Depending on the night, and how overwhelming the week, I stumble here and there. I’m not paying attention. My eyes are watery. Sometime around midnight, you start to feel the campus, being at Michigan, because sometimes you crumble under the stress because nobody has it figured out, because sometimes your responsibilities and accomplishments and memories sneak up on you and smear a cold sweat and silly smile across your face, because emotions are complicated.
Sometime around midnight, or maybe ten past, I reach the Dental Building. It’s ugly. That 1970s architecture and beige brick. Why am I here? Why Dental? Maybe it’s the habit: I commute back and forth —South Quad, Dent, South Quad, Dent— rhythmically, unthinkingly, day in and out. I practically live in the Dental Building for research. That must be why. As my eyes skitter up the research tower, the stars above steal them instead, entrancing me in the infinite purples and glittering whites, although only for a second, because the humming Blue Buses at C. C. Little and the giggling chalk-scrawlers inevitably jolt me back.
Sometime around midnight, or maybe thirty past, I glance down. I startle. Out of the trance. I catch myself. My feet skirt the Diag M, tracing its outlines with tentative toes and wavering over its serifs. I rarely look down; you don’t get far by looking at your feet. Except now. You are never to violate campus traditions; you are never to touch the Diag M, because when a university shapes and remakes you like this one, when it reinvents and inspires and hypnotically trances you for midnight walks and stadium-full spectacles, and when you find yourself humming its tune like a melodic music box at midnight, or maybe thirty past, without purpose, without thought, emotionally stirred, you believe in magic. Magic that exists in the singular tradition of never touching that M. Because it isn’t some sidewalk paver. It’s a tradition that has triumphed and changed the world and expunged high schoolers and replaced them with leaders for more decades than you have years. Like it’s doing to you too.
So you walk around it. You pay it respect.
Sometime around midnight, when the moon rises over Madrid, I stir in my bedroom and push aside the grammar workbook and reach for my headphones; Kelly Clarkson serenades me forward. I rummage for my favorite shoes and the appropriate jacket and whatever else I bring on walks —I couldn’t tell you, it’s become so habitual— and I open the apartment door, starlight and streetlight spilling inward, cars and pedestrians scurrying all about.
As I stand there, before crossing the threshold, my eyes skitter up the building’s facade like always, or what feels like always, the stars above clouded by urban smog, taxis buzzing in my ears. They annoy me now. Didn’t they before? My eyes reach the topmost windows and I’m suddenly disoriented. All around, apartment windows flicker. Life. Spaniards chat and drink and emphatically express themselves to one another, arguing, sexing, romanticizing the details of their personal lives and personal worlds like always. Like always? This isn’t right.
I startle. Out of the trance. I look down.
Why did I look down?
My feet skirt the apartment threshold. Marble steps and stone sidewalks. Safe this time. Safe to look up again, because you never get far by looking at your feet. Madrid extends endlessly before me, an urban metropolis of centuries-old stones juxtaposed with concrete modernity, a tunneling maze of organically grown alleys and underground subways and an unpredictable populace whose culture marries old and new. I’m entranced. Like magic. That word doesn’t taste right. Magic. The chilly air brushes my cheek and I shutter, but I press onward, closing the hefty apartment door behind me because even though Ann Arbor is safe, South Quad still has impressive security, heavy doors, key-card entry, always patrolled by one security guard or another, and I push one foot beyond the threshold and anticipate that midnight Michigan when I realize that I don’t walk at midnight anymore.
I don’t walk at midnight.
I startle. This is a trance. I don’t catch myself. I look back down. Did I step on it? I anticipate that symbol of optimism and tradition and home, The Victors twinkling in my head like a melodic music box, without purpose, without thought, emotionally stirred, like magic, but my head tilts sideways, and the music fades out, and my eyes fill with tears because instead of glimpsing student groups scribbling around that emblematic M and seeing my feet trace its outlines and waver over its serifs, I don’t. I don’t see it. I see sidewalk pavers. Stone sidewalk pavers.