Late September, 1996. Outreach Camp and the first JCF meeting of the year.

“Welcome, Greg!” Janet McAllen said.  She and her husband Dave, the full-time paid staff who led Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sat at a folding table overlooking the dirt parking lot and the entrance to Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center.  “You’re in Cabin 4.  You can go put your stuff away there.  Dinner is at six o’clock, and we’ll be meeting after that.  Until then, we’re pretty much just hanging out.”

“Cool.”

“How was your summer?”  Dave asked.

“It was good.  I took a class first session, Intro to Software.  I got an A.”

“Good job!” Janet said.  She pointed out the general direction of the cafeteria, meeting room, and cabins, and I headed toward Cabin 4, carrying my sleeping bag, pillow, and suitcase.  The suitcase was not really a suitcase, since it had soft sides, and it was not really mine, since it had my grandfather’s initials embroidered on it.  I had taken it with me two years ago when I first moved into my dorm as a freshman, since I did not have a suitcase, and I still had it.

The cabin held six campers in three bunk beds attached to the wall.  I was six feet, four inches tall, and the beds looked a little short for me.  I would not fit in the lower bunk at all, because the short ends of the bunks were a wall of solid wood instead of a wood or metal frame, so that my feet would press against the inside of this wall instead of dangle over.  Two of the top bunks already had people’s things on them, so I climbed to the last remaining top bunk.  My feet hung over the end a little, but if I turned at a slight diagonal, I would at least be a little bit more comfortable.

I went outside and found Brent Wang getting people together for a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee.  “How’ve you been?” I asked Brent.

“Great,” he said.  “I’m playing keyboard on the worship team this year.  After this game we’re gonna go practice.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “I’m just glad to be back.”

I spent the next hour running up and down the field, catching and passing the flying disc, as I saw more and more of my friends from last year arriving, mostly coming from Jeromeville in organized carpools.  Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center was about a two hour car trip from Jeromeville, northeast into the mountains.  I had never been to this part of the state before.  The parking lot, field, and basketball court were spread out over a meadow, with the meeting room, cafeteria, and cabins set against the foot of the mountains that surrounded the grounds on three sides.  Beyond the parking lot, the road on which we drove in sloped downward.  The pines that covered the mountains gave the area a distinct scent not present down in the Valley.

I was dripping sweat after we finished playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I walked around and spent about another hour catching up with people, watching others play Ultimate Frisbee, table tennis, and basketball.  At dinner time, I wandered toward the cafeteria.  The inside of the building reminded me a bit of the dining hall at the dorm from two years ago, but with fewer options.  As I walked around looking for a place to sit, I heard a familiar voice say, “Greg!  How are you?  Want to sit here?”

Melinda Schmidt sat at a table with two other senior girls, Amelia Dye and Lillian Corey. “Sure,” I said, sitting at the empty seat.  “How was your summer?”

“It was pretty good!  How was yours?”

“I was in Jeromeville taking a class.  Where were you this summer again?”

“I was home.  In Blue Oaks.  You drove through it on the way here.”

“No.  I thought you were going on a mission trip somewhere.”

“Oh… I was going to, but I had to cancel it because of a family emergency.”

“I’m sorry.”  That phrase “family emergency” always felt awkward to me; I never knew whether or not it was okay to ask for more details about what happened.

“It’s okay.  I’ll have lots of time to look at mission trips for next year,” Melinda continued.

“Yeah.  That’s good.”

“Have you ever been on a mission trip?”

“I haven’t.  I’m pretty new to all this stuff.  But I’m learning more about what kind of things happen on mission trips.  One thing I was hoping to find this week is what role God has for me in the group this year.”

“That’s good.  Just keep seeking God.”

As the afternoon continued on into the evening, I kept my eye out for Haley Channing to arrive.  I had not seen her in over three months now, and I was hoping that being together on a retreat for five whole days would give us time to talk and hang out.  Maybe, if things went well, I could tell her how I felt about her.  I had assumed she would be here, since she was friends with all the people who were in JCF’s inner social circles, but I never knew for sure whether or not she would.  I had gotten one letter from her during the summer, and she never mentioned Outreach Camp at all.  By the end of dinner, I had still not seen Haley, and I began to resign myself to the fact that she was not coming, and that I would have to wait until sometime next week to see her again.


We studied Paul’s letter to the Philippians for our Bible studies at Outreach Camp.  We did something called a manuscript study, where we were each given a copy of the text of Philippians without chapter or verse numbers.  We were supposed to look at the text without those distractions, so we could find connections between different parts of the text and mark them in different colors.  I did not quite understand what I was looking for, and no one could give me a clear answer.  As the week went on, my manuscript looked more and more like the bulletin board of a conspiracy theorist connecting seemingly unrelated details.

After the first Bible study time, we got into groups for prayer requests.  Amelia was in my group, along with Liz Williams, a junior like me who had lived right down the hall from me freshman year.  Also in my group were Eddie Baker, a junior who had been there for me on a particularly rough night, and two sophomores named Jennifer Chong and Todd Chevallier.

“I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions lately,” Liz began.  “I want to make sure that I am living entirely for God, because I’ve been letting too much get in the way.”  Liz seemed to be struggling to get her words out.  Finally, she continued, “Ramon and I broke up.”

The next few seconds of silence among those in our group said more than words ever could.  For almost two years, since the first quarter of freshman year, Liz and Ramon had been the strong Christian couple whom everyone liked.  They had also been among the first friends I made at the University of Jeromeville.  “Pray that we will both use this time apart to seek God wholly, and to know what he has for us, whether we end up together or apart in the end,” Liz continued.

“Any other prayer requests?” Amelia asked.

“I have one,” I said, a little hesitant to follow Liz’s major announcement.  “Pray that God will show me what my role is within JCF.  Now that I’ve been going here for a year, I want to know how I can get involved.”

“That’s a good one.  We’ll pray for that.”

As the six of us prayed, we could hear other groups finishing and the worship band setting up.  After prayer, we all spent some time singing before concluding for the night.  I looked around, unsure of what would happen now; was everyone supposed to go to bed, or were people going to stay up hanging out and talking for a while?  I sat watching others, trying to figure out what to do.  After a few minutes, Tabitha Sasaki spotted me across the room while she and the rest of the worship band were putting away their instruments.  She came over toward me and said, “Hey, Greg.  Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“That big red Bronco in the parking lot, that’s yours, right?”

Uh-oh.  Last week, Brian made me the driver for our toilet-papering adventure specifically because no one in the house we hit would know my car, so that we could park outside and listen for their reaction.  Did I just get caught?  Was Tabitha there that night, and I did not realize it?  “Yes,” I said uneasily.

“Lars and Brent and Scott and I were just talking about how the worship team needs a roadie, someone to help us load and unload all our instruments and equipment each week.  We were trying to think of someone who has, like, a big truck or something like that, and I thought of you.  I thought you had a Bronco.  Would you be interested in doing that for us this year?”

I was relieved that Tabitha’s conversation with me had nothing to do with the toilet-papering incident, but I saw that something else was happening here too.  “Yes!” I replied.  “That sounds perfect!  Just earlier tonight, in our small group, I was praying that God would find a specific way for me to get involved.  This is an answer to prayer.”

“Yay!  I know, we were praying about it too, and I just thought of you.  That’s totally a God thing.”

“So what exactly would I have to do?”

“We practice at Lars’ house on J Street, so just come there every Friday an hour before large group starts, and help us load everything.  Then help us unload once we get to campus.  And do the same thing afterward.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  Having to unload afterward meant that I might be a little late if anyone did anything social, but that was no problem as long as I knew what was going on.  This was exactly what I had been praying for.  My mom always said that God works in mysterious ways, and this was one of them.


The rest of the week was more of the same; lots of time hanging out at this beautiful retreat center, playing Ultimate Frisbee and table tennis, sitting among the pines reading Scripture, and singing songs of praise and worship.  One day, I was sitting alone on a bench reading the Bible, and I spotted Ramon doing the same on a bench about a hundred feet away.  I thought about him having broken up with Liz, and about Haley not being here at all, and I realized that maybe Haley’s absence was God’s work too.  Maybe God wanted me to really focus on him this week, and he knew that having Haley here would be too much of a distraction for me.  I smiled and thanked God silently.

For the Wednesday evening session, we split into groups that each had a specific focus for the first week of school.  Small group Bible study leaders met to plan their outreach and their studies for the first quarter.  Another group met to discuss having a table in the Quad to hand out flyers and get contact information from interested students.  Another group made plans to show up around the dorms on Sunday and offer to help students move in.

My new position as the roadie did not fit neatly into any of these groups.  I walked around the room, trying to figure out which group to join.  Brian Burr, my roommate who had graduated last year and was now on staff with JCF, saw me and motioned for me to come over.  Their group also included Tabitha, Liz, Todd, Jennifer Chong, and Scott Madison, who was the worship team drummer and Amelia’s boyfriend.  “Which group is this?” I asked.

“We’re planning a skit for the first large group,” Brian said.

“Yeah,” Scott added.  “I’m gonna be Scooby-Doo.”

“This is gonna be funny,” I said.  “What’s the skit going to be about?”

“So far, the Scooby-Doo gang is helping freshmen move in, and one girl’s dorm room is haunted.  And we’ll chase the ghost around, just like in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, and then take off the ghost’s mask at the end.”

“That’s a great idea!  What’s the spiritual lesson in this?”

“There isn’t one,” Tabitha said.  “It’s just for fun.”

“Sounds good, I said.

We spent the next hour, as well as some time after the Thursday evening session, outlining the plot of our skit.  We got Lars Ashford, a senior who played in the worship team, to be the bad guy in our skit.  A few days after we all got back to Jeromeville, we all met at Scott’s apartment one night to write the script and rehearse.  We watched old Scooby-Doo cartoons on a rented VHS tape for about an hour, to help us perfect the mannerisms of our characters.  We painted cardboard props, including the Mystery Machine van.  The others tried on their costumes, which they had assembled from thrift store and costume shop products.

“So, the funniest thing happened at the costume shop,” Liz said.  “I told the guy I was looking for orange hair dye.  But I said, not like real hair color, like a cartoon orange.  That was all I said.  And he asked the other guy working there, ‘Do we have any orange hair dye, like Daphne from Scooby-Doo?’”

“That’s hilarious!” I said.

“I know!  I said, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!”

The first JCF meeting was on the first Friday night after classes started, a week after we got home from Outreach Camp.  The room was full of new freshmen and transfer students from community colleges, as well as returning students from last year.  After the opening song, Dave McAllen introduced himself and made announcements; then it was time for our skit.

I stood at the front of the room, wearing a large oversized button on my shirt that said ASK ME.  Jennifer Chong walked up to me.  “Hi,” she said.  “Is… is this Baxter Hall?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m an RA here in the building.  Are you one of my residents?”

“Yeah.  I’m Jennifer.  I’m in room 319.”

“Great!  My name is Greg.  Just come find me if you need help with anything.”

“I will!”

I sat down in the front row after this; that opening scene was my entire role in the skit.  The rest of the group walked in from the back of the room carrying the Mystery Machine: Brian as Shaggy in a green shirt with unkempt hair, Liz as Daphne with dyed orange hair, Todd as Fred with a white shirt and scarf, Tabitha as Velma in a turtleneck, and Scott as Scooby wearing a hideous brown thrift store suit and fake dog ears.  The audience cheered wildly.

“Zoinks!” Brian said to Jennifer.  “We’re, like, here to help you move!”  The audience laughed at Brian’s impersonation of Shaggy.

“Hi,” Liz said.  “I’m Daphne.  What’s your name?”

“Jennifer,” Jennifer said.

“What building and room are you in?” Todd asked.

“319 Baxter.”

All four of the other human characters gasped, and said in unison, “319 Baxter?”

“Ruh-roh!” Scott added.

“Like, that’s the room that’s haunted by the ghost of Alexander Baxter!” Brian exclaimed.

“And the key to room 319 also opens a treasure chest that Mr. Baxter hid in the basement!” Tabitha said.  In real life, Baxter Hall had no basement.

“G-g-g-ghost?” Jennifer said, trembling.

“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” Todd said.  “Come on.  Everyone grab a box, and let’s carry this stuff upstairs.”

As everyone walked offstage, Lars stood in a corner, wearing a trench coat.  His face was covered with a ghost mask made from a paper plate with eye holes.  Jennifer held her room key, which Lars snuck up and stole before returning to his hiding place.  “Let’s unlock the room so we can get in,” Jennifer said.  “Huh?  Where’s the key?  I just had it.”

“Zoinks!” Brian shouted, pointing at Lars.  “Ghost!”

“Raaaarrr!” Lars screamed, jumping out of his corner.  Everyone started running in place for a few seconds, then they simultaneously took off in the same direction, just as they did in old cartoons.  Lars chased the others, also running in place first.

Brian, Scott, Liz, Tabitha, and Todd ran back to the center of the stage.  “W-w-where’s the ghost?” Tabitha asked.

“Let’s split up,” Todd suggested.  “Shaggy and Scooby, you go that way, and the rest of us will go this way.”  The group walked off stage in opposite directions.

Lars picked up a cardboard soda machine prop and hid behind it.  Brian and Scott walked by.  “Like, look, Scoob!  Soda!” Brian said.  Scott made dog noises in return.  Brian put a coin in the soda machine, and Lars handed Brian a soda from behind the machine, his hand clearly visible.  “Like, thanks!” Brian said.  The audience laughed.

“You’re welcome,” Lars growled from behind the soda machine.  Brian and Scott looked at each other, then back at the soda machine.  Lars tossed the soda machine aside and screamed, “Raaaaarrrr!”  Brian and Scott ran away.

Next, Todd, Tabitha, and Liz walked in from the other side of the stage.  Lars stood right in their way, unnoticed by them.  “Have any of you seen anything strange?” Tabitha asked as she walked with her head turned, facing the others.  She bumped into Lars.  All of them screamed and began chasing each other back and forth across the stage.

Eventually, all of the mystery-solving friends and Jennifer came back to the front of the room, with Lars across the room from them, not seeing them.  “Okay, Scooby,” Todd said, holding a woman’s dress.  “Put this on and seduce the ghost.”  The audience cheered and whooped at this suggestion.  I remembered that our script said “distract,” not “seduce,” and I hoped that Todd’s Freudian slip would not get us in trouble, since we were supposed to be a Christian group promoting Biblical values.  (No one ever said anything.)

“Ruh-ruh,” Scott replied, shaking his head.

“Like, would you do it for a Scooby Snack?” Brian asked, holding a box of crackers.  The audience cheered at yet another silly Scooby-Doo reference.

“Mmm!” Scott said, eating a cracker.  He put on the dress, prompting another round of cheering from the audience, and walked toward Lars, batting his eyelashes.  “Roh, Rister Raxter,” Scott said, combining the usual extra Rs of the Scooby-Doo voice with an exaggerated high falsetto.  Lars turned around to look at Scott, distracted, as Todd, Liz, and Tabitha put a rope around Lars and tied him up.

“Let’s see who you really are,” Tabitha said, pulling Lars’ mask off.

“It’s, like, my history professor!” Brian gasped.

“And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddlin’ kids!” Lars said.  The audience cheered.

“That wraps up that mystery,” Todd said to Jennifer.  “Now we can go back to helping you move in.”

“Thanks, guys,” Jennifer replied.  “I just hope I don’t have any classes in haunted classrooms!”  All of the actors made fake exaggerating laughing noises, and the audience cheered.

Tabitha had told me there was no particular spiritual illustration in our skit.  Not every act of Christian service or ministry has to have a direct teachable illustration.  This silly performance brought a moment of much-needed levity into the stressful lives of a room full of university students beginning a new academic year.

Even fun moments like this meant solely to create a welcoming environment can have far-reaching spiritual consequences.  A freshman named Seth Huang sat in the audience that night.  Seth would give his testimony at JCF large group a few years later; he said that he attended a number of different Christian campus groups the first couple weeks of school, but the reason he chose to get involved with JCF was because of the Scooby-Doo skit.  The people listening to his testimony laughed at that, and I felt honored to have been part of something that made a difference to him.  Seth went on to spend about a decade after graduation in full-time ministry at two other schools in the area, leading chapters of the same campus ministry organization that ran JCF.  Hundreds of students received spiritual guidance from Seth, all because some of us decided to act silly and perform a Scooby-Doo skit.  God certainly does work in mysterious ways.

Greg (left) and Brian at Outreach Camp, September 1996

Author’s note: For my readers in other countries, six feet, four inches equals 1.93 meters.

Scooby-Doo and all associated properties are trademarks of Hanna-Barbera, who was not involved in the production of this work.

(April 2021. Interlude, part 3, and Year 1 recap.)

If you are 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 1, and next week I will do the same for Year 2.  Many of my current readers have not been following 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.


In the summer of 1993, my parents took me on quick driving tours of universities, so I could start thinking about what to do after high school.

July 5, 1993. Prologue: my first visit to Jeromeville.

I lived in Plumdale, a semi-rural area on the West Coast of the United States.  The University of Jeromeville, about a two and a half hour car trip from home, offered me a scholarship for my grades.  They also invited me to be part of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, a program for honors freshmen who live in the same building and take general education classes specific to that program.

February 26, 1994. Prologue III: High Achieving Scholars’ Day.

I chose to attend Jeromeville, and I moved there in the fall of 1994.  I made lots of new friends in Building C, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program dormitory.  Taylor, the friendly guy fond of deep conversations.  Danielle, the girl just down the hall from me who sang in the school choir.  Caroline, Danielle’s roommate who had lived in Australia for over a decade.  Liz and Ramon, one of the first couples to form once the school year began.  Pete, downstairs, who taught me the board game Risk.  Sarah, a good listener with a kind heart.  And dozens of others.

September-October 1994. New friends in Building C.

Growing up, my family was Catholic, but I did not attend church regularly.  Mom told me to look for the Newman Center, a ministry for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities, when I got to Jeromeville.  The Jeromeville Newman Center held student-focused Masses in a building just off campus; my dorm neighbor Danielle also attended Mass at Newman, and sang in the choir.  Many of my friends from Building C attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational organization with small group Bible studies and weekly meetings with worship music and a talk.  JCF was not affiliated with a church, but many of my friends in JCF attended an Evangelical Covenant church.

December 2-4, 1994. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Newman Center.

In addition to my Building C friends, I had other new friends as well.  I discovered this newly emerging technology called the Internet while at UJ, and I used it quite often to talk to girls on IRC, the chat room system of the early Internet.  I also met people from UJ not in my dorm: Jack, a mathematics major who was in many of the same math classes as me.  Mike Knepper and Tabitha, two students who lived in nearby dorms and were in the same Bible study as my friends from JCF.  And Megan, a friendly resident advisor in one of the other dorms near mine.  Megan was a sophomore, my first older friend at UJ other than my own resident advisors. Our conversations around the dining hall and the Resident Help Window quickly developed into a crush on my part.  I considered becoming a resident advisor for sophomore year: this would give me room and board for next year, and I would get to help create the same friendly dorm environment that I experienced.  Also, I would get to work with Megan, since she would be a resident advisor again the following year.

January 28-29, 1995. Captains and Toros and resident advisors.

The University of Jeromeville is a beautiful campus.  It is located in the western United States, in the middle of a large valley that is a major agricultural area.  The university was founded as a branch campus of the state’s flagship university, for students studying agriculture.  Beyond the core part of campus, next to the city of Jeromeville, the campus extends west on about three square miles of farmland used for agricultural research.  A dry creek bed along the south end of campus had been converted into a very skinny lake about a mile and a half long, with an arboretum planted along both banks, for both scientific and recreational purposes.  I quickly discovered how much I loved exploring this campus on my bicycle.

March 1, 1995. Exploring.

I was not used to staying up late.  Back home, I went to bed around ten o’clock, and it took me quite some time to get used to the schedule of dormitory life, with students being noisy late at night.  Quiet hours began at 11:00 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, but the resident advisors enforced this with varying levels of accuracy.  One night, after a particularly bad day, I was awakened by people inconsiderately talking in the middle of the night.  I opened my door angrily and overreacted, then I ran away, ashamed of having lost my cool in front of my new friends.

March 3, 1995. Throwing the box.

But my friends did not react the way I expected, and to this day, that night feels like a major turning point in my life.

March 4, 1995. Friendship is special.

During that year, living in a tiny, boring single room in the dorm, I did a lot of reading and writing.  I had always had a creative side that I did not show often.  I started writing poetry as a hobby during that year, both funny and serious.  In the spring, I added some more creative projects.  During UJ’s spring break, I visited my old high school, which was not on break, and that brought back so many memories that I wrote a short novel based on my experiences senior year of high school.  Also, around that time, two free-spirited girls in my dorm, Skeeter and Bok, began regularly painting abstract watercolors in the common room, with others contributing sometimes.

Early April, 1995. Tear down the wall.

With Jeromeville being a fairly small city next to a large university, the rental housing market in Jeromeville was extremely tight.  Students were only guaranteed one year of living on campus, with there being so few dormitories, and my plan to be a resident advisor did not work out.  When my friends were making plans to room together and get apartments for the 1995-96 school year, I was oblivious and missed out.  My parents said that we could afford for me to get a small studio apartment, but apartments were filling up quickly.  After weighing all the options, I chose to sign a lease on a studio apartment in a complex called Las Casas, about a mile north of campus and within a short walk of two other apartment complexes where many of my closest friends would be living next year.

April 4-6, 1995. Two big steps.

As a student at UJ, I got to experience many of the campus traditions that have united generations of UJ students.  I attended Jeromeville Colts football and basketball games and learned the cheers.  I learned the hard way the importance of putting fenders on your bicycle wheels when it rains.  But the best tradition of all was the Spring Picnic, the university’s annual open house that had evolved over the years into a huge festival.  Dozens of academic departments, student groups, clubs, and performing groups had exhibits and shows during the Spring Picnic.  In addition to all the fun I had wandering those exhibits, I also watched a band called Lawsuit, on Megan’s recommendation.  The band was amazing, sounding like nothing I had ever heard before.

April 20-22, 1995. The Spring Picnic.

In school, I had always worked hard for good grades, and I was always one of the top students in my class, but never quite the top.  I had kept up my good grades at UJ, with my lowest grade so far this year being one A-minus.  I had not declared a major yet.  My favorite classes in high school were always mathematics and classes involving mathematics, like chemistry and physics.  I enjoyed computers as a hobby, but I felt my computer knowledge was too out of date for me to be a computer science major, and I grew up sheltered in an area without many high-paying jobs, so I never even considered anything like engineering because I had no previous exposure to engineering.  The physics class for science and engineering majors starts in the spring, and after the first midterm, I decided to declare mathematics as my major.  I still found mathematics relatively easy, as well as fascinating, whereas that physics midterm was the worst test score I had ever gotten in my life.  It all worked out in the end, though.

April 28-May 2, 1995. The first physics midterm.

Spring quarter was full of fun adventures.  I experienced my first college party, sort of, when a bunch of people upstairs threw a party.  I played Sardines in the strangest building on campus with my dorm friends.  I went for more bike rides as the weather got warmer and discovered bike trails passing through some of the newer neighborhoods of Jeromeville.  I got brave and called a girl from the Internet on the phone, and wrote letters to another who was going home for the summer and would not have email.  But the greatest adventure of all happened on the evening of the last day of finals, when half of Building C all went out to Jeromeville’s best hole-in-the-wall burger place, and then bowling.  It was the perfect end to a wonderful and life-changing year, and it left me looking forward to next year… if I could just get through three months of summer away from my new life.

Mid-June 1995. The worst finals schedule ever and the last great adventure of freshman year.

Dramatis personae for Year 1 (list of characters)


Here is a bonus, something I just found a few weeks ago (altered for anonymity purposes): the only photo I have of myself in Building C.  It was taken in Bok’s room at her birthday party; someone else took the picture and gave it to me.

Next week I will recap year 2.  In case you missed it, here is the playlist of songs I used in year 1. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you.

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

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

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

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

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

“How was the drive?”

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“Hi,” I replied. 

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Jenn said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Barn?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not sure exactly.”

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

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

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

“Intramurals?”

“Yeah.  Jenn does that for volleyball.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Renee asked.

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

“I think I’ll do that,” I replied.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I replied.

“So then you also know Anthony?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Still!  Three hours!”

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

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

“Good.”

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

“Well tell him I said hi.”

“I will!”

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

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

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

“Not until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Where is Marisol today?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gaaaahhh!” I screamed.

“Are you okay?” Renee asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

“Yeah,” Jenn replied.

“You too,” Nicole said.

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

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

 

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

I did not like to admit it, because it felt like I had no chance, but the truth was that I had a crush on an older woman.  Megan McCauley was a junior, a year and three days older than me.  Last year she was a resident advisor in a dorm near the one where I lived.  Amy, one of the RAs in my building, introduced me to Megan one night at dinner when we were all sitting at the same table.  After that, I just started saying hi and being friendly when I saw her around.  Megan was really nice, and friendly, and cute, not in the glamorous supermodel way, but in her own way I could not explain.  Then again, I was a little girl crazy; I found most girls physically attractive.

Megan had stayed in touch for part of the summer; she was in Jeromeville taking summer classes.  We wrote emails for a while, but her work load got in the way eventually.  Now summer school was over, fall classes started in a few days, and earlier this week, Megan emailed me for the first time in a month.  She invited me to meet her for lunch today, so we could catch up.  I had been sitting around the apartment all morning, reading, doing dishes, and trying not to be too nervous.

I left my apartment at 11:36 and rode my bike to campus along the same route that I used the day before, when I bought books and looked for part-time on-campus work.  I headed down Andrews Road for about a mile to the North Residential Area, then east to the Memorial Union.  I turned on East Quad Avenue to the Student Employment Center in the basement of Old North Hall, where I dropped off two job applications, one to work as a tutor and one to work in the bookstore.

I then returned the way I came and parked at the bike rack outside of Raymond Hall.  The North Residential Area had two sections, four high-rise buildings to the west, and seven smaller buildings to the east.  These smaller buildings only had bedrooms and bathrooms, no common room or study room.  Raymond Hall contained a study room, a lounge with a television, a computer lab, and mailboxes, intended for use by residents of all seven buildings.  Behind Raymond, five of the buildings faced a lawn with concrete paths leading to each building’s main entrance.  Another path led past the building on the east side of the lawn to two more dorms behind it.

The twelve three-story buildings of the South Area, where I lived last year, were all identical, except that some were mirror images of the others.  But these seven dorms where I was today were not identical.  Three of them had two stories, and the other four had three stories with fewer rooms on each story.  Despite having different floor plans, all of the buildings were painted in identical colors, a golden mustard color with brown trim.

Megan was the RA for Carter Hall.  I had been inside Carter once, a long time ago, and I did not remember which building it was specifically.  I could see the name on the three-story building straight across the lawn from me: Ryan Hall.  Last year, a student who lived in Ryan named Raphael Stevens painted a mural next to his room, two hands of different skin colors gently holding Earth, a message of peace and unity.  I have never seen this mural up close, only in pictures, and it had nothing to do with my lunch plans with Megan today.  But I would meet Raphael later that school year, and he knows about my writing now, so I mention him now just to say hi to an old friend.  As of 2017, the mural was still there; Raphael’s freshman year roommate, whom I would meet later this school year and stay in touch with, visited Jeromeville with his family in 2017 and shared a picture of the mural on Facebook.  At that time, I had not communicated with Raphael in many years, and the comments on that picture were how I got back in touch with him.

I looked for a name on the building to the left of Ryan; this was Carter Hall.  I had no access to the building, and I could not knock on Megan’s window because I did not know which one was hers.  I could not call or text Megan and tell her I was here, because this was 1995 and texting did not exist, and only drug dealers and ostentatiously wealthy people had cell phones.  So I figured I would wait by the front door until I saw someone inside, and then knock.  I was a little early, but Megan knew I was coming, so she would probably come find me.

I saw Megan walk into the lobby about a minute later.  When she saw me, she smiled and waved and walked over to open the door for me.  “Hey, Greg!” she said, approaching me to give me a hug.  She wore a black t-shirt that said “HEAVY METAL” in writing that resembled a rock band logo; below HEAVY METAL were pictures of gold, lead, platinum, mercury, tungsten, and uranium, and each heavy metal’s atomic mass and atomic number.  Chemical engineering humor.  Very nice.  Her short jean shorts and Birkenstocks gave me a great view of her legs, but I made a point not to stare.  Her dark blonde hair had grown back quite a bit since she cut it spiky and dyed it green last winter.  It was shorter than it was when we first met, but there was no longer any trace of green.

“Hi,” I replied as I put my arms around Megan.  I could feel my pulse quicken a little as our bodies pressed together for a few seconds.  “That’s a funny shirt,” I said after we let go of each other.

“Thanks!  You can put your backpack in my room,” Megan said, motioning toward the hallway.  She walked to her room, the first room to the right of the lobby, and I followed her.  A sign on the door said “Megan,” written in large letters in marker on construction paper.  A sign on Megan’s door had helpful phone numbers for various student services.  This was probably something that all resident advisors had on their doors.

“Where should I put my backpack?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” Megan said.  I put it on the floor against the wall at the foot of the bed.  Her bed was adjusted to the highest level possible without the extra piece needed for a loft or bunk bed; her chest of drawers was under the bed, along with a miniature refrigerator.  I was not sure if the refrigerator was her own personal property or an RA privilege; I just knew that it was not standard issue for all dorm residents.

“I’ve been in this building before,” I explained.  “A long time ago.  Senior year of high school, I was invited to a presentation about the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, and that year’s IHP students lived in Carter.  They showed us what the dorm looked like.”

“That’s right.  This was the IHP building for a while, but the IHP your year had so many students that they needed a bigger building.  Amy was supposed to be the RA for Carter last year, but when the IHP moved to Building C, they moved her with it because she had been in IHP the year before.”

“That makes sense.”

“You ready to eat?”

“Sure!”

Megan and I left Carter Hall together, walking past Raymond Hall and the bike rack where I parked, around to the high-rises.  “What are you up to the rest of the day?” I asked.

“I have a meeting with other RAs at 2,” she said.  “And I’m hosting a meeting with my residents at 7 tonight.”

“I’m not doing anything,” I said.  We passed two of the high-rises and walked toward a small building easily accessible from all four high-rises; this was the North Dining Commons.  It was a one-story building, unlike the South Dining Commons where I ate last year.  The South Dining Commons also included the mail room, game room, study room, and computer lab, but in the North Area, these services were in different buildings.

Megan scanned her card, using one of her monthly allotment of guest meals for me.  We sat down a minute later; I had a chicken sandwich, and Megan had a salad.  “So what classes are you taking this quarter?” Megan asked.

“Math 22A, Math 90, Chem 2C, Physics 9B, and bowling.”

“Bowling!  That’ll be fun!  Do you bowl?”

“Not very well.  I signed up for the class in order to have enough units to be full time, in case I didn’t get into everything.  But after I did get into everything, I decided to keep it.  It looks fun, and I always liked bowling.”

“Yeah!  Is it at the bowling alley in the MU?”

“Yeah.”

“You said Chem 2C also?  Do you need chemistry for a math major?”

“I don’t.  But I didn’t decide for sure on math for my major until I was halfway through 2B, and I like chemistry, so I just figured I’d finish the 2 series.”

“That makes sense.”

“Oh.  And I also applied at the Learning Skills Center to be a tutor.  And I applied to work at the bookstore.  I haven’t heard back from either of those yet; I just dropped off the applications this morning.  If I get both jobs, I’m probably only going to keep one.”

“That would be cool.  I could see you being a tutor.”

“Yeah.  In high school, my friends always came to me when they needed help with homework.”

“Are you going to be a teacher?  Is that your career goal?”

“I don’t know what my goal is,” I said.  “But I don’t think I would like being a teacher.  Too much politics in education.”

“Yeah.  It’s too bad it has to be like that.”

“I just kind of assumed I’d stay in school forever and be a mathematician someday.  School is what I’m good at.  But I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to have it all figured out right now.”

“I know.  But it would be nice to figure it out, so I can make some long term plans with classes.”

“The worst that can happen is you’ll have to stay here a fifth year.  And that means another year with your friends, doing what you’re good at.”

“I guess.  That’s one way to look at it.”

“I’ve accepted the fact by now that I won’t be able to finish a chemical engineering degree in four years.”

“Yeah.  I’ve heard it’s a lot of work.”

“One of the most intense majors at UJ,” Megan replied.

“What are you taking this quarter?” I asked.

“P-chem, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and writing for engineers.  It’s going to be a lot of work.  And I have all my RA responsibilities too.  That’s another reason I won’t finish in four.  I can’t take a ton of units each quarter because I need time to do RA stuff.”

“You seem to have it figured out, though,” I said.

“Yeah, we’ll see,” Megan replied, chuckling.  “So did you do anything else the rest of the summer?  Did you go to any more of those roller hockey games?”

“I did.  The Mountain Lions won the roller hockey championship this year.  I went to some of the home playoff games with my family.”

“That sounds like fun!  I didn’t even know there was professional roller hockey.”

“It is fun.  And the rules are a little different, so that they score more goals than in regular hockey.  I mean ice hockey.”

“Makes sense.”

“I didn’t do much else.  The bookstore job.  And, oh yeah, my friend from high school, she was an exchange student in Austria for a year, she got some of her friends from Austria to come here for a couple weeks and do a performance.”

“Nice.  How was that?”

“They were really good.  I don’t know a whole lot about classical music, but I enjoyed it.”

“That’s good.”

“What about you?” I asked.  “How was the rest of your summer?”

“Busy.  Mostly just school.  My classes were really, really hard!”

“But it’s over now.”

“Yes, it is.  The only really fun thing I did in the last few weeks was when it was my friend’s birthday.  She and I and two other friends took a road trip up to the Great Blue Lake.  We drove a lap around the lake, ate at a McDonald’s there, then turned around and went home.”

“All that way for McDonald’s,” I said.  The idea of driving over a hundred miles just for McDonald’s seemed a little unusual to me.  But in addition to that, I was also surprised for another reason.  McDonald’s was not exactly fine dining, and many of the people I had met here in Jeromeville seemed to be the type to think that eating McDonald’s was beneath them.  But it was also a bit of a relief that Megan liked McDonald’s, or at least was willing to eat there, because I grew up eating a lot of fast food, and I loved McDonald’s.  I suspected, though, that McDonald’s was not the main point of Megan’s story.  “But I’m sure a trip like that was more about your friends than the food,” I said.

“Exactly.  I’ve done stuff like that with these friends before.  We’ll just take a random road trip somewhere, and then turn around and come back.”

“Nice,” I replied.  A random road trip did sound fun.  As a road geek, I enjoyed exploring new places.  And I had never been to the Great Blue Lake.  It was one of the top vacation spots in this part of the country, but most of its tourism appeal involved skiing, camping, and other outdoor activities that my family did not participate in.

After a while, when both of us had been done eating for several minutes, Megan asked, “You ready to go back?”

“Sure,” I replied.  We took our plates and silverware to the conveyor belt that sent dirty dishes back to the kitchen, then left the dining hall and walked back toward Megan’s dorm.  I looked at my watch; it was 1:04.

“If you’re not busy, we can hang out in my room until my meeting,” Megan said.

“Sure,” I replied, smiling.  I wanted so badly to hold her hand we walked up to Carter Hall, but I did not.  That would be weird, especially since I did not know if she liked me back, and I did not know how to ask her.  Megan let us into the building, then proceeded to her room.  She sat on the end of her bed where the pillow was, her legs dangling off the edge.  She smiled and motioned for me to sit on the other side of the bed.  I got up on the bed, sitting cross-legged and facing her.  “So how are your residents so far?”

Megan turned to face me, also crossing her legs.  “Good, so far,” she said.  “I still don’t know everyone yet, of course.  But it’s definitely different being the only RA.  Carter, Serrano, and Irwin are the smallest dorms on campus, so they each only have one RA.”

“Yeah.”

“But from what I’ve seen so far, it looks like a good balance of science and humanities people.  It’s interesting how some dorms will be heavy on humanities majors, and some will be more sciencey, stuff like that.”

“Yeah.”

“My freshman year, I had mostly engineers around me.  I was like, yay, you guys are my people!  Then last year, when I was in Building K, there were a lot of artsy people.  You know Tiffany Rollins, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Part of the reason we got along so great was because she was another woman engineer.  There weren’t many of us in K last year.”

“We had a lot of engineers and science people in C last year,” I said.  “Dr. McGillicuddy, she’s the director of the IHP, she said that some years are more science people and some years are more art people.”

“Hey, Megan?” a voice said from the hallway.  A girl leaned into Megan’s open door from the hallway.  She stopped and looked slightly embarrassed when she saw me on the bed.  “Oh,” she said.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

“It’s ok,” Megan said.  “What do you need?”

Obviously it was the sight of me in Megan’s room that surprised the girl.  Maybe she assumed I was Megan’s boyfriend, and that she had interrupted a romantic moment between us.  I wish.  It felt kind of nice to think that this girl might have thought that a cute, smart, older girl like Megan would have a boyfriend like me.

“Sorry about that,” Megan said a minute later after she answered her resident’s question.

“No problem.  You’re doing your job.”

“So are you glad school is starting?”

“I am.  It’s been a pretty lonely summer.”

“Have you gotten to see all your friends back here?”

“I’ve seen some of them.  It’s going to be different, though, living by myself, not having a built-in community like I did last year.”

“Yeah,” Megan replied.  “I’m an RA, so I have a built-in community every year.”

“I know.  I applied and interviewed to be an RA, because of that, but I didn’t get it.  Remember?”

“Oh, that’s right.”

“I probably wouldn’t be a good RA, though.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I just don’t feel like a leader,” I explained.  “I grew up kind of sheltered.  I don’t know what a lot of students’ lives are like.  And I’m still having trouble living on my own; I’m not ready to help others do it.”

“You never know,” Megan said.  “It wouldn’t hurt to apply again.  If you really want to be an RA, you could learn those leadership skills.  And you’ve grown since I first knew you.”

“You think so?”

“I do.  You’ve figured out a lot about living on your own.  Give yourself more credit.”

After we had been talking for a while, Megan turned her head in the direction of her clock.  It was 1:50.  “I should probably head over to that meeting,” she said.  “Did you park your bike next to Raymond?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll follow you that far.”

“Sounds good.”  I grabbed my backpack and followed Megan out of the building and across the lawn.  “Thanks for treating me to lunch,” I said.

“Thanks for coming!” Megan replied.  “It was good seeing you!”

“Have a great first week.”

“You too!”  Megan gave me a hug, holding me a little tightly.  “I’ll see you around, Greg,” she said as she patted me on the back.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Take care.”

“You too.”  Megan let go of me and watched me get on my bike before walking into Raymond Hall for her meeting.

As I passed the high-rises and rode north on Andrews Road, I thought about what Megan said.  I really had grown over the last year.  I was confused about many things and lacked street smarts and knowledge of how things worked in the world when I first came to Jeromeville.  I had to figure out some basic life skills on my own.  I was not good at making friends or having a social life.  And now, here I was, living in my own apartment and meeting friends for lunch… specifically, cute older female friends.  Things were definitely moving in the right direction.  I felt optimistic that maybe this would finally be my year, the year that life finally started going my way and I became one of the cool kids who gets invited to parties and gets attention from cute girls.  And, looking back, my sophomore year at UJ definitely was an unforgettable and life-changing year.

Just not entirely in the ways I expected.

June 6, 1995. New music for the difficult week approaching.

Back in 1995, before YouTube and Pandora and satellite radio and MP3 players, we had to buy music on CDs at music stores.  The biggest music store in Jeromeville at the time was Tower Records. Tower Records started in the 1960s in Capital City, just across the Drawbridge from here, and it eventually grew into a chain with locations all around the world.  The Jeromeville location of Tower Records, on G Street downtown, was a new one; it had only been open for six months. I had read in the local news that many downtown small business owners and local elected officials were angry at the opening of Tower Records.  They believed that a chain store had no place in their precious quirky little town, and that the City Council should take more action to ban chain stores. I thought that those people saying that were pretentious, and that it was not the place of a City Council to protect small businesses from competition, so I had no problem buying music at Tower.

New music was always released to stores on Tuesdays back then.  I had math at 9:00 on Tuesdays, and then a three hour break. On the last Tuesday before finals, I got on my bike after math class and headed straight for Tower Records.  It only took me about five minutes to get there. As I walked in, I saw a display for new releases in front of me. Half of the shelf was taken up by a CD case with strange abstract artwork on the cover.  In the center was something resembling an eyeball, but the pupil of the eye was a solar eclipse with a corona around it, and a planet overlapped the solar eclipse on the upper right side. Above the eye was a beach, partially covered with clouds; on the lower left, puddles of water scattered on dirt gradually metamorphosed into fish.  On the left spine of the custom-made CD case was a small blinking red light.

This was it.  This was what I had come for: Pink Floyd’s Pulse album, the live album from their tour last summer and fall (which would be the band’s final tour).

The album had been released a week earlier in the UK, so many of the British people from the Pink Floyd Usenet group had already been talking about it.  It was two and a half hours long, containing two full discs of live music. The first disc contained mostly well-known songs, as well as Astronomy Domine, an obscure song from their first album, which I had never heard.  The second disc contained every song from their legendary 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon performed live, in order, and an encore of three more of their biggest hits.

After I grabbed a copy of Pulse, I looked around the store to see if I saw any other music I felt like buying.  I also bought the album Sixteen Stone by a British grunge band called Bush.  I had heard a song from it on the radio, and also someone in my building had it (I don’t remember who) and I remember really liking some of the other songs on it.

I got home a little before eleven and spent the rest of the morning listening to Pulse.  I looked through the book that came inside the CD case several times; it contained photographs from the tour.  Several pages had an abstract symbol in white superimposed over a photograph of a member of the band or one of the additional touring musicians.  I noticed that some of the symbols and drawings resembled letters and figured out fairly quickly that the letters in question were the initials of the person photographed.

I logged on to the Pink Floyd Usenet group while I was listening.  A Usenet group is a text-based ancestor of today’s Internet forum, and Pink Floyd’s group had been relatively active since I discovered Usenet groups a year ago.  Someone with connections to the band had posted last summer, using the pseudonym “Publius” and an anonymous email address, claiming that the album The Division Bell had some kind of secret message and a reward for whomever decoded it.  With the recent release of Pulse, the discussion had picked up again.  I found the post where people had debated the meanings of those symbols and drawings, and someone had already pointed out the resemblance to band members’ initials.  I decided not to reply, since Usenet users sometimes looked down upon those who posted without having anything useful to contribute to the discussion.

I did not get to finish listening to Pulse in one sitting.  Right at the end of the song Eclipse on disc 2, the last song before the encore, I noticed that it was time to go to class.  When I got back from class later that afternoon, I turned the music back on. But a few minutes later, during the second verse of Comfortably Numb, my music was suddenly drowned out by a loud techno reggae cover of the Beatles’ Come Together, coming from outside the room.  I smiled, paused the CD, and walked out of room 221, down the hall toward room 222.

“Hey, Greg,” Ramon said when he saw me in the doorway.  “You like it?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Is it too loud?”

“It’s ok.  I’m not doing anything where I need it quiet, or anything.”

Liz Williams and Tara Nowell lived in room 222.  Ramon Quintero had been Liz’s boyfriend since the middle of fall quarter, and he spent so much more time in Liz’s room than he did in his own room that he had moved the sign with his name on it from the door to his actual room on the third floor to Liz’s door.  Tara had some kind of music-making software on her computer that Ramon liked to play with, and I was used to hearing this kind of loud music from down the hall by now. I did not mind, as long as it was quiet when I was trying to sleep.

A few days earlier, I had been sitting in Liz’s room, and Ramon was talking about his music.  “I want to do a reggae version of Come Together,” he said.

“That sounds really cool.”

“I was thinking, like, what makes reggae sound like reggae?  I had never really thought about it before,” Ramon said. I realized that I had never really thought about this either.  “So I was listening to Bob Marley and stuff like that, and I noticed there’s more of a stress on the second and fourth beats instead of the first and third.”

I wasn’t an expert on Bob Marley, but I started singing One Love silently to myself, since that was one of the few Bob Marley songs I knew.  “You’re right,” I said. “Interesting.”

“So how are your classes going?” Liz asked me.  “Getting ready for finals?”

“They’re going okay, I guess,” I said.  “I bombed my first physics midterm, but I’ve been studying really hard ever since.  That’s the one I’m most worried about, just because I did so badly on that first one.”

“When is the physics final?”

I paused to think.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “I haven’t looked at my finals schedule yet.  I should probably do that.”

“Yeah, you should.  I have one Monday, two Wednesday, and one Thursday.  That won’t be too bad.”

“I can’t believe the school year is almost over,” I said.  “It seemed to go by fast, especially here at the end.”

“I know!  We’ve almost finished a year of college!”

“Hey, listen to this,” Ramon said.  “I turned up the bass a little.” He played his techno-reggae Come Together again, supposedly with more bass.  I could not tell the difference, honestly.

“I’m not sure which way I like better,” I said.  “Can you play the first one again?” Ramon did something on the computer and played it again the way it was the first time, and I said, “I think I like the second one better.  I need to get to work, though.”

“Okay,” Ramon said.  “Have a good one.”

“It was good talking to you,” Liz added.

“You too.”

I walked back to room 221 and got out the course schedule for this quarter.  Finals did not happen at the usual meeting time for a class. The course schedule for each quarter had a page that said the final time for any given class.  It was based on the time that the class usually met, so that, for example, every class that usually met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 9am would have the final at the same time, but this time would not necessarily be 9am.  Each class was allotted a two-hour time slot, regardless of how much time the class normally met for. All of the necessary time slots required exactly six days, so finals week was the one time each quarter when classes were held on a Saturday.

I looked up the times for my four finals and thought, no, this can’t be right.  That doesn’t make sense. I double-checked, and it did not make sense, but it was correct.  This finals week was going to be a disaster.

For one thing, there was no dead time before finals this quarter.  Fall quarter classes had ended on a Friday, and finals started the following Monday.  For winter quarter, classes had ended on a Thursday, and finals began the following Saturday, so there was one so-called dead day of no classes before finals began.  But this quarter, the last day of classes was Friday, and finals began on Saturday. To make things even worse, my physics final had the earliest time slot possible, Saturday morning at 8:00.  This was less than 24 hours after my last actual physics class, Friday morning at 11. My final for Psychology and the Law was Monday morning, chemistry was Monday afternoon, and math was Thursday afternoon.

This was the worst possible scenario for me.  My three most difficult finals fell on the first two days, and my easy final would not be until the end of the week.  I was scared, and I did not know how I would be able to do this. I could have checked what my finals schedule would have been like before I registered for classes, but I figured it was just one week and that it made little sense to schedule my entire quarter around finals week.  I wonder now, though, if I would have done things differently had I taken the time to check my finals schedule. Too late to change it now.

 

Later that night, after dinner, I wandered down to the common room.  It was full. Liz and Ramon, Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Danielle, Gina, Mike Adams, Karen, David, Yu Cheng, and Schuyler were all watching the movie Forrest Gump.  Ramon had bought the movie on VHS a couple weeks ago, and it seemed like he, or at least someone, had watched it every few days ever since then.  I found an unoccupied seat on a couch and sat down. I had work to do, but it could wait. I didn’t need to do it right now. I loved this movie, and in the worst case, I had seen the movie before, so if I had to go get some work to do and not give the movie my full attention, I would not miss out.

The movie had just started a few minutes earlier.  In the movie, Forrest was explaining that he was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a relative whom he called a Civil War hero.

“Forrest was named after the founder of the Klan,” Gina said.  “I forgot about that part.”

“That must suck to have a famous relative, but it’s someone like that, not someone you want to be associated with,” Mike said.

“Probably,” I replied.  “I don’t have any famous relatives.  I wouldn’t know.”

“I don’t either.”

“My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Vice President!” Karen exclaimed.  At that moment, a thought crossed my mind. Maybe it was because Karen had talked about growing up in the South, or maybe it was because I knew someone else who was related to a Southern Vice President from early in the history of the USA, but as soon as she said that, I just knew that her famous ancestor was going to be John C. Calhoun.

“Who’s that?” Mike asked.

“John C. Calhoun!” Karen said.  “He was Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.”

“I remember that name from history class,” Gina said.

“If that’s true, then you’re related to one of my friends from high school,” I said.

“Huh?” Karen replied, caught off guard by my comment.

“Do you know the Hallorans from Plumdale?  Jessica Halloran? And her sister Jamie, and they have a bunch of younger siblings too.  Jessica said once that she was related to John C. Calhoun.”

“No.  But that’s funny that you know some distant relatives of mine.  Weird.”

“Yeah.  Jessica was one of my best friends.  She took a year off to go volunteer at an orphanage in Guatemala.”

“Wow.  That’s cool.  Adventurous.”

“I know.”  Currently as an adult, I am in Facebook contact with both Jessica and Jamie, but I never did find out if they knew Karen, nor do I think I’ve ever mentioned that I went to Jeromeville with some distant cousin of theirs.

I had noticed earlier that Jared was sitting in the corner alone with his Scrabble board, seemingly paying more attention to the board than the movie, placing tiles on the board.  He was clearly not playing an actual game, since no one else was sitting with him. I walked over to him to see what was going on.

“Hey, Jared,” I said.

“Hi,” he said back, gesturing toward the board.  “Check this out.” Jared had filled the entire board with interlocking dirty words.  Private parts, biology terms, sexual slang, pretty much every inappropriate word I could think of was on the Scrabble board somewhere.

I began laughing.  “That’s hilarious!” I told him.  “This wasn’t a real game, was it?”

“No.  It couldn’t be from a real game,” he explained, pointing toward the middle of the board, “because EJACULATE couldn’t have been played here in a real game.  It’s too many letters, and none of these other words were here before, only this one.”

“Oh yeah.  But couldn’t you… no, I guess not, there’s no shorter word you could have played first.”

“Yeah.  I have three letters left, D, A, and E.  I’m trying to figure out where to put them.”  Jared scanned the board. He put the tiles going down from the D at the end of LAID, so that they spelled DEAD.  “DEAD!”

“That’s not really a sex word, is it?”

“No, but it’s hilarious!”

I pointed at the H in HYMEN and gestured toward the empty space next to it.  “What about HEAD?” I said.

“That works, but I like DEAD.  It’s just funnier.”

“If you say so.  It’s your game.” I did not understand why DEAD was so funny, but it is not important.  I walked back across the room and sat next to Liz and Ramon, directing my attention back to the movie.

“My name’s Forrest,” Ramon said in an exaggerated Southern accent.  “Forrest Gump.”

“Forrest Gump is kind of a cool name,” Mike said.

“Yeah,” Yu replied.  “Except for the Gump part.”  I laughed. Yu continued, “That could be my name.  Forrest Cheng. Or maybe Yu Gump.”

“Yu Gump,” Mike repeated back.  “I’m going to start calling you that.”

I was not looking forward to moving back home and being away from these silly, nonsensical random conversations.  It seemed that these conversations were an essential part of the dorm life experience. Maybe I would have neighbors at my apartment next year who had random conversations like this.  Or maybe I would still get together with some of these Interdisciplinary Honors Program friends next year. I hoped I would find something, because the IHP had really helped me feel like I had a home, a smaller group to belong to within the context of this very large university.  I would need to find a new group next year.

“Hey, Greg?” Liz asked.  “Did you ever figure out your finals schedule?”

“Yeah,” I answered, “and it’s going to be horrible.  I have my three hard finals on the first two days, and then the easy one, math, isn’t until Thursday.  There are less than 24 hours between my last physics class and the final.”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah.  I’m really going to need to study hard over the next few days.”

“I know you can do it, Greg.  And just think, once those three finals are over, you’ll only have an easy final left, so then you get plenty of time to pack and clean your room.  And you’ll get time to hang out too.”

“That’s a good way to look at it.  Thanks.”

“I had a hard schedule like that last quarter, with all my hard finals first.  It wasn’t that bad, though. You’ll do fine.”

“I hope so.”

After the movie, I went upstairs.  I could still get a good two hours of studying in before I went to bed.  I put on Pulse for the second time that day and told myself that when the music ended, it would be time for bed.  That sounded like a plan.

Forrest Gump’s mother said that life was like a box of chocolates, because I never knew what I would get.  I did not know I would get this difficult finals schedule. All I could do now was make the best of it. One thing at a time.  I had three more days of regular classes left, and I would use as much time as possible over those three days to study for physics.  Once I finished physics Saturday morning, I would spend the rest of the weekend studying for my two Monday finals. And once Monday night came, I would do as Liz suggested and let up a bit.  I would still study for the math final on Thursday, but being my easiest one, I would not need all day to study. I would take my time leisurely packing and cleaning. I would go on bike rides.  I would probably spend some time in chat rooms. And I would hopefully have some more of these great random conversations with my IHP friends. The second part of finals week would be nice and relaxing.  It would be fun. And it was only a week away.

pulse

May 20, 1995. Not my typical Saturday.

I nervously left Building C and walked to the other side of the South Residential Area.  It was a warm night, but not warm enough to wear shorts, in my opinion. I wore a t-shirt and jeans.  I kept trying to reassure myself that I didn’t have a reason to be so nervous. They invited me, after all; it’s not like they are suddenly going to reject me.  But what if they do? What if they something weird happens and they never talk to me again? What if I embarrass myself in front of these people, who don’t know me as well as my Building C friends do?

I tried to tell myself I was being ridiculous.  Just because I was going to be hanging out with a different group of people did not necessarily mean that something bad was going to happen.

I got to the main entrance of Building K and saw Megan and Tiffany already in the lobby.  I knocked on the door, and Tiffany let me in. “Hi, Greg,” she said. “Come on in.”

Megan turned around and looked at me, smiling.  “Hey, Greg. We’re just waiting for Maria and Ron.  They said they’d be down in a few minutes. You ready?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking around.  Building K looked just like Building C, except the walls were painted a different color, and there were different flyers on the bulletin board.  Megan was one of the resident advisers for Building K. She wore shorts and sandals with a T-shirt, and her short dark blonde hair still had a few traces of green in it.  She had cut her hair short and dyed it a few months earlier, but it looked like she was growing it a little longer again. Her hair had been somewhere between chin and shoulder length when I met her.  Amy, one of the RAs in my building, had introduced me to Megan in the dining hall during fall quarter, and we had gotten to be friends just from seeing each other around and talking. I wanted to get to know her better, and I wanted to know if she had a boyfriend, and if not, if she was interested in shy younger guys like me.

Earlier this year, my friend Brittany, who lived in Texas and met me online in a chat room, had asked me if I had met any girls in college yet.  I mentioned that I kind of had a crush, but it probably would not work out because she was older. “How much older?” Brittany had asked. “If she’s also a student at your school, then you can’t be more than three or four years apart, right?  That’s nothing. You shouldn’t worry about that, unless this Miss Megan is 40 or something like that.” Brittany was probably right. Megan was only older than me by a year and three days, and that isn’t really a significant age difference. However, I was inexperienced enough with dating and relationships and girlfriends that I still felt way too young to be dating a sophomore.  Megan was going to turn 20 in August. That was a grown-up age. She was almost done being a teenager.

“How’s your weekend going?” Megan asked.

“Good.  I’ve mostly just been studying.  Trying to get it out of the way. One more math midterm on Monday, and that’ll be the last midterm until finals.”

“That midterm is gonna be hard,” Tiffany said.  “Greg’ll probably ace it, though.” I smiled.

“You two are in the same math class, right?” Megan asked.

“Yeah,” I explained.  “I don’t think it’s that hard so far.  But it seems like the quarter is going by fast in general.  The first midterm still feels like it wasn’t that long ago.”

“I know!  This quarter is flying by!”

A girl with dark hair and brown eyes, whom I had seen around the dining commons and met a couple times before, emerged from the stairwell into the lobby with a spiky-haired thin guy.  I assumed this guy must be Ron, since I knew Maria was the girl.

“You guys ready?” Megan asked.

“Let’s go,” Ron replied.

The five of us walked out of Building K, along the bike path past Kent Hall and the barns, turning left at the chemistry building, and getting into a line at the large outdoor steps leading to 199 Stone, the largest lecture hall on campus.  The room held around 400 students, and that lecture hall was the only room in Stone Hall. The front of the room was one building story lower with the rows pitched downward as they would be in a theater or stadium, and a door on the right side of the back wall connected to the basement of the chemistry building, which was right next to Stone Hall.  The room number 199 was chosen to be consistent with the numbering of the nearby rooms in the chemistry building.

On weekends, a division of the Associated Students organization called Campus Cinema used 199 Stone as a movie theater, showing movies that had been in theaters a few months earlier but were usually not available to rent on VHS video yet.  (Those are those giant cassette tapes for watching movies at home, before DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and streaming video were invented.) A different movie would show every day, and tickets only cost three dollars.

About an hour ago, I sat down with Megan, Tiffany, and Maria at dinner.  They said that they were going to watch the movie Quiz Show at 199 Stone and invited me along.  I said sure. I needed to get out and do something tonight, and more importantly, this was an opportunity to hang out with Megan.  I had also seen commercials for this movie when it was released last fall, and it looked intriguing. The movie was based on a true story, about a television game show from the 1950s with outcomes that were rigged by the producers.

On the walk to 199 Stone, Maria and Ron were acting very much like a couple, holding hands and kissing a few times.  Does that mean I was Megan’s date? Or Tiffany’s date? Of course not, but I kind of wished I could be Megan’s date. I was walking in the back of our group of five, and I realized at one point that I had been staring at Megan’s butt and legs in front of me for long enough that Tiffany might have noticed.  I looked up, hoping that she hadn’t.

After we bought our tickets, and Ron bought popcorn, the five of us sat down toward the top of the room, in the right section.  The room was filling up, but we were still able to find five seats together; I sat between Megan and Tiffany.

One of my favorite parts of Campus Cinema was that they showed an old cartoon before the main movie, like movie theaters of my parents’ and grandparents’ time would do.  Tonight, it was the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he has a feud with an opera singer, ending with Bugs pretending to be the conductor at the singer’s concert and making him hold a long note until he runs out of breath and the stage collapses.  I had seen that one many times over the years; I grew up on old Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons.

As I watched Quiz Show, I felt like this movie was exposing a dark underbelly of the game show industry.  The producers of the show in the movie entice their returning champion to lose on purpose, because a new contestant is presumed to be more likable to audiences.  In order to keep the new contestant on the show, they provided him with the questions and answers in advance, and the producers manipulated the air conditioning and ventilation around the contestants to make them sweat and experience physical discomfort.

At one point during the movie, Megan crossed her legs, and I could feel her crossed leg inadvertently brush up against mine a few times.  I looked up one of those times. “Sorry,” Megan whispered, and moved her leg away from me. I didn’t want that. I kind of liked her brushing up against me.  But I said nothing. That would be inappropriate, and probably a little creepy. Also, someone would probably find a way to make fun of me for it, just like in 8th grade when Paul Dickinson figured out who I liked and told the whole school.

I hoped that the game shows I enjoyed watching as a child in the 1980s had not been fixed like the one in the movie; that would be disappointing.  I do remember as a child watching an episode of Press Your Luck where one contestant went on a ridiculous winning streak, always stopping the spinner on the best spot on the board and never getting a Whammy.  I suspected that the contestant himself had somehow figured out how to beat the system, but I did not know if the show’s producers were involved. Hopefully the show was not fixed, because after the incident that the movie described, new laws were passed to prohibit fixing of prizes on television shows.  However, television never tells the full story of what is really happening. I would learn years later that the contestant I watched on Press Your Luck had cracked the code on his own.  He was a compulsive gambler and get-rich-quick artist who lost much of his game show money in a robbery and the rest in a bad investment, and he would eventually die alone, broke, and fairly young.

On the way home from the movie, Megan asked, “Are you guys both going home for the summer?”  The question was directed to me and Tiffany; Maria and Ron were walking more slowly, arm in arm and no longer in earshot of us.

“Yeah,” Tiffany said.  “I’m probably not going to be doing anything.  Maybe getting a job.”

“My mom said she has a job for me,” I said.  “Someone she knows works at a bookstore, and they’re looking to hire someone part time.”

“That’ll be good,” Megan said.  “You’re from, where was it? Somewhere near Santa Lucia, right?”

“Yeah.  Plumdale.”

“And you’re from Ashwood?”

“Yes,” Tiffany replied.  I realized that I had known Tiffany since January but had no idea where she was from until this moment.  Ashwood was at the far end of the Valley, about as far away as Plumdale but inland, to the southeast, whereas Plumdale was more due south.

“I’m going to miss all my friends here,” I said.  “I want to get everyone’s address so I can write. Or email, for people who have computers at home.”

“Definitely,” Tiffany said.  “Give me your address before the end of the year.”

“I will.”

“I’ll be here taking summer school,” Megan added, “so I’ll have email.”

“Great.  I’ll write you.”

By this time, we had returned to Building K.  “Thanks for coming with us, Greg,” Megan said.

“Thanks for inviting me!  It was a good movie.”

“I know.  I’ll see you around.  Have a good weekend, OK?”

“I will.”

Megan hugged me, and I smiled.  Tiffany hugged me too. I turned around toward Building C, turning back one last time to wave to my friends from Building K as they entered the building.

 

As I climbed the stairs toward Room 221, I could hear the muffled sound of music playing somewhere else in the building.  It seemed to be coming from directly above, from the third floor on my end of the building. Instead of going to my room, I continued up to the third floor, curious to see what was going on.  I began to hear muffled voices along with the muffled music, as if many people were being loud trying to be heard over the music.

When I was on the landing halfway between the second and third floor, the third floor door opened, and the music and voices became louder.  Gina Stalteri and Karen Francis walked through the door. Karen was giggling and leaning on Gina, having a hard time standing on her own. She was holding a can of Coors Light beer.

“Hey, Greg,” Gina said, noticing me on the landing.  “Come on up.”

“Greg!” Karen shouted, giggling.  “I’ve never been drunk before!” She tried to step forward but staggered to the ground instead.

I continued walking up the stairs toward them and walked into the third floor hallway, my mind still processing what I was seeing.  This appeared to be a party. My first college party. I had never been to an actual party like this, but I had seen parties on TV and in movies, and this looked exactly what I imagined a party to look like.

At each end of each floor, the hallway widened in front of the last room on each side.  The hallways on the second and third floor opened to a balcony at the end of the building, like the balcony on which Taylor Santiago had been sitting when he met my parents, but that was at the opposite end of the building.  A few months ago, someone had hung strings of beads where I was now, over the hallway at the point just past the door to the stairs, so that one had to pass through the beads in order to get to rooms 322 through 325. Brendan Lowe in room 322 had started referring to himself and his neighbors at the end of the third floor as “The Bead People.”  Derek Olvera in room 324 had put a sign on his door proclaiming that “Cool people live here.”

The door to Brendan’s room was open, and the music seemed to be coming from there.  I didn’t recognize the song. Brendan listened to a lot of weird, really dark music that I was never exposed to in Plumdale.  I peeked my head into room 322, where Brendan, his roommate Will, Jenn from the first floor, and two guys I didn’t recognize were sitting, talking, and drinking something from plastic cups.

“Hey, Greg,” Brendan said, pointing to a case of Coors Light in cans.  “You want one?”

“No, thanks,” I said.  I stood in the doorway observing their conversation for a few minutes.  I didn’t understand what they were talking about, so I went back into the hallway and walked around all the people sitting against the wall drinking beer.

Room 324, where cool people supposedly lived, was also open.  Derek, a tall guy with reddish-blonde hair, sat on his bed. He had his arms around a dark-haired girl named Stephanie who lived at the other end of the third floor; I had seen them together a lot lately.  Pat Hart sat on the other bed. The other bed belonged to Jared, the guy who often played Scrabble in the common room, but I did not see Jared at this party.

“Hey, Greg,” Derek said when I walked in.

“Hey,” Stephanie added.  “What’s up?”

“Just looking around,” I said.

“Take a seat if you want,” Derek offered, gesturing toward an empty chair.  I sat. Derek lifted his leg and farted. Pat laughed. Stephanie gave him a disgusted look.  I chuckled.

Karen walked into the room.  “I’m back!” she said. She attempted to sit with Pat on Jared’s bed, but fell over on her side instead.  Pat picked her up and kissed her deeply for quite a long time. When they finished, Karen looked up and announced to the room, “This is the first time I’ve been drunk!”  She had told me this same thing just five minutes earlier. “Nate said he’s bringing more beer,” Karen continued.

“Good!” Stephanie shouted.

“I’m going to go see who else is here,” I said.

“See you around, Greg,” Derek said.  Stephanie waved. Pat and Karen were making out and did not seem to notice that I was leaving.

A voice coming from Brendan’s stereo started singing something like “bow down before the one you serve.”  This was still not the type of music I was most familiar with, but I had heard this song before, unlike the song that was playing before.  I thought this song was by that band Nine Inch Nails. Brendan really liked them, as did Skeeter. I didn’t see Skeeter at this party.

I stood outside of Derek’s room in the wide part of the hallway at the end of the building.  A few people were sitting there on desk chairs taken from nearby bedrooms, and some other people were sitting on the floor.  Mike Adams and his girlfriend Kim, Dan Woodward, Schuyler Jenkins, Tracy Lee, Yu Cheng, and two guys I did not know who did not live here sat talking.  Mike was telling a story loudly, interrupting to laugh every few sentences. Others laughed as well. I missed the beginning of the story, so I wasn’t sure what it was about.  I saw Pat and Gina come through the beads with a case of Budweiser cans, but then I realized it wasn’t Pat because he was busy sucking face with Karen in Derek’s room. This was Nate, Pat’s twin brother who lived in a different building.  “Hey, Greg,” Nate said when he saw me. “You want one?”

“No, thank you.”

Nate went into Brendan’s room to put the beer down, and then into Derek’s room where his brother was.  I felt something brush against my leg; I looked down and saw Schuyler lean her head on my leg, from a position of sitting against the wall.  “Hi,” she said, looking back up at me.

“Hi,” I replied.

“Having fun?”

“I just got here.  I was watching the movie Quiz Show at 199 Stone with some friends from another building.”

“Did you like it?”

“I did.  It’s interesting.”

“Really?  I’ve seen it before.  I thought it was boring.”

“I grew up watching game shows.  It was fascinating to see the dark side of the game show world.”

“I just thought it was dumb.  Not my thing.”

Mike was laughing loudly again at something, and everyone reacted as if he had been the funniest human being alive.  Schuyler took another sip of beer. “I think I’m going to go back downstairs now,” I said.

“No!” Schuyler replied.  “Don’t leave.” She put her arms around my legs, giggling.  I carefully stepped out of her tenuous, drunken grasp.

“This party isn’t my thing.  Just like how the movie isn’t your thing.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.”

“Come back later if you want.”

“I might.”

Before I walked into the stairwell, I looked at the door to room 321, where Amy, the RA, lived.  On the small bulletin board on her door, she had put a piece of paper telling people where to find her, with a push pin indicating where she was.

Amy is

  • Here.  Come on in!
  • Here, but please knock first.
  • Studying hard.  Please do not disturb.
  • In class.
  • Eating at the DC.
  • At the Help Window.
  • Somewhere else on campus.
  • Off campus.
  • Not in Jeromeville.

The push pin was next to “Not in Jeromeville.”  Amy must have gone home for the weekend, which explains why the Bead People had chosen tonight to throw a party right next to the RA’s room.

I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of Karen emerging from Derek’s room.  “I’ve never been drunk before!” she announced to the people sitting in the hallway. I turned around and walked back down the stairs to the second floor.  It was ten o’clock at night, and quiet hours started at eleven. If this party didn’t shut down in an hour, I would not be getting any sleep that night. I knocked on the door of room 215, where Gurpreet, the other RA, lived.  He did not answer either. I was not surprised; of course the party would happen when there was no one in charge in the building.

I went back to room 221 and sat on my bed, angry.  How did this happen? I knew no one here was 21 years old; who bought the beer?  Did they have fake IDs? Did they have older friends buy it for them? Maybe one of the other people at the party who was not from this building was older.  And what about Karen? She was drunk enough to be staggering, and she was not even a legal adult. She had skipped a year in elementary school and graduated from high school early, and she had just turned 17 a month ago.  In health class in high school, we learned about drugs and alcohol, and everyone kept talking about how kids could get drugs and alcohol anyway even though they were illegal. Where? How? Who were these kids? Everyone seemed to know how to get drugs and alcohol except for me, and it made me angry.  I had no desire to do drugs or drink alcohol, but it made me angry nevertheless because these people had some kind of secret knowledge about how to flout authority that I did not have, and they felt no remorse for doing something illegal and unsafe.

Sometimes I wished I had gotten invited to more parties in high school.  That way, I would know when and where kids were getting drunk, breaking the law, and I could call the police on them and get them in trouble, and justice would be served.  Now I finally had my opportunity, and the people in charge were gone. It was frustrating. What should I do now? Should I call the police? Should I go to the Help Window and tell whichever RA was on duty tonight?  Maybe I should call Megan. She was another authority figure who might be able to do something about this. And that would give me another chance to talk to her.

As I sat on the bed thinking about what to do, I realized that I knew all along what the right decision would be.  I did nothing. I got over it and let it go. If the Bead People and the others who went to that party wanted to make poor choices, that was their life.  No one was hurting me, and a bunch of college freshmen drinking cheap beer and playing loud weird music is not exactly the greatest threat to America’s freedom and well-being.  The police might not even consider it a high enough priority to respond. And these people were my friends. I had come a long way to be at this point in my life where I actually had friends, and I didn’t want to ruin that by being a stickler for the rules.  Following authority is important, but so is friendship.

I didn’t go back upstairs to that party that night.  But I also didn’t report them to any authority figures.  I just sat quietly in my room playing around on the computer.  I played Tetris. I got on IRC chat and looked for girls to talk to.  I played around with this new thing I had gotten recently called Netscape, where I could look at these things called Web sites that had text and pictures to read.  If the text was underlined, I could click on it and a new page would open. The pictures took several seconds to load, but it was still more interesting than the text-based Internet I had been using all year.  That night I kept myself busy looking up Pink Floyd lyrics and album artwork. And I was far enough away from the party that the noise didn’t keep me awake. I never did find out what happened the rest of the night at the party on the third floor.  I don’t know if anyone got in trouble. And it was not my business. I slept just fine that night.

April 20-22, 1995. The Spring Picnic.

Every weekend, all across America, small independent local bands play live music to crowds in bars and small music venues.  University neighborhoods are a natural breeding ground for live music, and Jeromeville was no exception. One of the biggest such bands around here in the 90s was called Lawsuit.  This band had 10 members playing all sorts of different instruments, touring up and down the western United States playing shows in clubs and bars, and at fairs and festivals.  Some of the members of Lawsuit grew up right here in Jeromeville, so it was always a big deal whenever Lawsuit played a show here.

I first heard the name Lawsuit on a Thursday night in April, right after the bombing in Oklahoma City happened.  In the middle of hearing  about that in the national news, I kept encountering in the local news something called the Spring Picnic.  Apparently this was an annual event that would be happening this coming Saturday on the University of Jeromeville campus. The Daily Colt billed the Spring Picnic as the largest student-run event in the USA, but the flyers I kept seeing were somewhat less clear on what actually happened at the Spring Picnic.  It sounded kind of like a fair, from what I had read about it.

The days were getting longer that time of year.  I walked from Building C to the dining hall at 6:03pm under a blue sky, the sun low on the horizon but still shining.  Much of the walk was in shadow because of the three-story dormitory buildings surrounding me.

After I got my meal, I looked around the room to see if anyone I knew had an empty seat nearby.  I saw Megan, the RA from Building K, sitting with a guy and a girl who I thought were other RAs from other buildings.  I walked toward them.

“Hey, Greg!” Megan said as I approached.

“May I sit here?” I asked.

“Sure!”

As I began eating, Megan asked me, “How’s your week going?  Are you going to the Spring Picnic?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think so.  I’m still not really sure what it is, though.  I had never heard of it until about a week ago.”

“You’ve never heard of the Spring Picnic?”

“I’m not from here, remember.”

“It’s so much fun!  It’s like a giant open house for the university.  There are exhibits for departments all over campus, and student groups have performances and food tables and stuff like that, and there’s a Battle of the Bands with marching bands from different universities.  And there will be free outdoor concerts. Lawsuit is gonna be there! Have you heard Lawsuit?”

“I don’t think so.”

“They’re so good!  They’ll be playing at 3:00, I think.”

“I’ll have to check them out, then.”

“Spring Picnic is fun!  You’ll enjoy it.”

“Sounds like it.”

In 1995, with no social media or hashtags, student groups and organizations advertised in more low-tech ways.  Groups put flyers on bulletin boards all over campus. Sometimes someone would just walk into an unlocked classroom and write an announcement for an event on the chalkboard.  The class where I had math Friday morning had the words “SPRING PICNIC IS TOMORROW” written on the far right side of the board. The instructor was showing us how to calculate a vector cross product.  It was a fairly involved process, which seemed somewhat arbitrary and counterintuitive at first, although I would learn soon that this had applications in physics and engineering.

When the instructor ran out of room on the board, he started to erase the Spring Picnic announcement.  “You all know Spring Picnic is tomorrow, right?” he said. A few people in the class laughed.  I did know that. I knew now, at least. The instructor erased the announcement and continued working on the problem.

After math, I had an hour break, then physics.  I went back to my room for lunch after that, picking up a copy of the Daily Colt on the way.  It seemed unusually thick today; I unfolded it to see why, and I discovered a copy of the Spring Picnic Guide inside.  The guide contained a complete schedule of events, along with a campus map and parking information. I didn’t need this because I was a student and I lived on campus and knew my way around; apparently this same guide would be given to visitors from out of town who might need that information.

The schedule of events alone covered several pages.  Events were grouped by type: student organizations, academic departments, animal events, performances, athletics, and the like.  Everything happened simultaneously all over campus, and it would be impossible to see everything. Being that this was my first Spring Picnic, I did not have anything set in mind that I had to see, other than Lawsuit (the guide said they were playing at 3:00, just like Megan said, on the Quad Stage).  One page was dedicated to listing participants in the parade and a few paragraphs about this year’s Grand Marshal of the parade. The parade started at 10:00, so that would be a good place to start my day.

I was still holding the Daily Colt and the Spring Picnic Guide when I walked into Building C.  Pete, Charlie, Sarah, Danielle, and Taylor were sitting in the common room.  Pete and Charlie spent so much time in the common room that quarter that they had joked about moving in there.  They had taken the signs from their doors with their names on them and attached them to the wall in the entryway to the common room, and they had put duct tape in the shape of the digits “110” on the wall next to their names.  The first room on the first floor, Bok’s room, was room 112, and their signs were on the same side of the building as Bok’s room, so the next even number counting down would be 110.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  He was sitting next to Danielle on a couch, and Pete and Sarah were sitting together on the other couch.  Charlie sat in a chair next to Pete and Sarah’s couch. Taylor and Danielle kind of looked like a couple, and so did Pete and Sarah, although these days they all spent so much time together I couldn’t tell if they were actually together or just good friends.  I tend to be the last one to know when couples get together.

“Is that the schedule for the Spring Picnic?” Danielle asked, noticing the guide in my hand.  “You have to come see us tomorrow. 1:00 outside the music building.”

“Who is ‘us?’” I asked.

“University Chorus.”

“Sure.  I don’t really know much about the Spring Picnic.  I don’t have a plan. I’m just going to wander around and look for cool stuff, I guess.”

“Are you going to the chemistry magic show?” Pete asked.  “I’ve heard that’s good.”

“That’s the one you have to line up for tickets, right?” I replied.  “I was reading that in here. I don’t know if I feel like getting up early and standing in line.  I haven’t decided yet.”

“What about lining up to stick your hand in a cow?” Taylor asked.  “Are you gonna do that?”

“Ewwww!” Danielle exclaimed.

“I read about that too,” I said.  “I might. It depends on how long the line is.”

Scientists can surgically attach a structure called a fistula to the side of a cow, providing a window to observe inside the cow’s stomach, for the purposes of studying and researching bovine digestion.  The window can open, allowing a researcher to insert a gloved arm inside the cow and remove and analyze the contents of her stomach. I read an article in today’s Daily Colt saying that a popular Spring Picnic exhibit involved people standing in line to stick their arms into a fistulated cow.  This all sounded intriguing, but I didn’t particularly feel in the mood to stand in line for a long time. I would wait and see how long the line was.

I had one more class later that afternoon, and I spent the rest of the night doing homework and reading and studying.  It wasn’t exactly the most exciting Friday night of my life, but tomorrow looked like it would be a long, fun day, so I figured I would get ahead while I could.  I went to bed around 11, excited to see what this Spring Picnic tomorrow would bring.

In 1905, the state legislature passed a bill calling for the establishment of an agriculture campus for University of the Bay,  the state’s only public university at that time.  Agriculture was, and still is, a major industry in this area, but the urban Bay campus gave students nowhere to practice what they learned in agriculture classrooms. So the University Farm was born, and the location chosen was sixty miles away from the Bay campus, in Arroyo Verde County.  The University Farm would be next to a tiny town called Jeromeville, on land that had once been the ranch of the town’s namesake, the Jerome family. It took a few years for the Farm to get running, but the students eventually came.

An article in the Daily Colt explained more of the history of the Spring Picnic.  In 1909, at the end of the first full school year on the University Farm, the entire 26-man faculty, and the entire student body of 112 male students, held a picnic to share what they had learned.  The picnic was open to the public, to serve as an open house to present their research and show the brand new dairy barn to residents of the surrounding region. The crowd of visitors overwhelmed the campus as over two thousand people picnicked on the Quad and nearby fields.  The picnic became an annual tradition, eventually being taken over by the Associated Students organization instead of being run by faculty. The Jeromeville campus grew, becoming independent of the University of the Bay in 1959, and the Spring Picnic grew with it as other departments and student organizations used it as their open house.  The west half of the Quad was still designated for picnics, although picnicking was no longer the focus of the event.

I left the South Residential Area around nine-thirty Saturday morning, after showering, eating, and reading the newspaper.  I had heard older students say that it always rained on the day of the Spring Picnic, but today was sunny and mild without a cloud in sight. I could already tell that it would be no ordinary day.  Normally, the campus was mostly empty on a Saturday morning, but today people were walking around, and not all of the people looked like students. Many were middle-aged and older adults, and some had children with them.

I walked toward the Quad by way of the chemistry building.  As I approached the building, I could see a line extending from the large lecture hall on one side all the way around the opposite side of the building.  The line was not moving. I continued walking toward the Quad, ignoring the line. I would see the chemistry show some other year; I didn’t feel like standing in line today.

At the Quad, people sat and lined up all along both sides of the parade route. I had to look around for a bit before I found a place to sit on the curb.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked a woman next to the empty spot. She had a toddler with her, a boy with bushy red hair.

“No,” she said.  “Go ahead.”

I pulled my copy of the Spring Picnic Guide out of my pocket, reading through the parade lineup.  I heard amplified voices, unintelligible from here, in the distance on my left. I turned to look, but all I saw was a line of people sitting and standing under the tall cork oaks lining West Quad Avenue.  The street was mostly empty, except for a few bicyclists riding past occasionally. The voices seemed to be coming from around the corner at the end of the street. I thought I saw something about some kind of opening ceremony at the beginning of the parade route, which is what I was probably hearing.  I read through the parade lineup as I waited, then I looked through other parts of the guide, looking for other things I would want to see.

The parade began at 10:00 and reached my location around 10:10.  I watched as dozens of groups and floats marched past. Student organizations and clubs, academic departments, fraternities and sororities, community organizations, children’s groups, marching bands from other colleges and high schools, and local political figures all marched and walked past.  Some groups walked carrying banners, some rode on floats, some rode in fancy vehicles, and because this was Jeromeville, a few groups were on bicycles. Some sorority sisters walked past, handing out candy to little kids. The boy sitting next to me got a Tootsie Roll, and his mother said, “Can you say thank you?”  The boy shyly hid his face. I wanted a Tootsie Roll too, but I didn’t make a big deal of it.

I got a good laugh out of some of the parade entries.  The Associated Students Tour Guides walked through the parade backward.  The MBA students from the UJ School of Management wore suits and ties over shorts that said “Cover Your Assets” across the butt.  Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students, had a float shaped like a giant cow. When the group from Jeromeville College Republicans walked by, I cheered loudly, and I noticed some people nearby giving me dirty looks.  They handed me a small US flag. The little boy next to me got one too, and his mother said nothing; I could sense a subtle look of disapproval on her face.

After about an hour, about three-fourths of the parade groups had passed by.  There was nothing in particular I was waiting for in the rest of the parade, so I got up and walked to the path between Wellington and Kerry Halls, where the Math Club had their tables.  I had attended Math Club twice so far this year, and I was on their email list.

I stopped at the first table, where a tall blond student whom I didn’t know stood in front of a wooden puzzle.  The puzzle had three vertical pegs in a row. Five wooden discs of different diameters were stacked on the leftmost peg, with the largest on the bottom.

“Hi,” the blond guy said when he noticed my interest.  “The object is to get all of the discs on a different peg.  But you can only move one at a time, and–”

“You can’t put a larger one on a smaller one, right?”

“Yes.  Have you seen this before?”

“The Towers of Hanoi puzzle,” I said.  “I saw something about it in a math book.  Let me see if I remember how to do it.”

“What’s your major?”

“I’m not sure,” I said as I picked up the smallest disc, and placed it on the middle peg.  “I haven’t declared yet. But I’m thinking math. Maybe physics or chemistry.” I placed the next smallest disc on the right peg, and I put the smallest disc on top of this one.  I had moved two discs successfully, with the middle peg empty.

“Have you been to our Math Club?” the student asked me as I put the third disc on the middle peg.  If I remembered correctly, the point of this puzzle was that each step was recursive. Move the third disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first two on top of the third, since I already successfully moved two discs.  Move the fourth disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first three on top of the fourth, since I already successfully moved three discs.

“I’ve been a couple times, yeah.”

“I don’t think I’ve met you.  I’m Brandon.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Brandon’s hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

After a few more minutes, I finished the puzzle, with all five discs now stacked on the middle peg.  “You got it,” Brandon said. “Good job. You get a prize.” He handed me a fun size bag of Skittles, the size given to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.  I never understood why those tiny little candies were called “fun size.” It’s no fun when you run out of Skittles so quickly.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’ll see you at the next Math Club meeting?  Second Wednesday of the month in 108 Wellington?”

“Yeah.  Probably.”

At the next table, Mary Heinrich, the Math Club president, stood next to three puzzles requiring separating interlocked objects that looked like they could not be separated without cutting or breaking.  “I’m terrible at these,” I said.

“Hey, Greg,” Mary said.  “How are you?”

“Good,” I replied.  I had met Mary through Math Club, and I also knew that she had been in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program as a freshman, the same program I am in now along with everyone else in Building C.  “This is my first Spring Picnic. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Spring Picnic is fun!  There’s so much to see!”

“I know!  So far I’ve just been watching the parade.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day!  Are you coming to the next Math Club meeting?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll see you then!”

After the Math Club exhibit, I walked back to West Quad Avenue and crossed it; the parade had finished by now, but the entire campus had become even more crowded.  During the lunch hours, some student organizations sold food at booths on the east side of the Quad. Many of these were cultural organizations selling food from their cultures.  Nu Alpha Kappa, a fraternity for Latinos, sold carne asada soft tacos; I bought two of them and took them back over to the west side of the Quad, where I sat under a tree and ate them.

I had not seen anyone I knew yet that morning, other than Mary from Math Club.  I was okay with that. At events like the Spring Picnic, I could wander around alone for hours and be completely entertained.  I got to the music building shortly before the start of the performance Danielle had invited me to, where I saw people I knew for the first time since leaving Building C this morning.  Besides Danielle, Claire from church was in chorus too. The singers stood on portable risers in the patio in front of the music building. A crowd was gathering, sitting and standing around the building.  I saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Caroline, Charlie, and standing near the street, facing the chorus.

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Greg!” Taylor replied.  “Come on over.” The group moved over to make room for me.  Liz and Ramon arrived a few minutes later, just as the performance was starting.

I didn’t know the piece they were singing.  I knew very little about classical choral music in general.  I had never been to a performance like this, so I didn’t have much to compare it to, but they sounded good together.  Two people I didn’t know, a soprano and a tenor, had solos, and both of them had much better voices for this type of performance than I could ever have.  The only singing I do these days is in the car along to the radio,

The performance lasted about fifteen minutes.  After it ended, Danielle came over to all of us to say hi.

“I liked that,” I told her.  “I’ve never really seen a chorus perform like this before?”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad we sounded good.  We rehearsed it yesterday, and I didn’t think we sounded very good.”

“You probably think about that more than the audience does, since we don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like.

“Yeah.”

“What are you guys up to the rest of the day?” Liz asked.

“I have a ton of homework to do,” Caroline said.  “But I’ll probably check out a few other things first.  One of my professors wants me to go look at an exhibit with some of his research.”

“I’ve just been wandering around all day,” I said.  “And I’m enjoying it. I’m going to go see Lawsuit on the Quad Stage later.”

“I wanted to see them too,” Ramon said.  “I heard they were supposed to be good. What time is that?”

“Three.  So, like, an hour and a half from now.”

“I need to go help put the risers back inside,” Danielle said.  “I’ll see you guys maybe at dinner tonight?”

“Yeah.”

We eventually all walked off in a few different directions.  I walked toward the dairy facilities, and as soon as I found the line for the fistulated cow, I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to wait to see it and still make it back to the Quad in time for Lawsuit.  Maybe next year I’d plan ahead. 

I walked back toward the Quad looking inside any building I could find that had an open exhibit with no line.  I saw interactive exhibits about weeds, mosquitoes, and different types of soil. In the library, I saw a display of books from the special collection about the history of Jeromeville and the UJ campus.  Very interesting old pictures. Most of these buildings I walk past every day without knowing what happens inside, but today at the Spring Picnic I got to see some of the research that happens at this university.  It fascinates me to this day how large this campus is and how many different things all happen here.

I started walking toward the Quad shortly before Lawsuit was to go on stage.  A crowd had already assembled as people on stage set up musical instruments and sound equipment.  I saw Megan in the middle of the crowd with a few faces I recognized from the dining hall. Megan was still fairly easy to spot, with her short blonde hair still having traces of the green dye from a few months ago.

“Hi,” I said walking up next to Megan.

“Hey, Greg!  You made it! This is going to be a great show!”

“I know!  I keep hearing great things about this band.”

“What all have you seen today?”

“The parade, Math Club, chorus, and I walked around some displays about weeds and mosquitoes and stuff.”

“That’s the great thing about the Spring Picnic.  There are so many random things to see.”

“I know!”

“I was working a table earlier for Society of Women Engineers.  That’s about all I’ve done so far.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone on stage said as the crowd started quieting.  “The name of this band is Lawsuit!” I heard the sound of bongo drums and turned toward the stage.  Lawsuit was huge; I counted 10 members of the band, eight men and two women. This band had bongo drums, regular drums, bass and regular guitars, and a variety of horns.  The drums and bass joined the bongos, followed by a horn blast and then the vocals. The lead singer had a distinct voice, higher than most male pop and rock singers but not screeching glam rocker high.  He sang two verses, a chorus that repeated the line “thank God you’re doing fine,” and then a long instrumental section, first featuring a guitar solo and then the horns. During the instrumentals, band members who weren’t playing walked around the stage in rhythm and performed silly little dances.  The vocals returned to sing one more bridge and chorus, and the song ended with another horn-centered instrumental.

I loved this song.  I loved this band. And I had only known them for five minutes.

The band members did not appear to be students.  I would guess they were mostly in their mid- to late 20s.  They looked and sounded nothing like any band I had ever heard before.  They had guitars and drums, but they also had horns. Some of their songs had rhythms typical of pop and rock songs, but others sounded more like jazz or swing.  I wasn’t even sure if they would be considered pop, rock, jazz, reggae or what. “What do you even call this kind of music?” I asked Megan, shouting slightly so I could be heard over the music.

“Ska,” Megan said.  “I guess.”

I had never heard the word ska before.  I would learn later that ska shared its Caribbean roots with reggae, but was usually faster.  However, I would hear much more ska music in the mainstream over the coming years, and Lawsuit did not sound much like the great ska bands of the 1990s.  Ska, like reggae, has a distinct rhythm with accents on the off beats, and many of Lawsuit’s songs did not have this. This was truly a band that defied categorization.

Another of their songs seemed to contain names of states and puns that sounded like names of states.  I heard the lead singer sing “I got a note from Michigan,” and I got a little scared, because just last night I had been talking and flirting with a girl from Michigan on IRC, and she had emailed me back this morning.  Did this singer somehow know the secrets of my online life? (He didn’t. And the actual lyric is “I got a note from Ish again,” with Ish presumably being someone’s name. This was one of the many somewhat nonsensical state name puns in the lyrics of this song, because “from Ish again” sounds like “from Michigan.”)

I could have stood here listening to this band for the rest of the night, but the show was over after about an hour.  “That was really good!” I said to Megan. “I love those guys!”

“I know!  This is the fourth time I’ve seen them!  They’re so good!”

“Thanks for telling me about them.”

“Yeah.  It was good to see you here.  What are you doing the rest of the day?”

“What else is going on?  It looks like most things close up by now.”

“The Battle of the Bands goes on into the night.”

“That’s the marching bands at the Arboretum?”

“Yeah.  I can’t watch them this year, I have to get back to my building, but I was there last year.  That was fun.”

“I’ll go check that out.”

“I’ll see you later?  Maybe at dinner?”

“Yeah.  Have a good rest of the day.”

“You too!”

I walked past the library and the music building to the adjacent section of the Arboretum, then west toward Marks Hall, the administration building, where I heard marching band music and saw a huge crowd.  The marching bands from Jeromeville and five other nearby universities were playing, taking turns one song at a time. According to the Daily Colt, they had to keep playing until they were out of songs to play.  Bands could not repeat songs, and they could not play their school fight song until they had played every other song they knew.  A band playing their fight song meant that they were giving up. Because of the crowd, I could not find a place to sit where I could actually see the bands well, so I only stayed about 45 minutes.  No one had given up by then. But many of the marching bands played pop and rock songs, and this made me laugh. The band from Walton University, the wealthy private school located in between San Tomas and Bay City, dressed in crazy costumes, and as much as I hated Walton because they rejected me, I thought their costumes were funny.  A sousaphonist from University of the Bay had painted the bell of his instrument to look like a Grateful Dead logo. I wished I had brought a camera, so I could take a picture of that to show Dad.

When I got back to Building C, around 5:30, I took a shower and ate, then spent the rest of the night unproductively.  I was tired from all that walking, and I didn’t feel like doing anything more. But it was a good day. My first Spring Picnic was so much fun, and I was already looking forward to next year’s Spring Picnic.  With so many things happening at the same time, there was no way I would be able to see everything every year, so Spring Picnic would seemingly never get old.

Starting with my first Spring Picnic in 1995, I have spent the entire day at Spring Picnic every year, with two exceptions.  In 2000, a new baseball stadium had just opened in Bay City, and tickets to games were hard to come by. Taylor got a group of us together to go to a game, but the day that worked best was the same day as the Spring Picnic.  The baseball game was in the afternoon, though, and when we got back to Jeromeville, the Battle of the Bands was still going on, and I went for about an hour. The only time I missed Spring Picnic entirely was in 2006, when I traveled 200 miles to my cousin Miranda’s wedding.  I wore a tie with Jeromeville Colts logos on it to remind her of the great sacrifice I had to make to be there. And Miranda knew of the existence of the Spring Picnic, so she could have planned better, but her special day doesn’t revolve around me and I didn’t complain. A little over four months from now, as I write this, I am planning on spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic, my 24th time.

This was also not my last time seeing Lawsuit.  I saw their CD in Liz’s room a few days later and borrowed it and made a tape of it.  I never did ask if that CD belonged to Liz or Ramon or Liz’s actual roommate, although I did ask if I could borrow it.  Years later, when I had the capability of burning CDs, I borrowed that same CD from someone else and burned a copy, and later saved it to my computer where it remains in my music collection to this day.  The band broke up long ago, that’s another story for another time, but great music never dies as long as people keep listening.

April 4-6, 1995. Two big steps.

I walked back from the dining commons after dinner.  The sun was low, about to set, placing most of the South Residential Area in shadow from the surrounding trees and the buildings themselves.  The sky was clear and dimly blue, and despite the shadows around me, the fact that the sun had not set yet at seven o’clock felt like a bit of hope after this wet and cloudy winter.  A few more rain storms would probably show up before the end of the school year, but summer would return eventually.

When I got back to my room, the telephone was ringing.  I answered it.

“What happened?” Mom asked.  “The phone was ringing for a long time.”

“I just got back from dinner and checking the mail.”

“Did you get any mail?”

“No.  But I did get a postcard from Jessica in Guatemala yesterday.”

“That’s exciting.  How’s she doing down there?”

“It’s a postcard; she couldn’t write a whole lot.  She said she’s been volunteering at an orphanage.”

“I wonder what made her decide to do that instead of going to college?  She got accepted to Santa Teresa and Valle Luna, didn’t she?”

“I don’t know.  It’s her life. She can volunteer at an orphanage in Guatemala instead of going to college if she wants to.”

This postcard would actually be the last time I would hear from Jessica during my college days, although sometimes Mom and her gossipy friend Mary Bordeaux would have lunch, and Mom would tell me something Mary told her about Jessica.  I got back in touch with Jessica in 2000 after a chance encounter of sorts. Jessica and her husband and children live just outside of Gabilan now, not far from where we grew up, at least most of the time. Her adult life has been just as full of free-spirited adventures as her post-high school years were, though.  In 2006, they all returned to that same orphanage in Guatemala for several months and adopted a child from there to bring back to their home.

“I have some mail to send you,” Mom said.  “I’ll send that next week sometime. You got your sample ballot.”

“What sample ballot?”

“I don’t know,” Mom said, pausing, apparently to look at the sample ballot.  “It’s a primary election for county supervisors. And, um, Measure Q.”

“I have no idea about any of that.  I don’t feel comfortable voting.”

“You don’t have to vote.  It’s okay.”

“Yeah, but I hate the idea of not voting.  Maybe it’s time to change my voter registration from Santa Lucia County to Arroyo Verde County.  I know more about what’s going on up here. And I don’t like the Congressman from here. Back when I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh, he used to talk about him, so if I register to vote here, I can vote against that guy.”

“Where do you go to do that?  The post office, I think?”

“I don’t know either, but that sounds right.  I think I’ve seen voter registration forms at the post office.”

“Have you had a chance to look at any of those apartments yet?”

“I’m going to do that tomorrow.  I’m going to start with Las Casas and Pine Grove Apartments.  Those are the two top choices. I have a few other maybes in case they don’t have any left.”

“Sounds like a plan.  See, it’ll work out.”

“I don’t know yet, though.  I called both of them yesterday, and they had vacancies, but maybe they were all taken today.”

“Stop worrying about things that haven’t happened yet.”

“I’m trying.”

Mom continued talking for another several minutes, telling me about Mark’s baseball practice and someone at her work whom I didn’t know.  I was only half paying attention, with the rest of my mind on my upcoming apartment search. I was afraid of the unknown, that’s what it really came down to.  I had never experienced looking for an apartment before, and I didn’t want to go through an endless parade of setbacks.

My last class on Wednesday was Psychology and the Law, the class I was taking for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program this quarter.  As soon as class was over, I dropped off my backpack in my room and went to my car. I had some adult responsibilities to take care of.

I drove past Thong Bikini Hill, still closed for the season, and left campus heading north on Andrews Road.  I turned left on West Fifth and right on Maple Drive. This neighborhood north of the campus proper between Maple Drive and Highway 117 contained mostly apartment complexes built in the 1960s.  Some of them were privately owned, and some of them had been taken over by the university and operated as suite-style dorms. Two university dining commons were also in this quasi-off-campus housing area.

I parked on the street next to the Pine Grove Apartments, the largest of the privately owned apartment complexes in this neighborhood.  I followed a sign to the leasing office and walked in. A dark-haired woman of about thirty years old, wearing a name tag that said “Linda,” sat at a desk going through papers in a file.  Behind her, on a white wall, were framed photographs of the grounds of the apartment complex.

“May I help you?” Linda asked.

“I called yesterday asking about a one-bedroom apartment for the next school year.  Is it still available?”

“Yes, it is.  We have two left.  Would you like to look at one?”

“Yes, please,” I said.

“The unit I’m going to show you isn’t the actual apartment; neither of the available units is vacant right now.  I have permission from the resident to show the apartment, and both of the available units have the same floor plan.  I’ll show you the location of the two available units after I show you the inside.”

“Okay.”

I followed Linda to a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor near the rental office.  The front door opened into the small but adequate living room, with a kitchen to the left.  A short hallway led behind the kitchen to the bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom was about the size of my bedroom back home in Plumdale, a bit bigger than my dorm room.  Nothing really stood out; this is what I imagined apartment hunting to be like, so far. The apartment appeared to be inhabited by one resident who was much neater than I would have expected a college student to be.  This made sense, though, because the leasing office probably would not want to show prospective new residents an apartment full of party animals littered with beer cans and pizza boxes.

“Now, as I said, this is not the unit currently available,” Linda explained after she had shown me the inside of the apartment.  “Are you okay with living on the second floor and climbing stairs? Both available units are on the second floor.”

“Sure,” I said.

Linda and I walked out of the apartment and past the pool.  “You’re a student at UJ?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“And you’ll be living by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“I think you’ll like it here.  We’re close to campus. And many of our tenants stay here at Pine Grove until they graduate.  That’s one of the units available, number 217.” By now we had passed the pool and continued to the back side of a poolside building.  Linda pointed at apartment 217. Then she pointed to the next building past this one and said, “The other available unit is in that building.  Number 228.” We walked back toward the leasing office; Linda made note of the laundry room on the way. “The available units aren’t as close to the laundry room as the one I showed you, but no unit in Pine Grove is really far from the laundry room.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

We walked back into the leasing office.  “So what do you think? Are you ready to sign the papers?”

I wasn’t.  I don’t like to make major decisions in a hurry.  I always second-guess myself. Even after committing to something, I often wonder if I made the wrong decision.  “I have one other place I’m looking at later. Can I let you know by tomorrow?”

“Sure, but we can’t hold the apartment for you.”

“I understand.”

“Just remember that we are the closest complex of this size to campus.  You won’t find all of these amenities anywhere closer.”

“That’s good to know.”

“Take this with you,” Linda said, pushing a brochure toward me with floor plans, a list of the amenities offered, and everything else I ever needed to know about Pine Grove Apartments.

“Thanks,” I said, looking through the brochure.

“Thank you for your interest in Pine Grove.  I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

“I’ll let you know.”

I left Pine Grove Apartments feeling pretty good.  This was definitely doable. And I didn’t necessarily even need to wait until tomorrow; if I went to see Las Casas and hated it, I could always call Pine Grove back later this afternoon.  I hated making these decisions, though. Linda’s job was to sell the community to prospective tenants, and people working in sales always make things look better than they really are. Maybe everyone in Jeromeville knows that Pine Grove is the worst place in town to live, and I don’t know it because I never hear these things.  Or maybe they all say that about Las Casas. I don’t know.

I drove north on Maple Drive for about a mile.  Maple Drive was a much quieter street than Andrews Road. Both were residential streets running roughly parallel to each other, but Andrews Road was more heavily traveled.  As I approached the traffic light at Coventry Boulevard, I noticed the name of the street just before Coventry: Acacia Drive. Pete and Taylor and Charlie had signed a lease to live in an apartment on Acacia Drive, and I thought Danielle said she and one of her roommates from the four-person suite in Building C would be living in that same apartment complex on Acacia Drive as well.

On the other side of Coventry Boulevard, Maple Drive passed through a relatively new neighborhood with multiple large apartment complexes built in the 1980s.  A shopping center with a Safeway grocery store was on the left. I turned right on Alvarez Avenue almost as far as Andrews Road. The Las Casas Apartments were now on my left; I parked on the street and walked to the Las Casas leasing office.

I crossed a small parking lot and climbed three steps to a wood patio.  The patio extended all the way to the pool ahead of me, with the leasing office on the left.  I walked inside. On my right was a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the pool area, and I could see a gym behind the office.  An older woman with short hair sat behind the desk.

“Hi.  May I help you?”

“I called yesterday asking about a studio apartment for next school year.  Is that still available?”

“Just a regular studio, or the studio with the loft?”

I hadn’t thought about this.  The studio with the loft sounded more expensive.  “Just the regular one,” I said.

“We have one regular studio and two loft studios left for next year.  We have a loft studio available right now that I can show you, so you can see what it looks like.  The regular studio looks the same, except without the loft.”

“That sounds good.”

“I’m Ann, by the way.  What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ann said, shaking my hand.  I shook back. She gave me the brochure for the apartment complex and told me to look at it, which I did.

When I was done looking at the brochure, Ann asked if I was ready to see the apartment.  She led me around the pool to the left, and past the laundry room and mailboxes, which she pointed out.  We walked to the back of the complex, where a long straight building faced a parking lot. We climbed upstairs to apartment number 220.  Ann unlocked the door and let me in.

“So here we have the living area,” she said.  “It’s a studio apartment, so there isn’t a separate bedroom.”

“I know,” I replied.

“The bathroom is back there on the right, and the kitchen is back there on the left.”

The room was about the size of a large living room; it was plenty of room for me to fit a bed, a desk, a TV, a bookshelf, and a chair or two.  That was really all I needed living by myself. I walked back to the kitchen, which was small but big enough for me, and to the bathroom, which had a good size linen closet inside.  Next to the bathroom, against the wall to the right, a narrow set of stairs led upward, with a closet underneath the stairs.

“That’s the loft up there?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ann replied.  “Go on up.”

The apartment had a high vaulted ceiling sloping upward to the back of the apartment, which joined the back of another apartment on the other side of the building.  The only window was next to the front door, because that was the only wall facing outside. The ceiling was high enough that the loft felt like another small room on top of the kitchen and bathroom, and the loft had another small closet attached.  “Most of our tenants put their beds up here,” Ann explained.

“And the studio without the loft looks just like the downstairs part, without the loft?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And how much is rent?”  I knew the rent on the regular studio was $475, but I wasn’t sure what the rent with the loft would be.

“The rent for this unit is $625,” Ann said.  “And the one without the loft, $475.”

There goes that idea, I thought.  I couldn’t afford a loft. I felt guilty enough about having my parents spend $475 on my rent every month.  The one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove was $500 per month, which was my upper limit. It was bigger and much closer to campus, however, which made it reasonable that it would be more expensive.  But Pine Grove was also older, and I didn’t know anyone who would be living anywhere near Pine Grove.

Ann made small talk as we walked back to the leasing office, past a variety of trees and grassy areas between the buildings in the complex.  I had been planning on taking a night to sleep on the decision, but with only one $475 unit remaining, I might need to make a decision more quickly.

“Where is the available studio without the loft?” I asked as we walked back into the office.  “Which part of the complex?”

“I think it’s number 124.  Let me check.” Ann pulled a file out of a file cabinet and read through it.  “Yes, number 124. It’s downstairs and just a few apartments over from 220, where we just were.  Facing the back parking lot, just like the one we saw.”

I still felt bad about making my parents spend so much money on me just because I was late in finding a roommate and making plans for next year.  Las Casas, however, was less expensive than Pine Grove. It was farther from campus, but both neighborhoods were as was the case there were many student-oriented apartments in the neighborhood.  Las Casas was close to The Acacia Apartments, where Pete, Taylor, Charlie, and Danielle would be living, and also close to Hampton Place, where Liz, Caroline, Ramon, and Jason would be living. I wouldn’t have a hallway to walk up and down to see who was home, but I could walk over to those friends’ apartments instead.  Even though I didn’t like rushing into a major decision, I knew that my mind really was made up by now, so I took a deep breath and spoke before I had a chance to second-guess myself.

“I’ll take it,” I said.  “The one without the loft.  Apartment 124.”

“Great!”  Ann replied.  “Welcome to Las Casas!  Let me get you our New Resident Packet.”

I spent some time after that reading and signing papers.  I would have to write her a check for a deposit, although that was not a major concern because Mom had made sure I had enough money to cover the deposit when I was ready to sign a lease somewhere.  I would also have more papers to sign next week after Las Casas did all the paperwork on their end.

By the time I finished, it was past five o’clock, and I felt a great weight had been lifted now that I had a plan for next year.  I even had an address for next year. 701 Alvarez Avenue #124. I liked the sound of that. I had meant to do something else this afternoon as I was about town taking care of my adult business, but I thought it was probably too late in the day.  It could wait until tomorrow.

After I was done with classes the following day, Thursday afternoon, I ventured off campus again, but this time I went the other way on Fifth Street, toward downtown.  I drove east for about two miles, past the football stadium, past downtown, and eventually to a traffic light at a street called Power Line Road. Just past this, I turned into the parking lot for the Post Office.

I located the voter registration forms and began filling one out.  I used 221 C-Thomas Hall as my address, even though I would only be in that dorm room for another two months.  I couldn’t register to vote at my new address until I moved in on September 1. When I got to the part of the form listing political parties, I looked around to make sure no one could see me, then I covered the form with my left hand as I checked Republican with my right.  I learned pretty quickly during my first month at UJ that many people around here have a very negative view of Republicans. During the end of high school, I had gone through a phase where I was a big fan of the conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh. He was at the height of his popularity at the time.  I decided when I came to UJ that I wouldn’t get involved in any political groups, and I also stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, because I didn’t want someone else doing my political decision making for me. However, had I done more research on the political climate in Jeromeville, I probably would not have decided to come here.  I wasn’t exactly surprised, though, that a college town like Jeromeville would have a pronounced liberal slant. And, in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t let the political climate in Jeromeville keep me from attending school here, because Jeromeville definitely grew on me over the years.

I dropped the form in the mailbox and headed back home.  Instead of going straight down Fifth Street, I turned left on F Street, right on First Street, and left on Old Jeromeville Road, reentering campus from the other direction instead.  No reason, I just felt like it.

When I entered Building C, I noticed Taylor and Pete in the common room, sitting on a couch talking.  They had textbooks and notebooks with them, but they did not appear to be doing any studying. “Hey, Greg,” Taylor said as I walked past.

“Hi, guys,” I said, walking toward them.

“How’s your week going?  I feel like I’ve hardly seen you the last few days.”

“I’ve been writing,” I said.  This was during the time I was writing the first draft of The Commencement, and I had spent most of my free time this week in my room writing.  I was really absorbed in this project. “I’ve also been busy with other stuff.  I signed a lease yesterday.”

“Oh, yeah?  For an apartment for next year?”

“Yeah.”

“Where is it?” Pete asked.

“Las Casas.  Corner of Andrews and Alvarez.”

“That’s near us,” Taylor said.

“You’re at The Acacia, right?” I asked.

“Yeah.  And Danielle and Theresa are at The Acacia too.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Did you find a roommate, or are you living by yourself?” Pete asked.

“By myself.  In a studio apartment.  It’s plenty of room for just me.”

“That’s cool,” Taylor said.  “You’ll have to come see our place after we move in.”

“Definitely.”

“You done with class for the day?”

“Yeah.”

“Us too.”

“I really need to go upstairs and use the bathroom,” I said, becoming increasingly uncomfortable at my full bladder.  “But I’ll see you guys at dinner, maybe?”

“Yeah.  And enjoy writing.”

I went upstairs, and after using the bathroom, I turned on the radio and the computer.  The radio was set to the classic rock station. On the computer, I checked my email; I had a message from Kim, one of my Internet friends.  She was a freshman at Florida State University. I opened it and began reading.


Hi Greg!  How are you?  Thanks for explaining how your schedule works.  I wasn’t sure why you had new classes in April. I don’t know any schools around here that do that.

Last night was so much fun!  My roommate and I went to this party.  I thought it was going to be a little too wild for me, but everyone there was so nice, and we danced with these guys a lot… they were so funny!

Did you ever find a place to live for next year?  I hope you find a roommate! One of my older friends here was telling me that he needed a place to live, so he and his friend got this really nice looking apartment, but after they moved in they discovered that everything was falling apart and needed to be fixed.  Also, their neighbors played really loud music and smoked pot all the time… I hope you don’t end up somewhere like that!

I need to get to class… have a great day!

~~ Kim


I clicked Reply and began typing.


Sounds like you had a fun night with your friends last night.  I don’t really go to wild parties like that. I think I told you my dorm is an honors program, so most of us aren’t really partiers.

I found a place to live.  Yesterday I signed a lease on an apartment.  I didn’t find a roommate, and I didn’t want to live with a stranger, so I’ll be living by myself in a small studio apartment; it’s a little pricey, but my parents said it would be ok.  It’s about a mile north of campus, in a neighborhood with a lot of fairly nice student type apartments. It’s right on a bus line that runs to campus every half hour. Also, some of my friends from the dorm will be living fairly close.

How were your classes?

-gjd


In 1995, I was using email client software called Eudora.  Eudora worked by dialing the campus Internet access phone number using a 14.4-kilobaud modem connected to my telephone line.  Eudora would stay connected just long enough to send emails I had typed, and to download anything new in my inbox. These new emails would be saved on my computer’s hard drive, so that after the messages had been received, Eudora could disconnect from the computer, and my telephone line would be free again.  I clicked Send/Receive, and as I listened to the whistles and buzzes of the modem sending my message across the continent from Jeromeville to Tallahassee, my mind began to wander. What if my experience at Las Casas was like that of Kim’s friend at his apartment? What if the neighbor upstairs in Apartment 224 was loud or smelly?  What if I had made a big mistake?

No, I told myself.  I can’t keep thinking like this, wondering if everything I did was a big mistake.  I had an apartment. I would be living by myself again, so I wouldn’t have the stress of learning to live with roommates.  And I would have friends living nearby, just as I did this year. They would be a little farther away, about a 5 to 10 minute walk instead of just down the hall, but they were still pretty close.  It was a great situation, and it was going to be a great year. Worst case scenario, if I ended up hating Las Casas, I would only have to endure it for a year, and then I could live somewhere else junior year.  There was nothing to gain by worrying and second guessing myself at this point.

The band Boston was playing on the radio.  Boston, a rock band originating in the city of the same name, had a string of hits in the late 1970s.  They were played often on classic rock radio stations of the 1990s, and they still are today. When I first discovered classic rock in high school, I always thought Boston was kind of catchy.  And I discovered, on a family road trip when Mom told me to find something on the radio, that Dad hates Boston. (To this day, I have never told my dad that I always kind of liked Boston, or that after many trips browsing used music stores in the 2000s and 2010s, I now have all three of the albums that their major hits came from).

I was 18 years old.  It was okay for me to like different things than my parents, because I was an adult.  I was growing up. I was developing a unique taste in music, and I was obtaining an education, preparing myself for some yet undetermined future career.  And now, in addition to that, I had taken another two big steps toward adulthood this week. I had signed a lease on an apartment all on my own, and I had registered to vote at my new home, in a different county than the one where my parents lived.  I still had a lot of growing to do. I would do a lot more growing in my remaining years in Jeromeville, and I am still growing today. But the events of today felt like a major step in the right direction.

apartment 124

Early April, 1995. Tear down the wall.

The University of Jeromeville is on a three quarter schedule.  My classes last for one-third of the school year instead of the traditional half-year.  Year-long classes are still year-long classes, but split into three parts instead of two.  Winter break falls one-third of the way through the year, which is why UJ starts and ends later than most universities. The spring break at the end of March, which had just passed, comes two-thirds of the way through the year, so that this coming Monday morning I would have new spring quarter classes.  The terms are called quarters even though there are three of them.

Right now, it was early afternoon on the Saturday at the end of spring break.  I had left my parents’ house in Plumdale around 11 in the morning and stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s in Irving just off Highway 6, where I had Chicken McNuggets.  I hadn’t yet outgrown Chicken McNuggets at age 18; that would happen over the next year or so. I arrived back at Building C a little before two o’clock.

The entire South Residential Area was quiet.  Most normal students waited until Sunday night to return to Jeromeville, because most normal students preferred to be at home on vacation and not back at school.  I would rather be here. It was quieter here than at my parents’ house.  I didn’t have friends in Plumdale. And, perhaps most importantly, my computer was here. I didn’t take my computer home, and there was no way to access the Internet from my parents’ house.

It wasn’t exactly correct to say that I didn’t have friends in Plumdale.  Melissa Holmes was home for break the same week I was, and we had gone to see some of our old teachers at Plumdale High.  I stayed until lunch time and saw many of my teachers and some friends from younger classes, including Rachel Copeland, the only younger friend at Plumdale High who had kept in touch with me consistently.  That was a great day.

I checked my email, and today’s date on the incoming messages caught my eye: April 1.  April Fool’s Day. I got an idea. I opened a new email and copied and pasted the list of email addresses for all 70 students in the IHP.


Dear friends,

I have really enjoyed being part of the IHP with all of you these last two quarters.  Unfortunately, some circumstances have changed back home, and I will be unable to finish out the school year here at UJ.  I hope to stay in touch with all of you, and I might be back someday when everything gets sorted out.

Sincerely,

Greg

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APRIL FOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :) Gotcha!


 

After I sent my April Fool email, I replied to Molly Boyle, an online friend from Pennsylvania, telling her about my visit to Plumdale.  I got to thinking about Plumdale High… I really needed another year there.  Sure, I was done with classes, but I grew so much senior year, I made new friends and had so many new experiences, and then we all graduated and moved away, leaving what felt to me like unfinished business.  I was the quiet kid who kept to myself and did homework at lunch, then all of a sudden I was performing in skits and working behind the scenes in the video yearbook club, and popular kids whom I barely knew were talking to me like old friends.  But I never got the chance to get more involved with school activities. I never got the chance to find out if Jennifer Henson actually liked me, or if Annie Gambrell really meant anything when she told me to keep smiling. But I had a great story to tell.  I decided I was going to make something of my senior year, and I did, even if everything I was building ended abruptly. It was the kind of story that could be made into a movie, or a novel.

Wait a minute, I thought.  I opened Microsoft Word and started typing.

Roar Like A Panther
A Novel
by Gregory J. Dennison

That was a dumb title.  I would fix it later, when I thought of something better.

“Tom,” Mom called out to me.  “Telephone call.”

I hated taking telephone calls.  I have always been really shy on the telephone.  I figured I knew who it was calling. I took the telephone into the next room.  “Hello?”

“Hey, Tom.  It’s Nancy.”  As I had suspected.

“Hi.”

“How’s your spring break going?”

“Fine.  And yours?”

“I haven’t really done much,” she said.  “I’ve just been hanging out with my family.”

“I saw a movie with Kate,” I said.

“How is she?”

“She’s doing fine.  We didn’t really talk much, though, but it was nice to see her anyway.”

“So anyway, I was going to go visit Mrs. Jordan tomorrow.  Do you want to come with me?”

“Sure!” I said.  “At the school?”

“Yes.  They’re still in school this week.”

“Right.  What time?”

“Is 8:30 all right, or is that too early?”

“Yes.  That’s fine.”

“Great!” Nancy exclaimed.  “I’ll see you there.”

“Bye,” I said.  I hung up.

I wrote for hours, telling about my senior year as well as I could remember, except that I changed most of the characters’ names.  Melissa was Nancy; one time in high school, she complained that someone said she looked like her name should be Nancy, so I figured I’d go with it.  Catherine became Kate; that one didn’t change as much.  Mrs. Norton changed to Mrs. Jordan. That one didn’t really mean anything. My name in the story was Tom, because this was going to be the next Great American Novel, and I noticed once that so many great works of American literature that I had to read in school had a character named Tom.  Tom Sawyer. Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath. Thomas Putnam from The Crucible.  Tom Robinson from To Kill A Mockingbird.  Tom Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie.

Every once in a while, as I was writing, I walked down the hallway to drink from the water fountain; I also used the bathroom on those trips down the hall if I needed to.  I always tend to do this as I write. I’m not sure if it helps my brain work, or if it is more of a distraction. By the time I went to bed that night, shortly after eleven o’clock, I had already written the story of my senior year of high school up until mid-November, filming other classes’ projects for my computer graphics and video production class and meeting Annie Gambrell (or Laurie Hampton, as I called her in my novel).

 

Church on Sunday was emptier than usual, and I continued writing as soon as I got home.  Later in the afternoon, I started to hear more people walking around. Around three o’clock, I got up to use the bathroom, and I walked around the rest of the building, starting on the first floor.  The common area and study room took up almost half of the first floor, and the door of the room closest to the common area was open. I poked my head inside.

This room belonged to a short brown-haired girl named Heather Beck, but no one ever called her Heather.  She always had other Heathers in her classes growing up, so her friends started calling her Beck, and that mutated somehow into Bok, which is the nickname everyone called her now.  (Bok rhymes with rock.) Bok was good friends with Skeeter from the third floor; both of them were free-spirited artsy hippie types, although I never saw either of them wear the stereotypical tie-dye with Birkenstocks.

“Hey, Greg,” Bok said, looking up at me through her glasses.  She and Skeeter were sitting on the floor, looking at what appeared to be old newspapers spread flat on the floor.  “How was your break?”

“It was good.  I visited my old high school.  That was interesting.”

“I’m sure it was,” Skeeter said.  “I got this over break.” She gestured toward the pile of newspapers, and I saw in the middle of them a large sheet of high-quality paper with abstract green, gray, red, and brown swirls on part of it, along with a fancy set of watercolor paints, a few small brushes, and a cup of water.

“Nice!” I said as Skeeter painted black dots with long tails floating in a spiral arrangement.  “Is it bad that I can’t really tell what you’re painting?”

“I don’t know,” Skeeter shrugged, smiling, as Bok painted a blue-gray cloud shape at the other empty end of the paper.  “These look like sperm. The rest of it is just stuff. By the way, that was a great April Fool’s joke. Good one.”

“Thanks.”

“What was the joke?” Bok asked.

“I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t seen it yet,” Skeeter explained.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how your painting turns out,” I said.  “I started writing a novel yesterday.”

“Really?” Bok asked.  “You write?”

“I don’t know.  This isn’t really something I’ve done before.  When I was younger, I used to make comic books and copy them on the copier at my mom’s work.  I’d sell them to my brother’s friends for a quarter. But I’ve never really written prose… at least I’ve never finished a novel.”

“How long is it going to be?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s it about?”

“A coming of age story.  Based on my life last year.  I was thinking about this when I visited my old high school last week.”

“Makes sense,” Skeeter said.  “Let me know when you finish it.”

“Me too,” Bok added.

 

Monday was the first day of class for the quarter.  I had math first thing in the morning, as I always did, except this quarter it was nine o’clock instead of eight.  I had a whole hour more to sleep in every morning. I recognized some familiar faces from previous math classes: Jack Chalmers from Building F,  Tiffany from Building K, and a cute redhead from last quarter.

“Greg!” Jack said, speaking quickly as he always did, as we waited for the class that met an hour earlier in the same room to finish.  “How was your break?”

“Good,” I said.  “I went to visit my old high school.  How was yours? You went to Santa Lucia, right?”

“Yeah!  Did you say to take the 122 or 127 to Santa Lucia?”

“127.  Why? What happened?”

“On the way down, we couldn’t remember, so we took the 122 instead.  It was beautiful!”

“Really?” I asked.  “That’s a really windy mountain road, from what I remember.”

“It was great!  My friend has a brand new car that handles mountain roads really well, so we really enjoyed the drive.  And on the way back we took the 127. That was so much faster! It was only five miles to cut over to the coast.  Thanks again for the directions!”

“Glad you had a great drive!” I said.  I was surprised at his reaction. My mother apparently had a bad experience with mountain roads once, so she raised me to believe that mountain roads were the most frightening thing ever, to be avoided at all costs.  Apparently it was evident from Jack’s reaction that not all people think this way.

My math class that quarter was vector calculus.  I also had chemistry and physics later that day. I was taking a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law, but that class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, not today.

When I got back to Building C, Taylor, Pete, Liz, and Ramon were sitting on one couch in the common room, talking to Schuyler Jenkins and  a girl named Jenn who lived next to Pete, sitting on another couch. I waved at them.

“Greg!” Jenn said.  “You’re leaving us?”

I was confused by Jenn’s question, trying to process what she meant by leaving, but when Pete and Taylor started laughing, I realized what was going on here.  “You didn’t read all of my email, did you,” I said.

“Huh?” 

“It was an April Fool’s joke,” Taylor explained.

“Oh my gosh!” Jenn exclaimed, laughing.  “I can’t believe I fell for that!”

“Done with classes for the day?” Taylor asked.

“Yeah.  It was a good day so far.  I still have Psych-Law tomorrow.”

“Liz and I are in that class too,” Ramon said.

“I’ve been writing a novel for fun,” I said.

“Wow,” Taylor replied.  “What’s it about?”

“It’s a coming-of-age story.  It’s about my life last year.”

“Was your life really that interesting?” Schuyler asked in a dry deadpan tone.

“It was, actually.  That’s why I decided to write about it.”

“I didn’t know you liked to write.”

“It’s kind of new for me too.  I just felt like it. I’ve always had a creative side I don’t show much, but writing like this is kind of new for me.”

“Good luck with that,” Jenn said.

“Let me know when you’re done,” Liz said.  “I’ll read it.”

“Okay.  I will.”

 

I spent most of my free time during the first week and a half of spring quarter writing my story.  On Friday, I got back from my last class in the afternoon, ready to write the chapter where we took our senior trip to Disneyland.  But before I could get up to my room, I saw Skeeter and Bok in the common room working on two paintings. One of them was the one I had seen in Bok’s room a few days earlier, with the spiral of sperm, but the sperm had been painted over so that now they looked like crosses.  Someone had written “the downward spiral” at the bottom of the page. I was vaguely aware of this phrase being the title of an album by the band Nine Inch Nails. I had no idea that this band, or their genre of industrial rock, even existed until a few months ago; no one listened to that back home in Santa Lucia County, at least no one I knew.

The other painting was a new one.  The paper was in portrait orientation, the longer dimension vertical.  A long light green stripe, almost straight, ran across the painting from left to right, with a dark green stripe just below it.  The upper left corner had multicolored swirls, and something resembling a Venus flytrap was in the lower left, its mouth open to reveal red teeth.  Directly above the Venus flytrap was a large orange circle, touching the green stripe. Skeeter was painting a pink swirly whooshy thing (I’m not good at describing abstract art) coming down from the orange ball.

“Hi,” I said in Skeeter and Bok’s general direction.

“Bok turned my sperm into crosses!” Skeeter said, sounding jokingly angry.

“I didn’t know you wanted them to be sperm!” Bok argued back.

“I think it’s interesting either way,” I said.

“Come paint with us,” Skeeter said, handing me a brush.  On the right edge of the new painting, on top of a yellow spot, I painted twelve dark dots in a circle, with a thirteenth dot in the middle.  I added some thin horizontal stripes to the left of this, just above the center of the paper.

“I like that Venus fly trap thing,” I said.

“That was my idea,” Bok replied.  “So were the crosses.”

“They’re sperm,” Skeeter said.

“How’s your story coming along so far?” Bok asked.

“I’m getting there.  I’ve been writing a lot.”

“That’s cool.”

We continued talking and painting for about another hour.  I added some abstract patches of color in the upper right, and Skeeter eventually painted a bunch of parallel diagonal lines on top of it.  The pink swirly whooshy thing was extended toward the bottom of the page, where it split into several branches; other colored swirly whooshy things were added next to it, coming down from the parallel lines I painted.

When the page was filled with color, Skeeter said, “It needs a title.”

Flytrap,” Bok suggested.

“I don’t know.  That seems kind of obvious.”

I looked at the painting, the green stripe across its length, the horizontal lines just below  now emanating from long curved strokes of different colors.  I thought about the other painting, The Downward Spiral, how it had been named after a song and album.  I had been listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall earlier that day, a rock opera about a musician who deals with trauma by isolating himself from society and eventually becoming delusional.  Toward the end of the album, in a song called “The Trial,” the character’s life is presented as a judge accusing him of having human feelings, as if doing such is a crime.  The song ends with repeated chants of “Tear down the wall!”

“How about Tear Down The Wall?” I asked.

Skeeter and Bok looked at me.  “I like it,” Bok said. “I think it fits.”

“It’s got this wall separating the two sides,” Skeeter explained, tracing the green stripe in the middle.  “And there’s all this tension building up against the wall here,” she added, pointing to the horizontal lines just below the wall.  “Go ahead, Greg. Add the title.”

I painted TEAR DOWN THE WALL in black paint, in between the orange ball and the Venus fly trap.  Later that night, when the paint was dry, Skeeter and Bok taped both Tear Down The Wall and The Downward Spiral to the wall in the common room, where they stayed for the rest of the school year for all of Building C to admire.

 

I finished writing my story the following Monday, after I got back from my classes.  At 51 pages and about 33,000 words, it was a little short to be called a novel, but it was still the longest piece I had ever written, and it had only taken ten days.  I loaded the printer with paper, but before I started printing, I went all the way back to the first page and deleted the title. Roar Like A Panther was a stupid title, and I knew it all along.

The Commencement
A Novel
by Gregory J. Dennison

Graduation ceremonies are also called commencement ceremonies.  To commence means to begin, which at first seems like a counterintuitive title since graduation is the end of school, not the beginning.  But a commencement ceremony is the beginning of real life. And my senior year of high school felt like the beginning of something new in my life.  This was definitely a better title.

When my hard copy of The Commencement finished printing, I punched holes in the pages and put it in a report folder with a clear cover.  I wanted other people to read it, so I could find out what they thought of my story. I brought it with me to the common room after dinner, where I sat doing homework and waiting for someone with whom I felt comfortable sharing The Commencement.  Liz and Ramon walked by about fifteen minutes later.  “Hey, Greg,” Liz said. “What’s up?”

“I finished my story,” I replied, holding up The Commencement.

“That’s cool!  Can I read it?”

“Sure.  I’d like to know what you think.”

“Do you need it back in a hurry?”

“No.  Just eventually when you’re done.”

“I don’t know how long it’ll take.  But I’ll let you know.”

I smiled.  “Thank you.”

“No problem.  I think this is really cool.  I hadn’t pictured you to be a writer.”

“Thanks.  I don’t know if I had either.”

 

Skeeter and Bok were painting in the common room again three days later, and Pete, Charlie, and Liz were all on the floor painting too.  Bok’s stereo had been temporarily moved to the common room, and a strange song played, with a vocalist speaking monotonous rhythmic lyrics over a bass-driven melody.  It sounded like some kind of blend of rock, rap, and funk.

“Hi, Greg,” Liz said.  “You like our painting?”

“I do.”  This painting had four distinct quadrants arranged in a two-by-two grid, each with a distinct color scheme.  One was shades of gray; one was pale pastel-like colors; one had swirls of simple, bright colors, like red and blue; and one had dark shades of brown, olive green, midnight blue, and black.  The painting was almost finished, there was not much more to do, so I just made blobs and swirls of color, trying to stay close to the colors near what I was painting.

“What’s this music?” I asked.

“Cake,” Bok said.

“What?”

“A local band from Capital City, called Cake.  My friend and I went to their show the other day.  Apparently they’re going to be the next big thing.”

“They sound different.  But I kind of like it.”

“That’s how I feel about them too.”

“I finished your story,” Liz said.  “I put it over there on the coffee table.  I really liked it.”

“Thank you!”

“It sounds like you really enjoyed your senior year.”

“I did.  I feel like I was really growing.  And then it all suddenly stopped.”

“But now you’re here.  And you’re still growing.”

“Yes, I am,” I said.  Liz was right.  Sure, I never got to be in another Homecoming skit, and I never got a date with any of those girls I liked back in high school.  But instead of standing there looking through a door that had closed, I was now looking at new doors opening here at UJ.

“Does anyone have a good title for this painting?” Skeeter asked.

“Not really,” Pete answered.

“Maybe we should just look around somewhere and find some random title,” Charlie suggested.  “Like, look at these newspapers on the ground and find something in there.”

“I like that idea,” I said.  “Then the title will be something really off the wall and silly.”  I scanned the newspaper. My eyes quickly fell on an advertisement for a furniture store, and I pointed to a phrase from this advertisement.  “Like this one,” I added. “‘Everything 25% Off.’” The others laughed.

“I think it’s perfect!” Skeeter said.  “Because there are four parts.  Fourths, like 25 percent.”

“I think we have our title,” Pete said.  I took a paint brush and painted EVERYTHING 25% OFF in a corner of the painting, and later that night Everything 25% Off joined The Downward Spiral and Tear Down The Wall on the wall of the common room.

 

By the end of the year, there were around a dozen paintings on the wall.  When we moved out of the building, Skeeter and Bok let those of us who helped paint each keep one that we helped with.  To this day, Tear Down The Wall hangs on a wall at my house.

After I printed The Commencement, I left it in the common room for about a week, in case anyone else wanted to read it.  I’m not sure who all did, but Schuyler Jenkins pointed out a typo, and Skeeter told me it was a good first draft.  I also sent it to Molly from Pennsylvania in eleven separate emails over the next month, and she said she really liked it and felt like she had gotten to know me better.

Skeeter’s comment seemed kind of disappointing at first, since I thought The Commencement was finished, but she was right.  It was a good first draft. My writing style was too dry; I just listed things that happened instead of telling about them in a way that engaged the reader.  I worked on The Commencement again for a while in 1996, and again in 2002; by that time, it was almost three times as long as the original.  Interestingly enough, one of my friends who read the 2002 version said that the most relatable part was a chapter that I completely made up, something that never happened to me in real life.

I never considered writing for a career.  I was a math guy. I didn’t write. And creative writing wasn’t something that could make a steady career.  It is possible to make a living writing, of course; many writers and artists and musicians work on art in between working normal jobs, waiting to get discovered.  Some of these actually make it.  Bok’s friend who said that this local band Cake was the next big thing was right; Cake had several big hits over the next decade.  But making a life out of art requires much patience and uncertainty, and that part of it didn’t sound appealing to me. I’d stick to writing for fun.

The Commencement was the first piece of fiction I wrote that was based on myself, and it felt good to open up and share my story with a few others.  My own life has been my favorite inspiration for my writing over the years. I’ve written stories not based on me, but I do best when I write what I know, and I don’t understand others as well as I understand myself.  I hope that someone out there can learn something from reading my story.

tear down the wall

Mid-March 1995. I completely dropped the ball.

Every Jeromeville student knows that Dr. Andrew E. Bryant is the best professor to get for general chemistry.  His students love him. He has been named Instructor of the Year. He is personable and likeable, better at interacting with students than most people who teach in a 400-seat lecture hall.  Dr. Bryant is known for pulling pranks on his class; I heard about one time on the first day of the quarter when he got some other chemistry professor to pretend like he was going to be teaching the class instead.  This other professor went over a fake syllabus that included far more difficult assignments and strict grading than any reasonable professor would have. A student who was in on the prank kept complaining that this was supposed to be Dr. Bryant’s class, getting the other students worked up.  The whole time, Dr. Bryant was sitting in the class disguised, and he revealed himself to the class about five minutes in. I wish I had been there to see that. Dr. Bryant is everyone’s favorite chemistry professor…

… in 2019.  I didn’t get to take his class, because Dr. Bryant wasn’t at UJ yet in 1995.  He started there in the early 2000s. And he wasn’t even Dr. Bryant yet in 1995; he was still an undergrad, at University of the Bay if I remember right.  Instead of getting a good professor like Dr. Bryant, I got Dr. Albrecht, who was boring and hard to understand because German appeared to be his first language.  And I was nodding off in his class today, because I was up too late last night talking on IRC with this girl named Jenny. (There’s a reason I brought up Dr. Bryant in the first place, but that’s another story for another time.)

I attempted to follow along with Dr. Albrecht’s lecture in the large lecture hall in the chemistry building.  Until this year, this was the largest lecture hall on campus; that really weird-looking concrete building that just opened this year had a larger lecture hall.  I tried to stay awake enough to take notes, but they were considerably less than legible. I became aware in my half-conscious state at one point that Dr. Albrecht was coughing.  After a few more coughs, he said, “Excuse me. I need to get a drink of water.” The sudden change in routine caused me to wake up a little, and I sat up to see Dr. Albrecht step out of the door on the side at the front of the lecture hall.

A little while after this, I heard running water and swallowing sounds.  I looked around, and people began to chuckle when they realized what was going on.  Dr. Albrecht was wearing a cordless lapel microphone, and he had forgotten to turn it off when he went to get water.  When Dr. Albrecht reappeared in the front of the classroom, the class greeted him with wild applause. I don’t know if he ever figured out that he had left his microphone on.

That was certainly the highlight of my classes that day.  The rest of the afternoon, I just did homework and studied.  At dinner time, I sat with a bunch of people from my building.  They were already there when I arrived, so I sat down in the middle of their conversation.

“So we looked at Hampton Place today,” Liz said.

“Which one is that?” Sarah asked.

“It’s behind Albertsons on Andrews and Coventry.  I like that place. It seemed nice and quiet, and it’s just a short walk to Albertsons for groceries.”

“You’d be in a two-bedroom?”

“Yeah.  They said if we give them a deposit by Friday, they’ll save two apartments for us, one right on top of the other.  Caroline and I upstairs, and Ramon and Jason downstairs.”

“That’d be a good arrangement.  Taylor, weren’t you guys looking at apartments today too?”

“Yeah,” Taylor said.  “We signed a lease at The Acacia.  That’s on Acacia Drive, not too far from where Liz was just talking about.”

“That’s you and Charlie and Pete?”

“Yeah.”

I started to get a feeling of dread as I realized what they were talking about.  They were making plans for living arrangements for next year. And all of this planning had happened while I was completely oblivious to it.  I didn’t even think about this as being something I should do right now. The next school year was over six months away. I had time. I didn’t have a roommate, and the thought of living with a roommate was kind of scary, but I surely still had other friends who would need a roommate.

 

A few days later, I got back from classes in the afternoon, went back to Building C, and checked my email from my room.  I had two messages, both of them forwarded chain letters. The first one was from Brendan upstairs, who sent a lot of forwarded chain letters and jokes; this one contained jokes about stereotypes of different universities in this area.


How many Bay students does it take to change a light bulb?
One to change the bulb, fifty-three to protest the bulb’s right to change, and twenty-six to protest the protesters.

How many Jeromeville students does it take to change a light bulb?
None, because Jeromeville doesn’t have electricity.

How many Capital State students does it take to change a light bulb?
One, and he gets five credits for it.

How many Santa Teresa students does it take to change a light bulb?
Twenty-six: one to hold the bulb, and twenty-five to throw a party and get so drunk that everything spins.

How many Walton students does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one; he holds the bulb and the world revolves around him.

How many Valley students does it take to change a light bulb?
None, because Stockdale looks better in the dark.


 

I laughed out loud at that last one.  I had visited the University of the Valley in Stockdale with my family on the same day we first visited Jeromeville, and the surrounding neighborhoods looked really trashy and sketchy.  And… Jeromeville doesn’t have electricity? What’s with that? While that is of course far from the truth, that does seem consistent with the way that urban elites in Bay City and San Tomas see the rest of the state.

The other email was from a girl named Jenny, whom I had met on IRC recently.  It wasn’t a standard chain letter, though; it was one of those things where she wanted her friends to answer questions about themselves.  Jenny answered nine questions that her friend Matt had sent her, then she forwarded the email to nine of her friends with a new nine questions for us to answer.


What is your favorite thing about Fall?
What is your go-to drink?
What favorite treat really hits the sweet spot for you?
Tell me about a favorite date or share a great date night idea.
Do you have a favorite family tradition?
What book(s) are you reading right now?
What one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Do you have a secret or hidden talent?
What is one way you served or blessed someone else recently?


 

I hit Reply and started typing.


What is your favorite thing about Fall?
A new school year with a chance to meet girls… um, I mean new friends.

What is your go-to drink?
Coca-Cola.

What favorite treat really hits the sweet spot for you?
M&Ms.  I love those things.  I probably shouldn’t eat as many as I do.

Tell me about a favorite date or share a great date night idea.
Good question… my best date night idea is a night where I actually go on a date.  Because that pretty much doesn’t happen.

Do you have a favorite family tradition?
I don’t remember how this tradition started, but every year at Christmas, we play Trivial Pursuit.  My mom and I are both trivia buffs, and Grandpa also knows a lot of stuff, but he has the advantage of having been alive for some of the history questions.

What book(s) are you reading right now?
I just finished Forrest Gump by Winston Groom.  A lot of the details are different from the movie, but I liked it.  I loved the movie too. I just started reading It by Stephen King. My mom read this book when I was a kid, back when it was new, and I’ve heard it’s really good.

What one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t be so shy or afraid to try new things!  I made a lot of new friends senior year of high school, and if I had actually gotten out more and met them earlier, I would have had more time before we all went off to college and lost touch.

Do you have a secret or hidden talent?
I know pretty much every highway in the western United States.  My friend Sarah, when we met, she had me guess where she grew up by naming two of the highways in her city, and I did.

What is one way you served or blessed someone else recently?
Yesterday, I was walking around the Memorial Union, looking for a place to kill time between classes.  I saw my friend Tiffany from math class, and she was having a hard time understanding the homework, so I helped her.

And my nine questions for you:
Were you named after anyone or anything, or for any particular reason?
What did you eat for dinner last night?
What’s a movie, TV show, book, song, etc. that you really like that most people haven’t heard of?
If you could go visit anyone currently alive on Earth right now, for one day, and getting yourself there was no object, who would it be, and where is this person?
Where is someplace you enjoy visiting that is not a traditional tourist destination?
Which dead celebrity or historical figure do you most wish had not died?
Coke or Pepsi, or neither, and why?
What do you like on your pizza?
What would you most definitely not want to name your future child, and why?


 

I sent this message to nine friends, all people I knew from the Internet who regularly sent me this kind of stuff.  I didn’t send it to anyone from Building C, because of the time a couple months ago when Karen Francis got so mad at me for forwarding a chain email to the entire building.

I lost track of time while I was studying and doing homework, and I didn’t make it to dinner until after seven o’clock.  None of my usual friends to sit with were there. I sat by myself at a large table, but a few minutes after I sat down, I heard someone ask, “Hey Greg!  What’s up? You mind if we sit with you?” The words were spoken very quickly, so that they almost ran together.

I looked up to see Jack Chalmers, a tall guy with a year-round tan who wore shorts and sandals most of the time, including right now, even though it was only 58 degrees outside.  He was with two other guys I didn’t know. Jack grew up in a beach town that I had never heard of before this year, south of here between Santa Teresa and San Angelo, and he always talked fast.  Jack was in my math class fall quarter, and he lived in Building F.

“Sure,” I said.  “Go ahead.” Jack and his friends sat at my table.

“How’s 21C?” he asked.

“It’s going well.  I still have an A. My instructor is a grad student, and I think it’s her first time teaching.  I had to explain something to her the other day.”

“I like my class this quarter.  The professor’s hard to understand, but I can usually figure it out.  You taking 21D in the spring?”

“Yes.  It’s at 9AM somewhere in Wellington, but I don’t remember the instructor or room number.”

“I’m in that same class.  There’s only one class at 9AM.”

“That’s cool.”

“What are you doing over spring break?”

“Nothing special.  I’m going back home for the week.  One of my friends from high school wants to get together and catch up.”

“You’re from Santa Lucia, right?  Or somewhere near there?”

“Yeah.  Plumdale.”

Gesturing toward one of the other guys at the table, Jack said, “Jeremy and his girlfriend and I and someone else we know are gonna take a road trip to Santa Lucia over break.  We were just talking about the best way to get there from here. What do you think?”

Back in 1995, cars weren’t equipped with GPS, and there was no Google Maps to ask for directions.  In order to figure out how to get somewhere, you had to read a map. A map was this big piece of paper that would fold out, with diagrams of all the roads in the area.  Some people didn’t even read maps well, so they had to get directions by asking someone who was familiar with the area, although in 1995 I had no concept of the fact that some people couldn’t read maps.  But more on that later. I always had this odd fascination with maps and highways, so Jack’s question was perfect for me.

“You know how to get to San Tomas?” I asked.  “100 west to 6 south?”

“Yeah.  Should we keep going to the coast from there?”

“No.  That road always has really bad traffic.  Take 11 south to Plumdale, where I’m from, and then take 127 west.  And if you know where to look from 127, off the right side of the road you can see my high school.  There’s a big mural on the back of the gym that says ‘Tiger Country.’”

“The 127, west,” Jack repeated.  I noticed that Jack said “the 127” instead of “127” or “Highway 127.”  My friend Melissa from high school said that too. She grew up south of me, as did Jack, and this was a peculiarity of the speech pattern of people from that part of the state.   I always thought it sounded funny. In fact, in 2011 I had a girlfriend who said highway numbers with “the” in front; I made fun of her for it once, and she just glared at me. That relationship didn’t work out, although I should clarify that the highway thing was not the primary reason we broke up.

“Yes.  Just follow the signs to Santa Lucia from there.”

“That seems pretty simple,” Jack said.  “So do you know yet where you’re gonna live next year?”

I felt anxious as my brain processed what Jack had asked.  It seemed like literally everyone was talking about this, and I didn’t even know where to start.  “No,” I said.

“Do you have roommates for next year?”

“No.”

“I’ve heard places fill up fast.  You might want to get on that.”

My anxiety spiked even more.  Not only was everyone talking about this; it also seemed to be a bigger deal than I thought, even though it was only March.  “Yeah,” I said. “First, I need to figure out who to live with.”

“What’s your roommate now doing?” Jack asked.  “Would you want to live with him again?”

“I’m in a single room.”

“Hmm.”

“And most of the people I really know well already seem to have plans.”

“You can always find someone looking for a roommate.”

“I guess.  I don’t know what it would be like living with strangers, though.”

“Yeah.  I know a guy who is a junior, and he lives with people he didn’t already know.  They’re all pretty chill, but you might get someone sketchy.”

“Right.”

“Good luck, man.  Want me to tell you if I hear of anyone looking for a roommate?”

“Sure.”

To be honest, I really didn’t want to live with some friend of Jack’s whom I didn’t know.  But at this point, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I didn’t want to be stuck being homeless.  I felt discouraged, like I had completely dropped the ball on this one.

Back in Building C, Taylor and Pete were sitting in the study lounge.  “Hey, Greg,” Taylor said as I walked into the lobby. I walked toward them.

“What are you guys up to?”

“Nothin’ much.  Just sitting.”

“I have no idea where I’m living next year.  I keep hearing everyone talking about it, and I didn’t even think about it until I overheard everyone.  Does anyone we know still need a roommate?”

“I don’t know,” Pete said.  “Most of the people I’ve talked to already have plans.  But keep asking. Plans might change.”

“And you can always find people looking for roommates,” Taylor added.  “Check the classifieds in the Daily Colt. Or just look around on bulletin boards.  I can let you know if any of our friends from church need a roommate, or anything like that.”

“Yeah.  I’m a little nervous living with strangers, though.”

“That makes sense.  But you never know. You might live with a stranger, and he’ll end up being your best friend.  None of us with roommates in Building C knew each other before this year.”

“That’s true.”

“You’ll figure something out,” Pete said.  “Start looking, but don’t stress about it.”

“I’ll do my best,” I said.

 

Associated Students publishes a guide to finding apartments in Jeromeville every year.  I was vaguely aware that there were stacks of these apartment guides in many of the large buildings around campus, next to the boxes that held the free copies of the Daily Colt.  I took a copy of the AS Apartment Guide the next day and started looking through it during a break between classes.

The city of Jeromeville is colloquially divided into six regions, although these six regions had no official legal status.  The oldest part of Jeromeville, between the campus and the railroad spur leading north to Woodville, is called Downtown Jeromeville.  The areas directly north of downtown and the UJ campus, but south of Coventry Boulevard, are called Central Jeromeville. West Jeromeville is west of Highway 117, North Jeromeville is north of Coventry, East Jeromeville is east of the railroad track and north of Highway 100, and South Jeromeville is south of 100, which means that it is actually southeast of downtown, but as the only part of Jeromeville south of 100, the “south” name stuck over the years.

Downtown Jeromeville was closest to campus, but it was by far the smallest of the six regions, and there were not many apartments downtown.  Central was also close to campus, and also lacking in apartments. Most of the rental properties in those areas were old houses or small apartment buildings that were rented privately by owners and not published in the AS Apartment Guide.  Larger and newer apartment complexes were scattered throughout the other four regions of Jeromeville. The Apartment Guide listed the number of apartments of each size at the complex (which did not necessarily mean that all would be available for the coming year), the monthly rent for each size of apartment, amenities offered by each apartment complex, and the nearest bus line.  The local bus system in Jeromeville is jointly operated by AS and the city, so most of the routes and schedules are very student-centered.

I noticed a large concentration of apartment complexes in a section of north Jeromeville along Alvarez Avenue and Maple Lane. One of the apartments in this area was called Las Casas Apartments; I remembered a few months ago when Mike Adams mentioned a friend who lived there, and I found the name funny because Las Casas literally means “the houses” in Spanish.  That might be a good area to look into; it wasn’t as old as the neighborhoods close to campus, and two grocery stores are nearby.

I also noticed that some apartment complexes in Jeromeville only had one- and two-bedroom apartments, and others, particularly the newer ones farther from campus, also offered three- and four-bedroom apartments.  Some also had studio apartments, which I thought meant that one room was intended to be both a living room and bedroom. One complex called Walnut Tree Apartments in west Jeromeville even had six-bedroom apartments.  As an adult, I now know that apartments this large are quite unusual in normal cities. Jeromeville has a market for large apartments, though, because most rental properties in Jeromeville are rented by groups of students living together.

I still did not know what my situation would be for roommates for next year, nor did I know how much Mom and Dad would be willing to spend on my rent, or if I would have to get a job.  And just about everyone I had asked in Building C already had roommates for next year, with many having already signed leases. The AS Apartment Guide didn’t help with that.

 

One day, during the following week, as everyone was preparing for winter quarter finals, I was doing math problems in the common room downstairs.  Jared, the weird guy from the third floor with the bushy blond hair, walked in, and I waved to him. “Hey, Greg,” Jared said, walking toward me and sitting in a chair next to me.  “Ready for finals?”

“I’m getting there.  What about you?”

“I have so much to do. I have a paper to write, and it’s due tomorrow.”

“I’m more worried about finding a place to live next year than I am about finals,” I said.  “Everyone seems to have plans already, and I had no idea any of this was going on.”

“Yeah.  This guy I’ve had classes with lives in a house just off campus, and they have an opening for next year.  So that’s where I’m going to live.”

I realized about halfway through mentioning my concern about next year’s living arrangements that maybe I shouldn’t say anything in front of Jared, because Jared might want me to live with him.  I really didn’t think I wanted to live with Jared. He was a nice guy, but a little odd. So I was a little relieved that Jared had plans for next year. “Do you know if anyone in this building still needs a roommate?” I asked.

Jared looked like he was thinking about this.  “Phuong?” he said.

“Hmm.  I haven’t talked to Phuong.”  I hadn’t talked to Phuong because the thought of having a girl roommate seemed strange and inappropriate to me.  People would get the wrong idea. And I didn’t know if I felt comfortable living in such close quarters with a girl.

“I hope you figure something out,” Jared said.  “I need to get upstairs and work on my paper.”

“Good luck,” I said as Jared got up and climbed the stairs.  A few minutes later, I went upstairs and back to my room. Later that night, after it was cheaper to call long distance, I called my parents and explained my situation.

“Don’t worry about this,” Mom said.  “We’ll find something. And like you said, the worst case scenario is you have to live with strangers.  But at least you’ll have a place to live.”

“I guess.”

“I’m sure not every apartment in Jeromeville is booked for next year already.”

“That’s not what I’m hearing people say.  Apparently everything here fills up really fast.”

“People are always moving in and moving out.  Something will be open.”

“That’s not how Jeromeville works.  According to the AS Apartment Guide, most apartments in Jeromeville use something called the ‘Jeromeville Model Lease.’  Apparently someone designed this to be student friendly, but what it means is that every apartment operates on a 12-month lease from September to August every year.”

“They can’t all do that, can they?”

“It sounds like they do.  At least most of them. It’s stupid that the city and the university think they can control the economy like that.  That’s Communism. But people like Communism in this socialist People’s Republic of Jeromeville.” Technically, apartment complexes participate in the Jeromeville Model Lease voluntarily, so it is not Communism.  If anything, it is a result of the free market; apartments use this to more easily market themselves to students, who are the overwhelming majority of Jeromeville renters. But thinking through whether or not the Jeromeville Model Lease is actually Communism is not something I wanted to do right now, since I was upset.

“And there’s no way you can be in a dorm again?” Mom asked.

“The dorms are only for freshmen.  At least, you’re only guaranteed a spot for one year.  That’s what I’ve read.”

“If you apply to be in the dorm again, is there a chance you might get in?  Is it too late to apply?”

“I’ll look into that, but I don’t know what my chances are like.”

“Could you commute?  Find an apartment somewhere else, like Woodville?  Or even Capital City. Capital City is huge; I’m sure there are lots of apartments there.  Even if it’s just temporary.”

“Maybe.”

“Don’t worry about that right now.  Take care of finals first. And when you come home after finals, bring the Apartment Guide, and we’ll start to make plans.”

“I guess.  And if I have time, I’ll drive or bike past some of these places to get a better idea of what the neighborhood is like.”

“Sounds like a plan.  See, you’ll figure this out.”

“I guess.”

 

My last final was Thursday afternoon of finals week; I stuck around to unwind and talk to girls on IRC that night, and drove home Friday morning, March 24.   My finals went pretty well. I didn’t find any of them to be particularly difficult, but I still felt a little apprehensive, because I rarely thought I did well on finals.  I always feared the worst. And I also felt bad because I had completely failed at making plans for housing next year. Mom said not to worry, but I did worry, because I didn’t know what was going to happen.  I like having a plan to follow, and this wasn’t one.

But as difficult as it was, I knew that I would be able to make something work.  Maybe I would find a place of my own that wasn’t too unaffordable. I had a feeling that Mom and Dad would be willing to spend money on me, although I hated that.  Mom and Dad had made a lot of bad decisions with their money in the past, and I hated for them to have to spend more because I didn’t do my job of finding roommates.  I know I wouldn’t want that if I were ever a parent someday. I could always try to get a job next year if I felt like I needed to be contributing more.

I grabbed a tape at random and played it when I got far enough south for the Capital City radio stations to become fuzzy.  The tape was R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People album.  I took a deep breath as I tried to let the sounds of alternative pop-rock music and Michael Stipe’s strange lyrics drown out worries of not having a place to live next year.  I was unsuccessful in that.

But maybe it wasn’t all worrisome.  Maybe there was another plan in store for me.  Maybe someone I knew would have a potential roommate back out at the last minute.  Maybe I would be commuting from Woodville, or from Capital City. Maybe I would find strangers to live with, answering a roommate wanted ad or living with friends of friends whom I didn’t know personally.  And wherever I ended up next year, maybe my living situation would lead to something good that would never have happened had I lived somewhere different. One can never tell.

In hindsight, knowing how this part of my story turned out, I can definitely say that that last part is true; my living situation for sophomore year did in fact directly lead me to do something one night, which in turn led to something which changed my life forever.

 


AUTHOR’S NOTE from 2019:  Jenny, who wrote the email with all the questions to answer, is not an actual IRC friend from 1995; she is a current reader of this blog, who nominated me for another Sunshine Blogger Award.  The rules are to thank the blogger who nominated you, answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you, nominate new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.  Thank you, Jenny!  I don’t normally nominate people for stuff like this, as I said, but if any of you reading this want to do it on your blog, go for it.  And post a link to your blog below so other people can go take a look at it.

Go check out Jenny at http://progressinbloom.com

In the story, I only answered nine questions, because two of Jenny’s questions for me refer to blogging, which didn’t exist in 1995.  So here are those answers:

How long have you been blogging for and why did you start?
I started this blog in December 2018, because I like telling stories about my past, and I’m old enough now that life is very different now than it was in 1995, which makes the stories inherently more interesting.

What makes a blog article worth sticking around for— one you truly enjoy reading?
Good question.  I would say being able to relate is a good characteristic (which also applies to books and movies and TV for me).  I’m not going to read a blog about, say, the best way to have a great one-night stand, because I won’t ever have a one-night stand.

And my 11 questions for anyone who chooses to participate:

  • Were you named after anyone or anything, or for any particular reason?
  • What did you eat for dinner last night?
  • What’s a movie, TV show, book, song, etc. that you really like that most people haven’t heard of?
  • If you could go visit anyone currently alive on Earth right now, for one day, and getting yourself there was no object, who would it be, and where is this person?
  • Where is someplace you enjoy visiting that is not a traditional tourist destination?
  • Which dead celebrity or historical figure do you most wish had not died?
  • Coke or Pepsi, or neither, and why?
  • What do you like on pizza?
  • What would you most definitely not want to name your future child, and why?
  • iPhone or Android or neither, and why?
  • What celebrity do you enjoy following on social media the most, and if you don’t follow celebrities on social media, why not?  (It’s up to you whether or not someone counts as a celebrity)