False Face

Kathryn Wilkens

Mom disappeared behind the furnace down in the basement. I heard a scraping noise and she emerged, dragging a box filled with Halloween costumes she'd made for my older sisters. We pawed through them, looking for something I could wear to the third grade party. I didn't want to wear the red union suit with a limp devil's tail sewn onto the back, nor the tattered black witch's dress, nor the "little Dutch girl" false face that smelled like old Band-Aids.

Mom and I exchanged apologetic looks over the top of the open box. "Well, I guess I could be a hobo again," I said. I found some old clothes, a pole and bindle, and Mom smudged my face with burnt cork. This would have to do. The other kids at the party would have good costumes - their mothers made them new ones every year, but my mom didn't go in much for that sort of thing - costumes, balloons, birthday parties with pony rides, and other childhood frivolities.

I wasn't all that crazy about Halloween myself, of witches and goblins. I didn't like it until I was in junior high, when I could wear black clothes and go out at night trick-or-treating with friends. By high school, that wasn't cool to do anymore and Halloween was a holiday I never paid attention to, until my sophomore year in college, when it happened to fall on a Saturday night. I had broken up with my boyfriend two weeks before and I had a medieval history exam the following Monday. I was sitting on my bed in the sorority house reading about Abelard and Heloise when a face appeared around the doorjamb.

"Is it true you broke up with Jim?"

"Hi, Sandi," I said. "Yes, it's true."

She flounced into the room, followed a second later by a cloud of Jungle Gardenia cologne. Sandi had cover-girl looks: blond hair, blue eyes, and dimples. The president of one of the best fraternities on campus had noticed - they had been pinned since September.

"There's a party at the Lambda Chi house tomorrow night - why don't I fix you up with D.J.'s roommate?" she offered.

I stood up to put my book on the desk, stalling for time.

"What kind of party?"

"A Polack party! It'll be a blast! D.J. thought it up." I was puzzled - D.J.'s last name was Kaminski.

"A Polack party?"

"Everyone just wears weird clothes, you don't have to wear a mask or anything," Sandi said.

"Why would I wear a mask?" She just looked at me for a minute.

"It's Halloween - you know, masks, costumes. Remember Halloween?"

"Oh, yeah. But I hate blind dates," I said.

"D.J.'s roommate is cute! He's got a great sense of humor. I know you'll like him!" She took a tiny step toward me.

"I don't really go in much for dressing up," I said, backing away from her.

"Why not? It'll be a riot! I'll help you find something," she said, moving closer.

I backed up a step. "But I won't know anyone there."

"You'll know me and Deej - we won't leave you, I promise. What else would you do, stay here and study?" Her eyes widened. "Play bridge?" She advanced a step.

I tried to back up a little more, but I banged into the bed. I looked around the plain room, small as a holding cell. No, I didn't really want to stay here on a Saturday night.

Sandi smiled; her dimples deepened. "Cí mon," she said, "I promised D.J. Id fix his roommate up with a Pi Phi."

The scent of gardenias was overpowering.

"Oh, okay," I said. I had to admit, it was fun getting ready. Sandi's enthusiasm was contagious. I selected plaid Bermuda shorts, a striped blouse under a cut-off sweatshirt, a pink rhinestone pin, and different-colored socks rolled down to my tennis shoes. Sandi helped me with my make-up, putting on more than I usually wore. I wouldn't let her give me fake freckles like she had sprinkled across her own face, but agreed to put my hair up in side pony-tails like hers. Sandi's outfit - a bowling shirt and flowered skirt - was just as outlandish as mine. When we stood side by side and looked in the mirror, we giggled like little girls. Then misgivings surfaced. I could just hear my mother sniff, "Seems pretty silly, if you ask me." What if I liked the guy and he thought I always looked like this? He would never ask me out again. No, he'll know. It's Halloween - everyone will be dressed up.

When we went downstairs there was already a bridge game underway, girls who never had dates or were pinned to guys at other colleges. They paused to admire our costumes and were all laughing when D.J. walked in with his roommate. My laughter stopped. He was short, with straight brown hair. His eyes were close together, bridged by a single bushy eyebrow. And his clothes! With his black loafers he wore white socks, which I could see plainly because his pants were hitched up, pants that didn't even remotely match his shirt. Was he wearing a costume or did he always dress like this? D.J. introduced us and his hearty "Hi" reached me on waves of Budweiser breath. Sandi thought I would like this guy? I shot her a look, but she was busy flashing her dimples at D.J., who swatted her playfully on her rear.

"Let's go, Sweetie," he said, ushering her out the door. The lucky dateless girls went back to their game.

"Three clubs," I heard someone bid as I walked outside.

We were only a five-minute drive from the party, but that was long enough for the guys to guzzle a beer. My date - I had already forgotten his name - said, "Hey, do you know why they always have a pile of garbage at a Polish wedding?" "No, why?" Sandi giggled in anticipation of the punch line. "To keep the flies off the bride!"

This was Sandi's idea of a great sense of humor? They laughed, but I was planning my strategy: I would be civil. I would dance a few times with this Neanderthal, then after enough time had passed so that I wouldn't hurt his feelings, I would feign illness and get D.J. to take me home.

The party was going strong when we arrived at the huge fraternity house. Furniture had been moved, converting the main floor into a dance hall. Hundreds of students - all couples - danced to the deafening sounds of a live band while colored lights flashed in time to the music. I was relieved that everyone else looked as ridiculous as I did. Plaids and stripes writhed on the dance floor. Polka dots and paisleys clashed; garish colors gyrated. I began dancing with my date. Luckily, the band was playing fast songs, so I didn't have to touch him. After a while it was time to put my plan into action. I scanned the throng. The band had launched into "Wooly Bully" and I had to shout to make him hear me.

"Where did Sandi and D.J. go?"

"Hah!" he snorted, as if I'd said something funny. "They went upstairs!"

"I didn't think girls were allowed upstairs!" I shouted.

"You know the saying - a pinman is an in-man!" he said. There was that great sense of humor again. I realized they had gone to D.J.'s bedroom and might be there for hours.

"I'm thirsty!" he said, grabbing me by the wrist and leading me to a door to the lower floor. I followed him down the darkened stairway, stumbling a little on the unfamiliar steps. Below, it was a different world. The music became a deep thudding that was felt more than heard. No lights were on, except a TV set flickering somewhere, and I got disoriented as we wound through a labyrinth of low-ceilinged rooms and narrow passageways. We groped our way to a remote room advertised by a crack of light beneath the door. He knocked; we entered. A dozen people were arrayed in a circle, as if participating in some kind of cult ceremony. They held aloft large paper cups and looked toward the object of worship in the center of the circle - a keg of beer, in defiance of the strict on-campus alcohol prohibition.

My date grabbed two cups, filled them under the spigot, and handed me one. He drained his with alarming alacrity and drank another that went down just as fast. He poured another, and gave me a malevolent smile as he lifted it to drink.

Suddenly a thought hatched in my brain, unbelievable yet undeniable: he hated me as much as I hated him! Furthermore, his strategy was better than mine. He was going to get drunk and pass out in order to be spared the sight of me. He was already beginning to topple as I set down my cup, pivoted, and left the room.

Not knowing where to go, I blundered around until I found a room with old couches and overstuffed chairs, illuminated by a red lava lamp; a few couples sat in the shadows making out. I sat, inconspicuously I hoped, at the end of a couch, picking at the fabric of the situation I found myself in. Sandi and D.J. weren't likely to emerge from their love-nest for hours. I'd have to call a taxi to take me home. Shit! I didn't bring any money with me.

I rose from the couch to search for a restroom. I found one, locked the door, and looked into the mirror above the sink. A stranger wearing a mask of make-up stared back at me. I yanked the rubber bands off my pony tails and winced in pain as some hairs came out with them. What was I going to do? I could walk two miles home in the cold. But look how I'm dressed! What if someone saw me? They'd think I had lost my mind, or worse yet, that I was trick-or-treating!

I shot daggers at the gutless loser in the mirror. I was stranded in an alien world. Home was close, but it might as well have been Ethiopia because I couldn't get there.

On an empty shelf under the bathroom mirror I lined up my new convictions as if they were warning labels on medicine bottles: Avoid blind dates. Always carry money. Mom had said all this before - why hadn't it sunk in? Always have a plan for getting home. Never let people talk you into things.

Someone pounded on the door; I swept the bottles to the floor in an imaginary clatter - they were no good to me then - unlocked the door and left. I searched the dank passages for someplace to go, something to do. I heard the muted noise of the party above - the thudding drumbeat sounded like gravediggers' shovels against frozen earth. Whisperings, low laughter and heavy breathing issued from corners of rooms. I didn't want to go upstairs where it would be obvious that I was alone in a world of couples. At least it was dark down here; for a while anyway, I could slither unnoticed from room to room.

After wandering for what seemed like hours, I came upon another door with light at the bottom - the kitchen. I opened the swinging double doors and had to shield my eyes from fluorescent light reflecting off stainless steel. When they adjusted I saw, sitting on a stool, eating a sandwich, a grad student who had been in my trigonometry study group the year before. He was sober. He was wearing cords and a V-neck sweater. With a book propped open on the counter, he looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. He looked up.

"Nice outfit," he said.

"Believe me, I know I look stupid," I said. "Why arenít you dressed up?"

"Some of us have to study," he said simply. "I'm not even living in the house anymore, I just came over for something to eat."

I explained my plight and he listened sympathetically.

"Could you please please drive me back to the Pi Phi house?" I asked. Never beg. Shut up, Mom. He tried to hide the quick glance at his watch.

"Sure," he said.

Hot relief coursed through my body as we exited the back door; within minutes we were in front of the house and I jumped out of the car. He leaned over and rolled down the window.

"Do you want me to find D.J. and tell him I brought you home?"

"No!" I yelled back. "Thanks for the ride."

I rushed in past the astonished bridge players, ran up to my room where I shucked off my absurd outfit, raced down the hall to the shower. I scrubbed the make-up off my face. I shed tears of humiliation and anger, tears that were dry by the time I toweled off. I padded barefoot back to my room, the same room I'd been so eager to leave only a few hours before. Closing the door behind me with a quiet click, I put on plain cotton pajamas. My feet were happy on the clean, cold linoleum. I ran my hand over the level wooden desk top, golden in the study lamp's glow. I inhaled the musty smell of my history book. Every ordinary object in the room seemed magical; the plaid wool skirt I'd been hemming, the packet of letters my mother had written me, the patchwork quilt my grandmother had sewn by hand.

I looked in the mirror. My cheeks were still red from scrubbing and my eyes shiny from crying, but this was my true face, except for smudges of mascara that remained. I opened the jar of Pond's cold cream, dabbed a bit under each eye and wiped it off. The smell of it never failed to remind me of Mom, of times when I was little and sat next to her dressing table as she removed her makeup - not that she wore much. She didn't go in for that sort of thing. Neither, I realized, looking at her daughter's image in the mirror, did I.

© Kathryn Wilkens

Kathryn Wilkens taught English and Spanish before turning to writing and photography. Her articles and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Writers' Journal, Personal Journaling and Writer's Forum, among others. She lives in Upland, California.

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