I thought I’d aged out of this years ago. I’m sitting criss-cross applesauce in my apartment while my roommate straightens my hair. The brush catches my hair knots and pulls my head back like the boys in my elementary school used to do, though it wasn’t because they liked me.
The hair situation isn’t going as planned. My curls are beginning to spring back from stress sweat, caused by either the fact that I’m going to a dance with a stranger or the fear that I won’t fit in with the crowd. I have less than 20 minutes to figure out how I can turn my curly hair, acne and glasses into something remotely resembling a sorority girl.
“Do you want me try straightening it again?” my roommate asks.
“Who even cares anymore?” I yell and look at myself in the mirror, which I’ve smudged so I have a barrier between myself and my reflection. I wish I’d just left my hair curly but don’t have time to fix it. I swallow my inferiority complex and call an Uber to the fraternity house.
Part of my anxiety comes from the fact that I wasn’t technically asked to this date party. It was more of an indirect invite, like in middle school when a friend asked my crush out on my behalf without asking for permission (he said no). My other roommate had been invited to the date party and wanted to set me up with another fraternity brother so we could go together. I said yes as long as she promised not to bail on me. Less than two days later, she backed out.
I could’ve backed out, too, but somehow felt obligated to keep my promise. Maybe it was out of compliance to the popularity gods, or an attempt to redefine my status as an awkward art girl. Maybe I was just curious to see if I could fit in with Greek life for a night.
I arrive at the house, an ex-mansion vandalized with large Greek letters. I stand outside the front doors like a child waiting for their play date. The doors open to reveal my date, a tall and handsome figure with curly blonde hair that makes me feel silly for straightening mine. He invites me inside and we pass a DJ hyping up five people dancing. I try not to think about how much money was spent on this event.
A girl poses in the living room, her back arched and eyes averted from her boyfriend snapping photos. A crowd cheers her on as she contorts her body into extreme shapes to accentuate her curves. She’s clearly done this before.
We pass a few more girls, all of whom are wearing similar outfits as me but are taller and with clearer skin. I feel like I’m in fifth grade and the prettiest girl in class is sitting next to me wearing the same Aeropostale shirt. I am a lab experiment: If we keep outfit X constant, it will yield significant results in measuring beauty, Y.
My date and I enter a room away from the noise and start getting to know each other. We have more in common than I previously thought: an interest in the Myers-Briggs test, a lack of interest in Greek life (ironic considering he’s a frat brother) and an equal hatred of the grading system. I wonder if this night could actually turn out well.
Our party bus arrives and we’re met with a cloud of bubblegum nicotine inside. I’m introduced to two identical girls sitting across from us, whose names I immediately forget.
“Super cute glasses, don’t feel self conscious about them!” the one on the left tells me before I can say anything. I grimace.
Once the bus starts to move, the cabin goes dark and blasts EDM music. Strobe lights signal the passengers to slowly rise from their seats like zombies and I watch in horror as they collectively grind on each other in freeze frames. Their faces are dead, drunk, their bodies moving out of obligation to the night. I wonder if there’s a full moon outside.
The club is packed with the same scene. Distant faces, somewhere between bored and aroused, are attached to loose bodies touching each other with a sense of urgency. Again, the DJ seems to be having the most fun of anyone.
My date asks a girl to take a photo of us. I feel like Nick Carraway next to Gatsby, a fan meeting her celebrity crush. The flash goes off and I place my hand awkwardly on his stomach. I imagine my acne scars lit up under the light, spelling out “she shouldn’t be here” in Braille. I don’t look at the photo.
I head to the bathroom and face a chorus of yelling that someone cut in line, sobbing coming from the corner and three occupied stalls with girls vomiting. The floor is more toilet paper than it is tile. One girl stands at the sink posting an Instagram photo.
I wonder if all the girls in the bathroom were once posed like the model I saw in the frat house. Maybe this is the only place they can escape the feeling of being watched, the one place where they don’t perform.
I wait as dozens of girls cut in front of me in line, letting them pass without a word.
It’s become instinct for me to assume attractive people are better than me. I find myself listening to their presentations more closely, following their Instagram even if I don’t know or care about them and feeling envious of their new job even if it’s at an obscure consulting firm. But the more I’m in spaces with these people, it makes me wonder what “attractive” actually means – does it mean being tall and impossibly fit? Does it mean attending Pure Barre classes twice a week? Or does it just mean looking the exact same as everyone else?
As I look around the bathroom, I not only realize I’m freed from being watched, but I was never being watched in the first place. The girls walking past me in line don’t even give me a second glance. I could have skipped the hour before the party I spent staring at myself in the mirror, my hair curly and frizzy with bangs sticking to my forehead. I could have skipped the makeup and let me acne scars glow. No one even cared that I was there – and neither did I.
After finally pushing my way through the bathroom crowd, my date takes me to Buffalo Wild Wings with his friend and his friend’s girlfriend. “Wheel of Fortune” plays on the waiting area TV. I watch Vanna White strut across the screen and wonder if she’s actually there to reveal the clue’s letters or just to boost the show’s ratings.
“Did you know Vanna White makes $8 million a year?” I ask. “Just for being beautiful and walking across the screen?”
My date shrugs. “Sometimes that’s what pays.”
Our food finally arrives and as I bite into my chicken wing, my date’s mouth falls open. “We’re going to miss our bus.” Panic ensues; the friend starts swearing and the friend’s girlfriend sprints outside. Both of the guys chase after her. I take another bite of chicken and watch the scene unfold, amused.
The girlfriend finds the bus and screams at the driver to let us inside, pounding on the door and threatening him. He complies. The rest of us apologize on her behalf. It turns out the Vanna Whites of the world really can get away with anything.
On the ride home, the bus fights over the rest of our chicken wings like fresh kill. My date stares out the window and says, without looking at me, “I’d give this night a five out of ten. It’s past my bedtime.”
I’m offended for a few seconds then realize there was never a version of this night where we would both have a good time. It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy these kinds of events, a collection of values and priorities that I simply don’t have. I remember my date said the same thing about himself.
I finally ask the question I’ve been wondering all night: “If you don’t like Greek life, why are you in it?”
He shifts in his seat and says he doesn’t really know. “I guess I just like living in the house with the guys,” he says. I wonder why he joined in the first place but stay silent. Maybe he and “the guys” joined freshman year and just stuck with it without question; I probably would have done the same if my friends and this culture were intertwined. I’m immediately thankful they’re not.
The bus parks and someone hands me the empty box of chicken wings as if I’m their trash can. My date gives me a quick hug goodbye and I call for a ride home.
I stumble into my apartment and look at myself in the mirror. My straight hair has started to curl and my makeup is almost entirely wiped off from walking in the cold. I start to see myself between smudges in the glass. For the first time, I’m glad to see my reflection looks like me.
I climb into bed, happy to take off my costume. It’s exhausting being invisible.