The first gift that I ever received was a mask. I got the gift before I knew how to identify a gift, before finding out that I was getting a gift, before I knew what a gift was, and even before I knew if I wanted a gift.
Whatever. The important thing is that, with or without my awareness, I accepted that gift and lived with it for a long time. So long that I understood what gifts are, and so long that I understood that not all gifts make you happy.
To cut it short, it was a mask that would protect me from others, and more so from myself. My birthday is not on the same day as Halloween, and even if it was, I’m sure Halloween is not a date so popular as to merit such a ceremony.
My mask grew with me. It fitted me well, despite the fact that my face today is much different to what it was when I was a baby. The mask changed shapes, and it developed. Sometimes I had to keep up with it. It was very fast and efficient — I would sometimes be left breathless, trying to keep up with the mask. So we developed an odd connection. First it grew with me, then I grew with it.
But ‘the good part’ is that I was not by myself. I had a whole army helping me maintain my connection to the mask. Young and old, they would devotedly add to this on a daily basis. With time, I found out that the mask represented an important symbol of heritage. It was passed on from my father, grandfather, great grandfather, and everyone who was born before me. However, it did not include people that were born after me.
Even with friends I started to make, the mask was the first thing we had in common. Even my girl friends had their masks, although they were completely different from mine. At some point during my coexistence with the mask, I found out that I did not have the time to deal with the masks of my girl friends, because all the work I had to put in caring for my own mask simply took too much time and dedication. The mask is no joke.
The mask was a part of me for a very long time… so long that our eventual separation was terrible, painful… so painful that I felt naked even when I had clothes on.
The bad left me badly. It was such a long time that I did not know myself without it, I did not know the person that was looking at me in the mirror. So long that when I took it off, we met and greeted each other with a cold and mumbled, “It was good knowing you.”
Separating from the mask
I had to keep that poor thing — not poor because it was lonely, but poor because it devastated for so long — wherever I went: at home, when I ate, when I watched TV, when I spoke with my sisters and parents, when I spoke with my neighbors, when our relatives visited, when I lay down, when I wanted to drink water, when I wanted to eat, when I had to open the door, when I had to greet the person who knocked on the door, when I had to carry wood six floors up, when my parents would buy me toys or clothes, when I played with my friends in the neighborhood, when I fell down… yes, even when I fell down and was struck by pain, I was praying for that tear not to come out, that tear that so desperately needed to come out, but not in front of my friends. Tears and grimaces were most harmful to the shape of my mask, and this was most unacceptable.
I remember when the same happened to a friend of mine a few days earlier. He fell down very badly. He felt so much pain and shouted so much that he cracked his mask to pieces. What a friend he was to us, and although none of us fell down or felt pain, for two months straight he gave us sufficient material to mock him to the point of forcing him to stay indoors for quite a while. The mask needed time to recuperate and get its form back.
Anyway. Let’s get back to when I fell down. It was the biggest shame that a person could experience, at the time at least. I swallowed the tears and the pain. I even mustered up the power to joke about it somehow, about the pain and how I fell down. But I couldn’t. It was bigger than my ability to deceive. My teeth were cracking as I was clenching my jaw so hard, just so I wouldn’t let out a sound. As I stood up, my friends jokingly said to me: “Oh come on, get up. You’re fine.”
The voice of the mask, the surest voice there is, told me that I was a man, and that men do not know fear, and that there is nothing beyond the man. So no one could face the man. The man was the ultimate achievement. Man.
“No, it’s alright. It didn’t hurt that much. Let’s play,” I told them hurriedly, as my voice betrayed me. Meanwhile, I could barely stand. That game was so long. My desire to hide somewhere and cry my pain away seemed so unachievable. I conceded the final goal and went home. I cleaned my leg, which by then had gotten mucky, and I told no-one. My father only wanted to see me doing well, so I spared him this news, which would imply that I was unwell.
Everyone thought that the mask and I had it good together. I thought so too in fact. So good that sometimes I wanted to go far away and let my mask fall, and then pretend that I hadn’t seen it. I wanted to go to a place where no living being would be able to find my mask.
I loved running by the river in my small city. I ran so fast. I don’t know to this day why I thought that the speed would melt off my mask. I ran when I was angry. It was hard to know whether the tears that ran down my cheeks were from the heavy winds, the cold… or the sadness that I felt inside… the sadness that even I could not accept, because the mask would be disappointed in me. It reacted badly when I was sad, thus it gave me the power to escape my sadness. It dried my tears so quickly, and then stick to my face like glue.
What a nice mask, eh! It would not allow for my sadness to be noticed at all. It worthily defended my powerful figure and my courage. I was something to envy.
The mask was with me even during nighttime, when I was alone and when I thought about “fear”… alone… of course, I wasn’t alone. Behind me was the shadow, the voice of the mask. So we were three now. How could I be afraid? How could I feel alone when I was constantly accompanied? Ah, if I could have felt alone at least once.
The voice of the mask, the surest voice there is, told me that I was a man, and that men do not know fear, and that there is nothing beyond the man. So no one could face the man. The man was the ultimate achievement. Man. I was a man who spoke about manly thing with the mask that was proud of me. I was a man whose heart beat fast, a man who tried to calm his own heart… make it so calm as to not disturb the mask. The mask did not like to interrupt smoking for heartbeats. A man does not shame his mask.
I did not remove the mask even when I spoke with others, when I went to school and when I was beaten badly by my friends. Yes, they beat me, and it was manly to accept that there were others who were stronger than me, according to the mask. I also had to accept that there were others like me, shorter and not as strong, however, this was also quite a feat.
As much as I was aware that there were others who were stronger than me, and as much as I knew what my involvement in a manly fight would result in, the mask told me that I had to protect my honor and counter anyone who said something to me, with whatever I found near me, or to at least insult them, even if I was face-down on the ground. So I had to stand my ground as a man and tell them that it was not over.
I started to love cooking. Sometimes, when no one was at home, I started to cook for myself. The mask hated the mixed smell of smoke and food.
The next day, covered in bruises, but full of priceless pride, you’d hear others tell you: “You weren’t afraid of him at all.” I thought beforehand that it was better to endure punches and kicks than to have people say to you “You were afraid, you ran away” the next day or the day after that. I was battered, but a man. Proud.
One day, when two brothers wanted to beat me up, I hit them with a chair, and they retaliated with a good beating. I was a hero again. Hero! A hero of nowhere and nothing. But a hero nonetheless. No one cared much about my wounds or the wounds of others.
One day, I called my sisters so that they would scare someone who had beaten me up. I had forgotten my mask in the washing machine, and the water had shrunk it. They came and truly scared him, so that he would not beat me up again.
It took so long for me to bring the mask back to its form. I was without it for a few days. Being without it meant being without your friends. I was without my mask, but I was with everyone’s unbearable laughter. Now I had to think about how I would fend for myself next time.
I could not tell my dad — he would often get very angry. Finally, I found a friend who was four years older than me and trained every day. He understood my problem and let me train with him for a while. He had a lot of weights and fitness equipment, so much that we created our own gym at home. I trained every day. My body was building every day. Its newfound form allowed me to brag before my friends, because I was able to protect myself.
The mask applauded me proudly, and it shaped itself better and better each day. I never left it alone. Not even when I started to sell cigarettes to support my family. Not even when I spoke to the baker. I didn’t even leave it alone on Fridays when I went to the market. Not even when I listened to music or followed the RTS TV agenda, or when I was waiting for a manly movie, an action or horror movie. The mask had picked my cinematographic preferences. I didn’t have to bother.
Food was my Achilles’ heel. It still is. I had to wait until my mum finished cooking… it often felt like it was taking too long so I decided to start cooking myself… naturally, until her food was made. I started to love cooking. Sometimes, when no one was at home, I started to cook for myself. The mask hated the mixed smell of smoke and food.
Anyhow, it hated the fact that I was cooking — to be more accurate. It didn’t like my cooking and for a beginner this was hard. Cooking became a habit, a habit that did not end well. It ended in a row with my parents. I didn’t burn anything.
I really loved white horses. I don’t know why. Later, oddly, I was told that when I grew up, just like every man, I would go into the army. And that most likely they wouldn’t give me a white horse in the army, because I had done what men shouldn’t do, I had done ‘housework,’ work that was not for me.
The mask had stopped in a corner and was laughing as hard as it could. It agreed with the horrible statements my relatives made. Besnik would get a black horse, because he cooked. All that food burned a hole in my stomach. It was time for me to sacrifice an activity such as cooking for the white horse. I never did any ‘housework’ again. I did it for the horse, but also for the mask, with which I became close again after a while. The mask made its peace with me, but I never did.
“Oh come on, Besnik. It’s an Audi. The same as any other car. Do you now how nice you’ll look in an Audi, since you’re short? It’ll make you look bigger. A proper man.”
This is how I lived with the mask. It was often endangered. But I could not imagine myself without the mask. Would I be myself without the mask? Would I exist without the mask? My relationship with the mask had become so intense that I could not imagine myself without it. I thought I was the mask.
I endured another battle with the mask in high school. My classmates would occasionally take their parents’ cars. They loved cars. While they liked the exterior, I was interested in their engines. I was fascinated with the way they functioned. Sometimes they’d take me for a ride in their parents’ cars.
They took turns. Naturally, I broke the cycle, and it didn’t pass by unnoticed. I didn’t have a driver’s license and I simply didn’t like taking the car; but who could resist my friends: “Besnik, why don’t you take your dad’s Audi?” They were all looking at me, waiting for me to respond, as if I was revealing the future of planet Earth. I said, a bit carelessly: “Well, I don’t like driving, and my dad needs it for work.”
The mask could not endure any longer. It packed its clothes in a suitcase and resolutely started to leave me again. My friends persistently said to me: “Oh come on, Besnik. It’s an Audi. The same as any other car. Do you now how nice you’ll look in an Audi, since you’re short? It’ll make you look bigger. A proper man. Let alone the speed. Go get the car and stop messing around.” I took the car, took them to school, and me and the mask escaped unscathed.
The mask didn’t leave me even after I finished high school and everyone started to guide me towards a better future. They gave me ‘options’ when I was thinking about my future career, when I thought about creating a family. They told me how I should continue to preserve my manhood, how many children I should have, how I should ‘control’ my wife.
The future was not a liberating vision for me. I struggled to breathe any time I thought about it… I had to go down that path together with my mask. The mask had been tamed, but it was still there, and I had to wear it with honor. I needed air. It seemed that my lungs had not gotten sufficient air for a long time and it seemed like their resistance had ended. It seemed to me that I was dying.
Love. I still feel like shouting this word out. Because I haven’t said it enough until now.
My dreams did not fit the agenda that my mask dictated. I started… started to doubt my mask’s ability to define what’s good and bad for me. I started university, I had to cook for myself, care for myself, clean up after myself… I had to understand how tiring it is for my mother and sisters, the girls that were there to serve us, the disciples of the masks, the ones that are blindly in love with their masks.
Love. Yes, I had started to love. I know I mention this word too late. Love. I still feel like shouting this word out, because I haven’t said it enough until now. I knew that men had to marry because it was an obligation for them, whereas love was for girls. We had a lot of work to do, we had the future, we had obligations to provide for the family, because women couldn’t provide for the family, because they had other duties.
So, to put it briefly, love wasn’t for men that had masks. We did not have time for this palaver. But men or no men, I fell in love. Is love a feeling made for men? I started to fear. Fear. A new feeling. I’ll admit, it was an old feeling, but it was so suppressed that at some point I had convinced myself that it did not exist.
This damn fear turned out to be problematic. After it came sadness. I became so sad that I cried. I had so many tears built up inside. I cried so much. I cried for the whole time that my spirit had cried. I no longer hated everything around me, and I no longer had the curtain of “man” before me. I started to love everything (I became a kid again, or better yet, at the age of 20 I experienced a late childhood) and everything looked beautiful. Beautiful? That word isn’t for men either. Men could say ‘nice,’ or ‘not bad.’
That was not all. My mask started to reek. It never ran away. Tears, sweat, joy, love, ire and guilt were toxic material for the mask. The mask broke, and as Cohen said, light started to enter through the cracks. I never thought that I would feel so much joy as a result of something breaking. Now I had the chance to dictate my own actions, feelings and behavior.
I was liberated. I was born, without a mask. Then, as they were claiming to do me good, people tried to put my mask back on when I was 20. They could not handle me without my mask. The mask, which would protect me from myself, pushed me away from myself. Now, without a mask, naturally I still had to pay a price and endure a punishment. The masks’ final attempt… its final words were ‘gay, woman, weak, loser’… but they were the final words of a creature that had no chance of survival, so I didn’t laugh at it, I simply let it go in peace.
That peace was my manhood. Because my manhood is peaceful. My manhood does not coexist with privileges that were given to us just because we are men. My manhood is not coexistence with violence. My manhood is not being a spectator. My manhood is action and conscience. My manhood knows love and feels it all the way up to the sky. My manhood knows love and exerts itself for it. It knows equality and engages itself for it.
Because this is the manhood that I have chosen, not the one my mask has chosen. At the end of the day, we are much more than just a handful of privileged people who never live beyond orders.