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Masquerade

July 24, 2012

“The little town was full of people drifting in and out of doors, saying hello to one another, wearing golden masks and blue masks and crimsons masks for pleasant variety, masks with silver lips and bronze eyebrows, masks that smiled or masks that frowned, according to the owner’s disposition.” – Ray Bradbury, “The Earth Men”, The Martian Chronicles

The party seemed jovial enough at first. The doorman was cheery, refusing a substantial tip, and the olding couple in front of me stepped aside while they waited for some friends. The night was warm but wet and I was glad to be ushered indoors and shed my outer layers. I was parted from my fedora and breast-coat just inside by a short man with a cummerbund and slicked-back hair, and the tails from his white jacket waved behind him as he found the coat-room.

I was passed from this man to a comely woman that gestured at a selection of masks. I begged her pardon, for I was not told this was to be a costume party. At that moment, something dark flickered across her own face but was replaced by a smile almost instantly. I realized she was wearing a mask of gold and blue and I picked one at random and walked quickly away.

As I walked, I glanced briefly at the grand double stair and its attendant admirers, let a look drift sideways towards a particularly beautiful woman, but saw she too was wearing a mask like the others and I looked down at the one I’d chosen. It was white, rather plain, with brows somewhat furrowed in concern or horror – the mask made it hard to tell – and a tight-lipped half-smile. Of course, it reminded of myself at first glance, as all things do, and so it might have seemed different to another’s eyes.

I reached the door to the party proper and it was as if an angel’s hands had taken mine in her’s and lifted the mask to my face, for I do not recall willing it. In any case, the doors were swept open before me by a man and a woman dressed like Adam and Eve. I was pleased to note they were molded of ebony. But all the previous was forgotten as I entered the ballroom. There was a mirror to my left which I briefly consulted through the eye-holes of my mask. Satisfied and remembering I was just enough tipsy for socializing, I turned my attention towards the bright lights.

The ballroom was expectedly off-white with the tassels on the doors and the landscapes lounging on the walls, all the while the couples moved with synchronicity in loops around the center floor, swaying with the violas and the low thrums of the bass, their eyes meeting over gaps through the masks they wore to hide their faces.

I made my way slowly towards the musicians, but some of those that entered around the same time rushed past me and forced me to the wall. I found my new vantage lackluster but comfortable, so I deigned to sit and watch for awhile. Verily, there are perks to wallflowering – I saw a young man with long locks repeatedly cross gazes with a young woman with skin of the richest soil as she leaned over her date and he over his. I saw taken men’s heads turn as a radiant queen swept into the room with a veritable entourage of would-be suitors. I said nothing as those that hurried past earlier obstructed my view, nor when their loud-mouthed cocksurety left them evicted.

I got up, after a while, and walked towards the musicians as I’d begun to earlier. There seemed to be one of every color – white, black, yellow, and so on. I nearly laughed at the blatant diversity but was soon carried away with their rolling harmony. I began to dance, dance like the Good Lord had gotten hold of me and only the Devil was watching. I twisted and floated and oscillated to the ebb and flow as the melody picked up pace, then let loose entirely, winding and pounding and reverberating with the music as it made its way around the room in a frenzy.

At last, as if awakening from speaking in tongues, I opened my eyes and saw a crowd had gathered and no small number of attendees were barraging my sight with broadsides and sidelongs. The conductor winked at me through a horned, bronze mask and I perceived a subtle malice. But I was riding off highs. With sweat beads lunging from pore to pore, I took a deep breath, billowed my shirt, inclined my head towards the musicians.

I asked another, “Where is the bathroom?” Their mask was painted bemused. Perhaps because it was difficult to speak, they only pointed towards a side. I nodded my thanks and set off.

I was but a couple steps over a dozen when I saw her. Our eyes locked lines for but a heaven’s moment. They tell you this in stories – that there is such a thing as love at first sight, and that’s true, but love can exist in moments and touches and feels and feelings, and so that is not saying much at all. True love is something between greeting an old friend and meeting yourself for the first time – with a dose of sex, to be sure.

I could tell nothing of her looks for her mask, but she was adorned with a crown of chocolate hair, and her eyes said to me, “I’m trapped here, are you?” My eyes replied, “I am.” She looked away and was soon blocked from my view by dancers, but her attention lingered. It shadowed me all the way to the bathroom, and it watched me with an uneasy voyeurism as I pissed out earlier’s champagne.

I uttered, “Excuse me,” with deferential indifference as I split ways with another man as he entered. I looked for the woman’s mask but I didn’t see her, and I couldn’t bear to remain in the ballroom, so with a not-so-subtle look-around, I ducked out of the room and searched for a staircase or a hallway to walk away down. I found a staircase.

My shoes clopped on the tile’d stairs and my arm glided up the rail. I looked down through my eyes at the ascendant rectangles and realized I was a little bit more intoxicated than I’d thought. I found myself reaching the second floor and stepped through the door, saw a door to the left and a hallway to the right. I walked through the door and found myself on a windy balcony.

My hair wove with the air waves and my eyes narrowed against the same. I breathed deeply and felt myself center. I walked over to the edge and, ignoring the building, looked to the sky. There were no stars to speak of, for the city lights seem to slay light as they build upon lesser wonder. The moon was there, though, lonely but content as ever, basking in the sun as daytime slept. I laughed at myself for thinking such unadulterated thoughts, but was rudely returned to my body when a soft moan elicited from the corner.

I turned in surprise to see a couple, half-stripped, mid-sex. It would be left for perverse academics to determine whether my half-gasp of surprise or their hushed embarrassment were simultaneous, and if not, which occurred first. In any case, there was that priceless moment of mutual enlightenment – the kind that might have occurred between Adam and Eve when they first saw each other nude – with neither party being at advantage nor disadvantage. But then the moment receded and it was awkward.

ahem‘d and turned and walked right off the balcony back indoors. Once escaped, I determined to venture down the hallway. The walls were colored with red and white flowers that matched the carpets that featured autumn leaves and covered the exotic wood, and the paintings that hung between every other door were romantic and pastoral. I remembered the city lights.

I wandered down the hallway slowly, for there was nothing where I was headed and only the ballroom to return to. Indeed, the winds soon brought me to that double staircase I’d seen marveled upon from the atrium. Perhaps it was the air, but I descended its lattices with as much of a kingly demeanor as I could muster. I nodded to the royal couple as I did, and smiled at the kindly manservant as I reached the bottom and was returned to reality.

I breathed deep and started towards the doors, preparing to dive back into the pool as though I were swimming with sharks. Truth is, I was.

The doors swung open before as they had the first time, though I noticed the ushers were different this time, and no longer ebony. The tassels were just as aristocratic and the landscapes just as pale. The dancers were somewhat less lively and the musicians less enchanting. I began to make my way towards the latter, but some younger attendees pushed past me with their dates as the bass player fingered the low notes.

I pushed the second-to-last one, hard. He let out a shout of surprise and toppled to the ground. His friends turned to me in what their bodies read as shock, but their masks could not be bothered to miss a beat and each read confidence in preferred dialects. A voice whispered to me to revel in my victory, but all I saw was a youthful ego injured. I opened my mouth, closed it, and walked stiffly and quickly away towards the musicians. Eyes followed me from facades like modern-day posters.

I stood in rapture before the audible mainframe as the conductor wove to and fro like a dubious charmer, for it was such a beautiful tune – familiar but not old – that I found my body drifting to and fro along with him. I was suddenly aware of those watching me and spun about, off-kilter, – and what heavenly intervention occurred here I cannot hope to pin – and locked eyes with her again.

Her hair was redder than I recall and she had streaks of blonde I didn’t remember. But the look she gave me was the same, as was the feeling, and the words her eyes spoke. I took a step towards her but I felt two strong pairs of arms take me by mine and lift me halfway into the air before pulling me away, away from her like the receding tide.

They took me to what they euphemised as a ‘drunk tank’, but I knew I was embarrassing the establishment. They asked me my name and I spat that I wanted a lawyer for that kind of talk. They laughed and said I’d be kicked out if I didn’t behave, and that if I was kicked out, how would I find her? I nearly fell backwards out of my seat at this and looked from one to the other in horror. They whispered to me secrets they had no business knowing and I whispered back my assurances.

I emerged from purgatory with sheepish candor and walked on eggshells down the hallway towards the ballroom. I imagined I knew how all those poor women felt as they walked the walk of shame from the rooms of callous cocks, and I felt naked.

When I reached the doors for a third time, Adam and Eve were again ebony, the doorman was still cheery, and the woman with the masks was still darker than she admitted. I ignored them and pushed opened the doors myself, snapping at the white-tailed man as he offered to take the coat I’d already given him.

The tassels were dull and the paintings were bootlegged and the dancers were staggered. The musicians were off-key, but only for moment. They caught on to my game and played as sweetly as ever, and the tassels were soft and the paintings were rural. I forgot myself and began walking towards them. A group of happy youths moved quickly past me, forcing me to the sidelines.

From there I noticed the man from the balcony – or rather, his mask. It was bright orange, ordained in brown gems, with a small forehead and brushed-back scalp. He was close enough that I could also see his eyes – great, big, brown things – and the woman he gazed at over the shoulder of… whomever. The woman I didn’t recognize by her mask, for on the balcony she hadn’t been wearing one – her I remembered by the jawline, and how the curve had matched the one that had been so poised in the air. Inexplicably, her eyes turned towards mine and – though a lying voice whispered that she was her – I felt the same moment as I had on the balcony, or perhaps a sequel, and there was a moment of intimacy.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable, so I moved towards the music that seemed to me like a church, but as I arrived, the conductor took notice and winked at me. There was the same subtle evil to his gaze as before that I could not even bring myself to listen and I turned around – and there she was.

I knew at once that I should not have listened to the Sirens in the first place and that I should have done what I was now doing: walking to her through the crowd. Her hair was darker than I recalled, less red, layered in the richest browns, but I could see even from here that her eyes were the same. Her head rested lightly on the shoulders of another, but her eyes spoke to me in silent syllables, “There’s a balcony on the second floor,” and mine replied, “I know.”

We met for the first time at the foot of the staircase – not the double-stair, but the one that lies somewhere out of sight, behind a few corners, away from the party.

“I’ve been looking for you all night,” I said as she took off her mask.

“I’ve been waiting,” she said as I took off mine.

I smiled and she took my hand and led me down the hallway, past all the dead flowers painted on the fake wood walls, over the fake leaves on the carpet that overlaid the dead wood floors, and the paintings of all the frozen archetypes clinging in vanity to their senses. She kicked open the door to the balcony and the air and what remained of the night sky and pulled me over to the edge and looked me in the eye and asked me if I trusted her. A voice started to whis–

“I trust you,” I said. She beamed with her eyes and held my hand tighter.

There was a moment – a bizarre moment – where I saw ourselves watching us from the corner, entangled, before it passed. I looked to her and held her hand tighter.

“I trust you, too,” she said. I smiled. She put a foot on the rail, pulled us both up, and we jumped off the edge.

We landed with a crash, but safe, and our hands parted ways as we rolled. I stood up and she stood up. We looked around, at the street lights, at the buildings, at the faint light from the balcony, at the sky. Dimly, ever dimly, the party sounded. I shrugged. She grinned. I walked over to her and our hands reunited.

“There’s a party tomorrow night a couple blocks away, if you’re interested.” She nudged me as we walked down the street, knowing what I would say.

“Another one?” I protested.

“Just one more.” She smiled as I nudged her. “This time I’ll find you.”

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From → Short Stories

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