I got back from my classes Thursday afternoon, and I spent the next few hours answering emails, chatting on IRC, reading, and napping. Around quarter to six (that’s how we old people sometimes say 5:45, because there is a quarter of an hour left until six o’clock) I was awakened by loud music playing down the hall, loud enough for me to hear it even though my door was closed. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had been asleep for over an hour, and my afternoon naps usually didn’t last that long anyway. As I lay on my bed trying to relax despite the noise, trying to get up the energy to go eat, I realized that I recognized this music. It was that band I had heard on the radio and thought of as “Pearl Jam of the South,” the one with the guy who had the gravelly slurred grunge-like voice, but singing over much more Southern music. As the album continued playing past the songs I recognized, I heard a really interesting song with a distinct fiddle part in the beginning, followed by a few other mid-tempo Southern rock pieces.
Eventually I got out of bed and looked down the hallway. The music was coming from Liz’s room. Instead of walking to the dining commons, I walked the other direction to Liz’s room and poked my head in the door just as Pearl Jam of the South was singing about the past being gone and the future being far away. Liz was sitting on the bed, talking to Ramon, who was sitting in Liz’s desk chair. “Hi, Greg!” Liz said, waving. I stepped into the room as she asked, “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I was just curious about the music. Who is this? I’ve heard some of these songs on the radio.”
“Hootie and the Blowfish,” Ramon said. “I borrowed this CD from my roommate.”
“Hootie and the Blowfish,” I repeated. “That’s a great name for a band.”
“I know! Isn’t it?”
“I’m hungry,” Liz said. “Greg? Have you eaten yet?”
“No. And I’m hungry too.”
“Want to come to the DC with us?”
“I’m going to go downstairs and see if Sarah wants to come too. Earlier she said to come get her when we go eat.”
I followed Liz and Ramon downstairs to Sarah’s room, and then the five of us walked to the dining commons; there were five of us now because Krista had been in Sarah’s room, and she came with us too. For dinner, some food items were available every day, and some of them would rotate from day to day. Tonight, one of the rotating dishes was Country Fried Steak; I grabbed a slice and put it on my plate. It tasted more like Country Fried Cardboard.
“I need to check the mail,” Ramon said after we finished eating. “You guys want to come with me?”
“Sure,” Sarah replied. “I haven’t checked mine either.”
“Same,” I said.
We all walked downstairs, past the room with the pool table, into the room with the mailboxes and the Help Window. I saw something in my mailbox, and I got excited as I turned the key and noticed that it appeared to be a handwritten letter, addressed to me in a handwriting that was not my grandma’s. I didn’t recognize the handwriting at first. I took the letter out of the mailbox and read the return address; it was from Rachel Copeland.
“I got a package!” Sarah exclaimed excitedly. When a dormitory resident received a package, someone put a ticket in the mailbox, which the resident would then take to the Help Window to receive the package. Sarah came back a minute later with her package. “I got a package!” she said again.
As we walked out of the dining commons building with our mail, Sarah was still excited about her package. “I got a package! Isn’t there a song about a package?” she said.
Everyone kind of looked at each other, wondering if anyone else knew the package song that Sarah was thinking of. “I don’t know this song,” I said.
“I think it goes like this,” Ramon prefaced, as he began singing to the tune of the “neener-neener-neener” chants popular among preschoolers and elementary school children. “I got a package! And you did-n’t!” Ramon sang. I laughed.
“Who’s the package from?” Krista asked Sarah.
“My mom. I don’t know what it is. But it’s a package!”
I never did find out what was in Sarah’s package. When we got back to Building C, I went to my room because I was more interested in the fact that Rachel had written to me. Rachel was a year behind me, a current senior at Plumdale High. She was friends with a lot of my classmates; I knew her to say hi to for a long time, but she had started sitting with my group of friends at lunch during my senior year, and I had gotten to know her better. I opened the letter and started reading.
Jan. 28, 1995
How are you? (sorry I started out so generic.) I hope you’re doing well. It’s a funny thing, two different people talked about you today. Señora Rodriguez and Mrs. Jackson mentioned you. You sure are a well liked guy from what I hear. In English we only talk and critique other people’s writing. This is my last year so it is really sad to leave Spanish. I’ve had Señora Rodriguez for all four years and I think she is my favorite teacher. She let us watch all our old video projects. It made me want to cry because I remember all the good ol’ days. You were in one. It was the one where you were the bully beating up Jason Lambert and he turned into Ken Haley and beat you up. All day I was in a really good mood. In my second class I cracked up and said lots of funny things. I laughed the whole time. I guess I had a “I feel like standing out” day. Most of the time I like to be another pair of eyes in the wall and think about how no one even has a clue that I’m watching them and that I know all about them. Today was so funny. My friend said she wanted to be one of those people that use flares to direct airplanes when she grows up. She did the motions too. It was so funny but I guess you would have had to have been there. Life is full of stress. I guess you have to take it one step at a time. I
truely truly believe that every cloud has a silver lining. You know, I can find something good in everything and everyone. It helps life to be worthwhile. I have to remind myself more and more all the time as life gets tougher and tougher. In my class the other day I was so funny. Everyone within earshot was laughing at the things I said. It makes me happy to be in the spotlight. When I went out to lunch with my friends I felt like I was invisible. They all had things to talk about like trips and new hairstyles. They all have things to share. Sometimes I feel like there is an inside joke and I’m the only one on the outside. It only makes it so much better when I can finally really bond. You can’t know true happiness if you haven’t experienced true sadness. Time presses on. I’m sure you’re bored of me by now, so I’ll go put this in the mail. Hope to hear back from you soon!
Below Rachel’s signature was her address and phone number. I think she had already given me her phone number when she signed my yearbook last year, but I hadn’t called her. Talking on the phone made me nervous. But maybe I would actually call her this time.
Rachel shared a lot of nuggets of wisdom in that beautiful run-on paragraph. I knew that feeling about being on the outside of an inside joke. I felt this way quite often around friends. And if it is true that one can’t know true happiness without experiencing true sadness, then I guess I was ready for some true happiness.
I was happy about getting Rachel’s letter. I spent the rest of the night doing math homework and answering some emails from chat room girls. I went to sleep around 11:00 and slept fairly well.
My Friday was relatively uneventful. I had a midterm in chemistry, and I felt like I did well. Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Liz, Ramon, and Krista were all on a retreat with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship until Sunday afternoon, so I was expecting this weekend to be more uneventful than usual, with a lot of time alone. Around 7:00 at night, after I got back from dinner, the phone rang. When I answered it, I was not surprised at all that it was my mother. No one else ever called me, for that matter.
“I had lunch with Mary Bordeaux today,” Mom said after the usual pleasantries of asking how many day went and how my chemistry midterm was. “I heard some interesting things.”
Once Mom said this, I knew exactly what was coming for the next fifteen minutes or so. I had a friend from school whom I met in eighth grade named Jackie Bordeaux; tall blonde girl, really sweet. Mary was Jackie’s mother. I don’t remember how Mary and my mom met. I think maybe they had a mutual friend unrelated to the fact that Jackie and I went to school together. Or maybe they met at some school event for parents. I don’t know, and I don’t really care, honestly. Whenever Mom had lunch with Mary, she would always return with tons of gossip about people from Plumdale High. Looking back, I recognize now that it was not emotionally healthy for anyone to be gossiping that much about other people’s lives, especially in Mom’s case where she barely knew, or didn’t know at all, the people she gossiped about. But Mom’s updates that she gave me from Mary did actually serve a somewhat useful purpose for me. Since there was no social media in 1995, I had lost touch with many of my high school friends very quickly after we graduated, and stories from Mary were often the only connection I had to some of them.
“Have you heard from Jackie at all?” Mom asked.
“She sent me a postcard back in October, shortly after she started at Santa Teresa,” I said. “I wrote back and didn’t hear from her after that.”
“Well, apparently she has this older boyfriend. None of the rest of the family likes him. Mary thinks he’s a bad influence.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“And Mary said that Jessica Halloran is in Guatemala.”
“I remember you said that you heard she was going out of the country somewhere.”
“She was going to go to Santa Teresa with Jackie, then she was going to go to Valle Luna State, but she decided at some point to spend some time traveling in Central and South America. She’s volunteering at an orphanage now.”
Sometimes, someone would say something that would set off a chain reaction in my brain, reminding me of something not directly related to the conversation at hand. I had one of those moments as Mom was telling me about Jessica. “I just realized,” I said. “I’m pretty sure today is Jessica’s birthday.”
“How funny that we would be talking about her today.”
“Oh,” Mom started in again. “Remember how I said that I was paying attention to news about the Santa Lucia City College volleyball team, because Allison LaPierre was playing for them? But then it looked like she wasn’t on the team, and I didn’t know why?”
“I always thought she was nice. Anyway, I asked Mary what Allison was doing these days, and she said, ‘Getting married because she’s pregnant.’ I said, ‘What?’ Because I always thought she was a nice Mormon girl.”
“People do stuff,” I said.
“I guess so.”
I sat through about five more minutes of stories Mom had heard from Mary about people I didn’t know very well, and another ten minutes of Mom telling me about people from her work, whom I didn’t know at all. My ears perked up when Mom finally said something relevant to me. “Dad and Mark and I were talking about coming to visit you sometime soon, for the day,” she said.
“Sure,” I replied. “That would be good.”
“Does Sunday the 19th work? That’s Presidents’ Day weekend. Do you have Monday the 20th off?”
“That should work. And yes, I have that Monday off.”
“Sounds good! I’ll talk to Dad and Mark, and we’ll figure out exactly what time we’re coming.”
“Okay, then. I’ll plan for you to be here on the 19th.”
“Well,” Mom continued, “that’s about all I have to say. So I guess I’ll let you go. Are you doing anything this weekend?”
“Probably not. Some people are gone this weekend, on a retreat with some church group they’re a part of.”
“Well, I hope it’s a good weekend anyway.”
“I’ll talk to you later.”
“Bye.” I hung up the phone, still a little shocked that Allison LaPierre was pregnant. I hadn’t seen that one coming. And while I would have found it surprising a year ago that Jessica Halloran would be volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala, it did sound like a great experience for her.
Today, no one ever thinks about what time to make phone calls, because everyone has unlimited long distance calling on cell phones. It wasn’t like this in 1995. Local phone calls from what are now called land lines were unlimited. From my dorm room, I could call anywhere on the UJ campus, or in the cities of Jeromeville, Woodville, and Nueces. Calling farther away than that required making a long distance call, which was provided by a separate service from local calls, and billed by the minute. The exact cost of a long distance call changed depending on when the call was placed; usually it was least expensive late at night and on weekends. For this reason, I had waited until Saturday to make the call I wanted to make now instead of Friday. And I waited until mid-afternoon Saturday, because phone calls made me nervous and I kept procrastinating, plus I knew that most people slept in later than I did on Saturdays.
I sat in the chair at my desk, staring at the phone. I picked up the receiver, got nervous, and put it back down. This happened pretty much every time I made a phone call, especially one where I didn’t have a specific purpose for calling.
I stared at the ceiling, rehearsing what I was going to say, playing out scenarios in my head depending on who answered the phone. I took a deep breath, thinking I was ready. I looked at the number I was calling, dialed the area code and a few more digits, then hung up. I wasn’t ready for this.
I got up and walked to the drinking fountain down the hall, next to the bathroom. I got a drink of water and walked back to my room, still rehearsing in my head what I was going to say. I picked up the phone and started dialing, but hung up before I even finished the area code. In the next fifteen minutes, I made four more attempts that I aborted somewhere between picking up the receiver and dialing the last digit of the phone number.
Finally, I took a deep breath and decided this was it. I picked up the receiver and pressed the buttons so fast that I would not have time to stop myself. The phone was ringing… it was too late to hang up now, because the people on the other end of the line had already heard the phone ring, and I wouldn’t want to be rude.
“Hello?” a female voice said inside the phone.
“Is Rachel there?” I asked.
“This is Rachel.”
“Hi. It’s Greg. I got your letter.” There was an awkward pause on the other end of the line; I wasn’t sure what that meant. “Greg Dennison,” I clarified.
“Greg! Hi! How are you?”
“I’m doing pretty well,” I said. “Not much to do this weekend. Just math homework, and that never takes long. I had a chemistry midterm yesterday, and I think I did pretty well.”
“Good for you! I’m not doing anything this weekend either. Maybe going out with some friends tonight.”
“That sounds fun.”
“So how is college? What’s your life like now?”
“I’m in a dorm called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program. Every quarter, we have to take a class specifically for students in this program that counts as general ed requirements. And everyone in the program lives together, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of my building.”
“That’s great! It sounds like that’s a good place for you.”
“It really is.”
“How are your classes so far?”
“I had straight As last quarter.”
“I’m not surprised,” Rachel said as I chuckled.
“How are you?” I asked. “Do you know what you’re doing next year?”
“I really like St. Elizabeth’s College in Los Nogales. I visited there, and it just felt like a nice place for me. Do you ever get that feeling?”
“Kind of,” I said. I didn’t know Rachel was Catholic, I thought. Maybe she isn’t, and she just likes the school. “I kind of got that feeling the first few times I visited Jeromeville,” I continued.
“It might be a little weird for me going to a Catholic school, but I know not all of their students are practicing Catholics,” Rachel said, answering my earlier thought about Rachel’s religious affiliation.
“Yeah. My whole mom’s side of the family is Catholic, I’m going to Catholic Mass here, but I’ve never been to Catholic school. So I can’t really relate.”
“I haven’t either.”
Rachel and I talked for about another half hour. I told her about my classes. I told her what I liked about the Jeromeville campus itself, about the Arboretum and the big trees and the way you can see the easily identifiable water tower from the freeway. I told her about how Jeromeville is a fairly small town, but close enough to Capital City to feel like it isn’t in the middle of nowhere. She told me about AP Spanish and Señora Rodriguez (to which I told her to tell Señora Rodriguez that I said hola). She told me that she and Paul had broken up during the weekend of Thanksgiving because long distance just wasn’t working, but she was okay with it and still very close with Paul. She told me about the vacation her family had taken for Christmas, and how they were going to go to Hawaii in the summer. She told me about volleyball season and how they had made the playoffs last fall. And regarding volleyball, I didn’t say anything about having heard that Allison LaPierre was pregnant.
“I should probably let you go,” Rachel said eventually. “It sounds like my dad needs me to help him with something.”
“Sounds good. But it was really good talking to you.”
“Yeah! It was! I’m really proud of you. It sounds like you’ve grown a lot this year.”
“And I’ll let you know as soon as I get email set up.”
“Have a good rest of the weekend, Greg,” Rachel said. “Don’t stay home tonight. Go find some friends to be with.”
I hung up the phone and smiled. Yes, I did lose touch with many of my high school friends once we all graduated and dispersed. But the ones who really mattered stuck with me and made an effort to stay in my life and keep me in theirs. I didn’t entirely understand that concept at age 18, though. I felt like senior year I had finally started growing and developing a social life, and I also made a fair number of new friends during senior year. I kept feeling like I wished I had had more time to develop those friendships. But there really was no point to living in the past and wishing things could have been different. Things will not be different; the past is in the past. All I could do was the best I could with the opportunities I had in the present. Some of my past stayed connected to me in some form, but all of our lives were heading in different directions. I left for Jeromeville as my classmates left for Valle Luna, Santa Teresa, San Angelo, even Guatemala, and each of those places presented new opportunities for us. The IHP was the right place for me at this time, and being here had caused me to grow a lot this year, as Rachel said. My road of life was passing through Jeromeville with no U-turns, and I never would have guessed some of the turns my road of life would take during the next few years.
Rachel’s actual letter