When trapped within a dire situation, only three options present themselves: fight, flight, or adapt. Up until recently, these reactions had been nothing more than a list I memorized in my middle-school biology class. They mattered just as much as the difference between mitosis and meiosis -- not at all. I’m an English major. I dabble in allegories, not alkaloids. I could have gone my whole life without thinking about those terms ever again. That is, until I unwittingly found myself the protagonist of my very own Greek comedy.
My roommate, an environmental engineer, called me that fateful Tuesday night, requesting that I bring her Heat Transfer book for her. I agreed readily, offering to drop it off wherever she had holed up to complete homework. Except, she wasn’t at the library. She wasn’t at the Union. My roommate was in the Engineering Building.
Maybe you don’t understand the grim situation before me. The Engineering Building stands at the southern edge of campus. The entire northern wall is composed of glittering glass windows. During the day, I’m sure that the windows shine with hope and knowledge. That night, however, the windows glint portentously with the sickly reflection of a lone, flickering streetlight.
I enter the building, and for a moment, the halls are quiet. I can almost fool myself into thinking that I am at the Liberal Arts building. Then, a pair of students stagger past me. There are dark circles under their eyes and they are nearly bent forward under bulging backpacks. They communicate through mumbles of phrases like BOD and alluvial soil. Their words are a riddle I cannot possibly decipher.
I shuffle awkwardly, determining how best to skirt past this sudden obstacle. Before I can commit to any action, the pair turns to me, pausing in their conversation at the foot of a staircase that would surely lead me to the third floor. A question forms on their lips, and I freeze. I feel like an intruder into a strange world, and I have limited options for escape. For some reason, decking them doesn’t seem like the best plan, so I settle on flight as the appropriate response. I force a smile, a nod, and move forward, assuming that there exists another staircase, unguarded.
The main hallway within the Engineering Building surges with dead-eyed students. It’s like the River Styx, but I’ve stumbled upon it with no guide to ensure my safe passage. I duck my head and move forward. A student stumbles into me, quickly apologizing in a monotone. We both freeze, staring at each other. I quickly try to come up with an excuse for why I’m wandering through the Engineering Building, but nothing comes to mind. O, Muses, hear this goddamn prayer.
“God, I’m starving,” he complains to me. I haven’t done anything to prompt this conversation, but I can’t ignore him. I’d much prefer the sparring dialogue of Euripides to a real conversation with a real kid, but no deus ex machina has rescued me yet.
I fumble through my backpack, pulling out a couple quarters and shoving them toward him. “Maybe try a vending machine?” I offer, praying that he’ll take the money and move along so that I can continue my hopeless quest.
“Are you lost?” the student asks and he’s beginning to look a bit more alert.
“Just looking for the stairs,” I explain, knowing full well that I had already passed a staircase--one that had been blocked by twin sphinxes, so no thank you.
“Try the staircase that way,” he suggests, pocketing my coins. I nod a brief farewell to Chiron, and move on.
The hallway stretches onward, classes to the right and left with branching avenues. Giant windows display pressurized tanks with labels unreadable--it’s all Greek to me. One door boasts a paper advertising the dangerous, caustic chemicals in use. I avoid that door. At the end of the hallway, just as my guide had described, a sign indicates a staircase behind one last door.
I leap up the stairs, stuffing headphones in my ears to ignore the siren call of someone searching for signatures for a petition. I reach the second floor, quickly turning to ascend to the third and am met with a blank wall. The staircase ends on the second floor. Confused once more--my roommate said room 326--I venture back into the dreaded hallway.
This hallway requires no guide, and I rush through, only pausing at the stairs that I had originally passed by on the first floor. A quick glance down confirms that the twin sphinxes still maintain their position. Before I can ascend the stairs, however, a group of students guarded by their own personal Cerberus prevent me. “You got a class up there?” they ask.
I’ve studied the literature; I know the stories. I even remember laughing at Orpheus striding into Hades with only a lyre to protect him. I don’t laugh now. All that can save me now is music. Softly, I begin to sing the Bill Nye theme song, hiding a triumphant grin when they join in. Perhaps that middle-school biology class was useful for something. The many heads part and I leave the hydra behind as I dash up the steps. I feel like Theseus on the final corner, one hand gripping the thread and the other groping against rough walls, blinking against the bright, hopeful sun. A hurried text to my roommate later, and she waves me down from a door further down the hallway. “You managed to make it,” she teases, and I can only grin wearily.
She promises to return home soon, and I begin my journey back home. I scramble past the hydra, past Cerberus, past the sphinxes. No sirens attack me, Chiron nods. I reach the door, and then, despite my knowledge, I look back.
(And if there is some ambiguous lesson mixed up with these misadventures; well, that’s for Literature professors and their students to dispute, not for a world-weary author to illuminate.)