Runner Up: Lori Lyn Greenstone
Lori is a graduate student in Literature and Writing Cultural Studies at California State University, San Marcos where she teaches composition while finishing her thesis on motherhood memoir and ekphrasis—vivid description depicting a visual work of art. She is married to one of America’s Hottest Husband’s (Redbook, July ’07), a fire captain. They have six kids (what woman in her right mind has six kids?), ages 27-2, and are celebrating their 30th anniversary in November. Lori writes and paints from her studio overlooking their sustainable blueberry farm in Fallbrook. Her artwork has won several awards and been published in Strokes of Genius: The Best of Drawing by Northlight. Her autotheoretical essay “Ekphrastically Writing of Creative Mothering,” will be published in Mothers Creating/Writing Lives: Motherhood Memoirs, forthcoming in 2010.
Removing the Mask
Without air, you have four to six minutes before brain death occurs.
Mia, her hair covered by a plastic shower cap, smears petroleum jelly into her eyelashes and brows, then smoothes it across her face. She places a straw deep in each nostril and seals the gaps with clay. Never a good nose breather, she practices inhaling. Mia lies down, battling claustrophobia. All for art.
Paula prepares the plaster-of-Paris, mixing it into a pasty white soup. The two artists have already cast the children's feet and the extended hand of Mia's husband, Mark. He hovers, interested, while their children watch from the edges of the art studio.
"It's ready," Paula says.
The oozing coolness of fresh plaster slides down the sides of Mia's nose, a heavy pudding now filling in her eye sockets. The wet weight pushes against her lips, flattening out the curve of her forced smile. She inhales but only one nostril sucks air. Lips tighten.
"I clogged a straw," Paula says, "but I'm unplugging it."
Drying plaster hangs heavy on Mia's nostril hairs, her labored breath chalky and clouded. Her pulse quickens, an echo reverberating against an encased skull. Willing her body to stay down, she reminds herself that those around her are trustworthy. The plaster heats up to a mild burn as she imagines the painted masks and sculptures they will create from these molds, lost moments preserved in three dimensions.
"It's unplugged," Paula whispers.
Only wisps of powdery air flow in. As the plaster solidifies every facial indentation, imprinting each fine lash and line, Mia grows feverish. She holds up two fingers to communicate impatience. Mark's hands probe the rigid mask adding to the heat and heft hardening on her face.
Mark's gentle touch reminds Mia of the many times she has flinched away from him, his reach for her tangled with all the wrong hands squeezing and poking. Confused memories. After ten years she still reminds herself to relax into his embrace.
"Almost there," he reassures. "Another minute or two."
Mia focuses on an internal ticking clock, searching for a safe place to send her mind, to forestall the images of childhood when her older brothers smothered her naked adolescent form under the thick wool Army blanket, moving in each time she shifted a limb. Every effort to break free further entrapped her, the laughter outside the scratchy darkness stealing air from her lungs. A muffled wail. Her brothers aren't controlling the mortar mask. This isn't the family she was born into, manic mother, absent father. These are people she chose or conceived, people to trust. She sits up.
"Okay," Paula says, "it's set. Go ahead and take it off."
Fingers prying near her temples, prodding along her mandible, Mia pulls at the edges of the plaster. No give. The plaster has seeped around her jawbone, sealing her in.
"Rock the edges back and forth...to loosen it." Mark's voice is near, his merciful fingers feeling for Mia's chin line.
Mia rocks in desperation, urging the mold to free her. Suctioning itself to her skin with stupefying strength, it has become her form. A mummifying mask.
A thin crack allows only slim sips of breath, each further flattening the straws. Out of air and faint, Mia struggles to stand. Her pulse beats double-time for each passing second. A scream seeks to break through immovable lips. Tears well up with nowhere to pour out, increasing pressure behind eyes closed tight against the darkness of this embodied tomb.
"We'll have to break it." Mark's voice is calm, a counterpoint to panic. A paramedic accustomed to rescuing people, he gauges the careful force needed to free Mia from this tragic-comic disaster, hammer in hand.
Mia reaches for him, feels the hammer in his fist and lays it aside, placing his strong, soft hands with hers on this plaster trap. Her fingers dig into skin and bone around her jaw and temples, yanking in tandem. Twisting, wrenching loose, contracting back, sinews snapping along her spine, her knees hit cement as the scalding seal breaks, suctioning blood to the center of her face. Mouth open, she gasps, clawing the straws from her nose, gulping in gusts of air and light.
Blurry faces fix themselves into questioning stares aimed at the hickey forming across her nose, marking her. Her husband extends his open hands. With a deep cleansing breath, Mia exhales and reaches, both hands outstretched toward his solid grasp. Free, she rises up, lifting herself.