i am a fraud. but i have crafted my mask so well that you can no longer see its seams; in fact, there are moments when even i look in the mirror and believe my own lies. but that’s all they are—lies.
i grew up in a rural town with a population just under 10,000. there were no separations further than two degrees, so if you messed up the word quickly migrated into every ear in town.
for instance, when i was seven years i was inside a convenience store with my mother. she was shopping for that night’s dinner, but i had wandered off to a more enjoyable section of the store—the section with trading cards. at the time, i was a pokémon junkie, so i searched through the decks until i found one that gave me that tingling sensation. i could feel the rare, holographic card calling my name from just behind the wrapper. i ran to my mother, deck held tightly in my hand, and asked her if she would purchase it for me. she, focused on her shopping list, shrugged me off with a quick no. but i was not about to let that card get away from me, so i slid the pack into the waistline of my pocketless athletic shorts.
after another twenty minutes, my mother and i were finally leaving with a few bags of groceries. i could feel the pack of cards against my waist, the tingling sensation returned to me, but this tingling was different. this tingling was the pack slowly slipping from my waistline. i swallowed hard and tried to secure the pack against my shorts, but my hands were full of groceries.
as the pack slid fully down my leg, we walked passed the owner of the convenience store. he waved hello to my mother. as my mother called back to him she was joined by the sound of the pack colliding with the gravel below. i quickly bent down and slid the pack into one of the bags, but i could feel their eyes piercing into me. by the end of the day, the entire town knew of my misdeed.
they called me pokémon thief until the day i finally moved away. i was ecstatic about the idea of recreating a new identity. not a single soul in this 638,000-person town knew a thing about me. i was free to be a new man. free to be something more than just the pokémon thief.
i was 14 years old when we made the move. a freshman in high school with a whole new world in front of me. i spent the first couple days just observing the kids. i discovered the cool kids, the jocks, the academics, the drama geeks, and every other clique imaginable.
at my last school, i was a drama geek. i participated in every play our school put on and often went to neighboring towns to participate in theirs. i loved theatre. i loved the feeling of being on stage and knowing, even though i had stage directions and lines and a very specific plan, that anything could happen. but i also knew cool kids didn’t mingle with drama geeks. and i also knew cheerleaders would never return the lustful looks thrust upon them by said drama geeks. i had been at the bottom of the food chain for so much of my life. i wanted to try something new. that is when i began to craft my mask.
i sat a table or two away from the cool kids and studied their behavior. i listened to their conversations and dug their notes out of the trashcan after class and memorized them as if they were written by shakespeare.
by time the school began to take notice of the new kid, my mask was ready for experimentation. the fantastic thing about this time in history is that social media was alive and well, so the presentation of my mask was easy. i filled my twitter feed with joy and wit that was nonexistent in my real life. i filled my instagram with photographs of vacations i loathed and of people i despised, but the locations were gorgeous and the people were proof i was worthy of other’s time.
after a couple weeks, though i hadn’t really made many friends on campus, i began to establish quite a following online. all the while, i continued to study their social cues. i studied their diction like it was a foreign language. i studied their fashion like an artist studies picasso and a musician studies ms. lauryn hill. i changed the way i talked and the way i walked and the way i thought, i changed the rhythm of my heart and i chipped away at my brain until i was indistinguishable from them.
after a month, i walked to my typical table for lunch and heard my name called out. i looked around for the source and noticed that it was coming from julia, a major player in the group of popularity. it seemed like my mask was working.
the nerves i felt as i sat by julia’s side quickly resided as i discovered there was nothing truly special or unique about this group of people. they were just like me, kids who desired to be loved. we spent that lunch in small conversation. i told them about my old town and told them lies about how i ran the school. they foolishly believed my every word. people want to believe in the greatness of others, or rather they want to believe that great people would want to spend their time with them.
then, after we had completely exhausted ourselves with human interaction, we returned to staring at our phones. we sent out tweets about how great of a day we were having, though our day consisted of merely staring at screens, so how great could it have really been?
as freshman year turned to sophomore year, i found myself dating the most sought-after senior on campus. she was a shoo-in for prom queen. it was unheard of that a woman of her stature would be dating a man as young as i, but my mask was praised more often than god around this shallow campus.
every time i wandered the schoolyard, i felt the lustful and jealous eyes from girls and guys alike. there were whispers and shouts around campus conversing my greatness. my name was inked into notebooks by drifting minds. i was a legend, which by its very definition is a lie.
for the longest time, the mask felt light on my face. the lies fell off the tip of my tongue and rolled off my fingertips. i was in bed with my deceit and dragged anyone who was willing to come with. i sat high on the throne and wore my crown of lies with pride. but kingdoms, no matter how large or how strong, always come crashing down.
it wasn’t until prom night that i first felt the weight of my mask. prom night is what people like me live for. i had the most beautiful girl on campus under my arm and every eye and spotlight was to be focused on us. but it didn’t feel quite right. i met up with my date early in the evening and the two of us exchanged corsages and boutonnieres. we smiled until our cheeks burned and our parents were finally satisfied with the photographs that would later gather dust in a photo album hidden beneath a pile of boxes in the attic. as we walked to my car she whispered seductively into my ear about what tonight had in store for the both of us—and that is when the mask first tugged.
when we arrived at our friend’s house we were greeted with a party bus and multiple bottles of liquor. my date instantly poured shots for the both of us. the bus was filled with loud music, disco lights, and aggressive dancing. i begin to feel disoriented, my girlfriend’s breath was warm on my neck, and my buddies looked at her and me with vulgar eyes. this was not where i belonged.
i felt this overwhelming weight on my shoulders. i felt the mask tugging on the tiny hairs upon my chin, trying to rip itself free. the soul within, which had been tied down and locked away, shoved its way to the surface. the past two years finally hit me. i used to be a kid who went on stage because i loved the feeling that anything could happen. i lived for unpredictability. i smiled, not in photographs, but in real life. the mask dug deeper into my skin.
for the first time i began to feel like a total fraud. i was not the man they thought i was. everything they knew about me was a lie. i was no longer myself, i was a persona; i was a fraud.
my girlfriend began kissing deeper into my neck, her fingers fondled my hair, and her body pressed harder against my own. it was as if the oxygen had been sucked from my lungs, my vision was slowly fading into blackness, the music quickly dissolving into static so loud that my screams couldn’t even pierce it. i felt myself, my real self, disappearing. i reached for the brim of my mask and attempted to rip it free, but i couldn’t—the mask had taken root so deep that it and i were no longer two, but one.
“i am the pokémon thief!” i yelled at the top of my lungs. “i am the pokémon thief!” the music was too loud. “i am the pokémon thief!” my girlfriend moved her lips up to my own and sealed my mask forever with a gentle kiss and slip of tongue. my shouts turned to whispers and eventually faded out with the wind.
i was the pokémon thief.
but i am no more.