At the beginning of summer vacation, my dad came home from work wearing a gorilla mask. It was a gag, some silly advertising promotion from the office, but I loved it. When I put it on everything changed. I wore the mask around the house at first, getting our Buck, our husky mix all wound up and barking. I stared at the gorilla in the mirror, for hours, tilting my head each way, wondering how I could get so much expression out of rubber and glue.
Then I started wearing it outside. I wore it to baseball games and they put me on the jumbo-tron. I wore it to the mall and security told me to remove it or leave. I wore it to the park and little kids would cry. Dad would laugh but Mom didn’t think it was funny.
Trust me, it was funny. I mean, my little shoulders and stick arms, then boom, big old gorilla face. Again, it was summer, and the mask started to stink from sweat. The gorilla hair got matted and clumpy—don’t ask me how I got ice cream in it but I had to cut it out.
When it got hot the rubber became like skin, like it was melting into my body heat and becoming flesh.
Mom said we needed to talk.
School was getting ready to start—sixth grade, middle school. There was no wearing the mask to school, did I understand? Yes, I did. I mean, I knew that. I just didn’t know how to stop wearing the mask.
Inside the gorilla mask, with the urgent heat of my own breaths, looking out at the world through two holes, it became my shield. A barrier between me and everything. Even when older kids laughed or pointed at me and called me a freak, it wasn’t real behind the mask. It was fine. They were laughing at the gorilla, not me.
But with school. It was just me.
I couldn’t tell Mom any of this. I stared at my knees, knobby and scraped, wondering what I was going to do. Facing the world without the mask was no fun. I was exposed, out there, nothing but my fragile, freckly skin between me and everyone else. I needed my second skin.
The first day of school came. I left the gorilla mask on my bed and got dressed in my brand new school clothes. Pants felt weird after wearing shorts for so long. My face felt weird, too.
On the bus, I found a seat, stared out the window and got through it. I was a middle schooler now and there was no time for the mask. It was like needing a blanky. I told myself to suck it up. Later, when I was walking to the cafeteria for lunch, my stomach was rolling around as I heard the crowd and the chatter and the clinks and clacks. I was about to turn around and hang out in the gym when I saw this girl handing out fliers.
She called me over. “Hey, you. Want to be in a play?”
“Huh?” I know, not my best moment. But my voice felt distant and small from lack of use. The girls smiled, thrust a paper into my hand.
“Our play, would you like to try out?”
I looked down at the flier. And I couldn’t believe it.
I just started laughing. “I think I’ve been rehearsing all summer.”
The girl smiled. “Great. I’ll put you down as a yes.”