November 22-25, 1995. Thanksgiving with the Dennisons.

I stood outside 109 Wellington waiting for my math class, as I did every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Another class met in that room right before mine, and about a minute after I arrived, those students began leaving.  Jack Chalmers from my class always said hi to Lizzie, a girl from that class whom he had known back home, as she passed by, but Jack was not here now.  I saw Lizzie walk past, and I made eye contact and attempted to smile.

Lizzie noticed me making eye contact.  She was fair-skinned with dark brown hair and eyes, and she wore a dark red sweatshirt.  “Hey,” she said.

I did not expect her to actually say hi to me, considering that the few words she had said to me had all happened on days when I had been talking to Jack as her class left.  Trying to think of something to say, I blurted out, “Jack’s not here.”

“Yeah.  He was going to leave early this morning for Thanksgiving.  He has a long drive, you know.”

“That makes sense.”

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Lizzie asked me.

“We always go visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell.  Mom and Dad are picking me up tomorrow morning on their way.”

“Where are they coming from?”

“Plumdale.  That’s where I grew up.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“That sounds like fun!  I’m flying home tonight.  I could have carpooled with Jack, but I have a midterm I can’t miss later today.”

“Good luck on your midterm!  And have a great Thanksgiving!”

“You too!”

One of the best parts of being a university student was being surrounded by other people around my age at the same point in their lives as me.  That makes it so much easier to make friends, compared to adult life with its compartmentalized and isolated experiences.  And sometimes my friends would have other friends, and my friends’ friends would become my friends.  This seemed to be happening with Lizzie, now that we had had an actual conversation without Jack being there.

This Wednesday felt more like a Friday, with tomorrow being Thanksgiving.  But I was annoyed that the University of Jeromeville and its sister schools only take two days off, plus a weekend, for Thanksgiving.  This was the same as I always got in elementary school, but in high school, I had gotten three days off, and in the 21st century I know many schools that take the entire week off.  It was disappointing, not having more time off for Thanksgiving, but many real life jobs only have one day off, so it could be worse.

During math class, as Anton lectured about eigenvalues and eigenvectors, I thought about the rest of my day.  Bowling class, two more lectures, and two hours of tutoring, and I would be done for the week. ready to go see family and stuff my face with food.

I had two tutoring groups on Wednesdays after my classes.  Calculus with Yesenia and Kevin went as it always did.  But in the precalculus group after that, I sat at the table for ten minutes waiting for the four students in the group to show up.  If I waited fifteen minutes, and no one showed up, I was allowed to leave and still get paid for the fifteen minutes.  One of the students, Jennifer, arrived just as I was getting ready to go home.

“I didn’t think anyone was going to come,” I said.

“We just got a midterm back, and I have a lot of questions,” Jennifer replied.

“I wonder if everyone else left early because it’s Thanksgiving?” I wondered aloud, remembering what Lizzie had said about Jack.

“Probably.”

“Are you going anywhere for Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah. Just back home, to Pleasant Creek.  My dad is coming to pick me up tonight.”

“I’m going to visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell.  That’ll be fun.”

Jennifer and I got a lot of work done.  We talked about every problem she missed on the midterm as well as today’s lecture, and she really did seem to understand better by the end of the hour.  After we finished, I walked to the Barn and caught the bus home, then proceeded to waste the rest of the night playing around on the computer and reading.  Before I went to bed, I threw a few changes of clothes and my personal bathroom items in a bag for the trip.

Mom and Dad and my brother Mark arrived to pick me up around 10:00 Thursday morning.  After everyone used my bathroom for their mid-trip pit stop, we left, turning north onto Highway 117.  “We made good time,” Mom said as we left Jeromeville and our surroundings abruptly changed to fields and pastures.  “We left right at 7:30, like we wanted to.  And we’ll still get to Bidwell in plenty of time to check into the motel before we eat.”

“Sounds good.”

“Oh.  You’ll like this.  We were on the phone with Aunt Carol earlier this week, talking about that time years ago when you brought your Game Boy to Bidwell and we played Tetris.  I told her I always liked Dr. Mario, and she said she didn’t know that game, but it sounded fun.  So we brought the Super Nintendo, so we can play Tetris and Dr. Mario with Aunt Carol.”

“That’ll be fun,” I said.  Tetris & Dr. Mario was a cartridge for the Super Nintendo that included both games, which had been on separate cartridges for the earlier Nintendo Entertainment System.  We had lost our Dr. Mario game when someone borrowed it and never returned it; last summer Mom had wanted to play Dr. Mario, so we got the Super Nintendo Tetris & Dr. Mario as a replacement.

The trip from Jeromeville to Bidwell took just under two hours, north on Highway 117 to where it ends, then north on Highway 9.  In most of the towns between Jeromeville and Bidwell, the highway becomes a city street, which slows the drive down a little but gives a more close-up view of life in those towns than freeway travel would.  Fields and orchards covered the land between the towns.

My great-grandmother Christine Dennison used to host Thanksgiving at her house in the hills on the outskirts of Bidwell.  Her son, my great-uncle Ted, was a cattle rancher; he had sold the land around her house some time ago but kept the house for his mother to live in.  We used to stay at her house when we came to Bidwell, and I always had so much fun exploring the old ranch land, going on long walks, even in the last few years of her life when the new owners of the land began building a country club and golf course there.

Christine had been my last great-grandparent, and this was our second Thanksgiving since she passed.  Last year, in the absence of anyone wanting to take over the cooking and hosting duties, someone had decided to hold the Dennison extended family Thanksgiving at HomeTown Buffet.  I thought that was a bit tacky at first, but having so many choices of food last year was kind of nice, so I was looking forward to it this year.

We checked into the motel and rested a bit before heading to HomeTown Buffet in mid-afternoon. “Hey, you guys,” Aunt Carol said as we approached the group of Dennison relatives waiting outside.  Her husband, Uncle Chuck, Dad’s next-youngest brother, said hi and shook all of our hands.  “Did you bring the game?” Aunt Carol asked.

“Yes, we did.  Greg is waiting to play with you guys.”

“Oh, good.”

“Greg,” an elderly bald man said, patting me on the shoulder.  “How’re you doing?  How’s Jeromeville?”

“Hi, Grandpa Harold,” I said.  “I’m doing well.  Classes are good this quarter.  And I’m working part time as a math tutor.”

“A math tutor?  That sounds perfect for you.”

“It is.”

I looked around to see who else was here.  Grandpa Harold’s wife, Grandma Nancy, saw me and waved.  I knew her as my grandmother, but she was not biologically related to me.  Grandpa Harold had been married three times, and my dad, Harold Dennison, Jr., came from the second wife, who lived out of state and died when I was in high school.  I only met Dad’s real mother twice.  My dad’s cousin Tina, whose father had had the cattle ranch, and her four daughters stood at the end of the line.  I made a note to say hi to them next.  The oldest girl was 18 and the youngest 12; they used to play with Mark and me at Great-Grandma Christine’s house when we would visit.  When Mark was around 10, he went through a phase of fascination with amphibians and reptiles, and we used to catch tadpoles in Bidwell Creek in the summer with the girls.  I overheard Tina say that her parents would not be joining us, since they were having Thanksgiving with her brother’s family.

Uncle Glen, Dad’s older half-brother from Grandpa Harold’s first wife, showed up about ten minutes later, and we all went inside after that.  Dad had one other brother, Uncle Jimmy, whom I never met; he died in a motorcycle accident in his 20s while Mom was pregnant with me, and I got my middle name of James from him.  Grandpa Harold had three daughters with Grandma Nancy, but they all lived out of state and did not often come for Thanksgiving.

I stuffed my face so full that day.  I ate three whole plates of actual food: turkey, ham, stuffing, fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and all sorts of bread.  Then I went back for dessert, returning with a giant ice cream sundae in a soup bowl, since the ice cream bowls were small, and two different slices of pie.  “Are you going to be able to move the rest of the night?” Mom asked when I returned to the table with dessert.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I replied, laughing.  While we ate, we all caught up, sharing everything going on in our lives.  A number of people asked me how school was, and I repeated the same thing I told Grandpa Harold outside.  Mark just kind of grunted and shrugged when they asked him that question.  I did not have the long walks around the old ranch to look forward to this year, but this was still going to be a fun holiday.

Today, many Americans associate the day after Thanksgiving with shopping.  In the 1960s, police officers fed up with rioting crowds of shoppers beginning their Christmas shopping referred to this miserable phenomenon as “Black Friday.”  By the early 2000s, stores began encouraging these rioting crowds, offering deep discounts, completely unrelated to buying gifts for others, only available early in the morning.  The retail industry even fabricated a story about the term “Black Friday” referring to profits being in the black rather than rioting and vandalism.

Black Friday was never a big deal to me, not today and certainly not in 1995.  While the rest of the world went shopping that morning, we ate a nice hotel breakfast, then went to visit Tina and the girls.  We set up the Super Nintendo to play with them while the adults talked about adult things.  After that, we stopped to see Grandpa Harold and Grandma Nancy for a while.  I always found their house boring when I was a kid, and this year was no exception to that, except that Grandma Nancy had homemade pumpkin pie.

In the early afternoon, we drove about 20 miles south to a town called Rio Bonito.  A few years earlier, Uncle Chuck and Aunt Carol had driven past a large old house in Rio Bonito that was painted a bright yellow color.  The house had a For Sale sign outside, and Aunt Carol said that she wanted to live in that Damn Yellow House.  So they sold their house in Bidwell and bought the Damn Yellow House.  Everyone in that town of 1500 people knew the Damn Yellow House.  Someone once even sent them mail addressed to “Chuck & Carol Dennison, The Damn Yellow House, Rio Bonito,” with no street name or address, and it was delivered correctly.

We parked next to the Damn Yellow House and walked inside; I carried the Super Nintendo.  “Hello,” Aunt Carol said as we approached.  “Oh, good, you brought that game.”

“Yes.  Should I go set it up now?” I asked.

“We’re not going to play right now,” Mom said.

“That’s okay,” Aunt Carol said. “He can go plug it into the TV now, and it’ll be ready when we’re ready to play later.”

I connected the Super Nintendo to the TV while the adults caught up and talked about boring adult stuff.  Most of the family vacations I remember involve the adults sitting around talking about boring adult stuff while I had to entertain myself.  The 1989 invention of the Game Boy, Nintendo’s hand-held video game console, was a lifesaver for me on these trips, although I did not bring it this year.

After dinner, it was time to teach Aunt Carol to play Dr. Mario.  I turned the game on and started a single-player game.  “So there are three different colors of viruses,” I explained as I played the game.  “You line up the pills, and whenever you get four of the same color in a row, they disappear.  So you want to make a set of four that includes a virus.  Like, watch those red ones on the left side.”  I dropped a pill on the red virus, making a set of four; the red virus disappears.

“I see,” Aunt Carol replied.  As I dropped another pill, she asked, “What happened there?  You made a set of four that didn’t have a virus in it?”

“Yeah.  That still makes the pills disappear.  It clears space on the board.  There’s also a two-player game where you compete to see who clears the viruses first.  And whenever you get more than one set of 4 with a single pill, it drops garbage on the other player’s board.”

“That sounds like fun.  Can we do that?”

“Sure.”

I started a two-player game, putting Aunt Carol on an easier level than me since she was a beginner.  The two-player game lasts until someone wins three rounds; I won the first two rounds, but Aunt Carol had gotten the hang of it enough to win the next round.

“This is fun!” Aunt Carol said.

We spent the rest of the night taking turns playing two-player Dr. Mario.  Mom played against Aunt Carol, I played against Mom, Aunt Carol played against Uncle Chuck.  Mark did not join in; he preferred sports and fighting games to puzzle games, so he sat in the corner listening to gangsta rap on a Walkman and occasionally making sarcastic comments.

“I want to try the one-player game for a while,” Aunt Carol said after a couple hours of multiplayer games.  “Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I replied.

We spent some more time just talking and catching up while Aunt Carol was playing.  Eventually Mom looked at a clock.  “Oh, my gosh, it’s already 10:00,” Mom said.  “We need to get back to the motel.”

“Are you gonna take my game away?” Aunt Carol asked.

“We don’t have to,” I suggested.  “If Aunt Carol is still playing, we can leave the Super Nintendo here and pick it up tomorrow morning on our way out of town.”

“Oh, could you?  That would be so nice.”

“Does that work, Mom?”

“Sure, if you’re okay leaving it here.  Mark, is that okay with you?”

“What?” Mark asked, taking off his headphones.

“Aunt Carol wants us to leave the Super Nintendo here so she can play until we go home tomorrow.”

“I don’t care,” Mark said indignantly.

“You don’t have to get snippy.  It’s your Super Nintendo too.”

“Have you heard me talk about the Super Nintendo once on this trip?”

“Well, it’s polite to ask.”

“I said I don’t care!”

We said our goodbyes and drove back north to the motel in Bidwell.  “Aunt Carol sure got into Dr. Mario,” Mom commented.

“I know.  That was fun.”

“It was nice of you to offer to let her borrow the Super Nintendo.”

“We’re leaving in the morning.  I wasn’t going to play any more.”

“Still, that was nice of you.”

“Thank you.”

“What are we doing in the morning?”  Mom paused, waiting for someone to answer.  “Harry?  What are we doing in the morning?”

“Sorry,” Dad replied.  “I didn’t know you were asking me.  I figured we’d stop by my dad’s on the way out of town.”

“What time do you want to be on the road?”

“I was thinking around 10 or 11.”

“Does that work for you guys?” Mom asked.  I nodded.  Mark, still listening to music on headphones, said nothing.

Dad had a nice visit with Grandpa Harold and Grandma Nancy in the morning, and by “nice” I mean that it was short enough that I did not get bored.  We left their house around 10:30 and got to the Damn Yellow House to pick up the Super Nintendo a little before 11.  I was the first one to the door, so I knocked.

Aunt Carol opened the door.  “I suppose it’s time to give you your game back,” she said.  We followed her into the living room, and I noticed that she looked disheveled and unkempt.  The game was on, paused.  “I was wondering if that special screen that shows up after levels 5, 10, 15, and 20 shows up again at 25.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I’ve never gotten that high.”

“The best I got to last night was level 23.  But I had started that game at level 20.  That’s the highest you can start at, I guess.”

“Yeah, “I replied, thinking that was still very impressive for a beginner

“This was a lot of fun.  I might have to get this game.”

“You should.”

Mom and Dad said their goodbyes to Aunt Carol and Uncle Chuck as I disconnected the Super Nintendo.  I joined them in saying goodbye, and we went back to the car and continued driving south on Highway 9.

“She stayed up all night playing,” Mom said.  “Did you notice?  She was still wearing the same clothes as when we left last night.”

“I was wondering that,” Dad replied.

“I didn’t notice, but now that you mention it, you’re right.”

To this day, whenever the topic of Dr. Mario comes up, Mom always brings up the time Aunt Carol stayed up all night.  Aunt Carol passed away in late 2014; I did not attend the funeral, since she and Uncle Chuck had moved 500 miles away by then, but if I had, I would have shared the Dr. Mario story.  In 2016, my cousin Pam, Aunt Carol’s daughter, commented on a Facebook picture I had shared of me and my friends playing retro Nintendo games.  Pam said that they had an Atari when she was a kid, but her mother would always hog the controller.  I told her about the time we brought Dr. Mario for Thanksgiving and her mother stayed up all night playing, and Pam replied, “So that’s how her addiction to that game started!  She played that for years until the controllers broke.”

As a child, I loved visiting the Bidwell relatives and wanted those trips to last forever.  This trip seemed short, only two and a half days, but I was growing up, as were my cousins, and life was changing.  Uncle Chuck and Aunt Carol’s children were grown and did not live with them in the Damn Yellow House anymore.  Mark had outgrown his tadpole-catching phase.  And we didn’t have Great-Grandma Christine’s house to explore anymore; the old ranch was a gated country club now.  Life moves on, but family stays family, even when those family relationships change over the years.

In 2013, I followed someone through the gate to see what the old ranch looked like now. Notice the golf course down below.

October 21, 1995. The day I went to visit Renee.

I turned right into the parking lot.  The sign said that Chardonnay Village was somewhere among the cluster of nearby buildings.  The directions that Renee had emailed to me had been very clear; I had no trouble getting here, even though the second half of the trip had been anything but a straight shot, zigzagging over hills.  It was around 11:00 on a Saturday morning.  I left Jeromeville at 9:30.  For the first half of the trip, I drove straight down Highway 100 to Fairview, where it merges with Highway 212 for a few miles.  Where the two routes split again just south of Fairview, I took 212 over a hill to Silverado and followed many other two lane roads until I arrived at Valle Luna State University.  Renee said that one of her roommates knew that drive because she used to date a guy in Jeromeville, and that this was the fastest way.

This part of the state was known for growing grapes and making wine, which was why the dorms at Valle Luna State had names like Chardonnay.  I thought it was unusual for buildings on a university campus to be named after alcohol… to me, this seemed to send the wrong message.  Once I got to Silverado, the rest of the drive here passed through rolling hills covered with grapevines, with the occasional cow pasture.  The indigenous people of this area called it “moon valley,” the 18th century Spanish missionaries translated the name from that language into Spanish. Americans arrived in the middle of the 19th century and bastardized the pronunciation; “valle” in proper Spanish was pronounced more like “bah-yay,” but most Americans pronounced it like its English cognate “valley.”

As I walked up to Renee’s building, I saw her outside waiting for me.  I waved, and she waved back.  “Hey, Greg,” she said once I was in earshot.  She gave me a hug from the side.  She looked the same as I remembered her, short, with long red hair, blue eyes, and freckles, but I had just seen her two months ago, so that was to be expected.

“Hi,” I replied.  “It’s good to see you.”

“How was the drive?”

“Your directions were good.  I found everything just fine.”

“Good!”  Renee paused, then asked, “You wanna see my apartment?”

“Sure.”

I noticed Renee’s use of the word “apartment” instead of “dorm room.”  It fit, because Renee’s building was an on-campus apartment, with each room having an entrance directly outside instead of opening into a hallway.  When I walked inside, I saw a small living room and kitchen, with two bedrooms and a bathroom opening onto it, just like an actual apartment.

“Greg, this is Nicole,” Renee said, gesturing toward the dark-haired girl on the couch.  “Nicole is my roommate.  I mean, like, we share an actual room.  Nicole, this is Greg.”

“Hi, Greg,” Nicole said, looking up from the television.

“Hi,” I replied. 

Renee led me toward one of the bedrooms.  “This is my room and Nicole’s,” she said.  “Jenn and Marisol live in the other room.”

“Nice,” I said.  The bedroom had a window looking out on the grassy area between this building and the next one.  I noticed a bulletin board on the wall by one of the desks, with pictures of people on it; I knew this was Renee’s, because I recognized the people in some of the pictures.  One picture was of Renee and her boyfriend, Anthony; one was Anthony’s senior picture from two years ago; and one was of Renee and our mutual friend Melissa.

“The Where’s Waldo picture,” Renee said.

“Huh?”

“Melissa always thought she looked like Waldo in that picture.”

“Hah,” I laughed, seeing Melissa’s red and white striped shirt differently now.  “I can see it.”

As we walked back to the living room, where Nicole was still watching television, I asked,  “This is a nice place.  Are all the on-campus residential areas at Valle Luna more like apartments?”

“Not all of them,” Renee explained.  “I lived in a regular dorm last year, with one bathroom for the whole floor and stuff like that.  The regular dorms are for freshmen.  Older students get first priority for the on-campus apartments.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “Jeromeville just doesn’t have enough on-campus housing for its student population.  The school took over some apartments just across the street from campus, and even then you only get housing on campus for one year.  So it’s pretty much all freshmen and incoming transfer students in the dorms.  I would have lived on campus another year if I could.”

“I remember that,” Nicole added.  “My ex-boyfriend goes to Jeromeville, and he lived in one of those apartment dorms last year.”

A tall girl with long blonde hair emerged from one of the bedrooms.  “Hey,” she said to Renee.  “Is this your friend?”

“Yeah,” Renee replied.  “Greg, this is Jenn.”

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Jenn said.

“I was thinking we could start with a walk around campus.  Does that sound good?” Renee asked.

“Sure,” I replied.  “I’ve never been here before.”

“Great.  We’ll be back in a bit,” Renee told her rooommates.

The first thing I noticed about Valle Luna State University was that the campus was much smaller than that of the University of Jeromeville.  On the drive in, I noticed that the dorms and on-campus apartments at VLSU were on the west and south sides of the campus.  “This is my walk to class every morning,” Renee pointed out as we walked east toward the center of campus.  She pointed out the library and the buildings where most of her classes were.  The non-residential buildings were mostly in a gray concrete style of architecture, more uniform than the varied heterogeneous architecture of UJ but, in my opinion, less interesting.  We then turned south toward a building that she pointed out as the “student center.”  As we got closer, I took a closer look and saw a vast expanse of tables next to a few on-campus restaurants and ATM machines.

“I was just curious what this was,” I said.  “At Jeromeville, the building like this is called the Memorial Union.”

“Yeah.  I think every college has a building like this, but they’re all called something a little different.”

“Actually, UJ has two buildings like this, the Memorial Union and the Barn.”

“The Barn?”

“It used to be an actual barn, and there is a silo attached to it.  Because, you know, Jeromeville started out as a school of agriculture.”

“Yeah.  I’ve heard Jeromeville is pretty big.  That would make sense that there are two Student Centers.”

“It is.  The main part of campus is bigger than here, and there’s also a huge rural part of campus where they do actual agricultural research.”

“That’s interesting.  Like what kind of agricultural research?”

“I’m not sure exactly.”

Renee and I continued walking around campus.  She showed me the building where the department of psychology offices were located, since psych was her major.  She showed me the theater, the student recreation center, and the sports fields on the eastern edge of campus.  “We only have a few sports teams that compete against other schools,” she explained, “and we usually don’t get big-name athletes here.”

“So are you Division II?  Or Division III?  Something like that?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure.  I don’t really follow sports.  But I know they have student teams that play just for fun.”

“Intramurals?”

“Yeah.  Jenn does that for volleyball.”

“Do you and your roommates get along okay?” I asked.  “No conflict or anything?”

“We do.  It took a while to get used to each other, but everything is good now.”

“Did any of you guys know each other before this year?”

“No, we didn’t.  We were just picked randomly.  At first, we weren’t sure if we were going to get along, but it has worked out great.  Actually, didn’t you tell me you had some friends with a weird combination of religions in their apartment?”

I thought for a minute.  “Oh yeah,” I said.  “Danielle is very Catholic, Theresa is Methodist but not very active at church, and Bok and Skeeter are atheists.”

“That reminded me of our apartment.  Nicole went to Catholic school and goes to Mass every week.  Jenn is an atheist and will make a big deal of it if you try to push your beliefs on her, so we learned pretty fast not to talk about religion around her.  And Marisol and I each grew up going to church sometimes, but not every week.”

“It’s good that you found a way not to let that make conflict between you,” I said.

 

After heading back to the Student Center, where Renee and I had lunch at a sandwich shop, we went back to the apartment.  I did not have anything specific planned that I wanted to do.  Renee mentioned that she and Nicole and Jenn had been talking about going miniature golfing, and that there was a coffee shop they really liked, so that was our plan for the rest of the day.  VLSU was located right on the eastern edge of the suburban city of Valle Luna, with a rural area to the east and hills just a few miles beyond that.  We took Nicole’s car into town along a wide suburban boulevard and pulled into a shopping center.  I could see an overpass just beyond the shopping center, where this street intersected Highway 11.  This was the same Highway 11 that passed through my hometown of Plumdale, 150 miles to the south.

Hanging out at coffee shops was all the rage in 1995.  A year ago, a new television situation comedy called Friends had rapidly become popular.  The show featured six single adults living in New York City who often went to a coffee shop.  This quickly brought artsy hippie coffee shop culture into the mainstream.  As Renee, Nicole, Jenn, and I walked into the coffee shop, I looked around.  Some customers sat at tables, and some on couches and comfortable chairs.  Some were in couples and groups, talking, and some sat alone, reading.  Paintings covered the walls.  I wanted to be part of coffee shop culture like everyone else, but I could not for one important reason: I did not like coffee.  I could not stand the taste.

“You don’t like coffee?” Jenn repeated incredulously after I said this out loud.

“I want to like coffee.  I feel like not liking coffee stunts my social life,” I explained.  Jenn laughed.

“Do you want to go somewhere else?” Renee asked.  “We don’t have to hang out here.  I just suggested it because we go here a lot.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Renee asked.

“You could get a mocha,” Jenn suggested.  “Have you ever had a mocha?  It’s like coffee with chocolate in it, so it doesn’t really taste like coffee.”

“I think I’ll do that,” I replied.

After we ordered and got our drinks, we sat at a round table with four chairs.  I took a sip of the mocha.  “Ouch,” I said.  “That’s really hot.”

“You might want to let it cool,” Renee said quietly.

“So you went to high school with Renee?” Nicole asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“So then you also know Anthony?”

“Yes.”

“Anthony,” Jenn said, slightly shaking her head.  “Did Renee tell you about last weekend when she spent four hours on the phone with Anthony?  I was waiting for someone to call me!  We only have one phone!”

“It was not four hours!” Renee exclaimed, turning red.  “It was more like three.”

“Still!  Three hours!”

“How are things with Anthony?” I asked.  “How’s he doing?”

“He’s good,” Renee explained.  “We’ve been together long enough that we’ve found how to make long distance work for us.”

“Good.”

“He’s really busy with school right now, though.  He’s taking some really hard classes.”

“Well tell him I said hi.”

“I will!”

I took another sip of the mocha, now that it was not quite so hot, and swallowed it.  Even with the overtones of chocolate and an added sugar packet, I could still taste the coffee.  As the four of us talked about school and life in general, I drank about half of it just to be polite, but as I had suspected, I really did not like this drink because I could still taste the coffee.  Oh well.  Live and learn.

We spent about an hour at the coffee shop, then we got back in Nicole’s car and headed north on 11 to the miniature golf place, off the next exit.  “I feel kind of bad that Marisol had to miss miniature golf,” Jenn said as we pulled into our parking place.  “She loves coming here.”

“Did she say when she was getting back?” Renee asked.

“Not until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Where is Marisol today?” I asked.

“She went home for the weekend,” Renee explained.  “She has a boyfriend back home, in San Tomas.  She goes home a lot of weekends.”

After we got our putters and balls, Renee handed me the scorecard and pencil.  “Here, you do this,” she said.  “You’re good at math.”

“Sure,” I replied.  Being good at math is what I am known for, after all.

The first two holes were fairly straightforward, just a few obstacles to putt around, but I got stuck in a corner on the second hole. It took eight strokes for me to get the ball in the hole.

“Aren’t you supposed to just move on after six?” Nicole asked as she saw me write 8 on the score card.

“Oh,” I said, quickly looking over the instructions.  “But I want to finish the hole.  It’s just who I am.”

On the next hole, Jenn went first, then Nicole.  “What are you up to the rest of the weekend?” I asked Renee as we waited for our turn.

“I have a big midterm in my psych class on Monday.  I’ll just be studying for that, after you leave tonight and all day tomorrow.”

“Good luck,” I said.  “Same with me, just studying.  I don’t have anything too big coming up, though, so I can wait to get started until after church tomorrow.”

A while later, we arrived at the sixth hole, which featured a ramp leading up to a small building.  The building had a door that opened and closed on a timer.  Hitting the ball through the door would put the ball next to the hole on the green beyond, possibly even in the hole if everything was just right.  Hitting the ball wide of the door would put the ball farther away on the green.  Jenn made it through on the first try and got a hole-in-one.  Renee’s ball went wide of the door and landed in the position farther away but still with a straight shot to the hole.  I hit the ball perfectly straight, only to have the door slam on the ball, knocking it back to the start.  On my second attempt, the same thing happened.  On the third attempt, the ball went wide and bounced down to the worst possible position on the green.

“Gaaaahhh!” I screamed.

“Are you okay?” Renee asked.

“Yeah.  Just frustrated.  You know how competitive I can get.”

“Just have fun.  It’s like at the graduation all-nighter, when you were Rollerblading and getting frustrated.  Remember?  Melissa and I told you to just have fun with it.”

“You’re not trying to win any competitions,” Nicole added after overhearing our conversation.

“You’re right,” I replied.  “I know.  I’ll try to let go and have fun.”

And I did let go and have fun.  I did not have the best score after we finished our 18 holes, but I enjoyed trying to hit that ball around all the silly obstacles.  The four of us shared more stories about fun college adventures on the drive back to the apartment and for a while in the living room after we got back.  By now, it was late afternoon.  “It’s probably about time for me to head home,” I said after a while.  “I know you wanted to study tonight too.”

“Yeah, I should get started soon,” Renee replied.  “But thanks so much for coming.”

“Thanks again for inviting me here.  It was good seeing you.”

“You too,” Renee replied, standing to give me a hug.  The top of her head only came up to my chin.  “Drive safely.”

“Take care.  And say hi to Anthony for me.”

“I will.”

“And it was nice meeting you guys,” I added, gesturing to Jenn and Nicole.  “Maybe I’ll see you again someday.”

“Yeah,” Jenn replied.

“You too,” Nicole said.

I had a good day, and I felt content as I made the drive back home to Jeromeville, following the directions Renee sent me in reverse.  But I never did see Jenn and Nicole again.  Renee and I stayed in touch off and on for the rest of sophomore year, but by junior year we started growing apart.  We didn’t argue or fight, we never had a falling out of any kind, but growing apart is just a natural part of the cycle of friendships.  I went through many changes sophomore year, changes in living situation and lifestyle and friendships, and many of my friends did too.  Renee and I still emailed off and on for about another year after my trip to Valle Luna, but I did not see her in person again until 2014, at our 20-year high school reunion.  We have been Facebook friends since then, but she does not post often.

It makes me sad how many people I have grown apart from over the years, for no apparent reason, but I have come to accept it as part of life.  We were meant to grow and change over the years, not stay stuck in the same life forever.  Even though I grew apart from some people that year, I also made many new lifelong friends.

 

July 18, 1995. The day we went to Jeromeville with Rick and Miranda.

One of the major annual events in Santa Lucia County was the Gabilan Rodeo, a legacy of the cattle ranching in the area’s past, which had mostly given way over the years to various fruit and vegetable crops.  I was never a big fan of rodeo, but my mom’s sister had married into a family that was very involved with the Gabilan Rodeo.  So, for me, the arrival of the rodeo every July meant getting to see my cousins Rick and Miranda.  They were in between me and my brother Mark in age; Rick would soon begin his last year of high school, and Miranda was just starting high school.

Last week, Mom had been thinking of things we could do when Rick and Miranda were here.  She asked me if I wanted to take a day trip to Jeromeville, so that Rick and Miranda could see where I was going to school.  I enthusiastically approved of that idea. So, on the morning of the day before the rodeo started, Mom had been driving north for the last two and a half hours, I was in the passenger seat, and Rick, Miranda, and Mark were in the back.  Mark had been listening to music on headphones, and Rick had been showing off a fancy money clip that his dad had gotten him recently. Dad stayed home; he had to work.

“Greg?” Mom said as we approached the exit for Highway 117.  “Tell me where to go. Do I take 117?”

“Where are we going to park the car?”

“I don’t know.  You’re the one who lives here.”

“Are we going to start from the MU?   Or from where I lived last year?”

“Let’s do that.  Start from your dorm.”

“Turn here, then,” I said just in time for Mom to move over a lane and exit on Highway 117 north.  I guided Mom to the Davis Drive exit, and then to the parking lot next to the South Residential Area.

“Where do I go?” she asked.

“There’s a little yellow machine where you can buy a parking permit.”

“Do I do that?”

“Yes, Mom.  That’s how parking at places like this work.  You buy a parking permit, you put it on your windshield, and then you park.  The permit tells the parking police that you paid.”

“I know that!” Mom shouted as she bought a parking permit from the machine.

“Then why did you ask?”

“I don’t know!”

“Sometimes you don’t make sense,” I said, suddenly feeling tense over the way that something simple like parking the car had to become a major ordeal.

“Well, sorry.”

We stepped out of the car.  “It’s hot!” Mark exclaimed, the first thing he had said in quite some time.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s what it’s like here in the summer.”

We walked north on Dairy Road toward the South Residential Area, across the street from the dairy, which was exceptionally aromatic today.  I stopped in front of Building C. Pointing to my window on the second floor, I said, This is where I lived last year.  And that was my room.”

“Nice,” Miranda said.

“It was a tiny room,” Mom said.

“Yeah, it was, but I was by myself, so it was all right,” I added.

“You got your own room?” Rick asked.  “No roommate?”

“Yeah.  It just happened.  I didn’t ask for it.  There were only six single rooms in the whole building.”

I pointed out the dining commons as we continued across the South Residential Area.  We continued walking as I pointed out campus buildings and narrated anything interesting I had to say about them.  We walked past the engineering buildings and the buildings where my chemistry and physics classes were. Heading toward the Quad, I pointed out Wellington Hall, where many of my classes had been held, and Kerry Hall, the location of the mathematics department offices.  We passed the tall cork oaks lining the Quad, where I pointed out the Coffee House and the Memorial Union and the campus store. We walked around the corner at the campus store, where I pointed out the gray, oddly-angled building on the other side of the street.

“They call that building the Death Star,” I said, “because of all the steep concrete and metal canyons.  One time, a bunch of us from my building played Sardines there at night.”

“What’s Sardines?” Mom asked.

“Isn’t it kind of like hide-and-seek?” Miranda asked.

“Yes,” I explained, ”except when you find the person hiding, you hide with him and cram in there like sardines.  Taylor was hiding, and I wandered around this crazy building for over an hour looking for him. I hardly saw anyone the whole time.   I thought everyone else was probably wondering what took me so long. And then when I finally found Taylor, I was the first one there.”

“Oh my gosh,” Mom said.  “No one else had found him?  After an hour?”

“I know.”

“College sounds fun,” Miranda said.

We continued walking toward A Street, which divides the campus from downtown.  I pointed out the field where I had learned to play Ultimate Frisbee and the small, unimpressive football stadium.  “I can see where all the parties are,” Rick said.

“Huh?” I asked.

“All those frat houses.”  Rick pointed across the street from the football stadium.

“Oh, yeah.  And there are a bunch more around the corner on Fifth Street.”

“Do you ever go to fraternity parties?” Miranda asked.

“No,” I replied.  “I don’t hang out with that crowd.”

“Rick!” Mom said.  “Put that away! Someone’ll steal it.”

“They’re not gonna steal it!” Rick argued, playing with his money clip and the large wad of cash it held.  I decided to stay out of this argument.

We turned around and walked south on A Street.  I led the group back toward the Quad, past the brown buildings with shingle exteriors which were the oldest buildings on campus.  I pointed out the library as we headed around the corner back to Davis Drive.

“What in the heck is that?” Rick exclaimed loudly.

“What?” I asked.

“That!” Rick pointed to a large metal pipe, suspended about a foot above a concrete slab in the ground.  The pipe curved a few times, ending in a section pointing about ten feet upward, like a chimney. On one of the pieces of metal attaching the pipe to the ground, ominous letters proclaimed YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.

you've been here before (yoinked)

“It’s art,” I said.

“What the heck kind of art is that?  It looks like scrap metal!”

“You know how it is.  Anything can be art. It’s a university.  There’s weird stuff here.”

We got back to the car about ten minutes later and drove all the way across town to McDonald’s.  Mark was a very picky eater, and I had not explored the Jeromeville culinary scene (other than the dining commons) enough to recommend anything, so we went with something familiar.  After we finished eating, I stepped outside to find a pay phone. I stared at the phone for a minute, trying to compose in my head what I would say. I took a deep breath, knowing that I was being ridiculous and that there was no reason for me to be nervous.  It was not like I was going to get rejected or anything.  I was calling a guy. I quickly dialed the number.

“Hello?” a familiar voice said on the other end of the line.

“Taylor?” I said.

“Yeah.”

“This is Greg.”

“Hey, man!  You’re here?”

“Yeah.  Is this a good time to stop by?”

“Sure!  I’m just hanging out, and Jonathan is studying.”

“655 Andrews Road?” I said, repeating the address I had written down.

“Yep!  That’s it!”

“I’ll be there in probably around 15 minutes.”

“Sounds good!  See you then!”

“Bye!”

After we all got back in the car, Mom asked, “Where are we going?  I directed her toward the house where Taylor and Jonathan were living, going a different way than we went before, crossing over Highway 100 and working our way to Fifth Street.  “And who are you going to visit?” Mom asked.

“Taylor Santiago, from the IHP last year.  The one who hid in the Death Star building.  And Jonathan, who was also in the program, is living there too.  I didn’t really know him as well.”

“Which one is Taylor?  Is he the Filipino boy who waved to us from the balcony that time we came to visit?”

“Yes.  That’s him.”

“Weren’t you going to try to visit someone else today too?”

Megan McCauley.  But she emailed me back late last night and said she was busy today.  She had a midterm this morning, and then she was going to do something with her family tonight.”

“Does her family live in Jeromeville?”

“Oak Heights.  Just past Capital City.  About half an hour away.”

“Which one is she?  Didn’t you say she did something funny with her hair last year?”

Cut it off and dyed it green.”

“You have too many friends,” Mom said.  “I can’t keep track of all these people.”

“I don’t know.”

“No, that’s a good thing.  Remember how in high school you always felt like you wanted to have more friends and a social life?”

“I guess.”  Mom was right, but it felt embarrassing to talk about this with her, especially in front of Mark, Rick, and Miranda.

As we approached Taylor’s house, Mom asked, “So we’ll leave you alone to hang out with Taylor, and we’ll be back in an hour.  Did you say there was a park somewhere around here where we can go sit and walk around?”

“Yeah.”  I gave Mom directions to get to Maple Drive Park, about a quarter mile away.  As the rest of my family drove off, I walked up to Taylor’s door and knocked. I waited nervously on the porch, even though I knew Taylor well and had nothing to be afraid of.

“Hey, man!” Taylor said.  “Come on in!”

I walked into the living room and looked around.  I sat on the couch. Jonathan was sitting in a recliner with a textbook, which he put aside to say hi to me.  Taylor sat on the other side of the couch where I sat. “So whose house is this?” I asked.

“A guy I know from church.  He’s away working at a summer camp.”

“That’s cool.  How are your classes going?”

“Pretty good.  I just got a midterm back.  I didn’t do as badly as I thought.”

“That’s good.”

“How’s your summer?  How’s life back in Plumdale?”

“Pretty boring, honestly.  I’m working at an old lady bookstore.  My mom knows someone who works there, so I didn’t have to go out and find the job or anything, but business is kind of slow.”

“When you say old lady bookstore, do you mean they sell books for old ladies?”

“Oh, no.  It’s just a bookstore.  But the owner is an older woman who listens to classical music, and not a lot of people our age come to the store.”

“That makes sense.  Are you hanging out with your friends a lot?”

“Not really,” I said.  “Plumdale is so spread out, I don’t really have neighbors, and most of my school friends aren’t near me.  I’ve really only seen two of them. Some of them didn’t come home for the summer. I’ve been going to San Tomas Mountain Lions roller hockey games, though.  That’s been fun. I went to two with my family and one with a friend.”

“I haven’t been to one of those yet.  My sister and a bunch of her friends went to one.  She said they kept showing her on the camera and made her Fan of the Game.”

“I saw that!” I exclaimed.  “I was at that game!”

“Really?  That’s funny!”

“Jonathan?  What about you?” I asked.  “How’s your summer going?”

“Good,” he said.  “Just studying. Trying to get some more classes in.”

“You came here with your family, right?” Taylor asked.  “Where are they now?”

“They didn’t want to get in the way while I was visiting you guys.  They wanted to go find a park and hang out for a while. So I pointed them toward Maple Drive Park.  They’ll be back to pick me up at 2:30.”

“That’s cool.  Are they having fun?  You said someone else was here too?”

“My cousins Rick and Miranda.  They’re visiting this whole week.”

“Where do they live?”

“In the middle of nowhere.  A little town about four hours north of here.  But both of their sets of grandparents live in Gabilan, so I get to see them a few times a year.”

“That’s cool.”

Taylor and I spent the rest of the time talking about his classes, our plans for next year, things he had been doing with Jeromeville friends during the week and friends back home over the weekend, and friends from our dorm whom we had heard from over the summer.  Jonathan talked a little as well, but eventually went to study in his bedroom.  Taylor told me that Bok and her family went on a camping trip to the Pacific Northwest, and Caroline was visiting her relatives in Australia. (Both girls would send me postcards from their trips eventually.)

At 2:30, I looked outside the front window and saw the rest of my family sitting in the car waiting for me.  “I need to go,” I said. “My ride’s here.”

“It was good seeing you,” Taylor replied, standing up and walking to the front door, which he opened for me.  “Let me know when you move back up for the fall. Or if you’re up here again.”

“Definitely.  I’ll see you then.”  I raised my voice and called toward the back of the house, “Bye, Jonathan!”

“Bye, Greg!” Jonathan’s muffled voice called out from his room.  “Good seeing you!”

“You too!”

After I got back in the car, Mom asked, “How are Taylor and the other guy?”

“Jonathan.  They’re doing well.  Just studying. And Taylor goes home on weekends.”

“Where’s he from?”

“El Arcángel.  North of Bay City.”

“Oh, okay.  So what are we doing next?  Looking at your new apartment for next year?”

“Sure.  Head that way,” I said, pointing north and continuing to direct my mother to Las Casas Apartments.  When we got there, we got out and began walking around.

“This is where you’re gonna live next year, Greg?” Miranda asked

“Yeah,” I said.  “Apartment 124. Right over there.”

Miranda looked where I was pointing.  “This looks nice.”

“I like it.”

“Can we walk around a little?” Mom asked.

“Sure,” I said, I turned the corner of the building where my apartment was.  I pointed out the path that led to the Greenbelts. “That’s a great place to take a walk or go for a bike ride,” I said.  “Like a trail connecting a long park area.”

“That’s cool,” Miranda said.  I pointed out the swimming pool and the laundry room.  Miranda seemed the most interested; Rick was playing with his money clip again, and Mark was quietly listening to music with headphones.

After walking around for a while and returning to where we parked, Mom said, “Well, we’ve done everything we were going to do here.  Is there anything else we’re doing here? Or is it time to go back home?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I could not think of anything else we were going to do, and I knew we still had a long drive ahead.  But I enjoyed being in Jeromeville again, even if only for a day, and I was kind of sad to see the trip coming to a close. “I guess.”

We stopped for gas and got back on the freeway.  About ten minutes later, we were approaching Nueces, the next town to the west, when Rick exclaimed, “I lost my money clip!”

“Oh no,” I said.

“I told you not to keep getting it out,” Mom said, sounding slightly exasperated.

“So what are we going to do?” I asked.

“Do you know where you lost it?” Mom asked Rick as she exited and pulled over.

“I remember seeing it at Las Casas Apartments,” I said.  “So either he lost it there, or at the gas station, or in the car.

“It’s not in the car,” Rick insisted.  “I’ve been looking.”

“Do you want to go back and look at the apartment and the gas station?”

“Well, yeah, if we can.  Duh.”

Mom turned back onto Highway 100 east, the way we came.  She took 117 north to the Coventry Boulevard exit and remembered on her own how to get back to Las Casas.  We parked in the same part of the parking lot where we were before and began looking around. I could tell that Rick was upset, and that Mom was annoyed.

After walking around for about two minutes, I saw a glint of metal in the parking lot.  I walked closer and saw a $20 bill with other bills folded behind it, held together by a metal clip.  “Rick!” I called. “Isn’t this it?”

Rick came running over.  “Yes!” he shouted. “Found it!”

“Good,” Mom said.  “Mark! Miranda! We found it!”

“Can we go home now?” Mark asked, sounding like he would rather be anywhere else than here.

On the drive home, Rick played for us a CD of his new favorite comedian, someone named Jeff Foxworthy who made jokes about the South and rednecks.  I thought he was somewhat amusing. Mom told me later that she thought Jeff Foxworthy was stupid.

After having been in the car so much that day, I felt a little relieved to be home, knowing that I would be sleeping in my own bed that night.  But I also felt disappointed. It was disappointing that I did not get to see Megan. But, more generally, today I had had a taste of what it was like to be back in Jeromeville, and I was ready for more.  My life in Plumdale really was going nowhere. I was more ready than ever to return to Jeromeville. I had been there for a year (YOU’VE BEEN THERE BEFORE, I thought, like that weird sculpture), and I would be back someday.  My friends were there. I had new people to meet there. And I felt so much more free there, not having to wonder if my family would question my every move. This boring time in Plumdale working at Books & More would pass, and six weeks from now I would be free to continue living my new life in Jeromeville.


Author’s note:  I apologize to whomever took the photograph of YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.  I stole it from a Jeromeville local wiki site.  As soon as the COVID-19 lockdown is over, I’ll go to Jeromeville and take this picture myself and replace this with my own picture.

Thanks to Mom and Taylor for helping me out with a few details relevant to this day.

This episode kind of feels like one of those TV shows where they keep showing clips from previous episodes.  I told tons of stories about the previous year in Jeromeville and linked to all of them, for the benefit of new readers who might have missed those.

And, I doubt that she will ever see this, but from one writer to another, happy 104th birthday today to Beverly Cleary.  I often forget about her when I think of my favorite authors, since she writes children’s books and I haven’t read anything of hers since elementary school.  But I loved the Ramona books and the Henry Huggins books as a kid, and somewhere back at my parents’ house in Plumdale I have an autographed first edition copy of Ramona Forever.  From what I have read about her as an adult, and what I remember of her books, she really did a great job of capturing what life is like for an ordinary child, and as someone who doesn’t always relate well to popular works of fiction, that’s important to me.  And besides all that, just living for so long is pretty awesome in itself.

— Greg

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.