Jane told me about her trip to Morocco, and how she went to help refugees. She loves languages and learns them quickly. Her favorite saying in arabic, spoken in arabic and then roughly in english, “your eyes shine like the stars at night.” I liked that saying, I liked that I have memories of staring into eyes like that. Jane said the only way she truly learns a language is when she can study the context, learn the grammar, and not just reiterate word after word or sentence after sentence – she has to understand it to speak it. Or else she just memorizes these phrases but has no real way of holding a conversation.
All the while I’ve been sitting here, I had slowly fidgeted with my pack until I was subconsciously putting in my contacts right there on the bench. It wasn’t until my eyes stung that I realized what I was doing – and most importantly why I was doing it. I wanted to talk to her, and not just listen. I couldn’t do that in my glasses. I can’t do that in my glasses. I’m Clark Kent with my glasses on. I wear my glasses and want to be invisible, I am invisible. A growing repulsion takes over me whenever I think about being talked to – not that it’s the people that repulse me, but rather the idea that I would repulse them as Clark.
I have to wear contacts to talk to people, to be social. While this may suggest that I am Superman with contacts in, I am most certainly not faster than a speeding bullet or more stronger than a locomotive. By my own standards and expectations, I am extraordinarily ordinary – and am barely noticeable in first glance, and almost never for second glances. White bread wishes it could be as plain as me.
I don’t know when my mindset became like this, I think it was sometime between end of elementary school and near the tail end of high school that I swallowed a lie that was fed to me. That I’m not worth being noticed. That I’m not worth being loved. That my existence was laughable at best, and at worse – was a mistake. When I wear my glasses I feel more like myself, more like this person. This tiny, tiny person – not socially inept, but shunned. Someone who needed to hide in plain sight, lest he be discovered, ridiculed, mocked. Peers would chastise me, or attack me, girls would flirt with me only to mock me. The person behind the wireframes and thick lens was nothing more than a boy hiding between book stacks and bathrooms.
When I put in my contacts, I’m secretly putting on a mask. I’m putting on a costume. I’m erecting a facade to act as a barrier between some of the things that I deeply feel on the inside, and the world around me. When I put in my contacts I can talk to you, or anyone for that matter, and stare deeply into your eyes with the most sincere interest. I can hold conversations in crowds, or attempt to be the life of a party. I can do all these things because I am in costume, and my identity is protected by it.
It’s not that it’s disingenuous of me to do this, it’s a protection mechanism. It allows me to be with people, without worrying about people being with me. Without worrying whether or not I’m going to be loved or lambasted, the hand that holds turning to a closed fist. So I put in my contacts and I let my character try and take over.
Newly focused, I turned to Jane and asked her if she was here with her family – and if they were worried about where her shoes may have went. Much to my surprise, I was told that she separated from her parents some time ago and moved to a different town with friends. They have their own house, one of the oldest in town. She began to show me pictures on her phone. Room after room there was graffiti on the walls, but it was arranged more like art than it was in social defiance. Jane explained that whenever they have friends or visitors that come by they are encouraged to leave a message or a note about being there with them. She wasn’t too concerned about their deposit.
Other photos revealed a fire pit out back where everyone was sitting around, laughing, and drinking. Some cigarettes were smoked, and maybe one or two joints. The last set of pictures revealed the tattoo machine they had acquired. Each of them tattooing the other in some way, shape, form. It was a life ripe with adventure, and free from parental tyranny. Unfortunately this liberty wasn’t without its costs, the neighborhood they lived in had very uptight neighbors. We tried to meet on a word to describe their nature to judge the youths while keeping their own homes and lawns pristine. We settled on ‘anal’. Sorry Mom, it’s multilingual.
“How do you say, pred-juice, to judge people – in America?”
“Prejudice? do you mean preg-eh-duce?”
“Yes. Prejudice. America has a lot of prejudices against people. Immigrants, refugees, young people.”
Yes I thought, yes it does.
“There is no shortage of hate or prejudice in my country. Every day more unfortunate events happen that further reinforce the fact that we’ve learned nothing at all about each other.”
“It is a shame. It’s very sad. We are all very much alike.”
We are. We are more alike than anyone wants to imagine.
Her shoes were with her teacher, her group was somewhere in the area but not anywhere close. Begrudgingly she had brought her shoes with the group, but only after protest. Walking barefooted allowed her to experience more within the area. It allowed her to feel her surroundings more, whether smoothed cobblestones or rough trails. Shoes took away that sense of feeling, for better or worse.
That’s when I realized something very important. Jane wasn’t in her early twenties, hell, she wasn’t even twenty. Jane was sixteen. Sixteen with a vengeance. Her mouth was moving then, but her words were lost on me. Sixteen. I remember being sixteen. I remember the life I was living in the cul-de-sac capital of the western United States, walking down to the gas station late on Friday nights to get energy drinks with my best friends, going to the movies all summer long. No wonder I get the feeling that she’s older than her years, she’s lived more in half a decade than most have in the first half of their lives. Simply put, if people were rain – I was a drizzle, she was a hurricane.
I told her that I was about to go see the Lennon Wall, and it was just around the corner. She was welcome to join me and we could keep the conversation going. I was already sold on her story, anything from that moment would just be more letters on a screen. Luckily she was curious and wanted to come.
As I heaved my bag onto my back I could feel myself sink back down into my shoes again. We pressed on down the street towards one of the most interesting bits of Prague – at least in terms of pop culture. I asked more about her family life, before she left.
Jane had a falling out with her parents and left her family not too long ago. She described the building tension both at home and within herself. The feeling of not belonging, the anguish, the loneliness. Leaving was hard, but staying would have been harder. It was scary at first, but her friends had found a place and she moved right in. When the pieces finally settled into place, Jane found what was lost – her identity and her happiness.
She’s into big protests and a supporter of special groups – especially those who support the refugees from surrounding countries. She asked me if I knew about Syria and what was going on there. I told her I was familiar, but as I don’t live in Europe I couldn’t possibly imagine the immensity of the problem. Whether I imagined it, or it briefly existed, a very small tear formed in the corner of her eye as she discussed all the people fleeing. Jane wants to get them more support. To get the world to see them and see this problem, and to support these people who have lost everything. It’s why she loves to teach them German, she’s good at languages and likes to serve people.
I like to serve people, I thought. In reality, I’ve never served like that. I’ve never lived like that. I don’t know the burden it must be to hold back pity while doling out selfless compassion hour by hour, day after day.
We got to a huge chain fence where many people placed locks with inscriptions to loved ones. It pinged my heart to see this, as I’ve seen something like it before. I had no lock, but that was no matter – I have no one that loves me that way. Not anymore.
Around the corner from there was this wall covered end to end is the most colorful graffiti – the Lennon Wall. The story behind it is quite simple, and rebelliously wonderful. The wall is located in a secluded square across from the French Embassy. After John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, an unnamed artist painted an image of the singer-songwriter along with Beatles lyrics – this was the first inscription to the wall. Western images and symbols were banned at the time in Czechoslovakia, so as it was viewed as a means of protest, the artwork was covered over by Prague’s secret police.
Though one by one as each new coat of paint went up over the graffiti, more and more messages were left. The site became known as a place for anti-Communist political graffiti, or “Lennonism”, which neither surveillance cameras nor an overnight guard stationed at the wall could prevent. After the fall of Communism in Prague the wall became a site for calls to activism worldwide and is a symbol of global ideals such as love and peace.
It’s magnificent, and beautiful. It’s as colorful as Lennon was and a fitting tribute to all he stood for. I was grateful to be there, I was grateful to be there with this person.
After we took some pictures we walked back to the bench where we had met. She asked me where I was going next, I told her I had plans to go up to the Prague Castle. She smiled and ruffled through her own bag, and pulled out a ticket. The ticket was for the castle, and was still good for the remainder of the day. Jane also handed me a sticker. It was in support of one of her groups. She told me to take it to Berkeley and to put it up somewhere, I looked her in the eyes and promised that I would.
Some classmates made themselves known nearby by waving at her to come over, I saw this was my queue – and the close of this chapter. I smiled, and while I could see we both wanted to hug, we settled for handshakes instead. Politically correct, and always appropriate. She begged me to promise to find her in Dresden when I come back to Germany and that I could stay with her and her friends. I gave her my contact info so she could follow me along this journey I’ve called ‘life’.
Of course I would go to Dresden, of course I plan to come back. Though I know a thing about promises and people – I know that some people like to make promises like writing checks – sometimes their are some that can’t be cashed. I promise I’ll come to Germany, this time with more things to say in German, and less about eating apfels and drinking wasser. Once more, I’ll find a place in Berkeley for this sticker. Small as it may be, it represents much more than it’s size – a lot like the person that gave it to me. Larger than most lives.
I walked off to Prague Castle, and I could tell you about the sweeping views over the city, or the color of the rooftops, or the sun as it began to set down to sleep in the West. But I’ve had plenty of sunsets to watch, and hopefully a few more still to see. Today wasn’t about Prague, and I think it was less about me.
Today was about setting off into the world, free from safety and all that I knew. Whatever disconcerting feelings and trepidations about this trip I may have had before boarding the train to Prague, they didn’t follow me outside that train – and they certainly didn’t join me as I left Prague either.
As my bus pulled out of the city and headed to Nuremberg I thought about my luck, and that bench. I thought about Jane and her story. I thought about my story; the one I lost, the one I left behind, and the one that was developing. The story I’m now living.
I remembered this quote – and it is so fitting, “It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”
Note: I encourage you to listen to the Song of the Day. When I pulled this song up in the bus leaving Prague I had goosebumps break out all over me; literally head to toe. How appropriate, how grateful I am to be able to find a place in my life for this song.