If you’re new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life. I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2. Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.
This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 2. Last week, I did the same for Year 1. Many of my current readers have not been with the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up. I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap. As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far. If this is your first time here, and you do not want to read all 88 episodes, you may want to read the recap of Year 1 first.
I went home to Plumdale for the summer and worked in a small bookstore. I got the job through the connection that one of the two other employees was a family friend. Mom volunteered me for the job without asking me, and while I hate when she does that, this time I did not mind because I needed something to do, and getting paid would be nice. I thought at first that working in a bookstore would be fun, but the store was very slow, and not exactly my clientele.
I had lost touch with most of my high school friends, although I saw a few of them. I watched a roller hockey game with Rachel, and I saw Catherine and Renee and some of Catherine’s friends from Austria in a choir and orchestra performance that she put together. I kept in touch with a number of Jeromeville friends, mostly through writing letters, although a few of them had access to email during the summer. My cousins Rick and Miranda came to visit for a week, and I went with them, my mother, and my brother Mark to Jeromeville for a day, to show everyone around. I got to see Taylor and another guy from my freshman dorm on that day.
I turned 19 in August. The lease for my apartment began September 1, and I moved back to Jeromeville the first weekend of September. Classes did not start until the end of September, but I preferred being bored in Jeromeville to being bored in Plumdale. I spent that September going on lots of bike rides and talking to lots of girls on Internet Relay Chat. As the school year approached, I was encouraged as I started seeing familiar faces around campus and town. Megan, the resident advisor from a nearby building whom I had gotten to know (and like) the previous year, was now an RA in a building in the North Area, and she invited me to have lunch with her at the dining commons.
I had plenty of new experiences that fall. I got a job tutoring calculus for the tutoring center on campus. Also, Danielle, my friend from last year who also went to Mass at the Newman Center, finally talked me into singing in the choir at church. Another student in the choir, Heather, lived near me, so we usually carpooled to choir practice and to Mass.
Liz, another friend from last year, had invited me a few times to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. I was hesitant , since I was Catholic and I knew that other Christians did things differently and sometimes looked down on Catholics. I was not sure that JCF would be the first place for me. But I finally decided to take her up on her invitation that fall; since I was living alone, I knew that I needed to do all I could to stay close with my friends. I quickly decided that JCF was a wonderful place for me. In addition to already having several friends who attended there, I started making new friends, and in addition to learning more about the Bible, I also started socializing with JCF people.
I started a new creative project that fall: a novel, about an 18-year-old who is not ready for high school to be over. He goes away to live with relatives and pretends to be younger so he can go through high school again and get a second chance at having a social life. I got the idea because I felt that way sometimes. As the winter went on, my classes continued, I worked on the novel, and the holidays came. I spent Thanksgiving with my family visiting the relatives in Bidwell. I spent Christmas back home in Plumdale with my family, where Mom volunteered me for something yet again without asking me. We made a last minute trip to Disneyland for the New Year, and on that trip we decided on a whim to drive by the house of an infamous celebrity.
I had still never had a girlfriend, and things never seemed to work out for me. It seemed like every girl I met always seemed to have a boyfriend. I was disappointed when Megan, the older girl who was an RA, mentioned at one point that she was dating someone. I found out something later that made me realize that Megan and I never would have worked out anyway.
While many positive things had happened so far that year, I still got discouraged and had bad days sometimes. One of those bad days happened on a Friday, the night that JCF met. As everyone trickled out of the room, I sat alone by myself. Two guys, Eddie and Xander, came over to talk to me and invited me to hang out with them afterward, along with Haley, Kristina, and Kelly, three girls who lived down the street from them. I made new friends that night, some of whom I am still friends with today.
The winter quarter was not easy academically. My classes all had their midterms on the same day. Then, a few days later, some jerk decided to steal my clothes out of the laundry. Just when despair was starting to get to me, I saw one of the JCF staff on campus; she told me exactly what it means to follow Jesus, how he died for our sins to bring us eternal life with God. I made a decision that day to follow Jesus.
With this new outlook on life, I started attending Bible study. I was learning more about my faith, really paying attention to God’s Word for the first time. My friend Melissa from high school told me in an email that she went bowling and got a score of 178, her best ever. This was exactly the same as my best bowling score ever, from the fall when I took bowling class. Melissa and I agreed to meet over spring break to see who was truly the better bowler, and that one game was legendary.
In April, the University of Jeromeville got a new ID card system. We all had to take new pictures, and mine was the worst ID card picture I have ever taken in my life. The following week, I got invited along on a road trip to Bay City with a mix of old friends, including Sarah and Caroline, and new friends, including Eddie, Xander, and Haley. We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, walked uphill to an amazing view, and then drove down the coast to Moonlight Cove and slept illegally on the beach.
Finding a place to live in Jeromeville is a very stressful endeavor. I heard Pete and Charlie say that they needed a third roommate for next year, but Mike Knepper came along and took that spot just as I about ready to commit. I asked for prayer about it at Bible study a couple weeks later. Shawn, the senior who co-led the study, almost immediately mentioned that he and his current roommate Brian were staying in Jeromeville another year with no place to live yet. God answered the first part of my prayer pretty quickly, giving me roommates for next year. I had trouble finding a house to rent, since we waited so long, but I found a nice apartment on the northern edge of Jeromeville, about two miles from the campus core.
I went to the Spring Picnic again, and I saw the band Lawsuit play. I also worked the Math Club table for a while, which took away from my time to wander around and have fun, so I learned that day never to volunteer during the Spring Picnic. I saw the Olympic torch pass through Jeromeville on its way to Atlanta. I saw Sarah and a few other students from JCF get baptized. And Haley had become my newest love interest, so of course I had plenty of awkward moments in front of her, as well as in front of other girls.
I was still doing very well in classes. Being a math major, I was now taking two math classes every quarter, and started taking upper division math classes in the middle of that year. Dr. Gabby Thomas was my favorite math professor so far; she spoke clear English and felt like a normal human being more than many of my other professors. As the year ended, I participated in the Man of Steel competition, a decade-old tradition among the men of JCF involving disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and a game of poker. I did not do too well. Fortunately, my finals went better than the Man of Steel competition, and I ended the year on a positive note, at a huge graduation party hosted by my new friends who were graduating, Brian and Shawn.
Here is the playlist of songs I used in year 2. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be doing next week; I will continue the story into Year 3 soon, but in real life, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or two, so I might need some more time off.
The Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, ASUJ for short, was the organization responsible for student activities at UJ. They held two major festivals every year. They were less than a month apart, since both involved traditions specific to spring. The Spring Picnic, which began decades ago as the school’s open house and grew into a major festival, was interesting and fun. The other festival was called the Mother Earth Festival, held on Mother’s Day weekend. It was a bunch of hippie stuff, not really my thing.
I attended the Mother Earth Festival exactly once, in 1996. It was a Saturday afternoon, I was bored, and I decided to check it out, so I got on my bike, parked it on campus, and walked around the Quad.
The Quad was packed. Craft and vendor booths lined the edges of the Quad, with a sea of humanity in between. I walked along the row of booths, peeking at what was happening inside. Face painting. Beads. Tie-dyeing. Henna tattoos. These round things with feathers on them that the sign called dreamcatchers. At the south end of the quad, the temporary stage where I saw Lawsuit at previous Spring Picnics was set up, and two musicians were playing instruments I could not identify while some lady in a long skirt with armpit hair frolicked and pranced on the stage. I walked up the other side of the Quad, looking at other booths, before deciding that nothing here particularly piqued my interest. The most memorable thing I remember seeing in the fifteen minutes I spent at the Mother Earth Festival was this girl with big boobs sunbathing in a bikini. She and her flat-chested friend were not dressed as hippies at all, and their armpits were actually shaved. I looked at them for about five seconds, then moved on so it would not look creepy.
As I approached the place where I had parked, I walked past a bench and saw a girl named Maria who was in my Advanced Composition class last quarter, sitting on a bench looking away from me. I took my rolled-up copy of the Mother Earth Festival schedule of events, and I tapped her on the shoulder with it.
Maria turned to look at me, except it was not Maria. This girl had a similar build, hairstyle, and coloring, but otherwise looked nothing like Maria.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought you were someone else.” I walked away before the other girl could respond.
Why did I do that? I kept replaying the embarrassing incident in my mind as I rode my bike back home. Maria had not been not looking at me, I had no need to go out of my way to say hi to her, and I did not really want to talk to Maria anyway. The angry political messages on the buttons all over her backpack clearly indicated that she was not the kind of person I wanted to get to know, and I did not find her attractive. And now some other girl probably thought I was a weirdo, all because I had decided to be friendly.
Unfortunately for me, I tended to be just as awkward around girls I actually did find attractive. Two days later, during a break between classes, I was walking around the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit. I held a slice of pepperoni pizza on a paper plate and a Coca-Cola in a reusable large plastic mug. Some division of ASUJ was handing these mugs out free a few weeks ago, to encourage people not to fill up the landfills with disposable cups. Drinks were 25 cents less at the ASUJ Coffee House for customers bringing their own cups. Of course, I had a disposable paper plate, but at least that was biodegradable, and bringing an actual plate to campus would be somewhat unwieldy.
I looked out the window to a courtyard-like area, which was surrounded on three sides by the building. A large round fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard, but it was dry and had been ever since I began attending UJ. Metal tables and chairs were arranged around part of the courtyard. I felt that familiar jolt of excitement and nervousness as I saw Haley Channing sitting at one of those tables, alone. Finally, this might be a chance to talk to Haley one-on-one with no one else around. I almost spilled my drink as I opened the door leading to the courtyard, but caught myself. “Hey,” I said as I walked up to Haley. “May I sit here?”
“Hi, Greg!” Haley replied, smiling. “Go ahead!”
I placed my food on the table and sat down. “How’s your day going?” I asked.
“Pretty good, except I have a paper to write. I’m gonna be busy tonight. You?”
“I’m good. I have a lot of math homework, though.”
“What math class are you taking?”
“Applied Linear Algebra and Combinatorics. Two classes.”
“I have no idea what either of those mean.”
“Linear algebra works with matrices.”
“I kind of remember matrices in high school, a little bit.”
“And combinatorics is about problems that come up with counting combinations and things like that. If I have license plates with three letters and three numbers, and I need to figure out how many possible license plates there could be, that’s a combinatorics problem. At least that’s what we did back in the first chapter.”
“It is. I also really like the professor for that class.” I looked up and saw a familiar face walking toward us; it was Claire Seaver from church. I waved, and Claire walked over to our table.
“Hey,” Claire said to me. “How are you?”
“I’m doing well. Claire, this is Haley–”
“Hi, Haley,” Claire interrupted, smiling.
“Hi,” Haley replied with a tone of recognition.
“How do you two know each other?” I asked, trying to hide my shame in not knowing this and being caught off guard.
“Chorus,” Haley replied. “I used to do that last year.”
“I keep telling Greg he should join chorus,” Claire said.
“You should!” Haley told me. “I’ve heard you sing. You have a good voice.”
“Maybe,” I replied.
“How were your weekends?” Claire asked. “Did you guys call your mothers for Mother’s Day?”
“I did,” Haley said.
“I saw this thing on the Internet the other day where you can send someone flowers by email. You get an email, and it’s a picture of flowers with a personalized message,” I said. “My parents just got email recently, Mom loves email, so I sent one of those to Mom.”
“That’s fun,” Claire replied.
“If I’m going to send flowers to my mother, she’s gonna get real flowers,” Haley said. “No emails and pictures for my mother.”
“I need to get going, but I’ll see you guys later,” Claire said. We both waved and said goodbye as she walked away. As I took a bite of my pizza and chewed it, I kept thinking that I was probably blowing it with Haley. I had tried to introduce herself to someone she already knew, and she disapproved of my Mother’s Day gift. After I swallowed my pizza, I attempted to resurrect the conversation, asking, “Do you still do chorus now?”
“No. I did last year, but I have too much going on now.”
“That makes sense. I played piano as a kid, but I was always so self-conscious about performing for others. But I’m starting to get over that. This year I started singing in my church choir; that’s how I know Claire.”
“Nice! Chorus is always looking for guys.”
“Maybe I will for next year,” I said. We continued making small talk as we finished eating, and I hoped that she could not read disappointment in my body language. I could not help but feel like I had embarrassed myself in front of her.
Whenever I introduce two people now, I always ask them first if they know each other; this is a direct result of that incident all those years ago when I tried to introduce Claire and Haley. But that was still not the worst awkward moment I experienced that week.
I was back in the Memorial Union a few days later, looking for a place to study, and I saw a familiar brown-haired face sitting at a table by herself. It was my friend Lizzie, one of those people whom I initially crossed paths with just because we knew someone in common. Lizzie went to high school with Jack Chalmers, another math major who had been in multiple classes with me. Last fall, Jack and I had linear algebra together, and Lizzie had a class in the same classroom right before ours. Jack and Lizzie would say hi to each other as we waited in the hall and her class exited the room. Jack talked a lot, and he talked fast, and sometimes he would say hi to Lizzie in the middle of a sentence with me. He would say something like, “Hey Greg I’m totally not ready for this test and I blew off studying last night Hi Lizzie! so I hope I don’t bomb it because I totally need to keep my grades up.” Eventually, I started saying hi to Lizzie when I saw her around campus, and we had actually had conversations beyond hello a few times.
“Hey,” I said, approaching Lizzie’s table. “Mind if I sit here?”
“I’m doing okay. Just busy with classes. What about you?”
“Same with me. I have a midterm tomorrow. But the school year is almost over!”
“I know! Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”
“Just going home and working. I need the money. What about you?”
“I’m staying here, taking a class. This will be the first time I’ve been in Jeromeville for the summer.”
“I hear it gets really hot!”
“I kind of like the heat, though.”
“What class are you taking?”
“Computer Science 40,” I explained. “I’m taking CS 30 now, it’s required for the math major, and I love it. There’s an upper division CS class, Data Structures, that counts toward my degree in place of a math class, but it requires 30 and 40 as prerequisites. It’s really hard to get CS classes because there are so many CS majors, and not much computer lab space, so they put a cap on how many can enroll, and CS majors have priority. Enrollment wasn’t restricted for the summer class.”
“Smart!” Lizzie replied. “You’re a math major, right? That’s how you know Jack?”
“Why didn’t you major in CS, if you like it that much?”
“Because I didn’t want something fun to turn into work. Also, my computer knowledge was several years out of date by the time I got here, and I knew I’d be competing with kids whose knowledge was much more advanced.”
“That makes sense. So you’re just taking the one class?”
“Yeah. First session. I’m not taking any classes second session. I’ll probably just hang out here and try to find something fun to do.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve discovered over the last couple years that I like to write. I’m working on a novel now, when I have time and I’m in the right mood.”
“That’s so cool!”
“Just for fun,” I said. “I know, I’m a math guy, I’m not supposed to be a writer.”
“There’s this guy, he’s a senior in high school, but he needs a fresh start, and he wants to leave his past behind. So he goes away to live with relatives. And he feels like he isn’t ready to move on to the next part of his life, so he pretends to be younger so he can have a couple more years in high school.”
“Wow,” Lizzie said. “Where’d you get the idea for that?”
“I guess I’ve kind of wished for that myself,” I explained. “I feel like I really grew a lot my senior year of high school, but then just as life was getting interesting, my friends and I all graduated and moved away and lost touch. I wonder how I would have turned out if I’d had another year or two to grow in that environment, if I would have gotten to experience more things I missed out on.”
“Well, I think you turned out fine.”
“Thank you,” I said. Then, after a pause, I added, “You can read it if you want.”
“Yeah! It sounds really good!”
“I could email you some of what I have so far. Does that work?”
“Sure. Let me give you my email.” Lizzie tore off a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote on it, then passed it to me. I opened it and read what she wrote, very confused for a few seconds, then suddenly frightened and embarrassed as I began to realize the full implications of what I read.
Lindsay’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lindsay’s email. I had known this girl, whom I had been calling Lizzie, for over seven months, and this whole time her name was Lindsay. I had never seen her name in print before. I knew her through Jack, who talks really fast, so when I heard Jack say “Hi, Lindsay,” it came out sounding like “Hi Lizzie.” I suddenly tried to recall every time I had actually spoken to Lindsay, trying to remember if I had ever called her Lizzie to her face. I could not remember. I looked up at her, trying to put the name Lindsay Vandenberg to this face, and it felt weird, because she was still Lizzie to me.
“Greg?” Lindsay asked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was just thinking about something. No big deal. But I’ll send you my story.”
“Great! I look forward to reading it!” Lindsay looked at her watch. “I need to get going, I have class, but I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”
“Yeah! Have a great day!”
I never found out if Lindsay knew that I thought her name was Lizzie for seven months. She was never in my inner social circle, and we did not stay in touch after we graduated, but we always said hi to each other on campus.
For some reason, I have always disliked using people’s names out loud. It just feels uncomfortable to me, and I do not know why. But this odd quirk may have worked to my advantage on that day, because it was entirely possible that I had never actually called Lindsay Lizzie outside of my own head. When I saw her, I was much more likely to just say “Hi” instead of “Hi, Lizzie.” But even if I had ever accidentally called her Lizzie, there was not much that I could do about it now. Besides, while my realization that Lindsay’s name was not Lizzie felt awkward and embarrassing, much of that embarrassment was in my own head. If it was unlikely that she ever heard me call her Lizzie, she would have no way of knowing that I did not know her real name for so long.
Most guys have had their share of awkward moments around girls; and, of course, this statement applied to other combinations of genders and orientations as well. I always felt particularly prone to awkward moments, mostly because I had never had a girlfriend, and I seemed to lack successful non-awkward experience with girls. Over the years, I would have many more experiences of getting someone’s name wrong, or saying something that was misinterpreted. But I have seen enough over the years now to know that I certainly was not alone in this. And many others have had awkward moments that primarily happened in their own heads, unnoticed by those around them. I just had to accept the fact that I was not perfect, and the right people in my life would accept me, flaws and all.
I biked to campus full of anticipation on that cool, cloudy Saturday morning. Today was the Spring Picnic. In the last three months, I had made a new group of friends and taken an overnight trip with them, and I had discovered my purpose in life, but if this year’s Spring Picnic was anything like last year’s, it would rival those days as one of the best days of the year. (I should point out that I had no idea in 1996 of the fact that today’s date, April 20, meant something to marijuana users. My day had nothing to do with marijuana.)
Last year, I had heard some older students say that it always seems to rain in Jeromeville on the day of the Spring Picnic, but the weather last year was perfect. Today rain looked a bit more likely, but I was determined that even the ominous sky would not ruin this day for me.
I arrived early, parking at a bike rack next to Wellington Hall a little after nine o’clock. I had stopped to pick up a schedule of events on the way in. I turned the pages to see what was happening this early, and to my dismay, there was not much. The alumni breakfast was for alumni only and required a ticket purchase. The Chemistry Club show was later in the day, but people were lining up for distribution of tickets already. I had heard good things about that, but spending a long time in line to get a ticket did not appeal to me enough to actually do it, at least not this year. Other than that, not much was happening this early. The opening ceremony was at 9:30 not far from here, which led into the parade; maybe I could find a good seat for that.
I walked north to the end of the block, where a grandstand had been set up just around the corner from the Quad. It was full, but not completely full, so I found an empty seat and looked through the schedule again as I waited. I read the article on the history of the Spring Picnic, about how in 1909, the small group of professors and the newly founded university’s student body of about a hundred invited the public to a picnic, so they could display their research and show off a new building. Thousands of guests flooded the campus, and a new tradition was born, growing into a major open house event for the university.
Many musicians, bands, and performing groups play the Spring Picnic every year, and last year I had discovered a band called Lawsuit, with some members who had roots here in Jeromeville. I read an article in the Daily Colt this week about highlights of this year’s Spring Picnic, and it specifically said that Lawsuit would be playing on the Quad Stage at 3:30. I looked in the schedule to confirm this and found it quickly. That was definitely the one part of today that I did not want to miss. I would be busy for part of today, though, and I specifically scheduled that so as to be finished by 3:30.
At 9:30, someone came on stage and took a few minutes to introduce the grand marshal of the parade, gushing on and on about this woman’s academic accomplishments, whoever she was. The grand marshal spoke next, talking about passing on traditions, and history, and also finding a way to work in a bunch of politically correct mumbo-jumbo. Go figure.
The parade began after that, and I followed along in the schedule of events to see who the groups were. The Spring Picnic parade featured numerous student clubs, academic departments, and fraternities and sororities, as well as local businesses, community organizations, and a few high school bands from all over the state. Parades are inherently fun, but part of the fun of the Spring Picnic parade is looking to see who all the different groups are and where they come from, like the giant cow on the float I saw approaching now. I looked in the schedule; it was Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students.
About half an hour into the parade, the Campus Tour Guides marched through, walking backward. That made me laugh; walking backward is an important part of being a tour guide after all. Haley Channing, the girl from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship whom I secretly had a crush on, was a tour guide; I spotted her walking backward in the side of the group farthest from me. I called out to her and waved, but she did not see or hear me.
The Interdisciplinary Honors Program marched in the parade this year, carrying a sign and wearing graduation caps. I wondered how this year’s IHP got into the parade, because I was in the IHP last year and no one ever talked about being in the parade. I knew one of this year’s IHP students, a girl named Yesenia; she was easy to spot, with hair almost all the way down her back. I had better luck getting her attention than I did with Haley, because she was walking closer to me. “Yesenia!” I called out as she passed by. She looked up, saw me waving, and pointed at me. “Greg!” she shouted, waving back. I smiled and continued waving.
By 11:00, I had been watching the parade for an hour, and I decided to go do something else. I wandered down the west end of the Quad, following the parade route, crossing Shelley Avenue at the south end of the Quad and entering the library. The library’s Spring Picnic exhibit was always something out of the Special Collections; this year it was photographs from the early days of the University. The campus had changed so much since the early twentieth century; I only recognized one building in the pictures.
I left the library a bit later walking in the opposite direction from where I came. The art building was open with a sign out front, so I walked in. The lobby and a hallway were lined with paintings and sculptures made by students. Some of them were fairly recognizable, like portraits of human beings and landscapes. Others were much more abstract: lumps of clay that made no recognizable shape, multicolored lines crossing and intersecting across a canvas, and splashes of color that looked like something that someone dropped a bunch of paint on a white piece of fabric but was still considered art, probably because of the statement they made or something like that. It was still interesting to look at everything.
I had somewhere to be at noon. I had about twenty minutes to walk back to the Quad, eat, then head to the walkway between Wellington and Kerry to the table I would be working. The east side of the Quad was full of student organizations selling food; many were cultural organizations selling food from their parts of the world. I got in line for the Filipino Club’s lumpia table, but the line moved so slowly that it soon became apparent that I would not get my lumpia in time. By 11:55, there were still seven people ahead of me, so I left the line and walked back across the Quad toward the table where I was working a shift.
Four long folding tables had been arranged in a line next to the entrance to Kerry Hall. A handmade sign on poster board that said MATH CLUB AT UJ stood propped up on one of the tables. The tables held various math puzzles and games.
“Hey, Brandon?” I asked a tall blond guy standing behind one of the tables. “I’m here. What do I do?”
“Just pick a table and talk to people. If you need solutions to any of the puzzles, if you can’t figure out how to explain it to someone, it’s in that box there.”
“Okay,” I said. I walked to the table on the end farthest from the Quad, with a cardboard model of the Monty Hall problem and a Towers of Hanoi puzzle. I had studied the mathematics of both of these puzzles extensively and felt qualified to explain them to passersby.
“Hey, Greg,” a junior girl named Susan said. “How are you?”
“I’m good. I didn’t do much today. Saw the parade, and the old pictures in the library, and the art department exhibit. What have you done so far?”
“I went to the Chemistry Club show.”
“What’s that like?” I asked. “I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never been. I don’t want to stand in line to get tickets.”
“It’s so worth it! You should! Lots of cool demonstrations.”
“Maybe next year.”
I started attending Math Club meetings off and on last year, although I have not been very active in the club. I knew Brandon and Susan and some of the others to say hi to, and some of the younger people in Math Club I had been in classes with, but I was not particularly close with any of them.
“Hi,” I said as a boy walked up to my table, looking at the Monty Hall problem poster. “What’s this?”
“The Monty Hall problem,” I said. “Have you heard of this?”
“I don’t think so.”
I set up the game, putting a card representing a new car behind door number 2. “Suppose you’re on a game show. Behind one of these three doors is a new car, and the other two have a goat. You choose one.”
He thought for a few seconds, then said, “Number three.”
“So before we say where the car is, I’m going to open door number 1,” I said. I showed him the goat behind the door. “Now, do you want to stick with your answer of door number 3, or switch to door number 2?”
“Hmm,” the guy replied. “I’m going to stick with my original choice. Door number 3.” I opened door number 3 to show the goat. “Aww,” he said, as I revealed the car behind door number 2. I wrote the results of his game on a scoresheet we had made for that purpose. “What’s that?” he asked.
“We’re keeping track of everyone who plays today, whether or not you switched doors, and whether or not you won. Mathematically, you actually have a better chance of winning if you switch doors.”
“Really,” he said. “How does that work?”
I had a small poster explaining the problem mathematically that I was instructed to keep covered until after the contestant had played; I showed it to him now. “Basically,” I said, “you had a 1 in 3 chance of being right when you said door number 3. I opened a door that I know is wrong, but that doesn’t change your 1 in 3 chance of being right. So if you switched, knowing that door number 1 was not the prize, you would have a 2 in 3 chance of being right. At the end of the day, you can come back and look at the score sheet, to see if the people who switched were actually right more often than the people who didn’t.”
“Interesting,” the guy said. “Why is this called the Monty Hall problem?”
“He was the host of Let’s Make A Deal.” The guy gave me a blank stare, so I added, “That was a classic TV game show that inspired this problem.”
“Oh,” he said.
“I remember when it stirred up controversy in Marilyn Vos Savant’s column. Do you know about that?” He shook his head no, so I continued explaining. “Marilyn has one of the highest known IQs of anyone, and she writes a newspaper column. She wrote about this problem a few years ago, and all sorts of people, some of them claiming to have math degrees, wrote to her telling her that she was wrong. But she wasn’t.”
“Whoa,” the guy said, looking unimpressed.
“Enjoy your Spring Picnic!” I said as he walked away. I had learned more and more these days that my peers just did not read news in print like I did, nor did they grow up watching game shows.
“Greg!” a familiar voice said a while later. I looked up to see Sarah Winters, whom I had known since my first week at UJ.
“Hi, Sarah. How are you?”
“I’m good! How are you? Did I tell you I’m changing my major to math?”
“No! When did this happen?”
“I want to be a teacher, I’ve known that for a long time. I decided that math is what I like teaching best.”
“Nice! Maybe we’ll have some classes together someday.”
“Yeah! What’s this thing?” Sarah asked, pointing to the Towers of Hanoi puzzle.
“You have to move all five discs on this spindle to one of the other two spindles,” I explained. “But you can only move one at a time, and you can only put a smaller disc on top of a larger disc.”
“It’s significant because it’s an example of recursion. Each time you get to the next bigger disc, you have to solve the same problem for one fewer disc. And the number of moves you need follows a nice exponential growth pattern.”
“I see,” Sarah said, playing with the Towers of Hanoi puzzle, trying to move the discs accordingly. “So you’re part of the Math Club?”
“I go to most of the meetings,” I said. “But this is the first time I’ve ever done anything for Math Club.”
“What kind of things do you do in Math Club?”
“Math games, outreach, talking about careers in math, stuff like that.”
“I might have to check it out sometime!”
“That would be cool!”
“What else are you doing today?” Sarah asked.
“I’m going to go see the band Lawsuit after my shift here.”
“That’ll be fun. I need to get going, but it was good seeing you!”
My shift ended at three o’clock, and I still had not eaten. At one of the tables, we were giving out candy to people who could solve the puzzles, and I had been sneaking candy when no one was looking for the whole three hours I was there. When I got back to the Quad, all the student-run food booths had shut down, but a truck with typical fair and festival type food was open on the far corner of the Quad near the library. I went there and bought a hot dog. Not as exciting as lumpia, but I was hungry.
I crossed to the east side of the Quad, across the street from the oldest buildings on campus, and watched a band finish playing. I looked through the schedule of events while that band took their equipment and instruments down and Lawsuit set up, looking for something to do after their show. Most of the events and shows would be shut down by then; the only thing going on that late was the Battle of the Bands, where the marching bands from UJ and several other universities in the region play on into the night.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone finally said on stage around 3:45, “the name of this band is Lawsuit!” Paul Sykes, the lead singer, began rapping while the rest of the band played the background music of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” a song from the 1970s that had become popular again recently because it was in the movie Pulp Fiction. This segued into “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” the song they had opened with when I saw them last year.
Lawsuit was a difficult band to categorize. Their music crossed the boundaries of rock, pop, reggae, jazz, and something called “ska” which apparently meant rock with horns. The band had ten members, and during a long guitar and bass solo, the members of the horn section did a strange dance. I sang along quietly, since I knew this song, and cheered loudly at the end.
Lawsuit played for almost an hour. I knew about half the songs, since I now had a bootleg tape of their newest album that I had copied from someone in my dorm last year. Last year I knew nothing of their music, but this year I knew around half of the songs from that tape. The others, mostly older songs of theirs along with one that they said was from a new album coming this summer, included one about a couch and one about Einstein. One thing I always noticed about Lawsuit was that their music felt at times like one giant inside joke that I was not in on, but I enjoyed it anyway. I had been looking forward to this show since the moment that Lawsuit’s show at last year’s Spring Picnic ended, a year ago.
“We have one more song for you,” Paul said after they had been playing for a while. “Before you go, make sure you sign up for our mailing list, and we also have CDs and merch.” He then went into a song from the tape I had called “Picture Book Pretty.” In the middle of the song, I noticed that he sang “one thousand red roses would not be quite enough,” instead of “one dozen red roses” like he says on the album. I was not sure why he changed it.
After the show, I walked to the table in front and put my name and address on the mailing list. This was how bands stayed in touch with their fans in 1996; there was no social media or YouTube back then, and email and websites were themselves brand new technologies just beginning to break into the mainstream. By filling out this mailing list, I would get a postcard in the mail every month or two from Lawsuit. They did also have an email list, though; I signed up for that too, even though the postcards and email would probably say the same thing.
“Hey, Greg,” someone said as I turned to leave the merch table. I looked up; it was Christian Channing, a senior whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the older brother of Haley, my tour guide friend whom I wanted to be more than a friend. “I didn’t know you liked Lawsuit. Is this your first time hearing them?”
“I saw them at last year’s Spring Picnic. They’re so good!”
“I know! My little brother, he’s 15, I gave him a tape of Lawsuit last year, and now he loves them too. Last summer we went and saw them when they played back home.”
“Hey, I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”
“Yeah. Have a good one!”
I walked to the lake in the middle of the Arboretum near Marks Hall, where the Battle of the Bands was, and stayed there for about another hour. The band visiting from Walton University always played a song that was about forty minutes long; I left around six o’clock in the middle of that song dragging on and on. Seeing Lawsuit was great, and working the Math Club table was something new, and it did not end up raining. But despite all that, this year’s Spring Picnic felt disappointing. Because I had volunteered three hours of my time, I missed out on my favorite part of the Spring Picnic: walking around campus looking at random exhibits. The University of Jeromeville was so huge that no one could possibly see everything, so there would always be new things to see every year at the Spring Picnic. I got to see very little of that this year, since I spent so much time at the Math Club table. I learned my lesson from this, though; this was the first Spring Picnic for which I volunteered for something, and it would be the last.
This was also the last Spring Picnic that Lawsuit played, although I would see Lawsuit play live again. But that is another story for another time.
Note from the author: When I wrote about the previous year’s Spring Picnic, in December 2019, I said that I would be spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic in April. That prediction did not age well; the 2020 and 2021 Spring Picnics were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not having the Spring Picnic for two years in a row has been difficult for me…
“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” the voice on the car stereo sang, followed by some other mumbling words and then guitars and more words. At least it sounded like those were the words, although it seemed like an odd choice of lyrics for a rock song. The song contained that exact line several more times.
“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.
“DC Talk,” he replied. “I made this mixtape of Christian music for when I’m in the car.”
I nodded. I had once seen another student at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship wearing a t-shirt that said DC Talk, but I had no idea what that meant. Apparently DC Talk was a band that sang Christian music. Other than stuff we sang in church, the only Christian music I was aware of was this Christian soft rock adult contemporary radio station back home in Santa Lucia County, which I never listened to. But this Jesus Freak song was awesome.
For the first forty minutes after we left Jeromeville, headed west on Highway 100, we passed orchards and pastures and fields interrupted by a few small and medium-sized cities, Silvey, Nueces, Fairview, and La Yegua. After Fairview, the flatlands of the Capital Valley gave way to grassy rolling hills dotted with oaks. Eddie had offered me the front seat, since I was the tallest of the five of us; Sarah, Caroline, and Raphael were in the back. Just past La Yegua, we crossed a bridge over the mouth of the Capital River where it empties into the Bay. “Hey,” Sarah said when we were halfway across the bridge. “There’s the other car.”
I looked to the left, in the direction Sarah was pointing. A small sport-utility vehicle passed us with Tabitha looking at us through the window in the back seat, grinning, and Xander making a funny face over her shoulder. Haley sat in the front seat, smiling and waving. Five of the ten people on this trip were neighbors on Baron Court, and the rest of us met there to carpool. I had hoped that I would end up in the same car as Haley, but I did not want to be too obvious about it. Since Eddie had invited me on this trip, it had seemed more natural to be in his car. Kristina drove the other car, and I could see a silhouette of John behind Xander in the back seat. I waved, although I was not sure anyone could see me from the front passenger seat.
We continued driving through the hills lining the shore of the Bay, through an industrial area, then through several cities and towns that all ran into each other. In Oaksville, Highways 100, 150, and 88 all met at the entrance to another large bridge. Eddie drove across the bridge as we saw the lights and buildings of Bay City approaching.
“This is such a great view,” Sarah said.
“Yes,” Raphael agreed. “One of the greatest cities in the world.”
“I’m not used to seeing it from this side,” I said. “When we came to Bay City, we always came up 11, and usually it was for Titans games on the other side of the city.”
“Have you never seen downtown Bay City before?” Eddie asked.
“It’s pretty awesome.”
We turned onto Highway 11 north, which became a city street, Van Winkle Avenue; the freeway was never completed across the city. About two miles up Van Winkle Avenue, Eddie pointed across the street and said “There it is.” I saw the sign for the Hard Rock Cafe, on a building on the corner. We found a nearby parking garage and walked to the entrance, where the group from the other car waited for us.
The Hard Rock Cafe was loud and crowded. The walls were covered with music memorabilia, and music played loudly over speakers. While we waited to get our seat, I read a sign on the wall telling the history of the Hard Rock Cafe. Two Americans living in London in 1971 started the first Hard Rock Cafe as a place to serve American food and listen to great music. Eric Clapton became a regular customer, and he hung a guitar on the wall above his favorite seat. The restaurant incorporated this into their decor and soon opened other locations in big cities and tourist traps worldwide, with music memorabilia on the walls of all of them.
I got up to use the bathroom and took my time getting back to my seat, admiring photographs, posters, guitars, and fancy costumes on display, each with a plaque explaining whom it belonged to and its significance. I also saw a sign saying “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons Allowed.” I rolled my eyes… hippies. I could not find my friends in the lobby when I returned, so I walked around the restaurant, looking to see if they had been seated and admiring more rock memorabilia as I looked for them. When I found them, I smiled nervously at my good fortune; the seat that they had left open for me, coincidentally, was next to Haley.
“Hey,” Haley said when I sat down. “You found us.”
“Yeah. I was just looking at stuff on the wall. It’s really cool.”
“Have you been here before?”
“No. Have you?”
“Not this one. But I’ve been to one in Hawaii, on vacation with my family.”
“Nice. I’ve never been to Hawaii either.”
“I’ve only been once. It’s so beautiful!”
“I can imagine,” I said. “So how are your classes this quarter?”
“They’re definitely keeping me busy. I’m taking a lot.” Just then the server came and interrupted our conversation. I ordered a cheeseburger, nothing too adventurous.
All of us talked more about life and classes and things while we waited for the food to arrive. At one point, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” came on; I thought this was the Hard Rock Cafe, not the Hard Rap Cafe, but I did not complain. Kristina started rapping along with Coolio. “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she began.
“That’s in the Bible, you know,” Eddie said to no one in particular. I did not know the first time I heard the song, but I did now; it was from Psalm 23, one of the more famous passages in the Bible. The song was from the movie Dangerous Minds, and I still had a negative memory of that movie, because of what I saw a few rows in front of me when I watched it.
By the time the food arrived, I was starving. I ate my cheeseburger quickly. I looked around; Haley was eating a chicken salad, and John, on my other side, had the same cheeseburger I did. “How is it?” I asked Haley.
“It’s really good,” she said. “You must have liked yours. You ate it fast.”
“I did. And I was starving. I hadn’t eaten since noon. It’s after nine o’clock.”
“Yeah, we’re eating late. Do you know about this place we’re going next?”
“We’re going to sleep on the beach next, aren’t we?”
“Apparently we’re going somewhere else first,” Haley explained. “One of the guys’ other roommates told us we have to see this thing, but Eddie said it’s a surprise.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
Eddie jumped into our conversation. “Seriously, it’ll be worth it,” he said.
When the waiter brought our checks, he also gave us each a small button with the Hard Rock Cafe logo in flames. “1971-1996, 25 Years of Rock,” it said. Kristina pinned hers to the strap of her purse. I did not know what I would do with mine; stick in a box somewhere, maybe.
After we finished paying for the meal, we went back to our cars. Eddie worked his way southwest across the city, and at a red light he handed me an unfolded map. “I need someone to help me navigate; I have to watch the road. This is where we’re going,” he said, pointing at a green spot on the map labeled Bosque Hill Park. “Can you read maps?”
I grew up fascinated by maps, and up until that moment of my life, it had never occurred to me that some people could not read maps. “Yeah,” I said. It was a strange question to me. I was reminded of those first few days of freshman year in Building C, talking about my fascination with maps. I looked over my shoulder at Sarah in the back seat, grinning; she made eye contact with me and started laughing loudly. I laughed too. She was thinking of the same thing.
“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.
“At the start of freshman year, the day I met Greg,” Sarah explained, “someone told me that he loved maps. So he made me tell Greg the highways near my house, to see if Greg could guess where I was from. And he was right, and Greg and I have been friends ever since.”
“Good job!” Eddie said.
We arrived at Bosque Hill and parked on the street. Street parking is usually scarce in Bay City, and when Raphael saw another spot open, he suggested we stand there and save the spot for Kristina’s car. I wondered what was so special about Bosque Hill. I had seen it on a map, and I had read that it was the highest natural elevation in Bay City, around 1000 feet. I guessed that the surprise would be a spectacular view of the city lights at night.
After the other car arrived, we began climbing the hill on a well-worn dirt path. A few people carried flashlights. The path was surrounded by trees and brush on both sides, and the chirps and buzzes of bugs intertwined with the distant dull roar of the city. A few times, I could see sweeping views of city lights below, but that was not the surprise Eddie was showing us.
The path turned a corner, and I could see the top of the hill, where a giant cross stood, towering over us, taller than the six-story building where my mathematics professors’ offices were. What was this? Why was it here? I walked closer and read a plaque, identifying this cross as a memorial to pioneers who came from around the world and settled the area. I looked up and saw that all my friends had adopted postures of prayer, so I did the same. I looked up at the cross and prayed silently. Jesus Christ, I thank you for this reminder that you died on the cross to save me from my sins and bring eternal life. I thank you for the beauty of your creation, even here in the middle of the city. I thank you that these friends, these brothers and sisters in Christ, invited me on this trip, and I pray that we will have safe travels. No one spoke for about ten minutes. I wondered how long we were going to stay here, but I did not want to interrupt everyone’s prayers, so I just kept praying until I saw people start to walk downhill.
“That was pretty cool,” I said when we were back in the car. Eddie was driving toward the coast on the west side of the city, along the open ocean. “I had no idea it was there.”
“I was thinking on the way down,” Caroline said. “When we’re all standing there praying to a cross, couldn’t that be considered idolatry?”
“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily idolatry,” I answered. “We’re not praying to the cross. We’re praying to Jesus, and the cross is a symbol reminding us of him.”
“That makes sense,” Eddie said.
“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.
“Thanks,” I replied.
The coast south of Bay City was rugged and hilly, and we drove along the road that hugs the shore for about half an hour, to a town called Moonlight Cove. I had never been this way before. The town must have been named on a day unlike today, because tonight it was cloudy and no moon was visible. “How does this work?” I asked, being completely unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping outside. “Do we just put down our sleeping bags and sleep on the beach?”
Kristina’s car had beaten us here by a few minutes this time, and we parked next to them. “Look,” I said as we were unloading. “That sign over there says ‘No Camping.’ Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
“Yeah, but they never check,” Eddie explained. “My friends and I in high school came here and slept on this beach a few times.”
“My family lives just over those hills,” Caroline added, “and we came to this beach all the time. We never spent the night, but I don’t remember anyone patrolling the area or anything.”
“If you say so,” I said, still dreading the fact that we were doing something illegal. After staying up talking for a bit more, someone pointed out that it was almost midnight, and we decided to go to sleep.
Today, as an adult, I recognize the value of experiences, and I have stayed up all night enough times to know that doing so will not kill me. But in 1996, I felt like I desperately had to sleep, so when people kept talking as others drifted off to sleep, I felt a need to move somewhere out of earshot. I quietly told them so, and I dragged my sleeping bag inland about a hundred feet to a slightly more secluded spot near some large rocks. If the police caught us camping and hauled us off to jail, maybe they would not see me.
Even in my new spot, though, sleep eluded me. I always had a hard time falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, and I was uncomfortable sleeping on sand with the ocean roaring nearby and the wind blowing. After tossing and turning for a long time, I realized that I had to pee, but there was no bathroom. I carefully walked behind the rocks, relieved myself, and returned to the sleeping bag. I looked at my watch; it was 1:29. I tossed and turned as my mind raced. I felt somehow inferior to the others since I could not sleep outside, and since my life did not include sleeping outside in any childhood experiences. I also had homework to do at home. I tried to think happy thoughts. Eddie inviting me on this trip. Sitting next to Haley at the Hard Rock Cafe. Driving places I had never seen before. Haley’s pretty blue eyes. Hiking to the top of Bosque Hill. The way Haley’s whole face lights up when she smiles. I got up to use the rocks again at 2:11, then I began praying like I did at the top of Bosque Hill. I thanked Jesus Christ for all he had done for me and tried to listen to see if he was speaking to me. I closed my eyes.
The next thing I knew, it was light out. My watch said 7:02. I had slept for almost five hours, and given the circumstances, that was probably as good as it would get. As I returned from using the rocks as my toilet again, I noticed that no one else seemed awake. I lay in my sleeping bag, enjoying the view, for about forty-five minutes, until I saw Eddie clearly moving around. I walked back out of sight of the others and changed into the other clothes I had brought, then rolled up my sleeping bag and walked to the others.
“Hey, Greg,” Eddie whispered. “You sleep well?”
“Eventually, but it took a long time to fall asleep. I never sleep well in unfamiliar places.”
“But you did sleep.”
“Hey, guys,” John whispered, joining the conversation.
Everyone else woke up over the next fifteen minutes as we spoke in whispers. Once everyone was awake and speaking at a normal volume, Sarah asked, “What’s for breakfast?”
“I was thinking we could go into town and just pick up a few things at Safeway,” Kristina suggested. “Anyone want to come with me?”
“Sure,” Haley said, getting out of her sleeping bag.
This was my chance. “I’ll come,” I said.
“Great!” Kristina said. “Ready?”
As I walked with Kristina and Haley to the parking lot, I realized that I had not showered or brushed my teeth or put on deodorant. This may not be the best time to be talking to Haley. But, then again, she probably had not done any of that stuff either.
“I was thinking, get some bagels, and fruit, and juice. And we need cups for the juice. Does that work for you guys?” Kristina asked.
“Sure,” Haley said. I nodded.
We arrived at the store, took a cart, and walked through the aisles together. After Kristina walked forward to look at different kinds of bagels, Haley asked me, “So did you ever figure out where you’re going to live next year?”
“Oh, wow. Older guys. Isn’t Brian applying to medical school right now?”
“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”
“He’s on a waitlist at one place, so plans might change if he does get in, but right now he’s planning to live in Jeromeville another year. And there’s a fourth guy, Josh McGraw, he’s Abby Bartlett’s boyfriend, and he commutes to Jeromeville now and wants to move into town.”
“You’re living with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr next year?” Kristina said, putting bagels in the cart. “Awesome! Where?”
“We don’t have a place yet. We’re going to get together sometime soon to make plans.”
We returned to the beach with the food a few minutes later. This was not my usual routine of cereal in milk for breakfast, but it was food and that was the important thing. After we finished eating, Xander walked to the parking lot and returned with a guitar. “I’ve been learning some worship songs,” he said. He started playing some of the songs we sang at JCF large group, as well as a few that I did not think I had heard before. Tabitha asked for a turn with Xander’s guitar, and she played and sang a few songs too. We all just sat there for over an hour, praising God through music and enjoying the beauty of his creation.
In the early afternoon, we packed everything up and got ready to head back to Jeromeville. “What are we doing for lunch?” Kristina asked.
“I know this great sandwich place where I used to go with my family when we would come here,” Caroline said. “Does that sound good?”
We got back into the cars, and Caroline directed Eddie to the sandwich shop in Old Town Moonlight Cove, about two miles from the beach where we were. The others followed in Kristina’s car. This place was much smaller, quieter, and less flashy than the Hard Rock Cafe, unsurprisingly. I ordered a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese; it was very, very good.
“I like this place,” I said to Caroline. “Good suggestion.”
“So what was your favorite part of the trip, Greg?” Eddie asked me. He had been asking everyone this.
“Probably the Hard Rock Cafe,” I said. “I liked all the music stuff on the wall.”
“Do you play an instrument or anything? You said you sing, right?”
“Yeah. I haven’t really listened to a lot of Christian pop and rock music.”
“You should. I think there’s some stuff out there that you’d like.”
After lunch, we got back in the cars and began the two hour drive back to Jeromeville. Eddie put on a different mixtape of Christian music. As we crossed back east over the Bay City Bridge, leaving the city, I heard familiar guitar chords coming from Eddie’s mixtape. “Rain, rain on my face, hasn’t stopped raining for days,” the voice sang.
“Hey, I know this song,” I said. “I’ve heard it on the radio before.”
“Jars of Clay,” Eddie replied. “I know, I’ve heard it on 100.3. It’s cool to hear Christian music get played on secular radio stations.”
“Yeah,” I said. I had not listened to the lyrics closely enough to recognize it as Christian music, but it all made sense now. “Lift me up when I’m falling. I need you to hold me.”
Somewhere around Nueces, Eddie’s mixtape ended, and he put on the first mixtape with Jesus Freak again. I was definitely going to look more into this Christian music. We arrived back at Eddie’s house in Jeromeville in the late afternoon. Kristina’s car arrived a minute later and parked nearby, and everyone who did not live on Baron Court began unloading and moving their things to their own cars.
“Thanks for driving, Eddie,” I said. “And thanks for inviting me.”
“Thanks for coming!” Eddie replied. “Have a great rest of the weekend!”
“I’m glad you could make it, Greg,” I heard Haley say. I turned to her and saw the smile I had been thinking of earlier. She stepped forward to hug me, and we embraced.
“I’m glad you went too,” I said. “Have a good rest of the weekend.”
After everyone said their goodbyes, I drove back to my apartment in north Jeromeville. This was the best weekend I had had in a long time. Once I got inside with the car radio off, that Jesus Freak song started going through my head again. This was my life now. I was a Jesus Freak. The despair of the past was behind me, and I was following Jesus with a supportive group of brothers and sisters in Christ.
I knew that the point of following Jesus was not about being part of the in-crowd, but it still felt good that the in-crowd was including me. I had a group of friends who genuinely cared about me, something that I had not had for most of my life, and I was going to be living with cool older guys next year. Of course, God had a lot to show me about how life really works over the coming years, but for now, life was good.
I do not do well with cold weather. Of course, compared to the rest of the United States, winter in Jeromeville is mild; the coldest winter days still have high temperatures close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature only rarely drops below freezing at night. But even in those mild winters, some of my extremities stay cold when the rest of my body is under multiple layers of clothing, and I have such dry skin that my hands start cracking and bleeding spontaneously.
Every winter, a brief reprieve arrives in late February or early March, which I call Fake Spring. The weather turns beautiful, with a week or two of sunny, warm, dry days. The many flowering trees on the University of Jeromeville campus burst into bloom, and the rest of the trees grow bright green leaves. The weather had been so nice for the last couple weeks that I had been eating the lunch I packed while sitting outside on the Quad instead of inside the Coffee House as I usually did. After my Abstract Mathematics class got out, I walked across the street from Wellington Hall to the Quad, searching for a place to sit. I had walked more than halfway across the Quad when I saw my friends Taylor, Pete, and Charlie sitting on the grass; I walked up to them, waving, and Taylor waved back first.
“Hey, Greg,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” I replied. “Can I sit here?”
“Sure.” Taylor and Charlie scooted apart to give me room to sit, and I sat between them.
“So where is this apartment you found for next year?” Taylor asked.
“B Street,” Pete replied. “Right across from Bakers Square.”
“It’s a really old-looking building with six apartments,” Charlie added. “But it’s perfect. Just a couple blocks from campus. We’re still looking for a third person, though.”
Finding an apartment in Jeromeville could be a daunting and stressful task. Most property owners and apartment management companies in Jeromeville used the same lease with the same terms. Jeromeville was a university town, and the terms of this lease were ostensibly intended to be convenient for the university students who make up the overwhelming majority of renters. Almost all apartments in Jeromeville would go up for lease in March for a 12-month term beginning the following September. Last year, I kept to myself most of the time while my friends were making living plans for this year, and by the time I figured out that I needed to do something, everyone I knew had plans already. I managed to find a small studio apartment still available in April; I spent a bit more on rent than I would have ideally liked, but I made it work, with help from Mom and Dad.
I had seen enough Roommate Wanted ads around campus year-round to know that, if I was not picky, I would at least be able to find a place to live for next year. But I really wanted to room with friends, hoping that that might give me more of a social life. Eddie Baker from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship lived with seven other guys in a four-bedroom house. More people from JCF lived near Eddie: Haley Channing and her roommates lived down the street, and Shawn Yang, my Bible study leader, lived around the corner with some other upperclassmen. I had only been to their houses a combined total of maybe five times, but living with friends seemed so much better than living alone. It was like that TV show Friends that so many of those people loved, except that unlike the TV characters, all these friends were nice people who did not make me want to punch them in the face every time they opened their mouths. I had never actually watched Friends, but that was the impression I got from commercials. And, although I would never say this out loud, the thought of living right down the street from Haley was definitely appealing to me too. She was cute.
“I might be interested,” I said to Pete and Charlie. “I don’t have a place yet for next year.”
“Sure!” Pete replied. “Can you let us know in the next couple days?”
“I will.” Living with Pete and Charlie would not be the same as having a huge community like Eddie and Haley and Shawn, but it would be better than living alone. And being so close to campus would be nice as well. I asked a few more questions about the apartment, mostly how much the rent was; I would be paying quite a bit less to share this place than I was currently for my studio apartment.
“So what’s everyone’s finals schedule look like?” Taylor asked.
“I have two in a row at the earliest two possible time slots, on the first day,” Charlie said.
“Yeah. I had all my midterms on the same day. One of the professors let me take it the day before, but I still had to take them all within twenty-four hours.”
“My finals are pretty spread out this time,” I said.
“I have a paper due on the last day of class,” Taylor said. “And another final that’s going to be a timed essay.”
“That’s rough,” Matt said.
I noticed out of the corner of my eye a large group of people walking down the concrete path that bisected the Quad, headed toward the library. Someone leading the group was explaining the surroundings to the group; it appeared to be a group touring the campus, probably prospective students, just as I had done two years ago. Something seemed familiar about the tour guide’s voice; as my brain was trying to process this, Charlie said, “Look. It’s Haley.”
I looked up. Haley was walking backward, leading the tour group; the familiar voice I had heard was hers. She wore a white shirt under denim overalls. I never knew Haley was a campus tour guide; she certainly appeared comfortable in her position, like she knew what she was doing. “Haley!” Charlie called out, waving; the rest of us waved too. She saw us and waved back.
“You know what would be fun?” Charlie said. “We should go join Haley’s tour and ask silly questions.”
“Yeah!” I replied. “Let’s do it.”
Charlie and I got up and walked to the back of the group Haley was leading across the Quad, stopping at the southwest corner. “And this large building behind me is Shelley Library,” Haley explained. “A few departments have their own libraries, but most of the campus collection of books and periodicals is here. The library also features many study spaces, including an after-hours quiet room that is open 24 hours a day. Does anyone have any questions before we continue?”
I looked at Charlie, and he raised his hand, pointing toward the oddly-shaped Social Sciences Building across the Quad from us. “That building over there that looks like the Death Star,” he said. “Does it actually contain a green laser that destroys planets?”
I raised my hand next and began speaking without waiting to be called on, right after Charlie finished. “Do cows ever stampede across the campus, and if so, how hard is it to avoid stepping in poop afterward?”
Haley laughed. “These are my friends, Greg and Charlie,” she explained to the group. “They’re just being silly. If you come to the University of Jeromeville, you’ll meet fun, friendly people like Greg and Charlie.”
“Yeah, you will,” I said. “And you guys are lucky. You got the best tour guide ever.”
“Thanks,” Haley replied.
“Have a good one,” Charlie said, waving at Haley. “Enjoy the rest of your tour.”
“You too! See you guys later.”
“Bye, Haley,” I said. We turned around and walked back toward where we had been sitting with Pete and Taylor.
“So what classes do you have the rest of the day?” Charlie asked.
“English and physics,” I said. “And one tutoring group. What about you?”
“I’m done. All my classes on Wednesday are in the morning.”
“That must be nice. I’ve never had a good schedule like that. I’ve always had classes early in the morning, and I’ve always had classes Friday afternoon.”
“That’s a bummer.”
When we arrived back to where we had been sitting, Pete said, “You guys are crazy.”
“I know,” I replied, nodding.
“What time is it?” Taylor asked.
“12:50,” I answered, looking at my watch.
“I better get going to class.”
“Me too. But it was good seeing you guys.”
“You too,” Taylor replied
“Have a great day,” Charlie said.
“I will,” I said. “You too.”
I finished my English paper on Thursday night. On Friday, the sky was gray and threatening and stayed that way all day. It did not actually rain, although it looked like it was going to. Fake Spring had departed as suddenly as it had come. I decided not to take chances on my bike; I took the bus to school that morning, and I drove to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that evening, paying to park on campus.
I have never done well with big decisions. Anything involving spending a large sum of money or a long-term commitment, I needed time to think about. I could not make such decisions impulsively. Usually it was not a matter of needing time to do research, or perform a cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes this was part of it, but often I would just need time for thoughts about the decision to form, to know whether or not it felt right. And I had a bad habit of second-guessing myself on big decisions.
Pete and Charlie needed a third person to join them in their new apartment for next year, and I needed a place to live. I had known Pete and Charlie since the day we started at UJ, and I trusted them not to be the weird and creepy roommates that were the makings of people’s roommate horror stories. I had no reason to keep hesitating, and after having this in the back of my mind for the last couple days, I felt ready to commit. I would tell them tonight.
By the time I arrived at the JCF large group meeting, the music was starting. I did not have time to talk to anyone. I found an empty seat near the front of the room and began singing. Cheryl, one of the JCF staff members, was doing the talk tonight. I tried to concentrate on her talk, and on the words of the song, but I could not get out of my mind the fact that I had to talk to Pete and Charlie about next year. That upcoming conversation weighed heavily on my mind the whole night.
After the last song and the closing prayer, I stood up nervously. I always got like this whenever I had something important or difficult to tell someone. I looked around the room for Pete or Charlie, and I saw them in the back of the room, talking with Taylor and Mike Knepper. I nervously walked toward them, waiting for a chance to jump into the conversation.
“So we’re going to sign the lease tomorrow afternoon,” Pete explained.
“Sounds good,” Mike replied. “I’ll be there.”
Oh, no. This was not what was supposed to happen. No one told me that I had competition, or that there would be a consequence for waiting more than two days to make a decision. I spoke up anyway, although at this point I was pretty sure I knew the answer to my question. “Pete?” I asked. “Are you guys still looking for another roommate?”
“I think we just found one,” he answered.
“Oh, okay,” I said. I stood there silently for another minute or so as the others talked, then I went back toward where I was sitting before. I missed my chance. I wished Pete and Charlie had told me the other day that I had a deadline. I probably would have been more decisive, since I had been thinking all along that I would tell them yes, that I wanted to live with them. But now they gave the remaining spot to Mike Knepper instead. And that meant I had to start stressing about finding a place to live. I sat down where I had been sitting earlier, staring at the wall in front of me as the worship band put their instruments away. A few minutes later, I saw Haley walking toward me out of the corner of my eye. I looked at her and waved, halfheartedly smiling.
“Hey, Greg,” Haley said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Mostly. Pete and Charlie needed a third person to live with them next year, and I told them I might be interested. I was just about to tell Pete tonight that I wanted the spot, only to find out that Mike Knepper took my spot.”
“Oooh. That’s rough.”
“I don’t think they betrayed me on purpose. I never committed to anything. I just feel like they should have asked me first if someone else was interested. We just didn’t communicate.”
“It’s kind of my fault. I should have committed earlier. I hesitate and second-guess myself, and I miss out.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean.”
“But I just can’t bring myself to make a big decision that’ll involve a year-long commitment on a whim like that. I need time to think about it and let the decision set in my mind.”
“And that’s important. Having the right roommates is a big deal. One of our roommates, the one you probably don’t know, she got into a big argument with Kristina the other day. And it was over something little.”
“Yeah. Hopefully you guys will work that out.”
“Hey, if I happen to hear that any of the guys need another roommate for next year, I’ll let you know. Okay?”
“That would be awesome. Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome! Hey, that was funny what you and Charlie did, jumping into my tour.”
“Thanks,” I said, laughing.
“Yeah. It caught me off guard, but I needed a good laugh.” Haley smiled, her blue eyes looking right at me, and I smiled back. “How’s school? Getting ready for finals?”
“Yeah. My finals are spread out this time.”
“That’s good. Mine are all at the end of the week. That gives me time to study, but I can’t get any of them out of the way.”
“Good luck on those.”
“You too. Hey, have you seen Kristina? I need to ask her something.”
I looked around the room; I did not see Kristina. “I don’t know where she is,” I replied.
“That’s ok. But I need to go look for her. You have a good weekend, okay, Greg?”
“I will. You too.”
Haley got up to look for Kristina, and I stood up and walked around, saying hi to other people and talking about school and finals. I honestly did not think that Pete and Charlie pulled the metaphorical rug out from under me intentionally. They needed to find a roommate, and since I was not ready, they found someone. But, as I had told Haley, I felt that it would have been nice if they had checked with me, since I had expressed interest.
With all of these people around, I should be able to find someone else who needed a roommate. Bible study was not meeting this coming week because of finals, but I would mention it when we got back after spring break. Maybe I would even ask my friends, or send an email, to let me know if they heard of anyone. I had already told my current apartment management that I would not be renewing my lease next year, hoping that I would be able to find a place where I did not have to live alone, so the option of staying where I was no longer existed. But there would be something out there for me. The key, as I said before, was a willingness to not be picky.
Although I had the sense that I had no reason to feel hopeless, my missed opportunity to live with Pete and Charlie in the apartment on B Street next year hung over my head all weekend. I was frustrated with myself for being so indecisive. When I was applying to universities two years ago, most of them had fixed application deadlines in November and December, and when I received acceptance letters in the early spring, I had around two months to make my decision. Of course, in this fast-paced world, everyone wanted their results immediately, and sometimes I would need to know what I wanted and go for it. I wondered if I was missing out on any other opportunities by not acting decisively…
As a child, February 15 was always a significant date to me. I was one of those kids who ran around telling people that I was “six and a half” years old, instead of just six, and February 15 was my “half-birthday,” six months from my actual birthday. I outgrew giving my age as a fraction sometime in my preteen years. But ever since my half-birthday my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had a much more important reason to remember February 15, since it was the anniversary of one of the most important things to happen to me.
I turned nineteen and a half years old on a Thursday, and the day started out pretty lousy. I worked part time as a tutor for the Learning Skills Center on campus, where I would meet with small groups of students taking beginning math classes. I was tutoring precalculus this morning, and none of the students in the group could figure out my explanations of how to prove trigonometric identities. Proofs came naturally to me, and I had been studying the process of how to write a proof in my Abstract Mathematics class, but this did not work for precalculus students. After that, I walked around the Memorial Union and the Quad looking for a friend to have lunch with. Finding none, I ate alone outside, where it was sunny but cold.
My only class on Thursdays was physics lab, in the early afternoon. After lunch, I walked from the Quad to the laboratory classroom in Ross Hall; the walk was about the length of four city blocks. The weekend started to feel close on a Thursday, and I had Monday off for Presidents’ Day, but I was not looking forward to this weekend. At this point in my life, a three-day weekend just meant three lonely days of moping around the apartment alone, trying to pick up girls in a chat room whom I would never meet, who may not even be real girls.
That week, I had really been missing the life I had last year in the dorm. I had tons of new friends last year, and when I felt lonely and bored, I could just walk around the building and see who else was around. That was a little more creepy to do in an apartment complex where I lived alone and knew few people. Thirteen friends from my dorm lived less than half a mile from my apartment, and I went to visit them sometimes, but this was more difficult when they were not right in my building. Living alone, I avoided roommate drama but missed out on all the socializing. Soon the time would come to make housing plans for the 1996-97 school year, and I really hoped that I would be able to find an awesome group of roommates. Maybe some of my new friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.
The JCF large group meeting on Friday nights had become the highlight of my weekend most of the time, but the group was not meeting this week. The staff all had to go to some kind of retreat, which for me meant no hearing a talk about the Bible, and no hanging out with friends afterward. JCF is a chapter of a national organization called Intervarsity; the chapters are led by staff members whose salaries are paid by raising monthly contributions from supporters and churches, much like how missionaries are paid. I did not know all of that in 1996, though. I just knew that there were four adults in their 20s out of school who led the group: a married couple named Dave and Janet McAllen, and two single women named Cheryl and Maggie.
Most importantly in my young man mind, though, no JCF meant no chance to talk to Haley Channing, the sweet girl with the beautiful blue eyes whom I had met a few weeks earlier. Last Friday at JCF, Haley left early, so all I got to say to her was hi. I felt completely inept at interacting with girls, especially ones I found attractive. I did hear someone say that, since there was no JCF this week, people would be meeting for a time of worship and prayer at someone’s house instead. I was not sure if I was going to go; I did not know those people.
I still felt grumpy and frustrated when I left my physics lab. I had no more classes, so I walked back toward the Memorial Union and the bus stop on the other side, cutting through the side of the building where the Coffee House was. As I walked through, I looked around at the people sitting at tables, and I spotted Janet McAllen from JCF staff with a blonde girl I did not recognize. Janet waved, so I walked over to say hi.
“Hi, Greg,” Janet said, smiling. “How are you? Want to sit down?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Do you know Mary?” she asked, gesturing toward the other girl.
“Hi, I’m Mary,” the other girl said.
“Nice to meet you,” I replied. “I’m Greg.”
“How’s your day going?” Janet asked.
“Honestly, not too well.”
“I’m just feeling discouraged,” I said. “I’m lonely. I wish I knew how to have a social life.”
“Do you have roommates? Do you have a group of friends? I’ve seen you sitting with people at large group. Liz and Ramon, Pete, Sarah, Taylor, those people.”
“They were all in my dorm last year. I still hang out with them sometimes. They all live not too far from me, in north Jeromeville. But I live by myself. By the time I figured out people were making plans for this year, everyone I knew already had roommates lined up.”
“That’s tough. Hopefully you’ll figure something out for next year.”
“Yeah. I’ve always had a hard time making friends. I was teased and bullied all through elementary school. I kept to myself a lot in high school. And I’ve never had a girlfriend.”
“Do you know Jesus?” Janet asked me. I thought that was an odd question. I had never been asked this before.
“What do you mean, exactly?” I replied. “I know Jesus is the Son of God, and he came to earth, and he was crucified and rose from the dead.”
“But do you have a relationship with Jesus?”
Here we go. Another thing where Catholics and Protestants were different, and I was not in the mood to be told how wrong I was. I simply answered, “I don’t know.”
“May I explain what that means?”
Janet pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a horizontal line about halfway down and an inch or so across, then drew a line downward at right angles to the first line. She drew the mirror image of this on the other side of the paper, then drew a stick figure on top of each side, so that they appeared to be facing each other with a chasm between them. She wrote “Us” on one side and “God” on the other. “God created Adam and Eve, and they disobeyed him. Sin entered into the world, and sin brings death.” Janet wrote “Death” at the bottom of the chasm. “So because of sin, humans are separated from God. We can’t cross over this chasm to God’s side because of sin. Our sin separates us from God and his holiness, and since everyone has sinned, nothing we can do on our own can bring us back to God.”
I had never heard sin explained that way before. I had been to Reconciliation a few times back home, and once last year with Father Bill at the Newman Center. I always thought of it as a pardoning for sins and a promise to do something good to make up for it. But Janet was saying something different. I had never studied the theology behind the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I did not know if these two views contradicted each other.
Next, Janet drew a large cross in the middle of the chasm, with the horizontal part of the cross connecting the two sides of the chasm. “But Jesus came to Earth to make a way, a bridge across this chasm. Jesus was the Son of God, born without sin, and he took our sin to the cross and died in our place. And now, because Jesus died on the cross, we have a way back to God. Jesus conquered death and rose from the dead. And he offers that gift of eternal life to all who come to him. If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved from sin and have eternal life with God.”
“Hmm,” I said. “I’ve never heard it explained that way. What do you mean, ‘accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior?’”
“That means you believe that Jesus died to save you from your sins, and rose from the dead, to give you eternal life with God. And he is the Lord of your life, and you will live the rest of your life for Him. Do you want that?”
I always thought I believed in Jesus, but apparently I had gaps in my understanding of what that really meant. I knew this was right, though. Everything I had learned from JCF over the last four months had convinced me more and more that following Jesus was the right way. And I had seen God’s love for his people manifested in the way that my Christian friends, old and new, treated me and others with love.
“Yes,” I said.
“And do you believe that you are a sinner, separated from God, and Jesus is the way to eternal life?”
“Can you pray with me? Is that okay? Tell God what you just told me.”
“Yes,” I said, bowing my head. Janet bowed her head as well. “Jesus,” I said, “I am a sinner. And you are the only way to eternal life. I believe that you are the Lord and Savior, and I pray that you will guide me and give me hope. I thank you for all the new Christian friends you have put in my life.”
“Father, God,” Janet said after a pause, “I thank you that you have brought Greg into your family. I thank you so much, Father, for our new brother in Christ. I thank you that the angels are rejoicing that Greg has found his way home. I pray that he will stay strong and live his life for you. Fill him with the Holy Spirit. Lead him in the way he should go. And transform his heart to make him more like you every day. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”
I looked up. Janet was smiling. “Welcome to the body of Christ,” she said. “Congratulations!”
“Yes,” Mary said. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward because I had forgotten that Mary had been sitting there this whole time.
“There’s no large group tomorrow, but the guys who live at 1640 Valdez are hosting a worship and prayer night. Are you going to go?”
“I heard about that. I wasn’t sure if I was going, but if there is no large group, I won’t be doing anything else tomorrow night. So I’ll probably be there.”
“I think it’ll be good for you. Also, are you in a Bible study yet?”
“No. Not yet.”
“I don’t have it with me, but I’ll get you the list of off-campus Bible studies. You said you live in north Jeromeville? I know one of the guys from the house where the worship night is, Shawn, he leads a Bible study that meets not too far from you. Maybe talk to him tomorrow.”
“Do you have a Bible?”
“Yeah. A few weeks ago, I hung out with Eddie and Xander and Kristina and Haley and Kelly after JCF. Kristina gave me an extra Bible she had.”
“Good! I want you to look these up when you get a chance.” Janet wrote three Bible verses on the paper that she had drawn on earlier and handed it to me. I put the paper in my backpack. “Are you going to be okay?” Janet asked.
“Yes, I am.” I smiled.
“Do you need to get home?”
I looked at my watch; I missed my bus by a long shot. Another bus was probably there now, getting ready to leave in a few minutes. “I probably should,” I said. “But thank you for sharing and listening.”
“You’re welcome. Jesus said to share the good news, after all.”
“Enjoy your retreat this weekend.”
“I will! I’ll see you next week!”
As I walked toward the bus, went home, and made dinner, something felt different. Jesus had called me away from the pity party I had been throwing myself that morning. He had something better for me, a life of peace and hope. When I got home, while my frozen chicken pot pie was in the oven, I looked up the Bible verses that Janet had told me to read.
Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Romans 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
John 7:37-38 “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’”
This was me. I had the Spirit of sonship. I was God’s child. I came to Jesus today and experienced the streams of living water. And the Holy Spirit brought hope which did not disappoint. I taped Janet’s drawing to the wall behind my desk, the wall that I stared at for much of the time that I was in the apartment, so that I would be able to look at it and remember what it meant to be a child of God.
The next night, I drove to the address of the worship and prayer night. I was pretty sure that this was the same house where the ill-fated car rally a few months ago had ended, so I had been here before. But tonight I had arrived late, on purpose, because I did not know what to expect and I was nervous about being alone in a room full of people I did not know well.
I knocked on the door, and someone on the inside opened it. It was dark inside, and around forty people were packed into the living room, on every available couch and chair and on the floor. I recognized many familiar faces from JCF as I quietly tiptoed to a spot on the floor big enough for me to sit. Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year, were sitting nearby, and they immediately came over to me when they saw me walk in. “Congratulations,” Sarah said, giving me a big lingering hug.
“I’m excited for you!” Krista added.
I was a little confused at first, but I figured they must have found out about my decision for Jesus yesterday. “Thank you,” I said, smiling.
The three of us sat singing along with the worship team as they played and sang a song called “Shine Jesus Shine.” I had heard this song at JCF large group before, and I liked it. “Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory,” I sang along. “Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire.” That was where I was tonight. The Holy Spirit was setting my heart on fire as I began my new life as a Christian, living for Jesus.
We continued singing for a couple hours, until well after nine o’clock, pausing after every few songs to pray silently. Sometimes people prayed out loud, and during one of the pauses, we were instructed to pray with the people sitting near us. Sarah and Krista prayed for my walk with Jesus, that I would continue to follow him and grow closer to him every day.
After the music and prayer ended, I stood up. Liz Williams and Ramon Quintero, who were also in my dorm last year, approached me. Liz smiled excitedly and said, “Hey, Greg. Janet told me about yesterday.”
“It seems like a lot of people heard about that,” I said, chuckling and blushing a little.
“Earlier this week, I was hanging out with Sarah, and we were talking about how you’d been getting more involved with JCF. Sarah said that she thought you were close to really coming to know Jesus, and that after that you would just be on fire for Jesus.”
“I know. That’s how I feel tonight.”
“Are you involved with a Bible study yet?”
“No, but Janet emailed me a list of all the off campus Bible studies.”
“You should come with us to ours. Shawn and Lillian are the leaders. That’s Shawn, this is his house,” Liz said, gesturing toward an Asian guy with an athletic build. “Lillian isn’t here tonight.”
“I will,” I said. “Janet mentioned Shawn’s group yesterday when she asked if I was in a Bible study. And now you mentioned it. Sounds like God is telling me to go there.”
Eddie Baker, one of the guys who had originally invited me to hang out the night Kristina gave me her extra Bible, walked up to greet me next. “Greg,” he said, pulling me into a hug. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” I said, wondering just how many people knew.
“How are you?”
“I’m feeling much better, just about life in general.”
“That’s Jesus. He changes your life.”
“I need to go talk to some people, but I just wanted to say hi. Have a great weekend!”
I drove home later that night feeling encouraged and excited. It no longer mattered that my upcoming three-day weekend would be lonely and boring, because I had Jesus, and Jesus brought hope and peace. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; that was in one of the verses that Janet gave me to read.
Janet told me a few weeks later that Mary, the other girl who had been at the table in the Coffee House when I made my decision for Jesus, was someone who had come to JCF with a friend, and Janet and Mary had been intentionally meeting to talk about Jesus. Seeing me make a decision for Jesus was exactly the kind of thing that Mary needed. I do not know what happened to Mary; I only met her once or twice more that year.
To this day, I wonder if Janet made a mistake with the verses she wrote on that drawing. Romans 5:6, the verse after the one about hope, says “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” That seems like a much more appropriate, and commonly used, verse for a new Christian learning about God’s grace and the significance of Jesus dying on the cross. But even if Janet wrote the wrong verse number, God made no mistakes; he knew that that verse about hope was what I needed on that long, lonely Presidents’ Day weekend in 1996. That was the first verse that I memorized.
In those first days after I made a decision for Jesus, I wondered if this would create tension with my Catholic relatives on my mom’s side. Mom herself would probably be fine with it; she always respected the beliefs of Christians we knew who were not Catholic. And I was not personally worried, because Catholics and other Christians follow the same Jesus, and the things we have in common are so much more important than the things that the different branches of Christianity fight about. I had no plans to stop attending Mass at the Newman Center. (I did eventually leave the Newman Center, but that is a story for another time.)
I spent most of the rest of the weekend relaxing, studying, running errands, and doing housework. The only time I saw people the rest of that weekend was at Mass on Sunday, and just like at the worship night at Shawn’s house on Friday, the words of the songs all seemed more meaningful now. Sure, I did not know what the future held. I might fail out of school, I might not be successful in the working world, and I might never get a chance to get to know Haley or ask her out. But even if all of that happened, I still had Jesus, and that meant I always had hope.
I stood at the bus stop on Alvarez Avenue with mixed emotions on a cold, dry Monday morning. A small crowd waited with me for the bus that would bring us to campus in time for 9:00 classes. I was not sure if I would have to stand or not; this was only the fifth stop on the bus route, but in this cold weather, fewer students would be riding bicycles to campus.
I was coming off of a high from the weekend. I made some new friends Friday night at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, Eddie and Xander and Haley and Kristina and Kelly; we had a fun night of talking and games at the girls’ house. And Sunday Eddie and Xander and their roommates hosted a party to watch the professional football championship. Eddie borrowed a projector from his church and put a big bed sheet on a wall, so we could watch the game on a huge screen. It was a little dim, but it worked. After a year of feeling alone and less connected to my friends, compared to last year in the dorm, this felt like a huge step in the right direction. Eddie and Xander and six other guys from JCF all shared a house, with Haley and her roommates right down the street and another house of guys from JCF around the corner. Maybe next year I would be able to live in this kind of situation and feel more connected to people and things around me.
Despite being on an emotional high, however, two metaphorical black clouds loomed on the horizon. The game did not end the way I wanted, with the despised Texas Toros winning by a score of 27 to 17. Texas had won three out of the last four championships, and that would bring smug taunts from all of the haters of my Bay City Captains. The Captains lost in the semifinal round this year. But, more importantly, I was worried about this coming Friday, when I had midterms in all four classes on the same day.
On Sunday, at the football party, I had mentioned the four midterms. “Can you ask your professors if you can take the midterm on another day?” Eddie had asked.
“I think there’s a rule that they can’t make you take that many midterms on the same day,” Xander added.
I had not considered that approach; I had just assumed I was stuck with this crappy schedule. So my plan for today was to ask each of my four professors if I could take the midterm early. Hopefully, by suggesting early rather than late, they would see that I wanted to use my study time wisely and do my best, not get an advantage that others would not have.
“Not possible,” my professor for Differential Equations said curtly after I presented my request. “You got the dates for the midterms on the syllabus on the first day of the quarter. If those dates were a problem for you, you should have dropped the class.” This professor, a middle-aged balding man who told us to call him Larry, never bothered me before, but after that day I decided I did not like him.
I had an hour break before my next class, so I walked across the Quad. This was the oldest part of campus, dating back to the school’s founding in 1905. The Quad was a grassy rectangle surrounded by tall oak trees as old as the campus itself, with a paved path running north-south down the middle, and a few pines, redwoods, and other trees scattered on the grass. On a warmer day, the Quad would gradually fill with students sitting on the grass to study, or socialize, or socialize while attempting to study. But at ten in the morning on a cold day in late January, the Quad was empty except for the trees and a few students walking across it to get from one building to another.
The Memorial Union building lay just north of the Quad, extending all the way across it east to west. The building was home to a number of student-run commercial enterprises, the namesake memorial to University of Jeromeville alumni who died in wars, a post office, the campus store, offices and meeting rooms for the Associated Students organization, ATMs for three different banks, and my current destination, the Coffee House. This was a large student-run enterprise that served pizza, burritos, sandwiches, soup, and all sorts of other food items, in addition to the hot beverages after which it was named. Next to the kitchens and cash registers were large expanses of tables which made good places to study and people-watch.
I got a large hot chocolate and began scanning the crowded tables for an empty one, or for someone I knew. I saw Scott Madison from JCF sitting alone with some kind of fancy spiral-bound book in front of him. I walked up and asked, “Can I join you?”
“Hi, Greg!” Scott said. “Sure!” As I sat down and got out my math book, Scott slid the book in front of him toward me and said, “Check out what I got! It was on sale, because it’s already the end of January.” It was a day planner, which Scott had filled out with dates of upcoming exams and projects, Bible studies, JCF activities, and other plans he knew he had coming up.
“That’s nice,” I said. “I wish I could be that organized. Every year I get the little planner they sell at the campus store, and by the middle of October I’m not keeping up with it.”
“It really helps, especially when you’re busy like me.”
I grabbed Scott’s planner and turned it toward me, flipping to the week of August 11-17. Scott looked at me wondering what I was doing. I did not want to spy on his plans; I simply wrote “Greg’s birthday” on August 15.
“Nice,” Scott said. “I guess I have to send you something now.”
“It’s in your planner, so yeah, you do. That’s the plan.”
Scott and I continued alternating between small talk and silent studying until it was time for my next class, Math 108, Introduction to Abstract Mathematics. This was the first quarter that I had taken two math classes simultaneously, something I would be doing often as a mathematics major, as well as the first quarter that I took upper-division classes. Those unfamiliar with advanced mathematics would be surprised that this course involves very little calculation, instead covering mathematical logic, set theory, and the fundamentals of abstract algebra and analysis. The professor was a gray-haired, well-dressed man named Dr. Davis Cutter; his official title was “professor emeritus,” which I believe meant that he was officially retired but still performed some duties for the university. I always thought there was something pretentious about having a last name for a first name, but Dr. Davis Cutter seemed like a nice man. Maybe he would be nice enough to let me take the midterm early.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do that,” Dr. Cutter said. “We have a policy against that, and in order to maintain academic integrity, I can’t give out the test early.”
“Okay,” I said. “I figured it would be worth asking.”
“Good luck studying,” Dr. Cutter replied. “You’ll probably do fine.”
“Thank you.” Apparently this department policy trumped Xander’s rule about not having more than three midterms in one day. I had never heard of this rule other than Xander mentioning it yesterday, and by now I suspected it was not real.
After Abstract Mathematics, I had English 101, Advanced Composition. Every student at UJ had to take three writing classes; since I had passed the AP English test in high school, I only had to take one of the three. This instructor was a middle-aged hippie woman named Dr. Paris; I was under the impression that we would be learning how to write in the class, but she made the assignments about things like art and feminism, not exactly topics I was familiar with.
“Dr. Paris?” I asked as she was putting things away at the end of class.
“So I noticed the other day that all four of my classes have midterms on the same day. Is there any way I might be able to take Friday’s midterm early?”
“Oh… I can’t do that,” Dr. Paris said. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. I thought I’d ask just in case.”
“I can’t just give it twice on different days.”
“I understand. See you next time.”
My classes so far today had all been in Wellington and Orton Halls, two buildings near the Quad that each contained dozens of classrooms used by all subjects. My last class was physics, back to back with English with no break, and not in the Quad area. As I walked to Ross Hall, where the large physics lectures always were, I thought about how everyone had rejected my plan so far. Larry’s statement about dropping the class especially stuck with me. It had never occurred to me to drop a class for that reason, or to plan my entire quarter around the dates of the midterms. It made more sense to me to plan my schedule in a way that works for my day-to-day life over the ten weeks of the quarter, even if that means one or two hard days of multiple tests or multiple papers due. But now I had to suck it up and accept the fact that I would have one very difficult day. And I would have another difficult day later in the quarter, since three of my classes have a second midterm on the same day, February 23.
I was still hopeful that I might get to take the physics midterm early. This class was in a large lecture hall with almost 200 students, and it would be difficult to get Dr. Collins’ attention after class. But I knew that Dr. Collins had office hours immediately after class, because I had been in there a few times with physics questions, so when class got out I followed him to his office in the Physics-Geology Building, adjacent to Ross. By the time I got there, three people were ahead of me in line.
“Dr. Collins?” I said ten minutes later when it was my turn. “I have four midterms all on Friday. I was wondering if there would be any way I can take the physics midterm early, so I can get one out of the way first.”
Dr. Collins thought for a minute, then checked his calendar. “I think I can do that,” he said. “Can you be here in my office Thursday at 3?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Great. I’ll see you then.”
“Thank you so much,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” Dr. Collins replied. “Good luck!”
I walked back in the direction of the Quad and Wellington, where I would be leading a tutoring group at 4:00. It was nice of Dr. Collins to reschedule my midterm. I expected him to be the least likely to make this arrangement, just since his class of 200 students was so much bigger and less personal than my other classes. I was not sure at this point if Dr. Collins recognized my face or knew my name. He was the first professor that I had had twice; I also took the first quarter of physics with Dr. Collins last spring, and I was in his office hours frequently after bombing the first midterm. This week, I would still end up taking four midterms in under twenty-four hours, but now at least I could concentrate on physics first, and then only have three midterms to study for when I got home on Thursday. This was a definite improvement.
I spent most of the rest of the week studying. I had enough routine homework to work on that I did not do a lot of special studying for the midterms until Wednesday. It was a rough week, and by the time Thursday afternoon arrived, I felt that I had very little free time or relaxation all week. I also owed emails to six different girls I knew from the Internet.
After eating a burrito at the Coffee House for lunch, I headed to Ross Hall for physics lab. I walked past the library, where a sculpture of an egg with a face had his nose buried in a book. One of the writing assignments in Dr. Paris’ Advanced Composition had been to research the meaning of a work of art on the UJ campus and write about it. I chose the Egghead sculptures, one of which was here in front of the library. To most of my peers, they were just weird, but I learned to appreciate them more after I read about them. The one in front of the library seems fairly straightforward, he is engrossed in his studies, although to this day I still do not understand why it is a different color than the other six Eggheads. I heard somewhere that students rub the Egghead during exams for good luck. I do not believe in luck, but with four midterms in the next twenry-four hours, I took no chances and rubbed the Egghead.
When I finished my lab, I walked across the path to the building where Dr. Collins’ office was and knocked on the door. “Hi,” Dr. Collins said.
“I’m here to take the midterm early. You told me to come now.”
“Oh, yes! Greg, was it?”
“Just sit here, and let me know when you finish. I’ll be working on some things here.”
I looked through the exam, reading every question before I started. Electric current… electric fields… watts, amperes, joules… I can do this. Everything looks familiar, like homework problems that I had studied last night. No problem. I finished the problems in about half an hour, then went over each problem again to make sure I did not make any miscalculations, and that my answer made sense. “I’m done,” I said to Dr. Collins at 3:40.
“Just leave it here on the desk.”
“Do I need to come to class tomorrow if I’ve already taken the midterm?”
“No. Take the afternoon off.”
“I will. See you Monday. And thank you so much for letting me do this.”
I went home and took a break from studying. I answered emails for about an hour, then ate a Hungry-Man dinner. After that, I continued studying, looking over the writing concepts we had learned in English class and all of the math problems we had done and words and theorems we had learned in the two math classes. I felt fairly confident about Differential Equations, but Abstract Math was a little more of a concern, mostly because Dr. Davis Cutter did not always follow the textbook, and my handwritten notes were a little messy and hard to read. I opened a blank Microsoft Word file and typed all of my notes for Abstract Math; that made them both legible and fresh in my mind.
The next morning, I walked straight from the bus stop to my Differential Equations exam. It was easy, as I suspected it would be, and I left class ten minutes early. I spent the extra time sitting against a wall in the Coffee House, since all the tables were full, reading my Abstract Math notes. I felt fairly confident by the time class began. When I arrived, I looked over all of the questions first, and all of them seemed straightforward. One problem mentioned the Well-Ordering Principle; I drew a blank on what that was. Ordering? Putting numbers in order? Oh, yes, any set of one or more natural numbers has a smallest number. This seems obvious in colloquial language but needs to be clarified in the exact science of abstract mathematics.
I had an hour for lunch, in which I gobbled down the sandwich and banana that I brought from home in five minutes so I could have more time to study for English. I had a mental block against English that had persisted since I got a B-minus in tenth grade English four years ago, the lowest grade I got in high school. By the time I arrived at Dr. Paris’ class, I just wanted to get this over so I could get home and enjoy a weekend of not having to study. The questions about sentence and paragraph structure were pretty straightforward and seemed to match everything I studied, and the part where I had to write, I did the best I could. I was not as worried for this class, because with the four papers we had to write, the midterm did not count for as large a share of the grade as my other midterms did. By the end of the hour, I knew that I had done the best I can, so I turned in my test to Dr. Paris and walked toward the bus stop.
I did it, I thought, as the bus left the Memorial Union and turned on West Fifth Street, passing fraternity and sorority houses. I had completed four exams in just under twenty-four hours. I was getting home an hour earlier than usual, since I had already taken the physics test that the rest of my class was taking now. And I felt confident about the midterms. I began my post-midterm relaxation weekend by collapsing on my bed as soon as I got home, at 2:30; I closed my eyes, and the next thing I knew, it was after 4:00.
I spent the next three hours wasting time on the Internet, talking on IRC, writing emails, and checking a few Usenet groups. I also worked on Try, Try Again, the novel I had been writing off and on for a few months, as I waited for people to reply to me. At seven o’clock, I drove to campus, since parking at night only is less expensive than parking all day, and walked to the lobby of 170 Evans, the lecture hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met.
Eddie, my new friend who hosted the football party last weekend, was doing name tags with Raphael, who had been his roommate the year before. “Today was the day with all your midterms, right?” Eddie asked.
“Yeah. One of my professors let me take his yesterday. So I had three today. I think I did okay.”
“Good! I’m glad you got through that.”
I put on my name tag and stepped into the lecture hall, bumping into and almost knocking over Haley Channing as she walked up the aisle perpendicular to me. “Oh!” she gasped.
“Haley! I’m sorry!” I said nervously. Of course, life would throw this curveball at me; after all of my hard work and four midterms I felt good about, I end the week by embarrassing myself in front of Haley, narrowly avoiding injuring her in the process.
“Hi, Greg,” Haley chuckled. Hopefully that reaction was a good sign. “How are you?”
“I’m great. I had four midterms today.”
“Four?” Haley asked incredulously.
“One professor let me take one early, but I still had all four in twenty-four hours. And I think I did okay. I’m just glad it’s over.
“I would be too! I have a paper due Monday. I’m going to be doing that all weekend.”
“Good luck!” I said. Then, after a brief hesitation, I asked, “Where are you sitting?”
“Down there next to Kelly,” Haley replied, pointing to the back of her roommate’s head. “Want to come sit with us?”
“I’ll be right back.” After Haley stepped outside, I walked to the front of the room and sat next to Kelly. Haley returned a few minutes later, just as the band started playing. I did my best to concentrate on the band’s worship music and Janet McAllen’s talk and not be too distracted by Haley’s cute smile. And, after hearing her sing, I discovered that she had a nice voice too.
After JCF ended, I stood around making small talk with people for a while. I did not get invited to any social plans afterward, and I did not get to talk much more with Haley because she went home immediately afterward to work on her paper. This week, I did not care about having no social plans. I was exhausted after my hard week of studying, and a weekend at home by myself being lazy sounded perfect. I could socialize next weekend when I had recovered.
I did well on all four midterms, even the one in English that I was less certain about. That stressful week took a lot out of me, but I survived. If life was trying to get me down, it would take much more than four midterms in twenty-four hours. A year and a half into my studies at a somewhat prestigious university, I was still excelling academically. My future goals may not be entirely clear right now, particularly with my mathematics major, but I was keeping my grades up, and that would be important if I did go to graduate school eventually. School was always one of my strengths, and that had not changed in the last few years; all I had to do to get good grades was work hard enough.
And in August, when my birthday came around, I did in fact get a card from Scott. He was serious about sending me something after I wrote my birthday in his planner. I liked this new group of friends.
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.”
“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,” 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.
The first World War ended on November 11, 1918, and many of the countries involved now observe a holiday on November 11. The holiday goes by different names around the world; in the United States, we call it Veterans Day. Many government offices are closed on Veterans Day, and students are off school. When November 11 falls on a weekend, as it did this year, schools close on the nearest Friday or Monday.
Except for the University of Jeromeville. We got no day off. Even last year, when November 11 was on an actual school day, we got no day off. I never knew why. I wondered if this was a legacy of universities traditionally being full of anti-war hippie types who did not want to celebrate our military. But we did get a day off in May for Memorial Day, the holiday commemorating those who died serving our country. And the building I was walking through right now was called the Memorial Union, or the “MU” for short, named to remember UJ students who died in military service.
It had been a typical Friday so far. My day started waiting in the hallway of Wellington Hall for math class, because another class occupied the classroom immediately before our class. Jack Chalmers from my class said hi to a girl named Lizzie as she left that class and we entered the room for ours, just as he did every day. Math was easy. I crossed the street to the MU at 10 and did homework for an hour. I met some tutees in 102 Wellington, the tutoring room, at 11. I just learned that word this quarter working for the Learning Skills Center: “tutee,” meaning one who is being tutored. Tutee is a great word. At 12, I walked down Colt Avenue to 199 Stone for chemistry, and then back to the MU to eat lunch. I got up, went to the bathroom, and walked back through the MU on the way to my physics class in Ross Hall when I saw her.
When I see a familiar face in a setting that this person is not normally connected to, my brain always takes a few seconds to register what I am seeing. At first all I saw was two young-looking girls walking toward me. They were both a little on the short side. One wore a dark red sweatshirt with a hood and a brand name logo unfamiliar to me, and the other wore a black jacket with white sleeves, and a large letter P on her left side. I recognized that this was a Plumdale High School letter jacket.
What is a Plumdale High School letter jacket doing in Jeromeville? Who is this person? Do I know her?
Holy crap, it’s her. What is she doing here? What do I say?
The two girls stopped. Annie, the one in the Plumdale High jacket, looked at me, looking just as surprised as I was at first until recognition came over her face a second later. “Hey, Greg!” she said.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Visiting your brother?”
“My boyfriend goes here now too,” Annie replied.
There it is again. The B word. I wondered whether she was still with the same boyfriend as last year, or if this was some new guy. Either way, though, Annie’s boyfriend was not me.
“It was good seeing you,” I said. “Have a great weekend!”
“You too!” Annie replied. The girl she was with waved at me; I recognized this girl’s face, she was from Plumdale High too, but I could not remember her name.
My mind raced as I walked away from them, toward my physics class. Annie Gambrell was here, in Jeromeville. I had a chance to talk to her, and I felt like I blew it. Should I have said more? She seemed busy, and she was not here to visit me. She had a boyfriend; she was not coming here to meet guys. But I did not know when, or if, I would ever see her again. Maybe I should have talked more. Or maybe she doesn’t really care about me, and all that nice stuff she wrote in my yearbook senior year was just for the sake of being polite and she didn’t really mean it. Should I tell Annie’s brother next time I see him that I ran into her? Does he think it’s weird that I have an unrequited crush on his unavailable little sister, even though I haven’t actually told him anything other than that I know her?
After physics class, I had another tutoring group back in the study room at 102 Wellington. “Hi,” the tall blonde guy who was just finishing a tutoring group at the table next to me said as I walked in. I knew from looking at the schedule of tutoring groups in this room that his name was Scott Madison. He looked familiar for some reason, but maybe I was just used to seeing him here.
“Hi,” I replied to Scott. I then turned to two of the three students in my group who were already waiting and asked, “Are you ready to get started?”
My tutoring group went as they usually do. These students were in Short Calculus, Math 16A, for majors which do not require any math above calculus. Their work focuses on finding and applying derivatives of functions without studying the theory and proofs behind derivatives. I did not enjoy tutoring the Math 16 series as much as I did the 21 series, for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, because it was difficult for me, as a math guy, to gloss over the theoretical stuff. But I got paid to do so, and I did my best, hoping not to confuse the students too much.
At four o’clock, when the tutoring group was finished, I walked diagonally across the Quad to the Learning Skills Center in Krueger Hall to turn in my time sheet for tutoring, as I did every other Friday, then back along East Quad Avenue to catch a bus home from the MU. A few hours later, after napping and eating, I returned to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. I drove this time, because parking is easy to find and slightly less expensive in the evening.
Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis were standing around talking on the far side of the lecture hall where the group was held; I walked over to them and said hi. The four of them all lived in the same apartment complex, the boys in one apartment and the girls in another, and all of us were in the same dorm last year.
“Hey, man,” Taylor said. “How’s it goin’?”
“Pretty good,” I replied.
“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.
“One of my friends from high school, she’s a senior this year, I saw her and her friend walking around campus today. It was unexpected.”
“What was she doing here?” Krista asked. “Touring the campus?”
“Her brother goes here. I know him. And she said her boyfriend goes here too.”
“So was she skipping school?” Taylor asked, adding sarcastically, “I don’t know anything at all about skipping classes…”
“She probably didn’t have school today,” I explained. “Tomorrow is Veterans Day. We always got that off in high school.”
“Oh yeah. It’s a holiday.”
“Why don’t we get Veterans Day off?” Charlie asked rhetorically. “It’s not fair.”
“It’s supposed to be a holiday?” I heard Jason Costello’s voice say behind me.
“Tomorrow is Veterans Day,” I explained, turning around. Ramon Quintero and his girlfriend Liz Williams were with him; they were all in our dorm last year as well. “I don’t know why Jeromeville doesn’t get it off, but I noticed that last year too.”
There had been no JCF the week before, because the group had been on a retreat with sister chapters of this organization at other colleges and universities in the region. I had not attended the retreat, but most of my friends here did. Taylor and Charlie were talking about something that happened to Pete Green, Taylor and Charlie’s third roommate, at the retreat. “Where is Pete tonight anyway?” I asked.
“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.
“Visiting his family there?”
I heard someone from the worship band welcoming us to JCF and saying that it was time to get started. As the band played, and sang along to lyrics being displayed on an overhead projector, my eyes scanned the front of the room, watching the people on the worship team. I saw the drummer and realized something: it was Scott Madison, the other tutor who had said hi to me this afternoon. That was why he looked so familiar; this was my third time at JCF, and I had probably seen him play drums here before. At the end of the night, I said hi to him and formally introduced myself; he seemed like a nice guy. (A few years later, Scott would become the first non-relative to invite me to his wedding, and I still get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.)
Although my Friday had ended on a good note, I woke up feeling down again on Saturday morning. It was a cool and gloomy day, with gray skies that threatened rain. Summer in Jeromeville is sunny and hot, and winter is relatively mild compared to much of the United States. It only snows high in the mountains, snow here on the valley floor is very rare, but rain is fairly common in the winter. And the transition period from summer to winter is very short, usually occurring around early November. Winter had arrived earlier this week, and it was supposed to rain intermittently all weekend. Rain made me sad and anxious.
I spent the morning doing homework and reading. By mid-afternoon, some patches of blue sky had appeared, and the threat of rain had passed, so I went for a bike ride. I started riding through the Greenbelts, then back down G Street toward downtown, but despite keeping myself busy, I kept thinking about my chance encounter with Annie yesterday. Why hadn’t I asked for her address or phone number, so I could try keeping in touch? I subconsciously knew that there was no point, though. I had given her my address at Plumdale High’s Homecoming a year ago and never heard from her, and knowing that she had a boyfriend made it feel futile to pursue anything, although I would have been happy just being friends.
Two years ago, I was a senior at Plumdale High, and I felt like I grew a lot that year. I finally had a social life, and I made new friends, including Annie. But then I graduated, I moved away, many of my senior class friends moved away in different directions, and I lost touch with many of my friends. There was no texting or social media in those days, and only a few of my friends used email, so it was difficult to keep in touch. And despite all that, I still felt like I was on the outer fringes of the social circle in high school, not really one of them.
I wished that the events of my senior year had happened during sophomore or junior year instead. That way, I might have had time to solidify some of those friendships before we scattered. Maybe I would have learned how to actually ask a girl out. Maybe Annie would have broken up with her boyfriend, and I would have been able to use those new skills.
What if I just ran away and pretended to be in high school again? What would that be like? What would it take? A fake birth certificate would probably be hard to find. Maybe I wouldn’t need one. Maybe I would just need fake transcripts to show to the new school. Being 19 and still in high school was unusual, but not exactly unheard of. My birthday came right at the start of the school year, so I started kindergarten when I was barely 5. Some parents would have chosen for me to start kindergarten the following year. My parents did that with my brother Mark; with his birthday in October, they chose to wait until he was almost 6 to put him in kindergarten. Mark would turn 18 in the fall of 1999, early in his senior year, and someone his age who had repeated a grade in elementary school would be a 19-year-old senior.
Could I do this? Would it be possible to fake my identity and get a second try at my senior year of high school? Probably not. Lying on important documents like transcripts seemed too dishonest and illegal for me to be comfortable with it. But, I thought, all of this seemed like a great premise for a work of fiction.
I had been writing again in my spare time recently. Last year, I wrote a short novel called The Commencement, based on all the growing up I did as a senior in high school. I had been revising and expanding it lately, and it was up to 62 pages. I was running out of ideas for how to expand The Commencement, so maybe it was time to work on something new.
As I continued riding my bike that afternoon, along the entire length of the Arboretum and back up Andrews Road toward home, I kept thinking about faking my identity and going back to high school. How would that be possible? Maybe this story would take place at a different point in life; going back to high school now seemed like too much of a stretch, and none of my thoughts led to anything realistic. Maybe my character would run away while he was a senior in high school, and go to a new school in a new town, pretending to be two years younger. I would focus my writing on everything he dislikes about life, and all of his unfinished business, to make the desire to run away real. But if he is not an adult, how can he just do this, and where would he go? That was easy; I could make him turn 18 early in his senior year. And I could give him divorced parents living far from each other, so he would have the option to go move in with the other parent.
When I got home from my bike ride, I showered and put a frozen dinner in the microwave. I put on some music from high school, starting with Pearl Jam’s Ten album, and began writing. I started my novel, which was still untitled at this point, by quoting a song lyric, as Stephen King often did with his novels, then proceeded to set the scene of a character who felt like he did not fit in with his friends.
“I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life”
“Where were you this morning?” Ryan asked Sara.
“I was…” Sara paused. “Sleeping in,” she said, with a mischievous grin on her face.
Sleeping in? Jon thought.
“You missed class?” Becky teased.
“He said we didn’t have to come today,” Sara said defensively. “He was just doing a review for the test tomorrow. I needed a break, and I feel prepared for the test.” Jon began to feel somewhat angry after hearing this.
“How did you get out of band?” Kate asked. “Does Mr. Jackson know you were gone?”
“He knows,” Sara said. “He knows I had to see the dentist.” Sara and the others laughed. All except Jon. Some people could just do whatever they wanted and not get caught. But if Jon tried it, he would get stopped at the gate because ___ High School was a closed campus. It wasn’t fair.
I left the name of the school blank. I had not decided yet where Jon and his friends lived. I usually wrote about places familiar to me, so they would have to live somewhere back home in Santa Lucia County, or Jeromeville, or maybe across the Drawbridge from Jeromeville in Capital City, or maybe Bidwell where my dad had family. But it would make more sense to have Jon run away to one of those places familiar to me, and to have the story open somewhere else, somewhere more interesting. I thought about different cities and states that had been on my mind recently and settled on San Diego, California, where my friend Pete had once lived and was currently visiting his family. I could ask Pete next time I saw him to suggest a good name for a high school in San Diego.
I continued writing about Jon’s day. Jon heard his friends talk about college applications, and about movies they liked that Jon had never seen, and movies they hated that Jon liked. I wrote about Jon’s feelings of inferiority regarding a lack of extracurricular activities for college applications, and a conversation he had with the school counselor about this, and more laments in Jon’s head about not belonging and not feeling good enough. I thought back to yesterday when I ran into Annie Gambrell and wrote this scene for the end of Jon’s school day.
“Jon! What are you doing?” He looked up at Kelly ___, one of the few underclassmen he knew. He met her last month while interviewing her for the yearbook, doing the page on the women’s’ JV cross-country team. Sometimes Jon thought that the fact that women’s’ JV cross-country got two whole pages in the yearbook was just part of an international conspiracy that ensured that certain people, who were labeled “popular,” got in the yearbook at least twenty times every year whereas other people only got in once. This was the same conspiracy that invented Homecoming Queens and the modern system of student government. Jon had nothing against women’s sports, or unpopular sports; he just didn’t like being unpopular.
“Hi.” Jon looked up and saw that she was with a friend. He thought the friend’s name was Nicole, but he did not know her.
“What are you doing? Waiting for someone?” Kelly asked.
“No. Just…” he paused. “Thinking.”
“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.
“I’m all right. I just kind of had a rough day.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”
“Thanks,” Jon replied. “See you later.” Jon really liked Kelly. She seemed really nice, and she was pretty too. She had a beautiful smile. Unfortunately, she already had a boyfriend. Jon got in his truck and drove home, thinking about what it would be like to have a relationship with Kelly.
I thought about making the last name for the Annie character something that sounded like Annie, or like Gambrell. The only thing I could think of was “Aniston,” the last name of one of the actors on the TV show Friends. There was no way I would name someone in my story after Friends, so I left it blank and moved on.
I spent most of the rest of that weekend writing, finishing chapter 1 and half of chapter 2, establishing the mood of Jon feeling out of place and wanting to start over, wanting more time to live the high school experience. I also mentioned that Jon’s father lived five hundred miles away in Capital City, with a second wife who had two children of her own.
I never did see or hear from Annie again after that day. I could have asked her brother to get in touch with her for me, I saw him at church the next day, but that just felt weird. Annie was off limits because she had a boyfriend. But I continued to work on this novel for the next several months. I had no plans to act out the premise of this novel, to run away and go back to high school, nor did I have a realistic way of doing so. I knew that that would never happen. But it was interesting to think about, and fun to put these thoughts on paper. If they could not happen in real life, I could create a fantasy world where these things happened, as long as I knew that it was just fantasy and did not let it consume my life.
Author’s note: Yes, these are actual excerpts from a novel I wrote in 1995-96. More about that later.
Also, in real life it’s my birthday! Well, yesterday was.
I was in a funk. I had been in a funk for a while by the time my physics lab got out. My funk had stretched into its fourth day, and one of those days was an hour longer because of the end of daylight saving time. One small consolation was that it was Halloween, and I had the pleasantly silly experience of seeing many full-grown college students come to campus in costume. Earlier I saw a guy walking across the Quad in a very accurate costume of Jack from the Jack in the Box restaurant commercials, with a perfectly round clown head as from a child’s jack-in-the-box toy over a business suit. I also saw at least three different Batmen walking around campus.
Batman… that reminded me of last Saturday, when this funk started. I still was unhappy with myself about Saturday.
Friday night went okay. I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship again, which was good, but I felt more like an outsider. I talked to all my friends who were there, but I did not talk to anyone else, and everyone was talking about the Fall Conference next weekend, which I was not going to. I woke up Saturday morning still feeling down, and that feeling worsened as the day dragged on. I got some homework done, but I also moped around the apartment doing nothing quite a bit.
Saturday evening, I decided to go to campus, where second-run movies play on weekends in 199 Stone, the largest lecture hall on campus at the time. Batman Forever was playing that night. I had seen the movie once, and honestly I did not like it that well. Jim Carrey, who at the time was building his career on annoying mindless movies where he made a lot of faces and funny loud noises, played the Riddler. He played the character like the annoying people in his other movies, and I did not like it. The movie did not help me get out of my funk, and I left about two-thirds of the way through. That was the first time I ever went to a movie alone, and to this day, it remains the only time I have ever walked out of a movie that I paid for. I went home, down two dollars and fifty cents and still in my funk.
Despite having won Best Costume my senior year at Plumdale High, I never got too excited about Halloween. I outgrew trick-or-treating around fourth grade and spent the rest of my childhood staying home handing out candy. The only reason I even dressed up at school that day two years ago was because Melissa asked me to. She dressed as Mona Lisa, with a drawn replica of the painting and her face sticking through a hole in it, and asked me to be Leonardo painting her. I had a big crush on Melissa at the time, so I probably would have dressed up as dog poop if she had asked me to. The problem was that, during the one period that we were not in the same class, her costume worked by itself, but no one could tell what I was without her. No, I am not Charlton Heston playing Moses. No, I am not Father Time. And during the costume contest at lunch, we were introduced as “Mona Lisa and Michelangelo,” which says something about the quality of education at Plumdale High School.
When I got home from my physics lab, I made sure the porch light was off. Mom taught me as a kid that this tells trick-or-treaters not to come to your house, although many do not seem to know that rule. I had no candy to give out tonight. I did not know whether the local children of Jeromeville even went trick-or-treating in apartment complexes full of students. (None did that night.)
I signed on to the university computer network after dinner that night, intending to get on Internet Relay Chat and find some girl to talk to. But before I did that, I checked to see who else was signed on to the exact same server, as I occasionally did back then out of curiosity. Every once in a while, I found someone I knew. I looked through the thirty or so names and account numbers that scrolled past, and my pulse briefly quickened when I saw this:
I typed “talk” and sent “hello :)” to account stu042537. Megan replied about a minute later.
stu042537: Hi, Greg! How have you been? I haven’t seen you in a while! stu049886: i’m doing ok, just busy with school. it’s a lot of work but i’m doing pretty well in my classes. what are you up to? stu042537: Just the usual. This chem class is kicking my butt! But I knew chemical engineering would be a hard major. Didn’t you say you were a tutor for the Learning Skills Center this quarter? stu049886: yes! that’s going well. i’m working 10 hours a week with small groups of calculus and precalculus students. i enjoy it. stu042537: Good! stu049886: how is your building this year? stu042537: It’s definitely easier being an RA the second time around. I have more of an idea of what to expect. But, of course, my residents are full of surprises too. I like this group so far. stu049886: that’s good stu042537: How is it being in your own apartment? stu049886: it’s nice and quiet. but i miss seeing my friends from last year. some of them are involved with jeromeville christian fellowship, i’ve started going to that sometimes with them stu042537: It’s important to find things you can be involved with. stu049886: definitely! any plans for halloween tonight? stu042537: Not this year. What about you? stu049886: nothing. halloween was never that big a deal to me. i thought it was funny, though, i saw three people on campus today dressed as batman stu042537: That’s great! I should actually go in a few minutes. I need to pick up the person I’m dating from the airport. But it was good to hear from you!
I stared at that last message, heartbroken and crestfallen, typing my closing line in the conversation much more apathetically than I had typed earlier.
stu049886: you too, drive safely stu042537: Bye!
I stared at those four words again before I closed the window… “the person I’m dating.” Nothing can drain the last bit of hope from a crush more quickly than that. I knew I probably had no shot with Megan anyway, but at least I could hope that maybe she liked me too. Not anymore. I could not compete with some cool guy who traveled on airplanes and knew how to talk to girls.
I turned on the television later that night. It was Tuesday, so Home Improvement was on. I liked that show, but Tim Allen’s stereotypical guy antics were not enough to lift me out of my funk. I returned to the computer and signed on to the IRC chat channel I had wanted to go to earlier when I messaged Megan instead. No one there was talking to me, and no one I knew I was on. I halfheartedly replied to an email, but I needed to talk to someone in real time, not by email. I could not get the image out of my head of Megan and some guy driving back from the airport in Capital City, across the Drawbridge and to his apartment, where he would probably invite her in and go to bed with her. I wanted to be doing that, not whoever this jerk was.
I was tired of this. I was tired of being alone, not knowing how to talk to girls. I hated being different and not having grown up with all the experiences that the people around me had, like having friends and taking trips on airplanes and doing fun things on Halloween. I wished I could quit life and start over again. Or maybe go back to high school for another few years; I was finally starting to have some of those experiences or having friends senior year, but then everything else ended too soon, and I lost touch with everyone except Renee Robertson, Melissa Holmes, and Rachel Copeland, none of whom lived in the same place as me or as each other now.
Around 10:30 that night, desperate and with nowhere else to turn, I picked up the phone. I had seen public service announcements for a suicide prevention hotline with a local phone number. I was not sure if I was actually feeling suicidal, but at least these people could talk to me. I dialed the number quickly.
“Suicide Prevention,” said the voice on the other end. “This is Anna. To whom am I speaking?”
“Greg,” I said.
“And how are you feeling tonight?” Anna asked.
“I need someone to talk to.”
“What’s going on? Why do you say that?”
I told Anna the abbreviated version of my thoughts on feeling different, being alone, and not knowing how to talk to girls. I explained that there was one girl I really liked who I did not have much of a chance with, and how I had found out tonight that she had a boyfriend (at the time, I did not understand that there was a distinction between the words “person I’m dating” and “boyfriend”).
“That is a lot weighing on your mind,” Anna said. “Are you taking any medication for depression or anxiety, or other mental health medications?”
“Are you in any sort of therapy or treatment?”
“How often do you use alcohol or drugs?”
“Are you thinking about ending your life or harming yourself?”
“I don’t know. I know I shouldn’t give up like that, but I don’t want to go on like this either.”
“That is understandable. Is your life in danger right now?”
“I’m sitting at home in my apartment. So probably not.”
“Have these thoughts you’ve been having interfered with your day-to-day functioning? Like your ability to work or attend class?”
“Not really. I’m a student at UJ, and my grades are still good.”
Anna asked me more questions about how I felt about things, as well as my day-to-day life and my history with mental health and medication. After talking for another ten minutes, she said, “We are meant to be a one-time service, so I can give you names and phone numbers of some mental health professionals in your area, so you can call someone to set up an appointment and meet more regularly? May I do that?”
I got a pencil and paper and wrote down the names Anna gave me. “So tomorrow, give one of those people a call, and set up an appointment. Can you do that?”
“Are you going to be okay tonight?”
“I think so. Thank you.”
“Thank you for calling. I hope everything works out for you.”
“Bye,” I said, hanging up the phone. I did not feel great about this. I was not looking forward to seeing a therapist, and I did not even know if that was what I wanted. But I had calmed down to the point that I might be able to sleep now.
I arrived about five minutes before my appointment. It had been a little more than a week since the night I called the Suicide Prevention number. It was a cool, cloudy, depressing Thursday afternoon. The address was in a small office building at the corner of Maple Lane and West Coventry Boulevard, less than half a mile from my apartment, behind a nondescript door with the names of two therapists on it. The waiting room was small, about the size of my tiny dorm room from last year. A few chairs were arranged around a table with outdated magazines on it, and two doors on the other side of the room led farther into the building. I picked up a Time magazine from July with former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell on the cover. I started reading through the magazine in order until a man with graying brown hair, a mustache, glasses, and a button-up shirt emerged from one of the doors.
“Gregory?” he said.
“That’s me,” I replied. “You can call me Greg.”
“Hi, Greg. I’m Ron Kilbourne.” Ron extended his hand for me to shake it.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand. I followed him into his office and sat down.
“So tell me again what brings you here.”
“I feel down a lot,” I said. “I feel alone, I don’t see my friends as often as I used to, I don’t have a girlfriend, and I don’t know how to talk to girls.”
“Okay,” Ron said, apparently waiting for me to say something.”
“I haven’t seen a therapist in a couple years. I was in and out of therapy all my life, going back to second grade. We saw a therapist as a family for a while, because I was getting teased a lot at school and having trouble behaving, and my dad was dealing with a lot being a newly recovering alcoholic.”
“And how old are you now?”
“Okay.” Ron scribbled some notes on a clipboard, then looked at me.
“I’m waiting for you to tell me more.”
“I told you. I don’t know what to do.”
“I can’t help you if you aren’t going to tell me anything.”
Who was this jerk? Why am I paying him all this money just to sit there? I did not know what to say to him. I told him more about not having friends in school growing up, about how being in the dorm was good for me but I lived alone now, about never having had a girlfriend, and about what happened with Megan.
Ron kept writing on his clipboard. “What else?” he said when he was done.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” I said angrily through clenched teeth.
“Then I guess we’ll just sit here until you’re ready to talk,” Ron replied calmly.
“Fine.” I sat in the chair and stared at Ron for almost ten minutes, saying nothing. He just sat looking at me, occasionally writing on his clipboard. “Why does anyone pay you all this money not to do anything?” I finally said.
“Why did you?” Ron asked. “Why are you here?”
“I’m here because I’m depressed and alone and I don’t know how to make friends or have a girlfriend.”
“I need to know what to do.”
“What are you doing now?” Ron asked.
I told him about my friends from the dorm last year, and tutoring, and singing at Mass, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. After he finished writing in his clipboard, Ron sat there looking at me, waiting for me to say more. “And I don’t know what else to do.” We stared at each other for another five minutes, saying nothing. I clenched my fists, fighting every urge to punch this man in the face.
About forty minutes into the appointment, before the end of the hour-long session, I pulled out my checkbook and paid him for the session. “This was a waste,” I said, walking toward the door.
“Greg,” Ron said in a flat tone. “I can’t help you if you’re going to walk out.”
“And you can’t help me if I’m here either. So what’s the point?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
I left the check on his desk and walked out of the office, slamming the door and throwing the stack of old magazines against the wall on my way out. I was still hot-headed and angry when I got back to the apartment. I lay on the bed for about an hour, at which time I did homework for a while, and then ate dinner. Was I really beyond help? Was I so messed up that even going to a therapist could not help me?
I never saw Ron Kilbourne again. I got a letter in the mail from him a few days later encouraging me to continue to seek therapy; I tore it into small pieces and threw it away. I never did call any of the other names that I had gotten from Anna at Suicide Prevention; after my experience with Ron Kilbourne, I was convinced that there was no point to seeking therapy.
After Ron Kilbourne, I did not attempt to seek therapy again until 2002; by that time, I had long since graduated and moved from Jeromeville to Pleasant Creek. I now know as an adult that I have had therapists who were good fits for me and others who were not; Ron Kilbourne was not, and I should have at least tried a different therapist at the time. Although I have grown, and life has changed, many of the issues for which I sought therapy in the past are still struggles for me. I have also learned that seeking therapy is far more complicated than just going through motions and having all of my problems fixed. Therapy only works when the patient wants help, and to this day I feel like in some ways I do not want help. I want the rest of the world to change around me, or to find a place where the world makes more sense than it does here. This remains an ongoing issue for me. On the day I walked out of Ron Kilbourne’s office, I knew that the only way I had left to deal with that funk was the way I have usually dealt with being in a funk all my adult life; just ride it out, put one foot in front of the other, and go through the motions, hoping that better days will come.
(Author’s note: I know that “talk” on a Unix-based system from 1995 did not format conversations the way my conversation with Megan was formatted in this story. I changed it to make it easier to read.)