There were a few others like her. The socially-awkward, the fashion-backward, the public school girls without a clue, protruding like snags from the satiny wave of freshman girls. They were nerds decades before nerd was cool, being bounced and jostled like flotsam in a sea of glossy perfection. Assembled before the grand houses just off campus were hundreds of polished young ladies looking just so. Their long locks were curled and flipped. Their dresses and heels stylish and matching. Their makeup, applied like a pro. They were poised and posing, as if they’d been groomed for the pageant stage.
This was sorority rush 1979. Liz woke early set to impress, having assembled her outfit the night before. But when she stepped out into the herd, she realized her look was no match for the pricy couture on parade. The peasant dress she’d sewn that summer was a weak attempt to cover plump curves with billowy sleeves and a long tiered skirt. And she realized too late that her cork-heeled platform shoes would make an ordeal of tramping the University’s Greek streets. At least she had no worry of being stared at. The other girls were only focused on their competition. Liz was far from a contender.
1979. The last gasp of the seventies. A decade when many young women couldn’t reconcile sorority life with their feminist awakening. The sixties hippie counterculture also hadn’t been kind to the glamour of Greek life. Sure, the daughters of sorority moms kept the big houses alive, but others had been forced to close chapters in the face of dwindling membership.
Liz started that day with a naive optimism that college would offer something different from the high-image social structure of her suburban, white high school. University would be a place where intelligence and enthusiasm could shine through, allowing the uniqueness of each individual to be appreciated. But as she clumped from house to house with her assigned group of smiling rivals, she realized she was swimming in the wrong pool.
Even in those days when the air felt so progressive, the first day of sorority rush was referred to as the cattle call. And the aspiring pledges, still wearing their high school shine, knew it. Clusters of fraternity brothers, cold cups in hand, lounged on porches and balconies assessing the parade of fresh young things. Inside, the experience wasn’t much different, just more intimate and one hundred percent female. Groups of girls were packed into elegant living rooms, a sorority sister assigned to three or four guests. The clock was ticking, with less than ten minutes to make an impression, or a judgment, at each stop. Only months later did Liz learn that most of the houses had already filled their pledge classes with legacy girls or those with social ties.
In house after house, Liz tried to divine the rules of the game. The best she could muster was a forced smile and a bobbing head as she sat, squeezed thigh-to-thigh on a sofa, listening to banal conversations about high school activities. At one house, after becoming convinced she’d inadvertently consumed invisibility potion, the sorority hostess turned to her. And spoke. To her.
“What does you father do?” she asked, cocking her head.
Momentarily surprised by the attention, Liz was thankful not to have to disclose her out-group high school pursuits, which consisted of the school newspaper, the international club, and bottom rung of the tennis team. With her best lip gloss smile, she revealed that her dad was a professor at this very university. The hostess seemed genuinely interested. In fact, she swiveled around, pointing her knees, and her full attention, toward Liz.
Liz anticipated the follow-up question, and was preparing to talk about her mom’s architecture career. Instead, the girl asked what subject her dad was teaching.
Straightening up, Liz replied, “nuclear engineering.”
Liz felt only a tinge of guilt for stealing attention from the girls pressed in beside her. She waited for the next question, but the hostess’s face was blank.
“Oh,” she said.
And that was it. Those knees swiveled away and Liz was looking at Sorority Girl’s back once again. Only later did she realize how wrong her answer had been. An engineering professor may be something in the real world, but in the Greek world, all dads came with dollar signs, like a Zagat guide. A college professor only had value if the girls could leverage the relationship for favorable grades. Not many occupants of those Greek houses were there to study nuclear engineering.
So that was sorority rush. On the second morning of what was to be a week-long ordeal, every girl received a dot matrix print-out listing invitations for the second round. Liz studied hers.
“Nothing. Blank. Not even Phi Mu,” she said out loud, though there wasn’t a sympathetic ear in sight. The Phi Mus. The other houses called them the Phi Moos because they were known to be less discriminating when it came to looks. “Not even the Phi Mus,” Liz said again as she sank into a bench along the wall of the dorm lobby.
In the quiet corner, she examined her print-out more carefully but it was as empty as the first time she’d looked. Around her, teens were sobbing into the arms of fellow rushees. Most had been invited back to several houses, but their tears lamented the house that had scratched them with barely an introduction. Liz looked at the paper in her lap. There was a mimeographed instruction sheet detailing the next steps for those girls still in the game. And there was a pink envelope. Liz didn’t see anyone else with a pink envelope. She opened it, expecting a curt, “thank you, now go home” message from the Greek Gods.
Inside was a hand written note on stationery embossed with a triangle and the letter Z. An invitation to meet Delta Zeta alumnae seeking ambitious young women to re-establish their chapter on campus. Liz was being chosen after all! She could be among a select group of girls invited to build the Delta Zeta house back to its former glory.
“You’ll be a pioneer,” she was told by the three mom-aged sorority women when she met them in a windowless conference room. She didn’t meet any other recruits, but she was assured they were similarly “independent-minded young ladies.” They told her about the history of Delta Zeta, the strength of their houses across the country, the supportive network of sisters, the traditions and achievements. She imagined being in charge of rebuilding the venerable sorority chapter.
“We’re going to be pioneers,” Liz explained to her parents when she called them on the pay phone. She said she couldn’t talk long, though, because other girls were waiting to use the line. This was true, but she also didn’t want to debate the decision. As children of immigrants, her parents had been sent to college for technical degrees, not to belong to social cliques. They encouraged their two kids to pursue their passions, so when Liz had decided to go through rush, they wished her luck and didn’t impose any advice.
That very next weekend the new recruits moved into Delta Zeta House and met for the first time. They were called together in the formal living room, a space that had once been elegant and gracious, but was now worn and tired. That formal greeting place, along with the two pink letters nailed high on the front of the house, were the only Greek vestiges on the building that had been operating as a boarding house for nearly a decade. Meeting her new sisters for the first time, Liz realized this gaggle of pledges would require heaps more renovation work than the run-down sorority house.
Assembled were a dozen white girls with white names like Jill, Jean, Paula, Anne, Robin, and Julie. There was even a girl named Cathy White. There sat Michelle with her disturbingly large eyes, Gretchen with her sad, saggy face perpetually ravaged by zits, and Laura with her huge hips and stringy black hair that seemed to be impervious to shampoo. Tanya, who was moving her drum set into the basement, was going to be Liz’s roommate. A sad assortment culled from the beautiful herd, now together face-to-face.
The gigantic bucket of sorority wannabes had been poured through a fine mesh sieve, and Delta Zeta had scraped up the odd remains. Many of these girls would live out their dating lives as girls with “good personalities.” Liz would eventually find that some didn’t even deserve that label. Surely they all believed, as Liz did, that their true beauty was yet to be discovered beneath the exterior that their genes had so badly bungled. Wanting desperately to find their place in the Greek system, they would come to understand that the Greek system didn’t have a place for them.
What’s a club without a secret ceremony? Still, Liz didn’t see why pledging had to take place in the dank basement. The girls, wearing pure white dresses, each held a single pink rose for the occasion. They recited photo copied promises of loyalty, fidelity, and good works, then the alumnae ladies went home to cook dinner for their families. The pledges got ready to party.
Pledge night was known as the “stock show,” and in keeping with tradition, fraternity boys paraded from house to house meeting the new girls on display. Just one fraternity visited Delta Zeta that night. This was Theta Xi, the neighbors across the street, known by the other Greeks as the bad boys of campus. They were proud of their reputation as a real live Animal House. The girls were flattered to get an invitation to their party that night.
Twelve girls went out. Ten returned before morning. And thus began the desperate routine in which fledgling boys and girls, newly released from the nest, drank themselves to a near stupor, paired off to available rooms, and engaged in activities they mistakenly interpreted as affection.
This became their Friday and Saturday nights. And sometimes Thursdays. The rest of the week, girls who imagined they were in love would wait for the phone to ring. Liz engaged in some awkward closeness with a boy who later wanted to “just be friends,” but she soon developed a level of pesky detachment that could have been perceived as judgmental if anyone was paying attention. The house phone was in a tiny closet on the main floor, and Liz would just shake her head when she had to step around one of the Delta Zetas sprawled among a pile of books in the hallway waiting for a boy to call.
Frat parties had an unwavering formula: Kegs of warm beer, buckets of mystery punch, pounding music, and warm bodies. Lots of bodies. For the boys, the objective was primal. For girls, it was more complicated. For some it was a game.
One night a month or so into first quarter, Liz found herself alone in a smoky basement, finishing her third cup of whatever it was everyone was drinking. Surveying the party room she noted that the crowd seemed to be thinning. The pairing up had begun.
“Hey.” A guy nudged her with his elbow. “Can I get you a refill?”
“Oh, I know what you’re up to.” Liz put her head near his so she could be heard above the din.
“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Was that true ignorance, or was he in a playful mood?
“You frat guys are all alike. Just wanting to lure an unsuspecting girl to your room.”
“I’m hurt. We’re not all like that, you know.”
Liz smiled. He was cute, in a boy-band sort of way, and he seemed rather nice. But she’d met plenty of cute and nice that quarter. She decided to stay in the game. “I know all your tricks,” she said.
“Tricks?” He acted incredulous. “It sounds so sinister.”
“Oh, you know.” Liz paused to think. “You give a girl a few drinks, then invite her to your room to see your piranhas. Or some other lame excuse.” That last word came out with a slur and sounded more like escuse.”
“Well, I do have piranhas, you know.” This time when he leaned his face near her ear, he touched his hand to her shoulder.
“Yes way. Want to see them?”
Her bluff had been called. She was intrigued.
Liz looked around. “Piranhas? You really have piranhas?”
“This I have to see.”
He took her cup and set it down on a bookshelf, then held her hand to lead her from the room. Liz felt light, as if she’d just stepped out the window and was flying toward Neverland. They weaved in and out of party clusters toward the bottom of the basement stairs. Nearing the exit, they passed a clutch of Delta Zetas.
Liz called out to them. “Hey, wanna see some piranhas? I’m going ta see this guy’s piranhas. What was your name again?”
“Right. Steve. Steve actually has piranhas. We should check ’em out.”
Liz had caught the girls’ attention. Most importantly they were without male accompaniment. They giggled in unison, and Michelle reached out for Liz’s free hand to be lead from the room. Jill and Paula abandoned their drinks and followed. With Steve in the lead, the group climbed two flights of stairs and navigated closed-door hallways. Steve unlocked the door to his room and escorted the four girls inside. A large rectangular tank glowed eerie blue in the dark room. Two shapes moved in a slow pas de deux.
“Well, there you go,” said Steve, contemplating the teetering girls crowded into his tight room.
“Whoa, check it out,” said Michelle. “They’re real.”
“Of course they’re real.” Steve looked to each girl as if performing a headcount. “So you’ve seen them. I guess we’d better get back to the party.”
“Strength in numbers,” Michelle whispered as they made their way back to the basement.
There was a lot Liz forgot about those drunken nights, but she always remembered the time a few extra sorority sisters saved her from the flesh-eating fish.
The sisters were never sure what to expect from the Delta Zeta National Council, but they tried to keep up with campus traditions nonetheless. The alumnae ladies were seen at the house occasionally, but they gave very little guidance, except to clarify when rent was due. Jill was appointed pledge president, and she relished her standing in weekly house meetings.
“We need to show them we’re a serious house.” Jill was sitting in one of the frayed and faded wing-back chairs the alumnae had promised to get re-upholstered. She tucked her right leg beneath her as a booster.
“But we’re not serious,” interjected Liz, accepting a round of smirks and giggles.
Jill didn’t laugh, and after a pause continued her lecture. “Our showing in Song Fest was an embarrassment. Paula, Gretchen and I had to carry the song for everyone.”
“There’s no way we were going to win that thing,” answered Liz. “The Kappas recruit all the best voice talent. We’re just twelve misfits.”
“Speak for yourself, Liz,” scolded Jill, but the others looked pained.
“Song Fest wasn’t even the worst. We shouldn’t have even shown up for Greek Games. Trying to make a human pyramid with a dozen P.E. dropouts. There was no way.”
“Yeah, but we won the talent show during Greek Week,” said Michelle.
“That’s only because the judges weren’t associated with Panhellenic Council,” reminded Liz. “But it was pretty cool. They totally didn’t expect a guy dressed as a logger dancing in a tutu with a chain saw.”
“That was the guys. We just held the stupid cardboard trees and giant food,” Jill said.
“Guys dressed as ants in motorcycle helmets. Pretty hilarious.”
“Again, the guys,” said Jill. “And we need to stop associating ourselves with the Theta Xis. They’re the dregs of Greek Row.”
“And we’re not?” As soon as Liz said that, she knew she’d gone too far.
The room quieted and everyone turned to Jill, waiting on the next word. Jill looked down at her hands for a full minute.
“Okay, fine,” Jill’s voice was higher and louder. “Has anyone got any brilliant ideas?”
Somebody said, “How ’bout a fundraiser?”
“It’s gotta be something the other houses aren’t doing,” said Jill.
“The Chi Os have the roses on Valentine’s Day. The Kay Dees have the Christmas stockings, Dee Gees have the teddy grams,” listed Anne.
“No, that’s the Zetas,” corrected Paula. “Zetas do the Bears.”
“Easter.” Liz mumbled into her lap. “Nobody’s got Easter.”
“I think there’s a reason for that,” said Gretchen. “It’s a religious holiday.”
“Sure, yeah, there’s the religious part,” Liz said. “But then there’s the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs. Can we do something with that?”
And that’s how they hatched their plan to deliver Easter eggs with messages written on them. They congratulated themselves on being the first to invent the Egg Gram. Jill was even willing to suit up in a borrowed bunny costume. She said it was an expression of her leadership. They knew she was the only one petite enough to fit.
Liz went to work hand lettering a sign, using all the egg puns she could fit on a page: “Are you eggcentric? eggotistical? eggciteable? eggsact? eggstatic? eggnored? Well, tell someone! Send an Easter Egg Gram!” They went around to the other houses, announcing the egg delivery plan during meal times, ignoring the less than polite giggles and snickers their presence elicited.
A week later, they picked up the orders. Fifty-six Egg Gram orders, and one actual egg. The egg was from a frat guy who emphasized he’d made it special for the recipient. The Delta Zetas examined it and declared it suspicious, agreeing they weren’t going to take the risk of delivering rotten food.
Writing greetings on dyed hard-boiled eggs was no easy chore. And it seemed some of the messages had been written extra long as a challenge.
“We give them a word limit next time,” grumbled Liz.
“We don’t try to write romantic sentiments on hard boiled eggs, next time,” said Tanya, who’d been told to take a break from her basement drumming to help out.
The eggs were delivered, but Jill said never again was she going to subject herself to the snide remarks and tail grabbing that came with wearing a rabbit suit. At fifty cents an egg, the fundraiser brought in twenty eight dollars. After expenses, the girls had enough to buy a large pizza.
They were well into third quarter, and Liz sat on her lower bunk, thick textbook in her lap, yellow highlighter skimming across every line. Her grades had convinced her of the need to spend more time on homework. Math had been a disaster, and even subjects that had been a piece of cake in high school took a hit from scant studying. To add to the misery, during finals she’d contracted the dual scourge of communal college living; tonsillitis and mononucleosis. The clinicians at the campus health center knew exactly what they were dealing with as soon as she walked in. She’d fallen asleep during one final exam, and had over-medicated herself the night before another. In portfolio review for her drawing class, she slumped across from the instructor hoping the critique would be over before she passed out or needed to vomit.
“Hey.” It was Tanya’s voice from the top bunk. Their room was practically a closet, but they cherished the privacy compared to the vast sleeping porch with its ten bunks.
“What’re we doing here?”
“Whadya you mean?”
“We’re a bunch of losers.”
“You’ve got your band,” Liz said, staring at row upon row of yellow lines in her text and considering her nonexistent love life.
“I mean here. This house.”
“Yeah, I know. We’ve gone nowhere.” Liz thought about the promise and excitement of being a pioneer. That was only a few months ago. A few long months. Two girls had already moved out of Delta Zeta and into the dorms. Another had left mysteriously, calling two weeks later from a mental hospital, although nobody missed her. They’d taken to referring to her as the “house psycho” after the crazy things she did that freaked them all out.
There was a knock, then the door opened.
It was Jill. “Hey guys. House meeting. The alums are here.”
Liz poked her head out. “Do we have to dress?”
“I dunno, they said they want everyone downstairs.”
“Maybe we can ask them if they know any more verses to the drinking song we found in those old scrap books.” Liz began to sing, swinging her fist back and forth holding an imaginary beer stein, “Drink ‘er down Delta Z, drink ‘er down (damn quick)! Here’s a toast to all the sisters and to hell with all the misters! Drink ‘er down Delta Z…”
“Really, Liz, get serious for once.”
“Okay, I seriously don’t want to go to this meeting.” Liz slapped her book shut.
Jill walked away with a “whatever.”
The ragtag group of remaining pledges were assembled in the living room, draped over sagging chairs and perched on couches. Three alums were sitting on a row of straight-back chairs brought in from the dining room. Tanya and Liz were the last to arrive. They leaned against the wall, hands behind their backs.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” began one of the ladies. “So we might as well just say it.”
“This is it,” Tanya muttered to Liz, provoking a scolding glance from Jill.
“This is as hard for us as I’m sure it is for you,” the alum continued. “We were so hopeful…”
Just get it over with, thought Liz. As she looked around the room, it occurred to her that most of the other pledges had no idea what was happening.
“It is with great regret…We’re so sorry to have to be bringing this news…We know how hard you’ve worked…We admire your hard work and dedication…” The girls were leaning forward, waiting for a complete sentence.
Another alum took over. “It is with great regret that we must inform you that, due to the diminishing number of pledges…”
“…and the inability of the house to recruit additional girls…”
Liz leaned over to Tanya. “We were supposed to be recruiting new girls?”
“…you won’t be able to host a viable rush this fall. Therefore, we will be closing the house.”
Mouths dropped open and a few of the girls put their heads in their hands. Tears started to form. Liz looked at Jill with wide eyes, but she said nothing.
Laura was running her fingers through a section of her hair, examining the ends, and putting them up to her lips. When she spoke there was a quiver in her voice. “But…where will we go?”
The alums had an answer for that. “Oh, don’t worry. As long as you’re up to date on your rent, you’re welcome to stay until the end of the school year. We’re not going to kick you out.”
“Right. We’re not going to kick you out,” echoed another lady.
Then the room was silent. A few of the girls were wiping their eyes. Others were examining their hands. The alums looked around, then picked up their handbags and stood in unison.
“Alright then,” said the one who had been doing most of the talking. “Since there are no more questions…There is one more thing. We’ll need to ask that you return your Delta Zeta pins, since you never completed initiation.”
Jean put her hand to her chest, as if to protect a jewel that wasn’t there.
With a click of heels on linoleum, the ladies exited to the alley.
Liz scanned the room with shifting eyes. Everyone was frozen and speechless. Suddenly it was as if a filter had been removed, revealing the repulsive truth. The air was thick with the smell of bodies and drugstore perfume. Liz rolled to her right and around the corner into the hallway. She often found solace in the kitchen, which was at the back of the house.
Liz figured the ladies were already in their cars heading back to suburbia, but as she started rifling through the pantry, she heard their voices coming through an open window.
“They didn’t seriously think they were going to be Delta Zetas,” said one.
“I’d hate to have to introduce them to the National Council,” responded another. This was followed by cruel laughter that jabbed at Liz’s crushed spirit.
“Well, at least we kept the lights on in the house until we could recruit a real pledge class,” the third lady said.
Tanya came into the kitchen. “Hey.”
“Hey,” said Liz. “Well, I guess I’ll have more time to study.”
“You gonna live at home?”
“I suppose so. You?”
“I’ll probably find some roommates.”
“Yeah. So…” Liz couldn’t think of a way…or a why…to reveal what she’d just overheard.
“So, yeah…” echoed Tanya.
Liz handed Tanya a loaf of bread. “Want a sandwich?” she asked, as she started pulling lunch meat from the refrigerator. They could hear low voices in the living room and footsteps going up the back stairs to the bedrooms.
Copyright Liz Behlke 2017
Bonus: This Delta Zeta Drinking Song as written on a sheet of notebook paper and tucked into my diary.
Eve was the first one to wear the DZ pin
Godiva was the fairest that ever did get in
Sally Rand was a DZ, too, although she had the itch
If Cleopatra were alive we’d pledge that dear ol’ bitch.
Drink her down, Delta Z, drink her down, (damn quick)
Drink her down, Delta Z, drink her down, (damn quick)
Here’s a toast to all our sisters and to hell with all the misters
Drink her down, Delta Z, drink her down!
Now if you chance to wander from that straight and narrow path
And if you flunk your morals just like you flunk your math
Don’t be disconcerted when you hear that parting call
For we have strong alumnae in the very depths of hell.(Chorus)
Now every DZ loves to live, but when it’s time to die
You’ll never hear a moan or groan, you’ll never hear a cry
She’ll walk right up to the pearly gates, what else is there to do?
But slip the grip to Joan of Arc for she’s a DZ, too.