February, 2013, (it’s been a while, I know) deep in the swampiness of a sophomore year that was spent puking in public bathrooms and dropping my accounting class, effectively telling my business minor to go fuck itself, things change significantly. First, I get a job on campus. Then I get a boyfriend on campus, too. And he’s not a fleeting frat boy, nope, not an alcohol-induced infatuation, he’s a grad student. I know what you’re thinking: hold up—if anything could bolster Mary Marge’s sense of herself even more, it’s a grad student. But that’s not how it goes. It just happens, and it makes me happy. He knows I’m going to write about it. He’ll look at me and laugh and say, Marge, you should’ve proofread, you know?
It happens in a weird chain of events one night, after a long year of friendship and eating weekly breakfasts on the Oxford square: one minute we’re at a Mardi Gras party and my leopard-print dress is way too tight, the next minute a friend is driving us both somewhere to get coffee, the next minute it’s the next morning and we’re sitting on somebody’s kitchen floor still talking. And from there, it works out, or it seems to.
It’s hard at first, and even harder to explain why it is. My roommate and my girlfriends don’t seem to understand. He is not our kind. He doesn’t wear Cole Haans or drive a Tahoe. He doesn’t have any Greek insignia next to his name, didn’t even when he was an undergrad, and it only makes them more nervous when I make the distinction like that. Grad. Undergrad. What’s the difference in a few years? I wonder, but my friends let me know just what. How could I bring him to a sorority function, they ask each other. I’ve been too excited to even think about that.
It isn’t that they don’t like him—him, he’s not a him, he’s got a name, his name is James. James. James is kind, kind like you wouldn’t even believe, and quiet and gracious as all hell—and so to most people, we don’t seem to have a lot in common. But we do! I promise! Deep down! The good stuff! He just isn’t what I set my sights on when I stepped into the allegiance of a sorority. No Polo shirts or keg parties. Books of poetry.
So the semester’s first social function rolls around a few weeks into dating James. It’s a “date party,” which just means a party, with dates, simple enough, though these parties are never simple. My hair is tousled just right. I’m wearing enough makeup, for once, that people actually notice I’m wearing it. My dress is short, and moves well—thank God, because I’m ready to drink and drink and dance—and sparkles under the dorm room lights as I’m dressing.
A friend asks me if James is picking us up for the pregame, since he’s my date and all.
I guess I forgot to mention. I’ve decided to invite my male-best-friend Everett to come along as my date instead. I guess I forgot to tell all of my friends, too. But… why? Just now, in the first throes of love that has, a year later, proven itself, just as we’ve started this thing, why wouldn’t I want to show him off and dance with him and get his over-21ness to by me my drinks? (A vodka tonic and a hunk of lemon, if you please.)
Because—wait for it—like I said, my boyfriend is a graduate student, which makes him a graduate assistant, which makes him by every definition a teacher, which means some of my freshman sorority sisters just might happen to be in his class.
And how would that feel, to him, or to them even, to see his 8 a.m. counterparts dancing and drinking and taking pictures with their fingers forming Greek letters? The presence of their teacher in the same bar? The man who grades their essays and takes attendance?
When we met he wasn’t a teacher yet, but we still talked about things like Bartleby, the Scrivener, and he showed me how to like Emily Dickinson. He was the first guy I’d ever met who could rock a baseball cap without looking like he wanted to go play baseball. He knew music and loved music, helped me build a record collection to give my mom for Christmas, introduced me to classics, but never held it against me that my favorite artists are Stevie Nicks and Frank Ocean and that no musical education could change that. He once accidentally touched my knee under the counter at a restaurant, long before a late night on the linoleum, and he apologized profusely, like he’d spilled hot tea all over me, like he’d done something he could never take back.
He once asked me, “Did you really write that thing that I liked?”
I didn’t say anything, but I asked him back, “Were you really in that band that I sang along to in middle school?”
Yes and yes. I had to have him. We made each other nervous. He was kind and gentle and good. What else was I going to do but wait?
But I’m not about to tell this to my vodka-red-bull-sipping sorority sisters, other than the most select few, because why betray the tenderness of falling hard in love with somebody when your audience doesn’t seem like they’re even trying to understand? Instead I tell them that I promised Everett he could come with me in James’s place, and that he’s such a good dancer, and that James said it was fine, and that maybe he can just come to the next one.
So we go to the pregame party at my friend Anna Cate’s ridiculously expensive condo right on the square, because she is heir to a used-car lot empire that covers half of Missouri, and after a few drinks and a few conversations, even though my hair is perfectly hair-sprayed to one side and my lips are bright pink and my fingernails are grown out and buffed, I take my smiling and equally well-coiffed Everett to one side of the room. I tell him I don’t want to go to the party. I tell him I want to go hang out with my boyfriend. I tell him I want to Irish-goodbye this situation and walk somewhere else, maybe grab a taco or a burger, then go our separate ways.
This man, my boyfriend, (can I say that some more? My BOYFRIEND?) has become my semester and my social functions, that’s what I want to say to Everett. Instead I say I’ll buy him a handle of Jack Daniels and we can call it even. He agrees without hesitation, and I walk from the fancy condo complex to James.
It starts happening like that a lot. He starts getting me into bars that I could never get into, still-twenty Mary Marge, and I start making a different set of friends than at the bars with Tuesday night jello shots or where girls don’t actually know what kinds of beers there are to choose from. I stop going out with my girlfriends. Or the old ones, anyway.
I was always the sore thumb in the sorority pledge class: because I was one of few who had to pay her own way, one of even fewer who did not actively want to participate in some of the events, one of even fewer who questioned her sense of belonging and exclusion every time she did participate at all. But now, I had something to actively take me away from the events. An excuse of a better thing to do. Because nothing is better than a new boyfriend, that fireworking anxiety on your first few dates, the thrill of him paying for your dinner, the first kiss, the second kiss, the third kiss, every time.
James becomes my excuse not to spend every waking moment in the dorm, and at a certain point this starts to annoy and hurt my friends. My roommate wears my clothes more often. I’m going to movies and parties and bars and to my boyfriend’s soft green couch to binge-watch Twin Peaks.
At a certain point, it makes sense to me that I should drop my sorority.
I’ve put in two years, I’ve had this new opportunity where I’ve figured out how it feels to be disentangled from a Greek distinction, and it feels all of a sudden like time to dip out. I’ve missed the most recent social functions. My big sis and lil sis don’t call me to go out as much anymore. All the money I’ve spent—couldn’t I have done something grander with every dime?
And so I talk to my mom, and my best friends, and they all say only I can make that decision, that they don’t care and nothing about me will actually change. Then I sit down with James.
I can’t wait to tell him about this decision I’ve made. This grad student of mine—how glad will he be to have me separate from the silly Greek scene on our campus? And so as I do, as I say to him, smiling, ready for how relieved he’ll be, “Look, so I think I’m going to drop the sorority,” he scrunches up his face a little and says he doesn’t think I should.
I tell him no, I’m convinced, it’s the right decision, it’s time.
He has seen me at some of my happiest moments among them, he says. It’s not as different from me as I’m making it seem. It’s the newness, he says, of us and my new social life, it’s not a real displacement.
So we agree, I’ll give it one more shot. I’ll do another semester and participate in every aspect, and if it doesn’t make me happy, actively happy, then I will say See ya later, sign the paperwork, and cut my membership short.