Human Mask, Marisa Crane
There wasn’t much to like about him but I loved him enough. Nine months and twenty-two days later I left his daughter on a person’s porch. I chose their house because someone had ripped a clown photo out of a magazine and placed it in the front window. I knew she’d be safe there. My mother also dropped me off at an unknown house. I guess you could say she started a family tradition. My adoptive parents had a garden but the tomatoes always tasted like poison. I am on a lot of antipsychotic medications.
The succulent plants Julian brought me have died. These are the eighth and ninth that I’ve killed.
“It’s nearly impossible to kill a succulent. That’s why I got them for you,” he says, lying down in my hammock and struggling to light a Camel in the breeze.
“I am guilty of compulsive watering,” I say, squinting into the sun. I am breaking one of my own rules and wearing my indoor shirt outside of the house. “How long do you think until I go blind?”
Julian shrugs, which means he has forgotten where he is again. His blacktop curls hang in his eyes. He looks like one of those shaggy dogs of unidentifiable breeding. I watch him struggle some more. As soon as I stand up from the porch step to shield his cigarette with my cupped palms he lights the sucker. Sometimes I think he is intentionally messing with me.
I roll up the sleeves of my indoor shirt but I still feel like I’m roasting in a glass case under the sun. I pick old chicken from between two molars and fling it at him. He makes the sign of the cross and stares at me very seriously. He’s either going to perform an autopsy or is holding in the most potent fart of all time.
“I don’t know. Last I heard from her it sounded like she was banging the microwave door shut over and over,” I hear Gabriel say inside. I don’t know who he’s talking to or about. Gabriel has a therapist that laughs loudly at him. He loves it. The other day he printed out a page from the internet about transference and ate it between two pieces of stale bread.
I hear a jarring crash inside and I toss an imaginary coin in my head to decide whether to go investigate or not. Heads, I lose. I acknowledge that I have the power to make myself the winner every time if I wanted, but I don't want.
“Don't move,” I say to Julian and then open the patio door. The two chandeliers hanging in our living room are trembling. They are not the grand light fixtures that you see in ballrooms. They hang inconspicuously with long white beads that sparkle in the sunlight and teach each other about friction. I breathe a sigh of relief upon entering the house. This is where my indoor shirt belongs.
Gabriel is slithering on the floor, his legs bound together by a phone cord, the phone dangling helplessly by his feet.
“You make a bad snake,” I say, bending down to untangle him.
“Your human mask is slipping,” he grins like a fucking maniac.
“Who were you talking to?”
He doesn't reply, just waits patiently to be liberated.
“Don't tell me it's her again.”
No reply. Gabriel can and cannot be trusted.
For years I thought I was a sociopath until I realized it was just the meds. I saw tragedy on the news and sipped my lukewarm tea, unfazed. Another terrorist attack. Another police shooting. There was often a mask made of egg whites and coffee grounds on my face. I enjoyed the way it pulled the skin on my face back. It felt like I was tightening my human mask. I made the mistake of telling Gabriel that when we first met. He would sit and watch TV with me and we’d take turns stroking my stuffed Husky, Levi. The beta fish on the mantle, enraged by his reflection, would repeatedly slam into the side of his tank. Dizzy with brain damage, Cruz would swim upside-down in circles practicing for the day he was finally flushed.
Once I untangle him, Gabriel stands up and shimmies as if shaking thousands of ants off of his body, then goes into the kitchen. He is always either eating an avocado or about to eat an avocado. The woman who sells them at the farmer’s market hates him. Between the of hours of 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. every Wednesday, he knocks on various avocados to see if they’re home. He throws some in the air as if they are laughing, flying babies. Sometimes he asks them existential questions, such as “How do we know if we’re doing the right thing?” and “Who are you and whom do you love?” I’m still unclear as to his actual avocado purchasing process.
I follow him into the kitchen, where he is squeezing avocados and whistling through the gap in his front teeth. It’s his favorite way to annoy me.
“See if I rescue you next time,” I say, shoving him in the arm. He laughs and continues whistling. I grab two Miller Lites, head back outside, and hand one to Julian.
“Look across the street,” he says, pointing. There is a woman who looks to be about forty in a floral dress and flip flops pushing a bicycle with a mannequin head in the front basket. The mannequin head is covered in some type of tribal tattoos.
“Only here,” I smile. I can hear whistling coming from inside. I close my eyes and bounce on my toes for a few seconds.
“Today isn't the day for it, is it?” Julian asks, raising his eyebrows. He seems to know where he is again. I take a swig of beer and swish it around in my mouth like mouthwash. The ocean is only three blocks away. I could disappear.
“No, I don't think so,” I whisper, wrapping my arms tightly around myself.
“Let's go get gelato instead,” he says, climbing awkwardly out of the hammock and touching me on the arm.
On the way to the cafe I see a dog that I know—a tan pit bull with celestial eyes—sitting in the grass with her owner. The dog’s name is Margaret but I don’t know the name of her owner. Margaret was rescued from a puppy mill and has big, gross nipples. She smiles a wide, clown-like smile. I wave exuberantly and her owner inches closer to her and puts his hand over her eyes.
Inside the cafe there are beautiful displays of gelato and bite-sized chocolates of all kinds. The chocolates resemble perfect little pellets of poop. My parents tell me that as a two-year-old I used to spend long afternoons gathering rabbit poop in the backyard, under the guise that I had discovered chocolates. I would cup the pile in my hands to protect my delicious find from potential predators. That was the same year that I got lost in a McDonald’s Play Place and had a panic attack in one of the tubes that kids crawl through. My best friend and neighbor, Hawk, had to rescue me. He grew up to be a fireman and I grew up to believe in things that aren't real. I wonder if people still call him Hawk, or if he no longer allows others to define him by his aquiline nose.
Back when I worked at Gormaphile, I used to send Hawk obnoxious emails asking him to save me for the second time in my life. I was a secretary there but not a very good one. Microsoft Excel was beyond my scope of expertise. I was more of a greeter. To this day I am not sure what the company did.
This guy, Cameron, who worked in sales or marketing or brand development or something got arrested for selling confidential client information to third party organizations. I had to memorize that sentence because I don’t actually know what any of it means, but there was a big meeting about it a couple days after his departure was announced. A young man with a pimply face and spiky hair asked if anyone had spoken to Cameron since his dismissal. That’s what he called it. Dismissal. As if he had been counting down the last few minutes of math class and the bell had finally rung. One of our executives, a conventionally pretty blonde, said that she had.
“He seemed really apologetic,” she said, raising her eyebrows and pouting her lips. It appeared she’d been practicing that face in front of the mirror for over a decade. What she said killed me, though. Of course he was sorry. He got caught. All of life can be separated into two categories: the bad things we get away with and the bad things we get caught doing. It’s said that you’ve lived a good life if you cross the finish line with more tallies under the former than the latter.
“Can I sample the Nutella?” I ask the young, hip gelato man. He smiles, says “Of course,” and hands me a tiny spoon.
“Is it good?” Julian asks.
I nod and order two scoops in a cup. Julian orders two scoops of cookies and cream on a cone. He loves ice cream cones. I love that I know this about him.
“You guys make a cute couple,” the man says, handing Julian his cone. I can’t for the life of me figure out why he says this. It’s like asking a woman with a belly when she’s due. You never really know another person’s situation.
“We make a cute whatever we are,” I sigh.
Julian tilts his head and looks at me like a puppy. He takes a few licks of the gelato while paying. There is a section of homemade cookies by the register. They look like a crowd of people staring back at me.
“Hey, doesn’t this one look like Owen Wilson?” I laugh, pointing to one of the cookies on top.
“Who’s that?” Julian asks, not really asking. He hates celebrities. He thinks they’re duller than dead succulents. Normally this is a trait that I admire but right now it makes me want to peel my skin off.
Once we leave, I notice that there is gelato on his nose. It reminds me of a photograph on my dresser in my room. My parents took me to Disneyland for my seventh birthday and my father and I had gotten ice cream bars from a stand by Splash Mountain. We sat together on a bench and ate them in comfortable silence. I got ice cream on my nose and my dad, not wanting me to feel embarrassed, put it on his nose too and my mother snapped a picture. It’s a nice memory. I wonder if my real mom likes ice cream. If she’s even alive. While I was in the hospital, Julian visited and told me that he’d heard from a friend of a friend of a drug dealer that my mom had spent some time in that same hospital. That brought me strange comfort, although I doubt the staff liked it very much. I used to bug them incessantly, heckling them during announcements in the common room.
What was she like? Did she have green eyes too? Did she ever mention having a daughter? Did she like to mix Coca-Cola and Sprite? Where did she live? Was she addicted to Blistex? Did she listen to the same terrible song on repeat for weeks on end? Did she seem nice? Smart? Conniving? Do I remind you of her?
At first, they tried to calmly explain patient confidentiality rules to me and I’d storm off or interrupt them incessantly so they soon took up shaking their heads and walking away.
Julian walks me to my house then says that he has to go home to check on the outdoor cat, Mr. B., that lives under his house. He’s a grumpy, gray cat with perpetual eye boogies. Julian has grown quite attached to him. He often has nightmares that something terrible has happened to Mr. B. The most recent one involved the cat turning into a gorilla and following Julian to a campground in Mexico. According to Julian, the authorities arrived at the campsite and took Mr. B. away because owning a gorilla was strictly prohibited. He began to bawl in his dream and scream that Mr. B. was still his outdoor cat no matter what. His eyes welled up as he relayed the dream to me.
Julian leans in for a hug but he can’t seem to figure out whether to put his arms over or under mine. He does this every time we part and always settles on going over top after engaging in an awkward dance. I like to watch it all unfold.
“It’s okay if today doesn’t feel right. She understands,” he says. I watch his jaw flex as he says this. I want to bite it.
That night I drink a bottle of three-dollar wine on the couch and fall asleep to the chatter of late-night infomercials; the last one I remember listening to was The Girls of Odyssey Phone Sex. I like sleeping on the couch. I like the lumps. It feels like sleeping on miniature sand dunes. I fall asleep here knowing that sleeping here threatens my life.
“You slept there, didn’t you?” Gabriel asks in the morning, handing me a bowl of cereal on the couch.
“How did you know?” I ask.
“You sleepwalked last night.”
“Fuck, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t go out in the front yard this time.”
“Did I say anything?”
“You knocked on my door and then once I answered, you grabbed my arm and led me into the living room. You told me to look at the birdies but you were pointing at the VCR,” he laughs.
I spoon the dry cereal into my even dryer mouth. I’ve never liked milk turning my cereal into soggy pieces of disappointment.
“What did you say when I said that?” I asked once I swallowed.
“I said that I don’t see any birdies and you told me that it had something to do with a child.”
“I don’t know. You seemed satisfied with your explanation and deposited me back in my room.”
Four days later I find Gabriel mummified by the phone cord again.
“If you’re going to keep falling like this at least get a little injured so I can see some blood.” He doesn’t say anything. I can hear breathing on the other end of the line.
“She hasn’t hung up yet?”
He shakes his head, his eyes wider than I’ve ever seen.
“I don’t know why you do this,” I say. I untangle him and pick up the phone with my pointer finger and thumb as if it can transmit HIV. The breathing can’t seem to figure out its identity—first frantic then shallow and labored then frantic again. I lift the phone to my ear and listen for a few moments.
“Don’t tell her I told you,” Gabriel pleads. I open my mouth to speak then close it. A weird guttural sound escapes my throat.
“Gabriel, has it happened again?” An exhausted voice asks on the other end. I don’t say anything and he stays still as stone. “Is she there right now?” the voice asks. I hang up before he can demand I give the phone back.
Gabriel, knowing that I have to get ready for a housewarming party, runs past me into the bathroom that we share and turns the shower on. I know that he is just sitting on the toilet and squeezing his cheeks together with his hands. This is how he handles intense emotions—both his own and mine. I think he’s trying to squeeze them out of him. I go into my bedroom, slip on a pantsuit I got at Walmart and spray myself with at least thirty squirts of perfume. Julian picks me up for the party wearing a top hat and singing an unidentifiable jolly tune.
I lose Julian within minutes of arriving to the party. He gives me a kiss on the forehead then disappears into the crowd, dipping and diving. I make my way to the back balcony and drink a few Blue Moons to remind myself that I’m not invisible. I wonder if my mom copes this way too. If I try hard enough, I can convince myself that she’s here beside me, drinking in solidarity. She sounds just as tired and lonely as I do.
I close my eyes and say, “I am happy and healthy. I am okay,” a few dozen times then open them again. There are people below in the hot tub. Julian is one of them. He is sitting about seventeen inches from a girl I do not know. Maybe eighteen if I’m lucky. Or if she is. If someone’s lucky.
A girl with facial piercings asks me where the bathroom is and I point at the house. She raises her eyebrows as if to say, Wow, thanks, I hadn’t thought of that.
Before going inside, she says, “Hey, do you like Milky Way?”
“Like the candy?” I ask.
“Like the sky,” she says. Now it is her turn to point at the obvious.
“Oh. I’ve never given it much thought. I like it as much as anything else I guess.”
“What does that mean?” Her silver piercing above her lip looks like a pimple. I keep having to remind myself not to pop it.
“You know,” I say.
“No, I mean, I really don’t. You can’t like all things equally.”
“There are no rules saying that I can’t.”
I pull out my pack of cigarettes and offer her one so that maybe she will forget what we are talking about. She shakes her head and her short blonde hair stays perfectly in place. I wonder if she’s ever pushed a mannequin head on a bike.
“I haven’t forgotten,” she says, walking away. Her eyes burn mine like she’s giving me laser eye surgery. I put my hands over my ears so no more of my thoughts leak out of my head. I can’t remember the last time I’ve taken my medication. I lean over the balcony and see that I have accidentally chucked my pack of cigarettes into the garden. Someone else will eat tomatoes that taste like poison.
“I am okay,” I say, then I make my way over to the jug of sangria. It tastes like packets of sweetener and polluted water. I chug my glass then immediately refill it.
The table of food looks both appealing and disgusting. I grab a tamale and return to my position on the balcony. Julian and the girl are about fifteen inches apart now. His dark curls are wet and wrapped around themselves. I want to wrap one around my neck.
In the car on the way here, Julian went on and on about his trip to Greece last year. He wanted to see where his ancestors came from. I’ve heard about this trip once every week since his return. I don’t tire of it. The mining locations. The fishing villages. The archaeological sites. He could feel all of their heartbeats.
“Why did they leave?” he asked, referring to his ancestors.
“I don’t know, Julian.”
“I know you don’t. I’m not actually asking for an answer.”
“I’m just trying to participate,” I said.
“The people there seemed so happy, you know?” He drummed his hands on the steering wheel and glanced over at me when he spoke.
“People hate being happy,” I said.
He shrugged. I’d lost him. I am forever losing him.
The tamale is spicy but not unmanageable. I eat it in a few bites and am still hungry and thirsty so I grab another tamale and a refill of the polluted sweetener. When I return, Julian is about six inches from the girl and she looks cuter than she did before, as if the party had been stopped like a movie so the make-up artist could come touch up her face. The plastic cup crunches a bit in my hand but doesn’t crack. I chug the drink then, without realizing what I’m doing, I hurl the tamale into the hot tub. Julian and the girl look around to find the source of the intrusion and eventually he looks up and locks eyes with me. He says something to the girl and she keeps her head very still as if he said, Don’t look up but . . . How would he finish that sentence? There are a million ways to die and imagining what he thinks of me is one of them.
I go inside and ask someone if I can use the telephone. I don’t even think she’s the host but she says yes anyway. Gabriel answers on the first ring.
“She’s on the other line, isn’t she?” I ask.
“Please stop spinning around in circles,” I say.
“Okay. Okay.” The second okay sounds robotic.
“Did she say anything about me?” I ask.
“Yes, she said she hopes you’re okay.”
“Jesus, Gabriel. Well, I’m not. I’m not okay at all. Tell her that.”
“Tell her yourself.”
“Ask her how she chose the house that she did.”
“I have. She said she liked the old couch in the front yard. She knew they wouldn’t throw you away.”
I think of the clown photo protecting my daughter. She must be 11-years-old by now. I’m losing track of the years.
I hang up the phone, walk down the stairs to the hot tub and climb in fully clothed. Julian inches closer to me and I know that I like him more than just about anything else.
Marisa Crane is a lesbian writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Maudlin House, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, Pidgeonholes, Pigeon Pages, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @marisabcrane. She currently lives in San Diego with her wife.
Find more of her work at http://www.marisacrane.org/.