The Mask

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When I was 6 years old I wanted nothing more than to be Spider-Man. So it stands to reason that I also wanted the costume. It didn’t matter how much my mum told me that my duffle coat made me look like Peter Parker, I wanted that red and blue one-piece with a fever I’d not known since chicken pox. If any of my friends were lucky enough to have been bought one while I was going without, then they also became the unlucky recipients of my envy and hatred. Because I knew in my heart that none of them wanted to be Spider-Man more than I did. None of them.

The problem was that I’m one of four kids, raised in a house where setting aside money for luxuries was an abstract concept. Over time each of us learned to get used to budget workarounds in response to our demands. This made store-bought superhero costumes a fantasy on a par with being able to stick to walls or lift cars over our heads. And if we wanted clothes, especially frivolous ones, then concessions had to be made.

Almost every item of clothing I owned back then was a long-suffering hand-me-down. Worn by an elder sibling or cousin until it breached crisis point, exploding Incredible-Hulk-like off their growing bodies, at which point it was darned, patched and passed on to me. Being third in line, I grew up wearing clothing that was scarred and haunted by the sweat, farts and grubby habits of the previous owners. Convinced that detergent could not eliminate the hidden, indelible marks they had left behind on the fabric, I lived with the knowledge that this physical history was now bonding itself to my skin. But I considered this my cross to bear and, on balance, better than nudity or dying of hypothermia.

So when I finally began begging my mother for a Spider-Man costume it was with a sense of trepidation. Because I knew that I was not going to be bought one, I was going to be made one. When she finally agreed I immediately began imagining a sartorial Frankenstein’s monster, no doubt upcycled from scraps of burst red shirts and blue ruptured-ass trousers. And that’s kind of how it went for the rest of the costume, which settled around my body in the way that a single, fitted bed sheet might attempt to cover a King-sized mattress. But I never could have foreseen the item of clothing my mother would choose to repurpose for the mask.

She’d been ferreting around in a box of random clothing in a local charity shop when inspiration struck. It came in the form of a pair of blue satin knickers with a red trim around each leg hole. When I discovered this, I yelled in protest.

“No! Old pants? I am NOT putting old pants over my head!”

She rationalised. “They’re fine, I’m sure nobody’s used them.”

Used. Not worn, used. Even as a small boy this word choice struck me as jarring. Worn and used are two very different things and made me think about the intimacy and orifice-proximity of underwear. This wasn’t even the first time she’d even done something like this, having once returned from a jumble sale and handed me a stack of y-fronts with someone’s name written in felt tip across the waist band. But now she was levelling up. It was one thing to place your buttocks where another pair of buttocks had been before but to place your face there is another matter altogether. I mean, I would sit on a public toilet but I wouldn’t put my head into one.

“It’ll be great,” she said, determined now. Maybe convincing herself. “You’ll see. I wouldn’t let you look stupid.”

And it was here that I was forced to take on board the notion that there is need and there is compromise. I wanted to be Spider-Man so desperately that if the only way I could fulfil that fantasy was to place pre-owned underwear over my mouth and face then, by God, I would do it.

I’d like to say that I was horrified as I watched her work on the mask. To say that I flinched. But as she snipped the underwear in two, sewed one half into a balaclava shape and added a neat stitch in the middle of the leg hole, I just saw my dreams becoming reality. And when I finally slipped that mask over my head I felt immediately that my mother had made the right decision.

It wasn’t perfect by any means. It was the wrong red to blue colour ratio. Lacked webbing detail. And importantly, I was unable to breathe freely, the area around my mouth becoming sodden with hyperventilated dribble. Remove it and the impact of this was evident, the circumference of my lips decorated with red, angry sores. If social services had seen them they’d have assumed my mother made a habit of stubbing cigarettes out on my face, a crime only slightly more severe than allowing your son to live out his fantasies by burying his face into a careworn gusset. But I loved my costume and cantered around our garden in it, shooting webs at invisible enemies while a growing patch of damp formed around my chin.

“Are those knickers?” my friend Tim asked in the playground, when I proudly pulled the mask over my head at school the next day.

“No.” I said, feeling my mouth go suddenly parched and dry

“Yes they are. Urrrgh, you’re wearing knickers on your head.”

“I’m not!”

Even as I protested I knew that the damage was done. That there was no way past it. I was exposed. I was not a superhero, I was a boy staring defiantly through the leg hole of a pair of charity shop pants and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Not even Spider-Man.

“Please,” I begged him, my words muted by urgency and satin. “Don’t tell.”

Tim looked at my face then and I saw a light in his eyes. The light of clemency. Pity. The warmth and goodness of a supportive friend. Then he snatched the mask off my head and I saw it for what it was, the light of a boy recognising the delicious thrill of the chance to broadcast someone else’s humiliation.

He darted away from me and across the playground, my mask held aloft in his fist, where it fluttered victoriously like a captured flag. I watched the slow Mexican wave of reaction on the faces of the other kids as he told them. Their heads turning my way, all smirks and swelling laughter. I was seeing the death of my dream. And underwear. I was seeing underwear.

But in time I’ve come to see this moment as the end result of my mother’s love, her limited options and her misguided attempt to make me happy. And I know, for a time, that it worked. Because alone in the garden with nothing but my imagination for company and the world seen only through my eyes, I was more than a 6 year old kid, just one oblivious day away from perhaps his greatest humiliation. I was everything I wanted to be. I was Spider-Man.

(Editing credit to Holly Aszkenasy)