New (old) Fiction: MASKS

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masks-title I met a woman in Washington.

This was in September.

I was playing the part of a successful writer, living in an obscure apartment in New Jersey, writing endlessly, waiting for all the words to die. She was playing the part of a brilliant artist, living in a skinny house in Georgetown, working passionately, waiting for her canvases to catch on fire. We were meeting because at this moment in the chronology it required that we meet and offer one another soundless inspiration; we were to be reciprocating muses. The set was a bar where the music was too loud and the beer was watered-down and cheap. We sipped our beers through our masks, read our lines through the eyeholes, and waited for the director, the one who disappeared behind the bar after he turned the camera on, to return and finally end this scene.

We played the scene so well, with such a precise grasp of our parts, that when it was eventually over hours later, my life seemed weak, as if it were suddenly running on fumes.

My memory provides her with no name; just another phantom that eventually becomes another obscure character for me to take advantage of in the middle of an abandoned night. As I write of her now, I see her like a drowned girl with pale, slender hands and eyes open, blackened abyss.

She spoke through the music about her life and about the other characters that impose upon her. Her stories seemed important to her and it showed from the way her red lips curved around the names of her past lovers, and the way her eyes paused at her memories. As she spoke, one heavy word upon another, I could feel the pull of her gravity, pulling me into her Drama.

I tried to listen, I really did, but the thought of becoming a part in someone else’s Drama made me feel a little nauseous. I wondered:

Is this what I truly seek? And if so, is this how I enter relationships?

Is it I who seeks the Dramas and not the Dramas seeking me?

Or am I Drama?

I kept drinking, which has been my convenient therapy for too many years.

It is sometimes best not to remain paused on such details; it is slow death, with the mind bleeding ideas into the reservoir of mental darkness. But I am fueled by this mental torment; it is usually through these twisted paths that I discover the smaller gems, the most important of revelations. Like a warrior standing upon a pile of corpses, discovering the virtue of life, I move steadily among the beasts and ghouls, learning the art of their inert language and the aptitude of nourishing the fear.

I pushed the thoughts away for the time being and maintained an indifferent focus on the conversation. I succumbed to the loneliness inside of me; the piece that seems to be inside all of us these days. The piece that I see in the faces all around me, eating silently at restaurants, staring up at the rainy skies, and turning away from their own reflections.

I admit my loneliness with ease, only it feels wrong, as if I am part of a horrendous fad. We have become a society of lonely actors dancing out of step to the music of follies.

I admire the person that sits upon that mountain all alone, with the fresh air being all the company he ever needs; it is something I can never be. Contentment, to me, is found in the same place where I get most of my turbulence: around people.

The masquerade ended before dawn. At this point, the words were harder to conjure up and I could feel a dream or two pushing their way out from behind my eyes. I remember walking away from her, after a kiss in a forgotten corner, thinking to never call the phone number she placed into my pocket. I believe she knew I wouldn’t.

Not because I was mean, but because I was selfish.

And because it was my part.

“Want another beer, Christian?”

“Sure.”

The Friday before Halloween, I find myself ridiculously drunk all over again. I realize this too late, as usual, so I am forced to stick it out. And while I wait, I figure I’ll get myself another drink…if Jenny ever decides to actually bring me one.

I am once again in DC, inside the same bar where I was last September. We are all here, meeting other actors and seeking the sort of generic redemption you get by being sucked off in the bathroom.

Halloween is this Sunday, but the dead were seen rising as early as this morning, clawing their way through the dirt of their lives in search of that second chance. I watched the people in the stores, trying on different faces and posing before the mirror, observing themselves carefully, and when they pulled the mask away, they seemed disappointed, as if the face underneath was to have changed in the process.

We know now that the mask is no longer adequate, that we need the life that comes with it. We want the experience of foreign pain and heavy duality; we want to explore the undiscovered countries in psychology. And why not? Because in our new lives, there will be misery and there will be blood, only it will be diffracted, and we will be able to step away from all of it when it becomes too much to bear.

For the weary freak, take off the mask and walk away; for the jaded lover, wait for the other to fall asleep; and for the introverted geek, change your handle or turn off the computer.

The initiative is simple: flee everything.

Even if it means yourself.

And in the process of understanding all of this new bullshit, we have done the impossible, like always.

We have corrupted a holiday as innocent as Halloween and turned it into something perverted and sad. Even the children don’t treat it with the enthusiasm as we did at their age. Once again our generation seems to be one small step ahead of a new generation without any sense of hope or faith. They no longer waste that precious second of screaming “Trick or treat” before getting their candy, and half of them don’t even bother with the costumes. As if they already recognize the absurdity of the day and can no longer appreciate the magic.

The Holidays as we knew them are all dead.

We started with Christmas and then moved onto the lesser ones. It took many years, but we finally managed to do it. Every year we extracted a little more of the charm and replaced it with superficiality, until finally days like Halloween or Christmas are as emotionally and spiritually hollow as a carved pumpkin. God has no place at Christmas; he is the irritating great-great grandfather who sits at the end of the dinner table, drunk and drooling: the kids all hate him and the parents just want him dead already.

The schisms have already begun to show and the new gods are waking…and they may be a little green, yes, perhaps even a bit reckless, but they are all you have.

And speaking of God, he is here, somewhere near the end of the bar. He was cut off about an hour ago for being too loud and for doing lewd things with his white beard. God sighs and creates a cold mug of beer for himself.

You cannot cut off God. It is unholy and usually leads to bad things…

Just ask the Egyptians and their first-borns.

Jenny is here with me, somewhere beyond the music and darkness, dancing with her eyes closed and a cigarette hanging from her lips. She remains in the distance, which makes sense. I can’t seem to read her tonight: she is living among contradictions and obscure dreams.

Not unlike me, searching contradictorily for both true love and empty fucks.

Jenny approaches: “Beer?”

“Sure…again.

“I’ll be right back.”

And Jenny plays with my head again, disappearing, never to return with a beer for me. What did I do to warrant such cruelty? Jenny leaves me with her friend, Anne, who wants to be left alone with me as much as she wants to be left alone dressed like an altar boy with a drunk priest. “Oedipus never had it this bad. Shit, he was sober and look what happened to him…”

Anne looks at me with a vacant expression. “What are you saying?”

My mouth suddenly feels dry. “Nothing.”

“You’re really weird.”

I do not know how to respond to that anymore. I used to laugh at the expression, but now I hear it so often that it is beginning to scrape at me, bullying me to become insecure. What exactly is it about me that compels everyone to say that to me?

I decide to get a beer myself.

On the way, I accidentally make eye contact with God. I decide to steer clear of him, but as the bartender hands me my beer, God is suddenly right next to me. “I’ll pay for this one,” he says.

He slouches over a bit on his stool and tells me that out of all of his inventions, his favorite is blueberries. “Delicious, absolutely delicious.” He owns a boyish charm that I normally would find appealing, but with God, it comes across like another mask. God catches my thoughts: “You think that this is a mask?”

“Yes,” I tell him. “I think that it’s a mask, just like the one I’m wearing.”

“Hmm, well, it’s Halloween, after all.” He smiles weakly.

“The day we all get to be someone else.”

God pauses. “Most of us anyway.”

fortune-cookie-of-doom I decide to change the subject because I am not in the mood to listen to God’s problems. I remember a fortune I received once from a fortune cookie, something about God giving me a face and I make another. I ask God what it meant.

He finishes his beer and widens his eyes, jerking back his head, as if he were feigning surprise. “I’m not too sure what that means.” And then he creates another beer for the both of us. “But you don’t really care what I think.” He turns away and his voice weakens. “Nobody does…”

“I don’t think I’m the person you should be talking to.” I pick up my fresh beer. “Thanks for the beer though.”

I see Jenny across the way and I step towards her when the hand of God touches my shoulder.

I turn to a face that is like every face I have ever seen, a face that is scarred with the burden of loneliness, with eyes that should be worlds in themselves, only they have settled on being sad provinces instead. And this was no mask. And he said, “I’m in my final days, Christian.”

I think of something polite to say, something positive, but I know that would only be another mask. I look into his eyes and I say, “Aren’t we all?”

Jenny tells me she is going to stay after closing, leaving me to fend for myself in a city I hardly know. She gives me the key to her house and tells me she needs some time alone, but I don’t quite believe her. Earlier, after I walked Anne to her car, I returned to the bar I see Jenny making out with God on the dance floor.

I suppose I have seen worst things in my life. Once, in a bar in Pittsburgh, I was convinced that I was gang raped by a bunch of little leprechauns. So, seeing Jenny locking tongues with God seemed pretty tame by comparison. And besides, it really wasn’t Jenny, but Jenny wearing a mask, and it really wasn’t God, but God wearing a mask…just two more actors playing their parts. It all seems oddly appropriate in a biblical sense.

Whatever it was, whatever it meant, it would give me plenty to think about on the way home.

I make it back to Jenny’s house inside one of those blurs that is disturbing upon reflection the next day, in time to pass out on her couch. I do remember talking to the taxi driver about something important and I remember looking out the window at the city, glowing in orange light, with people in masks fading away into the shadows. There were drunks dancing all around with wide steps and swaying heads, and there were tiny gremlins surrounding all of them, waiting for one to pass out.

I don’t know which one of me had these thoughts and these memories, I don’t know which one of me opened the door for Jenny when she finally came home, or which one of me woke up the following morning; I can’t seem to keep track of me anymore.

And with all of this in mind, for the next forty-eight hours or so, I know that we can afford to lose everything, if that is what we truly want; we can wear as many masks and be as many people as we possibly want to be.

But come Monday, when Halloween has passed, what excuse will we have then?

blueberries

You have been reading “Masks”, written by Christian A. Dumais in November of 1999.

Commentary to come.

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