or so later, I continued walking, dropping Grandma’s birthday card in the mailbox.  Next, I walked diagonally across the Quad in the general direction of chemistry class in Stone Hall.

I looked up and saw Liz Williams, my friend whom I knew from my floor in the dorm last year and also from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, approaching.  I saw her look up, and I smiled and waved.  “Hi,” I said, as Liz pointed toward my chest and began laughing.  I looked down to see what she was pointing at.  The shirt.  Beavis.  Of course.

“Oh my gosh, that shirt,” Liz said, chuckling.  “Where’d you get that?”

“I just randomly got a package from my mom the other day.  This was in it.”

“Your mom gave you that?  That’s hilarious!”

“I don’t have cable now, but my brother and I used to watch that show all the time.  And senior year of high school, I played Butthead in a class skit.”

“You?  No way!”

“It felt great, to finally be able to get up in front of a crowd and do something silly.”

“That’s awesome!  I just can’t picture you doing that.”

“That’s why it was so much fun!  How’s your day going?”

“Pretty well, except I have a paper due tomorrow that I still need to write.”

“Good luck with that.”

“How are you?”

“I’m having a great day!  I had bowling class this morning, and I bowled the best game of my life.  There were some red bonus pins, so if we got a strike when the bonus pin appeared in front, we got free games.  I won free games for the whole class!”

“That’s great!  I need to get to class, but hey, I’ll see you soon?”

“Definitely!”

I was in a great mood for the rest of the day, all through chemistry and physics classes and the two groups I tutored in the afternoon.  It was my last full Monday of the quarter, my last full Monday of 1995, and my winter break was in sight.  Only three of my classes actually had finals, and math, chemistry, and physics all were typically pretty easy for me.  And after coming through and winning a free game for my entire bowling class, I felt like a hero.

After the bowling class ended, I never really bowled on a regular basis again.  For much of my young adult years, it was something I would do socially every couple months or so.  I used the free game coupon later that school year when some people at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship invited me to go bowling with them afterward.  By the time I reached my 40s, bowling had become something I do very rarely.  I have no specific reason for not bowling anymore; I would enjoy it if I did.  I just don’t make time for bowling, and I don’t hang out with people who bowl much.  That game of 178 is today the third-best game I have ever bowled.  My two games that were higher than that also happened during my UJ years, stories for another time. 

The night after I bowled 178 was uneventful, in a good way.  I went home and studied and did homework for most of the time.  I got a lot of work done, and I went to bed happy and satisfied with how my day went.  As Beavis and Butthead would say, this rules.  Huh-huh.

November 22-25, 1995. Thanksgiving with the Dennisons.

I stood outside 109 Wellington waiting for my math class, as I did every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Another class met in that room right before mine, and about a minute after I arrived, those students began leaving.  Jack Chalmers from my class always said hi to Lizzie, a girl from that class whom he had known back home, as she passed by, but Jack was not here now.  I saw Lizzie walk past, and I made eye contact and attempted to smile.

Lizzie noticed me making eye contact.  She was fair-skinned with dark brown hair and eyes, and she wore a dark red sweatshirt.  “Hey,” she said.

I did not expect her to actually say hi to me, considering that the few words she had said to me had all happened on days when I had been talking to Jack as her class left.  Trying to think of something to say, I blurted out, “Jack’s not here.”

“Yeah.  He was going to leave early this morning for Thanksgiving.  He has a long drive, you know.”

“That makes sense.”

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Lizzie asked me.

“We always go visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell.  Mom and Dad are picking me up tomorrow morning on their way.”

“Where are they coming from?”

“Plumdale.  That’s where I grew up.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“That sounds like fun!  I’m flying home tonight.  I could have carpooled with Jack, but I have a midterm I can’t miss later today.”

“Good luck on your midterm!  And have a great Thanksgiving!”

“You too!”

One of the best parts of being a university student was being surrounded by other people around my age at the same point in their lives as me.  That makes it so much easier to make friends, compared to adult life with its compartmentalized and isolated experiences.  And sometimes my friends would have other friends, and my friends’ friends would become my friends.  This seemed to be happening with Lizzie, now that we had had an actual conversation without Jack being there.

This Wednesday felt more like a Friday, with tomorrow being Thanksgiving.  But I was annoyed that the University of Jeromeville and its sister schools only take two days off, plus a weekend, for Thanksgiving.  This was the same as I always got in elementary school, but in high school, I had gotten three days off, and in the 21st century I know many schools that take the entire week off.  It was disappointing, not having more time off for Thanksgiving, but many real life jobs only have one day off, so it could be worse.

During math class, as Anton lectured about eigenvalues and eigenvectors, I thought about the rest of my day.  Bowling class, two more lectures, and two hours of tutoring, and I would be done for the week. ready to go see family and stuff my face with food.

I had two tutoring groups on Wednesdays after my classes.  Calculus with Yesenia and Kevin went as it always did.  But in the precalculus group after that, I sat at the table for ten minutes waiting for the four students in the group to show up.  If I waited fifteen minutes, and no one showed up, I was allowed to leave and still get paid for the fifteen minutes.  One of the students, Jennifer, arrived just as I was getting ready to go home.

“I didn’t think anyone was going to come,” I said.

“We just got a midterm back, and I have a lot of questions,” Jennifer replied.

“I wonder if everyone else left early because it’s Thanksgiving?” I wondered aloud, remembering what Lizzie had said about Jack.

“Probably.”

“Are you going anywhere for Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah. Just back home, to Pleasant Creek.  My dad is coming to pick me up tonight.”

“I’m going to visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell.  That’ll be fun.”

Jennifer and I got a lot of work done.  We talked about every problem she missed on the midterm as well as today’s lecture, and she really did seem to understand better by the end of the hour.  After we finished, I walked to the Barn and caught the bus home, then proceeded to waste the rest of the night playing around on the computer and reading.  Before I went to bed, I threw a few changes of clothes and my personal bathroom items in a bag for the trip.

Mom and Dad and my brother Mark arrived to pick me up around 10:00 Thursday morning.  After everyone used my bathroom for their mid-trip pit stop, we left, turning north onto Highway 117.  “We made good time,” Mom said as we left Jeromeville and our surroundings abruptly changed to fields and pastures.  “We left right at 7:30, like we wanted to.  And we’ll still get to Bidwell in plenty of time to check into the motel before we eat.”

“Sounds good.”

“Oh.  You’ll like this.  We were on the phone with Aunt Carol earlier this week, talking about that time years ago when you brought your Game Boy to Bidwell and we played Tetris.  I told her I always liked Dr. Mario, and she said she didn’t know that game, but it sounded fun.  So we brought the Super Nintendo, so we can play Tetris and Dr. Mario with Aunt Carol.”

“That’ll be fun,” I said.  Tetris & Dr. Mario was a cartridge for the Super Nintendo that included both games, which had been on separate cartridges for the earlier Nintendo Entertainment System.  We had lost our Dr. Mario game when someone borrowed it and never returned it; last summer Mom had wanted to play Dr. Mario, so we got the Super Nintendo Tetris & Dr. Mario as a replacement.

The trip from Jeromeville to Bidwell took just under two hours, north on Highway 117 to where it ends, then north on Highway 9.  In most of the towns between Jeromeville and Bidwell, the highway becomes a city street, which slows the drive down a little but gives a more close-up view of life in those towns than freeway travel would.  Fields and orchards covered the land between the towns.

My great-grandmother Christine Dennison used to host Thanksgiving at her house in the hills on the outskirts of Bidwell.  Her son, my great-uncle Ted, was a cattle rancher; he had sold the land around her house some time ago but kept the house for his mother to live in.  We used to stay at her house when we came to Bidwell, and I always had so much fun exploring the old ranch land, going on long walks, even in the last few years of her life when the new owners of the land began building a country club and golf course there.

Christine had been my last great-grandparent, and this was our second Thanksgiving since she passed.  Last year, in the absence of anyone wanting to take over the cooking and hosting duties, someone had decided to hold the Dennison extended family Thanksgiving at HomeTown Buffet.  I thought that was a bit tacky at first, but having so many choices of food last year was kind of nice, so I was looking forward to it this year.

We checked into the motel and rested a bit before heading to HomeTown Buffet in mid-afternoon. “Hey, you guys,” Aunt Carol said as we approached the group of Dennison relatives waiting outside.  Her husband, Uncle Chuck, Dad’s next-youngest brother, said hi and shook all of our hands.  “Did you bring the game?” Aunt Carol asked.

“Yes, we did.  Greg is waiting to play with you guys.”

“Oh, good.”

“Greg,” an elderly bald man said, patting me on the shoulder.  “How’re you doing?  How’s Jeromeville?”

“Hi, Grandpa Harold,” I said.  “I’m doing well.  Classes are good this quarter.  And I’m working part time as a math tutor.”

“A math tutor?  That sounds perfect for you.”

“It is.”

I looked around to see who else was here.  Grandpa Harold’s wife, Grandma Nancy, saw me and waved.  I knew her as my grandmother, but she was not biologically related to me.  Grandpa Harold had been married three times, and my dad, Harold Dennison, Jr., came from the second wife, who lived out of state and died when I was in high school.  I only met Dad’s real mother twice.  My dad’s cousin Tina, whose father had had the cattle ranch, and her four daughters stood at the end of the line.  I made a note to say hi to them next.  The oldest girl was 18 and the youngest 12; they used to play with Mark and me at Great-Grandma Christine’s house when we would visit.  When Mark was around 10, he went through a phase of fascination with amphibians and reptiles, and we used to catch tadpoles in Bidwell Creek in the summer with the girls.  I overheard Tina say that her parents would not be joining us, since they were having Thanksgiving with her brother’s family.

Uncle Glen, Dad’s older half-brother from Grandpa Harold’s first wife, showed up about ten minutes later, and we all went inside after that.  Dad had one other brother, Uncle Jimmy, whom I never met; he died in a motorcycle accident in his 20s while Mom was pregnant with me, and I got my middle name of James from him.  Grandpa Harold had three daughters with Grandma Nancy, but they all lived out of state and did not often come for Thanksgiving.

I stuffed my face so full that day.  I ate three whole plates of actual food: turkey, ham, stuffing, fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and all sorts of bread.  Then I went back for dessert, returning with a giant ice cream sundae in a soup bowl, since the ice cream bowls were small, and two different slices of pie.  “Are you going to be able to move the rest of the night?” Mom asked when I returned to the table with dessert.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I replied, laughing.  While we ate, we all caught up, sharing everything going on in our lives.  A number of people asked me how school was, and I repeated the same thing I told Grandpa Harold outside.  Mark just kind of grunted and shrugged when they asked him that question.  I did not have the long walks around the old ranch to look forward to this year, but this was still going to be a fun holiday.

Today, many Americans associate the day after Thanksgiving with shopping.  In the 1960s, police officers fed up with rioting crowds of shoppers beginning their Christmas shopping referred to this miserable phenomenon as “Black Friday.”  By the early 2000s, stores began encouraging these rioting crowds, offering deep discounts, completely unrelated to buying gifts for others, only available early in the morning.  The retail industry even fabricated a story about the term “Black Friday” referring to profits being in the black rather than rioting and vandalism.

Black Friday was never a big deal to me, not today and certainly not in 1995.  While the rest of the world went shopping that morning, we ate a nice hotel breakfast, then went to visit Tina and the girls.  We set up the Super Nintendo to play with them while the adults talked about adult things.  After that, we stopped to see Grandpa Harold and Grandma Nancy for a while.  I always found their house boring when I was a kid, and this year was no exception to that, except that Grandma Nancy had homemade pumpkin pie.

In the early afternoon, we drove about 20 miles south to a town called Rio Bonito.  A few years earlier, Uncle Chuck and Aunt Carol had driven past a large old house in Rio Bonito that was painted a bright yellow color.  The house had a For Sale sign outside, and Aunt Carol said that she wanted to live in that Damn Yellow House.  So they sold their house in Bidwell and bought the Damn Yellow House.  Everyone in that town of 1500 people knew the Damn Yellow House.  Someone once even sent them mail addressed to “Chuck & Carol Dennison, The Damn Yellow House, Rio Bonito,” with no street name or address, and it was delivered correctly.

We parked next to the Damn Yellow House and walked inside; I carried the Super Nintendo.  “Hello,” Aunt Carol said as we approached.  “Oh, good, you brought that game.”

“Yes.  Should I go set it up now?” I asked.

“We’re not going to play right now,” Mom said.

“That’s okay,” Aunt Carol said. “He can go plug it into the TV now, and it’ll be ready when we’re ready to play later.”

I connected the Super Nintendo to the TV while the adults caught up and talked about boring adult stuff.  Most of the family vacations I remember involve the adults sitting around talking about boring adult stuff while I had to entertain myself.  The 1989 invention of the Game Boy, Nintendo’s hand-held video game console, was a lifesaver for me on these trips, although I did not bring it this year.

After dinner, it was time to teach Aunt Carol to play Dr. Mario.  I turned the game on and started a single-player game.  “So there are three different colors of viruses,” I explained as I played the game.  “You line up the pills, and whenever you get four of the same color in a row, they disappear.  So you want to make a set of four that includes a virus.  Like, watch those red ones on the left side.”  I dropped a pill on the red virus, making a set of four; the red virus disappears.

“I see,” Aunt Carol replied.  As I dropped another pill, she asked, “What happened there?  You made a set of four that didn’t have a virus in it?”

“Yeah.  That still makes the pills disappear.  It clears space on the board.  There’s also a two-player game where you compete to see who clears the viruses first.  And whenever you get more than one set of 4 with a single pill, it drops garbage on the other player’s board.”

“That sounds like fun.  Can we do that?”

“Sure.”

I started a two-player game, putting Aunt Carol on an easier level than me since she was a beginner.  The two-player game lasts until someone wins three rounds; I won the first two rounds, but Aunt Carol had gotten the hang of it enough to win the next round.

“This is fun!” Aunt Carol said.

We spent the rest of the night taking turns playing two-player Dr. Mario.  Mom played against Aunt Carol, I played against Mom, Aunt Carol played against Uncle Chuck.  Mark did not join in; he preferred sports and fighting games to puzzle games, so he sat in the corner listening to gangsta rap on a Walkman and occasionally making sarcastic comments.

“I want to try the one-player game for a while,” Aunt Carol said after a couple hours of multiplayer games.  “Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I replied.

We spent some more time just talking and catching up while Aunt Carol was playing.  Eventually Mom looked at a clock.  “Oh, my gosh, it’s already 10:00,” Mom said.  “We need to get back to the motel.”

“Are you gonna take my game away?” Aunt Carol asked.

“We don’t have to,” I suggested.  “If Aunt Carol is still playing, we can leave the Super Nintendo here and pick it up tomorrow morning on our way out of town.”

“Oh, could you?  That would be so nice.”

“Does that work, Mom?”

“Sure, if you’re okay leaving it here.  Mark, is that okay with you?”

“What?” Mark asked, taking off his headphones.

“Aunt Carol wants us to leave the Super Nintendo here so she can play until we go home tomorrow.”

“I don’t care,” Mark said indignantly.

“You don’t have to get snippy.  It’s your Super Nintendo too.”

“Have you heard me talk about the Super Nintendo once on this trip?”

“Well, it’s polite to ask.”

“I said I don’t care!”

We said our goodbyes and drove back north to the motel in Bidwell.  “Aunt Carol sure got into Dr. Mario,” Mom commented.

“I know.  That was fun.”

“It was nice of you to offer to let her borrow the Super Nintendo.”

“We’re leaving in the morning.  I wasn’t going to play any more.”

“Still, that was nice of you.”

“Thank you.”

“What are we doing in the morning?”  Mom paused, waiting for someone to answer.  “Harry?  What are we doing in the morning?”

“Sorry,” Dad replied.  “I didn’t know you were asking me.  I figured we’d stop by my dad’s on the way out of town.”

“What time do you want to be on the road?”

“I was thinking around 10 or 11.”

“Does that work for you guys?” Mom asked.  I nodded.  Mark, still listening to music on headphones, said nothing.

Dad had a nice visit with Grandpa Harold and Grandma Nancy in the morning, and by “nice” I mean that it was short enough that I did not get bored.  We left their house around 10:30 and got to the Damn Yellow House to pick up the Super Nintendo a little before 11.  I was the first one to the door, so I knocked.

Aunt Carol opened the door.  “I suppose it’s time to give you your game back,” she said.  We followed her into the living room, and I noticed that she looked disheveled and unkempt.  The game was on, paused.  “I was wondering if that special screen that shows up after levels 5, 10, 15, and 20 shows up again at 25.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I’ve never gotten that high.”

“The best I got to last night was level 23.  But I had started that game at level 20.  That’s the highest you can start at, I guess.”

“Yeah, “I replied, thinking that was still very impressive for a beginner

“This was a lot of fun.  I might have to get this game.”

“You should.”

Mom and Dad said their goodbyes to Aunt Carol and Uncle Chuck as I disconnected the Super Nintendo.  I joined them in saying goodbye, and we went back to the car and continued driving south on Highway 9.

“She stayed up all night playing,” Mom said.  “Did you notice?  She was still wearing the same clothes as when we left last night.”

“I was wondering that,” Dad replied.

“I didn’t notice, but now that you mention it, you’re right.”

To this day, whenever the topic of Dr. Mario comes up, Mom always brings up the time Aunt Carol stayed up all night.  Aunt Carol passed away in late 2014; I did not attend the funeral, since she and Uncle Chuck had moved 500 miles away by then, but if I had, I would have shared the Dr. Mario story.  In 2016, my cousin Pam, Aunt Carol’s daughter, commented on a Facebook picture I had shared of me and my friends playing retro Nintendo games.  Pam said that they had an Atari when she was a kid, but her mother would always hog the controller.  I told her about the time we brought Dr. Mario for Thanksgiving and her mother stayed up all night playing, and Pam replied, “So that’s how her addiction to that game started!  She played that for years until the controllers broke.”

As a child, I loved visiting the Bidwell relatives and wanted those trips to last forever.  This trip seemed short, only two and a half days, but I was growing up, as were my cousins, and life was changing.  Uncle Chuck and Aunt Carol’s children were grown and did not live with them in the Damn Yellow House anymore.  Mark had outgrown his tadpole-catching phase.  And we didn’t have Great-Grandma Christine’s house to explore anymore; the old ranch was a gated country club now.  Life moves on, but family stays family, even when those family relationships change over the years.

In 2013, I followed someone through the gate to see what the old ranch looked like now. Notice the golf course down below.

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