Who Are You Wearing? by Michael Nye

The skull of the first of Justin’s future costumes sat at the edge of the manager’s desk. It was hard for him to focus on the manager interviewing him rather than the large, disembodied head of a three-eyed Martian with jagged teeth, its pelt of green skin, and the large antenna protruding from its back. Then Justin remembered, with the sort of bizarre hopscotch of thought that seemed to be as familiar and mysterious to him as breathing, that it was eight weeks until Halloween, and perhaps he had to wear a new costume every day.

“I’m just glad,” the manager said, “to have someone with experience for this position.”

“Do you need experience to wave at cars?”

The manager, Brad Butler, chuckled and tossed Justin’s résumé on his cluttered desk. “The last thing I need is to hire someone who is going to quit on me. Some people have no idea how claustrophobic those things can get. So, yes, experience does matter here. Even if it was a long time ago.”

Justin’s first job was at a Six Flags in Eureka, a distant southern suburb of St. Louis, where he had his first experience as a mute but friendly cartoon character. For one brutal summer, Justin had dressed as various Hanna Barbera characters with oversized heads, delighting small kids and inviting terrorizing behavior from teenagers. He got a break every ninety minutes, and as soon as Justin was out of public view, he yanked off the headgear, collapsed onto the nearest metal chair, and hung his head, watching sweat drip from his face in large drops that splattered on the concrete. Why he hadn’t quit after day one, he didn’t know. And now that he had been laid off—not once but twice—from his post-college jobs, here he was, back to the humiliation of wearing costumes. At least there was some comfort that his face was hidden from those he was supposed to serve.

“Days and weekends are okay?” Brad asked.

“Yeah. I have another job waiting tables, so I just need a little notice to make my schedules sync.”

“That’s a lot of work.”

“Saving money. I’m applying to law school.” He imagined, then, wearing a Halloween costume to the exam center for the LSAT. Ronald McDonald, maybe. Or Jabba the Hutt—but tell everyone he was Antonin Scalia. “What’s my first costume?”

“A bumblebee?” his girlfriend Amy repeated that night. “Why a bumblebee?”

“There was a kids’ movie with bees. So, they’re kinda in this year.” They were sitting in the living room of their two-floor apartment in Richmond Heights; she was on the couch, her laptop and paperwork spread out on the cushions to her left, the Edward Jones logo bright and triumphant on all the documents. He was looking up at her from the floor, the smell of fried food clinging to his work shirt and pants, and he leaned away from her, the carpet digging into his palms. “What should I ask to wear?”

The next five minutes were peppered with ideas ranging from Adolf Hitler to Katy Perry to Michelle Obama, all of which made them laugh, and he remembered that moments like this were good, and too often rare. Two years ago, when they graduated, Amy, too, had been hired straight out of college; unlike Justin, Amy hadn’t been laid off twice—she’d been promoted. Twice. With the sports bar and now the costume shop, he was working almost every night, which kept them frequently apart, with the exception of Wednesdays, which they designated Date Night, and which neither of them seemed to enjoy.

Amy always seemed to know what she wanted. She possessed the generic beauty of Missouri girls: straight hair, large eyes, thin hips and legs, the kind of person who would treat a baby as an upscale accessory. And yet, she was extraordinarily secure with herself and her ambitions, and, at times, despite moving to St. Louis together, Justin was afraid of her.

“Where do you want to go tonight?” he asked.

Amy looked down at her ThinkPad and the presentation she was working on. “ I don’t care. Wherever.”

“We could stay in.”

“We can go out. Maybe see if Nathan and Lindsay want to join us?”

He shrugged. He liked her friends only enough not to be bored in their presence, and yet, he was conscious of how often their date night had become a couple’s night. He stood.

“Sure,” he said to the window behind her. “Would you close that? I wear a rubberized sauna all day. I’ll turn on the air.”

She picked up her phone. “I’ll text Lindsay,” she said. With her other hand, she pointed at him with her wine glass. “Get me more of this, would you?”

Justin was dressed as Tigger, waving at the passing crowd, his prosthetic tail curled up behind him like a treble clef and acting as a counterweight to his oversized head. He concentrated on his breathing and, through Tigger’s mouth, watching the cars zip up to, and then break hard in front of, a series of intersections.

“Hey, Tigger!” a passenger yelled. “Where’s Winnie? Is his head stuck up your pot of honey?”

The kids in the backseat roared with laughter. Tigger kept waving.

He could deal with the fucking morons in their cars. But he could not deal with the heat that rippled up from the sidewalk, through the rubber soles of his outfit, and into the bones of his feet. What he really wanted was grass. Green, cushy grass—and a slim tree with a canopy of branches he could glide under. Tigger was restricted to pacing back and forth in front of the store’s parking lot on a cracked, uneven sidewalk that never had any pedestrians. It wouldn’t even be fair to say he was sweating. Sweat came in droplets. This was a steady stream, a broken faucet, dripping down his entire body. When he got his mid-shift break, he was actually surprised there weren’t wet footprints on the ground.

The Halloween Superstore was owned by a media conglomerate so generic that Justin couldn’t remember its name. All he could recall is that this particular storefront always changed: it was a separate building on the decrepit strip across from the Galleria Mall, wedged between a Jared and a Burger King, both of which appeared to have no customers.

He wasn’t sure why he brought the zebra mask home. It was after eight, his shift over, and he stood in the storage room, stripped down to his lacrosse shorts, and he stared at the long row of rubberized animal masks: sheep, donkey, grasshopper, dog, cat, ferret, elephant, hippo. Their features were exaggerated in a creepy, cartoonish fashion, and it felt as if a big game hunter had freshly killed and skinned the beasts, leaving their carcasses rotting on the other side of the room. Justin picked up the zebra mask, pressed the material between his fingers, and imagined how freaking hot wearing the dumb mask would be. He glanced at his phone, walked to the back, slipped on a shirt and his shoes, grabbed his backpack, punched out, stepped into the rear parking lot, and, only then, realized he was still carrying the mask. He glanced at the door, thought, fuck it, I’ll bring it back tomorrow, and hopped in his car, tossing the zebra mask on the passenger seat.

He parked in an unshaded spot at his apartment complex and grabbed his backpack and the zebra mask. The unseasonable night was muggy and suffocating. Amy was in the kitchen, fixing dinner, watching a show on her iPad.

“What is that?” Amy asked.

“Oh, this?” He slipped the mask over his head, spread his arms wide, and turned his palms up. He shook his hips, slow, and stepped into the room. Amy watched, her hands unmoving over the bowls and spices on the kitchen counter.

Justin laughed, yanked off the mask. “I didn’t mean to bring it home. I just forgot. I’m going upstairs to change.”

Amy nodded, watching his hands.

Later, Justin tried initiating sex. He stood behind Amy, kissing her neck, running his hands down her hips, then finding her belt. She acquiesced, but she didn’t making the moaning sounds, the running commentary she used to make. She spun around. Kissing, they undressed, and he pushed her back onto the bed. Naked, staring at her, Justin leaned forward, and then Amy bent her knee and pressed her right foot into his stomach.

“What?” he asked.

“Do something for me.”

“Sure,” he grinned, thinking she wanted him to go down on her.

“Put on the mask.”

He laughed. “What?”

“Put on the zebra mask.”

He shook his head, and started to bend toward her pussy. She pressed her right foot harder, standing him upright.

“C’mon,” she said. “Try it. I’m serious. Put it on.”

He squinted down at her as if she was out of focus. She wiggled her toes against his ribcage in a combination of playful tickling and sexual impatience. He turned his chin toward the dresser where the zebra mask lay. Finally, he crossed the room, picked up the mask, and, with his back still to Amy, slipped it over his head.

“Get over here,” she said.

And he did, keeping the mask on, his expression of dull horror hidden from her, and then he was shocked at how wet she was when he slid his cock between her legs. She bucked and talked the way she used to when they’d first met, and she came hard, her ankles gripping tight against his face, and, shortly after, he did, too, his breath acidic in the mask, sweat rolling down his hidden face.

“That was so good,” she said, rolling onto her side. “Oh, wow.”

Justin peeled off the mask and tossed it on the carpet. “Yeah,” he said, thinking this was both true and false.

The lights were off, and, through the blinds, shadows laddered across their bedroom, a slate-gray world that was neither light nor dark. They lay naked atop the sheets, not touching, Amy on her side, looking in Justin’s direction without seeing him. He stared up at the ceiling, wondering what the hell had just happened.

t was strange what people yelled at him from moving cars. The most common was “Hey, FUCK YOU!” to which Justin responded by continuing to wave like a trained monkey as the offending car zipped by. It was hard to see where they came from, but occasionally some object like a rock pinged off his head. This never hurt—there was too much padding around the oversized costume head—but the sound echoed in his elliptical costume skull and his balance was momentarily shaken. To actually knock him over, it would take something massive—a kid whacking him with a 2×4 or a brick slamming into his knees, and, given the hostility spewed at him, this wasn’t inconceivable. Every now and then, a car would swerve in his direction, sometimes even bouncing up onto the curb, before straightening and zipping away.

When he was hit by something that left a visible mark on his costume—usually, a Burger King milk shake—Justin had to leave his post, walk around to the back of the store, enter through the storeroom, strip off his costume, and immediately place it in a large dry-cleaning cart that was picked up once a day. The company, it seemed, anticipated these attacks. And being in the back of the store frequently made it easy for Justin to slip a new costume head into his backpack, to borrow for one evening, before changing into a clean costume and heading back outside to get pelted with batteries and have incoherent profanity hurled at him.

At home that night, Justin untied his Snow White bonnet, and pulled the red skirt back down over his shrinking dick. Amy’s eyes were closed, her hand thrown back against her forehead like a fainting starlet from the 30s, her ribs slick with sweat, legs quivering. Justin used to be careful about keeping the costumes clean, but he no longer cared if his sweat or come stained the inside of the outfit. Not since Amy started requesting that he bring home women’s outfits. This week, he had been a slutty corn-on-the-cob, Miss Scissorhands, and Dorothy. He even had props; on the bed was a basket with fake straw and chocolate eggs. Amy rolled onto her stomach, snatched a candy, and popped it in her mouth.

“I love the props,” she said.

“Yeah, me too,” he lied. “Too bad we only get them for one more week.”

Her eyes went down, and she studied her palm while she continued chewing. Then she said, “What do they do with the extra inventory?”

“Box it up and ship it back. Whatever we don’t sell will still be good next year. Princess Leia doesn’t go out of style.”

“Right.” She pulled out a strand of the fake grass and wrapped it around her finger. He started to strip off the costume. “Could you take a few?”

“Inventory is electronic.”

“Buy them?”

“You earn more money than me—go ahead.”

She shrugged. Naked, Justin slid to the floor, resting his head back against the bed. She was over his right shoulder, and he was facing the bathroom.

“Are you going to take a second job?” she asked.

“I thought I’d focus on studying once this gig is over. LSAT is in December, and with more flexibility, I can get some of the better shifts at the restaurant.”

They were quiet for a long time. Then Amy asked, “Did you ever cheat on me?”

“No,” Justin lied, thinking about their first year together, when they were juniors at Mizzou. “Why? Did you?”

“No. I was just wondering.” Justin happened to know she did cheat on him their senior year, twice, but found, both now and then, that he didn’t particularly care all that much, a feeling of indifference about their fidelity that puzzled and then frightened him. He wondered how many days of his life he spent afraid—afraid of failure, afraid of choices, afraid of choosing failure. He ran his hands over his knees.

“Is this what the costumes are about? Some way of cheating while not cheating?”

“No. I don’t know. I mean, it was weird—you put that mask on the other day, and I was instantly turned on. I was really surprised. You know Halloween is my favorite holiday. Always has been. I just didn’t think of it as sexual.”

Justin ran his hands over his knees.

“Four years together,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“Still love me?”

He turned. She was resting her cheek atop her folded arms, staring off toward the bathroom. The curves of her body still glistened with sweat, and her crossed ankles, rocking back and forth metronomically, stopped in mid-air. She wouldn’t look at him.

“Of course I still love you.”

He leaned back and sprawled out on the carpet. Lying right against the bed, all he could see of Amy were her pretty feet.

The company Halloween party that Amy dragged them to was in Clayton, tucked back among leafy lawns, hidden behind gated streets that made finding the house a little difficult. He was dressed as Superman, and she was dressed as Wonder Woman, and before they left for the party, she had bent over their kitchen table, and he’d fucked her from behind, wondering only after they were in the car if the reason they had been in that position was so she wouldn’t see his face.

All the lights were on in the great windows along the front of the opulent house. Inside, women wore a wide variation of Sexy Generic Occupation, and the men wore dumb hats so they could explain their dumb outfits to one another (Justified! Gangster! Teddy Roosevelt!). Justin entered a kitchen of granite countertops and rustic farmhouse furniture, poured a drink, and then hurried to the back porch, where the cool October air and the tastefully strung lights skimming the sky above the back patio were a welcome relief.

More than forty people mingled on the brick patio and spilled into the backyard. He glided into a conversation about movies; he flexed his biceps, showed off his red boots, discussed which Superman movies he had seen (all of them) and which one he liked best (Man of Steel). He introduced himself as Amy’s boyfriend and gladly received advice from the lawyers about law school. He shook hands and made jokes and grew so relaxed and comfortable that it took over an hour to realize he hadn’t seen Amy the entire time. With a nod and a polite “excuse me,” Justin finished his drink, set the glass on the porch railing, and wended his way inside. He was feeling good, a little surprised by how much he liked everyone at the party, wanting to slip his arm around Amy’s waist, finish each other’s sentences, flirt with each other, get drunk and be the happy couple he imagined they always would be.

He searched the costumed faces: Amy wasn’t in the kitchen. He bumped into someone in a suit with a knife in his back, slipped around a Tinkerbell, and tapped a Double Dare contestant on the shoulder, whose costume consequently slimed Justin’s hand with green goo. Out of the kitchen, he stood at the archway of a long great room that ran the length of the house, guests sloshing by him with drinks and laughter and big smiles. Across the neat cluster of expensive furniture, tastefully angled and staged, sequestered from all the other guests, stood Amy and a man dressed like a vampire, huddled together in the distant opposite corner.

The man was stunningly handsome, and, from the way he set his feet and stood tall with his shoulders back and hip cocked, he knew it. Even his ears seemed perfect. Amy stood almost beneath him, so close they seemed magnetized. They weren’t kissing, but they might have been, and their mouths were close enough that they could do so again at any moment. They both laughed, their teeth blindingly white, and then their hands, the ones shielded from the rest of the room, raised ever so slightly, and their fingers wrapped together, clutched and held, and then they both let go, and their hands dropped back against their thighs.

Justin turned away. He stood rooted to the floor, his gaze locked on the patterns in the veneer of the wood. His hands mechanically fisted. Then he strode to the front door and left, pushing through a just-arriving group dressed as the Fantastic Four, and went to his car. He drove home, stripped down to his boxers, and flopped down on the couch. He dropped his phone on the floor, yanked an afghan over his body, and turned away from the room, staring at the cushions of his couch as if, like an angry superman, he could sear through them with his eyes.

When he woke up, he was looking directly into those same couch cushions. Weak light filtered through the cracks in the blinds. He rolled over and set his feet on the floor, listening for any movement or noise in the apartment. He picked his phone up from the floor: no texts, no calls. Clutching his phone like a weapon, he walked upstairs and found the bedroom undisturbed, mockingly neat—bed made, closet doors closed, even the clutter on top of the dresser seemed organized. There was nothing in the bathroom: no purse, no wet washcloth, no toothpaste in the sink. She never even came home.

Justin and Brad sat in their respective spots—cooler, milk crate—behind the store. Halloween was over now, and Brad got Justin an extra ten hours that week to help with the sale (ALL COSTUMES 75% OFF!!!) and box up what remained to ship to the distribution center in Tennessee. The building’s rear lights threw down a powerful, harsh glare. Across the lot were their two cars, and inside the trunk of Justin’s car were two duffel bags full of clothes, his laptop, a small box of books, and his external drive full of movies and TV shows. When he’d packed it earlier this morning, it had seemed sad, owning so little, nothing of real value in the apartment that he wanted for himself. Maybe there was a lesson in this. He wasn’t sure.

He finished his second beer, cracked a third, and rested his head against the brick wall. Brad was going on about the Chiefs. Justin flipped through his texts: three people offered a couch for him to crash on, one landlord had written back about an efficiency in Richmond Heights, and Amy wrote: “Let’s talk when you’ve found a place to stay ok?”

“I have tickets next weekend,” Brad said. “But I’m not sure I can stomach watching them lose 20–17, you know? I can just suffer watching it on television.”

“Maybe you should give up football.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because it sounds like it makes you fucking miserable.”

Brad laughed. “It does! But I still really like it. It’s good for blowing off steam, right? I mean, who doesn’t like sitting on the couch for three hours doing nothing?”

Justin slipped his phone back in his pocket.

“Hey. You all right?”

Justin pulled the tab off his beer and held it between his thumb and forefinger. “Yeah, actually, I am.”

“Two more of these, and then I oughta get going.”

Long before he started working with Brad—months, maybe years—Justin had been unhappy and adrift and afraid. Both the job and his relationship with Amy were now over. It was like being released from a small cage after a long incarceration. He sipped his beer and observed the trunk of his car as if he expected it to perform an extraordinary magic trick.

The next day, Justin and Amy met in the Central West End, at a coffee shop tucked away on a street just north of Forest Park. He had never been there before and wondered how she’d found it. He was seated with a cup of coffee he didn’t really want at an outdoor table under the shade of elms. She arrived with her face tight, as if she had been crying, but when she sat down, he already knew that their minds had been made up a long time ago. After a perfunctory greeting and forced small talk about their days apart, Justin said, “I want to break up. I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I want.”

“I don’t think,” Amy said, “you know what you want anymore.”

“You’re right. But I do know what I don’t want. And I don’t want this.”

Amy gave him a look he hadn’t seen from her in a long time. Then she smiled tightly, palmed his apartment keys, and said, “I really have to go.” She stood, leaned over, lips against his ear, softly said good-bye, and kissed his cheek. This kiss finally broke him, and his eyes pooled while he watched her walk away, watched her turn the corner, watched her vanish. He sniffed, staunched his tears, and lowered his forehead to the table. He pictured his relationship with Amy, all four years, from when they’d met to these last strange weeks. She seemed to know something about herself that Justin hadn’t appreciated or understood. He sat up and went inside for a refill; back outside, he pulled his arm jacket tight. On the sidewalk, spotted with black circles of gum, were cigarette butts and a few scattered leaves, fallen from the bare-branched trees. Soon, it was dark, and the cold air felt better, soothing, a balm; hours later, when he finally stood up to leave, he was surprised by how good he felt.

Months later, hustling across Lindell on his way to his law class at Saint Louis University, he saw her again, for the first time since they’d broken up, leaving the Moolah Theatre. She looked happy, and her stride appeared purposeful. They crossed paths from time to time; St. Louis is a small big city where everyone seemed interconnected. Just last week, he’d seen Amy in his neighborhood. He no longer recognized the friends she was with. It didn’t really matter. Each time he saw her, he remembered a period of their life together that was bleak and fearful. Then the memory was over, and he thought of her and their relationship fondly, and Justin knew that she was happy.

Now, he crossed the street and gazed up at his high-rise, then entered the lobby to take the elevator up. When he came home in the evenings from his law firm, he entered his condo with his tie loosened, a junior associate with fatigued muscles in his back and legs, and he sensed he had stepped into a place of great security and warmth. The light in the living room was bright, the view of the city panoramic. Far below, on Washington Street, men and women of all ages streamed out into the night. This vibrant stretch of St. Louis had blossomed over the last decade, the kind of place in which Justin had always wanted to live. In the window, his reflection was ghostly and clear. He could see his eyes, his jaw, and the way his mouth curled into a smile when he thought of the direction of his life. Justin looked out on the city for a moment longer, then turned back into his new, bright home.