Whenever I went on a trip, I would buy her a mask—porcelain and paint and feathers and ribbon and glitter swirled together. I used to think they were so majestic, that they were posh (even though I couldn’t afford much, so they were often from dollar stores). Every vacation required that I spend at least a few hours perusing shops to find just the right mask, the one that spoke to my feelings about the trip, my reflections. I wanted to share with my sister those little moments of my vacation, the cast-offs of my face as it froze in potent emotion to express that particular moment.
I suppose that meant that they really had more to do with me than with her, and yet they decorated her childhood room, faces frozen in arcane moments I could no longer remember. I realise now that there was something eerie about bringing back faces, letting her decorate her wall in those moments of faces that I had chosen. I realize that those masks were my masks, the masks that I would wear while I voyaged, the faces I would put on to affect a certain nuance of my personality, a performance of a certain moment of escape (but don’t all escapes really just show us how much we are still here, still unmoving and unchanging?).
I used to feel that those faces on the wall, staring out at me when I walked into her room, were my way of watching over her, keeping her safe. But it can’t help but be macabre—faces painted with someone else’s emotions, someone else’s cultural moments, displayed like ceramic shards of time. I hadn’t thought to ask how much the watchers are watched.
My sister was younger than me by about 5 years, but she knew what I couldn’t discern: she looked into those painted, glittered, porcelain eyes and saw fear. She held on to the masks, each a fragile moment of memory and pain, and watched and waited.
“Where’s my mask?”
“I couldn’t find anything that really worked and I spent a lot of time in the corn field this trip. I didn’t get much of a chance to go into town. Sorry, I was really hoping I could find a pretty purple one that would look nice with the pink and blue ones beside the window.”
“No, purple isn’t quite right. This was more of a black and white trip. This wasn’t a clown mask or Venetian mask… this one should have been a mime’s mask with dark circles around its eyes, black or grey lips, and a sad gaze. It would have gone with those ones.” She vaguely waved toward a wall of grey and red-toned masks, the red standing out like welts on the sardonic grey-scale faces, eyes becoming droplets of melancholy or arches of sighs.
I couldn’t look into their eyes. One or two looked sweetly sad, making life more precious by looking at them, but together they were a storm that sucked at my breath, pursing their lips only to blow back kisses of ice.
I smiled. It seemed the only defence. It was another mask, a protective one that I would wear to cope. Mom used to tell me after he beat me that if I just smiled I would feel better, that it would go away for a moment. That was what she always did, smiling her porcelain smile… and somehow no one else could see that the paleness of her face was painted with shock, blood drained to the rest of her body for survival.
The smile didn’t seem to work for me. My lips would inevitably purse too tightly, teeth piercing the edges of my smile that was just a tinge too red. My smile was as much porcelain as the masks, as painted on, and as fragile.
Olivia had a painted on smile as well, but it seemed less fragile, more hard and cold, evoking a chilling hollowness, and it didn’t seem to reach her eyes. It seems odd to say this of one’s sister. I was constantly told that I should love and protect my sister, but I worried sometimes that the barriers I created around her only protected her from developing any real sense of sympathy, any ability to see the suffering of others and the repercussions of her actions. Is it possible that I have spent so much time protecting her from herself?
I would get between them when I saw that darkness rise in Father’s eyes. When he sought a target, I made it of myself. I felt horror at myself every time I thought that protecting her actually gave her the distance she needed from suffering to be able to see it as something essentially other than herself.
I should have known that something was off when my cousin Janice showed up with Julia and Angela from down the street. My sister rarely invited friends over and it generally meant problems for me when she did. The sense of warning sharpened as she giggled freely when seeing Janice instead of engaging in her normal circling of predatory passive aggression. She rarely laughed openly and the sound was of tinkling glass, but not the joyful tinkling sound that my books would talk about. These tinkling glass shards were still sharp.
I began to walk toward my room to pick up my book and go into the woods. I know the escape of the woods and paperbacks were only temporary, but I hoped that time would mean that the beating would be less severe. As I turned, I looked up into eyes that seemed filled with a form of liquid anger, brought up from his red face, filled with blood. His facial features seemed to get even harder, made of rocky sharp edges as he became angrier. Rage seemed to pull any softness from his features. This was the face of Father that I knew best.
He grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, making a noose of it as he pulled me from the ground.
“Olivia says that you have been bugging her. What the hell were you thinking breaking her masks?”
More chilling than the horror of his breath and spittle in my face was the continued laughter from Olivia and her friends.
“I—I didn’t break anything. I wasn’t even here!” I squeaked, “I was away all weekend at Aunt Fern’s working at the farm. I just got back.”
“Don’t whine at me. Admit what you did, you pussy.”
Olivia looked me directly in the eyes over his shoulder, making sure that I could see her laughing face. It always astonished me that he couldn’t make the connection between her accusations of “he’s bothering me” and her laughter. I would convince myself that it was because he was so dim, barely even human… but really he actually didn’t need a reason for the beatings. He was always looking for his opportunity.
With every strike, his words seemed to become more incomprehensible. I couldn’t even understand the profanities any more. It all just seemed like waves of sound. It could have been that he stopped making sense in his rage or that my own ability to understand was dulled by the flood of pain. All I could see was a shroud of blackness and the wall of laughing faces staring back at me, all caught in inhuman grins, an audience frozen in smiles, performing for Olivia.
Blood painted my lips and teeth, blackness bruised in around my eyes. I feared my face would shatter and all of me would come pouring out between the cracks: tears and blood and feeling.
I don’t know when I realised that I was forgetting things, but it seemed to be around the time when I received the first black box in the mail, wrapped in red ribbon like a slash across the dark surface. I remember opening it and finding the powder inside, powdered porcelain, fine and white but so sharp it seemed to climb inside my fingers when I touched it, and mixed with bits of glitter, paint, and ribbon.
I couldn’t stop running my fingers through the porcelain, seeming so familiar, yet so strange. Sandman piles of sleeping powder sifting dreams through my fingers; strange, half-remembered things that seemed suspended in powdery subconscious. Watching it fall glittering from my hands released little glimpses of familiarity in its shimmering surface, a beach that captured the tides of the unconscious that washed up against it.
There was never a letter with the black box, and it never had a return sender. I guess she didn’t want anything back… well, anything other than what was being taken from me each time she shattered one of the masks.
“You shouldn’t have had to grow up so fast, you know? You were robbed of something, that innocence that the rest of us got to call ‘childhood’. You were just a little adult. You had to be. You had to learn how to grow up just to survive.”
“I guess. Not just me. I had to always be strong for Olivia and Mom too.”
I chuckled. Things always got weird when I started talking about what had happened to me… About the violence. I tried to avoid it when I could because it meant that people would get a glimpse of something too real about me and they could never un-see it. They would always look at me with that sad look in their eyes once they found out, always through that weird mist of tears. Now was the time when I would add a little joke, to make them feel like it was all okay.
“I guess that’s why I like to play now. I am catching up for lost time.” I winked and grinned my most performed smile.
Even the most unimpressive joke tends to diffuse those sorrowful looks that I couldn’t stand to see on people’s faces. Richard smiled back, as expected. Scripted perfectly.
“Seriously though… Do you think that was what made you so good at reading people? So good at figuring things out?”
“Hey, maybe I should thank my father for it all. The violence really made me a smart cookie!” I grinned wider.
Richard’s smile slipped.
I had pushed it too far. Too many off-hand joking comments. He had figured out that my smile was a defensive wall, a little trench that I had dug for myself in the war against my own memories.
“Ah, I’ve dealt with all of this long before now.” I reached to touch him on the shoulder, comforting him for the trauma of hearing about my experiences. “It really isn’t a problem. Not any more. I escaped as a teen and haven’t had to look back. And I have plenty of time ahead of me to play.” I jokingly punched him on the shoulder.
It was weird to jokingly punch someone… an action I had never thought in any way comforting or caring. But I had watched people over the years. I knew the sort of teasing that was expected, the sort of play that people engaged in when they didn’t think that violence was serious, when gentle slaps and pokes, body checks, shoves, and even punches were signs of affection. I could play the part. I had long since gotten used to the squishing feeling in my chest whenever I had to play the part of the friend who body checks, and I had long since stopped wincing when someone slapped me on the back. Almost no one noticed the sharp gasp of breath as I steeled myself for another performance of normalcy.
“I know… and you know that I love your playfulness. It is just weird to think back on my childhood and the sense of relaxation, the safety of home… and realise that you never had that. You never knew what it was like to be afraid of the monster under your bed and call your dad in to check on it because…. because, well, he was the monster and way the hell scarier than anything a kid’s imagination could think up.”
“You’d be surprised. The neighbourhood kids always asked me to tell ghost stories around the campfire because I could come up with some damn scary ones.” I grinned at him again, trying to bring us back to that loose comfortable space away from my feelings and memories.
“But don’t you see, that’s kind of horrifying too. You could scare the shit out of them because you had to take the scary game to the next level, had to create more terrifying monsters than the one that was in your own home. You know, the place those kids would run when your stories scared them too much and they needed Mom and Dad to protect them. Your monsters were your happy escape, your little sanctuary away from the real monsters.”
“Can we just let it go? I spent enough of my life living this shit. I don’t need to live it with you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have asked about all of this, but I felt I should know about your family before I, you know, joined it…”
“He is not my family.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I phrased that badly. I’m just… well, you invited your sister to the wedding and she seems like as much of a bitch as he was.”
“Richard, she was a kid. Just a stupid kid. And you know as well as I do that kids are basically all sociopaths. You teach them for fuck’s sake.”
“Yes, and my grade twos have about as much compassion as an alligator… but I don’t think they would purposely get their brother beaten by their father, and definitely not laugh about it while it was happening.”
“I really regret telling you that. You’re never going to be able to look at her the same way now.”
“I think I pretty much looked at her like a rabbit in the presence of a wolf before, so I don’t think that will change. She gives me the heeby jeebies. She always has. It’s like she uses all of that makeup to hide something severely ugly. You know how I feel about clowns, and your sister may not have the big, red nose, or drive in a tiny car with hundreds of other people wearing makeup, but when the floppy shoe fits…”
I had to laugh. Richard always knew how to cheer me up, always knew the right phrase to pull me out of that dark that played at the edges. And Richard knew how to make his own fears fair game for teasing.
But I couldn’t stop seeing Olivia as a clown now. God, I hoped she didn’t rent a small car for the wedding.
“What about a masquerade? You can borrow some props from the Theatre Guild, and they let you keep the mask from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Plus, think about how romantic it would be for us to lift our masks for our kiss… sort of like lifting our veils without the patriarchal history…”
“Mom wants a traditional wedding.”
I knew I answered a bit too abruptly, but even playing Oberon in a mask had made me uncomfortable and I can’t imagine masking again for my wedding.
“We’re two men getting married. Our weddings haven’t even been legal long enough for us to have traditions…”
I laughed. “I guess you’re right. She can suck it up!”
“Plus, didn’t you say that you used to get your sister masks whenever you went away anywhere? She will probably get a kick out of it.”
“I don’t remember… Did I say that? When?”
“Oh shit. Not again.” He put his arm around my shoulder, “You’re having another one of the lapses. This is the third time this week. I don’t think the doctor’s right. This is more than a depression symptom or some form of PTSD.”
“Are you sure you’re not just misremembering? I’m tired of this. What, do you think I have Alzheimer’s or something?” I could feel my blood pressure increasing and the foggy feeling rolling in.
“It’s not that… It’s just—it’s worth checking things out with a different doctor. I just want to make sure you’re okay, that nothing else is going on.”
“If I am forgetting things, the doctor is probably right. It probably is some type of PTSD. I went through a lot as a kid… It makes sense that some of it might be hard to remember.”
“I know, I know… It’s just, well, I worry about you and just want to check. It seems like you’re forgetting all of the good stuff along with the bad.”
“If I could pick and choose, I would. I’d remember every flower, every damn butterfly, every tree I climbed, but that’s not how it works. Let’s face it, my childhood was a quicksand pit of shit, swallowing up everything around it, suffocating all of those pretty little flowers, flittering butterflies, and autumn-kissed trees in a big gulp of brown.”
I could see tears star the corners of his eyes and felt that sick sinking feeling that happened whenever I got angry, the horrifying mirror inside showing me only Father.
“I know” he whispered, “I’m just afraid of how much you’ve changed”
“Hey it’s Jaime.”
I twirled a ribbon around my finger as I talked, shifting the phone to hold it with my cheek.
“Are you calling for Richard?”
“Ha ha, very funny, dickwad. Seriously though, why didn’t I get an invite?”
“I’m, uh, not sure… I’ll make sure Richard calls you back soon. Sorry, I’ve gotta run. Thanks for calling to… to remind us of everything.”
“You don’t know who this—”
“You’re home early…”
“Richard, I couldn’t do it. I just… I don’t know…”
“What happened? Are you okay?”
“I totally blanked during rehearsal. I was getting ready for the closing scene and I just ended up staring out at all of the empty seats in the theatre. I started gasping. I was trying to breathe through my Oberon mask and I just couldn’t get enough air. The blackness around the mask seemed to collapse in around me, like the eyeholes were blinking with my eyes under them—”
“What? What does that mean?”
“I—I don’t know. I forgot everything; all of my lines. Midsummer Night’s Dream has been my favourite play since I was 15. I memorized every line by the time I was 16. I have waited to perform this play, I have wanted it for so long… and suddenly everything is just gone. I could only see black and then the empty chairs of the theatre.”
“Maybe you are just stressed about the performance. Everyone gets performance anxiety sometimes.”
“Not me. You know that. I can just get up on stage and talk the same way as I could in a room of my close friends. It doesn’t bother me. They are both performances.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. You are probably right. It’s just stress.”
“You don’t seem certain.”
He was right, but I really didn’t want to interrogate it any more with him. I just really wish that he could understand, that he could just get it without me having to explain myself every time. I know its not realistic. I know he won’t be able to get it because he hasn’t been through any of this before.
“I don’t know. I remember when I used to be able to just read through a script twice and have it completely memorized. I didn’t have this stress, these slips.”
“You have had a lot on your mind lately. The wedding and everything on top of the performance may just be a bit too much.”
I nodded. It wasn’t that. It couldn’t be. The play and the wedding were like the fulfillment of two impossible dreams of my childhood. I wasn’t stressed. I was ecstatic. But things were crumbling around me. It was like rats were nibbling away at the photographs of my past and the memories along with them. Even the memories I could grasp seemed faded, robbed of their vibrancy, their reality. I looked at my past like a reality TV watcher examining the passage of another life that they were supposed to connect with but were alienated from by the TV screen.
My life had become a screen through which I viewed myself.
“Maybe some sleep will help…”
“You can dream your own Midsummer Night Dreams to really cement those lines!” Richard beamed.
I turned the mask in my hands, lovingly running fingers across Oberon’s face. His features, written in painted swirls, scrolls, and leafy growth seemed so distant from my own, and yet so familiar. I suppose that was the point—to make the fairy king distant and strange by masking him, by giving him an artificial mask to add to the dream-like quality of it all. But he seemed to stare back at me, to see something in me that I could no longer see.
I let the ribbon fall between my fingers, feeling its silky texture as it tickled along my hand. The mask even felt magical, fairy-like, otherworldly.
I could feel my heart leap as I brought the mask closer to my own face, but it steadied into a dull thrum as Oberon’s eyes were fitted over my own, as the ribbon tied us together and I let myself go, fading into the character.
I stared at the darkened curtains that reminded me so much of the black oppression that I felt around my memories, so light and almost intangible, but so effective at marking the boundary between the worlds of present and past.
The curtains parted and I was Him. I was lost in the sweep of his arms, the boom of his voice, and the feel of his feet against the stage.
Her face looked somewhat familiar, staring at me across the cast party, smiling and waving.
I looked behind me, but no one was there.
I assumed I must have seen her somewhere before—the friend of a cast member?
Her expression turned confused, a frown clouding her features.
She mouthed “Hi” and there was an inferred question mark at the end of the word.
I smiled, letting myself perform a slight laugh. This had been happening too often, and I had learned how to “fake it” and be welcoming to these strangers who told me that we knew each other so well.
“Let’s invite Father.”
“Are you serious, did you forget—” Richard broke off to try to catch his breath. His face had gone bright red.
“…to invite him?”
“No! Did you fucking forget everything he did to you?!”
“No, no, I remember. It’s just… It doesn’t seem significant any more. It was a long time ago. Shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones?”
“No! We shouldn’t. He fucking tortured you… Your whole life, he tortured you. Did you forget this along with everything else?”
“I remember that I love you and I want everyone to know that.”
“There are some people who don’t deserve to know.”
I felt his hand in mine. Warm. Firm. Reassuring.
I couldn’t look at him in his mask. All I could see was artificiality looking back at me: Richard stripped of everything that was Richard, rendered a blank under all of the glitter, gloss, paint, and ribbon.
Why did he insist on us wearing masks? My university History of Theatre course had revealed too much to me about the tradition of masking, highlighting my discomfort with the strange blank signifiers that spoke so much. They hid the face, blending roles of protection, disguise, performance, and ritual, allowing the wearer to assume identities, roles, and different selves. What self was he wearing for me and what self was I wearing for him? Was either real? Whose faces were we wearing?
We walked through the doors of the church and I could feel the faces turn even though I fixed my eyes ahead. I could see through my peripheral vision a swirling wall of masks, all turning to face me, reversing the theatre so that the audience were performers, watching me with their erased faces, their carnivalesque identities.
Each pew was lined with artificial faces, all turning slowly to watch us with human eyes encased in ceramic orbits. It was a macabre blend of the living and the never-meant-to-be-alive, of flesh and stone, and all of it seemed so contrived, so artificial, so ritualized.
The masks of the guests in the church seemed to blend together, shelves of crafts artfully displayed to make me aware that I was being watched and evoking a strange familiarity.
People were more creative with their masks than I would have expected. I guess this happens when so many friends are met from the stage and all of them bring their flare for the theatrical into everyday life. Here masks borrowed from the styles of the ancient Theatre of Dionysus, there a Yoruba mask, here an Iroquoian false face, there a noh mask. It was a sea of cultural appropriation and I had to shut off my mind to the privilege those adorned faces represented, the cultural robbery they wore over their own faces. And, of course, Venetian masks predominated, illustrating everyone’s sense of the traditional masquerade.
This scene would have been different if everyone decided to wear medical masks or gas masks. Maybe then they would see how masks are faces of protection, symbols of self-defence even when they are images of celebration meant to obscure the identity of the celebrants.
As the priest spoke, I could only stare out at the assembled masks, thinking of the bizarre type of initiation all of this evoked.
Even when audience members became bored or uncomfortable with their masks and let them slip, there was still a mask beneath, a face frozen in that still boredom of ceremony. Everyone seemed Matryoshka dolls, nesting faces one beneath the other, each as thin as the last and carrying only emptiness at the centre.
I knew that I was a Matryoshka doll, a nesting doll of empty shells with a hollow core that waited to be filled, and lately that core seemed to be more empty, hollowed out with each black box wrapped in red ribbon that arrived at my house.
I followed my lines and was thankful for my mask and its ability to obscure my horror as I stared out at those masks, each face a cold reflection of something I wanted to remember.
As we left the church, they threw glitter on us, a confetti of multicoloured rainbows to celebrate a queer union, but something about it reminded me of the cascade of crushed porcelain in those black boxes that seemed to appear at so many vital moments over the past few years. I could feel shards of uncut glass in the glittering fall.
My mother and Olivia had decorated the reception hall: pillars twined with ivy, tea light candles like fairy lights winking throughout the room, and, of course, more masks, strewn artfully across the table centrepieces, tied with ribbon to bunches of black fabric, festooned around pillars. Faces painted with emotions from sardonic smiles to horror to teary trauma stared back at me from every corner; blank socketed eyes fixed me in their gaze. All of them seemed to be waiting.
I should have been more involved in the decorating.
There it was, on the gift table at the reception hall, another black box, trimmed in red ribbon. It seemed to have gravity, drawing me toward it.
I approached slowly. Some part of me kept saying that this was grossly inappropriate, that gifts were for the end, but I needed to see that glittering sand of crushed porcelain. I needed to find out why something so meaningless was draped in meaning.
I pulled the ribbon, letting it hiss along the black velvet of the box.
Inside I saw myself, or, at least, a mirror image of the Oberon mask I wore. Eyeless, it stared back at me nonetheless.
The glossy surface reflected parts of my own mask—Oberons within Oberons. And this porcelain figure was intact.
“It was never really mine.” Olivia’s voice whispered in my ear, “None of them were. You gave them to me, but they were all your faces and I have been returning them to you, piece by piece. I’ve owned you. I’ve owned every face you wore.”
“What… What do you—?”
She reached slender fingers into the box, gently sliding nails beneath the mask and lifting it carefully from the form-shaped base of the box. She swept the mask up into her hands, pulling ribbons along with it and held it gently toward me, letting its hollow eyes look into mine. In those eyes I could see flickers of movement, a cascade of thoughts that seemed to be my own, or at least to have belonged to a me from somewhere else.
The crack of porcelain echoed through me, a split image refracting on itself.
The mask shattered and I could see my face fall to the floor.