Read American Fraternity Man Online

Authors: Nathan Holic

Tags: #General Fiction

American Fraternity Man (3 page)

But still, I’d
have to wait three full years before my parents would visit the fraternity house again, before I could change their minds by showing them who I’d become. By now, I was the outgoing President, a more accomplished student-leader than I’d ever imagined I could be. And yes, I’d just accepted a job offer, too, so it felt as if everything in my life was on schedule, as if I was passing each mile marker at the right time: college degree, first job, then up ahead, family and house and pool and all that. My mother even kept asking “how serious” it was with Jenn, and we were at that strange-but-exhilarating moment in a relationship when Jenn was receiving birthday cards and Christmas cards in the mail from my parents. At the Senior Send-Off, I was prepared to
lavalier
her, the first step toward a planned proposal around Thanksgiving. Everything on pace.

But there was something I still hadn’t told him.

My job: it wasn’t just any job.

I’d just taken a position with the National Fraternity
Headquarters.

*

There at the bar on the afternoon before the Send-Off, my father still gripping the wine bottle tight, I finally gave voice to the one thing that could take the emphasis off of my own ambitions and failings. “Where’s Mom?”

“What?” he said.

“Mom,” I said. “Don’t tell me she’s in the car?”

My father looked up at the gigantic Greek letters painted onto the tall wall behind the living room staircase, took a deep breath. “I dropped her off at the hotel.”

“That’s a little bit out of the way,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“And why are you here so early?” I asked. “The event doesn’t start for three hours.”

My father exhaled, still staring at the wall…and suddenly everything clicked into place: he’d committed her to the event without clearing her Friday night schedule, hadn’t he? He’d forgotten to tell her about the Senior Send-Off, and now—somehow, some way—she was making him pay for his oversight. Maybe she was shopping right now. Or maybe she would show up later in the night in a brand-new sports car she’d bought while his back was turned.

My father has always been the type to meet problems head-on, plowing directly through the thick of the continent, but my mother is the opposite: she has, over the course of many years, honed the fine art of circumnavigation. When I was a child playing with G.I. Joes, she’d help me with the A-B-C steps of building the tanks and armored vehicles, but when my imagination took over and I made a tank fly, she knew to back slowly away from my play-time rather than argue the impossibilities. “Oh, tanks can fly now?” she’d ask. Or: “Oh, his hands shoot lasers, do they?” My father would argue, try to explain that I should make the tank
roll
and the jetfighter
fly
, but my mother just let me live in my fantasy world. Even throughout my time in youth soccer, Little League, JV baseball, I might leave the field complaining of poor refereeing, blatantly missed calls, and she’d say only, “I know. Bad refs. Sorry.” My father would sit me down and for thirty minutes explain the nature of the calls, the difficulty of refereeing, the need to accept the penalties.
Confrontation
. If my standardized test scores were low, he’d outline why I needed to change my study habits, and he’d tell me over and over how I should do it. Meanwhile, my mother would just sign me up for SAT prep courses and drop me off before I even knew where we were going.
Circumnavigation
.

To the casual observer, it seemed almost as if my mother lived in a constant state of defeat. At home, while she watched the evening news, my father might snatch the remote and change the channel. “I just want to see where that hurricane is headed,” he’d say, and the station would remain fixed on the Weather Channel for the next hour.
Out to dinner at Outback, my father might veto her appetizer recommendations, her drink (“You didn’t like that the last time you ordered it.”), or even her meal itself. “I suppose you’re right,” my mother would say, sighing. But then, while my father left town on business, she’d have the house painted. Or, at a silent auction, she’d buy a ten-day trip to Paris, signing her name and a too-high bid, committing my father to the bill while he was at the bar ordering drinks. Better to just act and then apologize, my mother told me once, and probably that’s why I’d joined the fraternity without telling him.

“Your mother is at the Ritz-Carlton’s Spa and Salon,” my father said, and for a moment he placed the wine bottle on the bar’s countertop
.
“She knew about your graduation ceremony tomorrow morning, but apparently she didn’t know that we’d be getting a hotel room in town the night before. So she scheduled some extensive…activities. I’ll need to pick her up in a bit.”

“She is coming tonight, though?” I asked. “To the Senior Send-Off?”

“Your mother’s made her own plans for the afternoon. But yes, she’ll be here for your event.” And I could tell from my father’s careful language that the long-standing marital tug-of-war was as taut as ever, though perhaps the flag in the center of the rope was crossing the line to my mother’s side.

“As long as you’ll
both be here,” I said, “that’s all that matters.”

My father adjusted his belt, tried to straighten his posture.

“It means everything to me that you came,” I said. “That you gave the fraternity another chance, that you’ll see what we’ve become.”

My father was looking me in the eyes, and I reached slowly for the wine—

But at that exact moment, two of my fraternity brothers burst through the front door, both of them carrying Gator-Ade bottles and stinking of the gym, neither caring that his shoes were leaving wet footprints on the stone floor from having walked through the front yard sprinklers. “Fake tits, bro!” one of them said, shaking his head with the sort of seriousness that you might expect during a debate about the unemployment rate or the housing bubble.

“No fucking way!” said the other. “Fake tits don’t
feel
right. They feel like a muscle or something, all thick and solid.”

They trudged from front door to staircase, voices so loud that it seemed like the words might hang in the air and haunt the house forever. “You’re fucking crazy!”


I’m
crazy?”

“Real tits are, like, sloppy. If I grab something, I want
firmness
, brother. I don’t want my hand to disappear.”

“Please.
Please
.”

“Dude, there was this bitch who—” And then they were upstairs, voices faded by distance, and it was just me and my father again.

“So,” he said, cleared his throat. “How about, um. How about I hold onto this wine. Bring it back later.”

“Come on,” I said and reached for it, but it was in his hands once again. “It’s fine up there, with the rest.”

“It’s really good wine, Charles.” He held it back.

“You don’t want anyone drinking it?”

“It’s supposed to be enjoyed, not chugged. It was for us.”

“No one will chug the wine, Dad,” I said. “We’re not animals.”

He didn’t respond, but the look on his face—eyes like slits, forehead and cheeks smooth, lips stuck together at the edges of a mouth cracked open only slightly—suggested that this was
exactly
what he was thinking, that he did indeed imagine a National Lampoon’s scene later that night, a house full of cartoon characters dumping all the wine together into a giant barrel, pumping their fists and chanting for someone to chug, someone else speeding through the living room in a banana costume and tossing out condoms, while in the backyard a group of brothers sloshed into a kiddy pool of Jell-o…

“No one can open it without your corkscrew,” I said, then motioned to the bottles of gin and vodka. “And there’s so much liquor, no one needs to
steal
your wine.”

I held out my hands one last time.

“Well,” he said. “I’ll hang onto it for now.”

I needed to say something that would alter the air, something that would lift the smog that had settled over the two of us there in the bar. So I finally said it: I was waiting for the right moment, but I was already feeling like I’d lost some sort of battle. “Dad,” I said, “did I mention that I got a job?”

“Really?” he asked. “That’s exciting. Where?”

I took a deep breath, ran my palm across the bar’s countertop, and I told him
the one thing that he didn’t want to hear.

 

CHAPTER TWO. The job.

 

Halfway through my Senior year at Edison University, I’d received an email: at the top was a masterfully Photoshopped header, the words “Nu Kappa Epsilon National Fraternity” backgrounded by watermark-faint images of historic NKE chapter houses, of brothers in intramural jerseys huddled up after football victory, of alumni standing together at weddings, beautiful women with white carnations pinned to their gowns. Below the graphic, the words “Save the World.”

It was the sort of email that made you stop breathing for a few minutes, the same as if I’d just been notified that I’d won some million-dollar prize…the sort of email that asked you to imagine a future full of possibilities you’d never before considered. “Save the World,” and it continued below in plain text:

 

Save the World…the world of
fraternities
and
sororities
.

 

Become an Educational Consultant with the Nu Kappa Epsilon National Fraternity Headquarters. Travel the country! Meet hundreds of your fraternity brothers at dozens of campuses! Network with alumni! Work hands-on with chapters facing difficulties!
Save fraternity life for future generations
!

 

Job Responsibilities include:

Conducting leadership development workshops

Hosting roundtables with Alumni Advisory Boards.

Meet with campus Greek Advisors and other administrators.

Maintaining the standards of NKE excellence at each chapter.

Investigating and uncovering infractions of our fraternity
Sacred Laws.

Acting as a Beacon of Leadership

 

Do you have what it takes?

What are you waiting for? We select three Educational Consultants for single-year contracts. NKE
depends
on you!

 

In a few months, I would be graduating and looking for jobs with my freshly pressed Organizational Communication degree, but suddenly I was receiving “Save the World” emails
and
phone calls from my National Fraternity Headquarters: I’d been scouted as one of the top student leaders in Florida, they said. Recommendations from my campus Director of Student Involvement, from the Student Government Advisor.
Scouted
. Apparently there was a permanent file somewhere, full of questionnaires and email interviews about me, about Charles Washington, about a kid who—when he got the phone call—was in a Publix supermarket buying margarita mix for his underage girlfriend’s birthday party.

Someone thought I was important.

Scratch that.

Someone
important
thought I was important. That meant something.

*

To the outsider, maybe the words “National Fraternity” don’t carry much weight. Maybe they feel small: just some frivolous college organization. Maybe they even feel outdated, a quaint relic of American history that has now become irrelevant.
Fraternities, after all, started as six or seven-member orders, teenagers living and studying together in remote college towns; their collective history is captured in turn-of-the-century photographs, the corners yellowing around young faces eager for fraternal bonds, eager to share professed values through rituals and handshakes and ceremonies. What could be more out-of-touch with a youth culture immersed in Facebook and
Jersey Shore
?

To the outsider—to my father, especially—modern fraternity life is not just irrelevant, but destructive; the entire experience can be distilled down into the toxic stories found on the internet, hazing at this school, alcoholism at that one. But those stories
of fringe elements don’t reveal the scope of Greek Life, the power and potential of the National Fraternity. The outsider doesn’t know, for instance, that there are more than sixty national fraternities, some with as many as two hundred undergraduate chapters sprinkled from coast to coast, and as many as ten thousand young men claiming allegiance to the same Greek letters. Sigma Chi, Beta Theta Pi, Sigma Nu, Tau Kappa Epsilon, so many Greek letter combinations that you wonder how any of them didn’t accidentally duplicate one another. Each with millions of dollars invested in sprawling campus houses, each with its own foundation to distribute scholarships to worthy brothers, each with its own leadership conference in summer, maybe another at the start of Spring semester, each with its own philanthropic partnership, fundraising and service events with the Big Brothers or Habitat For Humanity or St. Jude’s, some national fraternities so progressive they’ve even
started
their own charities or service organizations, like Pi Kappa Phi and its Push America outreach program for people with disabilities.

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