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The Game of Acceptance


Apphia Freeman


Her phone vibrated for what seemed like the fiftieth time. It had been vibrating at roughly fifteen-minute intervals throughout the day – in class, in between classes, while she was eating, or while she was doing homework in her dorm. She glanced at the text message.

        Class 9:30 to 10:50. Dorm. Class 12 to 12:50. Lunch offcampus. Dorm. Dinner at commons                   7pm. Dorm.

It was from Melissa, one of her pledge sisters. That was what they called sorority-sister hopefuls – those who were in the running to becoming “actives” but who were not yet in. And this latest text message was just one of the countless other notifications of their daily schedules she would receive on a way-too-regular basis. Alex (not her real name) barely read through it before tossing the phone back into her bag with a quick roll of the eyes. She really did not care, and she really didn’t see the point of it all. If those stupid actives thought that this was a good bonding exercise–this being just one of the various other absurdities the pledges were subjected to--they were crazy. She was tempted to keep her phone off all day, but then she would miss texts from people like Marina and Karin – people who actually mattered to her.

The Chemistry lecturer droned on about the octet rule and some gibberish about happy atoms with eight electrons. Every text she received reminded her that if she were an atom she would be running really low on electrons right now. She didn’t even notice when the professor finally dismissed class, she was so zoned out. She drifted back to consciousness only when the shuffle of students packing their bags and getting out of their seats got loud enough to penetrate the vacuum of her mind.

Her phone rang as she stepped out of the lecture hall. It was Karin, one of her closest friends from growing up, whom she still met up with every weekend when she went back home. Her mood lifted a little as she raised her phone to her ear.
                  “Hey gurl! Whutchu up to?”
Before Karin could even answer, Alex’s phone vibrated again, mid-call.
Uaaahhgggg. She shuddered with such distaste that she had to muster every bit of self- control not to hurl the phone onto the ground. It hung from her hand, an arm’s length away from her ear.
                  “Alex? You there?”

The Greeting

It was only  third week, but she was already wishing for the quarter to end. She had thought Science was one of her fortés; she had always been one of the better students in her high school, but college Chemistry was largely alien to her. And it didn’t help that they sucked up almost every minute of her existing spare time. She was either texting, receiving texts, or getting together with other pledges to study or socialize with the actives.

Everything she did for them was completely forced. Everything was a farce. The rational side of her kept telling her to get out of it. But there was something in her, an unexplainable impulse, to keep at it. She had already come so far, she had already been through so much, and to give it all up now so her life would be a little easier seemed cowardly, or cheap in some way. Everyone still pledging with her prided themselves on the fact that they were the stronger ones, the ones still standing. There were many others who had dropped out already. Alex felt like she needed to prove herself. But every time she was with them, the deepest part of her being felt like wrenching itself away from the shell of her physical body, out of those completely farcical activities in which they were engaged. Despite how melodramatic it seemed, this was no exaggeration. She had been feeling very melodramatic about life lately.

They had infiltrated every part of her life — academics, social, everything. The system of regulations they had imposed on the pledges was all-encompassing and unforgiving. She couldn’t even walk around school without feeling like she was being watched, which she oftentimes was, whether she knew it or not. They watched for every little slip-up, any minute non-conformity to the code of rules and rituals they had invented. Every time Alex was about to step out in public, she had to run through a checklist of rules in her head. The sorority’s Bible—the book of their vision, mission, rules, and so forth—had to be with her at all times. Same went for the necklace she wore around her neck. It was a simple string with a lettered bead – the initial of the name of her class of pledge sisters—and this helped to mark them out for the purposes of identification by the actives. If she were with a pledge sister, their arms had to be linked. And it would be a strike against her if she did not notice one of the actives in her field of vision. The key was to spot them before they spotted you. But this game of I-Spy had reduced her to a near-schizophrenic paranoia, and she could only imagine how pathetic she must look, trudging around school on almost no sleep, eyes dark-ringed and furtive, not knowing what to expect with each change of scenery.

And when she did spot an active, a fear welled up in her — fear like a fist that seemed to close over her heart, slowly constricting it, until her entire body was numb. What are they going to say? Did I notice them on time? Am I going to say their name right? Will they hear me clearly?

Today, she was walking with Marina, her dorm-mate, to the science library. One of them suddenly stepped out of the library doors. Alex froze and gripped Marina’s arm. Their eyes locked momentarily – her gaze one of sympathy, and Alex’s one of hopeless fear. A second later she had wrenched her arm from Alex’s grip and had taken off in the opposite direction, with Alex’s gaze lingering on her receding back.

There was no escaping now; the active had seen her. Alex made her way up the stairs to where she was waiting.
                  “Good afternoon, Miss X, MA’AM,”
Alex greeted the active as she hugged her – a half- hearted, one-armed hug. Every muscle in her body tensed when the active returned the gesture— likewise with one arm around the shoulder—, which she quickly retracted.
The active’s reply was steady and emotionless, but it had an edge of sternness.
Alex cringed, and when she pulled back and looked straight into the active’s cold gaze, she knew she had messed up again somehow. She wanted to crawl somewhere, away from the condescension of that stare. She had to leave, right now.
                  “Goodbye, Miss X, Ma’am.”
The words stumbled out of her mouth in an incoherent jumble, and she maneuvered herself around the active and bolted through the library doors. She had escaped.

But the verdict came later. Text messaging made sure of that. Her phone vibrated while she was searching for an empty table in the library to study at.

                  Don’t ever say “Ma’am” that loud in public again.
                  Strike one.

The Burger

She and Marina decided to spend the whole afternoon together, and Alex cleared her schedule of anything related to them. They were at one of the cafeterias on campus, and the weather was beautiful – cool air and bright sunshine. Alex hoped it was a sign of happier times ahead. Or at least for the rest of the day.

It was Marina’s treat. Alex ordered a burger, Marina got a taco salad, and they sat at a table outside the cafeteria to eat. Alex was hungry, which made the mediocre burger taste delicious. She chowed down, burger in one hand, fries in the other, and polished everything off in about ten minutes. Marina picked daintily at her taco salad with a fork.

Alex pulled out some notes and a textbook to read over while Marina ate, and they chatted easily. Alex felt some of the tension that had built up in her throughout the week dissipate in the cool noontime air. Contentment settled over her as the food slowly settled in her stomach.

An hour later, it felt as if the food had turned into stone in her gut. Her phone vibrated
           The actives saw you eating with your hands. A burger with your bare hands.
           Strike two.

The Study Session

She had been trying to set up a time for a while now, and after numerous texts exchanged between the actives and the pledges, they finally settled on a Wednesday afternoon to meet. She and two other pledges had met up before going to the library. Somehow there was comfort in facing them together, in solidarity. They linked arms—not so much for the comfort of togetherness, however—but because it was obligatory. It didn’t matter how absurd. Anything they said goes, and no one was about to question higher authority.

They all went up the elevator of the library to the third  floor where the active had said she would stake out a table, but they couldn’t find her when they got there. It was 2:20, ten minutes before the agreed-upon time, but the mantra “On time is not on time.  Fifteen minutes early is on time” had been etched into their consciousness. Alex texted her for her location, and she texted back that she was at a table in one of the far corners of the library. They all walked, arms still linked, in the direction indicated. She was there with other actives – two of them.

Without betraying a hint of emotion, each pledge went up to them, with one other pledge linked at her arm, and they took turns to greet each active, one at a time.

A whisper:
                “Good afternoon Miss X, Ma’am."
Once those codes were observed, they all sat – three pledges on one side of the rectangular table, three actives on the other. They were two front lines of a civil war.

And they started studying. Wordlessly. Alex quickly busied herself, rummaging through her bag for her biology notes, so she wouldn’t have to make eye contact with any of them. She fished them out, laid them on the table, and stared at them with a fierce concentration that was entirely manufactured. It was an empty façade that disguised the tightness in her chest, the hollow feeling in her stomach, and the intense urge to just get up out of her chair and bolt out of the building. What others saw on the outside, though, was someone absorbed in the workings of cell mitochondria.

She had an hour left with them. She could do this – how hard could studying at the library be? But the only things going through her head were random snippets of information, which were as transient and insubstantial as puffs of air. Her eyes registered the notes, but her brain registered nothing. The row of actives across from her was the only thing she could be conscious of. An hour felt like three.  But now she needed to go to the bathroom.
                  “Miss X, Ma’am, may I...?”
The active nodded. Alex got up with another pledge. They linked arms and made their way to the bathroom,
arms linked the whole time. They went into the cubicles but didn’t use the toilets. They just put the toilet covers down and sat on them, talking. Not about them, though. It was too risky. They talked about other stuff. They were on the toilets for maybe ten minutes. Deciding they had pushed it far enough, they both got out, washed their hands, dawdled a little longer, then exited. Arms linked.

They had managed to spend fifteen minutes of study time away from the table—away from them—which they considered a success. They really just needed to catch a breath, even if it had to be in the bathroom, away from the oppressive smog the actives exuded. Now as they headed back to the table, they took deep,  inward breaths, bracing themselves to hold it for the remaining hour.

One of the actives was staring at Alex. The gaze shifted to Alex’s brown shoulder bag that she had left on her chair, the bag that contained the book that had to be with her at all times. Horror filled her as the realization dawned.

Strike three.

The Unspeakable

She had sensed it coming. It was inevitable. But nothing could have prepared her for the utter animosity of their turn against her. Nothing could have prepared her for that night.

She took it all, without uttering a word. It was a circle of condemnation, and if circles had an apex, that’s where she was in the circle. Accusation after accusation was hurled at her, forming a collective barrage under whose weight anyone would have crumpled. The memory of that experience was so painful, all she could do was bury it deep, away, out of the realm of her consciousness.

But for some strange reason, some unknown force deep inside her had caused her to sit erect in the face of their accusations. She never looked any of them in the eye, but her gaze into space was steady and unwavering. The more insults they threw at her, the more this unknown thing inside her seemed to grow and solidify, like an iron core of strength. Not one tear pricked her eyelids.

In hindsight, she would eventually come to realize what it was that kept her marvelously stoic throughout, the inner conviction of something she should have done a long, long time ago.

The Parting

She glanced at her clock. It was 5:30, but already pitch dark outside and very cold. She changed out of her lounge clothes into jeans and a T-shirt. Then she pulled the book out of her shoulder bag, where it had nestled for weeks, a bulky weight she had to carry with her everywhere, whose imposing presence in her bag quashed everything else into obscurity. This... thing...she had given herself to, had become a presence just as domineering as the book she had just extracted from her bag. And right now, she was about to extract this very thing from her life, the same way she had done the book. Her breathing faltered for a moment at the thought, but a sharp intake of air snapped her back to her senses. Fingering the necklace, she allowed herself some time to gather her composure. Then she rested the book on her hip and headed out the door.

She walked quickly and assuredly, which really was not a manifestation of confidence, but an attempt to muster up more. It seemed to be working. The chill of the air against her cheeks tingled, and she grew wide-eyed and alert. She felt like she was on a mission, but almost immediately after the surge of self-assuredness came the counter wave of uncertainty. It was the same hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach that she got every time the thought of doing what she was doing now had occurred to her.

Was this really the end? All those weeks of trying, failing, and trying again, was she really going to just throw them out the window with one fateful decision? She had convinced herself over and over that she was strong, that she wasn’t a sell-out like all the others who had dropped out weeks before. Everything she had put herself through would have been for nothing. Could she really just let go and take the plunge?

But she would not back down, not this time. She had fought and lost to the same overwhelming feeling of uncertainty too many times, and she would not allow it to get the better of her again. Not as long as her feet kept moving. And they were moving: quick, purposeful strides, one foot persistently after the other, driven by some impulse deep in her gut. A survival impulse.

She crossed the street, walked along the sidewalk for a bit, turned into the building on her right, marched up the long flight of stairs, past the tables, up another smaller flight of stairs, and emerged from the entrance of the building. She cut across the plaza and turned left onto the campus’s main road—the road that leads everywhere—and made her way up its slope. The library soon appeared ahead of her. Her fingers tightened around the book in her hand as she turned toward it.

The active, Sam, was sitting on the bench, waiting for her. Was she smiling? Frowning? She couldn’t tell in the dark, but she kept her eyes trained on her face as she made her way over to the bench.
                  “Hey, Alex... here...”

Sam patted the empty spot beside her. Alex sat, the book still tight in her hands.
                 “How are you?”
                  “I’m good, what about you?”
                  “Good, pretty busy.”
                  “Yeah me too.”
Despite the hollowness of those words, somehow their inadequacy in that situation helped
put her at ease. And Sam had never given her flak about her mess-ups, so she was relieved that the
official handing back of the sorority’s keepsakes was through her. Sam held her hands out expectantly. First, the book, then, the necklace. A moment of awkwardness – neither of them sure of the comportment appropriate for the situation.

But Alex was done—numb from the cold, numb from the toll of these past weeks. She didn’t even try to muster up anything to say. The care was gone; she had handed it back to those who had convinced her to bear it. The act had been so simple, she wondered why she had been so fearful of it for so long?

Alex turned and headed back in the direction she came.

There was a lightness in her being that she might have once mistaken for hollowness. Now she had a name for it: freedom.k letter