We all wear masks and the time comes when we cannot remove them without stripping our own skin.

She was beautiful, of that there was no doubt. Chocolate-hued hair curled delicately on her shoulders in perfect ringlets and her pale skin seemed almost translucent in the sunshine.

I was talking nonsense as my eyes skimmed her face. What was I saying? She smiled at me anyway. Her teeth were straight and white as the paper cup in her hand. I couldn’t help but smile back when I saw the way her eyes crinkled at the corners. But when she spoke, her face was unlined and innocent; she was so young.

She spoke about sweet nothings, rattling off small talk easily, as if she had had a lot of practice. We chatted about the weather and how I took my coffee. She mentioned something she had read in the newspaper yesterday and how she ran out of time to do the crossword puzzle.

All the while, my eyes soaked up the image of her like a dry cornfield drinks in a summer rain. She was beautiful.

But there was something else. Something wrong. Something off, like coming home to a house and all the furniture was moved three inches to the left. You almost didn’t notice it except that you were always bumping into a chair and whenever you stretched your hand out, the item was just out of reach.

After a few minutes, her voice drifting into silence and I could find nothing else to say. She tipped the cup to her lips and her painted fingernails caught my eye. They were chipped. All of them. I stared at her hands even after she lowered her drink to the table. French manicured, white tips — nothing extraordinary. I wouldn’t have even noticed how she was missing flakes here and there, but it was strange. Everything else about her appearance was immaculate.

So I looked again. Her white skin glowed in the sun’s rays but now the shadows under her eyes became clear. Her face was still gorgeous, still flawless except for the valleys under her eyes and in the hollows of her cheekbones. Nothing about her had changed but I felt as if I was looking at a dying creature rather than a blooming one.

She flashed a smile and I was momentarily blinded. “Is something wrong?” she asked, sweeter than the pastries they sold at the coffee shop we inhabited.

My eyes drifted down to her chipped nail polish. Back to her face. To the nails. To the face that stared innocently back at me. Her mask was perfectly in place and her blank eyes met mine. For all of her words, she had told me nothing about herself. The only remotely personal thing I knew was that she liked to do the crossword puzzle in the newspaper and that would describe half of the people who bothered to read the thing.

I wondered how hard it was for her to take off the mask she constantly wore. My eyes drifted to her chipped nails before meeting her blank eyes once more.

“No, nothing’s wrong.”

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