The German who showed me U2.
[I wrote this story and published it on Medium in 2017. Later, I found this header on the story: “Only you can see this message. This story’s distribution setting is off.” I cannot update the setting so I had to republish.]
I’m 17 years old. I’m on a bus in the middle of the night with 100 foreign exchange students. We are traveling back to central Illinois from two amazing weeks in Washington D.C. and New York City. I’m about to have a profound experience I will never forget.
The memory is of Gregory. And a certain song that brings me back to him whenever I hear it. He was a foreign exchange student from Germany. Tall, thin, with dark spiky hair — he smoked and cursed and seemed to go out of his way to offend everyone, while also attracting everyone. Like a highway car crash, like a celebrity scandal, we couldn’t look away.
One day he wore a T-shirt that said, “In case of emergency, break the glass,” and attached to the shirt was clear plastic and behind the plastic, a condom. He was brash. And I was terrified of him.
I had grown up in small, cozy farm towns, filled with cornfields and gossip. My parents were strict. I didn’t date. I didn’t drink. I was anxious and bullied. I wanted to be invisible. Gregory didn’t allow that.
During this trip, we toured museums and national monuments, ate interesting foods, stayed in hotels, visited cultural landmarks and saw Broadway shows. But what I remember most wasn’t seeing Strawberry fields, but seeing young kids playing hacky sack on the street and Gregory jumping in to play with them.
I don’t remember how I felt seeing the Statue of Liberty. I only remember Gregory imitating her with a green foam crown on his head, a cigarette punching the air instead of the torch, and his other hand grabbing his crotch.
Another day, we visited the Vietnam Memorial. I saw Gregory lift a small boy up into the air. I got worried and approached them. He was lifting the boy onto his shoulders so he could get a chalk rubbing of his father’s name, a soldier lots in the war.
These two snapshots of Gregory would stay with me. That he would help a young American boy to honor his grandfather while also defacing a national image of liberty and honor — possibly on the same day — was not something I could square in my mind. I couldn’t make sense of it.
But luckily, it isn’t the only memory I hold.
The last night on the bus, the group’s familiarity and trust secured through mutual experience, youth and travel, I woke in the middle of the night. People were spooned in chairs, laying on the floor and draped across bags and other things. To get from the front to the back without disturbing anyone, you would climb carefully across armrests down the aisle trying not to fall and crush someone below you.
I saw Gregory standing at the front of the bus. I wondered what he was doing. I walked gingerly and he turned, looked at me and smiled. I stood facing him and without speaking he removed his headphones, paused and put them on my head. I heard something for the first time, something that felt profound and true and torturous. Whenever I hear this song, I am immediately brought back to this moment. I had never heard it before. Although it’s not rare.
My ears heard the opening drum beat. Military like. Solid. Consistent. Gregory held the headphones tight over my ears and swayed me back in forth in time to the music. Then I heard the guitar. One two three four, one two three four… Gregory held my gaze, staring at me, waiting for me to hear it.
I would find the song later and read about it. Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2. The history. The moral. Gregory didn’t say a word about it. I don’t profess to know what it meant to him. But it meant something and he conveyed that without a word. We stood there moving to the music, eyes drilling into mine until the drumbeat was like my heartbeat.
The next day, in a hot parking lot, we unloaded and said goodbye. Gregory hugged me and said “Goodbye to the girl who hates me.” It was a shock and untrue as I didn’t hate him, but my fear must have come across that way. Before I could explain, we were walking away, back to our families. The exchange students, including the one who lived with my family, would go back to their home countries and in the days before email, social media and Skype, I never heard from Gregory again.
Years ago, I tried to contact him. I wanted to thank him. I was 18 and more than 20 years later, I am grateful for what I learned from him. The first in a lot of chances to learn one lesson: Different isn’t bad, just a chance to be better. You’ll learn and grow the most from those who are different. And what scares you might be the most profound experience of your life.