caitlin mullen • winter/spring 2017
“You think he…he made a pass at him?
“Shit man, shut up, would you?” Hollingsworth was teetering-off-the-edge-of-the-earth drunk, which is just about how drunk we’d need to have been to admit we were wondering the same thing, to admit why and how we could picture it. Wasserman reaching, running his fingers through O’Neil’s hair, O’Neil too shocked to move at first. Like we had been. Wasserman whispering about the Greeks, how in the army, sex between men was an act of solidarity. You would kill and be killed for the ones you shared your body with.
“Someone’s in deep shit,” Massey said, checking his phone. “Pledges should be here with the car by now.” The night air felt cool and clean, almost baptismal, after the sweat and spilled beer and dim staleness of the bar. Over the summer we had forgotten how remote we were when we were at school, how many stars we could see up there. We were the senior class of DKO. That year, we were kings.
“Well something happened. You seen those two?”
It was the only explanation we could think of—those guys had been friends from the cradle, all the way up through Andover. O’Neil was Wasserman’s VP. Wasserman had finally tried something with his best friend and O’Neil shot him down. We had only been back on campus for two weeks, but every time Wassermann walked into a room O’Neil’s face clouded with hate. Wasserman had started whistling his way through the house, and even the sound of it, his footsteps, his stupid, happy tunes, made O’Neil grit his teeth.
Pledge number Four was let in as a favor and he knew it. Paretti’s father needed to do some kind of deal with Four’s father and Paretti’s pops was putting the pressure on. It was hard to say no to Paretti’s old man, whose money financed the frat’s liquor budget for the entire academic year, but still the final call came down to Wasserman. Some of the sophomores were surprised when Wasserman agreed to give him a bid, but not us. Jack was the kind of guy who loved nothing more than people feeling indebted to him, having favors out and waiting for them to be returned. The way Jack moved through life reminded us of girls playing Cat’s Cradle, always pulling and moving and tightening the strings, shifting tension points, making new shapes. Four had been a cross-country runner in high school—a loner, a guy on the margins. He was gangly, fidgety, hair buzzed close to his scalp, with a ridge of acne erupting along his jaw. He was always staring at the ground, which made it easy for the brothers to deliver him a nice whack upside the head as they passed. The other pledges mostly ignored him, and by the third week Wasserman adopted him as a personal servant of sorts.
It was the third Sunday in September and after a night at the bars we were all hungover—Hollingsworth was particularly clammy and green—but we seniors were creatures of ritual. Jack had trained us that way. Every Sunday at four we met for blackjack and gin and tonics in the library. On those Sundays something about the juniper in the gin, the cool glasses in our hands, always felt cleansing. This time O’Neil had joined us.
“You’re looking fresh, sir,” Birch said to him.
“Stayed in last night. Talked to my girl.”
“So how does that work, O’Neil?” Wittman said. “Do you guys have Skype sex? Or are you old school and do it over the phone?” Even Hollingsworth lifted his chin from the table at the mention of O’Neil’s girl, the thought of a computer screen filled with nothing but her milky skin.
“Come on, guys. I’m a gentleman.” He straightened the cards in his hand, took a sip of his drink. “But it’s FaceTime, thank you very much. Who the fuck still uses Skype?” We were still ribbing O’Neil when Wasserman passed the doorway. He stopped when he saw us, leaned against the frame. We greeted him, but O’Neil wouldn’t even turn around.
“You know what, fellas? I’m in the mood for a little gambling today.”
“We don’t play for cash,” O’Neil said.
Wasserman pretended not to hear. He snapped his fingers and Pledge Four stuck his head around the door, did a funny little run around him, and pulled a chair out from the table so Wasserman could sit. Birch dealt him in and the rest of us looked at O’Neil, who was tracing the pattern of the inlaid wood on the table with the tip of his finger. Wasserman watched him. Paretti nodded at Hollingsworth to start the round.
“O’Neil, your girl coming for the party this weekend?” Wasserman asked. He licked his thumb and moved a card in his hand.
“Yeah, she’s pretty psyched about it.”
“Should be a good show.”
“Always is.” We didn’t dare eye one another, just took bigger sips from our drinks. Four stood behind Wasserman, blushing on all of our behalves.
Tension between Wasserman and O’Neil aside, we were excited about seeing O’Neil’s girlfriend that weekend. Something about the two of them together gave us hope. Hope that we weren’t ruined from all the things we had done, all the girls we had mindlessly screwed over the last year and never called, the girls whose eyes we felt on us, first hopefully then narrowed, when we ducked away from them in the dining hall. We were like O’Neil once. We had had girlfriends from back home, but we broke up with them by the second or third week of pledging last year. Somehow O’Neil had had the same girlfriend since the 11th grade, a pretty blond who went to Syracuse, a broadcast journalism major. We had told our exes that they just didn’t understand the pressure we were under, that we couldn’t come visit them on weekends or spend hours on the phone with them anymore. We still thought of them sometimes, though. Their soft shiny hair, their warm skin. And we still wore the cashmere sweaters they got us for our birthdays and, somewhere, the last valentines they made us were tucked underneath our boxers in our dresser drawers. Sometimes we still called them when we were drunk, not saying anything if they answered, just to listen to our names in their voices, calling hello? Hello? Helloooo?
We tried not to take it as a sign that O’Neil started losing when Wassermann sat down, making rookie mistakes, not splitting pairs when he should have, hitting on a dealer’s six when he had 13. We strained to keep the concern out of our faces, to not raise our eyebrows at one another or nudge each other’s elbows. O’Neil was our math major and his mind ran on a pure kind of logic that we envied. It governed everything from the way he worked out a stats equation to the order of his Tuesday back and shoulders workout. We had always pictured his brain and his actions clicking along together as seamlessly as the gears of a Breguet watch. We didn’t like to see him this way, screwing up, like the rest of us.
“You’re not having a very good run, here, are you O’Neil?” Wasserman had a particular talent of smiling with his entire body, except for his mouth. O’Neil didn’t answer. We knew we should do something. This was O’Neil, who had helped Birch pass econometrics, who drove Paretti to the clinic when Paretti had warts, who delighted and humbled Wittman by naming all of the birds they saw when they jogged the trail that led up to the quarry. But we didn’t know what to say, how to step between them. And we were afraid.
“Let me give you some advice. When the game’s not going your way, you change the rules.” He nodded at us to move back from the table, gripped the edges, and tilted it until the cards and the chips rattled to the floor. The bottle of Tanqueray leaked on its side. The smell of juniper became overwhelming. Hollingsworth gagged. O’Neil shook his head, tossed his hand to the ground.
Wasserman turned to leave, patted Four on the cheek. Four turned the color of boiled beets. “Take care of that, would you?”
We had been doing a few lines off the edge of the pool table in the library when O’Neil’s girlfriend came on Friday. We saw Number Four carry her quilted duffel bag upstairs, heard the murmur of her voice from the foyer.
Birch stuck his head out of the doorway and snapped for Four to bring the bag into the room. We could tell Four was already nervous and there was a special pleasure in him being the one to root through it.
“It’s okay,” Paretti said. “We’re just taking a peek.” We could hear O’Neil’s girlfriend downstairs, telling O’Neil a dumb story about getting her favorite Tory Birch boots resoled and about some professor who had given her a B minus on a history paper. We rolled our eyes at one another, though we were all secretly thrilled to have her in the house. Her sweet Main Street beauty, her long slender legs. Wasserman liked to talk as though she was stupid, but some of us had good conversations with her about things like the politics of the labor markets in China, the finer points of the latest mortgage rate manipulation case in the UK, and we were pleasantly surprised by what she had to say.
Four dropped the bag in front of Paretti’s feet. Paretti reached to unzip it, but Birch put a hand on his shoulder. “What are you doing, man?” He snapped his fingers at Four, pointed to the bag, and we thought we saw the pledge’s hands tremble as he pulled on the zipper.
“Go on,” Wittman said. “It’s a routine security inspection. Show us.”
Four lifted a t-shirt out of the bag, thin and worn, with the name of her high school screened onto the front, and it pleased us to think of it as something she slept in without a bra, the outline of her nipples visible through the fabric. The pledge reached for a crumpled pair of jeans, faded at the knees. Boring, we said. Next. Four found a purple zippered pouch.
“Open it,” Birch said. Inside there was makeup, some of the powders loose and crumbling. The pledge’s fingers were quickly pinked with blush and he wiped them on his jeans. There was a sleeve of birth control pills that rattled in their packaging, and after that a plastic case for a retainer.
“Wait, open that,” Birch said. “Hold it up.”
“What the fuck, man,” Paretti said. The pledge pinched the retainer between his fingers by one of its wires. We were all shocked and a maybe a little touched by the pink butterfly of plastic and how it seemed so intimate, vaguely sexual with its delicate pink ridges, but also reminded us: she had once been a girl. We were quiet for a second as he held it to the light.
“Panties,” Birch said, even though we could hear footsteps coming up the main staircase. “Now.”
The pledge rooted through the duffel until he found them: black, silky, edged with scalloped lace. The footsteps were getting closer and the pledge raised his eyebrows, a plea for mercy, perhaps. Then the footsteps were right outside the doorway. The pledge didn’t turn around, only watched as we all started to smile. Wasserman crept up, then slapped the pledge on the ass. Four doubled over in relief.
“You’re a dirty little fellow, Four. What do we have here?”
Wasserman took the panties into his hands, thumbed the lace that when she wore them, must have fallen along the top of O’Neil’s girlfriend’s thigh. Four’s eyes widened when Wasserman stuck them in his back pocket and left. The pledge rushed the zipper along its tracks and made it just in time. We heard O’Neil’s door open and shut as Four delivered the bag, then another set of creaking steps on the stairs.
O’Neil’s girlfriend walked by the doorway, paused and leaned in, her pale pink fingernails gripping the dark wood frame. Her white oxford shirt was unbuttoned, exposing the elegant buttresses of her collarbones. “Hi boys,” she said.
Birch gestured to the lines on the table. “Help yourself.”
She licked her finger, dipped a pinkie into the coke, and sucked on it, like a kid with candy. We could have groaned with pleasure at the sight of it.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll come back after I change.” We watched her walk out of the room and some of us thought about her underwear. But most of us thought of that retainer, and the girls we used to kiss at summer camp, the air filled with the faint silage of campfire smoke tingling with the medicinal sweetness of pine. She didn’t come back, because O’Neil came up the stairs, stopped off for a line, winked at us. We waited for the girlfriend to come back, to show us something else, anything else: her bare feet, or an inch of skin along her lower back, or, God help us, a glimpse of her navel as she reached her arms above her head in a stretch. We hated O’Neil a little bit for taking her away from us, for keeping her for himself, and at the same time we never admired him more because he had managed to keep her, because he had done what we could not.
We heard them shut the door. We heard her giggle. Soon we could tell O’Neil was fucking her—the rock of the bedframe, the muffled crescendo of her orgasm through the walls. Birch rolled the cue under his palm, slowly at first and then faster and faster, and we listened. For a second we felt enveloped in it, this intimacy between O’Neil and his girlfriend, with one another other. Four was blushing again and he stared at his feet.
“Think she’s faking it?” Paretti asked.
“Of course,” Hollingsworth said. But then her pitch changed and she groaned in this ugly, guttural way we wouldn’t have imagined.
Massey took a sip of his drink. “Not so sure about that.” It was almost a whisper and we all shared in his veneration and his regret.
Later that night, after we came home from the bars, we looked up the girls we kissed for the first time at camp and saw that they had become even more beautiful, but we were too lonely and sad to even jerk off.
Fall Fest started on Saturday morning with a kegs and eggs session and by noon half the campus was on our front lawn. It was a lush September day, the light threaded with gold, all of us with the last traces of our summer tans, and warm enough that some of us even took our shirts off. We saw the younger girls whisper when we did, pointing to the triangle-shaped scars burned into our shoulders. We saw the pledges eye them with fear and respect. In one week they too would be initiated, branded with our mark. Wasserman liked initiation even more than pledging. It answered something in him, an obsession with extremes, a taste for grandeur. He spent the week leading up to it in a rare giddiness, giggling to himself like a child.
All day we all watched O’Neil’s girlfriend as she sucked down cranberry and vodkas and swayed back and forth with the same slow, lazy hip swivel no matter what song was on. She was wearing the jeans we had dismissed with such boredom the day before, but we changed our minds when we saw how pleasingly tight they were on her hips, her thighs, her ass. O’Neil assigned her her own pledge, Number Nine, who refilled her drinks and biked downtown when she said she wanted pizza. Wasserman, who usually ignored O’Neil’s girlfriend during her visits, was noticeably solicitous to her during Fall Fest. He lent her his sunglasses in the afternoon when the light slanted into the yard, and when the line was long for the bathroom, Wasserman led her up to the third floor of the house so she could use the private bathroom that was a part of the president’s suite.
“Has O’Neil told you anything about this house?” We heard him say to her as they stepped into the foyer. O’Neil watched them through narrowed eyes.
“Are you interested in architecture?”
“I just did a paper on the Baptistery doors in Florence.”
“Ah, Ghiberti. Very nice. Well shame on O’Neil, then. I’ll tell you. The house was built in 1878 by a dean of the college….The fireplace in the living room is pure Italian marble, and the one in the presidential suite is as well. The carvings were done by artisans in New York and they were shipped here in 1877, along with the front door. Have you ever noticed how intricate the woodwork is?”
A few minutes later the girlfriend emerged on the porch again, shielding her eyes from the sun, but walking a little better now that she had slipped out of her heels. She couldn’t find O’Neil in the glare, but she stopped to talk to us.
“You boys are all so nice,” she said, running a finger down Birch’s arm as he poured a splash of juice into a cup of vodka. The juice tinted the liquor the palest pink, a pink that reminded us again of her retainer. She squinted at Birch, even though he was now the one facing the sun. Her pupils were already huge and she had a strange, doll-like lightlessness to her eyes.
“Jack just gave me something lovely,” she said.
“Really?” Massey asked her. “What?”
“That’s a secret.” She giggled, took the drink from Birch, and wobbled off. We swallowed our drinks but didn’t say anything to one another. We had all been given favors by Wasserman, called aside at parties and offered pills that he rattled in his palm like dice, euphoric over being chosen. Then the drugs would kick in, and the world became a cocktail of color, sound, and light, all of it gathering behind us like a wave, pushing us through time and space. And there was Wasserman, his hands on our shoulders, our hair, our zippers, murmuring about the Greeks as he kissed our necks.
We lost her after that. The lawn was thick with bodies and the grass was soaked with spilled beer. We felt the damp ground squish between our bare toes. Some of us took girls up to our rooms, messed around with them, came back to the party. We tried to ignore the way night started to come down like a blind around five in the evening, the way the mountains seemed to rise up to meet it. Round two would start after dinner, but in the meantime we ordered the pledges to pick up every last cup from the lawn. There was nothing sadder than a lawn filled with crushed red Solos and the glint of empty beer cans in the cruel Sunday light. Number Four was like a crane with his skinny legs, stooping to pick up his cans, shake any last beer out, drop it into his bag. None of us would have admitted it but there was something melancholy in the way he moved, the slowness of it, his deliberateness, his gawky limbs outlined in shadow as the sun set.
We went inside to change, to nap, to shower. We were standing in the foyer when we saw O’Neil’s girlfriend again, making her way upstairs. She was wobbling side to side as she walked, her arms raised like the wings of an airplane beside her. She made it up to the third step before she fell, her wet foot slipping on the ledge of the fourth. Wasserman had been watching from the widow’s walk above, made his way down with a jog we knew was supposed to be gallant.
“Let me see,” Wasserman said, running a finger down the front bone of her shin. “How about I give you a hand?” We watched him take her arm. When she tripped on the second landing, where the staircase turns, he moved his hand to her waist.
O’Neil rose from the sofa. “I got it from here, Jacky.”
“That’s cool,” Wasserman said, flashing the kind of smile we hadn’t seen all day. “Just helping the lady out.” The girlfriend’s head lolled on her neck and Wasserman and O’Neil stared at one another over the top of her ponytail.
“Babe,” she said, “I’m going to…” and then there was the splatter of vomit onto bare wood. Wasserman raised an eyebrow, snapped his fingers to summon the nearest pledge, who striped off his own t-shirt to wipe the dots of vomit from Wasserman’s shoe.
We took the back steps up to our rooms while O’Neil helped his girl up the stairs and Pledges Two and Thirteen rolled the mops out of the kitchen. We wouldn’t have admitted it, but we were thinking of the softness of our flannel sheets, how much easier it would be to simply go to sleep. In the library Massey cut lines with a lazy slowness. From where we stood we could see a slice of O’Neil’s room: the mussed blankets, the duffel bag open on the floor.
O’Neil lay the girlfriend on his bed, took off her splattered jeans, tucked a towel under her head, scraped the trash can across the floor in case she was sick again. We watched him walk down the hall, avoided his eye. He left his door open and we peeked and saw the pale foot dangling off the bed, pink puke matting the blond hair. We cut more lines on the pool table. Paretti drained another can of Keystone. Number Four stood in the doorway, still staring at the girl across
“You’ll get used to it, kid,” Massey said. “You’ll get used to everything—including getting laid every weekend.” O’Neil passed us again on his way back to the room with a glass of water.
“He has her underwear,” Four blurted. O’Neil turned.
“What are you talking about, Number Four? Who has whose underwear?”
“Wasserman. He took them. They made me go through her stuff. I didn’t want to but they made me. I’m…I’m sorry.”
“Oh come on man,” Paretti said.
“Pledge, you’re out of line,” Wittman said.
“Wasserman better watch his fucking step,” O’Neil said. He stormed into the library, slammed the water glass against the pool table, then dropped his face close to the edge and hovered up three lines. Maybe it was the coke, the bloom of energy. We hadn’t seen O’Neil like that before, the veins in his neck thick and blue. We pulled a move from Number Four’s playbook and stared at out feet. Birch rolled the cue ball back and forth under his hand. We heard O’Neil’s footsteps as he walked away. We heard the door close and the lock click. We heard the girlfriend groan, but it was different this time, low and sleepy, none of the guttural animal energy we had heard the night before. Then we heard the bed frame rock again. We felt eyes on us, Four’s, nervous, frantic.
“Guys? Guys! She’s like…she’s passed out,” Four said. Hearing him say it was like a kid trying to add two and three to get to four. “Do we…do we do something?”
“No,” we said in unison. But we all thought Four was right. Why weren’t we doing anything?
“Let’s get out of here,” Paretti said. As we left we saw Wasserman standing at the end of the hall. Even from a distance we could feel it—that smile coming through everywhere but his mouth.
“It’s like foreshadowing,” Massey muttered, his voice thick with bourbon.
“No one is in the mood for your English major bullshit right now Massey!”
“Come on! If you’re losing the game, change the rules?”
“Dude.” It was number Four. “This is so fucked up.”
“Did anyone ask you to talk?” Paretti said.
“No, but come on. I’m mean he’s…it’s…”
“I’ll say it again. Did anybody ask you to fucking talk?”
“No,” Number Four said. This time his face was pale.
On the evening of initiation 13 branding irons glowed in the fire. We watched the heat move up the shafts, turning them black to red to orange. The floorboards creaked under Wasserman’s feet as he paced the line. In the firelight, the pledges’ naked bodies seemed shaped from white wax, like we could have molded them under our thumbs. Four had shadows under his eyes and they were ghoulish in the shifting light.
“This ceremony began,” Wasserman said, “because in Greek, the triangle symbol is associated with heat, with flames. Fire is synonymous with destruction. But fire can also mean transformation. Fire, for the Greeks, meant life.” We remembered standing where these pledges stood, picturing these soldiers under an Alexandrian sky, the tanned hides of their tents flapping in the breeze, lips stained purple with wine, fingers slick with greasy goat meat, under a night bright with stars like a scatter of silver confetti on velvet—a darkness so perfect we could only ever dream of it, darker even, than our little campus nestled into the mountains. A darkness a man could disappear into.
“You are all about to become a part of that ancient tradition. Thousands and thousands of men. If you find yourself thinking of the pain, fearing it, let yourself feel humbled by that, the idea of those you are joining in brotherhood. If you do, if you are truly humbled, you will find yourself craving initiation, craving the burn.
“The brothers whose ranks you join all stood here on these floors, like you, awaiting initiation. They all move through the world—no, let’s be real, run the world—and what do you share with them? Starting with tonight, it’s that symbol on your left shoulder. Will it hurt? Fuck yes it will hurt. Will it hurt, boys?”
“Yes,” we shouted, our voices, together, ringing through the foyer, and we all listened for the sound of our own voice in the echo and couldn’t quite pick them out.
“But pain is a gateway,” Wasserman said. “Pain is what gets you to who you want to be.”
We tried to recall the quality of the pain, its intensity, and we thought that trying to remember pain was like trying to remember love—you couldn’t exactly get back to it, no matter how hard you tried. But we did remember the hardness of the floor on our knees as we kneeled, the heat coming off of the iron in waves behind us, the way the brothers in our pledge classes screamed. We remembered that the pain was different than we thought it would be—we had imagined it would take on the shape of the branding iron, that it would have perfect edges and angles. But the pain was not confined to the shape of the triangle. It was so much more whole, so total. We could feel it taking over our whole bodies. We felt the burn of the brand on our skin, racing along every nerve. All the pledges looked down at the floor. Only Four looked at us, the light of the fire burning in his eyes.
Wasserman pulled one of the irons out of the fire. Two of the sophomores took Pledge One by the shoulders, eased him onto his knees, gripped him by the arms. We closed our eyes and tried to picture our ex-girlfriends, to imagine our way back to their breath, their hands, their lips, their hair. We tried to remember the ways they said our names with pleasure, even admiration, once. We told ourselves we would hear them once again, calling to us, and that we’d still be worthy of it. That they won’t mind the scars on our shoulders. We thought we remembered them, the sweet sound of our names in their voices. Michael. Luke. Ross. Avery. James.
CAITLIN MULLEN earned a BA in English and Creative Writing at Colgate University and an MA in English at NYU. Her work has recently appeared in The Baltimore Review and is forthcoming in Joyland.