My birthday is a few days before Halloween and I’m pretty weird, by anybody’s standards. I get a lot of “oh, it must be your favorite holiday!” comments.
My Halloweens were not some magical “let your freak flag fly” celebration of weirdness. They were just a yearly confirmation that I wasn’t normal, I didn’t fit in, and I never would fit in.
In sixth or seventh grade, I was (begrudgingly I’m sure) invited to one of the popular kids’ Halloween parties. Her name was Beth, and I was her funhouse mirror. We’d been in the same classes our whole lives. She was clever, but not freakishly smart like me. She was much blonder and much prettier than me. She effortlessly had a large group of pretty, normal, girl friends — I had, in any given year, two to three fellow outcasts for friends. Beth and her friends wore department-store clothes and seemed to have an innate ability to make things match, to put on makeup, and to find and follow trends. I wore jeans from Walmart, back when Faded Glory was a flashing neon sign telling everyone that you were hopelessly poor, and all I could think to pair them with was t-shirts. Tucked-in t-shirts. (At least I don’t tuck them in anymore?)
So Beth had a party, and I’m sure her parents told her she had to invite her entire class, because her parents were decent human beings. And like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, I got really excited. Yeah, all my previous Halloweens my costumes had been too weird, or too complicated, or too cheap. But not this year! This year I was going to have such a cool costume that everybody would have to admit it was cool, and even if they didn’t admit it was cool, it would be inherently unassailable. I was going to be a knight in shining armor.
I just want to go back in time and hug proto-Funder and tell her it’ll be ok eventually, because it was most certainly not ok then. What the hell was I thinking? Small town Southern girls are not knights. That’s a boy costume, and a nerd costume, and just utterly inappropriate for dirt-poor weirdo girls.
(Don’t forget, this was long before the nerds triumphed. The rise of the internet paralleled the rise of nerdiness— not only do nerds get good jobs, we’re all a little nerdy about something or other. Calling someone a nerd is, at most, the mildest and most good-natured of put-downs. This is the polar opposite of what it meant to be a nerd in the 1980s.)
My parents helped me make the coolest knight’s costume possible. I had a wooden sword, with a leather-wrapped hilt, spray-painted silver. I had a scale mail suit of armor, made from an old pale-purple dress shirt with silver matboard scales sewn to it. I’m pretty sure I even had a shield, made of foamcore board, spray-painted silver with a dragon painted on it. By today’s cosplay standards, by sci-fi convention standards, by adult standards: very cool. By 1980s kid standards: social suicide.
So I went to the party, and it went as horribly as middle-school parties usually go for young nerds. I wandered around, circling the outskirts of small groups of kids who didn’t want to talk to me. I’m sure I gave off all the wrong social cues, failed to make eye contact appropriately, had no ability to make small talk, etc. I’m not totally blameless.
But I still don’t think I deserved to get sprayed in the face with shaving cream.
It hurt, on so many levels. The one good thing is that I was totally and completely justified in crying about it — you can’t not cry with soap in your eyes. Even if you’ve made it your life’s mission to never let them see you cry, you’re forgiven when you get Barbasol’d in the peepers.
The adults helped me rinse my eyes out. They made the perps come apologize to me. All us kids knew that “I’m sorry I did that” only meant “I’m sorry I got you in the eyes” or “I’m sorry I got caught,” but the forms of civility were fulfilled. My parents came and got me, because that was about all the party fun I wanted to endure. And that’s one of the points in my young life where I vowed to myself that I’d never let myself get hurt like that again, and that sooner or later I’d get the hell out of that town.
This is the point where I should tell you that today, Beth is happily married and still living in my hometown. Or divorced in Iowa. Or a stripper with five kids by three dudes working at a club off of Brooks Road in Memphis. But the truth is I don’t know what she’s doing, and I don’t really care one way or the other. The only reason I remember her name is because it’s the funhouse version of my first name. I did a really cursory Facebook/Google search for her, I can’t find her, and that’s enough internet stalking for me. I hope she’s living a happy and fulfilled life in exactly the same way I hope random strangers have happy and fulfilled lives.
Eventually, my classmates got what they wanted, which was for the weird weirdo to disappear and leave them alone. I had to stop caring what everybody else thought, put my head down, and slog out two more years before I escaped. (I ended up going to college early, bouncing back to Memphis, finding an entirely different social circle of nerdy outcasts, and eventually leaving for good.) I’d hug young me, but I wouldn’t try to change that night. It was a necessary and painful part of growing up — but it ruined Halloween for me, and I’ve never enjoyed the holiday since then.
If you’re wondering: it’s the Fourth of July. Holidays where you don’t have to dress up or go visit people or do anything other than eat are fine holidays, and for the Fourth you get all of the above plus fireworks. Fireworks make me so freakin’ happy — really, truly, childlike glee.