It’s that time of year again. Front windows, porches and lawns are adorned with glowing Jack-o-lanterns, crumbling tombstones, and airy white ghosts. It is the season of fright, a time for horror movies that speed up your heart and send shivers through your skin. Corpses that rise from their graves bloodthirsty and hungry for human flesh. An escaped mental patient with a knife in his hand and a mask on his face who stalks a small town on Halloween night. These are the makings of a scary story.
I have a Halloween tale, though, that is far more frightening. A story that will terrify any child, teenager or adult who remembers growing up. A story that is entirely true.
It took place many years ago on a cold October night. The dull gray moon hung on the black of twilight while wisps of clouds drifted across the sky. The crisp wind blew through the distorted branches of dark bare trees and sent shrill whistles through the air.
Okay, not really. It did happen many years ago, twenty to be exact. Replace the eerie moon and spooky branches with some scattered folding chairs and bottles of soda at a seventh grade party, and the stage is set.
Let me be a bit blunt and totally honest: I was a pretty little girl. Before I hit puberty, each part of my face just worked well together. Sleek, arched eyebrows swept above big brown eyes. A cute nub of a nose. Pink, curvy lips. I was pretty and boys liked me. I dated the most popular boy in my class in first, fourth and (I think) sixth grade. Our entire dating history only totaled about three weeks but still; it meant something.
Underneath it all, however, I was the epitome of uncool–a truly natural nerd. A socially awkward first and second grader, I mostly kept my eyes down and my mouth closed. Once third grade came, the other girls began to talk and giggle with the boys at recess, shop in Limited Too and listen to music I had never heard of. I still preferred the corner of the schoolyard where my best friend Clarisse and I would play babysitter, shopping in a make-believe supermarket for strawberry-banana baby food. I wore clothes from Kids R Us, wrote letters of aspiration to Bob Ross and still cried when my mother went away for the weekend.
I wasn’t cool and the cool kids scared me. But I was pretty. And in the social hierarchy of our elementary school, that put me right on the cusp. So, from first to sixth grade I wasn’t exactly popular, but I wasn’t a reject either.
But, oh, the joys of puberty. Just before I turned twelve years old, my small, round nose began to thicken and expand across my cheeks. My other features must have been intimidated because they refused to follow suit. My face now became the opposite of its original form with relatively small eyes, thin lips and a broad but flatly squashed nose sitting in the center. To this day I swear one of my eyes got lazy for two years as it became smaller than the other. My eyebrows grew darker and instead of spreading apart as they usually do when one’s face grows, they merged closer together, the inside end of one reaching away from the rest of the hairs to create a miniature Asian fan in the middle of my brow bone. And, of course, I needed braces. I opted for clear ceramic brackets, which turned a horrid yellowish beige in six months’ time. It was at this age as well that I apparently forgot blow dryers had been invented. After cutting my excessively thick, mousey brown hair to my chin, I washed it each night, slept without tending to it and simply threw in a headband every morning, ignoring the tumultuous curls, waves and indentations all over my over-sized head.
Now in seventh grade, other girls my age were beginning to wear bras and hip huggers. Unfortunately, I had nothing to hold up and nothing to hug. My legs were literal sticks with bowling balls for knees; my arms were long, skinny, and dangerous due to my markedly pointy elbows. My feet and hands were both way too big for the rest of my body while my ankles, hips and chest were too small.
Blunt and honest: I was ugly. And as my reflection grew more and more ghastly, my link to the popular crowd began to slip further and further away from me.
In the early months of seventh grade, though, I held onto the very last shred as tightly as I could. In October, I was invited to the first big party of the year at Jenny Pheifer’s* house. Jenny Pheifer was popular. She was tall, dark, and beautiful. She had a muscular, hot older brother who threw keg parties and a mother who let her wax her legs. Her party would be THE coolest. The eighth graders, the popular eighth graders, were invited–and they were coming.
The only question left was what I would wear to this big bash of coolness. Jenny told Clarisse that some people would be wearing costumes; others would not. In my wonderful little mind of immaturity, I thought, “Yay! A costume party!”
Of course, on Halloween day I wouldn’t be running around the streets spraying shaving cream on friends like other kids my age. No, I’d be going door to door gathering candy from my neighbors as usual, so I already had a costume all set: Cleopatra.
At 8:00 on the night of the party, Clarisse rang my doorbell. When I opened the door, I saw that her costume was hardly a costume at all. One quarter Indian herself, she was dressed as an Indian woman. Wearing her black Raiders Starter jacket over her sari, she could have been wearing jeans and a t-shirt underneath and no one would know the difference. Her hair was pulled back into a neat bun and she wore a red dot the size of a match head in the center of her forehead.
She, however, saw a very different sight standing in my front doorway. I wore a shimmering eggshell kaftan that bloused bountifully around my waist, which was cinched by a lustrous gold belt. A short gold lamé cape rested on my shoulders while a chunky gold necklace inlaid with deep red jewels hung around my neck. A jet black triangular wig concealed my light brown hair and extended four inches past each side of my head. As if the cape, necklace, and wig were not sufficient enough, a gleaming golden crown sat atop my head with a snake that protruded out of my forehead, gazing at all standing near me with emerald green rhinestone eyes. My own eyes were surrounded in thick black eyeliner with half-inch cattails on the outer corners, my cheeks were streaked with crimson blush and my lips were painted Coca-Cola red.
I tried to ignore the funny look Clarisse gave me as we descended the stairs on the way to her mother’s blue station wagon. I tried to ignore the intense fear that was building up inside my chest as we rode to the party, exited the car, and walked up to the back door of the Pheifer house.
And then we entered. The party stood before me; the room, longer than it was wide, was lined on either side with guests. Silent guests (or at least it felt that way). No one seemed to be talking; there wasn’t any mingling or laughing or dancing. It seemed as if the party had frozen the moment I walked in. Guys and girls stood there. Looking. Staring.
And EVERY LAST ONE of them wore the regular ol’ clothes of 90s tweens: jeans, plaid flannels, and Abercrombie T-shirts.
My under eyes filled with tears. In one swift motion I reached up, pulled my wig and crown off my head and slipped into the folding chair against the wall to my right. There I remained for most of the night.
This was true humiliation. This has become my definition of humiliation. The rest of the party is a complete blur. I don’t know when I finally got off that chair. I don’t remember talking to any boys and certainly not any eigth graders. But I do remember the way the heat filled my face in that one moment when we stepped through the door. I remember the fear, sadness, and embarrassment all rolled into those ten short seconds.
It was absolutely horrifying. The scariest Halloween story I have to tell.
At least, unlike most horror movies that simply teach us to get the heck out of the house rather than investigate scary noises on our own, I can gain something from this experience and just maybe I can use that something to be a better mother.
For one, I will never EVER allow my daughter to attend a Halloween party dressed as anything but herself without getting complete confirmation that said party is a costume party. While I will also never allow her to wear the types of costumes I see on many a young girl today complete with Daisy Dukes and thigh-highs, I will do my absolute best to have her dressed in a costume that does not make her look like a second grader attending her big sister’s party.
More importantly, this will be a great story to tell when she has her own utterly mortifying social debacle. I can tell her this story. I can make her laugh through her tears at her nerdy, old mom. And I can prove to her that no matter how humiliated she may feel, she will be okay. She will get over it and life will go on.
Because, sure, I still cringe whenever I remember that moment. I close my eyes and shake my head when it is brought up by my sisters, husband, and friends. But I certainly didn’t let it ruin my love for Halloween or my fascination with dressing up. I’ll wear it all: clothes, makeup, wigs. Whatever it takes. I’ve been Lois Griffin and Tina Turner. Carmela Soprano and Daphne of Scooby Doo fame. And my personal favorite of all time, Bill alongside my husband’s Ted.
Embarrassing things will happen. Sometimes, life stinks. But what can you do except “party on, dudes”?
*Name has been changed.