January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” I replied.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.  “Good idea.”

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

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

“Yeah,” Sarah replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m great!”

“How’s your building?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, I thought.  What just happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Yeah,” Krista agreed.

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


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

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

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

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

One look can turn the daytime into night.

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

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

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

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

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


“One Look”

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


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

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

(September 2020. An interlude and a story about the time I got recognized in public.)

A while back, after I wrote the post about my last week of freshman year at UJ, I decided that every six months in my fictional chronology, I would take a break from the story and write about something else. Six months has passed in the story, so it is time for a non-story post. Last week’s episode ended on kind of a dark note, but the beginning of sophomore year was kind of a dark time for me. I spent a lot of time alone and wishing life was different. But some big things will be happening soon.

Anyway, if you are new here, welcome, and say hi. It is very nice to meet you. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story set in 1995 (so far) about a university student trying to make his way in life. I have been writing DLTDGB for almost two years now, since December 2018. It is based on my actual past, and I borrowed the title without permission from a line from a song popular at the time. If you have several hours to spare, you can start from the beginning and read the whole story.

I updated the dramatis personae a few days ago. I have introduced a lot of new people in the last few episodes. One thing that has kind of struck me as I have written this is how people come and go, in and out of the story. Sometimes I will realize that a certain story will be the last appearance of someone and wonder whatever happened to them. There is not always a good story behind someone’s disappearance; the most recent episode will probably be the last appearance of Mindy Jo, for example, and we just kind of grew apart for no particular reason as she stopped emailing as often. And I got the sense that a few of you who chose to comment were really rooting for me and Megan, but obviously that didn’t happen, and there will only be one more Megan episode. But that is life. If I am going to take on a project chronicling at least five and a half years of my life, there will naturally be people who were not an important part of all five and a half years.

Although I’m not doing this to get followers or be famous, I do enjoy comments on my posts, and it seems like I haven’t quite gotten as many recently. WordPress says I have 285 followers, but most of them I don’t know and don’t interact with. I suspect quite a few may be spam pages and the like. I know it goes both ways, though, and I try to read as many of your posts as I can, but I don’t have time to read everything, unfortunately. I’m glad I’ve made so many friends through blogging.

So, please, say hi. Leave a comment. Ask me anything that you are curious about. I will finish this post with an interesting story about the only time I’ve ever been recognized in public as a writer (kind of). I posted this on Facebook and Instagram back when it happened, in July, so some of you might have heard this story already. I was going to post four blog awards I have been tagged in over the last few months, but I’ll save those for a separate post in a few days so as not to make this too long.


I had an interesting encounter this morning (this is adult Greg writing in July 2020).

I found myself on the road on no schedule heading in the general direction of Jeromeville. I decided to turn off the freeway and drive through on city streets to the Happy Place (pictured below; see the 3/1/95 episode for more).

A while ago, I bought a huge pack of socks that didn’t fit me well, so I kept those socks in my car to give to homeless people. Yesterday, I approached the intersection across the railroad track from where Murder Burger used to be, and I passed two guys holding a sign. While the light was red, I rolled down the window and asked if they needed socks. One came up to me and said yes. He thanked me, and I told him to have a nice day. I was a little nervous at this point, wondering if the light would turn green soon, so I thought I wasn’t quite understanding when he said something that sounded like “I remember you.”

What could that mean? How can he remember me? I’ve never seen him before; I don’t even live here. Wait, who is this guy? Did he know me when I lived here 20 years ago? I just smiled and nodded, confused; maybe I told him to have a great day or something.

“I remember you,” he repeated. “You’re an author, right?”

Wait, what?

And then I remembered. Ten months earlier, I was in Jeromeville for a game night with people not connected to the fact that I used to live there. Before going to my friends’ house, I stopped at Murder Burger and took pictures of the newly vacant building, knowing that I would use them for the blog (I eventually did in the Mid-June 1995 episode). This guy saw me and asked if I knew what happened to that place. I told him I had just read in the local news that they closed a month ago. I told him a little about my writing and how I used to live there. He asked, “You’re writing a book?” I said no, I was just an amateur writing a blog just for fun.

Back to yesterday. “Yes,” I told him. “I remember now. I saw you last year by Murder Burger, and we talked about my writing.”

“Yeah,” he said.

The light turned green. “I have to go, but I’ll see you around,” I said. “Take care.”

“You too!”

I felt bad that this guy recognized me after one chance encounter that happened almost a year ago, and I didn’t remember at first. I’m not good with faces. I don’t know his name, and he doesn’t know mine. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, and if I do, I don’t know if I’ll recognize him again. I don’t know what I can do for him. But I can watch for him on future trips to Jeromeville, since he apparently knows me now.

About a minute later, I turned on OJ Road and realized that this whole encounter happened with neither of us wearing masks. I was in the drivers’ seat, and he was at the passenger side window, so we weren’t exactly breathing on each other, but that’s still less than six feet, and these days [COVID-19] you never can be too careful. I wiped down the part of the car that he may have touched, I sanitized my hands three times, and I rolled down the windows and left them down for half an hour. And this is one of the things I hate most about this pandemic, that we all now feel like we have to be afraid of each other like this. It isn’t natural or healthy to be so afraid of close contact.

When I got to the Happy Place, I prayed for this man, that his life would turn around and he would get back on his feet. I don’t know what I can do for him, but God made our paths cross for a reason.

November 10-12, 1995.  Creating a fantasy world.

The first World War ended on November 11, 1918, and many of the countries involved now observe a holiday on November 11.  The holiday goes by different names around the world; in the United States, we call it Veterans Day.  Many government offices are closed on Veterans Day, and students are off school.  When November 11 falls on a weekend, as it did this year, schools close on the nearest Friday or Monday.

Except for the University of Jeromeville.  We got no day off.  Even last year, when November 11 was on an actual school day, we got no day off.  I never knew why.  I wondered if this was a legacy of universities traditionally being full of anti-war hippie types who did not want to celebrate our military.  But we did get a day off in May for Memorial Day, the holiday commemorating those who died serving our country.  And the building I was walking through right now was called the Memorial Union, or the “MU” for short, named to remember UJ students who died in military service.

It had been a typical Friday so far.  My day started waiting in the hallway of Wellington Hall for math class, because another class occupied the classroom immediately before our class.  Jack Chalmers from my class said hi to a girl named Lizzie as she left that class and we entered the room for ours, just as he did every day.  Math was easy.  I crossed the street to the MU at 10 and did homework for an hour.  I met some tutees in 102 Wellington, the tutoring room, at 11.  I just learned that word this quarter working for the Learning Skills Center: “tutee,” meaning one who is being tutored.  Tutee is a great word.  At 12, I walked down Colt Avenue to 199 Stone for chemistry, and then back to the MU to eat lunch.  I got up, went to the bathroom, and walked back through the MU on the way to my physics class in Ross Hall when I saw her.

When I see a familiar face in a setting that this person is not normally connected to, my brain always takes a few seconds to register what I am seeing.  At first all I saw was two young-looking girls walking toward me.  They were both a little on the short side.  One wore a dark red sweatshirt with a hood and a brand name logo unfamiliar to me, and the other wore a black jacket with white sleeves, and a large letter P on her left side.  I recognized that this was a Plumdale High School letter jacket.

What is a Plumdale High School letter jacket doing in Jeromeville?  Who is this person?  Do I know her?

Holy crap, it’s her.  What is she doing here?  What do I say?

Just before she walked past me, I said, “Annie?”

The two girls stopped.  Annie, the one in the Plumdale High jacket, looked at me, looking just as surprised as I was at first until recognition came over her face a second later.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.  “Visiting your brother?”

“My boyfriend goes here now too,” Annie replied.

There it is again.  The B word.  I wondered whether she was still with the same boyfriend as last year, or if this was some new guy.  Either way, though, Annie’s boyfriend was not me.

“It was good seeing you,” I said.  “Have a great weekend!”

“You too!” Annie replied.  The girl she was with waved at me; I recognized this girl’s face, she was from Plumdale High too, but I could not remember her name.

My mind raced as I walked away from them, toward my physics class.  Annie Gambrell was here, in Jeromeville.  I had a chance to talk to her, and I felt like I blew it.  Should I have said more?  She seemed busy, and she was not here to visit me.  She had a boyfriend; she was not coming here to meet guys.  But I did not know when, or if, I would ever see her again.  Maybe I should have talked more.  Or maybe she doesn’t really care about me, and all that nice stuff she wrote in my yearbook senior year was just for the sake of being polite and she didn’t really mean it.  Should I tell Annie’s brother next time I see him that I ran into her?  Does he think it’s weird that I have an unrequited crush on his unavailable little sister, even though I haven’t actually told him anything other than that I know her?

After physics class, I had another tutoring group back in the study room at 102 Wellington.  “Hi,” the tall blonde guy who was just finishing a tutoring group at the table next to me said as I walked in.   I knew from looking at the schedule of tutoring groups in this room that his name was Scott Madison.  He looked familiar for some reason, but maybe I was just used to seeing him here.

“Hi,” I replied to Scott.  I then turned to two of the three students in my group who were already waiting and asked, “Are you ready to get started?”

My tutoring group went as they usually do.  These students were in Short Calculus, Math 16A, for majors which do not require any math above calculus.  Their work focuses on finding and applying derivatives of functions without studying the theory and proofs behind derivatives.  I did not enjoy tutoring the Math 16 series as much as I did the 21 series, for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, because it was difficult for me, as a math guy, to gloss over the theoretical stuff.  But I got paid to do so, and I did my best, hoping not to confuse the students too much.

At four o’clock, when the tutoring group was finished, I walked diagonally across the Quad to the Learning Skills Center in Krueger Hall to turn in my time sheet for tutoring, as I did every other Friday, then back along East Quad Avenue to catch a bus home from the MU.  A few hours later, after napping and eating, I returned to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I drove this time, because parking is easy to find and slightly less expensive in the evening.

Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis were standing around talking on the far side of the lecture hall where the group was held; I walked over to them and said hi.  The four of them all lived in the same apartment complex, the boys in one apartment and the girls in another, and all of us were in the same dorm last year.

“Hey, man,” Taylor said.  “How’s it goin’?”

“Pretty good,” I replied.

“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.

“One of my friends from high school, she’s a senior this year, I saw her and her friend walking around campus today.  It was unexpected.”

“What was she doing here?” Krista asked.  “Touring the campus?”

“Her brother goes here.  I know him.  And she said her boyfriend goes here too.”

“So was she skipping school?” Taylor asked, adding sarcastically, “I don’t know anything at all about skipping classes…”

“She probably didn’t have school today,” I explained.  “Tomorrow is Veterans Day.  We always got that off in high school.”

“Oh yeah.  It’s a holiday.”

“Why don’t we get Veterans Day off?” Charlie asked rhetorically.  “It’s not fair.”

“It’s supposed to be a holiday?” I heard Jason Costello’s voice say behind me.

“Tomorrow is Veterans Day,” I explained, turning around.  Ramon Quintero and his girlfriend Liz Williams were with him; they were all in our dorm last year as well.  “I don’t know why Jeromeville doesn’t get it off, but I noticed that last year too.”

There had been no JCF the week before, because the group had been on a retreat with sister chapters of this organization at other colleges and universities in the region.  I had not attended the retreat, but most of my friends here did.  Taylor and Charlie were talking about something that happened to Pete Green, Taylor and Charlie’s third roommate, at the retreat.  “Where is Pete tonight anyway?” I asked.

“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.

“Visiting his family there?”

“Yeah.”

I heard someone from the worship band welcoming us to JCF and saying that it was time to get started.  As the band played, and sang along to lyrics being displayed on an overhead projector, my eyes scanned the front of the room, watching the people on the worship team.  I saw the drummer and realized something: it was Scott Madison, the other tutor who had said hi to me this afternoon.  That was why he looked so familiar; this was my third time at JCF, and I had probably seen him play drums here before.  At the end of the night, I said hi to him and formally introduced myself; he seemed like a nice guy.  (A few years later, Scott would become the first non-relative to invite me to his wedding, and I still get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.)

 

Although my Friday had ended on a good note, I woke up feeling down again on Saturday morning.  It was a cool and gloomy day, with gray skies that threatened rain.  Summer in Jeromeville is sunny and hot, and winter is relatively mild compared to much of the United States.  It only snows high in the mountains, snow here on the valley floor is very rare, but rain is fairly common in the winter.  And the transition period from summer to winter is very short, usually occurring around early November.  Winter had arrived earlier this week, and it was supposed to rain intermittently all weekend.  Rain made me sad and anxious.

I spent the morning doing homework and reading.  By mid-afternoon, some patches of blue sky had appeared, and the threat of rain had passed, so I went for a bike ride.  I started riding through the Greenbelts, then back down G Street toward downtown, but despite keeping myself busy, I kept thinking about my chance encounter with Annie yesterday.  Why hadn’t I asked for her address or phone number, so I could try keeping in touch?  I subconsciously knew that there was no point, though.  I had given her my address at Plumdale High’s Homecoming a year ago and never heard from her, and knowing that she had a boyfriend made it feel futile to pursue anything, although I would have been happy just being friends.

Two years ago, I was a senior at Plumdale High, and I felt like I grew a lot that year.  I finally had a social life, and I made new friends, including Annie.  But then I graduated, I moved away, many of my senior class friends moved away in different directions, and I lost touch with many of my friends.  There was no texting or social media in those days, and only a few of my friends used email, so it was difficult to keep in touch.  And despite all that, I still felt like I was on the outer fringes of the social circle in high school, not really one of them.

I wished that the events of my senior year had happened during sophomore or junior year instead.  That way, I might have had time to solidify some of those friendships before we scattered.  Maybe I would have learned how to actually ask a girl out.  Maybe Annie would have broken up with her boyfriend, and I would have been able to use those new skills.

What if I just ran away and pretended to be in high school again?  What would that be like?  What would it take?  A fake birth certificate would probably be hard to find.  Maybe I wouldn’t need one.  Maybe I would just need fake transcripts to show to the new school.  Being 19 and still in high school was unusual, but not exactly unheard of.  My birthday came right at the start of the school year, so I started kindergarten when I was barely 5.  Some parents would have chosen for me to start kindergarten the following year.  My parents did that with my brother Mark; with his birthday in October, they chose to wait until he was almost 6 to put him in kindergarten.  Mark would turn 18 in the fall of 1999, early in his senior year, and someone his age who had repeated a grade in elementary school would be a 19-year-old senior.

Could I do this?  Would it be possible to fake my identity and get a second try at my senior year of high school?  Probably not.  Lying on important documents like transcripts seemed too dishonest and illegal for me to be comfortable with it.  But, I thought, all of this seemed like a great premise for a work of fiction.

I had been writing again in my spare time recently.  Last year, I wrote a short novel called The Commencement, based on all the growing up I did as a senior in high school.  I had been revising and expanding it lately, and it was up to 62 pages.  I was running out of ideas for how to expand The Commencement, so maybe it was time to work on something new.

As I continued riding my bike that afternoon, along the entire length of the Arboretum and back up Andrews Road toward home, I kept thinking about faking my identity and going back to high school.  How would that be possible?  Maybe this story would take place at a different point in life; going back to high school now seemed like too much of a stretch, and none of my thoughts led to anything realistic.  Maybe my character would run away while he was a senior in high school, and go to a new school in a new town, pretending to be two years younger.  I would focus my writing on everything he dislikes about life, and all of his unfinished business, to make the desire to run away real.  But if he is not an adult, how can he just do this, and where would he go?  That was easy; I could make him turn 18 early in his senior year.  And I could give him divorced parents living far from each other, so he would have the option to go move in with the other parent.

When I got home from my bike ride, I showered and put a frozen dinner in the microwave.  I put on some music from high school, starting with Pearl Jam’s Ten album, and began writing.  I started my novel, which was still untitled at this point, by quoting a song lyric, as Stephen King often did with his novels, then proceeded to set the scene of a character who felt like he did not fit in with his friends.


“I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life”
—Pink Floyd

1

“Where were you this morning?” Ryan asked Sara.

“I was…” Sara paused.  “Sleeping in,” she said, with a mischievous grin on her face.

Sleeping in? Jon thought.

“You missed class?” Becky teased.

“He said we didn’t have to come today,” Sara said defensively.  “He was just doing a review for the test tomorrow.  I needed a break, and I feel prepared for the test.”  Jon began to feel somewhat angry after hearing this.

“How did you get out of band?” Kate asked.  “Does Mr. Jackson know you were gone?”

“He knows,” Sara said.  “He knows I had to see the dentist.”  Sara and the others laughed.  All except Jon.  Some people could just do whatever they wanted and not get caught.  But if Jon tried it, he would get stopped at the gate because ___ High School was a closed campus.  It wasn’t fair.


I left the name of the school blank.  I had not decided yet where Jon and his friends lived.  I usually wrote about places familiar to me, so they would have to live somewhere back home in Santa Lucia County, or Jeromeville, or maybe across the Drawbridge from Jeromeville in Capital City, or maybe Bidwell where my dad had family.  But it would make more sense to have Jon run away to one of those places familiar to me, and to have the story open somewhere else, somewhere more interesting.  I thought about different cities and states that had been on my mind recently and settled on San Diego, California, where my friend Pete had once lived and was currently visiting his family.  I could ask Pete next time I saw him to suggest a good name for a high school in San Diego.

I continued writing about Jon’s day.  Jon heard his friends talk about college applications, and about movies they liked that Jon had never seen, and movies they hated that Jon liked.  I wrote about Jon’s feelings of inferiority regarding a lack of extracurricular activities for college applications, and a conversation he had with the school counselor about this, and more laments in Jon’s head about not belonging and not feeling good enough.  I thought back to yesterday when I ran into Annie Gambrell and wrote this scene for the end of Jon’s school day.


“Jon! What are you doing?”  He looked up at Kelly ___, one of the few underclassmen he knew.  He met her last month while interviewing her for the yearbook, doing the page on the women’s’ JV cross-country team.  Sometimes Jon thought that the fact that women’s’ JV cross-country got two whole pages in the yearbook was just part of an international conspiracy that ensured that certain people, who were labeled “popular,” got in the yearbook at least twenty times every year whereas other people only got in once.  This was the same conspiracy that invented Homecoming Queens and the modern system of student government.  Jon had nothing against women’s sports, or unpopular sports; he just didn’t like being unpopular.

“Hi.”  Jon looked up and saw that she was with a friend.  He thought the friend’s name was Nicole, but he did not know her.

“What are you doing?  Waiting for someone?” Kelly asked.

“No.  Just…” he paused.  “Thinking.”

“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.

“I’m all right.  I just kind of had a rough day.”

“Don’t worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Jon replied.  “See you later.” Jon really liked Kelly.  She seemed really nice, and she was pretty too.  She had a beautiful smile.  Unfortunately, she already had a boyfriend.  Jon got in his truck and drove home, thinking about what it would be like to have a relationship with Kelly.


I thought about making the last name for the Annie character something that sounded like Annie, or like Gambrell.  The only thing I could think of was “Aniston,” the last name of one of the actors on the TV show Friends.  There was no way I would name someone in my story after Friends, so I left it blank and moved on.

I spent most of the rest of that weekend writing, finishing chapter 1 and half of chapter 2, establishing the mood of Jon feeling out of place and wanting to start over, wanting more time to live the high school experience.  I also mentioned that Jon’s father lived five hundred miles away in Capital City, with a second wife who had two children of her own.

I never did see or hear from Annie again after that day.  I could have asked her brother to get in touch with her for me, I saw him at church the next day, but that just felt weird.  Annie was off limits because she had a boyfriend.  But I continued to work on this novel for the next several months.  I had no plans to act out the premise of this novel, to run away and go back to high school, nor did I have a realistic way of doing so.  I knew that that would never happen.   But it was interesting to think about, and fun to put these thoughts on paper.  If they could not happen in real life, I could create a fantasy world where these things happened, as long as I knew that it was just fantasy and did not let it consume my life.


Author’s note: Yes, these are actual excerpts from a novel I wrote in 1995-96.  More about that later.

Also, in real life it’s my birthday!  Well, yesterday was.

2020. A note from the author.

Hello, friends.  I started this project fourteen months ago, and now that I have reached a natural stopping point in the story, I will be taking a break for a few weeks, maybe more; we’ll see.  Life is busy.  I need to plan what I’m going to write about for the next school year in the story.  I also have a few related tasks I’m going to work on; for example, I need to organize some notes to myself, so I can stay consistent with characters’ names and such.  There are already at least three Mikes, two Jennifers, and three Kims in the story (although to be fair those were common names for people my age).

This is not a regular post.  If you are new to DLTDGB, it is an episodic continuing story about a university student in the western USA in the 1990s.  Scroll down to other posts to read some of these stories. Or if you are in this for the long haul, click here to start from the beginning.

One of the related tasks I’ve been meaning to do is complete: I made a playlist of all the music I used in year 1 of DLTDGB (42 songs).  It is mostly early and mid-1990s “alternative rock” and pop-rock, along with some classic rock, because that is what I was listening to at the time period I am writing about (and I was going through a big Pink Floyd phase at the time, so they’re in there several times).

 

Anyway… I definitely want to thank you all so much for your support.  I have enjoyed getting to know those of you who have interacted with me and shared this journey through my past.  Hopefully you have found something in my story that has influenced you positively.

But I want to hear from you.  I have a lot of thoughts about this.

Do you have any comments or suggestions on this project?  How am I doing? Is it easy to follow, or is my storytelling too confusing?  Are the episodes too long? Too short? Just right? Does it depend on the story I’m telling?  

Should I change the title of the blog?  I took the title from a song lyric from the time period I am writing about, but I did so without permission from the artist, so if this blog gets too big I might have to change it.

I wonder sometimes if I have too many characters.  I’m not really sure how I can do this project without a lot of characters, though (and this is why I included a dramatis personae page).  But do I need more character development for the minor characters, or does that not really work well for short episodes told by me?  Should I name other characters by just their first names, or would it make it easier to remember if I referred to more people by first and last names at least once per episode?  Do I need more physical descriptions of what the other characters look like?

Of course, DLTDGB is based on true stories and real people, but I have taken liberties with many of the details, particularly conversations.  I don’t remember every word of every conversation from 25 years ago, obviously. I also made some minor changes for artistic reasons.  For example, I know I did not actually listen to Bush on the way home from my last day in the dorm because I never owned that album until I got it at a used music store in my late 30s. I wrote that in because I want to end every school year with the song that this blog is named after, but that song was not released to radio until early in my sophomore year, so the album was the only way I could have known the song by the end of freshman year.  Another obvious example: the episode about the “football championship” did not use any actual NFL team names or trademarks, and the real life events that inspired that story happened during a regular season game, not the championship game.)

But I still wonder, how much should I deviate from the truth?  Should I keep it mostly true in broad strokes as much as possible and just fill in the details, as I have been so far?  If I have a story from another time in my life that would make a good DLTDGB episode, can I adapt such a story and pretend it happened in Jeromeville in the 1990s?  Or would that take away from the integrity and truth of this project? I suppose ultimately only I can answer this question, since this is my writing project, but I am curious what people think about this.

I am also unsure exactly when to end the project.  My original thought was to go up through December 31, 1999, since that is the last day of the 1990s, and then tie up a few loose ends with some “epilogue” stories set in 2000 and later.  I am still leaning toward doing this.  I also considered continuing the main narrative up to July 2001, since that is when I actually moved away from Jeromeville, but it seems like most of my most interesting stories happened before then, and if I deviate from the truth slightly, as I mentioned before, the most interesting stories from 2000 and 2001 I can probably rewrite as if they happened earlier.

So, yes, please share if you have any thoughts about any of the above, or about anything else, or if you just want to say hi.  I can also answer questions about anything you read on here, although I might give incomplete or evasive answers if answering your question would give away major spoilers for future episode.  (I know, for example, multiple people have asked me what my career is as an adult.  I have not answered that question, because I will eventually write about experiencing the process of exploring and discovering careers throughout most of 1997, and since I am still today in the same career field that I settled on before finishing my undergraduate studies at UJ, answering this question would give away things that I will write about later.)

Early April, 1995. Tear down the wall.

The University of Jeromeville is on a three quarter schedule.  My classes last for one-third of the school year instead of the traditional half-year.  Year-long classes are still year-long classes, but split into three parts instead of two.  Winter break falls one-third of the way through the year, which is why UJ starts and ends later than most universities. The spring break at the end of March, which had just passed, comes two-thirds of the way through the year, so that this coming Monday morning I would have new spring quarter classes.  The terms are called quarters even though there are three of them.

Right now, it was early afternoon on the Saturday at the end of spring break.  I had left my parents’ house in Plumdale around 11 in the morning and stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s in Irving just off Highway 6, where I had Chicken McNuggets.  I hadn’t yet outgrown Chicken McNuggets at age 18; that would happen over the next year or so. I arrived back at Building C a little before two o’clock.

The entire South Residential Area was quiet.  Most normal students waited until Sunday night to return to Jeromeville, because most normal students preferred to be at home on vacation and not back at school.  I would rather be here. It was quieter here than at my parents’ house.  I didn’t have friends in Plumdale. And, perhaps most importantly, my computer was here. I didn’t take my computer home, and there was no way to access the Internet from my parents’ house.

It wasn’t exactly correct to say that I didn’t have friends in Plumdale.  Melissa Holmes was home for break the same week I was, and we had gone to see some of our old teachers at Plumdale High.  I stayed until lunch time and saw many of my teachers and some friends from younger classes, including Rachel Copeland, the only younger friend at Plumdale High who had kept in touch with me consistently.  That was a great day.

I checked my email, and today’s date on the incoming messages caught my eye: April 1.  April Fool’s Day. I got an idea. I opened a new email and copied and pasted the list of email addresses for all 70 students in the IHP.


Dear friends,

I have really enjoyed being part of the IHP with all of you these last two quarters.  Unfortunately, some circumstances have changed back home, and I will be unable to finish out the school year here at UJ.  I hope to stay in touch with all of you, and I might be back someday when everything gets sorted out.

Sincerely,

Greg

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APRIL FOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂 Gotcha!


 

After I sent my April Fool email, I replied to Molly Boyle, an online friend from Pennsylvania, telling her about my visit to Plumdale.  I got to thinking about Plumdale High… I really needed another year there.  Sure, I was done with classes, but I grew so much senior year, I made new friends and had so many new experiences, and then we all graduated and moved away, leaving what felt to me like unfinished business.  I was the quiet kid who kept to myself and did homework at lunch, then all of a sudden I was performing in skits and working behind the scenes in the video yearbook club, and popular kids whom I barely knew were talking to me like old friends.  But I never got the chance to get more involved with school activities. I never got the chance to find out if Jennifer Henson actually liked me, or if Annie Gambrell really meant anything when she told me to keep smiling. But I had a great story to tell.  I decided I was going to make something of my senior year, and I did, even if everything I was building ended abruptly. It was the kind of story that could be made into a movie, or a novel.

Wait a minute, I thought.  I opened Microsoft Word and started typing.

Roar Like A Panther
A Novel
by Gregory J. Dennison

That was a dumb title.  I would fix it later, when I thought of something better.

“Tom,” Mom called out to me.  “Telephone call.”

I hated taking telephone calls.  I have always been really shy on the telephone.  I figured I knew who it was calling. I took the telephone into the next room.  “Hello?”

“Hey, Tom.  It’s Nancy.”  As I had suspected.

“Hi.”

“How’s your spring break going?”

“Fine.  And yours?”

“I haven’t really done much,” she said.  “I’ve just been hanging out with my family.”

“I saw a movie with Kate,” I said.

“How is she?”

“She’s doing fine.  We didn’t really talk much, though, but it was nice to see her anyway.”

“So anyway, I was going to go visit Mrs. Jordan tomorrow.  Do you want to come with me?”

“Sure!” I said.  “At the school?”

“Yes.  They’re still in school this week.”

“Right.  What time?”

“Is 8:30 all right, or is that too early?”

“Yes.  That’s fine.”

“Great!” Nancy exclaimed.  “I’ll see you there.”

“Bye,” I said.  I hung up.

I wrote for hours, telling about my senior year as well as I could remember, except that I changed most of the characters’ names.  Melissa was Nancy; one time in high school, she complained that someone said she looked like her name should be Nancy, so I figured I’d go with it.  Catherine became Kate; that one didn’t change as much.  Mrs. Norton changed to Mrs. Jordan. That one didn’t really mean anything. My name in the story was Tom, because this was going to be the next Great American Novel, and I noticed once that so many great works of American literature that I had to read in school had a character named Tom.  Tom Sawyer. Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath. Thomas Putnam from The Crucible.  Tom Robinson from To Kill A Mockingbird.  Tom Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie.

Every once in a while, as I was writing, I walked down the hallway to drink from the water fountain; I also used the bathroom on those trips down the hall if I needed to.  I always tend to do this as I write. I’m not sure if it helps my brain work, or if it is more of a distraction. By the time I went to bed that night, shortly after eleven o’clock, I had already written the story of my senior year of high school up until mid-November, filming other classes’ projects for my computer graphics and video production class and meeting Annie Gambrell (or Laurie Hampton, as I called her in my novel).

 

Church on Sunday was emptier than usual, and I continued writing as soon as I got home.  Later in the afternoon, I started to hear more people walking around. Around three o’clock, I got up to use the bathroom, and I walked around the rest of the building, starting on the first floor.  The common area and study room took up almost half of the first floor, and the door of the room closest to the common area was open. I poked my head inside.

This room belonged to a short brown-haired girl named Heather Beck, but no one ever called her Heather.  She always had other Heathers in her classes growing up, so her friends started calling her Beck, and that mutated somehow into Bok, which is the nickname everyone called her now.  (Bok rhymes with rock.) Bok was good friends with Skeeter from the third floor; both of them were free-spirited artsy hippie types, although I never saw either of them wear the stereotypical tie-dye with Birkenstocks.

“Hey, Greg,” Bok said, looking up at me through her glasses.  She and Skeeter were sitting on the floor, looking at what appeared to be old newspapers spread flat on the floor.  “How was your break?”

“It was good.  I visited my old high school.  That was interesting.”

“I’m sure it was,” Skeeter said.  “I got this over break.” She gestured toward the pile of newspapers, and I saw in the middle of them a large sheet of high-quality paper with abstract green, gray, red, and brown swirls on part of it, along with a fancy set of watercolor paints, a few small brushes, and a cup of water.

“Nice!” I said as Skeeter painted black dots with long tails floating in a spiral arrangement.  “Is it bad that I can’t really tell what you’re painting?”

“I don’t know,” Skeeter shrugged, smiling, as Bok painted a blue-gray cloud shape at the other empty end of the paper.  “These look like sperm. The rest of it is just stuff. By the way, that was a great April Fool’s joke. Good one.”

“Thanks.”

“What was the joke?” Bok asked.

“I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t seen it yet,” Skeeter explained.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how your painting turns out,” I said.  “I started writing a novel yesterday.”

“Really?” Bok asked.  “You write?”

“I don’t know.  This isn’t really something I’ve done before.  When I was younger, I used to make comic books and copy them on the copier at my mom’s work.  I’d sell them to my brother’s friends for a quarter. But I’ve never really written prose… at least I’ve never finished a novel.”

“How long is it going to be?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s it about?”

“A coming of age story.  Based on my life last year.  I was thinking about this when I visited my old high school last week.”

“Makes sense,” Skeeter said.  “Let me know when you finish it.”

“Me too,” Bok added.

 

Monday was the first day of class for the quarter.  I had math first thing in the morning, as I always did, except this quarter it was nine o’clock instead of eight.  I had a whole hour more to sleep in every morning. I recognized some familiar faces from previous math classes: Jack Chalmers from Building F,  Tiffany from Building K, and a cute redhead from last quarter.

“Greg!” Jack said, speaking quickly as he always did, as we waited for the class that met an hour earlier in the same room to finish.  “How was your break?”

“Good,” I said.  “I went to visit my old high school.  How was yours? You went to Santa Lucia, right?”

“Yeah!  Did you say to take the 122 or 127 to Santa Lucia?”

“127.  Why? What happened?”

“On the way down, we couldn’t remember, so we took the 122 instead.  It was beautiful!”

“Really?” I asked.  “That’s a really windy mountain road, from what I remember.”

“It was great!  My friend has a brand new car that handles mountain roads really well, so we really enjoyed the drive.  And on the way back we took the 127. That was so much faster! It was only five miles to cut over to the coast.  Thanks again for the directions!”

“Glad you had a great drive!” I said.  I was surprised at his reaction. My mother apparently had a bad experience with mountain roads once, so she raised me to believe that mountain roads were the most frightening thing ever, to be avoided at all costs.  Apparently it was evident from Jack’s reaction that not all people think this way.

My math class that quarter was vector calculus.  I also had chemistry and physics later that day. I was taking a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law, but that class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, not today.

When I got back to Building C, Taylor, Pete, Liz, and Ramon were sitting on one couch in the common room, talking to Schuyler Jenkins and  a girl named Jenn who lived next to Pete, sitting on another couch. I waved at them.

“Greg!” Jenn said.  “You’re leaving us?”

I was confused by Jenn’s question, trying to process what she meant by leaving, but when Pete and Taylor started laughing, I realized what was going on here.  “You didn’t read all of my email, did you,” I said.

“Huh?” 

“It was an April Fool’s joke,” Taylor explained.

“Oh my gosh!” Jenn exclaimed, laughing.  “I can’t believe I fell for that!”

“Done with classes for the day?” Taylor asked.

“Yeah.  It was a good day so far.  I still have Psych-Law tomorrow.”

“Liz and I are in that class too,” Ramon said.

“I’ve been writing a novel for fun,” I said.

“Wow,” Taylor replied.  “What’s it about?”

“It’s a coming-of-age story.  It’s about my life last year.”

“Was your life really that interesting?” Schuyler asked in a dry deadpan tone.

“It was, actually.  That’s why I decided to write about it.”

“I didn’t know you liked to write.”

“It’s kind of new for me too.  I just felt like it. I’ve always had a creative side I don’t show much, but writing like this is kind of new for me.”

“Good luck with that,” Jenn said.

“Let me know when you’re done,” Liz said.  “I’ll read it.”

“Okay.  I will.”

 

I spent most of my free time during the first week and a half of spring quarter writing my story.  On Friday, I got back from my last class in the afternoon, ready to write the chapter where we took our senior trip to Disneyland.  But before I could get up to my room, I saw Skeeter and Bok in the common room working on two paintings. One of them was the one I had seen in Bok’s room a few days earlier, with the spiral of sperm, but the sperm had been painted over so that now they looked like crosses.  Someone had written “the downward spiral” at the bottom of the page. I was vaguely aware of this phrase being the title of an album by the band Nine Inch Nails. I had no idea that this band, or their genre of industrial rock, even existed until a few months ago; no one listened to that back home in Santa Lucia County, at least no one I knew.

The other painting was a new one.  The paper was in portrait orientation, the longer dimension vertical.  A long light green stripe, almost straight, ran across the painting from left to right, with a dark green stripe just below it.  The upper left corner had multicolored swirls, and something resembling a Venus flytrap was in the lower left, its mouth open to reveal red teeth.  Directly above the Venus flytrap was a large orange circle, touching the green stripe. Skeeter was painting a pink swirly whooshy thing (I’m not good at describing abstract art) coming down from the orange ball.

“Hi,” I said in Skeeter and Bok’s general direction.

“Bok turned my sperm into crosses!” Skeeter said, sounding jokingly angry.

“I didn’t know you wanted them to be sperm!” Bok argued back.

“I think it’s interesting either way,” I said.

“Come paint with us,” Skeeter said, handing me a brush.  On the right edge of the new painting, on top of a yellow spot, I painted twelve dark dots in a circle, with a thirteenth dot in the middle.  I added some thin horizontal stripes to the left of this, just above the center of the paper.

“I like that Venus fly trap thing,” I said.

“That was my idea,” Bok replied.  “So were the crosses.”

“They’re sperm,” Skeeter said.

“How’s your story coming along so far?” Bok asked.

“I’m getting there.  I’ve been writing a lot.”

“That’s cool.”

We continued talking and painting for about another hour.  I added some abstract patches of color in the upper right, and Skeeter eventually painted a bunch of parallel diagonal lines on top of it.  The pink swirly whooshy thing was extended toward the bottom of the page, where it split into several branches; other colored swirly whooshy things were added next to it, coming down from the parallel lines I painted.

When the page was filled with color, Skeeter said, “It needs a title.”

Flytrap,” Bok suggested.

“I don’t know.  That seems kind of obvious.”

I looked at the painting, the green stripe across its length, the horizontal lines just below  now emanating from long curved strokes of different colors.  I thought about the other painting, The Downward Spiral, how it had been named after a song and album.  I had been listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall earlier that day, a rock opera about a musician who deals with trauma by isolating himself from society and eventually becoming delusional.  Toward the end of the album, in a song called “The Trial,” the character’s life is presented as a judge accusing him of having human feelings, as if doing such is a crime.  The song ends with repeated chants of “Tear down the wall!”

“How about Tear Down The Wall?” I asked.

Skeeter and Bok looked at me.  “I like it,” Bok said. “I think it fits.”

“It’s got this wall separating the two sides,” Skeeter explained, tracing the green stripe in the middle.  “And there’s all this tension building up against the wall here,” she added, pointing to the horizontal lines just below the wall.  “Go ahead, Greg. Add the title.”

I painted TEAR DOWN THE WALL in black paint, in between the orange ball and the Venus fly trap.  Later that night, when the paint was dry, Skeeter and Bok taped both Tear Down The Wall and The Downward Spiral to the wall in the common room, where they stayed for the rest of the school year for all of Building C to admire.

 

I finished writing my story the following Monday, after I got back from my classes.  At 51 pages and about 33,000 words, it was a little short to be called a novel, but it was still the longest piece I had ever written, and it had only taken ten days.  I loaded the printer with paper, but before I started printing, I went all the way back to the first page and deleted the title. Roar Like A Panther was a stupid title, and I knew it all along.

The Commencement
A Novel
by Gregory J. Dennison

Graduation ceremonies are also called commencement ceremonies.  To commence means to begin, which at first seems like a counterintuitive title since graduation is the end of school, not the beginning.  But a commencement ceremony is the beginning of real life. And my senior year of high school felt like the beginning of something new in my life.  This was definitely a better title.

When my hard copy of The Commencement finished printing, I punched holes in the pages and put it in a report folder with a clear cover.  I wanted other people to read it, so I could find out what they thought of my story. I brought it with me to the common room after dinner, where I sat doing homework and waiting for someone with whom I felt comfortable sharing The Commencement.  Liz and Ramon walked by about fifteen minutes later.  “Hey, Greg,” Liz said. “What’s up?”

“I finished my story,” I replied, holding up The Commencement.

“That’s cool!  Can I read it?”

“Sure.  I’d like to know what you think.”

“Do you need it back in a hurry?”

“No.  Just eventually when you’re done.”

“I don’t know how long it’ll take.  But I’ll let you know.”

I smiled.  “Thank you.”

“No problem.  I think this is really cool.  I hadn’t pictured you to be a writer.”

“Thanks.  I don’t know if I had either.”

 

Skeeter and Bok were painting in the common room again three days later, and Pete, Charlie, and Liz were all on the floor painting too.  Bok’s stereo had been temporarily moved to the common room, and a strange song played, with a vocalist speaking monotonous rhythmic lyrics over a bass-driven melody.  It sounded like some kind of blend of rock, rap, and funk.

“Hi, Greg,” Liz said.  “You like our painting?”

“I do.”  This painting had four distinct quadrants arranged in a two-by-two grid, each with a distinct color scheme.  One was shades of gray; one was pale pastel-like colors; one had swirls of simple, bright colors, like red and blue; and one had dark shades of brown, olive green, midnight blue, and black.  The painting was almost finished, there was not much more to do, so I just made blobs and swirls of color, trying to stay close to the colors near what I was painting.

“What’s this music?” I asked.

“Cake,” Bok said.

“What?”

“A local band from Capital City, called Cake.  My friend and I went to their show the other day.  Apparently they’re going to be the next big thing.”

“They sound different.  But I kind of like it.”

“That’s how I feel about them too.”

“I finished your story,” Liz said.  “I put it over there on the coffee table.  I really liked it.”

“Thank you!”

“It sounds like you really enjoyed your senior year.”

“I did.  I feel like I was really growing.  And then it all suddenly stopped.”

“But now you’re here.  And you’re still growing.”

“Yes, I am,” I said.  Liz was right.  Sure, I never got to be in another Homecoming skit, and I never got a date with any of those girls I liked back in high school.  But instead of standing there looking through a door that had closed, I was now looking at new doors opening here at UJ.

“Does anyone have a good title for this painting?” Skeeter asked.

“Not really,” Pete answered.

“Maybe we should just look around somewhere and find some random title,” Charlie suggested.  “Like, look at these newspapers on the ground and find something in there.”

“I like that idea,” I said.  “Then the title will be something really off the wall and silly.”  I scanned the newspaper. My eyes quickly fell on an advertisement for a furniture store, and I pointed to a phrase from this advertisement.  “Like this one,” I added. “‘Everything 25% Off.’” The others laughed.

“I think it’s perfect!” Skeeter said.  “Because there are four parts.  Fourths, like 25 percent.”

“I think we have our title,” Pete said.  I took a paint brush and painted EVERYTHING 25% OFF in a corner of the painting, and later that night Everything 25% Off joined The Downward Spiral and Tear Down The Wall on the wall of the common room.

 

By the end of the year, there were around a dozen paintings on the wall.  When we moved out of the building, Skeeter and Bok let those of us who helped paint each keep one that we helped with.  To this day, Tear Down The Wall hangs on a wall at my house.

After I printed The Commencement, I left it in the common room for about a week, in case anyone else wanted to read it.  I’m not sure who all did, but Schuyler Jenkins pointed out a typo, and Skeeter told me it was a good first draft.  I also sent it to Molly from Pennsylvania in eleven separate emails over the next month, and she said she really liked it and felt like she had gotten to know me better.

Skeeter’s comment seemed kind of disappointing at first, since I thought The Commencement was finished, but she was right.  It was a good first draft. My writing style was too dry; I just listed things that happened instead of telling about them in a way that engaged the reader.  I worked on The Commencement again for a while in 1996, and again in 2002; by that time, it was almost three times as long as the original.  Interestingly enough, one of my friends who read the 2002 version said that the most relatable part was a chapter that I completely made up, something that never happened to me in real life.

I never considered writing for a career.  I was a math guy. I didn’t write. And creative writing wasn’t something that could make a steady career.  It is possible to make a living writing, of course; many writers and artists and musicians work on art in between working normal jobs, waiting to get discovered.  Some of these actually make it.  Bok’s friend who said that this local band Cake was the next big thing was right; Cake had several big hits over the next decade.  But making a life out of art requires much patience and uncertainty, and that part of it didn’t sound appealing to me. I’d stick to writing for fun.

The Commencement was the first piece of fiction I wrote that was based on myself, and it felt good to open up and share my story with a few others.  My own life has been my favorite inspiration for my writing over the years. I’ve written stories not based on me, but I do best when I write what I know, and I don’t understand others as well as I understand myself.  I hope that someone out there can learn something from reading my story.

tear down the wall

January 25, 1995.  Writing dirty limericks.

I walked across the street from Wellington Hall to the Memorial Union.  I had just finished my first math midterm of winter quarter, and I felt good about it.  The topic of the test was partial derivatives, and while I had never learned about partial derivatives before, or even heard the term until a few weeks ago, everything we had done so far had seemed fairly straightforward.

I liked this math class so far.  None of my IHP classmates were in my class, but there were a few familiar faces from last quarter, including Andrea Briggs from Building B and Jack Chalmers from building F.  The instructor was a tall blonde woman named Shelley Bryce. Like Jimmy Best from my last class, Shelley was a graduate student in the mathematics department. She was a bit more reserved than Jimmy Best, and she seemed less comfortable in front of the class, but I still understood everything so far.

I had a two hour break before chemistry class, so I rode back to my room.  I turned on the computer and checked my email. There was only one message.  It was from Brendan Lowe, who lived upstairs in room 322 and had a really sick sense of humor.  The subject of the email said “FW: Fwd: Re: FW: FW: Dirty limericks.” In other words, this was going to be something wildly inappropriate that he received from someone else and passed on to the rest of the IHP, just as he did at least once a day on average.  Hopefully, he took Karen Francis off of his forwarding list; I learned the hard way a couple weeks ago that Karen did not like getting chain emails like this one.

The dirty limericks that I read were so funny, and caused me to laugh so loud, that Aaron heard me through the wall and asked me later that day what the commotion was.

My chemistry class that day was about easy stuff, so I was really only half paying attention.  The other half of my brain was attempting to think up my own dirty limericks to go with the ones that Brendan had shared.  I started thinking of words that could rhyme. I thought of names of places, so I could use them in the first line. “There once was a man from Jeromeville,” I wrote; I crossed it out a minute later when I realized that nothing rhymes with Jeromeville.  I tried thinking of other towns nearby that might be easier to make rhymes with, and after about five minutes, I scribbled this:

A pretty young girl from Blue Oaks
Made a dildo from bicycle spokes.
Now she’s doing all right
‘Cause she gets some each night
But she always complains how it pokes.

Next, I started thinking of body parts.  Penis. Dick. Cock. Wiener. This could work.  By the end of class, I had another one written in my notebook:

There once was a man named McGee
With a small dick that no one could see.
I’d bet, I’m no liar
That unlike Oscar Mayer,
This wiener you’d not want to be.

Earlier in the week, I had been sitting at the dining commons with Gina Stalteri and some others from my building.  I walked up to the table as Gina was making a joke about a tool that was designed to measure a guy’s penis size. Later, she started talking about her roommate Skeeter frequently staying up late on an IRC chat talking to some guy in another state.  Skeeter’s real name was Jennifer, but everyone called her Skeeter because one of her friends from childhood had thought she looked like Skeeter from the Muppet Babies cartoon. I could definitely see the resemblance. Also, having a distinct nickname made life easier when you had a common first name like Jennifer.

I had one more class that afternoon, but my mind was still on writing dirty limericks.  I kept going back to the things Gina was saying at dinner the other night. And, not long afterward, I had this:

There once was a roommate named Skeeter;
This IRC guy liked to greet her.
If the two ever met,
She may finally get
To use Gina’s new Peter Meter.

I heard the professor saying something that reminded me that I was still in class and had better pay attention.  So I started taking notes more carefully and put the dirty limericks aside for a while.

 

At dinner that night, I looked around for a place to sit.  I saw Sarah, Krista, Ramon, Liz, Pete, Tabitha from Building B, and a girl with curly brown hair whom I did not recognize, at a table with one open seat between Liz and Pete.  I walked over and asked if I could join them.

“What’s up?” Ramon asked, seeing me approach.

“Hi, Greg!” Liz said.  “Come join us!”

“This is Jeanette,” Sarah said, gesturing toward the curly-haired girl.  “And this is Tabitha,” she continued, gesturing toward Tabitha.

“I’ve met Tabitha,” I said, as Tabitha simultaneously said, “I know Greg.”

“How are you?” Sarah asked me.

“I’m good.  I had a math midterm this morning.  I thought it was pretty easy.”

“Have you gotten your payment turned in yet?” Tabitha asked Krista.

“Yes,” Krista said.  “I’m going for sure.”

“Good!”

“What are you going to?” I asked.

“We have a retreat for JCF coming up next weekend.  It’s at a Christian conference center in the hills outside of Bidwell.”

“That sounds fun!  Are a lot of people going?”

“I heard that probably about 50 people from Jeromeville are going.  I don’t know how many people are coming from the other schools.”

“Other schools?”

“Jeromeville Christian Fellowship is part of an organization called InterVarsity,” Liz explained.  “They have chapters at colleges all over the USA and a few other countries. And the chapters from Cap State and Bidwell State and a few other schools will be at this retreat too.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “Sounds like a fun time.”

The conversation then turned back to classes.  Given the fact that the entire rest of the table had just been talking about their church retreat, I figured that now would not be a good time to mention my dirty limericks.

 

After checking the mail (I had none), I walked back to the building.  Gina, Mike Adams, and David were sitting in the common room having a rather loud conversation.

“Charlie told me that last night, he was coming back from a late class, and he walked in on Pat and Karen.  They were so loud, they didn’t even notice he came in.”

“Whoa!” Mike shouted.  “They didn’t even notice?”

“That’s what Charlie said– Oh, hey, Greg.  What are you up to?”

“Actually,” I said, “remember the other day when Brendan sent those dirty limericks?”

“Those were hilarious!” Mike said.

“I know.  I’ve been writing some dirty limericks of my own.”

“No way!” Gina exclaimed.  “Let’s hear one!” I told her from memory the one about Skeeter, and she opened her mouth as if to say that she couldn’t believe I said that.  “That’s great!” she said, laughing hard. “You even got the Peter Meter in there!”

Next, I shared the one about the bicycle spokes; the two guys were listening as well by then.  “Ouch!” Mike exclaimed. “Who would do that? I mean, it isn’t like it’s hard to find a dildo! Why make one from bicycle spokes?  That’s brilliant!”

“Did you write any other ones about people from here?” Gina asked.  “You should write one about Karen and Pat.”

“That would be funny!” I said.  I started thinking aloud. “There once was a girl named Karen… what rhymes with Karen?”  I sat and thought. “There once was a girl named Karen, at whose tiny breasts Pat was starin’.”  The three of them laughed, but I said, “I don’t really like it. I think I can do better than forcing words that don’t really rhyme.”

The others started talking about something else, but I continued to work on my poem about Karen.  What else rhymes with Karen? Maybe I could do something better if Karen wasn’t the word that I was trying to rhyme.  Hmmm…

“There once was this girl, Karen Francis,” I said, “who always let Pat in her pantses.”

“Pantses!” Gina said, laughing.  “This is great! I didn’t know you could write like this!”

“I really didn’t either.  I tried making a few Weird Al-type song parodies as a kid, but they were terrible.”

“So what’s the rest of it?”

“I haven’t thought of it yet.  Maybe it’ll come to me if I take a walk.”

“Go for it.”

I left Building C.  It was dark by now, and cold outside.  I should have brought a sweatshirt. I could always go back and get one if I end up being out here a long time.  I walked from one end of the South Residential Area to the other, in between the twelve identical lettered buildings, the trees planted around them, and the grassy area in front of the dining commons.  I heard the faint sounds of music playing from some of the buildings. It was a clear night, but I could only see a few very bright stars, because of the light posts along these walkways. The moon was not out.  I contemplated what the rest of the poem could be about, and I kept coming back to what Gina had said about Charlie walking in on Karen and Pat. I thought of other words that rhymed with Francis and pantses. And over the course of about five minutes, as I wandered between the buildings of the South Residential Area, it came to me.

I returned to the common room of Building C; Gina and Mike and David were still there.  As soon as I made eye contact with Gina, I began reciting my poem:

“There once was this girl, Karen Francis,
Who always let Pat in her pantses.
Charles came in and said,
‘Stop using my bed
For doing your horizontal dances!’”

“Horizontal dances!  Where do you come up with this stuff?” Gina asked.

“It just kind of came to me.”

“You’re hilarious!  You should keep doing this.”

“Thanks.”

“I didn’t know you wrote.  You’re a math guy. Have you ever thought about doing anything with your writing?”

“Not really.  This is new to me too.”

“Well, I think you’re hilarious.  I need to go study, but this was fun.  Thanks for the laugh.”

“You’re welcome.”

Gina, Mike, and David all climbed the stairs.  I followed them, getting off with Mike on the second floor as Gina and David continued up to the third floor.  Writing for fun really was pretty new to me. I did have a creative side going back to my childhood. As a kid, I often got great ideas for video games, but my limited programming skills and the limited hardware capabilities of the Commodore 64 left almost all of my video game ideas unfinished.  In my teens, I would draw comic books and copy them on the copier at my mom’s work; my brother and some of his friends got involved in my little publishing business too. But my artwork was terrible, and the story lines were shallow and childish. Mom probably saved a lot of those in a box somewhere in the attic, but I haven’t looked at them in decades.

These limericks, along with the depressing poems I wrote a few weeks earlier while I was listening to Pink Floyd, were really the start of my hobby of creative writing for fun.  I never wanted to make a career out of it, and it isn’t something I do on any sort of a regular basis. I just have a lot of thoughts in my head that I want to share. Sometimes I just write to make people laugh, like with these dirty poems.  But sometimes writing also helps me to sort out thoughts on my mind, and sometimes other people’s reactions to my writing help me see a different perspective on the situations that inspired me to write. Obviously, I still write today, because you’re reading this right now.  So feel free to leave comments and help me see the memories of my past from a different perspective.

(Author’s note:  Again, these are all real poems that I actually wrote in 1995.  Most of the other dirty limericks I found from that time involved inside jokes that were too much to explain now.  I don’t even remember some of those inside jokes.)