by Patrick W. Gallagher
I grew my hair long and bunched it up in as many pigtails as I could on all sides. By the time I was done, nine stubby pigtails of varying length shot and drooped out of my itchy scalp. But I ignored the urge to scratch my scalp and stood in the basement, my arms at my sides, with a long, thick comforter draped over my shoulders like a cape. I lectured on the secret origins of time and space.
I had a really mean friend who made a tape of it and exposed me to our whole school. To his shock and disappointment, I chose to embrace it: I looked back, returning the gaze of the entire school with a blank and unflinching face that told them, yes, this is who I am. I guess you caught me. Facts are facts.
The day after the video dropped I showed up to school wearing exactly the clothes from my scandalous all-male sleepover-party video. I cut my comforter-cape so it wouldn’t drag on the floor. I even sewed it up a new hem—the first time I’d ever sewed anything—so the stuffing wouldn’t fall out.
It wasn’t like there was anything that unusual about it. I was a teen, I had a few friends—some of them were even girls, though they thought I was vaguely gross and they told me as much, for what they thought was my own benefit (I think)—but I only had one person who you could really call my best friend. My problem was that I had all these things I wanted to say, but they didn’t make any sense, and if I didn’t say them to somebody I’d never grow up.
These are the things you have to get wrong so you know how to get things right. When I look at you, for example, all I see is the way you look now. Everything about you looks trimmed. But I know you have these layers of older selves nested inside you like dolls and that you’ve never forgotten all of them, even if you’ve moved on from some of them. I was simply trying to go through that process, just in a more extreme way than a lot of other kids do.
The first time I fastened the blanket over my shoulder like a cloak, it was because we got drunk, making mixed drinks out of little splashes from every bottle in his parents’ liquor cabinet in the classic fashion. We separated out into our own worlds, or so I thought. He vanished into the bathroom and spent the next hour supplicating before the porcelain god and I put on a blanket like a cape. I went out to their back deck and addressed the yard like Juliet on her balcony. See, I really loved it how in the Shakespeare movie adaptations I’d seen there would be parts where the characters would sometimes talk out loud to themselves and to the whole world simultaneously, and it didn’t matter if anyone was listening or could hear them at all.
So that was the habit we got into. I went over there and maybe we’d smoke pot, maybe we’d drink, or maybe we’d just sit around. But either way I’d go into my own world and I thought he would go into his. I grew my hair long and tied it up in pigtails, played around with his mom’s makeup, painting black and red stripes on my cheeks with her lipstick and mascara. And, left completely to my own devices, I basically invented my own science-fiction universe completely from scratch, just from having the ability to talk to myself in a completely safe environment for at least one entire night per week.
I told a story about a world in outer space where every living person had a shadow self—basically a dark, mean, not-as-good version of you. Plants, animals, and inanimate objects were not born with these companions the way people were, because to have such a reminder of all that you are, and all that you are not, existing somewhere in creation was one of the main constitutive elements of being a person in this particular world. There was widespread belief among the people of this world I had thought up that the split in every person had a spiritual basis, and that in every pair one was essentially good and the other was essentially evil.
But—and the importance of this can’t be overstated—the tools for making the determination as to which one was which—which one was good, which one was evil—was an art lost deep in prehistory. Because of this awkward combination of knowledge and ignorance, whenever members of a pair lucked into meeting one another—usually by pure chance, deep into adult life—each one felt toxic fear for the continuation of their own existence.
I think I got the idea for it from some Plato that I’d skimmed in one or two of my classes at around that time. But still I didn’t hesitate to pat myself on the back for making it all up. What really appealed to me about it, I’m sure, is that I felt like I needed someone else in my life to make sense of where I stood in relation to everything else, what kinds of decisions I should make, and all that good stuff, in addition to being there for warmth and squeeze. I didn’t just lecture about this concept when I slept over at my friend’s house and stood in the corner; I also put my arms around myself and self-cuddled to it on weekday nights as I went to sleep in my bed at home.
It wasn’t all that sexual, anyway. At least not to me. It was more about longing to feel like I belonged to something bigger and more stable than just me, even if it was just a group consisting of two people. But it must have sounded sexual to Emily, Rose, Burt, Josh, and all the other high school classmates who I brought up while free associating in this connection. I openly contemplated the possibility that any one of them could have been my secret double. I dissected all of their personalities in rich, exacting precision. Talked about them all, female and male, with a level of passion and specificity that made it sound like I had spent the equivalent of years obsessively pondering every one of them, each one of their personal foibles down to the most morbid details. And unbeknownst to me, my friend had his camera running the entire time.
I got a call about it at home the night it went public. It was from Henrietta, one of my female friends who thought I was gross. She was on the tape, too, of course, but she had compassion: she told me whatever you do, don’t come to school the next day. They’re all waiting for you. Call in sick and use the time to make a plan, she said.
So I sat myself down in the big leather swivel chair in my dad’s study. I’ll probably never have a study with a swivel chair, I realized, because I have been ostracized from polite middle-class society for all time. I won’t even get a high school diploma–the students will vote and decide to override the recommendation of the faculty that I graduate.
But then something really funny happened. It was like my mind split in half. Part of me was living the situation and part of me was aware of the consequences. Those two parts of my mind were no longer the same. And because I now had this insulation from fear, I could steel myself up and take the only logical course: I had to embrace it.
If I had already been deemed the most horrific freak in our community, as a result of my friend’s clear-eyed, cold-blooded betrayal, then I would simply have to accept it and try to make the most of it. It wasn’t like life as a non-freak was that great anyway. So I found a big comforter; cut it; sewed it up; fastened it with safety pins on my back like a cape; tied my hair up in nine pigtails; and drew red and black stripes on my cheeks with my mom’s lipstick and mascara. In defiance of Henrietta’s unambiguous advice, I entered school right on time with my head held high.
I felt the silence after my first step. The sucking sound, you could hear it up down the hall—hundreds of shocked high school kids standing at their lockers all filling up their lungs at the same time. Then, a few steps in, the screams came. Freak! Fuck you, you fucking asshole! There was some mirthless laughter, but for the most part they weren’t making fun of me. They were angry, furiously angry, for reasons I couldn’t even understand. They pelted me with wadded up paper, masticated apple cores, and even one used tampon.
But all of that stopped when it came time to sit through a morning of classes. Sitting in Pre-Calculus with my pigtails, my braids, and my warpaint, I studied a few kids who had gone all-in on various genres of being, like punk, hip hop, or improv comedy. I had always sort of envied all of them for taking such a decisive stand on how they were going to look. Before today, I had only worn sort of bland, random clothes. My mom actually picked out a lot of them at various mall stores.
But now I understood a little more about how brave the genre kids were. They must have felt so self-conscious, what with people like me looking at them all the time, at least at first.
Things got better over the next few weeks. There were meetings between administrators and my parents and some of the kids did get violent with me, though they appreciated it when I didn’t turn them in. My being a freak eventually became part of the social ambience. As my junior year faded into my senior year—after a very long, lonely summer—I became known as a sort of elder statesman. Younger students whose popularity was on the rise invited me to speak at pep rallies and fundraisers; they did it exclusively so they could laugh at me both behind my back and in my face, but I didn’t mind. To me, it was all part of sticking with the decision that I’d made.
In the end, I wasn’t totally ostracized from polite society. Just partially. I kept up my grades and breezed into a good school on the complete opposite side of the country where I could put aside my comforter, wipe the lipstick and mascara off my face, and pretend the whole thing never happened. In our four years together, my college classmates taught me all I would ever need to know about fashion, etiquette, and the fine art of cocktail party conversation—they taught me so well, as a matter of fact, that I did eventually wind up getting my own study with a swivel chair after all.
I never spoke to my cruel friend again. Sometimes I think he’s out there, watching me, waiting to show that tape to my family and colleagues—all the people in my contemporary life who I cherish and who have never even heard me say his name. The thought does legitimately scare me because I want to say he’s moved on and would never do that again, just because he has his own life to live. But what if he doesn’t? I don’t know him well enough to call it one way or the other. Let’s say he’s got nothing at all. It feels great to picture him in the cold, hungry, with no purpose in his life but me.
Patrick W. Gallagher‘s stories and essays have appeared in n+1, Gawker Review of Books, The Adirondack Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He is founder and host of The Farm Reading Series (“NYC’s destination for the newest and best satirical and/or critical writing in any genre”) and served as managing editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Patrick holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from NYU and a JD from Brooklyn Law School.
Image source: Stephen Holdaway/Unsplash