Police murdering people of color. President being horrible. Net neutrality. Sexual abuse.
Peter must have sighed out loud because Wanda looked up at him from where she was scanning through her own newsfeed. “Stop.”
“Yeah.” Peter scanned past a few more horrific headlines before setting his phone screen-down and unwrapping his sandwich. It was cling-film, which would never decompose, and he’d bought something wrapped in it and contributed to killing the earth a little faster. Goddamnit.
For all her chastising him, Wanda sighed as she set down her own phone. The thirty minutes that they carved out for lunch was the only time of day they were allowed to check their newsfeeds. Their therapist had suggested it – well, Wanda’s therapist, since she had benefits through her fancy corporate job, but she had relayed the advice to Peter and they’d both agreed it would be good for their mental health.
“So?” Wanda asked as she opened her salad (which was in a compostable bowl but had a plastic lid because that made sense). “What’s your Good One?”
Peter shrugged, pulling the crusts off his sandwich and saving them in the awful cling-film. “Stonewall Anniversary is coming up and there’s a big push to recognize how trans women actually started gay pride, not cis white dudes.”
“No, that was my Good One!” Wanda protested, but she laughed, and Peter found himself joining in.
“Did you know that the riots started the day after Judy Garland’s funeral?” Wanda raised an eyebrow as she chewed her arugula. “Some people think that’s what kind of set everybody off,” Peter continued, “like, we just lost Judy, we’re not gonna get harassed by the fucking cops again.”
A passerby gave Peter a look, no doubt because they heard “fucking cops” come out of his mouth, and he gave them the facial expression equivalent of flipping them off. They averted their eyes and hurried away. Tourist. Peter ate the rest of his sandwich half in one bite.
“So edgy,” Wanda teased. “You should have grown up in Eastern Europe – we’re just equipped to deal with this shit.”
“By ‘this shit’ do you mean how our government is fucked and no one cares unless it affects them directly?”
Wanda gestured with her fork. “Bingo.”
They finished their lunch, each saving half of what they’d ordered to eat for dinner (because they were both so very poor) and walked back to the Stark Tech building chatting about diva identification and queer culture. Well, mostly Wanda talked and Peter listened – she was so smart, totally wasted on her bullshit desk job, but who wasn’t?
Still, Peter felt moderately positive as he rode the train to his afternoon volunteering gig. That was squashed when he rounded the corner and saw all of the students of Brooklyn Visions Academy clustered on the sidewalk, the block covered in squad cars.
He turned to see Miles and Kamala, apparently okay, then saw that they were both holding signs bearing #BLM.
Walk-Out Day, Peter remembered, going to his two favorite students. “How’s the protest?”
“Great!” Kamala said, brightly. “Dr. Connors is giving us extra credit and Dr. Marconi told the cops to leave us the hell alone. Direct quote!”
Peter nodded, glancing around at the teachers who were scattered throughout the crowd of middle schoolers, watching them protectively. At least Miles and Kamala went to a pretty awesome school.
“Well, I’m glad New York’s finest could take time to protect the people of Brooklyn from you two miscreants,” he teased, and his students giggled – he wasn’t sure how much older they’d get before they stopped finding his quips amusing, so he had to milk it. “I guess we’re not sciencing today?”
“No, no!” Miles corrected, stricken. “We’ve just got another twenty minutes, please?”
“We did a lab today and the results came out backwards,” Kamala shared. “We need you.”
Peter laughed and joined the kids on the sidewalk, supporting their protest. Their organized, cop-sanctioned protest asking that people who looked like them be treated as if their lives mattered.
As Peter rode the train home after his tutoring session (which had been entertaining, as always – those two managed to come up with incredibly creative ways of doing chemistry wrong) he decided he needed to pull himself together. He couldn’t let his bullshit white male guilt make him angry all the time – he had nothing to be angry about. Wanda could be angry. Kamala and Miles could be angry. They weren’t. They were lovely people doing their best in a world that hated them. The least Peter could do was not be a sullen prick all the time.
The stray pit-bull mix who lived in his alley greeted him as soon as he got within three yards of his building’s door, as if it knew Peter had a treat. Peter knelt down, scratching the sweet animal behind one of its torn ears while he fished his sandwich crusts out of his bag. Puppy wolfed them down, thoroughly cleaned Peter’s face with its rough tongue, and rested its head against Peter’s chest in that very pit-bull way. Peter rubbed his cheek against Puppy’s fur, which did not smell good but was so soft. With a playful nip at his chin, Puppy bounded off back down the alley. Peter wondered if it had other pet humans who gave it little snacks in return for a few seconds of comfort – he hoped so, not just for Puppy’s sake but for the humans.
When he pulled his phone out of his bag to plug it in to charge in his teeny tiny kitchen, he saw he had a message from Wanda.
Protest planning meeting tonight? Be the change and all?
Peter blinked at his screen. Protest planning meeting? It had been a minute since he’d participated in an actual protest. He knew Wanda sometimes met with an ACLU-type group, but she hadn’t invited him to anything in a while. He could stay here and eat the other half of his sandwich while watching Meet Me in St. Louis for the eighth time that week and pass out on his futon, or he could go – do something. Huh.
He affectionately patted his old, sad laptop as he shouldered his bag again and headed out the door – Judy would have to wait until later. He felt she would understand.
The protest planning meeting was being held in a church. Which – was fine, of course, he got that. At least it was a Unitarian church.
Wanda waved enthusiastically when she saw him crossing the street, and he wondered if she’d thought he might not show. Jesus, he really was a terrible, depressing friend. But he was making a change, and the happy surprise on Wanda’s face just strengthened his resolve.
The walls of the community room were lined with colorful banners, some mentioning god, most just bearing positive messages. One actually said “Be the change you wish to see in the world” in sparkly, purple lettering. Peter’s cynical brain supplied that Gandhi was a racist and a misogynist, which was true, but that didn’t make the words less meaningful. He took a breath and focused on Wanda, who was pointing people out to him as the sizeable group convened.
“They’re a couple and they have like six foster babies,” she said, waving at two very hippie-looking women who smiled and waved back. “They run the shelter close to my place –“
Everyone in the room, Peter realized, was an Incredibly Good Person. And they were all different from each other – some covered in piercings and tattoos, some dressed like they were perpetually ready to teach a yoga lesson, some obviously single parents, one lady wearing scrubs with a cute flower pattern who made him instantly think of May. He felt his heart warm, but there was a coldness at the edges reminding him that regardless of these kind people, Americans had still voted a hateful Cheeto into the highest office in the land.
He shook himself again – the meeting was starting, though folks were still chatting and munching on the healthy snacks that covered a small table in the back. He saw a very tall figure wearing a hoodie against the wall behind the table, not talking to anyone, face obscured. He stood out amongst the friendly, colorful crowd.
“That’s Scary Wade,” Wanda said, nodding towards Tall Hoodie Guy. “He’s a veteran. Like, Special Forces, like serious badass.”
Peter looked again and could kind of make out the guy’s face. He was – Jesus. He was scarred. Badly. Burns, maybe? He felt like he should know just from spending so much time in the ER nurse’s station at May’s hospital when he was little. The severity and the sheer amount of skin that the scars covered made him think burns.
And suddenly Tall Hoodie Guy looked right at Peter and their eyes met. Peter’s whole brain shouted, blue! Very, very blue! Pretty! He fervently hoped he had only shouted these things internally. Tall Hoodie Guy kind of glared at him, and Peter instinctively smiled. Just the new kid, super friendly, definitely not checking out your scars or your gorgeous eyes, he tried to convey. To his shock, Tall Hoodie Guy looked a bit thrown. But their silent, socially-awkward conversation was interrupted by a tall woman starting to speak at the front of the room.
“Thank you all so much for being here tonight,” she said, then launched into some announcements.
“Emma,” Wanda supplied in a low voice. “She’s in charge. She’s got some kind of job in the DA’s office, so she’s got really good connections. It helps.”
After announcements, Emma started going over the plan for the upcoming protest. They would all meet at a local park, 6pm so that folks had time to get dinner after work. All signs needed to be pre-approved. The police would escort them on their pre-approved route.
Peter tried to listen, tried to focus on Emma’s very calm and authoritative voice, but his inner cynic just would not be quiet. Another nice, orderly, law-abiding protest that wouldn’t make anyone too nervous or cause anyone too much inconvenience. That was sure to create a lot of real change.
Peter nearly fainted when a hand shot up out of the crowd, right in his line of sight. Emma looked perturbed but covered it with the skill of a woman who was used to having to hide her feelings. “Yes, Wade?”
“So the police,” Wade started, and oh, it was Tall Hoodie Guy (he’d been so distracted by the scars and pretty eyes that he’d forgotten the name Wanda had given him), “are going to let us process in an orderly fashion for a rigidly-timed period to protest – what are we protesting again?”
There was a short, awkward silence. Emma rolled her shoulders. “Oh, it’s police brutality!” Wade answered himself with a dry laugh that did something strange to Peter’s insides. “We’re protesting police brutality, that’s right.”
“We have to work with law enforcement, Wade,” Emma said, calmly. This was clearly a conversation they’d had before. “If we don’t, if we carry ‘FTP’ signs and cause trouble and get arrested, it just reinforces Power’s narrative about us and our motives.”
“And I’m telling you, from experience,” Wade said, his voice less sarcastic and more cutting, “that you can’t politely ask Power to quit shitting on people.”
Peter saw a few of the parents gathered cover their kids’ ears. There was rumbling in the crowd. Nobody looked genuinely mad, but there was a sense of weariness, as if Scary Wade was a kid who was misbehaving and if they all just ignored him he’d stop. It made the anger ball that lived in Peter’s chest swell and burn.
The entire room turned to look at him. Which was a trick, because he was one of the shortest people in the place if you didn’t count the actual children. Peter felt himself start to turn red. What had happened to chilling the fuck out? He glanced at Wanda, but she was just smiling at him, eyebrows raised, not moving away or trying to act like he wasn’t with her.
“He is,” Peter continued, trying to stand up straight and meet all the eyes that were staring at him. “The police exist to protect the status quo, so a police-approved protest can’t really challenge the status quo. Audre Lorde and all that.”
There was once again murmuring among the crowd. Peter’s eyes found Wade, who was staring at him with a completely blank expression.
“What do you suggest, then?” Emma asked, and Peter was horrified to realize that she was now addressing him in addition to Wade. “Block traffic? Get arrested? Everybody’s kids go to CPS?”
“Well, since you asked,” Wade looked away from Peter to address the crowd, affecting such a good impression of a mid-western mom-type that Peter nearly laughed out loud, “if any of you would like to participate in an actual protest led by actual black and brown humans, meet at the train stop down the block from this bullshit protest at 6pm. But don’t tell, it’s a surprise!”
And with that, and many a loudly-whispered “excuse me,” Tall Hoodie/Scary Wade/Pretty McBlue Eyes (Peter was having trouble settling on a nickname) made his way out of the community hall.
“Any other questions?” Emma asked, but Peter was still watching Wade. Just as he made it to the door, he turned back to scan the crowd, and for the third time in like fifteen minutes, their eyes somehow met. Peter held his gaze, hoping something would happen – he didn’t know what – but Wade turned away and quickly ducked out of the room.
“Hey,” Wanda said once the meeting was over and they were filling up on free snacks. “Remember that time we went to a social action meeting together and you referenced Audre Lorde?”
“I’m so sorry,” Peter said, closing his eyes. It felt like everyone was looking at them, at him.
“Why?” Wanda laughed, dropping a handful of carrot sticks into his bag. “You made me seem all interesting, and I’ve never seen Scary Wade look surprised before, not even a little bit.”
“Great,” Peter said quietly, looking through the crowd. There was no reason why Wade would come back after his dramatic exit, but –
Peter and Wanda both did a double-take. Who in the fresh hell would call him Mr. Parker? A forties-ish Latinx lady with a warm, kind face was making her way towards them, pulling along a black man her age with a decidedly less friendly face.
“I’m Rio Morales,” she introduced herself. “You’re Miles’ tutor, he’s pointed you out to us.”
“Oh!” Peter realized, immediately shaking her offered hand. “I’m Peter, it’s so nice to meet you, finally. Miles is a – he’s such a great kid.”
“He adores you,” Rio said, and even Miles’ forbidding-looking dad smiled a little at him. “Thank you for what you do, it means so much.”
“Did you mean what you said earlier?” Miles’ dad asked. Rio gave him a look, but he held Peter’s gaze.
Peter swallowed but looked right back at him. “Yes.”
“So are you going to Scary Wade’s protest?” Wanda asked moments later as they walked back to her place. It was dark and while Wanda had a good two inches on him there was no way Peter was letting her walk back alone.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Are you?”
She sighed, fishing for her keys. “I don’t know. Probably not. But I promise I’ll come bail you out if you get arrested.”
He made a face, but Wanda hugged him extra hard before going into her building, leaving him to walk to the train by himself.
Once he’d reached the relative safety of the train, he pulled out his phone and opened his calendar, entering a time and place: 6pm, station down the block from the park. He sat back and realized he felt – not better, but not as itchy, not as angry. He felt excited, he realized. Excited and so nervous his mouth was sweating. Best not to think about it – just do it.
When he got home, he dumped his jacket and bag on the floor, flopped onto his sad old futon, rested his laptop on his chest and started up Meet Me In St. Louis. He fell asleep listening to Judy singing the trolley song and woke up more rested than he’d felt since – well, since ever.