August, 1984. I was to begin college at Duke, my first choice school. My parents drove me from Cleveland down through Southern Ohio, West Virginia, and into North Carolina in their orange and white Suburban. They drank coffee out of their red plaid Thermos in the front; my younger sister and I read and dozed in the back. The Midwestern, flat horizon gave way to lush green kudzu and magnolia trees. I had no inkling about the South, its mystery and anger, its grace and ugliness. Was this my brave new world?
My father lugged my possessions—puffy comforter, bulletin board, books, a suitcase or two of clothes—into my dorm, the corridors abuzz with other parents doing the same task for their kids. Unaccustomed to Southern heat, he stood and mopped his face with a handkerchief after each load. Upper-class co-eds stood grinning with clipboards, wide grosgrain ribbons in their hair. Rock and roll played, red-white-and-blue pizza delivery trucks sped in front of dorms, and tanned boys tossed Frisbees into the cloudless air.
On the last day of orientation, my parents took me and my sister to a Waffle House near campus. I ordered a gooey pecan waffle, drowned it in syrup, and ate about four bites. My parents reveled in bacon and eggs with hash browns that were “scattered, covered and smothered.” Bits of red and green pepper, uniformly sized, dotted the grease on their plates. Our waitress beamed at me as she refilled our coffee mugs, but spoke only to my parents—
–She your daughter, starting at Duke?
–Yes, we are about to say goodbye to her, right after this.
–Aw, I just know she gonna love it here! Then looking at me,
–Isn’t that right, honey!
I nodded weakly. An hour later we said goodbye on the steps of the Cathedral, and my family headed back to Ohio in the clumsy Suburban. My younger sister looked so small inside. I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to encode my Mother’s hug, then signed in for academic orientation. A warm breeze brought with it the pungent odor of tobacco—sweet, tangy, and mysterious. That night, for the first time, I heard dark choirs of cicadas drone.
Sorority rush took place within two weeks of the semester’s opening. I rushed only because I idealized my older sister and imitated her, and because I was vaguely trying to get closer to my father, who always spoke with enthusiasm of his fraternity days at Michigan. My older sister had rushed one of the oldest and WASPiest sororities three years before me. Her photos from dances revealed party gowns and boys with twinkling eyes, which I naively read as pure glamour.
Most of the girls in my freshman dorm enjoyed dressing up in sundresses and pink lip gloss and going to the mixers on Duke’s West Campus. The fraternities, who had campus living space, hosted parties for the sororities, who did not. There was plenty of alcohol, mostly kegs of beer. The boys deftly hauled kegs in on their shoulders, like sailors carrying precious cargo from ship onto land, then attached the rubber hose and other contraptions until a jet of foam spurted out of the top. Rock music played. To this day I remember the feel of the grooves on the side of the plastic cup and beer spilling out of the top.
I was passive in my dress and lip gloss. The active power of my young intellect, which had gotten me into Duke, contrasted with my physical passivity. I smiled weakly at the sorority sisters who were sizing me up for inclusion into their special, inner circle. No one spoke of anything of much substance—rather, conversation was about family, clothes, and vacations with an occasional “so what do you think you’ll major it?” sprinkled in. The bottom line seemed to be physical appearance. Were you slender, tanned and blonde? You were likely to join a sorority of girls who looked like you. Were you plump, nerdy and not very well-groomed? There was a sorority that was happy to add you to their ranks.
The sororities bid for the girls they wanted and vice versa. The girls in my dorm lost sleep wondering about getting into their first choice. I recall not wondering. I was mildly disinterested, more fascinated as an observer than invested as a participant. I put in my first choice with my friends. I got my bid. Tri-Delt. A girl in a brown dress and headband who looked like she was a descendant of the Kennedy family approached me on the quad in tears. She was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, my older sister’s sorority. Turns out I was a “double legacy” there, between my sister and my grandmother. She was in tears. Why did I not want them? Was it something she had said? No, it was not. I kind of liked the three delta triangles, the way they looked, and my friends went Tri-Delt.
The party was now on. I quickly established the study hard/party hard pattern for which Duke was known then. From Sunday until Thursday, books were my home. Freshman English, philosophy, music and a survey of French literature.
Freshman composition, taught by a newbie pushover of a graduate student, was too easy. The perfect challenge of French rapidly became my intellectual home. My professor that fall was a small man with a mustache who looked as if he had walked straight out of a Parisian café onto campus. He lectured quietly up front, his lips moving almost imperceptibly, while we took notes. Outside the leaves began to tinge orange and gold. The air grew crisp. I filled my composition books, writing until my hand ached.
I lived a duality. I plunged myself into study during the week with a fresh-scrubbed face and seriousness of purpose, only to don pastel makeup (it was the 80’s) and smile, drink and drift among my new sorority sisters and dozens of frat boys on the weekends. My truer self was the young scholar, but I wanted social acceptance and I wanted to belong. Being an 18-year old budding scholar was not cool. My sorority girl self was a mask that I chose to wear.
Beer was everywhere. Writing this thirty years after the experience, I can practically smell stale beer on my fingers as I type. My mind steels to the moment when the frat boys attached the spout just right. It took two guys to set the keg and position it in place. They hollered and laughed. REM’s “Losing My Religion” blared. At that moment, the first foamy spoils of victory spurted out strong while the hose coiled. Entirely phallic.
I drank a lot of that beer, not for its cheap taste, but for its effect. It changed the way I felt and took me beyond my limitations. I never had just one cup, and I never considered not drinking. What I did not know at the time is that those are hallmark signs of an alcoholic. I whirled into a fun vortex after drinking a few. My girlfriends and I—new “sisters”—swayed in loud arcs to Madonna singing “Like a Virgin.” The more people drank, the more beer was spilled. Cups tipping to one side as people began to make out. Beer sloshing over the onto the floor when the cups were dropped in favor of holding onto shoulders or waists. Beer everywhere. A foamy wasteland. People wasted. “Man are you wasted!” was a common exclamation from the guys, met with loud peals of giggle from the sorority girls.
That was a typical Saturday night scene. Then came Sunday morning with its wan sun, marked by mild hangovers and pressing academic work. The party was over. Some girls self-consciously stepped out of the stone entrances, stained floral cardigans in hand. That was the walk of shame, from which I somehow kept myself spared that year. I can practically smell today the smell of stale beer. It was on our clothes in our hampers. It was seeped into our sandals. To walk into the frat dorms on a Sunday morning was to invite nausea into the cave of your stomach. You could practically scrape its layers off the floor. Its smell was a combination of mold and dirty feet.
Later, the drinking became more dangerous. Instead of ubiquitous cheap beer, liquor and grain alcohol appeared, and the stakes were raised. In my sophomore year, there was a frat party that caused me to issue myself a warning. The fraternity boys had organized a game called “human bowling.” They stretched out makeshift “lanes” made out of wet trash bags and duct tape. They blared Prince and Duran Duran. And they set out industrial trash cans filled with fruity, grain alcohol punch.
Once the punch had been flowing, they began the game. Petite, slender sorority girls were the “bowling balls.” The guys would pick up a girl, bunch her into a crooked ball shape, and heave her down the slippery lane. That was the whole point. Some of the guys tumbled down the trash bag lanes as well. The drinking was obscene. The grain alcohol punch had a peculiar, metal taste that I still recall to this day. The red liquid held in clear plastic cups appeared like little silent, red sirens against a lead-colored, overcast sky.
A frat boy folded my arms and legs into my body and whoosh, down I went along the terrible lane. I had had two big cups of grain alcohol punch and had never been so drunk. People were too drunk to “keep score.” I never ate much, so the effect of the booze was sudden. The edges of the duct tape scratched me and I was dizzy. Everything was chilly and wet. I remember thinking this has gone too far. I should just stick to beer. Within two more hours I found myself mildly blacked out with one guy in his room. I had no recollection of agreeing to go there. He heaped himself on top of me, all heat and hormones, his lips falling clumsily on my face, neck and shoulders. I pushed him off of me and pushed harder to get away. His glasses had fallen to the floor. He could not see me get away.
Toward the end of that time in college, marked by hard study, beer and hard liquor, I had a seemingly chance encounter with a teenage boy that led to twenty shared years, a marriage and two children, heartbreak, and divorce.
It took place at a freshman academic honors banquet in May of 1985. About two hundred freshmen had been invited due to their high overall GPA. I had never believed in that hokey phrase their eyes met across a crowded room, but it happened. Our eyes locked above dozens of tables and people and we stared at each other throughout the banquet, barely blinking, pupils widening, ignoring the formal remarks and applause and the sounds of dishes being cleared. I was completely transfixed by the power of his hazel gaze. I could not resist. I was a doe in his headlights. He was 6’3” with thick auburn, curly hair and a swimmer’s physique. We did not speak to each other at all. Looking back, I wonder was it just adolescent hormones—teenage lust? Or was it love at first sight? Four summers after that night, I would become his June bride.
Julia Caroline Knowlton PhD is Professor of French at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. She is an MFA candidate in poetry & creative nonfiction at Antioch University in Los Angeles. She holds an American Academy of Poets College Prize, and is the author of the award-winning memoir _Body Story_ (2004). "Sorority Girl, 1984" is the second chapter of her new memoir.