This is probably the only time it makes sense to follow a man in a trench coat, I think as I trail through the streets of Boston after the tall, tattooed man in shit-kicker boots.
I’m lost, but he walks with a purpose that assures me that if I follow, I’m definitely going to end up somewhere. We’re in the commercial district of the city in the middle of the workday, so most people have the look of office workers or students. But speckled through the crowd like my gothic guide are a few unusual people. Does that man have a tail? There, that woman is painted to look like Death from Sandman. I feel like Harry Potter seeing wizards for the first time in London.
I must be getting close.
The Hynes Convention Center beckons ahead, with polished glass and tile that could be right out of The Matrix. Streaming inside are people with Zelda costumes, Nintendo DS’s, and beautiful, raucous voices. This isn’t a few wizards on the streets of London anymore; it’s more like the Quidditch World Cup.
The banner outside reads “PAX East.”
I’ve been hiding for my entire life, but that’s about to end. So, donning a Pac-Man t-shirt that normally screams social suicide to me, I mount the steps with a perfect storm of fear, excitement, and self doubt.
I am 8 years old, hanging out at my friend’s house. Five of us are playing Clue, the VCR mystery game. This is a tea party mystery, so on my turn, I pull a posh British accent, like the Pevensies from The Chronicles of Narnia.
“Could you please talk normal?” Serena asks, avoiding eye contact. “You’re making this weird.”
How does acting make an acting game weird? I think, but I shut my mouth.
Later, on the way out the door, my friends walk in front of me whispering and giggling. All I can make out is that they are talking in bad British accents.
Inside PAX East there are scantily clad Princess Peaches shoulder to shoulder with people in bondage gear. Children run to personifications of their idols. The floor is crawling with cosplayers sporting Triforce tattoos and anime hair. People used to feeling invisible in their daily lives are finally able to flaunt their true colors. It feels like a reunion with friends you didn’t realize you had. It’s hard not to get swept up, and I can barely contain my joy. I text my guildmates that I’m here.
It’s recess on the first day of 6th grade. I am somehow friends with the cool girls, with their butterfly clips and Skechers.
“Let’s go to the playground,” they suggest. Cool — the playground has a tire swing and monkey bars.
“What do you want to play?” I ask. One of the girls rolls her eyes. “No one plays anymore,” she says. I sit silently — staring at the jungle gym while they gossip about people who aren’t here — and try to hide how foolish I feel.
The guildmates I’m meeting are from World of Warcraft. Though we spend about 20 hours a week together in virtual space, this was our first time hanging out in real life. They have only ever called me Aldona, the name of my avatar. They don’t know Allison yet, and I’m afraid real-me won’t be as fun as cartoon-me. They have hair down to their ankles and sequined clothes. I am apprehensive as I approach them; they’re laughing at a joke I didn’t catch, so I hesitate until they notice me standing alone.
“Aldona!” the group yells out of sync. Hearing my moniker brings me out of my head and into their world.
They rush towards me with hugs and a plan to go explore the massive expo hall. Their enthusiasm is infectious. “I just don’t want my cheesecake to smush,” I tell them as we pile our things in a corner. I thought bringing a cheesecake might be strange, but cheesecake says special to me, so I did. Maybe I should have left it home.
I am 14 years old, sitting at the lunch table with the boys’ soccer team. They are lean and tanned, despite the snow outside. I worry that I should be wearing gloves like Rogue in X-Men to hide my hands, which are purple from the New England cold.
“You look like Gollum,” Kris, my crush, says in front of his teammates.
Suddenly all the jokes we’d been sharing stop as I frantically search for a response, wondering whether anyone else agrees with him.
“You have cheesecake?!” my guildmates ask. I nod, waiting for the sneer. “Awesome!”
When we can eat no more, I find a quiet group playing Carcasonne and offer the rest to them.
“I want to have your robot babies!” one man exclaims as I pass him a plate.
I put on my best Han Solo smirk. “I know.”
We’re in line for to see Jonathan Coulton outside the main convention hall. The guy behind us stands alone, making pipecleaner hats. “Oh man, those are cool!” one of my friends says to him. “Wanna play Pandemic with us?” she flashes a deck of cards. “Sure,” he says. “Everyone should play at PAX!”
Several rounds in, it’s not looking good, and Jessica draws the final Pandemic card that dooms us. She climbs up on a chair and delivers a rallying speech as she flings the card onto the table. I feel a flush rising on my cheeks as people turn to stare in silence. I expect some adult, an Enforcer maybe, to come tell us this is the quiet room. I look around for the rolling eyes and snickers… Look at the freaks, they’ll say. People continue to quietly watch until Jessica pumps a fist in the air, signaling the crescendo of her monologue.
The crowd bursts into applause and I laugh out loud, reveling in the thrill of being part of a well-received show.
Finally it’s Sunday, and we’re exhausted from long hours at the con, trying to soak up every game, every concert, every panel we could physically fit in without a TARDIS. There’s a quiet, desperate focus around us as everyone fights to stave off the inevitable moment when we must leave and return to the real world; wigs traded for textbooks, foam swords for business suits. I sit with my friends, playing one last game before I get on a train and return to people who couldn’t possibly understand what this weekend has meant.
“So, Allison, what was your favorite part of PAX?” Fuz asks. Hearing my name is like electricity, like Batman having his mask removed. But there is no Joker staring me down, only friendly faces with colorful hair and large cups of coffee. Oh, how my life has changed.
“Did you just call her Allison? That’s weird.” Kathleen shakes her head.
“Well, this is real life, so I thought maybe we should use her real name,” Fuz explains. “So Allison-Dona… what was it?”
I smile. “That this is real life… I like that best.”