My luggage never did arrive. But really, it didn’t matter. No one cared that I wore the same pair of jeans every single day. They were new jeans, so they looked almost as dressy as the black pants so many of attendees were wearing. And really, it warmed my heart the way colleagues let me root through their suitcases. Want to get some sympathy and attention at an academic conference? Arrive without your suitcase. Seriously. I ended up meeting all kinds of new people because they felt sorry for me.
On Saturday night, the conference organizers had planned a dance, and we were invited to wear Halloween costumes. By then, I’d given up on hope that I’d get my suitcase, with the dress that I’d planned to wear. I’d been wearing Artist Friend’s navy t-shirt as a nightshirt, and his roommate, Fun Priest, graciously offered a red sleeveless shirt that was almost long enough to wear as a dress. I borrowed black tights and a black camisole so that the outfit wouldn’t look indecent, and I pulled the red shirt on over the skintight black clothes. It was miles too wide, but I decided I couldn’t be picky. Besides, I needed a wide palette. I added strips of masking tape to simulate sound waves, first close together, then farther apart. The conference was filled with science nerds – such is the nature of the organization – and I figured everyone would appreciate me illustrating a scientific principle.
The group of grad students who had gathered in my hotel room to share a bottle of bourbon cheered me on as I put the costume together. A woman young enough to be my daughter said to me, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to be, but you have great legs.” Although the bottle of bourbon was almost empty at this point in the conversation, I chose to think the compliment was sincere. “The curves of your body make the straight lines curve like real sound waves,” said another young woman. “It’s totally flattering.” I love grad students.
I had to explain the costume to almost everyone at the dance – most of whom were wearing normal dress-up clothes. Because I was wearing black tights, I don’t think anyone noticed that I had arrived without shoes. What’s especially funny is that I got more compliments on this ridiculous outfit than I’ve ever gotten while wearing my own clothes. Only one person knew the costume right away, and only because he knew where I’d stolen the idea. He and I spent at least twenty minutes discussing our favorite episodes of the Big Bang Theory. Then he gave other people hints by repeating making the noise of a car as it speeds off into the distance.
The next morning, after dancing until past midnight and then hanging out at a bar with friends until 3:30 am, I got up early and filled my backpack with clothes that I had borrowed from colleagues, so I could start returning them. Most of us had flights that afternoon.
I arrived at the 8:30 am session early. Bleary-eyed colleagues were sitting in the rows of chairs, clutching cups of hot coffee. Chicago Friend was fiddling with the computer that would project his powerpoint images. Since the panel hadn’t started yet, I began handing clothes back. “Here are your socks,” I said to Philadelphia Friend. “And your shirt.” I tossed the clothes over to him and turned to Artist Friend. “Can you give this shirt back to your roommate? Sorry about all the masking tape on it.”
I looked up to scan the room, to see what other friends were present. That’s when I noticed that everyone in the room had turned toward me. They’d stopped talking to each other and drinking their coffee. They were actually staring, eyes wide awake.
“We’re dying to know the backstory,” said Tall Man. “It looks like you had quite a night.”