Readers Report: Masks and Disguises


A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Masks and Disguises.” Through the month of October, we’ll be looking at disguises and masks (literal and theoretical) in essays, book reviews, poetry, and short fiction. We wanted our readers to weigh in, too.

Edited by Susan Clements.

* * *

Wherever you’ve been has made you
almost new.

The words:
travel & travail
were once the same.

don’t know if you knew
every time
I travel
in the name of love
a travail finds it’s way
onto my trail like when

I set South
into the desert
passionate anarchy
with no expectation

& what do you know?


Do you know what victory feels like?
No one does because it is not felt.
A blessing creeps so slow into your break-neck life
the pleasant confluence of it comes off
as a strange investment
a sublime lover gone unsustainable
over the long drenched emotional terrain
we become:

museum patrons spinning our wheels
in a labyrinth criss-crossing over
singular routes fueled by fear always
missing each other in every installation
& no one dares stop moving for fear
of having to leave the only piece of art
we ever fell in love with.

I want to know when you pass
a sentence of invisibility on someone
are the rest of us supposed to pretend
that person is invisible all of the time
or just when we’re all in the same room?

Does your aggressive/passive pathology
require its own ADA accommodation
or would you prefer to be seated in the
martyr section?  The wait time for those
seats is 25 years but if it means that much
you really won’t mind will you?

What’s that you say?


– Paul Corman-Roberts

* * *

I was six at the start of the new millennium. Six, I concluded at the age of seven, is a marginal number, nothing noteworthy in the grand scheme of things. Everything that matters happens at age seven. This I still believe.

Of age seven I only remember the landing in my backyard, a wooden staging area with missing slats and exposed nails but no television, which is why my mother led me here late in the day. People my age from New York will often say the same thing: I understood something bad had happened. Other bad things had happened in my vicinity both before and after this—strokes, miscarriages, broken bones caused and received—but only this time did my mother say the word death. Not dead, like the people I had known, but death, the once invisible thing now apparent in the smoke and ruin.

This day is one of the handful that I try to spot the spaces that might have been full. I try to work downward from the space between the towers that has taken up the whole sky, but mostly I notice the other people, still looking into nothing, who understand the weight has grown familiar, not light.

– John O’Malley

* * *

“The court always sides with the woman,” the MRA friend is saying. “Especially if there are kids involved. It doesn’t matter how many mental illnesses the woman has. The court always sides with the woman.”

“What did I get myself into,” our main character wonders. She is totally cool on the outside. She feels like an investigative journalist, going undercover to find out how another segment of society really lives, reporting live from the belly of the Silicon Valley. She feels super aware of the situation and she feels somewhat intuitive of the motives of those involved. She wants to give everyone a chance, generally, and she does. But in her head she is recoiling at this man’s monologue about his “psychotic” ex-wife and how she used the “sexist legal system” to fuck him over.

Before the monologue, our main character and the ghost were talking about a mutual Facebook friend.

“Oh yeah, she’s kind of dumb,” the ghost says. “Look what she sent me for my birthday.”

The ghost opens a message from his phone and plays a video the mutual Facebook friend recorded of herself staring into the camera while crying and saying, “Happy birthday” over and over.

“I met her once,” our main character says. “She’s just a white feminist.”

The MRA friend of the ghost was in another conversation about wifi security with someone from the next table over. He must have heard the word “feminist” and it sparked something in him. Divorced from its original context, the MRA friend of the ghost took the utterance and ran with it, like he’s always just waiting for someone to mention anything about women’s rights or social justice so that he can explain exactly why men have it worse in society, particularly white men. Our main character cannot believe what she is hearing but she sits through it and doesn’t break eye contact.

After the diatribe, she looks at the ghost says “Please excuse me.” The ghost follows behind and waits with her in the line for the bathroom.

“I’m sorry about that. He’s an amazing programmer, but he’s kind of an angry guy. He’s still mad about his wife leaving him two years ago.”

“It’s okay,” our main character says. “It’s just—we weren’t even talking about feminism.”

“I know,” the ghost says. “Again, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” she says.

– Alexandra Naughton

*  *  *

The first time, maybe you eat a cookie you aren’t supposed to or knock a vase over and watch it shatter. No one sees you do it. It’s just you and the deed. Your mother finds out, asks what happened, and you stay quiet. So, nobody did it, she says. Mr. Nobody. From then on, he is your constant companion. Who played connect the dots on the bathroom wallpaper? Who face-painted your brother with nail polish? Mr. Nobody acquires a bad reputation. It isn’t really lying; it’s just a game to play. Mr. Nobody extends his hand and pulls you along.

For Halloween, you are a wizard, a vampire, a cowboy. One year, you are Sherlock Holmes. You wear a deerstalker cap, hold a magnifying glass, take your grandfather’s pipe. There is nothing better than being someone and something else. You walk from house to house and never break character. Elementary, you mutter, the game’s afoot. The neighbors hand out full-size candy bars for the best costumes and performances. Can the ballerina spin? Does the lion roar? You watch the other kids make believe and they do it so well. The bigger the disguise, the better the result. Quietly, you make your deductions.

In high school, it isn’t cool to like anything but doing something is unavoidable. Play a sport and you’re a jock, take theater and you’re a weirdo, do well in class and you’re a brain. Every decision is a choose-your-own-adventure book, but you can’t cheat and peek ahead to see how it turns out. So, you try to float between worlds, shape-shifting depending on who you’re talking to. Yes, you like that band. Yes, you’ve seen that movie. Yes, you skateboard. Yes, yes, yes. If you say yes to everything, you believe you can be anyone. You’re a chameleon that adapts to survive. No one dislikes you. No one can say you aren’t a little like them.

As an adult, your relationships depend on certain silences and white lies, delicate maneuvers with strangers, coworkers, family, even your significant other. Occasionally, when you’re caught off guard or angry, you might say something true—piercingly true—and for a moment the mask slips. But that’s rare. Your closest friends will say you’re honest to a fault and you’ll nod to show them you agree. By now, you’re such an excellent liar that only you know it.

– Alex Peterson

* * *

She struggles to find her path when she wakes up every morning. The struggle isn’t new. It has always been there, since an early age. She can’t be happy with this life when she’s come so close to more. Living alongside something different, something that most are afraid to even dream about, has fucked her over. What is enough for most is not enough for her.

So she struggles each day to find something in herself that will catapult her into the world she wants only to find it surrounded by a fortress so tall she can’t see the top. To her, she is empty inside compared to what she needs to be to create and be noticed. Be special.

She dates a boy. This boy is selfish and he dreams. He creates, he plays with his friends, he creates some more. Each of his successes feels like a hand grabbing at her heart and pulling it out through her stomach. She wants what he has. The opportunity to avoid the path most traveled. She is walking on a paved highway road with hundreds of expressionless, colorless, lifeless people while he is on a magical bus floating through a magical galaxy with magical people. And she has to be happy for him while he lives the life she wants. It’s not his fault. It’s hers, for wanting more.

And isn’t that what being a female has always meant? Watching on the sidelines as her man gains power, recognition, success. Swallowing every pill that is forced down her throat by her own gender. Only rising above it if she wears a man’s hat and a man’s shoes.

– Julia Higgins

* * *

Where is the version of me that points down the road
with a long steady finger and says, March, and they do?
The one whose hair, when shaken out fully,
comes alive with the flaps of millions of sonar-less bats
who couldn’t find their way home.
I check all my pockets, pat pat pat,
the way a smoker does when she’s misplaced
her lighter. Inside the glove compartment,
I find accordioned napkins on which the plots
of lives of Congressmen are mapped out.
The cookie jar holds a note from an ex-lover,
vague, or maybe I’ve just forgotten what he meant by
close. Into the vent near the ceiling,
I call, helloooo and my echo replies
with the theme song for All in the Family.
Only one place left. I find the pull inside
my belly button, and unzip to my chin.
The ribcage opens with an ominous creak
and there she is. Crouched like a catcher.
She holds a finger to her lips and whispers:
Wait. Listen. Do you hear that? Then, marveling—
Sounds like rain. 

– Andrea Ruggirello

* * *

Fred’s Diner on 14th Street was occupied, patrons preoccupied with their Egg and Cheese on Everything, with the Morning Express, with MSNBC, with burnt coffee. The griddle amplified the clanging of spatulas, accompanied by murmured greetings and rustling paper. The television chattered about a rising number of Permanencies in recent weeks.

He demanded the mask. Only an opening for the mouth, an opening with both ends perpetually slanted upward, as if to smile. He never spoke of the masks. But we all understood. We understood the requirement, the demand.

Patrons at the diner were occupied with masks, as any responsible citizen should be, and they were preoccupied with their Egg and Cheese on Everything, with the Morning Express, with MSNBC, with burnt coffee. But they were not preoccupied with the masks. “You get used to it, son,” Grandmother told me once. “Permanency is much worse. We don’t want that.”

No one has never seen him. At least I have never seen him. I was told to run, son, if I were ever to find myself near him. But as Ma tucked me in that night, she would say, “Luc, don’t be preoccupied with the mask. You get used to it, son.”

I asked for a refill. The waitress looked at me.

I walked out.

Autumn was brisk, with crackling leaves circling my every step through the Square. A woman sat on a damp bench. I started to zip up my bomber jacket, as I walked towards the woman and the bench. The woman stared ahead; I thought she must be cold. The woman escaped the purview of my left eye, and I noticed her eyes, brimming with fluid, masked by the same rigid, smile of a mask.

I turned my head to look at her. She was looking at me.

I continued walking.

A small crowd was gathering in front of the statue at the center of the Square. A stampede of clouds ran over the early sun, and partially muted gasps hit my ears as I bled into the crowd. Three men stood with their hands tied behind their backs. One more was on the ground, chest to pavement. The Authoritas were administering Permanency. Masks screwed into cheekbones and jaws ensured permanent compliance with the demand, with the requirement.

I winced with each screw. I brought my hand to my barren cheek. Exposed, I noticed.

Heads turned.

They looked.

– Sung Chang

* * *

I posed for photos with a ten-foot-tall dragon on Santa Monica Boulevard. It draped a bony wing around my body and I smiled into the camera’s flash. Its long, scaly tail lay bare against the streetlights.

Fairies, elves, werewolves, devils, saints, and angels celebrated together under the bruised October sky.

Once upon a time this required bravery. Cloaked only in make believe, they speckled their hopes and dreams along this road to be retraced.

Then one person told another. And every fall, more flocked to this place to set down their veneers. Ease out of their everyday disguises of mother, father, lover, neighbor or friend.

This is not a masquerade carnival but souls turned inside out and unmasked.

– Tamara White

* * *

His exorcism fell on a
Tuesday night, same night as
his mother’s favorite TV show.
She muted the television so
they could monitor his screams
but watch to see who
answered the final question correctly,
who won the dining set,
who won the cruise for
two to the Bahamas. Mother
often got seasick on the
long rowboat rides father took
her on before the boy
was born; and recently, before
father went missing. He writhed
around on the table, a
worn washcloth in his mouth
to muffle his cries. Mother
pretended not to hear, her
gaze fixed on the television.
That cruise should be hers,
she told me, just as
father should still be hers.
Quiet, she murmured, the television
still muted, It’s back on.

– Jordan Castle

* * *

The tantalizing thing for many who first heard of Area 51 was that, presumably, there were fifty other Areas so named, each with their own secrets, their own nightmares, their own mountains of federal red tape to keep them secret…

…but where were they?

An idle thought.

But then—it only takes one time—some drunken idiot would lean over at a barbecue at that family across the street, and whisper something at you that didn’t make sense that they would deny afterward and which was never repeated or that, worse, they’d feign to not remember.

You’d recall it some night waking up from a dreamless sleep, hand on the refrigerator door to get some juice.

Your eyes go wide.

And then you’d think: how you thought you knew your own neighborhood—but now, well, now you weren’t so sure…

– Christopher David Adkins

* * *

He stroked my arm as I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling of their bedroom. “You mentioned earlier you don’t get along with your sister. Why not?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I responded, shrugging. “A lot of reasons. She had an abortion in high school. She and my parents knew I’d be upset, so they lied to me. They told me she miscarried.” I turned my head to look at him. He was on his side, his head propped up by his hand. His eyebrows scrunched together in the middle, his face a mask of pity. Behind him, a picture of him and his wife on their wedding day sat on the bedside table. They’d gotten married more than half my life ago. He was old enough to be my father. I looked back to the ceiling. “My dad had to take her to the clinic. It just killed him. It went against everything he believed.”

“Oh, honey. Your poor dad. I just can’t even imagine,” he said.

“I know,” I said, after a moment. “But then, she was doing a lot of drugs at the time. I mean, I guess it was for the best. I don’t think the baby would have been very healthy.” I looked toward him again. This time my eyes fell on the gold crucifix around his neck he always wore. I reached out and grazed the outstretched arms of Jesus.

“That’s why I’m not letting Jessie even look at a boy until she’s thirty,” he said. His daughter was thirteen. She attended a Catholic girls’ school.

“I’m sure she’s looked at a boy by now,” I said with a smile, but his face turned dark.

“I raised her better than that. She knows she’s not allowed to talk to boys.”

“Oh, well, I’m sure she’ll be fine,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “Jessie’s a smart girl.” I took his free hand and guided it to my cheek. He leaned down and kissed me, then sat up.

“I need to be on set in an hour. We should get dressed,” he said, patting my thigh. He paused, deliberating. “You know that if anything happens, you have to go take care of it. Right? I can’t have you pregnant. People will put it together. The tabloids would have a field day.”

I nodded and reached for my dress.

– Angie Reiber


Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.

You can find Susan Clements at her website and follow her on Twitter.