Early February, 1996. I was robbed.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said after opening his door.  “Come on in.”  I walked into the apartment that Taylor shared with Pete and Charlie.  When I was looking at apartments for this year, part of the reason I chose my current studio apartment was because over a dozen of my friends from my dorm last year, including these three, would be within a ten minute walk.  It was Saturday afternoon, I was still unwinding from having just taken four midterms in a span of less than 24 hours, and I felt the need for human contact, so I walked to this nearby apartment complex where some of my friends lived.

“So what’s up?” Taylor asked.  “You said you just had four midterms on the same day?  How’d that go?”

“My physics professor let me take his a day early, so I at least had them a little more spread out.  I think they went okay.  Nothing particularly difficult.”

“That’s good.”

I heard a door close elsewhere in the apartment, then footsteps.  Pete walked into the living room.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s up?”

“I just came by to say hi.  What are you guys doing?”

“Just studying,” Pete said.  “I have a midterm Monday.  And tomorrow we have a long meeting at church about this summer.”

“Did we tell you?” Taylor asked.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.  “Tell me what?”

“We’re going on a trip to Morocco with our church this summer.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.  We’ll be gone for over a month, with a group of students from all over the world.”

“That sounds really cool!”

“We’ll be sending prayer letters,” Pete said.  “You’ll get one eventually.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

Taylor and Pete and I continued talking for about an hour, about classes, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and church activities, and whatever else came to mind.  Charlie, their other roommate, was not home that day.  Eventually, Taylor said, “I should probably get to work now.  But thanks for hanging out.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I should get back home.  It was good to see you guys.”

“Stop by any time.”

“See ya, Greg,” Pete added.

“Bye!” I said, waving, as I got up and walked out the front door.

When I got back to my apartment, I picked up my laundry basket and walked to the laundry room.  I had left a load of clothes in the dryer while I went to see Taylor and Pete.  But when I opened the dryer, it was empty.  I was certain that this was the dryer where I had put my clothes, but they were not here now.  I opened every other dryer, and all were empty except for one containing women’s clothes, definitely not mine.  I searched the washing machines as well, to see if maybe I had forgotten to move the clothes to the dryer, although I distinctly remembered putting coins in a dryer and starting it.  Only one washer had clothes in it; this one was still running, and the clothes were definitely not mine.

Someone stole my laundry.

Someone actually had the nerve to remove my clothes from the dryer and take them.  Why?  What would anyone want with the clothes of a 19-year-old student who lived alone and had no sense of fashion?  I was furious.  Thoughts continued to swirl around in my head as I stormed back to my apartment.  Do I call the police?  Will the police care about some kid’s clothes?  If I could not feel secure leaving my laundry behind for an hour, could I really feel safe at all here at Las Casas Apartments?  Or was it dumb of me in the first place to leave my laundry unattended for an hour?  What would I have to do differently in the future?  Would I have to sit with my laundry the whole time?  Would I have to take my laundry to an actual laundromat if I could not trust the apartment laundry room?

I picked up the phone, but not to call the police.  Instead I called my parents’ house.

“Hello?” Mom said.

“It’s me.  Someone stole my laundry.”

“What?”

“Someone stole my laundry.  I washed my clothes, then I moved them to the dryer, and I went to go see Taylor and Pete for about an hour.  When I got back, everything was gone.”

Mom paused.  “What all was in there?”

“Four pairs of jeans, a sweatshirt, a few shirts, and a towel.”

“I can send you money if you–”

“I don’t need money,” I said angrily.  “I want whoever did this to be brought to justice.  And I want to be able to leave my laundry in peace.  I don’t want to have to sit in the laundry room for two hours every time I need to wash clothes, just to make sure no one takes my clothes.”

“I understand,” Mom replied.  “That is inconvenient.”

“It’s not fair!” I said, now fully shouting.

“Calm down.  It’s not the end of the world.”

“Right, but now I have to sit there and wait for my laundry to be done.  That’s going to be so boring!”

“Yeah,” Mom said.  “Can you bring something to read?”  I said nothing, brooding and staring at the floor, so Mom continued, “Hello?  Are you there?”

“I’m here,” I replied indignantly.

“I know you’re angry.  But don’t worry about spending money on clothes.  I can pay you back.  And maybe you can do homework in the laundry room while you’re waiting.”

“I was actually thinking that too.  But it’s still inconvenient.  And infuriating.”

“I know.”

“Should I call the police?”

“You can if you want.  But I’m not sure if they’d be able to do anything about it.  One load of laundry isn’t really a big deal, and there is no evidence.”

I let out a long sigh.  “You’re probably right.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“Are you calm?  You know I worry when you get upset like that.”

“I’m calm.”

“Okay.  When you do get new clothes, just tell me how much money you need.”

“You don’t have to send me anything,” I said.

“But I want to.”

“If you say so.”

“Are you sure you’re ok?” Mom asked.

“Yes.”

Mom spent another twenty minutes telling me about some kids from my brother Mark’s school, some old lady that Grandma was mad at, and a flaky unreliable coworker.  I did my best to listen and not lose interest.

After I hung up the phone, I put a Hungry-Man dinner in the microwave.  Then I turned on the computer, listened to the whirs and whistles and twangs of a dialup modem connecting to the Internet, and connected to my usual IRC chat channel.  I griped to a few strangers and one girl I had talked to before about my clothes being stolen.  I spent the rest of the night eating, chatting on IRC, and reading, and when I undressed for bed that night, I realized that the pair of pants I took off was now the only pair of pants I owned.  I hoped they would not be too dirty or smelly for church tomorrow.


The next morning was sunny but cold.  I walked over to apartment 239 and knocked on the door.  My neighbor Heather Escamilla and I were in the church choir together, and we often carpooled to church.  “You ready?” Heather said when she opened the door.  She wore a long sleeve sweater and pants.

“Yes,” I replied.

The two of us walked toward my car, and as we were getting in, Heather asked, “Aren’t you cold?  You’re wearing short sleeves with nothing underneath.”

“My laundry got stolen yesterday,” I said.  “I don’t have anything with long sleeves anymore.  And this is my only pair of pants left, because I was wearing these when it happened.”

“Oh my gosh,” Heather replied.  “Are you serious?”

“Yeah.  I left my clothes in the dryer for about an hour, and when I went to get them, they were gone.”

“That sucks.”

“I know.  I feel like now I’ll never be able to leave clothes unattended again.  Now I’m going to have to sit in there the whole time when I have clothes washing and drying.”

“I’ve never had that happen before, but I’m sure it’s happened to other people.”

“I guess I have to go shopping this afternoon.”

“Look on the bright side.  It’s an excuse to get new clothes.”

“I guess.”  And Mom said she would pay me back, although I did not say that part out loud.  I did not want to advertise the fact that I was mooching off of my parents, nor did I want to grow up to be a lazy bum.

When we got to church, we walked over to where the choir was assembling.  Danielle and Carly Coronado were talking to each other.  They were sisters; Danielle had lived right down the hall from me last year, and now she lived in the same apartment complex as Pete and Taylor.  Both Pete and Taylor had seemed romantically interested in Danielle during freshman year, to the point that I could never tell exactly what was going on with them, but now she and Pete seemed to be in a full-blown relationship.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said.  “Pete said you were over at their place yesterday?”

“Yeah,” I answered.  “I just went on a walk for a study break.  I would have come to your place if they hadn’t been home.”

“That sounds nice.  How was your weekend?”

“Frustrating.  Someone stole my clothes.”

“What?”

Sister Mary Rose walked past at that moment.  “Stole your clothes?” she repeated.

“Yeah.  From the laundry room at my apartment.  This is the only pair of pants I have left, and I don’t have anything with long sleeves.”

“Oooh.  That’s not good.  Can you get new clothes?” Sister Mary Rose asked.

“I think I’m going to have to do that this afternoon.  It’s just frustrating that someone would do that.  And now I’m going to have to sit in there and wait while I’m doing laundry, every time.”

“That is frustrating.  But maybe someone less fortunate really needed the clothes.  Maybe it will help to think of it that way.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Don’t stress about this,” Danielle added.  “Sometimes that’s just life.  You learn things the hard way.”

“I know.”

After church, I dropped off Heather, ate a quick sandwich, and got back in the car.  I headed north on Highway 117 toward Woodville.  It is commonly said that one cannot buy underwear in Jeromeville, because Jeromeville has no major department stores.  The aging hippie intellectuals who ran the local government in Jeromeville seemed obsessed with the delusion that Jeromeville was a small town and should stay one forever.  One recent example that had been in the news lately concerned a dirt alley in the old part of the city, just a block away from church.  The packed dirt was uneven and full of potholes, and during the winter these holes would fill with rainwater and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  The city’s Transportation Department had proposed paving the alley, a plan supported by all of the residents whose property backed up to the alley.  But the City Council vehemently disagreed, on the grounds that these historic dirt alleys are more in character with a small town like Jeromeville, and paving the alley would carelessly throw away our history and encourage runaway growth and crime.  Ridiculous.

This sort of mentality among the Jeromeville City Council led to my current situation: I had to buy clothes, so I had to either drive to Woodville or cross the Drawbridge into Capital City.  I chose the first today, because Woodville was closer, and I only wanted to buy what I needed and leave, rather than browse all of the huge two-story mall in Capital City.  This made no sense to me.  This was America.  More than 50,000 people lived in Jeromeville, and they needed to buy clothes, so the free market would suggest a need for a department store in Jeromeville.  But according to the Jeromeville City Council, a department store was inappropriate for their small town, so the nearest clothing store was seven miles outside of the Jeromeville city limits in the slightly smaller city of Woodville.  It was an easy drive, with Highway 117 being two lanes in each direction the entire way.  Here in the agricultural heart of Arroyo Verde County, I drove past cow pastures, nut tree orchards, and fields that would be planted with corn and tomatoes in the appropriate season.  A newly installed sign named this stretch of road the “Vincent Fiore Freeway,” after this area’s long-time member of the United States House of Representatives who had recently announced that he would retire after this term and not seek reelection.  For a couple years in high school, I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s political talk show when I was home from school in the mornings; he always said that Vincent Fiore was a liberal who was out of touch with the American people.

Woodville had a very small shopping mall with J.C. Penney, Mervyn’s, and Target as the anchor stores.  I parked the car and walked toward Mervyn’s.  Mervyn’s was a major department store in the western United States for much of the late 20th century, and I seemed to remember it usually being my mother’s preferred store for buying clothes.  It remained my preferred clothing store until the company went out of business in 2009.

I bought four pairs of Levi’s 550 jeans in my size, in three different colors.  I am not normally one to insist on brand name clothing, but I have been loyal to Levi’s jeans for years.  The 550 and 560 styles fit me better than the more traditional 501 and 505.  I bought a plain gray pullover sweatshirt; the sweatshirt I had lost was a University of Jeromeville sweatshirt, and I could buy one of those at the campus store on Monday.  It was okay to have two sweatshirts.  I bought two polo shirts, one navy blue and one dark green, replacing the ones which had been stolen.  I bought a towel that resembled the one that had been stolen. After this, I looked around the store a bit more to look for anything else I might need.  I found an interesting jacket; the torso was made from shiny black athletic wear material, the kind of material that a track suit would be made of, but the sleeves and hood were made from sweatshirt material.  It looked comfortable, and I had come to realize recently that I did not have enough cold weather clothing, so I bought the jacket too.

 I brought my purchases to the cashier.  When she told me the total for my order, I cringed inwardly as I handed her my credit card.  I always paid off my credit card at the end of the month, never carrying a balance, but this was the most money I had ever spent on clothing in one sitting, as well as the highest credit card bill I had ever had so far in the eleven months since first getting this credit card.  I had enough money in my bank account to pay the bill, and Mom said she would pay me back, but I still hated spending money and I felt bad accepting help from Mom.  Once I was done with school and working full time, I would make a point to take care of myself and not accept Mom’s unnecessary handouts.

The next morning, Monday, I waited for the bus wearing all new clothes: the green polo shirt, one of the new pairs of jeans, and the new jacket.  Although wearing new clothes can be fun and exciting, today it just felt irritating.  I could have avoided spending all of that money if some jerk had not stolen my laundry, or if I had just taken the time to wait in the laundry room until my clothes were finished.  But, on the bright side, I had a new jacket, and I definitely felt warmer than usual waiting for the bus today.

When I did laundry again a week later, I waited in the laundry room the entire time.  There was no chair, so I sat on the table intended for folding and sorting clothes.  I brought math and physics homework to work on, and I finished almost all of my homework for that weekend.  Yes, it was annoying having to wait in the laundry room, but I could get used to this.  The laundry room was much less distracting than my apartment.  I never left clothes unattended in the laundry room at Las Casas Apartments again.  After that school year, at my next apartment, I started risking leaving the laundry room while the washer and dryer were running, but fortunately, I never had clothes stolen again.

As I got older, I never did get better at dealing with this sort of minor inconvenience.  Making a mistake that ends up costing money is just as frustrating to me as ever.  I know, though, that I need to put this kind of thing in perspective.  Buying new clothes to replace those stolen was no big deal for me, but millions of people all over the world are much less fortunate.  I tried to convince myself that Sister Mary Rose was right, that someone less fortunate needed my clothes.  That still did not make what happened right in the eyes of the law, but this could have been one of those times when God works in ways that I cannot understand.

March 3, 1995. Throwing the box.

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

I felt like Alexander today.

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

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

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

I was having a bad day.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

“I know.  I’m confused too.”

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

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

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

“Have a great weekend!” Andrea said.

“Thanks.  You too.”

 

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

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


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

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

-Mary


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

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

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

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

I think I’ll move to Australia.

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

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

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

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

“Whoa.  Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think so.”

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

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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