behind the mask

I currently own a handful of reusable masks, collected over the months from various crafty friends and worried relatives. While I have become accustomed to incorporating a mask into my everyday life, I cannot shake the feelings of isolation and even alienation when I put one on and step outside.

When the mask comes on, I feel vulnerable and exposed, as if the whole world is watching me on an empty stage. I was born an actress, which I always thought would make me an excellent liar, for better or for worse. My mom will tell you otherwise. She says all you have to do is look in my eyes and you’ll know exactly what I’m thinking. I have eyes that say too much; convey too much excitement or sadness at any given moment. They are eyes that intimidate and overwhelm, and they definitely keep me from hiding any exciting secrets.  

When the mask comes on, I am suddenly an actress in the wrong play. I am so focused on the crinkle of my eyes or the nod of my head, a slight bow to acknowledge others around me, that I have forgotten my lines. I do not know, or cannot remember, the universal signals that connect one human to another. The signs and signals that unite us in these tumultuous times are written in a language I have yet to learn. Do they know I am smiling behind the mask? Do they too feel as adrift as I do? How long has it been since they saw the other half of someone else’s face?

When the mask comes on, the elastic that loops around my ears cuts my head off from the rest of my body. I float in my thoughts as I walk out the door. In my few excursions to the grocery store or the pharmacy, I usually forget what I need, tripping over my feet as my thoughts whirl and whirl around in my head. As I move through the world, my head bobs up and down like a lonely buoy. I’d probably remain adrift in this limbo forever if left to my own devices. But suddenly, the cashier speaks to me and asks me how my day is, or a stranger in the aisle says, “excuse me”. I am abruptly and viciously connected to the world again, my brain plugged back into the reality in front of me. This is my chance to experience new human contact, something that I haven’t had a chance to do in days (or however long it has been since I lost myself inside my own thoughts). I am ready to share my life’s story, ready to discover this stranger’s history, unearth their deepest secrets, ready to embrace and laugh and love with another human being. My words come tumbling forward to the tip of my tongue, ready to burst forth in joyful noise.

But no sound comes out. My thoughts pool at my lips, trapped behind my mouth and the cloth that covers it. Just as suddenly the cashier hands me the receipt, the stranger moves around and past me, and I am alone again with my thoughts. They have moved on with their lives and left only a shadow of this momentary connection. I wonder what they think of this moment. Were they intimidated by my eyes? Did they too want to share more than a casual greeting? Where are they headed next?

I am back with my head in the clouds, my breath heating my face and fogging up the glass. I barely register the sights as I head home. My head bobs up and down, within its own sea of thoughts once again.

When the mask comes off, I come back down to earth. Now, however, I am physically alone, stuck behind four walls, cut off from the rest of the world. I wonder about the strangers whose eyes I met today. What do they carry behind the mask?


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