Chronic Urticaria – Mary King
It was a month before I realized that you remind me of my college roommate. It was a dull night at the clinic, late. One of those nights were the residents of Des Moines weren’t falling down their staircases or mangling one another in domestic disputes. The Eager-Beaver Resident said if it was a Sunday at least we’d get a weed-wacker accident, and I looked at you and you knew that I was thinking how that was that kind of attitude that keeps crap from happening. Like how my Nan said watched pots never boil, like how wanting something too much guarantees you won’t ever get it.
You smiled at me, I thought, but maybe you’d been at the nitrous again.
It was late and you sat behind the intake desk and I leaned on the counter pretending to go through charts. I said I know who you remind me of and soon as the words left my lips they were true.
Was she from Marin, you asked. You said was like she had ceased to be, had slipped into the past tense. Seated behind the desk like that, your head and shoulders were fully visible above the countertop. Like a prairie dog peeking out it’s burrow. My right fingertips blistered from the ink in the files, red and raw.
Last I heard my roommate had married a consultant and moved to Geneva. In the alumni paper she talked about the expense of the place, something pedestrian about how pretty things cost you.
When I say you remind me of my college roommate, I know it is true but I am not sure what I mean by it. I lay the two of you side by side in my mind and the only thing I come up with is bug bites—insect bites. Not that you have bug bites, but that you are bug bites, both of you. Like you bother me and itch me in the same way. The way a chigger bite burns like acid under your skin but a mosquito bite is a dull itch and you might not ever see the parasites themselves, only you know from the way your skin reddens and swells what sort of insect it was that got you. And weeks and years and lifetimes might pass between attacks, but a chigger is always a chigger. A mosquito is always a mosquito.
My roommate’s face was mostly cheek, wide and flat like a Pierogi. Pierogis aren’t French, and she was, but that’s what I always saw when I looked at her, a pierogi. With lips like the wild strawberries that grew in Nan’s yard in the summers. Nan always said not to eat them but I never could help it. They were small and sweet, like a fairy food waiting to be discovered and devoured. They tasted like roses, I told her and Nan said that imagination of yours is what’ll get you in trouble someday. Nan said that a lot. And she was probably right.
Anyway, my roommate had a Pierogi face and those wild strawberry lips and her sweat smelled mineral, like those fancy bottles of water people drink in white tablecloth restaurants. And she had this way of leaning away from people when they talked to her—especially boys—making them chase her even when she was still, even in a conversation. And because she expected it, people did it. People always wanted to please my roommate. She was French and she was edible looking and she was pretty in a way that demanded things.
I never had been pretty, with freckles scattered like a pox all over my flesh, even places that had never seen the sun. On the soles of my feet, my pubic bone, inner thighs. When Nan saw the spots in the palms of my hands she said them aren’t freckles, them’re moles. I learned in my first year of medical school that Nan was right, they were moles, dysplastic nevi, but they looked enough like freckles to pass, and so that’s what I called them even after I knew better.
Regardless of the moles, once my roommates’ admirers knew I lived with Her, I became pretty by association real fast. The boys at Sigma Chi only got Her when she leaned away, when she pouted and glamored at them, but as her roommate I shared intimacies they could only imagine. Her spitting toothpaste onto my hand when we hovered over the same sink before bed, waking in the morning to an eyeful of her rump poking out of her sheets where her nightgown had pulled up while she slept. On nights when we strapped on boots and tromped down the hill to the frat houses I was the one who poured her two shots of peppermint schnapps before we left our room. And when she whispered don’t let me do anything stupid, it was my ear that her voice fell into.
On an early December night I came home to her staring into our closet. She’d been invited to a party, she said. Her boy was bringing a boy for me, too. You’ll wear something of mine she said, rattling hangers together. I’d been living off spinach leaves and egg whites and ketchup for the past three months (like she did), so wearing something of hers wouldn’t be impossible.
This. She flung a navy blue satin skirt and a black tank top at me. It doesn’t fit me anymore she said. The boys were on their way over already; there wasn’t time to shower. My skin would betray me, I knew, but I went at my dry calves with a plastic razor while my roommate shimmied, bra-less, into a black dress. Red lines streaked up my calves like angry vines. (Dermographism, I would learn)
My roommate wrinkled her nose. That is so werid she said. She meant weird, of course, but she never could navigate the word correctly. That is so werid. She hung her head upside down and when she lifted back up, her eyes were clear and her lips and cheeks flushed with blood. I told her I would wear tights. Dark ones.
The boys appeared, jacketed and tied, outside our door. They were the New England stock that populated most of the University. They had hair, they wore slacks. It was impossible to notice much about them; her presence warped everything around her.
We’re almost ready my roommate told the boys, wait a second she said and dragged me into the closet where we hid the bottle of schnapps in a pair of boots. The boys waited beside the beds like spaniels.
I poured her the first dose of booze. After she tossed it back my roommate offered the shot glass to me. I could hear the boys’ breath through the wall, see their feet pointed toward the cracked-open door, wondering if they should come in, wondering what would happen if they did.
I took one shot.
She took two more.
The mint burned our lips and left us smelling like mouthwash. Other than furtive sips of Nan’s tumblers of bourbon and sweet tea, this was my first taste of alcohol. I caught a glimpse of my face in the full-length mirror; redness crept up my neck from the edge of the black tank top to my ears.
My Roommate laced her fingers through my hand and led me back to our dates. Her nails bit into the flesh on the back of my hand. She wasn’t trying to hurt me, I was just sensitive that way. The boys looked at each other to confirm that they were seeing the same thing; two girls slinking out a closet, fingers entwined like tree roots, the scent of mint and mineral, the suggestion of something secret.
Once we arrived at the party, my roommate floated away from me and I couldn’t maintain the air of mysterious possibility without her. My boy left me on a sagging couch while he pursued a Connecticut blonde. My roommate’s admirers brought me drinks, as if being kind to me was a test to win her. Akin to slaying a dragon, racing through a forest of thorns, or climbing yards of hair up a tower. I ran my fingertips over the back of my left hand where five perfectly shaped half-moon welts puffed pink where her fingernails had dug into me.
She appeared on the futon across from me, her boy half a step behind. She scooped spaces between her body and his and he lurched in to fill them. They were water-weeds moved by the same current. He sat when she sat. I think I was meant to watch; it wasn’t like she was being discreet. She stroked the empty seat behind her back, expecting me to jump over and fill it.
My mouth cotton-balled. The rug was speckled with blots of brown, things that had once been beers and coffees and mud and were now permanently ground into the weave.
Come here she demanded. I want to show him that werid thing your skin does.
I stayed seated. My thighs sunk into the dead springs. I would not come.
She melted into the back of the futon and drew a quilt over her head, engulfing herself and the boy beside her in a cotton cocoon.
We lived together for another six months, but that was the last time I saw her.
The husk of a person who shared my room for the next months wasn’t her. It was something different. She never demanded anything from me again. I failed her and—as Nan would remind me—you don’t always get a do-over.
I was thinking about that when you turned to me at 11:37 and asked if I want a taco. There’s a truck on the corner, you said, looking at your watch. You live in a world where people always know where to find taco trucks and guys that sell coke that isn’t laced with laxatives. It’s that quality that makes the nurses hook you up to banana-bags on the days you come in hungover. They shake their heads and squeeze the hair at the nape of your neck and say oh hunny, hunny, hunny.
I shrugged and you knew that meant why not and you walked out the automatic doors on a mission. It was raining, an oily slick streaked down the windows. Until you returned, I craved an accident.
For my back to brush your front in a tight hallway, for your arm to slap against mine when we carted old Mrs. Matheson down to radiology. I could create vacuums in hallways, at the intake desk, the patient rooms. I could lean back even when we were still and demand you to slam into me like a ship against a shore.
A few minutes later you plopped a plastic bag on the desk. Tiny cysts of raindrops popped on impact.
Thank you Thank you Thank you was stamped across it in a repeating loop.
Thank you Thank you Thank you
Thank you Thank you Thank you
Thank you Thank you Thank you
Thank you Thank you Thank you
I felt your eyes on me as red sauce dribbled down my chin. The taco tasted like cardboard.
Wanna grabba drink after, you asked.
It was after one in the morning when we left the hospital. You told me you know a guy who tends bar at a place up the block, a guy who would serve us after last call. The bar was dark as the streets and just as cold. Plaster peeled off the walls in sheets, crackled in wheals. The place was humid with the rain-wet bodies of other people.
We sipped whiskey and ginger beer because you asked what are you drinking and I said whatever you are because I had heard girls say that before. And because people asking what I wanted to drink always seemed like a test I was destined to fail.
We stood on a patio where everyone was drunk already and dressed in black. Our corner was a narrow strip of brightness, you in an orange flannel shirt and me in my blue scrubs.
I wore my scrubs because everyone looks like a sack of flour in scrubs. Wearing anything else would display my grooves and soft places. By keeping them on, I could be anybody, I could look like anything underneath my stiff cotton suit.
You pulled a pack of Parliaments from your pocket and lit one for me first. Smoke rolled down my throat into my lungs, then up, smooth, into the night air like I knew what I was doing.
It was the nicotine or the bite of the ginger or the whiskey or the way you smelled like honey and spruce. Maybe it was the slight turn away that you did right then, like you melted into the wall, away from me, forever. And it was the rain or the long hours but that slight turn away pissed me right off. Through the tips of my hair and down to my ankles.
I reached my fingers into the nape of your neck and squeezed until my nails dug into my palm. I pulled you into my face, forced you to be the one leaning forward, the one leaning into me.
Hey I said, Hey. Do you know that when you are eighty years old, when your bones are brittle and your skin is parchment, there will be a pocket in my brain where you will continue? To be all teeth and honey and spruce and ginger and whiskey and smoke. You will always be just like this. Just this way.
I saw my face fishbowl in your dark pupils.
I rested on the wall and wanted you to understand what I meant, to reload and repeat the thing back to me. My mouth watered with the thought that I might infuse you somehow, imprint my body English on you so whoever you thought I was would continue on, this version of me that was worth buying tacos for and inviting to bars would live some alternate life.
I leaned back and wanted and waited for something to close the distance.
The right side of your mouth twitched. You said you’re wild. Which wasn’t really it. It wasn’t what I wanted at all.
Your voice was thick and flat and when I looked up all the sparkle had gone and you were just a guy. Just some twenty-two year old philosophy student who didn’t know anything I didn’t know already. The ice in my glass clinked against my teeth.
We had more drinks. More whiskey and ginger beer with limes this time.
You talked about your art history class and electronic music and I was so tired. You stubbed your cigarette in a metal ashtray.
The back of your hand was wide, flat. Veins chorded between the firm finger bones and the downy coating of hair around your wrist grew even. You looked at the backs of those hands whenever you did anything.
I leaned forward.
You were so familiar with those hands that you probably didn’t notice their fineness. Every time you reached for the phone, or a patient file, or brought a turkey sandwich up to your mouth, the backs of your hands were in your frame of vision.
I lurched, cigarette first, toward the table where your arm rested. Smoke framed by breath and I heard your skin hiss as I stubbed my cigarette out on the perfect expanse on the back of your hand.
You didn’t move. The booze and the Lorazepam you snuck from one of the nurses stuck you to your seat. You didn’t move but there was a gasp from somewhere.
Maybe it was me.
I tumbled over the topiary and onto the sidewalk. The night air clawed into the space between my scrubs and my skin.
Tripping down the street toward the hospital, I imagined that you stood on the sidewalk with you car keys in hand, watching me walk away. I felt the night sky and the stars cluster around me. The air spun and twisted and warped and I was alone and the freckles that aren’t freckles in my palms pulsed like dying stars.
Mary King caught a bug for storytelling from the single mothers in her apartment complex in southern New Jersey. Those women didn’t have much, but they had a linoleum table to gather around and plenty of tales to tell about the Randy’s and Tony’s and Mikey’s that either saved their lives or destroyed them.
Growing up between New Jersey and Oklahoma City, Mary now lives and writes in Los Angeles.
She has a degree in English Literature from Colgate University. Her memoir Bastards is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. in spring of 2015. More of her writing is available at maryannaking.com.