by Elia Perez
Jane walked into the hotel lobby, her eyes burning from the sleepless nights she’d suffered the past couple of days. The heel of her boots made sharp angry quarter notes that echoed off the marble floor, as she headed for the coffee bar tucked neatly off to the side of the lobby. Her boots made a dull thud with every step as she walked on the shop’s carpeting; the aroma of coffee that had once brought her such joy had been reduced to merely another pollutant in her environment by the events of the past few days.
Jane marched off towards the elevator with her hot Americano in hand. She wished to make her ascension into hell a speedy one. She pressed the button for the elevator. Ding. The button lit up.
Jane stood in front of the shiny gold elevator doors looking at the vacant reflection of the person she had once been. She was mesmerized by just how quickly a person could be warped into someone else. Her long wool coat was the same as that of the girl in the mirror and so was her beret. The soft dark curls seemed oddly familiar, and the round blue eyes seemed evanescent, almost as if she were recalling them from a dream forgotten.
But the face, the face, she somehow could not seem to remember ever having seen it. It was pale, heart shaped, with splotches of color— a pink line had taken hold where rouge lips had once been; translucent skin tinted purple beneath the eyes made the face look hollow, almost forsaken. She was not herself, not anymore. She was someone else now, someone new. All it had taken Jane to become Jane-who-is-no-longer-Jane was a phone call. The arrangements had all been made over the telephone last night.
Everything was set.
The elevator dinged, once again, and the doors opened. Once inside, she pushed the button for the top floor, the 26th floor — even though her appointment was actually only on the 20th.
Jane loved the inside of the elevator. The walls were made of glass, giving it the illusion of freedom. But she hated the sense of ascension, because it made her insides feel like they were sinking. It made her head feel like it was full of air. But she always made herself forget, because she loved the view.
The skyline was best seen as night fades into day, as the sun rises and paints the sky full of violent highlights and shadows, full of blues that fade into violets edging the sun with its orange crown. She loved the way the sky turned into a canvas full of color on a winter dawn such as this. Jane loved to watch as the city awoke. She loved to watch as the drowsy mechanical citizens ambled about the streets searching for a ray of color in the grey dawn. Mornings were always grey when seen from below because stubborn buildings towered over the streets and stole dawn’s light.
The elevator came to a stop, dangling in mid-air, 26 stories above the ground. Jane hated it. As the doors opened, she turned her attention from the waking city to her own reflection, and then to the reflection of the stranger boarding the elevator. She cocked her head to the side as their gazes locked on one of the elevator’s walls, neither one bothering to look away. Their figures were thin shadows cast over the cityscape.
He had that look about him, just as she did, weary, beaten down by their situations. Although, it did not show in the slump of their shoulders or the lines on their faces, but rather on the layer of ice that covered their eyes. It showed in their meticulously composed attire they wore. It showed on the curve of their lips, which pointed neither up nor down but rather out as if a “u” had been pulled out on both sides and stepped on until it mimicked the shoe that stepped on it. They did not greet each other nor did they look away from each other, but rather they exchanged curious nods that verified their existences to each other.
He leaned against one of the elevator walls and held her gaze.
“So what brings you here?” Jane asked.
“Same thing that brings you here.”
Jane was confused. She did not think that Henry would have told anyone, at least not yet anyways… Then again he was a narcissist, and she was his trophy, so what was there to keep him from running his mouth?
“Life’s misery and Fate’s cruel sense of humor,” he said without ever changing his expression.
“What makes you say that that’s the reason I’m here?” she shot back.
“The mask you wear.”
So he had seen it.
She saw his, but she could not see her own. Yet, she knew it was there. She had seen her mother’s cracked and faded mask last night in the morgue. Her face had been peaceful, but Jane knew better. Jane knew the truth. She could see it. Looking back Jane could see just how much she had been blind to. She could see how her mother’s serene expression, her composure, had all been a lie, a great big lie that Jane had chosen to believe. Jane had chosen to ignore her mother’s unhappiness. She had chosen to see a never ending smile painted on her mother’s porcelain face. She had chosen not to see her mother’s true face, not to see her mother’s true heart.
Jane’s mother had not been Jane’s mother, but rather she had been a caged bird that had belonged to everyone but herself. She had been society’s modern lady. She had been her parent’s daughter. She had been her husband’s wife. She had been her children’s mother, but she had never been her own. Jane knew this just like she knew that she would never be her own— that is except for today.
Tomorrow, she would no longer belong to herself. Tomorrow, she would be someone else’s. She would belong to the person she despised most in the world, Henry. Henry wore no mask because he had the freedom to do so; his money and his power gave him that freedom. Tomorrow, she would be just another ornament for him to put on display— somewhere high up where everyone could see her and no one could help her— just as her father had done.
She had grieved her parents’ death, but only for a night, because that was all the time she had. Today was her only chance to experience freedom, because tomorrow she would be imprisoned in a golden cage. Just as her mother had been imprisoned in her marriage and just as she dreaded the thought of having to be. All her life, Jane had belonged to someone else. Yesterday, she had been her father’s prized possession, and tomorrow she would be Henry’s. But today she was her own.
She had little to say in consenting to this marriage. If she married Henry her little sister, Anne, might have a chance of surviving the car accident that had killed her parents and had left her comatose and in dire need of a costly surgery. But if she refused to marry him, her sister would die, and Jane would end up destitute and alone. Jane had no hope of securing a loan from the bank, any bank for that matter, considering Henry’s family owned half the banks in this town and was friends with the owners of the other half. She had no time to try and get a loan from out of town. And she had never counted on her father’s money, because all that was left of it was the prestige that came along with being a Croft— a dying family name.
Jane shifted her position but continued to hold the man’s gaze on the elevator’s wall as they came to a halt. She wished she could stay and ride the elevator in silence all day. But she knew she had to leave in that instance otherwise she would stay and ride the elevator in regretful silence all day.
“Why do you hesitate?” he asked in the same tone he had used the first time he had spoken. The tone of someone who had fought every battle and lost every battle fought, but only now realized that there had never been anything to lose.
His face was passive almost immobile, but the more she tried to focus on it the more amorphous it became.
“I don’t…I don’t want to live a lie.” Jane tilted her head to the side with surprise as she heard the truth in what she had said.
“No one ever does, but we settle for the lie because sometimes it’s better than the truth; and even if it isn’t we make ourselves believe it is because it has become our truth, our reality.” He pressed his lips into a thin line as if he had just remembered that he had left a kettle on the stove and had forgotten to turn it off.
Jane nodded and left the elevator hoping that if she had to live a lie she could deceive herself into believing that she was happy. Hoping she could paint a mask of joy that would never fade. Tomorrow, she would have to see the masks people chose to wear, and she would have to believe them. She would drive herself mad if she did not see the masks, because she would have to see people’s raw faces. Pallid faces that were undefined and void. Faces that had a mask for everyone they’d ever met and even some for those they’d yet to meet.
Jane came to a halt in front of a door at the opposite end of the hall across, from the elevator. She stood tall and silent taking in the fixtures on the onerous door that stood before her.