August 10-23, 1995.  Voices of Austria and birthday surprises.

My brain tends to do weird things when I am in a familiar place and I see a familiar face that has no connection to that  place.  That happened one Thursday morning when a short girl with long red hair walked into the store.

“Hey,” I said, in a familiar tone, because I knew her.  Of course I knew her; it was Renee Robertson, and she had been my prom date a little over a year ago.  My brain caught up then and became confused, because I did not expect to see Renee in Books & More.  Somehow my brain took those thoughts of confusion and turned them into the spoken words, “I know you.”

Renee appeared to be as surprised as I was when she turned and looked at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “I forgot you worked here.”

“How are you?”

“Actually, I’m here for Catherine.  I’m putting these flyers up around town.  Do you think I’d be able to put one up here?”  Renee put a flyer on the counter.  I read it.


VOICES OF AUSTRIA
Choir & Orchestra Performance

Wednesday, August 23, 1995, 7:00pm
Good Shepherd Church, Gabilan


 

“So this is a choir made up of people Catherine knew when she was in Austria?”

“Yeah.  She put together this trip where we’re going to do a tour of performances around here.  Gabilan, Mount Lorenzo, San Tomas, and Bay City, I think.  And we’re going to sing the national anthem at a Titans game.”

“That’s so cool!” I said.

“Yeah.  Just contact Catherine for tickets.”

“For sure!  I will!”

“So where can I put the flyer?  Do you need to ask your supervisor?”

“She isn’t here right now, but I’ll ask her later this afternoon.”

“Great!”

“How is your summer going?” I asked.

“It’s pretty good.  I’m mostly just hanging out with family and Anthony,” Renee answered.  “I’m glad he was able to come home.  It was hard having him so far away last year.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“How’s your summer?”

“Nothing too exciting here.  Just working here.  I’ve been going to a lot of San Tomas Mountain Lions roller hockey games.  And I took a day trip to Jeromeville with my family and my cousins.”

“That sounds fun.  I haven’t been back to Valle Luna all summer.  Hey, I need to get going and put up the rest of these flyers.  But it was good seeing you!”

“You too!  I’ll definitely be at your show.  Say hi to Anthony for me.”

“I will!  Thanks!”

Jane arrived about an hour later, and she approved of me putting the Voices of Austria flyer in the window.  She wanted to know more about what exactly they would be singing.  I did not know anything beyond what was on the flyer, and I told her so.

When my shift ended that day, I did not go straight home.  Instead, I went to the Lucky grocery store across the parking lot from Books & More.  Lucky stores disappeared a few years later in a merger with Albertsons, and they reappeared in the early 21st century when Albertsons sold all of their holdings in this part of the country, including the Lucky name, to another company.  I walked straight to the greeting card aisle and looked for birthday cards.  Greeting card companies made special cards for 18th and 21st birthdays, because of the legal milestones involved, and special cards for people turning 30, 40, and 50.  But to my knowledge there were no cards for turning 20, as the person I was shopping for was doing.  My own birthday was coming up next week also, and there were definitely no special cards for turning 19.

After a few minutes, I chose a card that had a cartoon drawing of an elephant, saying, “Of course I remembered your birthday!”  On the inside, the card said, “Who are you?”  I chuckled loudly for a second, in the middle of the store, when I read that.

After I got back to the car, I thought for a few minutes, then started writing on the inside.


Megan

Happy birthday!  How are your classes going?  I hope you’re doing well.  Things really aren’t very exciting for me.  One of my friends from high school came into the store today; that was a nice surprise.  I can’t wait to get back to Jeromeville and see everyone again.  I hope you have a great birthday!  What are you doing for it?  My birthday is coming up on the 15th, but I don’t have anything planned, probably just cake and presents with my family.  See you soon!

Greg


 

I had carefully prepared for this moment.  I left the house today knowing that I would probably have to mail Megan’s card today in order for it to get to Jeromeville by August 12, her actual birthday.  I had a stamp and a scrap of paper on which I had written Megan’s address in the glove compartment.  I put the stamp on the envelope and copied the address onto the envelope: Megan McCauley, 2525 E. 5th St. #202, Jeromeville, followed by the state abbreviation and ZIP code.  I knew that the mail at the nearest Post Office did not get picked up until five in the afternoon, so I drove there to mail Megan’s card, which would most likely get it to Jeromeville in two days.  

I drove home, still nervous about what I had done.  Sending a friend a birthday card should not have been a big deal, and Megan and I had been periodically in touch by email for most of the summer.  But this was not just any friend.  Megan was a year older than me, the first older friend I made at UJ other than my dorm’s resident advisors.  She was so nice.  And she was cute.  I felt kind of dumb.  I probably didn’t have a chance with her.  She probably saw me as a silly little kid.

 

Ten years earlier, my childish lack of self-control led to a new family tradition in the Dennison household.  I had asked for an obscure computer game for my birthday, the first birthday after our family got our first computer.  I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 3:30, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 5:00, asking if it was time to open presents, and Mom handed me a box, saying, “Here’s your stupid game!  Now let me sleep!”  Since then, we have always opened mine and Mark’s birthday presents on the night before, so I would not be too excited to sleep on the night before receiving presents.  To this day, I visit my parents every Christmas, and we still open Christmas presents on the night of December 24.

My 19th birthday was August 15, five days after the day Renee came into the store.  Although I felt that I had probably outgrown the insomnia-inducing excitement on the night before receiving birthday presents, Mom still insisted on giving my presents on the 14th after dinner.  Many of this year’s gifts were practical things for the new apartment.

“Thank you,” I said after opening a cookie sheet.  As I began opening a package the size of a compact disc case, Mom said, “This is more of a fun gift.”

“It looks like music,” I replied.  I thought I knew what it was, because I had only mentioned one CD that I wanted, and I was right.  It was the album Cracked Rear View by Hootie & the Blowfish.

“And I thought you would like this,” Mom said, handing me what appeared to be a wrapped paperback book.  I had spent enough time around books that summer that I recognized the shape and size.  But as I began unwrapping it, it felt like it was not entirely solid, more like it was several thin paperback books.  “Oh!” I said as I had removed enough wrapping paper to see the name Stephen King on the side of each thin paperback.  “The Green Mile.”

“Part 6 isn’t out yet.  So you’ll have to watch for it at Books & More.  Or at the campus store in Jeromeville.”

“I can do that.”  I had read that Stephen King had been working on publishing a novel in monthly installments, but I knew nothing about the story.  I read the descriptions on the backs of the first two books, something about a murder and prisoners awaiting execution and something mysterious happening at the prison.  Of course there was something mysterious happening; it was Stephen King.

green mile

The best birthday surprise came two days later when I got home from work.  After Mom said hi to me, she said, “That girl you know who is in Jeromeville this summer, is her name Megan McCauley?”

I felt a jolt of excitement.  “Yes,” I said, trying not to draw attention to my thoughts.

“You got something from her. It looks like a birthday card.  I left it on the table.”

“I see it.  Thanks.”  I picked up Megan’s card from the table and took it to my bedroom.  Looking at the envelope, I realized that I had never seen Megan’s handwriting before.  It did not look like what I would have expected; the lowercase letters were much smaller than the capital letters, with a lot of space between them.  After so many years of being in school and seeing people’s handwritten work, it seemed odd that I could know someone for a year and never see her handwriting.

I opened the envelope.  Inside was a card with a picture of a birthday cake with candles, and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in large colorful letters above it.  The printed text on the inside said, “Celebrate your special day!”  Megan had added a note in her own handwriting.


Happy birthday!  Thanks for the card!  I hope you’re enjoying your summer!  I’ll see you in the fall.

-Megan


 

It wasn’t a very long note, but it was better than nothing, and I was getting emails periodically from Megan so I already knew the basics of what was going on in her life.  Still, though, it was nice that she thought of me and took the time to send a card.

 

Mom and Dad and I arrived at Good Shepherd Church slightly better dressed than usual.  I was wearing a shirt with a collar and no writing on it.  I saw an older couple dressed nicely and realized that I might be under-dressed for an event like this, but looking around I also spotted others dressed similarly to me, so I was probably okay.

 I was unsure what to expect.  I looked through the program and saw names of pieces of music that I did not know, many of which were in German or Latin.  A few of the composers’ names were familiar, like Mozart, and that made me feel a little smarter.  This was no big deal; I should not be this nervous.  I was watching my friends in a performance; I belonged here just as much as anyone else.  No one was going to judge me for not knowing classical music.  I continued looking through the program and recognized the name of a song: Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music.  I had seen that movie many times.  It was one of Mom’s favorites, although watching it with her meant having to hear her sing along to everything.

Mom nudged me, with her program open.  I looked up.  She pointed to the last three words of the title “Gott nahe zu sein, ist mein Glück,” and whispered, “It’s my gluck,” pronouncing the last word as if it rhymed with “pluck.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” I said, trying to stifle giggles at this silly randomness.

A few minutes later, the performers walked onto the stage, the choir standing on risers placed in front of the altar, and the orchestra seated in front of them.  Catherine walked to the front of the stage.  “Welcome to Voices of Austria,” she said.  “My name is Catherine Yaras.  I grew up here, but I spent my senior year studying in Austria.  I performed with some of these musicians here during that year.  Now they have come out here to perform and do some sightseeing.  This is the first of six performances we will be doing, including the national anthem at a Bay City Titans baseball game.  So please sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

As they began singing and playing, I started to feel out of place again.  I did not know what to expect at a classical music performance.  I guessed it was probably frowned upon to sing along or wave lighters or shout “FREE BIRD!” in between songs.  Everyone else seemed to be sitting still and clapping at the end of each song, so I did the same.  I wondered if any customers from the bookstore were in attendance tonight.  This was their world.  Probably not, though.

As much as I did not know classical music or understand the lyrics, I really did enjoy the performance.  All of them sounded beautiful, and for as much fun as rock and pop music could be, classical music had complexities far beyond that of most rock and pop music that gave it a pleasing sound.

When they got to the Glück song, I noticed that that word was not pronounced like Mom said, rhyming with “pluck,” but with a vowel that does not exist in English, close to rhyming with “Luke” but not exactly.  I leaned over to Mom and whispered, “It’s ‘Glück, not gluck,” attempting to replicate that sound.

“I hear that,” she whispered back.

At the end of the performance, I waited in my seat, watching for Catherine and Renee so I could go talk to them.  When I saw them come out from the room behind the altar, I said to Mom and Dad, “I’m going to go say hi to Catherine and Renee.”

“Okay,” Mom replied.  “We’ll wait over here.”

I approached Catherine and Renee; they were with a few of the other performers.  “Greg!” Catherine said as she saw me approach.  She walked up and gave me a hug.  “Meet my friends.  This is Helga; she was my sister when I stayed in Austria.  Helga, this is Greg.  He was one of the people who wrote me letters that year.”

“Oh, yes,” Helga said.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I replied.

“And this is David, Matthias, Lisi, and Katharina,” Catherine continued as she introduced me to the rest of the group.

“Hi,” I said as they waved and greeted me in return.

“I’m so glad you could make it!  Thank you very much!”

“I enjoyed it.  You guys are really good.”

“Thanks,” Renee replied.  “I felt like I messed up my part on one song.”

“I didn’t notice,” I told her.  “I don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, so if one part is a little bit wrong, I won’t know.”

“That’s what I said!” Catherine exclaimed.  “So have you ever thought about performing in a choir?”

I was not expecting that question.  “Me?” I asked.  “I’m too self-conscious up on stage.  You know that.”

“I think you should try it!  Find a group to sing with in Jeromeville.”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

“It’ll be good for you.”

“So you guys get to sing at a Titans game?  That’s really cool.”

“I know!  A baseball game seems like such an American thing to do.”

“I haven’t been to a game in two years.  I’m still kind of upset at baseball for being on strike last year.  Matt Williams was going to break the home run record.  But I’m sure you guys will have fun.”

“I need to go say hi to some other people, but it was great seeing you!  When do you go back to Jeromeville?”

“End of next week.  September 2.”

“And is that when classes start?  I thought you guys started later?”

“We do.  But my apartment lease starts September 1, and I’m kind of ready to be back up there.”

“That makes sense.  I don’t know if I’ll get to see you again before then, though, since I’ll be busy with these guys for the next week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “If not, I’ll be home for Christmas.”

“Call me before you leave, okay?”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.  Thanks again for coming.”  Catherine hugged me.

“Bye,” Renee added.

“See you guys later.  Enjoy the rest of your performances.”

I walked back to the car with Mom and Dad.  “That was really good,” Mom said.  “They’re all really musically talented.”

“I know,” I said.

“Yes,” Dad agreed.

“I know I say this all the time, and I don’t want to bug you, but I always wish you would have stuck with music.  You were always good at playing piano and singing.”

“I guess,” I said.

Mom started talking about something else as Dad pulled out of the parking lot, which was good because I was tired of this topic.  I took piano lessons when I was a kid.  I quit when I was 10.  I was too concerned with my image, and playing piano did not seem cool to me.  But also, more importantly, I got tired of Mom making a big deal of my piano playing and making me perform every time we had company or relatives come over.  I was too self-conscious to perform music in front of people.  I love music, but as for performing, I was content to sing along in the car while driving alone.

But Mom and Catherine had basically told me the same thing tonight, that I should get into music again.  I could not even remember if Catherine had ever heard me sing.  And three years earlier, in tenth grade, I had attended our school production of The Sound of Music (Catherine played the Mother Abbess), and one of my teachers, Mrs. Norton, asked me why I wasn’t up there singing and performing.  I knew Mrs. Norton had never heard me sing.  It was strange.  Did Catherine and Mrs. Norton see something in me that I did not see in myself?  Was being part of a choir singing in front of a group something that I could do?

As I sat in the car headed north on Highway 11 on the way home from the Voices of Austria concert, I had no idea that that question would be definitively answered less than two months later.

voices of austria
A big thank you to Catherine for finding this t-shirt from the tour at her parents’ house.

July 28, 1995. Taking advantage of a night at home by myself.

After I finished watching Jeopardy!, I went back upstairs.  I checked my email; no new messages.  I was glad to have a night at home by myself, but I had no immediately apparent way to take advantage of this night at home.  There was no long dormitory hallway to walk down and see who was free.  It was my parents’ house, the other bedrooms were empty, and the only other people in this house tonight were cats.  I could sit in front of the computer in a chat room, but for some reason I was not in the mood for that tonight.

My eyes drifted around my bedroom.  I saw my yearbook from my senior year at Plumdale High sitting on top of a box of books that I had not completely unpacked from when I moved out of the dorm last month.  So far, this summer, I had seen exactly two high school friends exactly once each.  The situation was made worse by my fear of using the phone.  And I was self-conscious about having friends in the first place, because my mother makes fun of people behind their backs, and I was afraid of what she would say about them.

I started to reach for the yearbook.  Some of the nicest things that people had ever said to me were in that book.  Two girls whom I did not really know until senior year both wrote messages that seemed more like what someone might write to a lifelong friend, not someone they had only known for one school year.  But then one of them moved away without saying goodbye, and the other had a boyfriend so it did not matter, and neither of them had stayed in touch.  I had lost touch with so many of my high school friends.

I reconsidered and did not open the yearbook.  My mind and eyes continued to wander.  Next to the computer on my desk was a stack of letters, all from girls.  Mom noticed a few days ago when I got letters from both Molly Boyle and Tiffany Rollins on the same day that I seemed to be keeping in touch with mostly girls over the summer.  She was right.  Guys were mean to me in elementary school, and I felt safer communicating with girls.  Taylor was really the only guy I was keeping in touch with.

Molly lived in central Pennsylvania.  She was studying early childhood education at Lock Haven University and, like me, she was home for the summer after her first year.  We had met in a chat room, and she had written to me the most so far, six times.  She was working a boring job that she disliked, but she needed the money in order to afford to go back to school.  She lived in the country and did not have much of a social life, which probably explained the frequent letters.  I opened the most recent one and began reading.


I spent the weekend in Philadelphia with Christina, my roommate from last year, and it ended up being a disaster!  This guy she knows on the Internet who lives in California was in Phila. for the weekend too, and they had been planning to meet for a while.  Her parents didn’t want her to go alone, so she brought me along.  When we got there, the guy was busy, so we saw all the touristy historical stuff.  When he was finally free, they just went back to the hotel and cuddled and did other stuff, and I felt really uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to go do something in the city by myself.  Then they just left without telling me where they were going or when they would be back.  So I was stuck alone in the hotel room for over an hour.  And then while they were gone, her parents called the hotel room looking for her.  Apparently before we left she lied and told her parents we were meeting our friend Michelle in the city, but Michelle called Christina’s house while she was supposed to be with us so they knew she lied.  And her dad started lecturing me about stuff like this, even though this wasn’t my idea and I didn’t know she lied!  This isn’t the first time Christina has done something completely selfish.  Maybe I’ll learn my lesson and stop letting her use me.


 

Molly may not have had much of a social life, but her weekend seemed a lot more interesting than anything that had happened to me recently.  Christina appeared to be the kind of person I would not want to be friends with.

Tiffany had written three times.  She and I had two math classes together last year.  She was home in Ashwood, about a two and a half hour drive to the east.  Like Molly, she also had a boring job that she hated, doing office work.  I had told her about being self-conscious about having friends at home, and she understood completely, because her mother still lovingly teased her about a boy she liked in tenth grade.  “So is there anyone you are interested in that way?” she wrote.  “You don’t have to answer, I just thought I’d ask.”  The thought crossed my mind that she might be dropping a hint to me.  I liked her as a friend, but I just didn’t feel attracted to her.

Danielle Coronado, who had lived down the hall from me in Building C last year, had written a fairly long typed letter a couple weeks ago.  She was back home in Desert Ridge, about 250 miles southeast in a part of the state I had never been to.  She told me a whole lot about her job working at a day camp for children.  Unlike Molly and Tiffany and me, Danielle enjoyed her job.  Spencer Grant, who lived on the first floor in Building C last year, was also from Desert Ridge; he and Danielle had been hanging out some, although they were definitely just friends.  Danielle wrote that Spencer was loud and obnoxious, but really a nice guy underneath.  I could see that, although I had mostly only seen the loud and obnoxious side.

Bok, who lived on the first floor last year and would be rooming with Danielle next year, sent me a postcard with big trees and a forest floor covered in ferns.  She and her family were camping in Olympic National Park in Washington, and would be headed north across the border to British Columbia before returning home.  That sounded beautiful, but I had never been camping, so I could not really relate to the experience.  Mom was the only one who took initiative to plan vacations in my family, and Mom hates camping.

Sarah Winters, also from the first floor, had written to me once.  She was home in Ralstonville, a couple hours’ drive northeast of here.  She passed the time playing flute and learning guitar, and she had been spending time with her older brother and the girl he would soon be marrying.  She also spent a day with Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, and Caroline Pearson at Caroline’s house in Walton Canyon.  That sounded fun.  I missed all of them.

I had not heard from Liz or Ramon, but Caroline had written once.  Caroline grew up in Australia, and she would be visiting her family there in August.  That would be an exciting trip.  She ended her letter saying, “Everyone from Jeromeville that I’ve talked to is wanting to get back up there.  I think that we all suffer from homesickness, strange as it sounds, even though we’re at home!”  She was exactly right.  Plumdale felt like home to some extent, but my connections here were not very deep to begin with, and my life was in Jeromeville now.

I looked around at the desk.  My eyes rested on the telephone.  My bedroom was part of a remodel that my parents had started seven years ago and technically never finished; the room still had plywood for a floor.  At some point in high school, I had figured out how telephone wiring worked and hooked up the telephone jack in the bedroom myself, so this telephone worked, although it was on the same line as the rest of the house.  I was always so nervous about making phone calls as it was, and with three phones in the house on the same line, it was frightening to think that Mom might pick up and listen in on my call.  Tonight would be the perfect night for a phone call, since I was alone in the house; the rest of the family had gone to watch some of my brother’s friends in a baseball tournament.  But whom did I feel comfortable calling?  One of my high school friends?  One of my Jeromeville friends?  I did not have Molly’s number, so she was not an option.  Even if I did have her number, Mom would not appreciate a phone call to Pennsylvania, although Mom had come around to the fact that this person writing me was probably not a 37-year-old pervert named Chuck.

It would make more sense to me to call someone I knew from Jeromeville.  I still had my copy of the campus directory, which had many students’ home addresses and phone numbers in addition to local contact information, but that seemed kind of creepy looking up people who did not expect me to have their phone numbers.  A few of my dorm friends had shared their home phone numbers at the end of the school year, with the intent of keeping in touch.  Of the people who had written so far, Danielle was the only one who had shared her phone number.  I felt safe talking to her.

I picked up the phone and started dialing, but gave up halfway through the number and hung up.  Mom would see a call to Desert Ridge on the phone bill.  She would want to know everything I said.  She might even tease me about liking Danielle, even if I explained that she was just a friend.  But Mom was always telling me to be more social, so she would probably be okay with me making one long distance call.  I picked up the phone but hung up again before dialing anything.  Danielle probably was not even home.  It was a Friday night.  Normal people are off having fun on Friday nights.  But, on the other hand, maybe that would be better.  I could leave a message and tell Danielle to call me, and I could get the phone call done earlier and feel like I did the best I could, not feeling guilty about wasting a night home alone.  And If Danielle ever did call me back, then I would have to talk to her and not chicken out.

I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed the numbers quickly.  A male voice picked up on the third ring.  “Hello?” he said.

“Hi.  Is Danielle there?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”  I heard muffled voices on the other side of the line, and after about half a minute, Danielle’s voice said, “Hello?”

“Hi.  This is Greg.”  After a few seconds of silence, I added, “Greg Dennison.  From Building C.”

“Greg!” Danielle exclaimed.  “I wasn’t expecting you to call!  How are you?”

“I’m doing ok.  Just kind of bored.  And I’m alone in the house tonight.  The rest of my family is busy.”

“I’m glad you called!  How is that bookstore job going?”

“It’s okay.  It’s nice when I get to read on a slow day, but that store just really isn’t my clientele.”

“That’s tough.  But it isn’t forever, right?”

“I know.  That’s what I keep telling myself.  How’s your work with the kids?”

“It’s exhausting, but I love it so much!  Yesterday we took them on a field trip to the fire station.  One of the little ones really loves fire trucks, so he was having a great time.”

“I bet that was fun.”

“And there’s this one eleven-year-old boy who lives in a foster home.  He’s been through a lot in life.  He gets in fights and acts all tough, but he has this soft side too that he doesn’t show many people.  But I see it.  He likes me and he trusts me.”

“That’s so cool.”

“I know!  Today he told me I was his favorite.  And he told me all about this girl he likes, but he doesn’t think she likes him.”

“That’s so cool that you can really make a difference with someone like that.”

“Yeah.  It’s amazing what these kids are like when you get to know them.  I’m going to miss them when the job is over.”

“When is that?”

“Two weeks.  After the camp closes for the summer, we can keep working for another week to clean things up and take things down.  That’s not going to be fun, but I’m going to do it for the money.”

“That’s a good idea.  I don’t think I’m making quite a difference in the lives of the customers at the bookstore.”

Danielle laughed at this.  Then she said, “Hey.  I heard you went to Jeromeville and you got to see Taylor?  How was that?”

“It was fun.  My cousins Rick and Miranda, they live way up north in the middle of nowhere, they were visiting that week, and we just went up there for the day so they could see where I lived, and my new apartment, and stuff.  And I took a break to go see Taylor.  And Jonathan too, but he had to study for part of the time I was there.”

“Figures.  That sounds like Jonathan.”

“You said you had been in touch with Taylor too?”

“Yeah.  He wrote me back.  Pete still hasn’t.  It’s like he fell off the face of the earth.”

“Some people just aren’t good at keeping in touch.”

“He’s a jerk,” Danielle said jokingly, chuckling.  Last year, both Taylor and Pete seemed to have something going on with Danielle.  I was too oblivious to know exactly what was going on, and it probably was not my business anyway.  Danielle continued, asking, “Did you visit anyone else when you were in Jeromeville?”

“I’ve only been in touch with one other person in Jeromeville this summer, someone not from our dorm.  And she was busy that day.  I really want to go back.  It’s boring here, and I rarely see the few friends I have left.”

“I know how you feel.  Bok and Theresa are going to visit for a few days in August.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“Have you heard from them?  Or anyone else?”

I told Danielle about everyone I had heard from this summer.  Some of these people Danielle did not know, and she seemed particularly interested in finding out more about Molly.  I told her a little bit about her, including how we met.  “She’s the first person I met on the Internet who I trusted with my contact information in real life.”

“That’s brave of you.”

“We had been emailing for six months by the time she wrote me on paper.  You’d have to be pretty good at being an old pervert and pretending to be an 18-year-old girl in order to keep it up for six months, so I’m pretty sure she’s really who she says she is.”

“Well that’s really cool!  Do you like her?  Like, more than just a pen pal?”

“I don’t know.  We’re just friends right now.”

Danielle and I talked for almost an hour.  I told her about watching roller hockey, and about the time I broke the picture frame at the store.  She told me about going camping with her family on an unusually hot day and getting badly sunburned, and about her next youngest sister also going to Jeromeville in the fall.  “And she’s going to major in psych, just like me.  We even have a class together in the fall.”

“Is that going to be awkward?”

“It might be.  When we were younger, we hung out in the same circles, and we fought about everything.  We’ve learned that we should kind of have separate lives.”

“That makes.  My brother and I are six grades apart, so we never were at the same school at the same time to run in the same circles.”

“Consider yourself lucky.”

After a few minutes and another lull in the conversation, I said, “I should probably get going.”

“Yeah.  It’s getting close to bedtime.  But thank you so much for calling!”

“You’re welcome.”

“It was good to hear your voice!”

“Yours too.  Tell Bok and Theresa I said hi.  And Spencer, if you talk to him again.”

“I will.”

“Good night!”

“Good night, Greg.”

I hung up.  That was nice.  Keeping in touch with my Jeromeville friends was keeping me going that summer.  I had a month left until I would be able to return to Jeromeville, and I needed every bit of contact with that part of my life that I could get.  I was done making phone calls, it was getting late, but I looked through the stack of letters again.  Something that Molly had written caught my eye:


A suggestion for you: don’t look in the past and see how much you haven’t done, but look into the future and see how much time you have to do whatever you want.  I try to look at the positive things instead of the negatives, so I don’t get depressed.


 

Molly was right.  I needed to stop dwelling on the negatives.  Sure, I felt like I had missed out on some things in the almost nineteen years I had lived so far, but I had a lot of life left, and I did not need to let that which I missed out on define me.  I would get back to Jeromeville, where I belonged, in a little over a month.  I had people there who wanted to be part of my life, and the stack of letters on my desk was evidence of that.

I walked over to the box of books, lifted a bunch of them up, and put my high school yearbook near the bottom, where I wouldn’t see it.

1995-07 danielle's letter

1995-07 molly's letter

 

June 27, 1995.  The most stereotypically 90s of all sports.

A trendy new sport took the world by storm in the 1990s: roller hockey.  Inline skates, roller skates with the wheels arranged in a line rather than the traditional arrangement of two wheels in front and two wheels behind, became popular in the late 1980s.  Soon after this, people began playing hockey on these skates. I was terrible at any kind of skating, but I enjoyed watching hockey, and when professional roller hockey came to nearby San Tomas last summer, we went to some games as a family.  Tonight, I was going to be watching this most stereotypically 90s of all sports with someone else.

Plumdale is a semi-rural town spread across a hilly area, and because of this, I often felt isolated from my friends.  My closest friends in school lived far away from me, so I never saw them outside of school. After I was old enough to drive, I had a little more of a social life, but still not much.  I had no idea where many of my high school friends lived, which is why I was a little nervous tonight. The house in front of me now was a place I had never been before. What if her parents wonder who I am?  How does this work anyway? Is it okay to do things with friends who are girls? What if she thinks I like her and this is a date? What if I realize I do like her, and she does not like me back? I nervously knocked on the door.

“Hey, Greg!” Rachel said, opening the door.  She was of average height and build, with straight medium brown hair, and she wore jeans with a dark green solid-color shirt.  “You ready?”

“Yes.”

“You have the tickets?”

“I’ll buy tickets there.  They don’t get a big enough crowd to sell out.”

Rachel stepped onto the porch and gave me a hug.  I smiled.

“Do you know how to get back to the highway from here?”

“Yes,” I said.  I worked my way from Rachel’s house to Highway 11 north, passing through hills dotted with oaks and houses on large lots.  Highway 11 passed through much of this same hilly oak woodland environment as we continued through Plumdale and entered the next county.  The grass on the hillsides had died and turned brown already by this time of year.

“So do you go to a lot of these games?” Rachel asked.  “What’s the team called again?”

“Mountain Lions.  I went to one with my family last week.  And we went to two last year.”

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as professional roller hockey.”

“It’s new.  I hadn’t heard of it until last year.”

“Interesting.  And who are these players?  Do they just have tryouts? I don’t think there are school roller hockey teams, are there?”

“A lot of them are minor league hockey players, like regular ice hockey, and this is their summer job.”

“That makes sense.”

After about ten miles, Highway 11 entered the end of a long valley, approaching a small city called El Ajo.  It was after six o’clock by the time we got to El Ajo, and most of what daily commuter traffic remained at that hour was headed in the opposite direction from us.  Traffic was smooth as we headed north through El Ajo, another small city called Morgantown, and the large sprawling metropolis of San Tomas. We arrived at the arena in downtown San Tomas about fifty minutes after leaving Rachel’s house.

“This stadium is new, right?” Rachel asked, looking at the large glass wall at the main entrance to the arena.

“Yes,” I replied.  “It just opened a year ago.”

“I think this is where my parents saw the Eagles.  They said it was really nice.”

“Probably.  They’ve been getting a lot of big concerts here.”

After buying the tickets, Rachel and I walked into the building.  The main entrance led to a very wide stairway leading up to the concourse.  From the concourse, walkways led down to the seats on the lower level, and small stairways led up to the seats on the upper level.  I found section 128, and we walked down to our seats, just a few rows up from the court.

“These are good seats,” Rachel said.

“Yeah.  The most expensive seats for these games are only fourteen dollars.  Like I said, they don’t draw a huge crowd. They only use the lower level.”

“Who are the Mountain Lions playing?” Rachel asked as the players from each team began warming up on the court.  The players skated on a surface made from blue plastic tiles that had been placed where the ice usually was during Stingrays ice hockey games.

“The San Diego Breakers.”

“San Diego,” Rachel repeated.  “Who is in the Mountain Lions’ league anyway? Do they play teams from all across the country, or are the teams just out west, or what?”

“The league has teams across the country, and a few in Canada too.  But there are separate Western and Eastern Conferences that only play each other.  So we only play teams in the western half of the US and Canada. The Western and Eastern champions play each other at the end of the season.  I think that’s late August.  It’s a short season.”

“I see, Rachel replied.  I then proceeded to name all eight of the other teams in the Western Conference, but I sensed that Rachel was getting bored with me.  I decided not to continue on and name the teams in the Eastern Conference.

The Mountain Lions scored a goal about a minute into the game; I stood up and cheered as the red light behind the goal came on.  “That goal came fast,” Rachel noticed out loud.  “Do they always score quickly like that?”

“Sometimes.  Roller hockey is usually higher scoring than ice hockey.”

“Is that because the goalies and players on defense aren’t as good?  Or because of how the skates and puck move on the court differently from on ice?”

“That might be part of it.  Also, the court is the same size but there is one less player on the court, compared to ice hockey.”

“I see.”

Another rule difference between this roller hockey league and most ice hockey leagues is that roller hockey games are played in four quarters, instead of the three periods in ice hockey.  A few minutes before halftime, with the score tied at three goals each, Rachel nudged me and pointed to the right, to the section next to us. “What’s going on?”

I looked in the direction she was pointing.  A group of four teenage girls was screaming and cheering.  One of them held up a sign; I could not read it because it was facing away from me, toward the ice.

“It looks like some teenage girls being silly,” I said.  “And one of them brought a sign.”

“I can’t see what it says.”

“Me either.  Probably something about the team or one of the players.  That’s what those things usually say.”

“Yeah.”

“Probably not with the name of the TV station, though, because these games aren’t on TV.”

“TV station?” Rachel asked.  “What do you mean?”

“You know, like how people will hold up signs at games, but they’ll use the name of the TV station on the sign, to try to get on TV.”

“I’ve never seen that!”

“I’ve just started seeing this the last couple years.  Like, say, if there’s a Chicago Bulls game on NBC, someone will make a sign that says ‘Nobody Beats Chicago’ and have the N-B-C at the start of each word prominently highlighted.”

Rachel took a second to think about this.  “That’s clever!”

“The best one I ever saw was on a football game on Fox.  Someone made a sign that said ‘Steve Young is a FOX.’”

Rachel laughed.  “Wow,” she said. “Steve Young?  That’s one of the players, right?”

“Yeah.”

The game continued; a San Diego player got a penalty for roughing, and the Mountain Lions scored on the resulting power play.  “What does power play goal mean?” Rachel asked.

“San Diego got a penalty, so they have to skate one fewer player on the court for two minutes.  That gives them a disadvantage. And if they get scored against with fewer players on the court because of a penalty, that’s a power play goal.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed.  “I’m sorry I’m asking so many questions.”

“It’s ok,” I said.  “I don’t mind.  I’m sure I’d be asking you questions if we were watching volleyball or running track.  Those are your sports.”

“I didn’t know you were this into hockey.”

“I didn’t grow up with it.  It’s just been the last few years, since the Stingrays came along.”

Halftime came shortly after the power play goal.  “I want to buy a T-shirt,” I said. “You want anything?”

Rachel looked confused.  “You want to get me a T-shirt?” she asked.

That was not what I was trying to ask.  “I’m not going to pay for it, I didn’t mean that,” I blurted out.  “I just meant if there was anything you needed while I was up.”

“No, thanks, I’m okay.”

I walked to the souvenir stand feeling confused and ashamed.  Words are hard sometimes. I was just trying to ask if she needed anything while I was up.  I had not planned on buying her something expensive. And the way I answered made it sound kind of mean.  My mind seemed to work differently those of from people around me, and sometimes it felt hard to explain things in ways that people understood.  I hoped that Rachel was not mad at me or hurt in any way.

I got back to my seat just before the third quarter started.  Rachel did not seem to be bothered by my poor communication earlier, which was good.  The silly teenage girls in the next section were just as entertaining to watch during the third quarter.  In addition to holding up their sign, they started performing cheers and dances. They apparently caught the attention of the arena audiovisual crew; a camera operator now sat near them and showed them on the big screen on the scoreboard during stoppages of play.

“Look,” I said to Rachel, pointing at the girls on the screen.  “It’s those girls in the next section.”

“Yeah,” Rachel laughed.  “They’re funny.”

The camera zoomed in on the girl holding the sign.  She was short and thin, Asian, with straight dark hair, wearing a Mountain Lions shirt similar to mine and face paint in the Mountain Lions colors of purple and gold.  The PA announcer said, “Hey, Mountain Lions fans, let’s give it up for our Fan of the Game, Elizabeth Santiago!” Rachel and I cheered, along with the rest of the people in the arena.

“Elizabeth Santiago,” I said after the crowd quieted down.

“What about her?” Rachel asked.

“One of my friends from Jeromeville, he lived upstairs from me in the dorm, his name is Taylor Santiago.  I wonder if he and Elizabeth are related? They look like they could be.”

“That would be funny.”

“Yeah.”

By the middle of the fourth quarter, the Mountain Lions were leading by a score of eight goals to four.  I was not paying attention to the game as closely as I had been earlier, since the Mountain Lions appeared to be in position to win.  Besides, Elizabeth Santiago and her friends were more entertaining.

Each team scored one more goal; the Mountain Lions went on to win, nine goals to five for the Breakers.  As we walked along the concourse toward the exit, I noticed Elizabeth Santiago and her friends walking near us.

“There’s the Fan of the Game,” I said to Rachel, gesturing in Elizabeth’s direction.

“Are you going to ask her if she’s related to your friend?” Rachel asked quietly.

“No.  That would be too weird.”

“Yeah, it might be.”

We walked back to the car.  It took several minutes to get out of the parking lot.  “So when you do leave for school?” I asked Rachel as we sat in the idling car.

“The middle of August.  I’m excited and nervous at the same time.  It’s a weird feeling.”

“I know how that is.  I went through that last year.  Do you know what you’re going to study?”

“I’m thinking something like psychology or sociology or something like that.  I’ve always been interested in that kind of stuff.”

“Makes sense.”

“You said you’re working at that bookstore this summer?”

“Yeah.  I got that job through a friend of my mom’s.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s okay.  It’s not very busy there.”

“Makes sense.  Sounds like a good job for you.”

“Yeah.  Are you working this summer or anything?”

“No.  Just trying to make the most of the summer before I leave, and hang out with friends as much as possible.  I’m having lunch with Paul tomorrow.  Things were a little weird last time we talked.  I haven’t seen him since he got back from Santa Teresa.”

“Weird how?”

“I don’t know.  I couldn’t tell.  I just got a weird vibe.”

Paul Dickinson had been in my class at Plumdale High; I had known him since seventh grade.  He and Rachel had gotten together and broken up several times over the years, and I had given up trying to keep track of whether or not they were together at any given time.  It seemed like they were not currently together. Paul had just gotten back from his freshman year at the University of Santa Teresa, about 200 miles south of Plumdale; I wondered if the weird vibe was because he had met a girl there and not told Rachel.  Or if Rachel had met a guy and not told me.

Rachel and I talked about life and school and other things for the rest of the drive home, down the San Tomas Valley through Morgantown and El Ajo and into the hills separating the San Tomas and Gabilan Valleys.  It was a little after eleven o’clock when I pulled the car up next to Rachel’s house.  I wondered what to do now.  Do I just say good night?  Do I walk her to the doorstep?

“I’ll walk to you the door,” I said hastily, opening my car door.

“Thank you,” Rachel replied.

We walked up the walkway to her house and stopped at the door.  “Thanks for coming with me,” I said.

“Yeah!  I had a lot of fun!  I didn’t even know roller hockey existed.”

“Now you do.”

“Yeah.  I’ll see you soon, Greg.”  Rachel gave me a big hug.

“Yes.  Have a good night,” I said as the hug continued for several seconds.  Rachel let go and turned around. “Good night,” she said, smiling, turning back toward me.

“Good night,” I answered, walking back to the car.  As I started the car, I could see Rachel walking through her front door.  I backed out back to the road and drove toward home.

I turned the radio on; the R.E.M. tape I had been listening to before Rachel got in the car came back on.  Rachel was a good friend. I could not tell if she was interested in being more than that.  I felt a little ashamed of some of the awkward moments from tonight, especially the conversation about the t-shirt.  I just did not understand girls and how all that was supposed to work. Was tonight a date? Not really. Probably not.  Maybe. I didn’t know. How does everyone else know all of these rules? Was I even interested in Rachel like that? I wasn’t when we were in high school, but she was always nice to me, and she was one of the few high school friends still keeping in touch with me regularly.  I did not understand girls, but I seemed to understand something about being friends with girls, so maybe that’s what I should be right now.  That still did not change the fact that I wanted a girlfriend. This was all so frustrating. Girls and relationships were, to me, like taking a test without ever having been to class.

When I got home, I said hi to Mom and telling her how the game went.  Mom had fallen asleep on the couch in front of the TV and woke up as soon as I walked in.  I went straight to bed after that and closed my eyes, trying to shut out from my mind all of these frustrating and confusing thoughts as I drifted to sleep.

(By the way, Elizabeth Santiago is in fact Taylor’s younger sister.  I found that out the next time I saw Taylor; he asked me what I had been up to, and when I mentioned the Mountain Lions, he said that his sister was at a game and they made her Fan of the Game.  Small world.)

mountain lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Is it too loud?”

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

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

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

“That sounds really cool.”

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

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

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

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

“When is the physics final?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t either.”

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

“Who’s that?” Mike asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow.  That’s cool.  Adventurous.”

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

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

“Hey, Jared,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but it’s hilarious!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no.”

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

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

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

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

“I hope so.”

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

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

pulse

May 26-28, 1995. Friends far away.

By the time Memorial Day weekend arrived in late May, the weather in Jeromeville had become quite summer-like.  The bike ride from Wellington Hall to the South Residential Area only took five minutes, but I was doing that bike ride in 88-degree sunshine, so I was already starting to sweat by the time I got back to my dorm room.  It was the Friday before a three-day weekend, and I was drained from a long week of classes.  I unlocked my door and turned on the air conditioning.  Cool air began blowing into the room.  I took off my shoes and lay face down on the mattress, dozing off for about an hour.

I spent a couple hours writing emails and catching up on Usenet groups, and reading for fun.  Shortly before six o’clock, I walked to the dining commons. I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Ramon, Liz, Caroline, and Sarah at a table.  Next to Charlie was an empty seat with a half-empty glass of water on the table next to it. I could not tell if anyone was sitting there.

“May I join you?” I asked.  “Is that seat taken?”

“Go ahead,” Charlie replied.  “There’s always room for hydrochloric acid.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.  Charlie laughed. “That was random,” I said.

“I know.”

“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.

“I’m good,” I replied.  “It’s a three-day weekend, and they turned the AC back on.”

“I know!” Sarah said.  “It feels so nice!”

“So, Greg, what are you doing this summer?” Taylor continued.  “Will you be back home in Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Working?  Doing anything like that?”

“My mom told me the other day she found a job for me.  One of my brother’s friends, his mom works at this small bookstore.  I guess it’s just her and the owner working there. She wants to cut her hours for the summer to be around more when her son isn’t in school.  So Mom told her that I was going to be home for the summer, and I could use a part-time job.”

“And do you want to do this?”

“I wish Mom would have asked me first, although she did say I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to.  But I’m not going to be doing anything else all summer, I’ll be getting paid for it, and it’s a job I don’t have to go find and interview for.  So I’m ok with it.”

“Yeah,” Taylor replied.

“Good point,” Pete said.

I really would have preferred for Mom to have consulted me first before volunteering me to a commitment of several hours per day.  However, the thought of having to go find a job was terrifying, and this way I had something lined up without having to look for it, as I had told Taylor and Pete.  Besides, working in a bookstore sounded fun. Maybe I could sample the merchandise and read on slow days, and maybe I would get an employee discount.

We all went downstairs to check the mail after dinner.  When I saw an envelope with handwriting on it, I felt my heart race.  I had written that letter almost two weeks ago, not knowing what would happen, not even knowing for sure whom I was writing to.  How long did it take for a letter to travel from one end of the USA to the other anyway? And after she got it, she would need time to reply, and then her letter would have to travel back across the country to Jeromeville.  Would she write back right away? Maybe I sent it too early. She was still in the middle of finals when I wrote; she hadn’t moved home yet. Maybe her parents got it and interrogated her about why she was getting mail from this strange boy in another state.  Maybe her parents threw it away.

I removed the letter from the mailbox and looked at the envelope.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the return address. It was from Carol Allen in Plumdale. This was not the letter I was nervous about.  This was from someone I had known for years, who had already written me once this year.

I noticed that my friends were moving toward the Help Window, which meant that someone had to pick up a package too big to fit in the mailbox.  I walked over to where they were. “Someone got a package?” I asked.

“It’s for Caroline,” Sarah said.  “You got a letter from someone?”

“It’s from Mrs. Allen.  She was my English teacher in both 7th and 8th grade.”

“And she writes to you in college?  That’s so sweet!”

“I know.  This is the second time she has written.  My mom ran into her somewhere back home a few months ago, and she told Mom to tell me to write to her.”

“She sounds nice.”

“She is.  I was in her class when I was going through a really rough time.  I was at a new school in the middle of 7th grade, and I had had a lot of problems at my other school before that.  She really made me feel welcome and accepted. A lot of the teachers at my old school acted like they didn’t want to deal with me.  And I know that ‘a lot’ is two words, because Mrs. Allen always made a big deal of it whenever someone would write ‘alot’ as one word.”

Sarah laughed.  “That’s funny!”

“I knew ‘a lot’ was two words before Mrs. Allen’s class, but I still remember her making a big deal of it.”

“It’s funny how some teachers stay in your memory forever.  Like I had this math teacher who would always make the dumbest jokes.  He’d say, ‘What’s 4y minus 3y,’ and you’d answer ‘y,’ and he’d say ‘because I asked you.’”

I chuckled.  “That’s great.  And then there are some teachers who you remember for all the wrong reasons.  Like Mr. Milton, my history teacher from junior year. He made fun of Catholics and Republicans all the time.”

“That’s not nice.”

“I still remember all these random things I learned about history from his class, though, so he did something well, but I didn’t think he was very nice.”

I opened the letter from Mrs. Allen when I got back to my room.  

 


May 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

Sorry it has taken so long to write back, but I’ve been busy.  You know how it is. I’m sure you’re busy too. Jeromeville is on trimesters, if I remember right, so you should still be in your dorm room.  When is the school year over? Our last day is June 8.

I’m going to get a new computer and get online soon.  Mr. Coburn got us America Online at school, and he has been showing me how it works.  Once I figure out how to set it up, I’ll send you an e-mail. It looks like there are all kinds of interesting things you can do.

I went to the Titans game yesterday.  I got a partial season package again, so I have a ticket to 20 games.  I have a much better seat this year because a lot of people didn’t renew.  I knew that would happen after the strike. I’m so happy the strike is over!  I missed the Titans. I thought of you because the University of Jeromeville band played the pre-game show.

I hope everything is well with you.  Take care of yourself and good luck with finals!

Love,
Carol

P.S.  I think it will be OK for you to use my first name now.


 

The postscript at the end made me laugh.  Everyone knows that one does not address a teacher by his or her first name.  Mrs. Allen said it was okay to call her Carol, but I just would never be able to bring myself to do that.  It was okay now, because I was an adult, but it still sounded wrong. Mrs. Allen would always be Mrs. Allen to me.  That was just how things worked when addressing a teacher, even years or decades after being in that teacher’s class.

I did not know that the University of Jeromeville Band had played a pre-game show at a Titans game.  I had grown up watching Bay City Titans baseball, traveling up there with my family about three or four times a year to attend games in person.  But I had not been keeping up with the Titans, or baseball in general, this year. The end of the previous season had been canceled because of a players’ strike.  There was no World Series that year. Furthermore, Matt Williams, the Titans’ third baseman, had hit 43 home runs by the time the strike began in early August, possibly putting him in position to set a new record for home runs in one season.  The record at the time was 61. But the season was canceled, he had no chance to hit any more home runs, and in two more seasons with the Titans and seven with other teams, he never reached this level of power hitting prowess again. The strike had continued on into the 1995 season but was settled early in the season, and baseball had finally resumed at the end of April, a few weeks later than the usual start of the season.  I did get interested in baseball again eventually… but that is another story for another time.

 

The next morning, I got out of bed around nine.  That was sleeping in for me, the best I could do.  I studied and did homework for about two hours, then decided to reward myself with a bike ride.  I rode north to the Coventry Greenbelts, where I had ridden last week, and discovered a bike path skirting the northern edge of the city.  Riding west, the path passed fenced backyards on the left and some kind of drainage or irrigation canal to the right, with open fields on the other side.  The path turned south, with ends of culs-de-sac connecting to the path, before zigzagging west again and then south one more time. At this point, the drainage canal  entered the Jeromeville city limits, with a neighborhood of large luxury homes visible on the other side of the canal. I was not sure where this neighborhood was or what it connected to.  I saw a pedestrian and bicycle bridge cross the canal into that neighborhood, but I did not go that way.

The path turned south along a park with a playground, basketball courts, and an open grass area.  I rode past a sculpture of dominoes. The park then narrowed, so that fences of backyards came close to the path on either side, much like the other paths I had discovered last week.  After making several more turns, and not being sure of exactly which direction I was going now, the path narrowed to a small sidewalk, next to a parking lot. I appeared to be in the back of a large apartment complex.  I wondered which one; I probably had heard of it, from when I was looking through that apartment guide trying to find a place to live next year.

Suddenly, as I got closer to the actual buildings, riding through the parking lot, I realized that I knew exactly where I was.  Not only had I heard of this apartment complex, but I had looked at these apartments. I had even signed a lease here. This was Las Casas Apartments on Alvarez Avenue, and I was looking right at my home for next year, apartment 124.  This was convenient; my apartment for next year was right next to the Greenbelts. I would have a lot of opportunities to explore Jeromeville on my bike from my new apartment.

When I got back to campus, I checked my mail before going back up to my room.  All the anxious excitement I felt yesterday when I checked the mail came back when I saw the letter that I had been expecting the day before.  The return address said “M. Boyle,” with a box number and rural route in a town I had never heard of, called Muncy, Pennsylvania. My name and address had been handwritten on the envelope, in black ballpoint pen.

I started to hide the letter under my shirt, but then I remembered that I was all sweaty from having ridden my bike in warm weather for an hour.  I slid the letter in my front pocket and walked back to the building with half of the envelope sticking out. I made sure that no writing was showing on the part sticking out.  Something still felt weird about having this letter, and I did not want to have to talk to anyone about it.

I made it back to my room without seeing anyone and began reading.


May 23, 1995

Dear Greg,

Hello!  It’s nice to hear from you, and I hope this finds you well.  I’m good, except there’s a storm here. It’s raining pretty hard, with lightning.

Good luck on finals!  I got my grades a few days ago.  I ended up with two Bs, two Cs, and a D.  Not as good as I wanted. I’ll have to work harder next semester.

I’ve been bored and lonely much of the time since coming back home.  When I was at school, I was used to having everything within walking distance, but we live out in the country so everything is a 15 minute drive away.  And since I don’t have a car, I don’t get away from home that much. Most of my friends from college live far away, and my friends from home are either still in high school or have jobs.  I looked for a job, but I haven’t found anything yet. The bookstore you told me about sounds like it’ll be fun for you. Mostly I just want to get a job so I can get out of the house. But I need the money too or else I might not be able to go back next semester.  I know how you feel about not looking forward to summer, being away from your friends. I thought I would have a job by now, not stuck at home all the time.

I’ve pretty much given up on finding a boyfriend.  The only place I go is church and the guys there are either not interested or too old for me.  There are some dance clubs, but I don’t have a car so I can’t go to them.

Well, I hope I’m not some 37 yr. old pervert!  Just the idea makes me sick. Would your mom like to see my drivers license or school ID?  Anyway, write me back when you can I know you have finals coming up so I’ll wait until after that to expect something.  I’ll write maybe another letter before then. ☺

Bye,
Molly


 

When I wrote to Molly, I said that I was a little nervous, because my mother was fond of reminding me that all these girls I was meeting online were probably 37-year-old perverts named Chuck.  Molly was the first person I met on the Internet whom I had any sort of offline contact with. Apparently Molly did not find the image of Chuck as funny as I had.

Molly was my age, a freshman at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania.  Molly had already finished the school year, because Lock Haven was on a semester schedule, both starting and ending earlier in the year than Jeromeville with its quarter schedule. (Jeromeville quarters were technically trimesters; Mrs. Allen had correctly called them trimesters in her letter).  Molly moved back home, where she would not have access to email, so in her last email to me, she had given me her address.

And she actually wrote back.  I now had proof that someone I met on the Internet actually existed in real life.  Of course, technically she could have been lying about her age or gender or any number of things, but there was a real person behind those messages who took the time to write back.  Hopefully this summer I would be able to look forward to getting letters in the mail. And hopefully she was not really Chuck.

 

I spent most of Sunday studying, although I did make it to church Sunday morning.  In the late afternoon, when I finished everything I had hoped to get done, I got on my usual IRC chat channel.  Kim, a girl from Florida I had been talking to for a few months, was online, so I messaged her.

gjd76: hi
Happygirlkim: Hi Greg! How are you?
gjd76: doing well, it’s been a good weekend.  it’s been warm here, i like that
Happygirlkim: I bet!  I’m done with the school year, back home in Ft Lauderdale, but I’ll be working at a summer camp for kids for six weeks, I leave on June 16
gjd76: that’ll be fun, that’s the weekend i’ll be moving home
Happygirlkim: Yay! Any big plans for the summer?
gjd76: moving back home and working in a bookstore.  my mom knows someone there who got me the job
Happygirlkim: That’ll be fun!  Will you be hanging out a lot with your friends back home?
gjd76: i’m not sure.  i lost touch with a lot of them when i came here, and i didn’t see them often anyway when i was back home.  i don’t even know for sure who will be around for the summer.
Happygirlkim: I wish I lived closer to you!  I’d hang out with you! 😉
gjd76: that would be fun!
Happygirlkim: I think you’d like my friends!  You could come to the beach with us, we’d build a bonfire and stay up late just talking…
gjd76: 🙂
Happygirlkim: Maybe someday!
gjd76: hey, random thought, can i call you?

I typed that last line quickly and pressed Enter before I could talk myself out of it.  It was a sudden fleeting thought that passed through my mind, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask.  Now that I had gotten a letter from Molly, it seemed less scary to try to communicate with these girls from the Internet in other ways.

Happygirlkim: Sure!  Did you mean right now?
gjd76: sure, it’s sunday afternoon and long distance calls cost less on the weekend
Happygirlkim: 305-555-0115
gjd76: great! let me get off here, i’ll call you in just a minute

I logged out and disconnected.  Back in 1995, people connected to the Internet through telephone lines, so being logged in meant that I could neither send nor receive calls.  As soon as the computer was disconnected, I dialed Kim’s number, and just like when I had asked her if I could call, I pressed the buttons quickly, so I would not be able to talk myself out of completing the call.

“Hello?” a female-sounding voice said on the other end of the call.

“Is Kim there?” I asked.

“This is Kim.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.”

“Hi!”  Kim paused.  “It’s good to finally hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“So why don’t you see your friends back home very often?”

“Where I live, it’s kind of semi-rural and spread out.  And I didn’t really do much except go to school. I didn’t really have friends at all until the middle of high school.”

“You didn’t have a best friend in childhood or anything?”

“Everyone was mean to me.”

“I’m sorry.  And you said you didn’t have a girlfriend, right?”

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve had a lot of crushes on girls who were either out of my league or didn’t like me back.  One of my crushes from high school was named Kim too.”

“Girls named Kim are the best!”

“I know.” I chuckled.

“You haven’t met anyone in college?  Didn’t you tell me you were going to a movie with some girls recently?”

“One of them, we’ve had two classes together, I feel like we’re just going to be friends.  The other one, she’s really cute, and she’s been nice to me all year, but she’s a sophomore, I don’t know if she’d be interested in a younger guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”

“You never know.  It wouldn’t hurt to ask.  You’re such a sweetie. I bet all the girls like you, and you don’t even know it!”

“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get something to eat?’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go see a movie?’ or whatever.  You can do this. I believe in you.”

“I don’t know.  What if she already has a boyfriend?  Then I’ll look like an idiot.”

“But what if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but you never ask her?  You never know unless you try.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really didn’t know. Kim made it sound so simple, but it was so confusing and scary.  I had a sudden thought, something I had to know. I took a deep breath and asked, “If you lived nearby, and I asked you out, would you go out with me?”

“Yes, I would!”

“Thank you.  I wish we could.”

Kim and I talked for about another 20 minutes, just about life in general.  She told me more about her friends and about her summer job at the camp. I told her about my classes, exploring the greenbelts, and my upcoming finals.  I hoped we would have more conversations like this.

I have had other female friends from the Internet besides Kim telling me that I should have no trouble meeting a girl.  Things did not work that way in my world. It seemed like every girl I was ever interested in always seemed to have a boyfriend already, and without having ever had the experience of knowing that a girl liked me, I had no idea how to know if a girl liked me, and no reason to believe it would ever happen to me.  It was so easy to talk to girls I met on the Internet. Maybe I would have to go to Fort Lauderdale to get a girlfriend. Or Muncy, Pennsylvania.

Today, when kids go away to college, they have a much easier time staying in touch with their friends back home.  Today’s college students have text messages and social media and video chat and technologies that we only dreamed of twenty-five years ago.  I have found that I tend to remember most of my friends back home not staying in touch once I moved away, but when I really think about it, that is not entirely true.  Melissa and Renee and Rachel had been keeping in touch regularly. Janet Bordeaux, the girl whose mother and my mother often gossiped, had written me twice. Jessica Halloran had sent me a postcard from Guatemala.  And now Mrs. Allen had written me twice. I did eventually lose touch with all of those people until social media came along, but it did not happen as suddenly as I tend to remember. I think I also remember people not writing me because I focus on the fact that I had two new female friends and crushes who did not keep in touch.  Interestingly enough, I did not make much of an attempt to stay in touch with guys; I was just more comfortable communicating with girls, because boys were always so mean to me in elementary school.

Mrs. Allen and I have been in touch semi-regularly ever since then.  She did eventually get her email set up. She is now in her early 70s, retired from teaching.  A few years ago, the band AC/DC was touring, and she took her grandchildren to see them when they played Bay City.  I can only hope to be that badass at that age.

I lost touch with Kim sometime during sophomore year.  She just got busy with life, I guess; we never had any kind of falling out. But Molly and I stayed friends for a long time, well into our 30s.  In my late 20s, I did a lot of traveling around the USA, and I saw Molly in person twice when my travels brought me to her part of the country. We also never had any kind of falling out; we just grew apart as life got in the way.  The last time I heard from her was in 2009, and by then she was married and expecting her first child. Being a parent definitely changes one’s priorities.

Someone asked me once, as an icebreaker question, if I could have anything I wanted, without cost being an obstacle, what would it be?  I said I wanted a private jet with an unlimited supply of fuel, because I had friends all over the world that I wished I could spend time with.  It all started during that school year, my freshman year at UJ, meeting girls on the Internet. I still do have friends from all over the world. I don’t meet many people on the Internet anymore, because I gave up chat rooms in 2007, but I still have friends all over the world who I used to know in person that I wish I could visit, as well as chat room friends who I met before 2007 who stayed in touch.  And in three weeks, I would be back home in Plumdale, away from all my new Jeromeville friends. Hopefully at least some of them would write to me. And I would not be gone forever; I still had at least three more years at UJ.

1995 molly's first letter

 

May 20, 1995. Not my typical Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know!  This quarter is flying by!”

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

“You guys ready?” Megan asked.

“Let’s go,” Ron replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Plumdale.”

“And you’re from Ashwood?”

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

“Great.  I’ll write you.”

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” Stephanie added.  “What’s up?”

“Just looking around,” I said.

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

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

“Good!” Stephanie shouted.

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

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

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

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

“No, thank you.”

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

“Hi,” I replied.

“Having fun?”

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

“Did you like it?”

“I did.  It’s interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.”

“Come back later if you want.”

“I might.”

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

Amy is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 18, 1995. The Coventry Greenbelt.

I parked my bike outside of Wellington Hall, a rectangular brick building which consisted only of classrooms used for many different subjects, and headed to Room 17 in the basement for my chemistry discussion.  Chemistry 2B was a large class of around four hundred students held in 199 Stone Hall, the largest lecture hall on campus in the 1990s. Labs and discussions met in smaller groups of 24 students, all from the same lecture section, led by a teaching assistant who was a graduate student from the chemistry department.

The desks in Wellington 17, as was the case with most classrooms at UJ, were just chairs with a little retractable piece of wood that a student could pull up and use as a hard surface for writing.  I sat in a chair, pulled the desk up into place, and put my head down on it with my eyes closed. I was tired. I had been up for a while. I started class on Thursday at 10:00 in the morning, but I woke up early enough to be ready for class at 9, because every other day I had a 9:00 class.  It was now 9:57, and I was ready to go back to sleep because I had not slept well the night before.

A couple minutes later, I heard someone sit next to me and begin to speak.  “Hey, Greg! Are you okay?” I recognized the voice; it was Marissa, my lab partner.

I opened my eyes and looked up.  “I didn’t sleep well. The fire alarm went off at 2:30, and it took me almost an hour to get back to sleep.”

“What? Fire? Where?”

“My dorm.  Building C in the South Area.  We all had to evacuate.”

“What was on fire?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think anything was on fire.  There wasn’t any smoke or anything, at least I couldn’t see anything on fire.”

“So what set it off?”

“I don’t know.”

“Weird.”

“Oh yeah.  It was hilarious.  I was climbing down the stairs, and Amy, the RA from the third floor, she goes, ‘If you see or smell anything strange, let me know.’  My friend Rebekah, she’s also on the third floor, she says, ‘I see and smell Amy. Should I let you know?’”

“She actually said that?” Marissa asked, laughing.  “Oh my gosh!”

“Yeah!  She’s hilarious.  We had the same math class fall quarter, and the professor posted grades by ID number.  She figured out which one was me, because she knew what I got on all the other midterms, so she knew what I got on the final before I did.”

“No way.”

“And she told me, ‘Next quarter, I’m going to freak out just like you did, and maybe then I’ll get 99 percent just like you.’”

“That’s funny!  Did you freak out on your math final?”

“I think she just meant how I was really stressed about the final, but I probably didn’t have to be, since I did so well.  It was my first final here, so I didn’t know what to expect.”

“That makes sense.  Are we getting the chem midterm back today?”

“I think so.  I don’t think I did very well on this one.  At least not as well as I usually do.”

In Chemistry 2B, the TA passed back the midterms and took time in the discussion to answer questions about the midterm.  It was not like Physics 9A, where I had to get my own test paper off of a shelf. A few minutes after class started, the TA began passing back the midterms.  I nervously looked at mine when I got it.

86, out of 100.

Not bad like that physics midterm from a few weeks earlier, but not as well as I usually do.  I was a little disappointed in myself, but not panicking.

Marissa got her midterm back shortly after I did.  She looked through it excitedly. “This is the best I’ve ever done on a chem midterm!” she said.

“Mine was the worst for me.  But good job.”

“I got 86!  What did you get?”

My brain took a second to process what I had just heard.  This certainly put things in perspective. “86,” I said sheepishly.

“Really?” Marissa asked.  I showed her my midterm. “My best score is your worst score.  That’s kind of sad.”

“No it isn’t,” I said.  “It puts things in perspective.  Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about always being perfect.”

“You really shouldn’t.  86 isn’t bad. And you’re still going to ace the final, probably.”

“I don’t know.  We’ll see. But you’re right.  86 isn’t bad. Good job.”

“You too.”

 

I had one more class later that day, and when that was done, I got back to the dorm shortly after 2:00.  The chalkboard in the stairwell still said COMMUNITY ASSESSMENT MEETING. The resident advisers, Gurpreet and Amy, had not erased this announcement yet.  The meeting was two days ago; we had discussed how things had been going, and Gurpreet and Amy had given us information about procedures for moving out, which we would be doing in four weeks.

I sat down to check email, and I started to nod off while I was reading, so I turned off the computer and lay down for a nap.  The fire alarm and evacuation last night had thrown off my sleeping, and I had had trouble staying awake in both of my classes.  I was done for the day, though, and although I had math homework due tomorrow, I was in no shape to do it now. I closed my eyes and drifted off.

When I woke up, I could tell that I had been asleep.  I checked my watch; it was almost 4:00. The sun was out, and it was fairly warm today.  I had been wearing jeans this morning, but by now it was warm enough to wear shorts. It felt like a good day to be outside.

After I changed into shorts, I got on my bike.  I headed south toward the Arboretum and the Lodge, then I turned east toward the law school and Marks Hall.  I had done this bike ride several other times in my year at UJ. The long, narrow, park-like Arboretum, following a dry creek bed which had been converted into a very long lake, was a peaceful oasis in the middle of a busy campus.  Just past Marks Hall, a large grassy area sloped gently down to the waterway, which widened into a more lake-like shape, and I saw several students lying on the grass reading. I was not the only one who felt like being outside today, apparently.

Near the east end of the Arboretum, I turned on a path that led to the intersection of First and B Streets downtown.  I continued north on B Street, past Central Park and through an old residential neighborhood. This was all familiar territory; I had done this ride a few times before and driven parts of B Street in the car.

B Street ended at the intersection with 15th Street.  In front of me was Jeromeville Community Park, the largest park in the city, which bordered the Veterans Memorial Hall, the public library, a public pool, Jeromeville High School, an elementary school, and the Jeromeville Arts Center.  The Veterans Memorial Hall was visible in front of me along 15th Street, with a bike path to its left. I had never noticed that path before. I crossed the street and continued north on that path.

I rode past Veterans Memorial Hall and the public swimming pool on my right, with part of the parking lot for the high school on my left.  Behind this I rode past tennis courts and soccer and baseball fields. I could see ahead that this path led to an overpass crossing Coventry Boulevard.  I had driven under that overpass before, but I never knew anything about the path on top, where it came from or where it led.

On the other side of the overpass, north of Coventry Boulevard, the path led down into a park.  I saw backs of homes and yards and apartment buildings, and streets adjoining the park on the left and the right.  A number of short paths led to adjoining streets, one leading back to Coventry Boulevard. The path I rode on continued north, and I also noticed a long path to the west which, like the one I was on, continued for some distance instead of ending at a street.  A sign attached to a lamppost said “COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 8.”

I chose to continue north.  I rode past grassy areas and many different kinds of trees, past a playground and tennis courts.  The path turned to the right and then left again, outside of the park and into a very different landscape.  The path was straight, with a large vacant lot on the left, and on the right, fences separating the path from backyards and short paths branching off to the ends of culs-de-sac connected to some unseen street to the east.

After three such paths leading to other streets, the path I was on crossed a street at a crosswalk.  On the other side of the street, fenced backs of yards and paths branching to other streets now lined both sides of the path, with a thin strip of landscaping on either side of the path.  I had never seen a neighborhood like this before, with dead-end streets connecting to a continuous bicycle and pedestrian path. Jeromeville advertises itself as being a bicycle-friendly community, and apparently in Jeromeville this slogan means more than just bike lanes on major streets and parts of the university campus being closed to cars.  This part of Jeromeville, a fairly new subdivision, seemed to be constructed entirely around bicycle travel.

About a quarter mile after I crossed that street, the bicycle path entered another large park.  This one had a small playground to the left of the path, with soccer fields beyond. On my right, to the east, was a pond, with rushes and reeds and bushes growing along its shore.  A boardwalk extended about a hundred feet to the right, with some kind of informational sign at the end, probably about wildlife or plants or something like that. Straight ahead of me was another smaller pond, and the path curved to the right between the two ponds. I continued along the path as it curved northeast, then abruptly ended at a street, with the northern tip of the large pond to my right, an office building to my left, and a residential neighborhood across the street straight ahead from me.

I looked at the name on the street sign across from me.  This was the corner of Salmon Drive and Andrews Road. I knew where I was now.

Andrews Road is a major street running north-south on the UJ campus and in west-central Jeromeville, parallel to Highway 117 about half a mile east.  In the northernmost part of the city of Jeromeville, Andrews Road curves through recently constructed residential areas onto a more east-west route, ending at G Street a couple hundred feet to the right of where I was now.  I was very close to the northernmost point of the city of Jeromeville, where the geography changes from residential neighborhoods to the flat farmland that Arroyo Verde County is known for.

I turned around and headed back to the small playground on the other side of the ponds, but instead of going back the way I came, I rode to the west along the soccer fields.  A sign called this part of the path COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 3. I had seen other signs like this along the path I had ridden, the numbers changing each time. I was, and still am to this day, unsure if the numbers have a pattern or what they mean.

At the end of this path, I turned south on another path, through more numbered areas of the Coventry Greenbelt, again with fences separating me from backyards on both sides.  I crossed a street, and the greenbelt widened, with the houses on either side of me farther apart. The path curved a bit. I saw a statue of a dog near the sign saying that I was in COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 5. I rode through grassy areas spotted with trees, continuing south.  Another path and greenbelt branched off to my right, and as I passed a playground, yet another path and greenbelt branched off to my left. I continued south, into a thick grove of pine trees, the ground covered with dead needles. I made a mental note that I had a lot more exploring to do in the future, to figure out where those other paths went.

I entered a tunnel under a street and emerged at Coventry Boulevard, where the pine trees suddenly cleared.  I knew this must be Coventry Boulevard. I was pretty sure there were no other four-lane divided streets in this part of Jeromeville.  And if this was Coventry Boulevard, the tunnel I just emerged from must have crossed under Alvarez Avenue. My apartment for next year was on Alvarez Avenue, but farther west, to my right.

I turned right on Coventry and left on Andrews Road, back toward campus.  When I got back to Building C, about ten minutes after emerging from the tunnel, I locked my bike and entered the building from the back, into the stairwell across from the lobby.  Someone had changed the announcement about the COMMUNITY ASSESSMENT MEETING by selectively erasing letters. It now said COMMUNITY ASS EETING. I laughed out loud.

“Greg!” I heard a voice say.  “What’s so funny?”

I looked down.  Sarah Winters, who had asked the question, and Krista Curtis were sitting on the stairs talking.  One of the quirks of university dormitory culture is that people can sit and socialize just about anywhere.  Sometimes that was annoying, as I discovered two months ago when I was awakened from my sleep, but other times, like now, it gave me socializing opportunities that rarely ever happened at any other point in my life.

I pointed at COMMUNITY ASS EETING on the chalkboard.  Sarah groaned, and Krista rolled her eyes.

“You’re all sweaty!” Krista said.

“I was on a bike ride.”  I looked at my watch. “I’ve been gone for about 45 minutes.”

“Wow!  Where’d you go?”

“Through the Arboretum to downtown, then up B Street to that park by the high school.  There’s a path that crosses over Coventry Boulevard and leads to a greenbelt. Like a bunch of interconnected parks behind the neighborhoods in North Jeromeville.”

“Cool!”

“I’ve heard about the greenbelts,” Sarah said.  “I’ve never been there, though. Was it nice?”

“Yeah.  And it’s a great day to be outside.  I love this weather.”

“I know!  It feels like summer!”

“I have four weeks left to enjoy this weather.  And now I have a new place to explore on my bike.”

“What do you mean, four weeks?” Krista asked.

“After that I’m going home for the summer.”

“Why can’t you enjoy summer at home?”

“Plumdale doesn’t have this weather.  We get coastal fog at night sometimes, and it doesn’t burn off until around noon.  And it doesn’t get as hot as it does here.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It’s hard to believe we’re almost done with the school year,” Sarah said.

“I know,” I replied.  “It seemed to go by fast.”

“Are you looking forward to summer?”

“I’m not sure.  I’m looking forward to no classes, but I’m going to miss all of you guys.”

“Me too!  You’ll have to write to me.”

“I will.  I hope to write a lot of letters this summer.  I’ll try to get email over the summer too.”

“I won’t have email at home,” Sarah said.

“Me either,” Krista added.

“I feel really sweaty and stinky,” I said.

“Eww!” Sarah replied, laughing jokingly.

“I’m going to go upstairs and take a shower.  I’ll see you guys later.”

“We’ll probably be going to dinner around 6.  Want to come with us?” Krista asked.

“Sure!”

 

That day changed my life, to some extent.  I went for several more bike rides in the Coventry Greenbelt and other adjacent greenbelts and parks over the next few weeks, exploring more of North Jeromeville.  I found a greenbelt in West Jeromeville about a week later, and one in South Jeromeville shortly after I moved back sophomore year. Today, a quarter-century later, I have never gotten out of the habit of exploring on my bike.  When I was in my early 30s, I once told someone about a 25-mile bike ride I had done one Saturday. My friend asked me how I got into cycling, and I said it just kind of happened by default when I lived in Jeromeville, and I never really stopped.  I did not ride my bike very far when I was growing up in Plumdale, because Plumdale is hilly and can be cold at times. This is not exactly the best environment for cycling. It turned out that the upcoming summer of 1995 was the last summer in which I would spend the majority of the time in Plumdale, although that was not entirely related to weather or cycling.

I currently live in the suburbs south of Capital City.  There are a few greenbelts around here, but not an extensive network of them like I found in Jeromeville.  (Of course, Jeromevillians pay higher property taxes as a result, so there’s that.) I still do a lot of exploring on my bicycle.  Once every year, I return to my cycling roots, riding my bike 28 miles from my house across the Drawbridge to Central Park in Jeromeville, where I take a break to eat the lunch I packed.  After resting for a while, I continue riding around Jeromeville, riding through some of the greenbelts, as well as part of the Arboretum and my happy place along Hawkins Road. By mid-afternoon, my clothes are covered in salt left behind by dried sweat, my butt hurts, and I am exhausted, so I then take my bike on a bus to Capital City and on another bus back to my own neighborhood.  My total distance for the day on one of these trips totals between 50 and 55 miles.

My bike isn’t anything fancy or expensive.  For that matter, my bike isn’t the same bike I had on that day when I first explored the Coventry Greenbelt; I got a new bike in 1999 and another one in 2008, when the previous bikes broke beyond repair.  And I’m not in great physical shape; I love junk food too much for that.  But cycling has provided hundreds of hours and thousands of miles of outdoor recreation for me over the years. I’m writing this in January of 2020; it is cold, and I haven’t been on my bike in a few days. I don’t ride much this time of year, but I really need to. Maybe I’ll get to do that this weekend.

greenbeltCoventry Greenbelt Area 5, taken in 2016 the first time I rode my bike from South Capital County to Jeromeville.