Mid-November, 1996.  A loss, a birthday, and a poem.

“Is that everything?” I asked as Lars Ashford and I finished loading a heavy guitar amplifier into my Ford Bronco. 

“I think so,” Lars answered.  “Let’s go!”

We left Lars’ house, in the old part of Jeromeville on the corner of Sixth and K Streets, and drove multiple cars across downtown to campus, to haul all of the equipment.  I turned on the radio; the song “Roll To Me” was on, by a one-hit wonder called Del Amitri.  We parked on the south side of campus in the lot next to Marks Hall, the administration building, and unloaded the equipment into room 170 of Evans Hall, a medium-sized lecture hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met.  A few months ago, I had been praying that God would find a specific way for me to get more involved with JCF, and the prayer was answered almost immediately, when Tabitha Sasaki asked if I would be willing to volunteer my time and my large car to be the worship band’s roadie.

Most of my duties as the roadie involved carrying equipment from Lars’ house to Evans Hall before the JCF large group meetings, and back to Lars’ house afterward.  With five of us working, it really did not take long.  I usually arrived early enough to hang out and talk with Lars, Tabitha, Brent Wang, and Scott Madison for a bit before we started working, and, honestly, this was my favorite part of the experience.  I had made so many new friends last year when I started attending JCF, and through them, I had learned a lot about what it means to really follow Jesus.  However, I also felt like JCF was still cliquish, and I had not broken into the group’s inner circles, despite being part of the worship team.  I had found out recently that JCF was phasing in a new exclusive invitation-only small group ministry that, from my perspective, entrenched cliques into the fundamental structure of the group, and of course I had not been invited to participate in that ministry.

“‘Look around your world, pretty baby, is it everything you hoped it’d be?’” Tabitha sang as she assembled a microphone stand.  I attached the snare drum to its stand as Tabitha continued, “‘The wrong guy, the wrong situation, the right time to roll to me.’”

“We had the same station on the radio on the way over,” I said to Tabitha.  “I just heard that song too.”

“Haha!  That’s funny.”

As I worked on reassembling Scott’s drum set, Lars plugged cables into the guitars, keyboards, and microphones.  Tabitha and Brent spoke into the microphones to make sure everything worked.  When we had all finished, Tabitha said, “All right, guys, let’s pray.”  The five of us stood in a circle and bowed our heads.  “Father,” Tabitha said, “I pray, Lord, that we will glorify you through our music tonight.  I pray, God, that you will be with Dave as he gives the talk tonight.  Give him the words he needs to say, Father, and open people’s hearts who need to hear that talk.”  Tabitha paused, then added, “Amen,” which the rest of us repeated.

I looked up and turned around, still in the front of the room but now facing the seats.  The time for the meeting to start was approaching soon, and about twenty people had trickled in so far while we were setting up.  I noticed a group of about eight of my friends gathered in the back in an unusual way, with serious looks on their faces.  I walked toward the back of the room to see what was going on.

Haley Channing sat in the center of this group, looking like she had been crying.  Eddie Baker, Kristina Kasparian, Lorraine Mathews, Ramon Quintero, and a few others sat and stood around her, some with their hands on Haley’s back and shoulders.  They took turns speaking softly and just sitting in silence at times.

“Haley?” I asked, approaching the group.  “Are you okay?”

Lorraine looked up and glared angrily at me, making me wonder exactly what I was doing wrong.  Haley looked up next, not angrily but with the puffy-eyed look of one who had been crying.  “My mother died this morning,” Haley said.

My heart sank.  This was something far more tragic and heavy than I was prepared to deal with.  “How?” I asked.

“Cancer.”

“I’m sorry,” I told Haley as Lorraine and now Kristina glared at me.  “I’m here if you ever need to talk, okay?”

“Thanks,” Haley replied.  I walked away; I was clearly interrupting, and some of the others seemed to be unhappy with my presence, even though I was only trying to help, just like everyone else was.

I prayed for Haley and her family while the worship team was playing that night.  I remembered meeting her parents once last year; they had come to Jeromeville for a weekend, and they had come to JCF that Friday.  Haley had an older brother who had recently graduated from the University of Jeromeville and still lived here, and a younger brother in high school on the other side of the state.  They must all be going through a very difficult time right now.  I did not know how long Haley’s mother had been battling cancer, if it was something that the family had time to prepare for emotionally, but it was not easy to deal with either way.

I thought back to when I met Haley’s parents; I remember noticing that Haley’s mom was wearing a big straw sun hat indoors at night, but I thought nothing of it.  I thought maybe she just liked the hat.  Now, though, it made more sense: she had probably lost her hair from cancer treatments, and she wore the hat to hide her missing hair.

After the meeting ended, I walked around, mingling and saying hi to people.  I noticed that Haley left early, which was completely understandable.  After about fifteen minutes, I noticed the worship team working on putting the instruments away.  I grabbed two guitars in cases, brought them out to the Bronco, then stared at the sky for a few minutes, thinking about Haley.  I would not know what to do if I lost one of my parents; for as much as I felt like they got in the way sometimes, I really was not ready to live completely on my own.  I wanted to be there for Haley, to listen and to have something comforting to say for my friend.  I wanted to help her feel better, and I wanted her to see what a nice guy I was and maybe be more than just friends.  But apparently this was a bad time for that.

“Greg?” Tabitha said, bringing me back to reality.  “Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Just thinking about stuff.  Sorry.”

I followed Tabitha back to 170 Evans to finish loading the musical instruments and gear.  After we finished unloading everything at the house on K Street, I just went home and read a book for the rest of the night.  I was feeling sad enough that I did not even try to find people to hang out with afterward.


I spent all day Saturday careful not to divulge a secret.  A few days earlier, I was at home watching TV while Josh ate at the dinner table.  It was a rare occasion that Josh was actually home.  I felt like I still barely knew him, despite living in the same apartment for over two months, because he worked odd hours.

Shawn walked into the apartment after a run.  “Hey, guys,” he said.  “Brian’s birthday is coming up.  I’m going to surprise him with a trip to Redwood Valley Saturday night.  And he doesn’t know this, but one of our roommates from last year who lives out that way will be meeting us there for dinner.  Greg, you remember Mike Kozlovsky, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you guys free Saturday?  Can you come?”

“I have to work,” Josh said.

“Bummer,” Shawn replied.  “What about you, Greg?”

Saturday night… Let’s see… I have a date with a really hot girl, then I’m going out clubbing with my friends.  No, that is definitely not happening.  “Yeah, I can go,” I said.  “That sounds like fun.  What time are we leaving?”

“Five o’clock.  I’ll drive.”

“Sounds great,” I said.

Now, shortly after five o’clock on Saturday, Brian and I were in Shawn’s car, driving across downtown Jeromeville headed toward Highway 100.  Brian had been contemplating out loud where we might be going, and Shawn and I had not revealed anything.  Shawn drove under the railroad track on Cornell Boulevard, driving straight toward the freeway overpass, toward south Jeromeville and the ramp to eastbound 100 and Capital City, but then made a sudden swerve to the right, as if he had been feigning that we were going one way before actually going the other way.  Shawn turned onto 100 westbound.

“We’re going west!” Brian exclaimed as we entered the freeway.  We continued driving west for about half an hour, past Fairview.  Shawn’s car did not have a CD player, so Brian had brought a bunch of tapes he made from his CDs; he put on ABBA’s Gold greatest hits album first.  I did not know much of this group growing up, but apparently they were still popular among students here in Jeromeville, despite having broken up over a decade earlier.  Brian sang along enthusiastically to some songs, which I found quite amusing.

In Fairview, Highway 212 merged with Highway 100 for a few miles, and when the highways split again, Shawn took 212.  “We’re going to Silverado-Valle Luna!” Brian said, reading the two destination cities on the sign.  I had only been this way once before, when I had gone to visit a friend from high school a year ago, but I could not enjoy the scenery much because it was dark by the time we got there.  Brian had grown up in Valle Luna, so this was a familiar drive to him, and Mike Kozlovsky, the guy we were meeting, was also from this part of the state.

We drove through Silverado and into the hills to the west.  This was a world-class wine producing region, and even in the dark I could see grapevines covering the hills.  About halfway between Silverado and Valle Luna, we passed through a town called Redwood Valley.  I had never been here before; the center of the town featured a number of historic buildings, including what was once a mission from the Spanish colonial era.  We parked about a block from the mission and walked toward an Italian restaurant called Calabrese’s, where a tall, stocky blonde guy and his curly-haired girlfriend of average height and build stood outside waiting for us.

“Mike!” Brian said as the two embraced.  “Hey, Jeanette,” Brian said to the curly-haired girl, who said hi back.  Mike said hi to Shawn, then to me, and shook our hands.  I said hi back, then said hi to Jeanette.  Mike, like Shawn and Brian, had graduated from the University of Jeromeville the year before, when they had all shared a large house with a few other guys.  Jeanette was my age and still lived in Jeromeville; I figured that she had probably come to see Mike for the weekend.

I looked around inside the restaurant as the server led us to our table.  The room was dimly lit and full of candles, with red and white checkered tablecloths on all the tables.  I imagined this was the kind of place where people would go on romantic dates.  It was definitely not the kind of restaurant I was familiar with.

I ordered lasagna; it was fairly expensive, compared to most restaurants I had been to, but it was very good.  Much of the conversation at the table involved Shawn and Brian catching up with Mike.  I did not know Mike as well as the other guys knew each other, so I did not have much to say.  Mike did ask me how my classes were going at one point, though, so I did get to talk about those.  As the night went on, Mike and Jeanette seemed to tune out the rest of the conversation, getting sort of lost in their own little couple world.  I kept looking at them, wishing I had someone to get lost with.

I enjoyed the evening away from Jeromeville, but on the way home, I could not get the thought out of my head of Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette being cute and coupley.  I wanted so badly to know what that felt like.  I wished I knew how to talk to girls, how to ask someone out.  Even the fun road trip music on the drive home was not enough to shake my discouragement.


We got home from Redwood Valley a little after midnight.  I woke up around seven-thirty on Sunday morning, a normal amount of sleep for me, and drove to church in time for 20/20, the college class on Sunday morning.  Haley was there, and I said hi, but I did not try to intrude any more, since I did not want to repeat the awkwardness of Friday.  After 20/20, I went to the regular service, and after the service, Pete Green mentioned that a few people from 20/20 were going to have lunch at Dos Amigos.  I had never been to this place, but it sounded like Mexican food, so I said sure.

Five of us ended up going: me, Pete, Noah Snyder, Mike Knepper (a different Mike from last night, I knew a lot of Mikes back then), and a friendly blonde freshman girl named Courtney.  As I waited in line, looking at the menu, I felt in over my head; this was different from the Mexican food at our go-to Mexican restaurant back home, Paco’s Tacos.  There I usually ordered a bean and beef burrito with sides of beans and chips.  I found the beans and chips on the menu, but most of the burritos did not appear to have beans, and some of them had ingredients unfamiliar to me.  I ordered something called a Southwest Burrito with steak, with sides of beans and chips. (I would learn years later that Dos Amigos was inspired by a trip to Santa Fe, and that Santa Fe-style Mexican food was different from most of the Mexican food in this area, but that distinction was lost on me at the time.)

“How was your weekend, Greg?” Pete asked when we got to the table.

“Pretty good,” I said.  “Last night Brian and Shawn and I went to Redwood Valley for Brian’s birthday.  Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette met us there.”

“That sounds like fun.  How do you like having those guys as roommates?”

“It’s been good,” I said.  Good enough that I’m getting over missing out on my chance to live with you guys, I thought without saying it out loud.  I heard loud giggling from the other side of the table; apparently Mike Knepper had said something funny, and Courtney laughed.

My food arrived on three separate plates; I was not expecting this.  One plate had the burrito along with a small handful of chips; a second, smaller plate held my side of beans; and the third plate, the same size as the first, was full of chips.  “I think I got too much food,” I said.  “I didn’t know there’d be chips with the burrito.  The Mexican restaurant we always go to back home, you have to order chips separately.”

“On the bright side, now you have a lot of chips,” Noah said.  “And these chips are really good.  You should go try the pico de gallo.”  Noah gestured toward the small cup of chunky tomato salsa next to his plate, fortunately, since I had no idea what “pico de gallo” meant except that it was literally something about a rooster.

Noah was right; the pico de gallo was excellent.  So was the rest of the food.  I definitely wanted to come back to this place.  Noah and Pete and I talked about life and classes and things while Mike Knepper and Courtney made googly eyes at each other and giggled the whole time.  It sure looked like something was going on between them, or at least that one or both of them was interested in the other.  I looked down dejectedly at my plate for a while, but tried to keep up with the conversation and not give away what was on my mind.

After I got home from Dos Amigos, I spent most of the afternoon studying, although my mind was elsewhere and I could not focus.  I kept thinking about Haley, about the passing of her mother, and how I wanted to be there for her, but I did not get the chance.  I wished I knew some way to spend time with her.  And I really hoped that nothing was developing between her and Ramon, and or anyone else.  I did not know how to tell her that I liked her, and I also did not want to mess things up so badly that we could not salvage a friendship afterward.  Friendship was important to me too; she was there for one of my darkest nights last year.

I felt like the world was conspiring against me to shove it in my face that so many people around me were in relationships, and I was not.  Of course, I was overreacting, but I still felt frustrated and angry that everyone else who had normal childhoods seemed to know some secret about how to talk to girls and go on dates, and I did not.  Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette had been in a relationship for a long time.  Mike Knepper and Courtney seemed to have something going on.  I wished I knew how to tell Haley how I felt.

Maybe that was the wrong approach, I thought.  Maybe I just needed to forget about her and move on.  She and her friends certainly did not seem to want me around Friday night.  Maybe it was time to find out for sure.  I love you, but I’ve never let you know, I said to myself in my head, realizing immediately afterward that this phrase was iambic pentameter.  I excitedly stood up and started thinking of other phrases in iambic pentameter relevant to the situation.  By the time I was waiting for the bus home Monday afternoon, I had an entire Shakespearean sonnet.

I love you, but I’ve never let you know,
My secret crush I’ve buried deep inside;
I fear the time has come to let it go,
These days it causes pain I cannot hide.
The time has come, it seems, to run away,
To change the subject running through my mind;
You have so many friends that I would say
You’ll never know I’ve left you far behind.
But how can I desert a friend like you?
I cannot leave you in this time of need;
As jealousy I’ve buried now breaks through
I must be strong, and not succumb to greed;
   Though lovers we will likely never be,
   Our friendship is worth more than eyes can see.

By the time I finished writing the poem, I was starting to consider telling Haley directly how I felt about her.  This kind of conversation was painful and difficult for me.  I had done this once before, with Melissa Holmes our senior year of high school.  She did not feel the same way about me, but she was honest about it, and I did feel free to move on once I got over the rejection.  Melissa and I did stay friends after that, and we continued to stay friends for about twenty years, until we just grew apart naturally.  It felt like a long shot with Haley; I did not seriously expect her to tell me that she liked me back.  But if she did not, I could at least know for sure and get on with my life.  And on the bright side, maybe she would give me a chance.  I was not ready to do this right now, but the whole situation had me so messed up in the head that I was ready to consider the option as the next few weeks unfolded.

January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” I replied.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.  “Good idea.”

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

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

“Yeah,” Sarah replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m great!”

“How’s your building?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, I thought.  What just happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Yeah,” Krista agreed.

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


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

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

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

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

One look can turn the daytime into night.

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

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

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

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

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


“One Look”

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


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

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

January 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.)