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I HAVE MY GRANDMOTHER’S SKIN. Problem skin. My mother buys me witch hazel, calendula, aloe vera, claims she knows a woman who drinks collagen every morning with her tea.
“It’s just your genes,” she says. “Stop picking at it.”
My mother’s skin stretches over the bones of her face like gloss paint poured from a palette. When she dips a finger into the pad of her cheek, I half expect it to come away wet.
Our bathroom shelves are a graveyard of bottles—discarded jars and lotion pumps left to clog at their necks and nozzles, ointments used for two weeks and then abandoned. My mother buys special sloughing tools, face masks, and tinctures from the chemist. Our neighbor, Mrs. Weir, is an Avon lady, and I suffer one long afternoon of being daubed with honey cream at the kitchen table as she blithely assures me it’s supposed to sting.
“It’s a funny one, isn’t it?” she says to my mother. “Not quite eczema but not quite acne, either. Psoriasis or vitiligo or something. Sort of like when my Jonathan had that reaction to the moules at Il Mare and had to have his stomach pumped. Or—hell—what’s that syndrome with the bits that go black—”
“It’s hereditary,” my mother says, assessing her reflection in Mrs. Weir’s makeup mirror after applying a different color shadow to each eyelid. “Difficult puberties.”
“—what am I thinking of?” Mrs. Weir burbles on, twisting the cap on a tube of cream like the wringing of a neck. “The poor people you see in the movies with the skin. You know? The ones with the bells.”
“You’re thinking of leprosy,” I say and reach for a pot of shimmer. Mrs. Weir snatches it away.
“Not that one, sweets, that’s not your color. You know what I do have is a lovely piece of kit that’s technically meant for stretch marks, but it might do as cover for you. Look here. The burn victims like this one, see.”
In the event, my mother buys herself two shades of eye shadow and spends the evening doing my makeup. I sit still as she mirages me a pair of cheekbones, streaks dark gel across my temples, crimson stain on my lips. Her porcelain concealer comes out velvety on her fingertips and she applies it to my cheeks in slices, rubbing circles through the surface as it blends. My skin peels into the bristles of her makeup brushes and I wind up like Baby Jane beneath the powder. A smoothing of white paste over something sickly, a crusting in the corners of my mouth.
“Mrs. Weir’s husband isn’t allergic to shellfish,” my mother says later in confiding tones, filling my sparse eyebrows in with softened pencil. “Allergic to chattering old hags is more like it. Allergic to bad company.”
She holds the pencil up, triumphant. “There we go. Red-carpet ready.”
I shift my head to glance into her compact mirror and scatter a confetti of myself across the floor.
* * *
AT CATHOLIC SCHOOL they teach us to pray, smack the backs of our legs with wooden rulers to stop us sitting on our heels. We wear beige tights and woolen skirts in four shades of house plaid, tie our hair in plaits, and speak in indoor voices. In the mornings after matins, we sit together on the sweating radiators, drinking canteen coffee from polystyrene cups and waiting for class to start.
I am known as The Mummy because of my surgical gloves and the rings around my eyes and nostrils, but the taunt is a toothless one and predominately affectionate. As Catholic girls, we are all a little awkward, the kind of girls grown slack and strange from too much inactivity and not enough contact with boys. My skin, for all its recent ugliness, is just one manifestation of this mutual glitch. We are all of us peculiar; frizzy-haired and sweaty in our woolen blazers, smelling thickly of the things girls come to smell of when they are removed from the company of men.
In the spaces between mass and classes, we talk long, indulgent circles of self-hatred. It is Girl Language—a cozy bonding rite. We are all convinced we are too fat, too short, too ugly; competing for each title with Olympic fervor, every grievance made to top what came before.
“I can’t believe I ate so many potatoes at lunchtime—they should just wire my jaw shut. Just tie my arms to my sides.”
“You’re insane, you weigh, like, nothing. It’s me who needs the gastric band.”
“Just shut up, both of you, you’re both gorgeous. My pores are enormous, like freakishly enormous. My skin is like the surface of the moon.”
“Not as bad as mine. I have so many blackheads I’m amazed no one’s carted me off to the plague doctor.”
“You’ll laugh, but I hate my toes.”
“Mine are worse. I swear some days I think they’re webbed.”
“Not as bad as my hair.”
“Or mine, either.”
We lap up this pummeling talk, its vicious competition—come to love each other for all that we can find to hate. In this way, my skin becomes a kind of bargaining chip, the shreds that sting beneath my sweater a constant point I have to play.
“Well at least you don’t all shed the way I do.”
It is a winning card, one that can’t be trumped. They nod at me, defer to my advantage.
* * *
I DREAM IN sheddings—spend my nights sunk deep beneath seas of teeth and fingernails, the suffocation of skins cast off and left unbodied. A constant grasping and losing, a catching hold of things that turn to water in my hands. My mattress is wrapped in rubber sheeting, a guard against bedsores and infection, and my sleep takes on something of this slippery quality. In the mornings, my mother checks me over with a swab of antiseptic, tweezes moltings from my shoulders with a minimal degree of fuss.
“You’ve been scratching,” she will tell me sometimes, smoothing royal jelly over the blades of my back.
“Not on purpose,” I will answer and allow her to bind my hands as usual, this mummification as much a guard against temptation as it is protection for my palms.
* * *
AT SCHOOL, WE watch videos about our changing bodies—censored Health and Safety movies from the 1970s, heavy on abstracted metaphors and light on biology. They play us clips on the overhead projector, jump cuts and fuzzy diagrams, charmless male narrators intoning things like urge and menstruation and transitional stage of reproductive growth.
We are fourteen, some of us fifteen, and we spend our lunchtimes comparing notes on bleedings and kissings and other similar crimes. We eat canteen meatloaf with our mouths whaling open, laugh screeching laughs that end in coughing fits and spat-out hunks of bread. Isolated as we are, we have seen boys, have watched or brushed against them. Stories pass from hand to hand about the friends of brothers and the boys who fix our fathers’ cars; invented trysts and sucked-in smells of petrol, deodorant that comes in a silver can.
On Wednesdays, we play hockey on the pitch behind the chapel. Our gym kit is prudish by any standard, but still allows us the sort of assessments that our uniform denies. In the thin white autumn mornings, we judge the fit and fall of Aertex T-shirts, take note of legs shaven above the sock line and scabbed around the knee. Girls we have known since kindergarten are abruptly alien, deeper-voiced and softer-boned beneath the surface, foreign objects with their sudden hips and waists.
I have a standing letter from my mother and another from my doctor excusing me from games, and so whilst I am still dragged out in the name of Good Clean Air, I am at least spared the spectacle of gym clothes. Standing white-breathed on the sideline, I warm my bandaged hands inside my armpits as, beneath my blazer, I sense a slight but certain splitting in the fabric of my back. I am sometimes given the task of collecting team bibs after matches and I flip them over my head when I do so as an additional guard against the chill.
Afterward, in the changing rooms, girls pass tampons back and forth like borrowed cigarettes. Smells of hairspray and wet grouting mingle with the tang of day-old blood. Fully dressed, I sit near the door and partake in listless conversation. When the tampons make it to my corner, I simply pass them on.
I do bleed, though there is a difference in the color and texture, a difference in the pullings and scrapings of my hips. I have thought of asking about this after one of our Health and Safety videos, though these are not usually sessions with much recourse to questioning.
* * *
MY GRANDMOTHER WAS a party girl, according to my mother. She tells me this while brushing my hair, secreting in the pockets of her apron the strands that come away.
“She was a wild one,” she tells me, tapping the back of my spine with the barrel of the brush to make me straighten. “Some nights she wouldn’t come home until three or four o’clock and I’d be there, all of nine years old, waiting.”
She says this without resentment, a simple statement of fact. In the wardrobe mirror, I watch her press a fallen piece of hair against my scalp for a moment, as if hoping it might reattach.
“Where was Granddad when this was happening?” I ask her, already knowing the answer. I have heard this story rattled off before.
“Your granddad wasn’t around by that time,” she tells me, playing along. “Hold your head up. You’re becoming a terrible one for slouching.”
At nights, we read together, though I’m old enough to read alone and my mother has little patience for literature. I choose Greek myths and ghost stories, tales that come in under fourteen pages and culminate in violent lessons. I read aloud and let her stop me when she wants to—stories of swans and spiders, bay trees, narcissi, girls transformed into monsters by rivals playing dirty.
* * *
AT SCHOOL, WE learn “The Flea” by heart and giggle at the subtext. We learn capital cities and long division and the names of the saints in the order they are cited in exorcism. In Biology, we grow watercress in plastic yogurt pots and keep them on the laboratory windowsills. They turn brown from too much sunlight and we have to throw them out.
Some days, I use my skin to my advantage, skipping Maths to lie down in the nurse’s office, complaining of sore arms and pulsing pains. The first time I did this, the nurse insisted on looking, tugging up the back of my jumper without asking and pulling the tail of my shirt from my skirt. What she saw was enough to convince her, and henceforth all my trips to the office were accepted without further inquiry. My friends come to take me to lunch once Maths is over, sniggering behind their hands as I skip from my sickbed, telling the nurse I feel quite better now.
We take mass on Thursday mornings, sneaking carrot cake from our school bags and making games of dodging the incense cast from the thurible during prayers. The sermons are droning, dragging things, brimstoned with words like absolution, blasphemy, divine. After mass, we play conkers with our rosaries, smashing the beads together in the courtyard until the nuns catch us at it.
* * *
THE TEETH ARE a problem. It becomes harder to talk once I start losing them, which I do in a gradual way on the week of my fifteenth birthday—just a spitting out of molars to begin with, which is at least less obvious to a casual observer than the thinning of my hair. I lay them out in a line on my Mother’s kitchen table, the vinyl tablecloth showing images of the Last Supper with a kind of cheerful kitsch. She scrutinizes the teeth with forensic detail and then fetches me a glass of water, spooning in a measure of table salt and swilling briskly until it dissolves.
“Gargle,” she says, handing over the glass and sweeping the teeth into the cup of her palm. I do as she says, mulling vaguely on a memory of swallowing my first milk tooth with a mouthful of apple—of asking my Mother whether I might now start growing teeth along the lining of my stomach, like the blooming of a seed.
I spit the water out in the kitchen sink and my Mother fetches almond cream from her handbag, smoothing it absently over my fingers and down the bridge of my nose.
“There now, nothing wrong with you.”
At night, I fall asleep in shreddings and tatterings, my dreams shot through with shouts of violence, bitter notches like bad beads on a rosary. In the still-dark of early morning, I wake to wonder at my face in the wardrobe mirror. Beneath the white flesh of my forehead, my eyes seem further apart than before.
* * *
BOYS ARRIVE WITH the inevitability of tides. Someone’s brother throws a party, someone’s cousin makes an introduction, and just like that girls have numbers in their phones and places to sneak off to, skirts rolled at the waist to bring them up above the knee.
In the weeks before Lent, talk turns insistently to boys—to their circling, simplistic conversation and the hundred meanings to be derived from the way they chew their gum. Our mouths gummed with slabs of cupcake, we pledge ourselves to impossible diets in the pursuit of desirability. We repeat the names of boys as we invoke the saints, coiling tongues around the ones we like the best.
“If I lose eight pounds before the party, I think Adam Tait might like me.”
“What about Toby Thorpe—did you hear if Toby Thorpe was going to be there?”
“Seriously though, did it seem to you like Luke Minors was looking at me at the bowling alley last weekend or was it just the mirror behind me?”
“I wasn’t looking. I prefer Sam Taylor.”
I listen to these conversations with my fingers in my mouth, nails bitten almost to the knuckle. My gloves are off and my legs are jumpy on the radiator, seeming to fall asleep without warning every ten or fifteen minutes. I am more distracted than usual by things in my periphery: the swarm of dust motes, the carpets creeping up the walls.
“You know I heard Mark Kemper telling Toby Thorpe he thought you were interesting.”
It takes a moment to realize this last is directed at me. I raise one hand, rashed as something burning, raise one eyebrow to match.
“You can pull that face all you like,” I am admonished. “I’m just repeating what I heard.”
* * *
THERE ARE PICTURES of my grandmother on the kitchen dresser. The skin like webbing, the eyes like something stapled in place.
My mother claims I have my grandmother’s genes, that they come to us all eventually. She says I get more sympathy than she ever did.
“Your grandmother was a Party Animal,” she tells me, though her usual phrase is Party Girl. “She’d come home at night with glasses she’d stolen from wine bars, beer mats, doughnuts by the boxload. She’d bring back men I didn’t like.”
“Where was Granddad when this was happening?” I ask, by rote.
“Your granddad wasn’t around by this point,” she returns as usual, a voice like fingers breaking in a door.
She shows me snapshots from her green velour-bound album. My grandmother in balding velvet boots, a tinsel wig. A wedding shot with wineglasses, lips red as something chewed to death. Her teeth, so claims my mother, were porcelain implants, a fact I resent since in recent weeks I have had to settle for a metal brace holding six resin moldings in my mouth.
“She would have liked you, I’m sure,” my mother tells me, as if it isn’t generally expected that people ought, at the very least, to tolerate their grandchildren.
* * *
ON ASH WEDNESDAY, we walk around school all day with silver smudges on our foreheads. Dipping our fingers in the font by the chapel entrance, we allow the holy water to trickle past our knuckles, either left to dry in track marks or licked absently from palms.
There is a party planned for Saturday, invitations scrawled in glitter on slips of colored card: Come to the Anti-Lent Event—Girls Welcome, Boys Encouraged.
In the bathrooms, girls pluck their eyebrows bare and fantasize the weekend’s conquests.
“Hand to God, I haven’t eaten since February—Adam Tait won’t know what hit him.”
“You’re insane. Do you think Toby Thorpe will be there?”
“I don’t even know who that is.”
I sit in the corner sink and let my friends test their makeup on me, though the skin beneath my uniform now comes away in pieces and my mother has taken to wrapping me in coils of bandage to hold the central parts of me in place.
“I’m going to sleep with Luke Minors,” someone screeches, a noise that echoes off the tiles. “I don’t care, I’m going to do it. I swear I am.”
We are frenetic with hunger, with wanting, with the repentance of the season. We laugh like hyenas, our heads thrusting forward from our bodies.
* * *
BEFORE I LEAVE for the party on the Saturday, my mother brushes out a wig she has been keeping in a hat box; dark curling nylon with a flammable warning label which she snips from the crown. She fixes my face with lipstick and black liner, attaches artful strands of tape beneath the wig to hold my eyes upright.
“There you are,” she says, “red-carpet ready.”
The party comes about as an infestation—a swarming in the corners of an unfamiliar house. We arrive in cars and carpools, delivered by parents with strict curfews and no idea what to expect. The house belongs to the friend of a brother and is lit all through with paper lanterns, peppered about with ashtrays and crisps in plastic bowls.
I am aware of the feeling of things between my bones, of the blurring and doubling of my vision. I dance with my friends and ignore the tearings and splittings taking place beneath my dress.
Boys spill and surge like the rattling of ice cubes, melting in upon us with every passing song. Adam Tait is sweating through his T-shirt, talking to a girl I know but whose name I can’t remember. At the next change in music, he drags her away from the throng and I am left wondering at how it is that I know her and why my fingers seem longer than before. I think of my grandmother, who drank her wedding from a wineglass, and drink everything that is offered to me. The music is bright green, bright white, electric. A girl downs a tumbler of wine in one, shrieks, “Unchristian!” and falls down cackling on the floor.
Boys slope off with girls and I find myself thinking about the itch of the wig I am wearing, the fierceness with which I want to take it off. My tongue is ripe with something thick and liquid, my vision tripling, quadrupling in dim light.
Beside me, a friend is mouthing at me, syllables that mean nothing and make me laugh and twitch my arms in a gesture that seems strangely involuntary.
Copyright © 2019 by Julia Armfield