By Meg Morley Walter
It’s Halloween night and I’m seven years old. Dad, my brother Nick, then four, and I are making the annual candy-gathering journey around the neighborhood. But something’s gone wrong. I double over in agony as the pain in my stomach jolts. Mom’s traditional chili I ate an hour before seems to seek revenge, squeezing the intestines in my miniature abdomen. “Are you okay?” Dad asks. “I’m fine,” I reply in a feeble admire-me-for-my-perseverance tone.“We can just go home,” he says.
Right. Go home. Give up on the dream. Relinquish all hopes of chocolate, caramel, and yellow 5. Betray my childhood. Sure Dad, go home. He’s forgotten the true meaning of Halloween—the spirit of the season. The unwritten creed of ages four to eleven: do whatever it takes to obtain as much candy as possible. It means wearing a parka if it’s snowing. It means pushing that nine o’clock curfew to the limit. And tonight it means ignoring a seemingly deadly case of indigestion, because nothing is more important than a pillowcase full of Kit Kats. No weather, no ailment, no parent’s request may stand in the way of my October 31 duty. I communicate all this with a stern glance, and Dad, though blinded by age, nods. He places me on his shoulders and we continue our trek to the next house. Nick, chubby in his young age and dressed in a bumblebee suit, waddles behind, with a felt stinger swinging from his four-year-old derrière.
It was a night of trials. In retrospect, much more so for Dad, who carried a seven-year-old Minnie Mouse on his shoulders for two hours. I made sure to take the opportunity to wail and groan every few minutes just to prove that I was near dead but too tough to give up. Thanks to Dad—I atop his shoulders and Nick closely trailing behind—we conquered the neighborhood and filled our pillowcases with every prepackaged sugary snack we had spent the year dreaming of. We walked home where Mom greeted us in the kitchen with hot chocolate. As my stomachache immediately disappeared, I told Mom about the boy dressed as the Hulk—that he wasn’t wearing a shirt! And about the house with the spooky music, and when Nick was scared but I was brave. And about how I maybe had stomach cancer for a while there but was feeling just fine now. Dad requested an Almond Joy from my stash, which I gave with an air of generosity, though I found the treat repulsive. Nick sorted through his pillowcase, grinning when he found the Skittles.
The following years were full of trick-or-treating victories. Soon came the departure from parental supervision. My neighborhood comrades and I were free to strategize and trick-or-treat on our own. Experience taught us to skip the Smarties houses and the dentist who thought it hilarious to hand out toothbrushes (it wasn’t). We knew where to find the king-size Snickers and the freshly made scones with honey butter melting on the surface. We knew how to convince moms that ten thirty wasn’t too late, and we knew which dads would give us a ride to other neighborhoods.
But with age came the end of trick-or-treating. Just as elementary school friends turned into middle school strangers and Mom and Dad turned into rule enforcers, so Halloween turned into dark and unknown territory. Age thirteen. “Too old to trick-or-treat,” Mom said. “We might have a party,” friends said. “We might not invite you,” they forgot to say. I was dressed as a lamp. Yellow face, shade on my head. I waited for the call. Seven o’clock. Eight o’clock. Nine o’clock. I took off the shade, I washed my face, and I cried.
Then Halloween gradually succumbed to the hormonal takeover that captured the rest of adolescence. Age sixteen. “Those clothes are too tight and the makeup’s too heavy,” Mom said. Age blindness. Mom should understand that the dishy boy from geometry will probably be dressed as something rugged at the dance and will only ask the biker/princess/vixen to stand close and sway on the high school gym floor. Nothing. Else. Matters.
And then Halloween was another “oh, is that today?” A to-do on a long list: midterms to study for, rent to pay, and candy to buy for the trick-or-treaters who show up at the apartment door. Age twenty. The boyfriend said, “Let’s go for a drive.” And then he said a string of other things: “I’m not in a great place right now,” and, “You’re a wonderful girl, but this isn’t going to work,” until I finally said, “Just take me home.” I stepped out of his car heartbroken, and through tears said, “Happy Halloween.”
Now twenty-three. This year I face questions that were once easy to answer.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Minnie Mouse. I’m Cleopatra. I’m the Wicked Witch.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to the house with the king size Snickers. I’m going to the neighborhood with the freshly made scones. I’m going home.”
I answered with enthusiasm and an undeserved sense of authority. Today the clarity of Halloween as a seven-year-old is lost to thoughts on the future—working and planning and testing and questioning what it is I want to be for real and not just one night a year.
“Who are you?”
“Where are you going?”
“Still working on that.”
I find myself wishing that life were as easy as trick-or-treating with a stomachache and that my purpose were as clear. I wish that Dad were there to carry me on his shoulders.
I long for that night sixteen years ago. I want to walk in through my door with a pillowcase full of Kit Kats. I want to talk really fast and tell Mom about every house we went to and every costume I thought was crazy. I want to pretend to be nice and really just give Dad all the candy I don’t like. I want to watch my younger brother eat his first trick-or-treating stash. I want the pain in my stomach to be too much chili. But instead my abdomen pangs with worry. I walk in as a visitor through the door that is no longer mine. The house is cold. As I sit at the kitchen counter gnawing on celery, Dad asks about tuition and rent. Mom asks about career choices and my thoughts on law school. I’d like to come home having conquered my neighborhood. But I don’t know where that is.