9/4/20: Writing Exercises—Out-of-Places

1. Write about an ordinary place in an unusual setting (i.e. a school on an airplane, a hospital in a minefield, a house in a doorknob). In what ways might the setting affect the place? Write about the things in this place that catch your attention, and the people who occupy that place, if there are any.


You had to be on campus before closing time, which, if I’m not mistaken, was around 9pm. They don’t set up until they’re sure that no one is there to study, you see. It makes them feel bad—the thought of disrupting an industrious education. Well, personally, I don’t think they should be bothered by it. After all, the only reason anyone ever goes to a bar is to study, or at least learn.

So you had to be on campus before then, and honestly, getting in if you weren’t already a student or teacher is hard enough. I guess the university security guards double as bouncers in that regard, and the ID cards are kind of like your password or entry fee. I was able to get in because I knew someone who worked in the School of Economics as a researcher, who was buddy-buddy with the guards around one of the back entrances of the campus. My friend asked his executive assistant to walk with him going out of the gate, and then replaced the assistant with me going back in, so that the guard wouldn’t ask. I asked my friend if he was going to the bar, and my friend answered, “What bar? I thought you were here to see me.” My friend had to leave anyway at around 7:30, so I was by myself for another hour and a half. I think I spooked some people to pass the time. I kept asking strangers, “Are you here for the bar? Are you here for the bar?” There was only one group of people who said, “Yes, eventually,” who I didn’t actually see at the bar that night. I later realized what they meant, when I remembered their volumes of The Civil Code of the Philippines on the table.

The bar did not have a dedicated space. There were no dance floors or seats, save for the footstools by the bookshelves or the chairs at the study tables. You only found the bar near the back of the library, behind the photocopier that sat covertly in one of the bookshelf aisles. The bartenders were two elderly gentlemen, one from Chile and one from Spain, and as soon as they saw me, they put down a shot of what appeared to be distilled water.

“Chrysalic rum,” they tried to convince me.

The snootier one of the bartenders turned away, polishing the fine and pointy tips of his mustache with his droplet-soaked fingers. The Chilean, on the other hand, held his smile for as long as the shot glass sat undisturbed on the Xerox machine. The longer he smiled at me, the more the water began to resemble snake oil. I downed the glass and ordered another.

I was there for maybe three hours, and there didn’t seem to be that many people at the bar in all that time. It might’ve been that we were all scattered around. A dance floor would’ve drawn them all to a common spot, but everyone seemed to be more interested in populating the aisles of bookshelves. I’d turn a corner and see a pair of lovers fawning over a book of lurid poetry. In the next aisle, seven pairs of twin poets hunched over a single copy of A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes.

Every half-hour, the objects in the library would magically change their positions. I really mean magically, since there was no sign of the hand or hands that did this work. I’d notice all of a sudden that a bookshelf had been rotated, facing the back of another bookshelf. A faded print of a Caravaggio was suddenly replaced by a screen projecting the unmoving face of Maya Deren. “Is that a Shakespeare’s First Folio?” I overheard the head librarian saying at one point, to which Shakespeare replied, “No. That is the Mahabharata.”

The only time anyone spoke to me was during the blackout. Just as rum had soaked the Spanish bartender’s fingers, darkness soaked the interior of the library, and we all scrambled to wipe the darkness off the shelves with our lighters and phones. Down the spine of a thin hardcover book, I saw a snake. I turned away and, on a footstool, I saw the expired body of my friend, the researcher. Right then I felt a hand on my shoulder, which startled me, but it was simply my late friend’s assistant, soaked in something else entirely. Judging by the smell, he was covered in not sweat, but rum.

“May I use the bathroom, sir?” he asked.

“Go on, but don’t take too long,” I said. “We have work to do.”