The morning sun beams down on the sterile white floors. Tired students scatter themselves across hard benches and tables, engrossed in morning coffees and Facebook feeds. Everyone is conscious of the steady echo of the space. It amplifies every scuff of sneakers against tile, every patter upon a keyboard, every crunch of breakfast wrappers.
The girl across from me opens her paper bag painfully slow, almost making the sound worse. There’s a slurp of coffee, a suppressed cough, the quiet hum of fridges, and too-loud cafe music.
Humans are creatures of noise, I notice. We’re always making sound, even in some small way, constantly. And in a space like this, where the smallest sounds amplify, everyone turns stiff. They’re sitting too still, moving too carefully.
There’s an unspoken rule to all cafeterias. One that is completely arbitrary in that you have to break the rule eventually, but it holds true all the same. The rule is as follows:
Sit at least one seat away, and never directly across from anyone you don’t know, until all ‘appropriate’ seats are taken.
Just now a student hesitates at the threshold of the seating area. There are vacant seats everywhere, and yet the place is at capacity; he has to break the rule. He searches for the best option. Scanning eyes roam over tired students. He settles next to a girl scrolling through her feed, carefully resting his backpack down.
It’s different during the lunch time rush, there’s no space for the rule to exist. Groups of friends crowd around tables, busy students rush to grab their coffees and head to their next class. The long cafe lines twist around packed tables.
And just like the rule, those small noises don’t exist here anymore. The suppressed coughs, crunching wrappers, scuffing sneakers and pattering keyboards are drowned out. Instead the space is filled with obnoxious laughter over inside jokes and weekend shenanigans. There’s games of table tennis and pool, and moaning over assignment stress.
I try to find peace in the noise, drown it out to find other details. I notice no two people are the same here. Different ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds eat together. Some are dressed in suits, while others look just as comfortable in gym gear. Some students relax in jeans and t-shirts while others wear coordinated skirts and sundresses.
We share things though, the little signifiers of our own culture. Whether it’s the branded sneakers or the ever-present smartphones. We share the way we plop down our backpacks first before we sit, leaning forward as the straps slide off our shoulders, eager to take the weight off.
We share the way we avoid eye contact across the room. As if we’re not all just people, here for the same reason.
Words by Kate Newman
Illustration by Pippin Ellis
This piece was originally published in Edition 31.