The 21st century kicked off with as auspicious a beginning as one might hope for, in the form of a first love inviting herself into my life with a pleasantly unexpected phone call. She was a fellow student of my creative writing program whom I’d been acquainted with since freshman year, wickedly smart and suddenly into me with an intensity I was helpless to resist. Despite this, though, we were still just a pair of dumb kids, straddling that margin of post-adolescence where our hormones organized themselves into ranks and assailed the ramparts of common sense. Inevitably, I fell for her hard, and when she broke up with me after an old boyfriend reentered the picture I hit bottom with a thud so loud it echoed for a long while afterward.
I handled the split in the manner that only a young, romantically-naïve humanities major can: I moped. On an epic scale.
My sleeping patterns became scattershot, with too much one night and not enough the next, so that I spent most waking hours in a grouchy hyper-alert state. I adopted what can best be described as ambivalence towards personal grooming. I skulked around campus in a black trench coat regardless of the day’s weather conditions, and only participated in class discussions when directly called upon. In what remains my most prolific period to date, I wrote ream after ream of self-indulgent maudlin prose and woeful, naval-gazing poetry. In short, I made such an insufferable mess of myself that it’s a testament to their character that my friends continued to have anything to do with me.
Eventually, one of them decided to take matters into his own hands. My cohort Youssef appeared on my doorstep one morning with bagels and hot chocolate, a bribe meant to entice my aid with an art project on campus, the details of which were not forthcoming. As I’d assisted him with transporting materials for his art classes in the past, neither the request nor the spontaneous visit were without precedent. I agreed, thinking the errand would at least be mildly more interesting than staring at my bedroom ceiling for another hour. If I had only known.
The normally garrulous Youssef was quiet on the drive over, for which I was grateful. I had reached the sullen stage of my angst, preferring internalization to anything more extroverted. He made no further mention of his project, and I assumed that as on previous occasions I would be assisting with the carting about and display mounting of his paintings and sundry other materials.
So it was quite a surprise when we arrived on campus and I found, packed into the trunk like a pair of corpses in an Easter-themed mafia film, two large pink furry rabbit costumes.
Youssef hauled one out and thrust it into my arms. “Put this on,” he directed.
“What?” I asked, clueless as to what exactly I was on the precipice of being dragooned into and too stunned by the virulently bright thing in my hands to mount a more articulate interrogation.
Youssef was climbing into his with all the eagerness of a child dressing up for a jaunt of Halloween trick-or-treating. “Here’s the plan: we wear these things to class all day, but whenever someone asks why we’ll play stupid or deny it completely. They’ll go nuts. It’ll be hysterical.”
“There’s no chance in hell I’m doing this.” It was my busiest class day of the week, which meant I would be on campus until early evening at the very least. The prospect of spending the day as a gaudy spectacle was anathema to my natural social inclinations even when I wasn’t lovelorn and heartbroken. “People expect this kind of thing from you, not me.”
“This is exactly why you should be doing it! It’s not like being you is much fun right now.”
We sparred over the matter for several more minutes; he parried my accusation that he loathed performance art with the jibe that while challenging the social status quo may be art, it’s never an act. Our repartee did not last long. My resolve, depleted after so much time spent being aggressively maudlin, simply could not withstand his merry prankster’s enthusiasm, and I capitulated. I would put on that stupid costume, I would wear it to every class, and I would unconditionally refuse to discuss the matter. The experience, he insisted, would be fun.
“Besides,” he said, “you spent all of last weekend watching a Real World: Hawaii marathon, so it’s not like you have any dignity left to lose.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
A word on these costumes: they were not simply adult-sized versions of a child’s footie pajamas. They were large plush constructs like those worn by sports mascots, dyed the brightest shade of pink this side of a John Waters film. The heads were effectively helmets, leaving room for the face alone to protrude out beneath a pair of wire-stiffened ears. Luckily these were the pre-digital camera years, when cell phones were still pieces of chunky clamshell plastic, so mercifully no known photographs of this mad endeavor exist.
What followed was exactly the sort of day a person might expect to have if they inexplicably tuned up on a university campus dressed as a giant pink lapin: puzzled, sideways looks; snickers and jeering; the rare high five; speculation as to whether we’d lost a bet. From both students and faculty. I left the gestalt of attention to Youssef’s eager, fuzzy hands. Whenever someone inquired, he would respond with a genial smile and a deadpan “I’m sorry, what are you talking about?” Additional questioning simply provoked further protestations of ignorance, leading most our peers to eye us with the suspicion usually reserved for a presumed psyche ward escapee. Our close friends at least had the sense to dismiss us with a sigh and a shake of the head.
Youssef may have been having a fiendishly good time, but I was miserable. Rather than merely being a depressed, heartbroken schmuck, I was a depressed, heartbroken schmuck who looked like he’d just wandered out of someone’s Alice in Wonderland – inspired LSD trip. The suits were uncomfortably warm, the gloves made it difficult to grasp a writing implement, and the overlarge feet dictated a unique hopping-jog form of locomotion to keep from tripping over them. While I dutifully obeyed the rules of the game, all I wanted to do was flee home with my cotton tail between my legs and wallow in solitude instead of making a ridiculous public spectacle of myself.
It was afternoon I dreaded most. Youssef and I shared no other classes after lunch, leaving me to endure this ignominy on my own for several hours. Worse still, I’d enrolled in an introductory acting class on the theory that learning to recite dialog would help me develop a better ear for composing it, and I had a monolog performance due that day.
About the performance I can say little, other than the sight of an anthropomorphic pink rabbit reciting the opening “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy from Richard III must have struck my classmates like a sequence from a David Lynch film. At another time I might have appreciated it as a piece of surrealism, but this was not that time. I did, however, receive an A for the assignment.
The remainder of the afternoon passed in similar fashion, though I was spared conducting any additional one-man shows, and more importantly, suffered no run-ins with my ex. There is rubbing salt into a wound, and then there is leaping into the ocean while covered in leprous sores.
Towards the final portion of the day I joined Youssef and some of our other friends for a free concert on the campus commons. The name of the band escapes me; a local b-list version of one of the alternative pseudo-ska acts en vogue with the more banal college types at the time. Boring, but not insufferable.
“How’s the day going, Velveteen?” Youssef asked, grinning. I responded with a few choice profanities.
We made what small talk amongst ourselves the music would allow, though I mostly sat in silence. That internal ache, so deep inside and yet still so close, occupied the full extent of my attention, but I had long since lost the taste for it as a subject of discussion. Talk of school work offered no appeal, either. I merely wanted to attract as little attention as possible until my ordeal ended. At least my presence among the student body seemed to have been demoted to novelty status, unworthy of further notice.
Because the universe hated me, it was at that precise moment Youssef stood, turned his gaze toward me, and declared, “Now we dance,” which was met with approbation by our treacherous friends.
“You bastard,” I said. My horror at this suggestion was indescribable. I am patently not a dancer, my sense of rhythm roughly equivalent to that of an intoxicated bovine, and that’s when garbed in my own clothes. And yet despite the protests escaping from my mouth and my own instincts, I found myself rising to my feet, duty-bound to honor the rules of his game. Spontaneous human combustion would have been a welcome fate.
Even the most forgiving definition of grace was lacking in the spectacle we provided, I’m sure. I’d never seen Youssef dance before, and he was if anything even more deficient in ability than I was, though obviously possessed of greater enthusiasm. With the physical constraints of the suits, the best we could manage was a spastic, thrashing sort of a jig. It was awkward and ungainly, which of course meant other students began to take notice of us again.
I should have hated it. And I did. And yet with each hop, step, and awkward twirl a small transformation was occurring. A certain lightness set in with each thrash, stomp, and elbow-to-elbow spin. A foreign sound not unlike a laugh erupted from my mouth. Neglected facial muscles might even have shaped my face into a smile. Our friends, no longer able to merely serve as passive witnesses, arose and joined us.
An incremental process had begun the moment I’d agreed to put on that ridiculous costume. All day long I’d been forced to maintain a veneer of normalcy, verbally claiming again and again to multiple interlocutors that nothing was out of the ordinary. It was a small and cumulative thing, but each denial was a little bit of empowerment, a little bit of me declaring to the world: I’m fine. I’m perfectly normal.
My love life was still terrible. And yet I simply couldn’t care anymore. All of that self-imposed humiliation and angst finally reached critical mass there on the grass, and in the face of my staunch defiance it could be carried no longer. In its place there was the weird, ebullient joy of circumstance. Why not throw myself into it?
So I did.
And if any of the other students gathered on the green to listen to the band happened to see a pair of giant pink rabbits madly thrash-dancing away as though drunk on life, well I can only hope they felt it too.