An Unglamorous Mask

by Callum B. Downes


Antidepressants had never looked so appealing, gliding across his palms in delayed unison. They caught the light in a different way when grouped together somehow, and each of those ten or eleven capsules screamed a solution to the pain. An end to it all. Sweat, pouring from the glands of his trembling hands, began to ease the course of the rolling pills and he knew they could ease the pain forever. His focus shifts from the alluring medication and onto a dusty picture frame. The gorgeous, innocent, smiling eyes of his sister stare back at him, cutting into his soul with the hot knife of guilt. Compelled, he reaches for his phone and calls for her voice of reason. The understanding voice of big sis.

Inadequacy streaks, pauses, then crawls, slower this time, down the contours of her cheeks. Carrying remnants of an unglamorous mask, the tears darken slightly, before being swiped away. Swiped away, like the phone call she disregarded only a minute ago. Swipe after swipe gradually peels the layers off, and for a brief moment of rare scrutiny, her bare skin absorbs the natural light penetrating the window of her dingy one bedroom flat. But this moment fails to deliver nourishment. Instead, it brings vicious pain. The pain of being average. The pain of being flawed, worthless, unable, addicted. And the inadequacy begins to roll, once again, in excited spasms over her ‘chubby’ cheeks. But the pain is temporary. The pain can be hidden.

Plump lines of deceitfulness are layered onto her ‘thin’ lips. Generous strokes of elusiveness are smeared beneath her ‘lifeless’ eyes. Thick swabs of lies cover up the scars of her past life, sprawled across her ‘flabby’ arms. And the inadequacy ceases momentarily as she takes one last disapproving glance in the mirror, satisfied with her attempt at meeting expectations of beauty. Once again, the unglamorous mask of miserable self-pity, cracked and imperfect, deprives the world of a precious gift, a truly beautiful woman.

She shuffles tiredly to the kitchen and opens the fridge. Its door, covered in failed diet plans, hasn’t been opened in three days. Grabbing half a lemon and chilled water, she pours herself a meal. With glass in hand, she stumbles to the couch and reaches for her phone. She glides through endless items of designer clothing wrapped around perfect figures. ‘You’re not good enough’. Still swiping numbly, a mindless limb gropes frantically for the television remote. ‘ISIL claim responsibility for yet another car bomb attack in Iraq, which killed six civilians including children’. The news reporter’s drone agitates her attention. If not for a second, before the alluring pull of online shopping reclaims its grip. ‘You’re not good enough’. After several attempts, she heaves herself off the sofa and onto her feet. An excruciating two minutes follows, as she nudges delicately into Prada heels without bumping her blisters, before one last disappointing check in the mirror signals her departure for work.

The commute to her office each day is typically uneventful. A short stroll to the bus shelter, where she receives enviable glares from the ladies, and familiar compliments from the gents, supersedes a half-hour ride into town. Upon arrival, a throng of the homeless and destitute throw their hats into the ring. The suits are invariably glued to their phones, ignoring the impoverished crowd, who now wait expectantly for route 55A. ‘How dare they’. ‘Low lives’. This is followed by more tweeting, tagging, liking and ‘go to shopping carting’, as the suits wait on their espressos and spill packet sugars. A final sip, swipe and skip down the block and she arrives at the formidable doors of the largest economic firm in the city. Better known as a dense jungle, overgrowing with pretence, rivalry, lust and spite. All of which are highly venomous when taken in large doses.

‘Have you been hitting the gym? You look great’. ‘Wow, you’re glowing today’. ‘Say, wanna’ go grab a coffee later?’ The usual remarks haunt the glistening corridors of the workplace, as the girls take note of attire, and the fellas take second glances. She hangs a sharp right-hand turn into the ladies, finds a vacant mirror and adjusts the hair, bra and collar. ‘You’re dumb’. Reapplies the lipstick and double checks the textbook smile. ‘You’re ugly’. Straightens the back and pushes the breasts forward. ‘You’re not good enough’. Brimming with dutiful confidence, she struts to her office, passing those of higher esteem. ‘You’ll never make it like they did’. She opens the door, collapses at her desk, tears off the Prada heels and begins swiping through the morning’s trove of emails. Five missed calls from little bro. ‘For fucks sake! How many times must I tell him? Not while I’m working’. All five calls swiped into forgetfulness. ‘Think of white beaches and margaritas. I can get through this, again’. And with that thought, she enslaves herself to the unforgiving master of consumerism once more.

The workday ends and routine takes over. She bleeds into her heels, limps to the lift, fakes smiles to the door, ignores admiration down the stairs, zones out at the bus shelter and neglects her… ‘Ben’s in hospital again. Why aren’t you picking up?’ For that instant, it was just her and that text message, erupting from the phone and shattering the world she knew into a million embers of black ash. No longer could she evade her mother’s constant communication and swipe back to her shopping cart. She has been forced to play her hand, feel past her own skin, sacrifice the walls of secure affirmation, risk exposing her true feelings, face her demons. She must face ‘her true self’. Now the inadequacy begins to run thick and fast, tearing down the unglamorous mask in great clumps, before being swiped away. Swiped away by one of the homeless men. He continues to wipe away the endless tears and wraps his filthy arm around her spotless blazer. ‘There, there sweetheart. It’s gonna be alright, eh,’ he mumbles between great spluttering coughs of poor health. Her entire body shakes in terror before draping itself over the desperate stranger. She clings to him like a child after a bad dream and sobs her fear into the seams of his tattered coat.

Route 43C rolls up and spews more suits onto the pavement. Glued to their phones, they ignore the hopeless faces reaching out in desperation from the shelter. ‘This is me,’ she manages to utter as she jerks back from his clutches and attempts to gather her dignity. The homeless man stares in wonder as she drags away the final tears and reapplies her lippy. Finally, for the first time, she manages to lift her head and look him in the eye. She winces at the humanity that strikes suddenly at the marrow of her bones. In reaction, she reaches into her Prada bag. ‘Please, take this’. She reveals four fifty-dollar notes and lets them hang loosely before his piercing gaze. ‘No thank you,’ he smiles as he points to his chest. ‘I have more than enough in here, eh’. The master lingers in the air for a few seconds longer, and then returns to the pocket of its slave. Ashamed, she stands abruptly and leaps onto 43C. The doors shut and she drags her way to the very back seat beneath the idolising gaze of the suits. ‘Thank you,’ she whispers, as the bus accelerates past the ghosts of the street and into the evening’s glorious sunlight.

It had been many years since her reflection didn’t deceive her. Too long since it revealed itself in natural glory, unblemished by an unglamorous mask. But on this morning, a week after her brother’s suicide attempt, she faced herself. She wore the scars of her past drug addiction with pride and let her dazzling eyes bring life to those around her. Her hair tumbled down onto her fragile shoulders and she wore an easy smile. It was time to reveal her heart in unassuming vulnerability and show the world the true Melanie.

With a confident flick of her hair, Melanie left the mirror unmasked, bid farewell to the Iraqi sponsor child on her fridge door and left her dingy one bedroom flat full of the contentment she so desperately longed for. Hogging the fresh air in great gulps, Melanie sprung to her car and sung the entire way to her brother’s flat at the top of her lungs. Together, they traded stories of childhood, past lovers and living with the dark cloud of depression. They connected on those daily road trips to the rehab clinic, as two siblings, laying their hearts bare in total transparency. Revealing each other’s flaws and building up their strengths. They grew into something wonderful. A tree bearing honesty, self-worth and genuine love. And they watered it each day on route to rehab, and each day Melanie’s glamorous face shone in brilliant shades of adequacy.