March 4, 1995. Friendship is special.

Previously, on Don’t Let The Days Go By, Greg was having a terrible day, in which everything was going wrong.  His friends rudely woke him up in the middle of the night; he went into a rage in front of his friends and ran outside.  Read the whole story here.


 

I had a terrible day today.  Well, technically the terrible day was yesterday now, since it was after midnight, but to me it doesn’t feel like the next day until I actually wake up.  Everything went wrong today. I didn’t understand something from the math homework that was due today. The book I needed at the library for my paper was checked out.  Mom sent me on an errand to go shopping for a present for someone back home, and I couldn’t find what she needed. And then, to make it worse, my friends were sitting right outside my room at 1:00 in the morning talking loudly, and they woke me up.  I lost it at that point. I threw a tantrum and ran outside after throwing a cardboard box that almost hit Sarah. And now I felt terrible that I lost control in front of my friends.

I had been sitting outside in my car for about fifteen minutes.  I started walking back to the building, ashamed, holding my head low.  I was tired. I needed to try to go back to sleep. I would apologize to everyone in the morning.  I knew that someone would tell me that what I did was wrong, even though I knew that already. But I deserved to be scolded and shamed after the way I had been behaving.

I slid my ID card and opened the door to the lobby, and I stepped inside, quietly and slowly walking straight ahead toward the stairs.  But I didn’t make it to the stairs.

“He’s back!” Sarah said in a loud whisper, jumping up and giving me a hug.

“Greg! Are you okay?” Krista asked.  I nodded, slightly confused.

“Thank you, Jesus, for bringing Greg back safely,” Pete said, as Sarah and Krista sat on the floor and gestured for me to sit next to them.

“Yes, Jesus,” Krista added, placing her hand on my back.  “Please give Greg a sense of peace, and calm whatever is on his mind right now.  Take away his burdens, and clear his mind so he can hear from you.”

At this point, my brain finally started to process what was happening to me; maybe this was the clear mind that Krista had prayed for.  I was still in the lobby; I hadn’t made it to my room yet. The six people who had seen my tantrum were all here. Pete, Caroline, and Charlie were on the couch; Sarah, Krista, and Taylor were on the floor with me.  And they didn’t seem to be upset at all. They were praying for me. I wondered if they had been praying for me since they saw me run away, over fifteen minutes ago.

“God,” Taylor said, “I pray that you will send your Holy Spirit upon Greg, that he might know your love for him.”

“And I thank you for bringing us all here to Jeromeville, where we can get to know each other and be part of each other’s lives,” Sarah added.  “I thank you for Greg, and all the unique gifts you have given him. And I pray that he will know that he is loved.”

“Praise the Lord,” Pete said.  The others nodded and murmured in agreement.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Sarah said as she put her hand on me and rubbed my back.

“Thank you,” I said between sobs; I had started crying a minute or so earlier.  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lost control. And I didn’t mean to throw the box at you.  I wasn’t aiming for you.”

“It’s all right.  I know you didn’t.  We all have bad days.”

I closed my eyes.  I still didn’t want to face these people after the way I had lost control in front of them.  Now they’re going to think I’m some kind of crazy person for the rest of the year.

Pete began to pray again after about thirty seconds.  “Father, God, whatever is on Greg’s mind right now, I pray that you will bring peace about it.  I pray that you will comfort him and calm his fears.”

“Yes, Father,” Caroline added.  “Bring peace in the storm.”

“And I pray that he will never forget that he is loved,” Sarah said, her hand still on my back.  The others replied “Yes,” and “Amen,” and things like that.

“I can’t do this,” I said.  “I want to give up. I shouldn’t be here.  I should be locked up somewhere, where I won’t hurt anyone when I get like this.  I’m sorry. You guys don’t have to stay up for me. You can go to bed.”

“No!” Krista said.  “We’re your friends.  We’re here by your side no matter what.”

“Yes, Greg,” Taylor added.  “We’re here for you. And we should apologize for waking you up too.  That wasn’t nice of us.”

“Yeah,” Charlie said.  “I’m sorry.” The others all voiced their agreement.

“Don’t give up,” Sarah said, embracing me from the side from where we were sitting.  “Jesus, I pray that you will show yourself to Greg, and give him hope, and strength to keep running the race.  Take away these bad thoughts from his mind, the thoughts of giving up and not belonging here. Those thoughts come from the pit of hell, and I pray that you will bind Satan and stop letting him get inside Greg’s head.”  The others again replied with a chorus of “Yes”es and “Amen”s as she let go of me.

I took a few more deep breaths, as the others sat in silence with me.

“You gonna be okay?” Taylor asked eventually.

“I think so.  But I should probably go back to bed.  We all should.”

“Seriously, though, we’re here for you,” Sarah said.  “If you ever need to talk about things, just come find any one of us.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Thank you so much.”

 

I woke up around seven-thirty, still a little tired since I hadn’t gotten to sleep until almost 2:00.  It was a Saturday morning, so I didn’t have a class to get to. After lying around in bed and reading for a while, I bundled up in a sweatshirt and got on my bike.  It was early enough in the day to still be sweatshirt weather, although it was sunny, and being that this was the week of Fake Spring, it looked like it would get warmer in the afternoon.  I rode out to the Lodge in the Arboretum and took the trail on the south bank all the way west to the end of the creek, which was really just a very long lake. I followed the trail around the end of the creek onto the north bank, past the oak grove.  I followed that trail east as far as I could, along the same route where I had taken my parents when they had been visiting a couple weeks earlier. I rode through the redbud grove, past the large succulents, past the live oak with the Native American meditation garden next to it, past the water tower and the law school and the administration building, and to the spot where the creek bed widens into Spooner Lake.  I continued past the drama and music buildings through a grove of redwoods, crossing under the Old Jeromeville Road bridge. (I had heard that locals used to shorten the name of this road to “OJ Road,” but this name was falling out of favor now because it made people think of O.J. Simpson, the retired football player and actor who was currently on trial for murdering his ex-wife.)

East of Old Jeromeville Road, the landscaping in the Arboretum became much more sparse.  The waterway looked more like a ditch with large patches of algae, and a paved trail immediately adjacent on each side.  The ditch ended in a wider spot that resembled a cul-de-sac. (The word “cul-de-sac” literally means “bag’s ass” in French, I always thought that was funny.)  I turned around, headed back west, and took a side path leading back to ground level. This path turned to the north, to the intersection of First and B Streets in downtown Jeromeville.  The streets downtown made a grid, with number and letter street names; the buildings were mostly old houses from the early twentieth century, mixed with a few newer structures. Some of these old houses had been converted into offices and restaurants.

I headed north on B Street, past the two block long Central Park, much smaller than the similarly-named park in New York.  I continued north to 15th Street, and then turned west past Jeromeville High School, through a neighborhood that looked newer, probably from the middle of the twentieth century.  I turned south on Andrews Road, crossing back on to campus, and at Thong Bikini Hill, which was closed for the season, I turned left on Davis Drive. I turned right toward the dairy and the South Residential Area, and I went back to my room and showered.

I saw Danielle in the hallway later that day.  “Hey, Greg? Are you okay?” she asked me. “Caroline told me about what happened last night.”

I looked down at my feet, avoiding eye contact.  “I’m okay,” I said. “I was just having a bad day for a lot of reasons.  And I kind of blew up when I was trying to sleep and they woke me up.”

“She said everyone was really worried about you.”

“I know.  And I feel bad.  They didn’t need to worry about me just because I was acting childish.  I don’t want to be a burden on everyone else.”

“Don’t say that.  We do worry about you.  You’re our friend.”

I made eye contact with her again and saw a look of sincerity.  “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

 

I didn’t have any plans for the rest of that day.  I found Sarah, Krista, Pete, and Taylor at the dining hall with open seats next to them, so I sat down.

“How’s your day going?” Taylor asked me.

“Better,” I said.  “I rode my bike and did some homework, and that’s about it.”

“Where’d you go?” Krista asked.

“The entire length of the arboretum, then up B Street to where it ends by the high school, then 15th Street back to Andrews.”

“How long of a ride was that?”

“Not that long.  Took about half an hour.”

“That’s a pretty good ride,” Pete said.

“We were just talking about going downstairs to play pool when we’re done eating,” Taylor said.  “Want to come with us?”

“Sure,” I said.

A while later, we all went to the South Area recreation room, downstairs from the dining hall.  We were allowed to take a soft-serve ice cream cone from the machine outside of the dining hall with us, and I had one now, as did Sarah.  We walked into the mail room, and Taylor and I walked to the Help Window where we could check out pool balls and cues. Megan, the RA from Building K with the fading green hair, was on duty.

“Hey, Greg,” she said.  “How are you?”

“Doing better than yesterday.”  I handed her my ID card in exchange for the pool equipment; I would get it back when I returned the balls and cues.

“Did you figure out that math problem?”

“No.  And that’s okay.”

“Now you’re sounding like a true college student!” she said.  Taylor laughed, and I chuckled.

“Do you know Taylor?” I asked.  “He’s in my building.”

“Hi, Taylor.  I’m Megan, from Building K.”

“Hey, Megan.”  Taylor shook Megan’s hand.

“Have fun!” Megan told us as she gave us the pool equipment.

“I will!  Thanks!”

When we were back in the room with the pool table, Taylor asked, “How do you know her?  Is she in your math class?”

“No,” I explained.  “I just know her from seeing her around.  And there was this problem I couldn’t figure out, so I asked everyone I knew who had taken 21C before.  She’s a chemical engineer, so she would have taken it last year.”

We took turns playing, with Pete and Krista first, which gave me and Sarah time to finish our ice cream cones.  I played against Taylor next. I came close to winning, but I still had one colored ball on the table when Taylor sank his last striped ball and the 8 ball.  We continued taking turns, two of us playing and the other three watching and just talking. We spent over an hour there, and then walked back in the dark to Building C.  We sat in the common room for another hour, just talking.

“What’s everyone doing tomorrow?” Krista asked at one point.  “This is the week you’re going to start doing worship for 20/20, right, Pete?”

“Yeah,” Pete said.  “I think I’m ready.”

I wasn’t familiar with this 20/20 that they spoke of, nor had I heard the word worship used in this sense.  “What’s this?” I asked.

“20/20 is the college group and Sunday school class at our church, Jeromeville Covenant,” Pete explained.  “I’m going to play guitar tomorrow for the class, when we do worship music.”

“Oh, nice!”

“Are you still going to church at that Catholic Newman place?” Krista asked.  “And Danielle goes there too, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“How do you like it?”

“It’s good.  It’s not all old people like the church I grew up in.”  The others laughed.

“That’s good,” Taylor said.  “So you have friends there.”

“Yeah.”

The conversation reached a lull, and everyone just kind of looked around.  Sarah was smiling. “Friendship is special,” she said. “Tonight was fun.”

“Yeah, it was,” Krista concurred.

“Thanks again for inviting me along,” I said.

“Any time, Greg,” Sarah said.  “You’re always welcome to hang out with us.”

“Yeah,” Taylor added.  “And we’re here for you if you ever need to talk.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “I really mean it.”

 

We went back to our rooms shortly after this.  I lay on my bed reading. Currently I was reading the book Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom.  The book, written about a decade earlier, was relatively obscure until last year, when it was adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks.  The movie went on to win numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. I had seen the movie once, back home with Catherine Yaras about a month before I left for Jeromeville.  I really liked the movie, and I thought it would be fun to read the book that it was based on.

As is often the case with books made into movies, the movie was significantly different from the book.  Many of the details of the story were completely rewritten for the movie, but the basic premise remained.  Forrest was a man with low intelligence who tells the story of his childhood in the 1950s and his young adulthood in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War.  Forrest’s naive perspective on the world gives a unique perspective on historical events unclouded by many of society’s biases.

I felt a bit like Forrest at times.  I didn’t always understand the world around me.  I often missed a lot of subtext and unspoken communication behind various situations.  And sometimes the way that I viewed certain situations showed a lack of understanding of the cultural background of such situations.  In the movie, there is a scene where Forrest is the only white man in a lively African-American gospel choir, and Forrest’s first person perspective never mentions any of the social implications of this.  He’s just doing his thing, going to church, praising the same God he grew up with, and spending time with the family of his deceased African-American friend.

I wondered if I would stick out like that if I ever went to Jeromeville Covenant Church or Jeromeville Christian Fellowship with my friends.  I still wondered if these were the kinds of Christians who got up and danced, or clapped to music, or spoke in tongues, or weird stuff like that.  But even if I did stand out, if I was a little different, after tonight I knew one thing: my friends’ love for God and for others was real, and they would accept me unconditionally into their lives, no matter what.  No one had ever gathered in a group to pray for me like that, not even my Catholic friends at the Newman Center (although, to be fair, they never saw me that angry).  If Taylor and Pete and Sarah and Krista and Caroline and Charlie were still standing by me after what they saw last night, and if treating me like this was part of what being a Christian meant to them, I knew that we would stand by each other for the rest of our lives.  That kind of love lasts through hard times, through bad decisions, through life handing out the proverbial lemons, and even through not understanding Lagrange multipliers.   This tiny bedroom in which I was reading right now wasn’t exactly luxurious, but for now, at least, Building C was home.

1995-03-04 lagrange
Photo: Stein, Sherman K. and Anthony Barcellos.  Calculus and Analytic Geometry, 5th ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992.

 

March 3, 1995. Throwing the box.

As a child, I read a book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  In the book, everything goes wrong for Alexander, from the moment he wakes up until he goes to bed.  Some of the bad things involve his older brothers or kids at school, and some of them are just freak accidents.  Alexander repeatedly makes comments about wanting to run away to Australia, presumably to leave his bad day behind.

I felt like Alexander today.

I had math class in the morning, and I had to turn in an assignment incomplete. The problem in the textbook used something called Lagrange multipliers, another way to do minimization problems.  The example in the book was to find the dimensions of a can that has minimum surface area for a certain volume, which I already knew how to do a different way. Lagrange multipliers in the example looked simple enough, but the technique didn’t work at all with this one problem on the homework.  It was possibly the first time in my life that I didn’t understand something from math class. I sent emails to my instructor, and to everyone I knew who had taken the class before. Pete Green, who was two quarters ahead in math instead of one quarter ahead like me; the Interdisciplinary Honors Program was full of students who were ahead in their college coursework.  Gurpreet, the RA down the hall who was a computer science major. Megan McCauley, the cute RA with the green hair from Building K who was a chemical engineering major. And a girl named Mary Heinrich whom I had only met twice; she was the President of the Math Club, a senior, and also an alumna of the IHP. Pete had told me that he never understood Lagrange multipliers either, and Gurpreet said that his instructor skipped that lesson.

After math class, I went to the library to work on that paper for the South Africa class that was due in less than a week.  A couple years before I started, the UJ library stopped using a physical card catalog and switched to an electronic system. I remember feeling frustrated last quarter, trying to figure out how all that worked and how to find materials in a large university library that used the Library of Congress classification system rather than the much simpler Dewey Decimal System used in local and school libraries.  By now, though, I had figured it out. I wrote down the locations of a few books that would be helpful.

When I went to look for these books, though, two of them were already checked out, and the others had very little information that I could actually use in my paper.  I asked at the circulation desk when those two books would be back, and found out that one of them was due back next week, the day before my paper was due, and the other most likely wouldn’t come in by then.

I was having a bad day.

 

My day felt like it was starting to turn around when I got to chemistry class.  We had gotten a midterm back, and I got 100%, better than I had done on the first midterm.  After class got out, I was hungry, so I dropped off my backpack in my room and walked to the dining hall.  After I got my food, I looked around for a place to sit. Megan was sitting with a few other girls, probably some of her residents from Building K; she saw me and motioned for me to sit with them.

“Hey, Greg,” Megan said.  “Come sit with us.” She gave me a friendly smile, which I tried my best to return.  Early this quarter, Megan had cut her hair short and dyed it green; I liked her hair before better, personally, but I wasn’t going to say so out loud.  Her natural color, on the darker side of blonde, was growing back at the roots, and there was something strangely familiar yet out of place about that combination of hair color.

“Hey, I got your email about Lagrange multipliers,” Megan said after I sat down.  “I don’t think we learned that. I still have my Math 21 book, and I looked through that section, and none of it looked familiar.”

“A guy in my building who is ahead of me in math said the same thing.  He took 21C last quarter, and he didn’t remember learning it either.”

“Yeah.  But you said it was on your homework?”

“I don’t understand why it would be on my homework if no one learns it.”

“Me either.  Sorry I can’t help,” Megan said.  “How’s your day going other than that?”

“Honestly, it’s been a frustrating morning,” I explained.  I told her about not finding the book I was looking for in the library.  While I was telling the story, suddenly I made a connection in my mind that caused me to have to put a lot of effort into holding back a giggle.  Fortunately, I was smart enough not to say out loud what I had realized.

Megan’s hair, with the fading green and the roots growing back, looked like lawn that needed watering.

“I’m sorry you’re having a rough day,” Megan said.  “But hopefully it’ll start to get better. And it’s Friday!  Are you doing anything this weekend?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “Probably working on that paper, if I can find any sources that aren’t already checked out.”

“Just relax and take it easy.  Or do something fun with your friends.”

“We’ll see.  I don’t know if any of my friends will be around.”  Besides, I thought to myself, I don’t really know how to make plans with friends.  I kept this thought to myself.

“We’re going to head back to the building now,” Megan said when I was about halfway done with my meal, and she and the others had all finished.  “I hope your day gets better, Greg.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Have a good weekend.”

“You too!”

A few minutes later, as I was climbing downstairs out of the dining hall, I saw Andrea from Building B, who was in my math class, with a guy wearing a sweater, looking more well-dressed than the typical college student.  “Hey,” she said, seeing me.

“That problem on the homework today with the Lagrange multipliers,” I said.  “Did you get that? Because I didn’t.”

“I had no idea what was going on with that problem,” she said.  “I don’t think she ever went over that in class.”

“I know.  I’m confused too.”

“Greg?  Have you met my boyfriend, Jay?”

“Hi,” I said, hoping the disappointment wouldn’t show in my voice.  “I’m Greg.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jay said, shaking my hand.

“Have a great weekend!” Andrea said.

“Thanks.  You too.”

 

I walked back to my room and lay down on the bed, face down with my head in the pillow, for a few minutes.  The cute girl from math class has a boyfriend. And the cute older girl couldn’t help me with Lagrange multipliers.  So much for the day starting to turn around.

I got off my bed after about fifteen minutes and checked my email.  None of the girls in other states and countries I’d been talking to had written back.  I had one message, and it was from Mary Heinrich, the president of the Math Club.


From: meheinrich@jeromeville.edu
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Fri, 03 Mar 1995 12:44 -0800
Subject: Re: Lagrange multipliers

Hi Greg!  I’m pretty sure my professor skipped that section… sorry I can’t be more helpful! 😦 Hopefully I’ll see you at the Math Club meeting next week.

-Mary


So there it was.  Everyone I knew to ask about Lagrange multipliers couldn’t help me.  Shelley Bryce, the instructor for the class, hadn’t gotten back to me yet.  Her office hours were exactly the same days and times that I had the South Africa class with Dr. Dick Small, so I wouldn’t be able to go there either.  I never did figure out Lagrange multipliers, by the way.

Maybe my day would get better if I did something else.  It was time to go on an adventure. I got in the car and headed east on Highway 100, toward Capital City.  Mom had given me an errand last night when we were on the phone. My brother Mark’s youth basketball season was ending soon, and the kids’ parents wanted to get a present for the coach.  The coach’s favorite player was future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond, who currently played for the Capital City Royals. The Royals had just changed their logo and color scheme for this current season, and Mom got the idea of all the parents chipping in to get the coach a Mitch Richmond jersey with the new color scheme.  Mom told me that, since I live near Capital City, I could go get the jersey for her, and bring it home at spring break, and she would pay me back. Normally I would be a little irritated at Mom sending me to do something that didn’t concern me, but this time I didn’t mind, because I had the money, and it meant I got to explore somewhere new.

I crossed the river into downtown Capital City on a high freeway bridge.  I saw the original Capital Drawbridge, with its two tall towers and triangular girder pattern, about half a mile upstream.  The Drawbridge was no longer the main route into Capital City; it was bypassed in 1966 by the freeway I was currently on. I could see the tall buildings of downtown Capital City on my left.  The older neighborhoods of Capital City were known for having old, tall trees along the sidewalks, and a sea of these trees, with islands of rooftops on tall Victorian and early twentieth century houses, spread out to my left between the freeway and the even taller buildings in the distance.

After passing through downtown Capital City, I turned north on Highway 51 and got off four exits later at the mall.  This mall was two stories high, over twice as big as the one back home in Gabilan. I parked the car and walked in, looking around and taking in the fact that this mall was huge compared to what I was used to.  I went through a phase in my early teens when I liked going to the mall in Gabilan, but I wasn’t so much interested in shopping as I was in the video arcade there and this really yummy cookie shop. In fact, in 2005, I just happened to be in Plumdale at my parents’ house when I read in the newspaper that the cookie shop was closing for good.  I drove into Gabilan and bought one last dozen cookies there, and I never did tell my family about that because I didn’t want to share.

I walked up and down the entire length of the mall, just to browse, and also to people-watch, or in my case, cute-girl-watch.  I walked into a music store to do more up-close browsing, and I ended up buying R.E.M.’s Monster and Soundgarden’s Superunknown.  There were a few other CDs I wanted to buy, but I didn’t feel right spending all that money.

Upstairs, I found a shop that sold sports merchandise.  I looked through the basketball jerseys and found some with names of many of the best players of the day: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Charles Barkley.  But no Mitch Richmond. That didn’t make sense. The Royals had just moved to Capital City about a decade earlier, and Mitch Richmond was the best player who had ever played in Capital City so far. He was an All-Star, and moreover, he was the only All-Star from the local team.  What kind of store doesn’t carry merchandise of an All-Star player who plays just a few miles away?

“Looking for something?” a store employee asked me, walking up next to me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

“Hmm,” the guy said, with a look on his face that suggested he knew little about basketball, and that the name did not ring a bell.  “Let me go try to find one for you.” He walked into the back room. I didn’t really follow basketball all that closely in 1995; basketball was Mark’s thing.  Baseball was still on strike, and hockey wasn’t very big here in the Valley, so Bay City Captains football was the only sport I followed closely at the time. But I knew enough about basketball to have at least heard of Mitch Richmond.

“Yeah, we don’t have that,” the employee said when he came out of the back room.

“He plays for the Royals!  We’re in Capital City! This store doesn’t make sense!  It’s like a store in Chicago that doesn’t sell Michael Jordan jerseys!”  I turned my back and left the store in a huff.

At the other end of the mall was another store that sold sports merchandise.  I had the opposite problem here: there were numerous Mitch Richmond jerseys in many different sizes and in all three designs that the team used this year.  I didn’t know what Mark’s coach would want. I didn’t even know what size he wore.

“May I help you?” the guy behind the cash register said, noticing that I seemed to be having trouble with this.

“I don’t know,” I said angrily.  “I was sent here to buy a gift for someone I don’t know, and I’m not sure what he wants or what size he wears.”

“Hmm.  What is it that the person wants?”

“A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

“You kind of need to know the size for that one, don’t you.  Can you find out?”

“I’ll be back,” I said, again storming out of the store.  I hated this. I didn’t understand what I was looking for, and I didn’t need to have been sent on this errand in the first place.  I was in way over my head, and I didn’t even ask to do this, and I wasn’t even going to get anything new for myself. Well, I got the two CDs, but I could have gotten those at Tower Records without having to leave Jeromeville.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I’ll move to Australia.

I could ask Caroline for some pointers, since she was from Australia.

But I didn’t go to Australia, or to another store in the mall.  Instead, I went to a pay phone. Back in 1995, only the extremely wealthy had cell phones, and long distance phone calls cost money.  Fortunately, my parents had something called a calling card, where they could make a call from any phone in the country and have it billed directly to them.  They gave me the PIN number (PIN number is a redundant expression in the same sense as Arroyo Verde Creek), so I could call them from anywhere and they would pay for it.  I did this now.

“Hello?” Mom said, answering on the second ring.

“Why did you send me on this stupid errand?” I shouted, starting to cry.

“Whoa.  Where are you?”

“I’m at Capital East Mall, in Capital City.  I came here to look for a Mitch Richmond jersey, like you asked me to.  I don’t know what size he wears, or what design or color he wants.”

“Don’t worry about it!  If you don’t want to get it, I’m sure we can order one from that catalog Mark gets all his sports stuff from.”

“I’m all the way here.  I don’t want to leave empty handed.”

“Get any of the designs.  I’m sure he’ll like it. And he wears extra large.”

“But I don’t want to get him something he doesn’t like.”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay.  And it’s a gift. He’ll appreciate the gift.”

“Maybe.  I’ll go back to the store and see.”

“You do that.  It’s okay. How was school today?”

“I’ll call you sometime over the weekend from home, so it’ll be cheaper.  And I don’t want to have a personal conversation out in public.”

“Good idea,” Mom said.  “Are you going to be all right?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll talk to you this weekend, then.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone and sat on a bench.  I tried to wipe my eyes so it didn’t look like I’d been crying.  It didn’t work. But I went back to the last store where I had been anyway.  I got a Mitch Richmond jersey, size extra large, and I picked out the black one.  Mom said get anything, so if the coach didn’t like it, it wasn’t my fault anymore.

 

The rest of the night was pretty boring.  I sat alone at dinner. I didn’t meet any cute girls on IRC.  There were no new interesting conspiracy theories on the Pink Floyd Usenet group.  I listened to my new CDs. They were good, but R.E.M. seemed to be going in a different direction from what their last two albums sounded like, and the Soundgarden album generally sounded darker as a whole than the two songs that were familiar to me.  I read for a while. I went to bed at the usual time, between 11 and midnight, and fell asleep quickly.

I woke up with a start when I heard voices and laughter.  They were coming from the hallway. The clock said 1:21 AM.  Whoever was talking was doing so after hours and thus breaking the rules, and I was furious because they woke me up.  Could this day really get any worse? I lay in bed for a few minutes, but the voices were just loud enough that there was no way I’d be able to go back to sleep.  Who were these rude people who wouldn’t let me sleep? Probably those weird stoners and partiers who lived upstairs at this end of the third floor.

In one corner of the room near the closet was a large cardboard box, shaped like a cube about two feet on each side.  The box had originally held my computer, but now all that was inside was the foam packing material. I used the box as a small table now.  There was nothing on it, and more importantly, it was the first non-lethal object I could find to throw at whomever was being so inconsiderate outside my doorway.  I picked up the box and opened the door, squinting at the sudden brightness coming from the hallway.

Taylor, Pete, Caroline, Charlie, Krista, and Sarah were sitting in the hallway.  This was not at all who I expected to see, not the partiers from the third floor.  And in a way, this made the whole experience feel even worse, because these people were some of my closest friends.  And they couldn’t even be considerate enough to let me sleep.

I threw the cardboard box at the wall as forcefully as I could, while glaring angrily at the others and screaming incoherently for about two seconds.  The box hit the wall and almost fell on Sarah, bumping against her shoulder. Sarah looked at me, stunned, as did the other five. I ran across the hall to the stairwell and stomped off downstairs and out of the building.

It was cold and dry outside, and it smelled like poop because the dairy barn was nearby.  I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything now. Without thinking about what I was doing, I walked to the car.  I knew I had blown it. I had made a big mistake, and everyone had seen my true colors, my inability to control myself.  It didn’t matter that I was a successful student at a prestigious university anymore. I was just that scared little kid who blew up and lashed out when life got to him, just like I had been all through elementary school.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I’ll turn on this car and drive all the way to Australia.

I had always struggled with these kinds of outbursts all my life, although not as often as I did when I was in elementary school.  I was constantly bullied and teased all through school, called horrible names for no reason other than that I was an easy target, because I was different.  No one ever taught me to stand up for myself or to fight back. No one ever taught me how to be confident or how to find people who would build me up. So I would take it and take it and take it for days, for weeks, until I would finally explode, throwing furniture, and pushing and hitting people (and I would often get hit back even harder).  Then my teacher and my parents would scold me and say that I needed to learn to control myself, and once I got old enough that school suspension was an option, I would get suspended for a few days. That happened all through elementary school, and twice in high school as well.

I had been that kid all my life, and I always would be.  And there would always be people around me to tell me condescendingly that what I did was wrong, as if I didn’t know this already.  And some adult authority figure would come along eventually and tell me that I couldn’t do this, and that I needed to be pumped full of pills to fix me.  And the pills wouldn’t work either, because they never do, just like they didn’t work before when I was younger.

This year was supposed to be different.  I was finally free of everything that held me back in Plumdale, and I could make a fresh start in Jeromeville.  But this wasn’t a fresh start. It was the same old dumpster fire that my life had been for eighteen and a half years.  I didn’t know why I was here or what I wanted to study. I didn’t have a girlfriend. And neither of those things would change as long as I kept making mistakes like this.

I didn’t drive to Australia, obviously.  I sat in the car for about another fifteen minutes, thinking about these things and trying to calm myself down.  I closed my eyes for a while. I opened them again. I took a deep breath. Whatever I messed up tonight, whatever mistakes I made, giving up wasn’t going to make things any better.  I had nothing to lose by learning from this and moving forward. This experience really wasn’t worth quitting school over.

I was ready to put this behind me for the night.  It was late, and I was tired, and it was time to go back to bed.  I would apologize to everyone in the morning, but I knew it probably didn’t matter.  I had blown it in front of my new friends. They had seen me for what I was. I knew that what I did was wrong, and I also knew that they were all going to tell me anyway that I was in the wrong, and make me feel worse about it.  I had violated the rule about quiet hours, so Amy or Gurpreet, or both of them, would probably get involved. And I deserved all that. I was just going to have to bite the bullet and let them scold me and tell me how badly I had behaved.  I just hoped I wouldn’t get kicked out of the building, or kicked out of UJ entirely, for this.

I stepped out of the car and took a deep breath of the aromatic dairy air.  I walked back to Building C, like a dog with my tail between my legs, ashamed of the way I had behaved.  I got to the front door and scanned my key card. The door clicked, and I pulled it open.

And nothing I had seen or experienced in my eighteen and a half years of life so far had prepared me for the scene that was waiting for me in the lobby.

To be continued…

compaq box
I still have The Box in 2019.  It’s in my garage, storing a bunch of old T-shirts with too much sentimental value to get rid of.