“What did you think of Otakon?” My good friend A asked me this as I bit into a pulled pork sandwich half an hour before our blogging meet-up would split for the weekend. I had been thinking about how to answer this question for the past three days.
“It’s like,” I said, “you’re surrounded by friends you thought were long dead, but they’re alive. But you’re on a treadmill and running faster and faster than you ever have in your life.”
B glared skeptically at their shitty convention hall pizza. C wasn’t hungry. A nodded slowly. “Yeah,” they said. “Cons are a lot.”
At the time, I thought I had nailed it. But after walking home that afternoon, thinking about it, I realized I could do better. How was Otakon, my first anime and manga convention? Here is my answer:
“Excuse me,” said A, “is there a place nearby where we can buy burgers?” The security woman gestured towards the exit doors of the convention center.
“Capital Burger’s a short walk from here,” she said.
I glanced up from my phone, which was (as it would be, for the weekend) permanently set to Twitter. “The convention line is hell,” I said. “If we’re going out, we’re not getting back in.”
“Fuck!” said A. “Stay here a minute.” They shot like a bullet to the information desk, leaving me alone with C. This was my second day (and a night?) hanging with the two of them. Sometimes it was shocking to see the people behind the online handles for which that name was just one thread tangled in the knot of self. Other times, they turned their head at an angle and their online avatar rose from the ocean of the real like a sea creature. A sudden and uncanny reflection of another face.
A came back, pointing at the escalators. “Up there,” they said. A, C and myself rode them to the food court where one day later I would purchase that pulled pork sandwich. From there we descended into a sea of cosplayers: children, grown adults, legends, monsters, each their own story I’d never know even if I recognized their outfit. The current guided us to our destination, a legend among fan-run panels, a room packed with excited, laughing people watching a girl from Lucky Star devour a burger on the big screen.
“THIS IS ANIME BURGER TIME,” said the panel host. “A BYOB (Bring Your Own Burger) event. Who brought a burger this time?” A and C and me lifted our burgers to the sky like trophies. A few others in the crowd did the same. The panel host blinked. “Huh,” they said. “Not as many as last time.” The screen flickered. A succession of images: an old man slowly ate a burger against a background of bad CGI as he stared up his granddaughter’s skirt. A nervous schoolgirl frantically tried to order a burger from WcDonalds. Idols danced as they sung about how they loved, loved burgers more than anything in the world.
The coup de grace was this: a teenage girl, given the power of universal empathy by the spirits, bit into a burger. The voices of the cows horribly slaughtered to create it mooed plaintively in her brain. She saw long factory lines of burgers, waterfalls of oil, centuries of environmental exploitation and human oppression that had led to the creation of the sandwich she held in her palm. A dramatic chorus sung of tragedy and woe. Tears in her eyes, she threw the burger in the trash.
“Now that,” said the panel host, “is the most serious burger eating I have seen in my life.” I laughed and clapped. The burger in my own hand was dry but this experience was worth it.
A day before this I had seen the creator of that coup de grace, the legendary mechanical designer Shoji Kawamori on stage. “This is a picture of a tape dispenser,” he said. “But what if you were to turn this tape dispenser, upside down?”
Each night, after making the trip from the convention center back to my apartment in Chevy Chase, I cried myself to sleep. They were tears of exhaustion.
At dinner the first night, C held in their hands the tallest glass I had ever seen. “Is that a whole yard?” I asked.
They sipped beer from the glass, considering. “Half a yard,” they said.
I blinked. “Is that why they call this place The Yard House?” A chatted with G in the corner, while their coworker F sat next to me. Sitting next to them were D and E, the former enthusiastically drinking legally for the first time while the latter kept a watchful eye out. An entire other table of convention folks munched on their dinners at a table behind us. Some of them I’d later be lucky enough to meet in person, others not.
“Damn it wendeego,” D said, “you’re so moe! It’s not fair!”
I stared hard at the floor. “If I’m embarrassed about being moe, is that gap moe?”
“Just regular moe,” F said. “If you’re moe, that’s the way it is. Deal with it.”
D fiddled with the knobs of their prop, their patron saint—a Heybot figure, representing the most cursed children series of the past few years. A series they and C had written on multiple times and genuinely loved. “You just look like Andes Chucky,” they said. “The teeth and everything. It’s incredible.”
The Yard House televisions cut aggressively between music videos from the past few decades. You spin me right round baby right round. “I love this song!” E yelled as they and their boyfriend sung along. C grooved wordlessly to the music. The track shifted, the screen morphed, a woman walked by as various men lost their arms and legs and heads to her.
“Aesthetic!” A said.
“Aesthetic,” C said. They picked up D’s Heybot toy and put it face-down in their glass.
On the second day, A and C and myself were waiting in line to get a signed sketch by the extraordinarily talented animator Yoh Yoshinari. So were a woman in gothic lolita cosplay and two other guys right behind us. The woman was scoring a signed sketch for her boyfriend, who couldn’t come along. “He really likes Darling in the Franxx,” she said. “The show made by A-1 and Trigger? Apparently Trigger did the first half of the show, which was good? And A-1 did the second half, which was bad. It’s a bummer.”
“That’s not true,” I said. It wasn’t true. “Trigger directed a couple of episodes in the first half, but most of the series was animated by A-1. The director worked with Hiroyuki Imaishi on Gurren Lagann, and much of the rest of the staff worked at Gainax together as well. It’s more of a reunion project than anything else. Plus A-1 has done good work in the past! You can’t always generalize by studios.” I was fonder of Trigger than some of my other friends, but hearing misinformation that vilified hard-working animators rubbed me the wrong way.
“Woah,” said one of the guys. “That’s interesting!” But I knew that I’d made a mistake. The woman wearing the gothic lolita cosplay stared wearily at the ground. It didn’t matter who was right or wrong, I’d done it. I’d fucked up! I’d talked down to someone just trying to get through the day, and acted like the kind of person I despised.
Otakon is much harder alone. My place of residence was a 40 minute train ride away, and a convention is a mess of plans and counterplans and friends trying to meet up with other friends going to other meetings or other panels. There were times when everything would miraculously line up, and times when everyone else had something they had to do for two hours and I had absolutely nothing. The first time this happened, I sat against the wall of the convention center, charging my phone and staring into space. The screens in the convention center flashed friendly advice. “Drink plenty of water! Don’t touch without permission. Somewhere, someone is fighting for you. If you can remember her, you are not alone.”
I stood up, and went to find my coworker J.
J sat in the depths of Artists Alley with their partners in crime, hawking pins and comics and fanart they’d put together before the convention. “Otakon is a ghost town this year,” they said as their boyfriend plugged away in the corner on his 3DS. “This is the biggest anime convention on the East Coast. There is nobody here.” I looked around; I couldn’t say if they were right, this being my first convention. But there was a lot of space, down in the alley. “The rally this year is freaking people out,” they said. The weekend anniversary of the murder of activist Heather Heyer. “My queer friends didn’t want to come into town and put themselves at risk. I don’t blame them.”
“I’ve heard from folks this con’s been a management clusterfuck,” I said. I picked out a pin, Tressa from cult Switch RPG Octopath Traveller. J had all eight of them on display, Ophilia Cyrus Tressa Olberic Primrose Alfyn Therion H’aanit. “I’m going for this one.”
“Tressa is good,” said J. “Though I think Olberic came out particularly well.”
Olberic did look really cool on his pin. “You’re right,” I said. “Too bad Olberic is boring!!!”
J has a graphic novel coming out in a year or two. Every time I came down to the belly of the beast to talk to them, I was reminded that there really was a world outside. A world separate from the vast, all-consuming parallel realm where I’d chosen to live this weekend.
We were sitting at the Rightstuf panel, when all of a sudden a familiar song began to play. E almost stood up in their chair. “Holy shit,” they said. “It’s Irresponsible Captain Tylor.”
“You know,” I said, “this convention was worth going to just to see E freak out over the Irresponsible Captain Tylor OP.”
C stared avidly at the animation on the screen. A real person danced against an obvious green screen as space battles played out in the background. I wondered: is this what you called “vaporwave?” Judge for yourself, friends.
“Oh my god,” A said. “You’re finally here!” A and B embraced each other. This was the first time they’d met in person, even though they’d co-founded the blog together. C and me had joined later. L couldn’t come, but the rest of us at least were now all in Washington DC together. Two months ago I might not have ever imagined it.
“DC isn’t known for its Japanese food,” I said, scrolling through an app on my phone. “Its pickings for Chinese food is iffy at best. But if there’s one thing that’s good here, it’s Ethiopian.”
A few minutes later we’d tracked down a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. D and F tagged along. All of us were sitting outside together, tearing off sour pieces of injera bread and eating delicious curry with our hands. For the second day in a row, the weather had shown mercy and the skies were clear. A, B and F talked League of Legends, C fought monsters with anime girls on his phone and let the battles play out on autopilot. There were no famous animators, no cosplay, no expensive art books to be seen. For an hour or two we were just a bunch of ordinary people shooting the shit with each other. I’d had these moments with others before, but somehow I hadn’t expected how it would feel having them with these ones.
“I’m going to say something kinda sappy…” I said. “Don’t hold it against me. I’m just really glad that we’re all here together, right now.”
“That’s not sappy,” D said. “That’s just like, normal.”
“Yeah,” said F. “That’s toxic masculinity for you, dude.”
“So C,” I said. “You’re in the middle of watching Aquarion EVOL, right?”
“That’s correct,” said C. We were hanging out in D’s hotel room on the night before the final day; A had ducked out, B stared at their phone. F reclined on the bed.
“Have you gotten to the episode where they get naked yet?”
C blinked. “Which naked episode.”
I threw my arms out in the air. “Humans are born naked.”
“Wait,” said D. “You mean the one where they get naked because it makes it easier for them to dodge missiles?”
“YEAH THAT’S THE ONE.” I glanced uneasily at C. “I want to avoid spoilers…”
“The episode that’s all about holes, the one with Andy W. Hole who wants to DRILL A HOLE IN YOUR HEART.”
“Bros before holes!”
“The episode that’s a beach episode and also a hot springs episode at the same time.”
“The episode where you find out the frog puppet belonged to a shy invisible girl you thought was a ghost but she was there the entire time.”
“The episode where you find out the main character isn’t the reincarnation of the chosen hero, he’s the reincarnation of the hero’s dog! The heroine falls in love with a dog!”
We were now deep into spoiler territory. “There’s an in-universe explanation for why the show has love triangles, because the robots react badly when they’re piloted by couples.” Shoji Kawamori had truly thought of everything. “I love Aquarion EVOL.”
“I love Aquarion EVOL.”
“B have you seen Aquarion EVOL.”
“No I have not seen Aquarion EVOL.”
“How responsible was Mari Okada for Aquarion EVOL.”
“EVOL is LOVE backwards!”
“Wait a minute,” D said. They crossed the room and sneakily hooked their laptop to the television. Their background, depicting the heroine from Aquarion EVOL, flashed up on the screen. Followed by an image straight from the depths of hell. A rabbit-eared clown wearing a striped onesie and the scariest smile in the world. “Every episode of Popee the Performer,” said D. “Two whole hours.”
B made it a few minutes into Popee the Performer before he had to leave. I left half an hour later, just after A came back. The eyes of Popee followed me through the screen and across the room as I left. So did those of his victims.
It was late enough that the metro was no longer running, so I called rideshare. “Hope you had a good night on the town,” said the driver.
“I did…” I scratched my head. “I’ve been at the convention this weekend with my friends. For weird niche nerd stuff.”
“I myself am interested in the unknown,” the driver said. “Recently, I’ve been reading up on the Kennedy assassination…”
“So your roommate moved out,” B said. We were sitting in the middle of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, as tourists crossed and recrossed their steps. “Did you put her name on the lease?”
“No,” I said. “I did not.”
B grimaced. “Rookie move, my friend. You could have held her accountable if she’d had to fork over the rent each month.”
“She got engaged,” I said. “Sometimes that’s how it goes.”
“Honestly,” they said, “I’m surprised you still have that same job from a few years ago. Do you have a goal that you’re aiming for?” I didn’t say anything. My parents asked me the same thing every week. I could feel myself curling into a ball, in a public space full of people. This was the worst.
“Is everything alright?” they asked. I realized I was crying. “Do you need to leave?”
“No, I think it’s just…” I tried to find words for what I was feeling in that moment. “I’ve gone this whole convention thinking that so long as I kept moving, everything would be fine. But once you stop—”
Thanks to Natasha, Steven, Steve, Peter, Micchy, Caitlyn, Helen, Hugo, Patrick and everyone else. And Laura, who couldn’t come because the Philippines is a looonnngg way away