I hold my breath then squeeze a bottle of bright orange paint and throw my hands in the air. The color explodes out, covering my face and hair and the people around me in streaks of orange. A guy to my left, coated head-to-toe in a mix of bright pastels and ribbons of blue, pink, and neon green squeeze-paint, nods his head at me and squirts some blue over on my face and front of my shirt. I dance in a circle around him, letting him cover my back and legs equally. We both start laughing. Through the bump of the bass, the hundreds of people milling about, and the paint flying in the air between us, we find each other’s hands and press our palms and first two fingers together: peace. Then we each make half a heart and hold our hands together: love. Palms flat against one another: unity. Fingers interlaced: respect.
I can’t hear him speak. I can’t catch his name, but for that moment we are connected. Our hands intertwined, we each reach for one of our kandi bracelets and exchange. He now has my neon pink and yellow hearts. I have his blue, pink, and white cuff—an unequal trade, but one I am so thankful for. The cuff is big and carefully-crafted with a heart shape in the center. Beautiful. I smile at him, shout thanks over the screams and paint guns shooting giant waves of color at the crowd. He nods. Smiles. Then disappears.
I realize, suddenly, that I am alone. My friends are gone, exchanging bracelets of their own, getting water from one of the concession stands, or moving closer to the stage. I am not alone though. I turn to a group of girls next to me. Their hands are covered in yellow and they are making lines of war paint under their eyes. One girl with bright red hair notices me looking. She smiles and reaches her hand to my face, paints me with identical lines as if to say you are one of us.
The music shifts and the bass becomes louder, heavier. I find myself jumping and head-banging, my heart pounding in identical rhythm. I don’t know what it is about this style of music, but I feel it. I feel in in my head, in my chest, in my fingers and toes and stomach. I feel it in my soul.
I step closer to the stage, shifting between other paint-coated bodies, all who smile and dance with and around me. A paint gun shoots color towards us again, this time a neon green. I close my eyes and let the paint hit my face. It’s cold, like rain, and smells like walls of a new house.
I open my eyes and look up. The Chicago sky is cloudy, a little dark. I can feel the impending rain in my bones. But the air is warm. I look out to the crowd. There is a mix of so many people, so many ethnicities, races, cultures, ages, sexes. Everyone is dancing together. Everyone is losing themselves in the music. Everyone is a mix of blue, pink, red, yellow, orange, green. Everyone is smiling.
A roll of thunder gets lost in the bass. Suddenly the sky opens to rain. The drops fall heavily, mixing with paint and running streaks down our faces. I find my friends. They are dancing together, laughing, and jumping in the puddles that have gathered on the gravel in front of the stage. I grab the hand of a stranger and we jump. I close my eyes and shift my hips back and forth. The rain mixed with the light wind runs icy down my back. The temperature has shifted, and the combination of rain and music gives me chills. I listen to the music and focus on nothing else. The wet, paint-covered bodies pressing against me disappear. The cold disappears. It’s me and the music and I get lost in it. I feel safe. I feel this incredible happiness travel from the pit of my stomach up my arms and into my head. I feel alive. I feel at home.
The music continues. ‘This is Paint Wars Chicago!’ the DJ yells, ‘We’re doing this rain or shine!’ The crowd roars back. We swell and shift to the music, moving in one giant blob of water and paint. We laugh and dance around each other, our bodies bouncing and pulsing together like one giant heart. I throw my head back and laugh, letting the raindrops hit my face and make me feel clean, new. I could dance forever, I think. And I do.