The backs of my hands remind me more and more of my mother’s as I age. My skin appears thinner, the veins more pronounced. Freckles and age spots are starting to show up. I sometimes catch a glimpse of her in my reflection too, or hear her laughter in my own. She died of leukemia at the age of thirty-three, two weeks before my fourteenth birthday. Once, I saw her hemorrhage as she stood up from the bed. The blood poured from between her legs.
As I became an adult, I believed I would never have a child of my own, but earlier this year, at the age of thirty-four, I gave birth. My son was born prematurely, at twenty weeks. Beforehand a nurse explained that, because he was so underdeveloped, his skin would be translucent. She also said that he would not survive. I was numb and afraid to look at him — scared the sight would haunt me, but even more frightened that I would love him too fiercely. It had taken me the better part of twenty years to grieve the loss of my mother. I couldn’t bear another twenty grieving for my son.
As the nurse had predicted, my husband and I could see Arlo’s veins through his pink skin. His mouth and ears were clearly my husband’s, but his tiny, round nose was more like my own — and my mother’s. He was beautiful. We sang to him, named the birds outside our window for him, cooed to him, and cried over him. He died two hours later.
Sometimes I try to conjure up his image, but usually I fail. Instead I feel him when I hug my husband, or I find him in the faces of other children. The love Arlo has brought into our lives is as big as my grief. This softens the blow. It has softened me. My skin has become a little more tender, a little less tough.
When I was in junior high school, I met a girl whose father was Nicaraguan and whose mother was Filipina. She had olive skin, black hair, and dark, almond-shaped eyes. We became inseparable and spent the summer between the seventh and eighth grades at each other’s houses and walking around town together. Men in cars would honk at her, which made me embarrassed but also proud to be the boy by her side.
By the end of summer we had become more than friends. Noting the turn our relationship had taken, my Southern grandfather pulled me aside and asked me to consider the birds: the blackbirds and the bluebirds all perched in the same tree, he said, but you never saw them making nests together.
I got the point. I held my tongue, out of love and respect for my grandfather, but inside I seethed: His daughter, my mother, had taught me that such differences didn’t matter. I had experienced prejudice myself from those who didn’t approve of the length of my hair or the cut of my clothes. And, most of all, I had fallen in love with this girl.
She and I eventually broke up. We were just too young, and I had moved to another town. The distance between us seemed insurmountable, the years before we would get our driver’s licenses impossibly long.
I ended up marrying a woman of European descent. I suppose my grandfather was pleased, but I married her because I love her, not because of the color of her skin. When our daughter began middle school, she brought home her first boyfriend to meet the family. He was African American. I was proud that we’d raised a daughter for whom skin color presented no barrier to love.
I remember the first time I took a knife to my skin. It wasn’t planned or thought out, but I did it without fear or hesitation. I somehow knew it would calm me to watch the flesh part and reveal the red line.
Of all my addictions, cutting had the strongest hold on me. I did it for more than two decades, and the urge lives on in me years after I stopped. There was something deeply satisfying about making my internal pain external, where it couldn’t be dismissed — by me or anyone else.
Before I started cutting, I was bulimic. No one — not close friends, therapists, lovers, nor siblings — knew about my eating disorder. When I finally came out and started my recovery, my dad didn’t believe me. He thought I was just making it up to get attention. A part of me actually wondered if he was right, if the whole ordeal hadn’t been just my imagination. I’m sad to say this flicker of disbelief still sometimes comes over me, and I wonder if the reality lines up with my memory.
At least with the cutting I have the scars all over my arms, legs, and torso to prove it: the places where I had stitches; the lines from wounds that should have been stitched but weren’t; the discoloration from various burns. They all reflect back to me the reality of the abuse — and I don’t mean the abuse I inflicted on myself, though they do show that it was real. I mean the childhood abuse that caused me to start cutting. My skin holds the memories even when my mind can’t.
My husband’s hands on my body are familiar, predictable. He knows how to excite me. He touches me here, then there; first lightly, then with a little pressure. He moves from point A to point B to point C to produce the desired result. And it is lovely.
My lover brushes the small of my back as he passes by, careful not to let anyone see. His touch is like fire on my skin, igniting every pore. My whole being feels more alive. Ours is a longing that cannot be satisfied, a thirst that cannot be quenched. Doomed yet beautiful.
A few years back I served time in the state penitentiary in Winslow, Arizona. My cellmate was a middle-aged man who was covered in tattoos. The first time we went to the shower, I noticed a swastika on his chest. When I asked about it, he told me he was a skinhead. He was civil enough to me but had a habit of heckling the correctional officers, especially if the name above the CO’s badge sounded Jewish. There was one CO in particular that my cellmate loved to hate: Goldberg. He would swear at Goldberg for the most trivial reasons.
About six months after we became cellies, my tattooed cellmate overdosed on heroin. I found him unconscious and not breathing, his lips blue. In a panic I started kicking the cell door and yelling, “Man down!” The first CO who showed up was Goldberg. He popped the door and began performing CPR. More COs came and watched. After a few minutes one of them said, “Hey, Goldberg, give it up, man. Let that nazi die.”
Goldberg did not give up. He performed CPR on the man for forty-five minutes, until the medical staff arrived. When a nurse finally took over, Goldberg stood up, exhausted and dripping sweat, his glasses at an odd angle. “I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I don’t think it would’ve been right.”
I heard that my former cellmate lived, although I haven’t run into him again in the system. I wonder whether his being saved by a Jewish CO changed his mind about anything. It sure changed mine.
Yari D. Jacobson
Having just finished our master’s degrees, my wife, Eunie, and I took a six-week road trip to the Northwest. It was our last chance for extended travel before she started a full-time job and I began my PhD program. Along the way we hiked South Dakota’s Badlands, tracked moose in Wyoming’s Bighorns, and spotted a grizzly in the Beartooth Mountains.
At Lolo Hot Springs, Montana, we bathed in the warm, bubbling mineral waters, soaking up sunlight and silence, enjoying a rare moment of bliss. As the afternoon wound down, I clambered up the surrounding rocks. When I slipped and started to slide, I caught myself but gouged my left palm. It looked as if someone had tried to strip away the skin with a cheese grater. Blood trickled down my arm.
I washed the wound and wrapped it in paper towels. As we ate our ramen noodles that night, we shared happy memories of the day, despite my stinging and throbbing palm. The lesson relearned: that pain and beauty, joy and suffering, are inseparably bound.
Two decades later only the faintest scar from that injury remains, but I am now bothered by numb patches where surgeons removed veins to use for my double bypass. I am awakened several times a night by tingling, icy sensations on my left ankle and toes — fallout from a pinched nerve. Eunie checks the incision from my recent back surgery each night. I hope to backpack again next summer.
Our skin is the medium of so much pleasure, but it also bears the record of the price we pay for that pleasure, what we gain and lose as we age, and all the accidents that befall us throughout our lives.
In the morning my mother would let her arm drop to the side of the bed and say to me, “Baby girl, go make Mama some coffee — this color.” She’d point to the beautiful brown of her outstretched wrist. With that image in my head, I’d pour exactly the right amount of cream and then test it. It always tasted perfect, and to this day I drink my coffee the color of my mother.
When I was growing up, all sunburned and blond — gifts from my father’s side of the gene pool, along with his green eyes — I would rarely be identified as African American. The frizz of my hair and my broad nose were clues for those who were keen to notice, but mostly I became an imposter. I would have given anything to make myself look on the outside as I felt on the inside.
My ivory-rose skin made me privy to remarks about “niggers” and “lazy, thieving blacks.” Even some members of my father’s family would occasionally forget I was around and make an insensitive comment. Someone else in the family might meet my eyes with an apologetic look. My mother’s family didn’t particularly try to hide their disdain for whites either. A younger cousin once told me to shut up because I was “just the white one in the family.”
Now I have two sons — one almost the color of my coffee with tight black curls, and one with fair skin and soft blond curls. As much as I desperately want to believe that skin color won’t shape and limit my sons’ destinies, I’m all too aware of its power. Everywhere we go, people fawn over my blond son and offer him compliments. Meanwhile my brown son recently confided to me that, as he’d walked down a busy street in San Diego, a carload of teenage boys had ridden by and yelled, “Nigger!”
Ironic, isn’t it, that the reason we have skin is to protect us?
The patient had made her decision with the doctors and her husband and her daughters: she was ready to stop fighting. Our job shifted from aggressively treating her illness to making sure she was comfortable as her life came to a close.
When I arrived to work, it was clear that she would die at some point during my overnight shift. I’d graduated from nursing school a year earlier and had not yet experienced the death of a patient. I knew it would be difficult for me emotionally, but I resolved to make it easy for her and to preserve her dignity.
I entered her room at the beginning of my shift and placed a hand on her bare arm. She was unresponsive. But the human body is never still: the nervous system tells the heart to beat, the lungs to breathe. Through my palm I could feel this activity under her skin, the minute processes of life.
Throughout the night I administered pain medication and adjusted her limbs to prevent bedsores. As her breathing became more shallow, I called her husband to let him know that she had begun to decline. He arrived breathless from his dash through the halls, and he sat down at her bedside and took her hand. As I drew the curtain to give them privacy, I heard him say, “It’s OK, honey. I’m here now.”
Ten minutes after he arrived, he emerged from the room. She was gone.
After the doctor had officially pronounced the patient dead and the paperwork had been completed, I went to remove her oxygen mask and tubes. She didn’t look any different from when I’d started my shift, but when I placed my hand on her arm, it was slightly cooler, and I could tell that all those wondrous processes had stopped. Beneath her skin everything was still.
I have a birthmark the size of a large thumbprint on my left inner thigh. It’s a deep espresso color and stands out against my pale skin, a constant reminder of life’s imperfections.
I have always hated this mark. When my middle-school girlfriends donned string bikinis in summer, I put on coverups and refused to disrobe to go into the water. When short shorts were popular in high school, I continued to wear jeans, claiming that I preferred the comfort of long pants. Once, in a moment of confidence, I dared to wear shorts that just barely covered the birthmark. I was seated on a bench outside when my shorts began to ride up. A boy looked down at my thigh and shouted, “It looks like you have a cockroach on your leg!”
One afternoon in college I went home to visit my mother and sat looking at old pictures. I paused over one in particular: I’m standing alone on the beach, just two years old. My toes grip the sand, and I’m proudly holding up a pail in one hand and a plastic shovel in the other. On the inside of my chubby left leg is a small dark-brown dot.
As I stared at the picture, I wondered: How could I hate myself for this insignificant mark, this cluster of cells created in the womb? My two-year-old face smiled back at me, confident, happy, and beautiful.
I’m still self-conscious about my birthmark, but I don’t detest it. I recognize it as a physical reminder of my entrance into this world, with only as much power as I choose to give it.
The first time my mom had her eyes “done,” they didn’t come out even. She had to go back to the plastic surgeon a second time. Now, almost eight years later, she still has one eyelid that doesn’t move the way it should when her face expresses surprise.
Six weeks ago she told me she was having some “resurfacing.” I pictured a road crew smoothing out bumps and filling in potholes. On the phone after the surgery, she accidentally mentioned staples. It turned out she’d also had a face-lift and wasn’t planning to tell me.
She looks different now. The skin next to her mouth, previously loosened by sixty-four years of laughter, is pulled tight. It’s hard to pretend this looks better, so I just don’t say anything.
I’ve been thinking about the last time I saw my mother before her latest surgery. I wish I’d taken a longer look at her face, but I didn’t know then that I’d never see it again. I’d watched that face age so beautifully, shaped by decades of emotions. But to her it was just skin.
My niece flipped her car in an accident on the interstate. It rolled for almost three hundred feet. She was drunk and high on meth at the time.
When I got to the ICU, she was intubated, and her head was shaved. “How do you know this is her?” I asked the nurse. Unable to see my niece’s blond hair, her fluorescent-blue eyes, or the mole on the left side of her neck, I couldn’t be sure this was the golden child who had graduated from high school early, who’d saved her allowance to buy Christmas presents, who’d been born smiling. But it was.
In the hours that followed, her mother and father flew in from different states. The nurses ran tests and cleaned gravel from beneath my niece’s skin and fingernails. With each test it seemed more of her was broken: an ankle, a scapula. A twelve-inch section of her scalp had been torn off like a pocket ripped from a pair of pants. If she lived, it would take a long time to heal.
We brought pictures of her from before the accident and taped them to the walls of her room, so the people taking care of her could see what she really looked like — and to help us remember.
On the third day, I entered my niece’s room and held her hand. “It’s your aunt,” I said. “I’m here.” A single tear rolled down the unblemished skin of her cheek, one of the few places not bruised or abraded. It was just the antibiotic drops they’d put in her eyes, the nurse told me, but I wasn’t so sure.
Another nurse told me my niece was lucky, that the difference between the amount of force it took to tear her scalp from her skull and the force that would’ve killed her was very small.
It’s been four years since the accident, and my niece has her own place and a full-time job. She even runs marathons. The scar covers a third of her head and interrupts her left eyebrow. In some places no hair will grow, and the white lines of the stitches remain. She is self-conscious and covers her head with colorful bandannas in the summer and hats in the winter. Her insurance will not cover cosmetic surgery, so she lives with the scars: a reminder of the thin line between life and death.
Sometimes I think my life has been just a series of failed attempts at love. At the heart of all my sexual misadventures was a need for touch, body to body, nearly as essential to me as mouth-to-mouth is to a drowning victim. My favorite thing was to be held in the crook of a lover’s arm, sprawled on his or her chest, as close as humanly possible.
It was only after menopause that this primal drive began to fade, lessening its grip on me until it just gave up. My life is much quieter now: no leaping without a thought into the nearest available pair of arms, just the occasional knife twist of realization that no one will ever kiss me deeply again or spoon my backside in the morning.
The only one who strokes my bare skin anymore is my massage therapist. So I try to be present for every moment of a massage. And whenever I have the opportunity to hug someone, I take it, imagining that person might be as parched for touch as I once was, and still am deep inside.
San Jose, California
In 1971 I competed in a teenage rodeo-queen contest. In addition to being scored on horsemanship and appearance, the contestants each had to answer an impromptu question on current events. When my turn came, I stood smiling before the panel of judges in my purple bell-bottom pantsuit, my white Tony Lama boots, and my purple felt hat with the sparkling rhinestone band. The judges, five aging men, drew my question at random: “What do you think of school busing as a method of forced desegregation?”
Being from a small town in southern Idaho, I had never met a black person in my life, but ending segregation seemed like a good idea to me. So I said that the color of our skin doesn’t make any difference, and it was time to end the bitterness and learn to get along with each other. Black and white children needed to grow up as friends, not perpetuate the prejudices of their ancestors.
I was expecting approving nods and maybe some applause, but what I got was sealed lips and frowning faces. After an uncomfortable silence one judge thanked me, which meant I could leave.
I didn’t win.
I have always been overweight. When I was a child, it rarely troubled me. In high school and college I thought of myself as sexy, curvaceous, voluptuous. For fifteen years I dated a man who agreed and adored my ample form. The sex was great, but the relationship ended nonetheless.
After we broke up, I reunited with an old college friend. Though he told me honestly that he wasn’t attracted to women with my body type, we got married and had several years of enjoyable sex. A few years ago, however, he made it painfully clear that, though he still loves me, he doesn’t want a physical relationship.
I have always known that my body is socially unacceptable, but to hear it from my husband is a personal blow. Nothing short of radical surgery has any hope of changing the situation, he says, and even that would not be a guaranteed solution. I do not object to exercising more and being careful about my diet, but I believe I should be loved in the way that I love him — faults and all. I have never complained about his weight gain over the years, his flat feet, his recent spell of unemployment, or his snoring.
Being rejected by my husband has had a devastating effect on my confidence. I am alternately angry and depressed. I know I shouldn’t require his desire for me as validation, but I do.
Growing up, I never wanted anyone to touch my face. I told my friends it was because I’d been bitten there by a dog when I was little — which was true, but it wasn’t the real reason my head snapped back whenever fingers got too close.
The multiple layers of makeup I carefully applied each day hid the typical scars of teenage acne, but also the work of my mentally ill brother, who had attacked me with knives and other sharp objects before the authorities had removed him from our home and pressured me to testify against him. The dark lines and puncture marks could be hidden by concealer, but where skin had been removed, there were small divots. I lived in fear that if anyone touched my face, the makeup would be wiped off, and my secret would be revealed.
In college a student filmmaker caught a glimpse of me only half made-up and asked about the scars. When I told her the story, she wanted to document my experience. Terrified, I declined. Revealing my disfigured face to others would have meant reliving what had happened. Even as a young child I’d understood that my brother was ill and needed help, but telling the authorities hadn’t brought him help. The facilities he’d been sent to were violent, scary places. I’d watched him suffer, not improve. I couldn’t see how telling my story again would benefit him. I didn’t consider whether telling it might help me.
I turned forty this year and finally met with a physician to address the scars that bothered me the most. Not long afterward I walked outside in daylight without makeup for the first time in decades. The cool breeze and warm sun on my face felt amazing. I wept.
My brother is still mentally ill, and I still have a few scars, but I understand now that there is nothing wrong with me. There never was.
In middle school I would break out in hives. Every morning I’d wake to the feeling that my toes were on fire. By the time I’d gotten out of bed, welts had appeared on the tops of my feet. Within minutes they would spread up my legs, onto my belly, over my chest, across my shoulders, and down my arms, stopping abruptly at my wrists. My back, hands, neck, and face were the only unaffected areas. I’d wear a jacket to school to cover up, and I never wore shorts. At some point during my first class, I’d feel the hives melting away. In minutes they’d be gone. Eventually they stopped appearing altogether.
In my late twenties my abdomen started breaking out with spots that looked like abstract henna tattoos. Confined to my belly and the very edges of my breasts, they didn’t bother me and served as a conversation piece when I had a new boyfriend, but my doctor prescribed a medication that got rid of them in less than a week.
In my thirties I noticed dark-brown patches on my face. A dermatologist diagnosed them as melasma, a harmless discoloration due to a hormonal imbalance. They would get darker and more pronounced in the sun, even though I wore SPF-50 sunscreen. When my elderly neighbor, nearly blinded by cataracts, expressed concern that they might be skin cancer, I knew there was no hiding them. My embarrassment returned.
Eventually my self-consciousness abated. Maybe my personal and professional accomplishments made my physical “defects” seem less important. Or maybe I’d just gotten tired of caring. Whatever the reason, by the time I hit my forties, I was comfortable with how I looked.
The spots on my face are still there, but they’ve faded. The henna-like patches have returned, this time on my left breast. My doctor gave me a prescription, but since the condition isn’t harmful, I’ve never filled it.
I had dinner the other night with a friend of a friend. Not quite thirty years old, he was new to the field I’ve been working in and wanted advice. He had dark-black hair, sparkling green eyes, and a broad chest. As we chatted over coffee, I realized, with a bit of amazement, that he was flirting with me.
At my car, saying good night, he told me that I was one of the most attractive women he knew. I laughed and said I couldn’t compare to women his age.
No, he said. I could. He leaned forward, and, just before he kissed me, he whispered, “You’re just so comfortable in your own skin.”
I can’t wait to show him my henna spots.
Collingswood, New Jersey
After living in California for many years, I divorced and returned home to Oregon, settling at a distance from my family. One day my older sister called and asked if I was dating anyone. I told her I had been seeing a man from Sudan who was studying at the local college. “Is he black?” she wanted to know. When I told her he was, she replied, “Mom isn’t going to like that.” I said Mom didn’t need to find out.
Mom’s family was from the South, and racial prejudice was deeply ingrained in her. She was trying to become more open-minded, but she and my father drew the line at interracial marriage. Black and white people shouldn’t “mix their blood,” they’d once told me.
Mom called a couple of weeks later and asked if I was “still dating that black fellow.” Stifling my irritation at my sister’s gossiping, I asked Mom why she wanted to know. With a little heat in her voice she said, “Because I don’t want any black grandchildren, that’s why!” I cringed but tried to appease her by saying, “Don’t worry, Mom. It’s not like I’m going to marry him or anything.”
Not long after that conversation I learned I was pregnant by the man from Sudan. It took weeks for me to gather the courage to call Mom and tell her that her first grandchild’s skin would be brown. The line was silent for a long time. Finally she reminded me that I had “options.” We argued, she hung up, and I tried to prepare myself to be cast out of her heart forever.
As my pregnancy progressed, however, Mom began calling me regularly. Three weeks before my due date she showed up unannounced with a suitcase and told me she was staying until the baby was born. Her body language said that she was still put out with me, but I was relieved to have her support.
She had not yet met my baby’s father, and she wanted to. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea — my headstrong mother usually spoke her mind regardless of people’s feelings — but she insisted. So I invited him over for dinner, explaining that he could leave if things got too uncomfortable.
Mom seemed nervous that evening but also friendly and uncharacteristically passive. At one point I had to leave her and my baby’s father alone in the kitchen. When I returned, Mom seemed more relaxed, and the rest of the evening was surprisingly pleasant.
Later my baby’s father told me that, while I was out of the room, Mom had asked if she could shake his hand. He was surprised, because they had been chatting for a while by then, but he agreed. Instead of a quick shake, Mom held on, running her other hand up his arm. He found this unnerving, but he thought maybe it was some American custom he didn’t know about. At last she said, “Why, your skin feels the same as mine.” He chuckled, pulled his hand away, and continued the conversation.
When my son was born, Mom treated him like the most precious baby in the world. I moved back closer to the family, and she and my sister helped with child care. Mom took my son when I needed to travel, worried about him when he was ill, praised his accomplishments, and did whatever she could to make him proud of his African heritage.
Mom died recently. Before she became ill, I often felt envious of my son’s close relationship with her. The woman he knew and loved as Grandma was a different person from the mother who’d raised me.
The week after my daughter, Rachel, turned eighteen, she sent me a text message that, to my horror, contained a picture of her new tattoo. My husband and I weren’t necessarily against tattoos, and the burgundy maple leaf on our daughter’s upper back was pretty, but I felt as if the integrity of her young skin had been compromised.
That fall a business trip brought me to the city where Rachel was attending school, so I spent the night with her. As we were getting ready for bed, I caught a glimpse of something on the top of her foot. I asked about it, and she revealed her new addition: a floral pattern that reached toward her ankle. I tried to appreciate its beauty without revealing how my heart sank.
On a rainy morning the following February our police chief brought us the news that Rachel had been killed by a drunk driver. To confirm her identity, he asked if she had a burgundy maple leaf tattooed on her upper back. Through tears I told him yes.
That June my sister, Lindsay, e-mailed me a photo of her left wrist, where she had just gotten a maple-leaf tattoo in memory of Rachel. Below it was a tattoo of Rachel’s signature, including the heart she always drew beside her name.
The day after what would have been Rachel’s nineteenth birthday, I sat in a tattoo parlor in Laguna Beach, California, back to back with Rachel’s boyfriend, and both of us got maple-leaf tattoos. Mine would also have Rachel’s signature with the heart. The pain of the procedure felt cathartic.
I get asked about my tattoo all the time. Most people want to know if I’m Canadian. I say no. If they persist, I tell them Rachel’s story. The tattoo gives me a chance to talk about her life, and about death, and about not driving drunk. And I get to say her name.
Jill Marie Elliott
The first time I made out with another woman, I was surprised by my desire for her, and hers for me. I was even more amazed at how soft her skin felt against my face. Had I felt this way to the boys I’d kissed? Even if I had, their stubbled chins had spoiled it. Being with a woman was like stumbling into a secret world, one where I wanted to live forever.
Years later I was in a relationship I knew was over, but I couldn’t give up the feeling of her skin against mine in the morning. Then, on the day we were to move into a new apartment, she left me for another woman.
Half a decade later I met a smart, sexy man. Once again I was surprised by my desire. We are now married with three young children, and I am very much in love. But last night in the bathroom mirror I caught sight of the curve of my breast through the threadbare T-shirt I wear to bed, and for a moment I let myself remember her skin.
Candler, North Carolina
When I saw him in a bar without a drink in his hand, I was intrigued. I introduced myself, and we talked until closing. Then we continued the conversation in my car until four in the morning. He was younger than I was, with a great body, and I was hoping I would get to see more of it.
The first time I saw his scars, I couldn’t take them all in. He lay still as I traced them with my fingertips. Some were almost an inch wide and went from his back to his belly and from his groin to his hips.
If people asked about them, he said, he’d tell them he got caught in a boat propeller or attacked by a shark. They would believe it. Then he’d tell the truth: that he’d had a kidney transplant when he was eighteen.
A year after we were married, he noticed the skin around his ankles was puffy. Within twenty-four hours his transplanted kidney was failing. For the next six months I learned the story that lay behind his scars as he went through it all over again: the prolonged sickness, the prayers, the begging, the fears. The scars became to me a symbol of what he had survived.
On February 21, 2008, another man saved my husband’s life by donating a kidney. This savior now has scars on his side. I wonder if his wife traces them with her fingertips.
On a clear, dew-damp August night in 1980 my friend Tracy and I cocooned ourselves in blankets on lawn chairs in her backyard to await the Perseid meteor shower. The peak was expected between one and two in the morning — a time that, at the age of twelve, I had never stayed awake to see.
Tracy and I had a tumultuous relationship with plenty of cattiness and jealousy. We would grow apart in seventh grade and lose touch completely after my family moved away. That night, though, struggling to stay awake for the meteor shower, we bared our souls to each other. That’s when Tracy told me that she sometimes gave herself poison ivy to get her mother’s attention.
In the morning Tracy pointed out the poison ivy growing in the midst of tiger lilies and milkweed in their front yard. Then she asked if I wanted to try it.
I rubbed the leaves hard against the back of my left hand.
The rash began before I’d made it all the way home that afternoon. It spread to my face — probably from the oils on my fingers — and my eyes swelled nearly shut. My mother took me to a doctor, who prescribed medication and a special face rinse and told me that my allergy to poison ivy was so severe I could conceivably react to its pollen in the air.
I’d certainly succeeded in getting my mother’s attention, but I was too miserable to enjoy it. The oozing, itchy blisters were nothing compared to the shame of knowing I had brought this on myself.
Wellsville, New York
Three small heads are bent over their plastic dinosaurs and Lego constructions. One has fine blond hair like sunlight, the second a tangle of light-brown curls, the third — my son’s — a thick ebony mane. They often walk arm in arm or hand in hand, these three cousins. Extracting my son from the group when it’s time to go home requires rolled-up sleeves and great patience. We spend a half-hour looking for the missing sock, the sneaker, the toy dinosaur who cannot be left behind, who is hiding somewhere from T. Rex. In the car my son tells me how he wishes we could all live together in one house: cousins, aunt and uncle, grandma and grandpa too.
On a different day I arrive to pick him up from a surely sleepless sleepover with his two cousins and a schoolmate of theirs. I expect to find a tired and stubborn boy who will refuse to clean up and gather his things, but my son sits alone, cross-legged on the floor with his socks and sneakers on and his overnight bag at his side, bulging with dinosaurs. He jumps up without a word and walks out the door, his head bowed.
In the car I ask him what’s wrong, and he shakes his head. He can’t tell me; he won’t tell me. Suddenly he is crying so hard his body is shaking. I pull into a parking lot, turn to the back seat, and put my hand on his knee.
“You can tell me anything, sweet boy,” I say. “Anything.”
He pushes the words out in a kind of howl. “Kenny said my skin was the color of crap, and my cousins laughed!”
I gather him up and tell him he is beautiful. I tell him his skin is kissed by the sun. I tell him his people were warriors. But I know a door has opened that won’t ever close.
I want to tell my son that Kenny is pasty and his nose is too big, that his cousins are mean-spirited. I want to point out their every flaw. I want to tell him the world is filled with hateful people who say stupid things. I want to tell him I know just how he feels. But I will never know just how he feels. My skin is white.
What has consumed my life? What nibbled away the seconds, the hours, the days? What voracious appetite chewed up the years, leaving behind this shell of a person? My skin is crinkled and thinning. Brown age spots have appeared on my hands and face, and blue maps of veins crisscross my arms and legs. Broken red capillaries splash across flesh whose firmness has melted away. Hair that has lost its luster lies flat upon my skull, awaiting the curlers that will plump it back to a semblance of its former glory.
I stand naked before the full-length mirror and inspect the folds and sags of my aging body. I behold the expanded curves, the scars of past surgeries, the marks of childbearing, the knobby joints. A thief has somehow wrested from me the figure that once turned heads.
Still, I say thank you to my body for holding up so well to all the strain I’ve put it through. I thank it for what it has housed and brought forth. I thank it for these reminders of a life well lived.
Charleston, South Carolina