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/


 

February 14, 1995. Girl crazy.

I was girl crazy back in 1995. I didn’t really think about this at the time, and I never would have admitted it publicly. But it seems like I always had cute girls on my mind, and I had a lot of crushes. Andrea Briggs from math class. Megan McCauley, the RA from Building K, but I was still getting used to the green hair. A redhead from math class whose name I didn’t know yet. Brittany from Texas, whom I knew online, even though she likes the wrong football team, and she had mentioned a boyfriend before. Kim from Florida, whom I had just met online a week ago. This cute curly-haired girl whom I had seen around the dining hall; I had no idea what her name was.

And then there were all the crushes left over from high school, in particular two girls whom I had just met senior year who were both really nice to me, but neither one had stayed in touch. Annie Gambrell had a boyfriend, so that was pretty much hopeless. And the last thing that Jennifer Henson had said to me was “I’m sure I’ll talk to you again before we move away,” but she didn’t. I should point out, however, that Jennifer was actually one of the first high school friends to find me when I started using Facebook in 2007. Although we’re on good terms, let’s just say that, knowing what she is like as an adult, I now know we wouldn’t have made a good couple.

Despite all that, I never acted on any of these feelings. I didn’t really know how. No one ever taught me anything about dating or the opposite sex; my dad and I didn’t really have that kind of relationship growing up. Dad worked nights, slept for most of the day, and his whole side of the family doesn’t really talk much. I was so afraid of people for most of my teens that I never even had any awkward attempts to ask someone out. I asked Renee Robertson to prom senior year, but we were just going as friends, and she knew it. I went with Lisa Swan to winter ball junior year, but she asked me, not the other way around. I awkwardly told Melissa Holmes that I liked her in the middle of senior year, but I had never actually tried to ask her out. That didn’t go so well, although of course we were still friends, and so far she has stayed in touch most consistently out of all my high school friends.

All of this made me a little discouraged over the fact that today was Valentine’s Day. I had never really done anything for Valentine’s Day before. When I was a kid, sometimes Mom would buy me candy, but that’s Mom so it doesn’t really count. In elementary school, there was the usual thing of bringing Valentine cards to everyone in your class, but that doesn’t really mean a lot either. I had never had a date for Valentine’s Day, and this day just seemed to be full of reminders of that fact.

In math class this morning, the cute redhead sat next to me, but we were taking a test so I couldn’t interact with her at all. Then I had chemistry discussion; there was a really friendly girl in there named Marissa, a sophomore, but I really didn’t think she was that cute. Next, I had my class for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program. I don’t remember the exact title of the class, but it was about South Africa, combining elements of literature and cultural anthropology, taught by an anthropology professor named Dr. Dick Small. That’s pretty much the worst name ever. He kind of reminded me of Bill Murray.

Oddly enough, I didn’t really have any big crushes on any of the other IHP students. I’m not exactly sure why that is. There were some cute girls in the program. Maybe since I actually lived with them and saw them all the time, it was just too weird to think of them that way and then have to see them face to face. That kind of seems counterintuitive, though; if I see them all the time, then I’d get the chance to talk to them more, and theoretically that should be what I want. Or maybe it’s because I did talk to them more, enough to realize that none of them was really what I was looking for. I don’t know. My brain works in strange ways sometimes.

I got back to Building C around 2:00, my classes done for the day. I owed Brittany from Texas an email reply from last night, so I began typing.


From: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
To: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
Date: Tue, 14 Feb 1995 14:16 -0800
Subject: stuff

No, I’m not doing anything for Valentine’s Day. I’m not good with dating and that stuff. What about you? Any special plans with your boyfriend?

How was your day? I had a math test. I think I did pretty well. I’m learning a lot of new things that I didn’t learn in high school, like partial derivatives, but I’m keeping up so far. There’s basketball here tonight, so I’ll be going to that. The conference that UJ plays in has men’s and women’s games on the same night, so we get to watch two games, and students get in free. Have a great rest of the day!

-gjd


I lay down on the bed for a while, daydreaming about cute girls, then I started reading for the South Africa class. Around 4:00, there was a knock on the door. I got up and opened the door; Gina and Skeeter were standing there, each holding a plastic grocery bag.

“Hey, Greg,” Skeeter said.

“We made Valentines,” Gina said as she started looking through her bag. “Here’s yours.”

It took a few seconds for me to process what they said. Gina handed me a small card of the sort that elementary school students bring their friends on Valentine’s Day, and Skeeter handed me another one a few seconds later.

“Wow,” I said. “Thank you so much! This means a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” Gina answered. “We just wanted to do something nice for all of our friends here in the IHP.”

“I appreciate it.”

I read what each of them had written.


To: Greg
From: Gina
I always like your limericks and poems. Happy V Day!

To: Greg
From: Skeeter
Keep writing poems… I’ll show you mine, too, if you want

1995-02 valentines


I chuckled. “I see my poetry made an impact on you guys,” I said.

“Seriously, you’re hilarious,” Gina said. “Have you ever thought about being a writer or anything like that? I know you’re a math guy, but you’re really good with words.”

“I don’t know.”

“And you can be really dark too,” Skeeter added. “Like me. I like that.”

“We’re going to go deliver the rest of these. Are you going to the basketball game tonight?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll see you there.”

“I won’t,” Skeeter said. “I’m staying home to study. That, and I don’t really watch basketball.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll see you there. And Skeeter, good luck studying.”

 

The basketball game was against Bidwell State. I sat with the Colt Crew student cheering section, along with about twelve other people from Building C. As was the case with football games, there were certain cheers that the fans would do, led by the Colt Crew student leaders. When the Colts were shooting a free throw, for example, everyone would raise both hands, and if the shot was good, we would all go “Whoosh!” and swing our arms straight down. Part of the fun of college sporting events is the way that these traditions carry on for many generations. I went to a Jeromeville Colts basketball game during the most recent season, in February 2019, and they still do the Whoosh thing today.

During halftime of the women’s game, one of the Colt Crew leaders announced into a megaphone, “Hey, Colt Crew! After this game, stay right where you are for another game, featuring the Colt men’s basketball team! And here they come now, with a gift for you!”

A bunch of tall students wearing white, blue, and gold jerseys, the same colors as the women’s jerseys but with a slightly different design, came running out in front of the Colt Crew section. They began throwing gold-colored rubber balls into the crowd with the Jeromeville Colts logo on them. One of them was coming straight toward me; I jumped up and caught it, and almost fell on Gina in front of me as I came down.

“Whoa!” Gina shouted.

“Sorry,” I said.

Mike Adams, sitting between Gina and his girlfriend Kim, noticed what was going on. “Hey, Greg caught a ball! Nice!”

“Thanks!” I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the ball, but it might be fun to save it like a trophy, a reminder of the time I actually caught the ball.

The women won their game, 62 to 55. As the men’s game kept going, I couldn’t help but notice Mike and Kim in front of me gradually getting closer. They went from holding hands, to Kim leaning her head on his shoulder, to standing when the rest of the crowd stood around us but with Mike behind Kim and his arms around her from behind. I kept thinking that they were going to have a good Valentine’s Day. Maybe they’d go back to one of their rooms after the game and get it on. Not that it was any of my business. Just something else that it seemed like other people got to experience, but I didn’t.

During halftime of the men’s game, the Colt Crew leaders did Tube Sock Madness, where they throw tube socks into the crowd. I still don’t know where that tradition started, but I didn’t catch any this time. The men won their game, 76 to 71.

About half an hour after we all got home from the game, I was in my room catching up on the Pink Floyd Usenet group, and thinking about how I should probably go to bed, when someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” I said, knowing that I had not locked the door.

Kathleen from room 212 walked in. I was a little surprised, just because I didn’t know Kathleen that well, and I didn’t have any classes with her, so I wasn’t sure exactly why she would be looking for me, especially at 10:30 on a Tuesday night.

“I was hoping you’d still be awake. I could see from under your door that the light was on. You know that ball you caught at the game tonight?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied hesitantly, not sure where she was going with this.

Kathleen seemed to be holding back giggles. “The player who threw it, Jason Simmons, my roommate and I think he’s really hot. We were wondering if we could have that ball.”

Wow. Apparently I was not the only one on Valentine’s Day sitting in my room thinking about hopeless crushes. I didn’t feel so bad about it anymore. “Sure,” I said, smiling. I handed Kathleen the ball.

“Thanks so much!” she said.

“No problem. Have a good night.”

“You too!”

A few minutes later, I checked my email. Brittany had replied to my message from earlier.


From: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Tue, 14 Feb 1995 21:33 -0600
Subject: Re: stuff

I’m not doing anything for Valentines Day. And I don’t have a boyfriend. We broke up two months ago. I didn’t do anything special today, just swim practice and homework. Tomorrow is my best friend’s birthday so we’ll be going out to dinner to celebrate. How was the basketball game? And I have no idea what a partial derivative is. I’m only in Algebra 2.

-Brittany


I shut down the computer, changed into the clothes I would wear to bed, and walked down to the bathroom. I was feeling a little better about myself now. Sure, I was alone on Valentine’s Day while Mike Adams and his girlfriend were probably getting some, along with thousands of other UJ students. But I wasn’t the only one. On the way back from the bathroom, I walked past Kathleen’s room, wondering if she and her roommate were still giggling over having a ball that had been thrown by that basketball player she liked.

Lying in bed, I thought about Brittany not having a boyfriend anymore. I wished I could have taken her out for Valentine’s Day, but she was over a thousand miles away. Maybe we would actually meet someday. (We didn’t.) It wasn’t the best Valentine’s Day for me, but that’s ok. Maybe next year would be different. I had good friends here at UJ, and elsewhere too; that really does matter, and it is something to be grateful for.

January 12, 1995. Bricks in the wall.

The British rock band Pink Floyd, a staple of classic rock radio which had been around since the late 1960s, released an album last year, late in my senior year of high school, called The Division Bell. That would be their last album of new material, and their tour last summer and fall was their last tour together.

With increased attention focused on the band, their older material got played much more often on classic rock radio, and I went through a Pink Floyd phase that lasted for about two years. I had my CD of The Division Bell, as well as tapes I had made of a few other Pink Floyd CDs I had borrowed from a few friends in Building C. But during that time, much of my knowledge of Pink Floyd came from their Usenet community.

Usenet was the progenitor of the Internet forum, where people make posts to ask questions or share something and others reply to it. Unlike modern fora, though, Usenet only supported messages in monochrome text; no pictures, formatting, or emojis. I subscribed to a few groups once I got to UJ and started using Usenet, mostly groups for bands and sports teams that I liked. The Pink Floyd group was by far the most active of the ones I followed, and like many active communities throughout the history of the Internet, this group featured many people with strong opinions. There was much arguing on which of Pink Floyd’s songs and albums was the best. Bassist Roger Waters, who was the songwriting heart and soul of Pink Floyd during their heyday in the 1970s and provided lead vocals for many of the songs, had left the band in the mid-1980s, and there was much arguing about whether or not the two subsequent Pink Floyd albums recorded by the other band members were in fact to be considered legitimate Pink Floyd material.

Much of the activity on this Usenet forum, however, was related to a cryptic message that had been posted using an anonymous email address a few months before I started following the group. In June of 1994, someone using the name Publius posted a disjointed message saying that the Division Bell album contained a hidden meaning, and that there would be a reward for whomever solved the enigma. Two more Publius messages followed, and among them was a prediction that something would happen at a certain time at a Pink Floyd concert a few days later. At exactly the time predicted by Publius, the word “ENIGMA” appeared on a screen on stage, suggesting that whomever was writing these strange posts actually had a connection with the band. This led to a great deal of discussion and speculation about the true meaning of the lyrics and artwork for the album. Some of the theories behind the Publius Enigma were relatively ordinary, usually involving the band coming up with this idea to get people talking about the true meaning of the songs. Others came up with significantly more outlandish theories, with one user even suggesting that Pink Floyd had made contact with aliens, and that the reward would be getting to go with the band to the aliens’ home planet.

All of this got me a little obsessed with the possibility of secret messages in songs. Last week, I had made a tape of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, borrowing the CD from Aaron in the room next door to me, and I had pretty much listened to it at least once a day, sometimes more, ever since. The Wall was a rock opera telling the story of a rock star with a troubled past, building a metaphorical wall to isolate himself from the world and others, and eventually becoming a fascist dictator-like figure. It spawned a few hit songs in 1979 and 1980, including their most commercially successful song, “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2” (often known by its opening line, “we don’t need no education”). This was one of the first songs I ever remember recognizing when hearing it on the radio as a preschool-aged child, along with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Supertramp’s “Take The Long Way Home.”

This was the first week of classes, and I was still getting used to my schedule. Today, Thursday, consisted only of a three hour chemistry lab in the morning. Our first lab today mostly consisted of lab safety procedures, with a very short experiment at the end so that the teacher assistant running the lab could demonstrate more procedures for us. Nothing too exciting. Nothing burned or blew up. The chemistry building, which in 1995 was just called the Chemistry Building rather than bearing the name of a significant individual in UJ’s history, was closer to the South Residential Area than any other building where I had ever had a class so far. Because of this, five minutes after my lab let out, I had already locked my bike, dropped off my backpack in my room, and started climbing the stairs to the dining hall.

I looked at the Asian girl with chin-length black hair climbing down the stairs and tried to remember why she looked familiar, whether or not I had actually met her, or if I had just seen her around the dining commons building. I remembered who she was just as we made eye contact: Tabitha, from Building B, who knew a bunch of people in my building because they were all part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. “Hi,” I said as we made eye contact.

“Hi,” Tabitha said as she passed me down the stairs. I didn’t know if she remembered me. Hard to tell.

After I got my food, I looked around for a place to sit. I knew exactly no one in the building, so I sat at a table by myself. I watched people walk past me as I ate alone. Friends laughing about something. Happy couples holding hands. A few other loners like me, but not many. Would I ever be part of a happy couple holding hands? There were times that I was at a table with friends laughing about something, but where were those people today? When I finished eating, I made a huge ice cream cone at the soft serve machine and brought it back to my room. On the way back, I saw Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis walking toward the dining commons as I headed back toward Building C.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said. “How are you?”

“Ok, I guess. Done with classes for the day.”

“Nice! See you later.”

I almost thought about turning around and eating lunch again just so I would have someone to talk to today. But that seemed a little creepy and desperate. I was feeling lonely, but there were still at least another ten hours of being awake today. Maybe people would be hanging out in the common room later tonight, or maybe I’d find someone to sit with at dinner.

I had math homework due tomorrow, and I worked on this in front of the computer screen while connected to IRC chat and listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall yet again. Nothing interesting was happening; there were people in the chat room whom I had talked to before, but not any of the girls whom I had gotten flirty or sexually explicit with in the past. By 2:00, I had finished my math homework, and shortly afterward I got bored with the chat room.

I tried to take a nap, but thoughts that I could not silence kept running through my mind. I let my mind wander in a stream of consciousness. Another brick in the wall. Tear down the wall. Building my own wall. Being alone. Every day is the same. I go to class, I study, I waste my time in front of a computer screen. People talk to me, sure, but I’m not very social beyond talking. I never go on dates or to movies or out to eat or anything like that. Well, maybe occasionally, but today I wanted to do something and no one was around. Would I ever find my way and adjust to this new life? How long would this take?

I wished I had one more year at Plumdale High. I had grown so much last year. I was brave enough to do that skit in front of the whole school. I had people encouraging me, like Melissa Holmes and Lisa Swan and Jessica Halloran, even Catherine Yaras all the way from Austria. Jason Lambert and Stacey Orr and I dominated that debate in government class taking the conservative side. Stacey’s feminist views bothered me at first, but we agreed on a lot of other political issues, and we were friends for the most part by the time we graduated. I did some class competitions at lunch. We lost the overall class competition point total to the sophomores. They clearly cheated, or at least bent the rules, on the competition for best Homecoming float, and everyone who wasn’t a sophomore knew it. I was pissed off about that, and I hated the entire class of 1996. I worked hard on that float, and so did a lot of other people. But a month later, I met Annie Gambrell when I made that video for her group project, and she ended up being my only friend from the year that beat us. Annie was really cute, and a sweetheart too. She wrote a very encouraging and thoughtful message in the back of my yearbook last year, something I would expect to hear from a very close friend rather than someone I had only known for six months. But of course, Annie had a boyfriend, and even if she hadn’t, I probably didn’t have a chance with a popular girl like her.

I sat up. Nap time wasn’t happening. I turned the computer back on and spent the next few hours writing, putting my stream of consciousness to words. And not just any words. Rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. And not just any rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter; I also hid a secret message in my poem.

When we studied Shakespeare in high school , I had a hard time at first hearing iambic pentameter, because I was used to popular music that had four beats per line instead of Shakespeare’s five. But the form eventually grew on me. Sonnet 29 in particular has always been a favorite of mine. And the secret message in my poem was definitely inspired by the Publius Enigma. I envisioned this poem as the first in a series all telling a story around a common theme, much like how the songs in The Wall told a story around a common theme.

I got up to use the bathroom while I was writing, and I left the door open a crack in case anyone came by to say hi. I doubted anyone would, though. After an hour or so, I had my finished product.

“Almost Extinct”

However hard the lonely young man tries,
Each night he stagnates, tears come to his eyes.
Around him, people moving here and there,
Variety, in his life, very rare.
It’s not much like the past, with lots of friends,
Like those to whom his happy times he lends,
Yes, now he has friends too, but something’s gone;
In this place no one’s there to push him on,
No goofy acting role before his peers,
Friends care, but not like in his high school years,
Like helping him become one of their own.
Under their domination he had grown,
Each day becoming stronger than before.
New friends came knocking on his open door.
Come crashing down, great wall of ninety-six!
End all the hate! build bridges with those bricks!
Do videos! the memories will transcend;
Behold the liberal wonder, now a friend.
Yet suddenly, one happy summer night,
Pure happiness made everything seem right,
In fact, however, that night was the last;
Now all that happiness lies in the past,
Killed off by evil forces time has wrought;
Far, far away, his happiness is naught;
Long gone is all the friendship from before,
Once there, it’s hard to stop that upward soar.
Yet he believes that he might soar again;
Does anybody know exactly when?

“Greg?” I heard someone say from the hallway. Sarah poked her head in the door. “Is everything okay? You seemed kind of down when I saw you earlier.”

“I’m just having a bad day,” I said. “A lot of thoughts running around in my head.”

“Anything you need to talk about?”

“I feel alone, mostly.”

“You’re not alone. You have friends here.”

“Well, like, you guys are my friends, but I don’t really do stuff with you other than classes and living here. I’m not good at making plans with people. I didn’t really have friends back home until senior year, and I wasn’t the one making plans. I would just get invited to stuff. And, I’m not good with girls. I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Greg, just be yourself. I know a lot of people in this building care about you. I care about you. And we’re not out there having fun and doing stuff every night. Most of the time we’re studying.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“But I’ll try to make sure you feel included.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“You know some of us here are in a Bible study on Tuesdays. You’re always welcome to come to that.”

“Maybe.”

“By the way, was I interrupting anything? Are you studying?”

“No. I was… well, I was writing poetry about how I’ve been feeling.”

“Really? Can I read it?”

“Sure.” I didn’t feel like my poem was personal enough to hide from people, and I was curious about people’s reactions. I was also curious if she would find the secret message, or be curious about some of my oddly specific descriptions, like the Wall of Ninety-Six. She didn’t find the secret message, which was hidden in plain sight down the left side of the poem, reading the first letters of each line.

“That’s interesting,” Sarah said after she finished reading. “I like it.”

“I was thinking of writing a whole series of poems, kind of telling a story about this guy.”

“That’s a good idea. I didn’t know you wrote poetry.”

“I don’t really, at least not very often. But like I said, I was thinking about a lot of stuff earlier, and it just came out as poetry.”

“That’s really cool. Do you have anything else?”

“Well, I wrote another one a few days ago. A funny one. It’s actually a song parody.”

“I want to see it!”

I opened this file on my computer, which replaced Almost Extinct on the screen.

“Amazing Gas”

Amazing gas, how sweet the sound,
But oh, how bad the smell!
It kills your nose, makes trees fall down,
That’s how my old oak fell.

If there are lots of folks nearby
That you don’t want to see
Just cut the cheese, and they will fly,
The crowd will cease to be.

One man broke wind, his friend dropped dead,
They went for Murder One;
‘Twas just a heart attack, they said,
He walked, but it was fun.

Beware that wind from someone’s ass!
That pow’rful, putrid smell!
But if you want to smell the gas
Just eat at Taco Bell.

“That’s bad!” Sarah said, laughing. “And hilarious! Such a guy sense of humor.”

“I can’t help it. I grew up around fart jokes.”

Just then, the telephone rang. “Can you answer that?” I asked Sarah.

“What? Why?”

“It’s my mother. She’s the only person who ever calls me here. And I want to see her reaction when someone else answers.”

Sarah picked up the phone on the third ring. “Hello?” she said. She listened for a few seconds, and then laughed. “No, it’s not the wrong number. Greg is here,” she explained. She handed me the phone a few seconds later.

“Hello?” I said.

“Who was that?” Mom asked.

“Sarah. She was in here talking about something, and I just wanted to see your reaction when someone else answered the phone.”

“You got me. I was confused. I wondered, did I dial the wrong number? Did I forget Greg’s phone number?”

“I was just messing with you,” I said. I wouldn’t put it past Mom to forget my phone number, however. She tried to send me a package in 2008 that ended up getting returned to her after three weeks because she forgot my address. As I noticed Sarah gesturing as if she wanted to tell me something, I told Mom, “Hang on. Just a minute.”

“I’m going to let you go,” Sarah said quietly. “We’ll be going to the DC around 6 for dinner if you want to join us.”

“Okay,” I said. Sarah left and closed the door. “Sorry about that,” I said to Mom. “Sarah was telling me something. She just left.”

Mom and I continued talking for about 10 or 15 minutes. Most of the time Mom was telling me about work and people at church whom she knew and I didn’t. I told her a little bit about my new classes for winter quarter.

After I hung up with Mom, I started working on my chemistry lab report. It wasn’t due until next week, but I figured I may as well do it now while it was fresh in my mind. I was feeling a little bit better. It took me a long time to start being social in high school. I was still adjusting to the routine of being in college, and it might take a while here too. But I had some advantages here. In high school, I had never had a social life before, but since I started to have a social life at the end of high school, I knew a little more how social lives worked. And being in the IHP, living with people in my classes, I didn’t have to look very far to find friends, at least not as far as one would expect to look at a university with over twenty thousand students. Sarah was right. A lot of people in this building cared about me. Like Sarah and Krista and Taylor and Pete, with whom I had dinner at the dining commons that night. And they weren’t the only ones. There was also Liz and Ramon and Charlie and Caroline and Danielle and Rebekah and David and Keith and so many others, and having that many people who were becoming friends was not something to take lightly. I did not entirely realize at the time how fortunate I was to have an experience like this.

(Author’s note: These were actual poems I actually wrote in 1995.  And I did continue the series that started with Almost Extinct, but I’m not going to share the rest here.  It’s just weird.)

January 8, 1995. Let her be.

Today was one of those days where I had to turn the windshield wipers on and off multiple times.  I wish the weather would just make up its mind sometimes. It rained hard enough for a few minutes that I needed to have the wipers on all the way, then the rain tapered off into showers requiring only intermittent wipers.  Then it was dry for a few minutes, and when the wipers started making an irritating squeaky noise, I remembered to turn them off. Then, a few minutes later, it would start raining again, and I would start the whole cycle again.  Of course, the trip from Plumdale to Jeromeville involved driving over hills and across valleys, which also accounts for part of the reason the weather changed so much.

This was now my fifth time making this trip since beginning classes at UJ.  I was learning these roads enough to know where I was and what was coming next.  Highway 11 north from Plumdale north to San Tomas. That usually took about 45 minutes.  Then north on Highway 6, through East San Tomas and Irving, and over a big hill. The highway winds east through the hills, and then north through the outer suburbs of San Tomas and Bay City.  After a city called Marquez, Highway 6 passes through an industrial area on the shore of the Capital River. The river at this point is over a mile wide, and the bridge is very high, because of bluffs on either side of the river and ships passing underneath.  The bridge is narrow, just barely wide enough for three lanes in each direction, with no shoulder and a narrow concrete barrier in the middle. It was built in 1962 when traffic was much lighter.

Across the bridge is an industrial area on the outskirts of the town of North Marquez.  The highway continues north for another ten miles, with hills on the left and a marshy grassland on the right, before merging with eastbound Highway 100.  Somewhere around there, I heard a song on the radio that I had never heard before. At first I thought it sounded like Pearl Jam, but I quickly realized that the singer, although having some similar vocal mannerisms to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, clearly was not him.  This guy had more of a soulful bluesy sound, and the melody wasn’t dark and angsty like a Pearl Jam song. It was more like folksy pop-rock, but with still a little bit of an Eddie Vedder sound to the vocals. Kind of like a Pearl Jam of the South, if such a thing could exist.  “And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be,” the singer who was not Eddie Vedder sang. That line stuck out in my mind all day. I would have to find out what this Pearl Jam of the South was called.

I drove northeast through Fairview and Nueces, but took a little side trip instead of continuing straight to Jeromeville.  A sign on the east side of Nueces says “TRAFFIC ALERT AM 1610,” with flashing yellow lights on top, and for the first time I saw the flashing lights on.  I tried turning my radio to AM 1610 to hear the TRAFFIC ALERT, but there were power lines nearby, and the radio was mostly picking up static. I panicked, wanting to avoid this TRAFFIC ALERT at all costs, so I could hurry up and get back to Building C and, more importantly, pee.  I was getting to the point where I couldn’t hold it much longer, and I didn’t want to stay stuck in traffic.

Because I liked to read maps, I was pretty sure I could get back to UJ on back roads from here.  So I turned onto Pittman Road and then east on Grant Road, through nut tree orchards and cow pastures and tomato fields.  Grant Road eventually became West Fifth Street on the outskirts of Jeromeville, and I headed back to Building C the usual way from there.

What I did not realize at the time is that those TRAFFIC ALERT signs are not alerting me to any traffic in or near Jeromeville.  About 40 miles east of Jeromeville, Highway 100 begins climbing into some very high mountains, and this time of year, snow often affects driving conditions.  Each of these TRAFFIC ALERT signs is attached to a low-power radio station, the one I tried to turn on but couldn’t get clearly, and the radio stations play a recorded message about winter driving conditions in the mountains.  Carry chains in case of changing weather conditions. Chains required from such-and-such point to such-and-such point. Highway closed. Stuff like that. In the 21st century, there are electronic message boards that serve this purpose, but this technology had not yet implemented by the state Department of Transportation in 1995.  It doesn’t snow anywhere near Plumdale, and I didn’t grow up taking trips to the snow, so I had no concept that the TRAFFIC ALERT was about this and not a giant traffic jam approaching Jeromeville. I figured I would rather take about 10 minutes longer to get home than risk getting stuck in traffic.

I called Mom as soon as I got home.  “Hi, it’s me,” I said. “I’m home. It took a little longer because I took a side trip to avoid traffic–”

“You’re home?” Mom said, interrupting me.

“Yes–”

“And you’re safe?”  Mom sounded like she had been crying.

“Yes… what’s going on?”

“You weren’t in an accident on the bridge?”

“What?  Bridge? What are you talking about?”

“I was listening to the traffic report on the Bay City news station, to see if you were going to hit any traffic on your trip home, and I heard there was a really bad accident on the Marquez Bridge–”

“Really, Mom?  You hear there’s an accident, and you just assume it’s me?”

“I just knew it was you,” Mom replied, clearly in tears.  “I’ve been terrified this whole time. They said a car almost went over the bridge.  It ran into a truck. And there was a big pile-up behind it. You didn’t see or hear about any of this?”

“It must have been right behind me.  I didn’t have any traffic at all crossing the bridge.”

“I’m so glad you’re safe.  I need to call Grandma and tell her you’re ok.”

“Seriously, though.  Thousands of people cross that bridge every day.  You hear about one accident, and you just know it was me?  You don’t have a lot of faith in my driving skills.”

“I worry about you.  You know that.”

“I do.  But I also wish you would treat me as an adult.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “It’s just what I do.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your first class?  You start tomorrow, right?”

“Math, at 8 in the morning.  Again.”

“Do you know anyone who is in your class?”

“I haven’t asked.”

“Well, I’m glad you got home safely.  Enjoy your first day of classes tomorrow.  Just think; you’ve been through one quarter of college classes already, so you know what to expect.”

“True.”

“I’ll talk to you later.  Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone and went to get lunch… or, more accurately, Sunday brunch.  On Saturdays and Sundays, the dining commons was not open for breakfast, and during lunch time, they served “brunch” instead.  Students often stayed up late on Friday and Saturday nights and did not eat breakfast the following mornings; at least that was my guess as to why the schedule was different on weekends.  I didn’t see many familiar faces at brunch. For that matter, I didn’t see many faces at all. The dining commons was mostly empty. Most students were probably waiting until the last minute to return to the dorms.

I spent my afternoon being lazy.  I wrote some emails to a few girls I had been talking to online.  I read some Usenet newsgroups and got on an IRC chat for a while. I took a nap.  I played Tetris and Sim City, during which I heard footsteps and voices outside. More people were returning from the holidays.

The dining commons was open normally for dinner on Sundays, and it was much more full than it had been at brunch earlier in the day.  I chose a chicken patty sandwich and got French fries to go with it. I looked around and saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, and Liz at a table with a few empty seats, so I sat with them.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said.

“How was your break?” Taylor asked.  “Did you do anything special?”

“The usual, pretty much,” I replied.  “I was with my family for Christmas. My aunt and her family were visiting.  I spent New Year’s with some friends from high school. It was good to see them.”

“I bet it was,” Liz said.

“What did you guys do?” I asked.

“I went to see my grandparents in Washington,” Pete said.  “That was a lot of time in the car, but it was fun.”

“I was back home in Ralstonville,” Sarah said.  “And my boyfriend and I broke up.”

“Aww.”  Liz looked at Sarah, her face conveying serious concern.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  It was hard, but it needed to happen.  It’s the best for both of us. He was definitely getting in the way of my relationship with God.”

I had never heard anyone give that reason for breaking up.  What exactly did that mean? Maybe it has something to do with that Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that everyone else at this table was part of.  If Sarah said that her boyfriend was getting in the way of her relationship with God, that sounded to me like she was saying he was a bad influence on her in some way.  If that was the case, then this breakup was probably a good thing in the long run, even if it was difficult now. I did not say any of these thoughts out loud, though, because relationships and breakups weren’t anything I had ever experienced personally, so I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“So apparently there was an accident on the Marquez Bridge this morning,” I said.

“I heard about that!” Liz said.  “It was on the news. A car hit a truck and almost fell off the bridge!  Did you see it happen?”

“No.  It happened right after I drove across, apparently.  I didn’t see anything unusual on the bridge But when I got back to the dorm, I called my mom, and apparently she had heard about the accident and just assumed it was me.  It’s like she has no faith in my driving abilities; she hears of an accident in the vague area where I am, and she just knows I was in it.”

“That’s kind of sweet of her to care like that, though,” Sarah reminded me.

“But she doesn’t respect me as an adult.  She worries about me too much.”

“Yeah.  But that’s what moms do.  You shouldn’t get mad at her.  Just let her be.”

“I guess.”

Just let her be, I thought.  Like it says in that song by Pearl Jam of the South.  Yes, it was true that Mom could be a little annoying in the way that she worries about me and doesn’t let me be independent.  That was the reason I never considered applying to Mom’s alma mater, San Tomas State. I was worried that, with Mom less than an hour away, she wouldn’t give me a chance to grow up on my own.  But, as Sarah said, this was all perfectly normal behavior for a mother. Mothers, at least the good ones, worry about their children because they love their children and want them to be safe. And I knew that I should be thankful to have parents who cared enough about me to send me to the University of Jeromeville, and to help pay for what my academic scholarship didn’t cover.  Not everyone gets opportunities like that.

After a few more hours of playing around on the computer, I went to sleep, thinking about how fortunate I was to be in this position, and hoping to find a balance between getting to be independent but still having a healthy relationship with my parents.  And that song by Pearl Jam of the South was stuck in my head, with that one line repeating over and over again since I didn’t know the rest of the song very well. And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be.

December 31, 1994. Back in Plumdale for the holidays.

Winter break was more than half over.  Because of UJ’s three-quarter schedule, our winter break wasn’t as long as that of most other universities.  I didn’t mind, because this schedule was all I knew; the break was at least as long as, and in some years a little longer than, the winter break I was used to at Plumdale High.

A good part of my break had been spent watching TV, following the adventures of Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Agents Mulder and Scully.  I also spent a lot of time playing Donkey Kong Country on Super Nintendo. I didn’t have any of my video game consoles with me in Jeromeville.  Technically they belonged to both me and Mark, and I didn’t really have a lot of time to play video games anymore now that I had a lot of studying to do.  This was a brand new game; Mark had just gotten it for Christmas. I was enjoying it so far. The Donkey Kong character was from a classic coin-operated video game from 1981, but this new game was a platform adventure that played more like the Super Mario Bros. games.  I love the game, but now that I think about it, a quarter century later I’ve still never beaten the game.

My big Christmas present was a printer, a Canon ink-jet.  I no longer would have to go down to the study lounge in the dining commons building and pay 10 cents per page, nor would I have to go across the hall with a floppy disk and nicely ask Liz if I could borrow her printer.  This was the first time I had ever had a printer with good enough resolution to look like actual printing, as opposed to those low resolution dot-matrix printers from the 80s that used the paper with the detachable holes on the sides.

I drove out toward Highway 11 with a tape of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album playing.  This had been another of my Christmas presents, on CD, and I had made a tape of it since I didn’t have a CD player in the car.  The Eagles were a frequent presence on classic rock radio, and I had come to like them since discovering classic rock in the middle of high school.  The band broke up abruptly in 1980 after a dispute between members Don Henley and Glenn Frey, both of whom had successful solo careers after that. When asked when the Eagles would get back together, Don Henley reportedly said when hell freezes over.  Earlier in 1994, the band got back together for a tour and a TV special called Hell Freezes Over.  The album contained a selection of live recordings from the TV special along with studio recordings of four brand new songs.

In high school, there was a girl in a bunch of my classes sophomore and junior year named Catherine Yaras.  She was one who always encouraged me to come out of my shell, and she invited me to sit with her and her friends at lunch during a time when I always sat by myself.  Most of us who sat there, which also included Melissa and Renee and Kevin, sat in a hallway next to the room where all of us had English class right after lunch. I grew a lot senior year, and I definitely came out of my shell, but Catherine wasn’t there to see it up close, because she spent that year as an exchange student in Austria.  She and I wrote letters pretty much all year, and by spring she told me that I was the only school friend still writing to her. I had seen her once and talked to her a couple more times since she got back from Austria in the summer, and now I was on the way to her house for a New Year’s party.

She said to show up around 8:00, and it was almost 8:30 now.  As I started to be more social, I came to learn that most people don’t show up to events like this on time, and I was starting to follow suit.  I arrived at Catherine’s house and stood awkwardly as I knocked on the door. To this day, for some reason, I still find it awkward to knock on someone’s door and then have to wait for them to answer.  I feel like I’m always standing there uncomfortably.

“Greg!” Catherine said when she opened the door.  “It’s good to see you!” She hugged me, and I hugged back.

“You too.”

“How are you?”

“I’m doing pretty well,” I said.  “You?”

“I’m great!  Come on in! I have to go check on something in the kitchen, but I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

As Catherine headed toward the kitchen, I walked into the living room and looked around.  Renee was sitting on the couch with her boyfriend Anthony. They had been part of the same friend circle ever since Renee moved to Plumdale before junior year, but they had just recently gotten together.  Apparently some combination of our mutual friends had been conspiring to set them up for a while, and I was completely oblivious to all of it. At our senior trip to Disneyland, one of the days where they open the park all night just for high school senior trips, Kevin had made a joke about tying a balloon around Anthony and Renee’s wrists, because Anthony had apparently often gotten separated from the group on field trips with the school band.  By the end of the night, the balloon was long gone, but Anthony and Renee were still holding hands. Other stuff may have been going on with them before that night, but that was the first I knew of it, because as I said, I’m always oblivious to that kind of thing.

Renee had been my senior prom date.  We were pretty much going just as friends, so I wasn’t upset at all that she and one of my guy friends were together a month later.  My grandma had a copy of our prom picture in a frame on a table in her living room for many years after that. People usually commented on the height difference, since Renee was a whole foot shorter than me.  I remember that picture, and what stands out to me is the contrast in color. I have dark, almost black, hair, and I wore a traditional black and white tuxedo, whereas Renee has bright red hair and wore a blue dress.  Sometimes I feel like my life is dark, and everyone else’s is colorful… so I guess it fits.

Renee had gotten her email set up a few weeks ago, so we had been communicating again, and she had said something suggesting that she and Anthony were still together.  I was happy for them. Anthony had moved to Ohio for school, and long distance relationships were difficult, or at least so I had heard. I didn’t have any experience with long distance relationships, at least not in the 1990s; that dumpster fire would happen in 2011, and it isn’t part of this story, so I’ll stop talking about it.

Two others whom I recognized from school but didn’t know well were sitting in chairs set up on the other side of the room from the couch.  No one else had arrived yet. I walked over to Renee and Anthony.

“Hey, Greg,” Renee said.  Anthony waved.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How are you guys?”

“I’m good,” Anthony said.

“How’s Ohio?” I asked.

“It’s cold!  I’m glad to be back out west.”

“I’m sure that’s an adjustment.”

“How did finals go?” Renee asked.  “Last time I talked to you, you were stressing about finals.”

“I think I did pretty well.  I know I did really well on the math final.” I told Renee and Anthony the story about Rebekah Tyler knowing what I got on the final before I did.  As I was in the middle of the story, Melissa walked in and sat near us; she must have arrived unnoticed by me as I was telling the story.

“Hey, Melissa,” I said.  

“Greg!” she replied, giving me a hug.  “This story sounds interesting.”

I finished the story.  “Rebekah sounds like one of my roommates,” Renee said.  “She’s always in everyone’s business.”

“Rebekah isn’t usually in my business,” I said.  “At least not except for this one time.”

“My roommate and I get along great.  That’s mostly because he’s never home,” Anthony explained.  “I don’t know where he goes. I think he has a girlfriend who lives off campus.”

“How are you liking dorm life, Greg?” Melissa asked.  “Did you say you don’t have a roommate?”

“That’s right,” I replied.  “I’m not sure how that happened.  I didn’t ask for a single room, but I got one.  There are only a few single rooms in my building.  But so far I’ve made a lot of friends in the dorm. It’s nice sometimes just wandering up and down the halls seeing who is around and what people are doing.”

“Lucky!” Anthony said.

“I feel like I’m missing out not being in a dorm,” Melissa said.

“You’re living with relatives, right?”

“My grandma.  And it feels like a grandma house.  I don’t have friends over, and I don’t really spend a lot of time around students.  You guys are lucky.”

“Can you get involved in any groups on campus to make friends?” I asked Melissa.

“I’m trying.  There’s a club for pre-med students that I’ve been to a few times.  I don’t really know anyone yet, though. Also, traffic is bad, so it’s hard for me to get back to campus at night.”

“That’s true.  I hadn’t thought of that.”

“The fruit salad is done,” Catherine called out from the kitchen.  Renee and Anthony got up a minute later to get food, leaving Melissa and me alone on that side of the room.

“I have to say,” Melissa said, “I’m really proud of you for adjusting to dorm life and being away from home so well.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“I know this was a scary transition for you, being out on your own.  But you’re doing great. And like I said, you’re getting to do things that I’m not getting to do.”

“Thanks.  I’m sure you’ll figure things out.”

“I will.  And the bright side is I don’t have to deal with noisy neighbors living at my grandma’s house.”

“Good point.  I’ve had noisy neighbor issues.”

“Hey, Melissa,” Catherine said, walking up to Melissa and me and sitting on the couch.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” Melissa said.  “I was just telling Greg how I’m proud of the way he’s adjusted to dorm life.”

“I know!  I’m proud of you too, Greg!”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“How was your Christmas?  Did you guys go anywhere? Or were any family visiting?”

“I was at my parents’ house,” I said.  “My aunt and uncle and cousins were visiting, like they do pretty much every Christmas.”

“How was that?”

“It’s always, well, interesting to see them.  Oh — funny story. So back when were remodeling the house years ago, Mom was reading these fancy remodeling magazines, and that was the first anyone in our family had ever heard of a bidet.”

“Bidets are weird at first,” Catherine said.  “We had one at the house where I stayed in Austria.  It definitely took some getting used to!”

“I’m sure!  Anyway, next to the bathroom in the remodel is a doorway leading to the crawl space in the attic.  My brother started making jokes that that was going to be the Bidet Room. So ever since then, we’ve always called the attic the Bidet Room.  And Mom said in front of my cousins that she had to go wrap the presents that she hid in the Bidet Room.”

“I can’t picture your mom saying ‘Bidet Room,’” Melissa said.

“There’s probably a lot that my mom says that you can’t picture.  But anyway, my one cousin, Miranda, she just turned 14, and they live out in the country, so she isn’t an expert on European bathroom fixtures.  Miranda asked why we called it the Bidet Room, and I told her about Mark saying we should put a bidet in there. Then she asks, ‘What’s a bidet?’  I start to explain it in polite family-friendly terms. Her brother interrupts me and blurts out, ‘It shoots water up your ass!’”

“Ha!” Catherine laughed.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “That’s funny.”

“How was your Christmas?” I asked Melissa.

“Nothing special.  Mom and Dad and my brother drove down south and had Christmas with me and some other relatives at my grandma’s house, and I came back up to Plumdale with them a few days ago.  I’m going to fly home on Tuesday. Flights from Santa Lucia to San Angelo are cheapest on Tuesdays,” Melissa explained. I never would have thought of that, considering that I had never been on an airplane at that time.

The party was fairly calm as far as New Year’s parties go.  I spent the New Year’s a year ago with some family friends who liked to drink and watch sports, and this party wasn’t raucous and loud like that one.  It was mostly just people talking and eating and, in the case of us who were away at school, catching up. And all of that was perfectly okay with me. I got to hear some more of Catherine’s stories about her host family and school and friends in Austria.

However, Catherine’s party was not without drinking.  At one point in the night, Catherine said she was making margaritas.  I think it was margaritas. I’m not an expert on alcoholic beverages, and I knew even less then than I do now.

“Um,” I said, “doesn’t that have alcohol in it?”

“If that makes you uncomfortable, I can make you a virgin margarita.”

Virgin margarita.  Virgin margarita.  I racked my brain trying to figure out what that mean.  After a few seconds of thinking about the context clues, I figured that she must mean a margarita without alcohol.

“Everyone our age drinks alcohol in Austria,” Catherine explained, apparently noticing that I was uncomfortable.  “It’s no big deal over there, and since I’ve been back home I’ve been drinking occasionally. I’m not going to get drunk and be unsafe.  I can make you one without alcohol if you want.”

“Okay,” I said, still a little uncomfortable.

Catherine came back a few minutes later with the drinks.  I picked up my drink, hesitantly. I smelled it; it didn’t smell like alcohol, but considering I wasn’t exactly used to the smell of alcohol, I didn’t know what to expect.  “They’re exactly the same,” she said, “except yours doesn’t have alcohol and mine does.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “What if this is the wrong drink?”

“I can tell.  It’s not.”

“What if someone spiked my drink?”  I’m not entirely sure why I said that.  Maybe I wanted to look cool by demonstrating that I knew what “spiked” meant.

“Come on, Greg.  Do you trust me?”

In hindsight, I’m even less sure of why I said the words that came out of my mouth next, aside from the fact that I’d been watching TV a lot.  “I’m like Agent Mulder. I trust no one.”

“Greg,” Catherine said.  “If you can’t trust me, then are we really even friends?  I’m hurt that you would say that.”

I looked down.  “I didn’t mean it that way,” I said.  I didn’t even know how I meant it. I was just making a reference to one of my favorite TV shows.  “I’m sorry. It’s from X-Files.”

“Do you trust me, Greg?”

I picked up the class and drank a sip of the virgin margarita.  “Yes,” I said. “I trust you. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s okay,” Catherine replied.  “Just know that I would never give you alcohol without your permission.”

“I know.  Thank you.”

I took another sip of the virgin margarita.  After all that, I didn’t really like it, but I drank the rest of it since Catherine had been through all that to make it for me.  When I was done with the drink, I put the glass back in the kitchen and had more chips and salsa for a while. I spotted someone else I knew from school and went over to talk to her for a while.

“It’s almost midnight!” someone shouted eventually.  A television was showing one of the nationally televised New Year’s Eve broadcasts, with the countdown clock in the corner.  Someone handed me two party favors, one of those things that you blow into and it unrolls and makes a toot noise, and some plastic glasses shaped like the numbers “1995” with holes for your eyes inside the round parts of the 9s.  I put the glasses on and the other thing in my mouth.

“Ten!  Nine! Eight!” everyone started shouting.  “Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!” Some people clapped, some people made noise with whichever party favor they had, and some people holding drinks clinked their glasses together.  Even though a new year is mostly an arbitrary point in time, there is always something special about it. The new number on the calendar gives hope that maybe this year would be different.

“Greg?” Catherine said, turning her left cheek toward my face.  “New Year’s kiss?”

It appeared that 1995 would be different, for sure.  I had never had a New Year’s kiss, nor had I ever kissed anyone or been kissed at any other time of any year.  (I don’t count Grandma kissing my cheek as a kiss. That’s just what grandmothers do.) I didn’t even know in 1995 that a New Year’s kiss was a thing, because of my sheltered upbringing.  But I had made enough of a fuss about the virgin margarita, and I didn’t want Catherine to think I was afraid or being weird any more than she already did. So I puckered my lips and lightly kissed her on the cheek.  She smiled and kissed my cheek back.

“I’m glad I got to see you tonight,” Catherine said.

“Thanks.  I’m glad I came.”

“You really sound like you’re doing well at Jeromeville.  And I’m sure 1995 is going to be a great year for you.”

I started to get tired about an hour later, so I said my goodbyes and drove home, still listening to the Eagles.  I had taken a significant step tonight: I didn’t get all worked up over underage drinking. I was always bothered by the fact that some high school kids know how to get alcohol at a young age, in complete defiance of the law and of their own safety.  I even remember thinking that I ever got invited to a party where there was drinking, I would call the police on my own friends, just because they were breaking the law. Of course, no decent human being would do that unless someone’s life was clearly in danger.  This may have been the first time I had ever been in the same room as underage drinking, and I got over it and let things be. No one was hurting anyone else, and no one’s lives were in danger.

I pulled up into the driveway, quietly entered the house so as not to wake my parents or Mark, and went to bed for the first time in 1995.  I was hopeful for a good year. I had already taken some big steps in 1994, being out on my own, being a student at a university, and living in a dorm.  This new life seemed to be suiting me well so far. I looked forward to the new adventures that 1995 would bring… although, on that cloudy night in Plumdale, 150 miles from Jeromeville, I never would have guessed the exact sort of adventures that lay ahead of me.

 

November 19, 1994. The Help Window.

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

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

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

“Go for it,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘The Food!’” shouted Mike.

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

I chuckled.  “For sure,” I said.

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

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

“Maybe.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have fun!” I said.

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

“I’ll be fine.”

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

I put the book down.

Depression sucks.

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

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

How did she know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” I said.  “How are you?”

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

“Which physics?”

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

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

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

“Yeah.  What’s your major?”

“Chemical engineering.”

“That sounds hard, but interesting.”

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

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

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

“That’s true.”

“Are you considering engineering at all?”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, it is.  Where are you from?”

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

“Are you going home for Thanksgiving?”

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

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

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

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

“That sounds nice!”

“It was.”  I yawned.

“Getting tired?” Megan asked.

“Maybe I should go try to sleep.”

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

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

“It was good talking to you too!”

“Thanks.”

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

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

“Good night!”

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

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