December 30, 1995 – January 1, 1996. A family vacation that did not involve boring relatives.

As I have said before, most Dennison family vacations revolved around visiting boring relatives.  The idea that a family vacation could involve going someplace to see and do things other than extended family sometimes seemed lost on my parents.  But one of the rare exceptions to this happened during winter break of my sophomore year at Jeromeville.  Around the time I first got home for winter break, Mom said, “I was thinking, maybe we should go somewhere fun for New Year’s this year, since we aren’t doing anything else.  Like Disneyland.”

“Yes!” I shouted enthusiastically.

“Do I have to?” Mark complained.

“Disneyland is fun!  You liked it the other time we went.”

“Yeah, because I was in kindergarten,” Mark said sarcastically.

“I promise, if you aren’t enjoying it, and you think of anything else you want to do on that trip, we can,” Mom said.  Mark grunted unenthusiastically.

Within the intervening twelve days, Mom booked a hotel and found someone to come over and feed the cats, and on the morning of December 30, we hit the road headed south.  Disneyland was in Orange County, California, about a six and a half hour drive from Plumdale in perfect conditions.  It took us more like eight hours, including stops for meals and all the bathroom breaks necessary when traveling with 19- and 14-year-old boys, in addition to traffic, although it was Saturday and traffic was not quite as heavy as usual.

When I was younger, road trips with the family always seemed so long and boring.  Being a roadgeek, I always enjoyed traveling roads I had not seen before, but usually I just wanted to hurry up and get where we were going.  As I got older, though, I began to appreciate road trips more, and I discovered that just looking out the window at scenery can be inherently fun.  This trip was interesting because, starting from my parents’ house in Plumdale, Disneyland is in the opposite direction of San Tomas, Bay City, Jeromeville, Bidwell, and just about everywhere else we regularly go when on road trips as a family.  I only played hand-held video games for about an hour on that trip.

There was one thing I did enjoy about road trips when I was younger compared to now, however.  Before, we all mostly agreed on each other’s choice of music.  But about three years ago, Mark discovered gangsta rap; now he listened to little else, and that often started arguments when we were all in the car together.  Mark brought headphones to listen to his own music, but Mom decided it would be fair to give him a turn to listen to his music through the car speakers.  So he got his turn to play Snoop Dogg and 2Pac in between my turns to play R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish.

“So what are you most excited to ride?” Mom asked as we waited in line at a McDonald’s drive-thru, about an hour before we would reach our hotel.

“Space Mountain!” I said.

“I hated that ride,” Mom replied.

“And Pirates of the Caribbean.  Remember, it was closed the other time we came.”

“Oh, yeah.  Did you ride it when you came here for your senior trip?”

“Yeah, but that means I’ve only been on it once.”

“There’s that new Indiana Jones ride too,” Mom said.  “That one is supposed to be good.

“I haven’t heard about that one,” I said.  “But, sure, that sounds good.  I’ve also only been on the Matterhorn once.  I didn’t ride it when we went before.”

“You didn’t?  That one is a little too fast for me too.”

“I know.”

Dad turned off the freeway when we reached the exit for our hotel.  “Maybe we’ll see someone famous at Disneyland,” Mom said.  “Sometimes you hear of people going to Disneyland and seeing famous people.”

“Maybe we’ll see O.J. Simpson at Disneyland,” I said sarcastically, trying to think of the most obnoxious, joke-worthy famous person possible.  “He’s not going to jail, you know.”

“I don’t think so,” Mom replied.

“We should go find O.J.’s house.  I remember which highways he was on when we watched the police chase in the white Bronco.”

“Yeah,” Mark said, speaking up for the first time since we left McDonald’s.  “Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”

“We’re not going to find O.J.’s house,” Mom said.

“Mom,” I said, “you told Mark that if there was anything he wanted to do to make this trip more fun for him, that we could.”

“Yeah,” Mark added.  “You said we could do something fun for me.  Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”

“We’ll see,” Mom said reluctantly.

In 1995, the Disneyland resort had only one park.  California Adventure and the Downtown Disney shopping area would not appear until 2001.  Those were built on land that was the Disneyland parking lot in 1995, and a giant parking garage would eventually replace these lost parking lots.  We parked and walked past the sea of cars toward the park entrance.  A large group of people was already gathered waiting to get in; we joined them, waiting until the park opened, then moving forward.  About forty minutes after we left the car, we finally walked through the entrance gate and continued through the tunnel under the Disneyland Railroad to Main Street.

The reality that I was at Disneyland hit me as I looked down Main Street, with the statue of Walt Disney at the other end and the castle behind the statue.  I had only been to Disneyland twice before.  The first time was in sixth grade, also with my family, and I enjoyed it except that I got diarrhea at one point during the day, and I hated pooping in public bathrooms.  The second time was my senior trip.  During May and June, Disneyland will close to the public early on certain days, then stay open all night specifically for senior trips.  Melissa Holmes and Kevin Liu were making a joke that night about how Anthony Tejeda always got separated from the group on marching band field trips, so one of them found a helium balloon with a string on it and used it to tie Anthony’s wrist to Renee Robertson’s wrist.  By the end of the trip, as the sun was rising, the balloon was long gone, but Renee and Anthony were still attached at the wrist, holding hands, and they were still together a year and a half later, now in a long distance relationship.  Looking back at the way all those people acted that night, I suspected that either Anthony and Renee had liked each other for some time, or that the others had been trying to set them up for some time.  But it made me feel awkward, because, if this thing between Anthony and Renee had been going on as far back as April, I never would have asked Renee to the prom, even though it was clear we were just going as friends.

We began the day riding a few of the low-speed rides.  Autopia, the ride with the miniature cars on a fixed track, was much less exciting at age 19 than it was at age 11, since now at age 19 I drove a real car all the time.  Star Tours, the spaceship simulator set in the Star Wars universe, still felt very real, even though those of us on the ride did not actually move during the ride.  The Submarine Voyage was fun once I overcame the initial claustrophobia of having to climb into the ship.  The Mad Tea Party made me feel a little bit nauseated.

“Where to next?” Mom asked after we got out of the teacups.

“I want to go on the Matterhorn,” I said.

“I don’t,” Mark said.

“Maybe we should split up,” Mom said.  “You and Dad can go on stuff together for a while, and I’ll take Mark.  Then we can meet up again in a couple hours.  Let’s say one o’clock, right here, and we can get lunch then.”

“That sounds good.”

As Dad and I waited in line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride, he asked me, “So are you having fun today?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Good,” Dad said.  Being with Dad was always much quieter than being with Mom.  Mom was much more talkative than Dad, and because of that, I have a slight discomfort with silence in the presence of others that continues to this day.

After we finished the Matterhorn, Dad and I went to Space Mountain.  This had been the first roller coaster I ever experienced when I came here the first time.  On the few occasions in which we visited amusement parks in my childhood, Mom drilled into my mind that roller coasters were scary, so I never rode them.  We all went on Space Mountain when I was 11, not knowing what it was.  I loved it, and Mom hated it.

The line was long; Dad and I waited for over half an hour.  Space Mountain is a completely dark roller coaster, with only projections of stars and flashing lights, beginning with a climb like many roller coasters, but then twisting downward with many turns instead of having a large drop.  The first time I rode it, I kept my eyes closed for most of the ride, even though it was dark, but this time my eyes were open.  “I love that ride!” I shouted to Dad as we got off and walked outside.

After we met up with Mom and Mark for lunch, we all walked over to the Adventureland section of the park and got in line for the Indiana Jones ride.  This was the newest attraction at Disneyland at the time of our visit, and unsurprisingly, we stood in line the longest for that ride, almost an hour and a half.  Much of the line was inside the ride, in corridors designed to look like an ancient temple that Indiana Jones was exploring, along with short videos in the style of 1930s newsreels, telling the story of Indiana Jones’ discovery.  The ride itself resembled the old rides based on movies, but this one had much better special effects.

After Indiana Jones, we split up with the opposite parent and child combination.  Mom and I went on the Jungle Cruise, located right next to Indiana Jones, and Dad and Mark went off by themselves.  We sat leisurely in the boat as our tour guide narrated and told bad jokes.  As we got out of the boat, I told Mom, “I really want to go on Space Mountain again.”

“You already rode that with Dad.  Make him take you again.”

“Please?” I said.  “Just give it another try.  I’ve been on it every time I’ve been to Disneyland, and nothing has ever happened to me.”

“All right,” Mom said begrudgingly.  We walked back across the park to Tomorrowland and got in line for Space Mountain.  “Captain EO!” Mom exclaimed as we walked past the theater next to Space Mountain.  “If you’re going to make me go on Space Mountain, then I’m going to say we’re going to Captain EO next.”

“Sure.  That’ll be fun.”

The line for Space Mountain this time was longer than it was when I came with Dad; it took almost an hour to get on the ride.  About ten feet in front of us in line, I saw a teenage girl with red hair who resembled a cute girl I had had in a few of my math classes.  This definitely was not that girl.  She wore a skimpy tank top with her pierced belly button showing, and she had torn jeans and a green dyed streak through her hair.  She was with a boy who had spiked hair, ear and nose piercings, and equally shabby jeans.  They began kissing passionately, and I looked away.

“Look at those two,” Mom said quietly, gesturing toward the teenage couple.  “I’ve been watching people today, and it seems like Disneyland is letting some rough-looking people in these days.  They wouldn’t have been allowed in back in my day.”

“Hmm,” I replied, unsure of how to respond to that.

The ride was just as thrilling as it had always been.  I enjoyed every second of it.  “See?” I said as soon as Mom and I were outside.  “You’re fine.  That was fun.”

“That was ten times worse than I remember it!” Mom shouted.  “I felt like I was going to die!  Never again!”

“If you say so.  Let’s go watch Captain EO.”

Mom and I did not have a long wait for the next showing of Captain EO.  I had only seen Captain EO once, the first time I came here with my family, and I barely remembered what it was like, so seeing Michael Jackson and his weird alien puppets defeat bad guys by turning them into backup dancers, complete with special effects in the theater, made for a nice enjoyable break from rides that move quickly.

Dad and Mark met back up with us a couple hours after Captain EO, and we rode as many rides as we had time for the rest of the day.  At 11:00 that night, after leaving the Haunted Mansion, Mom said, “We should probably go head over to where the fireworks are going to be.”

“Good idea,” Dad said.

“It’s only 11.  This early?” I asked.  “I guess it’ll probably get crowded.”

Disneyland had been getting steadily more crowded all day, and the plaza at the end of Main Street facing the castle was a solid mass of people when we arrived there.  The next hour was one of waiting, standing uncomfortably in the cold night, and sitting on a curb when it got too cold to stand.  I complained about being cold a few times, and Mark did too.  I checked my watch: still 39 minutes to go.  I stood up again.  I sat again.  I checked my watch again: 31 minutes to go.

Finally, at around 11:55, music started playing.  People turned toward the castle in anticipation of the fireworks starting.  The surrounding area got dark a few minutes later, and eventually I heard people counting down.

“Ten!  Nine!  Eight!” I shouted along with thousands of people in unison around me.  “Seven!  Six!  Five!  Four!  Three!  Two!  One!  Happy new year!”  Toward the end of the countdown, the unison broke down, and some people started cheering.  Auld Lang Syne began playing as the fireworks show started, followed by music from various Disney movies.

I loved fireworks.  We did not watch fireworks shows often when I was growing up; I am not sure why.  But there was something impressive about watching these giant explosions in the sky.  I watched every one, full of awe and excitement.

After the fireworks show ended, voices came on over speakers asking us to leave the park.  We walked, carefully among the huge crowds, down Main Street back to the parking lot.

“That was fun,” I said when we got back to the car.  “Thank you for bringing us.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Mark complained.  “It was boring!”

“We’ll be home tomorrow night,” Mom said.  “And we’re still going to go see O.J.’s house, remember.”

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

“I can’t believe we’re actually going to do it.”

The next morning, we exited Interstate 405 at Sunset Boulevard, following the route we remembered from the news.  In June of 1994, retired football player and television personality O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her male companion, and a few days later, a special report showed police chasing Simpson on the freeway, following him to his house.  The murder case dominated the news until October of 1995, when he was found not guilty.

“Star maps,” Mom said, pointing to a kiosk just off the side of the road.  “Should we get one?”

“Sure,” I said.  Dad pulled over, and Mom walked to the kiosk, paying its occupant and returning to the car with a sheet of paper.

“I still can’t believe we’re doing this,” Mom said again, looking at the star map.  I looked over her shoulder.  “There he is.  O.J. Simpson.  And there’s Nicole Simpson, ‘deceased.’”  Next to their names were printed their addresses, O.J. on Rockingham Avenue and Nicole on Bundy Drive, along with about a hundred other addresses of celebrities.  On the other side was a map of the area with main streets, less detailed than an actual street map from AAA.

We continued down Sunset Boulevard for about a mile, starting to wonder if we were going the wrong way.  But then Mom exclaimed in a foreboding tone of voice, “There’s Bundy!” as we crossed the street where Nicole Simpson had been found murdered in her home.

“O.J. lives on Rockingham,” I said, reading the map.  We got to Rockingham Drive about a mile later, but I noticed that several white concrete barriers were blocking the street.  “It’s blocked off,” I said.  “Probably because too many people have been doing what we’re doing.”

“Yeah,” Mom agreed.  “That was disappointing.”

Dad turned the car around and started to head back toward the freeway.  Just as we began driving east, I said, “Wait.  Take the next left, and see if we can get around to Rockingham from the next block over.  We came too far to give up now.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dad said.  He turned left on the next street over, Bristol Avenue, then left again, and as I had hoped, that street intersected Rockingham Avenue.  We turned right, watching street numbers, until we arrived at the address printed on the star map.  It was a large house on a corner, surrounded by trees and a tall stone wall, with a white wooden gate across the driveway.

“Who’s that?” Mark asked, pointing.  Someone with a camera was attempting to climb the wall.  A private security guard was running after him.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.  “Cool!”

“Not for him, once he gets caught,” Mom said.  “Come on, we’ve seen it.  Let’s go, before we get caught up in whatever else is going on.”

We returned down Bristol Avenue to Sunset Boulevard and back to the freeway to begin the long drive home.  We drove through mountains, suburbs, more mountains, and long, desolate, isolated stretches of road.  As the scenery passed outside the window, I thought of all the girls I had been talking to on the Internet in the last year.  Brittany from Texas, Molly from Pennsylvania, Mindy Jo from Georgia.  None of the three of them had ever been west of the Rockies.  I hoped someday that they might be able to visit me, so that I could welcome them to my home and show them my side of the country.  So far I had only once met a girl in person whom I had talked to on the Internet, Allison DarkSparkles, and it did not go well, but I was closer to those three than I was with Allison.  It was a new year, and maybe 1996 would bring a new opportunity like that.

The year was starting on a good note; I now had a funny story to tell, about the time I drove past O.J. Simpson’s house and saw a paparazzo trying to sneak in.  With all the sad nights I had spent alone in my little apartment toward the end of 1995, I was glad 1996 was beginning on a good note.  I had much to look forward to in the coming year.  In June, I would be halfway done with my studies at the University of Jeromeville, assuming that I graduated on time.  In August, I would finish my teenage years and begin my twenties.  And I had made a lot of new friends recently, leaving me hopeful for fun times to come.

It turned out that I would not meet any of my Internet female friends in 1996.  But some of the biggest and most lasting changes of my life would happen in 1996.  This led to a number of new experiences, including traveling farther from home than I ever had before, for a reason that was not even on my proverbial radar at all that day.  It was a new year, and it would be an unforgettable year.

Disclaimer: The Walt Disney Company was not involved in the writing of this story, and I received no compensation for it. All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

December 31, 1994. Back in Plumdale for the holidays.

Winter break was more than half over.  Because of UJ’s three-quarter schedule, our winter break wasn’t as long as that of most other universities.  I didn’t mind, because this schedule was all I knew; the break was at least as long as, and in some years a little longer than, the winter break I was used to at Plumdale High.

A good part of my break had been spent watching TV, following the adventures of Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Agents Mulder and Scully.  I also spent a lot of time playing Donkey Kong Country on Super Nintendo. I didn’t have any of my video game consoles with me in Jeromeville.  Technically they belonged to both me and Mark, and I didn’t really have a lot of time to play video games anymore now that I had a lot of studying to do.  This was a brand new game; Mark had just gotten it for Christmas. I was enjoying it so far. The Donkey Kong character was from a classic coin-operated video game from 1981, but this new game was a platform adventure that played more like the Super Mario Bros. games.  I love the game, but now that I think about it, a quarter century later I’ve still never beaten the game.

My big Christmas present was a printer, a Canon ink-jet.  I no longer would have to go down to the study lounge in the dining commons building and pay 10 cents per page, nor would I have to go across the hall with a floppy disk and nicely ask Liz if I could borrow her printer.  This was the first time I had ever had a printer with good enough resolution to look like actual printing, as opposed to those low resolution dot-matrix printers from the 80s that used the paper with the detachable holes on the sides.

I drove out toward Highway 11 with a tape of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album playing.  This had been another of my Christmas presents, on CD, and I had made a tape of it since I didn’t have a CD player in the car.  The Eagles were a frequent presence on classic rock radio, and I had come to like them since discovering classic rock in the middle of high school.  The band broke up abruptly in 1980 after a dispute between members Don Henley and Glenn Frey, both of whom had successful solo careers after that. When asked when the Eagles would get back together, Don Henley reportedly said when hell freezes over.  Earlier in 1994, the band got back together for a tour and a TV special called Hell Freezes Over.  The album contained a selection of live recordings from the TV special along with studio recordings of four brand new songs.

In high school, there was a girl in a bunch of my classes sophomore and junior year named Catherine Yaras.  She was one who always encouraged me to come out of my shell, and she invited me to sit with her and her friends at lunch during a time when I always sat by myself.  Most of us who sat there, which also included Melissa and Renee and Kevin, sat in a hallway next to the room where all of us had English class right after lunch. I grew a lot senior year, and I definitely came out of my shell, but Catherine wasn’t there to see it up close, because she spent that year as an exchange student in Austria.  She and I wrote letters pretty much all year, and by spring she told me that I was the only school friend still writing to her. I had seen her once and talked to her a couple more times since she got back from Austria in the summer, and now I was on the way to her house for a New Year’s party.

She said to show up around 8:00, and it was almost 8:30 now.  As I started to be more social, I came to learn that most people don’t show up to events like this on time, and I was starting to follow suit.  I arrived at Catherine’s house and stood awkwardly as I knocked on the door. To this day, for some reason, I still find it awkward to knock on someone’s door and then have to wait for them to answer.  I feel like I’m always standing there uncomfortably.

“Greg!” Catherine said when she opened the door.  “It’s good to see you!” She hugged me, and I hugged back.

“You too.”

“How are you?”

“I’m doing pretty well,” I said.  “You?”

“I’m great!  Come on in! I have to go check on something in the kitchen, but I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

As Catherine headed toward the kitchen, I walked into the living room and looked around.  Renee was sitting on the couch with her boyfriend Anthony. They had been part of the same friend circle ever since Renee moved to Plumdale before junior year, but they had just recently gotten together.  Apparently some combination of our mutual friends had been conspiring to set them up for a while, and I was completely oblivious to all of it. At our senior trip to Disneyland, one of the days where they open the park all night just for high school senior trips, Kevin had made a joke about tying a balloon around Anthony and Renee’s wrists, because Anthony had apparently often gotten separated from the group on field trips with the school band.  By the end of the night, the balloon was long gone, but Anthony and Renee were still holding hands. Other stuff may have been going on with them before that night, but that was the first I knew of it, because as I said, I’m always oblivious to that kind of thing.

Renee had been my senior prom date.  We were pretty much going just as friends, so I wasn’t upset at all that she and one of my guy friends were together a month later.  My grandma had a copy of our prom picture in a frame on a table in her living room for many years after that. People usually commented on the height difference, since Renee was a whole foot shorter than me.  I remember that picture, and what stands out to me is the contrast in color. I have dark, almost black, hair, and I wore a traditional black and white tuxedo, whereas Renee has bright red hair and wore a blue dress.  Sometimes I feel like my life is dark, and everyone else’s is colorful… so I guess it fits.

Renee had gotten her email set up a few weeks ago, so we had been communicating again, and she had said something suggesting that she and Anthony were still together.  I was happy for them. Anthony had moved to Ohio for school, and long distance relationships were difficult, or at least so I had heard. I didn’t have any experience with long distance relationships, at least not in the 1990s; that dumpster fire would happen in 2011, and it isn’t part of this story, so I’ll stop talking about it.

Two others whom I recognized from school but didn’t know well were sitting in chairs set up on the other side of the room from the couch.  No one else had arrived yet. I walked over to Renee and Anthony.

“Hey, Greg,” Renee said.  Anthony waved.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How are you guys?”

“I’m good,” Anthony said.

“How’s Ohio?” I asked.

“It’s cold!  I’m glad to be back out west.”

“I’m sure that’s an adjustment.”

“How did finals go?” Renee asked.  “Last time I talked to you, you were stressing about finals.”

“I think I did pretty well.  I know I did really well on the math final.” I told Renee and Anthony the story about Rebekah Tyler knowing what I got on the final before I did.  As I was in the middle of the story, Melissa walked in and sat near us; she must have arrived unnoticed by me as I was telling the story.

“Hey, Melissa,” I said.  

“Greg!” she replied, giving me a hug.  “This story sounds interesting.”

I finished the story.  “Rebekah sounds like one of my roommates,” Renee said.  “She’s always in everyone’s business.”

“Rebekah isn’t usually in my business,” I said.  “At least not except for this one time.”

“My roommate and I get along great.  That’s mostly because he’s never home,” Anthony explained.  “I don’t know where he goes. I think he has a girlfriend who lives off campus.”

“How are you liking dorm life, Greg?” Melissa asked.  “Did you say you don’t have a roommate?”

“That’s right,” I replied.  “I’m not sure how that happened.  I didn’t ask for a single room, but I got one.  There are only a few single rooms in my building.  But so far I’ve made a lot of friends in the dorm. It’s nice sometimes just wandering up and down the halls seeing who is around and what people are doing.”

“Lucky!” Anthony said.

“I feel like I’m missing out not being in a dorm,” Melissa said.

“You’re living with relatives, right?”

“My grandma.  And it feels like a grandma house.  I don’t have friends over, and I don’t really spend a lot of time around students.  You guys are lucky.”

“Can you get involved in any groups on campus to make friends?” I asked Melissa.

“I’m trying.  There’s a club for pre-med students that I’ve been to a few times.  I don’t really know anyone yet, though. Also, traffic is bad, so it’s hard for me to get back to campus at night.”

“That’s true.  I hadn’t thought of that.”

“The fruit salad is done,” Catherine called out from the kitchen.  Renee and Anthony got up a minute later to get food, leaving Melissa and me alone on that side of the room.

“I have to say,” Melissa said, “I’m really proud of you for adjusting to dorm life and being away from home so well.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“I know this was a scary transition for you, being out on your own.  But you’re doing great. And like I said, you’re getting to do things that I’m not getting to do.”

“Thanks.  I’m sure you’ll figure things out.”

“I will.  And the bright side is I don’t have to deal with noisy neighbors living at my grandma’s house.”

“Good point.  I’ve had noisy neighbor issues.”

“Hey, Melissa,” Catherine said, walking up to Melissa and me and sitting on the couch.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” Melissa said.  “I was just telling Greg how I’m proud of the way he’s adjusted to dorm life.”

“I know!  I’m proud of you too, Greg!”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“How was your Christmas?  Did you guys go anywhere? Or were any family visiting?”

“I was at my parents’ house,” I said.  “My aunt and uncle and cousins were visiting, like they do pretty much every Christmas.”

“How was that?”

“It’s always, well, interesting to see them.  Oh — funny story. So back when were remodeling the house years ago, Mom was reading these fancy remodeling magazines, and that was the first anyone in our family had ever heard of a bidet.”

“Bidets are weird at first,” Catherine said.  “We had one at the house where I stayed in Austria.  It definitely took some getting used to!”

“I’m sure!  Anyway, next to the bathroom in the remodel is a doorway leading to the crawl space in the attic.  My brother started making jokes that that was going to be the Bidet Room. So ever since then, we’ve always called the attic the Bidet Room.  And Mom said in front of my cousins that she had to go wrap the presents that she hid in the Bidet Room.”

“I can’t picture your mom saying ‘Bidet Room,’” Melissa said.

“There’s probably a lot that my mom says that you can’t picture.  But anyway, my one cousin, Miranda, she just turned 14, and they live out in the country, so she isn’t an expert on European bathroom fixtures.  Miranda asked why we called it the Bidet Room, and I told her about Mark saying we should put a bidet in there. Then she asks, ‘What’s a bidet?’  I start to explain it in polite family-friendly terms. Her brother interrupts me and blurts out, ‘It shoots water up your ass!’”

“Ha!” Catherine laughed.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “That’s funny.”

“How was your Christmas?” I asked Melissa.

“Nothing special.  Mom and Dad and my brother drove down south and had Christmas with me and some other relatives at my grandma’s house, and I came back up to Plumdale with them a few days ago.  I’m going to fly home on Tuesday. Flights from Santa Lucia to San Angelo are cheapest on Tuesdays,” Melissa explained. I never would have thought of that, considering that I had never been on an airplane at that time.

The party was fairly calm as far as New Year’s parties go.  I spent the New Year’s a year ago with some family friends who liked to drink and watch sports, and this party wasn’t raucous and loud like that one.  It was mostly just people talking and eating and, in the case of us who were away at school, catching up. And all of that was perfectly okay with me. I got to hear some more of Catherine’s stories about her host family and school and friends in Austria.

However, Catherine’s party was not without drinking.  At one point in the night, Catherine said she was making margaritas.  I think it was margaritas. I’m not an expert on alcoholic beverages, and I knew even less then than I do now.

“Um,” I said, “doesn’t that have alcohol in it?”

“If that makes you uncomfortable, I can make you a virgin margarita.”

Virgin margarita.  Virgin margarita.  I racked my brain trying to figure out what that mean.  After a few seconds of thinking about the context clues, I figured that she must mean a margarita without alcohol.

“Everyone our age drinks alcohol in Austria,” Catherine explained, apparently noticing that I was uncomfortable.  “It’s no big deal over there, and since I’ve been back home I’ve been drinking occasionally. I’m not going to get drunk and be unsafe.  I can make you one without alcohol if you want.”

“Okay,” I said, still a little uncomfortable.

Catherine came back a few minutes later with the drinks.  I picked up my drink, hesitantly. I smelled it; it didn’t smell like alcohol, but considering I wasn’t exactly used to the smell of alcohol, I didn’t know what to expect.  “They’re exactly the same,” she said, “except yours doesn’t have alcohol and mine does.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “What if this is the wrong drink?”

“I can tell.  It’s not.”

“What if someone spiked my drink?”  I’m not entirely sure why I said that.  Maybe I wanted to look cool by demonstrating that I knew what “spiked” meant.

“Come on, Greg.  Do you trust me?”

In hindsight, I’m even less sure of why I said the words that came out of my mouth next, aside from the fact that I’d been watching TV a lot.  “I’m like Agent Mulder. I trust no one.”

“Greg,” Catherine said.  “If you can’t trust me, then are we really even friends?  I’m hurt that you would say that.”

I looked down.  “I didn’t mean it that way,” I said.  I didn’t even know how I meant it. I was just making a reference to one of my favorite TV shows.  “I’m sorry. It’s from X-Files.”

“Do you trust me, Greg?”

I picked up the class and drank a sip of the virgin margarita.  “Yes,” I said. “I trust you. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s okay,” Catherine replied.  “Just know that I would never give you alcohol without your permission.”

“I know.  Thank you.”

I took another sip of the virgin margarita.  After all that, I didn’t really like it, but I drank the rest of it since Catherine had been through all that to make it for me.  When I was done with the drink, I put the glass back in the kitchen and had more chips and salsa for a while. I spotted someone else I knew from school and went over to talk to her for a while.

“It’s almost midnight!” someone shouted eventually.  A television was showing one of the nationally televised New Year’s Eve broadcasts, with the countdown clock in the corner.  Someone handed me two party favors, one of those things that you blow into and it unrolls and makes a toot noise, and some plastic glasses shaped like the numbers “1995” with holes for your eyes inside the round parts of the 9s.  I put the glasses on and the other thing in my mouth.

“Ten!  Nine! Eight!” everyone started shouting.  “Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!” Some people clapped, some people made noise with whichever party favor they had, and some people holding drinks clinked their glasses together.  Even though a new year is mostly an arbitrary point in time, there is always something special about it. The new number on the calendar gives hope that maybe this year would be different.

“Greg?” Catherine said, turning her left cheek toward my face.  “New Year’s kiss?”

It appeared that 1995 would be different, for sure.  I had never had a New Year’s kiss, nor had I ever kissed anyone or been kissed at any other time of any year.  (I don’t count Grandma kissing my cheek as a kiss. That’s just what grandmothers do.) I didn’t even know in 1995 that a New Year’s kiss was a thing, because of my sheltered upbringing.  But I had made enough of a fuss about the virgin margarita, and I didn’t want Catherine to think I was afraid or being weird any more than she already did. So I puckered my lips and lightly kissed her on the cheek.  She smiled and kissed my cheek back.

“I’m glad I got to see you tonight,” Catherine said.

“Thanks.  I’m glad I came.”

“You really sound like you’re doing well at Jeromeville.  And I’m sure 1995 is going to be a great year for you.”

I started to get tired about an hour later, so I said my goodbyes and drove home, still listening to the Eagles.  I had taken a significant step tonight: I didn’t get all worked up over underage drinking. I was always bothered by the fact that some high school kids know how to get alcohol at a young age, in complete defiance of the law and of their own safety.  I even remember thinking that I ever got invited to a party where there was drinking, I would call the police on my own friends, just because they were breaking the law. Of course, no decent human being would do that unless someone’s life was clearly in danger.  This may have been the first time I had ever been in the same room as underage drinking, and I got over it and let things be. No one was hurting anyone else, and no one’s lives were in danger.

I pulled up into the driveway, quietly entered the house so as not to wake my parents or Mark, and went to bed for the first time in 1995.  I was hopeful for a good year. I had already taken some big steps in 1994, being out on my own, being a student at a university, and living in a dorm.  This new life seemed to be suiting me well so far. I looked forward to the new adventures that 1995 would bring… although, on that cloudy night in Plumdale, 150 miles from Jeromeville, I never would have guessed the exact sort of adventures that lay ahead of me.