The Mask I Wore to Alice’s Flat
In a fit, this is the mask I threw to the sidewalk after the power died in my apartment building without warning. Yes, the city was to blame. No doubt, it knew not the names of those working from home. Never mind the math it’d take to make up for missing a day’s pay. Upon issuing a complaint, the city told me to take a nap. But being two cups of coffee deep, sleep wasn’t coming on an empty stomach. So I took a trip to the corner shop. Only, the shelves and fridges had yet to be restocked. For this, the city wished to blame the state.
In a basket on the counter, sat the last lemon on Clark St. So shiny, I planned to have with tea that night. Then it was snatched by a customer who bought it and a lottery ticket. Leaving empty handed, I tried ripping this mask from my face, but its ear loops tangled in the arms of my glasses, as would a kite in tree limbs, tugged by a child who tightened the branches’ grip with their trip up the trunk.
Finally free, this mask became a member of the concrete, soon to meet an off-brand soda can, empty ketchup packet, and ATM receipt reading insufficient funds. It wasn’t till reaching the end of the street before realizing I’d just cashed a check of disrespect the city had written me earlier. So I circled round the block to retrieve it. But this mask was gone, off mingling with missing shoestrings, broken electric cigarettes, and a napkin with a lipstick kiss.
This is the mask I wore on the bus one morning when accidentally sitting across the aisle from a citizen in a shouting match with himself. Shifting his attention to the crowd, he bragged about being up all night on the pipe, in case none of us could smell it on him. Then over the rows of frozen still commuters, he cussed the driver instructions to catch the bus two blocks in front of us. See, he’d been refused passage on it for a reason that fell from his mouth, but didn’t reach our ears.
And all he was left with was strict intension to pop that man behind its wheel with the gun menacing from his belt. The state, sensing escalation, already told the press to blame the country. The gun was rusty along the barrel, but trusty at the trigger. This, a fact he repeated until retreating at the next stop, fearing a passenger had called the cops. Everyone sighed in relief, fogging windows with heavy breaths filtered through our masks, knowing throughout the day, we’d heard it repeating, “Rusty along the barrel, but trusty at the trigger.” “Rusty along the barrel, but trusty at the trigger.”
This is the mask I wore when at the grocery store and forgot what a cantaloupe was. Reaching up to the same stack of fruit, it appeared to be my twin daughters, whom I haven’t seen since their mother’s last mental collapse. Hers, a curse that’s endured centuries, tracing back to a cave witch from a Polish mountain that’s long since crumbled. Unwilling to see passed her own chaos, my twins’ mother robs both our families of memories, moments nurturing those girls.
There wasn’t need to look behind their masks to know they weren’t my daughters. Their eyes were not my eyes. And that patient lady accompanying them certainly wasn’t the ill woman who passes her sickness along to me every day she keeps us apart. I wish it were my fault. At least then I could blame myself, saving hours trying to make sense of why my mother’s prayers don’t work. The country has no stake in this game, but still, it blames the continent.
Unable to afford a lawyer, the most to hope for in an Illinois court are visitations. But how many therapist visits does it take for me to ignore her emotional meddling, inevitable manipulations, war she’d wage with the children in between us? It’s a futile attempt to coparent with someone possessing the civility of a hyena, the temperament of a cobra. But don’t take my word for it. Ask all the friends she drove away. Ask her mother, whom she falsely accused of molesting our daughters. If I had a quarter for each word of her verbal abuse, I’d be able to afford a lawyer.
Imagine my shock upon spotting those toddler doppelgängers. In danger of choking on the tears that I’d sucked into my stomach, I slipped my mask down far enough to vomit in aisle 12. Gripping the shelves, I pressed my consciousness to default settings, then cried my way to the self-checkout counter. That’s when the scanner wouldn’t register my fruit. Informed to search, the name of that goddamn earthy orb in my palm, it may as well have come from another planet.
It may as well have been another planet. Huffing and puffing, everyone in line behind me pacified themselves with their phones. So alone, sadness and anger rendered me into a tiny comet, barreling towards that planet’s surface. Anticipating the explosion, I hoped it’d be loud enough to express myself in front of strangers. But all I heard was, ‘Cleanup in aisle 12.’ And that planet, I remembered it was a cantaloupe, just before smashing into its flesh.
This is this the mask I wore to Alice’s flat the night she invited me over to tell me her story, the story she’d only share with me, for I’d confided in her my own fragile tale. I asked, “Are you speaking of a particular New Year’s Eve when I might’ve ruined an orgy because I wasn’t bi?” Alice replied, “Nope. I’m referring to when you forgot what a cantaloupe was, when you finally told me what’s been holding your emotions back from me.”
Of course we’d spend more than a few minutes nursing that topic. But first, it was urgent for Alice to tell me why it’d been six weeks since she’s spoken to anyone. Cooped up like the rest of us, one night, round, one a.m., she couldn’t take it anymore. Sick of every TV series from here to the UK, bored with variations of the same phone conversations, when Alice gets sad, she sings. “I wanna swing on the swings,” she sang. “Swing on the swings, till I forget everything.”
There’s a park not far from Alice’s flat. In the dark, it looks like a graveyard, except for the swing set with triangular legs that sink deeper into the ground whenever someone plays on it. But that night, Alice would take a turn. The seat was wet enough to soak through her jeans, though she barely noticed once she thrusts back and shot forward.
With each swoosh, those old swing chains rang across the crumbling basketball court and broken picnic tables. And when she reached her highest peak, Alice’s hair swept under the sky in fragments of street light. But at the end of her decent, hands slammed into her back, pushing her further than she’d swung before. Before she could plunge forward and run, three pairs of eyes popped out of what would’ve been her landing spot.
Alice slingshot in reverse, pulled suddenly to a stop from a grip over her grip on those chains. His fists her clasping her fists; he whispered against her neck. His words were indiscernible. Their only purpose was so his tongue could slither out. Had she shouted, we would’ve read all about it in the news. Instead, Alice jerked free, but within seconds, they’d surrounded her as would a merry-go-round transformed into a monster.
It seemed she’d be stripped down beyond her underwear, tossed onto the swing wrong side up. And then the fondling ceased. Fast approaching feet broke up the beast bonding. Alice’s savior called upon them by name, scattering them in separate directions. That’s when the continent blamed the planet, who blamed the universe. The universe turned round, blaming the first atom to burst into existence. Alice’s savior insisted on walking her home in an unsavory tone. And just before reaching her door, she sensed if she didn’t invite him in, she’s not live to know what happened then.
This isn’t where Alice’s story ended, but it’s worth mentioning, before leaving, he claimed her as his girlfriend, not bothering to close the door. We hugged until changing the subject, never speaking of it since. After all, there were memes needing arguing against, and we anticipated a civil war to begin in the suburbs, reaching its end on social media. Alice imagined former cops would go on to form barbershop quartets. And they wouldn’t need an audience, but the opposite of a chorus, who’d paint pictures of the bigger picture when the world opened back up.