Behind the Masks
Dierdre hated having to wear a mask for all the usual reasons, but, in addition, because the lower part of her face was her best attribute. She’d had one compliment after another for how her straight, narrow jaw emphasized her high cheekbones and made her look extra-intelligent. Maybe the best compliment was the one from Werner, who said, “Girl, that mouth just defines you! It’s like…etched or something!” Werner was a good, good friend and she wished things hadn’t turned out the way they did.
Everyone began wearing masks at least some of the time beginning in Spring, 2020, when coronavirus announced itself to the human world. Dierdre, and others like her, had known about the virus’s existence for a long time and hadn’t paid it much attention: they tried to live lives that were as normal as possible. Because of their special status, the food shortages didn’t impact them except in a good way, but the biggest loss to her was not seeing people out strolling at night, dining, or just enjoying themselves giving off those big, hearty throat-baring laughs. But by 2024, everyone was getting pretty lonely. There was no “new normal”: there were only endless days of fear and grieving.
It was loneliness, pure and simple, that had led Dierdre to accept a blind date with someone she’d never heard of before that Wednesday afternoon when her colleague Marjorie mentioned a cousin who was coming to town. They worked at a small printing shop in Sonoma, California, that served mostly local businesses. As the crew sat around the lunch table, Dierdre’s place empty of food as usual, Marjorie said, “Hey, Dierdre, I’ve got someone for you, my cousin, Mark. Why don’t you take a lunch break and go meet him? He’s coming in this afternoon and he’s really nice, a good guy, and…somehow I think you’d have things in common.”
“What things?” asked Dierdre. “Does he like to spend his life looking at type fonts or playing with cats? You know that’s about all I ever do…I have a really boring life.” She tried to keep it light. The others at the table chuckled: they knew that Dierdre was pretty weird.
“Well, for one thing, he’s a complete fanatic about wearing a mask, just like you are. That’s something you have in common.” Marjorie shot a wink at the others.
Dierdre was used to being kidded about her mask. “Well, it’s the law. Or at least, the rule,” she said. No one bothered to nod: they were used to this discussion and had lost interest long ago.
Dierdre turned to Marjorie. Why not take a chance on this guy, she thought. “How old is he? What does he do?” she asked.
Marjorie was surprised to have evoked any interest from Dierdre in a topic as mundane as meeting another human being. Dierdre always seemed to aloof, so…other.
“He’s 34 and he works with immigrants in San Diego. Finds homes, healthcare, and so on for kids and their families. His heart’s definitely in the right place. He’s always getting grief from my mom and her sister, his mother. My family isn’t pro-immigrant, in case you haven’t noticed.”
No point in getting into the politics of the situation, thought Dierdre. There were no points of possible intersection in any discussion of world events that she and Marjorie could have had, particularly on the topic of visitors from somewhere else. Dierdre stood up suddenly. “OK. It sounds good. I’ll do it. Today. Just say where.”
Marjorie looked surprised and delighted. “OK, let me think…how about that place around the corner from West Spain St, the Sunflower Caffé, with two “f”’s? On the square. Let’s say…4 PM? I’ll tell Mark.”
Dierdre nodded. “Sounds fine. I’ll be there.” She left the break room to return to her desk to finish up her day’s work.
Mark, who had taken himself on a walking tour of Sonoma’s historic town square and was already enjoying a latte at the Sunflower, was delighted to get Marjorie’s invitation to meet her “delightful” colleague Dierdre. Dierdre was a unique specimen, said Marjorie—one of a kind. She told Mark that, besides Dierdre’s striking good looks and long, black hair, she had the most beautiful white skin that she’d ever seen. And smart! Wow, was that girl smart!
Mark laughed. “She might be too smart for me, Cuz. Did you ever think of that?”
“It could happen, “laughed Marjorie. “Dierdre’s stumped me more than once. For one thing, she knows a lot about history. More than most people. But that’s you too, Mark. Remember? Us and all those books?”
With his gaze fixed on the menu list of healthy items on offer at the Sunflower, Mark recalled years of family gatherings when he and Marjorie would sneak off and lock themselves in a room with a stack of old books. Although different in temperament, they shared a love of the past that had only grown stronger as the present had become more impossible to contemplate without pain.
“Well, that’s good news. She won’t roll her eyes if I mention the South China Sea or the Canadian disaster? Or the Arctic?” He met fewer and fewer people these days who took seriously the events that shaped their lives and who wanted to discuss them.
“Well, I can’t speak for the Canadian disaster, but I know she’s a bit of an expert on the Arctic. She’s been there.”
“Good,” said Mark. There was a pause. Then, he said, “This might be a deal-breaker. What’s her view on masks? There’s no point in meeting if she’s going to rip off her mask. Or, worse yet, mine.”
Marjorie groaned. “Oh, you are such an old fogey! I tell you, Mark, this is what’s best: Dierdre is even more committed to masks than you are. I have literally never seen her without one on! At least I have a dim memory of what your entire face looks like, from, when was that now? Three years ago, at Christmas?”
Mark thought, And that’s the way it’s going to stay. He said, “Yep, that was when you overpowered me and ripped it off my face. It was pretty awful.” He remembered her horrified reaction.
Marjorie was silent. She’d never forget the sight of Mark’s face, with his jaw riddled with scars and angry, red sores. She asked, “I always wondered…did it get better after that? I’ll never forgive myself for doing that to you.”
Mark said, “How could you have known that I was getting a facelift back then? It’s not like I announced it over the eggnog. Guys don’t want people to think they’re vain.” He tried to keep his tone light.
No one spoke. Then Marjorie said, “Well, this is part of my long-drawn-out attempt to apologize. If you and Dierdre hit it off, it’ll make me feel so happy. And the fact that you have this in common—taking masking seriously—might mean that you have more in common than you think. On a deeper level, like. You know?”
Mark wasn’t sure what this meant, but he was glad Marjorie seemed to recognize the hurt she’d caused. Not just hurt: the terror he’d felt that she might figure out what those sores and scars actually represented.
“OK, Cuz, I’m game. Where are we meeting, and when? Marjorie told him and he said “Well, I’m already in the place. I’ll just go for a short walk, and then she’ll be here.” Marjorie made him promise to tell he how the date went, and they said goodbye.
Mark hadn’t been on a blind date since masking had become mandatory, and he had certainly never worn a mask to meet a new romantic possibility. He considered himself lucky to never have been infected with COVID19, even before the events that led to changing his face, but afterward, he’d come to believe that he was part of a bigger program of Someone who needed him to stay healthy. There was something he needed to do. So far, so good. Things were going to plan. Doing everything I can to keep the devil from my door. Figuratively speaking, that is.
Mark got back to the café 10 minutes before Dierdre was due to arrive and sat out in front. He wanted to watch her walking down West Spain Street and turning the corner onto 1st street as she approached the café. She was right on time, and, sure enough, just like Marjorie said, she was a knockout. Walking toward him, ran a brush through her long, dark hair and tightened the mask around her ears, making sure it was fitted as tightly as possible around her mouth. She hated doing this, because her mouth was her best feature, but you couldn’t be too careful…
Dierdre walked right past Mark and headed inside the café. He heard the door of the restroom close, and decided to go inside himself to freshen up.
A few minutes later, they emerged from their respective toilettes and nearly collided in the narrow hallway. He peered at her.
“Is that…you?” he asked. “Dierdre? My blind date?”
Well, he isn’t given to subtle humor, it seems, Dierdre thought. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Yes, it’s me. And so, you must be the other half of this blind date, you must be Mark.” Dierdre stared up at him in the dim light, liking the hulk and bulk of him. In fact, she fought an urge to press herself against his chest.
“Well, at least we’re on the same time zone when it comes to meeting! Both of us on time, imagine that!” he said. “I’m bad at waiting for people, worse at being waited for.”
Dierdre thought that was a cute way of admitting impatience, and told him so. “Well, let’s see if we can manage to keep the good karma and sit down at the same table.” They started toward the front of the cafe, but Dierdre asked, “Mark, could we sit back a bit? I have a bit of a headache and the light doesn’t help.”
Mark said, “Sure. I’m no lover of the footlights, either.” They sat down at the table farthest from the front bay windows. A server came and took their order. Or, rather, Mark’s order: Dierdre said she’d just sip some cold water.
“Are you feeling that uncomfortable?” Mark asked her. “I didn’t mean to drag you out here if you’ve got a headache.”
“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s common for me to be like this. Doesn’t mean a thing.” Dierdre looked like she meant it. “Let’s get to know each other.”
And they did. They stayed in the Sunflower Caffé for another two hours, then walked around the town, up Spain Street, and almost as far as Boyes Hot Springs. There was no gap in the conversation and no moment of discomfort. As they walked, they drew closer and closer to each other until, by midnight, there was no choice but to suggest that they spend the night together. They went back to Dierdre’s apartment on W Spain Street and spent a night of bliss more intense than either had ever experienced before. Their lovemaking wasn’t just like Earth moved: it was like the Universe moved, just a few tiny nanometers each time their bodies joined and parted.
Strangest of all, they both thought in retrospect, they’d kept their masks on throughout it all. Neither questioned why they did this, for even a moment. Neither commented on it. It was as if they shared the same need or, perhaps, the same secret.
Around 4 AM, Mark fell asleep, closed tightly inside the circle of Dierdre’s arms. When he awoke at 7, she was nowhere to be found in the apartment, but he saw a note on the bedside table. It read:
“Dear, Dear Mark. This has never happened to me before. It was transformative. There are some things I must tell you, though. About the mask. Can we meet this evening around 7PM? Same café as before?” Of course, he knew he would meet her there.
They met at the appointed time. They embraced and both felt as if they were rejoining an unending conversation, so close did they feel to one another. Without discussion, they walked to the park at the north end of the town square. The park adjoined a tiny cemetery filled with stones that were so old, their engravings were almost illegible with time. As night fell, their steps slowed and they sat down on one of the largest markers. It appeared to be a faded, gouged figure of the Angel Gabriel.
“Tell me,” said Mark. “I want to know. It’s about the mask, isn’t it?”
Dierdre took his hands in hers. “Yes,” she said. “I’m not sure how to tell you. I’ve never had this conversation before.”
Mark removed his left hand and turned her head to face him. He stroked her left cheek. He repeated the movement.
“There’s something here, isn’t there?” he asked. She covered his hand with her own.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s my secret. It’s my…identity. But I’m afraid to show you.”
They were silent. Then, he said, “Just show me. And then I’ll show you.”
Slowly Dierdre removed her mask. She took it off in the proper manner, lifting the top loops off gently and pushing the bulk of the mask down. Mark wasn’t completely surprised to see the fullness of what he had felt through the gauze.
Dierdre’s silver canine teeth glinted in the moonlight. They were huge and strong and very, very sharp. Mark’s eyes widened a bit before he managed to control his reaction.
“You see?” she asked. “THIS is what I am. This is why I have to hide behind a mask. I don’t live like people, and I never will again. I live on the blood of animals that I catch and consume. I will never share a cup of coffee with you. I’ll never eat a piece of our wedding cake. If it comes to that.” Her lips parted in a slight smile. Her feelings for Mark were so strong that they almost cancelled out her sense of the impossibility of ever joining with him in a true way.
“And I can’t guarantee that you’ll ever be completely safe with me.”
Mark hugged her close. “I’m not surprised, at least not completely. But I know that I will be safe. You see, I have a secret of my own. It’s under my mask.”
Dierdre looked up at him. “May I remove it?” she asked.
No one besides Mark had ever touched Mark’s mask, but it seemed like the most natural thing in the world now to nod, yes you can. Slowly Dierdre reached up with both hands and began to remove his mask.
Halfway down, she said, “Well, it all looks pretty normal up to now,” trying to help him relax. “You really have pretty eyes.”
“Keep going,” Mark said. “You’re almost there.”
And soon she was. With the mask completely removed, Dierdre peered at his face in the moonlight. At first, she saw what looked like angry red welts. Then, she looked closer and saw what the markings really were: tiny crosses. His lower face was a maze of crosses, each one etched beautifully with an artist’s hand.
Dierdre was taken aback. “Why? Why would you do that?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Somehow, I felt I had to cover my face with the sign of God, and I not only had these crosses placed there, but I also had them blessed by the priest. These aren’t empty markings. Not for show.”
Dierdre said, “Then that means that we…”
Mark finished for her: “Believe me, I never had the conscious thought that I would need to protect myself from someone with silver teeth and a thirst for blood. Someone I’d love more than I ever could have imagined. But there was something that guided me to suffer the pain of all of these crosses.”
“Then,” Diedre said, “to make sure I understand. We can be together, safely and lovingly, each protected from and by the other? My strange ways won’t frighten you?”
Mark held her closer. “My markings will protect me from anything you can throw at me. And they will remind you that there are limits, even to the power that you possess.”
Dierdre wept then, something she hadn’t done in millennia. Her tears of blood left dark spots on the angel’s stone.
After a while, they arose and walked back into town. They were the first customers at the Sunflower Caffé when it opened.
They live there still, in a small apartment on West Spain Street. Mark’s love for Dierdre opened a world of promise and possibility that she’d never suspected existed. In this way, their détente kept them close and kept them safe.
The couple is well known in the region for tending wounded animals and helping children with all manner of problems and projects. Their love for each other casts a glowing light on all who come near them.