January 3, 2013

"Legally Digressive" by Nicole Callihan

For years, I lied about the fact that I was in a sorority, at least to the other English majors. We’d be smoking a cigarette in the quad, because this was Oklahoma, and in Oklahoma there’s enough land and sky that if you’re going to have a university, you’re going to have to have a giant-ass quad, and someone would say, Where do you live?, and I’d say, Live? like it was a weird question, and then I’d say, Oh, over on Chatauqua. In the big white house.

I didn’t mention it was a HUGE white house and that I lived there with eighty other girls and that we dressed in robes on Sunday nights and did secret rituals, that we had a handshake, that we ate rice with cottage cheese and salsa, that fraternity boys came over to serenade us as we stood on the stairs waiting to be chosen by them so they could drive us somewhere for a hayride and a few sips of snuck-in beer. I just took another drag and kicked at the leaves.

I remember hearing that the Chi-O sisters circled each other’s fat which I never really understood. Apparently they took a Sharpie and ran it around the perimeter of, say, a thigh, a pooch, a saddle bag. The Tri-Delts were dull, and the Pi-Phis were pretty-slutty, and the Zetas were ugly-slutty, and the Kappas were just goody-goodies. I don’t remember what we were supposed to be but I do remember that we weren’t supposed to be smoking in the quad.

In the 1950’s there was a rule that if you wanted a cigarette you must be under a roof, sitting down, with your legs crossed. These days, of course, you can’t even smoke inside. At the university where I teach, I have a student, a young man from Turkey, 18 or so, who writes about drinking too much champagne on the family’s yacht. Every Tuesday and Thursday at 8 am he comes into my class reeking of cigarettes, and I take really deep breaths because even though I quit smoking a decade ago, it still smells so good to me that it almost hurts.

There was one girl in my sorority, Jennifer, actually there were many, many Jennifers, but this one Jennifer, one who I sometimes ran prayer group with, even though out in the quad I questioned not only the existence of sororities but also of God, and on really, really cold days, the existence even of a self, but this Jennifer had worked at Disney World as a Princess, and even though, she looked EXACTLY like Cinderella, and had the most beautiful Cinderella-like hair I had ever seen, they made her wear a wig. That’s just the way it is, she told me.

There was a bathroom in the big white house that always stunk and was rumored to be a haven for the bulimic girls. It was just off the TV room where the semester I studied abroad, Friends aired. When I came back, convinced I wanted to live in Prague, read Proust and drink very black coffee, I was dumbfounded when it seemed the only thing people wanted to talk about was Ross and Rachel.

But to be completely honest I also have to tell you how crazy-hard I cried when we teamed up with the Fijis and won the campus U-Sing competition. Almost forty, I still get goose bumps when I remember our name being called out on the loud speaker. And, years later, when—even after having witnessed me jumping up and down on the couch, yelling “Go blonde or go home!” as Elle Woods won her Legally Blonde case with her Cosmo Girl wisdom—my husband married me, it was those girls on the beach with me, dressed in blue, the ones who had proudly walked across the quad in their Panhellenic T-shirts and forgiven me—hadn’t they?—for not waving back at them because I was too busy fumbling for a light.

All this to say, I’m ashamed of my status as an inside-out Elle Woods. I mean here she is using perm logic to serve a murder case, and there I was packing my Marlboro Light 100’s on the heel of my hand and mispronouncing Yeats. I’m not sure what to make of any of it, I only know that when I’m trying to teach my writing students how to meaningfully digress, I don’t mention my grandfather or my colorist or even that great little poem I stumbled onto during my morning reading, I just put on a clip of the Elle Woods courtroom scene and find a seat in the back of the room where I sit on my hands—really—to keep me from jumping up and loudly applauding my sister-in-pink.

Nicole Callihan
writes poems, stories and essays. Her work has appeared in, among others, Painted Bride Quarterly, Salt Hill, New York Quarterly, North American Review and Cream City Review. A finalist for the Iowa Review’s Award for Literary Nonfiction, she was named as Notable Reading for Best American Non-required Reading and awarded Best of the Net 2010 for fiction. Her nonfiction book Henry River Mill Village which she co-authored with 79 year-old Ruby Young Keller was published by Arcadia Press in July 2012. A Language Lecturer at New York University, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her Kappa Alpha Theta legacy daughters.
Find her on the web at www.nicolecallihan.com.


Unknown said...

I forgot you were in a sorority and didn't know you quit smoking. Reminds me of the time you first came over for a test review in snooty A.B.D. professor's class who never corrected us when we called her "doctor". I was baking cookies when you arrived and offered you a glass of red. You told me later that you thought "This is different."

Ada Limón said...

Love this! Makes me want to smoke and watch this immediately. Am I not allowed to say that? Oh hell. It's true.

Nicole Callihan said...

Frankie, I'll never forget drinking wine & eating pizza with you at that little place just off campus square. I think it was the first time I ever had a drink at a restaurant. Before that, the only drinking I had ever done were warm beers down by the duck pond! But yes, I had to quit smoking. As my mother warned, _it ages you, dear_. Yowza!

Ada, thank you, dear one! I'd LOVE to kick back and watch Elle with you.

Love to you both. Thanks for reading. And for commenting!