I packed my sleeping bag and pillow in the back of my Ford Bronco, along with a bag containing my toothbrush and toothpaste. I had considered bringing the sweat pants I wore for pajamas and a full change of clothes, but realized I was overthinking. I would only be staying long enough to sleep, so as not to have to drive home in the middle of the night, and leaving first thing in the morning. I could handle sleeping in my clothes for one night.
I started the car and headed out of Jeromeville south on Highway 117, merging onto Highway 100 west toward Bay City two and a half miles down the road. The weather was cool and cloudy but dry, typical for an afternoon in December. It was only four-thirty in the afternoon, but the sun would already be setting soon, also typical for December.
This first part of the drive was extremely familiar to me, since it was the same drive I made every time I went back home to see my family. I had just been this way yesterday morning in the opposite direction coming home from winter break. I watched the fields and trees pass by as I continued heading southwest across the short dimension of the Valley at sixty-five miles per hour. The cities of Silvey, Nueces, and Fairview passed by me as I passed slow trucks and reckless drivers passed me. Just past Fairview, about thirty miles past Jeromeville, I started to merge into the right lane, to get on Highway 6 southbound toward San Tomas, when I realized that I was not going that way. Almost every other time I had made this drive, I had taken 6 south, headed toward home, but today I was going somewhere else.
I took the next exit, Highway 212 west toward Silverado and Redwood Valley. The rest of my drive would not be a straight shot down one road, and much of it would be on roads with one lane in each direction, winding through hills covered with vineyards and cow pastures. It would be much more fun making this trip in the other direction tomorrow morning after the sun came back up, so I could actually see the beautiful countryside and the road ahead.
I crossed the Silverado River on a high bridge and followed the highway around a curve to the right, toward the city of Silverado, only to turn left at a stoplight and head away from the city on a road with just one lane in each direction. I was trying not to drive too fast, since I had only been this way twice before and did not want to miss a turn in the dark.
I found the turn I was looking for, Highway 164 to Hillside, a few miles before Redwood Valley. Highway 212 went directly to Valle Luna, but Brian’s directions said that there was a faster way to get from Jeromeville to Valle Luna. I was not familiar with this area, so I took his word for it. I had gone this way two years ago when I went to visit Renee Robertson at Valle Luna State, but the university was south of 212 so in that case it made sense to take 164 and not backtrack.
At around 5:50, I got to Hillside and turned onto Highway 11 northbound for another fifteen miles into Valle Luna, a good-sized city of about two hundred thousand residents. Highway 212, which I had turned off of earlier, crossed Highway 11 right in the middle of Valle Luna. I turned on 212 west and drove to what appeared to be the extreme western edge of the city, as fields opened up against the hills to the west that separated Valle Luna from the coast. I turned right at a stoplight which took me back into residential neighborhoods, and about two miles north of 212, I turned into the Burrs’ neighborhood.
Brian Burr, one of my roommates from the previous school year, was two years older than me, having graduated from the University of Jeromeville in 1996. His goal was to be a doctor, but he had not gotten into any medical schools. He spent the 1996-97 school year working part time on staff with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I had met him, and also retaking all the entrance exams and reapplying to medical school. Last fall, he moved across the country to attend New York Medical College, just north of New York City in Westchester County. He had just finished his first semester, and he was back at his parents’ house in Valle Luna for winter break, where apparently he was known for throwing amazing New Year parties.
Brian’s parents lived on a cul-de-sac just a little way off of the main road. It was only 6:14, still hours before midnight, but I could already tell that parking on the cul-de-sac would fill up quickly. I parked my car in one of the last remaining free spaces and knocked on the door.
“Hi,” a middle-aged man said. “You’re looking for Brian, right?”
“You look familiar, but I don’t remember your name.”
“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Mr. Burr’s hand. I had only met Brian’s dad once before. “Brian and I were roommates last year, at the apartment on Maple Drive.”
“Oh, yeah! Is this your first New Year’s party here?”
“Welcome to our house. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
“That’s what I hear.”
“So Brian said you’re younger than him, right? Are you still in school at Jeromeville?”
“Yeah. I graduate this spring.”
“What are you studying?”
“Greg!” I heard Brian’s familiar voice say. “How you been, man?” he asked as he pulled me into an embrace.
“Good,” I said. “How’s medical school?”
“It’s a lot of work. But it’s good. What about you? You went away to Oregon or Washington or something for the summer to do research, right?”
“Yeah. Grandvale, Oregon. I’m glad I went, but the biggest thing I learned was that I don’t want to do math research as a career.”
A tall blond guy around Brian’s age walked into the room. “Greg!” he said. “What’s up?”
“Hey, Mike,” I said. Mike Kozlovsky had graduated from UJ the same year as Brian. He was also from Valle Luna, and he had moved back home after graduation. “I was just talking about last summer,” I continued. “I did a math research internship in Oregon, and I learned that I didn’t want to go into math research.”
“Aww, bummer,” Mike replied.
“Better to learn this now, rather than after I gave three years of my life to a Ph.D. program,” I said.
“That’s a really good point,” Brian said.
“Why didn’t you like it?” Mike asked.
“Math research is weird!” I explained. “All the things being researched are so abstract and advanced that I can’t understand them even when I’m about to finish a degree. It’s just not interesting. And I also just didn’t really click with the others in the program.”
“So what do you want to do now?” Brian asked.
“I’m gonna be a teacher. Probably for high school.”
“Will you be in the same program Shawn was in?”
“That’s the plan. I’ve applied to that. I also thought about applying to the program at Capital State, but it’s kind of confusing how theirs works, and it won’t really be any advantage for me to do that one. I just want to get into a classroom as soon as I can at this point.”
“Hopefully you don’t end up with the same master teacher that Shawn hated.”
“Didn’t Shawn quit the program, or something?” Mike asked.
“He finished all the classes, but he didn’t apply for any teaching jobs,” Brian explained. “He moved back to Ashwood and opened a running apparel store with one of his old running buddies back home.”
“Is Shawn coming tonight?” I asked Brian.
“No. He really wanted to, but he’s too busy with the store.”
“I get that.”
I walked inside and sat next to a bowl of tortilla chips as Brian mingled with people I did not recognize. A large amount of pizza arrived about an hour after I did, and I piled about five or six slices on my plate and began eating.
As I watched people trickle in, and waved and said hi to the ones I knew: Kristina Kasparian, Lars Ashford, Lorraine Mathews, John Harvey, and several others. But I also realized that Brian had a lot of friends whom I did not know. I met Brian two years ago through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, when Brian was a senior and I was a sophomore, but I did not know him well until that next spring and summer when he and Shawn and I made plans to live together. Brian had been at UJ for two years before I started there. He had probably made friends with people who ran in different circles, or had graduated, by the time I met him. Brian also was at his parents’ house, in Valle Luna, where he grew up, so some of these people whom I did not know were probably Brian’s childhood or high school friends.
Eddie Baker and Tabitha Sasaki had arrived separately, about half an hour apart, while I was eating chips and pizza. I had said hi to both of them, but we had not actually talked yet, so when I was done eating, I walked to where they were sitting. “Greg!” Tabitha said, smiling and motioning to the empty couch seat on her left. Eddie sat on her right. “Come sit down!”
“Hey,” I said, a little louder than I would have liked since there was now music playing. I did not recognize the song. “What have you guys been up to? How’s your break going?”
“Good,” Eddie said. “Mostly just been hanging out with Tabitha.” Eddie and Tabitha did not know each other before coming to UJ, but their families lived fairly close to each other in two neighboring suburbs of San Tomas.
“Did you go home to Plumdale?” Tabitha asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “My cousins who visit every Christmas were there. And last weekend I made a silly movie with them, and my brother, and some of my brother’s friends.”
“That’s great,” Eddie said. “Kind of like the Dog Crap and Vince movie you made with the kids from church?”
“Exactly! My brother saw that when I brought it home for Thanksgiving, and he wanted to make a movie with me too.”
“How are things going as a youth leader anyway?”
“Good! I’m going to Winter Camp in February. That’ll be fun.”
“It will be! Make sure you bring snow clothes.”
“I know. I’m going to need to do some shopping.”
“What was your movie about?” Tabitha asked.
“We have this game we kind of made up called Moport. It’s like a cross between soccer, football, and hockey. In our movie, this bad Moport team accidentally drafts the wrong player, and he’s really weird, but they find ways to win. And this other guy tries to sabotage the team.”
“That sounds silly.”
“Very silly,” I agreed.
After I finished catching up with Eddie and Tabitha, I watched Brian and some others dancing to some song I did not know, with lyrics in Spanish. Scott Madison and Amelia Dye were sitting in chairs next to the snack table. I had not talked to them yet, so I sat down in another empty chair at the table. “Hey,” I said.
“Hi, Greg!” Amelia said, smiling.
“Greg Dennison’s Chili,” Scott added, shaking my hand, using the nickname he had recently come up with for me. I had had a few people over the years ask me if I was related to the people who made Dennison’s brand chili (I was not), but Scott was so far the first to use that as an actual nickname.
“How’s your break going so far?” I asked.
“Pretty good. Just doing a lot of wedding planning stuff,” Scott explained.
“And working on med school applications,” Amelia added.
“When is the wedding?”
“June 27,” Amelia explained. “We’ll be having the ceremony at J-Cov, then for the reception we’ll all caravan across the Drawbridge to the Capital City Downtown Ballroom.”
“Hey, guys,” Brian said, joining us. “What’s up?”
“Oh! Brian! Guess what I’m doing in three weeks?” Amelia said excitedly. “I have an interview at New York Med!”
“Nice!” Brian said. “That would be cool if you two ended up moving to New York with me.”
“Yeah! We’d know someone already there.”
“How is medical school going?” I asked Brian.
“It’s good. So far it’s just classroom work, so not that different from what I experienced at Jeromeville. But it was hard to get back into the routine of being in school again, after taking last year off.”
“I bet,” I said.
“We had an end-of-semester social event for all the first-year med students a couple weeks ago. It’s a little weird that they serve alcohol at school-sponsored socials. They just assume everyone in med school is old enough to drink.”
“That makes sense,” I said. “Because everyone is. Amelia? Where else have you applied?” Amelia listed numerous other medical schools around the country. Much like Brian had the previous year, Amelia really had applied all over, but apparently New York Med was one of her top choices. That would be nice if Amelia and Brian ended up at the same school.
As the night went on, the party got louder. A few people seemed a bit tipsy, and Brian had had a few drinks, but many of Brian’s friends from Jeromeville were Christians and did not drink to excess. At one point, someone pulled out a karaoke machine, and Brian sang “Dancing Queen” by ABBA, one of his favorites. I had been in University Chorus three times now, but I still did not like singing solo in front of people.
Later, after the karaoke machine had been put away but with music still playing, another ABBA song came on, “Take A Chance On Me.” Brian jumped up and began dancing with his arms in the air. One time when we lived together, I came home from class, and as soon as Brian saw that I was home, he put on Take A Chance On Me and started doing this same silly dance he was doing now.
A few minutes after Take A Chance On Me finished, people started saying it was time, and someone turned off the music. It took a few seconds for me to figure out what was going on; after I remembered the occasion of this evening, I looked at my watch surprised to see that it was already close to midnight. The night went by fast. Someone turned on the television to one of the major networks’ New Year broadcasts, and when the countdown to midnight displayed on the screen reached thirty seconds, everyone stared at the screen and began counting out loud. Numbers that large were difficult to count down at a rate of one per second, so I did not join in the countdown until ten seconds were left.
“Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six!”
By now, people were excited enough that the counting was no longer synchronized to the clock on the television, or to each other. As much as it bothered me to be inaccurate, I tried to stay synchronized to the majority of the people counting.
“Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Happy new year!”
I heard those loud little confetti poppers being popped across the room. Someone handed me one; I pulled the string and watched a small amount of confetti explode upward away from me. Those who had drinks in glasses clinked their glasses together; Scott and Amelia were closest to me, and I clinked my aluminum Coca-Cola can to their glasses, saying “Clink!” out loud since my can did not make a clinking noise. Scott laughed.
I stayed up for at least another two hours, talking, watching people dance, and occasionally snacking. This kind of thing happens to me every New Year’s Day, but I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that it was 1998 already. I was going to graduate in 1998. That was only six short months away, and a few months after that, I would be student teaching in a high school math classroom somewhere. As I got older, as the year number on the calendar kept going up, life just seemed to move faster and faster.
Around two in the morning, I walked out to my car and got my sleeping bag. Brian had said to bring a sleeping bag, that we were all welcome to sleep on the floor and leave in the morning. The party was starting to quiet down by then, since many of the locals had gone home. It was still noisy enough that I was not expecting to fall asleep, but I was tired enough that I nodded in and out of consciousness for the next hour and a half. I woke up having to use the bathroom at 3:30, and by then, the living room was dark, with several other people asleep in sleeping bags on the floor.
I woke up again at 7:42, and could not go back to sleep. Everyone else was still asleep, and I did not want to wake anyone. This kind of thing often happened to me when I was sleeping away from home in a group, where I was awake far earlier than everyone else, so I packed a book to read just in case, The Pelican Brief by John Grisham. The lighting was not ideal for reading, since the sun had just come up and the drapes were closed, but I could see well enough.
A few people gradually woke up as I was reading; I waved hello and occasionally whispered when necessary. I hated sleeping in a strange place with other people in the room, but I did not want to leave without saying goodbye to Brian.
Brian finally appeared around 9:15. I stood up, still fully clothed from the night before, rolled my sleeping bag, and went to the bathroom, also brushing my teeth this time. Then I walked toward Brian at the kitchen table. “I’m going to head home now,” I said.
“Okay,” Brian replied. “Thanks so much for coming. It was good seeing you.”
“You too! Thanks for inviting me! Keep in touch. Good luck with school.”
“Thanks. And good luck with being a teacher. I think you’d make a great teacher.”
“Wow. Thank you.”
I said a quiet goodbye to everyone else who was still at the party and awake. Some of them I would not see again for a long time. Others who were still students at UJ I would see in a few days at most.
The drive home through the hills between Valle Luna and Silverado was, as I suspected, beautiful in the daylight. It had rained enough over the last month that green grasses were growing in empty fields. Many of the hillsides were planted with grapevines, which were bare this time of year, without leaves, but there was something calming about the parallel rows of grapevines and lattices covering the countryside.
As would often happen at the beginning of a year, I drove toward Jeromeville with a feeling of hope and promise. This year had positive things in store. In addition to graduation and starting a new phase of my education, I also had Winter Camp to look forward to. And I was sure that the year would be full of unexpected surprises, some good, some bad. Maybe this year would be full of new experiences. Maybe the love of my life would be waiting just around the corner. Who knows?
Readers: How do you usually celebrate the New Year? What’s your most memorable New Year story? Tell me about it in the comments.
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