It is August in Gainesville, a town I once heard referred to as “the armpit of Florida,” perhaps a reference to its position on the peninsula as well as the temperature and humidity during the summer. And spring. And fall.
It is hot. And wet. But not raining. I’m walking around in a dress and pumps that will eventually make my heels bleed and cause me a lot of unwanted attention. I move from house to house, pushing past my shyness to try to find a home far from home.
I’m a freshman in college and this is sorority rush, round one.
Ice water parties.
As I walk into each house, I am greeted by a sister and a glass of ice water is pressed into my hands. And never have I been so glad to meet a beverage. After a few minutes of uncomfortable small talk, I am back out on the tree-lined street and on to the next edifice adorned with Greek letters that I am learning the same way I learned my own: with a song (to this day I still cannot recite either alphabet without singing). More ice water. More small talk.
After I’ve all made the rounds, visiting each house according to a computer-generated schedule, I go home and wait. Tomorrow I’ll find out if I’ve made the cut. Tomorrow I’ll find out how I’ve been judged and if I’ve been found lacking whatever it is they are looking for.
With each successive round, the refreshments get incrementally better. The ice water is replaced with lemonade, soda, even a milkshake eventually. There is food, but the word on the street is that you are not supposed to eat it.
I came to campus from a insulated world, one where people (not me, but others) had money and nice cars. Not many girls (or guys for that matter) were overweight. There were a lot of pretty faces, even among the smart kids. Yet in this plastic environment I’d never come across anyone who was afraid to eat.
To say I was perplexed was an understatement. In fact, I was downright annoyed.
So I ate. Without apology. Without reservation. A simple little rebellion reaffirming that even as I tried to fit in I would always be true to myself.
As the fare gets better, so does the dress code. I find myself wearing dresses, a rarity for me. And those damn shoes that rub my heels and eventually draw blood, blood that winds up on the hem of my dress, blood that freaks out the smiling sister at one house, a house that I never get asked back to. I wonder if it’s the blood, my casual attitude about it or something else all together.
I begin to question the wisdom of this ritual, to ask myself if my homesickness, a temporary condition, is worth conforming to some unknowable standard, wearing a mask that doesn’t even look like me or laying myself out to be judged by people I’m not even sure I’d like in other circumstances.
I drop out of rush before the final rounds. Rejecting the process protects me from being rejected, but it also keeps me from becoming part of something I don’t quite understand. I can choose my own friends and they can choose me.
And I can get my own ice water.