Mid-June 1995.  The worst finals schedule ever and the last great adventure of freshman year.

Every college town is known for little hole-in-the-wall restaurants popular with students.  Jeromeville had one called Redrum, but during the time I was there, it was called Murder Burger.  The sign said their burgers were “so good, they’re to die for.” Murder Burger was just off Cornell Boulevard and Highway 100, across the train tracks from downtown.  It was a greasy little nondescript building without enough seating, which meant the food had to be really good. Toward the end of the time I lived in Jeromeville, around 2001 or so, someone complained about the violent connotation of the name, and after taking suggestions from customers, the owners changed the name to “Redrum,” the nonsense word popularized in the book and movie The Shining which is actually “murder” spelled backward.

The last great adventure of my freshman year at the University of Jeromeville took place at Murder Burger.  But before that happened, I had to get through the worst finals schedule ever. Finals week at UJ required six days, so there would always be one Saturday at the end of every quarter when some finals were held.  And because of a quirk in the calendar, there was no dead time this quarter, no day to study without classes. My last class for Physics 9A was Friday at 11:00, and the final was less than 24 hours later, Saturday at 8:00.

On the last day of physics class, the instructor, Dr. Collins, was about a day behind where he had wanted to be.  It seemed like he was going quickly through everything he had not had time for earlier in the quarter. I kept thinking, what if the entire final is about this stuff that he had not adequately prepared us for?  But I kept reminding myself that I had 20 hours to do nothing but study physics. Hopefully I would sleep for part of that time, though; I was going to study my butt off for this final, but I was not planning to pull an all-nighter.

“Remember, the final is tomorrow at 8:00,” Dr. Collins said as his time ran out.  Then, gesturing toward the back of the lecture hall where two graduate students stood with stacks of paper, he said, “The TAs here will be passing out instructor evaluations.  Please leave them in the box in the lobby as you leave.”

Dr. Collins walked through the door behind the front of the lecture hall as I received my evaluation form.  This had been a new concept to me when I started at UJ, giving instructors feedback at the end of the quarter.  I gave Dr. Collins mostly positive ratings, but I did mention the section from early in the year when he did not follow the book.  He asked a question about this on the midterm that I did poorly on, and since his teaching did not follow the book, I had no idea what to do.

As I had planned to, I spent the entire afternoon studying physics.  I went through every problem set at the end of every chapter, making sure I knew how to do all the important things.  I reread all the formulas and made sure I knew them from memory, including what all the letters stood for. I reread vocabulary, making sure I knew the definition of force and torque and momentum and energy.  I did every problem from both midterms again.

Later that night, as I was attempting to reread my notes, I discovered that they took a long time to reread, mostly because of my messy handwriting.  I turned on the computer and, after a quick break to check email, I began retyping my notes. This took longer than simply rereading, even with the messy handwriting, but it seemed to help since I had to think more about what I was reading and typing.  Then, if I had time to reread it all again, it would be easier to read since it would no longer be in my messy handwriting.

When Saturday morning came, I still felt uneasy about the exam.  I rode my bike from Building C to Ross Hall, already wearing shorts at 7:45 in the morning because it was warm and would probably only get hotter.  I sat near the aisle on the left side of the lecture hall (my left, the instructor’s right). As the rest of the class arrived, I nervously reread the notes I had retyped and printed the night before, trying to glean one last bit of information in the few minutes that remained.

When the time came, Dr. Collins and his teacher assistants passed out the exam paper.  I looked over it and read all of the questions first. As I read each successive question, my state of mind went from worried to calm to excited.  This was easy. I had studied in detail every single thing that was being asked on this test, and I knew how to do every problem. I began working, writing, typing on my calculator, sketching diagrams of forces acting on objects.  When I finished, I double-checked all the answers. I redid all of my calculator work. And I turned in my paper and walked out of 66 Ross with almost half of the allotted two hours remaining.

The finals for Chemistry 2B and Psychology and the Law were both on Monday.  My next two days looked much as the previous one had. I spent most of my time studying.  I reread and retyped notes, just as I had done for physics. I redid chemistry problems, calculating theoretical yields of chemical reactions and molarity of solutions.  For Psych-Law, the test would include both a multiple choice section and an essay. Dr. Kemp had given us a choice of three topics so that we could prepare in advance, but the essay itself had to be handwritten on the day of the final.  I made outlines for my chosen topic, so that I would be able to remember what I wanted to write about.

 

Dr. Kemp was the instructor for Psychology and the Law, or as the class was formally called, Integrated Honors Program 8B.  It was a class open only to students in the IHP, one of three that we had to choose from each quarter which counted as general education requirements.  Dr. Kemp was a gray-haired man in his 50s who wore a dress shirt and tie most days, not exactly someone I expected to have much of a sense of humor. He proved me wrong on the day of the final, when he announced, “I put some funny choices on the multiple choice part of the test.”

I began working on the test, wondering exactly what he meant by this.  The fifth question said this:

5)   The McNaughton Rule applies to criminal cases featuring which of the following:
A.
Expert witnesses
B.
A plea of not guilty by reason of insanity
C.
Repressed memories
D.
A hung jury
E.
Aliens

I tried not to chuckle too loudly when I read “Aliens.”  This was a test, after all.

A few minutes later, Dan Woodward quietly asked Dr. Kemp a question.  Dr. Kemp looked at the test again, appeared to think for a minute, and then announced to the class, “Don’t mark the funny choice for your answer.”  People softly laughed. I assumed that one of the questions had been worded in a misleading way so as to make the funny choice a possibly correct answer.  I found the item in question at the bottom of the page I was on:

14)   Which of the following IS NOT one of the Miranda rights?
A. R
ight to remain silent
B.
Right to consult a lawyer
C.
Right to bear arms
D.
Right to a lawyer present during questioning
E.
Right to eat donuts during the trial

I was right.  Technically, according to the question, both choices C and E were correct.  Dr. Kemp had probably needed another option, and had just made up something funny without realizing that it did not fit the wording of the question.

The rest of the multiple choice test was fairly straightforward.  I thought I did okay on the essay section as well, even though I hated essay tests, but this time I had time to prepare.  I remembered all the main points I had written on my outline the night before. I submitted my test at 9:50, toward the end of the two hour time slot.

The chemistry final was at 4:00 that afternoon, so I spent the rest of the afternoon studying for that.  I felt confident about that one, though, and it seemed easy while I was taking it. I got back to the South Residential Area just in time for dinner, relieved that this nightmare of three challenging finals at the beginning of finals week was over.  It was a good feeling, and I was just going to relax for the rest of the night, chatting on IRC, reading my usual Usenet groups, and playing Tetris and SimCity 2000.

 

Tuesday and Wednesday were among the best days I had all quarter.  I went on long bike rides both days, through the Greenbelts in north Jeromeville on Tuesday and through the Arboretum and the rural part of campus across from Highway 117 on Wednesday.  I spent several hours chatting on IRC and made a new friend, a 19-year-old girl from Missouri named Stacey with blue eyes and a nice butt (at least that’s what she said about herself). I took naps.  I organized my desk drawers and my clothes, so that packing on Friday would be easier. And, since I still had a math final coming up, I spent a few hours Wednesday evening studying.

I also spent most of Thursday morning studying for math, with a break in between to email Stacey.  I probably had not needed to study that much, though, because I had no trouble with the math final.  But as with all exams, there was a lingering feeling in the back of my mind that I did poorly and did not realize it.  This feeling had been stronger in my mind for every exam since I failed the first physics midterm in April, although that time I knew I had done poorly before the exam was even over.

I spent most of Friday cleaning and packing.  My things were organized enough that packing did not take long.  The problem was that I did not have many boxes. I still had the two boxes my computer and monitor came in; I had been using them as a makeshift table.  Instead of putting the computer and monitor back in the boxes, though, I put clothes in the boxes. I carried the boxes of clothes out to the car.

Next, I walked down to the Help Window and asked to borrow a socket wrench and screwdriver, so I could disassemble the bed loft and return the extra pieces.  I checked my email one last time (Stacey had not written back yet; for that matter, we only stayed in touch for about a week total), then I disconnected all the cables and took the computer and monitor to the car, in two separate trips, leaving them without boxes since I was using the boxes for clothes.  I wrapped the computer and monitor in the blanket and sheets from my bed; students purchased these from the Department of Student Housing and kept them at the end of the year. I used these sheets and blanket for the rest of the time I lived in Jeromeville, and today they are on the guest bed at my house.

When I got back to the room, it was finally beginning to sink in that this was my last day in Building C, and my last day in Jeromeville for this school year.  Everyone had to be out of the dorms by noon tomorrow, but I was finished with finals and had no reason to stay. I had called Mom yesterday and said I would be home sometime tonight, although I did not say when because I did not know.

By late afternoon, I had finished carrying everything out to the car.  I was sweeping the room with a borrowed broom, with the door open, when Liz walked by.  “Hey, Greg?” she said, peeking her head in the door.

I stopped sweeping for a minute.  “Yeah?” I replied.

“A bunch of us are going to Murder Burger tonight, and then bowling.  Wanna come?”

“Definitely!” I said.  “Sounds like a great way to celebrate the last day of school.”

“Meet in the common room at 6.  We’re gonna walk. It’s not that far.”

“I’ll see you then!  Sounds good!”

 

By the time we left for Murder Burger, I had turned in my keys.  I had no way back into Room 221, although I could still get into the building with the magnetic stripe on my registration card.  This was not just a small group of friends heading out to dinner; this was a massive caravan of almost half of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  Liz and Ramon, Taylor, Pete, Charlie, and Jason. Sarah, Krista, Caroline, Danielle, and Theresa. Pat and Karen, and Pat’s twin brother who lived in the North Residential Area.  Mike Adams and his roommate Ian. Gina Stalteri, Derek Olvera, Stephanie, and Schuyler. David, Keith, Mike Potts, Yu Cheng. Jonathan, Spencer, Jenn from the first floor, Cathy, and Phuong.  Skeeter and Bok. Rebekah and Tracey. And I probably forgot a few others.

We walked the same route I usually took to get to chemistry class in 199 Stone.  From there, we continued walking east on Davis Drive to the edge of campus at Old Jeromeville Road.  We turned left and took the next right, First Street, walking four blocks along a vacant lot lined with old olive trees, across the street from a few fraternity houses and small hotels.  We turned right on Cornell Boulevard and walked under the railroad tracks; Murder Burger was just on the other side, about a mile and a quarter from Building C.

“How’d you do on finals?” Taylor asked me as we were approaching Murder Burger.

“I think I did pretty well, actually,” I replied.  “What about you?”

“Uhh… I took finals.  I showed up.”

I chuckled.  “That bad, huh?”

“It wasn’t great.  Have you ever been to Murder Burger?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve driven past it many times, though.”

“I’ve been here once.  The burgers are really good.”

We did not all fit inside the building.  We made a long line extending out the door.  I started thinking about what I wanted as soon as I got close enough to see the menu.  I pointed to the part of the menu saying that they could add flavors to drinks for a small additional charge.

“Vanilla Coke?  Chocolate Coke? Orange Coke?”  I asked rhetorically. “What is that?”

“Flavored Coke is so good!” Sarah said from behind me in line.  “There’s a place back home that has vanilla Coke. I love it!”

When it was finally my turn to order, I asked for a double cheeseburger with just ketchup, mayonnaise, lettuce, and cheese; a large French fry; and a vanilla Coke.  I wanted to see if this was really as good as Sarah said it was. (Of course, now most grocery stores around here sell Vanilla Coke pre-made in cans, but this option did not exist in 1995.)  The cashier gave me a stub with a number printed on it. I looked around for a place to sit. The kitchen was behind the cash registers, with the dining room to the right.

“We’ll be outside with Liz and Ramon,” Sarah told me as I started to walk away.  “Come sit with us.”

“Okay,” I said.  I walked out the back of the dining room, opening to a parking lot, and then back around to the opposite side of the building.  Liz and Ramon were sitting on a picnic bench, along with Taylor and Pete.

“Come sit with us,” Liz said.  “We saved you a seat.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “This is so cool. One last time hanging out together.”

“Looking forward to summer?” Ramon asked.

“Yeah.  A friend of my mom’s works in a bookstore, and she got me a job there, so I’ll have a little bit of money coming in.”

“Are you going to see your high school friends this summer?” Sarah asked, arriving as I was talking to Ramon.

“I’m not sure.  I didn’t usually see my friends when I wasn’t in school.  And some of them haven’t stayed in touch.”

“Really.  That’s kinda sad.”

“I hope I get to see some of them, though.”

About fifteen minutes later, someone called my number over a speaker next to the outdoor seating area.  I got up and returned a minute later with my food, taking my first ever sip of vanilla Coke.

“You were right, Sarah,” I said as I swallowed.  “Vanilla Coke is good.”

“I know!  Isn’t it?”

After we finished eating, around eight o’clock, we cleaned up and walked back across the railroad track.  About half of the group walked back toward Building C while the others walked toward the bowling alley; I told them goodbye and said that I would see them next year.

The bowling alley is on campus, in a secluded room called the Memorial Union Games Area.  The part of the Memorial Union where the campus bookstore is located has a basement, with coin-operated video games, pinball machines, a pool table, and sixteen lanes of bowling.  From Redrum, we walked back down First Street, turned right on A Street, and then left across from Second Street through the path that had been the main entrance to campus when it was built 90 years ago.  I had been bowling once here earlier this year, with Liz and Ramon and Jason and Taylor and Danielle, all of whom were here tonight.

I bowled a strike on my first frame, and everyone on my lane (tonight it was Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Krista, and Charlie) cheered for me.  I smiled. But that would be the only strike I would bowl that game. I finished with a score of 96, third place out of the six of us.

“Do you want to play another game?” Taylor asked.

“Sure.  But I should go find a phone and call my mom to let her know when I’ll be home.  She’s probably worried about me.”

“You’re driving home tonight?  Doesn’t that mean you’ll get home really late?”

“Probably around midnight if we play one more game.  I can do that.”

“Okay.  Be safe.”

I found a pay phone and called home using my parents’ calling card number, so that they would be billed for the call.  Calling outside of your local geographical area was expensive using 1995 technology, but with this PIN number that my parents told me to use, I could call them from any phone and it would go to their bill.  “Hello?” Mom said, picking up on the third ring.

“Hi.  It’s me.”

“Where are you?”

“Still in Jeromeville.  A bunch of people went out to Murder Burger and then bowling.”

“Yummy!  That sounds fun!  So are you coming home in the morning instead?”

“I was still going to come tonight, after one more game of bowling.”

“So you won’t be home until really late.”

“Probably around midnight.  Is that a problem?”

“No.  Just call me again if anything changes.”

“Okay.  I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Drive safe.  And have fun.”

“I will.  Thanks.”

I bowled much better the second game.  At one point, I had two strikes in a row.  When I went back up to the lane with my ball, Charlie said, “Come on, Greg!  You can do it!”

“No pressure,” Taylor added, laughing.

I carefully moved my hand back, then swung it forward, releasing the ball.  The ball appeared to be going right where it needed to for me to get a third strike, but one of the pins remained standing.  I hit the pin on my second roll for a spare, and I finished the game with a score of 127, one of the best games I had ever bowled at the time, and higher than anyone else on my lane.

“All right, guys,” I said after the second game.  “It’s time for me to go. I’m driving home tonight.”

“Drive safely!” Sarah said, giving me a hug.

“You too, Have a great summer, everyone.”

“Bye, dude,” Taylor said, shaking my hand.

I spent about five minutes saying goodbye to everyone, with handshakes and hugs for some of them.  I walked back to Building C alone, because some people seemed to want to bowl one more game, and they were all going home in the morning.  It was a little after nine o’clock. The sun sets late enough this time of year that there was still a slight dusky glow to the west. I had enjoyed tonight, I had enjoyed the entire year in Building C and the IHP, but there came a time for everything to end, and it was time for me to go home.  I was done with my freshman year.

I went back into Building C only to use the bathroom; I did not see anyone while I was there.  I walked across the street to the car, where my stuff was still packed, and began driving. I put on a tape I had made of Bush’s Sixteen Stone album as I headed south, smiling, thinking about the great night I had.

Murder Burger felt to me like a major landmark and institution in Jeromeville, but I really did not eat there that often.  That night at the end of my freshman year was the first of maybe no more than five times that I ever ate there. Despite this, I felt sad when I read in 2019 that Murder Burger, which by then was called Redrum Burger, was closing.  A college town like Jeromeville needs a greasy, locally-owned burger place, and because of changing demographics and a changing economy, Jeromevillians do not have such a place anymore. I thought about making the trip across the Drawbridge last summer when I heard that it would be Redrum’s last weekend in operation, but I had a lot to do at the time, and I had heard that long lines of customers who had heard the news were already wrapped around the building, so I ended up not making the trip.  I am not a big fan of crowds.

Some of the new friends I made freshman year I did not really see again after that year, or I saw them only occasionally around campus.  Others I stayed in touch with for a long time, and a few of them I have been in touch with continuously since 1994. I have been to six weddings of people I met during my freshman year at UJ, and two of those weddings were two people who were in the IHP with me marrying each other.  I was going to miss having a built in social group next year, but I had met enough people this year that I would probably be okay.

My freshman year at the University of Jeromeville had been life-changing.  I made so many new friends. I discovered the Internet. I discovered the joy of a good bike ride.  I was still getting straight As; I even got an A in physics after doing so poorly on that first midterm.  (Technically, I did get an A-minus in Rise and Fall of Empires fall quarter, and at UJ, an A-minus counted as a slightly lower grade than an A in terms of calculating grade point average, but I was still doing pretty well.)

Of course, not everything was perfect.  I spent a lot of nights sad and alone. I still had no girlfriend, but hopefully that would come soon.  I would not see these people for three months, but I had ways to stay in touch with the ones I wanted to stay in touch with, and in September I would be right back in Jeromeville to pick up where I left off.  Freshman year was pretty good overall, so hopefully sophomore year would be even better.

And, of course, as the case often is when looking back on the past, I can say that on that final day of freshman year, I never would have guessed what major life changes were coming my way sophomore year.

20190927 redrum 4
The old Redrum/Murder Burger building, now deserted, photographed in September 2019 about a month after the last business day.

 

May 26-28, 1995. Friends far away.

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Working?  Doing anything like that?”

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

“And do you want to do this?”

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

“Yeah,” Taylor replied.

“Good point,” Pete said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She sounds nice.”

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

Sarah laughed.  “That’s funny!”

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

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

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

“That’s not nice.”

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

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

 


May 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

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

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

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

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

Love,
Carol

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


 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 23, 1995

Dear Greg,

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

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

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

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

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

Bye,
Molly


 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Kim there?” I asked.

“This is Kim.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.”

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

“Everyone was mean to me.”

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

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

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

“Girls named Kim are the best!”

“I know.” I chuckled.

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

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

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

“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I would!”

“Thank you.  I wish we could.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

1995 molly's first letter

 

February 2-4, 1995.  News from home and Sarah’s package.

I got back from my classes Thursday afternoon, and I spent the next few hours answering emails, chatting on IRC, reading, and napping.  Around quarter to six (that’s how we old people sometimes say 5:45, because there is a quarter of an hour left until six o’clock) I was awakened by loud music playing down the hall, loud enough for me to hear it even though my door was closed.  That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had been asleep for over an hour, and my afternoon naps usually didn’t last that long anyway. As I lay on my bed trying to relax despite the noise, trying to get up the energy to go eat, I realized that I recognized this music.  It was that band I had heard on the radio and thought of as “Pearl Jam of the South,” the one with the guy who had the gravelly slurred grunge-like voice, but singing over much more Southern music. As the album continued playing past the songs I recognized, I heard a really interesting song with a distinct fiddle part in the beginning, followed by a few other mid-tempo Southern rock pieces.

Eventually I got out of bed and looked down the hallway.  The music was coming from Liz’s room. Instead of walking to the dining commons, I walked the other direction to Liz’s room and poked my head in the door just as Pearl Jam of the South was singing about the past being gone and the future being far away.  Liz was sitting on the bed, talking to Ramon, who was sitting in Liz’s desk chair. “Hi, Greg!” Liz said, waving. I stepped into the room as she asked, “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “I was just curious about the music.  Who is this? I’ve heard some of these songs on the radio.”

“Hootie and the Blowfish,” Ramon said.  “I borrowed this CD from my roommate.”

“Hootie and the Blowfish,” I repeated.  “That’s a great name for a band.”

“I know!  Isn’t it?”

“I’m hungry,” Liz said.  “Greg? Have you eaten yet?”

“No.  And I’m hungry too.”

“Want to come to the DC with us?”

“Sure.”

“I’m going to go downstairs and see if Sarah wants to come too.  Earlier she said to come get her when we go eat.”

 

I followed Liz and Ramon downstairs to Sarah’s room, and then the five of us walked to the dining commons; there were five of us now because Krista had been in Sarah’s room, and she came with us too.  For dinner, some food items were available every day, and some of them would rotate from day to day. Tonight, one of the rotating dishes was Country Fried Steak; I grabbed a slice and put it on my plate.  It tasted more like Country Fried Cardboard.

“I need to check the mail,” Ramon said after we finished eating.  “You guys want to come with me?”

“Sure,” Sarah replied.  “I haven’t checked mine either.”

“Same,” I said.

We all walked downstairs, past the room with the pool table, into the room with the mailboxes and the Help Window.  I saw something in my mailbox, and I got excited as I turned the key and noticed that it appeared to be a handwritten letter, addressed to me in a handwriting that was not my grandma’s.  I didn’t recognize the handwriting at first. I took the letter out of the mailbox and read the return address; it was from Rachel Copeland.

“I got a package!” Sarah exclaimed excitedly.  When a dormitory resident received a package, someone put a ticket in the mailbox, which the resident would then take to the Help Window to receive the package.  Sarah came back a minute later with her package. “I got a package!” she said again.

As we walked out of the dining commons building with our mail, Sarah was still excited about her package.  “I got a package! Isn’t there a song about a package?” she said.

Everyone kind of looked at each other, wondering if anyone else knew the package song that Sarah was thinking of.  “I don’t know this song,” I said.

“I think it goes like this,” Ramon prefaced, as he began singing to the tune of the “neener-neener-neener” chants popular among preschoolers and elementary school children.  “I got a package!  And you did-n’t!” Ramon sang.  I laughed.

“Who’s the package from?” Krista asked Sarah.

“My mom.  I don’t know what it is.  But it’s a package!”

I never did find out what was in Sarah’s package.  When we got back to Building C, I went to my room because I was more interested in the fact that Rachel had written to me.  Rachel was a year behind me, a current senior at Plumdale High. She was friends with a lot of my classmates; I knew her to say hi to for a long time, but she had started sitting with my group of friends at lunch during my senior year, and I had gotten to know her better.  I opened the letter and started reading.

Jan. 28, 1995

Hey Greg,

How are you?  (sorry I started out so generic.)  I hope you’re doing well. It’s a funny thing, two different people talked about you today.  Señora Rodriguez and Mrs. Jackson mentioned you. You sure are a well liked guy from what I hear.  In English we only talk and critique other people’s writing. This is my last year so it is really sad to leave Spanish.  I’ve had Señora Rodriguez for all four years and I think she is my favorite teacher. She let us watch all our old video projects.  It made me want to cry because I remember all the good ol’ days. You were in one. It was the one where you were the bully beating up Jason Lambert and he turned into Ken Haley and beat you up.  All day I was in a really good mood. In my second class I cracked up and said lots of funny things. I laughed the whole time. I guess I had a “I feel like standing out” day. Most of the time I like to be another pair of eyes in the wall and think about how no one even has a clue that I’m watching them and that I know all about them.  Today was so funny. My friend said she wanted to be one of those people that use flares to direct airplanes when she grows up. She did the motions too. It was so funny but I guess you would have had to have been there. Life is full of stress. I guess you have to take it one step at a time. I truely truly believe that every cloud has a silver lining.  You know, I can find something good in everything and everyone.  It helps life to be worthwhile. I have to remind myself more and more all the time as life gets tougher and tougher.  In my class the other day I was so funny. Everyone within earshot was laughing at the things I said. It makes me happy to be in the spotlight.  When I went out to lunch with my friends I felt like I was invisible. They all had things to talk about like trips and new hairstyles. They all have things to share.  Sometimes I feel like there is an inside joke and I’m the only one on the outside. It only makes it so much better when I can finally really bond. You can’t know true happiness if you haven’t experienced true sadness.  Time presses on. I’m sure you’re bored of me by now, so I’ll go put this in the mail. Hope to hear back from you soon!

Love,
Rachel Copeland

Below Rachel’s signature was her address and phone number.  I think she had already given me her phone number when she signed my yearbook last year, but I hadn’t called her.  Talking on the phone made me nervous. But maybe I would actually call her this time.

Rachel shared a lot of nuggets of wisdom in that beautiful run-on paragraph.   I knew that feeling about being on the outside of an inside joke. I felt this way quite often around friends.  And if it is true that one can’t know true happiness without experiencing true sadness, then I guess I was ready for some true happiness.

I was happy about getting Rachel’s letter.  I spent the rest of the night doing math homework and answering some emails from chat room girls.  I went to sleep around 11:00 and slept fairly well.

 

My Friday was relatively uneventful.  I had a midterm in chemistry, and I felt like I did well.  Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Liz, Ramon, and Krista were all on a retreat with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship until Sunday afternoon, so I was expecting this weekend to be more uneventful than usual, with a lot of time alone.  Around 7:00 at night, after I got back from dinner, the phone rang. When I answered it, I was not surprised at all that it was my mother. No one else ever called me, for that matter.

“I had lunch with Mary Bordeaux today,” Mom said after the usual pleasantries of asking how many day went and how my chemistry midterm was.  “I heard some interesting things.”

Once Mom said this, I knew exactly what was coming for the next fifteen minutes or so.  I had a friend from school whom I met in eighth grade named Jackie Bordeaux; tall blonde girl, really sweet.  Mary was Jackie’s mother. I don’t remember how Mary and my mom met. I think maybe they had a mutual friend unrelated to the fact that Jackie and I went to school together.  Or maybe they met at some school event for parents. I don’t know, and I don’t really care, honestly. Whenever Mom had lunch with Mary, she would always return with tons of gossip about people from Plumdale High.  Looking back, I recognize now that it was not emotionally healthy for anyone to be gossiping that much about other people’s lives, especially in Mom’s case where she barely knew, or didn’t know at all, the people she gossiped about.  But Mom’s updates that she gave me from Mary did actually serve a somewhat useful purpose for me. Since there was no social media in 1995, I had lost touch with many of my high school friends very quickly after we graduated, and stories from Mary were often the only connection I had to some of them.

“Have you heard from Jackie at all?” Mom asked.

“She sent me a postcard back in October, shortly after she started at Santa Teresa,” I said.  “I wrote back and didn’t hear from her after that.”

“Well, apparently she has this older boyfriend.  None of the rest of the family likes him. Mary thinks he’s a bad influence.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“And Mary said that Jessica Halloran is in Guatemala.”

“I remember you said that you heard she was going out of the country somewhere.”

“She was going to go to Santa Teresa with Jackie, then she was going to go to Valle Luna State, but she decided at some point to spend some time traveling in Central and South America.  She’s volunteering at an orphanage now.”

Sometimes, someone would say something that would set off a chain reaction in my brain, reminding me of something not directly related to the conversation at hand.  I had one of those moments as Mom was telling me about Jessica. “I just realized,” I said. “I’m pretty sure today is Jessica’s birthday.”

“How funny that we would be talking about her today.”

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” Mom started in again.  “Remember how I said that I was paying attention to news about the Santa Lucia City College volleyball team, because Allison LaPierre was playing for them?  But then it looked like she wasn’t on the team, and I didn’t know why?”

“Yes.”

“I always thought she was nice.  Anyway, I asked Mary what Allison was doing these days, and she said, ‘Getting married because she’s pregnant.’  I said, ‘What?’ Because I always thought she was a nice Mormon girl.”

“People do stuff,” I said.

“I guess so.”

I sat through about five more minutes of stories Mom had heard from Mary about people I didn’t know very well, and another ten minutes of Mom telling me about people from her work, whom I didn’t know at all.  My ears perked up when Mom finally said something relevant to me. “Dad and Mark and I were talking about coming to visit you sometime soon, for the day,” she said.

“Sure,” I replied.  “That would be good.”

“Does Sunday the 19th work?  That’s Presidents’ Day weekend.  Do you have Monday the 20th off?”

“That should work.  And yes, I have that Monday off.”

“Sounds good!  I’ll talk to Dad and Mark, and we’ll figure out exactly what time we’re coming.”

“Okay, then.  I’ll plan for you to be here on the 19th.”

“Well,” Mom continued, “that’s about all I have to say.  So I guess I’ll let you go. Are you doing anything this weekend?”

“Probably not.  Some people are gone this weekend, on a retreat with some church group they’re a part of.”

“Well, I hope it’s a good weekend anyway.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”  I hung up the phone, still a little shocked that Allison LaPierre was pregnant.  I hadn’t seen that one coming. And while I would have found it surprising a year ago that Jessica Halloran would be volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala, it did sound like a great experience for her.

 

Today, no one ever thinks about what time to make phone calls, because everyone has unlimited long distance calling on cell phones.  It wasn’t like this in 1995. Local phone calls from what are now called land lines were unlimited. From my dorm room, I could call anywhere on the UJ campus, or in the cities of Jeromeville, Woodville, and Nueces.  Calling farther away than that required making a long distance call, which was provided by a separate service from local calls, and billed by the minute. The exact cost of a long distance call changed depending on when the call was placed; usually it was least expensive late at night and on weekends.  For this reason, I had waited until Saturday to make the call I wanted to make now instead of Friday. And I waited until mid-afternoon Saturday, because phone calls made me nervous and I kept procrastinating, plus I knew that most people slept in later than I did on Saturdays.

I sat in the chair at my desk, staring at the phone.  I picked up the receiver, got nervous, and put it back down.  This happened pretty much every time I made a phone call, especially one where I didn’t have a specific purpose for calling.

I stared at the ceiling, rehearsing what I was going to say, playing out scenarios in my head depending on who answered the phone.  I took a deep breath, thinking I was ready. I looked at the number I was calling, dialed the area code and a few more digits, then hung up.  I wasn’t ready for this.

I got up and walked to the drinking fountain down the hall, next to the bathroom.  I got a drink of water and walked back to my room, still rehearsing in my head what I was going to say.  I picked up the phone and started dialing, but hung up before I even finished the area code. In the next fifteen minutes, I made four more attempts that I aborted somewhere between picking up the receiver and dialing the last digit of the phone number.

Finally, I took a deep breath and decided this was it.  I picked up the receiver and pressed the buttons so fast that I would not have time to stop myself.  The phone was ringing… it was too late to hang up now, because the people on the other end of the line had already heard the phone ring, and I wouldn’t want to be rude.

“Hello?” a female voice said inside the phone.

“Is Rachel there?” I asked.

“This is Rachel.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.  I got your letter.”  There was an awkward pause on the other end of the line; I wasn’t sure what that meant.  “Greg Dennison,” I clarified.

“Greg!  Hi! How are you?”

“I’m doing pretty well,” I said.  “Not much to do this weekend. Just math homework, and that never takes long.  I had a chemistry midterm yesterday, and I think I did pretty well.”

“Good for you!  I’m not doing anything this weekend either.  Maybe going out with some friends tonight.”

“That sounds fun.”

“So how is college?  What’s your life like now?”

“I’m in a dorm called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  Every quarter, we have to take a class specifically for students in this program that counts as general ed requirements.  And everyone in the program lives together, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of my building.”

“That’s great!  It sounds like that’s a good place for you.”

“It really is.”

“How are your classes so far?”

“I had straight As last quarter.”

“I’m not surprised,” Rachel said as I chuckled.

“How are you?” I asked.  “Do you know what you’re doing next year?”

“I really like St. Elizabeth’s College in Los Nogales.  I visited there, and it just felt like a nice place for me.  Do you ever get that feeling?”

“Kind of,” I said.  I didn’t know Rachel was Catholic, I thought.  Maybe she isn’t, and she just likes the school.  “I kind of got that feeling the first few times I visited Jeromeville,” I continued.

“It might be a little weird for me going to a Catholic school, but I know not all of their students are practicing Catholics,” Rachel said, answering my earlier thought about Rachel’s religious affiliation.

“Yeah.  My whole mom’s side of the family is Catholic, I’m going to Catholic Mass here, but I’ve never been to Catholic school.  So I can’t really relate.”

“I haven’t either.”

Rachel and I talked for about another half hour.  I told her about my classes. I told her what I liked about the Jeromeville campus itself, about the Arboretum and the big trees and the way you can see the easily identifiable water tower from the freeway.  I told her about how Jeromeville is a fairly small town, but close enough to Capital City to feel like it isn’t in the middle of nowhere. She told me about AP Spanish and Señora Rodriguez (to which I told her to tell Señora Rodriguez that I said hola).  She told me that she and Paul had broken up during the weekend of Thanksgiving because long distance just wasn’t working, but she was okay with it and still very close with Paul. She told me about the vacation her family had taken for Christmas, and how they were going to go to Hawaii in the summer.  She told me about volleyball season and how they had made the playoffs last fall. And regarding volleyball, I didn’t say anything about having heard that Allison LaPierre was pregnant.

“I should probably let you go,” Rachel said eventually.  “It sounds like my dad needs me to help him with something.”

“Sounds good.  But it was really good talking to you.”

“Yeah!  It was!  I’m really proud of you.  It sounds like you’ve grown a lot this year.”

“Thank you!”

“And I’ll let you know as soon as I get email set up.”

“Sounds great!”

“Have a good rest of the weekend, Greg,” Rachel said.  “Don’t stay home tonight. Go find some friends to be with.”

“I’ll try.”

“Bye!”

I hung up the phone and smiled.  Yes, I did lose touch with many of my high school friends once we all graduated and dispersed.  But the ones who really mattered stuck with me and made an effort to stay in my life and keep me in theirs.  I didn’t entirely understand that concept at age 18, though. I felt like senior year I had finally started growing and developing a social life, and I also made a fair number of new friends during senior year.  I kept feeling like I wished I had had more time to develop those friendships. But there really was no point to living in the past and wishing things could have been different. Things will not be different; the past is in the past.  All I could do was the best I could with the opportunities I had in the present. Some of my past stayed connected to me in some form, but all of our lives were heading in different directions. I left for Jeromeville as my classmates left for Valle Luna, Santa Teresa, San Angelo, even Guatemala, and each of those places presented new opportunities for us.  The IHP was the right place for me at this time, and being here had caused me to grow a lot this year, as Rachel said.  My road of life was passing through Jeromeville with no U-turns, and I never would have guessed some of the turns my road of life would take during the next few years.

1995-01 rachel's letter smaller
Rachel’s actual letter

November 19, 1994. The Help Window.

After being in Building C for eight weeks now, it was inevitable that couples would begin to form.  And being that I was generally oblivious to this sort of thing, I’m sure there was probably more going on than the two obvious couples I knew about.  And, sadly, as usual, I was not a part of any of these couples.

It was a Saturday night, and I saw one of those couples, Pat Hart and Karen Francis, at the dining commons.  Pat was tall and athletic, with blond hair and a stereotypical golden-boy appearance. Karen was short and sassy, with brown hair and eyes and an occasional hint of Southern mannerisms, because she had spent the first half of her life in Georgia.  She was younger than the rest of us, since she had finished high school early.  But I didn’t know if any of that made Pat and Karen a typical couple, or an unlikely pairing, or what, because I knew nothing of relationships and was oblivious to a lot of things.

Pat and Karen sat at a table with Mike, Keith, and a girl named Gina Stalteri who lived next to Mike on the third floor.  Two other people who did not live in Building C were with them as well; one was Pat’s twin brother, Nate, but I did not recognize the other one.  There was one empty chair at the table; I approached and asked if I could sit there. They looked like they were almost done eating, so I might have the table to myself eventually.

“Go for it,” Mike said.

I sat quietly eating and listened to their conversation.  “We’re gonna have to take two cars there,” Pat said. “It’s too far to walk.  Can anyone else drive?”

“I will,” Mike offered.  “Where did you say he lives?”

“An apartment in north Jeromeville, on the corner of Andrews and Alvarez.  Las Casas Apartments, he said it was called.”

“‘Las Casas.’  That’s kind of a dumb name.  It means ‘The Houses.’”

“That’s kind of like one time, I was visiting my relatives in Bidwell,” I said, “and we went to this Mexican restaurant called ‘La Comida.’”  Everyone laughed, except Karen.

“What does ‘La Comida’ mean?” Karen asked.  “I took French in high school, not Spanish.”

“‘The Food!’” shouted Mike.

“There’s actually a restaurant called ‘The Food?’” Gina asked.

“It’s real,” Keith said.  “I’ve been there. My sister went to Bidwell State.”

“We should probably get going,” Pat said.  “You guys ready?” The others nodded and answered in the affirmative.  “Greg? You want to come with us?” Pat asked.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“My friend from back home, he’s a senior, he’s having a party at his apartment.  I’m sure he’d be ok with more people showing up.”

A party off campus was probably not my scene.  It was probably going to be loud, with lots of drinking.  But maybe I needed to get out of the dorm for a night. “Maybe,” I said.  “I was going to get stuff done tonight.”

“Just show up if you decide to.  It’s at Las Casas Apartments, number 109.  Somewhere near Andrews Road and Alvarez Avenue,” he said.  “Sorry I can’t give better directions. That’s what my friend told me”

“Greg will be able to find it,” Mike said.  “He’s good with maps and directions, remember?”

I chuckled.  “For sure,” I said.

“Bye, Greg!” Gina said as the seven of them began picking up their food trays.

“Maybe we’ll see you there?” Pat asked.

“Maybe.”

 

I got back to my room around fifteen minutes later.  I really didn’t want to go to that party. I didn’t hang around with partiers growing up.  If anything, the mere existence of these kind of parties made me angry that everyone else seemed to know how to get alcohol when younger than the legal drinking age, except for me, and that there were no consequences for these lawbreakers.  And yet, I had no desire to drink; I had seen and heard about too many lives ruined by alcohol.

I didn’t have any other plans tonight.  This was the last week of football season, and it was an away game, so there was no game to go to.  I had a very small TV in my dorm room; I got six channels from its antenna, four of them came in fuzzy, and none of them was showing anything good on a Saturday night.

I got on the computer.  I checked my email; I had a message from a girl in Wisconsin whom I had met in an IRC chat a couple weeks earlier. I wrote her back, nothing too important, just telling her about my day and answering some questions she had about what classes I was in and what UJ was like.

I got on IRC next.  Nothing exciting was going on in my usual chat room, nor did anyone I knew appear to be on.  I tried unsuccessfully to talk to a few people over the course of about fifteen minutes, after which I gave up and signed off.

I went to the bathroom.  I walked all the way up and down the second floor.  It was quiet. The only door that was open was Pat and Charlie’s room, and it was only open a crack.  I poked my head in the door to say hi, and Charlie told me that he had a huge paper to write by Monday, and he was thankful that Pat was gone for the night, so he could have the room to himself.  I figured he probably didn’t want to be bothered.

I went back to my room and played a few games of Tetris on the computer.  After I got bored with that, I walked down to the first floor. The common room was empty, and the only person I saw was Phuong, who was also busy writing a term paper.

I walked up to the third floor and thought about how lifeless Building C was tonight.  There weren’t many signs of life on the third floor either. When I got to the other end of the hallway, where the other staircase was, I saw the other Building C couple that I knew about: Liz Williams, thin with straight brown hair, who lived just down the hall from me, and tall, curly-haired Ramon Quintero, who lived in the room which he and Liz were just leaving when I saw them.  They were holding hands as they approached the stairwell. “Hey, Greg,” Liz said. “What’s up?”

“Nothing.  Just bored.  What about you guys?”

“We’re going out to dinner,” Ramon said.

“Have fun!” I said.

“You too!” Liz smiled.  “Hope you find something to do.”

“I’ll be fine.”

I walked back downstairs and down the hallway to my room.  I tried reading the chapter I had to read by Monday for Rise and Fall of Empires, but I couldn’t concentrate.  Something just felt discouraging about all these happy couples and drunken revelers out having fun, while I was here being bored.

I put the book down.

Depression sucks.

I got back on IRC.  I messaged a girl in the room.  “Hi! How are you?” I typed.

“Leave me alone, you ugly fat virgin,” she replied.

How did she know?

I signed off after about an hour of wasting time with nothing interesting happening.  I checked my email again; no one had written.

I tried reading for pleasure for a while.  I was currently working my way through all 1100-plus pages of Stephen King’s It.  This had been one of my mom’s favorite books, and I borrowed it when I had been home three weeks earlier.  Creepy book, but in a good way. That kept me occupied for about an hour, but I couldn’t become completely immersed in the story because I kept thinking about how I hated being lonely like this, and I wished I knew how to be more social.

Maybe I should have gone to that party at Las Casas Apartments after all.  Maybe it’s not too late.

No, I don’t belong there.  That’s not really where I want to be.

I went to the bathroom and walked up and down all three hallways again.  Still nothing going on.

I went back to my computer and played a few more games of Tetris.  By now, it was after ten o’clock, and I was starting to get tired. I tried going to sleep, but my mind was racing, and I couldn’t fall asleep.  I kept thinking about Liz and Ramon, Pat and Karen, the party at Las Casas, all the cute girls I didn’t know how to talk to, and all my friends back home who had mostly abandoned me.  The situation with my friends at home wasn’t all bad, though: Renee had finally gotten her email set up, so we had been back in touch for a couple weeks, and I had gotten a second letter from Melissa.  However, that wasn’t going to help me tonight

I eventually decided to give up on trying to sleep for a while; the clock said 11:19.  I was tired of being cooped up in this boring room. I put on the jeans I had been wearing earlier and my UJ hoodie, and I walked outside.  I circled the entire South Residential Area, then came back toward the dining commons building.

The dining hall was on the second floor, and it was dark this time of night.  The first floor entrance opened into a lounge with a pool table; no one was there.  In fact, the whole building appeared to be empty. To the left of the room with the pool table, a door opened up into a study room and small sandwich and yogurt shop called Betsy’s.  I had no idea who Betsy was, but her shop was closed this time of night. Behind the pool table, another door led to the mail room, and to the only place where I knew I would definitely find a conscious human being in this building.

The Resident Help Window was open all night, every night.  One or two of the twenty-five resident advisors for this area would take turns staffing the window at night, so that residents would have a place to go for questions and concerns after hours, when the RAs in their own buildings would (theoretically) be sleeping.  I walked through the door, looking down at the ground, into the space that contained the mailboxes and the Help Window. I had already checked my mail today, so in my mind, I was expecting to just peek up at the window and then leave after a few seconds, and if I got asked if I needed help, I would just mutter something about not being able to sleep.  But instead, I heard a friendly “Hi, Greg!” coming from the Help Window.

I looked up.  The RA on duty tonight was Megan McCauley from Building K.  I met Megan a couple weeks ago, when I sat with some of the RAs at dinner and Megan gave me some tips for biking in the rain.  Since then, I had seen her and said hi to her a couple of times around the dining hall. A textbook was open on the desk in front of her.

“Hey,” I said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good.  It’s a pretty slow night so far, so I’m studying for physics.  This class is a lot of work.”

“Which physics?”

“9B.  Are you going to have to take that?  What’s your major?”

“I haven’t decided yet.  Math and physics and chemistry were my favorite classes in high school, and they all need the Physics 9 series, so I’ll be taking it next year.”

“Sounds like you’ve at least narrowed down your potential majors to things that have a lot of the same freshman classes.”

“Yeah.  What’s your major?”

“Chemical engineering.”

“That sounds hard, but interesting.”

“Exactly!  A lot of Chem-E majors don’t finish in four years without taking really heavy class loads.  I’ve kind of accepted that I might need five years.”

“I feel like I need to hurry up and decide.  Most of the people I know in my building know their majors already.”

“There’s nothing wrong with not having a major right away, but the sooner you decide, the sooner you can plan ahead, and you’ll be more likely to graduate on time.”

“That’s true.”

“Are you considering engineering at all?”

I paused.  “I don’t know,” I said eventually.  But in those few seconds of thinking, I realized something: I grew up very sheltered, in a mostly blue-collar part of the state.  The true reason I hadn’t considered engineering as a major was because I really had no idea what an engineer was. But I didn’t say any of this to Megan.  It was a little sad and embarrassing.

“It wouldn’t hurt to look into it.  But engineering has different grad requirements, remember.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you going anywhere for Thanksgiving?  Where are you from?”

“Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.  But I won’t be going home probably until Christmas.  For Thanksgiving, my parents will be picking me up on the way to my grandpa’s house in Bidwell.”

“I love Santa Lucia!  Growing up, we’d go there every summer to go to the beach.  It’s so pretty there!”

“Yeah, it is.  Where are you from?”

“Not far away.  Oak Heights, just outside of Cap City.  I can get home in half an hour if there’s no traffic.”

“Are you going home for Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah.  Nothing too big. Just my family.  And my great-aunt.”

“That’s nice.  We used to have it at my great-grandma’s house.  This is our first Thanksgiving without her. She was my last great-grandparent.”

“I’m sorry,” Megan said.  “Were you close?”

“Kinda.  We went to visit her twice a year, and we stayed at her house for a few days.  She lived up in the hills outside of town. There were great views from her house.  We’d go up there for Fourth of July, and from her front yard we’d be able to see two fireworks shows off in the distance.”

“That sounds nice!”

“It was.”  I yawned.

“Getting tired?” Megan asked.

“Maybe I should go try to sleep.”

“I think that’s a good idea.  I hope you’re able to sleep this time.”

“Me too,” I said.  “And, hey, it was good talking to you.”

“It was good talking to you too!”

“Thanks.”

“Any time, Greg.  You go get some sleep.”  She smiled.

“Good night,” I said, awkwardly smiling back.

“Good night!”

I walked back to Building C, swiped my ID card at the door, climbed the stairs, went to the bathroom, returned to room 221, and went back to bed, a little after midnight.  As I drifted off to sleep, I kept thinking about what had happened tonight. Megan seemed really, really nice, at least from our few interactions so far. She was cute too, with her dark blonde hair slightly above shoulder length and pretty blue eyes.  I usually like longer hair on girls, but that length worked on her. It seems like I think a lot of girls are cute, but in Megan’s case, talking to her didn’t really feel weird, like it did with some other girls. Was it bad that she was older? Could there be something there more than just friends?  Could she ever see me that way, or was I just a silly freshman to her? I didn’t even know how much older she was, although I guessed it was probably just one year, since the Physics 9 series is usually taken in the spring of freshman year and first two quarters of sophomore year. Was I mature enough to date a sophomore?  Of course, I was getting way ahead of myself, but these thoughts comforted me as I finally drifted off to sleep.

The resident advisors’ jobs were to help dorm residents with anything we might need, as well as to make sure that people were being quiet after eleven o’clock, and the Resident Help Window was open all night for any concerns we may need help with.  Now that I think about it, I don’t remember if I ever actually used the Resident Help Window for its intended purpose. But sometimes, a friendly face and a listening ear were all the help I really needed.

October 21, 1994.  Good things come in threes.

Another week done.  Another sunny and warm Friday afternoon.  I didn’t know if it was normal to still be sunny and warm this late into October.  I grew up in a different part of the state, and with the ocean and all the mountains nearby, the weather was often drastically different in different parts of the state.  The weather back home in Plumdale is usually still nice in October, but I already knew that Jeromeville gets hotter in the summer than Plumdale does.  Plumdale is close to the Pacific Ocean and its cold marine layer.

I got on my bike after my last class got out and pedaled down a road that passed by several tall and mysterious-looking buildings.  I turned left onto another path, and stopped at a stop sign at Davis Drive, the main street that ran east-west through campus. This was the street that led past Thong Bikini Hill toward Highway 117, which was the way we entered the campus when my family and I first visited a year ago.  I crossed Davis Drive, and continued on the path past a parking lot and a cluster of small buildings that reminded me of portable classrooms at elementary and high schools. I had no idea what any of the buildings I had just passed were used for. I knew that there was at least one medium-sized lecture hall in the first of the mysterious tall buildings I rode past, but I knew nothing about any of the others.  They were probably laboratories of some sort.

Just past the buildings that resembled portable classrooms was the South Residential Area, buildings A through M.  I parked my bike next to Building C and walked up the stairs to my room, where I planned on lying down for a bit and reading something that wasn’t a textbook.  As I opened the door to the second floor hallway, I heard footsteps above me and looked up to see Rebekah Tyler coming downstairs from the third floor. She and I were in the same math class, and we had gotten our first midterm back today.

The concept of “midterm” confused me a little.  The word “midterm” suggests an exam in the middle of the term.  However, many of my classes at UJ had two midterms, sometimes even three, so they did not always come at the same time in the term.  Also, because of UJ’s three-quarter schedule, the term was only 11 weeks long including finals, so in many classes there was a test of some sort every three weeks or so. The word “midterm” at UJ was used for any test that was not a final exam.

Many of the lower-division mathematics classes at UJ were not taught by the regular full-time professors.  Some were taught by lecturers, who were hired only to teach and not do research. Some were taught by Visiting Research Assistant Professors, who were in Jeromeville only for a temporary time period and often did not speak English as a first language.  And some were taught by graduate students, like my instructor this quarter, a young guy probably no more than 30 years old working on a Ph.D. His name was Jimmy Best, which is a great name no matter what your job is. He made a typical teacher joke on the first day of school when he said that he was the Best teacher ever.  Today, when he passed back the midterm, he announced that the highest grade had been 99 out of 100.

“Hey, Greg,” Rebekah said, seeing me downstairs.  “Let me guess. You were the one who got the 99 out of 100 on the midterm.”

“Yes, I was,” I said.  Apparently the reputation I had at Plumdale High for being good at math followed me to Building C, although being that we were all Interdisciplinary Honors Program students, I figured a lot of students around here were like me.  “How’d you do?”

“90.”

“That’s not bad.”

“I have another midterm right now for my engineering class.”

“Good luck!”

After spending a few hours reading, writing emails while staring out the window at the beautiful day outside, and playing a game on the computer, I walked down to the dining hall.  Tonight’s special was spaghetti and meatballs, which I spooned onto my plate. I looked around for a seat. I didn’t see any of my friends around. I started to walk toward an empty table, but then I noticed that a girl sat by herself at the table next to the one I was walking toward.  She had straight light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, blue eyes, and she wore a striped shirt and tan pants. I knew this girl. Well, I didn’t exactly know her, I didn’t know her name, but I had seen her before. She was in my math class.

“May I sit here?” I asked, gesturing to the chair across from her.

“Sure!” she said.

“We’re in the same math class, aren’t we?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I’m Andrea.”  She pronounced it with the stress on the first syllable.

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

“You too.”

“How’d you do on the midterm?”

“I got 86,” she said.  “I thought I did pretty well, but there was one question I just couldn’t remember anything about at all.”

“Aww,” I said.  “I was the one who got 99.”

“I figured,” she replied.  I didn’t understand this. How does someone I just met know that I’m the one who got the highest score on the midterm?

“What’s your major?” I asked Andrea.

“Math.  I want to teach high school math.”

“Good for you,” I said.  “I don’t think I could ever be a teacher.  I’d get tired of the politics involved in the education system.”

“I know what you mean,” she replied.  “I just know I want to teach.  I’m just hoping all that stuff doesn’t bother me.”

“Makes sense.”

“What’s your major?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said.  Saying that always felt wrong, like this was something I should know by now.  “I know I’m good at math, and physics, and chemistry. I’m kind of thinking one of those, although math is the only one of those classes I’m taking right now.”

“What about engineering?  Are you considering that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “We’ll see.” What I didn’t tell Andrea, and what I was a little ashamed to tell any of the engineering majors in IHP, was that I really didn’t know what an engineer was, and that was the main reason I never considered it as a major.  I grew up very sheltered in a blue-collar part of the state where not many people have advanced degrees. My mom worked in an office, and my dad fixed and maintained agricultural equipment. Jobs like engineer didn’t really come up in my very limited world view.  “Where are you from?” I asked.

“Irving,” she said.  “Near San Tomas.”

“Oh, yeah, I know where that is.  I’m from Plumdale. In Santa Lucia County.”

“I know Santa Lucia.  I’m not sure I know exactly where Plumdale is.”

“In the hills to the north.  It’s not very big.”

“Which building are you in here?”

“C.”

“I’m in B.  I know a few people in Building C.  Liz Williams? And Pete, the guy with the beard, I don’t remember his last name?  They’re in C, right?”

“Yeah.  Pete Green.  I know both of them.  Liz is just down the hall from me.”

Andrea was finished with dinner by then.  “I have to get going,” she said. “It was nice meeting you!  I’ll see you around?”

“Yeah.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too!”

After I finished eating, about five minutes later, I walked downstairs to the mail room and noticed an envelope in my mailbox.  I read the return address and smiled. It was from Melissa, my friend from high school who lived down south now.  I had written her during the first week of school, and now she had written back.  This was the first time I had heard from any of my high school friends.

Sarah and Krista from the first floor of Building C were walking toward the dining hall as I walked in the opposite direction.  “Hi, Greg,” Sarah said, smiling. “You got a letter!”

“I did.  It’s from a good friend from high school.”

“Good!  Did you eat already?  You want to come to dinner with us?”

“I just finished eating.  Sorry I missed you guys.”

“That’s ok!  We’ll see you back in the building.”

“Yeah.  Have a good dinner.”

I walked back to my room and opened the letter.  It was mostly just the usual stuff. Melissa told me about her classes.  She told me what it was like living with her grandmother and asked if I had made a lot of friends yet.  She apologized for missing Homecoming, saying that she wanted to go but she ended up having a paper to write that weekend and having to do something with her relatives.  She mentioned that her family was taking her out to dinner this weekend for her birthday. I made a mental note that I had forgotten Melissa’s birthday, but now I could write her back with a belated birthday card.

After I read the letter, I walked upstairs, but I walked all the way up to the third floor because there was something I was curious about.  The door to room 316 was open a little, so I knocked and stuck my head inside.

“Hi, Greg,” Rebekah said.  “What’s up?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“I just saw Andrea from our math class in the dining hall.  How is it that everyone knows it was me who got the highest score on the midterm?”

Rebekah laughed.  “Probably because you’re always the one participating in class and answering questions.  Everyone else is still half asleep at eight in the morning.”

“I’d never thought of that,” I said.  “You’re probably right.”

“I wish I was as lively as you are in the morning.”

“I guess that’s just how I am.”

I went back to my room a few minutes later and looked out the window at the sky. which was now quickly getting dark, but there was no fog coming in as there usually was in coastal Plumdale at this time.  Life was so different now compared to a month ago. College is different than high school. Jeromeville is different from Plumdale.  But tonight I felt at peace. I did very well on my first math test. I finally heard from one of my old friends.  And I had a new friend who lived in a different building… and not just any new friend, it was a cute girl who liked math. It is often said that good things come in threes, and I was three-for-three today.

September-October 1994. New friends in Building C.

Back in Plumdale, I didn’t live near any of my friends.  Plumdale is a semi-rural community in a hilly area. Our neighbors were hundreds of feet down the road, and the few neighbors I had didn’t have kids my age.  So being in Building C, with seventy peers my age in the same building, and eleven other buildings sharing the same dining hall, was a new and exciting experience for me.

Often when I was bored, I would just walk down the hall and see if anyone was around to talk to.  If someone had their door open, sometimes I would poke my head in and say hi, and for the most part people didn’t seem too annoyed by that.  That’s why doors open and close, I suppose. This also seemed a bit out of character for me, because until my mid-teens, I was very shy and quiet and reserved.  I think it had a lot to do with kids being so mean to me in elementary school, and it took until the middle of high school to realize that some people were actually going to be nice to me.

On Wednesday of the first week in the dorm, the night before classes started, I was walking around on the first floor.  The first floor only had about half as many bedrooms as the other floors; the other half of the first floor was taken up by a common room, a study lounge, and a locked closet for the custodian.  I walked past a room with an open door, one of the larger rooms that held four students, girls in this case. I had only met two of these girls. As I walked by, I saw a small group of people sitting on the floor in a circle.  Mike from the second floor saw me first. “Hey, Greg!” he said. “Come on in!”

Mike was there, and so was Keith. Next to them were Cathy and Phuong, two of the girls who lived there.  A guy named Pete, who lived next door to the girls, sat next to Phuong; he was short with bushy brown hair.  Next to him was a girl I hadn’t met before; she had medium-brown shoulder-length hair and a warm and friendly smile.  I guessed that she was probably one of the other girls who lived in this room.

“Hi,” I said to everyone.

“I don’t think I’ve met you yet,” the brown-haired girl said.  “I’m Sarah.”

“I’m Greg,” I replied.

“Nice to meet you!”

“Greg knows a cool party trick,” Mike said.  I looked at him and laughed, because after our conversation in the dining hall on Monday, I was pretty sure I knew what he was talking about.

“Oh yeah?” Sarah asked.

“Tell him what highways run through your hometown, and he’ll tell you where you’re from.”

Sarah looked a little puzzled, but she went with it.  “Well, the main highway is 9.”

“Okay,” I said.  I knew highway 9, but it ran almost the entire length of the state, so that didn’t narrow it down much.

“And 136.”

“Wait,” I said.  “I know this one.”  I searched the depths of my brain trying to remember where highway 136 was.  It took me between five and ten seconds. “You’re from Ralstonville.”

“I am from Ralstonville,” Sarah said.  “How did you know that?”

“I don’t know.  I just like looking at maps.  And I pay attention to road signs.”

“Where are you from?”

“Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“I’ve never heard of Plumdale.  I’ve heard of Santa Lucia.”

“That’s usually what people say.”

“I bet you never get lost,” Cathy said.

“You’re right, I don’t,” I said.  “At least not when I’m driving.”

 

A recurring theme for me those first few months at UJ was learning just how much I still had to learn.  Even my cool party trick didn’t always work. One time during that first week, I had my door open, and someone knocked and poked her head in.  She was slightly shorter than average, with chin-length brown curly hair and glasses.  She smiled.

“Hi,” I said.

“You’re Greg, right?”

“Yes.  Danielle, was it?”

“Yes.  It’s nice to meet you for real.”

“You too.”

“May I come in?”

“Sure!”  Since I had a single room, there was only one chair in the room.  I gave it to her and pulled the pillow off my bed, using it as a cushion to sit on the floor.

“So what’s your major?” she asked.

“I haven’t decided yet.  I’m thinking something like math or physics or chemistry.  Those were the classes I was good at in high school.”

“I’m a psych major,” she said.  “It seems like there are a lot of science-y people in IHP this year.  A lot of engineers and stuff like that.”

“I’ve noticed,” I said.

“Have you considered being an engineer?”

I paused.  “Not really,” I said.  “I don’t know.”

“I guess you don’t have to know yet.”

“Yeah.”

“Where are you from?”

“Plumdale,” I said.  “Near Santa Lucia and Gabilan.”

“That’s nice.  I like that area.  We went to see the aquarium in Santa Lucia last summer.  I loved it!”

“It’s nice,” I said.

“It didn’t get as hot in the summer as it did back home.”

“Where are you from?”

“Desert Ridge.”

I paused.  Desert Ridge.  I had asked dozens of people this week where they were from, and for the first time, I replied with, “I don’t know where that is.”

“About five hours from here, in the Los Muertos Desert.  There’s an Air Force base there.”

“I learned something new today,” I said.  “I’m usually pretty good with knowing where places are, but I hadn’t heard of Desert Ridge.”

“It’s not that exciting, trust me.”

“Neither is Plumdale.”  We both laughed.

Danielle and I talked for several more minutes.  She lived in room 216, the four-person room on my floor.  Danielle was in choir. One of her roommates was Caroline, the girl from Australia.  And she went to high school with Spencer on the first floor, but they weren’t great friends.  I had seen Spencer in passing, but I didn’t really know him yet.

“I should get going,” Danielle said.  “I have a class coming up soon. Are you done with classes for today?”

“I have one more later this afternoon,” I said.  “But it was good talking to you.”

“You too!  See you around, Greg.”

 

One Saturday night, I think it was two weeks after I had moved in, I came back from the dining hall and saw Pete, Taylor, Keith, and a guy named Charlie who lived down at the other end of the second floor sitting around a table, where they were playing a board game.  I walked over to see what they were playing.

“Hey, Greg,” Pete said.  “Want to join us? We’re just starting.”

“What are you playing?”

“Risk.”

“I’ve heard of that, but I’ve never played.”

“It’s a long game, but it’s a lot of fun.  You want to learn?”

“Sure!”

Pete explained the rules of the game to me, about placing armies on the map, how to attack and defend, and when to get more armies.  The object of the game was to take over the world by conquering the armies in every country.  “You ready?” he asked eventually.

“I guess,” I said.  We took turns placing armies on the board at the beginning.  I wasn’t really sure what to do, but I at least understood how the game worked now.  And, miraculously, I wasn’t the first to die. Pete wiped out Keith and took over Northern Europe, Keith’s last country, after only five turns around the board.  He then attacked Ukraine, which was held by Taylor.

“Come on, give me some good numbers!” Taylor said to the dice as he rolled.

“You can hang on, Taylor!” Keith said.  At this point, we could all see that Pete was the most experienced player and would probably win.  Everyone wanted to stop Pete.

“DE-FENSE!” I started chanting, then clapping twice, as if I were at a football game.  “DE-FENSE!” Clap, clap.

“DE-FENSE!” Taylor joined in, chuckling.  Clap, clap.

“DE-FENSE!”  Clap, clap. Pretty soon, everyone was chanting in support of Taylor defending Ukraine against Pete’s invading army, including David, Taylor’s roommate, who had walked down a few minutes ago and wasn’t even playing.  Our chants were to little avail; Pete took Ukraine eventually and went on to win the game. I was the second player eliminated, after Keith.

Even though I didn’t win Risk, I had a lot of fun that night.  Sure, college wasn’t all fun and games; I had classes and homework and studying and all of that.  And I had some really tough times over the years. But the memories that have stayed with me the most after almost a quarter-century have been the times I spent with friends.  These days, I am living in Capital City, and whenever I drive across the river and through the fields that separate Capital City from Jeromeville, I always remember these college friends.  And each of these three stories directly impacted my life again later on. My cool party trick would resurface a year and a half later, a hundred miles away, in a car with Sarah and Caroline and two people whom I had not even met yet at this point.  Something that Danielle said, which held no special significance to me on that day, would later lead to a new experience outside of my comfort zone. And I would learn many new strategy games from Pete over the years.

I didn’t have a lot of friends for most of my childhood, so having friends was still new to me, and I still had to learn how it worked.  And I didn’t realize at the time how hard it would be to make friends as an adult, so I didn’t fully appreciate just how special these bygone days would be.  But I can learn from the experience, and I can look for times when I can be that new friend to some other lost, lonely, confused soul.