I was dressed as a slutty nun. When I stared at myself in the mirror, I felt a swagger, an insolence that almost surprised me. I stared into my own eyes as if daring me to scold myself. To keep my head down. I didn’t, though. I met my own gaze in a way I had rarely done before, and I looked good. I felt a want for things, things I had never let myself want before. Jewelry and makeup. To touch and be touched. I wanted to press my face into someone’s neck and bring them home with me. I wanted to do things that my mother would disapprove of. I didn’t feel afraid.
I stepped out of the house, possessed. What I was doing was one of the most scandalous, boldest things anyone could do. It was hard, at first, to leave, but then it got easier.
Eventually, I got to the party. It was in a big yellow house with a wrap-around porch, about an hour from mine. Stragglers were standing outside and smoking as I walked past them. I felt them notice me. They weren’t as dressed up, but I saw a few costume pieces: some cat ears, some masks. I knew I stuck out. I decided that maybe these smokers were so laid back, so infinitely cool and casual that they didn’t notice or care about what they were wearing. Didn’t obsess about it like me.
I stepped inside, and as the party thrived around me, I could feel others’ eyes on me. It was fear-inducing at first; then it was something else. Halloween was all about monsters and villains, and if that’s what people saw in me now, then that’s what I was: a villain. Tonight, I felt the strength to be that.
I spied Lucy across the room. For weeks, at lunch, she had looked at me from the other side of the lunchroom, far-and-away. Now, instead of the contempt I had grown to expect from others, I saw her smile. One that was not just friendly. It was greedy, a seen potential in me. A potential to sit with her and be the holder of things popular people held: pride and high heads. When she had come over to my table and told me about her party, I smiled shyly, and said, “Okay.”
That made me restless, excited. I knew I would lie to my mother about this party. The first lie that held any consequence.
“Wow!” Lucy shouted over the noise as she made her way towards me. “Fuck, are you a nun? You’re crazy!” She shook her head and laughed. “I love it. C’mon, I’ll get you a drink.”
I smiled and kept my eyes to hers. She hadn’t made me leave. She seemed to like my costume, to think I was bold. Maybe this was who I could be here: a wild, outrageous girl. That’s so far from what I thought of myself that it felt like I lie, but I liked it. I could lie. At my last school, it was different. I kept my head down and said very little to anyone. Here, though, after coming to catholic school, I felt different. Maybe the restrictive atmosphere made me braver. I wasn’t just the weird girl with Jesus freak parents anymore. I was simply a girl in high school with the possibility of being anyone I wanted.
Lucy handed me a pink drink in a red solo cup, and I drank it in silence; I wouldn’t know what to say, anyway. The bitter taste shocked me as it slid down my throat, but I kept my face as neutral as possible in front of her. I didn’t want to break the illusion. I just smiled and pretended that I drank. I did drink. I did now.
Girls I knew from a distance stood around me. Beautiful girls who sat with Lucy and talked loudly about things I didn’t fully understand. I wanted to understand. Now, they were talking about their costumes.
“I’m Marilyn Monroe! I don’t know how you didn’t get that!” One said. “She only has, like, one look.”
“You definitely have the tits for Marilyn!”
There was a howl of laughter, and I cautiously joined in.
Another girl spoke up, “Oh my God, Elinor! I fucking love your costume. Literally so many people are laughing about it. If my parents saw me in that, I swear to God.”
“Wait, Elinor…” started a voice I didn’t know. “What are you?”
The answer came out of my lips before I could think to stop myself, “I’m Sister Thompson.”
Sister Thompson was an elderly nun at our school who was quick to give out detentions and check skirt lengths. She was very disliked.
The laughter was so loud that I couldn’t go back on what I just said. Instead, to drive the comment home, I grabbed my boob and let out a high-pitched moan. That got a second roar of laughter. Despite my red face and in spite of myself, I laughed along. I poured myself another drink and thought that maybe, if I was drunk enough, I could let myself be funny like this. Let more outrageous comments fly. I think vulgarity suited me.
I had gotten drunk a few times before with my brother and older cousins, giggling in upstairs rooms at family events. I loved the way I felt warm, the way it made my head spin. The shame and embarrassment of everything I knew to be me fell away, and I could just talk. I decided that people would like me more that way: when I didn’t feel so hung up.
After a few more drinks, I joined in on the shouted conversation. I yelled with all the rest of them, and I didn’t care that I didn’t know what secular TV shows or teen celebrities they were talking about. No one seemed to notice. For the first time when talking to people my age, I didn’t wince every time I spoke; I didn’t brace for the ‘shut up’s or eyerolls I had come to expect. They never came. Instead, they seemed to enjoy what I was saying. Enjoyed me.
I even did something I had been thoroughly scared of since grade school: I sat with boys. Though our school was all girls, people brought their boyfriends and ‘guy’ friends with them. These boys huddled around each other awkwardly on a couch in the back of the room.
I’d avoided boys ever since seventh grade when a pack of them from my class started following me around and whispering I had ‘Elinoritis,’ a disease that they said spread by touching my skin. They’d pretend to want to kiss me then run away, snickering. They would tell their friends that they heard me moaning in the girls’ bathroom, screaming the name of whichever boy was telling the story this time. Anything I did that looked like desire or sexuality was cruelly twisted into a weapon to be held at my throat. I feared boys the way one fears nuclear waste. To be around them is to have your body turned against you, for to become sick in a way you can’t always see but is slowly destroying you anyway. This joke had lasted so long that a few people even pretended to moan when I stepped on stage for my middle school graduation.
Tonight, though, I sat on that ripped up couch and let my legs rub against theirs, laughed at their jokes, and ignored the harsh gaze of my grandmother looking down at me from Heaven. ‘You’re selling yourself for these boys,’ she’d surely say now. ‘They don’t see you as anything other than meat, another thing to conquer and fuck. To stare at, laugh at, watch, follow home, yell obscenities at.’ I looked away from the thought of her and towards the one that put his hand on my thigh.
James, his name was, was dressed as a killer from some horror movie, I think. In the dark red light of the party, he looked almost beautiful. His face was cast in shadow, making his features partially obscured. It snuck up on me how much he wanted me. I didn’t realize it until that hand on my leg moved upwards, and I looked in his eyes and saw something unbearable. Hungry. I tried to match his energy, but anything I did was a poor imitation.
I had just barely had my first kiss, a quick brush of lips at a church retreat that ended with us sitting at separate ends of the cabin. We just smiled as we watched the floor instead of each other.
I thought given my age of sixteen, I ought to do more, to know more about sex. If I had an opportunity, I ought not to pass it up. Plus, he was handsome… sort of. He was acceptable. He’d been invited to this party where everyone seemed more beautiful than most. Most importantly, he wanted me. He really wanted me with no double meanings. No irony.
I felt his breath hot on my neck. “Do you…” he slurred. “You’re really pretty. Wanna go upstairs?”
I considered his proposition. For so long, this was all I wanted: to be sexy, have sex. Looking at him was still too difficult. It seemed to me that his face contained too many pores, suddenly. Too many tiny hairs and miniscule beads of sweat that I hadn’t noticed before.
“Yes,” I whispered back softly.
I looked across the room, and Lucy was staring me down with a little smile on her face. She gave me a wink. This impressed her. I liked that idea immensely.
James got up and reached for my hand, pulling me to follow him. It was warm and heavy in mine, and I held on to him lightly enough that my hand was more just resting there on top of his. Others noticed us leaving together and chuckled. As we walked, each step felt like a step I couldn’t go back on. I wanted to walk slower, drag my feet like a child.
But I wasn’t a child anymore. I had worked so hard to make myself see that. I sensed too much in Lucy’s wink, in the feel of James’ hand on my thigh, that my want to go back and curl up was cast aside. This was how I made people respect me, want to keep me around.
We entered a dark bedroom and didn’t turn on the light. I was glad of that. I didn’t want him to look at me.
I saw his silhouette on the bed. He didn’t look like a boy; he looked like a man. I didn’t know his shape. I didn’t know him. He seemed more than I could control. “I like your costume, “ he said to me in a raspy voice.
I liked it too. I liked portraying the forbidden. Leaning into vulgarity and things that would make my mother shudder. The power I held in that, the freedom of doing things I had been taught not to do, I liked. I liked the duality of the slutty nun, the idea that someone can wield the power of sex, power over themselves and those around them, and still carry the symbols of God. We wouldn’t be smited or burst into flames. Nothing was as it was taught.
James didn’t understand this. He just thought I looked hot in my red tights.
“Thank you,” I said, not knowing what else to say. The room seemed too small, too hot. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom.” I was sweating so much. Needed to freshen up. Needed to think. Alone.
I walked outside the room and into a bathroom down the hall. I switched on the fluorescent lights and saw myself in the mirror. My eyeshadow was smudged from rubbing my eyes. I didn’t look nearly as irresistible as I had at the beginning of the night. That was just an embarrassing delusion. My eyes were too far apart, my nose too heavy. Nothing seemed to be in harmony the way other peoples’ faces tended to be. The way Lucy’s face is. I looked like a kid who sloppily applied makeup for the first time.
I looked like myself again.
The self that doesn’t get invited to parties. The self that doesn’t make boys laugh, that no one thought was beautiful. I put my face in the sink and let the water run over my head.
When I lifted my head up, though, and turned to the door to grab a towel, I gasped. There, in the doorway, was a girl looking to the side. She was one of the lucky girls whose features didn’t look too wrong on her own face. For a split second, I panicked at what she thought of me, if she would judge me for my bathroom melodrama.
Then we both took a step forward, and I realized who she was: my reflection.
There was another mirror on the door reflecting the mirror above the sink, and it caught me at a strange angle. I laughed. I looked beautiful in a way I hadn’t noticed before. I really did look like myself. The curve of my eyes, the way my cheeks rose when I smiled— I had always hated the way I looked from the side, but as I looked at myself now, I appreciated it. I looked striking. Like my mother.
I made my decision without much deliberation. Instead of walking back to that bedroom, I shuffled through the party crowd and out the back door. I avoided eye contact. I didn’t want to see another person that night. I didn’t want them to see me, either.
Walking down the streets quickly, flying home, I glanced behind me every few minutes. It was almost 1:00AM, and bumping into anyone I knew would be way too embarrassing to handle.
It was cold. I left my coat at the party. Oh, well.
I made it home thirty minutes later. I snuck in as quietly as I could and closed the door softly. I walked past my mother’s room and imagined how she must be snoring behind her wall. Part of me wanted to climb into bed with her, but I didn’t. Instead, I rushed up to my room, governed in glitter and absolutely shivering. I peeled off my costume and shoved it deep into my closet; I knew I would wear it again.
I climbed into my Mickey Mouse sheets and lay there in the remnants of my party makeup.
Vivian Lipson is a student at Sarah Lawrence college. She is a fiction writer and a poet, and a comedy enthusiast. She loves mythical creatures and urban legends, and is a firm believer in ghosts.