Erin knew that her only recourse was to lie. Her minimum-wage job usurped the term papers, extracurriculars, and the part-time gig scanning microfilm at her college library. It became the reason she woke up and then, later, didn’t sleep. It became a chemical gratification tethered to the smallest silver spiral in the tip cup, even as she found herself in the freezer hyperventilating over round egg patties, or rebuffing the advances of shift leaders, who cornered her against the donut display to talk about all the things their wives wouldn’t do.
Her housemates played golf and made bony, lowercase poems for course credit. They sprawled over their desks and whispered about the cock sizes of “townies,” very careful not to say black. And when Erin came home, fingers sticky with jelly and powdered sugar, they asked, why don’t you just quit?
The answer was a one-bedroom apartment in Albany where her mother worked as a freelance seamstress and hospice-care associate, and where her father, just a year before, left for a doctor’s appointment and never returned. The answer was a flirtation with the poverty line, unsubsidized student loans, and a reckless impulse to double major in two areas that were expensive exercises in vanity. Her housemates thought she was slinging crullers for club cash, but she hadn’t donned a pair of heels since junior year.
Her academic advisor called her into his office and steepled his fingers and she could see it on his face, all the plates she’d left, teetering on sagging sticks. They looked at the steady decline of her grades and apologized to each other–she, because she was one of eighty-four black students and naturally felt a responsibility to represent well the totality of her race, and he, because of a mutation of white guilt that made her personal failure his personal failure.
The college was semi-elite but a little insecure about itself, and so prone to manic email blasts about notable alumni–all of whom were white men in suspenders who made bank on conservative news condemning the scourge of black Santa.
To afford this college, and perhaps one day spoil its reputation on the strength of some minor feminist accomplishment, she cleaned the guts of the milk machine, brewed arabica until she couldn’t remove the smell from her hair, donned white gloves in the basement of the college library, and scanned old, flaked film. It was all for something. But in the middle, between the unread assigned books, the betrayal of every genus of alarm clock, and the slack bullshittery of class presentations on dopamine inhibitors and Lewis Carroll, a central part of her personality became negotiable.
That is, her long and sexless history of being a know-it-all, the sort of coy, homework-loving show-off that bummed out her own parents, who though terribly mismatched were united in their desire for a daughter who might go out at night, do some sweet, illegal thing, and bring home a boy they could hate.
So she was a smart girl. And it was on this assumption that she rationalized all failure elsewhere: the social awkwardness, the general unluckiness with boys. But it meant nothing when customers pulled knives or wrote online reviews about her stinginess with the hazelnut syrup. It meant nothing when her coworkers–locals from the damp hollows of Hyde Park—decided that she was bougie, the kind of black girl that comes from the suburbs with shiny, respectable cheeks.
It was easy to be fired because it was easy to be replaced, so she couldn’t just be sick. She couldn’t just want time off. A family member needed to die, and that family member was going to be her father. It was almost the truth. In her fevered sleep, her mother’s voice emerged, husky through a length of telephone wire. The voice said simply, your father is gone. And though her mother was pathologically calm, there was a note of panic in her voice that made Erin resolve to never forgive her father—so inconsiderate, he couldn’t skip town under the standard guise of going to get cigarettes. And now in her senior year, her father, a liar, was going to become the lie that would get her out of work.
“Comic-con,” she whispered to Alexander, a customer (medium cream, no sugar) and art school dropout who sold frosty, hydroponic weed. The first time he crashed her nightshift with his halfway smile, they were already in the middle of something. Out of his eyes circling her face as she frothed milk came a candidly transactional dynamic in which his five-dollar joe became a two thousand percent return on blueberry kush. And occasionally, her body beneath his, pliant and stoned. Initially, he spent a great deal of time trying to get her into his car, which was, she thought, the kind of car drug dealers should avoid—a monstrous, candy-painted, German exercise in masculine panic. But as she slid into a smooth, heated seat, she was charmed. By the crooked cigarette hanging incidentally from the corner of his mouth, by his haywire strawberry blond hair, nimble rolling fingers, and the almost ugly collection of consonants in his protracted, Slavic surname.
So she became a customer of her customer, and this was not an insignificant factor in the disorder of things. It was work, school, smoke, sleep. It was the sudden redaction of sleep, kind professors pulling her aside to talk about the necessary recycling of T-cells, about the sunken pupil bombing reasonable midterms with unreasonable, fever-dream scrawl.
Her mother, a rehabilitated addict, had given her a speech before her freshman year. It was all about the family history, the bright, narcotic predisposition, laced between the hemispheres of her brain. So when she got high she felt guilty. Her housemates ate the donuts she left for them at night and complained about the haze around her room. Alexander came over, rolled sticky satori in sweet grape papers, and fucked her with his shoes on.
It was Tuesday when she told him about comic-con and the lie she planned to tell to get out of work. There was a contortion of his face she thought she understood: the you fucking nerd of it all. The very palpable change in a cool person’s regard when you admit investment in the fictional, your otaku-ness becoming a sudden strain of leprosy. But they’d talked enough about video games for her to expose herself, and for him to show that he was unbothered, if not forgiving of her off-putting excitement about the old school magic of turn-based systems.
His reaction was in fact the beginning of the end of the strictly casual nature of their relationship. It happened so stealthily that she didn’t realize until he was pulling a sketchbook of unfinished drawings out of his backpack, or she was in his car on break, trying to calm down after some minor disobedience of the espresso machine. No doubt the seriousness between them was a bit of a buzzkill, but it could not be stopped. And now, after telling him about her master plan, he said, all too casually, that his mother had a very aggressive kind of lung cancer.
She was unprepared, caught between hollow words of condolence and their post-coital radioactivity, and so she said to him, wow. She said, that sucks. Ultimately, the choice of words was significantly less weird than the fact of it coming out like a question. It was a phonetic contagion that spread like wildfire throughout her sorority, a dubious, lingusitic beckiness that she’d absorbed from the campus eyebrow gods.
It was lucky he didn’t seem to be looking for any particular reaction, and as he slung on his jacket and gathered his keys, she got the feeling that it almost didn’t matter that she was there, that the objective of his confession was a thing of tongue and teeth and throat, merely an effort to see how the words hung in the air. Still, when he started avoiding her, she was secretly relieved.
She got to work on her costume. It was a cosmetic exercise that became an existential one. She came home with the tulle, spandex, and paint, and studied her naked body in the mirror. Despite the smoking and the donuts, she was somehow in the best shape of her life. In her teenage years she’d attended a handful of local cons and marveled at the diverse set of acned girls in Lycra, their colorful synthetic wigs, the unabashed cant of their hips. She’d envied their confidence, watched as they pouted and smiled for pictures, unconcerned about the girth of their thighs.
It was why Erin took the new-fangled, network-approved idea of geekdom so personally. It was why she simply could not abide the fake glasses of sexy, square-jawed men. The cachet of the outsider had evolved to include her dopey subset of pit-stained, rough-thumbed gamers and anime freaks. But it was wholly antiseptic, and the reason why was because of a complete oversight regarding the terrible, squalid shame of the thing.
There was no ghoul in a letterman jacket to mock her fanart or douse her in pig’s blood. There was simply a tacit understanding about the things you did not talk about if you wanted to be invited to parties. Fandom became an interior endeavor, and in her cowardice, she began to resent the outliers, the ballsy few with their acrid D&D cologne and keen topographical knowledge of Gotham City. But to be a girl meant your bonafides were always questionable.
And if you were a black girl, there was a daisyed hellscape between the unimaginative and the well-meaning, a cognitive dissonance too ingrained to parse, requiring both peacocking and frantic camouflage. It was a series of rooms in which she was unwelcome—musty multi-console gaming rooms at dinky local cons where fedoras turned in unison to appraise the errant antigen, put-upon homunculi offering unsolicited education about the finer details of canon, hoping to show her up as a fraud. The general feeling of having nowhere to relax into her native tongue and release all that uncool, earnest ooze. But when she looked at herself in the mirror in her skimpy, badly sewn cosplay, for the first time in her life, there was no shame. The shame she felt now was reserved for a more current indulgence in make-believe: the successful mimicry of extroversion.
It happened like this: She came to college wanting to be someone else, and via a series of forced club outings, compulsory one-night stands, and soulless extracurriculars, she’d become a shadow. She was in pursuit of what all black girls were supposed to be born with—a jovial, ironclad self-esteem, a sense of rhythm, and a witchy finesse with jojoba and coconut oils.
She was in pursuit of that inalienable right to say whether or not someone was, in fact, down. So she went out and shouted over the music at dull, drunk boys. She socialized with her classmates, who gazed into the middle distance instead of at her face, coming alive only to disparage their parents who dared buy them used cars and ask for help with Microsoft Word. She joined a sorority, the college paper, the student-run literary journal, and, for reasons she did not want to investigate, the college gospel choir. She fell in love with any negging techie who emerged with an axe to grind about the fineries of sub and dub. She travelled to lonely Hyde Park churches and sang wan renditions of “Amazing Grace” in exchange for deep pans of post-service ziti. She checked for missed calls from her father and found none. She mixed with her sorority sisters—a band of leathery tanning fiends whose most distinct characteristic was being proud of being from New Jersey—and learned the right vernacular to pass off her casual bitchiness as truth. She took an editor position at the literary journal, where she met black student #57, her co-editor—an owlish neurotic in green-colored contacts who practiced calligraphy, approached her at a party simply to declare that he preferred Asian women, and who then tried to sleep with her to embarrassing avail.
Over poems about birds, menstruation, and heavy-jowled trees, he apologized about not being able to get an erection. At a mixer with a fraternity, she met black student #73, a rich, deeply fine Black Republican who was himself physically excellent proof of their race having once been bred for fields, but who frequently fawned over the administration of the elder Bush. When they slept together, it was a battery of punishments: the iron heft of his body and smug, brutish use of his mass, and the ebb and flow of sympathy and disdain.
At times he seemed human enough to share that old inside joke of having pulled off the improbable trick of thriving in white space. But then he’d fasten his belt and suggest she chemically straighten her hair. And when she somehow became vice president of her sorority, vetting new girls’ scared renditions of the Greek alphabet like the dictator of some lawless, Mediterranean Sesame Street, she knew she wasn’t in on the joke either.
She was a fraud, loyal to no particular version of herself. So maybe this is why it was easy to march to the registrar and demand—in the unlikely event of her graduation—that her diploma reflect a revision of her hyphenated name. And on the day she received confirmation that she could remove her father’s name, Alexander reappeared at her dorm with carnations and a black eye.
Here, he said, shoving them into her arms. And there was homework and a shower she needed to take but he was already shrugging off his jacket, rolling a j, and licking the edges, and she knew all of her lines. There were things she could do without too much calculation—harmonize, turn a cartwheel on the grass, reach through a wall of smoke and hook herself onto a man. But sometimes it was overwhelming, and every uncool word clamored up her throat, earnest and wet. She was smart enough to press her teeth together. She’d never become wily enough to control the ugly spasms of her face.
Black student #73 liked to use mirrors. He liked to say, look at yourself. And she would look, hoping to find something powerful, the way women held mirrors under their skirts and found in those mouths a crass new vocabulary. But when she looked at the way ecstasy rearranged her face, she only knew that she never, ever wanted to see it again. So it felt like a cruel moment of telepathy when Alexander, with his pretty half sneer, asked her to stop making that face, and also that when she smoked, she was too tight.
“Okay,” she said, dismounting and looking for her clothes.
“Hey, you don’t have to be like that.”
“You always keep your shirt on when we fuck. And it’s weird. I’ve never said anything about it. But it’s weird.”
“Yeah well, you talk about cartoons like they’re real.”
“They’re real to me,” she replied, realizing too late that saying this out loud would only exacerbate her humiliation. Alex, sensitive to this miscalculation, seemed for a moment like he might try to diffuse the situation, but then he turned away and began to collect his things.
“I gave you that Alaskan Thunderfuck at a wild discount,” he said, and the invocation of the central currency between them suddenly did not feel casual. Erin understood that she was meant to feel demeaned, and that was reason enough to direct her criticism where she knew it would hurt.
“You should’ve given it to me for free. Don’t think I don’t notice the discrepancy between what you sell me and what we smoke when you come over. It barely gets me high.” She took a little pleasure in the short circuiting of his face, the silence in the air as he tried to accommodate this impossibility. Then he laughed, which scared her a little, not least because he was still fully erect. He took a deep breath and pulled on his pants, his shoes.
“You know you belong here, at this school. You’re one of them. You don’t think so, but you are.”
After spending so much time fretting about how she was going to tell her manager a believable lie, it was as simple as pulling him aside during the breakfast rush and saying that there’d been a car accident. She was almost insulted by his nonchalance, by the long, irritated sigh as he retrieved his pen and snatched the shift schedule from the wall. When she finished her shift, she threw her apron over her arm, went outside, and felt the sun on her face. It occurred to her that her father actually might be dead. It was odd—in her youth she had obsessed over the mortality of her parents. She called them incessantly when they left the house, bartered earnestly with God for their safe travels to work and the grocery store. To some extent, she still felt this panic about her mother, but about three months after her father left, the fear she kept for him went out like a light.
He was eighteen years older than her mother. When they met, her mother was slim and strung out, and he was an old sailor who’d already buried two wives. They weren’t in love, but then a daughter, then a marriage. She wanted her daughter to have the father that she’d been denied. She wanted her daughter to be able to trust men, to love them without her fists half-drawn. And for a while it worked. In fact, he was closer to his daughter than he was to his wife, so much so that on the day he left, her mother just sighed and said, “I mostly can’t believe he would do this to you.”
The morning of comic-con, Erin received a third urgent email from her academic advisor that she promptly ignored. She relished the opportunity to make a photogenic, labor-intensive breakfast. She washed her hair slowly, put on her face with a steady, serious hand—the slick primer, powder, and kohl. She rolled the fabric of her costume between her fingers and forgave its hot glue and crooked, sagging wings. She smoked a couple of joints, pulled on her wig, boots, and cardboard galactic gun. She boarded a city-bound bus, and when she arrived into the sea of Lycra and make-believe seething at the doors of the convention center, she was sure she was going to faint. It was pure and narcotic, the half-queasy feeling she usually got before a promising date or dreaded family engagement. A man in a Gundam suit hailed her out of the crowd, asked, “What are you?” And she was so happy to be asked that she didn’t notice his penis, hanging flaccid through a chink in his mechanical suit.
“I’m a void witch.” She spread her arms and spun, emboldened by all the theater around her. “From the White Dwarf Chronicles? Second to last boss after you get to through the water chamber. A supermassive black hole gathers mass and density and then it—” when he started to stroke himself, she allowed herself a moment of paralysis, and then simply turned and walked in the other direction. Nothing so ordinary was going to sour her mood.
When they opened the doors, she ran to the comic-book cages. The red carpet was already soiled with mustard, glitter, and unpopular swag-bag toys, all the off-brand blockbuster heroes, meticulously hardwired mechs, and harried, plain-clothes journalists suspended in a state of ecstatic media res. She hung around in the stacks and tracked with her own eyes the transition of superheroes from silly ’60s panties to sleek post-aughts body stockings, the dewey decimal stink of expensive vintage issues thickening her throat. She hit Artist’s Alley with wild delusions of grandeur regarding her personal budget, leapt into makeshift dressing rooms, shimmied out of her cosplay into professionally sewn steampunk petticoats, and left with a handful of mismatched clocks. She watched the professional cosplayers strut between walls of polymer toys. She admired large oils and acrylics that rendered hokey two-dimensional icons with burly realism, the uncanny valley spread out before her like an odd, vaguely sexual dream.
She haggled for stickers and expansive giclée prints, already imagining how she might arrange them on her walls at home. And there were people who really did want to know who she was, some who already knew, mommies and daddies with cat-eared tots, laughing and raising their cameras, unphased by her cleavage and bloodshot eyes. Of course, there was the underarm stench, the claustrophobic cattle drive to the speed dating and gaming rooms. And then there were the panels.
The chance to see all the gods of her fantasy worlds, writers and fine artists who worked crowds like standups, guzzling water between awkward technical gaffes. There were others who were clearly too introverted to be on stage, men and women who were precious and cold, so allergic to eye contact it was hard to imagine how they managed their fame. There were voice and screen actors who moved in and out of character so fluidly that she worried over fractures in the fantasy and closed her eyes against their vocal tricks. Most importantly, among the stars of the con was Erin’s childhood idol, Haru Takahashi.
It was the first time he’d ever appeared at a con. A somewhat reclusive man of forty-five, he was notoriously awkward with fans, rumored to have a thing for dollar-store licorice and old, erotic film. Per his colleagues, he was prone to fainting in his home studio and rupturing his vocal cords for the acrobatic demands of his job, which was to be the voice of TV’s most beloved monkey god.
The Monkey in the Moon was a raucous, intergalactic animated saga that had been on the air for fifteen years, frequently alienating its multi-generational fanbase by ignoring its own rules, casually killing off fan favorites, and going on long, corny digressions about interstellar transit law. But none of that mattered to Erin, who had watched every episode more than three times, who, when newly indoctrinated into the fandom at nine years old, spent afternoons writing crude fan scripts that her cousins dutifully performed for her Fisher-Price tape recorder.
And so it was on this basis that she set out to attend his panel, maneuver her way to the front, and figure out a way to convey silently what she wanted to scream. Only just as she went to find the appropriate line, she checked her phone and found a fourth manic email from her academic advisor—whose subject line read: Get Your Shit Together, Erin!
There was no choice but to read the backlog and confirm what on some level, she already knew. She was failing out. Erin shut herself in the bathroom, ripped off her wig and considered the glitter on the toilet seat. Sweat streamed from the wig cap and into her eyes, and when she jogged back to the panel, her thighs caught on each other. Too late, she realized she’d left her galactic gun on the hand dryer. That she was still high was almost a comfort, a way to rationalize why the news felt italicized, why the floor of the con suddenly felt hostile, fluorescent, and too smelly to bear. It didn’t help matters that her wig had taken to spinning around her head, resisting every attempt she made to straighten it, until she simply gave up and parted it where it chose to sit.
With seconds to spare, she tumbled into the panel room and spilled all of her clocks. Sheepishly, she gathered them into her arms, and marched to the front of the room. She sat in the dark until it was time, fanning herself, looking around at all the mortals, the moist disarray of speedsters, expository villains, and ersatz sidekicks taking video, feeding burritos through their masks. She zeroed in on Haru, noting the way he fiddled with his notes, pushed his long, silver-streaked hair away from his eyes, and then seemed to regret his sudden exposure to the lights. He appeared as solitary as she hoped. The most subdued of all his co-panelists, when he did choose to speak, it was in that careful, golden tenor, his clipped, sarcastic answers splintering the room. It occurred to her that everyone had come for him. And so when it was time, she rushed up and planted herself directly in his line of sight. But when they passed her the microphone, her heart rose into her throat and his face swam before her eyes.
There was a prickly susurrous rising in the dark room, a titter here or there that she couldn’t quite make out over the emergency in her chest. He seemed relaxed as ever, almost disinterested, but there was a slight smile, more wary than pleased. She cleared her throat, looked down at the clock she suddenly realized was cradled against her breast. “So obviously I know you can’t spoil which level of quartz the grand ape mined from the saturnalian mine. But I need you—can you see me? I need you to know that I can’t imagine my life without your voice. The voice of the monkey king. He’s living in fear of the moon and the Luminescent Boar and I’m such a fan, and I just feel really—” She paused, and without warning, her eyes began to run like organic peanut butter, at which point she apologized, handed the microphone to small Batman standing behind her, and promptly rushed out of the room. Outside the convention center, she noticed the man in the Gundam suit—who she only now realized was not attending comic-con, but was a cousin of one of those dubious Times Square Elmos—was still out front. She bought a pretzel just for napkins to use to dry her face.
She looked around and found two Harley Quinns sobbing by the garbage, a Spiderman smoothing out a large piece of cardboard, setting up a tip cup next to a stereo. When she felt her phone buzz, a smiley, eastern European New York tour briefly engulfed her, their eyes turned skyward. Without thinking, she accepted the call. The voice on the other end was unfamiliar. Then it was too familiar. When she’d imagined this moment, she was prepared. She was steely and degreed. Sometimes she imagined she might hang up. But there his voice was now, after a year.
“How is my little girl?” the voice said, and she wanted to laugh, to scream. Because of course it was all so much better in her mind. Of the course the fantasy was in reality as casual as this—a knotted synthetic wig in her fist, a drooping falsie on her cheek, as she summoned a breath and said,“Oh, I’ve never been better.”