Masquerade

She tied her hair into a ponytail, buttoned her leather coat, and thought of a polite way to put it. The issue was his friend’s Halloween party, an annual tradition, with a barbecue, joke prizes, and a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. He called it campy and she nodded, without adding the adjectives that came to her mind.

In past years he’d gone as athletes, either famous ones, like Babe Ruth, for which he strapped a pillow around his torso and carried a bat in one hand and a liquor bottle in the other, or generic models, such as the toothless hockey player last year. “I said ‘eh’ a lot.” He grinned and looked for a response. “Like, ‘You havin’ a good time, eh? Get you some dessert, eh?'”

With a polite smile, she said no thanks and they continued by the window of the pastry shop that was two doors from the restaurant they had just left. The night was cool and the wind blustered, stinging skin, and rustling up leaves and cloaks.

“So, will you come? It really is a lot of fun.” His grin remained, his voice was joyful.

She locked her arm around his elbow, forming a link that felt secure and necessary. A strong gust whistled and smacked the side of her face. The cold burned and caused her to sniffle. To shield herself, she ducked into his wall of a shoulder and waited for the warmth to return to her cheeks. They headed for the subway, passing familiar bars noisy with activity and full of women desperate to look sexy. His mouth scraped against the side of her head as he pressed himself against her earlobe.

“Did you hear me?” he whispered. The sharpness of his chin felt like a nudge.

“Yes, I did.” With a fluid motion, she unlooped her arm from his and placed her hands in her coat pockets.

She bunched her shoulders and turned away, thinking she was better off with the cold. This relationship of theirs teetered between commitment and division, a tenuous state that could tilt on one true act of love or the slightest betrayal.

Rock music played in a bar and she peered into the window as if the notes would sound clearer or more resonant if she could identify the musicians from whom they came. The bar was dark and any figures she could see were faceless, shapeless blobs. The starkest image, in fact, was a reflection of them. She frowned and the old, unfortunate trinity of wrinkles formed on her forehead above the bridge of her nose. His face was stern, his eyes hard and focused on her.

He spoke again, this time with a hint of disappointment, a childish whine. “I’d really like you to come and I thought we could dress up together.”

A laugh spurted from her throat and in the window she watched her mouth spread into a wide smile. “I’m sorry.” She put a hand over her lips to stifle the laughter.

He frowned and his jaw bones jutted out as the skin around them went taut. Even as she apologized again, snickers continued to escape from the sides of her mouth. Rejection — even the perception of it — will cause anger and fear to swell, and at that moment his urge was to shake her and command her not to laugh like that again. Instead, he turned his eyes to the headlights of oncoming cars. He aimed to name the makes and models of each when it drove by. The mind game was a distraction meant to invoke patience, but after only a few cars, almost all Japenese coupes, the exercise grew tedious and the expungent glare of a set of lights and another ripple of wind caused him to droop his head.

Although she had apologized twice, he could tell there was only a touch of remorse in her words, so he decided to test her sincerity. Speaking into the wind and staring at the gray sidewalk, he reiterated his hope for the party. “I thought we could go as like a team. I’d be a quarterback and you could be a cheerleader. A lot of my friends’ girlfriends go along with that kind of thing. Last year, someone went as a hot dog and his fiancee went as a bun.”

Her eyebrows raised and her head shook the way heads shake when people can’t believe someone is being serious.

“No, really, it was a good costume. You know, the innuendo.”

They walked in silence, their feet in step, tapping the concrete blocks. As the light from the busy stretch of bars faded, their bodies formed one large, slow-moving shadow. The melding made him think about union and if it made sense. He was contemplating many more months or possibly years with this woman, so the time to count her good points and bad was now. Yes, she had a lot going for her: a stupendous body, a job that didn’t include tips, and brains; but she had moods and even a temper. Besides the condescending laughter, she often rolled her eyes and huffed when he expressed opinions, and she once became belligerent, almost violent when he commented on another woman’s ass. Now this, giving him a hard time over a little Halloween party.

In silence, they turned the corner and the taps from her high heels and his loafers counted out the thirty-odd steps until they reached the end of the block and the subway entrance. A light glowed from above the stairwell and as they walked under it to the train, he finally blurted, “What? You don’t think the costume’s a good idea?”

She slumped her shoulders and closed her eyes for a moment. “It’s just not my thing.” Her eyes met his briefly, then she shrugged and it seemed it was more than the vacant air she was shrugging away.

“Okay, sure.” He reached for her hand and she removed it from her pocket for him to hold. “We don’t have to go as a team or whatever. You can be a vampire if you like, it doesn’t matter.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” She tsked and tugged her hand, but he reaffirmed his grip with a good, hard clench and she settled back into a sweet clasp of fingers and palms. After a sigh, she lowered her head and noticed their shadows, as well. His thumb rubbed over hers and it felt like a soothing massage. Rather than go on a long schpiel, she left it at that; never mind that the words were right there, a whole speech waiting to come out about the superficial world and the masks it encouraged. In the past, she wouldn’t be so easy or swift to be attached. This one had things together, though, with a high-paying job and plans for the future. In anticipation of their dates, she perspired at her desk and she liked that people at work could tell who had phoned from the cadence and excitement in her voice. The thought that they were even arguing over something so stupid made her feel foolish and a need to be blunt, to put the issue to rest. “I just don’t like costume parties,” she said.

“You’re kidding!”

“No, I’m not.”

“When was the last time you were at one?”

She exhaled and immediately remembered the time in college when a group of frat boys wore monkey masks and raided dorm rooms. For a while, she and her friends screamed and ran in place on the hardwood floors of their bedrooms. Several of them regained their wits after the initial terror and hurried outside to notify security. Inside, the frat boys crowed, “Oooo-Oooo-Oooo!” and grabbed bras and panties and T-shirts from any drawer they could reach. The invasion lasted about ten minutes and when the girls went back in, they found fake feces and vomit on the floor. They shrieked some more and the security guard, trying to calm them, said it wasn’t real, and even picked it up to demonstrate so, which only made the girls “Ewww!” again and cover their faces. The real scare, though, came when someone yelled, “Call an ambulance!”

It turned out the frat boys had done more damage than the prank intended. One of the monkey men got out of control and pushed a girl into a closet and persisted. This girl was claustrophic and had a panic attack so bad she nearly clawed through the guy’s mask. She kicked and screamed and hyperventilated and fell into a seizure. The guy let go and escaped with his friends. The girl was taken to the hospital, recovered, then complained so vehemently about the fondling she suffered and the attack altogether that the school suspended the frat boys and kicked two out altogether. As eventful as that was, it definitely didn’t qualify as a costume party.

“Well, I haven’t really been to any,” the woman answered as she and her boyfriend descended into the heat of the subway. “But I just really don’t think I would enjoy it.”

Although she kept her eyes trained on the stairs, she sensed disappointment in his long drawn breaths, a sign he was struggling to keep composed. Turnstiles chimed when they swiped their MetroCards, and they clicked their way through to wait on the gloomy platform for the train.

She inhaled the stagnant air and reminded herself of the one word that’s supposed to make a relationship work: compromise.

“Do people go who don’t dress up?” she asked, head down.

He chuckled and kept an eye out for the train. “Yeah, but they look like losers.”

“Really?”

“I mean, they’re so out of place no one talks to them and then they don’t get invited again. My friend who puts this together goes to a lot of trouble every year. I think he expects people to at least make the effort.”

“Sounds like high school.”

“Oh, come on.” He faced her, his body drooping.

“I’m teasing.” She took his hand.

“So, you’ll come?”

Her heart was beating fast as she looked at their entwined fingers, at his smooth hands. He was attractive, handsome. The train rumbled near and she stepped closer to him, this latest boyfriend with the nice smile and clothes. She stretched her hands around his sweater and nestled again into the warmth of his chest, reasserting the word compromise in her head.

“I’d love to go,” she said and raised her head to kiss him. His lips opened and his tongue ran on the outside of hers. He always kissed like this, a bit raunchy.

From the start, she could tell he’d been with several women, but it didn’t bother her. What could she expect now that she was stuck dating guys in their thirties?

The one she should’ve married moved far away and if she hadn’t been selfish, thinking about career, she would’ve gone, too. After him was the stock broker with the drug problem who begged her not to go and she thought it over until he proceeded to shoot up in front of her, having relieved himself of the guilt of hiding his addiction. There was the creep who cheated and although every girl has one of those, hers was particularly heartbreaking since she’d allowed him to put a ring on her finger. The most recent one she dismissed because of how it looked: He was eight years younger and both their parents would object.

Her lips unlocked from her newest man when the train blew her off balance and growled to a stop in front of them. She wrapped an arm around his waist and stayed close to his chest as the doors swooshed apart and they entered. They sat enfolded, their appendages knotted, and on the rumbling train she felt alive in his arms. Such is the preternatural quality of love, to make you feel alive when you already are.

Love, though, has its disguises, too. Hidden in the belief of it and blind acceptance that it should exist where it does not.

[To find out what happens at the costume party, send an email requesting the rest of “Masquerade”.]

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