From Inside the Velvet Mask

We cannot outrun history’s arrow. d’Artagnan and his boon companions the Three Musketeers learned that over 5,000-odd pages of Alexandre Dumas’ rambling historical fiction.  History’s arrow? I should have said history’s cannonball, since that is what ended the real d’Artagnan’s life at the siege of Maastricht, an inevitability Dumas had to write into the life of his invented d’Artagnan, at the very end of the last Musketeers romance, The Man in the Iron Mask

It’s that mysterious masked man, himself a historical mystery, who’s responsible for d’Artagnan’s isolation at his death. Out of the true historical footnote of a mysterious masked prisoner, Dumas constructed an entire, lengthy, laborious novel embroiling the four friends in a failed plot to replace absolutist horndog King Louis XIV with a lookalike. As Quentin Tarantino was not yet even a gleam in some foot-fetishizing ancestor’s eye, Dumas’ narrative had to follow the broad lines of history, rather than warp it in some vernacular virage. The gang’s attempt agley, the impostor is arrested, imprisoned for the rest of his life and made to wear an iron mask so that no one ever sees his face and notices his resemblance. 

An iron mask. The more one thinks about it, the more frightening it seems. Heavy, suffocating with smothered hot breaths, hard and harsh, a portable prison. 

Except it wasn’t. There was a real masked prisoner, who ended his days in relatively comfortable confinement, his name even noted in prison records, although many still insist it was a pseudonym for some more scandalous personage. He did indeed have to wear a mask, but generally only when he was going to be seen by others, and it was a somewhat less frightening velvet, rather than stark iron. Less a muzzle than a muffle.

A life of velvety confinement seems apposite right now. A strange isolation, where we are our own jailers. No iron mask or bars, but dusty carpets and omnipresent screens. No luxurious prison this – to complain of having to work while confined with children to self-teach [sic] is to demonstrate the most entitled of humblebrags, because so many of us during this period have no job at all, or risk ruin as we all curtail our behavior, including our spending habits. Still others of us have no chance to self-isolate, having to serve others – whether as servers, providers of emergency services, or health care providers – as a vocation. 

I fall into the first category, which has to inform what I write, and I take blame for all undeserved entitlement of which its exhalations – as humid and stale as those of Dumas’ literary Iron Mask ‑‑ may reek. I faced up to the near future with an understanding and decision. As long as I had to work at home, I had to set both routine and ritual. Routine: the schedule of activities I know I need to put in place for my seven-year-old, lest he become a prisoner of the screen dimension in all its forms, from supposedly educational apps and virtual museum tours to video games and hot and cold streaming animated movies. Routine for myself, too, finding the rhythm that allows both my partner and I to work and supervise our child. But to enforce that routine, ritual is necessary for me. Just as mysterious prisoner Eustache Dauger donned his velvet mask before interactions, I need my own textile barrier.  Clothes don’t make the man, but they help him assume – or hide– different identities. That ritual is dressing for responsibilities, a clear change from the slouchiness of what most of us otherwise wear at home, even if dressing for responsibility at home does not mean suit and tie. 

A favorite suit and tie, clothes I feel good in, have been the armor of the workplace, both protection and plumage. They made me feel professional, calmed the worries and the impostor syndrome that everyone (you feel it too, don’t you? Please say yes) of my generation feels. It’s thus a pity that I haven’t finished saving up for, and perhaps, in this cratering economy, never will, a dressing gown, not the ratty bathrobe of disheveled shut-ins but the regalia of drawing-rooms past, put on in place of a suit coat as soon as one came home, piped, silk-lined, tasseled… a garment whose sumptuousness could, in my mind, provide a similar, though softer, barrier as my office armor.  Why not? Noel Coward’s heroes donned them as protection from the poisonously witty barbs of his dialogue.  

In a spate of unfounded optimism I already had put aside a length of velvety Suri alpaca, and some vintage silk scarves to line it, all to send to my favorite shirtmaker after I saved up for my fantasy.  Well, nightmares cut short fantasy. I must face responsibility and confinement as they take me. Nonetheless, it was a pleasing confirmation of instinct on our first day of distancing to see my son, immediately after getting dressed, decide that his day clothes needed one finishing touch, march decisively back to his room, and select his fuzzy green robe with a dragon-headed hood, belting it with panache. Fantasy may be genetic. 

Among our responsibilities, in our plaster cells, are understanding, patience, empathy, and self-restraint both physical and figurative. Remembering how taxing all of those can be, and how valuable it is to show them to someone momentarily short. Renew bonds of friendship virtually, support those in your local orbit, virtual or physical, with advances, gift card purchases, contributions to wage support. And if you exhaust all other pursuits, Dumas’ million-word oeuvre is in the public domain online. From our own cells, the Iron Mask awaits.

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