August 10, 1996. One thousand red roses would not be quite enough.

I did not grow up attending concerts, and I do not know why, considering how I have always loved listening to music.  I just assumed that going to concerts was something that rich people did, or adults who had cars to drive to wherever the bands played.  My parents went to concerts; Dad saw the Grateful Dead many times, and my parents went together to see bands of their generation who were still touring, like Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  

The University of Jeromeville hosts a large open house festival event called the Spring Picnic every April.  In the days leading up to the Spring Picnic freshman year, I heard people talking about a band called Lawsuit that would be playing there.  I listened to their show, and I was blown away.  I had never heard music like this before.  Lawsuit had ten members: in addition to the usual vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, they also had a second drummer who played congas and bongos, and several horn players.  Many of the members of Lawsuit grew up in Jeromeville, and they had a bit of a following locally.

After I watched Lawsuit at the following Spring Picnic, sophomore year, I signed up for their mailing list.  That was a little over three months ago, and I had been getting postcards and emails about upcoming shows.  One of the flyers a few months ago mentioned something called One Thousand Red Roses, a benefit concert to raise money for the Art Center in Jeromeville.  I had no strong feelings either way about the Art Center, but I did have strong feelings about seeing Lawsuit, especially since the show was on a Saturday after a week when I had absolutely no plans.  I went out and bought a ticket as soon as they were on sale.

As the show approached, it was difficult to hide my excitement and anticipation.  Two days before the show, I was at Bible study, and as people were arriving, someone made small talk by asking what everyone was doing for the weekend.

“I’m going to see Lawsuit!” I exclaimed.

“Lawsuit, the band?” Amelia Dye asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve seen them at the last two Spring Picnics, and I really like them.”

“I’ve heard them before.  Scott has their album.”

“I remember that.  We were talking about Lawsuit at that party at your house.”

“They’re good,” Ramon Quintero said.  “I saw them at the Spring Picnic once.”

“Who’s Lawsuit?” Tabitha Sasaki asked.

“A local band,” I explained.  “Their music is… well, hard to describe.  It’s like rock with horns.  But not really.  Kind of like jazz sometimes too.  And reggae.”

“Interesting.  Have fun!”


On the corner of Coventry Boulevard and G Street, adjacent to the large park where I had watched fireworks on July 4, stood a small building called the C.J. Davis Art Center.  In this building, named for a local philanthropist who was instrumental in its founding, children and adults took classes in various forms of art, music, and dance.  Among those heavily involved in the local arts scene in Jeromeville was the Sykes family, and the siblings, siblings-in-law, and cousins of this large family included several members of Lawsuit.  The band put on a concert every summer, called One Thousand Red Roses, on a temporary stage in the parking lot of the Art Center, to raise money for it.

Although I knew from reading the CD booklet and the band’s website that some of the members of Lawsuit were related, I learned much more about the Sykes family from a tragic occurrence a few months ago, when a Sykes sibling not in the band died in a car accident.  The obituary in the Jeromeville Bulletin local newspaper mentioned much about the family’s philanthropic and artistic endeavors, including Lawsuit.

The show began at eight o’clock; I left my apartment at 7:15, since I did not know what to expect in terms of crowds.  I also walked, since I did not know how hard it would be to find a place to park, and the Art Center was only about a mile from my apartment.  The weather had been warm, but it was just starting to cool off as the sun sank lower in the sky.  I was sweating a little as I arrived at the Art Center, but if this concert was similar to Lawsuit’s performances at the Spring Picnic, I expected to get sweaty as the night went on, with people standing and moving around to the music.

A temporary fence around the parking lot had been installed so that only ticketed guests could see the stage.  I handed my ticket to the person at the door and walked inside.  About a hundred guests were already mingling about the floor in front of the stage; there were no seats, as I suspected.  Roadies were setting up the stage, which was already full of guitars, drums, horns, microphones, amplifiers, lights, and speakers.  The back of the stage appeared to be a chain link fence, decorated with banners and road signs.  A large fan blew air across the stage, probably to keep the band cool on the warm Jeromeville night surrounded by hot equipment.

Since I still had time before the show started, I walked over to the merchandise table and looked at the band’s t-shirts.  Most of them had the band’s name accompanied by some sort of random drawing, which apparently had some significance that I was not aware of.  I pointed to one shirt, light gray, with a drawing on the front of a surprised-looking man with his hat falling off.  On the back was the name of the band, LAWSUIT, accompanied by a collage of newspaper headlines containing the word “lawsuit.”  That was clever.  “Do you have that one in an extra large?” I asked.

“Let me check,” the man behind the table replied.  He turned around, looking through boxes, for about a minute, then turned back toward me.  “We’re out of that one in extra large,” he said.  “We have some of the others in extra large.  And I know we’re getting a new shipment in soon, so if you want to pay for it now, and leave your name and address, we can mail it to you.”

“That’ll work,” I said, a little disappointed but hopeful that the shirt would arrive soon.  He got out a spiral notebook and wrote “Gray Headline Shirt XL” and handed it to me.  I wrote my name and address and handed it back to him along with the money.

I looked back toward the stage, where instruments were being tuned and amplifiers were being connected.  I was not sure if the people on stage were band members or crew, since I did not recognize all of the band members by face.  I would have recognized Paul Sykes, the lead singer, from the two other times I saw them play live, but he was not currently on stage.

By the time eight o’clock approached, the crowd had grown in size considerably, as several hundred people and their alcoholic beverages packed into that fenced-off parking lot.  I was starting to feel a little bit crowded by the people around me on all sides.  Eventually, about fifteen minutes after the show was scheduled to start, a master of ceremonies walked on stage and gave a short speech about the C.J. Davis Art Center, its importance in the community, and the generosity of the Sykes family.  He finished his speech by announcing, “The name of this band is Lawsuit!”

The crowd began cheering wildly; I joined in, clapping.  The ten members ran up the stairs on the side of the stage, one by one, and took their positions, getting their instruments ready.  They began the show the same way they did when I saw them in April at the Spring Picnic, by playing the music from the song “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang, with Paul rapping, his lyrics fast enough to be barely intelligible to me.  After Paul rapped about Lawsuit not being a rap band, the hand drummer began playing a faster rhythm, and the rest of the band segued into a song of their own called “Thank God You’re Doing Fine.”  This had been the first Lawsuit song I ever heard when I saw them at the Spring Picnic freshman year, and to this day it is still my favorite song of theirs.  Toward the end of the song, I started mouthing some of the words: “When it comes to the end of the world, you’ve got only one thing left to do, and that’s thank God, thank God you’re doing fine.”  I had heard the song dozens, if not hundreds, of times by then, and it just occurred to me in that moment that Lawsuit may have been making an intentional allusion to R.E.M., who famously sang nine years earlier that “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

About half an hour into the show, I realized that I only knew about half the songs they were playing.  Lawsuit had five albums, and I only had the two most recent ones.  I did not know if the unfamiliar songs they played were from older albums, or originally by other artists, or new songs they had written but not recorded yet.  Some of the unfamiliar songs sounded delightfully catchy, whereas others were just strange.  One of the songs was about a couch, told from the first-person perspective of the couch.  The crowd’s enthusiastically positive reaction to hearing that song made me feel somewhat like the song was a big inside joke, and I was the only person there who was not in on it.

Midway through the show, as one song entered, Paul and another band member began bantering about the daytime TV drama Days Of Our Lives, and a few of the instrumentalists played the beginning of the show’s theme song.  Yet another inside joke I was not part of, I supposed; I associated Days Of Our Lives with old women and housewives, not the kind of people who were in one of the coolest bands ever.  After that, they transitioned into an uptempo song about a girl who had an ugly butt.  I laughed out loud when I heard them say that the first time.  This band was amazing.  They had everything… they had songs that sounded like regular pop-rock, songs that sounded more like punk with horns, songs that had more of a jazz-swing beat… and songs about an ugly butt.  Why did this band not get more attention in the mainstream?  Sometimes, their monthly postcards with information about upcoming shows said at the bottom, “Don’t forget to bug your radio stations!”  This band was better than a lot of stuff on the radio.

After the song about the ugly butt, one of the horn players apologized to anyone who actually had an ugly butt who might have been offended by that song. Then another of the horn players, I think she was Paul’s sister, or maybe sister-in-law, sang the first verse of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” as a segue into “Useless Flowers,” a song of theirs that I knew well with Paul back on vocals.  The last line of Useless Flowers was “All the money I failed to make can’t buy me love,” with those last four words sung and played on the exact same notes, in the exact same rhythm, as the classic Beatles song of that title.  I always thought that was a clever reference.

The concert continued for what seemed like a blissful eternity.  The other two times I had seen Lawsuit in person were at the Spring Picnic, where bands only played for around 40 minutes before clearing the stage to prepare for the next band playing.  But this show was all Lawsuit, and it lasted for over two hours.  As much as I enjoyed the two hours of music, though, this long concert carried a downside: the people around me became progressively more drunk, raucous, and clumsy as the night went on.  I was just standing there, trying to enjoy the music, and I got bumped by the people around me numerous times.  I had moved progressively farther from the stage as the night went on, as I got jostled and crowded out of my spot, and someone’s spilled beer had splashed on my shirt.  And although the weather cooled somewhat after the sun went down, the stage area still radiated with the body heat of hundreds of concertgoers, and I still felt a little sticky and sweaty.

Toward the end of the night, Paul sang and the band performed a song where the character in the song was trying to convince a girl of his desirability, punctuated by the more direct phrase “let’s go to bed.”  This prompted cheers from the drunks around me.  After that song ended, Paul gestured for everyone to get quiet.  After about ten seconds of silence, he looked upward, as if toward heaven, and shouted into the microphone, “Hey, Dave!  This one’s for you!”  That was nice, I thought, a fitting tribute to his brother who had died in the accident.  Then, as the band began playing “Picture Book Pretty,” a song I knew from one of their albums I had, I wondered how such a loud shout was legal, considering that Jeromeville had strict laws about loud parties.  Maybe the law didn’t apply to events put on by those who were well-connected locally, like the Sykeses.  The title of this annual benefit concert came from a line from this song: “One thousand red roses would not be quite enough, ‘cause she’s picture book pretty.”  The album version of the song said “one dozen red roses,” but they always changed it to “one thousand” in live performances.

After Picture Book Pretty ended, Paul said, “Thank you so much!  Don’t forget to support local arts and music!  We have a mailing list and merchandise at that table in the back.”  As he pointed toward the merchandise table, he continued, “Thank you, and good night!”  The band began filing off the stage as the crowd cheered loudly.  I started to step backward away from the stage to head home when I noticed that no one else was leaving; everyone just kept cheering loudly.  I wondered if they knew that something more would happen after the last song.  This felt like another of those moments where the band and most of the others here were in on some inside joke that I was not aware of.

Of course, this was not some Lawsuit inside joke; the crowd wanted an encore.  It was standard practice at the end of a concert like this to cheer loudly until the band came back out to play another song or two.  But I had never been to an actual concert, so I knew none of this.  The band did come back out after about two minutes; the drums, bass, and horns began playing a low, quick, repetitive melody.  Paul began rapping atonally about Albert Einstein, combining historical facts about Einstein’s life with whimsical comments about his hair and silly statements about Einstein playing football and baseball.  This was a strange song.  They followed this with one more song that I did not recognize and ended the show for real this time.

The people around me mingled and talked, and some headed toward the merchandise table.  I noticed some of the band members walking around talking to fans.  That would be fun, to meet the band.  I looked around to see if Paul was anywhere nearby, and I saw him talking to a few other people in front of the stage.  I worked my way over to where Paul was standing and politely waited my turn.  After a few minutes, the people in front of me left, and Paul turned to me.  “Hi, there!” Paul said.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a flyer about upcoming shows that I had taken from the merchandise table before the show started, along with a black ballpoint pen that I carried around in my pocket sometimes.  “May I have your autograph?” I asked.

“Sure!” Paul replied, smiling.  He took the flyer and pen, turned the flyer to the blank side, and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Greg,” I said.

Paul began writing.  “G-R-E-G?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

Paul scribbled a few things on the paper and handed it back to me.  “Here you go.”

“Thanks so much,” I said.  “It was a great show.  I had fun.”

“Thanks!  I hope to see you at another one soon.”

“I will!”

I stepped away as Paul turned to talk to other people waiting for him.  I looked at the back of my flyer to see what he wrote:


To Greg-
Have fun!

Love,
Paul Sykes


The name on the bottom was barely legible, like most celebrity signatures.  But I know who it was and where I got it.  Later that night, when I got home, I retired the pen Paul touched and never used it again, keeping the pen and autographed flyer in a box so that I could remember the time I saw Lawsuit live and met Paul Sykes.

I looked around and noticed that some people had begun trickling out of the gated stage area, headed home as well, while others were still standing around with their friends.  I had met Paul, I had no other accomplishments to complete that night, so I began walking toward the gate.

In keeping with the One Thousand Red Roses theme, someone stood at the gate and handed a long-stemmed red rose to everyone leaving the show.  I took mine and walked back down Coventry Boulevard toward my apartment, on an excited high from the amazing live music I saw that night.  The walk home took about fifteen minutes, and it was mostly quiet and peaceful, since the people leaving the concert were dispersing in multiple directions.  It was around eleven at night, and a cool breeze had picked up, cool enough that I would not normally be outside wearing shorts in this temperature.  I was not uncomfortable, though, because at the concert I was surrounded by other sweaty people, and now I was moving, expending energy to walk back to my apartment.

I unlocked the door and took off my shirt, which smelled of sweat and other people’s beer, and put on a new shirt. Then I walked to the kitchen.  I was not sure what to do with a cut rose.  I had seen people put flowers in vases of water.  I was not classy enough to have a vase, particularly since I pronounced vase to rhyme with “base,” not like “vozz.”  I found an empty 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola in the box I used to hold recyclables, rinsed it out, filled it water to make a makeshift vase, and put the rose inside.  I then sat down at the computer, because it was not particularly late and I was used to staying awake much later than this.  I typed an email to a girl in New Zealand whom I had met on the Internet recently, replying to her email about classes and telling her about the concert.

Paul had told me that he hoped to see me at a show again soon.  I hoped to go to a show again soon.  Lawsuit played all up and down the state, but they played in this area fairly often.  They also played in Bay City frequently, still within a day trip distance.  I would definitely be watching the monthly flyers I got in the mail for shows I might be able to go to.  And I would tell people about this band.  Once that t-shirt I bought tonight came back in stock, I would wear it around campus and to class and to the grocery store, so I could tell people about Lawsuit, and be identified as a Lawsuit fan to any other Lawsuit fans I might meet.  That plan did not get off the ground as I had hoped, for reasons including the t-shirt taking two months to finally arrive.  But I tried.  I had already told one person on the other side of the globe about this band, so that counts for something, and Lawsuit is still in my music collection and playlists today.


Author’s note: Sorry this was a day late!

July 12, 1996. Thinking about the future.

Everyone has those experiences of seeing a familiar face in an unexpected place or situation, and usually, such a moment turns out to be awkward.  Kids see their teachers grocery shopping and freak out, because it never occurred to them that teachers eat like normal humans and do not live at school.  In 1996, Kevin Johnson was playing basketball for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and in 2007, I saw him ordering at Chipotle, but I was too afraid to say anything.

I had one of those moments one Friday afternoon in the summer of 1996, when I was taking Computer Science 40, Introduction to Software, at the University of Jeromeville.  It was five o’clock, and I was still wearing the same old pair of shorts that I used for pajamas.  I had no class on Fridays, so I had not showered today.  I spent the morning in an IRC chat talking to a girl on the other side of the country, then I had worked on homework for a while, then I read a few chapters of a book for fun, and now I was going to go for a bike ride.  I put on a pair of real shorts and walked my bike out to the parking lot.  I looked up and saw Joe White.  “Hey,” I said.

Wait a minute.  Joe White, the teacher’s assistant for my computer class, does not live at Las Casas Apartments.  Or does he?  I had never seen him around here before.  He appeared to have just gotten out of the pool, and he was holding hands with a girl in a black bikini whom I had seen around the complex.

“Hi, Greg,” Joe said.  “You live here?”

“Yeah.”

“My girlfriend lives here.  It seems like a pretty nice place.”

“It is.  I like it.”

“How are you?  You seem to be doing really well in class so far.”

“I’m good.  I tend to figure out computers pretty easily.”

“Are you a CS major?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m a math major.”

“Do you need CS 40 for the math major?”

“No, but I needed 30.  And 110 counts in place of math units toward the major.  I’ve always liked computers, I want to learn more about programming, and 40 is a prerequisite for 110.”

“That makes sense.  Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, you were in Math 145 last quarter with Dr. Thomas, right?”

“Yeah.  Were you in that class?”

“Yes.  I’ve been wondering if all the math professors at Jeromeville are as bad as Gabby Thomas, or if that was just her teaching style.”

This comment caught me completely off guard, since Gabby Thomas had been my favorite math professor so far, and I was not sure what it was that Joe found so abhorrent about her teaching style.  I liked her class.  Not wanting to debate this, I simply said, “Every professor is different.  I’ve had good and bad experiences.”

“That makes sense,” Joe said as I nodded.  He continued, “So what do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not really sure,” I explained.  “Math is just what I’m good at.  I’ll probably just stay here and go to grad school.”

“A Ph.D. from Jeromeville doesn’t really mean much if you’re going to be a serious academic.  But if your math grades are anything like how you’re doing in CS so far, you could probably get into a really prestigious program.”

“Hmm,” I said, nodding.

“I should get going,” Joe said.  “Enjoy your ride, and I’ll see you in class.”

“Thanks!  Have a good weekend!”

I pedaled out toward Andrews Road and headed south toward campus, thinking about what Joe had said.  It had never crossed my mind how degrees from different universities with different levels of prestige might affect future employment opportunities.  As a kid, I just went to whatever school was in my neighborhood; I never had to consider the school’s prestige, reputation, or history.  Apparently, a career in academia was a bit more complicated.  It also rubbed me the wrong way that Joe seemed to have a very low opinion of the University of Jeromeville.  He thought my favorite professor was awful, and that an advanced degree from here was worthless.  If he thought so lowly of UJ, why was he getting his degree here?  For all I know, maybe he did not get accepted anywhere else.

I rode my bike past the North Residential Area and Thong Bikini Hill, which was full of sunbathers and swimmers today, to the oak grove at the west end of the Arboretum.  I continued along the path on the south bank of the creek for the entire length of the Arboretum, emerging downtown on First Street.  I turned right on Cornell Boulevard, crossing under the railroad tracks near Murder Burger and then over Highway 100.  Another trail followed the dry creek bed on this side of the highway; I worked my way to this trail and followed it east to where it ended.  The grasses between the trail and the dry creek bed had turned brown in the dry summer heat, but the trees lining the trail were full of green leaves.

At the end of the trail, I turned around and headed back to the west, until I got to the greenbelt that led to the park at the end of Baron Court, where I turned right, away from the creek.  In May, I had been playing disc golf in this Greenbelt as part of the Man of Steel competition, an annual event among the men of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship involving disc golf, an eating contest, and poker.  I was looking forward to next year, hoping that I would not finish close to last place for a second time in a row.

As I pedaled past trees and a small playground, I got an idea.  Although I lived alone at Las Casas, part of the reason I chose that apartment was because thirteen of my friends from freshman year lived within a short walk of me.  I occasionally walked to one of their apartments just to visit.  During sophomore year, I got involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and two households full of my new JCF friends lived on Baron Court.  What if I dropped in on them just to say hi the same way I did for my friends who lived near me?

I stopped my bike in front of the closer of the two houses and walked it up to the door, nervously.  During the school year, Haley, Kristina, Kelly, and Jeanette lived here, with two other girls whom I did not know as well.  I was not sure who would be here today, except that I knew that Haley would not, since she went home for the summer.

I took a deep breath and looked back out toward the street, contemplating getting back on my bike and going home.  This was a bad idea.  Maybe none of my friends would be here.  Maybe they had other roommates in the summer who did not know me; what would I say if one of them answered the door?  Which roommate was I looking for?  Would it be weird to say that I knew multiple girls who lived here and I just dropped by to say hi to whomever was home?  Why was I even here?  If I was looking for a chance to talk to Haley, she was not in Jeromeville, so that would not happen.  I knocked on the door before I could talk myself out of this.  The thirty seconds that I waited for a response felt like several minutes as I played out all the scenarios in my head.

Kelly answered, wearing a t-shirt and running shorts.  “Greg!” she said.  “Hi!  What’s up?”

“Nothing,” I explained.  “I was just out on a bike ride, out your way, and just wanted to say hi if anyone I knew was home.”

“Come on in!  I’m the only one here right now.  You want some water?”

“Sure.  And I’m sorry that I’m all sweaty.”

“It’s fine,” Kelly said, walking toward the kitchen.  I followed her.  “I just got back from a run a little while ago, and I haven’t showered yet.”  As Kelly got a glass out of the cupboard and filled it from a pitcher in the refrigerator, I noticed something frying in a pan on the stove.  “I’m making a hamburger,” Kelly explained, handing me the glass of water.

“I see,” I said, drinking about half the water in my first sip.  “How’s your summer going?”

“Pretty good.  Two classes during a summer session is a lot of work, though.  But I’m keeping up with it.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a lot of work.  I’m only taking one class, and that’s a lot of work by itself.”

“Which class?”

“Computer Science 40.  Intro to Software.”

“That does sound like a lot of work,” Kelly said, chuckling.  “What are you learning about?  Intro to software, like making your own?  I’m not really a computer person.”

“Yeah.  We’re programming in C, which is a structured programming language.  A lot of more entry-level programming classes use languages that are simpler for humans to understand, but a lot less powerful.  Like last quarter in CS 30, when we learned programming in Pascal.”

“I see.”

“I don’t like working in the computer lab in the basement of Kent Hall, though.  I work better from home, with music playing and stuff.  But I have to be connected to the computers in Kent, and I don’t want to tie up the phone line.  So I’ll dial in around 10 at night, and stay up late getting my work done, and it works out because I don’t have to be up early in the morning.”

“That makes sense.”

“And I’ve trained myself to sleep in a little.  I don’t usually sleep in very well.”

“I… have the opposite problem,” Kelly said, chuckling.  “I sleep through my early morning classes.”

“I’ve found that most people do have the opposite problem.”

Kelly flipped over the hamburger patty with a spatula.  “So what else have you been doing this summer?  Did you go home at all?”

“Yeah.  The week in between spring quarter and summer session.  My brother and I turned all of our silly inside jokes into a board game.”

“That sounds fun!  How old is your brother?”

“Fourteen.  He starts high school this year.”

“Oh!  I was picturing older.  Is it just the two of you?”

“Yeah.  What about you?”

“I have an older sister.  She’s in grad school in California.”

“Nice,” I said.  “That’s about it for my summer.  I’ve just been going to my class, and going for a lot of bike rides, and going to the Bible study on Thursdays at Lillian’s– Oh!  And I mailed off my payment for Urbana!  I’m going, for sure!”

“That’s exciting!  I’ve heard such great things about Urbana!  I really wish I could go.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked, hoping it was not too personal of a question.

“Did I tell you what I was doing next year?”

“I don’t think you did.”  I hoped that I had not disrespectfully forgotten some key piece of information that Kelly had told me before.  I first wondered if she could not afford the trip to Urbana, then I wondered if she was going on a mission trip, the kind of thing I would learn more about at Urbana, like what Taylor and Pete and Charlie were doing in Morocco or Xander was doing in India right now.  Neither one was correct.

“I’m going to Hungary,” Kelly said.  “To study abroad.”

“Oh!” I said.  “That’ll be exciting!”

“Yeah.  I always wanted to study abroad.  I wanted to be an exchange student in high school, but it never worked out.  This time, the opportunity did work out.”

“When do you leave?”

“After first summer session ends, I’m going to go home for a little over a week.  I leave in the middle of August.”

“Will you have email?  Or is there an address I can write you?”

“Yeah!  I don’t think I’ll have email, but I’m keeping an address book so I can write to people.  I’ll send you my address once I get there.  Lemme go get it.”  Kelly left the kitchen and came back a minute later with the address book; she turned to the page for the letter D and said, “Will you be at the same place next year?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ll give you my new address.”  I wrote in the address book, Greg Dennison, 2601 Maple Dr. #K-5, Jeromeville (after Sept. 1).

“Who did you say you were living with next year?”

Shawn Yang, Brian Burr, and Josh McGraw.”

“So this is Brian’s address too?  I’d been meaning to get his address.”

“Yes!  And I will definitely write you.”

“Great!”  Kelly turned off the stove and put her hamburger on a bun, which she had on a plate.

“I should probably let you eat that,” I said.  “I need to get home.”

“Yeah, I need to eat and then get in the shower.  But thanks for stopping by!”

“Yeah!  Good luck with the rest of your classes!”

“Thanks!  You too!”

I left Kelly’s house and rode down Baron Court.  I thought about stopping by the house down the street where a bunch of guys I knew lived, but at this point I was ready to get home and make something to eat, so I did not stop.  Kelly’s hamburger smelled good.

I turned right on Valdez and right again at Cornell Boulevard.  I saw tractors and backhoes on the other side of Cornell from me; I had read that a shopping center was being built here.  Shopping centers always brought controversy in Jeromeville.  The city was run by aging hippies who fought tooth and nail to keep the city feeling like the small town it was forty years ago, in complete denial of the population growth brought on by the large and growing university adjacent to the city.  The construction of a shopping center always renewed debate about what kind of stores belonged in a proper small town like Jeromeville.  I thought the city council should just mind their own business and let the free market decide, because this was America.

I turned left on Willard Avenue.  This was my first time on this stretch of road.  An overpass had just opened a few weeks earlier, connecting Willard Avenue with Power Line Road on the other side of Highway 100.  In typical Jeromeville fashion, the overpass was controversial; new roads would bring more traffic, which would bring more crime from other cities, according to the very shaky logic of the people who ran this city.  Currently, only two two-lane roads connected the part of Jeromeville south of 100 with the rest of the city, and horrible traffic jams plagued both of them, especially Cornell Boulevard heading into downtown.  This new overpass in between those other two was desperately needed, in the eyes of anyone who could think logically and unemotionally.

When the need for the overpass became apparent, the people planning it decided that it would be a uniquely Jeromevillian overpass, with a landscaped median full of planters with trees.  Trees on an overpass made no sense to me.  Trees grow, and trees have roots, which would crack the concrete and dangle over the freeway below.  The trees and planters also would add weight to the overpass.  As I crossed Highway 100, riding past the trees, I thought about how the local newspaper columnist Bill Dunnigan had said the same thing I did about them.  But someone thought this was a good idea, and as if not to be shown up, the city of Nueces, 15 miles west on Highway 100, built their own overpass with trees a few years later.

North of the freeway, the overpass crossed a railroad track and Second Street, then passed between two undeveloped grassy areas.  One had a pond fed by storm drains that was full for most of the year.  The city paid thousands of dollars to design a tunnel under this road so that wildlife could cross the road, a move which many pundits from other cities in the region made fun of.  A local artist built some miniature buildings called “Frogville” which he placed near one end of the tunnel.  What makes this situation even more messed up is that much of the land was paved over within a few years, and no frogs or other animals were ever seen using the tunnel.  I always said that Tunneling Frogs would make a good name for a band.  Had I done more research into the quirky left-wing hippie local politics in Jeromeville before I came to UJ for school, there is a good chance I would not have chosen UJ.  However, after making so many friends here and discovering how much I loved bike rides, Jeromeville was definitely starting to grow on me.

As I continued riding home, north on Power Line Road, west on Coventry Boulevard, and then right on G Street into the Coventry Greenbelt, I thought about that afternoon’s conversations.  Joe White had brought into question my plan to stay in school forever, with his comment about the importance of getting into a prestigious graduate program.  Kelly Graham clearly had a plan for her year in Hungary.

What was my plan?  Was I really planning on staying in school forever?  What would I do then?  I would become a mathematician, teaching college classes while doing mathematics research.  Was that what I wanted?  What were my other options?  I was pretty sure I did not want to teach middle or high school.  If I changed my major to computer science or something involving computers, I would be competing with others who were much more knowledgeable than me about computers from this decade.  I also enjoyed fiddling with computers, and I did not want something fun to turn into work.  By the time I got home, I found that I was more frustrated than I had been when I started on this ride.

I stopped at the mailboxes on my way back to the apartment and took a deep breath.  I knew that I did not have to decide my future plans right now, but it felt more urgent than it had a few hours ago.  I opened the mailbox and saw a letter from Sarah Winters.  She was at home in Ralstonville for the summer.  I went home and read the letter before I got into the shower.  In my last letter to her, I had mentioned that the weather had been uncharacteristically cool.  I had also told her about my class, my week at home, and how I needed to coordinate with Shawn and Brian and Josh about moving into the new apartment and storing my things for a few days after I moved out of this apartment.  Sarah told me that she had been in a wedding for one of her high school friends, and that she had been going to the college group at her church.  She was going to Disneyland later this month, and she would be talking to her pastor about missionary opportunities over the next couple of years.  She closed her letter saying, “I hope your plans for next year fall into place and that the sun comes out soon.  Take care!”

The sun did come out; temperatures this week had been in the 90s.  And Sarah was referring to the moving plans falling into place, but after today, I felt like I had many other plans that needed to fall into place.  I still had time to figure out my future.  Or did I?  I had been at UJ for two years, and I had made virtually no progress in choosing a career.  I would graduate in another two or three years, and it would be better to come up with a plan soon, so that I could choose the right classes.

I seemed to remember the Math Club talking about career opportunities sometimes; maybe I should pay attention to those.  Or I may end up doing something entirely different.  In December, I would be attending the convention in Urbana, Illinois, to learn about Christian mission opportunities and ways I can serve God.  Maybe I would discover an entirely new career opportunity there.  The world was not an easy place, but I was learning, and I would figure out my future when I was ready.  Things seemed scary and confusing now, but my sun would come out soon.

June 25-27, 1996. The first week of summer session.

The architecture and landscaping around the University of Jeromeville are not the old brick buildings and towering, stately trees commonly associated with universities.  The towering trees are there, in the older parts of campus, but the buildings are a mix of architectural styles.  The traditional brick Wellington Hall, the wooden shingles of Old North and South Halls, the Spanish stucco and tile of Harper Hall, and the bizarre angled concrete of the Death Star Building are all visible just from the Quad.  Some criticize the campus for its lack of architectural unity, but I always found that this gave it character.

One of the sections of campus with the least glamorous architecture was far to the southwest of the Quad, just past the engineering buildings, east of the South Residential Area.  Two prefabricated buildings, resembling the portable classrooms on most elementary and secondary school campi in this state but larger, stood surrounded by several feet of bare dirt on each side, and more interesting buildings in view nearby.  One of these buildings was divided in half, with a sign calling it “Temporary Classrooms 1 & 2,” and the other had only one door, labeled “Temporary Classroom 3.”

I parked my bike and walked into Temporary Classroom 3.  A chalkboard ran along the side of the building to the left, and about eighty chairs with the little writing desks that fold out faced the chalkboard.  The room was about half full so far, and most of the empty seats filled up by the time the instructor arrived at noon.  I assumed that this man was the instructor, at least, because he carried a binder and stack of papers to the front of the room.  He was slender, with wavy light brown hair, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, and he appeared fairly young, probably in his early thirties.  A darker-haired man of about that age, dressed more casually, had been sitting in the front of the room the whole time.  The instructor handed the other man a stack of papers, which they began passing out to the class.

“Welcome to Computer Science 40, Introduction to Software,” the instructor said.  “My name is Tom Kroger.  This,” he said, gesturing to the darker-haired man passing out papers, “is Joe White.  He will be the TA for this class, and he will lead the discussion section on Wednesday mornings.”  The syllabus was among the papers Joe White passed out, and neither of their names had the title “Dr.” in front.  I assumed that Joe White, like most teaching assistants, was a graduate student studying computer science, and I wondered, because of his youth and lack of title, if Tom Kroger was a graduate student as well.  In my department, mathematics, graduate students sometimes taught first-year classes as the actual instructor, not just the teaching assistant; perhaps computer science did the same thing, particularly during the summer session.  (I would learn later that I was correct.)

Tom spent the first part of class explaining our assignments, the grading policy, office hours, computer lab hours, and other procedural items.  We would be using the programming language C, and the textbook for the class was called C How To Program, the only textbook I ever had with a pun for a title.  An optional supplementary book taught the basics of Unix operating systems; I bought this book too, since I had little familiarity with Unix.  For the rest of the 110-minute class, Tom lectured about high-level structured programming languages and the C standard library.  While some elements are common to most programming languages, C seemed fundamentally different than the Commodore 64 BASIC programming that I taught myself at age nine, or the Pascal language that I learned last quarter in my Introduction to Programming class.

Summer session classes teach ten weeks of material in six weeks, so the class met more often during the week than classes do during the regular school year.  The class met from 12:10 to 2:00 every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, with a discussion section Wednesday morning from 10:00 to 11:50, right before the lecture.  We would have weekly projects that would be discussed at that time.  This was the only class I was taking this summer, and I had no job, so I had plenty of time to study and get work done.

After class, I went to the Memorial Union and got a slice of pepperoni pizza.  I had not packed a lunch, I just figured that I would eat when I got home, but being back on campus for the first time in almost two weeks made me want to sit back and take in the atmosphere.  I took my lunch to a table in the courtyard by the fountain that was now kept perpetually dry.  I read the Daily Colt campus newspaper as I ate.  The name was a bit misleading, since during the summer, the newspaper only published twice a week, in a smaller tabloid format only about half as long as the regular edition. 

The campus was much quieter today than I was used to, since the majority of the student population was not in class for the summer.  Those fun times last year of running into friends around campus between classes, and all the interesting conversations that happened around those encounters, probably would not happen as often this summer.  The last time I sat at this table was when Haley Channing was sitting here, and I asked if I could join her.  For a girl-crazy, socially awkward guy like me, getting to have lunch with Haley was like winning the lottery.  Of course, I embarrassed myself in front of her a few minutes later; Claire Seaver from church choir walked by, and I tried to introduce Haley and Claire, not realizing that they already knew each other.  I would have no random encounters with Haley this summer, since she was home working a summer job, 400 miles away.

 The Daily Colt still included a crossword puzzle, which I did after I was done eating.  Even though the campus was emptier than usual, I was not completely alone.  I still had choir practice at church on Wednesdays, and I was in a Bible study that started this Thursday, so I would see some of my friends then.


The discussion Wednesday morning was also in Temp 3.  It was required, and the class was not split into multiple small discussion groups, so all of the students were there.  Joe White introduced our first project.  It seemed fairly straightforward, a project designed mostly just to acquaint students with the system and the basics of coding in C.

At two o’clock, after the lecture with Tom Kroger, I went to the computer lab in the basement of Kent Hall.  It was spread out across five rooms, and being an afternoon in summer when only a few computer science classes were offered, all of them were mostly empty.  When I had come here during Intro to Programming last quarter, there were usually many more people down here.  These computers ran X Window, a graphical interface for Unix-based computers that bore a superficial resemblance to the Microsoft Windows 3.1 that I was familiar with.  I opened a text editor in a new window, where I typed my code as a text file, which I would later compile into an executable.

I stayed in the lab for about an hour working on my project, and by that time I felt comfortable with how this system worked, as well as with C in general.  I still had a lot of work to do on the project, but I had a week to do it.  I was in no hurry; I just wanted to make sure I was familiar with the computer system before it was too late.


Since many UJ students leave to spend the summer at home or get summer jobs or internships elsewhere, the Newman Center only offers two Sunday Masses during the summer instead of three.  I would learn later that many other churches in Jeromeville also decrease the number of services during the summer, for the same reason.

When I got to choir practice on Wednesday night, some familiar faces were missing, and others had taken their places.  I knew that the Coronado sisters had both gone home to Desert Ridge for the summer, and a few others, including Phil Gallo and Melanie Giordano, were absent as well.  I recognized a few people from events that the church had held, and I assumed that these new people were singers from the early morning Mass, who were combined with us now.

“Greg!” Claire said when I walked in.  “You’re here!  Are you gonna be here all summer?”

“Mostly,” I replied.  “I wasn’t here last week because I went home to see my family.  But I’m back for the summer.  At least most of it.”

“How was that?”

“It went well.  My brother and I made a silly board game out of all of our inside jokes.”

“That sounds fun!”

“It was!”

I walked over to the music stand with my copy of this week’s music.  A girl I did not know stood next to me.  She was short, with short chin-length brown hair and brown eyes.  “Hi,” I said.  “I don’t think I know you.”

“I’m Ellen.”

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

“You too.”

“Are you from the early service?” I asked, assuming that the answer would be yes.

“No,” Ellen said.  “My family goes to Mass here.  I’m going to school in San Diego, and I’m home for the summer.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

“Do you know Kevin Stark?  He’s my dad.”

“I think I know who he is.  He’s a professor of pomology, or something like that?”

“Yes!  It’s funny, that’s what everyone seems to remember about him.”

“I remember him talking about his research once.”

“Yeah, Dad always tells people he studies fruits and nuts.  Then he adds, ‘The kind that grow on trees.’”

“That’s funny,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah, but it’s less great when you hear him say it all the time.  Dumb jokes get old.”

“True.  That makes sense.  So what’s your major?”

“Marine biology.  You?”

“Math.”

“Wow.  That was never my favorite class.”

“I get that reaction a lot,” I said.

At this point, I realized that the rest of the room had become quiet and was staring at us.  “I was just saying, it’s time to get started,” Claire explained.  We mostly did familiar songs that week, so we got through choir practice relatively quickly.  Ellen had a nice voice.  I was looking forward to singing on Sunday.  While I still held out hope that something would work out with Haley eventually, I could not help but wonder if Ellen had a boyfriend.  


Thursday felt like a Friday to me, since I knew that it was my last class for the week.  With only one class this summer, I was going to have a four-day weekend every week.  I liked this schedule.  After class was over, I rode my bike into downtown Jeromeville and went to Tower Records.  After browsing the entire store, I bought the new Dave Matthews Band CD, Crash.  I listened to it as soon as I got home.

That night, after dinner, I drove to Pine Grove Apartments, about a mile to the south.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship did not have their large group meetings on Fridays during the summer, but there were two Bible studies meeting this summer, one here near campus and one on the other side of Jeromeville.  I found the apartment I was looking for and knocked on the door.  “Come in,” someone said from inside.

“Greg!” Lillian greeted as I opened the door.  Lillian was a year older than me, and she had co-led my Bible study during the school year.  Her co-leader this summer with a guy her year named Chris.  

“Hey, Greg,” Chris said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much.  Just taking a class and hanging out.”

“Which class?” Lillian asked.

“CS 40.  Intro to Software.”

“I’ve heard that’s really hard,” Chris said.  “My roommate is a CS major.  And you’re taking it in the summer, packed into six weeks?  Good luck.”

“I like it so far,” I said.

“Do you need computer science for the math major?” Lillian asked.

“CS 30 is required; I took that last quarter.  110 is optional, it counts in place of math units, and 40 is a prerequisite for 110, so I figured I would take 40 in the summer, when it’s easier to get into.  And programming is something I was always interested in.”

About five minutes after I arrived, we started with worship music as Chris played guitar and we all sang.  When it came time to begin the study, Lillian explained that we would be studying the First Epistle of John this summer.  I knew most of the people in this Bible study, after having spent most of the last school year going to JCF.  Tabitha Sasaki read the first half of the chapter out loud, and Jason Costello read the second half.  A verse that Tabitha read stuck out in my mind: “We proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”

We spent the next forty minutes or so discussing what John meant in writing these verses.  I kept thinking about that verse about proclaiming eternal life, which I was not good at.  I preferred to mind my own business when it came to telling people about my faith, this came more naturally to me, but I often worried that this was not enough.  I had friends who were good at inviting their friends to JCF; some people, including myself, had come to faith by being invited to JCF.  I had friends who were proclaiming eternal life this summer in Morocco, India, and other nations where Chrsitianity was not a dominant part of the culture.

The parent organization of JCF, Intervarsity, put on a convention every three years in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about mission trips and service opportunities.  Many of my friends were going, and I was considering going as well, although the thought of spending a few hundred dollars to register for this, and a few hundred more to fly to Illinois, was overwhelming.  An early bird price offered a significant discount to anyone who signed up before the end of June, which was only a few days away.

After we finished studying the chapter from 1 John, Chris asked, “Are there any prayer requests?”  A few of the others shared concerns about sick relatives and overwhelming school workloads.

I spoke up after a few minutes.  “I still haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to Urbana,” I said, “and I want to decide before the price goes up.  That’s in a few days.”

“I think it’ll be a really good experience for you,” Lillian said, “but I know, it’s a lot of money if you’re not really committed.  We’ll pray for you.”

After everyone shared their prayer requests, we all went in a circle, praying for the person next to us.  “God,” Tabitha said, “I pray for Greg.  I pray that you will give him wisdom to know whether or not Urbana is right for him.  I pray that Greg will know your will, and that you will speak to him all the great things you plan on doing through him.  I pray that he will find a way to make the finances work out, if this is your will.”

“Lord, I pray for Jason,” I said after Tabitha was done.  “I pray for his busy schedule, that you will help him stay focused on classes.  I pray that he will manage his time well, and find a balance between spending time in the Word and spending time on studies.”

After we finished prayer requests, and the study ended, Tabitha asked, “What are you up to tonight?”

“Just going to work on my project for class,” I said.  “I’m going to see if I can figure out how to connect to the CS computer lab from my computer at home, so I don’t have to go into the lab.”

“Let me know as soon as you’ve decided on Urbana.  I still want to get a few people to go in together on a flight.  I told you about that, right?”

“Yeah.  I will let you know.”

“Perfect!”

After I got home, I turned on the computer, listened to the beeps and whirs of the dialup modem connecting, and connected to the computers in the basement of Kent Hall.  I opened a second window and connected to my usual IRC chat channel, so I could find people to send messages to while I was working.  I put on the new Dave Matthews Band CD for the second time that day.

By the end of the night, I had decided that I preferred this setup over physically going to the basement of Kent Hall.  Writing code from home gave me the opportunity to listen to music and have a chat room open at the same time.  For certain types of studying, like those involving large amounts of reading, I do not do well while listening to music, but I enjoyed listening to music during other types of studying, like math homework or computer science projects.

The obvious drawback of doing computer science work from home, of course, is that I could not use the telephone while I was connected to the Internet.  Anyone who tried calling me would get a busy signal.  Although I did not get many calls, I did not want to tie up the phone line; I always held out hope that maybe I would get a phone call from a cute girl, or that someone would invite me to something awesome.  But since I did not have to get up early most days, I could wait until after ten o’clock, when I was unlikely to get phone calls, and work on coding late into the night.  I managed to train myself to sleep in until around ten in the morning, since my class did not begin until noon, although I had to make sure to get to bed earlier on Tuesdays so I could get up in time for the Wednesday morning discussion.  Once my body got used to staying up late and waking up late, that schedule worked very well for me.  I did not set foot in the basement of Kent Hall again for the rest of the summer.

When I finally went to bed that first night, at 1:46 AM, I closed my eyes and prayed again that God would show me the right decision about going to Urbana.  By that time, though, I felt like I already knew the answer.  I had found Jesus, and I needed to know what the next step in my faith journey would be.  I also had many friends who were traveling overseas to spread the Gospel, and I did not know how to support them, or even the nature of their work in the first place, in some cases.  I mailed my registration form the following morning.  I now had six months to work out the details, but I already had a head start since Tabitha was putting a flight together.  It was a wonderful first week of class, and as I drifted off to sleep, I felt optimistic for the rest of the summer.

June 15, 1996. The graduation party at the Valdez Street house.

Back in the 1990s, all of the hottest names in alternative rock played the Lollapalooza festival.  The festival toured major cities around the United States every summer, bringing live music along with other performances and attractions.  Critics called Lollapalooza an event that changed the history of music forever.

I never attended a Lollapalooza show.  I did not go to big concerts back then, and I felt a little scared to do so, knowing the kind of people that an event like Lollapalooza attracted.  In my life, the legacy of Lollapalooza was all of the advertising campaigns, small local events, and the like with names ending in “-palooza.”  This was similar to the excessive use of the suffix “-gate” to name political scandals, after the burglary at the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. in 1972, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.  If something had a name ending in “-palooza,” everyone knew that it was going to be life-changing… or at least the person organizing and naming the event believed that it would be life-changing.

A little over a week ago, I had been at the final meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for this school year, talking to people afterward about the upcoming finals week.  Brian Burr approached me, handing out small postcard-sized flyers.  He was tall and athletic, a high jumper on the University of Jeromeville’s track team, with reddish-brown hair.  He was graduating this year, and next year he would  be staying in Jeromeville to work with JCF part-time and apply to medical school.  Brian and I were going to share an apartment next year, along with Shawn, my current Bible study leader and one of Brian’s current housemates.

“Grad-a-palooza,” Brian said in an overly dramatic and exaggerated tone as he handed me his flyer.  I took the flyer and read it.


GRADAPALOOZA!
A celebration of the graduation of the gentlemen of 1640 Valdez Street
Mr. Brian Burr
Mr. Shawn Yang
Mr. Michael Kozlovsky
Mr. Daniel Conway

Saturday, June 15, 1996
6pm until whenever
1640 Valdez St., Jeromeville


“Graduation party?” I asked.  “At your house?”

“Yes.  Saturday, the 15th.  Right after finals are done.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be there.”

In hindsight, it was not entirely necessary for me to repeat back that it was a graduation party; this was obvious from the flyer.  I suppose I asked because I was surprised; I had never been invited to a college graduation party. I did not know any seniors last year.

Yesterday, Friday, was the last scheduled day for finals, but my last final had been on Thursday morning.  I had spent the last two and a half days doing a fat load of nothing.  I went for bike rides, I read, I worked on my novel, and I wasted a lot of time on the Internet with Usenet groups and IRC chats.  It was wonderful, and so far there had not been another incident like the one a few days ago.

When I moved to Jeromeville to start school, someone gave me a camera as a going-away present.  The camera then spent twenty-one months in a drawer, unused.  Yesterday I remembered that I had a camera, and I bought film and batteries, so I was ready to preserve some memories from Brian and Shawn’s party tonight.

Valdez Street was in south Jeromeville, on the other side of Highway 100 from me.  I drove east on Coventry Boulevard and turned right on G Street toward downtown.  As I approached downtown, I drove past progressively older houses and apartment complexes; after crossing Fifth Street, G Street became a commercial corridor.  It was Saturday night, and I had to drive slowly, watching for pedestrians and bicycles.  At least three households of JCF students were neighbors on Valdez Street and Baron Court, and as I got to know these people more, I often wished I could be part of that community.  Most of these people who were not graduating would be dispersing to other parts of Jeromeville next year, though, so a community like that may not exist next year.  I at least had the new apartment with Brian and Shawn to look forward to, even if we would not be neighbors with a large group of friends.

The student population of Jeromeville was gradually emptying as students finished finals, but I still had to park farther away from Brian and Shawn’s house than usual.  I could hear muffled music and conversation as I approached the house; apparently this was a big party.  I walked in and looked around; music was playing, and people were talking loudly.  Hopefully I would be able to hear when people talked to me.

“Greg!” Brian called out, waving, as he saw me from across the room.  “Come on in!”

I had been in this house four times before, and I had never seen it this full.  People were sitting on couches, in chairs, on the floor, and on the stairs.  A streamer that said “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 1996” hung from the wall.

“How’d your finals go?” Brian asked.

“I think I did well.  What about you?”

“They weren’t great, but I passed.”

“Congratulations!  Your ceremony was this morning?”

“Yeah.  Mom and Dad and my sister came for the day.  We went out to dinner, then they left about an hour ago.”

“Nice!”

“Thanks!  Enjoy the party!”

Someone I did not recognize got up and walked toward the bathroom; I sat in his vacated seat.  I knew about half the people here from JCF, and I recognized some other JCF people whom I did not know well.  I assumed that the guys who lived here probably had other friends, so not everyone here would be from JCF.  I pulled out my camera and took a few candid shots of people sitting around talking.

Kristina, a sophomore who lived around the corner on Baron Court, walked past me.  “Greg!” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much.  How were finals?”

“Hard!  But they’re over now!  How were yours?”

“I think I did fine,” I said. “Is–” I caught myself before finishing my question, Is Haley here?  Six years ago, in eighth grade, Paul Dickinson had figured out that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and within a few days the whole school knew.  Ever since then, any time I had any sort of romantic interest or crush, I treated it like a closely guarded secret which no one must ever find out.  “Are any of your roommates here?” I asked instead.  That way, my question would get answered without Kristina suspecting that I liked Haley.

“Kelly and Jeanette are here somewhere.  Haley went home on Thursday after her last final.”

 “Oh, ok.”  I was a little disappointed that I would not see Haley for the next three months, but also relieved that, with Haley not here, I would have no opportunities to embarrass myself in front of her.  “What are you up to this summer?” I asked.

“Taking classes.  You?”

“Same.  Well, one class first session.  Probably just hanging out here second session.  I’m going to my parents’ house next week.”

“Nice.  I’ll probably see you around campus.”

“Yeah.”

I walked around, making small talk and asking people their plans for the summer.  Most of the people here were not going to be in Jeromeville.  That did not bode well for my hope of having a social life this summer.  I knew that JCF was running one small group Bible study this summer, so that was something.  And I would still be singing at church; I knew some people from church who would be around this summer.

I got up to use the bathroom.  A decoration on the bathroom wall above the toilet said “We aim to please, you aim too please.”  At first, my mind parsed that as “we aim to please, you aim to please” with a word misspelled.  I did not understand why the phrase needed to be repeated.  I did not get the joke until I flushed the toilet; the second part was supposed to say “you aim too, please,” as in “please don’t pee on the floor.”  I laughed out loud at my sudden realization.  Hopefully no one found it strange that someone was laughing in the bathroom.

I returned to the living room, realizing that I had not talked to Shawn Yang yet, although I probably knew him the best of all the guys who lived at this house.  I saw Shawn on the couch with a middle-aged Asian couple.  I approached him, and he said, “Hey, Greg.  Have you met my parents yet?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

“I’m John,” Mr. Yang said, shaking my hand.  “And this is Judy.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Greg is going to be my roommate next year,” Shawn explained.  “And he’s a math major too.”

“Oh you are?” Mr. Yang asked.  “You gonna be a teacher too?”

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” I said.  “I don’t really see myself as a teacher.”

“You’re not graduating this year?”

“No.  I’m a sophomore.”

“Oh, ok.”

“You guys are from Ashwood?  Is that right?”

“Yeah.  What about you?  Where are you from?”

“Plumdale.”  Without thinking, I added, “Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”  Most people have no idea where Plumdale is.

“It’s nice out there!”

“Yeah.  I’ll be in Jeromeville most of the summer, but I’m going home next week.”

After a lull in the conversation, Mr. Yang said, “It was nice meeting you!”

“You too!”

I was ready for another break from socializing, so I walked outside.  It was a little before eight o’clock, and it was still light out; in Jeromeville, the sun does not set until close to nine this time of year.  Two guys were throwing a Frisbee back and forth in the street, moving out of the way whenever a car approached.  Eddie, Xander, Lars, and a guy I had met a couple times named Moises sat on a couch, which had been placed on the lawn for some reason. 

“We’re done with another school year,” Eddie said.  “Two down, two to go.”

“I know,” I replied.  “I think I did pretty well on finals.  How were yours?”

“It was a lot of work, but I passed.”

“Dude, mine were really tough,” Lars said.

“What are you doing this summer?” Xander asked me.

“I’m staying here.  I have one class first session.  When do you leave for India?”

“Two weeks.  I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited!  God is going to move!”

“I can’t wait to hear about it,” I said.

“Greg?” Eddie asked.  “Have you decided yet if you’re going to Urbana?”

I had not decided, and now that Eddie was asking, I felt like I had dropped the ball.  Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, puts on a convention every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about missions and service opportunities around the world.  The convention was the last week of the year, after Christmas.   “I haven’t decided,” I said.  “But I’d like to if I can make it work.  I don’t know if I’m ready to go on a mission trip myself, but now that I have a lot of friends doing stuff like that, I think it would help me understand what they’re doing.  Xander’s trip to India, and Melinda’s trip to Russia, and Taylor and Pete and Charlie going to Morocco with Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“Then what are you still thinking about?  If it’s money, you can apply for a scholarship through JCF.  Talk to Dave and Janet.”

“It’s more just the fact that it’s overwhelming.  I don’t know how to book a flight or a hotel room or anything like that.  And it is a lot of money, too.”

“I know a lot of people have been wanting to travel in groups and share hotel rooms,” Eddie said.  “If I hear of someone who might be able to include you, I’ll have them contact you.”

“Thanks.  That would be awesome.”

“Heads up!” shouted Alex McCann, a housemate of some of the guys on the couch, as a Frisbee sailed toward us.  Lars stood up and caught the Frisbee in time; then, walking away from the couch, he shouted at Alex and threw the Frisbee back at him.  Eddie and Xander stood up, and Eddie said to me, “We’re gonna go throw the Frisbee.  Wanna come?”

“I might later,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Moises stayed on the couch with me.  “I think you should go to Urbana,” he said.  “God is going to do great things through you.”

“Thanks,” I said, curious how he knew about God’s plan for my life when I pretty much just knew this guy to say hi to.

“Have you ever taken a spiritual gift assessment?” Moises asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“They handed one out at my church a few weeks ago.  You answer questions about what skills you have and what you’re good at, and it tells you, like, if God has equipped you to preach or worship or pray or do administrative work.  You can ask your pastor if he has one.  What church do you go to?”

“Newman Center.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the student-led Catholic church.”

“My family is Catholic,” Moises said.  “My family came here from Mexico; everyone is Catholic there.  But then when I became a Christian, I realized just how much Catholics have wrong.  Like, Jesus died on the cross for your sins already.  You don’t have to confess to a pope.”  I just nodded, not wanting to argue.  Moises‘ knowledge of the inner workings of the Catohlic Church must have had some shortcomings if he believed that the average Catholic confessed to His Holiness Pope John Paul II on a regular basis.  Also, although I did not think about it at age 19, I have also come to learn over the years that being a busybody like Moises is not the best way to share one’s faith with others.  After studying the Bible more this year, though, I had come to agree with his point that salvation came from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not through following the rituals of Catholicism alone.

By this time, it was getting dark, so I went back inside, making more small talk and helping myself to snacks on the kitchen counter.  Later that night, in the living room, Eddie, Kristina, Brian, and a few others were doing some kind of silly dance.  I saw Tabitha, one of the first people I knew from JCF because she was in the dorm next to mine last year, sitting on the couch with an empty seat next to her.  “May I sit here?” I asked Tabitha.

“Sure,” she said.  “Actually, I was looking for you.  Eddie told me a few minutes ago that if you go to Urbana, you’d be interested in going in together with someone on a flight and hotel room.”

“Definitely.”

“I was going to put something together later this summer.  I’ll keep you posted.”

“I’m not going for sure yet, but I know the price goes up July 1, so I want to decide for sure by then.  I’ll let you know, and you keep me posted on your plans.”

“Great!  Sounds good!”

I stayed at the party until after midnight.  By then, much of the crowd had gone home, the music had stopped, and I was getting tired.  I said my final goodnights and congratulations to Brian and Shawn, as well as to their other graduating housemates, Mike Kozlovsky and Dan Conway.  These four and all the other seniors here tonight were done with college, at least done with their bachelor’s degrees.  And now I was halfway there, if I finished on schedule.  It was hard to believe that it had already been almost two years since Mom and Dad helped me unpack in my tiny dorm room in Building C.

As I drove home through the dark but warm Jeromeville night, I kept thinking about how my life had changed so much, not only in the time since I came to Jeromeville, but just in this school year.  I had a great time at this party, and unlike my few other experiences with college parties, people here were not getting drunk.  At the beginning of this school year, I did not even know that any of these people existed, except for Tabitha, and she was not in my close circle of friends yet at the time.  So much had changed for the better.

I lived alone in a small studio apartment this year because I was unable to find roommates among people I knew.  Early in the year, I worried that living alone would be excessively boring and lonely, but indirectly, living alone ended up being the best thing for me.  It prompted me to make more of an effort to stay connected with my friends from freshman year, which led to me finally accepting Liz Williams’ invitation to come to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  At JCF, I made so many new friends, including the people at this party, and my future roommates for junior year.  And, more importantly, I learned what it really meant to follow Jesus, and how only his death on the cross brought eternal life, and hope, and inner peace.

I went straight to bed when I got home; I was tired.  I would have time to pack a suitcase in the morning, and after church I would make the two and a half hour drive to my parents’ house in Plumdale.  But unlike a year ago, the drive to my parents’ house would not mean the start of three months away from my friends.  I was only staying there for a week this time, and I would go for another week in August after my summer class ended.  For the rest of the summer, I would be here in Jeromeville.  Plumdale was home, but Jeromeville was also home now.

As I drifted off to sleep, still thinking about how much life had changed during my sophomore year at UJ, I wondered what changes were in store for me in the next school year.  Maybe I would find other new things to get involved with, as I had gotten involved with JCF this year.  Maybe I would end up going to that Urbana convention and deciding to become a missionary.  The possibilities were endless.  At the time, I had no idea that the next school year would bring challenges to my faith and questions about my future.  I would have to make difficult decisions.  I would find myself getting involved in two new activities, one of which was not at all anything I expected to do until it happened, and the other of which I was only beginning to think about at that point.  But I knew that, no matter what, with God on my side everything would work out just fine.

July 28, 1995. Taking advantage of a night at home by myself.

After I finished watching Jeopardy!, I went back upstairs.  I checked my email; no new messages.  I was glad to have a night at home by myself, but I had no immediately apparent way to take advantage of this night at home.  There was no long dormitory hallway to walk down and see who was free.  It was my parents’ house, the other bedrooms were empty, and the only other people in this house tonight were cats.  I could sit in front of the computer in a chat room, but for some reason I was not in the mood for that tonight.

My eyes drifted around my bedroom.  I saw my yearbook from my senior year at Plumdale High sitting on top of a box of books that I had not completely unpacked from when I moved out of the dorm last month.  So far, this summer, I had seen exactly two high school friends exactly once each.  The situation was made worse by my fear of using the phone.  And I was self-conscious about having friends in the first place, because my mother makes fun of people behind their backs, and I was afraid of what she would say about them.

I started to reach for the yearbook.  Some of the nicest things that people had ever said to me were in that book.  Two girls whom I did not really know until senior year both wrote messages that seemed more like what someone might write to a lifelong friend, not someone they had only known for one school year.  But then one of them moved away without saying goodbye, and the other had a boyfriend so it did not matter, and neither of them had stayed in touch.  I had lost touch with so many of my high school friends.

I reconsidered and did not open the yearbook.  My mind and eyes continued to wander.  Next to the computer on my desk was a stack of letters, all from girls.  Mom noticed a few days ago when I got letters from both Molly Boyle and Tiffany Rollins on the same day that I seemed to be keeping in touch with mostly girls over the summer.  She was right.  Guys were mean to me in elementary school, and I felt safer communicating with girls.  Taylor was really the only guy I was keeping in touch with.

Molly lived in central Pennsylvania.  She was studying early childhood education at Lock Haven University and, like me, she was home for the summer after her first year.  We had met in a chat room, and she had written to me the most so far, six times.  She was working a boring job that she disliked, but she needed the money in order to afford to go back to school.  She lived in the country and did not have much of a social life, which probably explained the frequent letters.  I opened the most recent one and began reading.


I spent the weekend in Philadelphia with Christina, my roommate from last year, and it ended up being a disaster!  This guy she knows on the Internet who lives in California was in Phila. for the weekend too, and they had been planning to meet for a while.  Her parents didn’t want her to go alone, so she brought me along.  When we got there, the guy was busy, so we saw all the touristy historical stuff.  When he was finally free, they just went back to the hotel and cuddled and did other stuff, and I felt really uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to go do something in the city by myself.  Then they just left without telling me where they were going or when they would be back.  So I was stuck alone in the hotel room for over an hour.  And then while they were gone, her parents called the hotel room looking for her.  Apparently before we left she lied and told her parents we were meeting our friend Michelle in the city, but Michelle called Christina’s house while she was supposed to be with us so they knew she lied.  And her dad started lecturing me about stuff like this, even though this wasn’t my idea and I didn’t know she lied!  This isn’t the first time Christina has done something completely selfish.  Maybe I’ll learn my lesson and stop letting her use me.


 

Molly may not have had much of a social life, but her weekend seemed a lot more interesting than anything that had happened to me recently.  Christina appeared to be the kind of person I would not want to be friends with.

Tiffany had written three times.  She and I had two math classes together last year.  She was home in Ashwood, about a two and a half hour drive to the east.  Like Molly, she also had a boring job that she hated, doing office work.  I had told her about being self-conscious about having friends at home, and she understood completely, because her mother still lovingly teased her about a boy she liked in tenth grade.  “So is there anyone you are interested in that way?” she wrote.  “You don’t have to answer, I just thought I’d ask.”  The thought crossed my mind that she might be dropping a hint to me.  I liked her as a friend, but I just didn’t feel attracted to her.

Danielle Coronado, who had lived down the hall from me in Building C last year, had written a fairly long typed letter a couple weeks ago.  She was back home in Desert Ridge, about 250 miles southeast in a part of the state I had never been to.  She told me a whole lot about her job working at a day camp for children.  Unlike Molly and Tiffany and me, Danielle enjoyed her job.  Spencer Grant, who lived on the first floor in Building C last year, was also from Desert Ridge; he and Danielle had been hanging out some, although they were definitely just friends.  Danielle wrote that Spencer was loud and obnoxious, but really a nice guy underneath.  I could see that, although I had mostly only seen the loud and obnoxious side.

Bok, who lived on the first floor last year and would be rooming with Danielle next year, sent me a postcard with big trees and a forest floor covered in ferns.  She and her family were camping in Olympic National Park in Washington, and would be headed north across the border to British Columbia before returning home.  That sounded beautiful, but I had never been camping, so I could not really relate to the experience.  Mom was the only one who took initiative to plan vacations in my family, and Mom hates camping.

Sarah Winters, also from the first floor, had written to me once.  She was home in Ralstonville, a couple hours’ drive northeast of here.  She passed the time playing flute and learning guitar, and she had been spending time with her older brother and the girl he would soon be marrying.  She also spent a day with Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, and Caroline Pearson at Caroline’s house in Walton Canyon.  That sounded fun.  I missed all of them.

I had not heard from Liz or Ramon, but Caroline had written once.  Caroline grew up in Australia, and she would be visiting her family there in August.  That would be an exciting trip.  She ended her letter saying, “Everyone from Jeromeville that I’ve talked to is wanting to get back up there.  I think that we all suffer from homesickness, strange as it sounds, even though we’re at home!”  She was exactly right.  Plumdale felt like home to some extent, but my connections here were not very deep to begin with, and my life was in Jeromeville now.

I looked around at the desk.  My eyes rested on the telephone.  My bedroom was part of a remodel that my parents had started seven years ago and technically never finished; the room still had plywood for a floor.  At some point in high school, I had figured out how telephone wiring worked and hooked up the telephone jack in the bedroom myself, so this telephone worked, although it was on the same line as the rest of the house.  I was always so nervous about making phone calls as it was, and with three phones in the house on the same line, it was frightening to think that Mom might pick up and listen in on my call.  Tonight would be the perfect night for a phone call, since I was alone in the house; the rest of the family had gone to watch some of my brother’s friends in a baseball tournament.  But whom did I feel comfortable calling?  One of my high school friends?  One of my Jeromeville friends?  I did not have Molly’s number, so she was not an option.  Even if I did have her number, Mom would not appreciate a phone call to Pennsylvania, although Mom had come around to the fact that this person writing me was probably not a 37-year-old pervert named Chuck.

It would make more sense to me to call someone I knew from Jeromeville.  I still had my copy of the campus directory, which had many students’ home addresses and phone numbers in addition to local contact information, but that seemed kind of creepy looking up people who did not expect me to have their phone numbers.  A few of my dorm friends had shared their home phone numbers at the end of the school year, with the intent of keeping in touch.  Of the people who had written so far, Danielle was the only one who had shared her phone number.  I felt safe talking to her.

I picked up the phone and started dialing, but gave up halfway through the number and hung up.  Mom would see a call to Desert Ridge on the phone bill.  She would want to know everything I said.  She might even tease me about liking Danielle, even if I explained that she was just a friend.  But Mom was always telling me to be more social, so she would probably be okay with me making one long distance call.  I picked up the phone but hung up again before dialing anything.  Danielle probably was not even home.  It was a Friday night.  Normal people are off having fun on Friday nights.  But, on the other hand, maybe that would be better.  I could leave a message and tell Danielle to call me, and I could get the phone call done earlier and feel like I did the best I could, not feeling guilty about wasting a night home alone.  And If Danielle ever did call me back, then I would have to talk to her and not chicken out.

I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed the numbers quickly.  A male voice picked up on the third ring.  “Hello?” he said.

“Hi.  Is Danielle there?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”  I heard muffled voices on the other side of the line, and after about half a minute, Danielle’s voice said, “Hello?”

“Hi.  This is Greg.”  After a few seconds of silence, I added, “Greg Dennison.  From Building C.”

“Greg!” Danielle exclaimed.  “I wasn’t expecting you to call!  How are you?”

“I’m doing ok.  Just kind of bored.  And I’m alone in the house tonight.  The rest of my family is busy.”

“I’m glad you called!  How is that bookstore job going?”

“It’s okay.  It’s nice when I get to read on a slow day, but that store just really isn’t my clientele.”

“That’s tough.  But it isn’t forever, right?”

“I know.  That’s what I keep telling myself.  How’s your work with the kids?”

“It’s exhausting, but I love it so much!  Yesterday we took them on a field trip to the fire station.  One of the little ones really loves fire trucks, so he was having a great time.”

“I bet that was fun.”

“And there’s this one eleven-year-old boy who lives in a foster home.  He’s been through a lot in life.  He gets in fights and acts all tough, but he has this soft side too that he doesn’t show many people.  But I see it.  He likes me and he trusts me.”

“That’s so cool.”

“I know!  Today he told me I was his favorite.  And he told me all about this girl he likes, but he doesn’t think she likes him.”

“That’s so cool that you can really make a difference with someone like that.”

“Yeah.  It’s amazing what these kids are like when you get to know them.  I’m going to miss them when the job is over.”

“When is that?”

“Two weeks.  After the camp closes for the summer, we can keep working for another week to clean things up and take things down.  That’s not going to be fun, but I’m going to do it for the money.”

“That’s a good idea.  I don’t think I’m making quite a difference in the lives of the customers at the bookstore.”

Danielle laughed at this.  Then she said, “Hey.  I heard you went to Jeromeville and you got to see Taylor?  How was that?”

“It was fun.  My cousins Rick and Miranda, they live way up north in the middle of nowhere, they were visiting that week, and we just went up there for the day so they could see where I lived, and my new apartment, and stuff.  And I took a break to go see Taylor.  And Jonathan too, but he had to study for part of the time I was there.”

“Figures.  That sounds like Jonathan.”

“You said you had been in touch with Taylor too?”

“Yeah.  He wrote me back.  Pete still hasn’t.  It’s like he fell off the face of the earth.”

“Some people just aren’t good at keeping in touch.”

“He’s a jerk,” Danielle said jokingly, chuckling.  Last year, both Taylor and Pete seemed to have something going on with Danielle.  I was too oblivious to know exactly what was going on, and it probably was not my business anyway.  Danielle continued, asking, “Did you visit anyone else when you were in Jeromeville?”

“I’ve only been in touch with one other person in Jeromeville this summer, someone not from our dorm.  And she was busy that day.  I really want to go back.  It’s boring here, and I rarely see the few friends I have left.”

“I know how you feel.  Bok and Theresa are going to visit for a few days in August.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“Have you heard from them?  Or anyone else?”

I told Danielle about everyone I had heard from this summer.  Some of these people Danielle did not know, and she seemed particularly interested in finding out more about Molly.  I told her a little bit about her, including how we met.  “She’s the first person I met on the Internet who I trusted with my contact information in real life.”

“That’s brave of you.”

“We had been emailing for six months by the time she wrote me on paper.  You’d have to be pretty good at being an old pervert and pretending to be an 18-year-old girl in order to keep it up for six months, so I’m pretty sure she’s really who she says she is.”

“Well that’s really cool!  Do you like her?  Like, more than just a pen pal?”

“I don’t know.  We’re just friends right now.”

Danielle and I talked for almost an hour.  I told her about watching roller hockey, and about the time I broke the picture frame at the store.  She told me about going camping with her family on an unusually hot day and getting badly sunburned, and about her next youngest sister also going to Jeromeville in the fall.  “And she’s going to major in psych, just like me.  We even have a class together in the fall.”

“Is that going to be awkward?”

“It might be.  When we were younger, we hung out in the same circles, and we fought about everything.  We’ve learned that we should kind of have separate lives.”

“That makes.  My brother and I are six grades apart, so we never were at the same school at the same time to run in the same circles.”

“Consider yourself lucky.”

After a few minutes and another lull in the conversation, I said, “I should probably get going.”

“Yeah.  It’s getting close to bedtime.  But thank you so much for calling!”

“You’re welcome.”

“It was good to hear your voice!”

“Yours too.  Tell Bok and Theresa I said hi.  And Spencer, if you talk to him again.”

“I will.”

“Good night!”

“Good night, Greg.”

I hung up.  That was nice.  Keeping in touch with my Jeromeville friends was keeping me going that summer.  I had a month left until I would be able to return to Jeromeville, and I needed every bit of contact with that part of my life that I could get.  I was done making phone calls, it was getting late, but I looked through the stack of letters again.  Something that Molly had written caught my eye:


A suggestion for you: don’t look in the past and see how much you haven’t done, but look into the future and see how much time you have to do whatever you want.  I try to look at the positive things instead of the negatives, so I don’t get depressed.


 

Molly was right.  I needed to stop dwelling on the negatives.  Sure, I felt like I had missed out on some things in the almost nineteen years I had lived so far, but I had a lot of life left, and I did not need to let that which I missed out on define me.  I would get back to Jeromeville, where I belonged, in a little over a month.  I had people there who wanted to be part of my life, and the stack of letters on my desk was evidence of that.

I walked over to the box of books, lifted a bunch of them up, and put my high school yearbook near the bottom, where I wouldn’t see it.

1995-07 danielle's letter

1995-07 molly's letter

 

June 27, 1995.  The most stereotypically 90s of all sports.

A trendy new sport took the world by storm in the 1990s: roller hockey.  Inline skates, roller skates with the wheels arranged in a line rather than the traditional arrangement of two wheels in front and two wheels behind, became popular in the late 1980s.  Soon after this, people began playing hockey on these skates. I was terrible at any kind of skating, but I enjoyed watching hockey, and when professional roller hockey came to nearby San Tomas last summer, we went to some games as a family.  Tonight, I was going to be watching this most stereotypically 90s of all sports with someone else.

Plumdale is a semi-rural town spread across a hilly area, and because of this, I often felt isolated from my friends.  My closest friends in school lived far away from me, so I never saw them outside of school. After I was old enough to drive, I had a little more of a social life, but still not much.  I had no idea where many of my high school friends lived, which is why I was a little nervous tonight. The house in front of me now was a place I had never been before. What if her parents wonder who I am?  How does this work anyway? Is it okay to do things with friends who are girls? What if she thinks I like her and this is a date? What if I realize I do like her, and she does not like me back? I nervously knocked on the door.

“Hey, Greg!” Rachel said, opening the door.  She was of average height and build, with straight medium brown hair, and she wore jeans with a dark green solid-color shirt.  “You ready?”

“Yes.”

“You have the tickets?”

“I’ll buy tickets there.  They don’t get a big enough crowd to sell out.”

Rachel stepped onto the porch and gave me a hug.  I smiled.

“Do you know how to get back to the highway from here?”

“Yes,” I said.  I worked my way from Rachel’s house to Highway 11 north, passing through hills dotted with oaks and houses on large lots.  Highway 11 passed through much of this same hilly oak woodland environment as we continued through Plumdale and entered the next county.  The grass on the hillsides had died and turned brown already by this time of year.

“So do you go to a lot of these games?” Rachel asked.  “What’s the team called again?”

“Mountain Lions.  I went to one with my family last week.  And we went to two last year.”

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as professional roller hockey.”

“It’s new.  I hadn’t heard of it until last year.”

“Interesting.  And who are these players?  Do they just have tryouts? I don’t think there are school roller hockey teams, are there?”

“A lot of them are minor league hockey players, like regular ice hockey, and this is their summer job.”

“That makes sense.”

After about ten miles, Highway 11 entered the end of a long valley, approaching a small city called El Ajo.  It was after six o’clock by the time we got to El Ajo, and most of what daily commuter traffic remained at that hour was headed in the opposite direction from us.  Traffic was smooth as we headed north through El Ajo, another small city called Morgantown, and the large sprawling metropolis of San Tomas. We arrived at the arena in downtown San Tomas about fifty minutes after leaving Rachel’s house.

“This stadium is new, right?” Rachel asked, looking at the large glass wall at the main entrance to the arena.

“Yes,” I replied.  “It just opened a year ago.”

“I think this is where my parents saw the Eagles.  They said it was really nice.”

“Probably.  They’ve been getting a lot of big concerts here.”

After buying the tickets, Rachel and I walked into the building.  The main entrance led to a very wide stairway leading up to the concourse.  From the concourse, walkways led down to the seats on the lower level, and small stairways led up to the seats on the upper level.  I found section 128, and we walked down to our seats, just a few rows up from the court.

“These are good seats,” Rachel said.

“Yeah.  The most expensive seats for these games are only fourteen dollars.  Like I said, they don’t draw a huge crowd. They only use the lower level.”

“Who are the Mountain Lions playing?” Rachel asked as the players from each team began warming up on the court.  The players skated on a surface made from blue plastic tiles that had been placed where the ice usually was during Stingrays ice hockey games.

“The San Diego Breakers.”

“San Diego,” Rachel repeated.  “Who is in the Mountain Lions’ league anyway? Do they play teams from all across the country, or are the teams just out west, or what?”

“The league has teams across the country, and a few in Canada too.  But there are separate Western and Eastern Conferences that only play each other.  So we only play teams in the western half of the US and Canada. The Western and Eastern champions play each other at the end of the season.  I think that’s late August.  It’s a short season.”

“I see, Rachel replied.  I then proceeded to name all eight of the other teams in the Western Conference, but I sensed that Rachel was getting bored with me.  I decided not to continue on and name the teams in the Eastern Conference.

The Mountain Lions scored a goal about a minute into the game; I stood up and cheered as the red light behind the goal came on.  “That goal came fast,” Rachel noticed out loud.  “Do they always score quickly like that?”

“Sometimes.  Roller hockey is usually higher scoring than ice hockey.”

“Is that because the goalies and players on defense aren’t as good?  Or because of how the skates and puck move on the court differently from on ice?”

“That might be part of it.  Also, the court is the same size but there is one less player on the court, compared to ice hockey.”

“I see.”

Another rule difference between this roller hockey league and most ice hockey leagues is that roller hockey games are played in four quarters, instead of the three periods in ice hockey.  A few minutes before halftime, with the score tied at three goals each, Rachel nudged me and pointed to the right, to the section next to us. “What’s going on?”

I looked in the direction she was pointing.  A group of four teenage girls was screaming and cheering.  One of them held up a sign; I could not read it because it was facing away from me, toward the ice.

“It looks like some teenage girls being silly,” I said.  “And one of them brought a sign.”

“I can’t see what it says.”

“Me either.  Probably something about the team or one of the players.  That’s what those things usually say.”

“Yeah.”

“Probably not with the name of the TV station, though, because these games aren’t on TV.”

“TV station?” Rachel asked.  “What do you mean?”

“You know, like how people will hold up signs at games, but they’ll use the name of the TV station on the sign, to try to get on TV.”

“I’ve never seen that!”

“I’ve just started seeing this the last couple years.  Like, say, if there’s a Chicago Bulls game on NBC, someone will make a sign that says ‘Nobody Beats Chicago’ and have the N-B-C at the start of each word prominently highlighted.”

Rachel took a second to think about this.  “That’s clever!”

“The best one I ever saw was on a football game on Fox.  Someone made a sign that said ‘Steve Young is a FOX.’”

Rachel laughed.  “Wow,” she said. “Steve Young?  That’s one of the players, right?”

“Yeah.”

The game continued; a San Diego player got a penalty for roughing, and the Mountain Lions scored on the resulting power play.  “What does power play goal mean?” Rachel asked.

“San Diego got a penalty, so they have to skate one fewer player on the court for two minutes.  That gives them a disadvantage. And if they get scored against with fewer players on the court because of a penalty, that’s a power play goal.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed.  “I’m sorry I’m asking so many questions.”

“It’s ok,” I said.  “I don’t mind.  I’m sure I’d be asking you questions if we were watching volleyball or running track.  Those are your sports.”

“I didn’t know you were this into hockey.”

“I didn’t grow up with it.  It’s just been the last few years, since the Stingrays came along.”

Halftime came shortly after the power play goal.  “I want to buy a T-shirt,” I said. “You want anything?”

Rachel looked confused.  “You want to get me a T-shirt?” she asked.

That was not what I was trying to ask.  “I’m not going to pay for it, I didn’t mean that,” I blurted out.  “I just meant if there was anything you needed while I was up.”

“No, thanks, I’m okay.”

I walked to the souvenir stand feeling confused and ashamed.  Words are hard sometimes. I was just trying to ask if she needed anything while I was up.  I had not planned on buying her something expensive. And the way I answered made it sound kind of mean.  My mind seemed to work differently those of from people around me, and sometimes it felt hard to explain things in ways that people understood.  I hoped that Rachel was not mad at me or hurt in any way.

I got back to my seat just before the third quarter started.  Rachel did not seem to be bothered by my poor communication earlier, which was good.  The silly teenage girls in the next section were just as entertaining to watch during the third quarter.  In addition to holding up their sign, they started performing cheers and dances. They apparently caught the attention of the arena audiovisual crew; a camera operator now sat near them and showed them on the big screen on the scoreboard during stoppages of play.

“Look,” I said to Rachel, pointing at the girls on the screen.  “It’s those girls in the next section.”

“Yeah,” Rachel laughed.  “They’re funny.”

The camera zoomed in on the girl holding the sign.  She was short and thin, Asian, with straight dark hair, wearing a Mountain Lions shirt similar to mine and face paint in the Mountain Lions colors of purple and gold.  The PA announcer said, “Hey, Mountain Lions fans, let’s give it up for our Fan of the Game, Elizabeth Santiago!” Rachel and I cheered, along with the rest of the people in the arena.

“Elizabeth Santiago,” I said after the crowd quieted down.

“What about her?” Rachel asked.

“One of my friends from Jeromeville, he lived upstairs from me in the dorm, his name is Taylor Santiago.  I wonder if he and Elizabeth are related? They look like they could be.”

“That would be funny.”

“Yeah.”

By the middle of the fourth quarter, the Mountain Lions were leading by a score of eight goals to four.  I was not paying attention to the game as closely as I had been earlier, since the Mountain Lions appeared to be in position to win.  Besides, Elizabeth Santiago and her friends were more entertaining.

Each team scored one more goal; the Mountain Lions went on to win, nine goals to five for the Breakers.  As we walked along the concourse toward the exit, I noticed Elizabeth Santiago and her friends walking near us.

“There’s the Fan of the Game,” I said to Rachel, gesturing in Elizabeth’s direction.

“Are you going to ask her if she’s related to your friend?” Rachel asked quietly.

“No.  That would be too weird.”

“Yeah, it might be.”

We walked back to the car.  It took several minutes to get out of the parking lot.  “So when you do leave for school?” I asked Rachel as we sat in the idling car.

“The middle of August.  I’m excited and nervous at the same time.  It’s a weird feeling.”

“I know how that is.  I went through that last year.  Do you know what you’re going to study?”

“I’m thinking something like psychology or sociology or something like that.  I’ve always been interested in that kind of stuff.”

“Makes sense.”

“You said you’re working at that bookstore this summer?”

“Yeah.  I got that job through a friend of my mom’s.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s okay.  It’s not very busy there.”

“Makes sense.  Sounds like a good job for you.”

“Yeah.  Are you working this summer or anything?”

“No.  Just trying to make the most of the summer before I leave, and hang out with friends as much as possible.  I’m having lunch with Paul tomorrow.  Things were a little weird last time we talked.  I haven’t seen him since he got back from Santa Teresa.”

“Weird how?”

“I don’t know.  I couldn’t tell.  I just got a weird vibe.”

Paul Dickinson had been in my class at Plumdale High; I had known him since seventh grade.  He and Rachel had gotten together and broken up several times over the years, and I had given up trying to keep track of whether or not they were together at any given time.  It seemed like they were not currently together. Paul had just gotten back from his freshman year at the University of Santa Teresa, about 200 miles south of Plumdale; I wondered if the weird vibe was because he had met a girl there and not told Rachel.  Or if Rachel had met a guy and not told me.

Rachel and I talked about life and school and other things for the rest of the drive home, down the San Tomas Valley through Morgantown and El Ajo and into the hills separating the San Tomas and Gabilan Valleys.  It was a little after eleven o’clock when I pulled the car up next to Rachel’s house.  I wondered what to do now.  Do I just say good night?  Do I walk her to the doorstep?

“I’ll walk to you the door,” I said hastily, opening my car door.

“Thank you,” Rachel replied.

We walked up the walkway to her house and stopped at the door.  “Thanks for coming with me,” I said.

“Yeah!  I had a lot of fun!  I didn’t even know roller hockey existed.”

“Now you do.”

“Yeah.  I’ll see you soon, Greg.”  Rachel gave me a big hug.

“Yes.  Have a good night,” I said as the hug continued for several seconds.  Rachel let go and turned around. “Good night,” she said, smiling, turning back toward me.

“Good night,” I answered, walking back to the car.  As I started the car, I could see Rachel walking through her front door.  I backed out back to the road and drove toward home.

I turned the radio on; the R.E.M. tape I had been listening to before Rachel got in the car came back on.  Rachel was a good friend. I could not tell if she was interested in being more than that.  I felt a little ashamed of some of the awkward moments from tonight, especially the conversation about the t-shirt.  I just did not understand girls and how all that was supposed to work. Was tonight a date? Not really. Probably not.  Maybe. I didn’t know. How does everyone else know all of these rules? Was I even interested in Rachel like that? I wasn’t when we were in high school, but she was always nice to me, and she was one of the few high school friends still keeping in touch with me regularly.  I did not understand girls, but I seemed to understand something about being friends with girls, so maybe that’s what I should be right now.  That still did not change the fact that I wanted a girlfriend. This was all so frustrating. Girls and relationships were, to me, like taking a test without ever having been to class.

When I got home, I said hi to Mom and telling her how the game went.  Mom had fallen asleep on the couch in front of the TV and woke up as soon as I walked in.  I went straight to bed after that and closed my eyes, trying to shut out from my mind all of these frustrating and confusing thoughts as I drifted to sleep.

(By the way, Elizabeth Santiago is in fact Taylor’s younger sister.  I found that out the next time I saw Taylor; he asked me what I had been up to, and when I mentioned the Mountain Lions, he said that his sister was at a game and they made her Fan of the Game.  Small world.)

mountain lions

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

“Hello, Greg,” Jane said as I walked into Books & More.  Jane sat on a stool at the cash register. She wore a long-sleeve blouse, a blue-gray color, with black pants.  She was slightly shorter than average, with dark hair and wrinkled skin. I never did know how old Jane was, or if I did know, I don’t remember now.  I would have guessed around sixty.

Jane had kind of a rough appearance, but she tried to make herself look classy.  There was a popular movie from a few years ago called Kindergarten Cop, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played a police officer working undercover as a teacher.  One of the students in the class had a drug dealer father who was planning to abduct him, and the drug dealer had his creepy mother working with him.  Three days ago, I had been to the store for a sort of job interview, although I had been told that the job was already mine. Jane probably wanted to make sure that I was responsible and trustworthy.  The first thought I had that day when I first saw Jane was that she reminded me of the drug dealer’s mother from Kindergarten Cop. I didn’t dare tell her this to her face, of course.

“Hi,” I replied, hoping not to give away the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

“Are you ready?” Jane asked.

“Yes.”

“I was thinking I’ll start off by showing you around.  Then I’ll show you how the microfiche reader works, so you can take orders for customers from the catalog.  When someone comes in, I’ll show you how to use the cash register.”

“Sounds good.”

Jane then showed me around the store, so I could become familiar with what books, magazines, newspapers, greeting cards, and other items were on which shelves.  I tried my best to pay attention. Books & More had exactly three employees: Jane, the owner; me; and Paula McCall, the connection through whom I got this job. My family had known the McCalls for a few years now; they had a middle school age son named John, who played basketball and baseball with my brother Mark.  With school out for the summer, and John home all day, Paula wanted to be home more and cut back her hours at Books & More. She had told this to my mother, who mentioned that I was going to be home for the summer and that a job would be good for me. Ordinarily, I would not be happy with Mom intruding in my life like this, setting up a job for me without consulting me at all.  However, I had no plans for the summer, and looking for a job on my own, having to interview and make a résumé and a good first impression, sounded kind of terrifying, so I was okay with it.

“May I help you?” Jane said to a well-dressed middle-aged woman who entered the store a minute ago.

The woman handed Jane a list.  “My son is in honors English at St. Luke’s, and he has to read these books over the summer.  Do you have them?”

“We do,” Jane said.  She gestured for the woman to follow her to a shelf near the front of the store to the left; I followed them as well.  “For all of the high schools that have summer reading assignments, I have all of those books here in a special section.  I spoke to English teachers at all the schools in Gabilan, and Plumdale High, and St. Luke’s.”

“That’s a really good idea,” the woman said as Jane pointed out the specific books on the woman’s list.  She brought the books to the cash register, and I watched carefully as Jane rang up the sale and handed the woman the receipt.

After that customer had left, Jane showed me how the microfiche reader worked.  This was the most interesting thing I learned that day. Books & More ordered its inventory from two different book wholesalers.  Apparently, the standard practice at the time was that these companies would send their catalogs to bookstores on microfiche. If we needed to order a book for a customer, or if we needed to order more inventory for the store in general, we would look it up in the wholesale distributor’s catalog and use that to place an order when we had enough items to order.  I knew very little about microfiche, except that libraries kept archives of things like old newspapers on microfiche. A microfiche card apparently consisted of very small printing on film, so that the entire catalog of the thousands of titles supplied by these companies could be listed on just a few cards. A microfiche reader was basically just a giant fancy lighted magnifying glass.  Within a few years, the Internet would emerge as a commonplace consumer technology and make microfiche all but obsolete. So far, Books & More was not connected to the Internet.

For me, making an order from these catalogs was simple.  I just had to write down the book title and International Standard Book Number on a clipboard that Jane kept next to the cash register, and Jane would make the order when we had enough items to order.  That seemed simple enough. If I noticed we were out of something, particularly a book that was a top seller at the time, I also needed to write that on the order sheet when we ran out.

For the rest of the morning, I essentially shadowed Jane as she rang up customers, dusted shelves, and took special orders for customers.  I ate lunch in the office in the back of the store around noon. When I finished, Jane said, “I’m going to take care of some things back here and take my lunch break.  Do you think you’re ready to be by yourself on the cash register?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will.”

As I left the office, I noticed Jane getting a pack of cigarettes out of her purse and stepping out the back door into the back parking lot.  As I walked back to the cash register, I had a sudden realization. Jane reminded me of a female version of the Smoking Man from X-Files, one of the show’s primary recurring villains.  Her mouth and lips had the same shape as those of the Smoking Man, and seeing her with a cigarette triggered this association in my mind.  Maybe the bad guy’s mother from Kindergarten Cop and the Smoking Man had an affair sixty years ago, and Jane was their love child.

I looked at the rack of hardcover bestsellers at the front of the store.  The Rainmaker, by John Grisham.  Rose Madder, by Stephen King.  Beach Music, by Pat Conroy.  Jane told me that I could read when things were slow in the store, as long as I did not damage merchandise that I did not intend to buy.  I also got twenty percent off everything in the store. I had read a few Stephen King books before, and I was about to pick up Rose Madder when a man walked in.

“Hi,” I said, walking back to the cash register.

“Can you help me?  Where might I be able to find Rising Sun by Michael Crichton, in paperback?”

“I’ve read that book.  I liked it.”

“I did too.  It’s a gift for my father.  Did you see the movie?”

“I didn’t.”

“The book was better, to be honest.”

“That’s what I heard,” I said as we walked to where I thought the Michael Crichton paperback novels would be.  I looked around… they were not there. This section had mystery and horror and romance. I turned the corner… one side of this aisle had science fiction and fantasy, and the other side had nonfiction.  I checked to see if Rising Sun would be filed under science fiction; it was not.  It was not really science fiction, other than the fact that it involved a technology corporation.  I walked the entire length of that aisle and turned back up the next aisle, past greeting cards. I let out a resigned sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m new here. Let me go find out.”

I walked to the back of the store and opened the office door slightly, peeking inside. Jane looked up from her desk.  “Yes?” she asked.

“I’m sorry.  I still don’t know my way around the store, and a customer is looking for Michael Crichton.”

“That’s in Fiction.  Let me show you.” I followed Jane, thinking to myself that I knew that Michael Crichton was fiction but too embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten where the fiction section was.  I said nothing. Jane pulled the book off the shelf and gave it to the customer, who had followed us.

“I’ll ring him up,” I said, hoping to redeem myself after forgetting where to find fiction books.

“Okay.  Let me know if you need anything else.”  Jane returned to the office as I typed the amount and figured the sales tax on the cash register.

“Do you take Visa?” the customer asked as he got out his wallet.

“We do,” I said.  Another test for me: did I remember how to use the credit card machine?  As he swiped his card, the machine printed a receipt; I tore it off and gave it to him.  “Sign this, please,” I said. As he signed it, I pressed another button on the credit card machine.  A second copy of the receipt printed, which I gave him to keep as I stored the signed copy in a drawer of the cash register.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Have a great day!”

“You too!” the man replied, as he walked out of the store with his book.  I could not help but feel discouraged. Sure, I had been successful with the cash register, but I still had not learned such simple things as where different kinds of books were located.  My first test on the new job, and I felt like I had failed.

I was still curious to start reading Rose Madder, or at least see what it was about, but I had something more important to do.  Rose Madder would have to wait.  I walked up and down the shelves, learning where everything was located.  Fiction. Children’s books. Magazines. The books on school required reading lists.  Cliffs Notes. Nonfiction. History. Greeting cards. Art. Reference. Humor. All of the other things I had found when I was unsuccessfully looking for Michael Crichton.  

As I walked around, I was surprised to hear a familiar song on the radio, since the station that played classical music was always playing in the store.  It fit the kind of upscale image and clientele that Jane was marketing to. I knew very little classical music; most of the classical music I knew were pieces used in commercials, movies, or as the case was right now with this familiar song, old-timey cartoons.  It was the song that goes “da-DUN da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN,” and there was an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Elmer Fudd sang “Kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WABBIT!” to that tune. I think it was actually called something about valkyries.  I hummed along to the part I knew, which wasn’t very much of it, as I walked up and down the aisles again, learning where to find things.

Another customer came in shortly after the Valkyrie song ended.  “I’m looking for a really old science fiction book,” she said. “Where would that be?  Do you have a science fiction section?”

“Yes,” I said, confidently walking toward the back to the right, where I saw the science fiction section.  “What is the book you’re looking for?”

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein.”

“Wait,” I said, turning around.  The customer did not realize it, but it felt like life was asking me a trick question, but I knew the correct answer this time.  “We have a separate section for books that are on reading lists for schools that have summer reading assignments, and Stranger in a Strange Land is there.”  I walked up to the shelf of summer reading books, in the front left of the store, and pulled out a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, handing it to the customer.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I’m going to look around a bit.”

“Okay.  Just come up front whenever you’re ready.”

I walked back to the cash register, satisfied with myself.  Sure, I wasn’t able to help the customer who was looking for Michael Crichton, but I knew exactly where to find this other customer’s book.  The customer came to the front desk with two greeting cards (I knew exactly where in the store she found those) to go with her book; I rang her purchase on the cash register, she paid cash, and I gave her the correct change.

Working in a bookstore was new to me.  Working in general was new to me. I was still learning, but I shouldn’t beat myself up for making one mistake on the first day.  I would figure things out eventually. Paula was not working that day, and I was scheduled to work until 2:30; Jane would run the store by herself until it closed at 6:00.  When it was time for me to go, Jane told me that I could go home; I filled out my time card and said goodbye. I stepped outside; the sun had long since burned off the morning coastal fog, but a cool breeze kept the air from being too hot.  I walked back to the car, feeling optimistic about the new job, and I began humming that Valkyrie song again.

 

May 26-28, 1995. Friends far away.

By the time Memorial Day weekend arrived in late May, the weather in Jeromeville had become quite summer-like.  The bike ride from Wellington Hall to the South Residential Area only took five minutes, but I was doing that bike ride in 88-degree sunshine, so I was already starting to sweat by the time I got back to my dorm room.  It was the Friday before a three-day weekend, and I was drained from a long week of classes.  I unlocked my door and turned on the air conditioning.  Cool air began blowing into the room.  I took off my shoes and lay face down on the mattress, dozing off for about an hour.

I spent a couple hours writing emails and catching up on Usenet groups, and reading for fun.  Shortly before six o’clock, I walked to the dining commons. I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Ramon, Liz, Caroline, and Sarah at a table.  Next to Charlie was an empty seat with a half-empty glass of water on the table next to it. I could not tell if anyone was sitting there.

“May I join you?” I asked.  “Is that seat taken?”

“Go ahead,” Charlie replied.  “There’s always room for hydrochloric acid.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.  Charlie laughed. “That was random,” I said.

“I know.”

“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.

“I’m good,” I replied.  “It’s a three-day weekend, and they turned the AC back on.”

“I know!” Sarah said.  “It feels so nice!”

“So, Greg, what are you doing this summer?” Taylor continued.  “Will you be back home in Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Working?  Doing anything like that?”

“My mom told me the other day she found a job for me.  One of my brother’s friends, his mom works at this small bookstore.  I guess it’s just her and the owner working there. She wants to cut her hours for the summer to be around more when her son isn’t in school.  So Mom told her that I was going to be home for the summer, and I could use a part-time job.”

“And do you want to do this?”

“I wish Mom would have asked me first, although she did say I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to.  But I’m not going to be doing anything else all summer, I’ll be getting paid for it, and it’s a job I don’t have to go find and interview for.  So I’m ok with it.”

“Yeah,” Taylor replied.

“Good point,” Pete said.

I really would have preferred for Mom to have consulted me first before volunteering me to a commitment of several hours per day.  However, the thought of having to go find a job was terrifying, and this way I had something lined up without having to look for it, as I had told Taylor and Pete.  Besides, working in a bookstore sounded fun. Maybe I could sample the merchandise and read on slow days, and maybe I would get an employee discount.

We all went downstairs to check the mail after dinner.  When I saw an envelope with handwriting on it, I felt my heart race.  I had written that letter almost two weeks ago, not knowing what would happen, not even knowing for sure whom I was writing to.  How long did it take for a letter to travel from one end of the USA to the other anyway? And after she got it, she would need time to reply, and then her letter would have to travel back across the country to Jeromeville.  Would she write back right away? Maybe I sent it too early. She was still in the middle of finals when I wrote; she hadn’t moved home yet. Maybe her parents got it and interrogated her about why she was getting mail from this strange boy in another state.  Maybe her parents threw it away.

I removed the letter from the mailbox and looked at the envelope.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the return address. It was from Carol Allen in Plumdale. This was not the letter I was nervous about.  This was from someone I had known for years, who had already written me once this year.

I noticed that my friends were moving toward the Help Window, which meant that someone had to pick up a package too big to fit in the mailbox.  I walked over to where they were. “Someone got a package?” I asked.

“It’s for Caroline,” Sarah said.  “You got a letter from someone?”

“It’s from Mrs. Allen.  She was my English teacher in both 7th and 8th grade.”

“And she writes to you in college?  That’s so sweet!”

“I know.  This is the second time she has written.  My mom ran into her somewhere back home a few months ago, and she told Mom to tell me to write to her.”

“She sounds nice.”

“She is.  I was in her class when I was going through a really rough time.  I was at a new school in the middle of 7th grade, and I had had a lot of problems at my other school before that.  She really made me feel welcome and accepted. A lot of the teachers at my old school acted like they didn’t want to deal with me.  And I know that ‘a lot’ is two words, because Mrs. Allen always made a big deal of it whenever someone would write ‘alot’ as one word.”

Sarah laughed.  “That’s funny!”

“I knew ‘a lot’ was two words before Mrs. Allen’s class, but I still remember her making a big deal of it.”

“It’s funny how some teachers stay in your memory forever.  Like I had this math teacher who would always make the dumbest jokes.  He’d say, ‘What’s 4y minus 3y,’ and you’d answer ‘y,’ and he’d say ‘because I asked you.’”

I chuckled.  “That’s great.  And then there are some teachers who you remember for all the wrong reasons.  Like Mr. Milton, my history teacher from junior year. He made fun of Catholics and Republicans all the time.”

“That’s not nice.”

“I still remember all these random things I learned about history from his class, though, so he did something well, but I didn’t think he was very nice.”

I opened the letter from Mrs. Allen when I got back to my room.  

 


May 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

Sorry it has taken so long to write back, but I’ve been busy.  You know how it is. I’m sure you’re busy too. Jeromeville is on trimesters, if I remember right, so you should still be in your dorm room.  When is the school year over? Our last day is June 8.

I’m going to get a new computer and get online soon.  Mr. Coburn got us America Online at school, and he has been showing me how it works.  Once I figure out how to set it up, I’ll send you an e-mail. It looks like there are all kinds of interesting things you can do.

I went to the Titans game yesterday.  I got a partial season package again, so I have a ticket to 20 games.  I have a much better seat this year because a lot of people didn’t renew.  I knew that would happen after the strike. I’m so happy the strike is over!  I missed the Titans. I thought of you because the University of Jeromeville band played the pre-game show.

I hope everything is well with you.  Take care of yourself and good luck with finals!

Love,
Carol

P.S.  I think it will be OK for you to use my first name now.


 

The postscript at the end made me laugh.  Everyone knows that one does not address a teacher by his or her first name.  Mrs. Allen said it was okay to call her Carol, but I just would never be able to bring myself to do that.  It was okay now, because I was an adult, but it still sounded wrong. Mrs. Allen would always be Mrs. Allen to me.  That was just how things worked when addressing a teacher, even years or decades after being in that teacher’s class.

I did not know that the University of Jeromeville Band had played a pre-game show at a Titans game.  I had grown up watching Bay City Titans baseball, traveling up there with my family about three or four times a year to attend games in person.  But I had not been keeping up with the Titans, or baseball in general, this year. The end of the previous season had been canceled because of a players’ strike.  There was no World Series that year. Furthermore, Matt Williams, the Titans’ third baseman, had hit 43 home runs by the time the strike began in early August, possibly putting him in position to set a new record for home runs in one season.  The record at the time was 61. But the season was canceled, he had no chance to hit any more home runs, and in two more seasons with the Titans and seven with other teams, he never reached this level of power hitting prowess again. The strike had continued on into the 1995 season but was settled early in the season, and baseball had finally resumed at the end of April, a few weeks later than the usual start of the season.  I did get interested in baseball again eventually… but that is another story for another time.

 

The next morning, I got out of bed around nine.  That was sleeping in for me, the best I could do.  I studied and did homework for about two hours, then decided to reward myself with a bike ride.  I rode north to the Coventry Greenbelts, where I had ridden last week, and discovered a bike path skirting the northern edge of the city.  Riding west, the path passed fenced backyards on the left and some kind of drainage or irrigation canal to the right, with open fields on the other side.  The path turned south, with ends of culs-de-sac connecting to the path, before zigzagging west again and then south one more time. At this point, the drainage canal  entered the Jeromeville city limits, with a neighborhood of large luxury homes visible on the other side of the canal. I was not sure where this neighborhood was or what it connected to.  I saw a pedestrian and bicycle bridge cross the canal into that neighborhood, but I did not go that way.

The path turned south along a park with a playground, basketball courts, and an open grass area.  I rode past a sculpture of dominoes. The park then narrowed, so that fences of backyards came close to the path on either side, much like the other paths I had discovered last week.  After making several more turns, and not being sure of exactly which direction I was going now, the path narrowed to a small sidewalk, next to a parking lot. I appeared to be in the back of a large apartment complex.  I wondered which one; I probably had heard of it, from when I was looking through that apartment guide trying to find a place to live next year.

Suddenly, as I got closer to the actual buildings, riding through the parking lot, I realized that I knew exactly where I was.  Not only had I heard of this apartment complex, but I had looked at these apartments. I had even signed a lease here. This was Las Casas Apartments on Alvarez Avenue, and I was looking right at my home for next year, apartment 124.  This was convenient; my apartment for next year was right next to the Greenbelts. I would have a lot of opportunities to explore Jeromeville on my bike from my new apartment.

When I got back to campus, I checked my mail before going back up to my room.  All the anxious excitement I felt yesterday when I checked the mail came back when I saw the letter that I had been expecting the day before.  The return address said “M. Boyle,” with a box number and rural route in a town I had never heard of, called Muncy, Pennsylvania. My name and address had been handwritten on the envelope, in black ballpoint pen.

I started to hide the letter under my shirt, but then I remembered that I was all sweaty from having ridden my bike in warm weather for an hour.  I slid the letter in my front pocket and walked back to the building with half of the envelope sticking out. I made sure that no writing was showing on the part sticking out.  Something still felt weird about having this letter, and I did not want to have to talk to anyone about it.

I made it back to my room without seeing anyone and began reading.


May 23, 1995

Dear Greg,

Hello!  It’s nice to hear from you, and I hope this finds you well.  I’m good, except there’s a storm here. It’s raining pretty hard, with lightning.

Good luck on finals!  I got my grades a few days ago.  I ended up with two Bs, two Cs, and a D.  Not as good as I wanted. I’ll have to work harder next semester.

I’ve been bored and lonely much of the time since coming back home.  When I was at school, I was used to having everything within walking distance, but we live out in the country so everything is a 15 minute drive away.  And since I don’t have a car, I don’t get away from home that much. Most of my friends from college live far away, and my friends from home are either still in high school or have jobs.  I looked for a job, but I haven’t found anything yet. The bookstore you told me about sounds like it’ll be fun for you. Mostly I just want to get a job so I can get out of the house. But I need the money too or else I might not be able to go back next semester.  I know how you feel about not looking forward to summer, being away from your friends. I thought I would have a job by now, not stuck at home all the time.

I’ve pretty much given up on finding a boyfriend.  The only place I go is church and the guys there are either not interested or too old for me.  There are some dance clubs, but I don’t have a car so I can’t go to them.

Well, I hope I’m not some 37 yr. old pervert!  Just the idea makes me sick. Would your mom like to see my drivers license or school ID?  Anyway, write me back when you can I know you have finals coming up so I’ll wait until after that to expect something.  I’ll write maybe another letter before then. ☺

Bye,
Molly


 

When I wrote to Molly, I said that I was a little nervous, because my mother was fond of reminding me that all these girls I was meeting online were probably 37-year-old perverts named Chuck.  Molly was the first person I met on the Internet whom I had any sort of offline contact with. Apparently Molly did not find the image of Chuck as funny as I had.

Molly was my age, a freshman at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania.  Molly had already finished the school year, because Lock Haven was on a semester schedule, both starting and ending earlier in the year than Jeromeville with its quarter schedule. (Jeromeville quarters were technically trimesters; Mrs. Allen had correctly called them trimesters in her letter).  Molly moved back home, where she would not have access to email, so in her last email to me, she had given me her address.

And she actually wrote back.  I now had proof that someone I met on the Internet actually existed in real life.  Of course, technically she could have been lying about her age or gender or any number of things, but there was a real person behind those messages who took the time to write back.  Hopefully this summer I would be able to look forward to getting letters in the mail. And hopefully she was not really Chuck.

 

I spent most of Sunday studying, although I did make it to church Sunday morning.  In the late afternoon, when I finished everything I had hoped to get done, I got on my usual IRC chat channel.  Kim, a girl from Florida I had been talking to for a few months, was online, so I messaged her.

gjd76: hi
Happygirlkim: Hi Greg! How are you?
gjd76: doing well, it’s been a good weekend.  it’s been warm here, i like that
Happygirlkim: I bet!  I’m done with the school year, back home in Ft Lauderdale, but I’ll be working at a summer camp for kids for six weeks, I leave on June 16
gjd76: that’ll be fun, that’s the weekend i’ll be moving home
Happygirlkim: Yay! Any big plans for the summer?
gjd76: moving back home and working in a bookstore.  my mom knows someone there who got me the job
Happygirlkim: That’ll be fun!  Will you be hanging out a lot with your friends back home?
gjd76: i’m not sure.  i lost touch with a lot of them when i came here, and i didn’t see them often anyway when i was back home.  i don’t even know for sure who will be around for the summer.
Happygirlkim: I wish I lived closer to you!  I’d hang out with you! ;)
gjd76: that would be fun!
Happygirlkim: I think you’d like my friends!  You could come to the beach with us, we’d build a bonfire and stay up late just talking…
gjd76: :)
Happygirlkim: Maybe someday!
gjd76: hey, random thought, can i call you?

I typed that last line quickly and pressed Enter before I could talk myself out of it.  It was a sudden fleeting thought that passed through my mind, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask.  Now that I had gotten a letter from Molly, it seemed less scary to try to communicate with these girls from the Internet in other ways.

Happygirlkim: Sure!  Did you mean right now?
gjd76: sure, it’s sunday afternoon and long distance calls cost less on the weekend
Happygirlkim: 305-555-0115
gjd76: great! let me get off here, i’ll call you in just a minute

I logged out and disconnected.  Back in 1995, people connected to the Internet through telephone lines, so being logged in meant that I could neither send nor receive calls.  As soon as the computer was disconnected, I dialed Kim’s number, and just like when I had asked her if I could call, I pressed the buttons quickly, so I would not be able to talk myself out of completing the call.

“Hello?” a female-sounding voice said on the other end of the call.

“Is Kim there?” I asked.

“This is Kim.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.”

“Hi!”  Kim paused.  “It’s good to finally hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“So why don’t you see your friends back home very often?”

“Where I live, it’s kind of semi-rural and spread out.  And I didn’t really do much except go to school. I didn’t really have friends at all until the middle of high school.”

“You didn’t have a best friend in childhood or anything?”

“Everyone was mean to me.”

“I’m sorry.  And you said you didn’t have a girlfriend, right?”

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve had a lot of crushes on girls who were either out of my league or didn’t like me back.  One of my crushes from high school was named Kim too.”

“Girls named Kim are the best!”

“I know.” I chuckled.

“You haven’t met anyone in college?  Didn’t you tell me you were going to a movie with some girls recently?”

“One of them, we’ve had two classes together, I feel like we’re just going to be friends.  The other one, she’s really cute, and she’s been nice to me all year, but she’s a sophomore, I don’t know if she’d be interested in a younger guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”

“You never know.  It wouldn’t hurt to ask.  You’re such a sweetie. I bet all the girls like you, and you don’t even know it!”

“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get something to eat?’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go see a movie?’ or whatever.  You can do this. I believe in you.”

“I don’t know.  What if she already has a boyfriend?  Then I’ll look like an idiot.”

“But what if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but you never ask her?  You never know unless you try.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really didn’t know. Kim made it sound so simple, but it was so confusing and scary.  I had a sudden thought, something I had to know. I took a deep breath and asked, “If you lived nearby, and I asked you out, would you go out with me?”

“Yes, I would!”

“Thank you.  I wish we could.”

Kim and I talked for about another 20 minutes, just about life in general.  She told me more about her friends and about her summer job at the camp. I told her about my classes, exploring the greenbelts, and my upcoming finals.  I hoped we would have more conversations like this.

I have had other female friends from the Internet besides Kim telling me that I should have no trouble meeting a girl.  Things did not work that way in my world. It seemed like every girl I was ever interested in always seemed to have a boyfriend already, and without having ever had the experience of knowing that a girl liked me, I had no idea how to know if a girl liked me, and no reason to believe it would ever happen to me.  It was so easy to talk to girls I met on the Internet. Maybe I would have to go to Fort Lauderdale to get a girlfriend. Or Muncy, Pennsylvania.

Today, when kids go away to college, they have a much easier time staying in touch with their friends back home.  Today’s college students have text messages and social media and video chat and technologies that we only dreamed of twenty-five years ago.  I have found that I tend to remember most of my friends back home not staying in touch once I moved away, but when I really think about it, that is not entirely true.  Melissa and Renee and Rachel had been keeping in touch regularly. Janet Bordeaux, the girl whose mother and my mother often gossiped, had written me twice. Jessica Halloran had sent me a postcard from Guatemala.  And now Mrs. Allen had written me twice. I did eventually lose touch with all of those people until social media came along, but it did not happen as suddenly as I tend to remember. I think I also remember people not writing me because I focus on the fact that I had two new female friends and crushes who did not keep in touch.  Interestingly enough, I did not make much of an attempt to stay in touch with guys; I was just more comfortable communicating with girls, because boys were always so mean to me in elementary school.

Mrs. Allen and I have been in touch semi-regularly ever since then.  She did eventually get her email set up. She is now in her early 70s, retired from teaching.  A few years ago, the band AC/DC was touring, and she took her grandchildren to see them when they played Bay City.  I can only hope to be that badass at that age.

I lost touch with Kim sometime during sophomore year.  She just got busy with life, I guess; we never had any kind of falling out. But Molly and I stayed friends for a long time, well into our 30s.  In my late 20s, I did a lot of traveling around the USA, and I saw Molly in person twice when my travels brought me to her part of the country. We also never had any kind of falling out; we just grew apart as life got in the way.  The last time I heard from her was in 2009, and by then she was married and expecting her first child. Being a parent definitely changes one’s priorities.

Someone asked me once, as an icebreaker question, if I could have anything I wanted, without cost being an obstacle, what would it be?  I said I wanted a private jet with an unlimited supply of fuel, because I had friends all over the world that I wished I could spend time with.  It all started during that school year, my freshman year at UJ, meeting girls on the Internet. I still do have friends from all over the world. I don’t meet many people on the Internet anymore, because I gave up chat rooms in 2007, but I still have friends all over the world who I used to know in person that I wish I could visit, as well as chat room friends who I met before 2007 who stayed in touch.  And in three weeks, I would be back home in Plumdale, away from all my new Jeromeville friends. Hopefully at least some of them would write to me. And I would not be gone forever; I still had at least three more years at UJ.

1995 molly's first letter