Kappa Theta Pi
Here's why I shouldn't have been in Kappa Theta Pi: during rush, I brought a pair of sewing scissors with me and cut off a girl's braid in the middle of a crowded room, just to see if I could. The braid was slippery and the scissors were little and it took a couple saws, but the girl just stood there while I did it as though what was happening was so inconceivable that she must've been dreaming. When I'd finished, I handed her the hair and walked out.
The sorority still took me. I heard that the girl was inconsolable for a while, but later, after she found out who my mother was, she pretended she liked having short hair. For a week or so after I moved into the house, she made it a running joke between the two of us, like I'd done her a favor.
Still, they weren't going to let me get away with it scot-free. That's how I ended up with Ruby for a roommate. Ruby's older sister Eliza was the presidentthe Supreme Bitchof the sorority, and even she knew Ruby was a lemon.
So the misfits ended up together. Fitting.
At least I knew how to look like I belonged there. My mother had bought me the right linens and curlers and pearls. And even though nylons had been impossible to find since the beginning of the war, I always had plenty. Some girls drew lines up the back of their legs, pretending. Mrs. Kane, the House Mother, discouraged that, owing to the smoky fossil stripes they left all over the couches, but the girls kept it up anyway. Bare legs meant you were easy, whereas eyeliner-legs at least meant you cared enough not to look that way.
Everything was like that; everything about Kappa Theta Pi beat you over the head from the very beginning, and yet Ruby didn't even try. On move-in day, my mother insisted we get there early so I could claim the better side of the room, and I was all unpacked and settled by the time Ruby arrived. I eyed her while she struggled with her plain duvet cover. I kept thinking she was going to have more trunks delivered. I knew she and her sister didn't have moneytheir accents, their father's dusty hat; everyone knew itbut I'd seen Eliza's room last year, and she'd done a pretty good job faking it. Even my mother had been impressed by Eliza.
Ruby barely said a word while she unpacked, which took all of fifteen minutes. Still, I sat on my bed and watched her the whole time, preserving the silence, thinking it might make her uncomfortable. If it did, she didn't show it. When she finished, she sat down at the vanity, back to me, and our reflections studied each other in the mirror.
"Do people call you Harriet?" she asked.
I found this an odd way of addressing someone you'd just met. I was impressed. "Hattie," I said.
She nodded. "And your mother's rich and your father and brothers are all in the war and you cut off Paige's hair at rush."
"You weren't there?"
"I didn't want to rush. Eliza made them take me."
"Then I guess we have something in common," I said.
Ruby eyed me skeptically. "Maybe," she said.
There was a photograph propped against her mirror. "Is your boyfriend overseas?" I asked.
"He's dead," she said. "He was in Normandy. He wasn't really my boyfriend."
I could have responded appropriately to any one of those statements on its own, but I was less sure what they required as a whole. Then I thought, since when do I care? "So you were just sleeping with him," I said.
She met my eyes in the mirror. Her face was impassive. "I slept with him once," she said.
There had to be an upper hand in this conversation; I could sense it. "Was he any good?" I asked.
Ruby was quiet for a minute and I thought, finally. Then she turned around to face me. "I guess I wouldn't know," she said. "I don't have as much to compare it to as you do."
"Who told you that?"
It was a stupid question. Of course I knew who'd told her. Ruby, too, seemed to know the conversation was over. She shrugged and stood up. "We're going to be late for the Meet Your Sisters Mixer."
"You're still wearing slacks," I said, lamely.
She glanced down at her outfit. "Right." But she didn't move toward the closet.
"Do you want to borrow a dress?" I asked, after the silence had gotten a little awkward.
She looked as startled by the offer as I was to have made it; then she shrugged. "All right," she said, like: if you're going to twist my arm. I went to the closet and grabbed the first thing I saw, or I sort of did; it happened to be that the first thing I saw was a pink dress I thought would look ridiculous on her. Ruby had dark hair, a small pale mouth that got lost on her face when she wasn't speaking, and a birch-tree build, no bust or hips. She accepted the dress without comment, and we both stood there for a couple seconds until I realized she was waiting for me to turn around.
From the hallway, I could hear doors slamming, girls laughing, heavy suitcases thumping up and down the stairs. I went over to the drawer I kept my jewelry in and rattled things around. I felt like crying, which was absurd. Every time I made a mistake, socially, I couldn't tell if I'd wanted to, because it seemed like seeing all the alternatives and then choosing the worst one should've been something I could control. This time I didn't know what my mistake had been, though: getting myself roomed with Ruby, or alienating her right off the bat. It should've been easy. If I could just figure out what I wanted, like other people did, I would've tried to make it happen. Probably.
For a few weeks Ruby and I edged around each other, making little forays every once in a while to gauge what kind of relationship we were going to have. At least, that's what I was doing. She was in a more advanced math class than I was, so I asked her for help with a problem set. Once I brought her toast and a hard-boiled egg from the kitchen after I knew she'd skipped dinner. And she usually picked up our mail from downstairs and sorted it out, putting the battered airmail envelopes from my brothers and father on my pillow without saying anything about them.
She washed and ironed the dress she'd borrowed before she returned it, which I found inexplicably disappointing. That night, since I knew she'd be in the library all evening, I wore it down to dinner, hoping someone might think she'd lent it to me, or even that I'd taken it from her closet without asking.
We both ignored the fact that neither of us was trying very hard to make friends with any of the other sisters. OrI pretended to ignore it.
I wasn't trying to make friends, but I didn't fully understand why it wasn't happening, either; I knew I was the girl who'd cut off Paige's hair, but I'd been conversational, at least, at the opening mixer, whereas Ruby had stood against the back wall for twenty minutes before disappearing upstairs. Later in the evening I heard Eliza telling another girl, "It's only been two months since she got the news about her boyfriend." The other girl looked over to where Ruby had been standing, as though her grief might have left a mark. "Oh my god, poor thing…" Having a dead boyfriend was invaluable. If I'd known better, I would've made one up. Ruby was covered; her sister made sure of that. Too bad she had no interest in using her Get Out of Jail Free card. I don't think she even knew she had one.
I had three older brothers, so I'd never had much experience living with girls, but I didn't know why it should be so hard. I'd stopped myself, a number of times, from openly antagonizing anyone. I had decided to show Ruby that I'd been misplaced, rooming with hershe was awkward, too brainy, a tomboy, but I could be charming and popular if I wanted. I could see the way the sorority's gears and levers worked like it was one big glass-backed clock; didn't that count for anything? At house dinners I watched Eliza, to see how she did it. She practically flirts with the other girls, I thought, crankily. But I couldn't stop looking at her. Some beautiful people pulled it off because they didn't know how beautiful they were; Eliza, on the other hand, displayed in every gesture that she knew exactly how good she looked. Above her bed she'd hung a framed photograph of herself, glamorous with white flowers in her hair, and the other girls loved it. Or pretended to love it. It didn't matter; it drove me nuts.
Whenever she came by our room to talk to Ruby, she was polite but cool to me. I always excused myself when she stopped by, even though I desperately wanted to know what they talked about. I'd sit in the parlor and give them a half-hour, timing it on the ugly grandfather clock. I didn't bring a book; I didn't need to. It was enough to imagine the two sisters alone in our room. Did they talk about me? Maybe they noticed that I'd ringed my vanity's mirror with pictures of actresses instead of real people. Did they make fun of me for that? I would've, if I'd been them.
If I'd been them? I was being weird, even for me.
Towards the end of the month I got a letter from my mother. Don't forget to buy yourself a new dress for the Dean's Tea, she wrote. What have you been assigned to do?
The Dean's Tea was news to me. Then again, I'd already missed two mandatory house meetings, so a lot of the things I found the other girls doing or planning caught me off guard, and most of the house rules, which already seemed pretty arbitrary, were completely over my head. Some of KTP's rules were obvious enough: pearls at dinner, radios off at ten pm. Others didn't really affect methe one about not taking more than one science or math class a semester, for instance. Then there were the rules they seemed to be begging me to break. No men in the house after dark. No alcohol. No smoking. Ladylike conduct at all times. But now I couldn't decide whether I even wanted to break the rules. It was less satisfying with Ruby acting like a visitor from space who didn't even understand the concept of social expectations. Wasn't I supposed to be the most indifferent person I knew?
Ruby went to all the house meetingsnot because they were mandatory, but because, as I was starting to realize, she genuinely wanted to make her sister happy. She always wore this particular forest-green blouse to the meetings. It brought out her eyesas my mother would've put itand one day I told her so. "Eliza gave it to me," she said. Compliments flustered her, I'd noticed. She blushed at the tips of her ears and the base of her throat.
Still, when I asked her about the Dean's Tea, she gave me what I was starting to think of as Ruby's Tunnel Stare, this look like she was trying to recognize me against a bright background from a distance. "I think the Dean might be coming for tea," she said.
Was she being sarcastic? I couldn't even tell.
But I could match her nonchalance, easy. I ignored my mother's letter and put the Dean's Tea out of my mind, and I kept skipping house meetings. I knew my absences wouldn't go unnoticedthere were only nineteen other girls in the sororityand I couldn't help anticipating Eliza's response. She'd have to visit our room, I figured, and ask me where I'd been, in front of Ruby. The truth was that I'd just been sitting on my bed, reading, every time, and Ruby knew that. But I'd get to lie to Eliza, then see how Ruby reacted.
If she revealed the lie, then what? Do you enjoy acting like this? Eliza might ask me, disgusted. How would I answer that? I needed it to happen so that I could hear my own response.
It didn't, of course. Instead I got a note slipped under the door, in a sealed envelope, addressed to me. Dear Harriet, Eliza wrote. You have my understanding and sympathy for any personal problems you are experiencing.
The next day, Ruby said, "I'm supposed to tell you. Your job for the Dean's Tea is silver-polishing. I chose it for you."
I must have made a face. She said, "I thought you'd like it. You don't have to sit through the tea or talk to anyone."
"What's yours?" I asked.
"Same thing," she said.
The following Saturday she and I spent the morning in the pantry with the silver polish and the KTP-emblazoned silverware. The other Little Sisters were in the kitchen, making sandwiches and cakes and fruit platters. Every so often a Big Sister came in to check on their progress. We could hear them laughing and teasing each other.
Around noon I went in to see if they had any spare sandwiches. The kitchen smelled like mayonnaise left out too long and six different kinds of perfume. It seemed like all the girls were having simultaneous conversations with no one in particular. Everyone was dressed up, with aprons over their dresses, and they couldn't move a foot without reaching out to touch each other's hair and clothes.
The girl I asked for sandwiches, Olive, told me there weren't any extras. Then she said she was sorry Ruby and I had gotten last pick of jobs. She said it like she wasn't actually sorry but thought I might have another pair of sewing scissors ready to go in my pocket.
"Didn't anyone tell you?" I said, pointing at her almond tartines. "The Dean's allergic to those. He could die if he eats any." I looked around. "Probably the whole kitchen's contaminated."
Back in the pantry, the light was dim, and the sharp chemical smell of the polish was a relief after all the perfume in the kitchen. Ruby was bent over a piece of silverware; she had her back to me. I'd watched her braid up her hair that morning, but it was already starting to trail loose. Looking at her, I recognized the same impulse I'd had right before I cut off Paige's hairnot that I wanted to cut Ruby's, not necessarily, but that I wanted to do something unexpected, something disruptive, something that clarified my feelings. I was hazy on the action itselfmaybe it was as easy as going back to the kitchen and brazenly stealing a few sandwichesbut I could picture the satisfying aftermath.
Before I could do anything or even decide what it was I wanted to do, Ruby turned around. "No luck?"
"No luck," I said. "They really don't like us."
"Oh," Ruby said, "maybe not"for all the world like it hadn't occurred to her.
A few weeks after the Dean's Tea I re-evaluated the likelihood of making any friends in the sorority, and then I decided to lift my self-imposed ban on sleeping around.
I spent a few nights with the Latin TA. He'd had polio in his right armit was noticeably skinnier than his leftand he said that's why he wasn't overseas. In fact he hadn't just mentioned this to mehe'd told the whole Latin class on our second meeting. The class had twenty-three girls in it, five boys. It was September 1944. No one seemed to think it was strange that the TA brought this up.
Except it was a little strange, to me, the idea of parading your flaws to prove you didn't have a choice in what they were. And the way my mother talked about my brothers, it was like she was hedging her bets: she thought at least one of them was going to be killed. Probably Gary, the youngest, because he hadn't wanted to go the way the two older ones had. My oldest brother was eleven years older than me, the next nine years older; I wasn't very close to them, although I wrote them weekly letters in which I pretended to have Eliza's life instead of my own. Their letters back were short and filled with misspellings and bad jokes. Gary was only two years older than me. I could tell in his letters that he thought he understood what it was like to be me.
They were all in the Pacific. It was hard to keep track of where. My father was stationed on a carrier in the Philippines. I tried not to look at maps; that made it worse, to think of them spread over that giant expanse of water. Not primarily because I missed them or cared for themobviously I did, in the way that people do about that kind of thingbut because the thought of all that space was terrifying. When I couldn't control myself I'd end up picturing Gary on a tiny life raft, barely bigger than an inner tube, adrift on the ocean. And I'd think, God, I'd rather be in a battle. In my head the current carried Gary one way, then another: the end result being that he moved nowhere at all.
"Do you even want to be doing this?" the Latin TA asked me one night. I tried to show him I did. Every time, before we actually started, it was something I wanted to do; it was during, and after, that I felt cheated, waiting for the moment when I'd feel like what we were doing was worth the intrusion. That the moment never came was a vindication, almosta weak one, but I clung to it, because if relationships were just one continuous violation of privacy, then the fact that I didn't have any became a choice I had made, one of the few I gave myself credit for.
"You honestly make me uncomfortable," the TA confessed once, after we'd finished, as though he were absolving himself for what he'd done. "I know," I said, like: there there, it'll be all right. When I couldn't sleep, I did this stupid thing where I lay motionless on my back and pretended that the TA was a slumbering Nazi. If I moved, even blinked, he'd wake up and kill me. My mind drifted; my breath shallowed; my scalp itched, then faded, then the itch reappeared on my left arm. I didn't even quiver. I told myself it was better to be here than at the sorority house, where, from my bed, I'd be able to hear the other girls chattering in the hallway, and where I'd be inventing and discarding conversation topics one by one while I waited for Ruby to get home from the library.
When the TA ended our affair, I stationed myself in the Denton bar that the remaining male students at North Texas liked to frequent.
For a few weeks Ruby said nothing about my nightly absences. Mostly she was up and gone by the time I came back in the morning to change and grab my books. One morning, though, around the end of October, she was still in bed when I got back. She had the covers pulled high around her head so that only a few wisps of dark hair stuck out against the pillow.
I'd let the door slam, thinking she wouldn't be there. She stirred a little.
"Eliza?" Her voice was muffled under the duvet, and sleepy, like she was having a dream, or had just woken up from one.
I was late for my Medieval History lecture, but I stopped to watch her shift and settle.
"Hi, Ruby," I said.
"Hi, you," she sighed. Her accent was stronger than usual. Did she still think I was her sister? That she was at home?
I could see her outline under the covers: the arc of her hip and the long slant of her legs. I moved closer till I was standing over her at the bed. I reached out and pulled the duvet down so I could see the top of her head. I touched her hair with two fingers.
"Quit," she mumbled.
"You have a fever," I said. Her scalp burned against my skin.
She spent four days in the infirmary with the flu. I sat with her between classes. She looked terribleunwashed hair, pale shiny face; and she smelled sick, too, kind of chalky and sweet. I counted the number of times Eliza came to visit: once a day, but she skipped Saturday, which was the Halloween Mixer. This time around I didn't leave while she visited. Maybe she felt strange with me there, but it seemed like she had nothing to say to her sister. She told Ruby about the plans for the Mixer: where they'd gotten the decorations, and who was going to wear what. Ruby listened, but she seemed bored. Didn't Eliza know what her sister liked to talk about? Then again, did I? When Eliza wasn't there, we didn't say much. We did homework and listened to the radio. When news about the war came on, I changed the station.
During one of Eliza's visits, after a bit of a silence between them, Ruby said, "Do you think Mother would've been in Kappa Theta Pi?" She said it like she knew what the answer was.
"Oh, don't, " Eliza said. Her eyes flicked over to mine. It was the first time I thought I could see her façade come down a little, because she looked at me like she didn't like me, which I'd never seen her do before.
After Eliza left, I said, "Do you think your mother would have been in KTP?"
"Well, she was half Cherokee," Ruby said, "so no." She paused. "Eliza doesn't really like people to know that."
"Oh," I said.
"But otherwise I think she would've," Ruby continued, surprising me. "She was a lot like Eliza."
"Not really," Ruby said. Then she said, "You're not like your mother either."
"My mother is pretty awful," I said.
"Is that why you sleep around?"
I considered it for a while, mostly in the context of storing it as ammunition and deploying it later, in a family setting. "No," I said finally.
"Just wondering," Ruby said.
I invited Ruby home with me for Thanksgiving, even though her family, in Decatur, was closer than mine, in Houston. I was surprised and not surprised when she said yes. "Is Eliza mad?" I asked her.
"Eliza's spending Thanksgiving with Jack," Ruby said. "Her fiancé," she explained. I wanted to ask whether she liked him, but her face and her tone of voice stopped me.
At home it was just me, my mother, and Ruby, along with the cook and the maid. My mother had been excited to hear I was bringing home Eliza's sister. She thought it meant I was popular. During the meal I watched her face closely so that I wouldn't miss her expression when she realized she'd been wrong.
"Has your sister set a date for her wedding?" my mother asked Ruby.
"As soon as she graduates," Ruby said. "She's in a hurry to move to New York."
"And what about you?" my mother said. "Any boyfriends?" Ruby looked down at her plate. My mother continued, "Harriet doesn't tell me anything, but I'd bet money that if you two just tried a little harder, you'd have plenty of beaux." She studied Ruby expectantly. The moment stretched.
Who did I dislike more, myself or my mother? You, I thought. Make it you. "It's tragic," I said. "Ruby's never been in love."
My mother said, "Well, no one said anything about love."
"She gave her virginity to a boy who got killed overseas," I said. "Isn't that sad?"
My mother and Ruby stared at me. Even the maid stopped serving dessert for a minute. "Harriet, " my mother said finally, like somebody'd slapped her.
I gave Ruby a look, like: beat that.
She recovered fast, like I knew she would. "I think Hattie's never been in love either, Mrs. Browning," she said, breaking the silence. I smiled. "But…"She glanced at my mother, then at me.
Say it, I thought. Tell her.
"But I'm not sure she'll ever be," Ruby said. "Isn't that sad?"
"Tragic," I said.
"Well," my mother said stiffly, after a pause during which we'd all presumably taken our bearings. "I'm sorry for your loss," she told Ruby. "But you're so young. There are so many boys out there."
"That's exactly what my sister said," Ruby told her.
On the train back to school, Ruby spent the whole time reading and taking notes for her mythology paper. We didn't even talk about how weird things had gotten.
I'd known all along that we'd never be friends in the way other people were friends. I wasn't disappointed, exactly. Growing up I'd had maybe two friends, tops, mostly due to my mother bullying their mothers into inviting me to their parties. Then at the deb ball even those girls pretended they didn't know me. I was pretty sure my mother didn't hate me, but only because her spectrum didn't run that far. The truth of it lay in how vigorously she tried to prove that she didn't hate me. By the time I got to KTP I thought the only way to interact with people was by bluffing.
I remembered, though, how the girls in the kitchen before the Dean's Tea had all been acting so giddythe way they couldn't keep their hands off each other, flirting and basking in it at the same time. That kept popping into my head because it struck me as one of the more genuine interactions I'd seen, maybe because it seemed so involuntary.
The train was a local. We clattered to a stop at every two-building town between Houston and Denton. Ruby kept reading and reading and reading. She had to have thought about stuff like this, with Eliza, the great faker, for a sister. What even mattered to her, besides Eliza? Her grades? Her dead boyfriend? Me?
I wished I hadn't brought her home. She'd seen how things were with me, and now she wasn't acknowledging it. Worse, I still knew next to nothing about why she was the way she was, or how she felt about me. The thought of her telling Eliza about our Thanksgiving made me panicky. Though we were still on the train, I felt like the betrayal had already occurred. I turned to her and slapped the mythology book shut. "Do you ever stop reading?"
She looked at me and didn't say anything. I kept my hand on top of the book. I was pressing down on it hard, into her lap. The train shuddered into a curve.
"I was reading about Leda and the swan," she said. "You know that one?"
I was still mad, just this amorphous swarm of mad, so I said, "Bestiality? You like that?"
"Why do you always pretend to know less than you do?" she asked.
That threw me off a little, because it was basically the most attention anyone had ever admitted to paying me. But I didn't want her to know how pleased I was. "How do you ever plan on getting a boyfriend?" I countered.
"Maybe I don't."
Responses ran through my head. "I know some guys I could set you up with," is what I ended up saying.
"The ones you've already slept with?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"That kind of thing…" She stopped and seemed to reconsider. "I meanI understand why you like it. But I don't think I'd be as good at it as you are." She looked at my face and said quickly, "That's not meant as an insult. I envy you. It seems fun."
I envy you. Couldn't she have just said that back in September? The conversation forked in front of me, and I chickened out. "You don't know what you're missing," I told her. "It's a blast."
Eliza came back from break with a bunch of fashionable new clothes. One afternoon she stopped by the room with an armful of dresses to show Ruby. She was so excited that she didn't even seem to mind that I was there. "Look at this fabric," she announced. "Look at these buttons." She flung the dresses onto Ruby's bed, one by one. They were getting tangled up. A few slid to the floor. She didn't seem to notice. When she came to the end, Ruby's bed was a jumble of silk and satin and bows. Ruby just sat there. Eliza was almost out of breath. "Well?" she demanded. "What do you think?"
I watched Ruby. She was staring down into the pile like she thought something might have died underneath all the dresses.
"They're beautiful," I said.
Eliza spun around. "You don't get to say."
There was a prickly pause while we waited for Ruby to defend one of us, but she said nothing, and she might as well have been alone in the room for all her face showed. Eliza snatched up her clothes, layering them over her shoulders. By the time she'd picked up the last one, she seemed calmer. "Come over and borrow one anytime," she told her sister, and Ruby said thanks, she would.
When Eliza had left, I went and sat on Ruby's bed. Ruby said, "I know what you're going to say."
She shrugged. "I know how she comes across."
"She comes across like she's already Social Chair of Manhattan."
"I think she's worried because she got everything she's been aiming for since she was aboutI don't know. Five."
"That makes her worried?"
Ruby didn't answer.
Later, I thought about what Eliza had done, whether anyone could just flip a life around like that. If I chose to remake myself entirely, what was the farthest from me I could get? I saw myself wearing a headscarf, with chapped lips and splinters in my fingers, but the image was like a cartoon. Why wasn't I suited to anything except opposing everyone around me? I was the one who should've been deployed somewhere in the Pacific, a sniper striking out on my own, hunkering down in camouflage, waiting.
At the beginning of December, my math professor kept me after class to warn me about how close I was to failing. He said I needed to get at least a B on the final. "Look, I know you're like most girls," he said. "Waiting to get out of here and get married. But flunking won't make it happen faster."
When I got home I told Ruby what he'd said. I thought someone should probably be mad about it, and I figured she'd get indignant on my behalf, but instead she just sounded concerned. "I'll help you study, if you want," she offered.
I made a face. She couldn't see it, because I was lying on my bed with a pillow on top of me. I'd done the embroidery on the pillow myself, so it was puckered and wobbly, but you could still read it: it said He Is Risen. "Thanks," I said, "but it'd be so much easier just to sleep with him."
There followed such a long silence that I knew something had changed. I took the pillow off my head. Eliza stood in the partially opened doorway. Her face was icy, but she wasn't even looking at me; she was glaring at her sister. "This is who you spent Thanksgiving with?" she said finally.
"Eliza…" Ruby said. "It was a joke."
"Does she even care how she makes us look?"
"Why don't you ask her? She's right there."
At this, I could barely speak. I'd never seen them fight before. Eliza turned and slammed the door so hard that Ruby's dead boyfriend's photograph fell off the mirror. I looked at Ruby, but she'd turned her back to me. I knew better than to say anything, but knowing better didn't stop me. I sprang off the bed and picked up the fallen picture and held it out to her, still face-down. "Don't worry about it," I said. "I'll talk to her."
Ruby glanced at my offering without taking it. "Keep it," she said finally, sounding tired and a little disappointed, as if she'd caught me stealing it.
Over the next week I watched Eliza freeze out her sister. It wasn't anything overt, but after a while everyone picked up on it, and then it was out of Eliza's control. Soon all the girls in the house were snubbing Ruby. They scattered like minnows when she entered the room, or waited just a beat too long to respond when she spoke. Ruby never showed that it hurt her, but to me her misery was like a radio someone had left on just below audible. I went with her everywhere, even to the house meeting; I lent her nylons and brought her to the bar downtown, where we talked to two 4Fs for a while before Ruby excused herself to go to the bathroom and never came back; I let her tutor me in algebra; I proofread her mythology paper and drew stars over every dotted i. I couldn't tell if she appreciated any of it. She'd become unreadable to me once again.
Just before classes ended for the semester, Kappa Theta Pi hosted a Christmas Mixer. Ruby and I were put in charge of wrapping empty boxes to stack under the Christmas tree, which was plastic and looked like it had been made of silver dish-scrubbing brushes. The girls tried to disguise its sparseness by wrapping it in red crepe paper, like a mummy. When I asked if the tree was a leftover from the Halloween Mixer, Olive told me my presents looked like they'd been wrapped by an amputee. "I'll tell your boyfriend you said that when he comes back with no arms," I told her. Bitch, she hissed, then looked startled, like it was a tic she was trying to suppress.
By that point I was basically going for a scorched earth strategy, if I had any strategy at all. Maybe I was just trying to get Ruby's attention, but the only response I got came when I read her the letters that Gary had written to me. The last one had said he'd be out of touch for a while, through Christmas and maybe the New Year. I knew it wasn't fair to be angry with him for telling me that, but it was the kind of thing I would've written to someone if I wanted to make them worry. When I mentioned that to Ruby, she said, "Not everyone is like you."
For the Mixer, I gave Ruby the red dress I'd been planning to wear, and helped her curl her hair. I bullied her into wearing red lipstick and painting her nails. In her quiet fog of unhappiness, she was pliable and uncomplaining. While we got ready, I tried to tell myself we were just like the girls in the kitchen before the Dean's Tea, hands fluttering thoughtlessly over each other like hummingbirds, but it was an impossible fantasy to sustain. There was nothing thoughtless about it; every time I touched her it was like testing a stovetop to see if it was hot.
When I'd finished dressing her up, it was like for the first time you could really see she was Eliza's sister. She stared at herself in the mirror, dismayed. I wondered if Eliza had never wanted Ruby to look like this, or if she'd tried and failed. "Stop it," I said. "You look beautiful."
Downstairs, the eyeliner-striped couches had been draped in scratchy silver cloth and pushed against the walls. Red Christmas bulbs made everyone's expressions seem a little demonic. Mrs. Kane had set up a long table with bowls of special-occasion wine punch. The air smelled like burnt olive juice. They'd bussed in extra boys from A&M, and couples were slow-dancing to Bing Crosby.
Eliza's fiancé Jack, we'd already heard from just about everybody, was closing a big case and couldn't make it down to Texas. That meant Eliza wouldn't see him until January. You could have bounced a quarter off her smile. Boys were lining up to talk to her.
Ruby glanced at her sister and made a beeline for the punch. After one glass she was talking to two boys; after two glasses, three. Boys who'd been flirting with Eliza drifted over to see about her little sister. I stayed against the back wall, watching. It was like I'd become Ruby and Ruby had become Eliza. And Eliza? Eliza was bearing down on me like I was a matador waving a cape, so I guessed she had become me.
"What is the matter with you?" she greeted me.
"You've got lipstick on your teeth," I said.
In my peripheral vision, I saw Ruby looking at us, and I wondered briefly whether their falling-out would become permanent if Eliza hit me. But instead of saying anything I pried her fingers off my arm and walked away. Going past the tree, my shoe caught on a particularly flamboyant ribbon I'd fashioned around one of the empty presents, and I stumbled a little.
Upstairs, I didn't turn any lights on in our room. I got under the covers, still wearing my shoes. I might have dozed off; I wasn't sure how much time had passed when Ruby came in.
"Hattie?" She leaned over my bed, swaying. "Are you awake?" Before I could answer, she tipped forward and fell on top of me, warm and loose-limbed.
I shifted so we could lie next to each other. "I'm awake."
"Thank you for letting me borrow this dress," she said, formally, like she was reciting. Then she laughed. "I spilled punch on it, but you can't tell, since it's red."
"That's okay," I said.
We lay there for a few minutes in silence. She was on top of the covers and I was under them, and the weight of her body cocooned me inside the duvet. I was starting to think she'd fallen asleep, and wondering how to loosen the quilt without waking her up, when she said, "Eliza told everyone she's getting you kicked out of KTP."
"What? For what?"
"Sleeping around, I guess."
"Oh." My eyes stung, and I couldn't reach up to rub them. "That's fair, I guess."
"Fair!" Ruby rolled so we were face-to-face, pinning me even tighter. "How is that fair? Everyone does that!"
Before I could stop myself, I said, "Does Eliza?"
"I don't know." Ruby rocked back and forth a few times, like a worried little kid.
"Come on." I wriggled ineffectually. "You do know." She was breathing through her mouth, and her breath smelled like spiked sugar cookies. "Ruby. Tell me."
"She slept with her history professor." A pause. "When she was a sophomore." Another. "I don't think she really wanted to."
I let out the breath I'd been holding, all at once, like I'd taken an elbow to the chest in field hockey.
"You don't have to make that noise," Ruby said.
"Sorry." I pulled my arms from under the duvet and put them around her. When I was sure she wouldn't wake up, I extricated myself from the covers and got into her bed, and fell asleep just when the sky was starting to go gray in the windows.
I woke up late the next day with this feeling like I had to give a speech or take an examexcept my finals didn't start until Monday. Ruby was gone already, probably studying, and I lay there for a while thinking over what had happened the night before until I realized where the feeling came from. I burrowed.
Some time later I noticed I couldn't hear any of the usual noises from the rest of the house. For just a second I had this lung-constricting certainty that everyone had decided to move to a different house without telling me. They were so disgusted by me that they'd even gotten Mrs. Kane to agree to the plan. Then I remembered the post-Mixer Sunday Luncheon. I threw off Ruby's covers and went to her closet and got dressed in a pair of her slackstoo long and a little too tight for meand her forest-green blouse. I clipped on her fake pearl earrings and ran her comb through my hair and bent down to her vanity to check my reflection in her mirror.
The luncheon was a school-wide event being held under a tent across campus. The December air wound around my neck as soon as I opened the front door, and I thought about going back to get a scarf, but I already had too much momentum. I cut across lawns and through empty school buildings, half-jogging. My breath clouded in front of me.
When I arrived at the luncheon, my ears were aching from the cold and my nose was running. I circled the perimeter of the tent, dodging in between ropes and pegs and peering underneath for KTP's table. I finally found it at the furthest corner. Everyone had finished eating a while back. No one was sitting; people were milling around with mugs of cocoa. They'd set up kerosene heaters at the edges of the tent, and the air above them swirled and eddied, blurring people's faces. I wanted to find Ruby, but I made eye contact with Eliza instead. There was no way to pretend I hadn't seen her. I just stood there grimacing while she threaded her way through the tables and folding chairs to get to me.
"I'm sure you've heard," she said. "You're going before the Discipline Committee tomorrow morning."
I must've made a noise or an ugly face in return, or maybe she just then noticed I was wearing her sister's clothes, because Eliza gave me this look like she thought whatever I had was probably catching.
I thought about how this moment might replay in my head over the years to come. I thought about putting it in a letter to Gary, telling him the things he'd gotten wrong about me. I thought about telephoning my mother to explain what had happened. And she would think it'd had something to do with her.
"Don't be mad at your sister," I told Eliza. "She has a broken heart." I reached for her arm, to steady her.
Behind us, under the tent, girls circled and chattered in the current. They touched each other's hair and told each other how pretty they were. Somewhere, moving in between them all, ignoring it, was Ruby. But Eliza and I were staring each other down, adrift, and neither of us was winning, and neither of us would; but whenever afterwards I remembered that moment, I thought: that Elizashe was a good sister.