My Year Inside A Mask

by Jan Elman Stout

Tim was splayed across our living room couch, tapping furiously on his phone, when he abruptly stopped and looked at me, and said, You cut your hair, then he smiled like he was pleased he’d noticed. He was right; I had cut my hair. A week ago, I’d asked my hairdresser for a bob and to henna-dye my formerly long, dark brown hair mauve. Now, Tim’s eyes still on me, I dangled my detached ponytail in front of him—protected in a plastic bag, to be shipped off to Locks of Love—and mirrored the smile he’d shot me. And as no words passed between us, as few had in the past year, an idea struck.

Use those thumbs and order yourself take-out, I yelled. Ponytail in hand, I left the house and headed for my studio. There, I ripped newspaper into inch-wide strips, dipped them in a boiled water and flour concoction, and wrapped them around a balloon. Once dry, I painted the paper maché Crayola peach, cut eyeholes and nostrils, and held the mask to my face. In the window my reflection looked primitive, childish. But what disappointed me most was the way its bumpy texture revealed character.

I started anew, this time molding a replica of my expressionless face from smooth polyethylene plastic, dyed to match my ivory skin. Using a fine-toothed saw, I cut almond-shaped eyes, and nostrils at the tip of the turned-up nose. I painted the lips the color of my salmon lipstick, held my likeness to my face, and again looked in the window. I’d captured my slack-faced jaw, philtrum, and Cupid’s bow perfectly.

I smiled and, although my eyes tightened, my new face remained still. I widened my eyes, revealing less, and smiled harder, jubilant I’d captured the effect I wanted. And though I still planned to ship my hair to Locks of Love so an unfortunate woman who’d gone through chemo would know someone cared, I ripped open the bag with my ponytail, cut a couple inches for bangs, and glued the hair to the mask.

Tim was channel surfing on the flat screen TV when I returned home. Did you have dinner? I shouted from the front hall. No time, he yelled back as I went directly into the kitchen, the mask affixed to my face. When the tantalizing, nutty aroma of Chicken Marsala, cremini mushrooms, and buttered egg noodles—Tim’s favorite meal—didn’t rouse him, I yelled for him to come to the table. Be there in a few, he shouted, and appeared ten minutes later.

He pulled his phone from his breast pocket and resumed scrolling. I watched him stir his food into a heap and shovel one huge bite after another into his mouth, his free hand fused to his phone. Delicious, he said, glancing at my blank face. Reflexively, I nodded, and immediately regretted it.

For days, I studied myself in our bathroom mirror. Shielded by the mask, I expressed irritation, sorrow, hurt, even disdain, my eyes remaining vacant. For kicks, I practiced Edvard Munch’s The Scream (minus the crazed eyes and cupped ears). I tested a full range of emotions without baring any and, the more I remained hidden, the higher my spirits rose.

Weeks passed before my mask aroused suspicion. We hadn’t had sex since I’d put it on and one Saturday afternoon Tim said, How about a quickie? I let him usher me upstairs to the bedroom by my limp hand. I lay still, imagining myself flitting across the sky like a swallow, as he ran his hands along my body. He tried to kiss me and I turned my head. His lips caught my plastic cheek and his face puckered, and he said, I thought you stopped using those Korean face things, and finished. I nearly cried but held back.

Months later, Tim came home from work early, eager to share news. I landed the new account, he said and my face remained motionless. What’s wrong with you? he said, Can’t you be happy for me? I was happy for him, but I couldn’t cross the hole we’d dug. Moments passed while he scrutinized my face and my heartbeat fired faster.

Ready, I tore away the mask and handed it to him. He held it to his face. Congratulations. You earned it, I said, and pecked his plastic cheek. His eyes narrowed and then softened and I wondered what he felt beneath the mask but I wouldn’t ask and he wouldn’t say. We stood there, unmoving, and for the last time, I disappeared.

Jan Elman Stout’s fiction has appeared in Pure Slush, Literary Orphans, Jellyfish Review, Midwestern Gothic, 100 Word Story, Midway Journal, Lost Balloon and elsewhere. Her flash has been nominated for the Best Small Fictions anthology in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Jan is Submissions Editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. She is currently working on a flash collection.

Artwork by: Shayna Bruce