October 23-25, 1996. A pen pal on another continent.

The way people communicate has changed radically over the course of my life.  When I was young, telephone calls outside of one’s own city cost a lot of money, so when friends moved away, I often never heard from them again.  Writing letters in the mail was an option as well, for people committed enough to do so.  In high school, my friend Catherine went to Austria for a year to be an exchange student, and we wrote letters the whole time she was gone.  When the young people of today have friends who move away, they stay in touch through texting and social media.  Some of them have thousands of followers on social media all over the world, some of whom they have never met before.  Many of them do not want to be bothered with traditional voice-based telephone calls, and many of them do not know how to address an envelope or use a stamp.

I attended the University of Jeromeville during an awkward transition period when both of these worlds existed simultaneously.  Some of my friends used email, some of them communicated by writing letters, and some I never heard from again once I moved.  I spent a lot of time on text-based Internet Relay Chat, usually looking for girls to talk to, because I was not good at meeting girls in real life.  I stayed in touch with some of them by email, but I also sometimes got handwritten letters from them.  Sometimes we wanted to exchange photos, and in an era when flatbed scanners were relatively uncommon and digital cameras were not yet mainstream, it was easier to send a photo in the mail.  Other times, someone I know would lose access to email temporarily, and stay in touch by writing letters.  That was the case for many of my university friends when they went for the summer.  That was also the case with Laura Little, although her story was a bit more interesting.

I met Laura on IRC in the spring of my sophomore year at UJ.  She was seventeen years old, and she lived in upstate New York, on the other side of the United States from me.  In one of our first conversations, she told me that she was going to be leaving in July for a year, to be an exchange student in Switzerland, where she would not have Internet access.  I had been getting letters from Laura regularly since she left; she had a difficult transition to life in Switzerland, and her German was not good, so she wanted to get letters to read in English.

Laura and I had never met, obviously.  I did not know what she looked or sounded like.  Right before she left for Switzerland, a romantic interest named Adam whom she also met on the Internet had come to visit her for a few days.  Whenever she mentioned Adam, her answers were a bit inconsistent and evasive; first she said they had a good time but decided to just be friends, but then in the next letter she said something about having to get her mind off of what happened with Adam, and then she said something about regretting what she did with him, that she felt stupid and that she should have known better.  Clearly I had not gotten the entire story, so the last time I wrote to her, I asked exactly what happened.

I got home in the late afternoon after a long Wednesday of classes to find a letter from Laura on the kitchen counter next to the phone; one of the other roommates had apparently gotten the mail earlier.  Shawn was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher.  When he saw me pick up Laura’s letter, he asked, “Hey, who are all these girls who write letters to you?  You’re getting letters from all over the world!  You’re a ladies’ man!”

“Not exactly,” I said.  “Laura is someone I met on the Internet; she’s from New York but studying in Switzerland this year.”  I conveniently left out the part where she was only seventeen. Even though that was only a three-year age difference between Laura and me, Shawn was turning twenty-three next month, so to him, she would seem significantly younger.

“And you got a letter from Hungary last week.”

That’s Kelly Graham.  You know Kelly.  She was roommates with Haley Channing and Kristina Kasparian last year, on Baron Court.  She’s studying abroad in Hungary this year.”

Shawn thought for a minute.  “Kelly!  Oh yeah.  And don’t you have a girlfriend back home?”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah.  That girl from Gabilan who has written to you like four times already.  That’s where you’re from, right?  Plumdale is right near Gabilan?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Cecilia, or something like that.”

Cecilia?  From Gabilan?  I laughed loudly as I figured out who Shawn was talking about.  “That’s my grandma!” I said.

“Your grandma!” Shawn laughed.  “This whole time, I thought you had a girlfriend back home.”

“I wish I had a girlfriend back home who wrote me as often as Grandma did.”

“She sure likes to write.”

“She does.  And my cousin Rick, the second-oldest grandchild, went away to North Coast State this year, so he’s gonna get just as many letters from Grandma now too.”

“That’s nice of her, though.”

“Yeah, it is.”  I walked upstairs to read Laura’s letter.  Laura had very small handwriting; she sometimes wrote in cursive and sometimes printed, sometimes both in the same letter, and she often did not bother to separate her letters into paragraphs.  This letter was handwritten on tan stationery, with a typed paper inside the envelope as well.  The typed paper appeared to be a math assignment of some sort.


Greg,

Guten tag!  Meine Deutsch ist besser.  (My German is better.)  I understand more than I did before at least. I’m doing well.  The weather here is getting colder.  I just spent 200 francs on sweaters and a long sleeve shirt.  My mom would kill me if she found out how much money I spent.  I’m supposed to be taking this test, but it’s a take home test so I’ll make a copy and send it to you.  I’m so lost and I have told the teacher that I don’t understand any of this.  He just told me to do my best but I just sat for half an hour debating if I did the problems correct but I left half of them blank because I don’t know what to do.  Maybe you can help me.  I’ll write what it means in English if I know it.  I would really appreciate it if you could help explain these.  I know it is really sad how lost I am.  I told my mom about you and said that I was going to ask you for help with math, and she says thank you.  I do too.  So anyway, last weekend I went away on a trip with the other exchange students in my program and I got to talk in English all weekend.  It was so good.  We went to the mountains and in the morning we took a cable car to the top of a mountain and it snowed.  I love it.  And we had a big party that night.  It was cold, but we had a snowball fight and took a lot of pictures.  We have Herbstferien here, it’s a fall school holiday, I CAN’T WAIT!  I’m going to go skiing, I’ve never been before.  I hope you don’t think different of me after I tell you what happened with Adam because I know it was a mistake and I should have just been friends with him but I’m so stupid.  Sometimes when I’m put in a pressure situation I don’t think straight.  Only you and one of my friends back home know about this because I don’t want anyone to know.  I was so stupid to let it happen but it’s too late to fix it now and I just want to forget about that.


I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.  It was pretty obvious where she was going with this.  I continued reading.


Well I kinda slept with him.  Only once though but we also did some other stuff.  I don’t want to say anything more, I’m so stupid to let it happen.  But on a lighter note I got my ear pierced at the top.  It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would but I couldn’t sleep on that side for a few days.  One of my friends from school here and I got it done together.  I like it.  I’m not feeling homesick as often.  I know how to prevent it now and I don’t think it will happen again.  I know my writing is messy but I haven’t slept much.  I hope you don’t think of me different because of all that.  Oh yeah, you’ll be happy to know my butt doesn’t hurt as much when I ride my bike to school.  I’m happy now but I can’t ride long distances like you do sometimes.  How are you?  Have you met anyone yet?  It made me sad when you said you felt like giving up on girls.  Just talk to someone.  Ask her to coffee or ice cream or lunch or something.  And tell me all about her.  Any girl would be lucky to spend time with you.  I hope to hear from you soon.

❤ Laura


I was not entirely sure how to react to what she said about Adam, although I had a feeling that was what she was going to say from the moment she told me in her last letter that she regretted what she did.  Part of me was disappointed that this happened; Laura was not the kind of nice Christian girl I was hoping to meet.  She had never claimed to be Christian, though, so that was just wishful thinking on my part.

But I also did not blame her or Adam one bit.  If I had been Adam, I probably would have been having fantasies about going to bed with Laura the whole time I was visiting her, even though I knew it was wrong.  I must admit, I had had those fantasies about her before, although I could not bring myself to tell her that, of course.  This sounds paradoxical, but such are the trials of a lonely, girl-crazy Christian young adult like me.

I only had one class the next day, and one of my students for my tutoring job did not show up, so I had plenty of time to get homework done during the day.  After dinner that night, I went upstairs to my room and began writing my next letter to Laura.  


October 24, 1996

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your honesty.  Don’t worry about me thinking differently of you.  Everyone does things they wish they hadn’t afterward.  And please don’t call yourself stupid.  You aren’t.  You said you regret what you did, so learn from this.  You told me that you know you don’t think straight in pressure situations, so when you know you’re going to be in a pressure situation, set boundaries in advance.  If there’s a guy who likes you, for example, don’t be alone with him if you don’t want to feel pressured.

I wish I got a fall break.  That sounds like it’ll be fun.  I’ve never been skiing either.  I don’t know if I want to try it.  I’m not usually good at things like that where I have to keep my balance by going fast, and I would probably just get frustrated.  But tell me how it goes.  Your ear piercing sounds cute.

I started going to a new church a couple weeks ago.  I really like it.  A lot of my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship go to that church.  But I don’t want to start going there just because I have friends there.  That shouldn’t be what church is about.  So I decided for the rest of October to go to both churches every Sunday and pray about it.  So far I like the new church.  People there seem more serious about following God and reading the Bible.

Things are going well at the apartment.  I’m adjusting well to having roommates.  Four of us share a three bedroom apartment; Shawn and I share the big bedroom.  It hasn’t been a problem so far.  We both get up early for class, so I don’t have to worry about waking him up or him waking me up.  Brian is really nice too.  The fourth guy, Josh, he works weird hours, and I don’t see him very often.

I don’t have a girlfriend.  I’m not good at meeting girls.  I feel like I have a lot of acquaintances these days, but I’m kind of on the outside of a lot of my friends’ social groups.  There’s this one girl I know from JCF who I would love to get to know better and spend more time with.  She’s really sweet and she has beautiful blue eyes.  I just don’t know what to do, though.  I don’t get to talk to her very often, and lately she’s been acting a little different.  I’m not sure why.  Last week at JCF she was talking a lot with this other guy, but I couldn’t tell if they were together or anything.  I met her in January when I was having a really hard day, and this guy invited me to hang out with some of his friends, and we hung out at her house.  A couple months ago, around the time all the year leases run out, I rode my bike past their house and everything was dark, and that inspired me to write a poem.  I’ll send it to you. It’s a Shakespearean sonnet; I’ve always liked that format for poems.


I continued writing, telling her all about trigonometric ratios on the next page, which apparently her mom wanted to thank me for.  I wondered exactly how much Laura’s mom knew about me.  I told my mom very little about all the girls I had met on the Internet, although she knew about one, Molly from Pennsylvania, because Molly wrote me letters the summer after freshman year when I went home for the summer.

Next I opened a file on my computer called “2234.”  This was the title of the poem I had mentioned in my letter to Laura, about a time when I rode my bike past the house where Haley and her roommates lived, but Haley was home for the summer and everyone else had moved out by then.  I titled the poem 2234 after the address of the house, 2234 Baron Court.  I printed the poem and put it on my desk with the rest of Laura’s letter, which I would mail in the morning.


“2234”
by Gregory J. Dennison, 1996

Inside your walls, that January night,
My life began again, in joy and love;
My brand new friends had shown to me the light;
Set free from gloom, I praise my Lord above!
Today your door is locked, your curtains drawn,
Along your quiet street you make no sound,
Your residents, and all their friends, are gone,
No sign left of the friendship I once found.
But though the cast has left, the show is done,
The drama rests forever in my heart;
This friendship still is shining like the sun,
We’re miles away, but not so far apart;
   Though now, O house, you’re empty, cold, and dark,
   My night in you forever left its mark.


I took a long time to fall asleep Thursday night.  I kept thinking about Laura, having sex with Adam and partying with all of the other exchange students, probably getting drunk in the process.  I wondered if she made any other decisions she regretted on her weekend with the other exchange students.  I knew consciously that that line of thinking was horribly judgmental, and that I was being a bad friend by entertaining those thoughts, but I could not help it.  I woke up tired Friday morning, still dwelling on these dark thoughts.

I was not feeling angry with Laura, though.  My brooding was directed more toward myself, at my failures with girls, and at a society where fake people with loose morals always got the girl or guy they were after, and guys like me were ridiculed and made outcasts.  I did not know how meeting girls and dating worked.  Laura tried to encourage me, but her suggestions just were not easy for me.  I did not know how to talk about things that girls would be interested in, and sometimes I felt like I was on the outside, or at best on the outer fringes, of cliques that seemed to spend a lot of time together.

During a break between classes, I went to the Post Office to mail Laura’s letter.  There was a small Post Office in the Memorial Union building, around the corner from the campus store.  Four people were in front of me in line, and with two friends in Europe that I was writing to that year, I had spent enough time in this line to know that I would be here for at least fifteen minutes.  Usually only one employee worked at the desk, and whenever he had to get something behind the desk, or place a package where the outgoing packages went, he seemed to move so slowly that I wondered if he was exaggerating his slow movements on purpose.  Did he have special training to learn how to work so slowly and inefficiently?  If I had been working behind that desk, I would be moving a lot faster, just because it was in my nature to get things done.  It probably would have saved time to buy stamps in the denomination of what it cost to send a letter to Europe, but sometimes I wrote long enough letters that it cost more, and I would have had to stand in line anyway to get the right postage.

I finally mailed my letter and walked toward the other end of the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I was thinking about Laura’s encouragement to talk to girls and not be afraid, and as if on cue, I saw Haley walking toward me.  Before I could overthink myself out of it, I said, “Hey, Haley.”

Haley stopped and looked up at me with her bright blue eyes, smiling.  “Hi,” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I said.  “Glad it’s Friday.”

“I know!  I had a big midterm yesterday.  It was a long week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?”  The words just came out; I was not sure where I was going with this line of conversation, but it felt right to ask.

“Not much.  But I’m going to play games at the Albert Street house tonight.  Did you hear about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“After JCF tonight. Just hanging out and play games.  I’m sure you’re invited.”

“Eddie and Raphael’s house?  That Albert Street house?”

“Yeah.  I have to get going, but will you be at JCF tonight?”

“I will.  I’ll see you there?”

“Yeah!  See you there!”

I did go to the game night after JCF that night, and it was a lot of fun.  About ten of us were there, and we played Uno and Taboo until well after midnight.  Nothing special happened between me and Haley, although we did get to talk a bit more.  That felt like progress.  Maybe next time I would ask her to do something specific, just me and her.

After the game night ended, I headed home on the nearly empty streets of Jeromeville under the dark night sky, driving over the overpass with trees on it and flipping around the stations on the car radio.  As I heard Alanis Morissette singing about how “you live, you learn, you love, you learn” in her pain-inducing voice that sounded like the sound some sort of bird would make as it was being stabbed, I instinctively reached over to change the station.  But just before I pressed the button, I stopped.  Maybe Alanis was right.  I was living my life and learning from my missteps and mistakes.  And so was Laura, on another continent.  I was not doing myself any favors when I got down on myself because of my social and romantic failures, and neither was Laura when she called herself stupid because of what happened with Adam.  Laura was my long-distance friend, and friends were there to encourage each other, and help each other learn and grow.


Dear readers: What are some experiences you’ve had with learning not to be so judgmental? Or learning from your mistakes?

Also, I know this is a day late. I might be taking an unplanned week off from writing here and there, because I’m behind on real life right now. Next time I skip a week, you can always read an episode from the archives.

July 18-20, 1996. A new creative project and a new cheeseburger.

In 1996, the Internet was coming into the mainstream.  Average citizens were communicating by email, discussing topics on a Usenet forum, chatting on Internet Relay Chat, and using the Netscape browser to surf the World Wide Web, a platform for informational documents that could be linked to each other.  Advertisements were beginning to include the websites of the companies involved, where anyone in the world with an Internet connection could look up information about the product in question.

The truly computer savvy individual in 1996 had a personal website.  The academics, scientists, and government officials for whom the Internet was created used personal websites to share about their careers, their research, and contact information, which was useful for their colleagues and students to have.  A few people I had met on the Internet had personal websites, and mostly they consisted of a picture or two and a little bit about the author, with links to other relevant websites.  Some of my friends had personal websites too.  Eddie Baker had a link to his personal website on his email signature.  Eddie’s website had a picture of himself, another picture with his seven roommates, some of his favorite Bible verses, and a link to the University of Jeromeville page.

I wanted so badly to make a personal website, although I had no practical need for one. Unfortunately, this feature was not possible with a UJ student account.  This guy named Carl who I met on IRC had access to some kind of personal server, where he gave me an account for free so I could fiddle with making a website.  I taught myself basic HTML, the code used for making websites.  I found a computer lab on campus with a scanner and scanned a copy of my senior picture from Plumdale High, so I could put that picture on my website.  I don’t know why I did, though; I always hated that picture.  I wrote a little bit about myself, with links to the pages for the University of Jeromeville and a Bay City Captains football fan page I found.  Back in those days, jokes and chain letters circulated by email, the forerunners of the memes and viral posts of the 21st century, and I copied and pasted some of my favorites on my page.

Eddie’s page was hosted by a UJ Computer Science Department account; he was an International Relations major, but had taken a couple of computer classes.  When I took Introduction to Programming in the spring, I got a Computer Science account, so I did not need Carl to host my site anymore.  At some point after I finished my current Introduction to Software class, I would have to move my site again, since I would not be taking a Computer Science class in the fall.  Eddie’s site would probably get deleted eventually as well.  I needed to find out if I could get a Mathematics department account and host a personal website on that.

One Thursday night, after I got home from Bible study, I was bored.  I was caught up with homework for my class, and I had finished reading everything I was reading for fun.  I sat down in front of the computer and dialed into the university’s computer network.  I got on my usual IRC chat channel and looked for someone to talk to.  A girl named Laura, whom I had been talking to for a few months, was on, so I messaged her.  Laura was 17 years old and lived in upstate New York.

gjd76: hi :)
lauragirl17: hi greg! how are you?
gjd76: really bored. i’m caught up with all my work.  how are you?  i haven’t talked to you in a while.  how were things with adam?
lauragirl17: i know, i wasn’t on as much when adam was here.  we had a good visit.  it was a little weird at the end though
gjd76: why?
lauragirl17: just some stuff happened and i think we’re just going to be friends
gjd76: aww.  i hope everything is ok.  i wish i could meet girls i knew on the internet
lauragirl17: have you ever met someone from the internet in real life?
gjd76: just once. it was another girl from jeromeville, turned out she lived right down the street.  we just hung out and talked for a while, i could tell she wasn’t really my type
lauragirl17: aww. she’s missing out :) maybe i’ll be able to come to jeromeville someday
gjd76: that’d be fun :) well, you could come right now, i gave you my address
lauragirl17: yeah you did! i leave on tuesday, i’m so nervous but so excited too, i’ll write to you as soon as i get settled.  it’s kind of weird to think that i’ll be in switzerland this time next week
gjd76: i’m excited for you :) this will be a great experience… one of my best friends in high school, she was an exchange student in austria, and she loved it
lauragirl17: i know, it’s just going to be a big adjustment
gjd76: of course
lauragirl17: well it’s really late here, i should get to bed… but it was good talking to you
gjd76: you too! good night, sleep well :)

I hoped Laura would actually write to me from Switzerland.  One of my friends from school, Kelly, was going to be studying in Hungary next year, so between Kelly and Laura, I could possibly be writing and receiving letters from Europe often next year.

Someone else from the chat posted a link to his personal website; I opened it in another window in between messages from Laura.  In addition to pictures of himself and links to his university, he also had a story about this party he had attended last month, with pictures from the story and paragraphs telling what happened.  I wished I owned my own scanner, so that I could share pictures on the Internet too.

That guy from IRC with the story about his party gave me an idea for something to add to my website.  A few years ago, Nintendo released a game called Mario Paint.  It was not a game at all, it was more like rudimentary but functional drawing and animation software.  It came with a mouse, which was easier to use for drawing than the standard Super Nintendo control pad.  Three years ago, I used Mario Paint, two VCRs, and a microphone to make a short film about two strange teenage boys with a weird neighbor.  The film was influenced by the buddy comedies of the time period, like Wayne’s World and Beavis and Butthead.  I called my creation “Dog Crap and Vince.”  I made a few other Dog Crap and Vince short films over the next couple years, and the most recent one I made after I bought this computer, so the screenplay was still saved on this hard drive.

I opened my screenplay and read it.  Dog Crap’s cousin came to visit, and while throwing a football around in the yard, Vince threw it too hard, and it got run over by a truck.  The boys found a football at a garage sale to replace the one they lost, but it was so old and hard and brittle that it cracked open when it landed on the ground.  That was inspired by an inside joke; once, a strange neighbor back home gave my brother and me an old football that had belonged to her son when he was young, and it hit the ground and cracked open just like that.

I opened Microsoft Paint, the drawing software that came with Windows 3.1, and drew the opening scene, where Dog Crap opens the door and lets his cousin in.  I then drew the next scene, where the two of them watch television with Vince.  Both Dog Crap and Vince always had strange multicolored hair, and I never explained their odd appearance in any of the short films.  I also never explained why Dog Crap’s name is Dog Crap, and in their fictional universe, no one questions this.

I continued illustrating scenes from this Dog Crap and Vince story until around one in the morning.  The following day, after I finished a morning bike ride, I continued working on Dog Crap and Vince, illustrating the rest of the scenes from the story.

Next, I began typing the HTML code.  I typed the lines of dialogue and description for the story, in prose instead of the screenplay format I had written for the Mario Paint film.  It did not feel like an actual story, since the illustrations left most of the descriptions unnecessary; the remaining text was very heavy on dialogue.  But this was a new format for me, and I did not really have a template or precedent on which to base my work.  This story really was designed for animation, but in the absence of that kind of technology, this would have to do.

When I finished writing and debugging the HTML, I uploaded it, and all of my drawings, to the website.  I also updated the home page, trying to think of what to call my creation… was it a story, or a comic, or a script, or what?  I ended up calling it a story.  “Read my story: ‘Dog Crap and Vince, episode 1: ‘Football,’” I typed.  I made that line a hyperlink, so that someone could click on it to go to the story.  I read through my entire Dog Crap and Vince story again.  I was proud of my work.  Now I just needed someone to share it with.


Many of my friends who lived in this part of Jeromeville left for the summer, but some of them were still around.  Ramon and Jason were still in their apartment on Hampton Drive, and Caroline still lived upstairs from them.  Liz, Ramon’s girlfriend and Caroline’s roommate, had gone home for the summer.  By Saturday afternoon, the day after I finished Dog Crap and Vince, I was in a mood to socialize, so I walked over to Hampton Drive, about a quarter mile away.  Caroline saw me first; she was standing on the balcony, attaching some kind of wire mesh to the balustrade and railing.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.

“What are you working on?”

“I’m going to let Henry come out here.  I’m putting this up so he doesn’t accidentally fall.”

“That’ll be fun.  The cats we had growing up were always outdoor cats.  It’s weird to me to think that Henry never goes outside.”

“When we got Henry, we knew he had to be an indoor cat,” Caroline explained.  “The apartment wouldn’t allow it otherwise.”

“Makes sense.”

I heard the door on the downstairs apartment open.  “Hey, Greg,” Ramon said.  “I thought I heard your voice.”

“I just wanted to come say hi.”

“Stick around.  Liz is on her way up; she should be here soon.  She’ll want to see you.”

“Oh.  Cool.”

I went inside to watch TV with Ramon and Jason.  Ten minutes later, Caroline came down to tell us that the cat-proofing of the balcony was finished.  All of us went to the living room of the upstairs apartment and watched as Caroline opened the door to the balcony, picked up Henry and put him outside.  Henry looked around skittishly, then cautiously walked around, sniffing things.  Caroline tossed him his toy, a plastic ball with a small bell inside; Henry sniffed the ball and swatted it away, then chased his little furry black and white spotted body after it.

“It’s like he doesn’t quite know what to think of the outside,” Caroline said.

Just then, we heard Liz’s voice saying “Hey, guys!”  She walked into the apartment and put her bag down.  When she saw me, she looked surprised for a second, then smiled.  “Greg!  It’s good to see you!”

“How are you?”

“I’m good.”  Liz turned to see what everyone was looking at on the balcony.  “Henry’s outside!” she said.

“Yeah,” Caroline replied.  “I just wanted to try it.”

“It looks like he likes it.”

Liz moved her bag into the bedroom.  After she came back out to the living room, Ramon said, “Jason and I have been wanting to try that new Arch Deluxe burger at McDonald’s.  Greg?  You can come with us if you want.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I haven’t eaten yet.  And I haven’t tried that either.”

“It’s supposed to have more of an adult taste,” Jason explained.

“What does that mean?  How do hamburgers have adult tastes?” Liz asked.

“I don’t know,” Jason said.  “It’s being marketed as more sophisticated.”

Across the street from their apartment complex was the back of a shopping center facing Coventry Boulevard.  After making sure Henry was securely inside again, the five of us walked there.  The McDonald’s was in the middle of the strip mall part of the shopping center and had no drive-thru.  We each took turns ordering; I got an Arch Deluxe, eagerly anticipating what this adult cheeseburger would taste like.

“What have you been up to, Greg?” Liz asked as we waited for our order numbers to be called.  “You’re taking a class, right?”

“Yeah.  Computer Science 40, Intro to Software.  It’s going well.”

“Good!”

“Today I made something new for my website.  Just for fun, not part of the class.”

“Oh yeah?  What is it?”

I told them about Dog Crap and Vince, how I had created the characters with Mario Paint a few years ago, and about the illustrated story I had written.  “I’ll show you guys when we get back to the apartment, if you want.”

“Sure,” Ramon said.

Jason’s meal had arrived by then; he bit into the Arch Deluxe.  “This is pretty good,” he said.  “It’s different, I’m not sure exactly what is adult about it, but it’s good.”

“What does Dog Crap and Vince mean?” Caroline asked.  “What does dog crap have to do with the story?  Does Vince always step in dog crap?”

“Dog Crap is his friend’s name.  So the title refers to the two main characters, Dog Crap and Vince.”

“Why is his name Dog Crap?”

“I’ve never explained that.  It just is.”

“Okay,” Caroline said, as if not sure what to make of this.

The cashier called my number, and I went up to the counter to get my food.  I sat down and opened the cardboard Arch Deluxe container.  The burger had a different kind of bun, looking more like a sandwich roll, but round.  I opened it and removed the tomato slice.  “You don’t like tomatoes?” Liz asked.

“No.”

“May I have it?”

“Sure.”

I passed my tomato to Liz and took a bite of what remained of the burger.  I liked it.  Definitely different from most other McDonald’s products; it tasted like it was made from higher quality ingredients.  “This is good,” I said.  Growing up, I was a connoisseur of Chicken McNuggets; I did not usually eat hamburgers at McDonald’s, but I was willing to reconsider this position because of the Arch Deluxe.

We sat together at McDonald’s catching up for a while.  Liz told us all about her summer with her family, and those of us who were taking classes shared how our studies were going so far.  At one point, during a lull in the conversation, Ramon said, “Has anyone ever noticed that this song is the same four chords over and over again?”

“Huh?” Caroline asked.

“This song,” Ramon repeated.  Blues Traveler’s “Run-Around” was playing in the background of the restaurant.  “It’s the same four chords over again.”

I listened carefully to the guitar and bass playing behind the energetic harmonica solo.  “You’re right,” I said, pretending to sound like I knew what I was talking about.  I had three years of piano lessons in my past, and I had been singing in the choir at church for almost a year, but Ramon was a much more accomplished musician than I was.  “I always thought it was catchy, though.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s catchy,” Jason agreed.

 We walked back to the apartment after we finished eating.  “Greg?” Ramon asked.  “Did you still want to show us that Dog Crap thing?”

“Sure.”

Ramon turned on his computer as Jason found something to watch on TV.  He opened Netscape and asked, “What’s the address?”  I typed the address for my website, then clicked on the link for Dog Crap and Vince.  Ramon began reading silently as Liz and Caroline and I watched the screen.  I felt slightly awkward. Was I supposed to read it out loud to them?  How would Ramon know when everyone was done reading?  At the end of the first page, Ramon asked if everyone was done reading before he continued to the next page.  That would work.  The others laughed a few times, such as when Dog Crap and Vince saw the Unabomber at the garage sale.

“That’s pretty funny,” Ramon said when he finished.

“You did a good job with the website,” Liz added.  “Are you going to do more Dog Crap stories?”

“Eventually, yes.”

“I’ll keep watching for those.”

“Thanks!”

The four of us hung out watching television and just talking for another couple of hours.  I walked home after that and got out a sheet of paper.  Future Dog Crap and Vince Ideas, I wrote at the top, then I added, Dog Crap is playing guitar, but he only knows four chords, and Vince says he can still play that Blues Traveler song.  I used a variation of that line in another episode later that year, and I made it a habit to write down anything funny that I thought of or saw that could be used in future episodes.

Today was a good day.  I would be eating many more Arch Deluxes in the future; this would become my new go-to order at McDonald’s.  However, sadly, the product was considered a massive failure.  The Arch Deluxe never caught on as a popular item once the initial hype faded, and a few years later, it disappeared from McDonald’s menus.

Dog Crap and Vince, however, did not disappear from my life.  I continued making new episodes of the series for eleven years, with more animated short films after that.  I also did numerous other side projects involving Dog Crap and Vince.  Many of my friends have been involved in a Dog Crap and Vince project at some point.  These two characters spawned a fictional universe that became a major part of my life for a long time.  The world of Dog Crap and Vince even seemed to take on a life of its own at times.  The cast of main characters grew from two to at least six, with many other recurring characters in their world, and at times, their stories seemed to take on lives of their own.  I never would have believed, on that day three years ago when I drew those two silly-looking boys on Mario Paint, that this would become such a major part of my life.


Author’s note: Dog Crap and Vince is not real.  It is based on an actual project called “Cow Chip & Lance.”  I’ve known the guys behind those characters for many years, and I’ve done some work behind the scenes for them.  They were thinking about reposting their web series from the 90s, and I’m writing about the 90s, so we decided to join forces on that project.  Go check them out.


June 25-27, 1996. The first week of summer session.

The architecture and landscaping around the University of Jeromeville are not the old brick buildings and towering, stately trees commonly associated with universities.  The towering trees are there, in the older parts of campus, but the buildings are a mix of architectural styles.  The traditional brick Wellington Hall, the wooden shingles of Old North and South Halls, the Spanish stucco and tile of Harper Hall, and the bizarre angled concrete of the Death Star Building are all visible just from the Quad.  Some criticize the campus for its lack of architectural unity, but I always found that this gave it character.

One of the sections of campus with the least glamorous architecture was far to the southwest of the Quad, just past the engineering buildings, east of the South Residential Area.  Two prefabricated buildings, resembling the portable classrooms on most elementary and secondary school campi in this state but larger, stood surrounded by several feet of bare dirt on each side, and more interesting buildings in view nearby.  One of these buildings was divided in half, with a sign calling it “Temporary Classrooms 1 & 2,” and the other had only one door, labeled “Temporary Classroom 3.”

I parked my bike and walked into Temporary Classroom 3.  A chalkboard ran along the side of the building to the left, and about eighty chairs with the little writing desks that fold out faced the chalkboard.  The room was about half full so far, and most of the empty seats filled up by the time the instructor arrived at noon.  I assumed that this man was the instructor, at least, because he carried a binder and stack of papers to the front of the room.  He was slender, with wavy light brown hair, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, and he appeared fairly young, probably in his early thirties.  A darker-haired man of about that age, dressed more casually, had been sitting in the front of the room the whole time.  The instructor handed the other man a stack of papers, which they began passing out to the class.

“Welcome to Computer Science 40, Introduction to Software,” the instructor said.  “My name is Tom Kroger.  This,” he said, gesturing to the darker-haired man passing out papers, “is Joe White.  He will be the TA for this class, and he will lead the discussion section on Wednesday mornings.”  The syllabus was among the papers Joe White passed out, and neither of their names had the title “Dr.” in front.  I assumed that Joe White, like most teaching assistants, was a graduate student studying computer science, and I wondered, because of his youth and lack of title, if Tom Kroger was a graduate student as well.  In my department, mathematics, graduate students sometimes taught first-year classes as the actual instructor, not just the teaching assistant; perhaps computer science did the same thing, particularly during the summer session.  (I would learn later that I was correct.)

Tom spent the first part of class explaining our assignments, the grading policy, office hours, computer lab hours, and other procedural items.  We would be using the programming language C, and the textbook for the class was called C How To Program, the only textbook I ever had with a pun for a title.  An optional supplementary book taught the basics of Unix operating systems; I bought this book too, since I had little familiarity with Unix.  For the rest of the 110-minute class, Tom lectured about high-level structured programming languages and the C standard library.  While some elements are common to most programming languages, C seemed fundamentally different than the Commodore 64 BASIC programming that I taught myself at age nine, or the Pascal language that I learned last quarter in my Introduction to Programming class.

Summer session classes teach ten weeks of material in six weeks, so the class met more often during the week than classes do during the regular school year.  The class met from 12:10 to 2:00 every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, with a discussion section Wednesday morning from 10:00 to 11:50, right before the lecture.  We would have weekly projects that would be discussed at that time.  This was the only class I was taking this summer, and I had no job, so I had plenty of time to study and get work done.

After class, I went to the Memorial Union and got a slice of pepperoni pizza.  I had not packed a lunch, I just figured that I would eat when I got home, but being back on campus for the first time in almost two weeks made me want to sit back and take in the atmosphere.  I took my lunch to a table in the courtyard by the fountain that was now kept perpetually dry.  I read the Daily Colt campus newspaper as I ate.  The name was a bit misleading, since during the summer, the newspaper only published twice a week, in a smaller tabloid format only about half as long as the regular edition. 

The campus was much quieter today than I was used to, since the majority of the student population was not in class for the summer.  Those fun times last year of running into friends around campus between classes, and all the interesting conversations that happened around those encounters, probably would not happen as often this summer.  The last time I sat at this table was when Haley Channing was sitting here, and I asked if I could join her.  For a girl-crazy, socially awkward guy like me, getting to have lunch with Haley was like winning the lottery.  Of course, I embarrassed myself in front of her a few minutes later; Claire Seaver from church choir walked by, and I tried to introduce Haley and Claire, not realizing that they already knew each other.  I would have no random encounters with Haley this summer, since she was home working a summer job, 400 miles away.

 The Daily Colt still included a crossword puzzle, which I did after I was done eating.  Even though the campus was emptier than usual, I was not completely alone.  I still had choir practice at church on Wednesdays, and I was in a Bible study that started this Thursday, so I would see some of my friends then.


The discussion Wednesday morning was also in Temp 3.  It was required, and the class was not split into multiple small discussion groups, so all of the students were there.  Joe White introduced our first project.  It seemed fairly straightforward, a project designed mostly just to acquaint students with the system and the basics of coding in C.

At two o’clock, after the lecture with Tom Kroger, I went to the computer lab in the basement of Kent Hall.  It was spread out across five rooms, and being an afternoon in summer when only a few computer science classes were offered, all of them were mostly empty.  When I had come here during Intro to Programming last quarter, there were usually many more people down here.  These computers ran X Window, a graphical interface for Unix-based computers that bore a superficial resemblance to the Microsoft Windows 3.1 that I was familiar with.  I opened a text editor in a new window, where I typed my code as a text file, which I would later compile into an executable.

I stayed in the lab for about an hour working on my project, and by that time I felt comfortable with how this system worked, as well as with C in general.  I still had a lot of work to do on the project, but I had a week to do it.  I was in no hurry; I just wanted to make sure I was familiar with the computer system before it was too late.


Since many UJ students leave to spend the summer at home or get summer jobs or internships elsewhere, the Newman Center only offers two Sunday Masses during the summer instead of three.  I would learn later that many other churches in Jeromeville also decrease the number of services during the summer, for the same reason.

When I got to choir practice on Wednesday night, some familiar faces were missing, and others had taken their places.  I knew that the Coronado sisters had both gone home to Desert Ridge for the summer, and a few others, including Phil Gallo and Melanie Giordano, were absent as well.  I recognized a few people from events that the church had held, and I assumed that these new people were singers from the early morning Mass, who were combined with us now.

“Greg!” Claire said when I walked in.  “You’re here!  Are you gonna be here all summer?”

“Mostly,” I replied.  “I wasn’t here last week because I went home to see my family.  But I’m back for the summer.  At least most of it.”

“How was that?”

“It went well.  My brother and I made a silly board game out of all of our inside jokes.”

“That sounds fun!”

“It was!”

I walked over to the music stand with my copy of this week’s music.  A girl I did not know stood next to me.  She was short, with short chin-length brown hair and brown eyes.  “Hi,” I said.  “I don’t think I know you.”

“I’m Ellen.”

“I’m Greg,” I replied.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

“Are you from the early service?” I asked, assuming that the answer would be yes.

“No,” Ellen said.  “My family goes to Mass here.  I’m going to school in San Diego, and I’m home for the summer.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

“Do you know Kevin Stark?  He’s my dad.”

“I think I know who he is.  He’s a professor of pomology, or something like that?”

“Yes!  It’s funny, that’s what everyone seems to remember about him.”

“I remember him talking about his research once.”

“Yeah, Dad always tells people he studies fruits and nuts.  Then he adds, ‘The kind that grow on trees.’”

“That’s funny,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah, but it’s less great when you hear him say it all the time.  Dumb jokes get old.”

“True.  That makes sense.  So what’s your major?”

“Marine biology.  You?”

“Math.”

“Wow.  That was never my favorite class.”

“I get that reaction a lot,” I said.

At this point, I realized that the rest of the room had become quiet and was staring at us.  “I was just saying, it’s time to get started,” Claire explained.  We mostly did familiar songs that week, so we got through choir practice relatively quickly.  Ellen had a nice voice.  I was looking forward to singing on Sunday.  While I still held out hope that something would work out with Haley eventually, I could not help but wonder if Ellen had a boyfriend.  


Thursday felt like a Friday to me, since I knew that it was my last class for the week.  With only one class this summer, I was going to have a four-day weekend every week.  I liked this schedule.  After class was over, I rode my bike into downtown Jeromeville and went to Tower Records.  After browsing the entire store, I bought the new Dave Matthews Band CD, Crash.  I listened to it as soon as I got home.

That night, after dinner, I drove to Pine Grove Apartments, about a mile to the south.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship did not have their large group meetings on Fridays during the summer, but there were two Bible studies meeting this summer, one here near campus and one on the other side of Jeromeville.  I found the apartment I was looking for and knocked on the door.  “Come in,” someone said from inside.

“Greg!” Lillian greeted as I opened the door.  Lillian was a year older than me, and she had co-led my Bible study during the school year.  Her co-leader this summer with a guy her year named Chris.  

“Hey, Greg,” Chris said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much.  Just taking a class and hanging out.”

“Which class?” Lillian asked.

“CS 40.  Intro to Software.”

“I’ve heard that’s really hard,” Chris said.  “My roommate is a CS major.  And you’re taking it in the summer, packed into six weeks?  Good luck.”

“I like it so far,” I said.

“Do you need computer science for the math major?” Lillian asked.

“CS 30 is required; I took that last quarter.  110 is optional, it counts in place of math units, and 40 is a prerequisite for 110, so I figured I would take 40 in the summer, when it’s easier to get into.  And programming is something I was always interested in.”

About five minutes after I arrived, we started with worship music as Chris played guitar and we all sang.  When it came time to begin the study, Lillian explained that we would be studying the First Epistle of John this summer.  I knew most of the people in this Bible study, after having spent most of the last school year going to JCF.  Tabitha Sasaki read the first half of the chapter out loud, and Jason Costello read the second half.  A verse that Tabitha read stuck out in my mind: “We proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”

We spent the next forty minutes or so discussing what John meant in writing these verses.  I kept thinking about that verse about proclaiming eternal life, which I was not good at.  I preferred to mind my own business when it came to telling people about my faith, this came more naturally to me, but I often worried that this was not enough.  I had friends who were good at inviting their friends to JCF; some people, including myself, had come to faith by being invited to JCF.  I had friends who were proclaiming eternal life this summer in Morocco, India, and other nations where Chrsitianity was not a dominant part of the culture.

The parent organization of JCF, Intervarsity, put on a convention every three years in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about mission trips and service opportunities.  Many of my friends were going, and I was considering going as well, although the thought of spending a few hundred dollars to register for this, and a few hundred more to fly to Illinois, was overwhelming.  An early bird price offered a significant discount to anyone who signed up before the end of June, which was only a few days away.

After we finished studying the chapter from 1 John, Chris asked, “Are there any prayer requests?”  A few of the others shared concerns about sick relatives and overwhelming school workloads.

I spoke up after a few minutes.  “I still haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to Urbana,” I said, “and I want to decide before the price goes up.  That’s in a few days.”

“I think it’ll be a really good experience for you,” Lillian said, “but I know, it’s a lot of money if you’re not really committed.  We’ll pray for you.”

After everyone shared their prayer requests, we all went in a circle, praying for the person next to us.  “God,” Tabitha said, “I pray for Greg.  I pray that you will give him wisdom to know whether or not Urbana is right for him.  I pray that Greg will know your will, and that you will speak to him all the great things you plan on doing through him.  I pray that he will find a way to make the finances work out, if this is your will.”

“Lord, I pray for Jason,” I said after Tabitha was done.  “I pray for his busy schedule, that you will help him stay focused on classes.  I pray that he will manage his time well, and find a balance between spending time in the Word and spending time on studies.”

After we finished prayer requests, and the study ended, Tabitha asked, “What are you up to tonight?”

“Just going to work on my project for class,” I said.  “I’m going to see if I can figure out how to connect to the CS computer lab from my computer at home, so I don’t have to go into the lab.”

“Let me know as soon as you’ve decided on Urbana.  I still want to get a few people to go in together on a flight.  I told you about that, right?”

“Yeah.  I will let you know.”

“Perfect!”

After I got home, I turned on the computer, listened to the beeps and whirs of the dialup modem connecting, and connected to the computers in the basement of Kent Hall.  I opened a second window and connected to my usual IRC chat channel, so I could find people to send messages to while I was working.  I put on the new Dave Matthews Band CD for the second time that day.

By the end of the night, I had decided that I preferred this setup over physically going to the basement of Kent Hall.  Writing code from home gave me the opportunity to listen to music and have a chat room open at the same time.  For certain types of studying, like those involving large amounts of reading, I do not do well while listening to music, but I enjoyed listening to music during other types of studying, like math homework or computer science projects.

The obvious drawback of doing computer science work from home, of course, is that I could not use the telephone while I was connected to the Internet.  Anyone who tried calling me would get a busy signal.  Although I did not get many calls, I did not want to tie up the phone line; I always held out hope that maybe I would get a phone call from a cute girl, or that someone would invite me to something awesome.  But since I did not have to get up early most days, I could wait until after ten o’clock, when I was unlikely to get phone calls, and work on coding late into the night.  I managed to train myself to sleep in until around ten in the morning, since my class did not begin until noon, although I had to make sure to get to bed earlier on Tuesdays so I could get up in time for the Wednesday morning discussion.  Once my body got used to staying up late and waking up late, that schedule worked very well for me.  I did not set foot in the basement of Kent Hall again for the rest of the summer.

When I finally went to bed that first night, at 1:46 AM, I closed my eyes and prayed again that God would show me the right decision about going to Urbana.  By that time, though, I felt like I already knew the answer.  I had found Jesus, and I needed to know what the next step in my faith journey would be.  I also had many friends who were traveling overseas to spread the Gospel, and I did not know how to support them, or even the nature of their work in the first place, in some cases.  I mailed my registration form the following morning.  I now had six months to work out the details, but I already had a head start since Tabitha was putting a flight together.  It was a wonderful first week of class, and as I drifted off to sleep, I felt optimistic for the rest of the summer.

June 11-12, 1996. The new Walk of Shame.

These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online.  Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed.  Or just use it to send emails with a new name.

In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it.  Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away.  Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it.  However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.”  This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers.  I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service.  Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.

I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer.  The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be.  My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine.  That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that.  About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus.  I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil.  About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me.  She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts.  I did not know her name.

“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.

“I think so,” she replied.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks.  You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.

While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously.  I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name.  The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished.  The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about.  I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.

I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow.  I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating.  I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final.  I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips.  I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.

All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian.  Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.  I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.

Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening.  I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen.  I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning.  I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.

When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer.  Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done.  I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it.  And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.

“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too.  He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”  My life is not my own.  I was created to serve and glorify God.  I believed.  But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him?  Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?

Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together.  I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this.  Probably not.  I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still.  I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong.  I knew I was wrong.  I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.

I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures.  Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought.  She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus.  I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me.  I was not trying to hook up with Sarah.  And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys.  I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.

No, I thought, this was not a good idea.  I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret.  I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again.  If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.

I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages.  I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient.  This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else.  On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.”  The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number.  This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person.  I took a deep breath and started typing.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name.  You may call me Joe.


I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message.  As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was.  When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it.  I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name.  I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to.  You may call me Joe.


I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down.  I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed.  I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.

By now it felt too late to do homework.  I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham.  I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly.  I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.


I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus.  I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts.  I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days.  I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material.  During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.


15358854@anon.penet.fi   Re: please read, this is real, you know me


Sarah had written back.  I opened the message and began reading.


Joe,

You are not a failure, and you have not let me down.  You definitely have not let God down.  You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.

I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up.  Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse.  Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.  Go for a walk.  Clean your house.  Do whatever it takes.  But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up.  Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.

Thank you so much for sharing this with me.  I will keep you in my prayers.  Take care and God bless.


I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened.  I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners.  I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked.  I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.

I read Sarah’s email again.  “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.”  I did not play an instrument.  I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played.  But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album.  I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen.  The dishes had been piling up for far too long.

I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo.  Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people.  Sarah was on that trip too.  I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.

What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicion
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.

That was me.  That was exactly what I had been feeling.  Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.

Lord, be my light, and be my salvation
‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.

Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes.  I never attempted to use the service again.  I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email.  She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.

I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind.  I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians.  Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that.  Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway.  I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience.  One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.

Early May, 1996. A stressful week.

A few months before every Olympic Games, the Olympic torch is lit by the sun on Mount Olympus in Greece and brought across Greece and the country hosting the Games that year.  In 1996, the upcoming Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta, on the opposite side of the United States from Jeromeville. The torch would travel across the United States by way of a relay.  Thousands of people would carry the torch for a short distance, then pass it to someone else, with crowds of onlookers watching as the torch made its way across their parts of the country.

On the day before the torch passed through Jeromeville, I sat alone at a table at the Memorial Union, eating a burrito and doing the crossword puzzle in the Daily Colt.  I had work to do, I had a combinatorics midterm coming up in a few days, but I was not in the mood to do work, given everything on my mind.  I had been looking for a house for next year, with no luck so far, and I was starting to worry about this.  (This was before I talked to Shawn about looking for an apartment instead.)

I walked into combinatorics class about five minutes before it was scheduled to start; this was the last class before the midterm.  I was a quarter ahead in math entering the University of Jeromeville, so I did not take freshman calculus in large lecture halls with people who were taking math on schedule.  Because of that, this combinatorics class, with about eighty people, was the largest math class I had taken at UJ so far.  I looked around the room and saw Andrea Briggs, who had been in a few classes with me before and lived in the dorm next to mine last year. She sat next to an open seat, so I walked up to it and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Sure,” Andrea replied.

“How are you?”

“I’m great!” she said.  “Jay came to visit this weekend, and he proposed!”  Andrea held up her left hand, with the third finger now bearing a diamond ring.

“Congratulations!” I said awkwardly.  Was that the right thing to say in response to this?  I was not sure.  As far as I knew, she was the first of my friends to get engaged.  This was a completely new experience to me.

“What about you?” she asked.  “How are you?”

“My week hasn’t been nearly as exciting.  I had a quiz in my other math class this morning.”

“Which class?  How’d you do?”

“167, with Dr. Ionescu.  I’m getting an A in that class, but I feel like I’m not learning anything.  Most of what we’re doing is just review from 22A.  And the entire grade is based on surprise quizzes every three or four classes, so there’s no reason to remember anything.”

“Yeah, that’s weird.  But at least you’re getting an A.”

“Yeah.”

Gabby, the combinatorics professor, began lecturing about generating functions for recurrence relations, so I stopped talking and began taking notes.  Dr. Gabrielle Thomas was my favorite math professor at UJ so far.  She was fairly young, I would guess in her thirties; she spoke English clearly; and she told us to call her Gabby, which seemed refreshingly informal to me.  That made her feel more like a human being, whom I could relate to, compared to many of my other professors.

I tried to focus on what Gabby was saying, because of the upcoming midterm.  I still had not mastered recurrence relations, but I thought I would probably do fine once I took the time to study and practice the material.  However, I had a hard time concentrating today.  I kept wanting to sneak glances at Andrea’s left hand, not because of any particular curiosity about what her ring looked like, but because she had one in the first place.  I was over Andrea as a possible love interest; I found out over a year ago that she had a boyfriend.  But it just felt weird, and discouraging, that I was at the age when my friends would be getting married.  Andrea would soon be committing herself to one man for life, probably starting a family with him after she finished school, and I had still never kissed a girl.

After class, as I headed back to the Memorial Union where my bicycle was parked, I saw Danielle Coronado and Claire Seaver from church sitting at a table talking.  Danielle was one of the first friends I made at UJ; she lived down the hall from me in my dorm last year.  “Hey,” I said as I approached them.

“Greg!” Danielle said, smiling and waving.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire said.  “Have you started your project yet?”

“Kind of.”

“Which math class do you two have together?” Danielle asked me.

“Anthro 2,” I explained.  “Not math.”  Danielle’s assumption was warranted, however, because Claire was a music major with a minor in mathematics.

“That’s right, anthro,” Danielle said.  “With that professor who did a class for the IHP last year.”

“Yes.  Dick Small.”  I still found that name hilarious, because of my extensive background in dirty jokes.  “I’m going to observe and write about the IRC channel FriendlyChat,” I continued.

“Is that that thing where you talk to strangers on the computer?”

“Yeah.  Internet Relay Chat.  I was in FriendlyChat earlier today, and there’s some kind of complicated leadership structure with who gets to be a channel operator, and all these rules that they get mad at you for not knowing.  And when I kept announcing that I was doing an anthro project, as the ethics of anthropology require, some of them got mad at me for spamming.  So I’m off to a frustrating start.”

“Well, hopefully you’ll figure out a way to get your project done.”

“I hope so.  I’m just stressed about a lot of things.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I want to go see the torch tomorrow, though,” I said.

“Oh yeah!  When is that supposed to be?”

“It’ll be passing along Fifth Street between 1 and 2.”

“I have class,” Danielle said, feeling slightly disappointed.  “But have fun!”

“I will!  I’m going to head home now, but I’ll see you guys soon.”

“Bye, Greg,” Claire said.

“Bye,” Danielle added, waving.

I waved at the girls as I walked to my bicycle and went home.  I was riding a little more slowly than usual.  I felt weighed down by my upcoming midterm, the anthro project, looking for a house, and my fear of being left behind now that people I knew were getting married.


I had most of the next day free.  After I finished my one class, I planned to stay on campus and get work done until around noon, eat lunch, then go find a place to watch the Olympic torch.  I walked into the Memorial Union after class and looked for a table.  I saw Sarah Winters, whom I knew both from the dorm last year and from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sitting by herself at a table, reading, with a notebook and textbook open.  I walked to her table and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Yeah!” Sarah said.  “How are you?”

“I’m stressed,” I said.

“What’s going on?”

“I’ve been trying to find a house for us next year, I’ve looked at a bunch of places, and I haven’t heard anything back yet.  And I have a big midterm for Math 145 tomorrow.  And I’m frustrated in general with Applied Linear Algebra, Math 167.  That class is a waste of time, and I’m not learning anything.”  Sarah began writing something as I continued speaking.  “And I just found out that someone I know, her boyfriend proposed.  I’ve never even had a girlfriend, and now I have friends who are getting married.”  As Sarah continued writing, I wondered if I was bothering her, if I should let her work on whatever she was doing.  “And I have this big project for Anthro 2 that I need to work on, and what I wanted to do hasn’t been working out so far.”  I stopped talking now, because Sarah was clearly busy with whatever she was working on.  I got out my combinatorics textbook and began looking over the section that would be covered on the test tomorrow.

“This is for you,” Sarah said, as she placed the paper she had been writing on top of my textbook. I read what she wrote:


“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6


I looked up and saw Sarah looking at me with a peaceful, contented smile on her face.  “Thank you,” I said, attempting a smile in return.

“Everything’s gonna be just fine,” Sarah said.  “Really.”

“I know,” I said.  “But–”

“You’ll be okay.”

I took a deep breath.  “I’ll be okay.”

We sat there for the rest of the hour studying, occasionally making small talk.  “What are you doing the rest of the day?” Sarah asked at one point.

“I’m done with classes for the day.  But I’m gonna go see the torch.”

“Fun!  I can’t.  I’ll be in class during that time.”

I looked again at the note that Sarah wrote.  God had a plan for me.  My grades, my house for next year, my future wife, all of this was in God’s hands.  Trust God.  The second verse, from Proverbs, was a little bit familiar to me already, because there was a song we sang at Bible study sometimes based on that verse.  I had made a decision that I was living my life for Jesus, and now it was time to trust him to make this all work out somehow.  

Sarah left to go to class a bit later.  As I continued studying combinatorics, I really did begin to feel better about tomorrow’s midterm.  At noon, I got out the sandwich I had packed that morning, and when I finished that, I headed toward Fifth Street at the northern edge of campus.  Crowds waiting to see the torch were already beginning to line the street.  I found a spot next to an aged olive tree and leaned against the tree, waiting.  I had my backpack with me, so I continued studying combinatorics while I waited for the torch to arrive.

After I had been waiting for about forty minutes, I saw police cars approaching slowly, stopping drivers and pedestrians from entering or crossing Fifth Street.  This must be it.  Behind the police cars were a number of official vehicles with US and Olympic flags; a truck from Coca-Cola, the event’s sponsor; and finally someone wearing running shorts holding the Olympic torch.  I did not know if the torchbearer was someone famous or not.

I looked up at the torch in wonder.  That flame was ignited on the other side of the world and brought all the way here, continuously burning.  That felt kind of surreal.  This was a symbol of one of the biggest athletic events on Earth.  In two months, the world would be watching athletes from every inhabited continent competing for Olympic glory, and this same flame would burn over the shiny new stadium that Atlanta had just finished building for these Games.  People cheered at the moment that the torchbearer passed in front of them, and I joined in as he passed me.

A few minutes after the torch passed, when the entire entourage had moved beyond where I was standing, I turned around to go back to the Memorial Union, where my bicycle was parked.  “Excuse me?” a man asked me.  He had a fancy camera on a strap around his neck and a small Coca-Cola logo embroidered on his shirt on his chest to his left.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Can I get a picture of you holding this?”  The man handed me a full, unopened Coca-Cola plastic bottle.

I was confused.  “Why me?” I asked.

“No reason.  I’m just looking for people to photograph with Coke bottles, for our promotional materials.”

“Okay,” I said.  I smiled at the camera, holding the drink up, as he clicked the shutter a few times.

“Thank you!” the photographer said.  “You can keep the Coke.”

I walked back toward my bike as I drank my free Coca-Cola.  To this day, I never saw my picture in any Coca-Cola advertisements, so I do not know if they ever ended up doing anything with the picture.  But I got a free drink out of it.


When I got home that afternoon, I turned on the computer and connected to the campus Internet, listening to the whirs and clicks of the modem dialing the access number.  I opened a text terminal and connected to Internet Relay Chat, then entered the FriendlyChat channel using my usual screen name, “gjd76.”  About a minute after I joined, I copied and pasted the same message I copied and pasted every fifteen minutes while I was working on this: “I am working on a project for an anthropology class, making observations of the culture in this channel.  I will not use your actual names or actual screen names.”

“gjd76, u might not wanna tell us that, people might act different if they know ur studying them,” one person typed.

“true, but my professor says it’s unethical not to tell people they’re being studied,” I replied.

“Let me know if I can answer any questions for you,” one of the channel operators said.

“i will,” I typed back.  So far, this was going much better than yesterday; people were actually being helpful.

As I reached for my notebook in my backpack, I found the note that Sarah had written to me, with the Bible verses on it.  I read it again.  Plans to prosper you and not to harm youTrust in the Lord with all your heart.  Good advice.  I took two push pins and attached Sarah’s note to the bulletin board above my desk.  That way it could be a reminder for me while I was sitting here at the computer; I could look up and see those Scriptures.

I spent about an hour and a half in the FriendlyChat channel, and this time I was able to make much more meaningful observations and have more meaningful interactions with the people in the chat than I had yesterday.  If I had a few more days like this, I would have plenty of material to use to write my paper.  I also felt much better about my midterm for combinatorics, after having studied today.  I had still not heard from any of the houses I was looking for, but the more I thought about this, I decided I would talk to my roommates for next year and find out if they would be willing to look for an apartment instead.  They were fine with living in an apartment, and we did end up getting one, as I told before.  And while I was still discouraged with my own lack of romantic relationship in light of Andrea being engaged, the Lord had a plan for her that was not his plan for me, and I was not ready to begin thinking about marriage with anyone right now.  I was better off trusting in His timing.

I would learn later in life that the quote from Jeremiah is often derided as one of the Bible verses most frequently taken out of context.  Reading the chapters around it reveals that God declared those words to a specific group of people at a specific time, not to everyone reading them throughout all of history.  However, statements like that reveal the character of God, and although Jeremiah was not writing to me, the God who had a plan for his people thousands of years ago did also have a plan for me in 1996. The precise concept of “prosper” may not have involved material wealth in my case, but I just had to trust that God knew what was best for me.  Those two verses became ones that I have known from memory ever since.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding,” I began singing under my breath.  I liked that song, the one I had heard at Bible study before.  I did not know any of this at the time, but the original vocalist of that song was the same age as me, and still a teenager when the song was recorded.  The guitarist, who actually wrote the song, was not much older.  The two of them and their band would go on to have a major pop hit a few years later, which would confuse me a little in a time when I tended to draw very strict lines between Christian and secular music.  But that is a story for another time.

February 29 – March 6, 1996. That time I thought it was a good idea to give my home address to some underage girl from the Internet whom I had only known for a couple hours.

Finished.  Done.  This English paper was due tomorrow, and I was expecting it to take all night to finish, because earlier in the week I just could not get myself motivated to write it.  But I was finished now, and it was not even eight o’clock yet.  I had a few good hours left before bedtime, and I planned on spending them not studying or doing homework.

I scrolled back up to the top of the document I had been typing in Microsoft Word, making sure my name was on the top of the paper.   Gregory Dennison.  English 101 – Dr. Paris.  February 29, 1996.  I always felt some odd fascination with writing the date February 29.  I only got to write it once every four years, after all.

After my English paper finished printing, I connected to the Internet, listening to the familiar beeps and whistles and clicks as my computer dialed the number to connect.  I hoped that those sounds would bring me a cute girl to talk to and flirt with on Internet Relay Chat.  I went to my usual channel and looked at the list of names; no one I recognized was on there.  There was someone in the room named “floridachick”; I assumed she was a girl, since she had “chick” in her name.  I sent Floridachick a message, and she never replied.  I said hi in the main chat, and a few other people greeted me back.  Someone named Psychogirl, typed “hi how r u?”

“Psychogirl, good, how are you?” I typed back.  As the messages scrolled past, I saw Psychogirl tell me that she was “not so good.”  I switched to private messages to continue the conversation with Psychogirl.

gjd76: what’s wrong?
psychogirl: my mom and i got into a fight and i ran away
gjd76: oh wow.  so where are you now?  are you safe?
psychogirl: ya im at my dads
gjd76: what’s your asl?
psychogirl: 15/f/ok

Nowadays, with it being such a big deal to protect children from sexual predators on the Internet, it makes me uneasy to remember that sometimes I used to talk to and flirt with underage girls when I was in my late teens and early 20s.  Granted, I was not that much older than Psychogirl, but by today’s standards a 19-year-old boy talking to a 15-year-old girl seemed inappropriate.  None of that crossed my mind in 1996.  I do not know if that was because it was not a big deal in 1996, or if online chat and messages were still far enough out of the mainstream that the general public did not realize that the problem existed.  Or maybe I was just sheltered.  Probably some combination of all of those.  I replied to Psychogirl, telling her where I was from, and that I was a 19-year-old male.

psychogirl: whats ur name?
gjd76: greg.  what about you?
psychogirl: stephanie
gjd76: hi stephanie, nice to meet you :)
psychogirl: u too
gjd76: i haven’t seen you in this chat before
psychogirl: i dont get on much.  my mom doesnt have internet.  i come on here sometimes when im at my dads but that isnt very often
gjd76: i see.  what do you look like?
psychogirl: 5ft5, 130lbs, dyed black hair, kind of pale, green eyes.  u?
gjd76: 6’4, dark brown hair, brown eyes, about 220lbs
psychogirl: oh ur tall, i like tall guys ;)
gjd76: aww thanks :) do you have a boyfriend?
psychogirl: no. i was with this guy for a while but we broke up.  he said he didnt think we were right 4 each other but i think he was cheatin on me
gjd76: wow, i’m sorry.  sounds like it was his loss
psychogirl: aww.  what about u? gf?
gjd76: i don’t have a girlfriend
psychogirl: y not?
gjd76: i liked this girl last year but she was a lesbian and i never knew it
psychogirl: wow that sounds awkward
gjd76: it was kinda
psychogirl: what do u do? like do u have a job or r u in school
gjd76: i’m a math major at the university here, and i tutor math too
psychogirl: u can be my tutor, i failed math last semester.  what university?
gjd76: jeromeville
psychogirl: i havent heard of that.  what’s that by?
gjd76: just outside capital city.  it isn’t very well known outside of the state

Maybe I was biased, but Jeromeville was a world class university, consistently one of the top-rated public universities in the United States.  It was unfortunate that it was not more well known; I suspected that this was because of sports.  The Jeromeville Colts were not a Division I athletic program, and football and basketball seem to be where the general public outside of academia hears about colleges and universities.

psychogirl: oic. have u ever been to oklahoma?
gjd76: i haven’t
psychogirl: ur not missin much.  i cant wait 2 get out on my own
gjd76: haha.  i know the feeling, that’s why i moved here as a freshman
psychogirl: my grades arent good enough to go away to college
gjd76: that’s a bummer… are there any classes in school that are your favorites?
psychogirl: english, i guess i hate english the least
gjd76: i was never good at english.  in high school i got a b-minus in 10th grade english, that was the lowest grade i got in all of high school
psychogirl: ur crazy, a b minus was the highest grade i got last semester, u must be smart
gjd76: i don’t know, school was just always easy for me
psychogirl: i wish school was easy for me. im not good at anything
gjd76: that’s not true
psychogirl: im not.  im a loser.  i only have 1 friend at school
gjd76: well you seem nice to me, all the people who aren’t your friends are missing out
psychogirl: thanks
gjd76: so, if i may ask, why did you run away?
psychogirl: my mom hates me, she doesn’t understand me
gjd76: what do you mean?
psychogirl: like i like to wear black and im into really dark stuff and she just doesnt get it.  she tells me to just be happy and go make friends but the kids at school dont want to be friends with me.  i dont wanna be like the other kids, theyre dumb
gjd76: haha i get that
psychogirl: but yesterday my mom was cleaning and she found an empty bottle of whiskey in my room
gjd76: oh… do you drink a lot?
psychogirl: so now shes yellin at me saying im an alcoholic and an addict and she threatened to send me to rehab.  i dont even drink, it was just that 1 time, my friend brought it over when she stayed the night and i didnt even like it that much
gjd76: i see
psychogirl: and i was crying and crying all day yesterday and she still came in just to yell at me.  so i packed a bag and got on a bus and went to my dads house but i still cried a lot
gjd76: you live with your mom? any siblings?
psychogirl: i have a little sister.  and moms bf is over all the time, he doesnt like kids
gjd76: that’s too bad :(
psychogirl: my dad wants custody of us, but my mom doesnt trust him because he hit her once
gjd76: oooh
psychogirl: he never hit me or my sis but i dunno if i wanna live with him.  i dont really wanna live with mom either.  i feel so alone.  sometimes i wish i was dead
gjd76: please don’t say that
psychogirl: but whats the point, mom doesnt care about me, dad only wants custody because he hates mom, and kids at school dont like me

It hurt to read what Psychogirl was writing.  I had felt alone before.  I had been through times when I felt like no one was there for me.  And I certainly knew how it felt for my parents to not understand me.  I always felt like they spent a lot more time and money on my brother Mark’s hobbies and recreation than they did mine.  That was probably because Mark was into things that my parents understood and enjoyed, like basketball and baseball, and I was into things that they did not understand, like math and computers and video games.  But my parents were still together.  I had no concept of being stuck in the middle of a contentious custody battle. And I had never been in trouble for hiding alcohol or drugs in my room. I believed Psychogirl that she was not an alcoholic, but I hated to think that all that was going on in her mind might drive her to more risky behavior in the future.  I continued typing.

gjd76: i’m your friend. i know we just met, but i would miss you
psychogirl: aww thanks :) ur sweet
gjd76: so are you.  the world needs people like you in it
psychogirl: but all i do is go to school and come home and cry, no one wants that
gjd76: it’s hard feeling alone.  i’ve been there.  i couldn’t find anyone to room with this year, my parents were willing to get me a small studio apartment by myself, but i get lonely.  last year i was in a dorm so a lot of my friends were right there in the building, and now i hardly ever see them.
psychogirl: ya
gjd76: i sing at my church, and i started going to a bible study last week through a nondenominational christian club at school.  i’ve made a lot of new friends there.  i will pray for you. 
psychogirl: im not really religious but thanks
gjd76: it’s ok.  you’ll be ok.
psychogirl: i just feel like such a loser, no one wants me around and i hate it at home
gjd76: you’re not a loser.  you’re a unique personality that some people don’t understand because they are too shallow to appreciate someone who doesn’t follow the crowd.  i’d probably be friends with someone like you
psychogirl: really?
gjd76: yes… i’m glad we met tonight… i wish i could give you a big hug and just hold you and tell you everything was going to be ok
psychogirl: and i would hug u back so tight… ur such a great guy… i dont deserve this
gjd76: stop.  you’re my friend, i’m here for you
psychogirl: thank u so much… this means a lot 2 me
gjd76: so will you be ok?
psychogirl: i guess.  i still dunno what to do, mom is probably still mad at me
gjd76: here’s what i think you should do.  it’s late.  go to sleep.  do you have school tomorrow?
psychogirl: ya but i dunno if im gonna go
gjd76: so in the morning, go back to your mom’s house.  and calmly tell her what happened with the empty bottle, that you just tried it once and didn’t like it.  tell her you understand why she’s upset, but you wish she would listen to your side of the story.  and also listen to her side of the story
psychogirl: i guess
gjd76: maybe your mom will still be upset and yelling.  if so, that’s her problem.  but if she’s calm, maybe you can make some progress
psychogirl: maybe
gjd76: you’re going to be ok.  really you are
psychogirl: :)
gjd76: i give you a big hug and little kiss on the cheek
psychogirl: thanks but my cheek has tears streaking down it, you dont wanna kiss it
gjd76: that’s ok.  i kiss it anyway.  we all have rough days
psychogirl: thank u so much :) ur so nice
gjd76: :) am i ever going to talk to you again?
psychogirl: i dunno, i dont get on here very often and i can only get on at my dads house
gjd76: i wish we could keep in touch
psychogirl: i know :( id get in so much trouble if i called u, phone calls are expensive
gjd76: do you have email?
psychogirl: no :(
gjd76: if i gave you my address, would you write to me? like in the mail?
psychogirl: sure!

I hesitated a little before I typed that last part.  One can never tell who is on the other end of an Internet chat, and horror stories about personal information falling into the wrong hands were becoming more and more common as the Internet became more mainstream.  But in the last year, I had already given out my address to girls I met on the Internet four times.  Two of those were girls who wanted to stay in touch but would not have access to email for a while, and the others were to exchange pictures, since scanners and digital cameras were not yet things that everyone had.  No one had broken into my house or stolen my identity yet, and Psychogirl really did not seem like a scammer to me.  If she was, she would have offered promises of sex or money, not a story about a distraught teenage girl running away from home.  I typed my address in the chat.

psychogirl: thank u so much :) :) :) ill write u for sure
gjd76: good, i look forward to hearing from you :) you’ll be ok, i care about you and so do other people.
psychogirl: so will u! i need to go to bed but i really liked talking 2 u tonight
gjd76: likewise :) take care… i tuck you into bed and kiss you on the forehead and smile
psychogirl: :) good night!


Life continued to move on for me, with classes, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and singing in the choir at church. I had two weeks left before winter quarter finals, and all my midterms had wrapped up.  I still had physics labs, and I had one more paper for Dr. Paris’ English class due a couple days before finals.

On the following Wednesday, March 6, I got home from a long day of classes and checked the mail on the way from the bus stop to my apartment.  Along with advertisements and coupon books, I saw a small envelope in my mailbox that looked like the kind of envelope my grandma would use to send a letter.  Upon closer inspection, however, the handwriting was not my grandma’s.  I noticed the postmark next: TULSA OK 741 – 2 MAR 1996.  Tulsa, Oklahoma?  I did not know anyone in Tulsa.  Next I looked at the return address in the corner: it was from someone named Stephanie O’Connell, with an address at an apartment in Tulsa.  Stephanie O’Connell, Tulsa, Oklahoma, I thought… Psychogirl!  That is who this is!

I opened Psychogirl’s letter as soon as I got back to the apartment.


March 1, 1996

Greg-
Thank you for listening to me and especially for letting me have your address… that meant a lot to me, more than you’ll ever know.

After I got home, my mother talked with me about what she saw and how it made her feel when she saw it, and it went well, I thought – no yelling or screaming from her or from me.  So I’m feeling happy about that today.

Daddy still wants to get custody of me and my sister and mom is really scared because of it.  I don’t know who I want to live with, honestly I don’t, and my mother doesn’t understand. I feel terrible, and I feel like crying a lot.  But you really did make me feel better last night.

Well, I have more things to do today, so I should get started on that now.  Bye!

Thanks again!

Stephanie (Psychogirl)


Stephanie wrote her address again at the bottom of the page below her name.  To me, that was an invitation to write back and stay in touch.  I did just that a few days later, starting my letter between classes on Friday and finishing it over the weekend.

Unfortunately, I never heard from Stephanie again, and I do not know what happened to her.  Hopefully things started to get better in her life.  Did she stay with her mom, or did her dad get custody of her and her sister?  Was there less yelling between her and her mom in the future?  Did she stop writing because something bad happened to her, or did life just get in the way?  Did she move on to something else like a typical whimsical teenager, or did she get in trouble for writing to me?  Was she actually a 55-year-old man named Chuck? If not, she would be around 40 today… was she still into dark stuff and wearing black, or was that a phase she grew out of?

Sometimes people only cross paths for a brief time, but that brief moment can make a huge impact.  I hope that I was like that for Stephanie.  Maybe she just needed someone to talk to, someone to care for her and tell her that everything would be okay, so that she would make it through the night.  Maybe God put me there to rescue her that night, because he was planting a seed for something that would come to her later.  I would probably never know, but maybe, just maybe, Stephanie was still out there somewhere, with a memory of the night she made a new friend who helped her see life, and herself, from a new perspective.

December 10-13, 1995. None of this made any sense.

“Let us offer each other the sign of peace,” Father Bill said.  Congregants turned to each other, saying “Peace be with you,” and shaking hands.  I turned to Phil Gallo and shook his hand.  “Peace be with you,” I said.  Phil said the same to me.  I turned around to Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell with their guitars behind me and shook their hands.  “Peace be with you,” I said.

I walked to my right.  “Peace be with you, Greg,” Danielle Coronado said as she hugged me.  Danielle had lived down the hall from me last year in the dorm, and she had encouraged me to be part of the church choir in the first place.  Danielle’s younger sister, Carly, was also in the choir.  “Peace be with you,” Carly told me, also giving me a hug.

I walked around making sure to wish everyone in the choir peace.  Sabrina Murphy walked up to me and smiled.  “Peace be with you,” she said, putting her arms around me.  I hugged back and wished her peace in return.  This was the first time Sabrina hugged me; before we always just shook hands.  Maybe that meant something… hopefully.

Just before the final song, during announcements, Sister Mary Rose held up a small box about the size of a soup can.  “We are taking up a collection for our sister parish in El Salvador,” she explained.  “You can pick up one of these piggy banks, and over the holidays, when you have change in your pocket, remember our brothers and sisters who need to do some repairs to their chapel.  We will be collecting the money you raise during the January 14 service.”

After the final song, everyone around me seemed to be engrossed in conversation, so I walked over to where Sister Mary Rose was handing out the piggy banks.  About ten minutes later, I approached Heather Escamilla, because we were neighbors and we had carpooled that morning, and I wanted to ask when she would be ready to go back home.  But she noticed me and began speaking first.  “Greg!  Do you need to go home now?  Because some of us from choir were just talking about going to Bakers Square for lunch.  You want to come?”

“Sure,” I said.

Bakers Square was a chain of restaurants that were essentially like Denny’s with pies.  In the early 2000s, most of the Bakers Square locations in the western United States closed, leaving the chain with only a few locations far from here.  But in 1995, Bakers Square restaurants were common in suburban neighborhoods around here.  The one in Jeromeville was only a few blocks from the Newman Center, so those of us from the choir all walked over in a big group.  When we arrived, they put a bunch of tables together in order to accommodate our group of twelve.  I walked toward the nearest empty seat and was pleasantly surprised to see Sabrina taking the seat next to me a few seconds later.  “Hi,” I said as Sabrina sat down.

“Hi, Greg,” Sabrina replied.  “How are you?”

“Not bad.  My physics final is tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll probably be studying for that.  I’m not too worried about it.”

“Which class?”

“9B.”

“That wasn’t too hard.  I took that last year.”

When Sabrina said that, I realized that I did not know what her major was, or what year she was.  She was probably a junior if she had taken Physics 9B a year ago.  “What’s your major?” I asked.

“Aerospace engineering.”

I was not expecting that.  Sabrina did not at all look like an aerospace engineer to me.  “That sounds interesting,” I said.

“It’s hard, but I really like it.  And my boyfriend is an aerospace engineer too, so we get to take classes together sometimes.”

“That sounds nice.”

The server came to take our orders; she started at our side of the table.  Sabrina ordered a chicken salad, and I ordered a cheeseburger.  I was too disappointed at Sabrina’s mention of her boyfriend to rejoin the conversation for the next few minutes.  It seemed like it always happened like this; I would meet a cute, friendly girl, and she would immediately bring up her boyfriend, almost as if she was telling me not to get interested in her.

“Greg,” Danielle said a few minutes later.  I realized that I had not talked to anyone except Sabrina since I got here.  “How are you?  What’s your finals schedule like?”

“Physics tomorrow afternoon, math Wednesday morning, and chem Friday morning.  Nice and spread out.”

“You only have three finals?  That’s nice.  I have four, and three of them are tomorrow and Tuesday.”

“Two of my classes don’t have finals.  Your finals schedule sounds like mine was last spring quarter.  Good luck.”

“What classes are you taking that don’t have finals?” Heather asked.

“Bowling, and math problem solving seminar.  Bowling is half a unit, and the math class is 2.”

“Oh, ok.  I was going to say, two classes without finals?  How lucky!”

After we finished eating, I took Heather home and went back to my apartment.  I spent the rest of the afternoon studying physics.  I thought I understood it pretty well, but my first physics midterm in the spring had caught me off guard.  I still ended up with an A in that class, though, after working extremely hard for the rest of the quarter, and I have made sure to study hard for every physics test since.

Around eight o’clock, I turned on the TV to watch The Simpsons, but it was a rerun, so I turned on the computer and went to an IRC chat channel, only half-paying attention to The Simpsons in the background.  A few people whose names I recognized from having spent a lot of time in this channel said hello, and I said hi back.  I watched the messages scroll by; someone was talking about getting stoned at a party over the weekend, someone was bragging about the size of his penis and got quickly banned by the channel administration, and someone was trying to start normal conversations and getting ignored.  I replied to the person’s normal conversations, making small talk, but that lasted a few minutes before that person stopped replying.  I looked through the list of people in the room and tried messaging someone who might have been a girl my age, and got no reply.

A few minutes later, someone named “musicgirl” entered the room and said hi to everyone.  I sent her a private message.

gjd76: hi :) how are you?
musicgirl: hi! i’m doing ok!  how was your weekend?
gjd76: good.  studying for finals, taking a break for the rest of the night.
musicgirl: i have finals coming up too! but i’m graduating in the spring so i’m excited about that! one more semester after this one!
gjd76: i’m only in my second year.  so why is your name music girl? is that what you’re studying?
musicgirl: i’m studying elementary education.  i want to be a teacher.  but i also play guitar in a band with two of my friends.  we play shows at this coffee shop sometimes.
gjd76: that’s so cool!  i’m studying math.  and i don’t play an instrument, but i sing
musicgirl: math was never my best subject.  i’d need you to tutor me ;)
gjd76: i could do that :) what do you look like?
musicgirl: 5’9”, brown hair, blue eyes, slim.  what about you?
gjd76: cute :) brown hair and blue eyes, i like that combination… i’m 6’4” with dark brown hair, almost black, and brown eyes
musicgirl: nice! i love tall guys!  a lot of guys think i’m too tall.
gjd76: good :) do you have a boyfriend?
musicgirl: no, i’m single.  you?
gjd76: no girlfriend for me.  and all the guys are missing out, you seem really nice
musicgirl: thanks! you do too… and tall, dark, and handsome :)
gjd76: if i were there, i’d probably want to get to know you better :)
musicgirl: i’d want to get to know you too!
gjd76: what’s your name?
musicgirl: Laura.  you?
gjd76: greg.  nice to meet you :)
musicgirl: nice to meet you too!
gjd76: laura, if i asked you to dinner, would you go out with me?
musicgirl: of course!
gjd76: then afterward we’d go for a walk… and i’d try to hold your hand… is that ok?
musicgirl! yes! i would love that! i love holding hands :)
gjd76: me too :) so when we got back to my apartment… would you like to come in?
musicgirl! yes… i look into your eyes and smile :)
gjd76: i put my arm around you and pull you close and kiss you
musicgirl: mmm… i kiss you back passionately
gjd76: i pull you closer and kiss you again… i take your hand and take you to my bed
musicgirl: i lie down and pull you close and kiss you again and pull my body close to yours

The rest of the conversation went… well.  I don’t need to share the details.  After we finished, Laura said it was late, and she needed to go to bed.  I did too; I had a final in the morning.  But I was so aroused after my dirty conversation with Laura that I needed to finish myself before bed.  And when I did finally get to bed, I lay there awake for almost three hours, feeling guilty about what I had done.  I liked it.  Laura seemed nice, and it felt good.  But afterward, it felt wrong.  I was Catholic, and I was not supposed to be lusting after women like this.

By about 1:30 in the morning, I had to pee.  On the way back to my bed, I saw the piggy bank for our sister church in El Salvador.  I had a pile of change on my desk, close to two dollars.  I put it all in the piggy bank, then turned out the light and went back to bed.  If I was going to be misbehaving like this, I could at least do something to help out the less fortunate in El Salvador.  Maybe that would make up for it.

My physics and math finals were pretty easy.  Laura had emailed me back Monday night; I was afraid that she was going to say I was out of line for our sexually explicit conversation on Sunday, but instead she said I was a total sweetheart and she could not wait to hear back from me.  I wrote back telling her about my finals, and she replied while I was at school today, saying that she would be on IRC tonight.  But when I got there, in the late afternoon, she was not on.  I checked again after dinner, but I never saw Laura in the chat.  I wanted to talk to Laura and continue where we left off the other night.  But she never got on.  After about half an hour of frustration, I walked away from the computer and fantasized about Laura the same way I had Sunday night, leaving me burdened with guilt and a mess to clean up.  After I was done, I put another handful of change in the piggy bank for the church in El Salvador.

What was I doing with my life?  This could not possibly be healthy.  It probably would not help me find a girlfriend in real life.  I checked my email.  I had two messages from Mindy Jo, my friend in Georgia whom I had met on this same IRC channel last year.  Back in 1995, there were no hashtags and no social media, and viral posts spread through chain emails that people forwarded to all of their friends.  Mindy Jo’s first message was one of these chain emails; I had to scroll down for a while, because these forwarded emails would start with pages and pages of headers, containing dates and recipients of the message as it had been sent from person to person.  I scrolled down and saw light bulb jokes about different college majors.

How many psychology majors does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the bulb has to want to change.

How many French majors does it take to change a light bulb?
Un.

How many philosophy majors does it take to change a light bulb?
What does it really mean to change a light bulb anyway?

How many aerospace engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one.  Come on, it’s not rocket science.

I laughed loudly at that one, thinking of Sabrina being an aerospace engineer.  Maybe I could tell her that joke someday (I did), and she would think that it was so funny that she would leave her boyfriend and fall in love with me instead (she didn’t).

After I read the rest of the light bulb jokes, I read Mindy Jo’s other email.  In the last email I sent to her, I mentioned the time we had spoken on the phone and asked if I could ever call her again sometime.  She said in this reply that I could call tonight or tomorrow night, and that she would be up until at least midnight.  I looked at the phone, and at the clock; it was still well before midnight in Georgia.  I dialed Mindy Jo’s number and waited nervously as I heard ringing.

“Hello?” a tired voice said.

“Mindy Jo?  It’s Greg.”

“Hey!  How’re you doin’?”

“Not that great.  I dope I dint’ wake you up; you said I could call until midnight.”

“You’re fine.  I wasn’t sleepin’.”

“That’s good.”

“What’s wrong?  Why aren’t you doin’ great?”

“I’ve just been discouraged and frustrated about being alone.”

“You haven’t met a nice girl yet?”

“Most of the girls I really like are taken.  It happened again just the other day; I was talking to a cute girl I know from church, and she said something about her boyfriend.”

“I hate when that happens.  I had a crush on this guy freshman year, and I was about to tell him that I liked him when he said he was going to go see his girlfriend.”

“Exactly.  And I don’t really know how to ask a girl out.”  I did not tell Mindy Jo anything about my shame I was feeling about masturbating; she did not need to hear that.

“Just relax and be yourself.  Ask her to have lunch, or get a coffee, or something.  Wait, you don’t drink coffee, right?  You can get tea.  Or hot chocolate.”

“I don’t know.  It’s just all so confusing.”

“I wish you could just relax and not worry about this.  You’re a really great guy.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “It doesn’t always feel like it.”

“Promise me you’ll try to keep your chin up.”

“I’m trying,” I said.  “How have you been?”

“Well… this week has been interestin’.”

“How so?”

“Well… I was at the bar on Saturday, and I ran into this guy that I had a class with sophomore year.  We just got to talkin’ for awhile… and he said some nice things about me… and I don’t know if it was the alcohol or what, but he came over and… yeah.”

Came over and what?  I was confused.  I was missing something… Wait.  Was Mindy Jo trying to tell me that they had sex?  Would she do something like that, have sex with an acquaintance she picked up in a bar?  “At least I used a condom,” Mindy Jo continued, which answered my question.

“Hmm,” I replied, not sure what else to say.

“I need to get another AIDS test,” Mindy Jo continued.  “This is, umm, four guys now since last time.  And I didn’t always use a condom.”

I was still not sure how to reply to any of this.  “What do you have to do for that?”

“They just take blood.  I don’t like needles, though.”

“Well, I hope you’re okay.”

“Thanks.”

Mindy Jo and I talked for about another twenty minutes, mostly about other things.  We talked about our respective experiences with finals and our holiday plans.  When we were done talking, I was still feeling ashamed of myself from earlier, so instead of getting back on IRC I studied for my chemistry final that was coming up Friday morning.  This whole concept of having to get an AIDS test had never really intersected my reality at any point.  I knew all about AIDS, of course; I had taken health class in high school.  But I tended to associate it with lifestyles such as heavy drug use and extreme promiscuity, not the kinds of things I associated with my friends.   I did not know that Mindy Jo had been with so many guys, and I was unsure of what to do with this information.

But I had no right to be so judgmental.  My conversation with Laura on Sunday night proved that; I had slept with someone I barely knew, just like Mindy Jo had.  Of course, Mindy Jo’s tryst had been in real life, whereas Laura and I were ultimately just fantasizing, talking in a chat room.  And was that wrong?  I was not sure.  I felt conflicted, and I felt ashamed because of it.

A month later, when I turned in my piggy bank for the church in El Salvador, I handed it to Sister Mary Rose, and by then it had become heavy enough with coins representing my shame and penance that she had a visible reaction to its unexpected weight.  “It’s mostly pennies,” I lied.  If I was not already going to hell for my lustful behavior, certainly lying to a nun would not help my case any.

Mindy Jo told me a while later that her AIDS test came back negative, thankfully.  I just did not understand the way that many young people lived these days.  None of it made sense to me.  By not doing drugs and not having sex, I never had to worry about things like getting AIDS, or using contraceptives, or getting someone pregnant with a child I was not ready to raise.  Drugs had no appeal to me.  But why did I feel like I wanted sex so much?  Someday, hopefully, I would be married, and having sex with my wife would not feel shameful.  None of this made any sense, and I wondered if the reason girls did not like me was because I did not understand how to live like a reckless college student.  I eventually drifted off to sleep, my head full of some mix of shame and conflict.

October 31 – November 9, 1995.  In a funk.

I was in a funk.  I had been in a funk for a while by the time my physics lab got out.  My funk had stretched into its fourth day, and one of those days was an hour longer because of the end of daylight saving time.  One small consolation was that it was Halloween, and I had the pleasantly silly experience of seeing many full-grown college students come to campus in costume.  Earlier I saw a guy walking across the Quad in a very accurate costume of Jack from the Jack in the Box restaurant commercials, with a perfectly round clown head as from a child’s jack-in-the-box toy over a business suit.  I also saw at least three different Batmen walking around campus.

Batman… that reminded me of last Saturday, when this funk started.  I still was unhappy with myself about Saturday.

Friday night went okay.  I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship again, which was good, but I felt more like an outsider.  I talked to all my friends who were there, but I did not talk to anyone else, and everyone was talking about the Fall Conference next weekend, which I was not going to.  I woke up Saturday morning still feeling down, and that feeling worsened as the day dragged on.  I got some homework done, but I also moped around the apartment doing nothing quite a bit.

Saturday evening, I decided to go to campus, where second-run movies play on weekends in 199 Stone, the largest lecture hall on campus at the time.  Batman Forever was playing that night.  I had seen the movie once, and honestly I did not like it that well.  Jim Carrey, who at the time was building his career on annoying mindless movies where he made a lot of faces and funny loud noises, played the Riddler.  He played the character like the annoying people in his other movies, and I did not like it.  The movie did not help me get out of my funk, and I left about two-thirds of the way through.  That was the first time I ever went to a movie alone, and to this day, it remains the only time I have ever walked out of a movie that I paid for.  I went home, down two dollars and fifty cents and still in my funk.

Despite having won Best Costume my senior year at Plumdale High, I never got too excited about Halloween.  I outgrew trick-or-treating around fourth grade and spent the rest of my childhood staying home handing out candy.  The only reason I even dressed up at school that day two years ago was because Melissa asked me to.  She dressed as Mona Lisa, with a drawn replica of the painting and her face sticking through a hole in it, and asked me to be Leonardo painting her.  I had a big crush on Melissa at the time, so I probably would have dressed up as dog poop if she had asked me to.  The problem was that, during the one period that we were not in the same class, her costume worked by itself, but no one could tell what I was without her.  No, I am not Charlton Heston playing Moses.  No, I am not Father Time.  And during the costume contest at lunch, we were introduced as “Mona Lisa and Michelangelo,” which says something about the quality of education at Plumdale High School.

When I got home from my physics lab, I made sure the porch light was off.  Mom taught me as a kid that this tells trick-or-treaters not to come to your house, although many do not seem to know that rule.  I had no candy to give out tonight.  I did not know whether the local children of Jeromeville even went trick-or-treating in apartment complexes full of students.  (None did that night.)

I signed on to the university computer network after dinner that night, intending to get on Internet Relay Chat and find some girl to talk to.  But before I did that, I checked to see who else was signed on to the exact same server, as I occasionally did back then out of curiosity.  Every once in a while, I found someone I knew.  I looked through the thirty or so names and account numbers that scrolled past, and my pulse briefly quickened when I saw this:

stu042537 Megan McCauley

I typed “talk” and sent “hello :)” to account stu042537.  Megan replied about a minute later.

stu042537: Hi, Greg!  How have you been?  I haven’t seen you in a while!
stu049886: i’m doing ok, just busy with school.  it’s a lot of work but i’m doing pretty well in my classes.  what are you up to?
stu042537: Just the usual.  This chem class is kicking my butt!  But I knew chemical engineering would be a hard major.  Didn’t you say you were a tutor for the Learning Skills Center this quarter?
stu049886: yes!  that’s going well.  i’m working 10 hours a week with small groups of calculus and precalculus students.  i enjoy it.
stu042537: Good!
stu049886: how is your building this year?
stu042537: It’s definitely easier being an RA the second time around.  I have more of an idea of what to expect.  But, of course, my residents are full of surprises too.  I like this group so far.
stu049886: that’s good
stu042537: How is it being in your own apartment?
stu049886: it’s nice and quiet.  but i miss seeing my friends from last year.  some of them are involved with jeromeville christian fellowship, i’ve started going to that sometimes with them
stu042537: It’s important to find things you can be involved with.
stu049886: definitely!  any plans for halloween tonight?
stu042537: Not this year.  What about you?
stu049886: nothing.  halloween was never that big a deal to me.  i thought it was funny, though, i saw three people on campus today dressed as batman
stu042537: That’s great!  I should actually go in a few minutes.  I need to pick up the person I’m dating from the airport.  But it was good to hear from you!

I stared at that last message, heartbroken and crestfallen, typing my closing line in the conversation much more apathetically than I had typed earlier.

stu049886: you too, drive safely
stu042537: Bye!

I stared at those four words again before I closed the window… “the person I’m dating.”  Nothing can drain the last bit of hope from a crush more quickly than that.  I knew I probably had no shot with Megan anyway, but at least I could hope that maybe she liked me too.  Not anymore.  I could not compete with some cool guy who traveled on airplanes and knew how to talk to girls.

I turned on the television later that night.  It was Tuesday, so Home Improvement was on.   I liked that show, but Tim Allen’s stereotypical guy antics were not enough to lift me out of my funk.  I returned to the computer and signed on to the IRC chat channel I had wanted to go to earlier when I messaged Megan instead.  No one there was talking to me, and no one I knew I was on.  I halfheartedly replied to an email, but I needed to talk to someone in real time, not by email.  I could not get the image out of my head of Megan and some guy driving back from the airport in Capital City, across the Drawbridge and to his apartment, where he would probably invite her in and go to bed with her.  I wanted to be doing that, not whoever this jerk was.

I was tired of this.  I was tired of being alone, not knowing how to talk to girls.  I hated being different and not having grown up with all the experiences that the people around me had, like having friends and taking trips on airplanes and doing fun things on Halloween.  I wished I could quit life and start over again.  Or maybe go back to high school for another few years; I was finally starting to have some of those experiences or having friends senior year, but then everything else ended too soon, and I lost touch with everyone except Renee Robertson, Melissa Holmes, and Rachel Copeland, none of whom lived in the same place as me or as each other now.

Around 10:30 that night, desperate and with nowhere else to turn, I picked up the phone.  I had seen public service announcements for a suicide prevention hotline with a local phone number.  I was not sure if I was actually feeling suicidal, but at least these people could talk to me.  I dialed the number quickly.

“Suicide Prevention,” said the voice on the other end.  “This is Anna.  To whom am I speaking?”

“Greg,” I said.

“And how are you feeling tonight?” Anna asked.

“I need someone to talk to.”

“What’s going on?  Why do you say that?”

I told Anna the abbreviated version of my thoughts on feeling different, being alone, and not knowing how to talk to girls.  I explained that there was one girl I really liked who I did not have much of a chance with, and how I had found out tonight that she had a boyfriend (at the time, I did not understand that there was a distinction between the words “person I’m dating” and “boyfriend”).

“That is a lot weighing on your mind,” Anna said.  “Are you taking any medication for depression or anxiety, or other mental health medications?”

“No.

“Are you in any sort of therapy or treatment?”

“No.”

“How often do you use alcohol or drugs?”

“Never.”

“Are you thinking about ending your life or harming yourself?”

“I don’t know.  I know I shouldn’t give up like that, but I don’t want to go on like this either.”

“That is understandable.  Is your life in danger right now?”

“I’m sitting at home in my apartment.  So probably not.”

“Have these thoughts you’ve been having interfered with your day-to-day functioning?  Like your ability to work or attend class?”

“Not really.  I’m a student at UJ, and my grades are still good.”

“That’s good.”

“I guess.”

Anna asked me more questions about how I felt about things, as well as my day-to-day life and my history with mental health and medication.  After talking for another ten minutes, she said, “We are meant to be a one-time service, so I can give you names and phone numbers of some mental health professionals in your area, so you can call someone to set up an appointment and meet more regularly?  May I do that?”

“I guess.”

I got a pencil and paper and wrote down the names Anna gave me.  “So tomorrow, give one of those people a call, and set up an appointment.  Can you do that?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you going to be okay tonight?”

“I think so.  Thank you.”

“Thank you for calling.  I hope everything works out for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Good night!”

“Bye,” I said, hanging up the phone.  I did not feel great about this.  I was not looking forward to seeing a therapist, and I did not even know if that was what I wanted.  But I had calmed down to the point that I might be able to sleep now.

 

I arrived about five minutes before my appointment.  It had been a little more than a week since the night I called the Suicide Prevention number.  It was a cool, cloudy, depressing Thursday afternoon.  The address was in a small office building at the corner of Maple Lane and West Coventry Boulevard, less than half a mile from my apartment, behind a nondescript door with the names of two therapists on it.  The waiting room was small, about the size of my tiny dorm room from last year.  A few chairs were arranged around a table with outdated magazines on it, and two doors on the other side of the room led farther into the building.  I picked up a Time magazine from July with former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell on the cover.  I started reading through the magazine in order until a man with graying brown hair, a mustache, glasses, and a button-up shirt emerged from one of the doors.

“Gregory?” he said.

“That’s me,” I replied.  “You can call me Greg.”

“Hi, Greg.  I’m Ron Kilbourne.”  Ron extended his hand for me to shake it.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand.  I followed him into his office and sat down.

“So tell me again what brings you here.”

“I feel down a lot,” I said.  “I feel alone, I don’t see my friends as often as I used to, I don’t have a girlfriend, and I don’t know how to talk to girls.”

“Okay,” Ron said, apparently waiting for me to say something.”

“I haven’t seen a therapist in a couple years.  I was in and out of therapy all my life, going back to second grade.  We saw a therapist as a family for a while, because I was getting teased a lot at school and having trouble behaving, and my dad was dealing with a lot being a newly recovering alcoholic.”

“And how old are you now?”

“19.”

“Okay.”  Ron scribbled some notes on a clipboard, then looked at me.

“What?”

“I’m waiting for you to tell me more.”

“I told you.  I don’t know what to do.”

“I can’t help you if you aren’t going to tell me anything.”

Who was this jerk?  Why am I paying him all this money just to sit there?  I did not know what to say to him.  I told him more about not having friends in school growing up, about how being in the dorm was good for me but I lived alone now, about never having had a girlfriend, and about what happened with Megan.

Ron kept writing on his clipboard.  “What else?” he said when he was done.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” I said angrily through clenched teeth.

“Then I guess we’ll just sit here until you’re ready to talk,” Ron replied calmly.

“Fine.”  I sat in the chair and stared at Ron for almost ten minutes, saying nothing.  He just sat looking at me, occasionally writing on his clipboard.  “Why does anyone pay you all this money not to do anything?” I finally said.

“Why did you?” Ron asked.  “Why are you here?”

“I’m here because I’m depressed and alone and I don’t know how to make friends or have a girlfriend.”

“What else?”

“I need to know what to do.”

“What are you doing now?” Ron asked.

I told him about my friends from the dorm last year, and tutoring, and singing at Mass, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  After he finished writing in his clipboard, Ron sat there looking at me, waiting for me to say more.  “And I don’t know what else to do.”  We stared at each other for another five minutes, saying nothing.  I clenched my fists, fighting every urge to punch this man in the face.

About forty minutes into the appointment, before the end of the hour-long session, I pulled out my checkbook and paid him for the session.  “This was a waste,” I said, walking toward the door.

“Greg,” Ron said in a flat tone.  “I can’t help you if you’re going to walk out.”

“And you can’t help me if I’m here either.  So what’s the point?”

“I don’t know.  You tell me.”

I left the check on his desk and walked out of the office, slamming the door and throwing the stack of old magazines against the wall on my way out.  I was still hot-headed and angry when I got back to the apartment.  I lay on the bed for about an hour, at which time I did homework for a while, and then ate dinner.  Was I really beyond help?  Was I so messed up that even going to a therapist could not help me?

I never saw Ron Kilbourne again.  I got a letter in the mail from him a few days later encouraging me to continue to seek therapy; I tore it into small pieces and threw it away.  I never did call any of the other names that I had gotten from Anna at Suicide Prevention; after my experience with Ron Kilbourne, I was convinced that there was no point to seeking therapy.

After Ron Kilbourne, I did not attempt to seek therapy again until 2002; by that time, I had long since graduated and moved from Jeromeville to Pleasant Creek.  I now know as an adult that I have had therapists who were good fits for me and others who were not; Ron Kilbourne was not, and I should have at least tried a different therapist at the time.  Although I have grown, and life has changed, many of the issues for which I sought therapy in the past are still struggles for me.  I have also learned that seeking therapy is far more complicated than just going through motions and having all of my problems fixed.  Therapy only works when the patient wants help, and to this day I feel like in some ways I do not want help.  I want the rest of the world to change around me, or to find a place where the world makes more sense than it does here.  This remains an ongoing issue for me.  On the day I walked out of Ron Kilbourne’s office, I knew that the only way I had left to deal with that funk was the way I have usually dealt with being in a funk all my adult life; just ride it out, put one foot in front of the other, and go through the motions, hoping that better days will come.


(Author’s note: I know that “talk” on a Unix-based system from 1995 did not format conversations the way my conversation with Megan was formatted in this story.  I changed it to make it easier to read.)


September 18, 1995. New frontiers and new area codes.

Sleeping in was always a foreign concept to me.  I was a light sleeper, and I was used to waking up early for school.  Even when I wanted to sleep in, I woke up early.  But after two weeks in the new apartment, having no class or job to wake up for, and regularly staying up late reading, looking for girls to talk to on IRC chat channels, or just playing around on the computer, my body was gradually getting used to sleeping later.  This morning, I did not wake up until 9:30; I could not remember the last time I had slept in that late.

The morning was uneventful.  I spent a couple hours on IRC.  I had nothing to read, since I had recently finished part 5 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile and I had yet to make it to the bookstore to buy part 6.  I had been playing around with teaching myself HTML, the code used to make websites, although I had no way to share the files anywhere on the Internet for others to see.  University of Jeromeville student accounts did not have this feature.  A guy I knew from IRC said he could give me an account on his server, but he had not done this yet.

Around five o’clock, I went for a bike ride.  This had become part of my routine over the last couple weeks.  It was very hot during the daytime, and it did not begin to cool until around five at the earliest.  It was a dry heat, and the sun was low enough by five that it actually felt nice being outside.  I had explored much of Jeromeville on my bike over the last two weeks.  I had ridden extensively through the greenbelts of North and West Jeromeville.  I had seen all of campus, including the outlying agricultural areas and research buildings.  I had explored a new neighborhood still under construction at the northeast edge of town, and I had even explored some of the rural areas north of the city limits.  But one last frontier of Jeromeville remained mostly unexplored to me, and this would be my destination this afternoon.

I began my ride on very familiar routes.  I took Andrews Road all the way south into campus, past the Recreation Pavilion and Thong Bikini Hill, following it east through a 90 degree turn to the water tower.  From there, I took the narrow path into the Arboretum, continuing northeast to downtown Jeromeville.  I turned right on First Street.  At the next traffic light, where E Street became Cornell Boulevard, I turned on Cornell.

Cornell Boulevard headed diagonally southeast under a railroad track, through a very narrow underpass.  This part of the road was built in 1917, part of the first paved highway to connect Capital City with Bay City.  This road was no longer a main highway, having been bypassed by a freeway in the 1960s, but it was still the only connection between downtown and that freeway, and it had never been widened, resulting in horrific traffic jams at certain times of the day.  A pedestrian and bicycle path ran parallel to the street through its own small tunnel under the railroad track, allowing me and my bike to bypass the traffic jam.  I had walked through this smaller tunnel three months earlier, when a large group of people from my dorm had eaten at Murder Burger on the last night of the school year.

On the other end of the tunnel, pedaling uphill, I rode past Murder Burger, a hotel, an Italian restaurant, and, on the opposite side of the street, a gas station.  I continued against gravity as Cornell Boulevard crossed the freeway on an overpass, then I stopped pedaling for a while and coasted downhill into South Jeromeville.  The area known as South Jeromeville was actually southeast of downtown, but the name stuck because it was the only part of the city south of Highway 100.

I continued east on Cornell Boulevard, past some large office buildings, sprawling apartment complexes, and vacant lots yet to be developed.  When the road curved north back toward Highway 100, I turned south on a street called Valdez Street, which then curved east.  This was a residential neighborhood, with houses mostly on culs-de-sac, and it was still under construction, full of vacant lots and houses in various stages of completion.  At the end of one of the culs-de-sac, I saw what appeared to be a connection to a bike path, reminiscent of culs-de-sac in North Jeromeville that connect to the greenbelts.  The short connecting path led through an opening in a fence.  Could there be another greenbelt here?  I turned that way to investigate.

Behind the fence, I found a much longer path, running east-west along a dry creek bed.  On the other side of the creek was open farmland.  I knew where I was now.  In the late 19th century, after multiple floods in Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek was diverted into a parallel channel two miles to the south.  Later, the part of the old channel running through campus was dammed at both ends to make a long narrow lake, and the Arboretum on campus was planted around this lake.  But downstream from campus, the dry creek bed, called North Fork Arroyo Verde Creek on maps, remained dry, except to collect storm drain runoff during the wet season.  This is what I saw in front of me.  A park bench was on my right.  Trees grew between the path and the creek, oaks and wild walnut trees and others that I could not identify.  The ground was covered in grasses and weeds that had turned brown over the hot summer.

I turned left, heading east.  The creek was on my right, and to the left was a fence separating me from the construction site, a fence which would eventually be the back fence of people’s houses.  A couple hundred feet beyond this, another greenbelt split off of this one to head north.  I made a note to come back and explore that way later.

2019 south jville greenbelt
(Photograph taken June 2019.  The trees behind the fence at the upper left were much smaller in 1995 when the neighborhood was new.)

Short connecting paths to three more streets branched off to the left.  This neighborhood was complete, and the view to my left looked much like the greenbelts near my apartment: a thin strip of vegetation next to the path, and beyond that, fences separating the greenbelt from backyards, interrupted every few hundred feet by a path connecting to a residential street.  After this, the greenbelt path came to an end.  To the left, this street was a narrow residential street that continued some distance to the north, and to the right, the street crossed the creek bed, becoming a private dirt road leading to the farms beyond.

I turned around the way I came, back along the creek bed, and turned north to follow the other greenbelt that intersected this one.  I passed a playground, a field that looked big enough for soccer, and tennis courts.  A large apartment complex was behind the tennis courts, probably the same apartments I had seen on the corner of Cornell and Valdez.  An empty field lay across the path from the tennis courts.  Continuing north, I felt the path incline downward as it led into a tunnel under a street, and beyond that, back on ground level, I saw trees and fenced backyards on either side.

I followed the path about another half mile to Cornell Boulevard, running right next to Highway 100.  I wanted to continue exploring.  I had not seen much of this side of Jeromeville, and I had not explored the other direction of the creek.  But I also knew I had to get home.  I had been gone for well over half an hour, and I was still quite some distance from home, and I was getting hungry.

I turned west on Cornell toward home.  The road ran adjacent to the freeway for the first few hundred feet, with only a small barbed wire fence and a line of leafy, shady walnut trees between them.  I squinted a little, riding close to the direction of the setting sun, inhaling the scent of dry vegetation.  Something about this made me feel peaceful.  The weather was pleasantly warm with the sun shining at a low angle.  I was back in Jeromeville where I belonged, and this town still had a lot of unexplored territory for me.

I crossed back over the freeway and through the tunnel into downtown.  Instead of going back the way I came, I turned right on First and left on G Street, past the movie theater, the train station, a hardware store, and a few blocks of restaurants and bars, into a very old residential neighborhood.  I eventually turned left on 15th Street and right onto the path leading to the North Jeromeville greenbelts.  I crossed Coventry on the bike overpass and turned left on the part of the greenbelt that headed west, past tall leafy trees that cast shadows over parts of the path, eventually taking me right to the parking lot by my apartment.

I had been on my bike for a little over an hour, and I was drenched in sweat, but it was a good feeling.  After showering and eating a microwaved frozen dinner, I turned on IRC and went to my usual chat room to look for anyone I recognized, or possibly meet someone new.  I saw that Mindy Jo was in the room.  

gjd76: hi :)
MindyJoA: hey you
gjd76: how was your day?
MindyJoA: it was monday, nothing exciting.  i had class.  have you started classes yet?
gjd76: no.  thursday the 28th.
MindyJoA: i just don’t understand your school’s schedule.  i mean, you explained it to me, but it’s weird that you start so late
gjd76: we go later than you too, until the middle of june.  i kind of like it though, having september off has been really nice, it’s perfect weather here
MindyJoA: that makes sense. it’s really hot and humid here today

Mindy Jo was a fifth-year undergraduate at West Georgia College.  I had never been to Georgia, or anywhere in the eastern half of the United States, and when people from there described the weather as “hot and humid,” I had no concept of what that felt like.  I grew up with cool humid Pacific coast weather in Santa Lucia County, and now I was familiar with the hot dry summers here in the Valley, but hot humidity was a completely foreign concept to me.  I did not know how to react.  The next thing I typed was not about weather at all; it was a spontaneous thought that had popped into my head a few minutes earlier.

gjd76: hey, can i call you?
MindyJoA: huh? you mean like on the phone?
gjd76: yeah, i just feel like doing something different tonight
MindyJoA: sure.  770-555-0130
gjd76: ok.  give me a minute

After the incident earlier this month with Allison DarkSparkles, I was definitely not ready to meet another girl from the Internet in person.  But talking on the phone felt much safer than meeting in person.  I was not putting myself physically in unknown surroundings, and I had nothing to lose but the cost of a long-distance phone call.  It would be fun to finally hear the voice of someone I had been chatting and emailing with for several months.

I picked up the phone and dialed the number, pressing buttons quickly so I did not talk myself out of doing this.  It was fairly late at night in Georgia, but Mindy Jo was expecting my call, so I was not worried about waking her.

“Hello?” a voice said through the telephone.  Even with that one word I could tell that she spoke with a different accent from mine.  This was not surprising, since she was from Georgia, but when reading emails from her I never imagined her speaking like that.

“Mindy Jo?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Is this Greg?”

“Yes it is.”

“It’s good to hear from you.  It’s interesting to hear your voice.  It’s not quite how I imagined it.”

“Same with you,” I said.  “I didn’t think about the accent.”

“That’s funny.”

“This is going to sound weird, but did your area code just change recently?”

“It did.  About a month ago.  How did you know?”

“I’ve always had this weird fascination with area codes.  I used to want to memorize every area code someday.”

“Interesting.  I could see you doing that.”

“Yeah.  So I noticed once that all area codes have a middle digit of either 0 or 1.  That’s how the phone can tell that you’re dialing a different area code.”

“Really.”

“Yes.  But there aren’t any area codes left.  More people, more phones and stuff.  So apparently the technology is here now that area codes don’t have to have 0 or 1 in the middle digit.  I always look at the area code map in the phone book every year, and just this year I started seeing some new area codes that don’t have 0 or 1 in the middle.  Like your 770.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever dialed an area code without 0 or 1 in the middle.”

“I never would’ve thought about that.  It’s interesting the way your mind works.”

“Yeah.  I know.  And that’s probably why I can’t find a girlfriend.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mindy Jo said reassuringly.  “You’ll find someone.  I don’t understand why you’re still single.  You seem like a really great guy.”

“Well right now it’s because a lot of students haven’t moved back here yet.  But I just don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just ask.  If there’s a girl you like, just talk to her.  And say something like, hey, you want to go grab coffee after class, or something.”

“I don’t like coffee.”

“You can get hot chocolate.  Or something else.  Or go get ice cream or eat lunch instead.”

“I guess.  It just seems weird.”

“What’s weird about it?”

“She probably won’t like me.  Or,” I said, trailing off.  I had sudden flashbacks of lunch time in 8th grade, when I would sit vaguely near Rachelle Benedetti and look in her direction, but never actually say anything.  Paul Dickinson noticed me and asked if I liked Rachelle, I told him that I did, and by the end of the week the whole school knew.  Even some teachers knew.  I was embarrassed.  “Someone might find out I asked her out, and that’s embarrassing,” I continued.

“So what?  This isn’t junior high.  You’re an adult.  No one cares, and everyone gets turned down sometimes.  But you’ll never know what’ll happen until you try.”

“I guess,” I said.  “What about you?  Any guys in your life?”

“I’ve been on a few dates lately.  But nothing serious.  I need to concentrate on school this semester, so I can graduate at the end of the year.”  I wondered what she meant by a few dates but nothing serious.  Was she just hanging out with these guys?  Were they kissing?  Were they doing other stuff together?  These ordinary words about dating made no sense to me.

I stayed on the phone with Mindy Jo for another half hour.  I told her about my bike ride today, the time I met Allison DarkSparkles, and my classes for the upcoming quarter.  She told me about her classes, a terrible professor, and an awkward moment from last week when she ran into an ex-boyfriend.  After that, she told me she had to go to bed.  “But hey, I’m glad you called,” she said.  “I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yes.  Sleep well.”

“Good night, Greg.”

“Bye!”

Mindy Jo was the third girl from IRC whom I had spoken with on the telephone, and once she answered I did not feel nervous.  That was mostly because she was expecting my call, though.  Calling a girl out of nowhere and asking her to get coffee still terrified me.  Maybe it would be less scary if I liked coffee.  Maybe I needed to teach myself to like coffee, so that I would be able to ask girls out.

But Mindy Jo was right that I would never know what would happen unless I tried.  And I was trying new things.  I was exploring.  I was finding new parts of Jeromeville I had never seen before.  I tried meeting Allison DarkSparkles in person, and it did not go well.  I tried calling Mindy Jo on the phone, and it did go well.  And maybe someday, I would meet a girl and figure out a way to ask her out.  A new school year was about to start, I would be meeting new people in new classes.  Maybe when the right girl comes along at the right time, there will not be anything to figure out, and everything will just fall into place naturally.  Maybe she will open the metaphorical door, and all I will have to do is step through it.

Something kind of like what happened the following week, in fact; at least it felt that way at the time.  But I will save that story for later.

September 9, 1995. The night I did something crazy and spontaneous.

In my life so far, I have had a long history of not being popular with the ladies. No one taught me anything about dating and relationships growing up, and my teen years were a string of awkward failed crushes. Rachelle Benedetti, whom I never understood why I liked her in the first place. Kim Jensen, an outgoing popular cheerleader in a few of my classes, but she dated older football players, not guys like me. Melissa Holmes, a good friend who did not like me back that way. Jennifer Henson, a popular girl who started treating me like a good friend when we were seniors, but then moved away without saying goodbye. Annie Gambrell, a younger girl I met through a class project we did together, but she had a boyfriend. And last year there was Megan McCauley, my first older friend in college; she was really nice, but I felt intimidated just by the fact that she was a year older, and currently I did not know how to interpret the fact that she had not emailed me back for the last three weeks.

After waking up and doing absolutely nothing productive for several hours, I walked to the mailboxes. Maybe I had a letter from a girl, I thought. And I did have a letter from a girl. I actually had gotten a letter from a girl yesterday, the first letter I received since moving into this apartment a week ago. It was from Sarah Winters, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year. I opened the mailbox and saw another letter from a girl… except today, the girl in question was my grandma. It was always nice to hear from her, but I wanted to interact with girls my age.

From the mailboxes, I could see the pool. A girl was lying face down on a pool chair. She had brown hair, put up in a bun, and perfectly shaped legs. She appeared to be wearing nothing but black bikini bottoms. I looked closer and noticed that she was wearing a bikini top, but she had untied it in the back, presumably to avoid having a tan line. The strings hung down over the side of the pool chair, exposing the side of a fairly large and round breast.

After staring for about thirty seconds, I walked back to my apartment, trying to think of a way I could look at the sexy girl by the pool and maybe get her to notice me. Back inside, I read Grandma’s letter, but I was only half paying attention because my mind was formulating a plan.

I picked up the book I had been reading, part 4 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and took it outside with me. The pool was open to everyone; why couldn’t I sit and read by the pool? I found an empty pool chair, on the other side of the pool from the girl, and began reading. Stephen King originally wrote this book as a serial, in six parts each around 100 pages long, published about a month apart. Mom had gotten me parts 1 through 5 for my birthday last month, before part 6 had been published. I would get part 6 at the campus bookstore when I finished part 5, or order it in advance if it had not been released yet.

It was a hot day, and after about ten minutes, I was sweating uncomfortably. Do people really sit by the pool like this? That can’t be right, I thought. I noticed a spot a few feet from me that was in the shadow of a nearby tree. I moved the chair into the shadow; it made noise as I moved it. I looked at the girl, hoping that what I was doing looked natural and ordinary and that the noise would not attract attention. She did not react, and I sat back down and continued reading.

After about another ten minutes, the girl reattached the string in the back of her bikini top. She put on shorts and a tank top over her bikini, slid her feet into flip-flops, gathered her belongings, and began walking toward me. I looked back down at my book, trying not to stare, then looked up as she walked past me. I smiled at her. “Hi,” I said.

“You know you’re lying in the shade,” she replied.

“Yeah,” I said as the weight of her words sank into my brain. She was right. Normal people do not lie in the shade. I was pretty sure I blew it with this girl, and just made myself look like a pervert, or at best a weirdo.

After the girl was gone, I took my book back to my apartment, leaving the pool chair in the shade.  I was too embarrassed to move it back and make any more noise that might get me noticed. I lay on the bed, dejected and discouraged. I was bored. Moving back to Jeromeville early was not as exciting as it had been in my head all summer, mostly because most of my friends had not moved back yet. Since I had just gotten a letter from Sarah, I knew that she would be moving back on September 17, a week from tomorrow, but then leaving right away on a retreat with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship until Friday the 22nd. Several of my friends were involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, so I suspected most of them would be back on the 22nd as well.  The first day of class was Thursday the 28th.

I continued reading The Green Mile lying on my bed. When I finished part 4, I put a frozen pot pie in the oven and spent the rest of the night wasting time on the computer. I wrote emails, I played SimCity 2000, I checked my Usenet groups, and I got on IRC chat, in that order. I had been spending a lot of time on IRC lately, and I had even met two girls my age who lived nearby: Colleen, who attended University of the Bay, and Allison, who was a student right here at University of Jeromeville. Around quarter to nine, I saw Allison enter the channel I was already in, and I messaged her.

gjd76: hey
darksparkles: hi
gjd76: what’s up
darksparkles: not much
gjd76: me either. i’m bored. i got a letter from my grandma, that was the highlight of my day
darksparkles: aww how sweet

I decided not to tell her about making a fool of myself in front of the girl at the pool. No one needed to know about that.

gjd76: i moved back to jeromeville early because i was bored at my parents’ house. now i’m bored here, but at least i’m on my own
darksparkles: i know what you mean. my roommate isn’t moving in until right before fall quarter starts. so i have the place to myself until then. i like it though
gjd76: that’s good
darksparkles: i’m a little scared to have a roommate again. i hated my roommate in the dorm last year
gjd76: ugh, roommate drama
darksparkles: but she moved out at the end of winter quarter and i had the room to myself the rest of the year
gjd76: they can do that? and just leave the room empty?
darksparkles: i guess
gjd76: how do you know your roommate from this year?
darksparkles: she lived down the hall from me. she was one of the few people in my building that i talked to, although we weren’t really close friends
gjd76: aww… hopefully living together works out
darksparkles: i hope so too

An outlandishly spontaneous idea popped into my head.  In real life, if I want to say something that makes me nervous, in which I am apprehensive about the other person’s possible reaction, I usually blurt it out loudly, so as not to hesitate or second-guess myself. I typed the next sentence very quickly and pressed Enter, the typing equivalent of blurting something out. It was a crazy idea, but boredom and loneliness can occasionally drive me to desperation.

gjd76: you want to meet in person?
darksparkles: huh? you mean like now?
gjd76: yeah. we can stay outside or in public if you’re worried about being alone with some guy from the internet
darksparkles: sure, there’s a picnic table by the pool in my apartment complex, i’ll meet you there
gjd76: where is that? we both live in north jeromeville, right?
darksparkles: yeah, redwood grove apartments on alvarez, there’s only one way into the parking lot, and the pool is right there, you’ll see it. you know where that is?
gjd76: yes i do. i’ll be there in about 10 minutes. i’m wearing jeans and a green shirt
darksparkles: i’m wearing a black shirt and jeans with holes in them
gjd76: ok, see you in a few minutes

Allison had told me the last time we talked that she lived in north Jeromeville. I did not realize until now that she was only a quarter mile away. I could have gotten there much faster than the 10 minutes I told her, but before I left I brushed my teeth and used the bathroom, and I changed out of my shorts into the jeans I told her I was wearing.  It was not warm enough this late at night to be outside in shorts for a long time. I also scribbled a note on a sheet of paper and placed it on my desk:


9/9/95 9:28pm

In case I don’t come back alive, and the police need leads, I’m going to meet a girl from the Internet named Allison. We’re meeting by the pool at Redwood Square apartments; she told me she lives there. I don’t know her last name, but her IRC name is darksparkles and her account ID is stu050637@mail.jeromeville.edu


 

It was a nice night outside, not too warm but not cold either. My short-sleeve shirt and jeans felt physically comfortable as I started to feel nervous about this situation which I had suddenly put myself in. I had only talked to Allison two other times. I had a rough description of what she looked like, and I had the impression that she was quiet and kept to herself a lot, but other than that I had no idea who to expect. I was pretty sure from our previous conversations that we had never had a class together, and we would not have run into each other at the dining hall since she lived in a different dorm area with its own dining facilities.

I walked into the parking lot of the Redwood Grove Apartments. I could see the pool about a hundred feet back from the sidewalk, and as I approached the pool more closely, I noticed a girl sitting at a table inside the pool area. She turned her head and saw me, and she got up and opened the gate.

“Allison?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Greg?”

“Yes. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she said, smiling halfway and leading me back to the table where she had been sitting. She was shorter than me, about five foot five, and thin. Her black shirt had the name of something I had never heard of, maybe a band, maybe a brand of clothing, I did not know. It was a unisex shirt, fitting loosely on her body. Her skin was pale, and her hair appeared to be dyed black, although I could not tell for sure with the lack of natural light and the only illumination coming from a few outdoor light posts. I got the impression that she did not smile much in general, so the awkward half-smile with which she had greeted me was probably the best she could do.

“So what’s up?” she asked, speaking quietly.

“I’ve never done this before.”

“Done what?”

“Met someone off the Internet.”

“Oh. I did once last year.”

“Oh yeah? Was it also someone from Jeromeville?”

“No. He flew out here from Oklahoma.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. He said he really liked me and wanted to be with me. But when he got here, he wasn’t really the nice guy he acted like online. He was kind of a jerk.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah. He made me give him a blow job the first night he was here. I didn’t want to.”

“That’s messed up,” I said. I was not expecting such a graphic description.

“He tasted nasty,” Allison continued. I just nodded, not really sure how to reply to that.  “So you’ve just been sitting around all day since you moved back here?”

“Mostly. I’ve been riding around on my bike, and reading a lot too.”

“You like riding your bike?”

“Yeah. I’m not really competitive or athletic or anything. I just like exploring.”

“I don’t even have a bike,” Allison explained. I thought that was unusual, with Jeromeville being a Bicycle Friendly City and having one of the highest rates of bicycle ownership in the United States. “I take the bus to campus.”

“I’ll probably do that on rainy days. You said you’re taking a class this summer session?”

“Yeah. An English class. One more week.”

“How is it so far?”

“It’s easy.”

“That’s good.” After a few seconds of silence, I asked, “So how has your weekend been?”

“Good. I didn’t really do much.”

“Me either,” I replied.

We made small talk for a while. She told me about this underground band she liked and something she had to read for class. I told her about the bookstore job and what my summer back home in Plumdale had been like. She told me that she liked to draw and paint, and I told her about Skeeter’s watercolor set and the paintings we made in the common room in the dorm last year.

After a while, Allison said, “I should probably go back inside. It’s getting late.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Thanks for hanging out. It was nice meeting you.”

“Yeah. You too.”

“I’ll talk to you soon?”

“Sure. Good night.”

“Good night,” I answered. I walked out of the gate, back toward the street. I had a feeling that I left a bad impression on Allison, and that we probably would not be seeing much of each other in the future. However, this did not feel like a blown opportunity, like sitting by the pool earlier today had been. Allison just was not my type. We were not interested in the same things, and with us both being so quiet, neither of us was able to get the other to open up much. I often pictured my ideal girlfriend being more talkative and outgoing than me, for that reason.

I got home a few minutes later; I had been gone for about an hour. I turned on the computer and thought about getting back on IRC chat, but something about that felt wrong, particularly if I were to see Allison online again so soon after seeing her in person. Instead, I played SimCity 2000, and went to bed around midnight.

I did talk to Allison a few more times on IRC. I did not want to be rude and stop talking to her altogether just because I did not think she was my type. But we never saw each other in person again, and I stopped seeing her on IRC around the time fall quarter started. As I drifted off to sleep that night, I kept replaying in my mind everything that had happened tonight. I felt sad that things had not gone better with Allison, but I had probably done nothing wrong. Maybe it was more of a feeling of disappointment, in the sense that I had wished Allison had been different and that we would have clicked better. But there was nothing I could do about that. It was perfectly normal for a guy and a girl not to click. At least I tried.