It was shopping period at Eli University, and lest you think this is one of those books about fashion, let me enlighten you. The students at Eli were not shopping for Prada, but for Proust; they weren’t hunting for good bargains, but rather, for gut classes; and they would happily surrender Fendi at forty percent off to secure a Fractals section that wasn’t all the way up on Science Hill.
As a senior, I found this shopping period especially poignant. It was my penultimate chance to discover the hidden gem seminar, the one I’d look back on in the cold, post-Eli future as being one of those bright college days the song* speaks of. My last chance, in many cases, to take the famous lectures given by the college’s most notorious luminaries.
“What? You didn’t take Herbert Branch’s Shakespeare class?” future employers will say with incredulity. “Why, Amy Haskel, what were you doing there at Eli?”
And I will not be able to tell them, because I swore an oath never to reveal the truth: that while other Literature majors were shopping the Branch class, I was crouching in the shadows on a cold stone floor, garbed in a long black hooded robe and a skull-shaped mask, rehearsing an esoteric initiation ritual that required me to lie in wait for an innocent classmate to wander by so I could leap out, pelt his face with phosphorescent dust, and yell “Boo.”
As if I’d admit to something like that anyway.
“Hey, Lil’ Demon!” I called down the stairs. “I sort of wanted to shop a seminar this afternoon, so can we non-speaking parts adjourn for the day?”
Keyser Soze, a.k.a. Joshua Silver, popped up from behind a tower of human remains. “The Branch class? I wanted to take that, too.” Figures. Branch was a brand-name professor at Eli, and it would suit Josh’s political aspirations to add the scholar’s reputation to his C.V.
Lil’ Demon, currently levitating over a pool of blood, raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow and blew a strand of chestnut brown hair (she’d had it dyed over the summer) out of her eyes. “I should have gone union,” she said with a sniff. “You people just don’t understand show business.”
(By the way, that thing in Us Weekly about Lil’ Demon over the Fourth of July weekend is categorically untrue. Odile Dumas wasn’t “servicing” any ex–boy-band members in Tijuana; she was with me and the other Diggers at a patriarch’s pool party on Fire Island. And, say what you will about the starlet, she has better taste than to get down with a bunch of scrawny tenors. If that were her style, we had more than enough singing groups right here on campus.)
Thorndike, poised below her and wielding a wicked-looking pitchfork, tapped Lil’ Demon on her Pilates-honed and designer jeans–encrusted behind. “Can’t let the Teamsters in the tomb,” she reminded her. Demetria “Thorndike” Robinson was our resident power-to-the-people expert, so she’d know. “But I’m with them anyway,” she continued. “There’s this Racial Strata of the 21st Century symposium I wanted to hit at three.”
A chorus of voices erupted from the other costumed participants about classes they were missing. Bond, our club’s British contingent, wanted to ensure his seniors-first spot in a college poetry seminar, Frodo needed to go to a board meeting of the Eli Film Society, Big Demon had scheduled some physical therapy at the gym, Kismet was tutoring Swahili, and Graverobber, who I don’t think I’d ever witnessed in an Eli classroom, needed to see a man about a horse. Which he owned.
Lil’ Demon sighed, unhooked herself from her safety harness, and dropped to the floor. “Fine, but don’t blame me if the new initiates think they’re getting shafted on their ceremony.”
“With these special effects, I doubt it,” I replied. Lil’ Demon had somehow managed to cajole some FX guy at her studio into lending us a bunch of old monster-movie stuff for the initiation we were holding tomorrow for the Rose & Grave taps who had been abroad during our junior year. No offense to previous clubs—society jargon for each year’s class—and their sublime efforts at scaring the pants off the neophytes, but there was something about stuffing the taps into the same coffin that had once housed Bela Lugosi that added a certain air of authenticity to the proceedings. It would be one hell of a night, rehearsal or not.
I shoved the mask off my face and breathed in cool air. Acting was so not my thing. Some might say I lacked the basic requirement: the ability to conceal my true emotions at any given time. Others would argue I didn’t have the necessary charisma.
Someone tugged at my hood. “Hey, ’boo.”
Speaking of charisma . . . I turned to see Puck grinning at me from beneath his hood. Of course Lil’ Demon wouldn’t hide that face under a disgusting mask. Who’d want to cover up a masterpiece like George Harrison Prescott? “Are you going to that thing at the Master’s house later?”
If you’re going, I thought. “There’s supposed to be free cookies,” I said. “And booze.” Somehow, we’d moved away from the railing, back into one of the corners. We have a funny habit of doing that. Puck leaned against one of the skull sconces gracing the wall and his robe fell open, revealing a very faded, much washed T-shirt, and a whole lot of check-out-how-much-lifting-I’ve-done-this-summer shoulders. Ah, George. I like his shoulders. I like the way they connect his arms to his chest. I like the arms and the chest they connect. I like his collarbones. I like the way he kissed me in the bar last spring. . . .
“Bugaboo!” Soze shouted from the landing. “Are we going to the Branch class or what?” Bugaboo. That’s me. “Yes!” I called back, but I didn’t take my eyes off Puck. “Why wouldn’t you go?” I asked him.
“They do this thing . . . a presentation on the history of Prescott College.” He rolled his eyes. I like his eyes. They’d looked like copper pennies when he asked me to go to bed with him. “I think I’ve got it down pat by now.”
They hadn’t even blinked when I told him no.
“Because it’s starting in about three minutes!” Soze yelled.
Crap. “Coming!” I cried back down the stairs. I turned back to Puck, forcing myself to remember why I’d told him no. “Yeah, well, I’ve got it down pat after three years of living there, and I’m not even a Prescott.”
I’d said no because he wasn’t just George Harrison Prescott. He was also a “Puck”—society nomenclature for the knight in every club who had slept with the most people.
And right then he was my friend, and what’s more, my society brother. “Look, come early, grab a few beers, then slink out before they get into the lecture.”
He quirked a brow. “Slink out with me?”
Soze stuck his head into the shadows. “Now or never, Bugaboo.”
Tell me about it.
George decided to accompany us to the Shakespeare seminar. Raise your hand if you’re surprised. So off we went, three little Diggers, into the bright sunny world of Eli University that lay beyond our gloomy tomb. George checked to see if the coast was clear, and we sneaked out the side door and proceeded to affect the easy stroll of three students who’d just emerged from the nearby Art and Architecture building.
You see, that’s the real trick of being in Rose & Grave: getting in and out in the light of day without shouting to the world that you’re a member. It’s worth it, though. For the price of a little secrecy and a few bizarre rituals, we’re given a unique connection to fourteen other people we might never have known—or liked, if we did know them. (I plead guilty to one such early prejudice, having held an entirely untenable distaste for one of my fellow members before I actually got to know her. Persephone bless Rose & Grave.)
We cut across High Street and through the gate onto Old Campus, otherwise known as freshman central. The powers that be at Eli think it promotes class bonding if the freshmen aren’t isolated in their assigned residential colleges right off the bat, so they stick them all together in the dorms on our largest and most picturesque quad. Five-sixths of the frosh make their home there. (Two colleges keep their freshmen to themselves, due to space constraints, and trust me, you can tell who those freaks are just by looking at them. A common refrain here is “I don’t know that person. Must be in Strathmore or Christopher Bright Colleges.”)
I’ve been told by my Digger big brother, Malcolm Cabot (a.k.a. Lancelot), that the beginning of term is the most dangerous time for Diggers in terms of secrecy. The Rose & Grave tomb is right across the street from Old Campus, and there are a thousand freshmen who have heard all about secret societies and are dying to stake them out. Today, however, Old Campus was dangerous for another reason: the student activities gauntlet.
“Brace yourself,” Josh said, as we were bombarded with a sheaf of brightly colored brochures. Russian Chorus, Club Crew, The Party of the Right, the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Women’s Center, and the Solar Car team Ad Lucem ( “toward the light” in Latin, because we’re pretentious like that). Every organization on campus was out in full force, promoting their group and trying to m...