September 2-3, 1995.  Moving back to Jeromeville for sophomore year.

I had made this trip enough times in the last couple years that it had become familiar by now.  I left Plumdale on a Saturday morning heading north on Highway 11, my 1989 Ford Bronco full of boxes and bags.  I passed through many different landscapes on the two and a half hour drive.  Plumdale’s hills dotted with live oaks, covered by golden-brown grass that sprung up during the spring rains and had long since died in the dry sun of late summer.  A long stretch of flat farmland surrounding El Ajo and Morgantown.  The sprawling suburbs of San Tomas, where I turned onto northbound Highway 6.  Another stretch of brown hills.  Thirty miles of hilly suburbs that all run into each other: Sullivan, Danielsburg, Los Nogales, Pleasant Creek, Marquez, and others.  The Marquez Bridge.  Ten miles of marshy grassland.  Fairview, where Highway 6 ends, merging into eastbound Highway 100.  Another long stretch of flat farmland broken up by the city of Nueces.  And, finally, the exit for northbound Highway 117, with the University of Jeromeville water tower visible in the distance.

I instinctively merged to the right lane, getting ready to take the first exit, Davis Drive.  I caught myself just in time and drifted one lane back to the left.  Davis Drive was not my exit anymore, because I did not live in Building C anymore.  I passed Davis Drive, I passed Fifth Street, and I took the next exit, Coventry Boulevard.  I turned right on Coventry, left on Andrews Road, and into the back parking lot of Las Casas Apartments on the corner of Andrews and Alvarez Avenue.

Mom and Dad were on their way with the rest of my stuff in Dad’s pickup truck.  I left Plumdale a few minutes before they did, and we made no attempt to stay together.  Trying to stay in a caravan is not worth it, especially when everyone involved knows where to go.  Mom is good with directions, and she had been to the apartment before; she should be able to find it.

I realized that I did not have a key to the apartment.  Nowadays, if this happened, I would just be able to send Mom a text and say that I was going to the apartment office, but texting did not exist in 1995 and none of us had cell phones.  I just had to hope that Mom would be smart and wait for me.  By the time I got back from the office with the key, Mom and Dad were just arriving.

“I just got the key,” I said as Mom got out of the truck.

“Good,” Mom said.

“Well?  Let’s see inside,” Dad added.

I opened the door and walked into Apartment 124.  It was a studio apartment, with one large combined living room and bedroom.  On the right was a closet with three sliding doors.  The closet stuck out into the living space, leaving a small nook in the front of the room to my right.  “That would be a perfect place to put the chair,” Mom said, pointing to the nook.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “And the TV can go over here.” I pointed to my left, across from the nook, in the direction my eyes would point when I would sit in the chair.

The door to the bathroom was in the back on the right, and a small kitchen opened into the room in the back to the left.  Mom walked into the kitchen and looked around.  “No dishwasher,” she said after about a minute.

“I didn’t even think about that,” I replied.  “But I lived for 19 years without a dishwasher, so it’s no big deal.  And you’ve lived for even longer than that.”

“True.”

There was a dishwasher in our house in Plumdale, but it did not work for my entire life.  I never knew why.  We stored things in it.  It was not until sometime in the middle of elementary school when it occurred to me that the cabinet with the weird racks and pull down door was called “the dishwasher” because its actual intended purpose was to wash dishes.

“Are we ready to get started?” Dad asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

I began carrying boxes toward the general vicinity of where each box belonged.  Toiletries went to the bathroom.  Clothes went to the closet.  I left books against the wall between the kitchen and bathroom; that would be a good place for a bookcase.  As Mom carried a box of plates and bowls toward the kitchen, I noticed that Dad had finished removing the straps holding the furniture to the truck bed.  As he maneuvered the mattress out of the truck, he asked me, “Can you grab the other end?”

“Yeah,” I said.  This was a brand new mattress, and it was heavy.  Dad and I carefully maneuvered it between Dad’s pickup truck and the Bronco and almost tripped when I failed to notice the curb at the edge of the parking lot.

“You got it?” Dad asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

Dad and I carried the mattress through the front door, where it bumped against the top of the entryway and I bumped into it.  “Ow!” I shouted.

“Lower,” Dad said.

I squatted down and carefully attempted to keep my balance while pushing the mattress through the doorway.  As I was stepping over the threshold of the door, Dad turned, and the mattress turned with him, pinning me against the side of the doorway.

“Ow!” I said again.

“Where do you keep the dishes?” Mom asked from the kitchen.

“I don’t know!” I shouted.  “I’ve only lived here for ten minutes!  And I can’t move right now!”

“Huh?  You can’t move?”

I made some unintelligible noises as Dad moved the mattress away from me.  I dropped it; at this point it was in the apartment and could be pushed.  Mom stood there looking at me.  “Where do you keep the dishes?” she repeated.

“I told you, I don’t know yet!” I shouted.

“You don’t have to yell at me,” Mom said indignantly.

“I was getting slapped in the face and pinned to the wall by a heavy mattress.  I’m sorry, but where to put the dishes is not exactly my priority at the moment.”

“Well… I couldn’t see that.”

“That’s what happens when you’re moving furniture.  But I’m sorry I yelled.”

“Are you hurt?”

“Not really.”

I hated carrying furniture.  It felt like sensory overload to me.  I was trying to make sure I did not drop or break whatever I was carrying, and that I did not hurt myself, and I had to work hard to tune out distractions like Mom.  Carrying large pieces of furniture was exhausting both physically and mentally.

In hindsight, this day of unpacking took less time than any of my future moves, because I had not yet accumulated as much stuff as I would in the future.  But it still felt exhausting.  By early afternoon, the cars were empty, although the inside of the apartment was full of unpacked boxes and the furniture was not all in its proper place.

“Is it time to take a break for lunch?” Mom asked.

“Sounds good to me,” Dad said.

“Where do you want to go for lunch?  Are we going to go to our usual McDonald’s?”

“Sure,” I said.

 

We got back from McDonalds about an hour later.  McDonald’s was on the other side of Jeromeville, about a ten minute drive each way.  I did not yet have much experience with local restaurants.  I knew Murder Burger from that one time last year, but that was almost as far away, and I liked McDonald’s.

As we headed west on Coventry Boulevard back toward the apartment, Mom said, “We’re also going to take you grocery shopping before we leave.  Our treat.”

“Right now?”

Mom paused for a second.  “Sure, if you want.”

“Sounds good.”

“Where are we going?”

I could see the intersection for Andrews Road approaching.  “U-turn here,” I said.  “Then make an immediate right.  Lucky, right over there.” I pointed in the general direction of the Lucky grocery store, across the street from where we were at the moment.

We spent well over a hundred dollars at the store that day.  We went up and down every aisle, and I placed in the cart everything I saw that I would probably eat.  Bananas.  Mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup.  Bread.  Sandwich meat.  Saltine crackers.  Cereal.  Milk.  I had an empty refrigerator; I needed everything.

“Do you like these?” Mom said in the middle of the frozen food aisle, gesturing toward a frozen chicken pot pie.  “That’s something easy you can make for dinner, at least for now until you try cooking more things.”

“Sure,” I said grabbing a few chicken pot pies.  I eyed the shelf of Hungry-Man frozen dinners next to them and said, “What about these?”

“Yeah, those too.”  I got one of turkey and mashed potatoes and one of fried chicken and put them in the cart.  I ate way too many Hungry-Man dinners that year, and after I moved out of that apartment into another apartment with roommates, I don’t think I ever ate a Hungry-Man dinner again.

After we got home, I set up the computer while Dad built the new bookcase, which we brought to Jeromeville still in a box.  When he finished, I put the bookcase against the wall between the doorways to the kitchen and bathroom, as I had planned to earlier.  Mom and Dad and I visited for a while as Dad was putting the bookcase together.  Mom asked a lot of questions about school and my friends from last year; I did not know the answers to all of them.

A while later, in the late afternoon, Mom said, “Well, if you have everything under control here, it’s probably time for us to go.  I think you can probably finish unpacking.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Thank you again for everything.”

“Here,” Mom continued, writing a check and giving it to me.  “In case you need anything more.”

“Thank you.”

“Enjoy the new apartment,” Dad said quietly.  “Dad loves you.”

“You too,” I said.  “Drive safely.”

 

After Mom and Dad left, the first thing I did was connect to IRC chat and go to the room where I always used to chat last year.  I scanned the list of people in the room and recognized someone, a girl from Georgia named Mindy Jo (that name sounded very Southern to me) whom I had kept in touch with off and on by email but had not actually chatted with since moving out of Building C in June.  I messaged her.

gjd76: hi
MindyJoA: greg! you’re back!
gjd76: yes! i moved in to my new apartment this afternoon
MindyJoA: yay how is it?
gjd76: i like it so far.  mom and dad took me shopping
MindyJoA: that was nice of them.  you said you live by yourself?
gjd76: yeah
MindyJoA: have your friends moved back yet?
gjd76: i don’t know. i don’t think so.  i still have another three weeks until school starts.
MindyJoA: why’d you move back so early?  last year when i moved home for the summer i didn’t go back to school until the night before my first class
gjd76: because it’s boring back home.
MindyJoA: yeah, that makes sense

I stayed up until past midnight talking to Mindy Jo and a few other people in the room, and catching up on the Pink Floyd Usenet group, which had died down in general since it had been three months since new music was released and there were no more Publius Enigma posts.  The bed was right next to the computer table in the large main room, and while it took me a while to fall asleep, as it often does in a new place, I slept fairly well after that.

 

“Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said when she saw me walking into the Newman Center the next morning for Mass.  “Welcome back!”

“Thanks.  It’s good to be back.”

“School doesn’t start for another few weeks, right?  Are you in summer session?”

“No, I was just bored at my parents’ house, so I moved here as soon as my lease started.”

“Was your summer good, even if it was boring?”

“Yeah.” I told her about the bookstore, watching roller hockey games, and Catherine and Renee’s Voices of Austria show, until she had to go get Mass started.

I looked around during Mass and noticed that, while I recognized some faces in the congregation, most of the people here whom I actually knew well were not here.  I was hoping they might be.  I knew Danielle was not moving back to Jeromeville this early, and I suspected many other students had not moved back yet as well.

After church was over, I stood watching people leave.  Normally now was the time I would go talk to people I knew, but with most of the people I knew not in attendance today, I decided after a minute to just go home.  When I got home, I made a sandwich with the groceries Mom and Dad had bought last night while I answered a few emails.

Later that afternoon, I went for a bike ride.  I had been waiting a long time for this.  My bike had been pretty much sitting in the garage the whole time I had been home.  Plumdale is hilly, with many curvy roads where people drive fast, the polar opposite of Jeromeville as far as ease of cycling is concerned.

I rode south down Andrews Road across Coventry Boulevard.  The weather was sunny and hot, around ninety degrees.  By the time I crossed Fifth Street onto campus, about a mile south of my apartment, I was sweating, but it felt good.  I continued south past the Rec Pavilion, and I stopped at a red light at Davis Drive next to the recreation pool, which Dad had nicknamed Thong Bikini Hill.  I turned, trying to look at the sprinkling of sunbathers on the hill, but staring felt inappropriate, and I did not have a good view from where I was.  When the light turned green, I continued south, past the dairy, all the way to the oak grove at the west end of the Arboretum.  The campus looked quieter and more deserted than usual; I figured this was probably normal for summer.  The campus had also looked more deserted than normal when I was here in July with my cousins, and most campus activity would be in the older part of campus to the east anyway.

My route that day was very familiar.  I rode east through the Arboretum and emerged downtown on B Street.  I headed north on B Street to Community Park, to the pedestrian and bicycle overpass over Coventry Boulevard, and into the Greenbelts.  I had been here a few times before last spring, but after being away for almost three months, it felt new all over again.

About a mile north of the pedestrian overpass, I passed the pond and crossed Andrews Road, which curved to run east-west through this neighborhood.  I continued down a residential street; I discovered last spring that this street connected to another greenbelt and bike trail running along the northernmost edge of Jeromeville.  I stopped to drink from a water fountain next to a small playground that intersected another bike heading south.  I looked north, through the chain link fence that ran along the edge of the trail.  A drainage ditch ran parallel to the bike trail, with fields spreading as far as the eye could see on the other side.  The neighboring city of Woodville was about eight miles to the north, and Bidwell, where my dad was born and some of his relatives still lived, was about ninety miles in the same direction.  I wondered what else was out there in the North Valley.  I had seen roads and towns on maps, but I was not very familiar with any of them up close.

The trail continued next to the drainage ditch for a while, until it turned southward through a park tucked between two neighborhoods.  This park had a playground and basketball court at the north end, closest to the ditch, then a long grassy area and a sculpture that looked like dominoes at the other end.  Public works of art were strange sometimes, and Jeromeville had no shortage of them, being a university town.  These dominoes appeared to be permanently frozen while falling, although not in the usual configuration of falling dominoes.  The thought of falling dominoes got me thinking about how one small decision could affect so much, just like how pushing one domino could lead to many others toppling.  What if I had decided to go to Central Tech or Bidwell State instead of Jeromeville?  What if I had not accepted the invitation to the Interdisciplinary Honors Program last year, and had not made that group of friends in the dorm?  What if I had decided to run away and quit school that night that I got so upset?  What if I had paid more attention and found a roommate for this year, or decided to answer an advertisement and room with a stranger, instead of getting a little studio apartment?  My whole life could be different.

 A little way past the dominoes, I turned off the trail onto a path which I knew led directly to the Las Casas Apartments.  I locked my bike and headed straight for the shower.  I had been outside in hot weather for 45 minutes, and I was sweaty.  I showered in mostly cold water, then I got dressed.  I turned on the stereo, now on top of the new bookcase next to the kitchen, and played the Hootie & the Blowfish CD as I put a Hungry-Man fried chicken dinner in the microwave.

All was starting to feel more right with the world.  I may not have understood exactly why my dominoes fell in the direction they did, but they did, and now I was back in Jeromeville where I could start moving my life forward again.  I grew quite a bit freshman year, and I was ready to build on that growth, and maybe push over a few more metaphorical dominoes in the process.

dominoes

Mid-June 1995.  The worst finals schedule ever and the last great adventure of freshman year.

Every college town is known for little hole-in-the-wall restaurants popular with students.  Jeromeville had one called Redrum, but during the time I was there, it was called Murder Burger.  The sign said their burgers were “so good, they’re to die for.” Murder Burger was just off Cornell Boulevard and Highway 100, across the train tracks from downtown.  It was a greasy little nondescript building without enough seating, which meant the food had to be really good. Toward the end of the time I lived in Jeromeville, around 2001 or so, someone complained about the violent connotation of the name, and after taking suggestions from customers, the owners changed the name to “Redrum,” the nonsense word popularized in the book and movie The Shining which is actually “murder” spelled backward.

The last great adventure of my freshman year at the University of Jeromeville took place at Murder Burger.  But before that happened, I had to get through the worst finals schedule ever. Finals week at UJ required six days, so there would always be one Saturday at the end of every quarter when some finals were held.  And because of a quirk in the calendar, there was no dead time this quarter, no day to study without classes. My last class for Physics 9A was Friday at 11:00, and the final was less than 24 hours later, Saturday at 8:00.

On the last day of physics class, the instructor, Dr. Collins, was about a day behind where he had wanted to be.  It seemed like he was going quickly through everything he had not had time for earlier in the quarter. I kept thinking, what if the entire final is about this stuff that he had not adequately prepared us for?  But I kept reminding myself that I had 20 hours to do nothing but study physics. Hopefully I would sleep for part of that time, though; I was going to study my butt off for this final, but I was not planning to pull an all-nighter.

“Remember, the final is tomorrow at 8:00,” Dr. Collins said as his time ran out.  Then, gesturing toward the back of the lecture hall where two graduate students stood with stacks of paper, he said, “The TAs here will be passing out instructor evaluations.  Please leave them in the box in the lobby as you leave.”

Dr. Collins walked through the door behind the front of the lecture hall as I received my evaluation form.  This had been a new concept to me when I started at UJ, giving instructors feedback at the end of the quarter.  I gave Dr. Collins mostly positive ratings, but I did mention the section from early in the year when he did not follow the book.  He asked a question about this on the midterm that I did poorly on, and since his teaching did not follow the book, I had no idea what to do.

As I had planned to, I spent the entire afternoon studying physics.  I went through every problem set at the end of every chapter, making sure I knew how to do all the important things.  I reread all the formulas and made sure I knew them from memory, including what all the letters stood for. I reread vocabulary, making sure I knew the definition of force and torque and momentum and energy.  I did every problem from both midterms again.

Later that night, as I was attempting to reread my notes, I discovered that they took a long time to reread, mostly because of my messy handwriting.  I turned on the computer and, after a quick break to check email, I began retyping my notes. This took longer than simply rereading, even with the messy handwriting, but it seemed to help since I had to think more about what I was reading and typing.  Then, if I had time to reread it all again, it would be easier to read since it would no longer be in my messy handwriting.

When Saturday morning came, I still felt uneasy about the exam.  I rode my bike from Building C to Ross Hall, already wearing shorts at 7:45 in the morning because it was warm and would probably only get hotter.  I sat near the aisle on the left side of the lecture hall (my left, the instructor’s right). As the rest of the class arrived, I nervously reread the notes I had retyped and printed the night before, trying to glean one last bit of information in the few minutes that remained.

When the time came, Dr. Collins and his teacher assistants passed out the exam paper.  I looked over it and read all of the questions first. As I read each successive question, my state of mind went from worried to calm to excited.  This was easy. I had studied in detail every single thing that was being asked on this test, and I knew how to do every problem. I began working, writing, typing on my calculator, sketching diagrams of forces acting on objects.  When I finished, I double-checked all the answers. I redid all of my calculator work. And I turned in my paper and walked out of 66 Ross with almost half of the allotted two hours remaining.

The finals for Chemistry 2B and Psychology and the Law were both on Monday.  My next two days looked much as the previous one had. I spent most of my time studying.  I reread and retyped notes, just as I had done for physics. I redid chemistry problems, calculating theoretical yields of chemical reactions and molarity of solutions.  For Psych-Law, the test would include both a multiple choice section and an essay. Dr. Kemp had given us a choice of three topics so that we could prepare in advance, but the essay itself had to be handwritten on the day of the final.  I made outlines for my chosen topic, so that I would be able to remember what I wanted to write about.

 

Dr. Kemp was the instructor for Psychology and the Law, or as the class was formally called, Integrated Honors Program 8B.  It was a class open only to students in the IHP, one of three that we had to choose from each quarter which counted as general education requirements.  Dr. Kemp was a gray-haired man in his 50s who wore a dress shirt and tie most days, not exactly someone I expected to have much of a sense of humor. He proved me wrong on the day of the final, when he announced, “I put some funny choices on the multiple choice part of the test.”

I began working on the test, wondering exactly what he meant by this.  The fifth question said this:

5)   The McNaughton Rule applies to criminal cases featuring which of the following:
A.
Expert witnesses
B.
A plea of not guilty by reason of insanity
C.
Repressed memories
D.
A hung jury
E.
Aliens

I tried not to chuckle too loudly when I read “Aliens.”  This was a test, after all.

A few minutes later, Dan Woodward quietly asked Dr. Kemp a question.  Dr. Kemp looked at the test again, appeared to think for a minute, and then announced to the class, “Don’t mark the funny choice for your answer.”  People softly laughed. I assumed that one of the questions had been worded in a misleading way so as to make the funny choice a possibly correct answer.  I found the item in question at the bottom of the page I was on:

14)   Which of the following IS NOT one of the Miranda rights?
A. R
ight to remain silent
B.
Right to consult a lawyer
C.
Right to bear arms
D.
Right to a lawyer present during questioning
E.
Right to eat donuts during the trial

I was right.  Technically, according to the question, both choices C and E were correct.  Dr. Kemp had probably needed another option, and had just made up something funny without realizing that it did not fit the wording of the question.

The rest of the multiple choice test was fairly straightforward.  I thought I did okay on the essay section as well, even though I hated essay tests, but this time I had time to prepare.  I remembered all the main points I had written on my outline the night before. I submitted my test at 9:50, toward the end of the two hour time slot.

The chemistry final was at 4:00 that afternoon, so I spent the rest of the afternoon studying for that.  I felt confident about that one, though, and it seemed easy while I was taking it. I got back to the South Residential Area just in time for dinner, relieved that this nightmare of three challenging finals at the beginning of finals week was over.  It was a good feeling, and I was just going to relax for the rest of the night, chatting on IRC, reading my usual Usenet groups, and playing Tetris and SimCity 2000.

 

Tuesday and Wednesday were among the best days I had all quarter.  I went on long bike rides both days, through the Greenbelts in north Jeromeville on Tuesday and through the Arboretum and the rural part of campus across from Highway 117 on Wednesday.  I spent several hours chatting on IRC and made a new friend, a 19-year-old girl from Missouri named Stacey with blue eyes and a nice butt (at least that’s what she said about herself). I took naps.  I organized my desk drawers and my clothes, so that packing on Friday would be easier. And, since I still had a math final coming up, I spent a few hours Wednesday evening studying.

I also spent most of Thursday morning studying for math, with a break in between to email Stacey.  I probably had not needed to study that much, though, because I had no trouble with the math final.  But as with all exams, there was a lingering feeling in the back of my mind that I did poorly and did not realize it.  This feeling had been stronger in my mind for every exam since I failed the first physics midterm in April, although that time I knew I had done poorly before the exam was even over.

I spent most of Friday cleaning and packing.  My things were organized enough that packing did not take long.  The problem was that I did not have many boxes. I still had the two boxes my computer and monitor came in; I had been using them as a makeshift table.  Instead of putting the computer and monitor back in the boxes, though, I put clothes in the boxes. I carried the boxes of clothes out to the car.

Next, I walked down to the Help Window and asked to borrow a socket wrench and screwdriver, so I could disassemble the bed loft and return the extra pieces.  I checked my email one last time (Stacey had not written back yet; for that matter, we only stayed in touch for about a week total), then I disconnected all the cables and took the computer and monitor to the car, in two separate trips, leaving them without boxes since I was using the boxes for clothes.  I wrapped the computer and monitor in the blanket and sheets from my bed; students purchased these from the Department of Student Housing and kept them at the end of the year. I used these sheets and blanket for the rest of the time I lived in Jeromeville, and today they are on the guest bed at my house.

When I got back to the room, it was finally beginning to sink in that this was my last day in Building C, and my last day in Jeromeville for this school year.  Everyone had to be out of the dorms by noon tomorrow, but I was finished with finals and had no reason to stay. I had called Mom yesterday and said I would be home sometime tonight, although I did not say when because I did not know.

By late afternoon, I had finished carrying everything out to the car.  I was sweeping the room with a borrowed broom, with the door open, when Liz walked by.  “Hey, Greg?” she said, peeking her head in the door.

I stopped sweeping for a minute.  “Yeah?” I replied.

“A bunch of us are going to Murder Burger tonight, and then bowling.  Wanna come?”

“Definitely!” I said.  “Sounds like a great way to celebrate the last day of school.”

“Meet in the common room at 6.  We’re gonna walk. It’s not that far.”

“I’ll see you then!  Sounds good!”

 

By the time we left for Murder Burger, I had turned in my keys.  I had no way back into Room 221, although I could still get into the building with the magnetic stripe on my registration card.  This was not just a small group of friends heading out to dinner; this was a massive caravan of almost half of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  Liz and Ramon, Taylor, Pete, Charlie, and Jason. Sarah, Krista, Caroline, Danielle, and Theresa. Pat and Karen, and Pat’s twin brother who lived in the North Residential Area.  Mike Adams and his roommate Ian. Gina Stalteri, Derek Olvera, Stephanie, and Schuyler. David, Keith, Mike Potts, Yu Cheng. Jonathan, Spencer, Jenn from the first floor, Cathy, and Phuong.  Skeeter and Bok. Rebekah and Tracey. And I probably forgot a few others.

We walked the same route I usually took to get to chemistry class in 199 Stone.  From there, we continued walking east on Davis Drive to the edge of campus at Old Jeromeville Road.  We turned left and took the next right, First Street, walking four blocks along a vacant lot lined with old olive trees, across the street from a few fraternity houses and small hotels.  We turned right on Cornell Boulevard and walked under the railroad tracks; Murder Burger was just on the other side, about a mile and a quarter from Building C.

“How’d you do on finals?” Taylor asked me as we were approaching Murder Burger.

“I think I did pretty well, actually,” I replied.  “What about you?”

“Uhh… I took finals.  I showed up.”

I chuckled.  “That bad, huh?”

“It wasn’t great.  Have you ever been to Murder Burger?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve driven past it many times, though.”

“I’ve been here once.  The burgers are really good.”

We did not all fit inside the building.  We made a long line extending out the door.  I started thinking about what I wanted as soon as I got close enough to see the menu.  I pointed to the part of the menu saying that they could add flavors to drinks for a small additional charge.

“Vanilla Coke?  Chocolate Coke? Orange Coke?”  I asked rhetorically. “What is that?”

“Flavored Coke is so good!” Sarah said from behind me in line.  “There’s a place back home that has vanilla Coke. I love it!”

When it was finally my turn to order, I asked for a double cheeseburger with just ketchup, mayonnaise, lettuce, and cheese; a large French fry; and a vanilla Coke.  I wanted to see if this was really as good as Sarah said it was. (Of course, now most grocery stores around here sell Vanilla Coke pre-made in cans, but this option did not exist in 1995.)  The cashier gave me a stub with a number printed on it. I looked around for a place to sit. The kitchen was behind the cash registers, with the dining room to the right.

“We’ll be outside with Liz and Ramon,” Sarah told me as I started to walk away.  “Come sit with us.”

“Okay,” I said.  I walked out the back of the dining room, opening to a parking lot, and then back around to the opposite side of the building.  Liz and Ramon were sitting on a picnic bench, along with Taylor and Pete.

“Come sit with us,” Liz said.  “We saved you a seat.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “This is so cool. One last time hanging out together.”

“Looking forward to summer?” Ramon asked.

“Yeah.  A friend of my mom’s works in a bookstore, and she got me a job there, so I’ll have a little bit of money coming in.”

“Are you going to see your high school friends this summer?” Sarah asked, arriving as I was talking to Ramon.

“I’m not sure.  I didn’t usually see my friends when I wasn’t in school.  And some of them haven’t stayed in touch.”

“Really.  That’s kinda sad.”

“I hope I get to see some of them, though.”

About fifteen minutes later, someone called my number over a speaker next to the outdoor seating area.  I got up and returned a minute later with my food, taking my first ever sip of vanilla Coke.

“You were right, Sarah,” I said as I swallowed.  “Vanilla Coke is good.”

“I know!  Isn’t it?”

After we finished eating, around eight o’clock, we cleaned up and walked back across the railroad track.  About half of the group walked back toward Building C while the others walked toward the bowling alley; I told them goodbye and said that I would see them next year.

The bowling alley is on campus, in a secluded room called the Memorial Union Games Area.  The part of the Memorial Union where the campus bookstore is located has a basement, with coin-operated video games, pinball machines, a pool table, and sixteen lanes of bowling.  From Redrum, we walked back down First Street, turned right on A Street, and then left across from Second Street through the path that had been the main entrance to campus when it was built 90 years ago.  I had been bowling once here earlier this year, with Liz and Ramon and Jason and Taylor and Danielle, all of whom were here tonight.

I bowled a strike on my first frame, and everyone on my lane (tonight it was Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Krista, and Charlie) cheered for me.  I smiled. But that would be the only strike I would bowl that game. I finished with a score of 96, third place out of the six of us.

“Do you want to play another game?” Taylor asked.

“Sure.  But I should go find a phone and call my mom to let her know when I’ll be home.  She’s probably worried about me.”

“You’re driving home tonight?  Doesn’t that mean you’ll get home really late?”

“Probably around midnight if we play one more game.  I can do that.”

“Okay.  Be safe.”

I found a pay phone and called home using my parents’ calling card number, so that they would be billed for the call.  Calling outside of your local geographical area was expensive using 1995 technology, but with this PIN number that my parents told me to use, I could call them from any phone and it would go to their bill.  “Hello?” Mom said, picking up on the third ring.

“Hi.  It’s me.”

“Where are you?”

“Still in Jeromeville.  A bunch of people went out to Murder Burger and then bowling.”

“Yummy!  That sounds fun!  So are you coming home in the morning instead?”

“I was still going to come tonight, after one more game of bowling.”

“So you won’t be home until really late.”

“Probably around midnight.  Is that a problem?”

“No.  Just call me again if anything changes.”

“Okay.  I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Drive safe.  And have fun.”

“I will.  Thanks.”

I bowled much better the second game.  At one point, I had two strikes in a row.  When I went back up to the lane with my ball, Charlie said, “Come on, Greg!  You can do it!”

“No pressure,” Taylor added, laughing.

I carefully moved my hand back, then swung it forward, releasing the ball.  The ball appeared to be going right where it needed to for me to get a third strike, but one of the pins remained standing.  I hit the pin on my second roll for a spare, and I finished the game with a score of 127, one of the best games I had ever bowled at the time, and higher than anyone else on my lane.

“All right, guys,” I said after the second game.  “It’s time for me to go. I’m driving home tonight.”

“Drive safely!” Sarah said, giving me a hug.

“You too, Have a great summer, everyone.”

“Bye, dude,” Taylor said, shaking my hand.

I spent about five minutes saying goodbye to everyone, with handshakes and hugs for some of them.  I walked back to Building C alone, because some people seemed to want to bowl one more game, and they were all going home in the morning.  It was a little after nine o’clock. The sun sets late enough this time of year that there was still a slight dusky glow to the west. I had enjoyed tonight, I had enjoyed the entire year in Building C and the IHP, but there came a time for everything to end, and it was time for me to go home.  I was done with my freshman year.

I went back into Building C only to use the bathroom; I did not see anyone while I was there.  I walked across the street to the car, where my stuff was still packed, and began driving. I put on a tape I had made of Bush’s Sixteen Stone album as I headed south, smiling, thinking about the great night I had.

Murder Burger felt to me like a major landmark and institution in Jeromeville, but I really did not eat there that often.  That night at the end of my freshman year was the first of maybe no more than five times that I ever ate there. Despite this, I felt sad when I read in 2019 that Murder Burger, which by then was called Redrum Burger, was closing.  A college town like Jeromeville needs a greasy, locally-owned burger place, and because of changing demographics and a changing economy, Jeromevillians do not have such a place anymore. I thought about making the trip across the Drawbridge last summer when I heard that it would be Redrum’s last weekend in operation, but I had a lot to do at the time, and I had heard that long lines of customers who had heard the news were already wrapped around the building, so I ended up not making the trip.  I am not a big fan of crowds.

Some of the new friends I made freshman year I did not really see again after that year, or I saw them only occasionally around campus.  Others I stayed in touch with for a long time, and a few of them I have been in touch with continuously since 1994. I have been to six weddings of people I met during my freshman year at UJ, and two of those weddings were two people who were in the IHP with me marrying each other.  I was going to miss having a built in social group next year, but I had met enough people this year that I would probably be okay.

My freshman year at the University of Jeromeville had been life-changing.  I made so many new friends. I discovered the Internet. I discovered the joy of a good bike ride.  I was still getting straight As; I even got an A in physics after doing so poorly on that first midterm.  (Technically, I did get an A-minus in Rise and Fall of Empires fall quarter, and at UJ, an A-minus counted as a slightly lower grade than an A in terms of calculating grade point average, but I was still doing pretty well.)

Of course, not everything was perfect.  I spent a lot of nights sad and alone. I still had no girlfriend, but hopefully that would come soon.  I would not see these people for three months, but I had ways to stay in touch with the ones I wanted to stay in touch with, and in September I would be right back in Jeromeville to pick up where I left off.  Freshman year was pretty good overall, so hopefully sophomore year would be even better.

And, of course, as the case often is when looking back on the past, I can say that on that final day of freshman year, I never would have guessed what major life changes were coming my way sophomore year.

20190927 redrum 4
The old Redrum/Murder Burger building, now deserted, photographed in September 2019 about a month after the last business day.

 

June 6, 1995. New music for the difficult week approaching.

Back in 1995, before YouTube and Pandora and satellite radio and MP3 players, we had to buy music on CDs at music stores.  The biggest music store in Jeromeville at the time was Tower Records. Tower Records started in the 1960s in Capital City, just across the Drawbridge from here, and it eventually grew into a chain with locations all around the world.  The Jeromeville location of Tower Records, on G Street downtown, was a new one; it had only been open for six months. I had read in the local news that many downtown small business owners and local elected officials were angry at the opening of Tower Records.  They believed that a chain store had no place in their precious quirky little town, and that the City Council should take more action to ban chain stores. I thought that those people saying that were pretentious, and that it was not the place of a City Council to protect small businesses from competition, so I had no problem buying music at Tower.

New music was always released to stores on Tuesdays back then.  I had math at 9:00 on Tuesdays, and then a three hour break. On the last Tuesday before finals, I got on my bike after math class and headed straight for Tower Records.  It only took me about five minutes to get there. As I walked in, I saw a display for new releases in front of me. Half of the shelf was taken up by a CD case with strange abstract artwork on the cover.  In the center was something resembling an eyeball, but the pupil of the eye was a solar eclipse with a corona around it, and a planet overlapped the solar eclipse on the upper right side. Above the eye was a beach, partially covered with clouds; on the lower left, puddles of water scattered on dirt gradually metamorphosed into fish.  On the left spine of the custom-made CD case was a small blinking red light.

This was it.  This was what I had come for: Pink Floyd’s Pulse album, the live album from their tour last summer and fall (which would be the band’s final tour).

The album had been released a week earlier in the UK, so many of the British people from the Pink Floyd Usenet group had already been talking about it.  It was two and a half hours long, containing two full discs of live music. The first disc contained mostly well-known songs, as well as Astronomy Domine, an obscure song from their first album, which I had never heard.  The second disc contained every song from their legendary 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon performed live, in order, and an encore of three more of their biggest hits.

After I grabbed a copy of Pulse, I looked around the store to see if I saw any other music I felt like buying.  I also bought the album Sixteen Stone by a British grunge band called Bush.  I had heard a song from it on the radio, and also someone in my building had it (I don’t remember who) and I remember really liking some of the other songs on it.

I got home a little before eleven and spent the rest of the morning listening to Pulse.  I looked through the book that came inside the CD case several times; it contained photographs from the tour.  Several pages had an abstract symbol in white superimposed over a photograph of a member of the band or one of the additional touring musicians.  I noticed that some of the symbols and drawings resembled letters and figured out fairly quickly that the letters in question were the initials of the person photographed.

I logged on to the Pink Floyd Usenet group while I was listening.  A Usenet group is a text-based ancestor of today’s Internet forum, and Pink Floyd’s group had been relatively active since I discovered Usenet groups a year ago.  Someone with connections to the band had posted last summer, using the pseudonym “Publius” and an anonymous email address, claiming that the album The Division Bell had some kind of secret message and a reward for whomever decoded it.  With the recent release of Pulse, the discussion had picked up again.  I found the post where people had debated the meanings of those symbols and drawings, and someone had already pointed out the resemblance to band members’ initials.  I decided not to reply, since Usenet users sometimes looked down upon those who posted without having anything useful to contribute to the discussion.

I did not get to finish listening to Pulse in one sitting.  Right at the end of the song Eclipse on disc 2, the last song before the encore, I noticed that it was time to go to class.  When I got back from class later that afternoon, I turned the music back on. But a few minutes later, during the second verse of Comfortably Numb, my music was suddenly drowned out by a loud techno reggae cover of the Beatles’ Come Together, coming from outside the room.  I smiled, paused the CD, and walked out of room 221, down the hall toward room 222.

“Hey, Greg,” Ramon said when he saw me in the doorway.  “You like it?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Is it too loud?”

“It’s ok.  I’m not doing anything where I need it quiet, or anything.”

Liz Williams and Tara Nowell lived in room 222.  Ramon Quintero had been Liz’s boyfriend since the middle of fall quarter, and he spent so much more time in Liz’s room than he did in his own room that he had moved the sign with his name on it from the door to his actual room on the third floor to Liz’s door.  Tara had some kind of music-making software on her computer that Ramon liked to play with, and I was used to hearing this kind of loud music from down the hall by now. I did not mind, as long as it was quiet when I was trying to sleep.

A few days earlier, I had been sitting in Liz’s room, and Ramon was talking about his music.  “I want to do a reggae version of Come Together,” he said.

“That sounds really cool.”

“I was thinking, like, what makes reggae sound like reggae?  I had never really thought about it before,” Ramon said. I realized that I had never really thought about this either.  “So I was listening to Bob Marley and stuff like that, and I noticed there’s more of a stress on the second and fourth beats instead of the first and third.”

I wasn’t an expert on Bob Marley, but I started singing One Love silently to myself, since that was one of the few Bob Marley songs I knew.  “You’re right,” I said. “Interesting.”

“So how are your classes going?” Liz asked me.  “Getting ready for finals?”

“They’re going okay, I guess,” I said.  “I bombed my first physics midterm, but I’ve been studying really hard ever since.  That’s the one I’m most worried about, just because I did so badly on that first one.”

“When is the physics final?”

I paused to think.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “I haven’t looked at my finals schedule yet.  I should probably do that.”

“Yeah, you should.  I have one Monday, two Wednesday, and one Thursday.  That won’t be too bad.”

“I can’t believe the school year is almost over,” I said.  “It seemed to go by fast, especially here at the end.”

“I know!  We’ve almost finished a year of college!”

“Hey, listen to this,” Ramon said.  “I turned up the bass a little.” He played his techno-reggae Come Together again, supposedly with more bass.  I could not tell the difference, honestly.

“I’m not sure which way I like better,” I said.  “Can you play the first one again?” Ramon did something on the computer and played it again the way it was the first time, and I said, “I think I like the second one better.  I need to get to work, though.”

“Okay,” Ramon said.  “Have a good one.”

“It was good talking to you,” Liz added.

“You too.”

I walked back to room 221 and got out the course schedule for this quarter.  Finals did not happen at the usual meeting time for a class. The course schedule for each quarter had a page that said the final time for any given class.  It was based on the time that the class usually met, so that, for example, every class that usually met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 9am would have the final at the same time, but this time would not necessarily be 9am.  Each class was allotted a two-hour time slot, regardless of how much time the class normally met for. All of the necessary time slots required exactly six days, so finals week was the one time each quarter when classes were held on a Saturday.

I looked up the times for my four finals and thought, no, this can’t be right.  That doesn’t make sense. I double-checked, and it did not make sense, but it was correct.  This finals week was going to be a disaster.

For one thing, there was no dead time before finals this quarter.  Fall quarter classes had ended on a Friday, and finals started the following Monday.  For winter quarter, classes had ended on a Thursday, and finals began the following Saturday, so there was one so-called dead day of no classes before finals began.  But this quarter, the last day of classes was Friday, and finals began on Saturday. To make things even worse, my physics final had the earliest time slot possible, Saturday morning at 8:00.  This was less than 24 hours after my last actual physics class, Friday morning at 11. My final for Psychology and the Law was Monday morning, chemistry was Monday afternoon, and math was Thursday afternoon.

This was the worst possible scenario for me.  My three most difficult finals fell on the first two days, and my easy final would not be until the end of the week.  I was scared, and I did not know how I would be able to do this. I could have checked what my finals schedule would have been like before I registered for classes, but I figured it was just one week and that it made little sense to schedule my entire quarter around finals week.  I wonder now, though, if I would have done things differently had I taken the time to check my finals schedule. Too late to change it now.

 

Later that night, after dinner, I wandered down to the common room.  It was full. Liz and Ramon, Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Danielle, Gina, Mike Adams, Karen, David, Yu Cheng, and Schuyler were all watching the movie Forrest Gump.  Ramon had bought the movie on VHS a couple weeks ago, and it seemed like he, or at least someone, had watched it every few days ever since then.  I found an unoccupied seat on a couch and sat down. I had work to do, but it could wait. I didn’t need to do it right now. I loved this movie, and in the worst case, I had seen the movie before, so if I had to go get some work to do and not give the movie my full attention, I would not miss out.

The movie had just started a few minutes earlier.  In the movie, Forrest was explaining that he was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a relative whom he called a Civil War hero.

“Forrest was named after the founder of the Klan,” Gina said.  “I forgot about that part.”

“That must suck to have a famous relative, but it’s someone like that, not someone you want to be associated with,” Mike said.

“Probably,” I replied.  “I don’t have any famous relatives.  I wouldn’t know.”

“I don’t either.”

“My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Vice President!” Karen exclaimed.  At that moment, a thought crossed my mind. Maybe it was because Karen had talked about growing up in the South, or maybe it was because I knew someone else who was related to a Southern Vice President from early in the history of the USA, but as soon as she said that, I just knew that her famous ancestor was going to be John C. Calhoun.

“Who’s that?” Mike asked.

“John C. Calhoun!” Karen said.  “He was Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.”

“I remember that name from history class,” Gina said.

“If that’s true, then you’re related to one of my friends from high school,” I said.

“Huh?” Karen replied, caught off guard by my comment.

“Do you know the Hallorans from Plumdale?  Jessica Halloran? And her sister Jamie, and they have a bunch of younger siblings too.  Jessica said once that she was related to John C. Calhoun.”

“No.  But that’s funny that you know some distant relatives of mine.  Weird.”

“Yeah.  Jessica was one of my best friends.  She took a year off to go volunteer at an orphanage in Guatemala.”

“Wow.  That’s cool.  Adventurous.”

“I know.”  Currently as an adult, I am in Facebook contact with both Jessica and Jamie, but I never did find out if they knew Karen, nor do I think I’ve ever mentioned that I went to Jeromeville with some distant cousin of theirs.

I had noticed earlier that Jared was sitting in the corner alone with his Scrabble board, seemingly paying more attention to the board than the movie, placing tiles on the board.  He was clearly not playing an actual game, since no one else was sitting with him. I walked over to him to see what was going on.

“Hey, Jared,” I said.

“Hi,” he said back, gesturing toward the board.  “Check this out.” Jared had filled the entire board with interlocking dirty words.  Private parts, biology terms, sexual slang, pretty much every inappropriate word I could think of was on the Scrabble board somewhere.

I began laughing.  “That’s hilarious!” I told him.  “This wasn’t a real game, was it?”

“No.  It couldn’t be from a real game,” he explained, pointing toward the middle of the board, “because EJACULATE couldn’t have been played here in a real game.  It’s too many letters, and none of these other words were here before, only this one.”

“Oh yeah.  But couldn’t you… no, I guess not, there’s no shorter word you could have played first.”

“Yeah.  I have three letters left, D, A, and E.  I’m trying to figure out where to put them.”  Jared scanned the board. He put the tiles going down from the D at the end of LAID, so that they spelled DEAD.  “DEAD!”

“That’s not really a sex word, is it?”

“No, but it’s hilarious!”

I pointed at the H in HYMEN and gestured toward the empty space next to it.  “What about HEAD?” I said.

“That works, but I like DEAD.  It’s just funnier.”

“If you say so.  It’s your game.” I did not understand why DEAD was so funny, but it is not important.  I walked back across the room and sat next to Liz and Ramon, directing my attention back to the movie.

“My name’s Forrest,” Ramon said in an exaggerated Southern accent.  “Forrest Gump.”

“Forrest Gump is kind of a cool name,” Mike said.

“Yeah,” Yu replied.  “Except for the Gump part.”  I laughed. Yu continued, “That could be my name.  Forrest Cheng. Or maybe Yu Gump.”

“Yu Gump,” Mike repeated back.  “I’m going to start calling you that.”

I was not looking forward to moving back home and being away from these silly, nonsensical random conversations.  It seemed that these conversations were an essential part of the dorm life experience. Maybe I would have neighbors at my apartment next year who had random conversations like this.  Or maybe I would still get together with some of these Interdisciplinary Honors Program friends next year. I hoped I would find something, because the IHP had really helped me feel like I had a home, a smaller group to belong to within the context of this very large university.  I would need to find a new group next year.

“Hey, Greg?” Liz asked.  “Did you ever figure out your finals schedule?”

“Yeah,” I answered, “and it’s going to be horrible.  I have my three hard finals on the first two days, and then the easy one, math, isn’t until Thursday.  There are less than 24 hours between my last physics class and the final.”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah.  I’m really going to need to study hard over the next few days.”

“I know you can do it, Greg.  And just think, once those three finals are over, you’ll only have an easy final left, so then you get plenty of time to pack and clean your room.  And you’ll get time to hang out too.”

“That’s a good way to look at it.  Thanks.”

“I had a hard schedule like that last quarter, with all my hard finals first.  It wasn’t that bad, though. You’ll do fine.”

“I hope so.”

After the movie, I went upstairs.  I could still get a good two hours of studying in before I went to bed.  I put on Pulse for the second time that day and told myself that when the music ended, it would be time for bed.  That sounded like a plan.

Forrest Gump’s mother said that life was like a box of chocolates, because I never knew what I would get.  I did not know I would get this difficult finals schedule. All I could do now was make the best of it. One thing at a time.  I had three more days of regular classes left, and I would use as much time as possible over those three days to study for physics.  Once I finished physics Saturday morning, I would spend the rest of the weekend studying for my two Monday finals. And once Monday night came, I would do as Liz suggested and let up a bit.  I would still study for the math final on Thursday, but being my easiest one, I would not need all day to study. I would take my time leisurely packing and cleaning. I would go on bike rides.  I would probably spend some time in chat rooms. And I would hopefully have some more of these great random conversations with my IHP friends. The second part of finals week would be nice and relaxing.  It would be fun. And it was only a week away.

pulse

May 26-28, 1995. Friends far away.

By the time Memorial Day weekend arrived in late May, the weather in Jeromeville had become quite summer-like.  The bike ride from Wellington Hall to the South Residential Area only took five minutes, but I was doing that bike ride in 88-degree sunshine, so I was already starting to sweat by the time I got back to my dorm room.  It was the Friday before a three-day weekend, and I was drained from a long week of classes.  I unlocked my door and turned on the air conditioning.  Cool air began blowing into the room.  I took off my shoes and lay face down on the mattress, dozing off for about an hour.

I spent a couple hours writing emails and catching up on Usenet groups, and reading for fun.  Shortly before six o’clock, I walked to the dining commons. I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Ramon, Liz, Caroline, and Sarah at a table.  Next to Charlie was an empty seat with a half-empty glass of water on the table next to it. I could not tell if anyone was sitting there.

“May I join you?” I asked.  “Is that seat taken?”

“Go ahead,” Charlie replied.  “There’s always room for hydrochloric acid.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.  Charlie laughed. “That was random,” I said.

“I know.”

“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.

“I’m good,” I replied.  “It’s a three-day weekend, and they turned the AC back on.”

“I know!” Sarah said.  “It feels so nice!”

“So, Greg, what are you doing this summer?” Taylor continued.  “Will you be back home in Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Working?  Doing anything like that?”

“My mom told me the other day she found a job for me.  One of my brother’s friends, his mom works at this small bookstore.  I guess it’s just her and the owner working there. She wants to cut her hours for the summer to be around more when her son isn’t in school.  So Mom told her that I was going to be home for the summer, and I could use a part-time job.”

“And do you want to do this?”

“I wish Mom would have asked me first, although she did say I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to.  But I’m not going to be doing anything else all summer, I’ll be getting paid for it, and it’s a job I don’t have to go find and interview for.  So I’m ok with it.”

“Yeah,” Taylor replied.

“Good point,” Pete said.

I really would have preferred for Mom to have consulted me first before volunteering me to a commitment of several hours per day.  However, the thought of having to go find a job was terrifying, and this way I had something lined up without having to look for it, as I had told Taylor and Pete.  Besides, working in a bookstore sounded fun. Maybe I could sample the merchandise and read on slow days, and maybe I would get an employee discount.

We all went downstairs to check the mail after dinner.  When I saw an envelope with handwriting on it, I felt my heart race.  I had written that letter almost two weeks ago, not knowing what would happen, not even knowing for sure whom I was writing to.  How long did it take for a letter to travel from one end of the USA to the other anyway? And after she got it, she would need time to reply, and then her letter would have to travel back across the country to Jeromeville.  Would she write back right away? Maybe I sent it too early. She was still in the middle of finals when I wrote; she hadn’t moved home yet. Maybe her parents got it and interrogated her about why she was getting mail from this strange boy in another state.  Maybe her parents threw it away.

I removed the letter from the mailbox and looked at the envelope.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the return address. It was from Carol Allen in Plumdale. This was not the letter I was nervous about.  This was from someone I had known for years, who had already written me once this year.

I noticed that my friends were moving toward the Help Window, which meant that someone had to pick up a package too big to fit in the mailbox.  I walked over to where they were. “Someone got a package?” I asked.

“It’s for Caroline,” Sarah said.  “You got a letter from someone?”

“It’s from Mrs. Allen.  She was my English teacher in both 7th and 8th grade.”

“And she writes to you in college?  That’s so sweet!”

“I know.  This is the second time she has written.  My mom ran into her somewhere back home a few months ago, and she told Mom to tell me to write to her.”

“She sounds nice.”

“She is.  I was in her class when I was going through a really rough time.  I was at a new school in the middle of 7th grade, and I had had a lot of problems at my other school before that.  She really made me feel welcome and accepted. A lot of the teachers at my old school acted like they didn’t want to deal with me.  And I know that ‘a lot’ is two words, because Mrs. Allen always made a big deal of it whenever someone would write ‘alot’ as one word.”

Sarah laughed.  “That’s funny!”

“I knew ‘a lot’ was two words before Mrs. Allen’s class, but I still remember her making a big deal of it.”

“It’s funny how some teachers stay in your memory forever.  Like I had this math teacher who would always make the dumbest jokes.  He’d say, ‘What’s 4y minus 3y,’ and you’d answer ‘y,’ and he’d say ‘because I asked you.’”

I chuckled.  “That’s great.  And then there are some teachers who you remember for all the wrong reasons.  Like Mr. Milton, my history teacher from junior year. He made fun of Catholics and Republicans all the time.”

“That’s not nice.”

“I still remember all these random things I learned about history from his class, though, so he did something well, but I didn’t think he was very nice.”

I opened the letter from Mrs. Allen when I got back to my room.  

 


May 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

Sorry it has taken so long to write back, but I’ve been busy.  You know how it is. I’m sure you’re busy too. Jeromeville is on trimesters, if I remember right, so you should still be in your dorm room.  When is the school year over? Our last day is June 8.

I’m going to get a new computer and get online soon.  Mr. Coburn got us America Online at school, and he has been showing me how it works.  Once I figure out how to set it up, I’ll send you an e-mail. It looks like there are all kinds of interesting things you can do.

I went to the Titans game yesterday.  I got a partial season package again, so I have a ticket to 20 games.  I have a much better seat this year because a lot of people didn’t renew.  I knew that would happen after the strike. I’m so happy the strike is over!  I missed the Titans. I thought of you because the University of Jeromeville band played the pre-game show.

I hope everything is well with you.  Take care of yourself and good luck with finals!

Love,
Carol

P.S.  I think it will be OK for you to use my first name now.


 

The postscript at the end made me laugh.  Everyone knows that one does not address a teacher by his or her first name.  Mrs. Allen said it was okay to call her Carol, but I just would never be able to bring myself to do that.  It was okay now, because I was an adult, but it still sounded wrong. Mrs. Allen would always be Mrs. Allen to me.  That was just how things worked when addressing a teacher, even years or decades after being in that teacher’s class.

I did not know that the University of Jeromeville Band had played a pre-game show at a Titans game.  I had grown up watching Bay City Titans baseball, traveling up there with my family about three or four times a year to attend games in person.  But I had not been keeping up with the Titans, or baseball in general, this year. The end of the previous season had been canceled because of a players’ strike.  There was no World Series that year. Furthermore, Matt Williams, the Titans’ third baseman, had hit 43 home runs by the time the strike began in early August, possibly putting him in position to set a new record for home runs in one season.  The record at the time was 61. But the season was canceled, he had no chance to hit any more home runs, and in two more seasons with the Titans and seven with other teams, he never reached this level of power hitting prowess again. The strike had continued on into the 1995 season but was settled early in the season, and baseball had finally resumed at the end of April, a few weeks later than the usual start of the season.  I did get interested in baseball again eventually… but that is another story for another time.

 

The next morning, I got out of bed around nine.  That was sleeping in for me, the best I could do.  I studied and did homework for about two hours, then decided to reward myself with a bike ride.  I rode north to the Coventry Greenbelts, where I had ridden last week, and discovered a bike path skirting the northern edge of the city.  Riding west, the path passed fenced backyards on the left and some kind of drainage or irrigation canal to the right, with open fields on the other side.  The path turned south, with ends of culs-de-sac connecting to the path, before zigzagging west again and then south one more time. At this point, the drainage canal  entered the Jeromeville city limits, with a neighborhood of large luxury homes visible on the other side of the canal. I was not sure where this neighborhood was or what it connected to.  I saw a pedestrian and bicycle bridge cross the canal into that neighborhood, but I did not go that way.

The path turned south along a park with a playground, basketball courts, and an open grass area.  I rode past a sculpture of dominoes. The park then narrowed, so that fences of backyards came close to the path on either side, much like the other paths I had discovered last week.  After making several more turns, and not being sure of exactly which direction I was going now, the path narrowed to a small sidewalk, next to a parking lot. I appeared to be in the back of a large apartment complex.  I wondered which one; I probably had heard of it, from when I was looking through that apartment guide trying to find a place to live next year.

Suddenly, as I got closer to the actual buildings, riding through the parking lot, I realized that I knew exactly where I was.  Not only had I heard of this apartment complex, but I had looked at these apartments. I had even signed a lease here. This was Las Casas Apartments on Alvarez Avenue, and I was looking right at my home for next year, apartment 124.  This was convenient; my apartment for next year was right next to the Greenbelts. I would have a lot of opportunities to explore Jeromeville on my bike from my new apartment.

When I got back to campus, I checked my mail before going back up to my room.  All the anxious excitement I felt yesterday when I checked the mail came back when I saw the letter that I had been expecting the day before.  The return address said “M. Boyle,” with a box number and rural route in a town I had never heard of, called Muncy, Pennsylvania. My name and address had been handwritten on the envelope, in black ballpoint pen.

I started to hide the letter under my shirt, but then I remembered that I was all sweaty from having ridden my bike in warm weather for an hour.  I slid the letter in my front pocket and walked back to the building with half of the envelope sticking out. I made sure that no writing was showing on the part sticking out.  Something still felt weird about having this letter, and I did not want to have to talk to anyone about it.

I made it back to my room without seeing anyone and began reading.


May 23, 1995

Dear Greg,

Hello!  It’s nice to hear from you, and I hope this finds you well.  I’m good, except there’s a storm here. It’s raining pretty hard, with lightning.

Good luck on finals!  I got my grades a few days ago.  I ended up with two Bs, two Cs, and a D.  Not as good as I wanted. I’ll have to work harder next semester.

I’ve been bored and lonely much of the time since coming back home.  When I was at school, I was used to having everything within walking distance, but we live out in the country so everything is a 15 minute drive away.  And since I don’t have a car, I don’t get away from home that much. Most of my friends from college live far away, and my friends from home are either still in high school or have jobs.  I looked for a job, but I haven’t found anything yet. The bookstore you told me about sounds like it’ll be fun for you. Mostly I just want to get a job so I can get out of the house. But I need the money too or else I might not be able to go back next semester.  I know how you feel about not looking forward to summer, being away from your friends. I thought I would have a job by now, not stuck at home all the time.

I’ve pretty much given up on finding a boyfriend.  The only place I go is church and the guys there are either not interested or too old for me.  There are some dance clubs, but I don’t have a car so I can’t go to them.

Well, I hope I’m not some 37 yr. old pervert!  Just the idea makes me sick. Would your mom like to see my drivers license or school ID?  Anyway, write me back when you can I know you have finals coming up so I’ll wait until after that to expect something.  I’ll write maybe another letter before then. ☺

Bye,
Molly


 

When I wrote to Molly, I said that I was a little nervous, because my mother was fond of reminding me that all these girls I was meeting online were probably 37-year-old perverts named Chuck.  Molly was the first person I met on the Internet whom I had any sort of offline contact with. Apparently Molly did not find the image of Chuck as funny as I had.

Molly was my age, a freshman at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania.  Molly had already finished the school year, because Lock Haven was on a semester schedule, both starting and ending earlier in the year than Jeromeville with its quarter schedule. (Jeromeville quarters were technically trimesters; Mrs. Allen had correctly called them trimesters in her letter).  Molly moved back home, where she would not have access to email, so in her last email to me, she had given me her address.

And she actually wrote back.  I now had proof that someone I met on the Internet actually existed in real life.  Of course, technically she could have been lying about her age or gender or any number of things, but there was a real person behind those messages who took the time to write back.  Hopefully this summer I would be able to look forward to getting letters in the mail. And hopefully she was not really Chuck.

 

I spent most of Sunday studying, although I did make it to church Sunday morning.  In the late afternoon, when I finished everything I had hoped to get done, I got on my usual IRC chat channel.  Kim, a girl from Florida I had been talking to for a few months, was online, so I messaged her.

gjd76: hi
Happygirlkim: Hi Greg! How are you?
gjd76: doing well, it’s been a good weekend.  it’s been warm here, i like that
Happygirlkim: I bet!  I’m done with the school year, back home in Ft Lauderdale, but I’ll be working at a summer camp for kids for six weeks, I leave on June 16
gjd76: that’ll be fun, that’s the weekend i’ll be moving home
Happygirlkim: Yay! Any big plans for the summer?
gjd76: moving back home and working in a bookstore.  my mom knows someone there who got me the job
Happygirlkim: That’ll be fun!  Will you be hanging out a lot with your friends back home?
gjd76: i’m not sure.  i lost touch with a lot of them when i came here, and i didn’t see them often anyway when i was back home.  i don’t even know for sure who will be around for the summer.
Happygirlkim: I wish I lived closer to you!  I’d hang out with you! 😉
gjd76: that would be fun!
Happygirlkim: I think you’d like my friends!  You could come to the beach with us, we’d build a bonfire and stay up late just talking…
gjd76: 🙂
Happygirlkim: Maybe someday!
gjd76: hey, random thought, can i call you?

I typed that last line quickly and pressed Enter before I could talk myself out of it.  It was a sudden fleeting thought that passed through my mind, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask.  Now that I had gotten a letter from Molly, it seemed less scary to try to communicate with these girls from the Internet in other ways.

Happygirlkim: Sure!  Did you mean right now?
gjd76: sure, it’s sunday afternoon and long distance calls cost less on the weekend
Happygirlkim: 305-555-0115
gjd76: great! let me get off here, i’ll call you in just a minute

I logged out and disconnected.  Back in 1995, people connected to the Internet through telephone lines, so being logged in meant that I could neither send nor receive calls.  As soon as the computer was disconnected, I dialed Kim’s number, and just like when I had asked her if I could call, I pressed the buttons quickly, so I would not be able to talk myself out of completing the call.

“Hello?” a female-sounding voice said on the other end of the call.

“Is Kim there?” I asked.

“This is Kim.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.”

“Hi!”  Kim paused.  “It’s good to finally hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“So why don’t you see your friends back home very often?”

“Where I live, it’s kind of semi-rural and spread out.  And I didn’t really do much except go to school. I didn’t really have friends at all until the middle of high school.”

“You didn’t have a best friend in childhood or anything?”

“Everyone was mean to me.”

“I’m sorry.  And you said you didn’t have a girlfriend, right?”

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve had a lot of crushes on girls who were either out of my league or didn’t like me back.  One of my crushes from high school was named Kim too.”

“Girls named Kim are the best!”

“I know.” I chuckled.

“You haven’t met anyone in college?  Didn’t you tell me you were going to a movie with some girls recently?”

“One of them, we’ve had two classes together, I feel like we’re just going to be friends.  The other one, she’s really cute, and she’s been nice to me all year, but she’s a sophomore, I don’t know if she’d be interested in a younger guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”

“You never know.  It wouldn’t hurt to ask.  You’re such a sweetie. I bet all the girls like you, and you don’t even know it!”

“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get something to eat?’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go see a movie?’ or whatever.  You can do this. I believe in you.”

“I don’t know.  What if she already has a boyfriend?  Then I’ll look like an idiot.”

“But what if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but you never ask her?  You never know unless you try.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really didn’t know. Kim made it sound so simple, but it was so confusing and scary.  I had a sudden thought, something I had to know. I took a deep breath and asked, “If you lived nearby, and I asked you out, would you go out with me?”

“Yes, I would!”

“Thank you.  I wish we could.”

Kim and I talked for about another 20 minutes, just about life in general.  She told me more about her friends and about her summer job at the camp. I told her about my classes, exploring the greenbelts, and my upcoming finals.  I hoped we would have more conversations like this.

I have had other female friends from the Internet besides Kim telling me that I should have no trouble meeting a girl.  Things did not work that way in my world. It seemed like every girl I was ever interested in always seemed to have a boyfriend already, and without having ever had the experience of knowing that a girl liked me, I had no idea how to know if a girl liked me, and no reason to believe it would ever happen to me.  It was so easy to talk to girls I met on the Internet. Maybe I would have to go to Fort Lauderdale to get a girlfriend. Or Muncy, Pennsylvania.

Today, when kids go away to college, they have a much easier time staying in touch with their friends back home.  Today’s college students have text messages and social media and video chat and technologies that we only dreamed of twenty-five years ago.  I have found that I tend to remember most of my friends back home not staying in touch once I moved away, but when I really think about it, that is not entirely true.  Melissa and Renee and Rachel had been keeping in touch regularly. Janet Bordeaux, the girl whose mother and my mother often gossiped, had written me twice. Jessica Halloran had sent me a postcard from Guatemala.  And now Mrs. Allen had written me twice. I did eventually lose touch with all of those people until social media came along, but it did not happen as suddenly as I tend to remember. I think I also remember people not writing me because I focus on the fact that I had two new female friends and crushes who did not keep in touch.  Interestingly enough, I did not make much of an attempt to stay in touch with guys; I was just more comfortable communicating with girls, because boys were always so mean to me in elementary school.

Mrs. Allen and I have been in touch semi-regularly ever since then.  She did eventually get her email set up. She is now in her early 70s, retired from teaching.  A few years ago, the band AC/DC was touring, and she took her grandchildren to see them when they played Bay City.  I can only hope to be that badass at that age.

I lost touch with Kim sometime during sophomore year.  She just got busy with life, I guess; we never had any kind of falling out. But Molly and I stayed friends for a long time, well into our 30s.  In my late 20s, I did a lot of traveling around the USA, and I saw Molly in person twice when my travels brought me to her part of the country. We also never had any kind of falling out; we just grew apart as life got in the way.  The last time I heard from her was in 2009, and by then she was married and expecting her first child. Being a parent definitely changes one’s priorities.

Someone asked me once, as an icebreaker question, if I could have anything I wanted, without cost being an obstacle, what would it be?  I said I wanted a private jet with an unlimited supply of fuel, because I had friends all over the world that I wished I could spend time with.  It all started during that school year, my freshman year at UJ, meeting girls on the Internet. I still do have friends from all over the world. I don’t meet many people on the Internet anymore, because I gave up chat rooms in 2007, but I still have friends all over the world who I used to know in person that I wish I could visit, as well as chat room friends who I met before 2007 who stayed in touch.  And in three weeks, I would be back home in Plumdale, away from all my new Jeromeville friends. Hopefully at least some of them would write to me. And I would not be gone forever; I still had at least three more years at UJ.

1995 molly's first letter

 

February 23-26, 1995. Shooting the moon and a penalty for talking.

One evening, I had been eating at the dining hall by myself. Two girls I didn’t know, one blonde and one with short red hair, were sitting at the table next to me, speaking loudly enough that it was impossible not to overhear their conversation.

“So how’s Justin?” Blondie asked.

“I don’t think he’s interested,” Red said. “Oh my god, we’ve been on three dates, and he hasn’t even made a move yet. All we did last night was make out.”

“How long have you known him?”

“Almost two weeks. When I was with Shane, we were already sleeping together at this point.”

“Hmm. I thought Justin seemed really into you.”

“I thought so too. I guess not. I don’t think I’m going to call him back. What about you? How’s What’s-his-face?”

“Ryan,” Blondie said. “I really like him, but he’s too clingy. He called me today.”

“Eww!”

“Like, we just went out yesterday. He didn’t even wait three days.”

“Who does that? Why is he calling you back the next day?”

“I know, right?”

None of that conversation made any sense to me. If Blondie really liked Ryan, why was it a problem that he called her the next day? Wouldn’t she want to talk to him? Is this waiting three days thing really a rule? And does anyone write these rules down? And sleeping with a guy you’ve only known two weeks is not normal to me. Sleeping together is for husbands and wives. I would have said that Justin moved too fast, making out on the third date, and apparently he moves too slowly for these girls. People are confusing. I wished I knew Justin and Ryan, so that I could tell them they dodged bullets.

I came back to my room and did homework for chemistry, even though it was Thursday night and the assignment wasn’t due until Monday. Homework wasn’t even graded for that class, but I always did it anyway. I liked chemistry, and I didn’t want to fail. After I finished, I checked email, and I didn’t have anything, probably because I had just checked it before dinner. Molly from Pennsylvania wrote me this morning, but I didn’t really feel like replying yet. I didn’t have much to say.

I walked down the hall. No one had their doors open, and I didn’t want to bother anyone. So I climbed to the third floor. I heard voices coming from Taylor Santiago’s room, and one of the voices was loud and enthusiastic enough that I recognized it as belonging to Mike Adams.

“Hey, guys,” I said, poking my head in the door. Taylor, his roommate David, Mike, and Gina Stalteri were sitting around a table playing some kind of card game, using an ordinary 52-card deck. “What are you playing?” I asked.

“Hearts,” Taylor replied. “If you want in, you can take my place after this game. I need a break.”

“I don’t know this game.”

“I’ll teach you after this round is over. It’s not hard to learn.”

I watched as the others played. Hearts appeared to be a trick-taking game, where each player plays a card, and one player takes the trick according to some rule about certain cards outranking others. I hadn’t played games like this often, but I knew of their existence. There appeared to be some special rules other than just the highest card winning, though. Twice during the game, the others seemed to react strongly: the first time a heart was played, and again when Mike played the queen of spades. David took that trick, and the others’ reaction made me think that this was a bad thing, although I was unsure why.

After the game, Taylor explained more about the game. He explained about following suit, and breaking hearts, and how the object was to avoid taking a trick with a heart or the queen of spades (“the bitch,” as Mike called it). Each heart was worth one point, and the queen of spades 13 points, and the object was to have a low score.

“You want to take a turn?” Taylor asked me.

“Jump in, Greg,” Gina said.

I took Taylor’s seat at the table; he got on his bed and watched us from there. After the first three rounds, I had no hearts, and I thought I was in good shape. I led the fourth hand with the ten of clubs; David played the nine of clubs, Mike played the five of clubs, and Gina played the jack of hearts. Gina apparently had no clubs left, which enabled her to play a different suit, and now that a heart had been played, players could lead the hand by playing hearts first. I played a diamond next, and apparently Mike had no diamonds, because he played the queen of spades. I was stuck with the worst card in the game, and I also ended the game with six hearts.

“Play again?” Mike asked.

“Sure,” I said. Now that I had played once, I was starting to think about strategy, although part of the game just depended on what cards you were dealt. In the second game, I finished with five hearts, but David got stuck with the queen of spades. The third time we played, I only got three hearts.

Gina took a break after that game, and Taylor took her spot at the table. We played for almost another hour before the others decided that they had things to do. I walked back to my room, hoping that more games of Hearts would happen soon. That was fun.

 

The next night, I saw Liz make eye contact with me at the dining commons. “Hey, Greg,” she said, smiling and gesturing to an empty seat next to her. “Come sit with us.”

I put my tray of food down at the empty seat next to Liz. Ramon, Caroline, Tabitha from Building B, Taylor, Pete, and Mike from Building J were all at the same table, and I had taken the last open seat.

“How’s it going?” Taylor asked.

“Pretty good,” I replied. “Glad it’s the weekend.”

“I think everyone is,” Ramon said.

“Did you have class today?” Liz asked.

“I did,” I replied. “Just math and chem today. So I spent the afternoon in the library, starting to work on my paper for Dr. Small’s class.”

“Why?” Pete asked. “That isn’t due for a long time.”

“Because it’s a six- to eight-page paper. I need time to do research and get my ideas organized.”

“When I have to do a six- to eight-page paper, I usually start around eight o’clock the night before,” Taylor said, chuckling.

“Me too,” Caroline agreed, “if not later. You don’t need to be stressing about that paper yet. Just relax and have a great weekend, and worry about the paper later.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, frustrated. “That’s just not the way my brain works. I can’t do a six- to eight-page paper at the last minute.”

“You don’t just BS your papers?” Tabitha asked.

“No. I can’t.”

“That’s too bad.”

I stopped talking for a while and listened to the others as the topic changed. I wished that I could BS my way through six- to eight-page papers like pretty much every other college student ever. Apparently that was some kind of unwritten rule of college. But I was honest when I told Caroline that my brain didn’t work that way. I couldn’t do a good job on a paper if I didn’t actually learn about the material. And even outside of school, I wasn’t good at faking things.

I started listening again when I heard my name. “Greg?” Liz asked. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Probably nothing. What about you guys? You have that Christian group tonight, right?”

“Yeah. JCF. You want to come with us?”

I paused. “I don’t know. Maybe another time.”

“That’s ok. You’re always welcome to come with us.”

Later that night, as I was sitting in front of the computer on an IRC chat trying to get girls to talk to me, I thought about that conversation with Liz. That group had invited me to come to the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship multiple times in the last few months, and I had always turned them down. Liz said I would always be welcome in that group, but I just wasn’t convinced. I was Catholic, and I knew that some Protestants and other Christians often said that Catholics were wrong and not real Christians. And were the JCF students the kind of Christians that were basically like Catholics but without recognizing the Papacy, or were they the kind who danced and clapped with the music, or did they all wear suits and ties and long skirts everywhere they went? I didn’t know. And I’d never really thought of myself as a church guy. Yes, I’ve been to Mass most Sundays since I’ve been in Jeromeville, but back home my church attendance was very sporadic. And church guys certainly didn’t spend their Friday nights sitting in front of an IRC chat hoping that some girl would come along and want to talk dirty.

 

The next morning, I woke up early but stayed in bed until almost nine o’clock. After I got back from using the bathroom, I replied to the email I got yesterday from Molly from Pennsylvania. I told her about playing Hearts and starting my paper, and asked her how her midterm went. My life wasn’t exactly very thrilling at the moment. After that, I spent at least an hour staring at the same IRC chat I was in last night, hoping that SweetGirl4 would get on and talk dirty to me like she did last night. She didn’t.

At one point in the middle of the afternoon, I went downstairs and heard voices in the common room. Pete, Taylor, Caroline, Liz, Ramon, Krista, and Charlie were playing some kind of card game, using what appeared to be three standard 52-card decks with different backs, shuffled together. “What are you playing?” I asked as I approached them. No one answered. Liz looked at me with her finger on her lips, motioning for me to be quiet. I sat quietly and watched their game.

The game play seemed to be similar to Uno and Crazy Eights, playing cards that matched the suit or rank of the previous one. But every once in a while, Taylor would say “Penalty!” and give the player an extra card. Sometimes Taylor would give back the card that was just played, and other times he would leave it on the top of the deck. At one point, Ramon placed a two of hearts on top of a six of hearts, and Krista, whose turn was next, played a three of hearts. But Taylor gave her a penalty and gave her the three of hearts back along with her penalty card. After about three more seconds, Taylor gave Krista another penalty, saying, “Penalty for not saying thank you.”

“Thank you,” Krista said indignantly.

Taylor then turned to Liz and gave her a card. “Penalty for delay of game,” he said.

“Wha–Thank you,” Liz said, interrupting her initial confusion over why she was being penalized.

“Point of order,” Krista said. Everyone put their cards face down on the table. “Ramon played last. So it’s my turn.”

“Ramon played this,” Pete explained, pointing at the two of hearts on the top of the stack. “Right?”

“Correct,” Taylor said, in an authoritative tone of voice. “So Krista played improperly, and Liz got a penalty for delay of game. No further discussion is necessary. End point–”

“Wait,” Liz interrupted, turning to me. “Greg, to answer your question from earlier, this game is called Mao.”

“Mao?” I asked. “Like the dictator?”

“Yes. I can’t tell you any more.”

“Watch and pay attention, and you’ll figure out what’s going on,” Taylor said. “End point of order.” Everyone picked up their cards. Liz played a nine of hearts, and then Caroline played a nine of spades, knocking on the table and saying “Nine of spades” without getting a penalty for talking. Taylor played a three of spades, saying, “Three of spades.”

Based on the assumption that Mao was derived from Uno or Crazy Eights, I had already discovered a few things. I thought I might had figured out why it was Liz’s turn and not Krista’s turn when that first point of order was called. Also, apparently, talking was not allowed, except in certain situations which I had yet to deduce.

The game I was watching ended when Pete played his last card and said, “Mao.” By that time, I had figured out a few more rules, specifically why the players sometimes would name the card they played, and that you have to say “thank you” after receiving a penalty card.

“You want in, Greg?” Taylor asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m not really sure what I’m doing.”

“That’s ok. But I can’t tell you the rules.”

“I kind of figured something like that, because of all the penalties, and the way your discussions were so vague.”

Taylor began dealing cards to all of us. I reached down to pick up my first card and look at it; Taylor interrupted me and said, “Penalty for touching the cards early.” He gave me an extra card, which I thanked him for. Apparently I’m not allowed to do that. After everyone had been dealt seven cards, or eight, in my case, we picked up the cards and began playing. I was between Charlie and Pete. Charlie played a four of diamonds and said, “George.” I thought I had this game figured out, but there was no one named George anywhere nearby, and I hadn’t yet figured out a rule involving saying George.

“Four of spades,” I said, playing on top of Charlie’s four of diamonds.

“Two penalties,” Taylor said, handing me two cards, which I thanked him for. He did not make me take my four of spades back, though, so the penalty apparently had to do with what I said, not with the card I played. Two things I said, specifically, or perhaps didn’t say. The turn order had reversed by the time of my next turn, so my turn came after Pete’s. He played a jack of clubs and said “Hearts.” I couldn’t remember what to do on a jack, but hearing what Pete said, and guessing because of similarities with Uno, I very hesitantly played a five of hearts, slowly placing it on the pile. I received no penalty, even though the card did not match the jack of clubs. This was the first time I had not been penalized.

Taylor won that game eventually. By the third game I had played that day, I had figured out quite a bit more. I knew what was going on with the jacks. I was pretty sure I knew which cards were like the Skip and Draw Two cards in Uno. I knew when to knock on the table. And I was starting to figure out what had gone wrong with my four of spades play from the first game. There was still something going on with playing a 10, and I hadn’t figured that one out yet, but in this particular game, I had not drawn a 10 yet. I was getting all the cards I needed, and playing by all the rules I understood by now. I had two cards left, a four of spades and a jack of hearts. The cards being played were neither spades nor hearts, but I got extraordinarily fortunate when Krista played a four of clubs, saying “Ringo,” and Charlie played a four of hearts, knocking on the table and saying “Paul.” I had finally figured out who these names were and which cards to play them on, and I knew when to knock. It was time to see if I had learned well enough to do this correctly.

“Four of spades, John,” I said, knocking and putting the four of spades on top of the deck. No penalty. On the next time around the board, Charlie played a jack of diamonds. “Hearts,” he said. It was my turn, and I had exactly one card, and it was a heart. I triumphantly placed my jack of hearts on top of the stack.

“NEVER EVER EVER PLAY A JACK ON TOP OF ANOTHER JACK!!!” all seven of the other players began chanting loudly in unison. Taylor gave me penalty cards continuously through the chant, ten cards in all.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Also, another penalty for not ending the game. And for something else.”

“Thank you, thank you,” I said, trying to organize my brand new hand of twelve cards. Caroline won that game a few rounds later, and I politely excused myself to go back to my room. I found that Mao was a fascinating concept for a game, but it was so frustrating, and I still didn’t understand parts of it.

 

Later that night, I was on an IRC chat. Internet Relay Chat was a very decentralized system with no one specifically enforcing rules or anything like that. Certain people would be designated as operators (“ops” for short) in a chat channel, and they had the power to kick people out who were being obnoxious or inappropriate. The first person to create a channel would be an op by default, and usually the major channels had a group of people who would automatically be made ops whenever they were in the channel. Op privileges could be given temporarily as well, as had been given to me for the first time a few weeks ago by a guy named “JimK” who would occasionally engage me in small talk in the channel.

Tonight, I was in my usual room, “#friendlychat,” asking SweetGirl4 in private messages about her day, and about what she was wearing. I was picturing her in the pajama top and panties that she had described when I noticed that JimK had made me an op again. I thanked him and started making more of an effort to talk to people in the chat channel. I was now officially an operator of the channel, and I should act like it instead of just lurking in private messages. I didn’t ignore SweetGirl4, though.

About fifteen minutes later, someone new entered the channel.

Todd3 has entered the room
<JimK> welcome todd3
<gregd94> hi todd
<cc> what’s up todd
<Todd3> can someone make me an op

JimK was nice enough to make me an op, so I figured I would extend the favor to someone else. I typed the command to make Todd3 an op, and half a second later, he removed everyone else’s op privileges and kicked all of us out. Oops. That was officially the dumbest thing I had ever done on the Internet so far, even dumber than the time I forwarded a bunch of chain letters, or the time I used a fake name to play a mean-spirited prank on Schuyler Jenkins upstairs.

While I looked for a new channel to join, I continued my private conversation.

gregd94: oooh i pull your body close to me and kiss your lips passionately
SweetGirl4: u stupid f***ing noob u got us all kicked out. dont ever talk to me again.

I noticed a new channel called “#friendlychat1” and joined it; it appeared to be all of the people whom Todd3 had kicked out of #friendlychat. I joined the chat and apologized to everyone; a few people ignored me, and the rest had mean replies, some of which made SweetGirl4’s reply sound nice by comparison.

I deserved it, though. I didn’t understand that being a channel operator is a responsibility, not just a status symbol. Operator privileges are not to be handed out lightly to one’s buddies, or even worse, to complete strangers. I didn’t fully understand my responsibilities as an operator, and I didn’t fully understand the kinds of jerks that trolled the Internet.

 

The next day was Sunday. After dinner, I was in Taylor’s room playing Hearts again. Taylor, Mike Adams, Keith, and I were playing, with David and Karen and Pat watching. Keith, who had not been there on Thursday when I first learned the game, had taken the first heart, and Taylor took the next trick with no hearts in it.

Taylor led the next hand with a five of diamonds. Mike played the four of diamonds, and Keith played the seven of diamonds. I had no diamonds, so I played the queen of spades.

“Oooooh!” the entire room shouted.

“Keith gets the Bitch!” Mike enthusiastically proclaimed.

As the game continued, I couldn’t believe my luck. I had not taken a single heart, and it seemed like poor Keith, who had been in last place going into this round, was getting all the hearts. The game would be over after this round with Keith getting all of those points, and while my total score wasn’t the best, it was a close second, the best I had done so far.

“What did we get?” I asked as the last trick was taken.

“Did he do it?” Mike wondered aloud.

“I think he did,” Taylor said, as Keith spread out the queen of spades and all thirteen hearts on the table.

“He shot the moon,” Mike said. I watched Mike write 26 points in Keith’s column on the score sheet… except he didn’t. He wrote 0 for Keith, and 26 for the rest of us.

“Good job,” Taylor said to Keith.

What was going on? Keith got 26 points, not the rest of us. Keith lost; he didn’t finish in first place with the lowest score. I didn’t understand. No one had ever told me about shooting the moon, that if a player finished the game with all thirteen hearts and the queen of spades, that player scores 0 and the other players all score 26 points. I was about to say something when I realized that apparently this was a rule that everyone else knew except for me. I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the rule, since I would have been able to stop him and at least take one heart had I known about this. I didn’t stick around for another game; I just made an excuse to get out of there as soon as possible.

I walked to the other end of the hall and into the stairwell to go downstairs to my room. I heard voices above me, and I looked up to investigate. This stairwell went up to a locked door leading to the roof; someone who lived here in the past had written “Stairway to Heaven” in chalk on the front of the steps. Danielle, Caroline, Pete, and Charlie were sitting on the Stairway to Heaven, just talking.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, scooting over to make room for me. “Come join us.” I sat next to Danielle, and she leaned her curly-haired head on my shoulder, taking me by surprise. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I was just playing Hearts, and Keith shot the moon.”

“Shot the moon?”

“He took all of the hearts, and the other players get points instead of Keith,” Pete explained. “Points are bad in Hearts.”

“I could have stopped him,” I said. “But no one ever told me about that rule.”

“It’s just a game,” Danielle replied.

“I know. But I’m just frustrated. Like that Mao game you guys were playing yesterday, I still don’t get all of it. And I did something really stupid on the Internet that made a bunch of people mad.”

“What did you do?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s not a big deal. Just hang in there.”

“The whole point of Mao is to learn the rules as you go along,” Caroline added. “And sometimes that’s just how life is.”

“I guess you’re right. It’s just frustrating that I seem to know so much less about how life works in general.”

“Don’t get down about that,” Danielle said, smiling. “Everyone is still learning about life.”

“None of us were born knowing everything about life,” Caroline said. “I moved here from Australia when I was 12. I didn’t think it was going to be a big transition, because I spoke English, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”

Pete looked at me. “You’re doing fine. Just don’t let this get you down.”

I stayed in that stairwell for about another half hour talking to them, then I went back to my room. Life seems to have so many unwritten rules, and even though Pete and Caroline were right that no one knows all the rules, they all seemed to know so much more than I did. I grew up so sheltered, and I don’t read unspoken communication very well. This world, where having sex with someone you just met, waiting three days to talk to someone you like, and writing a six- to eight-page paper at the last minute are considered normal, was very strange to me. For that matter, even Danielle putting her head on my shoulder was strange to me.

But I was learning, and I was finding my place. I had new friends here in Building C, and there was nothing to do at this point except start learning these things that everyone else seemed to know. And, much like with the game Mao, I would learn by watching what other people do, and there would be much trial and error involved, and probably a few hilariously awkward moments along the way.


Author’s note from 2019: I have an Instagram specifically for this site now, so go follow me! www.instagram.com/greg_dontletthedaysgoby/


 

January 28-29, 1995. Captains and Toros and resident advisors.

Growing up, I watched a lot of sports with my family.  We went to Bay City to watch professional baseball games a few times every year, and I had been to one basketball game and two hockey games as well.  I had no athletic talent myself, and my list of athletics experience included one season of tee-ball the summer after kindergarten and one day of football practice in high school before I decided I couldn’t handle it.  Mark got all the actual athletic talent in our family; he played baseball and basketball all of his life, and I worked the scoreboard and snack bar.

Surprisingly, considering that I had never been to a professional football game, football was the sport I followed the most closely during my first few years at Jeromeville.  Baseball and hockey were simultaneously on strike during my freshman year. The entire baseball playoffs were canceled, as was half of the hockey season, with hockey games having just begun a few weeks earlier instead of in October.  I liked basketball, but both of the nearby pro basketball teams were terrible, and going to basketball games wasn’t really something I was used to. But Bay City Captains football games were on TV every Sunday at home, and they had won four championships in my lifetime.

In 1995, the Captains were in the big championship game that would be watched by almost a hundred million people in the USA, and many more worldwide even though American football was not a major sport in other countries.  The Captains would be playing the Texas Toros. These two teams had both been very successful in recent years, with each team having won two championships in the last six years. This year’s game was expected to be close, with both teams evenly matched.

I walked into the stairwell to go to dinner the night before the game.  The two stairwells in Building C (and presumably the eleven other identical dorms in the South Residential Area) each had chalkboards where the RAs would write announcements, and I saw Gurpreet writing something on the chalkboard.  I read the announcement that he had written so far:

Want to be an RA next year?
Meeting Wednesday 2/1 7:00 
in t

“Hi, Greg,” he said.  “Want to be an RA next year?”

I hadn’t thought about my plans for next year at all.  Being a resident advisor could be interesting. I could continue living in a dorm and not have to make my own food, and other students could look to me, so that I could be helpful to someone else in the way that Gurpreet and Amy had been helpful to me.  “I might,” I said. “Where’s the meeting?”

“DC downstairs study room.  Seven o’clock.”

“Thanks.”  I climbed down the stairs as Gurpreet finished writing on the board and walked outside.  It was a damp Saturday night, and it was already dark, even though it was only six o’clock.  It had been raining earlier in the day, and everything was still wet although the sky seemed dry for now.

In the dining commons, I saw Megan with three girls I didn’t know at a table with empty seats.  As I was walking toward them, Megan said, “Hi, Greg! You want to sit with us?”

“Sure,” I replied.  I set my dinner tray down at the table next to Megan and realized that I recognized one of the other three girls.  She was plain looking and just a little on the heavy side, with straight light brown hair.

“Do any of you know Greg?” Megan asked the other three girls.

“You’re in Math 21C with me, aren’t you?” the one I recognized asked me.

“Yes,” I said, “but I don’t know your name.  I’m Greg.”

“I’m Tiffany,” the girl said.

“Nice to meet you.”

“And this is Maria and Brandy,” Megan said, gesturing toward the other two girls.  “They’re all on my floor.”

“Hi.”

“I was just telling them that I’m going to my friend’s place tonight because we’re going to do something crazy with my hair.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked.  “What’s that?”

“I can’t tell you.  It’s a surprise. But this,” Megan said gesturing toward her hair, “you won’t see for a while.”

“She’s been teasing us all week by not telling us,” Tiffany said.

A few minutes later, Maria said something about the upcoming meeting for prospective RAs for next year, expressing interest in going.  Megan said that she would be good at it. “Hey, Greg?” Megan asked me. “Did you see that announcement about RAs for next year?”

“I did,” I said.

“Are you interested in being one?”

“I might be.  I’m going to come to the meeting.”

“Good!”

“Are you going to be an RA again next year?”

“I’m planning on it.”

“Good.”

That night, I kept thinking about this idea of being an RA.  It seemed perfect. I wouldn’t have to find a place to live next year.  I could stay on campus and have all my meals provided. My building had become my community, and even though other buildings didn’t have the extent of community that Building C and the Interdisciplinary Honors Program had, my new building where I was in charge would become my new community.  I would make new friends. Sure, there would be work involved, but the work would involve a position of leadership among my new friends and community, and this seemed like the kind of work I could get behind. Maybe I could even follow in Amy and Gurpreet’s footsteps and be the RA for next year’s IHP, since I had experience with the IHP program already.  I knew that former IHP students were often chosen to be the RAs for the IHP building; Amy had been a student in the IHP last year. And, of course, being an RA meant I would probably be seeing Megan around a lot, especially if we ended up in the same one of the three campus residential areas.

 

The next morning, after I got up but before I showered, I checked my email.  I had one message:

From: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Sun, 29 Jan 1995 09:31 -0600
Subject: GO TOROS

How was your weekend? Mine was pretty good. I just hung out at my
best friend’s house last night after swim practice. I need to go
help my dad get set up for our football party.  We have about 10
other people coming over to watch the Toros win the championship!
Your Captains are going down because the Toros are the better team,
and you know it! GO TOROS!!!!!!!

-Brittany

Swimgirl17 was Brittany, whom I had met online shortly before I left for Jeromeville.  She was a high school senior who lived in Texas, and that made her the enemy today because she was a Toros fan.  Most people in this part of the state who followed football were Captains fans, since they were the closest team geographically, and some of the Toros fans I knew around here could be real jerks about this sometimes.  I liked Brittany, she was nice, but I didn’t like the fact that she was a Toros fan. Of course, she had a reason to be a Toros fan since she actually lived in Texas. I decided to wait until the game was over before replying to that email.

Around the time the game was supposed to start, I wandered down to the common room, where there was a television with a rabbit-ear antenna.  Nowadays, with cable and Netflix and all the other options out there, many people don’t seem to understand how antennas work, or that they can still be used to get local television channels.  The way they work is that TV stations broadcast signals over radio waves that a TV can pick up and turn into moving pictures, much like how radio stations do the same thing and a radio turns them into sound.  The TV in the common room could get all of the major networks on stations out of Capital City, although some of them came in a little fuzzy. For the game today, the picture was good enough to watch.

Mike Adams, Ian, Gina, Karen and Pat, Taylor, David, Pete, Mike Potts, Keith, and a guy from the third floor whom I didn’t know well named Yu Cheng were all watching the game.  I took a seat on a couch next to Taylor. “I see you’re on the right side,” he said, noticing that I was wearing the one Captains shirt I had. “Yu and Ian are the only Toros fans.”

“It’s not my fault!” Yu said.  “I lived in Texas until I was 8!”

“And my family has always been Toros fans,” Ian explained, much more quietly.

“Chips?” Taylor asked, passing me a bag of tortilla chips.  “There’s guacamole and dip over there.”

I took a few chips, without dipping them in anything, and passed the bag to the next person, which was Pat in a chair to the left.  Television talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford was singing the national anthem, which I tuned out, not out of disrespect for my country but out of dislike for Kathie Lee.

After that, the game began with the Captains kicking off to the Toros.  The Toros scored on the first drive, after which Ian applauded and Yu screamed, “YEAH!”  The Toros scored again midway through the first quarter.

“Damn,” I said

“It’s still early,” Taylor replied.  “The Captains are playing pretty well.  They just need to finish their drives. They could easily get back in this game.  Of course, throwing that interception didn’t help either.”

“I know.  It’s just that this girl I met online lives in Texas, and she was taunting me about the game in an email.”

“Who cares?  It’s just a game.  And if this girl really cares about you, that won’t matter.”

“I guess you’re right.”

The scoring slowed down in the second quarter, with both teams held to one field goal each.  The Captains were down 17-3 at halftime. “I’m not enjoying this game,” I said.

“Remember the game against Philadelphia back in September or October or whenever that was?” Taylor asked.  “The Caps lost that one so badly, but that lit a fire under them, and they haven’t lost a game since. The same thing could happen here.”

“Yeah, but that was a whole game they lost.  We only have halftime to get that momentum back.”

A few people had left the common room during halftime, but everyone else had trickled back in by the middle of the third quarter.  They got there in time to see a Captains defensive back intercept a pass and run all the way back for a touchdown. The Captains intercepted another pass late in the third quarter, leading to a field goal on that drive.  Going into the fourth quarter, the Captains were still down, but the deficit had been cut to 17-13.

“See?” Mike Adams said.  “Taylor was right! The Caps got the momentum back after halftime.  This game could still go either way.”

“I know,” I replied.  “But I’m nervous. This is for the championship.”

“I told you,” Taylor said.  “It’s just a game.”

The Toros scored a field goal early in the fourth quarter, but their quarterback had lost the sharpness that he had played with before halftime.  He threw another interception, and the Captains tied the score 20-20 with a touchdown a few minutes later.

“YES!” I shouted, along with similar reactions from the other Captains fans.  I high-fived Taylor and Mike Adams and Gina. “WOOO!” I shouted. I nervously watched the Captains score again with just under two minutes left, leading to another round of cheering and high-fiving.  Then, even more nervously, I watched the Captains’ defense trying to close out the game in the final minutes, which they did. I jumped up and shouted as the clock ticked down; the Captains had won, 27-20.

When I got back to my room, still grinning excitedly, I checked my email.  At first I wasn’t planning on gloating in response to Brittany’s email. I wouldn’t want her to have acted like that had the proverbial shoe been on the other foot.  I was going to reply and say something about the game, for sure, something to the extent that it was a good game, and that the Toros played well and made the game close and exciting.  But when my new messages came up, I again had only one, and it was from Brittany. The date and time on the message showed that she had written it during halftime.

From: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Sun, 29 Jan 1995 18:57 -0600
Subject: Re: GO TOROS

17-3 so far… the Toros are playing great!  I told you the Toros
were the better team! Have fun watching us win the championship!

She’s totally asking for this, I thought.  I’m not being mean.  I clicked Reply and typed one sentence:

So how’d that work out for you?

I went to dinner, still feeling excited about the Captains’ big win.  Danielle from down the hall was there, sitting by herself, so I sat with her.

“Were you watching the game today?” she said.  “I saw there was a big group down in the common room.”

“I was!” I said.  “The Caps won!”

“I heard.  I didn’t watch it.  We never really followed football when I was growing up.”

“I’ve been a Captains fan as long as I can remember, but I didn’t follow football as closely as baseball growing up.  I had friends encouraging me to play football when I was in high school. I quit after the first full day of practice, I was in way over my head, but that experience of learning more about the game really has helped me enjoy watching football more.  I understand the game better than I did before.”

“That’s neat.”

I caught something out of the corner of my eye as Danielle said this.  Someone with bright green hair, cut short like boys’ hair even though the person had boobs and a feminine figure, walked through the door and swiped her ID card.  I turned to look more closely at this person with bright green hair, and realized with a shock that it was Megan. She made eye contact with me, and I waved, my mouth open in surprise.  She walked over to me.

“So, what do you think?” she asked me, grinning.

“It stands out,” I said.  “It’s unique. I like it.”

“Thanks!  I was going for unique and standing out, so I guess it worked.  I told some other RAs that I was going to sit with them, so I should go find them, but I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Yeah.  See you later.”

“Who was that?” Danielle asked as Megan was walking away.

“Megan.  She’s an RA in Building K.  She said last night that she was going to do something different with her hair.”

“It certainly is different.  How do you know her?”

“I’ve just seen her around here a lot.  I think Amy introduced us earlier in the year.”

“I see.”

“Oh… so the funniest thing happened today.  I know this girl online who lives in Texas, and she sent an email teasing me about the game, saying that Texas was going to win.  After the game, I had another message from her that she sent at halftime. She was teasing me because Texas was winning, acting like they had already won… but that didn’t work out for her so well!”

“That’s great,” Danielle said.  “You don’t ever want to count on something happening until you know it’s going to happen.  Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, they say.”

“Or don’t count your Toros before they’re… calved.  Is that a word, calved?”

“I’m not sure.”

After I finished eating, I walked back to Building C and Room 221, thinking about today.  Brittany apparently learned a valuable lesson about celebrating prematurely and counting on something uncertain.  This was a lesson that I should also keep in mind. Sometimes life throws unexpected curveballs. Some of these are minor and insignificant in the long run, like when a team that is winning falls behind, or when a friend unexpectedly dyes her hair green.  But sometimes these surprises can have major ramifications for the future.

A few weeks after this football game, I had an unexpected occurrence in my life that changed my plans for the future: I was not chosen to be an RA.  I completely bombed the interview. The current RAs and housing department staff member who interviewed me asked a lot of questions about how I would handle certain situations, and my answers seemed shaky and uncertain.  I had a very sheltered childhood, and many of the situations they asked about, such as dealing with students with substance abuse problems or gay and lesbian students being excluded by others, were not things that I had ever come across in my life.  That which I had assumed my life would revolve around next year had not happened, just as Brittany’s assumption that the Toros would go on to win did not happen. I was going to need to make new plans, eventually.

January 14-16, 1995. I completely failed at the Internet.

Tonight looked like it was going to be another boring Saturday alone in room 221.  After I got back from dinner, I got on the computer and dialed up to the school Internet service.  Computers weren’t connected to the Internet all the time back then. The technology to do that existed, but most people couldn’t afford the kind of connection required for that.  We normal people had dial-up modems, connected to regular old telephone lines in the wall. As I connected, the modem made the sounds of dialing the seven digit phone number to connect school accounts to the Internet, followed by the usual sound of ringing that one hears from inside the telephone headset while waiting for the other side to answer.  After the call was answered, the modem made a bunch of whirring, dinging, buzzing, and hissing sounds as it established a connection. When the terminal window showed a command prompt, I typed “irc” and entered the chat that the school computer system defaults to. Because this was the default for connecting through a UJ server, I occasionally saw other UJ students in that chat.

Today, while looking at the account info for the other people in the chat, I saw a UJ account with a name that I recognized: Schuyler Jenkins.  She lived upstairs from me on the other side of the building, in room 306. She was short, with brown hair and glasses, and although we were on friendly terms, she had a strong and fiery personality that reminded me a bit of the kind of person who feels a need to compensate for being short.

I decided to play a little prank.  To this day, I’m still not sure why I did this, but I thought it would be fun.  It was fairly easy with IRC to change both your name displayed in the chat and the actual name that people would see when they looked up your account information.  Ever since I discovered that I did not need to have my real name on there, I had used “A soul in tension,” a line from a Pink Floyd song, as my real name.

I needed to think of a fake name.  I typed “Eric Kingston.” For some reason, that was the first name that popped into my head.  The real Eric Kingston was one of my brother’s friends back home; we had numerous inside jokes about him.  I changed my screen name to “KingEric” and reentered the chat.

After a few minutes, I sent Schuyler a private message.  “hey, you go to jeromeville?” i typed. I waited to see if she would respond… and she did.

sky246: yes
KingEric: me too
sky246: i can see that, eric kingston.  so what’s your major?
KingEric: chemistry

I hoped that I knew enough about chemistry that any questions about my made-up major would stand up to scrutiny.  I really liked chemistry in high school, and so far I seemed to be understanding chemistry just fine this quarter.

sky246: you’d fit in well in my dorm.  lots of science and engineering people here.
KingEric: which one?
sky246: building c in the south area.  the honors program.
KingEric: oh no way, i’m in building a
sky246: that’s cool. i wonder if we’ve ever run into each other at the dc?
KingEric: maybe
sky246: what do you look like?
KingEric: blond, about 5’11, blue eyes, freckles. what about you?

My made up description was based on the real Eric Kingston.  I couldn’t think of anything else to say, other than actually describing myself.

sky246: short, thin, long brown hair, i wear glasses
KingEric: nice 🙂 what’s your major?
sky246: english
KingEric: do you know what you want to do with it?
sky246: i’m not sure. maybe go to grad school and become a professor.  or maybe teach high school.
KingEric: so what are you up to tonight?
sky246: just staying at home in my room.  this creepy guy who lives in my building has tried to ask me out twice in the last few days.  i don’t want to run into him again tonight
KingEric: uh oh.  why is this guy creepy? this sounds like a good story
sky246: his name is jared. he’s just weird. he sits in the common room playing scrabble all day.  we have a class together, and he’s only been to class once. and at the dc, he always looks for some random girl and tries to sit with her.  if you ever see a guy with shaggy blond hair at the dc trying to sit with some girl and getting rejected, that’s probably him
KingEric: i haven’t noticed him, but good to know
sky246: what’s your favorite animal?
KingEric: cat.  why?
sky246: just wondering
KingEric: what’s yours?
sky246: you have to promise not to laugh.  it’s kind of silly
KingEric: ok, i promise
sky246: platypus.  i don’t know why, i was obsessed with platypuses ever since I was young.  where are you from?

I was tempted to correct Schuyler and tell her that “platypuses” should actually be “platypi,” but irregular plurals were a Greg thing, and I didn’t want her to know that I was really Eric.  Also, I learned later in life that “platypodes” would be an even better irregular plural, since the -i ending came from Latin, but the -odes ending, like the rest of the word “platypus,” was derived from Greek.  Also, I hadn’t thought about where Eric Kingston was from. If I said Plumdale, it could again lead back to me, especially since Plumdale is pretty small, and most people in my building knew I was from Plumdale. If I chose almost any other place, she might say something that would give away my lack of familiarity with that place.  But maybe I could say something near Plumdale, so that I would be familiar enough with that place to talk about it.

KingEric: santa lucia
sky246: i like it there.  i’ve been there a few times.  i’m from santa teresa, farther down the coast
KingEric: it seems nice there.  but i’ve only seen it a few times from the freeway
sky246: it’s beautiful there, right in between the mountains and the beach
KingEric: that sounds nice
sky246: yeah.  i’m hoping to move back home someday, but if i become a professor i might have to work somewhere far away
KingEric: true.  i don’t know where i’ll be when i’m done
sky246: you’ll figure it out
KingEric: i hope so
sky246: hey, i need to go.  but we’ll talk again sometime, i hope?
KingEric: yeah! have a great day!

I signed off a few minutes after Schuyler left and played Tetris for a while.  After I got bored with that, I checked my email. Back in 1995, no one used words like “memes” and “viral” in the context of the Internet.  Email was just becoming mainstream about that time, and the 1995 equivalent of memes and viral posts was to forward something noteworthy or funny to everyone on your email list.  I had just started to receive these in the last few months. Today I had one from a girl I knew from IRC named Charlene, who lived in Texas; she often forwarded these messages to me.  I opened and read her message:

Hi, friend!  This message is full of sunshine!  Follow the directions and you will have sunshine in your life!  Just answer these 11 questions, and then forward this message to all of your friends, but give them 11 new questions to answer.

I read through Charlene’s answers to the 11 questions she was given.  She wrote about the last time she followed her gut on a big decision, whether she prefers a frugal or generous significant other, how reading fiction is different from nonfiction, and a number of other subjects.  Then I read the questions that Charlene had written for her friends:

Where do you get your news?
If your job gave you a surprise paid three days off, what would you do those three days?What is something that you resent paying for?
What is the most expensive thing you have broken?
What was cool when you were younger, but is not cool now?
What is something that no matter how evolved we become will always be popular?
Who do you go out of your way to be nice to?
Who was your craziest/most interesting teacher? What grade did they teach?
What are some red flags to watch out for in your daily life?
If you could move one character to play in a different movie/show, what character would it be, and to what movie/show?
What protagonist from a book or movie would make the worst roommate or spouse?

This could be interesting, I thought.  I clicked Forward, and copied and pasted the email addresses of everyone in the IHP into the Recipient field.  I didn’t have to type the addresses myself, because earlier in the year, someone had typed everyone’s addresses and sent the list to all of us, in case any of us ever needed to send an email to everyone.

I started typing my answers:

Where do you get your news? From the Daily Colt (the campus newspaper) and the Capital City Record (the nearby big city newspaper).

If your job gave you a surprise paid three days off, what would you do those three days?  I’m a college student. I don’t have a job. But if I had three days off school unexpectedly, I’d probably get caught up on homework and studying.  Then I’d do a lot of sleeping, reading, and playing around on the computer.

What is something that you resent paying for?  Welfare, via tax dollars. The government shouldn’t be taking my money and giving it to people who didn’t earn it.

(Of course, I didn’t have a job, but my parents earned that money and chose to give it to me.  No one forced them to give it to me. So the same principle applies. I would still feel this way if I did have a real job.)

What is the most expensive thing you have broken? One time last year, I was angry and punched a hole in my bedroom wall.  Does that count?

What was cool when you were younger, but is not cool now? Vanilla Ice. When I was 14 years and 2 months old, he was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I had outgrown him and his music by the time I was 14 years and 3 months old.

What is something that no matter how evolved we become will always be popular? Breathing. Breathing has been in style since prehistoric times. Either that or the Rolling Stones, since they’ve already been popular for over half a century.

Who do you go out of your way to be nice to?  I would hope most people. But I’m more likely to go out of your way to be nice if you’re nice to me.

(In retrospect, given what would happen over the next few days, this answer was interestingly ironic.)

Who was your craziest/ most interesting teacher? What grade did they teach? I’ve had a lot of crazy and interesting teachers, as well as a lot of favorite teachers for reasons that “crazy” and “interesting” don’t describe.  The first one who comes to mind is Mr. Pereira, my PE teacher from 9th grade. He would give silly nicknames to some students (for example, there was a kid who always wore a blue hoodie, not sure if it was gang related or not, but this teacher always called him “Little Blue Riding Hood”).  He also made up funny names for some of the activities we would play; the flag football class championship was called the Toilet Bowl, and when we had to run two miles on the day before Thanksgiving, he called it the Turkey Trot. And one time I told him my stomach hurt, and he told me to go take a shit.

What are some red flags to watch out for in your daily life?  People who don’t think the rules apply to them.

If you could move one character to play in a different movie, what character would it been and to what movie/show? Bud Bundy on Beavis and Butthead. The three of them could all fail at picking up chicks together.

What protagonist from book or movie would make the worst roommate or spouse?  Any of the boys from Lord of the Flies. They would probably turn into savages and try to kill me if I took up too much space in the refrigerator.

I then thought of eleven questions to ask others, typing them as I thought of them.

What place would you most like to visit right now, if neither time nor money were a factor?
What is the farthest away from home you’ve ever been?
What is the longest you’ve ever waited in line, and what was it for?
What is the weirdest or most noteworthy story you have about how you met one of your friends?
What is something you liked to eat as a kid, but you don’t like anymore?
If you could bring back one discontinued product, what would it be?
What was your least favorite thing about school?
If you could change one law/rule/etc. that applies to you, what would it be?
Who is your celebrity crush?
If you could change your name, what would you change it to? And if you like your name the way it is, why?
What’s that band/singer/musician that you’re a fan of, but you’re kind of embarrassed to admit it? Come on, everyone has one.

I clicked Send, and my email went to everyone in the IHP, waiting to read other people’s answers to my questions.

 

The next day was Sunday.  I went to church, and then to the dining commons to eat.  When I got back, I noticed that a small group of people sat in the common room talking.  Karen Francis saw me walk in. “Greg!” she said. I looked at her, and she looked kind of upset.

“Yes?” I replied, stopping to look at her.

“Don’t ever send me those chain emails again.”

“Umm… ok.”

“Seriously.  Those things are obnoxious and a waste of time.”

“I’m sorry.  I just thought it would be fun.”

“It’s not fun.”

“What about when other people have sent stuff like that to the whole building?  Why are you mad at me and not them?”

“I’ve also asked other people not to send me stuff.  It’s not just you.”

“Okay.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean anything by it.”

I walked back to my room, and the first thing I did was turn on the computer and take Karen off of my email list.  I felt a little put off by her reaction. I had no idea that people got so angry at this kind of thing, and I was just trying to have fun.  This wasn’t the first time I had made people mad through my lack of Internet skills; shortly after I started following the Pink Floyd Usenet group, I was scolded for asking dumb questions that had been answered already.  And this would definitely not be the last time I made people mad with the Internet.

 

Classes did not meet that Monday, because of the holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.  I woke up fairly early, as I usually do, but I stayed in bed until almost 10:00, mostly reading. When I finally dragged my butt out of bed, I looked outside.  It was sunny, but cold. I put on a hoodie and got on my bike, riding south toward the creek.

A dry creek bed ran through the UJ campus.  At some point in the University’s history, the creek had been blocked at both ends, and storm drains from the campus were directed into the creek, effectively making it a very long, narrow lake.  From one end, where the creek bed once intersected Highway 117, to the other end in downtown Jeromeville, the lake was almost two miles long. An arboretum had been planted along both banks of the creek, featuring trees and plants from all over the world.  A path ran along both banks of the creek, so that it was possible to make a long loop around both sides of the arboretum. The arboretum provided a refuge of sorts from the busy atmosphere of the rest of the campus, giving one the impression of being deep in a forest somewhere.  I rode my bike two complete laps around the arboretum, then returned to Building C and showered.

The rest of the day was fairly lazy.  Around five in the afternoon, I was on my usual IRC chat, and I noticed Schuyler signed on a while after I did.  It was time to be Eric Kingston again. I had been talking to a girl from New Zealand; I told her I would be back later, and asked her to email me.  I signed off and came back a few minutes later as Eric, and I messaged Schuyler.

KingEric: hi!
sky246: hi
KingEric: how are you? did you do anything over the long weekend?
sky246: just sleep in and catch up on studying.  what about you?
KingEric: same
sky246: have you eaten yet tonight?
KingEric: no.  you?
sky246: no.  it’s funny, someday we might be sitting right next to each other at the dc and not even realize it.
KingEric: that would be funny.  or maybe i’ll figure out which one you are, and i’ll just sit next to you and say something like hello platypus… just to see your reaction
sky246: haha.  how will you know who i am?
KingEric: well… actually… i already know.
sky246: WHAT
KingEric: earlier this weekend i was at the dc talking to this guy named greg from your building, and i asked him if you were there, and he pointed you out.
sky246: brb

I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.  Time to see the reaction. About a minute later, I heard footsteps and a knock on my door.  I hid the window on my computer screen. “Come in,” I said.

Schuyler opened the door with an unhappy look on her face.  “Please don’t tell strangers personal information about me,” she said.  She turned around to leave.

“Hello, platypus,” I replied, grinning.

Schuyler stopped and turned to look at me.  “What?” she said. “It was you this whole time?  I hate you. You’re evil and a horrible person.” She slammed the door and stormed off.

Well, this wasn’t what I was expecting.  I was just playing a harmless prank, I thought, but her reaction certainly didn’t make my prank seem harmless.  I felt terrible now. And messing with someone’s head like this really wasn’t like me. I closed the IRC window on my computer and just stared at the screen for several minutes.  Maybe I should just stop using the Internet. All I’ve done so far this weekend is make people mad at me. I felt like hiding from the world forever and never trying to make friends with anyone again.

I ate alone at the dining commons that night.  I saw a few people I knew, but I decided I wanted to sit alone.  When I got back to Building C, some of the guys who lived on the first floor were sitting in the common room watching a movie.

“Greg,” Spencer said when he saw me.  “What did you do? Schuyler was down here earlier saying you were a horrible person.”

“I was chatting with her on IRC pretending to be someone else.”

“No way!”

“Wow” Jonathan said.  “That’s pretty impressive that you pulled it off. But still.”

“I feel really bad now.  I was just playing a harmless prank, trying to see her reaction.”

“She sure did react,” Spencer said.

“Are you going to apologize?” Jonathan asked.  “You might want to. She’s really upset. I think she’s in her room now”

“You’re right,” I said.

I walked up to the third floor and knocked on the door of room 306.  Schuyler answered, and when she saw it was me, she tried to close the door in my face.  I stuck my foot in the door so that it would not close all the way. In hindsight, this was a bad idea, because it kind of hurt having the door slammed on my foot.

“Schuyler,” I said.  “I wanted to apologize.”  She opened the door about halfway, but still just glared at me, saying nothing.  “I just wanted to play a prank and see your reaction. I didn’t think about how your feelings would be hurt, and it really isn’t like me to do something like that.”

Schuyler sighed.  “Come in,” she said.  She sat on her bed, and I sat on her chair.  I noticed that Schuyler’s roommate was on the other bed, studying, so I tried to stay out of her way as much as possible.

“I know you’re mad at me.  But I’m not good with people.  I’m still learning how the world works.  And I’m also not good at using the Internet in general.  It seems like all I do is make people mad at me without realizing it.”

“I believe you,” Schuyler said after a pause of a few seconds.  “Apology accepted. But I’m still hurt. It might be a while before I feel like talking to you again.”

“I understand.”

“You’re right when you said it wasn’t like you to do that.  You’re not mean. And that’s part of the reason I was so hurt.”

“Yeah.”

“I need to get to work.  But I appreciate you saying something.”

I got up to leave.  “Bye,” I said. “I’ll see you around.”

I left without saying anything else, but I had something else to say while I was in the mood for apologizing.  I walked to the other end of the third floor and knocked on Karen’s door. “Hi, Greg,” she said, opening the door just a crack, just enough to see her face.

“Hey.  I’m sorry about the email the other day.  It seems like my Internet habits are just making people upset these days, and I really didn’t mean to be annoying.”

“I know,” Karen answered.  “And I’m sorry I snapped like that.  I’ve just been in a bad mood the last few days.  And I’ve had friends and relatives emailing me this crap for years, and I’m just tired of it.”

Well, look at you, with your rich techie background and all of your friends and relatives who aren’t new to the world of email, I thought silently.  But what I said out loud was, “I took you off my mailing list already.”

“Thank you.  And don’t worry about it.  It’s really not a big deal.”

“Thanks.  I’ll see you later.”

“Bye,” she said, closing the door as if in a hurry to get back to what she was doing..

I walked back to my room and lay on the bed for a while, just thinking.  This whole weekend felt like I completely failed at the Internet. And even though I had apologized, I still felt like hiding from everyone.  No matter what I did, I would never be able to have a group of friends like a normal person. All I do is make people mad and say things that they don’t understand.  And in hindsight, I don’t even know why I tried to make Schuyler think I was someone else. Nor did I know why I decided to answer Charlene’s questions. It wasn’t like me to be mean for no reason, nor was it like me to actually take the time to reply to emails like Charlene’s.

I closed my eyes and let my mind wander.  Maybe I wasn’t as hopeless as I felt when it came to making friends.  I did have friends. So what if I kept to myself a lot. There were people in Building C, and a few outside of Building C, who cared about me and wanted to talk to me.  So what if I made some reckless decisions. People do stupid things sometimes. Everything feels like culture shock to me right. Living with seventy other students my age is a new experience for me.  I didn’t have a lot of interaction with peers at all growing up, and I was still learning. Making mistakes, making people mad, getting into arguments, these are all part of the process. Real friends apologize when they make mistakes.  They are honest about their feelings, and they stick together through it all.

Schuyler and I did end up on good terms eventually, although she didn’t talk to me much for the next couple weeks.  And Karen was fine once I took her off the email list. She wasn’t really hurt, just mildly annoyed. I should also point out that I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the reason why Karen had only opened the door a crack and had seemed in a hurry to get rid of me: Pat was in Karen’s bed with his shirt off, and possibly other clothing missing as well.


AUTHOR’S NOTE from 2019: The email from Charlene (curiosityconfession.wordpress.com) was actually her nomination of this blog for the Sunshine Blogger Award.  The rules are to thank the blogger who nominated you, answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you, nominate new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions, list the rules, display the Sunshine Blogger Award in your post/or on your blog, and notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.  Thank you, Charlene!  I don’t normally nominate people for stuff like this, so as not to annoy the Karen Francises of the world, but if any of you reading this want to do it on your blog, go for it.  And post a link to your blog below so other people can go take a look at it.

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