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You are the object lesson

The first time I got coffee with Ajay, he rejected the table I chose to sit.  He said:  “I never sit with my back to the door.  I always want to see who’s coming into the place.”

Ajay was also a freshman, and he was bright and pleasant.  He made friends easily, but was just off-center enough to appeal to people like me, who didn’t.  He was a white kid from Madison who collected knives and took martial arts, and I was just young and impressionable enough … that’s a nice word for “stupid,” right?  … not to realize how utterly pretentious his thinking was.

“You won’t sit with your back to the door, Ajay?” I should have asked.  “What’s going to happen, the mob’s going to send a hit man, and as they spray the joint with bullets only you will survive thanks to your quick thinking, lightning reflexes, and the fact that you were watching the door and could identify the assassin as he came in?  Is that where you’re going with this, partner?”

That’s what I should have said.  But I was … what’s the phrase? … young and impressionable … and I played a lot of D&D back then, and that stupid movie “Assassin” had just come out, and so I didn’t realize it was the same logic used by my grandfather, who lived in one of the safest suburbs in America, for keeping an assault rifle in his bedroom.

I mean, sure, you never know.  The Crips could order a hit on my grandpa any day now, and only his quick thinking, lightning reflexes, and the assault rifle in his bedroom would save him from the heavily tattoed black teenagers on angel dust they send to take him out because he’s a decent American who hates the welfare state.

You just never know.

I hung out with Ajay a lot for a while, until it hit me that all the knives and the martial arts and the paranoid seating arrangements weren’t preparing him for something – they were a distraction that kept something from happening.  He spent so much time playing like his life was serious enough to be in danger that he never got serious.  Even young and impressionable as I was, I saw the tragedy of this:  such a bright kid, such a natural leader, wasting his time thinking about how to position himself in a restaurant just in case Yakuza shock troops were coming, instead of asking himself what he wanted to do with his life now that he was getting a first rate education.

By any estimation, Ajay was smarter than me.  Ajay was more street savvy than me.  Ajay was more likeable than me, and a hell of a lot more sociable than me – I was a freak who desperately wanted approval and could barely hold it together in good company.  But somehow I figured out that this kind of play was actually dangerous to our real lives, and Ajay didn’t.  I don’t know why.  I wonder, sometimes, how I could have got that and he didn’t.  But by senior year we barely spoke, anymore.  I was the editor of the school newspaper and he was running the largest live action game of “Vampire” on campus.  There was a gulf, at least to me.  He’d walk up and say hi and ask how I was doing, and all I wanted to do was look away.  Maybe shake him.  Maybe scream at him.  You just … you see wasted potential, and it’s awful.  It’s the worst thing in the world.  It’s the reason I give money to charities that feed the poor.  I keep thinking “one of these kids could be Einstein.  One could be Mozart.  We could all lose out on the most amazing symphony ever written, or the key to unlock the universe, because we couldn’t get this kid three square meals a day.”  Just … tragic.

And yet I find myself, now, partial to sitting at the back table in restaurants, where no one can see me.  I don’t know why, but it’s not a survival strategy.  It’s not because zombies could burst through the door any minute.

I think it’s just cussedness.  I think the world has turned me a little mean, and so if someone’s going to see me I want them to go the extra distance, cross a moat.  At least have to walk to the back of the restaurant.  I like to think of that as self-respect, but it may just be pretension.  Come on, who’s trying that hard to find me?  The paparazzi?  Am I going to end up on the cover of the New York Post if I position myself where someone I know could bump into me?

I think, maybe, there’s another important insight to this part of my life, and this time I’m the one who’s not getting it.  Maybe I don’t want to be seen by that dumbass kid who’s got nothing on me but, somehow, gets the thing that I’m missing.

Except I do.  If I knew who he was I’d want to throw myself at his feet and beg him to explain it to me.  What scares me is that I don’t think I’d know him if I saw him, the way Ajay could stare right through me and not get the object lesson.

And besides, how’s he going to find me when I’m sitting all the way back here?   And what makes me think he’s even looking for me?  Shouldn’t I be looking for him?  And if I found him, wouldn’t he want to turn away?

Yeah, I may be in trouble.


St. John Campbell is a pseudonym


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