Photo by Rashad Harris @sleepyoptics
The wasps on Yale’s campus were just like the people: invasive, mildly annoying, and a problem that could easily be avoided by staying inside my dorm all day. But our first day of exploration called for the opposite of confinement in my empty, eggshell-colored prison that I had grown to love. After a two-week quarantine full of a ritualistic (and almost cultish) amount of forced bonding, I yearned for the days where I’d wake up to an empty courtyard instead of the swarms of people and wasps fighting for terrain.
Of the vermin that scattered throughout Yale, however, only one person proved to be relatively tolerable. During the first week of introductions, Kai was the only person to still talk to me after my encounter with the beaming freshman counselor at orientation. The overjoyed and proud Californian man extended his scrawny finger toward me and boasted, “And what are you most excited about for your time here at Yale?” Apparently, “graduation” was not the response he was looking for.
Kai came up to me that first day and broke the quick, judgemental glances from the former valedictorians we called classmates with genuine laughter, albeit at my embarrassment. Still, two weeks had passed since that initial encounter, and Kai remained as the sole person that held a conversation with me beyond the couple minutes of a customary college exchange. We’d planned to be freed of the quarantine together, but unfortunately, this rare and coveted acquaintance required hiking up a surprisingly steep set of stairs that left me breathless by the time I reached the fifth and final floor to Kai’s dorm.
“Ready to see the real world?” Kai asked as he grabbed his gigantic black bag from inside of his room. The stark size difference between the 5’2” excited, pasty white boy and the huge backpack resting on his shoulders immediately sent me into a fit of laughter. When he asked what was so funny, I couldn’t find an acceptable answer that wouldn’t immediately ruin my only potential friendship.
Luckily for me, I was spared from answering the imposing question as a bigger pest emerged from the shadows of room 501-B: Kai’s roommate, Justin. “Yoooo,” he started, making eye contact with me specifically. “What’s up, dawg?” Justin was from the upper-middle suburbs of Manchester, Iowa, which is to say that until this very moment, his encounters with black people had equaled the number of times I had felt truly comfortable on campus: zero.
Kai mouthed a “sorry” in my direction and urged us to start heading out. After leaving his dorm entryway, we all took a deep breath, shared one last look at the courtyard, and left beyond the iron gates of Silliman College. I’d later remember how heavy those gates felt, how pushing past the sturdy walls was a feat in itself, how Yale wanted to keep us in.
For the most part, the “real world” that Kai hoped we would explore was not unlike whatever alternate world he thought we had been experiencing within Silliman. Past those metal gates, the buildings on Yale’s campus towered above and seemed to reach into heaven itself. Beneath these domineering figures, the world seemed smaller, as if not witnessing the buildings in their full, grand glory was a personal disservice. And while one residential college was already big enough, the rest of Yale’s expansive ownership was a labyrinth complex enough to spend ages trapped in. Here, I was tiny, and even after finally entering the downtown area of New Haven, I still sensed the influence the school had placed over the town.
Even so, I couldn’t help but find myself constantly laughing and staring at Kai’s smile as we walked. Falling for the first white man that was kind to me was not something I was expecting when I moved across the country, but stranger things had happened during my first semester at Yale. Besides, Kai had easily become the best part of my time here, and I didn’t realize I had forgotten how it felt to not hold your breath. Mississippi taught me to kneel at the pedestal before God and bear witness to the smoldering suspicions of damnation that surrounded me. But here, there were lovers that held hands while the sun was still shining. Pride flags decorated every corner, this time not waiting to be set aflame with resistance. I’d undoubtedly missed Jackson and the community of people who looked like me, but I also had never seen queerness so readily celebrated until now.
Of course, this place was by no means paradise. There was still so much left unsaid between Kai and me. No one glared as our interlocked fingers swung back and forth together, but it took three stores in which the employees only followed me before Kai began to realize the truth. New Haven was truly only a safe place for some of its residents, and that didn’t seem to include both of us. Walking down the freshly paved roads of Broadway street and passing picturesque shopping centers only reminded me of how foreign this place had felt. I stared at the countless advertisements and storefront welcome signs that seemed to knowingly glare at me and force my hand into my jean’s empty pockets. That was the other problem. If I wasn’t already too Black for the Yale and New Haven community, then I definitely was too poor.
“How about we go and eat in the park instead?” Kai asked, guessing that I needed a change of scenery. The question didn’t need much of an answer, and we headed towards the New Haven Green.
To my surprise, this place actually did manage to succeed at something: the food. Pepe’s Pizza was our restaurant of choice, and it seemed to be the only thing that could actually meet the expectations others placed upon it. Before we could even make it to the front door, praises of the meal and tempting smells greeted us. We had been waiting in line for over an hour and were finally leaving when we ran into Ishmael, a student who had taken Yale’s pre-orientation program on diversity and inclusion with me.
As we walked back to the park with our newly acquired pizza in hand, Kai stopped me. “Do you know that guy?”
If I had said anything but yes, it would have been incredibly awkward for the euphoric, husky man excitedly waving and jogging towards us from across the street. Ishmael’s shirt read “I’M ROOTING FOR EVERYONE BLACK” in different shades of brown with a picture of Africa beneath it. He was holding his food from the Ethiopian restaurant in town, and we invited him to come to eat with us. He politely declined; he had already promised to eat with some other people from our same pre-orientation program earlier. We all waved goodbye, but before he left, he came up to me and whispered.
“Aye, man…you good? This isn’t some Get Out situation is it?” He laughed and whispered again, “But seriously bro, just let me know if you need me to come to save you.”
If I needed him to save me? No amount of pro-Black t-shirts and artificial solidarity could stop the vast whiteness that surged through Yale. I assured him I would be fine.
A few hours later, I wished I had taken him up on his offer. Kai and I had planned to eat alone, but as we were heading in search of a table, Justin and a group of his teammates were motioning for us to join them. I was set on turning around and leaving the restaurant immediately, but he was Kai’s roommate so reluctantly, we agreed. The first half of the meal had actually managed to earn a few laughs and genuine smiles from the both of us, but later, as I continued eating dinner, I pretended not to hear Justin’s snarky comments about the recent protests that were happening across the country.
“I don’t care about politics anyway,” he sputtered, scanning the room as he continued, “just give these thugs what they want already.” His friends looked at him with a confused, unexpected glance. Not at the “thugs” comment, of course, but at the fact that he could even agree with them. Dramatically leaning in, Justin paused, sensing their apprehension, and then spat out: “At least then we can finally go back to shopping at Target in peace.” The rest of the six-foot, muscular athletes erupted into laughter and slapped Justin’s back. He had apparently unlocked the key to comedy: casual racism.
I found myself forcing a smile that clawed at the corner of my lips. I knew all too well what happened to little Black boys who never learned to silence themselves. So I sat and said nothing. The pizza now seemed thick and hard to swallow. I told Kai I was going to head back to Silliman, but to my surprise, he quickly jumped up and joined me.
Later that night, our bodies swayed down Elm street and Kai looked at me and laughed. His arm landed around my shoulder and dangled carelessly as we walked. We had stopped at an ice cream parlor after leaving Justin and his teammates, and for a moment, everything was peaceful. The countless memories of Mississippi differences ceased to exist and the dreams surrounding the college experience I had already begun planning with Kai plagued my thoughts instead. At that moment, under New Haven’s elm trees, my mind wasn’t racing with carefully altered, stained glass versions of what I could and could not allow myself to be. When I was with him, I didn’t have to question all the things that didn’t make sense; he had all the answers.
But when the red pick-up truck suddenly sped by and one of Justin’s teammates shouted the word “Nigger,” everything shattered, and even Kai didn’t know what to do. He stood shocked as I watched, and all the past shouts of slurs and insults ran to the back of my head, battling my thoughts for space. The leaves rigidly shook as the passenger threw the bottle right towards us, and again, everything stopped. I saw him clearly. The smile on his face as the word broke past his lips, the driver’s compliance while the truck slowed down, the uncomfortable familiarity of their white laughter; it was all so clear. The bottle flew past us and shattered merely inches away as they sped off. Kai stood shaking as I watched the truck’s “Yale 2024” sticker shrink into the distance.
And then I knew: this is what dying feels like. Not the impact itself, but the frozen, lifeless moments without air after. Until now, I had managed to maintain a feigned sense of composure even with the mild discomfort and constant remarks. But it was clear that Yale’s rigid campus was more unforgiving than I had imagined, and there seemed to be no use here for the quiet Mississippi boy. Kai stood helpless on the New Haven roads, staring frantically and reaching for words that weren’t there. He restlessly jittered back and forth, tapping his fingers against his sides until he settled on a nearby bench. I stood watching him, realizing I hadn’t truly missed home until this very moment.
A few seconds of shocked silence passed by until Kai asked if we could stop and talk about what had just happened. I simply looked at him and continued walking back to Silliman. Back home, there was no time for conservation and sitting down to “unpack this.” I hadn’t realized how tired of white tears, how sick of white guilt, how consumed by whiteness I had been until my Blackness was exiled and I still was comforting others.
Kai rushed after me, his worn sneakers hitting the pavement as he breathlessly reached for my shoulder. A small breeze shifted between us. “Are you sure you want to walk back by yourself?”
I assured him I did. I watched him grow smaller and smaller, and as I walked alone in the middle of the September night, I heard the faint buzz of wasps that had been circling me.
Jeffrey Caliedo is a student at Yale University where he studies English and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration. Jeffrey is a member of WORD: Performance Poetry at Yale, the school’s oldest spoken word group formed under the Afro-American Cultural Center as well as a member and contributor to DOWN Magazine, a weekly online publication by and for students of color at Yale University. Recently, Jeffrey was crowned the ACT-SO National Champion of Written Poetry by the NAACP for his poem “Igneous.” Jeffrey’s work highlights the intersections of Black and queer narratives with a focus on advocacy through storytelling.