One late October day when I was three or four, my mother woke me early from an afternoon nap. She held up a full gingham skirt and wide-brimmed straw hat I’d never seen and said it was time to get dressed. I was going to a neighbor’s Halloween party, she told me.
No previous rousings had prepared me for this one. For sheer surprise alone, it rated high.
After I was dressed, I looked in the mirror. The reflection showed my regular room, the one I shared with her, the one on the top floor of my grandparents’ house, where we’d lived since my parents had split up. There were the slanted squares of afternoon light that the dormer windows always cast across the wooden floors. There were the twin beds pushed together in a V and the framed family tree that my mother had typed herself, the one that was full of begats. But who was this person in the mirror?
We said goodbye to my grandparents, then walked up our Oakenshawe sidewalk, crunching through rust-colored leaves, she in her customary pantsuit and scarf, me looking like—well, I’m not sure what, exactly. A farmer’s daughter—or rancher’s gal—from some low-rent production of Oklahoma? Another Ingalls girl, the heretofore unknown sister with the patent leather shoes?
Inside the party house, I found my usual swingset friends, the clutch of three- and four- and five-year-olds I’d grown up with. Except they weren’t. They were tigers and clowns, ghosts and fortune tellers. At the prodding of our parents, we drank punch and played games, but it was as if we’d all just met. Even my best friend, Melissa—my favorite person to slide and swing and make mud pies with—seemed new to me. She was wearing the wire-rimmed glasses she always wore, the ones that made her eyes look big, but her fortune teller’s head scarf and caftan were definitely not-Melissa.
The afternoon had an unmistakable hum to it, a sort of pixilated glow. I hadn’t really shaken off the nap—that was part of it. But there was more. This wasn’t just a few minutes of dress-up, of clumping around the house in my mother’s cloth-covered heels. I was actually coming to and leaving this party dressed as a different person. The white tights and Mary Janes might be me, but the straw hat and gingham skirt weren’t. They were part of some other costume we hadn’t put a name to. This was the not-me. And I seemed to like taking this not-me for a spin. It made me feel different—freed up, somehow. It was like eating breakfast foods for dinner, or finding a penny on the sidewalk. It felt special.
As I grew older, the school plays started, but they never offered this kind of release. I felt trapped by the stage lights, not liberated. I didn’t blossom in front of an audience, I shrank. For me and my ilk, the stage allowed for no magical transformations, no eliding of me into not-me. Halloween was different. With everyone in costume and darkness falling, you had room to move around, to experiment with your not-me. Boundaries were stretched, limits exceeded: You might walk down an alley you’d normally avoid, or talk to the boy you’d always had a crush on.
One Halloween night in our twenties, my friend and I were getting cash at an ATM when we heard footsteps. We turned around to see Count Dracula standing behind us. Black cape, flipped collar, fangs trailing blood—the works. He might have been holding an ATM card, but we were startled, and I’m sure our faces registered that. “Don’t worry, it’s only me,” said the count glumly, sounding more like a nasal Jersey boy than a Transylvanian aristocrat.
Three hundred sixty-four days a year, most of us present the same face to the world. We might be helming meetings one day and reclining on a beach the next, but chances are, unless we work at an entertainment park or frequent Renaissance festivals, we adults are mostly stuck with the same old me, day after day. When things are going well, that me is light—a balloon floating along blue skies. Oh, those days are nice. Other times, though, the me grows weighty and awkward—it’s a ball and chain, clinking and clanking and sending off the occasional spark. Days are begetting days, but you seem to be persistently the same wretched self. That’s when Halloween can come in handy.
Around six o’clock on most Halloween nights, as the neighborhood kids are readying their trick-or-treat bags, you can find me in my closet, looking for odd items I wouldn’t usually wear, or regular items I could repurpose. Almost anything can work. Big brown tinted sunglasses? You’re on your way to Gloria Steinem. Black plastic 3D glasses with the lenses popped out? Hipster.
One year, I wrapped a scarf around my head, then outlined my eyes with a black kohl pencil and went to my friend’s Halloween gathering dressed as Benazir Bhutto. Within five minutes, I was feeling more powerful than I had in some time, entering rooms and conversations with a self-assurance I didn’t usually feel, as if Bhutto herself (or my idea of her, anyway) were working the gears. It felt great.
So, what’ll I go as this Halloween? Farmer’s daughter? Rancher’s gal? Or maybe the powerful Bhutto again? Anything’s possible. As long as it’s not me. Just for the night.
Elisabeth Dahl’s first book, a novel for children entitled Genie Wishes, will be published by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS, in 2013, and she has just completed her second book, a novel for adults entitled Brood. Her writing has appeared at NPR.org, at TheRumpus.net, and in Urbanite. A Baltimore native, Elisabeth returned to the city in 2003, after a decade in Berkeley and DC. Her website is elisabethdahl.com. On Twitter, she’s @ElisabethDahl. A version of this essay first appeared at Classic Play.
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