SmokeLong Quarterly

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We Expect You To Take This Seriously

Story by Emma Stough (Read author interview) February 3, 2020

Art by Eleonore Weil

The myth starts here: You join a sorority and spend your nights marching the streets of a college town with a group of girls dressed in black. Sworn to silence. Like you’re going to war, but you have to be quiet. Yeah. You’re going to war! A pack of women, stealthy in the night, black leggings, black sweatshirts, black tennis shoes. This is how wars are won. Comradery. Uniforms! There are two older members up front, yelling: They are in charge. Volume and confidence: qualities that don’t necessarily connote one another. (This whole thing is stupid, and you think everyone else agrees, everyone must be smiling secretly to themselves about it—like it’s a group joke. It’s a joke where you all dress like you’re going to battle and you can’t wear makeup and your oily hair is jerked into a ponytail and there’s homework to do but fuck homework. It’s really clever, you think, so clever that you didn’t catch on until now! Sororities are actually ancient secret societies that have nothing to do with shame or Greek letters but have everything to do with long, well-played cons and are intended to be absolutely not taken seriously at all.) The army stops marching like wham and falls away into individual clumsy selves: girls with baby fat they’re unapologetic of and sexual histories they are apologetic of and a short girl near the back of the line that you wouldn’t mind tongue-kissing by, say, a beautiful pond at, say, dusk. Stick figure girls drawn on a map of the rest of the world. We’re marching again! this time into a backyard where shadows are visible even in the dark, tall shadows and long shadows and you’re suddenly aware of fear as a concept: it crusts over you, something you must feel fully, without embarrassment. But the troops are marching on, hunkering down a set of stairs, and the shadows are gone before you can even introduce yourself. You have arrived in a greasy frathouse basement that smells like fresh-cracked beers. There are radioactive green stains covering the cold concrete floor (proof of aliens?). In front of you: a line of boys that might be men if it weren’t for the acne crowning their foreheads. This is their kingdom. They are holding court for you/the army. The older girls say point to where you want to be kissed. (You wish now that the joke would reveal itself, undo itself, that everyone would just dissolve into sugary laughter, ha ha ha, we’re just kidding, this is all ancient and stupid, wink wink.) The boy in front of you is uncomfortably tall and looks stupid. (Is this a weird time to renounce your seat at the table? Maybe you climb up on that seat and ask everyone to cut it out for just a second so you can talk—and maybe they will listen to you explain that at Episcopal Teen Sleepaway Bible Camp in 2010 you realized that your particular admiration for your good friend Melanie’s cute uneven dimples and soft, understanding eyes and long dark hair and sunburned freckled shoulders was actually admiration of the absolute romantic variety and why should you have to stand on display as a kissing-object in front of these boys if you already spent some of your life unlearning that part of yourself? And maybe after you finish your speech they will all smile warmly and laugh in relief because none of them want to go through with the make-out line either, it’s just a weird ritual in a long line of weird rituals meant to change you from a Normal Girl to a Sorority Girl, and their eyes will brighten with the realization that worth and ownership aren’t really related and neither are belonging and success—and maybe they will begin to question the very idea of fraternities and sororities and ask: why can’t groups of men and women just form naturally, in the wild, like flocks of geese or herds of buffalo?) This all seems like a great plan until you realize the seat is metaphorical, not literal, and soldiers on either side of you are grinning and pointing to their lips like right here champ kiss me good. Tall-stupid boy is looking at you anxiously, like this wasn’t in his training, this girl who won’t point to where she wants to be kissed. (This is like when you were six and got stuck in that plastic slide and thought you were going to die there so you figured the only option was to close your eyes and imagine it wasn’t a slide but a pipe that went straight into the ground and maybe you could just shoot down into the earth and sleep there forever.) You swallow a glob of spit so your throat isn’t so dry it hurts and smile a secret smile so stupid-tall knows you’re in on the joke: yes I definitely want your lips on mine! Come and get me! (Maybe afterward you’ll get to see the underground temple and dance in the ritual where everyone is naked wearing silvery masks and laughing, laughing, laughing because how stupid are things that are made up?) You point to your lips: Here, boy. His lips are rubbery and, yes, stupid, and he has maybe only ever kissed a hamster. If you could float above your body you would see how ridiculous it all is, the boozed frat elders, the snickering sorority leaders: This is your family now. You will wait to reveal yourself as a knowing party till you’re somewhere that smells better. You will consent to the ritual, serious, like all the others before you. After all—history always forgets the martyr.


Notes from Guest Reader

Any story that attempts to demystify something always intrigues me, but Emma’s does far more than that: it takes the secrets of sorority ritual and turns them on their ear; it queers the cliche of the sorority girl, peels back its skin and gives us insight into the raw, funny, complicated interiority of the human at its center. And while this story’s narrative and character are masterful, its use of language is what gripped me — by telling us the story of a ritual practice using a rambling, stream-of-consciousness approach that appears to be effortless but is in fact quite complex, Emma breaks down the locked door of Greek life and carves out space for every single one of us within it.

About the Author

Emma Stough received an MFA from the College of Charleston, where she teaches beginning creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Coast, Quarterly West, Jellyfish Review, Cease, Cows, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine.

About the Artist

Eleonore Weil is a German born artist who now works in Spain. She says that the study of symbolism and alchemy proved critical in providing inspiration for her present stage of artistic creation. She uses collaged elements within her paintings.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Seven

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