I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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I don’t remember how the tradition started — probably on a dare — but for many years, whenever one of my sisters or I have traveled by air, we’ve greeted each other at the airport wearing a disguise. In the beginning, we simply wore masks or funny hats, but as we’ve gotten older, our inhibitions have diminished, and our disguises have grown more elaborate: a formal evening gown, for example, or an organ grinder’s outfit, complete with toy monkey. Once, when my twin sister was the last to arrive for a family gathering, she was greeted by a turbaned swami, an unraveling mummy, and a psychotic-looking doctor in a fright wig.
Two years ago, my twin sister called from Colorado and told me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would be having a mastectomy in a few days. Though she sounded very matter-of-fact about the prospect, I insisted on flying out there the day before the operation. As I boarded the plane, I wondered briefly about disguises. Surely, she wouldn’t want to dress up on such a serious occasion.
When I first got off the plane, I didn’t see my sister or her oldest son, both of whom were coming to meet me. Then I noticed two heavily made-up women in frilly, old-fashioned dresses, each with one side of her bosom more filled out than the other. They stood up and came my way, grinning. My sister handed me a balloon, which she instructed me to place inside my blouse, over my right breast, the way she had hers. As we walked downstairs to get my bags, I hoped my sister and her son would think the tears flowing down my cheeks were from laughter.
Most of the time, I wear the guise of an everyday housewife, with happy, well-adjusted children and a fulfilled, contented husband. But every third weekend, I pack my bag for the coast, where I become Mistress Monique, the woman men pay to obey.
My clients’ garb is simple: dog collars around their necks, their backsides bare to my whip. My costumes vary, from the innocently seductive to something more . . . commanding. This is what these men are after — to be totally under someone else’s control. It’s the one place in their lives where they know exactly what’s expected of them.
Our brief time together makes my clients’ workweeks bearable and gets me through making lunches and ironing shirts — not to mention providing a lucrative source of income. If, after a session, a man sits at his desk, the backs of his thighs tender and his nipples raw against his suit, and finds himself becoming excited as he cinches his tie around his throat, then I know I’ve done my job; he’ll be back for more. Me? I’ll be at a PTA luncheon discussing candy sales or car washes, or perhaps teaching a fourth-grade class to tie lanyards: “You know, kids, you’ve got to pull the leather very tight, or the knot will never stay.”
For a time, I lived on the remote Pacific island of Saipan with my Japanese husband. Although he was fairly modern and accepting of my independent nature, his traditional-minded parents were not — particularly his domineering father.
My in-laws would visit us every few months to closely scrutinize how we were running our branch of the family business. For several weeks, they would breathe down our necks, meddle in our relationship, and generally disrupt our lazy, tropical-island routines.
One Christmas, I returned to the U.S. to visit my parents. Many of my personal effects were in storage at their home, and each time I visited them, I would bring something back to my new home on the island. This time, for some reason, I retrieved a black wig. Perhaps I thought it would be fun to wear it in Tokyo one day, when I’d grown weary of the way my blond hair made me stand out in a crowd.
I had planned my trip such that I would arrive back in Saipan one day before my father-in-law was due to visit. God forbid Papa-san should learn that I had been away from my husband’s side even for a day! He already had so many reasons for not accepting me into his family, I didn’t want to provide him with one more.
But things did not go as planned. My departing flight was delayed by a blizzard, and I landed in Tokyo too late to make my connection to Saipan. The airline put me up for the night in a hotel and booked me on another flight the next day — the very same one that Papa-san was taking! Luckily, I remembered the black wig in my suitcase.
The following day, I put on the wig and a pair of sunglasses and proceeded to check in for my flight. Sure enough, there was my father-in-law in line at the ticket counter. Inevitably, there was an hour wait at the gate, and Papa-san couldn’t just sit and wait like everyone else. No, he had to pace back and forth. Every time he passed by me, the knots in my stomach would tighten. In college, I had fantasized about working for the CIA. Now I was glad I’d never pursued a career in espionage.
Thankfully, my father-in-law and I weren’t seated next to each other on the plane. When we arrived in Saipan, I blazed through immigration in the U.S. citizen line, while he was stuck in a longer one. I bypassed the baggage claim — I could come back and pick up my bags later — scurried through customs, and exited the airport into the balmy tropical air. Spotting my husband, I walked over and deliberately bumped into him to observe his reaction. He didn’t recognize me until I spoke. We had a quick laugh, and I dashed home while he stayed at the airport to greet his father.
At the house, I changed into shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, and dutifully took up my broom. When my husband and Papa-san arrived a short while later, I was sweeping the front steps, like a good subservient Japanese wife. “Hi, Papa-san,” I said, my smile a little more genuine than usual. Putting one over on him was gratifying.
New York, New York
In the back of my closet hangs a shapeless shift dress that I last wore in 1972. It has an East Indian look to it and is made of crushed blue velvet with red, yellow, and green embroidery around the V-neck, the flared sleeves, and the ankle-length hemline. I imagine it was made by a dark-skinned Hindu woman at an ancient pedal sewing machine.
I bought the dress in 1969 at a head shop in Philadelphia and didn’t take it off for the next three years. I wore it to my senior prom, freshman chemistry class, family Christmases, and the lone fraternity party to which I was invited. I wore it shoplifting, hitchhiking, and panhandling, and to concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Doors. I wore it to be-ins, Earth Day celebrations, antiwar marches, peace rallies, solstice parties, and nude beaches, where I blithely pulled it off over my head as I raced to the Pacific’s edge. I wore it the first time I took acid, the night I lost my virginity, and the time Jackie W. got drunk on a gallon of Boone’s Farm apple wine and threw up in my lap.
I accessorized my frock with ten-inch platform heels, leather work boots, fringed rabbit-fur moccasins, and petite Indian sandals that gave me a rash between my toes. In winter, I matched it with lime green tights, red knee socks, and yellow pantyhose. In summer, I went barelegged and unshaven. I wore it with handmade earrings, mood rings, eight pounds of turquoise bracelets, and a large leather peace sign that dangled between my braless breasts on a loop of twine. I looked especially good by the light of an undulating lava lamp.
I have a picture of myself in that dress, a pink feather boa around my neck and rose-colored granny glasses shading my dilated pupils. My hair sticks out on all sides. There are definitely flowers in it.
Now the dress hangs limp and sad in the closet on a hanger that is starting to sag under its weight. In twenty-seven years, it’s been hauled across the continent twice and shoved into a series of miserable little apartments, drafty communal cottages, storage units, trailers, and tepees. It’s been unceremoniously stuffed into trunks and duffel bags, backpacks and shopping carts. It’s been borrowed by an ex-sister-in-law and by a drag queen who died of AIDS.
The other day, I took the dress out of the closet to see if it might make a suitable Halloween costume. Though it has no waistline — nor any shape whatsoever — I wasn’t certain I could still squeeze into it. Undaunted, I went to Telegraph Avenue to buy a mask.
As I got out of the car and mingled with the students on the sidewalk, I realized that my thirty-year-old dress was back in style. It wouldn’t look like a costume at all on someone young enough to wear it.
At the costume store, I picked out a Hillary Clinton mask. Before trying it on, I looked in the mirror. Staring back at me was a face I barely recognized. I felt as if I were already wearing a mask.
For Halloween, my lover decided to dress as the devil. “Why don’t you wear that beautiful angel costume we made last year?” I suggested. I thought back on the previous Halloween, when we’d been happy in each other’s arms, oblivious to the party going on around us.
“No,” he said, “I need to be something different this year.” So he donned horns, covered his face with red paint, and put on a tight red T-shirt. He was a sexy devil.
At the party, my boyfriend began drinking more than I’d ever seen him consume. He knocked back three gin and tonics by the time I’d finished one, and the drag-queen bartenders were pouring them strong. Throughout the night, I could hear his usually quiet voice loud and clear over the pounding beat of the music. We danced in a circle with a fortuneteller, a priest, and a jester.
By 2 A.M., I was ready to call it a night, but my devil lover was nowhere to be found. I searched the kitchen, the living room, and the patio. With growing puzzlement, I went up to the quiet second floor and then the third. There, I opened the door of an unfinished storage room, and the hall light fell across two fumbling figures: my devil and the jester, their pants down, caught in the act.
My lover began a drunken explanation, but I couldn’t listen. His red makeup was smeared, and one horn was missing. I felt I was seeing the real man, someone I didn’t know. The disguise of the sincere, loving, faithful boyfriend melted away.
We’re the ones who got left behind by the women’s movement of the seventies: women who either did not get the message that we could have what men had, or could not believe it was true. One way or another, each of us ended up in the prehistoric land of stay-at-home motherhood, where we paste smiles on our lips and state emphatically that we would never give up the carpooling, the field trips, the cookie baking — i.e., the complete self-sublimation in support of our children. Every so often, however, the disguise of maternal fulfillment slips, revealing a person in need of accomplishment, recognition, or even just stimulation.
Once, when my three-year-old and I arrived early for a birthday party, we found the birthday girl’s mother flitting about, as nervous and quick as a caged bird. She was perfectly put together in a taffeta dress and matching heels, the room was flawlessly decorated, and the cake was a masterpiece, but something was wrong. The birthday girl cowered behind her mother’s taffeta skirt, thumb planted firmly between rosebud lips. When the doorbell rang, the girl turned to look, and I saw four long red marks spaced like fingers on the side of her face.
I wanted to tell the mother that a hug and an apology go a long way in a three-year-old’s life. I wanted to suggest that she talk to a professional or find something that she loves to do and do it for at least part of each day. But I knew my advice would be met with feigned confusion. There were guests for her to greet, a party to preside over, a disguise to maintain.
San Rafael, California
In the fall of 1994, my husband and I decided to sell our home and buy a more modest one in the same town in order to pay off our debt and lower our mortgage. It was also part of an attempt to stabilize our marriage. Earlier in the year, my husband had had an affair with a woman at work, but he’d told me that he had stopped seeing her, and I believed him.
One Saturday, a couple was coming back to see the house a second time, but my husband said he was going in to work. I started to cry and told him it didn’t feel like he was with me, even when he was there. That’s when he blurted out that he was leaving me. He’d already rented an apartment and was planning to move out the next day. He swore it wasn’t the other woman, though; he just needed to be by himself.
We talked all that day, sitting in his car in the rain while the potential buyers looked around the house. I was as understanding as I could be. He said he still wanted us to be together one night a week. And for the benefit of neighbors, the bank, and others, we would pretend to be happily married.
When the couple placed a bid on the house, my husband drove out from his apartment so we could meet with the real estate agent. He and I laughed together, united in this endeavor, at least.
Throughout the process of looking at houses, bidding, getting our new mortgage, dealing with contractors, and closing the two deals, we played our parts perfectly. Every Saturday night, my husband’s car was parked next to mine in the driveway. I told our new neighbors he traveled a lot. I didn’t tell anyone about our separation. If I didn’t talk about it, I thought, it wouldn’t be real. I clung to the disguise of marriage — until the following February, when my husband announced that he wanted a divorce. Then I told all. The real estate agent said I should be an actress. She hadn’t suspected a thing.
Joe wasn’t as good an actor as I was. I eventually saw through his role as faithful, if estranged, husband. He had left a trail of evidence — the smell of cigarettes in his car (he didn’t smoke); extra cash withdrawals from our bank account (amounting to thousands over the course of two years); leaving for work at 6 A.M. A few years later, he finally confessed that he had never stopped seeing the other woman. In fact, he was now married to her. I don’t know if he ever would have admitted this were it not for one irrefutable piece of evidence: he’d begun paying his alimony from a joint checking account.
Montclair, New Jersey
When I go out with my husband and his mostly Republican friends, I dress up and put on makeup and jewelry, but I never feel comfortable. A Quaker potluck is more my style, where no one cares what anyone else is wearing or makes any judgments about appearance. Being larger than a size ten, I don’t truly fit in with my husband’s peers anyway.
Once, I visited my friend Jean in Arequipa, Peru, where she was staying for a year. We had a fine time walking around dressed in our long denim skirts, Birkenstock sandals, and big straw hats to ward off the sun. We went without makeup and didn’t style our plain gray hair. Aside from obviously being North Americans, we looked more like the local Indian women than we did Jean’s middle- and upper-class Spanish friends, who wore makeup, short skirts, and high heels.
But perhaps we could be careless about our place in that country’s class system because we had a secure place in our own, unacknowledged class system back home.
Most American women wear disguises. We fat women put on long, loose tops to cover up our bulging stomachs. Old women dye their hair and wear makeup to hide their age. Sad women conceal their feelings with smiles and chirpy voices. But camouflage is not always a bad thing. For example, it allows radical women to infiltrate ordinary social gatherings: my old activist friend Ann gets her Rotary Club to send medical equipment to Nicaragua, never bothering them with the details of Central American politics.
There is a danger, however, when radicals live in the belly of the American beast, that we will become blind to what author Virginia Carmichael calls “our own daily dependence on the order we would change.” Many of my disguises may, in fact, be part of who I truly am but do not want to admit being: a middle-class white woman.
When I was eighteen, I pawned my cello and bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia. It was 1973, and I’d latched on to the tail end of the hippie movement, letting my hair grow long, wearing skirts made of old bluejeans and Indian bedspreads, and changing my name. I used the Polish diminutive of Helen — Helusia — which I shortened to Lusia.
“Wow, man,” Tom said when we met, “what a cool name.” Tom had a thick, matted ponytail and a beard that nearly concealed his rotten front teeth. He was impressed that I had once played in a “sympathy” orchestra, as he called it. He and his friends were free spirits who earned money planting trees in British Columbia during the summer and spent winters in Mexico.
I went through the motions of being Tom’s “lady” — sleeping on a mattress on the floor of our condemned shack; dancing wildly to Country Joe and the Fish at the Pender Ballroom; dutifully smoking the requisite daily amounts of hash and grass. But instead of feeling mellow, I was restless and tormented by questions: Who was I? What was my purpose? How would I ever find fulfilling work and earn a living?
I asked Tom and his friends to stop calling me Lusia. The name suddenly sounded strange and foreign to me. I went back to using Helen, found a job as a receptionist in an optical store, and started saving money to buy another cello. A special shampoo killed my lice within a few days, and they were swept down the drain, along with the last remnants of Lusia, the reluctant hippie chick.
When I married my husband, Dave, I knew his computer would be my biggest rival. A programmer, he stayed up until 3 A.M. night after night, staring at the screen while I lay in bed, feeling lonely. I used to cry and fantasize about the perfect marriage and fight with him about his obsession. Yet I stayed with him, certain that we could overcome this problem.
Dave was tireless in his insistence that I sample the joys of the digital world, so I eventually made friends with the computer. I took quickly to e-mail and surfing the Internet, and Dave showed me how to use a chat room and invent an online nickname for myself. I managed to find some interesting conversations in chat rooms, but I also ended up on the receiving end of lines like “Hey, baby, what are you wearing?” and “Tell me what your measurements are.” My heart sank. Was this what Dave was up to until 3 A.M. while I languished between our cold sheets?
One lonely night, I took my laptop to bed with me, went online, and created a brand-new nickname for myself — something like “ReadyWhenYouAre.” Then I located my husband’s name on the standby list in a chat room he frequented, and I approached him seductively: “Hey, baby, want to spend a few hot minutes with me?” I waited for his response, not sure whether I really wanted to do this. There was no reply. I typed, “Want to get away for a little fun?”
After a few moments, I heard a deep sigh from the other room and watched the words come up on my screen: “Thank you, but I’m working right now, and I really love my wife. I’ll have to decline your tempting offer.”
Wow. I was impressed. But I wondered: Did he know it was me? “Oh, come on,” I wrote, “if you really love your wife, then why aren’t you with her at this time of night? Surely you could use a little distraction from your ‘work.’ I promise you won’t regret it.”
I heard his fingers pounding the keyboard in the office: “Because I love programming, too,” he wrote. “Really, I will have to thank you and get back to work. Have fun.”
I was elated, but part of me felt guilty about deceiving him. The next morning, I confessed to Dave what I had done. He was mad at me, but proud that he’d responded the way he had. “See, it’s like I keep telling you,” he said. “I love you, but I love programming, too.” Just when I was sure we were heading for another tiresome verbal sparring match, he stopped and said, “But I guess I see your point, too.” Then he added, with a grin, “By the way, nice disguise.”
Nowadays, we sometimes stay up together until 3 A.M., our feet touching on the couch, Dave programming away on his laptop while I write essays and stories on mine. We even have a link between our computers, and every now and then, we use it to send love notes across each other’s screens.
Several years ago, I worked for the local gas-and-electric company. As a woman in a traditionally male, blue-collar field, I had to work twice as hard to prove myself, and any mistake I made was treated as if it were the first mistake ever made on the crew. But I held my own, proving I wasn’t afraid to get dirty and work hard. Slowly, I began to fit in. Yet I remained on guard, hiding the fact that I was a lesbian.
At the time, Colorado was voting on an amendment to its constitution barring local antidiscrimination ordinances designed to protect gays and lesbians. In activist circles, we’d been dubbed the “Hate State.” Afraid my co-workers would no longer like me if they knew about my sexual orientation, I kept my private life to myself — and kept silent when people made comments about “fags” and politics.
After many months, though, I began to feel pretty comfortable around a few of the guys, and I was getting tired of watching everything I said. One day, Al said to me, “Michelle, we need to get you a boy toy.”
I laughed and said, “I don’t need one.”
“No, really,” he said. “We’ll start looking for a boy toy for you.”
“Al,” I replied, “I like girls.”
After he’d recovered from his shock, Al said, “No shit?’’
“Yep,” I answered.
I thought I’d really screwed myself. I knew it would take only a day or two for the word to spread. But I couldn’t hide who I really was any longer; it was taking too much energy.
Nothing else was said until a couple of days later. Al and I were working downtown, and an attractive woman in a miniskirt walked between us. When she’d passed, Al looked at me and said, “Don’t make me have to arm-wrestle you for her!”
I laughed and nearly cried with relief.
On my last day of work, Al said to me, “Michelle, I want you to know that you’re someone I would be proud to have in my house to sit down to dinner with my family.” Although we’ve lost touch, I will always be grateful for his humor and acceptance.
Some surprises come wrapped in brown paper or cellophane. Phil was packaged in polyester.
Sure, it was the late seventies, but I’d never been attracted to a man who wore anything but natural materials, like Levi’s or khakis. In addition to polyester, Phil wore pointy-toed cowboy boots long before they were in style. I thought they were embarrassing — until I saw his dress shoes. He was the sort of guy I’d made fun of most of my life.
Phil forced me to confront my prejudices. Normally, his Tennessee accent alone would have sent me running in the opposite direction. He drank bourbon and Coke; I smoked pot. He refused to see Jane Fonda’s movies; I had been to several demonstrations where she’d spoken. He listened to Elvis; I listened to the Stones.
I’d recently returned home to Michigan to put my life back together, but my folks were tired of my showing up on their doorstep whenever things unraveled in San Francisco. This time, they made me find work. My uncle got me a job in one of the toughest Ford plants in the state. Phil was a foreman, and I assembled trucks on the line.
I thought of the factory as a purgatory where I would suffer until I had paid for my sins and decided to grow up. At twenty-seven, after two divorces, I still believed that the perfect man would come along to take care of me and give me a home with a white picket fence and a porch swing.
By the time Phil asked me out, I was a union gal, a regular Rosie the Riveter. Still, no one expected me to date a foreman — least of all my parents. When I was a kid, they never allowed us to use racial slurs, but calling someone a hillbilly was fine, and Phil definitely fit the description. I decided to go out with him anyway because he genuinely liked and respected women — a rarity anywhere, but especially where we worked. He was the only man in the place who didn’t seem bothered that women had entered his rough and greasy domain.
I smoked a joint before Phil arrived, and I soon regretted it. His outfit would have made me want to laugh even if I hadn’t been high. He had on white patent-leather shoes with gold buckles, white flared pants that ended above his ankles, and a black polyester shirt with white polka dots.
I have four sisters, and we’d all been known to crucify each other’s would-be suitors with our cutting remarks. But that night, everyone behaved. I suspect Phil was beyond anything my family was prepared to deal with. It would have been almost redundant for them to make fun of him.
In typical, gentlemanly fashion, Phil invited my sisters to join us for the surprise outing he had planned. Only the youngest, Annie, accepted. She was underage, but Phil said he could get her in at the club where we were going.
Phil took us to a performance by one of his closest friends, an Elvis impersonator who spelled his stage name without the E: “Lvis.” Annie and I made the mistake of smoking another joint on the way, and when we got to the Blue Bonnet Bar, the laughter I’d been suppressing all evening began to leak out. Annie was losing it, too. The more we tried to hold it in, the more our shoulders vibrated. When Lvis launched into “Burning Love” and began to toss out hankies that his mother had embroidered, we had to run to the ladies’ room to avoid wetting our pants.
Why Phil and I had a second date is still a mystery, but it was the start of our relationship. After our third date, he moved in with me and immediately began to fix up my apartment, buying a matching bathroom set (I was able to talk him out of the toilet-seat cover), knickknack shelves, and drapes to replace the sheets I had thumbtacked to the bedroom wall. He was going to take care of me.
I had my own plans for him: the cowboy boots could stay, but the pants had to be Levi’s, and the right length. I talked him into some cotton shirts — before I realized they had to be ironed for work. Country music was OK in moderation, and we found common ground in crossover artists like Marshall Tucker, Bob Seeger, and Emmylou Harris.
For his part, Phil never judged the music I listened to or the clothes I wore. Unconcerned with fashion or correctness, he truly accepted people the way they were, ignoring the packages they came in. It still embarrasses me that I thought I was so much better than him.
As different as we are, it’s amazing that Phil and I even went out together. No way should we be celebrating fourteen years of marriage in a few days. My polyester suitor turned out to be Mr. Perfect in disguise.
San Mateo, California
I met Christopher when I was fourteen. My classmates considered me the official Weird Girl Nobody Likes, and Christopher was the first person to take a genuine interest in me and accept me the way I was. He was intelligent, attractive, and just enough older than me that I found his attention incredibly flattering. Then one day, he disappeared without saying goodbye.
While Christopher was gone, I kept thinking of him and of how much I missed him and wanted to be like him. I started imitating his manner of dress, but what had looked charmingly anachronistic on him made me look like a girl dressed up in her great-grandfather’s clothes. My new wardrobe did not go unnoticed by my mocking peers, but I didn’t much care. I had my memories of Christopher. I even changed my handwriting to look more like his and adopted some of his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. It never felt quite like me, but then, that’s what I wanted.
Several months passed before I saw Christopher again. I ran into him at a coffee shop, and he told me he’d been on a road trip to California. As soon as I saw him, I felt like the lowest form of counterfeit. I was embarrassed for him to witness my pathetic impersonation. The next day, I went back to my old clothes.
But my handwriting still carries traces of Christopher in it.
I work in a long-term-care facility. Every day, in order to do my job, I must put on a full disguise. Carefully, I remove the rings and studs from my multiple piercings, shave my stubble, and pull my hair back into a neat ponytail. Gone are my Harley shirts, torn jeans, and engineer’s boots, replaced by a polo shirt (complete with corporate logo), white uniform pants, and matching shoes.
Whenever the residents comment on what a “nice boy” I am, I cannot help but remember the time I stood on a bar and dropped my pants for a shot of tequila. This gentle caregiver once proudly boasted that he could drink a whole case of beer and still drive home. This polite young man has done enough lying, cheating, and stealing for several lifetimes.
I wonder: If the people whose needs I tend knew that I was a former alcoholic and drug user, would they no longer consider me good enough to wipe their bottoms and wash the places they can’t reach? Would their idle chat about bingo and the weather be replaced by stony silence? How quickly would this “nice boy” become “that man”?
Disguises are not to be confused with costumes. Costumes are for parties and part-timers, but a disguise is serious business. To be successful, it must evoke faith and confidence. We disguise ourselves to become something we are not, even if only temporarily.
I wear my disguise with pride, going into my new life with my head held high. I don’t just want other people to believe I am a fine, upstanding member of society; I want to believe it, too.
I had been feeling different for a few days. There was a brightness to my manner, a focus and an energy that weren’t there before. I couldn’t figure it out, but I knew for sure something was different when, on my way to work one morning, a thin, oily smoke began pouring from my car’s heating vents, yet I remained as calm as could be.
Problems with that car were always contributing to my usual litany of woes. But that morning, I whistled on my way across the parking lot, chuckled when I told our department’s receptionist what had happened, and shrugged off the bad news my mechanic later gave me over the phone. I faced fearlessly the workload I normally dreaded, attacking my cold-calling list with a vengeance, and was more productive than I had been in months.
That afternoon, I called my psychiatrist’s nurse to request a refill on a prescription. I had mysteriously run out of my antidepressants much sooner than expected. When I complained to her about a lightheaded feeling I’d been experiencing, she asked how much of the drug I was taking, and I told her. There was a long pause. Then she calmly said that she would have the doctor call me right back.
It turned out that I’d been taking a triple dosage, having confused the number of times a day with the number of tablets I was supposed to take. The doctor said I was lucky: the amount I was taking could have given me seizures. I’m sure he was right. But it had also given me what I’d always wanted: a cheerful disguise to hide my passive, insecure, emotionally fragile self.
Park Ridge, Illinois
From their catwalk, the guards watched my bus pull into the prison. I was twenty-seven years old and had just been given a twenty-three-year sentence. On my first day there, an older convict walked up to me and, in a compassionate yet firm voice, said, “Young bro, put on your game face. You’re at Folsom State Prison.” I took his advice and hardened my expression until it didn’t convey a trace of emotion.
Guns went off almost daily in that place, with someone being stabbed or shot at least six days a week. I remember one convict, who stood six-foot-five and weighed two hundred seventy pounds, telling me how afraid he was of getting shot or stabbed by some guy trying to make a name for himself. Luckily, I never even got in a fistfight, probably due in part to the grim expression I wore.
That was more than ten years ago. I’m scheduled to be paroled in less than a year. The other day, I was looking at my face in the restroom mirror when another convict walked up with a grin and asked, “What are you doing? Trying to figure out a way to get rid of some of that gray hair?”
Actually, after wearing this face for more than a decade, I was trying to figure out how to take it off, and wondering if I would still be able to recognize myself when I did.
When I was young, I studied with Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Rinzai Zen Master who had come to the U.S. in the early sixties from a temple on a mountain in Japan. He wore a black robe, and when he sat cross-legged on his mat, he looked as triangular and immovable as Mount Fuji.
At the end of each zazen meditation session, Roshi would retire to a small room, and each student in turn would go there for an interview called sanzen. I once heard a student ask Roshi to explain the purpose of sanzen. Roshi answered, “In sanzen, I kill you, you kill me, or you run away.” I longed to have my illusions slain, or to slay the master with a demonstration of my insight, or at least not to run away.
I still remember one such interview. Following the prescribed custom, I knelt before Roshi and bowed until my forehead touched the floor. Then I straightened up and waited for him to speak.
“Show me your original face,” Roshi said, “before your parents were born.”
I tried to think of a subtle remark I could make on the nature of the Self. But Roshi’s calm, intent expression silenced me. I stared at him stupidly while my mind skittered like water on a hot wood stove. I felt a silly, embarrassed look forming my face. Roshi seemed in no hurry to end my discomfort, no more than a mountain is anxious for a storm to pass.
Finally, Roshi said, “Someday you will realize your true nature — then you be very happy!” And he beamed like the morning sun.
That day, I went home and looked in the bathroom mirror, trying to see what my face looked like when I wasn’t making a face, just my plain face, the real me. I relaxed all my facial muscles and studied my saggy expression. That certainly wasn’t my “original face.” I tried a smile, a half smile, a dignified expression, a look of indifference. But these all seemed like disguises, masks. I could not see my true self, only someone looking for myself.
But I knew I could not run away from the question. And I haven’t.
Years have passed, and now my face has many wrinkles and looks like my father’s. Though I no longer study Zen, I have continued to practice meditation. And I have come to see something at the deepest level of my experience that doesn’t seem to change. It was there when I was a child. It is here tonight.
The question I ask myself these days is whether it will still be here when my face is gone.
With a shy smile directed at my dinner companion, I excuse myself to the ladies’ room. As I walk between the rows of tables, the women give me sidelong glances, and the men wear approving expressions. I have on my new size-five dress, which shows off my figure to its fullest advantage. I’ve been looking forward to this evening all week, watching my diet and exercising diligently so that I might look as stunning as possible. My efforts have paid off.
In the restroom, I check to be sure the door is securely locked behind me. As I approach the toilet, I pull my hair back with one hand and drop my pendant inside my neckline with the other. With a sigh, I sink to the floor in front of the bowl, thrust my fingers into my throat, and begin to retch. The prime rib is still warm as I vomit it back up. I gaze ruefully at the expensive dinner floating in the commode, then push the handle.
Leaning toward the mirror, I gently dab at the smeared mascara beneath my eyes. The girl in the mirror wears an expression of wounded betrayal, and for the millionth time, I offer her a mute apology. Then I rinse out my mouth, fluff my hair, pull the pendant out of my dress, and return to bask in my companion’s attentive admiration.
My mother didn’t simply put on a costume for Halloween, like most people. She believed in total disguises, changing her hair, her skin, her eyes, even her voice.
Mom always dressed up as something dark and evil. Over the years, she was an evil witch, a dark enchantress, and — her personal favorite — a soulless vampire. For this last disguise, she would dye her long blond hair black as night; paint her face, neck, arms, and hands a sickly white; color her lips a deep crimson; and draw gray circles around her eyes, making her whole face seem sunken and dead. As she headed out the door to a party, she would give a wicked laugh, and I’d shiver with excitement and dread.
One night a few weeks after Halloween, Mom and I stayed up late watching an old Dracula movie on TV. It was just the two of us, and she had been drinking since before dinner. During a commercial, she asked me to fetch her another glass of wine, and I reluctantly complied. I hated it when she drank too much. She wasn’t the warm and gentle mom I loved. She slurred her words and looked at me through half-open eyes.
When I grudgingly handed her the glass of wine, she asked me for a kiss. I bent down and lightly pressed my mouth to her pale cheek, beside her wine-reddened lips. With a sudden, strong grip, she wrapped an arm around my neck and, growling mockingly, pulled me to her and gently bit my neck.
I wrenched myself away with a sharp cry, tears falling from my eyes. Angrily, she protested that she’d only been joking. I stammered an apology, stumbled out of the room, and went to bed without finishing the movie. When I reached my room, I dove under the covers and shivered inside and out.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Years ago, when my son was seven, the two of us went to Great Britain to visit friends. While there, we rented a car and drove north to Scotland, sleeping in youth hostels along the way.
One night, at a hostel in Ayr, Scotland, I’d been reading aloud to my son from Richard Adams’s Watership Down for more than an hour when my mouth became so dry I could barely speak. I was ready to go to sleep anyway, but my son wanted me to continue reading. I explained to him that I was exhausted and didn’t want to get up for a glass of water, and the hostel rules clearly stated that no food or drink was allowed upstairs in the sleeping areas.
Undaunted by rules, my son was determined to bring me some water. He didn’t want to get caught, though, so he devised a scheme. Taking his old, beloved, well-worn blanket, he wrapped it around his face and neck, covering all but a narrow slit for his eyes. Then he slipped on his Wellington boots. As he turned to exit, still dressed in his royal blue pajamas, he whispered, “No one will recognize me now. They’ll think I’m an Arab.”
I burst into uncontrollable laughter.
I could tell my son was offended and didn’t understand why I was laughing. He must have concluded that I was too dense to comprehend his ingenious plan, because he slowly explained, as if speaking to someone simple-minded: “Mom, I’m in disguise.”
I was shocked when I read the Readers Write on “Disguises” [September 2000], in which a woman’s son wrapped his face in a blanket, “covering all but a narrow slit for his eyes,” and announced, “No one will recognize me now. They’ll think I’m an Arab.” The writer seemed totally unaware that her son had acted out an offensive racial stereotype. To the contrary, she even “burst into uncontrollable laughter.”
I wonder if she would have laughed had her son painted his face dark and his lips red and claimed to be a black man, or pasted on a long mustache and pulled his eyes back and claimed to be a “Chinaman,” or put on a long nose and a curly wig and claimed to be a Jew.
With the end of the Cold War, the new enemy in the U.S. has become “the Arabs,” and the war waged against them has been based primarily on stereotypes and racial slurs. It makes me sad to think that a so-called progressive magazine would so readily join in this attack on the humanity of a group of people.
Poor Saminaz Akhter, who would deny a child the simple pleasure of make-believe [Correspondence, January 2001]. He’s just another in a long line of would-be victims who confuse culture with race. The child in C.D. Eshleman’s Readers Write piece on “Disguises” [September 2000] was engaging in a cultural affectation with his costume, not a racial slur. Or are Arabs born with burnooses?
Arabic, Chinese, Jewish, African — we’re all the same race: human. Let’s remember that and get on with solving the big problems.