I meet Pete and Teddy at the party supply store. It’s their weekend together but I have proposed that we repeat last year’s successful collaboration and select Teddy’s sixth-birthday-party schwag together.
When I arrive, Teddy is gleefully fake-stabbing Pete with a variety of plastic swords, scythes, arrows and chainsaws with a gusto that reflects his complete deprivation of such play objects in both of his homes. I stand in the bright light of the store’s open doors and watch my son at play in the other half of his life.
As Pete and I wander the aisles, choosing matching paper plates and napkins, discussing the plan for food, balloons, cake, and party favors, Teddy tries on hats, wigs, costumes. He chooses a secret gift “to play a trick on me” that Pete helps him hide in our cart. Scanning the selection of knick-knacks at his eye level, I am pretty sure I’ll soon be encountering a pile of fake poop that expands with water.
Pete cracks a joke about the party favors we could offer our guests, and I laugh so loud that people lean in from their aisles to look. Teddy puts on a knit Rasta cap complete with fake dreadlocks and looks so completely altered that we erupt in another round of laughter.
The thought flashes through my mind: we are by far the the people enjoying themselves the most in the store.
We eventually all end up in front of a bank of Moulin Rouge-esque masks which all of us take turns wearing. Pete is my mirror. He gets increasingly excited with each mask I try. Finally, he chooses a delicate and elaborate gold mask. He tells me it goes well with my hair. He dares me to wear it out some night. He wants to buy it for me.
Next, we are in front of a wall of stockings from which I select the tiger prints and he selects two pair for his partner Cindy — one that will make her look like a schoolgirl, and one that will make her look, shall we say, a little older.
At the cash register, an employee comes up to me and starts raving about the brand of stockings that Pete has selected for Cindy.
“Should I tell her the stockings are for your girlfriend?” I ask Pete under my breath, and we laugh again.
At my car, we divide up the loot. I take the party fare, Teddy takes his secret fake poop, and Pete takes Cindy’s new wardrobe. Our little tribe divides.
At a stoplight, I put it the mask up to my face and consider myself in the rearview mirror. I think of how marriage and divorce are each their own kind of mask. We hold our happiness or grief close like a shield. When really what happens between people over the course of many years is far more flexible and elusive, like the sheen of glitter that has been left behind on Pete’s cheeks and mine.
When I was a child, my father and I listened to Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” more times than most humans could tolerate. These verses have stayed with me.
Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather.
They’re the faces of the stranger,
But we love to try them on.
It occurs to me that Pete and I have seen the full repertoire of each other’s masks and that this has somehow freed us, in this life chapter, to simply be ourselves.
I smile at the gold-eyed version of me in the rear-view mirror. Then I place the mask carefully in the passenger seat and drive home.