Unmasked by Sera David

While some people criticized mandates to wear face masks, believing those directives restricted their liberties, Alyssa discovered that wearing the covering provided her a kind of unexpected freedom.

The first time she wore one, she felt self-conscious. That feeling wasn’t new to her. She walked through the grocery store, checking items off the list her mother provided. She placed a bag of chips and a carton of ice cream in the cart even though they weren’t on the list; she figured that was payment for having to get the groceries. Her parents thought it prudent to only have one member of the family leave the house to run errands. Alyssa knew why they chose her; they didn’t want her to use the pandemic as an excuse to become even more isolated.

She reflexively kept an eye on the shoppers who maneuvered their carts around her, surprised to find that no one was looking at her. For once. She never got used to people’s stares, or their deliberate attempts to look away. She dreaded the sounds of parents admonishing their children for gawking, or shushing them to quiet their unfiltered questions.

Sometimes adults didn’t have filters either. They seemed to actually expect her to share her personal tragedy, like she was some kind of cautionary tale. She might look like a freak, but it was none of their freaking business.

She always wore long-sleeved shirts to cover her arms, even though it was uncomfortably warm in the summer, but she could never sufficiently hide her face. Despite being called “concealer,” makeup seemed to only accentuate the wrinkled welts and made her feel like some kind of scary clown. It wasn’t lost on her that the first four letters of the word “scary” spelled scar. Scarves also began with those same letters, and were equally inadequate at disguising her burns.

But now, there were lots of people wearing face masks, and she no longer stood out. It reminded her of Halloween – her favorite holiday as a child – when a mask and costume permitted her to be someone else for a while. Now, the face mask allowed her to be more of herself, without revealing those parts she wished to remain hidden.

Pretty much a loner, she didn’t mind when the coronavirus caused the school to close. If she were being totally honest, high school sucked. At least in her small middle school, many of her classmates knew her from grade school, and while they weren’t really friends, they were used to her disfigurements. But in the large high school, a lot of the kids never saw her before, and she was either the brunt of cruel jokes or completely ignored. Even some of the teachers didn’t seem to know if they should make eye contact or not. She preferred to be overlooked; if she could pick a superpower, it would be invisibility.

One year, after reading the Harry Potter books, she begged her parents for an invisibility cloak for Christmas. They thought she related to the books because Harry had a scar on his forehead, but Alyssa didn’t think that counted for much, it was after all, just a small scar hidden beneath his bangs. She really envied his invisibility cloak. Christmas morning was just one more disappointing dose of reality.

Finishing the school year remotely made Alyssa’s life easier. She slept late most days, wore whatever she felt like, snacked throughout the day, and spent a lot of time online, keeping up with homework and binge-watching her favorite shows. Late in the afternoon, she would join her dad in the kitchen to make dinner, as they had since she was old enough to climb up on a chair and reach the sink to rinse fruit. After the accident, her parents decided it was important to continue the daily routine. Alyssa credited their get-back-on-the-horse approach for her love of cooking and baking (and for preventing her from living her life in her bedroom).

In the days after her accident, and sometimes even now, her dad would blame onions for the tears in his eyes. She doubted he would ever forgive himself for the split second he turned his back to retrieve a box of pasta from the cupboard, and she pulled a pot of boiling water onto herself. Now, she liked to turn on music while they cooked, to drown out the memories.

In addition to running errands and making dinner, she was responsible for taking out the garbage and doing her own laundry. As long as she did those things without too much nagging, and kept her grades up, her parents pretty much left her to her own devices. She wondered what it would be like to have a sibling…or a real friend. She thought she made a friend once, but then discovered that the girl just felt sorry for her. Alyssa didn’t want a pity party.

The days passed, one day pretty much like another. Without church and school to anchor the calendar, sometimes she lost track of the day of the week. But she would remember Monday, May 25, 2020. The day of George Floyd’s death at the hands (and knees) of the police. The video was shocking. Painful to watch. But she couldn’t turn away. She felt profound sadness at the lack of humanity.

The next day, she watched news footage of protests. She saw coverage of BLM protests before. George Floyd wasn’t the first to suffer police brutality, and sadly, she didn’t expect him to be the last. She never joined a march…for any cause. She never felt passionately enough about an issue to actually participate. And she couldn’t stand crowds. But…if she did nothing…wasn’t her silence just unspoken acceptance?

She hadn’t been to church since the pandemic started, but she saw online that some of the members of the church youth group were planning to attend the protest that night. She never participated in any of their meetings or activities before, but joining them might make her plan more acceptable to her parents. She was going to march.

It would be hard to lie to her parents about where she was headed, since she rarely went anywhere, so she told them the truth. As she predicted, their concern for her safety was eased by the expectation that it would be a peaceful protest and she would be with church members. She nodded at their parental reminders.

“Wear your face mask.” As if she would go anywhere without it. “And stay with the group,” her mother said.

“Be sure to take your cell phone,” added her dad. “Call me…for any reason.”

As she walked out the door, she heard her mom call, “We’re proud of you for doing this.” Alyssa wasn’t sure if the pride was for supporting BLM or for showing herself in public. Maybe it was both.

Armed with nothing more than her conviction and face mask, she joined the first protest of her life. She didn’t really know any of the members of the youth group that well, so she trailed behind them as they marched down the middle of the street. She wasn’t with anyone, but she was with everyone. She held her head high, chanting “Black Lives Matter” into her mask.

At some point in the march, she realized that she didn’t recognize anyone around her. She must have become separated from the church group. She found herself in the midst of a group of Black teenagers, some male, some female. When they held their fists in the air, she raised her fist too.

She obviously wasn’t Black and certainly didn’t share their history of oppression and injustice, but in some small way, she felt she had just a glimpse of what it was like to be judged by one’s skin. When she applied for a job the previous summer, Alyssa knew from the look in the manager’s eyes that the interview was over before it even began.

One summer, her parents sent her to a camp for burned kids. The hope was that she would feel more comfortable around other kids that looked like her and had shared experiences. In some ways, it was nice to know that she wasn’t the only one who looked the way she did, but at the same time, the experience kind of reinforced the isolation and limitations of segregation.

The guy marching by her side knocked into her and she stumbled. He immediately said, “Sorry,” as he reached out to steady her. She saw his muscular arms first, then his tight t-shirt stretched over his broad shoulders. He was tall, so she had to tip her chin up to see his eyes. She anticipated the usual reaction to her face – revulsion. When she saw only concern, she was grateful for the facemask. “I’m okay,” she assured him.

He let go of her arm and introduced himself. “I’m Jayden.”

“Hi, I’m Alyssa.” She found herself wishing he hadn’t let go so quickly; she couldn’t remember the last time someone other than her parents touched her.

“Are you here by yourself?” he asked.

“I was with a group, but somehow, I got separated in this crowd,” she explained.

“Yeah, great turn-out tonight. March with us. These are my friends.” He pointed as he named, “Michael, DeShawn, Ashley and Kiara. We all go to North High School.” A couple of them nodded at her, but the others didn’t appear to hear over all the noise.

“Hi.” She raised her hand in a quick wave. “Thanks for letting me march with you.”

“Thank you for being part of this. We’re making history.” He was practically yelling now. “I can feel it!” His eyes shone with hope that this time would truly make a difference.

Suddenly, the noise rose even higher. Something was happening. The people in front of them were being pushed back. The momentum of the crowd behind them was driving marchers right into them. They were being crushed in between. Alyssa’s eyes started to sting…wait, were they using tear gas? The peaceful march quickly spun into chaos. She wasn’t sure which way to go. Bodies were pushing and shoving from all directions. Jayden grabbed her hand and tried to pull her towards the side of the road. He looked back at her and shouted, “Come on, I don’t want you to get hurt!” Before he could look where he was going, he slammed into someone – a cop in riot gear. The officer struck Jayden with his club, knocking him to the ground. When Jayden looked up, Alyssa saw the eyes that earlier reflected hope, now flashed with fear.

Alyssa jumped impulsively in front of the police officer, trying to shield Jayden. She screamed into the cop’s face, “Is that how your mother taught you to treat people?”

The cop looked momentarily stunned. As a man with a large camera moved in, his jacket emblazoned with a news station’s initials, the officer backed off. Alyssa extended a hand to Jayden to help him up. “Are you okay? Should we take you to a hospital?”

He rubbed his shoulder and winced. “I’ve been hit worse than that.”

“Want to call your friends?”

“They’ll never hear their phones in this mess. Let’s head over to North Park; that’s where we planned to meet up.”

“You guys were more prepared than I was,” Alyssa noted.

“Yeah, well, we gotta be.”

They walked away from the crowd and made their way down a side street towards the park. As they walked, Jayden shared some of his family’s experiences with systemic racism and the frustrations of living while black.

When they met up with his friends, Jayden told them what happened, and what Alyssa did for him. They took turns fist-bumping her. She called her dad and explained that she had gotten separated from the church group. While they waited for her father, Alyssa and Jayden exchanged phone numbers.

On the drive home, she told her dad part of what happened, but not all of it. She planned to sleep in the next morning, but her dad knocked on her door early, asking for the rest of the story. Her encounter with the police officer was captured on camera. The video was going viral. 

Alyssa felt relieved that no one would be able to identify her masked face on the video. Or so she thought. A short time later, her phone rang. A news station wanted to interview her. Due to the pandemic, she could do it live from home over Skype. Her first instinct was to say no, to hide as she did most of her life. She couldn’t do this. Could she? Alyssa asked if she could wear her face mask. They preferred that she not wear the mask, but it was up to her.

She found comfort wearing the mask. She thought maybe people could see her true self if they weren’t so distracted by seeing the skin that covered it. Should she just keep hiding? If she took off the mask, she would be exposed…on so many levels. But this wasn’t about her. She had a chance, and a responsibility, to deliver a message. Would it detract from that message if people just focused on her skin? Or was skin part of the message? The basis for racism.

When the Skype session started, Alyssa could see herself in one panel of the screen – her hair was down and her mask was up, so only her eyes were visible. The reporter spoke in another frame and the video from the march ran on a continuous loop in yet another panel.

After introducing Alyssa, the reporter asked why she intervened between the police and the young man in the video.

Alyssa didn’t think it was her place to name Jayden, so she said, “My friend didn’t deserve to be treated that way. We were protesting peacefully.” She tried to speak slowly and loudly enough to be heard clearly through the mask. “I know I’m oversimplifying this, but at its core, isn’t this about how we treat others? Individually and systemically. Why is my friend seen as a threat because his skin is black? Why do I have greater access to education, health care, housing, jobs, loans…justice…simply because my skin is white? People are not defined by their skin. He is so much more than what you see.” She pulled off her face mask. “And so am I.”

She saw the reporter’s eyes widen, and she tried not to care. Before he could ask an unwanted question, Alyssa said, “I really hope people look deeper…at themselves and others. Thank you.” She quickly pressed the button to end the call.

As soon as the interview was over, her phone vibrated. She looked down to see a text from Jayden: HEY FRIEND, U R BEAUTIFUL. Smiling, she headed to her bedroom to change into a short-sleeved shirt.

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