When Ellie looks in the mirror, she sees only skin. Hers is dry, but also oily. It is pale and burns easily. She is told skin changes every seven years. It is the body’s largest organ, the organ that wears no shield. She thinks of her skin breathing as she breathes, feeding on the muckings of the air. With a special brush, Ellie cleans her skin six times a day. She exfoliates, she rehydrates, she extracts and applies moisture. The skin itself is alternately pleased and confused. It glows, chafes, and reddens, in accordance with the formulas she uses.
Jack sends Ellie to a doctor before he goes. This doctor has a head that is all beard. He tugs at the beard while she talks, as if he wants to remove it. As if the beard is a creature that is nesting on his face, and that’s fine, but he’d like it to get off now. Ellie sees his skin stretching under the mustache and muttonchops, under the lush grey beard. She sees his face, beneath its hair, as a weird, distended putty. After her visits to the doctor, Ellie carries herself like a pocket full of eggs.
Ellie decides to seek help about her skin. For twenty-one years, she has allowed it to be burnt by sun and frozen by cold. Her skin is sad, it is hostile, it would turn on her in a second. She finds a listing for an expert named Ludmila in the Yellow Pages. Beside the number, Ludmila glowers from a stamp-sized photograph. She is the arch-enemy of bad skin. Ellie calls for an appointment and marks the date on her calendar. Thinking of Ludmila, she feels a calm like being immersed in warm water. It is as though she has read ahead in her own biography and discovered a happy ending.
Ellie will use the money she spends on the doctor to visit Ludmila twice a month. She knows her brain is a mess, but who can see it, who will touch it? It is locked in its case, swimming in a charged fluid. It can wait, in a way that skin can not.
Women in London are known for the beauty of their skin. Moisture in the air settles kindly upon them while they go about their business. The air is helpful and nourishing: the women don’t need to lift a finger. Ellie swallows rapidly, imagining these women in their trench coats and stunning complexions. She is certain that if her skin gets worse, no one will want her.
At their first meeting Ludmila assures her this is true. “You are lucky to haff come when you deed,” she says, wielding the special masque of correction. “You are gurl with beeg problem.” Ludmila cleanses, buffs, peels, rubs, and opens Ellie’s skin. Then she soothes it, massages it, and mends it with the masque. She coats it with a layer of cream. She tricks it into looking better than it is.
Ellie returns home and goes directly into the bathroom. In the mirror, her skin is so lovely it frightens her. It smells like peaches, but there is no one to smell it. The effects will last, at most, a week. She drinks water from the faucet until her stomach strains against her shirt. She takes a picture of her skin with Jack’s camera.
Ellie doesn’t hear from Jack for a month. She sleeps all day with his socks on her hands. The phone rings evenings at six o’clock. She can tell it is the doctor by the way he calls on the hour and says nothing into the phone. She must do the talking if she is to heal herself.
Finally, on a Monday, Jack calls. Is he five hours ahead or four hours behind? She straightens on the bed as if he can see her. Her skin shines from emollients she applied last night. Her stomach is bloated with old water. Jack sounds happy to be away. He has been drinking with people she will never meet.
He says, “I’ll tell you, these musty old professors . . . ”
Ellie wrings her hands in their socks. “A man came to the window last night,” she says. “He’s been following me everywhere. I can see him when I’m in the doctor’s office, he’s waiting under the awning of the White Spot.”
After a silence, he says, “WhaaaAT?”
Ellie removes herself from Jack’s house, her heart heavy as a soaked blanket. She does not deserve him. She will go away and improve. Collecting her things, she finds a stack of pornographic magazines under the bed. The centerfold girls slouch spreadlegged and panting, their skins slick with desires Ellie shudders to imagine. In columns amid the photographs, people expose themselves in print. A woman is sticking a candle up herself when her husband enters the room. Far from being disgusted, the man is aroused. In weeks to follow, the candles get larger and larger. Ellie feels like a hypochondriac discovering an unplanned symptom. She will never see a candle in the same way again.
She rents an apartment near the railroad tracks, using cabs to move her luggage, since she doesn’t know how to drive. On the last trip, the driver refuses to accept her tip. He says, “Get yourself a sandwich, little girl, you’re too thin.”
That night she walks through snow-textured darkness to a phone booth in the lobby of Howard Johnson’s. The booth’s interior is orange and perforated by constellations of tiny holes. The cold, blue plastic receiver is attached to the phone by a metal wire thick as a finger. She handles this wire as she presses the sequence of buttons that will connect her to Jack.
The phone rings in couplets, somewhere in London. Ellie tries to imagine Jack’s apartment. She sees him lying on a thin bed, flat on his back in a star shape, the way he looks when he’s asleep by mistake. He wears the thermal suit his mother gave him because it’s wet there, he is afraid to catch cold; Ellie gave him gloves and a hat with flaps when he left and he wore them on the plane, he waved from the little window, he smiled. His perfect teeth, thin lips, black curls, warm eyes. “Are you my princess?” he would ask. A woman answers the phone. It is seven a.m. in London.
Football Saturday. Ellie walks fast through the parking lot of a shopping mall. Deserted, the city feels like the blueprint of a hangover: still, cold, and electric. Around her snow hardens in drifts. She wears red mittens and a gray sweatshirt with its hood up. She holds her own hand as she walks.
Amplified cheers from the stadium crackle in the air like static and Ellie stops to listen, folding the shirt’s fleeced hood from her ears. The noise is distant and unreal, like the hissing of the ocean through a shell. It seems likely to exist inside her head. She stands for a long moment within the white lines of a parking space. Empty cups rattle in the gutters. A passing truck of strangers blares its horn.
Moving again, Ellie watches the ground pass beneath her. She looks at the white rubber toes of her shoes. My shoes, she thinks, slowing. My feet: me. She comes upon the blue glass gravel of a shattered windshield. There has been an accident, and she stops, as if to mourn it. She sees people, their skin sliced to ribbons by flying glass. Jack’s father, a doctor, has once spoken of a serum which, when applied, would render the skin so supple that surgeons could operate without making incisions. “They’ll just reach right through the ribcage, no scars, it’s fantastic!” he exclaimed. Ellie starts to run, looking straight into the empty air in front of her.
She arrives at a white door with a silver handle. It is a handle she has held many times. Inside, music breathes from unseen speakers. The chair is shaped like the glove of a giant. One’s head lies on its wrist, while its fingers support one’s legs. When Ellie arrives, Ludmila drapes her in a blanket. She pulls the hair back from Ellie’s face with a cloth band. She doesn’t bother, any longer, to make conversation.
The cleaner is abrasive and requires soft sponges. Feeling these sponges, like the tongues of big cats, the blood yearns upward to the face, the skin opens like a flower touched by light. A nozzled machine beside the chair emits a veil of warm moisture. Ludmila faces Ellie through a magnifying glass as big as a porthole. Ludmila’s hands are firm as she batters impurities from Ellie’s face. She has no patience for the sordid urges of the skin. Sloughing dead cells and removing pockets of clogging, she prepares for the dermal massage.
From a round jar, she gathers a palm full of olive-colored cream. It is cool and smells of oatmeal as she touches it to Ellie’s skin. Ellie knows it is a good, clean, simple thing. Ludmila frames Ellie’s face with both hands as though it is a fragile treasure. She begins to move her fingers in concentric, soothing patterns over Ellie’s cheeks, forehead, and chin. The movement is gentle, feather-soft. It starts to draw Ellie from herself, making her only her skin. She remembers how Jack would run his fingers over her scalp in the morning. Propped up reading in his big bed with her beside him, he would absently sketch figures on the skin below her hair. When Jack left, Ellie tried to scratch her own head, but it hadn’t been the same at all.
The heart is a muscle, Ellie thinks. It can be flexed, controlled, restrained, slowed down. The brain cannot tremble in its case. It cannot cause the eyes to bleed. Ludmila continues to massage her skin, though now the rhythmic gestures seem obscene. Ludmila has a cold, narrow, Slavic face. The skin shines smoothly on her flat cheeks like plastic. She would not flinch if Ellie died at this moment. She would take money for the appointment out of Ellie’s purse before calling an ambulance. Ellie is an ugly girl with oatmeal on her face, nobody’s princess.
“Please,” she says aloud, tears welling in her eyes and spilling onto the blue clay of the masque. She looks down the narrow length of her covered body. Her hands find each other under the scratchy yellow blanket.
She is shivering. Across the empty room thick with steam, she hears the ticking of the timer. It will be over in a matter of minutes. Ludmila will return to find . . . what? Ellie will be speaking, nonsense flowing from her mouth like bilge. She will be carried out on a stretcher. She begins to sob, her head rolling on the folded towel beneath it. She thinks of falling to the floor, knocking herself unconscious. It would stop then, but it would be there when she woke, the first thing she’d feel.
In the center of the lake her brothers would abruptly cut the engine, so that all one could hear was the licking of waves at the boat. They would zip Ellie into a red life-jacket and fit her swaddled feet into the rubber lips of the skis. Holding her ankles with callused hands, they adjusted the bindings tighter and more tight. Then the pried off the skis and turned on the engine low. They threw Ellie into the lake afield of the propeller with one, two, three sickening swings, tossing next the skis which coasted with alarming speed, nosing toward her in the water like predatory fish. The tow-rope unfurled in the air, its grip landing with a splash just beyond her reach and she swam sideways to it, dragging her legs with their planks behind her.
The boat crept forward, straightening the rope as Ellie floated, knees drawn to her chest like a fetus, stiff arms holding to the grip between her skis. She saw her brothers’ faces, small as pennies and as blind. They drank and laughed on the idling boat without watching. Long weeds flirted with her legs and arms. The rope tautened and began to drag her in the water as the motor churned a wake which swallowed her smaller one. “Help!” she shouted. “I don’t know what to do!” The twins lifted their silver cans in greeting and one took his seat behind the wheel.
“Are you ready?” he yelled, and in the shrill moment between her nod and the roar of the engines, as speed travelled down the rope to her hands upon the handle, Ellie flexed her fingers in a white-knuckled grip, praying the rope would pull her up before she let it go.
The timer rings. Ellie has wept the clay from her face. Beyond the closed door, Ludmila greets her next customer. “Come in, how are you,” she says. “I see you haff problem.” Outside, a needling ice-storm has begun. Ellie shuts her eyes and moves her hands to the worn leather armrests of the chair. The steamer ceases steaming with a sigh.
More by Julia Clinger
At night I dream of the Precious Thing. Giant, exquisite, amorphous, and utterly fragile, it speaks but can’t be heard, it is waiting: it has chosen me. The Thing is a mammoth with bones weak as the spokes of a web. Eyes big as planets it weeps on me, and for me: for us. At night when I lie awake praying, thinking I want, I deserve, I must have, it is the Precious Thing who hears me. I understand that the Thing is not precious because it is valuable, I understand that it is hungrier than I am, that it is hunger itself, and thirst, and a yearning impossible to measure. How easy it would be to kick it, to abandon it, for it can only get larger. But I gather it up, I sustain it, for though it is huge it is light, and it loves me.
My God is as helpless as I am, and I lie beside it, saying Here I am: armless, legless, voiceless, but with wings: your angel.