My great-grandmother Lorene served as a secretary at the DOD during WWII. She carried a gas mask in her purse everywhere. The siren would sound, and Lorene would put the mask on for five minutes at a time, a few times a week.
My grandmother Lily, her daughter, also had a little mask, a red one that she said smelled bad. She would have to wear the mask at school, sometimes while playing. She remembered getting under her desk in school, and tucking her head under her palms. The ARP warden checked to make sure they always had their masks on them, or they would be fined.
My great-grandfather served in the Navy. He used a gas mask called the Mark III, a large mask with teardrop glass eye sockets, hoses that connected from the snout to a canister at the nape of his neck. This is the mask I found first, in a chest in the attic, as we cleaned the house after Lily died. I found my great-grandmother’s mask in her black purse, and I put the masks in my bag.
Lorene was walking to church with Lily once, my great-grandfather faraway in Italy, when the air raid sirens went. Lorene dropped her own mask, but she was supposed to put on her mask first, then Lily’s, who was only seven. When she picked hers off the pavement, shaking, Lily already had hers on. With the sirens screaming, and Lily in the street wearing her little blue dress and red mask, my great-grandmother almost cried when she saw her. The sirens went off, then. The warden gave the all-clear. It was a false alarm.
“People would wear them around the house,” I told my husband, John. He was sitting next to me in bed, book in his lap, shirt off. I had my nightgown on, lavender-colored and silk, the masks on the side table. “They had to practice. Could you imagine?”
“At any time?” John asked. I nodded. John gestured and I gave him the Mark III to hold as I took Lorene’s. We had been married only a year then, when Lily had passed. John smelled clean, freshly showered, his hair still wet and his shoulders reddened from the hot water.
My great-grandmother’s mask lay deformed and wrinkled from nearly a hundred years of resting in her bag. The raw, synthetic smell of it was on my fingertips as I pulled the straps over the crown of my head, my hair sticking to the rubber. When it was on, I couldn’t see clearly -- the plastic lenses were smudged and dirty. Without speaking, John put on the Mark III. I felt blind and suffocated and hot – unable to see except for my husband in front of me, the two of us hissing through the filters. John was looking back at me, his eyes open, seeing. His face covered by the mask, his mouth a perforated hole, his nostrils pulled backward into black tubes. He looked muzzled and enclosed, as if in a cage.
I searched for my husband’s hand, for the human parts of him, and instead clumsily found his thigh. He found my gown. I led him, lifting the end so the fabric rose above my hips, then raised my hips to straddle his waist. We made love with the masks on, and after, lightheaded, we peeled them off.
The ceiling fan above our bed, a little loose, cooled us. Its blades swayed, the motor beating. I breathed in deep and there was a pain in my chest, a little sharp, a little sweet.
John sat beside me in bed, a book in his lap, his shirt off. He used a gas mask called “Mark III” — a large mask, teardrop glass eye sockets, hoses connecting the snout to a canister at the nape of his neck. I wore my own red rubber mask. I couldn’t see clearly — the plastic lenses smudged, dirty. I wore a nightgown, lavender-colored silk – my mask on. The warden patrolled, making sure we wore our masks, always.
The sirens blared. I breathed deep. I felt a pain in my chest, a little sharp, a little sweet.
I searched for my husband’s hand, for the human parts of him. I clumsily found his thigh. John’s masked face. His mouth a perforated hole, his nostrils pulled backward into black tubes.
The raw synthetic smell. My hair sticking to the rubber. John looked at me – his eyes open, seeing. The fan blades above us swayed. The motor beat. He found my gown.
Lily died a year ago, seven years old. They said they remember seeing her under her desk, tucking her head between her palms.
John looked muzzled, enclosed, caged. His hair still wet, his shoulders reddened from a hot shower.
The warden gave the All Clear —a false alarm. The ceiling fan above our bed, spinning loose, cooled us.