Whenever someone finds out that you?re in a sorority, they want to know if there?s a secret handshake. Turns out, there is.
It hadn?t been my idea to rush a house. Just saying the word rush sent a coil of terror into my gut where it rattled ominously. Sorority girls? aren?t they stuck-up?
Aren?t they universally pretty?
I?m not pretty. According to my mom, my looks are ?interesting.?
We all know what that means.
I?d been at ULA for a year, a perfectly fine freshman year where I?d lived in Birnhaven dorm, all women, a nice cafeteria on the ground floor, gotten good grades, found a nice boyfriend, and still my mother wasn?t satisfied. It?s not that she?s one of those difficult mothers; it?s just that she has certain ideas about nearly everything and she holds to them extremely firmly.
The thing is this: my mother made me do Rush. She said that after a year at the University of Los Angeles I ought to have more friends. She said that coming from outside of California like I did, (I?m from Connecticut), and with ULA being a huge private university in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, (though I couldn?t swear there is a ?middle? of Los Angeles, it?s kind of a sprawl), I needed something smaller, some way to make female friends that will last me a lifetime.
My mother has always been very big on the idea of female friends. She?s kept every friend she ever made, starting with Carol, who lived across the street from her when she was four, to Dottie, who lives across the street from her now. I?m not that great at making friends. I usually have one or two for a few years, then we drift apart and I make one or two more. It doesn?t bother me that I have one friend to my mom?s thirty-seven (I?m estimating low), but since she insisted that I join a sorority, I guess it must bother her. I wouldn?t mind having more friends, but is joining a sorority the way to do that? My mother thinks so. Since she wasn?t in a sorority, I?m not sure why she thinks so, but after fighting with her about it all summer, and then finding out she mailed in the necessary paperwork to make sure I was a part of Rush before I?d actually agreed to it? the short version is: she won. My mom always wins. She fights dirty. Anyway, I went through Rush, which wasn?t as bad as I thought it would be. In some ways, it was actually fun. Anyway, now I?m a Beta Pi pledge. Whatever that means.
Tonight is Presents: the pledge class of 1975. There are twenty-six of us. I wish we all looked like scared rabbits, which I?m sure is how I look, but some of the girls are laughing and talking with friends in the mob that is surging into the Beta Pi living room.
The mob is composed mostly of college guys, frat guys, I think.
Presents, accent on the first syllable, don?t ask me why, is a slightly horrifying, slightly barbaric, completely degrading ritual that I didn?t know anything about until I did Rush and pledged Beta Pi. Now that I?m a pledge, I get to stand under a thin poster board placard with my name on it so that the world at large, fraternity guys specifically, get to look me over. Maybe jot down my name for future reference. Maybe chuckle derisively.
As an introduction to sorority life, it?s not great, but what can I do about it? Keep my chin up and hold on to as much dignity as I can manage. But I?m definitely going to tell my mom about this.
Looking at the other pledges standing under their signs, all of us in white formals, (the symbolism is so subtle), I?m helpless to resist making comparisons. They?re a nice looking bunch of girls, though only two or three are truly gorgeous. It?s mostly the old routine of pretty face and so-so figure or something slightly off with the face but the body is good. I?m in the face-is-slightly-off group, in case I was too coy earlier. My body is good, not that I can take any credit for that. I hit puberty at twelve and have had pretty constant male attention since then. I?m not complaining. Who would?
?Why don?t we just wear bunny ears and get it over with??
I look to my left and snort in companionable misery.
?I?ve got a bunny tail pinned to my underwear,? I say. ?I?ll be ripping my dress off in half an hour. I?ll give you a two minute warning, okay??
She chuckles and I read her placard. Laurie McCormick. I?m Karen Mitchell. We?ve been alphabetized as well as categorized. The frat guys seem to appreciate it; it has to make sorting through us later so much more convenient.
I wish they had placards.
I may not be very good at making and keeping girlfriends, but I have no trouble at all making and keeping boyfriends. Which, during high school, may have been the problem with the girlfriend situation. My mother said as much once or twice (I?m under estimating), but what am I supposed to do about it? Give up guys?
Laurie McCormick is one of those blue blood types, the type who looks like she grew up around horses and sailboats. She has light brown streaky blond hair, long and shiny, and light grayish blue eyes. She?s thin and has nice skin. Those are the positives. If I?m going to be brutally honest about her looks, her teeth are a little crooked and her hair is a little stringy. But she has the cutest nose I?ve ever seen. I have a thing for noses. I?ve never liked my nose, but then I?m not crazy about my whole face.
?Rip it off now,? says the girl to my right. ?That should be fun to watch.?
I glance right. Ellen Olson. She?s blond, tanned, and has light aqua blue eyes. She?s a girl of the red-blooded variety. Not perfectly beautiful, but pretty enough not to have to worry. She?s definitely higher on the scale than being interesting looking. That?s how my mom and my grandmother describe my looks: interesting. I don?t start these conversations, believe me, but I can?t ignore them either. She?s my mom. There?s just no ignoring your mom.
?You first,? Laurie McCormick answers. ?Why don?t we watch them do it to you??
Ellen smiles crookedly and shakes her head. ?Hey, just kidding.? Ellen has a truly fantastic smile.
We?re supposed to stand politely, not talking, not flinching in embarrassment when some guy looks you over like a suit he?s buying, studying your name like it?s a math problem he can?t quite get. It?s worse when they don?t come to check you out at all, or when they do, shake their heads and move away fast, or when they laugh dismissively. It happens. In fact, it?s already happened to me. Twice.
How did this tradition start, and why? Did the Beta Pi pledges of 1890 find it any less humiliating? Maybe back then, the guys were gentlemen and instead of taking notes, they were introducing themselves. It?s slightly better to imagine it that way. Not much, but some.
?She seems to be having fun,? Ellen says, an olive branch statement. I accept it. I follow the direction of her gaze, as does Laurie.
Diane Ryan. She?s smiling at the guys, talking to them, drawing them in. She doesn?t have to say much. She?s got long black hair, brown eyes and a nice figure, a little pear shaped, but nothing grotesque. She?s sexy, and she?s throwing it all over them. They like it.
The thing about guys is that they?re very predictable. They like certain things and they like those certain things to distraction. I had that figured out by the time I was fourteen, and I?d had a pretty good idea about it at twelve. I didn?t do anything about it, not much anyway, but I had it figured out.
I?m not pretty, but give me a half hour with sixty percent of the guy population and I can somehow get him to name that tune. I don?t why, I don?t even know how, but I can. Sixty percent give or take.
I?m not easy. It?s not that, though I think the parents of my various boyfriends thought that. Maybe it?s that the guys think I?ll be easy, but then why do they stick around when they find out I?m not? I?ve never been able to figure it out. I try not to think about it. Naturally, I think about it all the time.
Diane Ryan? I get why they?re swarming around her. She?s giving it off, that sign or that scent that guys stumble after. She?s doing it and she knows she?s doing it. She?s obviously enjoying herself while she?s doing it, which isn?t in exactly the best of taste. It?s okay to enjoy it, you?d be a fool not to, but no one?s supposed to be able to tell. I got that message from my mom.
One of the girls down the horseshoe line shrugs, shakes her head, and lurches out of the line and out of the room. Missy Todd. Has it been an hour?
?I guess she?s had enough,? Laurie says.
?Gutsy move,? Ellen says, watching Missy Todd until she?s out of sight.
Whether it?s been an hour or not, the chapter president smiles and shows the guys the door. They leave shuffling, acting reluctant, which could be seen as a sign of good manners, a compliment of sorts in a very generous interpretation. After all, every sorority on The Row is presenting their pledge class tonight. They have eleven other pledge classes to grade, rate, and sort. It?s such a convenient arrangement for them since the fraternity and sorority houses are all on one street less than a mile from campus, maybe less than half a mile; I?ve never measured it. It?s a short bike ride away, that?s all I know. Anyway, since all the houses are on the same street, it?s called The Row.
It?s a bit intimidating. All these huge houses, mansions really, lined up, their front yards scrubby with struggling grass from all the bikes parked there. ULA is a bike riding school. If you live off campus, you ride a bike to get to it. Walking is too dangerous because it?s too slow.
I never came to The Row during my freshman year. It was way too intimidating. If you don?t belong on The Row, then you should stay off The Row. Or that?s how it seemed to me, living in Birnhaven, eating in the dorm cafeteria. Sorority and fraternity people seemed like people from another world, the world of The Row and exchanges and drinking beer on the lawn Thursday afternoon, getting a head start on the weekend.
Am I one of them now? Will I fit in? Do I want to?
Why ask me? Ask my mom.