#487: Cyndi Lauper, "She's So Unusual" (1983)

Halloween, 1984. Your best friend Georgia helps you with your hair, which is the finishing touch you didn’t know would be the finishing touch until the hairspray dissipates and you take the visor of your hand away from your eyes to check in the mirror. Then there it is, touched and finished: hand-me-down prom dress, mascara like tribal war paint, bangles and scarves and, all the way up top, her hair like a flame setting your own head ablaze.

The girl in the mirror, she’s gorgeous; you’re gorgeous. Somehow, twelve years old and gorgeous. Wow, Georgia says. Now do me.

Because this was the deal the whole time: you’d get to be Cyndi if she could dress you up all the way, heels to flowing headdress. She’d be Cyndi but she’s black, so you both decide Cyndi’s black friend from the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video is the next best, most logical thing. You both know it’s a sacrifice, and secretly you’ve been compiling in your head over and over again all week the list of ways to make it right. Not that something’s wrong. Just incidental. Unfortunate. Whatever.

It doesn’t take as much work to get Georgia just right, which is good. Timing is everything, and right now you’re both too short on it. Sundown is in an hour, which means dusk is now, which means all the best houses won’t last long. Her mom already worked hard on her hair last night, twisting and tying and twisting, so you focus on the eyeshadow and lipstick. When you step away, she looks good. No: she looks great. You both do. Giggling and pouting in the mirror and taking brief dance breaks to flail arrhythmically to “Money Changes Everything” already, this night feels monumental. Already lit brilliantly from behind.

*

Two hours and seven quickly-darkening neighborhoods later, the high hasn’t lifted. Your pillowcases would drag the ground if you let them, but between banging each other across the butt you’ve got them shoulder-slung like bindles.

I love you more, I love you more, Georgia is belting. Oh-oh-oh-oooooo-wee-oooooh.

When you were mine, you finish, then spin and stop only long enough to pop a handful of Runts into your mouth, bananas already removed and donated to Georgia.

Your route has had you going snaky over the course of the night, winding north, then northwest, then south, and back east again to where you started. It’s the same one you two have taken since you were six and your mom okayed piecing together a Princess Leia gown and pair of side buns. That year, Georgia was a cat, her ears and whiskers and tail made from cardboard and spare curtain fabric. The two of you had just met in Miss Lipton’s class; it’s still one of the best nights you can recall ever having known.

Now, this one’s shaping up to be not so bad itself. The two of you are dazzling, though currently in between houses; this stretch of the route has never been your favoriteall weedy, tricycles left abandoned in front yards, lights more off on Halloween night than left glowingand the clapboard ranches are separated largely by patches of empty lots. You’re not sure if this is what your mom means when she says “bad neighborhoods”as in Shuttle quick through the bad neighborhoods, nowbut you don’t exactly dawdle.

You don’t realize it, but you’ve been humming “She Bop” for the last block or so, Georgia intermittently taking her Tootsie Pop from her mouth to see if she’s hit the center. So maybe it’s the humming, but you don’t hear it the first time the voice speaks. You only notice when Georgia stops walking for a half-step, then picks up speed without warning.

Hey! you shout, and follow quickly after, working nearly double-time to keep up. Slow down! And that’s when you hear it. Then again. And again. Louder each timenot louder, closer. Closer each time. The voice is not bothering to whisper, not here, not at this time of night. It’s even in tone, almost flat, without affect. Simply making a statement, like someone reading side effects off an Aspirin bottle.

Monkey. Hey, monkey. Hey.

Georgia is walking faster, it seems, with each step. The next house you come to is unlit, but you can see the dim sunrise of a porchlight maybe two or three blocks down. The voice, you can see now, is coming from a teenaged boy in a car riding parallel to the two of you and matching pace. He is leaning easily on the passenger door, both elbows resting on the window ledge, pimpled face peering out from the darkness. You wonder for a moment what this boy might make of your costumeif he thinks your hair looks nice, your makeup and lacy dressthen feel immediately ashamed and determined to make up for it.

  Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Go away! you scream, your voice only slightly high, which gives you confidence. Screw off! You hook your elbow through Georgia’s to keep up with her more easily. Her face is set, and when you touch her she still doesn’t turn.

The boy laughs, but only once. Hey, monkey, want a banana? Banana, monkey? He makes noises like an ape, his voice still low, his eyes hard.

Then the car speeds ahead, and you think he’s given it up. But before the two of you can speak, or even slow down, you see that the car has only pulled to the corner aheadthe only one separating you and Georgia from the next house, still shining like a lighthouse. Georgia hasn’t stopped, so you follow suit, the two of you barreling toward the car as the passenger side door opens and the boy steps out, clad in a denim jacket, black T-shirt, and an oversized, hairy gorilla mask. He crosses his arms and takes a step toward you, then stops.

You keep getting closer. Why do you keep getting closer? You are not so subtly trying to steer Georgia to the other side of the street. But she’s paying you no mind, plowing ahead until the two of you are only a yard or so from the gorilla boy, his wide black nose and empty black eyes too realistic in the dark, on this street with no streetlights, on Halloween of all possible nights. Then Georgia stops, nearly tripping you onto your face in its suddenness.

You want to say something, but Georgia beats you to it. She unhooks herself from you softly, and takes the rest of the steps necessary to stand directly before the monkey. She stares at him for a moment, then makes a noise so unexpected you can feel chills crawling up your legs even through your fishnets: she laughs. Not very loud, and not for very long, but it’s her laugh all right. Deep and serious sounding. The monkey doesn’t move.

Man, Georgia says, done with laughing but grinning still. You want a monkey? Her blouse is black and covered in sparkles that catch the little moonlight there is, making her look like a thousand constellations, like the most powerful girl in the whole entire world. Ooh-ooh-ah-ah, she says, running an ape’s speech through the boy’s own affectless voice. The she swings her foot back and vaults it forward and up, catching him with terrible force between the legs.

The boy crumples like a dynamited building, heaving forward and throwing the gorilla mask from his face. He begins to moan quietly and rock from head to toe. You see all of this from across your shoulder, though; Georgia has run, and so, for the umpteenth time tonight, you’ve fallen in line. The two of you reach the next lit house at the same time, then you both bolt past it. You’ve got your prom dress lifted in both hands, which is how you realize that you’ve dropped your candy. The thought blitzes through you and is gone before you even have a chance to care.

*

The two of you--gorgeous, glimmering, brains buzzing with breathlessness--don’t stop until you’re back on your block. Only then, as if communicated telepathically, do you both hit the brakes and start gulping for air. Georgia is laughing, and you are, too: great, whooping laughter caught halfway between adrenaline and drowning.

My . . . . Georgia is trying to say. My . . . candy . . . .can’t . . . breathe . . . .my candy.

Let him have it, you think. Or the cats and raccoons. Whatever gets to it first. Still gasping, you reach up absentmindedly and can feel your hairher hairis a total disaster. All the hairspray in the world couldn’t live through tonight. You might care if right now, in this get-up, it didn’t feel so good not to. What you know for sure is that things have changed, that maybe you won’t feel it tomorrow or next week or a year from now, but it seems terrible and inevitable. It’s in the air, the moon, your best friend’s choking laughter.

Soon you will both venture back into your house, past your parents on the couch and up into your room. Cyndi will be waiting in the tapedeck, paused somewhere between songs of liberation and longing. You won’t think twice: you’ll hit rewind, then play.

—Brad Efford