I live in the shadow of a university I never attended. Well, that is not strictly true; I did attend it, and I don’t live in its shadow, merely its presence, which is heavy and ominous. It is built atop a hill at the center of town and can be seen from very far away. Only the new hotel off the interstate can be seen from more various locales throughout the area, and I have only been there once, and never above or below the ground floor. The hotel is, for me, a mystery, and one that is unimportant to this story.
When I said I never attended this university, it is because that is how it feels. The paper degree in my desk drawer contradicts my own memory, and I am inclined to believe in it. Then there are the creditors who say I owe them money for my time there, and I have no reason to suspect they are lying. Each month I send them a payment that, for me, is crippling, but still the owed sum never seems to decrease. I suffer from flashes, too, like remembered dreams, thin memories tying me to that place, so when I say I never attended that university it is a lie, but not a malicious one.
Sometimes I will walk my dog through campus to remind myself that it is an actual place, and not just a looming presence on the horizon, but only at times when I know it will be abandoned, or mostly abandoned, and I never approach it head on, but only from one of the more oblique entrances, like the steep stairs near the river. I can’t stand the faces of the students. Now that I can no longer be one of them, or even mistaken for one of them, I don’t want to see them.
Being on the grounds of the university is quite different from being in its shadow. There are good, solid brick structures, and stairs that, if I didn’t know better, could lead somewhere quite wonderful. There are statues of men and animals and abstractions that you can touch and study. There are buildings with doors and windows, but I no longer go inside them. There was a time, I suppose, when I spent many hours inside the walls of these buildings, but I am no longer welcome.
Once, while walking the grounds late at night, drunk, a sudden need overcame me. I tried several doors before one opened. Then I rushed inside to relieve myself, leaving my dog tied to a bench in the courtyard. When I returned from the restroom, he was straining at his leash, barking quite ferociously at a uniformed man with a flashlight who told me to get out and followed after to make sure I did. Together we passed through the valley beneath the glowering buildings. I pulled the collar of my jacket up over my neck to protect myself from the jeering high windows, the only ones alight in the silent brick faces.
Jacob Austin moves boxes in a grocery store warehouse and writes from a detached garage in the Texas Hill Country.