Olivia Coleman

Don't Talk About Fight Club

“Fight! Fight!”

The chants are deafening. More than a hundred people scream from a circle several bodies deep. Beer cans fall from high arcs into the middle and surround the combatants. The two shirtless men are locked against each other, their shoulders pushing the other one back as blow after blow land on their torsos. Finally, one is knocked to the ground. The other takes the advantage, wrapping his arm around his opponent’s neck and applying pressure. After a long 10 seconds of feeble struggling by the downed man, the match is called. The victor raises his hands and lets out a warlike shriek as the crowd roars.

Off to the side, there’s a tall, sandy-haired boy in glasses. His thoughtful, elfin features and slim build set him apart from the screaming masses, though he watches more intently than any other. A dried spot of blood mars his white v-neck. His name is Garrett Pelton. Never one to resort to violence or anger, his interests tend towards the intellectual. He loves writing poetry. He has a hidden passion for primatology. And he’s as surprised as anyone that his fight club turned into this.


Pelton had a childhood defined by adaptation. His family moved all over the world as he grew up, and while he found it hard to make long-term friends, his family became close as could be. His childhood memories are of sword fights with his brother, catching lizards with his father, and being held in a papoose by his mother at a Renaissance fair.

When he left his family to come to college, Pelton felt a deep hunger for meaningful connection. His friendships at school have been defined by their intensity, as he tries to mimic the familial relationships he finds so important. “Garrett is a really thoughtful person,” says Lisa Francis, his friend of several years. “Spontaneous, but in a very thoughtful way. He needs people who can be around that all the time.”

The Liberal Arts Fight Club originated predictably: with the movie “Fight Club.” Upon watching it for the first time in high school, Pelton didn’t know how to process it. “It blew my mind,” he says. “All I did for the next 45 minutes was run around the house with a blanket on. I still don’t think I’ve processed it totally.”

Francis uses a different word. “He was bewildered by ‘Fight Club.’ Intrigued, but bewildered. He’s still bewildered.” Regardless of the characterization, it left an impression.

There’s a story that David Fincher, the director of “Fight Club,” tells sometimes:

“My daughter had a friend named Max. She told me ‘Fight Club’ is his favorite movie. I told her never to talk to Max again.” It’s telling what Fincher thinks of his own fans.

Contrary to what one might expect from someone who wants to spend his Saturday night getting bruised and bloodied, Pelton’s reasons for wanting a fight club had nothing to do with competition. He never mentions masculinity (the thought never even seems to cross his mind), he never mentions winning, he never mentions trying to prove superiority over someone else. For him, it all goes back to relationships.

It’s not just interpersonal relationships that are important to Pelton. He relies on a feeling of connection to feel close to himself, his spirituality, and his personality. “Oh yeah,” says Charlie Grayson, another friend of Pelton’s, “Garrett seems to have some kind of epiphany every other week.”

“Garrett seeks things that make him uncomfortable in some sense,” Francis adds, “and he was already used to being uncomfortable relationally and spiritually. This was trying to more physically understand his relationship with himself and others.”

“I’m not a violent person. I consider myself largely a pacifist,” Pelton says. “But I was at a place where I was questioning my relationship with my body, where I had this strange fear of being hurt. I didn’t have any relationship with my physicality, and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I thought that starting a fight club at a liberal arts institution was a really, really good way to get myself and others out of our comfort zones in a really experiential way.”


The first night of Fight Club (years ago, now) was fairly subdued. Restricted to Pelton and a small group of his friends, it was closer to wrestling than fighting. Gathered together on a grassy field near campus, they created a crude bracket and began wrestling. Everyone involved was like Pelton—a brainy college student who simply wanted to experience a physical challenge beyond a tough jog or a new workout. Eventually, at the encouragement of an RA, they stopped for the night. Over the next week, however, machinations took shape. After the success of the first, Pelton’s vision grew.

When Pelton first arrived at Colorado College, he formed a series of incredibly intense friendships with some of the oddballs of his classes. They became Pelton’s confidants, his family surrogates. Even so, they never felt the same as his family.

“He was lonely at CC. He, I think, really felt stuck,” Francis remembers of Pelton’s freshman year. If a relationship wasn’t familial, he didn’t want it. And if he didn’t have a real relationship with someone, they weren’t worth his time. In his eyes, there wasn’t any unifying community at Colorado College, and he didn’t know how he could feel at home. After that first night of Fight Club, he identified not just a unifying community he could be a part of, but one he could be at the center of. “He was able to get out of his head for once because he was surrounded by people who were so energetic in this totally similar way,” Francis concludes.

When Pelton lay on the grass that night, with his clothes muddied and muscles exhausted, he connected beyond the small group of friends he’d had for the last two years.

Grayson recounts how Pelton, on the walk home after the first Fight Club, couldn’t stop talking about it. “He was just ecstatic and felt like he had reached a new level of understanding of himself.”

And Pelton wanted more.


After the first night, Pelton, in violation of the famous “Fight Club” rules, began mentioning the Fight Club to a few people. The first night had gone so well, he wanted to repeat it. And why not get a few more people in on it? Reaching out to other friends who he knew could match his energy and enthusiasm, Pelton prepared for a similar night. A bigger bracket, perhaps a little more energy in the air, too, still just a group of friends wrestling in the grass.

But something unexpected happened. The rumor of a “Liberal Arts Fight Club” began to leap from person to person like a flame, igniting some violent desire within every person who heard it. Soon enough, people who didn’t even know Pelton had heard of Fight Club, and in turn told their friends. Along the way details were lost. What had started as Garrett Pelton’s Liberal Arts Fight Club, a group of friends wrestling in the grass, turned into just Fight Club. And while Pelton expected to just be wrestling with friends again, students across campus expected something else. They expected Fight Club.

That night’s Fight Club was different. Where before there had been a group of seven or eight friends, there now stood a crowd of dozens. A portable speaker blasted the sports arena anthem “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project as more and more people arrived. Over the sound of the music and excited conversations of spectators, Pelton’s friend Jack took it upon himself to become the announcer, commencing each match with a shout of “Welcome to Pepsi Field! Let the fight begin!”

Where the first Fight Club was composed of close friends, this had clearly grown to something more. Looking around, Pelton saw faces he didn’t recognize, people he had never seen at CC. Some of them weren’t even students.

“There were some guys in the military at the second one,” says Grayson. “Like off in the corner these big Army guys and I think an Air Force cadet or two were talking to each other.” Two of the soldiers eventually fought. And while none of the students knew them, they cheered nonetheless.

The fighting this night was different too. Now people were throwing punches and bloodying noses. Over the next week, attendees would walk into their Just War Theory and Music History classes, quietly bragging to their classmates that they were bruised from the already infamous Fight Club.

 “It was just shocking to see people there, and people coming. The draw was insane. It was like a moth to a flame, I’ve never seen that kind of … ” Pelton trails off. “I overheard one person say, ‘That shouldn’t exist. But it does, and I’m coming back.’”

And come back they did. Next weekend, at the third Fight Club, over a hundred students showed up. This one wasn’t advertised, Pelton barely mentioned it to anyone. Its fame had just grown that fast. No speakers this time, since the noise was too great for any music to be heard. “It sounded like a stadium,” Pelton later recalled. Every time a new person arrived, a dozen more people heard about the event. The spectators, growing by the second, demanded blood.

The first Fight Club was composed of friends who thought of themselves as intellectuals. There was no actual fighting going on, just wrestling between friends. They had no ill will towards one another and no interest in hurting anyone. Now, as Pelton watched strangers throw kicks and punches at each other, he saw how the space had changed.

This wasn’t what he had wanted. “It became this really immoral space where we dehumanized everyone,” he recalls. In one particularly memorable fight that marked a turning point for Pelton, one person lost control and ended up choking out the other until they lost consciousness. Luckily, everyone was fine, but the image stayed in Pelton’s head.

“There was a way in which you lost sense of being in a circle with another person and it became a gladiator game. It was psychological in this really powerful way, overwhelming to the point that you’re no longer just fighting. You’re trying to win.” The community Pelton had sought was gone. What he saw now was the absent-minded destruction of community, students willingly hurting each other and being hurt in return just to feel—what? Victory? Adrenaline? The students fighting each other didn’t whoop with joy or excitement during fights. It didn’t look like they were getting pleasure necessarily. If anything, they grew colder when they stepped into the ring.

Many CC students who had lived their lives far removed from the threat of violence were now the enthusiastic members and spectators of the Fight Club. The absurdity of this shouldn’t be lost. The soldiers there certainly saw it. Since the previous week’s Fight Club, the military presence had increased. A few other young soldiers from Fort Carson had heard about the CC kids fighting, and made the trek to come watch and laugh on the sidelines. One soldier, built like a tank, got bored of watching. He walked into the ring and challenged anyone to fight him.

His friends chuckled when no one responded, until one CC student, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, agreed. It ended up being the shortest match of the night—a series of vicious kicks to the soldier’s side sent him back to his group in less than a minute. But the air had changed. A tension rose, as the soldiers’ amusement from only a minute before fell. The hundred plus CC students around, meanwhile, erupted in cheers. One of their own had beaten a soldier.

Several of Pelton’s friends advised him that the situation was getting dangerous. As the military group seethed, the students were growing cockier and cockier by the second. The night seemed to be heading towards a CC-military brawl. And Pelton was helpless.

“He was never really in control. Yes, he created it,” Francis says, “but he wasn’t in control.” Now everyone, including Pelton, agrees that he lost control long before the third Fight Club—probably only minutes into the second Fight Club. But it took until then for him to realize it. No matter what he said, no matter what he or anyone else did, the situation would be the same. One person against a chanting, hungry mob.

The brawl never happened. When a white SUV pulled up nearby, the vast majority assumed it was a Campus Safety car and dispersed. But the significance of what had happened remained. The silence of the field, so dominated by cheers and cries earlier that night, was conspicuous. Pelton and his friends hung around, picking their way through the abandoned beer cans, discarded shirts and shoes, and torn-up grass where the fights had been.

“People would come up to me in the hallway and ask me about it,” Pelton says. “People still come up to me and ask me about it. I’ve heard people talking about it who I don’t even know.” He sighs, looking back on the experience.

“I heard later, like months later, that someone had done a copycat fight club. They’d posted in a group chat, ‘hey, fight club is still happening!’ But I haven’t heard anything about that since. I really hope it’s not happening. I really hope it’s not happening.”

The Fight Club that Pelton started, at least, was short-lived. He reached out to the attendees he knew and advised them that Fight Club needed to end, that it had become something toxic and truly dangerous.

Garrett Pelton may have been a main character in the Liberal Arts Fight Club, but he’s not the story. The story is that over a hundred CC students watched their peers beat each other up. The participants in Fight Club were, by and large, the stereotypical students at CC. Upper-middle class kids, mostly men, who pride themselves on a healthy view of their own masculinity. They contribute in class, they share thoughtful articles from The Atlantic about violence, and it barely took two words to convince them to start trying to hurt each other. Even with the full context of everything that transpired, most people learning about the Fight Club for the first time confess that they are excited by the idea.

What turned Fight Club into the bizarre, violent phenomenon it became was not Pelton’s idea. It wasn’t an obsession with the movie “Fight Club.” It was barely even alcohol. It was that a crowd of CC students who decided that at this one place, at this one time, violence could be without consequence. And that was all they needed.

Lights Out Issue | May 2019

Tender at a Distance

A few months ago, a friend brought up how much she loves the word tender, and now it’s my favorite word in the world. This word doesn’t have one clear meaning to me; it’s an emotion embodied in a myriad of images which overwhelm my mind. Tender is vulnerable and odd, like the underside of an elbow when outstretched or the pink tip of a sunburned nose. Tender curls into itself; it’s a too-long shower and the bruise on the bottom of a peach. It is a bending line rather than a sharp corner; it aches like a soft wound, but it cannot be smashed like a vase. Tender is the pink skin on the inside of someone else’s wrist or the vulnerable, unsmiling way they look at you when both of you want to kiss but neither has the courage to make a move.

I think about this word a lot in relation to my best friend from high school, Lila. We hooked up for the first time two weeks before we left for college, and she is, in a word, tender. She is skinny but her limbs are soft, not like a girl who plays sports, but like the kind of model that Francisco Goya paints—always naked, always lounging on a bed, so that you sometimes forget that she could exist in any other kind of space. She describes herself as fear-based with a tinge of pride in her voice. She won’t go on hikes because she has a crippling anxiety of heights. She has comically long blond hair that she refuses to cut and freckles and blue eyes that are often leaking. The longer I go without seeing her, the harder it is to conjure her up when I close my eyes, and I cling to these details just as a reader might, while the rest of her vanishes behind a tree on the other side of a lake.  

Other college students I know who have been in long-distance relationships describe very similar experiences with their faraway partners. My friend Phoebe explained that she sometimes felt like her long-distance boyfriend was a figment of her imagination—he existed in a separate space back home. Although texting and Facetime help negotiate the distance, Phoebe said that seeing him in person could feel jarring, as if recognizing a character from a dream while walking down the street.

There’s no exact statistic, but according to a 2017 Cornell University study approximately one quarter to one half of college students consider themselves to be in a long-distance relationship. This surprised me until I realized that it included those in less clear-cut relationships, like mine, which maybe lack labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but involve powerful, unshakeable emotional connections nonetheless.

My friend Dani was in what seemed like a perfect long-distance relationship last year, so I was shocked when she came back to campus single in the fall. We talk about it on the grass one day after class. It’s one of the first sunny days of the year and people look happier than normal, flouncing past in their favorite sundresses. They all smile a little wider when they see Dani. “I just have so many friends this year!” she giggles at the end of our conversation. A mutual friend describes Dani as a small dog with the personality of a big one; she is magnetic and jubilant as passing classmates call out greetings to her. Her Tinder bio is “It’s hard to be famous,” which is only partially sarcastic. Earlier this year she put on a one-woman show which did, in fact, make her famous; Dani says she isn’t sure if she would have been able to do it if she was still with her boyfriend.

“It’s not that I didn’t have people last year, but I didn’t put myself out there in the same way,” Dani pauses. “I think I felt like I didn’t need to because, emotionally, I was already so fulfilled by Sam.” She made sacrifices such as staying in on weekend nights, visiting him over block breaks and constantly communicating, terms they had agreed on from the start. “They didn’t feel like sacrifices because I loved him,” Dani explains. “I don’t regret it at all, but I’m so much more present on campus now that I don’t have to also be emotionally present in New York with him.”

Dani explains that her relationship worked so well because of how she and Sam communicated. She broke up with him as an intentional choice to be more present on campus, not because she stopped loving him, and the breakup was very clean. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Dani is a good communicator; she sets her boundaries firmly. Sometimes when I’m talking to her it catches me off guard how quickly she can brush off the kind of tiny decision that haunts me—like what kind of coffee to order—and express herself so clearly that it can feel almost abrasive. She does not experience doubt about her needs and she conveys them without apology.

I envy this quality in people. I also envy people with good memories. I forget little details often—I lose a very nice pair of Sony headphones, or I forget a quiz, or miss dinner with an acquaintance—but I particularly envy people with the ability to specifically draw themselves back into a past moment. Most of the time, I’m a fairly short-term thinker, but once every few months I will have a recollection so visceral it jars me.

On my way to Colorado College I took a long, winding road trip with my mom. We drove a scenic route through the mountains, along cliffs so steep and open that my mom had to stop the car a few times because she “felt dizzy.” I got out of the car while she huffed into a paper bag. We didn’t have service for two days on this road trip, and when I opened my phone, I had a few dozen texts from Lila, starting with how she cleaned up her cat’s litter box and made a too-strong edible and ending with how much she missed me. I remember this moment so clearly because it was the last time we were able to communicate as we had when we were together.

Where is the line between codependency and communication? How do you keep loving someone when you’re not with them? Lila and I never considered dating in college. Yet, we stayed in constant communication, texting every day and Facetiming at least once a week. When we were in high school, she had kept me updated all the minute details of her day, what she had for lunch or the passive-aggressive comment her friend made, and I would laugh and say how easily I could picture those specific intonations, or, more likely, I had been there in the moment for it. Most conversations with the people around us are built around our daily experiences—what block you’re in, the universal IBS burn that copious Rastall consumption causes—but when in a long-distance relationship these daily experiences are not shared. My friend Phoebe points this out to me and, when I notice it, I see it wherever I look.

Phoebe just broke up with her boyfriend of two years, and she describes her long-distance experience to me as “a lot of waiting” and “super fragile.” Long distance is waiting to see the other person again, waiting for the future when you can physically be together, waiting to make sacrifices and to have sacrifices made for you in return. She explains the fragility of long distance as a bridge in another metaphor: “If you have a bridge and the wind was to blow it, it would be way too strong to fall apart. But if [the bridge] is a string, the wind would shake the whole thing.” The physically not being together magnifies any problem in a long-distance relationship and makes it much harder to work through.

Since she broke up with her boyfriend, Phoebe has seemed physically lighter. Phoebe is tiny and, when she’s happy, emits a spontaneous light that makes me want to giggle even when we’re sitting in silence. She makes sporadic changes to her appearance late at night or when she’s high. I’ve woken up to crazy Snapchats from her, where she dyes her hair blond or gives herself a pixie cut or tattoos freckles on her face. Her ex-boyfriend Mitch, contrarily, is a quiet pre-med student obsessed with maintaining his GPA. He prioritizes academics over everything else, including facetiming Phoebe when she’s having a hard day. Their differences became more pronounced the more time they spent apart.

Phoebe cries often, and she wipes her eyes as casually as possible while we sit on her floor talking. She lives in a large single overwhelmed by fairy lights, and she mandates that we get high together before this conversation to make it easier. Watching her relationship deteriorate felt even more painful for me because it coincided with Phoebe’s own deterioration into depression. As their relationship spiraled downwards, Phoebe explains, she directed a lot of her anger towards Mitch inwards. By the end of their relationship, “I was dating him more for our history than our time together.”

Yet this is two-sided; the comfort of knowing each other only from home did not allow them to change or grow together as the people they are now. As a friend I wanted to scream—Why keep dating this douchebag? What is he giving you that you feel you can’t get elsewhere? —but it is difficult to judge holistically because all that I heard about him was filtered through her perspective. Just as he began to feel like a figment of her imagination, Mitch did not exist as a whole person in my mind.

However, Phoebe told me that she “would definitely do long distance again if it was the right person [because] next time I would know what red flags to watch out for.” Phoebe believes that the problems between her and Mitch were based on their differences as individuals, not the distance itself. She says that a long-distance relationship, when it’s working best, is the feeling you got from texting your first crush in middle school under the covers late at night, as if the light emitting from your phone is a star and a skinny glowing string stretches between the two of you, connecting you across a great distance. The butterflies move from your stomach to your throat and out into the air. Together you come to occupy a third space, large and open and full of possibilities, suspended above the daily grind of reality.

I read an article on longdistancerelationships.com that a third of long-distance relationships involve people in college. When I google around, I find kitschy pieces of advice: 21, 10, five, and eight “best” tips to keep “the romance alive.” Many of the tips are about how to spice up phone sex and the best angles for nudes, but my favorite articles were the ones with unique pieces of advice: “Start a book club together!” “Buy each other stuffed animals to cuddle with!” Some of these magazines are reputable and some are ridiculous, but they all emphasize open communication, setting a clear schedule and plans together, and finding balance in your own life without actively making the other person jealous. Most of them end by saying that “if the person is worth it, you’ll make it work!”

For me, the most jarring part of moving to college was its suddenness. In high school, before we started hooking up, Lila and I were rarely apart and functionally existed as one entity. No experience felt real until I told her about it, and so we always did, rehashing minute details until I could remember her childhood stories as if they were my own. In college, we continued talking like this, more out of habit than out of conscious choice. We said we weren’t dating, but labels are ridiculous and meaningless in any context, particularly when you wake up and your first thought is still of the other person.

I used to feel extremely confused when people, mostly grownups in movies, talked about timing and working through relationships. My parents have been divorced since I was an infant. Most of the time I don’t think about this for whole days, and other times I believe it has affected everything I know and believe about relationships. I am so naive about them, as naive as when I was five, sleeping over at my best friend Hannah’s house, and gasping when I saw her parents dressed up going out to dinner—married people do that? To me, relationships are built on a mutuality of tender feeling for another human. The end of a relationship should simply occur when you think of them and no longer smile.

At first, I decided to write this article because I’m deeply interested in the subject. Later, I wondered if talking to people about their own experiences with long-distance relationships was an attempt to work through my own feelings. During interviews, I clung onto moments that sparked relatability, but they were fewer and much farther between than I expected. Phoebe’s and Dani’s relationships were extremely different in terms of how they communicated and attempted to meet their partner’s needs. My relationship with Lila is even more different because we were never clearly dating. I am someone who loathes labels for myself—dating, gay, straight, etc.—because it feels like they limit and corner me more than represent me. A label like “girlfriend” or “long distance relationship” means nothing in itself, but it allows a level of clarity, communication, and openness about your own needs that our relationship never had.

Here is the action I am least proud of: last spring, I ghosted Lila. She wanted to text and Facetime much more than I did and, instead of telling her that, I stopped responding to her. Texting or looking at a tiny version of her face on my phone screen only made me miss her more. Negotiating across physical distance sometimes only emphasizes the ache of missing someone you love, causing it to reverberate between you two, and expel into space.

I fully believe that all romantic relationships are tender, and all relationships, in turn, make you tender. All relationships, from a one-night stand with a stranger to the last person you will ever love, involve some form of mutual understanding and respect. Entering a relationship is cracking open a door, hoping that something wonderful pours in but knowing that you are making yourself vulnerable. Yet long distance, in my opinion, magnifies all of these most terrible parts of a relationship, particularly the potential for hurt.

 Lights Out Issue | May 2019