The Great Unmasking

Part I

Johnny was a talented eccentric I had the misfortune of growing up with. Through hard work, persistence and a bit of luck, he became one of the most successful people I knew in my early 20s. Yet he always seemed unhappy in spite of this. He was more educated in the fine arts of the 19th century than anyone I knew, and for most of my life, his depth of knowledge gave me enough reason to excuse his childish behavior.

Like Mozart, he began writing music on the piano at a very young age. By the time I met him at age 11, he could read sheet music and played a large repertoire of piano sonatas. He listened to Bach and Beethoven while we listen to rock music. He read Baudelaire while we read comic books. He was an anachronism for our time. He was bullied in those early years for being small, shy and different. The resulting isolation only fueled his superiority complex.

He and I were only two of many artists emerging from that fertile period. Our small town quickly grew into a city known for fostering creative minds after the completion of its high-minded University, which hosted biannual art festivals and attracted people all across the state. After seeing the praise and attention bestowed upon the festival’s first winners, Johnny quickly started arranging his own music compositions. He began winning one music festival after another. Over the next three years, he became known statewide for his originally written pieces and virtuosic playing style.

Many talented people from that period ended up making bigger names for themselves in bigger cities. But Johnny disliked the idea of moving, and insisted on performing only in his hometown. Perhaps he preferred being large fish in a small pond, rather than a small fish in a large ocean.

Johnny entered high school as a small celebrity, and never let anyone forget about it. Teachers and coaches were instructed to protect Johnny from bullies, in case they injure his precious fingers and cost the school their state music tournament. Many of the art students who disliked Johnny’s narcissism now befriended him for the protection he had. Johnny used this to assert power over them, consistently threatening to cast them out of his circle. By senior year his closest friends were whipped like animals, and obeyed his every command.

His home became the central hub for artists in the west suburban area. Bands played improvisational music while artists painted psychedelic watercolors. We were both 16 when he enlisted me to invite the best artists to his “club”. It seems like a childish idea at our age, but I went along with it to please him. I never expected his “club” to become the thriving community that it was during its prime. I watched many talented faces come and go between these past 9 years.

Johnny was usually nice to me, but when something went wrong with his life it sometimes became my fault. He always needed someone else to blame when life didn’t go his way. He had an insensitive, racist streak that became more noticeable as we got older.

Johnny built his social circle very carefully, and maintained very tight control on who could be part of his “club”. Since Johnny had amassed such success so relatively young, he watched many like-minded artists become mutual friends of one another. Whenever two people were best friends, Johnny became intensely jealous and drove a wedge between them, spreading lies about both people through their friends. He was rarely satisfied until the former best friends were no longer speaking to each other.

Above all, Johnny knew how to play mind games well. Though he always stressed that decisions were made by the community, he had the final say in all matters. He maintained that his strictness was to protect artists from having their work stolen, but anyone who challenged them was accused of being too authoritarian. You were considered a killjoy, and often cast out of the circle. Because of Johnny’s money and influence, people usually sided with him.

I spent much of January this year touching up an old painting, which I had started over 2 years prior. With the new techniques I had learned since then, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief at bringing my work to its completion. Since most artists I knew at the time still congregated at Johnny’s Place, I decided to take it there to show it off. I knew my old friends were familiar with it, but there was occasionally fresh blood stopping by for their first or second visit.

I visited Johnny in his chamber. He was sitting at his piano, quietly reading sheet music. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words, or simply poor timing, when I told Johnny “my work is completed.” Johnny snapped back angrily in response.

“You don’t work. What work do you do? What do you actually do with your life?” He yelled. He looked furious. “I work. 12 hours a day. All you do is lie in bed complaining.” Johnny begin ranting about his mother and how all his success and hard work couldn’t help her.

Perhaps it was a poor choice of words, or simply poor timing, when I said “that’s not my problem.” I stormed out, amazed at how cruel and self-centered he could be. If I snapped like that at him, he and his posse would never let me forget it.

I past some of his closest friends as I was leaving, some I’d once considered my own friends. They clearly heard what was said, and avoided my gaze. Had I offended them as well? Whenever gossip floated around they took Johnny’s side, shaping and molding the story as he saw fit. I wondered how much of their opinions belonged to them, and how much belonged to Johnny.

Of course it was never that easy to leave Johnny’s Place. I ran into our mutual friend Hazel as I was leaving. She loved the changes in my work, but my mood had already been spoiled. The fact was, I never saw my friends outside of Johnny’s Place, and I was sick of seeing Johnny. Like me, Hazel has been around since the beginning. We had both seen many people leave for well-paying careers, as the art scene became less and less familiar to us. Now I felt lost in a sea of strangers.

Hazel was surprisingly understanding of how I felt. Perhaps I was so used to people agreeing with Johnny, I felt my own opinion was discredited. But Hazel was equally frustrated with the atmosphere of lies and gossip that Johnny had built. When recent rumors began circulating about her, it managed to alienate a boy she was interested in.

She knew I could relate. When my sister was arrested with heroin over 3 years ago, rumors began spreading that I was also a drug addict. Hazel knew me well enough to stick by me, but I lost many friends during that time. I still have no proof that Johnny started the rumor, but I’m sure he did. My music career was beginning to take off at the time, and he probably saw me as competition. I lost my will to write music around that time, and have been painting ever since.

Unfortunately for both of us, this was one of the last places where we felt comfortable meeting new people.

“I’m thinking of leaving this place for good.” I told Hazel. “I never see any new artists here anymore. I’ve been thinking of renting an apartment across from the University, and attending some of their new art classes.” Then I considered Hazel’s situation. She was likely unhappy to still be living with her parents. “If you’d like to join me, we could split the rent and get a bigger apartment. We could both use a change in our lives.”

To my surprise, she said she would think about it. I gave her my number, and a week later she called to take me up on my offer. Within a few weeks, we were living across from the University and going to classes together. We began dating on Valentine’s day. With Hazel’s support, I begin writing music again.

 

Part II

That autumn, I received an invitation from Johnny to his Halloween party. I hadn’t seen him or thought of visiting since moving in with Hazel. I wonder if he had any lingering resentments. People who drifted away from Johnny’s Place for more than a few months were often looked down upon, and sometimes cast out. Still, Hazel wanted to attend the party, and I knew it would be rude not to attend.

This year’s Halloween party had a special theme. According to the invitation, all participants were to obscure their identity by wearing masks. The password to get in was “a certain opera by Beethoven”. Any true friend of Johnny’s would know this one, as he often spoke of his love for Stanley Kubrick films. He fancied himself as Spartacus, freeing artists from obscurity while hiding among them. He reminded me more of cruel, heartless Alex from A Clockwork Orange.

And so Hazel and I went, wearing elaborate costumes to match our Venetian masks. We arrived around 9 p.m. as the party was starting. The masked doorman instructed everyone to keep their identities to ourselves and our dates until later that night. Johnny’s large guest room had a bar installed – we took a booth in the corner of the room. The mood was strange. Hazel and I could not recognize anyone.

It seemed more than a little suspicious that we had to hide our identities at a party crowded with friends. I wondered what Johnny had planned that required so much secrecy, and at the same time involved so many people. Then it occurred to me that we had not seen Johnny yet. Was he hiding behind a mask in the crowd, enjoying a brief moment of anonymity? He had probably forgotten what it was like to blend into a crowd after all these years. In any case, his presence loomed over the entire party even if his whereabouts were unknown.

I had to consider the possibility that Johnny was not actually here. I watched the guests as they spoke quietly with their dates, or not at all. Was this some kind of new social experiment of his? Was there some deeper, artistic meaning in everyone being so close and yet unable to communicate? Perhaps I was thinking too much. I decided to mind my own business for now, as I chatted with Hazel.

“He’ll show up sooner or later.” Hazel said. “Or maybe this is his new way of soaking up attention. This place seems pretty empty compared to the old days. I expected to see more people here.”

“Our friends in New York and California probably have much better things to do.” I replied. “All of our old friends are gone, and new people don’t visit like they used to. This place is dying.”

“I agree.” She nodded. “I wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for nostalgia.”

Just then, a man appeared beside our table and motioned for us to get up. I could not see through his mask, but it was clearly Johnny. He was dressed in a dramatic ceremonial garb with many layers of veils. He looked more like a geisha than a shaman. As we were led to the music room, I noticed many people were congregating around us. Once inside, we were surrounded by the crowd.

“What is the password?” The ceremonial leader finally asked.

Was he being serious? “I’m not playing your stupid game, Johnny.”

“You gave us an incorrect password. Now both of you, take off your masks.”

“Then what, get undressed?” I was getting angrier. Hazel gripped my hand.

“Of course not.” He chuckled. “I just want everyone to take a good look at your faces.”

“Let’s just take off our masks and leave.” Hazel pleaded. I was not on board with that decision.

I approached the man and snatched off his mask. It was not Johnny. It was an old friend who had ceased talking to me years before. He covered his face and vanished into the crowd.

Someone else stepped forward. “It doesn’t matter whether you take off your masks. We know who you are. You left with Hazel and turned her onto heroin. Now you’re both junkies. You’ve been living near the University, going to art classes and telling people not to come here. You are trying to sabotage this place out of jealousy towards Johnny.”

Another person stepped forward. “I never felt comfortable visiting this place until I heard you left. I wish you’d stayed gone.”

Suddenly, the mask-wearing crowd began hurling attacks at both of us. Some of the voices were familiar, but many were not. They accused me of turning Hazel and others against Johnny. They accused me of turning Hazel onto hard drugs. They accused me of tearing their precious community apart.

They encircled closer, shouting and pointing at us. I grabbed Hazel’s arm and we headed for the front door. A few continued following and verbally assaulting us. I knocked one of them to the ground, and watched them clutch to keep their mask on. We got in our car and drove away in a panic. I saw a few of them in the rear view mirror as we left, still shouting at us through their masks.

How many of my attackers were friends, and how many were total strangers? There was no way for me to know.

I could never bring myself to return to Johnny’s Place again, after seeing the dark underbelly of our artistic community. I never did see Johnny again, either. From what I heard, hardly anyone visited since the incident on Halloween. He stopped performing publicly. I hear he now makes a living ghostwriting for other musicians.

Hazel and I broke up in December, just before Christmas. The incident deeply disturbed her as well. I hear she’s moving out of town. I hope she finds what she’s looking for.

I sold my musical instruments, and moved into a smaller apartment by myself.

I recently ran into an old friend, who also used to frequent Johnny’s Place during its prime. This happens too often at University. He chatted with me cordially, but I cut the conversation short. Was he one of the people behind the masks at that party? I could never know for certain. Now whenever a friend approached me, I maintained my distance. Even those who hadn’t participated were silent advocates.

I had lost my trust in so many people. The only people I could trust now were complete strangers.

By wearing the masks, did my “friends” inadvertently show me their true selves? I thought of all the hurtful things that were said. Was that how they felt all along? Then why did they never confront me before? It all felt so passive-aggressive. I thought of the man, or woman, who fell while clutching their mask. Did that protection allow them to finally speak their mind? Even so, how was I supposed to respond?

Are we not all wearing masks, everyday, all the time?

I have been painting a lot lately. It helps to keep my mind from wandering. Maybe I’ll take it to Johnny to show off when I’m finished? Maybe he’ll like it. Maybe there will be other artists there too, like in the old days. I could look my old friends in the eyes, without doubting or distrusting their intentions. They could give me feedback and constructive criticism. Would I ever find that sense of community again?

Maybe one day, we could live in a world without masks.

 

Written: June 3-6, 2016
Released: June 6, 2016


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