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These Unwritten Rituals

Calder Cassetti

Your mother cuts a check for friendship on a rain-soaked afternoon in late August. Your triumph is stained with sweat and relief.

A hundred girls surround you, and their frenzied giddiness swallows you whole. You’ve dreamt of this. You wanted to invite a hundred people to your graduation party but knew only a handful that might show up. You went to sweet sixteens and bat mitzvahs and watched childhood friends share fond stories and inside jokes, and you imagined yourself in their spot onstage, blushing and laughing and demurely accepting compliments.

You bought invitations once, on creamy, white cardstock, and addressed them to made-up names in your neatest cursive. One grim October evening, after your assigned lab partner told her friends you had a crush on her, you ripped them into pieces. You didn’t have a crush on her. You just wanted to be her, for a day, and now a tissue-soft paper graveyard bloats underneath your bathroom sink.

Your new friends are beautiful. The most beautiful has a red-gold curtain of hair – red like a sun-ripened nectarine all the way to the root. You methodically apply bleach to your own roots in your dorm room mirror. She is never the loudest, but the other girls are eager for the most pathetic, sinewy bite of her anyway. You’ve always been too loud and too desperate, and your new friends somehow know this about you already.

Only one week into this sisterhood, you try to tell a story, and their eyes slide away. Your voice raises. You can’t help it. Stories and jokes and acute observations sit in your stomach and clog up your throat, and you want them to find you delightful and endearing. You crave compliments on your maturity and wit.

Instead, you mispronounce Pi Beta Phi, and the blonde girl on your right laughs. You try to laugh, too, try to laugh the mistake away, but it burns in your face.

The month passes, and you soften. You clumsily dampen your loud edges, but the red-haired sister is in your biology lab, and she thinks your imitation of her overzealous RA is funny. She asks if you want to study for the first test together, and you try not to say yes too quickly.

You watch her carefully, and she helps unravel these intricate rituals. There is no performance in her whispers and laughs. There are no rehearsals, no running lines in the bathroom before stepping out onstage, and her ensnared audience coos and claps with delight. She squeezes hands gently and gifts compliments like foil-wrapped truffles.

Occasionally, she goes low and soft and slow – a syrupy molasses directed at the ritual chairwoman, when the group giggles about boys instead of learning the names of the founders. You already memorized everything for the initiation test weeks ago, so you soak in her stories about fumble-handed fraternity pledges and sloppy high school kisses from the sweeter summers of her youth.

Otherness still sticks to you, though, in a way you can’t completely shake. The older girls think you’re cute, or don’t think of you at all, and you envy their self-assured smiles and glamorous consulting internships and boyfriends. You aren’t invited to any twenty-first birthday parties and tell yourself you wouldn’t have enjoyed them anyway.

On a cold morning in November, your sisterhood is set to settle into something permanent. The week before has been equal parts praise and degradation, ribbon-wrapped presents in the morning and cumbersome tasks bleeding into the night. Their attention, good and bad, blooms sweetly in your chest, even as they whisper about what awaits.

An older sister encases you in a satin robe. The blonde to your left mutters under her breath and quiet laughter ripples out. You wonder why they refuse to recognize the sanctity of this moment, but then the older girl admonishes them; for today, at least, the same holy purpose unites you.

A warm hand guides you down the stairs. Soft incense burns in the parlor. The group has been carved into chunks, and six of you sit there now in the unnatural stillness, surrounded by cedar and sandalwood and sweet perfume.

“We gather here,” says the president. “To initiate these chosen few into our sisterhood. To promise to be there through their joy and grief.” Words flow from her like an incantation, and it isn’t until she murmurs taste their grief, that you realize – and your five companions realize – she is being completely literal.

Nervous laughter passes between you. But the president does not smile.

The red-haired girl goes first, your friend from biology. Her beautiful face struggles. You watch her forage for memories to pull from, but what sadness could a girl who everyone is hungry for know?

Yet, a tear does roll down, and the five of you approach. Five pink tongues press gently against her cheeks. Only your tongue touches that precious tear. You savor her salt and wish you could stay longer, but then it’s the blonde girl’s turn.

You taste each of them. And then finally, they taste you.

You’ve always cried easily, and now that their eyes fall upon you, your tears bubble in breathless anticipation. The pit in your stomach has sat heavy for nineteen years. No one’s first choice, not even now, and two ugly, effortless streams leak down your cheeks and into your nose and mouth.

Your shoulders tremble. Your hideous loneliness is palatable for a perfect minute, as your sisters approach with their soft tongues and solemn reverence. You wish they could touch you deeper. Their warm, sticky saliva is a balm that eases these embarrassing wants.

Your sisters drink your tears, and you’ll never know this closeness again.

Calder Cassetti is a fledgling attorney and perennial reader taking her first stab at this side of the pen; she is excited, grateful, and only a little terrified to be here.

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