Behind the Mask

I wrote this poem two years ago, but for some reason I’ve been feeling nudged to share it the past couple weeks. It’s very unusual, but I like it, and I hope you will, too.

Behind the Mask

the high school reunion’s perfect
too perfect
full of color and light and songs
that make you want to dance
and laughing people
women in bright dresses of varying lengths
with perfectly manicured nails
men with hair slicked back
and immaculately creased pants

you’re just like any of them.
hair gel still sticking to the back of your neck
freshly ironed slacks still warm on your legs
you see an old friend
you haven’t seen her in years
bright red lipstick and dark mascara catch you off guard
last time you saw her
she was in shorts and a Beatles t-shirt
huddled against a tree
with tears making little trails down her naturally pink cheeks
her forehead splotchy red from crying

she sees you at the same time
bright blue eyes sweeping you over
seeming to remember that same occasion
when you were in your faded blue jeans
and scuffed-up tennis shoes
kicking your toes in the fresh mud
not knowing what to say
then kneeling down
feeling your knees slip in the mud
and putting your arms around her

she flashes a lipstick smile,
then swishes over to you in her purple flowered dress
asks how you are, and offers her hand
she smells like some kind of exotic flower
just like every other woman in the room
you shake her hand
wishing to give her a hug
but knowing it simply isn’t how things are done
everyone else in the room sees another man
another woman
just like everyone else
shaking hands

you both talk
but neither of you hears a word
you’re still just looking into each others’ eyes
hers as blue as ever under all that mascara
yours feeling flat and dull, but searching for something in hers
you don’t find it
her soul is shut off from you
just like everyone else’s in the room

you remember how once
those masks weren’t there
you want to see behind all that now
past all that makeup
and know how she is
not what she’s doing with her life
not how her job is going or where she lives
but that’s all she’ll say
and you can’t really blame her
because when her eyes speak for just a moment
begging you to let her know you still care
you can’t seem to take off your mask, either

you wonder
would she still show you the tears
would she let you see
she’s not okay, that she doesn’t think
she can handle this life anymore?
show you the scars that trace down her arms
you glance at her arms now
but her purple dress has long sleeves
you wonder if it’s on purpose

but then you also wonder
would you get down on your knees in those slacks?
would you let them slide around in the mud
ignore what anyone tried to say about your relationship
and put your arms around her
one human being to another
knowing that she’s beautiful
more beautiful in shorts and a t-shirt
with pimples on her face
than she is now, unblemished
in the purple dress that shows everything
except her arms
and her heart

now she’s turning to leave
you know
you can’t let this moment pass without caring
for all you know, there are still scars on those arms
and worse scars on the hidden heart
you reach out, and take her hand
clasp it tightly in your own, strong one
not caring who sees or what they think
she turns back, caught off guard now
and looks into your eyes again

now you don’t see blue
and mascara
this time you see a slowly fading shield at first
and then
you can see it
the confusion and hurt and fear are there
just as they were on that day years ago
nothing has changed
she’s still that little girl
scared in shorts and a t-shirt
and like you did years ago
you pull her close into your arms
and hold her tight
the way everyone should have
but never did

you don’t want to let go
but the emcee begins to announce the party is over
and you have to
you loosen your hold and she pulls back
and then you see
tears making trails through her makeup
you hand her your handkerchief
and whisper for her to keep it
she thanks you
and runs away
dabbing at her eyes to save the mascara
high heels clicking against the hard, cold floor

you watch her walk away, your hands in your pockets
wishing that you were in the mud
in blue jeans again
inwardly cursing the masks you wear
and the world that makes beautiful girls
feel they have to wear them
then you reach up
run a hand through your hair so that it’s no longer quite so stiff
and leave the school
more yourself than you were
when you entered

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