February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

As a child, February 15 was always a significant date to me.  I was one of those kids who ran around telling people that I was “six and a half” years old, instead of just six, and February 15 was my “half-birthday,” six months from my actual birthday.  I outgrew giving my age as a fraction sometime in my preteen years.  But ever since my half-birthday my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had a much more important reason to remember February 15, since it was the anniversary of one of the most important things to happen to me.

I turned nineteen and a half years old on a Thursday, and the day started out pretty lousy.  I worked part time as a tutor for the Learning Skills Center on campus, where I would meet with small groups of students taking beginning math classes.  I was tutoring precalculus this morning, and none of the students in the group could figure out my explanations of how to prove trigonometric identities.  Proofs came naturally to me, and I had been studying the process of how to write a proof in my Abstract Mathematics class, but this did not work for precalculus students.  After that, I walked around the Memorial Union and the Quad looking for a friend to have lunch with.  Finding none, I ate alone outside, where it was sunny but cold.

My only class on Thursdays was physics lab, in the early afternoon.  After lunch, I walked from the Quad to the laboratory classroom in Ross Hall; the walk was about the length of four city blocks.  The weekend started to feel close on a Thursday, and I had Monday off for Presidents’ Day, but I was not looking forward to this weekend.  At this point in my life, a three-day weekend just meant three lonely days of moping around the apartment alone, trying to pick up girls in a chat room whom I would never meet, who may not even be real girls.

That week, I had really been missing the life I had last year in the dorm.  I had tons of new friends last year, and when I felt lonely and bored, I could just walk around the building and see who else was around.  That was a little more creepy to do in an apartment complex where I lived alone and knew few people.  Thirteen friends from my dorm lived less than half a mile from my apartment, and I went to visit them sometimes, but this was more difficult when they were not right in my building.  Living alone, I avoided roommate drama but missed out on all the socializing.  Soon the time would come to make housing plans for the 1996-97 school year, and I really hoped that I would be able to find an awesome group of roommates.  Maybe some of my new friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.

The JCF large group meeting on Friday nights had become the highlight of my weekend most of the time, but the group was not meeting this week.  The staff all had to go to some kind of retreat, which for me meant no hearing a talk about the Bible, and no hanging out with friends afterward.  JCF is a chapter of a national organization called Intervarsity; the chapters are led by staff members whose salaries are paid by raising monthly contributions from supporters and churches, much like how missionaries are paid.  I did not know all of that in 1996, though.  I just knew that there were four adults in their 20s out of school who led the group: a married couple named Dave and Janet McAllen, and two single women named Cheryl and Maggie.

Most importantly in my young man mind, though, no JCF meant no chance to talk to Haley Channing, the sweet girl with the beautiful blue eyes whom I had met a few weeks earlier.  Last Friday at JCF, Haley left early, so all I got to say to her was hi.  I felt completely inept at interacting with girls, especially ones I found attractive.  I did hear someone say that, since there was no JCF this week, people would be meeting for a time of worship and prayer at someone’s house instead.  I was not sure if I was going to go; I did not know those people.

I still felt grumpy and frustrated when I left my physics lab.  I had no more classes, so I walked back toward the Memorial Union and the bus stop on the other side, cutting through the side of the building where the Coffee House was.  As I walked through, I looked around at the people sitting at tables, and I spotted Janet McAllen from JCF staff with a blonde girl I did not recognize.  Janet waved, so I walked over to say hi.

“Hi, Greg,” Janet said, smiling.  “How are you?  Want to sit down?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you know Mary?” she asked, gesturing toward the other girl.

“Hi, I’m Mary,” the other girl said.

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

“How’s your day going?” Janet asked.

“Honestly, not too well.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just feeling discouraged,” I said.  “I’m lonely.  I wish I knew how to have a social life.”

“Do you have roommates?  Do you have a group of friends?  I’ve seen you sitting with people at large group.  Liz and Ramon, Pete, Sarah, Taylor, those people.”

“They were all in my dorm last year.  I still hang out with them sometimes.  They all live not too far from me, in north Jeromeville.  But I live by myself.  By the time I figured out people were making plans for this year, everyone I knew already had roommates lined up.”

“That’s tough.  Hopefully you’ll figure something out for next year.”

“Yeah.  I’ve always had a hard time making friends.  I was teased and bullied all through elementary school.  I kept to myself a lot in high school.  And I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Do you know Jesus?” Janet asked me.  I thought that was an odd question.  I had never been asked this before.

“What do you mean, exactly?” I replied.  “I know Jesus is the Son of God, and he came to earth, and he was crucified and rose from the dead.”

“But do you have a relationship with Jesus?”

Here we go.  Another thing where Catholics and Protestants were different, and I was not in the mood to be told how wrong I was.  I simply answered, “I don’t know.”

“May I explain what that means?”

“Sure.”

Janet pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a horizontal line about halfway down and an inch or so across, then drew a line downward at right angles to the first line.  She drew the mirror image of this on the other side of the paper, then drew a stick figure on top of each side, so that they appeared to be facing each other with a chasm between them.  She wrote “Us” on one side and “God” on the other.  “God created Adam and Eve, and they disobeyed him.  Sin entered into the world, and sin brings death.”  Janet wrote “Death” at the bottom of the chasm.  “So because of sin, humans are separated from God.  We can’t cross over this chasm to God’s side because of sin.  Our sin separates us from God and his holiness, and since everyone has sinned, nothing we can do on our own can bring us back to God.”

I had never heard sin explained that way before.  I had been to Reconciliation a few times back home, and once last year with Father Bill at the Newman Center.  I always thought of it as a pardoning for sins and a promise to do something good to make up for it.  But Janet was saying something different.  I had never studied the theology behind the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I did not know if these two views contradicted each other.

Next, Janet drew a large cross in the middle of the chasm, with the horizontal part of the cross connecting the two sides of the chasm.  “But Jesus came to Earth to make a way, a bridge across this chasm.  Jesus was the Son of God, born without sin, and he took our sin to the cross and died in our place.  And now, because Jesus died on the cross, we have a way back to  God.  Jesus conquered death and rose from the dead.  And he offers that gift of eternal life to all who come to him.  If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved from sin and have eternal life with God.”

“Hmm,” I said.  “I’ve never heard it explained that way.  What do you mean, ‘accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior?’”

“That means you believe that Jesus died to save you from your sins, and rose from the dead, to give you eternal life with God.  And he is the Lord of your life, and you will live the rest of your life for Him.  Do you want that?”

I always thought I believed in Jesus, but apparently I had gaps in my understanding of what that really meant.  I knew this was right, though.  Everything I had learned from JCF over the last four months had convinced me more and more that following Jesus was the right way.  And I had seen God’s love for his people manifested in the way that my Christian friends, old and new, treated me and others with love.

“Yes,” I said.

“And do you believe that you are a sinner, separated from God, and Jesus is the way to eternal life?”

“Yes.”

“Can you pray with me?  Is that okay?  Tell God what you just told me.”

“Yes,” I said, bowing my head.  Janet bowed her head as well.  “Jesus,” I said, “I am a sinner.  And you are the only way to eternal life.  I believe that you are the Lord and Savior, and I pray that you will guide me and give me hope.  I thank you for all the new Christian friends you have put in my life.”

“Father, God,” Janet said after a pause, “I thank you that you have brought Greg into your family.  I thank you so much, Father, for our new brother in Christ.  I thank you that the angels are rejoicing that Greg has found his way home.  I pray that he will stay strong and live his life for you.  Fill him with the Holy Spirit.  Lead him in the way he should go.  And transform his heart to make him more like you every day.  In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.”

I looked up.  Janet was smiling.  “Welcome to the body of Christ,” she said.  “Congratulations!”

“Yes,” Mary said.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward because I had forgotten that Mary had been sitting there this whole time.

“There’s no large group tomorrow, but the guys who live at 1640 Valdez are hosting a worship and prayer night.  Are you going to go?”

“I heard about that.  I wasn’t sure if I was going, but if there is no large group, I won’t be doing anything else tomorrow night.  So I’ll probably be there.”

“I think it’ll be good for you.  Also, are you in a Bible study yet?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“I don’t have it with me, but I’ll get you the list of off-campus Bible studies.  You said you live in north Jeromeville?  I know one of the guys from the house where the worship night is, Shawn, he leads a Bible study that meets not too far from you.  Maybe talk to him tomorrow.”

“I will.”

“Do you have a Bible?”

“Yeah.  A few weeks ago, I hung out with Eddie and Xander and Kristina and Haley and Kelly after JCF.  Kristina gave me an extra Bible she had.”

“Good!  I want you to look these up when you get a chance.” Janet wrote three Bible verses on the paper that she had drawn on earlier and handed it to me.  I put the paper in my backpack.  “Are you going to be okay?” Janet asked.

“Yes, I am.” I smiled.

“Do you need to get home?”

I looked at my watch; I missed my bus by a long shot.  Another bus was probably there now, getting ready to leave in a few minutes.  “I probably should,” I said.  “But thank you for sharing and listening.”

“You’re welcome.  Jesus said to share the good news, after all.”

“Enjoy your retreat this weekend.”

“I will!  I’ll see you next week!”

As I walked toward the bus, went home, and made dinner, something felt different.  Jesus had called me away from the pity party I had been throwing myself that morning.  He had something better for me, a life of peace and hope.  When I got home, while my frozen chicken pot pie was in the oven, I looked up the Bible verses that Janet had told me to read.

Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

Romans 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

John 7:37-38 “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’”

This was me.  I had the Spirit of sonship.  I was God’s child.  I came to Jesus today and experienced the streams of living water.  And the Holy Spirit brought hope which did not disappoint.  I taped Janet’s drawing to the wall behind my desk, the wall that I stared at for much of the time that I was in the apartment, so that I would be able to look at it and remember what it meant to be a child of God.


The next night, I drove to the address of the worship and prayer night. I was pretty sure that this was the same house where the ill-fated car rally a few months ago had ended, so I had been here before.  But tonight I had arrived late, on purpose, because I did not know what to expect and I was nervous about being alone in a room full of people I did not know well.

I knocked on the door, and someone on the inside opened it.  It was dark inside, and around forty people were packed into the living room, on every available couch and chair and on the floor.  I recognized many familiar faces from JCF as I quietly tiptoed to a spot on the floor big enough for me to sit.  Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year, were sitting nearby, and they immediately came over to me when they saw me walk in.  “Congratulations,” Sarah said, giving me a big lingering hug.

“I’m excited for you!” Krista added.

I was a little confused at first, but I figured they must have found out about my decision for Jesus yesterday.  “Thank you,” I said, smiling.

The three of us sat singing along with the worship team as they played and sang a song called “Shine Jesus Shine.” I had heard this song at JCF large group before, and I liked it.  “Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory,” I sang along.  “Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire.”  That was where I was tonight.  The Holy Spirit was setting my heart on fire as I began my new life as a Christian, living for Jesus.

We continued singing for a couple hours, until well after nine o’clock, pausing after every few songs to pray silently.  Sometimes people prayed out loud, and during one of the pauses, we were instructed to pray with the people sitting near us.  Sarah and Krista prayed for my walk with Jesus, that I would continue to follow him and grow closer to him every day.

After the music and prayer ended, I stood up.  Liz Williams and Ramon Quintero, who were also in my dorm last year, approached me.  Liz smiled excitedly and said, “Hey, Greg.  Janet told me about yesterday.”

“It seems like a lot of people heard about that,” I said, chuckling and blushing a little.

“Earlier this week, I was hanging out with Sarah, and we were talking about how you’d been getting more involved with JCF.  Sarah said that she thought you were close to really coming to know Jesus, and that after that you would just be on fire for Jesus.”

“I know.  That’s how I feel tonight.”

“Are you involved with a Bible study yet?”

“No, but Janet emailed me a list of all the off campus Bible studies.”

“You should come with us to ours.  Shawn and Lillian are the leaders.  That’s Shawn, this is his house,” Liz said, gesturing toward an Asian guy with an athletic build.  “Lillian isn’t here tonight.”

“I will,” I said.  “Janet mentioned Shawn’s group yesterday when she asked if I was in a Bible study.  And now you mentioned it.  Sounds like God is telling me to go there.”

Eddie Baker, one of the guys who had originally invited me to hang out the night Kristina gave me her extra Bible, walked up to greet me next.  “Greg,” he said, pulling me into a hug.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, wondering just how many people knew.

“How are you?”

“I’m feeling much better, just about life in general.”

“That’s Jesus.  He changes your life.”

“I know.”

“I need to go talk to some people, but I just wanted to say hi.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too.”

I drove home later that night feeling encouraged and excited.  It no longer mattered that my upcoming three-day weekend would be lonely and boring, because I had Jesus, and Jesus brought hope and peace.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; that was in one of the verses that Janet gave me to read.

Janet told me a few weeks later that Mary, the other girl who had been at the table in the Coffee House when I made my decision for Jesus, was someone who had come to JCF with a friend, and Janet and Mary had been intentionally meeting to talk about Jesus.  Seeing me make a decision for Jesus was exactly the kind of thing that Mary needed.  I do not know what happened to Mary; I only met her once or twice more that year.

To this day, I wonder if Janet made a mistake with the verses she wrote on that drawing.  Romans 5:6, the verse after the one about hope, says “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”  That seems like a much more appropriate, and commonly used, verse for a new Christian learning about God’s grace and the significance of Jesus dying on the cross.  But even if Janet wrote the wrong verse number, God made no mistakes; he knew that that verse about hope was what I needed on that long, lonely Presidents’ Day weekend in 1996.  That was the first verse that I memorized.

In those first days after I made a decision for Jesus, I wondered if this would create tension with my Catholic relatives on my mom’s side.  Mom herself would probably be fine with it; she always respected the beliefs of Christians we knew who were not Catholic.  And I was not personally worried, because Catholics and other Christians follow the same Jesus, and the things we have in common are so much more important than the things that the different branches of Christianity fight about.  I had no plans to stop attending Mass at the Newman Center.  (I did eventually leave the Newman Center, but that is a story for another time.)

I spent most of the rest of the weekend relaxing, studying, running errands, and doing housework.  The only time I saw people the rest of that weekend was at Mass on Sunday, and just like at the worship night at Shawn’s house on Friday, the words of the songs all seemed more meaningful now.  Sure, I did not know what the future held.  I might fail out of school, I might not be successful in the working world, and I might never get a chance to get to know Haley or ask her out.  But even if all of that happened, I still had Jesus, and that meant I always had hope.

January 29 – February 2, 1996. Four midterms in one day.

I stood at the bus stop on Alvarez Avenue with mixed emotions on a cold, dry Monday morning.  A small crowd waited with me for the bus that would bring us to campus in time for 9:00 classes.  I was not sure if I would have to stand or not; this was only the fifth stop on the bus route, but in this cold weather, fewer students would be riding bicycles to campus.

I was coming off of a high from the weekend.  I made some new friends Friday night at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, Eddie and Xander and Haley and Kristina and Kelly; we had a fun night of talking and games at the girls’ house.  And Sunday Eddie and Xander and their roommates hosted a party to watch the professional football championship.  Eddie borrowed a projector from his church and put a big bed sheet on a wall, so we could watch the game on a huge screen.  It was a little dim, but it worked.  After a year of feeling alone and less connected to my friends, compared to last year in the dorm, this felt like a huge step in the right direction.  Eddie and Xander and six other guys from JCF all shared a house, with Haley and her roommates right down the street and another house of guys from JCF around the corner.  Maybe next year I would be able to live in this kind of situation and feel more connected to people and things around me.

Despite being on an emotional high, however, two metaphorical black clouds loomed on the horizon.  The game did not end the way I wanted, with the despised Texas Toros winning by a score of 27 to 17.  Texas had won three out of the last four championships, and that would bring smug taunts from all of the haters of my Bay City Captains. The Captains lost in the semifinal round this year.  But, more importantly, I was worried about this coming Friday, when I had midterms in all four classes on the same day.

On Sunday, at the football party, I had mentioned the four midterms.  “Can you ask your professors if you can take the midterm on another day?” Eddie had asked.

“I think there’s a rule that they can’t make you take that many midterms on the same day,” Xander added.

I had not considered that approach; I had just assumed I was stuck with this crappy schedule.  So my plan for today was to ask each of my four professors if I could take the midterm early.  Hopefully, by suggesting early rather than late, they would see that I wanted to use my study time wisely and do my best, not get an advantage that others would not have.

“Not possible,” my professor for Differential Equations said curtly after I presented my request.  “You got the dates for the midterms on the syllabus on the first day of the quarter.  If those dates were a problem for you, you should have dropped the class.”  This professor, a middle-aged balding man who told us to call him Larry, never bothered me before, but after that day I decided I did not like him.

I had an hour break before my next class, so I walked across the Quad.  This was the oldest part of campus, dating back to the school’s founding in 1905.  The Quad was a grassy rectangle surrounded by tall oak trees as old as the campus itself, with a paved path running north-south down the middle, and a few pines, redwoods, and other trees scattered on the grass.  On a warmer day, the Quad would gradually fill with students sitting on the grass to study, or socialize, or socialize while attempting to study.  But at ten in the morning on a cold day in late January, the Quad was empty except for the trees and a few students walking across it to get from one building to another.

The Memorial Union building lay just north of the Quad, extending all the way across it east to west.  The building was home to a number of student-run commercial enterprises, the namesake memorial to University of Jeromeville alumni who died in wars, a post office, the campus store, offices and meeting rooms for the Associated Students organization, ATMs for three different banks, and my current destination, the Coffee House.  This was a large student-run enterprise that served pizza, burritos, sandwiches, soup, and all sorts of other food items, in addition to the hot beverages after which it was named.  Next to the kitchens and cash registers were large expanses of tables which made good places to study and people-watch.

I got a large hot chocolate and began scanning the crowded tables for an empty one, or for someone I knew.  I saw Scott Madison from JCF sitting alone with some kind of fancy spiral-bound book in front of him.  I walked up and asked, “Can I join you?”

“Hi, Greg!” Scott said.  “Sure!”  As I sat down and got out my math book, Scott slid the book in front of him toward me and said, “Check out what I got!  It was on sale, because it’s already the end of January.”  It was a day planner, which Scott had filled out with dates of upcoming exams and projects, Bible studies, JCF activities, and other plans he knew he had coming up.

“That’s nice,” I said.  “I wish I could be that organized.  Every year I get the little planner they sell at the campus store, and by the middle of October I’m not keeping up with it.”

“It really helps, especially when you’re busy like me.”

I grabbed Scott’s planner and turned it toward me, flipping to the week of August 11-17.  Scott looked at me wondering what I was doing.  I did not want to spy on his plans; I simply wrote “Greg’s birthday” on August 15.

“Nice,” Scott said.  “I guess I have to send you something now.”

“It’s in your planner, so yeah, you do.  That’s the plan.”

Scott and I continued alternating between small talk and silent studying until it was time for my next class, Math 108, Introduction to Abstract Mathematics.  This was the first quarter that I had taken two math classes simultaneously, something I would be doing often as a mathematics major, as well as the first quarter that I took upper-division classes.  Those unfamiliar with advanced mathematics would be surprised that this course involves very little calculation, instead covering mathematical logic, set theory, and the fundamentals of abstract algebra and analysis.  The professor was a gray-haired, well-dressed man named Dr. Davis Cutter; his official title was “professor emeritus,” which I believe meant that he was officially retired but still performed some duties for the university.  I always thought there was something pretentious about having a last name for a first name, but Dr. Davis Cutter seemed like a nice man.  Maybe he would be nice enough to let me take the midterm early.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do that,” Dr. Cutter said.  “We have a policy against that, and in order to maintain academic integrity, I can’t give out the test early.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I figured it would be worth asking.”

“Good luck studying,” Dr. Cutter replied.  “You’ll probably do fine.”

“Thank you.”  Apparently this department policy trumped Xander’s rule about not having more than three midterms in one day.  I had never heard of this rule other than Xander mentioning it yesterday, and by now I suspected it was not real.

After Abstract Mathematics, I had English 101, Advanced Composition.  Every student at UJ had to take three writing classes; since I had passed the AP English test in high school, I only had to take one of the three.  This instructor was a middle-aged hippie woman named Dr. Paris; I was under the impression that we would be learning how to write in the class, but she made the assignments about things like art and feminism, not exactly topics I was familiar with.

“Dr. Paris?” I asked as she was putting things away at the end of class.

“Yes?”

“So I noticed the other day that all four of my classes have midterms on the same day.  Is there any way I might be able to take Friday’s midterm early?”

“Oh… I can’t do that,” Dr. Paris said.  “I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.  I thought I’d ask just in case.”

“I can’t just give it twice on different days.”

“I understand.  See you next time.”

My classes so far today had all been in Wellington and Orton Halls, two buildings near the Quad that each contained dozens of classrooms used by all subjects.  My last class was physics, back to back with English with no break, and not in the Quad area.  As I walked to Ross Hall, where the large physics lectures always were, I thought about how everyone had rejected my plan so far.  Larry’s statement about dropping the class especially stuck with me.  It had never occurred to me to drop a class for that reason, or to plan my entire quarter around the dates of the midterms.  It made more sense to me to plan my schedule in a way that works for my day-to-day life over the ten weeks of the quarter, even if that means one or two hard days of multiple tests or multiple papers due.  But now I had to suck it up and accept the fact that I would have one very difficult day.  And I would have another difficult day later in the quarter, since three of my classes have a second midterm on the same day, February 23.

I was still hopeful that I might get to take the physics midterm early.  This class was in a large lecture hall with almost 200 students, and it would be difficult to get Dr. Collins’ attention after class.  But I knew that Dr. Collins had office hours immediately after class, because I had been in there a few times with physics questions, so when class got out I followed him to his office in the Physics-Geology Building, adjacent to Ross.  By the time I got there, three people were ahead of me in line.

“Dr. Collins?” I said ten minutes later when it was my turn.  “I have four midterms all on Friday.  I was wondering if there would be any way I can take the physics midterm early, so I can get one out of the way first.”

Dr. Collins thought for a minute, then checked his calendar.  “I think I can do that,” he said.  “Can you be here in my office Thursday at 3?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Great.  I’ll see you then.”

“Thank you so much,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” Dr. Collins replied.  “Good luck!”

I walked back in the direction of the Quad and Wellington, where I would be leading a tutoring group at 4:00.  It was nice of Dr. Collins to reschedule my midterm.  I expected him to be the least likely to make this arrangement, just since his class of 200 students was so much bigger and less personal than my other classes.  I was not sure at this point if Dr. Collins recognized my face or knew my name.  He was the first professor that I had had twice; I also took the first quarter of physics with Dr. Collins last spring, and I was in his office hours frequently after bombing the first midterm.  This week, I would still end up taking four midterms in under twenty-four hours, but now at least I could concentrate on physics first, and then only have three midterms to study for when I got home on Thursday.  This was a definite improvement.


I spent most of the rest of the week studying.  I had enough routine homework to work on that I did not do a lot of special studying for the midterms until Wednesday.  It was a rough week, and by the time Thursday afternoon arrived, I felt that I had very little free time or relaxation all week.  I also owed emails to six different girls I knew from the Internet.

After eating a burrito at the Coffee House for lunch, I headed to Ross Hall for physics lab.  I walked past the library, where a sculpture of an egg with a face had his nose buried in a book.  One of the writing assignments in Dr. Paris’ Advanced Composition had been to research the meaning of a work of art on the UJ campus and write about it.  I chose the Egghead sculptures, one of which was here in front of the library.  To most of my peers, they were just weird, but I learned to appreciate them more after I read about them.  The one in front of the library seems fairly straightforward, he is engrossed in his studies, although to this day I still do not understand why it is a different color than the other six Eggheads.  I heard somewhere that students rub the Egghead during exams for good luck.  I do not believe in luck, but with four midterms in the next twenry-four hours, I took no chances and rubbed the Egghead.

When I finished my lab, I walked across the path to the building where Dr. Collins’ office was and knocked on the door.  “Hi,” Dr. Collins said.

“I’m here to take the midterm early.  You told me to come now.”

“Oh, yes!  Greg, was it?”

“Yeah.”

“Just sit here, and let me know when you finish.  I’ll be working on some things here.”

I looked through the exam, reading every question before I started.  Electric current… electric fields… watts, amperes, joules… I can do this.  Everything looks familiar, like homework problems that I had studied last night.  No problem.  I finished the problems in about half an hour, then went over each problem again to make sure I did not make any miscalculations, and that my answer made sense.  “I’m done,” I said to Dr. Collins at 3:40.

“Just leave it here on the desk.”

“Do I need to come to class tomorrow if I’ve already taken the midterm?”

“No.  Take the afternoon off.”

“I will.  See you Monday.  And thank you so much for letting me do this.”

I went home and took a break from studying.  I answered emails for about an hour, then ate a Hungry-Man dinner.  After that, I continued studying, looking over the writing concepts we had learned in English class and all of the math problems we had done and words and theorems we had learned in the two math classes.  I felt fairly confident about Differential Equations, but Abstract Math was a little more of a concern, mostly because Dr. Davis Cutter did not always follow the textbook, and my handwritten notes were a little messy and hard to read.  I opened a blank Microsoft Word file and typed all of my notes for Abstract Math; that made them both legible and fresh in my mind.

The next morning, I walked straight from the bus stop to my Differential Equations exam.  It was easy, as I suspected it would be, and I left class ten minutes early.  I spent the extra time sitting against a wall in the Coffee House, since all the tables were full, reading my Abstract Math notes.  I felt fairly confident by the time class began.  When I arrived, I looked over all of the questions first, and all of them seemed straightforward.  One problem mentioned the Well-Ordering Principle; I drew a blank on what that was.  Ordering?  Putting numbers in order?  Oh, yes, any set of one or more natural numbers has a smallest number.  This seems obvious in colloquial language but needs to be clarified in the exact science of abstract mathematics.

I had an hour for lunch, in which I gobbled down the sandwich and banana that I brought from home in five minutes so I could have more time to study for English.  I had a mental block against English that had persisted since I got a B-minus in tenth grade English four years ago, the lowest grade I got in high school.  By the time I arrived at Dr. Paris’ class, I just wanted to get this over so I could get home and enjoy a weekend of not having to study.  The questions about sentence and paragraph structure were pretty straightforward and seemed to match everything I studied, and the part where I had to write, I did the best I could.  I was not as worried for this class, because with the four papers we had to write, the midterm did not count for as large a share of the grade as my other midterms did.  By the end of the hour, I knew that I had done the best I can, so I turned in my test to Dr. Paris and walked toward the bus stop.

I did it, I thought, as the bus left the Memorial Union and turned on West Fifth Street, passing fraternity and sorority houses.  I had completed four exams in just under twenty-four hours.  I was getting home an hour earlier than usual, since I had already taken the physics test that the rest of my class was taking now.  And I felt confident about the midterms.  I began my post-midterm relaxation weekend by collapsing on my bed as soon as I got home, at 2:30; I closed my eyes, and the next thing I knew, it was after 4:00.

I spent the next three hours wasting time on the Internet, talking on IRC, writing emails, and checking a few Usenet groups.  I also worked on Try, Try Again, the novel I had been writing off and on for a few months, as I waited for people to reply to me.  At seven o’clock, I drove to campus, since parking at night only is less expensive than parking all day, and walked to the lobby of 170 Evans, the lecture hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met.

Eddie, my new friend who hosted the football party last weekend, was doing name tags with Raphael, who had been his roommate the year before.  “Today was the day with all your midterms, right?” Eddie asked.

“Yeah.  One of my professors let me take his yesterday.  So I had three today.  I think I did okay.”

“Good!  I’m glad you got through that.”

I put on my name tag and stepped into the lecture hall, bumping into and almost knocking over Haley Channing as she walked up the aisle perpendicular to me.  “Oh!” she gasped.

“Haley!  I’m sorry!” I said nervously.  Of course, life would throw this curveball at me; after all of my hard work and four midterms I felt good about, I end the week by embarrassing myself in front of Haley, narrowly avoiding injuring her in the process.

“Hi, Greg,” Haley chuckled.  Hopefully that reaction was a good sign.  “How are you?”

“I’m great.  I had four midterms today.”

“Four?” Haley asked incredulously.

“One professor let me take one early, but I still had all four in twenty-four hours.  And I think I did okay.  I’m just glad it’s over.

“I would be too!  I have a paper due Monday.  I’m going to be doing that all weekend.”

“Good luck!” I said.  Then, after a brief hesitation, I asked, “Where are you sitting?”

“Down there next to Kelly,” Haley replied, pointing to the back of her roommate’s head.  “Want to come sit with us?”

“Yeah!”

“I’ll be right back.”  After Haley stepped outside, I walked to the front of the room and sat next to Kelly.  Haley returned a few minutes later, just as the band started playing.  I did my best to concentrate on the band’s worship music and Janet McAllen’s talk and not be too distracted by Haley’s cute smile.  And, after hearing her sing, I discovered that she had a nice voice too.

After JCF ended, I stood around making small talk with people for a while.  I did not get invited to any social plans afterward, and I did not get to talk much more with Haley because she went home immediately afterward to work on her paper.  This week, I did not care about having no social plans.  I was exhausted after my hard week of studying, and a weekend at home by myself being lazy sounded perfect.  I could socialize next weekend when I had recovered.

I did well on all four midterms, even the one in English that I was less certain about.  That stressful week took a lot out of me, but I survived.  If life was trying to get me down, it would take much more than four midterms in twenty-four hours. A year and a half into my studies at a somewhat prestigious university, I was still excelling academically.  My future goals may not be entirely clear right now, particularly with my mathematics major, but I was keeping my grades up, and that would be important if I did go to graduate school eventually.  School was always one of my strengths, and that had not changed in the last few years; all I had to do to get good grades was work hard enough.

And in August, when my birthday came around, I did in fact get a card from Scott.  He was serious about sending me something after I wrote my birthday in his planner.  I liked this new group of friends.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

I had been in a bad mood all week.  I woke to rain Tuesday morning, and since then clouds had covered Jeromeville the entire time.  My week had been boring and uneventful, and I was feeling particularly grumpy about not having a girlfriend.  Earlier today, I saw Sabrina Murphy from church on campus, and she introduced me to her boyfriend.  I knew she had a boyfriend, I had been through the disappointment of learning that a month ago, but meeting him felt like a reminder that I was not good enough to date a girl like Sabrina.

It was now Friday evening, and once I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship tonight, I would be alone studying the entire weekend.  The National Football League championship game was coming up Sunday afternoon, but this year I would probably be watching it alone in my apartment.  Maybe that was a good thing; the team I despised the most, the Texas Toros, was heavily favored to win.

Dave McAllen of the JCF staff team spoke that night.  “‘I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel,’” Dave said, reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  “If you look back in Acts chapter 19, it tells about when Paul first visited Philippi.  The first Philippian to receive the gospel was a woman named Lydia.  It says, ‘When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.’  Paul and his companions did not just baptize her and take off.  They started a church that met at her house.”

I had been attending JCF since October.  At first, most of my thoughts during the group meetings were on learning people’s names, figuring out how the group worked, and wondering whether they would have a problem with me being Catholic.  But now that I had been part of the group for a few months, I was paying more attention to the actual content of the message.  I got a different perspective on Scripture from JCF than I got from Mass at the Newman Center.  Father Bill’s homily was usually something fairly brief and general, vaguely related to that week’s Scripture, but the messages given by Dave and the JCF staff applied specific Scriptures in relevant ways for university students in 1996.  Relationship was a big part of spreading the Gospel at a large university.  It was also, unfortunately, something deficient in my life.

After Dave’s talk and the final worship song, I stood and turned to my friends.  I had been sitting next to Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, and Jason Costello, all friends from my freshman dorm last year.  “How’s it going, Greg?” Charlie asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  “Except all my classes have midterms this week.”

“Good luck,” Caroline said.  

“Where are Liz and Ramon?” Charlie asked.

“They went to go see Ramon’s parents this weekend,” Caroline replied.

“Ramon said they’ll be back Sunday morning,” Jason added.  “I need to get going.  I had a midterm today, and I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Yeah,” Caroline said.  “I need to go too.  I need to start my paper.  It’s due Monday.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.  “Is anyone else doing anything tonight?”

“Not me,” Pete replied.  “I have to study all weekend.  I’m so behind in all my classes.”

“Pete’s my ride,” Charlie said, “and I’m behind too.”

“Good luck with your studying,” I said.  “I’ll see you guys later!”

The others said their goodbyes, and I walked around the room.  I knew that learning about the Bible should be the most important part of these meetings, but I was also enjoying the social aspect.  Dave spoke tonight about building relationships, so being social is important too, apparently.  Last week I went to a movie with those friends after JCF, and I was hoping something like that would happen tonight too.  If it did, though, it would not be with them; my opportunity had been stolen by studying, and by Liz and Ramon doing couple stuff.

A freshman named Brent Wang saw me and waved.  I approached him and the others standing next to him.  “Hey, Greg,” Brent said.  “How’s it going?”

“Not bad.  Just busy with school.  How are you guys?”

“I had a midterm today.  I don’t think I did too great.”

“I had one too,” said a tall curly-haired boy whose name I thought was Todd.  “I know I didn’t do too great.”

“That’s too bad,” I replied.  “But you never know.  What are you guys up to tonight?”

“We’re having an overnighter at our Bible study leader’s apartment,” Brent explained.  “Just something for the guys of our group to get to know each other.  We should actually get going; we told him we’d be there in just a minute.”

“Have fun!” I said.  “See you guys next week!”

Over the next twenty minutes, I had some positive small talk experiences but was ultimately unsuccessful in finding something to do.  By now, only ten people remained in the room, and most of them seemed to be helping clean up.  I sat in a seat by myself away from people and put my head down.  What was wrong with me?  Why was it so hard for me to make friends?  I hated being me sometimes.  I hated living alone and feeling out of the loop, and the only reason I lived alone was because I was out of the loop when people were making housing plans for the following year.  And would I ever know the feeling of being in love?

I looked down at the floor, fighting back tears, as I heard more and more of the few remaining students putting things away, saying goodbye, and leaving the room.  When the room was silent, as the last people were getting ready to leave, I heard footsteps approaching, probably to tell me that it was time to go, that they had to lock up.

“Are you okay?” a voice asked.  I looked up to see two guys of average height and build now sitting next to me.  The closer one had black hair and olive skin, and the one behind him had light brown hair and pointed features.

“I’m okay,” I said.  “I’m just having a rough night.  I feel like I don’t fit in around here.”

“Why’s that?  Did something happen?” the dark-haired guy asked me.  He was the same one who had spoken before, and I had seen him around JCF; I was pretty sure his name was Eddie.  I did not know the other guy.

“I haven’t been going here very long.  I don’t know a lot of people.  And the people I do know, sometimes I feel like I’m not really part of their group.”

“Your name’s Greg, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Eddie, and this is Xander.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Who would you say you know here?”

“Pete Green, Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, Jason Costello, Sarah Winters, Krista Curtis… we were all in the same dorm last year.  A lot of them weren’t here this week, though, and the ones who were went home early.”

“Sometimes people just have stuff going on,” Xander said.  “Don’t take it personally.”

“I know.”

“So you’re a sophomore?” Eddie asked.  “We are too.  Do you have roommates?”

“No.  I was in a single room in the dorm last year, and when everyone was making their plans for this year, I didn’t know what was going on until everyone had plans already.”

“Living alone can be nice,” Xander said.  “We live in a big house with eight of us total, and it gets noisy sometimes.”

“Yeah, but it gets lonely too.”

“Can we pray with you?” Eddie asked.

“Sure,” I said.  I found this to be another difference between students at JCF and students at the Newman Center, the willingness to pray for people openly in public like this.

Eddie placed his hand on my back and began speaking.  “Father God, I thank you for bringing Greg to JCF and having our lives intersect tonight.  I pray that Greg will know that he is loved.  I pray that he will experience your love in a whole new way this weekend.  I pray that you will come in and transform his life.  Wash away all the hurt and the pain and show him your blessings anew.”

“Jesus,” Xander added.  “I pray that you will help Greg find his place in our community.  I pray that he will hear from you and know your plan for his life.  I pray that you will bring him into the community you have prepared for him, and I thank you that we got to talk to him tonight.”  After a pause, he concluded, “In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Do you have any plans this weekend?” Eddie asked.

“No.  Just study and homework, but it won’t take the whole weekend.”

“Tonight we’re going to play games with some girls from JCF who live down the street from us.  And we’re going to watch the football championship on Sunday.  You want to come hang out with us?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Where do you guys live?”

“I’ll draw you a map.”  Eddie tore off a piece of paper and drew a map to a street called Baron Court, near Valdez Street and Cornell Boulevard.  He marked two locations at opposite ends of the street, labeling one of them “2212 – Eddie & Xander” and the other “2234 – Girls.”  “Do you know where that is?” he asked.  “It’s in south Jeromeville.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can find my way there.  Are you guys going there now?”

“Yeah.  We said we’d be there a while ago.:

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you in a bit then.”



Baron Court was about two miles from campus on the other side of Highway 100.  I had explored this neighborhood on my bike a few months earlier.  On one side of Baron Court was a large apartment complex with its main entrance around the corner on Valdez Street, and a row of duplexes lined the other side, ending in a cul-de-sac opening up to one of the Greenbelts.  The girls lived in the second to last duplex.  I did not know who these girls were, and I did not know if Eddie and Xander had arrived yet.  If I knocked, and they were not expecting me, would they be comfortable letting some strange man into their home at ten o’clock at night?  After waiting in the car nervously for over five minutes, I had not seen Eddie and Xander arrive, so I assumed that they had gotten there before me.  I walked up and rang the doorbell.

A shorter than average girl with dark curly hair opened the door.  Behind her I could see Eddie and Xander sitting on a couch, looking at the door as if they were expecting me.  “Greg!” Eddie said.  “You made it!  Come on in!”

“Hi, Greg.  I’m Kristina,” said the girl who answered the door.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  We shook hands, and I walked to the couch and sat next to Xander.  On a second couch, placed against the front wall out of view of the doorway, sat two other girls, one small and thin with brown hair and an athletic build, and one average height, but the tallest of the three, with bright blue eyes and straight light brown hair just past her shoulders.  I could not remember ever having met any of these girls before.  Around 150 students attended JCF on an average Friday, so I had not met everyone yet.  “These are my roommates, Kelly and Haley,” Kristina said.  “Six of us live here, but the other three went home for the weekend.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You too,” Kelly, the small athletic one, replied.

“So you go to JCF?” Haley asked.  “I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

“I’ve only been going for three months.  I don’t know a lot of people yet.”

“I didn’t have that experience.  It seems like everyone knew me the first time I went to large group,” Haley said, and the others chuckled.  I got the impression that she was referring to something specific that I did not know about, and just as I was about to ask, Eddie explained, “Haley’s brother goes to JCF too.  He’s a senior.  Do you know Christian Channing?  Glasses, goatee, about the same color hair as Haley.”

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” I said.

“Are you a freshman?” Haley asked.

“Sophomore.”

“Me too.”

“All of us are,” Kelly added, gesturing toward the six of us in the room.

“How’d you find out about JCF?” Kristina asked.

“A bunch of my friends from my dorm last year invited me.”  I told Kristina which JCF people lived in my dorm, and she and the other girls nodded.

“Are you in a Bible study?” Xander asked me.

“I’m not,” I said.  Hoping that this would not make my new friends gasp in horror, I added, “I actually don’t even have a Bible.”

“I think I have an extra Bible,” Kristina said.  “I’ll go look for it before you can leave.  You can have it.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “That would be nice.”

“So what do you want to play?” Eddie asked.

“We can always start with Uno,” Kristina replied.  “Is everyone okay with Uno?”

“Sure,” I said.  Kristina got up and returned a minute later with Uno and a few other games.  She dealt the cards, and we began playing, taking turns trying to match the color or the number of the previously played card.  We made small talk while we were playing, about classes and other things going on around JCF.

Xander played a red 3 card.  My turn was next, but Kristina jumped in and played the other red 3 card, out of turn.  “What?” I said.  “It’s my turn.”

“I had the other red 3,” Kristina explained.

“What do you mean?  Why did you play out of turn?”

“Because I had the exact match.”

“I don’t think that’s an actual rule,” Eddie said.  “Greg, you don’t play that way?”

“No.  It’s not a rule.  I read the rules when I was a kid.”

“That’s how we always play,” Kristina argued.

“That’s fine, as long as I know about it.  Are there any other made-up rules?”

“What about adding to draw cards?” Eddie asked.  “Like if I play a Draw Two, then instead of drawing two, Xander can play another Draw Two, and you would have to draw four.  And if you play another Draw Two, Haley would have to draw six.”

“I don’t know that one either, but that sounds interesting.”

We played three long games of Uno with these house rules that were new to me; I did not win any of them, but it was fun, especially when Kristina, after a great deal of playful trash-talking, had to draw twelve when three Wild Draw Four cards were played consecutively.  After Uno, we played Scattergories.  In this game, each player was given a list of categories and a short amount of time to write things in each category beginning with a predetermined letter.  Only unique answers, different from those of all other players, counted for points.  For the first round the letter was B.  I read the categories and began writing.

Heroes: Batman, but I made a note to change it if I had time, since someone else would probably say that.  Terms of endearment: Babe.  Same thing, someone else would probably say it.  Tropical locations: Bikini Atoll.  Items in your purse/wallet: Bucks.  As in money.  That was creative.  Things that are black: Barry Bonds.  Not exactly politically correct, but good for laughs, and I would get two points for using something with two B words.  I started to panic as the timer inched closer to 0.  At the last minute, I crossed out Batman and put “Bueller, Ferris” for Heroes.  In the movie, Cameron calls him his hero, so I thought I had a good argument.

When the timer went off, we began reading our answers.  “Heroes,” Kristina said.  “Batman.”  Kelly and Xander both groaned that they had also written Batman, so I had made a good choice to change mine.  “Bueller, Ferris,” I said.  Imitating Cameron from the movie, I added, “Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero,” in an exaggerated nasal deadpan.  The others laughed and agreed that my answer counted.

“Items in your purse,” Eddie said.

“Big bills!” Kristina shouted.  “Two points!”

“Isn’t that only one point?” I asked.  “Because ‘big’ isn’t really a necessary part of the answer.  It’s just ‘bills.’”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “I think you only get the point for ‘bills.’”

We continued reading our answers; I scored eight points that round.  We chose a new list for the next round, and Kelly rolled the alphabet die; it landed on C.  I read my new categories and tried to think of C words.  Famous females: Christina Applegate.  Things made of metal: Crowbar.  Medicine/Drugs: Cocaine.  Names in the Bible: This is where my lack of a Bible might hurt me.  I wrote Caleb; I was pretty sure there was a Caleb in the Bible.

“Famous females,” Eddie said as the timer went off.

“Christina Applegate,” I said.  No one else had that.

“Sheryl Crow!” Kristina exclaimed loudly.

“That’s only one point,” I said.  “Sheryl is spelled with an S, not a C.”

“Well, aren’t you the king of not letting me get two points!” Kristina said with mock indignation.

“And you’re the queen of answers that don’t count,” I replied.  Everyone laughed.

It was past midnight by the time we finished the third and final round of Scattergories.  “We should probably get going,” Eddie said.  “It’s getting late.  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Probably,” Kristina replied.  “Wait.  Hang on.”  She walked out of the room, then returned a minute later holding a Bible, which she handed me.  “Here, Greg.  You said you needed this.”

“Yes!  Thank you!”

“It was nice to meet you, Greg,” Haley said, smiling.

“You too.”  I looked at her and smiled back.

“Yeah,” Kelly added.  “Nice meeting you, Greg.”

As we left, walking outside toward the sidewalk, I pointed to my left and asked, “So your house is right down there?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “We’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes.  I’ll be there.  Thanks for inviting me.”

“Drive safely,” Xander said.  “See you Sunday.”

“See you guys then,” I replied.

I got in my car and put Kristina’s Bible on the front seat.  Things really turned around tonight.  Dave spoke tonight about the ministry of the early Christians being built on relationships, and Eddie and Xander heard that message loud and clear, reaching out to me to build friendships that have lasted to this day, even though we now live far apart.  Decades later, I was given the chance to pass on this message about ministry through building relationships.  I was invited to speak at JCF’s Alumni Night in 2016, and I told the students about the night I got upset and threw a cardboard box at Sarah Winters and my friends prayed for me, as well as this night, when Eddie and Xander invited to play Uno and Scattergories.

I went to bed shortly after I got home that night.  It felt like pieces were finally falling into place.  I had many more pieces to go to solve this great puzzle of life, but I felt a little closer to figuring things out tonight than I had earlier.  As I drifted off to sleep, I felt at peace, thinking about my new friends, how Eddie and Xander had included me in their life tonight.  I was going to see them again on Sunday, and it was going to be awesome.

And I also thought quite a bit about Haley Channing and her beautiful blue eyes.  I really, really hoped that she did not have a boyfriend.

The actual bible Kristina gave me on that day, a bit more worn now.

January 10-13, 1996. Another hopeless crush and a party.

I have always had a good ear for music, but I rarely did anything with it other than sing along in the car.  I played piano for a few years in elementary school, but according to Mom, I quit because I thought music was for nerds.  I do not remember saying that, but it definitely sounds like something that 10-year-old Greg would have said, not yet mature enough to embrace being different.  I did not perform music in front of people again until three months ago, when I started singing at 11:00 Mass at the Newman Center.

Our experience levels in the church choir ranged from people like me who just liked to sing for fun all the way up to Claire Seaver, a third-year music major who had been performing all her life.  I did not have much formal training in music, but I would occasionally try different harmonies with some of our usual familiar songs, because my ear could pick up harmonies easily.  I was excited this week when Claire brought a new song for us to learn, with four parts.  We had been practicing it all night, and the sopranos and altos had just finished doing their parts all together.  “Let’s hear just the guys now,” Claire said.

Phil Gallo and I sang the bass parts, while Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell sang tenor, Matt playing guitar as well.  We sounded okay, although there were a few wrong notes sung and played.  After this, we tried the entire song with every part singing, and after three times, it seemed like we finally had perfected the song.

“I thought that sounded good,” I said afterward.

“Yes!” Claire agreed.  “I think we’re ready for Sunday!”

“Yes,” Danielle Coronado said.  “Now I get to go home and write a paper.”

“Already?” Claire said incredulously.  “It’s the first week of class!”

“It’s only one page.  Not really a paper.  Just an assignment.”

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thanks,” Danielle replied.

“See you guys Sunday,” I said, turning back to Phil, Matt, and Ryan.

“Take it easy, man,” Phil replied.  I waved at the guys and went to find Heather, since we were neighbors and had carpooled here, but she and Melanie Giordano were busy talking, and I did not want to interrupt.  I stepped back, waiting, when I heard a soft female voice behind me say, “Hey, Greg.”

I turned around and got nervous when I saw Sabrina Murphy looking up at me.  There was just something about her that was cute, but I knew that she had a boyfriend, so any of these thoughts were hopeless.  I was not sure how to explain it, she was not drop dead beautiful by Hollywood standards, but I found something about her attractive.  “Yes?” I asked awkwardly.

“I just wanted to say you really have a strong bass voice,” she said.  “It really comes out well when we sing harmony like that.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling and blushing a little.

“Have you ever thought about being in University Chorus?  They always need more male voices.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I never thought about singing in any kind of group at all until Danielle talked me into doing this a few months ago.  She’s in chorus, right?”

“Yeah.  And Claire.  I did it freshman year, but I haven’t been able to fit it into my schedule since then.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’ll think about it.”

“You should.  I think you’d be good.”

“You ready?” Heather asked me, having walked up beside me and Sabrina a few seconds earlier.

“Sure,” I said.  “Sabrina?  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes,” Sabrina replied.  Have a great week!”

In the car on the way home, Heather asked me, “So what was Sabrina saying you would be good at?”

“She asked if I had ever done University Chorus.”

“You totally should!”

“I don’t know.  I sing in the car, but I’m not good at, like, real singing.”

“I’ve heard you sing, I think you’d be great!  Give yourself more credit.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Twenty-four hours later, I was sitting in my apartment alone, doing math homework.  It was a Thursday night, and I was in a good mood.  Thursday was my lightest day of class this quarter, and my tutoring job did not start until next week.  But my good mood was mostly because I was still on a high from Sabrina’s compliment last night.  Maybe I sang better than her boyfriend, and she was going to leave him for me.  My attention drifted from my math assignment as I played out this scenario in my head, imagining what I would say if Sabrina came out of nowhere and confessed her love for me.  I heard a knock at the door, and with this on my mind, my heart rate spiked and I almost jumped out of my chair.

I got up and peeked out the window; it was not Sabrina.  Heather Escamilla stood in the dim glow of the porch light.  I opened the door, wondering what she wanted, since there was no choir practice or church tonight.  “Hi,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“I was just thinking, I forgot to tell you last night.  Saturday we’re going to have a birthday party for Gary at our place.  And you’re invited.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Sure!  What time should I be there?”

“I’ve been telling people 7.  I don’t know when everyone will get there, though.”

“That sounds good.  Do I need to bring anything?”

“No.  Just yourself.”

“Great!  I’ll see you then!”

“Have a great night!” Heather said, waving as she turned back toward the parking lot.  I closed the door and went back to my homework.  I just got invited to a party, my first actual college party, other than the one in the dorm last year that I had walked in on uninvited.

As I worked on homework, I kept thinking about Heather and Gary’s party.  I wondered if I would know anyone there.  I wondered if anyone else from church would be there.  Maybe Sabrina would be there.  That in and of itself was enough to make me want to go.

My high had worn off by the time I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on Friday night.  All day on campus, the universe seemed to be throwing in my face the fact that other people had boyfriends and girlfriends and I did not.  I saw a lot of couples acting coupley all over campus today.  This all-American jock type guy sitting across from me on the bus home was making out with a hot girl in a sorority sweatshirt the whole time.  At JCF, I sat next to Liz and Ramon, who were two of my best friends, and had been a couple since early in our freshman year, but something about them being a couple bugged me tonight.  And I overheard someone saying that this junior girl named Amelia Dye was going out with Scott Madison now, which meant one fewer girl left for me to possibly end up with.

As I sat at my desk listening to the whirs and whistles of the modem connecting to the email server, I saw in the corner of my eye the contact list for the Newman Center choir.  Sabrina’s name was misspelled on the contact list; it had her listed as “Sabrina Murpy.”  I would have spelled it right had I typed the list; maybe Sabrina was into guys who could spell.  Maybe I would call Sabrina sometime this weekend, just to talk, to be friendly.  Was that okay?  I did not know.  She probably would not be home.  Her roommate would answer and tell me that she was out with her boyfriend.  Sabrina and her boyfriend were out there driving a knife through my heart, unknowingly digging my grave.

“She’s out there, unknowingly digging my grave,” I said to myself.  Very poetic.  That has a nice rhythm to it.  It was 9:45, I was home alone on a Friday night; maybe tonight would be a good night to write poetry.  I put my sweatshirt back on and took a walk around the apartment complex and through a little bit of the Greenbelt behind the apartments, trying to think of more lines for this poem.  When I returned about twenty minutes later, I wrote down all of the words that had come to mind, and by the time I went to bed, I had this:


“Hello, kid!  How are you?  How’s everything been?”
I’m really stressed out, if you know what I mean.
And how about you?  Got exams coming up?
“I’ve got one on Friday, I need to catch up.”
I called you to see if your roommate was home.
“She’s not, at the moment, I’m here all alone.
Today, it’s not homework that keeps her a slave,
She’s out there, unknowingly digging your grave.”



In November, I had started writing a novel; it was about a high school student who changes his name and goes to live with relatives to make a fresh start.  I had written around forty pages so far.  I had named the novel Try, Try Again, referencing the old saying about what to do if at first one does not succeed.  The character, Mike, felt like he was not succeeding in his old life, so he is trying again.  I worked on Try, Try Again for a few hours the next morning.  It had been a month since Mike had made his new start, and he had found his way into a popular group of friends.  A girl named Erin had taken an interest in him, and after spending a lot of time together at and after school, Mike got brave and asked her to a movie.


Three previews came on before the movie.  Mike did not think any of the movies previewed looked good.  When the movie itself started, he got comfortable in his seat, placing both arms on the armrest.  A minute later, Erin placed her hand on top of his.  Mike looked at her and smiled.  He liked Erin.  After a while, while he was watching the movie, he felt Erin’s hand move from his hand to his knee.  He liked it there too.  Eventually Erin moved her hand off of Mike for good.  Mike, instead, reached over the armrest and took her hand in his, placing it on the armrest.

Mike took his eyes off the movie and looked at Erin.  She did the exact same thing a few seconds later.  He tightened his grip around her hand for a couple seconds, then loosened it again.  Erin began to kiss him.  He liked it a lot.  It was nothing too unusual for most kids his age, but he had never been kissed so passionately in his life.  He tried to return it the best he could, and he felt that Erin liked it as well.  Their mouths slowly separated.  “Thanks,” Mike whispered.  Erin gave him a huge smile.

Mike’s eyes turned back to the movie.  He reached his right hand over to her right shoulder and touched it.  Erin moved her body a little to the left, closer to Mike.  They stayed in that position for the rest of the show.


I wished I could be at a movie with Sabrina, kissing her lips, running my fingers through her pretty red hair, and seeing her cute smile as she looked at me afterward.  What did her boyfriend have that I did not?  A few months ago, I wanted to be kissing Megan McCauley, until I found out that she also was with someone.  And before Megan there were lots of other girls who either had boyfriends or were just not interested in me.  Sometimes it felt like the entire single female population all over the state were conspiring to make sure I never had a girlfriend.

Later that night, I left my home and walked to Heather and Gary’s apartment, in the same complex as mine.  The party started half an hour ago, but I did not want to be the first one there, since I did not know if I would know anyone.  I knocked on the door, and Heather answered.  “Hey!” she said.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.  “Happy birthday, Gary!” I called out across the room when I saw Gary wave at me.

“Thanks!” Gary replied.

I looked around the room.  Six other people were there besides Heather and Gary.  I recognized Melanie from church, but no one else; Melanie was there with her boyfriend.  Sabrina was not there.  I made small talk with Heather and Gary for a bit, talking about school and my trip to Disneyland with my family.

“You actually drove past O.J. Simpson’s house?” Gary said, laughing.  “That’s hilarious!”

“I know.  Mom kept saying she couldn’t believe we were actually doing that.”

“What about O.J. Simpson’s house?” a girl I did not recognize said, walking up as she overheard us.  She had long straight hair and olive skin.  I repeated my story in abbreviated form, and she said, “My apartment isn’t too far from O.J. Simpson’s house.”

“This is my sister, Mariana,” Heather explained.  “She’s visiting from California.”

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

“So how do you know my sister?” Mariana asked.

“From church.  We both sing in the choir.”

“How fun!  I wish I could hear you guys sing in the morning, but my flight back home leaves at 12:15, so I need to be on my way to the airport by then.”

“Aww.”

“I was in choir in high school and college, but I graduated last year, and I’m not doing any kind of singing right now.”

“Where’d you go to school?”

“Santa Teresa,” Mariana said as Heather and Gary went to greet more people who were just arriving.

“That’s cool.  I’ve never been there, but two of my friends from high school go there.”

“Oh yeah?  What are their names?”

“Paul Dickinson and Jackie Bordeaux.  They would have been freshmen last year.”

“Nope, I don’t know them.  It’s a big school.”

“That’s what I figured.”

“You go to Jeromeville?  What are you studying?”

“Math.”

“Math,” Mariana repeated, making a face.  “That was not my class.”

“A lot of people say that,” I said, laughing.

“Well, if you’re good at it, go for it!  Do you know what you want to do with your degree?  Do you want to be a teacher?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t think I want to be a teacher, though.  Too much politics involved in education.  I just figure I’ll stay in school until I figure it out.”

“I understand that.  I majored in English, but I’m not really using it.  I work in an office.”

“Yeah.  I was never very good at English in school.  I never understood what I was supposed to get from the novels and poems that we had to read.”

“I did a lot of BS’ing on assignments like that, to be honest.”

“I see,” I replied, chuckling.  “But the weird thing is, even though I was always bad at English class, I like to write.”

“Oh yeah?  What do you like to write?”

“Sometimes I have a thought stuck in my head, and it’ll become a weird poem.  And last year I wrote a short novel.  I had a really interesting year when I was a senior in high school, so I turned that into a novel.”

“That’s so cool!”

“And right now, I’m working on another novel.  It’s about a guy who runs away to live with relatives, because he wants a fresh start.  But he pretends to be sixteen instead of eighteen, because he realized he missed out on a lot of experiences in high school, and he wants a second chance.”

“That’s interesting.  Where’d you get that idea?”

“Probably just because sometimes I wish I could do that.”

“You feel like you missed out on a lot?”

“Yeah.  Like I said with the first novel, I grew a lot my senior year, but then we all graduated and moved away.  I feel like if everything that happened my senior year had happened earlier, I would have graduated as an entirely different person.”

“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Mariana contemplated.  “Hmm.  Interesting.”

“If you want, I can send you some of my writing,” I said.  “Or at least I’ll send you what I have so far.”

“Yeah!  That would be so cool!”

“Do you use email?”

“I don’t,” Mariana said, disappointedly.  “Is that a problem?”

“You can give me your address, and I can mail it to you.”

“Sure!  I’ll do that.  Let me go get a piece of paper.” Mariana walked off and came back a minute later, handing me her address.

“Thanks!” I said.

Mariana and I talked for about another hour, about life, the past, the future, and many other things on our minds.  I could not help but wonder, could there be something here?  Might she be interested in me that way?  She was a few years older than me, that would be different; hopefully she did not see me as some immature little kid.  I had a way to keep in contact with her, and that was the important part at this moment.

“I’m going to get another drink,” Mariana eventually said.  “But, hey, it was really good talking to you!  Send me your story!”

“I will.  Thanks.” I smiled.

“We’ll probably talk more later tonight.”

“Yeah,” I said.

No one else that I knew ever showed up to the party.  I talked to Melanie for a bit about my winter break, and one of Gary’s engineer friends was drunkenly asking me about math at one point.  The party got louder as the night went on, and I went home around 10:30.

As soon as I got home, I printed out a copy of the unfinished Try, Try Again to send to Mariana, and I excitedly mailed it with extra stamps the next day.  This weekend sure turned into a great one.  I met a girl who talked to me for a long time and was interested in my creative work.  Maybe I did not need to hope for Sabrina to leave her boyfriend after all.  Life was finally looking up for me.

Except it never happened.  I never heard from Mariana again.  I never found out if she read my story.  She never wrote back, and Heather never mentioned her around me again.  I could have asked, of course, but I never asked others about girls I was interested in.  I was embarrassed for anyone to know that I liked a girl, ever since eighth grade when Paul Dickinson told the whole school who I liked.

Why did Mariana act so friendly if she did not want to talk to me again?  Things like this had happened before.  Jennifer Henson had been friendly to me all through senior year of high school, then that summer she moved away suddenly without leaving me a way to contact her.  Many other girls would treat me like this throughout my life, and I had a tendency to misunderstand the intentions of others.  People are complicated, reading and understanding them is hard, and I still had a lot to learn.  Maybe I would figure all of this out someday.  Until then, I had plenty of material for poetry and fiction.

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.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I walked into the lobby of Evans Hall, got a name tag from the people sitting in front, and went into the back of the lecture hall, room 170.  I looked around the room and saw Taylor Santiago, Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Mike Knepper, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis mingling about halfway down the room, so I walked over to sit near them.  All of these people except Mike had been in my dorm last year, and some of them had invited me multiple times to come with them to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I finally went with them about a month ago, and JCF’s large group meetings here in 170 Evans had become my Friday night routine.

“Hey, Greg,” Krista said, seeing me first.  The others said hi to me as well.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” Taylor replied.  “Are you coming to the car rally tonight?”

“Probably.  I’ve never done a car rally before.  How does it work?”

“You get clues, and you drive around to the places the clues tell you to go.  Then people are hanging out afterward.  There are prizes for the team that finishes first.”

“That’s kind of what I thought.  It sounds fun.”

The large group meetings for JCF usually lasted about an hour and a half.  The worship band played a few songs, with one of the staff making announcements after the first song.  Then someone would give a talk, kind of like a sermon at a church service, with more music at the end.  Cheryl, one of the staff, did tonight’s talk.  After the band finished their last song, Cheryl got back up front, something that did not usually happen in a normal week.  But this was not a normal week; the group had put together this car rally as a social event to take place after the meeting tonight.

“If you have a car, come up to the front of the room,” Cheryl said into the microphone.  “Once you have enough people on your team to fill the car, go out to the lobby and get your clues.  And you want to make sure you have at least one upperclassman on your team.  We’re going to start at about 9:30.”  It was a few minutes after nine now.

I did not know any upperclassmen.  Scott Madison, the drummer who, like me, was also a tutor for the Learning Skills Center, was the upperclassman I was closest to knowing, since I knew his name and had said hi to him before.  But it looked like Scott had his own car and was assembling his own team.  Most of my friends were also assembling into teams; I saw Sarah and Krista leave with two older girls I did not know, and Taylor and Charlie left with two older boys.  I retreated to a corner, watching people I knew form teams with people I did not know and proceed out of the room.

Pete and Mike, the two remaining people from the group I sat with, walked up to me about a minute later.  “Greg?” Pete asked.  “Are you on a team yet?”

“I’m driving, and I don’t have anyone on my team yet.”

“Can we join your team, then?”

“Sure.”

“Mike was going to drive, but it looks like they have more drivers than they need.”

“Sounds good.  Now we just need some upperclassmen.”

The room was emptying as more and more people either went home or got in their groups.  Two girls walked up to us a few minutes later.  One of them asked, “Are you guys still looking for people in your car?  Do you have room for two more?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can fit five.”

“I guess you’re on our team, then,” Mike told them.

“Great!” the girl said.  “I’m Leah, and this is Autumn.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  “I’m Greg.  Do you know these guys?”  Leah and Autumn shook their heads no, and Pete and Mike introduced themselves.

The five of us walked to the lobby, where someone handed us two envelopes and instructed us not to open them until someone told us to.  We waited with the other completed teams for about another five minutes until all the teams had formed and were ready.

“Listen up, everyone,” Cheryl announced at around 9:30.  “There will be five places you need to go, and you’ll get the next clue at each place.  People will be hanging out at the last place.  The envelope that says ‘don’t open unless you are stuck,’ don’t open that unless you are absolutely stuck and you want to give up.  That tells you where the party is, but if you open it, you won’t win the prize.  The other envelope, the first clue, open that now.  Go!”

I heard the sound of about fifteen to twenty envelopes opening as people began reading the first clue and running to their cars.  I opened the clue and read it:

 

One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!

 

Virgin?  But stop?  What did any of this mean?  I handed the paper to Pete, who read it and looked about as confused as I was.  “Let’s go to the car,” I said.  I jogged to the parking lot, since after all this was a race, and motioned for the other four to follow me.

“One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but, stop,” I said out loud once we were in the car.  “Do any of you know what that means?”

“I have no idea,” Pete said.

“The Venus!” Mike shouted.  “That’s it!”

“What’s The Venus?” I asked.

“The coffee shop.”

“Where is that?”

“B Street, between First and Second.  There’s this sign outside that’s supposed to look like that painting of Venus in the seashell.”

“Let’s go!” I said.  As I drove my way out of the parking lot toward downtown, I realized that I still had no idea how Mike made the connection between this coffee shop and the extra virgins and the but stop.  “So what do the two rows of virgins in the clue mean?” I asked.

“The painting.  Venus emerged from the sea as a virgin,” Mike explained.  “And they have a patio outside with outdoor seating.  Maybe two rows of seats?”  I was not entirely on board with Mike’s interpretation of the clue, but he was familiar with this place and I was not, so in the absence of any other ideas, it was worth checking out.

I followed Mike’s directions and pulled over to the side of the road next to the building he pointed out.  The Venus was the kind of unique coffee shop that belonged in a college town like Jeromeville.  It was common in downtown areas of cities this size around here to have restaurants and offices in buildings that had once been single-family homes, and The Venus appeared to be such a building.  The front yard had been paved and converted to outdoor seating, with towering trees planted decades ago when this was a house providing shade.  A sign was painted to look like a replica of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, with Venus covering her lady parts in the same pose, but emerging from a cup of coffee instead of a seashell.  One of the other goddesses in the painting held a banner which said “The Venus – Coffee House & Pub.”  The place appeared to be open; it was Friday night, after all.

“I’ll go get the clue,” Mike said, hopping out of the car.  Mike looked around the patio for a minute, then went inside.

“I don’t know if this is it,” I said.

“Me either,” Pete agreed.

“This place looks cool,” Leah observed.  “I’ve never been here.”

“I haven’t either,” I said.  “I don’t like coffee.”

“You don’t like coffee?”

“Why not?” Autumn asked.  “I love coffee!”

“I just don’t like the taste.  I’ve tried coffee drinks with other stuff in them, like mochas, and I can still taste the coffee.  I feel like I’m missing out on the coffee shop experience because of that.”

“You can get other drinks,” Leah suggested.

“I know.  It’s just kind of sad not being able to do things that everyone else does.”

“No one is here,” Mike said as he arrived back at the car.  “This isn’t it.”

“You looked everywhere?” Pete asked.

“Yeah.  Inside, outside, out back, I didn’t see anyone here from JCF.  I even asked a few people who looked like they were waiting for someone.”

“Bummer.”

“So where should I go now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike said as the rest of us looked confused.

“We must be missing something in the clue,” I said, holding the paper and reading it again.  “‘One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!’  What’s a but stop?”

“I wonder if it’s supposed to be ‘bus stop,’” Leah suggested.  “Is there a bus stop here?”

“There’s one down there,” Autumn said, pointing a block down the street.

“There are hundreds of bus stops in Jeromeville,” I said.  “How do we know which one it means?  And there isn’t really a prominent bus stop here, outside The Venus.  That must be important, or else it wouldn’t be written on the clue.  And why is STOP! capitalized?”

“Virgin,” Mike said, thinking out loud.  “Maybe something to do with the Virgin Mary?  A Catholic church?  Is there a Catholic church called Virgin something around here?”

“There’s the Newman Center, and there’s St. John’s,” I answered.  “No virgin.”

“We don’t have any better ideas, so maybe we should just drive past there,” Leah said.

“All right.”

The Newman Center was only a few blocks away from The Venus.  I continued up B Street to Fifth, then turned right.  I parked in front; the building looked completely deserted, and no one was outside.  St. John’s was about half a mile away on the corner of B Street and 15th, and it looked equally deserted, both from the street and from the parking lot.

“I’m out of ideas,” I said.  “Unless anyone can think of anything, I’ll just drive around aimlessly and hope we see something.”

“I guess,” Pete replied.

“Leah?  Autumn?  Do you guys know anything?  You’re the upperclassmen in the group.”

“Upperclassmen?” Leah repeated.  “We’re freshmen.”

“Wait.  Weren’t we supposed to have an upperclassman on our team?”

“We thought you guys were upperclassmen.  You look older.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.  “We’re all sophomores.  That’s why our group doesn’t get this.  The upperclassmen know something we don’t.”

“I think they just said that to make sure that someone in your group knows their way around Jeromeville,” Pete said.  “And you know your way around.”

“I don’t know.”  I was getting more frustrated by the minute.  It was 10:02, and we had made no progress in half an hour.  The clues were probably all inside jokes among the people who had been involved with JCF for a long time, and I had no idea what extra virgins and the but stop were because I was on the outside of the cliques.  However, Pete and Mike did not understand the clues either, despite being better connected within JCF.

“Virgin Megastore,” Autumn said as I drove around Jeromeville aimlessly.  “That big record store.  Is there one here?”

“I think there’s one in Capital City,” I replied.  “But the directions specifically said all the clues were in Jeromeville.  They’re not going to make us cross the Drawbridge.”

I continued driving aimlessly around Jeromeville, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins or a but stop, whatever that was.  I drove through the parking lots in the two shopping centers near my apartment.  I drove up Andrews to where it meets G Street near the pond.  I drove back down G Street toward downtown, driving slowly, looking at every landmark and sign.  We made of small talk while we drove around.  I learned that Leah was majoring in psychology, and that Autumn had not decided on a major yet.  I also learned that Mike was from Morgantown, about a half hour drive from my hometown of Plumdale.

“Did you go to Morgantown High?” I asked Mike.

“Yeah.  Why?

“They played my high school for our Homecoming football game senior year.  You guys beat us pretty badly.”

“Did you play football?”

“No.  I just watched a bunch of games.”

“I didn’t really follow football,” Mike said.

After I had driven up and down several streets downtown, Leah and Autumn decided that it was time for them to go home and go to bed.  “Can you drop us off?”

“Okay,” I said.  “Where do you live?”

“Reynolds.  In the North Area.”

“Sure.”  I drove west down Fifth Street, left on Colt Avenue, and made an immediate right into the long narrow parking area separating the North Residential Area from Fifth Street and residential neighborhoods off campus.  I stopped when I got close to Reynolds Hall, one of four identical five-story dormitories that were the tallest residential buildings on campus.  “Good night,” I said.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too!” Leah exclaimed.

“Bye,” Autumn said, smiling and waving.

After they left, I had a thought.  “If it is ‘bus stop’ instead of ‘but stop,’ maybe the clue is either at the MU or the Barn, since that’s where the buses stop on campus.”

“It’s worth a try,” Pete said.  I turned around and drove to the Memorial Union bus station.  Then, since cars are not allowed in the campus core, I backtracked all the way to Leah and Autumn’s dorm, turned onto campus on Andrews Road, and worked my way from there to the parking lot closest to the Barn.  No one was handing out clues at either place.

“This night has been a bust so far,” I said, looking at the clock.  10:36.  “It’s been over an hour, and we’ve made no progress.  And now we lost forty percent of our team.”

“It’s just a game,” Mike said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“Keep driving, I guess,” Pete suggested.

I did keep driving.  I worked my way around the west and south edges of campus back to downtown, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins.  I drove under the railroad tracks on Cornell Boulevard, past Murder Burger and over the freeway.  I continued east on Cornell to the easternmost edge of Jeromeville, then north on Bruce Boulevard across the freeway to where it curves around to the west and becomes Coventry Boulevard.  I was out of ideas, Pete and Mike and I were out of small talk, and by the time I had driven all the way back across Jeromeville to the west, it was after eleven o’clock, and we were ready to give up.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out the clue,” I said.  I had failed my team miserably

“That’s okay,” Pete replied.  “Are you ready to open the envelope that says ‘Do Not Open?’”

“Sure,” I said.  Resigned to my fate, I opened the envelope and removed the paper inside.  “‘1640 Valdez Street,’” I read.  “I know Valdez Street.  That’s in South Jeromeville.”

“I think that’s the house where Shawn Yang and Brian Burr and those senior guys live,” Pete said.  “They must be hosting the after party.  But I kind of just want to go home now.”

“Me too,” Mike said.  “Can you just take us back to the parking lot by Evans?”

“Sure,” I answered.  “I’m still going to go to the party.”

“I hope it’s fun,” Pete said.

 

After I drove back to campus and dropped off Mike and Pete, I headed back to South Jeromeville, the same way I went earlier.  I did not know these guys who lived on Valdez Street, but hopefully the rest of my friends at JCF would be at this party.

I walked up to the door and knocked.  A tall upperclassman with reddish-brown hair answered the door and said, “Hey, come on in.  You made it.”

“Kinda,” I said.  “We got stuck and had to open the envelope.  The rest of my group just wanted to go home.”  I remembered meeting this guy last month, the first time I came to JCF; his name was Brian, and he was on the UJ track and field team.  I made a connection in my mind; Pete had mentioned that a senior named Brian Burr lived in this house.  This was probably the Brian he was talking about.

Taylor saw me walk in and waved.  He was with Charlie, Sarah, and Krista, the rest of the people I sat with earlier.  “Greg!” he said.  “We were just taking off.  Where were you?”

“I’ve been driving around this whole time.  I had to open the Do Not Open envelope.”

“Which clue did you get stuck on?”

“The first one!  We never found anything!”

“You never even got to the first checkpoint?” Taylor repeated.

“We were supposed to have an upperclassman in our group, and it was just me and Pete and Mike Knepper and two freshmen!  Whatever inside joke the juniors and seniors have that has to do with extra virgins, I’m not in on it.”

“Olives,” Sarah said.  “Like extra virgin olive oil.”

I paused, trying to assimilate this new piece of information.  My regimen of cereal, lunch meat, and frozen dinners did not include olive oil anywhere.  But now that Sarah mentioned it, I remembered having seen the term “extra virgin” on the label on a bottle of olive oil at the grocery store.  “Olive Way,” I said.  “That path on the west side of campus.  Two rows of olive trees.  Is that where it was?  What’s a but stop?”

“But stop?” Sarah asked.  I pulled the clue out of my pocket and showed it to her.  “I think that was supposed to say bus stop,” she explained.  “The clue was at the bus stop by Olive Way and Darlington Apartments.”

“That makes so much sense now,” I said.  I would learn later that Brian Burr and some of his roommates here on Valdez Street had lived in those apartments the previous year.  One of them probably wrote the clue.

“We’ll see you later,” Taylor said, shaking my hand.  “Have a good weekend.”

“You too.”

I looked around me at the rest of the people in the room.  About twelve people remained in the house, but this party definitely had the look of a party that was winding down.  No one else that I knew was here.  I tried talking to a few other people, but mostly I just felt embarrassed that I had not even solved the first clue.  I also felt like I had missed a fun time of hanging out, since most people arrived an hour ago.

I left the party about fifteen minutes later, feeling disappointed.  This night was supposed to be fun, and it just left me frustrated, because I could not even solve the first clue.  Even my skill of knowing my way around Jeromeville could not save us from that typo or my lack of familiarity with olive oil.  I still felt on the outside of the cliques.  But I met two new friends, Leah and Autumn, and I got to know Mike better.  I had only been part of JCF for a month, and I was still getting to know people.  And I was learning more about God and the Bible.  All of these were positive things that would take time to grow.  Reaching a goal is nice, but sometimes the things that make life worth living happen while wandering around lost.

2020 olive way
Olive Way, 2020

November 10-12, 1995.  Creating a fantasy world.

The first World War ended on November 11, 1918, and many of the countries involved now observe a holiday on November 11.  The holiday goes by different names around the world; in the United States, we call it Veterans Day.  Many government offices are closed on Veterans Day, and students are off school.  When November 11 falls on a weekend, as it did this year, schools close on the nearest Friday or Monday.

Except for the University of Jeromeville.  We got no day off.  Even last year, when November 11 was on an actual school day, we got no day off.  I never knew why.  I wondered if this was a legacy of universities traditionally being full of anti-war hippie types who did not want to celebrate our military.  But we did get a day off in May for Memorial Day, the holiday commemorating those who died serving our country.  And the building I was walking through right now was called the Memorial Union, or the “MU” for short, named to remember UJ students who died in military service.

It had been a typical Friday so far.  My day started waiting in the hallway of Wellington Hall for math class, because another class occupied the classroom immediately before our class.  Jack Chalmers from my class said hi to a girl named Lizzie as she left that class and we entered the room for ours, just as he did every day.  Math was easy.  I crossed the street to the MU at 10 and did homework for an hour.  I met some tutees in 102 Wellington, the tutoring room, at 11.  I just learned that word this quarter working for the Learning Skills Center: “tutee,” meaning one who is being tutored.  Tutee is a great word.  At 12, I walked down Colt Avenue to 199 Stone for chemistry, and then back to the MU to eat lunch.  I got up, went to the bathroom, and walked back through the MU on the way to my physics class in Ross Hall when I saw her.

When I see a familiar face in a setting that this person is not normally connected to, my brain always takes a few seconds to register what I am seeing.  At first all I saw was two young-looking girls walking toward me.  They were both a little on the short side.  One wore a dark red sweatshirt with a hood and a brand name logo unfamiliar to me, and the other wore a black jacket with white sleeves, and a large letter P on her left side.  I recognized that this was a Plumdale High School letter jacket.

What is a Plumdale High School letter jacket doing in Jeromeville?  Who is this person?  Do I know her?

Holy crap, it’s her.  What is she doing here?  What do I say?

Just before she walked past me, I said, “Annie?”

The two girls stopped.  Annie, the one in the Plumdale High jacket, looked at me, looking just as surprised as I was at first until recognition came over her face a second later.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.  “Visiting your brother?”

“My boyfriend goes here now too,” Annie replied.

There it is again.  The B word.  I wondered whether she was still with the same boyfriend as last year, or if this was some new guy.  Either way, though, Annie’s boyfriend was not me.

“It was good seeing you,” I said.  “Have a great weekend!”

“You too!” Annie replied.  The girl she was with waved at me; I recognized this girl’s face, she was from Plumdale High too, but I could not remember her name.

My mind raced as I walked away from them, toward my physics class.  Annie Gambrell was here, in Jeromeville.  I had a chance to talk to her, and I felt like I blew it.  Should I have said more?  She seemed busy, and she was not here to visit me.  She had a boyfriend; she was not coming here to meet guys.  But I did not know when, or if, I would ever see her again.  Maybe I should have talked more.  Or maybe she doesn’t really care about me, and all that nice stuff she wrote in my yearbook senior year was just for the sake of being polite and she didn’t really mean it.  Should I tell Annie’s brother next time I see him that I ran into her?  Does he think it’s weird that I have an unrequited crush on his unavailable little sister, even though I haven’t actually told him anything other than that I know her?

After physics class, I had another tutoring group back in the study room at 102 Wellington.  “Hi,” the tall blonde guy who was just finishing a tutoring group at the table next to me said as I walked in.   I knew from looking at the schedule of tutoring groups in this room that his name was Scott Madison.  He looked familiar for some reason, but maybe I was just used to seeing him here.

“Hi,” I replied to Scott.  I then turned to two of the three students in my group who were already waiting and asked, “Are you ready to get started?”

My tutoring group went as they usually do.  These students were in Short Calculus, Math 16A, for majors which do not require any math above calculus.  Their work focuses on finding and applying derivatives of functions without studying the theory and proofs behind derivatives.  I did not enjoy tutoring the Math 16 series as much as I did the 21 series, for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, because it was difficult for me, as a math guy, to gloss over the theoretical stuff.  But I got paid to do so, and I did my best, hoping not to confuse the students too much.

At four o’clock, when the tutoring group was finished, I walked diagonally across the Quad to the Learning Skills Center in Krueger Hall to turn in my time sheet for tutoring, as I did every other Friday, then back along East Quad Avenue to catch a bus home from the MU.  A few hours later, after napping and eating, I returned to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I drove this time, because parking is easy to find and slightly less expensive in the evening.

Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis were standing around talking on the far side of the lecture hall where the group was held; I walked over to them and said hi.  The four of them all lived in the same apartment complex, the boys in one apartment and the girls in another, and all of us were in the same dorm last year.

“Hey, man,” Taylor said.  “How’s it goin’?”

“Pretty good,” I replied.

“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.

“One of my friends from high school, she’s a senior this year, I saw her and her friend walking around campus today.  It was unexpected.”

“What was she doing here?” Krista asked.  “Touring the campus?”

“Her brother goes here.  I know him.  And she said her boyfriend goes here too.”

“So was she skipping school?” Taylor asked, adding sarcastically, “I don’t know anything at all about skipping classes…”

“She probably didn’t have school today,” I explained.  “Tomorrow is Veterans Day.  We always got that off in high school.”

“Oh yeah.  It’s a holiday.”

“Why don’t we get Veterans Day off?” Charlie asked rhetorically.  “It’s not fair.”

“It’s supposed to be a holiday?” I heard Jason Costello’s voice say behind me.

“Tomorrow is Veterans Day,” I explained, turning around.  Ramon Quintero and his girlfriend Liz Williams were with him; they were all in our dorm last year as well.  “I don’t know why Jeromeville doesn’t get it off, but I noticed that last year too.”

There had been no JCF the week before, because the group had been on a retreat with sister chapters of this organization at other colleges and universities in the region.  I had not attended the retreat, but most of my friends here did.  Taylor and Charlie were talking about something that happened to Pete Green, Taylor and Charlie’s third roommate, at the retreat.  “Where is Pete tonight anyway?” I asked.

“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.

“Visiting his family there?”

“Yeah.”

I heard someone from the worship band welcoming us to JCF and saying that it was time to get started.  As the band played, and sang along to lyrics being displayed on an overhead projector, my eyes scanned the front of the room, watching the people on the worship team.  I saw the drummer and realized something: it was Scott Madison, the other tutor who had said hi to me this afternoon.  That was why he looked so familiar; this was my third time at JCF, and I had probably seen him play drums here before.  At the end of the night, I said hi to him and formally introduced myself; he seemed like a nice guy.  (A few years later, Scott would become the first non-relative to invite me to his wedding, and I still get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.)

 

Although my Friday had ended on a good note, I woke up feeling down again on Saturday morning.  It was a cool and gloomy day, with gray skies that threatened rain.  Summer in Jeromeville is sunny and hot, and winter is relatively mild compared to much of the United States.  It only snows high in the mountains, snow here on the valley floor is very rare, but rain is fairly common in the winter.  And the transition period from summer to winter is very short, usually occurring around early November.  Winter had arrived earlier this week, and it was supposed to rain intermittently all weekend.  Rain made me sad and anxious.

I spent the morning doing homework and reading.  By mid-afternoon, some patches of blue sky had appeared, and the threat of rain had passed, so I went for a bike ride.  I started riding through the Greenbelts, then back down G Street toward downtown, but despite keeping myself busy, I kept thinking about my chance encounter with Annie yesterday.  Why hadn’t I asked for her address or phone number, so I could try keeping in touch?  I subconsciously knew that there was no point, though.  I had given her my address at Plumdale High’s Homecoming a year ago and never heard from her, and knowing that she had a boyfriend made it feel futile to pursue anything, although I would have been happy just being friends.

Two years ago, I was a senior at Plumdale High, and I felt like I grew a lot that year.  I finally had a social life, and I made new friends, including Annie.  But then I graduated, I moved away, many of my senior class friends moved away in different directions, and I lost touch with many of my friends.  There was no texting or social media in those days, and only a few of my friends used email, so it was difficult to keep in touch.  And despite all that, I still felt like I was on the outer fringes of the social circle in high school, not really one of them.

I wished that the events of my senior year had happened during sophomore or junior year instead.  That way, I might have had time to solidify some of those friendships before we scattered.  Maybe I would have learned how to actually ask a girl out.  Maybe Annie would have broken up with her boyfriend, and I would have been able to use those new skills.

What if I just ran away and pretended to be in high school again?  What would that be like?  What would it take?  A fake birth certificate would probably be hard to find.  Maybe I wouldn’t need one.  Maybe I would just need fake transcripts to show to the new school.  Being 19 and still in high school was unusual, but not exactly unheard of.  My birthday came right at the start of the school year, so I started kindergarten when I was barely 5.  Some parents would have chosen for me to start kindergarten the following year.  My parents did that with my brother Mark; with his birthday in October, they chose to wait until he was almost 6 to put him in kindergarten.  Mark would turn 18 in the fall of 1999, early in his senior year, and someone his age who had repeated a grade in elementary school would be a 19-year-old senior.

Could I do this?  Would it be possible to fake my identity and get a second try at my senior year of high school?  Probably not.  Lying on important documents like transcripts seemed too dishonest and illegal for me to be comfortable with it.  But, I thought, all of this seemed like a great premise for a work of fiction.

I had been writing again in my spare time recently.  Last year, I wrote a short novel called The Commencement, based on all the growing up I did as a senior in high school.  I had been revising and expanding it lately, and it was up to 62 pages.  I was running out of ideas for how to expand The Commencement, so maybe it was time to work on something new.

As I continued riding my bike that afternoon, along the entire length of the Arboretum and back up Andrews Road toward home, I kept thinking about faking my identity and going back to high school.  How would that be possible?  Maybe this story would take place at a different point in life; going back to high school now seemed like too much of a stretch, and none of my thoughts led to anything realistic.  Maybe my character would run away while he was a senior in high school, and go to a new school in a new town, pretending to be two years younger.  I would focus my writing on everything he dislikes about life, and all of his unfinished business, to make the desire to run away real.  But if he is not an adult, how can he just do this, and where would he go?  That was easy; I could make him turn 18 early in his senior year.  And I could give him divorced parents living far from each other, so he would have the option to go move in with the other parent.

When I got home from my bike ride, I showered and put a frozen dinner in the microwave.  I put on some music from high school, starting with Pearl Jam’s Ten album, and began writing.  I started my novel, which was still untitled at this point, by quoting a song lyric, as Stephen King often did with his novels, then proceeded to set the scene of a character who felt like he did not fit in with his friends.


“I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life”
—Pink Floyd

1

“Where were you this morning?” Ryan asked Sara.

“I was…” Sara paused.  “Sleeping in,” she said, with a mischievous grin on her face.

Sleeping in? Jon thought.

“You missed class?” Becky teased.

“He said we didn’t have to come today,” Sara said defensively.  “He was just doing a review for the test tomorrow.  I needed a break, and I feel prepared for the test.”  Jon began to feel somewhat angry after hearing this.

“How did you get out of band?” Kate asked.  “Does Mr. Jackson know you were gone?”

“He knows,” Sara said.  “He knows I had to see the dentist.”  Sara and the others laughed.  All except Jon.  Some people could just do whatever they wanted and not get caught.  But if Jon tried it, he would get stopped at the gate because ___ High School was a closed campus.  It wasn’t fair.


I left the name of the school blank.  I had not decided yet where Jon and his friends lived.  I usually wrote about places familiar to me, so they would have to live somewhere back home in Santa Lucia County, or Jeromeville, or maybe across the Drawbridge from Jeromeville in Capital City, or maybe Bidwell where my dad had family.  But it would make more sense to have Jon run away to one of those places familiar to me, and to have the story open somewhere else, somewhere more interesting.  I thought about different cities and states that had been on my mind recently and settled on San Diego, California, where my friend Pete had once lived and was currently visiting his family.  I could ask Pete next time I saw him to suggest a good name for a high school in San Diego.

I continued writing about Jon’s day.  Jon heard his friends talk about college applications, and about movies they liked that Jon had never seen, and movies they hated that Jon liked.  I wrote about Jon’s feelings of inferiority regarding a lack of extracurricular activities for college applications, and a conversation he had with the school counselor about this, and more laments in Jon’s head about not belonging and not feeling good enough.  I thought back to yesterday when I ran into Annie Gambrell and wrote this scene for the end of Jon’s school day.


“Jon! What are you doing?”  He looked up at Kelly ___, one of the few underclassmen he knew.  He met her last month while interviewing her for the yearbook, doing the page on the women’s’ JV cross-country team.  Sometimes Jon thought that the fact that women’s’ JV cross-country got two whole pages in the yearbook was just part of an international conspiracy that ensured that certain people, who were labeled “popular,” got in the yearbook at least twenty times every year whereas other people only got in once.  This was the same conspiracy that invented Homecoming Queens and the modern system of student government.  Jon had nothing against women’s sports, or unpopular sports; he just didn’t like being unpopular.

“Hi.”  Jon looked up and saw that she was with a friend.  He thought the friend’s name was Nicole, but he did not know her.

“What are you doing?  Waiting for someone?” Kelly asked.

“No.  Just…” he paused.  “Thinking.”

“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.

“I’m all right.  I just kind of had a rough day.”

“Don’t worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Jon replied.  “See you later.” Jon really liked Kelly.  She seemed really nice, and she was pretty too.  She had a beautiful smile.  Unfortunately, she already had a boyfriend.  Jon got in his truck and drove home, thinking about what it would be like to have a relationship with Kelly.


I thought about making the last name for the Annie character something that sounded like Annie, or like Gambrell.  The only thing I could think of was “Aniston,” the last name of one of the actors on the TV show Friends.  There was no way I would name someone in my story after Friends, so I left it blank and moved on.

I spent most of the rest of that weekend writing, finishing chapter 1 and half of chapter 2, establishing the mood of Jon feeling out of place and wanting to start over, wanting more time to live the high school experience.  I also mentioned that Jon’s father lived five hundred miles away in Capital City, with a second wife who had two children of her own.

I never did see or hear from Annie again after that day.  I could have asked her brother to get in touch with her for me, I saw him at church the next day, but that just felt weird.  Annie was off limits because she had a boyfriend.  But I continued to work on this novel for the next several months.  I had no plans to act out the premise of this novel, to run away and go back to high school, nor did I have a realistic way of doing so.  I knew that that would never happen.   But it was interesting to think about, and fun to put these thoughts on paper.  If they could not happen in real life, I could create a fantasy world where these things happened, as long as I knew that it was just fantasy and did not let it consume my life.


Author’s note: Yes, these are actual excerpts from a novel I wrote in 1995-96.  More about that later.

Also, in real life it’s my birthday!  Well, yesterday was.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

I locked my bike outside Wellington Hall and walked down the hall, joining about five other people waiting outside room 109 for the 9:00 Math 22A class.  Another class met in this room at 8:00, and I always arrived early enough that the other class had not been dismissed yet.  I learned the hard way on the first day of class not to open the door this early.

“Hey, Greg,” Jack Chalmers said.  I knew Jack from last year; we had had two classes together, and we lived in nearby dorms and ate at the same dining commons.

“Hi,” I said.

“Finding inverses of matrices is hard!” Jack exclaimed, speaking quickly and eliding syllables here and there, as he normally did, but I understood what he was saying.  “The homework took me forever!”

“I know.  It seems like there should be an easier way.  Maybe we’ll learn one later.”

As Jack continued, I became aware of the classroom emptying.  “I just hope every assignment in this class isn’t gonna be that long.  I’m already pretty busy this quarter.  Hey, Lizzie.”

“Hey, what happened last night?” a girl leaving the classroom asked Jack.  I recognized Lizzie, because I had seen Jack say hi to her before as we waited for her class to finish and ours to start.  Lizzie was fairly short, with brown eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail.

“I had so much homework!” Jack told Lizzie.

“That’s too bad,” Lizzie replied.  “Hopefully I’ll see you this weekend?”

“Yeah.”

Lizzie looked at me for a second before she turned to walk away.  “Bye,” I said, waving, even though I did not know Lizzie at all beyond always seeing her leave this class, and I had no idea what plans Jack had missed out on.

“Bye,” she replied, smiling.

I walked into the room along with Jack and the others waiting for our math class.  I spent the next hour listening to the instructor, a curly-haired man named Anton, explain properties of matrices and their inverses.  Anton demonstrated how to prove the invertibility of a matrix, in his usual broken English.  He told us to call him Anton; I was not sure if this was because his last name was difficult for English-speakers, or because calling professors by first name was the norm in his home country.  I never did figure out exactly which country this was.

As soon as math class finished, I crossed West Quad Avenue and walked to the far end of the Memorial Union building, near the campus bookstore, to a stairway leading down.  The basement of this building contained a game room with 16 lanes of bowling, along with pool tables, pinball machines, and coin-operated video games.  Here at the University of Jeromeville, students got two appointments to register for classes, three weeks apart, using an automated telephone system.  On the first appointment, students may only register for up to thirteen and one-half units, enough to be classified as a full time student, but limited so that not all classes fill up before everyone has had a chance to register.  I registered for bowling and weight training just to make sure I had enough classes, intending to drop these once I added chemistry on the second pass, but I ended up keeping bowling and only dropping weight training.

Today, the bowling coach, Frank White, demonstrated the proper release of the ball, with a flick of the wrist giving the ball a bit of spin.  We began learning this last time, on Monday, and I was terrible at it.  My mind began to wander, and I spent a few minutes starting at a plaque on the wall with names of everyone who bowled a perfect game on these lanes.  So far, there were eight perfect games.  This was the fourth time bowling class had met this year, and I had been bowling down here a few times last year, but today one of those names jumped out at me that I had never noticed before.

FRANK WHITE
4/29/89

Frank White was my instructor, the man standing here in front of me explaining how to release the ball.  Apparently he bowled a perfect game here six years ago.  That was quite an accomplishment.  I watched carefully, paying close attention to what he was doing.  By the end of class, though, it seemed like my technique was worse than ever.  I had not bowled this many gutter balls since I was a child.

I had an hour between bowling and chemistry lecture, which I used to work on the new math assignment due Friday.  After chemistry, I had another hour before physics lecture; I spent it sitting on the Quad, eating the lunch I packed and reading the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt.  After physics, I returned to Wellington, where my math class had been in the morning.  Room 102 was a large study room, with a row of comfortable chairs, and six cubicles each containing a table and a small chalkboard.  A few students sat quietly in the chairs, and two students worked together in one of the cubicles.  I noticed the cubicles had signs with numbers on them.  Four other signs placed in prominent places around the room announced that These cubicles may be reserved by the Learning Skills Center.

That was me.  This was my first day on the job for the Learning Skills Center.  I walked to table 3, where two students named Yesenia Fonseca and Kevin Dunnigan were assigned to meet me.  A short girl with olive skin and long brown hair most of the way down her back sat at the table.  I wondered if she was waiting for me, or if she just sat there not knowing that the table was reserved.

“Are you Yesenia?” I asked.

The girl’s face lit up.  “Yeah!” she exclaimed enthusiastically.  “You’re my tutor?”

“Yes.  I’m Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!  Is it just us or will there be a group?”

“There’s one other person signed up, a guy named Kevin Dunnigan.  Do you know him?”

“No,” she said.   “But he might be in my class.  It’s a huge class.”

“I think usually they put students together from the same class, so he probably is,” I explained.  Yesenia and Kevin were taking Math 21A, the beginning quarter of calculus.  Students who begin calculus fall quarter get a large lecture hall class..  I skipped a quarter since I had taken the Advanced Placement test in high school, so I started fall of my freshman year in 21B, and since fewer students take 21B in the fall compared to 21A, my classes were smaller.

“We can wait a few minutes to get started, see if Kevin comes,” I said.  “It’s early.”

“How does this work?”

“Honestly, I’m not really sure,” I said.  “This is my first time tutoring, ever.  I think I just answer any questions you have about anything you’ve been going over in class.  Or we can work on stuff from your homework.  You can do it while I’m here, so you can ask for help if you need to.”

“That sounds good.  So what year are you?”

“I’m a sophomore,” I said.

“I’m a freshman.”  Yesenia smiled apologetically, as if to say that she knew that freshmen were traditionally on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  I did not care that she was a freshman.

“How do you like Jeromeville so far?” I asked.

“I love it!  I’ve already made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Good.  Which dorm?”

“South Area.  Building C.”

“Building C!” I exclaimed.  “I was in Building C last year!”

The IHP!”

“Yes!  I loved it too!  I felt like the IHP gave me a smaller community within the large university.”

“That’s a great way of describing it.”

 A boy with dark hair and an athletic build approached our table, looking at a sheet of paper on which he had written something.  “Are you Greg?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Kevin?”

“Yeah.  You’re my tutor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  Kevin Dunnigan did not look like what I expected of someone with an Irish-sounding name; I wondered from his appearance if his mother was Asian.  “Do you two know each other?”

“No,” Kevin said.

“I’m Yesenia,” Yesenia said, extending her hand.  “I think I’ve seen you in class.  10:00 with Dr. Hong?”

“Yeah.”

I spent the next fifty minutes working with Yesenia and Kevin, talking about limits of functions and how to calculate them.  This was the class that I had skipped; I had not technically taken it before.  I was familiar with most of what they were doing, of course, but one question on their assignment involved the epsilon-delta proof of finding the limit of a function.  My calculus class at Plumdale High did not go that in depth.  However, I was able to figure it out; I had done enough similar problems in other classes since then.

“It’s about time to wrap up,” I said at the end of the session.  “Any other questions before we leave?”

“I’m starting to understand this a lot better,” Kevin replied.

“Me too,” Yesenia added.  “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “See you guys next week?”

“Yeah!

 

It was almost 4:30 by the time I finally got home.  I spent some time on the computer catching up on emails, and I put a frozen pot pie in the oven for dinner.  I still had to do my pre-lab for physics tomorrow.  But my night was not over yet, because it was Wednesday, and I had choir practice at church.  Last week was the first time I had ever sung at church, and one of the others in the group, Heather Escamilla, had mentioned carpooling since we were neighbors in the same apartment complex.  At 6:40 that night, after eating the pot pie and writing my pre-lab, I walked to Heather’s apartment and knocked on the door.

“Hey, Greg,” Heather said, opening the door.  I could see a guy with long brown hair inside the apartment, sitting at a computer typing; he looked up at me.  “This is my boyfriend, Gary,” Heather said.

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” Gary replied.

“You ready?” Heather asked.

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

Heather locked the door behind her, and I followed her to her car, a Jeep Cherokee.  The way Gary sat at the computer made me wonder if he and Heather lived together.  Being Catholic, there was all that stuff about fornication and adultery and things like that which suggested that it was wrong for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together.  Maybe they lived together in separate bedrooms.  It was none of my business, so I did not ask.  On the way to the church, I told Heather about my first day of tutoring, and she told me about the midterm she had in the morning that she would be up late studying for.

When we arrived, I noticed that Danielle was there with her sister, Carly, a freshman.  I had met Carly twice before, once at church this year and once last year when Danielle’s family came to visit her in the dorm.  I thought it was interesting that Carly was singing too.  Danielle had told me over the summer that Carly was coming to Jeromeville, and Danielle was a little bit upset that Carly had chosen the same major and was in one of the same classes as her.  And now Carly was following her big sister to choir at the Newman Center.  I hoped that there was no drama going on with them.

“Hi, Greg,” Danielle said.  “You remember my sister, Carly?”

“Yeah.  Good to see you again.”

“You too,” Carly replied.  Carly was a few inches taller and somewhat thinner than Danielle, with straight brown hair.  They did not look very much alike, but considering that my brother Mark does not look like me, I no longer found it surprising when siblings did not look alike.  For as much as Danielle was a good friend, I had to admit that Carly was better looking.  I wondered if, growing up, Carly got more attention from boys, and if this had been part of the reason Danielle felt uneasy about Carly being in the same major and one of Danielle’s classes.

A few minutes later, Claire, a junior who seemed somewhat to be in charge of things, gave us all a stack of papers.  It was an address and phone list of all of us doing music at 11:00 Mass.  I scanned the list to make sure that my information was correct; it was.  I read through the other names.  I recognized some of the names.  Danielle Coronado.  Carly Coronado.  Matt Jones.  Heather Escamilla.  Some of the last names were unfamiliar to me, because I had only met these people by first name last week.  Claire Seaver.  Sabrina Murpy.  That was an unusual last name; I wondered if it was a typo and her name was actually Murphy.  (It was, I would learn later.)  I continued reading.  Phil Gallo.  Ryan Gambrell.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through my body, and I did a double take and read the name again.  My brain made a flurry of connections between things said a year ago and things said last week.  Matt said last week that Ryan was his friend from high school.  Matt went to St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, so Ryan also went to St. Luke’s.  Right near where I grew up.  I looked at Ryan, now seeing his mysteriously familiar toothy smile with new eyes.

“Ryan Gambrell,” I said.

“Yeah?” Ryan replied.

You’re Annie’s brother.”

Ryan looked confused for a second, then surprised; clearly he was not expecting me to say that.  “Yes,” he said.  “How do you know my sister?”

“I went to Plumdale High.  A class I was in and a class she was in did a project together my senior year, her sophomore year.  And now I remember I told her I was going to Jeromeville, and she said her brother goes there.”

“How funny.  Small world.”

“Tell her I said hi.”  I wanted to tell Annie so much more than hi.  I wanted to tell her all about how I was doing here.  I wanted to know where she was applying to school, since she was a senior this year.  I wondered what to make of the fact that she was always so nice to me when I was a senior, and she wrote something really nice in the back of my yearbook, but she had not stayed in touch at all.  I wanted to tell her to come visit me if she ever came up here to visit Ryan or to tour the campus.  And I was curious if she and her boyfriend were still together, because as long as they were, all these feelings I had felt wrong and forbidden.

“I will,” Ryan said.

Choir practice continued uneventfully for the rest of the night.  One song I did not know well, but I figured it out fairly quickly and felt that I would be able to sing it with everyone else in front of the congregation on Sunday morning.  On the way home, in Heather’s Jeep, I mentioned to her about knowing Ryan’s sister from high school.

“Whoa,” Heather said.  “It’s weird how that kind of thing happens.”

“I know.”

“Gary told me once he was in Capital City, and he ran into this guy he knew from when he used to live in Arizona as a kid.”

“Wow.  That’s even crazier.”

I got home and listened to music while I opened an IRC chat on the computer; although I was messaging a girl on there, I could not stop thinking about Annie Gambrell.  I wondered if I would ever see her again.  Even though she had not written to me, I had a connection with her again, in that I knew her brother.  But I also felt that this crush was one I needed to keep secret, because the entire time I knew her in person, she had a boyfriend.  Annie’s boyfriend was one of the popular guys from the class a year older than her and a year younger than me.

In the time that I knew Ryan, I ended up not talking to him much about Annie.  Annie was off limits.  Most of the best girls were off limits.  It was not my place in life to be romantically involved with the popular girls.  The concept of high school popularity does not carry over to the culture of a large university, but still felt, deep down inside, that I probably did not have much of a shot with friendly and attractive girls here either.

 

 

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.  My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments.  It was a Tuesday morning.  About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today.  A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City.  Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible.  After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.

My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

A few of my classmates gasped.  This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected.  O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend.  For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy.  All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted.  To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.

When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building.  A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad.  A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore.  A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk.  Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.

i will argue table

Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything.  Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “Thanks for signing up to work today.”

“No problem,” I said.  “So what do I do?  Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”

“Yes.  Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets.  “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”

“I can do that,” I said.  I looked through one of the pamphlets.  It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman.  The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.

A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign.  “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Can I help you?”

“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.

“We are the Newman Center.  We are a Catholic student community.  We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”

I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it.  I was curious what made him stop at our table.  Does he come from a Catholic background?  Is he just interested in Catholicism?  Was he just being friendly?  I did not ask.  I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.

“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.

“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.

“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

“No.  I have physics lab at 2.  I had chemistry lab this morning.”

“Two labs on the same day.”

“Yeah.  That’s all I have today.  This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict.  I thought that was kind of funny.”

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

“Yeah.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely.  I’m just sick of hearing about it.”

“I know what you mean.”

Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair.  “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet.  “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages.  “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”

“There is also St. John’s.  They are a more traditional Catholic parish.  The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Would you like to sign up for our contact list?  We can send you more information.”

“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Have a great day.”

“You too!”

“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off.  “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”

“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing.  I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”

“Good for you!  I think you’ll love it.”

“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people.  But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo.  And I need to get more involved in things.  I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”

“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice?  You two know each other besides just church, right?”

“Yes.  She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”

“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”

“Thank you.”

 

The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road.  I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th.  I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.

“Greg!” Danielle called out.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.

“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater.  I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well.  “Danielle told me you would be coming.  We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week.  Grab a songbook.”

I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass.  I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones.  He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home.  He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.

There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble.  The others introduced themselves to Phil and me.  There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina.  An olive-skinned girl named Heather.  A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together.  And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students.  Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past.  Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.

Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass.  Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings.  In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together.  The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service.  When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics.  The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.

The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts.  For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing.  Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman.  “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.”  “We used to sing it at my church back home.”

“Mine too,” Danielle replied.  “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”

After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” she asked.  “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas.  Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this.  Was she stalking me?  Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?

“I do too.  Might you be interested in carpooling?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of.  Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary. 

“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number.  And my apartment number.”

“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays?  Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”

“Sure.  We can do Sundays too.”  Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me.  Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239.  I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.

“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked.  “Want me to drive?”

“Sure!”

 

The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass.  I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.

“Hey,” I said after opening the door.  “You ready?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Which car is yours?”

“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment.  “Well, technically not mine.  My parents own it.  You know.”

“Yeah.”  As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from?  Are your parents around here?”

“No.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  How far is that from here?”

“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”

“That’s not bad.  I’m from down south, near San Angelo.  On a good day it takes six hours.”

“Sounds right.  What year are you, and what are you studying?”

“I’m a junior.  Psych major.  And you’re a sophomore?  Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”

“Yeah.  She lived one door down across the hall from me.  And I’m a math major.”

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

“I’m sure they do.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, but it was boring.  Went for a bike ride yesterday.”  I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.

“That sounds nice,” Heather said.  “Mel and I were at a party on Friday.  It was, well, interesting.  You know.”

“Mel?”

“Melanie.  From choir.  You met her on Wednesday.”

“Oh, okay.  I still don’t know everyone.”

When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty.  The early service had left already.  We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music.  Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived.  “You ready?”

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be.  Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat.  You’ll be fine.”

Danielle was right.  I just sang, and it was fine.  We sounded good.  There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be.  The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song.  Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.

“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Great!  I’ll see you Wednesday then.”

“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather.  She was talking to Melanie.  After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.

I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely.  With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year.  That meant it was time to get involved in more activities.  With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.

After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor.  Songs get stuck in my head easily.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says.  Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord.  Maybe he finally heard me.  Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends.  And in the process, I was serving my community.  Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.

 

 

 

September 25, 1995.  The week that students were back on campus.

I checked my email as I ate my bowl of cereal, and I gasped as I finally saw the message I had been waiting a month to receive.


From: “Megan McCauley” <mlmccauley@jeromeville.edu>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Sun, 24 Sep 1995 22:44 -0700
Subject: Re: hi

Greg!! I’m so sorry it took so long for me to get back to you!  The class I was taking was so much work, and I was busy all the time, and then once that ended, we had RA training and orientation all last week.  And my residents moved in yesterday… it’s been a whirlwind!  I’m in Carter this year, in the North Area.  How was the rest of your summer?  Are you all moved back here?

Do you want to meet for lunch at the DC sometime this week?  The RA meal plan lets you have guests a certain number of times each month.  I’m usually free around lunch time, so I can work around your schedule.  Let me know.  What classes are you taking this quarter?  See you soon!

Megan


 

I felt so relieved to know that Megan was not ignoring me for the last month.  She was just really busy.  And now she wanted to have lunch with me.  Sure, the dining commons was not exactly the most glamorous place to meet someone for lunch, but I did not care one bit.  Last year, living in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program dorm gave me a built-in community, but I had no such community this year, living alone in an apartment a mile from campus.  Maybe this would be a better week than the rest of September, now that school was about to start and students were moving back.  Hopefully this was the end of the lonely bike rides and Internet chats that had dominated the last three weeks.

I clicked Reply to answer Megan’s message.


It’s good to hear from you!  I’ve been up here for three weeks.  I was getting bored at home and I needed a change.  I’m ready for school to start now.

How about tomorrow (Tuesday) at noon for lunch?  Does that work?  I’ll see you then!


 

After a few hours of procrastination, chatting on IRC and reading some of the Usenet groups I still follow, I grabbed my backpack and left the apartment around 11:00.  I had things to do today.  I rode to campus the usual way, south down Andrews Road.  Just past Coventry Boulevard, I saw a thin, average height girl with straight medium brown hair approaching me.  I  recognized her off in the distance, and as I approached her, I stopped my bike next to her.

“Hey, Liz,” I said.

Liz looked up at me, clearly not expecting to be addressed by anyone.  “Greg!” she said.  “Hi!  How’s it going?”

“Pretty good.  I’ve been up here bored for the last three weeks, because it’s better than being bored at home. I’ve been going on a lot of bike rides.”

“That sounds nice!”

“How are you?  How was the rest of your summer?”

“Great!  Last week we had Outreach Camp for JCF–”

“Oh, yeah.  Sarah wrote to me and told me about that.  What’s that like?”

“We spend a week in the mountains studying the Bible and planning our activities for the start of the school year.  It was so good.  It was good seeing everyone again.  Hey, you should come to large group.”

“Maybe.”

“Did you ever come last year?”

“No, but I heard you guys talk about it.”

“Every Friday night, in 170 Evans.  We have a worship time, sing songs, then hear a talk about something from the Bible.  And usually people hang out afterward.  I think you’d like it.”

I let that comment linger for a few seconds, nodding.  “You guys live right around the corner, right?”

“Yeah.  Hampton Place.”  Liz pointed east across the street, in the general direction of her apartment.  “Caroline and I, and then Ramon and Jason are right downstairs from us.  Come visit any time!”

“I will.  You can too.  I’m in Las Casas on Alvarez.”  I pointed behind me, in the general direction of my apartment.

“Yeah!  I need to get going, but it was good seeing you!”

“Hey,” I asked, a little nervously, “what’s your phone number?  Just so I know how to reach everyone.”

“Sure!  Do you have something I can write with?”  Liz asked.  I reached around in my backpack and pulled out a pen and piece of paper.  Liz wrote down her phone number along with that of the guys downstairs.

“Thanks!” I said.  I tore off a corner of the paper and wrote my phone number and gave it to her.  “Here’s mine too.”

“It was good seeing you!  Have a great day!”

“You too!”

I continued riding down Andrews Road.  Liz Williams and her roommate and neighbors were all friends from my dorm last year.  She lived across the hall from me one room to the left, and Caroline Pearson, her roommate this year, lived across the hall from me one room to the right.  Jason Costello lived right across from Liz, next to me, and Ramon Quintero, Liz’s boyfriend, lived upstairs at the opposite end of the building.  Liz had written to me once and Caroline had twice over the summer.

I passed Jeromeville Covenant Church on my bike.  Some of my friends from the dorm, including these four, attended church there.  I knew that they were also involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, the local chapter of an international organization called Intervarsity.  JCF did a weekly large group meeting, small group Bible studies, and retreats a couple times each year, like the one that Liz had been to last week.  This was not the first time I had been invited to the JCF large group.  Everyone I knew from JCF seemed nice, but I grew up Catholic, and I was unsure of what to expect from other Christians.  Some of them sounded kind of weird to me.  And some Catholics and Protestants still like to claim superiority over the other group, although my mother, the primary churchgoer in our family, was not like that at all.

When I got to Fifth Street, the boundary between the city of Jeromeville and campus, I turned left, then turned right on a bike path through the North Residential Area.  The North Area had two distinct sections: four five-story high-rises, and the dining commons where I would be meeting Megan McCauley for lunch tomorrow, to my right, and seven smaller two- and three-story buildings, each comparable in size to the buildings of the South Area where I lived last year, to my left.  Megan was a resident advisor in Carter Hall, one of the smaller buildings.

At the end of this path, I turned left, toward the Quad and the Memorial Union.  Next to the Quad stood the two oldest surviving buildings on campus, simply called Old North Hall and Old South Hall.  They were built as dormitories in 1911, but as the campus grew, those two buildings, now located in the core area of a large campus, were remodeled into office buildings as new dormitories were built at the west end of the core campus.  Today, Old North and Old South housed a number of student services.

In the basement of Old North was a room full of bulletin boards containing postings of on-campus student jobs.  I was growing up, and I needed to take more responsibility for my life.  I felt bad that my parents were spending so much money for me to have my own apartment when I was too oblivious last year to notice that I needed to make living arrangements and too scared to answer an advertisement looking for a roommate.  No one was making me look for a job, but I wanted one.  I read dozens of job announcements.  Desk jobs.  Cashiers.  Food service jobs in the dining commons.  Hosts for conventions held by the university.  All of them were titled “Student Assistant” with some Roman numeral after them, probably for legal reasons; I never did learn what the Roman numeral meant.  I supposed I could probably handle a desk job, or a cashier position after my summer job at Books & More.  But then I saw something more suited for me.

STUDENT ASSISTANT IV – TUTORING

Tutors needed for math, English, biology, chemistry, history, more.  Meet with small groups of students weekly.  Good academic record or professor recommendation required.  $10/hr.  Contact Albert Wilkins 555-0177 or visit Learning Skills Center – 201 Krueger

I certainly had a good academic record; I had straight As except for one A-minus in a class unrelated to my major of mathematics.  I could get paid ten dollars an hour to do math, and I would not have to go out and find students like the private tutors whose flyers I see all over campus, since they would be assigned to me by the Learning Skills Center.  Math was easy for me.  This sounded like the perfect job.  I took an application and wrote down the information.  I also wrote down information for a cashier job at the campus store, so I would have another option in case tutoring did not work out.

After eating lunch at the Tex-Mex Grill inside the MU, I walked to the campus store.  General interest books, school supplies, and clothing were on the ground floor, and in the middle of the store a wide stairway led down to the basement, where textbooks were sold.  As I feared, the store was crowded, because classes began in a few days, but I had nothing to do all day, and I needed to buy books.  I headed toward the stairs to the basement, walking past a line of people waiting to buy things on the ground floor, when I saw a round-faced Asian girl with dark chin-length hair in line, and I realized I knew her.

“Tabitha,” I said, stopping in front of the girl.

Tabitha looked up at me and paused.  “Greg,” she said.  “How are you?”

“Doing pretty well,” I replied.  Last year, Tabitha had lived in the dorm next to mine.  I often saw her around the dining commons, and she was friends with several people in my building because they were in a Bible study together with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  “How was your summer?” I asked.

“It was good.  I was just back home in San Tomas.  And I went on a retreat last weekend.  How was yours?”

“I was working in a bookstore.  Nothing too exciting.  Was that retreat for JCF?  I saw Liz Williams earlier today, and she told me it was good.”

“It was!  It was inspiring.  Are you here to get your textbooks?”

“Yeah.  It looks like it’ll be pretty crowded down there.”

“Good luck.  I was just down there earlier today.  And I might need another book later, depending on if I get into a class I’m on the wait list for.”

“Thanks.  It was good seeing you again.”

“You too!”

I stopped myself just before I walked downstairs.  “Hey,” I said to Tabitha, “can I get your phone number?  I’m just trying to stay in touch with everyone this year, now that I won’t see people at the DC or in the dorm.”

Tabitha looked confused for a minute, then she said, “Sure!”  I tore a scrap of paper out of a notebook in my backpack, and she wrote her phone number on it.  I tore off another scrap and wrote my number on it, and gave it to her.  “Here’s mine, if you want.”

“Thanks!” Tabitha replied.  “Have a great day!”

“You too!”

A few minutes later, as I walked up and down the aisles of textbooks in the basement looking for the books I needed, weaving past other customers and the line that wrapped from the cash register all the way around the room, I thought about Tabitha’s reaction to me asking for her phone number.  I wondered if she thought I was weird for asking.  She was not a complete stranger, true, but Liz did not have the same confused look earlier when I asked her.  This was probably because Tabitha and I were nearly as close as I was with Liz and the others at Hampton Place.  I was not specifically trying to ask Tabitha on a date or anything; I really was just trying to make sure I could stay in touch with everyone I knew last year.  Of course, if something were to happen between me and any of these female friends, I would not necessarily be inherently opposed to it.

When I was ready to pay for my books, I went to what appeared to be the end of the line.  “Is this the end of the line?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the girl who I assumed to be last in line.

“Looks like we’ll be here a while,” I continued.  “I’m not doing anything the rest of the day, though.”

“That’s good.”  The girl in front of me was short, with bushy blonde hair and glasses.  She wore overalls and white shoes, and she had a blue backpack.

“That math book you have.  ‘Short Calculus.’  Is that 16 series?”

“Yeah.”

“I was wondering because I might be working as a tutor with the Learning Skills Center, and I took the 21 series, so if I have to tutor 16 I won’t know their book.  But if I’ve done 21 I should be able to help with anything you learn in 16.”

“Probably,” she said.  “What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“That’s cool.  You want to be a teacher?”

“Probably not.  I just need a job this quarter, and I’d probably be good at tutoring.  I was always good at math, and my friends in high school always asked me for help.”

“That’s awesome.”

“What’s your name?”

“Amber.  What’s yours?”

“Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!”

“How was your summer?”

“I worked at Taco Bell.  It was hectic, but it was money.  How was yours?”

“I worked at a bookstore back home.  It was boring, and it was mostly a store for snobby old ladies, but like you said, it was money.  I moved back up here as soon as my apartment lease started.”

“Where is back home?”

“Plumdale.  Near Santa Lucia and Gabilan.  What about you?”

“I’m from Bear River.  You know where that is?”

“Yeah.  In the Valley, south of Stockdale and Ralstonville, but north of Ashwood, right?”

“Yeah.”

Amber and I continued making conversation for the entire twenty-six minutes that we spent in line.  When her turn at the cash register came, I said, “Hey, it was nice to meet you.  I’ll see you around campus?”

“Yeah!” she replied.  “Thanks for making the line a little less boring.”

“You too.  Have a great day!”

I rode my bike home the way I came after I bought my textbooks.  I had not asked Amber for her phone number, as I had Liz and Tabitha.  Maybe I should have.  But it just seemed weird to ask a complete stranger for her phone number.  I ran into Amber a couple more times around campus that year, but we never became close friends.  Could things have been different?  Would she have given me her phone number?  In hindsight, I suppose I had nothing to lose by asking, but I guess I will never know.

On the other hand, even though Tabitha had given me her number after giving a weird look, I do not remember ever actually calling her that year.  But if she had thought it weird, she got over it eventually, because we saw each other enough that year that we did stay friends.  Tabitha and I have stayed friends to this day, in fact, and I was at her wedding in 2001.  My biggest concern about living alone sophomore year was that I would not have friends without a dorm to wander around in which to say hi to people.  But if today was any indication of what this year would be like, I would not have to be concerned about that one bit.