It’s lunch time on a Wednesday. Out of the sections of the days of the weeks in Ryan's life, lunch time on Wednesday was the worst. Mondays during lunch were manageable because he had the memory of the weekend to look back on. Tuesday lunches were bearable because his class schedule cut into the time, Thursdays weren’t so bad because they were almost Friday, and Friday’s lunches were heavenly because he could usually leave campus after his morning class and pick up lunch off campus on his way home.
Lunch was worse than other times of day because it meant the largest congregation of students in the main campus cafeteria, which was officially named “The Lair” to correspond with the motif of the school’s lion mascot. Ryan walks through the automatically sliding glass doors and swipes his student ID at the turnstile. It’s very crowded in the dining hall and everyone within seems to be chatting freely with a group of two or more people each. He attempts to focus on the array of food instead of how alone he is. The longer he spends deciding what to eat, the less time he will have to spend looking for a table for one or chewing his food in isolation.
There are different restaurant franchises in separate booths, like in a mall food court. Chipotle, Panda Express, Sbarro, Quiznos. Ryan used to go to Quiznos, but it was difficult making small talk with the sandwich maker on the lunch shift, day in and day out, and it quickly became apparent that he was never going there with any friends. He didn’t want the sandwich maker to recognize his face enough to realize he was always alone. Plus, Quiznos never seemed to have the right combination of deli meats and ingredients to make the sandwich that Ryan wanted (The Famous Philly Cheesesteak).
He goes around the fast food section a few times, making sure to stop and look at the menu of each “restaurant” for a few seconds to kill extra time without looking like a weirdo. Eventually, he approaches the refrigerated food section in the center of the food court. He has already made his choice for what he will eat, but picks up a few different types of boxed sandwiches and salads and looks at their nutritional information before settling on the tuna sandwich on wheat — again, to kill more time. He didn’t really know what he expected to happen during these time killing rituals, but in the back of his mind, he thought it might signal to some other lonely (but more extroverted) person that he was open to having a chat, and would encourage that person to approach him and strike up a conversation. That never happened.
Tuna sandwich firmly in hand, Ryan proceeds to the refrigerated drink section. He picks out a bottle of green tea (with sugar added) Sobe. It reminds him of his high school days, when he and his friends would go to CVS to buy snacks. He can’t linger too long while pretending to make a selection here, because the drink aisle is wedged in a corner and the inconvenient placement causes a line to form quickly. He brings his items to the cash register and pays with the “Lion Dollars” his parents put on his student ID card. He looks at his portrait on the card and feels bad for himself. Ryan doesn’t make extended small talk with the cashier because they don’t look like they want to speak to him and a lump is forming in his throat.
Ryan finds a long booth near the back of the cavernous dining hall and opens the biodegradable plastic box housing his cold sandwich. He forces himself to eat two full bites and swallow each one down with a wash of the full sugar green tea Sobe before he allows himself to take refuge in his phone. He searches Discord for information about the mysterious shooter. Someone has posted a link to a recent stream. Clicking it brings him to the tail end of the movie theater shooting and his blood starts pumping again. He watches with intense interest and when it’s over, he decides to do something cool. He plays back the hosted video, which plays a replay of the stream, and screen records it with his iPhone. He then uploads the clip to reddit.com/r/watchpeopledie. By the time he’s done, he’s the only person in the dining hall. Time flies when you're having fun.
Ryan walks back to his dorm room. He hears laughter down the hallway. The door is open. Micah is playing video games with a few guys. Micah is doing most of the talking and laughing. Ryan has never seen these people before. He stands in the door frame, not sure how to proceed. A guy with a buzz cut is sitting in the cheap, dorm issue desk chair that Ryan usually sits in. Another guy in a red hoodie leans against his bed. Micah looks over “Yo! Roomie. We’re just playing Gears. Take a seat man you can have next round.”
“Okay.” Ryan walks to the bed and leans against it, copying the red hoodie guy.
“Sorry bro, is this your bed?”
“Yeah, it’s cool.” Ryan gets nervous. This could be it. The moment he makes friends. His heavy backpack strains against his shoulders but he’s too nervous to set it down. Like a fly fisherman in a lake, he’s worried that if he makes any sudden movement he’ll chase the people away.
The person who is sitting in Ryan’s chair plays the game with Micah. “This game is tough bro.”
Micah laughs too loudly, “Yeah man.”
While he watches his roommate and the stranger play Gears of War, Ryan tries to get in a comment or two to make sure he’s participating in the conversation. “Those gun animations are awesome.” His voice comes out hoarse and quiet.
Ryan clears his throat. “The animations are so cool.” No one verbally responds. The guy leaning against the bed who is scrolling on his phone nods. After a few minutes, it’s Ryan’s turn to play. The buzzcut guy gets out of the chair and takes Ryan’s place leaning against the bed. Ryan tries to sit in the chair, but his backpack is still on and gets caught on top of the chair, preventing him from fully sitting into the seat.
“Why do you still have your backpack on?” Micah asks. Ryan, panicked, slips one of his arms out of its strap and lets the backpack drop heavily to the ground.
“Stupid thing. I hate carrying that shit around.”
“You should get a messenger bag like me, dude. So much easier.”
As they play, Ryan’s controller shakes with the trembling of his hands. He feels hyper aware of his surroundings. Even though the three new guys in their dorm room are just paying attention to their phones now, Ryan doesn’t want them to think he sucks at the game. Micah and him play in near silence, save for the grisly sound effects of the game. Grunting. Screaming. Gun shots. Flesh being hacked to pieces and the splatter of blood.
Eventually the game is over. Micah claps his hands. “Should we go to club sign ups day now?”
The buzzcut guy looks up from his phone. “Yeah, for sure.”
The five strangers walk with a crowd of other students from the dormitory buildings to the quad. Ryan has trouble keeping the right pace, sometimes falling behind, when Micah and his three new acquaintances walk in a line on the sidewalk, sometimes going too far ahead, like when one of the group members stops to talk to someone they know along the way, and the others stand back with them. Ryan tries desperately to participate in the walking conversation, despite never being addressed directly with questions or comments. For example, Micah asks the buzz cut guy where he’s from. He responds that he is from Calabasas. Then Micah says what about you guys? One of them says Pasadena, another says he’s from Omaha, Nebraska, and another Seattle, Washington. Ryan blurts out that he’s also from a suburb of Los Angeles, even though Micah already knows this. Micah says he’s also from Pasadena. One time during their long walk, Ryan has to stop to tie his shoes, and the group keeps walking. When Ryan is done tying his shoe, he walks as fast as he can, without running, to catch up to them.
After an eternity on this trail of awkwardness, the group and Ryan finally arrive at the clubs sign up event. Each club is represented by a plastic fold out table, usually under a pop-up shade canopy, with one or two people sitting in fold out chairs behind the table. A poster or sign indicates what type of club it is, and a clipboard serves as the sign up list. Rows of these tables fill the entirety of the large grass lawn of the quad. Freshmen are especially encouraged to sign up for clubs, as they are thought to help new students make friends, develop their interests, and find community at the university.
The clubs don’t seem to have anything to offer. There are various race based student unions, such as Black Student Union, Thai American Cultural Club, Japanese Club, Hebrew Student Union, etc. (Ryan didn’t feel comfortable signing up for any of these, because he was worried that the club members would assume he was either some type of racial spy, or that he was fetishzing the women represented by the race and was only signing up in order to increase his chances of meeting them, or that he was doing so as a joke.) There are hobby-based clubs, such as Chess club, Pottery club, Glass-blowing club, Glee Club, etc. but Ryan doesn’t have any hobbies outside of masturbating and posting on anonymous forums. He avoids these clubs because he doesn’t want to look like an idiot if one of the people with the sign up sheets asks him about his relationship to the hobby. There are sports clubs, such as Surf, Lacrosse, Rugby, and the like. Ryan avoids these for the same reason. The people behind the fold out tables seem extra confident and intimidating. They flirt with the Freshmen girls who walk by them or stop to inquire about the various sports that they obviously won’t be joining. There are even religious clubs. Ryan hates religion. He makes a remark to Micah and the strangers. “What a joke.”
Micah turns to him “Dude, respect people’s religious views.”
The group walks around the various tables, and through their mixing amongst the crowd of other students, the strangers who were in the dorm room, obviously tired of Micah’s antics, and having nothing to talk about with Ryan, have dispersed. Somehow, Micah has struck up conversations with some less cool guys, who have replaced the previous group. They make shallow small talk. The school has hired food trucks to feed the students after their hours of walking around. People eat around picnic tables. Ryan is grateful that he won’t have to eat dinner alone. He has a good excuse to hang around Micah and the new strangers. They shouldn’t have a problem with him sitting down to eat with them. Micah gesticulates to the In-N-Out truck. “Ooh, In-N-Out. Should we grab some grub and sit down over here?” Micah, the new strangers, and Ryan join the long line outside the In-N-Out truck. Student workers hand out vouchers for combo meals to make sure students don’t take more than their fair share. The sun is hanging low in the sky now, and pink and orange streaked clouds glow through the trees lining the quad. Micah drives the conversation with a little more assertiveness this time, asking each of the new strangers where they’re from and what their major is. Ryan participates half-heartedly, offering a “that’s cool” or a “sounds good” here and there. He answers when asked his major. No one else has the same major as him. His limited social battery is nearing 0%. The new strangers seem more like him in their awkwardness, dress, and demeanor, but they have an annoying optimistic quality. They seem to be enjoying themselves and are making healthy adjustments to their new lives in college. Ryan hates them.
They bring their combo meals to a picnic table to continue the conversation. As there are five of them, 2 pairs sit across from each other, Ryan is offset and no one is sitting across from him. He searches the crowd for cute girls while he chews his burger. He listens passively to the conversation and fantasizes about bashing in the skulls of his new friends and Micah. They’re talking about websites they like to go on. They describe memes they’ve seen on social media, and random comedic YouTube videos. The stranger on Ryan’s left chews with his mouth open, and when he laughs at a particularly stupid video Micah just quoted, a chunk of french fry gets stuck in his throat. He coughs into a napkin, clears his throat, then continues laughing. He takes a long sip of his Diet Coke and the straw shakes the ice and echoes the slurping noise of the empty air mixed with the dregs of liquid inside the cup. Ryan wonders how his life turned out this way.
Later that night, Micah and Ryan are in their separate beds, talking before they fall asleep. Micah says “Crazy day. I signed up for so many clubs I don’t know how I’ll have time to go to all of ‘em. I guess that’s college for you, right?”
“Yeah, that’s crazy.”
“Those guys we met were pretty awesome too. They said they wanted to come over and play Gears this week so that’ll be fun.” Ryan tries to remember the faces of the other guys who came over to play. He feels like he’s having déja vu.
“It’s kinda crazy not knowing anyone and having to make friends all over again. I’m kinda nervous about trying to meet new people.”
“Everyone’s in the same boat. We’re all in this together.”
“I don’t think I’m in the same boat. I don’t think I’m in a boat at all.”
Micah yawns widely. “Anyway, I better hit the hay. I gotta get some shut eye before class tomorrow.”