When I was younger, I had this weird desire to go to a masked ball. I’d seen them on TV, teenage romcoms (Cinderella story…) and had completely romanticised the idea of disguising myself and becoming someone else for the evening. It’s so strange how much covering just a few inches of skin around the eyes and nose can disfigure you, making you completely unrecognisable to even your closest friends and family. These people who have looked at your face, some every single day, touched it, kissed it your whole life cannot quite make out it’s you from a distance because your cheekbones are slightly covered and your eyes are bordered by plastic.
When you’re little, you can’t get away with wearing a mask because you rely on adults to determine your needs and wants from your facial expressions. And even if you did want to conceal something, nine times out of ten your emotions are displayed across your face in the endearingly obvious way that kids seem to nail without trying.
As we get older, a ‘mask’ becomes less about covering our faces in chocolate and more about concealing the parts of ourselves that we don’t wish others to see (although occasionally it can be about covering parts of ourselves that we would usually conceal from others in chocolate, but let’s not mix the two…). You begin acquiring new masks, different shapes and colours, styles. Ones that you wear when you want to appear more confident, more intelligent; sexier and sturdier. The mask you wear when you’re with your grandparents or talking to your boss, the mask you wear when you’re smoking weed with your friends; your ‘out with the mates’ mask, the lying in bed with the lover of your dreams mask.
It can be so tiring trying to remember which mask is for which occasion, not to mention the mental storage space for all these masks (think of the clutter!) and it’s no wonder the majority of us are so tired by the evening. Stripping down and stepping under the steaming hot water of the shower we can finally wash away the day’s persona, the plastic melting away with the gentle massage of the spray and we emerge our true selves, raw, blemished and real, into the gentle light of our bedrooms.
Do you ever sit alone in your room and just think about how weird you are? Like how if anyone actually knew what you were really like or about the thoughts you actually have then people would create a large circle of space between you and them and marvel at you from a distance like a zoo animal. Do you enter a room alone, shut the door and sit on the bed and just sigh and close your eyes, the pure effort of being someone else just knocking you for six. You run your eyes until you see little stars and all you want to do is eat apple slices and peanut butter with your fingers in your pants and watch programs about hoarders and rare medical diseases.
You think about the conversations you had throughout the day, how you actively participated in each of them yet you actually don’t agree with anything you came out with. How you laughed at jokes that weren’t funny and cheerfully agreed when the mandatory morning mantra of ‘another day another dollar’ finds its way to you through the clouds of boredom and coffee breath. How you listened when he spoke about his new car and you hmmed and ahhhed and pretended to know what a dwarf Toyota Capri-sun in midnight blue is even though you’re terrified of driving and have more interest in the growth cycle of the peanut than you do about his ultra-soft leather seats and CD player slash penis enlarger. You take note about how people will talk and talk and talk about themselves but never ask you a single question, because to the naked eye you’re just a young, dumb blonde in chef whites who surely follows Meghan Markles pregnancy on Instagram and doesn’t know who the Velvet Underground are.
I still find it interesting, especially in my job (I work on research ships) how you can spend so much time with a small group of people yet know so little about them. You live with these people, they’re the first faces you see in the morning and the last before bed. You share washing machines with them, comment on the weather while you wait in line for a cup of tea. In my case, you cook their dinner; food that you’ve touched and cut and seasoned and cooked ends up in their tummies but you don’t even know their last names or whether they enjoy Wes Anderson or prefer Tarantino. What sort of books they read, where they grew up. Whether they’re married or have children or have dogs or want dogs or if they even like dogs.
These people know equally little about you, that you love to read or your favourite animals are whales or that you associate people with colours and that you hate marzipan. But then it got me thinking, of course it would be strange for people we’ve just met to know all these intricacies that we don’t openly shout out on the daily. ‘By the way, everyone, sorry to disrupt your dinner but I just want you to know that I really don’t like liquorice or Elvis Costello or the fact that Alan Rickman is no longer alive, okay thanks!’ not really normal behaviour, is it.
It’s not uncommon to be a different person around those we don’t know so well, in fact I’d say it’s crucial to our survival and sanity, however I started thinking about the very delicate albeit very real masks we wear around the people we are closest too, those in our inner circles who are meant to know all there is to know, all secrets bared. What sort of masks do we wear with them, and is there anyone who we are completely barefaced with?
Obviously in most cases, your family are the people who see you at your most eu naturel. They’re the ones that love you even when you’re ill and your hair is greasy and you’ve got crusty snot on your nose and you smell like mouldy milk but they still cuddle you because you are their snotty milk monster. They changed your nappy when you shit all up your back and you sat there rubbing your fingers in it, and it really doesn’t get more vulnerable than that. But of course as we get older and our lives develop we keep more and more thoughts to ourselves, we bury our heads in our problems and aren’t as quick to share them with our loved ones out of fear of failure perhaps, or a fear of hurting them, or maybe we just aren’t sure how to formulate them into sentences, preferring to sit in the darkened corners of our minds and pick at them like the chain of tangled necklaces until they become clearer and easier to understand.
Then often our parents get overtaken by girlfriends and boyfriends in the position of ‘who knows us best’, and although it can really seem as though a partner knows you I am firm believer in that you can never truly know someone until you live with them. Until you wake up together each morning and recognise each others morning routine, she likes the kettle on and he likes to look at the news. Breakfast together, she has peanut butter but he prefers marmite. You learn about the way they fold clothes and how you can’t comprehend how they fold their jeans that way when they clearly look so much neater this way.
Now as an admitted duvet stealer and avid wriggler I am first to raise my hand and say a made bed is not a bit of me. I don’t care for perfectly crisp sheets that are pulled so tightly over the mattress that one has to exert strength just getting in, laying there as all the circulation starts to slowly drain away from the extremities that are being crushed by the stubborn tucking techniques of the Portuguese housemaid. My ex used to like his bed to be like that, no need to explain why we’re not together anymore.
So yes, living with someone is definitely a sure way of finding out the true nature of a person. However speaking from experience I have still found ways in which to conceal my ‘true self’, be it accidentally or intentionally and be it within the intimate boundaries of a relationship or the easy familiarity of family. As I get older I am becoming more and more of an introvert, finding ‘fronts’ and the act of self-preservation seriously tiring. I find myself retreating to a space where I can be my total self, where I don’t have to pretend I like partying and drinking and sex with strangers like most people my age, where I don’t have to avoid the topic of politics for fear of my ignorance being recognised or plaster a smile on my face when someone expels a cliché that makes my skin crawl.
I find myself trying to fit perfectly into the position of the person I am imagined to be. I meet people who assume I’m confident and sexy and ‘together’, so around them, I try to be so even though I might not feel it. Someone is serious around me, so I am serious around them even though I am actually super silly and playful. I irritate myself by not letting myself be fully me. I think it comes from an underlying feeling that I have to fight to be or don’t deserve to be heard. That my allotted time to speak is so short, so I have to compress it into a few words in the hope that I will be able to keep the person engaged.
Bored of being in the middle of saying something and someone picks up their phone to look at social media, of interrupting my story to tell one of their own. I keep a lot to myself, I keep my conversations short, I share very little; even to some of the people who are closest to me. I ask alot of questions and deflect more, and only when I’m 100% sure you’re going to stick around do I then let you see the most special, vulnerable, loving parts of me- and I find it a real precious privileged when someone else allows me a view into theirs. Don’t suspect that someone isn’t wearing a mask just because you speak to them every day or because you’ve known them a while therefore you’re no longer entitled to explore them.
Don’t become complacent in thinking that the few intimate conversations you had with someone when you first met them are still going to be relevant now. As people we are constantly changing and due to that fact the initial conversations we have with people at the start do not determine a person’s frame of mind from that moment on.
Getting to know a person is continuing to ask questions, to be intuitive and curious. We learn new things every day that shape us into new people and it’s very easy to hide behind a mask of the face we used to wear when we were younger, braver, slimmer etc. Don’t forget to lift the masks of the people closest to you and take a look, they might have become a whole new person underneath without you realising.