“Your wig's crooked, dude.”
Even with all the pins and clips stacked on my scalp, I was having a hell of a time keeping my fake hair straight. My long blond locks had slipped to the side during the walk to the Tau Gamma Ro house. I tilted them back the upright position, and checked my eyebrows. Still there. Thank God.
“So you're gonna have to follow my lead tonight, dude. Keep your mouth shut and I'll send one of these girls your way.”
I threw up my thumb and gave a half-hearted smile. I hadn't dated – or done anything of the sort – since I started school earlier in the year. Rex, on the other hand, was out with one of the girls from his classes almost as often as he was out tossing a Frisbee. Female interaction was at the forefront of my mind tonight.
Rex stepped across a rickety porch and I followed, worried only a little that one of the rotten planks would collapse. A large guy in a Spartan uniform stood in front of the open door and looked us over. His top half dripped with some sort of gleaming oil, but his shape was more Milhouse than muscle.
“Rex, Adrian, glad you guys could show up. I like the zombie costume!”
“Zombie hobo,” Rex corrected.
The guy turned to me. “And, uh. What the fuck are you supposed to be?”
I knew this was a mistake. “I'm Jareth, the Goblin King.”
“Bowie. I'm David Bowie.”
“Oh. All right, it's all good. Food and drinks in the kitchen, chip in if you want any of the hard stuff.”
The party had started without us. Black and orange streamers blocked entry to the stairways. The main floor of the house was filled with vampires, Jedi and ten-dollar Wal-Mart costumes. The characters in the room were disjoint as always. Halloween parties seemed like a sort of pop-culture convention, with attendees linked only by the red plastic cups in their hands.
Every possible variation of liquor lined the countertops in the kitchen, but the promised food left a lot to be desired. I begged Rex to stop somewhere on the way, but he pushed on, insisting that we would be late. My stomach gurgled and sloshed as it began to digest itself; I grabbed a handful of tortilla chips to quiet it.
I met up with Rex in the main room, surrounded by some old friends of his. He introduced me, and we watched as one of them made his way to the center of the room, next to a small karaoke machine, to perform an ear-shattering rendition of “Cold as Ice.” Rex pushed me forward as his friend finished.
“Dude, you have to get up there. Come on, you can't dress as a rock star and not do karaoke.” Rex placed his hand firmly on my back and shoved me in front of the machine.
No one seemed interested in the spectacle, which calmed my nerves. I motioned to the dinosaur running the machine. “Anything by David Bowie? Space Oddity, maybe?”
He rummaged through the book for a few seconds, then nodded. “Yeah, it's here. It's a duet though. Got anyone to join you?”
Rex was already busy chatting up a skanky Navy girl whose uniform had to be against regulations. I tried my luck anyway. “Rex, it's a duet. You know you want to sing with me.”
He twisted his neck around. “Dude, don't be gay. I'm not gonna sing a fuckin' duet with you.”
I tugged my right eyebrow as Rex accompanied his real interest into the kitchen.
“Hey, I'll sing.” A nurse with long black hair, a short skirt and red cross hat stepped toward me and grabbed the second microphone. “Is that okay with you?” She smiled. As if I would turn her down.
“Fine with me. You want to take the high notes?”
“Of course. Try to keep up.”
I started to respond, but was blotted out by the drum roll. We sang well, even as our styles diverged. I did my best Bowie impression to the point of incoherence, while the nurse opted for a classical performance. It bothered me. There was something wrong about singing Bowie like Rent. Still, there was something interesting about her. I, of course, didn't need to look at the lyric prompter. It surprised me that the nurse didn't either. I hadn't expected to find a glam-rock fan among Rex's sort of people.
We received a clap or two on our way out of the room, but most of the partygoers were engrossed in other things.
“You want a drink?” I asked her.
“Sure. I left my cup over there, and you know what they say.”
I didn't, actually, know what they say; but I wasn't going to argue the point. This girl was pretty, really pretty, and I was going to hang on to any chance to strike up a conversation.
“Amber,” she told me as I filled her cup from the keg. “My name is Amber.”
“I'm Adrian. Thanks for backing me up in there. You sing really well.”
“Sure. You were pretty good yourself. Really, uh, freaky. So, you're a big David Bowie fan?”
“I guess, yeah. I just watched Labyrinth the other day, I thought this costume would be amazing. I don't think I pulled it off, though.”
“No, it looks great!” replied Amber. “Especially your blouse, it really completes the ensemble.”
I laughed. It wasn't very often that a girl could make me laugh. “Just be glad I didn't go with the bulging pants.”
Amber raised an eyebrow, and I felt my legs cross in front of me.
“What is your major?” I asked her. It was the most inconsequential thing I could think of to say.
“Molecular Biology.” It was normally a source of pride, but coming out of my mouth now it felt pretentious. Amber laughed, which didn't help my confidence.
“You're in a real science. That's cool.”
“No, political science is admirable. Researching the effects of 'change' on the adolescent brain, right?”
“Shut up. I know, though. It's a notch above business and worth just as much. I'm not going to be a lawyer, so I don't know why I'm doing it.”
“You could run for office. I'll vote for you.”
“Definitely. President Amber, I can see it. Let's hope no one takes any pictures of tonight.” She tugged at her seductively short skirt. “That'll be the end of my career.”
“So, are you a freshman?”
I choked down a mouthful of beer. “Of course, sorry. You look young.” What?
“Thanks. What about you?”
“I'm a Junior. One more year, God willing.” I crossed my fingers and stared at her face, looking for any sort of tell that she had caught my lie. She gave off nothing more than a calm smile. Either she had bought it, or she had practiced her poker face.
Amber and I chatted in the kitchen, sliding to the side for the occasional patron who needed whatever we were parked in front of. When we could see the smooth white bottoms of our cups, we refilled them. We grabbed one of the main room seats as it emptied. My head had already become misty from the beer; drinking was not my strong suit.
We talked a while longer on the dusty pleather couch. Amber pointed out people as they walked past. That one has dressed like a werewolf for four years straight. Those two have a constant competition to outslut each other. Jim gets sick every year, we're pretty sure he just fakes it to lie down and look up girls skirts, don't know why he goes to such lengths at a party like this. There was a long silence between us as Amber ran out of quirky students to describe. She looked at me, suddenly, an odd smile creeping across her face.
“Have you gotten a tour yet?”
“A tour? No, this is my first time here.”
“Here, you have to see the library. Most of these frat guys are the biggest pigs I've ever met, but for some reason, they have, like, the coolest library. Really vintage stuff.”
“You realize that the school has a library, right? A pretty big one.”
“They don't have stuff like this. It's in the other wing of the house. Here.” She handed me her cup. “Get us another drink and meet me over there.”
I made my way back into the kitchen, and Amber headed in the opposite direction. I filled our cups, awkwardly juggling them, and turned to walk back into the main room. Rex was in the kitchen.
“Hey man, what's up. Don't drink too much, you don't want to end the night with a sack in your face.” Rex clapped me on the back, nearly causing the beer to spill over the rims of the cups.
“It's for a friend.”
Rex grinned, his perfect white teeth stretching from ear to ear. “Aw, yeah, I saw that. That Amber chick, right? Right on, man. Make sure to bag it, that girl's with a different dude every year. Don't get too attached.”
“Don't get attached. Pop it and drop it, dude. She's a maneater.” Rex slammed remainder of his drink into his mouth and walked past me to the alcohol.
“Thanks, Oates. I meant the part about ... bagging it. About being with a different dude every year. Are you just screwing with me?”
“I'm telling you, that girl is always hooking up at frat parties.”
“Did you ever...?”
“What? No way, bro. I mean, she's hot and all but I've always had other girls. Still, dude, I'd go for it. But be careful.”
Rex finished his concoction and slapped me on the back one more time before walking back outside.
I made my way toward the library. Rex's warning echoed in my mind, despite what I thought was undeniable chemistry between me and Amber. Had I been conversing with the school whore for the past hour? No. Rex didn't know what the fuck he was talking about. Maneater? I hadn't ever seen Rex with the same girl for a whole week. Who was he to talk about anyone?
“Took you long enough. Long line?” Amber sat, legs crossed, in front of a long line of streamers blocking the entrance to the library. She stood out from the Blond Sorority Girls and Depressed Emo Chicks that seemed to populate the campus. There was a perceptible intelligence that penetrated and amplified her appearance. Rex was wrong about Amber – she wasn't one of them.
“Sorry, I was talking to my roommate. I'm ready to see this amazing library.”
She twisted her head around, slipped under the streamers, and gestured for me to follow her. My stomach twisted; I felt like everyone in the room was staring at me, waiting to see if I'd join Amber in the library. This was not true, of course. A majority of the people in the room were already buzzed, and the rest were too bored to care about anything going on in our part of the house. I took a deep breath and darted under the partition, careful to keep our drinks from spilling. Amber took her cup from my hand as soon as I stood up.
“You make it okay, champ?”
This girl had an uncanny ability to make me feel ridiculous. She led me into the darkened hallway, hitting a switch after we rounded a small corner. Overhead lights flickered on, revealing a large room packed from wall to wall with bookshelves.
“The left shelf is old tests and homework, but I doubt you're going to find any biology stuff in there.” Amber pointed to the middle row of books. “I'm not sure how this part is organized. I think they stick books in here when they forget to return them to the library.” She moved along to the right side of the room, grabbing my wrist and dragging me along as she did so. My wig slid down my face, covering the slight hue of red that crept into it.
“This is the good stuff.” Amber ran her finger along the spines of the dusty old books, evidently looking for something specific. “Here, look at this.” She inched her fingers between the spines of two large tomes and pried one out. She flipped through it, holding the book open so that I couldn't see it. Then she laid it open on the table.
“What the fuck?” A naked woman adorned the page. She sat on her knees, her arm stretched out past the top of her head.
“It's Marilyn Monroe.”
I stared closer at the photograph. “I can see that. She's naked.”
Amber jabbed a finger into my shoulder. “I figured any guy would recognize this. This is the first issue of Playboy. And it's not a reprint – this is the actual thing.”
“Is it rare?” I asked.
“I don't know. Maybe not. But that doesn't stop it from being cool, don't you think? They have every issue down here, from 1953 on. I think they think that it's just an awesome porn collection, but it's actually a pretty interesting look back in time. I like to read the articles and find out what people thought back then. I'm only up to like 1960 ...what?”
I had been staring half-conscious at Amber the whole time. I couldn't help but smile. “They let you in here to look at their porn?”
“Not exactly. They know me here, they let me in.”
“They know you come in to browse their magazines?”
“No, I don't think so. But they let me in, that's all I really care about.”
Amber folded her arms. “Excuse me? I find this stuff fascinating.”
And then, with Amber staring at me, slightly annoyed, I kissed her. I have no idea how I managed it. It was the most utterly bold thing I had ever done in my life. Amber accepted the kiss, and even ran with it, but made no effort to take things further than that. I looked at her after I pulled away. My head spun half with the alcohol, half with the excitement of being so presumptuous.
“Ah,” she muttered. “I guess these pictures affected you more than I thought.”
Jesus Christ. Just when I felt comfortable, she punched me in the gut.
“I'm just teasing you,” said Amber. “I just wasn't expecting it.” She leaned in and kissed me again. It was short and sweet; there was no making out. We looked at each other for a short time after it was over. I turned my attention back to the Playboy collection.
“I wonder if you could get these magazines from them. Like, buy them or something. Or get them to donate the collection to the school.”
“I doubt it. These guys are kind of dumb, but they aren't completely clueless.”
“So you never got with any of them?” Shit. What in the name of God made me say that. Alcohol may help some guys with romance, but not me.
“What? Of course not. I'm sure there are rumors, with me here all the time, but I wouldn't touch them. I feel weird enough flipping through their books.”
“Yeah, I was just curious. My roommate's just an idiot.”
Amber looked into my eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing, nevermind. My roommate was just giving me crap.”
“No, not exactly,” I lied. “He just told to be careful, you know.” I was not a good liar, and the alcohol made it ten times worse. I could feel myself getting drawn into a trap, and I wasn't having any luck getting out of it. I prayed that Amber would drop the subject. She didn't.
“Worried you were going to get knocked up?” She grinned at me. “Don't worry, I'm not that easy.”
“No, I know, I see that now.”
Fuck. This was the last night I would ever drink.
“I mean, now I know you, I know you're not like that or anything.”
She didn't buy it. “Like what? Who have you been talking to?”
“I told you, Rex was just giving me crap.”
“Wait, Rex? Rex Wilson? Your roommate is that douchebag? What, he told you I was a slut, and you believed him?”
“No, that's not what happened. He was just talking out his ass, you know. I'm a little buzzed, I got paranoid.”
“Paranoid, or did you think you were going to get lucky?” Amber closed the book and brushed past me, sliding it back in place. “Jesus Christ, Adrian. Why would you ... why would you hang out with him?”
“I didn't pick Rex, he's my roommate! I didn't know him before this year. And I didn't come here ... I mean, I'm not ...”
“You didn't come here to get laid?”
“Amber, of course not. I'm not like Rex, I'm not the rest of those guys in there.”
“Really? Adrian, why did you come to this party? You told me you don't like the guys here. You obviously can't stand the sorority girls. Was it just the booze and the free food?”
I stared at Amber, running through responses in my mind. I frantically searched for something that wouldn't run her off. I came up short.
“I don't know. Rex invited me, I guess I just figured I'd try to meet some people.”
“Listen, Adrian. You're a cool kid. Don't let Rex fuck you up, okay? He's not a good guy.”
“What do you mean, what's wrong with Rex? He's not the smartest guy, sure, but ... what happened? How do you know him?”
“I know him better than you do. It doesn't matter. I don't ... I'm not going to talk about it. I think I'm going to go home, all right? I'm sorry.”
Amber pushed past me, oblivious to my protests. I stumbled after her. She walked straight through the streamers, past a few cries of “hey, what the hell,” and out the front door. Rex stopped me from walking after her.
“Fuck you. Fuck you.” I struggled to get past him, but he held me there.
“Dude, don't get beat up over it. There's another party next week, we'll hook you up there. I didn't get any either.”
I snapped, ramming my hands into Rex's shoulders and pushing him into the door frame. “You asshole. You goddamn fucking asshole. What did you do to with her? What did you do to her?”
In a single quick motion, Rex placed his arm out in front of me and slammed me back into the other side of the doorway. The surprise more than the actual violence knocked the breath out of me, and I struggled to get it back with Rex's arm pinned across my chest. A few excited “oooooh!”s floated through the room, hoping for a fight to end the night's festivities.
“Calm down, Bro,” said Rex, inflecting the last word with just a hint of threat. “Why don't you walk home and get into bed. You'll forget about this in the morning, I promise.”
An unexpected feeling crept into me as I stared at Rex there in front of me, his massive arm goading me to yield to his strength. It was not a feeling of hatred, or even fear, but overwhelming disgust. Right then, I looked at Rex as every misogynistic quip, unwanted harassment and demeaning joke rolled into one miserable human being.
“What was it?” I asked Rex, raising my voice. “Did you screw her? Did you screw her one night and leave her like the rest of the girls? Was that it?”
Another round of agitating groans hit Rex, and he pushed the hard bone of his forearm further into my lungs. I smelled the acrid liquor on Rex's breath. He grit his teeth as he spoke. “You don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Go home, Adrian, and we can talk about it later.”
An Indian chief turned sideways and moved through the doorway. He winked at Rex. “Hey man, let the kid have the girl. You had your go with her, right?”
Rex stepped back and glared at him. “Whatever. Fuck it.” Rex spit a glob of something on the ground and walked back into the house, careful not to look at me.
I leaned against the outside wall, catching my breath. “Hold on,” I yelled out to the Indian.
The man, now well off of the porch, turned and looked up at me. He looked to me like an actual Indian – Asian, not Native. Even with my chest pounding, I couldn't help but wonder if that was intentional.
“You know Rex?” I asked him.
“Sure, he always comes to the Halloween party. Don't worry about him, it's just a touchy subject.”
“Well, that girl. I'm surprised he came, actually, if he knew she was going to be here. They hooked up a few years ago.”
“Well, I say 'they' hooked up, but she wasn't completely sober, if you know what I mean.”
The stupid smirk on the guy's face nearly made me puke. I slid down the wall and landed in a sitting position. “What the fuck. Rex, what the fuck? He's a player. Why the fuck would he do something like that?”
The Indian shifted his feet, and I could tell he regretted walking into my drama. “Uh, this was a long time ago. He might've been a first-year. Look, don't worry, she got him back. I guess she realized what was happening and started beating the shit out of him.” He started to chuckle as he recounted the memory. “He ran out of one of the back rooms with his pants around his ankles. That girl was right behind him, beating him with a god damn Playstation controller.”
I pushed myself up off the wooden porch and steadied myself. “So that's it. My roommate is a rapist.”
“No, I don't think he got that far. He's just a dick. We always tease him about it. He just says that she was a whore, and she freaked out from some bad mushrooms or something. I don't know, man, we don't really pay attention to him. Anyway, I've got to get going. Good luck.”
I stared at the chief as he left. Amber was long gone. She hated me. Who could blame her. I defended him. Shit, I stood up for him. I felt sick. I felt alone, looking at the people around me. I didn't belong here. These people had no idea who I was. They had no idea who I was dressed as (and they probably would have called me a fag if they did). It occurred to me only then to wonder why Amber had come to the party. I wished Amber had stayed so I could ask her that question, along with delivering an endless apology. I decided I wanted the chance.
I halted and turned toward the kitchen. I stormed past some of the half-drunk crowd also making their way home – acting and looking like zombies, now. I had no idea if I was doing the right thing, or if I was wasted, but it didn't matter. I grabbed a napkin and pen from the kitchen. I chewed on the end of the pen, conscious that it wasn't mine. There were a multitude of things I wanted to write: Rex is a creep, You're Awesome. It seemed so childish. And then, looking up at myself in the kitchen mirror, staring at my crooked wig and smeared mascara, my hand moved.
I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
I don't remember knowing, in my slightly drunken state, just how corny my note was. But, in hindsight, it was the only thing I could have written that wouldn't have made me a condescending ass. I scrawled my phone number on the bottom in the most legible writing I could manage.
I strode into the library, apathetic to the big frat guy's dirty look as I walked past him. I ran straight to the Playboy collection, and began to examine the volumes. A year was scrawled on the spine of each. 1957. 1958. 59. 1960. Yes, I could find her online. I could ask someone else at the party about her. But that was too inelegant, too unimpressive for a victimized girl you'd just implicitly called a whore. I gulped, closed my eyes, and slid the napkin between the books.
Satisfied, I left the house for a second time. I tore off my wig as I walked through the cold air, scratching my short black hair. I looked up at the sky and whispered a small prayer that Rex wouldn't come home tonight.