My mother was president of her sorority at the University of Texas, and when I was a freshman at Northwestern in the mid-70s she wanted very much for me to take part in sorority rush. I refused. Elitist system, I said. Spineless. Superficial. Not my kind of people. I was afraid that the great intellectual enterprise of college would disintegrate into the system of classification we had in high school, where your social rank was more important than your mind. So even though I filled out the rush form before I left home, I never sent it in. I filled out another card that said I wanted to live in the coed dorm with single rooms. Ostensibly, this was because the building was new and air-conditioned, and thus easier on my allergies, but more specifically it was because I used a machine for asthma and figured I would never find a roommate who would put up with someone breathing in mist and coughing up phlegm for 20 minutes every morning and night.
That was that, but after I arrived on campus, I’d walk by the sorority quad on my way to classes and see those happy girls in clusters, wearing bright skirts and laughing, always in a patch of sunshine so that they seemed part of a magical closed world. I looked at these girls who seemed so rooted and was sure that I hated them even more than I envied them.
When I was 29, I found myself back at Northwestern, teaching journalism. I was on leave from a newspaper job and was either going to return after six months or investigate some (as yet unknown) rare and wonderful opportunity. I’d taken the leave partly because I thought if I entered academe I would be allowed to write whatever I wanted, and to do left-wing politics. But there wasn’t much time for either.
That fall I had three friends and no acquaintances. I never went anywhere without two folders, one marked Graded and one To Be Graded. They were always full. I looked and dressed like my graduate students–actually, not as well as they did, once they started dressing up for suburban city council meetings. I felt like a student masquerading as a professor masquerading as a student. I don’t know when the idea first hit me, but it seemed to make perfect sense when it did: as long as I was masquerading, I might as well do the one thing I’d never had the guts or desire to do as a real undergraduate. Three months before my 30th birthday, I went through Northwestern’s sorority rush.
Now, I thought, I could take it. Maybe then I would have been awkward around young women blessed with supreme grace, accomplishments, but not now; I had proved myself on several fronts. The breathing machine had been replaced with pills and the hand-held mists you see basketball players endorsing on TV. I’d interviewed Rosalynn Carter and a death row convict (separately). I’d found my way to a refugee camp in San Salvador. I’d spent days on end speaking French to a Tunisian in Paris. I’d registered voters and worked in a food co-op and knew how to make miso soup and tofu quiche. I’d had proposals of marriage, though I didn’t believe in the institution. During a ritual to bury cuteness, I’d written “cute” on a leaf in blood and rubbed it in the dirt.
Getting through a tea party at Beta Pi Acropolis would be a piece of cake.
I couldn’t pass up the chance to take the road I had almost taken years before, to see if I could get past the border guards. Besides, I had a secret weapon: I was going to write about it. I would have the last word.
Orientation was in Cahn Auditorium. It was packed with women in shorts and T-shirts, and they filled the place with a sort of languid chatter. No one stood up and shouted at me, “Impostor!” No one said anything to me at all. We sat in our seats and listened. The chair of Panhellenic spoke first. She was blond, had straight short hair, almost punk, was dressed for success in small-heeled pumps and a straight pink skirt and matching jacket with boxy junior exec’s shoulders. She looked down at her notes and read that sorority women (and she and her cohorts were careful to say “women” not “girls”), at least at Northwestern, were “serious, committed, and intelligent.” She must have gotten wind of criticisms. Indeed, the next speaker said Greek life was necessary to help balance out our lives at such a competitive school; in fact, 39 percent of the female students had opted for it. She showed slides of formals, parties, general wholesome togetherness.
But this is not, said the next speaker, frivolous.
Doth the ladies protest too much? I wondered. Were they a tad defensive? Wouldn’t it have been a better marketing strategy to assume that the women who were there already had the requisite amount of enthusiasm?
Maybe not. “I’m just here out of curiosity,” said a fuzzy-haired woman behind me. “I don’t have enough clothes.”
A woman down the row said to no one in particular, “You have to be yourself. . . . If they don’t like you for what you are . . .”
Speeches ended, the rush counselors sat on the stage, smiling. They were wearing blue T-shirts with sunglasses emblazoned across the fronts along with the message: “We’re watching out for you.” Blues Brother turned Big Sister. Some wore buttons that said, “3-5: It’s the law.”
I thought it had something to do with the drinking age–maybe some sort of near-beer had been introduced without my knowing it.
We were divided into groups, geographically. The rush counselors held up signs with the names of dorms. Most of these signs were finely crafted, looking as if they’d been made carefully and lovingly the night before over fresh-baked sugar cookies in the kitchen of one of those houses. I went to the counselor holding up a half-hearted piece of notebook paper that said “Commuters.”
There is always something dangerous, big city, worldly about commuters. The bleached blond next to me said she already knew she didn’t want to live in a sorority. She’d been in her apartment since August 1 and didn’t plan to move until she was married. She had furniture.
“I’m just going to see what it’s like,” said a junior in ROTC.
Our leader was reassuring. “A lot of people go through just to go through.”
I paid $10 to register, cash, and filled out the rush card. I became Cynthia Levinson, sophomore transfer student from the University of Iowa (where in real life I’d been a graduate student). I, Cynthia, was a 1984 graduate of Scattergood, a tiny Quaker boarding school in West Branch, Iowa. (It was near the University of Iowa, and Iowa City, and I knew some of the students and a teacher there. U. of Iowa had been too big, not intellectually demanding enough, Cynthia would say. (I’d liked it fine.) I wanted to study art history, I was interested in architecture, I wanted to come to a big city. My parents were Roz and Bill Levinson (at the address of Roz and Bill Fink, my sister and brother-in-law) in Houston. I planned to imply that I had a teenage sister who had spent the summer hospitalized in Houston–nothing like a terminal disease to redirect a conversation veering into dangerous territory, to sanction an aura of mystery.
(Remember and forget, I thought. Remember to erase the commonplace experiences that were once adventures–going grocery shopping alone, using a laundromat, finding my way on the el, arranging my own vacations. Forget that I remember Ike, President Kennedy’s assassination, and Bobby’s, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the moon before man, the Twist, Twiggy. Say SAT instead of GRE, forget what it’s like to live alone, to go to baby showers, to go out with men who had children.)
The woman behind me looked familiar. I remembered that her name was Nancy and she’d had a boyfriend named Greg and one day she’d had a terrible headache or eye problem. It was coming back to me. I’d taught her in the high school “Cherub” program at Northwestern three summers before. I thought she was trying to look at the form I was filling out but I covered it with my arm. Bates, Barnes, what was her name? And wouldn’t she be a junior by now? I got up as soon as we were dismissed. Bateman. At home I looked her up in an old student directory but she’d moved. She wasn’t in directory assistance, wasn’t listed yet with the journalism registrar.
A few days later when we commuters met again I corralled her. “We have to talk,” I said.
She told me she’d taken a year off to go to Sweden on a Rotary fellowship, was going through rush as a sophomore. I told her everything. We came back to the group and she told everyone that we’d met in the spring during a campus visit when I’d stayed in her dorm, a residence hall for students interested in world affairs. So Cynthia became a person interested in foreign policy.
We were sitting in the commuter lounge of Norris, the student union. A short cute woman with a button nose and dark asymmetrically arranged crinkly hair said she was waiting for student housing and meanwhile living at the Orrington Hotel up the street. She worried about telling sorority women where she lived. “They’ll think I’m the maid,” she said.
“Your mom’s the maid, your father’s the bellboy,” someone said. This was humor.
Someone else worried about holes in her blouse and other problems: “They’ll say, ‘She sweats.'”
Orrington was worried they’d notice her mustache. She was worried she was dressed like a schoolgirl. She was wearing a skirt and sweater.
Silly girl, I thought, though I was worried about my shoes, my sweat, my mustache. Despite myself. Even though I had struggled for years not to judge by appearances, not to worry about my own, had resented the way I was raised–wishing in retrospect I’d devoured the New York Times or even Newsweek instead of Ingenue and Seventeen, that I’d become adept at pitching softballs instead of buying and applying eye shadow. I’d had the first real synthesis of all my loose thoughts during my junior year abroad. I read Germaine Greer and Kate Millett and agreed fervently–yes, yes, women have been raised to be cute and sweet and hairless, to be things for men to look at and play with, and any discomfort I’d felt in being tall and smart and yes, hairy, had been caused by the system. The system was conspiring to keep women in their places, to keep them competitive with one another, trivial. It was a religion and I adopted it, absorbed it into me so I could barely articulate it anymore. Years later in Iowa City I’d come into feminism full flower. I’d left my legs unshaven, trained people in civil disobedience, and tried to be peaceful and strong. Still, I was hooked on romance. When my heart was broken, it hurt no less because the perpetrator was a high-minded draft resister. But I was working toward something, trying to figure out where politics figured in with writing, believing in the 100th monkey, that my own pacifism could spread and grow and actually change the world. Being a reporter in Miami for two years had taken the edge off my belief. Still I believed–in what? In the Left as an entity, a search. After the revolution, no one would be judged according to how closely she resembled models in Vogue.
Yet there I was in the commuter lounge wearing navy pants, a white jacket, a sleeveless, diagonally striped pink, navy, and white blouse. I was conscious that I was not stylish and it bothered me. My hair was very short and I had a braided tail in back–would have fit in perfectly at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, but my face was not as beautiful as my friend the wood nymph in Miami, who had a crew cut and who was the inspiration for my cut. The night was hot and I was sweaty. I was passable. As I write this, I wonder why I didn’t wear my sleeveless blue-and-green sweater and coordinated coulotte skirt instead. I think I must have been saving it for the next round.
We learned we’d be given name tags. Someone said to put your name tag on the right side so the sorority members could read them while shaking our hands.
Our leader, who’d done an economic research project in India, passed out hard candy. She led us across campus.
From other buildings, other well-dressed nervous young women streamed out into the dying light.
And so we began the winnowing process. The plan was for us to visit, traveling in our pack, 13 sororities in two nights. A few days later we’d find out which seven (or fewer) wanted to see us again, and then we’d visit them, for longer stays. So they’d get to know us. And so on and so forth, through informal drop-in tea parties, the food and dress growing more and more lavish until we would choose and be chosen and spend the next four years bathed in light and laughter.
The goal, everyone said, was to find a place we felt comfortable, a suitably polite word.
The system was carefully orchestrated. First, we would stand in front of the door of a sorority while the members sang at least three songs. General themes were the desirability of their sorority, the sisterhood, the dates, a few ditties about boys (“Every night they fight over me, tee-hee”), and general welcome. There was much jumping and clapping. In a mating dance, this would be the equivalent, I suppose, of great waving of antennae or expanding and bobbing of the dewlap. Then the singing would end and the door would open. Our leader introduced us to the sorority officers at the door. They pinned on our ready-made name tags (a shock and a welcome to see “Cynthia Levinson” waiting for me, from one house to the next, carefully written and surrounded by black velvet or a cutout of a lion), and introduced us to the next person in line, repeating our names as often as possible–a mnemonic device that would stand them in good stead in the world of business and trade. Then we were each taken by one woman who talked to us for a little while, then passed us on to the next.
Each chat lasted three to five minutes. That was the special law that the T-shirts had referred to. “The rules are for tact,” someone in Alpha Epsilon Phi explained later. “So four girls won’t talk to one girl while her roommate is still sitting there wondering, ‘Why aren’t they talking to me?'”
They went to unbelievable lengths to be fair. I noticed that in house after house, where the photos of the members were displayed, pictures of Farrah Fawcett and Brooke Shields covered up some of them. They were covering the faces of rush counselors; we weren’t supposed to know which sorority our leaders were in.
We had conversations on predictable topics: majors, hometowns, families, reasons for coming to Northwestern, what we thought of Northwestern, what we’d done that day, what we hoped to find in a sorority, activities of the sorority.
We were brought punch, cookies, popcorn.
No one had ever been that polite to me except in a restaurant.
Some of the women were sincere. Some were nervous. Some were fake and glib and chattery. Some stumbled. At least one was manic. They all tried to give the illusion that for those few minutes, Cynthia Levinson was the most important person in the world.
At Kappa Delta, a six-year medical student, very eager, very fake, said she loved NU. “I’m from the south, I didn’t know about snow.” She said she was from New Jersey, near Philadelphia.
We saw skits, which usually emphasized diversity and friendship. Kappa Kappa Gamma’s skit featured women done up in all sorts of student uniforms–showing that all types fit in. Someone in my group was irate about lack of truth in advertising: “If you were dressed like that person in a Boy Scout shirt, you’d be kicked out.”
At Pi Beta Phi, we sat on couches and chairs while the members actually scooted on their knees from one of us to the other. I was drawn to another woman who was tall (at least from her knees up), had a long face and no makeup, and reminded me of someone I knew in second grade. Is it all based on looks, on types; do we feel most comfortable with people who remind us of ourselves and old friends?
Alpha Chi Omega was done up like a lounge. The women were slinky and sensuous, very New Yorky, frankly trying to woo us. They were intimidating with their thin lips and sophisticated cocktail-party dresses. Their skit was polished, clever. It was about a freshman with a terrible roommate–a Deadhead, who’s on her way to a “Dylan lip-sync contest.” I was annoyed they didn’t give Dylan due respect. The young heroine also has to choose among a dizzying array of phone-service choices, the wind-up for a dizzying array of sororities and fraternities.
I was beginning to notice a common theme in the skits. The writers knew people were overwhelmed and they knew people thought the sororities were all alike. The more clever groups parodied this, to let us know: We know it seems silly and confusing and like we’re clones, but we’re on your side.
The woman I was paired with at A Chi O talked nonstop about her college visit to Bates. I wondered how they could get impressions of us if we didn’t get a chance to speak. Or was that part of the test, to see if we would take hold of the conversation?
Outside, we traded impressions. Nancy was upset at first because she felt people didn’t care about her, then she found someone at one house to speak Swedish to. There was a double edge to my conversations with her. I was afraid she resented me for playing at something that was important to everyone else. I would tell her my impressions, afraid to sound too convincing, to sound that it mattered. The strain was getting to me. I wanted to probe our group but seem natural. By Alpha Epsilon Phi, I was bored and worn. The women were singing hard, and some guys at the dorm next door leaned out their window and clapped their hands. I hoped they weren’t making fun of them. I felt protective.
Some of the A E Phi women were in Hawaiian shirts and shorts. How reasonable, considering the weather, I thought. Then I realized they were wearing them for the skit. Afterwards, someone in my group said she thought their outfits were so tacky.
That was the house where I lost confidence in my self-confidence. I heard a junior transfer student in a purple sweater saying how fun it sounded to go to a boat-ride formal. I thought, She’s so smooth. I’m choppy.
Then I realized the sorority members were nervous, too. A woman with small strained features and moving hands said she was surprised no one had asked her before about the treble clef pin she was wearing. She was the song coordinator and explained her duties very seriously.
At Alpha Phi, I blanked out at the door. I forgot my name because the leader didn’t introduce me. I said that I was taken aback because someone in another sorority had had on the same dress and I was experiencing deja vu. (Which was true.) People kept jumping around. They kept saying, I want you to meet so-and-so, mentioning my name and the next person’s.
I had no trouble passing for 19. At most of the houses people thought I was a freshman instead of a sophomore transfer. The sorority members looked old in their slinky dresses and mascara.
At one house, someone asked which dorm I had lived in at U. of Iowa. She had mentioned one called Stanley, so that was where I said I had lived. High rise? Um, yes. I hadn’t planned for this at all. I thought, How terrible it must be to always lie, to be afraid.
When the rounds ended for the night, I thought: No mention of Central America, lesbian separatism, First Amendment rights, South Africa. No politics of any kind, in fact. No real or raw emotion, either. No one had been passionate. None of them really cared about me. They didn’t really want to know the real Cynthia. A few had been interested. None had been interesting.
No one seemed clever. Was it just because they were unformed?
I didn’t feel much camaraderie with my rush group. They seemed so–young. I felt the women were giving me the cold shoulder. Did they sense I was different? Had they discovered I was a spy, and were they only humoring me?
I knew you could never dip twice into the river at the same place. I wondered how different the houses, and I, had been 11 years before. Did my nervousness at my disguise equal the nervousness I would have felt if I were actually being judged? But I was being judged, even though the points would eventually be disqualified.
If I had been in a sorority in 1974, I would have had a particular home and place and perhaps 15 minutes a night of gossip allotted to me and my doings and non-doings. Instead, I was constantly unhoused, uprooted. Now I was even more transient. I was subletting a room in a three-bedroom apartment near campus. A few days before, I’d gone to look at an apartment on Orrington Avenue, across from that coed dorm I’d lived in freshman and sophomore years. I’d watched a load of energetic upperclassmen in purple T-shirts help the bewildered out of airport buses, unpack their duffel bags and stereos and suitcases. There were banners and music, parents. I felt replaced. Students were all interchangeable parts. Our purpose hadn’t been to make our marks, or for our professors to remember us and make us feel special. We had been there to draw from the stream, not to make our impressions on it. It reflected our faces only when we came near enough.
As I watched kids trail into the Foster-Walker Undergraduate Housing Complex, I thought of all the stereos and posters and telephones that had gone in and out of there in the past years, of the streams of people who’d called my room home. I understood why I had put up little sayings all over my office at Medill, why I spread my clothes all over the floor in the apartment, the way a dog spreads its scent over the base of a tree to make it known it’s the owner.
I felt like a displaced person. That was what I really wanted to talk about, but there was no way to explain this to the students Cynthia was meeting, except cloaked in metaphor. I’d told the Orrington Hotel woman in our group it must be terrible to be so unsettled. She looked at me strangely. No, she said.
When the first night’s activities ended I stopped in my office and read the bios of my new graduate students. Internships at the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone. Graduates of Yale, Columbia. One said he hoped to cover Congress for the Washington Post. Sounded like he wanted it right away. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding.
I stopped in to see a colleague–one of my three friends–who usually stayed late in his office. “You’re getting into this,” he said. “I know you are. You’re going to go all the way through and bump off some nice woman who otherwise would have gotten in and you’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. It was a mistake.'”
Meanwhile, for the next few days I wouldn’t eat lunch in the student union with the other instructors. I didn’t want anyone to see us and wonder.
My apartment mates took great interest in the project. They were undergraduates, and one of them saw it as a morality play; I was sure to get my comeuppance. “The computers will get you,” he said. Few groups had access to the computer records and Panhellenic was one of them. “You’ll have to explain why you’re not listed.”
Another thought it was great–however much I could muck up the system, the better, even if I took someone else’s place. “That would be wonderful. Save some young thing from years of triviality,” he said. His girlfriend had spent most of senior year in his apartment, and her Kappa Alpha Theta sisters had disapproved.
As the days wore on, I began to spot sorority members as I walked through town into campus. They were at Field’s in white turtlenecks, on the street, on campus, in pairs. I saw one at the checkout counter in the library wearing a button: I love KD. If I’m asked back there, I thought, I’ll have to avoid her. I gave her my faculty ID anyway. I thought: I’m getting careless. I’ll have to stay in East Berlin forever.
The second night was more of the same. I visited Kappa, which had censured my apartment mate’s girlfriend. One of the top three houses, full of blonds. One of them asked me about Iowa and I talked about an institution there I really admired, the Catholic Worker movement. How could they not be interested? They weren’t all that beautiful, either.
That was Friday. Saturday night I went to a going-away party for a friend from grad school. In the living room, I sat next to a stranger who was talking about gentrification. I started to talk about changing neighborhoods in Miami, but the conversation was off and running somewhere else.
After dinner, I was talking to a professor in the kitchen who was expounding about how his dissertation was published. I asked if he knew a friend of mine at his university. But he was tired of talking about writing. “I don’t want to keep talking about this,” he said. “Let’s talk about something else. Where do you live?”
For a moment I longed for the steady, rule-bound world of rush. No one would have been that abrupt there. I would have known everyone’s name by now, and major.
Sunday night we gathered for primary results. “I’m going to have a heart attack,” said Orrington. “Does anyone know CPR?”
A shy woman from Libertyville was telling me about how she’d helped a friend at Loyola with a descriptive paper about the guards at Buckingham Palace; they’d gone to England together that summer. They were trying to remember the color of the buttons on the uniforms. I wanted to say, Why bother with that? She should look out the window and describe Sheridan Road. But Cynthia wouldn’t have much experience or credence.
I found out that six sororities wanted me, including one of the top three, Delta Delta Delta. That was the place, I thought, where I’d talked about the artwork I’d done (in real life) with hair and bones. Be yourself. The advice had worked. The place where I’d had a most pleasant conversation with someone with a 4.0 average, who’d told me a story about getting into a concert in Kansas City after losing tickets, did not want me. (I saw her on the street later and she gave me a big Hi Cynthia! Hypocrite, I thought.) I was not wanted at the fancy KAT or at the place where I’d forgotten my name. The slinky women of the A Chi O lounge evidently had concluded that I didn’t fit in with the decor.
But somebody wanted me. Somebody thought I was cute enough and interesting enough to see again. They thought they’d be comfortable with me. I had passed phase one. I was pleased enough, but some of the women in my group were disappointed. One transfer student had only been asked back to five. I wondered if I had displaced her.
We began the rounds again: more skits, more refreshments, more time. I couldn’t imagine doing this for two days in a row so I got special permission to “split”–to visit all six in one night instead of three and three. But it lasted long enough. As I sat through a skit, a variation of the Wizard of Oz theme, I puzzled at the silliness of it, that these people had spent their time practicing these songs with such short shelf lives, and decorating sheets, making green castles to put in a hallway, buying crepe paper, affixing foil to walls for a disco effect, covering black paper with initials. “We work for a common goal,” one of the women told me. “We worked together toward rush.”
As I watched the Wizard skit, I scolded myself: “You’re the one that had the quote on your desk at work for years, ‘Fun is the absence of anxiety.’ Do you begrudge these people their fun? You, the same person who once gave her boss a box with a lizard from her backyard inside for Christmas, with an endless loop tape inside the box that said, “Hello Doug, my name is Sammy. I’m a Carolina anole”?
Yes, I did. And the same person who once believed that protests would change the world, who hid her derision as someone in the newly revived Kappa Delta told the history of the sorority. “KD was one of the top but in the 60s and 70s–you know, Hair and Godspell–sororities and fraternities were down.” (Thumbs down sign accompanied this.) “It was one of the top and because it was looking for quality girls, it didn’t have enough, with the movement . . .”
They remembered me at Tri Delt, saying at the door, “You’re interested in art, aren’t you?”
They were Italian-Americans in black dresses. Three were very excited because they’d realized that all three sets of parents had gone to Venice on their honeymoons. I wondered if I should mention my trip to Venice during my junior year abroad or the oral histories I’d done of Italians in Chicago. I didn’t. This was the first place I’d felt something familiar: informality. We were standing in someone’s room and talking about boyfriends with red hair, and there was some confusion about which sorority woman was assigned to which of us and whose turn it was to take us to the food. The general feeling was it didn’t really matter. I talked about a certain Larry who’d get all these “Red!” remarks from people he didn’t know. For some reason people needed to lean out of car windows and point out his red hair. They knew just what I meant; it had happened to their boyfriends, too.
In passing, I said I was a vegetarian and someone told me several vegetarians lived in the house. Someone else told me about the creative writing major. I wanted to know details. I wanted to know if she’d had the same instructor I’d had in 1977 but I didn’t ask.
As we left someone said, “It was so excellent. I had the best time.” I agreed. I would fit in. I would feel comfortable. It would be fun.
The evening got better, perhaps because I was bolstered by knowing that however wide they had cast their net, these people had made a decision to see me again. At Alpha Gamma Delta I talked to someone about getting lost in art and music. She said she got carried away at symphonies. I felt we really connected. I wondered if beneath the deception could there be honesty? Can something be half honest? Half true?
Then I talked to someone who spoke incredibly fast, was very thin, talking about her father’s birthday and a tie everyone denied was theirs but they gave it to her father in a box and so I asked if he wore the tie. “He hasn’t bought it yet,” she said. I must have missed something.
In between houses someone said she wanted to go out and work, that these were supposed to be the best years of her life and they weren’t. I said, “I know I want to go back to school, to graduate school.”
At A E Phi, they took us up to their rooms. A blond journalism major talked about the fall formal, winter formal, philanthropy in Oklahoma and Israel, the Brownie troop they used to sponsor on the south side. She asked, “What do you want in a sorority?”
Another rushee answered, “One that does a lot.”
She talked about exchanges, guys coming over, cocktail parties. (I remembered someone saying rather disparagingly that they drank here.)
Going downstairs, a woman talked about having lived in Israel for ten years and deciding whether or not to go into the army. I liked her. She made up for the woman who kind of hedged when asked if the sorority was mostly Jewish.
At Chi O the woman I was paired with didn’t seem to want to make an effort. The skit was built around songs from Cabaret (“Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky, maybe this time, they’ll see me”) and I felt with the singer: Do they see the real me? “Pledge Perky, Pledge Perfect, that’s not what I’m to be.”
I finished early, when the sorority quad was still humming with entering and exiting crowds. I stood there in the dark and felt a part of it all. I knew what was going on in those houses.
For the next few days I taught my classes, graded papers, dodged sorority women, and, heart pounding, checked out books at the library with my faculty ID. I waited for the next meeting, where we’d find out which few houses, if any, wanted us.
One night the phone rang at 11:30. It was my sister, who had agreed to play my mother. Seems a Cynthia Pratt had called, saying extremely perkily that she was a friend of Cynthia Levinson’s from Iowa, and was passing through Chicago after a year abroad and had heard Cynthia was there.
Of course she was lying, but my sister the mythical mother obviously was in no position to call this alleged Cynthia Pratt on the carpet for her impossible claim that she had been a friend of Cynthia’s in Iowa.
“I told her we were asleep and it was 11:30 but she was so pushy,” said my sister. “She said, ‘Well, what is she doing there? Is she in school, is she a graduate student?'”
I told my roommates. “How sneaky,” one said.
We couldn’t decide whether it was a particular house calling or Panhellenic. I imagined a group of women lounging on soft carpeting, maybe eating popcorn and drinking diet drinks, piles of unfolded computer printouts on the floor, making phone calls up and down the U.S. to get the scoop on various of us shady characters. Giggling: “Your turn, your turn. I was Cynthia Pratt last time.”
I waited for my rush counselor to call and demand an explanation. She didn’t.
Our group met a few days later in the commuter lounge for the results of the latest narrowing-down. Everyone was in jeans. “We look so different,” someone said. There were papers with schedules of parties and dues. I started copying them down, trying not to look conspicuous.
Orrington was talking about that night being the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, explaining she couldn’t eat until 7:45. I started to say something, but was afraid of betraying Cynthia’s half-Quaker heritage. (No one had asked me about religion yet or details about my Quaker high school, but I was ready.)
The leader called each of us to a corner when she delivered the news. Some were elated, others subdued. My turn came.
“Cynthia,” she said, and I think I detected a slight bemused smile. “There’s a problem. Are you registered as an undergraduate?”
I hedged. “Well, I talked to some professors.” I was trying to imply that I was auditing, on a waiting list, on my way in.
She asked again, relentless but kind. Had I succeeded in making her think I was a poor fool who’d come here on the strength of a place on the waiting list and a promise of something turning up? I could tell she wanted to know my status but I wouldn’t give an inch.
“If registration’s worked out in the spring, can I go through then?”
She said, “Yes, some houses have openings. . . . Did you register? Do you have a yellow slip?”
“No.” Then, she said, I must drop out of rush.
I said OK.
That was it. No torture sessions in which I was beaten to confess. No tearful accusations, no confrontation with “Cynthia Pratt.” There was a striking absence of vitriol. It was all polite, low-key–just like all my dealings with the sororities had been, ever since the first party at the first house.
I took my knapsack and walked out of the student union. I told Nancy I’d been found out.
On the way to my office I imagined Cynthia as a chrysalis, my imposed burden of studenthood, falling off me, drifting into the night. Now I can be a full adult again, I thought. I wanted to do something adultlike. All I could think of was drinking alcohol. But I was still fasting. It was the Day of Atonement.
They say that some criminals really want to be caught. If I had really been serious, I might have thought of some foolproof system. I could have found a freshman willing to change identities–but what about the people who knew her? Or I could have done a fake registration. I’d talked to the journalism registrar but she’d told me it was serious business, something to discuss with the dean, and it seemed too frivolous. Deception is permissible to bust corrupt landlords or officials. But to rat on defenseless girls? I was too ashamed to ask.
And in the back of my mind, I began thinking: It could have been done. Maybe next year I could plan ahead, get a new name. As the months went by, I grew out my hair and thought, It’s at least twice as long as it was in September, looks much better, too. And next year, I thought, maybe I’ll get asked back to all three of the top houses.
Why do we–and I speak in the plural because of the reaction I’ve gotten when I talk about this (my office mate, a successful journalist in her 40s, told me she’d have tried the same thing if she thought she could pass)–why, two decades after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, do we long to be judged on personality and looks and charm and perceived ability to attract the right kind of males? Are we still so tied to that definition of success and role? Are we that bereft of identity? Why are we still begging on the sorority house porch: Tell us where we fit in and we will tell you who we are? And I know there are some of you out there who will argue, It’s not that at all. They’re just looking for a group of women with whom they feel comfortable. Community. Sisterhood.
I told the story of my rush attempt to a friend who’s a public interest lawyer. He said, “Why didn’t you just say, ‘Yeah, you caught me, I’m a writer’?”
I’m not sure why. Maybe I didn’t want to give them the upper hand. I was in the middle of their game, on their turf.
And deep down, I still wanted them to like me.
I still wanted to be Queen of the Prom.
During the school year, I spent considerable time on campus–teaching four days a week in the fall, and then, when I left NU in the spring and was teaching two courses at a different school downtown, coming back to borrow books from the library or pick up mail. I’d left the sublet and was living alone in an apartment a mile from campus. Once in the fall I saw the blond from A E Phi in the journalism building but she gave no sign of recognition. In the spring I saw Orrington and another woman from my rush group in downtown Evanston collecting money for Easter Seals, but they didn’t even blink.
I’d see Nancy at the laundromat, in the journalism building, on the el platform, and when I asked about her sorority life, I sensed hesitation, the fear of a woman modeling a hat to someone she fears thinks hats ridiculous. She’d tell me about her journalism class and once I got my professor friend to lend her a copy of a Swedish newspaper he’d found at a convention. I felt I owed her some reparation for playing at something that mattered to her.
I didn’t write about rush that year. I told myself it was because I’d been caught so soon, but it could have been the sheer volume of work that came just as the quarter was beginning, or then again, perhaps a queasiness about the deception. I would tell the stories at parties and I’d always talk about my rush leader who’d interviewed Indira Gandhi–they’re not all dips, you know. I was fair and civil and noncondemning. Who am I, I asked, to judge them?
So it was strange that months later I found myself getting angry. I was at an artists’ colony in upstate New York, being fed and housed for a month on a berry farm once owned by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was the first time since graduate school I’d had time to write all day, every day. When I wrote about rush I found the anger stirring, despite the tranquillity of the woods and meadows, the yellow- and red-winged birds, and the scurrying of deer and chipmunks. Who are they, I began thinking, to have judged poor Cynthia, or anybody else? I was angry because they seemed so limited. You care about the wrong things, I wanted to say. Don’t sing songs about Daddy or boyfriends or being popular. Sing songs that mean something. You should do charity because it’s good, not because the group does it. You should know people you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with, who don’t understand your furniture, whose mother isn’t like yours. Examine the things that made you. Perform for a larger audience, a larger purpose than luring someone into your selective little rooming house with Greek letters out front. Don’t you want individuality? Don’t you want to be truly “serious, intelligent, and committed”? I know about your types. Back-stabbing, gossiping pseudovirgins, getting together only for group vomits. I heard a terrible secret about how you let one of the sisters quietly die in the guest room, let her lie three days until someone found her. I know about you, minds filled with crepe paper and visions of boat-ride formals.
Oh, the conscience pricked, they were all different, they were sweet, they cared about PCBs and symphonies and Sweden. They put their arms around each other. They were young.
Why didn’t I confess at the end that I was an impostor?
Because, deep down, goddammit, I wanted all of it. I wanted to believe I was Cynthia Levinson and could be 19 years old and wow them in the top three houses. I wanted to be perceived as funny and cute and wry and energetic and an asset to a house. I wanted to get dates with guys from the good fraternities and marry one of them. I wanted the creative writing major at Tri Delt to read my stories. I want to buy my first long black dress and drive in someone’s car down to Chicago, where the pattern of glittering lights isn’t familiar and let someone else worry about parking the car and how far we should go and where we’re going for dinner. I want years and years of promise and sisterhood, people who are bound to me by friendship and circumstance and who’ll love me and leave me folded notes with my name on them on the door handles in the library and greet me in the library lounge at the nine o’clock break. For once, goddammit, may I feel comfortable in that gloomy smoke-grimed black-and-gray lounge and they’ll make up songs with me and say I’m clever for it and get me boyfriends who’ll get me flowers that I’ll press in some heavy book, even if I have to borrow it and I hope I won’t forget to take it out when I leave for the summer.
Oh, dammit, I thought, give me a house mother to sneak out on and girls to drink hot chocolate with, who’ll slip Cathy comic strips under my door and never forget my birthday. Dammit, all I remember from college was crying after being a guinea pig in a psychological experiment on guilt and writing angry journal entries about my boyfriend and wandering in the Shakespeare Garden and writing papers on Salome and Dostoyevski and Middletown and Isherwood and reading And Quiet Flows the Don, and none of it ever fitting together. Oh dammit, I have voted and had driver’s licenses in four different states and my mail arrives covered with yellow Inform Sender of New Address tabs. My friends are married and jumping from Minneapolis to Baltimore, New York to New Jersey, Saint Louis to Jacksonville to San Antonio to New Orleans, are fixing up houses I’ve never seen, are having babies, have spent the last two years cooking in New York City without telling me, have fallen in love and bought a house and finished a novel without telling me, and sometimes I can’t remember my old roommates’ last names and would die, absolutely die, if I ever had to sit and list all the phone numbers I’ve had in the last five years. Every week, my parents tell me, more of their friends are dying.
Cynthia Levinson was not quite clever enough.
I was not quite stupid enough.
Or vice versa.
Dammit and dammit again, I thought as I sat there in New York State in a converted barn that once belonged to a famous poet, I’m 30 and published and living where the first woman Pulitzer Prize winner retreated from the city, and all my needs are taken care of. The cook has bought the food we want, even the tofu and olive oil, and Adele and Holly, painters, have driven Becky’s car to town and brought back designer ice cream for us and cones, they even thought to bring cones. I am sitting at my new computer and out the window the wind is blowing the edge of some frayed rope holding open the shutter, and when I turn out the lights I see the rope glowing like the moon; if I stayed here till dawn I’d catch the edge of the sunrise over the ring of trees around me. I am 30 and I know more than I think about architecture and politics and Jews and literature and the third world and ethics and bending to the rhythm of friendship and I am almost ready to Settle Down and learn about love. I have been out in the country for four days among all sorts of allergens and I have assiduously nursed and sprayed my lungs so that they will remain clear. I do wall push-ups so I’ll keep the tiny muscles I’ve started in my arms, proof that if you work at something, you’ll see a result. I am writing and writing right now, even though a lump clutches at my throat, an unsettling, a doubt, an anger. In the autumn I will teach the artist’s novel and take drawing. Someone has left two shells on the windowsill. Downstairs there are baskets of shells and a record album with a high-pitched professor emeritus wildly declaiming poetry as if she were alone in a large room. There are books of poetry and old political magazines from England and obscure journals from 1979 I’ll never see again because I’m sure they couldn’t have lasted. Someone surely has started new ones.
They say radiation is in the milk in New York State, I thought. The atomic scientists say it’s three minutes to midnight. Everyone will die. My niece just had her fifth birthday. Right now spies are stopping at pizza places to make pay-phone calls about secrets. It will blow over. I will learn to make copies on a floppy disk. I will go swimming at the Y. I will learn exactly what foods I’m allergic to. I will try making collages again. I will live by a schedule and break it and try again. I will go out marching into the streets again. Pass petitions, learn an issue wide and deep and slow the way you learn a person. I will meet a man on the el who will fall in love with me. Or not.
Tomorrow morning, I thought, there will be flowers, as always. We can wander in the garden full of phlox and jack-in-the-pulpits and poppies and irises and a hidden clump of asparagus and unfathomable memories. Saturday or Sunday we will have brunch at the old wooden bar that overlooks the square pool they’ve promised to clean out. We will try to figure out a name for the statue of the cupid. I will scoop up a clump of tiny black tadpoles from the culvert behind the barn. I will watch them grow.
And if I find I can’t nourish them, I will take the tadpoles back outside and slide them back in their water so they can grow legs and arms and hope they will not mourn the slow loss of the tail that provides energy.
Soon, I thought, I will walk through the hidden meadow and unhook the latch of Edna’s studio and then come back to the barn and find the place on the door frame that somebody wrote, under her own name: I was happy here.
Later I will write mine.
And in the morning will be a letter from an old friend.
I will make a ritual, I thought. I will toast friendship and seasons.
I will bury the Queen of the Prom.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Troy Thomas.