The beast stood by the soda machine posing for pictures with fans tucked under its scaly arms. It had gummy cheek flaps, sideways fangs, dreadlocks and beady eyes. And I was like, "Cool! What's that?"
My friends, dressed as members of Starfleet, looked as if I'd punched the pope in the throat. The beast was obviously Predator, an imposing movie alien who kills for sport. Duh.
At MegaCon, a massive gathering to celebrate science fiction, fantasy, anime, comics and all things nerdy, I was an imposter. An outlaw in a village of outlaws. In video game parlance, a n00b.
Normally, I don't mind looking silly. Halloween is my personal Olympics. I've been Lady Gaga, pregnant Britney Spears, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, Cindy Lou Who and Larry Wilson from the treasured film masterwork Weekend at Bernie's. At the paper, I often write about clothes and style. I'm usually the one who tests sunglasses with windshield wipers and writes an essay on how they inform the human condition.
But a foreign panic struck when friends extended an invite to MegaCon 2013. The thousands of fans who attend the annual Orlando event "cosplay," which means they not only dress like characters, they execute with staggering accuracy. Attention to detail is important, as is canon and story and — even though it's fantasy — authenticity.
For the record, Judge, I love nerds. I hang out with nerds. Nerds are arguably more relevant than ever in this virtual age. Look at Facebook, invented by a nerd. Look at King of the Nerds or The Big Bang Theory. Nerds are smart, skilled, creative. They often grasp complex concepts and, you know, math.
I'm more like a hamster eating newspaper. My wheelhouse is pop culture, trends, topical humor. If it involves a vortex or a wand or warp speed I want to vanish under a Harry Potter invisibility cloak.
Friends were busy cooking up Star Trek: The Next Generation costumes in ode to Patrick Stewart and other cast members appearing at the convention, or the "Con," if you're cool. They were sewing, buying spooky contact lenses. One was going as Whoopi Goldberg's character, Guinan. He had secured purple velvet. He was working on erasing his eyebrows. HIS EYEBROWS.
Maybe I'd dress as a giant cupcake. Or a unicorn. Or a slice of ham. I Googled "food suits."
I was going to be found out.
"They can smell it on you," said my friend, Ashley, who then repeatedly assured me there was nothing to worry about. Lies!
Shortly before the convention, I started watching episodes of Doctor Who on Netflix. I looked something like Rose Tyler, one of the Doctor's companions. She wore regular clothes, and in one episode, carried a huge gun. I was out of time. Sold.
I toted a spray-painted Nerf shooter into the Orange County Convention Center one Saturday in March, wading into a hot, vibrant scene unlike anything I'd ever witnessed. There were Transformers, Catwomen and Supermen, Pyramid Heads, zombies and droids, entire families dressed as "Whovians." The ham costume would have been fine.
I slipped by mostly unnoticed. But every now and then young girls carrying Tardis purses would slow to inspect me.
"Oh, my gosh. Are you Rose?"
Let's pause and explore how this informs the human condition.
Everyone wants to be admired. There's a deep thrill in being recognized and photographed, which is the main activity at MegaCon. It has got to feel especially great when you've spent your life on the fringe, dissecting intricacies of the planet Alderaan or explaining to your grandmother why you're in the back yard dressed like Lady Kitana from Mortal Kombat.
For other people to understand, relate, appreciate, to not ask stupid questions at the soda machine like "What is a Predator?" — heaven. Like flipping through US Weekly in an alternate universe where the paparazzi are not only friendly, they let you turn the camera back on them.
And it turns out these events have a little something for everyone, even n00bs. I saw Aladdin and his monkey. Sloth, the basement monster from The Goonies. Powdered Toast Man from The Ren & Stimpy Show, something I grew up watching. I ran up to him and asked for a picture, cracking up the whole time.
Like a nerd.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @stephhayes on Twitter.