Walking toward Starbuck’s for a caffeine break between classes one day, I encountered Steven for the first time. He was seated at an outside table next to the entrance, and with the natural openness of the developmentally disabled, he looked directly at me as I approached. I smiled at him as I reached for the door.
“Can you do this?” he asked, making a circle with his thumb and forefinger and peering through it at me, the thick lens of his glasses magnifying the encircled eye so it loomed larger than life. I paused. “Sure,” I showed him, looking back at him through my own thumb and forefinger. “Look closer,” he instructed, leaning toward me, still peering through his circled fingers. I obediently bent toward him, leaning in as far as my sense of “personal space” would allow, and wondering what it was I was supposed to see. “Closer,” he commanded, stretching toward me and bringing our faces into uncomfortable proximity. I instinctively shied back a bit, but valiantly kept myself closer than I really wanted to be.
“Can you see my eye?” he asked. I could feel his breath on my face. “Yes, I can” I told him, finally relenting to my screaming subconscious and straightening up. “How close did you get?” Steven asked. “This far,” I told him, holding my thumb and finger about four inches apart. “I’m going to be on the ski team for Special Olympics,” he told me. Smiling, I congratulated him as I opened the door and went inside.
The barista greeted me cheerfully. “Grande caffe vanilla frappucino?” she asked. I nodded and handed her my debit card, then peered at her through the circle of my thumb and forefinger. “What’s this?” I asked, and she laughed. “We don’t know, it’s just Steven’s thing,” she shrugged.
The following evening found me back at Starbuck’s, sprawled in a comfy chair in the back corner sipping frappucino, buried deep in one of my textbooks. “Can you do this?” a familiar voice asked. I looked up and smiled. “Not tonight,” I said apologetically. “I have to finish my homework.” He took his hand away from his face. “Can you do it tomorrow?” he asked hopefully. “I won’t be here tomorrow,” I replied, “How about Monday?” “Okay, Monday,” he said happily, and walked away.
At least an hour later, I got up to stretch and clear my brain a little. Steven was at the register, painstakingly counting out a few coins on the counter, while the same barista watched patiently. It was obvious there weren’t enough of them. “Just a minute,” she told him, and ducked into the back, returning a moment later with her own purse. Adding several coins to his small pile, she said “There, enough for a small hot chocolate.” She rang up his purchase and handed him the drink. Turning, he caught sight of me. “What time Monday?” he asked. “Ummm…” I mentally reviewed my schedule. “One o’clock.” His countenance fell. “I have work until two o’clock,” he told me. We juggled schedules a little more, and finally settled on a Tuesday appointment for our next eye-peering episode. Happy again, he sipped his chocolate.
“What kind of job do you do?” I asked him. “I put things in bags and staple them,” he told me. “I have my own alarm clock. It goes ‘BEEP-BEEP-BEEP!’ But when the electricity was off it didn’t work. Then it just went blink blink blink.” He put his chocolate down and made “blinking” gestures with both hands, opening his fingers wide and then pulling them together, repeating the gesture several times. “I wonder why it does that,” he added, shaking his head as he took another sip of chocolate. Then he brightened. “I’m going to be on the ski team in Special Olympics!” he told me proudly.
There’s something fresh and unspoiled about Steven. I look forward to seeing him now. We play the eye game regularly. People who aren’t regulars give us strange sidelong glances while pretending to read their books or sip their coffee. The barista just grins. “Can you see my eye?” he asks, his eyeball huge and blurry through the circles of our fingers. He’ll stay like that, the two of us face to face and peering through our fingers into each others’ eyes, for as long as I’m willing to stay there. When I finally pull away, he asks “How close did you get?” and now when I hold up my thumb and finger to show him, they’re pressed tightly together. He nods with satisfaction. “I’m going to be on the ski team for Special Olympics,” he tells me proudly.
I still have no clue what the point of the ritual is, or what I’m supposed to see. Maybe I’ll never know.
Maybe it doesn’t really matter.