It had become a tradition in the small Midwestern city for high school students to attend a city-wide night of dancing, socializing and fun on the Saturday night of Halloween week. Sponsored by the local Rotary Club and supported by the School District, the teens were encouraged to dress up in costumes. The annual event had been started some 20 years before in 1949, just after the end of World War II following a Halloween night that turned into mayhem when teens conducted all sorts of mischief, some of it destructive.
“Teens realize they’re too old for trick or treating,” commented Dooley McFinn, the President of the Rotary Club at that time. “Let’s create something that they might like doing.”
Thus it was that the town’s modest sized arena was turned into a teen club on that night, complete with bands and DJs, lots of punch and soda, decorations and the like, with planning done jointly by a committee of adults and teens. It took a few years to become popular, but eventually it captured the attention of the youth, and the event became a “must” for most teens. Fears of that the event might turn into an orgy of sex, drunkenness and mayhem were thus far not realized. While supervision by adults (including police officers in plain clothes) was noticeably apparent, the event was kept loose and largely unstructured.
Now in 1969, when young men about to graduate high school faced the prospect of being drafted into the Armed Services and possible service in the dangerous jungles of Vietnam, the high schoolers had become an unusually serious lot, realizing that they needed good grades in order to get into college and thus possibly be exempt from active service.
The costume contest that was held at 10:30 p.m. had become a highlight affair. Prizes of portable radios, 45 rpm records and LPs were offered in various categories, such as for the “Funniest,” “Most Outlandish” or “Most Authentic” costumes. Youth clubs and school classes were encouraged to sponsor several contestants for the prizes, creating more interest throughout the city’s two public high schools and the sole Catholic high school. In the contest, the candidates would be marched across the arena stage while a cadre of judges, including the City’s Youth Council president, a representative of the local Boys and Girls Club, two faculty members from the local college and the director of a community theater group, would decide the winners in each category.
Most of the girls wore something, while many boys felt it was beneath them to do so or was sissyish and refused to participate. A few boys competed, of course, and in some cases, they wore something outlandish. It was not unheard of for a muscular, hairy athletic boy to appear in a tutu, purposely looking ridiculous.
This year’s contest offered a special “Talent Prize,” which would be given to the costumed student who performed a skit, reading or song lasting less than two minutes. Such participants had to be sponsored by a youth club or school class and be registered in advance.
“Our club should enter someone in the contest,” Jennifer Ashton suggested at the mid-October meeting of the Walt Whitman High School’s poetry club, named the Browning-Keats Club.
“Our whole club should go to the event,” Milton Lester said, one of two boys in the club of more than a dozen students.
“No way,” protested Stephanie Fillmore, a girl who rarely smiled. She was rail thin and claimed she was a vegatarian – which appeared to be true given her slender body.
“Why not?” argued another girl. “Don’t be such a stick in the mud, Steph.”
“It’s so silly, besides I wouldn’t know what to wear. I hated trick or treating when I was a kid.”
“Not everyone has to do it,” Jennifer offered. “Just those who want to.”
“I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we each dress up in the outfits of our favorite poet?” Milton suggested.
Stephanie considered the suggestion for a minute. She was serious about her poetry and desperately hoped to become an English teacher or maybe a librarian. Besides she dreamed of being a famous poet herself, an avocation she practice by filling her diary with poetry.
“That’s not a bad idea,” she said, a smile developing across her usually dour face. “I could come as Emily Dickinson.”
“Cool, you’d make a perfect Emily Dickinson,” Jennifer said. “She was a stoic one, she was.”
The group giggled, and soon the rest of the girls in the club had announced who their favorite poets were and said they’d try to replicate their outfits. Milton and Adam – the only boys in the club – said nothing.
“How about you guys?” Jennifer asked.
Milton was quiet and looked out the school window. He had told Jennifer many times that he loved Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets; thus she knew perfectly well who he liked. He could hardly dress as the early 19th Century poet, could he?
“Let us think it over,” Adam volunteered.
“It was Milton’s idea so he should at least tell us now,” Stephanie said. “Certainly he knows who his favorite is.”
“That’s alright,” Jennifer interjected. “They can tell us later, but they should dress up like all the rest.”
Adam and Milton remained strangely silent as the meeting broke into a cacophony of chatter and giggling among the other members, all girls who were eagerly discussing the outfits they’d wear for Halloween. Several of them liked male poets, like Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Lord Byron or Percy Bysshe Shelley, while others chose famous female poets such as Sylvia Plath or Sara Teasdale.
The meeting ended shortly thereafter, and Jennifer accompanied both boys as they went to their lockers and prepared to go home. The three left the school, saying “hi” to several friends along the way before heading down Highland Avenue toward their homes; they often walked to and from school together.
“You both have favorite poets,” Jennifer said, smiling.
“Oh, I’m not sure about mine,” Adam quickly said, hoping to head off further conversation.
“Really?” she queried.
“Well,” he said his voice hesitant. “I recently found Billie Holiday put great poetry in some of the songs she wrote. And she’s hardly considered a poet.”
Milton knew he had to get Jennifer off this line of talk. So often had he mentioned Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets that he could hardly disown the fact that she was his favorite.
“What are you doing Saturday, Jenny?” he said, changing the subject.
Jennifer made no attempt to answer Milton’s question, and refused to change the subject. She turned her attention to Adam’s reluctance to dress up as a black singer-poet.
“But if you don’t count Billie Holiday as a poet, I don’t know who I like, besides I’m not as dark-skinned as Holiday,” Adam protested, looking for an excuse to get out of the project. Adam’s long-gone father was black and his mother white and the boy was light-skinned, but definitely black, as shown by his curly hair and facial features.
“You’re dark-skinned enough so that shouldn’t make any difference,” Jennifer argued.
“But I’m not going to put on a dress. I’ll get laughed out of school.”
“Don’t be silly, Adam. Lots of boys put on girl’s stuff for Halloween, even the big tough footballers,” she said.
“Be a sport, Adam,” Jennifer pleaded. “It’ll be fine.”
“I suppose so,” he said, unconvinced by her assurances. “But who will Milton be?”
“Robert Frost,” Milton said quickly.
Jennifer burst out laughing. “That’s a good one. You know your favorite is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Milton.”
“No way am I putting on a dress,” he protested, echoing Adam’s earlier words.
“Come on guys. There’s nothing wrong with wearing dresses just for Halloween. We’ll have so much fun.”
“But have you looked at how Elizabeth Barrett Browning dressed in those days, Jennifer?” Milton asked. “I’ll never find outfits like that in just two weeks time.”
“Right,” Adam said, convinced that this revelation would convince Jennifer to quit being so insistent that they dress up as their favorite poets, particularly if they happened to be women.
“No problem. We can go to the costume shop that is used by the drama department at school,” Jennifer said. “The school has done plays set back in the 19th Century. I’m sure we can find something for you Milton.”
“Aw, come on, Jenny,” Milton said.
“And for Adam, I bet Mayala Jackson has something you could wear,” Jennifer said, referring to a tall black girl who was a club member.
“Aw, c’mon, Jennifer,” Adam said. “I could hardly ask her.”
“I know Mayala has something you could wear. Join in the fun, Adam. After all, it’s for the good of the club.”
“What did you get us into?” Adam said, turning to Milton, who had first suggested that they dress up as favorite poets.
“See ya’ girls,” Jennifer teased, turning left and leaving the two boys to continue down Highland.
At North 12th Street, Jennifer left the two boys and headed for her after-school job as a library assistant at the Emery Hinkle Central Library, where she mainly shelved books or assisted at the check-out counter.
Adam and Milton parted from Jennifer, but had gone only a half block when Milton stopped. “Look Adam, I’m going to go with Jennifer to the library, OK?” he said.
“Sure, but why?”
“Just need to look something up,” he said quickly, leaving his friend and running after Jennifer.
He was out of breath when he finally caught up with Jennifer. He never was much of a runner and was panting heavily when he reached her.
“What’s up?” she asked, surprised by his presence.
“I need to look at some pictures of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” he said, his chubby face growing almost crimson. It had been pink from the exertion of running after the girl, and now his admission that he was seriously considering the proposal to dress up as the poet caused him to blush.
“You’re going to do it! Marvelous, Milton.”
He nodded as the two continued to the library. Finally getting his breath, he said, “I thought why not do it? It’s Halloween and all that. And besides, if I’m going to do it, I wanna do it right.”
“Oh, darling, that’s great,” Adam’s mother said when he told her he might be dressing up as Billie Holiday for Halloween, a decision he made while walking home. He decided that he dress up as Billie Holiday since he could more convincingly assume the part. Hadn’t he already sung some of Holiday’s marquee songs with his mother, usually dressed as a lovely jazz singer.
His mother’s reaction caught him off guard; he thought she’d put her foot down and refuse to permit her son to dress up as a girl, thus giving him an excuse to get out of the obligation.
“But, mom, it’ll be so embarrassing,” he protested. “I only have a few friends in that school since I’m so new to town. They’ll think I’m some sort of weirdo.”
“Adam, honey, it’s just a Halloween thing. Girls will dress as guys and boys as girls that day. Don’t worry.”
“I suppose so,” he said, still not convinced.
“Besides, you make such a lovely girl, and you have such a beautiful voice. Will you be able to sing?”
Adam nodded. The contest rule said each club or homeroom entering the contest could choose up to three to represent their group, and each contestant could make a statement of about two minutes long, giving him time to sing Holiday’s signature song, “God Bless the Child.”
“This’ll be fun, Adam. You just wait and see.”
“I hope so, but I’d rather not.”
In truth, Adam knew he was lying. He’d love to dress up prettily, since he knew that he indeed did look great in a dress. He should have known his mother would be in favor of him parading himself before the student body as a lovely girl. Hadn’t she encouraged him to dress at home, having him wear lovely gowns – the same ones that had hung un-worn since his mother had quit singing professionally as a jazz singer? Some the fondest times either had experienced were those moments when Adam donned one of her old gowns (he particularly favored a teal blue cocktail dress that ended at the knees and exposed his lovely shoulders and arms) and played the piano as his mother sang some of her old favorites. He soon was able to copy her sultry, jazz-style voice and sounded very much like the lovely girl he appeared to be in those moments.
Those moments, however, had been private ones; his mother often assured him no one else would ever know of their mother and daughter charade, even though she had set up a cassette recorder to preserve the memory. The reality of showing off his girly nature before a bunch of high school students did not sound like a wise option, but Adam soon realized he was excited by the prospect.
“I’m too fat to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” Milton protested, as Jennifer and he were being led through racks of clothing hung in the shop of Costumes Galore, the costume house that worked with the high school drama department. The operator of the shop had offered major discounts for short-term use of clothing by high school students if authorized by the drama department. Jennifer, who did backstage work for the high school group, was able to arrange the visit.
“Don’t be silly, Milton,” Jennifer said. “You’ve trimmed down a lot and you have the same high cheekbones as Elizabeth.”
The two had shown a picture of the poet that Milton copied from the Encyclopedia Brittanica to Theresa, an older lady manager at the costume shop, to guide the search.
“I’ve got just the gown for you, darling,” she said to Milton. “It was used in a Victorian drama that the Community Playhouse group staged just last month.”
Jennifer and Milton dutifully followed Theresa through the clothing racks, finding themselves in a sea of long skirted dresses, petticoats and other elaborate lingerie.
“This is our 19th Century section,” Theresa explained.
Milton was awestruck, finding himself fascinated by the lacy garments. As Theresa rummaged about the racks looking for the dress, Milton fingered the cloth of several gowns, excited by the feel of the gauzy cloth, realizing that he soon might be wearing a similar lovely piece of clothing. He felt a strange stirring of his emotions as his mind wrapped around the idea that he could look like a beautiful woman.
“Ah, here it is,” Theresa proclaimed, pulling out a white, heavily ruffled dress. “Come here young man, and let’s see how close a fit it is for you.”
Milton hung back, embarrassed by the idea that Theresa wanted to hold the dress up in front of him to check out the length and fit.
“Oh, Milton, just do it,” Jennifer said. “It looks perfect for you.”
He blushed but moved forward and held the dress up in front of him, as ordered. Jennifer and Theresa moved back and eyed him, their eyes scanning him slowly.
“It’ll work though he’ll have to wear a corset to bring in that tummy a bit,” Theresa said.
“Oh no, I can’t wear a corset,” Milton protested. “Maybe I can lose weight.”
“In ten days?” Jennifer laughed.
Milton nodded. He knew they were right. Even though he had lost some 25 pounds in the last year, he still had a chubby tummy and soft breasts like a girl. He had never been muscular, and his body frame could easily have been that of a girl, he knew.
Theresa sent Milton off to a dressing room, equipping him with a strange looking pair of briefs or panties.
“Take off all your male clothes, and put on these pantalettes to cover your boy parts. Then tell us when you’re done and I’ll come in and dress you the rest of the way,” she ordered.
“Pantalettes?” he asked, unbelieving his ears.
“Yes, now go on. They won’t bite. They were worn by women in the mid-19th Century,” Theresa said. “You’ll find they’re most practical – even for a man – since they open in the front so that the woman would not have to remove her petticoats and other garments in order to use the toilet.”
Jennifer, hearing the exchange, giggled.
Dutifully, Milton did as he was told and retreated to the dressing room and removed his clothes. He tried to avoid looking at the full length mirror in the room where he’d have to view his sorry male body, his girlish breasts, soft tummy, small boy appendage and wide hips. The thought hit him hard: he looked like he could be a girl. He was intrigued by the pantalettes and noticed they were split in the middle. They were made of linen and resembled full-sized women’s panties that he’d seen, except that they reached several inches down each thigh, where he saw he’d use drawstrings to tighten the garment to the thighs. Similarly, a drawstring was used at the waist to bring the pantalettes together in the front.
Once he figured out how to wear them, Milton tied the drawstrings, and felt he was ready to summon Theresa to finish the task of dressing him. He paused for a minute, wondering if he should follow through on what suddenly felt to him to be a foolish enterprise. Finally, he stood before the mirror, folded his arms across his chest and looked into the mirror.
He was shocked by the sight: In the pantalettes, he indeed did look like a girl. His longish hair flowed down about his face and his folded arms had created a cleavage between his breasts.
“Are you ready yet, Elizabeth?” Jennifer’s voice sounded through the flimsy door of the changing room.
“I’m not Elizabeth,” Milton retorted.
He heard Jennifer laugh and then rap on the door. “I’m coming in,” she announced.
She entered before he could protest and he felt naked in front of the girl, covering up his bare chest as best he could.
“You look like a shy little girl standing there,” she giggled.
“She had to take care of a customer and she told me how to assist you.”
“I . . . ah . . . ah . . . feel so . . . ah . . . embarrassed . . . and . . . ah . . .”
“Milton, I’m sorry, I want you to enjoy this, and I really don’t want to embarrass you,” Jennifer said. “You’re my friend and I really think you’re so cool and brave to do this.”
Milton eyed the stack of garments Jennifer carried into the tiny room. “Am I wearing all of that?”
“Yes, Elizabeth, so we’d better get started,” she said, putting the stack of clothes down on the sole chair in the room.
“I’m not Elizabeth,” he said firmly.
“Well, right now you are. Don’t you like that name?”
Milton smiled. “Well, I guess I do. It’s a lovely name but it just seems to be so feminine.”
“That it is. That it is.”
The fitting began with Jennifer assisting Milton in putting on the corset, which tied in the back. It meant Milton had to pull in his tummy while she strained to tighten the strings in the back.
“I can’t breathe,” he said as she tugged on the strings.
“Theresa told me that you’d say that, but she said you’ll get used to it,” Jennifer said, her breathing hard because of the exertion she had extended to tighten the string ties.
“That’s if I live through this,” he gasped.
“There, I think that’s the best I can do,” she said, finally.
Milton looked down at his breasts and saw that the corset had pushed up the flesh so that they protruded even more distinctly than before. He saw Jennifer look at the effect of the corset on his body and nod approvingly. Looking in the mirror, he saw that the effect was to make his hips look wider, giving him almost the classic hourglass figure so prized by young ladies. He blushed noticeably.
“I don’t think you’ll need these,” Jennifer said, removing the breast forms that filled the cups of a bra she held.
She reached around Milton, fitting the fleshy mounds of his chest into the bra cups, and linking the hooks of the bra from behind. Milton was mesmerized for a minute, stunned to see in the mirror how totally feminine he appeared to be. Jennifer put a white camisole over his head and put that in place, and then had him step into a fluffy petticoat.
“Now, we need to bring this dress down over your head, Elizabeth,” she said, instructing him to raise his arms over his head, as she slipped it on to him. “Great, it fits you.”
She brushed his long, straight hair, parting it in the middle, to match pictures of the poet they were able to find.
“Oh my dear Elizabeth, you’re a beauty,” she said. “No wonder Robert Browning was so attracted to you.”
Milton looked in the mirror. He smiled. Strangely, he felt comfortable, just as if he was meant to be in such a dress, even with its restrictions.
For Adam, the choice of a costume was simple; his mother having been a jazz singer in her youth and with a closet full of dresses from some twenty years earlier meant she had quite a selection of dresses that could turn him into a reasonable version of Billie Holiday, minus, of course, the terrible addictions that plagued the talented woman.
“Oh darling, I think I’ve got just the outfit for you,” his mother said, while rummaging around her closet of largely forgotten clothes.
“Cool, mom,” he said, joining her in her bedroom. While at first he exhibited reluctance about going through with the charade of dressing up as a woman, but he suddenly became more enthused. He felt that he could easily play the role of the famed singer.
“But, mom, that looks like it belongs on a little girl,” he protested, as his mother held the dress up against him.
“Look again at Billie’s photos. She seemed to favor these kinds of dresses.”
“Still, that big bow on the bodice. It looks so old-fashioned.”
His mother laughed. “Darling, you should know she sang in the 1930s and 40s and that was the style then. Now, get into the outfit and let’s see how it fits.”
The dress was a one-piece white dress with lavender polka dots; it had wide straps over the shoulders and a thin imitation leather belt. The bow sewn to the bodice was large and in stark white material. The skirt ended just at the knee.
“Oh, and I forgot these,” his mother said, holding up a pair of fingerless lavender cloth gloves that stretched to just above the elbow.
In preparation for the fitting, Adam had already put on peach-colored satin panties and a stuffed bra that gave him modest breasts. His curly hair had grown long and with his slender frame he knew he looked very much like a girl when in the undies. Shamelessly, he loved to look at himself when he was dressed in that fashion, demonstrating the poses that he presumed models used in presenting themselves in photo shoots.
His mother helped him into the dress and adjusted its fit once he had it on.
“It’s just adorable on you, darling,” she said.
Adam blushed as he looked in the mirror; it did look adorable, he thought. And, so feminine, too.
His mother smiled as he stood before here. Suddenly, her smile ended and her visage became puzzled.
“What’s wrong, mother?”
“Look at these pictures of Billie,” she said. “In everyone just about, her hair is heavily curled and put up. And you hair is hanging down.”
“No one in the contest will know how she did her hair, mother.”
“But, it’s just not Billie if we don’t do your hair right, Adam. We’ll have to remedy that.”
“How?” he asked, afraid what he suspected would be the remedy.
The next day, Adam’s mother arranged for an appointment at a salon that catered to black women, using a recommendation from a co-worker.
“You’re taking me where mother?” Adam asked.
“To a Christina’s Beauty Palace on Farmington Road,” she announced.
“But that’s for women,” he protested.
“Don’t worry, Adam, you’ll be dressed as my daughter.”
“We’ll give you a girl’s name for the day and you know you really could look like a girl,” his mother said, smiling.
Adam said nothing; it appeared he was doomed to go through with the project. In truth, he realized that he was often mistaken for a girl, due obviously to his slender form and moderately effeminate mannerisms.
“We’ll go to the salon after school on the Friday before the event,” his mother announced.
“Oh, goodie, we’ll both be girls,” Milton said when Adam informed him the next day of his mother’s plan to make him an authentic Billie Holiday.
“If you hadn’t started all this, Milton, I wouldn’t have been roped into dressing up so ridiculously,” Adam said.
“I’m glad we’re both doing it.”
“Me too. I’d hate to be the only boy doing this. I’m afraid we’ll get harassed a lot,” Adam said.
“I suppose, but I get it so often, I am beginning not to think about it. I just stay out of the way.”
Adam nodded. The two boys had learned to stick together and avoid the groups of boys who might eventually hassle them.
“You know, Milton, this might be kind of fun, being girls together. I bet you’ll look pretty.”
Milton giggled, and added, “Not as pretty as you!”
If Adam hadn’t been as dark-skinned as he was, the red flushing of his face would have shown brightly.
“But I can hardly call you Milton,” Adam said. “It doesn’t fit a pretty girl like you. I think I’ll call you Mary Ann.”
“No, not Mary Ann. I think of Mary Ann Johnson. She’s such a pill.”
Milton thought for a moment.
“How about Elizabeth?”
“Yes and who will you be?”
Of course, Adam’s mother – with her pale complexion – was out of place that Friday afternoon when she led her lovely teenager into the Salon, located in the heart of a city neighborhood that was virtually 100% black. Adam gave his mother credit for having the initiative for arranging the appointment.
“I’m looking for Christina,” his mother said to a wiry, short younger woman who welcomed them as they entered the Salon.
As they entered, a Caucasian woman with a mixed-race teenager, the eyes of the patrons and hairdressers and manicurists alike turned to examine them. Adam felt he should turn around and rush out the door.
“I’m Christina,” a well-dressed woman who was attending to a woman in a chair near the door said.
“Malaika Jenkins recommended your salon. I made an appointment for my daughter here at four o’clock,” his mother said, her voice tentative.
“Oh, of course, and this must be Billie,” Christina said, her voice cheerful and welcoming.
“Yes, that’s us,” his mother said.
“Have a seat, Mrs. Jenkins and Billie,” she said. “I’ll be with you shortly.”
Adam felt every eye in the salon was focused on him, but he felt confident his mother had dressed him so convincingly as a girl that no one could have suspected he was a boy underneath the clothing. She had loaned him a pair of her own jeans, which fit him a bit tightly but seemed to accentuate his hips. He wore a light red camisole under a dark blue blazer, with a pair of pearl clip-on earrings. He had suggested that he wear a dress to be more certain that he’d be taken for a girl, but his mother had deferred.
“Honey, you don’t need to wear overly girly stuff to look feminine. It just comes natural, it appears.”
She was right of course. When he finally got into the chair, he showed Christina a photo of Billie Holiday and said he’d like his hair to be modeled as the singer had done in the picture.
“Billie’s quite a singer,” his mother explained. “He’s . . . ah . . . she’s going to do a little Billie Holiday for a talent show this weekend, so we need to fix her hair for the part.”
“A singer, eh? And a most lovely girl, too,” Christina said.
“Can you do it?” his mother asked.
“Of course, it’s a style you don’t see much anymore, but I can easily set her hair to pretty closely match the photo. Who knows, the guys might find the style captivating? But, I bet a lovely girl like you already has a boyfriend.”
“No, she better not,” his mother said. “She’s only 15 and she can go to dances, but I’ll not have her getting into boys in any serious way, yet.”
“Oh mother,” Adam said, faking exasperation in his soft, gentle voice, easily putting it into a high girlish register.
“You’re a wise mother,” Christina said as she began to work on Adam.
His mother retreated to a chair to wait while Adam found he was enjoying the caring hands of Christina as she worked on his hair, preparing him for a shampoo.
“Are those clip-ons?” she asked, referring the earrings.
“Yes, ma’am,” Adam said.
“You don’t have pierced ears yet?” she said.
“She’s too young,” his mother said from her chair.
“Oh mother, all the girls in my class have pierced ears,” Adam said, having a bit of mischievous fun in acting like an aggrieved teenage girl.
“We could pierce her ears today if you’d like Mrs. Jenkins,” Christina volunteered.
“Not today, please,” his mother said.
“But mother . . .” Adam said, carrying on the charade, but giving his mother a discreet wink as he did so.
“Maybe next time, Christina,” his mother said, putting the matter to rest.
“Well you better take those clip-ons off, dear,” Christina said. “We don’t want them going down the drain when we shampoo.”
Nearly an hour later, Christina finished her work and led the lovely teenaged girl with the old-fashioned hairdo out for her mother to view the results.
“My oh my, Billie, you’re a changed girl,” his mother said, a proud smile on her face.
“Yes, that up style seems to work well on her,” Christina said. “She has a lovely, slender neck. It was a shame to hide it with her long hair.”
Before Adam realized it, Christina paraded him along the row of chairs, where black girls and women of all ages applauded the pretty young lady with the up-style, curly hair style. Adam responded by carrying himself as if he were a model on a runway. He was overwhelmed with his acceptance as a fashionable teenaged girl.
Milton and Adam commiserated with each other over how they’d be received as they were being driven in their costumes by Mrs. Lester. Milton’s mother drove to Adam’s house, where she and Adam’s mother together checked out how their two sons looked before the venture, and after some fussing with each one’s hair and other minor adjustments, both women smiled.
“We have such lovely daughters, don’t we, Amelia?” Harriet Lester said to Adam’s mother.
“We’re boys, mother,” Milton protested, but both mothers merely smiled in return.
The two boys were locked into their own thoughts during the short 15-minute drive to the City Arena. Neither had admitted to each other that the truth was they were enjoying playing the role of women and that they felt comfortable in dresses, even if Milton’s outfit required him to move about stiffly and erect due to the corset and other undergarments. Each also had a private dread over the reaction they’d get from other students as they entered. Would they be subject to a chorus of mean, nasty statements or even some violence?
“Look at how everyone else is dressed,” Harriet Lester said as she approached the drop-off zone in front of the Arena.
“Wow, there’s some wild ones, aren’t there?” Milton said, somewhat reassured by the sights of so many costumes.
“Look, there’s Mason and Henderson from the football team wearing cheerleader outfits,” Adam exclaimed as the two exited the car. Milton saw the two dressed as cute cheerleaders, but noted their muscular, hairy legs easily made them look as if they were clowning.
“I’ll pick you up at 11:45, girls,” Mrs. Lester said.
Milton noticed several eyes turn their way, likely attracted by his own rather unique outfit; he was certain there’d likely not be another teenager – boy or girl – dressed as a 19th Century poet. He struggled to walk in his two-inch heels and stiff outfit while Adam sashayed beside him as if he were a beauty queen.
“Who are you two girls supposed to be?” asked a boy Milton knew only as Troy from his social studies class. Milton was afraid the boy would recognize him, but it was clear he obviously hadn’t and saw both he and Adam as girls in costume.
“That’s for you to guess,” Adam replied, accompanying his statement with a girlish flick of his wrist.
“Cool,” the boy named Troy said. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so. Would you like to?” Milton said, surprising himself with his obvious flirtation reply. Adam looked at his friend in surprise.
Troy blushed; it was obvious the boy – tall and gangling and awkward – was uncomfortable in talking with girls. Milton recalled that he was a shy boy in class, rarely raising his hand; yet, the boy seemed always to have the correct answer when the teacher called upon him.
Sensing Troy’s uneasiness, Milton said, “Well, you’ll see us when we compete on stage later and then you’ll know who we are supposed to be.”
As the boy began to leave, Adam whispered into Troy’s ear.
“What did you tell him, Adam?”
“That we were with the Poetry Club group if he wanted to buy you a soda later.”
“You didn’t, Adam, did you?”
“It’s obvious he’s enthralled with you, Elizabeth, so I told him where we two girls would be.”
“Next thing you know he’ll show up and want to dance with me, Billie,” Milton said, returning the favor by using his friend’s female name for the night.
“Yes, everyone thinks we really are girls, Elizabeth,” Adam said as they entered the Arena. “So we better be Billie and Elizabeth tonight.”
Milton smiled. He liked the idea.
At the Wednesday night meeting before the Halloween event, Jennifer told the members of the Poetry Club that Milton and Adam would be coming dressed as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Billie Holiday, respectively, and that both would be entering into competition for the prizes as representatives of the club. Some of the girls argued that Billie Holiday was only a singer, but Adam convinced them that the lyrics in some of the songs she wrote clearly qualified as poetry.
Jennifer asked if any of the other girls wished to compete for prizes, but all turned down the invitation.
“I think you’ll be pleased to see how marvelously Adam and Milton will look and perform,” Jennifer said. She had not only assisted in helping Milton dress, but had seen Adam rehearsing the singing of “God Bless the Child,” which he would do while accompanying himself on the piano. Also, she had coached Milton as he recited the Browning sonnet he had chosen to read from the stage.
As a group properly registered for the contest, the Poetry Club members were assigned adjoining tables near the front of the stage and most of the club members were already at their seats – all in costumes of one sort of the other – when Milton and Adam arrived.
“Oh my God, is that really you, Milton?” Stephanie asked. “You look like the real Browning.”
“Where did you get that outfit, Elizabeth?” probed another girl, purposely using the poet’s first name.
“She got the outfit at a costume shop,” Jennifer explained for Milton, adding, “Yes, and tonight these two people at the table shall be known as Elizabeth and Billie.”
Both boys curtsied in an exaggerated manner, bringing chuckles from the girls. The others all identified themselves by their poet’s name, and in a continuation of the gender-switching theme were several dressed as male poets John Milton, Robert Frost and Jack Kerouac.
The buzz in the room was deadening as the teens milled about the room, getting their drinks from a committee of their peers under the watchful eyes of adult chaperones and a smattering of plain-clothes security officers. There were several uniformed officers, two sharing duties over the punch table to ward against anyone spiking the punch with a gin, vodka, bourbon or similar alcoholic beverage; another pair patrolled the parking lot while a roving male and female uniformed pair checked intermittently on the restrooms.
To their credit, the police officers were cheerful and courteous, careful not to be too intrusive, while always being available should trouble develop. As long as you didn’t mind noise, loud pulsating music and some running to and fro, the night was peaceful.
Jennifer was wearing a rustic outfit as Robert Frost; she danced several times with Milton, while Billie danced with Stephanie who wore the 19th Century dark clothes of Emily Dickinson. Given that they were dancing to a hard rock band, the sight was ridiculous, four poets from another century dancing to the heavy rhythm of modern music.
“Oh these shoes are killing me,” Elizabeth said after the third dance ended. “I need to take a break.”
“Just like a woman,” Jennifer teased.
“You can laugh Jenny, but you’re wearing comfortable men’s shoes.”
Just as he sat down, Troy, the boy who had talked to Milton while entering, approached the table. He stood over Milton for a moment, apparently wondering what to say.
“Hi,” Milton finally said, his voice taking on a soft feminine timbre.
“Hi. I’m Troy, can I buy you a soda or dance or something?” the boy said, his face growing red, exposing his shyness.
Milton smiled at the boy. “Tonight, you can call me Elizabeth.”
“That’s a nice name. Who are you supposed to be?”
“You’ll have to guess, Troy, but I just got off the dance floor and these shoes are killing me, but a punch would be nice.”
“Don’t go away. I’ll be right back,” the boy said, charging through the crowd of teens toward the refreshment table.
At first their conversation moved haltingly, but soon Milton and Troy were engaged in deep, enjoyable discussions, with Milton continually steering the conversation so that Troy would be talking about himself. Because of the noise, the two had to sit close to each other, their heads almost touching.
After several songs went by, the Arena lights darkened, and the band stopped playing. Stage lights went up and a local disk jockey went to the microphone announcing: “Now our costume contest will begin.”
Troy took Milton’s hand. “Elizabeth, I guess I better go,” he began. “I’ve so enjoyed our talk. I’ve never been able to talk to any girl like I did with you tonight. May I see you again?”
“That might not be possible,” Milton said. “You’ll probably understand later tonight why.”
“You better go, Troy, I have to get up on stage soon.”
Milton turned his back to the boy, feeling cruel and mean, but not knowing how to let on that Elizabeth was a fake. Troy moved away; Milton was about to burst into tears and he feared Troy may be feeling the same. He had enjoyed being Elizabeth winning the attention of a nice boy.
“We have two entries from the Poetry Club at Walt Whitman High School,” began the radio person who enjoyed hyping up his voice.
“The first contestant is dressed as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I’m told this Browning woman was a poet back years ago, but you kids probably know more about that than I do. I flunked English.”
The kids hooted and howled as he bragged about his astounding lack of knowledge. “How could he not know about Elizabeth Barrett Browning?” Milton whispered to Adam who was standing next to him in the wings of the stage. Milton’s teeth seemed to be chattering, and he was so worried he’d forget the 14 lines of the sonnet, even worse, be ridiculed for dressing as a woman.
“Let’s welcome our contestant as Miss Browning. Here she is . . . whoa . . . what’s this? This should be wild, ‘cause here HE is … Mr. Milton Lester of Whitman High!”
More hoots and howls from the milling audience that had gathered about the stage to watched the contest.
“I’m not going out there now,” Milton protested, turning his back to the stage.
“Get out there,” a stern voice commanded. It was from one of the teachers who had organized the event that year. She grabbed his arm and propelled him onto the stage.
Milton stood erect, a feat made necessary by the stiff corset he wore, and his voice began in an unusually high register, almost squeaky as it emerged from his throat. Somehow he got through the 14 lines without a flub or missed word, the rhythmical flow of the poetry guiding him emotionally. He finished with a smile to the audience and a crisp curtsey, almost running from the stage, hearing a mixture of applause, cheers, giggles and an occasional shout of “faggot” or “queer” or “pansy.”
“Now, now boys and girls,” warned the emcee. “Didn’t she perform great?” His words were greeted with laughter and renewed applause.
“Also from the Whitman High poetry club we have another young lady performing as the great jazz singer, Miss Billie Holiday,” the emcee continued. “Let’s put our hands together and welcome this young lady, Miss . . . oh my . . . another one … Mr. Adam Jenkins.”
Adam’s appearance on stage stunned the audience. Wearing the dress with the huge bow at the bodice and a large flower in his curled up-style hairdo, he was the picture of femininity. A baby grand piano sat at the left of the stage, and Adam walked slowly, his arms moving in a girlish manner and his hips moving from side to side. Milton, watching from the wings, realized that Adam was daring the audience to jeer him by performing the part of Billie Holiday to perfection. Milton could sense uneasy stirring in the crowd, broken by a loud male voice sounding out, “Is everyone at Whitman queer?” The shout was followed by laughter, as well as a bunch of others telling the heckler to be quiet.
He moved to the piano bench, smoothing his dress as he sat, and poised momentarily, holding his hands in his lap and then adjusting a standing microphone so that he could sing directly into it. He addressed the keys and played a short introduction, running his hands expertly up and down the keyboard, quickly quieting the crowd and then he began singing:
“Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own.”
By the time Adam had finished the first verse, his sultry and seductive voice had captivated the crowd which listened closely as he moved through the song, ending up with an understated but fitting ending. At first, the audience seemed to be silent, but suddenly burst into applause; it was so loud and deafening that if there were any jeers or insults they were not to be heard. Adam curtsied deeply and threw a kiss to the gathered teens that had moved tightly up against the stage. He moved off the stage with slow dignity, throwing kisses every few steps.
“Oh my, Billie,” Elizabeth said, wrapping her arms around the thin girl as she left the stage.
“Thank you, Elizabeth,” he said.
A half hour later, after both boys returned to their seats with the other Poetry Club members, having braved the milling crowd of teens, nearly all cheering them, interrupted with a few cries of “faggot” or similar epithets.
“You girls were great,” Stephanie said, kissing them both, an act that was followed by Jennifer and most of the other club members.
“You did us proud,” Jennifer said.
When the judges completed their jobs, the awards were announced. Adam’s performance as Billie Holiday was proclaimed to be the First Place winner of the talent contest, an announcement that was greeted with loud, approving cheers. No one seemed to second guess the judges about the selection. There was disapproval, however, when Milton finished in Second Place in the “Most Authentic Costume” category, beaten out by a girl who had dressed up as Judy Garland.
It appeared most of the audience wanted the award to go to Milton for his costume as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the tradition of such contests, the third place winner was announced first, followed by the second place award and then first place. When it was announced that Milton won second place (not first) a large chorus of boos went out; the same occurred when the first place award winner was announced.
Standing in front of the audience after receiving his second place honor, he watched the winning girl (who was from Emerson High School) come on stage to collect her award amid the jeers and hoots. It was clear she was crying in this moment that should have been one of triumph; yet she felt humiliated, and Milton felt sorry for her.
He moved over to hug the girl, holding her tightly, in an act of good sportsmanship and kindness. The audience soon moved to applause and encouraging whoops and cheers.
“Thank you, Milton, you’re sweet,” whispered the girl into his ear before breaking away to get her award.
Milton wondered about Troy’s reaction as he went back with Adam, the two holding hands as two girls might do, to their table.
“You were so lovely, Elizabeth,” the voice said. “You should have won.”
“Troy, it’s you. I thought you’d be mad at me. I deceived you.”
Troy smiled and drew Milton away from Adam’s grasp.
“You did, Elizabeth,” the boy said, continuing to use Milton’s feminine identity. “But you’re perfect as a girl.”
“Oh, Troy, you’ll see me Monday in class, and I’ll be Milton again.”
“Milton’s such a pill,” Troy said, laughing. “To me you’ll always be Elizabeth.”
“No, Troy, by tomorrow, I’ll be Milton.”
Troy nodded, realizing full well the two were living in a fantasy.
“Well, can you be Elizabeth for the rest of the night?” the boy asked.
“Why not?” Milton said, leaning over and giving him a quick kiss on the mouth.
The two went hand-in-hand to the dance floor as the band began its closing set.
Milton and Adam stood outside the Arena, awaiting their ride from Milton’s mother. They were greeted and congratulated by teenagers and adult chaperones not only for their convincing performances and costumes but for their courage in going on stage as women in front of a bunch of teens, who often show a tendency to be cruel and rude.
“It’s great being a girl, isn’t it, Elizabeth?” Adam said finally as they found a moment to themselves.
Milton smiled. It was indeed.
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