They bought the masks while on various vacations, my grandfather and his wife. The masks hung on the walls, an installation that started, I think, in my grandfather’s office and which had grown like cancer to spread throughout their sprawling, pretty pastel, Floridian ranch home. Or maybe they started in their bedroom. Or possibly the dining room. Maybe they started in the hall and used the hallways like veins, like a central nervous system, shooting tiny little seed masks off into other rooms to grow and consume. The masks covered everything. There wasn’t a room without a mask. Not even a bathroom. Not even the tiny changing room just off the in-ground swimming pool. The masks got into everything like sand. Everywhere I went, empty eye holes stared out at me, watched me from the walls, witnessed everything and said nothing. Could say nothing. No mouths on the masks. Only empty holes for eyes.
Performing in a mask requires a different set of skills than simply acting. Performers don’t have access to their faces, and the face is the primary vehicle of emoting. In a mask, an actor cannot frown, cannot smile, cannot grimace, cannot gape in fear, cannot scoff in disgust, cannot stare without any expression other than the pure hatred that they cannot stop from seeping out of their eyes. And so actors take special classes on the art of performing masked. In these classes, actors are taught to emote with their entire body. Instead of merely smiling, the actor must lift the shoulders, the arms, the chest, the hips, must curve every part of their body upward in a whole-body smile. Instead of simply frowning, the actor’s entire body slumps: head, neck, shoulders, arms, chest, torso, hips, thighs, all folding in on themselves in a sadness communicated by every muscle in the body. The body grimaces, twitching and twinging in pain or embarrassment. The body gapes in fear, jerking and jumping and shivering. The body scoffs, turning away and shuddering with disgust. And the body holds perfectly still, the body matches the mask in singular expression, the body becomes the mask to communicate the utter oneness of hatred.
My grandfather’s wife favored animal masks. She liked the “rustic” ones. The “real” ones. The “authentic” masks. Masks carved of wood where you could see the splinters and the roughness and the movement of the chisel into the meat of the tree. From the American Southwest she brought back cattle skulls and armadillos. All browns and earthen greens, sun-bleached whites with pops of turquoise. From South America she brought back rainforest bird masks. Sculpted beaks and bright splashes of color: crimsons and cobalts and glowing greens. From China came dragons, of course. Pulsing orange and red and yellow. Japan gave her panda bears. But her favorite masks came from Africa. These masks she bought from “real people.” She met them in roadside markets. She bought their masks (giraffes, lions, monkeys, hyenas, hippos) and haggled only enough so that she wouldn’t insult these noble artisans and she flew home snug in her first class seat and secure in the knowledge that she had made a real difference in the lives of real people. And maybe she had. Maybe the people she met liked her. I know so many other people liked her so well. She was kind and thoughtful and just addle-headed enough. Just forgetful enough to take the edge off of her intelligence. Just sweetly stupid enough to put people at ease and to not intimidate. No sharp corners on my grandfather’s wife. No harsh lines. All softness and sweetness and creativity and just enough cluelessness to sell the idea that she might not know that her husband was molesting his granddaughter in his office. Although maybe I’m giving her both too much credit and not enough.
The problem with my memory is that it hides things from me. Things that I know, by logic, should be there, instead float in my brain like the empty eye holes in a mask. I know my sister was there. And our sort-of cousin. I know they played in our grandfather’s swimming pool. I remember getting out of the pool when our grandfather’s wife came and called me to let me know our grandfather wanted to see me in his office. I can hear their shrieks and splashes echoing off of the terracotta tiles as I climbed the ladder up out of the deep end. And I can hear those shrieks and splashes grow muffled as I slide the glass door closed behind me and make my way to his office, trying not to drip too much. I can even hear his wife asking my sister and our sort-of cousin about what they wanted to eat for dinner, giving them options I don’t remember. Mahi mahi or chicken, maybe, fired up on the grill. Salad with radishes or apples, possibly. But this is guesswork, based on countless other dinners his wife orchestrated for us, for my sister and our sort-of cousin and me. This is extrapolation. Which is not the same as hidden empty eye holes on a wall. Those gaps are grey like fog on sand. Those gaps are blurred around the edges, like mist on ocean. Those gaps have nothing to extrapolate from. Those gaps are missing minutes and hours, time just gone dark and empty. Although sometimes my memory will throw me a clue, but it’s rarely anything useful. Usually just another empty mask on the wall.
In the end, I’m left with sand. Digging my fingers into sand and making shaking fists where no one can see. Shoving my feet into sand and kicking, shoveling it up in the air, watching the sand explode up off the beach like a bomb. Stretching out on my stomach, pretending to nap in the sun, and scrubbing the inside of my mouth with sand. Using fingers coated in sand to try to scour the taste of Scotch and sweat and something saltier off of my tongue. Sitting on sand and smiling off into space whenever I feel someone looking my way. Sitting on sand and wearing my smile like a mask, smiling just enough to assure onlookers that all is well but not so much that they feel the need to come find out what is making me so happy. Empty smiles and empty eyes make the best masks. For a while, I tried books. Sitting on sand and holding a book up in front of my face, counting to sixty and turning the page. But books invite questions. “What are you reading?” “Is that any good?” “Have you ever read…?” Empty smiles and empty eyes and empty gaps in the memory make for better masks.
Jenn Lee has studied theatre, anatomy and physiology, and baking and patisserie. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their two cats where she spends an obscene amount of time playing Dragon Age and not cleaning. She loves baseball, Godzilla, knitting, dinosaurs, Sondheim musicals, World War II history, chocolate, superheroes, space, and reverb-heavy guitar. She figures it can all be put to use as a writer.