Reality Sucks

a cover for Reality Sucks

The walk takes a total about fifteen minutes. It’s a walk my sister and I are more than used to at this point. The morning air is brisk as towers rise above us on both sides of S. Figueroa Street. A long line of costumed people are standing in front of the Westin Bonaventure, the hotel kitty-corner from our own Hyatt waiting for the bus to take them the seven blocks to the Los Angeles Convention Center. They are ready. It is day three of Anime Expo 2013.

Business men and women power-walk past the line. Drivers slow down and gawk. It’s easy to tell those who have lived in downtown LA for the past few years from those who just arrived. I looked at the line, gazing carefully at each outfit before moving to the next one. A girl with bright pink hair with red ribbons, a poofy white skirt with a pink corset-like top, a man with long silver hair and a black coat, in his hand a giant silver sword.[1] Unlike the tourist standing to the side and staring in order to make sense of the situation, I find myself looking at the quality of the costumes, naming the characters in my mind, Madoka, Sephiroth. I feel some of their eyes on us.

We’re clearly not the business men or the gawkers on the road. My hair has been stuffed under a tan nylon half circle stretchy thing called a wig cap, a long dark blonde wig pulled over it and pinned into my head. My sister’s normally dark brown curly hair hidden under a short wild yellow wig. Our characters wear similar things: a short red sleeveless turtleneck crop top (sewn by me), a white tie (Sewn by me), strange blue-and-white cowboy hats with visible large stitches (made by my sister), and navy blue pants, mine long, hers short and poofy (modified by me). Our costumes had improved since our first time cosplaying (a term combining “costume” and “play” meaning when one dresses up as a fictional character) in 2008. My hobby started as a curiosity before evolving into much more.

* * *

His name was Michael Lloyd, and he had been my best friend for the two final years of my elementary school career. He was also my first crush that liked me back.

I had changed schools from third to fourth grade and was starting new. By the end of fourth grade I ended up with a small group of friends- mostly guys- and we would spend recess playing basketball or four square or dodgeball. Fifth grade was mostly good. I had good friends, a good class, my father’s alcoholism hadn’t been fully understood, and my sister had just learned the reason she was having so much trouble reading wasn’t because she was developmentally slow but because her first grade teacher had neglected to realize that my sister needed glasses. I spent most recesses with two girls as we pretended to have magic powers. We would run around the playground, stopping villains, getting captured in the tetherball courts, and reimagining our costumes. I was always wearing purple.[2]

But my mom was dead-set on having us change schools again, citing the gang violence occurring at the middle school that my elementary school fed into. So to a different school district entirely I went, back to square one: No friends. I spent my afternoons with my favorite cartoon characters like Ed, Edd, and Eddy and Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup instead.

Middle school came and went.[3] I didn’t really talk to anyone from my old schools but I did think about them a lot. Especially Michael.

Fortunately for nostalgia, Tucson is often regarded as a big small town[4] which translates into “you’re going to see these people again whether you like it or not.” It was a couple of days before Christmas during senior year of high school. The Park Place Mall was busy with shoppers trying to find gifts for people, the small, cross-shaped shopping center just barely big enough to hold the amount of people. Out of the four malls in Tucson, it was my favorite- mostly because of the Borders attached on between the Sears and Hallmark. However, once Borders turned into a wine shop, the mall lost its appeal. The only stores inside involved clothing, perfume, tea, “grown-up” stuff.[5] As a senior in high school I was only interested in toys, comic books, and cartoons. Reality was such a disappointment in comparison.

I was with a friend who I don’t speak to much anymore when we passed by a mall kiosk. I paused as I looked back at the employee. He looked so familiar. With a gulp I got my friend’s attention, diverting our path to the Borders.

“I know that guy,” I whispered and she turned to see who I was talking about. He didn’t seem to notice the two high school seniors whispering and glancing. “He was my best friend in fifth grade.”

“Why don’t you say hi?” And it was a very good question. I could easily go up and ask- but what if I was wrong? That would be awkward. What would I say? What do you say to someone you used to be so close to and then hadn’t seen for seven years?

I approached him, “Michael?”

Ah. By his expression I got his name right, and he recognized me. Sort of. “Paige, from elementary.” By the end of our fifteen minute conversation we had exchanged numbers, discussed going out for coffee at some point, and he had asked the question “Are you high?”[6] due to my giggly, hyper behavior. No. No I wasn’t high, I assured him.

And in the course of probably fifteen minutes after I had pulled into a parking spot one evening outside the place I had been learning Tae Kwon Do for the past two years I would get a text that would end the communication I had with Michael indefinitely. My phone had vibrated with a text before I left home; he had to reschedule our coffee for another day. I was fine with that and casually mentioned something about being unable to meet a certain day due to working on cosplay or taking cosplay pictures or going to a convention or all of the above.

Just five minutes later I had gotten another text. “You’re into anime? Wow. I just lost all respect for you.”[7] My ears grew hot and I stared at the words on my purple T-Mobile touch screen phone.[8] I reread the words and texted back, surely he had to be joking. Right?

“Lol, what do you mean?”

“Sorry, I just know people like that at my school. They’re weird.” I stopped texting him. I didn’t realize that cosplay and anime could send someone running that fast. I was entering college the next fall; I decided that I had a couple of choices.

One, I could keep that part of me silent. Hide my dozens of manga away, not wear my favorite Death Note shirt, and work on cosplay in secret. I had friends from home who I knew liked anime and who liked manga, I cosplayed with them enough and we had our own cosplay group “Sugar-Free Cosplay” known for our South Park cosplay. That was enough. They could stay at home and no one in college would ever know.

Or I could tell people right off the bat. Loud and proud. I even brought my cosplay, Lambo from Katekyo Hitman Reborn (He’s a cow), to college for Halloween.[9]

* * *

I made sure to tell everyone I met right off the bat that I cosplayed. I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to stop. I wore my hand-made costume with pride as my sister and I neared the convention center, Starbucks drinks in hand. That was one of my favorite parts of a convention: going to a “normal” place filled with “normal” people to get food or, in this case, a drink. The comments we received were mostly positive.

We crossed one of the last “normal” streets as the dull gray convention center grew in the horizon. There was a taxi on the side of the road and as we walked by it we heard the door to the car open quickly and shut, “Hey!” he called out to us.

My sister and I were used to “normal” people stopping us on the streets. Usually to ask about the convention, so we both turned to him, listening.

“Can I have a picture? I love Soul Eater!” We nodded. Pictures are the best part of cosplay. Someone telling you they love your costume so much they want a picture of you. My sister and I pose in character. My sister as Patty Thompson with a peace sign in front of her smiling face, myself as Liz Thompson with my arms crossed and an unamused expression. He takes the picture and we drop character, “Thanks! Awesome costumes!”

The constant affirmation that I get as a cosplayer at conventions what fuels my resolve. I am me. I have no time for anyone who doesn’t accept all of me.

* * *

I never understood how some people had the effort to be something they weren’t. I read about it in all of the magazines, listened to all the pep talks, all the movies and television shows with the moral “just be yourself.”[10] Perhaps it was because I wasn’t “cool” to begin with. No one really wanted to be around me and so the people I was friends with were those at the bottom of the social ladder. We had no one to impress. If we wanted to sit around one of our houses, watching Sailor Moon and pretending to be Sailor Scouts in middle school, we had no motivation not to. I could have put in effort probably to make myself cooler, climb that ladder, remove myself from these friend’s lives- but I had already tried that once or twice. I got two weeks into it when I realized how exhausting it was. How my few friends got hurt and the people I was attempting to befriend gazed down at me with a look that you would give a small child. Speaking to me with a soft, fake, and floaty voice as though they were my babysitter humoring me.

“You’ve always been more comfortable around adults anyway- you didn’t have time for anyone’s bullshit,” my mom would tell me years later as I was running the final stretch of my college career after I revealed to her some of my more embarrassing moments. Such as the time on a youth group trip to Wisconsin I was placed into a cabin with the younger girls while those my age and older were in their own cabin which escalated into a “hate circle” in which the girls forced myself and another girl to sit down as they told us what they didn’t like about us.

Once I returned home, I refused to spend much time with the youth group. I stopped going to events despite my mom nagging me.

Later, when I would find myself rushing a sorority, I told them straight, “I cosplay, I’m getting ready for a convention this summer actually.”

To my surprise, they were okay with that. Celebrated it, actually.[11] When I went to this same convention that summer and won third prize, I didn’t hesitate to text my new friends. They were all happy for me. I had no reason to change. People still cared about me regardless of my hobby.

* * *

It reminds me of a brown paper bag full of Skittles. Only instead of brown it’s gray and instead of paper it’s steel and instead of a bag it’s a building.[12] The outside industrial and gross, the only thing indicating that there’s anything special about the center this day are the costumed people outside in brightly colored wigs with giant swords. A red banner with the words “Anime Expo” hangs on the outside. At the corners of the street there are protesters holding signs with warnings saying “After death, the judgment.”

My sister and I wait for the light to change. I hear two of the sign-wielding Christians talking.

“Yeah, it was a kind of drink with these little black balls of something, it was called boba I think…” the girl said, “I forget what they were balls of though….”

My sister and I glance at each other. The light turned green and I turned to the two politely, “They’re tapioca balls” I said. As surprised as they were to hear such a normal response from a person dressed like I was, I was just as surprised when they responded gratefully.

“That’s it! Thank you,” she said. And my sister and I crossed the street, the protesters continued talking.

We were finally at the door for the metaphorical brown Skittle bag. And there were a lot of colorful Skittles. It’s a blast of fiction, a blast of middle fingers to reality. I scan the expansive South Hall. It’s a wide trapezoid of an open area, the ceiling high above our heads covered in windows so that natural light floods the floor. This is where the best cosplays go for pictures.

As I look around my mind shifts its thinking. Only half of the people in the area are regular humans. The rest consists of superheroes in bright red and blue spandex, princesses in elegant wide pink ball gowns with golden curls and crowns, super powered women with short red skirts and heels, ponies with wings and butterfly markings, giant robots with flashing lasers, elves in green tunics and chainmail, ninjas in bright orange, pirates with green hair and three swords, warriors with purple skin and horns, short alchemists with metal arms, racers from candy-themed racing games, morally ambiguous angels who use their lingerie as weapons, and handsome demon butlers. I recognize only about half of the costumes but they all still amaze me.

There are a lot more children on the Saturday of the convention when the parents can chaperone. Our parents were spending time at the beach, a habit they had picked up after they deemed the convention scene to be harmless. My dad was actually there this year too. For a while, none of us were sure if he was going to be able to make it. It would be fine with me if he didn’t show up. I hated reality enough. I didn’t need it crashing into my bubble of fantasy.

* * *

My father’s alcoholism didn’t bother me for a long time. Coming home to a drunk father, isolating myself to my room until mom came home and making sure that my sister was safe with me became routine. It was fine. In fact, I began to use it as a defense when one of my friends would pressure me to drink. “My dad’s an alcoholic, I take after him, I don’t want to risk it.” With enough personal detail he would back off, leave me alone.

I was heading to my media studies class when something seemed to snap. My bubble of “Nothing is ever wrong with my life” popped.[13] Suddenly, I was aware of my father’s alcohol at the most absurd and random time. I was aware that he might not be at my high school graduation. I was aware that he might not live for my college graduation. Reality hit. And the jackass hit hard. I approached my teacher, Ms. B as we called her, “Um, there are some things going on at home and I was wondering if I could just… sit out today.”

She offered to let me sit in the office she shared with two other teachers while I worked on other things. On my costume designs for the next convention, striving to get back into that fantasy mindset. Just getting back to that suspending of disbelief. After Ms. B had gotten the class going on that day’s assignment, she came into the room and I told her about my father and that I didn’t understand why it was bothering me.

By the end of the day, I had almost gotten back into my fantasy world. I was ignoring the problem of my father as I gripped a flake of hay, weighing it on a small scale. Seven pounds. Seven pounds of hay for my horse.

I had just thrown the flake into the stall when my phone vibrated against my hip. I looked at the caller ID and noticed that it was a friend. That was strange. I never got calls. When I answered, I realized that I shouldn’t have picked up. “Hey, so what was up today?”

I cringed.

“How come you never told me about your dad?” Apparently, the guy who pressured me to drink had told her. I didn’t want her to know.[14]

“He was surprised that I didn’t know,” she said. She was hurt that I hadn’t told her. I spent the next thirty minutes and the rest of my cellphone battery reassuring her that I didn’t mean anything by not telling her. That it wasn’t her, I just didn’t really tell people unless I felt I needed to. But she was upset.

* * *

At a convention, no one is upset when you don’t tell them about your alcoholic father. Night had fallen on the convention as we stood in the long line for the bus on route #3. It had begun to snake around the diamond-shaped piece of grass in the concrete, people avoiding the large, deceptively deep puddle of water that had formed as a result of the broken sprinkler in the center of the diamond.

The colors were not as vibrant in the dark, but it was still clear we were in a space where reality was unwelcome and fantasy reigned.

The two other bus routes were coming quickly and efficiently- emptying their lines before they could grow to a fraction of the length of ours. I sighed. There was no way we would be able to get on the next bus even if it did arrive at this moment. “What if we just walked?”

My sister hesitantly looked to the line and then to me. It would be faster. The walk wasn’t long or tedious after all. But… “It’s midnight and this is L.A.”[15]

At the moment we were surrounded by our own world. Our midriff-bearing costumes only labelling us as “those two characters who can transform into pistols from that one anime.” It is easy to forget that not everyone is from our world.

* * *

The summer after my high school graduation I went with our graduating class on the famous Europe trip offered by my school. The friend who had called me upset that I hadn’t told her about my father was going on the trip. Thankfully, this Europe trip split us apart nearly completely.

When you set bunch of just graduated high school kids set lose in European countries like England, France, and Italy meant that alcohol was on everyone else’s mind. Unless they had seen a side of alcohol that made them wonder why anyone would voluntarily put something like that in their body, of course. Along with two people we had become acquaintances with, my friend and I had set out on Paris as the three searched for a nice place to stop for wine. Mildly curious, mostly concerned, and scared of being left behind in the hotel, I followed along.

Big-kid things were discussed. Alcohol. Sex. Things that concerned reality. Adults. Things I didn’t know about.[16] I didn’t have anything useful to contribute; Most of my life was spent in a fictional bubble. My friend had already made it clear she thought my cosplay hobby was weird even though she didn’t outright say it. I didn’t want to embarrass her, so I refrained from speaking, knowing I would mention cosplay just out of angry spite for her judgment. I wasn’t interested in the conversation, so I sat back. Quiet. Half listening as we made our way to a small diner.

We sat around a booth; I had ordered a wine along with the three others. It was only a sip but it was enough for me to want to gag.[17] I pushed the glass away from me, offering it to one of our new companions. “My mom is a lightweight, I need to build up my tolerance before getting to college,” my friend said with a laugh though I knew she was serious.

“Well, no one is going to care if you don’t drink,” I shrugged.

“I don’t want to be that person though,” she said simply.

I still get angry when I see her.

* * *

“What if we got some people to come with us?” I asked. We could bring a part of our fantasy world with us as protection into the harsh reality that surrounds the Los Angeles convention. I turned to the costumed girls standing in line behind us. One of the girls was wearing a long blonde wig as well, but she wore a dress with a red sash and bright red shoes. She was cosplaying Panty. The other girl wore a long purple wig with pink strips. Her dress was poofed out with a light blue sash around her waist; she wore knee-high stockings and white heels. Stocking. It would be another six months until I would watch the anime, but even still I recognized the two as the angel heroines from Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt– a raunchy comedic anime.[18]

“Hey, the bus doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon- would you guys be up for walking back to the hotel together?”

The two girls glanced at each other. A silent conversation. Stocking answered us, “I guess? But I can’t walk that far in these heels.” She gestured down to her white pumps. The problem was only a problem for a small while, however. I turned to my sister.

“Would it be okay if she used your flats?” My sister hesitated. She looked down at her own shoes, the black boots she wore reaching just under her knees. They were mine, and therefore just a smidge too small for her- making them uncomfortable.[19] She was planning on using the flip-flops herself.

“Okay.” She took the brown flip-flops with a faded rainbow strap out of her bag. Stocking took them with a “thank-you.”

“Hey, are you guys walking back to the hotels?” another girl behind them asked us. We would learn later that the tall, intimidating man behind her was her boyfriend, and the small, young girl beside her a friend.

“Yeah. You want to come too?” I offered. Our small group of fantasy was growing. I welcomed the growth.

“That would be great,” as we made our way across the street and up the block the girlfriend spoke again, “Besides. We have nothing to worry about. If anything happens, Panty and Stocking can use their pistol and sword,” she laughed and nodded towards my sister and I, “And you two are both pistols as well, so we’re armed.”

Reality was around us but for the fifteen minute walk we were able to surround ourselves with our fantasy. For fifteen minutes more I was Liz Thompson. My sister was Patty Thompson. We had the heroine Anarchy sisters, Panty and Stocking, by our sides. We were living in a world of cosplay, in a world of fiction, a world of play, and a world of magic.

People look different when they’re not in cosplay.[20]

We waved goodbye to the Panty and Stocking when we parted ways at the hotel, my sister taking her shoes back from the grateful Stocking. There was an understanding among the remaining five of us as we rode the elevator with the girl and her friend and her boyfriend that as they left the elevator on a floor before ours, we would be parting for forever.  We never learned each other’s “real” identity. Reality wasn’t important.

We didn’t see each other again.

* * *

When I first began to date a Scottish man while I had been studying abroad in Stirling, Scotland, we established that at the end of the semester we would probably break up. Long distance was not appealing to either of us, so we’d make the best of the moment.

We ended up breaking up a month earlier than planned.

I wasn’t good with emotions, they made me uncomfortable, they felt too real. I didn’t like that feeling. Honest and true things often hurt. He said he understood- just like he understood about my father and why I really didn’t drink that much if at all.

When he insisted that he wasn’t drunk after having three shots of absinthe and two coke and amaretto mixtures in less than an hour, I realized that my fantasy of having a Scottish boyfriend was coming to an end. Not even the ever so appealing accent[21] and the soft kisses were enough to convince me to stay.

The next day, in the community kitchen we all shared I hid from my Scottish boyfriend when he came in, unable to explain to him why I rejected his alcohol-laced affection so firmly the other day.

My friends came in to comfort me when we broke up. I realized I did not actually need any comfort. I was free from those real emotions.

My Scottish ex-boyfriend and I are still friends on Facebook.

We never talk.

* * *

Every once in a while I would find myself on Google searching “Panty and Stocking cosplay Anime Expo” in hopes of finding at least the Panty and Stocking. Each search would end a failure.[22]

Until one day I searched with the right combination of words and clicks. Before I knew it, there was a picture of the two girls I had walked with through the streets of L.A. at midnight almost a full year earlier. One of the girls left a comment, claiming to be the Panty. I sent a message, asking if she was who I thought she was.

She was.

Apparently, she had been searching for my sister and me as much as I had been searching for her and her sister. In a period of a couple messages we had made plans.

We would see each other again as different characters in our world of cosplay, in our world of fiction, in our world of play, and in our world of magic.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] This is also the time to play “Dressed as animated character or just looks like that”

[2] My outfit was definitely inspired by the 90’s cartoon my sister and rented regularly: Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders. It’s amazing.

[3] And can be summarized by this fact: I got my first period and my braces on the same day within two hours of each other.

[4] It’s also regarded as the “Old Pueblo” or “Far Better than Phoenix”

[5] Clothes shopping is the equivalent of pulling teeth. Fact.

[6] There. That’s the awkward.

[7] Edited for proper grammar. He liked text speak.

[8] It was more an idiot phone than a smart phone.

[9] I didn’t understand what “Halloween in college” really meant.

[10] Unless “yourself” is a horrible person, of course.

[11] Some asked to come along with me to my next convention.

[12] Oh, and there aren’t actually Skittles inside. Regardless, it still is like a brown paper bag full of Skittles.

[13] This surprised a few of my friends. They were surprised that I would have anything negative in my life.

[14] She was the judgmental-type.

[15] Seriously. Fuck reality.

[16] Obviously I was a rebel child.

[17] The French fries were good though.

[18] I want to cosplay Panty now.

[19] Fun fact: they broke at a convention and now are held together with duct tape.

[20] Secret identities can be fun.

[21] Loved the way he sad “Beautiful.”

[22] Reason #1 why I’m not a detective.