December 24-25, 1995. I really wish Mom would ask me first before volunteering me for things.

“Time to open presents,” I said as I put my dinner plate in the sink.

“First I have to do the dishes, then I have to go upstairs and finish wrapping them,” Mom replied.  “I told you, I’d tell you when I was ready.  Go watch Jeopardy! or something.”

“Mark is watching basketball.”

“Then go watch basketball with Mark.”

“I don’t care about those two teams,” I said, climbing the stairs to my bedroom.  I turned on the computer.  My parents had no Internet service, so the only way I could use the Internet was to dial the same number I used to connect to the Internet in Jeromeville.  Mom told me that it was okay to check my email a couple of times per day, but I did not want to tie up the phone line for hours at a time with an expensive long distance call, so I was not chatting on IRC or reading Usenet newsgroups from my parents’ house.

I listened as the modem made the sounds associated with checking my email.  It began with a standard dial tone, followed by the tones of the number I had to call to connect to the University of Jeromeville network, but this time there were eleven tones, not seven, since I was calling from outside the area code.  A series of hisses, clicks, high-pitched beeps, whirs, and other unintelligible sounds followed this, until I saw a progress bar indicating that my messages were downloading.  When the messages had all downloaded, about a minute later, the computer clicked and disconnected.  I had last checked my email when I woke up this morning, and four new messages had come in since then.  Three of them were jokes that people had forwarded me from someone else, and I had seen all of them before.  The fourth message, which was sent early this afternoon, I paid more attention to.  It was from Brittany, a girl in Texas who was one of the first friends I made on the Internet, a year a half earlier when this computer was brand new.  This was the first I had heard from Brittany in about a month.


From: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Sun, 24 Dec 1995 01:44 -0600
Subject: Re: hi

Greg!  I’m so sorry I haven’t been writing.  I’ve been really busy with school.  Classes this year have been so much more work than high school was.  I feel like I did ok on all my finals though.  Studying for finals pretty much took up all of the last few weeks.  But now I can catch my breath until spring semester starts.  How did your finals go?  Are you back with your family for Christmas?

–Brittany


I used to get emails from Brittany just about every day for most of the last school year, my freshman year at UJ and Brittany’s senior year of high school.  But over the last several months, I had heard from her less and less as her life got busier. I clicked Reply and began typing.


From: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
To: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
Subject: Re: hi

Hi!  It’s good to hear from you!  I’m glad you did well on finals.  What are you taking next semester?  Do you have any fun plans over break?  Do you know yet where you want to transfer after you finish community college?

I think I did well on my finals too.  I only had three this year.  I’ve been at my parents’ house for about a week.  We’re going to open presents later tonight.  We always open presents the night before Christmas, because the night before my 9th birthday, I was so excited to open presents that I couldn’t sleep, and I kept Mom awake all night.  Ever since, so that I’d be able to sleep when I was a kid, we always open birthday and Christmas presents the night before instead.  Tomorrow, we’re going to church, and then my grandma’s house in Gabilan, the next town over.  My aunt and uncle and cousins will be there, so we’ll have more presents to open.

My mom also wants to go see my grandma’s neighbors.  Their daughter is a senior in high school, she’s taking physics, and Mom volunteered me to tutor her.  I don’t particularly want to spend my break doing homework with some stranger.  I really wish Mom would ask me first before volunteering me for things.  That’s how I ended up with the summer job at the bookstore.  But at the same time, maybe it won’t be so bad, because I get to hang out with a girl.


“I can’t find bows,” Mom called from her bedroom.  “Do you care if one of your presents doesn’t have a bow?”

I minimized the window in which I was typing my message to Brittany and opened the door.  “Mom, I tell you every year, we look at the wrapping paper for like two minutes and then tear it off.  I don’t care what the wrapping looks like.”

“Well, I want it to look nice.  Gifts are supposed to have bows.”

“I really don’t care.”

“If you really don’t care, then, I’m done.  Are you ready to open presents?”

“Sure.”

I saved my unfinished message to Brittany and turned the computer off, following Mom downstairs.  I would have more to write after I was done opening presents.

“I hope this is the one you asked for,” Mom said as Mark opened a box.  Inside was a University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball jersey.

“Yeah, this is it,” Mark said, admiring his present.  “Thank you!”  Mark lived and breathed basketball, and he had favorite players on many different teams as well as several favorite college basketball teams, none of which were anywhere near our house in Plumdale.  I preferred to be a fan of local teams, but most of the top college basketball programs were on the other side of the country; North Carolina, for example.

I grabbed a box with my name on it next; from the size and weight, I guessed that it continued clothing.  I pulled out a gray shirt with red writing and tan highlights: BAY CITY CAPTAINS, it said.  “Thank you,” I replied.  The Bay City Captains were my favorite pro football team, the only sports team that I followed closely that year.  The Captains won last year’s championship and, despite having lost the final game of the season that morning, would advance to the playoffs again this year. I made a note to myself not to mention the Captains shirt when I finished my email to Brittany, given what I knew about her football allegiances.

We continued opening presents.  I got a new pair of jeans, and some blank audio cassettes, for making copies of CDs and listening to them in the car.  My car had no CD player.  Mom handed me one final gift, a box about the size of a book, but much less heavy.  “You didn’t ask for this, but I saw it and figured I had to get it for you,” Mom explained.

“Ha!  This looks hilarious!” I shouted as I tore the wrapping paper and read the label underneath.  It was a computer game, Beavis and Butthead: Virtual Stupidity.  I read the description on the back of the box.  It was an adventure game; the player controlled Beavis and Butthead as they walked around the streets of Highland, making mischief and trying to impress Todd, the local delinquent who the boys misguidedly admired.  But then I saw something on the label that made me feel panic mixed with disappointment.  “I can’t play this,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Mom asked.

“It’s for Windows 95.”

“Oh… and that means there’s no way it’ll run on your computer?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Can you get Windows 95 for your computer?”

“That would be expensive.  And my computer isn’t very powerful; it would probably run very slowly.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “I didn’t even think to look.”

You never do, I thought.  I considered bringing up the time Mom completely missed the “explicit lyrics” warning label when she got Aunt Jane one of Adam Sandler’s comedy albums a few Christmases ago, but I decided not to say anything.

“We’ve been meaning to get a computer for us,” Mom continued.  “So you can play it here when you come home for spring break.  Right?”

“Yeah.  That works.”

After we were finished opening presents, I went upstairs.  I was disappointed that I would not be able to play the Beavis and Butthead game, but I tried not to let my disappointment show.  Christmas was always stressful for Mom, and I already felt a little frustrated with Mom because of the way she had volunteered me to tutor Monica Sorrento in physics without asking me.  I turned on the computer and finished my email to Brittany.


We just finished opening presents.  Mom got me the Beavis and Butthead computer game, but it requires Windows 95 and I don’t have that.  I feel bad, because Mom is going to think I’m upset with her.  When I was 13, my computer was broken, and my presents that year were all computer games, and I got so upset and threw a tantrum because I couldn’t play with any of my Christmas presents.  I feel terrible, because now Mom always has to apologize over and over again if any of us asked for something for Christmas and she wasn’t able to find it, or if something she got wasn’t quite right.  I’ve told her every year I’m more mature now and she doesn’t have to worry about it, but I think I traumatized her for life.

What are you doing for Christmas?  Have a great day!

gjd


The next morning, as we drove to church, Mom was rattling off a bunch of things about people whom we might see at church this morning.  “The Lusks all went to midnight mass, so we won’t see them, but they’ll be at Grandma and Grandpa’s house this afternoon,” Mom said.

“Good,” I replied.  Jane Lusk was my mom’s younger sister, and seeing their family, particularly my cousins Rick and Miranda, was always a highlight of Christmas for me.

“And the Sorrentos usually go to Mass first thing in the morning.  But we’re still going over there this afternoon.”  I nodded silently, prompting Mom to ask, “Right?”

“Yes,” I said.  I did not want to make the situation worse, but I felt like I really needed to speak up.  “But I really do wish you would stop volunteering me for things without asking me first,” I said.

Mom paused, taken off guard by my question.  “Are you saying you don’t want to go see Monica Sorrento today?”

“No.  It wouldn’t be nice to back out now.”  Besides, I thought, it isn’t every day that I get to talk to girls, but I did not say that part out loud.

“Okay,” Mom said, sounding bothered.  “But when have I volunteered you to do things before?”

“When you told Paula McCall that I could work at the bookstore over the summer.”

“You were home, you had nothing to do, and you even said you should get a job.”

“I know, but maybe that wasn’t the job I wanted.  I mean, I probably would have said yes if you had asked me, but you still should have asked me first.”  Mom did not reply to that, so I continued.  “And remember fourth grade, when most of my class was mean to me, and you invited all four of the kids who weren’t mean to me over for play dates.”

“I thought that’s what you wanted.  I was trying to help you make friends.”

“I wanted to make friends, but I wanted them to be nicer to me at school.  I didn’t want them at our house.  And in sixth grade, when we had to babysit Jonathan Hawley once a week because you thought I might want to play with someone from my class.  He was so annoying!”

After a few seconds of silence, Mom replied, “He was annoying, wasn’t he.  I’m sorry.”

“Just ask me first next time you tell someone you think I’d like to do something.”

“Okay.  I promise I will.”

“Thank you.”

“And you’re sure you’re still okay with going to the Sorrentos today?”

“Yes.”

After church, we exchanged presents from the rest of the family at my grandparents’ house.  Grandma got me new socks, and Aunt Jane got me another Bay City Captains shirt, a little different from the one I had opened at my parents’ house.  Rick’s present from Mom was a Captains hat that looked very similar to my shirt.  I suspected that Mom and Aunt Jane had bought all of the Captains merchandise together when they went shopping together earlier in the week.

After about another hour of sitting around eating and playing games, Mom asked if it was okay to go next door to the Sorrentos’ house now.  “Okay,” I said.  I got up and followed Mom next door, waiting nervously on the porch behind Mom as she rang the doorbell.  The Sorrentos were a large family, and they lived in a large two-story house.  They had five girls; Monica was 17, the oldest, and the youngest was in elementary school.  Mom had known the Sorrentos for years; Mom and Aunt Jane and Mr. Sorrento and his sister all went to high school together.

A few seconds later, I heard footsteps and the clicking of a door being unlocked; the door opened, with Mrs. Sorrento on the other side.  “Hi, Peggy!  Hi, Greg!  Merry Christmas!” she said.  I could not remember if I had ever actually met Mrs. Sorrento, but everyone at Our Lady of Peace Church seemed to know who I was, because they knew Mom.

“Hi,” I said.

“Monica is in her room.  I’ll go tell her you’re here,” Mrs. Sorrento said, walking down the hallway.  I stood awkwardly, staring at Mom and looking around at the part of the Sorrentos’ house that I could see from the doorway, until Mrs. Sorrento returned with Monica about a minute later.

“Hi,” Monica said, smiling.  Turning to me, she said, “Nice to meet you,” and shook my hand.  I returned the handshake.  Monica was short and thin, with curly brown hair and brown eyes.

“You needed help with physics?” Mom said to Monica.  “Greg always liked physics.”

“There was something I didn’t understand,” Monica explained, “but I went in to talk to the teacher about it.  I think I get it now.”

So Mom dragged me all the way here to tutor Monica in physics, and now she says she does not need a tutor.  Now I really did not understand the point of all this.  “That’s good,” I said to Monica.  Trying to think of something to say, I added, “I had a bad physics test last year.  High school physics was easy for me, so I didn’t study very hard.  But I started going to my professor’s office hours, and I studied really hard for the next one, and that time I had the highest grade out of the whole class, about 200 people.”

“Wow,” Monica replied.  “I know that’s normal for you, but 200 people in a class sounds kind of crazy.”

“Yeah.”

“So how do you like Jeromeville?”

“I like it.  It’s a huge school, but I’ve found smaller communities to get involved with.  That’s important.”

“Yeah.  I’ve been thinking about colleges, but I’m going to stay home and go to Hartman for the first two years.  I’m probably going to apply to Jeromeville, though.  And U of the Bay, and Capital State, and Central Tech.  I know those for sure.”

“That sounds good.”

“Greg applied to Central Tech too,” Mom added.  “But not Capital State.  Right?”

“Yeah.”

We continued making small talk with Monica and Mrs. Sorrento for about another fifteen minutes.  Mom and Mrs. Sorrento talked about people from church whom I did not know, and Monica and I talked about school and classes.  Mr. Sorrento and two of Monica’s sisters also appeared to say hi.

“Are you ready to go back to Grandma’s house?” Mom asked.

“I think so,” I replied.  Turning to Monica, I added, “And you’ll let me know if you need help with physics or anything like that?”

“Sure!” Monica answered.  “Let me get your contact information.”  She went back to her room and returned with a pen and paper, on which I wrote my address, phone number, and email.

“Can I get yours too?” I asked.  “Well, I know your address.  Do you have email?”

“My dad does.  If you write me there, he’ll pass it on to me.”  Monica wrote her phone number and Mr. Sorrento’s email on the piece of paper, tore that part of the paper off, and gave it to me.  I put it in my pocket.

“Thank you,” I said.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“Nice meeting you too!” Monica said, smiling.

“Thanks for coming over,” Mrs. Sorrento added.  “It was good seeing you guys.”

“You too,” Mom said.

As soon as we were out of earshot, walking back up to Grandma’s front door, Mom said, “See?  That wasn’t so bad.”

“I know,” I said.

“And I promise in the future, I’ll ask you before I tell someone you’ll do something.”

“Thank you.  Can we just drop that now and enjoy the rest of Christmas?”

“Sure.”

I still thought it was a little strange that Mom seemed to make such a point of Monica needing help with physics, but then Monica told me she did not even need help.  I could think of two possible explanations for how this happened: either Mom misunderstood whatever Mrs. Sorrento had originally said about Monica not doing well in physics, or the physics thing was entirely made up and Mom was just trying to help me meet girls.  Either one was very possible, knowing Mom.

Monica and I kept in touch off and on for the rest of that school year, and I saw her in person occasionally on future visits to my grandmother’s house over the years.  We never did become close lifelong friends, nor did anything else happen between us, but that was just part of the cycle of people meeting each other and growing apart naturally.

Since that day, though, Mom really did get better about not telling people I would do things for them without asking me first.  When situations like that came up in the future, Mom would say things like “I’ll ask Greg” instead of “Greg would love to do that.”  And that was what I really wanted, to be treated like an adult and be allowed to make my own decisions.  Being a parent and watching children grow up is a difficult transition, but a willingness to communicate and listen helps everyone get through it.

February 19, 1995. Mom and Dad and Mark visit Jeromeville.

Building C was quiet at ten-thirty on that Sunday morning.  I had just written emails to Brittany from Texas and Molly from Pennsylvania.  It was also my turn to email Renee, my friend from high school. I opened the message and reread what she had written about yesterday.  I figured I might not have time to write back right now, because I was expecting guests, and I needed to go down to the common room to let them in.  But as I was reading Renee’s email, I heard a knock at the door, and I opened the door to see my expected guests in the hallway.

“Hi, Greg,” Mom said, giving me a hug, which I returned.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How’d you guys get in?”

“Tall curly-haired guy let us in,” Dad said.

“Jonathan,” Mom added.  “He was downstairs studying.  Do you know Jonathan?”

“Um, yeah,” I said.  “Don’t you remember how the IHP works?  You guys came to that preview day last year.  Everyone in this building has classes together.  Come in,” I said, gesturing for Mom, Dad, and Mark to come into the room.

“I know that,” Mom continued.  “I meant, is Jonathan your friend?  Do you talk to him?”

“I guess,” I said, a little confused about where Mom was going with this line of questioning.  “I mean, we don’t talk a lot, but I don’t ignore him either.”

“Why is this important?” Mark interrupted loudly.  Until that moment, he had just been standing quietly in the background.

“Good point.  Is it time to go to church yet?” Mom asked.

“Mass starts at eleven,” I said.  “We should probably leave in about ten or fifteen minutes.  We don’t want to be late.”

“Can we just sit around until then?” Dad asked.  “I’m tired from the drive.”

I sat on the bed, Mark sat next to me, Dad sat in the desk chair, and Mom stood near the closet.  We talked mostly about my classes for the next ten minutes until it was time to leave.

“Are we dressed okay for church?” Mom asked.  She was wearing a long sleeve shirt and slacks.  Dad wore a sweater, with jeans and Birkenstocks. Mark wore a solid color t-shirt and jeans. “You’ve been going to church all your life.  Why would this one be different?”

“I don’t know.”

“If anything, people would dress more casually, because this is Jeromeville, with a lot of college students.”

“You’re fine,” Dad said.  “Let’s go.”

We walked out of the building and turned toward the parking lot.  “What’s that smell?” Mark asked.

“That’s the dairy over there.”  I pointed at the buildings across the street from Building C.  “It’s cows.”

“Later on today, I want you to give us a tour of the campus,” Mom said.  “I still haven’t seen all of it, and there’s a lot I don’t remember.”

“We’ll do that after lunch,” I said.

Danielle saw us as soon as we entered the church building.  “Hey, Greg,” she said. “Is this your family?”

“Yes.  This is my mom, and my dad, and my brother Mark.”  I turned to my family and said, “This is Danielle. She lives down the hall in room 216.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mom said.

“Can you save me a seat?” Danielle asked.

“Sure,” I said.  Turning to Mom, I explained, “She sings in the choir.  She’ll sit with us during the homily.” Mom nodded.

During the Gospel reading, Mom nudged me.  She was pointing at a tall guy in the choir with dark hair and features that suggested mixed European and Asian heritage.  “Is that Matt Jones?” she whispered. I shrugged my shoulders and gave her a confused look. “He’s from Gabilan. He’s Josh Jones’ brother.”

“You’re talking during the reading,” I whispered, as Danielle, the guy who might have been Matt Jones, and the rest of the choir sang the Alleluia at the end of the Gospel reading.  Mom turned to Mark and continued whispering, probably asking whether Mark knew if that guy was Matt Jones.

Josh Jones and Mark were on a baseball team together a few years earlier.  Or maybe it was a basketball team; I don’t really remember. I don’t remember ever meeting the Joneses, but Mom had told me at some point that Josh Jones had an older brother named Matt who was a year ahead of me at UC Davis.  I think Matt Jones had gone to St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, a Catholic school, so it made sense that he might be at a Catholic Mass. However, many students at St. Luke’s weren’t practicing Catholics; they just had parents who wanted them somewhere more prestigious than public school.

At the end of the service, Mom said, “I’m going to go ask that guy if he is Matt Jones.  Come on.”

“I don’t want to just go talk to a stranger,” I said.

“I know it’s him.  Let’s go talk to him.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know him.”

“Just come on,” Mom said, walking directly over to the guy she thought was Matt Jones.  She turned around, looking at the rest of us, as if to say that we too had to come in order to make her not feel weird.  I followed her, even though everything about this was weird to me.

“Excuse me,” Mom asked.  “Aren’t you Matt Jones?”

“Yes,” Matt said, turning around and looking puzzled.  “Do I know you?”

“I’m Peggy Dennison.  I’m from Plumdale. My son Mark was on a baseball team with your brother Josh,” Mom explained, gesturing toward Mark.

“Oh, yeah!” Matt said.  “I remember you guys. What are you doing up here?”

“Our other son, Greg, goes here.  He’s a freshman.”

Matt extended his hand to shake mine.  “Hi,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Matt replied.  “Are you guys just visiting for the day?”

“Yes,” Mom explained.  Then, gesturing toward Dad, she said, “He has to work tomorrow.  It isn’t a holiday for everyone.”

“That makes sense.  Travel safely.”

“Thanks.  It was good seeing you.”  Mom turned to me. “Are you ready for lunch?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Sounds good to me,” Dad added.

 

At age 18, I did not have anything at all resembling a sophisticated culinary palate.  I liked McDonald’s, and that was where we often went when we were eating while on vacation.  Jeromeville only had one McDonald’s, and it was completely on the other end of town from where we were.

Dad was driving.  “Which way?” he asked at the stop sign outside of the Newman Center building.

“Left,” I said.  Dad turned left, and we began heading east on Fifth Street.  The street was narrow, with room for two lanes of cars in each direction but not much else.  Old houses and large trees lined the street, along with a few office buildings.

“This looks like a really old neighborhood,” Mom said, looking out the window.

“Yeah,” I replied.

As we continued farther east, we passed by some much newer apartments and office buildings.  “Those apartments look really nice,” Mom said. “I wonder who lives there? College students?  Regular people?”

“I don’t know.”

Eventually Fifth Street curved to the left and ended in a very new neighborhood that appeared to be still under construction.  Dad turned right, then right again, on a road that crossed over Highway 100, while Mom continued talking about one of Grandma’s old lady friends.  “Turn right at the first light,” I said as Dad drove down the other side of the overpass. Dad turned right, and McDonald’s was just past this intersection on the left.

We sat down with our food a few minutes later; Mark and I both ordered Chicken McNuggets.  I dipped a nugget in barbecue sauce as Mom said, “Danielle seems nice.”

“She is.”

“Do you know the girl who was standing next to Danielle in the choir?  To our right, from where we were sitting?”

“Her name is Claire, and she’s a sophomore.  But I don’t really know her.”

“She sure is well-endowed.”

“That’s an understatement,” Dad added, chuckling.

“Why do you guys always have to talk about people behind their backs like that?” I asked.

“I’m not,” Mom said.  “I’m just stating a fact.”

“Yeah, but you’ll never see these people again.  I have to see Claire every week at church, and now I’m going to think about her boobs next time I see her.”

“Doesn’t Greg think about boobs all the time anyway?” Mark chimed in.

“You’re not helping,” I said.  I stopped talking and concentrated on eating until the conversation turned away from Claire’s boobs.

We returned to downtown Jeromeville a different way.  Cornell Boulevard ran parallel to Highway 100 on the south side of the freeway, mostly through newer suburbs.  Just outside of downtown, Cornell Boulevard turned slightly to the right and crossed over Highway 100, then narrowed to two lanes passing through an old and narrow railroad underpass and emerging on the other side at an intersection with First Street.  Cornell Boulevard became E Street continuing past First Street.

“Which way are we going?” Dad asked.

“Left,” I said.

“Fraternity houses,” Mom said after Dad turned, pointing to the right side of First Street.  On the left side was a row of olive trees and a vacant lot. “We must be near campus.”

“Right up there,” I said, pointing straight ahead of us where First Street entered campus and closed itself to automobile traffic.  “But we want to turn left here.”

Dad turned left onto Old Jeromeville Road, which crossed the University Arboretum and an on-campus apartment building for adult students.  “Is that part of the campus?” Mom asked. “It looks like apartments.”

“It is part of campus,” I said.  “I think it’s for older students who have families.”

We continued driving, past a few small research laboratories on our left and the Arboretum on our right.  “What are all those trees on the right?” Mom asked.
“That’s a creek, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.  And there’s an arboretum lining both banks.”

“That looks like a nice place to take a walk.”

“It is.  Are we going to do that later?”

“Sure.  After we get back to the parking lot, I’ll show you around campus.  We can take a walk in the arboretum, and then on the way back to the building, I’ll show you where my classes are and stuff like that.”

“Sounds good.”

We turned onto Andrews Road, crossing back to the north side of the creek and then making a 90 degree left turn to run parallel to it.  “See that road down there?” I said, pointing straight ahead as we made the 90 degree turn. “That first time we drove around campus, that’s where Dad got stuck in that driveway.”

“I remember that,” Mom said.

“Hey, I was only going where your mother told me to go,” Dad said, laughing a little.

“That looks like more agriculture stuff over there,” Mom said, pointing to the left.  In between Andrews Road and the creek was a row of tall pine trees, with what appeared to be barns behind them.  Between the barns were pens with cows and goats inside.

“The Milking Facility is somewhere back there, I know that,” I said.

“Have you ever milked a cow?”

“I think it’s just for people taking those classes and working in those departments.”

“Yeah!” Mark said loudly from the back seat.  “It’s not like just anyone off the street can walk up there and say, ‘Pardon me, may I please milk your cow?’”  Mark asked that last part in an exaggerated falsetto. I laughed.

“I don’t know these things!” Mom said.  “Stop making fun of me!”

“Well, you have to admit, it was kind of a strange question.”

 

Dad pulled into the parking lot a minute after we saw the cows.  “Are we ready to walk around?” he asked.

“Sure,” Mom said.  Mark and I voiced no objections.  I may have only been here for five months, but given my natural inclination toward maps and roads and the exploring I had done on my bike, I felt ready to play tour guide.

We walked east, back the way we came along Andrews Road.  That part of the campus wasn’t very exciting; we had already seen the pine trees and barns across the street, and our side of the street was all parking lots, except for one building called Mayer Hall.  I wasn’t sure what happened in that building, but there were no classrooms as far as I knew.

“That’s the water tower,” I said, pointing ahead of us toward a fenced-off area that appeared to contain maintenance vehicles.  “That’s kind of a campus landmark. It’s on the university seal. You can see it from the freeway.”

We continued toward the water tower to the 90 degree turn in the road, where I led the others off of the main road into the Arboretum.  “This is nice,” Mom said. “The kind of place where you could go read or study in between classes. Do you ever do that?”

“Not really,” I said.  “I usually go home if I have a long gap between classes.  But eventually if I’m living off campus, I could do something like that.  Besides, this time of year it’s usually a little too cold for sitting outside..”

“Have you thought about where you’ll be living next year?”

“Not yet.”

Mom looked at a sign next to a small, bare tree next to us.  “‘Western redbud,’” she read. “This will have pretty flowers in the spring when it starts blooming.”

I looked at the sign.  “Yeah.”

After the redbuds, we walked past some large desert plants, many of which looked similar to the potted succulents found on suburban patios, except much larger.  Past these was a very large live oak tree with a bench underneath. On the other side of us was a large building three stories high. “That’s the law school building.  And that,” I said, pointing around the corner to an even taller building as we crossed a street, “is Marks Hall, where the Chancellor’s Office is.”

“I remember that building,” Mom said.

On the other side of Marks Hall was an area of large trees native to Asia.  The creek widened into a small lake, with a grassy area on the bank on our side.  One student wearing a hoodie sat on the grass reading, with his bike next to him. We passed the grassy area toward a grove of redwood trees, but instead of continuing through the arboretum, we walked to the left.  “These are the art, drama, and music buildings,” I said.

“I still wish you would get back into music someday,” Mom said.

“I know.  I have classes to focus on right now, though.”  I wondered if getting into music again would be less intimidating as an adult, since Mom would not be around to pressure me to perform.  I had to play piano every time Grandma came over, I had to record myself playing so we could send it to other relatives, and all of that made me very self-conscious to the point that I quit playing piano at age 10 and have not done anything musical since.

We crossed Davis Drive and continued walking north, under tall trees that would grow long, thin leaves in the spring.  I’m not sure what they’re called. “That’s the library,” I said, pointing at the large gray building on our left, “but the entrance is on the other side.”  I pointed to the right a few seconds later, to a courtyard in between three buildings. “And over there, those olive and fig trees, there’s a plaque over there that says they were planted in 1855 by the Jerome family, before there was a town or a university here.”

“Wow,” Mom said.

“And I had a class in that building over there.”

I continued pointing out landmarks around the campus as Mom asked questions and Dad and Mark followed quietly.  We walked along the Quad next to a row of tall, aged cork oaks, stepping on years of shed leaves and acorns. Across the street from us, facing the Quad, were the oldest buildings on campus, built in 1906 as dormitories and now housing offices for various student services.  The outside walls of the buildings were covered in wooden shingles. I pointed out the Memorial Union, and Mom and Dad commented on how they remembered that building from the IHP preview day last year. We walked past Wellington Hall, where around half of my classes had been held so far.  I turned left on Colt Avenue and walked past the chemistry building and the barns and silos that had been converted into a second student union, the bike shop, and an arts and crafts center. These buildings had a shingled appearance similar to the old buildings facing the Quad.

“That building has a funny round tower thing on it,” Mom pointed out.

“It’s a silo.  It used to be an actual silo.  And these other buildings were barns.”

“That’s neat the way they made those buildings into something else.  Does that one say ‘Bike Barn?’”

“Yeah.  It’s a bike shop, run by Associated Students.”

“Have you ever been there?”

“I got fenders there, so I don’t get dirty biking in the rain.”

“Why are there big square rocks piled up over there?” Mark asked, pointing to what looked like a pile of big rectangular rocks.

“It’s art,” I explained.

“More like fart.”

“Yeah.  I don’t always get art.”

We turned right on another pedestrian and bike path just after the confusing artwork, walking past a small cluster of walnut trees.  After the barns, the path curved to the left past Kent Hall, one of two buildings used specifically by the various engineering departments.  Just past Kent Hall, scattered among oaks, pines, and other trees I could not identify, were the twelve letter buildings of the South Residential Area.

“Now we’re back to your dorms,” Mom said as we walked between Buildings L and M.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Building C is on the other side.”  I pointed out the dining commons building as we walked past.

“Greg!” I heard a voice say.  It was coming from above where we were walking.  I looked up and saw Taylor Santiago sitting on the balcony at the end of the third floor of Building C.  “How’s it going? Is this your family?”

“Yeah.  This is my mom and dad, and my brother Mark.”  I turned to my family and continued, “That’s Taylor.  He lives in that room next to the balcony.”

“Hi, Taylor,” Mom said.

“So you guys just here for the day?”

“Yeah.”

“From Plumdale, Santa Lucia area, right?”

“Yes.  Greg was just showing us around.  We’re leaving later this afternoon.  Greg’s dad has to work tomorrow.”

“Well it was nice meeting you!  Enjoy your visit!”

“Thanks!”

I walked with the rest of the family around to the main entrance of Building C.  Liz came up the back stairs just as I was letting everyone back in my room. “Hey, Greg,” she said.

“Mom, Dad, Mark, this is Liz.  Liz, this is my family.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Liz said, smiling.  “Are you having a good visit?”

“I am,” Mom replied.

“I have a paper to write.  But it was nice meeting you guys!”

“You too!”

Liz went back into her room just as we entered my room.  “You were going to show me how all that stuff you do on the computer works,” Mom reminded me.

“I can do that,” I said.  I showed her my email inbox, with a list of messages received, and as I was hoping, she didn’t ask me who all those people were.  I got on an IRC chat after all the dings and whistles went through, and explained to the others what IRC chat was. I typed a greeting to the rest of the room and waited to see if anyone would reply.

gjd76: hey
c: hi gjd!
Alicia: hi
BONER: yo gjd, m/f?
*Alicia gives gjd76 roses @}–}–}—–

“Did that Boner guy just call you a MF?” Mom asked.  “That was mean.”

“No,” I explained.  “With the slash and the question mark, it means he’s asking if I’m male or female.”

“And Alicia gave you roses.  What are all those symbols?”

“Turn your head sideways to the left.  It looks like a rose.”

Mom tilted her head.  “Oh! I see. How clever.”  Mom didn’t ask anything more about this; she just wanted to see what it looked like.  I was glad. I really didn’t want to tell my mother what Alicia and I were doing on IRC last night.  And I really hoped Alicia would still be on later tonight after Mom and Dad and Mark left.

gjd76: thanks, alicia :) i’ll be back on later tonight.  my parents are visiting right now, and i’m just showing them how irc works
Alicia: ok! i’ll see you later =)
c: bye gjd
BONER: bye

“You seem to be fitting in here and making friends,” Mom said a while later, after I showed her the Pink Floyd Usenet group and a few other wonders of the text-based Internet.  “That Taylor guy seems really nice.”

“He is,” I said.

“Remember when we came here for the preview day last year?  That one guy said that people in the program often find lifelong friends.  I wonder if you and Taylor are going to end up being lifelong friends.”

“Maybe,” I said.

We spent another hour or so sitting in my room talking.  Mom told me about Mark’s basketball season. Mom told me about the latest gossip she had heard the other day when Mary Bordeaux called her.  Mom told me about drama at her work involving people whom I had no idea who they were. Dad said very little, although he did mention something about some guy he knew from work.  Mark didn’t say much, except to correct Mom when she got a minor detail wrong about one of his basketball games.

In the late afternoon, around four-thirty, Mom said, “Well, it’s probably time for us to go.  We don’t want to be out too late.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“But it was good seeing you.  I enjoyed you getting to show us around.”

“I did too.”

“When are you coming home next?  When is your break?”

“End of March.”

“Then I’ll see you at the end of March.”  Mom hugged me.

“Dad loves you,” Dad said, also walking toward me and giving me a hug.

“Bye,” Mark said.

“Drive safely,” I told them as they left the room and closed the door.

 

At dinner that night, I saw Taylor, Pete, Danielle, Gina, and Skeeter sitting together.  I sat next to them.

“Did your folks leave?” Taylor asked.

“They did,” I said.  “About an hour ago.”

Gina spoke up.  “I saw you guys earlier.  Your dad doesn’t look at all what I expected him to look like.  I can’t believe you came from that.”

I laughed.  “Yeah, I definitely don’t have the scruffy Deadhead look.”

“Your dad is a scruffy Deadhead?” Skeeter asked.

“Yes,” Gina explained.  “Birkenstocks and facial hair and everything.”

“Wow.  Yeah, I wouldn’t have thought that either.”

“So why was your mom talking to Matt Jones after church?” Danielle asked.

“He grew up near me, and our families know each other.  Our brothers played baseball together. But it was so embarrassing!  I don’t know Matt except that I recognize his face. I didn’t want to just go up and talk to some stranger.  And now that I know him, he’s going to think of me as the guy with the weird mom.”

“Maybe your mom could put in a good word for me.  Matt is pretty hot.”

I laughed.  “I don’t know.  I’ll see what I can do.”

I really wasn’t all that upset at Mom embarrassing me.  It got old after a while, but I was used to it. And with me now living almost three hours away, Mom was not around as often to embarrass me.  But Mom was right about one thing that day: Taylor and I did in fact end up lifelong friends. And he is one of the few people from this time period in my life who actually knows about this blog.

2007 taylor's wedding1
Taylor’s wedding, 2007 (with faces removed because I didn’t ask if I could use this picture, and I don’t want to show my real face).  Taylor is third from the left, and I’m the tall guy on the far right.  Pete Green is next to me, and two other guys in this picture will be part of this story eventually.

2019 taylor baseball game1
Taylor (left-center), his wife (lower left), and me (foreground on the right) at a baseball game in Bay City, 2019.

 

January 8, 1995. Let her be.

Today was one of those days where I had to turn the windshield wipers on and off multiple times.  I wish the weather would just make up its mind sometimes. It rained hard enough for a few minutes that I needed to have the wipers on all the way, then the rain tapered off into showers requiring only intermittent wipers.  Then it was dry for a few minutes, and when the wipers started making an irritating squeaky noise, I remembered to turn them off. Then, a few minutes later, it would start raining again, and I would start the whole cycle again.  Of course, the trip from Plumdale to Jeromeville involved driving over hills and across valleys, which also accounts for part of the reason the weather changed so much.

This was now my fifth time making this trip since beginning classes at UJ.  I was learning these roads enough to know where I was and what was coming next.  Highway 11 north from Plumdale north to San Tomas. That usually took about 45 minutes.  Then north on Highway 6, through East San Tomas and Irving, and over a big hill. The highway winds east through the hills, and then north through the outer suburbs of San Tomas and Bay City.  After a city called Marquez, Highway 6 passes through an industrial area on the shore of the Capital River. The river at this point is over a mile wide, and the bridge is very high, because of bluffs on either side of the river and ships passing underneath.  The bridge is narrow, just barely wide enough for three lanes in each direction, with no shoulder and a narrow concrete barrier in the middle. It was built in 1962 when traffic was much lighter.

Across the bridge is an industrial area on the outskirts of the town of North Marquez.  The highway continues north for another ten miles, with hills on the left and a marshy grassland on the right, before merging with eastbound Highway 100.  Somewhere around there, I heard a song on the radio that I had never heard before. At first I thought it sounded like Pearl Jam, but I quickly realized that the singer, although having some similar vocal mannerisms to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, clearly was not him.  This guy had more of a soulful bluesy sound, and the melody wasn’t dark and angsty like a Pearl Jam song. It was more like folksy pop-rock, but with still a little bit of an Eddie Vedder sound to the vocals. Kind of like a Pearl Jam of the South, if such a thing could exist.  “And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be,” the singer who was not Eddie Vedder sang. That line stuck out in my mind all day. I would have to find out what this Pearl Jam of the South was called.

I drove northeast through Fairview and Nueces, but took a little side trip instead of continuing straight to Jeromeville.  A sign on the east side of Nueces says “TRAFFIC ALERT AM 1610,” with flashing yellow lights on top, and for the first time I saw the flashing lights on.  I tried turning my radio to AM 1610 to hear the TRAFFIC ALERT, but there were power lines nearby, and the radio was mostly picking up static. I panicked, wanting to avoid this TRAFFIC ALERT at all costs, so I could hurry up and get back to Building C and, more importantly, pee.  I was getting to the point where I couldn’t hold it much longer, and I didn’t want to stay stuck in traffic.

Because I liked to read maps, I was pretty sure I could get back to UJ on back roads from here.  So I turned onto Pittman Road and then east on Grant Road, through nut tree orchards and cow pastures and tomato fields.  Grant Road eventually became West Fifth Street on the outskirts of Jeromeville, and I headed back to Building C the usual way from there.

What I did not realize at the time is that those TRAFFIC ALERT signs are not alerting me to any traffic in or near Jeromeville.  About 40 miles east of Jeromeville, Highway 100 begins climbing into some very high mountains, and this time of year, snow often affects driving conditions.  Each of these TRAFFIC ALERT signs is attached to a low-power radio station, the one I tried to turn on but couldn’t get clearly, and the radio stations play a recorded message about winter driving conditions in the mountains.  Carry chains in case of changing weather conditions. Chains required from such-and-such point to such-and-such point. Highway closed. Stuff like that. In the 21st century, there are electronic message boards that serve this purpose, but this technology had not yet implemented by the state Department of Transportation in 1995.  It doesn’t snow anywhere near Plumdale, and I didn’t grow up taking trips to the snow, so I had no concept that the TRAFFIC ALERT was about this and not a giant traffic jam approaching Jeromeville. I figured I would rather take about 10 minutes longer to get home than risk getting stuck in traffic.

I called Mom as soon as I got home.  “Hi, it’s me,” I said. “I’m home. It took a little longer because I took a side trip to avoid traffic–”

“You’re home?” Mom said, interrupting me.

“Yes–”

“And you’re safe?”  Mom sounded like she had been crying.

“Yes… what’s going on?”

“You weren’t in an accident on the bridge?”

“What?  Bridge? What are you talking about?”

“I was listening to the traffic report on the Bay City news station, to see if you were going to hit any traffic on your trip home, and I heard there was a really bad accident on the Marquez Bridge–”

“Really, Mom?  You hear there’s an accident, and you just assume it’s me?”

“I just knew it was you,” Mom replied, clearly in tears.  “I’ve been terrified this whole time. They said a car almost went over the bridge.  It ran into a truck. And there was a big pile-up behind it. You didn’t see or hear about any of this?”

“It must have been right behind me.  I didn’t have any traffic at all crossing the bridge.”

“I’m so glad you’re safe.  I need to call Grandma and tell her you’re ok.”

“Seriously, though.  Thousands of people cross that bridge every day.  You hear about one accident, and you just know it was me?  You don’t have a lot of faith in my driving skills.”

“I worry about you.  You know that.”

“I do.  But I also wish you would treat me as an adult.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “It’s just what I do.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your first class?  You start tomorrow, right?”

“Math, at 8 in the morning.  Again.”

“Do you know anyone who is in your class?”

“I haven’t asked.”

“Well, I’m glad you got home safely.  Enjoy your first day of classes tomorrow.  Just think; you’ve been through one quarter of college classes already, so you know what to expect.”

“True.”

“I’ll talk to you later.  Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone and went to get lunch… or, more accurately, Sunday brunch.  On Saturdays and Sundays, the dining commons was not open for breakfast, and during lunch time, they served “brunch” instead.  Students often stayed up late on Friday and Saturday nights and did not eat breakfast the following mornings; at least that was my guess as to why the schedule was different on weekends.  I didn’t see many familiar faces at brunch. For that matter, I didn’t see many faces at all. The dining commons was mostly empty. Most students were probably waiting until the last minute to return to the dorms.

I spent my afternoon being lazy.  I wrote some emails to a few girls I had been talking to online.  I read some Usenet newsgroups and got on an IRC chat for a while. I took a nap.  I played Tetris and Sim City, during which I heard footsteps and voices outside. More people were returning from the holidays.

The dining commons was open normally for dinner on Sundays, and it was much more full than it had been at brunch earlier in the day.  I chose a chicken patty sandwich and got French fries to go with it. I looked around and saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, and Liz at a table with a few empty seats, so I sat with them.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said.

“How was your break?” Taylor asked.  “Did you do anything special?”

“The usual, pretty much,” I replied.  “I was with my family for Christmas. My aunt and her family were visiting.  I spent New Year’s with some friends from high school. It was good to see them.”

“I bet it was,” Liz said.

“What did you guys do?” I asked.

“I went to see my grandparents in Washington,” Pete said.  “That was a lot of time in the car, but it was fun.”

“I was back home in Ralstonville,” Sarah said.  “And my boyfriend and I broke up.”

“Aww.”  Liz looked at Sarah, her face conveying serious concern.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  It was hard, but it needed to happen.  It’s the best for both of us. He was definitely getting in the way of my relationship with God.”

I had never heard anyone give that reason for breaking up.  What exactly did that mean? Maybe it has something to do with that Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that everyone else at this table was part of.  If Sarah said that her boyfriend was getting in the way of her relationship with God, that sounded to me like she was saying he was a bad influence on her in some way.  If that was the case, then this breakup was probably a good thing in the long run, even if it was difficult now. I did not say any of these thoughts out loud, though, because relationships and breakups weren’t anything I had ever experienced personally, so I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“So apparently there was an accident on the Marquez Bridge this morning,” I said.

“I heard about that!” Liz said.  “It was on the news. A car hit a truck and almost fell off the bridge!  Did you see it happen?”

“No.  It happened right after I drove across, apparently.  I didn’t see anything unusual on the bridge But when I got back to the dorm, I called my mom, and apparently she had heard about the accident and just assumed it was me.  It’s like she has no faith in my driving abilities; she hears of an accident in the vague area where I am, and she just knows I was in it.”

“That’s kind of sweet of her to care like that, though,” Sarah reminded me.

“But she doesn’t respect me as an adult.  She worries about me too much.”

“Yeah.  But that’s what moms do.  You shouldn’t get mad at her.  Just let her be.”

“I guess.”

Just let her be, I thought.  Like it says in that song by Pearl Jam of the South.  Yes, it was true that Mom could be a little annoying in the way that she worries about me and doesn’t let me be independent.  That was the reason I never considered applying to Mom’s alma mater, San Tomas State. I was worried that, with Mom less than an hour away, she wouldn’t give me a chance to grow up on my own.  But, as Sarah said, this was all perfectly normal behavior for a mother. Mothers, at least the good ones, worry about their children because they love their children and want them to be safe. And I knew that I should be thankful to have parents who cared enough about me to send me to the University of Jeromeville, and to help pay for what my academic scholarship didn’t cover.  Not everyone gets opportunities like that.

After a few more hours of playing around on the computer, I went to sleep, thinking about how fortunate I was to be in this position, and hoping to find a balance between getting to be independent but still having a healthy relationship with my parents.  And that song by Pearl Jam of the South was stuck in my head, with that one line repeating over and over again since I didn’t know the rest of the song very well. And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be.