I leaned forward on the edge of my desk chair, carefully inspecting my handiwork in the small mirror on my desk. With one last delicate swipe of eyeliner, I touched up the bottom tip of my drawn-on nose, straightened the ears atop my head, stood up and headed downstairs to immediate embarrassment.
My friends and I were heading out to a “Throwdown for your Hometown” theme party. With no other ideas, no Sharks jersey to wear, and the notion that I was being clever beyond belief, I decided to take the theme as literally as possible. The town I went to school in, Los Gatos, is Spanish for “the cats,” so I felt like I only had one option really worth wearing. I felt so self-satisfied and proud at my brilliance as I went to to meet my friends.
But as I saw everyone else, my excitement quickly turned to anxiety. I had stepped downstairs into a group of girls wearing Santa Cruz t-shirts, Chicago Cubs jerseys, paper Apple logos stuck to the front of their shirts and what I assumed were high school colors. I entered the fray feeling distinctly out of place and overdressed, decked out from head to paw as a cat.
The outfits around me said low-key. The whiskers on my face said extremely not that.
But I had no backup plan and no time, so I forged on ahead. As we walked to the party, I turned to a friend and said, “People are going to think I’m crazy.” She only laughed in response, which I couldn’t help but interpret as, “Yeah, you look like a freaking weirdo.”
I had committed the ultimate costume party faux pas: I had tried too hard. I had been too enthusiastic, made too much of an attempt to be clever and gone a direction that not a single other person had, in a way that read, “What the hell are you wearing” more than “Best dressed.” Unless you were one of those magical shameless people, going all-out meant attention in a way that you might not want. I had misread the social cues and missed the memo on what was the best choice to wear, and now I was paying the consequences.
At some point in college, trying too hard became something I was apparently supposed to be concerned about. I came from a high school that went nuts dressing up for spirit week and had grown up in dance costumes, so looking ridiculous had always felt normal to me. The difference then was that it had always been in a group — my entire school donning “thrift shop” apparel or knowing that if I was going to be under stage lights in a flamenco-style costume, 30 other girls would be joining me.
I should have realized I was trying too hard when, the semester before, I was the lone toga-wearer rolling out with my yoga pants-wearing buddies to fit a “Yogas and Togas” theme — but at least then I hadn’t gone so far as to draw on a cat nose. I should have gotten the tip-off the first time my roommate asked me whether or not her choice of shoes to a party would somehow be pushing the limit. But I ignored it all that night to throwdown for my hometown, letting my love of theme parties and high school dress-up days cloud my judgment. I had been so excited about that damn cat costume, but as I walked around the party, my face reddened from underneath my black pointy ears as I hid my whiskered face in a glass of wine. There is, after all, a difference between loving to dress up and hating to stick out like a sore thumb.
So I dealt with the weird stares by ignoring them. I dealt with the few souls brave enough to ask the confused question by simply saying, “I’m from a town called Los Gatos” and receiving a response of dawning comprehension. And I dealt with my fear of sticking out by hiding in a room upstairs with a close friend, catching up on life instead of dealing with the horde of partygoers on the floors below. While we still had a good time hiding away, I wish I hadn’t felt restricted to that. I wasn’t yet brave enough not to care about what other people thought of me.
I desired to be shameless, but I lacked the courage.
As the night wound down and my friend and I sat on the couch talking to a guy dressed in an Oakland A’s jersey, a friend of his wandered by and sat down. I did my best to ignore her curious stare until she opened her mouth and asked what I didn’t realized I’d been hoping to hear all night.
“Are you from Los Gatos?”
It all came surging back — with one question, I realized that I was clever, that my costume idea wasn’t completely ridiculous, that it meant something to anyone who wasn’t me. At long last, after hours of explaining and second glances, someone had finally understood.