November 10-12, 1995.  Creating a fantasy world.

The first World War ended on November 11, 1918, and many of the countries involved now observe a holiday on November 11.  The holiday goes by different names around the world; in the United States, we call it Veterans Day.  Many government offices are closed on Veterans Day, and students are off school.  When November 11 falls on a weekend, as it did this year, schools close on the nearest Friday or Monday.

Except for the University of Jeromeville.  We got no day off.  Even last year, when November 11 was on an actual school day, we got no day off.  I never knew why.  I wondered if this was a legacy of universities traditionally being full of anti-war hippie types who did not want to celebrate our military.  But we did get a day off in May for Memorial Day, the holiday commemorating those who died serving our country.  And the building I was walking through right now was called the Memorial Union, or the “MU” for short, named to remember UJ students who died in military service.

It had been a typical Friday so far.  My day started waiting in the hallway of Wellington Hall for math class, because another class occupied the classroom immediately before our class.  Jack Chalmers from my class said hi to a girl named Lizzie as she left that class and we entered the room for ours, just as he did every day.  Math was easy.  I crossed the street to the MU at 10 and did homework for an hour.  I met some tutees in 102 Wellington, the tutoring room, at 11.  I just learned that word this quarter working for the Learning Skills Center: “tutee,” meaning one who is being tutored.  Tutee is a great word.  At 12, I walked down Colt Avenue to 199 Stone for chemistry, and then back to the MU to eat lunch.  I got up, went to the bathroom, and walked back through the MU on the way to my physics class in Ross Hall when I saw her.

When I see a familiar face in a setting that this person is not normally connected to, my brain always takes a few seconds to register what I am seeing.  At first all I saw was two young-looking girls walking toward me.  They were both a little on the short side.  One wore a dark red sweatshirt with a hood and a brand name logo unfamiliar to me, and the other wore a black jacket with white sleeves, and a large letter P on her left side.  I recognized that this was a Plumdale High School letter jacket.

What is a Plumdale High School letter jacket doing in Jeromeville?  Who is this person?  Do I know her?

Holy crap, it’s her.  What is she doing here?  What do I say?

Just before she walked past me, I said, “Annie?”

The two girls stopped.  Annie, the one in the Plumdale High jacket, looked at me, looking just as surprised as I was at first until recognition came over her face a second later.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.  “Visiting your brother?”

“My boyfriend goes here now too,” Annie replied.

There it is again.  The B word.  I wondered whether she was still with the same boyfriend as last year, or if this was some new guy.  Either way, though, Annie’s boyfriend was not me.

“It was good seeing you,” I said.  “Have a great weekend!”

“You too!” Annie replied.  The girl she was with waved at me; I recognized this girl’s face, she was from Plumdale High too, but I could not remember her name.

My mind raced as I walked away from them, toward my physics class.  Annie Gambrell was here, in Jeromeville.  I had a chance to talk to her, and I felt like I blew it.  Should I have said more?  She seemed busy, and she was not here to visit me.  She had a boyfriend; she was not coming here to meet guys.  But I did not know when, or if, I would ever see her again.  Maybe I should have talked more.  Or maybe she doesn’t really care about me, and all that nice stuff she wrote in my yearbook senior year was just for the sake of being polite and she didn’t really mean it.  Should I tell Annie’s brother next time I see him that I ran into her?  Does he think it’s weird that I have an unrequited crush on his unavailable little sister, even though I haven’t actually told him anything other than that I know her?

After physics class, I had another tutoring group back in the study room at 102 Wellington.  “Hi,” the tall blonde guy who was just finishing a tutoring group at the table next to me said as I walked in.   I knew from looking at the schedule of tutoring groups in this room that his name was Scott Madison.  He looked familiar for some reason, but maybe I was just used to seeing him here.

“Hi,” I replied to Scott.  I then turned to two of the three students in my group who were already waiting and asked, “Are you ready to get started?”

My tutoring group went as they usually do.  These students were in Short Calculus, Math 16A, for majors which do not require any math above calculus.  Their work focuses on finding and applying derivatives of functions without studying the theory and proofs behind derivatives.  I did not enjoy tutoring the Math 16 series as much as I did the 21 series, for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, because it was difficult for me, as a math guy, to gloss over the theoretical stuff.  But I got paid to do so, and I did my best, hoping not to confuse the students too much.

At four o’clock, when the tutoring group was finished, I walked diagonally across the Quad to the Learning Skills Center in Krueger Hall to turn in my time sheet for tutoring, as I did every other Friday, then back along East Quad Avenue to catch a bus home from the MU.  A few hours later, after napping and eating, I returned to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I drove this time, because parking is easy to find and slightly less expensive in the evening.

Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis were standing around talking on the far side of the lecture hall where the group was held; I walked over to them and said hi.  The four of them all lived in the same apartment complex, the boys in one apartment and the girls in another, and all of us were in the same dorm last year.

“Hey, man,” Taylor said.  “How’s it goin’?”

“Pretty good,” I replied.

“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.

“One of my friends from high school, she’s a senior this year, I saw her and her friend walking around campus today.  It was unexpected.”

“What was she doing here?” Krista asked.  “Touring the campus?”

“Her brother goes here.  I know him.  And she said her boyfriend goes here too.”

“So was she skipping school?” Taylor asked, adding sarcastically, “I don’t know anything at all about skipping classes…”

“She probably didn’t have school today,” I explained.  “Tomorrow is Veterans Day.  We always got that off in high school.”

“Oh yeah.  It’s a holiday.”

“Why don’t we get Veterans Day off?” Charlie asked rhetorically.  “It’s not fair.”

“It’s supposed to be a holiday?” I heard Jason Costello’s voice say behind me.

“Tomorrow is Veterans Day,” I explained, turning around.  Ramon Quintero and his girlfriend Liz Williams were with him; they were all in our dorm last year as well.  “I don’t know why Jeromeville doesn’t get it off, but I noticed that last year too.”

There had been no JCF the week before, because the group had been on a retreat with sister chapters of this organization at other colleges and universities in the region.  I had not attended the retreat, but most of my friends here did.  Taylor and Charlie were talking about something that happened to Pete Green, Taylor and Charlie’s third roommate, at the retreat.  “Where is Pete tonight anyway?” I asked.

“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.

“Visiting his family there?”

“Yeah.”

I heard someone from the worship band welcoming us to JCF and saying that it was time to get started.  As the band played, and sang along to lyrics being displayed on an overhead projector, my eyes scanned the front of the room, watching the people on the worship team.  I saw the drummer and realized something: it was Scott Madison, the other tutor who had said hi to me this afternoon.  That was why he looked so familiar; this was my third time at JCF, and I had probably seen him play drums here before.  At the end of the night, I said hi to him and formally introduced myself; he seemed like a nice guy.  (A few years later, Scott would become the first non-relative to invite me to his wedding, and I still get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.)

 

Although my Friday had ended on a good note, I woke up feeling down again on Saturday morning.  It was a cool and gloomy day, with gray skies that threatened rain.  Summer in Jeromeville is sunny and hot, and winter is relatively mild compared to much of the United States.  It only snows high in the mountains, snow here on the valley floor is very rare, but rain is fairly common in the winter.  And the transition period from summer to winter is very short, usually occurring around early November.  Winter had arrived earlier this week, and it was supposed to rain intermittently all weekend.  Rain made me sad and anxious.

I spent the morning doing homework and reading.  By mid-afternoon, some patches of blue sky had appeared, and the threat of rain had passed, so I went for a bike ride.  I started riding through the Greenbelts, then back down G Street toward downtown, but despite keeping myself busy, I kept thinking about my chance encounter with Annie yesterday.  Why hadn’t I asked for her address or phone number, so I could try keeping in touch?  I subconsciously knew that there was no point, though.  I had given her my address at Plumdale High’s Homecoming a year ago and never heard from her, and knowing that she had a boyfriend made it feel futile to pursue anything, although I would have been happy just being friends.

Two years ago, I was a senior at Plumdale High, and I felt like I grew a lot that year.  I finally had a social life, and I made new friends, including Annie.  But then I graduated, I moved away, many of my senior class friends moved away in different directions, and I lost touch with many of my friends.  There was no texting or social media in those days, and only a few of my friends used email, so it was difficult to keep in touch.  And despite all that, I still felt like I was on the outer fringes of the social circle in high school, not really one of them.

I wished that the events of my senior year had happened during sophomore or junior year instead.  That way, I might have had time to solidify some of those friendships before we scattered.  Maybe I would have learned how to actually ask a girl out.  Maybe Annie would have broken up with her boyfriend, and I would have been able to use those new skills.

What if I just ran away and pretended to be in high school again?  What would that be like?  What would it take?  A fake birth certificate would probably be hard to find.  Maybe I wouldn’t need one.  Maybe I would just need fake transcripts to show to the new school.  Being 19 and still in high school was unusual, but not exactly unheard of.  My birthday came right at the start of the school year, so I started kindergarten when I was barely 5.  Some parents would have chosen for me to start kindergarten the following year.  My parents did that with my brother Mark; with his birthday in October, they chose to wait until he was almost 6 to put him in kindergarten.  Mark would turn 18 in the fall of 1999, early in his senior year, and someone his age who had repeated a grade in elementary school would be a 19-year-old senior.

Could I do this?  Would it be possible to fake my identity and get a second try at my senior year of high school?  Probably not.  Lying on important documents like transcripts seemed too dishonest and illegal for me to be comfortable with it.  But, I thought, all of this seemed like a great premise for a work of fiction.

I had been writing again in my spare time recently.  Last year, I wrote a short novel called The Commencement, based on all the growing up I did as a senior in high school.  I had been revising and expanding it lately, and it was up to 62 pages.  I was running out of ideas for how to expand The Commencement, so maybe it was time to work on something new.

As I continued riding my bike that afternoon, along the entire length of the Arboretum and back up Andrews Road toward home, I kept thinking about faking my identity and going back to high school.  How would that be possible?  Maybe this story would take place at a different point in life; going back to high school now seemed like too much of a stretch, and none of my thoughts led to anything realistic.  Maybe my character would run away while he was a senior in high school, and go to a new school in a new town, pretending to be two years younger.  I would focus my writing on everything he dislikes about life, and all of his unfinished business, to make the desire to run away real.  But if he is not an adult, how can he just do this, and where would he go?  That was easy; I could make him turn 18 early in his senior year.  And I could give him divorced parents living far from each other, so he would have the option to go move in with the other parent.

When I got home from my bike ride, I showered and put a frozen dinner in the microwave.  I put on some music from high school, starting with Pearl Jam’s Ten album, and began writing.  I started my novel, which was still untitled at this point, by quoting a song lyric, as Stephen King often did with his novels, then proceeded to set the scene of a character who felt like he did not fit in with his friends.


“I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life”
—Pink Floyd

1

“Where were you this morning?” Ryan asked Sara.

“I was…” Sara paused.  “Sleeping in,” she said, with a mischievous grin on her face.

Sleeping in? Jon thought.

“You missed class?” Becky teased.

“He said we didn’t have to come today,” Sara said defensively.  “He was just doing a review for the test tomorrow.  I needed a break, and I feel prepared for the test.”  Jon began to feel somewhat angry after hearing this.

“How did you get out of band?” Kate asked.  “Does Mr. Jackson know you were gone?”

“He knows,” Sara said.  “He knows I had to see the dentist.”  Sara and the others laughed.  All except Jon.  Some people could just do whatever they wanted and not get caught.  But if Jon tried it, he would get stopped at the gate because ___ High School was a closed campus.  It wasn’t fair.


I left the name of the school blank.  I had not decided yet where Jon and his friends lived.  I usually wrote about places familiar to me, so they would have to live somewhere back home in Santa Lucia County, or Jeromeville, or maybe across the Drawbridge from Jeromeville in Capital City, or maybe Bidwell where my dad had family.  But it would make more sense to have Jon run away to one of those places familiar to me, and to have the story open somewhere else, somewhere more interesting.  I thought about different cities and states that had been on my mind recently and settled on San Diego, California, where my friend Pete had once lived and was currently visiting his family.  I could ask Pete next time I saw him to suggest a good name for a high school in San Diego.

I continued writing about Jon’s day.  Jon heard his friends talk about college applications, and about movies they liked that Jon had never seen, and movies they hated that Jon liked.  I wrote about Jon’s feelings of inferiority regarding a lack of extracurricular activities for college applications, and a conversation he had with the school counselor about this, and more laments in Jon’s head about not belonging and not feeling good enough.  I thought back to yesterday when I ran into Annie Gambrell and wrote this scene for the end of Jon’s school day.


“Jon! What are you doing?”  He looked up at Kelly ___, one of the few underclassmen he knew.  He met her last month while interviewing her for the yearbook, doing the page on the women’s’ JV cross-country team.  Sometimes Jon thought that the fact that women’s’ JV cross-country got two whole pages in the yearbook was just part of an international conspiracy that ensured that certain people, who were labeled “popular,” got in the yearbook at least twenty times every year whereas other people only got in once.  This was the same conspiracy that invented Homecoming Queens and the modern system of student government.  Jon had nothing against women’s sports, or unpopular sports; he just didn’t like being unpopular.

“Hi.”  Jon looked up and saw that she was with a friend.  He thought the friend’s name was Nicole, but he did not know her.

“What are you doing?  Waiting for someone?” Kelly asked.

“No.  Just…” he paused.  “Thinking.”

“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.

“I’m all right.  I just kind of had a rough day.”

“Don’t worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Jon replied.  “See you later.” Jon really liked Kelly.  She seemed really nice, and she was pretty too.  She had a beautiful smile.  Unfortunately, she already had a boyfriend.  Jon got in his truck and drove home, thinking about what it would be like to have a relationship with Kelly.


I thought about making the last name for the Annie character something that sounded like Annie, or like Gambrell.  The only thing I could think of was “Aniston,” the last name of one of the actors on the TV show Friends.  There was no way I would name someone in my story after Friends, so I left it blank and moved on.

I spent most of the rest of that weekend writing, finishing chapter 1 and half of chapter 2, establishing the mood of Jon feeling out of place and wanting to start over, wanting more time to live the high school experience.  I also mentioned that Jon’s father lived five hundred miles away in Capital City, with a second wife who had two children of her own.

I never did see or hear from Annie again after that day.  I could have asked her brother to get in touch with her for me, I saw him at church the next day, but that just felt weird.  Annie was off limits because she had a boyfriend.  But I continued to work on this novel for the next several months.  I had no plans to act out the premise of this novel, to run away and go back to high school, nor did I have a realistic way of doing so.  I knew that that would never happen.   But it was interesting to think about, and fun to put these thoughts on paper.  If they could not happen in real life, I could create a fantasy world where these things happened, as long as I knew that it was just fantasy and did not let it consume my life.


Author’s note: Yes, these are actual excerpts from a novel I wrote in 1995-96.  More about that later.

Also, in real life it’s my birthday!  Well, yesterday was.

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.

 

Early April, 1995. Tear down the wall.

The University of Jeromeville is on a three quarter schedule.  My classes last for one-third of the school year instead of the traditional half-year.  Year-long classes are still year-long classes, but split into three parts instead of two.  Winter break falls one-third of the way through the year, which is why UJ starts and ends later than most universities. The spring break at the end of March, which had just passed, comes two-thirds of the way through the year, so that this coming Monday morning I would have new spring quarter classes.  The terms are called quarters even though there are three of them.

Right now, it was early afternoon on the Saturday at the end of spring break.  I had left my parents’ house in Plumdale around 11 in the morning and stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s in Irving just off Highway 6, where I had Chicken McNuggets.  I hadn’t yet outgrown Chicken McNuggets at age 18; that would happen over the next year or so. I arrived back at Building C a little before two o’clock.

The entire South Residential Area was quiet.  Most normal students waited until Sunday night to return to Jeromeville, because most normal students preferred to be at home on vacation and not back at school.  I would rather be here. It was quieter here than at my parents’ house.  I didn’t have friends in Plumdale. And, perhaps most importantly, my computer was here. I didn’t take my computer home, and there was no way to access the Internet from my parents’ house.

It wasn’t exactly correct to say that I didn’t have friends in Plumdale.  Melissa Holmes was home for break the same week I was, and we had gone to see some of our old teachers at Plumdale High.  I stayed until lunch time and saw many of my teachers and some friends from younger classes, including Rachel Copeland, the only younger friend at Plumdale High who had kept in touch with me consistently.  That was a great day.

I checked my email, and today’s date on the incoming messages caught my eye: April 1.  April Fool’s Day. I got an idea. I opened a new email and copied and pasted the list of email addresses for all 70 students in the IHP.


Dear friends,

I have really enjoyed being part of the IHP with all of you these last two quarters.  Unfortunately, some circumstances have changed back home, and I will be unable to finish out the school year here at UJ.  I hope to stay in touch with all of you, and I might be back someday when everything gets sorted out.

Sincerely,

Greg

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APRIL FOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :) Gotcha!


 

After I sent my April Fool email, I replied to Molly Boyle, an online friend from Pennsylvania, telling her about my visit to Plumdale.  I got to thinking about Plumdale High… I really needed another year there.  Sure, I was done with classes, but I grew so much senior year, I made new friends and had so many new experiences, and then we all graduated and moved away, leaving what felt to me like unfinished business.  I was the quiet kid who kept to myself and did homework at lunch, then all of a sudden I was performing in skits and working behind the scenes in the video yearbook club, and popular kids whom I barely knew were talking to me like old friends.  But I never got the chance to get more involved with school activities. I never got the chance to find out if Jennifer Henson actually liked me, or if Annie Gambrell really meant anything when she told me to keep smiling. But I had a great story to tell.  I decided I was going to make something of my senior year, and I did, even if everything I was building ended abruptly. It was the kind of story that could be made into a movie, or a novel.

Wait a minute, I thought.  I opened Microsoft Word and started typing.

Roar Like A Panther
A Novel
by Gregory J. Dennison

That was a dumb title.  I would fix it later, when I thought of something better.

“Tom,” Mom called out to me.  “Telephone call.”

I hated taking telephone calls.  I have always been really shy on the telephone.  I figured I knew who it was calling. I took the telephone into the next room.  “Hello?”

“Hey, Tom.  It’s Nancy.”  As I had suspected.

“Hi.”

“How’s your spring break going?”

“Fine.  And yours?”

“I haven’t really done much,” she said.  “I’ve just been hanging out with my family.”

“I saw a movie with Kate,” I said.

“How is she?”

“She’s doing fine.  We didn’t really talk much, though, but it was nice to see her anyway.”

“So anyway, I was going to go visit Mrs. Jordan tomorrow.  Do you want to come with me?”

“Sure!” I said.  “At the school?”

“Yes.  They’re still in school this week.”

“Right.  What time?”

“Is 8:30 all right, or is that too early?”

“Yes.  That’s fine.”

“Great!” Nancy exclaimed.  “I’ll see you there.”

“Bye,” I said.  I hung up.

I wrote for hours, telling about my senior year as well as I could remember, except that I changed most of the characters’ names.  Melissa was Nancy; one time in high school, she complained that someone said she looked like her name should be Nancy, so I figured I’d go with it.  Catherine became Kate; that one didn’t change as much.  Mrs. Norton changed to Mrs. Jordan. That one didn’t really mean anything. My name in the story was Tom, because this was going to be the next Great American Novel, and I noticed once that so many great works of American literature that I had to read in school had a character named Tom.  Tom Sawyer. Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath. Thomas Putnam from The Crucible.  Tom Robinson from To Kill A Mockingbird.  Tom Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie.

Every once in a while, as I was writing, I walked down the hallway to drink from the water fountain; I also used the bathroom on those trips down the hall if I needed to.  I always tend to do this as I write. I’m not sure if it helps my brain work, or if it is more of a distraction. By the time I went to bed that night, shortly after eleven o’clock, I had already written the story of my senior year of high school up until mid-November, filming other classes’ projects for my computer graphics and video production class and meeting Annie Gambrell (or Laurie Hampton, as I called her in my novel).

 

Church on Sunday was emptier than usual, and I continued writing as soon as I got home.  Later in the afternoon, I started to hear more people walking around. Around three o’clock, I got up to use the bathroom, and I walked around the rest of the building, starting on the first floor.  The common area and study room took up almost half of the first floor, and the door of the room closest to the common area was open. I poked my head inside.

This room belonged to a short brown-haired girl named Heather Beck, but no one ever called her Heather.  She always had other Heathers in her classes growing up, so her friends started calling her Beck, and that mutated somehow into Bok, which is the nickname everyone called her now.  (Bok rhymes with rock.) Bok was good friends with Skeeter from the third floor; both of them were free-spirited artsy hippie types, although I never saw either of them wear the stereotypical tie-dye with Birkenstocks.

“Hey, Greg,” Bok said, looking up at me through her glasses.  She and Skeeter were sitting on the floor, looking at what appeared to be old newspapers spread flat on the floor.  “How was your break?”

“It was good.  I visited my old high school.  That was interesting.”

“I’m sure it was,” Skeeter said.  “I got this over break.” She gestured toward the pile of newspapers, and I saw in the middle of them a large sheet of high-quality paper with abstract green, gray, red, and brown swirls on part of it, along with a fancy set of watercolor paints, a few small brushes, and a cup of water.

“Nice!” I said as Skeeter painted black dots with long tails floating in a spiral arrangement.  “Is it bad that I can’t really tell what you’re painting?”

“I don’t know,” Skeeter shrugged, smiling, as Bok painted a blue-gray cloud shape at the other empty end of the paper.  “These look like sperm. The rest of it is just stuff. By the way, that was a great April Fool’s joke. Good one.”

“Thanks.”

“What was the joke?” Bok asked.

“I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t seen it yet,” Skeeter explained.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how your painting turns out,” I said.  “I started writing a novel yesterday.”

“Really?” Bok asked.  “You write?”

“I don’t know.  This isn’t really something I’ve done before.  When I was younger, I used to make comic books and copy them on the copier at my mom’s work.  I’d sell them to my brother’s friends for a quarter. But I’ve never really written prose… at least I’ve never finished a novel.”

“How long is it going to be?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s it about?”

“A coming of age story.  Based on my life last year.  I was thinking about this when I visited my old high school last week.”

“Makes sense,” Skeeter said.  “Let me know when you finish it.”

“Me too,” Bok added.

 

Monday was the first day of class for the quarter.  I had math first thing in the morning, as I always did, except this quarter it was nine o’clock instead of eight.  I had a whole hour more to sleep in every morning. I recognized some familiar faces from previous math classes: Jack Chalmers from Building F,  Tiffany from Building K, and a cute redhead from last quarter.

“Greg!” Jack said, speaking quickly as he always did, as we waited for the class that met an hour earlier in the same room to finish.  “How was your break?”

“Good,” I said.  “I went to visit my old high school.  How was yours? You went to Santa Lucia, right?”

“Yeah!  Did you say to take the 122 or 127 to Santa Lucia?”

“127.  Why? What happened?”

“On the way down, we couldn’t remember, so we took the 122 instead.  It was beautiful!”

“Really?” I asked.  “That’s a really windy mountain road, from what I remember.”

“It was great!  My friend has a brand new car that handles mountain roads really well, so we really enjoyed the drive.  And on the way back we took the 127. That was so much faster! It was only five miles to cut over to the coast.  Thanks again for the directions!”

“Glad you had a great drive!” I said.  I was surprised at his reaction. My mother apparently had a bad experience with mountain roads once, so she raised me to believe that mountain roads were the most frightening thing ever, to be avoided at all costs.  Apparently it was evident from Jack’s reaction that not all people think this way.

My math class that quarter was vector calculus.  I also had chemistry and physics later that day. I was taking a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law, but that class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, not today.

When I got back to Building C, Taylor, Pete, Liz, and Ramon were sitting on one couch in the common room, talking to Schuyler Jenkins and  a girl named Jenn who lived next to Pete, sitting on another couch. I waved at them.

“Greg!” Jenn said.  “You’re leaving us?”

I was confused by Jenn’s question, trying to process what she meant by leaving, but when Pete and Taylor started laughing, I realized what was going on here.  “You didn’t read all of my email, did you,” I said.

“Huh?” 

“It was an April Fool’s joke,” Taylor explained.

“Oh my gosh!” Jenn exclaimed, laughing.  “I can’t believe I fell for that!”

“Done with classes for the day?” Taylor asked.

“Yeah.  It was a good day so far.  I still have Psych-Law tomorrow.”

“Liz and I are in that class too,” Ramon said.

“I’ve been writing a novel for fun,” I said.

“Wow,” Taylor replied.  “What’s it about?”

“It’s a coming-of-age story.  It’s about my life last year.”

“Was your life really that interesting?” Schuyler asked in a dry deadpan tone.

“It was, actually.  That’s why I decided to write about it.”

“I didn’t know you liked to write.”

“It’s kind of new for me too.  I just felt like it. I’ve always had a creative side I don’t show much, but writing like this is kind of new for me.”

“Good luck with that,” Jenn said.

“Let me know when you’re done,” Liz said.  “I’ll read it.”

“Okay.  I will.”

 

I spent most of my free time during the first week and a half of spring quarter writing my story.  On Friday, I got back from my last class in the afternoon, ready to write the chapter where we took our senior trip to Disneyland.  But before I could get up to my room, I saw Skeeter and Bok in the common room working on two paintings. One of them was the one I had seen in Bok’s room a few days earlier, with the spiral of sperm, but the sperm had been painted over so that now they looked like crosses.  Someone had written “the downward spiral” at the bottom of the page. I was vaguely aware of this phrase being the title of an album by the band Nine Inch Nails. I had no idea that this band, or their genre of industrial rock, even existed until a few months ago; no one listened to that back home in Santa Lucia County, at least no one I knew.

The other painting was a new one.  The paper was in portrait orientation, the longer dimension vertical.  A long light green stripe, almost straight, ran across the painting from left to right, with a dark green stripe just below it.  The upper left corner had multicolored swirls, and something resembling a Venus flytrap was in the lower left, its mouth open to reveal red teeth.  Directly above the Venus flytrap was a large orange circle, touching the green stripe. Skeeter was painting a pink swirly whooshy thing (I’m not good at describing abstract art) coming down from the orange ball.

“Hi,” I said in Skeeter and Bok’s general direction.

“Bok turned my sperm into crosses!” Skeeter said, sounding jokingly angry.

“I didn’t know you wanted them to be sperm!” Bok argued back.

“I think it’s interesting either way,” I said.

“Come paint with us,” Skeeter said, handing me a brush.  On the right edge of the new painting, on top of a yellow spot, I painted twelve dark dots in a circle, with a thirteenth dot in the middle.  I added some thin horizontal stripes to the left of this, just above the center of the paper.

“I like that Venus fly trap thing,” I said.

“That was my idea,” Bok replied.  “So were the crosses.”

“They’re sperm,” Skeeter said.

“How’s your story coming along so far?” Bok asked.

“I’m getting there.  I’ve been writing a lot.”

“That’s cool.”

We continued talking and painting for about another hour.  I added some abstract patches of color in the upper right, and Skeeter eventually painted a bunch of parallel diagonal lines on top of it.  The pink swirly whooshy thing was extended toward the bottom of the page, where it split into several branches; other colored swirly whooshy things were added next to it, coming down from the parallel lines I painted.

When the page was filled with color, Skeeter said, “It needs a title.”

Flytrap,” Bok suggested.

“I don’t know.  That seems kind of obvious.”

I looked at the painting, the green stripe across its length, the horizontal lines just below  now emanating from long curved strokes of different colors.  I thought about the other painting, The Downward Spiral, how it had been named after a song and album.  I had been listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall earlier that day, a rock opera about a musician who deals with trauma by isolating himself from society and eventually becoming delusional.  Toward the end of the album, in a song called “The Trial,” the character’s life is presented as a judge accusing him of having human feelings, as if doing such is a crime.  The song ends with repeated chants of “Tear down the wall!”

“How about Tear Down The Wall?” I asked.

Skeeter and Bok looked at me.  “I like it,” Bok said. “I think it fits.”

“It’s got this wall separating the two sides,” Skeeter explained, tracing the green stripe in the middle.  “And there’s all this tension building up against the wall here,” she added, pointing to the horizontal lines just below the wall.  “Go ahead, Greg. Add the title.”

I painted TEAR DOWN THE WALL in black paint, in between the orange ball and the Venus fly trap.  Later that night, when the paint was dry, Skeeter and Bok taped both Tear Down The Wall and The Downward Spiral to the wall in the common room, where they stayed for the rest of the school year for all of Building C to admire.

 

I finished writing my story the following Monday, after I got back from my classes.  At 51 pages and about 33,000 words, it was a little short to be called a novel, but it was still the longest piece I had ever written, and it had only taken ten days.  I loaded the printer with paper, but before I started printing, I went all the way back to the first page and deleted the title. Roar Like A Panther was a stupid title, and I knew it all along.

The Commencement
A Novel
by Gregory J. Dennison

Graduation ceremonies are also called commencement ceremonies.  To commence means to begin, which at first seems like a counterintuitive title since graduation is the end of school, not the beginning.  But a commencement ceremony is the beginning of real life. And my senior year of high school felt like the beginning of something new in my life.  This was definitely a better title.

When my hard copy of The Commencement finished printing, I punched holes in the pages and put it in a report folder with a clear cover.  I wanted other people to read it, so I could find out what they thought of my story. I brought it with me to the common room after dinner, where I sat doing homework and waiting for someone with whom I felt comfortable sharing The Commencement.  Liz and Ramon walked by about fifteen minutes later.  “Hey, Greg,” Liz said. “What’s up?”

“I finished my story,” I replied, holding up The Commencement.

“That’s cool!  Can I read it?”

“Sure.  I’d like to know what you think.”

“Do you need it back in a hurry?”

“No.  Just eventually when you’re done.”

“I don’t know how long it’ll take.  But I’ll let you know.”

I smiled.  “Thank you.”

“No problem.  I think this is really cool.  I hadn’t pictured you to be a writer.”

“Thanks.  I don’t know if I had either.”

 

Skeeter and Bok were painting in the common room again three days later, and Pete, Charlie, and Liz were all on the floor painting too.  Bok’s stereo had been temporarily moved to the common room, and a strange song played, with a vocalist speaking monotonous rhythmic lyrics over a bass-driven melody.  It sounded like some kind of blend of rock, rap, and funk.

“Hi, Greg,” Liz said.  “You like our painting?”

“I do.”  This painting had four distinct quadrants arranged in a two-by-two grid, each with a distinct color scheme.  One was shades of gray; one was pale pastel-like colors; one had swirls of simple, bright colors, like red and blue; and one had dark shades of brown, olive green, midnight blue, and black.  The painting was almost finished, there was not much more to do, so I just made blobs and swirls of color, trying to stay close to the colors near what I was painting.

“What’s this music?” I asked.

“Cake,” Bok said.

“What?”

“A local band from Capital City, called Cake.  My friend and I went to their show the other day.  Apparently they’re going to be the next big thing.”

“They sound different.  But I kind of like it.”

“That’s how I feel about them too.”

“I finished your story,” Liz said.  “I put it over there on the coffee table.  I really liked it.”

“Thank you!”

“It sounds like you really enjoyed your senior year.”

“I did.  I feel like I was really growing.  And then it all suddenly stopped.”

“But now you’re here.  And you’re still growing.”

“Yes, I am,” I said.  Liz was right.  Sure, I never got to be in another Homecoming skit, and I never got a date with any of those girls I liked back in high school.  But instead of standing there looking through a door that had closed, I was now looking at new doors opening here at UJ.

“Does anyone have a good title for this painting?” Skeeter asked.

“Not really,” Pete answered.

“Maybe we should just look around somewhere and find some random title,” Charlie suggested.  “Like, look at these newspapers on the ground and find something in there.”

“I like that idea,” I said.  “Then the title will be something really off the wall and silly.”  I scanned the newspaper. My eyes quickly fell on an advertisement for a furniture store, and I pointed to a phrase from this advertisement.  “Like this one,” I added. “‘Everything 25% Off.’” The others laughed.

“I think it’s perfect!” Skeeter said.  “Because there are four parts.  Fourths, like 25 percent.”

“I think we have our title,” Pete said.  I took a paint brush and painted EVERYTHING 25% OFF in a corner of the painting, and later that night Everything 25% Off joined The Downward Spiral and Tear Down The Wall on the wall of the common room.

 

By the end of the year, there were around a dozen paintings on the wall.  When we moved out of the building, Skeeter and Bok let those of us who helped paint each keep one that we helped with.  To this day, Tear Down The Wall hangs on a wall at my house.

After I printed The Commencement, I left it in the common room for about a week, in case anyone else wanted to read it.  I’m not sure who all did, but Schuyler Jenkins pointed out a typo, and Skeeter told me it was a good first draft.  I also sent it to Molly from Pennsylvania in eleven separate emails over the next month, and she said she really liked it and felt like she had gotten to know me better.

Skeeter’s comment seemed kind of disappointing at first, since I thought The Commencement was finished, but she was right.  It was a good first draft. My writing style was too dry; I just listed things that happened instead of telling about them in a way that engaged the reader.  I worked on The Commencement again for a while in 1996, and again in 2002; by that time, it was almost three times as long as the original.  Interestingly enough, one of my friends who read the 2002 version said that the most relatable part was a chapter that I completely made up, something that never happened to me in real life.

I never considered writing for a career.  I was a math guy. I didn’t write. And creative writing wasn’t something that could make a steady career.  It is possible to make a living writing, of course; many writers and artists and musicians work on art in between working normal jobs, waiting to get discovered.  Some of these actually make it.  Bok’s friend who said that this local band Cake was the next big thing was right; Cake had several big hits over the next decade.  But making a life out of art requires much patience and uncertainty, and that part of it didn’t sound appealing to me. I’d stick to writing for fun.

The Commencement was the first piece of fiction I wrote that was based on myself, and it felt good to open up and share my story with a few others.  My own life has been my favorite inspiration for my writing over the years. I’ve written stories not based on me, but I do best when I write what I know, and I don’t understand others as well as I understand myself.  I hope that someone out there can learn something from reading my story.

tear down the wall

March 28-29, 1995. Back home, finding a new home, and visiting an old home.

“Remember the rule,” Mom said.  “Don’t shout out the answer until time is up, so we can have time to think about it.”

“I know,” I replied.  In our family, this was called the Malcolm X Rule.  A few years ago, the answer to the Final Jeopardy! question was Malcolm X, and Dad shouted out the answer before Mom was even done reading the question.  To this day, if Mom is watching Jeopardy! with other people in the room, she has to remind them of the Malcolm X Rule, and on those rare occasions when I am not alone while watching Jeopardy!, I tell people the rule as well.

“Did you still want to look at that apartment guide tonight?” Mom asked.

“Sure.  I’ll go get it.  We can look at it after Jeopardy! is off.”

I climbed the stairs to my room.  It was spring break, and I was back at my parents’ house in Plumdale for the week.  Tomorrow was the only day I had plans for, and I was a little nervous about that, but it would certainly make for an interesting day.

I ran down the stairs, holding the apartment guide, taking the stairs two at a time to make sure I got back to the TV before Jeopardy! came back from the commercial, but not running too loudly because Dad was asleep.  I had no place to live for next year, and I learned too late that apartments in Jeromeville fill up quickly. Jeromeville is a fairly small city with a large university, so students dominate the rental market, and most leases run from September through August.  Apartments are listed on March 1 to rent for the following September, and people had told me that most apartments are leased within the first few weeks of this process. By the time I figured out that everyone I knew was making living arrangements for next year, everyone I knew already had a roommate, and most of them had signed leases, so I was a little panicked about that.  The Associated Students organization publishes an apartment guide every year, which is what I held in my hands now, so at least that would help narrow down where I could find an appropriately sized and priced apartment, once I know whom, if anyone, I would be living with.

“Let’s see what our contestants know about Colonial America,” Alex Trebek said on the TV.  “Here is your clue: ‘President of the Continental Congress 1775-77, he was reelected in 1785 but didn’t serve due to illness.’”  The music played as the three contestants, Mom, and I thought about who this early American was.

“I don’t know,” Mom said as the song stopped and time ran out.  “I keep thinking George Washington, but I’m probably missing something.”

“I was going to say John Hancock.  His signature was first, so maybe he was President in 1776, I was thinking.”

“I bet you’re right.”

Each of the contestants revealed their answer, and Alex told them if they were correct or not.  John Hancock was correct, and two contestants got it right. Mom started looking through the apartment guide, as if to get a feel for what our options were.

“These are expensive!” she said.  That was definitely not what I needed to hear.  Of course, Mom hadn’t been in the market to rent an apartment since the early 1970s, so I don’t know if she had a good idea of how much rent was in a normal city.  I had no idea either, so I didn’t know if apartments in Jeromeville were more expensive than apartments in a normal city.

“Look at this place,” Mom said, pointing to the listing for some ritzy-sounding apartment in West Jeromeville.  “‘Includes access to Stone Park Country Club.’ You don’t need something like that.”

“I agree.”

“So what can you tell me about any of these places?”

“Central and Downtown Jeromeville are closest to campus, so that’d be an advantage to living there, but those are mostly older areas.  There’s one part of North Jeromeville with a whole lot of apartments and two grocery stores nearby, and easy bus access to campus, and those areas look pretty nice.  I’m probably most interested in those areas; the other parts of Jeromeville are getting farther away from campus, and I don’t want to be too far away.”

Mom and I continued looking at apartments; I made a mark next to the ones I wanted to look at more closely.  “How much money do we have to work with?” I asked. “What if I don’t find a roommate? Can we afford for me to live alone?”

“Don’t worry about it.  If we can’t, then you can always look for a part time job.  Or answer a roommate wanted ad.”

“You keep saying not to worry, and I appreciate it, but I need a number.  How much money? I need to know, so I can decide which places to call first, and whether or not I’ll need to get a job or room with a stranger.”

“Hmm,” Mom said, flipping through the apartment guide again.  “I think we can do $500 a month. We’ll make it work.”

With this additional parameter, I narrowed the decision to five apartment complexes that I would call and visit as soon as I got back to Jeromeville.  I had no idea if any of these apartment complexes still had vacancies. I didn’t have a timeline on how quickly Jeromeville runs out of apartments, so I didn’t know how likely these places were to have something still available.

I also felt guilty that my parents were spending that much money on me.  Some parents don’t help their children with college at all. I could have saved a lot of money by finding a roommate earlier, like everyone else did, and even though I didn’t realize I had to do this, it felt like my fault that I didn’t.  Getting my own apartment felt like a privilege I didn’t deserve, even though Mom seemed okay with it. Maybe I would look for a job for next year. I didn’t know what kind of job I was looking for, though. And this arrangement was only for one year; I’d do a better job of finding roommates for junior year when the time came.

“So what time are you meeting Melissa tomorrow?” Mom asked, changing the subject.

“Nine.”

“At the school?”

“Yes.”

“I think it’ll be fun to see all your old teachers.  Which teachers are you going to see?”

“I don’t know.  We’re going to see Mrs. Norton and Mr. Jackson for sure.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“I hope so.”

 

The next morning, I left the house in time to get to Plumdale High School at nine o’clock in the morning, just as I had planned.  Melissa Holmes had sent me an email a week ago asking if I was going to be home for spring break. She was coming home from San Angelo University and wanted to visit Plumdale High and say hi to some of our old teachers.  UJ and SAU had the same schedule, but our spring break was a different week from Plumdale High’s, so this was a regular school day for Plumdale High.

I saw Melissa’s little red Toyota Tercel in the parking lot.  I wasn’t sure exactly where to look for her, if she expected me to go to the office or to Mrs. Norton’s room or Mr. Jackson’s room or what, but as I got closer I noticed that Melissa was still sitting in the car.  I stepped outside. It was cold and overcast, with the marine fog layer hanging low overhead; I wore my sweatshirt that said JEROMEVILLE and had the university seal on it.

“Hey, Greg,” Melissa said, walking toward me and giving me a hug.  “How’s it going? How was your break?”

“Good so far.  I haven’t really done anything.  Just hung out with family. How are you?  Are you making any new friends at school? I remember we talked about that a while ago.”

“Yeah, I’ve started meeting people from classes, and from church.  It gets kind of lonely not living in a dorm.”

“But it’s cheaper for you living with your grandmother,” I said.  “And you probably also get more quiet study time than you would in a dorm.”

“Good point.”

“So does anyone know we’re coming today?”

“I had my brother tell Mrs. Norton we were coming.  Other than that, though, no.”

Melissa and I spent a few more minutes catching up in the parking lot, then we walked toward Mrs. Norton’s classroom.  Back in 1995, school security wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. Students didn’t wear ID cards on lanyards, and neither did teachers.  Visitors didn’t need passes, and many school campi didn’t even have fences around them. There was a chain link fence across the front of the PHS parking lot, with one of the full time campus supervisors stationed at the entrance to the parking lot, in a little booth, but that wasn’t an issue, because she knew me and she let me in.  She did ask if I had permission to be there, though; I said I was home on spring break, and that Mrs. Norton knew I was coming. That was good enough.

“Hey there!” Mrs. Norton said, in her distinct voice and accent, after we walked into her classroom.  Mrs. Norton was born and raised in Mississippi. “And Greg! You’re here too!” Mrs. Norton had been our teacher for AP Calculus last year, and she had been one of my favorite teachers at Plumdale High.  I also had her for the second semester of Algebra II as a sophomore.

“Hi,” I said.  “I hope that’s okay.  It sounds like you didn’t know I was going to be here.”

“Sure!”  Addressing the class, Mrs. Norton said, “Do y’all know Melissa and Greg?  They both graduated from here last year.” Mrs. Norton turned to us and explained, “This is Algebra II, so it’s mostly juniors, with some sophomores and a few seniors.”

“Right,” I said.

“So what are y’all majoring in?  Melissa, you’re pre-med, right?”

“Yes,” Melissa answered.  “Majoring in biology, specifically.”

“I’m technically undeclared,” I said.  “But right now I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.  I still like math, and I’m still good at math.”

“That’s great!” Mrs. Norton said.  “You’ll do great in math.”

Mrs. Norton finished the example she was working on, and when she gave the class a few minutes to work, she talked to us for a few more minutes, asking how we liked being away from home and things like that.  She eventually asked if we were going to visit anyone else while we were here, and Melissa said that we were going to see Mr. Jackson.

After the current period ended and the next one started, Melissa and I left for Mr. Jackson’s class, waiting until the end of the passing period in order to avoid the crowds trying to get to class on time.  Mr. Jackson was our teacher for AP English last year. He was tall and thin with curly gray hair, and he looked like he had been involved with theater at some point in his life. My mom told me once in the car on the way home that she thought he was gay, except that she used some much more inappropriate words in her description.  I didn’t care if he was or not, and it made me a little uncomfortable the way Mom talked about people behind their backs that way. I had to see and interact with Mr. Jackson every day of senior year with Mom’s inappropriate comment in the back of my head all the time.

“Melissa!” Mr. Jackson shouted enthusiastically as she walked into the classroom, with me right behind.  “Greg! You’re here too!” Mr. Jackson turned to his class of freshmen and added, “This is Melissa and Greg.  They graduated from Plumdale High last year. Melissa is at San Angelo University, and Greg is at… sorry, remind me?”

“Jeromeville.”

“Jeromeville!  That’s right. You’re wearing the sweatshirt and everything, I just noticed.  How do you guys like it?”

“I’m doing well in my classes,” Melissa said.  “And I live off campus, so it’s nice and quiet.”

“I’m in a dorm called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program,” I explained.  “I have some classes specifically for students in that program, so I know the people in my building better than if I had just been assigned a dorm randomly.  I’ve made some really good friends. And I’m still getting good grades. I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.”

“You were always good at math,” Mr. Jackson said.  “I could see that.”

Mr. Jackson got his class started on an assignment, and in between giving instructions to students, he continued catching up with us.  Melissa told him about how her family was doing, and mentioned that her brother was a sophomore at PHS currently and would probably have Mr. Jackson as a senior.  Mr. Jackson asked me more about the IHP, how it worked, and why I decided on math for my major.

After about fifteen minutes, we said our goodbyes to Mr. Jackson and his class and walked into the hallway.  “I need to get home,” Melissa told me. “I have something I need to get to. But it was good to see you, Greg.”

“You too!” I said.  “I think I’m going to stick around for a bit and say hi to a few other teachers.”

“You should!  Have a great day, and let me know who else you see.”

“I will.”

“Are there any students here who you still talk to?”

“Rachel Copeland is the only one who has really kept in touch at all.  I don’t know where she is right now, though.  She doesn’t know I’m here.”

“I don’t know either.  I’m sure you could ask.”

“Yeah.”

“Have a good one, Greg.  Take care.”

“You too.”

Melissa walked back toward the parking lot.  I walked to Mr. Peterson’s classroom. He taught economics to seniors all day, and he had also attended the University of Jeromeville, in the 1960s when it was much smaller.  His door was open, and I could hear him lecturing as I approached and quietly poked my head in the door.

“Jeromeville!  Go Colts!” he said upon seeing me and my sweatshirt, without missing a beat in his lecture at all.  “How’re you doing, Greg? It’s good to see you!”

“You too,” I said.  “I’m doing well. I really like my classes, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Do you have a few minutes?  We can talk a little more after I finish this up.”

“Sure,” I said, as my eyes scanned the room and I became more aware of my surroundings.  This was a class of exclusively seniors, as I said, and many of the honor students appeared to be in this class.  I recognized over half of them, including the girl with straight light brown hair who was now waving at me and beckoning me to sit in the empty seat next to her.

“Hi, Rachel!” I whispered as I sat in this empty seat.

“You didn’t tell me you were coming here!” Rachel whispered back.

“It was kind of last minute,” I replied; I wanted to explain about Melissa inviting me, but Mr. Peterson was talking at this point, and I also didn’t want to interrupt his class.  A few minutes later, I felt something under my desk; it was Rachel, passing me a note. I quietly unfolded it and read. Come sit with us at lunch, same spot as last year, Rachel wrote.  I replied Ok and slyly passed it back to her.

I visited a little more with Mr. Peterson when he got the chance to come talk to me; we made the usual small talk about college and classes and future plans.  Now that I had committed to being on campus at least until lunch, since I had to go sit with Rachel and her friends, I had to find things to do for another period and a half.  After I was done talking to Mr. Peterson, I walked around campus and said hi to as many teachers, administrators, and staff members as I had time to see. I had a wonderful time catching up with everyone.  Mrs. Carter, the college and career counselor who helps students with applications and scholarships and the like, asked me to fix her computer, just as she had done multiple times during my senior year. My English teacher from sophomore year, Ms. Woolery, was teaching a class of freshman with reading skills below grade level, and she asked if I had a few minutes to talk a little bit about college and answer their questions.  I wasn’t at all prepared to do something like that, but I did anyway. It is always nice to feel like I have useful knowledge and experiences to share with others; additionally, Ms. Woolery’s students, many from families in which no one has ever attended college, got an opportunity to hear about college from a peer.

I figured out at some point during my visit to Plumdale High that it was Spirit Week, and today was Beach Day.  I wasn’t wearing anything beach-appropriate, but some students had Hawaiian shirts, surfing-related t-shirts, flip-flops, things like that.  There was a giant pile of sand on the grass in front of the school, which I suspected was probably going to be used for a class competition. Several school clubs had food booths at lunch; I walked in the direction of the food, since I was hungry and Rachel wasn’t yet in the spot where she asked me to meet her.  “Hey, Will,” I said, recognizing a guy from the Computer Graphics and Video Production class I took the year before. Will was a sophomore now.

“Greg!  What’s up?  I haven’t seen you all year!”

“I’m home on spring break.  My friend and I came back to visit all of our teachers.”

Will looked confused for a second.  “Oh, yeah!” he said. “You graduated!  Where are you now?”

“Jeromeville.”

“Where’s that?”

“North.  Near Capital City.”

“Oh, ok.  It was good seeing you!  Have a good one!”

I got in line for curly fries, being sold by the marching band, to raise money for a trip to Disneyland.  I thought it was funny that Will had forgotten that I had graduated last year.

“Greg?” someone said next to me in line.  I turned and saw a sophomore named Jamie Halloran; I was friends with her older sister, Jessica, who had been in my graduating class.

“Hey, Jamie,” I said.  “How are you?”

“I’m great!  Are you on your spring break?”

“Yeah.  Melissa wanted to come say hi to some teachers, and she invited me along, but she had to leave already.”

“Did you hear Jess is in Guatemala?”

“I heard,” I said.  “Volunteering at an orphanage, something like that?”

“Yeah.  Did she write you?  I gave her your address.”

“No, not yet.”  Two weeks before I left for Jeromeville, I saw Jamie at a Plumdale High football game.  I had just learned my mailing address at the time, so I gave it to Jamie and told her to give it to Jessica, but neither of them had written me yet.  I didn’t know at the time that Jessica was going to end up in Guatemala. I don’t know if Jamie or even Jessica knew at that time yet either.

“She says it’s so different from here, but she loves it!  My mom is putting together a package to send her; I’ll write her a note and remind her to write to you.”

“Thanks.”

As I walked with my curly fries to where I expected Rachel to be, I noticed that the class competition had begun; two students from each class were competing to build the tallest sandcastle in a certain time limit.  One of the sandcastle-builders for the junior class was Annie Gambrell; I paused to watch for a few minutes, hoping that Annie would notice me, but she didn’t. This was not a good time to try to talk to her, of course, since she was in the middle of making a sandcastle.  I walked back over to where Rachel had told me to meet her; she was there now, with a few of her friends whom I didn’t know as well.

“So you just woke up and decided to come visit your high school?” Rachel asked.

“Not exactly,” I explained, telling her about Melissa’s invitation and earlier departure.

“Jeromeville is on quarters, so you’ll have new classes when you go back next week, is that right?”

“Yes.  I’m taking math, physics, chemistry, and a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law.”

“That sounds interesting.  What’s that last one about?”

“I’m not really sure, except that it’s about psychology, and the law,” I explained.  Rachel laughed. “It’s the heaviest course load I’ve had so far, but math and chemistry are pretty easy to me, and physics was always easy in high school, so I should be okay.”  (I wasn’t as okay as I thought I would be in terms of my classes, but that’s a story for later.)

“Do you need physics and chemistry for a math major?”

“Physics, yes, one year.  I was also thinking about majoring in physics, which would need chemistry; I haven’t decided for sure yet.  Chemistry, not for math, but I would if I majored in physics. Physics for science and engineering majors doesn’t start until spring quarter, so I haven’t had physics at all yet.  I’ll see how that goes before I decide for sure.”

“That makes sense,” Rachel said, nodding.  “So what does it feel like being back?”

“It’s good to see everyone.  But it’s a little weird too. It’s like, class competitions, flyers all over the place advertising the dance, those people making out behind us, all that stuff is high school stuff, and I’m not in high school anymore.”

“That makes sense.  I certainly won’t miss all that stuff when I get out of here next year.”

“Do you know where you’re going yet?  The last time we talked about it, I think you wanted to go to St. Elizabeth’s.”

“That’s still my first choice.  They should start sending out acceptance letters in about a week, they said.”

“I’ve never been there.”

“It’s such a beautiful campus.  And it’s a small school. And I’m not Catholic, but there’s something spiritual about that campus that I liked when I visited,” Rachel said.  I wasn’t sure what she meant by spiritual, her tone sounded kind of New Age-ish, but hey, whatever works.

A while later, just after the bell rang to end lunch, Rachel said, “I’m glad I got to see you today, Greg.  Will you be here the rest of the day?”

“I think I’m just going to go home.  I’ve seen everyone I wanted to say hi to, pretty much, and I’m getting tired.  But I’m glad we got to hang out.”

“Okay.  Call me any time.  And I’ll write you soon.”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.”  Rachel hugged me.

“Have a good day,” I said, turning around toward the parking lot.  I took a few steps, then turned back toward campus. I considered for a few seconds trying to figure out what class Annie Gambrell had, so I could say hi to her, since she was busy earlier.  I gave her my address at Homecoming, and she hadn’t written me; maybe she lost it. No, probably not; people just don’t write like they say they will. And she had a boyfriend, so I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up anyway.  Then again, maybe they broke up; it had been almost six months since I’d last seen Annie. No, I told myself, forget it. I kept walking toward the car.

I turned on the classic rock radio station as I drove home, listening to music of the 1960s and 1970s.  Fleetwood Mac. The Rolling Stones. Supertramp. High school was over. Sometimes I wished it wasn’t. I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business in high school.  I stepped pretty far out of my comfort zone during my senior year, and I made some great new friends, but then all of a sudden I graduated and lost touch with most of them, so that part of my life story never got to reach a natural conclusion.  I felt torn, wanting closure, yet also knowing that this part of my life was over, and that I was moving on. And today was the first time I started to feel like I really had moved past high school. When I was still around in the fall going to PHS football games, and when I came back for Homecoming, I felt like I still belonged at PHS.  Today, not so much.

Fittingly, this day was the last time I ever set foot on the Plumdale High campus.  I went to Mark’s graduation in 2000, but it was at the gym at Santa Lucia Community College, not at PHS.  I’ve driven past Plumdale High several times when I’ve come back home to Santa Lucia County, and I’ve taken pictures of it, but I haven’t actually gotten out of the car.  I’ve thought about going back for Homecoming at some point to see what it’s like, especially after the football field was remodeled in 2017, but it hasn’t ever been a high priority.  Also, I don’t know anyone there anymore. The school has changed, and so has the neighborhood, and so have I. Staying connected to the past is important, but not at the expense of the present.

20190615_092117.jpg
Plumdale High School, June 2019, and the little booth at the entrance to the parking lot where the campus supervisor watches everyone who enters.  The athletic fields are in the background; the school itself is to the right, off camera.  This was the best picture I could take from the car on that day.

And thanks to j-archive.com for allowing me to look up what the Final Jeopardy! clue was on March 28, 1995.  I didn’t remember off the top of my head, of course.

January 12, 1995. Bricks in the wall.

The British rock band Pink Floyd, a staple of classic rock radio which had been around since the late 1960s, released an album last year, late in my senior year of high school, called The Division Bell. That would be their last album of new material, and their tour last summer and fall was their last tour together.

With increased attention focused on the band, their older material got played much more often on classic rock radio, and I went through a Pink Floyd phase that lasted for about two years. I had my CD of The Division Bell, as well as tapes I had made of a few other Pink Floyd CDs I had borrowed from a few friends in Building C. But during that time, much of my knowledge of Pink Floyd came from their Usenet community.

Usenet was the progenitor of the Internet forum, where people make posts to ask questions or share something and others reply to it. Unlike modern fora, though, Usenet only supported messages in monochrome text; no pictures, formatting, or emojis. I subscribed to a few groups once I got to UJ and started using Usenet, mostly groups for bands and sports teams that I liked. The Pink Floyd group was by far the most active of the ones I followed, and like many active communities throughout the history of the Internet, this group featured many people with strong opinions. There was much arguing on which of Pink Floyd’s songs and albums was the best. Bassist Roger Waters, who was the songwriting heart and soul of Pink Floyd during their heyday in the 1970s and provided lead vocals for many of the songs, had left the band in the mid-1980s, and there was much arguing about whether or not the two subsequent Pink Floyd albums recorded by the other band members were in fact to be considered legitimate Pink Floyd material.

Much of the activity on this Usenet forum, however, was related to a cryptic message that had been posted using an anonymous email address a few months before I started following the group. In June of 1994, someone using the name Publius posted a disjointed message saying that the Division Bell album contained a hidden meaning, and that there would be a reward for whomever solved the enigma. Two more Publius messages followed, and among them was a prediction that something would happen at a certain time at a Pink Floyd concert a few days later. At exactly the time predicted by Publius, the word “ENIGMA” appeared on a screen on stage, suggesting that whomever was writing these strange posts actually had a connection with the band. This led to a great deal of discussion and speculation about the true meaning of the lyrics and artwork for the album. Some of the theories behind the Publius Enigma were relatively ordinary, usually involving the band coming up with this idea to get people talking about the true meaning of the songs. Others came up with significantly more outlandish theories, with one user even suggesting that Pink Floyd had made contact with aliens, and that the reward would be getting to go with the band to the aliens’ home planet.

All of this got me a little obsessed with the possibility of secret messages in songs. Last week, I had made a tape of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, borrowing the CD from Aaron in the room next door to me, and I had pretty much listened to it at least once a day, sometimes more, ever since. The Wall was a rock opera telling the story of a rock star with a troubled past, building a metaphorical wall to isolate himself from the world and others, and eventually becoming a fascist dictator-like figure. It spawned a few hit songs in 1979 and 1980, including their most commercially successful song, “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2” (often known by its opening line, “we don’t need no education”). This was one of the first songs I ever remember recognizing when hearing it on the radio as a preschool-aged child, along with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Supertramp’s “Take The Long Way Home.”

This was the first week of classes, and I was still getting used to my schedule. Today, Thursday, consisted only of a three hour chemistry lab in the morning. Our first lab today mostly consisted of lab safety procedures, with a very short experiment at the end so that the teacher assistant running the lab could demonstrate more procedures for us. Nothing too exciting. Nothing burned or blew up. The chemistry building, which in 1995 was just called the Chemistry Building rather than bearing the name of a significant individual in UJ’s history, was closer to the South Residential Area than any other building where I had ever had a class so far. Because of this, five minutes after my lab let out, I had already locked my bike, dropped off my backpack in my room, and started climbing the stairs to the dining hall.

I looked at the Asian girl with chin-length black hair climbing down the stairs and tried to remember why she looked familiar, whether or not I had actually met her, or if I had just seen her around the dining commons building. I remembered who she was just as we made eye contact: Tabitha, from Building B, who knew a bunch of people in my building because they were all part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. “Hi,” I said as we made eye contact.

“Hi,” Tabitha said as she passed me down the stairs. I didn’t know if she remembered me. Hard to tell.

After I got my food, I looked around for a place to sit. I knew exactly no one in the building, so I sat at a table by myself. I watched people walk past me as I ate alone. Friends laughing about something. Happy couples holding hands. A few other loners like me, but not many. Would I ever be part of a happy couple holding hands? There were times that I was at a table with friends laughing about something, but where were those people today? When I finished eating, I made a huge ice cream cone at the soft serve machine and brought it back to my room. On the way back, I saw Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis walking toward the dining commons as I headed back toward Building C.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said. “How are you?”

“Ok, I guess. Done with classes for the day.”

“Nice! See you later.”

I almost thought about turning around and eating lunch again just so I would have someone to talk to today. But that seemed a little creepy and desperate. I was feeling lonely, but there were still at least another ten hours of being awake today. Maybe people would be hanging out in the common room later tonight, or maybe I’d find someone to sit with at dinner.

I had math homework due tomorrow, and I worked on this in front of the computer screen while connected to IRC chat and listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall yet again. Nothing interesting was happening; there were people in the chat room whom I had talked to before, but not any of the girls whom I had gotten flirty or sexually explicit with in the past. By 2:00, I had finished my math homework, and shortly afterward I got bored with the chat room.

I tried to take a nap, but thoughts that I could not silence kept running through my mind. I let my mind wander in a stream of consciousness. Another brick in the wall. Tear down the wall. Building my own wall. Being alone. Every day is the same. I go to class, I study, I waste my time in front of a computer screen. People talk to me, sure, but I’m not very social beyond talking. I never go on dates or to movies or out to eat or anything like that. Well, maybe occasionally, but today I wanted to do something and no one was around. Would I ever find my way and adjust to this new life? How long would this take?

I wished I had one more year at Plumdale High. I had grown so much last year. I was brave enough to do that skit in front of the whole school. I had people encouraging me, like Melissa Holmes and Lisa Swan and Jessica Halloran, even Catherine Yaras all the way from Austria. Jason Lambert and Stacey Orr and I dominated that debate in government class taking the conservative side. Stacey’s feminist views bothered me at first, but we agreed on a lot of other political issues, and we were friends for the most part by the time we graduated. I did some class competitions at lunch. We lost the overall class competition point total to the sophomores. They clearly cheated, or at least bent the rules, on the competition for best Homecoming float, and everyone who wasn’t a sophomore knew it. I was pissed off about that, and I hated the entire class of 1996. I worked hard on that float, and so did a lot of other people. But a month later, I met Annie Gambrell when I made that video for her group project, and she ended up being my only friend from the year that beat us. Annie was really cute, and a sweetheart too. She wrote a very encouraging and thoughtful message in the back of my yearbook last year, something I would expect to hear from a very close friend rather than someone I had only known for six months. But of course, Annie had a boyfriend, and even if she hadn’t, I probably didn’t have a chance with a popular girl like her.

I sat up. Nap time wasn’t happening. I turned the computer back on and spent the next few hours writing, putting my stream of consciousness to words. And not just any words. Rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. And not just any rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter; I also hid a secret message in my poem.

When we studied Shakespeare in high school , I had a hard time at first hearing iambic pentameter, because I was used to popular music that had four beats per line instead of Shakespeare’s five. But the form eventually grew on me. Sonnet 29 in particular has always been a favorite of mine. And the secret message in my poem was definitely inspired by the Publius Enigma. I envisioned this poem as the first in a series all telling a story around a common theme, much like how the songs in The Wall told a story around a common theme.

I got up to use the bathroom while I was writing, and I left the door open a crack in case anyone came by to say hi. I doubted anyone would, though. After an hour or so, I had my finished product.

“Almost Extinct”

However hard the lonely young man tries,
Each night he stagnates, tears come to his eyes.
Around him, people moving here and there,
Variety, in his life, very rare.
It’s not much like the past, with lots of friends,
Like those to whom his happy times he lends,
Yes, now he has friends too, but something’s gone;
In this place no one’s there to push him on,
No goofy acting role before his peers,
Friends care, but not like in his high school years,
Like helping him become one of their own.
Under their domination he had grown,
Each day becoming stronger than before.
New friends came knocking on his open door.
Come crashing down, great wall of ninety-six!
End all the hate! build bridges with those bricks!
Do videos! the memories will transcend;
Behold the liberal wonder, now a friend.
Yet suddenly, one happy summer night,
Pure happiness made everything seem right,
In fact, however, that night was the last;
Now all that happiness lies in the past,
Killed off by evil forces time has wrought;
Far, far away, his happiness is naught;
Long gone is all the friendship from before,
Once there, it’s hard to stop that upward soar.
Yet he believes that he might soar again;
Does anybody know exactly when?

“Greg?” I heard someone say from the hallway. Sarah poked her head in the door. “Is everything okay? You seemed kind of down when I saw you earlier.”

“I’m just having a bad day,” I said. “A lot of thoughts running around in my head.”

“Anything you need to talk about?”

“I feel alone, mostly.”

“You’re not alone. You have friends here.”

“Well, like, you guys are my friends, but I don’t really do stuff with you other than classes and living here. I’m not good at making plans with people. I didn’t really have friends back home until senior year, and I wasn’t the one making plans. I would just get invited to stuff. And, I’m not good with girls. I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Greg, just be yourself. I know a lot of people in this building care about you. I care about you. And we’re not out there having fun and doing stuff every night. Most of the time we’re studying.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“But I’ll try to make sure you feel included.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“You know some of us here are in a Bible study on Tuesdays. You’re always welcome to come to that.”

“Maybe.”

“By the way, was I interrupting anything? Are you studying?”

“No. I was… well, I was writing poetry about how I’ve been feeling.”

“Really? Can I read it?”

“Sure.” I didn’t feel like my poem was personal enough to hide from people, and I was curious about people’s reactions. I was also curious if she would find the secret message, or be curious about some of my oddly specific descriptions, like the Wall of Ninety-Six. She didn’t find the secret message, which was hidden in plain sight down the left side of the poem, reading the first letters of each line.

“That’s interesting,” Sarah said after she finished reading. “I like it.”

“I was thinking of writing a whole series of poems, kind of telling a story about this guy.”

“That’s a good idea. I didn’t know you wrote poetry.”

“I don’t really, at least not very often. But like I said, I was thinking about a lot of stuff earlier, and it just came out as poetry.”

“That’s really cool. Do you have anything else?”

“Well, I wrote another one a few days ago. A funny one. It’s actually a song parody.”

“I want to see it!”

I opened this file on my computer, which replaced Almost Extinct on the screen.

“Amazing Gas”

Amazing gas, how sweet the sound,
But oh, how bad the smell!
It kills your nose, makes trees fall down,
That’s how my old oak fell.

If there are lots of folks nearby
That you don’t want to see
Just cut the cheese, and they will fly,
The crowd will cease to be.

One man broke wind, his friend dropped dead,
They went for Murder One;
‘Twas just a heart attack, they said,
He walked, but it was fun.

Beware that wind from someone’s ass!
That pow’rful, putrid smell!
But if you want to smell the gas
Just eat at Taco Bell.

“That’s bad!” Sarah said, laughing. “And hilarious! Such a guy sense of humor.”

“I can’t help it. I grew up around fart jokes.”

Just then, the telephone rang. “Can you answer that?” I asked Sarah.

“What? Why?”

“It’s my mother. She’s the only person who ever calls me here. And I want to see her reaction when someone else answers.”

Sarah picked up the phone on the third ring. “Hello?” she said. She listened for a few seconds, and then laughed. “No, it’s not the wrong number. Greg is here,” she explained. She handed me the phone a few seconds later.

“Hello?” I said.

“Who was that?” Mom asked.

“Sarah. She was in here talking about something, and I just wanted to see your reaction when someone else answered the phone.”

“You got me. I was confused. I wondered, did I dial the wrong number? Did I forget Greg’s phone number?”

“I was just messing with you,” I said. I wouldn’t put it past Mom to forget my phone number, however. She tried to send me a package in 2008 that ended up getting returned to her after three weeks because she forgot my address. As I noticed Sarah gesturing as if she wanted to tell me something, I told Mom, “Hang on. Just a minute.”

“I’m going to let you go,” Sarah said quietly. “We’ll be going to the DC around 6 for dinner if you want to join us.”

“Okay,” I said. Sarah left and closed the door. “Sorry about that,” I said to Mom. “Sarah was telling me something. She just left.”

Mom and I continued talking for about 10 or 15 minutes. Most of the time Mom was telling me about work and people at church whom she knew and I didn’t. I told her a little bit about my new classes for winter quarter.

After I hung up with Mom, I started working on my chemistry lab report. It wasn’t due until next week, but I figured I may as well do it now while it was fresh in my mind. I was feeling a little bit better. It took me a long time to start being social in high school. I was still adjusting to the routine of being in college, and it might take a while here too. But I had some advantages here. In high school, I had never had a social life before, but since I started to have a social life at the end of high school, I knew a little more how social lives worked. And being in the IHP, living with people in my classes, I didn’t have to look very far to find friends, at least not as far as one would expect to look at a university with over twenty thousand students. Sarah was right. A lot of people in this building cared about me. Like Sarah and Krista and Taylor and Pete, with whom I had dinner at the dining commons that night. And they weren’t the only ones. There was also Liz and Ramon and Charlie and Caroline and Danielle and Rebekah and David and Keith and so many others, and having that many people who were becoming friends was not something to take lightly. I did not entirely realize at the time how fortunate I was to have an experience like this.

(Author’s note: These were actual poems I actually wrote in 1995.  And I did continue the series that started with Almost Extinct, but I’m not going to share the rest here.  It’s just weird.)

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.

 

October 14-15, 1994. The first trip back to Plumdale.

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.”

“Yes.”

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!”

“You too!”

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.”

“Really?”

“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.”

“Okay.”

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.

Dear Greg,
You are a very interesting guy.  Believe in yourself. Good luck in college, and best wishes on your future plans.
K.I.T. 555-0116
Love, Rachel

Greg –
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!
Love,
Kim Jensen

Greg,
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.
Stay sweet.
Love,
Annie =)

Greg,
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!
Lisa

Greg,
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.

1994-10-15 yearbook small

September 24, 1994. Prologue IV: The day before.

Plumdale High School’s football field was not the typical high school stadium.  The bleachers were built into a hillside, sloping down from the rest of the school campus, with the field at the bottom of the hill, so when you approached the stadium, you entered from the top row, not from the bottom.  You could barely tell that there was a stadium there if you didn’t know where to look.  Also contributing to its low profile was the lack of lights.  And because there were no lights, games were played on Saturday afternoon, whereas most of the other high school teams in the area were played on Friday night.

I woke up to the ticket booth on that Saturday afternoon and bought one general-admission ticket.  Two weeks earlier, at the previous game, actually buying a ticket was a new experience for me, since that had been my first time attending a Plumdale Panthers football game and not being a student anymore.

I walked about halfway down the bleachers to my usual spot from the year before, right across the aisle from where the marching band sat.  I went to every game the year before, my senior year, and I always sat across the aisle from the band, because some of my friends were in the band.  More specifically, I sat there because Melissa was in band and she usually came and sat next to me during the third quarter, when the band took a break after doing the halftime show.

I was over Melissa by now.  She never liked me like that, she went to another school’s prom with a friend of a friend who needed a date, and that made me upset.  But she didn’t like him like that either.  And we were still friends.

“Hey, Greg,” I heard a male voice say as I approached my usual seat.  It was Mr. Peterson, my economics teacher from the year before, who was a University of Jeromeville alumnus.  “Have you left for Jeromeville yet?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I said.  “I’m going to pack as soon as I get home from this game.”

“Good luck,” he said.  “I think you’ll really like it there.”

“Thanks.”  I sat and watched the game, looking through the program during timeouts and slow parts of the game.  I still recognized a lot of names on the team, but there were only a few players on the team whom I actually knew.

Early in the second quarter, I heard a female voice behind me say, “Greg!  You’re still here!”  I looked up and saw Rachel Copeland sitting next to me.  She was a year behind me, just starting her senior year, but she had a lot of friends in my year, including her boyfriend from last year, Paul Dickinson.  I don’t think they were together anymore, though.

“I leave tomorrow,” I said.

“Are you ready?”

“Not really.  I’m going to pack tonight.  But I’m excited about it.”

“I didn’t think you’d be here today.”

“There aren’t a lot of people I know still in town.  Melissa left for San Angelo last week.  They’re on the same schedule as Jeromeville, but she’s living with relatives so she doesn’t have to wait for the dorms to open.  Renee started at Valle Luna State in August, and so did Kevin at University of the Bay.  I haven’t talked to anyone else in the last couple weeks.”

“Paul left Friday for Santa Teresa.  His family is staying in a hotel there for a few days, making a vacation of it.”

“That’s cool.”  It sounded like Rachel and Paul were at least still friends if she knew this.  Or maybe they were back together and I didn’t know it.  You never know.

“So how come Santa Teresa and San Angelo and Jeromeville and those schools all start so late?” Rachel asked.

“Because we’re on the three-quarter schedule,” I said.  “Instead of having two semesters, we have three terms during the year, so our finals breaks come a third and two thirds of the way through the year.  So we need to start late so the winter holidays come a third of the way through the year, instead of halfway through.”

Rachel thought about this.  “So your school year gets out later, then?”

“We go until the middle of June.”

“Don’t other schools get out earlier than that?”

“I’m not really sure.”  I wasn’t.  I really didn’t know that most colleges get out well before June.  High school typically lasted into June in this state in the 90s, so I figured college was the same.

Rachel went and sat with some other friends at halftime.  I got to say hi to a couple of my other former teachers that day.  I don’t remember who won that game.  I don’t even remember who the opponent was.  But I do remember one thing: Plumdale High School would always be a part of my life, but it was time to move on.  And the next morning, everything was going to change, forever.

December 15, 1993. Prologue II: The first acceptance letter.

I walked up to the spot where I usually sat at lunch, on the grass just outside of the Plumdale High School building, on the side of the building closest to my English classroom.  That was the class I had after lunch.  That day, Melissa and Jason and Kevin and Renee and the others were already there at the usual spot.

“Hi, Greg,” Melissa said.  “How are you?”

“Good,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“I’m doing well.  I’ve been working on an essay I have to write for a scholarship I’m applying to.”

“Which one?” Renee asked.

“It’s for future women doctors.”

“That reminds me,” I said.  “I got accepted to Bidwell State!”

“That’s great!” Melissa said.

“Congratulations!” Jason added.

“Is that your top choice?” Kevin asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I have relatives in Bidwell, remember, so I know the area.  But I don’t know if I’d fit in at Bidwell.  You know… it’s kind of a party school.”

“Yeah it is.”

“I didn’t expect to hear from anyone so soon.  But at least I know I have a spot somewhere if I want it.  I don’t have to make a decision until spring.”

“Some of the state universities have early acceptance for highly qualified students,” Melissa explained.  “That’s why you heard from them so soon.”

“I’m still waiting to hear from Central Tech and Jeromeville.  Those are probably my top choices.”

“You applied to Walton too, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.  But I won’t get in.  And even if I do, I won’t be able to afford it.  I only applied because Mrs. Martinez told me I should.”

“Why don’t you think you’ll get in?  You have straight As, and great SAT scores.”

“I don’t quite have straight As.  I got four Bs.  And I don’t have anything else to put on my application.  I don’t play any sports, I don’t do any activities, I don’t have any community service–”

“Sure you do.  You’re in Video Production Club with me and Jason and Renee.”

“Just for this year.”

“It’s a new club this year!  None of us has been in it for more than this year!”

“The admissions people at Walton don’t know that.  It looks like a desperate attempt to find something to put on a college application.”

“Give yourself more credit,” Melissa said.  “You’re going to have no trouble getting into college.  Maybe not Walton, because exclusive private schools are really competitive, but I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting into Jeromeville or Central Tech.”

“I hope so,” I said.  Melissa must never know the real reason I joined Video Production Club, I thought.  Too embarrassing and too pathetic.

The bell rang, and I walked with the others back into the building, since we all had the same English class. I sat through English class, and then through economics afterward, feeling dejected and worthless.  I may have good grades, but I wasn’t the highest ranked student in my class.  And so many other students had so many more useful things to put on their applications.  It wasn’t the end of the world, of course.  I got into Bidwell State.  If I didn’t get in anywhere else, I still had that.  I had a family of second cousins in Bidwell who were always fun to hang out with.  And I had grandparents, and my uncle.  But the thought of not getting into Walton or Jeromeville or Central Tech still made me feel like I just wasn’t good enough.

I was in a better mood by the time I got home, but it lasted until about five seconds after I walked in the door.  As I walked across the living room, I saw a recent issue of Rolling Stone on the top of the stack of magazines that Dad kept on the end table next to the couch.  A one-hit wonder band called Blind Melon, whose career would be cut short a few years later by the vocalist dying of a drug overdose, was on the cover, in the nude with their private parts covered.

Stupid Blind Melon, I thought.  Dark and angry thoughts overwhelmed my mind.

“How was school?” Mom asked.

“Fine, I said.  “I’m going to go upstairs.”

“Are you going to take a nap?”

“Maybe.”  I walked up the stairs and closed the bedroom door behind me.  I lay on the bed, staring out the window at the gray skies, trying to distract the fact that that weird and catchy Blind Melon song was stuck in my head now.  Stupid Jason Lambert ruined that song for me.  Jason asked Melissa on a date to a Blind Melon concert a few months ago, back at the beginning of the school year.  She went out with him, but she doesn’t appear to like me, I thought.  Why?  Jason is my friend, but he’s kind of an annoying asshole too.  I’m not annoying, at least not like Jason.  Of course, Melissa has no way of knowing how I feel about her, because I don’t know how to tell a girl I like her, but still… really?  Jason Lambert?

Despite this, I took a small bit of solace in the fact that Melissa didn’t seem interested in Jason that way.  Other than the Blind Melon concert, they didn’t seem too chummy or couple-like or anything, and there was one day when even I could tell that Melissa was visibly annoyed at Jason.  I saw both of them a lot that school year, which was good because I wanted to know if there was anything going on between them.

I made sure that I would see them often, by joining the Video Production Club.

I continued staring sadly out the window, daydreaming of next year when I wouldn’t be in Plumdale anymore.  Maybe Melissa and I would end up at the same school.  We both applied to Jeromeville, after all.  Maybe she would come visit me in my dorm room and discover that I was a really great guy.  That would be perfect.  And as I drifted off to sleep, the song that Jason ruined for me started running through my head again…