Matters of the Flesh
My co-worker Jenny told me that a lot of hoopla had taken place during my day off.
“There was a lot of spraying,” she said, acknowledging the trace of disinfectant in the air. “Lots of running around.”
“Oh, God,” I sighed, shaking my head, “I doubt anyone was gonna catch anything from my chair.”
“Well, you know, everyone just wanted to be... careful...”
I could tell that the girls were more freaked out about it than the guys. Solomon had greeted me by patting my back, smiling ridiculously, and Philo had given me a hug, calling me a “critter.” The women, however, gave me a few feet of distance while laboring, obviously, to remain casual.
“It’s gone already,” I said to Jenny, showing her one of my forearms. Defiantly, I had shown up to work in short sleeves. “My skin’s still really sensitive, though. The medication burns your skin and everything in it.”
Only a day after applying the topical cream, the bumps were gone, but my arm remained bright red, as did my other arm. As did my back and shoulders, as though I'd napped carelessly on the beach. The reddened skin was even hot to the touch, like freshly-burned dermis.
The uncomfortable truth is that I had not been anywhere near a beach during my “sick” day; I had been to the doctor, to the pharmacy and then to the laundromat, where I laundered absolutely everything I had worn, slept in and touched for the past week.
I'm not sure if I had to tell my boss exactly why I wasn't coming in to work, but that’s one of the pitfalls of considering Margaret a friend. I have a tendency to tell her everything. She was the first person I contacted as soon as I left the doctor’s office.
“What? Scabies?” she repeated, in a tone just loud enough to qualify as public addres. Her doorway, only rarely closed, surveys the rest of our small office suite.
“That’s what my doctor is treating me for, anyway."
"It's highly contagious," she advised. "Take your time. You'll have to wash everything."
“Where did you and this guy play?” she asked. “Your place or his?”
Pedro was the second person I called. His reaction was more sympathetic than alarmed.
“Oh, baby,” he frowned audibly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. It goes away quickly once you medicate it... I had it once in my twenties.”
Yes, I’d had scabies before, after the one time I’d ever tried crystal meth, back when I was crazy, I mean really crazy, drinking and drugging and doing things like trying crystal meth. Some guy, we met at a bar, he had a hot tub in his bedroom, there was alcohol, baby oil, leather, drugs. Sniff zoom zap! A week later my arms and torso were covered in a pimply rash.
I was disgusted with myself, disgusted with the things I’d put myself through, disgusted with the way I was living my life.
Here I was now, some fifteen years later, reliving that discomfort, the one time I play outside of the relationship in over a month.
“You haven’t noticed anything?” I asked Pedro.
“No, Baby, I’m fine. But thanks for letting me know. I appreciate it.”
“So, I guess I’m not going to see you before you go on your trip,” I sighed. “I’d better let this go away first. I’ll see you when you get back.”
“Of course you will,” he said cheerfully.
Leaving soon for ten days in England, untroubled by the prospect of harboring a few tiny stowaways of his own.
If he's the one who wants to keep the relationship loose, why am I always suffering for it?
Scott was the third person I called.
“You haven’t noticed anything?” I heard myself asking someone for the second time that morning.
“No, honestly. Is it...um... how long does it take until you notice it?”
“Well, the last time I had it,” I revealed, verifying once and for all that I am, indeed, a disgusting pig, “I think it took about a week to show up.”
“Wow, okay. I really appreciate your telling me,” said Scott, earnestly, “Most hookups probably wouldn’t take the time to call, but your honesty is really refreshing.”
I felt very good about myself. I’d turned the potentially unhealthful results of a one-time sexual hookup with a stranger culled from an adult website into an opportunity for humanity, responsibility and dignity.
Got all that? There's your backstory, right there.
My skin continued to burn and throb for a few more days. Having been through scabies treatment once before, I knew that something was wrong. The cream may cause some residual discomfort, but not like this.
I noticed my pain's ebb and flow in concert with my blood pressure. A thousand needles stabbed my back, my arms, my sides whenever I got excited in any way; I even felt my arms sting and itch each time I jumped to the fore during a parlor game of “Celebrities” with friends.
“Andrea Marcovicci!” I would shout, or “Soupy Sales!”, responding to my teammates’ vague, stammering clues, and with each enthusiastic attempt I’d find myself scratching new welts up and down my forearms. I did my best to keep them hidden from the rest of the party guests.
I returned to the doctor’s office a few days later. Stumped, he recommended I see a dermatologist.
Can I just tell you how freaking difficult it is to make an appointment with a dermatologist in Los Angeles?
I called my regular dermatologist, whose next availability would take me at least three weeks into the future.
I called another one referred to me by a co-worker. Her next opening would be over a month away.
I called another one chosen from my health plan's local directory. I left a message, which was never returned.
I have a feeling that skin specialists are easier to book in cities other than Los Angeles. I imagine they're more accessible in places where the outsides don't matter as much.
Thank God for Dr. Guardino, a dermatologist not in Hollywood but nearby Glendale, whose office took me right away.
A sweet man, very friendly; he told me it was hives. Not scabies. Hives all along.
Like the outside of a battleship, my skin tells many stories.
The wrinkles of sun worship are obvious when I smile, and being a people-pleaser, I tend to smile all the time.
The occasional gravel-sized pit and the more plentiful enlarged pores tell the story of my spotted youth; the pimples that still pop up anywhere from my face to my back illustrate the whimsy of aging.
I’m not supposed to touch my face because it aggravates my acne. Do you know how hard it is for me not to touch my face? There are gestures, tics, affectations that I rely on for expressiveness, many of which involve touching my face.
My coloring is splotchy, uneven; the countless moles show the world that I am my father’s son; he had the same complexion, with dark constellations that thicken and multiply as I get older.
Speaking to the mounting years; yes, I’ve had my brushes with cosmetic... “improvement”...
When I asked a dermatologist about the thickening bumps of tissue on my face a couple of years ago, he told me they were masses of dead skin collecting in receptive pores from rubbing and touching (yes, that happens!) and gave me a cream that slowly and safely burned off the top layer of my skin. Before I knew it, I was putting myself through a mild chemical peel.
After a couple of weeks, friends were telling me how great I looked. Despite my proud “non-ageist” soapbox perspective, I admittedly loved that.
I’ve tried it again since, going back to the erosive cream a couple of times, but the layers unearthed don’t look quite as fresh, pink and dewy anymore.
Truly; you’re only young once, twice tops, but that’s it.
Aside from aesthetic concerns, there are itchy ones.
I have been plagued by hives ever since I can remember.
I have faint memories of my parents wrapping ice cubes in washrags and trying to cool the big, red, throbbing hot spots that tormented my arms and legs. I can’t have been more than four years old.
In college I found myself going to the health clinic more than once for stinging, bulging patches of flesh provoked by no apparent cause. Creams were prescribed, antihistamines, more cold compresses. The doctors said it was most likely due to stress.
From the weirdness files, I also suffer from a condition called dermatographia, which affects roughly five percent of the population. It is as it sounds: left untreated, dermatographia allows you to literally draw on my skin with adequate pressure and friction. I’m a human etch-a-sketch. Faintly scratch a line on my back and a few moments later a large red welt will appear where normal skin would show no clues. Softly trace your name with the tine of a fork on my arm and the histamines in my system will distinctly emboss each letter in painful, burning strokes like hives trained to do tricks.
I have taken medication every day since I was diagnosed with this condition nearly twenty years ago, antihistamines that help to curb the painful reactions brought on by contact with elastic waistbands, textured fabrics, cardboard boxes, human touch.
Whenever I see shows like Lost or Gilligan’s Island, I imagine that being marooned somewhere without my antihistamines would lead to madness, then suicide. I’d throw myself in a volcano just to stop the pain. That antihistamine is the first pill I take, every day.
It helps with the occasional bouts of eczema, too.
My neck is breaking out; I have to apply steroidal ointment to my skin after each raze or I get large, flaming pimples. The ointment is supposed to help, but it looks like I’ll have to face tomorrow (and the world will have to face me) with a bumpy red neck. It itches, and I feel like I want to scratch it with sandpaper, but I can’t touch it. If I do, it will get worse.
I’m pretty sure it’s not ringworm again, or that weird yeast skin thing I got last year; diabetics are prone to a number of skin infections, with our compromised immune systems.
At least the hives are gone.
If the time ever comes when I feel comfortable in my own skin, does that mean I’ll stop feeling it?
Scott’s email was polite, gentlemanly.
I really appreciate your honesty and am glad it wasn't as severe as we believed. Hope you're having a great day!
I hate the fact that I stirred drama in the life of someone I hardly even know. I hate being that person. Not that that’s never happened before; I just hate being that person. I could have kept my mouth shut, but what if I truly had been contagious?
I don’t generally believe in luck, only mine, and it’s never wise for me to press it.
Pedro returned from London. Now he’s off on a weekend cruise.
We live highly disparate lives, intersecting at points of rest.
He has his friends, his entertainments, I have mine. His luxuries are grander, in a sense, than mine, but I love my life and its humble pleasures.
It seems to work out okay.
Hey, check this out: what is this thing, a flea bite?
Though Margaret was relieved to hear of my diagnosis, she was still worried about my stress levels. I indulged her counseling, yet again.
“What’s bothering you?” she asked as I reclined on the couch in her office.
“Everything,” I answered.
We talked about life, love, work, the future.
Taking careful inventory, I shared with her several fears I'd either nursed or ignored, some for years.
“I’m happy it wasn’t scabies - ” she shrugged.
“So am I,” I interrupted.
“ - but,” she continued, “you have got to make peace with yourself and what you want out of life, darling. There is nothing stopping you from getting everything you deserve. Except you.”
I gently touched the tip of my finger to one of the swelling bumps on my neck.
“And this zit,” I pointed out.
“Maybe this zit is stopping me from getting everything I deserve. It’s a chicken-egg situation.”
“Your head is a chicken-egg situation,” she nodded. “You internalize a lot, Boy. You drive yourself crazy and you make yourself sick.”
She had a point.
Then again, I thought of poor Scott, a virtual stranger but to my body, getting my disappointing phone call after just one pleasurable evening, "no strings attached."
I thought of my beautiful Pedro, at that moment wandering the streets of London, probably grateful to be thousands of miles away from his neurotic boyfriend, the victim of yet another affliction, attack, allergy, anxiety.
I thought of my co-workers only a few days earlier, spraying, disinfecting, scrambling to murder every theoretical mite dropped from my host body, the tiny crustaceans leaping from the dirty shadows I cast even in my absence.
I got up, thanked her for her time and blew her a friendly kiss as I began to exit.
"I'm pretty sure I drive others crazy, too," I said.
I opened the door and left her office, smiling at the world as I am wont to do.