Seth wore many masks.
At work, for instance, he put on his serious mask, his yes-sir mask, his professional mask. This mask was mostly bland and agreeable, perfectly appropriate for the business-casual environment. He kept the mask firmly in place as the day progressed, as he slogged through corporate hell, as his boss made unreasonable requests, as he wished he were anywhere but in his office. He’d finally graduated to a workspace that was sort of near a window, and he had to keep himself from gazing too much. The view was mostly of other skyscrapers, and it was partially obscured by Bob Wilson’s bald head, but what mattered was that it showed what was out there, outside the daily drudgery of the office job Seth needed so he could put on a different mask at night.
He left the office one night after many of his coworkers had left for the day, most of them cutting out early to get on the commuter trains back to their suburbs. The weathermen were doomsaying about a blizzard coming that night, as if it had never snowed in New York City before, as if the remnants of the last storm weren’t lingering on the sidewalk. It didn’t escape Seth’s notice that the old snow still sat in sooty clumps on the curb like used cotton balls.
It started to drizzle, a precursor to the snow, perhaps. It had been warm the last few days, making the old dirty snow turn to slush, then melt into puddles on the sidewalk, giving the streets a glossy sheen that reflected the lights of the stores and buildings that soared into the sky. Seth thought the city lost some of its magic once Christmas was over, that the strings of lights someone had forgotten to take down seemed tawdry instead of festive.
It was nights like this that his missing Evan became a palpable thing, that Evan’s absence became more of a presence, that Seth could feel the empty space beside him where Evan should be, that Seth could so easily imagine that arm slung around his shoulders or the ghosts of his fingers lingering against his hand.
Of course, now Evan was gone, run off to California, a place that was sunny and warm instead of dreary and wet. “I’ll always be your friend,” he’d said on his way out the door, but some friend—Seth hadn’t heard a peep from him in weeks.
He sighed and rubbed his face, preparing to put on his next mask, his I’m-fine mask, his I’m-happy-to-spend-time-with-my-friends mask. Part of him wanted just to go home, to sit in the dark with low music, or to watch TV, or not to deal with people that night, to wallow in his sadness and the loss of Evan.
But he’d made plans. He took a deep breath and pushed open the old wooden door to Lachlan’s Pub and strolled inside. Marty was already there, sitting at the bar, a grin on his face as he talked up a brunette with big boobs. Seth unbuttoned his coat and waved to Marty, who gestured for him to come closer.
“Hey, Seth.” Marty grinned and slapped Seth on the back. “This is Astrid. Isn’t that a spectacular name?” He paused to let Seth look her over.
She was pretty, Seth conceded. He shook Astrid’s hand. “Nice to meet you.” To Marty he said, “You’re awfully early. I wasn’t expecting you until closer to seven.”
Marty nodded. “They closed the office early on account of this blizzard they’re expecting to come obliterate the city any minute now. I heard they’ve already closed the public schools tomorrow. This of course means we’re only going to get a couple of inches of snow, tops. It’s always so much ado.”
Seth leaned on the bar and managed to catch the bartender’s attention. He ordered a beer and surveyed the room as he waited. The crowd was a little thin; Lachlan’s tended to get pretty lively during happy hour, but the weather seemed to be keeping people away. He turned back to grab his beer, and as he took a sip, he heard a voice behind him.
“Seth? Seth Roland?”
Seth turned around, and suddenly he was seventeen years old again.
“Hi. It is you! I’m Kieran. We worked together when we were kids, remember?”
Funny that it was the job that he chose to remember. Because here was Kieran O’Malley, who, granted, was often associated in his mind with soft-serve cones and perfect little frosting roses atop immaculate white ice-cream cakes, but who also evoked in Seth’s mind Saturday afternoons spent horsing around in between serving bratty teenage girls, silly conversations late at night when they closed together, and stealing kisses when the store was empty. Here was Kieran O’Malley, the cute guy from the next town over, the first person to see through all of Seth’s masks, to see the person that Seth really was. And here he was smiling, looking the same yet totally different, older, more beautiful, and he was a thirty-year-old in a bar in New York City instead of an awkward seventeen-year-old in an ice-cream parlor in suburban New Jersey.
“Kieran,” Seth said, and something in him wanted to shed everything right then, to pull off his coat and his dull work wardrobe, to leave everything bare and open in a way he hadn’t let himself in years, because there had been a time when Kieran had understood him, had loved him, had been his friend. Yet this man who stood before him, who nervously ran his fingers through his hair, was also a complete stranger. Instead of saying everything he wanted to say, Seth tugged on his polite mask, his nice-to-meet-you mask, and he smiled.
“I remember,” he said. “It’s nice to see you again.”