by Patrick Carey
There wasn’t too much to find in that place, where memories could only last as long as a very short attention span.
It wasn’t about the attention span, though, not really. It was about the depth of emotional tolerance: how long you could endure feeling before it had to be drowned.
A walk across campus alone when it seemed like everyone was either grouped up or paired off: this, especially on a weekend night when the stuff on display wasn’t academic prowess or the good-natured normalcy of people who recognize, ultimately, their humble place in this world. People came alive; teasingly, they were the same ones you could sit next to in class or pass with a near-suspicious regularity on side streets off campus. You could glance at someone taking their coat off at a party and for the rest of your time shared in the same thirty-six city blocks they’d have a monstrously oversized (but never acknowledged) presence in your life. Them, you, maybe– an unearned confidence spinning out into thoughts of drinking coffee and watching funny videos together, laced with sadness like a heartbeat.
Kids– you might call them young adults if that kind of thing feels important– who’ve achieved high scores academically also seem especially cunning about about achieving weekend pleasure. This repeated use of pleasure makes it seem like I’m hurtling toward an admonishment of certain physiological expressions, as if I were lonely, but no. I’m only a researcher, relaying the more notable thing they’ve told me about their lives here.
Without the scheduled thrills of well-attended football games and tailgates swarmed by fun-hungry alumni, these students who’d been known for studying in high school (not for testing cheap beers by a retention pond in summertime) got to college and began renting out warehouses with trapeze artists and cement trucks full of Everclear punch.
Today, a Saturday, I was tasked with standing outside one of the undergraduate libraries at 11am and observing students in an anti-racism rally. By the time I arrived I’d spilled about half of a very hot coffee on my hand. There was none on my shirt. The only other person was a sophomore I’d observed in History classes who ignored my questions and sighed more frequently than anyone I’ve ever stood near. I tried to imagine what made him sigh so frequently, because making little wheels of masking tape and putting them on the back of a few homemade signs didn’t seem too arduous. But I was distracted again by the library’s appearance: what a vision of hell, and I could see the black Dell computers from the steps.
By 11:15am a sizable crowd had formed and some students were marching around with blown-up photos of Emmett Till in his glass-topped casket. It was moving, undeniably, but despite my guilty attempts to scold these thoughts away I couldn’t help wondering what the FedEx Kinko’s employees had thought when they were working on those enormous photos. I was right in the midst of the crowd, not taking notes but recording. I was relieved that the sighing sophomore had moved to the front, and also impressed by his rhetorical ability when he grabbed the microphone. Almost everyone was white. I tried to tell a student that Emmett Till’s casket was kept in the Smithsonian now, but he wouldn’t turn toward me.
“It’s worth a visit, the Smithsonian I mean.” And then a long pause. Everything was still loud, I guess.
“Do you mind standing somewhere else?”
Given my history of being unwanted at student events I didn’t have much of a choice. I picked up my bag and walked about thirty feet. A few professors had come to campus on their weekend, and I wanted to ask if their students had told them about the event. But, not wanting to be seen as disrespectful or as a racist, I stood there with my arms crossed and nodded when I felt moved, which was often– I even blinked away a few tears.
With the students here, especially at the years worth of rallies I’ve attended, it’s seldom unclear what they’re hoping for. I interpreted the crowd’s energy after the rally as unfavorable toward my presence, cut my losses, and headed home. Though I tried to resist it with thoughts of my work, the news of another black kid killed by police in Chicago was inflected now with thoughts of Emmett Till and everything I had done or imagined seemed pointless. I became impossibly tired, and had to put my head against the bus window although I’ve always had a rule against doing so.
When I wake up from a nap I tend to feel as if my brain had been left in a toaster too long. I could make no conclusions about the students at their rally, other than that they seemed hopeful and angry. I would wait until Monday and try to do a series of short interviews on the quadrangle.
I found a book about the opioid crisis in universities on my bookshelf and started to read. It made a lot of suspicious assumptions, so I switched to a new book I’d seen all over campus– a book that was both radiantly conscious and compulsively readable, according to its back cover.
A very distracting loneliness crept in. Whenever I asked students about reading they said it felt– these are my words butting in now– like a neutered way to spend your time. And they’d waited so long to jump from books to the things that books described– if all of that was longing, prefatory, why not finally attain?
Having made it through the night, I sat upright this time on a different but identical bus and went back to campus. I tried to figure out (as I often did) why students never asked about my research project. I would have been prepared to tell them. I went into the student center to sit in a restroom, and took note of a linguistic concoction on the inside of the stall door:
If pain and joy are two
sides of the same coin
you can keep the change.
If the secret to it all
is money then regretting
long live socialism.
This was clearly someone in their first poetry workshop, and I admired the zeal. It was a good poem, too, because it was made of words and I had no idea what it was aiming for. To my surprise there was a bathroom attendant when I left the stall, with towels to hand out and mouthwash to buy and all that. I asked him if he had been hired because of a new donation, and he stared at me. I took my towel to go and walked out.
There was a semicircle of twenty-five or thirty students right outside the door, looking like a choir. I was hoping they hadn’t heard anything, and fortunately they were all looking at pieces of paper. Someone looked up and handed me one, and I saw the same six lines from the bathroom stall. A student I’d never seen who could really enunciate said her name was Shannon and they had all gathered to see if researchers could really understand poetry. All sixty or sixty-five of them turned and stared.
“Well,” I said, “when I first noticed the poem it was because of the penmanship and also because it wasn’t one of those anarchy symbols or a succession of arbitrary insults directed at the anonymous person who wrote the most recent insult.”
My voice faltered, but nobody said anything. “Okay,” I continued. “It’s nice that it’s artistic and political at the same time. There’s a nice pun on money and socialism is nice to think about.”
The whole group of ninety to ninety-five erupted in applause. They each gave me a pack of sugar-free gum, which they must’ve known was my favorite from all their time reciprocating my close attention throughout the years. The bell rang for class and everyone ran. I asked around for a plastic bag for all of my gum.
I decided to sit in on a class, which I hadn’t done in a while, and I got the last desk. This may not be true elsewhere, but every semester on the first day of class, in every class, students walk toward a desk and kind of laugh while saying the desks are so tiny. There are often a few nicer chairs besides the desks– which are admittedly smaller than most laptops– but nobody wants to take them, like the last piece of cake. There were none in this classroom, and the desk part of my desk didn’t even flip down.
The professor wasn’t there– one minute, two, five, almost ten minutes passed before a fog machine turned on somewhere and the most dreadful screeching noise emerged from under the podium. Then she rose from the floor, our messiah, sending the podium flying before she stopped just a few feet above us. Through the fog we could see that Professor Weston stood behind a huge table, with a turntables in the middle and an enormous speaker on either side. Without warning she started her first track.
This was a slow build, like her lectures, but all of our jaws had already hit the floor. And then came the moment: madness in the classroom! Professor Weston was a master of house music, and she hadn’t ever told us. I turned to observe any student reactions, and was shocked nobody had pulled their phones out. Everyone was just writing furiously. I leaned over the side of a student’s desk, even though it was bad form, to figure out what everyone was writing. It was an exam– in the middle of a performance! Feeling bad for her, I jumped up and started shouting Professor Wesson’s first name: Cassandra! Cassandra! Cassandra!
She cut the music, grabbed my bag, and pushed me right out of the classroom. It’s confusing, believe me, but some people are embarrassed about praise even when they’re remarkable at what they do. There were a few choreographed dances happening on the quadrangle, and up in the trees thousands of squirrels chased one another to fight or mate.
I only lay down for a quick nap, but I’m home now. I look around my room: books on my dresser, clothing on the floor, a few small plastic bags. Though I feel remarkably groggy, I need to get out again and keep working. I need to get back to Professor Wesson to apologize, ask what songs she played next, find out if she’s posted her stuff online anywhere.
My leap from bed ends in a perfect landing– I always stick it now and will need to add an extra layer of difficulty– but the blood rushes away and I almost pass out. I find some clothing and notice the door has changed. Strange of my landlord to renovate while I was asleep, and because there’s no lock on this new door I’ll need to call tonight. I open it and almost everything else is the same.
There are no english muffins in the fridge, not even orange juice, but there’s a letter on the table in a way that says I’m meant to read it.
I deeply regret to inform you that your son Michael will no longer be permitted on campus, effective immediately. We know you have worked hard to help him with any personal issues, even letting him live at home with you, but we’ve received multiple complaints from students and faculty about his conduct. Because the semester started only two weeks ago we will refund his tuition. Best wishes to you, and to Michael in the program he’ll be attending.
Howard Flatley, Associate Dean
Patrick Carey is a writer living in Chicago. He daylights in the mental health field and enjoys reading, cooking, and jazz drumming.