It was late October – Halloween morning – and by 7:30 AM, I’d already seen four guys (including my Vice Principal) dressed as Superman. The troopers from Reno 911 stopped by and I posed for a picture with them before they entered the Journalism class next door. I caught a glimpse of a girl in the distance wearing a classic yellow raincoat and holding an open umbrella over her head with stuffed dogs and cats dangling off — the walking manifestation of it raining cats and dogs – while two bananas, twelve babies in pajamas clutching dolls and pacifiers, the entire cast of Scooby Doo and someone besides me who was also dressed like Cookie Monster rushed to get to class on time. I was wearing a royal blue tutu the color of my favorite character’s fur. I’d affixed chocolate chip cookie-shaped pins along the hem of the skirt and paired it all with a matching tank top, a little black sweater, and a sequined black belt to give the whole thing some definition. I completed the look with four-inch heels. The other Cookie Monster wore a plush onesie that zipped comfortably up the front. Her costume had a hood with Cookie’s eyes affixed to it while I wore a headband topped with eyes of the same style. That headband was squeezing my skull like a vice and giving me the closest thing I’d ever had to a migraine and it took maybe everything I had not to approach this stranger and persuade her to switch clothing with me right there in the middle of the hallway. But head throbbing and foot clenching aside, I liked my costume. I’d gone way more elaborate with my costumes in the past. There were years I was up before the sun, applying the darkest eyeliner and the blackest lips I’ve ever walked out of the house wearing to look like a goth-y witch or a fallen fairy or something equally as ridiculous just so I could have an excuse to experiment with makeup. Not all of my experiments went well. Once I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror and, for a sudden shocking second, I thought maybe someone wearing a statement ring on every single finger had punched me in my sleep.
The level of commitment I saw in some costumes that day was borderline astounding. One of my students had sequins glued all over her face. I’m not sure what she was supposed to be (maybe she was going for Lady Gaga?) but the whole presentation was rather beautiful and it had to have taken hours and I shudder to imagine the process of taking all those sequins off. I saw a lot of kids walking the halls with prosthetics that created oozy and infected wounds that made it look like they’d just been shot or stabbed. It was grisly for sure, and it was Halloween, but with the emergency lockdown drills we’ve all been dealing with and the way I have to take a deep breath just so I can turn on the news, I find I can’t muster up much enthusiasm for visual allusions to a massacre. Still, I have always loved Halloween and it’s mostly because of the free candy. My mother used to call the holiday “condoned begging,” but then she’s also the one who fooled me into thinking sprouts were candy. Each year now, I put together over a hundred assorted candy bags for my classes. It costs a fortune and it takes forever, but the look of pure joy and appreciation I see makes it all feel worth it. It was while I stood in the doorway passing out grape-flavored Nerds and Kit Kats and Ring-Pops and Reese’s to my sixth period class that I first saw the guy in the mask. It was white and it was stark and there wasn’t much of an expression to be gleaned from it, but I think maybe that was the point. The mask sort of looked like the guy from V for Vendetta had a naked encounter with one of the killers from The Strangers and this mask was born, their haunted anonymous child.
That mask and its inherent blankness have stayed in my mind for almost a year now.
Not once on Halloween – not even when I was a little girl – did I ever choose a costume with a mask. I was never Barbie. I never slipped on a carnation pink polyester dress and then accessorized the whole thing with a mask that would give me synthetic blonde hair and blue eye shadow for the day. I never had even the slightest desire to pretend I was a phantom at some opera. I guess part of it was that I never fully felt okay having my nose and part of my mouth covered, and there’s probably a little bit of latent claustrophobia behind it all, but the biggest issue is that I always wanted to look pretty on Halloween. I rarely go full-whore – though my stepfather did once ask me if my costume was supposed to be that of a prostitute when in fact I was dressed as a devil with a penchant for latex. Typically though, I veer towards glitter and tulle because I just want an excuse to be able to wear a crinoline outside my home.
Here’s the thing about masks, though: I might not ever pull one over my face and strap it behind my head with Velcro or that white rubber-band type thing, but I’m still wearing one much of the time. I think we all are. I’m almost not even aware anymore of when I slip one on, but I know they slide on easily now and they rarely even cause so much as a pinching behind the ears. I have them at the ready, like peppermint gum and tampons, and it doesn’t take a whole lot anymore for me to rifle through my supply and find the one that best fits the occasion. Occasionally, I share my secret of the masks with others.
It was just this week when I pulled an eighteen year old into the hallway to inform him of the apparently staggering news that, just because he was experiencing a bad day, inflicting that negativity on the rest of the room who did nothing to cause his mood would not be tolerated. I told him I couldn’t care less if he left my course learning absolutely nothing about Film if it meant he would instead internalize the essential information that society as a whole will never care that he’s feeling particularly angry or morose in the moment. I realize you’re having a tough day, I explained to him. But since nobody here caused your anger and you refuse to talk about it or work through it, you’re going to need to fake some calm right now. Take deep breaths. If you can’t concentrate, write down how you’re feeling. If you need someone to talk to, I am always here for you. But choosing to alter the temperature of the room with your rage is not something I’m about to let happen and the bosses you’ll eventually have in your life will not accept it either. He did take a deep breath then and he asked if he really could come talk to me if things didn’t get better and I assured him he could – and he did. But that day I watched as he squared his shoulders and walked back inside and fixed a look of practiced normalcy upon his face. The mask was up; behind it, I thought I caught a glimpse of myself.
I’ve slipped on the I’m Fine mask many times. Who hasn’t? And I’ve gotten a ton of mileage out of what I think of as The Deluxe Collection that includes the following:
1. The I LOOK STRONGER THAN I FEEL mask.
2. The I’M THE SINGLE MOST CONFIDENT WOMAN IN THIS ROOM mask.
3. The I’M GOING TO PRETEND TO BELIEVE WHAT YOU’RE TELLING ME mask.
4. The I’M GOING TO QUICKLY REARRANGE MY FEATURES SO YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO PROPERLY CLAIM THAT I’VE EXHIBITED TOTAL AND COMPLETE JUDGMENT OF YOU mask.
Would it be nice to face the world as Real Me all the time without having to apply a repertoire of personas like they’re fake lashes? Sure. And having world peace and Hostess cupcakes – the ones with that perfect squiggle of white icing – hanging down from the branches of willow trees would also be lovely, but my days of willing fantasy into reality are long gone simply because they have to be. The only way to get through life if you’re not experiencing it from inside a subterranean biosphere is to curate your moods and your reactions and trot out only the faces that will help you survive.
The Strong Girl mask is probably the most frayed one in my collection. I’ve been slipping it down over my eyes for decades now, probably since I was a year old and my parents nicknamed me Tuffy. It was an appropriate moniker for the time. I was very small – almost tiny – and more than a little bit accident-prone. My mother would hear a thudding from the kitchen and rush into the hallway just in time to watch me sliding down the stairs of our house headfirst. I’d just miss slamming into the huge wooden credenza at the bottom. Her hand would rest frozen atop her heart when she’d catch sight of me flinging myself off the tippy top of our jungle gym because I wanted to see how fast I could fly. (Turns out it was fast.) There were trips to the emergency room after I jumped out of my crib because I deemed naptime over or because I walked directly into a telephone pole downtown, but there’d I’d be, smiling even as doctors applied a cast to my leg or a wad of gauze to my forehead. She can handle anything, people used to marvel, and I guess after a while I just didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
A few months back, my mother ended up in the hospital due to some internal bleeding, the source of which was unknown. I received the news via text at five in the morning and called my mother immediately to tell her I was on my way to the hospital. Don’t be silly, she responded. All they are doing is tests. Come here after work, but please call your sister to tell her what’s going on. I did what I was told, but first I took several deep breaths and reminded myself that nobody was rushing her into surgery and she would be okay and then I called my sister whose very first response to the news was, Should I be a basket case?
By all means, please be a basket case, I responded immediately. That would be really helpful. Then I reigned in my sarcasm and told her to save the hysteria for news that hopefully would never – and did never – come.
Later I called my best friend and told her the story.
At any point do I get to be the basket case? I asked her. When am I the one who gets to fall apart and pose questions nobody can answer while other people make it their priority to calm me down?
You gave up the right to be the designated basket case a long time ago without even realizing it, she told me. You’re the strong one – and it fucking sucks – but you couldn’t really pull off being anything else. But if you decide you want to fall apart in private for a minute or two, you can totally act like a basket case while I watch.
That’s the problem with masks. You don them too many times and they permanently alter your features. It’s like when I got highlights for the first time a few years ago and now everyone including me forgets I didn’t always have these flashes of blond weaving through the darkness. The Strong Girl mask feels heavy now. It’s formed out of layers and strips of fear that don’t throb as hard when they exist in stacks. I hardly even know what each layer is made from anymore – or I know full fucking well the memory-makeup of every little bit of it and I just choose to deny such a thing because, somewhere along the way, I learned the process to feeling strong is by not allowing myself to feel what’s real.
My mask has slipped off before. I’ve watched as it fell to the floor and dissolved into imaginary fragments. I’ve allowed certain people to see the actual me – the me that’s frightened and fierce and ambitious and apprehensive and sexy and shy and knowing and kind. I’ve let a few people stare when I thought for sure that they were only showing me something true. They knew it, too, that I had reach the stage where I’d come to believe and so I allowed them to gaze at me full in the face as all of my masks melted off and I became unabashedly myself. And it was the cruelest person of them all who then stepped on the remnants of my masks before walking out of the room without once looking back.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter