"Pledge"

I wanted them to stop. I had heard what they felt like and didn't want anything to do with them. Bryan and Jason were trying to pin me down, so they could make me try out one of the new sensation patches that had recently come out on the market. Jim had been boasting about being able to get a few of them for weeks. They weren't illegal yet but couldn't be bought in stores. You had to know somebody. He had talked about a patch that Jack, the fraternity president, had applied to the back of his arm while he was sleeping. He said he woke up with his stomach throbbing and felt multiple urges to vomit until Jack ripped the patch off.

Darla, Jim's girlfriend, was sitting on the couch watching them. Her facial expression, like a dog in a traveling kennel, showed that she wasn't sure if she wanted to help me or not. Jim thought highly of himself and Darla. He paraded her around like the freshly painted name on a sailboat. He didn't seem to notice how he carried her or how she carried herself on him. She gave off softness, transparent as a rainy windshield. She was always smiling, but it was the smile of a girl in an ice cream advertisement from the fifties, designed and painted. She was a flat image, like if you walked around to the reverse side you would see the unfinished Darla, paint around the edges and white trails of bird droppings down the back side. She showed people the side she wanted to.

"Here they are boys," Jim said, brandishing a red and black flat metal tin, "the brand new SP-3's." He showed the other guys the front of the container. I tried to determine something from their responses, but they both responded rather differently.

Jim grinned as he held the tin out in his left hand and opened the lid with his right. The tin was rectangular and not any more than an inch thick. He moved toward me with his hands out in front of him, offering the sacrificial orb.

I couldn't lift my arms at all. Bryan and Jason were senior baseball players and far stronger than I was as a freshman pledge. I was having trouble breathing as Jason held my shirt up tight around my neck and Bryan unbuttoned and spread open my jeans, although thankfully for the lady's sake and mine he hadn't pulled them down far.

Jim's hands now just a couple of inches above me, he removed one of the patches from inside the tin. Pinned at the shoulders like a garment on the clothesline, I could do nothing but watch him remove the adhesive backing and affix the patch to the white portion of my abdomen below what was normally my belt line.

A pin-pointed twinge shot through my navel and another moved down, stopping up against my pants. Pangs like jellyfish tentacles danced across my stomach. My eyes reflexively closed as my body tried its best to fight against this new feeling, foreign and burning, like flesh was being melted or eaten from the surface of my stomach by some localized demon that I couldn't see or do anything about. At once, it seemed all of my senses were engaged. The scent of sizzled flesh and hair wafted my direction. I panted in panic.

My eyes opened, and I caught a glimpse of Jim's face, the face of a child who knows how to handle the babysitter. Bryan and Jason had backed away, both with empty, dumbfounded expressions on their faces. Gasping, I instinctively swatted my hands across my stomach in attempts to knock away the source of this pain. I shuddered and spasmed for minutes until the effects wore off, when I finally sat up off the shag carpet.

They looked at me for a moment to see if I was finished offering my body as entertainment for the fraternity president and then left the room. I was caught up in an awkward combination of coughing and wheezing, reminding me of the asthma I used to have. This wasn't asthma.

"I told you I was going to get some," I heard Jim say from the kitchen. I was recovering slowly from the experience, traumatizing but almost worth it in a more bizarre sense. "They have all kinds of these things. Some of them are way out there. It's harder to purchase the pleasant ones. More expensive too."

Rule number one of Phi Kappa Tao - respect the elders. Rule number two - do whatever you want as long as it does not violate rule number one. Jim and Jack were high up, had been there too long, but my body itched with rebellion.

Fire. That had to have been what that was. I lifted my shirt to look at my stomach. No mark, no sign of any burn or wound at all, just the patch that I quickly ripped off and crumbled in my hand. The sensation overpowered me, like I was staked in a pit of piercing flame, a pointed flare, a searing ash. Something very real.

T H E L O D G E they called it, a rave club that moved locations all over Long Beach . My last rave was over two years ago, so I hoped things still worked the same. I knew I could expect the halls of Cal State Long Beach to supply a flier for an upcoming rave party. Each visit to campus, postcards littered the sidewalk, not like Las Vegas debris that forces you to avert your eyes, no dirty men flicking the edges of postcards as you walk by.

I followed the directions on the back of the postcard and ended up parking in front of a large white tent that could have been used for trade show conventions. Music was thumping from inside, where people were dancing. Once inside I made my way to the wall of the tent lined with moving trucks. A tattooed man in his mid-thirties stood behind a table in the back of a truck. His tank top must have been a 5X or greater, and even that was not large enough for him. Large, sweaty rolls bulged out at the bottom and at his armpits. I could taste the sweat from the man and the dancing, the lovemaking in the air already. Without success, I tried scraping the taste off my tongue with my teeth.

"Have you tried these new ones?" The fat man asked me. On the table, metallic cases were organized and sorted by design and drug type. He nodded his head in the direction I had been looking, the rolls of his neck and shoulders jiggling.

The fact was that I hadn't heard much, which he could tell by my response. There wasn't any way for him to know that the apprehension in my gaze was not from my naiveté surrounding the product. I knew about the patches, not scientifically, but I knew them, subconsciously moving my hand over my lower abdomen. I wondered what types of the drug, if it could be considered a drug, existed on the market, obviously fire and frostbite, seemingly endless possibilities. Heart attack? Maybe. Migraine, gun shot wound, warmth, orgasm?

He pulled me out of my stolid look. "They aren't really drugs. There aren't any chemical effects on your body. Some DNA research, Human Genome Project or something . They mapped out the brain. It's controversial as hell. People don't like it, say it's bad for society."

I nodded.

"You interested? People are going to be buying them all night, good ones and bad ones."

Hesitation filled my arms and kept them at my sides. My voice stayed somewhere in my open mouth.

"They say they aren't addictive either. They're mental. They give you memories and emotions. It's all in the brain. Neurons and synapses and whatever else is up there."

"Thought drugs," I said under my breath. I made my selections and paid the man with money I removed from the mini cargo pocket at my ankle.

"Exactly. They're like reality, only temporary." He handed me my change and reached over to answer his cell phone.

 

I T W A S past 4 a.m. when I returned to the Phi Kappa Tao, but the Friday night party was still lingering on. Fraternities all over the nation would close their doors if it weren't for two reasons, alcohol and girls. Jack and the elders knew this. The whole business about the involvement in a fraternity looking good on your resume was a sham. Some alternative band, Slipknot maybe, blared on the radio, more likely fainter now than earlier that evening. Guys were collapsed under tables. Most that were still awake stayed outside to cool off and loiter around the kegs and wine bottles on the patio table.

In the back room past the stairs, where a guy I had seen before was just sitting with a blank stare on his face, Darla lay on a denim couch with faded spots like a skin disease from the sun. In the afternoon it shone through the alcove windows that paralleled the vaulted ceiling, slowly eating away at the blue fabric. Someone had left her sprawled out, her panties draped across one leg that hung over the end of the couch and the other leg off the side. Her vintage red and white striped dress had been left where it had been pulled up. The only decency that had been awarded her was that her hair mostly covered her face, concealing the shame, most likely unknown to her.

I looked away and turned to close the door halfway. My anger was a blinding intersection after the rain. I stood with my hand on the door handle for a moment and considered what I should do considering if open or closed was more incriminating were I to be interrupted. What was the honorable thing, the safe thing to do? I couldn't see anything but the last image burned in my brain, Darla violated. I looked back on her with a piteous eye. She was passed out cold.

After lifting her other leg up to the armrest, I did my best to redress her. I struggled getting her panties over her feet and turned my head as I worked them up to her waist. I pulled her now wrinkled dress from off her chest, unintentionally brushing against her breasts, and laid it across her thighs.

She stirred, rolling onto her side and burrowing her arms under her chest and tucking her legs up close to her.

I backed away and left the room, feeling at ease about leaving her like that now, but unsettled about what might become of this. That look she'd given me during one of what was sure to be many initiation experiences told me that she wasn't entirely content with things.

 

W E E K S passed after the incident at the party. It was November. Rush season at Phi Kappa Tao had finished. The pledges no longer had to wear the red and black t-shirts with PKT across the front. The pledges had been reviewed and accepted, myself included. Jack had called in a favor - how someone owed him a favor I didn't know - and secured the Long Beach Yacht Club for a formal dinner. At least our dues went toward something, I thought. I don't remember where I was, but a week or so ago I wondered why I had originally pledged a fraternity. When did I become a person who needs to pay for his friends, his social needs suddenly more important than anything else?

I walked outside onto the deserted deck that lined the marina. The glass of Chianti warmed my head, and I stopped and leaned against a portion of the railing. Through the light fog, the orange lights atop the boats were like the tips of old grade school markers.

With friends, Jim and Darla came through the glass doors, the muddle of their conversation breaking the stillness of the night air. Jack told a story about getting spit on earlier that day while riding his motorcycle. The driver hadn't seen him coming between lanes. I found myself wishing I had been the driver of the automobile, knowing that I would spit higher if I ever saw him approaching in my side view mirror.

I'm not sure at what point I assumed it was Jim who had left her lying like that on the couch that evening at the party, but I did. At times I had pictured him feeling her limp body under his hands and undressing her. It sickened me. The noise from their conversation, like the droning of a hornet's nest, churned my stomach. They began to complain about the cold, saying they were going back inside.

"I'll join you inside in a few minutes. Don't worry about me," Darla told Jim.

I waited a few moments after they had gone inside before speaking. "This may not be the best time for this, but."

She looked at me, startled out of her world of thought.

"There's something you should probably know about the party in September." I left it at that, looking for a reaction or facial expression that told me she knew what I was talking about.

She took a step toward me and lifted her hand to make a gesture. "What."

I interrupted, clumsily. "I came back to the house late when the party was winding down and found you on the couch. Like I said, if you don't want to talk about this right now." My codified language and demeanor was in all likelihood doing more harm than good, but I was in a spot. I had felt the need to tell her, but how often does a fraternity lackey have the opportunity to speak with an elder's girlfriend?

Like a curious choir girl, she took a couple more steps in my direction, fixing her gaze on my words, a cacophony that seemed a dissonant pounding with each new detail.

"When I say I found you on the couch, I mean someone had left you like that. I tried to fix your clothes as best I could. I thought you should know."

"What are you saying?" She asked further. She wasn't understanding. Or was she? Something in her eyes glinted of comprehension, a union of facts meeting and exchanging names.

"Look, I don't think now is the time. It was probably nothing." What was I saying? Probably nothing? The girl had been raped, date raped maybe, but either way I had some responsibility. I found her. "Should I have called the cops" flashed through my head for the first time.

She flicked my tie to the side, breaking my gaze. "There isn't anyone else out here. If we need to go somewhere else, I'm all for it, but I need you to tell me what you know."

The value of my story didn't lie in its quantity but in its gravity. I told her what I knew. Her expression didn't change much. She seemed to already know what I was going to say next, as if I was helping her make sense of everything.

"Ok," she said. She turned away from me with a look of staid contemplation.

I stayed where I was, not really sure what to do next.

"I wanted to tell them to stop. I need you to know that before I tell you something. That day with the patches and Jim. You looked like you were in terrible pain."

"Oh, that. Don't worry about it. I'd nearly forgotten about it." I hadn't forgotten about it. In fact, I thought about it regularly. I had been plotting creative forms of retribution toward Jim since that day, but I didn't tell her that. I had bought more than two dozen knife wound patches that night at the rave. I had bought others for myself, fingering the edge of one of them in my pocket. I wasn't sure why I had brought one with me tonight. I would manage my way into a party in the early morning and find Jim passed out or asleep and put a patch to his neck. I'd glare at him. He would wake up. He would have to. The feelings and thoughts would be all too real. Another and another I would stick on his body with angry punches that would fill him with alarm.and pain. All twenty something of them I would apply to his trembling body and stand over him. I envisioned it often.

"Can I trust you to not say anything?"

Of course you can, I wanted to say. Did she know what it took for me to tell her what I knew, how I had to work myself up. My cringed eyebrows and wringing hands must have given her some solace.

"All this is a shock." She paused, gathering her words. "I think I am pregnant. I didn't have any idea how or when and didn't know who I could tell." She told me everything with such astonishing poise and composure, while my emotions swam like the old Presbyterian preacher at the church my parents used to drag me to, meandering through his sermon like he didn't know what sense it was going to make until the end.

 

D A Y S, weeks, and months passed. Darla left Jim, overturning a table of food on him at the Phi Kappa Tao Christmas party. Her belly a developing dirt cloud behind a Chevy pickup, we decided it best for her to move into her own apartment so she wouldn't have to tell anyone she was pregnant and growing, like a ripening squash in mother's garden, like the trust between us, mutual and precarious.

Darla had been raped. It took me months to fully understand the embarrassment she must have felt having been raped. She thought about going to the authorities, but what could they do? The party along with all its evidence, the mess she awoke with and discovered in her panties, the drugs (if there were any) in her blood stream. There was DNA if it wasn't too late, but he would have to agree to the test. She didn't know. It was the uncertainty that kept her silent, except with me. I tried multiplying what I felt while redressing her, the fear and awkwardness of that uncertain situation, so different than how it felt to undress her, the security and stillness she felt with me now.

For Valentine's Day we stayed in. I cooked dinner in her apartment. I had never officially moved in but was there all the time. Over chicken fettuccini alfredo and burgundy from Napa Valley , we discussed plans. She was past five months, yet she refused to think about an abortion. Someone had mentioned a partial birth abortion, but all she could think about while they were talking was the syringe at the base of the skull, the vacuum pump and forceps tearing the baby apart, the collapsing of the head, and the disposal. She couldn't do that.

She laid her head on my lap, exhausted from months of mental planning, the calculations she obsessed over to keep this thing quiet. She snuggled her head deep into my lap and pulled a blanket over her body.

I grabbed a couple of patches from the end table and showed her the labels. Orgasm. She nodded. I bonded the patch to her lower back, and she did likewise to mine. We swam in the euphoria, a summer lake of warmth and cerebral emptiness. They say that at orgasm we are the closest we will ever get to nirvana, if only for a brief moment our vacant brains not convoluted or stressed by the pressures of this world. The thoughts lasted much longer than the real feeling. Minutes later we both awoke, embracing each other on the couch. The feeling faded quickly, my mind focusing instead on Jim like a splinter of rage. Nothing it seemed would squelch these thoughts but retribution.

I hadn't felt the need to tell Darla how I felt until the night I was sitting in my car, parked outside Phi Kappa Tao. The urge came over me to get Darla's approval and advice. With her endorsement, I would follow through for the both of us, but not until then. I had decided. Driving to her apartment, I thought about how Jim would be sleeping, if there would be others around, how long he would leave the patches on. It comforted me knowing that the effects were not physical, only mental, all programmed thought and emotions.

Darla was using the restroom when I arrived at her apartment. Sitting on the couch, I rehearsed lines in my head, softly murmuring a few of them under my breath. The toilet flushed, the pipes gurgling. The sink sprayed. The wooden towel handle jiggled against the wall. The bathroom air freshener sputtered twice. Darla emerged smiling and walked daintily toward me.

I stood and faced her, instinctively extending my hands toward her. She grabbed them and sat me down next to her on the couch. She kissed me on the cheek and smiled again.

"Darla, I want to hurt Jim."

"What do you mean, babe?" She looked confused.

"It's all I can think about sometimes. I want to hurt him, and I want him to know it was me, and I want him to know why it was me."

"What's wrong with you? It's the past. It's all the past. Would you forget it? We're fine."

"Does he know you're pregnant? Does anybody else know?" I went to the kitchen to get a Smirnoff. I was ranting. "I don't know. I wish he knew about the baby and wasn't helping, never coming to visit, to see how you're doing, how it's doing. Of course he wouldn't help after what he did to you. I would have just done it if he knew. I swear I would have." There was a long silence as neither of us knew what to say. I wished she told me I could go ahead with my plan, but it didn't look like she was going to let me. It burned in me.

"I." she stammered, beginning to speak. "I.miscarried."

"How do you know?" I leaned across the kitchen counter.

She had turned, leaning on the back of the couch and looking back at me. "I think it was one of those patches."

I felt like a small boy who arrived home to a For Sale sign in the front yard, disbelief mixed with curiosity. I felt confused, relieved, disappointed, and liberated. I turned a suspicious glance her way though, all of a sudden, comprehending what she was saying - not pregnant. This is what she had wanted all along, but was this what it seemed, accidental?

"This was an accident, of course, right?"

"Babe, what do you mean?"

"An accident. You didn't do something to yourself did you?" My voice was getting louder.

"Are you suggesting I made myself miscarry?"

"I don't know. Should I be suggesting that?" I should have been glad, but anger was coming over me, anger over missed opportunities, over unfulfilled emotions, over changed plans.

"Eli." She said my name like she didn't have anything else to say, wanting only my attention, for me to look at her as she was. "I hate when you do this. What do you want from me? For all I know I need to see a doctor."

There was something that needed to be said, but I didn't know what it was. The silence was stifling. It came over to the couch and lay between us under the blanket. I invited it.

"We'll figure it out. Don't worry. Don't worry." I spoke, but I didn't mean a word of it. I was tired of meaning things and not being able to do them. For all I knew the baby was the only thing that brought us together and maybe the only thing keeping us that way.

The sun had gone down outside since I came into the apartment. Instead of turning the lights on, I lay where I was, tension settling down to sleep between us. That things were going to be different tomorrow was the last thing Darla wanted to hear. Things would be different. I needed them to be.

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