Sleeping in was always a foreign concept to me. I was a light sleeper, and I was used to waking up early for school. Even when I wanted to sleep in, I woke up early. But after two weeks in the new apartment, having no class or job to wake up for, and regularly staying up late reading, looking for girls to talk to on IRC chat channels, or just playing around on the computer, my body was gradually getting used to sleeping later. This morning, I did not wake up until 9:30; I could not remember the last time I had slept in that late.
The morning was uneventful. I spent a couple hours on IRC. I had nothing to read, since I had recently finished part 5 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile and I had yet to make it to the bookstore to buy part 6. I had been playing around with teaching myself HTML, the code used to make websites, although I had no way to share the files anywhere on the Internet for others to see. University of Jeromeville student accounts did not have this feature. A guy I knew from IRC said he could give me an account on his server, but he had not done this yet.
Around five o’clock, I went for a bike ride. This had become part of my routine over the last couple weeks. It was very hot during the daytime, and it did not begin to cool until around five at the earliest. It was a dry heat, and the sun was low enough by five that it actually felt nice being outside. I had explored much of Jeromeville on my bike over the last two weeks. I had ridden extensively through the greenbelts of North and West Jeromeville. I had seen all of campus, including the outlying agricultural areas and research buildings. I had explored a new neighborhood still under construction at the northeast edge of town, and I had even explored some of the rural areas north of the city limits. But one last frontier of Jeromeville remained mostly unexplored to me, and this would be my destination this afternoon.
I began my ride on very familiar routes. I took Andrews Road all the way south into campus, past the Recreation Pavilion and Thong Bikini Hill, following it east through a 90 degree turn to the water tower. From there, I took the narrow path into the Arboretum, continuing northeast to downtown Jeromeville. I turned right on First Street. At the next traffic light, where E Street became Cornell Boulevard, I turned on Cornell.
Cornell Boulevard headed diagonally southeast under a railroad track, through a very narrow underpass. This part of the road was built in 1917, part of the first paved highway to connect Capital City with Bay City. This road was no longer a main highway, having been bypassed by a freeway in the 1960s, but it was still the only connection between downtown and that freeway, and it had never been widened, resulting in horrific traffic jams at certain times of the day. A pedestrian and bicycle path ran parallel to the street through its own small tunnel under the railroad track, allowing me and my bike to bypass the traffic jam. I had walked through this smaller tunnel three months earlier, when a large group of people from my dorm had eaten at Murder Burger on the last night of the school year.
On the other end of the tunnel, pedaling uphill, I rode past Murder Burger, a hotel, an Italian restaurant, and, on the opposite side of the street, a gas station. I continued against gravity as Cornell Boulevard crossed the freeway on an overpass, then I stopped pedaling for a while and coasted downhill into South Jeromeville. The area known as South Jeromeville was actually southeast of downtown, but the name stuck because it was the only part of the city south of Highway 100.
I continued east on Cornell Boulevard, past some large office buildings, sprawling apartment complexes, and vacant lots yet to be developed. When the road curved north back toward Highway 100, I turned south on a street called Valdez Street, which then curved east. This was a residential neighborhood, with houses mostly on culs-de-sac, and it was still under construction, full of vacant lots and houses in various stages of completion. At the end of one of the culs-de-sac, I saw what appeared to be a connection to a bike path, reminiscent of culs-de-sac in North Jeromeville that connect to the greenbelts. The short connecting path led through an opening in a fence. Could there be another greenbelt here? I turned that way to investigate.
Behind the fence, I found a much longer path, running east-west along a dry creek bed. On the other side of the creek was open farmland. I knew where I was now. In the late 19th century, after multiple floods in Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek was diverted into a parallel channel two miles to the south. Later, the part of the old channel running through campus was dammed at both ends to make a long narrow lake, and the Arboretum on campus was planted around this lake. But downstream from campus, the dry creek bed, called North Fork Arroyo Verde Creek on maps, remained dry, except to collect storm drain runoff during the wet season. This is what I saw in front of me. A park bench was on my right. Trees grew between the path and the creek, oaks and wild walnut trees and others that I could not identify. The ground was covered in grasses and weeds that had turned brown over the hot summer.
I turned left, heading east. The creek was on my right, and to the left was a fence separating me from the construction site, a fence which would eventually be the back fence of people’s houses. A couple hundred feet beyond this, another greenbelt split off of this one to head north. I made a note to come back and explore that way later.
(Photograph taken June 2019. The trees behind the fence at the upper left were much smaller in 1995 when the neighborhood was new.)
Short connecting paths to three more streets branched off to the left. This neighborhood was complete, and the view to my left looked much like the greenbelts near my apartment: a thin strip of vegetation next to the path, and beyond that, fences separating the greenbelt from backyards, interrupted every few hundred feet by a path connecting to a residential street. After this, the greenbelt path came to an end. To the left, this street was a narrow residential street that continued some distance to the north, and to the right, the street crossed the creek bed, becoming a private dirt road leading to the farms beyond.
I turned around the way I came, back along the creek bed, and turned north to follow the other greenbelt that intersected this one. I passed a playground, a field that looked big enough for soccer, and tennis courts. A large apartment complex was behind the tennis courts, probably the same apartments I had seen on the corner of Cornell and Valdez. An empty field lay across the path from the tennis courts. Continuing north, I felt the path incline downward as it led into a tunnel under a street, and beyond that, back on ground level, I saw trees and fenced backyards on either side.
I followed the path about another half mile to Cornell Boulevard, running right next to Highway 100. I wanted to continue exploring. I had not seen much of this side of Jeromeville, and I had not explored the other direction of the creek. But I also knew I had to get home. I had been gone for well over half an hour, and I was still quite some distance from home, and I was getting hungry.
I turned west on Cornell toward home. The road ran adjacent to the freeway for the first few hundred feet, with only a small barbed wire fence and a line of leafy, shady walnut trees between them. I squinted a little, riding close to the direction of the setting sun, inhaling the scent of dry vegetation. Something about this made me feel peaceful. The weather was pleasantly warm with the sun shining at a low angle. I was back in Jeromeville where I belonged, and this town still had a lot of unexplored territory for me.
I crossed back over the freeway and through the tunnel into downtown. Instead of going back the way I came, I turned right on First and left on G Street, past the movie theater, the train station, a hardware store, and a few blocks of restaurants and bars, into a very old residential neighborhood. I eventually turned left on 15th Street and right onto the path leading to the North Jeromeville greenbelts. I crossed Coventry on the bike overpass and turned left on the part of the greenbelt that headed west, past tall leafy trees that cast shadows over parts of the path, eventually taking me right to the parking lot by my apartment.
I had been on my bike for a little over an hour, and I was drenched in sweat, but it was a good feeling. After showering and eating a microwaved frozen dinner, I turned on IRC and went to my usual chat room to look for anyone I recognized, or possibly meet someone new. I saw that Mindy Jo was in the room.
gjd76: hi :)
MindyJoA: hey you
gjd76: how was your day?
MindyJoA: it was monday, nothing exciting. i had class. have you started classes yet?
gjd76: no. thursday the 28th.
MindyJoA: i just don’t understand your school’s schedule. i mean, you explained it to me, but it’s weird that you start so late
gjd76: we go later than you too, until the middle of june. i kind of like it though, having september off has been really nice, it’s perfect weather here
MindyJoA: that makes sense. it’s really hot and humid here today
Mindy Jo was a fifth-year undergraduate at West Georgia College. I had never been to Georgia, or anywhere in the eastern half of the United States, and when people from there described the weather as “hot and humid,” I had no concept of what that felt like. I grew up with cool humid Pacific coast weather in Santa Lucia County, and now I was familiar with the hot dry summers here in the Valley, but hot humidity was a completely foreign concept to me. I did not know how to react. The next thing I typed was not about weather at all; it was a spontaneous thought that had popped into my head a few minutes earlier.
gjd76: hey, can i call you?
MindyJoA: huh? you mean like on the phone?
gjd76: yeah, i just feel like doing something different tonight
MindyJoA: sure. 770-555-0130
gjd76: ok. give me a minute
After the incident earlier this month with Allison DarkSparkles, I was definitely not ready to meet another girl from the Internet in person. But talking on the phone felt much safer than meeting in person. I was not putting myself physically in unknown surroundings, and I had nothing to lose but the cost of a long-distance phone call. It would be fun to finally hear the voice of someone I had been chatting and emailing with for several months.
I picked up the phone and dialed the number, pressing buttons quickly so I did not talk myself out of doing this. It was fairly late at night in Georgia, but Mindy Jo was expecting my call, so I was not worried about waking her.
“Hello?” a voice said through the telephone. Even with that one word I could tell that she spoke with a different accent from mine. This was not surprising, since she was from Georgia, but when reading emails from her I never imagined her speaking like that.
“Mindy Jo?” I asked.
“Yeah. Is this Greg?”
“Yes it is.”
“It’s good to hear from you. It’s interesting to hear your voice. It’s not quite how I imagined it.”
“Same with you,” I said. “I didn’t think about the accent.”
“This is going to sound weird, but did your area code just change recently?”
“It did. About a month ago. How did you know?”
“I’ve always had this weird fascination with area codes. I used to want to memorize every area code someday.”
“Interesting. I could see you doing that.”
“Yeah. So I noticed once that all area codes have a middle digit of either 0 or 1. That’s how the phone can tell that you’re dialing a different area code.”
“Yes. But there aren’t any area codes left. More people, more phones and stuff. So apparently the technology is here now that area codes don’t have to have 0 or 1 in the middle digit. I always look at the area code map in the phone book every year, and just this year I started seeing some new area codes that don’t have 0 or 1 in the middle. Like your 770. I think this is the first time I’ve ever dialed an area code without 0 or 1 in the middle.”
“I never would’ve thought about that. It’s interesting the way your mind works.”
“Yeah. I know. And that’s probably why I can’t find a girlfriend.”
“Don’t be silly,” Mindy Jo said reassuringly. “You’ll find someone. I don’t understand why you’re still single. You seem like a really great guy.”
“Well right now it’s because a lot of students haven’t moved back here yet. But I just don’t know how to ask a girl out.”
“You just ask. If there’s a girl you like, just talk to her. And say something like, hey, you want to go grab coffee after class, or something.”
“I don’t like coffee.”
“You can get hot chocolate. Or something else. Or go get ice cream or eat lunch instead.”
“I guess. It just seems weird.”
“What’s weird about it?”
“She probably won’t like me. Or,” I said, trailing off. I had sudden flashbacks of lunch time in 8th grade, when I would sit vaguely near Rachelle Benedetti and look in her direction, but never actually say anything. Paul Dickinson noticed me and asked if I liked Rachelle, I told him that I did, and by the end of the week the whole school knew. Even some teachers knew. I was embarrassed. “Someone might find out I asked her out, and that’s embarrassing,” I continued.
“So what? This isn’t junior high. You’re an adult. No one cares, and everyone gets turned down sometimes. But you’ll never know what’ll happen until you try.”
“I guess,” I said. “What about you? Any guys in your life?”
“I’ve been on a few dates lately. But nothing serious. I need to concentrate on school this semester, so I can graduate at the end of the year.” I wondered what she meant by a few dates but nothing serious. Was she just hanging out with these guys? Were they kissing? Were they doing other stuff together? These ordinary words about dating made no sense to me.
I stayed on the phone with Mindy Jo for another half hour. I told her about my bike ride today, the time I met Allison DarkSparkles, and my classes for the upcoming quarter. She told me about her classes, a terrible professor, and an awkward moment from last week when she ran into an ex-boyfriend. After that, she told me she had to go to bed. “But hey, I’m glad you called,” she said. “I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”
“Yes. Sleep well.”
“Good night, Greg.”
Mindy Jo was the third girl from IRC whom I had spoken with on the telephone, and once she answered I did not feel nervous. That was mostly because she was expecting my call, though. Calling a girl out of nowhere and asking her to get coffee still terrified me. Maybe it would be less scary if I liked coffee. Maybe I needed to teach myself to like coffee, so that I would be able to ask girls out.
But Mindy Jo was right that I would never know what would happen unless I tried. And I was trying new things. I was exploring. I was finding new parts of Jeromeville I had never seen before. I tried meeting Allison DarkSparkles in person, and it did not go well. I tried calling Mindy Jo on the phone, and it did go well. And maybe someday, I would meet a girl and figure out a way to ask her out. A new school year was about to start, I would be meeting new people in new classes. Maybe when the right girl comes along at the right time, there will not be anything to figure out, and everything will just fall into place naturally. Maybe she will open the metaphorical door, and all I will have to do is step through it.
Something kind of like what happened the following week, in fact; at least it felt that way at the time. But I will save that story for later.