go ask alice

She stalks through the automatic doors of the hotel lobby aggressively, her head tipped back so her jaw juts out like a dare. Daring us to stare, daring us to judge. She wears a black peaked policeman's cap, black sunglasses with huge circular lenses that dwarf her porcelain doll face, black knee highs above black Converse, and black dance shorts. Criss-crossed with perfect symmetry across each nipple is a black adhesive 'X'. I know they're pasties, I know she must have bought them, but their width and vinyl smoothness matches that of electrical tape so completely I have a brief vision of her throwing a roll of it, pilfered from her dad's garage, into her suitcase along with the rest of her getup. She'd be 85 pounds, soaking wet. If she's over nineteen I'd eat my hood.

Speaking of my hood, she's speaking of my hood. "Oh my gosh, you're so furry, I love it," she says without any intonation to warn me whether she's being sincere or catty. I'm dressed pretty provocatively myself, so my bitchiness radar is set to high sensitivity. So far this weekend no one's been anything but complimentary of my outfit, but I'm a middle-aged woman in footless fishnets and I'm decidedly on guard. And since the oversized frames hide her eyes, at first I'm not even sure that she's talking to me. "All pink and furry. I just want to rub you." Yep, she's talking to me.

"Go ahead." I smile at her, realizing that nineteen is probably pushing it. She's like a much younger, much frailer Juliette Lewis. But by now our group, which has been waiting in the hotel carport for our ride to the festival, is climbing into the van that's just pulled up. I get in ahead of Terence and for the half-second it seems like she might sit directly beside him my stomach clenches ever so slightly...but then she announces her intention to take the back row instead. "Like the bad kids," she cracks, and everyone laughs louder than necessary. Than they would, I suspect, if the person making the joke wasn't a topless teenaged girl.

Her companion is a slight, sweet-faced kid in a homemade Pinocchio costume, with massive dark eyes that dart about excitedly, taking everything in. This is their first festival. She is clearly the alpha, he the adoring sidekick. I ooh and ahh over his every button and ribbon as he twists around to show them off. Meanwhile the girl stretches her arms out across the seat back, wondering aloud how many Alice in Wonderland costumes they'll see at the festival. Her body language is calculated to declare casual self-confidence but the stiffness of her shoulders, slouched slightly forward, betrays a touch of self-consciousness. I want to tell her it doesn't get any easier with age. But that if she's so comfortable with her body already, she might just get through it better than most. Instead Terence and I advise her and her friend on what sets to catch. Neither of them know any of the performers.

"I like shit like this," she explains, pointing at the van's ceiling to indicate the music playing. "That dirty, ratchet shit." I twist my lips, pretending to think. I hate trap and have no idea what to tell her, but Terence chimes in with suggestions. When he's done, a wave of warmth comes over me. "You don't have any kandi!" I say, as if only now noticing her bare forearms, snow white and thin as reeds.

"I knowww!" she says, with exaggerated mournfulness.

"Okay well I'm giving you this." I separate an elastic bracelet of pony beads from the cluster on my left wrist and carefully pull it over the others towards my left hand. The beads are red, black, white, and light blue - the colors of the classic Disney character's frock. In the center of the kandi are spaced three short words. I doubt she'll get the secondary or tertiary references but considering her earlier comment I can't resist. It's just too perfect. Also, it's the tightest kandi I made and wouldn't fit a wrist much bigger than hers or mine. She lowers her sunglasses for the first time and the youthfulness of her saucer-sized eyes makes my heart thud. The intelligence, too. Ratchet shit, my ass. This girl is playing a part. There's more underneath the rebellious-Hot Topic-model-hoping-to-scandalize-everyone-with-bare-breasts act, I can tell.

I confess that I don't know the exchange ritual very well, and she perks up. "Oooh now I feel like less of a festival noob, teaching a veteran something." I laugh, but what I'm laughing at is the idea of being any kind of veteran to EDM. Since we're sitting in different rows we can't do the "respect" part of the PLUR exchange, but that's okay. She's lit up by the gift I've given her, which she fingers lightly as she reads out the words I strung on it, squinting with 3:00 a.m. post-packing exhaustion, doubting the phrases I'd come up with for my kandi were clever enough for the whippersnappers I might be giving them to. "'GO ASK ALICE'. Oh yay! That's perfect. Haha, I love it. Right on!"

Terence squeezes my thigh and gives me a side smile as the van pulls into the drop-off zone. All dozen of us debouch into a dusty parking lot, putting on our game faces and our sunglasses, adjusting nylon and spandex and fur, tugging our few clothes into place and wearing less - or more - than we'd planned to that day.