We all wear masks. Some of us, to disguise the decaying, demeaning parts of ourselves. We are the good ones. The rest are wild animals, camouflaging to trap trustful prey into their twisted brokenness. When you see them unmasked, unflinching in their malevolence, fear’s imprints are eternal. Unless you fight, these demons will haunt you into lunacy. Two hundred and fifteen days, that is how long I’ve fought.
I met my demon at a soirée, the kind where everyone is a stranger to you except the host, so you sit alone in the loveseat, swilling cocktails, smiling politely, nodding along to reggae music you dislike, wondering how early you can leave. He came to me, fitting maroon pants, tattooed arms bulging from a stripped black t-shirt. Someone looks lonely, he said. Wide smile, pink lips, brown eyes, I knew I was going home with him that night. What’s wrong with loneliness, I asked? He chuckled or laughed; I don’t remember exactly. Nothing, it just doesn’t look good on you, he rasped on, leaning forward so his breath moistened my forehead. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, unsure if the sudden dizziness was because of his closeness or the alcohol. Oh yeah? What would look good on me? He did not hesitate, Me. His apartment was under renovation, did I mind if we went to mine? I did not.
In my living room, he peeled off my bodycon dress carefully, folding it into a perfect square. He held me in his arms, fully clothed except for his belt which he placed neatly on the coffee table. You are stunning, do you know that? I pinkened, avoiding his eyes which were drawing out the shards of my desperation like a magnet. I wanted‒‒needed him to approve of my nakedness. To tell me I was enough. Someone hurt you, didn’t they? He asked, lifting my chin. I should have known then that he had sniffed me out at the party. I should have known better than to parade my bleeding heart in front of a hunting jungle-cat. I should have kept on my mask. But I didn’t.
The thing with masks is, you can be coaxed to take them off. My head on his shoulder, his hands around my waist, I was safe, something I hadn’t felt in a while. It sounds silly now, the idea of finding security in a stranger but at the time, it made sense. I told him about my ex who left me without notice, without reason. How I woke up to a breakup text after he ghosted me for a week. How since then, I struggled to breathe, to be, to live. How I blamed myself for pushing him away even though I knew not how.
He shushed me, a finger pressing against my mouth, you deserve better, much better. I would never hurt you. Staring up at his chocolate face through teary eyes, I believed him. Why, you ask? Because a hurting soul is porous. We rocked back and forth in silence, our hungry bodies entangling, fractured souls entwining. He held me after, stroking my cornrows gently, quietly stoking my affection. His hand in mine, it was as though we made a secret pact, that we belonged to each other. I know we just met but I love you, can’t help myself, he said. I’ll make you happy, I promise. I thought, this is surreal.
I was right.
I learned how to wear a mask from Mama. She did not always have one. It started when she married my stepdad, a trim bespectacled man who was tight-fisted and loose with his tongue. His khaki trousers drooped at his waist and billowed into dusty shoes as cracked as the sunburnt skin on his forehead. He was slow at everything, his speech, his walk, but fast with his fists. At first, Mama covered the scars in makeup. I would find her in the bathroom, trembling hands smearing liquid powder into the dents on her body, rubbing methodically, almost absent-mindedly. Why, Mama? my six-year-old eyes would ask. Some days she shooed me, slamming the door so hard that my ears sung. Other days, she let me watch, saying nothing as I observed her ritual. My favorite days were when she allowed me to help her, sitting on her lap with a brush, painting her face like it was my coloring book.
Pretty, I would say, cupping her pointed chin in my tiny hands so I could turn her head both sides for her to admire my work. Mama would cry, burying her face in my pajama shirt and I would wrap my chubby arms around her neck. Don’t cry, Mama. I will do better next time, I would say, thinking I did a poor job. Thinking I was the reason behind her tears. I know now that it was him, it was always him. Five years into their marriage, she got better at concealing marks. But she wore the mask so often that she forgot how to take it off. Everything was fine, she would say, at first to neighbours and friends then eventually to herself. She was happily married to a loving husband and nothing could change her mind.
When he turned his anger on me, she helped me stitch a mask. Unlike her, I wore it only in front of strangers. What happened to your face? They would ask. Oh, I fell off my bike, I would say. But you can only fall off your bike so many times. Teachers tried to intervene, sending me home with notes which I never delivered. His tyranny was impenetrable, I knew that. If I tried, Mama would get hurt more. So, we lived with the demon until God heart-attacked him. I was fifteen when he died. But Mama died long before he did.
When my demon breaks my nose, I do not make a sound. I have heard the whooshing of an attacking fist before, the cracking of a nose meeting knuckles. We are in his car, arguing about the length of my skirt, or the taste of yesterday’s dinner or the ringtone on my phone or the song playing on the radio. I have lost track of the arguments, we do it all the time. Two months into our relationship and he has infiltrated my world. He lives in my apartment, spending nothing of his and wasting everything of mine. This is the first assault. I unbolt the car and run out, stumbling in the darkness. Behind me, his footsteps crunch the stony pavement. Baby, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, he calls out. As I turn the street corner, he catches up to me. Yellow light from a flickering streetlamp illuminates half his face, shadows darkening the rest. I’m sorry, he repeats, his hand in mine, gripping yet soothing with his thumb circling my palm. I let him kiss me. When he pulls away, blood coats his mouth. My blood.
At home, I lock the bathroom door and wash away the clots and struggle to clean the areas beyond my reach like my mid-back and my spirit. He knocks forcefully then calmly, asking, Baby, are you okay? It tickles me, his concern. It irks me, his assumption that what he did was trivial. It frightens me, the possibility of living with the reincarnation of my childhood demon. It saddens me, knowing that I will not leave. Cannot leave. He is smiling sheepishly when I allow him inside, a bowl of chicken noodles in his hands.
What I did was wrong, forgive me. My bandaged nose stings, protesting his entitled apology. These things happen. He lowers the toilet seat and sits, covering his face with his hands. Then he sobs, this giant of a man jerking uncontrollably in my bathroom. His mother hated him; he says. She would whip him unconscious and starve him. He never meant to hurt me. It was just that he got so mad at her that he forgot how much he loved me. Liar, I think. I’m sorry. I love you too, I say. Retrieving my mask from the dusty shelf in my memory, I snap it back on.
We have good times, like the six-month anniversary Ngong Hills hike surprise and my twenty- third Rowallan camp party. On such occasions, I love him. But the monster in him is unrelenting and unpredictable. It cannot be caged, not by silence nor love. I feel his fist more than his kiss. Our bliss falls to pieces and still, I stay in this nightmare, wide awake. He is an earthquake, widening my self-doubt and deepening my self-loathing. I learn to stifle everything: tears, emotions, ambitions, friends. It is as though he doused me in kerosene and burnt away my essence. I wear my mask of nonchalance until I become numb. Numb from the aches, the insults, the torment. Numb from my reality.
His affair rouses me from despondency. Someone saved as a love-heart emoji keeps texting him way past midnight asking Baby, are you asleep? You forgot to tell me goodnight 🙁 I see her photo when she sends him nudes: toned thighs, big boobs, smooth face. Smooth face. I run my hands over my own calloused cheeks, the ones he ruined. It is enough.
Our last day together starts with a mauve sunrise tinting the grey sky. I watch the light diffuse through the stringy clouds, chasing away the darkness of night. I watch my demon snore on our pillow, his ponytail spilling across the folded arm underneath his head. I look at my face in the mirror, blackened eye and busted lip from last night. I unmask.
While he showers, I hide a packed bag in the kitchen pantry. Over breakfast, he leans forward so his breath moistens my forehead, his hand in mine. I am sorry. Lunch to make it up? he says, puckered face. In the microwave door, I catch the reflection of the woman I dreaded becoming, staring back at me. Her face is in shambles, her happiness in tatters and her esteem in the gutter. It’s okay, I say back like I always do. But this time it really is not. He lingers after breakfast, hugging me from behind and kissing my neck. It’s as though he knows his spell is broken. You deserve better. I’ll make you happy, I promise, he pleads. Then he spreads me on the kitchen table to erase my memory with his kisses. When he is done, I escort him to the car with his bag, not breaking our morning ritual.
I am out of the apartment minutes after his car pulls out of the driveway, in a bus heading to my sister’s house. I do not answer the phone when he calls at noon to organize our lunch date. Neither do I respond to the flurry of texts bombarding my phone in the evening when he realizes I am gone. You won’t like it when I find you, then, just talk to me. I love you, then, Okay, I will give you space, then, nobody leaves me. You will regret this! It continues for a week, then he is silent. I wait for happiness to become a friend but loneliness beckons instead.
What they don’t tell you about masks is you get used to them. It is easier to use them than to dig through the layers of suffocating pain. So, seventy-five swipes later, I am on a date at an Indian restaurant. Across me is a laughing caramel man teasing my running nose after I poured chili sauce all over my fries instead of ketchup. And he will never know but when he said Nkatha, tell me about yourself, I buried my past even deeper and just like that, my mask was back on.
Peace Mbengei is a Kenyan scriptwriter, playwright, fiction writer and medical doctor. She was long listed for the 2019 Writivism short story prize and her work has appeared in African Writer, Praxis magazine and Kalahari Review. She caught the writing bug when she was a little girl. Unfortunately, they are yet to find a cure and she hopes they never do.