Winter break was more than half over. Because of UJ’s three-quarter schedule, our winter break wasn’t as long as that of most other universities. I didn’t mind, because this schedule was all I knew; the break was at least as long as, and in some years a little longer than, the winter break I was used to at Plumdale High.
A good part of my break had been spent watching TV, following the adventures of Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Agents Mulder and Scully. I also spent a lot of time playing Donkey Kong Country on Super Nintendo. I didn’t have any of my video game consoles with me in Jeromeville. Technically they belonged to both me and Mark, and I didn’t really have a lot of time to play video games anymore now that I had a lot of studying to do. This was a brand new game; Mark had just gotten it for Christmas. I was enjoying it so far. The Donkey Kong character was from a classic coin-operated video game from 1981, but this new game was a platform adventure that played more like the Super Mario Bros. games. I love the game, but now that I think about it, a quarter century later I’ve still never beaten the game.
My big Christmas present was a printer, a Canon ink-jet. I no longer would have to go down to the study lounge in the dining commons building and pay 10 cents per page, nor would I have to go across the hall with a floppy disk and nicely ask Liz if I could borrow her printer. This was the first time I had ever had a printer with good enough resolution to look like actual printing, as opposed to those low resolution dot-matrix printers from the 80s that used the paper with the detachable holes on the sides.
I drove out toward Highway 11 with a tape of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album playing. This had been another of my Christmas presents, on CD, and I had made a tape of it since I didn’t have a CD player in the car. The Eagles were a frequent presence on classic rock radio, and I had come to like them since discovering classic rock in the middle of high school. The band broke up abruptly in 1980 after a dispute between members Don Henley and Glenn Frey, both of whom had successful solo careers after that. When asked when the Eagles would get back together, Don Henley reportedly said when hell freezes over. Earlier in 1994, the band got back together for a tour and a TV special called Hell Freezes Over. The album contained a selection of live recordings from the TV special along with studio recordings of four brand new songs.
In high school, there was a girl in a bunch of my classes sophomore and junior year named Catherine Yaras. She was one who always encouraged me to come out of my shell, and she invited me to sit with her and her friends at lunch during a time when I always sat by myself. Most of us who sat there, which also included Melissa and Renee and Kevin, sat in a hallway next to the room where all of us had English class right after lunch. I grew a lot senior year, and I definitely came out of my shell, but Catherine wasn’t there to see it up close, because she spent that year as an exchange student in Austria. She and I wrote letters pretty much all year, and by spring she told me that I was the only school friend still writing to her. I had seen her once and talked to her a couple more times since she got back from Austria in the summer, and now I was on the way to her house for a New Year’s party.
She said to show up around 8:00, and it was almost 8:30 now. As I started to be more social, I came to learn that most people don’t show up to events like this on time, and I was starting to follow suit. I arrived at Catherine’s house and stood awkwardly as I knocked on the door. To this day, for some reason, I still find it awkward to knock on someone’s door and then have to wait for them to answer. I feel like I’m always standing there uncomfortably.
“Greg!” Catherine said when she opened the door. “It’s good to see you!” She hugged me, and I hugged back.
“How are you?”
“I’m doing pretty well,” I said. “You?”
“I’m great! Come on in! I have to go check on something in the kitchen, but I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
As Catherine headed toward the kitchen, I walked into the living room and looked around. Renee was sitting on the couch with her boyfriend Anthony. They had been part of the same friend circle ever since Renee moved to Plumdale before junior year, but they had just recently gotten together. Apparently some combination of our mutual friends had been conspiring to set them up for a while, and I was completely oblivious to all of it. At our senior trip to Disneyland, one of the days where they open the park all night just for high school senior trips, Kevin had made a joke about tying a balloon around Anthony and Renee’s wrists, because Anthony had apparently often gotten separated from the group on field trips with the school band. By the end of the night, the balloon was long gone, but Anthony and Renee were still holding hands. Other stuff may have been going on with them before that night, but that was the first I knew of it, because as I said, I’m always oblivious to that kind of thing.
Renee had been my senior prom date. We were pretty much going just as friends, so I wasn’t upset at all that she and one of my guy friends were together a month later. My grandma had a copy of our prom picture in a frame on a table in her living room for many years after that. People usually commented on the height difference, since Renee was a whole foot shorter than me. I remember that picture, and what stands out to me is the contrast in color. I have dark, almost black, hair, and I wore a traditional black and white tuxedo, whereas Renee has bright red hair and wore a blue dress. Sometimes I feel like my life is dark, and everyone else’s is colorful… so I guess it fits.
Renee had gotten her email set up a few weeks ago, so we had been communicating again, and she had said something suggesting that she and Anthony were still together. I was happy for them. Anthony had moved to Ohio for school, and long distance relationships were difficult, or at least so I had heard. I didn’t have any experience with long distance relationships, at least not in the 1990s; that dumpster fire would happen in 2011, and it isn’t part of this story, so I’ll stop talking about it.
Two others whom I recognized from school but didn’t know well were sitting in chairs set up on the other side of the room from the couch. No one else had arrived yet. I walked over to Renee and Anthony.
“Hey, Greg,” Renee said. Anthony waved.
“Hi,” I replied. “How are you guys?”
“I’m good,” Anthony said.
“How’s Ohio?” I asked.
“It’s cold! I’m glad to be back out west.”
“I’m sure that’s an adjustment.”
“How did finals go?” Renee asked. “Last time I talked to you, you were stressing about finals.”
“I think I did pretty well. I know I did really well on the math final.” I told Renee and Anthony the story about Rebekah Tyler knowing what I got on the final before I did. As I was in the middle of the story, Melissa walked in and sat near us; she must have arrived unnoticed by me as I was telling the story.
“Hey, Melissa,” I said.
“Greg!” she replied, giving me a hug. “This story sounds interesting.”
I finished the story. “Rebekah sounds like one of my roommates,” Renee said. “She’s always in everyone’s business.”
“Rebekah isn’t usually in my business,” I said. “At least not except for this one time.”
“My roommate and I get along great. That’s mostly because he’s never home,” Anthony explained. “I don’t know where he goes. I think he has a girlfriend who lives off campus.”
“How are you liking dorm life, Greg?” Melissa asked. “Did you say you don’t have a roommate?”
“That’s right,” I replied. “I’m not sure how that happened. I didn’t ask for a single room, but I got one. There are only a few single rooms in my building. But so far I’ve made a lot of friends in the dorm. It’s nice sometimes just wandering up and down the halls seeing who is around and what people are doing.”
“Lucky!” Anthony said.
“I feel like I’m missing out not being in a dorm,” Melissa said.
“You’re living with relatives, right?”
“My grandma. And it feels like a grandma house. I don’t have friends over, and I don’t really spend a lot of time around students. You guys are lucky.”
“Can you get involved in any groups on campus to make friends?” I asked Melissa.
“I’m trying. There’s a club for pre-med students that I’ve been to a few times. I don’t really know anyone yet, though. Also, traffic is bad, so it’s hard for me to get back to campus at night.”
“That’s true. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“The fruit salad is done,” Catherine called out from the kitchen. Renee and Anthony got up a minute later to get food, leaving Melissa and me alone on that side of the room.
“I have to say,” Melissa said, “I’m really proud of you for adjusting to dorm life and being away from home so well.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I know this was a scary transition for you, being out on your own. But you’re doing great. And like I said, you’re getting to do things that I’m not getting to do.”
“Thanks. I’m sure you’ll figure things out.”
“I will. And the bright side is I don’t have to deal with noisy neighbors living at my grandma’s house.”
“Good point. I’ve had noisy neighbor issues.”
“Hey, Melissa,” Catherine said, walking up to Melissa and me and sitting on the couch. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” Melissa said. “I was just telling Greg how I’m proud of the way he’s adjusted to dorm life.”
“I know! I’m proud of you too, Greg!”
“Thanks,” I replied.
“How was your Christmas? Did you guys go anywhere? Or were any family visiting?”
“I was at my parents’ house,” I said. “My aunt and uncle and cousins were visiting, like they do pretty much every Christmas.”
“How was that?”
“It’s always, well, interesting to see them. Oh — funny story. So back when were remodeling the house years ago, Mom was reading these fancy remodeling magazines, and that was the first anyone in our family had ever heard of a bidet.”
“Bidets are weird at first,” Catherine said. “We had one at the house where I stayed in Austria. It definitely took some getting used to!”
“I’m sure! Anyway, next to the bathroom in the remodel is a doorway leading to the crawl space in the attic. My brother started making jokes that that was going to be the Bidet Room. So ever since then, we’ve always called the attic the Bidet Room. And Mom said in front of my cousins that she had to go wrap the presents that she hid in the Bidet Room.”
“I can’t picture your mom saying ‘Bidet Room,’” Melissa said.
“There’s probably a lot that my mom says that you can’t picture. But anyway, my one cousin, Miranda, she just turned 14, and they live out in the country, so she isn’t an expert on European bathroom fixtures. Miranda asked why we called it the Bidet Room, and I told her about Mark saying we should put a bidet in there. Then she asks, ‘What’s a bidet?’ I start to explain it in polite family-friendly terms. Her brother interrupts me and blurts out, ‘It shoots water up your ass!’”
“Ha!” Catherine laughed.
“Wow,” Melissa said. “That’s funny.”
“How was your Christmas?” I asked Melissa.
“Nothing special. Mom and Dad and my brother drove down south and had Christmas with me and some other relatives at my grandma’s house, and I came back up to Plumdale with them a few days ago. I’m going to fly home on Tuesday. Flights from Santa Lucia to San Angelo are cheapest on Tuesdays,” Melissa explained. I never would have thought of that, considering that I had never been on an airplane at that time.
The party was fairly calm as far as New Year’s parties go. I spent the New Year’s a year ago with some family friends who liked to drink and watch sports, and this party wasn’t raucous and loud like that one. It was mostly just people talking and eating and, in the case of us who were away at school, catching up. And all of that was perfectly okay with me. I got to hear some more of Catherine’s stories about her host family and school and friends in Austria.
However, Catherine’s party was not without drinking. At one point in the night, Catherine said she was making margaritas. I think it was margaritas. I’m not an expert on alcoholic beverages, and I knew even less then than I do now.
“Um,” I said, “doesn’t that have alcohol in it?”
“If that makes you uncomfortable, I can make you a virgin margarita.”
Virgin margarita. Virgin margarita. I racked my brain trying to figure out what that mean. After a few seconds of thinking about the context clues, I figured that she must mean a margarita without alcohol.
“Everyone our age drinks alcohol in Austria,” Catherine explained, apparently noticing that I was uncomfortable. “It’s no big deal over there, and since I’ve been back home I’ve been drinking occasionally. I’m not going to get drunk and be unsafe. I can make you one without alcohol if you want.”
“Okay,” I said, still a little uncomfortable.
Catherine came back a few minutes later with the drinks. I picked up my drink, hesitantly. I smelled it; it didn’t smell like alcohol, but considering I wasn’t exactly used to the smell of alcohol, I didn’t know what to expect. “They’re exactly the same,” she said, “except yours doesn’t have alcohol and mine does.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “What if this is the wrong drink?”
“I can tell. It’s not.”
“What if someone spiked my drink?” I’m not entirely sure why I said that. Maybe I wanted to look cool by demonstrating that I knew what “spiked” meant.
“Come on, Greg. Do you trust me?”
In hindsight, I’m even less sure of why I said the words that came out of my mouth next, aside from the fact that I’d been watching TV a lot. “I’m like Agent Mulder. I trust no one.”
“Greg,” Catherine said. “If you can’t trust me, then are we really even friends? I’m hurt that you would say that.”
I looked down. “I didn’t mean it that way,” I said. I didn’t even know how I meant it. I was just making a reference to one of my favorite TV shows. “I’m sorry. It’s from X-Files.”
“Do you trust me, Greg?”
I picked up the class and drank a sip of the virgin margarita. “Yes,” I said. “I trust you. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s okay,” Catherine replied. “Just know that I would never give you alcohol without your permission.”
“I know. Thank you.”
I took another sip of the virgin margarita. After all that, I didn’t really like it, but I drank the rest of it since Catherine had been through all that to make it for me. When I was done with the drink, I put the glass back in the kitchen and had more chips and salsa for a while. I spotted someone else I knew from school and went over to talk to her for a while.
“It’s almost midnight!” someone shouted eventually. A television was showing one of the nationally televised New Year’s Eve broadcasts, with the countdown clock in the corner. Someone handed me two party favors, one of those things that you blow into and it unrolls and makes a toot noise, and some plastic glasses shaped like the numbers “1995” with holes for your eyes inside the round parts of the 9s. I put the glasses on and the other thing in my mouth.
“Ten! Nine! Eight!” everyone started shouting. “Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!” Some people clapped, some people made noise with whichever party favor they had, and some people holding drinks clinked their glasses together. Even though a new year is mostly an arbitrary point in time, there is always something special about it. The new number on the calendar gives hope that maybe this year would be different.
“Greg?” Catherine said, turning her left cheek toward my face. “New Year’s kiss?”
It appeared that 1995 would be different, for sure. I had never had a New Year’s kiss, nor had I ever kissed anyone or been kissed at any other time of any year. (I don’t count Grandma kissing my cheek as a kiss. That’s just what grandmothers do.) I didn’t even know in 1995 that a New Year’s kiss was a thing, because of my sheltered upbringing. But I had made enough of a fuss about the virgin margarita, and I didn’t want Catherine to think I was afraid or being weird any more than she already did. So I puckered my lips and lightly kissed her on the cheek. She smiled and kissed my cheek back.
“I’m glad I got to see you tonight,” Catherine said.
“Thanks. I’m glad I came.”
“You really sound like you’re doing well at Jeromeville. And I’m sure 1995 is going to be a great year for you.”
I started to get tired about an hour later, so I said my goodbyes and drove home, still listening to the Eagles. I had taken a significant step tonight: I didn’t get all worked up over underage drinking. I was always bothered by the fact that some high school kids know how to get alcohol at a young age, in complete defiance of the law and of their own safety. I even remember thinking that I ever got invited to a party where there was drinking, I would call the police on my own friends, just because they were breaking the law. Of course, no decent human being would do that unless someone’s life was clearly in danger. This may have been the first time I had ever been in the same room as underage drinking, and I got over it and let things be. No one was hurting anyone else, and no one’s lives were in danger.
I pulled up into the driveway, quietly entered the house so as not to wake my parents or Mark, and went to bed for the first time in 1995. I was hopeful for a good year. I had already taken some big steps in 1994, being out on my own, being a student at a university, and living in a dorm. This new life seemed to be suiting me well so far. I looked forward to the new adventures that 1995 would bring… although, on that cloudy night in Plumdale, 150 miles from Jeromeville, I never would have guessed the exact sort of adventures that lay ahead of me.