The crowds in the flea market had picked up considerably since early morning, and Bethany found that she was busy enough for two people as the day wore on. Tangles of people wove in and out of the walkway, chatting, asking questions, tentatively trying on masks. In a few weeks, if her experience was reliable, the trying-on stage would almost always be followed by a sale. But Mardi Gras was five weeks away, and the crowds who were just browsing today knew they still had time to make up their minds.
The dark clouds continued to hover overhead, threatening but still withholding rain. A young couple approached her stall, admiring the colorful display. As Bethany watched them choose matching masks made from a simple form covered with sequins and silk flowers, she felt a small tremor pass through her body. She remembered a time in her own life when she, like the young girl in front of her, had used every opportunity she could find to touch the man she adored. Watching the young lovers, she stood rigid with longing, wishing incoherently that her own fingers were tracing the lines of the delicate mask, dipping to linger on the cheeks and the earlobes below the mask’s boundaries.
Their absorption in each other was not uncommon. New Orleans was nothing if not a city for lovers. The sultry days and nights seemed to hold passion suspended like tiny droplets of water in the heavy air. It was a difficult city to be alone in, to be unloved in. In her four years of living there, Bethany usually kept herself too busy to be bothered by her own enforced isolation. Today even hard work could not make her forget, and watching the young couple, loneliness weighed on her with the smothering pressure of the very air she breathed.
A clap of thunder brought her back to reality, and she silently wrapped the masks in tissue paper, made change and presented the man and woman with their new acquisitions. “Happy Mardi Gras,” she whispered, her voice trailing off as they walked away, oblivious to anything except each other.