One evening, I had been eating at the dining hall by myself. Two girls I didn’t know, one blonde and one with short red hair, were sitting at the table next to me, speaking loudly enough that it was impossible not to overhear their conversation.
“So how’s Justin?” Blondie asked.
“I don’t think he’s interested,” Red said. “Oh my god, we’ve been on three dates, and he hasn’t even made a move yet. All we did last night was make out.”
“How long have you known him?”
“Almost two weeks. When I was with Shane, we were already sleeping together at this point.”
“Hmm. I thought Justin seemed really into you.”
“I thought so too. I guess not. I don’t think I’m going to call him back. What about you? How’s What’s-his-face?”
“Ryan,” Blondie said. “I really like him, but he’s too clingy. He called me today.”
“Like, we just went out yesterday. He didn’t even wait three days.”
“Who does that? Why is he calling you back the next day?”
“I know, right?”
None of that conversation made any sense to me. If Blondie really liked Ryan, why was it a problem that he called her the next day? Wouldn’t she want to talk to him? Is this waiting three days thing really a rule? And does anyone write these rules down? And sleeping with a guy you’ve only known two weeks is not normal to me. Sleeping together is for husbands and wives. I would have said that Justin moved too fast, making out on the third date, and apparently he moves too slowly for these girls. People are confusing. I wished I knew Justin and Ryan, so that I could tell them they dodged bullets.
I came back to my room and did homework for chemistry, even though it was Thursday night and the assignment wasn’t due until Monday. Homework wasn’t even graded for that class, but I always did it anyway. I liked chemistry, and I didn’t want to fail. After I finished, I checked email, and I didn’t have anything, probably because I had just checked it before dinner. Molly from Pennsylvania wrote me this morning, but I didn’t really feel like replying yet. I didn’t have much to say.
I walked down the hall. No one had their doors open, and I didn’t want to bother anyone. So I climbed to the third floor. I heard voices coming from Taylor Santiago’s room, and one of the voices was loud and enthusiastic enough that I recognized it as belonging to Mike Adams.
“Hey, guys,” I said, poking my head in the door. Taylor, his roommate David, Mike, and Gina Stalteri were sitting around a table playing some kind of card game, using an ordinary 52-card deck. “What are you playing?” I asked.
“Hearts,” Taylor replied. “If you want in, you can take my place after this game. I need a break.”
“I don’t know this game.”
“I’ll teach you after this round is over. It’s not hard to learn.”
I watched as the others played. Hearts appeared to be a trick-taking game, where each player plays a card, and one player takes the trick according to some rule about certain cards outranking others. I hadn’t played games like this often, but I knew of their existence. There appeared to be some special rules other than just the highest card winning, though. Twice during the game, the others seemed to react strongly: the first time a heart was played, and again when Mike played the queen of spades. David took that trick, and the others’ reaction made me think that this was a bad thing, although I was unsure why.
After the game, Taylor explained more about the game. He explained about following suit, and breaking hearts, and how the object was to avoid taking a trick with a heart or the queen of spades (“the bitch,” as Mike called it). Each heart was worth one point, and the queen of spades 13 points, and the object was to have a low score.
“You want to take a turn?” Taylor asked me.
“Jump in, Greg,” Gina said.
I took Taylor’s seat at the table; he got on his bed and watched us from there. After the first three rounds, I had no hearts, and I thought I was in good shape. I led the fourth hand with the ten of clubs; David played the nine of clubs, Mike played the five of clubs, and Gina played the jack of hearts. Gina apparently had no clubs left, which enabled her to play a different suit, and now that a heart had been played, players could lead the hand by playing hearts first. I played a diamond next, and apparently Mike had no diamonds, because he played the queen of spades. I was stuck with the worst card in the game, and I also ended the game with six hearts.
“Play again?” Mike asked.
“Sure,” I said. Now that I had played once, I was starting to think about strategy, although part of the game just depended on what cards you were dealt. In the second game, I finished with five hearts, but David got stuck with the queen of spades. The third time we played, I only got three hearts.
Gina took a break after that game, and Taylor took her spot at the table. We played for almost another hour before the others decided that they had things to do. I walked back to my room, hoping that more games of Hearts would happen soon. That was fun.
The next night, I saw Liz make eye contact with me at the dining commons. “Hey, Greg,” she said, smiling and gesturing to an empty seat next to her. “Come sit with us.”
I put my tray of food down at the empty seat next to Liz. Ramon, Caroline, Tabitha from Building B, Taylor, Pete, and Mike from Building J were all at the same table, and I had taken the last open seat.
“How’s it going?” Taylor asked.
“Pretty good,” I replied. “Glad it’s the weekend.”
“I think everyone is,” Ramon said.
“Did you have class today?” Liz asked.
“I did,” I replied. “Just math and chem today. So I spent the afternoon in the library, starting to work on my paper for Dr. Small’s class.”
“Why?” Pete asked. “That isn’t due for a long time.”
“Because it’s a six- to eight-page paper. I need time to do research and get my ideas organized.”
“When I have to do a six- to eight-page paper, I usually start around eight o’clock the night before,” Taylor said, chuckling.
“Me too,” Caroline agreed, “if not later. You don’t need to be stressing about that paper yet. Just relax and have a great weekend, and worry about the paper later.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, frustrated. “That’s just not the way my brain works. I can’t do a six- to eight-page paper at the last minute.”
“You don’t just BS your papers?” Tabitha asked.
“No. I can’t.”
“That’s too bad.”
I stopped talking for a while and listened to the others as the topic changed. I wished that I could BS my way through six- to eight-page papers like pretty much every other college student ever. Apparently that was some kind of unwritten rule of college. But I was honest when I told Caroline that my brain didn’t work that way. I couldn’t do a good job on a paper if I didn’t actually learn about the material. And even outside of school, I wasn’t good at faking things.
I started listening again when I heard my name. “Greg?” Liz asked. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Probably nothing. What about you guys? You have that Christian group tonight, right?”
“Yeah. JCF. You want to come with us?”
I paused. “I don’t know. Maybe another time.”
“That’s ok. You’re always welcome to come with us.”
Later that night, as I was sitting in front of the computer on an IRC chat trying to get girls to talk to me, I thought about that conversation with Liz. That group had invited me to come to the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship multiple times in the last few months, and I had always turned them down. Liz said I would always be welcome in that group, but I just wasn’t convinced. I was Catholic, and I knew that some Protestants and other Christians often said that Catholics were wrong and not real Christians. And were the JCF students the kind of Christians that were basically like Catholics but without recognizing the Papacy, or were they the kind who danced and clapped with the music, or did they all wear suits and ties and long skirts everywhere they went? I didn’t know. And I’d never really thought of myself as a church guy. Yes, I’ve been to Mass most Sundays since I’ve been in Jeromeville, but back home my church attendance was very sporadic. And church guys certainly didn’t spend their Friday nights sitting in front of an IRC chat hoping that some girl would come along and want to talk dirty.
The next morning, I woke up early but stayed in bed until almost nine o’clock. After I got back from using the bathroom, I replied to the email I got yesterday from Molly from Pennsylvania. I told her about playing Hearts and starting my paper, and asked her how her midterm went. My life wasn’t exactly very thrilling at the moment. After that, I spent at least an hour staring at the same IRC chat I was in last night, hoping that SweetGirl4 would get on and talk dirty to me like she did last night. She didn’t.
At one point in the middle of the afternoon, I went downstairs and heard voices in the common room. Pete, Taylor, Caroline, Liz, Ramon, Krista, and Charlie were playing some kind of card game, using what appeared to be three standard 52-card decks with different backs, shuffled together. “What are you playing?” I asked as I approached them. No one answered. Liz looked at me with her finger on her lips, motioning for me to be quiet. I sat quietly and watched their game.
The game play seemed to be similar to Uno and Crazy Eights, playing cards that matched the suit or rank of the previous one. But every once in a while, Taylor would say “Penalty!” and give the player an extra card. Sometimes Taylor would give back the card that was just played, and other times he would leave it on the top of the deck. At one point, Ramon placed a two of hearts on top of a six of hearts, and Krista, whose turn was next, played a three of hearts. But Taylor gave her a penalty and gave her the three of hearts back along with her penalty card. After about three more seconds, Taylor gave Krista another penalty, saying, “Penalty for not saying thank you.”
“Thank you,” Krista said indignantly.
Taylor then turned to Liz and gave her a card. “Penalty for delay of game,” he said.
“Wha–Thank you,” Liz said, interrupting her initial confusion over why she was being penalized.
“Point of order,” Krista said. Everyone put their cards face down on the table. “Ramon played last. So it’s my turn.”
“Ramon played this,” Pete explained, pointing at the two of hearts on the top of the stack. “Right?”
“Correct,” Taylor said, in an authoritative tone of voice. “So Krista played improperly, and Liz got a penalty for delay of game. No further discussion is necessary. End point–”
“Wait,” Liz interrupted, turning to me. “Greg, to answer your question from earlier, this game is called Mao.”
“Mao?” I asked. “Like the dictator?”
“Yes. I can’t tell you any more.”
“Watch and pay attention, and you’ll figure out what’s going on,” Taylor said. “End point of order.” Everyone picked up their cards. Liz played a nine of hearts, and then Caroline played a nine of spades, knocking on the table and saying “Nine of spades” without getting a penalty for talking. Taylor played a three of spades, saying, “Three of spades.”
Based on the assumption that Mao was derived from Uno or Crazy Eights, I had already discovered a few things. I thought I might had figured out why it was Liz’s turn and not Krista’s turn when that first point of order was called. Also, apparently, talking was not allowed, except in certain situations which I had yet to deduce.
The game I was watching ended when Pete played his last card and said, “Mao.” By that time, I had figured out a few more rules, specifically why the players sometimes would name the card they played, and that you have to say “thank you” after receiving a penalty card.
“You want in, Greg?” Taylor asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m not really sure what I’m doing.”
“That’s ok. But I can’t tell you the rules.”
“I kind of figured something like that, because of all the penalties, and the way your discussions were so vague.”
Taylor began dealing cards to all of us. I reached down to pick up my first card and look at it; Taylor interrupted me and said, “Penalty for touching the cards early.” He gave me an extra card, which I thanked him for. Apparently I’m not allowed to do that. After everyone had been dealt seven cards, or eight, in my case, we picked up the cards and began playing. I was between Charlie and Pete. Charlie played a four of diamonds and said, “George.” I thought I had this game figured out, but there was no one named George anywhere nearby, and I hadn’t yet figured out a rule involving saying George.
“Four of spades,” I said, playing on top of Charlie’s four of diamonds.
“Two penalties,” Taylor said, handing me two cards, which I thanked him for. He did not make me take my four of spades back, though, so the penalty apparently had to do with what I said, not with the card I played. Two things I said, specifically, or perhaps didn’t say. The turn order had reversed by the time of my next turn, so my turn came after Pete’s. He played a jack of clubs and said “Hearts.” I couldn’t remember what to do on a jack, but hearing what Pete said, and guessing because of similarities with Uno, I very hesitantly played a five of hearts, slowly placing it on the pile. I received no penalty, even though the card did not match the jack of clubs. This was the first time I had not been penalized.
Taylor won that game eventually. By the third game I had played that day, I had figured out quite a bit more. I knew what was going on with the jacks. I was pretty sure I knew which cards were like the Skip and Draw Two cards in Uno. I knew when to knock on the table. And I was starting to figure out what had gone wrong with my four of spades play from the first game. There was still something going on with playing a 10, and I hadn’t figured that one out yet, but in this particular game, I had not drawn a 10 yet. I was getting all the cards I needed, and playing by all the rules I understood by now. I had two cards left, a four of spades and a jack of hearts. The cards being played were neither spades nor hearts, but I got extraordinarily fortunate when Krista played a four of clubs, saying “Ringo,” and Charlie played a four of hearts, knocking on the table and saying “Paul.” I had finally figured out who these names were and which cards to play them on, and I knew when to knock. It was time to see if I had learned well enough to do this correctly.
“Four of spades, John,” I said, knocking and putting the four of spades on top of the deck. No penalty. On the next time around the board, Charlie played a jack of diamonds. “Hearts,” he said. It was my turn, and I had exactly one card, and it was a heart. I triumphantly placed my jack of hearts on top of the stack.
“NEVER EVER EVER PLAY A JACK ON TOP OF ANOTHER JACK!!!” all seven of the other players began chanting loudly in unison. Taylor gave me penalty cards continuously through the chant, ten cards in all.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Also, another penalty for not ending the game. And for something else.”
“Thank you, thank you,” I said, trying to organize my brand new hand of twelve cards. Caroline won that game a few rounds later, and I politely excused myself to go back to my room. I found that Mao was a fascinating concept for a game, but it was so frustrating, and I still didn’t understand parts of it.
Later that night, I was on an IRC chat. Internet Relay Chat was a very decentralized system with no one specifically enforcing rules or anything like that. Certain people would be designated as operators (“ops” for short) in a chat channel, and they had the power to kick people out who were being obnoxious or inappropriate. The first person to create a channel would be an op by default, and usually the major channels had a group of people who would automatically be made ops whenever they were in the channel. Op privileges could be given temporarily as well, as had been given to me for the first time a few weeks ago by a guy named “JimK” who would occasionally engage me in small talk in the channel.
Tonight, I was in my usual room, “#friendlychat,” asking SweetGirl4 in private messages about her day, and about what she was wearing. I was picturing her in the pajama top and panties that she had described when I noticed that JimK had made me an op again. I thanked him and started making more of an effort to talk to people in the chat channel. I was now officially an operator of the channel, and I should act like it instead of just lurking in private messages. I didn’t ignore SweetGirl4, though.
About fifteen minutes later, someone new entered the channel.
Todd3 has entered the room
<JimK> welcome todd3
<gregd94> hi todd
<cc> what’s up todd
<Todd3> can someone make me an op
JimK was nice enough to make me an op, so I figured I would extend the favor to someone else. I typed the command to make Todd3 an op, and half a second later, he removed everyone else’s op privileges and kicked all of us out. Oops. That was officially the dumbest thing I had ever done on the Internet so far, even dumber than the time I forwarded a bunch of chain letters, or the time I used a fake name to play a mean-spirited prank on Schuyler Jenkins upstairs.
While I looked for a new channel to join, I continued my private conversation.
gregd94: oooh i pull your body close to me and kiss your lips passionately
SweetGirl4: u stupid f***ing noob u got us all kicked out. dont ever talk to me again.
I noticed a new channel called “#friendlychat1” and joined it; it appeared to be all of the people whom Todd3 had kicked out of #friendlychat. I joined the chat and apologized to everyone; a few people ignored me, and the rest had mean replies, some of which made SweetGirl4’s reply sound nice by comparison.
I deserved it, though. I didn’t understand that being a channel operator is a responsibility, not just a status symbol. Operator privileges are not to be handed out lightly to one’s buddies, or even worse, to complete strangers. I didn’t fully understand my responsibilities as an operator, and I didn’t fully understand the kinds of jerks that trolled the Internet.
The next day was Sunday. After dinner, I was in Taylor’s room playing Hearts again. Taylor, Mike Adams, Keith, and I were playing, with David and Karen and Pat watching. Keith, who had not been there on Thursday when I first learned the game, had taken the first heart, and Taylor took the next trick with no hearts in it.
Taylor led the next hand with a five of diamonds. Mike played the four of diamonds, and Keith played the seven of diamonds. I had no diamonds, so I played the queen of spades.
“Oooooh!” the entire room shouted.
“Keith gets the Bitch!” Mike enthusiastically proclaimed.
As the game continued, I couldn’t believe my luck. I had not taken a single heart, and it seemed like poor Keith, who had been in last place going into this round, was getting all the hearts. The game would be over after this round with Keith getting all of those points, and while my total score wasn’t the best, it was a close second, the best I had done so far.
“What did we get?” I asked as the last trick was taken.
“Did he do it?” Mike wondered aloud.
“I think he did,” Taylor said, as Keith spread out the queen of spades and all thirteen hearts on the table.
“He shot the moon,” Mike said. I watched Mike write 26 points in Keith’s column on the score sheet… except he didn’t. He wrote 0 for Keith, and 26 for the rest of us.
“Good job,” Taylor said to Keith.
What was going on? Keith got 26 points, not the rest of us. Keith lost; he didn’t finish in first place with the lowest score. I didn’t understand. No one had ever told me about shooting the moon, that if a player finished the game with all thirteen hearts and the queen of spades, that player scores 0 and the other players all score 26 points. I was about to say something when I realized that apparently this was a rule that everyone else knew except for me. I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the rule, since I would have been able to stop him and at least take one heart had I known about this. I didn’t stick around for another game; I just made an excuse to get out of there as soon as possible.
I walked to the other end of the hall and into the stairwell to go downstairs to my room. I heard voices above me, and I looked up to investigate. This stairwell went up to a locked door leading to the roof; someone who lived here in the past had written “Stairway to Heaven” in chalk on the front of the steps. Danielle, Caroline, Pete, and Charlie were sitting on the Stairway to Heaven, just talking.
“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, scooting over to make room for me. “Come join us.” I sat next to Danielle, and she leaned her curly-haired head on my shoulder, taking me by surprise. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I was just playing Hearts, and Keith shot the moon.”
“Shot the moon?”
“He took all of the hearts, and the other players get points instead of Keith,” Pete explained. “Points are bad in Hearts.”
“I could have stopped him,” I said. “But no one ever told me about that rule.”
“It’s just a game,” Danielle replied.
“I know. But I’m just frustrated. Like that Mao game you guys were playing yesterday, I still don’t get all of it. And I did something really stupid on the Internet that made a bunch of people mad.”
“What did you do?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s not a big deal. Just hang in there.”
“The whole point of Mao is to learn the rules as you go along,” Caroline added. “And sometimes that’s just how life is.”
“I guess you’re right. It’s just frustrating that I seem to know so much less about how life works in general.”
“Don’t get down about that,” Danielle said, smiling. “Everyone is still learning about life.”
“None of us were born knowing everything about life,” Caroline said. “I moved here from Australia when I was 12. I didn’t think it was going to be a big transition, because I spoke English, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”
Pete looked at me. “You’re doing fine. Just don’t let this get you down.”
I stayed in that stairwell for about another half hour talking to them, then I went back to my room. Life seems to have so many unwritten rules, and even though Pete and Caroline were right that no one knows all the rules, they all seemed to know so much more than I did. I grew up so sheltered, and I don’t read unspoken communication very well. This world, where having sex with someone you just met, waiting three days to talk to someone you like, and writing a six- to eight-page paper at the last minute are considered normal, was very strange to me. For that matter, even Danielle putting her head on my shoulder was strange to me.
But I was learning, and I was finding my place. I had new friends here in Building C, and there was nothing to do at this point except start learning these things that everyone else seemed to know. And, much like with the game Mao, I would learn by watching what other people do, and there would be much trial and error involved, and probably a few hilariously awkward moments along the way.
Author’s note from 2019: I have an Instagram specifically for this site now, so go follow me! www.instagram.com/greg_dontletthedaysgoby/