The Missouri Review 27.3 (2004) 186-205
[Access article in PDF]
It's better to share a rash with someone else than to endure one on your own. My brother Bernie and I had a mutual rash on two occasions. The first time was from the shoe polish we used to black up our faces in the middle of the night to go vandalize Mrs. Turner's lawn jockeys. The second time was from the quiche we mashed in each other's faces on the night our father left. In between those two outbreaks, I suffered the rash over fifty times by myself.
I am not exaggerating the number. I have documentation.
The rash was unattractive and uncomfortable but inveterate and therefore familiar. That's why when I woke up with the rash before dawn on the morning I was supposed to go home for winter break, I wasn't alarmed. I didn't even have to look in the mirror to know it was there, but I did. This time it was as if someone had painted a half-line down the middle of my face, beginning at my widow's peak and ending at my chin. The right side was perfectly normal. The left side was red and swollen as a catcher's mitt. I could barely open that eye. I looked like I'd been the victim of a stroke, or sucker punched, or stung by a squad of wasps. I smiled. I frowned. Only the right side of my mouth obeyed. The bells of Harkness Tower were tolling five.
I pulled the rash journal from my bookshelf, walked into the blue computer light of the common room and sank into the Papasan chair across from my roommate, Fran. She was pulling an all-nighter in order to finish her final paper for the History of Modern China. I wasn't under the same sort of pressure, having been granted a note by our dean after Bernie's accident that allowed me unlimited extensions. He'd called it my "get out of jail free card," and I hadn't laughed at the joke.
Fran was the single freshman on the Yale varsity women's lacrosse team. She was from Mendocino, where her stepfather owned an olive orchard. She told me that when she was a child her hair had been white-blond, but that at the age of seven, when it began to darken, her mother had wetted it with lemon juice and forced her to sit outside in the sun. She was an only child, and it showed.
"Hey," I said.
"Jesus, Emma!" She jumped. "I didn't see you."
Fran was eating a Cup-a-Noodles with a plastic spoon. She'd spilled some of it on her bare stomach when I startled her. She wore nothing but a purple bra and matching panties. All of her bras and panties matched. [End Page 186]
"How's the paper going?"
"Not good, I can't stay awake," she complained, wiping the broth from her skin. "Oh my God! What happened to your face?"
"Voodoo," I told her.
"No, seriously. What happened?"
"It's my rash," I said. The left side of my face was feverish, taut, and felt ready to split like the skin of a stewing tomato.
The reason Fran was so scantily dressed was that it was way too hot in our dorm room. The ancient radiators clanked day and night, as if inhabited by a team of angry, industrious blacksmith elves. Steam belched out from their coils like dragon smoke. We'd tried opening the flue on the fireplace, hoping to catch a draft, but the chimney was plugged. Even with the windows cranked open to December in New England, our room felt like the Amazon.
"It's so weird," Fran said, coming closer to inspect the rash. She turned on the halogen lamp. "You've only got it on the one side. Does it itch?"
I reached back and turned off the lamp. "Yeah," I told her, "it itches like hell." But by this time, I'd learned to refrain...