Early Bird

The only early birds I knew on campus that first year were people who had to be. Students who had to work morning jobs to support themselves through school or taking lab classes with resolute inflexibility. Everyone else was adjusting to the rhythms of campus life, staying up and waking up as late as possible without missing class, unless they did. For Marinette there was an identity to be found in being a morning person. She wanted to be the only one to watch the sunrise, the only one who had recorded its colors, how long it took to rise, the stillness of the air. She found comfort in that.

I met Marinette earlier in the semester in a class on race and media studies. Towards the end of the semester, she recognized me from our freshman floor and asked me to be partners for a presentation about class dynamics in the new Donald Glover show. We had each watched some episodes on our own and were meeting to figure out what we would talk about. On the day we planned to meet she rushed into the coffee shop half an hour later than I was expecting her. Sunset was approaching and blonde light shone through the windows, bathing the brown walls. Framed illustrations of coffee mugs singing karaoke and packets of tea jumping off a diving board into a mug covered the walls. It was cold where I was sitting, but the light of the hour gave a half impression of warmth. When Marinette walked in she didn’t acknowledge her lateness, but it didn’t really bother me. It had given me time to settle into my work.

As soon as she sat down, she began to tell me a story about the beginning of her morning spent on the roof of the building we shared. It was a place where students weren’t allowed.

“How did you get up there?” I asked. 

“You know the maintenance man who is always on our floor in the mornings?” she asked, smiling big. “He always has his earbuds in? Right. Well, he was really bumping to his music one morning, and I asked him what he was listening to, and he told me that he was listening to this song by an underground rapper.I told him the rapper was from my hometown and he was literally shocked, because this artist is super underground, ya know? So then we got to talking, and now every time I see him we talk about music.”

She paused, as if that answered my question about how she got onto the roof. Seeing my confused face she started again, “Oh right! The roof. So this morning, as I was headed out, I ran into him. We started talking again and I told him I love watching the sunrise in the morning. I told him I would love to go to one of the rooftops to watch it one day without having to sneak up there. It can be a pain, sneaking up and everything. So he told me he had access because, you know, he has to clean up there, and he would let me up if I wanted. So I told him I definitely wanted that, and he showed me a door at the top of our staircase and he told me he’d leave it unlocked. But, today, I asked him to spend the sunrise with me. He told me about coming here from Haiti and—oh, this was so fucked up—how I was the only student who’s ever said a word to him in the eight months he’s worked here? Isn’t that awful? People at this school are all so shitty. But yea. That’s how I ended up there.”

“Right,” I said, thinking about the dozens of times I passed by that man without saying anything to him. I couldn’t even recall his face. “That’s cool.” I shifted in my seat.

“Yea, but anyways, I guess I was rewarded for, you know, treating him like a human being, which no one else seems to do.”

I looked at my screen which had since gone black. I asked Marinette if we should get started working on the project for class. She asked me what I thought of the class. 

“It’s pretty easy,” I answered honestly. “I think the movies are pretty fun to watch, but I don’t like the days when Adams lectures. His voice is boring.” 

“The kids in our class say really dumb shit,” she continued. “It’s like listening to white kids realizing racism is bad. If you listened to an audio of the class I’m convinced you wouldn’t even be able to tell the class is mostly Black. Anyway, I guess that’s what you get at a school like this.” I wondered what Marinette thought of what I’d said in class.

Outside, the sun had begun its descent and the facial contours of Marinette who was facing the all glass doors at an angle, were painted a shade redder than they were a moment before. The highlights of her face, meanwhile, were glowing orange, like a person looking into fire. She was wearing a black turtleneck shirt and a necklace made of wood beads painted black, red, and green. She was lighter than me, but not by much. Her hair was picked into a somewhat sparse afro that curled at the ends in some places. I wondered if she was half white or something.

After we finished our presentation, we decided to walk back to campus. When we got out of the elevator on our floor, there was the man who cleaned our floor. He was pushing a cleaning cart with a trash can, a vacuum, a broom and dustpan. The trash can was overflowing.

I stared at his cart, avoiding eye contact and wondering why I’d never acknowledged him. I hoped that through Marinette I could start a relationship with him. That he’d find me redeeming. But as we walked by each other, we made brief eye contact and he pressed his lips together, giving me a nod. We passed each other without anyone saying a word.

I looked over at Marinette. She was engrossed in her phone, her head bent unusually low. 

“Are you not going to say anything to your friend?” I teased, trying to take the edge out of my voice. 

“What?” she responded, looking up. 

“Your friend, the man who works on this floor, he just passed us,” I responded, displaced anger landing on the fact that she missed him coming down the entire length of the hall. 

“Oh,” I must not have noticed, she said, turning back to whatever had caught her attention on Twitter. “Besides, you could have said hi. He doesn’t bite.” 

I flushed with embarrassment. 

The next week Marinette and I gave our presentation. I rushed through my slides, anxious to be able to leave the front of the room where I stood exposed. There wasn’t even a podium to stand behind. I was conscious of my incessant habit of shifting weight from foot to foot, more aware that I couldn’t seem to stop. When I was done with my sections, Marinette stepped forward to speak. The back half of our slides were hers to present. She spoke measuredly, with authority. When she finished, she turned to the professor. “If I may, I’d like to add a personal comment.”

He nodded her along enthusiastically. I looked up at the room. Most of the other students looked bored and several were packing up quietly in anticipation of class ending in a few minutes.

“Well,” she began, “I just wanted to say that the first several episodes of this series have very meaningful implications for the way we, as Black members of the educated class, interact with other Black people in our lives. We can’t try to forget we’re Black just because we’re here.” 

I nodded along with her comments. 

“One more thing,” she said, “think about who y’all are becoming while you’re here. You sit here and talk theoretically about being Black but that doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t in solidarity with people outside of this campus. Nearly all of the authors we read are college-educated, or white, or both. I mean, Karl, you talk about Black people in the third person every single class. Do you even hear yourself? And Emma you referred to the people we were reading about as ‘these people’.”

The specificity of that critique. I looked down, becoming increasingly self conscious of standing up there next to Marinette. I began to imagine how the students in this class would remember this moment.

In their mental picture, I’m at Marinette’s side; I would be her accomplice. I looked to the professor, willing him to intervene. He glanced at Marinette and then the clock, possibly looking for a moment to interject. I looked over at Marinette. Her gaze was fixed on one spot as she spoke. I followed her line of vision and saw Gary, sitting in the back of the room. Gary dressed like he was the male lead character in a movie about the Panthers. His sophomore year he refused to leave the President’s office during a sit-in to raise the wages of the largely Black cafeteria staff. He spoke often in class about being arrested by the campus police, referring to his night in jail as when he was “locked up.” Gary was smirking and nodding his head as Marinette pressed on. I looked over at Marinette who, noticing he was nodding, started smiling.

Emma, a year older than us and the Vice-President of the Black Students Union, tried to interrupt her. “That’s not at all what I meant,” she said. “That’s so out of context—”

The professor’s alarm went off, signifying that our presentation was over. “Well,” he said loudly, clapping his hands together, “thank you both for your work! Please give a hand to our two presenters!”

Scattered applause. 

We returned to our seats. Emma tried to get the professor’s attention in an effort to get the chance to defend herself. The professor ignored her and returned to the front of the classroom and gave directions for the essay due the next week, then dismissed us. As we were leaving my eyes darted between Emma and Karl. I was hoping to catch one of their gazes and maybe offer a friendly smile. Emma, however, packed up and left, huddled in conversation with her friend. Karl, meanwhile, put his headphones on and threw his bag on his back. He left without a sideways glance.

I finished packing my bag and began to file out. Marinette disengaged herself from a conversation with our professor and looked over at me. “Wait up!” She aimed at me. 

I turned around and she was running up to me. This was how a farm animal felt watching a farmer walk towards it for slaughter. “Adams said that he really liked our presentation. I think he’s gonna give us an A.” 

“That’s great!” I tried to hide my embarrassment with her and it worked.

She started talking about her morning spent drinking tea on the roof. She said today it was dark blue and stormy, and then suddenly the winds changed, the clouds disappeared, and the sky gave way to a fantastic deep red. I stopped listening, thinking about how I felt at the front of the classroom. I turned to look at Marinette as she talked. She was smaller than I realized, a few inches shorter than me. Her picked-out afro made her look a few inches taller than she truly was. She hadn’t realized I wasn’t paying attention.

I thought about her mornings on the roof and pictured her sipping her tea, a blanket around her, listening to music. I began walking slower, becoming more concrete in my feelings, which had yet to formulate into thoughts. I turned to Marinette and stopped moving. She kept walking and talking. It took her a few moments, but she eventually realized I wasn’t with her. She turned around and motioned to me, and I watched her. 

“What?” she asked. 

Now I was confused by myself. I was wondering what I was doing. I stared at her for another beat. “What?” she asked again. 

“Nothing,” I said. “Sorry, I’m just really hungry. Let’s get something to eat. Anyways, how do you get to the roof when the janitor isn’t there to help?”

I listened intently as we walked towards the dining hall, Marinette giving me detailed instructions about how she got to her personal sanctuary every morning. 

The next morning I felt a discordant buzzing in my chest that propelled me out of bed. It was an earlier hour than I’d seen in months. I didn’t put on my day clothes, instead throwing sweats over my pajamas. I slipped on my sneakers, walked down the hall and opened the door to my building’s stairwell. From there I began to follow Marinette’s instructions. I followed the stairs until they ran out at the top. There, I looked for a door with a thin metal handle which Marinette said would bring me on the roof. I looked around at the tiny landing I stood on, but there were no doors. All four walls were just slabs of concrete painted with our school’s colors. I was shivering like I did in the morning before I got to school. I had an early flight and when the sky was still dark and the air was cold and I had to rub my eyes to keep awake.

I felt up and down each wall, making sure there wasn’t a hidden door I was missing. There was no way to get to the roof from where I stood. The buzzing in my chest pushed itself to the front of my mind. It pushed past every bodily need I had. I pictured Marinette at the coffee shop, the contours of her face ablaze in the late afternoon sunlight as she told me that she was better. I bounded down the stairs until I reached the ground floor. I walked quickly through my building’s empty lobby and into the darkness of the morning. Dawn was coming. The sky was a deep but not dark blue. I pulled my coat around me tight to keep out the wind and backed away from my building.

My dorm building was a big brick box that stood twelve stories high—the tallest building on campus. It was old and had various white pipes and wires hanging onto its sides. When I was a dozen yards out I turned around and began shuffling to the right, my eyes searching the front and right side of my building. When I couldn’t find what I was looking for I hurried to the other side of the building, scanning that side of the building. Finally, I found it: the fire-escape. I hustled over against the wind and, once I got there, clutched the cold, rusted white rungs and began scaling the side of the building. The cold bit at my cheeks. My exposed fingers were becoming stiffer and less dexterous. I looked up and saw there were just a few rungs left. I reached the top and hoisted my body onto the roof. I stood up. The roof was flat with no structures except for a thin metal railing along its edge, allowing me to see an unobstructed view of the campus below me. The wind up there was uninhibited by buildings, and it whipped around harshly, lashing my hair against my face. Dawn was breaking and the sky was pink with excitement for the day. Soon the sun would be high in the sky, beaming a brilliant white. I looked around. Dawn was breaking and the plain humility of daylight had given way to a newfound frequency. I looked around. The wind whistled through the open air. Obstructed by nothing and no one.


Photo by Oliver Hale on Unsplash

Toella Pliakas

Toella Pliakas is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY