The first week of classes is always the worst time to find parking, so Alex forgoes her baby blue scooter in favor of walking from Sorority Row to the coffeeshop, thinking the whole time about how she’s going to break this news to Kelley. Over the past two days, she’s looked through the past four years of Kelley’s Facebook and scrolled all the way to the very beginning of her Instagram (miraculously never accidentally double-tapping a picture), and she’s started to feel like she actually knows Kelley, like maybe it’s okay that Alex is going to be the one to tell her her boyfriend is a lying, cheating scumbag.
At the same time, she doesn’t know Kelley, which she quickly remembers when she walks into the busy coffeeshop and sees Kelley at a stool by the counter, chatting with a blonde barista. Alex walks up to her, and gives a sort of awkward wave to get her attention.
“Oh, hi!” Kelley exclaims, turning toward her with a smile so wide and genuine Alex is again convinced that they have been friends for years. “I’m Kelley. Duh. This is my friend, Ashlyn. She works here.”
“Oh, cool,” Alex says. “I’m Alex. Are you in Kappa?”
Ashlyn laughs. “No way,” she says. “But I’m a big fan of them.”
“She’s friends with a lot of us,” Kelley says. “She hangs out at the house a lot.”
“My girlfriend is a Kappa,” Ashlyn explains.
“Oh,” Alex says. “Oh! Gotcha! That’s cool. Yeah, very cool.”
“What are you drinking?” Kelley asks, attempting to smooth over the awkwardness.
“Um, a London Fog please,” Alex orders, naming her favorite Earl Grey latte.
“And I’ll have a cortadito,” Kelley says. “Have you ever tried that? It’s amazing.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You’ll have to try some of mine,” Kelley insists. “And I’m paying for both,” she tells Ashlyn, waving her credit card and her frequent customer punch card.
“You don’t have to—”
“I want to,” Kelley says. “Potential new friends and first impressions and all that.”
“Thanks,” Alex says. She considers telling her she’ll get it next time, but she has a feeling after this conversation there won’t be a next time.
Kelley eyes a table in the corner that two girls are getting up from and makes a beeline for it. She smiles at the girls and sits down before anyone can even think about taking the table.
“It gets cutthroat in here,” Kelley laughs. “Only the strong survive.”
“No kidding,” Alex laughs. Ashlyn brings their drinks, and Alex smiles her thanks before taking a sip. “Hot.”
“Smells amazing,” Kelley says. “So, what was it you wanted to talk about? How is philanthropy planning going? Is it like pulling teeth to get girls to participate?”
“Um yeah, sort of,” Alex says. “Who's your chair?”
“It's me!” Kelley says. “I figured you knew that.” She looks confused. “Isn't that why you wanted to meet up?”
“Oh,” Alex says. “No, it's not. That's cool though. I'm really passionate about ours.”
“Me too! Well, in general. Have you done DM?” she asks, referring to Dance Marathon. “I've danced every year. It's my favorite thing.”
“Yeah, I love it,” Alex says. “Are you going to the hospital Saturday?”
“Wouldn't miss it!” Kelley says. “Those kids are so sweet.”
Alex’s throat tightens when Kelley mentions the kids. She thinks about her Miracle Child from last year, Aiden, and his family and all they've gone through. She thinks about the birthday parties and family gatherings she was invited to and what they would think of her if they knew what she was about to tell Kelley.
“Listen, there's another reason I needed to talk to you,” Alex says. “And I really don't know how to say it.”
She lets out a deep breath, looking anywhere but at Kelley. “I was out the other night at ATO for their, like, kick-off party thing, and there was this guy who was flirting with me and making me drinks, and I never do this but I just broke up with my boyfriend and my friend was like ‘it's your senior year, live a little!’” She can hear herself rambling, and Kelley looks more confused by the second, till a look of realization dawns on her. Alex hangs her head, staring at her lap.
“Oh my God, did something happen to you?” Kelley asks, her hand flying across the table to steady Alex’s, which is shaking. “Did someone slip you something? Oh my God. Who was it? My boyfriend is the president, he can—oh, of course you know that, that's why you needed to talk to me, so I could talk to him. Alex, you need to tell someone.”
“No!” Alex exclaims. “Nothing happened. Nothing like that, anyway. I'm okay. It was… consensual. And I had no idea he was—”
“It was Derek,” Alex says.
Kelley stares at her blankly. “Is this some sort of joke?”
“Why would I joke about this?”
“I don't know, why would my boyfriend sleep with a random slut at a party?”
“What do you want, a thank you card?” Kelley asks.
“Oh, thank you so much for taking time out of your precious morning to ruin mine.”
“Please listen to me,” Alex says. “I would never do that to another woman, not on purpose. I had no idea he had a girlfriend until the morning after.”
“Did you use protection?”
“Yes,” Alex breathes. “His—the condoms he keeps in his dresser.”
“He doesn’t—new box?”
“What? No, I don't think so.” Alex tries to remember. “No, definitely not new. Why?”
“Does this make you feel like a good person?” Kelley asks. “Bringing me here and sitting me down to tell me this in public? Does it make you feel less guilty about sleeping with my boyfriend to know that now at least I know? Is this all just so you can get a good night’s sleep?”
“No, of course not. I feel terrible about this! Telling you doesn't change that. I just thought—I’d want to know. And I wouldn't want to find out from someone else.”
“Who else knows?”
“Nobody!” Alex exclaims. “I mean, my roommates. But that’s all.”
“Oh great, your blabbermouth roommate Sydney, you mean?”
“She’s my best friend! You would have told your best friend, and you can’t even deny that.” Alex can’t even feel smug about the fact that Kelley must have researched her just as extensively, she’s too busy rushing to her friend’s defense.
“What makes you think you and I are similar at all?” Alex runs through the list in her head, but she knows the question is rhetorical. “What, because we’re both into philanthropy? I can tell you we are nothing alike, because I would never fuck another girl’s boyfriend, and I would definitely not try to ruin their relationship even more after the fact. So I hope you sleep well tonight, Alex. You completed your mission. Well done.”
Alex feels like she can’t breathe as Kelley gathers her things and leaves the coffeeshop quietly, not causing a scene. She catches Ashlyn’s eye, and Ashlyn gives her a smile and a wave as if she didn’t even realize anything had happened.
It’s funny the way your brain works when you get bad news. The stages of grief aren’t exclusive to the death of a loved one; they can also be applied to a breakup or losing a friend or the cancellation of your favorite TV show. And yet, when Alex told her Derek cheated on Kelley, her brain skipped the denial part and went straight to anger. When she steps away from herself and analyzes it from a purely objective standpoint, she thinks maybe it wasn’t a complete surprise.
Kelley’s freshman year was rough. After a week of blood, sweat, and tears (those high heel blisters are no joke), she found out she had been dropped from her first (and really only) choice sorority the night of prefs. The only reason she even went to Kappa that night instead of dropping out entirely was because of a girl in her recruitment group who was terrified to go to prefs alone. She had become Kelley’s friend quickly, her shy personality balancing out Kelley’s loud and unmissable presence.
Kelley and Christen both pledged Kappa, and Kelley learned to love it, but she struggled to come to terms with the feelings of rejection and homesickness and fear that she wouldn’t be as good at this whole college thing as everyone expected her to be. She ended her fall semester with decent grades and a life that looked perfect from the outside, but she spent her winter break coming up with a list of reasons she shouldn’t go back.
In the end, her parents told her “sorry not sorry,” but that wasn’t an option, and back to school she went. Christen convinced Kelley to fundraise with her for Dance Marathon, and Kelley went along with it because it was Christen, and nobody can say no to her. She was way behind—some girls in her sorority had been fundraising since summer—but when Kelley puts her mind to something, she achieves it. She went to fundraising mixers and events and fell in love with the cause, the kids, and the feeling of purpose. She ended up in the top 10 fundraisers for Kappa as a freshman, and she danced the day (and night) (and day) away at Dance Marathon alongside 800 of her closest friends, feeling more bonded to everyone she met in those 26.2 hours than people she’d known for years.
It was only fitting, then, that she’d have met someone who’d make such an impact on her life at a DM event. Derek never knew the Kelley who cried in her dorm room because she was so lonely despite being surrounded by so many people. He knew the Kelley who would stand on a table and do the chicken dance because someone promised to donate $5 to her fundraising page if she did. He knew the Kelley with fire in her eyes and a spark in her heart to make a change and to do something that matters.
And Kelley knew Derek as a preppy, determined fraternity man who had high aspirations for his life and his future. Derek wanted to be a lawyer or a senator. She used to joke that he could charm the pants off anyone. It doesn’t seem so funny now. He was the guy she was supposed to end up with, at least the version of herself she had created out of necessity.
Since her bike ride home from Pascal’s, she’s been trying to negotiate with herself. First, she shamed herself for not even doubting Alex. She doesn’t know this girl, why should she trust her over her boyfriend of nearly two years? Why should she trust the striking brunette who probably stole her spot in ADPi freshman year over the loving, sweet man who flew to Georgia to surprise her for her birthday a few weeks before classes started?
And yet, she does.
In a way, she’s almost relieved he isn’t as perfect as he seems. She loves him, but it’s exhausting trying to live up to the expectations everyone has of them as the perfect couple when she constantly feels like it’s an act. It just seems to come so naturally to him. Couples aren’t supposed to be so put together and perfect, are they? It feels almost forced sometimes. Maybe it is for him and it affects her. Maybe this whole relationship is a sham, a cruel prank she, queen of all the pranksters, somehow fell for.
Numb. That’s the only word for how she feels. It’s not the same sharp pain from high school she felt when she and her best friend, Ann, had a falling out right before graduation, the one she still feels every February on her birthday and every summer when she goes home and drives by her house, seeing her car in the driveway like nothing has changed, only everything has. It’s not the crushing hurt of wanting to fit in somewhere so bad and then finding out it didn’t want you back. It’s more like the numbness she felt after those things were over, the emptiness of the question “what’s next?” The hopelessness of realizing she doesn’t have an answer for every question.
The numbness doesn’t affect her instinctive excitement upon hearing the text tone set for Derek alone, and she hates herself for how quickly she reaches for it, holding her finger to the home button to unlock it.
“Hey pretty lady. Hope you’re having a good day. If you haven’t already eaten, want to meet me at the house? It’s mac and cheese day! Love you.”
It’s code for “I have a break between classes and we should have a quickie.” Before today, she would have been on her bike in a heartbeat for him. Now, she throws her phone against the wall. It doesn’t even have the decency to fucking break. What a sick metaphor for her heart right now. Numb.
“Dude, are you okay?” Carli asks, bursting into the room. Kelley stares at her blankly. The room she shares with Christen shares one wall with Hope and Carli’s and the other wall with Ali and Heather.
“Fine,” Kelley says. “I’m sick.”
“Still? I thought you were feeling better. Why don’t you go to the infirmary?”
“Great plan,” Kelley deadpans.
“Suit yourself, but stop throwing shit at the wall, and if you must, throw it to the other side.”
Carli rolls her eyes, closing the door behind her as she leaves. She rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but at the end of the day, her no-bullshit style is one of the most refreshing things about living at the house. When Kelley needs a break from the drama and pettiness, she retreats to Carli and Hope’s room, separated from her own by a (very thin) wall, yet a completely different world.
Kelley’s sense of time isn’t incredibly trustworthy right now, but it seems like Christen walks in barely seconds after Carli leaves. She can sense immediately that something is off, partially due to her particularly keen Kelley senses, but in part because of her freaky photographic memory which has a clear snapshot of Kelley’s Wednesday schedule.
“Don’t you have leadership right now?” Christen asks, referring to the class for which Kelley is a teaching assistant.
“Derek cheated on me.”
“He what?” Christen exclaims, rushing to Kelley’s side, sitting on her bed.
“Remember how I told you that girl from ADPi wanted to meet for coffee? Yeah, turns out she fucked him and wanted to ruin my favorite drink in the process. You’ve been trying to get me to cut down on those since freshman year. You should shake her hand, because she successfully did it.”
“She told you she slept with him?”
“Yep. But don’t worry, he wore a condom,” she says drily. “Out of the open box he keeps in his dresser, apparently!”
“I’m on birth control? I haven’t made him wear a condom since sophomore year? Yeah, fucking news to me too.”
“What did he say?”
“He wasn’t there.”
“I know, but didn’t you confront him?”
“I haven’t talked to him.”
“Oh,” Christen says. “Well… are you going to?” Her voice is as gentle as her hand on Kelley’s knee, desperate to say the right thing, the thing that will help her friend, the thing that won’t rub salt in the wound. Whatever that thing may be.
“I don’t know,” Kelley says. “I’m thinking of just never talking to him ever again.”
“Kel,” Christen sighs. “You are so much better than him. You really are.” She squeezes Kelley’s hand, imploring Kelley to look up and meet her eyes. When she does, her own are filled with tears. “You are so smart and capable and full of life and passion and happiness. You’re my hero. I look up to you every single day. I mean, God, when you took Emma as a little, I was jealous of her that she got you as a mentor. You’re so much better than him.” She hugs Kelley, rubbing her back in soothing circles.
“Chris,” Kelley says, pulling away from her embrace. She wipes her tears with the back of her hand. “Why—why didn’t you ask me if I’m sure she isn’t lying?” It’s the one thing she thought she could count on Christen to do: give him the benefit of the doubt. Give Kelley just a tiny glimmer of hope that there’s no way could Derek ever do something like that.
It takes Christen a second to figure out what Kelley is asking, but when she does, the pitying look on her face is the only answer Kelley needs.