A footnote in someone else's story

That mask there to the right, modeled by an old friend, is one you used to wear every Halloween. Then you had children and it terrified them, so you put it on a high shelf and haven’t worn it since.

Recently, it resurfaced when you were attempting a deep-clean of the furnace room. You put it on and the vinyl smell of Halloweens past came flooding through you. You remembered walking into a bar many years ago and watching through the eye slits as people stared.

“That girl’s face paint is amazing,” one woman whispered (the mask falls a bit short on your friend’s face but fits yours perfectly).

Now the mask is in one of the drawers in your closet. It hung on a hook for some time in there, drooping down among many scarves, but it unnerved you to come upon it late at night, so into the sock drawer it went.

You used to love wearing it. You could feel anything behind that mask and no one would know. So freeing. Your mother used to tell you how much she loved wearing a uniform at the tiny private school that had given her a scholarship.

“No one knew how poor I was,” she said. “We all looked the same. It was wonderful.”

What this mask has to do with being a footnote in someone else’s story, you’re not sure. But it does. That’s something you’ve learned over these years, that free association means something.

You can learn a great deal by closing your eyes. Separate yourself from the way a person looks, and you will instead focus on the way she smells.

You can learn a great deal by closing your mind, too – by ignoring rationality. The rational mind doesn’t always know best, or know much of anything. There are aspects of a person that you can’t articulate in words, but that you know way deep down. The problem is that we’re taught out of that way of knowing someone; we’re trained out of it early on.

Everyone has a story, a story of why she’s in this life, what she’s meant to do here. You come into the world knowing it, fully sentient, and then you forget. Or it’s trained out of you.

Many people are hurt in some way, looking for something to mend a fracture of some sort. Others don’t know they’re looking to mend something. They can’t articulate it to that extent; they’re blind, and searching. Grasping. They grasp on to those who have the capability –the fault line?– to respond to them.

Those who allow themselves to be grasped believe, on some level, that they are fracture-menders. Or that they can be.

It can take a combination of seeming paradoxes –the passing of years and the unlearning of what you’ve been trained– to move through the world on your own terms. Even to know what your own terms are. It’s the work of a lifetime, and no one can do it but you.

Begin with smell.

Your body knows things that your mind doesn’t. Stay away from someone whose smell you don’t like. You don’t have to be cruel or rude, but there’s a reason you should stay away. No need to question your instinct; obey it.

Leave sight out of it. Sight is the least trustworthy of the six senses.

Sound is somewhat trustworthy, or rather, it can be if something in the voice you’re listening to makes you tense up, turn wary. If this happens, stay away.

Touch can also be trustworthy, but it becomes clouded by sex and physical attraction, and neither of those can be fully trusted.

Taste? Not applicable, most of the time, except under those circumstances that also involve sex and physical attraction, and the same can’t-be-fully-trusted rule applies there too.

That leaves smell –trust it– and your sixth sense. That’s the most reliable of all, but you usually have to shut down the other five senses in order to know what, at heart, is going on.

Do that. Shut down. Put the face-paint mask on. Listen to what your sixth sense is telling you. Let yourself know what you already know.

Some things to keep in the back of your mind:

Charm and charisma are measured out on one side of a scale. Something else is on the other side, in equal measure.

Certain expressions will flit across a face very briefly, in a fraction of a second. Other people in the same room might not see what you saw. But you did. Don’t discount this.

Some people in this world want you, need you, to be a footnote in their story. But anything that comes in italics, like that word need? Be careful.

The other side of the wariness scale is unwariness, and that too comes in equal measure. The same rules apply to unwariness as well, except that you can trust sight and touch more, over here on the unwariness side. This side of the scale is lighter, so you can fit more on it.

Over on this side is where you meet the people who, when you close your eyes, give off light. Stand tall. Look at you with kind and curious eyes. Smell familiar. You can trust this, too.


  1. herhimnbryn · March 22, 2011

    Powerful words A. I agree about ‘smell’. I have a strong sense of smell and it always serves me well. Forwarned is forarmed.

    The image you requested ages ago is up over at my place.


  2. Karen · March 22, 2011

    How haunting this is. It reminds me of the times I have talked myself out of my instincts, only to have them confirmed later on. Sometimes years later. Thank you for the reminder.


  3. alison · March 24, 2011

    Thanks for the image! I headed straight over and felt warmed and welcomed by the beautiful room and the garden through the door.


  4. alison · March 24, 2011

    Karen, yes, many times I’ve done the same thing. It’s hard to unlearn certain habits, but crucial.


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