Early December, 1996.  We were all just kids.

When I was growing up, no one ever taught me anything about girls or dating or relationships or anything like that.  My parents had been married since before I was born, but they were not visibly affectionate with each other, and my dad spent all his time working, so I never had a healthy relationship to watch and emulate.  And since I did not know how to tell a girl that I liked her, the way to act in a relationship or marriage was a moot point for me.

When I got to the age where I started paying attention to girls, my parents would sometimes notice and point out my behavior in a teasing and humiliating way.  At age thirteen, my friend Paul Dickinson noticed that I had been paying attention to a girl at school named Rachelle Benedetti, and he asked me if I liked her.  There was no teasing or judgment in Paul’s question, unlike what I had experienced from my parents, so I admitted that, yes, I did like Rachelle.  Shortly after that, it felt like the whole school knew, and that was inherently embarrassing to me even if I was not actively being teased for it.  Because of that, whenever I liked a girl, I kept my feelings a closely guarded secret.  I had learned by now that a girl was not going to walk up to me out of the blue and ask to be my girlfriend, so now I was twenty years old, I had never had a girlfriend, and I did not know how to change that.

I had known Haley Channing for almost a year now.  I met her one night after Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, when I was upset and had a lot on my mind. Two guys, Eddie Baker and Xander Mackey, asked me what was wrong, and they ended up inviting me to hang out with them and their friends.  Haley was there that night.  She had pretty blue eyes, a cute smile, and a kind heart.  We had gotten to be friends since then, but I just did not know how to tell her that I wanted to be more than friends.

A couple weeks ago, I thought I had a chance.  I was mingling with people after JCF, and for a brief moment, I saw Haley sitting not too far away and not talking to anyone.  I walked up to her and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Haley replied.  “How are you?”

“Pretty good.  How are you?”

“I’m doing okay,” she said in a tone that suggested that everything was not exactly okay.  Haley had lost her mother to cancer recently, and Thanksgiving was next week.  My go-to small talk that time of year was to ask people their plans for Thanksgiving, but I figured that it might be best to avoid that topic with Haley this year.  “What are you up to?” she continued.

“Just looking for something to do,” I said.  JCF met on Fridays, and people often hung out afterward, playing games, eating, or watching movies in room 199 of Stone Hall, a large lecture hall that was converted into a second-run theater on weekends.   I became unusually brave and floated an idea, saying, “Mission: Impossible is playing at 199 Stone tonight.  I was hoping people might be going.”

“I haven’t seen that!  I want to!”

“You want to go?”

“I would, but I have to get up early in the morning,” Haley said.  “Maybe another time?”

“I understand,” I said.  I did not end up seeing that movie until months later, on a rented VHS tape, and I ended up just going home that night.

A while later, a few days after I got back from having Thanksgiving with my family, I was walking through the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit and study in between classes.  It was cold outside, so the indoor tables were crowded.  I saw Haley sitting with Kristina Kasparian talking to Janet McAllen from JCF staff.  A fourth seat at their table was open. 

“Hey,” I said, walking toward the open seat.  “Mind if I sit here?”

“Actually, we’re working on Kairos group planning,” Janet explained.  “Sorry!”

“Oh.  That’s okay.  I guess I’ll see you guys later.”

“I’ll see you Friday?” Haley said.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Actually, no.  Friday is our concert for chorus, so I won’t be at JCF.”

“Oh, that’s right!  Have fun!  I’ll be at church on Sunday, I’ll probably see you then.”

“Yeah.  Have a good one!”

I walked across the Memorial Union, unable to find a table, and ended up sitting cross-legged against a wall.  The Kairos group clique strikes again.  The Kairos ministry within JCF involved small groups designed to prepare students for leadership in ministry.  The students from each year’s Kairos group would lead a group the following year, handpicking the students in their group.  From my outsider perspective, the main purpose of these groups seemed to be the establishment and perpetuation of cliques.  I thought it sent the wrong message, especially since many of the friends who were part of my best University of Jeromeville memories so far were in the cliques and I was not.  And I could not help but wonder if these cliques were the reason things were not working out with Haley.

A few days later, back at the Memorial Union, I saw Eddie Baker eating lunch by himself outside on a picnic bench.  I did not particularly want to eat outside, it was sunny but not very warm, but I was also in the mood to socialize.   Also, Eddie was a Kairos group leader, and I had not talked to him as much this year.  “Mind if I sit here?” I asked Eddie.

“Go ahead,” he replied.  “How are you?  Getting ready for finals?”

“I’m getting there.  We also have the concert for chorus tomorrow night.  This is my first one, I don’t really know what to expect, but I think I know the music by now.”

“That’ll be fun!  Scott and Amelia are in that too, right?”

“Yeah.  And Jason Costello too.”

“Well, good luck with that!”

“How have you been?”

“Just busy with school and JCF.  You’re going to Urbana, right?  Are you excited?”

“Yes!  I can’t wait to see what it’s like.  I don’t know that I’m ready to pack up and go serve God in another country, but I know a lot of you guys do stuff like that, and I want to find out more about what’s out there, so I know how to support people who do mission trips.”

“That’s a good way to think about it,” Eddie said.  “There’s gonna be so many people there.  Twenty thousand students all worshiping God.  We might not even see each other.”

“I know,” I said.  The thought of being thousands of miles away and not seeing my friends who were also there was a little disappointing, but maybe it wouldn’t be like that after all.

“How’s life other than that?” Eddie asked.

“Well…” I said.  I debated how much to tell him, and eventually decided to say everything except her name.  “There’s this girl I would really like to get to know better.  But I just don’t know how.  I’ve never been good with girls and dating and stuff like that.  I’m starting to think that maybe I need to just tell her how I feel, and let her reject me, so I can just move on.”

“I think we all know how that feels,” Eddie replied.  “Is it someone from JCF?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“I have an idea who it is.  Do you mind if I ask?” Eddie asked.

I did not expect this question.  I trusted Eddie, and I did not think he was going to make fun of me, but I still was not used to sharing these secrets with others.  “I guess you can say it,” I said, “but I don’t know if I want to admit whether or not you’re right.”

“That’s fair,” Eddie replied.  “I think it’s Haley.”

Apparently subtlety was not one of my strong points, I thought.  I wondered how many other people knew.  But if Eddie had figured it out, there was no point in hiding this from him.  “Yes, it’s Haley,” I said.  “Please don’t tell anyone.  How did you know?”

“I’ve just noticed the way you act around her sometimes,” Eddie explained.  “And remember that night at JCF, right after her mother passed?”

“Yeah.”

“I noticed the way you kept trying to talk to her.  That was kind of unusual.”

“I just saw someone I cared about upset, and I wanted to make sure she knew that I was there for her if she needed to talk.”  I did not understand what was so weird about that, although I do remember some of the others who were there that night acting like I was intruding on something.  I had assumed it was because I was not in their clique.

“I’m gonna be honest with you,” Eddie said.  “I really liked Haley too, freshman year.  We hung out a few times.  I told her how I felt, and she didn’t feel the same way back.”

“Aww,” I said.  It felt weird knowing that Eddie used to like Haley too.  Maybe every guy at JCF liked Haley.  I would had no chance with all of that competition.

“But talking about it, being honest with her, that was good.  I feel like we grew closer as friends after that.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“If you do tell her how you feel, I know she’ll appreciate the honesty.”

“That’s good to know.”


The next night was the concert for chorus, and I spent most of Saturday studying for finals.  Sunday morning at church I went to 20/20, the college Sunday school class, before the service, and I had a hard time concentrating because Haley was there.  I could not stop thinking about her all weekend.  I had to know if I had a chance with her.  Ever since she turned down my offer to see the movie, with the ambiguous caveat of “maybe another time” which never happened, I felt like I could not continue not knowing.  With JCF done for the quarter, and finals and winter break coming up, this may be the last time I saw her for a month.  I knew that if she was here at church today, that would most likely be my last chance.  All morning, I had been playing in my mind how I would approach her and what I would say, which made the teaching of Dan Keenan, the college pastor, difficult to follow this morning.

After 20/20 ended, as people were standing around the room and gradually trickling out headed toward the main building for the regular service, the opportunity presented itself.  Haley stood by herself about ten feet away from me, and I knew that I had to go for it now, or else I would hate myself through my entire winter break for not having said anything.

“Haley?” I asked as I approached her.  “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” she replied.  “What’s going on?”

“Can we step outside, away from everyone?”

“Yeah.”  Haley walked outside a few feet away from the entrance, and I followed her.  “What’s going on?  Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I…” I trailed off, trying to remember the conversation I had rehearsed many times.  “I’m really glad I met you last year.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, and I’d really like to get to know you… as more than just a friend.”

Haley thought for a few seconds, apparently processing what I said.  She probably was not expecting to hear this.  “Greg,” she said.  “You’re a really nice guy.  But I just don’t see you that way.  Please don’t be upset.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “I had a feeling you didn’t feel the same way.  I just felt like I needed to know for sure.  Like, if I never said anything, I’d never know.”

“It’s okay.  I’m glad you said something.  And I hope you meet the right person soon.”

You’re the right person, I thought.  And you’re standing right in front of me.  If you really meant that, you would give me a chance.  But then I realized that maybe Haley was not the right person after all.  If she was, then we would both feel the same way.  “Thank you,” I said.  “And I meant what I said before: I know you’re going through a rough time right now, and I’m always here if you need to talk.  Even if we are just friends.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate it.”


The next morning, Haley’s rejection felt like a dark cloud hanging over me as I got out of bed, showered, and dressed.  The t-shirt I ordered with the logo for the upcoming Urbana ’96 convention had arrived in the mail on Saturday, and I wore it for the first time that day.  I went to campus and took my final for Advanced Calculus, and even with the rejection still on my mind, I felt like I did well on the exam.

After the exam, I left Wellington Hall and crossed the street to the Memorial Union, looking for a table where I could study.  I saw Eddie sitting at a table talking to Raphael Stevens, his roommate.  Todd Chevallier and Ajeet Tripathi, two sophomores from JCF, were also there.  I walked over as I heard Ajeet say, “Man, I need more coffee.  I was up way too late last night.”

“Yeah,” Eddie replied.  “Maybe last night was a bad idea.”

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.

“How are finals going?” Raphael asked.

“Good.  I just got out of Advanced Calculus; I think I did well.”

“Advanced Calculus,” Eddie repeated.  “Just saying those words stresses me out..”

“I think I’ll be ok.  I’ve been studying.”

“Studying!” Todd said.  “That’s what we were supposed to be doing last night.”

“What happened last night?” I asked.

“We invited Ajeet and Todd and their house to our house for a study break,” Eddie explained.  “We ended up watching movies until around two in the morning.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’d invite you to sit down,” Eddie explained, “but there isn’t really room at our table.  You could pull up a chair, if you could find one.”

“That’s okay,” I replied.  “I should probably go study anyway.  I’ll see you guys around.”

“Yeah. Good luck with your final.”

“Bye, Greg,” Todd said.

Apparently I had been left out of something else now.  I would have come over to Eddie and Raphael’s study break if I had known about it.  I scanned the room, still looking for an empty seat; I found one at a table next to a tall guy with brown wavy hair who looked familiar.  I had seen this guy somewhere before, but I could not remember where.  A large girl with long, straight brown hair sat with him.  I walked to them and asked, “You guys mind if I sit here?”

“Go ahead,” the guy said.  “I don’t remember your name, but you go to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, right?”

“Yes,” I said.  Apparently this guy had seen me around before too.  “I’m Greg.”

“I’m Ben,” he said.  “And this is my friend Alaina.  We go to U-Life, but I also go to JCF occasionally.”  University Life was another large Christian student group on campus.

“Okay.  I knew I had seen you somewhere before.”

“How’s your finals week going?” Alaina asked.

“Pretty good.  I just got out of Math 127A, and I have Math 128A tomorrow.”

“Those sound hard.  What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“That makes sense,” Ben said.

“Are you going to Urbana?” Alaina asked, noticing my shirt.

“Yes!” I said.  “It’s going to be overwhelming, but I’m excited.”

“A couple of our other friends are going.  I’ve heard good things about it.”

“Yeah.  I’ve never been to Illinois.  I’ve never even been that far away from home at all.  It’ll also be my first time on an airplane, at least as far as I remember.”

“Wow,” Ben said.

“My mom says I was on a plane once as a baby, but I don’t remember it,” I explained.

“Sounds like you’ll have a great trip,” Alaina said.

I did not do my best at concentrating on my studies that day.  I was still thinking a lot about Haley’s rejection, and about everything that my friends were leaving me out of.  I also talked to Ben and Alaina a bit, who I noticed were definitely not a couple.  They seemed like nice people; maybe they could be a new group of friends for me.  I wondered if University Life had the same problem with cliques that JCF did.


I stayed in Jeromeville for a few days after finals ended.  I had three weeks off, and taking a few days off in my apartment, reading, going for bike rides in the Greenbelts, and staying up late talking to girls on Internet Relay Chat was worth having a little less time with my family.  Although I did fine on finals, I felt like the quarter ended on a bad note, considering the conversation with Haley and all of the times I was left out.  I now knew that Haley definitely did not feel the same way about me that I felt about her.  In theory, now that I knew, I would be able to move on, but it did not always feel so easy in practice.  I still felt like I had failed.

As for the cliques, I was probably not being intentionally singled out every time.  Eddie and Raphael’s study break, for example, was a last-minute unplanned thing, and those two households just happened to be right around the corner from each other.  The most likely reason I was not invited was because I lived on the other side of town.  But I also felt left out in that they did not invite me to be roommates with them in the first place.  I thought that living with Brian and Shawn this year would help, since they were not only part of the in crowd but older.  It did help in some ways, like when they invited me to toilet-paper Lorraine.  But Brian spent a lot of his spare time applying for medical school, and Shawn was busy with student teaching, so they were less social than in previous years.

Looking back on these days as an adult has given me a bit of a different perspective on what was going on.  The Haley situation was not at all a failure on my part.  Sometimes one can do everything right and still lose.  Sometimes someone is just not interested in someone else like that.  Over the course of my life, I have been on both sides of those conversations many times.  Being rejected is just a part of life, not necessarily a sign of failure.

I was still bothered by the cliques within JCF.  But, ultimately, I was not involved in JCF to be one of the cool kids; I was there to learn about God and serve him.  I had the trip to the Christian student convention in Urbana to look forward to; hopefully I would learn more about how God wanted me to serve him, and stronger relationships with peers could come out of that. 

It took me years to realize this, but when I look back, I have to remember that we were all just kids back then.  Being rejected, being left out of groups, those are common to most young people, no matter where they are or which God they claim to worship.  As a newly practicing Christian, I saw many of my Christian friends as very mature spiritually, because they had grown up more involved in church than I had been, or because they spent their summers doing service projects in other countries.  But true maturity often comes with age and cannot be forced.  Eddie and many of the other key individuals in leading me to Christ were the same age as me in school, twenty or twenty-one years old.  Brian and Shawn had each just turned twenty-three.  On the JCF staff, Cheryl was twenty-five, and Janet and Dave, the oldest of my spiritual mentors, were twenty-eight and thirty respectively.  As an adult, I know plenty of people that age whom I would not consider mature.  Many of my JCF friends were more mature than average, of course, but being between twenty and thirty years old, they still had a lot to learn themselves, just as I did.  And over the next several months, as my third year at UJ continued, I would learn much about myself, and life, and God, and much of that learning would come from unexpected sources.


Author’s note: This is the mid-season finale for year 3, so I’ll be taking a break for a month or so. I will probably make an interlude post or two, maybe revise the Dramatis Personae page or organize the site, maybe do some supplemental projects, but there won’t be another episode of the main story for a while.

What do you think about the events of Year 3 so far? Does anyone have any predictions about what will happen to character-Greg, or any of the other characters, in the rest of Year 3? As always, if you’re new here, you can start with the first episode here and read all 111 episodes in order, or you can read the summary and abridgement for Year 1 and Year 2., then start from the beginning of Year 3.

June 15, 1996. The graduation party at the Valdez Street house.

Back in the 1990s, all of the hottest names in alternative rock played the Lollapalooza festival.  The festival toured major cities around the United States every summer, bringing live music along with other performances and attractions.  Critics called Lollapalooza an event that changed the history of music forever.

I never attended a Lollapalooza show.  I did not go to big concerts back then, and I felt a little scared to do so, knowing the kind of people that an event like Lollapalooza attracted.  In my life, the legacy of Lollapalooza was all of the advertising campaigns, small local events, and the like with names ending in “-palooza.”  This was similar to the excessive use of the suffix “-gate” to name political scandals, after the burglary at the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. in 1972, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.  If something had a name ending in “-palooza,” everyone knew that it was going to be life-changing… or at least the person organizing and naming the event believed that it would be life-changing.

A little over a week ago, I had been at the final meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for this school year, talking to people afterward about the upcoming finals week.  Brian Burr approached me, handing out small postcard-sized flyers.  He was tall and athletic, a high jumper on the University of Jeromeville’s track team, with reddish-brown hair.  He was graduating this year, and next year he would  be staying in Jeromeville to work with JCF part-time and apply to medical school.  Brian and I were going to share an apartment next year, along with Shawn, my current Bible study leader and one of Brian’s current housemates.

“Grad-a-palooza,” Brian said in an overly dramatic and exaggerated tone as he handed me his flyer.  I took the flyer and read it.


GRADAPALOOZA!
A celebration of the graduation of the gentlemen of 1640 Valdez Street
Mr. Brian Burr
Mr. Shawn Yang
Mr. Michael Kozlovsky
Mr. Daniel Conway

Saturday, June 15, 1996
6pm until whenever
1640 Valdez St., Jeromeville


“Graduation party?” I asked.  “At your house?”

“Yes.  Saturday, the 15th.  Right after finals are done.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be there.”

In hindsight, it was not entirely necessary for me to repeat back that it was a graduation party; this was obvious from the flyer.  I suppose I asked because I was surprised; I had never been invited to a college graduation party. I did not know any seniors last year.

Yesterday, Friday, was the last scheduled day for finals, but my last final had been on Thursday morning.  I had spent the last two and a half days doing a fat load of nothing.  I went for bike rides, I read, I worked on my novel, and I wasted a lot of time on the Internet with Usenet groups and IRC chats.  It was wonderful, and so far there had not been another incident like the one a few days ago.

When I moved to Jeromeville to start school, someone gave me a camera as a going-away present.  The camera then spent twenty-one months in a drawer, unused.  Yesterday I remembered that I had a camera, and I bought film and batteries, so I was ready to preserve some memories from Brian and Shawn’s party tonight.

Valdez Street was in south Jeromeville, on the other side of Highway 100 from me.  I drove east on Coventry Boulevard and turned right on G Street toward downtown.  As I approached downtown, I drove past progressively older houses and apartment complexes; after crossing Fifth Street, G Street became a commercial corridor.  It was Saturday night, and I had to drive slowly, watching for pedestrians and bicycles.  At least three households of JCF students were neighbors on Valdez Street and Baron Court, and as I got to know these people more, I often wished I could be part of that community.  Most of these people who were not graduating would be dispersing to other parts of Jeromeville next year, though, so a community like that may not exist next year.  I at least had the new apartment with Brian and Shawn to look forward to, even if we would not be neighbors with a large group of friends.

The student population of Jeromeville was gradually emptying as students finished finals, but I still had to park farther away from Brian and Shawn’s house than usual.  I could hear muffled music and conversation as I approached the house; apparently this was a big party.  I walked in and looked around; music was playing, and people were talking loudly.  Hopefully I would be able to hear when people talked to me.

“Greg!” Brian called out, waving, as he saw me from across the room.  “Come on in!”

I had been in this house four times before, and I had never seen it this full.  People were sitting on couches, in chairs, on the floor, and on the stairs.  A streamer that said “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 1996” hung from the wall.

“How’d your finals go?” Brian asked.

“I think I did well.  What about you?”

“They weren’t great, but I passed.”

“Congratulations!  Your ceremony was this morning?”

“Yeah.  Mom and Dad and my sister came for the day.  We went out to dinner, then they left about an hour ago.”

“Nice!”

“Thanks!  Enjoy the party!”

Someone I did not recognize got up and walked toward the bathroom; I sat in his vacated seat.  I knew about half the people here from JCF, and I recognized some other JCF people whom I did not know well.  I assumed that the guys who lived here probably had other friends, so not everyone here would be from JCF.  I pulled out my camera and took a few candid shots of people sitting around talking.

Kristina, a sophomore who lived around the corner on Baron Court, walked past me.  “Greg!” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much.  How were finals?”

“Hard!  But they’re over now!  How were yours?”

“I think I did fine,” I said. “Is–” I caught myself before finishing my question, Is Haley here?  Six years ago, in eighth grade, Paul Dickinson had figured out that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and within a few days the whole school knew.  Ever since then, any time I had any sort of romantic interest or crush, I treated it like a closely guarded secret which no one must ever find out.  “Are any of your roommates here?” I asked instead.  That way, my question would get answered without Kristina suspecting that I liked Haley.

“Kelly and Jeanette are here somewhere.  Haley went home on Thursday after her last final.”

 “Oh, ok.”  I was a little disappointed that I would not see Haley for the next three months, but also relieved that, with Haley not here, I would have no opportunities to embarrass myself in front of her.  “What are you up to this summer?” I asked.

“Taking classes.  You?”

“Same.  Well, one class first session.  Probably just hanging out here second session.  I’m going to my parents’ house next week.”

“Nice.  I’ll probably see you around campus.”

“Yeah.”

I walked around, making small talk and asking people their plans for the summer.  Most of the people here were not going to be in Jeromeville.  That did not bode well for my hope of having a social life this summer.  I knew that JCF was running one small group Bible study this summer, so that was something.  And I would still be singing at church; I knew some people from church who would be around this summer.

I got up to use the bathroom.  A decoration on the bathroom wall above the toilet said “We aim to please, you aim too please.”  At first, my mind parsed that as “we aim to please, you aim to please” with a word misspelled.  I did not understand why the phrase needed to be repeated.  I did not get the joke until I flushed the toilet; the second part was supposed to say “you aim too, please,” as in “please don’t pee on the floor.”  I laughed out loud at my sudden realization.  Hopefully no one found it strange that someone was laughing in the bathroom.

I returned to the living room, realizing that I had not talked to Shawn Yang yet, although I probably knew him the best of all the guys who lived at this house.  I saw Shawn on the couch with a middle-aged Asian couple.  I approached him, and he said, “Hey, Greg.  Have you met my parents yet?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

“I’m John,” Mr. Yang said, shaking my hand.  “And this is Judy.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Greg is going to be my roommate next year,” Shawn explained.  “And he’s a math major too.”

“Oh you are?” Mr. Yang asked.  “You gonna be a teacher too?”

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” I said.  “I don’t really see myself as a teacher.”

“You’re not graduating this year?”

“No.  I’m a sophomore.”

“Oh, ok.”

“You guys are from Ashwood?  Is that right?”

“Yeah.  What about you?  Where are you from?”

“Plumdale.”  Without thinking, I added, “Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”  Most people have no idea where Plumdale is.

“It’s nice out there!”

“Yeah.  I’ll be in Jeromeville most of the summer, but I’m going home next week.”

After a lull in the conversation, Mr. Yang said, “It was nice meeting you!”

“You too!”

I was ready for another break from socializing, so I walked outside.  It was a little before eight o’clock, and it was still light out; in Jeromeville, the sun does not set until close to nine this time of year.  Two guys were throwing a Frisbee back and forth in the street, moving out of the way whenever a car approached.  Eddie, Xander, Lars, and a guy I had met a couple times named Moises sat on a couch, which had been placed on the lawn for some reason. 

“We’re done with another school year,” Eddie said.  “Two down, two to go.”

“I know,” I replied.  “I think I did pretty well on finals.  How were yours?”

“It was a lot of work, but I passed.”

“Dude, mine were really tough,” Lars said.

“What are you doing this summer?” Xander asked me.

“I’m staying here.  I have one class first session.  When do you leave for India?”

“Two weeks.  I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited!  God is going to move!”

“I can’t wait to hear about it,” I said.

“Greg?” Eddie asked.  “Have you decided yet if you’re going to Urbana?”

I had not decided, and now that Eddie was asking, I felt like I had dropped the ball.  Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, puts on a convention every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about missions and service opportunities around the world.  The convention was the last week of the year, after Christmas.   “I haven’t decided,” I said.  “But I’d like to if I can make it work.  I don’t know if I’m ready to go on a mission trip myself, but now that I have a lot of friends doing stuff like that, I think it would help me understand what they’re doing.  Xander’s trip to India, and Melinda’s trip to Russia, and Taylor and Pete and Charlie going to Morocco with Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“Then what are you still thinking about?  If it’s money, you can apply for a scholarship through JCF.  Talk to Dave and Janet.”

“It’s more just the fact that it’s overwhelming.  I don’t know how to book a flight or a hotel room or anything like that.  And it is a lot of money, too.”

“I know a lot of people have been wanting to travel in groups and share hotel rooms,” Eddie said.  “If I hear of someone who might be able to include you, I’ll have them contact you.”

“Thanks.  That would be awesome.”

“Heads up!” shouted Alex McCann, a housemate of some of the guys on the couch, as a Frisbee sailed toward us.  Lars stood up and caught the Frisbee in time; then, walking away from the couch, he shouted at Alex and threw the Frisbee back at him.  Eddie and Xander stood up, and Eddie said to me, “We’re gonna go throw the Frisbee.  Wanna come?”

“I might later,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Moises stayed on the couch with me.  “I think you should go to Urbana,” he said.  “God is going to do great things through you.”

“Thanks,” I said, curious how he knew about God’s plan for my life when I pretty much just knew this guy to say hi to.

“Have you ever taken a spiritual gift assessment?” Moises asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“They handed one out at my church a few weeks ago.  You answer questions about what skills you have and what you’re good at, and it tells you, like, if God has equipped you to preach or worship or pray or do administrative work.  You can ask your pastor if he has one.  What church do you go to?”

“Newman Center.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the student-led Catholic church.”

“My family is Catholic,” Moises said.  “My family came here from Mexico; everyone is Catholic there.  But then when I became a Christian, I realized just how much Catholics have wrong.  Like, Jesus died on the cross for your sins already.  You don’t have to confess to a pope.”  I just nodded, not wanting to argue.  Moises‘ knowledge of the inner workings of the Catohlic Church must have had some shortcomings if he believed that the average Catholic confessed to His Holiness Pope John Paul II on a regular basis.  Also, although I did not think about it at age 19, I have also come to learn over the years that being a busybody like Moises is not the best way to share one’s faith with others.  After studying the Bible more this year, though, I had come to agree with his point that salvation came from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not through following the rituals of Catholicism alone.

By this time, it was getting dark, so I went back inside, making more small talk and helping myself to snacks on the kitchen counter.  Later that night, in the living room, Eddie, Kristina, Brian, and a few others were doing some kind of silly dance.  I saw Tabitha, one of the first people I knew from JCF because she was in the dorm next to mine last year, sitting on the couch with an empty seat next to her.  “May I sit here?” I asked Tabitha.

“Sure,” she said.  “Actually, I was looking for you.  Eddie told me a few minutes ago that if you go to Urbana, you’d be interested in going in together with someone on a flight and hotel room.”

“Definitely.”

“I was going to put something together later this summer.  I’ll keep you posted.”

“I’m not going for sure yet, but I know the price goes up July 1, so I want to decide for sure by then.  I’ll let you know, and you keep me posted on your plans.”

“Great!  Sounds good!”

I stayed at the party until after midnight.  By then, much of the crowd had gone home, the music had stopped, and I was getting tired.  I said my final goodnights and congratulations to Brian and Shawn, as well as to their other graduating housemates, Mike Kozlovsky and Dan Conway.  These four and all the other seniors here tonight were done with college, at least done with their bachelor’s degrees.  And now I was halfway there, if I finished on schedule.  It was hard to believe that it had already been almost two years since Mom and Dad helped me unpack in my tiny dorm room in Building C.

As I drove home through the dark but warm Jeromeville night, I kept thinking about how my life had changed so much, not only in the time since I came to Jeromeville, but just in this school year.  I had a great time at this party, and unlike my few other experiences with college parties, people here were not getting drunk.  At the beginning of this school year, I did not even know that any of these people existed, except for Tabitha, and she was not in my close circle of friends yet at the time.  So much had changed for the better.

I lived alone in a small studio apartment this year because I was unable to find roommates among people I knew.  Early in the year, I worried that living alone would be excessively boring and lonely, but indirectly, living alone ended up being the best thing for me.  It prompted me to make more of an effort to stay connected with my friends from freshman year, which led to me finally accepting Liz Williams’ invitation to come to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  At JCF, I made so many new friends, including the people at this party, and my future roommates for junior year.  And, more importantly, I learned what it really meant to follow Jesus, and how only his death on the cross brought eternal life, and hope, and inner peace.

I went straight to bed when I got home; I was tired.  I would have time to pack a suitcase in the morning, and after church I would make the two and a half hour drive to my parents’ house in Plumdale.  But unlike a year ago, the drive to my parents’ house would not mean the start of three months away from my friends.  I was only staying there for a week this time, and I would go for another week in August after my summer class ended.  For the rest of the summer, I would be here in Jeromeville.  Plumdale was home, but Jeromeville was also home now.

As I drifted off to sleep, still thinking about how much life had changed during my sophomore year at UJ, I wondered what changes were in store for me in the next school year.  Maybe I would find other new things to get involved with, as I had gotten involved with JCF this year.  Maybe I would end up going to that Urbana convention and deciding to become a missionary.  The possibilities were endless.  At the time, I had no idea that the next school year would bring challenges to my faith and questions about my future.  I would have to make difficult decisions.  I would find myself getting involved in two new activities, one of which was not at all anything I expected to do until it happened, and the other of which I was only beginning to think about at that point.  But I knew that, no matter what, with God on my side everything would work out just fine.

June 11-12, 1996. The new Walk of Shame.

These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online.  Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed.  Or just use it to send emails with a new name.

In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it.  Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away.  Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it.  However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.”  This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers.  I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service.  Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.

I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer.  The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be.  My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine.  That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that.  About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus.  I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil.  About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me.  She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts.  I did not know her name.

“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.

“I think so,” she replied.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks.  You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.

While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously.  I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name.  The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished.  The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about.  I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.

I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow.  I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating.  I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final.  I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips.  I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.

All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian.  Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.  I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.

Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening.  I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen.  I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning.  I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.

When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer.  Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done.  I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it.  And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.

“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too.  He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”  My life is not my own.  I was created to serve and glorify God.  I believed.  But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him?  Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?

Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together.  I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this.  Probably not.  I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still.  I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong.  I knew I was wrong.  I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.

I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures.  Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought.  She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus.  I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me.  I was not trying to hook up with Sarah.  And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys.  I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.

No, I thought, this was not a good idea.  I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret.  I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again.  If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.

I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages.  I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient.  This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else.  On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.”  The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number.  This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person.  I took a deep breath and started typing.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name.  You may call me Joe.


I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message.  As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was.  When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it.  I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name.  I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to.  You may call me Joe.


I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down.  I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed.  I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.

By now it felt too late to do homework.  I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham.  I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly.  I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.


I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus.  I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts.  I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days.  I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material.  During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.


15358854@anon.penet.fi   Re: please read, this is real, you know me


Sarah had written back.  I opened the message and began reading.


Joe,

You are not a failure, and you have not let me down.  You definitely have not let God down.  You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.

I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up.  Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse.  Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.  Go for a walk.  Clean your house.  Do whatever it takes.  But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up.  Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.

Thank you so much for sharing this with me.  I will keep you in my prayers.  Take care and God bless.


I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened.  I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners.  I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked.  I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.

I read Sarah’s email again.  “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.”  I did not play an instrument.  I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played.  But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album.  I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen.  The dishes had been piling up for far too long.

I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo.  Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people.  Sarah was on that trip too.  I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.

What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicion
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.

That was me.  That was exactly what I had been feeling.  Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.

Lord, be my light, and be my salvation
‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.

Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes.  I never attempted to use the service again.  I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email.  She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.

I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind.  I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians.  Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that.  Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway.  I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience.  One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.

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

Every college town is known for little hole-in-the-wall restaurants popular with students.  Jeromeville had one called Redrum, but during the time I was there, it was called Murder Burger.  The sign said their burgers were “so good, they’re to die for.” Murder Burger was just off Cornell Boulevard and Highway 100, across the train tracks from downtown.  It was a greasy little nondescript building without enough seating, which meant the food had to be really good. Toward the end of the time I lived in Jeromeville, around 2001 or so, someone complained about the violent connotation of the name, and after taking suggestions from customers, the owners changed the name to “Redrum,” the nonsense word popularized in the book and movie The Shining which is actually “murder” spelled backward.

The last great adventure of my freshman year at the University of Jeromeville took place at Murder Burger.  But before that happened, I had to get through the worst finals schedule ever. Finals week at UJ required six days, so there would always be one Saturday at the end of every quarter when some finals were held.  And because of a quirk in the calendar, there was no dead time this quarter, no day to study without classes. My last class for Physics 9A was Friday at 11:00, and the final was less than 24 hours later, Saturday at 8:00.

On the last day of physics class, the instructor, Dr. Collins, was about a day behind where he had wanted to be.  It seemed like he was going quickly through everything he had not had time for earlier in the quarter. I kept thinking, what if the entire final is about this stuff that he had not adequately prepared us for?  But I kept reminding myself that I had 20 hours to do nothing but study physics. Hopefully I would sleep for part of that time, though; I was going to study my butt off for this final, but I was not planning to pull an all-nighter.

“Remember, the final is tomorrow at 8:00,” Dr. Collins said as his time ran out.  Then, gesturing toward the back of the lecture hall where two graduate students stood with stacks of paper, he said, “The TAs here will be passing out instructor evaluations.  Please leave them in the box in the lobby as you leave.”

Dr. Collins walked through the door behind the front of the lecture hall as I received my evaluation form.  This had been a new concept to me when I started at UJ, giving instructors feedback at the end of the quarter.  I gave Dr. Collins mostly positive ratings, but I did mention the section from early in the year when he did not follow the book.  He asked a question about this on the midterm that I did poorly on, and since his teaching did not follow the book, I had no idea what to do.

As I had planned to, I spent the entire afternoon studying physics.  I went through every problem set at the end of every chapter, making sure I knew how to do all the important things.  I reread all the formulas and made sure I knew them from memory, including what all the letters stood for. I reread vocabulary, making sure I knew the definition of force and torque and momentum and energy.  I did every problem from both midterms again.

Later that night, as I was attempting to reread my notes, I discovered that they took a long time to reread, mostly because of my messy handwriting.  I turned on the computer and, after a quick break to check email, I began retyping my notes. This took longer than simply rereading, even with the messy handwriting, but it seemed to help since I had to think more about what I was reading and typing.  Then, if I had time to reread it all again, it would be easier to read since it would no longer be in my messy handwriting.

When Saturday morning came, I still felt uneasy about the exam.  I rode my bike from Building C to Ross Hall, already wearing shorts at 7:45 in the morning because it was warm and would probably only get hotter.  I sat near the aisle on the left side of the lecture hall (my left, the instructor’s right). As the rest of the class arrived, I nervously reread the notes I had retyped and printed the night before, trying to glean one last bit of information in the few minutes that remained.

When the time came, Dr. Collins and his teacher assistants passed out the exam paper.  I looked over it and read all of the questions first. As I read each successive question, my state of mind went from worried to calm to excited.  This was easy. I had studied in detail every single thing that was being asked on this test, and I knew how to do every problem. I began working, writing, typing on my calculator, sketching diagrams of forces acting on objects.  When I finished, I double-checked all the answers. I redid all of my calculator work. And I turned in my paper and walked out of 66 Ross with almost half of the allotted two hours remaining.

The finals for Chemistry 2B and Psychology and the Law were both on Monday.  My next two days looked much as the previous one had. I spent most of my time studying.  I reread and retyped notes, just as I had done for physics. I redid chemistry problems, calculating theoretical yields of chemical reactions and molarity of solutions.  For Psych-Law, the test would include both a multiple choice section and an essay. Dr. Kemp had given us a choice of three topics so that we could prepare in advance, but the essay itself had to be handwritten on the day of the final.  I made outlines for my chosen topic, so that I would be able to remember what I wanted to write about.

 

Dr. Kemp was the instructor for Psychology and the Law, or as the class was formally called, Integrated Honors Program 8B.  It was a class open only to students in the IHP, one of three that we had to choose from each quarter which counted as general education requirements.  Dr. Kemp was a gray-haired man in his 50s who wore a dress shirt and tie most days, not exactly someone I expected to have much of a sense of humor. He proved me wrong on the day of the final, when he announced, “I put some funny choices on the multiple choice part of the test.”

I began working on the test, wondering exactly what he meant by this.  The fifth question said this:

5)   The McNaughton Rule applies to criminal cases featuring which of the following:
A.
Expert witnesses
B.
A plea of not guilty by reason of insanity
C.
Repressed memories
D.
A hung jury
E.
Aliens

I tried not to chuckle too loudly when I read “Aliens.”  This was a test, after all.

A few minutes later, Dan Woodward quietly asked Dr. Kemp a question.  Dr. Kemp looked at the test again, appeared to think for a minute, and then announced to the class, “Don’t mark the funny choice for your answer.”  People softly laughed. I assumed that one of the questions had been worded in a misleading way so as to make the funny choice a possibly correct answer.  I found the item in question at the bottom of the page I was on:

14)   Which of the following IS NOT one of the Miranda rights?
A. R
ight to remain silent
B.
Right to consult a lawyer
C.
Right to bear arms
D.
Right to a lawyer present during questioning
E.
Right to eat donuts during the trial

I was right.  Technically, according to the question, both choices C and E were correct.  Dr. Kemp had probably needed another option, and had just made up something funny without realizing that it did not fit the wording of the question.

The rest of the multiple choice test was fairly straightforward.  I thought I did okay on the essay section as well, even though I hated essay tests, but this time I had time to prepare.  I remembered all the main points I had written on my outline the night before. I submitted my test at 9:50, toward the end of the two hour time slot.

The chemistry final was at 4:00 that afternoon, so I spent the rest of the afternoon studying for that.  I felt confident about that one, though, and it seemed easy while I was taking it. I got back to the South Residential Area just in time for dinner, relieved that this nightmare of three challenging finals at the beginning of finals week was over.  It was a good feeling, and I was just going to relax for the rest of the night, chatting on IRC, reading my usual Usenet groups, and playing Tetris and SimCity 2000.

 

Tuesday and Wednesday were among the best days I had all quarter.  I went on long bike rides both days, through the Greenbelts in north Jeromeville on Tuesday and through the Arboretum and the rural part of campus across from Highway 117 on Wednesday.  I spent several hours chatting on IRC and made a new friend, a 19-year-old girl from Missouri named Stacey with blue eyes and a nice butt (at least that’s what she said about herself). I took naps.  I organized my desk drawers and my clothes, so that packing on Friday would be easier. And, since I still had a math final coming up, I spent a few hours Wednesday evening studying.

I also spent most of Thursday morning studying for math, with a break in between to email Stacey.  I probably had not needed to study that much, though, because I had no trouble with the math final.  But as with all exams, there was a lingering feeling in the back of my mind that I did poorly and did not realize it.  This feeling had been stronger in my mind for every exam since I failed the first physics midterm in April, although that time I knew I had done poorly before the exam was even over.

I spent most of Friday cleaning and packing.  My things were organized enough that packing did not take long.  The problem was that I did not have many boxes. I still had the two boxes my computer and monitor came in; I had been using them as a makeshift table.  Instead of putting the computer and monitor back in the boxes, though, I put clothes in the boxes. I carried the boxes of clothes out to the car.

Next, I walked down to the Help Window and asked to borrow a socket wrench and screwdriver, so I could disassemble the bed loft and return the extra pieces.  I checked my email one last time (Stacey had not written back yet; for that matter, we only stayed in touch for about a week total), then I disconnected all the cables and took the computer and monitor to the car, in two separate trips, leaving them without boxes since I was using the boxes for clothes.  I wrapped the computer and monitor in the blanket and sheets from my bed; students purchased these from the Department of Student Housing and kept them at the end of the year. I used these sheets and blanket for the rest of the time I lived in Jeromeville, and today they are on the guest bed at my house.

When I got back to the room, it was finally beginning to sink in that this was my last day in Building C, and my last day in Jeromeville for this school year.  Everyone had to be out of the dorms by noon tomorrow, but I was finished with finals and had no reason to stay. I had called Mom yesterday and said I would be home sometime tonight, although I did not say when because I did not know.

By late afternoon, I had finished carrying everything out to the car.  I was sweeping the room with a borrowed broom, with the door open, when Liz walked by.  “Hey, Greg?” she said, peeking her head in the door.

I stopped sweeping for a minute.  “Yeah?” I replied.

“A bunch of us are going to Murder Burger tonight, and then bowling.  Wanna come?”

“Definitely!” I said.  “Sounds like a great way to celebrate the last day of school.”

“Meet in the common room at 6.  We’re gonna walk. It’s not that far.”

“I’ll see you then!  Sounds good!”

 

By the time we left for Murder Burger, I had turned in my keys.  I had no way back into Room 221, although I could still get into the building with the magnetic stripe on my registration card.  This was not just a small group of friends heading out to dinner; this was a massive caravan of almost half of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  Liz and Ramon, Taylor, Pete, Charlie, and Jason. Sarah, Krista, Caroline, Danielle, and Theresa. Pat and Karen, and Pat’s twin brother who lived in the North Residential Area.  Mike Adams and his roommate Ian. Gina Stalteri, Derek Olvera, Stephanie, and Schuyler. David, Keith, Mike Potts, Yu Cheng. Jonathan, Spencer, Jenn from the first floor, Cathy, and Phuong.  Skeeter and Bok. Rebekah and Tracey. And I probably forgot a few others.

We walked the same route I usually took to get to chemistry class in 199 Stone.  From there, we continued walking east on Davis Drive to the edge of campus at Old Jeromeville Road.  We turned left and took the next right, First Street, walking four blocks along a vacant lot lined with old olive trees, across the street from a few fraternity houses and small hotels.  We turned right on Cornell Boulevard and walked under the railroad tracks; Murder Burger was just on the other side, about a mile and a quarter from Building C.

“How’d you do on finals?” Taylor asked me as we were approaching Murder Burger.

“I think I did pretty well, actually,” I replied.  “What about you?”

“Uhh… I took finals.  I showed up.”

I chuckled.  “That bad, huh?”

“It wasn’t great.  Have you ever been to Murder Burger?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve driven past it many times, though.”

“I’ve been here once.  The burgers are really good.”

We did not all fit inside the building.  We made a long line extending out the door.  I started thinking about what I wanted as soon as I got close enough to see the menu.  I pointed to the part of the menu saying that they could add flavors to drinks for a small additional charge.

“Vanilla Coke?  Chocolate Coke? Orange Coke?”  I asked rhetorically. “What is that?”

“Flavored Coke is so good!” Sarah said from behind me in line.  “There’s a place back home that has vanilla Coke. I love it!”

When it was finally my turn to order, I asked for a double cheeseburger with just ketchup, mayonnaise, lettuce, and cheese; a large French fry; and a vanilla Coke.  I wanted to see if this was really as good as Sarah said it was. (Of course, now most grocery stores around here sell Vanilla Coke pre-made in cans, but this option did not exist in 1995.)  The cashier gave me a stub with a number printed on it. I looked around for a place to sit. The kitchen was behind the cash registers, with the dining room to the right.

“We’ll be outside with Liz and Ramon,” Sarah told me as I started to walk away.  “Come sit with us.”

“Okay,” I said.  I walked out the back of the dining room, opening to a parking lot, and then back around to the opposite side of the building.  Liz and Ramon were sitting on a picnic bench, along with Taylor and Pete.

“Come sit with us,” Liz said.  “We saved you a seat.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “This is so cool. One last time hanging out together.”

“Looking forward to summer?” Ramon asked.

“Yeah.  A friend of my mom’s works in a bookstore, and she got me a job there, so I’ll have a little bit of money coming in.”

“Are you going to see your high school friends this summer?” Sarah asked, arriving as I was talking to Ramon.

“I’m not sure.  I didn’t usually see my friends when I wasn’t in school.  And some of them haven’t stayed in touch.”

“Really.  That’s kinda sad.”

“I hope I get to see some of them, though.”

About fifteen minutes later, someone called my number over a speaker next to the outdoor seating area.  I got up and returned a minute later with my food, taking my first ever sip of vanilla Coke.

“You were right, Sarah,” I said as I swallowed.  “Vanilla Coke is good.”

“I know!  Isn’t it?”

After we finished eating, around eight o’clock, we cleaned up and walked back across the railroad track.  About half of the group walked back toward Building C while the others walked toward the bowling alley; I told them goodbye and said that I would see them next year.

The bowling alley is on campus, in a secluded room called the Memorial Union Games Area.  The part of the Memorial Union where the campus bookstore is located has a basement, with coin-operated video games, pinball machines, a pool table, and sixteen lanes of bowling.  From Redrum, we walked back down First Street, turned right on A Street, and then left across from Second Street through the path that had been the main entrance to campus when it was built 90 years ago.  I had been bowling once here earlier this year, with Liz and Ramon and Jason and Taylor and Danielle, all of whom were here tonight.

I bowled a strike on my first frame, and everyone on my lane (tonight it was Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Krista, and Charlie) cheered for me.  I smiled. But that would be the only strike I would bowl that game. I finished with a score of 96, third place out of the six of us.

“Do you want to play another game?” Taylor asked.

“Sure.  But I should go find a phone and call my mom to let her know when I’ll be home.  She’s probably worried about me.”

“You’re driving home tonight?  Doesn’t that mean you’ll get home really late?”

“Probably around midnight if we play one more game.  I can do that.”

“Okay.  Be safe.”

I found a pay phone and called home using my parents’ calling card number, so that they would be billed for the call.  Calling outside of your local geographical area was expensive using 1995 technology, but with this PIN number that my parents told me to use, I could call them from any phone and it would go to their bill.  “Hello?” Mom said, picking up on the third ring.

“Hi.  It’s me.”

“Where are you?”

“Still in Jeromeville.  A bunch of people went out to Murder Burger and then bowling.”

“Yummy!  That sounds fun!  So are you coming home in the morning instead?”

“I was still going to come tonight, after one more game of bowling.”

“So you won’t be home until really late.”

“Probably around midnight.  Is that a problem?”

“No.  Just call me again if anything changes.”

“Okay.  I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Drive safe.  And have fun.”

“I will.  Thanks.”

I bowled much better the second game.  At one point, I had two strikes in a row.  When I went back up to the lane with my ball, Charlie said, “Come on, Greg!  You can do it!”

“No pressure,” Taylor added, laughing.

I carefully moved my hand back, then swung it forward, releasing the ball.  The ball appeared to be going right where it needed to for me to get a third strike, but one of the pins remained standing.  I hit the pin on my second roll for a spare, and I finished the game with a score of 127, one of the best games I had ever bowled at the time, and higher than anyone else on my lane.

“All right, guys,” I said after the second game.  “It’s time for me to go. I’m driving home tonight.”

“Drive safely!” Sarah said, giving me a hug.

“You too, Have a great summer, everyone.”

“Bye, dude,” Taylor said, shaking my hand.

I spent about five minutes saying goodbye to everyone, with handshakes and hugs for some of them.  I walked back to Building C alone, because some people seemed to want to bowl one more game, and they were all going home in the morning.  It was a little after nine o’clock. The sun sets late enough this time of year that there was still a slight dusky glow to the west. I had enjoyed tonight, I had enjoyed the entire year in Building C and the IHP, but there came a time for everything to end, and it was time for me to go home.  I was done with my freshman year.

I went back into Building C only to use the bathroom; I did not see anyone while I was there.  I walked across the street to the car, where my stuff was still packed, and began driving. I put on a tape I had made of Bush’s Sixteen Stone album as I headed south, smiling, thinking about the great night I had.

Murder Burger felt to me like a major landmark and institution in Jeromeville, but I really did not eat there that often.  That night at the end of my freshman year was the first of maybe no more than five times that I ever ate there. Despite this, I felt sad when I read in 2019 that Murder Burger, which by then was called Redrum Burger, was closing.  A college town like Jeromeville needs a greasy, locally-owned burger place, and because of changing demographics and a changing economy, Jeromevillians do not have such a place anymore. I thought about making the trip across the Drawbridge last summer when I heard that it would be Redrum’s last weekend in operation, but I had a lot to do at the time, and I had heard that long lines of customers who had heard the news were already wrapped around the building, so I ended up not making the trip.  I am not a big fan of crowds.

Some of the new friends I made freshman year I did not really see again after that year, or I saw them only occasionally around campus.  Others I stayed in touch with for a long time, and a few of them I have been in touch with continuously since 1994. I have been to six weddings of people I met during my freshman year at UJ, and two of those weddings were two people who were in the IHP with me marrying each other.  I was going to miss having a built in social group next year, but I had met enough people this year that I would probably be okay.

My freshman year at the University of Jeromeville had been life-changing.  I made so many new friends. I discovered the Internet. I discovered the joy of a good bike ride.  I was still getting straight As; I even got an A in physics after doing so poorly on that first midterm.  (Technically, I did get an A-minus in Rise and Fall of Empires fall quarter, and at UJ, an A-minus counted as a slightly lower grade than an A in terms of calculating grade point average, but I was still doing pretty well.)

Of course, not everything was perfect.  I spent a lot of nights sad and alone. I still had no girlfriend, but hopefully that would come soon.  I would not see these people for three months, but I had ways to stay in touch with the ones I wanted to stay in touch with, and in September I would be right back in Jeromeville to pick up where I left off.  Freshman year was pretty good overall, so hopefully sophomore year would be even better.

And, of course, as the case often is when looking back on the past, I can say that on that final day of freshman year, I never would have guessed what major life changes were coming my way sophomore year.

20190927 redrum 4
The old Redrum/Murder Burger building, now deserted, photographed in September 2019 about a month after the last business day.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Is it too loud?”

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

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

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

“That sounds really cool.”

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

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

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

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

“When is the physics final?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t either.”

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

“Who’s that?” Mike asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow.  That’s cool.  Adventurous.”

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

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

“Hey, Jared,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but it’s hilarious!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no.”

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

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

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

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

“I hope so.”

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

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

pulse

Mid-March 1995. I completely dropped the ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which one is that?” Sarah asked.

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

“You’d be in a two-bedroom?”

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

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

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

“That’s you and Charlie and Pete?”

“Yeah.”

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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


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


 

I hit Reply and started typing.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

“How’s 21C?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“That’s cool.”

“What are you doing over spring break?”

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

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

“Yeah.  Plumdale.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have roommates for next year?”

“No.”

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

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

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

“I’m in a single room.”

“Hmm.”

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

“Sure.”

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

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

“What are you guys up to?”

“Nothin’ much.  Just sitting.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s true.”

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

“I’ll do my best,” I said.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“I’m getting there.  What about you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

“They can’t all do that, can they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

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

“I guess.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

And my 11 questions for anyone who chooses to participate:

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

 

Mid-December 1994. My first finals week at UJ.

Finals week… two words that strike dread into the heart of every student.  The final exam alone makes up a significant portion of the grade in most classes, and there was always a lingering fear that one bad day during the final can derail your grade for the whole class.

The schedule for finals week at the University of Jeromeville was different from the rest of the quarter.  The last day of fall quarter was Friday, December 9, and finals started the following Monday. Finals week lasted six days, so the latest possible final was Saturday, December 17.  Finals week was the only time during the quarter that classes could possibly fall on Saturday.

I later heard stories from people at other universities with more traditional semester-based schedules that there was a “dead week” in between regular classes and finals, a period of about a week without classes when students prepared for finals.  UJ didn’t have that, with the faster pace of a three-quarter schedule. We got a weekend, and in some quarters we didn’t even get that.

The length of time I would have to study, however, varied depending on which days my finals actually were.  The finals schedule didn’t match the normal daily schedule of classes. The quarterly schedule of classes, which was a booklet that we had to pick up every quarter, had a list of all possible class times and the times for the final depending on the time the regular class met.  So, for example, my math class was Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8am, and the schedule said that finals for classes at that time were Tuesday morning at 9:00.

I had spent most of Monday sequestered in my room, studying for the math final.  I reread every chapter that we covered. I looked at old homework to make sure I knew how to do the problems.  I redid some of those problems. I recalled from memory the integral table in the back of the book, at least the parts that we went over.  My whole day, like much of the previous weekend, was consumed with u-substitution, integration by parts, trigonometric identities, and word problems about area and volume and work done and distance traveled.  I took a break for lunch, I took a few breaks to check my email and reply to a girl in Texas I’d been talking to online, and I took a break for dinner.

After I got my tray of food, I looked around the dining room to see if anyone I knew was there.  I saw Rebekah and Tracy from the big room on the third floor, with another girl from a different building who I knew of as Rebekah’s friend from high school.  I think her name was Christine or something like that. I walked over and asked if I could sit with them, and Rebekah said sure.

“You ready for the math final tomorrow?” Rebekah asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I’ve been studying all day.”

“You’ll do fine.  I don’t get why you’re so stressed about this.”

“Are you guys in the same math class?” Christine asked.

“Yes,” Rebekah said.  “Greg has the highest grade in the class, by far.  The professor even assigned this really hard extra credit assignment, and right in the middle of class, he points at Greg and says, ‘Greg, don’t even think about doing the extra credit.  You have the highest grade in the class, by far, and you don’t need the extra credit.’”

“You guys got extra credit in your class?” Tracy said.  “I didn’t have extra credit in any of my classes this quarter.”  Tracy was right. That was the only time I had ever had the option of extra credit in any of my university classes, ever.  And even though Jimmy Best specifically told me not to do the extra credit, I did start to work on it. It was a very challenging problem that appeared to require researching some advanced math, though, so I didn’t finish it.

“What are you doing the rest of the night?” Rebekah asked me.

“Studying for math.”

“Me too, for a while, but Christine and I are going to hang out too.  We need a study break.”

“I’ve been taking too many breaks all day.”

“No you haven’t.  You’ve been in your room all day.  Just take the night off and relax.”

“I’ll have plenty of time to relax at home next week.  I have a final tomorrow. And so do you.”

“I’ll be fine.  And you will too.”

“I hope so.”

 

After dinner, I went downstairs to check my mail.  I had a letter from Melissa Holmes from back home. I took it back to Building C and climbed the stairs, where I found a cluster of second-floor residents standing in the hallway next to my room.  Aaron, my next-door neighbor was there, along with Caroline, Keith, and Liz and Ramon. Well, technically, Ramon lived on the third floor, but now he was spending so much time in Liz’s room that it felt like he lived there too.  Ramon had even moved the sign on the door with his name on it from his actual room upstairs onto the door of room 222 next to Liz’s sign and her roommate’s.

“Some of my friends back home got us tickets to see Live,” Keith said.  “It’s going to be a great show.” Live was the name of a band that had a few big hits in the mid-1990s.  I knew a couple of their songs. They were catchy, although their music seemed to be very critical of organized religion, and something about that kind of bothered me now that I was going back to church regularly.  But their music was good.

“Tickets for what?” Aaron asked.

“The Live concert.”

“You said that.  What band are you going to see?”

“Live,” Caroline said.

“Yeah, but who is playing live?” Aaron asked.

“They’re going to see the band Live.”

“I don’t get it!  What band are they going to see live?”

“Live,” Ramon said.  “The name of the band is Live.  You know, they sing that song ‘I Alone.’  And ‘Selling the Drama.’”

“Oh,” said Aaron, finally understanding.  “I haven’t heard of them.”

“You might recognize the songs if you heard them.”

“Maybe.”

“Hey, Greg,” Liz said.  “What are you doing over break?”

“Just going home with my family,” I said.  “Nothing special.”

“Same for me,” Aaron said.

“I need to go study,” I said.

“I should too,” Caroline replied.

“Good luck!” Liz told me as I went back into my room.  I chuckled at having witnessed a real-life version of Who’s On First.  Aaron had acted like he really hadn’t heard of Live, and that he hadn’t just been messing with them.

A couple hours later, I remembered that I hadn’t read Melissa’s letter yet, so I took my final study break of the night to read it.

 

Dear Greg,

How is school going?  I’m doing well in all of my classes so far.  I have some papers to write, and then it will be time to study for finals.  Are you keeping your grades up? Are you still getting the highest grade in your math class, like you always did in high school?

I loved your stories about all the people you’ve met in the dorm.  I’m really glad to hear that you’re enjoying dorm life! That’s one thing I haven’t gotten to experience, since I live with relatives off campus.  I’m trying to get involved in things. There is a club for pre-med students, and I have been to some of their activities.

When will you be in Plumdale for the holidays?  Call me after you get home. We’ll make plans to hang out and catch up.  I’d like to hear more about how you’re doing.

 

Melissa went on to write about her classes, what her family would be doing for the holidays, and something funny that her younger brother heard from a teacher at Plumdale High who remembered Melissa and me.  It was nice that I didn’t completely lose touch with all my friends back home.

I spent the rest of my night in much the same way as that entire Monday: studying math.  I eventually went to bed a little after 11, fairly confident in my mathematical abilities, but still uncertain of what to expect from the final.

 

“You ready?” Rebekah asked me as we waited in the hallway for the math final to start.

“I hope so,” I said.  “I just don’t know what to expect.  What if the questions are all really hard?  Or what if he asks about things we didn’t spend a lot of time on in class?  What if I run out of time?”

“Seriously, Greg.  What is your problem?  You’re gonna do great. We both know that you’re really good at math.”

“Thank you.  I just wish I knew more of what to expect.  This is my first college final.”

The final wasn’t really anything unexpected.  It wasn’t super easy, but in terms of the kinds of things we had studied, it was relatively straightforward.  I worked every problem thoroughly. I checked and double-checked my answers. For the problems where the answer was an algebraic expression instead of a number, I made up a number for x so I could use my calculator to see that I had done it correctly.  When I was confident that I had completed the test to the best of my ability, I handed it in and left. There were about ten people still working, out of around forty or fifty in the class. Among the people in the class that I knew, Rebekah had left already, and Andrea from Building B had left just a few minutes earlier. I handed in my test and walked out of the room… no going back now.

As soon as I got back home, I started reading through all of my notes for Rise and Fall of Empires.  I reread as many chapters in the book as I could, or at least skimmed through them. I went through all of my handwritten notes.  The first time I read through them, I typed them on the computer, thinking that I would have to pay attention to them as I was typing, and this would help me remember.  Also, that way I would have a more legible copy of the notes to read through in my later studies. Nothing eventful happened the rest of the week, just a lot of studying.  And, since I didn’t have any finals on Thursday morning, I stayed up really late on Wednesday night chatting on IRC. I met this girl from Missouri who wanted me to write her back, and the girl from Texas whom I had been emailing was online.

 

Friday was an overcast but dry day.  I got back to the building a few minutes before noon, having just finished my last final of my first quarter of college.  When I got back to Building C, I put my backpack in my room, and I immediately left to go to lunch. I got a cheeseburger and a huge plate of French fries, to celebrate being through with finals.  I was planning on spending the afternoon relaxing, taking a nap, walking around the dorm to tell people that I’d see them in a few weeks, and emailing the girls I’d been chatting with to tell them that I wouldn’t have access to email for a few weeks.  Then, later that day, I would pack and head home. The dorm didn’t close for the holidays until Sunday at noon, but I didn’t particularly feel a need to stay for very long. I was ready to go home.

At some point during the afternoon, I decided to walk around before I did any packing.  I found Taylor Santiago’s door on the third floor open, so I poked my head in and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  “How’d finals go?”

“I think I did okay.  I’m trying not to worry too much about it.  How were yours?”

“Uhhhhh….” Taylor paused and laughed.  “Well, there’s one I’m pretty sure I did well on.  The others, not so much.”

“Hopefully you did better than you thought,” I said.

“What are you doing over break?”

“Just going back to Plumdale to be with family.  I don’t think I’m doing anything special. One of my friends from high school who goes to San Angelo wants to hang out and catch up sometime.  That’s about it.”

“Does your family do anything special for Christmas?”

“We all meet at my grandma’s house.  And we’ve had a long-running tradition of playing Trivial Pursuit on Christmas.”

“Interesting.  Are you guys trivia buffs?”

“Some of us are.  I am. People have told me for years that I should go on Jeopardy.”

“I can see that,” Taylor said.  “Our family just has a big dinner together.  I think we’re hosting it this year. But a lot of people show up.”

“That’ll be nice.”

“When do you leave?”

“Later tonight, probably.  I’m not really in a hurry, but I don’t want to wait too long.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said.  “So in case I don’t see you again before you leave, drive safely, and have a great Christmas!”

“You too!  Do you want the door open or closed?”

“Open just a little.”

“Sounds good.”  I left the room, left Taylor’s door open just a little, and walked all the way down the third floor hallway to the other end of the building.  I noticed that the door of room 316 was open; this was the four-person room where Rebekah and Tracy lived. I was ready to go back to my room and start packing, though, so I didn’t stop or look toward the open door.  But as I was between that open door and the stairs, I heard Rebekah call out, “Hey, Greg. You got 99 percent on the calculus final.”

I stopped.  I turned around.  I walked to the open door of Rebekah’s room.  I looked at her, and she looked back, smiling.  “What did you say?” I asked.

“You got 99 percent on the calculus final.”

“But… how do you know?”

“Jimmy said he was going to post the grades this morning.  Remember?”

I hadn’t remembered; in fact, I had completely forgotten.  Was my grade just plastered on the wall for everyone to see?  No… the grades weren’t supposed to be posted by name. “The grade printout only has us listed by ID number, right?  So how did you know which one was mine?”

“I remember what you got on all of the other midterms.  So I could see which one was you.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty brilliant.”

“I know.  I surprise myself sometimes with my brilliance,” Rebekah said sarcastically.  “I was only brilliant enough to get a B-plus on the math final, though.”

“That’s not bad.”

“You know what I’m going to do differently next time?”

“What?”

“I’m going to freak out and go crazy like you did.  Because maybe then I’ll get a 99 percent. It worked for you!”  She laughed. I laughed back.

“Thanks,” I said.  “I needed a good laugh.”

“Any time.  Are you leaving soon for break?”

“Tonight.  I’m going to go start packing now.”

“Well, then, have a good break!  I’ll see you in a few weeks!”

“You too!”

 

I drove home that night, going the long way down the Valley to avoid traffic in San Tomas and the other cities that way.  It was dark by the time I left Jeromeville, so I didn’t see much on the way home. I just put on some good music and sang along like I didn’t care who was watching… except I did care, because if anyone actually had been watching, I wouldn’t have been so loud, or switched back between singing high and singing an octave down, since a lot of rock vocals are above my vocal range.

I did it.  I had finished one quarter of college, and I had survived my first finals week.  I had learned a lot over the last three months, both classroom learning and life lessons brought on by being on my own for the first time.  And although I didn’t realize it at the time, something about today has stood out in my mind for years.  Rebekah had playfully pointed out that I had freaked out over a final exam in a class that I was doing very well in.  I could have avoided all of that stress just by believing in myself and not letting the unknown seem so scary. Rebekah had been much more relaxed all week than I was, and she had still gotten a B-plus. If I had gotten a B-plus on that final, I still would have finished the quarter with an A because my grade was so high going into the final.  Studying is important, sure, but I probably didn’t need to study quite so hard, especially in classes that came easy to me to begin with. I could have had a little more time to relax, or to spend with friends, during finals week, while still getting good grades. And the fact that I was still so obsessed with getting the absolute highest grades possible, at the expense of time with friends and possibly my own mental health, was proof that I still had many more life lessons to learn.