Something was fishy.
Cara winced at the smell of the drink she’d been handed by some random guy.
This frat didn’t have a reputation for roofies, but there was definitely some alcohol in this allegedly nonalcoholic fruit punch.
And she had no interest in that.
She left her red Solo cup on a crooked, cracked end table next to a tattered couch in the main entryway and looked around.
Jam-packed rooms with bodies in motion, bouncing up and down and around, grinding against each other. Women were twerking. Cara didn’t know twerking was still a thing. They seemed to be having a competition to see who could have the shortest skirt. A handful of them had booty shorts. They all seemed more beautiful, skinnier, and better dressed than she was.
The lights were flashing in a hypnotic blur, strobing erratically in the adjacent oversize living room. The hallway was blacklit, giving everyone’s face an unnerving aquatic blue hue with sparkling white teeth in their big dumb smiles.
Decorations were wall-to-wall. In addition to the rainbow of scattered balloons and streamers, holiday lights were hanging from the ceiling in every room. Some joker had hung those singing fish toys at intervals along the main hallway, each fish singing a different classic rock tune. “Born on the Bayou,” “That Smell,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
The fish songs were barely audible under the assault from the house stereo system. The music was numbingly loud, a dubstep-flavored dance remix of an eighties pop song, the one about everybody wanting to rule the world.
Cara’d never thought of herself as an introvert, but nothing made her want to be alone more than the atmosphere at this Midsummers party.
Her previous experience with parties had been limited to getting together with a few friends, yakking over ice cream, maybe watching a movie. Sometimes they would blow out candles on a cake if they were feeling really wild.
She felt like a fool for even coming out for this event. Her parents had warned her against frat parties. She didn’t drink. She didn’t party. How did she even let Christie talk her into this?
“Come out to the party,” Christie said. “It’ll be fun,” she said.
And where was Christie, anyway?
She scanned the crowd of strangers. Whole lot of folks taking selfies, if they weren’t dancing. Cara was trying to go social media free for her Charlottesville visit. But it wasn’t like she was having such an amazing share-worthy time, anyway.
After looking in every direction, Cara realized the guy who’d handed her the drink was still next to her. It looked like he was talking in her direction. She couldn’t hear a word this guy was saying. But if he was the type who would hand her a spiked beverage, she wasn’t interested in listening close enough to hear.
So she leaned in close to him. He stopped talking, taken aback by her sudden close proximity. He looked like he was expecting a kiss.
And she said, “No.”
That summed it up nicely. Not interested in anything he had to say in response, she walked down the psychedelic party hallway and made her way to the front door.
There were bowls full of a variety of snack foods on the table along the way. Sea salt-covered pretzels, Goldfish, crab chips, cookies. She felt faint and hungry, but estimated a handful of any of those would be a hundred calories. Not worth it. She’d already eaten her full daily allotment of fifteen-hundred calories. There was no reason to go over her limit when it was so late. There was no way she’d be able to work them off. Not to mention she needed to control herself after losing it the previous night…
She further rationalized: those were public serving bowls, probably crawling with a million strands of bacteria. Nothing appealing there.
She pushed past a couple of folks who were dancing like no one was watching and made her way out the front door. She always sneered at anyone who danced in public because she could never bring herself to loosen up and do it herself.
What if someone filmed you? Everyone had a device in their pocket they could use to capture you and stick you on the Internet forever. If you made a fool of yourself, your foolishness would follow you for the rest of your life, then echo into eternity.
When she finally made it out of that claustrophobic, overwhelming, pinball machine of a house, she found it wasn’t much quieter outside.
An ocean of partiers greeted her, filling up the enormous Mad Bowl and the streets on either side of it. The police had given up on crowd control. The people ruled the streets on this Midsummers. Trying to make public drunkenness arrests would be a truly Sisyphean task.
Christie had told her this crowd was unprecedented. Nothing like it since the glory days of the Easters celebrations, which ended in 1982 when The Man decided huge street parties weren’t good for the community. Looking around, Cara found herself sympathizing with The Man.
People, people, everywhere, yet not a brain to think.
It looked like one huge organism at work, every human a semi-functioning cell in a giant giddy blob.
Even in the middle of this endless crowd, she felt painfully alone. Her RA-turned-friend, Christie, left her in the middle of a frat party, probably to pursue a hookup. Everyone in her UVA student summer-orientation group had already gone home earlier that day. Bill, Bri, and…everyone else. She’d talked to a whole lot of people, but everyone except for Bill and Bri morphed into a faceless blur. Casualty of meeting five hundred people all at once.
She was stuck in town thanks to her brother ending up in the hospital and her parents not being able to get away to pick her up earlier that afternoon.
And this just happened to strand her in Charlottesville on the biggest party night of the year—Midsummers.
Cara’d never heard of this event before orientation, but apparently it was a huge deal where students from the past and present all descended onto Grounds for a huge blowout. Christie explained it wasn’t really a themed event like Mardi Gras. More just a celebration of friendship and a reunion of classmates. Classes ended in early May and started in late August, so this early-July event was a great excuse for everyone to leave their summer jobs or internships or unemployment at their parents’ place back home to come down for a huge party with each other. Recent alumni often came down to partake, but there was a common courtesy cutoff of three years postgraduation. Any older and they risked Matthew-McConaughey-in-Dazed-and-Confused syndrome.
And here Cara was, stuck in the middle of it.
She doubted she’d be returning to town for this event next year.
She had the key Christie gave her for her apartment off Main Street where she could crash for the night. It was just a bit far to walk—especially on such a chaotic night—so Cara made her way down to University Avenue. Which was a ridiculous road. Two blocks east, it became Ivy Road. Two blocks west, it became West Main Street. Then it dead-ended at the Downtown Mall, where Christie told her it used to carve a path right between the storefronts there. Strange road naming, strange road layout.
And then as she made her way into the crowd of thousands, she ran into someone familiar, walking up the front steps with his head down, on his way up to the Sigma Phi frat.
Bill looked up, startled. But then he smiled. “Cara! Great to see you again! What are you still doing here?”
“Oh, my idiot brother fell out of a tree. My parents are stuck with him at the hospital, so I’m crashing with a friend for the night.”
“Oh, cool. Cool.”
“I thought you were going home too. I remember you saying something about not wanting to go out again after what happened last night?”
“Yeah, yeah. Totally. This is…well…”
Cara laughed at his fumbling.
“I was peer-pressured!” shouted Bill. “I can’t be blamed for my actions!”
“Sure, sure,” she said.
“Hey, I haven’t had anything to drink, at least. I’m thinking I might visit Phi Delt. I hear they’re dry. They have the better rep.”
“And before we ran into each other, you were walking into Sigma Phi because…?”
He did that adorable thing where he looked to the side, half-smiling as he shrugged. Cara just shook her head. “Don’t cut your fun short on my behalf.”
“I won’t! I just…I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“How does a dry house party on a night like this, anyway? It’s like Mardi Gras times a hundred out here.”
“Yeah, I’m actually curious to find out.”
“You’ve lived here all your life, yet you’ve never come out for this?”
“Never had the guts. Always wondered what I was missing, though.”
“All right, do what you gotta do. I’m not your mom. Good night, Bill.”
“Uh…okay. Good night, Cara.”
Cara squeezed her way through the crowd in the common area between the three frats facing each other and made it out to the sidewalk. There was a bit more room out there, but not much.
She didn’t look back at Bill. She liked the guy, he was nice enough, but she already had an “are-we-or-aren’t-we?” boyfriend back home and didn’t want to get involved with a guy who was just looking to get lost in the chaos of college life. She had more than enough drama in her own mind and life.
So she moved right along through the madding crowd. The relentless debauchery on all sides of her was completely alien. She’d heard the UVA school mascot was the Wahoo, a fish renowned for drinking twice its own weight. She wasn’t sure how that worked. But the student body seemed to embrace it as they guzzled or chugged or nervously sipped their various beverages in various-colored bottles and cups of all shapes and sizes.
At the same time, she didn’t want to ignorantly dismiss everyone. They were having fun. This was what they wanted to do. They were celebrating their independence. This was a special night to them. One of her favorite writers, Oscar Wilde, once said something to the effect of, “Don’t make fun of society—it makes you sound jealous that they won’t let you in.”
She saw one of her fellow Wahoos puke all over a bush in front of the Fralin Museum as that thought floated through her mind.
Not gonna judge…not gonna judge…
The smell was pretty rank, though.
Seeing the lovely pillars and sculptures displayed in front of the university’s prestigious art museum in the background with a vomit-decorated bush in the foreground was…profound.
And it gave her another flashback to her incident from last night. She almost never lost control, but when she did…she tried to push it from her mind.
She’d heard about the “freshman fifteen,” the fifteen-pound curse that only seemed to strike new females in the college population. (Though UVA should really call it the “first-year fifteen,” since “first year” was the preferred nomenclature.) Stress-eating, excessive drinking, lack of structure, too much structure, too many cafeteria buffet meals, too much fast food, too much pizza, too many late-night meals with friends. Whatever caused it, it seemed pretty universal. Even to calorie-counters like Cara.
But with help from the gentleman who just unloaded his stomach contents before her very eyes…she was confident she could retain this mental image and keep those fifteen pounds from attaching themselves to her. No calorie-counting required.
She wondered if the Fine Arts Library was open at this time of night. She learned on her tour, it was right behind the museum here. The poor souls who worked there must spend most of their time shooing away the hearty-partiers. Cara wanted to work there, or at any of the University libraries. She’d had a lot of fun visiting them over the past two days.
She saw University Avenue was open to traffic, not choked with people like Rugby Road. Relief filled her because she needed to get a ride to Christie’s apartment. No way she was walking there. Not through the sea of red Solo cups, crushed and uncrushed cans, soda cans (mostly PBR), broken and unbroken bottles (mostly Stella Artois), empty tumblers, and empty champagne glasses.
She stepped off the sidewalk to avoid getting run over by the conveyer belt of people flowing in both directions—to and from trouble—and unlocked her phone, using her ridiculously complicated security code.
She tapped the Uber app, then second-guessed. She’d had too many negative experiences there. The last guy who picked her up tried to force her to sit in the front seat. She’d reached for the rear-door handle but found it locked. The guy waved her to the front, but she walked to the other side of the car and tried the rear door. Also locked. She came around to the passenger front door and opened it. “Back doors don’t work, sorry! Have a seat!” He patted the seat next to her. She smiled, got in, climbed over the passenger seat, and got in the back. He looked disappointed. And wouldn’t you know it, the back doors were locked. All Cara had to do to make them work was unlock them. Cara didn’t respond to a single word of the creep’s attempts at conversation for the duration of the trip. She rated him one star.
There was also the guy who tried to make a stop at a coffee shop and invited her to come in with him and hang out for a bit.
That one-two punch was enough nope for her.
She closed the Uber app.
She looked at her home screen and remembered she also had the Lyft app. Or she could take the free trolley down Main Street. She’d heard there was a public transit bus, too. Was that free to prospective students? Too many choices, like always.
She hadn’t thought much about her sorta boyfriend since she arrived in Charlottesville, but she acutely missed him at that moment. If she was back home, she could call him and he’d come get her in his parents’ car. She’d thought about asking him to come pick her up here, but a four-hour round-trip was a bit much to request from someone who didn’t even want to admit on social media he was in a relationship with her.
She never told him about the Uber creeps. She kept such unsettling experiences to herself. Which probably didn’t say great things about their interpersonal comfort level.
But he was nice. He could hold a conversation without compulsively checking his phone. And—as far as she knew—he never vomited on bushes in front of art museums. So he had his merits.
She finally decided to keep it simple and just catch the free trolley. It was green and gold and looked like an old-timey streetcar that should be attached to cables. And best of all—it was free. It had a stop right in front of the World of Beer on Main Street, which would only leave her a block or so to walk to get to Christie’s. Solid plan.
She swam through the sea of partiers, frazzled by the cacophony of dance songs coming out of the various frat houses and party stations with grills set up all through the jam-packed Mad Bowl. The smell of salmon sizzling on the grills. No steak or burgers or dogs.
That was neat. Cara liked seafood. About two-hundred calories per serving of fish.
Cara liked a lot of what she’d seen during orientation.
She’d probably never be interested in the party scene here—even on a normal non-Midsummers eve—but there was a lot to love.
She’d enjoyed the libraries, the secret lore, the architecture, the cleanliness, and the people. Biggest highlight: getting a whirlwind tour from Christie on the lesser-known sights and facts that weren’t on the corporate tour.
She hadn’t ventured outside the bubble of the University, but she looked forward to exploring the historical sights around town in the surrounding counties. She’d always wanted to see Monticello and Montpelier. She heard there were some great nature trails through the mountains. A far cry from the pancake-flat Northern Virginia suburb where she’d been born and raised.
It was all fresh, different, and ready for her to put her mark on it. She could finally get some control of her life here. Make her own decisions.
She was happy with her decision to attend UVA, regardless of the evening’s events. And her struggles on the previous evening…
In other good news, no more pukers interrupted her way as she made her way down University Avenue, nearing the trolley stop.
The nearby Rotunda was glowing, with a row of lights behind the giant pillars. A pair of spotlights glowed at the base of the white stairs leading up to it. The historic building was so bright and vivid, it looked like a Hollywood special effect.
And then a sound emerged from the distance.
It was faint at first, then grew louder and louder.
People paused their revels. The party music stopped. Everyone stood still and silent. The only sound was from a few bottles shattering as people dropped them.
Lots of sirens.
And following their warning sound was the flash of lights, red and blue. They came from every direction.
The crowd was paralyzed by the sight of cop cars appearing from both directions and several paddy wagons rolling down the narrow Rugby Road.
It was an impossible number of police cars, coming from everywhere. It reminded her of that ridiculous scene from a movie her dad showed her, where it seemed like an endless number of police cars fly around and crash. This was way more police cars than in the film about the blues guys.
An air of panic went through the crowd as the vehicles stopped. The panic increased as the doors opened and officers came pouring out.
She seized up as she thought about the local law enforcement horror stories she’d heard from Bill earlier that day.
It felt like the police vans and cars were closing in on her like a noose, blocking her escape in every direction.
She figured they would be blasting corrosive tear gas into the crowd any second.
Then Cara had a thought she was sure no woman had ever had before:
Maybe I shouldn’t have left that frat party.