2010 summer fiction skin

by Allison Kade

This is the story of how I became omniscient, and what happened when I did. I wouldn't have become all-knowing in the first place if not for a nonverbal understanding that led to an oral fixation, and adultery that led to a haircut that influenced another haircut. Without the cat dander or the conference in Boston, the kiss would never have happened, the most important pimple would not have burst, Sophocles would not have stood naked in my kitchen, and I wouldn't have confronted the paradox of my omniscience.


A NONVERBAL UNDERSTANDING

The chances are slim—less than 1%, actually—that I would have become omniscient if Miriam Bronstein had not formed a connection with a simple, quiet boy nearly forty years ago.

The quiet boy rubbed Miriam's stomach and nuzzled his soft head into the space under her chin. They lay on Spiderman sheets in the boy's gray-blue bedroom, which had orange curtains and comic book cutouts on the wall. Naked and surrounded by KAPOW!s and KAZAAM!s, Miriam wondered idly whether he could read, and then what her parents would think. Neither mattered, really. Miriam liked the boy because he hardly spoke, and, even though she didn't say much either, it made her feel like he was listening.

She would go over to his house in the afternoons and they would make lemonade. Their elbows knocked occasionally as they squeezed lemon pulp between their fingers. The boy never bothered to remove the seeds that fell in, so Miriam didn't, either. When, hands over kitchen bowls, their elbows bumped, the boy would quietly touch her arm with his sticky, sour fingers.

The last time that Miriam saw him before she left for college, they were leaning against the wall near his old erector set. It occurred to Miriam for the first time that there were no freckles elsewhere on the boy's body, only on his cheekbones. So she kissed his unfreckled shoulder, the knot where his tendons beamed out like vectors. He smiled uncomplicatedly and nuzzled his head into her neck.

From this sweetness grew in Miriam a conflicted love of the simple. When she went to college, she cultivated an appreciation of Montaigne and Hume, but an admittedly small part of her wished that, when she ordered lemonade at a restaurant, she might spot just one seed.

She didn't invite the boy to her wedding. She thought about him for a moment as she fumbled with the buttons on her bodice, but that was it. Her marriage to Tom Gilson, her college boyfriend, was built on crossword puzzles and a shared interest in politics. He was the sort of man who made jokes about the economy while they had sex. He left riddles to lead her to her birthday presents, which were always witty and interesting. One year, she got a book of great American speeches and an ice cube tray in the shape of pi.


AN ORAL FIXATION

Years later, as she nursed her infant, Miriam sat on an uncomfortable red leather couch with no backrest, in a pristine modern-looking living room. The baby, Matthew, grasped clumsily at her breast. His head was fuzzy and contented against her chest. Both of them fell asleep while she sat upright. When Miriam drifted back to consciousness, she moved to the floor and rested her back against the red seat. Her son continued feeding.

At the end of an hour, she tried to pull the baby away, but he clung to her breast. Although she purred softly and tried to detach him, his lips clamped down on her nipple. She pulled him harder, but he dug his baby fingers into her breast and held on with superhuman strength. Unsure whether this was normal, she set him back against her body. He was her first child, after all. After a few minutes, she dozed off again, and Matthew's fuzzy head lolled back onto her chest.

Breastfeeding reminded Miriam of the quiet boy. She breastfed Matthew for so long that it was unclear whether she did it because she enjoyed it or because she was nervous that he would hurt her again. She continued to breastfeed even after his teeth ruptured his gums, and, needless to say, long after her husband Tom thought it appropriate.

Breastfed for the first four years of his life, there was an 85% chance that Matthew Gilson would be fettered with an intense oral fixation. When, at five years old, he refused to stop sucking his thumb, the probability jumped to 99%. As a seven-year-old, he bought a pacifier for himself at the drug store. Although it made his father angry, he walked around the house sucking on the rubber teat. In sixth grade, Matthew took the pacifier with him to school—his teacher gave him a detention. His father lectured him about fitting in and then grounded him for two months.

As Miriam slept against the hard, modernist furniture, she was unaware that she was setting the wheels in motion and changing my life forever. Without Matthew's love of putting things in his mouth, I might have had a pimple, but no omniscience. Without omniscience, none of this would have started or ended.

In the coming years, Matthew would find that he was attracted to women with short haircuts and sloping necklines, though he would never admit that it was because they reminded him of his mother's utilitarian haircut and milk-laden bosom.


A HAIRCUT INSPIRED BY ADULTERY

In a blue-tiled bathroom with a triptych mirror over the sink, a ten-year-old girl stood barefooted on the cold linoleum. She held a pair of scissors. Her feet were ruddy. Because she was short for her age, she could only see her head and the tops of her bony shoulders in the mirror.

Elbows high, Cath snipped a lock from her already-short hair. The wisps that fell onto the tile were small enough that they made only the soft non-sound of snow falling. Cath hadn't seen snow in two years. She trimmed a bit of hair just above her ear and held an exploratory butterfly clip next to her face. After a moment, she set it back on the counter.

Her father walked in, but he wasn't angry that she was cutting her own hair. Instead, his face softened. He liked that she was a tomboy, which was why she did what she did. She sensed that he had a secret, and that she hadn't yet earned the right to know it.

Cath's father's secret was this: He had moved the family from Pennsylvania to California in order to be with his mistress. An educator, she became Cath's homeroom teacher after the move. She had met Cath's father at the horse track when he was in town for a family reunion, where she was watching her then-lover, the fourth-place jockey who rode a horse named Zero. In the end, she left the short jockey for Cath's father in the hopes that his added height would make him a better lover. (Her hypothesis was proven incorrect.)

Cath put her scissors down. "Hey."

"You know your mom doesn't like it when you do this."

"I'll clean up after."

Her father nodded. "Soccer championships are next weekend, right? I might have to work late the next few days."

"Yeah."

His hands flitted toward the scissors on the countertop, but didn't touch them. "We would take you to a real hairdresser if you let us…"

"That's what Mom wants. You've always thought that hair is hair."

When Cath's father scratched his mustachioed upper lip, his hand covered a small smile. He had begun encouraging her tomboyism around the time of the move; he told himself that he'd be able to unload the burden of his infidelity, if only he had a son as a confidante. His short, skinny daughter knew that the best way to curry favor was to pull out his old mitt and ask him to toss in the street. She watched documentaries about military fighter jets and dutifully trimmed her own hair to prove that she was low-maintenance. Though her breasts were still only nubs, her father wondered when she would go on her first date. Probably within five years.

He opened his mouth and then closed it again. For the first time, he noticed the butterfly clips on the counter. He knew that Cath would only grow closer to his wife as she had questions about makeup and boys and tampons.

Cath tousled her hair in the mirror and then looked at her dad. "I think it'll be cute, right?"

He smiled. "Yeah. I think so, too."

He would not tell anyone his secret until years later, when, sick with cancer, he would finally confess to his wife. It would happen long after the affair was over, but his wife would be overcome with uncharacteristic spite and leave him to face his pancreatic battle alone.


THE MOST IMPORTANT PIMPLE

I was still holding the 900-page hardcover book that Matthew had given me in English class. We were sitting on the short bumper of an empty parking space in our high school parking lot, surrounded by a chain link fence. The ground was strewn with litter and dirty bits of streamer from a pep rally that had taken place three weeks earlier.

Matthew was chewing on the end of a pen, his lips closed over it softly as he bit down. I strummed the spine of the book in my lap. Our knees were just far enough apart that they didn't touch, and neither of us had said anything yet.

I ran my hand over the prickly cover and slipped it into the smooth space of the title page. I was about to flip to the table of contents when Matthew coughed. He wiped at his mouth embarrassedly, but a smudge of blue ink smeared across his chin from the burst pen.

"I'm just not attracted to you," he said, finally, with blue lips.

"Okay," I said. "Thanks."

I was glad to have the dermatology textbook. I snuck a look at his hands, and told myself that this was the last time I would do so.

My obsession with hands began toward the end of middle school, when my sister made fun of the way I drew people's fingers and palms. I had wanted to be an artist since age six. After her criticism, I determined not to let my lack of faculty keep me from my artistic destiny. Hand drawings became my Everest. I drew them every day, on notebook paper and napkins and the inner jackets of book covers.

My first conversation with Matthew Gilson took place during our senior year of high school. The first time I met him, he was sucking on a leftover candy cane and debating a finer point of The Crucible. His cuticles were broken and he had a wart on his index finger. As he gesticulated, I was drawn in.

Sitting in the parking lot, I pointed to the ink around Matthew's mouth. "You have some, umm…"

"Thanks." He wiped his chin with his shirt sleeve.

Every day in English class, I would start a conversation with him as we took our seats. With only one sentence from me, he would expound upon my topic with fervor, eloquence, and the most vivid hand gestures I'd ever seen.

A month or two before that ink-smeared day in the parking lot, I sat next to him in English class and breathed in the smell of his pineapple-flavored gum. He looked at the hand I was drawing and said: That one's cool. It was a picture of my own thumb and forefinger, rendered in high detail.

You can have it if you want it.

In the days that followed, Matthew made special requests. You need to do more old people and babies, you know, to be a well-rounded hand artist. Can you do mine?

I recreated his jagged cuticles, shaded in the baby wart. Above the burn on his knuckle, I wrote, I like you.

Instead of writing back, he whispered, I'm not in a place right now where I'm, you know… he trailed off. We're leaving for college soon.

Oh.

Nothing personal.

Right.

But I didn't believe him. When he bought me the tome of dermatological photos from the used book store, I didn't know what to think. It contained all the ages and races and hand diseases I could have imagined. When I got to the page on dyshidrotic eczema, I marveled at the gruesomely blistered hands. I couldn't help writing another note: We get along so well…

Matthew's eyes narrowed. Let's talk after class.

So, in the parking lot, I looked down at my doodled-upon, hennaed hands. "Thanks," I said again. "I needed to hear you say it."

"Sorry."

"No, it's okay."

"Okay."

"Thanks for the book."

"Yeah."

The next morning, I woke up with a pimple on the ridge between my eyes. I would grow bangs to hide it, use acne creams and homeopathic remedies, but the pustule would only keep expanding. It would remain on my forehead for a full five years.


CAT DANDER AND A PIMPLE'S DEVELOPMENT

In a college dorm room in New York, Sebastian, a frat boy, took a sip of beer and fondled my forehead. By college, my pink mound of blood and pus and self-loathing was an inch in diameter. I thought of it as a third eye, and other people must have, too, because it was magnetic. Men would hit on me at the grocery store and in the laundry room, ogling my mark of shame-pride. On that occasion, I sat on the edge of the brown-and-blue comforter as Sebastian touched my head. To his credit, he had made small talk for two whole hours before asking me about it.

On the same night, in an old-fashioned sitting room in Massachusetts, a cat rubbed up against the door post and watched Matthew, who was kneeled on the rough carpet in front his college girlfriend. As he went down on her, he felt a familiar tickle in his nose. He didn't turn away because it happened every time, and there was something intimate about sneezing into her. Cat dander permeated the room, and the skin on his knees prickled with allergy. His girlfriend leaned forward and scratched her nails down his back.

In New York, Sebastian kissed my lips and then my temple, which brought him dangerously close to his mark. Maybe it made me look exotic. Or, maybe, these boys were drawn to the dark, oozy currents of my subconscious.

As Lewinski the cat brushed against Matthew's thigh, his girlfriend pushed him onto the rough carpet. His back burned sweetly and his girlfriend smiled at the beginning of hives on his chest. Matthew panted and wheezed from both exertion and asthma. In the dander-clouded moment, he was blotchy with allergies and lust.

Over time, I would learn to appreciate the probing curiosity people had about my pimple. It became so much a part of me that it participated in every interaction like a third conversationalist.

Meanwhile, in the years that followed, cat smell would never cease to make Matthew both congested and aroused. Although he would experience an uncontrollable erection whenever he cleaned a litter box, that would be only one ramification.


THE CONFERENCE

Five years since we had last met, I gave Matthew an awkward hug and followed him into a dark bar with wooden floors, wooden tables, and a fake bear's head on the wall. Korean music videos played on mute from televisions at either corner of the room. Matthew's jaw was firmer than it was in high school, his shoulders were stronger, and in the dim light of the pub, he looked like a man.

We wouldn't have been there if the pieces hadn't fallen precisely into place.

If not for the mice that ran amok in my first apartment, I would not have adopted a kitten. If not for the kitten, Cath, an animal lover, likely would have chosen a different sublet. A few weeks before my conference in Boston, Cath cut my hair. She told me I was beautiful and convinced me not to hide the swollen bump on my forehead behind bangs. That act alone bumped my odds of omniscience from 5% to 73%. As she did it, I stood barefoot on the cold, dirty tile and listened to the grainy sound of hair snapping apart. The longest wisps brushed against the tops of my ears.

Four days before the conference, Cath's friend agreed to let me stay on her couch. I didn't really know my host, so I called the only other person I knew in the area.

Matthew paid for my beer, and I smiled, and he smiled. He asked me how I'd been. I deflected. Instead, I presented him with a conversation topic the way I used to, something about history or the meaning of free will. It worked at first, but then he paused. "You're good at avoiding questions, you know that?"

I grinned. "Yeah."

He unwrapped a straw before dunking it into his beer. I wouldn't become omniscient for another twelve hours, when I would learn about his oral fixation.

"So, tell me." Matthew ran the back of his pinkie against the condensation of his glass. "What have you been up to?"

"I live in New York now, work for an advertising agency…"

The hint of a wart lingered on the edge of his index finger. "Your life in one sentence, flat." He twirled the straw.

"Guess so."

"Being an artist never worked out?"

"No," I said. "At least, we'll see."

"Oh," he said. "I guess we've both changed in the last…has it been a whole five years?"

Matthew hadn't stared at my forehead at all. I found it disconcerting. As he laughed, his fingertip brushed my palm.

"What about you?" I asked.

"I'm much less interesting than I used to be," he joked.

The bar closed at two in the morning. "Do you want to come back for coffee or tea or something?"


WHAT MADE THE PIMPLE BURST

Matthew reached into the cupboard. I leaned against the peeling brown Formica countertop in the yellow-lit kitchen and watched.

He held out two mugs, and I chose the big one with monkeys around the rim. "Tea?" I chose the white tea.

He set the water to boil and leaned on the counter next to me. The kitchen smelled of stale pretzels and soda, but Matthew's finely-attuned nose also picked up the scent of fresh dander that clung to my shirt.

Cosmic forces came to a head. The sight: Short hair curled around my ears before giving way to a generous neckline. An ancient neuron was activated. The smell: Cat dander, repugnant to most, but enticing, stimulating to others. Miniscule nose hairs swirled in communion.

The hand I had been eyeing all night came toward me and tilted my chin. Matthew kissed me, and his lips were surprisingly dry.

At that moment, my phone rang. Cath's friend needed me to return. It was late and I didn't have a key.

"Well, um," I said to Matthew. "I should… probably get going."

His smile was lopsided with promise. "You can stay here as late as you want…"

I hid my face among the monkeys as I took a sip of the tea I'd chosen. It tasted like hot water. I traced my fingers over the ceramic monkeys while I thought about pustules and third eyes.

Finally, I set the mug down on the counter. "I think I need to go."

"Okay," he said, trying to look unfazed. "I'll walk you back."

En route, he expounded on the government or the American school system or something, but I wasn't listening. We exchanged another hug on Cath's friend's stoop.

On the bus back to New York, I closed my eyes and thought about the night before. As I did so, something dribbled down the bridge of my nose. The middle-aged man sitting next to me made a tch sound. My pimple had burst. He passed me a tissue before averting his eyes.

If not for the nonverbal understanding that led to the oral fixation, or the adultery that led to the haircut that influenced my haircut, and without the cat dander or the conference in Boston, then the kiss would never have happened, Sophocles would never have come into being, the dishes would never have been in jeopardy, and I wouldn't have confronted the paradox of my omniscience.

But another puzzle piece was required for the omniscience bit. If the man sitting next to me on the Greyhound hadn't proffered his Kleenex seconds too late, my vision would not have become rheumy with pain, and I wouldn't have seen the webs of connections. That is, after I finished mopping the goo from my eye.

Within moments of stuffing the dirty tissues into the seat pocket in front of me, I became omniscient.

It would take me a day or two to understand what had happened to me. Although I enjoy calling it omniscience, my ability doesn't literally allow me to see the future. It's more about cause and effect. As Matt liked to say after we were married, I'll never lose a game of chess.


NAKED SOPHOCLES AND THE OMNISCIENCE PARADOX

I sat in the kitchen of the house I shared with Matt. It was cleaner and had nicer Formica than his old place. My sixteen-year-old son did homework in the other room while I sat underneath a comfortable ceiling fan and worked on a crossword puzzle.

Even after the second sight set in, I liked crosswords. Of course, I could see everything that made the puzzle writer choose ORATE for 32 Across (her daughter was reading Thucydides) and TARTAR for 48 Down (she needed to go to the dentist), but I enjoyed going through the motions, pretending that I didn't know the answers.

I wrote in BOZO for 63 Across. There was a 95% chance that my pencil lead would break somewhere between 8 Down and 20 Across. I performed my usual test: Do these consequences affect me? I decided to wait until it broke.

Twenty years earlier, when Matt showed up on my doorstep with lollipop in hand (and one in mouth), I performed a similar test. I saw the tangled veins of future possibilities. There was a 79% chance that we would date successfully, a 68% chance that my job would allow me to transfer to Boston, and a 92% chance that I would want to. I played the odds.

As I filled in 8 Down, my pencil lead snapped and Sophocles walked in. He was naked. Bare feet on room-temperature tile, he nodded at me and opened the fridge.

There was nothing left of my pimple except a small scar, but it used to protrude outward. Sophocles, on the other hand, was born with a pustule-sized pockmark that dipped in. Matt and I nicknamed him that because there was something about his unspeaking, unblinking demeanor that made us half-ironically and half-not-ironically wonder if one day he would open his mouth and recite a Greek tragedy.

As Sophocles peered into the refrigerator, I thought about a conversation I'd had with Matt when our son was a toddler. We were in the master bedroom of our first home, surrounded by the heavy green curtains that Matt's grandparents had given us as a wedding present. His hands clasped my ankles and I watched the ripples of his back as he sucked on my toes. I didn't love the wet feeling around my pinkie toe, as though it were encased in warm jelly, but I allowed him to do it anyway.

"I don't think Sophocles will ever speak," I said as Matt traced his tongue against the ball of my foot.

He paused but didn't move his face. "He's two." I could feel his stubble against my ankle.

We had taken Sophocles to an audiologist and a neurologist and a psychologist, but there was nothing wrong with him. I foresaw that Sophocles would even bring home good marks on written assignments at school when he was older. We had gone from specialist to specialist, but I knew that our son would never change.

"I think it's just how he is," I said.

Matt spoke into my foot: "Is this something you think, or something you see?"

I didn't tell him then, but I also knew that our son would split us apart. Even as my husband popped my big toe into his mouth, I saw him smashing dishes in the kitchen in order to get my attention. Our marriage had an expiration date. I asked myself the usual question: Do these consequences affect me? I decided then that, though it would be sad, the dissolution of our marriage was nothing as long as I owned the relationship with our son. So, instead of answering Matt I said, "You should shave, sweetie."

Back in my kitchen, as naked Sophocles peered into the refrigerator, his more-than-a-few pubic hairs stirred in the current from the fan. He ate an apple.

Our son was a force unto himself, so I didn't yell at him to put on some clothes. Instead, I found myself thinking that there's something beautiful about a man who is comfortable in his own skin. I wondered if this was the day I had predicted fourteen years earlier.

When Matt walked in, he stared at me more than at Sophocles. "Don't you think he's a bit old for this?"

"Why don't you ask him?"

Matt hated it when I acted like Sophocles was a real person. "I'm sure he has a lot to say."

I took a cue from my son and kept quiet.

"Did you know that he has a girlfriend?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Does she talk?"

"Occasionally."

Matt sat on a kitchen chair. "Do you think he walks around naked with her?"

"It's possible," I said.

Sophocles continued looking through the pantry. The likelihood of smashed dishes narrowed in on me like the yellow cone of a hurricane forecast.

Matt's blue eyes were too light, like he'd stared at the sun for a long time. "Do you enjoy this?"

I blinked.

He gesticulated, but I didn't like that as much as I used to. "Our son has grown up attractively," he said. "Do you get some perverse pleasure from looking at him naked?"

"It's not perverse," I said. Sophocles leaned against the fridge and listened. He held the apple at his side.

Matt cracked his knuckles, but he didn't touch the porcelain. "I can't do this anymore."

A year in advance, I had chosen a cheaper set of bowls for this day.

"I'm sorry," I said.

Matt glanced at Sophocles and then back at me. "You knew this was bound to happen, didn't you?"

I controlled my face. "Yes."

"For how long?"

I didn't answer.

Matt exited for the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

Dishes intact, I sat with naked Sophocles and asked myself the question I had been waiting to ask for two decades. Did this, in fact, affect me? I didn't entirely believe my own answer.

About the Author

Allison Kade is a seasoned freelance writer and an editor at LearnVest, a prominent personal finance website for women. Her fiction has been published in the literary magazine Underground Voices; in addition to developing more short stories, she is currently writing a stageplay and a short film. Prior to joining LearnVest, she was the Columns Editor at GreenAndSave.com, an environmental news website. Her past ventures include teaching an online creative writing course for high school students and founding an international young adults' creative writing community that was featured as one of the 101 best websites for writers by Writer's Digest. Allison holds a B.A. from Columbia University and loves to travel. She is particularly drawn to writing that betrays a true love of language and the understanding that reality is what we make of it; her favorite books include Kafka on the Shore, 100 Years of Solitude, and Midnight's Children.

Maintained or neglected, familiar or foreign, well-worn or wild, roadways inform our decisions and identities. Their geographies direct the movement
of our lives and sketch the cartography of our stories. In this spirit, 322 Review publishes provocative emerging and established artists whose fiction,
creative nonfiction, poetry, and mixed media artwork wander the paths of human experience. A nonprofit literary journal conceived
and operated by former Rowan University graduate students, 322 Review is based in Southern New Jersey.