2003 – I

2003

**

“We have to sell about ninety tickets,” Charlie was telling Sita and Fatima, “although this is easier than you think.”
“How so?” asked Sita, who was making notes while he spoke. Charlie may be bossy, but this month she’d come to become friends with him (if that was the term).
“No one goes for spring break alone. Well, some people do. But mainly we can tap groups of eight, ten. Many couples too. The numbers add up.”
Fatima got up from her seat. “Once you figure out the details and the cost Sita, let me know, and I will start selling it around campus. I have to go for class. See you.”
She nodded at Charlie as she left. Theirs was an uneasy peace, but long as the system worked, no one complained.
“Free for lunch?”
“No, actually I have to meet a friend upstairs.”
“Ah, ok. So let me tell you about how this works. I know a travel agent; he’s reliable. He is going to make all the arrangements. I have spoken to him. So we will leave early Friday morning, which brings us to Cuba in the afternoon. We return the following Sunday.”
“Sounds good.”
“Yes. Now because Americans are not allowed to go into Cuba – and many of them will ask you this – tell them that their passport will not be stamped. The visa is given on a piece of paper. In fact, tell them to take American dollars if they can. They love the dollar there.”
“As does everyone,” piped Sita.
“Yeah, right. Ok, one more thing Sita, but this information is just for you. Although, you can tell the others if you want. For every fifteen tickets sold – or perhaps it’s twenty, I will check – one person can go free. It’s our profit margin. We keep this for the executive – after all, it is a way of paying you back for all your hard work.”
Sita nodded. Maybe Charlie wanted to go free, that was why he had been so involved in the first place.
“Tarek and I are not going. But you should find out from the others what their plans are, if they want to go to Cuba, and accordingly set your target so that everyone can go free. Otherwise, say three of you are going and only two tickets are free – well, I needn’t tell you how messy it can become.”
“No, no…”
“Oh hey, look at the time. You should get going for lunch.”
“Right, right. Well, thanks Charlie,” said Sita as she collected her things and headed towards the elevator. It was only when the doors opened she realized she’d left Charlie alone in the office.
For some reason, it was unsettling.

**

During lunch with Nico, Sita kept thinking about what Charlie had told her about the tickets. Unfortunately, she couldn’t say thing to Nico because she believed the people who hang out at the lounge should really not know the dirty laundry of the executive. It would probably keep them from coming around, if they thought the atmosphere was so negatively charged. And so, while Nico was filling her in about her amazing New Years party, Sita reviewed options in her head.
She wanted one of those tickets. Why not! A free trip to Cuba sounded pretty damn good to her. But to lie about it to everyone else was not right. She felt angry with Charlie, why did he have to make everything sound so sinister? Any event that took place, be it to New York, Boston or even Quebec City, one member of the executive was required to go for the trips to make sure everything ran smoothly. This was no different, in fact, this trip would need at least two exec members to run it. Chances are, if I don’t tell people about the option, they will figure it out anyway – and I’ll look as bad as Charlie does, she thought.
“And they let me play a half an hour set, can you believe that!” Nico was saying.
“That’s crazy Nico, wow, so you’re a famous DJ now!”
“Ha ha… hardly, but I have to say, some of the pictures of me up there look pretty cool!”
“Tell me more…” deflected Sita, continuing to think about the Cuba situation.
She would handle it this way: tell everyone she wanted to go. Ask them who else did. And they would just figure it out. She wasn’t going to let Charlie make her like him, all cloaked in secret and lies.

**

“It’s on the 18th,” Sarah told Dan. “We had originally wanted the protest to coincide with the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there have been some organizational problems.”
“You are part of a larger protest, right?”
“Yeah, that’s the thing. There are going to be protests in Ottawa and Toronto, as well as London, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow…”
“Against the administration’s plans to invade Iraq?”
“It’s not completely about Iraq, but yes, it’s an anti-war protest. We do have local channels covering it, but Sita – you know her right – she told me to tell you too. Said it’s just the kind of story you’d like.”
Dan’s face lit up for a moment. “Is she taking part?”
Sarah laughed, “I’m not sure. She said it might be too cold and too early for her, but I’m sure she’ll come around. She’s helping me with publicity though, through her extensive network.”
“Right, her impressive mailing list…”
“Yeah. So anyway, about the protest, do you want to cover it?”
“I do, most definitely. Thanks for coming by, Sarah. I’ll call you for the logistics, where you are walking through, so that I can set up cameras.”
Before she left Campus TV office, Sarah decided to play nice.
“The president of the Arab Association is this guy called Elie, this protest has been his baby. You should interview him,” she said, feeling proud of her first jab at media management.

**

Alia walked into her history class: Homosexuality in Britain. Abba would die if he knew I had this as a class, she thought, laughing aloud. She had come across it online and thought it might be fun to take. She was right. Initially the small size of the class made her nervous, till she remembered it was probably better this way. She was the only brown person in the room. There were about ten boys – all gay – and three other girls – all gay too. The professor was gay. And just because she was in the minority, she felt left out! Which is just part and parcel of being a minority, she thought ruefully.
Today they were going to study Oscar Wilde. Alia loved Wilde, having studied The Importance of Being Earnest in school. They hadn’t told her anything about his personal life back then, but that wasn’t surprising. Everything felt censored back home now, she thought. Not like here. Everyone is so flamboyant and no one bats an eyelash. It felt so liberating!
The professor wasn’t in, so she went to get herself a coffee from outside. One of her classmates was at the machine.
“I like your t-shirt,” he said, offering her a cup.
“Thanks. I like your shoes.”
He giggled. It was really sweet. “So, what made you take this class…um…?”
“Alia.”
“Right, Alia. I’m Andy.”
“This class? Not sure, just on impulse.”
“Really?”
Was she being judged, wondered Alia. “Plus I’m all for equal rights…”
“Really? You should come to our office, we advocate transgender rights.”
What is up with everyone and their damn offices, thought Alia, don’t people just… be… anymore?
“Sure, sounds good,” she lied.

**

“So.”
“You’re smiling. Like a cat.”
“Cats smile?”
“Sometimes.”
“So.”
“Yes, Sarah, how may I help you?”
“Well, Sita, I come in peace. And a bucket of General Tao’s chicken.”
“I thought you smelled extra delicious today. I’m yours. What do you want?”
“Every time you make a call, or send an email, or have a visitor drop by your office, can you do me a teeny tiny favor?”
“Ask them to attend your rally?”
“Yeah.”
“You know, I’m already doing that?”
“Really?”
“Really.”
“Want more chicken?”
“I could do with dessert.”
“I’m sorry. I draw the line at chicken.”
Moments later, she was smacked on the forehead with a plastic spoon.

**

Dan was sitting with Sarah and Elie, discussing how many people they expected. “You know, I just have three cameras with me, but I am going to use all of them. At the start, middle and finish.”
“That is good Dan. Like I was telling you, we are joining up with some of the other colleges. As well as local organizations, churches, you name it. It isn’t a ‘student rally’ you must remember. It’s for everyone.”
“That is great. I thought it was a college event all this time.”
“No,” added Sarah, “we didn’t limit ourselves. You can imagine, the bigger the numbers, the better the coverage. We’ve asked local news to come too.”
“Wow. So, how do you know how many people are coming?”
“We’ve set up an email account and keep asking people, if they can, to confirm.”
“And how many have?”
“Keeping in mind we have some time to go,” said Elie, opening up a document on his computer, “All together, over 5000.”
“Wow.”
“Yeah. I hope we make it to 10,000.”
“Can you?”
“Maybe.”
On the way back to his office, Dan decided to stop by ISN impulsively. As it happened, Sita had office hours today. Truth be told, he’d stopped by ‘impulsively’ the day before and found Derek sitting in the office, tinkering with the website.
In fact, that had also turned out well for Dan, because Derek was really good with all things online, and explained to him how storing videos would work online. But after a while, the conversation had waned.
Luckily, today, Sita was in the office. Although at the moment, she was sitting in the lounge with a few Europeans. They were discussing bagels.
“I like Tim Horton’s the best,” she was proclaiming, “fantastic bagels and even better coffee!” She saw him walk in and brightly waved out to him.
“Hey Sita, just met Sarah and Elie, so thought I’d come see how you are doing.”
“I’m good. Meet Eloise and Nicolas.”
After a little small talk, they moved into the office.
“I am trying to sell tickets to Cuba, but it’s a little slow. I suspect there will be many last minute buys.”
“Possibly.”
“So, whats up?” she said, looking at news online on the computer at the same time.
“Not much. Have to go to Ikea this weekend…”
“Hey!”
“What happened?”
“The leaders of the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain released a statement (The Letter of the Eight) demonstrating support for the United States’ plans to invade Iraq,” she read out and started laughing. “Oh man, Sarah’s going to blow a fuse!”
“Really? She might not. She might get more people for her rally?”
“You know, you’re probably right!”

**

This semester, the girls had taken Modern Political Thought. It was an unwritten rule, but they always took one class together every semester. Sometimes, just because they interests were similar, at least two of them had more classes together. Alia enjoyed the discussions in these classes, but she always felt like she didn’t know enough to ever speak. Sarah had always been vocal, and Sita had started piping up too. And there were always a dozen people who were very involved with the professors and the TAs, having lively and passionate debates.
As she sat next to them in class today, lights dimmed and the professor explaining “social contract”, Sarah whispered to her something about how obviously everyone knew Rousseau.
It annoyed Alia a little. Sarah was becoming a little too opinionated. Maybe she fancied herself as a political activist, or maybe she was developing a superiority complex about her grasp of news as it happened, but did it really mean she had to become louder?
Professor Green was talking, “John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, talked of ‘utilitarianism’. This means that man should work for the happiness for the greatest amount of people. The greater will should have an moral end. For Mill, actions are judged by their morality.”
A few hands went up. “Yes, Steve,” she asked.
Alia saw Sita whisper something in Sarah’s ear, but she wasn’t sure what it was. If she had to guess, he was probably the same Steve who also worked with Campus TV, and the same Steve who was pro-war.
“If I believe that spreading freedom and democracy is moral, and that sometimes it takes sacrifice. But if there are others, who advocate that we sit back and do nothing, then,” he asked, “In this case, how does one decide what the greater good is? Is it only dependant on numbers?”
“Well Steve,” replied Professor Green, “According to Mill, it was dependant on numbers. Would any action taken by you benefit a majority of the people? If yes, then, for him, that was the greater good.”
Another person was called upon from the front. “Professor, given the times we live in, who is to decide what is moral or not? No one argues that democracy is not the best form of government, but can I justify invading another country to spread it? Isn’t that the same as converting by the sword?”
“Yes, you have a point… Abby? Yes, Abby. This is a question we should explore. Is Mill’s approach too mathematical? His theory rests heavy on morality, but does it also mean that the ends justify the means? Or…” she said nodding at Steve, “does it simply mean that we must trust the judgment of the majority?”
Many hands went up. Professor Green gave a disclaimer before she called on the next person. “I know many of you are passionate about the situation with the US and Iraq. I encourage you to explore those circumstances through political philosophy. I will not stand for propaganda!”
Sarah finally got her turn. “I agree with Abby on the point. Utilitarianism is too theoretical, and in fact, its assumption that what the majority wants is right is scary. Look at Nazi Germany.”
“Okay,” interjected Professor Green, “there is something I want to bring out now. Many people think that utopian ideas, to be achieved, use utilitarianism. They claim their ideas are for the greater good. Any thoughts?”
Steve spoke again, “I have no personal preference for utilitarianism. The majority can be wrong, I accept that. But morality. Is that flexible too? For this theory to have any legs to stand on, shouldn’t the first act be to come to a common understanding of morality?”
“Wonderful point, Steve. I think our time is up. We’ll take the discussion further next time, and also, discuss libertarianism. Is it too simplistic?”
The bell rang.
As they shuffled out of class, Alia saw Andy from her homosexuality class. She ran towards him, “hey! I didn’t know you took modern political thought?”
“Yeah, just an elective. Mildly entertaining. I’m waiting for some real fights to start. Want to grab lunch before our class?”
Alia shot a look at Sarah and Sita. Should she invite Andy to join them? She decided against it. They were making all these friends without her. Who said she couldn’t do the same.
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
Then she shouted out to Sita in Hindi that she had to eat lunch with Andy, and that she’d catch them later.
They didn’t seem to mind, she noted with a scowl.

**

Sita and Sarah were home, watching CNN. Colin Powell was addressing the United Nations Security Council about Iraq.
“Wow,” sighed Sarah, almost with disbelief.
Sita’s phone rang.
“It’s Alia. She said she left her keys at home so we should keep the door unlocked.”
“Again?”
“Yeah, she’s out with Assad and Tom. It’ll be late. She expects we’ll be asleep.”
“I expect we will,” shot back Sarah.
“Don’t get angry with me!”
“I’m not,” said Sarah with an air of defeat as she attacked her pasta with a fork. “Things are off balance, that’s all. Also, Tom?”
“I guess.”
They watched the rest of the speech in silence.

**

“Did you see Jon Stewart last night? The ‘Death to America’ box?” asked Rishi, as he went to kitchen to get another beer.
“He mentioned the rally,” a clearly beaming Sarah said. “Although I wish he’d focused on us here in Montreal rather than Baghdad!”
“By the way – and this is why I came over. The rally was super, Sarah, I’m glad you made me come. And madame Rip Van Winkle here.”
“Hey!” protested Sita. “That’s former madame Rip Van Winkle to you – I woke up didn’t I?”
“I’m ordering Thai…”
“Sounds good.”
The three settled down to watch some good old fashioned television, and despite Rishi’s protests (that being a hot favorite word now), switched on an episode of Will & Grace.
Alia emerged from her room in a hot red dress.
“Wow!” said Sita as Rishi whistled at her, “You look amazing! Where are you off to?”
“The new club, Tribe. Today’s the pre-launch!”
“Pre-launch… fancy!”
“Anyway,” Alia continued, “I’m not leaving for another hour so I shall join you couch potatoes. Wine anyone?”
“I’ll switch to wine,” offered Sarah. She then put the TV off, which was a clear indication she was happy to spend some time with Alia. Things hadn’t improved much this semester. All three of them had separate lives, but Sita and Sarah seemed to have much more in common.
“Assad and Dina will probably come by in bit,” Alia informed them.
“Not Tom?” ribbed Sita.
“You’re so juvenile!” laughed Alia, “No, Tom is not coming. I’m allowed to hang out with a guy without flirting with him,” she said pointedly looking at Sarah.
“Hey! I don’t flirt with all the boys!”
“Yes, you do!!!”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” offered Rishi, “Yes you do. Often, you do. Very often.”
“Gang up on me, why don’t you?”
“Good to be hanging with the three again,” said Rishi, “we haven’t done this in a while.”
Momentary pause, and then Alia asked about the protest. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, I came home at 6am! Can you believe it? I was so passed out all day. And then Dina said the only way I’d feel better is if I hit the gym, so I did that…”
“It was crazy woman, you should have come. So we got there at about 8:30, since I was organizing. Elie, Anmar, a few other people were there. We’d made extra banners in case some people didn’t get their own, but many did – thank god. Plus we got water supplies and things. You know we had to get a doctor on call? Then met the press. We flagged off at about 9:30. It took us two hours to travel across downtown.”
“Really? The protest was just two hours”
“Yeah, but two awesome hours!” joined in Sita, “People from all colleges — even working people came. I’ve never seen the street so crowded, well, maybe except during the Grand Prix!”
“Noo!”
Sarah was nodding and the wine was going down fast. “Dude, seriously. The police were there – just in case anything bad happened. At one point these guys – I think Iraqi – started burning the flag of America, so that had to be stopped.”
“How come?”
“Nothing says peace like a burning flag,” Rishi said with a smirk.
“Now you’re stealing directly from Jon Stewart!” laughed Sita.
“It’s not a direct quote!”
“So are you an activist now?” asked Alia.
“I am!” Rishi laughed.
“Alia, it was amazing. We didn’t just talk about how we don’t want war in our living rooms, but we went out and actually did something to air our opinion to the world. It was amazing. I just felt that I was part of something big.”
“Wow, that’s deep coming from a girl whose teeth looking rather wine stained!” Alia said, as Sarah threw a pillow at her.
“Hello ladies…”
Assad and Dina had entered, looking fabulous. “Not coming?” Dina asked, though she already knew the answer.
“I know its social suicide Dina, but we’ll pass,” said Sarah, with the sweetest smile.
Alia caught the first rumbling of hostility and then remembered how rude she’d been to Sita’s friends. It made her a little nervous.
“Sarah, I heard you were protesting against the war?” Assad asked.
“You heard about that?”
“Alia mentioned it.”
“Oh, yeah, I did. We all did.”
“That’s great. You should come out, celebrate! I’d love to take you out.”
“Yeah, you should go Sarah,” said Sita.
Another trademark Sarah glare, and she shut up.
“Next time Assad, I’m rally-ed out. Maybe next week? This club sounds pretty rocking!”
“It will be.”
‘Even Sita and Rishi will come. Little vodka straight from the bottle, little table top dancing…” she joked.
“Yeah! You get the idea!” he encouraged. Sita tried to not burst out laughing.
Dina was bored. These two had become complete nerds. Involved in college events that Dina could not care less about. Now sitting at home on a Saturday night, whatever. Luckily Assad seemed to have read her mind as he took their leave. They went to the lobby of their building and waited for a cab.
“I have a present for you today Alia, you’ll love it!”
“Aww, Assad, what is it?”
“Charlie.”
“You’re giving me a guy?” she asked quizzically.
“Not quite! You’ll see.”
Suddenly Alia realized they were taking about cocaine. Her heart was pounding. But if the mushrooms had been any indication, this party would be off the hook with a little extra buzz.
“Can’t wait!” she said, giving Assad and Dina the perfect smile.

**

“Sarah! Wait up…”
Elie appeared magically next to her. “You did a fantastic job the other day, did I tell you that?”
“You did,” she grinned, tossing her long hair back, “But I do like hearing it again!”
He smiled, “So, tell me about yourself. We didn’t chat much last semester – what with me tearing down your journal idea…” he said apologetically.
“Well, I like to write, so I thought it could be my contribution. But I think, in hindsight, maybe concentrating on Iraq is a good tactical move.”
“Tactical?”
“I’m working on the assumption that you want to join politics after college!”
“Sarah, I don’t do everything for my resume. I can’t believe that the US is even considering invading Iraq without provocation, when Saddam has cooperated with the UN weapons inspectors. This is war mongering, and we should tell people what it is.”
“I do agree with you. It makes me so angry.”
“Yeah, I noticed. I saw you out there during the march, holding up your placard, shouting your slogans. You looked like you belonged!”
“I felt like it… Plus if we can really make a difference…”
He smiled. “An idealist huh?”
“Aren’t you?” she shot back.
“Realist. Glass half empty too, remember.”
“It’s you realists who always fuck things up, you know. Always ready with a Plan B!”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah. Think about it. You want something. But if you’ve already made peace with the fact that you can’t get it, you cop out.”
“Bush is an idealist.”
Sarah laughed, “No, he’s dangerous. Plus, you know what I mean. A little bit of idealism is good for the world. But I’ll admit — I’m not really that much of an idealist.”
“Makes sense, you’re too feisty to be an idealist…”
“Hey!” laughed Sarah, as she slapped his shoulder.

**

Things had gone smoother than Sita had expected. Firstly, Sarah and Alia wanted to come to Cuba too, so her fate was sealed. Sita hadn’t been sure about Alia – she knew Assad and his crew were off to Miami – but as it turned out, Alia wasn’t too keen on a holiday with them – who knew? Alia had been going to afterhour clubs with great regularity since January, so perhaps she was just burnt out. Anyway, thought Sita, bumming around on the beaches of Cuba isn’t such a bad trade! After that, she’d found Derek and Xi in the office one afternoon, and asked them if they wanted to come too. Derek said he and Crissy would love to, Xi said she was going off with her Chinese friends to New York for the break. Fatima had informed her she was headed to London for the break. Sam said he was staying on here, enjoying the city without classes for a bit.
“We better sell forty if we want free tickets, Derek!”
He had been as enthusiastic as her, and to her surprise, the tickets sold themselves. Two weekends, meals included, open bar all day, Havana. Yup, they sold themselves!

**

“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us? Miami is so hot!” Dina asked Alia.
“I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll hang out with Sarah and Sita for a bit.”
More cajoling from Tom and Assad, but Alia’s mind was made up.
On the way back home, she felt bad she couldn’t go to Miami. It would have just become very expensive. They were staying in the best hotels, going to the best clubs, buying the best drugs. No, she really couldn’t afford it.
Plus things had been getting very personal with Tom of late, too many moments to ignore, and she felt a bit like a fish out of water. It was easier to pop a pill and dance all night, it wasn’t too easy to keep her head straight about how close she wanted to get to this boy. The best thing for me is to go to boring old Cuba with the two. Plus Rishi is coming. Should be relaxing, she thought.

**

In the end they had sold seventy-five tickets. Now she was herding those seventy-five people through the airport at 6am.
Everyone had a question – “Sita, what about…” “Sita, will we…”
Derek was great help, and slowly the line at the ticket counter started moving.
“Hey pussycat!”
“Sam? What the hell are you doing here?”
“Charlie informed me that you outperformed, and that there was another ticket up for grabs. So I thought why not join my beautiful ladies and get a tan – all for the price of nothing.”
“Hmm, yeah.”
On cue, Sarah came back with a hot coffee for her.
Awkward!

**

They had reached Havana, and settled into the resort. Sita and Alia were freshening up, and Sarah stole away to the beach. As she sat, playing with the sand, she felt the frustration mounting inside her.
Last semester, Sam had spent an extraordinary amount of time flirting with her. In fact, she thought there was something there. He was smart, good looking, a little naughty. Things had been going good according to her, till he got that blonde girl to dinner. Alia had run off to a club after, and Sita had insisted on taking Derek, Nico, Crissy and Rishi to another bar to make up for Alia’s rudeness, and Sarah had told everyone she was going home. But she hadn’t. Drunk and upset, she’d called Sam on the phone to tell him just what she thought of him. He’d asked her where she was, and then come to pick her up in this car.
“Where is your whore?” she had asked.
An argument followed. He’d met Vivian at a party the week before; they had hooked up. He thought it would only polite to take her out.
“But to my dinner? Where I had invited you??”
“Look at you, dripping with jealousy…”
It had been stormy, fiery and ultimately, passionate. She spent the night with him, only to slip out when he was still asleep. She had been so angry with herself for getting played. If he liked her, he wouldn’t have played games. She’d entered Sita’s room, ready to spill, but then changed her mind.
The holidays had passed – no word from Sam. Granted, she had been the one to bail, but it didn’t mean he could not have reached out. And she couldn’t help thinking that if he had the courtesy to take this random girl Vivian out; his not calling her was on purpose.
Avoiding Sam for the past two months was tough, but she had managed it. She was in no way going to be the swoony girl, vying for his attention. They worked in the same building, but somehow had not bumped into each other. Sure, she had spotted him once or twice, but turned out and walked the other way. Having Sita in common was a little problematic, especially when she came home to tell them stories about how they had been cracking jokes at the office, but Sarah kept silent through it all. Sita had just assumed that the flirting between her and Sam was now dead and buried.
Now this jackass had come to Cuba, with full knowledge she would be here. What was the game?

**

Cuba. The weather was sunny during the day, with the hint of a chill at night. It was perfect. A tan for the day and a bonfire for the night! The girls and Rishi rented a car one day and drive down to Varadero. At night, they had been caught in a fiery torrential downpour. It was so bad, that at one point they hadn’t been able to see the road. But as quickly as it came, it disappeared! The rest of the week was spent in the resort itself, with occasional trips to Old Havana for dinner and cigars.
Sam was around, but for the most part, things were cordial. He didn’t seem to have come with anyone in particular but had managed to pick up a fan following of guys who spent all day playing volleyball. Things between him and Sarah seemed to be good again, and despite a strong flirtatious vibe between the two, Alia was quite sure they had not hooked up.
As for Alia, she’d been happy to be with the rest of them. Derek and Crissy turned out to be quite fun, and she had met another group of Spanish kids who spent all day and night drinking, till they were red in the face. One of them, Michael, she found especially cute. She wondered if she should offer him a pill.
Oh right. That was another little secret she had. Was it stupid, was it not stupid? She’d sneaked in some pills to Cuba. Not that she was expecting to find a rave, but perhaps just to sit on the beach and trip. There were only four days left and she had to decide whom to ask. The answer seemed obvious. Michael. He seems cool.

**

“Rum?”
“I feel obligated to only drink rum while here,” said Sita with a smile as she offered her glass to Alia. “How goes?”
“Good.”
“Good?”
“Ok. Want to know a secret? I hooked up with Michael last night!”
“Spanish Michael?”
“Yeah.”
“Wow!” said Sita, registering the news. Alia had so not been the random hookup kind of girl, but everyone experimented in college. Interesting.
“Can I tell you something? If you promise not to judge…”
“Tres interesting!” squealed Alia, “Cross my heart and hope to die!”
As Alia told her about the amazing ecstacy high Michael and she had been on last night, hanging on the beach, Sita felt her body get tense.
“What the fuck is wrong with you Alia? How could you sneak pills into Cuba?”
“Oh relax Sita, it’s not like I got caught…”
“Not got caught? You are soo lucky. And what if you had? Not just you, but my butt would have been on the line. You are with a college group, you understand that?”
“Why are you such a bitch? Nothing happened!”
“Bitch? Me?” screamed Alia, and saw a group of people turn to look at them. “You know what, I can’t have this conversation. But just know this, you are a stupid, selfish, irresponsible person.”
“Whatever. You are a self important bitch.”
Sita stormed off, looking for Sarah to vent to.

**

The flight back was uncomfortable. Sarah knew Sita had every right to get pissed off, but she really didn’t want to take sides. Especially since they were flat-mates, and it seemed that she would be playing the role of peacekeeper now.
“How was it though, Sita’s anger aside?” she asked Alia. Sita and Rishi were sitting together a few rows ahead.
“It was amazing. When you are in a club, it’s all about the music, the beats. But on the beach – and we broke up the pills in parts – it was just the most amazing feeling. Like you were flying. And we just hung out and talked endlessly. He’s a really nice guy.”
“Yeah?” asked Sarah, with a cocky smile.
“I know what I said to Alia, well, that wasn’t the whole story – exactly…. Nothing really happened.”
“Define really.”
“Well, a little fooling around, but the deal wasn’t sealed!”
Sarah couldn’t help laughing. Alia was amazing. She was okay with all kinds of drugs – apparently – but still prudish when it came to sex.
“I can’t… you know…” Alia explained, “I guess I still need to ease into that.”
“Take your time honey,” smiled Sarah, eyes firmly on Sam as he passed by the aisle, “you’re only getting younger!”
Alia smacked her with a pillow.

**

“So I have an idea,” said Sita as she stormed into the office.
Fatima and Derek were sitting behind one of the desks, making some changes to the website. Tarek was on the phone, scribbling down some information on his pad. Xi was sitting on the window sill behind Tarek, with a big bowl of noodles. She sure loved her noodles, thought Sita. The door opened behind her. Charlie.
She ignored his entry. “Where is Sam?” she asked, as she sat next to Derek.
“He’s gone for class,” said Charlie, “I just met him while coming into the building.”
Sita didn’t look at him when she spoke. Part of her wanted to ask him to leave the room – and she could; after all, it wasn’t his office anymore. But truth be told, she was a little scared of him.
“That’s unfortunate. I thought we had an executive meeting.”
Silence. Derek gave her a cynical smile.
“Oh, I didn’t realize. You guys carry on, I just came to kill time. Think I will hit the fooseball table,” offered Charlie.
Tarek could have asked him to stay if he wanted, noted Sita with some satisfaction, but he didn’t.
Things had gone sour after the Cuba trip. Xi had come to Sita to ask her about finances, and it seemed that the numbers didn’t quite add up.
“We do make a profit Sita,” she had said, “but we don’t fleece our students.”
“Fleece?”
“I don’t know if you know,” she said, almost accusingly, “but we make enough profit for free tickets for our executives, and little extra – maybe – for the scholarship fund.”
“Yeah, so?” Sita knew that at the end of the year all profits went into the international students scholarship fund. It helped some people with tuition. It wasn’t much, and they didn’t need to do it, but it was tradition.
“Well, I hadn’t really done the accounting completely before the break, but I did have the numbers. Two free tickets – you and Derek. Money for the international fund, which remained the same. Nothing was taken out of it.”
“Umm…” It suddenly dawned on Sita. “But Sam came on a free ticket? So?”
“Exactly. I would have thought you sprung for one more ticket from the fund money if another exec wanted to come.”
“So where did that money come from?” asked Sita, already making up her mind who was responsible.
“Listen Sita, I’m not sure what happened. Unless the travel agent is a generous soul who just handed a free ticket, I think some money was unaccounted for. And the only way this is possible is…”
“…if we charged more than what was the real price of the spring break ticket, but someone fleeced the extra profit.”
She had immediately called the hotel. How much was the price of the package, she asked. It turned out Xi was right. Charlie had quoted a higher price for the holiday, the travel agent had agreed, and no one had thought of calling Cuba to confirm. Why would they? And once in Cuba, again, they hadn’t thought of confirming.
Did Tarek know, she had wondered. After all, if she didn’t know, it was possible he didn’t. And Sam? What about him?
Sita knew it was a cop-out, but she had only taken Derek into confidence as yet. Xi had agreed to go along with them but she clearly disapproved the inaction. Sita had discussed it with Derek, and they had to handle it carefully. If the story got out, potentially two of their executives could be expelled from college for embezzlement. And one ex-executive too, she thought wryly.
So all they had done was drop hints for the moment. Charlie was smart, he had certainly picked up on something, but Sita knew he kept coming around to figure out exactly what they knew.
Let the games begin, she had thought, I hold all the cards.
Better watch your back; was the immediate after-thought.

**

Things at home had been tense. Sarah was trying to barter peace between Sita and Alia, but three weeks later, and nothing. It was getting frustrating since they were talking through her when they were home. As far as she was concerned, what Alia did was incredibly stupid, but since no one got into trouble, they should drop the subject. Sita had given her enough lectures – and grief – to last a lifetime.
In the meantime, she had been helping Elie with a project. He wanted to, once enough time has passed, publish a paper about the numbers of people displaced due to the Iraq War. He had asked her to help since he knew she wanted to do some academic work and not just arrange protests. She was sitting at home, reading about numbers displaced after the first Gulf War, waiting for her flat-mates to return home. Oh yes, she’d forced them to head down to one of the local pubs to drink out their differences. She could only assume it was working as it was almost 1am and they hadn’t returned.
What seemed only moments later, she was woken up by two energized and surprisingly sober girls.
“What time is it?”
“4:30am”
“Seriously? Where did you go!”
“Sarah, you will not believe what happened to us!” said Alia, all shook up.
“Are you ok?”
“Yeah, we are,” said Sita. “We were coming home around 1am. We had left the pub, which ended up being great fun, by the way, so thanks for that. So, we left the pub and were walking up the hill, coming home, when we saw this girl huddled outside Le Car.”
“We couldn’t see her face, right,” asked Alia.
“Yeah, so we thought, she’s had a fight with her boyfriend. Or something.”
“So we asked her what was wrong, and she kept saying, ‘my dad is going to kill me!’”
Sita took over, “We were just standing around, not sure if we should leave or not, when the doorman of the building came to us. He said, something bad happened. He saw her go into the building just a half hour earlier with some guy. Then he saw her come out of the elevator and a few moments later, the guy came from the staircase.”
“He was following her, but when he saw the doorman, he decided to go home.”
“Yeah, and since then, she’d just collapsed outside the building, crying.”
Sarah was horrified. “So something happened with this guy? Her boyfriend?”
“We didn’t know,” said Sita, “but the doorman said he’d never seen her before. Then he said that he was calling the cops.”
“So we went to her. Sita was talking, and she told him that we knew something bad had happened and that the cops were being called.”
“She went crazy,” said Sita, gesturing wildly now, “and started running fast, saying she didn’t want any cops. Sarah, she tripped and fell on her face. Her nose started bleeding, and she chipped her tooth. It was awful!”
“Oh my god!” Sarah couldn’t believe it. “What happened?”
Alia was walking back from the kitchen with some water now, “So the cops came, and we had sign these documents as witnesses. Even an ambulance came. But she told them that she didn’t want to file a complaint or go to the hospital, and that she wanted us to escort her home.”
“What? Why?”
“That’s not even the best part,” interrupted Sita, “because as it turned out, she was 40 years old. She had just come home after a failed marriage. Gone out for drinks. Accepted one from a stranger. Blacked out. Woken up in his apartment. Freaked out and bolted.”
“What?”
“Yeah,” continued Alia, “and once we got to her house, we tried to ask her if she’d been raped, or attacked, but she didn’t say. All she said was that she wanted to kill herself, but now that complete strangers helped her out, her faith in people was restored.”
“It was intense,” sighed Sita.
“Messed up,” said Alia, “I don’t know how this happens to people. You can never be too careful, right?”
Sita gave her a hug.

**
Sita was sitting with Nico in the coffee shop on the ground floor of the student services building when Zee, the guy who ran the restaurant shouted out that everyone should watch TV. On CNN, the first American bombs were being dropped on Baghdad.
“March 19. Mark this date,” Zee said grimly to no one in particular.
Sita immediately called Sarah.

**

Sarah was in the Campus TV offices when Steve walked in. They didn’t even look at each other at first. Sarah had wanted to see all the raw footage from the rally, and Dan had obliged. Now she was sitting with headphones on his desk, pretending she didn’t know Steve was there.
He tapped her on the shoulder.
“Steve. I didn’t see you there.”
“Really?”
“Yeah. Really.”
This guy was a jerk, thought Sarah.
“I’m just watching some raw footage.”
“I can see.”
“Dan will be back in a few.”
“I know; I just spoke to him.”
Then, because she couldn’t help herself, she added, “Oh, and congratulations are in order. You have successfully bombed the crap out of Baghdad.”
Steve just glared.
Then he walked out of the office.

**

Alia was finding it tough to write her political science essay, mostly since she hadn’t done many of the readings. Sarah and Sita had told her they would be at the library, so she was heading there right now. Now that the weather was marginally better, there were tables and chairs outside, in the library courtyard. A few clusters of people were sitting out — wrapped up in scarves, cigarettes in hand. She saw Assad with some Arab boys. She was about to go wave at them but she suddenly realized what they were doing. Andy and his boyfriend were walking down the stairs leading to the main gate of the campus, holding hands and kissing occasionally, unaware they were being watched. Alia was sure she heard the word ‘homo’ in there somewhere.
She didn’t judge them for it. She couldn’t deny that it annoyed her, but she didn’t suppose they were used to seeing such open displays back home. And anyway, it’s not like my friends back home wouldn’t have similar reactions.
She went straight into the library and found Sita and Sarah sitting in the Tim Horton’s café downstairs.
“Good,” said Sarah as she saw her approach, “I was waiting for you to start this.”
“I’m here now.”
“Listen, before we start,” said Sita, leafing through her notebook, “someone contacted me about volunteers for this sexuality project. They need South Asian women – sorry Sarah – it is this weekend, for an hour, and pays $50. Should we do it?”
“Sexuality?”
“From what I understand, they want to know our attitudes towards sex.”
“And that helps the research?”
“Yeah.”
“I’m in! I don’t mind making 50 bucks at all!”
“Me too!”
“Now that I know you’re buying me drinks this weekend,” said Sarah laughing, “shall we start going through the course? We can’t do the same questions unless are take on it is very different. You know this whole plagiarism deal.”
“Hectic!”
“Exactly. Alright, so let’s discuss libertarianism. Think of it is the rule of non aggression.”
“Do you support it?” asked Sita, winking at Alia.
“I intend to explore that very question through my essay.”
“You mean, whether you support it or not? Don’t you know?” asked Alia, a little confused.
“Well, libertarians say that you should never use force. And you should, especially, never initiate force. I guess I agree with that. But what if someone was threatening me?”
“Logic dictates that you should wait to be attacked to respond, otherwise you won’t be a libertarian,” Sita said.
“I know. I agree. I’m just confused.”
“But aren’t you against the Iraq war? Didn’t you lead a peace march?” asked Alia, “So how can you be for force?”
“I think this war in particular was unjustified.”
“Oh please Sarah, that answer makes you as bad as the people you hate!”
“I know, I know. But things are different in the Middle East; tensions are higher. If the Palestinians attacked Israel first, because they knew they were going to be attacked – would I condemn them?”
“Or Pakistan attack India?”
“ISI, ISI, it’s always the ISI to blame!” joked Sita. But then she started studying Sarah a little more closely. “Weren’t you the one who was railing against this ‘shock and awe’ tactic the Yanks and Brits are employing? Are you telling me that you are angry only because the Americans are involved? What if there was another attack on American soil, you wouldn’t feel bad?”
“No, I’m not saying that…”
Sita hadn’t heard Sarah so confused about what she felt, ever. Even Alia was looking at her with furrowed brows.
There was only one explanation Sita could come up with; and that was called Elie.

**
Derek was sitting in the office, hovering over Sita’s head, who was finalizing the list to Boston. Every month, ISN, sold tickets to a weekend away. One of the executives always had to go along to be in charge. She had gone to New York last month, which had been a welcome break. She hadn’t stayed with the kids on the trip; they tended to huddle together. She had enough friends all over the city, and the point was to catch up with them! It was Fatima’s turn, but Sita still had to finalize everything.
“What I don’t get is how you haven’t said anything as yet!”
“And who should I tell, Derek? I mean I don’t want Charlie getting kicked out of college. You know he’s in med school.”
“I don’t believe that. Do people in med school have all the time in the world to fleece money from ISN?”
“In his defense, it doesn’t take him much time now, does it?”
They laughed.
“Seriously, Sita. We’re going to hold elections at the end of next month. If Tarek goes, Charlie goes…”
“Isn’t that up to Tarek?”
“We can field our own candidate…”
She turned to him. “That’s a great idea. Who?”
“You.”
“Me?”
“Yeah!”
Sita burst out laughing. “Derek, as much as I love you for the faith, are you crazy? Look at me. I found out Charlie did something wrong and I didn’t even report it. That doesn’t exactly scream leadership skills now, does it?”
“Point taken. But Sita, you won’t have a Charlie in your life if this happens. And you won’t be arranging beer for parties and buses for weekends; you can do the big stuff. Think about it.”
“Big stuff? What big stuff?”
“Well, for starters, there won’t be this air of secrecy around this place. Think about it.”
“How can I not? You know this going to effectively ruin my weekend as I’ll be preoccupied now?”
“Glad to be of service.”

**
“This is incredible,” said a very annoyed Elie, as he abruptly got up, putting his laptop to a side.
“What is?” mumbled a half asleep Sarah, gesturing him to come back to bed.
“Jessica Lynch.”
“The woman who was rescued?”
“Apparently, according to the Guardian’s report last week, the rescue wasn’t as dramatic as the American press reported. She wasn’t even shot. Or stabbed. How did I miss this?”
“So what happened?”
“Media management. The military needed some good press since everyone is talking of the coalition forces being defeated…”
Sarah came up behind Elie and kissed him on the neck. “Come on…” she urged, “let’s do something special today.”
“Yeah…”
Elie seemed completely distracted. Sarah studied his frame, pacing back and forth his apartment. It was the first time she was actually making the effort of lounging in his house all day. Normally they’d spend time together but they didn’t spend the night over. He always left after she feel asleep. She’d actually fallen asleep at his house once, but left as soon as her sleep broke.
Elie, Elie, Elie. What was it about him? He was brilliant, to be sure. But it wasn’t an academic brilliance, or even one borne of a sense of duty. He was street smart. Pure ambition. And he had charisma. He’d turned it on her, and she fell for it hook, line and sinker.
Although she was there with him, she didn’t really feel they had any deep connection. They were going their separate ways for the summer, and Sarah didn’t really expect any long distance phone calls. Living in the now, she thought.
“Elie?”
“Yes baby?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I can write a paper. You know,” he said excitedly, oblivious to Sarah’s disappointment, “for the school paper. How the American media is bought out. They will go to town to promote the Iraq war, but when the Israelis killed that girl in Gaza, they ignore it. Jewish lobby.”
Sarah was pissed now, but she always felt the need to impress him. “But how are the two connected?”
“I’ll connect them!” he said happily. He then came over, smacked her ass, and told her to come back to bed.

**

Sita was sitting with Derek in the ISN lounge when Tarek walked in.
“Hey guys, can I talk to you?”
“Sure,” said Derek, looking at Sita, pointedly.
Farah was in the office, and came out to see what was happening.
“So,” began Tarek, a little softly, “we need to hold our elections.”
Sita just nodded.
“How do we do that, mate?” asked Derek.
“Oh simple. Derek, send out an email. It will be tomorrow at 5pm. Tell them all positions are open, and the existing council will stand for re-election if they want to. And tomorrow we will have a round of speeches from all candidates and then voting.”
Derek nodded.
Sita frowned heavily. Before she could say anything, Charlie walked in.
“Medical school can be draining,” he said to her, by way of an explanation of his absence. She really wasn’t interested.
“I have to go,” she said abruptly.

**

The next day, the lounge was quite full. There were at least fifty people, and about ten of them were completely new to Sita. Derek walked in and slid next to her.
“Mate, I’ve changed my mind. I’m not standing.”
“What?” she asked, shocked.
“Yeah, I’m getting a part-time job this semester. Crissy and I were talking, and both of us want to save some money to go for a good holiday after college; this is the best way.”
Sita said nothing. Part of her felt guilty and embarrassed since she was still taking money from her parents. But Indian culture is different, she told herself. But she also immediately started doubting if she wanted to stand for re-election if Derek didn’t. Would it be fun?
“Sita?”
“Sorry, Derek, I got distracted. That’s great news. For you. It sucks for me!”
He started laughing. He then looked at her seriously, “Sita, stand for president.”
Tarek had started the election process by describing each position.
“I don’t know…” she was whispering back.
“So, who wants to stand for president,” Tarek was asking, “because as some of you are aware, I’m not.”
Sita and Derek looked at each other sharply. Xi, who Sita noticed for the first time, poked her from the side to ask, “did you know this?”
Before she could answer, she saw Charlie get up from the crowd and say, “I’m going to stand.”
“Fuck no!” she blurted, as a few people turned around to stare. Charlie glared at her.
He continued, “As some of you know, I was president last year, before my friend Tarek took over. I’ve been involved with ISN for two years now, first as a volunteer, then as president, and then again a volunteer. But recently, my schedule has allowed me some more time, and I would like to come back to continue my efforts. First, let me tell you that above and beyond the duties of the president, which as you know, include running this organization, I am also going to be campaigning for the halt of international student fees. As the executive is well aware, the ISN has a vote on the matter, which is coming up for review next year. Since I have friends on various committees, I will get the votes. Don’t kid yourselves. This is very important. If you elect someone else to my chair, they won’t be able to lobby for the votes. So, for your academic future, please vote for me.”
There was a buzz in the room. Sita asked Derek and Xi if they were aware of the tuition hike vote, but it seemed neither were. Fatima, sitting a couple of seats away from them was rolling her eyes. She then got up, and left the room.
“Looks like someone’s not interested in re-election,” Derek added.
No one else wanted to be president after Charlie’s speech. He had convinced everyone that he was the man for the job. Despite Derek nudging her, Sita sat there motionless.
She had been blindsided again, and she felt like an idiot.

**

Alia was sitting at home, messaging Assad on the phone about plans for the evening when Sita came bursting into the house.
“Trouble in paradise?” she asked, hardly looking up. She felt awful, but she knew the only way to get out of this funk was to drink again. Her finals had finished as the same day as Sita; they had gone out together, but then she’d gone to hang out with Tom and Dina, and ended up pulling lines half the night. She’d been so wired, she’d only been able to sleep at 7am.
As Sita started to recap the evenings excitement, she walked to the kitchen to open a bottle of white wine. She offered Sita a glass who happily accepted one.
“…so then I stood for secretary again, and obviously I got elected,” she was telling Alia, “and Xi is still handling the finances but we have two new members. James, who is handling Fatima’s job; events, and Lisa who is handling the website.”
“Cute?”
“James? Yeah, is.”
“Sita?”
“Yeah?”
“What happened to Dan Price?”
“What happened?”
“Wasn’t he in love with you or something?”
“No!” said Sita, “where did you get that idea?!”
“I don’t know,” Alia said distracted, as she confirmed her night’s plans, “I thought I heard you or Sarah say that. Must have been something else.”
Sita was muttered under her breath about she should call Dan to tell him what happened, and disappeared. Alia was left to consider her summer plans, now that the semester was over. She was planning on staying on in town for two weeks, and only then flying home to Karachi.
This summer would be the best.

**

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2002

“Yes, you at the back.”
Sita froze for a moment. Then she tried ducking behind the tall red haired girl sitting in front of her. It didn’t work.
“Sita?” asked Professor Davies, a little unsure of her name, “Do you agree?”
She took the microphone, a much needed tool in this auditorium, filled with at least 600 students.
Bracing herself, she ventured, “Well, I’m from India. And who’s to say that once he’s done with Iraq, Bush won’t decide that India is a danger to the US now? We have the bomb too. But we have shown no signs of aggression, nor will we.”
“Is this your way of saying you feel Kennan’s view is fair?”
Sita loved reading George Kennan. He was a US diplomat, very influential in the Cold War era, and had designed the containment and deterrence policies used by the Americans to ward of the Soviet threat in the 1950s. But more than that, she agreed with everything he said.
“Yes. Because there is a significant gap between the challenge the US faces, and the response it is planning,” she said uneasily, adding, “plus, American history shows us that you can begin a war with certain aims in mind but you will lose the plot along the way. This time though, I can’t understand what the plot is. Iraq did not plan the attack on the Twin Towers.”
“Good point,” Davies said smiling, and turned to address the class, “Let’s delve on Sita’s point about the aim of this proposed invasion into Iraq. I want all of you to analyze it from a “legalistic-moralistic” approach. If you don’t know what that is, you haven’t done your reading.”
A bell rang.
“Don’t lose the plot,” he added, throwing her a wry smile.
The class laughed. He continued, “As always, I am available during my office hours or on email, else you have the option of annoying my brilliant Teaching Assistants!”
The students were already shuffling about, some on their feet.
Sita’s heart was racing so fast she almost didn’t hear Alia whisper into her ear, “Not bad dude! How did he know your name?”
She took a moment to breathe. She had popped the cherry. Spoke in class for the first time.
No small feat.

**

Sarah was rolling her eyes at Sita who was purposely ignoring her. “They aren’t invading Iraq, you know that right. They might.”
“They will.”
“They might!”
“They will!”
“Listen you New Delhi princess,” Sarah said with a mild Lebanese accent, “He has approached the UN. They are going to send a weapons inspector. There is a process! You do know what the UN is, right?”
“You’re funny, you know that? Hilarious,” deadpanned Sita.
The door shut loudly in the hallway.
“Who are we gossiping out?” asked Alia, bouncing in.
“Bush.”
“Bush.”
“You guys suck!” complained Alia, taking control of the TV and turning the volume all the way up.

**

The good part about the Student’s Union building was that it was only a street away from their apartment. Also, it housed a pub in the basement that played host to many a crazy nights on campus. Afternoons too, truth be told.
Sita was on the ground floor, rushing to go to the bathroom. She stopped in her tracks when she saw that the cleaning lady had taken over. Impatient, she wondered if there was another bathroom close by.
A few people were walking into this room with big bay windows just down the corridor. She followed them. Ignoring the gathering, she quietly slid into the empty little washroom.
A few minutes later, she emerged, and started looking around curiously. There was a meeting going on. A blonde girl standing her next to her who informed her these were the international student network elections.
Whatever that means, she thought.
Sita hadn’t really been active on campus. She had some friends who, for the most part, lived in her apartment building, and after class she hung out with them.
There was free wine and cheese going around the room. As good a time as any to start, she thought, quickly checking the time. It was 7pm.
A Chinese girl was finishing off a speech. She was talking about keeping the ledger books up to date, and how she was a finance major. People clapped. Then, this short, dark haired guy with a Canadian accent asked for anyone who wanted to stand for the position of secretary to come give a speech.
Moments passed and there seemed to be no takers. Funny, thought Sita, as there were almost 40 people present. Must be here for the free wine and cheese!
“Anyone? It is a good position!” she heard him repeat.
“I’ll do it,” she heard herself say in horror.
Everyone was staring at her now. She was ushered to the front of the crowd, and make taking in a few encouraging smiles, she began her speech.
“I’m not sure what happens here exactly, except free wine and cheese,” (laughter), “but from what I have understood, this network caters to international students. I’m from India. I’m fun but I am also responsible. So I guess I can do this.”
She gulped her wine. Great way to show how responsible you are, Sita.
The Canadian, who was in charge, seemed clearly confused by this sudden outburst. He wrapped up the elections, telling everyone the winners would be called after the votes were counted, and the results posted in a newsletter the following day.
“Um, excuse me?” he asked as Sita attempted to slip out.
“Yess.”
“You didn’t tell us your name?”
“Sita.”
“I’ll need your contact information.”
“Right, let me scribble it down for you.”
“So I will call you with the results.”
“Okay. Great. Thanks.”
“9498422?”
“Right. I have to go now…”
“Sure. By the way, I’m Charlie.”

**

“This is bad, really bad!” cried Sita. Everyone was happily ignoring her, discussing plans for later that night. The doorbell rang. Dinner was here.
Alia returned with food in hand – chicken shish taoks for all. Everyone was really hungry.
“You probably won’t get it babe,” comforted Alia, as she handed out plates, “it sounds like you sucked.”
“Maybe,” said Sita hopefully.
Aside from the girls, who were flatmates, there were four other people having dinner with them. Two were their immediate neighbors from the 6th floor. One of them, Rishi, was Indonesian, and the girls hung out with him far more than his roommate, Dennis. Today they was having a quick bite with them before heading out.
“Are you making Rishi a white-boy yet?” teased Sarah, referring to an old joke when Rishi tried on an Abercrombie and Fitch shirt and got worried he was looking “too white”.
“You have to be white to look white, Rish,” she’d told him, “you just look brown. In white.”
He’d thrown the shirt in her face!
Their other dinner guests were friends from upstairs, Assad and Dina. In fact, the 11th floor, where Assad lived alone and Dina lived with two girlfriends, was quite the party floor. Everyone collected there before heading to the clubs, a ritual that started on Wednesdays on most weeks. The girls were quite happy to have that option upstairs, and had created a contrasting space downstairs where people came to smoke pot, drink wine and argue about everything from sci-fi to politics.
In time, everyone left, and Sita started off again.
“This might seriously damage my social life people, I’m not kidding!”
“Oh come off it Sita,” cried Sarah, “aren’t you being a little dramatic?”
“No! No!” protested Sita hotly, probably from the half bottle of wine she had polished off with great ease. “These people have office hours. Dude. Office hours! Like outside of classes. And meetings. All the time. I’ll be in-charge of all kinds of rubbish…”
Sarah’s face, as she rolled a joint, seemed most disinterested.
Sita shut up. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe she wouldn’t even win. Although she was quite certain that no one had stood against her. That was worrying.
“Put on Jay Leno,” she muttered. “He comes on again at 2am.”

**

Dan Price was sitting alone in the TV station, black coffee in hand, looking over raw footage from the Quebec City carnival with a frown. It wasn’t the footage that disturbed him. It was the slow pace at which things were happening. It was Dan’s third year at university. Classes were getting more demanding – he was majoring in history – but he wanted his legacy at university to be this TV station. Going live was a distant dream. But to be able to actually have a functional website, with story updates every week, that shouldn’t be too hard right? If they got their resources together, they could file daily stories. He just needed a few more people who shared the enthusiasm.
Right now, they had three cameras and three editing stations. Most of the stories were about college plays and sports events. He wanted to start covering student politics, like the school paper.
He had gone to the president of the college, who had agreed with his ideas. Simon had assured him that if the started with the recent ISN elections, people would be impressed. It was a story worth reporting. Dan had checked the archives of the college paper, but he hadn’t quite understood what Simon was referring to. Although, they were holding mid-year elections, which granted, was unusual.
The international students network came under the students union, headed by Simon Bryson and his team of executives. Running the student union was such an intensive job that Simon and the others actually had to take a year off while in office, and were of course, paid for it. He wasn’t sure, but they also got a semester worth of credit if all went well.
The international students network or ISN, was one of the biggest arms of the student union, but no one really seemed to know much about it. The attention normally went to sports, theatre, or the upkeep of the pub. But the office of ISN was right opposite the student union office. When you entered, you realized this was prime property. It was the only office in the building to have the kind of space it had – a lounge with at least four couches, a fooseball table, a kitchen, a private bathroom, and on top of that, an office with two workstations for the ISN executive. The budget, Simon had told him, was $100,000.
“Are you serious?” he had asked, shocked.
Simon nodded. He explained that ISN played mother hen to all international students. It gave them a space to hang out in, arranged language classes for them, entered sports teams in the intra-mural games, it booked package tours to New York, Boston, DC, and spring break. It represented the international body on the student council. It arranged countless events and fund raisers. Often, Simon had added with a smile, they provided coats to idiots who don’t come prepared for the winter.
Dan had just whistled under his breath.
“Start with Charlie,” Simon had told him.
“Please don’t be more specific, it would spoilt the fun,” Dan had said to himself after Simon excused himself from that conversation.
He was interrupted mid thought by a loud and very drunk Steven Zimmerman who dragged him to the pub.
“Alright, alright” muttered Dan. This was the cruel joke that was the Student Services Building. While all the offices took up three floors, in the basement was a loud, ever popular, debaucherous bar – Gerts. It was tough staying sober after nine o’clock!

**
The girls were sitting at the pub, a Thursday evening tradition. Sarah and Alia had gone to buy two pitchers so as it save themselves the trouble of getting up again. Sita could hear them cracking a joke about some girl in Sarah’s literature class.
She suddenly felt quite drunk. She needed a breather. A cigarette. She made her way outside, bumping into a few people and pretty sure with vodka spilt over her.
“Can I buy a cigarette off you?” she asked this bald guy. She always found that strange, that people in America constantly offered money for everything. What happened to just being nice?
Apparently baldy heard her thoughts because he offered her one without compensation. “Thanks..” she drawled, fishing for a lighter.
One appeared. “You were there for the ISN elections right?” asked baldy.
Sita was a little blurry at first, but then she placed him. “Yeah, I caught the end of your speech? What for? Sorry, I can’t remember…”
Suddenly she was self-conscious. She didn’t want them talking about her being a floozy. A drunk floozy with no cigarettes and no lighter. Who smelled like vodka.
“I’m doing events. So I guess since you’re the secretary, we should we working closely together. There’s a dinner meeting tomorrow. See you then.”
“I won?”
“No one else stood for your position. Lucky you.”
He winked and then he was gone.
She couldn’t decide if she liked him or not.

**

Sarah was sitting in the library, a place she oddly felt comfortable in, playing with her long, curly hair. She’s missed her last political science class, and as she’d heard, Sita’s debut in public speaking. She smiled as she imagined her talking too fast out of nervousness.
Shaking her head, as if clearing her thoughts, she focused on the problem at hand. Davies wanted them to analyze the decision to possibly invade Iraq through a “legalistic-moralistic” approach.
She smiled as she read. The destructive aspirations of some countries can be suppressed by some international legal order, like the League of Nations, or the UN. So you have these international rules that everyone must obey. That seems fair, because one would imagine that all countries use institutions like the UN to come to these common laws.
But, she thought grimacing; maybe someone breaks this law because they want something more? Laws can be unfair, or obsolete. Who is to decide that these laws should not change?
The billion dollar question.
It was tough for her to stick to the academic argument and not end up ranting. Here goes nothing, she thought.

**

Sita took a last drag of the joint to calm her nerves outside the restaurant. Mexican. A skinny guy with curly hair stopped and half-smiled at her. She followed him in, wondering if the joint had been a good idea considering she’d probably eat up half the table now. She let out a giggle.
As she reached the table, Charlie called out, “Sita, saved you a seat.”
Clearly Charlie was in-charge. He went around doing the introductions.
“Meet Tarek, your president for the next year. For those of you who don’t know him,” he said, looking at Sita, then the Chinese girl, “he’s been with our association as a volunteer for two years now. He’s a hockey champ. And makes a great martini!”
Tarek cracked a smile, “I worked in a bar once. So you guys are always welcome to get drinks at my apartment.”
He didn’t have even a trace of an accent. Born and brought up in Canada, mused Sita. Why didn’t Tarek conduct this meeting considering he is the president, she wondered, but was interrupted when Charlie introduced Baldy.
Apparently Badly had a name. Sam. He smirked at Sita as Charlie spoke. He was law student. It was a little silly, but he made her nervous. Her arsenal of witty comebacks seemed to desert her when he spoke to her. Great, she thought, he’s just going to think I’m a wallflower now.
There were three new additions. The Chinese girl, Xi, was pretty. She didn’t say much. She got the finance job. There was Derek. The website guy. He was Australian — tall, lanky – easygoing. Finally, there was Fatima, who was from Pakistan. Like most of the Pakistani girls Sita had met, she was madly attractive. I wonder if she parties, Sita wondered idly.
Dinner was a little strange. Baldy – Sam, Tarek and Charlie knew each other so they were clearly dominating the conversation. Some of the others knew a lot more about college life than Sita.
As they gave the desert order, Charlie started talking about the work involved. By that time, the mixture of the joint and Sita’s third margarita was making her lightheaded.
“So,” continued Charlie, “we will establish office hours. Sita, you will be in charge. Find out from everyone when they don’t have classes, and pencil them in.”
Sita nodded.
“You will also be in charge of the office. The lounge has, as you have seen, a working kitchen. You will be in-charge of supplies – coffee, sugar, all that. Wine. Cheese.
We also have language classes. They are all voluntary. Even sports teams. You’re the person to talk to for all that.
Then, of course, you tie up everyone else. Events planned – you keep track, help out. Finances. You keep the books, check them after Xi is done. You have access to the website along with Derek and Tarek.
It’s a big job since you are involved with everything. Actually, I will sit down with you later to explain more, but those are the cliff notes.”
Sita kept nodding. Sounds like I’m keeping tabs on everyone else, she thought. So what is the president’s job, she wondered. Speaking of, why wasn’t Tarek saying anything?
Charlie had shifted focus to Xi and Derek now, so Sita turned to Fatima. “And what are you going to be doing?”
Fatima sounded more British than Pakistani. Must be from Karachi, thought Sita. “PR. For all the parties, our events. I used to work with the Pakistan Club so I have a network on campus. Thought I should expand my horizons, you know?”
Sita nodded. “That’s why I joined,” she lied.

**

Charlie entered the office on a lazy Tuesday afternoon. The lounge was empty with except for three guys playing fooseball and Shin, a Japanese U3 student, who as far as Charlie could tell, spent all his free time in the lounge. He was surprised to find Sita sitting at her desk.
“I thought no one was here,” he asked her, wondering why she had locked the door.
Sita looked up and smiled. She gestured she was on the phone and switched to Hindi. Charlie couldn’t make out what she was saying but was sure it was about him. Sitting behind the second desktop in the room, he took her in.
She was pretty. She didn’t talk too much with him, but perhaps she needed to get comfortable. The few people who did know her had told him she was a regular at the bar and definitely enjoyed her pot. I wonder if she is going to be an asset or liability, he thought.
Sita had put the phone down. “So sorry about that Charlie… my friend Alia just doesn’t shut up!”
“That’s alright. So, Sita,” he said, staring at her intently, “how do you like your new job?”
“Good.”
“Good?”
“Yeah. Just getting familiar with everything. How popular is this place?” she asked casually.
“Well, we have 8000 members. Almost 300 regular folk who either play games with us, attend our classes, go on our trips or come for our parties. And many drop by occasionally for crazy problems. We have to be prepared for everything.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Well…” Charlie tried to think of a funny story. The Australian! “Oh yeah, so last year, there was this Australian guy who landed up while I was in the office. He’d come here on exchange. Except he hadn’t bothered to check the weather. While it was summer when he left Australia, it was the dead of winter year here in Canada! He was freezing, that motherfucking idiot!”
“Hahaha… that’s crazy. So what did you do?” She is really enjoying this, he thought.
“Well, we had some leftover coats from our winter clothing drive – we collect old jackets, sweaters and leave them here for people who can’t afford to buy new ones. I gave him a few so he wouldn’t die of frostbite.”
“Mad. Mad!” she said laughing.
“Yup, it was!” he said, grinning.

**

“Pass the popcorn, Sarah”
“Sarah!”
“Pass it!”
“Shooooooooo!”
Chuckling, Alia snatched the popcorn from Sarah and passed it to Dina. They’d come to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
It was awesome!

**

As Dan entered the ISN lounge, he reviewed all the information he had collected in his head. Recently, as Simon had hinted, there had been a whiff of a scandal. No one knew what exactly, but from what Dan had understood, the president, this guy named Charlie, had been pitted against the entire executive. They had all resigned and called for re-election. Dan wasn’t sure what happened, but none of them either stood or won. The executive was filled with new people.
Steve Zimmerman had this Brazilian friend in class who played fooseball in the lounge often. He’d told them that Charlie was around all the time. He even conducted the new election. He wasn’t in office anymore, but he kept a key. He seemed quite proactive, according to the Brazilian, and was friendly enough. He’d also told them there was a new Indian chick working there who was pretty cute.
Let’s see what this bunch is up to now, chuckled Dan, armed with his trusty video camera, and walked into the lounge.
He knocked on the door, and heard an accented, “It’s open!”
He was greeted with a smile, and “how can I help you?”
“Hey…I’m Dan Price. I’m with the TV Station upstairs”
“Okay…”
“You know, Campus TV?”
“Umm, yeah, right…” she trailed off. Could he tell she was lying?
Dammit, she had no idea. Dan read off a paper. “I’m looking for Tarek, the president?” (He didn’t dare mispronounce the last name too).
“Tarek isn’t here. Can I help you?”
“Yeah, sure. Do you work here?”
“Yup, I’m Sita. I’m the Secretary. Not like a typist though, my job’s bigger than that!”
Dan laughed. “Okay, listen, the deal is that I wanted to interview the new executive about what it feels like to take over in the middle of the term, especially considering how the last executive fell apart.”
“What?” Sita asked, looking totally confused. “Fell apart? What do you mean?”
“Wait, do you not know?” It was Dan’s turn to be totally confused. Cute chick, clearly not very bright.
“Um, I wasn’t very involved with campus stuff till I landed up here. I didn’t really think too much about the timing of election.”
“But this isn’t the beginning of the year, you must have noticed that” he said, quite sarcastically.
She gave him a harsh look. “And for the last two weeks, I’ve just been wrapping my head around all these things I have to do. The only thing I know about the old executive is their names, they are all over these files.” She paused. “Would you mind filling me in?”
What difference did it make anyway, he thought, she will hear about it some time. Plus she’s cute. “Well…I can tell you what I know,” he said, letting out a smile.
“That’s a start. I’ll find out the rest.”
Dan put the camera down and started talking.

**

Sita sat quietly in the coffee shop on the first floor, smoking a cigarette, deep in thought. There was some big game on TV and a huge group of boys was around, cheering loudly. She was grateful, no one to make small talk with.
“She’s alive!” grinned Alia, as she slid in, coffee in hand.
“Hello you. What brings you to campus after class?!”
“Ah, wanted to see you new home. They told me you were here.”
“Good. Listen, I just heard a strange story. Or maybe its not strange, maybe its just new to me.”
“Oh goody. Sounds gossipy. Since I have none, I shall have to live off yours. Hit me!” Alia said cheerfully.
“It’s this new job. I get this feeling something weird is going on.”
“Didn’t really expect politics at work this soon. What do you mean weird?”
Sita paused. She wasn’t sure how to vocalize her apprehensions about this new setup. At first she had been a little overwhelmed with the new job, the new people. Especially so since Tarek, Charlie and Sam seemed know each other quite well, making the rest of them feel a bit like outsiders. But over the past two weeks she was getting to know them, at least getting used to having them around, being in this office, and suddenly Dan Price tells her this insane story.
“Well…” began Sita, “Apparently these elections I stood for were not some regular mid-year elections. The old executive – that was elected at the start of the year – resigned, or was forced to resign. This guy Dan – he works for Campus TV, upstairs – told me that in the end it was Charlie against the entire executive. But what I find strange is that if Charlie was in the minority, how the hell did he end up in-charge of this organization again? Where are the other members?”
“Maybe they boycotted the elections. You know, bored of the bullshit?”
“Yeah, maybe. But if things could go down so badly once, I just want to be sure I’m not going to get involved in some soap opera…”
“Ask Charlie what happened.”
Sita paused. As obvious as that idea was, she didn’t want to. For the moment, none of this was directly applicable to her. She’d just do her job and slowly pick up information.
“No point in me putting myself in the middle of it by bringing it up. I’ll just wait and see.”
Alia’s phone beeped. She was texting furiously, smiling like a cat.
“Ohh noo way!!!!” laughed Sita. “A boy?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“Whatever little miss Pakiland. You cracked open a wine bottle, first foray to the dark side. Are you now officially crossing over?”
“Shut up,” giggled Alia. “Firstly alcohol is not a big deal. And secondly, he’s just some guy from class. Curly hair, very artsy looking. You’d hate him. He’s not your typical jock material!”
“Jock material? I don’t go for jocks! But yeah, you and your dirty types. Haven’t had a bath? Call Alia, she’s looove it.”
“Hahahaa.. retard!”
Zee, or that’s what he called himself, came to ask the two if they wanted more coffee.
He chuckled to himself as he heard Sita tease Alia. “Oh I can just hear your mother now – I told you not to be friends with that Hindu girl. Alia, Alia, Alia. What will I tell your father!”

**
Assad gave all three girls a round of kisses on either cheek as was the tradition. He stopped near Sarah long enough to give a ‘special smile’, feeling a little like an idiot as he did. He was glad they were coming out clubbing with them today; they could be such pub-crawlers. But on a Friday? No way, that was for dressing up and hitting the town — VIP table; bottle of Belvedere vodka; pretty girls flocking around. Yeah, that was a night out! He would show them a good time.
This city was amazing. Not only was it cheaper than being in New York or London, but the style and quality of women was just as good, if not better. Assad liked to think of himself as rather cultured. His father was a Syrian diplomat, and his mother — very wealthy. So he had managed to live all over the world, and holiday in even more places. Now he was here for college. He liked lectures, not assignments. And he loved clubbing. After all, he worked hard for his sculpted body, why not show it off, have it appreciated. Only this young this once, he liked to say.
“Habibi, you called a cab?”
Dina, Miriam and Alexis. They were fun neighbors. In fact, the building was filled with really good party people. Chase, Rog, Bilal, Ali, Tom. The list went on.
The phone rang. The four odd cabs called to take this huge posse were downstairs.
“Hey, Assad…what plans for next weekend?” Sita asked.
He liked Sita. She was a total stoner, and a boys-girl. Very pretty, but low maintenance. Some of the guys loved that about her, but that’s the part Assad didn’t like. Not glam enough. But she could definitely go all out when she did party.
“Normally I wouldn’t plan this early, but my friend’s having a loft party. Should be crazy. Hot girls in their bunny outfits. I think he’s doing it for Playboy – they have the best parties! You wanna come?”
“No, actually, you know this new job? Well, we are throwing a party. I have to sell tickets. I was hoping you guys would come.”
Assad knew the easy way out, because this college party didn’t sound too hot. “Sure Sita, I’ll buy tickets..”
“And you’ll come too?”
“Right. Right. Yeah. Oh excuse me, its Mandy calling. I’ll tell her we’re just getting there…”
Close save, thought Assad. Sita’s nerdy college party, cannot, in any universe, compared to a Playboy party. No, sir.

**

“Eggs benedict please, apple juice, and an ashtray.”
“That is gross. No ashtray, please!”
The girls sat at one of the more popular brunch places in the old city, coats thrown on an extra chair. It was snowing heavily outside, but the sun was shining today.
“How’s the party prep coming along anyway? You have one every weekend?” asked Sarah.
“It’s the last one, since exams are coming up. But it’s going well. It’s really big this time. We’ve taking over the entire front lawn on campus. Building some super insulted tent. But I’ve decided to only sell tickets on campus. Assad’s reaction last week made me think these party is really not for the high flying clubbers we live with.”
“Yeah.”
Sarah glanced at Alia, in the distance, on the phone with her brother.
“Sita, you’ve inspired me to get a little more involved with school.”
“As in?”
“Well, this girl in my French class is in the Arab Students Association and she said it is quite fun. Really nice people, so I thought why not? They have a journal too. Maybe I can jump in on that action.”
“Sounds good Sarah.” Sita wasn’t sure if Sarah joining the Arab Association was a good idea. The point of an international college, as she was fast learning, was to take advantage of it. Not stay in little cliques. The more time she spent in the lounge, with all these different nationalities and their peculiarities, the more she thought it was an essential part of college. Although with all this talk of America invading Iraq, Sarah was becoming angrier, which could possibly explain why she wanted to join an Arab group. Although she’s not really Arab.
And as strange as it sounds, that’s what she loved about studying political science. No matter what the debate, what the country, there was always someone from there to give a personal perspective.
“Hey, Sita!”
It was Derek, with an equally attractive girl, settling down at the next table for breakfast. Wonder if that’s his girlfriend, Sita thought idly as she introduced Sarah to Derek. Turned out Crissy was his girlfriend from back home. She was a law student and they’d moved to college here together. After a little chit-chat about how last Friday’s ISN part had been, Derek asked Sita about how the next party prep was going.
“It’s selling for sure, thought I doubt we will sell out.” She turned to Crissy and explained, “Your boyfriend here is really good at his job. Kickass website, and he’s set it up so that people can buy online tickets, the works.”
More small talk.
Derek was telling Sarah all about his computer programming classes and how he’d love to work for Apple after he graduates. Somehow the conversation came back to their executive and Sita asked him why he stood for mid-year elections.
“Well after Mia and everyone resigned, I guess I felt like I should step in. I used to play fooseball there occasionally, and none of us were sure if the lounge could stay open if we didn’t do something.”
“You mean you were there for the great fall?” Sita asked excitedly.
“Yeah, well, in parts. I knew Mia; she had your job. She used to run the lounge so I suppose we all knew her. But I didn’t know Charlie much. Occasional nod of the head, if you know what I mean, mate.”
“Yeah. So what was the fight about?”
“The official version – what Mia and Charlie both told me – was that they broke up. Yeah, they used to date. People took sides, everything became ugly and no one wanted to work together anymore. Charlie told me that he wanted this job more than anything, and since Mia was involved with other things too, she agreed to let him have it. I guess the others didn’t want to work with him or what have you.”
“… and the unofficial version?”
“One of my mates who played fooseball with me told me he overheard a fight once – well, the door was closed, but he could make out words – and they were screaming back and forth about money. Don’t quote me on that Sita, I shouldn’t have said it. But he did tell me that. I don’t know, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” Sita said quietly, reaching for Alia’s abandoned apple juice. From the corner of her eye she saw Sarah’s jaw drop.

**
“So Fatima, how are we doing on tickets?” asked Tarek, offering her a bagel with crème cheese.
The discussion had been going well. Fatima had experience in throwing parties on campus and she’d managed to tap many student associations into making this Halloween a group thing, much like corporate affairs. Plus, the indoors yet outdoors theme really worked for them. ‘Party in the park’, they were calling it. Sita had to go with Fatima and Xi to decorate the boat. Tarek had suggested that they put up a sign in the lounge for volunteers who wanted to come with, since none of the boys offered to help, although he had graciously offered to drive them to the port, since he had a car. Sita was quite exited since this was definitely new territory for her. She was also meant to meet the beer representative at the port since she had called the company for some sponsorship (free alcohol).
Xi, quiet as always, had started talking about how they had broken even, but the profit was not going to be too impressive. “If all goes well,” she said shyly, “we might earn around $2000. That’s okay, but it’s our first event together. It will only get bigger and better,” she finished encouragingly.
“Yeah, plus, people are quite busy studying for exams. Next semester will be better!” added Fatima.
There was a short but loud knock on the door. It was Charlie, sounding terse.
“I just walked across campus,” he said rudely, looking squarely at Fatima. “I didn’t see posters on all notice boards. And I called a friend in the boys residence, Duke Hall, and nothing there too. So what are you doing Fatima?”
Sita and Derek exchanged a look.
Before she could answer, Tarek stepped in. “It’s okay Charlie, we’re not too bad on tickets.”
Charlie paused and took in the scene before him. Tarek was obviously trying to exert his authority, which was fine with Charlie, but right now was not the time. Money was at stake, and if this event was not a success, the ISN’s reputation would take a hit. Just one person needed to say “that party sucked” and you can bet that would be ten less people for the next event. These people had no idea about how things worked.
“Tarek, I understand tickets have been sold.” Charlie was weighing his words. “But, what all of you need to understand is that this isn’t just a simple party. It is our annual blowout, and it just needs to be the best party any association throws. That’s why I suggested the tent theme. That’s why I went to other colleges, to sister organizations and sold tickets. That’s also why you need to do more.”
Fatima was glaring at him. Sita, Derek and Xi were sitting quietly, although Sita’s expression betrayed some mistrust. Whatever, he thought, I can handle that one later.
Tarek was telling everyone that perhaps Charlie was right, they could do more, even now, they still had a few days.
Fatima wasn’t really listening to Tarek. She addressed Charlie directly. “Who gave you the right to act as an independent agent Charlie? I’m in charge of the tickets. But turns out you had some I did not even know of. Why didn’t tell me?” She turned to Tarek, “And YOU? I’ve worked on parties before, alright, and the only way it works is if you work as a team.”
She was really angry. Charlie knew from experience an angry woman could ruin everything. He nodded to Tarek, telling him to take over.
“I’m sorry Fatima, for some reason I thought I had told you. I asked Charlie to sell those tickets because he has a long standing association with some of those groups.”
Silence.
Fatima kept glaring, occasionally looking at her phone.
Charlie didn’t want any more bad press, and he knew just what to do.
“Fatima, listen, one of the reasons we were so excited to have you on board is because we knew you had worked really well with the Pakistani Association. Everyone knew you did great PR for not just the parties, but also those fundraisers, the play. And I know you helped out other groups too. And I know you have worked your butt off for this, and I’m sorry for snapping. I guess I’m trying to balance too many things together. I should really let the experts take over.” Smile.
A moment passed and Fatima returned the smile. “It’s fine Charlie. Just don’t scream at me again, alright?”
“Never!”

**

“Has he called?”
Silent stare.
“Okaay. Should we talk about the Arab Association?”
Tight smile.
“Fine. Did you know Alia went for coffee with some British guy after class?”
Eyebrows raised.
“Yeah she just called me. She’s having more luck than you. How about that?”
Silent glare.

**

Alia wasn’t ready to date, she knew that, although a coffee and cigarette with Mark never hurt anybody, right. Damn this social smoking, she thought, cause now she was really hooked. As she watched Mark order coffee at the counter, she considered her life. She had always been a popular girl, but not in the hottest-girl-in-school kind of way. But back home, things were so different. Praying was compulsory. You never really thought about it. She had friends who were boys, but the girls who had boyfriends were gossiped about so much, she never considered such a bold move. Plus, her mother would kill her.
But college was an eye-opener. Her parents hadn’t refused college abroad, which had really surprised her. But then again, this campus was littered with people from her school. She was lucky she found Sita and Sarah. She knew some of the people from back home thought she had developed some airs by not hanging out with them, but it was refreshing being around such different people.
She’d met Sita first. Sita, who would constantly ask her why she prayed. It was funny, Alia thought, that she wasn’t able to convince Sita about the benefits of religion but the other way around. “I’m not into organized religion” was Sita’s favorite statement, and Alia couldn’t help agreeing. Why do you pray, asked Sita. Habit, I’ve always done it, my parents expect me to. But none of her answers ended in the magic words – “I want to”. Now she was intrigued. Was she an atheist underneath all the trappings of a religious person? She did want to test that theory.
The only thing that was starting to bother her was that the next time Ramadan came around, she didn’t want to fast. But she would never get away with it. Even her mother would call from Karachi, like she always did. She couldn’t lie. And here, if she didn’t join everyone to break the fast at night, like she always did, they would gossip about her even more.
No, maybe she didn’t want to be so controversial for no reason.
“Got a light?” asked Mark, as he slid in the booth.
“Definitely,” she answered, rummaging in her bag.

**

“Tea?”
“Shoo. But yes.”
Sarah loved Will & Grace, and sat in their living room, eyes glued to the TV.
“Where is Sita? She’s not picking up her phone.”
No response from Sarah, so Alia went back to the kitchen. Moving in together was a great idea. And because all three girls had been adamant that they didn’t want an Ikea style house, they had spent a few Sundays bumming around the city, looking for second hand furniture stores. They’d managed a few items, and then with some inspiration from design websites online, managed to create a pretty nice living room, with a bar intact!
Alia was just about to cook chicken for dinner when she heard the door slam shut.
Sita popped into the kitchen and gave Alia a long stare.
“That’s not a happy face.”
“You got that right.”
“What happened?”
“I want to tell you two together. After Will & Grace.”
Dinner was served half an hour later and Sita cracked open a bottle of red wine.
“Something strange happened. I think more tickets were sold for the party in the park than accounted for.”
“Come again?” asked Sarah, picking at her food.
“Well I thought we had seven hundred tickets. Then at this meeting right before the party, it turned out that more tickets had been printed, but we didn’t know about them. Fatima had no idea, Derek, Xi, no one. Well, Tarek did, and I guess Sam might have. Charlie had the tickets. He sold them.”
“So, what does that mean?” asked Alia, in between bites, adding, “By the way, I’m an excellent chef!”
“What it means is that if Charlie sold those tickets, he could pocket the money because they didn’t officially exist. Right? But we do know now.”
“But babe, firstly, he did tell you about them.”
“Yeah, I know. And I also know that he couldn’t possibly pocket too much because every ticket sold means we need the money for alcohol and food. Although we did get sponsors, so after the cost of renting the tent, printing tickets and decorations, we didn’t need to spend too much on the alcohol. But we still would need much of that money.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“What I’m saying is, it was weird that they didn’t keep everyone in the loop about the number of tickets to be sold. That they told us later is good – but why did it happen later? And what else will they do behind our backs? I have to keep an eye on this people.”
“You mean Charlie.”
“Yeah, Charlie. And Tarek too. There is a reason everyone resigned when he was president. And there is a reason he’s still hanging about… Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
“You’re original,” drawled Sarah, turning the volume higher.
**

The girls had one class in common and so they poured over their developing countries textbooks at the coffee shop.
“It’s a fact!” cried Sarah, dramatically throwing her hands up in the air. “What can I do with you? You tell me!”
“Listen Curly Fry,” Sita said as Sarah made a mock-face at her, “I think we need to stop studying George Kennan and study someone else. We just keeping going off track.”
Alia nodded in agreement. “Yeah. You, George, Sita are all really smart and brilliant people, and Iraq has nothing to do with terror attacks, and Bush should really be listening to you.”
“Ok, sorry about that. But Davies is definitely going to ask us if we can find parallels between Cold War hysteria and the atmosphere today. We should prepare the answer. That’s easy to ace.”
“Although,” interrupted Sita, “isn’t it too soon for us to compare the events? I mean, we still don’t study the India-Pakistan split because there isn’t enough distance from it. How can we analyze events when they change everyday?”
Alia lit a cigarette, nodding in agreement again, and listened carefully as Sarah spoke.
“Because it isn’t history. And he isn’t asking us to tell him what happened. We’re looking at developments that face us, and trying to apply the most appropriate policy theory that we think can solve this. I’m pretty sure if someone makes a good case for war, and backs it up, he will give them an A too. Got it?”
“Alright,” confirmed Sita, “so we can write about what’s happening if we look at it through either the containment or war prism?”
“Yeah. So one of the things you can say is, the way to test this theory is to look at what has happened before. We look at absolute costs. Does it cost more to conduct a war or conduct tough diplomatic relations?”
“War, right?” asked Alia.
“Not necessarily, because what if you achieve your goal really quickly? That is better is trying to convince the UN to impose sanctions, send a weapons inspector…”
“Sarah!” warned Sita. She was about to go off tangent again.
“Fine,” conceded Sarah, grinning, “the fact remains that war is tougher because at what point do you declare a victory? When you plant your flag, or when you win over the minds of the people?”
“That is true,” added Sita, “because even during the Freedom Movement, the British ultimately lost, not because of the lack of physical might, but because Indians refused to accept them as their rulers.”
“Although,” Alia butted in, trying to keep up, “what if the invader doesn’t care about the feelings of the country he is invading? Maybe he wants the land, or water.”
“That is a good point,” mused Sarah, “but I wouldn’t call that an absolute victory.”
“How does it matter if you don’t?”
“Cause it’s my political science paper!”
They burst out laughing.
“Actually,” continued Sarah, “that is a great example. Would it have been better for the British to stay in India and fight, or leave?”
“It doesn’t work,” countered Sita.
“Why not?”
“For starters, they had already invaded. Plus the Second World War gives it a totally different historical context.”
“Yeah, but what matter of foreign policy is without context? If you talk about the Cold War then you’ll say, oh but there was an arms race that had never been experienced at that level.”
Sita frowned. “What about…. Japan bombing Pearl Harbour? In hindsight, if they hadn’t, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been bombed? That can work too?”
“I’ll use the British example,” offered Alia.
“I’m sticking to Iraq,” said Sarah, predictably.
“I have to decide,” said Sita, flipping through their readings.
As the hours slipped by and dinner approached, Sarah suggested a change in location might help them focus better. “I can just feel the light in this place get dimmer. How about we go for sushi, and then go to the library to study?”
“Sushi during exam time seems a little self indulgent. I think in keeping with the gravity of the material – I’m not being sarcastic Sarah – let’s eat pizza!”
“Sita, how are exams and pizza – you know what, I’m not going to bother. Anything you want.”
They went for sushi.

**

“I need some help.”
Sita looked up from her desk to see Dan Price standing in her doorway, camera in hand. She liked Dan, he was nice, although she didn’t know him too well. Last week she had been mortified to find him hanging out with Scott Temple, this American guy she had hooked up with at this party to mark the beginning of the semester.
That night had been a blur, but Scott had called her the next day, asking her out to dinner. They reached this French restaurant in Old Montreal. It was nice. The conversation was a little strained. And then, when the bill arrived, her expected her to pay half out it! She was appalled. He’d asked her out!
Chivalry is dead, she thought. And the next time he called, she’d sent him a text with some lame excuse and never called him back.
So, after an awkward conversation with the two boys, she’d spent the next few days wondering what Scott said about her to Dan. But she had bumped into Dan in the Student Services building yesterday as well, and he had kept a poker face.
And now here he was. Sita kept searching his face for clues, but there were none. Maybe they don’t really know each other, she thought.
“Sure Dan, what do you need?” she asked, gesturing him to sit down. She sure liked having an office!
“I want to do a special episode on student reactions on what’s happening in Iraq.”
“And you want mine?”
“Well, a little more than that. I want you to come along with me when I ask the questions. Maybe ask them instead of me.”
“How come?”
“You’re friendlier than me.”
“And brown, not white.”
He smiled.
Sita understood. This month alone a million things had happened. The Republican Party had gained control of the Senate that made a lot of people jittery. Bush seemed to have his mind set on having a face-off with Iraq, and it seemed the Senate would back him completely. The UN had passed a resolution – 1441 – asking Iraq to disarm or face serious consequences. Weapons inspectors Hans Blix had reached Iraq, since Saddam finally agreed to let them in. Meanwhile, NATO buffing up was making news too. It seemed the world was taking sides, and the cause for the fight was not yet firmly established.
Sarah was livid. She would probably be a good person to begin with, thought Sita, although she was sure Sarah managed to vent to her hearts content in the Arab Association.
Dan had a point. There was a lot of America bashing going on, and many students who were not sympathetic to the Americans could get very emotional about the subject. Her brown skin might act as a buffer.
“No problem Dan, just tell me when!”

**

“Your friend isn’t here.”
Sarah was amazed at Sam’s capacity to flirt. Everything was said with a slight smirk. It wasn’t appealing or unappealing – but it did draw you in.
“Where is she?”
“She didn’t say, but I suspect she went down to the pub with Derek and Xi.”
“It’s early, even for her!”
“Fatima – have you met her – and Tarek had an argument. I think they’ve gone to discuss what happened.”
“Argument about what?”
“It all boils down to size, you know. That’s why I’m never threatened.”
Sarah burst out laughing. “Well then, do you want to join them downstairs, as I plan to? If you can walk that is!”
It was his turn to laugh. “After you gorgeous.”

**

“Yalla Journal?” asked Sam incredulously.
“Yeah.”
“Yalla?”
“You deaf?”
“Okay, okay, but isn’t it an Arab Association? Why do you want contributions from the Jews?”
Sarah gave him her trademark stern stare. “To generate a dialogue. Any medium – poetry, photography, short stories. Just as long as we balance out point of views.”
Sam let out a soft whistle. “Best of luck with that.”
Sarah had been thinking about this idea for a few weeks, ever since she’d decided to join the Arab Association. The journal could serve as a catalyst for change. Idealistic, she thought, with a smile, but at least she could try to make things better! There were so many Arab kids on campus, and sometimes when they got together, the anti-Israel sentiment flew thick and fast. In no way was she a great sympathizer, but after seeing Alia and Sita get along so well, why couldn’t she make a similar effort? At least try to understand the others point of view? Isn’t that the point of international college? She could have very well studied in Lebanon itself.
It was probably also going to impress them. She wasn’t going to be some wide-eyed newbie. She had a plan, a great idea. Yeah, they’d appreciate that.
Her thoughts were broken by Sita shrieking. “No way, are you sure Sam?”
“Positive madame. Saw it in the papers today.”
“That’s awesome. Sarah, are you listening? Red Hot Chilli Peppers is coming to town for a concert, we have to go!”
The evening turned out to be quite fun, and the Chinese girl, Xi, also seemed to loosen after a vodka or two.
“They should just do their work and not argue,” she was saying.
Derek laughed, “Yeah Xi, I agree mate, but if only life was so simple. I think Fatima needs to be in control of the situation, but unfortunately Tarek gets to call the shots.”
Xi made a face and contemplated her glass.
After another hour of draft beer, Derek got a call from Crissy to come home for dinner, and everyone else decided to head home too.
“I dread leaving any building,” said Sita to Sam, “because it’s so cold outside. The wind just slaps you in the face.”
“True that. But you’ll get used to it. Try driving in the winter. First you have to remove all the snow from your car, which is a task. Then warm up the engine. And pray there is no ice on the road or you’ll go flying into the nearest wall.”
Sarah was laughing, “Then we’ll call you super fly!”
“Just call me super.”
Sita broke up the cheesy banter between the two, “Alia must be waiting for us. I just saw two missed calls. Damn, we should have called her here.”
“Yeah,” agreed Sarah, “I totally forgot about her.”

**

“Hey Assad, you home?”
“Alia? I am. What’s up?”
“I’m home alone, bored. Thought I’d come hang with you for a bit.”
“Sure, come on up!”
Alia locked the door behind her and headed to the elevator. This building was fun. Assad lived in the 20th floor, while they lived on the 6th. There were a million other people who stayed here, but she was sure Assad’s apartment would be littered with people, and company is what she needed.
The door was open.
Assad, Dina, Miriam, and Alexis were sitting on the couch. Tom was on the drumset. Alia smiled, thinking, Assad was a cool guy. He played the drums.
“How are you alone?” asked Assad, offering her sangria from a pitcher.
“Sure. Sita, Sarah, no idea dude. Lost to the world.”
Dina was eyeing her, “Hey Alia, were about to order some mushrooms. Wanna join us?”
“Order?”
“Yeah my dealer comes home. Impressive huh?”
Alia halted for a moment. She hadn’t done too many drugs except smoke pot. But she had heard mushrooms were fun. And they were a mild hallucinogenic. I think. Plus the alternative was to sit home alone since Sita and Sarah hadn’t bothered calling her back.
“Sure,” she said with a little apprehension, but putting her phone on silent at the same time.

**

“I don’t understand why not!”
Sarah was frustrated. She had come to the Arab Association meeting an hour ago, with what she believed was a great plan. She had explained it and offered to do most of the heavy lifting. But Eli and Anmar, the two in-charge, were just vetoing it point blank.
They were having their meeting in the common area of the 3rd floor of the Student Services building. Campus TV, African Students Association, Model UN, Queer Force were but some of the college groups had had offices here. The Arab Association always had to have meetings outside, as did most groups, because the offices were just big enough for a desk, file cabinets, and seating for a few. Sita was lucky, thought Sarah; hers was the only group on campus to have that amazing lounge, an office, a kitchenette, that fooseball table and even a bathroom!
“Sarah, the idea is… good,” said Eli.
“Good,” parroted Anmar from the back.
“But right now, the mood of the people is to talk about what is happening in the Arab world viz-a-viz George Bush. We want to focus on Iraq. On what will happen if he does invade.”
“Just because that is happening doesn’t mean Israel disappears!” snapped Sarah.
“Take it easy Sarah,” snapped Eli back.
She took a deep breath and weighed the options in her head. Firstly, Israel really wasn’t going to disappear any time soon, so she could try bringing up the journal at a later point. And secondly, its not like she was some George Bush lover. She couldn’t stand that man. So perhaps it would be best that she concentrated on Iraq and the its implications for the region.
“So what do we want to do then? A journal on US-Middle East relations?”
“No, no. Nothing right now; but after the vacations, depending on the situation then, we want to organize a huge protest rally.”
“In the freezing cold?”
“Only goes to show our determination.”
“Right.”
“Give the people what they want.”
“Okay,” said Sarah, “Follow the leader.”

**

“Steve, this is Sita. She’s going to help us with this feature.”
Steve Zimmerman looked up at Sita briefly, and went back to packing his camera bag.
“So Sita, you think Bush is the devil too?”
The tone was sharp, and Sita knew immediately not to get too friendly with this one.
“I don’t know, Steve. If they find WMDs in Iraq then he won’t be such a devil, will he? But I’ve been reading some articles that Saddam doesn’t have the capability to produce these weapons, but has to keep up his image to appear like a tough guy in the Arab world.”
“Oh have you now? And I thought people stopped reading.”
The walk to the main building was a little uncomfortable, and a lot cold.

**

“Hey.”
“Back at you.”
“What’s up? You look as pissed off as I feel.”
“Yalla was a no-go.”
“How come?”
“Elie, lord and master of the Arab Association, wants to focus on Iraq.”
“You guys aren’t uni-dimensional, he does know that right?”
“I guess not.”
“So what is the plan?”
“He wants to wait till January to organize a huge anti-Iraq protest, maybe even join up with some bigger groups. He’s got political ambitions back home, this is just a stepping stone for him.”
“Sarah. Listen to me. What do you want to do with the Arab Association anyway? Forget them. Why don’t you join a group with a larger mandate?”
“Um… well, I see you and Alia get along so well, despite being Indian and Pakistani, and I thought it would be nice if we could start a dialogue between Arabs and Jews. And I thought the Arab Association would be a good place to start.”
“Tall order.”
“So I keep hearing.”
“Want my opinion?”
“Always.”
“A million people have probably spent time doing just that, starting a dialogue. Talking. But you should understand why Alia and I get along in a way I think Arabs and Jews can’t. It’s because we don’t experience the war between India-Pakistan. Even when Kargil happened a few years ago, it didn’t hit home. Delhi wasn’t bombed, nor was Karachi. But people I keep meeting in the lounge, they tell me stories. And the war is alive for them – you know that.”
“Yeah,” nodded Sarah.
“I think this anti-war protest sounds good. You’ll meet people, people will meet you. They need to know who the hell you are in order to follow your lead.”
“I guess…”
“I know. Plus, it’s probably going to be super fun doing it.”
“I do hate Bush.”
“See?”
“You’re right. With the semester ending, nothing is going to happen anyway. Okay, enough about me. What happened to you? You look harrowed. Wasn’t today the day you were going to help out Campus TV and that dude?”
“Yeah, I thought it would be fun. Then Steve Zimmerman showed up.”
“Who?”
“Brace yourself for a irritating jerk story…”
“Ooo. Sounds good. Hold it, I’ll get the popcorn!”
And that’s how Sarah got her groove back.

**

The semester had flown by yet again, and the last few days before everyone went home was filled with parties and events. Sita had thrown a farewell Wine & Cheese event in the lounge for the exchange students leaving at the end of this semester. It had been a great success, with copious amounts of wine being drunk. She had also noticed Sarah and Sam flirting in a corner. Wonder what will happen with them, she thought, while looking through the crowd for Alia who was very late. Ultimately Alia had arrived with Tom, which was odd, because as far as Sita knew Tom was one of Assad’s friends. They had stayed for a while, and then Alia had whispered to Sita that “this wasn’t really Tom’s scene” and left.
Charlie was there, of course. He seemed to be in a good mood, telling Sita she had done a great job. Tarek was also having a complete blast, playing fooseball with Derek and two others. A while later he’d come to Sita and told her he’d just had a great idea – “Next semester, we’ll have a fooseball tournament!”
Sita had also spent this Bulgarian girl, Nico, who she had occasionally spoken to in the lounge but never really had a conversation with. Nico turned out to be an art student who was a part-time DJ. “I’m actually going to work with Ministry of Sound next summer,” she told Sita, “and in December I’m helping them with their big New Years bash back home.”
Sam, Sarah, Sita and Tarek had cleaned up and locked up the lounge for the winter holidays. She was going to miss this place, she thought, as she walked out of the building for the last time in 2002.

**

“What plans for New Years?” Sita asked Alia, who had been increasingly missing from the apartment of late.
“Something on the beach I suppose. What about you?”
“Not sure. Something is always happening in Delhi, although it is really foggy at night. Very accident-prone. I might just throw a party myself.”
“You have become quite the expert.”
Sita ignored the hint of sarcasm in her voice. “So have you!”
“Yeah,” said Alia brightly.
They were sitting in Alia’s room, hanging out while Alia packed her suitcase. “Assad, Tom, Dina… they are so much fun! Plus the scene on Thursday at Mint is awesome. It’s a crazy club. It’s a whole new set of people.” She tossed in a pair of red boots after considering them for a moment. “You should come with us.”
“I will, next semester – managing time became a little tough.”
“You managed to spend time with Sarah alright,” muttered Alia, under her breath.
“Did you say something?”
“No,” lied Alia. “Although, I was thinking, you, Sarah and I should go out tonight, Sax or something.”
“Oh…”
“Plans?”
“Not exclusive. I’d told Derek, Crissy and Nico we’d do something, and Sarah told Sam, but obviously we were hoping you hadn’t made plans with Assad and gang. And since you haven’t, lets go out together.”
“Yeah…” trailed off Alia rather unenthusiastically.
“Alia, I know you haven’t been able to hang out with them much, but they are really fun. You’ll love them.”
“I’m sure. By the way I bumped into you old buddy Rishi at the dep. He wanted to hang out. You should tell him to come too.”
“Damn Rishi, I haven’t seen him in a month.”
“Surprise, surprise…” muttered Alia under her breath.
This time Sita heard.

**

“What the hell was that performance last night?” fumed Sarah, as she entered Sita’s room, still in last night’s clothes.
“Why didn’t you change?”
“What? Oh, I passed out. But what the hell was that?”
“I know. Alia totally crossed a line. She was so rude to Derek and Nico.”
Sarah was in the bathroom, washing her face. “Yeah, that too. What’s up with her?”
“Oh, so you were talking about Sam and the floozy.”
Last night had gotten very strange. Alia kept downing her martinis and got ruder as she did so. She was one stop short of telling Nico and Derek what losers she thought they were, and Sam that he was insufferable. Although, according to Sita, that one was correct. Sam had actually brought a date! It made no sense, because all this time he had been flirting with Sarah. But then before that he had been rather flirtatious with Sita. So evidence suggested that he was just an ass. But Sita was really angry with Alia.
“I think Alia just feels left out,” called out Sita to Sarah who was staring at her face in a magnifying mirror now. “But you have made the effort to hang out with my new friends. She rather hang with Assad and that posse. Go clubbing. Which is her choice, and we haven’t bitched about that, have we?”
“Maybe that’s the point…” said Sarah, curling up on the bed with Sita.
The holidays couldn’t have come at a better time.

**

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WOULD YOU LIKE MORE?

Hi, I’m Mahima Kaul, author of the story. I’m actually a journalist by day, but am attempting to understand the new model of online content. Simply said, did you like the story? Would you like more? I have more! But I thought if enough people like this, then I can invest in a website and release the whole book online! Please, tell your friends, and also make sure they write to me here!

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