Note; Nagasaki Day was actually on the 9th, so this post is rather displaced in time.
“You like talking to people, don’t you?” asked Raven G. “You might want to talk to Steve—he’s gone all starry-eyed.”
People say things like that to me, now—they know I’m interested in plants and bugs, so they show those to me, and in the same way they suggest people I should talk to. As if my interest in people were the same as my interest in bugs. Which it kind of is, honestly, but I can’t really explain how, so I don’t try. I don’t mention it. It’s not what it sounds like, like I’m sitting around, objectively analyzing everybody, and if that’s the way people think of me it’s a wonder anybody talks to me at all.
Unless something about the way I look at plants and bugs is how people actually want to be seen?
“Isn’t he always starry-eyed?” I asked, about Steve. I assumed she meant the man who thinks he’s actually a space-alien, but she shook her head.
“No, not him, I mean the yearling,” she explained. “You know, the one with the bees?”
“Oh, yeah, of course. He’s in my dorm.” This Steve does not so much have bees as he has an unfortunate story involving bees—he stepped on a ground-nest several months ago and got mobbed and so the two Steves are, behind their respective backs, Space-Alien Steve and The-Steve-with-the –Bees. I’ve hardly spoken to the latter since I led the hikes on the Island. I feel bad about that. I’ve been ignoring the yearlings. I haven't meant to, but I've done it anyway.
“Well, he and I attended Greg’s Nagasaki Day talk and I think he had his mind blown or something. When I left he was still sitting in his chair, just staring off into space. That was a few days ago, obviously, but I keep forgetting to tell you. Anyway, I thought you might be interested.”
Nagasaki Day is, of course, the anniversary of the US dropping a nuclear weapon on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Greg often gives talks on historically significant days. The entire school was encouraged to attend his Hiroshima Day talk a few days earlier, but the two are usually somewhat redundant so the second talk was poorly attended. I didn’t go, but I’ve heard that he ended up getting into it with a student who attempted to defend the internment program and the whole thing became a long, detailed group discussion of the Japanese-American experience—which, not incidentally, is Greg’s experience. His mother, though not his father, was born in Japan, as I’ve mentioned before.
In any case, I had no idea why any of the above would have set Steve off. I caught up with him the next day at lunch. Eddie and I had agreed to eat together and when we saw Steve sitting at a table by himself we joined him. He greeted us morosely and then went back to playing with his napkin.
“You don’t look like you have starlight in your eyes,” I told him. He looked up at me and made a confused, surprised noise, so I explained.
“Oh, I saw the light, I just didn’t like what it showed me,” he said. “Listening to Greg the other day, at the talk? It just got me thinking.”
“I heard it got pretty intense,” I said. “Was any of that information new to you?”
“No, not really. But it was the way he said it. And who he is, like he’s seen all this himself, or knows people who have. It’s his life. It just really became obvious to me that the world looks different ways to different people. I mean, I try to be a good person, but there’s things I can’t see because I’ve been trained not to see them. I mean, I’m an upper-middle-class, straight, cisgendered white guy. And that’s where I see the world from. I’ve always assumed the world I saw was just…the world. But now this—it’s making me recast all these little things I’ve heard, you know? Things you’ve said, Eddie. Things my women friends say they worry about. And…I don’t even have any black friends. Why is that? I dunno. I’m just…thinking.”
Raven was right, this was interesting, but I wasn’t thinking about that just then. I was trying to think up something helpful to say to this guy I barely know and I wasn’t coming up with anything. He seemed to be in so much pain.
Just then, Greg entered the dining room, served himself a bowl of soup and a couple of cookies, and started looking for a table.
“Hey, Greg!” Eddie yelled across the room, “come ‘ere! Ya done broke Steve!”
Steve rolled his eyes. Greg turned towards us with interest.
“Oh, good!” he exclaimed mildly, as he approached. “Such interesting things come out of the cracks, when humans break.” He sat down with us.
Steve explained his difficulty all over again and Greg nodded.
“Students’ reactions to that kind of material is often very telling. I teach a class in the spring, American Minority Perspectives? You might like it. Some majority-identified students become defensive, others react purely intellectually. Others allow the material to touch and change them.” When Greg said that I think I blushed or something. My face got hot. I guess I’m the intellectual-only type. I’ve never left one of Greg’s talks seriously bothered.
“Yeah,” put in Eddie, “mostly it inspires us white guys to try to earn a cookie for good behavior.”
Steve looked at Eddie like he’d been slapped, but Eddie was looking at Greg and didn’t see. Greg smiled, tersely.
“No, some really allow the material to touch them,” he said. “Some really get it.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Steve, cynically. “And what do they get?”
And Greg handed him a cookie.
Under the circumstances, I think that cookie was a silly but very real expression of genuine approval, the kind of approval that only those who aren’t seeking approval can get. I don’t know if Eddie had meant to accuse Steve of being facile—it seems unlike him, for one. Perhaps he only fell into the clumsiness that happens when a person tries to say one thing by actually saying another.
Eddie, remember, is transgender, and he’s openly critical of well-meaning liberals who are more focused on feeling like good people than in actually engaging with LGBT issues. What Eddie is not open about, however, is that fact that he’s transgendered. Steve and I know, because we’re all in the same dorm and we’ve showered with him. He looks a little different than we do. But he doesn’t want to tell the rest of campus or the faculty. In front of Greg, Eddie couched his comment in racial terms so he could avoid saying anything personal about himself. Instead, he’d said something personal about Steve.
Steve looked at his cookie and smiled or grimaced and then looked up at Eddie.
“This doesn’t matter,” he said, speaking quietly but with great intensity. “Approval doesn’t matter, recognition doesn’t matter, I don’t matter. What matters is that people stop killing each other over stupidity, hate, and fear. When that happens, we can all have a cookie.” His eyes flashed in anger and then he deflated a little and added, in a softer voice, “but damned if I know what I can do about it.”
He sat and contemplated his hands for a while, morosely. Then, thoughtlessly, he began eating the cookie. When he realized what he was doing, he laughed, a short, harsh laugh at himself. But then we all laughed at him and he broke up the cookie and shared it with us. And he laughed with us, and that time the laughter was for real.