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Davis, California

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Column: Sloppy seconds

April slides her pinky and index fingers across mine so only her middle and ring fingers are touching my palm. She gives me one long tap, two short ones, then another long one.

“Then this is how you respond,” she said.

Short-short-long-long. The whole time, she doesn’t look down. She’s staring at me with her “we need to talk” eyes. In any other context, I would’ve thought she was breaking up with me before we even got together.

We’re both at work, but our bosses aren’t here today. Instead of her working on databases and me making UC Davis’ lecture halls look nicer than they actually are, she’s showing me the secret call-and-response handshake of her ex-sorority.

She quit over two years ago when they refused to waive her $200 fine for missing fall recruitment. Her reason? She had to go to the Philippines to bury her aunt who recently passed away.

“We’ll have to think about it,” they said.

She quit before they evaluated her case.

“Fuck that shit,” she said the night she found out.

Part of me felt like my daughter was getting divorced from an abusive, two-year marriage when just two years ago, I was the one escorting her down the aisle.

When she joined freshman year, she asked me to be her guest for her. That was code for “camera guy.” At the end of her ceremony, her pledge class posed on the side stairs of the sorority house and I stood taking pictures. Because she was the only Filipino girl in a sea of blondes and brunettes, the green rectangle focused right on her face in the viewfinder.

The night she came back from the initiation ceremony, she was visibly shaking in the basic white dress she wore. No makeup. Hair down.

“That was so weird,” was all she could say.

I asked her what she meant. She said she wasn’t allowed to tell me.

Four years later, when she interviewed for a position at my work, she wore her power heels with her ex-sorority smile as white as picket fences. My coworkers said they knew they’d hire her before she opened her mouth. She lit up the room when she walked in.

I ask her what ever happened that night, and the secrets she tells me are overwhelmingly disappointing. She’s desensitized by now. She’s been through three or four of the initiation ceremonies since hers.

It’s like a cult, she says. For initiation, the sorority sisters surround the pledges in a circle and dance around them, chanting “Hail Hera” in a cadence. The president of the ceremony is called the priestess. To talk to her, everyone has to put two fingers on their forehead as a salute.

I ask her to do the dance for me in the office. She does this awkward leprechaun jump that even years of university training in writing hasn’t prepared me to describe.

She says the initiation process is excessively detailed to enforce a sense of community. During the pledge period, the frat or sorority hazes you until you’re all equals as subjects to power. To then join the community, you’re forced to keep arbitrary secrets like handshakes and rituals to exaggerate the differences between who’s inside and who’s out. The us vs. them mentality strengthens the bond so no one ever leaves, and everyone plays deaf and dumb.

Whereas the ritual to keep people in is unnecessarily complicated, the ritual to keep people out is simple: shunning.

This I’m a lot more familiar with. Like when I got fired from my Campus Unions job and my ex-coworkers started deleting me off of Facebook. Or when I was trash-talked into quitting Nameless Magazine even though I was a founding member. Or when I quit designing videos for Electronic Music for Change when its members trashed my promo video in the form of 42 angry Facebook comments in one morning. The list goes on.

“It’s because everyone’s jealous,” April says, which I notice is becoming her answer to all things unfortunate in this life.

It’s a pretty good way to feel better about yourself when you wander from place to place to find yourself an identity, but get rejected from them all.

Get fired? Everyone’s jealous. Have trouble trusting people now? Everyone’s jealous. Find yourself with hundreds of acquaintances and no real friends? Everyone’s jealous. Find you and your coworker convincing each other you’re better off as sloppy seconds?

GEOFF MAK’s friends in the Greek system want you to know that April’s anonymous sorority horror story is an extreme case. As far as he knows, he buys this. E-mail him at gemak@ucdavis.edu.

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