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

 

March 28-29, 1995. Back home, finding a new home, and visiting an old home.

“Remember the rule,” Mom said.  “Don’t shout out the answer until time is up, so we can have time to think about it.”

“I know,” I replied.  In our family, this was called the Malcolm X Rule.  A few years ago, the answer to the Final Jeopardy! question was Malcolm X, and Dad shouted out the answer before Mom was even done reading the question.  To this day, if Mom is watching Jeopardy! with other people in the room, she has to remind them of the Malcolm X Rule, and on those rare occasions when I am not alone while watching Jeopardy!, I tell people the rule as well.

“Did you still want to look at that apartment guide tonight?” Mom asked.

“Sure.  I’ll go get it.  We can look at it after Jeopardy! is off.”

I climbed the stairs to my room.  It was spring break, and I was back at my parents’ house in Plumdale for the week.  Tomorrow was the only day I had plans for, and I was a little nervous about that, but it would certainly make for an interesting day.

I ran down the stairs, holding the apartment guide, taking the stairs two at a time to make sure I got back to the TV before Jeopardy! came back from the commercial, but not running too loudly because Dad was asleep.  I had no place to live for next year, and I learned too late that apartments in Jeromeville fill up quickly. Jeromeville is a fairly small city with a large university, so students dominate the rental market, and most leases run from September through August.  Apartments are listed on March 1 to rent for the following September, and people had told me that most apartments are leased within the first few weeks of this process. By the time I figured out that everyone I knew was making living arrangements for next year, everyone I knew already had a roommate, and most of them had signed leases, so I was a little panicked about that.  The Associated Students organization publishes an apartment guide every year, which is what I held in my hands now, so at least that would help narrow down where I could find an appropriately sized and priced apartment, once I know whom, if anyone, I would be living with.

“Let’s see what our contestants know about Colonial America,” Alex Trebek said on the TV.  “Here is your clue: ‘President of the Continental Congress 1775-77, he was reelected in 1785 but didn’t serve due to illness.’”  The music played as the three contestants, Mom, and I thought about who this early American was.

“I don’t know,” Mom said as the song stopped and time ran out.  “I keep thinking George Washington, but I’m probably missing something.”

“I was going to say John Hancock.  His signature was first, so maybe he was President in 1776, I was thinking.”

“I bet you’re right.”

Each of the contestants revealed their answer, and Alex told them if they were correct or not.  John Hancock was correct, and two contestants got it right. Mom started looking through the apartment guide, as if to get a feel for what our options were.

“These are expensive!” she said.  That was definitely not what I needed to hear.  Of course, Mom hadn’t been in the market to rent an apartment since the early 1970s, so I don’t know if she had a good idea of how much rent was in a normal city.  I had no idea either, so I didn’t know if apartments in Jeromeville were more expensive than apartments in a normal city.

“Look at this place,” Mom said, pointing to the listing for some ritzy-sounding apartment in West Jeromeville.  “‘Includes access to Stone Park Country Club.’ You don’t need something like that.”

“I agree.”

“So what can you tell me about any of these places?”

“Central and Downtown Jeromeville are closest to campus, so that’d be an advantage to living there, but those are mostly older areas.  There’s one part of North Jeromeville with a whole lot of apartments and two grocery stores nearby, and easy bus access to campus, and those areas look pretty nice.  I’m probably most interested in those areas; the other parts of Jeromeville are getting farther away from campus, and I don’t want to be too far away.”

Mom and I continued looking at apartments; I made a mark next to the ones I wanted to look at more closely.  “How much money do we have to work with?” I asked. “What if I don’t find a roommate? Can we afford for me to live alone?”

“Don’t worry about it.  If we can’t, then you can always look for a part time job.  Or answer a roommate wanted ad.”

“You keep saying not to worry, and I appreciate it, but I need a number.  How much money? I need to know, so I can decide which places to call first, and whether or not I’ll need to get a job or room with a stranger.”

“Hmm,” Mom said, flipping through the apartment guide again.  “I think we can do $500 a month. We’ll make it work.”

With this additional parameter, I narrowed the decision to five apartment complexes that I would call and visit as soon as I got back to Jeromeville.  I had no idea if any of these apartment complexes still had vacancies. I didn’t have a timeline on how quickly Jeromeville runs out of apartments, so I didn’t know how likely these places were to have something still available.

I also felt guilty that my parents were spending that much money on me.  Some parents don’t help their children with college at all. I could have saved a lot of money by finding a roommate earlier, like everyone else did, and even though I didn’t realize I had to do this, it felt like my fault that I didn’t.  Getting my own apartment felt like a privilege I didn’t deserve, even though Mom seemed okay with it. Maybe I would look for a job for next year. I didn’t know what kind of job I was looking for, though. And this arrangement was only for one year; I’d do a better job of finding roommates for junior year when the time came.

“So what time are you meeting Melissa tomorrow?” Mom asked, changing the subject.

“Nine.”

“At the school?”

“Yes.”

“I think it’ll be fun to see all your old teachers.  Which teachers are you going to see?”

“I don’t know.  We’re going to see Mrs. Norton and Mr. Jackson for sure.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“I hope so.”

 

The next morning, I left the house in time to get to Plumdale High School at nine o’clock in the morning, just as I had planned.  Melissa Holmes had sent me an email a week ago asking if I was going to be home for spring break. She was coming home from San Angelo University and wanted to visit Plumdale High and say hi to some of our old teachers.  UJ and SAU had the same schedule, but our spring break was a different week from Plumdale High’s, so this was a regular school day for Plumdale High.

I saw Melissa’s little red Toyota Tercel in the parking lot.  I wasn’t sure exactly where to look for her, if she expected me to go to the office or to Mrs. Norton’s room or Mr. Jackson’s room or what, but as I got closer I noticed that Melissa was still sitting in the car.  I stepped outside. It was cold and overcast, with the marine fog layer hanging low overhead; I wore my sweatshirt that said JEROMEVILLE and had the university seal on it.

“Hey, Greg,” Melissa said, walking toward me and giving me a hug.  “How’s it going? How was your break?”

“Good so far.  I haven’t really done anything.  Just hung out with family. How are you?  Are you making any new friends at school? I remember we talked about that a while ago.”

“Yeah, I’ve started meeting people from classes, and from church.  It gets kind of lonely not living in a dorm.”

“But it’s cheaper for you living with your grandmother,” I said.  “And you probably also get more quiet study time than you would in a dorm.”

“Good point.”

“So does anyone know we’re coming today?”

“I had my brother tell Mrs. Norton we were coming.  Other than that, though, no.”

Melissa and I spent a few more minutes catching up in the parking lot, then we walked toward Mrs. Norton’s classroom.  Back in 1995, school security wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. Students didn’t wear ID cards on lanyards, and neither did teachers.  Visitors didn’t need passes, and many school campi didn’t even have fences around them. There was a chain link fence across the front of the PHS parking lot, with one of the full time campus supervisors stationed at the entrance to the parking lot, in a little booth, but that wasn’t an issue, because she knew me and she let me in.  She did ask if I had permission to be there, though; I said I was home on spring break, and that Mrs. Norton knew I was coming. That was good enough.

“Hey there!” Mrs. Norton said, in her distinct voice and accent, after we walked into her classroom.  Mrs. Norton was born and raised in Mississippi. “And Greg! You’re here too!” Mrs. Norton had been our teacher for AP Calculus last year, and she had been one of my favorite teachers at Plumdale High.  I also had her for the second semester of Algebra II as a sophomore.

“Hi,” I said.  “I hope that’s okay.  It sounds like you didn’t know I was going to be here.”

“Sure!”  Addressing the class, Mrs. Norton said, “Do y’all know Melissa and Greg?  They both graduated from here last year.” Mrs. Norton turned to us and explained, “This is Algebra II, so it’s mostly juniors, with some sophomores and a few seniors.”

“Right,” I said.

“So what are y’all majoring in?  Melissa, you’re pre-med, right?”

“Yes,” Melissa answered.  “Majoring in biology, specifically.”

“I’m technically undeclared,” I said.  “But right now I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.  I still like math, and I’m still good at math.”

“That’s great!” Mrs. Norton said.  “You’ll do great in math.”

Mrs. Norton finished the example she was working on, and when she gave the class a few minutes to work, she talked to us for a few more minutes, asking how we liked being away from home and things like that.  She eventually asked if we were going to visit anyone else while we were here, and Melissa said that we were going to see Mr. Jackson.

After the current period ended and the next one started, Melissa and I left for Mr. Jackson’s class, waiting until the end of the passing period in order to avoid the crowds trying to get to class on time.  Mr. Jackson was our teacher for AP English last year. He was tall and thin with curly gray hair, and he looked like he had been involved with theater at some point in his life. My mom told me once in the car on the way home that she thought he was gay, except that she used some much more inappropriate words in her description.  I didn’t care if he was or not, and it made me a little uncomfortable the way Mom talked about people behind their backs that way. I had to see and interact with Mr. Jackson every day of senior year with Mom’s inappropriate comment in the back of my head all the time.

“Melissa!” Mr. Jackson shouted enthusiastically as she walked into the classroom, with me right behind.  “Greg! You’re here too!” Mr. Jackson turned to his class of freshmen and added, “This is Melissa and Greg.  They graduated from Plumdale High last year. Melissa is at San Angelo University, and Greg is at… sorry, remind me?”

“Jeromeville.”

“Jeromeville!  That’s right. You’re wearing the sweatshirt and everything, I just noticed.  How do you guys like it?”

“I’m doing well in my classes,” Melissa said.  “And I live off campus, so it’s nice and quiet.”

“I’m in a dorm called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program,” I explained.  “I have some classes specifically for students in that program, so I know the people in my building better than if I had just been assigned a dorm randomly.  I’ve made some really good friends. And I’m still getting good grades. I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.”

“You were always good at math,” Mr. Jackson said.  “I could see that.”

Mr. Jackson got his class started on an assignment, and in between giving instructions to students, he continued catching up with us.  Melissa told him about how her family was doing, and mentioned that her brother was a sophomore at PHS currently and would probably have Mr. Jackson as a senior.  Mr. Jackson asked me more about the IHP, how it worked, and why I decided on math for my major.

After about fifteen minutes, we said our goodbyes to Mr. Jackson and his class and walked into the hallway.  “I need to get home,” Melissa told me. “I have something I need to get to. But it was good to see you, Greg.”

“You too!” I said.  “I think I’m going to stick around for a bit and say hi to a few other teachers.”

“You should!  Have a great day, and let me know who else you see.”

“I will.”

“Are there any students here who you still talk to?”

“Rachel Copeland is the only one who has really kept in touch at all.  I don’t know where she is right now, though.  She doesn’t know I’m here.”

“I don’t know either.  I’m sure you could ask.”

“Yeah.”

“Have a good one, Greg.  Take care.”

“You too.”

Melissa walked back toward the parking lot.  I walked to Mr. Peterson’s classroom. He taught economics to seniors all day, and he had also attended the University of Jeromeville, in the 1960s when it was much smaller.  His door was open, and I could hear him lecturing as I approached and quietly poked my head in the door.

“Jeromeville!  Go Colts!” he said upon seeing me and my sweatshirt, without missing a beat in his lecture at all.  “How’re you doing, Greg? It’s good to see you!”

“You too,” I said.  “I’m doing well. I really like my classes, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Do you have a few minutes?  We can talk a little more after I finish this up.”

“Sure,” I said, as my eyes scanned the room and I became more aware of my surroundings.  This was a class of exclusively seniors, as I said, and many of the honor students appeared to be in this class.  I recognized over half of them, including the girl with straight light brown hair who was now waving at me and beckoning me to sit in the empty seat next to her.

“Hi, Rachel!” I whispered as I sat in this empty seat.

“You didn’t tell me you were coming here!” Rachel whispered back.

“It was kind of last minute,” I replied; I wanted to explain about Melissa inviting me, but Mr. Peterson was talking at this point, and I also didn’t want to interrupt his class.  A few minutes later, I felt something under my desk; it was Rachel, passing me a note. I quietly unfolded it and read. Come sit with us at lunch, same spot as last year, Rachel wrote.  I replied Ok and slyly passed it back to her.

I visited a little more with Mr. Peterson when he got the chance to come talk to me; we made the usual small talk about college and classes and future plans.  Now that I had committed to being on campus at least until lunch, since I had to go sit with Rachel and her friends, I had to find things to do for another period and a half.  After I was done talking to Mr. Peterson, I walked around campus and said hi to as many teachers, administrators, and staff members as I had time to see. I had a wonderful time catching up with everyone.  Mrs. Carter, the college and career counselor who helps students with applications and scholarships and the like, asked me to fix her computer, just as she had done multiple times during my senior year. My English teacher from sophomore year, Ms. Woolery, was teaching a class of freshman with reading skills below grade level, and she asked if I had a few minutes to talk a little bit about college and answer their questions.  I wasn’t at all prepared to do something like that, but I did anyway. It is always nice to feel like I have useful knowledge and experiences to share with others; additionally, Ms. Woolery’s students, many from families in which no one has ever attended college, got an opportunity to hear about college from a peer.

I figured out at some point during my visit to Plumdale High that it was Spirit Week, and today was Beach Day.  I wasn’t wearing anything beach-appropriate, but some students had Hawaiian shirts, surfing-related t-shirts, flip-flops, things like that.  There was a giant pile of sand on the grass in front of the school, which I suspected was probably going to be used for a class competition. Several school clubs had food booths at lunch; I walked in the direction of the food, since I was hungry and Rachel wasn’t yet in the spot where she asked me to meet her.  “Hey, Will,” I said, recognizing a guy from the Computer Graphics and Video Production class I took the year before. Will was a sophomore now.

“Greg!  What’s up?  I haven’t seen you all year!”

“I’m home on spring break.  My friend and I came back to visit all of our teachers.”

Will looked confused for a second.  “Oh, yeah!” he said. “You graduated!  Where are you now?”

“Jeromeville.”

“Where’s that?”

“North.  Near Capital City.”

“Oh, ok.  It was good seeing you!  Have a good one!”

I got in line for curly fries, being sold by the marching band, to raise money for a trip to Disneyland.  I thought it was funny that Will had forgotten that I had graduated last year.

“Greg?” someone said next to me in line.  I turned and saw a sophomore named Jamie Halloran; I was friends with her older sister, Jessica, who had been in my graduating class.

“Hey, Jamie,” I said.  “How are you?”

“I’m great!  Are you on your spring break?”

“Yeah.  Melissa wanted to come say hi to some teachers, and she invited me along, but she had to leave already.”

“Did you hear Jess is in Guatemala?”

“I heard,” I said.  “Volunteering at an orphanage, something like that?”

“Yeah.  Did she write you?  I gave her your address.”

“No, not yet.”  Two weeks before I left for Jeromeville, I saw Jamie at a Plumdale High football game.  I had just learned my mailing address at the time, so I gave it to Jamie and told her to give it to Jessica, but neither of them had written me yet.  I didn’t know at the time that Jessica was going to end up in Guatemala. I don’t know if Jamie or even Jessica knew at that time yet either.

“She says it’s so different from here, but she loves it!  My mom is putting together a package to send her; I’ll write her a note and remind her to write to you.”

“Thanks.”

As I walked with my curly fries to where I expected Rachel to be, I noticed that the class competition had begun; two students from each class were competing to build the tallest sandcastle in a certain time limit.  One of the sandcastle-builders for the junior class was Annie Gambrell; I paused to watch for a few minutes, hoping that Annie would notice me, but she didn’t. This was not a good time to try to talk to her, of course, since she was in the middle of making a sandcastle.  I walked back over to where Rachel had told me to meet her; she was there now, with a few of her friends whom I didn’t know as well.

“So you just woke up and decided to come visit your high school?” Rachel asked.

“Not exactly,” I explained, telling her about Melissa’s invitation and earlier departure.

“Jeromeville is on quarters, so you’ll have new classes when you go back next week, is that right?”

“Yes.  I’m taking math, physics, chemistry, and a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law.”

“That sounds interesting.  What’s that last one about?”

“I’m not really sure, except that it’s about psychology, and the law,” I explained.  Rachel laughed. “It’s the heaviest course load I’ve had so far, but math and chemistry are pretty easy to me, and physics was always easy in high school, so I should be okay.”  (I wasn’t as okay as I thought I would be in terms of my classes, but that’s a story for later.)

“Do you need physics and chemistry for a math major?”

“Physics, yes, one year.  I was also thinking about majoring in physics, which would need chemistry; I haven’t decided for sure yet.  Chemistry, not for math, but I would if I majored in physics. Physics for science and engineering majors doesn’t start until spring quarter, so I haven’t had physics at all yet.  I’ll see how that goes before I decide for sure.”

“That makes sense,” Rachel said, nodding.  “So what does it feel like being back?”

“It’s good to see everyone.  But it’s a little weird too. It’s like, class competitions, flyers all over the place advertising the dance, those people making out behind us, all that stuff is high school stuff, and I’m not in high school anymore.”

“That makes sense.  I certainly won’t miss all that stuff when I get out of here next year.”

“Do you know where you’re going yet?  The last time we talked about it, I think you wanted to go to St. Elizabeth’s.”

“That’s still my first choice.  They should start sending out acceptance letters in about a week, they said.”

“I’ve never been there.”

“It’s such a beautiful campus.  And it’s a small school. And I’m not Catholic, but there’s something spiritual about that campus that I liked when I visited,” Rachel said.  I wasn’t sure what she meant by spiritual, her tone sounded kind of New Age-ish, but hey, whatever works.

A while later, just after the bell rang to end lunch, Rachel said, “I’m glad I got to see you today, Greg.  Will you be here the rest of the day?”

“I think I’m just going to go home.  I’ve seen everyone I wanted to say hi to, pretty much, and I’m getting tired.  But I’m glad we got to hang out.”

“Okay.  Call me any time.  And I’ll write you soon.”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.”  Rachel hugged me.

“Have a good day,” I said, turning around toward the parking lot.  I took a few steps, then turned back toward campus. I considered for a few seconds trying to figure out what class Annie Gambrell had, so I could say hi to her, since she was busy earlier.  I gave her my address at Homecoming, and she hadn’t written me; maybe she lost it. No, probably not; people just don’t write like they say they will. And she had a boyfriend, so I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up anyway.  Then again, maybe they broke up; it had been almost six months since I’d last seen Annie. No, I told myself, forget it. I kept walking toward the car.

I turned on the classic rock radio station as I drove home, listening to music of the 1960s and 1970s.  Fleetwood Mac. The Rolling Stones. Supertramp. High school was over. Sometimes I wished it wasn’t. I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business in high school.  I stepped pretty far out of my comfort zone during my senior year, and I made some great new friends, but then all of a sudden I graduated and lost touch with most of them, so that part of my life story never got to reach a natural conclusion.  I felt torn, wanting closure, yet also knowing that this part of my life was over, and that I was moving on. And today was the first time I started to feel like I really had moved past high school. When I was still around in the fall going to PHS football games, and when I came back for Homecoming, I felt like I still belonged at PHS.  Today, not so much.

Fittingly, this day was the last time I ever set foot on the Plumdale High campus.  I went to Mark’s graduation in 2000, but it was at the gym at Santa Lucia Community College, not at PHS.  I’ve driven past Plumdale High several times when I’ve come back home to Santa Lucia County, and I’ve taken pictures of it, but I haven’t actually gotten out of the car.  I’ve thought about going back for Homecoming at some point to see what it’s like, especially after the football field was remodeled in 2017, but it hasn’t ever been a high priority.  Also, I don’t know anyone there anymore. The school has changed, and so has the neighborhood, and so have I. Staying connected to the past is important, but not at the expense of the present.

20190615_092117.jpg
Plumdale High School, June 2019, and the little booth at the entrance to the parking lot where the campus supervisor watches everyone who enters.  The athletic fields are in the background; the school itself is to the right, off camera.  This was the best picture I could take from the car on that day.

And thanks to j-archive.com for allowing me to look up what the Final Jeopardy! clue was on March 28, 1995.  I didn’t remember off the top of my head, of course.

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

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.