A lion floated through the air.
I could swear this was happening in slow motion.
A lamb then took flight in a perfect arc in the opposite direction. And when the king of the jungle made its way back down to Earth, a bull hurtled off in pursuit of the lamb.
Like a perfectly synced clock, on it went like this, over and over again.
This was a typical sight on the quad. During that first semester of college, I would walk to the same morning behavioral psych class. And on these mornings, there would be Ashish, juggling beanie babies.
As he juggled and walked, on the back of Ashish’s shoulder would be a deer. While I’d never admit it to my friends, I knew the name of that one–Whisper. I had a Whisper at home and this Whisper would stare right into my soul daily.
You see, I would always keep a safe distance behind Ashish. I kept these few yards away not out of any fear of a juggling mishap, but out of the social suicide that would follow being accidentally affiliated with the juggler who had no friends. And a few yards back put me right in the deer’s line of sight.
So it went like this, at 7:30 in the morning, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It was probably wrong that I never said hi, but I always had the best excuses:
- Well, if I spoke to Ashish, I’d be leaving my roommate alone who has abandonment issues.
- Ashish might think that I’m only speaking to him because he’s Indian, so I don’t want to be reductionist. And …
- Oh, it’s best leave him alone. Ashish probably is one of those people that is ‘introverted’ and needs his space.
Abandonment, reductionist, introverted. All words I picked up from this psych class and brandished three times a week.
But, eventually, I started to feel bad. I mean, in class, this was a guy who sat at his desk and arranged Star Wars figurines in some kind of pep rally around himself. Yoda was cheer captain with Han on the bleachers.
So one day while he was juggling, I said “hey” and put my hand on his non-deer-occupied shoulder. This was a mistake.
All the animals hit the marble and brick road and Ashish began screaming.
Loud. Hysterical. Feral.
I apologized profusely and bent down to pick up his fallen soldiers. This was another mistake. I was shoved out of the way. Not lightly, either, as I found myself rolled onto the grass area.
He picked up his toys himself and started repeating “Roary. Snort. Fleece.” over and over.
“Roary. Snort. Fleece.”
It was the names of his lion, bull, and lamb.
A number of morning class-goers began laughing at the scene. One lacrosse player shouted from across the quad “no means no” and consoled Ashish by informing him that there’s “plenty of cuter boys in the sea.” Ashish kept shouting his mantra and started running away.
Their laughter echoed off the four buildings in the quad and eventually waned. “Roary. Snort. Fleece.” got dimmer and Ashish got smaller in the distance.
I was left with my own thoughts. Our psych textbook would likely describe them as “anger” and “embarrassment.”
Naturally, I made sure I had nothing to do with him for the rest of the semester.
As we approached finals there was a study week. The first day was usually designated for hanging out at the “Beach,” a misnomer that was in fact a large grass area in front of the library at our landlocked university.
Since it was a Tuesday, I was at the Beach making plans with friends for, not if, but when we’d be going to PJs. This local bar was just across the street and sat in the basement of my apartment building. Their $2.50 deal netted you three tacos and two Coronas, so it made little sense to drink anywhere else on a Tuesday afternoon.
Then, in the distance, I saw Ashish. He was carrying a “paper” airplane–in quotes because it was so large that it came up to his shoulders, needed two hands to be carried, and was made entirely out of sheet metal.
As he walked through the Beach, he drew more and more attention. I wasn’t sure when I realized that he was coming towards me, but it must have clearly been too late.
“You want to help me install this?” he asked me nonchalantly in front of nearly a thousand underclassmen.
“No. Oh my god. No.” I replied. “Why are you even asking me?”
“Oh, because you’re my friend” was his matter-of-fact response. He continued past me and settled on some lonely patch of turf. I headed off to PJs.
8 beers, 12 tacos, and only ten dollars later, I fell out of the bar into a crisp early December evening. The noisy lot of us were headed to a friend’s place to cheer him up over a breakup and, of course, play Mariokart at his house.
In the distance, I saw a glowing white orb on the Beach. As my eyes came into focus–slowly of course–I could see the the outline of the paper airplane.
The tip dug into the ground and the rest hung in the air, as if the child of a 50 foot giant forgot to clean up after playtime. Even from this distance I could make out the light blue college-ruled lines. It was a three-hole punched paper. Two of the holes hid in the folds and the other was visible on the left wing from even this distance.
It made me smile.
And, later that night, I could see it from my bedroom window. The Coronas had worn off and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
The Friday after Taco Tuesday was the big Psychology final. Today was Thursday, so I finally opened the textbook for the first time. Somewhere around 3am, I hit a chapter entirely about Ashish.
The outbursts. The attention to detail. The need for repetitive motion. He made just a little bit more sense.
The next morning, he was out in the middle of the freshman quad, with a George Foreman grill, serving pancakes. Everyone coming out would receive two and he staged an area where you could pour syrup.
Assuming he was a cafeteria employee, most didn’t acknowledge him as they were handed free food. I knew it might go south but I tried speaking to him again.
“What are you doing?”
“Right, but why?”
“I observed that during finals week, people weren’t eating breakfast. So I’m making them some.”
“But don’t you have our psych final coming up?”
“They give me a lot of extra time but I don’t need it.”
It was simple for him yet otherworldly to me. But that was that.
I’d like to tell you that we became best friends or that we learned to understand each other better or that when the bullies and lions came, I protected him from it like one of his Star Wars idols.
It was only a matter of time before something really bad happened to Ashish. And when it did, I didn’t do anything, behaving as limp as Whisper on his shoulder.
I’ll never understand how Ashish saw the world or how he willingly threw himself into his passions without a care for the judgment that would follow.
But I learned that we aren’t powerless and we can do some good around us.
We might never be heroes, but, dammit, we can walk together.
We can make pancakes.