January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

I had been in a bad mood all week.  I woke to rain Tuesday morning, and since then clouds had covered Jeromeville the entire time.  My week had been boring and uneventful, and I was feeling particularly grumpy about not having a girlfriend.  Earlier today, I saw Sabrina Murphy from church on campus, and she introduced me to her boyfriend.  I knew she had a boyfriend, I had been through the disappointment of learning that a month ago, but meeting him felt like a reminder that I was not good enough to date a girl like Sabrina.

It was now Friday evening, and once I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship tonight, I would be alone studying the entire weekend.  The National Football League championship game was coming up Sunday afternoon, but this year I would probably be watching it alone in my apartment.  Maybe that was a good thing; the team I despised the most, the Texas Toros, was heavily favored to win.

Dave McAllen of the JCF staff team spoke that night.  “‘I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel,’” Dave said, reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  “If you look back in Acts chapter 19, it tells about when Paul first visited Philippi.  The first Philippian to receive the gospel was a woman named Lydia.  It says, ‘When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.’  Paul and his companions did not just baptize her and take off.  They started a church that met at her house.”

I had been attending JCF since October.  At first, most of my thoughts during the group meetings were on learning people’s names, figuring out how the group worked, and wondering whether they would have a problem with me being Catholic.  But now that I had been part of the group for a few months, I was paying more attention to the actual content of the message.  I got a different perspective on Scripture from JCF than I got from Mass at the Newman Center.  Father Bill’s homily was usually something fairly brief and general, vaguely related to that week’s Scripture, but the messages given by Dave and the JCF staff applied specific Scriptures in relevant ways for university students in 1996.  Relationship was a big part of spreading the Gospel at a large university.  It was also, unfortunately, something deficient in my life.

After Dave’s talk and the final worship song, I stood and turned to my friends.  I had been sitting next to Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, and Jason Costello, all friends from my freshman dorm last year.  “How’s it going, Greg?” Charlie asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  “Except all my classes have midterms this week.”

“Good luck,” Caroline said.  

“Where are Liz and Ramon?” Charlie asked.

“They went to go see Ramon’s parents this weekend,” Caroline replied.

“Ramon said they’ll be back Sunday morning,” Jason added.  “I need to get going.  I had a midterm today, and I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Yeah,” Caroline said.  “I need to go too.  I need to start my paper.  It’s due Monday.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.  “Is anyone else doing anything tonight?”

“Not me,” Pete replied.  “I have to study all weekend.  I’m so behind in all my classes.”

“Pete’s my ride,” Charlie said, “and I’m behind too.”

“Good luck with your studying,” I said.  “I’ll see you guys later!”

The others said their goodbyes, and I walked around the room.  I knew that learning about the Bible should be the most important part of these meetings, but I was also enjoying the social aspect.  Dave spoke tonight about building relationships, so being social is important too, apparently.  Last week I went to a movie with those friends after JCF, and I was hoping something like that would happen tonight too.  If it did, though, it would not be with them; my opportunity had been stolen by studying, and by Liz and Ramon doing couple stuff.

A freshman named Brent Wang saw me and waved.  I approached him and the others standing next to him.  “Hey, Greg,” Brent said.  “How’s it going?”

“Not bad.  Just busy with school.  How are you guys?”

“I had a midterm today.  I don’t think I did too great.”

“I had one too,” said a tall curly-haired boy whose name I thought was Todd.  “I know I didn’t do too great.”

“That’s too bad,” I replied.  “But you never know.  What are you guys up to tonight?”

“We’re having an overnighter at our Bible study leader’s apartment,” Brent explained.  “Just something for the guys of our group to get to know each other.  We should actually get going; we told him we’d be there in just a minute.”

“Have fun!” I said.  “See you guys next week!”

Over the next twenty minutes, I had some positive small talk experiences but was ultimately unsuccessful in finding something to do.  By now, only ten people remained in the room, and most of them seemed to be helping clean up.  I sat in a seat by myself away from people and put my head down.  What was wrong with me?  Why was it so hard for me to make friends?  I hated being me sometimes.  I hated living alone and feeling out of the loop, and the only reason I lived alone was because I was out of the loop when people were making housing plans for the following year.  And would I ever know the feeling of being in love?

I looked down at the floor, fighting back tears, as I heard more and more of the few remaining students putting things away, saying goodbye, and leaving the room.  When the room was silent, as the last people were getting ready to leave, I heard footsteps approaching, probably to tell me that it was time to go, that they had to lock up.

“Are you okay?” a voice asked.  I looked up to see two guys of average height and build now sitting next to me.  The closer one had black hair and olive skin, and the one behind him had light brown hair and pointed features.

“I’m okay,” I said.  “I’m just having a rough night.  I feel like I don’t fit in around here.”

“Why’s that?  Did something happen?” the dark-haired guy asked me.  He was the same one who had spoken before, and I had seen him around JCF; I was pretty sure his name was Eddie.  I did not know the other guy.

“I haven’t been going here very long.  I don’t know a lot of people.  And the people I do know, sometimes I feel like I’m not really part of their group.”

“Your name’s Greg, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Eddie, and this is Xander.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Who would you say you know here?”

“Pete Green, Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, Jason Costello, Sarah Winters, Krista Curtis… we were all in the same dorm last year.  A lot of them weren’t here this week, though, and the ones who were went home early.”

“Sometimes people just have stuff going on,” Xander said.  “Don’t take it personally.”

“I know.”

“So you’re a sophomore?” Eddie asked.  “We are too.  Do you have roommates?”

“No.  I was in a single room in the dorm last year, and when everyone was making their plans for this year, I didn’t know what was going on until everyone had plans already.”

“Living alone can be nice,” Xander said.  “We live in a big house with eight of us total, and it gets noisy sometimes.”

“Yeah, but it gets lonely too.”

“Can we pray with you?” Eddie asked.

“Sure,” I said.  I found this to be another difference between students at JCF and students at the Newman Center, the willingness to pray for people openly in public like this.

Eddie placed his hand on my back and began speaking.  “Father God, I thank you for bringing Greg to JCF and having our lives intersect tonight.  I pray that Greg will know that he is loved.  I pray that he will experience your love in a whole new way this weekend.  I pray that you will come in and transform his life.  Wash away all the hurt and the pain and show him your blessings anew.”

“Jesus,” Xander added.  “I pray that you will help Greg find his place in our community.  I pray that he will hear from you and know your plan for his life.  I pray that you will bring him into the community you have prepared for him, and I thank you that we got to talk to him tonight.”  After a pause, he concluded, “In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Do you have any plans this weekend?” Eddie asked.

“No.  Just study and homework, but it won’t take the whole weekend.”

“Tonight we’re going to play games with some girls from JCF who live down the street from us.  And we’re going to watch the football championship on Sunday.  You want to come hang out with us?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Where do you guys live?”

“I’ll draw you a map.”  Eddie tore off a piece of paper and drew a map to a street called Baron Court, near Valdez Street and Cornell Boulevard.  He marked two locations at opposite ends of the street, labeling one of them “2212 – Eddie & Xander” and the other “2234 – Girls.”  “Do you know where that is?” he asked.  “It’s in south Jeromeville.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can find my way there.  Are you guys going there now?”

“Yeah.  We said we’d be there a while ago.:

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you in a bit then.”



Baron Court was about two miles from campus on the other side of Highway 100.  I had explored this neighborhood on my bike a few months earlier.  On one side of Baron Court was a large apartment complex with its main entrance around the corner on Valdez Street, and a row of duplexes lined the other side, ending in a cul-de-sac opening up to one of the Greenbelts.  The girls lived in the second to last duplex.  I did not know who these girls were, and I did not know if Eddie and Xander had arrived yet.  If I knocked, and they were not expecting me, would they be comfortable letting some strange man into their home at ten o’clock at night?  After waiting in the car nervously for over five minutes, I had not seen Eddie and Xander arrive, so I assumed that they had gotten there before me.  I walked up and rang the doorbell.

A shorter than average girl with dark curly hair opened the door.  Behind her I could see Eddie and Xander sitting on a couch, looking at the door as if they were expecting me.  “Greg!” Eddie said.  “You made it!  Come on in!”

“Hi, Greg.  I’m Kristina,” said the girl who answered the door.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  We shook hands, and I walked to the couch and sat next to Xander.  On a second couch, placed against the front wall out of view of the doorway, sat two other girls, one small and thin with brown hair and an athletic build, and one average height, but the tallest of the three, with bright blue eyes and straight light brown hair just past her shoulders.  I could not remember ever having met any of these girls before.  Around 150 students attended JCF on an average Friday, so I had not met everyone yet.  “These are my roommates, Kelly and Haley,” Kristina said.  “Six of us live here, but the other three went home for the weekend.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You too,” Kelly, the small athletic one, replied.

“So you go to JCF?” Haley asked.  “I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

“I’ve only been going for three months.  I don’t know a lot of people yet.”

“I didn’t have that experience.  It seems like everyone knew me the first time I went to large group,” Haley said, and the others chuckled.  I got the impression that she was referring to something specific that I did not know about, and just as I was about to ask, Eddie explained, “Haley’s brother goes to JCF too.  He’s a senior.  Do you know Christian Channing?  Glasses, goatee, about the same color hair as Haley.”

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” I said.

“Are you a freshman?” Haley asked.

“Sophomore.”

“Me too.”

“All of us are,” Kelly added, gesturing toward the six of us in the room.

“How’d you find out about JCF?” Kristina asked.

“A bunch of my friends from my dorm last year invited me.”  I told Kristina which JCF people lived in my dorm, and she and the other girls nodded.

“Are you in a Bible study?” Xander asked me.

“I’m not,” I said.  Hoping that this would not make my new friends gasp in horror, I added, “I actually don’t even have a Bible.”

“I think I have an extra Bible,” Kristina said.  “I’ll go look for it before you can leave.  You can have it.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “That would be nice.”

“So what do you want to play?” Eddie asked.

“We can always start with Uno,” Kristina replied.  “Is everyone okay with Uno?”

“Sure,” I said.  Kristina got up and returned a minute later with Uno and a few other games.  She dealt the cards, and we began playing, taking turns trying to match the color or the number of the previously played card.  We made small talk while we were playing, about classes and other things going on around JCF.

Xander played a red 3 card.  My turn was next, but Kristina jumped in and played the other red 3 card, out of turn.  “What?” I said.  “It’s my turn.”

“I had the other red 3,” Kristina explained.

“What do you mean?  Why did you play out of turn?”

“Because I had the exact match.”

“I don’t think that’s an actual rule,” Eddie said.  “Greg, you don’t play that way?”

“No.  It’s not a rule.  I read the rules when I was a kid.”

“That’s how we always play,” Kristina argued.

“That’s fine, as long as I know about it.  Are there any other made-up rules?”

“What about adding to draw cards?” Eddie asked.  “Like if I play a Draw Two, then instead of drawing two, Xander can play another Draw Two, and you would have to draw four.  And if you play another Draw Two, Haley would have to draw six.”

“I don’t know that one either, but that sounds interesting.”

We played three long games of Uno with these house rules that were new to me; I did not win any of them, but it was fun, especially when Kristina, after a great deal of playful trash-talking, had to draw twelve when three Wild Draw Four cards were played consecutively.  After Uno, we played Scattergories.  In this game, each player was given a list of categories and a short amount of time to write things in each category beginning with a predetermined letter.  Only unique answers, different from those of all other players, counted for points.  For the first round the letter was B.  I read the categories and began writing.

Heroes: Batman, but I made a note to change it if I had time, since someone else would probably say that.  Terms of endearment: Babe.  Same thing, someone else would probably say it.  Tropical locations: Bikini Atoll.  Items in your purse/wallet: Bucks.  As in money.  That was creative.  Things that are black: Barry Bonds.  Not exactly politically correct, but good for laughs, and I would get two points for using something with two B words.  I started to panic as the timer inched closer to 0.  At the last minute, I crossed out Batman and put “Bueller, Ferris” for Heroes.  In the movie, Cameron calls him his hero, so I thought I had a good argument.

When the timer went off, we began reading our answers.  “Heroes,” Kristina said.  “Batman.”  Kelly and Xander both groaned that they had also written Batman, so I had made a good choice to change mine.  “Bueller, Ferris,” I said.  Imitating Cameron from the movie, I added, “Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero,” in an exaggerated nasal deadpan.  The others laughed and agreed that my answer counted.

“Items in your purse,” Eddie said.

“Big bills!” Kristina shouted.  “Two points!”

“Isn’t that only one point?” I asked.  “Because ‘big’ isn’t really a necessary part of the answer.  It’s just ‘bills.’”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “I think you only get the point for ‘bills.’”

We continued reading our answers; I scored eight points that round.  We chose a new list for the next round, and Kelly rolled the alphabet die; it landed on C.  I read my new categories and tried to think of C words.  Famous females: Christina Applegate.  Things made of metal: Crowbar.  Medicine/Drugs: Cocaine.  Names in the Bible: This is where my lack of a Bible might hurt me.  I wrote Caleb; I was pretty sure there was a Caleb in the Bible.

“Famous females,” Eddie said as the timer went off.

“Christina Applegate,” I said.  No one else had that.

“Sheryl Crow!” Kristina exclaimed loudly.

“That’s only one point,” I said.  “Sheryl is spelled with an S, not a C.”

“Well, aren’t you the king of not letting me get two points!” Kristina said with mock indignation.

“And you’re the queen of answers that don’t count,” I replied.  Everyone laughed.

It was past midnight by the time we finished the third and final round of Scattergories.  “We should probably get going,” Eddie said.  “It’s getting late.  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Probably,” Kristina replied.  “Wait.  Hang on.”  She walked out of the room, then returned a minute later holding a Bible, which she handed me.  “Here, Greg.  You said you needed this.”

“Yes!  Thank you!”

“It was nice to meet you, Greg,” Haley said, smiling.

“You too.”  I looked at her and smiled back.

“Yeah,” Kelly added.  “Nice meeting you, Greg.”

As we left, walking outside toward the sidewalk, I pointed to my left and asked, “So your house is right down there?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “We’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes.  I’ll be there.  Thanks for inviting me.”

“Drive safely,” Xander said.  “See you Sunday.”

“See you guys then,” I replied.

I got in my car and put Kristina’s Bible on the front seat.  Things really turned around tonight.  Dave spoke tonight about the ministry of the early Christians being built on relationships, and Eddie and Xander heard that message loud and clear, reaching out to me to build friendships that have lasted to this day, even though we now live far apart.  Decades later, I was given the chance to pass on this message about ministry through building relationships.  I was invited to speak at JCF’s Alumni Night in 2016, and I told the students about the night I got upset and threw a cardboard box at Sarah Winters and my friends prayed for me, as well as this night, when Eddie and Xander invited to play Uno and Scattergories.

I went to bed shortly after I got home that night.  It felt like pieces were finally falling into place.  I had many more pieces to go to solve this great puzzle of life, but I felt a little closer to figuring things out tonight than I had earlier.  As I drifted off to sleep, I felt at peace, thinking about my new friends, how Eddie and Xander had included me in their life tonight.  I was going to see them again on Sunday, and it was going to be awesome.

And I also thought quite a bit about Haley Channing and her beautiful blue eyes.  I really, really hoped that she did not have a boyfriend.

The actual bible Kristina gave me on that day, a bit more worn now.

January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

A few months ago, during October of my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had gotten involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a chapter of an international nondenominational organization called Intervarsity.  JCF had weekly meetings on Fridays with worship music with someone giving a talk about the Bible, and attending these was the extent of my involvement so far.  I knew that there were also small group Bible studies and a few retreats every year, but I had not gotten involved in those yet.

As a relative newcomer to the group, I was still learning the etiquette.  Some people stood up during worship, some waved their hands, some sat quietly.  I was having trouble doing any of those right now because I had to pee, and I was not sure if getting up to use the bathroom during the music was frowned upon.  I walked quickly to the bathroom as soon as the last song and closing prayer ended, and when I got back to my seat, Liz and Ramon, Jason, Sarah, Caroline, and Krista were standing where I had been sitting.  I stood quietly next to Sarah.  All six of these people had been in my dorm freshman year, and they were how I first knew about JCF.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said.  “What are you doing tonight?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“We’re going to 199 Stone to see Dangerous Minds.  You want to come?”

“Sure,” I said.  “When does it start?”

“10.  We don’t need to leave quite yet, but we should probably leave soon, to get there early.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Good idea.”

A little while later, the seven of us left Evans Hall and walked to Stone Hall.  Evans and Stone were right next to each other on Davis Drive, so we did not have far to walk.  A division of the Associated Students organization called Campus Cinema used the large 400-seat lecture hall in Stone as a second-run theater on weekends, showing movies that had played in theaters a few months earlier but were not released on video yet.  Tickets were three dollars, less than even matinee prices at actual theaters.

Two lines extended from the front of the building, a relatively short line of people waiting to buy tickets, and a longer line of about 50 people who already bought tickets and were now waiting for the earlier show to get out.  The seven of us paid for our tickets and moved to the back of the longer line.  “This is based on a true story, right?” Krista asked.

“Yeah,” Sarah replied.

I did not know a whole lot about this movie, except that it was about an inner-city teacher, and that the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” came from this movie.  I only knew that song because of Mark, my younger brother who loved gangsta rap.  I did not realize that the movie was based on a true story.

About five minutes after we arrived, more people trickled in and moved to the back of the line where we stood.  At one point, I spotted a familiar face walking toward me, and my mind flooded with thoughts.  What do I say?  I have not seen her in a while, and our last conversation was kind of awkward on my end.  Maybe I should–

“Megan!” I called out, waving, interrupting the voices in my head.

Megan looked around for the source of the person greeting her.  She saw me and smiled.  “Greg!  How are you?”

“I’m doing ok.  Classes are going well.  How are you?”

“I’m great!”

“How’s your building?”

“It’s good.  It’s a pretty calm group of people so far.  There hasn’t been a lot of drama.  I have to go, I need to find the people I’m meeting here, but hey, it was good seeing you!”

“You too!” I said, smiling.  Had I been asked yesterday, I would have said that I was making progress in getting over Megan.   When she mentioned two months ago that she was dating someone, I was devastated, but I did not think of her as often since I did not see her as often anymore.  Last year, she was an RA in a dorm in the same campus residential area as mine, and I saw her frequently around the dining commons.  This year, she was an RA in a different residential area, and I lived off campus.

As I stood there in line, I found that I could not help but wonder if Megan and this guy were still together.  Maybe that was who she was meeting.    To my knowledge, Megan had no idea how I felt about her, since I never knew how to tell girls that I liked them.  In the time since I found out that Megan had a boyfriend, I had also found out that another girl I liked had a boyfriend; this was a common theme in my life.

I saw a crowd of people leave the building as the early show ended, and a few minutes later, our line started moving.  We climbed up to the building’s front entrance, walked across the lobby, and then down the aisle of the lecture hall.  “Is this okay?” Liz asked as she gestured toward a mostly empty row in the center section toward the back.

“Sure,” I said, nodding.  The others assented as well, and we sat down in seven consecutive seats.  I watched as advertisements for other Associated Students services flashed on the screen, mixed with a few silly announcements.  “Want to learn to be a projectionist?  So do we,” one of them said.  I laughed.

I looked around me at people filling in the seats.  I saw Megan and her friends walk past us; they sat three rows in front of us.  I looked back up at the screen, watching the advertisements, occasionally looking around but unable to stop myself from glancing at the back of Megan’s head.  She was talking to one of the people she came with, an Asian girl with shoulder-length hair; they were laughing about something.  Megan put her arm around the girl and leaned forward, and they kissed on the lips.  Megan pulled back, smiling, then leaned toward the girl and kissed her again, leaving her arm around the girl after their lips separated.

Wait, I thought.  What just happened?

Megan never told me that she had a boyfriend.  Her exact words were “the person I’m dating,” and apparently the person she was dating was a girl.

The movie started, and I tried to pay attention to what was happening on the screen.  Although it was dark in the building once the movie started, I could still see the outline of Megan and her girlfriend cuddling.  I tried to look away.  Looking at her felt wrong.  Not only was she in a relationship, but it was a same-sex relationship, and that she was not even into guys in the first place.  I forced myself to watch the movie, at times even putting my hands over my face to cover just enough of my field of vision so as not to be able to see Megan and her girlfriend.

I became more absorbed in the movie as it went on, watching Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Ms. Johnson, struggling to connect with the city kids in her class and relate to their experiences.  In one scene, the mother of one of the students called Ms. Johnson a vulgar name and told her that she should not teach these students to be academically successful.  I could not understand how someone could possibly have such low expectations for her own child.  I would have just as hard of a time as Ms. Johnson understanding the world that these students lived in, and she was much more patient with the students than I would have been.

At the end of the movie, Ms. Johnson’s character was unable to save one of the students from the dangers of street life.  She seemed to feel that all her efforts were futile.  Futility felt familiar tonight.  All of my efforts to get closer to Megan, the late night conversations, sitting with her and her friends in the dining hall, exchanging birthday cards, the time we had lunch and hung out in her room, none of that mattered.  I did the best I could, but I was doomed from the start just because I was a guy.

When the movie ended, people began standing and filing out of the theater.  I realized that I could turn toward my friends so that Megan would be behind me, and I would not have to see her as she left the building with her girlfriend.  But I also did not want to be conspicuous or rude about this.  I stood facing forward as I normally would, waiting for the people around me to leave,and as Megan and her girlfriend walked up the aisle past me, I made eye contact with Megan and waved.

“Good night, Greg,” Megan said.  “Have a good weekend!”

“You too,” I said, trying my best to act the way I always did, hiding the disappointment in my voice.  I turned to my left, to the people I came with.

“What did you think of the movie?” Sarah asked.

“I liked it,” I said.  “Sad, but that’s life sometimes.  Sometimes, no matter what you do, things don’t work out.”

“Yeah.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Krista added.  “But I thought it was cool how much effort she made to relate to the students.”

“It wasn’t bad, but there are already a lot of movies like this,” Jason observed.  “Kids from rough neighborhoods and teachers trying to relate to them.”

“Yeah,” Krista agreed.

“You ready to go?” Liz asked me.  I realized that I was standing closest to the aisle, so I would have to leave first in order for the others to get out.  The crowd of people filing out had begun to thin, so I nodded walked toward the aisle.  We stood outside in the cool night for a few minutes, talking about weekend plans and classes.  Eventually, we all said our goodbyes, and I walked back to my car and returned to my apartment.


The next day was Saturday, and I did not have to wake up early for class.  I lay in bed for over an hour after waking up, processing the events of the previous night.  Megan McCauley was a lesbian.  I saw her kissing a woman.  Sometimes, in the back of my mind, I was still holding out hope in my mind that things would not work out with the person Megan was dating, and that I might have a chance with her.  Last night had put an end to that hope.  All it took was one look, last night while I waited for the movie to start, for what hope I had left to be put to death quickly.  I supposed, though, that finding out the way I did had its advantages.  Had I actually been brave enough to ask her out, she would have had to tell me that she did not like guys, and that interaction would have been awkward and embarrassing.

I put on a sweatshirt and went for a bike ride, trying to clear my head.  I rode south on Andrews Road toward campus, intending to ride the entire length of the University Arboretum east to west.  But as I approached, I realized that my route would take me right past Carter Hall, Megan’s dorm, and the North Area Dining Commons where we had met for lunch in September.  I turned left on Fifth Street and entered campus on Colt Avenue instead.  I did not want to ride past Megan’s building and think about her and her girlfriend in bed together.  But it was too late; the thoughts were already there.

One look.  All it took was one look to ruin my hope and my weekend.  What if I had not looked up while I was in line and seen Megan outside of Stone Hall?  Or what if I had made an effort not to look at her once I got to my seat?  What if I had not gone to the movie last night at all?  Then maybe I would have still been blissfuly unaware of Megan’s sexual orientation, and I would not have felt this awkwardness over having spent a year of my life having a crush on someone whom I did not even realize was not into guys at all.  One look can turn happiness to sadness.  That sounded poetic.

I stopped when I arrived at the east end of the Arboretum, behind the art and music buildings.  Perhaps my mind was giving birth to another poem; I had been writing a lot lately.  I did not like the “happiness to sadness” part, though.  I continued riding my bike a short distance through the Arboretum and sat on a bench overlooking the small lake next to Marks Hall.  The sky was blue, without a cloud in sight, but it was still January, and many of the trees in the Arboretum had shed their leaves.  One look can turn summer into winter.  No, that was not quite right.  One look can turn the blue skies into gray.  Iambic pentameter, very Shakespearean, but still not quite right.

One look can turn the daytime into night.

That was it.  That was going to be the first line of my poem.  Two years ago, in high school, we had studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I had become fascinated with their rhythm and rhyme pattern.  I also found it interesting how much had been speculated over the years regarding who they were written to, or about, although I had not studied this in great detail.  I continued my ride west through the Arboretum, thinking about how one look ruined my night last night, and how if I were to gouge out my eyes, I would not be able to see uncomfortable truths in the first place.

When I reached the oak grove at the end of the Arboretum, I continued on Thompson Drive across Highway 117 to the rural part of campus, past the sheep barn in the middle of the agricultural research fields.  At the south end of Hawkins Road, I stopped again and stood for a few minutes.  Olive trees lined both sides of the road.  Behind me was Arroyo Verde Creek, with oaks and sycamores and various small bushes along its banks.  Riding my bike on this route always made me feel so peaceful.  Despite still being on a large university campus, I felt like I was miles and miles from civilization, not worried about girls rejecting me, or upcoming exams, or my uncertain future.

In Mr. Jackson’s AP English class at Plumdale High, we studied a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets in detail.  Sonnet 29, the one that begins “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” was my favorite.  Today I felt like I was in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.  Life just sucked sometimes.  Shakespeare used fourteen grandiloquent lines of iambic pentameter to say, essentially, that when he felt discouraged, hopeless, or envious of others, he simply thought of a certain special someone, and having this person in his life was more important than everything that was bringing him down.  Scholars had spent centuries speculating about the identity and gender of this special someone and the nature of his or her relationship to Shakespeare.

But, now that I took the time to get out of my head and think about things, there was no mystery to the identity of my special someone, or in this case, multiple special someones.  Sure, I had never had a romantic partner.  Megan had a girlfriend.  Sabrina Murphy had a boyfriend.  Back home, I never got anywhere with Rachelle Benedetti or Kim Jensen or Melissa Holmes or Jennifer Henson or Annie Gambrell.  But I had people who cared about me, and that really was important.  Sarah and Krista and Liz and Ramon and Jason and Caroline had invited me to the movie last night.  Taylor Santiago and Pete Green and Charlie Watson always welcomed me to their apartment when I just needed to get out of my apartment and interact with human beings.  I had my friends from the Newman Center, I was making new friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, I made friends in my dorm last year, and I had a few friends from classes or just from seeing them around campus.  Sure, none of these people was my girlfriend, but they cared about me, and in my darkest moments, they had been there for me.

As I rode my bike back home, I continued thinking of ways to put my feelings into iambic pentameter.  I was now modeling my poem on Sonnet 29, using the first eight lines to lament the illusion-shattering experience of seeing Megan kiss a girl, but then reflecting on the positive things in my life in the final six lines.  I wrote down what I had so far when I got home, then after making lunch and spending a few hours studying, I logged onto an IRC chat in one window with my poem open in another window, writing my poem as I waited for people to reply to my messages.  I finished a little after midnight.


“One Look”

One look can turn the daytime into night,
A happy day into a tedious chore;
One misdirected glance, and all’s not right,
The ships I’ve tried to sink arrive at shore.
I think that I will gouge out both my eyes
And lay this possibility to rest;
No more will I see through some grand disguise
To find that things are not as I’d have guessed.
But then my eyes would shut to all the love
My friends have shown in times of great despair,
And blind I’d be to gifts from God above,
And times I’ve persevered when life’s not fair;
One painful sight is quite a modest price
To pay to live a life of things so nice.


Megan and I did not stay close for the rest of the time we were at UJ.  I had of course not ruled out the possibility that she was bisexual, interested in both women and men, but that was not something I wanted to think about, and it was beside the point.  Although I did not grow up with much exposure to the LGBTQ community or lifestyles, I did not reject her out of prejudice.  We had already started growing apart now that I did not eat at the dining hall anymore.  I also made less of an effort to stay in touch with her once I found out she was dating someone, because I knew she would not be interested in me.  I did not avoid her intentionally; I still saw her on campus over the years and said hi occasionally.  But we just ran in different circles, and sometimes people just naturally grow apart.

After this, I only have one more specific memory of an actual conversation with Megan.  It was early in my senior year, her fifth year, when I passed her on the way to class.  She told me she had two more quarters left to finish her undergrad degree, I told her about what I had done over the summer, and she told me that a friend of hers had done the same thing as me a few years earlier.  Additionally, in 2014, I was looking at the website for a place where I had a job interview coming up, and I saw a mention of an employee named Megan McCauley .  I do not know if it was the same person, but Megan’s degree was in chemical engineering, and this person’s position was related enough to chemistry that it was possible.  No picture accompanied the name.  I decided to let sleeping dogs lie and not try to figure out if this was the same Megan McCauley; it did not matter in the end, because I was not offered the job.  If Megan and I are ever meant to cross paths again someday, I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

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.

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.

November 10-12, 1995.  Creating a fantasy world.

The first World War ended on November 11, 1918, and many of the countries involved now observe a holiday on November 11.  The holiday goes by different names around the world; in the United States, we call it Veterans Day.  Many government offices are closed on Veterans Day, and students are off school.  When November 11 falls on a weekend, as it did this year, schools close on the nearest Friday or Monday.

Except for the University of Jeromeville.  We got no day off.  Even last year, when November 11 was on an actual school day, we got no day off.  I never knew why.  I wondered if this was a legacy of universities traditionally being full of anti-war hippie types who did not want to celebrate our military.  But we did get a day off in May for Memorial Day, the holiday commemorating those who died serving our country.  And the building I was walking through right now was called the Memorial Union, or the “MU” for short, named to remember UJ students who died in military service.

It had been a typical Friday so far.  My day started waiting in the hallway of Wellington Hall for math class, because another class occupied the classroom immediately before our class.  Jack Chalmers from my class said hi to a girl named Lizzie as she left that class and we entered the room for ours, just as he did every day.  Math was easy.  I crossed the street to the MU at 10 and did homework for an hour.  I met some tutees in 102 Wellington, the tutoring room, at 11.  I just learned that word this quarter working for the Learning Skills Center: “tutee,” meaning one who is being tutored.  Tutee is a great word.  At 12, I walked down Colt Avenue to 199 Stone for chemistry, and then back to the MU to eat lunch.  I got up, went to the bathroom, and walked back through the MU on the way to my physics class in Ross Hall when I saw her.

When I see a familiar face in a setting that this person is not normally connected to, my brain always takes a few seconds to register what I am seeing.  At first all I saw was two young-looking girls walking toward me.  They were both a little on the short side.  One wore a dark red sweatshirt with a hood and a brand name logo unfamiliar to me, and the other wore a black jacket with white sleeves, and a large letter P on her left side.  I recognized that this was a Plumdale High School letter jacket.

What is a Plumdale High School letter jacket doing in Jeromeville?  Who is this person?  Do I know her?

Holy crap, it’s her.  What is she doing here?  What do I say?

Just before she walked past me, I said, “Annie?”

The two girls stopped.  Annie, the one in the Plumdale High jacket, looked at me, looking just as surprised as I was at first until recognition came over her face a second later.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.  “Visiting your brother?”

“My boyfriend goes here now too,” Annie replied.

There it is again.  The B word.  I wondered whether she was still with the same boyfriend as last year, or if this was some new guy.  Either way, though, Annie’s boyfriend was not me.

“It was good seeing you,” I said.  “Have a great weekend!”

“You too!” Annie replied.  The girl she was with waved at me; I recognized this girl’s face, she was from Plumdale High too, but I could not remember her name.

My mind raced as I walked away from them, toward my physics class.  Annie Gambrell was here, in Jeromeville.  I had a chance to talk to her, and I felt like I blew it.  Should I have said more?  She seemed busy, and she was not here to visit me.  She had a boyfriend; she was not coming here to meet guys.  But I did not know when, or if, I would ever see her again.  Maybe I should have talked more.  Or maybe she doesn’t really care about me, and all that nice stuff she wrote in my yearbook senior year was just for the sake of being polite and she didn’t really mean it.  Should I tell Annie’s brother next time I see him that I ran into her?  Does he think it’s weird that I have an unrequited crush on his unavailable little sister, even though I haven’t actually told him anything other than that I know her?

After physics class, I had another tutoring group back in the study room at 102 Wellington.  “Hi,” the tall blonde guy who was just finishing a tutoring group at the table next to me said as I walked in.   I knew from looking at the schedule of tutoring groups in this room that his name was Scott Madison.  He looked familiar for some reason, but maybe I was just used to seeing him here.

“Hi,” I replied to Scott.  I then turned to two of the three students in my group who were already waiting and asked, “Are you ready to get started?”

My tutoring group went as they usually do.  These students were in Short Calculus, Math 16A, for majors which do not require any math above calculus.  Their work focuses on finding and applying derivatives of functions without studying the theory and proofs behind derivatives.  I did not enjoy tutoring the Math 16 series as much as I did the 21 series, for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, because it was difficult for me, as a math guy, to gloss over the theoretical stuff.  But I got paid to do so, and I did my best, hoping not to confuse the students too much.

At four o’clock, when the tutoring group was finished, I walked diagonally across the Quad to the Learning Skills Center in Krueger Hall to turn in my time sheet for tutoring, as I did every other Friday, then back along East Quad Avenue to catch a bus home from the MU.  A few hours later, after napping and eating, I returned to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I drove this time, because parking is easy to find and slightly less expensive in the evening.

Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis were standing around talking on the far side of the lecture hall where the group was held; I walked over to them and said hi.  The four of them all lived in the same apartment complex, the boys in one apartment and the girls in another, and all of us were in the same dorm last year.

“Hey, man,” Taylor said.  “How’s it goin’?”

“Pretty good,” I replied.

“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.

“One of my friends from high school, she’s a senior this year, I saw her and her friend walking around campus today.  It was unexpected.”

“What was she doing here?” Krista asked.  “Touring the campus?”

“Her brother goes here.  I know him.  And she said her boyfriend goes here too.”

“So was she skipping school?” Taylor asked, adding sarcastically, “I don’t know anything at all about skipping classes…”

“She probably didn’t have school today,” I explained.  “Tomorrow is Veterans Day.  We always got that off in high school.”

“Oh yeah.  It’s a holiday.”

“Why don’t we get Veterans Day off?” Charlie asked rhetorically.  “It’s not fair.”

“It’s supposed to be a holiday?” I heard Jason Costello’s voice say behind me.

“Tomorrow is Veterans Day,” I explained, turning around.  Ramon Quintero and his girlfriend Liz Williams were with him; they were all in our dorm last year as well.  “I don’t know why Jeromeville doesn’t get it off, but I noticed that last year too.”

There had been no JCF the week before, because the group had been on a retreat with sister chapters of this organization at other colleges and universities in the region.  I had not attended the retreat, but most of my friends here did.  Taylor and Charlie were talking about something that happened to Pete Green, Taylor and Charlie’s third roommate, at the retreat.  “Where is Pete tonight anyway?” I asked.

“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.

“Visiting his family there?”

“Yeah.”

I heard someone from the worship band welcoming us to JCF and saying that it was time to get started.  As the band played, and sang along to lyrics being displayed on an overhead projector, my eyes scanned the front of the room, watching the people on the worship team.  I saw the drummer and realized something: it was Scott Madison, the other tutor who had said hi to me this afternoon.  That was why he looked so familiar; this was my third time at JCF, and I had probably seen him play drums here before.  At the end of the night, I said hi to him and formally introduced myself; he seemed like a nice guy.  (A few years later, Scott would become the first non-relative to invite me to his wedding, and I still get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.)

 

Although my Friday had ended on a good note, I woke up feeling down again on Saturday morning.  It was a cool and gloomy day, with gray skies that threatened rain.  Summer in Jeromeville is sunny and hot, and winter is relatively mild compared to much of the United States.  It only snows high in the mountains, snow here on the valley floor is very rare, but rain is fairly common in the winter.  And the transition period from summer to winter is very short, usually occurring around early November.  Winter had arrived earlier this week, and it was supposed to rain intermittently all weekend.  Rain made me sad and anxious.

I spent the morning doing homework and reading.  By mid-afternoon, some patches of blue sky had appeared, and the threat of rain had passed, so I went for a bike ride.  I started riding through the Greenbelts, then back down G Street toward downtown, but despite keeping myself busy, I kept thinking about my chance encounter with Annie yesterday.  Why hadn’t I asked for her address or phone number, so I could try keeping in touch?  I subconsciously knew that there was no point, though.  I had given her my address at Plumdale High’s Homecoming a year ago and never heard from her, and knowing that she had a boyfriend made it feel futile to pursue anything, although I would have been happy just being friends.

Two years ago, I was a senior at Plumdale High, and I felt like I grew a lot that year.  I finally had a social life, and I made new friends, including Annie.  But then I graduated, I moved away, many of my senior class friends moved away in different directions, and I lost touch with many of my friends.  There was no texting or social media in those days, and only a few of my friends used email, so it was difficult to keep in touch.  And despite all that, I still felt like I was on the outer fringes of the social circle in high school, not really one of them.

I wished that the events of my senior year had happened during sophomore or junior year instead.  That way, I might have had time to solidify some of those friendships before we scattered.  Maybe I would have learned how to actually ask a girl out.  Maybe Annie would have broken up with her boyfriend, and I would have been able to use those new skills.

What if I just ran away and pretended to be in high school again?  What would that be like?  What would it take?  A fake birth certificate would probably be hard to find.  Maybe I wouldn’t need one.  Maybe I would just need fake transcripts to show to the new school.  Being 19 and still in high school was unusual, but not exactly unheard of.  My birthday came right at the start of the school year, so I started kindergarten when I was barely 5.  Some parents would have chosen for me to start kindergarten the following year.  My parents did that with my brother Mark; with his birthday in October, they chose to wait until he was almost 6 to put him in kindergarten.  Mark would turn 18 in the fall of 1999, early in his senior year, and someone his age who had repeated a grade in elementary school would be a 19-year-old senior.

Could I do this?  Would it be possible to fake my identity and get a second try at my senior year of high school?  Probably not.  Lying on important documents like transcripts seemed too dishonest and illegal for me to be comfortable with it.  But, I thought, all of this seemed like a great premise for a work of fiction.

I had been writing again in my spare time recently.  Last year, I wrote a short novel called The Commencement, based on all the growing up I did as a senior in high school.  I had been revising and expanding it lately, and it was up to 62 pages.  I was running out of ideas for how to expand The Commencement, so maybe it was time to work on something new.

As I continued riding my bike that afternoon, along the entire length of the Arboretum and back up Andrews Road toward home, I kept thinking about faking my identity and going back to high school.  How would that be possible?  Maybe this story would take place at a different point in life; going back to high school now seemed like too much of a stretch, and none of my thoughts led to anything realistic.  Maybe my character would run away while he was a senior in high school, and go to a new school in a new town, pretending to be two years younger.  I would focus my writing on everything he dislikes about life, and all of his unfinished business, to make the desire to run away real.  But if he is not an adult, how can he just do this, and where would he go?  That was easy; I could make him turn 18 early in his senior year.  And I could give him divorced parents living far from each other, so he would have the option to go move in with the other parent.

When I got home from my bike ride, I showered and put a frozen dinner in the microwave.  I put on some music from high school, starting with Pearl Jam’s Ten album, and began writing.  I started my novel, which was still untitled at this point, by quoting a song lyric, as Stephen King often did with his novels, then proceeded to set the scene of a character who felt like he did not fit in with his friends.


“I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life”
—Pink Floyd

1

“Where were you this morning?” Ryan asked Sara.

“I was…” Sara paused.  “Sleeping in,” she said, with a mischievous grin on her face.

Sleeping in? Jon thought.

“You missed class?” Becky teased.

“He said we didn’t have to come today,” Sara said defensively.  “He was just doing a review for the test tomorrow.  I needed a break, and I feel prepared for the test.”  Jon began to feel somewhat angry after hearing this.

“How did you get out of band?” Kate asked.  “Does Mr. Jackson know you were gone?”

“He knows,” Sara said.  “He knows I had to see the dentist.”  Sara and the others laughed.  All except Jon.  Some people could just do whatever they wanted and not get caught.  But if Jon tried it, he would get stopped at the gate because ___ High School was a closed campus.  It wasn’t fair.


I left the name of the school blank.  I had not decided yet where Jon and his friends lived.  I usually wrote about places familiar to me, so they would have to live somewhere back home in Santa Lucia County, or Jeromeville, or maybe across the Drawbridge from Jeromeville in Capital City, or maybe Bidwell where my dad had family.  But it would make more sense to have Jon run away to one of those places familiar to me, and to have the story open somewhere else, somewhere more interesting.  I thought about different cities and states that had been on my mind recently and settled on San Diego, California, where my friend Pete had once lived and was currently visiting his family.  I could ask Pete next time I saw him to suggest a good name for a high school in San Diego.

I continued writing about Jon’s day.  Jon heard his friends talk about college applications, and about movies they liked that Jon had never seen, and movies they hated that Jon liked.  I wrote about Jon’s feelings of inferiority regarding a lack of extracurricular activities for college applications, and a conversation he had with the school counselor about this, and more laments in Jon’s head about not belonging and not feeling good enough.  I thought back to yesterday when I ran into Annie Gambrell and wrote this scene for the end of Jon’s school day.


“Jon! What are you doing?”  He looked up at Kelly ___, one of the few underclassmen he knew.  He met her last month while interviewing her for the yearbook, doing the page on the women’s’ JV cross-country team.  Sometimes Jon thought that the fact that women’s’ JV cross-country got two whole pages in the yearbook was just part of an international conspiracy that ensured that certain people, who were labeled “popular,” got in the yearbook at least twenty times every year whereas other people only got in once.  This was the same conspiracy that invented Homecoming Queens and the modern system of student government.  Jon had nothing against women’s sports, or unpopular sports; he just didn’t like being unpopular.

“Hi.”  Jon looked up and saw that she was with a friend.  He thought the friend’s name was Nicole, but he did not know her.

“What are you doing?  Waiting for someone?” Kelly asked.

“No.  Just…” he paused.  “Thinking.”

“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.

“I’m all right.  I just kind of had a rough day.”

“Don’t worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Jon replied.  “See you later.” Jon really liked Kelly.  She seemed really nice, and she was pretty too.  She had a beautiful smile.  Unfortunately, she already had a boyfriend.  Jon got in his truck and drove home, thinking about what it would be like to have a relationship with Kelly.


I thought about making the last name for the Annie character something that sounded like Annie, or like Gambrell.  The only thing I could think of was “Aniston,” the last name of one of the actors on the TV show Friends.  There was no way I would name someone in my story after Friends, so I left it blank and moved on.

I spent most of the rest of that weekend writing, finishing chapter 1 and half of chapter 2, establishing the mood of Jon feeling out of place and wanting to start over, wanting more time to live the high school experience.  I also mentioned that Jon’s father lived five hundred miles away in Capital City, with a second wife who had two children of her own.

I never did see or hear from Annie again after that day.  I could have asked her brother to get in touch with her for me, I saw him at church the next day, but that just felt weird.  Annie was off limits because she had a boyfriend.  But I continued to work on this novel for the next several months.  I had no plans to act out the premise of this novel, to run away and go back to high school, nor did I have a realistic way of doing so.  I knew that that would never happen.   But it was interesting to think about, and fun to put these thoughts on paper.  If they could not happen in real life, I could create a fantasy world where these things happened, as long as I knew that it was just fantasy and did not let it consume my life.


Author’s note: Yes, these are actual excerpts from a novel I wrote in 1995-96.  More about that later.

Also, in real life it’s my birthday!  Well, yesterday was.

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That makes sense.”

“You ready to eat?”

“Sure!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“That makes sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Makes sense.”

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

“Nice.  How was that?”

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

“That’s good.”

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

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

“But it’s over now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem.  You’re doing your job.”

“So are you glad school is starting?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, that’s right.”

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

“Why do you say that?”

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

“Yeah.”

“I’ll follow you that far.”

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

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

“Have a great first week.”

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

“Yes,” I replied.  “Take care.”

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

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

Just not entirely in the ways I expected.

September 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.

September 9, 1995. The night I did something crazy and spontaneous.

In my life so far, I have had a long history of not being popular with the ladies. No one taught me anything about dating and relationships growing up, and my teen years were a string of awkward failed crushes. Rachelle Benedetti, whom I never understood why I liked her in the first place. Kim Jensen, an outgoing popular cheerleader in a few of my classes, but she dated older football players, not guys like me. Melissa Holmes, a good friend who did not like me back that way. Jennifer Henson, a popular girl who started treating me like a good friend when we were seniors, but then moved away without saying goodbye. Annie Gambrell, a younger girl I met through a class project we did together, but she had a boyfriend. And last year there was Megan McCauley, my first older friend in college; she was really nice, but I felt intimidated just by the fact that she was a year older, and currently I did not know how to interpret the fact that she had not emailed me back for the last three weeks.

After waking up and doing absolutely nothing productive for several hours, I walked to the mailboxes. Maybe I had a letter from a girl, I thought. And I did have a letter from a girl. I actually had gotten a letter from a girl yesterday, the first letter I received since moving into this apartment a week ago. It was from Sarah Winters, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year. I opened the mailbox and saw another letter from a girl… except today, the girl in question was my grandma. It was always nice to hear from her, but I wanted to interact with girls my age.

From the mailboxes, I could see the pool. A girl was lying face down on a pool chair. She had brown hair, put up in a bun, and perfectly shaped legs. She appeared to be wearing nothing but black bikini bottoms. I looked closer and noticed that she was wearing a bikini top, but she had untied it in the back, presumably to avoid having a tan line. The strings hung down over the side of the pool chair, exposing the side of a fairly large and round breast.

After staring for about thirty seconds, I walked back to my apartment, trying to think of a way I could look at the sexy girl by the pool and maybe get her to notice me. Back inside, I read Grandma’s letter, but I was only half paying attention because my mind was formulating a plan.

I picked up the book I had been reading, part 4 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and took it outside with me. The pool was open to everyone; why couldn’t I sit and read by the pool? I found an empty pool chair, on the other side of the pool from the girl, and began reading. Stephen King originally wrote this book as a serial, in six parts each around 100 pages long, published about a month apart. Mom had gotten me parts 1 through 5 for my birthday last month, before part 6 had been published. I would get part 6 at the campus bookstore when I finished part 5, or order it in advance if it had not been released yet.

It was a hot day, and after about ten minutes, I was sweating uncomfortably. Do people really sit by the pool like this? That can’t be right, I thought. I noticed a spot a few feet from me that was in the shadow of a nearby tree. I moved the chair into the shadow; it made noise as I moved it. I looked at the girl, hoping that what I was doing looked natural and ordinary and that the noise would not attract attention. She did not react, and I sat back down and continued reading.

After about another ten minutes, the girl reattached the string in the back of her bikini top. She put on shorts and a tank top over her bikini, slid her feet into flip-flops, gathered her belongings, and began walking toward me. I looked back down at my book, trying not to stare, then looked up as she walked past me. I smiled at her. “Hi,” I said.

“You know you’re lying in the shade,” she replied.

“Yeah,” I said as the weight of her words sank into my brain. She was right. Normal people do not lie in the shade. I was pretty sure I blew it with this girl, and just made myself look like a pervert, or at best a weirdo.

After the girl was gone, I took my book back to my apartment, leaving the pool chair in the shade.  I was too embarrassed to move it back and make any more noise that might get me noticed. I lay on the bed, dejected and discouraged. I was bored. Moving back to Jeromeville early was not as exciting as it had been in my head all summer, mostly because most of my friends had not moved back yet. Since I had just gotten a letter from Sarah, I knew that she would be moving back on September 17, a week from tomorrow, but then leaving right away on a retreat with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship until Friday the 22nd. Several of my friends were involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, so I suspected most of them would be back on the 22nd as well.  The first day of class was Thursday the 28th.

I continued reading The Green Mile lying on my bed. When I finished part 4, I put a frozen pot pie in the oven and spent the rest of the night wasting time on the computer. I wrote emails, I played SimCity 2000, I checked my Usenet groups, and I got on IRC chat, in that order. I had been spending a lot of time on IRC lately, and I had even met two girls my age who lived nearby: Colleen, who attended University of the Bay, and Allison, who was a student right here at University of Jeromeville. Around quarter to nine, I saw Allison enter the channel I was already in, and I messaged her.

gjd76: hey
darksparkles: hi
gjd76: what’s up
darksparkles: not much
gjd76: me either. i’m bored. i got a letter from my grandma, that was the highlight of my day
darksparkles: aww how sweet

I decided not to tell her about making a fool of myself in front of the girl at the pool. No one needed to know about that.

gjd76: i moved back to jeromeville early because i was bored at my parents’ house. now i’m bored here, but at least i’m on my own
darksparkles: i know what you mean. my roommate isn’t moving in until right before fall quarter starts. so i have the place to myself until then. i like it though
gjd76: that’s good
darksparkles: i’m a little scared to have a roommate again. i hated my roommate in the dorm last year
gjd76: ugh, roommate drama
darksparkles: but she moved out at the end of winter quarter and i had the room to myself the rest of the year
gjd76: they can do that? and just leave the room empty?
darksparkles: i guess
gjd76: how do you know your roommate from this year?
darksparkles: she lived down the hall from me. she was one of the few people in my building that i talked to, although we weren’t really close friends
gjd76: aww… hopefully living together works out
darksparkles: i hope so too

An outlandishly spontaneous idea popped into my head.  In real life, if I want to say something that makes me nervous, in which I am apprehensive about the other person’s possible reaction, I usually blurt it out loudly, so as not to hesitate or second-guess myself. I typed the next sentence very quickly and pressed Enter, the typing equivalent of blurting something out. It was a crazy idea, but boredom and loneliness can occasionally drive me to desperation.

gjd76: you want to meet in person?
darksparkles: huh? you mean like now?
gjd76: yeah. we can stay outside or in public if you’re worried about being alone with some guy from the internet
darksparkles: sure, there’s a picnic table by the pool in my apartment complex, i’ll meet you there
gjd76: where is that? we both live in north jeromeville, right?
darksparkles: yeah, redwood grove apartments on alvarez, there’s only one way into the parking lot, and the pool is right there, you’ll see it. you know where that is?
gjd76: yes i do. i’ll be there in about 10 minutes. i’m wearing jeans and a green shirt
darksparkles: i’m wearing a black shirt and jeans with holes in them
gjd76: ok, see you in a few minutes

Allison had told me the last time we talked that she lived in north Jeromeville. I did not realize until now that she was only a quarter mile away. I could have gotten there much faster than the 10 minutes I told her, but before I left I brushed my teeth and used the bathroom, and I changed out of my shorts into the jeans I told her I was wearing.  It was not warm enough this late at night to be outside in shorts for a long time. I also scribbled a note on a sheet of paper and placed it on my desk:


9/9/95 9:28pm

In case I don’t come back alive, and the police need leads, I’m going to meet a girl from the Internet named Allison. We’re meeting by the pool at Redwood Square apartments; she told me she lives there. I don’t know her last name, but her IRC name is darksparkles and her account ID is stu050637@mail.jeromeville.edu


 

It was a nice night outside, not too warm but not cold either. My short-sleeve shirt and jeans felt physically comfortable as I started to feel nervous about this situation which I had suddenly put myself in. I had only talked to Allison two other times. I had a rough description of what she looked like, and I had the impression that she was quiet and kept to herself a lot, but other than that I had no idea who to expect. I was pretty sure from our previous conversations that we had never had a class together, and we would not have run into each other at the dining hall since she lived in a different dorm area with its own dining facilities.

I walked into the parking lot of the Redwood Grove Apartments. I could see the pool about a hundred feet back from the sidewalk, and as I approached the pool more closely, I noticed a girl sitting at a table inside the pool area. She turned her head and saw me, and she got up and opened the gate.

“Allison?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Greg?”

“Yes. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she said, smiling halfway and leading me back to the table where she had been sitting. She was shorter than me, about five foot five, and thin. Her black shirt had the name of something I had never heard of, maybe a band, maybe a brand of clothing, I did not know. It was a unisex shirt, fitting loosely on her body. Her skin was pale, and her hair appeared to be dyed black, although I could not tell for sure with the lack of natural light and the only illumination coming from a few outdoor light posts. I got the impression that she did not smile much in general, so the awkward half-smile with which she had greeted me was probably the best she could do.

“So what’s up?” she asked, speaking quietly.

“I’ve never done this before.”

“Done what?”

“Met someone off the Internet.”

“Oh. I did once last year.”

“Oh yeah? Was it also someone from Jeromeville?”

“No. He flew out here from Oklahoma.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. He said he really liked me and wanted to be with me. But when he got here, he wasn’t really the nice guy he acted like online. He was kind of a jerk.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah. He made me give him a blow job the first night he was here. I didn’t want to.”

“That’s messed up,” I said. I was not expecting such a graphic description.

“He tasted nasty,” Allison continued. I just nodded, not really sure how to reply to that.  “So you’ve just been sitting around all day since you moved back here?”

“Mostly. I’ve been riding around on my bike, and reading a lot too.”

“You like riding your bike?”

“Yeah. I’m not really competitive or athletic or anything. I just like exploring.”

“I don’t even have a bike,” Allison explained. I thought that was unusual, with Jeromeville being a Bicycle Friendly City and having one of the highest rates of bicycle ownership in the United States. “I take the bus to campus.”

“I’ll probably do that on rainy days. You said you’re taking a class this summer session?”

“Yeah. An English class. One more week.”

“How is it so far?”

“It’s easy.”

“That’s good.” After a few seconds of silence, I asked, “So how has your weekend been?”

“Good. I didn’t really do much.”

“Me either,” I replied.

We made small talk for a while. She told me about this underground band she liked and something she had to read for class. I told her about the bookstore job and what my summer back home in Plumdale had been like. She told me that she liked to draw and paint, and I told her about Skeeter’s watercolor set and the paintings we made in the common room in the dorm last year.

After a while, Allison said, “I should probably go back inside. It’s getting late.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Thanks for hanging out. It was nice meeting you.”

“Yeah. You too.”

“I’ll talk to you soon?”

“Sure. Good night.”

“Good night,” I answered. I walked out of the gate, back toward the street. I had a feeling that I left a bad impression on Allison, and that we probably would not be seeing much of each other in the future. However, this did not feel like a blown opportunity, like sitting by the pool earlier today had been. Allison just was not my type. We were not interested in the same things, and with us both being so quiet, neither of us was able to get the other to open up much. I often pictured my ideal girlfriend being more talkative and outgoing than me, for that reason.

I got home a few minutes later; I had been gone for about an hour. I turned on the computer and thought about getting back on IRC chat, but something about that felt wrong, particularly if I were to see Allison online again so soon after seeing her in person. Instead, I played SimCity 2000, and went to bed around midnight.

I did talk to Allison a few more times on IRC. I did not want to be rude and stop talking to her altogether just because I did not think she was my type. But we never saw each other in person again, and I stopped seeing her on IRC around the time fall quarter started. As I drifted off to sleep that night, I kept replaying in my mind everything that had happened tonight. I felt sad that things had not gone better with Allison, but I had probably done nothing wrong. Maybe it was more of a feeling of disappointment, in the sense that I had wished Allison had been different and that we would have clicked better. But there was nothing I could do about that. It was perfectly normal for a guy and a girl not to click. At least I tried.

 

March 3, 1995. Throwing the box.

As a child, I read a book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  In the book, everything goes wrong for Alexander, from the moment he wakes up until he goes to bed.  Some of the bad things involve his older brothers or kids at school, and some of them are just freak accidents.  Alexander repeatedly makes comments about wanting to run away to Australia, presumably to leave his bad day behind.

I felt like Alexander today.

I had math class in the morning, and I had to turn in an assignment incomplete. The problem in the textbook used something called Lagrange multipliers, another way to do minimization problems.  The example in the book was to find the dimensions of a can that has minimum surface area for a certain volume, which I already knew how to do a different way. Lagrange multipliers in the example looked simple enough, but the technique didn’t work at all with this one problem on the homework.  It was possibly the first time in my life that I didn’t understand something from math class. I sent emails to my instructor, and to everyone I knew who had taken the class before. Pete Green, who was two quarters ahead in math instead of one quarter ahead like me; the Interdisciplinary Honors Program was full of students who were ahead in their college coursework.  Gurpreet, the RA down the hall who was a computer science major. Megan McCauley, the cute RA with the green hair from Building K who was a chemical engineering major. And a girl named Mary Heinrich whom I had only met twice; she was the President of the Math Club, a senior, and also an alumna of the IHP. Pete had told me that he never understood Lagrange multipliers either, and Gurpreet said that his instructor skipped that lesson.

After math class, I went to the library to work on that paper for the South Africa class that was due in less than a week.  A couple years before I started, the UJ library stopped using a physical card catalog and switched to an electronic system. I remember feeling frustrated last quarter, trying to figure out how all that worked and how to find materials in a large university library that used the Library of Congress classification system rather than the much simpler Dewey Decimal System used in local and school libraries.  By now, though, I had figured it out. I wrote down the locations of a few books that would be helpful.

When I went to look for these books, though, two of them were already checked out, and the others had very little information that I could actually use in my paper.  I asked at the circulation desk when those two books would be back, and found out that one of them was due back next week, the day before my paper was due, and the other most likely wouldn’t come in by then.

I was having a bad day.

 

My day felt like it was starting to turn around when I got to chemistry class.  We had gotten a midterm back, and I got 100%, better than I had done on the first midterm.  After class got out, I was hungry, so I dropped off my backpack in my room and walked to the dining hall.  After I got my food, I looked around for a place to sit. Megan was sitting with a few other girls, probably some of her residents from Building K; she saw me and motioned for me to sit with them.

“Hey, Greg,” Megan said.  “Come sit with us.” She gave me a friendly smile, which I tried my best to return.  Early this quarter, Megan had cut her hair short and dyed it green; I liked her hair before better, personally, but I wasn’t going to say so out loud.  Her natural color, on the darker side of blonde, was growing back at the roots, and there was something strangely familiar yet out of place about that combination of hair color.

“Hey, I got your email about Lagrange multipliers,” Megan said after I sat down.  “I don’t think we learned that. I still have my Math 21 book, and I looked through that section, and none of it looked familiar.”

“A guy in my building who is ahead of me in math said the same thing.  He took 21C last quarter, and he didn’t remember learning it either.”

“Yeah.  But you said it was on your homework?”

“I don’t understand why it would be on my homework if no one learns it.”

“Me either.  Sorry I can’t help,” Megan said.  “How’s your day going other than that?”

“Honestly, it’s been a frustrating morning,” I explained.  I told her about not finding the book I was looking for in the library.  While I was telling the story, suddenly I made a connection in my mind that caused me to have to put a lot of effort into holding back a giggle.  Fortunately, I was smart enough not to say out loud what I had realized.

Megan’s hair, with the fading green and the roots growing back, looked like lawn that needed watering.

“I’m sorry you’re having a rough day,” Megan said.  “But hopefully it’ll start to get better. And it’s Friday!  Are you doing anything this weekend?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “Probably working on that paper, if I can find any sources that aren’t already checked out.”

“Just relax and take it easy.  Or do something fun with your friends.”

“We’ll see.  I don’t know if any of my friends will be around.”  Besides, I thought to myself, I don’t really know how to make plans with friends.  I kept this thought to myself.

“We’re going to head back to the building now,” Megan said when I was about halfway done with my meal, and she and the others had all finished.  “I hope your day gets better, Greg.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Have a good weekend.”

“You too!”

A few minutes later, as I was climbing downstairs out of the dining hall, I saw Andrea from Building B, who was in my math class, with a guy wearing a sweater, looking more well-dressed than the typical college student.  “Hey,” she said, seeing me.

“That problem on the homework today with the Lagrange multipliers,” I said.  “Did you get that? Because I didn’t.”

“I had no idea what was going on with that problem,” she said.  “I don’t think she ever went over that in class.”

“I know.  I’m confused too.”

“Greg?  Have you met my boyfriend, Jay?”

“Hi,” I said, hoping the disappointment wouldn’t show in my voice.  “I’m Greg.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jay said, shaking my hand.

“Have a great weekend!” Andrea said.

“Thanks.  You too.”

 

I walked back to my room and lay down on the bed, face down with my head in the pillow, for a few minutes.  The cute girl from math class has a boyfriend. And the cute older girl couldn’t help me with Lagrange multipliers.  So much for the day starting to turn around.

I got off my bed after about fifteen minutes and checked my email.  None of the girls in other states and countries I’d been talking to had written back.  I had one message, and it was from Mary Heinrich, the president of the Math Club.


From: meheinrich@jeromeville.edu
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Fri, 03 Mar 1995 12:44 -0800
Subject: Re: Lagrange multipliers

Hi Greg!  I’m pretty sure my professor skipped that section… sorry I can’t be more helpful! 😦 Hopefully I’ll see you at the Math Club meeting next week.

-Mary


So there it was.  Everyone I knew to ask about Lagrange multipliers couldn’t help me.  Shelley Bryce, the instructor for the class, hadn’t gotten back to me yet.  Her office hours were exactly the same days and times that I had the South Africa class with Dr. Dick Small, so I wouldn’t be able to go there either.  I never did figure out Lagrange multipliers, by the way.

Maybe my day would get better if I did something else.  It was time to go on an adventure. I got in the car and headed east on Highway 100, toward Capital City.  Mom had given me an errand last night when we were on the phone. My brother Mark’s youth basketball season was ending soon, and the kids’ parents wanted to get a present for the coach.  The coach’s favorite player was future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond, who currently played for the Capital City Royals. The Royals had just changed their logo and color scheme for this current season, and Mom got the idea of all the parents chipping in to get the coach a Mitch Richmond jersey with the new color scheme.  Mom told me that, since I live near Capital City, I could go get the jersey for her, and bring it home at spring break, and she would pay me back. Normally I would be a little irritated at Mom sending me to do something that didn’t concern me, but this time I didn’t mind, because I had the money, and it meant I got to explore somewhere new.

I crossed the river into downtown Capital City on a high freeway bridge.  I saw the original Capital Drawbridge, with its two tall towers and triangular girder pattern, about half a mile upstream.  The Drawbridge was no longer the main route into Capital City; it was bypassed in 1966 by the freeway I was currently on. I could see the tall buildings of downtown Capital City on my left.  The older neighborhoods of Capital City were known for having old, tall trees along the sidewalks, and a sea of these trees, with islands of rooftops on tall Victorian and early twentieth century houses, spread out to my left between the freeway and the even taller buildings in the distance.

After passing through downtown Capital City, I turned north on Highway 51 and got off four exits later at the mall.  This mall was two stories high, over twice as big as the one back home in Gabilan. I parked the car and walked in, looking around and taking in the fact that this mall was huge compared to what I was used to.  I went through a phase in my early teens when I liked going to the mall in Gabilan, but I wasn’t so much interested in shopping as I was in the video arcade there and this really yummy cookie shop. In fact, in 2005, I just happened to be in Plumdale at my parents’ house when I read in the newspaper that the cookie shop was closing for good.  I drove into Gabilan and bought one last dozen cookies there, and I never did tell my family about that because I didn’t want to share.

I walked up and down the entire length of the mall, just to browse, and also to people-watch, or in my case, cute-girl-watch.  I walked into a music store to do more up-close browsing, and I ended up buying R.E.M.’s Monster and Soundgarden’s Superunknown.  There were a few other CDs I wanted to buy, but I didn’t feel right spending all that money.

Upstairs, I found a shop that sold sports merchandise.  I looked through the basketball jerseys and found some with names of many of the best players of the day: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Charles Barkley.  But no Mitch Richmond. That didn’t make sense. The Royals had just moved to Capital City about a decade earlier, and Mitch Richmond was the best player who had ever played in Capital City so far. He was an All-Star, and moreover, he was the only All-Star from the local team.  What kind of store doesn’t carry merchandise of an All-Star player who plays just a few miles away?

“Looking for something?” a store employee asked me, walking up next to me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

“Hmm,” the guy said, with a look on his face that suggested he knew little about basketball, and that the name did not ring a bell.  “Let me go try to find one for you.” He walked into the back room. I didn’t really follow basketball all that closely in 1995; basketball was Mark’s thing.  Baseball was still on strike, and hockey wasn’t very big here in the Valley, so Bay City Captains football was the only sport I followed closely at the time. But I knew enough about basketball to have at least heard of Mitch Richmond.

“Yeah, we don’t have that,” the employee said when he came out of the back room.

“He plays for the Royals!  We’re in Capital City! This store doesn’t make sense!  It’s like a store in Chicago that doesn’t sell Michael Jordan jerseys!”  I turned my back and left the store in a huff.

At the other end of the mall was another store that sold sports merchandise.  I had the opposite problem here: there were numerous Mitch Richmond jerseys in many different sizes and in all three designs that the team used this year.  I didn’t know what Mark’s coach would want. I didn’t even know what size he wore.

“May I help you?” the guy behind the cash register said, noticing that I seemed to be having trouble with this.

“I don’t know,” I said angrily.  “I was sent here to buy a gift for someone I don’t know, and I’m not sure what he wants or what size he wears.”

“Hmm.  What is it that the person wants?”

“A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

“You kind of need to know the size for that one, don’t you.  Can you find out?”

“I’ll be back,” I said, again storming out of the store.  I hated this. I didn’t understand what I was looking for, and I didn’t need to have been sent on this errand in the first place.  I was in way over my head, and I didn’t even ask to do this, and I wasn’t even going to get anything new for myself. Well, I got the two CDs, but I could have gotten those at Tower Records without having to leave Jeromeville.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I’ll move to Australia.

I could ask Caroline for some pointers, since she was from Australia.

But I didn’t go to Australia, or to another store in the mall.  Instead, I went to a pay phone. Back in 1995, only the extremely wealthy had cell phones, and long distance phone calls cost money.  Fortunately, my parents had something called a calling card, where they could make a call from any phone in the country and have it billed directly to them.  They gave me the PIN number (PIN number is a redundant expression in the same sense as Arroyo Verde Creek), so I could call them from anywhere and they would pay for it.  I did this now.

“Hello?” Mom said, answering on the second ring.

“Why did you send me on this stupid errand?” I shouted, starting to cry.

“Whoa.  Where are you?”

“I’m at Capital East Mall, in Capital City.  I came here to look for a Mitch Richmond jersey, like you asked me to.  I don’t know what size he wears, or what design or color he wants.”

“Don’t worry about it!  If you don’t want to get it, I’m sure we can order one from that catalog Mark gets all his sports stuff from.”

“I’m all the way here.  I don’t want to leave empty handed.”

“Get any of the designs.  I’m sure he’ll like it. And he wears extra large.”

“But I don’t want to get him something he doesn’t like.”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay.  And it’s a gift. He’ll appreciate the gift.”

“Maybe.  I’ll go back to the store and see.”

“You do that.  It’s okay. How was school today?”

“I’ll call you sometime over the weekend from home, so it’ll be cheaper.  And I don’t want to have a personal conversation out in public.”

“Good idea,” Mom said.  “Are you going to be all right?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll talk to you this weekend, then.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone and sat on a bench.  I tried to wipe my eyes so it didn’t look like I’d been crying.  It didn’t work. But I went back to the last store where I had been anyway.  I got a Mitch Richmond jersey, size extra large, and I picked out the black one.  Mom said get anything, so if the coach didn’t like it, it wasn’t my fault anymore.

 

The rest of the night was pretty boring.  I sat alone at dinner. I didn’t meet any cute girls on IRC.  There were no new interesting conspiracy theories on the Pink Floyd Usenet group.  I listened to my new CDs. They were good, but R.E.M. seemed to be going in a different direction from what their last two albums sounded like, and the Soundgarden album generally sounded darker as a whole than the two songs that were familiar to me.  I read for a while. I went to bed at the usual time, between 11 and midnight, and fell asleep quickly.

I woke up with a start when I heard voices and laughter.  They were coming from the hallway. The clock said 1:21 AM.  Whoever was talking was doing so after hours and thus breaking the rules, and I was furious because they woke me up.  Could this day really get any worse? I lay in bed for a few minutes, but the voices were just loud enough that there was no way I’d be able to go back to sleep.  Who were these rude people who wouldn’t let me sleep? Probably those weird stoners and partiers who lived upstairs at this end of the third floor.

In one corner of the room near the closet was a large cardboard box, shaped like a cube about two feet on each side.  The box had originally held my computer, but now all that was inside was the foam packing material. I used the box as a small table now.  There was nothing on it, and more importantly, it was the first non-lethal object I could find to throw at whomever was being so inconsiderate outside my doorway.  I picked up the box and opened the door, squinting at the sudden brightness coming from the hallway.

Taylor, Pete, Caroline, Charlie, Krista, and Sarah were sitting in the hallway.  This was not at all who I expected to see, not the partiers from the third floor.  And in a way, this made the whole experience feel even worse, because these people were some of my closest friends.  And they couldn’t even be considerate enough to let me sleep.

I threw the cardboard box at the wall as forcefully as I could, while glaring angrily at the others and screaming incoherently for about two seconds.  The box hit the wall and almost fell on Sarah, bumping against her shoulder. Sarah looked at me, stunned, as did the other five. I ran across the hall to the stairwell and stomped off downstairs and out of the building.

It was cold and dry outside, and it smelled like poop because the dairy barn was nearby.  I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything now. Without thinking about what I was doing, I walked to the car.  I knew I had blown it. I had made a big mistake, and everyone had seen my true colors, my inability to control myself.  It didn’t matter that I was a successful student at a prestigious university anymore. I was just that scared little kid who blew up and lashed out when life got to him, just like I had been all through elementary school.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I’ll turn on this car and drive all the way to Australia.

I had always struggled with these kinds of outbursts all my life, although not as often as I did when I was in elementary school.  I was constantly bullied and teased all through school, called horrible names for no reason other than that I was an easy target, because I was different.  No one ever taught me to stand up for myself or to fight back. No one ever taught me how to be confident or how to find people who would build me up. So I would take it and take it and take it for days, for weeks, until I would finally explode, throwing furniture, and pushing and hitting people (and I would often get hit back even harder).  Then my teacher and my parents would scold me and say that I needed to learn to control myself, and once I got old enough that school suspension was an option, I would get suspended for a few days. That happened all through elementary school, and twice in high school as well.

I had been that kid all my life, and I always would be.  And there would always be people around me to tell me condescendingly that what I did was wrong, as if I didn’t know this already.  And some adult authority figure would come along eventually and tell me that I couldn’t do this, and that I needed to be pumped full of pills to fix me.  And the pills wouldn’t work either, because they never do, just like they didn’t work before when I was younger.

This year was supposed to be different.  I was finally free of everything that held me back in Plumdale, and I could make a fresh start in Jeromeville.  But this wasn’t a fresh start. It was the same old dumpster fire that my life had been for eighteen and a half years.  I didn’t know why I was here or what I wanted to study. I didn’t have a girlfriend. And neither of those things would change as long as I kept making mistakes like this.

I didn’t drive to Australia, obviously.  I sat in the car for about another fifteen minutes, thinking about these things and trying to calm myself down.  I closed my eyes for a while. I opened them again. I took a deep breath. Whatever I messed up tonight, whatever mistakes I made, giving up wasn’t going to make things any better.  I had nothing to lose by learning from this and moving forward. This experience really wasn’t worth quitting school over.

I was ready to put this behind me for the night.  It was late, and I was tired, and it was time to go back to bed.  I would apologize to everyone in the morning, but I knew it probably didn’t matter.  I had blown it in front of my new friends. They had seen me for what I was. I knew that what I did was wrong, and I also knew that they were all going to tell me anyway that I was in the wrong, and make me feel worse about it.  I had violated the rule about quiet hours, so Amy or Gurpreet, or both of them, would probably get involved. And I deserved all that. I was just going to have to bite the bullet and let them scold me and tell me how badly I had behaved.  I just hoped I wouldn’t get kicked out of the building, or kicked out of UJ entirely, for this.

I stepped out of the car and took a deep breath of the aromatic dairy air.  I walked back to Building C, like a dog with my tail between my legs, ashamed of the way I had behaved.  I got to the front door and scanned my key card. The door clicked, and I pulled it open.

And nothing I had seen or experienced in my eighteen and a half years of life so far had prepared me for the scene that was waiting for me in the lobby.

To be continued…

compaq box
I still have The Box in 2019.  It’s in my garage, storing a bunch of old T-shirts with too much sentimental value to get rid of.

 

February 23-26, 1995. Shooting the moon and a penalty for talking.

One evening, I had been eating at the dining hall by myself. Two girls I didn’t know, one blonde and one with short red hair, were sitting at the table next to me, speaking loudly enough that it was impossible not to overhear their conversation.

“So how’s Justin?” Blondie asked.

“I don’t think he’s interested,” Red said. “Oh my god, we’ve been on three dates, and he hasn’t even made a move yet. All we did last night was make out.”

“How long have you known him?”

“Almost two weeks. When I was with Shane, we were already sleeping together at this point.”

“Hmm. I thought Justin seemed really into you.”

“I thought so too. I guess not. I don’t think I’m going to call him back. What about you? How’s What’s-his-face?”

“Ryan,” Blondie said. “I really like him, but he’s too clingy. He called me today.”

“Eww!”

“Like, we just went out yesterday. He didn’t even wait three days.”

“Who does that? Why is he calling you back the next day?”

“I know, right?”

None of that conversation made any sense to me. If Blondie really liked Ryan, why was it a problem that he called her the next day? Wouldn’t she want to talk to him? Is this waiting three days thing really a rule? And does anyone write these rules down? And sleeping with a guy you’ve only known two weeks is not normal to me. Sleeping together is for husbands and wives. I would have said that Justin moved too fast, making out on the third date, and apparently he moves too slowly for these girls. People are confusing. I wished I knew Justin and Ryan, so that I could tell them they dodged bullets.

I came back to my room and did homework for chemistry, even though it was Thursday night and the assignment wasn’t due until Monday. Homework wasn’t even graded for that class, but I always did it anyway. I liked chemistry, and I didn’t want to fail. After I finished, I checked email, and I didn’t have anything, probably because I had just checked it before dinner. Molly from Pennsylvania wrote me this morning, but I didn’t really feel like replying yet. I didn’t have much to say.

I walked down the hall. No one had their doors open, and I didn’t want to bother anyone. So I climbed to the third floor. I heard voices coming from Taylor Santiago’s room, and one of the voices was loud and enthusiastic enough that I recognized it as belonging to Mike Adams.

“Hey, guys,” I said, poking my head in the door. Taylor, his roommate David, Mike, and Gina Stalteri were sitting around a table playing some kind of card game, using an ordinary 52-card deck. “What are you playing?” I asked.

“Hearts,” Taylor replied. “If you want in, you can take my place after this game. I need a break.”

“I don’t know this game.”

“I’ll teach you after this round is over. It’s not hard to learn.”

I watched as the others played. Hearts appeared to be a trick-taking game, where each player plays a card, and one player takes the trick according to some rule about certain cards outranking others. I hadn’t played games like this often, but I knew of their existence. There appeared to be some special rules other than just the highest card winning, though. Twice during the game, the others seemed to react strongly: the first time a heart was played, and again when Mike played the queen of spades. David took that trick, and the others’ reaction made me think that this was a bad thing, although I was unsure why.

After the game, Taylor explained more about the game. He explained about following suit, and breaking hearts, and how the object was to avoid taking a trick with a heart or the queen of spades (“the bitch,” as Mike called it). Each heart was worth one point, and the queen of spades 13 points, and the object was to have a low score.

“You want to take a turn?” Taylor asked me.

“Jump in, Greg,” Gina said.

I took Taylor’s seat at the table; he got on his bed and watched us from there. After the first three rounds, I had no hearts, and I thought I was in good shape. I led the fourth hand with the ten of clubs; David played the nine of clubs, Mike played the five of clubs, and Gina played the jack of hearts. Gina apparently had no clubs left, which enabled her to play a different suit, and now that a heart had been played, players could lead the hand by playing hearts first. I played a diamond next, and apparently Mike had no diamonds, because he played the queen of spades. I was stuck with the worst card in the game, and I also ended the game with six hearts.

“Play again?” Mike asked.

“Sure,” I said. Now that I had played once, I was starting to think about strategy, although part of the game just depended on what cards you were dealt. In the second game, I finished with five hearts, but David got stuck with the queen of spades. The third time we played, I only got three hearts.

Gina took a break after that game, and Taylor took her spot at the table. We played for almost another hour before the others decided that they had things to do. I walked back to my room, hoping that more games of Hearts would happen soon. That was fun.

 

The next night, I saw Liz make eye contact with me at the dining commons. “Hey, Greg,” she said, smiling and gesturing to an empty seat next to her. “Come sit with us.”

I put my tray of food down at the empty seat next to Liz. Ramon, Caroline, Tabitha from Building B, Taylor, Pete, and Mike from Building J were all at the same table, and I had taken the last open seat.

“How’s it going?” Taylor asked.

“Pretty good,” I replied. “Glad it’s the weekend.”

“I think everyone is,” Ramon said.

“Did you have class today?” Liz asked.

“I did,” I replied. “Just math and chem today. So I spent the afternoon in the library, starting to work on my paper for Dr. Small’s class.”

“Why?” Pete asked. “That isn’t due for a long time.”

“Because it’s a six- to eight-page paper. I need time to do research and get my ideas organized.”

“When I have to do a six- to eight-page paper, I usually start around eight o’clock the night before,” Taylor said, chuckling.

“Me too,” Caroline agreed, “if not later. You don’t need to be stressing about that paper yet. Just relax and have a great weekend, and worry about the paper later.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, frustrated. “That’s just not the way my brain works. I can’t do a six- to eight-page paper at the last minute.”

“You don’t just BS your papers?” Tabitha asked.

“No. I can’t.”

“That’s too bad.”

I stopped talking for a while and listened to the others as the topic changed. I wished that I could BS my way through six- to eight-page papers like pretty much every other college student ever. Apparently that was some kind of unwritten rule of college. But I was honest when I told Caroline that my brain didn’t work that way. I couldn’t do a good job on a paper if I didn’t actually learn about the material. And even outside of school, I wasn’t good at faking things.

I started listening again when I heard my name. “Greg?” Liz asked. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Probably nothing. What about you guys? You have that Christian group tonight, right?”

“Yeah. JCF. You want to come with us?”

I paused. “I don’t know. Maybe another time.”

“That’s ok. You’re always welcome to come with us.”

Later that night, as I was sitting in front of the computer on an IRC chat trying to get girls to talk to me, I thought about that conversation with Liz. That group had invited me to come to the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship multiple times in the last few months, and I had always turned them down. Liz said I would always be welcome in that group, but I just wasn’t convinced. I was Catholic, and I knew that some Protestants and other Christians often said that Catholics were wrong and not real Christians. And were the JCF students the kind of Christians that were basically like Catholics but without recognizing the Papacy, or were they the kind who danced and clapped with the music, or did they all wear suits and ties and long skirts everywhere they went? I didn’t know. And I’d never really thought of myself as a church guy. Yes, I’ve been to Mass most Sundays since I’ve been in Jeromeville, but back home my church attendance was very sporadic. And church guys certainly didn’t spend their Friday nights sitting in front of an IRC chat hoping that some girl would come along and want to talk dirty.

 

The next morning, I woke up early but stayed in bed until almost nine o’clock. After I got back from using the bathroom, I replied to the email I got yesterday from Molly from Pennsylvania. I told her about playing Hearts and starting my paper, and asked her how her midterm went. My life wasn’t exactly very thrilling at the moment. After that, I spent at least an hour staring at the same IRC chat I was in last night, hoping that SweetGirl4 would get on and talk dirty to me like she did last night. She didn’t.

At one point in the middle of the afternoon, I went downstairs and heard voices in the common room. Pete, Taylor, Caroline, Liz, Ramon, Krista, and Charlie were playing some kind of card game, using what appeared to be three standard 52-card decks with different backs, shuffled together. “What are you playing?” I asked as I approached them. No one answered. Liz looked at me with her finger on her lips, motioning for me to be quiet. I sat quietly and watched their game.

The game play seemed to be similar to Uno and Crazy Eights, playing cards that matched the suit or rank of the previous one. But every once in a while, Taylor would say “Penalty!” and give the player an extra card. Sometimes Taylor would give back the card that was just played, and other times he would leave it on the top of the deck. At one point, Ramon placed a two of hearts on top of a six of hearts, and Krista, whose turn was next, played a three of hearts. But Taylor gave her a penalty and gave her the three of hearts back along with her penalty card. After about three more seconds, Taylor gave Krista another penalty, saying, “Penalty for not saying thank you.”

“Thank you,” Krista said indignantly.

Taylor then turned to Liz and gave her a card. “Penalty for delay of game,” he said.

“Wha–Thank you,” Liz said, interrupting her initial confusion over why she was being penalized.

“Point of order,” Krista said. Everyone put their cards face down on the table. “Ramon played last. So it’s my turn.”

“Ramon played this,” Pete explained, pointing at the two of hearts on the top of the stack. “Right?”

“Correct,” Taylor said, in an authoritative tone of voice. “So Krista played improperly, and Liz got a penalty for delay of game. No further discussion is necessary. End point–”

“Wait,” Liz interrupted, turning to me. “Greg, to answer your question from earlier, this game is called Mao.”

“Mao?” I asked. “Like the dictator?”

“Yes. I can’t tell you any more.”

“Watch and pay attention, and you’ll figure out what’s going on,” Taylor said. “End point of order.” Everyone picked up their cards. Liz played a nine of hearts, and then Caroline played a nine of spades, knocking on the table and saying “Nine of spades” without getting a penalty for talking. Taylor played a three of spades, saying, “Three of spades.”

Based on the assumption that Mao was derived from Uno or Crazy Eights, I had already discovered a few things. I thought I might had figured out why it was Liz’s turn and not Krista’s turn when that first point of order was called. Also, apparently, talking was not allowed, except in certain situations which I had yet to deduce.

The game I was watching ended when Pete played his last card and said, “Mao.” By that time, I had figured out a few more rules, specifically why the players sometimes would name the card they played, and that you have to say “thank you” after receiving a penalty card.

“You want in, Greg?” Taylor asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m not really sure what I’m doing.”

“That’s ok. But I can’t tell you the rules.”

“I kind of figured something like that, because of all the penalties, and the way your discussions were so vague.”

Taylor began dealing cards to all of us. I reached down to pick up my first card and look at it; Taylor interrupted me and said, “Penalty for touching the cards early.” He gave me an extra card, which I thanked him for. Apparently I’m not allowed to do that. After everyone had been dealt seven cards, or eight, in my case, we picked up the cards and began playing. I was between Charlie and Pete. Charlie played a four of diamonds and said, “George.” I thought I had this game figured out, but there was no one named George anywhere nearby, and I hadn’t yet figured out a rule involving saying George.

“Four of spades,” I said, playing on top of Charlie’s four of diamonds.

“Two penalties,” Taylor said, handing me two cards, which I thanked him for. He did not make me take my four of spades back, though, so the penalty apparently had to do with what I said, not with the card I played. Two things I said, specifically, or perhaps didn’t say. The turn order had reversed by the time of my next turn, so my turn came after Pete’s. He played a jack of clubs and said “Hearts.” I couldn’t remember what to do on a jack, but hearing what Pete said, and guessing because of similarities with Uno, I very hesitantly played a five of hearts, slowly placing it on the pile. I received no penalty, even though the card did not match the jack of clubs. This was the first time I had not been penalized.

Taylor won that game eventually. By the third game I had played that day, I had figured out quite a bit more. I knew what was going on with the jacks. I was pretty sure I knew which cards were like the Skip and Draw Two cards in Uno. I knew when to knock on the table. And I was starting to figure out what had gone wrong with my four of spades play from the first game. There was still something going on with playing a 10, and I hadn’t figured that one out yet, but in this particular game, I had not drawn a 10 yet. I was getting all the cards I needed, and playing by all the rules I understood by now. I had two cards left, a four of spades and a jack of hearts. The cards being played were neither spades nor hearts, but I got extraordinarily fortunate when Krista played a four of clubs, saying “Ringo,” and Charlie played a four of hearts, knocking on the table and saying “Paul.” I had finally figured out who these names were and which cards to play them on, and I knew when to knock. It was time to see if I had learned well enough to do this correctly.

“Four of spades, John,” I said, knocking and putting the four of spades on top of the deck. No penalty. On the next time around the board, Charlie played a jack of diamonds. “Hearts,” he said. It was my turn, and I had exactly one card, and it was a heart. I triumphantly placed my jack of hearts on top of the stack.

“NEVER EVER EVER PLAY A JACK ON TOP OF ANOTHER JACK!!!” all seven of the other players began chanting loudly in unison. Taylor gave me penalty cards continuously through the chant, ten cards in all.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Also, another penalty for not ending the game. And for something else.”

“Thank you, thank you,” I said, trying to organize my brand new hand of twelve cards. Caroline won that game a few rounds later, and I politely excused myself to go back to my room. I found that Mao was a fascinating concept for a game, but it was so frustrating, and I still didn’t understand parts of it.

 

Later that night, I was on an IRC chat. Internet Relay Chat was a very decentralized system with no one specifically enforcing rules or anything like that. Certain people would be designated as operators (“ops” for short) in a chat channel, and they had the power to kick people out who were being obnoxious or inappropriate. The first person to create a channel would be an op by default, and usually the major channels had a group of people who would automatically be made ops whenever they were in the channel. Op privileges could be given temporarily as well, as had been given to me for the first time a few weeks ago by a guy named “JimK” who would occasionally engage me in small talk in the channel.

Tonight, I was in my usual room, “#friendlychat,” asking SweetGirl4 in private messages about her day, and about what she was wearing. I was picturing her in the pajama top and panties that she had described when I noticed that JimK had made me an op again. I thanked him and started making more of an effort to talk to people in the chat channel. I was now officially an operator of the channel, and I should act like it instead of just lurking in private messages. I didn’t ignore SweetGirl4, though.

About fifteen minutes later, someone new entered the channel.

Todd3 has entered the room
<JimK> welcome todd3
<gregd94> hi todd
<cc> what’s up todd
<Todd3> can someone make me an op

JimK was nice enough to make me an op, so I figured I would extend the favor to someone else. I typed the command to make Todd3 an op, and half a second later, he removed everyone else’s op privileges and kicked all of us out. Oops. That was officially the dumbest thing I had ever done on the Internet so far, even dumber than the time I forwarded a bunch of chain letters, or the time I used a fake name to play a mean-spirited prank on Schuyler Jenkins upstairs.

While I looked for a new channel to join, I continued my private conversation.

gregd94: oooh i pull your body close to me and kiss your lips passionately
SweetGirl4: u stupid f***ing noob u got us all kicked out. dont ever talk to me again.

I noticed a new channel called “#friendlychat1” and joined it; it appeared to be all of the people whom Todd3 had kicked out of #friendlychat. I joined the chat and apologized to everyone; a few people ignored me, and the rest had mean replies, some of which made SweetGirl4’s reply sound nice by comparison.

I deserved it, though. I didn’t understand that being a channel operator is a responsibility, not just a status symbol. Operator privileges are not to be handed out lightly to one’s buddies, or even worse, to complete strangers. I didn’t fully understand my responsibilities as an operator, and I didn’t fully understand the kinds of jerks that trolled the Internet.

 

The next day was Sunday. After dinner, I was in Taylor’s room playing Hearts again. Taylor, Mike Adams, Keith, and I were playing, with David and Karen and Pat watching. Keith, who had not been there on Thursday when I first learned the game, had taken the first heart, and Taylor took the next trick with no hearts in it.

Taylor led the next hand with a five of diamonds. Mike played the four of diamonds, and Keith played the seven of diamonds. I had no diamonds, so I played the queen of spades.

“Oooooh!” the entire room shouted.

“Keith gets the Bitch!” Mike enthusiastically proclaimed.

As the game continued, I couldn’t believe my luck. I had not taken a single heart, and it seemed like poor Keith, who had been in last place going into this round, was getting all the hearts. The game would be over after this round with Keith getting all of those points, and while my total score wasn’t the best, it was a close second, the best I had done so far.

“What did we get?” I asked as the last trick was taken.

“Did he do it?” Mike wondered aloud.

“I think he did,” Taylor said, as Keith spread out the queen of spades and all thirteen hearts on the table.

“He shot the moon,” Mike said. I watched Mike write 26 points in Keith’s column on the score sheet… except he didn’t. He wrote 0 for Keith, and 26 for the rest of us.

“Good job,” Taylor said to Keith.

What was going on? Keith got 26 points, not the rest of us. Keith lost; he didn’t finish in first place with the lowest score. I didn’t understand. No one had ever told me about shooting the moon, that if a player finished the game with all thirteen hearts and the queen of spades, that player scores 0 and the other players all score 26 points. I was about to say something when I realized that apparently this was a rule that everyone else knew except for me. I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the rule, since I would have been able to stop him and at least take one heart had I known about this. I didn’t stick around for another game; I just made an excuse to get out of there as soon as possible.

I walked to the other end of the hall and into the stairwell to go downstairs to my room. I heard voices above me, and I looked up to investigate. This stairwell went up to a locked door leading to the roof; someone who lived here in the past had written “Stairway to Heaven” in chalk on the front of the steps. Danielle, Caroline, Pete, and Charlie were sitting on the Stairway to Heaven, just talking.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, scooting over to make room for me. “Come join us.” I sat next to Danielle, and she leaned her curly-haired head on my shoulder, taking me by surprise. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I was just playing Hearts, and Keith shot the moon.”

“Shot the moon?”

“He took all of the hearts, and the other players get points instead of Keith,” Pete explained. “Points are bad in Hearts.”

“I could have stopped him,” I said. “But no one ever told me about that rule.”

“It’s just a game,” Danielle replied.

“I know. But I’m just frustrated. Like that Mao game you guys were playing yesterday, I still don’t get all of it. And I did something really stupid on the Internet that made a bunch of people mad.”

“What did you do?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s not a big deal. Just hang in there.”

“The whole point of Mao is to learn the rules as you go along,” Caroline added. “And sometimes that’s just how life is.”

“I guess you’re right. It’s just frustrating that I seem to know so much less about how life works in general.”

“Don’t get down about that,” Danielle said, smiling. “Everyone is still learning about life.”

“None of us were born knowing everything about life,” Caroline said. “I moved here from Australia when I was 12. I didn’t think it was going to be a big transition, because I spoke English, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”

Pete looked at me. “You’re doing fine. Just don’t let this get you down.”

I stayed in that stairwell for about another half hour talking to them, then I went back to my room. Life seems to have so many unwritten rules, and even though Pete and Caroline were right that no one knows all the rules, they all seemed to know so much more than I did. I grew up so sheltered, and I don’t read unspoken communication very well. This world, where having sex with someone you just met, waiting three days to talk to someone you like, and writing a six- to eight-page paper at the last minute are considered normal, was very strange to me. For that matter, even Danielle putting her head on my shoulder was strange to me.

But I was learning, and I was finding my place. I had new friends here in Building C, and there was nothing to do at this point except start learning these things that everyone else seemed to know. And, much like with the game Mao, I would learn by watching what other people do, and there would be much trial and error involved, and probably a few hilariously awkward moments along the way.


Author’s note from 2019: I have an Instagram specifically for this site now, so go follow me! www.instagram.com/greg_dontletthedaysgoby/