Once, We Had Faces

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geralt / Pixabay

I knew it was her because she had just Instagrammed me a selfie of herself at the table next to mine. I stood and took my seat across from her. Her mask was anime-inspired, with large eyes and a cute expression. Her clothes were tight-fitting and revealing.

My mask was much less impressive. I preferred the abstract. It implied less and projected more.

“Ordered yet?” I asked.

“No.”

I held up my coffee. “It’s good stuff. Go ahead and get some.”

This sort of blunt chit-chat had always served me well on dates. It told the woman I wasn’t needy, that this was just two people getting together. Nothing serious.

She went to the counter to order and I looked around. About half the crowd was masked, but that was to be expected. This was a prime hook-up location, semi-public, with access to food, but nothing heavy. It had atmosphere, too, with the old wood floors and the techno-attic-grunge decor.

When she returned, I read “Rei” scrawled on the cup. That’s what she told me her first name was, so either she was keeping up the act or it really was. It didn’t matter, not really, but I liked to know if my date was playing straight with me.

“You do this often?” she asked, sipping her iced coffee through a straw.

“Sure. I like to get to know people.”

She laughed nervously. “My grandma says we’re all idiots.”

“That was before the Internet. Things were different then.”

“I like your music. I listened to a lot of it yesterday.”

She was fishing to see if I had watched her YouTube videos. I had, of course, even before Snapping her. She played the violin and other instruments in covers of popular anime soundtracks. She was cute, with a wide-eyed innocence almost as exaggerated as her mask. Those who didn’t understand, those like her grandma, wouldn’t understand why she wore a mask now when tens of thousands had viewed her videos.

“Which song was your favorite?” I asked.

“Fallout Freakout. It was really catchy.”

I didn’t know if I believed her. Fallout Freakout had the most plays, so she might just remember the name because it was the only one she listened to. But it didn’t matter. Not really.

Eventually, we talked started talking about anime. She became very expressive as she spoke, and I enjoyed that. It made me wish she didn’t have the mask. But it was better not to see, not to connect in that way. We liked many of the same series, and it reminded me that while discussing cool moments in comments and memes and response videos was preferable, there was something visceral about sharing and disagreeing in the moment, face to face.

The conversation wound to one of those lulls that always beset real dialogue. My coffee was gone and I was about to ask if she was ready to go to my place when she said:

“I’ll tell you my last name if you want.”

It was not something you offered, not if you cared about your privacy. “I don’t want to know.”

“I bet you do,” she teased. “Stalk me on social media. Maybe even do some research. Find a baby picture.”

“No. This isn’t a joke. Don’t ever tell anyone your last name.”

“Come on. It’s not that important.”

I was unnerved by her. With a last name, you could find out everything about a person. Everything. Face recognition software helped with that if masks weren’t involved. Didn’t she care about her privacy? “You are Rei, the anime cover girl. I am Jordan, EDM musician. Here, right now, that is who we are. We are our Internet selves. I don’t want to know who you really are. That’s not what this is about. Real people get hurt. Real people have expectations. This is just Rei and Jordan, perfect, happy, talented artists. Now, do you want to come to my place or not?”

She looked at me, her too-large fake eyes staring at me, asking nothing, just portraying kawaii cuteness. Then her voice emerged.

“My name is Ashley Trumbull.”

I stood. “You broke the rules. This isn’t how this works.”

She lifted off her mask. Beneath was the same face I’d seen on the videos, but closer, more regular, not staged or made-up or projecting a calculated emotion. Just an ugly sort of sadness and anger and defiance mixed into one. I couldn’t look away.

“Your turn,” she said. When I didn’t move, she said, “It’s your turn to take off the mask.”

I walked away and didn’t remove my mask until I was in my bedroom, sitting in front of the computer and writing nasty comments on her latest video.