I never knew much about fraternities, but I was always sure I would never join one.
Granted, I had never been inside a real fraternity house or met a certified frat star, but I'd seen Revenge of the Nerds enough times to get a clear picture: paddles, upturned visors, kegstands, Bob Marley posters. Not for me.
But what really turned me off from Greek life was the loss of dignity I knew was inherent in being a "pledge," a wormy little less-than-nothing who would get no respect from his new brothers until he completed a random and humiliating set of tasks forced upon him.
Of course, the first party I went to in "real college" showed me how wrong my visions had been. In fact, they'd been too wrong. I'd soon find that earning equal treatment from a fraternity brother would be no easier than it was in the movies, but for all the opposite reasons.
If I thought that being paddled in the ass was the worst humiliation I could imagine enduring, I'd clearly never conceived of "man-flirting."
I realize now that it made perfect sense, but during Welcome Week I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that nearly all fraternity parties were catered towards freshmen. Hordes of sweaty men fighting over each other to shake your hand and digging to find a fresh can of Keystone to offer may have made some people feel welcome, but for me it was alienating and strange. By the end of the first week, I swore I would light myself on fire and hurl myself from the roof of Annie May Swift before telling one more person my name, hometown and major.
Meanwhile I saw the brothers and how they interacted, and I couldn't help but envy the way they treated each other. With me, they wore porcelain smiles and struggled to produce witty small-talk. But to each other, they were assholes. Loud, rude, disgusting and disparaging jerks who never let a brother walk by without a punch in the shoulder or a passing remark about what their extra-tight Coldplay T-shirt made them look like.
It made me think of my own brothers — my real ones — and how we would alway shove each other out of the way to get to the front seat or the remote control.
It made me think back to last year, when I lived overseas as an exchange student, and I remembered how long it took to make real friends. The first few weeks, everyone around me had gone out of their way to be kind and make me feel welcome. They politely asked me about my life and invited me out to McDonald's with them, but I didn't consider them friends until I reached across the table to steal one of their french fries and he slapped my hand away and yelled "hey, fuck you!"
And it made me think of shows like FX's "The League," in which every week five friends in their thirties meet at a bar to mock and trash-talk each other in a tradition they've carried on since they met in grade school.
And I realized that these fraternity guys were more than friends to each other. They were true family. Because when it comes to a group of young men, an insult can be far more endearing than a courtesy.
I dropped a bid on the first day of rush week. Today, I'm a wide-eyed pledge looking to earn my own vulgar nickname or headlock. After enduring 10 weeks of man-flirting and networking at Sunday night dinners, I find that all I want is to get knocked down a peg.
My big moment came the night after I became a pledge, when we were eating dinner at the house and I swiped two Chipotle burritos from the counter. I felt a crumpled ball of paper hit the back of my head, and I turned around to see a brother I'd had a thousand smiling conversations with since I met him.
"Easy, asshole," he said. "That's not all for you." He smiled and walked away.