When I was 9, my best friends Paul Guidera and Richard Veracrusen declared the hobo costume the only respectable outfit. I resisted, although it was a simple getup. You’d smear your face with charcoal, tie a bandanna to a sawed-off broomstick, and tear an old lumberjack shirt. Remarkably, they both managed to convince their mothers that the stub of a real cigar was part of the costume. Paul and Richard were a half-year older than I was and were physically more mature. The hobo outfit was an early sign that they were anxious to put on the hard face of adolescence. Hobos and teenage boys share traits: scrappiness, wanderlust, poor impulse control. They desired to look older and worldlier because they had this idea that such traits might impress the girls who had already begun to infect their thoughts.
I was not yet concerned with such matters. That year, for Halloween, I dressed as a mime—white long-sleeved shirt, white pants, white face with lipstick, and slender black crosses over my eyes. Paul, Richard, and I were supposed to go door to door together but we got split up early in the evening. I believe they ditched me. I was slowing us down. On every doorstep, I took extra time fighting my way out of an imaginary box or battling a terrible wind.
Paul and Richard reprised their hobo costume the next Halloween and the year after that they were gangsters wearing their fathers’ suit jackets. The following year, at age 12, the two of them denounced the whole trick-or-treat enterprise, calling it “for kids.” Instead, Halloween night, toilet paper in tow, they TP’d Katy Barton’s house. Richard and Katy became the first couple in sixth grade, so she must have been impressed.
Following my mime outfit, I was a cloud, then an English orphan, then a banana. I have since been a trout, the Mad Hatter, the sea, a pile of leaves, Mark Twain, a Picasso portrait, an amoeba, a bowl of fruit, and a box of crayons. I had this idea about costumes that they were not to impress others or to be cool. They were a chance to put on a different skin for the evening and see from that perspective that your behavior in your day-to-day life is tightly constrained. Only when you embrace an unusual costume can you free yourself from the costume you wear every day of your life.
After entering junior high, Richard, Paul, and I hung out less and less. The social momentum of their lives led them to sports teams where they wore football uniforms and basketball jerseys. They dated cheerleaders.
I did not go to their games. Instead, I joined community theater, the student newspaper, and the debate club. Eventually, I learned to revel in the outsider status that these activities conferred. I got a job at Chuck E. Cheese Pizza where I dressed as a giant rat every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening. I didn’t date a soul throughout high school. Richard and Paul married young, but I remained single all the way through my 20s and into my mid-30s.
You make your choices and you live with them. But that truism doesn’t mean you can’t re-evaluate your mode of behavior. As Halloween rolled around when I was 36, I reconsidered the purpose of the dressing up. Instead of thinking the costume was a way to express one’s unencumbered creativity, I saw Paul and Richard’s wisdom of using the costume to express what others—namely, what women—might want to see in you.
Of course, that implies that I knew what women wanted. What I knew was only that women seemed to desire a walking contradiction: men who were both edgy yet nonthreatening—macho yet sensitive and cuddly.
That year, I wore a fireman’s hat, floppy black ears, blackened nose and whiskers, and round felt patches glued to a white shirt and pants. I was a “Fireman’s Dalmatian.” Consider the iconography: Fireman = Manly + Brave. Dog = Loyal + Trainable. Instead of trying to resolve the contradiction, I played right into it.
I’ve never asked Rebecca whether she read those messages, but the facts speak for themselves. I met Rebecca that night; she was dressed as Betty Rubble. One year later, at midnight on Halloween, I asked her to marry me. A year after that, we married, and exactly one year ago today, nearly to this very hour, our daughter Cora was born.
I owe Paul and Richard an apology. As our friendships dissolved during adolescence, I found it necessary to think less of them for taking such obvious roads to status and women. I know now that one does whatever one can in order to find love. One tries and tries and there’s no shame to any of it.