This Is How I Learned To Wash Away My Mask

Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
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I bounce back and forth between how long it feels like since I was in high school. Like a century and one week at the same time. I could endlessly flip through the blurry stack of memories, many of them involving playing sports, crashing house parties, and purposefully doing cruddy in school.
One such pellucid memory keeps showing up outside of this bleary list. It's the memory of a boy named Cole.

I was in eighth grade at the time, still climbing the hierarchical ladder of coolness, wholly in awe at the size of the hallways and how much leg girls showed above the knee. He was three years older, and I remember the wool cabbie hat he always sported as well as the fact he seemed perpetually in a rush. I would give a small nod of acknowledgment whenever he scurried passed me on my way to class, throwing a hand up to waist level in imitation of a wave. He was always alone.

On a sunny afternoon in April, I followed a crowd of fellow teens out the double doors towards the grass field, the lunch bell having just rung. There were murmurs and mutterings that crept back through the pack to within earshot.

"What's that on his face?"

"Look...what a weirdo."

"Is that makeup?!"

I saw the boy named Cole standing by himself next to a picnic table. Almost like an attraction at a zoo, some would approach while pointing and laughing while others kept their distance, being careful not to get too close to the glass. The brown cake of makeup crudely smeared across his forehead, nose and cheeks was easily visible to passersby, inciting curious glances and unveiled cackles simultaneously.

Part of me wanted to laugh, part of me wanted to run up and grab him by the shoulders, screaming, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?! The rest of me wanted to cry.

His hands were stuck deep into the front pockets of his checkered shorts, eyes pointed downward towards his feet. I simply kept walking. Couldn't bring myself to say hi, to figure out why he had powdered his face with women's make-up on a balmy day, to admit to everybody around me that he was my brother.

I think that in some form or another, we cover and protect ourselves to hide what we don't want others to see. It could be how we dress, how we speak in certain slang or tongues, who we choose or don't choose to speak to. In my brother's case, it was trying desperately to mask the sea of red pimples that made showing up to school so difficult. That day I consciously chose to ignore the fact that he needed help. I put on my mask and tried to hide, just like he did.

My brother was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome from an early age, a form of autism that inhibits the recognition of social cues and norms you and I could rehearse while sleepwalking. For him, the idea of covering one's face with brown cake was a way to hide his skin while the acne went away. For lookers-on in a North Vancouver high school, he was a freak, an outcast.
We've since chatted about that day and laughed, very hard and long, although I'm sure it brings him some form of pain to think back to it. The moment many of us remember whilst navigating the rugged maze that high school is. The moment where we tried to fit in but failed, when we wanted to be loved but were shunned by the cool kids.

For weeks after that sunny April afternoon, I felt truly horrid inside. I left my brother alone to stew in a pot of pointed fingers, sweat and sadness. My thirteen-year-old self wasn't strong enough to eat the self-serving pride many teenagers find themselves holding onto through their adolescent years. It would be a wholehearted lie if I told you this was the last time I was embarrassed by Cole's decisions. Thoughts used to cross my mind of how unlucky I am to be burdened with these unique challenges of kinship, how exorbitant the price I must pay is. These are thoughts which only concerned myself as the centerpiece and not the person who truly lives with the struggles I projected onto myself. The truth is my brother is one of the funniest and kindest people I know in this world. Without him in it, my place on this planet would be significantly slighted. He just requires help in areas where others may not. In other words, he is a human being.

Believe it or not, Cole has since presented me with even more wacky responses to the situations life has thrown at him. Things that would make "normal" people swivel their heads and raise their brows. Luckily enough, make-up tends to wash away with proper scrubbing technique. Through the struggles of my brother, I have learned to wash away my mask, too. No more hiding the beautiful face we should never be embarrassed to show in public. No more suppressing the personalities that make us who we are. To rid yourself of what is between the real you and the world means not turning your back on the ones you love. Next time you look in the mirror, ask yourself, am I hiding something? Is the real me under the mask? Maybe all that you need is a damp cloth and a little bit of warm water.