At 16, I wasn’t what you’d call a great kid. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I smoked pot, supported anarchy, questioned authority, and kept a sloppy room. So my mom sent me to a shrink. After a few weeks, I hadn’t turned into a good kid, so she called the shrink and they decided we would have a family meeting: my mother, stepfather and me.
Fine. Except that I had other plans for that day. I was going to my friend Mae’s brother’s bar mitzvah. I loved Mae’s whole normal family, especially her little brother, who, like my own kid half-bro, was adorable. (Mae later told me he was violent. So’s mine.)
My folks went to the meeting alone and came back with news: Joel, my stepfather, was now in charge. I wasn’t expecting this. I had a thorny relationship with Joel, and his highhanded attitude didn’t help. As long as I got decent grades and kept my room clean, he said with what he obviously considered magnanimity that I could count on the 10 bucks a week allowance I received. I more or less told Joel he could shove his allowance -- often doled out in quarter rolls, owing to his side job owning a game arcade -- and marched immediately to the school employment office. I got a job as a telemarketer. That’s another story. (Well, maybe it's part of this one: The company ended up defrauding each of us out of our last paychecks, and when the Better Business Bureau visited the organization’s headquarters, they found it deserted.) Anyway. I loved "Saturday Night Live" so much that I used to joke about my dying words being, “Who’s hosting this week?” Why we thought talking bees and a deaf old woman were funny, I don’t know, but I assume it had to do with the marijuana I mentioned earlier.
One Saturday, my boyfriend, Barry, came over to watch "SNL." Joel padded downstairs in his blue jammies, robe and slippers.
“Did you clean your room?”
“Sure,” I answered. I was lying.
He went upstairs to check. “Come on!” I whispered, grabbing Barry’s arm and tugging him off the couch into a standing position. “What?” “We’ll watch at your house.” “We can’t do that!” “Oh, no?” We raced outside and jumped into his Ford Pinto. As Barry began pulling out of the driveway, Joel ran outside in his blue robe and slippers. He stood in the street, blocking the car. Barry rolled down his window in hopes of reasoning with the enraged parentoid, and Joel said, “Leave now, with her -- but if you ever try to come back into this house, I’m calling the police.”
Not too long after, I was having a party in honor of my very cool friend, April, who was planning to visit from Woodside, Queens. Of course, I wanted Barry at my party.
No problem, I decided. I’ll disguise him.
This might be a good time to describe Barry. He had freckles. And bright red hair. And a schnoz. And a high, nasal voice. (I know you’re thinking I must have been special to have seen through all that to his fundamental goodness, but, in fact, I went out with him because on Valentine’s Day, he gave me a ring and said, “This is for Valentine’s Day and to ask you out,” and I didn’t know how to refuse.) “We’ll dye your hair brown,” I decided. Barry said, “I want to be blond.” I argued that this was too close to his actual shade, but he worried that shampooing out a rinse might make his hair fall out, and there was only so much he was willing to do in the hope that I might one day sleep with him. His sympathetic mother lent us a wig. I remember it as white. I bought a dark rinse and mixed it while Barry sat on his bathroom counter, wearing a bathing cap to protect his hair from seeping rinse.
Goofy to start with, he now looked absurd. Of course, black and white make gray, and that's exactly the color the wig turned.
I mixed cold cream and coffee to form a paste to spread over his freckles. (Why I didn’t just give him my makeup foundation, I can’t imagine.) I combed mascara through his eyebrows and lashes. As a final touch, he put on a pair of Elton John glasses, long sleeves, and boots.
It worked: He looked very different from his usual self. I brought him home and introduced him to my little brother as “Greg.” Little bro fell for it, hook, line and sinker. However, I was a teenage perfectionist. I locked Barry into my bathroom and continued to work on him before my guests arrived. After a while, my mother knocked. “Yeah?” “Can you come out here, please?”
I was racing against a deadline. “Can you just tell me what you want?”
“Frankly, I’d like to know what you’re doing in there with a boy.”
To Barry’s mortification, I yelled, “We’re fucking!” Luckily, my mother was amused.
When the guests began arriving, I sat Barry in a corner of my room, with his arm around a friend’s friend. I turned down the lights. Joel still had not come home from work.
The friend’s friend, Jackie, was wearing a jean skirt and sandals. From her spot on the floor, she raised a leg and pointed her toes toward my John Lennon poster from How I Won the War.
“Who’s that?” she purred.
A week later, Jackie took my place at the prom with Barry. A year later, they married. Ten years later: divorced. Now? Barry’s a gay activist married to a man.
The night of my party, April didn't show up. Joel came home from work tired and went to bed without ever looking into my room or meeting “Greg.” The next day, he said he wouldn’t have cared if Barry had been there.