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Who is that masked woman?

by Thomas Dillon

I lay in bed with a woman with a mask on her face.

So I roll her way and coo in her unmasked ear . . .

“You can hide your face but not your passion.”

To which she sighs and coos back . . . “Oh shuttup.”

I suppose it could be worse. It could be a hockey mask. Or Darth Vader, a la rubber.

But, no, it is only one of those pharmaceutical masks that the Japanese wear so fondly during hay fever season or cold season — or any season.

And when my wife suffers from allergies or the sniffles or even the traces thereof, she will wear one too. All day. And, yes, even to bed.

Her eyes — which are all I can make out — blink at me like those of a cat in the dark. “I know you think it’s kinky,” she says. “It’s like lying next to a strange woman.”

Right — if she means “strange” as in “nutcase.” For what’s the “kink” in sleeping with a mummy? If that’s what turns on the Japanese, then we’ve just solved the birthrate problem.

And again she says . . . “Shuttup.”

I confess that one of my conflicts with Japanese pharmaceutical masks is that I can’t wear one myself. And I have tried. My morning ride full of coughing and sniffling commuters — often only inches from my face — has more than once sparked my sense of self-preservation.

But my face will not fit the mask.

First, my glasses fog up. Then my ears begin to ache from the elastic. And then my breath — often laden with a pinch of too much garlic — will just sit in that mask and tornado round and round. My eyes water and I imagine this is what the doughboys went through in World War I, stuck in the trenches with mustard gas.

So I rip the thing off — usually after only half a minute — and drink deep of air. Air full of germs perhaps but still breathable. I may not live forever, but at least I will not keel over dead that minute, choking in the blasted mask.

So wearing one to bed is unthinkable. It’s not like I wouldn’t get any sleep. It’s like I would never arise. My wife would find me belly up in more ways than one.

And I can hear her now . . . “Oh the things you do to escape going to teach!”

Masks are a problem at school as well. Not that I would wear one there. The problem lies with those who do — my students.

For they do not need uniforms to look alike. All they need are masks. Add in a touch of hair color, some bangs and a brand-name accessory or two, and any coed could be every coed.

Who is present? Who is absent? I have no idea. It’s a classroom full of kokeshi dolls in masks.

And my lesson plan gets masked as well.

Student A and Student B stand up to role play. Perhaps an exchange about shopping. Or homework. Or the weather.

It doesn’t matter. With their masks on, it always comes out like this:

Student A: Mmmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.

Student B: Mmmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.

I would give poor marks for this, but I can never figure out who is who. So I usually bend the other way and try to give encouragement.

“Wow. You both said a mouthful! What English too! Why don’t you come up here and teach class? While I sit and cry? OK?”

Actually, I should have seen this coming. About the masks, I mean. My very first night in Japan went like this. . . .

I arrived at old Haneda airport in early September, late and lost and limp with sweat. This was an older Japan of years gone by, but the humidity levels were the same. As were the masks.

Finally someone put me on the right bus and I rode exhausted through the Tokyo traffic. To arrive in the gloaming on a lonely street in Bunkyo Ward, where I dropped to the pavement with my suitcase in hand.

To at once come face-to-face with a passerby, my first encounter with a citizen of my new home.

The look I received was quizzical, like I had dropped not from a bus but from a spacecraft.

I returned the puzzlement, for the face I saw was just as alien. More than that . . . it was masked.

Talk about inscrutable Japanese! All I saw were two eyes framed in short hair. Night eyes that followed me like those of a . . . cat in the dark.

“So you see,” I tell my wife. “That was but a hint of things to come. For — with that mask — it might have been anyone; it might have been you. And years later, here we are again, man and mask, side-by-side! And fighting over blankets. Who would have thought?”

“Oh please shuttup!” she says. But I think she was smiling.

Not that I could tell.