“How long before our masquerade will end its noise of tamborines, laughter and shouting, and we shall find it was a solitary performance?” — Emerson
New Haven’s largest ballroom was cloyed in neon-blue light that played off an array of enormous crystal chandeliers suspended precariously, it seemed to me, above the planet’s best and brightest youth, the future leaders — perhaps even saviors — of our deeply vexed world. The proto-luminaries were dressed in varying degrees of formalwear, and many were masked or at least holding masks, or wearing them like necklaces or propping them up on their foreheads in the manner of begoggled swimmers in post-race repose. Some bareheaded patrons were wandering around glumly, probably embarrassed at having forgotten to acquire masks for an event that has the word in its literal title. Yes, this was the 2017 Senior Masquerade Ball, that age old or possibly not even especially old #YaleTradition in which the senior class gathers together en masse for what I believe is the first time since the Freshman Address, which possible fact makes me feel complexly sad and about which I hope I’m wrong.
But here I must make a qualification, which is that, unlike the Freshman Address, attendance at Masquerade (as we seniors call it, sans article) is not required. In fact, because guest tickets are available for purchase during a limited window in the week leading up to the event, it’s virtually impossible for the entire class to attend. It’s amusing to think that some starry-eyed senior, eager to celebrate the first of many last gasps of collegiate revelry, might have arrived in Bass Café clutching her parents’ hard-earned 20 dollars to purchase an elegantly embossed black-on-blue ticket only to find that the last one had been snatched up by a slightly more punctual attendee who thought it might be fun to invite last week’s underclass Tinder hookup to a black tie-optional event for seniors.
As I stood on the threshold with my ticket and my wristband, I thought about the only other time that I had been in the Omni’s ballroom, three days earlier. Due to popular demand, a lecture hosted by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program was moved away from LC into the ballroom, where I surreally witnessed slick-looking boys in suits usher all variety of attendees into their seats to hear author J.D. Vance expound his difficult working-class childhood and the class-based alienation he experienced at Yale Law School, in a cavernous and ornately decorated hall that evoked the garish, pseudo-baroque aesthetics of President Donald Trump’s 5th Avenue penthouse.
The obvious take about the Senior Masquerade Ball is that it’s an immensely ironic event, a party in which the attendees’ masks serve not to hide their identity — the commonly understood purpose of masks — but rather to demonstrate their allegiance to, or at least tenuous affiliation with, a certain kind of Old Yale elitism, the tattered ruins of which lie scattered stubbornly across our increasingly woke campus. Like secret societies, membership in which is highly coveted and about which no senior ever seems to stop talking (look what I’m doing now, ha ha), Masquerade perversely recasts signifiers of privacy in service of a public spectacle of prestige. The fact that some societies had their members wear matching masks adds another dimension to this, a coded secrecy within the more general secret, neither of which, transparently and by design, is remotely secret at all.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I passed cyclically through the ballroom’s six open bars, shedding in each recursion one layer of self-consciousness after another. I wound my way between imbricated well-dressed bodies, deftly dodging swinging arms and precarious drinks, and asking each of the respective bartenders for the same thing — “a gin and tonic with as much alcohol as you can possibly provide.” My own mask — red with gold trim and a nasal protuberance in the classic Venetian style — prevented me from seeing my drink at arm level without angling my entire masked head downward in a gesture that looked, I feared but could not know, ridiculous. It strikes me now, of course, that the only thing anybody in the vicinity of each bar was paying attention to was the mass of besuited forms churning Charybdis-like between them and their alcohol. That we were masked — and perhaps this was the only instantiation of the masks’ traditional purpose that night — liberated us from the courtesy of forming orderly lines, which liberation the most decorous and upright attendees frustratedly, though invisibly beneath their own masks, frowned upon.
I had just been prescribed Ativan as a way of coping with my anxiety that shadowy figures had been conspiring all my life to cause me torment and perdition. But as I traveled from bar to bar, taking occasional breaks from the crush to sip and contemplate in the interstices between them, I soon felt no such anxiety — self-consciousness about my head-angling notwithstanding. Perhaps this was because I had already taken an Ativan. Still it felt significant, especially given the sheer number of literal shadowy masked figures crowding the hall, that I felt so comfortable here, so unified with my fellow classmates, all of us performing our status as members of the Yale community while bowing down to the six flowing fountains. Instead of the urge to hide, I experienced a sudden and intense compulsion to vocalize, to express, to declare my story and thus unveil myself, and in so doing demonstrate something true, something real and newly unhidden about us that resounded beyond my own perspective. Demolishing my latest maximum-possible-gin and tonic, I grabbed the first YDN editor I could find. “I need to write about Masquerade.”
She asked me what the angle would be. “A memoir,” I said. I would tell the story of how for months I’d been living like the hero of Huysmans’ “À rebours,” who cloisters himself among his art and books and expensive alcohols, reading obsessively but creating nothing — nothing except the simulacrum in which he lives —, disgusted by himself and by his behavior at least as much as by the outside world that he claims to hate. Eventually driven by his ailing health to return to society, the protagonist compares himself to a nonbeliever turning to Christ in a moment of desperation. This would be my Christward turn, my chance for redemption, and I could feel it, churning with the ethanol and lorazepam inside of me, seeds of my private soul’s ecstatic exhortation! Here, among my peers, reunited — nearly all of us! — for the first time since freshman year, like wayward lambs returning to the flock, like Amish youth sheepishly returning from Rumspringa, here we were, and I would be the scribe to document it. I, most wayward of lambs, scorner of friends and forsaker of lovers, standing on the threshold as a penitent — who better than me to tell the story of our collective hero’s journey, how we all, despite our various failures and differences, all of us here made it, we had made it this far, and so we could do anything, for this was the promise that the moment ordained, this was what the loudspeaker and the cover band foretold, and through my own triumph over self-doubt, over anxiety, over the shameful hermetic impulse and, why not, Original Sin, I would describe myself and in so doing give myself up as a metonym. The mask revealed at last, I would write something that would warm hearts — that would dignify the event while accepting its sentimentality at face value.
The hangover was overwhelming. Nervously, I opened my phone to discover that in my drunken reverie I had sent 1,000 words of totally incoherent prose to the panlist of my social group. (I’m not telling you which one; it’s a secret.) Worse still: no responses. Like the young boy in Joyce’s story, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity. I wasn’t meant to be a scribe, a spokesman — that much, unlike anything else in my head, was agonizingly clear. With a bolt of shame I recalled a recent instance in which, after a reading by a well-known poet-novelist-critic, a professor of mine had asked if I, too, was a writer (“creative” implicit), and though I had wanted to say yes, doing so felt more than disingenuous. “No,” I had said. “Not really, no.” I considered emailing my editor to cancel the assignment I had begged for just hours before. I drafted an apologetic e-mail. But then I decided to sit on it. Perhaps soon I would feel a recurrent burst of the confidence that had visited me in the ballroom. Or, more likely, I’d find a way to express myself by negation, to shroud my revelation beneath a veil of self-consciousness, hiding what would have been a spontaneous overflow of emotion under a mask of cynicism and reflexive irony. I would lacerate, or at least smirkingly describe, all that I might have elided in the earnest alternative, the exhortation that I would have made, that I’d never make—the ghost of which exhortation you find here hovering, haunting the page before you, masked by each inscription that you’ve read.