Halloween finds us perched on the rooftop of the Melrose Hostel. If you stand on tiptoe, you can spot the Hollywood sign, rising from the haze like the totem of some omniscient god. The setting sun reflects off particles of smog in a brilliant burst of tangelo orange. The rumble of vehicles rises from the streets below.
This terrace is decorated with aggressively green artificial turf, a forlorn collection of deck chairs, and several potted twigs which might once have been plants. To add to the surrealness, Hannah sports the top half of a polka-dotted lingerie set and an impressive Amy Winehouse updo, while I’m clad in a Bellatrix Lestrange costume complete with a corset fabricated from shoelace and half a bathing suit.
“Cheers.” We chink together thermoses of whiskey-spiked apple juice. Alcohol and chronic illness are a terrible combination, but for one night, I want to pretend that I’m normal. My body will undoubtedly protest this act of self-sabotage for the following week. I tell it to go screw itself. I haven’t made peace with limitation.
“I can’t believe we’re here.” This has become something of a catch phrase.
Hannah looks out across the flat rooftops. She inhabits her body with the graceful self-possession of somebody who has never considered being anyone else. “I wonder if anyone famous ever sat here.”
“Probably loads of people. Not like back home, where they’d put up a plaque if Trudeau’s second cousin took a dump in a public washroom.” I grin. “Anyway, we’re here. That’ll mean something in ten years when I’m writing and you’re doing... whatever the hell one does with an Emily Carr degree.”
“Does anyone actually read Canadian authors?”
“You read Margaret Atwood.”
“She’s not American then?”
Half an hour later, we’re on a bus hurtling towards the West Hollywood Halloween street carnival. The only other costumed passenger is a five-year-old in a princess dress, who smiles up at us until her mother yanks her to safety.
We disembark. As we walk, Hannah and I butcher our way through every Amy Winehouse song we can recall. The streets are quiet at first, but as we approach the festival epicentre, costumed revelers materialize from the woodwork: gold-painted men in loincloths with six-foot wingspans, a butch couple in lumberjack plaid, a ten-foot tyrannosaurus on stilts.
And then we’re here. We’re too young to get into the clubs which line the blocked-off street, but the carnival heartbeat spills outside anyway: live music and dancing, the crowd a positive feedback loop of impersonal, frenzied energy.
The event describes itself as “an annual gathering of phenomenal costumes, entertainment, culture, and self-expression with a myriad of observers, revelers, exhibitionists, and performers.” That doesn’t do it justice. It’s a madhouse, a Bacchanalian free-for-all of money-bright body paint and whooping motion, hopped up on consumables and the anonymity of masks. Strangers giddy on the once-in-a-blue-moon convergence of a shared wavelength, a kind of psychic thrum which works its way inside your pulse and tows you under.
I’m waiting in line for a Port-o-Potty when I strike up the acquaintance of a scantily clad young man with spiked hair. “What are you supposed to be?” I have to shout above the ruckus.
“Gay,” he says. “How about you?”
A giggle escapes me. “Far too sober.”
By the time Hannah re-emerges, Mr. Gay has agreed to purchase us vodka from the nearby grocery store. He even brings back the change, and we swig from the bottle in a car park until a cop nudges us onwards.
Time speeds and slows like a cassette on fast-forward when you’re trying to find a song. The world is all swirling lights and swaying hips and the rhythmic throb of drumming. Laughter bubbles out of me, wild and uncontrollable. There’s no thought. There’s no room for suffering. I brush lips with a boy in a feather boa, two-step a little with a Darth Vader, and it means nothing at all because the boundary between ‘me’ and ‘not-me’ has dissolved.
Then, somehow, Hannah and I have moved a block over, and the sound of festivities is a distant background thrum. We’re sitting wedged between a blooming lilac bush and a Cadillac. Her eyes glitter and I’m sloppy with recklessness.
“Y’know,” I slur, “there’s so many people who say they wish they were doing this. I get that they have responsibilities, but also they’re just trapped in routine. Or afraid of the unknown. Costs one helluva lot less than college.” Maybe I even believe this. It’s easier than mourning what could have been.
“I’m so glad you asked me to come.”
“I’m so glad you came.”
Silence hangs, like we’ve come as far as words can carry us. Like this is either an ending or the start of something, and I don’t know how to tell the difference. I am terrified and jumped up on adrenaline and not entirely myself, or maybe more myself than ever.
I lean in, eyes locked on hers, so slowly it’d take only the slightest movement for our paths to diverge. She doesn’t shy away. Our lips collide with the afterburn of alcohol.
Another compression of time and space, and I’m dancing at the centre of an impromptu bongo drum circle, whirling faster with each cheer of the crowd.
Then I am in the back of a cab with a dark-skinned boy, shouting an address and phone number out the window to Hannah. I turn to my companion—Ode? Odain?—and decide, infused as I am with liquid bravado, that I could take him in a fight if it came to it.
He shoves his phone in my face, open to a blog. I must have mentioned my perverse penchant for writing. “Everyone says I write like Oscar Wilde.”
“Cool.” I’m pretty sure that if Wilde hadn’t relied so heavily on Bible quotes, we wouldn’t know his name. “Don’t mind the apartment,” he says, as we stumble across the threshold. “I’m moving tomorrow. Got promoted to the Capetown office.” This sounds unlikely, as he can’t be much older than I am, but then I don’t notice the apartment much anyway.