August 1-3, 1996. Another group, one that included people I did not know.

The final two weeks of my summer class, Introduction to Software, overlapped with the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.  I wrote code as I watched Muhammad Ali on the television climbing the stairs with the Olympic torch to light the flame at the opening ceremony.  While I was debugging my project, looking through hundreds of lines of code to find mistakes, gymnast Kerri Strug was landing a nearly-perfect vault despite having sprained her ankle on her previous attempt.  Her remarkable feat won the gold medal for the United States in the women’s team all-around competition.  And I was taking a break from studying, trying to meet girls on the Internet using IRC, while American runner Michael Johnson won gold in the 400 meters, but I was keeping an eye on the other American in the race, Alvin Harrison.  He and his twin brother, Calvin, had spent part of their high school years in Santa Lucia County, where I grew up; after these Olympics, my brother met both of them at an autograph-signing event.  Alvin Harrison finished fourth in this race, but would go on to win gold as part of a relay team.  Both brothers were on a winning relay team in the following Olympics, but unfortunately were later disqualified as part of an incident involving performance-enhancing drugs.

From the moment I walked out the final exam, I knew that I did well.  Everything was very straightforward, and I had been studying, so there were no surprises.  After I dropped off my backpack at home, I went for a bike ride, then I showered, took a nap, and made dinner  After that, it was time to go to Bible study.  I did not get to watch any of the Olympics that night.

Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a chapter of the nondenominational campus ministry organization Intervarsity, did not have regular meetings during summer break, but two small group Bible studies still met, one in the Pine Grove Apartments near campus and one in south Jeromeville on the other side of Highway 100.  I drove on Maple Drive toward campus for about a mile and turned onto a cul-de-sac which dead-ends into the parking lot for Pine Grove.  I parked on the street, walked to Lillian’s apartment, and knocked on the door, and someone told me to come in.

“Greg!” Lillian said as I walked into her apartment with my Bible.  Amelia Dye, who lived in a different apartment in Pine Grove with her cat who had the birthday party, had arrived before me.  So had Ramon, Jason, and Caroline, friends from my freshman dorm who all lived near me.  “How are you?” Lillian asked.  “Have you had your final yet?”

“It was today,” I said.  “I think I did pretty well.”

“Good!  So no class tomorrow?”

“No.  I only had class this summer on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.”

“Four day weekend every week!” Amelia said.  “And now you’re done for the summer, right?  No class second session?”

“Right,” I replied.

“Any big plans for the weekend?  Are you going to Dan and Adrienne’s wedding?”

I paused as my brain tried to process what Amelia had just asked me.  Did Amelia have me confused with someone else?  Apparently some people named Dan and Adrienne were getting married this weekend, but I did not know these people.  Or did I?  If I did know these people, they never told me about their wedding.  Was I supposed to receive an invitation?  “I don’t think I know these people,” I said.

“Dan Keenan?  From 20/20?  The college pastor?”

With this additional information, my brain began making connections.  Students at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship attended a few different churches on Sundays, and I had heard some of my friends who attended Jeromeville Covenant Church use the name 20/20 to refer to the college-age Sunday school class.  “From Jeromeville Covenant?” I asked Amelia.  “I’ve never been there.”

“Oh, that’s right!” Amelia said.  “I guess you don’t know them.  I’m so excited for the wedding!”

“A lot of people will be in town for the wedding,” Ramon added.  “Liz is coming up for it, and the Morocco team gets back tonight, so they’ll be there too.  A bunch of us will be hanging out afterward.  I’m sure you’re invited, if you want to come.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That sounds good.  Where?”  Ramon told me the address, and I wrote it down.  “What time should I get there?” I asked.

“It depends on how late the wedding reception goes.  But if you show up by eight or nine, someone will probably be there by then.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll stop by.”


Two days later, I sat in my apartment watching the beginning of the Saturday evening broadcast of the Olympics.  Ramon had said to show up by eight or nine; it was now just past eight o’clock, and I sat on the bed staring at the paper on which I had written what Ramon had told me: 1008 Walnut St.  I did not know whose house this was, and I had never been to Walnut Street, although I had easily found it on a map earlier.  I was excited to see my friends, especially the ones who had been away for the summer, but they were all coming from a wedding reception, and I did not want to be the only one there waiting for everyone else.  I played around on the computer wasting another half hour chatting on IRC before I left the house.

Walnut Street was in an older part of Jeromeville, in between my apartment and Pine Grove.  The neighborhood was all single-family homes, and it was not readily obvious at first whether they still housed families or had been converted to student rentals.  Tall, leafy oaks and sycamores provided shade.  The house at the address I wrote down had lights on in the living room, and there were so many cars in front that I had to park a few houses down the street.  My fears about being the first one to arrive at an unfamiliar place were apparently unfounded.

I walked up to the door slowly and knocked, hesitantly.  “Come in!” someone shouted from the living room.  I opened the door and walked inside, looking around.  I saw a few unfamiliar faces on the couch.  I could see into the kitchen, where Ramon and Liz and Jason were standing around talking, but they did not see me yet.

“May I help you?” the same voice who told me to come in asked.  It belonged to a girl with light brown hair.

“Some people from my Bible study told me that a bunch of people were in town for a wedding,” I explained.  “They said that they would be hanging out here afterward.”

“Yeah!  That’s us!  Were you at the wedding?”

“No,” I said.  “I don’t know the people who got married.”

“I’m Vanessa,” the girl said.

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

“You too!  Who did you say you knew here?”

“Ramon and Liz and Jason,” I said, gesturing toward them.  “And Caroline Pearson, and Amelia Dye.  They all told me about this.”

“Oh, yeah.  They’re all here.”

“Greg!” I heard Ramon say from the kitchen.  I turned and waved.

“I made it,” I said.

“Cool.”

“I’m going to go say hi to them,” I told Vanessa.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too!  I’m sure I’ll see you around later.”  I walked to the kitchen where Ramon and Liz and Jason were standing.  Caroline was also there, seated at a small dining table, talking to Taylor Santiago, Pete Green, and Charlie Watson, who had all just returned from a month-long mission trip to Morocco.

“Greg!” Taylor said, reaching to shake my hand.

“Hey, Greg,” Pete added, as I was shaking Taylor’s hand.

“Hey, guys.  How was the trip?”

“Uhh, I’m so tired,” Taylor replied.  “I’m still adjusting to the time difference.”

“Oh, I bet,” I said.

“But, yeah, it was a good trip.  There were a bunch of people on our trip from all over the US, and the three of us got split up for a while.  We’ll be presenting more about our trip at 20/20 after school starts again.”

“You should come,” Pete told me.

“Maybe,” I said.

I got up to snack on some tortilla chips and saw Amelia, who had first mentioned this party at Bible study two days earlier.  She was with Scott Madison, her boyfriend who had gone home for the summer.  “Hey, Greg,” Amelia said.

“Good to see you,” Scott added.

“You too.”

“Having fun?”.

“Yeah.  There are a lot of people here I don’t know.  But there are people I do know here too.  Are the people who got married here?”

“No,” Amelia replied.  “They’re on their way to their honeymoon.”

“Oh, yeah.  That makes sense.”  I was relatively unfamiliar with how weddings worked, and that felt like a dumb question in hindsight.  “So the people here who I don’t know, are they from 20/20?”

“Yeah.  20/20 is the college group at J-Cov.  We have a class before big church, and we usually have a retreat sometime during the year, and fun events too.  And some people go on mission trips in the summer.”

“I see.”  I was not sure what Amelia meant by “big church,” but it sounded like she was talking about the actual church service, as opposed to Sunday school classes, so I did not ask.  But I did ask something else: “And a lot of people from 20/20 also go to JCF?”

“Yeah.  Some of us, at least.”

“Why is it called 20/20, anyway?”

“I don’t know, now that you mention it,” Amelia replied.

“I think it’s, like, 20/20 vision,” Scott explained.  “Because we want to see God clearly.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

I wandered back into the living room, where people had begun to gather around the television.  They were watching the Olympics; the gold medal game for men’s basketball between the United States and Yugoslavia was on.  A shorter-than-average skinny guy with dark hair sat on a couch next to a tall guy with wavy brown hair and an empty seat; I gestured toward the empty seat and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Sure,” the skinny guy said.  “I don’t think we’ve met.  I’m Noah.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Noah’s hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Martin,” the tall guy with wavy hair said as he also shook my hand.  “Do you go to 20/20?  I don’t think I’ve seen you before?”

“No.  I go to JCF, and some people from my Bible study invited me to come hang out tonight.”

“Cool.”

“Have you been watching the Olympics?” Noah asked.

“Off and on,” I said.  “The women’s all-around gymnastics was pretty impressive, with Kerri Strug’s sprained ankle.”

“Yeah.  I hope she’s okay.”

The United States was heavily favored to win this game, but both teams were undefeated so far in the Olympics.  The score remained close throughout the first half.  At one point, I looked up to watch Reggie Miller shoot a 3-pointer for the USA.  Noah and Martin and a few others who were watching the game cheered.

“I hope Yugoslavia wins,” I said quietly.

“What?” Noah asked incredulously.

“You Communist,” Martin said.

“I’m a purist,” I explained.  “I don’t think NBA players belong in the Olympics.  The Olympics are for amateurs.  And their endorsement deals get in the way.  Like last time, when some players had to cover the logos on their warmup suits with flags because they had contracts with rival shoe companies.  It’s ridiculous that that has to be an issue.”

“I see your point,” Noah said.  “But, the way I see it, other countries were letting their professionals play, so it’s only fair.  And after the Dream Team in the last Olympics was so popular, they’re probably not going back at this point.”

“I guess.”

“NBA players from other countries can play for their countries too,” Martin added.  “Vlade Divac is playing for Yugoslavia.”

“That’s right,” I said.

As the game continued, I overheard parts of the others’ conversations, in which Noah talked about being something called the “junior high intern” this year.  “What’s that?” I asked.

“Last year, we both volunteered with the junior high youth group at J-Cov,” Noah explained, gesturing toward himself and Martin.  “This year, I’m an intern, so it’s going to be my part-time job to lead the junior high group.”

“That’s cool.  Is that the same youth group that Taylor Santiago works with?”

“Yeah!  I’ve known Taylor for years.  We went to high school together.  How do you know him?”

“We were in the same dorm freshman year.”

“Oh, okay.”

“We’re going to camp with the junior high kids the week after next,” Martin said.  “Taylor will be there too.”

“That sounds fun.  Where is the camp?”

“Near Mount Lorenzo.”

“Nice.  It’s pretty there.”  I looked at Martin’s shirt while he was talking to me.  It was white, with the words “VOTE BOB & LARRY IN 1996” at the top.  Below it was a strange cartoon drawing of a round, almost spherical red character and a tall green character, cylindrical with a rounded top, standing behind a podium like candidates running for President.  Both of these characters had oddly-shaped asymmetrical eyes.  Apparently their names were Bob and Larry, but whatever cartoon they were from was unknown to me.  I did not ask.

The game remained close until late in the game; neither team led by double digits until only 10 minutes remained, when the United States began to pull ahead.  Vlade Divac had fouled out by then.  When it became apparent that Yugoslavia was not going to make a miraculous comeback, I got up, used the bathroom, and wandered around what was left of the party.  It was getting late, and the crowd seemed noticeably smaller by then; the living room and kitchen were filling up with empty cups, soda cans, and paper plates.

“Are you having fun?” Vanessa, the girl who had answered the door when I arrived, asked me.

“Yeah.  I didn’t know much about this 20/20 group before tonight.”

“You should come check it out sometime.  Do you go to church?”

“Yeah.  I go to the Newman Center,” I said

I waited for Vanessa to give the predictable response that Catholics aren’t real Christians, and that the office of the Papacy is un-Biblical.  But instead, she just said, “That’s Catholic, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re always welcome to check out 20/20 and J-Cov if you want.  The class starts at 9:15, and the service at 10:45.”

“Thanks.  I might someday.”

By midnight, the party had quieted down even more.  Noah and Martin were still watching the Olympics; the final round of the men’s 5000-meter run was on.  “I don’t think I even realized the 5k was an Olympic event,” I said.

“They show it late at night because Americans don’t do well in it,” Martin said.

“Yeah,” Noah added.  “Usually those African long-distance runners dominate.” 

The race took fourteen minutes to finish.  The lead changed several times, and the lone American runner in the race, Bob Kennedy, remained in contention but fell to sixth place on the last lap.  Half of the contenders finished within a few seconds of each other, but a few others had fallen far behind.  The final runner, Aissa Belaout of Algeria, did not cross the finish line until 20 seconds after the next runner ahead of him, almost a full minute behind the winner.

“I always wonder with guys like that,” I said.  “You’re so far behind, there’s no way you can win.  But you just have to keep going, because making it to the final round of the Olympics is such an accomplishment.”

“Yeah,” Noah replied.  “Never give up.  Keep running.  They earned their spot in the Olympics.  As long as you’re still alive and still running, you never know what’ll happen.”


I said my goodbyes a few minutes later and drove home, going straight to bed after I arrived.  I learned a lot of new things tonight.  I knew that my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship attended a number of different churches, but I always assumed that church was just something they did on Sunday.  Apparently I was wrong.  Jeromeville Covenant Church had a whole group for college students with activities and retreats, and this group included some people who did not also go to JCF.  My JCF friends who attended J-Cov had other Christian friends whom I did not know.

After the events of the last few weeks at the Newman Center, I was starting to question whether or not it was the best place for me, as a newly committed Christian, to learn about the Bible and grow closer to Jesus Christ.  Too many students at the Newman Center did not seem to take their faith very seriously, and the leadership put their agenda ahead of Scripture and the Church with their emphasis on liberal feminism.  Maybe I would try J-Cov and 20/20 sometime.  But, on the other hand, I was committed to singing at Newman, and I did not want to turn my back on the traditions of my Catholic family.  I did not have to decide right now.  Maybe, like the runners I had just watched waiting for the right time to surge ahead, I would just have to wait for the right time to try something new, and then see what happened.  Even though my life was full of unanswered questions, I was still alive and still running.

(Remember, I am almost 6’4″. I really am that much shorter than him; it’s not an awkward angle.)

May 3-5, 1996. Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly.

“We have a big announcement tonight!” said Cheryl, one of the staff members of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The projection screen began descending, and the lights went out a few seconds later.  What was this?  I had been attending JCF since October, and we never watched videos.  Some of these meetings included a silly skit after the first worship song; I wondered if that was what was happening here, but with the skit on video.  But as I watched the first few seconds of the video, it quickly became clear that this was something professionally produced.

The video was about two minutes long, full of large groups of students singing worship songs and praying, adults lecturing, and scenes from other countries of people being fed and churches being built.  Music played throughout the video, and text indicated that this was a promotion for some large event called “Urbana,” sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF.  By the end of the video, it had become clear that this “Urbana” was a large convention where students and young adults could learn about Christian missions and service projects.  The convention was held during winter break every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, with the next one this coming December 27-31.

A few days ago, Xander had asked me for my address, so he could send me a prayer letter.  He would be going on a mission trip to India for part of this coming summer.  Having grown up Catholic, concepts like “prayer letters” and “mission trips” were very new to me, and now that I was taking my Christian faith seriously, I felt more of a desire to learn about the subject.  Maybe this Urbana convention would be a way to learn more about that.  But the whole idea of traveling to Illinois, two-thirds of the way across the country, just to learn about traveling even farther away to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other countries, seemed geared toward super hard-core Christians who were actively searching to do a trip like that.  Getting to Illinois would require riding in an airplane, and I had never been in an airplane.  I had no idea how to get airplane tickets, or what to do once I got to the airport.  The convention itself would cost three hundred dollars to attend, and I was not sure I wanted to spend that much money on something that might not be right for me.

Eddie was sitting next to me that night at JCF.  He and Xander were housemates, and their whole house seemed like the kind of hard-core Christians who would be attending Urbana  Surely enough, when the night ended, the first thing Eddie did was turn to me and ask, “So what do you think about Urbana?  Are you gonna go?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think it would be good to learn more about missions, since I didn’t really grow up around that.  And now, like, Xander is doing that trip to India this summer.  And Taylor and Pete and Charlie are going to Morocco.  So it would be cool to learn more about missions.”

“It would!”

“But I don’t know if I want to spend that much money.”

“That makes sense.  You have a while to think about it and save up for it.  The price goes up in July, but registration is open through November.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Are you going?”

“I’m planning to.  Someone I knew from my church back home went to Urbana ‘93 and spoke about it.  It sounded really great.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Eddie went to go look for someone he needed to talk to, and I continued wandering around looking to see who was around.  I saw Melinda Schmidt and Amelia Dye, two junior girls, sitting behind me talking to a few other people whom I did not know well.  Melinda saw me first and waved.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.  “How was your week?”

“It was good,” I said.  “I have a paper coming up that I need to start working on.”

“I just finished one.  I hope I do well.  Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Nothing.  Why?”

“Come over!  Amelia and I are having a birthday party for our cat, Alvin.”

“A cat birthday party,” I repeated.  “How does that work?  Do I bring a present?”

“No.  Just bring yourself.”

“I should be able to make that.  Where do you live?”

“Pine Grove, number 202.  Do you know where that is?”

“Pine Grove Apartments?  Yeah, I know where that is.”

“Great!  Come over any time after six.”

“I’ll be there!  Sounds good!”


A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment for sophomore year, Pine Grove was my second choice.  The studio apartment at Las Casas Apartments, where I lived now, was less expensive than the one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove, although it was also smaller.  Also, thirteen of my friends from Building C freshman year lived within walking distance of Las Casas, and I did not know anyone near Pine Grove.  This had been a deciding factor for me.  But as I got to know people from JCF this year, I had met at least three households of JCF regulars in Pine Grove, and because of this, I somewhat regretted not having chosen to live there.

Pine Grove Apartments was on at the end of a cul-de-sac about a mile south of me, backing up to Highway 117 and just across Fifth Street from the outer reaches of campus.  I found a place to park on the cul-de-sac and walked around the apartment grounds until I found number 202.  I knocked at the door, and Amelia answered.

“Greg!” she said.  “Come on in!”

I was one of the first ones to arrive, as usual.  Scott Madison, who was Amelia’s boyfriend, and Scott’s roommate Joe Fox were the only other people in the apartment besides the girls who lived there.  Scott and Joe also lived in Pine Grove.

“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.

“Not much,” I said.  “I got all my homework done for the weekend.  But I have to start thinking about my anthro term paper.”

“When’s it due?”

“Not until the 29th.”

“Then why are you thinking about it now?”

“I have to study a group of people the way an anthropologist would.  That’ll take time.”

“Yeah, but you have the whole month.  It’s not going to take that long.”

“You’re going to be an anthropologist?” Joe asked.  “That sounds awesome!  Is that your major?” 

“I’m a math major.  I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a general ed class.  And I know the professor.”

“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”

“I hope so.  Tabitha is in that class too.”

“What?” Tabitha said.  She had walked in a couple minutes earlier.

“I was talking about the anthro project.  I said you’re in that class too.”

“Oh, yeah.  Do you know what you’re going to write about yet?”

“I was thinking I might do a chat room on IRC.  That way, when I’m wasting time on the Internet talking to strangers, I can tell myself I’m doing homework.”

“Smart,” Tabitha said.  “I was thinking I might do University Life.”

“That would be funny,” Joe said.  I did not understand at first; I thought she meant that she was going to do a project on the life of a university student.  That seemed too broad for the scope of this assignment.  What I did not realize at the time was that University Life was the name of another large Christian student group, affiliated with the Baptist church in Jeromeville, and that University Life had a bit of an ongoing friendly rivalry with the nondenominational JCF.

Over the next hour, more people trickled in.  I recognized most of them from JCF; some of them I knew better than others.  Many of them were juniors and seniors, but a few sophomores were there too: Tabitha, Eddie and his housemate John, and a girl whose name I thought was Alyssa.  There was also one guy whose grade and age were unknown to me.  As I ate chips and pizza and talked to people, I noticed someone who was conspicuously missing: the birthday boy, Alvin the cat.  I turned to Melinda and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

“He’s in my room.  He gets kind of shy when we have a lot of people over.”

“But this is his party!”

Melinda turned close to me and lowered her voice.  “That was really just an excuse to have a party.  We’re not even really sure exactly when his birthday is.”

“Oh,” I said.  That thought had honestly never crossed my mind.  I was seriously expecting a cat birthday party, not just an informal get-together.

Some people started a game of Uno at the table, and I joined them.  After we got tired of Uno, we played Taboo, and I was complimented for my ability to give clues and get people to guess correctly.  My favorite part of Taboo was holding the little buzzer, so I could buzz people from the other team who say words that are not allowed.  Others generally found the buzzer annoying.

Even though Alvin the cat’s birthday was just an excuse to throw a party, according to Melinda, she did bring Alvin out for a few minutes later in the evening.  He had mottled black and white fur and blue eyes, and he clearly seemed intimidated by the sixteen additional people in the apartment.  Amelia went to the kitchen and emerged with a cake with white frosting and the outline of a cat drawn in black frosting.  She led us all in singing “Happy Birthday.”  As the song ended, Alvin began squirming; he broke free of Melinda’s arms and darted back to her bedroom.

“Well, I tried to bring the birthday boy out,” Melinda said.  “Who wants cake and ice cream?”  Hands went up and people said “Me!” as Amelia cut the cake and Melinda scooped the ice cream.  Eventually they handed me my plate, and I began eating.  I overheard Scott ask something about music, and shortly afterward I became vaguely aware of music playing in the background.

When I finished the small slice of cake and single scoop of ice cream on my plate, I asked Amelia if it was okay to get seconds.  “Sure!” she replied.  “There’s plenty.”  I got my second, larger plate of cake and ice cream and brought it to the living room, sitting on the floor and listening to the conversations around me.  A few minutes later, a familiar song came on: “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” by the local independent band Lawsuit.  “I love this song!” I said enthusiastically.

“You like Lawsuit?” Scott asked.  “I made this mixtape for this party.”

“Yes.  I discovered them at last year’s Spring Picnic.”  I started singing along when the vocals came in, but stopped after one line when I noticed no one else was.

A few minutes later, Melinda approached me holding an envelope.  “Greg?” she asked.  “Can I ask you something?

“Yeah.  What is it?”

“I’m going to be going on a mission trip to Russia for three weeks this summer.  I wanted to give you a copy of my prayer letter, so you will know how you can be praying for me.  Also, if you want to give to my trip, it has the information for that.”

“Sure,” I said.  It sounded like this was the same kind of thing Xander wanted to send me for his trip to India this summer.  I continued, “I don’t know a whole lot about mission trips, being a new Christian and all, but I want to find out.”

“Are you going to Urbana?  You’ll find out a lot there.”

“The video last night was the first I had heard of this.  I’ve never traveled that far before, and it’s a lot of money.  I don’t know.”

“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”

“I know.  And it would be good to learn more about what opportunities are out there.”

“Totally!  Here’s the letter,” she said, handing me the envelope.  “I mailed these a few days ago, but I didn’t have your address.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll read it.”

U2’s “One” was the next song on Scott’s mixtape.  I continued eating cake and ice cream as I watched people talking and eating around me.  Bono, U2’s vocalist, began singing higher notes toward the end of the song.  The conversations in the room all seemed to reach a simultaneous lull, and I happened to make eye contact with Scott as Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the first of four consecutive times.  We  shared an unspoken moment in which the same idea passed through our heads.

“Haaa-haaah!” Scott and I sang along, loudly and in a bad falsetto.  Everyone else in the room looked at us and started laughing.  When Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the third and fourth time, the entire room sang along with us.

“That was awesome,” I said, extending my hand to give a high five to Scott.  He smiled and returned the high five.

As I looked around that room, I realized something.  None of the others at this party were people whom I had lived with last year in Building C; they were all new friends and acquaintances I had made through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  (I knew Tabitha to say hi to last year, but only because we had mutual friends who attended JCF.)  I wondered if this signaled a coming shift in my social life away from my Building C friends, or if there was room to expand my inner circle to include these new friends.  By the time I got home that night, I was feeling a little worn out from all the socializing, but also excited to have made so many new friends this year.


The next day, Sunday, after singing in the choir at church, I went to lunch at Bakers Square with some of the others from choir.  Danielle Coronado, one of the people from Building C last year who remained in my inner circle, sat across from me.  “We should have gotten Mexican food,” she said.  “It’s Cinco de Mayo.”

Claire Seaver was a year older than Danielle and me.  “I really haven’t found a good Mexican place in Jeromeville,” Claire replied.  She had been around Jeromeville longer, so she would know more about the Mexican food here.  I had not looked for Mexican food other than Taco Bell and the Tex-Mex Grill in the Coffee House on campus, so I had no opinion on this yet.

“How was your weekend, Greg?” Danielle asked.

“It was good,” I said.  “Some people from JCF had a party last night.”

“Was that the one at Pine Grove Apartments?  I don’t remember the people’s names.”

“Yeah.  Amelia and Melinda.”

“Pete got invited to that, but he decided to come over and watch a movie instead.

“‘Watching a movie,’” Claire teased.  “I’m sure that’s not all you were doing.”

“Shut up!” Danielle said, playfully slapping Claire.  “We were just holding hands.  Anyway, Greg, were you at JCF on Friday?  Because Pete was telling me about that big conference coming up.”

“Urbana?  Yeah, I saw the video.  I don’t know if I’m going to go.  It’s a lot of money, and farther away than I’ve ever been before.  But I would like to learn more about mission trips.”

“Yeah, that’s it.  Pete’s thinking about going.  He has the Morocco trip coming up too.”

“Greg?  What are you gonna do for your anthro project?” asked Claire.  She was also in my anthropology class.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I was thinking I might do the IRC chat room where I hang out a lot when I’m bored.”

“That would be interesting!  Timely, too.  Chat rooms haven’t been around long, so their culture probably hasn’t been studied.”

“True.  What about you?”

“I’m not sure.  I have a few things in mind, though.”

I ate quickly, and I felt a great sense of relief when I got back to the car.  Although I was enjoying these once-in-a-lifetime moments with friends, I was exhausted by this time and looking forward to a night of sitting at home by myself.  When I got home and entered my apartment, I noticed I had a telephone message on the answering machine.

“Hello,” the disembodied robotic voice said when I pressed the button.  “You have one new message.”  The machine’s voice was replaced with my mother’s voice, asking me to call her when I got home.  I dialed the numbers and waited.

“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.

“Hey,” I said.  “It’s Greg.”

“Hello!  Where were you?”

“I went out to lunch with some people from church.  And yesterday some girls from JCF invited me to a birthday party for their cat.”

“Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  “And how exactly do you have a birthday party for a cat?”

“They said it was really just an excuse to have a party.  The cat didn’t like crowds, and I only saw him once.”

“I see.  And you said these are people from JCF?  That’s that Christian group you’re part of?”

“Yeah.”

“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”

“Yeah.”

“Good for you.  I’m glad you’re making friends.  See?  I knew you could do it.”

“Thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes again.

Mom and I continued catching up and making small talk for about another twenty minutes.  Even though I rolled my eyes, Mom was right; I was making a lot of new friends this year.  By getting involved with JCF over the last seven months, I came to faith, but I also found a social life.  But even though I was new to practicing my faith, I already understood that I should be focusing on Jesus rather than on my social life.  Nothing was wrong with having a social life, and it was a nice added bonus that came with being part of a new group.  But my social life should never become the main reason I attend JCF or church.  This tension between being part of a community of believers but putting Jesus above my social life would become a recurring theme throughout my life  But no matter what happened, I knew that my new friends were a blessing from God.

January 10-13, 1996. Another hopeless crush and a party.

I have always had a good ear for music, but I rarely did anything with it other than sing along in the car.  I played piano for a few years in elementary school, but according to Mom, I quit because I thought music was for nerds.  I do not remember saying that, but it definitely sounds like something that 10-year-old Greg would have said, not yet mature enough to embrace being different.  I did not perform music in front of people again until three months ago, when I started singing at 11:00 Mass at the Newman Center.

Our experience levels in the church choir ranged from people like me who just liked to sing for fun all the way up to Claire Seaver, a third-year music major who had been performing all her life.  I did not have much formal training in music, but I would occasionally try different harmonies with some of our usual familiar songs, because my ear could pick up harmonies easily.  I was excited this week when Claire brought a new song for us to learn, with four parts.  We had been practicing it all night, and the sopranos and altos had just finished doing their parts all together.  “Let’s hear just the guys now,” Claire said.

Phil Gallo and I sang the bass parts, while Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell sang tenor, Matt playing guitar as well.  We sounded okay, although there were a few wrong notes sung and played.  After this, we tried the entire song with every part singing, and after three times, it seemed like we finally had perfected the song.

“I thought that sounded good,” I said afterward.

“Yes!” Claire agreed.  “I think we’re ready for Sunday!”

“Yes,” Danielle Coronado said.  “Now I get to go home and write a paper.”

“Already?” Claire said incredulously.  “It’s the first week of class!”

“It’s only one page.  Not really a paper.  Just an assignment.”

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thanks,” Danielle replied.

“See you guys Sunday,” I said, turning back to Phil, Matt, and Ryan.

“Take it easy, man,” Phil replied.  I waved at the guys and went to find Heather, since we were neighbors and had carpooled here, but she and Melanie Giordano were busy talking, and I did not want to interrupt.  I stepped back, waiting, when I heard a soft female voice behind me say, “Hey, Greg.”

I turned around and got nervous when I saw Sabrina Murphy looking up at me.  There was just something about her that was cute, but I knew that she had a boyfriend, so any of these thoughts were hopeless.  I was not sure how to explain it, she was not drop dead beautiful by Hollywood standards, but I found something about her attractive.  “Yes?” I asked awkwardly.

“I just wanted to say you really have a strong bass voice,” she said.  “It really comes out well when we sing harmony like that.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling and blushing a little.

“Have you ever thought about being in University Chorus?  They always need more male voices.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I never thought about singing in any kind of group at all until Danielle talked me into doing this a few months ago.  She’s in chorus, right?”

“Yeah.  And Claire.  I did it freshman year, but I haven’t been able to fit it into my schedule since then.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’ll think about it.”

“You should.  I think you’d be good.”

“You ready?” Heather asked me, having walked up beside me and Sabrina a few seconds earlier.

“Sure,” I said.  “Sabrina?  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes,” Sabrina replied.  Have a great week!”

In the car on the way home, Heather asked me, “So what was Sabrina saying you would be good at?”

“She asked if I had ever done University Chorus.”

“You totally should!”

“I don’t know.  I sing in the car, but I’m not good at, like, real singing.”

“I’ve heard you sing, I think you’d be great!  Give yourself more credit.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Twenty-four hours later, I was sitting in my apartment alone, doing math homework.  It was a Thursday night, and I was in a good mood.  Thursday was my lightest day of class this quarter, and my tutoring job did not start until next week.  But my good mood was mostly because I was still on a high from Sabrina’s compliment last night.  Maybe I sang better than her boyfriend, and she was going to leave him for me.  My attention drifted from my math assignment as I played out this scenario in my head, imagining what I would say if Sabrina came out of nowhere and confessed her love for me.  I heard a knock at the door, and with this on my mind, my heart rate spiked and I almost jumped out of my chair.

I got up and peeked out the window; it was not Sabrina.  Heather Escamilla stood in the dim glow of the porch light.  I opened the door, wondering what she wanted, since there was no choir practice or church tonight.  “Hi,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“I was just thinking, I forgot to tell you last night.  Saturday we’re going to have a birthday party for Gary at our place.  And you’re invited.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Sure!  What time should I be there?”

“I’ve been telling people 7.  I don’t know when everyone will get there, though.”

“That sounds good.  Do I need to bring anything?”

“No.  Just yourself.”

“Great!  I’ll see you then!”

“Have a great night!” Heather said, waving as she turned back toward the parking lot.  I closed the door and went back to my homework.  I just got invited to a party, my first actual college party, other than the one in the dorm last year that I had walked in on uninvited.

As I worked on homework, I kept thinking about Heather and Gary’s party.  I wondered if I would know anyone there.  I wondered if anyone else from church would be there.  Maybe Sabrina would be there.  That in and of itself was enough to make me want to go.

My high had worn off by the time I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on Friday night.  All day on campus, the universe seemed to be throwing in my face the fact that other people had boyfriends and girlfriends and I did not.  I saw a lot of couples acting coupley all over campus today.  This all-American jock type guy sitting across from me on the bus home was making out with a hot girl in a sorority sweatshirt the whole time.  At JCF, I sat next to Liz and Ramon, who were two of my best friends, and had been a couple since early in our freshman year, but something about them being a couple bugged me tonight.  And I overheard someone saying that this junior girl named Amelia Dye was going out with Scott Madison now, which meant one fewer girl left for me to possibly end up with.

As I sat at my desk listening to the whirs and whistles of the modem connecting to the email server, I saw in the corner of my eye the contact list for the Newman Center choir.  Sabrina’s name was misspelled on the contact list; it had her listed as “Sabrina Murpy.”  I would have spelled it right had I typed the list; maybe Sabrina was into guys who could spell.  Maybe I would call Sabrina sometime this weekend, just to talk, to be friendly.  Was that okay?  I did not know.  She probably would not be home.  Her roommate would answer and tell me that she was out with her boyfriend.  Sabrina and her boyfriend were out there driving a knife through my heart, unknowingly digging my grave.

“She’s out there, unknowingly digging my grave,” I said to myself.  Very poetic.  That has a nice rhythm to it.  It was 9:45, I was home alone on a Friday night; maybe tonight would be a good night to write poetry.  I put my sweatshirt back on and took a walk around the apartment complex and through a little bit of the Greenbelt behind the apartments, trying to think of more lines for this poem.  When I returned about twenty minutes later, I wrote down all of the words that had come to mind, and by the time I went to bed, I had this:


“Hello, kid!  How are you?  How’s everything been?”
I’m really stressed out, if you know what I mean.
And how about you?  Got exams coming up?
“I’ve got one on Friday, I need to catch up.”
I called you to see if your roommate was home.
“She’s not, at the moment, I’m here all alone.
Today, it’s not homework that keeps her a slave,
She’s out there, unknowingly digging your grave.”



In November, I had started writing a novel; it was about a high school student who changes his name and goes to live with relatives to make a fresh start.  I had written around forty pages so far.  I had named the novel Try, Try Again, referencing the old saying about what to do if at first one does not succeed.  The character, Mike, felt like he was not succeeding in his old life, so he is trying again.  I worked on Try, Try Again for a few hours the next morning.  It had been a month since Mike had made his new start, and he had found his way into a popular group of friends.  A girl named Erin had taken an interest in him, and after spending a lot of time together at and after school, Mike got brave and asked her to a movie.


Three previews came on before the movie.  Mike did not think any of the movies previewed looked good.  When the movie itself started, he got comfortable in his seat, placing both arms on the armrest.  A minute later, Erin placed her hand on top of his.  Mike looked at her and smiled.  He liked Erin.  After a while, while he was watching the movie, he felt Erin’s hand move from his hand to his knee.  He liked it there too.  Eventually Erin moved her hand off of Mike for good.  Mike, instead, reached over the armrest and took her hand in his, placing it on the armrest.

Mike took his eyes off the movie and looked at Erin.  She did the exact same thing a few seconds later.  He tightened his grip around her hand for a couple seconds, then loosened it again.  Erin began to kiss him.  He liked it a lot.  It was nothing too unusual for most kids his age, but he had never been kissed so passionately in his life.  He tried to return it the best he could, and he felt that Erin liked it as well.  Their mouths slowly separated.  “Thanks,” Mike whispered.  Erin gave him a huge smile.

Mike’s eyes turned back to the movie.  He reached his right hand over to her right shoulder and touched it.  Erin moved her body a little to the left, closer to Mike.  They stayed in that position for the rest of the show.


I wished I could be at a movie with Sabrina, kissing her lips, running my fingers through her pretty red hair, and seeing her cute smile as she looked at me afterward.  What did her boyfriend have that I did not?  A few months ago, I wanted to be kissing Megan McCauley, until I found out that she also was with someone.  And before Megan there were lots of other girls who either had boyfriends or were just not interested in me.  Sometimes it felt like the entire single female population all over the state were conspiring to make sure I never had a girlfriend.

Later that night, I left my home and walked to Heather and Gary’s apartment, in the same complex as mine.  The party started half an hour ago, but I did not want to be the first one there, since I did not know if I would know anyone.  I knocked on the door, and Heather answered.  “Hey!” she said.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.  “Happy birthday, Gary!” I called out across the room when I saw Gary wave at me.

“Thanks!” Gary replied.

I looked around the room.  Six other people were there besides Heather and Gary.  I recognized Melanie from church, but no one else; Melanie was there with her boyfriend.  Sabrina was not there.  I made small talk with Heather and Gary for a bit, talking about school and my trip to Disneyland with my family.

“You actually drove past O.J. Simpson’s house?” Gary said, laughing.  “That’s hilarious!”

“I know.  Mom kept saying she couldn’t believe we were actually doing that.”

“What about O.J. Simpson’s house?” a girl I did not recognize said, walking up as she overheard us.  She had long straight hair and olive skin.  I repeated my story in abbreviated form, and she said, “My apartment isn’t too far from O.J. Simpson’s house.”

“This is my sister, Mariana,” Heather explained.  “She’s visiting from California.”

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

“So how do you know my sister?” Mariana asked.

“From church.  We both sing in the choir.”

“How fun!  I wish I could hear you guys sing in the morning, but my flight back home leaves at 12:15, so I need to be on my way to the airport by then.”

“Aww.”

“I was in choir in high school and college, but I graduated last year, and I’m not doing any kind of singing right now.”

“Where’d you go to school?”

“Santa Teresa,” Mariana said as Heather and Gary went to greet more people who were just arriving.

“That’s cool.  I’ve never been there, but two of my friends from high school go there.”

“Oh yeah?  What are their names?”

“Paul Dickinson and Jackie Bordeaux.  They would have been freshmen last year.”

“Nope, I don’t know them.  It’s a big school.”

“That’s what I figured.”

“You go to Jeromeville?  What are you studying?”

“Math.”

“Math,” Mariana repeated, making a face.  “That was not my class.”

“A lot of people say that,” I said, laughing.

“Well, if you’re good at it, go for it!  Do you know what you want to do with your degree?  Do you want to be a teacher?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t think I want to be a teacher, though.  Too much politics involved in education.  I just figure I’ll stay in school until I figure it out.”

“I understand that.  I majored in English, but I’m not really using it.  I work in an office.”

“Yeah.  I was never very good at English in school.  I never understood what I was supposed to get from the novels and poems that we had to read.”

“I did a lot of BS’ing on assignments like that, to be honest.”

“I see,” I replied, chuckling.  “But the weird thing is, even though I was always bad at English class, I like to write.”

“Oh yeah?  What do you like to write?”

“Sometimes I have a thought stuck in my head, and it’ll become a weird poem.  And last year I wrote a short novel.  I had a really interesting year when I was a senior in high school, so I turned that into a novel.”

“That’s so cool!”

“And right now, I’m working on another novel.  It’s about a guy who runs away to live with relatives, because he wants a fresh start.  But he pretends to be sixteen instead of eighteen, because he realized he missed out on a lot of experiences in high school, and he wants a second chance.”

“That’s interesting.  Where’d you get that idea?”

“Probably just because sometimes I wish I could do that.”

“You feel like you missed out on a lot?”

“Yeah.  Like I said with the first novel, I grew a lot my senior year, but then we all graduated and moved away.  I feel like if everything that happened my senior year had happened earlier, I would have graduated as an entirely different person.”

“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Mariana contemplated.  “Hmm.  Interesting.”

“If you want, I can send you some of my writing,” I said.  “Or at least I’ll send you what I have so far.”

“Yeah!  That would be so cool!”

“Do you use email?”

“I don’t,” Mariana said, disappointedly.  “Is that a problem?”

“You can give me your address, and I can mail it to you.”

“Sure!  I’ll do that.  Let me go get a piece of paper.” Mariana walked off and came back a minute later, handing me her address.

“Thanks!” I said.

Mariana and I talked for about another hour, about life, the past, the future, and many other things on our minds.  I could not help but wonder, could there be something here?  Might she be interested in me that way?  She was a few years older than me, that would be different; hopefully she did not see me as some immature little kid.  I had a way to keep in contact with her, and that was the important part at this moment.

“I’m going to get another drink,” Mariana eventually said.  “But, hey, it was really good talking to you!  Send me your story!”

“I will.  Thanks.” I smiled.

“We’ll probably talk more later tonight.”

“Yeah,” I said.

No one else that I knew ever showed up to the party.  I talked to Melanie for a bit about my winter break, and one of Gary’s engineer friends was drunkenly asking me about math at one point.  The party got louder as the night went on, and I went home around 10:30.

As soon as I got home, I printed out a copy of the unfinished Try, Try Again to send to Mariana, and I excitedly mailed it with extra stamps the next day.  This weekend sure turned into a great one.  I met a girl who talked to me for a long time and was interested in my creative work.  Maybe I did not need to hope for Sabrina to leave her boyfriend after all.  Life was finally looking up for me.

Except it never happened.  I never heard from Mariana again.  I never found out if she read my story.  She never wrote back, and Heather never mentioned her around me again.  I could have asked, of course, but I never asked others about girls I was interested in.  I was embarrassed for anyone to know that I liked a girl, ever since eighth grade when Paul Dickinson told the whole school who I liked.

Why did Mariana act so friendly if she did not want to talk to me again?  Things like this had happened before.  Jennifer Henson had been friendly to me all through senior year of high school, then that summer she moved away suddenly without leaving me a way to contact her.  Many other girls would treat me like this throughout my life, and I had a tendency to misunderstand the intentions of others.  People are complicated, reading and understanding them is hard, and I still had a lot to learn.  Maybe I would figure all of this out someday.  Until then, I had plenty of material for poetry and fiction.

May 20, 1995. Not my typical Saturday.

I nervously left Building C and walked to the other side of the South Residential Area.  It was a warm night, but not warm enough to wear shorts, in my opinion. I wore a t-shirt and jeans.  I kept trying to reassure myself that I didn’t have a reason to be so nervous. They invited me, after all; it’s not like they are suddenly going to reject me.  But what if they do? What if they something weird happens and they never talk to me again? What if I embarrass myself in front of these people, who don’t know me as well as my Building C friends do?

I tried to tell myself I was being ridiculous.  Just because I was going to be hanging out with a different group of people did not necessarily mean that something bad was going to happen.

I got to the main entrance of Building K and saw Megan and Tiffany already in the lobby.  I knocked on the door, and Tiffany let me in. “Hi, Greg,” she said. “Come on in.”

Megan turned around and looked at me, smiling.  “Hey, Greg. We’re just waiting for Maria and Ron.  They said they’d be down in a few minutes. You ready?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking around.  Building K looked just like Building C, except the walls were painted a different color, and there were different flyers on the bulletin board.  Megan was one of the resident advisers for Building K. She wore shorts and sandals with a T-shirt, and her short dark blonde hair still had a few traces of green in it.  She had cut her hair short and dyed it a few months earlier, but it looked like she was growing it a little longer again. Her hair had been somewhere between chin and shoulder length when I met her.  Amy, one of the RAs in my building, had introduced me to Megan in the dining hall during fall quarter, and we had gotten to be friends just from seeing each other around and talking. I wanted to get to know her better, and I wanted to know if she had a boyfriend, and if not, if she was interested in shy younger guys like me.

Earlier this year, my friend Brittany, who lived in Texas and met me online in a chat room, had asked me if I had met any girls in college yet.  I mentioned that I kind of had a crush, but it probably would not work out because she was older. “How much older?” Brittany had asked. “If she’s also a student at your school, then you can’t be more than three or four years apart, right?  That’s nothing. You shouldn’t worry about that, unless this Miss Megan is 40 or something like that.” Brittany was probably right. Megan was only older than me by a year and three days, and that isn’t really a significant age difference. However, I was inexperienced enough with dating and relationships and girlfriends that I still felt way too young to be dating a sophomore.  Megan was going to turn 20 in August. That was a grown-up age. She was almost done being a teenager.

“How’s your weekend going?” Megan asked.

“Good.  I’ve mostly just been studying.  Trying to get it out of the way. One more math midterm on Monday, and that’ll be the last midterm until finals.”

“That midterm is gonna be hard,” Tiffany said.  “Greg’ll probably ace it, though.” I smiled.

“You two are in the same math class, right?” Megan asked.

“Yeah,” I explained.  “I don’t think it’s that hard so far.  But it seems like the quarter is going by fast in general.  The first midterm still feels like it wasn’t that long ago.”

“I know!  This quarter is flying by!”

A girl with dark hair and brown eyes, whom I had seen around the dining commons and met a couple times before, emerged from the stairwell into the lobby with a spiky-haired thin guy.  I assumed this guy must be Ron, since I knew Maria was the girl.

“You guys ready?” Megan asked.

“Let’s go,” Ron replied.

The five of us walked out of Building K, along the bike path past Kent Hall and the barns, turning left at the chemistry building, and getting into a line at the large outdoor steps leading to 199 Stone, the largest lecture hall on campus.  The room held around 400 students, and that lecture hall was the only room in Stone Hall. The front of the room was one building story lower with the rows pitched downward as they would be in a theater or stadium, and a door on the right side of the back wall connected to the basement of the chemistry building, which was right next to Stone Hall.  The room number 199 was chosen to be consistent with the numbering of the nearby rooms in the chemistry building.

On weekends, a division of the Associated Students organization called Campus Cinema used 199 Stone as a movie theater, showing movies that had been in theaters a few months earlier but were usually not available to rent on VHS video yet.  (Those are those giant cassette tapes for watching movies at home, before DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and streaming video were invented.) A different movie would show every day, and tickets only cost three dollars.

About an hour ago, I sat down with Megan, Tiffany, and Maria at dinner.  They said that they were going to watch the movie Quiz Show at 199 Stone and invited me along.  I said sure. I needed to get out and do something tonight, and more importantly, this was an opportunity to hang out with Megan.  I had also seen commercials for this movie when it was released last fall, and it looked intriguing. The movie was based on a true story, about a television game show from the 1950s with outcomes that were rigged by the producers.

On the walk to 199 Stone, Maria and Ron were acting very much like a couple, holding hands and kissing a few times.  Does that mean I was Megan’s date? Or Tiffany’s date? Of course not, but I kind of wished I could be Megan’s date. I was walking in the back of our group of five, and I realized at one point that I had been staring at Megan’s butt and legs in front of me for long enough that Tiffany might have noticed.  I looked up, hoping that she hadn’t.

After we bought our tickets, and Ron bought popcorn, the five of us sat down toward the top of the room, in the right section.  The room was filling up, but we were still able to find five seats together; I sat between Megan and Tiffany.

One of my favorite parts of Campus Cinema was that they showed an old cartoon before the main movie, like movie theaters of my parents’ and grandparents’ time would do.  Tonight, it was the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he has a feud with an opera singer, ending with Bugs pretending to be the conductor at the singer’s concert and making him hold a long note until he runs out of breath and the stage collapses.  I had seen that one many times over the years; I grew up on old Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons.

As I watched Quiz Show, I felt like this movie was exposing a dark underbelly of the game show industry.  The producers of the show in the movie entice their returning champion to lose on purpose, because a new contestant is presumed to be more likable to audiences.  In order to keep the new contestant on the show, they provided him with the questions and answers in advance, and the producers manipulated the air conditioning and ventilation around the contestants to make them sweat and experience physical discomfort.

At one point during the movie, Megan crossed her legs, and I could feel her crossed leg inadvertently brush up against mine a few times.  I looked up one of those times. “Sorry,” Megan whispered, and moved her leg away from me. I didn’t want that. I kind of liked her brushing up against me.  But I said nothing. That would be inappropriate, and probably a little creepy. Also, someone would probably find a way to make fun of me for it, just like in 8th grade when Paul Dickinson figured out who I liked and told the whole school.

I hoped that the game shows I enjoyed watching as a child in the 1980s had not been fixed like the one in the movie; that would be disappointing.  I do remember as a child watching an episode of Press Your Luck where one contestant went on a ridiculous winning streak, always stopping the spinner on the best spot on the board and never getting a Whammy.  I suspected that the contestant himself had somehow figured out how to beat the system, but I did not know if the show’s producers were involved. Hopefully the show was not fixed, because after the incident that the movie described, new laws were passed to prohibit fixing of prizes on television shows.  However, television never tells the full story of what is really happening. I would learn years later that the contestant I watched on Press Your Luck had cracked the code on his own.  He was a compulsive gambler and get-rich-quick artist who lost much of his game show money in a robbery and the rest in a bad investment, and he would eventually die alone, broke, and fairly young.

On the way home from the movie, Megan asked, “Are you guys both going home for the summer?”  The question was directed to me and Tiffany; Maria and Ron were walking more slowly, arm in arm and no longer in earshot of us.

“Yeah,” Tiffany said.  “I’m probably not going to be doing anything.  Maybe getting a job.”

“My mom said she has a job for me,” I said.  “Someone she knows works at a bookstore, and they’re looking to hire someone part time.”

“That’ll be good,” Megan said.  “You’re from, where was it? Somewhere near Santa Lucia, right?”

“Yeah.  Plumdale.”

“And you’re from Ashwood?”

“Yes,” Tiffany replied.  I realized that I had known Tiffany since January but had no idea where she was from until this moment.  Ashwood was at the far end of the Valley, about as far away as Plumdale but inland, to the southeast, whereas Plumdale was more due south.

“I’m going to miss all my friends here,” I said.  “I want to get everyone’s address so I can write. Or email, for people who have computers at home.”

“Definitely,” Tiffany said.  “Give me your address before the end of the year.”

“I will.”

“I’ll be here taking summer school,” Megan added, “so I’ll have email.”

“Great.  I’ll write you.”

By this time, we had returned to Building K.  “Thanks for coming with us, Greg,” Megan said.

“Thanks for inviting me!  It was a good movie.”

“I know.  I’ll see you around.  Have a good weekend, OK?”

“I will.”

Megan hugged me, and I smiled.  Tiffany hugged me too. I turned around toward Building C, turning back one last time to wave to my friends from Building K as they entered the building.

 

As I climbed the stairs toward Room 221, I could hear the muffled sound of music playing somewhere else in the building.  It seemed to be coming from directly above, from the third floor on my end of the building. Instead of going to my room, I continued up to the third floor, curious to see what was going on.  I began to hear muffled voices along with the muffled music, as if many people were being loud trying to be heard over the music.

When I was on the landing halfway between the second and third floor, the third floor door opened, and the music and voices became louder.  Gina Stalteri and Karen Francis walked through the door. Karen was giggling and leaning on Gina, having a hard time standing on her own. She was holding a can of Coors Light beer.

“Hey, Greg,” Gina said, noticing me on the landing.  “Come on up.”

“Greg!” Karen shouted, giggling.  “I’ve never been drunk before!” She tried to step forward but staggered to the ground instead.

I continued walking up the stairs toward them and walked into the third floor hallway, my mind still processing what I was seeing.  This appeared to be a party. My first college party. I had never been to an actual party like this, but I had seen parties on TV and in movies, and this looked exactly what I imagined a party to look like.

At each end of each floor, the hallway widened in front of the last room on each side.  The hallways on the second and third floor opened to a balcony at the end of the building, like the balcony on which Taylor Santiago had been sitting when he met my parents, but that was at the opposite end of the building.  A few months ago, someone had hung strings of beads where I was now, over the hallway at the point just past the door to the stairs, so that one had to pass through the beads in order to get to rooms 322 through 325. Brendan Lowe in room 322 had started referring to himself and his neighbors at the end of the third floor as “The Bead People.”  Derek Olvera in room 324 had put a sign on his door proclaiming that “Cool people live here.”

The door to Brendan’s room was open, and the music seemed to be coming from there.  I didn’t recognize the song. Brendan listened to a lot of weird, really dark music that I was never exposed to in Plumdale.  I peeked my head into room 322, where Brendan, his roommate Will, Jenn from the first floor, and two guys I didn’t recognize were sitting, talking, and drinking something from plastic cups.

“Hey, Greg,” Brendan said, pointing to a case of Coors Light in cans.  “You want one?”

“No, thanks,” I said.  I stood in the doorway observing their conversation for a few minutes.  I didn’t understand what they were talking about, so I went back into the hallway and walked around all the people sitting against the wall drinking beer.

Room 324, where cool people supposedly lived, was also open.  Derek, a tall guy with reddish-blonde hair, sat on his bed. He had his arms around a dark-haired girl named Stephanie who lived at the other end of the third floor; I had seen them together a lot lately.  Pat Hart sat on the other bed. The other bed belonged to Jared, the guy who often played Scrabble in the common room, but I did not see Jared at this party.

“Hey, Greg,” Derek said when I walked in.

“Hey,” Stephanie added.  “What’s up?”

“Just looking around,” I said.

“Take a seat if you want,” Derek offered, gesturing toward an empty chair.  I sat. Derek lifted his leg and farted. Pat laughed. Stephanie gave him a disgusted look.  I chuckled.

Karen walked into the room.  “I’m back!” she said. She attempted to sit with Pat on Jared’s bed, but fell over on her side instead.  Pat picked her up and kissed her deeply for quite a long time. When they finished, Karen looked up and announced to the room, “This is the first time I’ve been drunk!”  She had told me this same thing just five minutes earlier. “Nate said he’s bringing more beer,” Karen continued.

“Good!” Stephanie shouted.

“I’m going to go see who else is here,” I said.

“See you around, Greg,” Derek said.  Stephanie waved. Pat and Karen were making out and did not seem to notice that I was leaving.

A voice coming from Brendan’s stereo started singing something like “bow down before the one you serve.”  This was still not the type of music I was most familiar with, but I had heard this song before, unlike the song that was playing before.  I thought this song was by that band Nine Inch Nails. Brendan really liked them, as did Skeeter. I didn’t see Skeeter at this party.

I stood outside of Derek’s room in the wide part of the hallway at the end of the building.  A few people were sitting there on desk chairs taken from nearby bedrooms, and some other people were sitting on the floor.  Mike Adams and his girlfriend Kim, Dan Woodward, Schuyler Jenkins, Tracy Lee, Yu Cheng, and two guys I did not know who did not live here sat talking.  Mike was telling a story loudly, interrupting to laugh every few sentences. Others laughed as well. I missed the beginning of the story, so I wasn’t sure what it was about.  I saw Pat and Gina come through the beads with a case of Budweiser cans, but then I realized it wasn’t Pat because he was busy sucking face with Karen in Derek’s room. This was Nate, Pat’s twin brother who lived in a different building.  “Hey, Greg,” Nate said when he saw me. “You want one?”

“No, thank you.”

Nate went into Brendan’s room to put the beer down, and then into Derek’s room where his brother was.  I felt something brush against my leg; I looked down and saw Schuyler lean her head on my leg, from a position of sitting against the wall.  “Hi,” she said, looking back up at me.

“Hi,” I replied.

“Having fun?”

“I just got here.  I was watching the movie Quiz Show at 199 Stone with some friends from another building.”

“Did you like it?”

“I did.  It’s interesting.”

“Really?  I’ve seen it before.  I thought it was boring.”

“I grew up watching game shows.  It was fascinating to see the dark side of the game show world.”

“I just thought it was dumb.  Not my thing.”

Mike was laughing loudly again at something, and everyone reacted as if he had been the funniest human being alive.  Schuyler took another sip of beer. “I think I’m going to go back downstairs now,” I said.

“No!” Schuyler replied.  “Don’t leave.” She put her arms around my legs, giggling.  I carefully stepped out of her tenuous, drunken grasp.

“This party isn’t my thing.  Just like how the movie isn’t your thing.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.”

“Come back later if you want.”

“I might.”

Before I walked into the stairwell, I looked at the door to room 321, where Amy, the RA, lived.  On the small bulletin board on her door, she had put a piece of paper telling people where to find her, with a push pin indicating where she was.

Amy is

  • Here.  Come on in!
  • Here, but please knock first.
  • Studying hard.  Please do not disturb.
  • In class.
  • Eating at the DC.
  • At the Help Window.
  • Somewhere else on campus.
  • Off campus.
  • Not in Jeromeville.

The push pin was next to “Not in Jeromeville.”  Amy must have gone home for the weekend, which explains why the Bead People had chosen tonight to throw a party right next to the RA’s room.

I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of Karen emerging from Derek’s room.  “I’ve never been drunk before!” she announced to the people sitting in the hallway. I turned around and walked back down the stairs to the second floor.  It was ten o’clock at night, and quiet hours started at eleven. If this party didn’t shut down in an hour, I would not be getting any sleep that night. I knocked on the door of room 215, where Gurpreet, the other RA, lived.  He did not answer either. I was not surprised; of course the party would happen when there was no one in charge in the building.

I went back to room 221 and sat on my bed, angry.  How did this happen? I knew no one here was 21 years old; who bought the beer?  Did they have fake IDs? Did they have older friends buy it for them? Maybe one of the other people at the party who was not from this building was older.  And what about Karen? She was drunk enough to be staggering, and she was not even a legal adult. She had skipped a year in elementary school and graduated from high school early, and she had just turned 17 a month ago.  In health class in high school, we learned about drugs and alcohol, and everyone kept talking about how kids could get drugs and alcohol anyway even though they were illegal. Where? How? Who were these kids? Everyone seemed to know how to get drugs and alcohol except for me, and it made me angry.  I had no desire to do drugs or drink alcohol, but it made me angry nevertheless because these people had some kind of secret knowledge about how to flout authority that I did not have, and they felt no remorse for doing something illegal and unsafe.

Sometimes I wished I had gotten invited to more parties in high school.  That way, I would know when and where kids were getting drunk, breaking the law, and I could call the police on them and get them in trouble, and justice would be served.  Now I finally had my opportunity, and the people in charge were gone. It was frustrating. What should I do now? Should I call the police? Should I go to the Help Window and tell whichever RA was on duty tonight?  Maybe I should call Megan. She was another authority figure who might be able to do something about this. And that would give me another chance to talk to her.

As I sat on the bed thinking about what to do, I realized that I knew all along what the right decision would be.  I did nothing. I got over it and let it go. If the Bead People and the others who went to that party wanted to make poor choices, that was their life.  No one was hurting me, and a bunch of college freshmen drinking cheap beer and playing loud weird music is not exactly the greatest threat to America’s freedom and well-being.  The police might not even consider it a high enough priority to respond. And these people were my friends. I had come a long way to be at this point in my life where I actually had friends, and I didn’t want to ruin that by being a stickler for the rules.  Following authority is important, but so is friendship.

I didn’t go back upstairs to that party that night.  But I also didn’t report them to any authority figures.  I just sat quietly in my room playing around on the computer.  I played Tetris. I got on IRC chat and looked for girls to talk to.  I played around with this new thing I had gotten recently called Netscape, where I could look at these things called Web sites that had text and pictures to read.  If the text was underlined, I could click on it and a new page would open. The pictures took several seconds to load, but it was still more interesting than the text-based Internet I had been using all year.  That night I kept myself busy looking up Pink Floyd lyrics and album artwork. And I was far enough away from the party that the noise didn’t keep me awake. I never did find out what happened the rest of the night at the party on the third floor.  I don’t know if anyone got in trouble. And it was not my business. I slept just fine that night.

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.

 

November 19, 1994. The Help Window.

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

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

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

“Go for it,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘The Food!’” shouted Mike.

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

I chuckled.  “For sure,” I said.

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

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

“Maybe.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have fun!” I said.

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

“I’ll be fine.”

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

I put the book down.

Depression sucks.

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

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

How did she know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” I said.  “How are you?”

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

“Which physics?”

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

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

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

“Yeah.  What’s your major?”

“Chemical engineering.”

“That sounds hard, but interesting.”

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

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

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

“That’s true.”

“Are you considering engineering at all?”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, it is.  Where are you from?”

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

“Are you going home for Thanksgiving?”

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

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

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

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

“That sounds nice!”

“It was.”  I yawned.

“Getting tired?” Megan asked.

“Maybe I should go try to sleep.”

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

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

“It was good talking to you too!”

“Thanks.”

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

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

“Good night!”

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

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