Listening to a masquerade

''When I wear a mask, I'm a grown-up. I can stand here on the top of the stoop the way my father does: one arm on the railing, my legs crossed, like I own the whole block. Big words come rolling off my tongue all by themselves. Grown-up ideas, long and sleek as tractor trailer trucks, rumble across my mind. Is this what happens when you get big like him? I'm a tough guy in my shirt, tie , jacket and mask. Nobody better mess with me.

''I look over the street just the way he does before he takes our family out to dinner. I'm the one in charge. Everyone is depending on me. Nobody can boss me around or tell me what to do.

''Here comes that big kid who knocked my bike down yesterday. What do I do now? Where's my father? Behind my mask I'm only a little boy. My mouth is dry. My hands are wet. My face is all sweaty. What would my father do? Does he ever get scared like this?

''My mother always stands a little behind my father like this. She waits for him to look the street over, the way mother and father animals do in the movies. He sizes things up and tells her whether it's safe to come ahead. She daydreams. Lots of times I see her hanging back, staring off at somewhere else, far away. I'm looking for that somewhere now, while I wait the way my mother waits: my body, crooked like a comma. My head, tilted a little to one side.

''Now I see what she sees. I see the place she sees on the inside of my mask which has slipped down over my eyes. The place my mother stares is a summer day where she is still a little girl. Standing here like my mother, that picture makes me happy and sad at the same time. I think: I don't live there anymore. I've climbed on stilts and pulled on the skin and mask of a big lady. I'm a mother and a housewife. I walk through life on my husband's arm, trailing my children behind me. But I'm not sure I didn't like the other place better. Does this mask come off? Can I go back? Can I change my mind?

''I can't get this dumb mask on right. The elastic's broken. How come I'm always the one who gets the crummy things that don't work? Just because I'm the youngest. It isn't fair. Fix it for me, somebody, I want a mask that works, too. It's not fair.

''Everyone else is always way ahead of me. I have to run and stand on phone books to keep up. But if I could get this mask on, everything would be different. I could tie my shoes the right way. My socks would stay up. My dress would hang evenly, and my coat would be buttoned with the right buttons in the right holes. I'd be as tall as anybody. Taller. And I could run and spell and kick the can and fight better than anyone else. Even boys.

''My fingers wouldn't go in all different directions like curious worms, the way they do now. They would stick together like my mother's and my father's, and I could get things done. I could open the big door into school by myself. I could get the tops off poster paints without any help. I could cross the street alone. I could play with my trains in the middle of the night or go to the refrigerator for a glass of milk without having to ask one of the giants. I'd be one of the giants. I'd be a real grown-up, not a pretend one, and I could tie this mask around my head, just like that.

''But if I were big enough and strong enough and brave enough to do all that, what would I need a stupid mask for, anyway?''

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