Trigger warning: This piece contains depictions of acts of violence including but not limited to sexual assault and physical harm. Reader discretion is advised.
The first time I see the girls, I am sitting in a café. I’ve settled on a booth with faded floral covers to claim as mine. I am conscious that this choice was made out of a lack of knowledge of anywhere else on campus, but the booth will do for now, until I find my way around or until I make friends to find my way around with. I think it is strange that everyone feels lonely in their first year of college but cannot be comforted by the knowledge that everyone feels lonely in their first year of college. It still feels singular and directed like the result of not sending a chain text message to ten new people when instructed to.
I read once that women cater their social performances to the male gaze even if this performance is not purposeful. Like I widen my eyes and swell air into my lips while I stand in line to order. In class, I tap my pen to my lips in between annotations like I am casually, sensually, pensive. In rooms without men, I puff breath into the gaze, ensuring its survival, hollowing my stomach into an ice cream scooper and maintaining a serene look of mysterious allure. There is something special about being a freshman girl that I did not embrace in high school and am determined to embrace now.
I met five of the girls first. Coming into the café, they move like mirages with the edges of their bodies flickering out occasionally. They walk with their arms linked or their hands intertwined up to the register with an airy quality that has always evaded my adolescent existence. I pull at my top. I don’t believe they are performing, but I also read once that not performing is a performance. The idea of this makes my head hurt because there are too many theories on what it means to be a girl. My breath is forced to slow. As they leave with their food, one girl, the one with black hair down to her waist, catches my eye and smiles at me like an old friend.
My days and nights at school are routine. I want to cry when I am not invited to anything on the weekends and I do not attend anything I am invited to on the weekends. I pluck the hair between my eyebrows. I theorize that a boy in class has a crush on me. I smoke too much. I think about calling my mom, but never do. I text a girl in my class to ask if she has done the pre-lab. When she replies “not yet,” but doesn’t ask to work on it together, I cannot tell if I am humiliated or relieved.
Days are distinguished only by seeing the girls or not seeing them. I cannot explain how I can differentiate them from the general student population, only that it is simple and obvious. Sometimes I see one walking through campus alone or I see two at the smoothie shop or I walk past their sorority house and see them all through the windows. It is exciting to be near them. I study their movements, their clothes, their facial expressions or lack thereof, the way they speak to each other and the way they speak to others. I study how everyone else studies the girls too. I label awe, envy, lust, adoration and curiosity in their stares, but their eyes reveal things I cannot name as well.
I am sitting in my booth in the café when the black-haired girl approaches me. She asks if she can sit. My words stick in my throat, and I am grateful when she sits without a response. Her face is round and soft, the texture of caramel candies that can be pulled apart and tasted in pieces.
I’m Mary. It’s nice to meet you.
I settle into the feeling of being close to her because the last time I felt this weightless was the first time I learned to float. She is so still when she sits, and I didn’t know that it was possible for a person to not fidget or flush. She tells me that she has seen me around campus. I blush because she has taken note of me.
Three more girls have just come in. Mary waves them over. The blondest one introduces herself as Delilah, leaning over to kiss me on both cheeks as a greeting. The one with the low, commanding voice is Deborah. Rachel is dark blonde and tanned and reminds me of the fairy characters in a series I read as a child. I think she must be the prettiest girl I have ever seen. Not as powerful in her beauty, perhaps, as Deborah or as comforting as Mary, but certainly the prettiest, in the most uncomplicated of terms.
They ask if I would like to get coffee this Friday. At coffee, they ask if I would like to go out with them tonight. They invite me to their house, walking me up stairs and past rows of rooms. I meet a new girl at every turn. Each is welcoming and cool and beautiful. I think college is not so bad. In Mary’s room, Rachel styles me in her clothes. Shots are poured. Secrets of boys and sex and dads who don’t understand are passed around. Mary doodles a wheat field on my thigh. I swish the scene around in my mouth, and I am careful not to bite down.
At the frat, I am dancing. I jump with my arms raised above me, a permanent grin on my face. My hair flies around me with gossamer wings. Each girl wants her turn to dance with me, to go to the bathroom with me, to introduce me to a friend. I think college will be the best years of my life. Mary whispers to me that she can tell I’m a Theta girl. I repeat the words to myself. I could be a Theta girl.
My life feels separated by before and after these girls. Like coming of age is behind me now. I wonder if I am one of them. I wonder if Mary was only telling me something that would make me happy. I wonder why, on some days, the girls appear sunken like the life in them has been used up. Their undereyes are dark. Their skin appears translucent. Most eerily, they are not special in any way on these days. But just as quickly, they look like themselves again: bright and shiny and new. So sudden is the conversion that I question if they had ever looked normal at all. I am reminded that I am not one of them yet. I wait for a bid. I wait for them to stop calling.
I sleep over at the house one weekend. The girls’ lips are thin like they’ve been drawn on. Their teeth are yellow when they tell me that tomorrow is a very special day — a Theta ceremony that they want me to be a part of. At one in the morning, they dress me in a white shapeless dress, and the girls line themselves by the balcony overlooking the front room, a row of identical pillowcases. I meet Sarah, a tall willowy girl who sports the sorority insignia pin on her dress. She welcomes me warmly and expresses how she has been looking forward to meeting me. She takes my hand in hers and walks me to an empty slot along the balcony, taking her place beside me. Her touch is maternal and cold, and I have the urge to tuck my head beneath her chin.
As we look over the first floor, Delilah stumbles through the front door holding a boy by his shirt, her tongue in his mouth. He is grabbing the back of her head. I think her hair looks dull and deflated. He is vaguely familiar, but all the boys we see at frats are vaguely familiar.
I recognize him. He had left bruises on Miriam, another Theta sister, last weekend after they hooked up. Purple, green, blue, yellow, blotches had spawned along her hips, her breasts, and her forearms last Thursday, the same day the girls began looking sunken again. I remember sitting with Miriam the day after. She was twirling a lock of hair from the back of her head over and over and over again, pulling out strands by the dozen. I waited for her eyes to focus so I could speak to her or ask her what had happened but they never did.
I can’t find Miriam along the balcony. The boy does not look up from Delilah’s lips to see the veil of girls above him. We are right here, I feel the impulse to shout at him. I am angry at Delilah for bringing him here — for acknowledging him in any way. She brings him down to the basement, and I follow in line with the girls. My hands look paler than I had remembered them being a moment ago. In front of me, a flash of silver glints briefly in the light. Sarah is holding it with both hands clasped behind her back, pointing its tip to the earth. When had she gotten that? I can’t remember meeting her now. Had she had it then? The way she grasps the knife implies it is something precious or sacred. Imagine the way you are told every girl wants to be held. Sarah holds the blade more tenderly.
I pause at the door to the chapter room, letting the other girls brush past me to enter. I question the threshold before me. I am no longer angry with Delilah, but impressed by her dedication to Miriam, by all of the sister’s dedication to Miriam. Only I feel disgusted and repulsed and fearful. The next day when Mary and Rachel meet me at the café, I notice their hair appears glossier and thicker, their lips fuller, their skin evened.
I am distant from the girls for a while after that. I make up excuses pretending to be busy, and I spend my weekends alone in my dorm. I make friends in my classes. I join a club for something astrology-related. When I spy one of the girls on campus, I duck into sushi restaurants and convenience stores before she notices me. I begin to appreciate my complete lack of extraordinariness.
I agree to go out with a friend from class. We douse our bodies in glitter and pull warm amber from plastic gallon bottles. I wish she were Mary or one of the other girls. I feel intense hatred for my friend for who she is and who she is not.
At the frat I am dancing. I am focused, traveling my hands down my stomach and waist or threading my fingers through my hair. I bat my eyes cartoonishly.
A boy comes up to me. I remember seeing him with the girls, so I figure he is older, a member of the fraternity that’s throwing tonight. His eyes follow the movement of my hands. We start to dance. My hands clasp around his neck. He is kissing my hand in the middle of the basement. It is a pleasure to meet me. The room is looking at me now, except that I am really only imagining that the room is looking at me because his lips are against the back of my hand and a giggle is threatening to tear through my careful composure. His friends, I notice, are truly looking, and I am struck by how they seem to stand like soldiers at the ready. The room begins moving at half speed.
His hand replaces his lips, and soon we are threading through bodies slick with sweat. I feel the urge to swipe my forefinger across the sheen layer of grime that covers the basement floor, to create a spot that reveals the panels below, but he is almost dragging me now. Is the room moving at half speed or twice as fast or what is the real difference? I do not think we need to be in such a hurry. I dimly note the presence of his friends behind me. I am smarter than this, I think, but the thought is so quiet, so drowned out by the rhythmic thumping of feet beneath me and the hot smell of rationed air.
I am in a bedroom now with flannel sheets and a banally predictable flag hung above. Thumping beneath us, bodies beneath us. I try to leave. The door is locked. There are four of them with fox-faced smiles and rotting odors and clammy skin. I try to leave. I am pushed to the flannel sheets. Words leave my throat, screams. Thump thump go the bodies beneath us. They are unwilling to share the spotlight.
Thirty singles are counted out and laid on the table ahead of the bed frame. I’m crucified to the bed using something familiar that scratches weakly—maybe velcro. I move to smooth my hair from the halo it has splayed across the pillow but remember I cannot move my arms. A laugh bubbles in my throat, and I think that this must be what it feels like to be buried alive.
His friends cheer him on, awkward and staged in their stances. They look to me like playdough figures more than boys. He is concentrated and deliberate, but when I look at him he cannot meet my gaze. My mouth won’t open anymore. I had a teacher in second grade who was attacked while jogging and had to have her jaw wired shut. I focus on following my voice from its chords to my tongue, but I keep getting lost somewhere near the back of my throat. I am a vegetable. I wonder if I will stay this way forever.
After he is done, he wipes his mouth roughly with the back of his hand and scoops the thirty dollars into his pocket. The soldiers shuffle to untie me.
I turn to my side and attempt to return to my body. I will myself to move faster and fail. White noise is playing except it is only in my head, buzzing. It’s getting louder so I dress myself and leave.
My dog killed a bird once and left it on the back porch. I squatted by the bird and wondered why we close people’s eyes when they die as if that somehow makes things better. I thought the bird would want its eyes to be left open, to show the world the depth of the tragedy the bird had suffered. Closing the bird’s eyes felt disrespectful, like I would be trying to soften my dog’s crimes. Do dogs know that they are killing when they kill? Mine was so proud that day, the day he held the bird between his teeth, placing the body next to the doormat, as an offering to our family. He waited for our praise.
I set leaves in a circle around the bird’s body. It no longer resembled a bird, its head mangled and twisting behind its body with one wing over its chest and one to the sky. I hummed softly. I watched the flies come. I watched them feast. They burrowed into teeth marks and eye sockets and painted the bird a fluttering mass of black and grey wings. I asked the flies if they were full, but they never answered and they never flew away.
I am feathers and nothing underneath. I lie in bed. My friends stop calling or asking me to come along, but only because I stop picking up the phone or going anywhere at all. They never ask. Or they know already and don’t need to ask. My hair starts to smell. I google how long a person can go without brushing their teeth before they begin to rot.
Mary calls. I pick up. A Theta ceremony, she decides, is to be held for me. I relax for the first time since the party. I fall asleep easily to the knowledge that I will be in Mary’s arms — in all of the girls’ arms — in a matter of hours.
Our eyes are all around the house. Delilah is faking a stumble and a slur, leading a boy by his hand into the house. His shirt is far too many colors at once, and I search for sin behind his eyes. Delilah takes him down the stairs to the basement and into the chapter room. The girls and I follow silently behind. Thump thump go our feet on the stairs. When we enter the room, Delilah has him bound to a chair with his hands and feet tied. He is smiling widely.
A crown of twine is placed on my head. The chapter room is filled with murmurs and twinkly voices that I long to bottle. The air is sweet, vanilla and jasmine and laundry detergent. I will myself to leave, but with little conviction. Mary finds me in the crowd, guiding me gently to a chair behind the executive table. Her touch conveys certainty, and I sink into her attention. I am looking up at her, and I am struck again by her beauty, by the unmistakable simmer of power lying beneath her skin. She smooths my hair with her right hand, dragging her fingers down to trace my cheek.
Under her touch, the desire to be one of these girls is stronger than any other wish. I want only to feel such certainty, such faith in myself and my sisters. I wish for their allure and I wish for Mary’s fingers on my cheek again. I am excited now, with these perfect girls who have chosen me. I am excited now, to be a Theta girl.
At a motion from Sarah, the girls join hands to form a circle around the boy. He wets his lips. He is laughing periodically at our movements, asking us which of his brothers put us up to this, promising he is going to get us back for this prank. Sarah begins speaking.
I present the boy for sentencing.
Something ripples across the room. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat and tugs lightly against his restraints. He chuckles nervously.
You guys are kidding right?
Deborah’s face hardens as she ponders his sentence, turning to face him.
For his crimes against a sister, I sentence the boy to the knife.
He scoffs, but his eyes have begun to dart wildly about the room.
Deborah lays an ornate, white-handled knife in front of me on the table. The blade is smooth and about eight inches in length. If I have doubts, they suffocate beneath my eagerness to please Mary and the rest of the girls.
What are you doing? What the fuck? You crazy fucking bitches. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?
As I get closer, he addresses only me.
You’re a fucking psycho. Get the fuck away from me you fucking bitch.
Psycho, bitch, slut, whore, cunt, I am able to be surprised, even in this moment, by the sheer volume of language that can be inflicted upon a girl.
He spits wildly, flinging his body this way and that as he attempts to lunge out at me. It is his next comment that allows me to steel myself.
You wanted it.
The girls begin to chant, bouncing their heels and clapping in total unison.
Hey hey who is she
Theta girls just can’t be beat
Everybody loves a Theta Theta
With the coolest clothes
And killer smiles
All the best girls go Theta
He starts to cry.
Do not cry, my boy.
I’m whispering. I’m close enough to see his individual pores and his branching veins. The hairs on his face are standing at my breath. The chant repeats.
Do not cry. For a sister is ever merciful.
In one motion, I open his throat to me, slashing a sheet of blood across my forehead that drips thick and heavy down my face. He sputters and gasps. I wonder what he is thinking or if he is thinking of anything at all. He falls backward in his chair falling onto his side in short spurts of seizure. The pool beneath him expands. The color is so different from the movies, I think. So different from the blood between my legs and from the blood spilled by my dog’s teeth. Finally, he stills, his eyes frozen on the chapter door, mouth slack.
Rachel squeals and breaks the circle as if to reach for the body, but Sarah scolds her. It is not her turn yet. I look to Mary for direction. She smiles knowingly and follows the blood dripping down my face with her eyes. My tongue escapes to catch a drop sliding from my nose. I pad barefoot toward the pool and settle on my knees before the body, allowing the hem of my dress to stain.
My hands dip into the pool, catching fingerfuls of blood that I bring hesitantly to my mouth. My stomach curdles. The girls urge me on. My lips close around my fingers filling my throat with a metallic sweetness that I find neither pleasant nor unpleasant. What I do find is that upon tasting the blood, I can feel a hum in my body like wings flapping. I feel plucked from the dirt. I feel clean. I feel sturdy and smooth. I want to feel this way forever. I would rather die than lose this feeling.
Mary comes and lays her head in my lap and stretches her body across the pool, absentmindedly sucking blood out of the collar of her dress or from the liquid that clings to the hair on her arms. She is singing softly — look who’s a Theta now, another sister in the crowd, look who’s a Theta now, another sister in the crowd. Delilah and Rachel and Deborah are here too. All the girls join in. Sarah watches with a look of content.
In this instant, I feel such pity for all those who misunderstand my sorority, whose minds are so narrowed and limited, who allow true sisterhood to escape them, that I begin to weep. A wailing and sloppy sort of cry that pinkens the blood on my face. A watercolor emerges. I’m gasping for air. Soon, my sisters are wailing with me, wiping my eyes, scraping flecks that dry brown on my lips, lapping roughly at my tears the way a mother cleans her kitten. There are holes in my liver, holes in my lungs, holes in my kidneys beginning to fill. We move in unison, painting our blood across each other’s noses, returning color to our carved-out frames. We drink and shout and drink and cheer and drink and hug. These girls, I realize, their beauty truly does come from within. And now, I have ingested the same beauty. Sarah speaks.
Rejoice my sisters, for a sister is resurrected.
Rejoice my sisters.
Salted iron clings to my tongue.
Rejoice my sisters.
MiC Columnist Claire Gallagher can be reached at email@example.com.