by Tammye Huf
“Did you burn your mouth?”
“What? No.” My hand flew instinctively to grope at my mouth, searching for my injury.
“You’ve got a white spot right there.” Kevin bent in and gently kissed the corner of my mouth. It didn’t hurt, my burn, so I kissed him back properly, like a girlfriend in love kisses her boyfriend.
The burn didn’t fade with time, which I assumed meant that I must have really scalded myself in some kind of drunken stupor—which, I suppose, is the way to do it. If you’re going to injure yourself, best to be happily anesthetized. All the same, I decided to swear off tequila for the time being.
Then I noticed a small white mark on the other corner of my mouth. Another burn that didn’t hurt. Another scalding I couldn’t remember. And the first one seemed to be growing.
The dermatologist’s office sat near my apartment complex. My father the lawyer had asked his golfing buddy the plastic surgeon for the best dermatologist near me, and he’d come up with a doctor practically across the street.
“You have the Michael Jackson skin condition.” The dermatologist smiled jovially, idiotically.
I should have made it clear that I was willing to travel. When I didn’t respond, apart from possibly scowling at him, he changed tack.
“What you’ve developed is a pigmentation disorder called vitiligo. It affects about one percent of the population, but is obviously less noticeable on Caucasians.”
I was not Caucasian; I was black. Just like Michael Jackson used to be.
“How do I get rid of it?”
He told me there was a treatment that sometimes worked, but in my case he wouldn’t recommend it. “Such a small affected area,” he said. “Try makeup.”
“Can’t you give me some kind of cream or a pill or anything?”
He shook his head and I scowled openly. $150 and the morning off from work, and all he could give me was a name. When I stood to go, he delivered his final friendly advice, like a grenade offered with a smile.
“Just don’t worry about it. Stress makes it worse.”
It’s a known fact that if you want people to think of something, all you have to do is tell them not to think of it. I must have looked in the mirror fifteen times in the next half hour.
Eventually I realized there was no reason to ban myself from tequila and administered a few shots for medicinal reasons. Tequila, as it’s also well-known, is an excellent anti-stress tonic.
My particular level of anxiety, however, called for the Holy Grail of stress-free life: the spa. I booked every treatment I could get last-minute and called a cab, and since I wasn’t driving, administered one last dose of anti-stress tonic.
After three hours I was floating. I felt like a Zen master on my way to Nirvana. My scalp tingled, my muscles hummed, my face shined for lack of impurities.
“If you’re interested,” they told me after I’d dressed again, “we’ve just had a cancellation for a pedicure.”
I kicked off my shoes and settled into the treatment chair, blissing out to the massaging of my feet. Admiring my wine-red toenails drying in flip-flops, I noticed a blossoming white splodge on the big toe of my left foot, marring my otherwise-perfect mahogany skin. The stress was back.
Kevin played the ignorance card, pretending he didn’t see it when he did, avoiding looking at my growing whiteness. It marred the back of my neck, my earlobe, my breasts. Places he used to kiss fondly, he now avoided.
“Maybe you should try the treatment,” he said, trying hard to be casual.
The treatment consisted of applying a solution to the affected areas and entering a light box to be zapped with UV waves in the hopes that the cells would wake up. It was a lengthy process calling for repeated afternoons away from work, which caused stress-inducing tension at the office, but I persevered for two months.
Eventually the doctor and I both admitted that I looked decidedly worse. The white had stayed white, and the dark had turned darker, making the contrast worse. And new white spots kept appearing. Behind the knees, along the ankles, under the armpits.
“Look, I’m beat,” Kevin told me over the phone shortly after I had stopped the treatments. “I’m just going to head back to mine.”
We’d had a rhythm going for six months, where I spent Friday through Sunday at his place and he spent Monday through Wednesday at mine. Thursday we reserved for friends or a night to ourselves. It was Monday night.
I tried not to read anything into it, but of course that was impossible.
Alone at home, I took off the mask of makeup that had become my daily ritual and studied the reflection of my naked self.
The color loss had spread to my hands, my hips, my legs, my arms. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t getting much worse and that it really didn’t look so bad, but I knew better than to believe my own lies, and I covered myself back up hastily.
On Tuesday Kevin came over, restlessly bouncing from sofa to chair to window seat. I put on a CD of Mozart’s piano concertos, hoping to shift the mood and calm us both down.
“Why are you always playing this white music?”
“I…” At first I thought he was joking, but the tone of his voice wasn’t a joke. He stood again, arms crossed and glowering.
“It’s…” Mozart, I was going to say, but then, Mozart was white. “It’s relaxing.”
“Why don’t you play some Miles Davis to relax? Or some Coltrane?”
“Because this is more relaxing for me.”
“It’s like you’re denying your own people.”
I gaped stupidly before making myself respond. “It’s just music, Kevin.”
“No. It’s not just music. It’s about who you are on the inside. Who you identify with. The soul of your soul.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“Oh yeah? You play tennis.”
“So what? Lots of people play tennis. Serena Williams, for one.”
“You don’t eat fried chicken.”
“Oh my god, Kevin. I don’t eat fried chicken because I’m a vegetarian.”
“Exactly. What is that?”
I stood and faced him. “What are you doing?” There was a tremor in my voice. One part fear, two parts anger.
“You don’t act black, you don’t sound black, and pretty soon you’re not even going to look black.”
I snaked my arms around my stomach and took a deep breath. “Wow. That’s pretty cold. And here I was expecting support.”
I held my hand up to silence him. “I’m the same person I was when you met me. I haven’t changed.”
“No, you’re right, you haven’t. I just see you now. The brown skin had me fooled, but you were white inside all along. The real you is finally coming out.”
There was only anger left. No fear at losing him and no desire to keep him. “Actually, the real you is coming out. And he’s an opinionated jackass.”
“That’s my cue to go,” he said casually, like we were discussing a film.
“Who the hell are you to sit in judgment about my blackness?”
“You’re a very nice person.” He strode toward the door. “You’re just not who I thought you were.”
“I have this…thing, and all of a sudden I’m not black enough for you? You’re a banker, you asshole! And you drink martinis!”
I hurled a glass at him as he slipped out. It crashed against the doorframe with a satisfying, shattering sound.
By the time I felt like cleaning up the mess, Mozart had stopped playing, and the clink of the glass being swept into the dustpan was amplified in the silence.
* * *
I met with a new specialist whose office was almost an hour away from me, which I took as a good sign. He confirmed that the failed treatment I’d had was the only procedure available to get the color back, but explained that there was one other option.
“In extreme cases like yours where over half of the skin has lost pigment and where treatment has failed, we can remove the remaining pigment. The procedure is pretty straightforward, but it’s permanent.”
“And I would just be…white?”
“Your skin would lack melanin.” He folded his hands onto his desk. “Obviously you would have to be psychologically prepared for such a step.”
In other words: I would be white.
I should have asked some questions, found out what the procedure entailed, but the only question in my mind was the one I had avoided asking myself since this all started: If I lost my coloring, to what extent could I still claim to be black?
I thanked him politely for the information and told him it was unlikely that I would choose to do that. Then I hit the mall to buy more makeup.
The application of cosmetics had become something of a ritual. I applied a three-tiered concoction in the morning, in an attempt to hide the white without looking like I was hiding anything. I had gotten faster with this, my record being twenty-five minutes. Of course, I had to be careful not to touch anything or anyone, or it would wipe right off. Then after work, when my face resembled a mudslide, I’d take everything off and reapply it.
I didn’t date. Dating would lead to kissing, which would lead to rubbing off my foundation and cover-up and powder onto someone’s face. And if I somehow managed to instate a no-facial kissing rule, eventually the cow-spot skin that now covered my entire body would be exposed.
Summer was excruciating. I wore long sleeves in spite of the heat and teamed them up with flowing skirts that swirled around my ankles. Even in linen and silk, I sweltered. My makeup slid off my face by lunchtime, and I couldn’t reapply it properly. Instead I touched it up almost hourly, leaving patches and streaks until I could get home and redo it.
My girlfriends planned a trip to the beach that I told them I couldn’t go on. They guessed the reason. I had long ago stopped joining them for pedicures and facials.
“Helen, you’re being ridiculous. It’s not that bad. Just come with us, you’ll have fun.”
They were wrong on all counts.
On the Friday that they left for the beach, I drove to Macy’s to restock my cosmetics supply. My purchase came to $320.
“Will you be paying by card?” The attendant held out her hand expectantly.
On the way to the make up section I had passed a dress, cornflower blue with spaghetti straps and a jagged hem that came just above the knees. A sweet summer dress with a designer cut and a matching price tag. I’d run my hand along the material, loving the way it moved under my touch.
It’s off-limits, I’d reminded myself. And too expensive anyway.
It cost $320: the price of this suffocating makeup that would be used and gone in a few months.
“Do you have a Macy’s card?” the attendant prompted.
She’d already bagged everything up and thrown in a free mascara, so it felt a little like sneaking out of a restaurant without paying the check when I said, “Actually, I’ve changed my mind.”
I bought the blue dress, and then I called my dermatologist.
* * *
For three days after the procedure, I refused to look in a mirror. Instead I draped them with sheets like some gothic vampire. I also didn’t go out or answer the phone, and every time I caught a glimpse of my hands or legs, fresh tears pooled in my eyes.
The relief of being one color warred with the guilt of that color being white, which sent me into a tailspin of remorse and self-doubt. I imagined passing Kevin on the street and pictured the self-satisfied smirk he would wear. I imagined distant cousins not recognizing me, and the snide comments people would make about denying my race and wanting to be white.
On the fourth day the doorbell rang, but instead of answering it like any sane person would, I fled into the bathroom with my back against the door, waiting for them to leave. The reality of my hiding next to my toilet bowl was the jolt I’d needed. Even if I had made a mistake, I wouldn’t let the way I looked turn me into some kind of agoraphobic coward.
The first step, clearly, was to see what I looked like now. I’d like to say that I strode up to the mirror with my chin high and pulled back the sheet in one great tug, but actually I crept up to it, giving myself the Nike pep talk as I went: Just do it, just do it. I grabbed hold of the sheet and counted to three. Twice. Then I counted to ten and yanked it down.
The woman in the mirror had been drained of color. Reaching up, I stroked the skin, tracing the shape of the features. I stripped off my clothes to examine stomach, breasts, thighs. I had expected the bleached-out appearance, but I hadn’t expected to look so much like myself. Paler, yes, but entirely me.
A Mozart-loving, tennis-playing, melanin-free African-American woman.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing