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Within the Shelves

By Phoebe G. Barr, Contributing Writer

Don’t ask me what I’m even doing here, she says. My life is a series of real-life Wikipedia spirals. Just keep looking up related readings. Couldn’t tell you how my initial research landed me here.

“Here” is a remote corner of the library where it’s impossible to tell the time of day, where light is weak but vision is somehow clear. The books are dusty, long untouched, and we aren’t disturbed as she flits through the shelves in search of pertinent material. I sit at the empty table to wait.

She talks to me over her shoulder. I read somewhere that the release of this one dumb American comedy in the ’80s was linked to the fall of the Soviet Union, she says. Not any movie to do with politics or war — I mean, I imagine they kept most of those out, you know. But they let this one release. Kind of a crazy theory, but looking into that stuff, it’s intriguing, isn’t it? Things we don’t even think about, in our media, things different people can see differently based on societal context and—

She stops, blushes. Sorry, she says. You don’t want to hear about this. Stupid stuff.

This isn’t for a class, is it?

Nah. She laughs. My concentration’s still biology, for med school, technically. Knowing a lot about ’80s comedy movies doesn’t really open doors. Biology gets you lab jobs and research positions and summer internships. And, you know, you’re a doctor by the end of the road.

Is that what you want?

What a question. She laughs again — not quite as hard this time — and turns back to the shelves.

When there’s more to the truth, I’m pretty good at hearing it. I’ve learned when to let it come out on its own. Once I might have tried to push the issue, but now I just sit back, let her pull down a book and scan the first few pages; I know reality is filtering its way through the back of her mind.

She’s not satisfied with the first book or the second. The third, though, she lays down on the table before turning to face me again.

You’re wondering why I’m such a procrastinator, she says, like it’s a given. Why I spend all my time with stuff that doesn’t matter when I’m barely scraping through my classes. When midterms are shaping up to be a nightmare. You’re wondering why I lose sleep over this, spend my nights and weekends in the library, when it’s not going to help me one iota in the long run.

Why do you?

I can’t tell you, she says. She lowers her head and stares down at the table’s cracked varnish. Only I like it. And the instinct is, liking something is a good reason to do it, right? Or is that the way a kid thinks? Am I a kid? Should I stop being one, if I am? Am I being short-sighted?

She looks at me like she expects me to answer, but I don’t, of course.

I got into Harvard, she says, and that means I have this whole world of opportunity spread out in front of me. I have this sparkling education and this lucrative, fulfilling future career and all I need to do is just take it. Pay attention, do my work, grind through the painful lectures and psets. I got myself through high school, didn’t I? And I chose this. I knew what I was doing and I chose this.

There isn’t really a follow-up question to that. I wait.

Finally she takes a deep breath, exhales, and settles her hands back on the book she picked out. Here’s the thing about the ’80s, she says. Why do we want them back so badly? It’s not just personal nostalgia. Plenty of the people watching “Stranger Things” weren’t even alive back then. It’s some sort of cultural thing, that’s the point. And it’s not logical at all. So little of what we like in media is logical. It’s all about these tenuous emotional connections we form with things without even being aware of them, these versions of the past we construct, and these versions of the world in general, because —

She cuts herself off again. The excitement warming up in her voice drops out abruptly. Her laugh is quiet as she looks away. Sorry, she says. You’re not writing about any of that, you don’t care. Just got carried away.

— Phoebe G. Barr’s ’23’s column,"The Harvard Kid" is a collection of short stories that explores the space between reaching Harvard and going corporate and questions whether that space contains any room to live in.

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