December 1, 2014 by The Citron Review
My bare legs are itchy, and I can feel the abrasive fibers leaving an impression in my hot skin. It’s summer, and I’m wearing an over-sized T-shirt while watching TV before my mother realizes the sun is setting and chases me off to bed. She had instructed me to clean my room, but I ignored her, choosing to watch a re-run of “Punky Brewster” instead. The show cuts to commercial, and a group of teenagers crowd the stairwell of their high school, and the plainest of them all complains that she is ugly, complains that her mother is beautiful, and the boys in her group agree.
I hate my mother. She’s so much prettier than me.
My own mother is in the kitchen behind me, scrubbing and rinsing chipped porcelain under endlessly running water. Her dark, skinny arms extend from a pink tank top, long and lanky, her soapy hands moving in and out of the sink in a mechanical motion. She chews gum in rhythm with her rinsing. Steam rises from the suds, though she doesn’t sweat. Her long, red hair is pulled tight into a messy ponytail, and her teeth buck forward slightly in concentration.
My mother is not pretty.
Clean is believable, and always beautiful.
My mother is vacuuming or dusting or folding laundry, but she pauses for a minute and barks at me to go take a shower, to wash my hair, to make sure I scrub my face, and to use that handled sponge she bought me to wash my back. Showers are new for me. I miss baths. I miss the waves I can make as I scoot my bottom along the tub; I miss testing how long I can make the washcloth float before it sinks beneath the surface.
In contrast, the shower is blinding and fast, a race against the water that funnels down the drain. I stand there until the water runs cold, my hair still greasy, dirt caked into my toenails.
100% oil-free sunscreen that won’t clog pores and make you break out.
“Look at those white legs,” she says when I settle back on my striped towel. I adjust the elastic on my swimsuit and dig in a grocery bag for sunscreen. “If you got some color on those knees, they wouldn’t look so chubby.”
I look down at my early teenage body, a mix of womanhood and lingering baby fat, and see what she sees. Pudgy, white thighs. Lumpy knees. Thick ankles. Then I look at her and see her dark, freckled skin stretched over a thin frame, her legs long and smooth.
I bypass the sunscreen in the bag, slather on her baby oil and bake in the sun for three hours. That night, blisters bubble on my face and chest and my limbs swell into bulbous marshmallows.
My knees don’t look any thinner. Not even a week later when the red fades into a leathery pink.
For visibly clearer skin in as little as twelve hours.
My cousin brushes my bangs off my forehead while braiding my hair and says, “You have a lot of zits.” Her face is pale and white like a porcelain doll.
I walk the aisles of Rite Aid: foaming face wash, deep cleaning cleanser, astringent-soaked pads, creams, gels, pore strips. At home, all I have is Ivory soap.
After everyone is asleep, I sneak into the bathroom to extract the blemishes from my face. I squeeze and pick and squeeze some more until the pore opens up. I stop when it bleeds. I use tweezers on the difficult ones, the metal tip slipping, lacerations forming, scabbing, scarring. When there is nothing left to squeeze, I lather my face with soap and smear on the only gel I can find in the cabinet. I can’t read the name of it, but the tube is shaped just like pimple-clearing cream I saw at the store.
Instead of clearing my skin, it opens the picked blemishes into the quarter-sized sores. My friends ask what happened to my face, and I tell them I burned myself with a curling iron.
It’s two weeks before my mother notices the second-degree burns on my face. She forces me to produce the ointment.
“Where did you get this?” she asks and snatches it from my hand.
The question she asks is the wrong question. I don’t answer.
I can’t answer.
Melissa Grunow’s creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in New Plains Review,Yemassee, Blue Lyra Review, The Quotable, 94 Creations Literary Review, and The Dying Goose, among many others. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from National University and an MA in literature from New Mexico State University. She teaches college-level composition and creative writing courses full-time in southeastern Michigan. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter at @mel_the_writer.