The convention center is in the middle of Hartford, about a forty-minute train ride from our college campus to the edge of the city. The building is nestled into a hill. The five glass-windowed stories of the lobby stare out across the highway like a king surveying his lands. To one side of the center is the attached hotel, a river of white stairs spilling between them.
Today those stairs are inhabited by all manner of fictional characters. Everywhere I look, there are outfits both familiar and new to me. I see at least two Heath Ledger Jokers as Jeanette and I climb the stairs rather than take the lobby’s escalator. There are cat ears and dyed hair and wigs in all the colors of the florescent raver-rainbow.
It’s pleasantly surprising how attractive many of the guys are. Assuming they’re not all fourteen or something. Whether they’re in high school or not, it doesn’t hurt to look. And the boys do tend to come in a variety pack of half-naked, their chests exposed beneath bandages or Jedi robes. Over their shoulders, many of them carry obscenely large foam and duct-tape weapons. Unlit cigarettes hang from their lips. They jump at the chance to snap into a dramatic pose, recreating their favorite moments from video games and animes even without a camera around to capture them.
As I give an onceover to the other girl cosplayers we pass, I’m more confident about my outfit and how short the skirt really isn’t. I know that not only will the white dress and black thigh-high stockings I’ll soon be changing into flatter my figure, but that will hardly make me the girl with the most exposed skin here.
Amid a sea of cameras and drooling guys, there’s a girl wearing a long red wig and a heart-shaped patch over one eye. As she poses, I can only wonder how long it will take before con security is all over her spandex-covered ass for the low cut in the front of her bodysuit. Forget plunging, that neckline might as well be sky diving as it hurtles past her naval and stops barely above her pelvis.
Other girls, though, are dressed to show off their sewing skills and not their more natural talents. I’m very glad that Jeannette hadn’t been looking for us to enter any of the costuming competitions, because there was nothing I could bring to the table compared to the stunning displays walking from the hotel doors, across the landing, and into the main floor of the convention center. Some of the wings and dresses with all of their minute, delicate details look like they must have come off the rack of a movie studio costume closet.
Jeannette leads us into the main floor towards the pre-registration line. “Okay, Bethany,” she says. “The tickets are in my name. If you wait around, I’ll go through the line. Then we can check into the hotel?”
I nod my agreement, distracted by everything in the room we just walked into.
The center itself is huge, each floor at least two stories with the main lobby wide and open, so that you can look straight up to the ceiling or wave over the balcony from the fifth floor. At either end of the room is a set of escalators leading to the second floor. I crane my neck to look at the attendees on the set of escalators above those, making their way to the third floor.
It’s only four in the afternoon but AnimeMe feels like it’s been at full swing for hours. The only other event I’ve been to had around twelve hundred attendees. AnimeMe, I remind myself, is ten times that size.
Shouts from the third floor balcony of “Marco” are met with groups of strangers on the second and first floor shouting back “Polo”. There’s a boy dressed like he’s from a bad eighties teen flick carrying around an old stereo, blasting music down the escalators and leading what might as well be a conga-line thirty people deep; this pied piper has the conga-goers’ hands pressed to their head and flapping back and forth in time to the music.
A Mario and Luigi run past me. Princess Peach chases after them, accidentally slamming into me. When the video game character turns to apologize, I take a step back.
“Sorry,” says the guy in the blonde wig and pink floofy dress. “Did I hurt you?”
Mario and Luigi call out, their voices distinctly higher than a male plumber’s they should be, “Come on, David! We’re going to miss the panel!”
The cross-dressing trio run off.
I back against one of the few columns for support. What have they done to my childhood!
The din of voices stalks closer to me, leaning in claustrophobic and threatening. I feel their eyes on me, feel them judging. They laugh, and part of me knows I’m being ridiculous. They can’t possibly be laughing at me, so why does it seem that way?
I’m acutely aware of my black jeans and pale red tank top, and the luggage at my feet. I don’t belong here. Not yet. People can see Bethany too easily.
I fold my arms tightly against my body and will myself to disappear. If I had psychic powers right now, I’d use them to blur me from everyone’s sight.
It’s hotter in here than it should be. And darker. Somehow smaller and more crowded than it was a moment ago.
“Excuse me? Did you hear that last announcement?” There’s a younger girl at my side. I focus on her instead of the way my world seems to be shrinking. Her vibrantly dyed blue hair is covered by a maid’s bonnet. She clutches a black plastic bag with AnimeMe printed across the front of it. She’s so much shorter than I am; when she smiles up at me, that grin holds all the weight of her expectance.
She says, “I think it was something about where the group photoshoots can happen this year?”
I try to tell her I wasn’t paying attention, that I don’t know what the announcement was. I try so hard! But the words freeze in my throat.
The girl’s dark eyes blink once and with purpose. “You okay?”
I open my mouth only slightly. Still nothing. Am I even breathing anymore?
The girl puts her plastic bag down beside my luggage. “Is this your first con?”
I manage to shake my head.
She leans against the column beside me. “I’m Orio. What’s your name?”
Why is this girl being so nice? Can’t she see she’s dealing with a crazy chick? What, she has to be twelve. Thirteen max. Doesn’t she know not to talk to strangers? Where are her parents, or her friends?
For that matter, where’s my friend?
I spot Jeannette in the line. She’s near the front, thankfully.
Orio says, “Do you want me to give you a name?”
A wave of nausea hits my stomach. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re not mute. Hooray!” Orio grins. “But… I guess I was hoping you were, so I could make up what you’re thinking. Do you want me to give you a name anyway?”
“Uh, sure. Fine.”
Orio drops to the floor, her legs folded beneath her. With her finger press to her cheek and her tongue gently poking out of her mouth, it’s like watching a living cartoon.
“Hmm,” she says. “Hmm, hmm. Okay. I shall call you… Yuffie!”
I make a face at her.
My expression doesn’t change.
Orio giggles like a five year old. She jumps up. She reaches into her plastic bag, pulls out the convention’s playbill, and flips to a page of advertisements.
“You remind me of one of my favorite characters. Here,” she says, pointing to a figurine.
I recognize the character as one from a series Jeannette had recommended to me. I hadn’t been able to get into it, but the blue-haired girl in the white bodysuit looked more interesting than some of the other scantily clad, huge-boobed figurines. At least this one wasn’t wrapped up in other-worldly tentacles…
Orio says, “What do you think? Want to be Rei?”
I shrug. “Whatever.”
“Better than a ‘no’. Rei it is.” Orio pirouettes. “Well, I should go find the bathroom and get back to my friends. See you, Rei!”
I give an involuntary wave as the little pixie of a girl literally skips off to find the bathroom.
All right. I’m Rei. Not Bethany. No one can get to Bethany if she’s not here.
Weirdly enough, that little mental change helps.
I find my strength coming back. I pick up the luggage and wander over to the exit of the pre-registration line to wait for Jeannette. The crowd doesn’t seem quite so alien for the moment.
After all, here we’re allowed to be weird. I’m dressing up like a cleaver-wielding Lolita for the weekend. Who am I to question people’s hidden motives and secret desires, right?
Jeannette pulls out her phone to look for a new text. The way her lips out, I can tell that there’s been nothing yet.
We’re in the middle of the artist’s alley on the third floor, all of our luggage in tow. The room is thin but long, and lined with tables of local artists and others who traveled from far away to sell their work. There are all levels of talent in the alley, from those who will draw incriminating poses of your favorite anime character for a few dollars or make a sketch of attendees in their costume for a quarter, to craftsmen who sell chainmaille dragon tails or full hand-made cosplays ready to take off the shelf and wear about the convention.
I know I could empty my bank account in this room if I wasn’t careful. Already I’ve seen a hand-stitched plushie Corgi, made to look like the dog from Cowboy Bebop, that I might come back for if I have some cash on Sunday. I have to hope he will still be there, too. Which, given the adorableness of the plushie, might not happen.
At one of the end tables, I find one of my brother’s favorite webcomic artists signing prints and taking commissions. A few of the artist’s fans talking him up, so I decide to come back for a print later. That one I’ll have to make good on, or I’ll never be able to speak of this trip around my brother!
I’m in the middle of a conversation with another artist, whose pair of copper-colored chain link earrings I’m debating taking home with me, and I’ve asked her what anime she’s from. I love the corset she’s wearing and the bustled skirt. The tiny top hat and mega-curled wig make the whole look beyond cute.
As the artist says something about steampunk and how it’s not an anime, Jeannette squeals. I’m turned away from my conversation.
“The crew just got their badges. Come on,” she says as she drags me away from the artist. I barely have my wits about me enough to remember to grab my rolling suitcase. Jeannette says, “They need to head to the hotel to check in. They’ll meet us outside the main events hall.”
As we reach the main event hall next door to the artist alley, attendees are pouring into the room.
I gesture to the event room and say to Jeannette, “What’s happening now?”
She hesitates, scouring the crowd for her friends, then pulls the AnimeMe booklet from her bag. She practically throws it into my hands. “Here. You look it up.”
Main Events. Five o’clock. Opening Ceremonies.
As much as I want to get rid of my luggage and change into my costume, the idea of going to the opening ceremonies is tempting.
“Let’s go inside for a few minutes,” I say.
Jeannette seems hurt. “But… the crew. I told them we’d meet them out here.”
“Drop a text? Tell them we’re inside?”
Jeannette makes a noise of desperation.
“We’ll only step inside, then. Don’t you want to know who’s here or what the big events are?”
Jeannette grabs the playbill from me. “What do you think this is for? It has the whole schedule on it. And look,” she opens to a page with pictures and bios, “all you could ever want to know about the big guests.”
I drop the topic. It’s not worth arguing.
I take the playbill back from Jeannette. On the floor, sitting near the doorway, I read through the schedule and circle anything that might be interesting. With a little luck, we may actually be interested in one or two of the same events or discussions. That would be nice.
Jeannette paces, her steps filled with excitement and a hint of nervousness. It must be important, I guess, that she keeps a good face with these con-friends of hers. It’s not like I’m trying to get in the way; I really want to give a good impression too. Sleeping on the couches in the lobby never sounds appealing, and I’ve heard enough horror stories online about staying up for the whole convention. Three days filled with nothing more than pocky, ramune, and Burger King holds less appeal to me and my stomach than switching places with that heart-patched spandex-clad girl from earlier.
I’ve circled a few panels and one game that sound like a good time. I shove the booklet into my bag to help Jeannette with her waiting.
It’s been slightly more than an hour since we arrived at AnimeMe but already the percentage of attendees who are in costume versus those who aren’t has increased significantly. At this point, Jeannette and I are no less of a minority at this event with our street clothes on than any non-initiated parent might be.
I can’t believe the creativity and hard work that each and every one of my fellow con-goers must have put into this one weekend. Some of them had to have been cutting and pinning and stitching and gluing for months, if not since last year’s convention.
When I turn back to tell Jeanette about a cosplay I totally envy, she’s gone. Gone. How can she just be gone?
I text her, “Where did you go?”
The seconds where I don’t get a reply kill me. I message her again. Minutes go by in silence. My screen is empty. My heart races. I rush through the crowd, keeping my eyes to the ground in search of her wheelie bag and the silver starry pillow I know from our dorm room.
Nothing. No one that even looks like her.
I lean over the balcony, scanning the lobby several stories below. If she’s anywhere down there, I can’t recognize her from this distance.
I call her cell, but Jeanette doesn’t pick up. I leave a message. “It’s Bethany… I can’t find you. I’m upstairs by Main Events when you get this.”
What if she was sick of me dragging my heels? Maybe her friends showed up and she told them I was being a complete fake and they told her to ditch me!
I squeeze the bridge of my nose, trying to fight off the panic attack even as my ears fill with cotton and my vision turns black at the edges.
“Hey, Rei!” It’s Orio, the little anime girl from earlier. She bounds over to me, several bags from the dealer’s room and artist alley filling her skinny arms.
A deep breath, two, then three. I can do this.
Orio hug-attacks me, calling out, “Glomp!”
I laugh nervously and gently put my hands on her to suggest she detach herself.
She backs up and smiles. “Are you going to opening ceremonies, too?” She extends her words, making them almost a songlike.
I sigh. “I want to.”
She grabs my hand. “Then we’ll go together!”
My feet are firmly rooted to the patterned carpet of the convention center.
Orio frowns, a dramatic expression.
I explain, “I… can’t find my friend.”
“Have you looked for her?” Orio drags me over to the balcony. My luggage rolls along beside us.
“Yes. I called and I texted, too. I’m a little worried that she’s avoiding me.” I bite my lip.
“D’aww! Why would she do that? You’re awesome!”
I lean against the balcony’s tall railing. “I’m not awesome, I promise. I don’t recognize who even half these people are! I recognize maybe two of the guests, and the lines to see them are going to be hours and hours long.” I slap the playbill in my hand, saying, “And there’s even less in here that I feel like I get. There are jokes I overhear, right? And everyone starts cracking up, but I just stand here wondering what I missed, what I need to watch to catch up, what sites I need to live on to get any of it!”
Orio leans in to hug me. It doesn’t feel as strange as that first attack, so I let her stay. Of course, having a blue-haired pixie attached to my midsection makes me hyper-sensitive to every pair of eyes that even brushes against us. I can feel the awkward and the anxiousness ready to flare further.
I say, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I don’t even know you.”
Orio shrugs. “I’m nice?”
I nod. “I guess that works. You seem pretty comfortable here.”
“And you’re not,” she fills in.
“No. I feel really out of place here and my friend knows it. I mean, when she first asked me, I said yes. But then I backed out. And then I said I’d go, but only once I’d put together a costume.”
Orio’s dark eye brighten. “You have a costume?”
“Yeah. Rena from Higur–”
“Higurashi!” Orio squeals. “I love When They Cry! Ohmygawd! Rei, do you have a wig for her? I have loads of friends who work the dealer’s booths if you don’t. Oh, I bet you’ll be a perfect Rena!”
She gasps, a sharp high-pitched sound.
Orio says, “You should get changed!” She starts pushing me away from the balcony.
“I… what? No. I need to wait for my friend.”
“Tell her you’re changing the bathrooms up here! Rei,” she pleads, “you will feel so much better, I swear it! You just need to embrace your inner Anime Chick. Yeah, see, all girls have her. Sometimes she’s a Candy Raver, or a Smexy Catgirl, or so many others… But in your case, right now, you need be this Murderous Lolita!”
I laugh, genuinely. I motion for her to stop pushing me and walk on my own. “Okay,” I say. “Let’s try it.”
As I’m on my way to the bathrooms with Orio, who waves to all her friends and hug-attacks several others, I get a text from Jeanette.