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

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

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

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

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

“How was the drive?”

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“Hi,” I replied. 

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Jenn said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Barn?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not sure exactly.”

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

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

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

“Intramurals?”

“Yeah.  Jenn does that for volleyball.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Renee asked.

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

“I think I’ll do that,” I replied.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I replied.

“So then you also know Anthony?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Still!  Three hours!”

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

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

“Good.”

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

“Well tell him I said hi.”

“I will!”

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

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

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

“Not until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Where is Marisol today?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gaaaahhh!” I screamed.

“Are you okay?” Renee asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

“Yeah,” Jenn replied.

“You too,” Nicole said.

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

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

 

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

I locked my bike outside Wellington Hall and walked down the hall, joining about five other people waiting outside room 109 for the 9:00 Math 22A class.  Another class met in this room at 8:00, and I always arrived early enough that the other class had not been dismissed yet.  I learned the hard way on the first day of class not to open the door this early.

“Hey, Greg,” Jack Chalmers said.  I knew Jack from last year; we had had two classes together, and we lived in nearby dorms and ate at the same dining commons.

“Hi,” I said.

“Finding inverses of matrices is hard!” Jack exclaimed, speaking quickly and eliding syllables here and there, as he normally did, but I understood what he was saying.  “The homework took me forever!”

“I know.  It seems like there should be an easier way.  Maybe we’ll learn one later.”

As Jack continued, I became aware of the classroom emptying.  “I just hope every assignment in this class isn’t gonna be that long.  I’m already pretty busy this quarter.  Hey, Lizzie.”

“Hey, what happened last night?” a girl leaving the classroom asked Jack.  I recognized Lizzie, because I had seen Jack say hi to her before as we waited for her class to finish and ours to start.  Lizzie was fairly short, with brown eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail.

“I had so much homework!” Jack told Lizzie.

“That’s too bad,” Lizzie replied.  “Hopefully I’ll see you this weekend?”

“Yeah.”

Lizzie looked at me for a second before she turned to walk away.  “Bye,” I said, waving, even though I did not know Lizzie at all beyond always seeing her leave this class, and I had no idea what plans Jack had missed out on.

“Bye,” she replied, smiling.

I walked into the room along with Jack and the others waiting for our math class.  I spent the next hour listening to the instructor, a curly-haired man named Anton, explain properties of matrices and their inverses.  Anton demonstrated how to prove the invertibility of a matrix, in his usual broken English.  He told us to call him Anton; I was not sure if this was because his last name was difficult for English-speakers, or because calling professors by first name was the norm in his home country.  I never did figure out exactly which country this was.

As soon as math class finished, I crossed West Quad Avenue and walked to the far end of the Memorial Union building, near the campus bookstore, to a stairway leading down.  The basement of this building contained a game room with 16 lanes of bowling, along with pool tables, pinball machines, and coin-operated video games.  Here at the University of Jeromeville, students got two appointments to register for classes, three weeks apart, using an automated telephone system.  On the first appointment, students may only register for up to thirteen and one-half units, enough to be classified as a full time student, but limited so that not all classes fill up before everyone has had a chance to register.  I registered for bowling and weight training just to make sure I had enough classes, intending to drop these once I added chemistry on the second pass, but I ended up keeping bowling and only dropping weight training.

Today, the bowling coach, Frank White, demonstrated the proper release of the ball, with a flick of the wrist giving the ball a bit of spin.  We began learning this last time, on Monday, and I was terrible at it.  My mind began to wander, and I spent a few minutes starting at a plaque on the wall with names of everyone who bowled a perfect game on these lanes.  So far, there were eight perfect games.  This was the fourth time bowling class had met this year, and I had been bowling down here a few times last year, but today one of those names jumped out at me that I had never noticed before.

FRANK WHITE
4/29/89

Frank White was my instructor, the man standing here in front of me explaining how to release the ball.  Apparently he bowled a perfect game here six years ago.  That was quite an accomplishment.  I watched carefully, paying close attention to what he was doing.  By the end of class, though, it seemed like my technique was worse than ever.  I had not bowled this many gutter balls since I was a child.

I had an hour between bowling and chemistry lecture, which I used to work on the new math assignment due Friday.  After chemistry, I had another hour before physics lecture; I spent it sitting on the Quad, eating the lunch I packed and reading the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt.  After physics, I returned to Wellington, where my math class had been in the morning.  Room 102 was a large study room, with a row of comfortable chairs, and six cubicles each containing a table and a small chalkboard.  A few students sat quietly in the chairs, and two students worked together in one of the cubicles.  I noticed the cubicles had signs with numbers on them.  Four other signs placed in prominent places around the room announced that These cubicles may be reserved by the Learning Skills Center.

That was me.  This was my first day on the job for the Learning Skills Center.  I walked to table 3, where two students named Yesenia Fonseca and Kevin Dunnigan were assigned to meet me.  A short girl with olive skin and long brown hair most of the way down her back sat at the table.  I wondered if she was waiting for me, or if she just sat there not knowing that the table was reserved.

“Are you Yesenia?” I asked.

The girl’s face lit up.  “Yeah!” she exclaimed enthusiastically.  “You’re my tutor?”

“Yes.  I’m Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!  Is it just us or will there be a group?”

“There’s one other person signed up, a guy named Kevin Dunnigan.  Do you know him?”

“No,” she said.   “But he might be in my class.  It’s a huge class.”

“I think usually they put students together from the same class, so he probably is,” I explained.  Yesenia and Kevin were taking Math 21A, the beginning quarter of calculus.  Students who begin calculus fall quarter get a large lecture hall class..  I skipped a quarter since I had taken the Advanced Placement test in high school, so I started fall of my freshman year in 21B, and since fewer students take 21B in the fall compared to 21A, my classes were smaller.

“We can wait a few minutes to get started, see if Kevin comes,” I said.  “It’s early.”

“How does this work?”

“Honestly, I’m not really sure,” I said.  “This is my first time tutoring, ever.  I think I just answer any questions you have about anything you’ve been going over in class.  Or we can work on stuff from your homework.  You can do it while I’m here, so you can ask for help if you need to.”

“That sounds good.  So what year are you?”

“I’m a sophomore,” I said.

“I’m a freshman.”  Yesenia smiled apologetically, as if to say that she knew that freshmen were traditionally on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  I did not care that she was a freshman.

“How do you like Jeromeville so far?” I asked.

“I love it!  I’ve already made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Good.  Which dorm?”

“South Area.  Building C.”

“Building C!” I exclaimed.  “I was in Building C last year!”

The IHP!”

“Yes!  I loved it too!  I felt like the IHP gave me a smaller community within the large university.”

“That’s a great way of describing it.”

 A boy with dark hair and an athletic build approached our table, looking at a sheet of paper on which he had written something.  “Are you Greg?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Kevin?”

“Yeah.  You’re my tutor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  Kevin Dunnigan did not look like what I expected of someone with an Irish-sounding name; I wondered from his appearance if his mother was Asian.  “Do you two know each other?”

“No,” Kevin said.

“I’m Yesenia,” Yesenia said, extending her hand.  “I think I’ve seen you in class.  10:00 with Dr. Hong?”

“Yeah.”

I spent the next fifty minutes working with Yesenia and Kevin, talking about limits of functions and how to calculate them.  This was the class that I had skipped; I had not technically taken it before.  I was familiar with most of what they were doing, of course, but one question on their assignment involved the epsilon-delta proof of finding the limit of a function.  My calculus class at Plumdale High did not go that in depth.  However, I was able to figure it out; I had done enough similar problems in other classes since then.

“It’s about time to wrap up,” I said at the end of the session.  “Any other questions before we leave?”

“I’m starting to understand this a lot better,” Kevin replied.

“Me too,” Yesenia added.  “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “See you guys next week?”

“Yeah!

 

It was almost 4:30 by the time I finally got home.  I spent some time on the computer catching up on emails, and I put a frozen pot pie in the oven for dinner.  I still had to do my pre-lab for physics tomorrow.  But my night was not over yet, because it was Wednesday, and I had choir practice at church.  Last week was the first time I had ever sung at church, and one of the others in the group, Heather Escamilla, had mentioned carpooling since we were neighbors in the same apartment complex.  At 6:40 that night, after eating the pot pie and writing my pre-lab, I walked to Heather’s apartment and knocked on the door.

“Hey, Greg,” Heather said, opening the door.  I could see a guy with long brown hair inside the apartment, sitting at a computer typing; he looked up at me.  “This is my boyfriend, Gary,” Heather said.

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” Gary replied.

“You ready?” Heather asked.

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

Heather locked the door behind her, and I followed her to her car, a Jeep Cherokee.  The way Gary sat at the computer made me wonder if he and Heather lived together.  Being Catholic, there was all that stuff about fornication and adultery and things like that which suggested that it was wrong for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together.  Maybe they lived together in separate bedrooms.  It was none of my business, so I did not ask.  On the way to the church, I told Heather about my first day of tutoring, and she told me about the midterm she had in the morning that she would be up late studying for.

When we arrived, I noticed that Danielle was there with her sister, Carly, a freshman.  I had met Carly twice before, once at church this year and once last year when Danielle’s family came to visit her in the dorm.  I thought it was interesting that Carly was singing too.  Danielle had told me over the summer that Carly was coming to Jeromeville, and Danielle was a little bit upset that Carly had chosen the same major and was in one of the same classes as her.  And now Carly was following her big sister to choir at the Newman Center.  I hoped that there was no drama going on with them.

“Hi, Greg,” Danielle said.  “You remember my sister, Carly?”

“Yeah.  Good to see you again.”

“You too,” Carly replied.  Carly was a few inches taller and somewhat thinner than Danielle, with straight brown hair.  They did not look very much alike, but considering that my brother Mark does not look like me, I no longer found it surprising when siblings did not look alike.  For as much as Danielle was a good friend, I had to admit that Carly was better looking.  I wondered if, growing up, Carly got more attention from boys, and if this had been part of the reason Danielle felt uneasy about Carly being in the same major and one of Danielle’s classes.

A few minutes later, Claire, a junior who seemed somewhat to be in charge of things, gave us all a stack of papers.  It was an address and phone list of all of us doing music at 11:00 Mass.  I scanned the list to make sure that my information was correct; it was.  I read through the other names.  I recognized some of the names.  Danielle Coronado.  Carly Coronado.  Matt Jones.  Heather Escamilla.  Some of the last names were unfamiliar to me, because I had only met these people by first name last week.  Claire Seaver.  Sabrina Murpy.  That was an unusual last name; I wondered if it was a typo and her name was actually Murphy.  (It was, I would learn later.)  I continued reading.  Phil Gallo.  Ryan Gambrell.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through my body, and I did a double take and read the name again.  My brain made a flurry of connections between things said a year ago and things said last week.  Matt said last week that Ryan was his friend from high school.  Matt went to St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, so Ryan also went to St. Luke’s.  Right near where I grew up.  I looked at Ryan, now seeing his mysteriously familiar toothy smile with new eyes.

“Ryan Gambrell,” I said.

“Yeah?” Ryan replied.

You’re Annie’s brother.”

Ryan looked confused for a second, then surprised; clearly he was not expecting me to say that.  “Yes,” he said.  “How do you know my sister?”

“I went to Plumdale High.  A class I was in and a class she was in did a project together my senior year, her sophomore year.  And now I remember I told her I was going to Jeromeville, and she said her brother goes there.”

“How funny.  Small world.”

“Tell her I said hi.”  I wanted to tell Annie so much more than hi.  I wanted to tell her all about how I was doing here.  I wanted to know where she was applying to school, since she was a senior this year.  I wondered what to make of the fact that she was always so nice to me when I was a senior, and she wrote something really nice in the back of my yearbook, but she had not stayed in touch at all.  I wanted to tell her to come visit me if she ever came up here to visit Ryan or to tour the campus.  And I was curious if she and her boyfriend were still together, because as long as they were, all these feelings I had felt wrong and forbidden.

“I will,” Ryan said.

Choir practice continued uneventfully for the rest of the night.  One song I did not know well, but I figured it out fairly quickly and felt that I would be able to sing it with everyone else in front of the congregation on Sunday morning.  On the way home, in Heather’s Jeep, I mentioned to her about knowing Ryan’s sister from high school.

“Whoa,” Heather said.  “It’s weird how that kind of thing happens.”

“I know.”

“Gary told me once he was in Capital City, and he ran into this guy he knew from when he used to live in Arizona as a kid.”

“Wow.  That’s even crazier.”

I got home and listened to music while I opened an IRC chat on the computer; although I was messaging a girl on there, I could not stop thinking about Annie Gambrell.  I wondered if I would ever see her again.  Even though she had not written to me, I had a connection with her again, in that I knew her brother.  But I also felt that this crush was one I needed to keep secret, because the entire time I knew her in person, she had a boyfriend.  Annie’s boyfriend was one of the popular guys from the class a year older than her and a year younger than me.

In the time that I knew Ryan, I ended up not talking to him much about Annie.  Annie was off limits.  Most of the best girls were off limits.  It was not my place in life to be romantically involved with the popular girls.  The concept of high school popularity does not carry over to the culture of a large university, but still felt, deep down inside, that I probably did not have much of a shot with friendly and attractive girls here either.

 

 

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.  My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments.  It was a Tuesday morning.  About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today.  A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City.  Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible.  After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.

My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

A few of my classmates gasped.  This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected.  O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend.  For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy.  All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted.  To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.

When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building.  A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad.  A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore.  A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk.  Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.

i will argue table

Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything.  Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “Thanks for signing up to work today.”

“No problem,” I said.  “So what do I do?  Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”

“Yes.  Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets.  “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”

“I can do that,” I said.  I looked through one of the pamphlets.  It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman.  The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.

A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign.  “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Can I help you?”

“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.

“We are the Newman Center.  We are a Catholic student community.  We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”

I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it.  I was curious what made him stop at our table.  Does he come from a Catholic background?  Is he just interested in Catholicism?  Was he just being friendly?  I did not ask.  I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.

“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.

“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.

“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

“No.  I have physics lab at 2.  I had chemistry lab this morning.”

“Two labs on the same day.”

“Yeah.  That’s all I have today.  This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict.  I thought that was kind of funny.”

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

“Yeah.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely.  I’m just sick of hearing about it.”

“I know what you mean.”

Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair.  “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet.  “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages.  “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”

“There is also St. John’s.  They are a more traditional Catholic parish.  The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Would you like to sign up for our contact list?  We can send you more information.”

“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Have a great day.”

“You too!”

“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off.  “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”

“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing.  I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”

“Good for you!  I think you’ll love it.”

“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people.  But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo.  And I need to get more involved in things.  I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”

“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice?  You two know each other besides just church, right?”

“Yes.  She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”

“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”

“Thank you.”

 

The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road.  I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th.  I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.

“Greg!” Danielle called out.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.

“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater.  I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well.  “Danielle told me you would be coming.  We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week.  Grab a songbook.”

I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass.  I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones.  He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home.  He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.

There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble.  The others introduced themselves to Phil and me.  There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina.  An olive-skinned girl named Heather.  A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together.  And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students.  Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past.  Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.

Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass.  Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings.  In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together.  The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service.  When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics.  The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.

The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts.  For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing.  Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman.  “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.”  “We used to sing it at my church back home.”

“Mine too,” Danielle replied.  “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”

After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” she asked.  “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas.  Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this.  Was she stalking me?  Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?

“I do too.  Might you be interested in carpooling?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of.  Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary. 

“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number.  And my apartment number.”

“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays?  Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”

“Sure.  We can do Sundays too.”  Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me.  Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239.  I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.

“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked.  “Want me to drive?”

“Sure!”

 

The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass.  I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.

“Hey,” I said after opening the door.  “You ready?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Which car is yours?”

“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment.  “Well, technically not mine.  My parents own it.  You know.”

“Yeah.”  As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from?  Are your parents around here?”

“No.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  How far is that from here?”

“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”

“That’s not bad.  I’m from down south, near San Angelo.  On a good day it takes six hours.”

“Sounds right.  What year are you, and what are you studying?”

“I’m a junior.  Psych major.  And you’re a sophomore?  Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”

“Yeah.  She lived one door down across the hall from me.  And I’m a math major.”

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

“I’m sure they do.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, but it was boring.  Went for a bike ride yesterday.”  I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.

“That sounds nice,” Heather said.  “Mel and I were at a party on Friday.  It was, well, interesting.  You know.”

“Mel?”

“Melanie.  From choir.  You met her on Wednesday.”

“Oh, okay.  I still don’t know everyone.”

When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty.  The early service had left already.  We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music.  Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived.  “You ready?”

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be.  Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat.  You’ll be fine.”

Danielle was right.  I just sang, and it was fine.  We sounded good.  There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be.  The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song.  Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.

“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Great!  I’ll see you Wednesday then.”

“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather.  She was talking to Melanie.  After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.

I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely.  With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year.  That meant it was time to get involved in more activities.  With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.

After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor.  Songs get stuck in my head easily.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says.  Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord.  Maybe he finally heard me.  Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends.  And in the process, I was serving my community.  Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.

 

 

 

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That makes sense.”

“You ready to eat?”

“Sure!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“That makes sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Makes sense.”

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

“Nice.  How was that?”

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

“That’s good.”

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

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

“But it’s over now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem.  You’re doing your job.”

“So are you glad school is starting?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, that’s right.”

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

“Why do you say that?”

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

“Yeah.”

“I’ll follow you that far.”

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

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

“Have a great first week.”

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

“Yes,” I replied.  “Take care.”

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

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

Just not entirely in the ways I expected.

September 25, 1995.  The week that students were back on campus.

I checked my email as I ate my bowl of cereal, and I gasped as I finally saw the message I had been waiting a month to receive.


From: “Megan McCauley” <mlmccauley@jeromeville.edu>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Sun, 24 Sep 1995 22:44 -0700
Subject: Re: hi

Greg!! I’m so sorry it took so long for me to get back to you!  The class I was taking was so much work, and I was busy all the time, and then once that ended, we had RA training and orientation all last week.  And my residents moved in yesterday… it’s been a whirlwind!  I’m in Carter this year, in the North Area.  How was the rest of your summer?  Are you all moved back here?

Do you want to meet for lunch at the DC sometime this week?  The RA meal plan lets you have guests a certain number of times each month.  I’m usually free around lunch time, so I can work around your schedule.  Let me know.  What classes are you taking this quarter?  See you soon!

Megan


 

I felt so relieved to know that Megan was not ignoring me for the last month.  She was just really busy.  And now she wanted to have lunch with me.  Sure, the dining commons was not exactly the most glamorous place to meet someone for lunch, but I did not care one bit.  Last year, living in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program dorm gave me a built-in community, but I had no such community this year, living alone in an apartment a mile from campus.  Maybe this would be a better week than the rest of September, now that school was about to start and students were moving back.  Hopefully this was the end of the lonely bike rides and Internet chats that had dominated the last three weeks.

I clicked Reply to answer Megan’s message.


It’s good to hear from you!  I’ve been up here for three weeks.  I was getting bored at home and I needed a change.  I’m ready for school to start now.

How about tomorrow (Tuesday) at noon for lunch?  Does that work?  I’ll see you then!


 

After a few hours of procrastination, chatting on IRC and reading some of the Usenet groups I still follow, I grabbed my backpack and left the apartment around 11:00.  I had things to do today.  I rode to campus the usual way, south down Andrews Road.  Just past Coventry Boulevard, I saw a thin, average height girl with straight medium brown hair approaching me.  I  recognized her off in the distance, and as I approached her, I stopped my bike next to her.

“Hey, Liz,” I said.

Liz looked up at me, clearly not expecting to be addressed by anyone.  “Greg!” she said.  “Hi!  How’s it going?”

“Pretty good.  I’ve been up here bored for the last three weeks, because it’s better than being bored at home. I’ve been going on a lot of bike rides.”

“That sounds nice!”

“How are you?  How was the rest of your summer?”

“Great!  Last week we had Outreach Camp for JCF–”

“Oh, yeah.  Sarah wrote to me and told me about that.  What’s that like?”

“We spend a week in the mountains studying the Bible and planning our activities for the start of the school year.  It was so good.  It was good seeing everyone again.  Hey, you should come to large group.”

“Maybe.”

“Did you ever come last year?”

“No, but I heard you guys talk about it.”

“Every Friday night, in 170 Evans.  We have a worship time, sing songs, then hear a talk about something from the Bible.  And usually people hang out afterward.  I think you’d like it.”

I let that comment linger for a few seconds, nodding.  “You guys live right around the corner, right?”

“Yeah.  Hampton Place.”  Liz pointed east across the street, in the general direction of her apartment.  “Caroline and I, and then Ramon and Jason are right downstairs from us.  Come visit any time!”

“I will.  You can too.  I’m in Las Casas on Alvarez.”  I pointed behind me, in the general direction of my apartment.

“Yeah!  I need to get going, but it was good seeing you!”

“Hey,” I asked, a little nervously, “what’s your phone number?  Just so I know how to reach everyone.”

“Sure!  Do you have something I can write with?”  Liz asked.  I reached around in my backpack and pulled out a pen and piece of paper.  Liz wrote down her phone number along with that of the guys downstairs.

“Thanks!” I said.  I tore off a corner of the paper and wrote my phone number and gave it to her.  “Here’s mine too.”

“It was good seeing you!  Have a great day!”

“You too!”

I continued riding down Andrews Road.  Liz Williams and her roommate and neighbors were all friends from my dorm last year.  She lived across the hall from me one room to the left, and Caroline Pearson, her roommate this year, lived across the hall from me one room to the right.  Jason Costello lived right across from Liz, next to me, and Ramon Quintero, Liz’s boyfriend, lived upstairs at the opposite end of the building.  Liz had written to me once and Caroline had twice over the summer.

I passed Jeromeville Covenant Church on my bike.  Some of my friends from the dorm, including these four, attended church there.  I knew that they were also involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, the local chapter of an international organization called Intervarsity.  JCF did a weekly large group meeting, small group Bible studies, and retreats a couple times each year, like the one that Liz had been to last week.  This was not the first time I had been invited to the JCF large group.  Everyone I knew from JCF seemed nice, but I grew up Catholic, and I was unsure of what to expect from other Christians.  Some of them sounded kind of weird to me.  And some Catholics and Protestants still like to claim superiority over the other group, although my mother, the primary churchgoer in our family, was not like that at all.

When I got to Fifth Street, the boundary between the city of Jeromeville and campus, I turned left, then turned right on a bike path through the North Residential Area.  The North Area had two distinct sections: four five-story high-rises, and the dining commons where I would be meeting Megan McCauley for lunch tomorrow, to my right, and seven smaller two- and three-story buildings, each comparable in size to the buildings of the South Area where I lived last year, to my left.  Megan was a resident advisor in Carter Hall, one of the smaller buildings.

At the end of this path, I turned left, toward the Quad and the Memorial Union.  Next to the Quad stood the two oldest surviving buildings on campus, simply called Old North Hall and Old South Hall.  They were built as dormitories in 1911, but as the campus grew, those two buildings, now located in the core area of a large campus, were remodeled into office buildings as new dormitories were built at the west end of the core campus.  Today, Old North and Old South housed a number of student services.

In the basement of Old North was a room full of bulletin boards containing postings of on-campus student jobs.  I was growing up, and I needed to take more responsibility for my life.  I felt bad that my parents were spending so much money for me to have my own apartment when I was too oblivious last year to notice that I needed to make living arrangements and too scared to answer an advertisement looking for a roommate.  No one was making me look for a job, but I wanted one.  I read dozens of job announcements.  Desk jobs.  Cashiers.  Food service jobs in the dining commons.  Hosts for conventions held by the university.  All of them were titled “Student Assistant” with some Roman numeral after them, probably for legal reasons; I never did learn what the Roman numeral meant.  I supposed I could probably handle a desk job, or a cashier position after my summer job at Books & More.  But then I saw something more suited for me.

STUDENT ASSISTANT IV – TUTORING

Tutors needed for math, English, biology, chemistry, history, more.  Meet with small groups of students weekly.  Good academic record or professor recommendation required.  $10/hr.  Contact Albert Wilkins 555-0177 or visit Learning Skills Center – 201 Krueger

I certainly had a good academic record; I had straight As except for one A-minus in a class unrelated to my major of mathematics.  I could get paid ten dollars an hour to do math, and I would not have to go out and find students like the private tutors whose flyers I see all over campus, since they would be assigned to me by the Learning Skills Center.  Math was easy for me.  This sounded like the perfect job.  I took an application and wrote down the information.  I also wrote down information for a cashier job at the campus store, so I would have another option in case tutoring did not work out.

After eating lunch at the Tex-Mex Grill inside the MU, I walked to the campus store.  General interest books, school supplies, and clothing were on the ground floor, and in the middle of the store a wide stairway led down to the basement, where textbooks were sold.  As I feared, the store was crowded, because classes began in a few days, but I had nothing to do all day, and I needed to buy books.  I headed toward the stairs to the basement, walking past a line of people waiting to buy things on the ground floor, when I saw a round-faced Asian girl with dark chin-length hair in line, and I realized I knew her.

“Tabitha,” I said, stopping in front of the girl.

Tabitha looked up at me and paused.  “Greg,” she said.  “How are you?”

“Doing pretty well,” I replied.  Last year, Tabitha had lived in the dorm next to mine.  I often saw her around the dining commons, and she was friends with several people in my building because they were in a Bible study together with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  “How was your summer?” I asked.

“It was good.  I was just back home in San Tomas.  And I went on a retreat last weekend.  How was yours?”

“I was working in a bookstore.  Nothing too exciting.  Was that retreat for JCF?  I saw Liz Williams earlier today, and she told me it was good.”

“It was!  It was inspiring.  Are you here to get your textbooks?”

“Yeah.  It looks like it’ll be pretty crowded down there.”

“Good luck.  I was just down there earlier today.  And I might need another book later, depending on if I get into a class I’m on the wait list for.”

“Thanks.  It was good seeing you again.”

“You too!”

I stopped myself just before I walked downstairs.  “Hey,” I said to Tabitha, “can I get your phone number?  I’m just trying to stay in touch with everyone this year, now that I won’t see people at the DC or in the dorm.”

Tabitha looked confused for a minute, then she said, “Sure!”  I tore a scrap of paper out of a notebook in my backpack, and she wrote her phone number on it.  I tore off another scrap and wrote my number on it, and gave it to her.  “Here’s mine, if you want.”

“Thanks!” Tabitha replied.  “Have a great day!”

“You too!”

A few minutes later, as I walked up and down the aisles of textbooks in the basement looking for the books I needed, weaving past other customers and the line that wrapped from the cash register all the way around the room, I thought about Tabitha’s reaction to me asking for her phone number.  I wondered if she thought I was weird for asking.  She was not a complete stranger, true, but Liz did not have the same confused look earlier when I asked her.  This was probably because Tabitha and I were nearly as close as I was with Liz and the others at Hampton Place.  I was not specifically trying to ask Tabitha on a date or anything; I really was just trying to make sure I could stay in touch with everyone I knew last year.  Of course, if something were to happen between me and any of these female friends, I would not necessarily be inherently opposed to it.

When I was ready to pay for my books, I went to what appeared to be the end of the line.  “Is this the end of the line?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the girl who I assumed to be last in line.

“Looks like we’ll be here a while,” I continued.  “I’m not doing anything the rest of the day, though.”

“That’s good.”  The girl in front of me was short, with bushy blonde hair and glasses.  She wore overalls and white shoes, and she had a blue backpack.

“That math book you have.  ‘Short Calculus.’  Is that 16 series?”

“Yeah.”

“I was wondering because I might be working as a tutor with the Learning Skills Center, and I took the 21 series, so if I have to tutor 16 I won’t know their book.  But if I’ve done 21 I should be able to help with anything you learn in 16.”

“Probably,” she said.  “What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“That’s cool.  You want to be a teacher?”

“Probably not.  I just need a job this quarter, and I’d probably be good at tutoring.  I was always good at math, and my friends in high school always asked me for help.”

“That’s awesome.”

“What’s your name?”

“Amber.  What’s yours?”

“Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!”

“How was your summer?”

“I worked at Taco Bell.  It was hectic, but it was money.  How was yours?”

“I worked at a bookstore back home.  It was boring, and it was mostly a store for snobby old ladies, but like you said, it was money.  I moved back up here as soon as my apartment lease started.”

“Where is back home?”

“Plumdale.  Near Santa Lucia and Gabilan.  What about you?”

“I’m from Bear River.  You know where that is?”

“Yeah.  In the Valley, south of Stockdale and Ralstonville, but north of Ashwood, right?”

“Yeah.”

Amber and I continued making conversation for the entire twenty-six minutes that we spent in line.  When her turn at the cash register came, I said, “Hey, it was nice to meet you.  I’ll see you around campus?”

“Yeah!” she replied.  “Thanks for making the line a little less boring.”

“You too.  Have a great day!”

I rode my bike home the way I came after I bought my textbooks.  I had not asked Amber for her phone number, as I had Liz and Tabitha.  Maybe I should have.  But it just seemed weird to ask a complete stranger for her phone number.  I ran into Amber a couple more times around campus that year, but we never became close friends.  Could things have been different?  Would she have given me her phone number?  In hindsight, I suppose I had nothing to lose by asking, but I guess I will never know.

On the other hand, even though Tabitha had given me her number after giving a weird look, I do not remember ever actually calling her that year.  But if she had thought it weird, she got over it eventually, because we saw each other enough that year that we did stay friends.  Tabitha and I have stayed friends to this day, in fact, and I was at her wedding in 2001.  My biggest concern about living alone sophomore year was that I would not have friends without a dorm to wander around in which to say hi to people.  But if today was any indication of what this year would be like, I would not have to be concerned about that one bit.

 

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