My last class on Friday got out at 3:00. I went straight back to Building C, locked my bike, and climbed the stairs to Room 221, where a mostly packed duffel bag sat on my bed. I checked to make sure that everything I needed was inside and grabbed the things I hadn’t packed earlier. I put my notes and textbooks for my math class in my backpack; I had a test coming up, and I figured I could get some studying in over the weekend. I also grabbed my book for Rise and Fall of Empires, the class I was talking as part of the IHP. I had some reading to do that I hadn’t done yet.
Liz was walking down the hall as I carried my bag to the stairs. “Hey, Greg,” she said. “Heading somewhere for the weekend?”
“Back home to Plumdale,” I said.
“Nice! Is this your first time going back home since you’ve been here?”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Have fun! Do you have any plans?”
“Tomorrow is Homecoming at my high school. I’m going to go to the game. I might go to the dance too if I’m not too tired.”
“That sounds like fun!” Liz paused, as if she had just thought of something. “The Homecoming game is on a Saturday?”
“Plumdale High doesn’t have lights. So our football games are always on Saturday afternoons.”
“I see. Did you play football?”
“No,” I said. “People tell me I’m built like a football player, but I don’t have much athletic talent. I worked out with the football team the summer between freshman and sophomore year, but I quit after the first day of practice. I was out of shape and in over my head.”
“I see. Well, drive safely and have a great weekend!”
“Thanks! I will!”
I spent the next three hours in the car. I went a slightly longer way home, heading south down the Valley and cutting over through the hills on Highway 122, which joined Highway 11 just a few miles north of Plumdale. According to the map I had (you know, that big folded paper thing that I’m fascinated by but most people don’t pay attention to, and even fewer people now in 2019 pay attention to), this route was 22 miles longer. However, it was Friday afternoon, and this route avoided San Tomas and all the other populated areas between Jeromeville and Plumdale, so it was considerably faster when Friday commute traffic is involved. When I came back to Jeromeville on Sunday morning, I would go the regular way, through San Tomas.
Before I left, I had called Mom and told her I would be home for dinner, a little after six. I got home around 6:30, and before I could put my key all the way in the front door, Mom opened it from the other side, as if she had been watching and waiting for me to get there. My key stuck in the keyhole and pulled out of my hand.
“Hey!” I said, trying to grab my key back as Mom opened the door.
“Hi,” Mom said, giving me a hug, which I awkwardly attempted to return as I dropped my bag and continue to try to take my key back from the door.
“Hi,” I said. “Can I get my key back?”
Mom looked confused until she saw me grabbing toward the keyhole. “Oh,” she said. “Sorry.” Mom handed me the key. “How was the drive?”
“Good.” I climbed upstairs to put my things in my room. I heard Mom climbing the stairs speaking in a high-pitched baby-talk voice. She stepped into the door, holding Davey, a large fluffy long-haired gray cat.
“Your big brother is home!” Mom said to Davey. Davey said nothing in return. Mom handed Davey to me. I took him and scratched his head, and he ran off.
“Are you hungry?” Mom asked. “I made chicken.”
I came back downstairs and ate dinner, conscious of a sports highlight show in the background that Dad and Mark were watching. Mom told me some things about some people she knew from church and some of her coworkers. I don’t remember what any of that was about, because I didn’t know any of those people. Eventually I heard her ask something about homework.
“I have some reading to do for that Empires class. And I have a math test coming up.”
“How are your classes so far?”
“Not too bad. This math class is easy, because about half of the material I already did last year in AP Calculus.”
“That’s good. Mark is really having trouble with math so far. Maybe you can help him.”
“I’m fine!” Mark shouted from the other room. “I don’t need help!”
“Sounds like he doesn’t need help,” I said.
“So you’re going to the game tomorrow,” Mom said. “Are you going to the dance afterward too?”
“I’m thinking yes, but I might change my mind and come home early.”
“That’s okay. Whatever you want to do.”
Jeopardy! came on at 7:00. I was a trivia buff, and so was Mom. After Jeopardy!, I got pretty bored. I left my computer in Jeromeville, so I couldn’t check my email or look for chat room girls to flirt with. I went upstairs and read and studied for a while. At 9:00, I went back downstairs to watch The X-Files. Dad had gotten into this show the year before, when it was new, and the rest of us had started watching it regularly by the end of the season. It was about two FBI agents who investigated cases involving the unexplained, and there was all this stuff about government coverups and aliens. I had a very small TV in my dorm room with a rabbit-ear antenna, and The X-Files was one of the few shows I was keeping up with. After the show was over, I went upstairs and did some more reading before bed.
As I walked toward the football field at Plumdale High on Saturday afternoon, I realized that I had built up the thought of Homecoming in my head to the point that the actual Homecoming itself was a bit anticlimactic. After all, I was just here three weeks ago, and there had not been another home game since then. So, up to this point, I had been to every football game at Plumdale High so far this year.
A large tent had been set up with cake and punch and other goodies for alumni. I went and hung out in the tent for a while.
“Greg Dennison!” I heard a voice say.
I turned around, although I recognized the voice. “Hi, Mr. Pereira,” I said. He had been my physical education teacher freshman year.
“Where are you this year? What are you studying?”
“Jeromeville. I haven’t declared a major yet, but I’m thinking something math or science.”
“Good for you! Mr. Peterson is around here somewhere today. He went to Jeromeville too.”
“I know,” I said. “I saw him right before I left for Jeromeville.”
“You like it there so far?”
“I do. How’s your year going?”
“Same old same old,” he said. “Still teaching PE. I need to go check on something, but hey, it was good to see you. Have a great year!”
“You too,” I said. I hated PE. Although I loved watching sports, I had no athletic talent of my own. Mark got all the athletic talent in our family, and I worked the snack bar and scoreboard at his baseball and basketball games. And with the way general freshman PE was graded at Plumdale High, you couldn’t get above a B if you weren’t fast enough or strong enough, and that messed up my 4.0 all through freshman year. However, I loved Mr. Pereira. He was nice, he was funny, and although he had that tough guy coach persona, I could tell underneath that he believed in me. It’s interesting how the teacher from the class you hate can become one of your favorite teachers.
“Hey, you!” I heard a voice say to me a few minutes later. It was Kim Jensen. She had slightly curly hair, pretty blue eyes, and a nice smile, and I had had a big crush on her for pretty much the entire first half of high school. Unlike the stereotypical crush on someone out of one’s league, she knew I existed, from having had a few classes together, and she was always nice to me. But she had her life of being a cheerleader and dating older football players, and I had my life of doing homework and not knowing how to tell girls I liked them. So in that sense, it was pretty hopeless.
“Kim!” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m great! How are you? Where are you now?”
“Jeromeville. I really like it so far.”
“Good! I’m at Valle Luna State.”
“That’s what I thought. How is it?”
“My classes are kind of hard, but I’m having fun! Hey, I have to go, but it was good to see you!”
As Kim walked away, I found a seat to watch the game. It was an overcast day, and I was starting to get cold, so I put on my sweatshirt. I had just bought it at the university bookstore a few days earlier; it was gray, with JEROMEVILLE written across the front in a typical college sweatshirt front, and the university seal below it. The writing was dark blue with a gold outline, UJ’s school colors.
Rachel Copeland walked up to me a while later. “You’re still here!” she said, just as she had three weeks ago at the last football game the day before I left.
“I just came home for Homecoming,” I said. “I’ve been at school for three weeks.”
“I know,” she said. “How do you like it?”
“It’s been really good so far. And my classes aren’t too hard. How are you? How’s senior year going?”
“Great! I love all my classes so far. Especially AP Spanish.”
“I enjoyed that class last year. Is Señora Rodriguez still teaching it?”
“Yes. She’s so good.”
“Do you know what you’re doing next year after you graduate?” I asked.
“I’ve been looking at colleges, but I’m not sure where I’m going yet.”
“That’s ok. You have time.”
I watched the game for a bit without talking. The opposing team, North Gabilan High, scored a touchdown. After a few minutes, Rachel asked, “Who all from your class is here?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I saw Kim Jensen earlier, but I haven’t heard from anyone from my usual group of friends at all.”
“Yeah. I gave them all my address and phone number and email, but I haven’t heard from any of them yet.”
“I’ll write to you. Give me your address.”
“Sure!” I got a pen out of my pocket, tore off a piece of my program from the football game, and wrote my address, phone number, and email, and gave it to Rachel.
At halftime, the game was tied 14-14. The parade of class floats drove around the field, and the winners of Homecoming King and Queen were announced. The Queen was Sandra Soto; we were in Señora Rodriguez’s Spanish class together the year before. She was nice. The King was a guy named Matt Ewing, who had just come off the football field and was wearing his jersey and helmet. I didn’t know Matt well, but I knew who he was. He was dating a girl named Annie Gambrell, a junior this year, who I knew from a class project. I took a Video Production class my senior year, and one of our assignments was to film some presentations that another class was doing, and Annie was part of the presentation that I was filming. Annie was really cute, which meant that I wished Matt didn’t exist, in one sense.
It seems like so many of these stories from my past involve really cute girls who I never had a chance with and didn’t know how to communicate to. To be honest, that’s pretty much just who I am. That’s the story of my life.
Anyway, I didn’t know if Annie and Matt were still together, but regardless, I always thought it must be weird to be Homecoming King, or Queen, or any of the younger class Princes and Princesses, and to have a significant other who isn’t the person who won the title for the other gender. But that was never my concern. I wasn’t the type of person who was ever nominated for Homecoming King or Prince.
During the third quarter, Rachel went off to sit with some other friends. I got up to go to the bathroom. On the way back, I said hi to a girl from my class who still lived in Plumdale. Plumdale High scored another touchdown late in the third quarter, and that score held for the rest of the game. Plumdale won, 21-14.
As I was getting up, walking toward ground level at the top of the bleachers, I saw Annie leaning against the rail looking out toward the field. “Hey, Annie,” I said.
Annie looked up. “Greg! Hi!” she said.
“How are you?”
“I’m good! Just waiting for Matt to get off the field. How are you?” I made a mental note that Annie and Matt appeared to still be together. Annie pointed to my shirt. “Jeromeville? That’s where you’re going now? How do you like it?”
“It’s great so far,” I said. “Being out on my own is nice. And my classes aren’t too hard yet.”
“My brother goes there. Ryan Gambrell. He’s a sophomore.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t know that Annie had a brother. I didn’t remember that name at PHS. Maybe he went to a different school, for some reason. “I’ll remember that if I ever meet him.”
“Are you gonna be at the dance tonight?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Great! I’ll see you there!”
“Yes. See you there,” I said. As I walked back to the car, I wondered if I should have asked Annie to keep in touch, as I had asked Rachel earlier. She had a boyfriend, though, and I didn’t want it to be weird. And I didn’t know her as well as I knew Rachel.
I went home, ate dinner with my family, changed into nicer clothes, and got to the dance about 10 minutes after it started. It wasn’t very full yet, but people would probably be trickling in. I didn’t see anyone I knew yet, although there were a few familiar faces.
None of my close friends seemed to be home this weekend for Homecoming. I didn’t know, though, because none of my close friends had actually communicated with me at all. It was a little frustrating. During the last year and a half of high school, I finally started to feel like I had friends, and now they all abandoned me. Of course, it wasn’t all their fault; we had all gone away for college, and we were busy and had new lives now. I still wished I had heard something from them by now, though. I had Melissa’s address, and I had written to her, but she hadn’t written back.
A girl named Lisa, who had stayed in Plumdale and was attending Santa Lucia Community College, arrived at the dance soon after I did and asked me to dance. We had had many classes together going back to middle school, and I felt a little less awkward than usual dancing with her because I had danced with her at many school dances before. I gave her my contact information and asked her to keep in touch with me.
“Greg!” someone called as I was walking around the edge of the dancing area. I turned around and saw someone in a fancy-looking black dress. She had dark extensively styled hair. It was Sandra Soto.
“Sandra,” I said. “How are you? Congratulations on being Homecoming Queen.”
“Thanks,” she replied. “How’s college? Where are you now?”
“University of Jeromeville. So far I love it. Classes aren’t too hard, and I’ve made friends in my dorm.”
“Good! I’m glad to hear that. I’m thinking of applying there. I don’t know if my grades are quite good enough, though.”
“It doesn’t hurt to try.”
“That’s true. Hey, you wanna dance?”
“Sure!” I said. We walked out to the dance floor. It was a slow song. Sandra put her arms on my shoulders as we gently swayed and turned to the music. A slow dance with the Homecoming Queen… not bad for a nerdy outcast kid. Although I was never one of the popular kids, I found that quite a few of the popular kids knew me and were nice to me. My experience with cliques and bullying in high school wasn’t nearly as bad as the stereotypes and stories I’ve heard.
I didn’t really dance a whole lot the rest of the night. I did see Annie Gambrell, and she danced with me. So did Rachel Copeland, and one other girl who I had been in classes with. But it wasn’t really all that fun. I actually left about 20 minutes early. I was getting tired. Was it possible that high school dances just weren’t fun anymore now that I was out of high school? For that matter, a lot of times they weren’t all that fun when I was still in high school. I didn’t really know how to dance, I was still a little self-conscious about that, and a lot of times I’d get turned down when I asked someone to dance. I kept going, I guess, because I hoped that someone actually would dance with me. Sometimes it happened, sometimes it didn’t. Tonight it happened a few times, but for some reason, it just didn’t seem as exciting.
I quietly walked into the house. Mark was watching TV, and Mom had fallen asleep on the couch. I waved to Mark and tiptoed across the living room, but Mom heard me. “Oh, hey,” she said groggily. “I’m watching a show about making boats.”
“No, you’re not,” I said, as I clearly saw the TV playing the sports talk show that Mark was watching. “You’ve been asleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. I wasn’t quite tired yet, so I lay on the bed, thinking about the day I just had. I pulled my yearbook from senior year at Plumdale High off the shelf, feeling a little sentimental, and started reading what people wrote to me.
You are a very interesting guy. Believe in yourself. Good luck in college, and best wishes on your future plans.
Well I didn’t really see ya much this year, but it was a great senior year! I hope you have a great summer! Make it the best!
Hey, thanks for doing such a great job on my video production at the beginning of the year. I am glad that I met you. I think that you are going to go very far in life, so I wish you all the luck in the world. Keep smiling, ‘cuz it makes everyone happy.
Hello! This may come out really backwards but you’ve improved SOOOOOO much from the first time I met you. Actually I can remember when I met you. It was in 8th grade math class. You were so uncertain of yourself. But you’re so much more relaxed now, in and out of class. You have a good smile and even though you have been using it more lately, I’d like to see it a lot more! Have a great summer!
You’re a really sweet & very funny guy that I got to know this year. Hope you had fun in Spanish class. Good luck in the future. I know you’ll do great! Just let everyone see the true & funny you.
Love, Sandra Soto
There were many other encouraging notes from people I didn’t see today, of course. And they weren’t all from girls; I just tended to remember the girls more because I was a teenage boy. But as I drifted off to sleep, thinking about what people wrote to me, I kept noticing a recurring pattern of people telling me to believe in myself, to be confident, and to smile. I really needed to take that advice. If only it were that easy.
I brought my yearbook from senior year back to Jeromeville with me. But of all the people I saw at Plumdale High’s Homecoming, only one of them stayed in touch with me consistently (spoiler alert: it was Rachel). I would randomly cross paths with one more of these people in 1995 (spoiler alert: it was Annie), and I would see one of these people again about ten years later, plus I hear from her every once in a while now in the social media era (spoiler alert: it’s Lisa). But high school was over. I had these memories to hold on to, but they were just that, memories. This wasn’t my life anymore. It was time to learn from this and keep moving forward. Tomorrow, I would get back to Jeromeville, ready to show Building C the true and funny me, like Sandra said. And as I drifted off to sleep, I was smiling, because Annie said it made everyone happy.
And one other thing: to this day, Mom doesn’t remember talking about making boats in her sleep. That has been an inside joke in our family ever since.