The dreadful thing about adolescence is not that there are a disproportionate amount of soul-withering things happening in a very short period of time. Enough Pinot Grigio applied in later years, the searing memories would blur into a pinkish, distant haze. No, the most dreadful thing about adolescence is how it refuses to let you go.
All you have to hear is a song, smell a clove cigarette, see a pair of leg-warmers or an injudiciously-worn headband and your memory picks up your self-esteem and shakes it vigorously; self-esteem as chew-toy. Whatever reconstructive work I’ve done on myself can be completely undone by the phrase “Costume Party”.
I was fourteen years old and I was invited to the party of an acquaintance at a local school. I was eager to attend because I understood that in the teenage coolness geography the hostess dwelt on Mount Olympus and I had bought real estate in Death Valley. I have never had, before or since, such a singularly unattractive year.
My adolescent growth spurt had, so far, manifested itself in my nose, knees and lips. Since giving up ballet the year before, I had gained weight in several unexpected and nearly universally-unappealing spots such as my neck and upper arms. My skin reminded no one of the glowing girls leaping for Frisbees in Seventeen magazine. Considering all these facts, I went and got a perm because to my thinking what a large-nosed, spotted, tiny linebacker needed to wear was what appeared to be a docile Portuguese Water Spaniel as a tam. The corduroy walking-shorts and argyle sweaters I favored at the time added an aggressively discordant note. Had I tucked a mothball behind each ear and sung Gilbert and Sullivan at the top of my lungs I couldn’t have been less appealing to my peers.
But the Queen of Cool was also terribly kind and we knew a few people in common, so the next thing I knew, I had an invitation to her sixteenth birthday party. A costume party! I could barely breathe for the excitement. No more social bottom-feeder for me. I’d go to this party where no one would know me, and no one would know what a eye-covering loser I was, and I’d be so spectacular that I’d have a boyfriend before the ice-cream cake had thawed enough to cut.
My first clue I wasn’t about to head into the third act of my own personal John Hughes movie was when my mother dropped me off at the nightclub which had been rented for the afternoon.
We arrived one minute before the party started, because nothing says "Cool" quite like "Rampant Punctuality". I then made her sit outside until I saw enough people walk in to take the stink of geek off of me. We watched in silence as other kids entered the venue.
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” my mother said sympathetically.
“No!” I yipped. “It’ll be…” My voice faded away. I couldn’t think of a single adjective that might be something I was allowed to say in front of my mother.
The boys who were arriving had decided “Costume Party” meant “Dress as usual, but pencil on moustache and slap on a fedora”. The girls had taken the costume part seriously. There was a Slutty Cat, a Slutty Waitress, a Slutty Ballet Dancer, and several outfits which could just be summed up a Slut. I think one girl was dressed for her first gynecological appointment. I was a hamster among strippers. And yet the same part of my brain which sometimes decides to trim my own bangs insisted I leave the car and join the orgiastic festivities.
I opened the door and started extricating my skirt. Owing to a love of the book and, perhaps, some inchoate need to die alone and be eaten by my nine cats, I had costumed myself as Scarlett O’Hara. In this land of exposed teenage flesh and barely-concealed desires, not to mention pudenda, I was covered from sternum to floor. I came looking to find and win a boyfriend and chose an ensemble where even the most intrepid suitor would have to stay three feet away or risk bouncing off my hoopskirt. In an endearing misapprehension of my own attractiveness I had attempted to curl my perm into Vivien Leigh waves. The result was a near-perfect hair pyramid which drew attention to my nose, neck and upper arms. I had little lace gloves on.
I slithered through the front door, pulling my skirt into a more discreet five feet in circumference. The Cool Queen and her mother were welcoming people. The Cool Queen was dressed as a Slutty Jockey, with knee-high boots, tight satin pants and a riding shirt unbuttoned to her waist. I didn’t know if any racing organization would condone the look, but she looked flawless. I started to sweat, causing my hair to stick to my forehead. Both mother and daughter cooed over me, pronouncing me “Adorable”, which somehow made the whole thing even worse.
As unobtrusively as I could, I sidled into the main room and headed towards the snack table. There was one boy there, and I looked at him appraisingly. He was far cuter than I was, but was probably 5’3”; his shortness negated enough of his cuteness so we were almost on a level playing field. I swung my skirt to draw his attention. The corner of it hit him and knocked him into his friend.
“Dude,” he spluttered, “watch the f#ck out!”.
I mumbled an apology and blazed bright red. Dude? He thought I was a boy? This wasn’t some ironic “Duuuuude”, like years later we would tell our short-but-handsome children about how Mom assaulted Dad with her big skirt when they first met and he teased her by calling her Dude. This was “I don’t know why you dressed as a woman considering that you’re a guy, but learn how to work that thing.”
I raced off the dance-floor, and heard two micro-skirted teenage girls giggle as I passed them. It might not have been directed towards me, but I was willing to bet both of those historically accurate lace-up boots I was wearing that it was.
I found the nearest pay phone. My mother, having just gotten home from a nearly forty-five minute trip back from the nightclub, was understandably reluctant to make the trip again. Much whining ensued. Finally, after I escalated into a tearful “I’m the ugliest person on earth and my skirt won’t stop touching everyone!” she sighed darkly and agreed to come back. I was to be outside in about an hour.
I looked around desperately. I couldn’t bear thinking about being back out in the middle of the dance-floor, surrounded by nearly-naked flesh and expressions of pity or contempt.
I could stand behind the snack table, but there was a real possibility my skirt would spring forward, tipping the table over.
I could hide in the bathroom, but my skirt didn’t fit in a stall.
If I stood outside for the whole time, someone might think Civil War reenactments were going on in here.
Adolescence at its worst is suspecting that everyone knows something you don’t, you look stupid and everyone is laughing at you. Usually, looking back, you realize no one knew anything, you looked fine, and everyone was so worried about their own stuff they didn’t give you a second glance. This time, I had every reason to suspect my inner fears were exactly matched by the actual situation. And I had nearly an hour before I could go home.
Where could I hide?
The coat room wasn’t exactly interesting, but it was quiet and dark. There was plenty of room to sit on the ground, my skirt puffing around me like a lacy beanbag. I redid the laces on my shoes so they were completely even. I used the small mirror in the drawer to try to convince my bangs to lie flat. I worked on a few old ballet steps. I listened to the conversations of seemingly-graceful and confident teenage girls, heading toward the bathroom next door. No one sounded in the least insecure over wearing what amounted to a lobster bib and drop earrings. Everyone but me, it appeared, had gotten to bases. Many, many bases. Also, according to my unseen sources, the dip sucked.
In the coat room, I contemplated my own freak flag. How long had I been an outsider? I started school a year early, which meant I was short and young, two qualities that rarely scream “Leader!” in the early years. Also, I knew everything and apparently got headaches if I didn’t relate every single fact I knew, and that doesn’t exactly bring friends flocking around. And then I skipped a grade, so now I was even shorter and younger. I loved to read, usually to the exclusion of talking to other people on the bus. When asked, I had once told a fourth-grade classmate that my favorite show was “60 Minutes”. Then, to drive that last nail in the social coffin, I began acting. Looking back, I am surprised I didn’t receive more beatings.
I paced the closet. We had established I was an outlier and an oddity for at least half my life, but now I had to ask the question: did I care
? Was at least part of the problem right now that I had attempted to participate in a process the outcome of which puzzled, bored and scared me? I wanted to win a boyfriend, but God knows I didn’t want to follow through with what I understood to be going on in the VIP room.
I didn’t want any part of this evening. I wanted to be home, hanging out with my pets, reading and eating something which went to my neck. No one could doubt I had failed at this evening but maybe the greater embarrassment wasn’t the seriously misguided outfit as much as the fact that someone as fundamentally strange as me tried to pretend to be just another teenager for the evening. I was left thinking that my weirdness, which I had always vaguely imagined to be conditional, might be as ingrained as my allergy to lobster.
I heard a horn tap outside. In two notes I recognized both the sound of my mother’s car and the degree of irritation she felt at having driven for a solid hour and a half, round-trip. With one panicked jeté, I flung myself through the open door and tucked my big skirt around me for a diving leap into her car.
My mother glanced at me and said, “Are you alright?”
I said, “Yeah”, because I was. Now that I was free of Plato’s Retreat, I was almost giddy.
“Did you thank the hostess?” she asked.
“Of course,” I lied with a clear conscience. Had either the mother or daughter been hiding in the coat closet with me, I’d have thanked them with perfect grace.
As we pulled out, another car pulled in, letting out half-dressed teenagers. They were a happy, noisy lot, calling to each other, the people inside, the mother driving. Final coats of lip-gloss were being applied, hair was being tousled and flipped, long coltish legs in high heels were teetering towards the club. The last girl out of the car stopped, glanced at herself in the window and flicked one strand of hair from one side to the other. Smirking seductively, she bolted into the dark club, trailing wisps of gauze. Her gauzy dress reminded me of Titania. Maybe, I thought, I’d read Midsummer Night’s Dream
We drove home.