December 30, 1995 – January 1, 1996. A family vacation that did not involve boring relatives.

As I have said before, most Dennison family vacations revolved around visiting boring relatives.  The idea that a family vacation could involve going someplace to see and do things other than extended family sometimes seemed lost on my parents.  But one of the rare exceptions to this happened during winter break of my sophomore year at Jeromeville.  Around the time I first got home for winter break, Mom said, “I was thinking, maybe we should go somewhere fun for New Year’s this year, since we aren’t doing anything else.  Like Disneyland.”

“Yes!” I shouted enthusiastically.

“Do I have to?” Mark complained.

“Disneyland is fun!  You liked it the other time we went.”

“Yeah, because I was in kindergarten,” Mark said sarcastically.

“I promise, if you aren’t enjoying it, and you think of anything else you want to do on that trip, we can,” Mom said.  Mark grunted unenthusiastically.

Within the intervening twelve days, Mom booked a hotel and found someone to come over and feed the cats, and on the morning of December 30, we hit the road headed south.  Disneyland was in Orange County, California, about a six and a half hour drive from Plumdale in perfect conditions.  It took us more like eight hours, including stops for meals and all the bathroom breaks necessary when traveling with 19- and 14-year-old boys, in addition to traffic, although it was Saturday and traffic was not quite as heavy as usual.

When I was younger, road trips with the family always seemed so long and boring.  Being a roadgeek, I always enjoyed traveling roads I had not seen before, but usually I just wanted to hurry up and get where we were going.  As I got older, though, I began to appreciate road trips more, and I discovered that just looking out the window at scenery can be inherently fun.  This trip was interesting because, starting from my parents’ house in Plumdale, Disneyland is in the opposite direction of San Tomas, Bay City, Jeromeville, Bidwell, and just about everywhere else we regularly go when on road trips as a family.  I only played hand-held video games for about an hour on that trip.

There was one thing I did enjoy about road trips when I was younger compared to now, however.  Before, we all mostly agreed on each other’s choice of music.  But about three years ago, Mark discovered gangsta rap; now he listened to little else, and that often started arguments when we were all in the car together.  Mark brought headphones to listen to his own music, but Mom decided it would be fair to give him a turn to listen to his music through the car speakers.  So he got his turn to play Snoop Dogg and 2Pac in between my turns to play R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish.

“So what are you most excited to ride?” Mom asked as we waited in line at a McDonald’s drive-thru, about an hour before we would reach our hotel.

“Space Mountain!” I said.

“I hated that ride,” Mom replied.

“And Pirates of the Caribbean.  Remember, it was closed the other time we came.”

“Oh, yeah.  Did you ride it when you came here for your senior trip?”

“Yeah, but that means I’ve only been on it once.”

“There’s that new Indiana Jones ride too,” Mom said.  “That one is supposed to be good.

“I haven’t heard about that one,” I said.  “But, sure, that sounds good.  I’ve also only been on the Matterhorn once.  I didn’t ride it when we went before.”

“You didn’t?  That one is a little too fast for me too.”

“I know.”

Dad turned off the freeway when we reached the exit for our hotel.  “Maybe we’ll see someone famous at Disneyland,” Mom said.  “Sometimes you hear of people going to Disneyland and seeing famous people.”

“Maybe we’ll see O.J. Simpson at Disneyland,” I said sarcastically, trying to think of the most obnoxious, joke-worthy famous person possible.  “He’s not going to jail, you know.”

“I don’t think so,” Mom replied.

“We should go find O.J.’s house.  I remember which highways he was on when we watched the police chase in the white Bronco.”

“Yeah,” Mark said, speaking up for the first time since we left McDonald’s.  “Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”

“We’re not going to find O.J.’s house,” Mom said.

“Mom,” I said, “you told Mark that if there was anything he wanted to do to make this trip more fun for him, that we could.”

“Yeah,” Mark added.  “You said we could do something fun for me.  Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”

“We’ll see,” Mom said reluctantly.

In 1995, the Disneyland resort had only one park.  California Adventure and the Downtown Disney shopping area would not appear until 2001.  Those were built on land that was the Disneyland parking lot in 1995, and a giant parking garage would eventually replace these lost parking lots.  We parked and walked past the sea of cars toward the park entrance.  A large group of people was already gathered waiting to get in; we joined them, waiting until the park opened, then moving forward.  About forty minutes after we left the car, we finally walked through the entrance gate and continued through the tunnel under the Disneyland Railroad to Main Street.

The reality that I was at Disneyland hit me as I looked down Main Street, with the statue of Walt Disney at the other end and the castle behind the statue.  I had only been to Disneyland twice before.  The first time was in sixth grade, also with my family, and I enjoyed it except that I got diarrhea at one point during the day, and I hated pooping in public bathrooms.  The second time was my senior trip.  During May and June, Disneyland will close to the public early on certain days, then stay open all night specifically for senior trips.  Melissa Holmes and Kevin Liu were making a joke that night about how Anthony Tejeda always got separated from the group on marching band field trips, so one of them found a helium balloon with a string on it and used it to tie Anthony’s wrist to Renee Robertson’s wrist.  By the end of the trip, as the sun was rising, the balloon was long gone, but Renee and Anthony were still attached at the wrist, holding hands, and they were still together a year and a half later, now in a long distance relationship.  Looking back at the way all those people acted that night, I suspected that either Anthony and Renee had liked each other for some time, or that the others had been trying to set them up for some time.  But it made me feel awkward, because, if this thing between Anthony and Renee had been going on as far back as April, I never would have asked Renee to the prom, even though it was clear we were just going as friends.

We began the day riding a few of the low-speed rides.  Autopia, the ride with the miniature cars on a fixed track, was much less exciting at age 19 than it was at age 11, since now at age 19 I drove a real car all the time.  Star Tours, the spaceship simulator set in the Star Wars universe, still felt very real, even though those of us on the ride did not actually move during the ride.  The Submarine Voyage was fun once I overcame the initial claustrophobia of having to climb into the ship.  The Mad Tea Party made me feel a little bit nauseated.

“Where to next?” Mom asked after we got out of the teacups.

“I want to go on the Matterhorn,” I said.

“I don’t,” Mark said.

“Maybe we should split up,” Mom said.  “You and Dad can go on stuff together for a while, and I’ll take Mark.  Then we can meet up again in a couple hours.  Let’s say one o’clock, right here, and we can get lunch then.”

“That sounds good.”

As Dad and I waited in line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride, he asked me, “So are you having fun today?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Good,” Dad said.  Being with Dad was always much quieter than being with Mom.  Mom was much more talkative than Dad, and because of that, I have a slight discomfort with silence in the presence of others that continues to this day.

After we finished the Matterhorn, Dad and I went to Space Mountain.  This had been the first roller coaster I ever experienced when I came here the first time.  On the few occasions in which we visited amusement parks in my childhood, Mom drilled into my mind that roller coasters were scary, so I never rode them.  We all went on Space Mountain when I was 11, not knowing what it was.  I loved it, and Mom hated it.

The line was long; Dad and I waited for over half an hour.  Space Mountain is a completely dark roller coaster, with only projections of stars and flashing lights, beginning with a climb like many roller coasters, but then twisting downward with many turns instead of having a large drop.  The first time I rode it, I kept my eyes closed for most of the ride, even though it was dark, but this time my eyes were open.  “I love that ride!” I shouted to Dad as we got off and walked outside.

After we met up with Mom and Mark for lunch, we all walked over to the Adventureland section of the park and got in line for the Indiana Jones ride.  This was the newest attraction at Disneyland at the time of our visit, and unsurprisingly, we stood in line the longest for that ride, almost an hour and a half.  Much of the line was inside the ride, in corridors designed to look like an ancient temple that Indiana Jones was exploring, along with short videos in the style of 1930s newsreels, telling the story of Indiana Jones’ discovery.  The ride itself resembled the old rides based on movies, but this one had much better special effects.

After Indiana Jones, we split up with the opposite parent and child combination.  Mom and I went on the Jungle Cruise, located right next to Indiana Jones, and Dad and Mark went off by themselves.  We sat leisurely in the boat as our tour guide narrated and told bad jokes.  As we got out of the boat, I told Mom, “I really want to go on Space Mountain again.”

“You already rode that with Dad.  Make him take you again.”

“Please?” I said.  “Just give it another try.  I’ve been on it every time I’ve been to Disneyland, and nothing has ever happened to me.”

“All right,” Mom said begrudgingly.  We walked back across the park to Tomorrowland and got in line for Space Mountain.  “Captain EO!” Mom exclaimed as we walked past the theater next to Space Mountain.  “If you’re going to make me go on Space Mountain, then I’m going to say we’re going to Captain EO next.”

“Sure.  That’ll be fun.”

The line for Space Mountain this time was longer than it was when I came with Dad; it took almost an hour to get on the ride.  About ten feet in front of us in line, I saw a teenage girl with red hair who resembled a cute girl I had had in a few of my math classes.  This definitely was not that girl.  She wore a skimpy tank top with her pierced belly button showing, and she had torn jeans and a green dyed streak through her hair.  She was with a boy who had spiked hair, ear and nose piercings, and equally shabby jeans.  They began kissing passionately, and I looked away.

“Look at those two,” Mom said quietly, gesturing toward the teenage couple.  “I’ve been watching people today, and it seems like Disneyland is letting some rough-looking people in these days.  They wouldn’t have been allowed in back in my day.”

“Hmm,” I replied, unsure of how to respond to that.

The ride was just as thrilling as it had always been.  I enjoyed every second of it.  “See?” I said as soon as Mom and I were outside.  “You’re fine.  That was fun.”

“That was ten times worse than I remember it!” Mom shouted.  “I felt like I was going to die!  Never again!”

“If you say so.  Let’s go watch Captain EO.”

Mom and I did not have a long wait for the next showing of Captain EO.  I had only seen Captain EO once, the first time I came here with my family, and I barely remembered what it was like, so seeing Michael Jackson and his weird alien puppets defeat bad guys by turning them into backup dancers, complete with special effects in the theater, made for a nice enjoyable break from rides that move quickly.

Dad and Mark met back up with us a couple hours after Captain EO, and we rode as many rides as we had time for the rest of the day.  At 11:00 that night, after leaving the Haunted Mansion, Mom said, “We should probably go head over to where the fireworks are going to be.”

“Good idea,” Dad said.

“It’s only 11.  This early?” I asked.  “I guess it’ll probably get crowded.”

Disneyland had been getting steadily more crowded all day, and the plaza at the end of Main Street facing the castle was a solid mass of people when we arrived there.  The next hour was one of waiting, standing uncomfortably in the cold night, and sitting on a curb when it got too cold to stand.  I complained about being cold a few times, and Mark did too.  I checked my watch: still 39 minutes to go.  I stood up again.  I sat again.  I checked my watch again: 31 minutes to go.

Finally, at around 11:55, music started playing.  People turned toward the castle in anticipation of the fireworks starting.  The surrounding area got dark a few minutes later, and eventually I heard people counting down.

“Ten!  Nine!  Eight!” I shouted along with thousands of people in unison around me.  “Seven!  Six!  Five!  Four!  Three!  Two!  One!  Happy new year!”  Toward the end of the countdown, the unison broke down, and some people started cheering.  Auld Lang Syne began playing as the fireworks show started, followed by music from various Disney movies.

I loved fireworks.  We did not watch fireworks shows often when I was growing up; I am not sure why.  But there was something impressive about watching these giant explosions in the sky.  I watched every one, full of awe and excitement.

After the fireworks show ended, voices came on over speakers asking us to leave the park.  We walked, carefully among the huge crowds, down Main Street back to the parking lot.

“That was fun,” I said when we got back to the car.  “Thank you for bringing us.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Mark complained.  “It was boring!”

“We’ll be home tomorrow night,” Mom said.  “And we’re still going to go see O.J.’s house, remember.”

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

“I can’t believe we’re actually going to do it.”

The next morning, we exited Interstate 405 at Sunset Boulevard, following the route we remembered from the news.  In June of 1994, retired football player and television personality O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her male companion, and a few days later, a special report showed police chasing Simpson on the freeway, following him to his house.  The murder case dominated the news until October of 1995, when he was found not guilty.

“Star maps,” Mom said, pointing to a kiosk just off the side of the road.  “Should we get one?”

“Sure,” I said.  Dad pulled over, and Mom walked to the kiosk, paying its occupant and returning to the car with a sheet of paper.

“I still can’t believe we’re doing this,” Mom said again, looking at the star map.  I looked over her shoulder.  “There he is.  O.J. Simpson.  And there’s Nicole Simpson, ‘deceased.’”  Next to their names were printed their addresses, O.J. on Rockingham Avenue and Nicole on Bundy Drive, along with about a hundred other addresses of celebrities.  On the other side was a map of the area with main streets, less detailed than an actual street map from AAA.

We continued down Sunset Boulevard for about a mile, starting to wonder if we were going the wrong way.  But then Mom exclaimed in a foreboding tone of voice, “There’s Bundy!” as we crossed the street where Nicole Simpson had been found murdered in her home.

“O.J. lives on Rockingham,” I said, reading the map.  We got to Rockingham Drive about a mile later, but I noticed that several white concrete barriers were blocking the street.  “It’s blocked off,” I said.  “Probably because too many people have been doing what we’re doing.”

“Yeah,” Mom agreed.  “That was disappointing.”

Dad turned the car around and started to head back toward the freeway.  Just as we began driving east, I said, “Wait.  Take the next left, and see if we can get around to Rockingham from the next block over.  We came too far to give up now.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dad said.  He turned left on the next street over, Bristol Avenue, then left again, and as I had hoped, that street intersected Rockingham Avenue.  We turned right, watching street numbers, until we arrived at the address printed on the star map.  It was a large house on a corner, surrounded by trees and a tall stone wall, with a white wooden gate across the driveway.

“Who’s that?” Mark asked, pointing.  Someone with a camera was attempting to climb the wall.  A private security guard was running after him.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.  “Cool!”

“Not for him, once he gets caught,” Mom said.  “Come on, we’ve seen it.  Let’s go, before we get caught up in whatever else is going on.”

We returned down Bristol Avenue to Sunset Boulevard and back to the freeway to begin the long drive home.  We drove through mountains, suburbs, more mountains, and long, desolate, isolated stretches of road.  As the scenery passed outside the window, I thought of all the girls I had been talking to on the Internet in the last year.  Brittany from Texas, Molly from Pennsylvania, Mindy Jo from Georgia.  None of the three of them had ever been west of the Rockies.  I hoped someday that they might be able to visit me, so that I could welcome them to my home and show them my side of the country.  So far I had only once met a girl in person whom I had talked to on the Internet, Allison DarkSparkles, and it did not go well, but I was closer to those three than I was with Allison.  It was a new year, and maybe 1996 would bring a new opportunity like that.

The year was starting on a good note; I now had a funny story to tell, about the time I drove past O.J. Simpson’s house and saw a paparazzo trying to sneak in.  With all the sad nights I had spent alone in my little apartment toward the end of 1995, I was glad 1996 was beginning on a good note.  I had much to look forward to in the coming year.  In June, I would be halfway done with my studies at the University of Jeromeville, assuming that I graduated on time.  In August, I would finish my teenage years and begin my twenties.  And I had made a lot of new friends recently, leaving me hopeful for fun times to come.

It turned out that I would not meet any of my Internet female friends in 1996.  But some of the biggest and most lasting changes of my life would happen in 1996.  This led to a number of new experiences, including traveling farther from home than I ever had before, for a reason that was not even on my proverbial radar at all that day.  It was a new year, and it would be an unforgettable year.

Disclaimer: The Walt Disney Company was not involved in the writing of this story, and I received no compensation for it. All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

I did not like to admit it, because it felt like I had no chance, but the truth was that I had a crush on an older woman.  Megan McCauley was a junior, a year and three days older than me.  Last year she was a resident advisor in a dorm near the one where I lived.  Amy, one of the RAs in my building, introduced me to Megan one night at dinner when we were all sitting at the same table.  After that, I just started saying hi and being friendly when I saw her around.  Megan was really nice, and friendly, and cute, not in the glamorous supermodel way, but in her own way I could not explain.  Then again, I was a little girl crazy; I found most girls physically attractive.

Megan had stayed in touch for part of the summer; she was in Jeromeville taking summer classes.  We wrote emails for a while, but her work load got in the way eventually.  Now summer school was over, fall classes started in a few days, and earlier this week, Megan emailed me for the first time in a month.  She invited me to meet her for lunch today, so we could catch up.  I had been sitting around the apartment all morning, reading, doing dishes, and trying not to be too nervous.

I left my apartment at 11:36 and rode my bike to campus along the same route that I used the day before, when I bought books and looked for part-time on-campus work.  I headed down Andrews Road for about a mile to the North Residential Area, then east to the Memorial Union.  I turned on East Quad Avenue to the Student Employment Center in the basement of Old North Hall, where I dropped off two job applications, one to work as a tutor and one to work in the bookstore.

I then returned the way I came and parked at the bike rack outside of Raymond Hall.  The North Residential Area had two sections, four high-rise buildings to the west, and seven smaller buildings to the east.  These smaller buildings only had bedrooms and bathrooms, no common room or study room.  Raymond Hall contained a study room, a lounge with a television, a computer lab, and mailboxes, intended for use by residents of all seven buildings.  Behind Raymond, five of the buildings faced a lawn with concrete paths leading to each building’s main entrance.  Another path led past the building on the east side of the lawn to two more dorms behind it.

The twelve three-story buildings of the South Area, where I lived last year, were all identical, except that some were mirror images of the others.  But these seven dorms where I was today were not identical.  Three of them had two stories, and the other four had three stories with fewer rooms on each story.  Despite having different floor plans, all of the buildings were painted in identical colors, a golden mustard color with brown trim.

Megan was the RA for Carter Hall.  I had been inside Carter once, a long time ago, and I did not remember which building it was specifically.  I could see the name on the three-story building straight across the lawn from me: Ryan Hall.  Last year, a student who lived in Ryan named Raphael Stevens painted a mural next to his room, two hands of different skin colors gently holding Earth, a message of peace and unity.  I have never seen this mural up close, only in pictures, and it had nothing to do with my lunch plans with Megan today.  But I would meet Raphael later that school year, and he knows about my writing now, so I mention him now just to say hi to an old friend.  As of 2017, the mural was still there; Raphael’s freshman year roommate, whom I would meet later this school year and stay in touch with, visited Jeromeville with his family in 2017 and shared a picture of the mural on Facebook.  At that time, I had not communicated with Raphael in many years, and the comments on that picture were how I got back in touch with him.

I looked for a name on the building to the left of Ryan; this was Carter Hall.  I had no access to the building, and I could not knock on Megan’s window because I did not know which one was hers.  I could not call or text Megan and tell her I was here, because this was 1995 and texting did not exist, and only drug dealers and ostentatiously wealthy people had cell phones.  So I figured I would wait by the front door until I saw someone inside, and then knock.  I was a little early, but Megan knew I was coming, so she would probably come find me.

I saw Megan walk into the lobby about a minute later.  When she saw me, she smiled and waved and walked over to open the door for me.  “Hey, Greg!” she said, approaching me to give me a hug.  She wore a black t-shirt that said “HEAVY METAL” in writing that resembled a rock band logo; below HEAVY METAL were pictures of gold, lead, platinum, mercury, tungsten, and uranium, and each heavy metal’s atomic mass and atomic number.  Chemical engineering humor.  Very nice.  Her short jean shorts and Birkenstocks gave me a great view of her legs, but I made a point not to stare.  Her dark blonde hair had grown back quite a bit since she cut it spiky and dyed it green last winter.  It was shorter than it was when we first met, but there was no longer any trace of green.

“Hi,” I replied as I put my arms around Megan.  I could feel my pulse quicken a little as our bodies pressed together for a few seconds.  “That’s a funny shirt,” I said after we let go of each other.

“Thanks!  You can put your backpack in my room,” Megan said, motioning toward the hallway.  She walked to her room, the first room to the right of the lobby, and I followed her.  A sign on the door said “Megan,” written in large letters in marker on construction paper.  A sign on Megan’s door had helpful phone numbers for various student services.  This was probably something that all resident advisors had on their doors.

“Where should I put my backpack?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” Megan said.  I put it on the floor against the wall at the foot of the bed.  Her bed was adjusted to the highest level possible without the extra piece needed for a loft or bunk bed; her chest of drawers was under the bed, along with a miniature refrigerator.  I was not sure if the refrigerator was her own personal property or an RA privilege; I just knew that it was not standard issue for all dorm residents.

“I’ve been in this building before,” I explained.  “A long time ago.  Senior year of high school, I was invited to a presentation about the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, and that year’s IHP students lived in Carter.  They showed us what the dorm looked like.”

“That’s right.  This was the IHP building for a while, but the IHP your year had so many students that they needed a bigger building.  Amy was supposed to be the RA for Carter last year, but when the IHP moved to Building C, they moved her with it because she had been in IHP the year before.”

“That makes sense.”

“You ready to eat?”

“Sure!”

Megan and I left Carter Hall together, walking past Raymond Hall and the bike rack where I parked, around to the high-rises.  “What are you up to the rest of the day?” I asked.

“I have a meeting with other RAs at 2,” she said.  “And I’m hosting a meeting with my residents at 7 tonight.”

“I’m not doing anything,” I said.  We passed two of the high-rises and walked toward a small building easily accessible from all four high-rises; this was the North Dining Commons.  It was a one-story building, unlike the South Dining Commons where I ate last year.  The South Dining Commons also included the mail room, game room, study room, and computer lab, but in the North Area, these services were in different buildings.

Megan scanned her card, using one of her monthly allotment of guest meals for me.  We sat down a minute later; I had a chicken sandwich, and Megan had a salad.  “So what classes are you taking this quarter?” Megan asked.

“Math 22A, Math 90, Chem 2C, Physics 9B, and bowling.”

“Bowling!  That’ll be fun!  Do you bowl?”

“Not very well.  I signed up for the class in order to have enough units to be full time, in case I didn’t get into everything.  But after I did get into everything, I decided to keep it.  It looks fun, and I always liked bowling.”

“Yeah!  Is it at the bowling alley in the MU?”

“Yeah.”

“You said Chem 2C also?  Do you need chemistry for a math major?”

“I don’t.  But I didn’t decide for sure on math for my major until I was halfway through 2B, and I like chemistry, so I just figured I’d finish the 2 series.”

“That makes sense.”

“Oh.  And I also applied at the Learning Skills Center to be a tutor.  And I applied to work at the bookstore.  I haven’t heard back from either of those yet; I just dropped off the applications this morning.  If I get both jobs, I’m probably only going to keep one.”

“That would be cool.  I could see you being a tutor.”

“Yeah.  In high school, my friends always came to me when they needed help with homework.”

“Are you going to be a teacher?  Is that your career goal?”

“I don’t know what my goal is,” I said.  “But I don’t think I would like being a teacher.  Too much politics in education.”

“Yeah.  It’s too bad it has to be like that.”

“I just kind of assumed I’d stay in school forever and be a mathematician someday.  School is what I’m good at.  But I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to have it all figured out right now.”

“I know.  But it would be nice to figure it out, so I can make some long term plans with classes.”

“The worst that can happen is you’ll have to stay here a fifth year.  And that means another year with your friends, doing what you’re good at.”

“I guess.  That’s one way to look at it.”

“I’ve accepted the fact by now that I won’t be able to finish a chemical engineering degree in four years.”

“Yeah.  I’ve heard it’s a lot of work.”

“One of the most intense majors at UJ,” Megan replied.

“What are you taking this quarter?” I asked.

“P-chem, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and writing for engineers.  It’s going to be a lot of work.  And I have all my RA responsibilities too.  That’s another reason I won’t finish in four.  I can’t take a ton of units each quarter because I need time to do RA stuff.”

“You seem to have it figured out, though,” I said.

“Yeah, we’ll see,” Megan replied, chuckling.  “So did you do anything else the rest of the summer?  Did you go to any more of those roller hockey games?”

“I did.  The Mountain Lions won the roller hockey championship this year.  I went to some of the home playoff games with my family.”

“That sounds like fun!  I didn’t even know there was professional roller hockey.”

“It is fun.  And the rules are a little different, so that they score more goals than in regular hockey.  I mean ice hockey.”

“Makes sense.”

“I didn’t do much else.  The bookstore job.  And, oh yeah, my friend from high school, she was an exchange student in Austria for a year, she got some of her friends from Austria to come here for a couple weeks and do a performance.”

“Nice.  How was that?”

“They were really good.  I don’t know a whole lot about classical music, but I enjoyed it.”

“That’s good.”

“What about you?” I asked.  “How was the rest of your summer?”

“Busy.  Mostly just school.  My classes were really, really hard!”

“But it’s over now.”

“Yes, it is.  The only really fun thing I did in the last few weeks was when it was my friend’s birthday.  She and I and two other friends took a road trip up to the Great Blue Lake.  We drove a lap around the lake, ate at a McDonald’s there, then turned around and went home.”

“All that way for McDonald’s,” I said.  The idea of driving over a hundred miles just for McDonald’s seemed a little unusual to me.  But in addition to that, I was also surprised for another reason.  McDonald’s was not exactly fine dining, and many of the people I had met here in Jeromeville seemed to be the type to think that eating McDonald’s was beneath them.  But it was also a bit of a relief that Megan liked McDonald’s, or at least was willing to eat there, because I grew up eating a lot of fast food, and I loved McDonald’s.  I suspected, though, that McDonald’s was not the main point of Megan’s story.  “But I’m sure a trip like that was more about your friends than the food,” I said.

“Exactly.  I’ve done stuff like that with these friends before.  We’ll just take a random road trip somewhere, and then turn around and come back.”

“Nice,” I replied.  A random road trip did sound fun.  As a road geek, I enjoyed exploring new places.  And I had never been to the Great Blue Lake.  It was one of the top vacation spots in this part of the country, but most of its tourism appeal involved skiing, camping, and other outdoor activities that my family did not participate in.

After a while, when both of us had been done eating for several minutes, Megan asked, “You ready to go back?”

“Sure,” I replied.  We took our plates and silverware to the conveyor belt that sent dirty dishes back to the kitchen, then left the dining hall and walked back toward Megan’s dorm.  I looked at my watch; it was 1:04.

“If you’re not busy, we can hang out in my room until my meeting,” Megan said.

“Sure,” I replied, smiling.  I wanted so badly to hold her hand we walked up to Carter Hall, but I did not.  That would be weird, especially since I did not know if she liked me back, and I did not know how to ask her.  Megan let us into the building, then proceeded to her room.  She sat on the end of her bed where the pillow was, her legs dangling off the edge.  She smiled and motioned for me to sit on the other side of the bed.  I got up on the bed, sitting cross-legged and facing her.  “So how are your residents so far?”

Megan turned to face me, also crossing her legs.  “Good, so far,” she said.  “I still don’t know everyone yet, of course.  But it’s definitely different being the only RA.  Carter, Serrano, and Irwin are the smallest dorms on campus, so they each only have one RA.”

“Yeah.”

“But from what I’ve seen so far, it looks like a good balance of science and humanities people.  It’s interesting how some dorms will be heavy on humanities majors, and some will be more sciencey, stuff like that.”

“Yeah.”

“My freshman year, I had mostly engineers around me.  I was like, yay, you guys are my people!  Then last year, when I was in Building K, there were a lot of artsy people.  You know Tiffany Rollins, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Part of the reason we got along so great was because she was another woman engineer.  There weren’t many of us in K last year.”

“We had a lot of engineers and science people in C last year,” I said.  “Dr. McGillicuddy, she’s the director of the IHP, she said that some years are more science people and some years are more art people.”

“Hey, Megan?” a voice said from the hallway.  A girl leaned into Megan’s open door from the hallway.  She stopped and looked slightly embarrassed when she saw me on the bed.  “Oh,” she said.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

“It’s ok,” Megan said.  “What do you need?”

Obviously it was the sight of me in Megan’s room that surprised the girl.  Maybe she assumed I was Megan’s boyfriend, and that she had interrupted a romantic moment between us.  I wish.  It felt kind of nice to think that this girl might have thought that a cute, smart, older girl like Megan would have a boyfriend like me.

“Sorry about that,” Megan said a minute later after she answered her resident’s question.

“No problem.  You’re doing your job.”

“So are you glad school is starting?”

“I am.  It’s been a pretty lonely summer.”

“Have you gotten to see all your friends back here?”

“I’ve seen some of them.  It’s going to be different, though, living by myself, not having a built-in community like I did last year.”

“Yeah,” Megan replied.  “I’m an RA, so I have a built-in community every year.”

“I know.  I applied and interviewed to be an RA, because of that, but I didn’t get it.  Remember?”

“Oh, that’s right.”

“I probably wouldn’t be a good RA, though.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I just don’t feel like a leader,” I explained.  “I grew up kind of sheltered.  I don’t know what a lot of students’ lives are like.  And I’m still having trouble living on my own; I’m not ready to help others do it.”

“You never know,” Megan said.  “It wouldn’t hurt to apply again.  If you really want to be an RA, you could learn those leadership skills.  And you’ve grown since I first knew you.”

“You think so?”

“I do.  You’ve figured out a lot about living on your own.  Give yourself more credit.”

After we had been talking for a while, Megan turned her head in the direction of her clock.  It was 1:50.  “I should probably head over to that meeting,” she said.  “Did you park your bike next to Raymond?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll follow you that far.”

“Sounds good.”  I grabbed my backpack and followed Megan out of the building and across the lawn.  “Thanks for treating me to lunch,” I said.

“Thanks for coming!” Megan replied.  “It was good seeing you!”

“Have a great first week.”

“You too!”  Megan gave me a hug, holding me a little tightly.  “I’ll see you around, Greg,” she said as she patted me on the back.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Take care.”

“You too.”  Megan let go of me and watched me get on my bike before walking into Raymond Hall for her meeting.

As I passed the high-rises and rode north on Andrews Road, I thought about what Megan said.  I really had grown over the last year.  I was confused about many things and lacked street smarts and knowledge of how things worked in the world when I first came to Jeromeville.  I had to figure out some basic life skills on my own.  I was not good at making friends or having a social life.  And now, here I was, living in my own apartment and meeting friends for lunch… specifically, cute older female friends.  Things were definitely moving in the right direction.  I felt optimistic that maybe this would finally be my year, the year that life finally started going my way and I became one of the cool kids who gets invited to parties and gets attention from cute girls.  And, looking back, my sophomore year at UJ definitely was an unforgettable and life-changing year.

Just not entirely in the ways I expected.

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.

 

December 31, 1994. Back in Plumdale for the holidays.

Winter break was more than half over.  Because of UJ’s three-quarter schedule, our winter break wasn’t as long as that of most other universities.  I didn’t mind, because this schedule was all I knew; the break was at least as long as, and in some years a little longer than, the winter break I was used to at Plumdale High.

A good part of my break had been spent watching TV, following the adventures of Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Agents Mulder and Scully.  I also spent a lot of time playing Donkey Kong Country on Super Nintendo. I didn’t have any of my video game consoles with me in Jeromeville.  Technically they belonged to both me and Mark, and I didn’t really have a lot of time to play video games anymore now that I had a lot of studying to do.  This was a brand new game; Mark had just gotten it for Christmas. I was enjoying it so far. The Donkey Kong character was from a classic coin-operated video game from 1981, but this new game was a platform adventure that played more like the Super Mario Bros. games.  I love the game, but now that I think about it, a quarter century later I’ve still never beaten the game.

My big Christmas present was a printer, a Canon ink-jet.  I no longer would have to go down to the study lounge in the dining commons building and pay 10 cents per page, nor would I have to go across the hall with a floppy disk and nicely ask Liz if I could borrow her printer.  This was the first time I had ever had a printer with good enough resolution to look like actual printing, as opposed to those low resolution dot-matrix printers from the 80s that used the paper with the detachable holes on the sides.

I drove out toward Highway 11 with a tape of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album playing.  This had been another of my Christmas presents, on CD, and I had made a tape of it since I didn’t have a CD player in the car.  The Eagles were a frequent presence on classic rock radio, and I had come to like them since discovering classic rock in the middle of high school.  The band broke up abruptly in 1980 after a dispute between members Don Henley and Glenn Frey, both of whom had successful solo careers after that. When asked when the Eagles would get back together, Don Henley reportedly said when hell freezes over.  Earlier in 1994, the band got back together for a tour and a TV special called Hell Freezes Over.  The album contained a selection of live recordings from the TV special along with studio recordings of four brand new songs.

In high school, there was a girl in a bunch of my classes sophomore and junior year named Catherine Yaras.  She was one who always encouraged me to come out of my shell, and she invited me to sit with her and her friends at lunch during a time when I always sat by myself.  Most of us who sat there, which also included Melissa and Renee and Kevin, sat in a hallway next to the room where all of us had English class right after lunch. I grew a lot senior year, and I definitely came out of my shell, but Catherine wasn’t there to see it up close, because she spent that year as an exchange student in Austria.  She and I wrote letters pretty much all year, and by spring she told me that I was the only school friend still writing to her. I had seen her once and talked to her a couple more times since she got back from Austria in the summer, and now I was on the way to her house for a New Year’s party.

She said to show up around 8:00, and it was almost 8:30 now.  As I started to be more social, I came to learn that most people don’t show up to events like this on time, and I was starting to follow suit.  I arrived at Catherine’s house and stood awkwardly as I knocked on the door. To this day, for some reason, I still find it awkward to knock on someone’s door and then have to wait for them to answer.  I feel like I’m always standing there uncomfortably.

“Greg!” Catherine said when she opened the door.  “It’s good to see you!” She hugged me, and I hugged back.

“You too.”

“How are you?”

“I’m doing pretty well,” I said.  “You?”

“I’m great!  Come on in! I have to go check on something in the kitchen, but I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

As Catherine headed toward the kitchen, I walked into the living room and looked around.  Renee was sitting on the couch with her boyfriend Anthony. They had been part of the same friend circle ever since Renee moved to Plumdale before junior year, but they had just recently gotten together.  Apparently some combination of our mutual friends had been conspiring to set them up for a while, and I was completely oblivious to all of it. At our senior trip to Disneyland, one of the days where they open the park all night just for high school senior trips, Kevin had made a joke about tying a balloon around Anthony and Renee’s wrists, because Anthony had apparently often gotten separated from the group on field trips with the school band.  By the end of the night, the balloon was long gone, but Anthony and Renee were still holding hands. Other stuff may have been going on with them before that night, but that was the first I knew of it, because as I said, I’m always oblivious to that kind of thing.

Renee had been my senior prom date.  We were pretty much going just as friends, so I wasn’t upset at all that she and one of my guy friends were together a month later.  My grandma had a copy of our prom picture in a frame on a table in her living room for many years after that. People usually commented on the height difference, since Renee was a whole foot shorter than me.  I remember that picture, and what stands out to me is the contrast in color. I have dark, almost black, hair, and I wore a traditional black and white tuxedo, whereas Renee has bright red hair and wore a blue dress.  Sometimes I feel like my life is dark, and everyone else’s is colorful… so I guess it fits.

Renee had gotten her email set up a few weeks ago, so we had been communicating again, and she had said something suggesting that she and Anthony were still together.  I was happy for them. Anthony had moved to Ohio for school, and long distance relationships were difficult, or at least so I had heard. I didn’t have any experience with long distance relationships, at least not in the 1990s; that dumpster fire would happen in 2011, and it isn’t part of this story, so I’ll stop talking about it.

Two others whom I recognized from school but didn’t know well were sitting in chairs set up on the other side of the room from the couch.  No one else had arrived yet. I walked over to Renee and Anthony.

“Hey, Greg,” Renee said.  Anthony waved.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How are you guys?”

“I’m good,” Anthony said.

“How’s Ohio?” I asked.

“It’s cold!  I’m glad to be back out west.”

“I’m sure that’s an adjustment.”

“How did finals go?” Renee asked.  “Last time I talked to you, you were stressing about finals.”

“I think I did pretty well.  I know I did really well on the math final.” I told Renee and Anthony the story about Rebekah Tyler knowing what I got on the final before I did.  As I was in the middle of the story, Melissa walked in and sat near us; she must have arrived unnoticed by me as I was telling the story.

“Hey, Melissa,” I said.  

“Greg!” she replied, giving me a hug.  “This story sounds interesting.”

I finished the story.  “Rebekah sounds like one of my roommates,” Renee said.  “She’s always in everyone’s business.”

“Rebekah isn’t usually in my business,” I said.  “At least not except for this one time.”

“My roommate and I get along great.  That’s mostly because he’s never home,” Anthony explained.  “I don’t know where he goes. I think he has a girlfriend who lives off campus.”

“How are you liking dorm life, Greg?” Melissa asked.  “Did you say you don’t have a roommate?”

“That’s right,” I replied.  “I’m not sure how that happened.  I didn’t ask for a single room, but I got one.  There are only a few single rooms in my building.  But so far I’ve made a lot of friends in the dorm. It’s nice sometimes just wandering up and down the halls seeing who is around and what people are doing.”

“Lucky!” Anthony said.

“I feel like I’m missing out not being in a dorm,” Melissa said.

“You’re living with relatives, right?”

“My grandma.  And it feels like a grandma house.  I don’t have friends over, and I don’t really spend a lot of time around students.  You guys are lucky.”

“Can you get involved in any groups on campus to make friends?” I asked Melissa.

“I’m trying.  There’s a club for pre-med students that I’ve been to a few times.  I don’t really know anyone yet, though. Also, traffic is bad, so it’s hard for me to get back to campus at night.”

“That’s true.  I hadn’t thought of that.”

“The fruit salad is done,” Catherine called out from the kitchen.  Renee and Anthony got up a minute later to get food, leaving Melissa and me alone on that side of the room.

“I have to say,” Melissa said, “I’m really proud of you for adjusting to dorm life and being away from home so well.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“I know this was a scary transition for you, being out on your own.  But you’re doing great. And like I said, you’re getting to do things that I’m not getting to do.”

“Thanks.  I’m sure you’ll figure things out.”

“I will.  And the bright side is I don’t have to deal with noisy neighbors living at my grandma’s house.”

“Good point.  I’ve had noisy neighbor issues.”

“Hey, Melissa,” Catherine said, walking up to Melissa and me and sitting on the couch.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” Melissa said.  “I was just telling Greg how I’m proud of the way he’s adjusted to dorm life.”

“I know!  I’m proud of you too, Greg!”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“How was your Christmas?  Did you guys go anywhere? Or were any family visiting?”

“I was at my parents’ house,” I said.  “My aunt and uncle and cousins were visiting, like they do pretty much every Christmas.”

“How was that?”

“It’s always, well, interesting to see them.  Oh — funny story. So back when were remodeling the house years ago, Mom was reading these fancy remodeling magazines, and that was the first anyone in our family had ever heard of a bidet.”

“Bidets are weird at first,” Catherine said.  “We had one at the house where I stayed in Austria.  It definitely took some getting used to!”

“I’m sure!  Anyway, next to the bathroom in the remodel is a doorway leading to the crawl space in the attic.  My brother started making jokes that that was going to be the Bidet Room. So ever since then, we’ve always called the attic the Bidet Room.  And Mom said in front of my cousins that she had to go wrap the presents that she hid in the Bidet Room.”

“I can’t picture your mom saying ‘Bidet Room,’” Melissa said.

“There’s probably a lot that my mom says that you can’t picture.  But anyway, my one cousin, Miranda, she just turned 14, and they live out in the country, so she isn’t an expert on European bathroom fixtures.  Miranda asked why we called it the Bidet Room, and I told her about Mark saying we should put a bidet in there. Then she asks, ‘What’s a bidet?’  I start to explain it in polite family-friendly terms. Her brother interrupts me and blurts out, ‘It shoots water up your ass!’”

“Ha!” Catherine laughed.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “That’s funny.”

“How was your Christmas?” I asked Melissa.

“Nothing special.  Mom and Dad and my brother drove down south and had Christmas with me and some other relatives at my grandma’s house, and I came back up to Plumdale with them a few days ago.  I’m going to fly home on Tuesday. Flights from Santa Lucia to San Angelo are cheapest on Tuesdays,” Melissa explained. I never would have thought of that, considering that I had never been on an airplane at that time.

The party was fairly calm as far as New Year’s parties go.  I spent the New Year’s a year ago with some family friends who liked to drink and watch sports, and this party wasn’t raucous and loud like that one.  It was mostly just people talking and eating and, in the case of us who were away at school, catching up. And all of that was perfectly okay with me. I got to hear some more of Catherine’s stories about her host family and school and friends in Austria.

However, Catherine’s party was not without drinking.  At one point in the night, Catherine said she was making margaritas.  I think it was margaritas. I’m not an expert on alcoholic beverages, and I knew even less then than I do now.

“Um,” I said, “doesn’t that have alcohol in it?”

“If that makes you uncomfortable, I can make you a virgin margarita.”

Virgin margarita.  Virgin margarita.  I racked my brain trying to figure out what that mean.  After a few seconds of thinking about the context clues, I figured that she must mean a margarita without alcohol.

“Everyone our age drinks alcohol in Austria,” Catherine explained, apparently noticing that I was uncomfortable.  “It’s no big deal over there, and since I’ve been back home I’ve been drinking occasionally. I’m not going to get drunk and be unsafe.  I can make you one without alcohol if you want.”

“Okay,” I said, still a little uncomfortable.

Catherine came back a few minutes later with the drinks.  I picked up my drink, hesitantly. I smelled it; it didn’t smell like alcohol, but considering I wasn’t exactly used to the smell of alcohol, I didn’t know what to expect.  “They’re exactly the same,” she said, “except yours doesn’t have alcohol and mine does.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “What if this is the wrong drink?”

“I can tell.  It’s not.”

“What if someone spiked my drink?”  I’m not entirely sure why I said that.  Maybe I wanted to look cool by demonstrating that I knew what “spiked” meant.

“Come on, Greg.  Do you trust me?”

In hindsight, I’m even less sure of why I said the words that came out of my mouth next, aside from the fact that I’d been watching TV a lot.  “I’m like Agent Mulder. I trust no one.”

“Greg,” Catherine said.  “If you can’t trust me, then are we really even friends?  I’m hurt that you would say that.”

I looked down.  “I didn’t mean it that way,” I said.  I didn’t even know how I meant it. I was just making a reference to one of my favorite TV shows.  “I’m sorry. It’s from X-Files.”

“Do you trust me, Greg?”

I picked up the class and drank a sip of the virgin margarita.  “Yes,” I said. “I trust you. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s okay,” Catherine replied.  “Just know that I would never give you alcohol without your permission.”

“I know.  Thank you.”

I took another sip of the virgin margarita.  After all that, I didn’t really like it, but I drank the rest of it since Catherine had been through all that to make it for me.  When I was done with the drink, I put the glass back in the kitchen and had more chips and salsa for a while. I spotted someone else I knew from school and went over to talk to her for a while.

“It’s almost midnight!” someone shouted eventually.  A television was showing one of the nationally televised New Year’s Eve broadcasts, with the countdown clock in the corner.  Someone handed me two party favors, one of those things that you blow into and it unrolls and makes a toot noise, and some plastic glasses shaped like the numbers “1995” with holes for your eyes inside the round parts of the 9s.  I put the glasses on and the other thing in my mouth.

“Ten!  Nine! Eight!” everyone started shouting.  “Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!” Some people clapped, some people made noise with whichever party favor they had, and some people holding drinks clinked their glasses together.  Even though a new year is mostly an arbitrary point in time, there is always something special about it. The new number on the calendar gives hope that maybe this year would be different.

“Greg?” Catherine said, turning her left cheek toward my face.  “New Year’s kiss?”

It appeared that 1995 would be different, for sure.  I had never had a New Year’s kiss, nor had I ever kissed anyone or been kissed at any other time of any year.  (I don’t count Grandma kissing my cheek as a kiss. That’s just what grandmothers do.) I didn’t even know in 1995 that a New Year’s kiss was a thing, because of my sheltered upbringing.  But I had made enough of a fuss about the virgin margarita, and I didn’t want Catherine to think I was afraid or being weird any more than she already did. So I puckered my lips and lightly kissed her on the cheek.  She smiled and kissed my cheek back.

“I’m glad I got to see you tonight,” Catherine said.

“Thanks.  I’m glad I came.”

“You really sound like you’re doing well at Jeromeville.  And I’m sure 1995 is going to be a great year for you.”

I started to get tired about an hour later, so I said my goodbyes and drove home, still listening to the Eagles.  I had taken a significant step tonight: I didn’t get all worked up over underage drinking. I was always bothered by the fact that some high school kids know how to get alcohol at a young age, in complete defiance of the law and of their own safety.  I even remember thinking that I ever got invited to a party where there was drinking, I would call the police on my own friends, just because they were breaking the law. Of course, no decent human being would do that unless someone’s life was clearly in danger.  This may have been the first time I had ever been in the same room as underage drinking, and I got over it and let things be. No one was hurting anyone else, and no one’s lives were in danger.

I pulled up into the driveway, quietly entered the house so as not to wake my parents or Mark, and went to bed for the first time in 1995.  I was hopeful for a good year. I had already taken some big steps in 1994, being out on my own, being a student at a university, and living in a dorm.  This new life seemed to be suiting me well so far. I looked forward to the new adventures that 1995 would bring… although, on that cloudy night in Plumdale, 150 miles from Jeromeville, I never would have guessed the exact sort of adventures that lay ahead of me.