Authors: Claudia Welch
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Copyright Â© 2012 by Claudia Welch.
“Readers Guide” copyright Â© 2012 by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Welch, Claudia, (date)â
Sorority sisters / Claudia Welch.
1. Female friendshipâFiction. I. Title.
813'.6âdc23Â Â Â Â Â Â 2012002081
In memory of the Exclusives who have passed on. You are not forgotten.
And to all Exclusives everywhere, no matter how you met or what you call yourselves, hold each other fast.
There wouldn't be a book if not for the Exclusives. First and foremost, because she remembers all the things I had forgotten and never tired in answering any question I had, thank you, Captain Grace Sheehan, USN, Retired. Grace was my touchstone during the writing of this book. In addition, my deepest thanks to DiMarco, Friend, Les, Junkin, Gief, Shartel, Higgins, Wiggins, Rust, Read, Chapman, McCarthy, Brooker, and Helen. It's been almost forty years and you still make me laugh like no one else can.
This is a work of fiction. The Exclusives,
Exclusives, are not.
There would not have been a book without my daughter, Morgan. She begged me to write it. I am thankful that I listened to her.
Thank you to my agent, Dominick Abel. He encouraged me to follow where my heart led, assuring me that he would walk by my side no matter where we ended up. I could not have taken a single step of this journey without him.
Nothing at all would have happened without my editor, Kate Seaver. Even on a Saturday morning, she'd answer my emails. It doesn't get better than that. Thank you, Kate, for believing in this book and in my ability to write it.
Leslie Gelbman, your vision and your enthusiasm lifted me up and carried me along just when I needed it most.
To everyone else at Berkley, thank you. I try not to be high-maintenance. I suspect I fail more often than I succeed.
To my fellow goddesses, thank you. That I am still a goddess, I owe to you.
To the Biaggi Bunch: I'd lose my mind without you. Thank you for always being there.
To my son Paul, thank you for being my in-house tech. Not a single attached file would have been sent without you. To my son Daniel, thank you for being as obsessed with character as I am.
Finally, Tom, you have the worst life I can imagine: you are married to a writer. I have the best life I can imagine: I am married to you.
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
sent a coil of terror into my gut where it rattled ominously. Sorority girlsÂ .Â .Â . 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 the University of Los Angeles 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 itÂ .Â .Â . 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 guysâfrat guys, I think.
Presents, accent on the first syllableâdon't ask me whyâis 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, and 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
Looking at the other pledges standing under their signs, all of us in white formals (the symbolism is
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 underestimating), 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
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, if they do, they shake their heads and move away fast, or 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
anything about it, not much anyway, but I had it figured out.
I'm not pretty, but give me a half hour with 60 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 exactly in the best of taste. It's okay to enjoy itâyou'd be a fool not toâbut 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 was 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 on Thursday afternoons, 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.
After the living room clears of everyone who's not a Beta Pi, there's a lot of aimless milling around, and the noise level rises like a tide. Holly Clark comes over and we look awkwardly at each other for a few seconds.
“I'd better get this dress off,” I say.
“Sure, if you're ready,” Holly says.
It's her dress. I didn't have a long white gown of my own and so she let me use hers, which was pretty sweet of her. Holly is probably four inches taller than I am, so she pinned the dress up along the seam under the bust; otherwise I would have tripped over the hem. I'm the shortest one in my family, and no one in my family is what you'd call tall.
Maybe that's why the guys didn't seem all that impressed with me. I'm wearing a long dress that doesn't really fit me and certainly doesn't show my figure off. I pay a lot of attention to what I wear. I figure most girls do, but I'm really inspired not to look like Quasimodo.
I wonder how my picture is going to turn out.
A photographer took a picture of each of us before Presents started, standing in our white gowns, holding a bouquet of white and yellow flowers, standing on the stairs leading from the foyer to the second floor. It's going to look like a bridal photo.
The symbolism of that is hard to shake.
What is a sorority? A marriage mart? Brides for sale?
Not at all what my mom had in mind. I don't think.
I want to get married. It's not that. I've wanted to get married since I first realized that men and women got married. I think I must have been about five. I've had a boyfriend since the second grade, not the same one, obviously, but one right after another, and sometimes more than one at a time. I don't go into a relationship intending to cheat; it just happens.
Considering that my intentions are good, I've never felt overly guilty about it. I've never gone out with a guy who was dating someone else. That's a firm policy and I don't break it. It's just that when a guy pursues me like I'm the last word on womanhood, it's hard to resist. Plus, the old relationship was on its last legs; we were both getting bored or lazy. It was time to move on. That's what I've decided, thinking about it as often as I have.
I've been dating Greg Hall since November of my freshman year and I haven't cheated on him. That's if you don't count Christmas vacation when I went back to Connecticut and went out a few times with my old high school boyfriend. You'd also have to ignore the twoâno, wait, threeâdates I went on over the summer. With three different guys.
I was home for three months! What was I supposed to do with myself for three months? Besides, two of the guys were just accidents. I never even saw them again after meeting them while out with my high school friends. According to my mom, what Greg doesn't know won't hurt him. Since I was in Connecticut and he was in Washington, it didn't hurt him.
I love Greg. I do. I want to marry him and he wants to marry me.
So, we'll get married after we graduate. And I'll wear my own long white gown and carry a bouquet that doesn't remind me of scrambled eggs.
The house is quieting, the sounds of female voices subduing, hushing, as the pledges leave. Not all sorority sisters live in the house, and no pledges do. I live in an apartment over a few blocks and two blocks behind the house, just off of Adams, about ten minutes on my bike. It's dark now and I'll be riding fast. In fact, I want to leave with the bulk of the throng, no matter where they're going. There's safety in numbers, which they make a point of telling you at freshman orientation.
“Thanks again,” I say, handing Holly the dress on its hanger. “I really appreciate it.”
“No problem. I'm glad we could make it fit,” she says.
We walk back into the hallway together, a big crowd of pledges at the door, laughing as they walk into the night.