With a brush, she painted a stranger’s portrait onto her face.
She’d practiced this:
The perfect combination of different shades of red
Layered one over the other
Like icing on a cake.
I was supposed to know her best,
But I only ever saw her with her mask on.
It was natural for her to draw the curtains over her birthright
The pale cheeks and the smallness of her eyes
Because it was then she felt most like herself.
She concealed her arms in silks but forgot to bother with her legs,
As though it had slipped her mind like most things do these days
And she wore a smile she’d bought along with the face paint.
It grew wider with every compliment and every free drink,
Her eyes glazed over, and her shoulders no longer tensed when touched,
But when all that was left of the spotlight was the streetlamp outside her door,
It faded like a used battery,
Her body drained by the desires of others
Others who could not light themselves up otherwise.
Like a broken record of last Friday,
She called me up and whispered her sins,
Half-bragging but really asking for God’s forgiveness with me as her proxy.
I’m not God, so I don’t catch her drift,
And I said she should spend the next weekend with me instead.
But she loves the flash of the camera at night,
So I’m not surprised when she declines.
The phone line went flat
Like a weary hospital patient,
And in the quiet of her room,
Drenched in someone else’s perfume,
She told herself,
“Tomorrow will be different.
Tomorrow, I will be myself.
Tomorrow, they will see me.”
But ‘herself’ was already obscured by the paint on her eyelids
It was how her acquaintances recognized her.
How do you escape a room you’ve locked yourself into
With the key on the other side of the door?
The side that the wall separates you from,
And why is this story too familiar to ignore?
As if our own ragged breaths echo this fear:
That our faces are strangers’ portraits
And we are but shadows
Trapped in paint that will no longer come off.