All The Live Long Night

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Four in the morning is the new midnight.

By Laura Francis | Spines of books lie in silent chaos around me; an empty coffee cup from Saxby’s rests on the desk. In the daze of being awake at 4 a.m., I can feel a trace of that Colombian blend and the stagnant taste of unfinished work between my teeth.

No thoughts seem to run, and no further amount of caffeine will help. It’s just the night, dark and heavy, pressing at my back toward the light of a computer screen. The thirteen-inch-wide pool of Microsoft Word whiteness feels acidic in my eyes. But the really strange thing about this feeling, I think, staring blankly into the void, is how familiar it is. I’ve been taking sleep in decreasing quantities for a while now.

Night and day have been merging for months, their contrast blurred and faded. The winter evenings lengthen; my fluorescent desk lamp burns at ever earlier, and later, hours. Bluish circles hang beneath my eyes.

September, October, and November have passed.

Now my mind has strayed. I am being unproductive. And I ask myself why, exactly, I’m still awake. Yet, as usual at this hour, answers are elusive.

You’re an undergrad, and you’re stressed, and you’re tired? my sister teased me some while back. Really? Say hi to the world, little one! So what? she laughed.

I know she’s right. It isn’t as though I’m the first college kid kept up by stress and a quickened heartbeat. With so many competitive minds compressed into this three-by-ten-block world, where anxiety alternates with laughter and light conversations take dark turns toward, oh, organic chemistry, stress is no surprise. But what’s weird about this insistent insomnia—this contagion that seems to leave no Penn child behind—is that I don’t believe it arises from exams or homework.

It’s the product of a less specific and all-encompassing desire for more, a sleeplessness we inflict upon ourselves. It’s that even if you don’t read for your classes—and I know plenty of people who don’t—taking fewer than five of them is looked down upon. It’s days so stuffed with extracurricular activities (who knew there would be even more at college than in high school?) that the night hours are the only ones left for work. After all, we’ve made some of those extracurriculars as hard to get into as Penn itself. I once received a formal rejection letter from a student club that boasts a 10-percent acceptance rate: I’m sorry to inform you …

But maybe this is not a totally accurate picture. Somewhere there are Penn students sleeping at this hour. There must be a reason, though, why one of my friends was turned down by a stress management workshop due to a lack of space.

It’s after four now, and I look around and see who the other stragglers are tonight. It’s a community of unknowns that I see working and, because they are awake, make me work, too. Their presence and mine keep this strung-out competition going. We’re all, I assume, heading toward some common goal. I turn back to my own spot and wonder just what exactly it is.

Despite this stale hour, I have to admit it: I often love this place. I can’t count the minutes I’ve gladly spent with my equestrian team. It would be even more difficult to number the hours I’ve used half-asleep, half-happy at The Daily Pennsylvanian. I even love the feeling of hating my writing when it singes my eyes this late at night. I don’t want to quit—even if I’ll arrive home tonight only to hear a grunt from my roommate’s sleeping body. (It’s a common pattern. I am frequently hit with a projectile pillow.)

Still, I have to ask: how much of this is healthy, how much is for my own satisfaction, and how much is actually worth it? Why this attraction to running a marathon at the pace of a sprint?

Everywhere around me, people are bending their bodies into the needful rhythm. I have friends who take “shots” of Nyquil, others who treat anxiety with therapy, others who simply prefer the blackening effect of a night out with alcohol. That’s sleep. Five-Hour Energy, caffeine pills, Red Bull, coffee: that’s awake. I found out last week that I know two people who sell Adderall for the effect of concentration.

Though I keep it clean—save the coffee, of course—I cannot quite make sense of it. But even as the complaint begins to slip from my lips, there’s my sister’s voice again: So what?

She’s right, I tell myself. This is not abnormal. 

I shut my laptop, slide its sleek body into its thin case, gather my books, and zip my bag. Day is coming in pale morning colors. I put on my coat for the December air. Walking out, I lift my cup and leave a ring of old coffee, cold and dark, on the table.

Laura Francis is a sophomore English major from Petersburg, Illinois.

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