This Town

This Town

By Greg Herren

            Our IDs were fake, but no one seemed to care. Even when a burly bouncer asked to see them, his bare meaty arms adorned with tattoos, his bored eyes just flicked over the laminate before waving us inside. Celia was right about that, like she was right about everything. She could always find someone with coke to share or sell, or who was happy to share their blunt with us. She was a golden girl, the kind I used to think only existed in books or movies, the girl that’s too perfect to exist, the one every other girl wants to be friends with, wants to be. The one all the guys notice first, their eyes wide open and their jaws gone slack.

 She always had the trendiest new make-up, the first to try out a daring new look we were too cowardly to try but quick to copy, always the first, the one everyone else imitated. She seemed to glow from inside, drawing everyone’s eyes to her effortlessly, and she somehow managed to always look perfect, even when she was drunk, even after dancing for hours when our make-up ran down our cheeks and perspiration dampened our armpits. Her skirts were just the tiniest bit shorter than everyone else’s, her tops seemed to fit her in a way they didn’t fit anyone else, her hair thicker and shinier and bouncier. She pulled in guys like night insects to a white light, caught up in her magic. They only noticed the rest of us once she’d turned her attention elsewhere. We didn’t mind taking second place because it seemed like the natural order of things. She always knew the right thing to say—whether kind or insulting—and we all gravitated to her. She was our pledge class president, organized, efficient, determined we be the best pledge class our Omega Psi chapter had ever seen. Even the sisters seemed to be a little in awe of her, grateful she’d picked Omega Psi out of all the offers she’d had—every sorority had offered her a bid, I’d overheard one sister telling another at Monday night dinner, her voice awed as she went on to say that had never happened in the history of the Greek system at Tulane.

And she made us all feel special, whispering “Sisters” to us as we hooked our pinkie fingers and whispered the word back to her, committing to a lifelong bond.

She was Celia, and we were better for knowing her, special for being her sisters, like she’d selected us to be pledges and not the actives.

            She somehow even knew the best places to catch the parades at our first Mardi Gras and wasn’t from New Orleans.

            So there we were, on Fat Tuesday, weaving our way down Bourbon Street, getting waved into bars after a quick glimpse at our fake IDs, getting fresh drinks and going back out, slipping on discarded strands of beads with plastic-cupped drinks in our hands, ignoring drunk assholes on balconies screaming show us your tits, giggling and laughing and having the best time. We’d smoked a joint—Celia always got the best pot—heading to the Quarter that morning, and she had a bottle of Bailey’s in her purse to pour into the coffee we stopped to get at a PJ’s on[HW1]  our way. By ten o’clock we’d reached Canal Street, walking along Zulu, catching beads and weaving through people, and entered the amusement park that was the Quarter on Mardi Gras day. It probably wasn’t a good idea to be so buzzed so early, but if I knew Celia she had hits of molly in her purse for us to take when we went dancing later at the gay bars. Celia liked to head down to the gay end of Bourbon Street to dance— “the gays play the best dance music and you don’t have to worry about assholes”—so that was where we’d probably end up later that afternoon, drunk and buzzed and armed with our fake IDs no one examined closely.

            Around noon we were singing karaoke at the Cat’s Meow—an old song I didn’t know but Celia swore we’d kill, “I Touch Myself”—and we did kill, she was always right, you know? And guys were throwing beads up at us on stage and screaming we should show them our boobs and I was a getting a little bit tired of it all, I mean, come on, maybe that worked with some girls but not all so give it up already. Then some skinny older hipster dude with a man-bun and serious tats and pierced nipples gave us Jell-O shots and we stayed up on stage. Celia was pulling some guy up there with us, and I couldn’t get a good look at his face, but he had a killer body and no shirt on. “Sing back-up,” she screamed at us as the music started and we all started dancing. The crowd cheered. The guy’s chest was painted in Mardi Gras colored stripes. He was wearing plaid boxers and his pants kept slipping lower as he gyrated to whatever it was he was singing. I didn’t know the song but Celia would gesture to all of us when it was time for us to sing so I just made “ooh-ooh” noises while keeping an eye on him at the front of the stage, wondering if and when his pants were going to fall off. His back was broad and ripply with muscle and there was a small green tattoo of something on his upper right shoulder.

            I’ve seen that tat before, I thought as Celia passed me another Jell-O shot, this one red, and I slurped it down before singing ooh-ooh again when she waved at me. I was starting to feel a little bit too drunk and was thinking maybe I should switch to bottled water when I remembered where I’d seen that tat before.

            He had to be a Beta Kappa, I’d seen the tat on some of their brothers. We’d gone to a party at their house, after finals, just before leaving town for Christmas break. The Beta Kappas were the party house at Tulane, the one all the older sisters warned the new sisters to stay away from. “Bad things happen to girls there all the time,” my big sister Pamela told me on Big Sister night, “so it’s better to stay away. It doesn’t happen every time to every girl, but if you go over there enough times it’s like you’re tempting fate.” Her voice was solemn and I promised her I’d never go there alone and I wouldn’t go there very often.

            So when Celia wanted to go to their big 12 Kegs of Christmas party, wanted all of us newly minted and initiated sisters to go over there, I told her what Pamela said.

            “We’ll keep an eye out for each other,” Celia said. “If we do that we’ll be fine. Beta Kappa throws the best parties and this one is going to be epic. We have to go.” She held up her pinkie. “Sisters.”

            And so we linked pinkies and whispered sisters back to her.

            We always did whatever Celia wanted. She was our alpha, our Queen Bee, our whatever the latest pseudo-sociology bestseller wants to call her. We got all dolled up and did our make-up and hair and put on our cutest mini-skirts and smoked a joint on our way over to the Beta Kappa house with our fake IDs inside our purses, and maybe I had a little pinky fingernail bump of the coke I had inside my purse left over from a party a couple of weeks ago that I came across when I was cleaning it out, we all must have been pretty wasted that night, you know, to forget that I had some left. I did a bit and tucked it inside my purse just in case we couldn’t find any guys who wanted to line us up that night.

            But it was Beta Kappa. There’d be plenty of those guys.

            There was a big dude working the front door that night. All the houses paid lip-service to the campus rule about underage drinking but as long as we had fake IDs they were covered. I knew the guy, he was in my Biology class with about maybe another hundred people, he was kind of cute if you liked big lunkhead caveman types, I supposed. I’d caught him checking me out in class one day, but Celia would’ve pitched a fit if I’d ever gone out or hooked up with him. There was a type she thought we should hold out for—guys with futures whose dads had money and drove nice cars and carried credit cards so they could treat us right.

            “Some guys,” she’d say, “are for fucking. Other guys are for marrying. And some guys are just a walking infection you need to stay away from.”

            The lunkhead—Jagger, his name was Jagger—was on the football team, so she’d classify him as a walking infection.

            She was probably right. She was always right.

            Sisters.

            Besides, it wasn’t like we had a halfway decent football team in the first place.

            But as we showed him the IDs Celia had gotten us from somewhere— “the less you know the better,” she’d said when I asked—he only had eyes for Celia, because of course. No one ever noticed the rest of us until they realized they didn’t have a chance with her, and that was okay, you know? It was just Celia, that was how it was always going to be with Celia. When it was my turn he did actually notice me. “You were in my Biology class.” He leered at me. He smelled of beer and sweat and second chances. “I won’t be working the door all night long, pretty girl.”

            “Come on, Claire,” Celia said from inside the doorway, shouting to be heard over some Nikki Minaj remix. “Let’s get a beer.” She was frowning at me, and I knew I’d displeased her. Jagger wasn’t up to her standards, but I thought he was cute. So what if he was an infection? That’s what condoms were for anyway, and I had one in my purse. I always kept one in my purse. That was another lesson Celia taught me. “You can’t always trust him to have one, and put the damned thing on him, they like that,” she’d told me at the Starbucks on Jefferson Avenue the shameful morning after I’d gone to some rando’s apartment and had to admit he hadn’t used a condom. “These guys just want to get laid, Claire, that’s all they care about, and they don’t give a goddamned what they give you.” She’d stirred Sweet-n-Low into her hot pumpkin spice no whip latte that chilly October morning. “And god forbid you give them anything.” She took me to CVS after we got the coffee and we bought some condoms.

            Sisters.

            I’d only used two.

            But maybe if Celia got drunk enough I could let Jagger use the one in my purse.

            We were supposed to keep an eye on each other, but our pact didn’t last. Teena was the first to get lost. I last saw her on the dance floor where we were doing tequila shots while dancing in a crowd, our skirts bouncing as we moved around in a group. Some guy with no shirt on and a bit of a paunch and sweaty glistening hair on his torso who smelled slightly sour brought out a bottle of Jose Cuervo gold and some salt and some other guy who was even uglier had a lime and we did shots right there and then and when I thought about her again Teena wasn’t there anymore. The shot boys were gone, and it was the four of us, me and Celia and Kayleigh and Scarlett, still dancing and I was feeling a bit woozy and said I wanted to go to the bathroom and left them on the dance floor. The girls’ bathroom at Beta Kappa was disgusting and one of the toilets had backed up but I went into the other stall and looked at the gross water on the floor and wondered what I was doing there and stuck my pinky fingernail into the little bag in my purse and I knew if I ever had to pee I was going to have to go into the boys’ bathroom. The coke bump cleared my head a bit and I was feeling a little light-headed when I went back out, but I didn’t see any of the girls anywhere.

            But Jagger was there, and he smiled when he saw me. “There you are,” he shouted over Cardi-B. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

            And I thought why not, I don’t see Celia anywhere and I danced with him and let him put his tongue in my mouth. He tasted like pot smoke and chewing gum and stale beer, his chest was wet with sweat as he pulled me up against him. “You’re so hot,” he breathed in my ear.

            “Do you have your own room?”

            It was about two in the morning when I slipped out of his room. I’d checked my phone from time to time but nothing from the other girls. He was snoring as I tucked his boxers into my purse and slipped out the door. I felt a little guilty, but none of them had even bothered to text me to see if I was okay and I was a little high and a little drunk and a little mad, so I didn’t care. I was walking down the hall to the exit door when a guy burst out of the bathroom, the swinging saloon doors almost hitting me in the face. He was only wearing boxers, a blue and green and red pattern and he had an amazing body, you could tell he worked out and he had this green tat on his upper back—a dolphin, it was a dolphin—and he grinned at me and I could see he was excited, and he held a bong in his hands and winked at me.

            That’s what I remembered later, that he winked at me.

            I walked along behind him and he opened the door to a room and I heard a moan from inside and looked in and saw Celia, lying there on the floor and she’d been sick, I could see some flecks of vomit on her carefully made up chin and he started to close the door in my face and I was furious and slammed the door back and didn’t even think about what I was doing. I ran to her side and somehow got her skirt and top back on her and I didn’t even bother looking for her shoes, I just got her out of there and out the back door. All the way back to Omega Psi she was woozy, kept saying she didn’t know what was wrong with her, she didn’t have that much to drink but she didn’t remember anything and didn’t know how she wound up in his room with her clothes off and I could hear Pamela saying, “bad things happen to girls at Beta Kappa.”

            Sisters.

            [HW2] [HW3] 

Somehow I got her back to Omega Psi, cleaned her up, got her in the shower and took care of her, made her drink some coffee, held her hair while she vomited, and it was about dawn when I knew I needed to take her somewhere, get her a morning after pill, get her taken care of, so I got her dressed and took her to the emergency room and they gave her a prescription, wanted to know if we wanted to call the police.

            “No,” she said clearly, like nothing had ever happened, and she was Celia again, giving orders and commands and completely in charge of her world again. I saw her do it, I saw her visibly shake it all off and slip the Celia mask back on her face. “I want to pretend like this never happened. I don’t want the police.” And I took her to an all-night pharmacy and she got her prescriptions filled.

            “Never,” she said in the parking lot behind the house that morning. “Never mention this to me again. It never happened. Is that clear, Claire?”

            “Yes.”

            “Sisters,” she said, holding up her pinky.

            “Sisters,” I said, hooking it with mine.

            And that was him now, dancing in front of us with one hand on his jeans, holding them up, that was that same damned dolphin tat and I looked over at Celia, and Celia had a look on her face like I’d not seen before.

            And I knew it wasn’t an accident we’d wound up here. That he’d wound up here. That he was here with all of us.

She was looking at me now, as the song came to an end, one eyebrow tilted up in that way she had. She knew I recognized him. And she shook her head, her bouncy shiny red hair swinging, and I nodded.

            Whatever you want to do, Celia, I’m here for you.

            Sisters.

            We were back out on the street, and he was with us, some of his fraternity brothers along for the ride. Not Jagger, thank God, I’d not seen Jagger since that night. He sent me a couple of texts, one wishing me a Merry Christmas and the other asking what I was doing for New Year’s, but Celia was right, he wasn’t husband or fuck buddy material, so I never answered. If Jagger had been with—Heath, his name was Heath, so fucking pretentious—it might’ve been awkward for a moment, but he wasn’t, like this was meant to be. And I noticed that Celia wasn’t drinking anymore. She’d get a drink and pretend like she was drinking it, but she’d pour it out whenever she could, and I started doing the same. Because whatever she was up to, she needed my help.

            Sisters.

            One of his bros put his arm around me and pulled me close, so I could feel his damp skin, he had a big ass beer in his other hand and he smelled like, you know, boy, that musky musty smell, and I could see the razor stubble on his big chest and the tattoo running up his side, all Chinese letters, and he said, “My name is Tyler, what’s your name, sexy?”

            “Claire,” I smiled, letting him kiss me on the cheek, and some beads just missed us. Tyler let go of me and turned to the balcony, where a bunch of older men and women were drinking and throwing beads, and he yelled up at them, flexed his big arms and one of the women yelled something dirty, which made him thrust his hips at her, and she tossed down a string of big golden beads, and he draped them around my neck, blowing her a kiss.

            I wondered for a minute if I was going to go back to the Beta Kappa house with him, let him take off my clothes…he wasn’t husband material, though, good-looking as he was, but he also wasn’t an infection, and I looked over at Celia. She winked back at me. Heath had his arm possessively around her, and I wondered what she was she up to. She was up to something. I couldn’t understand, couldn’t wrap my mind around it, otherwise. He drugged her, he raped her. And now she was with him on Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, laughing and flirting and let him paw her, leading him on.

            Celia caught some beads, a long strand of green ones, with lyres—Orpheus. They were from the Orpheus parade last night. I’d caught a few of those, taken them off and piled them in the growing pile of beads and stuffed animals in the corner of my room at the sorority house, and she put them around her neck and twisted them into her fingers. She had that sly look on her face I was so used to by now. Heath was yelling at some women on a balcony, undoing the front of his jeans, flashing his boxers and the older women threw beads at him, and I saw Celia dumping more of her beer into the gutter when he wasn’t looking.

            Club after club, party after party, just wandering around the Quarter and looking at costumes and letting the boys keep buying us drinks, drinks we weren’t drinking. The boys were drinking, but Celia and I kept pouring ours out when they weren’t looking. I would take sips when I was thirsty, but I was already starting to sober up from all the dancing and walking.

            “I got a room at the Bourbon Orleans,” I heard Heath whisper at Celia after the boys got us Hand Grenades, sweet green drinks in long plastic cups shaped like a hand grenade at the base with a long wide tube you drank out of, and that’s when I knew he’d moved us down this way, brought us down Bourbon Street to where he had a room, on purpose. He seemed drunk, but he wasn’t so drunk he couldn’t remember his plan.

            I wondered if the Hand Grenades were safe to drink.

            “There’s a trick,” Celia had told me once at a Sigma Chi party. “If you’ve got a bottle or a can of beer, put it up to your mouth and put your tongue over the opening, like this—” she held the bottle up, stuck her tongue out, and put it over the mouth, then closed her lips around it and mimed drinking. She pulled it away from her mouth and winked. “Then whenever you can, pour some of it out. They think you’re drinking but you’re not. You stay as sober as you want.”

            I watched her with the Hand Grenade as she put the straw in her mouth. The green liquid went up the straw, her cheeks contracting like she was sucking, but the liquid went back down into the plastic container when she let it go. She winked at me again.

            The others were long gone. I’m not sure where we lost them or if they’d said goodbye and peeled off on their own. I checked my phone but there wasn’t anything from them.

            “You want to go up and party in his room?” Celia whispered in my ear. “I told him we both wanted him, so he has to get rid of Meathead.” She glanced over to where they were talking. Tyler didn’t look happy, but finally he just turned and headed back up Bourbon Street, disappearing into the crowd.

            There was a glint in her eye.

            She was my sister, she was my girl.

            Sisters.

            I said yes.

            We walked into the hotel, him with an arm around both of us, him slurring and staggering a little bit. By the time we made it through the lobby to the hotel elevators he was barely able to stand up, leaning on us, putting so much weight on me I almost staggered before we piled into the elevator and went up to the third floor.

            “Is he okay?” I asked as we walked/pulled him out of the elevator, and down the hallway to the room he kept talking—slurring—the number. She reached into his pocket and pulled out the keycard, swiped it, and the door unlocked. I was panting by the time we got him to the bed and dropped him heavily onto it, the bed squealing beneath his weight. His eyes were closed.

            “Is he passed out?”

            Celia took the beads, the ones with the lyres, from around her neck and got up onto the bed behind him. She smiled at me and slipped the beads around his neck.

            She started twisting, wrapping the beads around her hands, pulling them tighter.

            He gasped and moaned, and his face turned red, but he didn’t struggle much, didn’t fight.

            And I watched.

            I watched as she strangled her rapist with her beads, long and green and heavy, with lyres, from the Orpheus parade, as his face turned darker purple and his tongue came out.

            Then he just went limp.

            “Get his wallet,” she said, undoing his pants and working them down his legs.

            She just knocked him out, I thought, relieved, it was just a joke, she’s just going to humiliate him.

            I took his wallet and grabbed his cash, tossed the empty wallet into the trash as she folded his pants and his boxers up and slipped them into her purse.

            She took the beads and wrapped them around her arm.

            On our way out of the hotel, she slipped his clothes into the garbage can by the elevators.

            When we made it back to Bourbon Street, she started laughing.

            “I’M FREE!” she shouted, spinning around in the street, her arms raised up over her head, and she started dancing.

            A man in a jester costume with his face painted started dancing with her. She draped the beads, the ones that choked Heath, around his neck. “Happy Mardi Gras,” she shouted, and kissed his cheek and we moved on, dancing in the street to the loud music coming from the gay bars on the corner.

            “Sisters,” she whispered in my ear.

            “Sisters,” I replied.

            We hooked our pinky fingers and smiled at each other.