The Masked Man
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
a lighthearted and goofy short story exploring dating in the age of social distancing. Our narrator meets a seemingly nice person, and discovers a new type of intimacy.
My friend Tommo told me Gloria was great, he’s the one that set us up. And I know right now is a bit of a strange time to be meeting people but when he showed me that picture of her -
I couldn’t resist.
It was an odd situation when we met up for our date, not like any normal Saturday night out at the Rose and Crown that I’d ever known. Table service, for a start - that was actually a positive in the whole experience, because it means that you’re able to get served with considerably more speed than you would at any other time. In my four year history as a regular and devoted patron of the Rose and Crown, I’d be waiting for at least three quarters of an hour at the bar on a Friday night, having my ear chewed off by Marcus Brightwell droning on about the problems he’d been having with his cavity wall insulation.
Not so today! As I said, that was a positive. Table service. But the bartenders and waiters were wearing visors, for God’s sake, and to make things worse, they all looked genuinely terrified at the prospect of serving. They obviously did not want to be there. Wouldn’t even make eye contact. I’m telling you, it was like being surrounded by a bunch of nervous welders, and there I was - on a date!
A first date at that! Already inevitably horrendously awkward and nerve wracking, especially for a natural introvert such as myself.
So, when they told me that they wouldn’t let me sit at the table without my mask on, I must admit, I nearly flipped my lid.
‘I’m meeting a girl here! How’s that going to look if I don’t take my mask off all night!’ I pleaded with Pete, the bar manager. He showed me the requisite amount of sympathy, and shrugged a muffled ‘iohoh’ (sounds for the intonation, but not the words, ‘I don’t know’).
‘How can I smoke?’ I appealed.
‘Death sticks!’ Pete mumbled.
‘How am I s’posed to drink my pint!’ I begged, but to no avail.
Pete was unwavering in his need to adhere to ‘company policy’ - a policy which I was sure he’d misinterpreted. He just kept repeatedly churning out the same comment about how ‘We must all do our part to combat the spread of the virus.’ As if I were one of those superspreaders, as if I were jetting off to crowded beaches on the south coast, organising illegal raves on housing estates, or, or licking melons on supermarket shelves!
Which I’m not.
Luckily Gloria - when she finally arrived - was totally cool about the situation. I just figured she saw the funny side, and man she did not disappoint.
She was beautiful.
I guess it’s all about the eyes right now, isn’t it.
Although, you could see everything else was exactly as it should be, you know what I mean.
So, I’m looking at her, Gloria, completely mesmerised by those dark eyes...and I ask her to take off her mask.
At which point, she puts her hand over mine and seductively, says to me - no, she orders me: ‘Leave the mask on.’
I thought she was joking, but that stern reprimanding glance. There was no mistaking that look. It was apparent that it would be abundantly clear when Gloria wasn’t joking. And this was one of those times. So what could I do? I kept it on.
We were the only people in the entire bar, a bar which would ordinarily see patrons three feet deep at the bar on a Friday night, spilling out in glazy streams wobbling under the streetlamps down King’s Street after last orders, and primed to continue a late night sesh at Club Eros. Of course, Eros was dead now. It was a different world now, since the virus. But just because Eros was a no go, I was determined that romance could still blossom tonight, between myself and Gloria.
A few people, not knowing about the new company policy of mask wearing, came in and intermittently tried - and ultimately failed - to reason with Pete.
It’s an unpleasant sensation, drinking Hoegarden through a polypropylene face covering. Those fibres stick to your tongue and as the night wore on, I began to feel as if I had a wet dishcloth clinging to my beard.
A beard I had carefully trimmed before my date so as to reveal my chiselled jawline which most women had told me was ‘masculine’ and ‘attractive,’ but of course, that genetic blessing was all undone courtesy of a small blue strip of fabric and two elastic ear hooks.
The music was loud- too loud - for just two people in the bar, and I called to Pete to turn it down. I made a throat slitting motion at him, and narrowed my eyes to convey displeasure - but either he didn’t hear me, or he didn’t understand what I was getting at because that music stayed at the same volume.
That was a problem. Until one loses the ability to see another person’s mouth, it’s difficult to imagine how much of the communication between two people is non verbal - emerging, yes in raised or furrowed eyebrows but also in smiles and frowns.
After a couple of hours, I started to get irritated with Gloria. Was she really such a stickler for the rules? This mask thing seemed like a massive effort and discomfort for someone who, in the long run, would clearly be a mismatch for me.
Or, was there something wrong with her mouth or her nose? Honestly, thinking back to that picture Tommo had sent me, I must admit much of her face was occluded. It was all long black hair, and a tight short dress stretching over that body.
Had she had a botched nose job, and she was too embarrassed to reveal it?
Did she have poor oral hygiene?
Because I refuse to have a partner with poor oral hygiene. I downright refuse that.
And, then I started to get kind of, paranoid: What did she think of me? She looked like she was smiling and laughing at my jokes, but who could tell, really?
Those smiling eyes - was it, in actual fact, a grimace?
Was she gritting her teeth every time I talked about my sound engineering projects, rather than nodding and smiling supportively, as I’d hoped.
At half eleven I paid up and we left the bar. As we walked out of the Rose and Crown I thought, finally, finally! We’ll get to take off these masks and at last we can see each other, completely. Gloria put her hand on my arm. She looked at me. I knew that expression. ‘Uh uh uh.’ she said.
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I exploded. Finally cracking. ‘What is your problem? We’ve had these on ALL NIGHT! We’re in the open air now - you don’t need to wear masks outside, the virus doesn’t spread the same way it would in confined areas.’ I was exasperated. ‘You know what, Gloria. I’ve had a shit night. Let’s just forget it.’
She started crying. I felt terrible. I put my arm around her, and between all the blubbering, she told me the reason why she wanted us to leave the masks on.
It wasn’t what I’d expected.
You see, it turns out Gloria has a thing for masked men.
‘It all started with Zorro,’ she said. ‘I was a fourteen year old girl when the Zorro movie came out - the one with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones? Well, I think that was what really did it for me. That scene? The one when he cuts through the bodice of her white dress with his sword, making an angular ‘Z’? She modelled the action, taking the role of Banderas. ‘That scene…’ she trailed off, literally shuddering with excitement.
‘Okay. Sure. Zorro I get and it’s a power thing or a fear thing?’ She shook her head.
‘Just a sex thing.’ She corrected me.
Gloria then proceeded to rattle off a list of masked men she thought were ‘hot’. They ranged from the bleeding obvious - as in the case of Batman - to the freakishly disturbing - Hannibal Lecter, ladies?
Well, I thought it was kinky as hell. Though the prospect of never kissing, of knowing I could never caress her lips with the tips of my fingers, never trace a line around the butterfly curve of those lips, that prospect suddenly became unthinkable, unbearable and a seemingly insurmountable issue.
On the plus side, though - no germs!
And the sex. Well, that first night. I mean, Gloria was an animal!
It must be the mask, I thought, it’s triggering some kind of freaky lust. I guess you could say I gave up the prospect of dinner and conversation for great sex, but please don’t judge me for that.
If you’d been in my position, I guarantee you’d have done the same thing.
We eat in private, separately, but that intimacy that’s lost is one hundred percent made up in... other ways.
One hundred percent.
We’re three months into our relationship and it’s all good. I’ve still never seen her mouth, her lips, and I don’t know about the curve of her smile or shape of her teeth. I don’t need to know.
What’s happened is something which I didn’t expect, you see, it’s because of the masks, that we understand each other better, and I know that we reveal more than we ever would have done if our faces had been fully visible.
We show each other - me and Gloria, we give each other so much more, when we keep the masks on.
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