Shimmering braziers line the portico, lively music spills forth from the windows and permeates the grounds, and guests adorned with exotic masks flow through the colonnade. Vibrantly colored tapestries line the halls in which acrobatic performers dazzle the onlookers with feats of grace and daring. The party pulses with a primal vital force, as the elaborate regalia strain to contain a more feral power. Sophistication and frenzy, duplicity and truth: though surely it is unsustainable, it is far too late to slow down now, so please, join us: you are cordially invited to The Masquerade.
I. Smile! // Smile!
You enter to a sea of smiling faces, and smile yourself in turn. You say the right things, shake the right hands. You know your place, you know your role; you know where to stand, who to praise, and who to mock. What you say is far less important than to whom you are seen saying it, and what you actually believe matters even less. Effortlessly, you belong.
Your invitation is checked, then re-checked. You shuffle in and out of conversations, and laugh at the wrong times. You catch their glances out of the corner of your eye, and clutch at your threadbare jacket, your fraying dress. What do they know? What are they thinking? You grin with clenched teeth, and hope to god they don’t smell blood.
II. A Waltz, or Two // The Duel
With a serendipitous meeting of the eyes, the two of you come together across the ballroom. Two bodies move as one, synchronized in perfect time. In your apparent obliviousness to the surrounding crowd, you become a spectacle to behold. Each sustained by the other’s glow, you communicate thoughtlessly, and though you’ve never felt like this before, you know exactly what to do.
As you look at them, their eyes catch yours- did they think you were staring? Were they staring at you? Uneasily you both come together, unsteadily you sway. You trade compliments and exchange jabs in an ever-escalating balancing act, because while the terms of engagement are murky, there is one rule which remains crystal clear: whoever cares more, loses.
III. Polished Silver // Peeling Gilt
Detached from the crowd for a moment, you marvel at the display before you. Each detail has been considered, with every shining light and every gleaming morsel adding up to superlative extravagance. The crowd swirls in performative ecstasy, a mass ornament of glitter and joy: musicians send grandiose overtures bouncing off of domed ceilings, flesh encroaches on all sides, and as the pulse and shine entrance your senses, you decide to take leave of them entirely
In the midst of conversation, you notice a crack in the balustrades. You glance outside, and can’t remember how long you’ve been here. A waiter catches your eye before disappearing into the kitchen, and you realize you don’t know whose party it actually is. With new eyes you regard the masked guests. Who are they? Is this real? Who is this show supposed to entrance? With mounting dread the questions pile on, which, in the end, all lead to one; what’s behind the curtain?
IV. Painted Lady // Skin-deep
With an unhurried and deliberate gesture, you smooth over the single wrinkle in your sleeve. For the hundredth time, you make sure that the one strand of hair is precisely out-of-place. Your bored expression is perfectly mysterious, and your practiced laugh rings delicate but sincere. Whether you choose to be the loner in the corner or the life of the party, you are secure knowing exactly how much skin is showing.
With the ghost of the last polite smile still fading from your face, you begin the journey home. It’s quiet, finally, and though you know that your performance was a success, you let yourself wonder if you had any fun. You try to separate yourself from your role; but the lines have blurred for too long, and you struggle to draw them again. When you peel back every pretense and remove all of the charm—when every artifice designed to be ‘seen’ is stripped away—what’s left?