by Kathleen Bradean
Even though it's leather, it's ethereal. I want to lift the snowflake white mask to my face. The whimsical twisting ends glinted with silver. Iceberg blue lips puckered to bestow a chilling kiss.
We're separated by a shopper darting forward to check the price on the ice queen mask. I find him staring at a long-nosed harlequin like you'd expect to see in Venice during carnivale. Other masks have the blank doll stare that I've always found disturbing. This store even sells the Anonymous face, or if you will, V for Vendetta, or even more accurately, Guy Fawkes - a face we're all beginning to recognize as chaotic neutral.
We drove to New Orleans on a whim. We'd never been to Mardi Gras and both wanted to go. Alcohol had a lot of input on our decision, but sober the next morning neither of us wanted to be the one who backed down from the dare, so we threw together overnight bags, got in the car, and headed south.
So here we were in the French Quarter in the midst of a party we'd crashed and were frantically trying to join. Masks, we decided, were a must. Costumes a close second. While he looks as a half moon half sun mask, I wander into the quieter back room. Most of the masks here are like a fantasy of Renaissance Faire. Brick red Mephistopheles and winged black nazguls leer down at me. Here is a sky face, there is summer. Half faces, full. Bats, unicorns, flowers, fairies. I go back to let him know that there's more to see.
For a moment, I freeze. I don't see him anywhere and I almost panic even though I'm not afraid of being on my own. Then I realize he's the Phantom preening in front of a mirror. The rush of fear becomes something else. That little jolt of adrenaline has nowhere to go so it staggers around my blood and sends my thoughts down a wild path.
I want to dare him to play a game with me. I want to tell him to go in search of his own mask and costume, and I'll find mine, and then at an appointed hour we'll both head to a certain block of Bourbon Street and search for each other. If I picked the lizard green enchantress mask and somehow found the perfect gypsy dress to wear it with, would he recognize the inner me? Would he don a green man mask and chase me through the crowd? Would desire overcome sense as I evaded him, laughing merrily? And when he caught me, would he drag me into a darkened alleyway, behind a wrought iron gate that only opened magically for us? And would we then have movie sex against the wall of a building as a mere few feet away, revelers continued to party oblivious to our passion?
But I don’t dare him, because I don't dare myself to ever admit I want that kind of thing. I got in the car. I came to New Orleans. That's as far as I'm willing to expose myself to him. And it's not his fault, but my restraint will forever taint the joy I'll feel over this weekend. Regret, that colorless, odorless gas is already seeping in a cutting off my air.
His hands lightly grip my shoulders. "I found the perfect thing. Close your eyes," he whispers.
It's a bit silly and I can feel color flooding my face as he steers me into the back room. People can see me doing this. What they must think of me.
Something stiff presses to my face. My hair tugs.
"Open your eyes."
It reminds me of armor, but it's delicate. Much of my face shows through the mask. I'm me, but not me. There's just enough protection, just enough to hide behind.
Before I get too used to it, he trades it for a firebird mask of brilliant colors. Flames lick my face. I can feel the power of the orange, red, and yellow seep into my veins. I'd be so bold in something like that. It's not something I would have picked for myself, but maybe that's what he sees in me. Maybe he thinks I'm more daring than I am. After all, I'm the girl who got in the car on a whim and drove to Mardi Gras.
It has curling horns. It's black and masculine and too cool for words. It's awesome, but it isn't me. I shake my head.
"It's just as well." He puts the mask back. "These things are like five hundred bucks."
Resigned, we saunter out of the store. One day, I promise myself. One day I'll buy a mask like that and it will be perfect. But this isn't that day.
"So how about we go without masks?" he asks. "Just be ourselves?"
He has no idea how terrifying that sounds.