This morning a chance comment conjured memories of late night and very early morning hours at the campus library during my first two years at university. In a flash I was back in the sweet silence, a thick economics or history tome open before me, yellow highlighter in my hand, the second hand on a nearby clock faintly marking time, the fluorescent lights humming above. I have no memory of the main library in bright daylight, just at dusk or dawn, and at night.
It seemed to me that the dorms were filled with people who were at university to do anything but study; I was there because I wanted to learn everything. I was a geek, though that word wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time, and because I dated and took classes in modern dance and theater I was thought to be posing as a geek, waiting for my friends to drag me away from my books and be normal.
In the evening, with the stereos blaring and the stench of burnt popcorn mingling with hairspray and perfume, I had to escape. I couldn’t think, I could hardly breathe. I’d pack up my books and head out. The library was sometimes still crowded when I arrived. I’d slip into an empty space at a table and flip through my books, making my plan for the night as I waited. Soon, responding to some signal that didn’t register on my radar, the students around me would push away from the table, stand up to stretch their limbs and rub their eyes, lean forward to gather their books, and amble off with whispers and chuckles and yawns, tossing the detritus of their contraband snacks and drinks in the trash cans.
In the peaceful aftermath I’d gather my things and seek out a more comfortable table, preferably one with a view out into the trees, and settle for the night, opening my books with a sense of anticipation. In the nighttime library I felt at home. Now and then a fellow all-nighter would wander by, stretching her legs, slapping his face to get the circulation going, raking hands she’d wet in the restroom through her hair, snapping his gum, humming under her breath. If our eyes met, we smiled or nodded. We were a tribe.
I don’t know how many campus libraries are still open 24/7. But late at night, as I settle onto the loveseat in my living room with a book and a cup of tea, hurrying to get into a comfortable position so that I won’t need to disturb Ariel, who’s jumped down from her nest on the guest room armoire to join me in a nighttime read, I think about those nights in the library. The light was harsher, the chair far less comfortable, and there was no afghan, no tea, no adorable kitty who will warm my lap and calm me with her purring, and yet it was a magical place, a refuge in which I felt welcome being just who I was, a young woman who loved to get lost in books. Now, as Ariel turns and turns on my lap, seeking the sweet spot, I send out a silent greeting to my tribe. I imagine a slight shift in energy as someone somewhere glances up, looks round, feeling a presence. Seeing no one, she returns to her book, smiling as she finds her place on the page.