When I was in elementary school, I was shy and didn't like attention, but too bad: I was a redhead, and I had an oddly-shaped left thumb. I don't think many people noticed the thumb itself, but I'm sure they noticed me hiding something inside my left fist. To make matters worse, scaly, blistered skin soon appeared on my hands.
When the rash first showed itself, my mom took me to the doctor. Each of the five times I'd had strep throat, the doctor had solved it, but this time she merely gave it a name—eczema—and shrugged. How could she not know how to cure it? How could she not care? Refusing to hold my mom's hand, I trudged to the trolley station, peeling off the flakes that weren't quite ready to go on their own.
I began to think of the rash as an entity outside of myself, an enemy who invaded when I was vulnerable. I strove to understand what it wanted: Did it seek to provide minor irritation? To make me bleed? And what did it want me to do? Leave it alone? Peel off the scales, spreading the blisters to a sensitive under-layer of skin? The result was potent embarrassment.
Embarrassment worsens a rash, or at least that was the case when I was ten and spending the summer at a theater and dance day camp. Even though I remember the friends and teachers at the camp as accepting, warm people, at the time I couldn't bear the thought of anyone seeing scary red bubbles spread across my palm and fingers. So, when I arrived at the mirrored dance studio, I'd quickly put on gloves—black, wool gloves in the middle of summer. In my attempts to cover up something sensitive, I always managed to call attention to it and make it worse.
In high school I had my share of other skin afflictions—zits on my face and chicken pox just in time for the Soph Hop—but these more obvious and unsightly problems never made me cry the way eczema did. Each time the skin tightened around my fingers and the bubbles began to spread, I felt like something hateful was being done to me. Eczema was evidence of my body as my nemesis. Like an unexpected period at the prom or a trick knee on a hiking expedition, eczema sought to betray me. It flared up in time for a boy I liked to hold my hand. It worsened at slumber party activities that all drew attention to hands: manicures, palm readings, and brownie-making.
When a boyfriend took me on a date to see a collection of medical oddities at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, I was drawn to the skin photo exhibit. I couldn't wait to see my grotesque rash on someone else's skin. I learned from the displays that I wasn't alone in my condition, but this didn't give me any comfort. I didn't want to be part of the world of goiters, conjoined twins, and overgrown colons.
The summer between high school and college, I worked at a movie theater, first selling tickets and later retiring to the mellow world of popcorn after I proved less than adept at fast math. By this time the eczema had established a pattern of appearing more or less biannually whenever the weather changed and I felt stressed. In the middle of a heat wave, right after I'd broken up with my boyfriend (in time for us to awkwardly attend the same college), my right hand blistered and started to ooze. I knew it was unhygienic to sell people popcorn in my condition, but I was never one to call in sick. Instead, I wrapped my hand in medical gauze before my shift. As I served bucket after bucket, no one seemed disturbed by my injured-looking hand. However, after the night's final screening of Il Postino began, I became aware of a thin, red line extending out from my rash, past my wrist. By the time my parents picked me up, the line had reached the inside of my elbow, taunting me: You thought your rash was bad this morning? Take this!
My mom freaked out when I showed it to her on the car ride home. She said my rash was infected, and the infection was headed for my brain. If it reached my brain, she cautioned, I could die. We detoured to the emergency room. Second in line behind a woman with a tick on her breast, I got seen pretty quickly. Within an hour, I was on antibiotics. Within a day, the line disappeared. My mother may have overreacted, but I think about that timeline to death.
Since then, I've calmed down about the occasional, minor itching, and I try not to touch it. But eczema still finds ways to unnerve me. Applying for a city education job in my early twenties, I had to undergo drug tests and get fingerprinted. At the time, I had an eczema-covered right thumb. Many people worry about drug tests, but I feared the fingerprinting. My left thumbprint displayed my deformity and my right was a smear on the legal documents. The ink remover stung my hands for days.
I married a pale guy with freckles, who suffers from occasional elbow eczema. He doesn't worry about it. I, however, worry about our future children, blistered and peeling. I hope it doesn't go to their heads.
Kasumi Parker received an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2004. Her short stories have been published in Lumina and Pindeldyboz, and she was a finalist for the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers. She teaches English at Kingsborough Community College.