Mask of Shame

She told herself she would not do this again. That her already high-risk behavior in normal circumstances was now more high-risk than ever. That she ought to just cut the shit and go celibate like any reasonable person. But this was New York. How could she possibly live with herself “all alone?” This was not the city you were supposed ever be alone in, unless you were Kevin McCallister. She wanted excitement, crowds, bodies rubbing up against her–whether clothed or nude. As gross as that was in non-pandemic times, it was even grosser now. Yet she couldn’t de-program her brain to believe that New York really was this boring. Without all the masks (metaphorically speaking)–the bells and the whistles–it was just like every other damned place, except with more Starbucks willing to stay open. 

What also differentiated the city just a hair from other towns was that there was a larger pool of sketchy people open to meeting perfect strangers in order to stave off the loneliness of restaurant, club and bar closures where once you didn’t even really need an app to meet someone willing to fuck you (at least for one night). Ellie was just such a stranger dipping her toe into that (cess)pool, and she knew that she had the photo to lure men in, even if that image was slightly catfishy. But could she really help it if FaceTune made her look infinitely better the same way it did to everyone else? We shouldn’t be judged by what we really look like, so much as what our avatar does. And besides, if a surgical mask was going to cover up half of one’s face anyway, it had to be said that all that really mattered was having a body that didn’t make a guy want to vomit when he saw you naked. 

The first guy she tried out was named, unfortunately, Frankie. He was all too ready to meet her, commuting from wherever it is they store the endless reserve of greaseballs in New Jersey. Thereby sure to pick up as many germs as possible along the way via the PATH train to Times Square. Yes, that was what made it most scandalous of all: meeting him in Times Square. But he explained that he had a friend who was going to let him use his empty apartment (said friend had fled back to Jersey City until “this all blew over”–it wouldn’t) on 49th between 8th and 9th Avenue. It was not exactly a glamorous abode, and Ellie felt cheap and sordid as he poured her some boxed wine that was in the fridge and liquored her up as quickly as possible in order to bang her and get her on her way. 

“You tested negative, right?” was a question that suddenly had nothing to do with AIDS or STDs. It was now all about telling oneself that the rando she just met up with wasn’t lying about his state of COVID-freeness. And obviously, the risk was never worth the middling dick allowed entry. It was a few thrusts, a bit of grunting and the ephemeral illusion that she had gotten something like a “love burst.” Some sign that she wasn’t totally alone on this godforsaken planet. 

The next night it was Fabio, an Italian who had managed to eschew “deportation” during this whole thing despite not having a valid visa. “I just stay here forever I guess, so they never track me down. They only find me if I go back to Italy and through airport.” 

She didn’t really want to hear about it. She didn’t care. He was renting a room (cash monthly payments, she assumed) in Crown Heights. His roommates, too, were gone. Another case of absconders from the city, hoping that the implications of a virus-pocked, densely populated town would magically vanish. They would not. But she had to admit she was enjoying that it seemed to leave behind only the freaks still willing to bone a stranger. Either relying on blind faith alone or simply not caring what happened to them anymore. Ellie couldn’t decide what category she fell into, but she was afraid to admit it was probably the latter. She had been one of the many whose work was impacted, and without the bartending gigs to keep her afloat, she knew it was just a matter of time before she would be forced out of this precious stupid city as well. She wasn’t the “work online” type. She needed to be out in the field, interacting. Any other form of work felt impossible to her. She wasn’t what one would call a “self-starter” or someone who “worked well independently.” She had the sense that she was being killed off by the fast-sweeping evolution of this new setup. One where everyone was expected to find employment that could be done through a screen. 

So, to stop thinking about how she was becoming extinct, she linked up with Darryl, whose name expectedly mirrored his sleaze. He had a ponytail and wore acid wash jeans with a tank top in the middle of winter. It was disgusting, and it took a lot of alcohol in this particular case to get her “aroused” enough to allow him to touch her. But enough vodka and a girl can fuck anything. Just the way a man can without any alcohol at all. Darryl, for some reason, had a penthouse apartment in Tribeca. She wasn’t going to ask or wonder what he did to obtain the space. For all she knew, he could have broken into it. Or maybe he was pet-sitting and had the key. There was a cat… somewhere. Unless he killed it. She never caught a glimpse of the feline, but there was a litter box and telltale accoutrements of the cat-loving variety. She drank another splash to disregard these strange signs. Something felt wrong, but then, when didn’t it? These days. She laughed to herself, wondering how many times previous generations had also felt they were living in the most tumultuous epoch ever rendered to Earth. 

Darryl didn’t seem to approve of her laughter, arbitrarily giving her the back of his hand to her cheek as he shouted, “What the fuck are you giggling about?” That sobered her up too quickly. A sound person would have found a way to leave right then and there. But she was not sound, she was falling through quicksand and wanted to go deeper and deeper until it was all blackness around her and she could think no more. So she had another, and said, “Nothing baby. Nothing at all,” then kissed him like she meant it. That calmed him down and she supposed they went to his bedroom after that.

***

The following morning, she awoke covered in cuts and bruises she had no memory of incurring. The light poured in through his floor-to-ceiling window, which for some psychotic reason, had no curtain. What the hell am I doing? she immediately thought, despite the throbbing of her head that mirrored the distinct empty-headedness that came with a hangover. She had to push it aside, there was no time for frailty in this distinctly fight or flight moment. Last night, evidently, her “fight” had proved unsuccessful. And she now had only flight to rely on. The mask she wore to his apartment was not even a faint glimmer of a thought. Though it was winking at her in plain sight from its perch on the countertop in the kitchen where she had first left it upon her ill-advised arrival. But she could not think in pandemic precaution terms right now (or ever, clearly, since she had been willing to meet strangers for sex in the weeks since the “lockdown” first began). She had to get out. That was it. Pure and simple. She threw her high-heeled boots on and grabbed the jacket with the faux fur trim that she felt genuinely looked just like Penny Lane’s in Almost Famous

Out in the street, it took her mere seconds to realize the strange-feeling bareness of her face, pronounced by the blast of cold that kept nipping at her nose (goddammit Jack Frost, who the fuck asked for your company?) where once it was markedly protected by the presence of her face mask. The one she left behind had been a particular favorite, to boot. An allover print of Bette Davis’ eyes that would make any trypophobic run away from her in fear. And, not really to her surprise, there were plenty of trypophobics in New York. It was part of the masochistic quality of the sort of person who lived there, to come to a place filled with patterns and clusters of holes (no innuendo intended). 

It seemed everyone around her–all self-righteously sporting their masks–was glaring at her with a judgmental air. How could she deign to go out without a face covering? How could she dare call herself part of this “great” city if she was part of the problem? She wanted to scream in all of their faces for looking at her like some sort of freak. Just because she liked to have one-night stands and still party like it was 2019. 

It suddenly occurred to her when a man stopped among the crowd to ask her flat-out, “Miss, are you okay?” that what they were really staring at was the black eye and fat lip that had started to solidify in the harsh light of day. Using what must have been true and undiluted charm, she ended up getting this guy to take her back to his apartment for a morning fuck session, where she was also able to procure one of his extra disposable masks for her next re-emergence onto the street.

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