There was always the semi-sexy massage oil before the pain, always the unfurling fingers, the slack jaw. I shuddered sometimes, deep below the warm towels and the cool balm; that was when they lunged. They wore squeaky gloves, they used their thumbs, they pressed past my pores. They twisted and pinched and dug. I hated their efficient hands — mean hands — my tears slid off their rubber fingers; they touched my lips sometimes. Sometimes the cucumbers fell off my eyes. My eyes, which broke a crusty seal of sweat, saw things in the half-light that reminded me of romance: peach-scented candles, flowers in a jar, fingers. My eyes, through dewy lashes, saw other eyes. Green or brown and round, they swam above a magnifying glass and held reflected halos of halogen light. They dodged my own eyes until fresh cucumbers blinded me — cool, thick ones that wouldn’t budge, lodged deep in my sockets by firm fingers.
Dermatologists aren’t evil, but their magnifying apparatuses are. From the time I was thirteen until the summer I left for college I spent more hours under them than I would care to count. It wasn’t the stubborn plantar wart on my left foot that drove me back every three months, it wasn’t the mole on my leg, it wasn’t even the eczema that scaled the backs of my arms. It was the thing I couldn’t stare past in the mirror — the redness of it all — pesky blackheads freckling the bridge of my nose, innocent whiteheads near the hair follicles, deep angry cysts, hard, red and round. Under the unforgiving magnifying glass, my skin looked like a strawberry with succulent seeds imbedded deep. I wanted to reach in with my fingernails and scoop them out
The appointments were my favorite times for stories. When the squeezing began, I was not in my skin, I was somewhere underneath the cucumbers, buried deep in my brain. It worked like a television show; usually I tuned into the same episode I had left off with the last appointment. Most of the characters were people I knew. Almost always, there was my seventh grade biology teacher — an effeminate, middle-aged caffeine-addict who owned a pair of boots lined with ostrich skin. He was in my stories because I never got a chance to adequately impress him, much like the other regular appearances: my Rastafarian school bus driver, the possibly lesbian head of the English Department, and my best friend’s gothic older sister who stuck safety pins in her eyebrows and wrote in her algebra book: “Life’s a bitch and then you die, so fuck the world and let’s get high.”
They talked to me, the clear-skinned women who excavated my pores. They spoke in sultry voices, Long Island accents, friendly southern drawls. They were in their twenties mostly, not MDs but massage therapists. They asked me if I was going to the prom, whether I had a date, what color my dress was, and what kind of music I listened to. I gave one-word answers, lied randomly, said yes or no to open-ended questions. My ugliness made me mean. I knew they were repulsed by my gigantic pores, so I told myself I would be every bit as supercilious as ugly zit-faced people are supposed to be. Sometimes when they asked me questions I stayed silent and pretended not to hear, just so I could listen to their vapid voices falter as they repeated themselves again and again before catching on. I pretended my ears were stuffed with cucumbers, green and deafening and dense.
If I was feeling self-indulgent, I put myself into the stories and let them sink into fantasy. I won countless talent shows with my cucumbered eyes closed, usually by singing Joni Mitchell songs that I passed off as my own. But most of time, I wasn’t even in the stories. I had more fun narrating them, playing the puppeteer, or God, or the maniacal Creative Director for some subverted faction of HBO. The characters were wacky and real; the plot was good. Every episode I dreamed up in ninth grade took place in a log cabin in Canada — a fabricated venue for a school field trip that went awry. Abbey (the goth) caught gonorrhea from the bus driver, who courted her by night with his Jamaican accent and offerings of pot. She soon moved on to heroin, shooting up in the same bathroom where Mrs. Green read “Sons and Lovers” behind a shower curtain and spied on the younger girl with lust in her eyes. Mr. Carney developed a neurosis about plant classification and traded his ostrich boots for snow-shoes. He wandered away on a three-day hike, where he got frostbite on his nipples and died.
There was a world of hilarity beneath my eyelids, a realm of idiosyncrasies and sex and English teachers. I didn’t look forward to the facials, but my defenses made them bearable. I hated when the cucumbers fell off, because, like a commercial break, I was yanked out of a place I desperately wanted to stay.
In second grade, my teacher told my parents I didn’t “sparkle.” I was doing all my homework, subtracting beautifully, performing my daily oral language drills with impeccable accuracy — but I wasn’t sparkling. “Sparkle,” my mother instructed when I practiced my Freckle Juice oral book report. “Don’t forget to sparkle today,” she said as I chewed my Flintstone vitamin pills. “Do you think you’ve been doing a good job sparkling?” she asked while I swooshed my fluoride rinse before bed.
It was infuriating. I didn’t care about sparkling; all I wanted to do was spend time with the characters in my head. There was a girl named Katie Cutter who teased me for mixing up Radical Red and Razzle Dazzle Rose in my Crayola box — she became the protagonist of another field-trip-gone-wrong plot. This one took place at an aquarium, where Katie Cutter got left behind in the shark exhibit, only to be found by Katie McLeod and Katie Murphy, who tried to throw her in the water. Before they could do that, Eraser-head Kenny, who had a head that resembled the butt end of a pencil, beat her up. Lying bloody on the floor, Katie Cutter started to cry. A nice family with a puppy took pity on her and brought her home with them. But it turned out the father was an alcoholic neat-freak who beat her regularly. I thought that story had a lot of sparkle.
My mother took an interesting approach. She made charts. If I sparkled for a day, I got a star. If I sparkled three days in a row, I got a star and a sticker. If I sparkled for a whole week, I got an extra dessert. Once I wrote a story that was so good my teacher made me copy it over in cursive and hang it on the bulletin board. For desert that night, my mother let me eat one snack-pack of chocolate pudding, two Oreos, and a Hershey kiss. By the time I got pimples, I knew how to sparkle.
I scheduled a facial four days before my senior prom — any closer and the pictures would have been ruined, my face still puffy and red, recovering from the assault. My mother also paid for a supplementary back-facial, a thirty minute long procedure that would leave my back as smooth as the satin of my dress. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t mind; I wanted my skin to be clear. I didn’t mind when the terrible fingers lashed out, when they kneaded my back like dough, when they grabbed the sharp metal tools and chiseled away. I was somewhere far away with the usual suspects, trying not to open my eyes. “Do people still rent U-Hauls to host after-prom parties from?” asked a distant voice from above the magnifying apparatus, as the fingers settled around a large, round cyst and squeezed.
“Parapluie,” I mumbled. My entourage was living together in Paris, where Mrs. Green was meeting up with a Norwegian woman she had met in an online chat room. They were meeting for dinner, but it was raining. She needed an umbrella.
In my prom pictures, my body glitter gleamed brighter than my eyes. All the girls that year regretted it. It didn’t look so silly at the time, but the specks of glitter on our chests caught the camera flashes and spoiled everyone’s photos. Later that night, after my hairdo had collapsed into a snarled knot, I stumbled home. In the bathroom, I hung my dress over the towel rack and wondered where to begin cleaning up. I managed to untangle my hair, remove my eye makeup, scrub my cheeks raw with noncomedogenic soap, and carefully extricate my mother’s diamond earrings without dropping the little gold backings.
It wasn’t until I had burrowed into my bed that I realized I had forgotten to remove the film of body glitter from my skin. It covered my neck, chest, and back, and I could feel it seeping into my pores the longer I lay there. When I closed my eyes I saw my skin up close through the magnifying apparatus. A plane of craters and bumps, it was already a moonscape. By tomorrow morning it would be a mountain range.
I was too sleepy to get up and wash it off, even though it meant I would endure the whole package a month later — a back facial, a chest facial, and the good old traditional face facial. Instead of moving, I stayed sprawled on the bed, sparkling in my clogged-pore glory. I rationalized that getting sleep was theoretically more important than having clear skin, and that I could scrub myself down in the morning. Lying on my back in a half-sleep haze, I didn’t think much about my pores, only the zits themselves. Didn’t think much about the sparkles that were glinting ever so slightly above my heart. Thought more about what I wanted to squeeze out than let in.