The Mask5 mins 287 5 mins 287
I wake up, sliding quietly out of bed. I’m careful not to wake her as I tiptoe out of the room. I shut the door behind me. I’ve been doing this for years. She tells all of her friends how considerate I am. I smile and say something charming like, “I’ll try not to hurt my arm patting myself on the back.” Everyone laughs; they always laugh. It’s my job to make them laugh. I wonder what she would think if she knew I snuck out of our bedroom so I could be by myself. Would she brag to her friends if she knew it was just a way to be alone?
Safe in the solitude of my favorite wingback chair, I read stories on my phone. This is my favorite time of the day. I can read about sports or politics or whatever interests me in the moment. No one is awake to entertain—no one is interrupting me with questions about what I’m reading or suggesting how I spend my day. The phone rings. It always rings exactly seven times. I know this because I never answer. I don’t even look at the caller id. I don’t want to feel the obligation. If I do, I’ll have to put on my mask—the mask everyone knows. He’s so funny. He’s so interesting. It must be a hoot being married to him.
My daughter comes down the stairs. I love her more than life itself. Still, I hope she doesn’t talk to me for very long. She thinks I’m the perfect dad. I have her fooled. I just make it up as I go along. She tells me she wants me to meet her new friend. I told her how funny you are! Yet another person I have to make laugh. I find it oppressive.
Now I’m in my car, the second favorite part of my day. I am an aggressive driver. I cut people off. I don’t let people in. I cuss out loud. I would never cuss out loud if they could hear me because then they would know me. I can’t stand the idea of anyone knowing me. I’m not a bad person. I’m not an angry person. I just need a way to let off steam. The car acts like the release valve on a pressure cooker, one I need to get through the rest of the day. I wish the drive were longer, but it’s never long enough. All too soon, I’m at work.
It’s time to do my morning dance. I scan the parking lot. Is anyone getting out of their car? Is anyone pulling in? On good days, I can time it exactly right so I’m too late to ride the elevator with the people in front of me while being far enough ahead of the next group to avoid them as well.
Not this morning.
Today I’m forced to ride up in the elevator with Barry and Char. Barry asks me how my weekend was and Char turns to listen. “Same as always, too short.” They both laugh. Char says I crack her up. Char is the kind of person who would do anything to help a stranger and Barry is my best friend at work. I still wish I was alone. Three floors up seems an eternity to me. I smile, praying no one else gets on.
I work in a call center, an ironic job for someone who hates talking on the phone. I am still so pleasant to talk to. I ask my customers questions about their lives. I empathize with their struggles. I make them laugh. I tell them I’ll call back with an answer, but I never do. Once they are off my phone, they are dead to me. They only get to see the mask I am paid to wear.
I have to stop on the way home. I need a new shirt for a party tonight. I dread the store. A salesperson has to talk to me. I don my mask once again. The conversation is endless, Jehovah’s Witness meets Amway rep endless. I hate every second. Finally another customer comes in, relieving me of my obligation to be pleasant. When I buy my shirt, I say, “I hope that card works—I found it in the parking lot.” He laughs. I’ve done my job and now I can leave.
Back in my car for the ride home, freedom again. I eat in the car. I sing in the car. I cry in the car. I am myself in the car. More than once I contemplate driving right by my exit and never turning back. Only I know my curse will follow me wherever I go. In a new town with a new name, I’ll still be me.
I’m home again; she’s working. I’m happy she’s otherwise occupied, as I don’t have to tell jokes or be interesting or be interested. I can go back to my chair and enjoy the few quiet moments before the party. I made plans with three friends. I’ll disappoint two. Saying yes is easier than saying no, but I’m always overbooked with events I don’t want to attend. I settle for the least offensive.
At the party, I talk and I listen. When the conversation starts to lag, everyone looks to me to liven it up. I tell a joke—I always have a joke. Tonight there is karaoke—I love to sing. People think it’s because I love the attention. It isn’t. On the stage, I get to be alone. I’m willing to sing poorly just for a moment of respite. I want to be the first to leave the party, but I’m always the last.
Now I’m back home. She tells me what a great time she had. She has made plans to do it all again. I tell her I’m tired, but I’m not. Not really. I just want to go to sleep so I can be alone once again. Such is my curse.
There are no support groups for extroverted introverts. Everyone would RSVP but no one would attend.
I need to sleep. Wearing a mask all day is exhausting and tomorrow it will start all over again.