Four years ago, I was getting ready to give a talk at a Rotary Club in Bellevue, Washington. Rotarians tend to be more conservative and business-oriented than the creative writers that usually make up my audience, but I wanted to give more talks, and Rotary Clubs are always looking for speakers, so there I was.
I had dinner with some of the Rotarians before the lecture. Beside me that evening was David, a young Japanese American account executive who told me about a recently-deceased uncle of his who had lived in Japan during World War II. David had been going through some of his uncle’s belongings when he came upon an old, yellowed, Japanese government pamphlet describing the horrors of American tyranny and oppression.
“It was something else,” he said. “It was just propaganda, but everything in it was true in a way. It just focused exclusively on slavery and the Native American genocide. That’s it. Reading it, you’d think Americans were all murderous barbarians. And if you live in Japan in the ’40s, and there’s no television yet, and all you read is what’s published in Japan, maybe you believe it.”
I thought then about a documentary I’d seen recently about the end of the Second World War. As the allies began capturing Pacific islands, Japanese women were seen jumping to their death. Apparently, they had been warned of the atrocities they’d suffer at the hands of American soldiers, atrocities so terrible that death seemed a preferable alternative.
When it was time for me to speak, I stood behind the lectern and, as always, took a moment to survey the audience to get a sense of how receptive the audience might be to the lecture’s message. My talk that evening was called, “No One Is Broken: Lessons learned raising a child on the spectrum.” As I scanned their mostly inscrutable faces, my eyes fell on an older gentleman at the back of the room, leaning forward heavily on his table, wearing a familiar red hat with familiar white lettering.
“Oh, boy,” I thought. The election was still a few months away, but the national battle lines had been clearly drawn, and that hat, one of the first I’d seen in liberal Seattle, let everyone know exactly which side you were standing on. I did not hold many kind thoughts in my heart for the people who wore those hats. I felt their white letters might as well have spelled, “Go Home, Stranger.”
This, however, is not the sort of thing you should be thinking when you’re about to address a crowd of actual strangers. So, I started telling my story. It’s a good story tell just about anyone as it’s about a struggling child and what he taught me about being human. It’s important when giving these sorts of talks to look around the room so everyone feels like they’re included. I usually find a handful of friendly faces, people who laugh and nod the most from the start, and float between them.
But on this night, against my better judgment, I glanced at Red Hat Man. The first time, he was sitting back in his chair, his arms now relaxed at his side. The second time, he was nodding, yet so slightly I wasn’t sure if it was in response to something I’d said or to something he was thinking. The third time, I saw it–a smile. Not a big one, just corners upturned, but a smile nonetheless.
I was happy now, and the rest of the talk went great. They were with me, this audience–or no, we were together. That’s what it feels like when it’s going well. You’re all in agreement about something friendly and reassuring. As I was rapping it up, I looked to the back of the room once more, for now, Red Hat Man was one of those friendly faces I was going to float between.
He was gone.
I carried on, but the ex-fiction writer in me wondered if he had ever been real in the first place. No, I thought, I’d seen him. Of course, I’d seen him.
I knew what I’d seen. But I hadn’t noticed him getting up either, and how do you miss that? When I finished my story, I stayed at the podium answering questions, and I kept looking for him, thinking he’d wander back from the bathroom or from answering his cell phone.
He never returned.
All I could think about driving home that night were Japanese women jumping to their death and that man’s hat. Maybe it was best he vanished, I decided, since he’d been a mirage of sorts. The barbarians are never real, after all, though we’ll see them forever as long as we believe in the value of gates.