April 3-5, 1996. I look like a deranged serial killer.

Back in 1996, only rich people had mobile phones, because they were large and expensive.  If I wanted to call someone in another city, I had to make a long distance call from my landline telephone, and I would get billed for the call by the minute.  The University of Jeromeville got some kind of deal with MCI, a major company in the telephone industry at the time until they were acquired by Verizon in the early 2000s.  MCI provided new state-of-the-art student identification cards to all of us students, and in exchange, we got to use MCI to make long distance calls at a slightly discounted rate.  I had no plans to use this service; I already had long distance service on my phone with another company, and I did not make long distance calls very often except to my parents.  But because we were getting new ID cards, all students had to get our pictures taken again at some point during the first week of spring quarter.

“You said it looked bad!” Danielle was saying as I walked into the Newman Center chapel Wednesday night for choir practice.  I looked up to see what was going on; Danielle was holding one of the new student ID cards.  “I think this is a good picture.”

“No I don’t!” Danielle’s sister Carly exclaimed, trying to take the card away as Danielle held it away from her.

“Greg!” Danielle called out as I approached the others.  “Isn’t this a good picture of Carly?” Danielle asked as she tossed Carly’s ID card to me.

I caught the card and looked at it as Carly said, “Eww! Give it back!”  In the picture, Carly was smiling, and her straight brown hair looked neatly groomed.

“Here,” I said, handing the card back to Carly.  “I think you look just fine.”

“I should have taken my glasses off,” Carly said.  “But, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  I smiled.

“Can I see your new picture?” Danielle asked me.  “Did you get it yet?”

“I didn’t.  I’m probably going to go tomorrow.”

Phil Gallo turned toward us.  “I heard that people are upset because apparently MCI has all of our personal information now.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  That sounded a bit unsettling, but there was not much I could do about it at this point, except possibly boycott MCI and not use their service.

“How’d your week go, Greg?  What classes are you taking this quarter?” Danielle asked.

“Two math classes, Computer Science 30, and Anthro 2.”

“Is that the same Anthro class that Claire’s taking?”

“Yes.  I saw her in class today.”

“What?” Claire said, turning toward us. “I heard my name.”  Claire Seaver was a junior with a background in music, and although there was no formal leadership structure in our church choir, she performed many leader-like activities for the group.

“You’re in my Anthro 2 class,” I said.

“Yeah!  And we have to miss it on Friday because we’re singing here for the Good Friday Mass.”

“I know.  I hope we don’t miss too much.”

“Do either of you guys know someone who you can ask to take notes?” Danielle asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Tabitha Sasaki is in that class too; I already asked her today if I could copy her notes for Friday.  I’ll ask her if I can make an extra copy for Claire.  Danielle, do you know Tabitha?  She goes to JCF, and she lived in Building B last year?”

“Oh yeah.  I remember her.”

“Okay, everyone, we need to get started,” Claire called out.  “We have a lot of new music to practice this week, because we have Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.”

Choir practice that week took much longer than usual, over two hours.  We had more music to practice for the upcoming Holy Week services, as well as songs specific to Easter Sunday.  By the time I got home, it was nine-thirty, and I was too tired to do any more homework.

Fortunately, the next day was Thursday, my lightest day of the week that quarter.  I was done with lower division mathematics, so for this quarter I signed up for Combinatorics and Linear Algebra Applications, two upper-division classes for which I had taken the prerequisites.  The mathematics major also required one of two possible lower division computer science courses, and being one who liked to play around with computers, I was excited for that class, Introduction to Programming.  I completed my academic schedule with Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.  This would satisfy a general education requirement, and I already knew the professor, Dr. Dick Small.  He taught a class I took last year for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program that I was in, about the literature and culture of South Africa. I always thought that Dr. Dick Small was one of the most hilariously unfortunate names that one could possibly have.

When I was signing up for classes this quarter, I noticed that all four classes that I took were only offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  And, without realizing it, I noticed after the fact that I had left my Tuesdays and Thursdays completely empty, having chosen an anthro discussion on Wednesday and a computer science discussion on Monday.  Since I had also decided to take the quarter off from my part-time job tutoring at the Learning Skills Center, I had no reason to get out of bed on a Tuesday until Bible study in the evening, and no reason to get out of bed on a Thursday at all.  Some of my friends had told me that they would be perfectly happy with a schedule like that, but I did not think it would be good to be that lazy and antisocial.  The UJ physical education department offered a number of half-unit classes twice a week, and I decided to take weight training this quarter just to give me something healthy to do on these days.  I had taken bowling in the fall, for a similar reason.

The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds that Thursday morning, so I rode my bike to campus instead of taking the bus.  I parked outside of the Recreation Pavilion, where the weight room was.  Those first few classes the first couple weeks of the quarter, we learned a little bit about technique, and the rest of the hour we just lifted weights.  After class, I changed into normal clothes.  I also put on the jacket I had bought a couple months ago when a theft in the laundry room had forced me to buy new clothes; I had worn the jacket on my bike but taken it off for weight training.  This jacket had a black torso made from the same material as athletic wear and lined with something warm, but the sleeves were gray, made out of the same material as sweatshirts.  The jacket also had a dark green hood, but I did not put the hood on that morning.

I got back on my bike and decided to try something new today.  I rode east across campus, past the Memorial Union and the Death Star building, on the path that became Third Street.  I crossed A Street, which marked the border between the university and the city, and parked my bike about a hundred feet past A Street.  Next to this bike rack was a coffee shop called Espresso Roma.  I walked in and continued to the counter, where one person was in line in front of me.

I did not drink coffee, but at that time I had a bit of a curious fascination with coffee shops.  It seemed like hanging out in coffee shops was the cool thing to do, and I wished I could experience that, despite the fact that I did not like coffee.  The Coffee House on campus at the Memorial Union was more like a student union than an actual coffee shop.  I had seen Espresso Roma before, to my knowledge it was the closest coffee shop to campus, so I figured I would give it a try.

“May I help you?” the cashier asked.

“Hot chocolate, please,” I said.

“Whipped cream?”

“Yes.”  The hot chocolate at the Coffee House on campus did not come with whipped cream, so this place was better in that sense.  I found a table and took off my jacket, placing it on the back of the chair.  I got out my backpack and combinatorics textbook, and looked around.  Last week, I was back home in Santa Lucia County on spring break, and I went to a coffee shop in Gabilan called the Red Bean with my friend Melissa.  Espresso Roma did not look much like the Red Bean.  Although in an old neighborhood like the Red Bean, Espresso Roma was in a much more modern-looking building.  The interior had a concrete floor with electrical conduits and air ducts visible in the ceiling above.  Floor-to-ceiling windows, with wood borders around the glass making them look more like doors, faced Third Street; one of them actually was a door, leading to outdoor tables.

I got my hot chocolate a couple minutes later and sat back down.  I had plenty more to do after I finished my combinatorics homework, since I got nothing done after choir practice last night.  I spent almost two hours in Espresso Roma reading and studying and doing homework.  I went back there several more times over the next couple years for hot chocolate and a different place to study other than the Coffee House in the Memorial Union and the library.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays that quarter, my only class was the weight training class.  I could go back home any time I wanted. But today, I had one more important thing to do before I left campus: I had not yet taken my photo for the new student ID card.  The photographers had set up in the Recreation Pavilion on the basketball court; I had seen them on the way to weight class this morning.  When I unlocked my bike, I noticed that the sky had turned gray; it had mostly been blue when I arrived at Espresso Roma two hours ago.  I felt what seemed to be raindrops on my head; that was not a good sign.  By the time I rode past the Death Star building a minute later, the rain had become much more steady.  I pulled my hood on, hoping that wearing my hood would not make my hair look funny for my picture.

It only took five minutes to get to the Recreation Pavilion by bicycle, but in that five minutes the rain quickly became a heavy downpour.  By the time I walked into the building, I was drenched.  My jacket had kept my torso sufficiently dry, but the sleeves, not being waterproof, had soaked through to the long sleeves I was wearing underneath

“Your old card, please?” a woman asked as I walked inside.  I handed over my old card, and the woman who took my card pointed at a line for me to stand in.  I could have come back tomorrow when it might be dry, but by giving her my old card, I had made my decision.  I would be looking a little bit wet in my new student ID photo.  It was no big deal.

A few minutes later, I set my jacket and backpack down when I got to the front of the line to get my picture taken.  “Looks like you got a little wet today,” the photographer asked.  “Is it raining?”

No, I thought, I was wading in the creek and I dropped something, so I had to reach in with both arms and get it.  But somehow my torso stayed miraculously dry.  “Yeah,” I said out loud.  “It just started coming down hard all of a sudden while I was on my way here.”

“You sure you want to take your picture like that?” he asked.

“It’s ok.  It won’t really show.”

I stood and looked where he told me to.  In every ID card and school picture I had taken, I always tried my best to smile, and I hated the way I looked in every one of these pictures.  So I deliberately did not smile.  I kept my face in as much as a natural position as possible, and not smiling was natural for me.  I stared at the spot that the photographer had told me to until I heard the click and saw the flash.  “Thank you,” the photographer said.  “Go over there, and they’ll have your card ready in about ten minutes.”

A while later, I heard someone call my name from the table with the card printer on it.  A guy sitting there handed me my new card, along with a sticker to put on it to show that I was registered as a student this quarter. Whatever look I was going for, being wet and disheveled and not smiling, it did not work at all.  My face appeared angry and unstable, my hair was messy, and my wet arms were visible on the sides of the picture.  Smiling for school pictures did not work, and apparently not smiling did not work either.  The photos on ID cards just did not look good, and this was something I would have to come to accept.  And as if to drive home the point that I was just cursed with bad luck when it came to ID card photos, the weather was dry by the time I left the Recreation Pavilion, and it stayed dry for the rest of the night.


(Author’s note: This is a reconstruction, made with the help of Bitmoji. I still have the original card, but the photo is smeared and scratched after having been put in and taken out of my pocket for years, and the original card has personal information on it that I do not wish to copy here.)

The rest of the week went as planned.  I sang at both the Holy Thursday and Good Friday Masses.  Friday night I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, hoping that Tabitha would be there and that she had remembered to bring her notes from anthropology class.  I noticed a few of the regulars were missing, probably because it was the weekend of Easter and some people had gone home to be with their families for the weekend.  Tabitha was there, and after the last worship song, I walked over toward her.  She was talking with Eddie, Haley, Kristina, and a guy whom I had seen around but had not met yet.  I walked up, not saying anything, not wanting to interrupt.

Eddie acknowledged me first.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “Did you get your new student ID yet?  We were just talking about that.”

I pulled my new ID card out of my pocket.  “I look like a deranged serial killer,” I said sheepishly as I handed Eddie the card.

“Why is there a shadow on your arms?” he asked.

“My arms were wet,” I said, explaining the sudden downpour and my jacket.

“I want to see the deranged serial killer!” Kristina shouted.

“Is it ok to show the others?” Eddie asked me.

“Sure,” I replied.  Eddie passed the card to Kristina; Haley and Tabitha also looked at the card.

“You’re not smiling,” Haley pointed out.  “How come?”

“I smiled for my driver’s license, and all my high school yearbook pictures, and my old student ID, and I never liked the way those looked,” I explained.  “So I tried something different.  That didn’t work either, apparently.”

“It’s not bad.  But I think you would look better if you smiled.”

“Thanks,” I said, making my best attempt at a smile.  Then, turning to Tabitha, I asked, “Tabitha?  Do you have your notes from anthro today?”

“Yeah,” she said, reaching down under her chair and picking up a notebook, which she handed to me.  “I think I got all the important things Dr. Small said.”

“Can I give this back to you Monday in class?  Or do you need it sooner?”

“Monday is fine.”

“Greg,” Eddie said.  “I was going to ask you tonight.  Are you busy next weekend?”

“I don’t think so.  Why?”

“We’re planning a sophomore class trip.  We’re going to go to Bay City on Friday night, eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, then find a place to sleep on the beach.  We’ll be home Saturday night so everyone can go to church Sunday.”

This invitation came as a surprise to me, I had never done anything like this, but I was intrigued.  “Who all is going?” I asked.

“All of us,” Eddie said, gesturing at himself and the others I had been talking to.  “I’m going to invite a few more people, but I don’t know yet who is going for sure.”

This was not my usual reality.  I had never been to a Hard Rock Cafe, I had never slept outdoors, and taking a trip like this was not something I normally would do on short notice.  But I learned the hard way recently that hesitating on a big decision had consequences.  Also, this trip would be a chance to spend time with friends; my 19-year-old boy mind was specifically excited about the thought of spending time with Haley.  “Sure, I’m in,” I replied.  “I should bring a sleeping bag?”

“Yeah.  I’ll call you in a few days with more details.”

“Sounds good!  May I have my ID card back?”

“Oh yeah,” Kristina said, handing me the card.

I really was okay with the fact that I was stuck with this horrible picture on my ID card for the next few years.  Everyone seemed to have a bad student ID or driver’s license picture at some point in their lives, and now I had one with a good story behind it.  I had learned two important lessons that day.  First, my jacket was not completely waterproof, and second, I may as well smile in pictures because I did not look better not smiling.  Smiling still did not feel natural to me, but maybe I could just make myself think happy thoughts when I was posing for a picture.  And now Eddie had included me in this upcoming trip, and Haley was going to be on the trip too, and all of that certainly gave me a reason to smile.

December 10-13, 1995. None of this made any sense.

“Let us offer each other the sign of peace,” Father Bill said.  Congregants turned to each other, saying “Peace be with you,” and shaking hands.  I turned to Phil Gallo and shook his hand.  “Peace be with you,” I said.  Phil said the same to me.  I turned around to Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell with their guitars behind me and shook their hands.  “Peace be with you,” I said.

I walked to my right.  “Peace be with you, Greg,” Danielle Coronado said as she hugged me.  Danielle had lived down the hall from me last year in the dorm, and she had encouraged me to be part of the church choir in the first place.  Danielle’s younger sister, Carly, was also in the choir.  “Peace be with you,” Carly told me, also giving me a hug.

I walked around making sure to wish everyone in the choir peace.  Sabrina Murphy walked up to me and smiled.  “Peace be with you,” she said, putting her arms around me.  I hugged back and wished her peace in return.  This was the first time Sabrina hugged me; before we always just shook hands.  Maybe that meant something… hopefully.

Just before the final song, during announcements, Sister Mary Rose held up a small box about the size of a soup can.  “We are taking up a collection for our sister parish in El Salvador,” she explained.  “You can pick up one of these piggy banks, and over the holidays, when you have change in your pocket, remember our brothers and sisters who need to do some repairs to their chapel.  We will be collecting the money you raise during the January 14 service.”

After the final song, everyone around me seemed to be engrossed in conversation, so I walked over to where Sister Mary Rose was handing out the piggy banks.  About ten minutes later, I approached Heather Escamilla, because we were neighbors and we had carpooled that morning, and I wanted to ask when she would be ready to go back home.  But she noticed me and began speaking first.  “Greg!  Do you need to go home now?  Because some of us from choir were just talking about going to Bakers Square for lunch.  You want to come?”

“Sure,” I said.

Bakers Square was a chain of restaurants that were essentially like Denny’s with pies.  In the early 2000s, most of the Bakers Square locations in the western United States closed, leaving the chain with only a few locations far from here.  But in 1995, Bakers Square restaurants were common in suburban neighborhoods around here.  The one in Jeromeville was only a few blocks from the Newman Center, so those of us from the choir all walked over in a big group.  When we arrived, they put a bunch of tables together in order to accommodate our group of twelve.  I walked toward the nearest empty seat and was pleasantly surprised to see Sabrina taking the seat next to me a few seconds later.  “Hi,” I said as Sabrina sat down.

“Hi, Greg,” Sabrina replied.  “How are you?”

“Not bad.  My physics final is tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll probably be studying for that.  I’m not too worried about it.”

“Which class?”

“9B.”

“That wasn’t too hard.  I took that last year.”

When Sabrina said that, I realized that I did not know what her major was, or what year she was.  She was probably a junior if she had taken Physics 9B a year ago.  “What’s your major?” I asked.

“Aerospace engineering.”

I was not expecting that.  Sabrina did not at all look like an aerospace engineer to me.  “That sounds interesting,” I said.

“It’s hard, but I really like it.  And my boyfriend is an aerospace engineer too, so we get to take classes together sometimes.”

“That sounds nice.”

The server came to take our orders; she started at our side of the table.  Sabrina ordered a chicken salad, and I ordered a cheeseburger.  I was too disappointed at Sabrina’s mention of her boyfriend to rejoin the conversation for the next few minutes.  It seemed like it always happened like this; I would meet a cute, friendly girl, and she would immediately bring up her boyfriend, almost as if she was telling me not to get interested in her.

“Greg,” Danielle said a few minutes later.  I realized that I had not talked to anyone except Sabrina since I got here.  “How are you?  What’s your finals schedule like?”

“Physics tomorrow afternoon, math Wednesday morning, and chem Friday morning.  Nice and spread out.”

“You only have three finals?  That’s nice.  I have four, and three of them are tomorrow and Tuesday.”

“Two of my classes don’t have finals.  Your finals schedule sounds like mine was last spring quarter.  Good luck.”

“What classes are you taking that don’t have finals?” Heather asked.

“Bowling, and math problem solving seminar.  Bowling is half a unit, and the math class is 2.”

“Oh, ok.  I was going to say, two classes without finals?  How lucky!”

After we finished eating, I took Heather home and went back to my apartment.  I spent the rest of the afternoon studying physics.  I thought I understood it pretty well, but my first physics midterm in the spring had caught me off guard.  I still ended up with an A in that class, though, after working extremely hard for the rest of the quarter, and I have made sure to study hard for every physics test since.

Around eight o’clock, I turned on the TV to watch The Simpsons, but it was a rerun, so I turned on the computer and went to an IRC chat channel, only half-paying attention to The Simpsons in the background.  A few people whose names I recognized from having spent a lot of time in this channel said hello, and I said hi back.  I watched the messages scroll by; someone was talking about getting stoned at a party over the weekend, someone was bragging about the size of his penis and got quickly banned by the channel administration, and someone was trying to start normal conversations and getting ignored.  I replied to the person’s normal conversations, making small talk, but that lasted a few minutes before that person stopped replying.  I looked through the list of people in the room and tried messaging someone who might have been a girl my age, and got no reply.

A few minutes later, someone named “musicgirl” entered the room and said hi to everyone.  I sent her a private message.

gjd76: hi 🙂 how are you?
musicgirl: hi! i’m doing ok!  how was your weekend?
gjd76: good.  studying for finals, taking a break for the rest of the night.
musicgirl: i have finals coming up too! but i’m graduating in the spring so i’m excited about that! one more semester after this one!
gjd76: i’m only in my second year.  so why is your name music girl? is that what you’re studying?
musicgirl: i’m studying elementary education.  i want to be a teacher.  but i also play guitar in a band with two of my friends.  we play shows at this coffee shop sometimes.
gjd76: that’s so cool!  i’m studying math.  and i don’t play an instrument, but i sing
musicgirl: math was never my best subject.  i’d need you to tutor me 😉
gjd76: i could do that 🙂 what do you look like?
musicgirl: 5’9”, brown hair, blue eyes, slim.  what about you?
gjd76: cute 🙂 brown hair and blue eyes, i like that combination… i’m 6’4” with dark brown hair, almost black, and brown eyes
musicgirl: nice! i love tall guys!  a lot of guys think i’m too tall.
gjd76: good 🙂 do you have a boyfriend?
musicgirl: no, i’m single.  you?
gjd76: no girlfriend for me.  and all the guys are missing out, you seem really nice
musicgirl: thanks! you do too… and tall, dark, and handsome 🙂
gjd76: if i were there, i’d probably want to get to know you better 🙂
musicgirl: i’d want to get to know you too!
gjd76: what’s your name?
musicgirl: Laura.  you?
gjd76: greg.  nice to meet you 🙂
musicgirl: nice to meet you too!
gjd76: laura, if i asked you to dinner, would you go out with me?
musicgirl: of course!
gjd76: then afterward we’d go for a walk… and i’d try to hold your hand… is that ok?
musicgirl! yes! i would love that! i love holding hands 🙂
gjd76: me too 🙂 so when we got back to my apartment… would you like to come in?
musicgirl! yes… i look into your eyes and smile 🙂
gjd76: i put my arm around you and pull you close and kiss you
musicgirl: mmm… i kiss you back passionately
gjd76: i pull you closer and kiss you again… i take your hand and take you to my bed
musicgirl: i lie down and pull you close and kiss you again and pull my body close to yours

The rest of the conversation went… well.  I don’t need to share the details.  After we finished, Laura said it was late, and she needed to go to bed.  I did too; I had a final in the morning.  But I was so aroused after my dirty conversation with Laura that I needed to finish myself before bed.  And when I did finally get to bed, I lay there awake for almost three hours, feeling guilty about what I had done.  I liked it.  Laura seemed nice, and it felt good.  But afterward, it felt wrong.  I was Catholic, and I was not supposed to be lusting after women like this.

By about 1:30 in the morning, I had to pee.  On the way back to my bed, I saw the piggy bank for our sister church in El Salvador.  I had a pile of change on my desk, close to two dollars.  I put it all in the piggy bank, then turned out the light and went back to bed.  If I was going to be misbehaving like this, I could at least do something to help out the less fortunate in El Salvador.  Maybe that would make up for it.

My physics and math finals were pretty easy.  Laura had emailed me back Monday night; I was afraid that she was going to say I was out of line for our sexually explicit conversation on Sunday, but instead she said I was a total sweetheart and she could not wait to hear back from me.  I wrote back telling her about my finals, and she replied while I was at school today, saying that she would be on IRC tonight.  But when I got there, in the late afternoon, she was not on.  I checked again after dinner, but I never saw Laura in the chat.  I wanted to talk to Laura and continue where we left off the other night.  But she never got on.  After about half an hour of frustration, I walked away from the computer and fantasized about Laura the same way I had Sunday night, leaving me burdened with guilt and a mess to clean up.  After I was done, I put another handful of change in the piggy bank for the church in El Salvador.

What was I doing with my life?  This could not possibly be healthy.  It probably would not help me find a girlfriend in real life.  I checked my email.  I had two messages from Mindy Jo, my friend in Georgia whom I had met on this same IRC channel last year.  Back in 1995, there were no hashtags and no social media, and viral posts spread through chain emails that people forwarded to all of their friends.  Mindy Jo’s first message was one of these chain emails; I had to scroll down for a while, because these forwarded emails would start with pages and pages of headers, containing dates and recipients of the message as it had been sent from person to person.  I scrolled down and saw light bulb jokes about different college majors.

How many psychology majors does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the bulb has to want to change.

How many French majors does it take to change a light bulb?
Un.

How many philosophy majors does it take to change a light bulb?
What does it really mean to change a light bulb anyway?

How many aerospace engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one.  Come on, it’s not rocket science.

I laughed loudly at that one, thinking of Sabrina being an aerospace engineer.  Maybe I could tell her that joke someday (I did), and she would think that it was so funny that she would leave her boyfriend and fall in love with me instead (she didn’t).

After I read the rest of the light bulb jokes, I read Mindy Jo’s other email.  In the last email I sent to her, I mentioned the time we had spoken on the phone and asked if I could ever call her again sometime.  She said in this reply that I could call tonight or tomorrow night, and that she would be up until at least midnight.  I looked at the phone, and at the clock; it was still well before midnight in Georgia.  I dialed Mindy Jo’s number and waited nervously as I heard ringing.

“Hello?” a tired voice said.

“Mindy Jo?  It’s Greg.”

“Hey!  How’re you doin’?”

“Not that great.  I dope I dint’ wake you up; you said I could call until midnight.”

“You’re fine.  I wasn’t sleepin’.”

“That’s good.”

“What’s wrong?  Why aren’t you doin’ great?”

“I’ve just been discouraged and frustrated about being alone.”

“You haven’t met a nice girl yet?”

“Most of the girls I really like are taken.  It happened again just the other day; I was talking to a cute girl I know from church, and she said something about her boyfriend.”

“I hate when that happens.  I had a crush on this guy freshman year, and I was about to tell him that I liked him when he said he was going to go see his girlfriend.”

“Exactly.  And I don’t really know how to ask a girl out.”  I did not tell Mindy Jo anything about my shame I was feeling about masturbating; she did not need to hear that.

“Just relax and be yourself.  Ask her to have lunch, or get a coffee, or something.  Wait, you don’t drink coffee, right?  You can get tea.  Or hot chocolate.”

“I don’t know.  It’s just all so confusing.”

“I wish you could just relax and not worry about this.  You’re a really great guy.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “It doesn’t always feel like it.”

“Promise me you’ll try to keep your chin up.”

“I’m trying,” I said.  “How have you been?”

“Well… this week has been interestin’.”

“How so?”

“Well… I was at the bar on Saturday, and I ran into this guy that I had a class with sophomore year.  We just got to talkin’ for awhile… and he said some nice things about me… and I don’t know if it was the alcohol or what, but he came over and… yeah.”

Came over and what?  I was confused.  I was missing something… Wait.  Was Mindy Jo trying to tell me that they had sex?  Would she do something like that, have sex with an acquaintance she picked up in a bar?  “At least I used a condom,” Mindy Jo continued, which answered my question.

“Hmm,” I replied, not sure what else to say.

“I need to get another AIDS test,” Mindy Jo continued.  “This is, umm, four guys now since last time.  And I didn’t always use a condom.”

I was still not sure how to reply to any of this.  “What do you have to do for that?”

“They just take blood.  I don’t like needles, though.”

“Well, I hope you’re okay.”

“Thanks.”

Mindy Jo and I talked for about another twenty minutes, mostly about other things.  We talked about our respective experiences with finals and our holiday plans.  When we were done talking, I was still feeling ashamed of myself from earlier, so instead of getting back on IRC I studied for my chemistry final that was coming up Friday morning.  This whole concept of having to get an AIDS test had never really intersected my reality at any point.  I knew all about AIDS, of course; I had taken health class in high school.  But I tended to associate it with lifestyles such as heavy drug use and extreme promiscuity, not the kinds of things I associated with my friends.   I did not know that Mindy Jo had been with so many guys, and I was unsure of what to do with this information.

But I had no right to be so judgmental.  My conversation with Laura on Sunday night proved that; I had slept with someone I barely knew, just like Mindy Jo had.  Of course, Mindy Jo’s tryst had been in real life, whereas Laura and I were ultimately just fantasizing, talking in a chat room.  And was that wrong?  I was not sure.  I felt conflicted, and I felt ashamed because of it.

A month later, when I turned in my piggy bank for the church in El Salvador, I handed it to Sister Mary Rose, and by then it had become heavy enough with coins representing my shame and penance that she had a visible reaction to its unexpected weight.  “It’s mostly pennies,” I lied.  If I was not already going to hell for my lustful behavior, certainly lying to a nun would not help my case any.

Mindy Jo told me a while later that her AIDS test came back negative, thankfully.  I just did not understand the way that many young people lived these days.  None of it made sense to me.  By not doing drugs and not having sex, I never had to worry about things like getting AIDS, or using contraceptives, or getting someone pregnant with a child I was not ready to raise.  Drugs had no appeal to me.  But why did I feel like I wanted sex so much?  Someday, hopefully, I would be married, and having sex with my wife would not feel shameful.  None of this made any sense, and I wondered if the reason girls did not like me was because I did not understand how to live like a reckless college student.  I eventually drifted off to sleep, my head full of some mix of shame and conflict.

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

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


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

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

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

Megan


 

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

I clicked Reply to answer Megan’s message.


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

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


 

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

“Hey, Liz,” I said.

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

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

“That sounds nice!”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

“Did you ever come last year?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

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

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

STUDENT ASSISTANT IV – TUTORING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.  It was good seeing you again.”

“You too!”

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

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Math.”

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

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

“That’s awesome.”

“What’s your name?”

“Amber.  What’s yours?”

“Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!”

“How was your summer?”

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

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

“Where is back home?”

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“You too.  Have a great day!”

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

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

 

September 18, 1995. New frontiers and new area codes.

Sleeping in was always a foreign concept to me.  I was a light sleeper, and I was used to waking up early for school.  Even when I wanted to sleep in, I woke up early.  But after two weeks in the new apartment, having no class or job to wake up for, and regularly staying up late reading, looking for girls to talk to on IRC chat channels, or just playing around on the computer, my body was gradually getting used to sleeping later.  This morning, I did not wake up until 9:30; I could not remember the last time I had slept in that late.

The morning was uneventful.  I spent a couple hours on IRC.  I had nothing to read, since I had recently finished part 5 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile and I had yet to make it to the bookstore to buy part 6.  I had been playing around with teaching myself HTML, the code used to make websites, although I had no way to share the files anywhere on the Internet for others to see.  University of Jeromeville student accounts did not have this feature.  A guy I knew from IRC said he could give me an account on his server, but he had not done this yet.

Around five o’clock, I went for a bike ride.  This had become part of my routine over the last couple weeks.  It was very hot during the daytime, and it did not begin to cool until around five at the earliest.  It was a dry heat, and the sun was low enough by five that it actually felt nice being outside.  I had explored much of Jeromeville on my bike over the last two weeks.  I had ridden extensively through the greenbelts of North and West Jeromeville.  I had seen all of campus, including the outlying agricultural areas and research buildings.  I had explored a new neighborhood still under construction at the northeast edge of town, and I had even explored some of the rural areas north of the city limits.  But one last frontier of Jeromeville remained mostly unexplored to me, and this would be my destination this afternoon.

I began my ride on very familiar routes.  I took Andrews Road all the way south into campus, past the Recreation Pavilion and Thong Bikini Hill, following it east through a 90 degree turn to the water tower.  From there, I took the narrow path into the Arboretum, continuing northeast to downtown Jeromeville.  I turned right on First Street.  At the next traffic light, where E Street became Cornell Boulevard, I turned on Cornell.

Cornell Boulevard headed diagonally southeast under a railroad track, through a very narrow underpass.  This part of the road was built in 1917, part of the first paved highway to connect Capital City with Bay City.  This road was no longer a main highway, having been bypassed by a freeway in the 1960s, but it was still the only connection between downtown and that freeway, and it had never been widened, resulting in horrific traffic jams at certain times of the day.  A pedestrian and bicycle path ran parallel to the street through its own small tunnel under the railroad track, allowing me and my bike to bypass the traffic jam.  I had walked through this smaller tunnel three months earlier, when a large group of people from my dorm had eaten at Murder Burger on the last night of the school year.

On the other end of the tunnel, pedaling uphill, I rode past Murder Burger, a hotel, an Italian restaurant, and, on the opposite side of the street, a gas station.  I continued against gravity as Cornell Boulevard crossed the freeway on an overpass, then I stopped pedaling for a while and coasted downhill into South Jeromeville.  The area known as South Jeromeville was actually southeast of downtown, but the name stuck because it was the only part of the city south of Highway 100.

I continued east on Cornell Boulevard, past some large office buildings, sprawling apartment complexes, and vacant lots yet to be developed.  When the road curved north back toward Highway 100, I turned south on a street called Valdez Street, which then curved east.  This was a residential neighborhood, with houses mostly on culs-de-sac, and it was still under construction, full of vacant lots and houses in various stages of completion.  At the end of one of the culs-de-sac, I saw what appeared to be a connection to a bike path, reminiscent of culs-de-sac in North Jeromeville that connect to the greenbelts.  The short connecting path led through an opening in a fence.  Could there be another greenbelt here?  I turned that way to investigate.

Behind the fence, I found a much longer path, running east-west along a dry creek bed.  On the other side of the creek was open farmland.  I knew where I was now.  In the late 19th century, after multiple floods in Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek was diverted into a parallel channel two miles to the south.  Later, the part of the old channel running through campus was dammed at both ends to make a long narrow lake, and the Arboretum on campus was planted around this lake.  But downstream from campus, the dry creek bed, called North Fork Arroyo Verde Creek on maps, remained dry, except to collect storm drain runoff during the wet season.  This is what I saw in front of me.  A park bench was on my right.  Trees grew between the path and the creek, oaks and wild walnut trees and others that I could not identify.  The ground was covered in grasses and weeds that had turned brown over the hot summer.

I turned left, heading east.  The creek was on my right, and to the left was a fence separating me from the construction site, a fence which would eventually be the back fence of people’s houses.  A couple hundred feet beyond this, another greenbelt split off of this one to head north.  I made a note to come back and explore that way later.

2019 south jville greenbelt
(Photograph taken June 2019.  The trees behind the fence at the upper left were much smaller in 1995 when the neighborhood was new.)

Short connecting paths to three more streets branched off to the left.  This neighborhood was complete, and the view to my left looked much like the greenbelts near my apartment: a thin strip of vegetation next to the path, and beyond that, fences separating the greenbelt from backyards, interrupted every few hundred feet by a path connecting to a residential street.  After this, the greenbelt path came to an end.  To the left, this street was a narrow residential street that continued some distance to the north, and to the right, the street crossed the creek bed, becoming a private dirt road leading to the farms beyond.

I turned around the way I came, back along the creek bed, and turned north to follow the other greenbelt that intersected this one.  I passed a playground, a field that looked big enough for soccer, and tennis courts.  A large apartment complex was behind the tennis courts, probably the same apartments I had seen on the corner of Cornell and Valdez.  An empty field lay across the path from the tennis courts.  Continuing north, I felt the path incline downward as it led into a tunnel under a street, and beyond that, back on ground level, I saw trees and fenced backyards on either side.

I followed the path about another half mile to Cornell Boulevard, running right next to Highway 100.  I wanted to continue exploring.  I had not seen much of this side of Jeromeville, and I had not explored the other direction of the creek.  But I also knew I had to get home.  I had been gone for well over half an hour, and I was still quite some distance from home, and I was getting hungry.

I turned west on Cornell toward home.  The road ran adjacent to the freeway for the first few hundred feet, with only a small barbed wire fence and a line of leafy, shady walnut trees between them.  I squinted a little, riding close to the direction of the setting sun, inhaling the scent of dry vegetation.  Something about this made me feel peaceful.  The weather was pleasantly warm with the sun shining at a low angle.  I was back in Jeromeville where I belonged, and this town still had a lot of unexplored territory for me.

I crossed back over the freeway and through the tunnel into downtown.  Instead of going back the way I came, I turned right on First and left on G Street, past the movie theater, the train station, a hardware store, and a few blocks of restaurants and bars, into a very old residential neighborhood.  I eventually turned left on 15th Street and right onto the path leading to the North Jeromeville greenbelts.  I crossed Coventry on the bike overpass and turned left on the part of the greenbelt that headed west, past tall leafy trees that cast shadows over parts of the path, eventually taking me right to the parking lot by my apartment.

I had been on my bike for a little over an hour, and I was drenched in sweat, but it was a good feeling.  After showering and eating a microwaved frozen dinner, I turned on IRC and went to my usual chat room to look for anyone I recognized, or possibly meet someone new.  I saw that Mindy Jo was in the room.  

gjd76: hi 🙂
MindyJoA: hey you
gjd76: how was your day?
MindyJoA: it was monday, nothing exciting.  i had class.  have you started classes yet?
gjd76: no.  thursday the 28th.
MindyJoA: i just don’t understand your school’s schedule.  i mean, you explained it to me, but it’s weird that you start so late
gjd76: we go later than you too, until the middle of june.  i kind of like it though, having september off has been really nice, it’s perfect weather here
MindyJoA: that makes sense. it’s really hot and humid here today

Mindy Jo was a fifth-year undergraduate at West Georgia College.  I had never been to Georgia, or anywhere in the eastern half of the United States, and when people from there described the weather as “hot and humid,” I had no concept of what that felt like.  I grew up with cool humid Pacific coast weather in Santa Lucia County, and now I was familiar with the hot dry summers here in the Valley, but hot humidity was a completely foreign concept to me.  I did not know how to react.  The next thing I typed was not about weather at all; it was a spontaneous thought that had popped into my head a few minutes earlier.

gjd76: hey, can i call you?
MindyJoA: huh? you mean like on the phone?
gjd76: yeah, i just feel like doing something different tonight
MindyJoA: sure.  770-555-0130
gjd76: ok.  give me a minute

After the incident earlier this month with Allison DarkSparkles, I was definitely not ready to meet another girl from the Internet in person.  But talking on the phone felt much safer than meeting in person.  I was not putting myself physically in unknown surroundings, and I had nothing to lose but the cost of a long-distance phone call.  It would be fun to finally hear the voice of someone I had been chatting and emailing with for several months.

I picked up the phone and dialed the number, pressing buttons quickly so I did not talk myself out of doing this.  It was fairly late at night in Georgia, but Mindy Jo was expecting my call, so I was not worried about waking her.

“Hello?” a voice said through the telephone.  Even with that one word I could tell that she spoke with a different accent from mine.  This was not surprising, since she was from Georgia, but when reading emails from her I never imagined her speaking like that.

“Mindy Jo?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Is this Greg?”

“Yes it is.”

“It’s good to hear from you.  It’s interesting to hear your voice.  It’s not quite how I imagined it.”

“Same with you,” I said.  “I didn’t think about the accent.”

“That’s funny.”

“This is going to sound weird, but did your area code just change recently?”

“It did.  About a month ago.  How did you know?”

“I’ve always had this weird fascination with area codes.  I used to want to memorize every area code someday.”

“Interesting.  I could see you doing that.”

“Yeah.  So I noticed once that all area codes have a middle digit of either 0 or 1.  That’s how the phone can tell that you’re dialing a different area code.”

“Really.”

“Yes.  But there aren’t any area codes left.  More people, more phones and stuff.  So apparently the technology is here now that area codes don’t have to have 0 or 1 in the middle digit.  I always look at the area code map in the phone book every year, and just this year I started seeing some new area codes that don’t have 0 or 1 in the middle.  Like your 770.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever dialed an area code without 0 or 1 in the middle.”

“I never would’ve thought about that.  It’s interesting the way your mind works.”

“Yeah.  I know.  And that’s probably why I can’t find a girlfriend.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mindy Jo said reassuringly.  “You’ll find someone.  I don’t understand why you’re still single.  You seem like a really great guy.”

“Well right now it’s because a lot of students haven’t moved back here yet.  But I just don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just ask.  If there’s a girl you like, just talk to her.  And say something like, hey, you want to go grab coffee after class, or something.”

“I don’t like coffee.”

“You can get hot chocolate.  Or something else.  Or go get ice cream or eat lunch instead.”

“I guess.  It just seems weird.”

“What’s weird about it?”

“She probably won’t like me.  Or,” I said, trailing off.  I had sudden flashbacks of lunch time in 8th grade, when I would sit vaguely near Rachelle Benedetti and look in her direction, but never actually say anything.  Paul Dickinson noticed me and asked if I liked Rachelle, I told him that I did, and by the end of the week the whole school knew.  Even some teachers knew.  I was embarrassed.  “Someone might find out I asked her out, and that’s embarrassing,” I continued.

“So what?  This isn’t junior high.  You’re an adult.  No one cares, and everyone gets turned down sometimes.  But you’ll never know what’ll happen until you try.”

“I guess,” I said.  “What about you?  Any guys in your life?”

“I’ve been on a few dates lately.  But nothing serious.  I need to concentrate on school this semester, so I can graduate at the end of the year.”  I wondered what she meant by a few dates but nothing serious.  Was she just hanging out with these guys?  Were they kissing?  Were they doing other stuff together?  These ordinary words about dating made no sense to me.

I stayed on the phone with Mindy Jo for another half hour.  I told her about my bike ride today, the time I met Allison DarkSparkles, and my classes for the upcoming quarter.  She told me about her classes, a terrible professor, and an awkward moment from last week when she ran into an ex-boyfriend.  After that, she told me she had to go to bed.  “But hey, I’m glad you called,” she said.  “I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yes.  Sleep well.”

“Good night, Greg.”

“Bye!”

Mindy Jo was the third girl from IRC whom I had spoken with on the telephone, and once she answered I did not feel nervous.  That was mostly because she was expecting my call, though.  Calling a girl out of nowhere and asking her to get coffee still terrified me.  Maybe it would be less scary if I liked coffee.  Maybe I needed to teach myself to like coffee, so that I would be able to ask girls out.

But Mindy Jo was right that I would never know what would happen unless I tried.  And I was trying new things.  I was exploring.  I was finding new parts of Jeromeville I had never seen before.  I tried meeting Allison DarkSparkles in person, and it did not go well.  I tried calling Mindy Jo on the phone, and it did go well.  And maybe someday, I would meet a girl and figure out a way to ask her out.  A new school year was about to start, I would be meeting new people in new classes.  Maybe when the right girl comes along at the right time, there will not be anything to figure out, and everything will just fall into place naturally.  Maybe she will open the metaphorical door, and all I will have to do is step through it.

Something kind of like what happened the following week, in fact; at least it felt that way at the time.  But I will save that story for later.