A week into college, I am bested. I’m leveled, knocked unconscious, hopeless. I can’t do it anymore. I need to drop out. I’m sorry, guys, it happens. This is not where I am supposed to be.
When I make this realization, I am standing just at the threshold of the pseudonym-ed Sorority A, other nervous freshmen surrounding me, biting their nails—if their nails are real—or twirling loose strands of well-coiffed hair. My friend group, for the most part, is not as well-coiffed. It consists of people I won’t ever talk to after rush. I know this: pot-smoking Catholics, regular Catholics, heavy drinkers, reborn local Christians, and a couple of Texans—no future for us past our bond of discomfort. Today we brace ourselves for the ultimate manifestation of collegiate awkwardness: water parties.
If they were tea parties, here in Mississippi they’d be lemoned and iced, and the company would be those whose hearts you’d blessed a hundred times. These are not tea parties. They are twenty-minute hunks of happenstance conversation, between a sorority member and you, or me, the “Potential New Member,” the timing dictated by ever-present rush monitors with stopwatches set on their iPhones. We are allowed no watches, no phones, no purses—distractions—only the company of a random Sorority A active and the cup of water she places in hand.
The doors, they open, and inward we are snatched.
Sorority A welcomes me wildly. I’m a legacy—apparently a big deal, but not in my unsorted family. My sister, two years older, was the first of us to rush, and so she, a member of Sorority A at another southern university, is my in. Some big deal on the social scale.
One by one, we are each “picked up,” separated from our friends, and suddenly latched arm-in-arm to an active member. Mine sits me down, pours half a glass of the water after which these festivities are named, and then she delves right into the pulp of me. It happens.
“Oh my gosh, Mary Marge, it’s great to finally meet you!”
They have studied me for the past months: 32 on the ACT, 3.9 GPA, Alabama, 600 community service hours, staggeringly humble. Do they want me or do they not? Rush doesn’t really mean anything. They know well beforehand if they want me or if they don’t. And we, the freshmen, have in turn studied them. We know which we like: ones our sisters, mothers, friends all liked. We know which we hate: ones whose members got drunk and called us out at a party, ones whose reputations proceed them in ways ours do not. I don’t know many girls in sororities at Ole Miss, but I like them all. I do. I’ll tell myself I like all nine sororities, too. But I won’t like them all. I don’t and I won’t. I can see myself considering half.
After laying out my major (English, yeah, but I’m minoring in marketing, maybe I can get a job!), hometown (Florence, Alabama; oh yeah, it’s not too far away, but my lifestyle is), and residence (Martin Hall. Yeah, the fifth floor! Oh, you lived on the seventh? Cool.), there is a moment of giggling and clarity. They are happy, at this house, to see me. I do not feel comfortable; I feel slighted and pedestal-ed and shoved aside all in the same sweet gesture.
She asks what I did in high school, why I chose to go to school out-of-state, what I’ll be involved with on campus. It is awkward. It is vague. Yet, legacy being my ladder to success, this girl with whom I’m talking loves me. The Sorority A group is diverse, in a substantial way. Yeah, they’re all white and tend toward upper middle-class, but a certain number are fat, a certain number are funny, a certain number raise the bar with their athletics, academics, and appearances. It’s diverse in all the most appropriate ways. I like them, they like me, onward.
Some pot-smoking friends shudder on departure. “Where are we?” is the most common question from one of us to another. What is this? How can twenty minutes of conversation with one active girl determine who we are to the other 200? Fuck it, say we, the next house will surely make sense.
But Sorority B does not.
Sorority B opens its doors to its holy-shit-sigh-inducing mansion of a house, and so it goes. The girl who picks me up seems nice, smiles, laughs, is dressed well. But then she opens her mouth and, not that I blame her for having braces, I can’t help but judge what comes out. One swift whisper of “nice to meet you” and I know that this sorority does not want me. Despite my foresight, I am excited to be here. So excited, in fact, that I giggle between anecdotes even when she doesn’t, and that my face casts itself into a steel-frame smile, even when hers doesn’t. I’m becoming my own sort of sickness, feigning devotion to self and school, when really my devotion is only to perceptions others will have of me. I’m enjoying myself. I like the pretention that is starting to seep between my teeth, to fall out of my mouth in phrases like “my house” or “my sister” or “my involvement.”
Sometimes I have to take deep breaths and remember how temporary all of this is. Not just the severed twenty minutes of small talk, but all of it. Despite being happy, I have to remember that yes, someday I will actually be fulfilled, and that by no means will it be through this. Then I get confused and have to generously laugh at this girl, who, thinking she has hit it head-on, tells me I look like I listen to Widespread Panic.
I don’t have much of an impression of sorority B until the twenty minutes are over. One of my comrades waits outside for the rest of our group, standing on a main thoroughfare of campus and nearly in tears. But when I ask her what’s wrong, she does not sob, she snarls. “Those shits,” escapes her lips. “That girl just straight-up frowned when she got me. Didn’t introduce herself. No effort there. Forget it.”
So indeed we agree to forget it, and onward we go.
Sorority C… what? Its diversity, completely different from the understated variety of sorority A, is overbearing. Cultural, physical, socioeconomic. Again, I am bested and overcome. I don’t think I’m built for this.
Sorority C has already been explained to me, even before this first encounter. They are new to campus. They are not established. Every type of girl imaginable is somewhere here, likely because she was dropped from every other house’s recruitment, but not necessarily. I try not to remember these things as I step inside, because I want to consider all nine houses, I do. Not just because I know that’s what I’ll be telling everyone, but because inwardly I want it to be true. Inwardly I want to say that I love them all—to say that I gave Sorority C the same shot as A or (not B anymore, shit) just about any other. That’s what I want, almost as much as to be in a sorority. I want to be the standard of open-mindedness, acceptance, and charity. But I also hope to find myself—the least of the Greek—positioned next to those who define them.
But as soon as I’m yanked inside by a Sorority C active, I realize giving them a chance won’t be hard. Because of the small size of the C chapter, each active picks up two girls at a time. So my roommate and I get picked up by the same girl and we enter the C house smiling. Conversation is easy. This girl likes to party! This girl loves the fifth floor of Martin! This girl swears and has pierced cartilage and this girl does not give a fuck! My roommate and I are pleased. Probably not considering membership, but comfortable and pleased. I’m self-gratified at my plateau of tolerance.
Sorority D is straightforward, one I knew from the beginning that I would like. Many embody the collegiate adjective of “granola.” Its members are commonly camp counselors, mission trip volunteers, fanny-pack wearers, hair-parted-down-the-middle, fiber-eating, contemporary hippies. This can’t be said for all, because many others are senator material, or homemaker prodigies—they are diverse in a much more understated sense, but it’s tangible. I have a wonderful time sipping my water in their sunroom. We leave too quickly.
By this point, I feel done. Sorority E is heavily, heavenly perfumed, and its chapter asks fun questions. I like my specific, assigned active, but am unsure about the whole. Sorority F glows with unhealthy amounts of lip gloss, eyeshadow, and the like. Time here lasts too long. Sorority G, a notoriously competitive group, rubs me entirely the wrong way. They find me too laid-back and I know it. (A famous fault among my family.) Try as I may to connect, here my glass of water is the majority of my company, and it is barely even filled halfway. This does not meet my needs, I think. Then I think What needs? and go back to remembering how little this matters.
But I step up to Sorority H, another I am predisposed to liking, and feel a guilty little ping of excitement. One of my friends lives in the house, a senior, Head of Standards, a big deal. She knows I’ll love it here. I know, on the relative scale, I’ll like it here. I step inside, am given the arm of someone charming, and time passes in the house, not in small talk, but in large talk, full-sized ideas and points of discussion. I smile when I leave, and the Texans smile too, and the stoners, them too, and the dance line girls who I do not know and the art majors and Chinese speakers that I do not know, they are smiling too. Sorority H has carried the day. I’m pissed for liking the same house as everyone. Out goes everyone, and we press on.
Our last house, Sorority I, is one that I’ve been visibly looking forward to. Despite flaws in the reputation of its past years, it has recently gained attention and positive momentum. I know I will love this house, the free spirits and fancy drinking games for which the group is known. But once inside, I am painfully disappointed. My assigned active is not interested in me. We are both tired from a day of loud, crowded chapter rooms and our majors, our hometowns, our class schedules. Mostly we smile, sip, and look around the room. My standards are not met. The unchanging geography of my open-mindedness seems to take a dip toward disappointment. But this is not the case for anyone else, partier, revivalist, or Texan, who all love this last house of the day.
I don’t love A, or B, or even H or I, because the problem is, I only love me. I am so caught-up in the idea of settling for something, that I forget I may not have to settle at all. I want to relive and reevaluate my day as I think this. I want to shrug off the friends I have in A and D and H, want to scrape mean jokes about C and G from the insides of my ears. I think too late about my open-mindedness. I realize it isn’t really there. I walk back to Martin (Oh, the fifth floor?! That’s a great one!) tired and thirsty, and unsure what it means. They know me already and now I know them. My priorities are such, to be known and be remembered, to find myself a place to feel situated. But it feels like I haven’t found anything.