For the second time, I get the email. I’ve been called to Standards once more. And however surprised I was the first time, however compromised I felt my integrity, this time I sigh and try to shiver off the creeps of it, because this time I know I deserve it.
I sit downstairs in the sorority house chapter room, and the Standards committee (officers, advisers, and also, of course, the new officers and advisers in training so as to maximize the number of witnesses) smiles at me and ask if I know why I’m here.
“I was ridiculous at formal,” I tell them.
They look at me, their makeup smooth and shimmery and their hair swept up in ponytails, and I know they’re waiting for more. A confession beyond the obvious. A glimpse into the mind that caused this breach in behavioral standards. And I look back, almost straight through them, and I don’t say a word.
I had done my best to start fresh. I came back to the sorority house after my months of disaffiliation, and I built up the idea of FORMAL as my absolute social return. I was back, I’d be noticed, everyone would be delighted—honored even, maybe—by the presence of Mary Marge, me, the absentee, the straggler.
I invited my “big sis” Haley—the nursing school/neurology prodigy—and my “little sis” Laura—the popular, hysterical, Catholic School girl that everyone wanted for a “little”—over to my one-bedroom on the square for a family taco night. We’d become closer than ever, eating lunches together and buying the under-21 Laura her alcohol and driving around blaring music and being more college than I ever thought I’d be again. A few beers deep, laughing and talking shit, I decided I’d try on my formal outfit for them! I’m known for sequins, particularly gold, and so no one was surprised when I unfolded it. But then I put it on, and their jaws dropped to the tortillas on the table, and they both burst out laughing at me.
It was a very short romper—you know, a jumpsuit—made of little dull gold sequins with a deep V down the front for my cleavage. There was definitely some cleavage. I bought it cheap, thinking What the hell! Who cares if it’s raunchier than usual?! Like I said—I’m back, baby, and I’m going big or going home. And so I was shocked that my friends seemed so, well, shocked.
But then Laura broke the news, her face red with laughter. For the first time ever, girls had decided to wear long dresses to the event. To class it up a little bit. So I knew I’d be a little different in a romper instead of dress, but now I was going to be the only one, or one of few, baring legs. And I kind of started to sigh and fret about it, knocking down the last of my Tecate, but I reminded myself, FORMAL, MARGE! GO BIG!
Haley and I made plans. I couldn’t go with my boyfriend James, I didn’t have any frat-boy friends like I used to, and my back-up date had fallen through. Haley dated one of my friends—a boy I’m famous for not only rooming with last summer, but also for telling him “I don’t hang out with boys your age” on my twenty-first birthday—and we arranged to meet at my place beforehand.
“Maybe we’ll even find you a last-minute date,” she said.
“My date,” I tell them. “I didn’t know my date.”
They’re all still looking at me, probably with concern underneath this organized system of embarrassment, and one or two of them nod as if this is an excuse worth acknowledging.
I hadn’t been to a formal in an entire year. I hadn’t ever remembered a formal. At my first, I fell down the steps of the venue. At my second, I cried over a boy I barely knew, but had invested a semester’s worth of made-up emotions in. At my third, I kissed a boy who I thought was my date because they both had on tortoiseshell glasses. After close examination of the pattern, I left town instead of going to the fourth and visited my sister one state over. So for the fifth, it was more than time to get back in the game! Show I can drink like I used to! That sounds like I’m middle-aged, like I’m reflecting on youth with a shake of the graying head, but it’s true. The blackouts of my freshman and sophomore years had gone from twice a week to twice a semester; the way I got home had changed from unknown to walking.
So when Haley and her guy and this other guy, who I think might also have been there when I made the “boys your age” remark, showed up at the apartment, I decided to use this unknown bro to my advantage. He was an excuse to get drunk, then drunker, because I didn’t know him and I wanted to feel comfortable. Like I was running the show.
The four of us blared The Big Chill soundtrack on my record player, and we danced and we laughed and we moved from wine to vodka, and I didn’t know what I was doing but it was making me more and more and more nervous about the party, because what if I really wasn’t dressed right and what if no one would remember me, or would think I’m that weird girl or that outcast or that bookstore hipster with the older man, and at some point we left the apartment because some unknown other frat boy came to drive us, and we got to the bus that was taking us to the venue, and I realized that I was, by far, drunker than the other three. And maybe because that realization had clanged into place, or maybe because we were on a bus, I started to feel sick.
Not again! I thought. It would only be a couple of minutes to the venue, and I leaned my head against the window and tried to focus on the filmy streetlights and the lovingly groomed small-business landscaping of Oxford. At my first formal, before I was even initiated into the sisterhood, I had puked in a solo cup while on the bus. It’s a little-known embarrassment—except to those of us who know the story—because somehow, with the help of my very sweet date, no one had noticed it. Some guy even asked me a few minutes later, his voice a stretched croak like he’d been wandering desert wastelands, if he could have a sip of my drink, and I laughed so hard I almost passed out. But on this bus, I proclaimed that I would hold my shit together.
Haley patted me on the back, laughed, held my hand, a cycle. I kept it together. My date and I communicated solely through laughs. I got a wristband at the door (baby girl is 21!) and immediately found the line for the bathroom and cut through a line of unfamiliar freshman girls who had broken the seal or needed to touch up their mascara, and probably one or two stumblers that if I stared hard enough might look a lot like I used to.
I said something like: “I need this more than you do, I’m really sorry.”
I leaned into a stall, gold sequins doubled over and all that cleavage pointing down, and hurled.
“My best friend Everett was supposed to come with me,” I say. Then I add, “I know that’s not, like, an excuse.”
Everett had broken the news just days before the formal. He couldn’t get off work—or actually maybe he never asked off in the first place. I choose to remember that he couldn’t. The girls on Standards still look concerned, and that’s their job, concern, you know, even though it can often come across as being judgmental.
I think about how I could say it. How could I make them understand, maybe eke out a little bit of empathy in their low-carb-diet hearts?
I want to tell them about the loneliness of making your grand social reemergence alone, and being thrown back into the swing of things and being used to my settled-down life with my boyfriend and being so sad that I just couldn’t find either the balls or whatever else to bring him with me to the event.
In the bathroom, pink vomit sloshing and a pepperoni (or something) hanging out on top, I had sent a text to James. It was supposed to say oh, I wish you were here or something, but instead I think I recall the words oasis and finger.
I left the bathroom, giving my snarkiest face to the freshmen, found a table away from the dance floor, had two sips of a beer. My friend Anna Cate came up to me, gave me a hug, and led me to the door. Her boyfriend walked me out. It was 9:30. James was waiting in his car.
It might not have been such a big deal if I were in the long gauzy dresses in every shade of pale, with my hair half-up and Swarovski crystals dangling, instead of wearing red lipstick with hoops and the fucking SHORT GOLD SEQUINED ROMPER. But—like I wanted to—I stood out.
Finally, I just say, “I was stupid, and I wasn’t comfortable.” There isn’t an explanation beyond this. And I realize that’s truer, and so much truer than any details about my personal life could ever be. And so much more concise, so much easier for them to shoo me away with my extra bit of philanthropy as reparation and wait for the next puke-faced perpetrator to take my place.
I apologize, though nobody asks me to. I tell them I got myself out of there, knew I was too drunk, left the party, as if I had done them a favor. But then there’s the kicker, just as I stand to go.
“So, also,” one of them says to me. “I heard something else. About your outfit.”
“I didn’t see it,” she qualifies. “So I’m not trying to pick on you. But I heard it was a little bit… a little bit much for someone who was in your… your state.”
And then I lose my shit, and I apologize again while my face swells and darkens to look like a watermelon, and I nod through anything else that she might be saying, because there are too many eyes on me and I need to leave and go to work and do things that are actually important, and as I feel this deep burning resentment for myself but also for this judgment, I realize how hurt my feelings are. How deep run the cracks in my odd-girl-out appearance, how constant the faults of my embarrassment.
Once again, I slither away. I invite them—my friends, my true friends, my few, the big sis and little sis and other un-mandated sisters—to come to my apartment instead of meeting at the sorority house. It feels like the end of an era. I have had my blowout: gotten wild, gotten stupid, and gone home.
Though I’ve played it out in my head before, imagined the extra cash in my checking account, now all of a sudden I see it differently. No dramatic dropout. Just signing some paperwork and being done. I’m not mad I was addressed for behavior, I’m not taking it out on anyone, I just don’t know why I wanted so badly to do it.
But how would it feel if no one cared what I did? If I didn’t feel the pressure to live it up—pressure I managed to put entirely on myself? How would it feel not to wear my big T-shirts and show off the duality of my worlds? Would those things feel any worse than this?