June 18-21, 1996. The time my brother and I turned a bunch of silly inside jokes into a board game.

It had been two years since I graduated from high school, and I had only heard from two high school friends in the last couple months: Melissa Holmes and Rachel Copeland.  Neither of them was in town during the week that I came home, after the end of the school year at the University of Jeromeville and before the start of my summer class.  Plumdale was not exactly the world’s most exciting place; neither was Gabilan or Santa Lucia or anywhere else in Santa Lucia County.  Santa Lucia was on the beach, but it was usually windy and not very warm, not what I call beach weather.  Gabilan had a low-level minor league baseball team; in the long tradition of unusual team names in Minor League Baseball, the team was called the Peppers.  I went to one Peppers game with my family that week.  The Peppers lost.

Usually, when I came home on school breaks, the only friends I saw were my brother Mark’s friends, who were all 14 and 15 years old.  There was Cody Kaneko, a teammate and opponent of Mark in baseball and basketball whose parents had known mine for decades.  Another one was Matt Bosworth, Boz for short, a unique combination of silly and intellectual who also had no sense of smell, so we could fart in front of him all we wanted.  Mark and his friends and I had a lot of inside jokes.  Many of them came at the expense of Mark’s other friends, like Ryan Lathrop, who always seemed a bit out of it, or goofy Eric Kingston.

Eric Kingston came over one day during the time I was home.  I was in Mark’s room playing Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo, alone, while Mark and Eric played basketball in the backyard.  After my game ended, I went outside to watch them.

“For three!” Mark shouted, shooting the ball some distance from the court. The ball cleanly sailed through the hoop.  Eric took the ball to the back of the half-length court, then he ran around the court, holding the ball instead of dribbling and flapping his arms like wings, making a vaguely bird-like noise that sounded like “Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!”

“What’s that?” Mark shouted.  “Traveling!”

“No, it’s not traveling,” Eric explained.  “It’s the Flying Bacaa.  That means I don’t have to dribble.  Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Eric shot the ball from just a few feet away; it missed.  All three of us started laughing hysterically.

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” I crowed, running around the yard and flapping my arms in imitation of Eric.  Eric and Mark started laughing harder.

After Eric and Mark got tired of basketball, all three of us went back inside to Mark’s room, trying to decide what else to do.  I saw a Monopoly game through the open closet door, and suggested, “Let’s play Killer Monopoly.”

“Okay,” Mark said.

“Killer Monopoly?” Eric asked.

“Yes,” I explained.  “It’s like Monopoly, but with a few extra rules.  We use the house rule about getting money on Free Parking.  And also, there’s no limit to how many houses and hotels you can build, and you can build more houses after you build a hotel.”

“Can’t you always do that?”

“Not according to the actual rules.”

“Well, that’s how I’ve always played.”

“But the most important rule change is, when you land directly on Go, instead of the two hundred dollars, you get a bomb.  And if you land on someone’s property and you don’t want to pay rent, you use the bomb to blow up their houses and hotels.  And if you use two bombs, the whole property goes back to the bank.”

“That sounds cool,” Eric said.

We began playing, aggressively buying property.  After a few times around the board, Mark had all three of the light purple properties.  He landed on Free Parking on that round and used the money to put two houses on each property.  Eric landed on Go on his next turn, just as Mom opened the door to check on us.  Julio, a large orange and white striped cat, one of four cats who lived here, walked into the room when the door opened.

“I got a bomb!” Eric said.

“A bomb?” Mom asked.  “In Monopoly?”

Killer Monopoly,” I corrected.  “I tried teaching it to you a few days ago, but you weren’t interested.  You just said you hated Monopoly.”

“I do!” Mom said.

“No, no, Julio,” Mark said, pushing Julio away to make sure he did not walk across the board and knock over pieces.

“You come with me,” Mom told Julio, picking him up.  She patted him on the head, saying, “You feel better now, don’t you.”  Turning to Eric, Mom explained, “He had worms in his butt.  But the doctor gave him medicine, and now he’s all better.”  Eric got a horrified look on his face.  He looked at Mark, then back at Mom.  “Oh!” Mom said, laughing.  “You thought I was talking about Mark!  No, I meant Julio.  The cat.”

“Oh!” Eric said, laughing.  I laughed too.

“I don’t have worms in my butt!” Mark shouted.

After Mom left with Julio, I took my turn and landed on Mark’s St. Charles Place, with two houses.  I begrudgingly handed over the rent, leaving me with very little money left.  “I wish I had a bomb,” I said.  “Maybe we need something so you can escape paying rent, but without blowing up the property.  I know!  We should make a Community Chest card that you can keep, like the Get Out Of Jail Free card, and when you play it, you just run away and reappear somewhere else. Like, it takes you the space farthest away from where you are.  It can be the Flying Bacaa card.”

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Eric squawked.

“We can use the ‘You have won second prize in a beauty contest’ card for that.  I always thought that card was silly anyway.”

Eric went home late in the afternoon.  Mark went out to the living room and put in a VHS tape of shows he had been recording.  First on the tape was a recent episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a popular sitcom starring Will Smith as a city kid who moved in with wealthy relatives to keep him out of trouble.  Will’s cousin Hilary had gotten a job hosting a television talk show, and the family was talking about William Shatner being a guest on the show.

“Have you seen this one, Greg?” Mom asked me.

“No,” I replied.

“It’s hilarious!  We have to watch it!  You know the show ended this season, right?”

“I don’t know if I knew that.”

“Mark?  Do you have the last episode on this tape?”

“I think so,” Mark answered, sounding annoyed.  “I’ll look for it later.”

I continued watching as Carlton embarrassed himself trying to impress William Shatner, accidentally breaking his tooth with a pool stick and taking him to the dentist. William Shatner got doped up on laughing gas just in time for the interview on Hilary’s show.  Mom and Mark and I laughed hysterically through the entire episode.  Mark pressed fast-forward to look for the finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but stopped when an episode of Beavis and Butthead came on.  “This one!” he said.  “Plant Man!”

“Yes!” I shouted. The show Beavis and Butthead alternated between a silly story involving the two teenage boys of less than stellar intellect and scenes of the boys watching music videos.  In this episode, they were watching a very strange video called “Plant Man,” by Gary Young.  One part of the song featured Gary Young banging on the drums, and Beavis commented that he could play drums like that.  It was not the first time seeing this episode for any of us.

“Beavis and Butthead sure do watch the strangest music videos,” Mom said.

“I know!” I replied.

Mark found the other episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on the tape.  While he fast-forwarded to skip commercials, I said, “I like that idea of adding a Flying Bacaa card to Killer Monopoly.”

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Mark said.

“We also need to get Plant Man in that game somehow.”

“Maybe Plant Man should fight the Monopoly guy.”

“That would be funny,” I said.  “Or maybe we should leave Killer Monopoly alone and make a new game with the Flying Bacaa and Plant Man.”

“And Erzix,” Mark added, using an old nickname for Eric Kingston from a few years ago.  Eric was playing a video game that asked for your name, and he started entering Eric but finished with nonsense letters.  Erzix was pronounced “air-zicks,” with the first syllable pronounced like the first syllable of Eric.

“Yes!” I said.  “The Adventures of Erzix.  You have to go around the neighborhood fighting Plant Man and a bunch of other weirdos.  And you can get items to help you win a fight.”

“If you land on the same space as another player, you have to fight the other player.”

“But first, you have to ask them, ‘Pardon me, sir, but do you have any Grey Poupon?’” I suggested, quoting a TV commercial.

“Yes!”

“Let’s go work on this!”

We went back to Mark’s room with a pen and paper.  I began drawing four glorified stick figures resembling Erzix wearing a basketball jersey and colored them different colors.  “Don’t forget, he has an earring now,” Mark said.  I drew an oversized hoop earring on each of the four Erzices.  (Since I was one to use irregular plurals facetiously, I had decided years ago that the plural of Erzix was “Erzices,” analogous to the plurals of “matrix” and “vertex” being “matrices” and “vertices.”)

“Who else should you have to fight besides Plant Man?” I asked as I drew Plant Man.

“Putnam,” Mark said.

“Who’s Putnam?”

“You don’t know Putnam?  Let me bring you up to Putnam.”

“Huh?” I asked.  Mark told me about some funny-looking annoying kid at his school named Putnam, then proceeded to draw a caricature of a face with a bad haircut and exaggerated features. I cut out the Putnam picture and glued it to the front of a playing card, from a deck that was missing cards anyway. Those cards would become the cards for the Erzix game.

Mark had a stuffed figure of Pepe the Pepper, the mascot of the Gabilan Peppers baseball team, on a shelf.  Pepe was an anthropomorphic jalapeño with a mustache and baseball cap.  As I stared at that shelf, I asked, “What about Pepe? Should he be one of the enemies?”

“No!” Mark said.  “Pepe is awesome!  He should be on your side instead!”

“What about, you can go to the stadium and get Pepe, and then he follows you and helps you in the next fight?”

“Yeah!  Let’s do that!”


The next day, I typed the rules for The Adventures of Erzix on the family computer.  When I went to print the rules, I noticed the printer was not working, so I asked Mom about that.

“We just got a new printer,” she said.  “And we haven’t set it up yet.  We were waiting for you to come home so you could help.”

I rolled my eyes.  The directions for setting up a printer were not difficult.  You plug it in, you put the CD in the computer, and you follow the prompts it gives you.  I did exactly that.  About halfway through the installation process, I said, “It wants you to name the printer.  What do you want to name it?”

“Carlton!” Mom said, after the character from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

“Really?” I asked.  “You’re gonna name your printer ‘Carlton?’”

“Sure!  Why not?”

I typed “Carlton” in the box and waited for the printer to finish installing.  When it was done, I printed the rules to The Adventures of Erzix; it worked.  “Printer works!” I called out.

“Good!” Mom replied.”




Later that week, Cody and Boz both came over on the same day.  While waiting for a turn on the Super Nintendo, I said, “We should play The Adventures of Erzix.  All four of us.”

“Yeah!” Mark said.

“We should play what?” Boz asked.

“The Adventures of Erzix.  Mark and I made a board game.”

“You made a board game about Erzix?” Cody asked.  “I gotta see this.”

I unfolded the game board and set up the pieces as I was explaining the rules to Cody and Boz.  “I have the rules right here,” I said, holding up the typed rule sheet, “so you know I’m not making anything up.”

We began the game, taking our turns and drawing Item cards when we landed on certain spaces.  Boz was the first to land on a Fight space.  He drew an Enemy card.  “Putnam,” he said, laughing at the drawing.  “The items that say ‘roll 1 to win fight,’ I can play that now and I also win by rolling a 1, is that how that works?”

“Yes,” I said.  “With no item, you have to roll higher than whatever the card says.”

“Then I’m going to play this Giant Otter Pop, and hit Putnam with it.”  Boz rolled the die; it was a 1.  “Got him!”

Cody took his turn next.  He landed on an Item space and drew a card.  “Go to Ryan’s Fart Station,” he read aloud.  He laughed, then asked, “What the heck is Ryan’s Fart Station?”

“One time we were playing Legos with Ryan Lathrop,” I explained.  “He found a piece that said ‘STATION,’ it’s supposed to be for a train station, and he goes, ‘I’m going to build a fart station!’  I have no idea what it means.”  I pointed to Ryan’s Fart Station on the board, and as Cody moved his piece there, I added, “You have to shuffle your items and discard the top one.”

“What?  Why?”

“Because Ryan’s Fart Station stinks so bad, it makes you drop something!”

“Like this?” Mark said.  He farted loudly, and the rest of us laughed.

“Eww!” I screamed as the smell of Mark’s fart hit my nose.

“Boz!” Mark exclaimed.  “You’re lucky you can’t smell that one!”

Just then the door opened.  “What’s going on in here?” Mom asked.

“Mark farted, that’s what’s going on,” I said.

“Whew!  I can smell it!” Mom exclaimed, and the four of us all started laughing again.  “Are you actually playing that Erzix game that you’ve been working on?”

“Yes!” I said, proud of my creation.

“I want to see how this works.”

“Okay.  Whose turn was it?”

“Mine,” Mark said.  Mark rolled the die, moved, and landed on Flying Bacaa.  “Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” he shouted, flapping his arms, as he moved his Erzix token across the board.

“Wha– what?” Boz asked.  “What even is a Flying Bacaa?”

“Some weird Erzix thing,” I said.  “My turn.”  I landed on a Fight space and drew an Enemy card.  “Ogre,” I said, as I drew a card with a drawing of myself on it, complete with Jeromeville T-shirt.

“Ogre, like the nickname that Mark’s baseball team used to call you when you worked in the snack bar?” Mom asked.  “You’re in this game?”

“Yeah.  It was Mark’s idea.  But my Erzix doesn’t have to fight Ogre, because I have this,” I said, playing an Item card from my hand.  “I’m going to use the White Bronco to drive away!”

“Yes!” Cody said, laughing.

“White Bronco?” Boz asked.  “Like O.J. Simpson’s car?”

“Yes!” I shouted.  “My turn is done!  Your turn, Boz.”

Boz drew the Item card that says to challenge another player to a game of one-on-one.  He took Mark’s piece and moved them both to the Basketball Court space. Mark rolled higher, so Boz had to give Mark his last two Item cards.

Cody took his turn next.  He landed on a Fight square and drew an Enemy card.  “Plant Man!” he said, laughing at the drawing resembling Gary Young in his furry green suit. Cody pulled an Item card out of his hand, saying, “I’m going to use this Picture of a Butt, to get an extra chance to win.”

“What?” Boz said, reading the card to make sure he heard right.

“You guys are silly,” Mom said.  


A couple weeks after I moved back to Jeromeville for my summer class, I heard from Mom that Eric Kingston had come over and played The Adventures of Erzix with Mark.  He got a good laugh out of the whole thing, although he said that my drawing of him did not look like him.

We dragged the game out a few more times when I came home on school breaks.  After that, it spent twenty-four years in a closet at my parents’ house, where it remains today.  The game was not a regular activity for our family for long, but it had an important legacy in my life.  It served as a sort of first draft for another silly board game I would write a couple of years later.  The later game had a very similar style of play to The Adventures of Erzix, but with the game rules reworked and improved a little.  Over the years, I taught that later game to many other groups of friends, and I was still playing it regularly for most of my adulthood.  One of my friends who now lives in another state just recently, a few days before I wrote this, dragged out her copy and taught it to some people she knows now.  That other game is another story for another time.

This story has had one more lasting legacy in my life.  In the years since I helped Mom set up Carlton the printer, I have bought three more printers, and every one was named after a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air character.  I keep print copies of all of my writing, so if you will excuse me, I need to go print this on my printer, Aunt Viv.

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

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

“Yes!” I shouted enthusiastically.

“Do I have to?” Mark complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Space Mountain!” I said.

“I hated that ride,” Mom replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

“I don’t think so,” Mom replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see,” Mom said reluctantly.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t,” Mark said.

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

“That sounds good.”

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

“Yes,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.  That’ll be fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good idea,” Dad said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.  “Cool!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mark is watching basketball.”

“Then go watch basketball with Mark.”

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

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


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

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

–Brittany


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I really don’t care.”

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Mom asked.

“It’s for Windows 95.”

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

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Can you get Windows 95 for your computer?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  That works.”

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


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

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

gjd


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.  I promise I will.”

“Thank you.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Hi,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“So how do you like Jeromeville?”

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

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

“That sounds good.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too,” Mom said.

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

“I know,” I said.

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That makes sense.”

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

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

“Where are they coming from?”

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

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably.”

“Are you going anywhere for Thanksgiving?”

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, good.”

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

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

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

“It is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

“This is fun!” Aunt Carol said.

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

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

“Sure,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

“Does that work, Mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, it’s polite to ask.”

“I said I don’t care!”

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

“I know.  That was fun.”

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

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

“Still, that was nice of you.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

“I was thinking around 10 or 11.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should.”

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

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

“I was wondering that,” Dad replied.

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

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

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

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

July 18, 1995. The day we went to Jeromeville with Rick and Miranda.

One of the major annual events in Santa Lucia County was the Gabilan Rodeo, a legacy of the cattle ranching in the area’s past, which had mostly given way over the years to various fruit and vegetable crops.  I was never a big fan of rodeo, but my mom’s sister had married into a family that was very involved with the Gabilan Rodeo.  So, for me, the arrival of the rodeo every July meant getting to see my cousins Rick and Miranda.  They were in between me and my brother Mark in age; Rick would soon begin his last year of high school, and Miranda was just starting high school.

Last week, Mom had been thinking of things we could do when Rick and Miranda were here.  She asked me if I wanted to take a day trip to Jeromeville, so that Rick and Miranda could see where I was going to school.  I enthusiastically approved of that idea. So, on the morning of the day before the rodeo started, Mom had been driving north for the last two and a half hours, I was in the passenger seat, and Rick, Miranda, and Mark were in the back.  Mark had been listening to music on headphones, and Rick had been showing off a fancy money clip that his dad had gotten him recently. Dad stayed home; he had to work.

“Greg?” Mom said as we approached the exit for Highway 117.  “Tell me where to go. Do I take 117?”

“Where are we going to park the car?”

“I don’t know.  You’re the one who lives here.”

“Are we going to start from the MU?   Or from where I lived last year?”

“Let’s do that.  Start from your dorm.”

“Turn here, then,” I said just in time for Mom to move over a lane and exit on Highway 117 north.  I guided Mom to the Davis Drive exit, and then to the parking lot next to the South Residential Area.

“Where do I go?” she asked.

“There’s a little yellow machine where you can buy a parking permit.”

“Do I do that?”

“Yes, Mom.  That’s how parking at places like this work.  You buy a parking permit, you put it on your windshield, and then you park.  The permit tells the parking police that you paid.”

“I know that!” Mom shouted as she bought a parking permit from the machine.

“Then why did you ask?”

“I don’t know!”

“Sometimes you don’t make sense,” I said, suddenly feeling tense over the way that something simple like parking the car had to become a major ordeal.

“Well, sorry.”

We stepped out of the car.  “It’s hot!” Mark exclaimed, the first thing he had said in quite some time.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s what it’s like here in the summer.”

We walked north on Dairy Road toward the South Residential Area, across the street from the dairy, which was exceptionally aromatic today.  I stopped in front of Building C. Pointing to my window on the second floor, I said, This is where I lived last year.  And that was my room.”

“Nice,” Miranda said.

“It was a tiny room,” Mom said.

“Yeah, it was, but I was by myself, so it was all right,” I added.

“You got your own room?” Rick asked.  “No roommate?”

“Yeah.  It just happened.  I didn’t ask for it.  There were only six single rooms in the whole building.”

I pointed out the dining commons as we continued across the South Residential Area.  We continued walking as I pointed out campus buildings and narrated anything interesting I had to say about them.  We walked past the engineering buildings and the buildings where my chemistry and physics classes were. Heading toward the Quad, I pointed out Wellington Hall, where many of my classes had been held, and Kerry Hall, the location of the mathematics department offices.  We passed the tall cork oaks lining the Quad, where I pointed out the Coffee House and the Memorial Union and the campus store. We walked around the corner at the campus store, where I pointed out the gray, oddly-angled building on the other side of the street.

“They call that building the Death Star,” I said, “because of all the steep concrete and metal canyons.  One time, a bunch of us from my building played Sardines there at night.”

“What’s Sardines?” Mom asked.

“Isn’t it kind of like hide-and-seek?” Miranda asked.

“Yes,” I explained, ”except when you find the person hiding, you hide with him and cram in there like sardines.  Taylor was hiding, and I wandered around this crazy building for over an hour looking for him. I hardly saw anyone the whole time.   I thought everyone else was probably wondering what took me so long. And then when I finally found Taylor, I was the first one there.”

“Oh my gosh,” Mom said.  “No one else had found him?  After an hour?”

“I know.”

“College sounds fun,” Miranda said.

We continued walking toward A Street, which divides the campus from downtown.  I pointed out the field where I had learned to play Ultimate Frisbee and the small, unimpressive football stadium.  “I can see where all the parties are,” Rick said.

“Huh?” I asked.

“All those frat houses.”  Rick pointed across the street from the football stadium.

“Oh, yeah.  And there are a bunch more around the corner on Fifth Street.”

“Do you ever go to fraternity parties?” Miranda asked.

“No,” I replied.  “I don’t hang out with that crowd.”

“Rick!” Mom said.  “Put that away! Someone’ll steal it.”

“They’re not gonna steal it!” Rick argued, playing with his money clip and the large wad of cash it held.  I decided to stay out of this argument.

We turned around and walked south on A Street.  I led the group back toward the Quad, past the brown buildings with shingle exteriors which were the oldest buildings on campus.  I pointed out the library as we headed around the corner back to Davis Drive.

“What in the heck is that?” Rick exclaimed loudly.

“What?” I asked.

“That!” Rick pointed to a large metal pipe, suspended about a foot above a concrete slab in the ground.  The pipe curved a few times, ending in a section pointing about ten feet upward, like a chimney. On one of the pieces of metal attaching the pipe to the ground, ominous letters proclaimed YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.

you've been here before (yoinked)

“It’s art,” I said.

“What the heck kind of art is that?  It looks like scrap metal!”

“You know how it is.  Anything can be art. It’s a university.  There’s weird stuff here.”

We got back to the car about ten minutes later and drove all the way across town to McDonald’s.  Mark was a very picky eater, and I had not explored the Jeromeville culinary scene (other than the dining commons) enough to recommend anything, so we went with something familiar.  After we finished eating, I stepped outside to find a pay phone. I stared at the phone for a minute, trying to compose in my head what I would say. I took a deep breath, knowing that I was being ridiculous and that there was no reason for me to be nervous.  It was not like I was going to get rejected or anything.  I was calling a guy. I quickly dialed the number.

“Hello?” a familiar voice said on the other end of the line.

“Taylor?” I said.

“Yeah.”

“This is Greg.”

“Hey, man!  You’re here?”

“Yeah.  Is this a good time to stop by?”

“Sure!  I’m just hanging out, and Jonathan is studying.”

“655 Andrews Road?” I said, repeating the address I had written down.

“Yep!  That’s it!”

“I’ll be there in probably around 15 minutes.”

“Sounds good!  See you then!”

“Bye!”

After we all got back in the car, Mom asked, “Where are we going?  I directed her toward the house where Taylor and Jonathan were living, going a different way than we went before, crossing over Highway 100 and working our way to Fifth Street.  “And who are you going to visit?” Mom asked.

“Taylor Santiago, from the IHP last year.  The one who hid in the Death Star building.  And Jonathan, who was also in the program, is living there too.  I didn’t really know him as well.”

“Which one is Taylor?  Is he the Filipino boy who waved to us from the balcony that time we came to visit?”

“Yes.  That’s him.”

“Weren’t you going to try to visit someone else today too?”

Megan McCauley.  But she emailed me back late last night and said she was busy today.  She had a midterm this morning, and then she was going to do something with her family tonight.”

“Does her family live in Jeromeville?”

“Oak Heights.  Just past Capital City.  About half an hour away.”

“Which one is she?  Didn’t you say she did something funny with her hair last year?”

Cut it off and dyed it green.”

“You have too many friends,” Mom said.  “I can’t keep track of all these people.”

“I don’t know.”

“No, that’s a good thing.  Remember how in high school you always felt like you wanted to have more friends and a social life?”

“I guess.”  Mom was right, but it felt embarrassing to talk about this with her, especially in front of Mark, Rick, and Miranda.

As we approached Taylor’s house, Mom asked, “So we’ll leave you alone to hang out with Taylor, and we’ll be back in an hour.  Did you say there was a park somewhere around here where we can go sit and walk around?”

“Yeah.”  I gave Mom directions to get to Maple Drive Park, about a quarter mile away.  As the rest of my family drove off, I walked up to Taylor’s door and knocked. I waited nervously on the porch, even though I knew Taylor well and had nothing to be afraid of.

“Hey, man!” Taylor said.  “Come on in!”

I walked into the living room and looked around.  I sat on the couch. Jonathan was sitting in a recliner with a textbook, which he put aside to say hi to me.  Taylor sat on the other side of the couch where I sat. “So whose house is this?” I asked.

“A guy I know from church.  He’s away working at a summer camp.”

“That’s cool.  How are your classes going?”

“Pretty good.  I just got a midterm back.  I didn’t do as badly as I thought.”

“That’s good.”

“How’s your summer?  How’s life back in Plumdale?”

“Pretty boring, honestly.  I’m working at an old lady bookstore.  My mom knows someone who works there, so I didn’t have to go out and find the job or anything, but business is kind of slow.”

“When you say old lady bookstore, do you mean they sell books for old ladies?”

“Oh, no.  It’s just a bookstore.  But the owner is an older woman who listens to classical music, and not a lot of people our age come to the store.”

“That makes sense.  Are you hanging out with your friends a lot?”

“Not really,” I said.  “Plumdale is so spread out, I don’t really have neighbors, and most of my school friends aren’t near me.  I’ve really only seen two of them. Some of them didn’t come home for the summer. I’ve been going to San Tomas Mountain Lions roller hockey games, though.  That’s been fun. I went to two with my family and one with a friend.”

“I haven’t been to one of those yet.  My sister and a bunch of her friends went to one.  She said they kept showing her on the camera and made her Fan of the Game.”

“I saw that!” I exclaimed.  “I was at that game!”

“Really?  That’s funny!”

“Jonathan?  What about you?” I asked.  “How’s your summer going?”

“Good,” he said.  “Just studying. Trying to get some more classes in.”

“You came here with your family, right?” Taylor asked.  “Where are they now?”

“They didn’t want to get in the way while I was visiting you guys.  They wanted to go find a park and hang out for a while. So I pointed them toward Maple Drive Park.  They’ll be back to pick me up at 2:30.”

“That’s cool.  Are they having fun?  You said someone else was here too?”

“My cousins Rick and Miranda.  They’re visiting this whole week.”

“Where do they live?”

“In the middle of nowhere.  A little town about four hours north of here.  But both of their sets of grandparents live in Gabilan, so I get to see them a few times a year.”

“That’s cool.”

Taylor and I spent the rest of the time talking about his classes, our plans for next year, things he had been doing with Jeromeville friends during the week and friends back home over the weekend, and friends from our dorm whom we had heard from over the summer.  Jonathan talked a little as well, but eventually went to study in his bedroom.  Taylor told me that Bok and her family went on a camping trip to the Pacific Northwest, and Caroline was visiting her relatives in Australia. (Both girls would send me postcards from their trips eventually.)

At 2:30, I looked outside the front window and saw the rest of my family sitting in the car waiting for me.  “I need to go,” I said. “My ride’s here.”

“It was good seeing you,” Taylor replied, standing up and walking to the front door, which he opened for me.  “Let me know when you move back up for the fall. Or if you’re up here again.”

“Definitely.  I’ll see you then.”  I raised my voice and called toward the back of the house, “Bye, Jonathan!”

“Bye, Greg!” Jonathan’s muffled voice called out from his room.  “Good seeing you!”

“You too!”

After I got back in the car, Mom asked, “How are Taylor and the other guy?”

“Jonathan.  They’re doing well.  Just studying. And Taylor goes home on weekends.”

“Where’s he from?”

“El Arcángel.  North of Bay City.”

“Oh, okay.  So what are we doing next?  Looking at your new apartment for next year?”

“Sure.  Head that way,” I said, pointing north and continuing to direct my mother to Las Casas Apartments.  When we got there, we got out and began walking around.

“This is where you’re gonna live next year, Greg?” Miranda asked

“Yeah,” I said.  “Apartment 124. Right over there.”

Miranda looked where I was pointing.  “This looks nice.”

“I like it.”

“Can we walk around a little?” Mom asked.

“Sure,” I said, I turned the corner of the building where my apartment was.  I pointed out the path that led to the Greenbelts. “That’s a great place to take a walk or go for a bike ride,” I said.  “Like a trail connecting a long park area.”

“That’s cool,” Miranda said.  I pointed out the swimming pool and the laundry room.  Miranda seemed the most interested; Rick was playing with his money clip again, and Mark was quietly listening to music with headphones.

After walking around for a while and returning to where we parked, Mom said, “Well, we’ve done everything we were going to do here.  Is there anything else we’re doing here? Or is it time to go back home?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I could not think of anything else we were going to do, and I knew we still had a long drive ahead.  But I enjoyed being in Jeromeville again, even if only for a day, and I was kind of sad to see the trip coming to a close. “I guess.”

We stopped for gas and got back on the freeway.  About ten minutes later, we were approaching Nueces, the next town to the west, when Rick exclaimed, “I lost my money clip!”

“Oh no,” I said.

“I told you not to keep getting it out,” Mom said, sounding slightly exasperated.

“So what are we going to do?” I asked.

“Do you know where you lost it?” Mom asked Rick as she exited and pulled over.

“I remember seeing it at Las Casas Apartments,” I said.  “So either he lost it there, or at the gas station, or in the car.

“It’s not in the car,” Rick insisted.  “I’ve been looking.”

“Do you want to go back and look at the apartment and the gas station?”

“Well, yeah, if we can.  Duh.”

Mom turned back onto Highway 100 east, the way we came.  She took 117 north to the Coventry Boulevard exit and remembered on her own how to get back to Las Casas.  We parked in the same part of the parking lot where we were before and began looking around. I could tell that Rick was upset, and that Mom was annoyed.

After walking around for about two minutes, I saw a glint of metal in the parking lot.  I walked closer and saw a $20 bill with other bills folded behind it, held together by a metal clip.  “Rick!” I called. “Isn’t this it?”

Rick came running over.  “Yes!” he shouted. “Found it!”

“Good,” Mom said.  “Mark! Miranda! We found it!”

“Can we go home now?” Mark asked, sounding like he would rather be anywhere else than here.

On the drive home, Rick played for us a CD of his new favorite comedian, someone named Jeff Foxworthy who made jokes about the South and rednecks.  I thought he was somewhat amusing. Mom told me later that she thought Jeff Foxworthy was stupid.

After having been in the car so much that day, I felt a little relieved to be home, knowing that I would be sleeping in my own bed that night.  But I also felt disappointed. It was disappointing that I did not get to see Megan. But, more generally, today I had had a taste of what it was like to be back in Jeromeville, and I was ready for more.  My life in Plumdale really was going nowhere. I was more ready than ever to return to Jeromeville. I had been there for a year (YOU’VE BEEN THERE BEFORE, I thought, like that weird sculpture), and I would be back someday.  My friends were there. I had new people to meet there. And I felt so much more free there, not having to wonder if my family would question my every move. This boring time in Plumdale working at Books & More would pass, and six weeks from now I would be free to continue living my new life in Jeromeville.


Author’s note:  I apologize to whomever took the photograph of YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.  I stole it from a Jeromeville local wiki site.  As soon as the COVID-19 lockdown is over, I’ll go to Jeromeville and take this picture myself and replace this with my own picture.

Thanks to Mom and Taylor for helping me out with a few details relevant to this day.

This episode kind of feels like one of those TV shows where they keep showing clips from previous episodes.  I told tons of stories about the previous year in Jeromeville and linked to all of them, for the benefit of new readers who might have missed those.

And, I doubt that she will ever see this, but from one writer to another, happy 104th birthday today to Beverly Cleary.  I often forget about her when I think of my favorite authors, since she writes children’s books and I haven’t read anything of hers since elementary school.  But I loved the Ramona books and the Henry Huggins books as a kid, and somewhere back at my parents’ house in Plumdale I have an autographed first edition copy of Ramona Forever.  From what I have read about her as an adult, and what I remember of her books, she really did a great job of capturing what life is like for an ordinary child, and as someone who doesn’t always relate well to popular works of fiction, that’s important to me.  And besides all that, just living for so long is pretty awesome in itself.

— Greg

March 28-29, 1995. Back home, finding a new home, and visiting an old home.

“Remember the rule,” Mom said.  “Don’t shout out the answer until time is up, so we can have time to think about it.”

“I know,” I replied.  In our family, this was called the Malcolm X Rule.  A few years ago, the answer to the Final Jeopardy! question was Malcolm X, and Dad shouted out the answer before Mom was even done reading the question.  To this day, if Mom is watching Jeopardy! with other people in the room, she has to remind them of the Malcolm X Rule, and on those rare occasions when I am not alone while watching Jeopardy!, I tell people the rule as well.

“Did you still want to look at that apartment guide tonight?” Mom asked.

“Sure.  I’ll go get it.  We can look at it after Jeopardy! is off.”

I climbed the stairs to my room.  It was spring break, and I was back at my parents’ house in Plumdale for the week.  Tomorrow was the only day I had plans for, and I was a little nervous about that, but it would certainly make for an interesting day.

I ran down the stairs, holding the apartment guide, taking the stairs two at a time to make sure I got back to the TV before Jeopardy! came back from the commercial, but not running too loudly because Dad was asleep.  I had no place to live for next year, and I learned too late that apartments in Jeromeville fill up quickly. Jeromeville is a fairly small city with a large university, so students dominate the rental market, and most leases run from September through August.  Apartments are listed on March 1 to rent for the following September, and people had told me that most apartments are leased within the first few weeks of this process. By the time I figured out that everyone I knew was making living arrangements for next year, everyone I knew already had a roommate, and most of them had signed leases, so I was a little panicked about that.  The Associated Students organization publishes an apartment guide every year, which is what I held in my hands now, so at least that would help narrow down where I could find an appropriately sized and priced apartment, once I know whom, if anyone, I would be living with.

“Let’s see what our contestants know about Colonial America,” Alex Trebek said on the TV.  “Here is your clue: ‘President of the Continental Congress 1775-77, he was reelected in 1785 but didn’t serve due to illness.’”  The music played as the three contestants, Mom, and I thought about who this early American was.

“I don’t know,” Mom said as the song stopped and time ran out.  “I keep thinking George Washington, but I’m probably missing something.”

“I was going to say John Hancock.  His signature was first, so maybe he was President in 1776, I was thinking.”

“I bet you’re right.”

Each of the contestants revealed their answer, and Alex told them if they were correct or not.  John Hancock was correct, and two contestants got it right. Mom started looking through the apartment guide, as if to get a feel for what our options were.

“These are expensive!” she said.  That was definitely not what I needed to hear.  Of course, Mom hadn’t been in the market to rent an apartment since the early 1970s, so I don’t know if she had a good idea of how much rent was in a normal city.  I had no idea either, so I didn’t know if apartments in Jeromeville were more expensive than apartments in a normal city.

“Look at this place,” Mom said, pointing to the listing for some ritzy-sounding apartment in West Jeromeville.  “‘Includes access to Stone Park Country Club.’ You don’t need something like that.”

“I agree.”

“So what can you tell me about any of these places?”

“Central and Downtown Jeromeville are closest to campus, so that’d be an advantage to living there, but those are mostly older areas.  There’s one part of North Jeromeville with a whole lot of apartments and two grocery stores nearby, and easy bus access to campus, and those areas look pretty nice.  I’m probably most interested in those areas; the other parts of Jeromeville are getting farther away from campus, and I don’t want to be too far away.”

Mom and I continued looking at apartments; I made a mark next to the ones I wanted to look at more closely.  “How much money do we have to work with?” I asked. “What if I don’t find a roommate? Can we afford for me to live alone?”

“Don’t worry about it.  If we can’t, then you can always look for a part time job.  Or answer a roommate wanted ad.”

“You keep saying not to worry, and I appreciate it, but I need a number.  How much money? I need to know, so I can decide which places to call first, and whether or not I’ll need to get a job or room with a stranger.”

“Hmm,” Mom said, flipping through the apartment guide again.  “I think we can do $500 a month. We’ll make it work.”

With this additional parameter, I narrowed the decision to five apartment complexes that I would call and visit as soon as I got back to Jeromeville.  I had no idea if any of these apartment complexes still had vacancies. I didn’t have a timeline on how quickly Jeromeville runs out of apartments, so I didn’t know how likely these places were to have something still available.

I also felt guilty that my parents were spending that much money on me.  Some parents don’t help their children with college at all. I could have saved a lot of money by finding a roommate earlier, like everyone else did, and even though I didn’t realize I had to do this, it felt like my fault that I didn’t.  Getting my own apartment felt like a privilege I didn’t deserve, even though Mom seemed okay with it. Maybe I would look for a job for next year. I didn’t know what kind of job I was looking for, though. And this arrangement was only for one year; I’d do a better job of finding roommates for junior year when the time came.

“So what time are you meeting Melissa tomorrow?” Mom asked, changing the subject.

“Nine.”

“At the school?”

“Yes.”

“I think it’ll be fun to see all your old teachers.  Which teachers are you going to see?”

“I don’t know.  We’re going to see Mrs. Norton and Mr. Jackson for sure.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“I hope so.”

 

The next morning, I left the house in time to get to Plumdale High School at nine o’clock in the morning, just as I had planned.  Melissa Holmes had sent me an email a week ago asking if I was going to be home for spring break. She was coming home from San Angelo University and wanted to visit Plumdale High and say hi to some of our old teachers.  UJ and SAU had the same schedule, but our spring break was a different week from Plumdale High’s, so this was a regular school day for Plumdale High.

I saw Melissa’s little red Toyota Tercel in the parking lot.  I wasn’t sure exactly where to look for her, if she expected me to go to the office or to Mrs. Norton’s room or Mr. Jackson’s room or what, but as I got closer I noticed that Melissa was still sitting in the car.  I stepped outside. It was cold and overcast, with the marine fog layer hanging low overhead; I wore my sweatshirt that said JEROMEVILLE and had the university seal on it.

“Hey, Greg,” Melissa said, walking toward me and giving me a hug.  “How’s it going? How was your break?”

“Good so far.  I haven’t really done anything.  Just hung out with family. How are you?  Are you making any new friends at school? I remember we talked about that a while ago.”

“Yeah, I’ve started meeting people from classes, and from church.  It gets kind of lonely not living in a dorm.”

“But it’s cheaper for you living with your grandmother,” I said.  “And you probably also get more quiet study time than you would in a dorm.”

“Good point.”

“So does anyone know we’re coming today?”

“I had my brother tell Mrs. Norton we were coming.  Other than that, though, no.”

Melissa and I spent a few more minutes catching up in the parking lot, then we walked toward Mrs. Norton’s classroom.  Back in 1995, school security wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. Students didn’t wear ID cards on lanyards, and neither did teachers.  Visitors didn’t need passes, and many school campi didn’t even have fences around them. There was a chain link fence across the front of the PHS parking lot, with one of the full time campus supervisors stationed at the entrance to the parking lot, in a little booth, but that wasn’t an issue, because she knew me and she let me in.  She did ask if I had permission to be there, though; I said I was home on spring break, and that Mrs. Norton knew I was coming. That was good enough.

“Hey there!” Mrs. Norton said, in her distinct voice and accent, after we walked into her classroom.  Mrs. Norton was born and raised in Mississippi. “And Greg! You’re here too!” Mrs. Norton had been our teacher for AP Calculus last year, and she had been one of my favorite teachers at Plumdale High.  I also had her for the second semester of Algebra II as a sophomore.

“Hi,” I said.  “I hope that’s okay.  It sounds like you didn’t know I was going to be here.”

“Sure!”  Addressing the class, Mrs. Norton said, “Do y’all know Melissa and Greg?  They both graduated from here last year.” Mrs. Norton turned to us and explained, “This is Algebra II, so it’s mostly juniors, with some sophomores and a few seniors.”

“Right,” I said.

“So what are y’all majoring in?  Melissa, you’re pre-med, right?”

“Yes,” Melissa answered.  “Majoring in biology, specifically.”

“I’m technically undeclared,” I said.  “But right now I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.  I still like math, and I’m still good at math.”

“That’s great!” Mrs. Norton said.  “You’ll do great in math.”

Mrs. Norton finished the example she was working on, and when she gave the class a few minutes to work, she talked to us for a few more minutes, asking how we liked being away from home and things like that.  She eventually asked if we were going to visit anyone else while we were here, and Melissa said that we were going to see Mr. Jackson.

After the current period ended and the next one started, Melissa and I left for Mr. Jackson’s class, waiting until the end of the passing period in order to avoid the crowds trying to get to class on time.  Mr. Jackson was our teacher for AP English last year. He was tall and thin with curly gray hair, and he looked like he had been involved with theater at some point in his life. My mom told me once in the car on the way home that she thought he was gay, except that she used some much more inappropriate words in her description.  I didn’t care if he was or not, and it made me a little uncomfortable the way Mom talked about people behind their backs that way. I had to see and interact with Mr. Jackson every day of senior year with Mom’s inappropriate comment in the back of my head all the time.

“Melissa!” Mr. Jackson shouted enthusiastically as she walked into the classroom, with me right behind.  “Greg! You’re here too!” Mr. Jackson turned to his class of freshmen and added, “This is Melissa and Greg.  They graduated from Plumdale High last year. Melissa is at San Angelo University, and Greg is at… sorry, remind me?”

“Jeromeville.”

“Jeromeville!  That’s right. You’re wearing the sweatshirt and everything, I just noticed.  How do you guys like it?”

“I’m doing well in my classes,” Melissa said.  “And I live off campus, so it’s nice and quiet.”

“I’m in a dorm called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program,” I explained.  “I have some classes specifically for students in that program, so I know the people in my building better than if I had just been assigned a dorm randomly.  I’ve made some really good friends. And I’m still getting good grades. I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.”

“You were always good at math,” Mr. Jackson said.  “I could see that.”

Mr. Jackson got his class started on an assignment, and in between giving instructions to students, he continued catching up with us.  Melissa told him about how her family was doing, and mentioned that her brother was a sophomore at PHS currently and would probably have Mr. Jackson as a senior.  Mr. Jackson asked me more about the IHP, how it worked, and why I decided on math for my major.

After about fifteen minutes, we said our goodbyes to Mr. Jackson and his class and walked into the hallway.  “I need to get home,” Melissa told me. “I have something I need to get to. But it was good to see you, Greg.”

“You too!” I said.  “I think I’m going to stick around for a bit and say hi to a few other teachers.”

“You should!  Have a great day, and let me know who else you see.”

“I will.”

“Are there any students here who you still talk to?”

“Rachel Copeland is the only one who has really kept in touch at all.  I don’t know where she is right now, though.  She doesn’t know I’m here.”

“I don’t know either.  I’m sure you could ask.”

“Yeah.”

“Have a good one, Greg.  Take care.”

“You too.”

Melissa walked back toward the parking lot.  I walked to Mr. Peterson’s classroom. He taught economics to seniors all day, and he had also attended the University of Jeromeville, in the 1960s when it was much smaller.  His door was open, and I could hear him lecturing as I approached and quietly poked my head in the door.

“Jeromeville!  Go Colts!” he said upon seeing me and my sweatshirt, without missing a beat in his lecture at all.  “How’re you doing, Greg? It’s good to see you!”

“You too,” I said.  “I’m doing well. I really like my classes, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Do you have a few minutes?  We can talk a little more after I finish this up.”

“Sure,” I said, as my eyes scanned the room and I became more aware of my surroundings.  This was a class of exclusively seniors, as I said, and many of the honor students appeared to be in this class.  I recognized over half of them, including the girl with straight light brown hair who was now waving at me and beckoning me to sit in the empty seat next to her.

“Hi, Rachel!” I whispered as I sat in this empty seat.

“You didn’t tell me you were coming here!” Rachel whispered back.

“It was kind of last minute,” I replied; I wanted to explain about Melissa inviting me, but Mr. Peterson was talking at this point, and I also didn’t want to interrupt his class.  A few minutes later, I felt something under my desk; it was Rachel, passing me a note. I quietly unfolded it and read. Come sit with us at lunch, same spot as last year, Rachel wrote.  I replied Ok and slyly passed it back to her.

I visited a little more with Mr. Peterson when he got the chance to come talk to me; we made the usual small talk about college and classes and future plans.  Now that I had committed to being on campus at least until lunch, since I had to go sit with Rachel and her friends, I had to find things to do for another period and a half.  After I was done talking to Mr. Peterson, I walked around campus and said hi to as many teachers, administrators, and staff members as I had time to see. I had a wonderful time catching up with everyone.  Mrs. Carter, the college and career counselor who helps students with applications and scholarships and the like, asked me to fix her computer, just as she had done multiple times during my senior year. My English teacher from sophomore year, Ms. Woolery, was teaching a class of freshman with reading skills below grade level, and she asked if I had a few minutes to talk a little bit about college and answer their questions.  I wasn’t at all prepared to do something like that, but I did anyway. It is always nice to feel like I have useful knowledge and experiences to share with others; additionally, Ms. Woolery’s students, many from families in which no one has ever attended college, got an opportunity to hear about college from a peer.

I figured out at some point during my visit to Plumdale High that it was Spirit Week, and today was Beach Day.  I wasn’t wearing anything beach-appropriate, but some students had Hawaiian shirts, surfing-related t-shirts, flip-flops, things like that.  There was a giant pile of sand on the grass in front of the school, which I suspected was probably going to be used for a class competition. Several school clubs had food booths at lunch; I walked in the direction of the food, since I was hungry and Rachel wasn’t yet in the spot where she asked me to meet her.  “Hey, Will,” I said, recognizing a guy from the Computer Graphics and Video Production class I took the year before. Will was a sophomore now.

“Greg!  What’s up?  I haven’t seen you all year!”

“I’m home on spring break.  My friend and I came back to visit all of our teachers.”

Will looked confused for a second.  “Oh, yeah!” he said. “You graduated!  Where are you now?”

“Jeromeville.”

“Where’s that?”

“North.  Near Capital City.”

“Oh, ok.  It was good seeing you!  Have a good one!”

I got in line for curly fries, being sold by the marching band, to raise money for a trip to Disneyland.  I thought it was funny that Will had forgotten that I had graduated last year.

“Greg?” someone said next to me in line.  I turned and saw a sophomore named Jamie Halloran; I was friends with her older sister, Jessica, who had been in my graduating class.

“Hey, Jamie,” I said.  “How are you?”

“I’m great!  Are you on your spring break?”

“Yeah.  Melissa wanted to come say hi to some teachers, and she invited me along, but she had to leave already.”

“Did you hear Jess is in Guatemala?”

“I heard,” I said.  “Volunteering at an orphanage, something like that?”

“Yeah.  Did she write you?  I gave her your address.”

“No, not yet.”  Two weeks before I left for Jeromeville, I saw Jamie at a Plumdale High football game.  I had just learned my mailing address at the time, so I gave it to Jamie and told her to give it to Jessica, but neither of them had written me yet.  I didn’t know at the time that Jessica was going to end up in Guatemala. I don’t know if Jamie or even Jessica knew at that time yet either.

“She says it’s so different from here, but she loves it!  My mom is putting together a package to send her; I’ll write her a note and remind her to write to you.”

“Thanks.”

As I walked with my curly fries to where I expected Rachel to be, I noticed that the class competition had begun; two students from each class were competing to build the tallest sandcastle in a certain time limit.  One of the sandcastle-builders for the junior class was Annie Gambrell; I paused to watch for a few minutes, hoping that Annie would notice me, but she didn’t. This was not a good time to try to talk to her, of course, since she was in the middle of making a sandcastle.  I walked back over to where Rachel had told me to meet her; she was there now, with a few of her friends whom I didn’t know as well.

“So you just woke up and decided to come visit your high school?” Rachel asked.

“Not exactly,” I explained, telling her about Melissa’s invitation and earlier departure.

“Jeromeville is on quarters, so you’ll have new classes when you go back next week, is that right?”

“Yes.  I’m taking math, physics, chemistry, and a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law.”

“That sounds interesting.  What’s that last one about?”

“I’m not really sure, except that it’s about psychology, and the law,” I explained.  Rachel laughed. “It’s the heaviest course load I’ve had so far, but math and chemistry are pretty easy to me, and physics was always easy in high school, so I should be okay.”  (I wasn’t as okay as I thought I would be in terms of my classes, but that’s a story for later.)

“Do you need physics and chemistry for a math major?”

“Physics, yes, one year.  I was also thinking about majoring in physics, which would need chemistry; I haven’t decided for sure yet.  Chemistry, not for math, but I would if I majored in physics. Physics for science and engineering majors doesn’t start until spring quarter, so I haven’t had physics at all yet.  I’ll see how that goes before I decide for sure.”

“That makes sense,” Rachel said, nodding.  “So what does it feel like being back?”

“It’s good to see everyone.  But it’s a little weird too. It’s like, class competitions, flyers all over the place advertising the dance, those people making out behind us, all that stuff is high school stuff, and I’m not in high school anymore.”

“That makes sense.  I certainly won’t miss all that stuff when I get out of here next year.”

“Do you know where you’re going yet?  The last time we talked about it, I think you wanted to go to St. Elizabeth’s.”

“That’s still my first choice.  They should start sending out acceptance letters in about a week, they said.”

“I’ve never been there.”

“It’s such a beautiful campus.  And it’s a small school. And I’m not Catholic, but there’s something spiritual about that campus that I liked when I visited,” Rachel said.  I wasn’t sure what she meant by spiritual, her tone sounded kind of New Age-ish, but hey, whatever works.

A while later, just after the bell rang to end lunch, Rachel said, “I’m glad I got to see you today, Greg.  Will you be here the rest of the day?”

“I think I’m just going to go home.  I’ve seen everyone I wanted to say hi to, pretty much, and I’m getting tired.  But I’m glad we got to hang out.”

“Okay.  Call me any time.  And I’ll write you soon.”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.”  Rachel hugged me.

“Have a good day,” I said, turning around toward the parking lot.  I took a few steps, then turned back toward campus. I considered for a few seconds trying to figure out what class Annie Gambrell had, so I could say hi to her, since she was busy earlier.  I gave her my address at Homecoming, and she hadn’t written me; maybe she lost it. No, probably not; people just don’t write like they say they will. And she had a boyfriend, so I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up anyway.  Then again, maybe they broke up; it had been almost six months since I’d last seen Annie. No, I told myself, forget it. I kept walking toward the car.

I turned on the classic rock radio station as I drove home, listening to music of the 1960s and 1970s.  Fleetwood Mac. The Rolling Stones. Supertramp. High school was over. Sometimes I wished it wasn’t. I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business in high school.  I stepped pretty far out of my comfort zone during my senior year, and I made some great new friends, but then all of a sudden I graduated and lost touch with most of them, so that part of my life story never got to reach a natural conclusion.  I felt torn, wanting closure, yet also knowing that this part of my life was over, and that I was moving on. And today was the first time I started to feel like I really had moved past high school. When I was still around in the fall going to PHS football games, and when I came back for Homecoming, I felt like I still belonged at PHS.  Today, not so much.

Fittingly, this day was the last time I ever set foot on the Plumdale High campus.  I went to Mark’s graduation in 2000, but it was at the gym at Santa Lucia Community College, not at PHS.  I’ve driven past Plumdale High several times when I’ve come back home to Santa Lucia County, and I’ve taken pictures of it, but I haven’t actually gotten out of the car.  I’ve thought about going back for Homecoming at some point to see what it’s like, especially after the football field was remodeled in 2017, but it hasn’t ever been a high priority.  Also, I don’t know anyone there anymore. The school has changed, and so has the neighborhood, and so have I. Staying connected to the past is important, but not at the expense of the present.

20190615_092117.jpg
Plumdale High School, June 2019, and the little booth at the entrance to the parking lot where the campus supervisor watches everyone who enters.  The athletic fields are in the background; the school itself is to the right, off camera.  This was the best picture I could take from the car on that day.

And thanks to j-archive.com for allowing me to look up what the Final Jeopardy! clue was on March 28, 1995.  I didn’t remember off the top of my head, of course.

February 19, 1995. Mom and Dad and Mark visit Jeromeville.

Building C was quiet at ten-thirty on that Sunday morning.  I had just written emails to Brittany from Texas and Molly from Pennsylvania.  It was also my turn to email Renee, my friend from high school. I opened the message and reread what she had written about yesterday.  I figured I might not have time to write back right now, because I was expecting guests, and I needed to go down to the common room to let them in.  But as I was reading Renee’s email, I heard a knock at the door, and I opened the door to see my expected guests in the hallway.

“Hi, Greg,” Mom said, giving me a hug, which I returned.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How’d you guys get in?”

“Tall curly-haired guy let us in,” Dad said.

“Jonathan,” Mom added.  “He was downstairs studying.  Do you know Jonathan?”

“Um, yeah,” I said.  “Don’t you remember how the IHP works?  You guys came to that preview day last year.  Everyone in this building has classes together.  Come in,” I said, gesturing for Mom, Dad, and Mark to come into the room.

“I know that,” Mom continued.  “I meant, is Jonathan your friend?  Do you talk to him?”

“I guess,” I said, a little confused about where Mom was going with this line of questioning.  “I mean, we don’t talk a lot, but I don’t ignore him either.”

“Why is this important?” Mark interrupted loudly.  Until that moment, he had just been standing quietly in the background.

“Good point.  Is it time to go to church yet?” Mom asked.

“Mass starts at eleven,” I said.  “We should probably leave in about ten or fifteen minutes.  We don’t want to be late.”

“Can we just sit around until then?” Dad asked.  “I’m tired from the drive.”

I sat on the bed, Mark sat next to me, Dad sat in the desk chair, and Mom stood near the closet.  We talked mostly about my classes for the next ten minutes until it was time to leave.

“Are we dressed okay for church?” Mom asked.  She was wearing a long sleeve shirt and slacks.  Dad wore a sweater, with jeans and Birkenstocks. Mark wore a solid color t-shirt and jeans. “You’ve been going to church all your life.  Why would this one be different?”

“I don’t know.”

“If anything, people would dress more casually, because this is Jeromeville, with a lot of college students.”

“You’re fine,” Dad said.  “Let’s go.”

We walked out of the building and turned toward the parking lot.  “What’s that smell?” Mark asked.

“That’s the dairy over there.”  I pointed at the buildings across the street from Building C.  “It’s cows.”

“Later on today, I want you to give us a tour of the campus,” Mom said.  “I still haven’t seen all of it, and there’s a lot I don’t remember.”

“We’ll do that after lunch,” I said.

Danielle saw us as soon as we entered the church building.  “Hey, Greg,” she said. “Is this your family?”

“Yes.  This is my mom, and my dad, and my brother Mark.”  I turned to my family and said, “This is Danielle. She lives down the hall in room 216.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mom said.

“Can you save me a seat?” Danielle asked.

“Sure,” I said.  Turning to Mom, I explained, “She sings in the choir.  She’ll sit with us during the homily.” Mom nodded.

During the Gospel reading, Mom nudged me.  She was pointing at a tall guy in the choir with dark hair and features that suggested mixed European and Asian heritage.  “Is that Matt Jones?” she whispered. I shrugged my shoulders and gave her a confused look. “He’s from Gabilan. He’s Josh Jones’ brother.”

“You’re talking during the reading,” I whispered, as Danielle, the guy who might have been Matt Jones, and the rest of the choir sang the Alleluia at the end of the Gospel reading.  Mom turned to Mark and continued whispering, probably asking whether Mark knew if that guy was Matt Jones.

Josh Jones and Mark were on a baseball team together a few years earlier.  Or maybe it was a basketball team; I don’t really remember. I don’t remember ever meeting the Joneses, but Mom had told me at some point that Josh Jones had an older brother named Matt who was a year ahead of me at UC Davis.  I think Matt Jones had gone to St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, a Catholic school, so it made sense that he might be at a Catholic Mass. However, many students at St. Luke’s weren’t practicing Catholics; they just had parents who wanted them somewhere more prestigious than public school.

At the end of the service, Mom said, “I’m going to go ask that guy if he is Matt Jones.  Come on.”

“I don’t want to just go talk to a stranger,” I said.

“I know it’s him.  Let’s go talk to him.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know him.”

“Just come on,” Mom said, walking directly over to the guy she thought was Matt Jones.  She turned around, looking at the rest of us, as if to say that we too had to come in order to make her not feel weird.  I followed her, even though everything about this was weird to me.

“Excuse me,” Mom asked.  “Aren’t you Matt Jones?”

“Yes,” Matt said, turning around and looking puzzled.  “Do I know you?”

“I’m Peggy Dennison.  I’m from Plumdale. My son Mark was on a baseball team with your brother Josh,” Mom explained, gesturing toward Mark.

“Oh, yeah!” Matt said.  “I remember you guys. What are you doing up here?”

“Our other son, Greg, goes here.  He’s a freshman.”

Matt extended his hand to shake mine.  “Hi,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Matt replied.  “Are you guys just visiting for the day?”

“Yes,” Mom explained.  Then, gesturing toward Dad, she said, “He has to work tomorrow.  It isn’t a holiday for everyone.”

“That makes sense.  Travel safely.”

“Thanks.  It was good seeing you.”  Mom turned to me. “Are you ready for lunch?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Sounds good to me,” Dad added.

 

At age 18, I did not have anything at all resembling a sophisticated culinary palate.  I liked McDonald’s, and that was where we often went when we were eating while on vacation.  Jeromeville only had one McDonald’s, and it was completely on the other end of town from where we were.

Dad was driving.  “Which way?” he asked at the stop sign outside of the Newman Center building.

“Left,” I said.  Dad turned left, and we began heading east on Fifth Street.  The street was narrow, with room for two lanes of cars in each direction but not much else.  Old houses and large trees lined the street, along with a few office buildings.

“This looks like a really old neighborhood,” Mom said, looking out the window.

“Yeah,” I replied.

As we continued farther east, we passed by some much newer apartments and office buildings.  “Those apartments look really nice,” Mom said. “I wonder who lives there? College students?  Regular people?”

“I don’t know.”

Eventually Fifth Street curved to the left and ended in a very new neighborhood that appeared to be still under construction.  Dad turned right, then right again, on a road that crossed over Highway 100, while Mom continued talking about one of Grandma’s old lady friends.  “Turn right at the first light,” I said as Dad drove down the other side of the overpass. Dad turned right, and McDonald’s was just past this intersection on the left.

We sat down with our food a few minutes later; Mark and I both ordered Chicken McNuggets.  I dipped a nugget in barbecue sauce as Mom said, “Danielle seems nice.”

“She is.”

“Do you know the girl who was standing next to Danielle in the choir?  To our right, from where we were sitting?”

“Her name is Claire, and she’s a sophomore.  But I don’t really know her.”

“She sure is well-endowed.”

“That’s an understatement,” Dad added, chuckling.

“Why do you guys always have to talk about people behind their backs like that?” I asked.

“I’m not,” Mom said.  “I’m just stating a fact.”

“Yeah, but you’ll never see these people again.  I have to see Claire every week at church, and now I’m going to think about her boobs next time I see her.”

“Doesn’t Greg think about boobs all the time anyway?” Mark chimed in.

“You’re not helping,” I said.  I stopped talking and concentrated on eating until the conversation turned away from Claire’s boobs.

We returned to downtown Jeromeville a different way.  Cornell Boulevard ran parallel to Highway 100 on the south side of the freeway, mostly through newer suburbs.  Just outside of downtown, Cornell Boulevard turned slightly to the right and crossed over Highway 100, then narrowed to two lanes passing through an old and narrow railroad underpass and emerging on the other side at an intersection with First Street.  Cornell Boulevard became E Street continuing past First Street.

“Which way are we going?” Dad asked.

“Left,” I said.

“Fraternity houses,” Mom said after Dad turned, pointing to the right side of First Street.  On the left side was a row of olive trees and a vacant lot. “We must be near campus.”

“Right up there,” I said, pointing straight ahead of us where First Street entered campus and closed itself to automobile traffic.  “But we want to turn left here.”

Dad turned left onto Old Jeromeville Road, which crossed the University Arboretum and an on-campus apartment building for adult students.  “Is that part of the campus?” Mom asked. “It looks like apartments.”

“It is part of campus,” I said.  “I think it’s for older students who have families.”

We continued driving, past a few small research laboratories on our left and the Arboretum on our right.  “What are all those trees on the right?” Mom asked.
“That’s a creek, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.  And there’s an arboretum lining both banks.”

“That looks like a nice place to take a walk.”

“It is.  Are we going to do that later?”

“Sure.  After we get back to the parking lot, I’ll show you around campus.  We can take a walk in the arboretum, and then on the way back to the building, I’ll show you where my classes are and stuff like that.”

“Sounds good.”

We turned onto Andrews Road, crossing back to the north side of the creek and then making a 90 degree left turn to run parallel to it.  “See that road down there?” I said, pointing straight ahead as we made the 90 degree turn. “That first time we drove around campus, that’s where Dad got stuck in that driveway.”

“I remember that,” Mom said.

“Hey, I was only going where your mother told me to go,” Dad said, laughing a little.

“That looks like more agriculture stuff over there,” Mom said, pointing to the left.  In between Andrews Road and the creek was a row of tall pine trees, with what appeared to be barns behind them.  Between the barns were pens with cows and goats inside.

“The Milking Facility is somewhere back there, I know that,” I said.

“Have you ever milked a cow?”

“I think it’s just for people taking those classes and working in those departments.”

“Yeah!” Mark said loudly from the back seat.  “It’s not like just anyone off the street can walk up there and say, ‘Pardon me, may I please milk your cow?’”  Mark asked that last part in an exaggerated falsetto. I laughed.

“I don’t know these things!” Mom said.  “Stop making fun of me!”

“Well, you have to admit, it was kind of a strange question.”

 

Dad pulled into the parking lot a minute after we saw the cows.  “Are we ready to walk around?” he asked.

“Sure,” Mom said.  Mark and I voiced no objections.  I may have only been here for five months, but given my natural inclination toward maps and roads and the exploring I had done on my bike, I felt ready to play tour guide.

We walked east, back the way we came along Andrews Road.  That part of the campus wasn’t very exciting; we had already seen the pine trees and barns across the street, and our side of the street was all parking lots, except for one building called Mayer Hall.  I wasn’t sure what happened in that building, but there were no classrooms as far as I knew.

“That’s the water tower,” I said, pointing ahead of us toward a fenced-off area that appeared to contain maintenance vehicles.  “That’s kind of a campus landmark. It’s on the university seal. You can see it from the freeway.”

We continued toward the water tower to the 90 degree turn in the road, where I led the others off of the main road into the Arboretum.  “This is nice,” Mom said. “The kind of place where you could go read or study in between classes. Do you ever do that?”

“Not really,” I said.  “I usually go home if I have a long gap between classes.  But eventually if I’m living off campus, I could do something like that.  Besides, this time of year it’s usually a little too cold for sitting outside..”

“Have you thought about where you’ll be living next year?”

“Not yet.”

Mom looked at a sign next to a small, bare tree next to us.  “‘Western redbud,’” she read. “This will have pretty flowers in the spring when it starts blooming.”

I looked at the sign.  “Yeah.”

After the redbuds, we walked past some large desert plants, many of which looked similar to the potted succulents found on suburban patios, except much larger.  Past these was a very large live oak tree with a bench underneath. On the other side of us was a large building three stories high. “That’s the law school building.  And that,” I said, pointing around the corner to an even taller building as we crossed a street, “is Marks Hall, where the Chancellor’s Office is.”

“I remember that building,” Mom said.

On the other side of Marks Hall was an area of large trees native to Asia.  The creek widened into a small lake, with a grassy area on the bank on our side.  One student wearing a hoodie sat on the grass reading, with his bike next to him. We passed the grassy area toward a grove of redwood trees, but instead of continuing through the arboretum, we walked to the left.  “These are the art, drama, and music buildings,” I said.

“I still wish you would get back into music someday,” Mom said.

“I know.  I have classes to focus on right now, though.”  I wondered if getting into music again would be less intimidating as an adult, since Mom would not be around to pressure me to perform.  I had to play piano every time Grandma came over, I had to record myself playing so we could send it to other relatives, and all of that made me very self-conscious to the point that I quit playing piano at age 10 and have not done anything musical since.

We crossed Davis Drive and continued walking north, under tall trees that would grow long, thin leaves in the spring.  I’m not sure what they’re called. “That’s the library,” I said, pointing at the large gray building on our left, “but the entrance is on the other side.”  I pointed to the right a few seconds later, to a courtyard in between three buildings. “And over there, those olive and fig trees, there’s a plaque over there that says they were planted in 1855 by the Jerome family, before there was a town or a university here.”

“Wow,” Mom said.

“And I had a class in that building over there.”

I continued pointing out landmarks around the campus as Mom asked questions and Dad and Mark followed quietly.  We walked along the Quad next to a row of tall, aged cork oaks, stepping on years of shed leaves and acorns. Across the street from us, facing the Quad, were the oldest buildings on campus, built in 1906 as dormitories and now housing offices for various student services.  The outside walls of the buildings were covered in wooden shingles. I pointed out the Memorial Union, and Mom and Dad commented on how they remembered that building from the IHP preview day last year. We walked past Wellington Hall, where around half of my classes had been held so far.  I turned left on Colt Avenue and walked past the chemistry building and the barns and silos that had been converted into a second student union, the bike shop, and an arts and crafts center. These buildings had a shingled appearance similar to the old buildings facing the Quad.

“That building has a funny round tower thing on it,” Mom pointed out.

“It’s a silo.  It used to be an actual silo.  And these other buildings were barns.”

“That’s neat the way they made those buildings into something else.  Does that one say ‘Bike Barn?’”

“Yeah.  It’s a bike shop, run by Associated Students.”

“Have you ever been there?”

“I got fenders there, so I don’t get dirty biking in the rain.”

“Why are there big square rocks piled up over there?” Mark asked, pointing to what looked like a pile of big rectangular rocks.

“It’s art,” I explained.

“More like fart.”

“Yeah.  I don’t always get art.”

We turned right on another pedestrian and bike path just after the confusing artwork, walking past a small cluster of walnut trees.  After the barns, the path curved to the left past Kent Hall, one of two buildings used specifically by the various engineering departments.  Just past Kent Hall, scattered among oaks, pines, and other trees I could not identify, were the twelve letter buildings of the South Residential Area.

“Now we’re back to your dorms,” Mom said as we walked between Buildings L and M.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Building C is on the other side.”  I pointed out the dining commons building as we walked past.

“Greg!” I heard a voice say.  It was coming from above where we were walking.  I looked up and saw Taylor Santiago sitting on the balcony at the end of the third floor of Building C.  “How’s it going? Is this your family?”

“Yeah.  This is my mom and dad, and my brother Mark.”  I turned to my family and continued, “That’s Taylor.  He lives in that room next to the balcony.”

“Hi, Taylor,” Mom said.

“So you guys just here for the day?”

“Yeah.”

“From Plumdale, Santa Lucia area, right?”

“Yes.  Greg was just showing us around.  We’re leaving later this afternoon.  Greg’s dad has to work tomorrow.”

“Well it was nice meeting you!  Enjoy your visit!”

“Thanks!”

I walked with the rest of the family around to the main entrance of Building C.  Liz came up the back stairs just as I was letting everyone back in my room. “Hey, Greg,” she said.

“Mom, Dad, Mark, this is Liz.  Liz, this is my family.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Liz said, smiling.  “Are you having a good visit?”

“I am,” Mom replied.

“I have a paper to write.  But it was nice meeting you guys!”

“You too!”

Liz went back into her room just as we entered my room.  “You were going to show me how all that stuff you do on the computer works,” Mom reminded me.

“I can do that,” I said.  I showed her my email inbox, with a list of messages received, and as I was hoping, she didn’t ask me who all those people were.  I got on an IRC chat after all the dings and whistles went through, and explained to the others what IRC chat was. I typed a greeting to the rest of the room and waited to see if anyone would reply.

gjd76: hey
c: hi gjd!
Alicia: hi
BONER: yo gjd, m/f?
*Alicia gives gjd76 roses @}–}–}—–

“Did that Boner guy just call you a MF?” Mom asked.  “That was mean.”

“No,” I explained.  “With the slash and the question mark, it means he’s asking if I’m male or female.”

“And Alicia gave you roses.  What are all those symbols?”

“Turn your head sideways to the left.  It looks like a rose.”

Mom tilted her head.  “Oh! I see. How clever.”  Mom didn’t ask anything more about this; she just wanted to see what it looked like.  I was glad. I really didn’t want to tell my mother what Alicia and I were doing on IRC last night.  And I really hoped Alicia would still be on later tonight after Mom and Dad and Mark left.

gjd76: thanks, alicia :) i’ll be back on later tonight.  my parents are visiting right now, and i’m just showing them how irc works
Alicia: ok! i’ll see you later =)
c: bye gjd
BONER: bye

“You seem to be fitting in here and making friends,” Mom said a while later, after I showed her the Pink Floyd Usenet group and a few other wonders of the text-based Internet.  “That Taylor guy seems really nice.”

“He is,” I said.

“Remember when we came here for the preview day last year?  That one guy said that people in the program often find lifelong friends.  I wonder if you and Taylor are going to end up being lifelong friends.”

“Maybe,” I said.

We spent another hour or so sitting in my room talking.  Mom told me about Mark’s basketball season. Mom told me about the latest gossip she had heard the other day when Mary Bordeaux called her.  Mom told me about drama at her work involving people whom I had no idea who they were. Dad said very little, although he did mention something about some guy he knew from work.  Mark didn’t say much, except to correct Mom when she got a minor detail wrong about one of his basketball games.

In the late afternoon, around four-thirty, Mom said, “Well, it’s probably time for us to go.  We don’t want to be out too late.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“But it was good seeing you.  I enjoyed you getting to show us around.”

“I did too.”

“When are you coming home next?  When is your break?”

“End of March.”

“Then I’ll see you at the end of March.”  Mom hugged me.

“Dad loves you,” Dad said, also walking toward me and giving me a hug.

“Bye,” Mark said.

“Drive safely,” I told them as they left the room and closed the door.

 

At dinner that night, I saw Taylor, Pete, Danielle, Gina, and Skeeter sitting together.  I sat next to them.

“Did your folks leave?” Taylor asked.

“They did,” I said.  “About an hour ago.”

Gina spoke up.  “I saw you guys earlier.  Your dad doesn’t look at all what I expected him to look like.  I can’t believe you came from that.”

I laughed.  “Yeah, I definitely don’t have the scruffy Deadhead look.”

“Your dad is a scruffy Deadhead?” Skeeter asked.

“Yes,” Gina explained.  “Birkenstocks and facial hair and everything.”

“Wow.  Yeah, I wouldn’t have thought that either.”

“So why was your mom talking to Matt Jones after church?” Danielle asked.

“He grew up near me, and our families know each other.  Our brothers played baseball together. But it was so embarrassing!  I don’t know Matt except that I recognize his face. I didn’t want to just go up and talk to some stranger.  And now that I know him, he’s going to think of me as the guy with the weird mom.”

“Maybe your mom could put in a good word for me.  Matt is pretty hot.”

I laughed.  “I don’t know.  I’ll see what I can do.”

I really wasn’t all that upset at Mom embarrassing me.  It got old after a while, but I was used to it. And with me now living almost three hours away, Mom was not around as often to embarrass me.  But Mom was right about one thing that day: Taylor and I did in fact end up lifelong friends. And he is one of the few people from this time period in my life who actually knows about this blog.

2007 taylor's wedding1
Taylor’s wedding, 2007 (with faces removed because I didn’t ask if I could use this picture, and I don’t want to show my real face).  Taylor is third from the left, and I’m the tall guy on the far right.  Pete Green is next to me, and two other guys in this picture will be part of this story eventually.

2019 taylor baseball game1
Taylor (left-center), his wife (lower left), and me (foreground on the right) at a baseball game in Bay City, 2019.

 

January 8, 1995. Let her be.

Today was one of those days where I had to turn the windshield wipers on and off multiple times.  I wish the weather would just make up its mind sometimes. It rained hard enough for a few minutes that I needed to have the wipers on all the way, then the rain tapered off into showers requiring only intermittent wipers.  Then it was dry for a few minutes, and when the wipers started making an irritating squeaky noise, I remembered to turn them off. Then, a few minutes later, it would start raining again, and I would start the whole cycle again.  Of course, the trip from Plumdale to Jeromeville involved driving over hills and across valleys, which also accounts for part of the reason the weather changed so much.

This was now my fifth time making this trip since beginning classes at UJ.  I was learning these roads enough to know where I was and what was coming next.  Highway 11 north from Plumdale north to San Tomas. That usually took about 45 minutes.  Then north on Highway 6, through East San Tomas and Irving, and over a big hill. The highway winds east through the hills, and then north through the outer suburbs of San Tomas and Bay City.  After a city called Marquez, Highway 6 passes through an industrial area on the shore of the Capital River. The river at this point is over a mile wide, and the bridge is very high, because of bluffs on either side of the river and ships passing underneath.  The bridge is narrow, just barely wide enough for three lanes in each direction, with no shoulder and a narrow concrete barrier in the middle. It was built in 1962 when traffic was much lighter.

Across the bridge is an industrial area on the outskirts of the town of North Marquez.  The highway continues north for another ten miles, with hills on the left and a marshy grassland on the right, before merging with eastbound Highway 100.  Somewhere around there, I heard a song on the radio that I had never heard before. At first I thought it sounded like Pearl Jam, but I quickly realized that the singer, although having some similar vocal mannerisms to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, clearly was not him.  This guy had more of a soulful bluesy sound, and the melody wasn’t dark and angsty like a Pearl Jam song. It was more like folksy pop-rock, but with still a little bit of an Eddie Vedder sound to the vocals. Kind of like a Pearl Jam of the South, if such a thing could exist.  “And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be,” the singer who was not Eddie Vedder sang. That line stuck out in my mind all day. I would have to find out what this Pearl Jam of the South was called.

I drove northeast through Fairview and Nueces, but took a little side trip instead of continuing straight to Jeromeville.  A sign on the east side of Nueces says “TRAFFIC ALERT AM 1610,” with flashing yellow lights on top, and for the first time I saw the flashing lights on.  I tried turning my radio to AM 1610 to hear the TRAFFIC ALERT, but there were power lines nearby, and the radio was mostly picking up static. I panicked, wanting to avoid this TRAFFIC ALERT at all costs, so I could hurry up and get back to Building C and, more importantly, pee.  I was getting to the point where I couldn’t hold it much longer, and I didn’t want to stay stuck in traffic.

Because I liked to read maps, I was pretty sure I could get back to UJ on back roads from here.  So I turned onto Pittman Road and then east on Grant Road, through nut tree orchards and cow pastures and tomato fields.  Grant Road eventually became West Fifth Street on the outskirts of Jeromeville, and I headed back to Building C the usual way from there.

What I did not realize at the time is that those TRAFFIC ALERT signs are not alerting me to any traffic in or near Jeromeville.  About 40 miles east of Jeromeville, Highway 100 begins climbing into some very high mountains, and this time of year, snow often affects driving conditions.  Each of these TRAFFIC ALERT signs is attached to a low-power radio station, the one I tried to turn on but couldn’t get clearly, and the radio stations play a recorded message about winter driving conditions in the mountains.  Carry chains in case of changing weather conditions. Chains required from such-and-such point to such-and-such point. Highway closed. Stuff like that. In the 21st century, there are electronic message boards that serve this purpose, but this technology had not yet implemented by the state Department of Transportation in 1995.  It doesn’t snow anywhere near Plumdale, and I didn’t grow up taking trips to the snow, so I had no concept that the TRAFFIC ALERT was about this and not a giant traffic jam approaching Jeromeville. I figured I would rather take about 10 minutes longer to get home than risk getting stuck in traffic.

I called Mom as soon as I got home.  “Hi, it’s me,” I said. “I’m home. It took a little longer because I took a side trip to avoid traffic–”

“You’re home?” Mom said, interrupting me.

“Yes–”

“And you’re safe?”  Mom sounded like she had been crying.

“Yes… what’s going on?”

“You weren’t in an accident on the bridge?”

“What?  Bridge? What are you talking about?”

“I was listening to the traffic report on the Bay City news station, to see if you were going to hit any traffic on your trip home, and I heard there was a really bad accident on the Marquez Bridge–”

“Really, Mom?  You hear there’s an accident, and you just assume it’s me?”

“I just knew it was you,” Mom replied, clearly in tears.  “I’ve been terrified this whole time. They said a car almost went over the bridge.  It ran into a truck. And there was a big pile-up behind it. You didn’t see or hear about any of this?”

“It must have been right behind me.  I didn’t have any traffic at all crossing the bridge.”

“I’m so glad you’re safe.  I need to call Grandma and tell her you’re ok.”

“Seriously, though.  Thousands of people cross that bridge every day.  You hear about one accident, and you just know it was me?  You don’t have a lot of faith in my driving skills.”

“I worry about you.  You know that.”

“I do.  But I also wish you would treat me as an adult.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “It’s just what I do.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your first class?  You start tomorrow, right?”

“Math, at 8 in the morning.  Again.”

“Do you know anyone who is in your class?”

“I haven’t asked.”

“Well, I’m glad you got home safely.  Enjoy your first day of classes tomorrow.  Just think; you’ve been through one quarter of college classes already, so you know what to expect.”

“True.”

“I’ll talk to you later.  Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone and went to get lunch… or, more accurately, Sunday brunch.  On Saturdays and Sundays, the dining commons was not open for breakfast, and during lunch time, they served “brunch” instead.  Students often stayed up late on Friday and Saturday nights and did not eat breakfast the following mornings; at least that was my guess as to why the schedule was different on weekends.  I didn’t see many familiar faces at brunch. For that matter, I didn’t see many faces at all. The dining commons was mostly empty. Most students were probably waiting until the last minute to return to the dorms.

I spent my afternoon being lazy.  I wrote some emails to a few girls I had been talking to online.  I read some Usenet newsgroups and got on an IRC chat for a while. I took a nap.  I played Tetris and Sim City, during which I heard footsteps and voices outside. More people were returning from the holidays.

The dining commons was open normally for dinner on Sundays, and it was much more full than it had been at brunch earlier in the day.  I chose a chicken patty sandwich and got French fries to go with it. I looked around and saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, and Liz at a table with a few empty seats, so I sat with them.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said.

“How was your break?” Taylor asked.  “Did you do anything special?”

“The usual, pretty much,” I replied.  “I was with my family for Christmas. My aunt and her family were visiting.  I spent New Year’s with some friends from high school. It was good to see them.”

“I bet it was,” Liz said.

“What did you guys do?” I asked.

“I went to see my grandparents in Washington,” Pete said.  “That was a lot of time in the car, but it was fun.”

“I was back home in Ralstonville,” Sarah said.  “And my boyfriend and I broke up.”

“Aww.”  Liz looked at Sarah, her face conveying serious concern.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  It was hard, but it needed to happen.  It’s the best for both of us. He was definitely getting in the way of my relationship with God.”

I had never heard anyone give that reason for breaking up.  What exactly did that mean? Maybe it has something to do with that Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that everyone else at this table was part of.  If Sarah said that her boyfriend was getting in the way of her relationship with God, that sounded to me like she was saying he was a bad influence on her in some way.  If that was the case, then this breakup was probably a good thing in the long run, even if it was difficult now. I did not say any of these thoughts out loud, though, because relationships and breakups weren’t anything I had ever experienced personally, so I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“So apparently there was an accident on the Marquez Bridge this morning,” I said.

“I heard about that!” Liz said.  “It was on the news. A car hit a truck and almost fell off the bridge!  Did you see it happen?”

“No.  It happened right after I drove across, apparently.  I didn’t see anything unusual on the bridge But when I got back to the dorm, I called my mom, and apparently she had heard about the accident and just assumed it was me.  It’s like she has no faith in my driving abilities; she hears of an accident in the vague area where I am, and she just knows I was in it.”

“That’s kind of sweet of her to care like that, though,” Sarah reminded me.

“But she doesn’t respect me as an adult.  She worries about me too much.”

“Yeah.  But that’s what moms do.  You shouldn’t get mad at her.  Just let her be.”

“I guess.”

Just let her be, I thought.  Like it says in that song by Pearl Jam of the South.  Yes, it was true that Mom could be a little annoying in the way that she worries about me and doesn’t let me be independent.  That was the reason I never considered applying to Mom’s alma mater, San Tomas State. I was worried that, with Mom less than an hour away, she wouldn’t give me a chance to grow up on my own.  But, as Sarah said, this was all perfectly normal behavior for a mother. Mothers, at least the good ones, worry about their children because they love their children and want them to be safe. And I knew that I should be thankful to have parents who cared enough about me to send me to the University of Jeromeville, and to help pay for what my academic scholarship didn’t cover.  Not everyone gets opportunities like that.

After a few more hours of playing around on the computer, I went to sleep, thinking about how fortunate I was to be in this position, and hoping to find a balance between getting to be independent but still having a healthy relationship with my parents.  And that song by Pearl Jam of the South was stuck in my head, with that one line repeating over and over again since I didn’t know the rest of the song very well. And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be.