chapter 23.

23.

The next morning, I went to class.  I tried to concentrate.

Probability and Statistics lecture was like listening to Greek, I couldn’t understand a word the professor was saying.  Every few minutes my mind turned back to the vision of Eva’s ghost and my heart skipped a beat.

Sitting in the class with all the other freshman was all I could manage.  Concentrating was out of the question.  I doodled, looking at the shell ring on my finger, surprised every time I saw it there.  I was sure I hadn’t imagined leaving it in Eva’s casket.  All the same I would double-check with Mom the next time I spoke with her.  Meanwhile, Miss Kepler’s lecture droned on.

Toward the end of class I decided to see if I could get extra help.  Since the beginning of the semester I had come twice a week to this class and copied all of her examples into my notebook.  But studying the text and my notes didn’t seem to help me.  I couldn’t make sense of it.   I was doing the homework, but none of it had been correct.  Too distracted to concentrate, I was having trouble grappling with the course material, which was increasingly over my head as the semester wore on.

Since I wasn’t well acquainted with failure, I was tortured by the problem and my seeming inability to tackle it myself.  I’d always been an honors student, often achieving those grades in honors classes.  So, after another hour of failing to absorb much, I decided it was time to approach the professor.

I made my way down to the floor of the lecture hall, where she was addressing a line of other students who, presumably, had similar troubles.  Miss Kepler looked like she was in her forties.  She was overweight and had a mass of frizzy hair on her head.  She wore big, thick glasses and did not look friendly.

I waited nervously until my turn came.

“Hello, Miss Kepler,” I began.  She didn’t answer, just looked at me and waited. So I continued, “I’m having some trouble with this class and I wondered if I might be able to get some extra help?”

“Have you been attending the labs?” she asked.  The labs were once-weekly classes where an advanced student went over problems that were pertinent to the week’s lectures.  Every lecture section had several labs, so each lab was assigned thirty students or less.  This was presumably in place so that students could ask questions.  But the teaching assistant that was assigned to our lab was from Japan.  His English was so bad that I couldn’t understand anything he said.

“I have.  But our TA speaks Japanese, and I haven’t been able to understand him,” I answered.  “Could I change my lab assignment?”

She looked at me for a moment, before answering, “Learn Japanese.”

With that, I was dismissed.

I walked home, my shell ring on my finger, holding my Probability and Statistics books against my chest.  It required my full attention to keep walking without falling down.  My balance was off, threatened, increasingly compromised.  The inner reality in which my dead best friend had hijacked my life tore a hole in the outer, unfamiliar new world of the university, where Eva had been replaced by a cowish troll of a girl as my roommate, and I was failing in my studies.  Nothing fit.  Increasingly I felt alienated, as if my life wasn’t real.  As if this life was someone else’s story.  Or a movie with a fragmented plot line.  Either way, I did not know how to navigate the terrain and I was scared.

Late in the week I returned to our room to find some of the girls who lived on our floor standing at our door talking about the fraternity party they were going to on Friday night.  The same party the signs all over the place advertised.

“Rowan, why don’t you come?” one of them asked.

I considered.

“Why don’t I?” I answered.

Maybe a night out would be good for me.  I needed to make new friends.  I was depressed about my Probability and Statistics class.  And I hadn’t seen Marc all week.  We hadn’t left things on a good note after our ride back to the university.  A frost settled on the relationship after our conversation about my father, and I felt really bad about it.  In fact I missed him.

I reasoned that maybe a night out with my floor mates would cheer me up.  I might meet some new people, develop a social life at the university that extended beyond Marc.

Friday night a group of nearly twenty girls from our dormitory made their way together to the Zeta house.  When we arrived, it was quiet outside.  There were lights on, but we couldn’t see or hear anything happening inside.

We wondered if we were in the right place.  We all stopped at the entrance to the stairs, gathering there together at the bottom, apprehensive.  Belinda went up the stairs and knocked.

We waited.

When the door swung open, red light splashed onto the walkway.  A young man wearing a baseball hat stood there with a cup in his hand and we could hear music coming from somewhere in the house.

“Come on in.  Party’s downstairs,” he said, indicating a door to his left.  We all filed in. It was a little like lambs going to a slaughter, I thought as we passed him and turned left, one by one, down the stairs.  I had the familiar feeling in my stomach that something was about to go horribly wrong.

The party was in the basement.  There was a concrete floor and the walls were paneled in a dark 70s style fake wood.  We walked in, one by one, gathering in a circle at the foot of the stairs.  It was apparent we were all uncomfortable and I wondered if any one of us had ever been inside one of these fraternity houses.  I doubted it.

The farthest wall opposite had a bar that was flanked by three beer advertisement posters, all sporting women in bathing suits or low-cut costumes.   There was a door to another room on the right end of the basement.   The floor was painted red and there were round poles holding up the ceiling every ten feet, or so.

One of the fraternity brothers came over and introduced himself.  His name was Steve, his hair was red, and he was here to offer us some beer.  Would we all like some?

I declined, in part because I don’t like the taste of beer.  But there was also the feeling of discomfort my stomach was giving me, warning me.  I didn’t feel safe.  Everyone else said they would love to have one.  And so it began.  The room filled with other students, a mix of boys and girls, obviously a lot of fraternity brothers.  Many of them wore baseball caps, all of them seemed to be drinking.  Steve singled me out and came over to where I stood, still uncomfortable, contemplating how I might make a graceful exit.  This wasn’t my scene and my stomach was persistently warning me.

“Sure you don’t want something to drink?” he asked, giving me what must have been his most winning smile.

“I don’t think so,” I said.   He looked at me disapprovingly.

“Oh, hell, sure.  Why not?” I said, changing my mind.  Standing here like a lump on a log and refusing to join in wasn’t going to make me any new friends, and if I was stuck here with my dorm mates I could make the best of it.  Lemonade out of lemons and all of that.  I walked toward the bar with him.

“Can I have a beer, Gus?” he asked the boy behind the bar.  They seemed to be taking turns pouring from the keg.  Someone else had been behind the bar five minutes earlier.  He handed one up, smiling.  It was full, and spilled all over the already wet, sticky bar.  I tried to take it without spilling, but that proved to be impossible.  I leaned down to sip the top off so that I could pick it up.

“Thanks,” I said.

“So, you live over in Randall?” he asked, still smiling winningly.

“Mmm hmm,” I said, looking around nervously.  The room was dark, everyone was drinking, relaxing, laughing.  The room was loud, the throb of music pulsing in the air.  What wasn’t to like?  I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I told myself I just had to relax.  I’d have fun if I could just relax.  I repeated it to myself several times, expecting to believe it.  Taking a deep breath and putting on a smile, I looked at Steve.  “You’re a fraternity brother here, then?” I asked.

“Yes.  I’ve been here for a couple of years.  It’s a great house,” he said.

That sounded like a sales pitch.

“I’m sure.  Seems nice,” I said, wondering what made a fraternity house nice, compared to other ones.  He regarded me quizzically.

“You’re a pretty girl,” he said.

I smiled, a little flattered, but not sure what to make of him.  I looked around, avoiding his eyes.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone I knew — Venus, Eva and Celeste’s older sister.  She came down the stairs with a handbag and went straight to the other end of the room, and through the door.   She hadn’t seen me.

“What’s over there?” I asked, pointing to the door.

“Bathrooms.”

“Speaking of which,” I said, smiling.  “Would you excuse me?”  I took my beer and went toward the door Venus had disappeared into.  I passed through the door jam and found a little hall, a bathroom with the light on, and another door.  I tried the closed door, but it was locked.  So I pushed the bathroom door open and looked around.  No one in there.  Where had Venus gone?  I paused to see if I could hear anything behind the locked door, but the music and laughter next door drowned out everything else.  I came back out of the little hall and Steve was just there, waiting for me.

“Oh, hi,” I said, surprised to find he had followed me.

“Hi, again.  I thought you might like to meet some of my friends,” he said.  There were two other young men with him, both tall.  One was a handsome blonde.

“This is Chris,” Steve said, introducing me to him. I nodded and shook his hand.

“And this is Stew,” Steve said, indicating the other young man, who was dark-haired and had olive skin.  I smiled at him, and then at all three, and tried to step back from them, but the wall was behind me.

Trapped there with them, I listened to them talking casually about their classes as they stood in what seemed to be a circle that kept tightening around me.  A third young man stepped up with a beer in his hand.  It was Gus.  The same Gus who had poured me my first beer.  He held out the beer he had in his hand to me.

“Oh, I’m not finished with this,” I said.   But Steve smiled, and took the cup I was holding from my hand.

“It must be warm by now.”  He took a gulp.  “Yup, warm.”

My stomach turned.

I felt surrounded.  Supplied with another beer, I stood listening to their conversation.  I didn’t have anything to contribute to what they were saying, so I drank my beer and looked around for a means of escape.  Gus had joined the tight little group, creating a small, closed circle.  All of them were at least six inches taller than I was, and they were talking over my head about a class two of them shared.  Across the room I saw Marc’s roommate, John, come in.  He looked over, nodded.  He’d clearly seen me.  As I considered excusing myself I remembered Venus.  I still hadn’t seen her come out of the hallway she had disappeared into.  Where was she?

I wasn’t able to spot her so, giving up for the moment, I shifted my attention to looking for my floor mates, but somehow they all seemed to have disappeared as well.  The room seemed to be full of dancing people.  Resigned, I stood among the towering fraternity brothers drinking my beer and smiled politely whenever one looked at me.

The room seemed to throb with the pulse of the music.  Some period of time had passed since I’d been cornered, and I began to wonder how long they could keep up a conversation about the same class.  I started to feel woozy.  I put the beer down, half drunk, on a table that was next to where we were standing.  The table was already piled high with empty cups.  The music started to sound distant, as if it was in another room, and I was having trouble standing.

I looked at Steve, who was watching me.  “I don’t feel very good,” I said.  “I think I need to go outside,” I said, reaching for the table, trying to steady myself.  I felt like I was starting to sweat and I was light-headed.

“It’s so hot in here.”

“Sure, I’ll walk you out,” Steve said.  He held my arm very firmly, leading me toward the door.  I tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let go.  I looked up at him then, something faint dawning on me.  I started to feel scared.

“I’m okay.  I’m just going out for a minute.  I don’t want to take you away from your party,” I said, but speaking was an effort, my words were slurring.

“I’d feel better knowing you’re all right,” he said.

But it seemed like the stairs went on forever, one set after another.  Had we passed the front door?   I looked up.  No end in sight.

Feeling nauseous and tired, I said, “Just let me sit for a minute.” I stopped, trying to sit on the stairs.

The wall felt good; it was solid and cold.

“It’s just a little farther, Rowan.  Come with me,” he said, leading me out of the staircase and into a room.  But we weren’t outside.  We were in a bedroom.

“No,” I said, confused and scared.  “Please, Steve, I …” The room started to go black.

“You need to lie down,” he said, turning down the lights.  I fell onto something.  A bed?  There was someone else in the room, another fraternity brother, maybe.  But I couldn’t see clearly.  I closed my eyes.  Just for a minute, to let the wooziness pass.

The next thing I knew, I could hear yelling.  It was Marc’s voice.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Was he yelling at me?  I tried to open my eyes, but they wouldn’t open.  I tried to move, but I felt like my arms weighed a ton.  I couldn’t lift them, much less sit up.

“Rowan!” Marc’s hands were on my shoulders, and he was shaking me.  “Rowan!  Baby, answer me!”

I tried, but I couldn’t speak.  Something garbled came out.

I felt him tugging on my skirt, and then he was lifting me.  “We’re leaving, Rowan.  I’m taking you out of here,” he said, sounding angry.

“Marc,” I managed, as he heaved me onto his shoulder.  I thought of my skirt, had it ridden up?  He carried me out of the room, and I felt like I might throw up hanging there over his shoulder.  I groaned as Marc took the stairs, my head feeling like it was going to explode with every step.

He kept going, down down down the stairs, until we were outside, and he laid me down on the cool, damp lawn outside the house.

“Rowan?” His voice was gentler now.  “Rowan, baby.  Are you okay?”  He was touching my face.

I managed to open my eyes.  It felt like each lid was weighted with lead.  “Marc,” I said.  “I feel awful.  I don’t know what happened.” I wanted to explain, but I was still slurring, I sounded drunk.  “I barely drank anything, less than two beers.” I said, trying to tell him.  But I sounded like I’d had twelve beers, not two.

“I know,” he said.  “Let’s get you home.”

I realized that John was standing behind him.  Marc lifted me and wrapped his arm around my waist to support me for the walk home.  “Thanks, John.  I doubt I’ll be home tonight.”

John nodded. “Hope you’re feeling better in the morning, Rowan.”  And he turned to walk back toward their dorm.

I didn’t have the energy to thank him, to speak, or to make any response.  Marc stayed with me that night, bringing me water, walking with me once to the bathroom to throw up, helping me back to my room. Finally we both fell asleep, curled up against each other on my bed, his face in my hair.

The next morning I couldn’t move from my bed.  I laid there with a compress on my head, as miserable as I’d ever felt.  Marc held my hand in his and told me what had happened the night before.

“John called me.  He said you were there at the Zeta party, and that you’d just left to go upstairs,” he paused and took a deep breath.

“He said you looked like you were sick, and that you were with some guy when he saw you leave.  He followed you, and saw the guy lead you upstairs.  He thought something might be wrong, so he called me.”

Here he stopped and stood, pacing back and forth in the room.

“He told me to come, that he thought something was wrong and that you might be in trouble,” The expression in his eyes and voice made me think for a moment that he was going to cry.

But he didn’t.  His expression shifted into anger as he recounted the story.

“I ran over. The guy at the door said the party was over.  I told him I was looking for my girlfriend and he tried to put me off, so I pushed past him,” he said, his voice steely now.

“John said he’d seen you go upstairs, so we went up, looking in every room until we found you,” he stopped there and leaned down, his head in his hands.

“You were on the bed.  I could see they’d drugged you.  You weren’t moving.  Someone had pulled your skirt up, and they were passing a joint around.  Everyone jumped back and away from you when I came in.”

“They hadn’t done anything to hurt you that I could see,” he said, looking at me.  “But I have to believe they were going to rape you,” he finished, fixing his eyes on mine.

I started to cry, looking away.  I felt embarrassed, humiliated.

“Stupid,” I said.  “I shouldn’t have taken the second beer,” I added, thinking I was to blame for what had happened.

“Please, Rowan.  You’ve got to be more careful.  If John hadn’t seen you … ” his voice trailed off for a moment.  “This has happened before.  I’ve heard of girls being gang raped that way,” he said, his voice quiet.

“Promise me you won’t go to any more of those parties alone.”

“I wasn’t alone,” I said. “I was with a bunch of girls from our floor.”

He looked over at Gretchen who had come home during the night and was in bed with her head beneath her covers.

“Same thing,” he said.

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