Friday, 6 September 2013

Societies' Day

‘Are these free for the taking?’
They’d better be, as the t-shirt is already halfway into my bag.
‘Uh, yeah’, says the guy behind the stack of shirts.
‘Great’. I smile, turn away. Quick getaway.
‘So, do you know what this is about?’ He leans into my field of vision, gestures vaguely at other students with lanyards around their necks.
‘No’, I say, smiling brightly. I half-turn back to the table. ‘What do you guys do?’
I make for the hall, skirting past two gawky Asian teenagers grappling apologetically over a large stick. They are presumably affiliated with the nearby Aikido stand. I pass a stand with decks and big speakers, blasting beats. A girl is leaning across the desk towards the DJ, who keeps his headphones pressed against one ear.
I begin to make the rounds, weaving in and out between knots of hesitant freshmen. According to their poster, The Muslim Association is ‘committed to celebrating the Muslim faith, and to offering a supportive and welcoming environment to all Muslim students on campus’. They offer baked goods as an enticement to their stand.
I can’t help but feel that brownies were an unfortunate choice.
I put my name down for the running club, secretly relieved that the hardened athletic types manning the stand are already occupied with enquirers when I do. I imagine the tanned figure on the left looking at me doubtfully, lips pursed.
So you do some running, huh? And you wanna sign up? Okay, well…        
He looks at his wizened companion, who nods, barely perceptibly. Turns back to me.
Yeah, we’re gonna have to see you do a few laps of the quad first. It’s just procedure, don’t worry.
Well… okay. Cold sweat. Why do you have a baseball bat?
Oh, we’re gonna chase after you with this. Ha, ha. All part of the fun, y’know. But you’re a runner, so we probably won’t catch you, right?
The other guy smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes.
That cool? You ready?
Smacks it on his fist. You get a cookie after.
I’m accosted by a girl handing out shortbread biscuits in the shape of an owl, with a little shrub of feathers drawn on in brown icing, below the owl’s waistline. The effect is striking.
‘Did you make these yourself?’
‘No.’ She laughs. Our leaders made them.
I picture a cabinet of government ministers and generals, concealed in a bunker beneath the White House, clustered around a conference table. A solitary telephone in the middle of the table is illuminated by an overhead light. The edges of the room are in darkness. They all bend over trays of cookies, squeezing piping bags with care, tongues stuck out of the corners of mouths.
A middle-aged man presides, shirt sleeves rolled up. He leans menacingly over the top of the conference table.
We can’t afford to hesitate, sir, advises a bookish underling with a name badge. Our frosting supplies have fallen below the critical level.
He tugs at his collar, shifts his weight to the other loafered foot. Swallows audibly.
Well, don’t just tell me about it, for Chrissakes. Do something!
A fist smash. Glasses jump together, ice cubes rattle. Around the table, bespectacled figures blink in fright. Icing spurts from piping bags.
He starts pacing. Goddammit, those owl butts won’t frost themselves.
‘They’re very impressive’, I tell the girl.
‘Oh, thank you!’ She beams.
The medical student societies have huge professional posters, displaying pictures of anonymous white-toothed professionals along with images of globes and handshakes. Tall young men in polo shirts hover nervously with clipboards, offering free branded pens.
I eye the cereal bars invitingly fanned on the next table. I reach to grab one. The keeper of the plate raises an eloquent eyebrow. His gaze slides towards the sign, head unmoving. Society for Black Engineers at Rice.
I withdraw my hand.
The next few are Christian fellowships of varying stripes. Earnest looking white males smile at me, blinking furiously, proffering Skittles and other indulgences. Their posters are handmade, with pictures of sunrises and handwritten messages of hope and inspiration.
Behind the desk, two of them are hugging. One of them breaks off, sees me, lunges in my direction.

In my panicked retreat, I accidentally join the South Asian choir.

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