Campus, love

How many times, in how many places on this campus have we felt the flush of affection? For a serial crush-harborer like me, nearly everywhere.

I’ve felt friendship tipping toward romance on the balcony of McCone Hall at sunset, upper arms almost touching as we both leaned our weight out over the campus spread at our feet, testing a boundary together. I’ve met a crush bearing cookies on the steps of Doe Library in the evening, kissing and nibbling alternately while an essay festers unwritten in Main Stacks below. I’ve shared wine out of the bottle on the hill above the Greek Theatre, the blanket, dragged, collecting burrs and dried oak leaves. I’ve exchanged whispered confessions amplified by the rounded bench by Bancroft Library. I’ve waited under Wheeler Oak where a beloved friend would emerge after section at noon.

The feeling is in a breathless meeting, exchange of phone numbers, as legs are pushed back into pants, feet back into shoes after the dead week naked run in the stairwell of Moffitt Library. A lunch poet leaving us gobsmacked in Morrison Library, someone playing the trumpet on the lawn outside the Valley Life Sciences Building. Air crackling between strangers on their weekly Tuesday meeting, 10:08 a.m., in front of the Free Speech Movement Cafe.

The feeling is not limited to other people. A stanza projected onto the screen at the front of a lecture in Stanley Hall that stirred something birdlike in my chest. A crawfish spotted in Strawberry Creek. Every possible formation of clouds, arranging and rearranging themselves in the sky above the Dwinelle Hall courtyard as I count minutes toward Berkeley time.

I think feelings and moments collect in the places where we have them: They hang in the air, thick and invisible, for us to walk back through. In four years we’ve laid layers and layers: a drunk Cal Day cuddle puddle on Memorial Glade in the sunshine, overlaid on the Spikeball game on my first visit to campus years earlier, overlaid with countless impromptu picnics. Walking to campus, I pass restaurants of first dates, the cafe of a breakup, the cafe of a breakthrough, the cafe of countless, aimless coffee breaks.

Sometimes I imagine the campus as a giant wooden table, our daily routes pushing deepening grooves into its surface as we walk back and forth to our classes, our meetings and appointments. Trajectories repeating and repeating, intersecting, merging. Each semester a new network of furrows running through and across the last. 

Or like a heat map, little points of location-stamped data fizzing off each of us every few seconds, leaving a signature of our movements. Heavier clusters of points reveal places we like to dwell, chat, sit, read or think. Sparse lines as we rush between classes. Each semester is a new layer of ping-ponging paths.

The paths we wear into the grass as we walk on it, gradually exposing the dirt, are called “desire lines.” Some architects lay concrete footpaths where desire lines run, the shape of the space changing further in response to the cumulative, collective request of its inhabitants. Hundreds of us falling into step with each other, late to different classes, cutting the same corners. Eroding the surface of the campus with our feet.

Sometimes I get a feeling of eye contact, rich and heavy, when I look up at the ceiling of Doe just after sunset. Almost unbearable, like looking at someone I love more than I thought possible. But maybe there’s only a preposition of difference between falling in love in a place and falling in love with a place.

In love, discovery is perpetual: a curling tendril behind an ear, the hang of a new rectangle from a skylight in Main Stacks. A tiny shaded courtyard, sudden, behind Wurster the crook of a lover’s neck. Scrawled bathroom wall messages like so many secret tattoos.

Or, when discovery ebbs, it’s return, return, return, over and over in a rhythm that’s worn.

But these days, we aren’t coming. Not with the breathlessness of early discovery, nor with the familiar, purposive vigor of something ongoing. If we do come, it’s a visit, a marble skittering between grooves, an outlier on the map. 

My pace traversing the campus now is wistful, maybe listless. My own path isn’t threading with thousands of others, some of whom I might otherwise have met, befriended, even loved. I can’t lean over and whisper in Moffitt, “Would you mind watching my stuff?” I can sit here under the oak all day and my friend won’t emerge from Wheeler.

It feels raw, like a breakup. The grass on the Glade grows unmowed. Vegetation might be reclaiming our secret cut-throughs, and above Dwinelle, the sky seems cloudless and empty. There’s no one here to watch it rearrange itself.

But look, there’s the round bench. The trumpeter’s square of lawn, my memory of him hanging there to be reached for. The Sproul piano, the spot where the crawfish was. My feet are tracing pathways like fingers on skin.

Someone walks by me, feeling and remembering something else, their experience overlaid on my own. The campus is dense with the impressions we’ve made on it, I realize. It’s as dense as we are with impressions the campus has made on — and in and with and for — us.

Contact Sonnet Phelps at [email protected].