Do we know others better when their masks are off, or is the opposite more true?
You see, I walk among my peers and neighbors. Every one of them behaves the way their demeanor dictates. One is a debutante; refined in every way. Another is a foreman; thick in both the skin and the brain. Around the corner, an unkempt, hairy beggar; slumped against the brick wall, holding out his palm for whatever will be spared. All know what is expected of them. All know how to perform their acts to the top of their game, and no one questions anyone's motives.
But I know these people; I know them not for what they appear to be, but by who they want to be, who they think themselves to be on the inside, deep within their secret hearts. It isn't more than every two months that we all convene at the gala, arranged inside the richest of mansions. Here is where the real people emerge; the sheep in wolves' clothing feels safe to come out.
One half of an hour goes by, to give the guests time to enter the festivity from the dark, dangerous streets, before the lovely lady makes her entrance from the top floors. We all see her, we all draw in our breaths, forced silence by her beauty.
While the guests' eyes are drawn to the enormous dress and equally excessive wig, I admire the mask. The world knows of her charm, her smile, her philanthropy. In charity meetings, even while speaking to the average commoner she may feel dignified enough to speak to, warmth flows from every pore of her made-up skin. Here, though, is where the opposite shines. With silk ribbons, her true facade is visible to all daring to admire.
I look at that smooth porcelain, and I see who she is on the inside, let out for one night. This may be her party, but what nerve she has to be plain, ordinary, smooth and flawless. The mask, ivory white, save for what the light cannot reach. In fact, it is that contrast of light and dark that suggests even a single contour. The eyes, seamlessly blended with the brow and cheek, offer no insight to what she feels. How does she breathe with such hardness in front of her? Does it reflect the corset she wears? Do they go hand in hand? Who knows? She speaks her mind to no one when hiding in plain sight. If she feels generous, she returns bows and curtsies with a slight nod.
She sees me. Through that solid, gleaming doll face with no discernible eyes, she sees me. Of course it is only because I see her. She knows what I see, what I know, and of course I bow to her; I know in what parts of the world will free your head from your neck if no respect is shown. The debutante, the heiress, she tips her head ever so slightly, then moves on, as if a one woman entourage.
Not far behind her is the foreman. His duties among the masons and the smiths show him to be a patient one. I have seen him withstand the pressure and heat from his minions, their protests loud among the clangs of metal and flicks of fire. Customers are no gentler, their personae a creature of itself. I would swear on my own life that this man of weathered and leathered temper grew dumb to shouting, so that only a gentle word and soft smile would find a rise of emotion from him.
So is it really a surprise to find him here, hidden beneath his facade that sports a grin of poison? That moss-stained plaster only brings out the man he wishes he was when doling out product and salary alike. I see him under the natural sunlight with deep lines and tanned skin. Here, though, is an exterior that threatens blood-letting. Razors protrude from the cheekbones, daring anyone to come near him. Although champagne is offered to all as if it fell from April showers, this brute shows he needs no truth serum to tell us all as he sees things. The fellow who stands next to him, fortunate enough to have purchased horseshoes the day before from the rugged foreman, now endures the hatred that boils from a wide mouth-piece, designed for this very reason, no doubt.
The eyes on his mask are narrow slits. It's one of the few things I can't place; are they narrowed in lust? In anger? I would think those dark sockets would focus on the beautiful. Instead, he looks in my direction. The instant I turn to him, his gaze returns to unfortunate ears that suffer his banter.
Does he have eyes for me? Is it my body he craves? I suppose it's possible; a man who reaches for the posterior of a woman's skirt may only be feigning interest, or even going so far as to fantasize the flesh underneath that skirt belongs to a boy. Not likely; those almost squinting eyes, the jade color of his mask. Is he envious? Impossible. What have I to own that he cannot buy himself? I wear no jewelry nor trinkets, and rarely have possession of anything to denote title or status. Does he envy the attention the debutante offers me from time to time? Does fear tighten across his buttoned chest that I would rise above all others?
Like I said: impossible. I will not humor that implication any further.
And what of the homeless man, the vagabond? He begs for food occasionally, but otherwise, eats what he finds abandoned, sleeps where peace allows, defends himself as necessary. If I were to tell you that he has traveled the world, both with companion and in solitude, would you believe me? Would you believe then, that I might tell you he studied at a university of immense prestige? Which one? Does it matter? He has no home, no family, no worldly possessions he can't stow in a knapsack. Based on his stature in the world, one might say the whole of academia has failed him.
Or perhaps it merely changed him. Was there someone, likely a professor, who told him about materialism, and the fallacy of hedonism? Would you believe me when I tell you that he was convinced that logic, enlightenment, worldly knowledge is far more important than worldly possessions? If that's true, what is he doing at the gala with his own half-mask that conceals all but the lower hemisphere of his countenance? Is he perhaps a hypocrite in disguise? Why would such a place appeal to him? Does the disdain of others appeal to him? I can't say I know. While wisdom comes to many, all of us have our flaws. Irrationality will seep in from time to time, and all we can do is pray it doesn't bring us down by the day's end.
A note slipped into my pocket by a servant reminds me of my mission, though. Yes, I have my instructions to meet the lovely young lady who offers shelter both under the roof and behind the mask. Is she ashamed of our little rendezvous'? Not at all; she does have a reputation to uphold after all. I sway through the crowds, and reach my destination. Gingerly, I open the door. Her mask removed, her face clear of makeup, she seeks a new beginning. This duality wears her down, the poor dear, as I would imagine it wears us all down, pretending to be someone we'd rather not be. Naturally, I know why she summons me every two months: the professors at the university weren't the only ones who impressed her mind and spirit.