“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.”
“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.
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?
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’.”
“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’.”
“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.”
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.