By Mary Heather Noble
Even now in the dawn of the seventh grade, you know that you’re taking a risk. But this is Hannah Jordan’s Halloween sleepover, and she’s popular and lives in one of those neighborhoods with its very own sign: Chestnut Ridge. The streets over there are like little poems, invoking stately places with equestrian flair: Ford’s Carriage Path, Abbott’s Arbor Run, Rock Ridge Trail. The streets in her neighborhood are gently curved, and lined with large colonial homes that rise from manicured lawns with kidney-shaped flower beds hugging all the trees.
You live in a little ranch house on a dead-end street. Your street has uneven sidewalks and cookie-cutter houses that your dad says were built after the Second World War. The L-shaped houses mirror each other in paired repetition, yours dressed in beige aluminum siding that has faded to a sort of pink.
People on your street hand out stacks of pennies and Necco Wafers for Halloween, but that doesn’t matter this year. It’ll be a big crowd for trick-or-treating in Hannah’s neighborhood, with boys and everything. Bring a pillow case, you’ve been told. You’ll have more candy than you know what to do with.
You had stopped at the Drug Mart on the way home from school to find a costume to wear. You had wandered aisles adorned with black capes, witches hats, and blood-tinged vampire fangs. Cowboy hats, gingham dresses, and ruby shoes for the less fear-inspired. But you were looking for something different. After some time and a brief adrenaline rush, you made your purchase with your allowance money, stuffing the plastic Drug Mart bag deep into your backpack before rushing out the door.
Now in the bedroom still decorated with wallpaper bearing cartoon pictures of cats and dogs, you lay your costume on your bed. You know that you’re taking a risk with the black leotard and bunny ears, but you’re not going for the full-scale Playboy look. You’re just an adolescent bunny, daring enough to dress your body in a skintight costume on Halloween, but you’ll leave the bow tie and fishnet at home.
Suddenly, your father opens your bedroom door without knocking, glances at the shadow of a rabbit draped over your quilt. “Is that your Halloween costume?” he asks, wrinkling his nose.
You look down and nod, knowing that he sees the sexy bunny on the package. Your cheeks feel hot, the way they did when he let you play your new Madonna cassette in the car.
But your father stares at your ensemble now and says, “That doesn’t look like a Playboy bunny.”
You follow his gaze to the black leotard and bunny ears spread out on your single bed. You were expecting you might be scorned. Instead, your father tells you, “You’re gonna need to add some more up front if you want it to look real.”
Your father is a misfit, a science geek, a character from Revenge of the Nerds. He laughs at things that make most others cringe, like passing gas and ethnic jokes and Monty Python movies. His strange behavior and off-tempo remarks always draw scolding looks from your mother, and back when you were little, it was this playfulness that you loved.
But that was a long time ago. Now you have braces, acne, and breast buds, choral concerts and soccer games that your father rarely attends. Except — he’s paying attention now. He’s saying he has a great idea for your costume, something that will make the others laugh. You remember those times when your dad was fun instead of embarrassing, when your friends were jealous of the way he gave you piggyback rides, or let you ride your bike no-handed in the middle of the street.
Years from now, you’ll wonder how exactly it happened — and you’ll think that your mother must have been at work because she never would have approved — but you allow your father drive you to K-mart to make your costume more authentic. Suddenly you’re sifting through the cheap, white, nylon brassieres in Ladies Lingerie. You’ve only been wearing a bra for a year, so you’re still confused by the numbers and letters. But you quickly grab what you think will work and join your father to find some balloons.
Soon you’re laughing together in the check-out line, and this joke between you feels good — like the old times when you used to ride your bikes down to the lake and get ice cream on the way back home. He’d always say something gross and make you laugh. You remember the sinus pain of laughing with a mouth-full of mint chocolate chip.
Your father drops you off at Hannah’s house. Upstairs in Hannah’s bedroom, you and a dozen other seventh-grade girls get dressed in your Halloween costumes. There is giggling and squealing at the Madonna costumes and punk rockers, and then, when you don your bunny ears and black leotard, wearing a 32-DD bra stuffed with jiggly water balloons — there’s a gasp and Oh my God! and squealing and laughter as they circle and stare at your audacity. That’s awesome, you hear, and for a little while that’s what you think, too.
It’s twilight now, the air is cool, and the little kids of the neighborhood are running ahead of their parents, their vampire capes and princess silk flowing gracefully behind. You feel almost as excited as they are, just to be out with the popular crowd. You slip by Hannah’s parents unnoticed, the pack of Madonnas and punk rockers squeezing through the front door around you and your authentic chest. The boys notice, though, as soon as you get outside.
Oh my God, who is that? They poke at your water balloon breasts, asking, Are those real? They know you but don’t know you, and it’s like you’re being seen for the very first time. You are no longer the smart, skinny girl with braces and bell-shaped hair. Suddenly, you are somebody, someone worth a second glance. But it doesn’t take long for the feeling to fade, for the stares to burn right through your clothes.
You brush the boys away and follow your new friends to the first row of beautiful homes. Some people don’t even notice the costumes; they’re just trying to keep up with depositing candy into open, greedy bags. But even as the night grows darker, you know that most of the grown-ups see you. There’s a look, a pause before the candy is dropped into your bag.
Your group continues to the next block, to a house all aglow and vibrating with Monster Mash music — an adult party, with wine and cocktails, and people dressed up as 1960s rock stars and hippies and sexy pirate wenches. A man dressed as Burt Reynolds answers the door. When he sees your costume, he lowers his Hollywood shades. “Wow,” he says, nudging his friend with an afro wig and a fake hairy chest, “Trick-or-treaters are really getting big this year.”
They deliver candy to a chorus of thank-you’s — except for yours because you slink back in shame. As the group marches on, you are pushed and bumped and herded along in the momentum of this Halloween train. The fun begins to dull you, the laughter becoming leaden. And just as you’re tasting this bitter mistake, a masked boy dumps baby powder all over you, snowing white over your fake black curves.
You stop — and all but one of the girls keep running ahead to catch up with the boys. Assholes, she calls out, and turns to brush the powder off your shoulders. That’s when you decide that you’ve had enough — you reach into your 32-DD K-mart bra, rip the water balloons from the cups, and heave them onto the sidewalk.
But instead of breaking open, they bounce and roll in the grass.
That’s what you’ll remember most — a pair of balloons that wouldn’t be broken. Cartoonish, like a distorted childhood memory reflected in a circus funhouse mirror. Which is not unlike the way it will feel when you relive this in 25 years. There will be vertigo and nausea. Don’t you remember? your mother will say, He put it in the Christmas letter. —Which will tell a very different version of the story behind your disguise. Meaning you’ll never be entirely sure whether this was his mistake or yours.
Mary Heather Noble is an environmental scientist, writer, and mother whose work is inspired by the natural world, family, and place. Her work has been recently honored with the editor’s prize in Creative Nonfiction’s Learning from Nature contest, as a finalist in Bellingham Review’s 2016 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction, and with two Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in Vermont with her husband and two daughters. Read more at www.maryheathernoble.com.