The students clustered outside the auditorium waited to be shuffled in and seated. A few of the staff stood at the closed doors, some with their arms folded across their chests, others with their hands stuffed in their pockets- they did not want to be there, save one, a short girl with short tight curls who chatted with a few of the undergraduate students. She seems nice.
Everyone has been so nice and, better, no one has recognized him though why they would is beyond him. He should be so grateful if someone recognizes him but they might interrogate him. They might say, “Hey! Aren’t you RM?” then he could say ‘yes’, smile, and walk away before they could ask, “What happened?”
He almost didn’t come tonight because he felt bad because he was actually supposed to be working the orientation alongside the girl with the curly hair but his resident assistant, Charlie, had said nothing would happen because nothing ever happens at orientation.
Nothing better happen otherwise Charlie owes him a beer.
Over the past month, he and Charlie corresponded and found common interest in art and music so when Charlie promised him a tour of the city- You’ll get to meet the MET, Charlie wrote, When’s your flight to JFK? (Charlie had e-mailed everyone who’d live on his floor for the semester, hoping to encourage school spirit and camaraderie but only he had replied. He had a lot of questions and was glad for any friendship.)
Charlie had been kind enough to drive him to school, too. “Carpooling is always fun,” Charlie said. “It’ll be like your first road trip in the States!” He didn’t correct him- it hadn’t been his first road trip in the States but it would be his first without his best friends or bodyguards.
On the drive to university, he’d asked to stop at nearly every rest stop because of the Pokéstops and he wanted to take pictures of everything. He hadn’t been able to take as many pictures on his last trip but, with Charlie being so accommodating, he was able to catch all the Pokémon and take all the pictures (Charlie turned out to be a pretty good Instagram boyfriend).
Music, art, childhood memories, and now similar humors- Namjoon (RM’s real name- or at least the name on his birth certificate) hadn’t meant to find a new best friend to substitute the ones he left behind, but he was grateful for such serendipity. …he should tell Charlie he had a bad time at the orientation whether or not it would be because he needs a beer.
Namjoon ran a hand through his previously silver-blue hair and memorized the patterns of the faded marble underneath his sneakers. If he keeps his head down and shoulders drooped, no one will mistake him for the confident RM he used to be.
Soon the wooden doors sprung open and the wave of undergraduate and graduate students rolled in. Some of the students, already friendly with each other, sat in groups. Namjoon stood at the back, letting the droves of people pass before choosing a seat for himself near the aisle and toward the middle of the auditorium.
He looked around, smiling at anyone who smiled at him but made sure his sweaty palms were out of reach. He’d never been to a new-student orientation and the last time he was around this many people he was on stage performing for them. He was glad to be audience instead of performer but his anxiety refused to match his positivity: someone is bound to recognize RM.
He’d just finished examining the faux wood back of the seat in front of him when the heads of each school began introducing themselves, repeating the same wishes required in every encouraging, beginning-of-the-year speech, and then the MC, one the admissions’ counselors divided them into groups of six for “Icebreakers!” said the admissions counselor from the stage. Namjoon froze, feeling for sweat around his neck and armpits- not damp. Not yet, anyway.
The MC continued, “Since you didn’t choose to study your courses online, we’ve decided to torture you all with socializing- yes, with icebreakers, icebreakers- before we torture you with assignments and deadlines! Look up at the screens above me and you’ll see ten questions to ask each person in your group of six. And go!”
Namjoon didn’t choose his group (he was too busy hoping he’d put on deodorant), his head buried too deeply into shoulders to feign politeness. At the last minute, he agreed to be the sixth person in the person-sitting-next-to him’s group. No one spoke up to answer any of the on-screen prompts. What if someone asked him to start?
“Hey, okay, my name is Laney,” said one of the people in his group. He cautioned a look: the girl with curly hair. Oh, wow, it’s purple up close. He raised his head and sat up straighter for a better look.
“Hello,” continued Laney, fiddling with her dark-frame glasses, “um, I’m the administrative assistant for an entire corridor of the professors here. I’m an admin for nine of them. I am also a full-time grad student, all night classes in the School of Public Administration and International Affairs. It’s nice to meet you all. Um, okay, let’s answer one of these questions. Ooh! Oh, okay, what is my favorite smell and why? I love the smell of bonfires. Reminds me of camping when I was a kid. Next?”
The person to Laney’s left, a thin, gangly man, timidly raised his hand, “Hey, I’m Vivaan, um, just a grad student in the same school as Laney. I’m from the Toronto area. I will answer which game show I would be best at. Definitely America’s Next Top Model.” He struck a pose earning everyone’s smiles and snickers.
Namjoon would’ve taken a picture but he wasn’t sure if they’d still all behave naturally in front of the camera like his friends back home did.
And so they went around- after Vivaan was Shadequa (who prefers Shasha), then Teresa (who prefers Resa), Shimon, and lastly, “Hi. Hi guys, my name is Namjoon,” his voice cracked so he cleared his throat, “I’m also an international student, like Vivaan here, but from Korea, not Canada.” He laughed though everyone else only smiled.
He continued, “Yes, international students for life,” Vivaan high-fived him through the air, “um, I’m a graduate assistant for Professor Karle in the School of Archeology with an emphasis in globalization and cultural change. I will answer, uh-. If you ever wrote a book what would you call it? That’s easy. Moonchild. I’d call it Moonchild.”
“What would it be about?” Laney asked, her head cocked to the right, just the hint of a smile gracing her round face.
Namjoon blushed, hesitating to answer- now he’s sweating. After a couple of breaths, he answered, “It’d be a memoir.”
She wound a curl around her finger. “Oh, cool. I dig it.”
He asked in return, “Do you write?”
She clapped her hands together, “I do, actually!” but she slouched in her seat, suddenly embarrassed. “But, uh, yeah we- we can talk about it another time. It’s kinda long story-.”
Shasha nudged her, “Let’s hear it, girl!”
The following fifteen minutes flowed easily, all their initial shyness and obligation had blossomed into friendship. To Namjoon’s surprise, he even willingly shared his phone number and was excited to be a part of their group chat which Shimon named back-up friends because Laney refused to let them call it MaMa lAneY’s *five sheep emojis*.
Much to her chagrin, Laney was nominated the mother and therefore leader (she is the oldest, they argued, she has to be the mother-leader) but a woman of formidable humor, she graciously accepted the title.
The admissions’ counselor from the stage took to the mic and called for everyone’s attention. He spouted out answers to frequently-asked-questions about social life, dorms rules, and university pride (if Namjoon heard the word ‘orange’ one more time he’d leave the room). “Okay, great! So, we’re gonna give you guys a forty-five-minute break until your next social and that, everyone, will be in the cafeteria. It’ll be a good time with food and you guys love free food! Who doesn’t? It’s college! You’re all broke. Okay, see you in forty-five!”
Much of the audience stood up and left but not Namjoon’s group. They sat in their fractured circle playing Heads’ Up on Shimon’s phone coughing from laughing so hard at each turn. They made other friends at the next social but somehow ended up sitting together at the same table well into the evening.
Back in his room, Namjoon sat at his desk and took out his journal to write, No one recognized me, thank god. I’m glad I’m here but I can’t believe I’m here. What the hell am I doing here? I made friends. I even gave them my phone number. Shimon. Vivaan. TeResa. Sha(sha)dequa. Laney. Laney has purple hair. I should dye my hair again. Purple? No, no, no. What am I doing here? What am I doing here? What am I doing here? I’m here. That’s it. There’s no way out now. It’s done. Whatever I’m doing here I know I’ll be great. I’ll be great. I miss the guys. The guys would say I’m doing great. Guys. I should call them soon. Where’s Charlie? I need him to get me a beer now.
He meant to write more but his phone rang. It was Professor Karle, “Namjoon, it’s me, Pablo. What do you say, since we’re both still pretty jetlagged- want to meet in my office to go over a few things before your first official day tomorrow?”
The meeting, though about work and school, mutated into personal storytime because this is the first time they’ve met in person. Professor Karle jokingly suggested Namjoon should be his next child’s godfather. “Jokingly.” Before this, they’d only had digital interactions, Professor Karle always calling from somewhere with a lot of cicadas, traffic, and family running in the background. He’d insisted that Namjoon call him by his first name but Namjoon could only bring himself to say, “Mr. Pablo.”
“Well all right, Mr. Namjoon, I’ll learn to live with it. Anyway, it’s breakfast now. Would you like an acai bowl?”
Namjoon blinked. “A what, Mr. Pablo? A sassy bowl?”
Pablo stared at Namjoon, almost said something, reconsidered it, then stood from his desk inviting Namjoon to do the same. “An acai bowl,” Pablo explained, “is why I believe in God. And great breakfast!”
Pablo, already outside his door emphatically shook his head ‘yes’ and pointed to the window down the hallway light streaming in. “My friend, aking kaibigan, God’s not so pragmatic as all that. This is the acai fruit-. Oh, Laney, ‘musta? Magandang umaga, morning, morning. Ay, pasensya, I scared you. Did I forget to mention I’m a night owl? Ah, yes, have you met my GA, Mr. Kim?”
Oh, this corridor of professors, Namjoon thought. He pulled his shoulders back and stepped out from Pablo’s office and bowed low. Taking advantage of his backlit features and Laney’s awkward blind fear, he quickly scanned her then his own clothes: he looks like an uncultured freshman compared to her, a woman who knows what she’s doing. He should’ve thought more about his outfit last night before rushing to meet Professor Karle.
“You guys had a meeting the whole night?” Laney flicked on the lights.
Pablo and Namjoon shaded their eyes blinking uncomfortably under the fluorescent lights. Namjoon replied, “We’re both still pretty jet-lagged. He just came back from the Philippines a couple days ago and me from Korea last week. Up until now, our only correspondence was video chat and we were supposed to meet yesterday but he suddenly had a thing and then he and Charlie- my RA- wanted me to go to orientation even though I felt bad and I should’ve been working it and so- and so we end up meeting at 11.30 nighttime and, uh, yeah, yeah. Here we are. Good morning. 좋은 아침.”
Laney nodded, her left brow slightly arched.
Namjoon clenched his jaw. “Oh, 좋은 아침. That’s- that’s Korean for good morning. Okay, so how did you say it in Filipino, Mr. Pablo?”
Laney rolled her eyes as she listened to Pablo and Namjoon teach the other their languages and handed to Pablo her class schedule. “I expect I’ll be a night owl soon, too, Professor, what with my new schedule.”
Pablo glanced at Laney’s schedule before folding it in half (still mouthing 좋은 아침) and stuffing it into the inner pocket of his tired linen jacket. “We’ll keep you company, Laney, now join us. We were just about to have breakfast. By the way, don’t call me Professor Karle. We’re kin. You’re not even a student of mine. You can call me Pablo.”
“Oh, I think-,” Laney tried to object.
“Tito Pablo if you’re so inclined. The cafeteria’s acai bowls are surprisingly good.”
Laney stepped back, pointing both thumbs behind her. “But I still have to open-.”
“That’s what this is for-.” From his backpack, Pablo took a ‘Will Return at:’ sign and handed it to her. “Put that you’ll be back at 8.30. No excuses! Trust me, any professor who walks in here will understand. Especially Carney. It’s acai bowls. Now, shall we?”
“They’ll make you believe in god,” Namjoon offered.
Helplessly, Laney obeyed but added, “I’ll go, but I don’t have a meal plan because I live off-campus so I can’t have an acai bowl.”
Pablo glared at her. “What, you think I can’t get two acai bowls by accident?”
“Ay okay po. Tara na!”
The five-minute walk from their office building to the cafeteria is the best perk of his job, Pablo informed them, otherwise, he would’ve taken a job at another university. He went on and on about the importance of food for the mind and soul because one cannot learn on an empty stomach. He described some of his favorite dishes from his favorite cuisines, but he soon tired of his own voice- Namjoon and Laney walked on either side of him in silence, appropriately nodding and affirming- and asked, “Namjoon, what’s your favorite food?”
Namjoon had actually spent the last five minutes going over each possible outfit he could change into after breakfast so he said, “Blue socks.”
Laney stifled back a laugh and added, “I like socks, too! Socks are probably my favorite accessory. No, no, don’t say sorry. Is that your favorite accessory, too?”
Namjoon grinned. “Actually, I like hats the best. I always buy a good hat when I see it.”
“Ooh, what’s your favorite kind of hat? I want to expand my baseball hat and beanie collection.”
Because Namjoon had never had an acai bowl, Laney and Pablo took time to show him how to prepare one at the acai bowl bar. They were patient and, though they disagreed on the best toppings, eventually let Namjoon pick the ones he thought were best.
They sat and ate by the windows overlooking the campus’ main square where they talked more fashion and though Pablo didn’t have much to add he enjoyed listening to them and watching the undergraduate students scramble to their classes. When he did have a few cents to add both of them found a way to direct the conversation back to each other. They did not leave him out on purpose; if anything, they both did their best to include him, but if Pablo hadn’t sat between them to remind them whose idea it was to have acai bowls, Namjoon and Laney might’ve forgotten about him entirely.
About twenty minutes into eating breakfast and discussing the best kinds of socks, Pablo excused himself, “I’ll see you at 11.00, Mr. Namjoon. I’m glad you like the acai bowl,” he squeezed his shoulder just as he stepped away, “No, no, enjoy yourself. Eleven o’clock. I look forward to your new outfit of the day!”
Namjoon blushed, covering his face with his arms: his boss thinks he’s a fashionista…which he is, but that’s not a good first impression for a graduate assistant to make!
After clearing the table still while chatting with Laney, he found himself walking her back to the office, but quickly (and hopefully smoothly) made the excuse that his dorm room is in the opposite direction and so cannot walk her in the rest of the way.
As he walked away, he looked down at his shaking hands and pulled his ragged sleeves over them. He’s not sure why he wants to impress Laney so much but it means a lot to him that he just might be able to. If he can impress her, even if it’s just a first day of school outfit, maybe he’ll be able to impress Pablo and his students.
He pulled back his shoulders and strolled into his dormitory where he ran into Charlie who was just on his way out. They chatted a bit in the foyer, briefly exchanging the day’s antics, agreeing to meet for dinner. “I’ll be with my cousin, Remy. Is it okay if they join us? Great! Mi familia es su familia.”
Namjoon bowed. “Gracias, mi amigo.”
Charlie’s eyes widened, impressed. “¿Tu hablas español? ¡Mi hermano, deberías haberme dicho antes para que pueda ayudarte a practicar!”
Namjoon’s hands were now uncontrollably shaking. “Ah, yeah. Gracias, gracias, mi amigo. Uh, ¡hasta luego! …at dinner.”
Charlie grinned, “Asegúrate de tener hambre. ¡Hasta luego!”
Back in his room, Namjoon quickly showered so that he’d have enough time to sort through his clothes. He hadn’t unpacked anything but had only moved his clothes from his suitcases to his laundry bin. He should probably start his laundry.
Standing in his robe, he looked at the bare, tapioca-colored walls- he should start decorating. If his best friend, Taehyung, were here he would’ve had the place completely decorated on the first day. There would be framed posters and pictures and stylized bookshelves showing off some of Namjoon’s favorite books, but Namjoon’s only managed to pull a white bed sheet over his bed. He definitely needs curtains, too.
He folded his arms over his chest, focused on his pile of clean clothes. Should he sport a loose or a fitted look? Should he bother with a sweater? It’s still too hot for a sweater, but he needs to look as collegiate as Laney. Damn, he’s never been to college, the hell does he know what collegiate-?
He shuffled through his suitcase for his black highwaters, his gray shirt dress over which he’d wear his heather-black long sleeve. That’s collegiate, right? Ankle socks! Or, no, no, she won’t be able to see his ankle socks. Oh, that’s right, his blue-striped crew socks with black Oxfords- she’ll love that because he’d said blue socks. It’ll be funny. Okay.
He dressed, reviewed his reflection and smiled. Perfect and easy. One less thing to be anxious about, but with still an hour and a half (getting the right tuck and fall took an hour of adjusting in front of the mirror) to spare, he decided to unpack his clothes- to hang what could be hung in the closet and to fold what could be folded in the dresser.
With the last half-hour, he looked around his room satisfied with his progress. Hoseok, his best friend, would be proud. Namjoon grabbed his messenger bag, swung it over his shoulder, and was soon back in the office. At the end of the hall, just before strutting past Laney’s desk, he took a moment to catch his breath. Oh, she’s not at her desk. He stood there, tapping his fingers on the strap of his messenger bag and fought the urge to spin on his heel in retreat.
“Oh, Namjoon, you’re back, hi,” she stood at the door of the small copy/break room the nine professors shared. She didn’t quite look at him at first, not until she set down the stack of papers cradled in her arms. She looked up at him and asked, “Did you need something?”
“Oh, no. I just got here.”
Laney smiled. “Of course, you can’t need anything yet. Oh,” she waved her finger up and down, “This I like. Can I see your shoes? Oh my, God, yes, I love Oxfords! I’ve been looking for a new pair myself. I can tell, you are going to love thrifting.” She waved her finger again. “I approve. Oh, also, I do believe Professor Karle is already back there but he didn’t seem to be in a rush so-.”
“You dress well, too,” Namjoon interrupted with a compliment.
Laney paused, smoothing out her pencil skirt. “Aw, thank you. I try, I try.” She gave a little curtsy, her kitten heels sliding across the water-stained carpet.
Namjoon smiled, bowed, and made his way to Pablo’s office where he had to force himself to pay attention to whatever last pieces of advice Pablo had for him. From this point on, Namjoon would be upstairs with the other GAs in their shared office on the floor above and while communication would be constant, they’d only have to meet face-to-face once a week. “Are you ready, Mr. Kim? You have three classes today.”
Namjoon smiled, tapping his toes. “Yes, sir, Mr. Pablo. I am.”