December 6, 1996.  My first chorus performance.

I opened the closet door, sliding aside shirts and pants on hangers trying to get out the tuxedo from behind all of my other clothes.  When Dr. Jeffs had announced a few weeks into the quarter that we would need a tuxedo for our chorus performance at the end of the quarter, I panicked a little.  I had no idea how to get a tuxedo or how much it would cost.  A minute later, though, Dr. Jeffs mentioned that the music department had a place where they ordered tuxedos for people who needed them.  I met with a music major who handled the tuxedo orders; I recognized her from chorus, she was a soprano, but I did not know her name.  She measured my waist and inseam and arm length, just like senior year of high school when I took Renee Robertson to the prom and had to rent a tuxedo.

A week ago, I went home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.  Mom wanted to see the tuxedo, and since it did not come with shoes, Mom told me we could get shoes while I was home.  I put on the tuxedo in my room, a little confused at first but eventually figuring out where to put the cummerbund and cufflinks and all these other accessories and articles of clothing that I did not normally wear.

I emerged from my room wearing the tuxedo, awaiting Mom’s reaction, wondering what she would find to make a big deal of this time.  “Look at you, all dressed up,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  Her tone quickly changed when she said, “The pants aren’t hemmed.  And they look a little bit too short.”

I looked down at the bottom of my pants, only now noticing the slightly ragged edge where the pants stopped at approximately ankle level.  I had failed; the show was just a week away, and there was not enough time to get new tuxedo pants.  “I never actually got my pants measured properly,” I said.  “The girl who ordered our tuxedos, she just asked if I knew what size pants I wore, and I told her 36-32, because that’s the size of pants I always buy.”  I paused before deciding to reveal more details of my failure.  “But people have told me before that my pants look a little too short.  Maybe they really are.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mom said.  “It probably won’t even show, if you’re going to be part of a whole choir.  And you’ll probably be in the back, since you’re tall.”

“That’s true,” I replied.

After I took off the tuxedo, Mom and I drove to Macy’s in Gabilan.  I hated shopping for shoes.  I had large, unusually shaped feet, and a few years ago I always seemed to have a hard time finding new shoes that fit me.  This traumatized me and made me afraid to buy shoes, because of all the hassle.  I wore a size 14 in athletic shoes and 13 in dress shoes, with shoes being more comfortable if they came in an extra wide option, although normal width shoes were usually not prohibitively uncomfortable.  The only black dress shoe they had that fit well had this weird scaly pattern along the surface of the shoe.  It looked like the shell of a shiny black turtle.

“Why is there that pattern on it?” I asked Mom.

“What pattern?” she said.

“This!” I replied, tracing my finger along the pattern on my shoes.

“Oh, that.  That’s what dress shoes look like.”

“What?  I’ve never seen dress shoes like that.”

“Dress shoes look like that.  It’ll be fine.  Besides, if we want anything else, we’ll have to special-order it, and it probably won’t be able to get to you in time.”

“I guess,” I sighed, resigning myself to the fact that these ugly shoes were probably the only option.  Maybe Mom was right, maybe dress shoes really do look like this, although I did not remember ever having seen shoes like these before.

I laid the tuxedo in the back of the Bronco; there would be time to change when we arrived. I had people to pick up; we had organized carpools a few days ago, and I got a car full of people I knew, which was fortunate since I did not know many people from chorus, at least not well.  Danielle Coronado and Jason Costello, were in my car, both of whom I had known since our first week at the University of Jeromeville.  We all lived on the same floor of the same dorm, Building C, when we were freshmen two years ago.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore, was also in my car; we sang together, along with Danielle, at my old church last year. After I picked everyone up, I headed east on Highway 100 toward the Drawbridge.

“How was everyone’s Thanksgiving?” Danielle asked.

“Nothing special,” Phil replied.  “Just went to my parents’ house.”

“I was at my grandma’s house in Arizona,” Jason said.  “There were a ton of people there, but it was really good.”

“Greg?” Danielle asked.  “Don’t you have a big Thanksgiving family gathering too, somewhere in the north state?”

“Bidwell.  But we didn’t do that this year,” I explained.  “My brother is in high school now, and he has basketball practice, so we couldn’t be away from home for that long.  So we just had a smaller Thanksgiving at home, just us, plus my grandparents on Mom’s side who live nearby.  Today is Grandma’s birthday, in fact.”

“How did that go?”

“It was okay.  I always used to like traveling to Bidwell, but it just hasn’t been the same since my great-grandma died.  She lived out on the edge of town on an old cattle ranch, and I used to love exploring in the hills near her house, but we don’t have that property anymore.”

“Did she pass recently?”

“It’s been a couple years.  Senior year of high school.  So how was your Thanksgiving?”

“I was just back home with my immediate family.  But it’s always kind of loud, since I come from a big family.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably like when I was a kid and all the cousins would be there.”

About ten miles east of Jeromeville, I took the exit for the Drawbridge and downtown Capital City.  “So why are we having the performance here instead of somewhere on campus?” I asked.  “Is it always here?  This is my first time in chorus, remember.”

“Usually the fall performance is here,” Danielle explained.  “Winter and spring are at the Main Theatre on campus.  But I don’t know why this one is here.”

“I think there are just a lot of other performances at the Main Theatre this time of year,” Jason explained.  “And they just couldn’t reserve the building for this night.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

A few days ago, someone had handed out a flyer with directions and a map.  I knew my way around Capital City enough that it seemed easy to find, but in the maze of one-way streets that was downtown Capital City, I got lost far more often than I should.  Complicating things further was a historic shopping district along a street that was now only open to pedestrians and light-rail commuter trains, which traveled the street at slow speed.  

In the middle of the pedestrian-only section was the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the cathedral for the Catholic diocese for this part of the state and the location of this performance.   The large stone building, half the width of the entire block, was gray, with a large clock tower in front rising from the center and two smaller towers with crosses on top on either side.  A wide, low set of stone steps climbed about three feet to the entrances, three large sets of wooden double doors with statues of saints placed between them.  The middle set of doors was open.

The four of us arrived at 4:15 and walked in through the open door, through the lobby to the back of the church.  On the far side of the church, just in front of the altar, risers had been set up for the chorus to stand on.  The students who had arrived so far stood around and sat in pews, while the students from the orchestra set up their instruments.  At the side, a familiar face sat at a grand piano, organizing sheet music.  “Hey, Spencer,” I said, walking up to the piano.

“Greg!” Spencer said.  “I didn’t know you were in this.”

“Same,” I said.  “How long have you been doing piano for chorus?”  Spencer Grant lived downstairs from me freshman year, and he had gone to high school with Danielle.  I knew that he played piano, because I remembered him playing the piano in the common room of Building C many times, but I did not know that he was the accompanist for these performances.  Although I knew him to play piano, I would not have pictured him as the type to be in a performance like this.  Spencer always struck me as an odd combination of equal parts overconfident nerd and country hick, neither of which was a personality I associated with classical music.

“I started last year,” Spencer explained.  “They needed a pianist, I play piano.”

“That works.”

“Is this your first time in one of these?  I don’t remember seeing you here before.  Which group are you in?”

“Chorus.  I sing bass. And, yes, it’s my first time.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s great.  For a long time, when I was younger, I never liked singing in front of people, but it’s not so bad when I’m part of a group.”

“That’s true.”

“Section leaders, I need to see you for a minute!” I heard a voice say.  It took a few seconds to register that I was a section leader and I should be listening.  I looked over my shoulder and saw the section leader for the sopranos, a blonde girl named Carolyn, waving and calling out, “Section leaders!”

“I need to go see what that’s about,” I told Spencer.  “It was good seeing you.”

“You’re a section leader?” Spencer asked.  “And this is your first time in chorus?”

“Yeah.  No one else really wanted to do it.”

“A lot of people get talked into things that way.”

“I know.  I’ll see you later.”

I walked over to the other section leaders.  “I’m here,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“If anyone in your section doesn’t show up, be sure to let Dr. Jeffs or Sharon know as soon as possible.  If you didn’t bring your roster, here’s a copy of the program with all the names on it,” Carolyn said, as she gave the three of us programs.

I went up to the risers to stand with the other basses as I read through the program.  As the section leader, I had been responsible for submitting everyone’s names exactly as they wanted.  I listed myself as “Gregory James Dennison.”  Over the last several months, I had started using all three of my names when I had to fill things out, and I had changed my email name and signature to show all three names.  I remember passing the list around asking the basses how they wanted their names in the program, and my friend Scott Madison, whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship before I joined chorus, commented on my name.  “‘Gregory James Dennison?’  You’re using your full name now?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t know why, I just like the way it sounds.”

“Oooh.  Can I be ‘Scott R. Madison?’”

“Sure,” I said as Scott wrote “Scott R. Madison” on the form.

Phil Gallo took the form next.  “When I was in high school,” he said, “I was reading something about these gangsters from the 1920s, and they all had cool nicknames.  My friend started calling me Phil ‘The Fist’ Gallo.  He said it sounded like a Mafia name.”

“That’s awesome,” I said.

“I probably shouldn’t put that on the chorus program, though,” Phil said, writing “Philip T. Gallo” on the form.

“‘Philip T. Gallo?’” I said.  “The T stands for ‘The Fist?’”

“Haha!” Phil shouted.  “My middle name is Thomas, but I like that better.”

The dress rehearsal went well.  We had performed these pieces well enough that I knew my parts by then.  Since we had learned them out of order, though, we had only been performing them in their entirety from start to finish for a week.  We sang Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis, commonly called the Lord Nelson Mass, first.  I liked hearing it all together in order; it began quickly but in a minor key, specifically D minor; switched to D major for the Gloria, and changed to many other keys and tempos through the piece to fit the mood of the lyrics, ending with an upbeat Dona Nobis Pacem in D major.  I thought we sounded great.

After the Nelson Mass, the Chamber Singers did their part of the show.  Sharon, the teaching assistant for chorus, conducted this part of the show. We did not have to do anything during that time except stand quietly.  As one who had not studied classical music in detail, I was not sure exactly what the term chamber music even meant, what distinguished it from other music, but the Chamber Singers were a much smaller group than University Chorus.  When the Chamber Singers finished, the University Chorus performed Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a composition from the early twentieth century incorporating four existing British Christmas songs.  This one had been more difficult to learn at first, since I did not have a recording of it to sing along with, but we had rehearsed it enough that I knew it by now.


After the rehearsal, we had a break for dinner.  Despite being in the middle of a big city, with lots of interesting places around to eat, I walked down the street to McDonald’s.  I needed something simple and familiar.  Danielle walked there with me, and we saw about ten other people from chorus there too.  I ordered an Arch Deluxe and French fries, but no milkshake or Coca-Cola.  Someone had advised me not to have sweet drinks or dairy, since those might affect my voice.

We all had to be back by 7:45, and I made it in plenty of time.  Some of the audience had already arrived, and more trickled in as we waited to the side of the risers.  My mom and dad were making the drive up to see my performance, and eventually I saw them walk in.  It was close enough to the start of the performance that I could not go talk to them, but I made note of where they were sitting so I could find them quickly afterward.

At 7:55, the lights went dim, and the orchestra began playing the oddly familiar droning A note that the stringed instruments used to tune themselves.  After they finished, Dr. Jeffs stepped up to the podium and raised his baton.  The orchestra began playing as Dr. Jeffs conducted, and a few measures later, we began our choral part.  “Kyrie!  Kyrie eleison!” we sang.

I was surprisingly not nervous at all.  I had rehearsed this enough, and listened to the recording of the piece often enough, that I knew exactly what we were supposed to sound like.  The entire Mass was long, around forty minutes; I sang my part, just as we had been rehearsing, and I stood still and silent as the soloists did their parts.

As much as I enjoyed being in chorus, I never considered trying out for a solo.  I did not have the vocal talent to sing a solo.  The resounding deep voice of the bass soloist, the clear high tones of the tenor soloist, the warble of the alto and soprano soloists, all of those were sounds that my voice was not trained to make.  I was not a vocal soloist, but I was getting used to feeling like I at least belonged in the chorus.

The rest of the night went smoothly, just as we rehearsed.  I felt a little uncomfortable standing through the entire Chamber Singers performance, looking down on Sharon conducting the small group in front of us, but once we began Fantasia on Christmas Carols, I was sufficiently distracted that I no longer noticed my uncomfortably sore feet in the ugly shoes.  I wished I had a recording of this piece, because I really liked it; it was a different twist on classical Christmas music, beyond the same old songs I hear every year.

The performance ended, and we got a standing ovation from the audience.  The applause seemed to last a long time as each conductor and each group took bows and was recognized separately.  I was a part of that.  They were cheering for me.  I was not used to receiving applause, and it felt good.  I smiled.

Eventually, the lights came back up, and I saw people mingling with friends and family in the audience.  I turned to Phil, the nearest person from my carpool, and said, “I’m going to go say hi to my parents.  If Jason and Danielle are ready to drive back, tell them I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” Phil said.

I walked over to Mom and Dad; Mom saw me and gave me a hug.  “You look good in your tux,” she said.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“That was very nice,” Dad said.  “I’m glad you’re doing music again.”

“Me too,” I said.  “What are you guys doing tonight?”

“If it’s okay with you, we’re just going to go back to the motel without stopping at your house.  It’s getting late.  We’re staying at the Oak Tree Inn in Woodville, because everything in Jeromeville was either booked or really expensive.”

“Yeah, that sounds right for Jeromeville.”

“We can take you to breakfast in the morning.  Does that sound good?”

“Sure.  That works out perfectly, because there’s an after party, and I wanted to stop by.”

“Great!  We don’t want to get in the way when you’re hanging out with your friends.”

“Thanks.  So I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sounds good!”


I got home after dropping off the others in my car.  The after party was at someone’s house, not too far from my house, just off of Maple Drive on the other side of Coventry Boulevard.  I walked in and looked around.  I saw a number of familiar faces, but most of my closest friends in chorus were not here.  Danielle, Scott and Amelia, Jason, Phil, all absent.  Claire and Margaret were here, but Claire was a music major, so she knew all these people, and Margaret was her sister.

“Hey, Greg!” Claire said as Margaret waved.  “What did you think of the show?”

“It was great!  I’m glad it’s over, though.  One less thing to concentrate on as finals start.”

“I know!  This is your first chorus after-party, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Have fun!”

I walked around trying to start conversations.  Most of the conversations were about music things that I did not understand, and a lot of people were drinking.  I sat to the side making small talk with anyone who seemed interested in doing so, and I learned names of more of the people I had been singing with for three months but did not know well.  I eventually went home after a little over an hour, because this party did not really feel like my scene.

Breakfast with Mom and Dad the next morning went well.  We went to Denny’s, where I ate way too much, and Mom spent much of the time asking gossipy questions about other people in the show last night and pointing out if their noses were too big, or their eyes were too close together, or any other interesting thing to notice about them.  Mom did this kind of thing for everyone.  She also said that the Oak Tree Inn was very nice for the amount they paid.  For the rest of the years I lived in Jeromeville, my parents stayed at the Oak Tree Inn when they came to visit.  It was only ten miles away, and much less expensive than the alternatives.

I may have not fit in with the crowd at the after party, but I was starting to feel like I was actually a musician.  I had no plans to try out for a solo, but I enjoyed being in the chorus.  I would not be able to take chorus winter quarter, though.  Dr. Hurt, the professor I currently had for Introduction to New Testament, taught another class I wanted to take that met at the same time as chorus.  I would do everything I could to make sure I took chorus again spring quarter, though.  In addition to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Math Club, chorus was now one of my activities to be involved in, and I looked forward to when I could do it again in the future.  Even if it meant wearing those ugly uncomfortable shoes with the tuxedo.

The ugly shoes today, after spending a couple decades collecting dust in the bottom of my closet and not being worn. I still have them, for some reason.

Author’s note: Have any of you ever been part of a chorus or any sort of performing group? What was that like for you? Do any of you have any interesting stories about that?

Also, I thought about making the song for this episode be something from Fantasia on Christmas Carols, since I already shared a different part of the Nelson Mass in a different episode. But Fantasia on Christmas Carols is 11 minutes long and not broken into parts, and I am posting this episode in October and I have a strict personal policy not to share Christmas music when it’s not December. But if you really want to hear Fantasia on Christmas Carols, click here.

End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus.

“The mass has ended,” Father Bill said to the congregation at the Jeromeville Newman Center.  “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” many in the congregation replied.

Those of us in the church choir began singing and playing the closing song.  The choir had changed a bit from last year, since two people graduated, but most of the people I knew were still singing with us.  Danielle Coronado, a junior like me, and her sophomore sister Carly; Danielle was one of the first friends I made in Jeromeville in my freshman dorm.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore.  Heather Escamilla, a senior who was my neighbor last year before I got the new apartment and roommates.  Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell, two seniors who played guitars, who grew up in Santa Lucia County like me but went to Catholic school.  Two senior girls, Claire Seaver and Sabrina Murphy, and their freshman siblings whom I had just met today, Margaret Seaver and Chad Murphy.  A woman named Karen, not a student, who played piano.

After the last song, as we were packing up the instruments and sheet music, I asked Claire, “Can I look through the sheet music?  I have my audition for University Chorus on Tuesday, and I need to bring my own music to sing.”

“Sure!” Claire replied.  “I’m excited you’re gonna be in Chorus!”

“You are?  For sure?” Danielle asked, overhearing our conversation.  “Yay!”

“I will if they let me in,” I said.

“The audition isn’t hard,” Danielle explained.  “You’re pretty much just showing them that you can carry a tune.  And there are always more girls than guys, so if you’re a guy and you aren’t tone deaf, they’ll let you in.”

“I hope so,” I said, flipping through pages of sheet music looking for something I knew I could sing.  “I’m really nervous.”  I had no idea whether or not an audition of Catholic Church music would be frowned upon, given the reputation that large public universities sometimes had for being anti-Christian.  Christianity influenced much classical art and music, however, so I figured it would be okay, particularly if I sang something well known.  The songs were arranged alphabetically, so after about a minute I found “Amazing Grace.”  I said, “I think I can sing Amazing Grace.”  I had never sung it with the church choir, but the worship band at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had played it a few times, so I felt like I knew it well enough.

“Sounds good!” Claire said.

“Good luck,” Danielle added, patting me on the back.  “You’ll do great.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

I drove home with the radio off, singing Amazing Grace to myself.  Growing up, the few occasions when I heard this song were always met with my mother saying that she hated it, particularly Joan Baez’ hippie-era recording of the song.  I mostly liked the lyrics, having recently learned about the history of the song.  The lyrics were written by an 18th-century British slave ship captain who turned to God to save him from a shipwreck, later turning away from the cruelty of the slave trade and becoming an abolitionist.  God had not saved me from anything that dramatic, but he certainly had saved me from my life of hopelessness, loneliness, and depression during sophomore year.


Two days later, I rode my bike to campus with the sheet music to Amazing Grace in my backpack, along with the usual binder that I would not be using today.  I rode all the way across campus to the east side of the Quad, with the Death Star building and Old North and South Halls on the left.  Just past the Quad, I passed the library on the right and a classroom building called Orton Hall on the left.  Beyond the library, East Quad Avenue ended in a T-intersection with Davis Drive, with the art, drama, and music buildings clustered together on the other side of the street.  I parked my bike and walked into the music building, looking for room 111.

The music building was small, with two floors.  I walked in through a lobby to a hallway extending to the left and right with a bulletin board in front of me.  I was not sure which side room 111 was on, but in a building of this size, it did not take long to find.

Room 111 was rectangular, with the entrance on the short side.  The wall to the left of me had a chalkboard along most of the length of the wall, with groups of five lines permanently imprinted on the board for writing music.  To the right were about a hundred and fifty seats, in rows which were each a step above the row in front of them, like stadium seats.  Two aisles divided the sections into thirds.  The ceiling and parts of the walls were off-white, covered in some kind of material that probably had to do with acoustics or soundproofing or something like that.  A thin woman, probably around thirty years old, with wavy hair dyed dark sat in a chair next to a slightly younger-looking man with a goatee sitting at a grand piano.

“Hi,” the woman said.  “I’m Sharon.  What’s your name?”

“Greg Dennison,” I said.

Sharon looked down at her list of students who would be auditioning today.  “Greg.  There you are.  What did you bring to sing today?”  I opened my backpack and gave her the sheet music of Amazing Grace, which she handed to the pianist.  “Amazing Grace,” she said.  “In F-major, so it starts C-F.”  Turning back to me, Sharon said, “Whenever you’re ready, Greg.”

The pianist played a C and an F, the first two notes of the song.  I took a deep breath and began singing.  “A-ma-zing grace, how sweet the sound.”  I took a breath and continued, “That saved a wretch like me!”  Another breath.  “I once was lost, but now am found.”  Another breath.  “Was blind, but now I see.”

Sharon stopped me.  “That’s good,” she said.  “Welcome to University Chorus.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  Danielle was right; this audition was not difficult at all.  I had had nothing to worry about.

“Are you Baptist, by any chance?” the pianist asked.

“No,” I said, a little confused.  “I’m Catholic.  I sing in my church choir.”

“You kind of sing like a Baptist,” the pianist explained, demonstrating how my voice tended to not quite hit the pitch of some long notes and then quickly adjust.  Hopefully I had not done something wrong.  If this was not good enough for the way I was supposed to sing in University Chorus, I would do my best not to sing that way.

“Interesting,” I said, not particularly wanting to have that discussion.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“So I’ll see you Friday at 12:10?” Sharon asked.

“Yes!”


After my audition, I went to the basement of the campus store to get my textbooks for the quarter.  Chorus was technically a two-unit class called Music 144, graded pass/no-pass.  There were two thin books of sheet music on the shelf for Music 144, along with a compact disc labeled as optional which I did not buy.  The longer of the two pieces for chorus was called Missa in Angustiis, by Joseph Haydn, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass.  It was first performed right at the same time that Horatio Nelson had defeated Napoleon’s forces, in the late 18th century, and it had always been associated with that event.  The other book of sheet music was called Fantasia on Christmas Carols, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912.  I did not know that name.

Thursday, September 26, was the first day of classes.  As was often the case, Thursday was a light day for me, with only my discussion section for New Testament.  We had no class material to discuss, since the first lecture would not meet until tomorrow, so the teaching assistant just introduced the class and what we would be doing in the discussion section.  I was going back to the part-time job I had for part of last year, tutoring lower-division math classes for the Learning Skills Center on campus ten hours per week, and with only one class on Thursday, I could make myself available for tutoring on Thursdays.

My class schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was much busier, with one math class and the New Testament lecture in the morning and another math class in the afternoon.  In between, chorus met from 12:10 until 1:00.  The room was about half full when I arrived on that first Friday.  Sharon, whom I had met at my audition, sat in the front at the piano, with a balding middle-aged man in a suit also in the front of the room.  I found a seat near the right aisle and waited for class to start.  “Greg!” a familiar voice behind me said.  I turned around to see Phil Gallo from church.

“Hey, Phil,” I said.

As I looked at the people around me and watched the rest of the chorus trickle in through the door, I recognized a few other familiar faces.  Jason Costello from my freshman dorm, who also goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Danielle, Claire, and Margaret from the church choir.  A couple of faces I recognized from the dining hall freshman year.  Scott Madison and Amelia Dye from JCF.  Scott saw me looking around and waved; I waved back.

Sharon stood up and spoke, introducing herself as the TA for the class.  She would be the contact person for most of our concerns.  She introduced the balding man as Dr. Thomas Jeffs, the professor who would be conducting the chorus.  Dr. Jeffs then introduced himself with a long list of accolades and prestigious choral groups that he had been a part of over his career.  As one with little knowledge of classical music, most of that meant nothing to me, other than that the accomplishments sounded impressive.

Next, a blonde girl walked to the front.  “Hi!  My name is Carolyn Parry, and I’m the section leader for the sopranos.  The section leader for altos couldn’t be in chorus this quarter, and the section leader for basses graduated.  So, altos and basses, take five minutes to find the others in your section, and decide who will be section leader.”

I had no idea who the other basses were.  I noticed that the guys mostly seemed to sit in the middle, with the girls mostly on the sides, but with a few girls near the aisle in the middle, possibly because there was not enough room for all the girls on the sides.  “Are you a bass?” one older-looking guy sitting next to me asked.

“I am,” I replied.  Apparently the seat I chose was coincidentally in the bass section.

“No one really wanted to be section leader,” a guy sitting behind me said, “so we were wondering if you’d want to do it.”

Wow.  My first day of University Chorus, and I’m already being asked to be section leader.  “What exactly does the section leader do?” I asked.

“Mostly just take attendance,” the guy who asked if I was a bass said.  “Just pass around a sign-in sheet, everyone makes sure they sign it, and then you give it to Sharon.”

“I guess I can do that,” I said.  I hoped that it was actually that simple, and that the other basses were not hazing the new guy or anything like that.

After the selection of section leaders, the actual rehearsal began.  Dr. Jeffs told us to turn to the Credo in the Lord Nelson Mass.  Each section practiced a few measures, then we sang them together.  This Credo seemed difficult to sing, because instead of harmonizing, it was sung like a round, with the sopranos and altos starting, and the tenors and basses coming in a measure later.  But unlike round songs I knew as a child, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the tenors and basses sang in a different key than the sopranos and altos, which created some very non-intuitive harmonies.  I had taken piano lessons for three years as a child, so I knew how to read music, but I quickly discovered that I was not very good at it.  I could follow along with sheet music when someone else sang or played, but I found it difficult to learn an unfamiliar song, particularly one with four part harmony, just by reading sheet music.  By the end of the class, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed.  Maybe I was not good enough for University Chorus.  But, as we were leaving, Dr. Jeffs said something that changed the whole experience for me.

“It’s about time to go,” Dr. Jeffs said.  “Section leaders, be sure to turn in your sign-in sheet for your section.  And, remember, if you don’t have the sheet music yet, go get that.  And they have a CD of the Haydn in the bookstore.  I will see you Monday.”

As soon as I left the building, I immediately headed to the campus store.  I remembered seeing that compact disc stacked there next to the books of sheet music, labeled as optional, and after today, I realized that I needed it.  I had no trouble following sheet music when a song was playing, so I suspected that I would be able to learn my part better by listening.

The first meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for the year was that night; that was when we performed the Scooby-Doo skit.  The next morning, I put the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass in my stereo and pressed Play.  I skipped to track 5, the Credo.  I knew enough from being Catholic that a Mass is the words from a church service set to music.  Although the Lord Nelson Mass was in Latin, I could understand what the words meant, since I knew the words to the Catholic Mass in English, and I studied Spanish, which evolved from Latin, for three years in high school.  The Credo was the part called the Nicene Creed in English, beginning with “I believe in one God,” or “Credo in unum Deum” in Latin.  The sections of this Mass appeared to be named for the first couple of words from each part.

I sang along while following the sheet music.  The women’s parts seemed louder than the men’s parts on the recording, but if I turned the stereo up loud enough, I could hear the bass.  Not only that, but I was able to follow along with the bass part on the sheet music.  I played the track a second time, this time singing along.  I remembered how, yesterday in class, Dr. Jeffs had reminded us to trill the R in “credo” at the beginning.  On my sheet music, where the words “cre- do” were written under the notes, I wrote “crrrre- do” underneath it, so I would remember to trill the R.  I started the song over and sang along.

My roommate Shawn came home in the middle of the song.  He poked his head in the bedroom door and asked, “What are you listening to?”

“Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass,” I explained.  “It’s one of the pieces we’re doing for chorus this quarter.”

“Oh yeah,” Shawn said.  “You’re in chorus.”

“It’s my first time doing it.”

“How’s it going so far?”

“I learned really quickly that I think I’m going to do better listening to the piece over and over again while I practice my part.  I can read music a little bit, but I don’t learn new music very well that way.  So I bought the CD.”

“Makes sense,” Shawn said.  He crossed the hall to the bathroom, and I closed the bedroom door and sang through the Credo two more times.

For the rest of that quarter, I listened to the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass over and over and over again.  When I was first learning a part of the Mass, I would follow along with the sheet music.  After that, as I was learning the part better, I would put the CD on while I was doing math homework or talking to girls in chat rooms, and I would sing along to my part.  This way, I would just learn it by performing, much as how I learned the words and tune to songs on the radio or on my other CDs by listening over and over again and singing along sometimes.

Something odd happened a few days after I got the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass.  I was sitting at my computer, at the desk under the bed loft that I had bought from Claire, doing homework for Advanced Calculus while the Lord Nelson Mass was playing.  I took a break, looking up from my textbook for about a minute.  Then I stood up and turned toward my bookshelf, about to look for a dust rag, when I realized what was happening.  In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I was back home working in a bookstore where the owner always played classical music.  The sound of classical music coming out of my stereo triggered some dormant muscle memory in my brain, memories of when the bookstore was empty of customers and I walked around to dust the shelves.  I laughed when I realized where this thought had come from.  I mentioned it to Danielle at the next rehearsal, and she laughed too, having remembered my stories from working at the bookstore that summer.

Although I loved listening to music, I always had a complicated relationship with performing music.  We had an old, out-of-tune piano in our living room at home, which had belonged to Dad’s grandmother, and I just liked playing around on it, but Mom always made a big deal of me playing piano and wanted me to perform for relatives and family friends.  I quit after three years of piano lessons in elementary school because I was self-conscious.  I never thought of performing music in front of others again until last year, when Danielle invited me to choir practice.  Now I was part of a chorus that would have to perform in front of a large audience at the end of the quarter, in a less comfortable environment than a church service, and once I got used to how things worked at University Chorus, I was excited about this.  The last year had been a time of great change and growth for me, and more changes were coming.

January 10-13, 1996. Another hopeless crush and a party.

I have always had a good ear for music, but I rarely did anything with it other than sing along in the car.  I played piano for a few years in elementary school, but according to Mom, I quit because I thought music was for nerds.  I do not remember saying that, but it definitely sounds like something that 10-year-old Greg would have said, not yet mature enough to embrace being different.  I did not perform music in front of people again until three months ago, when I started singing at 11:00 Mass at the Newman Center.

Our experience levels in the church choir ranged from people like me who just liked to sing for fun all the way up to Claire Seaver, a third-year music major who had been performing all her life.  I did not have much formal training in music, but I would occasionally try different harmonies with some of our usual familiar songs, because my ear could pick up harmonies easily.  I was excited this week when Claire brought a new song for us to learn, with four parts.  We had been practicing it all night, and the sopranos and altos had just finished doing their parts all together.  “Let’s hear just the guys now,” Claire said.

Phil Gallo and I sang the bass parts, while Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell sang tenor, Matt playing guitar as well.  We sounded okay, although there were a few wrong notes sung and played.  After this, we tried the entire song with every part singing, and after three times, it seemed like we finally had perfected the song.

“I thought that sounded good,” I said afterward.

“Yes!” Claire agreed.  “I think we’re ready for Sunday!”

“Yes,” Danielle Coronado said.  “Now I get to go home and write a paper.”

“Already?” Claire said incredulously.  “It’s the first week of class!”

“It’s only one page.  Not really a paper.  Just an assignment.”

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thanks,” Danielle replied.

“See you guys Sunday,” I said, turning back to Phil, Matt, and Ryan.

“Take it easy, man,” Phil replied.  I waved at the guys and went to find Heather, since we were neighbors and had carpooled here, but she and Melanie Giordano were busy talking, and I did not want to interrupt.  I stepped back, waiting, when I heard a soft female voice behind me say, “Hey, Greg.”

I turned around and got nervous when I saw Sabrina Murphy looking up at me.  There was just something about her that was cute, but I knew that she had a boyfriend, so any of these thoughts were hopeless.  I was not sure how to explain it, she was not drop dead beautiful by Hollywood standards, but I found something about her attractive.  “Yes?” I asked awkwardly.

“I just wanted to say you really have a strong bass voice,” she said.  “It really comes out well when we sing harmony like that.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling and blushing a little.

“Have you ever thought about being in University Chorus?  They always need more male voices.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I never thought about singing in any kind of group at all until Danielle talked me into doing this a few months ago.  She’s in chorus, right?”

“Yeah.  And Claire.  I did it freshman year, but I haven’t been able to fit it into my schedule since then.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’ll think about it.”

“You should.  I think you’d be good.”

“You ready?” Heather asked me, having walked up beside me and Sabrina a few seconds earlier.

“Sure,” I said.  “Sabrina?  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes,” Sabrina replied.  Have a great week!”

In the car on the way home, Heather asked me, “So what was Sabrina saying you would be good at?”

“She asked if I had ever done University Chorus.”

“You totally should!”

“I don’t know.  I sing in the car, but I’m not good at, like, real singing.”

“I’ve heard you sing, I think you’d be great!  Give yourself more credit.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Twenty-four hours later, I was sitting in my apartment alone, doing math homework.  It was a Thursday night, and I was in a good mood.  Thursday was my lightest day of class this quarter, and my tutoring job did not start until next week.  But my good mood was mostly because I was still on a high from Sabrina’s compliment last night.  Maybe I sang better than her boyfriend, and she was going to leave him for me.  My attention drifted from my math assignment as I played out this scenario in my head, imagining what I would say if Sabrina came out of nowhere and confessed her love for me.  I heard a knock at the door, and with this on my mind, my heart rate spiked and I almost jumped out of my chair.

I got up and peeked out the window; it was not Sabrina.  Heather Escamilla stood in the dim glow of the porch light.  I opened the door, wondering what she wanted, since there was no choir practice or church tonight.  “Hi,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“I was just thinking, I forgot to tell you last night.  Saturday we’re going to have a birthday party for Gary at our place.  And you’re invited.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Sure!  What time should I be there?”

“I’ve been telling people 7.  I don’t know when everyone will get there, though.”

“That sounds good.  Do I need to bring anything?”

“No.  Just yourself.”

“Great!  I’ll see you then!”

“Have a great night!” Heather said, waving as she turned back toward the parking lot.  I closed the door and went back to my homework.  I just got invited to a party, my first actual college party, other than the one in the dorm last year that I had walked in on uninvited.

As I worked on homework, I kept thinking about Heather and Gary’s party.  I wondered if I would know anyone there.  I wondered if anyone else from church would be there.  Maybe Sabrina would be there.  That in and of itself was enough to make me want to go.

My high had worn off by the time I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on Friday night.  All day on campus, the universe seemed to be throwing in my face the fact that other people had boyfriends and girlfriends and I did not.  I saw a lot of couples acting coupley all over campus today.  This all-American jock type guy sitting across from me on the bus home was making out with a hot girl in a sorority sweatshirt the whole time.  At JCF, I sat next to Liz and Ramon, who were two of my best friends, and had been a couple since early in our freshman year, but something about them being a couple bugged me tonight.  And I overheard someone saying that this junior girl named Amelia Dye was going out with Scott Madison now, which meant one fewer girl left for me to possibly end up with.

As I sat at my desk listening to the whirs and whistles of the modem connecting to the email server, I saw in the corner of my eye the contact list for the Newman Center choir.  Sabrina’s name was misspelled on the contact list; it had her listed as “Sabrina Murpy.”  I would have spelled it right had I typed the list; maybe Sabrina was into guys who could spell.  Maybe I would call Sabrina sometime this weekend, just to talk, to be friendly.  Was that okay?  I did not know.  She probably would not be home.  Her roommate would answer and tell me that she was out with her boyfriend.  Sabrina and her boyfriend were out there driving a knife through my heart, unknowingly digging my grave.

“She’s out there, unknowingly digging my grave,” I said to myself.  Very poetic.  That has a nice rhythm to it.  It was 9:45, I was home alone on a Friday night; maybe tonight would be a good night to write poetry.  I put my sweatshirt back on and took a walk around the apartment complex and through a little bit of the Greenbelt behind the apartments, trying to think of more lines for this poem.  When I returned about twenty minutes later, I wrote down all of the words that had come to mind, and by the time I went to bed, I had this:


“Hello, kid!  How are you?  How’s everything been?”
I’m really stressed out, if you know what I mean.
And how about you?  Got exams coming up?
“I’ve got one on Friday, I need to catch up.”
I called you to see if your roommate was home.
“She’s not, at the moment, I’m here all alone.
Today, it’s not homework that keeps her a slave,
She’s out there, unknowingly digging your grave.”



In November, I had started writing a novel; it was about a high school student who changes his name and goes to live with relatives to make a fresh start.  I had written around forty pages so far.  I had named the novel Try, Try Again, referencing the old saying about what to do if at first one does not succeed.  The character, Mike, felt like he was not succeeding in his old life, so he is trying again.  I worked on Try, Try Again for a few hours the next morning.  It had been a month since Mike had made his new start, and he had found his way into a popular group of friends.  A girl named Erin had taken an interest in him, and after spending a lot of time together at and after school, Mike got brave and asked her to a movie.


Three previews came on before the movie.  Mike did not think any of the movies previewed looked good.  When the movie itself started, he got comfortable in his seat, placing both arms on the armrest.  A minute later, Erin placed her hand on top of his.  Mike looked at her and smiled.  He liked Erin.  After a while, while he was watching the movie, he felt Erin’s hand move from his hand to his knee.  He liked it there too.  Eventually Erin moved her hand off of Mike for good.  Mike, instead, reached over the armrest and took her hand in his, placing it on the armrest.

Mike took his eyes off the movie and looked at Erin.  She did the exact same thing a few seconds later.  He tightened his grip around her hand for a couple seconds, then loosened it again.  Erin began to kiss him.  He liked it a lot.  It was nothing too unusual for most kids his age, but he had never been kissed so passionately in his life.  He tried to return it the best he could, and he felt that Erin liked it as well.  Their mouths slowly separated.  “Thanks,” Mike whispered.  Erin gave him a huge smile.

Mike’s eyes turned back to the movie.  He reached his right hand over to her right shoulder and touched it.  Erin moved her body a little to the left, closer to Mike.  They stayed in that position for the rest of the show.


I wished I could be at a movie with Sabrina, kissing her lips, running my fingers through her pretty red hair, and seeing her cute smile as she looked at me afterward.  What did her boyfriend have that I did not?  A few months ago, I wanted to be kissing Megan McCauley, until I found out that she also was with someone.  And before Megan there were lots of other girls who either had boyfriends or were just not interested in me.  Sometimes it felt like the entire single female population all over the state were conspiring to make sure I never had a girlfriend.

Later that night, I left my home and walked to Heather and Gary’s apartment, in the same complex as mine.  The party started half an hour ago, but I did not want to be the first one there, since I did not know if I would know anyone.  I knocked on the door, and Heather answered.  “Hey!” she said.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.  “Happy birthday, Gary!” I called out across the room when I saw Gary wave at me.

“Thanks!” Gary replied.

I looked around the room.  Six other people were there besides Heather and Gary.  I recognized Melanie from church, but no one else; Melanie was there with her boyfriend.  Sabrina was not there.  I made small talk with Heather and Gary for a bit, talking about school and my trip to Disneyland with my family.

“You actually drove past O.J. Simpson’s house?” Gary said, laughing.  “That’s hilarious!”

“I know.  Mom kept saying she couldn’t believe we were actually doing that.”

“What about O.J. Simpson’s house?” a girl I did not recognize said, walking up as she overheard us.  She had long straight hair and olive skin.  I repeated my story in abbreviated form, and she said, “My apartment isn’t too far from O.J. Simpson’s house.”

“This is my sister, Mariana,” Heather explained.  “She’s visiting from California.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

“So how do you know my sister?” Mariana asked.

“From church.  We both sing in the choir.”

“How fun!  I wish I could hear you guys sing in the morning, but my flight back home leaves at 12:15, so I need to be on my way to the airport by then.”

“Aww.”

“I was in choir in high school and college, but I graduated last year, and I’m not doing any kind of singing right now.”

“Where’d you go to school?”

“Santa Teresa,” Mariana said as Heather and Gary went to greet more people who were just arriving.

“That’s cool.  I’ve never been there, but two of my friends from high school go there.”

“Oh yeah?  What are their names?”

“Paul Dickinson and Jackie Bordeaux.  They would have been freshmen last year.”

“Nope, I don’t know them.  It’s a big school.”

“That’s what I figured.”

“You go to Jeromeville?  What are you studying?”

“Math.”

“Math,” Mariana repeated, making a face.  “That was not my class.”

“A lot of people say that,” I said, laughing.

“Well, if you’re good at it, go for it!  Do you know what you want to do with your degree?  Do you want to be a teacher?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t think I want to be a teacher, though.  Too much politics involved in education.  I just figure I’ll stay in school until I figure it out.”

“I understand that.  I majored in English, but I’m not really using it.  I work in an office.”

“Yeah.  I was never very good at English in school.  I never understood what I was supposed to get from the novels and poems that we had to read.”

“I did a lot of BS’ing on assignments like that, to be honest.”

“I see,” I replied, chuckling.  “But the weird thing is, even though I was always bad at English class, I like to write.”

“Oh yeah?  What do you like to write?”

“Sometimes I have a thought stuck in my head, and it’ll become a weird poem.  And last year I wrote a short novel.  I had a really interesting year when I was a senior in high school, so I turned that into a novel.”

“That’s so cool!”

“And right now, I’m working on another novel.  It’s about a guy who runs away to live with relatives, because he wants a fresh start.  But he pretends to be sixteen instead of eighteen, because he realized he missed out on a lot of experiences in high school, and he wants a second chance.”

“That’s interesting.  Where’d you get that idea?”

“Probably just because sometimes I wish I could do that.”

“You feel like you missed out on a lot?”

“Yeah.  Like I said with the first novel, I grew a lot my senior year, but then we all graduated and moved away.  I feel like if everything that happened my senior year had happened earlier, I would have graduated as an entirely different person.”

“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Mariana contemplated.  “Hmm.  Interesting.”

“If you want, I can send you some of my writing,” I said.  “Or at least I’ll send you what I have so far.”

“Yeah!  That would be so cool!”

“Do you use email?”

“I don’t,” Mariana said, disappointedly.  “Is that a problem?”

“You can give me your address, and I can mail it to you.”

“Sure!  I’ll do that.  Let me go get a piece of paper.” Mariana walked off and came back a minute later, handing me her address.

“Thanks!” I said.

Mariana and I talked for about another hour, about life, the past, the future, and many other things on our minds.  I could not help but wonder, could there be something here?  Might she be interested in me that way?  She was a few years older than me, that would be different; hopefully she did not see me as some immature little kid.  I had a way to keep in contact with her, and that was the important part at this moment.

“I’m going to get another drink,” Mariana eventually said.  “But, hey, it was really good talking to you!  Send me your story!”

“I will.  Thanks.” I smiled.

“We’ll probably talk more later tonight.”

“Yeah,” I said.

No one else that I knew ever showed up to the party.  I talked to Melanie for a bit about my winter break, and one of Gary’s engineer friends was drunkenly asking me about math at one point.  The party got louder as the night went on, and I went home around 10:30.

As soon as I got home, I printed out a copy of the unfinished Try, Try Again to send to Mariana, and I excitedly mailed it with extra stamps the next day.  This weekend sure turned into a great one.  I met a girl who talked to me for a long time and was interested in my creative work.  Maybe I did not need to hope for Sabrina to leave her boyfriend after all.  Life was finally looking up for me.

Except it never happened.  I never heard from Mariana again.  I never found out if she read my story.  She never wrote back, and Heather never mentioned her around me again.  I could have asked, of course, but I never asked others about girls I was interested in.  I was embarrassed for anyone to know that I liked a girl, ever since eighth grade when Paul Dickinson told the whole school who I liked.

Why did Mariana act so friendly if she did not want to talk to me again?  Things like this had happened before.  Jennifer Henson had been friendly to me all through senior year of high school, then that summer she moved away suddenly without leaving me a way to contact her.  Many other girls would treat me like this throughout my life, and I had a tendency to misunderstand the intentions of others.  People are complicated, reading and understanding them is hard, and I still had a lot to learn.  Maybe I would figure all of this out someday.  Until then, I had plenty of material for poetry and fiction.

December 10-13, 1995. None of this made any sense.

“Let us offer each other the sign of peace,” Father Bill said.  Congregants turned to each other, saying “Peace be with you,” and shaking hands.  I turned to Phil Gallo and shook his hand.  “Peace be with you,” I said.  Phil said the same to me.  I turned around to Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell with their guitars behind me and shook their hands.  “Peace be with you,” I said.

I walked to my right.  “Peace be with you, Greg,” Danielle Coronado said as she hugged me.  Danielle had lived down the hall from me last year in the dorm, and she had encouraged me to be part of the church choir in the first place.  Danielle’s younger sister, Carly, was also in the choir.  “Peace be with you,” Carly told me, also giving me a hug.

I walked around making sure to wish everyone in the choir peace.  Sabrina Murphy walked up to me and smiled.  “Peace be with you,” she said, putting her arms around me.  I hugged back and wished her peace in return.  This was the first time Sabrina hugged me; before we always just shook hands.  Maybe that meant something… hopefully.

Just before the final song, during announcements, Sister Mary Rose held up a small box about the size of a soup can.  “We are taking up a collection for our sister parish in El Salvador,” she explained.  “You can pick up one of these piggy banks, and over the holidays, when you have change in your pocket, remember our brothers and sisters who need to do some repairs to their chapel.  We will be collecting the money you raise during the January 14 service.”

After the final song, everyone around me seemed to be engrossed in conversation, so I walked over to where Sister Mary Rose was handing out the piggy banks.  About ten minutes later, I approached Heather Escamilla, because we were neighbors and we had carpooled that morning, and I wanted to ask when she would be ready to go back home.  But she noticed me and began speaking first.  “Greg!  Do you need to go home now?  Because some of us from choir were just talking about going to Bakers Square for lunch.  You want to come?”

“Sure,” I said.

Bakers Square was a chain of restaurants that were essentially like Denny’s with pies.  In the early 2000s, most of the Bakers Square locations in the western United States closed, leaving the chain with only a few locations far from here.  But in 1995, Bakers Square restaurants were common in suburban neighborhoods around here.  The one in Jeromeville was only a few blocks from the Newman Center, so those of us from the choir all walked over in a big group.  When we arrived, they put a bunch of tables together in order to accommodate our group of twelve.  I walked toward the nearest empty seat and was pleasantly surprised to see Sabrina taking the seat next to me a few seconds later.  “Hi,” I said as Sabrina sat down.

“Hi, Greg,” Sabrina replied.  “How are you?”

“Not bad.  My physics final is tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll probably be studying for that.  I’m not too worried about it.”

“Which class?”

“9B.”

“That wasn’t too hard.  I took that last year.”

When Sabrina said that, I realized that I did not know what her major was, or what year she was.  She was probably a junior if she had taken Physics 9B a year ago.  “What’s your major?” I asked.

“Aerospace engineering.”

I was not expecting that.  Sabrina did not at all look like an aerospace engineer to me.  “That sounds interesting,” I said.

“It’s hard, but I really like it.  And my boyfriend is an aerospace engineer too, so we get to take classes together sometimes.”

“That sounds nice.”

The server came to take our orders; she started at our side of the table.  Sabrina ordered a chicken salad, and I ordered a cheeseburger.  I was too disappointed at Sabrina’s mention of her boyfriend to rejoin the conversation for the next few minutes.  It seemed like it always happened like this; I would meet a cute, friendly girl, and she would immediately bring up her boyfriend, almost as if she was telling me not to get interested in her.

“Greg,” Danielle said a few minutes later.  I realized that I had not talked to anyone except Sabrina since I got here.  “How are you?  What’s your finals schedule like?”

“Physics tomorrow afternoon, math Wednesday morning, and chem Friday morning.  Nice and spread out.”

“You only have three finals?  That’s nice.  I have four, and three of them are tomorrow and Tuesday.”

“Two of my classes don’t have finals.  Your finals schedule sounds like mine was last spring quarter.  Good luck.”

“What classes are you taking that don’t have finals?” Heather asked.

“Bowling, and math problem solving seminar.  Bowling is half a unit, and the math class is 2.”

“Oh, ok.  I was going to say, two classes without finals?  How lucky!”

After we finished eating, I took Heather home and went back to my apartment.  I spent the rest of the afternoon studying physics.  I thought I understood it pretty well, but my first physics midterm in the spring had caught me off guard.  I still ended up with an A in that class, though, after working extremely hard for the rest of the quarter, and I have made sure to study hard for every physics test since.

Around eight o’clock, I turned on the TV to watch The Simpsons, but it was a rerun, so I turned on the computer and went to an IRC chat channel, only half-paying attention to The Simpsons in the background.  A few people whose names I recognized from having spent a lot of time in this channel said hello, and I said hi back.  I watched the messages scroll by; someone was talking about getting stoned at a party over the weekend, someone was bragging about the size of his penis and got quickly banned by the channel administration, and someone was trying to start normal conversations and getting ignored.  I replied to the person’s normal conversations, making small talk, but that lasted a few minutes before that person stopped replying.  I looked through the list of people in the room and tried messaging someone who might have been a girl my age, and got no reply.

A few minutes later, someone named “musicgirl” entered the room and said hi to everyone.  I sent her a private message.

gjd76: hi :) how are you?
musicgirl: hi! i’m doing ok!  how was your weekend?
gjd76: good.  studying for finals, taking a break for the rest of the night.
musicgirl: i have finals coming up too! but i’m graduating in the spring so i’m excited about that! one more semester after this one!
gjd76: i’m only in my second year.  so why is your name music girl? is that what you’re studying?
musicgirl: i’m studying elementary education.  i want to be a teacher.  but i also play guitar in a band with two of my friends.  we play shows at this coffee shop sometimes.
gjd76: that’s so cool!  i’m studying math.  and i don’t play an instrument, but i sing
musicgirl: math was never my best subject.  i’d need you to tutor me ;)
gjd76: i could do that :) what do you look like?
musicgirl: 5’9”, brown hair, blue eyes, slim.  what about you?
gjd76: cute :) brown hair and blue eyes, i like that combination… i’m 6’4” with dark brown hair, almost black, and brown eyes
musicgirl: nice! i love tall guys!  a lot of guys think i’m too tall.
gjd76: good :) do you have a boyfriend?
musicgirl: no, i’m single.  you?
gjd76: no girlfriend for me.  and all the guys are missing out, you seem really nice
musicgirl: thanks! you do too… and tall, dark, and handsome :)
gjd76: if i were there, i’d probably want to get to know you better :)
musicgirl: i’d want to get to know you too!
gjd76: what’s your name?
musicgirl: Laura.  you?
gjd76: greg.  nice to meet you :)
musicgirl: nice to meet you too!
gjd76: laura, if i asked you to dinner, would you go out with me?
musicgirl: of course!
gjd76: then afterward we’d go for a walk… and i’d try to hold your hand… is that ok?
musicgirl! yes! i would love that! i love holding hands :)
gjd76: me too :) so when we got back to my apartment… would you like to come in?
musicgirl! yes… i look into your eyes and smile :)
gjd76: i put my arm around you and pull you close and kiss you
musicgirl: mmm… i kiss you back passionately
gjd76: i pull you closer and kiss you again… i take your hand and take you to my bed
musicgirl: i lie down and pull you close and kiss you again and pull my body close to yours

The rest of the conversation went… well.  I don’t need to share the details.  After we finished, Laura said it was late, and she needed to go to bed.  I did too; I had a final in the morning.  But I was so aroused after my dirty conversation with Laura that I needed to finish myself before bed.  And when I did finally get to bed, I lay there awake for almost three hours, feeling guilty about what I had done.  I liked it.  Laura seemed nice, and it felt good.  But afterward, it felt wrong.  I was Catholic, and I was not supposed to be lusting after women like this.

By about 1:30 in the morning, I had to pee.  On the way back to my bed, I saw the piggy bank for our sister church in El Salvador.  I had a pile of change on my desk, close to two dollars.  I put it all in the piggy bank, then turned out the light and went back to bed.  If I was going to be misbehaving like this, I could at least do something to help out the less fortunate in El Salvador.  Maybe that would make up for it.

My physics and math finals were pretty easy.  Laura had emailed me back Monday night; I was afraid that she was going to say I was out of line for our sexually explicit conversation on Sunday, but instead she said I was a total sweetheart and she could not wait to hear back from me.  I wrote back telling her about my finals, and she replied while I was at school today, saying that she would be on IRC tonight.  But when I got there, in the late afternoon, she was not on.  I checked again after dinner, but I never saw Laura in the chat.  I wanted to talk to Laura and continue where we left off the other night.  But she never got on.  After about half an hour of frustration, I walked away from the computer and fantasized about Laura the same way I had Sunday night, leaving me burdened with guilt and a mess to clean up.  After I was done, I put another handful of change in the piggy bank for the church in El Salvador.

What was I doing with my life?  This could not possibly be healthy.  It probably would not help me find a girlfriend in real life.  I checked my email.  I had two messages from Mindy Jo, my friend in Georgia whom I had met on this same IRC channel last year.  Back in 1995, there were no hashtags and no social media, and viral posts spread through chain emails that people forwarded to all of their friends.  Mindy Jo’s first message was one of these chain emails; I had to scroll down for a while, because these forwarded emails would start with pages and pages of headers, containing dates and recipients of the message as it had been sent from person to person.  I scrolled down and saw light bulb jokes about different college majors.

How many psychology majors does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the bulb has to want to change.

How many French majors does it take to change a light bulb?
Un.

How many philosophy majors does it take to change a light bulb?
What does it really mean to change a light bulb anyway?

How many aerospace engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one.  Come on, it’s not rocket science.

I laughed loudly at that one, thinking of Sabrina being an aerospace engineer.  Maybe I could tell her that joke someday (I did), and she would think that it was so funny that she would leave her boyfriend and fall in love with me instead (she didn’t).

After I read the rest of the light bulb jokes, I read Mindy Jo’s other email.  In the last email I sent to her, I mentioned the time we had spoken on the phone and asked if I could ever call her again sometime.  She said in this reply that I could call tonight or tomorrow night, and that she would be up until at least midnight.  I looked at the phone, and at the clock; it was still well before midnight in Georgia.  I dialed Mindy Jo’s number and waited nervously as I heard ringing.

“Hello?” a tired voice said.

“Mindy Jo?  It’s Greg.”

“Hey!  How’re you doin’?”

“Not that great.  I dope I dint’ wake you up; you said I could call until midnight.”

“You’re fine.  I wasn’t sleepin’.”

“That’s good.”

“What’s wrong?  Why aren’t you doin’ great?”

“I’ve just been discouraged and frustrated about being alone.”

“You haven’t met a nice girl yet?”

“Most of the girls I really like are taken.  It happened again just the other day; I was talking to a cute girl I know from church, and she said something about her boyfriend.”

“I hate when that happens.  I had a crush on this guy freshman year, and I was about to tell him that I liked him when he said he was going to go see his girlfriend.”

“Exactly.  And I don’t really know how to ask a girl out.”  I did not tell Mindy Jo anything about my shame I was feeling about masturbating; she did not need to hear that.

“Just relax and be yourself.  Ask her to have lunch, or get a coffee, or something.  Wait, you don’t drink coffee, right?  You can get tea.  Or hot chocolate.”

“I don’t know.  It’s just all so confusing.”

“I wish you could just relax and not worry about this.  You’re a really great guy.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “It doesn’t always feel like it.”

“Promise me you’ll try to keep your chin up.”

“I’m trying,” I said.  “How have you been?”

“Well… this week has been interestin’.”

“How so?”

“Well… I was at the bar on Saturday, and I ran into this guy that I had a class with sophomore year.  We just got to talkin’ for awhile… and he said some nice things about me… and I don’t know if it was the alcohol or what, but he came over and… yeah.”

Came over and what?  I was confused.  I was missing something… Wait.  Was Mindy Jo trying to tell me that they had sex?  Would she do something like that, have sex with an acquaintance she picked up in a bar?  “At least I used a condom,” Mindy Jo continued, which answered my question.

“Hmm,” I replied, not sure what else to say.

“I need to get another AIDS test,” Mindy Jo continued.  “This is, umm, four guys now since last time.  And I didn’t always use a condom.”

I was still not sure how to reply to any of this.  “What do you have to do for that?”

“They just take blood.  I don’t like needles, though.”

“Well, I hope you’re okay.”

“Thanks.”

Mindy Jo and I talked for about another twenty minutes, mostly about other things.  We talked about our respective experiences with finals and our holiday plans.  When we were done talking, I was still feeling ashamed of myself from earlier, so instead of getting back on IRC I studied for my chemistry final that was coming up Friday morning.  This whole concept of having to get an AIDS test had never really intersected my reality at any point.  I knew all about AIDS, of course; I had taken health class in high school.  But I tended to associate it with lifestyles such as heavy drug use and extreme promiscuity, not the kinds of things I associated with my friends.   I did not know that Mindy Jo had been with so many guys, and I was unsure of what to do with this information.

But I had no right to be so judgmental.  My conversation with Laura on Sunday night proved that; I had slept with someone I barely knew, just like Mindy Jo had.  Of course, Mindy Jo’s tryst had been in real life, whereas Laura and I were ultimately just fantasizing, talking in a chat room.  And was that wrong?  I was not sure.  I felt conflicted, and I felt ashamed because of it.

A month later, when I turned in my piggy bank for the church in El Salvador, I handed it to Sister Mary Rose, and by then it had become heavy enough with coins representing my shame and penance that she had a visible reaction to its unexpected weight.  “It’s mostly pennies,” I lied.  If I was not already going to hell for my lustful behavior, certainly lying to a nun would not help my case any.

Mindy Jo told me a while later that her AIDS test came back negative, thankfully.  I just did not understand the way that many young people lived these days.  None of it made sense to me.  By not doing drugs and not having sex, I never had to worry about things like getting AIDS, or using contraceptives, or getting someone pregnant with a child I was not ready to raise.  Drugs had no appeal to me.  But why did I feel like I wanted sex so much?  Someday, hopefully, I would be married, and having sex with my wife would not feel shameful.  None of this made any sense, and I wondered if the reason girls did not like me was because I did not understand how to live like a reckless college student.  I eventually drifted off to sleep, my head full of some mix of shame and conflict.

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.  My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments.  It was a Tuesday morning.  About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today.  A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City.  Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible.  After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.

My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

A few of my classmates gasped.  This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected.  O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend.  For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy.  All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted.  To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.

When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building.  A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad.  A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore.  A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk.  Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.

Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything.  Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “Thanks for signing up to work today.”

“No problem,” I said.  “So what do I do?  Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”

“Yes.  Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets.  “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”

“I can do that,” I said.  I looked through one of the pamphlets.  It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman.  The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.

A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign.  “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Can I help you?”

“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.

“We are the Newman Center.  We are a Catholic student community.  We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”

I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it.  I was curious what made him stop at our table.  Does he come from a Catholic background?  Is he just interested in Catholicism?  Was he just being friendly?  I did not ask.  I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.

“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.

“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.

“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

“No.  I have physics lab at 2.  I had chemistry lab this morning.”

“Two labs on the same day.”

“Yeah.  That’s all I have today.  This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict.  I thought that was kind of funny.”

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

“Yeah.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely.  I’m just sick of hearing about it.”

“I know what you mean.”

Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair.  “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet.  “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages.  “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”

“There is also St. John’s.  They are a more traditional Catholic parish.  The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Would you like to sign up for our contact list?  We can send you more information.”

“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Have a great day.”

“You too!”

“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off.  “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”

“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing.  I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”

“Good for you!  I think you’ll love it.”

“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people.  But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo.  And I need to get more involved in things.  I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”

“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice?  You two know each other besides just church, right?”

“Yes.  She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”

“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”

“Thank you.”

The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road.  I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th.  I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.

“Greg!” Danielle called out.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.

“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater.  I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well.  “Danielle told me you would be coming.  We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week.  Grab a songbook.”

I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass.  I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones.  He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home.  He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.

There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble.  The others introduced themselves to Phil and me.  There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina.  An olive-skinned girl named Heather.  A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together.  And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students.  Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past.  Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.

Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass.  Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings.  In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together.  The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service.  When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics.  The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.

The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts.  For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing.  Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman.  “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.”  “We used to sing it at my church back home.”

“Mine too,” Danielle replied.  “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”

After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” she asked.  “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas.  Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this.  Was she stalking me?  Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?

“I do too.  Might you be interested in carpooling?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of.  Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary. 

“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number.  And my apartment number.”

“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays?  Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”

“Sure.  We can do Sundays too.”  Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me.  Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239.  I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.

“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked.  “Want me to drive?”

“Sure!”

The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass.  I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.

“Hey,” I said after opening the door.  “You ready?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Which car is yours?”

“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment.  “Well, technically not mine.  My parents own it.  You know.”

“Yeah.”  As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from?  Are your parents around here?”

“No.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  How far is that from here?”

“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”

“That’s not bad.  I’m from down south, near San Angelo.  On a good day it takes six hours.”

“Sounds right.  What year are you, and what are you studying?”

“I’m a junior.  Psych major.  And you’re a sophomore?  Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”

“Yeah.  She lived one door down across the hall from me.  And I’m a math major.”

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

“I’m sure they do.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, but it was boring.  Went for a bike ride yesterday.”  I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.

“That sounds nice,” Heather said.  “Mel and I were at a party on Friday.  It was, well, interesting.  You know.”

“Mel?”

“Melanie.  From choir.  You met her on Wednesday.”

“Oh, okay.  I still don’t know everyone.”

When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty.  The early service had left already.  We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music.  Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived.  “You ready?”

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be.  Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat.  You’ll be fine.”

Danielle was right.  I just sang, and it was fine.  We sounded good.  There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be.  The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song.  Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.

“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Great!  I’ll see you Wednesday then.”

“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather.  She was talking to Melanie.  After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.

I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely.  With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year.  That meant it was time to get involved in more activities.  With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.

After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor.  Songs get stuck in my head easily.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says.  Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord.  Maybe he finally heard me.  Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends.  And in the process, I was serving my community.  Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.