Saori put off the visit for nearly a year. It was just a rash, she thought. Plus, she was spending all her waking hours and not a little dream time dealing with Andrew’s minor indiscretion, his temporary lapse of judgment, whatever other clichés he used.
What did start out as a rash on her right shoulder soon became itchy bumps that she scratched open. These crept across the base of her neck and down the shoulder blade and, without scabbing, swelled until even the old shirt Andrew left behind set the skin alight. Saori wasn’t too vain to dig into the broken flesh for relief, but she didn’t look forward to flashing the results at the doctor.
Saori was surprised to hear that Dr. Norman was only forty. He reminded her of the bundle of green onions growing dry and limp in her fridge, though there was an incongruously fresh scent about him that the onions lacked. She was relieved he took her on, though he made it clear the troupe of medical students would be ever-present. They were watching as his pale face and dust-coloured hair stretched over her bent, bare back.
Eczema, he said.
“Isn’t that a childhood thing? Something people grow out of?” Saori asked.
“It’s not uncommon among adults,” said Dr. Norman. “You will have to speak up a little, so we can hear you better.” He nodded in the direction of the students.
Andrew was always asking Saori to speak up. She couldn’t recall if she noticed when the novelty wore off for him, when he stopped leaning in close to hear her better and teasing her for covering her face when she laughed.
“I have something here,” Dr. Norman said, “A new compound, very effective. Expensive, too, but I can let you try it for free.” Grey foam gathered at the corners of his mouth as he spoke. The med students continued to stare, whether to mimic the doctor’s expression or because they didn’t find eczema all that exciting, Saori wasn’t sure.
She left with a small jar and orders to return in three weeks. On the bus, she unscrewed the lid. The ointment looked like yellowing plastic and smelt of citrus. Perhaps Dr. Norman had eczema as well. He didn’t seem like the type to make small talk in front of his students. The bus slowed at the next stop, where a row of faces blurred as they passed Saori’s window. Saori thought of the faces in the examination room and grew dizzy. She closed her eyes.
That night, she slept without clawing herself awake for the first time in months. Her dream was scented by limes.
The itching disappeared. The bumps continued to grow, but they became smooth and only stung when touched. Dr. Norman said little about them. Once, in the silent exam room, she saw the whole group reflected in a poster frame. The doctor wore a slight smile, which was exaggerated in the faces of the med students. She took that as a good sign, though when she saw the real thing again, there was no expression. Saori pulled her shirt back on and took the refill.
After a long shower, Saori turned away from the fogged mirror and held up a compact. She swung her wet hair aside, bent down, looked up — there: the protrusions were lighter than her skin tone and, from this angle, suggested a familiar profile. She traced ointment with firm fingers over the brow ridges, deep into the eyes, between the sharp cheekbones and narrow bridge of the nose, finally along the thin lips. It was the face of a man who worked hard for himself instead of feeding off others, one who healed rather than hurt, she decided. She noted grey wisps sprouting from the growth, glistening against her damp skin. Saori pulled on a loose sweater.
As she stepped off the bus at the subway, she heard her name.
“Saori. How have you been?” Andrew drew her into an embrace. Saori felt his soft, full face resting against the top of her head. His arm pressed into the cheekbone on her shoulder blade. In her mind, she could see Dr. Norman looking annoyed. No, he never looked annoyed — his mouth twitched.
“Look, I’m in a hurry right now,” Andrew said, pushing back his dark, shiny hair, “But I feel really bad about how things ended between us. What do you say we get together for a drink? Say, Thursday?”
Saori’s eyes shone. She shook her head.
“Why not?” Andrew’s grin shaped itself into a sneer. “Are you seeing someone else already?”
The face was swelling against Saori’s sweater now. Her skin split apart to allow the mouth to open, releasing a spray of moisture at the corners. She felt a new cluster of growths throbbing under the skin, one for each med student in the exam room. A whiff of limes.
“I do have someone else, yes,” she said. She couldn’t tell if she was shouting or whispering, and she didn’t care.
Tonight the face will speak and it will listen to her, too. And soon, maybe in a few weeks or months, she’ll have all the company she’d ever need. Saori couldn’t wait.
Monica Wang was born in Taichung, Taiwan, and raised in Vancouver, Canada, where she received a degree in English and philosophy. Her story in Green Hills Literary Lantern has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.