WASHINGTON -- It's junior year of college, Halloween night, three hours before Tim Bartman's party. My closest girlfriends are fluttering about my room, perfecting makeup, styling hair and trying outfits in front of the full-length mirror.
We're at my place in Boston, a big group house where everyone gathers. The guys are downstairs, drinking beer and playing pool, wholly unconcerned with the holiday.
"You're seriously not going to dress up?" Kate, the encouraging one, asks me.
Jacky chimes in, "Seriously Aim, I'll style you. It'll be fun."
Then Jeannine, practical and direct: "You're going to feel awkward. Everyone else will be dressed up. You'll draw more attention if you're the only one who isn't."
She's right. And truthfully, I'm starting to feel a bit left out. These are my people, my little urban tribe, and I want to join their fun.
"I have my cowboy hat," I say.
"That's PERFECT!" Kate says.
That summer, I'd worked as a wrangler on a dude ranch in the Colorado Rockies. It was me and nine others: a few from a sampling of middle states, the rest from East Texas -- Nacogdoches, to be exact. We wore cowboy hats and chaps, western-style plaid flannels and cockroach-killer boots. For some reason, the Texans liked me, and they welcomed me into their clan. I felt cool that summer -- hanging out with them, wearing all that stuff. I got to be someone else for a bit, and I'd liked her.
The wranglers. I'm the short blonde, dead center, in green. I was hoping to replicate that feeling back in Boston junior year. (WTOP/Amy Hunter)
It's two months since then and I'm somewhat unhappily back in Boston. But as my friends bustle around me, the hours pass, and our outfits are perfected. We tell the boys it's time to go. "It's at Bartman's," Mikey says. "Bartman sucks."
Undeterred, we march into the frigid night without them. I've let myself believe I might actually be a hit. This outfit got compliments all summer, and maybe I'll get a chance to talk about the ranch. It was a cool thing to do, I think to myself, and someone else might think so, too. After all, I'm newly single, my friends say I look good, maybe I'll meet someone -- you never know.
I spend the next three hours milling about Tim's budget apartment in Allston Brighton -- not the coolest part of town. About 20 people show, mostly girls. Each one is dusted in glitter, barely covered and basking in the night's allowance for no-holds-barred sexiness.
French Julia arrives. She's from Paris and her senior dance was at Versailles. She's dressed as a "vixen" -- a fairly loose designation I understand to mean anything goes, as long as you're hot.
Someone else -- a guy I don't know -- has gotten his hands on an actual UPS uniform, and he's heralded all night for its authenticity and flattering lines.
Jacky's draped in shimmery silk, which matches perfectly with her delicate butterfly wings. Her long legs are bare and gleaming.
And here I am. A cowgirl. Legs wrapped in full-length leather, a heavy flannel shirt, bandana around my neck and a giant cowboy hat on my head. Oh, and tall leather boots -- with spurs.
The girls are all cold, so Tim turns up the heat. It's stifling and I start sweating. I can't take off my hat because my hair is damp and plastered to my head. My flannel shirt is thick, but tan-colored and a little tight. I'm worried I'll sweat through, but I can't be the only one fanning myself and complaining about how hot it is. It's 38 degrees outside. And I'm 21, decades from hot flashes.
I end up going into the bathroom and wedging folded squares of paper towel under my arms. As a result, I have to keep my arms tucked by my sides all night, which only makes me sweat more. But how would I explain a wet piece of paper towel falling from inside my shirt to the floor?
Jacky meets a guy. Kate does, too.
No one says a word about my costume. I never get to talk about the ranch. For three hours, I meander from this corner to that, to the keg and back, occasionally approaching coupled-off groups in mid-conversation, hoping to be absorbed. I think of the guys back home, having such simple, easy fun. If only I were in normal clothes, I think. If only.
Oh, how I loathe Halloween.
A decade has passed since that fateful night and I've never again put on a costume. But every October, year after year, I am faced with the challenges this holiday presents. I don't want to wear a costume, but I don't want to be the only one who doesn't.
For me, Halloween amounts to pressure. Pressure to come up with a good costume idea. Pressure to pull it off. Pressure to talk about it all night at a party surrounded by people in better costumes.
I understand I could have avoided the cowgirl debacle had I simply joined my friends when they went to Boston's famed costume shop a month ahead and bought something approved by all. But see, I've never had a positive Halloween experience in my adult life. And so I procrastinate. Perhaps, the perfect inspired idea will simply come to me, I justify, as long as I don't force it. It never does.
Halloween forces me to confront some realities I'd rather just ignore: I'm not a wildly creative person. I'm also not a natural in knowing what looks good, and what doesn't. So even when I try, when I prepare, when I think I've come up with my best idea yet, I show up on Halloween night and there I am, standing in a corner at a party, heavily clothed in some off-target getup, sweating profusely and desperately wanting to talk about anything other than what I'm wearing.
As each year passes and October begins, I think perhaps I'm old enough now. Maybe now, in my early 30s, my peers have grown out of it. How old do you have to be? At what age does it stop? When will I finally go to a Halloween party in regular clothes and not face a relentless succession of inquiries:
"What are you? Nothing? Why not? Don't you like Halloween? Dressing up is so fun. Here, I have some cat ears you can borrow..."
Before the cowgirl incident, I worked hard to deny my true feelings. I threw myself into it 100 percent, each October thinking this will be the year it's finally fun.
Freshman year I dressed as, well, a cheap tramp. But let's take a cue from French Julia and say I was a "vixen." I went all out.
A big group of us, about 20, poured mixed drinks into non-translucent water bottles and hopped on the commuter rail to Salem, Mass. -- allegedly the Ground Zero of All Hallow's Eve.
Jacky fell asleep on the commuter rail back to Boston from Salem freshman year. We were scattered throughout the train in various states of disarray. I'm taking the picture. (WTOP/Amy Hunter)
We got there around 9 p.m., heavily lubricated, and stepped out. The scene was spectacular: Everyone was in costume, each house was decorated with elaborate jack-o'-lanterns, spooky music and flickering lights. There were haunted houses, witch trial re-enactments, tours through spooky dim-lit museums. The streets were lined with vendors, each peddling an array of orange and black confections.
But as we walked around we realized there was something wrong -- everything was shutting down. It was over.
Gaggles of exhausted parents stood around, some keeping tow of their costumed kids on leashes, others barking this directive or that: "It's time to go home. Get your brother. No, don't eat that, not until I've inspected it."
No one between the age of 12 and 35 was in sight.
True, Salem had put on a show. But it was a kid's show. Not meant for a group of boozy college students.
We barely made the last train back to Boston. That's because Kevin McCormick got cited for peeing in a public parking lot.
The next year I was a dominatrix. And again, I went all out. I had the skimpy leather clothing, the whip, the wig, the handcuffs. My friends and I spent hours fussing over our costumes, but it wasn't really that fun, and I never really liked the way I looked.
One of us got her ID confiscated trying to get into a bar that night, and in a show of solidarity the whole group left. We went back to my place, put on jeans, sweatshirts and coats, then climbed the fire escape to the roof of my Beacon Street apartment building and lit a fire in the little hibachi grill we kept up there. We stayed up until 4 a.m., laughing, teasing, and having a college blast.
That was the highlight of the night. So why'd we bother with all the rest?
I was thinking about all this recently while I was driving up Connecticut Avenue, noticing the year's first Halloween decorations had been put out. I sighed a deep sigh: Here we go again.
But then, a glimmer of hope. I'm kind of new in town. I won't be invited to a party whose host my absence would let down. Maybe this will be the year it doesn't come up.
Then I get to work and there it is: an invite. Halloween party. It's from someone I like, whom I'd rather not rebuff. But I probably will.
Maybe she'll host a Christmas party, I tell myself -- those I don't mind. Better yet: An ugly sweater party, even if it's a tired idea, a decade past novelty. I tell you what, I bet I can pick out one mean ugly sweater. That's something I could get behind.
So to all the Halloween lovers out there: Good night, and good luck. I hope you have a grand old time. But if you're at a party, in a killer costume, and you spot a girl standing in the corner in leather pants and a giant hat -- or not dressed up at all -- walk over and say hello. Maybe ask her which holiday she likes best.
You never know, she might turn out to be an OK chick.
Editor's Note: Some of the names in this story have been changed.
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