When I was a freshman in college, I loved spending a Friday night in a packed, unfinished frat-house basement guzzling “jungle juice,” licking boys, and banging on some inconveniently placed washer-dryer to the gunshot beat of “Paper Planes.” The parties were usually sweaty, very straight, and hard to get into if you weren’t a single girl with several single girlfriends in tow, but at Northwestern, the frats were really the only place to go out while underage on campus (hell, I even had my first boy kiss in a frat basement). But I soon decided I was too gay, too cool, and too “progressive” for that keg-soaked scene and, as soon as I could, moved to New York City (along with everybody else gay, cool, and progressive), where when people talk about “Greek life,” they usually mean their trip to Mykonos.
But on Friday night, standing outside of Paul’s Casablanca, I happened to meet two darkly funny sorority sisters: “Hillary,” a Barnard junior, and “Brooke,” a Columbia senior, both international students (their real names have been changed, because who wants to be a campus narc?). Somehow, they convinced me to come uptown for a frat party now that they’re back in person for the fall semester. The next night, trusting that the people you meet smoking outside of bars are usually good people, we reconnected over text and decided to meet up for a night out in Morningside Heights. They promised it would be a “chill” night, much chiller than the evening we met at Paul’s, where we danced until 4 a.m. and obsessed over Natasha Lyonne’s red mane. As it turns out, a frat party in New York City has way higher production values than one in Evanston, Illinois.
10:00 p.m. | “For full college effect,” Brooke texts me to meet her and her “little” (sorority sister) Hillary at Lion’s Head Tavern, a sports bar popular with students on 109th Street, a few blocks from campus. When I walk in, it’s packed with students and people who maybe were students ten or so years ago, picking at baskets of fries, swigging beers, and watching football on one of the half-dozen televisions while the very loud stereo system blasts “Eye of the Tiger.” In my businesswoman’s sleeveless turtleneck (I figured I was going to sweat), I grab a stool and, to fit in, order a Stella from the whiskered beefcake at the bar, thinking it would be a safer choice than the “Banana Bread Autumn Special Cocktail” or the $8 Miller High Life–whiskey shot bargain deal.
10:48 p.m. | The girls are late, but I forgive them, because I was never on time when I was 21, either (nor am I at 23). When they do arrive, they arrive in style, in little black going-out outfits, looking much too dolled-up for the sports bar. They explain that Lion’s Head is their new neighborhood dive spot because the owners of the place across the street were “canceled” by the student newspaper for accusations of sexually harassing their employees, some of whom are sorority sisters of theirs. Besides the bar, they explain that there are two main nightlife options at Columbia: fraternity parties and “secret society” parties. Intrigued by the latter, they tell me about a campus “literary group” called St. A’s. Apparently, all of the students in this not-really-all-that-secret society are handpicked by current members, and many of them live with a butler in a brownstone where they throw parties (Kaitlin Phillips once described St. A’s in the Columbia Spectator as “moneyed internationals and card-carrying WASPs” with an “aura of exclusion and elitism”). Unfortunately, they’ve heard the St. A members are dispersed on group retreats this weekend in Mustique, Malibu, and “wherever people have houses.” Besides, they tell me going to St. A’s means you also run the risk of a member “ripping out Backgammon or reciting a poem” in the middle of the party. And who wants that?
11:12 p.m. | Tonight, the girls say we’ll be going to an off-campus frat party instead, hosted by some brothers who lost their on-campus frat house after a recent sexual-misconduct allegation against one of their members. They may have canceled the bar across the street, but Brooke and Hillary say they trust these boys, who are popular with the girls in their sorority. “Some kids are too cool for the frats,” Hillary explains. Which doesn’t really explain anything. I ask them why, as international students, they joined a sorority in the first place. “We’re here in America. Might as well embrace it,” Brooke says. “And when you go as hard as we did last night, you just want to stay home,” meaning in the neighborhood. We’re going to “need a couple of drinks” to suffer the party, they say, so we order a round of vodka shots while “Fat Bottomed Girls” plays. Hillary quits singing to issue a toast: “See you in the afterlife.”
11:35 p.m. | But first, we walk around the corner to Hillary’s place to change her shoes (“The party doesn’t deserve these heels”) and pick up a few of their friends. “This is our lovely student apartment,” Hillary tells me when we arrive, and it’s in fact large and well-decorated, scented with cigarette smoke and Jo Malone candles, and nothing like any dorm I’ve ever seen. When I compliment its stylishness, they tell me it’s because the girls who live here are “an art queen, a fashion girl, and a French girl.” The living room is bustling with international students from places like Amsterdam, Paris, and Milan, including one boy who looks swoonily like Timothée Chalamet. He tells me he was actually baptized in the Call Me By Your Name town in Italy. All of the girls look like they got dressed on TikTok with feathers and big clips in their hair and giant, candy-colored resin rings — Y2K throwback ’fits. Hillary rolls two beautiful joints — using gold filters and aquamarine papers — and we smoke one before we head out the door.
12:04 a.m. | Giggly and high, I ask what it’s like where we are going. Hillary says, “Picture a frat basement if it had an insecurity about being a New Yorker.”
12:19 a.m. | Just a few blocks away, we approach a police car sitting in front of a walk-up, whose front steps are filled with boys in beanies. At an apartment door on the first floor, there’s an actual du-ragged bouncer who checks (some of) our IDs (I suspect Hillary has been exaggerating her age). Two police officers approach him after me, but leave promptly when he agrees to turn the music down. “This is on the verge of being cool,” one of the girls’ friends tells me when I walk into the living room. “But we need to take shots, otherwise this will be too boring.”
12:30 a.m. | Brooke and Hillary lead me down a spiral staircase into the basement, where we drop all of our coats into a messy pile on the floor under the stairwell (will I ever see mine again?). I walk around a corner expecting to find the kind of frat basement I’m used to — dark, dingy, and smelly — but what I find is something closer to a half-assed club. Certainly like nothing we ever had back in Evanston. NYC kids! At the front of the room is a DJ booth presided over by a vape-sucking boy in a button-up, playing “Got to Be Real” while dozens of students dance around on the black-and-white-tiled dance floor, smoking cigarettes. Besides the red Solo cups and the really, really sticky floors, you might never know it was a frat party. It’s all lit up by a neon-pink geometric lamp, a disco ball, and a neon sign advertising the name of the “club”: Cube’s (because, get this, a cube is kind of like a square and a square has four corners and four boys somehow afford this apartment and they put squares on the walls). “No one has ever done this before,” one of the “founders” tells me proudly. Another, who looks almost identical, adds, “If it’s fun, then it’s fun!” When asked, we all Venmo them $15 to pay for costs.
12:35 a.m. | At the back of the room, we find the bar: a card table holding big clear plastic jugs with glow-in-the-dark paint that read “Tequila” and “Vodka.” We each fill up a full Solo cup only to find the “cocktails” contain no mixers. Hillary introduces me to her handsome friend: “This is my only straight male friend.” In response he greets, “Hi! I’m the token male friend!” When a “Rhiannon” remix comes on and we all take to the dance floor to twirl around each other and pass around another joint, I think to myself we’d probably all have been friends if we went to the same college at the same time. Anyway, it was always the international kids who truly knew how to have a good time, with a couple more years of legal European smoking and drinking under their belts.
1:00 a.m. | Upstairs, in the bathroom line, a stylish Turkish girl is less than enthusiastic about tonight’s turnout: “You came on a bad night. It’s a bad crowd.” Apparently, lots of regulars have brought along friends from high school who are currently on fall break from their own colleges, ruining the vibes. On the patio, an English girl who’s majoring in sociology tells me the same thing, complaining about all of the NYU and Parsons kids — “the downtown folk” — who are here tonight. “You can tell by how they dress,” she says. I personally can’t tell any of them apart.
1:16 a.m. | Back on the dance floor, yet another ’70s pop-rock remix, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” plays, and I find Brooke dancing against the wall, holding a cig in the air and looking effortlessly cool as she surveys the crowd of fist-pumping students. “These are my girls,” she says, pulling up their sorority Slack channel and showing me the invite she sent out to everyone earlier today. “I’m a celebrity here,” she jokes, before finger-waving at a boy across the room. “I’m in love with him. But that’s his boyfriend.” Meanwhile, Hillary draws my attention to another boy, the DJ: “Every girl in this place is feral for that man.”
1:31 a.m. | On a couch upstairs, I gossip with Brooke and Hillary over boy troubles. “King. I’ve never had a boyfriend ever,” Hillary says. Brooke has a different problem: “I’m in love with my father, an Electra complex.” Then we all look at photos of her silver-haired, broad-shouldered dad shirtless on a beach trip somewhere. “I wish we had a J to facilitate conversation. An aperitif,” Hillary says, though I think we’ve had enough, now that we’re all drooling over these daddy pics.
1:35 a.m. | The girls tell me about their past Thanksgiving vacations, which involve stories about laced weed and trips to St. Barts and waking up naked with men on boats in Miami. “He just got a job at Goldman Sachs,” Hillary says, pointing to a boy rolling a joint in front of us. I start to regret all of the struggling, sad writer friends I surrounded myself with in college who took me to places like Cleveland and Nashville on our own breaks.
1:40 a.m. | Hillary suggests we play a game, in which I pick a random person in the room and she tells me their backstory. When I point to a curly-haired bro in the kitchen, she lets loose: “That’s Sam. He used to be so hot freshman year. The first time I ever met him, we flirted all night, and he texted me. And then we just never ended up speaking. Anyway, then he started dating this girl Julie, who he dated for a year over quarantine. She’s very, like, traditional values. She did all his laundry, cooked all his meals, every day in school. She didn’t even live with him. It was super-weird, this like nanny-girlfriend thing. He just recently broke up with her. He’s kind of back. This is his reemergence, his metamorphosis, he’s risen from the ashes of this girl. And that girl over there is one of the best friends of his ex-girlfriend. She was in love with him before, so now she’s back into him.”
1:46 a.m. | Hillary points out another eligible bachelor in the room in a California state-flag shirt who is flirting with her roommate, a teeny, husky-voiced Parisian with abs and those-must-be-plastic features (“That’s just genetics and being French. She doesn’t work out ever. She’s just hot,” Hillary tells me). She explains that California shirt is “famously hot” on campus, and also just broke up with his freshman-year girlfriend. Now he’s on the market for the first time. “Apparently, he’s a math geek. A math major. Isn’t that hot?” Brooke says, before someone else cautions, “He’s not interesting. He’s. Just. Hot.” We all watch as the couple gets closer and closer before being interrupted by one of the guy’s friends. “She’s being cock-blocked,” Hillary says, disappointed. “She really wanted that. She’s been obsessed.”
1:51 a.m. | The Turkish girl joins us on the couch, ready to go home: “This place is fun for ten minutes, but no one will leave with me? Why is no one leaving with me right now? Anyone! A boy or a girl!” Unfortunately, the only person interested in her tonight is the boy she lost her virginity to. But he’s newly sober (from coke), and she’s simply not into that.
2:36 a.m. | And then back to the dance floor, where everyone is belting out “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” while sloshing drinks onto one another and, now that everyone’s taken advantage of the straight booze, eating each other’s faces off. “It’s that time of night. Right on schedule, 2:36,” Hillary says, as we count no less than four couples hooking up. When “It’s Raining Men” comes on, all of the couples break up while the girls dance and the frat boys bob their heads, unsure if this is a song they want to sing along to. When the DJ switches to “Pepas,” a song by the Puerto Rican singer Farruko, the boys join back in, and everyone in the room sings louder than they have all night long.
3:13 a.m. | Like a good sorority sister, Brooke fetches us all cups of water, and Hillary, fake-yawning and pointing at an invisible watch on her wrist, says it’s time for her to go home. “It was incredible, it was erotic,” she says, mocking the scene as we walk back up the spiral staircase and out of the apartment. But she liked it much more than she’s letting on. “You have so many other nights for going to Paul’s,” she says. “But Saturday night with everybody else in the city isn’t it. This is the perfect Saturday. I can go home whenever I want.”
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