November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

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

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

“How’s it going?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we join your team, then?”

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can fit five.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

“I have no idea,” Pete said.

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

“What’s The Venus?” I asked.

“The coffee shop.”

“Where is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know if this is it,” I said.

“Me either,” Pete agreed.

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

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

“You don’t like coffee?”

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

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

“You can get other drinks,” Leah suggested.

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

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

“You looked everywhere?” Pete asked.

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

“Bummer.”

“So where should I go now?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right.”

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

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

“I guess,” Pete replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Why?

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

“Did you play football?”

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

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

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

“Okay,” I said.  “Where do you live?”

“Reynolds.  In the North Area.”

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

“You too!” Leah exclaimed.

“Bye,” Autumn said, smiling and waving.

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

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

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

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

“Keep driving, I guess,” Pete suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope it’s fun,” Pete said.

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Which clue did you get stuck on?”

“The first one!  We never found anything!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too.”

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

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

2020 olive way
Olive Way, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty good,” I replied.

“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah.  It’s a holiday.”

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

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

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

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

“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.

“Visiting his family there?”

“Yeah.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1

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

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

Sleeping in? Jon thought.

“You missed class?” Becky teased.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

“No.  Just…” he paused.  “Thinking.”

“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

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

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

“Hi,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Bye,” she replied, smiling.

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

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

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

FRANK WHITE
4/29/89

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

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

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

“Are you Yesenia?” I asked.

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

“Yes.  I’m Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How does this work?”

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

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

“I’m a sophomore,” I said.

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

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

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

“Good.  Which dorm?”

“South Area.  Building C.”

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

The IHP!”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I replied.  “Kevin?”

“Yeah.  You’re my tutor.”

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

“No,” Kevin said.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!

 

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

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

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

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

“You ready?” Heather asked.

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Good to see you again.”

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

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

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

“Ryan Gambrell,” I said.

“Yeah?” Ryan replied.

You’re Annie’s brother.”

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

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

“How funny.  Small world.”

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

“I will,” Ryan said.

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

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

“I know.”

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

“Wow.  That’s even crazier.”

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

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

 

 

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

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

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

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

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

i will argue table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

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

“Two labs on the same day.”

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

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

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

“I know what you mean.”

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

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

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

“Oh, okay.”

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

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

 

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

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

“I did,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure!”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

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

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

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

“Mel?”

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

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

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

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

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

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

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

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

“I think so,” I replied.

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

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

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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


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

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

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

Megan


 

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

I clicked Reply to answer Megan’s message.


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

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


 

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

“Hey, Liz,” I said.

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

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

“That sounds nice!”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

“Did you ever come last year?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

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

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

STUDENT ASSISTANT IV – TUTORING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.  It was good seeing you again.”

“You too!”

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

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Math.”

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

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

“That’s awesome.”

“What’s your name?”

“Amber.  What’s yours?”

“Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!”

“How was your summer?”

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

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

“Where is back home?”

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“You too.  Have a great day!”

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

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

 

September 9, 1995. The night I did something crazy and spontaneous.

In my life so far, I have had a long history of not being popular with the ladies. No one taught me anything about dating and relationships growing up, and my teen years were a string of awkward failed crushes. Rachelle Benedetti, whom I never understood why I liked her in the first place. Kim Jensen, an outgoing popular cheerleader in a few of my classes, but she dated older football players, not guys like me. Melissa Holmes, a good friend who did not like me back that way. Jennifer Henson, a popular girl who started treating me like a good friend when we were seniors, but then moved away without saying goodbye. Annie Gambrell, a younger girl I met through a class project we did together, but she had a boyfriend. And last year there was Megan McCauley, my first older friend in college; she was really nice, but I felt intimidated just by the fact that she was a year older, and currently I did not know how to interpret the fact that she had not emailed me back for the last three weeks.

After waking up and doing absolutely nothing productive for several hours, I walked to the mailboxes. Maybe I had a letter from a girl, I thought. And I did have a letter from a girl. I actually had gotten a letter from a girl yesterday, the first letter I received since moving into this apartment a week ago. It was from Sarah Winters, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year. I opened the mailbox and saw another letter from a girl… except today, the girl in question was my grandma. It was always nice to hear from her, but I wanted to interact with girls my age.

From the mailboxes, I could see the pool. A girl was lying face down on a pool chair. She had brown hair, put up in a bun, and perfectly shaped legs. She appeared to be wearing nothing but black bikini bottoms. I looked closer and noticed that she was wearing a bikini top, but she had untied it in the back, presumably to avoid having a tan line. The strings hung down over the side of the pool chair, exposing the side of a fairly large and round breast.

After staring for about thirty seconds, I walked back to my apartment, trying to think of a way I could look at the sexy girl by the pool and maybe get her to notice me. Back inside, I read Grandma’s letter, but I was only half paying attention because my mind was formulating a plan.

I picked up the book I had been reading, part 4 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and took it outside with me. The pool was open to everyone; why couldn’t I sit and read by the pool? I found an empty pool chair, on the other side of the pool from the girl, and began reading. Stephen King originally wrote this book as a serial, in six parts each around 100 pages long, published about a month apart. Mom had gotten me parts 1 through 5 for my birthday last month, before part 6 had been published. I would get part 6 at the campus bookstore when I finished part 5, or order it in advance if it had not been released yet.

It was a hot day, and after about ten minutes, I was sweating uncomfortably. Do people really sit by the pool like this? That can’t be right, I thought. I noticed a spot a few feet from me that was in the shadow of a nearby tree. I moved the chair into the shadow; it made noise as I moved it. I looked at the girl, hoping that what I was doing looked natural and ordinary and that the noise would not attract attention. She did not react, and I sat back down and continued reading.

After about another ten minutes, the girl reattached the string in the back of her bikini top. She put on shorts and a tank top over her bikini, slid her feet into flip-flops, gathered her belongings, and began walking toward me. I looked back down at my book, trying not to stare, then looked up as she walked past me. I smiled at her. “Hi,” I said.

“You know you’re lying in the shade,” she replied.

“Yeah,” I said as the weight of her words sank into my brain. She was right. Normal people do not lie in the shade. I was pretty sure I blew it with this girl, and just made myself look like a pervert, or at best a weirdo.

After the girl was gone, I took my book back to my apartment, leaving the pool chair in the shade.  I was too embarrassed to move it back and make any more noise that might get me noticed. I lay on the bed, dejected and discouraged. I was bored. Moving back to Jeromeville early was not as exciting as it had been in my head all summer, mostly because most of my friends had not moved back yet. Since I had just gotten a letter from Sarah, I knew that she would be moving back on September 17, a week from tomorrow, but then leaving right away on a retreat with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship until Friday the 22nd. Several of my friends were involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, so I suspected most of them would be back on the 22nd as well.  The first day of class was Thursday the 28th.

I continued reading The Green Mile lying on my bed. When I finished part 4, I put a frozen pot pie in the oven and spent the rest of the night wasting time on the computer. I wrote emails, I played SimCity 2000, I checked my Usenet groups, and I got on IRC chat, in that order. I had been spending a lot of time on IRC lately, and I had even met two girls my age who lived nearby: Colleen, who attended University of the Bay, and Allison, who was a student right here at University of Jeromeville. Around quarter to nine, I saw Allison enter the channel I was already in, and I messaged her.

gjd76: hey
darksparkles: hi
gjd76: what’s up
darksparkles: not much
gjd76: me either. i’m bored. i got a letter from my grandma, that was the highlight of my day
darksparkles: aww how sweet

I decided not to tell her about making a fool of myself in front of the girl at the pool. No one needed to know about that.

gjd76: i moved back to jeromeville early because i was bored at my parents’ house. now i’m bored here, but at least i’m on my own
darksparkles: i know what you mean. my roommate isn’t moving in until right before fall quarter starts. so i have the place to myself until then. i like it though
gjd76: that’s good
darksparkles: i’m a little scared to have a roommate again. i hated my roommate in the dorm last year
gjd76: ugh, roommate drama
darksparkles: but she moved out at the end of winter quarter and i had the room to myself the rest of the year
gjd76: they can do that? and just leave the room empty?
darksparkles: i guess
gjd76: how do you know your roommate from this year?
darksparkles: she lived down the hall from me. she was one of the few people in my building that i talked to, although we weren’t really close friends
gjd76: aww… hopefully living together works out
darksparkles: i hope so too

An outlandishly spontaneous idea popped into my head.  In real life, if I want to say something that makes me nervous, in which I am apprehensive about the other person’s possible reaction, I usually blurt it out loudly, so as not to hesitate or second-guess myself. I typed the next sentence very quickly and pressed Enter, the typing equivalent of blurting something out. It was a crazy idea, but boredom and loneliness can occasionally drive me to desperation.

gjd76: you want to meet in person?
darksparkles: huh? you mean like now?
gjd76: yeah. we can stay outside or in public if you’re worried about being alone with some guy from the internet
darksparkles: sure, there’s a picnic table by the pool in my apartment complex, i’ll meet you there
gjd76: where is that? we both live in north jeromeville, right?
darksparkles: yeah, redwood grove apartments on alvarez, there’s only one way into the parking lot, and the pool is right there, you’ll see it. you know where that is?
gjd76: yes i do. i’ll be there in about 10 minutes. i’m wearing jeans and a green shirt
darksparkles: i’m wearing a black shirt and jeans with holes in them
gjd76: ok, see you in a few minutes

Allison had told me the last time we talked that she lived in north Jeromeville. I did not realize until now that she was only a quarter mile away. I could have gotten there much faster than the 10 minutes I told her, but before I left I brushed my teeth and used the bathroom, and I changed out of my shorts into the jeans I told her I was wearing.  It was not warm enough this late at night to be outside in shorts for a long time. I also scribbled a note on a sheet of paper and placed it on my desk:


9/9/95 9:28pm

In case I don’t come back alive, and the police need leads, I’m going to meet a girl from the Internet named Allison. We’re meeting by the pool at Redwood Square apartments; she told me she lives there. I don’t know her last name, but her IRC name is darksparkles and her account ID is stu050637@mail.jeromeville.edu


 

It was a nice night outside, not too warm but not cold either. My short-sleeve shirt and jeans felt physically comfortable as I started to feel nervous about this situation which I had suddenly put myself in. I had only talked to Allison two other times. I had a rough description of what she looked like, and I had the impression that she was quiet and kept to herself a lot, but other than that I had no idea who to expect. I was pretty sure from our previous conversations that we had never had a class together, and we would not have run into each other at the dining hall since she lived in a different dorm area with its own dining facilities.

I walked into the parking lot of the Redwood Grove Apartments. I could see the pool about a hundred feet back from the sidewalk, and as I approached the pool more closely, I noticed a girl sitting at a table inside the pool area. She turned her head and saw me, and she got up and opened the gate.

“Allison?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Greg?”

“Yes. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she said, smiling halfway and leading me back to the table where she had been sitting. She was shorter than me, about five foot five, and thin. Her black shirt had the name of something I had never heard of, maybe a band, maybe a brand of clothing, I did not know. It was a unisex shirt, fitting loosely on her body. Her skin was pale, and her hair appeared to be dyed black, although I could not tell for sure with the lack of natural light and the only illumination coming from a few outdoor light posts. I got the impression that she did not smile much in general, so the awkward half-smile with which she had greeted me was probably the best she could do.

“So what’s up?” she asked, speaking quietly.

“I’ve never done this before.”

“Done what?”

“Met someone off the Internet.”

“Oh. I did once last year.”

“Oh yeah? Was it also someone from Jeromeville?”

“No. He flew out here from Oklahoma.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. He said he really liked me and wanted to be with me. But when he got here, he wasn’t really the nice guy he acted like online. He was kind of a jerk.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah. He made me give him a blow job the first night he was here. I didn’t want to.”

“That’s messed up,” I said. I was not expecting such a graphic description.

“He tasted nasty,” Allison continued. I just nodded, not really sure how to reply to that.  “So you’ve just been sitting around all day since you moved back here?”

“Mostly. I’ve been riding around on my bike, and reading a lot too.”

“You like riding your bike?”

“Yeah. I’m not really competitive or athletic or anything. I just like exploring.”

“I don’t even have a bike,” Allison explained. I thought that was unusual, with Jeromeville being a Bicycle Friendly City and having one of the highest rates of bicycle ownership in the United States. “I take the bus to campus.”

“I’ll probably do that on rainy days. You said you’re taking a class this summer session?”

“Yeah. An English class. One more week.”

“How is it so far?”

“It’s easy.”

“That’s good.” After a few seconds of silence, I asked, “So how has your weekend been?”

“Good. I didn’t really do much.”

“Me either,” I replied.

We made small talk for a while. She told me about this underground band she liked and something she had to read for class. I told her about the bookstore job and what my summer back home in Plumdale had been like. She told me that she liked to draw and paint, and I told her about Skeeter’s watercolor set and the paintings we made in the common room in the dorm last year.

After a while, Allison said, “I should probably go back inside. It’s getting late.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Thanks for hanging out. It was nice meeting you.”

“Yeah. You too.”

“I’ll talk to you soon?”

“Sure. Good night.”

“Good night,” I answered. I walked out of the gate, back toward the street. I had a feeling that I left a bad impression on Allison, and that we probably would not be seeing much of each other in the future. However, this did not feel like a blown opportunity, like sitting by the pool earlier today had been. Allison just was not my type. We were not interested in the same things, and with us both being so quiet, neither of us was able to get the other to open up much. I often pictured my ideal girlfriend being more talkative and outgoing than me, for that reason.

I got home a few minutes later; I had been gone for about an hour. I turned on the computer and thought about getting back on IRC chat, but something about that felt wrong, particularly if I were to see Allison online again so soon after seeing her in person. Instead, I played SimCity 2000, and went to bed around midnight.

I did talk to Allison a few more times on IRC. I did not want to be rude and stop talking to her altogether just because I did not think she was my type. But we never saw each other in person again, and I stopped seeing her on IRC around the time fall quarter started. As I drifted off to sleep that night, I kept replaying in my mind everything that had happened tonight. I felt sad that things had not gone better with Allison, but I had probably done nothing wrong. Maybe it was more of a feeling of disappointment, in the sense that I had wished Allison had been different and that we would have clicked better. But there was nothing I could do about that. It was perfectly normal for a guy and a girl not to click. At least I tried.

 

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.