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.

September 2-3, 1996. Moving in and getting mail.

“This is the front door key, and this is the mail key,” the woman in the office at Sagebrush Apartments explained, placing the keys on the desk as I filled out paperwork.  “Looks like you have roommates; are they all moving in today?”

“Shawn should be here later today,” I said.  “Brian is moving in later this week, I think.  I’m not sure about Josh.”

The office employee took me around the grounds, showing me where to find the pool, laundry room, and mailboxes, and where to empty garbage.  She handed me a brochure, the same brochure I got when I first came here in May, but this one was the actual color printing, not the blotchy black-and-white photocopy that they had given me on that day when they were out of color copies.  The brochure had a map of the complex on it; she circled my apartment’s location, as well as the locations of the communal areas she had shown me.  “Just come back here if you need anything.  We’re open until six.  And once you get your phone connected, you can call this number.”  She underlined the office phone number.

“I will,” I said.  “Thanks.”

I walked back to the car in the office parking lot.  Mom and Dad were parked next to me, waiting in Dad’s gray pickup truck.  “I have the keys,” I said.  “Follow me.”  I drove my red Ford Bronco around to the back of the complex and parked next to building K.  Sagebrush Apartments consisted of around a dozen small buildings, named with letters, each containing six to eight individual apartment units.  While I waited for Dad to find a parking place, I looked through the brochure that I had gotten from the office.  Inside, on the second page, was the floor plan for each of the different types of apartments, and as I looked at my apartment, I saw something that made me recoil in horror and shame.  I may have made a huge mistake when I signed this lease four months ago.

On the blotchy photocopy I was given in May, when I was deciding between this apartment and another one, it looked like the large bedroom that I would be sharing with Shawn was 11 by 18 feet.  But on this clear copy, it was definitely 11 by 13 feet. The other place I had considered did have a very large bedroom, and I had told Shawn and Brian that the two places were similarly sized, and this one was less expensive.  I supposed, however, that if the others wanted to save money, they did not have room to complain about the place being a little small.

I tried to hide my disappointment at the room size when I unlocked the door and went inside, Mom and Dad behind me.  “This is nice!” Mom said.  “There’s that wood-burning stove you told me about.  That’ll come in handy when it gets cold.”  The stove was right in front of the door, with a stairway on the left leading upstairs to a small loft and the three bedrooms.  The living room was on the right, with the dining area straight ahead and the kitchen to the right of the living room, open to the living room through a bar behind the sink.

I went upstairs to my bedroom and looked around.  It was not huge, but not as tiny as I had feared.  I said to Mom and Dad, “Claire from church has a bed loft she’s going to sell me, with a desk underneath.  Do you remember Claire?”

“I’m not sure,” Mom replied.  I remembered Mom saying something embarrassing about Claire when she and Dad came to church with me freshman year, and I chose not to remind her.  

“Once I get that set up, I’ll have more room,” I said.

“That’ll be good.  You said Shawn is moving in later today?”

“Yeah.  I think so.  He’s back in Jeromeville already for his student teaching program.”

“Oh yeah, he’s going to be a teacher.  What’s he teaching?”

“High school math.”

“I didn’t know he was a math guy too.  But you met him from that Christian group, right?”

“Yes. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  He was my Bible study leader last year.”

Mom and Dad and I emptied the truck of the things we brought from home.  Next, we drove across Jeromeville to Second Street Self Storage, where I had stored everything from the old apartment.  It took us two trips to unload it all.  The Post Office was just around the corner from the storage unit, and we stopped there on the second trip.  I waited in line for five minutes, then I filled out a form to have mail forwarded to the new apartment and picked up the mail they had been holding.  Coupons and other junk mail.  Notices from utilities acknowledging that I had canceled service at the old apartment.  And a letter, in a small, off-white envelope.  When I saw who it was from, I felt an excited surge of adrenaline run through my body, and I tried to make myself look calm and normal when I got back in the truck.

“Did you get anything good?” Mom asked when she saw me holding a stack of mail.

“A lot of junk,” I said.  “And a letter.”

“Who’s it from?”

A sweet girl with pretty blue eyes, I wanted to say.  I wish I had the guts to ask her out.  And even though she’s a good Christian girl and I know it’s wrong, I wish both of us could fit on Claire’s bed loft.  “A girl from JCF,” I said instead.  “Named Haley.”

When we got home with the rest of my things from the storage unit, I put Haley’s letter and my other mail on top of the dresser.  I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to finish moving, and I did not want to read the letter in front of anyone.  I put the mattress on the floor, where the bed loft would eventually go, with my computer on the floor next to it.  That would not be particularly comfortable; I needed to call Claire soon.

We moved the rest of my furniture, what little I had, into the apartment.  The bookshelf went into the bedroom, between the mattress and the closet.  The television, the little table that held it, and the chair I sat on while watching it went into the empty living room; I would adjust it as necessary after the others brought more living room furniture.  We kept my kitchen and bathroom supplies, and my books and clothes, in boxes; I would unpack those gradually over the next couple days.  We left the box spring and the folding table I used as a desk in the truck, for Mom and Dad to take home; I would have no need for those once I got the bed loft set up.

After we finished unpacking, Mom and Dad took me to McDonald’s, where I ordered an Arch Deluxe.  “Are those any good?” Mom asked.  “I haven’t tried one yet.”

“I think so.  I like it.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“It’s on a different kind of bun, with special sauce, and supposedly higher quality ingredients.  It’s supposed to be marketed more toward adults.”

“I’ll try it next time.  I’d ask for a taste, but I don’t want to eat your burger.”

“Sounds good.”

“So what do you have going on in the next few weeks?  You’re going to that camp with JCF, right?”

“Yeah.  The camp is the 16th through the 20th.”

“Where is it?”

“A retreat center somewhere outside of Green Meadows.  About a two hour drive.”

“Is Taylor going to be there?”

“I don’t think so.  He’s been more involved with his church lately instead of JCF.”

“Are Liz and Ramon going to be there?”

“Yes.”

“Will that Haley girl be there?”

“I’m not sure. Probably.”

Mom, apparently having exhausted all of my friends whose names she could think of at the moment, changed the subject, telling me about my brother Mark and his friends and the start of their school year a week ago.  It was Mark’s first year of high school, and so far he seemed to be enjoying it.

After we finished eating, Mom wrote me a check for three hundred dollars.  “This is for when you go grocery shopping,” she explained, “and anything else you might need for the new place.”

“Thank you,” I said.

When we got back to the new apartment, we had to park several spaces down from where we were before, because a moving truck was in our old parking space.  Shawn and a guy I did not know were figuring out how best to unload a couch from the truck.

“Hey, Greg,” Shawn said, seeing me out of the corner of his eye.

“Hi.  How’s moving going?”

“We got most of my big things unloaded.  Looks like you did too.”

“Yes.  Mom and Dad, this is Shawn.”

Shawn walked over to shake my parents’ hands.  “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“You too!” Mom replied.  “We were just going to head out.  We have a long drive back to Plumdale.  And it looks like you guys have everything under control.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“Enjoy the new apartment,” Mom said, giving me a hug.  “And good luck with the new school year, and with camp.  Nice meeting you, Shawn.”

Dad hugged me afterward.  “Dad loves you,” he said.

“You too,” I replied.

After Mom and Dad left, while Shawn was busy with the couch, I went upstairs to read Haley’s letter, quickly, so that Shawn would not see me.


August 29, 1996

Dear Greg,

Thanks so much for writing!  I was glad to hear about your summer so far.  Sorry it took me a while to write back. I’ve been so busy!  It sounds like your new apartment with Brian and Shawn will be good, and it’s in a good location too.  You mentioned Urbana – that’s exciting!  I’ve heard great things about it.  It’s awesome that you want to know more about how God has called you to serve Him.  I haven’t decided yet if I’m going.  I really want to, but I’m just not sure if I can.

Summer has been great so far!  I’m working at a kids’ day camp, which is so much fun!  It’s been very nice to be home relaxing with my parents.  I love summer!  Tomorrow is the last day of work, so I’m really excited for the next three weeks of relaxing vacation.

Well, thanks again for your letter!  I love getting mail!  Have a great end of the summer.  I’ll see you in a few weeks!

In Christ,
Haley


That was sweet, I thought.  Haley actually wrote me back, finally.  I smiled and put the letter in a drawer, thinking about what I would say when I wrote to her next.  After that, I found the box where my telephone was, plugged it in, and dialed Claire’s number.  As I was waiting for an answer, I realized that if I got Claire’s answering machine, I was not entirely sure what number to tell her to call back.  I assumed that Brian had successfully transferred his telephone service to the new apartment, since there was a dial tone, so my phone number was now Brian’s number.  However, I had not actually confirmed this with Brian or Shawn.

“Hello?” a female voice said, making that thought a moot point.

“Is Claire there?” I asked.

“This is Claire.”

“Hi.  This is Greg.  I’m unpacking, and I was calling to ask about the bed loft.”

“Yes!  Are you ready for it?”

“I am, but I don’t know if it’ll all fit in my car.”

“My new roommate is coming up tomorrow with a U-Haul.  Can we just drop it off after she finishes unpacking?”

“Sure!  That’ll be perfect!”

“You’ll probably need a ratchet to put it together.  Do you have one?”

“No, but I can get one.  It’s probably a good thing to have around.”

“Good idea.  I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

“Yes!  Sounds good!”

After the phone call, I went downstairs and helped Shawn until we got everything out of his truck.  This place was starting to feel livable, although when it was time for bed and I slept on my mattress on the floor, it suddenly felt a little less livable.


The following afternoon, Claire arrived with the disassembled bed loft in the truck.  “Here it is,” she said.  “These two big pieces go on the ends, and this long flat one is the desk underneath.  These two go across the top to support the bed, and then these three flat pieces go between them.  You put the mattress on top of those.  And those go diagonally to brace the corners.  All the nuts and bolts are in that bag.”

“I think I get it.”

“These other pieces over here, you can make a shelf that goes around the desk.  But that’s optional.”

“I see.”

“I don’t remember exactly how that goes.  My dad built this for my older sister when she was in college.  It’s been great, but I don’t need it anymore.  I’m excited to have my own room!”

“I’m a little nervous about not having my own room,” I replied.  “But this will help with both of us fitting into that space.”

“Definitely!  Should we start carrying it in?”

“Sure,” I said.

With Claire’s help, I carefully carried all the bed pieces upstairs into the bedroom.  “This is a nice place,” Claire said.  “It has an upstairs.  And a wood stove.”

“I know.  That’ll be useful in the winter.”

After several trips up and down the stairs, we finished unloading the bed; I was sweating and breathing heavily by now.  “Thank you,” I said, giving Claire the fifty dollars we had agreen upon for the bed loft.

“You’re welcome!  I’ll see you at church?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “Bye.  Have a good one.”

“You too!”

After Claire left, I went upstairs, trying to figure out exactly how to assemble the bed.  First, I got out the new ratcheting socket wrench I had bought that morning.  I propped up the two large side pieces, wondering if it mattered which was the right and which was the left.  The side pieces had holes for the diagonal braces, which went in the back; I used this to figure out which one was which.  Next, I found the two long beams that went across left to right, and attached those to the right side piece, with the extra holes in the back again.  Each beam attached to each side with two bolts.  I tried to attach the diagonal pieces next, but I seemed to be missing a bolt, so I only attached one diagonal brace.  Next, I bolted each of the three flat pieces that held the mattress to the frame.  I adjusted the position of the bed in the room, making sure the back and the right were almost touching the walls, but not quite.  This would definitely make the room feel less crowded.

After that, I lifted the mattress into position.  Then I slid the desk, which was really more of a table, underneath the mattress.  The table did not attach with bolts; it rested on wood bars that protruded from the side pieces.  Finally, I shoved the unused shelf pieces under the table, and I moved the ladder up against the frame, near where the pillow would eventually go.  I took a step backward and admired my work, then I got in the shower, since I was dripping sweat at this point.  This was perfect.  After I got out of the shower, I read Haley’s letter again, then I sat at the desk under the bed, found a sheet of paper, and began writing.


September 3, 1996

Dear Haley,

Hi!  Thanks for writing!  It was so good to hear from you!  I’m getting settled in the new apartment.  Shawn moved in yesterday too, and Brian is coming later this week.  It’s been an adjustment sharing the large bedroom, but Claire Seaver sold me her old bed loft, so that saves a lot of room.


I added no further context to the name “Claire Seaver.”  I knew that Haley and Claire knew each other, through an embarrassing moment that happened back in the spring.


The rest of my summer was fun.  My birthday was August 15, and my Bible study made me cupcakes.  I wasn’t expecting that at all.  Then I went to my parents’ house for a couple weeks.  My brother and his friends and I have this game called Moport, like a cross between soccer and hockey and football, and we had a two-on-two Moport tournament.  I’ve been riding my bike a lot too.

I hope you get to go to Urbana.  I keep hearing such good things about it.  As a new Christian, I don’t know if I’m ready to go fly overseas and preach the Gospel, but I want to find out what kind of service opportunities are out there, especially with so many of my friends doing stuff like that.  I saw the guys from J-Cov when they got back from Morocco; it sounds like that was a great experience.

I’m excited for Outreach Camp!  I’ve never been up that way.  And it’ll be good to see everyone.  It’ll be good to get more involved with JCF and find out what God wants me to do.

What classes are you taking this quarter?  I’m taking advanced calculus, numerical analysis, and Intro to New Testament.  I’ve heard such good things about New Testament and the professor.  I’m going to do chorus too.  People from my church choir keep telling me I should, and Amelia said the same thing at Bible study once.  You said you used to do chorus, right?  Is the audition hard?  I’m a little nervous.  I forget; are you going to Outreach Camp?  I’ll see you soon!

Sincerely,
Greg


As I have gotten older, I have noticed that one peculiarity of adulthood, particularly for a storyteller like me, is that certain inanimate objects will acquire backstories because of memories of how they were acquired.  To this day, I still have Claire’s bed loft.  I used it as my bed for the remaining five years that I lived with different combinations of roommates in Jeromeville, as well as two living situations later in life when I rented a room in someone else’s house.  When I bought my current house, in my early thirties, Claire’s bed loft became a storage shelf in the garage for a while.  I set it up again some time later as the guest bed, where it remains today, and it became my bed again for four months when my house was torn up for repairs and I had nowhere to move my regular bed.  Claire’s bed loft was quite possibly the best fifty dollars I have ever spent.

I walked to the mailboxes and dropped Haley’s letter in the outgoing mail slot.  It was warm and breezy, with that smell of late summer afternoon all around me.  A day like today felt exactly like the way life should be.  I had the next two weeks to get used to living with Shawn and Brian and Josh.  Then I would be spending a week in God’s creation with dozens of my brothers and sisters in Christ.  And I would see Haley soon.  Great things were going to happen this year.  I knew it.

July 12, 1996. Thinking about the future.

Everyone has those experiences of seeing a familiar face in an unexpected place or situation, and usually, such a moment turns out to be awkward.  Kids see their teachers grocery shopping and freak out, because it never occurred to them that teachers eat like normal humans and do not live at school.  In 1996, Kevin Johnson was playing basketball for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and in 2007, I saw him ordering at Chipotle, but I was too afraid to say anything.

I had one of those moments one Friday afternoon in the summer of 1996, when I was taking Computer Science 40, Introduction to Software, at the University of Jeromeville.  It was five o’clock, and I was still wearing the same old pair of shorts that I used for pajamas.  I had no class on Fridays, so I had not showered today.  I spent the morning in an IRC chat talking to a girl on the other side of the country, then I had worked on homework for a while, then I read a few chapters of a book for fun, and now I was going to go for a bike ride.  I put on a pair of real shorts and walked my bike out to the parking lot.  I looked up and saw Joe White.  “Hey,” I said.

Wait a minute.  Joe White, the teacher’s assistant for my computer class, does not live at Las Casas Apartments.  Or does he?  I had never seen him around here before.  He appeared to have just gotten out of the pool, and he was holding hands with a girl in a black bikini whom I had seen around the complex.

“Hi, Greg,” Joe said.  “You live here?”

“Yeah.”

“My girlfriend lives here.  It seems like a pretty nice place.”

“It is.  I like it.”

“How are you?  You seem to be doing really well in class so far.”

“I’m good.  I tend to figure out computers pretty easily.”

“Are you a CS major?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m a math major.”

“Do you need CS 40 for the math major?”

“No, but I needed 30.  And 110 counts in place of math units toward the major.  I’ve always liked computers, I want to learn more about programming, and 40 is a prerequisite for 110.”

“That makes sense.  Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, you were in Math 145 last quarter with Dr. Thomas, right?”

“Yeah.  Were you in that class?”

“Yes.  I’ve been wondering if all the math professors at Jeromeville are as bad as Gabby Thomas, or if that was just her teaching style.”

This comment caught me completely off guard, since Gabby Thomas had been my favorite math professor so far, and I was not sure what it was that Joe found so abhorrent about her teaching style.  I liked her class.  Not wanting to debate this, I simply said, “Every professor is different.  I’ve had good and bad experiences.”

“That makes sense,” Joe said as I nodded.  He continued, “So what do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not really sure,” I explained.  “Math is just what I’m good at.  I’ll probably just stay here and go to grad school.”

“A Ph.D. from Jeromeville doesn’t really mean much if you’re going to be a serious academic.  But if your math grades are anything like how you’re doing in CS so far, you could probably get into a really prestigious program.”

“Hmm,” I said, nodding.

“I should get going,” Joe said.  “Enjoy your ride, and I’ll see you in class.”

“Thanks!  Have a good weekend!”

I pedaled out toward Andrews Road and headed south toward campus, thinking about what Joe had said.  It had never crossed my mind how degrees from different universities with different levels of prestige might affect future employment opportunities.  As a kid, I just went to whatever school was in my neighborhood; I never had to consider the school’s prestige, reputation, or history.  Apparently, a career in academia was a bit more complicated.  It also rubbed me the wrong way that Joe seemed to have a very low opinion of the University of Jeromeville.  He thought my favorite professor was awful, and that an advanced degree from here was worthless.  If he thought so lowly of UJ, why was he getting his degree here?  For all I know, maybe he did not get accepted anywhere else.

I rode my bike past the North Residential Area and Thong Bikini Hill, which was full of sunbathers and swimmers today, to the oak grove at the west end of the Arboretum.  I continued along the path on the south bank of the creek for the entire length of the Arboretum, emerging downtown on First Street.  I turned right on Cornell Boulevard, crossing under the railroad tracks near Murder Burger and then over Highway 100.  Another trail followed the dry creek bed on this side of the highway; I worked my way to this trail and followed it east to where it ended.  The grasses between the trail and the dry creek bed had turned brown in the dry summer heat, but the trees lining the trail were full of green leaves.

At the end of the trail, I turned around and headed back to the west, until I got to the greenbelt that led to the park at the end of Baron Court, where I turned right, away from the creek.  In May, I had been playing disc golf in this Greenbelt as part of the Man of Steel competition, an annual event among the men of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship involving disc golf, an eating contest, and poker.  I was looking forward to next year, hoping that I would not finish close to last place for a second time in a row.

As I pedaled past trees and a small playground, I got an idea.  Although I lived alone at Las Casas, part of the reason I chose that apartment was because thirteen of my friends from freshman year lived within a short walk of me.  I occasionally walked to one of their apartments just to visit.  During sophomore year, I got involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and two households full of my new JCF friends lived on Baron Court.  What if I dropped in on them just to say hi the same way I did for my friends who lived near me?

I stopped my bike in front of the closer of the two houses and walked it up to the door, nervously.  During the school year, Haley, Kristina, Kelly, and Jeanette lived here, with two other girls whom I did not know as well.  I was not sure who would be here today, except that I knew that Haley would not, since she went home for the summer.

I took a deep breath and looked back out toward the street, contemplating getting back on my bike and going home.  This was a bad idea.  Maybe none of my friends would be here.  Maybe they had other roommates in the summer who did not know me; what would I say if one of them answered the door?  Which roommate was I looking for?  Would it be weird to say that I knew multiple girls who lived here and I just dropped by to say hi to whomever was home?  Why was I even here?  If I was looking for a chance to talk to Haley, she was not in Jeromeville, so that would not happen.  I knocked on the door before I could talk myself out of this.  The thirty seconds that I waited for a response felt like several minutes as I played out all the scenarios in my head.

Kelly answered, wearing a t-shirt and running shorts.  “Greg!” she said.  “Hi!  What’s up?”

“Nothing,” I explained.  “I was just out on a bike ride, out your way, and just wanted to say hi if anyone I knew was home.”

“Come on in!  I’m the only one here right now.  You want some water?”

“Sure.  And I’m sorry that I’m all sweaty.”

“It’s fine,” Kelly said, walking toward the kitchen.  I followed her.  “I just got back from a run a little while ago, and I haven’t showered yet.”  As Kelly got a glass out of the cupboard and filled it from a pitcher in the refrigerator, I noticed something frying in a pan on the stove.  “I’m making a hamburger,” Kelly explained, handing me the glass of water.

“I see,” I said, drinking about half the water in my first sip.  “How’s your summer going?”

“Pretty good.  Two classes during a summer session is a lot of work, though.  But I’m keeping up with it.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a lot of work.  I’m only taking one class, and that’s a lot of work by itself.”

“Which class?”

“Computer Science 40.  Intro to Software.”

“That does sound like a lot of work,” Kelly said, chuckling.  “What are you learning about?  Intro to software, like making your own?  I’m not really a computer person.”

“Yeah.  We’re programming in C, which is a structured programming language.  A lot of more entry-level programming classes use languages that are simpler for humans to understand, but a lot less powerful.  Like last quarter in CS 30, when we learned programming in Pascal.”

“I see.”

“I don’t like working in the computer lab in the basement of Kent Hall, though.  I work better from home, with music playing and stuff.  But I have to be connected to the computers in Kent, and I don’t want to tie up the phone line.  So I’ll dial in around 10 at night, and stay up late getting my work done, and it works out because I don’t have to be up early in the morning.”

“That makes sense.”

“And I’ve trained myself to sleep in a little.  I don’t usually sleep in very well.”

“I… have the opposite problem,” Kelly said, chuckling.  “I sleep through my early morning classes.”

“I’ve found that most people do have the opposite problem.”

Kelly flipped over the hamburger patty with a spatula.  “So what else have you been doing this summer?  Did you go home at all?”

“Yeah.  The week in between spring quarter and summer session.  My brother and I turned all of our silly inside jokes into a board game.”

“That sounds fun!  How old is your brother?”

“Fourteen.  He starts high school this year.”

“Oh!  I was picturing older.  Is it just the two of you?”

“Yeah.  What about you?”

“I have an older sister.  She’s in grad school in California.”

“Nice,” I said.  “That’s about it for my summer.  I’ve just been going to my class, and going for a lot of bike rides, and going to the Bible study on Thursdays at Lillian’s– Oh!  And I mailed off my payment for Urbana!  I’m going, for sure!”

“That’s exciting!  I’ve heard such great things about Urbana!  I really wish I could go.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked, hoping it was not too personal of a question.

“Did I tell you what I was doing next year?”

“I don’t think you did.”  I hoped that I had not disrespectfully forgotten some key piece of information that Kelly had told me before.  I first wondered if she could not afford the trip to Urbana, then I wondered if she was going on a mission trip, the kind of thing I would learn more about at Urbana, like what Taylor and Pete and Charlie were doing in Morocco or Xander was doing in India right now.  Neither one was correct.

“I’m going to Hungary,” Kelly said.  “To study abroad.”

“Oh!” I said.  “That’ll be exciting!”

“Yeah.  I always wanted to study abroad.  I wanted to be an exchange student in high school, but it never worked out.  This time, the opportunity did work out.”

“When do you leave?”

“After first summer session ends, I’m going to go home for a little over a week.  I leave in the middle of August.”

“Will you have email?  Or is there an address I can write you?”

“Yeah!  I don’t think I’ll have email, but I’m keeping an address book so I can write to people.  I’ll send you my address once I get there.  Lemme go get it.”  Kelly left the kitchen and came back a minute later with the address book; she turned to the page for the letter D and said, “Will you be at the same place next year?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ll give you my new address.”  I wrote in the address book, Greg Dennison, 2601 Maple Dr. #K-5, Jeromeville (after Sept. 1).

“Who did you say you were living with next year?”

Shawn Yang, Brian Burr, and Josh McGraw.”

“So this is Brian’s address too?  I’d been meaning to get his address.”

“Yes!  And I will definitely write you.”

“Great!”  Kelly turned off the stove and put her hamburger on a bun, which she had on a plate.

“I should probably let you eat that,” I said.  “I need to get home.”

“Yeah, I need to eat and then get in the shower.  But thanks for stopping by!”

“Yeah!  Good luck with the rest of your classes!”

“Thanks!  You too!”

I left Kelly’s house and rode down Baron Court.  I thought about stopping by the house down the street where a bunch of guys I knew lived, but at this point I was ready to get home and make something to eat, so I did not stop.  Kelly’s hamburger smelled good.

I turned right on Valdez and right again at Cornell Boulevard.  I saw tractors and backhoes on the other side of Cornell from me; I had read that a shopping center was being built here.  Shopping centers always brought controversy in Jeromeville.  The city was run by aging hippies who fought tooth and nail to keep the city feeling like the small town it was forty years ago, in complete denial of the population growth brought on by the large and growing university adjacent to the city.  The construction of a shopping center always renewed debate about what kind of stores belonged in a proper small town like Jeromeville.  I thought the city council should just mind their own business and let the free market decide, because this was America.

I turned left on Willard Avenue.  This was my first time on this stretch of road.  An overpass had just opened a few weeks earlier, connecting Willard Avenue with Power Line Road on the other side of Highway 100.  In typical Jeromeville fashion, the overpass was controversial; new roads would bring more traffic, which would bring more crime from other cities, according to the very shaky logic of the people who ran this city.  Currently, only two two-lane roads connected the part of Jeromeville south of 100 with the rest of the city, and horrible traffic jams plagued both of them, especially Cornell Boulevard heading into downtown.  This new overpass in between those other two was desperately needed, in the eyes of anyone who could think logically and unemotionally.

When the need for the overpass became apparent, the people planning it decided that it would be a uniquely Jeromevillian overpass, with a landscaped median full of planters with trees.  Trees on an overpass made no sense to me.  Trees grow, and trees have roots, which would crack the concrete and dangle over the freeway below.  The trees and planters also would add weight to the overpass.  As I crossed Highway 100, riding past the trees, I thought about how the local newspaper columnist Bill Dunnigan had said the same thing I did about them.  But someone thought this was a good idea, and as if not to be shown up, the city of Nueces, 15 miles west on Highway 100, built their own overpass with trees a few years later.

North of the freeway, the overpass crossed a railroad track and Second Street, then passed between two undeveloped grassy areas.  One had a pond fed by storm drains that was full for most of the year.  The city paid thousands of dollars to design a tunnel under this road so that wildlife could cross the road, a move which many pundits from other cities in the region made fun of.  A local artist built some miniature buildings called “Frogville” which he placed near one end of the tunnel.  What makes this situation even more messed up is that much of the land was paved over within a few years, and no frogs or other animals were ever seen using the tunnel.  I always said that Tunneling Frogs would make a good name for a band.  Had I done more research into the quirky left-wing hippie local politics in Jeromeville before I came to UJ for school, there is a good chance I would not have chosen UJ.  However, after making so many friends here and discovering how much I loved bike rides, Jeromeville was definitely starting to grow on me.

As I continued riding home, north on Power Line Road, west on Coventry Boulevard, and then right on G Street into the Coventry Greenbelt, I thought about that afternoon’s conversations.  Joe White had brought into question my plan to stay in school forever, with his comment about the importance of getting into a prestigious graduate program.  Kelly Graham clearly had a plan for her year in Hungary.

What was my plan?  Was I really planning on staying in school forever?  What would I do then?  I would become a mathematician, teaching college classes while doing mathematics research.  Was that what I wanted?  What were my other options?  I was pretty sure I did not want to teach middle or high school.  If I changed my major to computer science or something involving computers, I would be competing with others who were much more knowledgeable than me about computers from this decade.  I also enjoyed fiddling with computers, and I did not want something fun to turn into work.  By the time I got home, I found that I was more frustrated than I had been when I started on this ride.

I stopped at the mailboxes on my way back to the apartment and took a deep breath.  I knew that I did not have to decide my future plans right now, but it felt more urgent than it had a few hours ago.  I opened the mailbox and saw a letter from Sarah Winters.  She was at home in Ralstonville for the summer.  I went home and read the letter before I got into the shower.  In my last letter to her, I had mentioned that the weather had been uncharacteristically cool.  I had also told her about my class, my week at home, and how I needed to coordinate with Shawn and Brian and Josh about moving into the new apartment and storing my things for a few days after I moved out of this apartment.  Sarah told me that she had been in a wedding for one of her high school friends, and that she had been going to the college group at her church.  She was going to Disneyland later this month, and she would be talking to her pastor about missionary opportunities over the next couple of years.  She closed her letter saying, “I hope your plans for next year fall into place and that the sun comes out soon.  Take care!”

The sun did come out; temperatures this week had been in the 90s.  And Sarah was referring to the moving plans falling into place, but after today, I felt like I had many other plans that needed to fall into place.  I still had time to figure out my future.  Or did I?  I had been at UJ for two years, and I had made virtually no progress in choosing a career.  I would graduate in another two or three years, and it would be better to come up with a plan soon, so that I could choose the right classes.

I seemed to remember the Math Club talking about career opportunities sometimes; maybe I should pay attention to those.  Or I may end up doing something entirely different.  In December, I would be attending the convention in Urbana, Illinois, to learn about Christian mission opportunities and ways I can serve God.  Maybe I would discover an entirely new career opportunity there.  The world was not an easy place, but I was learning, and I would figure out my future when I was ready.  Things seemed scary and confusing now, but my sun would come out soon.

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.

July 28, 1995. Taking advantage of a night at home by myself.

After I finished watching Jeopardy!, I went back upstairs.  I checked my email; no new messages.  I was glad to have a night at home by myself, but I had no immediately apparent way to take advantage of this night at home.  There was no long dormitory hallway to walk down and see who was free.  It was my parents’ house, the other bedrooms were empty, and the only other people in this house tonight were cats.  I could sit in front of the computer in a chat room, but for some reason I was not in the mood for that tonight.

My eyes drifted around my bedroom.  I saw my yearbook from my senior year at Plumdale High sitting on top of a box of books that I had not completely unpacked from when I moved out of the dorm last month.  So far, this summer, I had seen exactly two high school friends exactly once each.  The situation was made worse by my fear of using the phone.  And I was self-conscious about having friends in the first place, because my mother makes fun of people behind their backs, and I was afraid of what she would say about them.

I started to reach for the yearbook.  Some of the nicest things that people had ever said to me were in that book.  Two girls whom I did not really know until senior year both wrote messages that seemed more like what someone might write to a lifelong friend, not someone they had only known for one school year.  But then one of them moved away without saying goodbye, and the other had a boyfriend so it did not matter, and neither of them had stayed in touch.  I had lost touch with so many of my high school friends.

I reconsidered and did not open the yearbook.  My mind and eyes continued to wander.  Next to the computer on my desk was a stack of letters, all from girls.  Mom noticed a few days ago when I got letters from both Molly Boyle and Tiffany Rollins on the same day that I seemed to be keeping in touch with mostly girls over the summer.  She was right.  Guys were mean to me in elementary school, and I felt safer communicating with girls.  Taylor was really the only guy I was keeping in touch with.

Molly lived in central Pennsylvania.  She was studying early childhood education at Lock Haven University and, like me, she was home for the summer after her first year.  We had met in a chat room, and she had written to me the most so far, six times.  She was working a boring job that she disliked, but she needed the money in order to afford to go back to school.  She lived in the country and did not have much of a social life, which probably explained the frequent letters.  I opened the most recent one and began reading.


I spent the weekend in Philadelphia with Christina, my roommate from last year, and it ended up being a disaster!  This guy she knows on the Internet who lives in California was in Phila. for the weekend too, and they had been planning to meet for a while.  Her parents didn’t want her to go alone, so she brought me along.  When we got there, the guy was busy, so we saw all the touristy historical stuff.  When he was finally free, they just went back to the hotel and cuddled and did other stuff, and I felt really uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to go do something in the city by myself.  Then they just left without telling me where they were going or when they would be back.  So I was stuck alone in the hotel room for over an hour.  And then while they were gone, her parents called the hotel room looking for her.  Apparently before we left she lied and told her parents we were meeting our friend Michelle in the city, but Michelle called Christina’s house while she was supposed to be with us so they knew she lied.  And her dad started lecturing me about stuff like this, even though this wasn’t my idea and I didn’t know she lied!  This isn’t the first time Christina has done something completely selfish.  Maybe I’ll learn my lesson and stop letting her use me.


 

Molly may not have had much of a social life, but her weekend seemed a lot more interesting than anything that had happened to me recently.  Christina appeared to be the kind of person I would not want to be friends with.

Tiffany had written three times.  She and I had two math classes together last year.  She was home in Ashwood, about a two and a half hour drive to the east.  Like Molly, she also had a boring job that she hated, doing office work.  I had told her about being self-conscious about having friends at home, and she understood completely, because her mother still lovingly teased her about a boy she liked in tenth grade.  “So is there anyone you are interested in that way?” she wrote.  “You don’t have to answer, I just thought I’d ask.”  The thought crossed my mind that she might be dropping a hint to me.  I liked her as a friend, but I just didn’t feel attracted to her.

Danielle Coronado, who had lived down the hall from me in Building C last year, had written a fairly long typed letter a couple weeks ago.  She was back home in Desert Ridge, about 250 miles southeast in a part of the state I had never been to.  She told me a whole lot about her job working at a day camp for children.  Unlike Molly and Tiffany and me, Danielle enjoyed her job.  Spencer Grant, who lived on the first floor in Building C last year, was also from Desert Ridge; he and Danielle had been hanging out some, although they were definitely just friends.  Danielle wrote that Spencer was loud and obnoxious, but really a nice guy underneath.  I could see that, although I had mostly only seen the loud and obnoxious side.

Bok, who lived on the first floor last year and would be rooming with Danielle next year, sent me a postcard with big trees and a forest floor covered in ferns.  She and her family were camping in Olympic National Park in Washington, and would be headed north across the border to British Columbia before returning home.  That sounded beautiful, but I had never been camping, so I could not really relate to the experience.  Mom was the only one who took initiative to plan vacations in my family, and Mom hates camping.

Sarah Winters, also from the first floor, had written to me once.  She was home in Ralstonville, a couple hours’ drive northeast of here.  She passed the time playing flute and learning guitar, and she had been spending time with her older brother and the girl he would soon be marrying.  She also spent a day with Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, and Caroline Pearson at Caroline’s house in Walton Canyon.  That sounded fun.  I missed all of them.

I had not heard from Liz or Ramon, but Caroline had written once.  Caroline grew up in Australia, and she would be visiting her family there in August.  That would be an exciting trip.  She ended her letter saying, “Everyone from Jeromeville that I’ve talked to is wanting to get back up there.  I think that we all suffer from homesickness, strange as it sounds, even though we’re at home!”  She was exactly right.  Plumdale felt like home to some extent, but my connections here were not very deep to begin with, and my life was in Jeromeville now.

I looked around at the desk.  My eyes rested on the telephone.  My bedroom was part of a remodel that my parents had started seven years ago and technically never finished; the room still had plywood for a floor.  At some point in high school, I had figured out how telephone wiring worked and hooked up the telephone jack in the bedroom myself, so this telephone worked, although it was on the same line as the rest of the house.  I was always so nervous about making phone calls as it was, and with three phones in the house on the same line, it was frightening to think that Mom might pick up and listen in on my call.  Tonight would be the perfect night for a phone call, since I was alone in the house; the rest of the family had gone to watch some of my brother’s friends in a baseball tournament.  But whom did I feel comfortable calling?  One of my high school friends?  One of my Jeromeville friends?  I did not have Molly’s number, so she was not an option.  Even if I did have her number, Mom would not appreciate a phone call to Pennsylvania, although Mom had come around to the fact that this person writing me was probably not a 37-year-old pervert named Chuck.

It would make more sense to me to call someone I knew from Jeromeville.  I still had my copy of the campus directory, which had many students’ home addresses and phone numbers in addition to local contact information, but that seemed kind of creepy looking up people who did not expect me to have their phone numbers.  A few of my dorm friends had shared their home phone numbers at the end of the school year, with the intent of keeping in touch.  Of the people who had written so far, Danielle was the only one who had shared her phone number.  I felt safe talking to her.

I picked up the phone and started dialing, but gave up halfway through the number and hung up.  Mom would see a call to Desert Ridge on the phone bill.  She would want to know everything I said.  She might even tease me about liking Danielle, even if I explained that she was just a friend.  But Mom was always telling me to be more social, so she would probably be okay with me making one long distance call.  I picked up the phone but hung up again before dialing anything.  Danielle probably was not even home.  It was a Friday night.  Normal people are off having fun on Friday nights.  But, on the other hand, maybe that would be better.  I could leave a message and tell Danielle to call me, and I could get the phone call done earlier and feel like I did the best I could, not feeling guilty about wasting a night home alone.  And If Danielle ever did call me back, then I would have to talk to her and not chicken out.

I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed the numbers quickly.  A male voice picked up on the third ring.  “Hello?” he said.

“Hi.  Is Danielle there?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”  I heard muffled voices on the other side of the line, and after about half a minute, Danielle’s voice said, “Hello?”

“Hi.  This is Greg.”  After a few seconds of silence, I added, “Greg Dennison.  From Building C.”

“Greg!” Danielle exclaimed.  “I wasn’t expecting you to call!  How are you?”

“I’m doing ok.  Just kind of bored.  And I’m alone in the house tonight.  The rest of my family is busy.”

“I’m glad you called!  How is that bookstore job going?”

“It’s okay.  It’s nice when I get to read on a slow day, but that store just really isn’t my clientele.”

“That’s tough.  But it isn’t forever, right?”

“I know.  That’s what I keep telling myself.  How’s your work with the kids?”

“It’s exhausting, but I love it so much!  Yesterday we took them on a field trip to the fire station.  One of the little ones really loves fire trucks, so he was having a great time.”

“I bet that was fun.”

“And there’s this one eleven-year-old boy who lives in a foster home.  He’s been through a lot in life.  He gets in fights and acts all tough, but he has this soft side too that he doesn’t show many people.  But I see it.  He likes me and he trusts me.”

“That’s so cool.”

“I know!  Today he told me I was his favorite.  And he told me all about this girl he likes, but he doesn’t think she likes him.”

“That’s so cool that you can really make a difference with someone like that.”

“Yeah.  It’s amazing what these kids are like when you get to know them.  I’m going to miss them when the job is over.”

“When is that?”

“Two weeks.  After the camp closes for the summer, we can keep working for another week to clean things up and take things down.  That’s not going to be fun, but I’m going to do it for the money.”

“That’s a good idea.  I don’t think I’m making quite a difference in the lives of the customers at the bookstore.”

Danielle laughed at this.  Then she said, “Hey.  I heard you went to Jeromeville and you got to see Taylor?  How was that?”

“It was fun.  My cousins Rick and Miranda, they live way up north in the middle of nowhere, they were visiting that week, and we just went up there for the day so they could see where I lived, and my new apartment, and stuff.  And I took a break to go see Taylor.  And Jonathan too, but he had to study for part of the time I was there.”

“Figures.  That sounds like Jonathan.”

“You said you had been in touch with Taylor too?”

“Yeah.  He wrote me back.  Pete still hasn’t.  It’s like he fell off the face of the earth.”

“Some people just aren’t good at keeping in touch.”

“He’s a jerk,” Danielle said jokingly, chuckling.  Last year, both Taylor and Pete seemed to have something going on with Danielle.  I was too oblivious to know exactly what was going on, and it probably was not my business anyway.  Danielle continued, asking, “Did you visit anyone else when you were in Jeromeville?”

“I’ve only been in touch with one other person in Jeromeville this summer, someone not from our dorm.  And she was busy that day.  I really want to go back.  It’s boring here, and I rarely see the few friends I have left.”

“I know how you feel.  Bok and Theresa are going to visit for a few days in August.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“Have you heard from them?  Or anyone else?”

I told Danielle about everyone I had heard from this summer.  Some of these people Danielle did not know, and she seemed particularly interested in finding out more about Molly.  I told her a little bit about her, including how we met.  “She’s the first person I met on the Internet who I trusted with my contact information in real life.”

“That’s brave of you.”

“We had been emailing for six months by the time she wrote me on paper.  You’d have to be pretty good at being an old pervert and pretending to be an 18-year-old girl in order to keep it up for six months, so I’m pretty sure she’s really who she says she is.”

“Well that’s really cool!  Do you like her?  Like, more than just a pen pal?”

“I don’t know.  We’re just friends right now.”

Danielle and I talked for almost an hour.  I told her about watching roller hockey, and about the time I broke the picture frame at the store.  She told me about going camping with her family on an unusually hot day and getting badly sunburned, and about her next youngest sister also going to Jeromeville in the fall.  “And she’s going to major in psych, just like me.  We even have a class together in the fall.”

“Is that going to be awkward?”

“It might be.  When we were younger, we hung out in the same circles, and we fought about everything.  We’ve learned that we should kind of have separate lives.”

“That makes.  My brother and I are six grades apart, so we never were at the same school at the same time to run in the same circles.”

“Consider yourself lucky.”

After a few minutes and another lull in the conversation, I said, “I should probably get going.”

“Yeah.  It’s getting close to bedtime.  But thank you so much for calling!”

“You’re welcome.”

“It was good to hear your voice!”

“Yours too.  Tell Bok and Theresa I said hi.  And Spencer, if you talk to him again.”

“I will.”

“Good night!”

“Good night, Greg.”

I hung up.  That was nice.  Keeping in touch with my Jeromeville friends was keeping me going that summer.  I had a month left until I would be able to return to Jeromeville, and I needed every bit of contact with that part of my life that I could get.  I was done making phone calls, it was getting late, but I looked through the stack of letters again.  Something that Molly had written caught my eye:


A suggestion for you: don’t look in the past and see how much you haven’t done, but look into the future and see how much time you have to do whatever you want.  I try to look at the positive things instead of the negatives, so I don’t get depressed.


 

Molly was right.  I needed to stop dwelling on the negatives.  Sure, I felt like I had missed out on some things in the almost nineteen years I had lived so far, but I had a lot of life left, and I did not need to let that which I missed out on define me.  I would get back to Jeromeville, where I belonged, in a little over a month.  I had people there who wanted to be part of my life, and the stack of letters on my desk was evidence of that.

I walked over to the box of books, lifted a bunch of them up, and put my high school yearbook near the bottom, where I wouldn’t see it.

1995-07 danielle's letter

1995-07 molly's letter

 

May 26-28, 1995. Friends far away.

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Working?  Doing anything like that?”

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

“And do you want to do this?”

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

“Yeah,” Taylor replied.

“Good point,” Pete said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She sounds nice.”

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

Sarah laughed.  “That’s funny!”

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

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

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

“That’s not nice.”

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

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

 


May 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

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

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

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

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

Love,
Carol

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


 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 23, 1995

Dear Greg,

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

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

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

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

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

Bye,
Molly


 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Kim there?” I asked.

“This is Kim.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.”

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

“Everyone was mean to me.”

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

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

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

“Girls named Kim are the best!”

“I know.” I chuckled.

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

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

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

“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I would!”

“Thank you.  I wish we could.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

1995 molly's first letter