After having skipped out on academic requirements whose classrooms smelled somewhat like taco meat that had been left out on a tray, I relinquished my classes and headed for the library, where, from excitingly panoramic positions, I could look out on a city Peter Taylor would characterize as The Old Forest and flip through over-sized tomes that were devoted to world capitols I was unlikely to visit, but felt I should prefer over my distant-sited hometown. There, on a floor that was safely removed from academic competition, I roamed what the Paris Atget saw with his camera. The seedy magnificence of fine old streets and monuments soothed nerves that were somewhat frazzled from playing hooky all the time. Occasionally, as I read, I thought I saw my anthropology professor, whose striking burliness shook the floors of one of those taco-smelling classes. His name was Gosling, which fit him so badly, it almost worked. I imagined him at home: with a spatula in his hand and a bowl of something, which he would probe from time to time as he daydreamed about digging in the dirt somewhere. Just as my immersion in fin de siècle Paris had taken me away from the classroom, Professor Gosling’s passion for God knows what had brought him here.
But, no, that wasn’t him at all. It was my sense of guilt, which, as Shakespeare knew, spawns phantoms. I even called out his name and was shushed by a librarian of whose presence I was completely unaware. Had she heard an orgiastic soundtrack (I’ll get to that in a moment) and had come to investigate it? Or might I add auditory hallucinations to the ones I was having with, or about, Professor Gosling? I liked the Professor and, while I did not care to attend his classes, I wished him well. It was he who had advised us to quit college if we were bored or wanted to do something else. I would have been glad to tell him that I was following his advice, though I was weaning myself from it one library floor – and cry of ecstasy – at a time. But he was not there at all. The librarian – who must have felt I wanted to say something else – came back to me and glared, as if to say: “I know you want to keep talking. But don’t. When I lose my temper, I also lose perspective.”
Yet as I browsed these books, I would occasionally jump up. Something was happening nearby, but the sound was muffled and I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. Nor did I want to. After a library vigil that had begun as a lark, but was developing into a full-time occupation, I’d started to become addicted to the place, which I felt was mine. How dare people come in here and bother me! Yet, as I returned to the Boulevards des Capucines or a dank medieval quarter whose name was so redolent of forgotten transgressions and human frailty that I didn’t need to remember it, I settled back into a narcotic bliss that absorbed me completely. Yet what were these sounds? Initially, I chalked them up to the solitary experience of “hearing things” and went back to my reading. But when the air was rent with cries of passion that were inadequately suppressed; pleasurable groans that echoed throughout the stacks that concealed their origin; and, finally, orgasmic experiences that were being vigorously, if somewhat indiscreetly, pursued, I decided that I would put Atget on hold and look around.
Libraries are constructed, not by architects for whom spatial dalliance exerts an inexhaustible appeal, but by a bunch of people who want to cram as many books into an uninspiring shoebox as they can manage. Such was the library at Memphis State University. My little eyrie, which was adjacent to a series of windows that looked out on the commons and, beyond that, the city at large, was a sweet little tongue of frivolity that must’ve been sunk into the place after all the scut work had been done and there was some leftover cash to throw at something out-of-character. Its sofa-like chairs should have come with hookahs, but they were more than good enough as they were. Its pleasantly umbrageous calm was so seductive that, once I sat down in it, I was good for hours on end. And, as I kept coming back, I realized that, rather than go to classes that made sense in terms of how knowledge was transmitted, but didn’t appeal to my unorthodox feeling about being tested on it, I didn’t need to go anywhere else. This was home. These chairs were my living-room. And the everyday routines here suited me to a T. How I would make a living from doing these things did not concern me. I was young, I had all the time in the world, and I’d found a place that might conceal perfectly legal activities that were, on the other hand, completely useless to everybody except me.
If truth were known, I was annoyed that possible seducers had come here, to this library, whose concrete floors and space-constricting setup should have daunted them. I wanted to leave them be, but a kind of morbid curiosity compelled me to find out where they were and ask them what in hell they were doing – though, from the soundscape I mentioned — I already knew that. I was cutting classes in a noble sort of way, as a kind of scholar-in-residence who was pursuing an independent line of study. In years to come, people would know – as Lincoln had said of the hallowed dead at Gettysburg – what I did here and they wouldn’t think it odd, strange, or counterproductive. I’d write books that would occupy these shelves and would be routinely ignored by young lovers who thrashed and pawed at one another as long as there weren’t any librarians around. But that was all right. My books would provide intellectual continuity while their thrashings and soundings would knit one generation of sex-crazed dropouts to another. The library needed us both. All I wanted them to do was pipe down.
So: one day, as the unmistakable sounds crescendoed, I put my book down and traced them. Given their frantic volume, they were not hard to find.
Yet when I got to their source, I made a surprising discovery. Locked in an embrace with a young girl with flaxen hair and thighs that were not normally visible, was the English professor whose class was among my favorite – though, like all the others, I had defected from it and chosen, as he saw, to be here instead.
“Uh. . .” was all the good professor could say as he started to button himself up as frantically as he had been unbuttoning himself before I got there.
“Should I go?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “I was leaving anyway.”
“That’s not what you were doing,” said the girl, who was very calm, as if she was an in flagrante expert and had been interrupted like this all the time.
“If I’d known it was you,” I said, “I would have. . .well, I wouldn’t have come.”
At which the young lady shrieked with laughter.
“You have a knack for choosing provocative words and phrases,” said Professor Stark, who had assumed a standing position. The flaxen-haired girl stayed where she was, as if she were expecting (it was around ten-thirty at the time) her 10:45.
“Are you coming with me?”
At which she shrieked again.
“No, I think I’ll stay here,” she said.
“I don’t think you should,” said the Professor, whose passion-reddened face was losing some of its color. As he pulled himself together, he checked his watch.
“Oh, my God. I’m late!” he said, though he didn’t – as many people who realize that they’re late for something do – dash away.
“Could we have a moment here?” asked Professor Stark.
“Sure,” I said. “I was just curious about the. . .the commotion.”
“Were we that loud?” asked the girl, with only a giggle this time.
I said: “No. It’s just that you didn’t have any competition. This is a library.”
“He’s very bright,” she said to her paramour and my ex-professor. “No wonder he doesn’t need to go to class anymore.”
That stung a little. Here was a girl who was more or less my age taking pot-shots at my intelligence. Of the two of us, who, I wanted to ask, was stoking a mind that might go astray and broadening an unbalanced perspective? In her way, she was, but I think my position was the most academically rigorous.
At that point, Professor Stark turned to me: “Why are you here? Is this what you’ve been doing instead of attending my classes?”
“In a word, yes,” I said. “I prefer it here.”
“Aren’t you worried about passing?” he asked me, though he looked hurt, as if I had rejected him personally.
“I guess not,” I told him.
“Shall we do this again?” said the girl to Professor Stark, who was now taunting him.
“I’ll call you later,” said Professor Stark.
“You should take him with you,” she said, alluding to me.
“I should at that,” said the Professor, who seemed to have recovered from having been found out and was thinking of the day ahead. “I’ve really got to go,” he said, as if he could have said so much more but for having been caught with his pants down, as they say, and with a girl who could be his daughter.
Then he left. She had hardly moved a muscle. I got the feeling that she was so infinitely adaptable, she could be comfortable in almost any situation. Then she motioned to me and said: “You can take up where he left off. If you want to.”
What I chose to do I think I will keep to myself. Until that moment, I had prided myself on wanting nothing but the sensations Vieux Paris would provide me. I had occasionally thought about some of the girls I would see around campus, but felt that, because I was occupying the place on false pretenses, I needed to keep as low a profile as I could. Furthermore, I thought the library was a lousy place for rendezvous in the classic sense of that word. If you really wanted to explore the full brunt of passion, you had to do it in a place that was conducive to its unbridled expression. As I said, I will not tell you precisely what I did except to tell the girl that I knew of a much more appropriate venue, which might suit her as well.
As it turned out, I never came back to the library. Nor to the college itself. But I remember the girl’s name very well and will occasionally get an email from her.
Brett Busang grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he spent most of his days chasing fly balls (or stumbling underneath them). After he was discouraged from doing this except on his own time, he left for New York City, where he took odd jobs, kept his nose clean, and was fit to be tied. When it occurred to him that these activities might be cheaper elsewhere, he went to Syracuse, then Richmond, and, finally, Washington, DC. His “angry, British” novel, I Shot Bruce was published in 2016. Two Lights, his stage play about an artist couple, will be performed at the Elite Theatre in Oxnard, California in the spring.