I went to a haunted house in Donora, PA last Saturday with my friend Cinn and her boyfriend Bill. I don’t get to see Cinn very often but she’s always been the big sister I never had, so when I do get to hang out with her, it never feels like a ton of time has passed. Every October reminds me of when we met in 1998, and we reminisced about that plenty in the car Saturday night (much to Bill’s chagrin, I’m sure, as he’s heard the story a thousand times by now).
Two years ago, I wrote an essay for a writing class about the event that solidified our friendship, and I guess because it shines a big, embarrassing spotlight on my softer, more sentimental side, I never posted it here. But I don’t know, who cares. Here it is.
“Stop, you’re making me choke on Skittle juice!” Cinn screamed from behind the steering wheel. A long ribbon of highway unraveled in front of us and I grimaced when Cinn said we had at least two hours left in our journey. I tickled our ennui by flirting with the driver of every vehicle that had the misfortune of passing us, only exciting the burly and unwashed-looking men manning the gigantic semis that made compact cars like Cinn’s sway perilously.
Two days earlier, I was meeting Cinn in person for the first time after several encounters in a gothic chat room called DarkChat. She arrived at my apartment, her shocking red locks were closely shorn to her pate and jutted out in spikes here and there, and we went off to buy our costumes for the upcoming Type O Negative show and Dracula’s Ball in Philadelphia. I knew nothing about her but that she was twenty-eight to my nineteen and lived only a short jaunt away from me. I didn’t even know she was married until that weekend, when I arrived at her house at the designated departure time, but somehow the particulars didn’t seem to apply to this friendship – we had somehow managed to connect based on something entirely more intrinsic than a/s/l.
Agreeing to go on this trip was just what I needed, coming off the heels of a tumultuous summer filled with break-ins, having my wallet pilfered and car stolen (and then ever-so-thoughtfully returned hours later) by people I thought were friends. It was a summer that started off strong, full of parties and crushes and a bounty of alcohol, but by the end, it had become a twirling tailspin of depression, loneliness and the stark reality that 99% of the people with whom I shared my apartment weren’t going to be there when I needed them. I had taken to living as a near-recluse, keeping my heavy curtains perpetually drawn, even on sunny-skied days. During this self-imprisonment was when I stumbled across the chat room. At first it was nothing more than a release for my pent up aggression, a place admittedly to flame and mock the suicidal Goth kids; but then I began noticing that there was interesting conversation scrolling past the screen, people gushing about bands that I liked. Before I realized what was happening, I was being sucked in to this strange realm of pale-faced misfits. And I fit in because I was a misfit too.
Our dresses hung like black-laced shrouds from the garment hooks in the back of Cinn’s car. The plan was to check into a hotel when we arrived in Philadelphia, change into our off-the-Hot Topic-rack gowns and meet up with another DarkChat user, Your Druidess. I had never chatted with this lady before, but Cinn confidently assured me that she would be standing outside of the Trocadero with our free tickets to the Type O show. Here I was, recuperating from a summerful of broken trust, only to turn around and hand over what little left I was able to scrape up to this strange woman who I essentially knew nothing about. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider, at least once, that this woman with her Simon LeBon coif was a real vampire, luring me to a sinister abattoir for Internet chat room newbies under the guise of some gothic jamboree. Maybe I might have second guessed some of her innocent sidelong glances, seeing them instead as the shifty glance of a nervous Internet predator. I would later learn that she was nervous – of what I was furiously scribbling in my vacation journal.
Her real name was Allison, but she preferred to be called by her online moniker – Cinnamon Girl — and preferred to call me by my chat handle, too – Ruby. Conversation flowed easily between us, even though we had engaged in minimal chat room interaction, and I diligently noted in my journal that she kept count of every cemetery we passed, had an eye for spotting majestic trees, and churned out a myriad of cheesy one-liners, such as “Call me a bitch, but call me” and “Boobage is like mileage,” which I still don’t really understand even a decade later.
My friends thought I was making a mistake by coming on this trip. Meeting people on the Internet is bad idea, some of them said, trying to deter me. This isn’t going to end well. You don’t even know her. Do you even like Type O Negative? Aside from a cover of “Summer Breeze,” I knew little about Type O Negative, but Cinn changed that with a nonstop Type O curriculum in the car. I’ve been a fan ever since, though it’s a wonder I didn’t wind up abhorring them.
But that wasn’t the point. It could have been any band, it could have been Anal Cunt, and I still would have said yes. It was something that at nineteen years old, after the reality of the summer’s end had set in, I felt I really needed to do. It would be an experience, something to write about, a story to tell. I wasn’t in college; I wasn’t living in a dorm and going to frat parties or spending semesters abroad. It may have been just a trip to Philly, but it was more than that to me.
“We’re not going to have time to find a hotel,” Cinn said, exhaling a heavy sigh of defeat. We had finally reached the city only to be met with gridlocked traffic. “Start putting your makeup on.” She tossed me my bag from the back seat and I bedaubed my eyelids with a layer of glitter thick enough to make a drag queen proud and possibly get some change tossed at me if I stood on a corner.
“Do I have to wear these fake eyelashes?” I groaned, tumbling the plastic package over in my palm, in search of instructions. I had already managed to squirt glue in my eye before she had a chance to say anything, but in my journal I wrote that she physically forced me to adhere them to my eyelids else I’d sleep on the streets that night.
We squeezed into our slutty Morticia dresses in the tight confines of a dingy gas station bathroom. The fluorescent white track lighting made my normal complexion look legitimately sallow and I wished I could achieve that look at the ball. Cinn made that wish her own reality by heavily coating her entire face with white powder, a measure I was unwilling to take. Cinn accidentally dropped a ten dollar bill in the commode.
Your Druidess never showed up.
We stood dejectedly outside the Trocadero for an hour, watching hordes of Type O fans bustling into the sold out show, clutching onto hope so fleeting, it was like cocaine sifting through our fingers. I silently breathed a sign of relief though, because I wasn’t 100% on board with donning my ridiculous Goth uniform anywhere other than Dracula’s Ball. Cinn was openly weeping over this imbroglio when a big-wheeled pick-up truck sped past, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” blasting ironically at high volumes from the windows. I shot my fist into the air and saluted.
Your Druidess is a stupid name, anyway.
Refusing to let Your Druidess’s blunder ruin our trip (she was probably a fifty-year-old fisherman, anyway), we decided to make the best of it and seek out the Dracula’s Ball, which we had planned to attend after the show. Driving through Central City on Halloween night, past loading docks and alleys full of shadowed forms, I began to understand why the Fresh Prince’s mom made him move to Bel Air. It didn’t seem like we were in the right place and my old friend Panic began to rise again up my esophagus, like a recently ingested model’s salad. It burned.
She’s going to stab me with her fake fangs and roll my body into the river. But before I let my paranoia get the best of me by hurling myself from the moving car, I spotted an undulating line of poorly dyed raven locks, billowing capes, and sparkling neck-bound crucifixes. We had found the Dracula’s Ball. In my head, I rejoiced with the Tabernacle Choir.
This is high school all over again, I thought as I came precariously close to being engulfed by the obnoxiously large black velvet couch on which I sat, like a shell-shocked Alice at a tenebrous tea party, while Cinn was over at the bar getting refreshments. My feet dangled inches from the floor, the chair was that ludicrously oversized. Cinn came back with a beer, which I grabbed for desperately (and I don’t even like beer), but she handed me a glass of Coke instead, mouthing off some spiel about not contributing to minors. And here I thought we were bros.
We were the first people to be let in, having been hand-picked in front of everyone by Malachi, Philadelphia’s Baron of Goth. I never did find out who he was supposed to be, but I know that girls swooned when he neared them and men shook his hand with great respect shining in their eyes. A top hat nestled stately upon the carefully tousled kohl hair framing an alabaster face; a tailed tuxedo suitable for Marilyn Manson to wear to the market and a cane imprisoned within the grip of a white-gloved hand finished off his meticulous look. He could be a vampire. He could really be a vampire. When he approached us with an extended palm, every girl gasped in envy. Murmurs of our luck resounded around us as we advanced to the doors, leaving everyone to reapply their black eyeliner in disgust.
It smelled like a clove and anise cocktail inside the Ball, with a slight trace of sweat and smoke coalescing to provide an acrid after-scent. Black velvet and gossamer draped from rafters, chandeliers, and limbs, like gauze on an unraveling mummy.
Tall, emaciated boys in high-collared shirts with frilly sleeves strutted to and fro, arms akimbo, feet stuffed into thick-soled black Creepers, while girls spiraled dream-like around the dance floor, giving off the illusion that they were floating above the ground as they skipped in staccato patterns, yet managed to retain their fluidity; cupping their hands into cordate offerings, they contorted their arms in hypnotic patterns which a friend would later tell me he dubbed “Passing the Ball of Energy.” Every third girl had some variation of fairy wings clipped to her back and none returned my smiles.
You know those stares you get when you leave the house accidentally still wearing the skin-suit you fashioned from your last murder victim? It was like that.
I tried to tell a girl I thought she danced beautifully and she all but hissed in my face while dripping gobs of glitter much like the molten blobs of wax that plop from tilted taper candles. And here I thought I had escaped the Prom two years before; this must have been Thomas Jefferson High School’s revenge. The girls could see right through my façade, sniffing the scent of my dress’s cheap threads and knowing that it wasn’t purchased in some Elizabethan boutique, branding me a poseur. The acceptance I once felt in the Goth chat room was all but shattered when I was forced to stare this culture in the face, without the shield of a computer monitor.
Feeling safe with my roots in the wall, my aphasia and I remained sidelined for most of the evening.
“What’s an egg cream?” I asked Cinn, scanning the menu at Silk City Diner.
It was 11:30PM and the diner was sprinkled with several other Ball escapees. Cinn said that we would see how we were feeling after we got some food in our stomachs, that we’d decide then if we were going to go back to the Ball. Under the table, I crossed my fingers for a vomitous outburst, an exploding appendix, an arm severing spontaneously.
Minutes later, the waitress had convinced me that egg creams were quite possibly the most delicious refreshments one could ever want to flow down their gullet; I imagined Jesus ripping himself from the cross and striding purposefully into the nearest diner and ordering a tall glass of creamed eggs. “What’s the first thing you’ll do when you get down from that cross, Jesus?” “Get myself a nice cold egg cream, friend.” And how could Jesus be wrong?
The waitress slid a tall glass of egg cream along the Formica table top. I should have known I couldn’t ever agree with Jesus. It was disgusting. A foaming cylinder of soda water and chocolate syrup, essentially. I didn’t know what eggs had to do with it, but there must have been a lot of courage infused into that vile libation, because I felt recharged and feisty, like the Erin I was before my generosity and effervesence had been wringed dry like an old ratty dish rag. Mounting the sparky-vinyl booth, I shouted, “Can I have your attention? We’re from Pittsburgh and I’d like to take your picture!”
In a surprising twist, everyone graciously obliged. It was like an awakening for me, a reclaiming of that spark that had been robbed from me that summer, the lack of which had quickly shoved me into a shell. I felt rejuvenated from my moment of bravery and decided that I wanted to go back to the Ball.
But first I had to wait for Cinn to emerge from under the table.
She introduced me to the man with red irises, long and slick black hair, and two sets of fangs, saying his name was Tom and that she had met him earlier in the night, during her quest for beverage which should have taken five minutes, not thirty. Suddenly oblivious to my presence, they began making out and I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time their tongues met that evening. I rolled my eyes and wandered around the building, curious what I might find on the other floors.
The basement was a crypt for kegs and an astringent aroma of cloves and mildew which made my nasal passages feel unwelcome. The second floor seemed dandy until I entered a room that was like walking into a bathroom at Studio 54. Sickly Goths lounged languidly around tables of blow. I had a feeling that probably wasn’t the best room for me to be loitering. I’m a very addiction-prone girl.
Not really feeling comfortable anywhere inside (except Vendor Alley, where I threw down fifty dollars on a red leather bat choker with wings so salient they bore small holes into the skin of my throat while I wore it), I relocated to a stoop outside, taking solace in my pack of Camels and scribbled furiously in my journal. I began panicking about where I was going to sleep and how I was going to get home, because I realized I had no idea of Cinn’s intentions. I felt threatened by this man Tom. Women get weird when men enter the picture. I hoped that I wasn’t about to get ditched, although it wouldn’t be the first time.
I returned the raucous salutations of inebriated passers-by, declined offers of rides and wild nights, and accepted a stamp pad which I promptly tossed to the side, afraid it might be laced with acid or whatever hallucinogenic was popular on the streets of Philly. A homeless man sang in my face until I silenced him with a crumpled dollar.
As I lit my fifth cigarette with cold-shook hands, I heard a shrill voice reverberating down the sidewalk on a wave of the pulsating beat of Electric Hellfire Club.
Every October, I feel nostalgic for that music. I fill my autumns with a rotation of goth-rock bands like Sisters of Mercy and Christian Death; I remember the way those people danced and looked so free, and still wish I could fit in with them. But instead, I listen to this music alone, this time in the warmth of my house, and not from a curb outside of a club, on a cold hemorrhoid-incubating slab of city concrete. Not only am I fake Goth, but a seasonal one at that.
“Jesus Christ, I’ve been looking all over for you! I thought you had been stolen, and I was so scared. And then I kept thinking about your damn journal and all the made-up stuff you were writing about me, and what would the cops think—-” She roughly pulled me into her, hugging me tight and petting my hair. It was a scene straight out of a crowded department store at Christmastime, except that I wasn’t a crying child silently thanking Santa for helping her Mommy find her, but a nineteen year old girl with rogue specks of glitter scraping her eyes and a sleep-deprived surliness.
Tom was still saddled protectively to her side.
“Are you sure you’re not hungry? We can stop there,” Carl said, jabbing a finger out the car window at some fast food chain. “Or there.” It was the third time he suggested this supposed good intentioned pit stop. I was seated awkwardly in the passenger seat of his truck, my dread-filled eyes staring straight ahead, glued to the back of Cinn’s car.
Tom had invited us back to his apartment and devised a brilliant plan which put him in the driver’s seat of Cinn’s car, while I was pawned off on his friend Carl, who appeared to be an amalgamation of Ozzy Osbourne’s and Michael Bolton’s genetic markers. Translating this to mean that Tom and Cinn wanted to spend time alone, I acquiesced – but not without a loud, throat-scraping exhale, the kind that every teenager perfects, to illustrate my annoyance — and joined the lascivious Carl, who was desperate for an excuse to stall our reunion with the others.
“No, really. I’m not hungry. I just ate two hours ago. A lot. I ate a lot. Four courses, at least.” My gaze remained indestructible, refusing to let Cinn’s car out of my sight. “Maybe even eight,” I mumbled in an undertone. I’m going to be so pissed off if I get raped tonight, I thought bitterly.
Tom’s apartment was what you’d expect for a man convinced he was a vampire: no matter where you placed your ass, an animal print of some sort was promised to be underneath; black pillar candles occupied every free surface area; Egyptian relics and religious tchotschkes gave the room a very underground Pier 1 ambiance.
I was trapped on Tom’s couch for three hours, during which I suffered through a painfully awful vampire movie (Vampire Journals), and even worse, Tom’s lame attempt at humorous commentary; a photo op for Carl, in which I appeared to be shrinking back inside of myself while Carl ravenously leered over my shoulder (a photograph I treasure to this day); and Tom’s guided tour through the technological wonderments of WebTV.
While Tom was searching for a better ankh image to embed in his email signature, I slipped out to Cinn’s car where I proceeded to collapse into frustrated tears in the passenger seat. It was 6AM and I wanted to sleep, but not in Tom’s perverse lair. Cinn came after me, and I sobbed about not knowing what Tom keeps under his floorboards and not wanting to sleep in the same room, building, state as Carl, and I complained of the searing pain I was feeling in my eyebrow. I had just had a new ring put in days before, by a husky goliath in a piercing parlor who looked like he could have just shimmied down Jack’s beanstalk. The gauge was all wrong, but he forced the purple hoop through the miniscule holes in my brow. When I awoke, I was supine and groggy on a couch, and he showed me the paper towel drenched with my blood.
“I need to wash my face,” I wailed, hiccupping on tears. “This glitter is really making my piercing hurt.”
Probably scared of what fabricated tale I was bound to weave inside the purple cover of my vacation journal, Cinn placed her hands on my shoulders and promised we would leave right then. She was true to her word. She drove all morning, stopping near Hershey to feed me a nutritious breakfast of raspberry Danish and strawberry muffin.
After that weekend, Cinn and I forged a sisterly relationship, which isn’t always a good thing, but I know that she would save my life if she could. We’ll go for months, sometimes years, without speaking, but underneath it all, it was like we survived a train wreck together, a Gothic train wreck of spider-webbed carnage and fish netted limbs, anise smoke and novelty fangs, and that alone bounds us together, no matter our differences or penchants for running off with mysterious strangers. I still haven’t found my place in life, an accepted membership into some snobby subculture, but I’m OK with that. I like being the girl with a cover no one can judge.
The night after I returned home found me in the emergency room, with a doctor surgically extracting my eye brow ring, barely visible amongst the swollen patch of eyelid that caused people to mistake me for a mongoloid. “Look at all the puss that came out!” he lectured me, while two nurses vowed to never let their daughters get pierced.
I still have a scar.