“You are supposed to believe certain things, don’t you know?”
“What? Am I supposed to be some bible thumper now?”
“Why would you assume that?
According to Michael, I was the one with a problem. Our friendship depended on me making the right choices. He always took the lead to sort things out for us. Then it got so weird. He chose a set of beliefs all right. Things that made no sense to me.
He was right and everyone else was wrong. His beliefs were fashionable too. Everyone agreed with him. I mean everyone. No one else dared to disagree. Except for me. Yet he couldn’t be a bible thumper. Not yet anyway.
But if I tried to object to this radical change in his outlook on life, he would accuse me of putting him into a box. Telling his story without permission. Making him a character in my life. To hear him tell it, the problem between us was that I could never take a stand on anything that mattered. Yet I was taking a stand! For our friendship.
It didn’t start out that way. We had been friends since high school. Altar boys at church. On a first-name basis with the convent nuns who ran St. Vincent’s, a private boys’ school. We even went to the same university. Took some of the same courses. Liked the same people. The joke that got a smile from those who knew us was that really, we were twin sons of different mothers.
Which made things even more painful. Something had happened to him in his freshman year. Now we hardly saw each other.
“Oh my!” I exclaimed in the Unicentre one day, right outside the student council office. “It’s you! Really you!”
Michael stopped for a moment, his entourage's quizzical noises and looks making one very tall woman adjust her oversized glasses. She squinted to make sense of how I knew Michael, yet she didn’t know me.
“I never see you in class anymore," I said. "We’re roommates, remember?”
A slow smile creased that handsome face. “Why Zachary, what a surprise!”
He only had a moment, his furrowed brow squelching the torrent of words that usually escaped him. Already there was a light touch on his shoulder to point the way to the council meeting they were late for.
“Catch you later Zack! You'll email me your course notes, right?" He walked backward so he might talk to me more, but he didn't know what to say and I was too upset to talk to him. So awkward! Already they were in council chambers, arranging their papers and addenda items for their meeting. Michael was seated at the head of the council table. I could see everyone looking around, shuffling papers, and chatting, doubtless wondering why the meeting hadn’t already started. But Michael was staring out through the student council door window, watching me go to my next class. I would have given anything to know what he was thinking. I ended up outside in the quad. A cigarette for my thoughts would have suited me then. Too bad I didn’t smoke.
When best friends fight, everyone has something to say about it. What went wrong for us? Mom would ask why Michael didn’t come over at Thanksgiving or Christmas. That ski trip we always took was taken without him. She would ask if there was something wrong and if there was something she could do. I told her that Michael was busy. Now that he was president of the university student council, he hardly had time for anything. I knew I was telling a lie. But it was a lie I wanted to believe.
Speaking of belief, Michael said I didn’t believe in anything. He really meant that I didn’t believe in the right things. The fashionable ideas. A stuck-in-the-mud Catholic was what I was. Michael had moved on.
It wasn’t just that he never went to Mass anymore, it was that he lived his life by what he felt was right. To hear him say it, church teaching was behind the times. Egalitarianism and who had power in society were the crucial issues.
I told him that the Catholic Church had always worked to help the poor. He called that a sop to distract people. White people wielded power in such a way that the oppressed could never be free. “Put the oppressed in charge of your Catholic Church!” he would say. “Then maybe there might be true justice in this life!”
I didn’t know how to answer him, to be honest. But later I discovered that Catholic teaching about power is actually quite simple: those who are privileged are expected to serve others. Having a truly egalitarian society is impossible. There will always be powerful elites and what really matters is how ethically they behave and whether they care more for the needs of those they govern than they do for their own enrichment.
Therefore, the skin color of a ruling elite doesn't matter. A just society is only possible when at least a minority of people are honest and selfless in their personal lives. This was why striving to be a good person and living by a moral code based upon the teachings of Jesus Christ was much more important than political agitation. But I never got a chance to tell him that.
Not long after, I got a text from Michael:
Zack, it was great to run into you. My how time goes by these days! Could you help me out? I need someone to do publicity for the Fitzpatrick Lecture Series. This year's topic is Deconstructing White Supremacy. We tried to have the lecture series honoree changed this year, but it was a no-go. Some important alumni objected. It's still in honor of a dead professor of some dead sociological theory! I’ll drop a folder off to you with instructions. Thanks!
The folder was already on my night table. Which came first? The text or the folder? Maybe both. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t reply.
My dorm room now existed for my exclusive use. I had no idea where Michael was sleeping at night. Then she showed up. Outside my dorm room.
“Hello, Zachary. You can call me Madison. My pronouns are she and her. Do you have any questions about the publicity folder?”
It was that tall, tall woman with the oversized glasses. Six inches taller than me at least. I felt like making a joke about my adjectives being “wonderful” and “amazing” but kept that comment to myself. She was just too attractive.
“I have a lot of questions. Would you like to meet for coffee somewhere? I’m free now.”
Even as I was speaking to her, it occurred to me that Madison and Michael were probably hooked up already. Which was awkward. But she was so ready for anything.
“Just text me! I’ve got a class right now.” With that said, she turned to go.
“Wait! I don’t know your number!”
She was already halfway down the hall. “Michael will give it to me!”
It was strange that Madison was in my second-year American History class. I hadn't noticed her before. There she was blocking someone's view halfway down Simmon’s amphitheater, a guy behind her having to crane his neck to see the professor. After the lecture, I made a point of being at the exit Madison was heading towards, idling, and waiting for her to notice me.
Up the aisle she came, wearing these very expensive clothes, all done up like she was ready to be interviewed, only noticing me at the last instant. “Oh, it's you!” she exclaimed as she leaned on the fire exit door, impatient to leave.
“Zachary. But you could call me Zack for short. My pronouns are he and him,” I grinned.
She gave me this weird look like joking about pronouns was a crime. Then she strode out into the concourse. So many classes were held in rooms that emptied into what could only be described as a mini shopping mall. People were going for coffee and taking their seats under the beaming skylights and indoor trees.
“What do you want?”
“Free for a coffee now?”
“Oh alright. But I have another class soon. It will need to be quick. Are you having some sort of problem with the publicity?”
We sat at one of the few remaining tables. I took a long look at her over my coffee, while thinking of what I might say. She was so incredibly beautiful, sunlight dappling about her long shiny brown hair. And she was staring at me too, in a good way, I hoped.
“Yeah, yesterday I put a few posters up, but people are already defacing them,” I said, finally. “All sorts of salty comments. Some are in favor of the lectures; some are against them. The name of the sponsor, Fitzpatrick gets crossed out a lot. I haven’t a clue why this is happening.
“John Alfred Fitzpatrick is the honoree, not the sponsor,” she corrected. “The lectures are meant to honor his contributions to sociology at this university. The person funding the lectures is Mr. Wilder who was once a student here. Don’t you pay attention to any of this stuff?”
Great, I thought. I don’t know what I am talking about. I tried again. “So, you’re fine with that? I shouldn’t be replacing the posters that get defaced?”
“No. Of course not! We want people to engage with what we are presenting. What are you anyway? Don’t you believe in what we are doing?”
“Sure. Sort of,” I smiled, trying hard to be as inoffensive as possible.
Madison frowned. “I don’t know about you, but if you want to make your mark in this life you need to take a stand and say and do things that will make a real difference. That is what is important to Michael, just as it is everything to me.”
Then her coffee was off the table for good. Just like that. Madison was on her way, getting ready to go already. I had to think of something.
“Can you give me a one-paragraph explanation of what the lecture series is about? Real quick?” I pleaded.
She sighed. Then she stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder. “This stuff can’t be explained that way. Attend the lectures. Find out for yourself. That’s why we do these things in the first place.” She glanced at her expensive Apple watch.
“I’ve got to go.”
Before I could think of anything more to say, she was bobbing down the concourse with such huge strides. Watching her go, I was so disgusted with everything that I pitched a practically full cup of coffee into the nearest bin.
Life can be strange. On the last night of the lectures, there would be a party and I was invited. Well, any excuse, I guess. Michael texted me again:
Hey Zack! Could you be on the lookout for Cathy Wilder? She’ll be at the party after the last lecture. You can’t miss her. We’ll be giving her an appreciation plaque and a letter of thanks to her father. Maybe you could chat her up so she’s not all by herself. Thanks!
I thought to write back: Why wouldn't you take care of her yourself? But then I remembered that Madison would be there.
October 25th and 26th
To my surprise, the first two lectures were full of banners and demonstrations with a hefty police presence. People were shouting each other down. A few had to be thrown out. Me, I was a spectator. How people could support white supremacy made no sense to me. But on the other hand, why have a lecture series that brings out the worst in everyone?
I arrived late to the party; it was like I feared it would be. The only people I knew were Michael and Madison. They were chatting up people who looked familiar, dressed up in dark suits and expensive jewelry. Yes, those two were an item. No, they weren’t interested in talking to me. I found out later that some of the most important people in the university and even in the city were there.
Knowing as I did, that Madison was with Michael, I would have left early but I ended up with a drink next to what turned out to be Cathy Wilder, the person Michael wanted me to look out for. Something must have gone seriously wrong. She looked so unhappy and out of place. Why wasn't she hobnobbing with all the dignitaries and basking in the attention that her father's involvement in the lecture series should have given her? Neither one of us spoke for such a long time. Finally, I got the courage to speak to her.
"I came to this party late. Are you here because you sponsor these lectures?"
“Yes, I’m here because my father funds this lecture series each year,” Cathy replied somewhat irritably. "The university sponsors the lectures."
I had used the wrong word again. My bad. I was getting so tired of these word games.
“And that is all?” I needled.
“What do you mean?”
“Would you be here if your father didn't fund these lectures?”
“Why would that matter?” she huffed, her narrowed eyes flashing a warning.
A feeling of wild abandonment came over me. Nothing mattered. Nothing whatsoever. The truth at last. I wanted it anyway I could get it. I put my drink down and turned in my chair to face Cathy.
“To hear some people I know, the only thing that matters is saying the right words and believing in the right causes. Use the right pronouns. Have the right political views. Who cares about how anyone really feels anymore?”
Cathy was getting angry. Good, I thought. I wasn’t near halfway done.
“So, your dad is an alumnus?”
“Yes, he knew Professor Fitzpatrick personally. Why do you ask?”
I was quiet for a moment. “So, he was the one who didn’t want the honoree of the lecture series changed?”
Now Cathy put her drink down. “How do you know that?” she demanded.
I thought of those wretched posters I had been putting up. I imagined how people at the lectures must have felt, their emotions manipulated by those who cared only for their own advancement.
“Oh, people don’t seem to like the name Fitzpatrick for some reason. Too white a name, I guess!” I half shouted.
“What a thing to say!" Cathy shouted back, much louder than me. "This might be the last year for my father and the money he spends on this university! I certainly won’t be continuing with this lecture series once he’s gone!”
People near us stopped talking, holding their drinks tightly, fixing their gaze about the room, anywhere but at us as if to say, "It wasn't me!" Cathy sprang from her chair, snatching her things, her coat, her purse, the plaque from the university, and the letter of thanks, nearly dropping everything in her haste to leave.
I shot a glance at Michael and Madison's puzzled faces as I went to the door. Who knew what they were thinking? Who knew indeed? I couldn't care less.