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?”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“He’s really busy with school right now, though. He’s taking some really hard classes.”
“Well tell him I said hi.”
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.”
“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.