While I was in Oregon that summer, away from all of my friends and with less of a social life than I had in Jeromeville, my mind had plenty of time to explore some creative ideas. Since I did not have my computer with me, I could not make any new episodes of Dog Crap and Vince. I also could not work on Try, Try Again, a novel I had begun a year and a half ago about a high school student who needs a fresh start, but is not ready to move on to the next stage in life, so he runs away and fakes his age to get a few more years of high school. That manuscript was saved on the hard drive of my computer back in Jeromeville. By now I had lost interest in finishing Try, Try Again; I had moved on from whatever thoughts had inspired its creation. I never worked on it again; it remains unfinished to this day.
I was playing with an idea for a multi-part science fiction story, inspired by my recent rediscovery of Star Wars. My story began with humans living on another planet, ruled by another race. Their rebellion against their overlords would take up the first three stories. Then, hundreds of years later, in the next episode, it would be revealed that the alien overlords had been secretly living among the humans, plotting to reconquer their planet when the time was right. Unlike Star Wars, I was not going to leave my readers hanging with just the middle of the story, waiting to get the beginning and end of the story in movies that would never be made. My story had not only a beginning and a middle, but also an ending, in which hundreds more years would pass, and the humans would battle their overlords again, winning once and for all. But then I would write one more story, in which the conquering race would reappear. They could never truly be defeated. This idea never made it farther than an outline in which I would summarize each of the ten tentative episodes in one sentence each.
I had no computer in my room, so if I wanted to write for an extended period of time, I either had to write by hand with pencil and paper, or walk all the way to Keller Hall and use the computer in room 202, the study room for the other students from the summer math research program. Writing in 202 Keller carried the risk that one of my classmates would ask me about my writing. I did not feel particularly comfortable with the idea of sharing my writing with those people.
Also, with no computer in my room, I had to do all my emailing from 202 Keller. My mother wrote almost every day. I also had a few girls I met flirting in chat rooms who emailed me occasionally, and a few of my friends from Jeromeville actually checked their email during the summer when school was out. Many of my friends were currently on summer mission trips with churches or Christian ministry organizations; although they did not have frequent access to email, some of them occasionally sent out mass emails to their supporters.
I got one such email today, from Erica Foster. It was Friday, I was tired, and I decided in the late morning while sitting frustrated in front of a computer in 202 Keller that I was done doing math research for the day. Keith and Marjorie were sitting on a couch across the room, talking about things that were not math. Ivan and Emily, the other students working on the same project as me, each had their own things to work on, so I was not hindering their work by taking the rest of the day off. I closed the window in which I was writing scripts with the math software Mathematica and opened another window where I could get to my email.
This email was the first time I had heard from Erica since I left Jeromeville in mid-June. Erica, like me, was a youth group leader at Jeromeville Covenant Church. She was three years younger than me, having just graduated from Jeromeville High School; she would be joining me and most of the rest of the youth leaders at the University of Jeromeville in the fall. Her younger brother, Danny, was one of the kids in the youth group at J-Cov. Danny and his friends were a big part of the reason I got involved in youth ministry, after they randomly brought me with them on an adventure after church one day six months ago.
Erica was in Turkey for the summer, volunteering as a nanny for a family of full-time missionaries that J-Cov supported. The concept of mission trips and full-time missionaries was relatively new to me. I grew up Catholic, where missionary work looks a bit different from that of evangelical Christians.
In Erica’s email, she told all about the three children of the family she was helping, what they were learning in school, their hobbies, and what she had been teaching them weekly in place of a proper Sunday school. She also talked about helping their parents with the Bible study they had started in their community, and about some of the locals who had made a decision to follow Jesus or were asking questions indicating interest in doing so. At the end of the message, Erica had mentioned that the Turkish word for turkey, the animal, was the same as the Turkish word for India. “I wonder what they call turkeys in India?” she wrote. I laughed.
Erica was truly a woman of God. It took a huge leap of faith to go overseas and do God’s work, and as much as I supported the concept, I could never see myself as the one to actually go overseas. This trip seemed like the perfect experience for her; she had a very motherly side to her personality, suited to nannying, and having grown up at J-Cov, she had known this family that she was working with for many years. I needed to find a woman like that for myself, one who showed through the way she lived her life that she truly loved God.
Every once in a while, a poetic phrase will pop into my head regarding whatever, or as the case usually is, whoever is on my mind at the moment, and if the right words come, I will build a poem around that phrase. I was still thinking about Erica when I walked back to Howard Hall to warm up something in the microwave for lunch, and in my mind, I kept saying to myself, Reflected in her face, I see the Lord. Iambic pentameter, just like Shakespeare. This could work. By the time I got back to my room, I had a second line: Each move she makes the love of Christ reveals.
I would occasionally hide secret messages in my stories and poems. A few months ago, when Haley Channing told me she did not like me back and I was in the process of getting over her, I wrote a story in which the first letter of each paragraph spelled her name. Conveniently enough, “Erica Ann Foster” had fourteen letters, and a Shakespearean sonnet had fourteen lines. And the first two lines I thought of for my poem started with R and E, which were the first two letters of Erica’s full name spelled backward. I could hide her name in the first letters of each line, but spell it backward.
I wrote down the start of the poem as soon as I got back to my room. After I ate lunch, I went for a long walk around the Grandvale State campus, composing poetry in my head and occasionally taking a piece of paper out of my pocket and writing something I wanted to make sure to remember.
Erica had done another short mission trip over spring break, to northern Mexico, as part of the high school group at J-Cov. That was a big trip with hundreds of students from all over the West, organized by a Christian university in California. The students on that trip got a t-shirt that said “Be The One,” with a Bible verse on the back, saying to be the one that God sends out to spread the Gospel. I wrote that down, making a note in my head to incorporate that phrase into the poem somehow.
What was I doing? Was I developing a thing for Erica, falling for her? This could never work. We did not really have much in common other than being youth leaders at J-Cov. And what if Erica did become a full-time missionary someday? If something serious did happen between us, and we got married, I would have to follow her to some faraway land. Should I even be letting these thoughts into my head enough to write a poem about it?
Or, perhaps, could I incorporate these thoughts into the poem itself?
Somewhere around the seventh line, I got stuck; I could not make the poem sound like I wanted while making the line start with N, to fit the secret message. The line I had in mind started with I, and Erica’s name did have an I in it, but not at line 7. I decided to give up on making the first lines spell Erica’s name backward, opting for the simpler task of making the first letters of each line an anagram, unscrambling to spell “Erica Ann Foster.” This way, I would not have to change the first six lines that I had already tentatively written.
After I got back from my walk, I got out my copy of Needful Things by Stephen King, a long novel which I had been reading off and on all summer. I was near the end. I took a break from reading every once in a while to continue thinking about my poem. I warmed up something in the microwave again for dinner, and by about ten o’clock I had finished the poem. At some point, the pronouns in the beginning of the poem had changed, so that I wrote as if I were addressing the woman directly instead of writing about her.
“That I Might Be The One”
Reflected in your face, I see the Lord,
Each move you make the love of Christ reveals;
Through you, His love on everyone is poured,
Such strength in Him no worldly thing conceals.
Oh, how I wish that I might be the one
For which you save that special love, so dear,
In all your smiles I feel the shining sun,
No worries trouble me when you are near.
Now always will these dreams go unfulfilled,
Can bridges cross the years and miles between?
And we’ve no common ground on which to build
Except for Christ, Whose blood has made us clean;
Regarding this, I put my dreams aside,
And lift my cross, and let Him be our guide.
Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with the Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme, and the first letters of each line unscrambling to spell Erica Ann Foster. It was perfect.
After my poem was done, I walked back to Keller Hall and went straight to room 202. This was exactly the kind of quiet, boring night that seemed perfect for logging on to Internet Relay Chat and finding strangers to talk to, particularly girls. I certainly was not meeting any girls here, and all the cute girls I knew back in Jeromeville were not keeping in touch regularly this summer.
A girl named Valerie whom I had seen off and on in this room for a long time was on tonight. We had talked some over the last year or so; sometimes she was friendly and sweet, but other times she seemed too busy for me. A girl who was outgoing and friendly and claimed to be young and pretty would be really popular in any Internet chat room, probably inundated with messages from lonely, horny guys like me.
sweetgirl417: hey u! what’s up ;)
gjd76: not much, bored tonight. i told you i was in oregon for a research internship this summer right?
sweetgirl417: no! how’s that going?
gjd76: i really don’t like it. math research is weird. and i don’t have anything in common with the other students in the program. i really can’t wait to get back to jeromeville
sweetgirl417: oh no :( when do you go back?
gjd76: i leave grandvale august 15, which is also my birthday. then i’ll be with my family for two weeks. then back to jeromeville.
sweetgirl417: happy early birthday ;)
gjd76: thanks :) i just keep telling myself it’s almost over… i’ve been telling myself that for a month now though
sweetgirl417: too bad your program isn’t here in missouri, then you could hang out with me ;)
gjd76: that sounds nice ;) i wish
sweetgirl417: so did you ever find a girlfriend? ;)
gjd76: no. there are four girls in the math program, they’re not my type.
sweetgirl417: anyone you like back home?
gjd76: kinda. i wrote a poem earlier today, it’s about someone i know back home who is a great girl but it just wouldn’t work between us
sweetgirl417: can i read it?
I sent Valerie my poem; she said it was really good. I did not tell her about the secret message, and she never found it. She asked me why I did not think things could ever work out with Erica, and I told her everything that had been on my mind lately. Valerie then messaged me a winking face and told me again to come to Missouri. I asked her if she had a boyfriend; she did not. She had gone through a breakup a few months ago and had not met anyone else, and the only guy interested in her was kind of a creep. I told her that she should come out west to see me.
After a couple hours of small talk, with lots of winking faces and some jokes about what it would be like if I went to Missouri to meet Valerie, and some talk of kissing, I asked Valerie what she was wearing. She said a tank top and pajama shorts. I looked around the room, hoping that, since it was almost one in the morning by now (and two hours later for Valerie in Missouri), no one would come to 202 Keller and ask me what I was doing up so late. I attempted to take the conversation in a much more intimate direction, and I was pleased that Valerie reciprocated. The flirty messages soon became overtly sexual, with a lot of touching myself on my end, and at one point I had to tell Valerie that I would be back in a few minutes, since I had to go to the bathroom and take care of something. I really hoped I was alone in the building, and that no one would question an obviously aroused undergraduate wandering the halls.
I had the sense to log out of the computer before I stepped away from it, just in case anyone else came to 202 Keller while I was gone, and when I returned a few minutes later, I logged back into IRC and typed to Valerie with my recently-washed hands that she was great and that I had had a wonderful time, but I should probably go to bed. She agreed, since it was even later for her. I told her that we would talk soon.
I always felt ashamed of myself for having these feelings and acting on them. My freshman year in the dorm at UJ, I had made the Walk of Shame back from the bathroom after taking care of myself in this way many times. Tonight, the Walk of Shame was much longer, walking all the way from Keller Hall across the Quad and down the street to Howard Hall. I was a follower of Jesus, and Jesus said that lust was a sin. I should be stronger than this; giving in to these moments made me feel weak in my faith.
About a third of the way across the Quad, I saw someone else approaching on the same path. Whoever it was, I hoped I was not going to have to interact; I was not in the mood. As the thin figure approached, I realized in horror that it was Marcus Lee, one of the other students from my math program. Now I was going to have to explain why I was making the Walk of Shame in the middle of the night. The Quad was wide open, I was over a hundred feet from the nearest tree or any other object that I could hide behind, and Marcus was only about twenty feet away now. There was no avoiding this interaction.
I looked up at Marcus. “Greg?” he said. “What are you doing out so late?”
“I was bored. Just doing stuff on the computer in Keller. Emailing people back home.” I was not lying; early when I was first catching up with Valerie, telling her about the math program, I had my email open in another window, and I had replied to one message. “I need to get to sleep.”
“Yeah, it’s late,” Marcus replied. “Hope you sleep well.”
I went straight to bed when I got back to Howard Hall, but my mind was so full of guilt and shame that it took a long time to calm down enough to sleep. Eventually my mind went back to the poem I wrote earlier. Oh, how I wish that I might be the one. Erica was a Godly woman who would never want to be with someone who talked dirty with strangers from the Internet. And neither would any other Christian girl I would ever be interested in. I was only making things worse for myself.
I never did find out why Marcus was out so late himself. Could he also have been sneaking off to do something he wanted to keep secret? Was he just out for a walk? Or was he going to work on math all night, since he was so focused on his career? I did not ask; it was none of my business, and if I did not want people to know where I was at night, it was not my place to care where anyone else was.
After tossing and turning for almost an hour, I read Psalm 51. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” I knew that God was a God of love, and that he sent Jesus to Earth to atone for my sin. I knew that no one was perfect, and that the fact that humanity needed a Savior just indicated that no one was perfect. Psalm 51 was written by King David after he slept with another man’s wife and got the other man killed to cover up the affair. I often read this psalm on nights like this. I prayed for a while, that God would create a pure heart in me, just as David had asked. I did eventually get some sleep, but not much, and I woke up with a headache. I was tired of being alone, I was tired of all the good Christian girls passing me up, but I still had no idea what to do about any of this, so I felt stuck as I drifted off to sleep, consumed by darkness.
Readers: Have you ever written anything with a secret message hidden inside? Tell me about it in the comments.