“She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid,
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by—
And never knew.”
-Masks, by Shel Silverstein
John Vaughn entered his home, and bolted the door behind himself. He placed his hat on the hat rack, his coat on the coat rack, and his mask on the shelf beside the others. His wife, Sasha Vaughn, was there to greet him at the door. Not one second after he removed his mask, she kissed him. He kissed her back, and told her how much he loved her. John then went to the kitchen to prepare a mug of tea, and Sasha followed.
He had gone into work that day wearing his mask labeled “Dutiful” on the inside cheek. He’d carved the mask from whitewood after his first day on the job. Everybody there put on faces, after all—why shouldn’t he? Over the course of his first few weeks at the company, John painted his mask. He gave it a smile that never ceased to be pleasant, and eyes that never blinked in front of his monitor. If his coworkers saw him outside of the office, they would never even recognize him. He took pride in that. When it came to making masks, John Vaugh was an artisan.
But at any rate, John went home every day to a wife who loved him—not just his made-up faces. Most of his coworkers weren’t so lucky.
John brought his mug of tea to the living room, where Sasha sat holding the day’s newspaper for him. He took the paper, ran a hand through her golden hair, and again told her how much he loved her. Again she kissed him, and the two settled down for their quiet afternoon in uptown suburbia.
Unveiling in Whitaker Park
This Friday, Mayor Hamilton was proud to unveil a statue in Whitaker Park, commemorating the noble sacrifice of our town’s very own Alexandra Wheeler. From a young age, Alexandra dreamed of outer space…
John looked up from his paper to Sasha. She sat curled up in the chair beside him, her chin resting on the armrest, facing his way. Heh. Cute. John gave her a smile, and returned to his paper.
…Alexandra dreamed of outer space. She dedicated countless hours of exercise and study to getting accepted into the NASA space program, and she and her family were overjoyed when after years of hard work, Alexandra got her wish: she would be the next astronaut destined for the moon.
John looked up again from his paper. In her chair, Sasha had inched just a little closer to him. He pretended not to notice, and again returned to his paper.
Tragedy struck upon reentry, when—
Sasha tore the paper out of John’s hands and leapt onto his lap, where she ravaged his face with kisses. John leaned into her affection; he caressed her soft, golden hair, running his fingers deeper each time, and deeper, until he could feel her skin underneath, and all the while she dug into his face with her smooches. She clawed at his shirt, her nails biting into his ribs, and it was only then that he eased her away. He placed a hand against her chest, and—kissing her all the while—firmly guided her off of his lap. He stood up from his chair, and she sat down in front of him, wagging her tail.
“Someone missed me today. What d’ya say we go for a walk?”
Sasha barked and bounded towards the door, her nails ticking on the hardwood floor as she went.
John took one last sip of his tea, wiped his wife’s affection off of his cheek, and followed after her. He put on his hat, and his coat, and he picked out a mask while Sasha’s tail thudded against the door, as if reminding him not to forget her. For the walk, John decided on his most elegant mask to date: “Normal”.
He didn’t bother to lock the front door as they left, because he didn’t worry about thieves: it was visitors that scared the hell out of him. He kept one hand in his coat pocket as they walked, and the other held his sweetheart’s leash. Truly, it was no wonder why John Vaughn would be the best mask maker around.
As it so happened, demasking others was his favorite pastime. Compared to the sturdiness and intricacies of his own masks, the veneers of strangers were as solid as wax paper before him. On that particular walk, John’s first subject for scrutiny was another couple, who were walking along the same sidewalk as him and Sasha. The couple held hands. Or, the woman held the man’s hand—god, how her knuckles were white. As the couple passed, the woman smiled at John, using her construction-paper mask to do so. She smiled as though she were having her photo taken; she smiled too much. She showed too many perfect, white, construction-paper teeth. Meanwhile, her eyes—her real eyes—looked everywhere at once, scanning between John, her man, her feet, and the neatly trimmed hedges of the nearby lawns. So the woman was nervous. And she was, for reasons unknown, afraid of losing her husband.
John guessed infidelity. On whose part, he wasn’t sure; paper masks still concealed some things. But John would bet all the money in his wallet that one of the two had been unfaithful.
On the way to Whitaker Park, John peeled back the masks of a drunkard, a braggart, a klepto, and a man doing his damnedest to remember his anger management lessons. Sasha, also on the social hunt, found smells from a rabbit, a squirrel, and several types of canines. John leaned down to give her a pat as they arrived at the statue of an astronaut.
Alexandra Wheeler was constructed from granite upon a 4’ by 4’ by 4’ slab of marble. She stood 11’ tall with the marble base, and would stand 7’ tall without it. She was fully dressed in her moon-landing gear, aside from her helmet, which sat by her boots on the marble slab. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and her granite eyes looked up, out of Earth’s atmosphere.
John knew some things. He knew her hair wasn’t really in a ponytail, because it was chiseled from granite, and so it had to be formed in place, rather than pulled into a hair tie organically. He also knew that, in high school at least, he and Alexandra had both stood well under seven feet tall. Finally, he knew it was tragic that they’d carved her monument from stone and cemented it to the earth.
Nonetheless, John was enamored by the artistry: here was the antithesis of his life’s work in creating masks; here was a statue designed not to hide a person, but to show her.
“What d’ya think, Sasha?”
Sasha wagged her tail at the mention of her name.
John nodded, and gave her another pat. Maybe the statue wasn’t so tragic after all. Maybe there was something beautiful about the openness of it—as far as John remembered, Alexandra was one of the countably few people he met who never wore a mask.
John and Sasha continued on to the dog park, which existed as a fenced-in section of Whitaker Park. It was the park that John always took Sasha to, for its very simple rule: no dogs on leashes. Even as they neared the gate, Sasha was already pulling against her collar. John leaned down and unclipped her.
“Hey, moron!” came a voice. John turned around, and saw the same drunkard from earlier in his walk. “Your dog ain’t supposed to be off its leash until it’s inside the fence!”
It. Not her, or even a forgivable him. But it. John took a deep breath in, held it, and exhaled as he counted to five. He had spent too long constructing his “Normal” mask to blow it over this. But oh, how worth it it felt.
Technically the drunkard was right: John was supposed to wait until they were inside the fence. What the drunkard failed to realize was that it didn’t matter. John didn’t keep Sasha on a leash to control her, or to keep her from running away. He would never dream of the former, nor she of the latter. He kept her on a leash because it was the law, and while donning the “Normal” mask, John Vaughn had to be a law-abiding citizen in every right… which technically made the drunkard correct again.
“Sorry,” John said, and his mask gave off an embarrassed smile. “I didn’t realize.”
“Alright, alright. Just get the mutt into the park or put it back on a freakin’ leash already.”
“She,” John said.
“She,” John asserted. “Her name is Sasha.”
The drunkard shook his head and turned to walk away. “You fuckin’ dog people.”
John clenched his fists, and took another deep breath. And he held it in his chest until it burned. One, and two, and three, and four… and five.
Okay. This was good; his mask hadn’t cracked. John Vaughn was still an artisan. He was still the best mask maker around. Not a deviant to the public eye, and certainly not a zoophile—just normal.
He opened the gate, and Sasha bounded into the park, where she immersed herself into the pack of dogs already present. Upon entering the pack, she sniffed each of the others, finding out where they’d been since the last time she saw them. John applied the same concept as he approached the pack of humans.
“Hi John,” said Karen, who had brought the beagle.
“Oh, John, good afternoon,” said Mrs. Howard, who was watching over the terrier and the pug.
“John, good to see you again,” said Mr. Barton—upon hearing this greeting, John frantically double checked his disguise. It was still intact. Just another case of Mr. Barton’s unintentional sense of humor.
Everything was on the up and up, as far as John could see—and here, he could see better than ever. The people at the dog park were no different than the others; they still covered themselves with wax-paper masks, including Mrs. Howard, who had known John for years. John could see past these masks if he wanted to, and glean all of the information he needed to guide their conversations that day. But there was an easier route: the dogs. Nobody masked their dogs. They were natural and free, to whatever extent their owners let them be. That was why he fell in love with Sasha. She was all at once the perfect emotional partner and the perfectly masked accomplice. She was perfectly loving to him, to whatever extent that he was perfectly loving to her. So he made sure that she was his equal, because ultimately, it was the only way that she could be his better half. Every time he watched her play with the other dogs, he envied them—he envied their freeness.
John heard the gate squeak, and turned to see a pair of new faces. The dog was a German shepherd, and an energetic one at that. The owner…
John felt weak in the knees. He fell half a step towards her, and he did a double take, and when his suspicions were confirmed then he stumbled towards her again. Her mask was made of whitewood, and without looking, he knew the single word on the inside cheek: “Normal.”
She put a finger to her lips, and from across the park, he felt her whisper in his ear: Shhhh.
He tore his gaze away from her, and forced his eyes back to the pack of dogs. But already, John Vaughn began making plans. Someday. If they were both such artisans of mask making, and if they could so clearly see eye to eye—really see eye to eye—then they would someday find a way; there would be a time and a place to remove their masks together.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, March 2016