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Card Challenge: Day 46

Card Day 46: A collection of theater masks showing all different emotions.

Put on your mask; don’t let them see you sweat, rehearsed Lily to herself, carefully arranging her face into the mask of friendly interest and moderate warmth. Inside, the battle of anxiety roared on, waves crashing against the roughhewn rocks walls of her defenses, threatening to overwhelm her. But on the outside, she was polished and calm, a delicate smile hovering in the curve of her lips. Her eyes might have been screaming, but in a fast-paced, microwave minute and Facebook isolation world, no one was likely to notice if her disguise was incomplete.

She flexed her hands beneath the table, curling and uncurling her fingers in what was proving a fruitless attempt to generate some blood flow and rid them of their clammy feel. Her face remained carved with attention and friendliness as her date—the fourth one tonight, with three more lining the tables to her right—rattled on about his most recent hobby.

Distracted form the conversation, she almost missed his joke, barely giving her time to swap out masks and put on her “good-humored, chuckling” face. Fortunately, she caught the first sign of a smile on his lips and made the swap, mirroring his own soft smile. This had been such a bad idea.

The bell on the other side of the room dinged, its chime echoing. One more swap into the “pleased to meet you, but no promises” mask and she had a brief moment of respite. Chairs squeaked across the floor, the men walked nervously and awkwardly along the plotted course, and eventually some new face was sitting at her table.

Watching him extend an eager hand in greeting, she felt as if she were a creature on display. She did not see that momentary pause she was sure others saw in her face. No, his expressions skipped fluidly from introduction, to interested, to laughing—she had not thought her response would be quite so funny—and back to serious. Her self-consciousness peaked, but she dutifully kept her head high and her lips in an appropriate half smile, not willing to break the façade.

Didn’t everyone have their repertoire of masks? Lily felt her mind wandering, pulled along the train of thought. Was she really so weird? Did it come so easily to everyone else, and she was merely missing some vital piece that made the masks something more? It was as if he had read the script beforehand, and knew exactly how to play his role. In contrast, Lily realized she always felt like the surprised, underprepared understudy, diligently studying those around her and floundering through her most important roles. Of course, such a life of improvisation had left her practiced at the art, and she knew she could fool most people. Only, here, in this setting, she was surrounded by people flawlessly playing the right social game, completely unaware of the impossible talent they possessed.

Lost in thoughts, Lily realized she had missed some vital cue. The man across the table—Steve, his name tag said—was giving her a slightly bewildered look, obviously waiting for some response. She was supposed to be embarrassed now, and she quickly rearranged her face, bringing up a hand to cover her eyes that would never match. Transition complete, she set her fingers delicately on the table.

“I’m so sorry. I was distracted—“ by how human you are, her mind completed—“by how incredibly well-spoken you are. I was just thinking, I wish I could speak—“live—“like you.”

He chuckled good-naturedly, his eyes looking proud and humble all at once. That was a mix she had never quite pinned down, so she opted for abject humility whenever such complexity was called for. Her cheeks were beginning to ache with the constant smile.

The bell again, her savior. She stole the brief moment she had, letting herself fall inward and just relax. There was no one watching for the briefest of moments, and she could just be, without the social mask the world required. This was such a terrible idea, she reiterated, wondering why she ever let her friend talk her into it.

Another man, but this time something aught her attention. She nearly missed it, slipping into her “pleased to meet you, likewise” mask, but she was so familiar that it could not go undetected. She saw him put on his own mask, “the pleasure is mine,” covering his face as he spoke the words.

As she pulled her interested and aloof face on over her old one, she watched as he slipped into his engaged and passionate one, telling her all about his current business venture. It was not the mask that caught her eye, but that brief pause in between where she could see him.

He asked about her work, and she watched his intensely interested face flicker into life while she swapped to the humorous work cliché look. She watched as she spoke and his mask fell fr an instant, only to reappear with a slightly brighter smile. As she asked a question, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Stop,” she whispered, just as his mask fell but before it could be replaced. Her eyes were dancing, her lips curled in the most authentic smile she had ever felt. “You’re like me.”

He observed her for a moment, his face empty of all the socially dictated expressions for this occasion. This was not, he seemed to recognize, a socially dictated exchange. His eyes lit up as well. “I always wondered if people could tell.”

“I don’t think they can,” with a conspiratorial head nod towards the other tables, “but I know what to look for.”

“So, why’d you end up in a place like this? Torture, right?”

Lily was shocked by the giggle that leapt from her lips, even if her mask did not match. Her face was stuck on intently interested while her mind was dancing through joy and discovery. “Parents, guilt trip, you know.”

“And eventually us kids have to give in, put on a good show.” She nodded sharply once. “Wanna go? I know a great place without all of,” he jerked his head sharply to the side, “them.”

It was completely unacceptable to get up and leave in the middle of speed dating, certainly against some rules somewhere. But being with him, Lily felt herself empowered. She could thrust aside the shackles of modern social convention, be who she wanted, and do what felt right to her. He seemed to have no such concerns, whisking his jacket from the coatrack and leading her out the door.

“So,” she took a too-long pause to look at his nametag, “Evan, where is this place?”

“Hop in my car and I’ll drive us there. It’s got great atmosphere, private, no people to bother us. You can really get to know me.” He made no effort to hide the pride and arrogance in this, no cover of false modesty. Lily studied him and realized she understood everything about him, because he made no attempt to hide it. She knew it was against all the rules to get in the car with a strange man after meeting him for ten minutes, but she also knew that the world’s rules had never made sense to her. She slid into the passenger’s seat, squeaking across the leather seats.

He started the car and began to drive along the city streets, speeding in and out of the round pools of streetlight. They sat in silence, faces blank and empty. There was no room for masks between them; they were merely humans.

He finally stopped just beside a dreary looking tunneled walkway. Someone who was better at independently reading cues would have felt their hair rising, a gut feeling of dread and bad choices settling in. Lily, however, did not. She was thrilled to have found someone just like her, tired of the shackles of acceptable social life, ready to embrace the freedom of truly being human with another human. She stepped out of the car without hesitation.

“See, I told you we would be free,” he said, as if he could read her thoughts. “It’s just through there, one of my favorite spots. I’ll catch up,” he pointed to the trunk and Lily nodded.

“Through the tunnel?” she asked, her voice flat. He smiled, slipping into a reassuring mask—she felt for him, because it certainly was hard to let those habits die. Without another word, she turned on her heal and began an even-paced marched through the tunnel.

The sound of his steps accelerating behind her was somewhat surprising, but less so than the feeling of a thin cord around her throat. Her face burst into an expression of shock and terror, perhaps one of the most authentic expressions she had ever worn. She had no tie to consider the appropriate mask—was there one for such an event?—but merely clawed at his hands.

Her fight was short lived, and she hit the ground with a muffled thud. Evan looked down at her, wiping his hands. It was not quite how he had expected the night to go, but she had been far easier to woo than many of the others. His cold, empty mask finally gave way, revealing a hint of anger, fury, and pleasure all mingled together on his face.

He did not like being truly seen, and Even said a silent thanks that she had been too foolish to dig any deeper. She might not have liked what she saw.


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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