Someone Else’s Skin
Although I don’t normally do this, I’m going to tell you a story about a girl I don’t know very well. It’s a story I heard from a friend of a friend. I don’t know this person by name. But I heard she has a half-grown daughter and a boyfriend and a bad habit, she likes to pick her scabs. Disgusting. Her arms and legs are covered with tiny red wounds that look like cigarette burns, and even though he knows it isn’t true, her boyfriend tells her she looks like a drug addict. Oddly enough, she sounds like someone who could have been related to the Lazarus family: we’ve had a tendency toward hives when we’re stressed out and other types of itchy skin rashes dating all the way back to a guy in the Bible whom one of my uncles claims we’re related to (though I’m pretty sure we’re not Jewish) who used to sit outside rich men’s houses and let the dogs lick his sores.
My friend tells me this woman has had this habit since she was about 5 or 6 years old when she got bit by a neighbor’s dog behind her left knee. One night she reached back and felt the scab, all hard and bubbly like pizza crust, and the texture was just irresistible. She just couldn’t quit running her fingernails over it and tapping it until finally she pulled it off. Mosquitos would bite her in the summers when she hit puberty and she was just a bloody mess. To this day she claims she gets a strange relief from lifting up the corners of a scab, a mentholated feeling almost like when you suck a cough drop. Her skin can suddenly breathe, she says. Some girls cut themselves and some girls pull out their eyelashes. My friend says it’s one of the signs that there was incest or child molestation when the girl was very young, or some other relationship problem between a girl and her father. And my friend says this girl claims she “wasn’t Daddy’s favorite.”
My friend says this girl had a really stressful week; well, really it’s been the entire month. She’s getting ready to see the doctor about this strange itching that started on her chest 21 days ago and sort of spread all over her body. Obviously there are other things I want to tell you about this girl that are less superficial than her sores and her bad habits. She likes to do nice things for her daughter like take her to the beach and have fun outings. Her boyfriend has to go with her everywhere because they share an SUV and he won’t let her go anywhere by herself, even when they’re fighting and she needs some time away. Just after July 4, she planned a day at the beach and he fought with her about every last thing. She wanted to pack both chairs and both tents, and he complained loudly about not wanting to carry so much stuff. He complained about the coolers. He even complained about the way she wanted to put ice in the coolers on top of the food and sodas. It seemed as though she couldn’t do anything right or good enough for him. The screaming and cursing between the two of them was nonstop, even over two dill pickles she wanted to pack with the rest of the food. Everything was like pulling teeth, just very very difficult and ugly. He even complained about how long it was taking them to leave the house. But she managed to get all the towels in the car and she managed to get herself and her daughter into swimsuits, and she even brought the boogie board she had bought for her daughter years before that they hadn’t been able to use at the real beach. And once they got to the lakeshore, everyone had lots of fun in the water and they stayed out all day long, even though the constant fighting and swearing at the beginning of the day was so stressful for her she forgot to bring the plastic sand toys her daughter could use, and more importantly, she forgot to put sunscreen on. And though she wasn’t sure, she suspected that was part of how she ended up with the rash nearly a month later, and a cyst on her chest.
She got some difficult news last week from another state, one of many things she can’t do very much about. And her income fluctuates pretty wildly; you could say she works freelance and can’t count on regular income month after month. And she is just getting over a pretty serious illness. Her medication caused her to gain about 40 lbs. Last Thursday, due to some recent instability in her life, she got nauseous and tried for the entire day to sleep off a splitting headache. Her boyfriend mocks her when she can’t sleep at night. “Go scratch yourself like a dog,” he says, and she doesn’t really listen to him because his insults aren’t very intelligent. But it did get under her skin a little bit this morning when he told her, “don’t scratch your ass on my side of the bed!” And after events from this past week, and after speaking to her mother this morning who’s about to be homeless due to poor choices and not listening to other people, she really didn’t feel like doing anything or planning anything, even though she wanted to have one last very special day at the beach with her daughter before school started. “What would you like to do today?” she asked her daughter, and her daughter told her, “I want to go roller-skating.” And even though it’s the end of the month and there really isn’t any money to speak of for extras, she tried to think of how to take her daughter roller skating when she knew her boyfriend didn’t want to go.
It was a beautiful day. She had known the day before that it would be a wonderful day to go to the beach. But her boyfriend was making fun of her because of her sores and tiny abrasions in her skin on her thighs and stomach from the rash she’s had all month, so she said, “let’s just take the little girl out so she can get some exercise. Let’s take her out on her bicycle or on her scooter,” and so they left around 1 pm with very little preparation, except that this woman decided at the last minute to shave her legs and rub concealer wax on her sores, covering her legs afterward with makeup so she could wear shorts, and went out the door wearing sandals. They had not brought either of the coolers for the sodas. They had not brought lunch, just grapes for a snack. Her boyfriend got angry with her when he found out she was going to the lakeshore, not to the pier, but she told him to “shut the hell up.” There was a paved bike trail for the little girl to ride her bicycle on or her scooter, he had brought both so whichever the little girl chose. And when they got down to the lakeshore, the woman in shorts with her painted legs and her concealed sores looked at the water and saw magical sandbars, and made a beeline for the water!
Boyfriend stood on the beach with the bicycle while the little girl walked to the edge of the water in her socks and sneakers, with her bike helmet on. The woman had taken off her sandals and had left them beside the bicycle and the cooler, and had waded into the lake up to her thighs! Oh, how wonderful it felt to be in the water. The sun was so wonderful and there were people everywhere, and she looked back to see the little girl looking covetously at her. She had wanted to go to the beach after all! Now, here they were. Mother waded back to the shoreline. “Take off your socks and shoes, and leave them over there!” she told her daughter. And the little girl did. Helmet and all, she came wading into the water to walk along the sandbar with her mother, and even though neither of them were wearing swimsuits, they splashed each other and had a wonderful time. Though it hadn’t been planned, not one tiny bit, and there had been almost no arguing and screaming, it turned out to be a beautiful day at the beach after all!
So even though I take my slender build and the soft, supple flawless skin all over my body for granted, I still admire this woman’s courage in the face of her stress-filled life, and I hope that by telling this story you will understand even if for just 10 brief minutes what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin.