Flag football was important. The intramural games were divided into two leagues, championship and recreational, the level of skill on display pretty apparent in the names. Within the champ and rec league divisions, teams were further ranked by number, from Team 1 (the best) on down. The Team 1 flag football games were chances to watch two gangs battle, to see and be seen, to flirt with possibility.
We experienced none of this. As pledges, our job was to support the players with a variety of cheers, usually the ones marked with the kind of blatant innuendo that takes firmest root in private schools populated by the sexually repressed and morally confused. E.g., when our team was on offense and close to the goal line, our 19-year-old voices would send up a cry of “Penetration! Penetration! We wanna score!” This was our duty, and we took it seriously.
There were trade-offs, though, at least for the less physically resilient of us. Whenever our team scored, we were to drop into a line and execute a number of push-ups to match the score, which meant that on the first touchdown we did seven, on the second we did fourteen, and so on. As a result, I found myself utterly emotionally divided at every game: I rooted for our success and dominance, yet I dreaded touchdowns because they meant exercising in front of female spectators, about as close to a living nightmare as I’ve ever come. The best games for me were defensive grudge-matches in which we established a lead early on and then rode it out in a ground war.
The girls did all this, too, or at any rate their pledges were present to support the female teams playing on the adjacent field. The purpose of their presence beyond anything symbolic was never really clear. They came, they cheered, they marched off, displaying a military precision but none of the terrible joy my friends and I seemed to channel.
One night the girls’ pledges brought their notebooks with them to the field. This particular group of girls used plain three-ring binders as totems of their status as pledges; we used wooden blocks on which our names had been scrawled in permanent marker. The girls’ notebooks were their treasure, the thing they kept with them at all times and had been instructed to guard like children. At one point, the notebooks were left in a giant pile while the girls cheered on their team, which is when our own leader gave us orders.
“I want those notebooks,” he said, grinning the grin of a young man commanding even younger ones to do something stupid for no reason other than the fun of it. “Go get ‘em.”
We charged the pile of plastic binders with a total lack of planning, immediately drawing the girls’ attention and sending them running toward us as they grabbed at our sweaty arms and dirt-crusted shirts to reclaim what was theirs. Some of us fell; one of us went down on his knees, arms out to his sides, hoping or begging to be crucified or merely smothered.
I took a single notebook and ran east, away from the field into a neighborhood of cheap houses mostly occupied by students, then cut north into an alley that would lead back to school. I was less than a minute into my journey when I heard her panting behind me. “Stop,” she said between gasps for air. “Stop, please. I need that. Give that back, I need it.” She’d have shouted if she’d had the energy.
I glanced quickly back at her but didn’t stop moving. She seemed exhausted, running between garbage bins through an alley barely lit by the moon. She seemed to be staggering with rhythm than actually running, though whether her slowness came from fatigue, injury, or an inherent lack of athletic ability is something I never learned. I thought in that moment how happy I was to have someone chasing me who wasn’t very strong. It was one thing to struggle through group exercises beneath the uninterested stares of this girl’s superiors; it would be quite another for her to catch and assault me on foot. I often lied in the presence of women about my physical abilities. I’d taken a general strength-training course a year earlier that was co-educational, and one of the regular tasks had been to pair off and perform as many sit-ups as possible in a given time, after which we would recite our total as the instructor moved down the list and recorded our achievements in his log. I always embellished my total, sometimes by as many as 20 sit-ups, never wanting to appear that I couldn’t do something that a woman a fraction my size could accomplish. My partner never challenged me, either, merely gave me a knowing look every time it happened. I wound up dropping the class two weeks before the end of the semester, afraid I wouldn’t meet the performance requirements for a passing grade.
I turned my head back to the path and kept running, pushing myself to go as fast as my heavy frame could carry me. I heard her start to fall back even as she continued to plead with me to show some mercy. I knew what she meant, too: Losing the thing you’re supposed to protect is a grievous offense, usually punishable by further physical labor. I would not have wanted to be in her situation.
I lost her, or she gave up. Either way, I arrived back at my dorm and hid the book among my things. My roommate and I kept it for a few days, exploring the trivia and history within but mostly marveling at how useless and ultimately boring it was. I’m sure I returned it to her, though I can’t remember how or when. I know I didn’t keep it. I saw her around campus for two more years, but we never really talked.