Featured Prose | September 06, 2017

This week we are featuring Nicole Banas’s 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize finalist essay “Rash,” about being young and under pressure and sharing the trouble of someone else.

Nicole Banas lives near Philadelphia and works as a legal journalist. “Rash” was her first published essay. It appeared in TMR 38:1.

 

Rash

By Nicole Banas

 

There was a long pause when I finished my research presentation in anthropology class, followed by a smattering of halfhearted applause. My classmates’ heads rested on their palms or bent elbows. The professor nodded and cleared his throat, then called the name of the next presenter. He didn’t look at me. I wasn’t used to being denied a smile of approval.

I knew I had bombed. My presentation had been bullshit, an attempt to spin my casual observations on diversity in the retail workplace into something that could pass for actual research. I’d sweated straight through my red sweater, the one I’d worn the night I lost my virginity on Tyson’s floor. It had taken immense effort not to scratch the creeping itch on my back for ten minutes. The only person besides the professor who seemed vaguely alert at eight in the morning was the blond guy in the back. He sat straight as a board and shot me little smiles throughout my speech, even though we’d never spoken. I’d had to look away. It was hard to tell if he was encouraging me or pleased that I was establishing the bottom end of the grading curve.

 

I was usually on the dean’s list, but that semester in my senior year things had nosedived. It began with a bout of influenza in January, followed by a sprinkling of angry red welts across much of my body. The rash was intensely itchy, and both a family physician and a dermatologist were confounded by its persistence. Antihistimines, steroids, prescription creams—all had proved powerless against the rash, which crept to new crevices on my body each week. An allergist at the university hospital advised me to stop eating wheat and soy, and then dairy, before finally saying he thought the rash might be a sign of an autoimmune disease, maybe lupus. He prescribed antimalarial drugs in addition to the other pills and creams and shook his head each time he scraped a line down my forearm and watched it swell.

The stress of not knowing when, if ever, I would find relief consumed me. The allergist said lupus symptoms first present themselves after a period of physical stress, and I feared my constant worrying could have brought it on. Each night I used a hand mirror to inspect the blotches that had congregated around my vagina and wondered who would ever touch me again.

 

The blond guy held the door for me on my way out of the building and stayed on my heels as I walked onto the quad.

“I liked the part when all the employees danced to Beyoncé during inventory.” His voice was deep, and he was tall and muscular.

“That was a lie. Only like four people danced.”

“Still. I liked your presentation. It was entertaining.”

I knew he was trying to flatter me, and it made me nervous. I wasn’t used to handsome guys approaching me. It brought out some kind of leftover fear from the seventh grade that he’d call me “wildebeest” or “cheese nose.”

“I’m Andy. We should study for the final together.”

It dawned on me—I was skinny now. The stress of being sick had caused me to lose about 15 pounds, which seemed to impress people who didn’t know I had the plague from the neck down.  My mother had to take me shopping for new pants the last weekend I’d gone home because my new butt was swimming in the shadow of the old one. She’d watched with a hesitant expression while I turned before the three-way mirror at the Gap, for the first time not wincing at a multiplied image of my hips. The size six pants were my only consolation for the nights spent scratching and fighting panic.

Andy e-mailed me that week with his phone number and said we should hang out sometime. He was brief and straightforward, and it felt like a movie transaction, an abridged version of how things are supposed to go for people with clear skin and good posture. It was completely different from what had happened before—my flirtation with Tyson had built steam over a whole semester my sophomore year, only to implode when we had sex on his bathroom floor after a party. I didn’t tell him it was my first time, and he was too drunk to notice. In the end I decided the best part was when he’d grabbed my hand during the walk to his apartment and kissed me in the middle of the street.

I couldn’t let the e-mail sit. Andy was the first guy who’d intrigued me since Tyson, who rarely called anymore. Most of my interest stemmed from disbelief that he was really interested in me. Still, I figured a guy wouldn’t ignore an e-mail from a hot girl, so why should I ignore one from a hot guy?  It could be some kind of reward for my suffering, a gift from the universe in the form of a broad-shouldered suitor with nice abs.

I dared myself to call Andy from the bus on my way in to work.  He was free that night, and we arranged to meet at 10 PM on Broad Street outside Banana Republic. I waited for him on the front steps, and when he turned the corner I could smell his cologne and see the iron creases in his button-down shirt. It made me nervous; the most Tyson had done in the months after our bathroom rendezvous was offer me a 40-ounce bottle of beer before making a beeline for my pants.

Andy suggested we go to the Irish Pub, and I agreed, even though I was secretly smug about any bar that broadcast sports and played dance music at the same time. We sat on stools facing each other, and I cringed inside when he told me it was impressive that I’d ordered beer instead of something sweet. He said he was twenty-three, and I asked why he was still in school.

“I just got back from Iraq. Second time there since last year.” He smiled when he said it, like he expected me to laugh.

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow. Why did you go there?”

“I joined the Marines after 9/11.”

Was he one of those people who thought 9/11 and Iraq were related? He had to know better by now

“What was it like?” I asked.

“Wild. I was part of the initial invasion. The people there were really happy to see us. It was great at first.”

“Did you get tired of it?”

“Eventually. You don’t get a lot of sleep, and you’re always on guard at weird times. I came home in eight months, but then they sent me back pretty much right after.”

“That must have been awful.”

“It wasn’t so bad. I just wanted to get back to school eventually.” He smiled at me and brushed his knee against mine.

I nodded. He seemed so blasé, but I didn’t want to push. Who was I to pretend I knew what went on over there? I’d spent most of 2003 playing Text Twist at my work-study job and sneaking leftover food from the cafeteria into my mom’s old Tupperware containers. I wanted to know if he’d killed people but thought it too harsh to ask.

“I’m behind on school, too. I got sick a few months ago, and I’m probably not going to graduate on time.”

Andy’s face changed. “What kind of sickness?”

“I had what seemed like an allergic reaction. But now the doctors think it might be an autoimmune disease like lupus.”

“Is that contagious?”

I smiled. There was something almost refreshing about his self-interest. “No. You’d have to be born with a tendency to develop it.”

Andy shifted in his seat. “This is going to sound weird, but have you ever been tested for AIDS? That’s an autoimmune disease.”

He’s got to be an idiot, I thought. “It’s not the same thing.”

“Can you die from lupus?”

“Yeah, but most people just get sick.”

“How sick?”

“Pretty sick.” I took a swig of beer. I didn’t want to remember the list of symptoms I’d read on the Internet.

“Well, I hope you don’t have it.” He put his hand on my leg and smiled. I wasn’t sure if I hated him or admired him.

Later Andy took me to Smokey Joe’s, a bar at the University of Pennsylvania. He stopped at the ATM outside and withdrew the maximum, $250.

“Why do you need so much money?” I said.

“I just got paid.” He held the door for me.

We found a booth in the back, and Andy slid in beside me with a couple of beers. I felt his hard leg against mine, and when I looked at him, his face was close to mine. It was so dark I could barely see his eyes, but I knew he was smiling.

The whole thing felt ridiculous. We had nothing to say to each other. The beer had erased all my anxiety, and the only thing I could think of was how it would feel to kiss him, this handsome guy who meant nothing to me. And then he did, and we both laughed as soon as it was over.

We made out in the booth for what felt like hours. I was unconscious of anyone or anything else except Andy’s lips and tongue, his fingers climbing inside the back waistband of my jeans. Then he said, “Let’s get out of here,” and I was sold. Done deal.

In his apartment, we collapsed onto the couch in his dark bedroom, peeling off each other’s clothes.  The alcohol had dulled my senses, so I wanted a harder touch, less teasing. Andy pulled a condom from his pants pocket and slipped it on. I straddled him, laughing that he’d had it on him the whole time. Now I was like Tyson, doing it and not wanting anything. We finally had this in common. Andy fucked me on the couch and halfway on the floor and on all fours on the bed. His stamina was remarkable. He spanked my ass and told me he was balls-deep inside me, and it was just like the things Tyson would have said, except better because I didn’t need him so bad. I was too drunk to come, so I made approving moans and tried not to notice that he’d left his socks on.

When Andy finished, he let out a kind of primal groan and collapsed onto the bed. I lay an arm’s length away from him, unsure what to do, and it surprised me when he pulled me to him and wrapped the blankets around us.

“Thank you,” I said, relieved that he wasn’t showing signs of asking me to leave.

The feeling in my body returned as we lay there, and I tried not to do my usual pregnancy panic. We had used a condom and I was on the pill. People can have sex and it doesn’t ruin their lives, I told myself. My skin began to prickle.

The rash.

Had Andy seen it?  I felt my face growing warm. The room was dark, but a sliver of light crept in from beneath the door and between the curtains.  I tried to discreetly scratch my leg, my back, my stomach. He couldn’t have seen. He wouldn’t be touching me now if he’d seen. Maybe he was too drunk to notice. It happens.

“Are you itching?” Andy whispered.

I paused. “Yeah, it’s just—it’s the thing I was telling you about before.”

“Oh yeah. What did you say that was?”

“It’s like an allergic reaction.”

“Oh. Is it contagious?”

“No, remember? You’d have to have the same thing as me.”

“Okay.” Andy buried his face in my neck. I lay there rigid, trying to will away the itching with deep breathing.

When I woke up I was completely wet.

I knew immediately what had happened—sometimes when I drank too much I peed myself. It had happened for the first time about six months before, and I’d been humiliated, even though no one else was there. It seemed to suggest something ominous, like alcoholism or deep immaturity. When the rash appeared, I’d wondered if it was somehow connected—a symptom of a mysterious, uncontrollable medical ailment.  Wetting the bed was pretty common for toddlers and fraternity pledges, but it had to be less forgivable for a rash-afflicted drunk girl.

Andy asked what was going on.

“I’m all wet,” I said. “I think we must have spilled something on the bed.”

He sat up. “It’s everywhere.”

“I had a bottle of water in here before,” I lied.

“It’s warm.”

I leaped out of bed and looked around. “I don’t know where that bottle went.”

“I think you had an accident.” He rubbed his eyes with his fist.

“No, that’s not possible. Do you think you did?”

Andy got out of bed and pulled off the sheets. The large oval stain was visible even in the low light. “It’s on your side.”

I knelt down and looked under the bed. “I know there was a bottle of Poland Spring in here somewhere. I got it at the bar.”

Andy stood there naked, and I felt the weight of him looking at me, making decisions. My head felt light, my entire body flushed. I was certain he had never experienced this with any of the firm, daiquiri-drinking women who had preceded me.

I moved around the room, picking up clothes and looking under the couch for the fictitious water bottle, the thing that could save me from myself. Andy flipped the mattress over in one motion. He took me by the hand, climbed into bed and wrapped his arms around me.

“It’s okay, baby. Happens to my buddies all the time.”

In the morning he didn’t speak of it. He drove me home and kissed me good-bye in front of my house, a crumbling brick row home with a couch on the front porch where the neighborhood drunk spent most nights. I never expected to hear from Andy again.

 

Save for a couple of late-night voice mails, I did not hear from him. The rash stayed put, and I walked at graduation, knowing there was a blank sheet of paper inside the envelope. I went back to my doctors and took different pills, but nothing seemed to contain the hot itchiness that crept around my back, inside my thighs and under my breasts. One week in June I blew off work and took the train to my mom’s house, hoping that maybe all I needed was to be taken care of.

Nothing much changed other than the quality of my meals. I lay on the couch staring at reruns of The Cosby Show and Seinfeld, frustrated by the endless need to scratch and unable to forget about the problem for more than a minute at a time.

I was on the computer that Saturday, chatting with my friend Kelly, when she asked if I’d heard the news at school. A Drexel student had been arrested—someone had pulled a gun on a security guard or shot someone or something. Kelly sent me a link, and somehow I knew before I opened it.

Andy’s mug shot was the first thing I saw. His blond hair had been roughed out of its stylized spikes, and his expression was focused—eyes looking straight at the camera, mouth set in a firm line. He looked like a man, not a beer-drinking frat boy.

I scanned the article, searching for any confirmation that someone had been shot, killed or anything in between. I felt involved somehow, that the situation revealed something about my judgment.  

The story was all over the local news. No one had been shot, but a security guard claimed Andy had pulled a gun from his waistband and fired at him while evading a public drunkenness citation. My mother wanted to know how exactly I knew this guy.

“He was in my class,” I explained. “We went out on a date.”

“He could have shot you!” she said. “Did you know he carried a gun?”

“He wouldn’t have shot me.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just know.”

“Nicole,” she said. Her nightgown grazed the carpet as she stood in front of the TV. “You have to be more careful than that.”

 

I returned to Philadelphia because rent was due. I felt short-tempered with everyone and everything around me the next few weeks and finally resorted to prayer for itch relief.  I told God I would believe in Him for real this time if it stopped. I needed my faith in modern medicine restored, and for that I was willing to be better. I would work on my self-esteem. I’d stop answering when guys like Tyson or Andy called late at night. I would forgive my father for having predicted, when I was seven, that I was headed straight for Nutrisystem.

My mom mentioned on the phone that week that she had an itchy rash on her ankle. It was nonstop, she said, and she wasn’t usually one to complain. I was irritated that she expected me to feel sympathy for her when I had a raging, full-body disaster on my hands. She mentioned it a few more times over the next weeks, and I didn’t say much. Inside I felt like a three-year-old stomping her foot because she wanted recognition for having the more debilitating skin condition.

I knew something was wrong when she called in the middle of the day. My mom was in the car, driving the hour to her doctor’s office in Fountainville because they’d told her to come in right away. It turned out she had gone to the doctor a few days before for her rash and told them what had been happening with me. The nurse who called with the test results asked her what she was doing at work. She was highly contagious.

The diagnosis was scabies, or mites that live in and under the skin. They are tiny parasites you can’t see until they burrow through your skin, laying eggs and shitting and leaving red marks and mottled blotches in the folds, the warm, private places that other people don’t often see. The itch, the persistent, terrible itch, is the mites moving beneath your skin and your body’s allergic reaction to them. My mom’s doctor said it was generally passed through intimate contact with an infested person, like sleeping in the same bed, or skin-to-skin contact.

The theory was that my mother had gotten scabies from me when I’d camped out on her couch, the place where she drank coffee and watched the weather forecast each morning. She had gotten it because I’d used her towels and borrowed her sweatshirt and laid my head on her shoulder while telling her I would surely claw myself to death.

“How do you think you might have gotten it?” my mother asked, and I knew what she was asking. Who had I been having “intimate contact” with?

“I don’t know,” I said, my voice wavering, the knowledge certain in my gut. This was it, punishment for letting guys like Tyson and Andy use me up, letting them call at 2 AM and not waste much time with conversation. For not being what my mother wanted me to be—a nice girl who knows her worth—and for pretending to be someone liberated when I was really just sad. A girl who cries when people are mean to her in seventh grade and lets boys fuck her until it hurts and gets some cheap thrill when people think she’s going to die.

My mother’s doctor couldn’t say for sure that I had scabies, but she thought it was possible my doctors had missed the cause of my rash and treated only the symptoms. I might not have an evasive autoimmune disease, she said, but a treatable parasite. The mites can be killed with a pesticide cream that you slather all over your body and leave on overnight. I was to use it once, wash my sheets and pillows and then use it again two days later. It might not be the answer to my prayers, but it was worth a shot.

My mom drove straight from the doctor’s office to Philadelphia with four tubes of the cream on the passenger seat. She planned to meet me at the art museum so we could wait out the rush hour before she drove home and applied the cream. The oddity of her request to combine high art with treatment for bug infestation didn’t even occur to me. I was in a daze, thinking about how I’d gotten the bugs and who I had to warn about them. Did I have to make a series of businesslike phone calls to everyone I’d slept with, announcing my status? Could I send an anonymous letter instead? Either way, the word would get out. Everyone would see me as the slutty culprit. I stood on the grassy area in front of the famed steps, watching my mother drive around and around Eakins Oval at about five miles per hour. Each time she rounded the east side of the oval she tried to maneuver toward the parking lot, but no one would let her into the proper lane.

We saw an exhibit of seascapes by the French painter Edouard Manet. The traffic on the Schuylkill expressway, combined with the stress of being a parasite’s host, had driven my mother to new heights of anxiety.

“Make sure you don’t wash the cream off your hands when you’re done applying it,” she whispered as we stood in front of an oil rendering of porpoises. “The doctor said some people do that. But they’re in your hands too.”

I put on my headset and tried to keep from crying. Scabies was probably the grossest thing I could have conjured during my hand-mirror inspections. I tried to imagine the upside: it was possible this horrible phase in my life could be over by the end of the week. My health would be intact, but my crutch would be gone. My roommates wouldn’t worry about me, and my boss and professors wouldn’t let me slide anymore. I couldn’t imagine the shame of telling them that I’d wasted their sympathy over bug shit. 

“Do you think I have to tell people?” I asked my mom when we passed into a quiet hallway.

“You should probably tell your roommates, but maybe you could wait and see.”

The last painting of the sea Manet completed was L’Évasion de Rochefort, which shows the exiled political journalist Henri Rochefort and several other men adrift on a dark, choppy ocean after fleeing a prison colony. The headset recording told me that Rochefort was imprisoned on an island off Australia for supporting the Communist party that briefly ruled Paris in 1871. He escaped by boat to California for some years before returning to France in 1880. Manet depicted the men’s voyage as a way of showing sympathy or solidarity with their cause. I didn’t know anything of Rochefort or communism, but I recognized the tension in the painting, the sense that one’s world had suddenly eclipsed itself. I probably wouldn’t have the nerve to start such a journey, even to escape prison. It must have been unbearable for them to see the fear in each other’s eyes when the waves crested over the boat.

In my room that night I slathered the cream all over my body and scalp, even though the packaging said head treatment was not usually necessary. I needed to know I’d done everything I could.

 

Andy e-mailed me that Tuesday when I was in the computer lab at school, trying to finish a project I’d blown off that spring.  He said I’d probably heard what had happened, but he wanted me to know he hadn’t shot at anyone. He’d fired a gun in the air on a dare from his friends while they were drunk.  Andy said the story that ran in the city paper, the one that theorized he’d snapped due to post-traumatic stress from the war, was bullshit. He’d just done something stupid, and he needed my help. Andy’s attorney wanted him to collect letters from people who could attest to his character. It might help convince the judge not to sentence him to jail time.

I didn’t answer at first. What could I possibly write to a judge: “He was a pretty courteous one-night stand”? “I probably gave him scabies, but he’s polite enough not to mention it”? Andy was a stranger—maybe he often shot guns on public streets and didn’t feel the slightest bit conflicted about going to war. I had a gut feeling, though, that he’d just made a foolish mistake. He seemed like the kind of person who could get carried away.

The rash receded over the next couple of weeks, but I still itched and scratched. A new dermatologist confirmed that I’d had scabies but told me it appeared to be resolved. She spoke into a small tape recorder during the examination, describing my fading spots and blotches in scientific terms. When I showed her the places where I worried the mites were still hiding, she put her hands on my shoulders and told me to take a deep breath. I needed to realize that I was getting better, she said.

It was easier said than done.

 

The Schuylkill River runs through Philadelphia on its way to join the Delaware just south of the city. Both rivers are known for their brown, opaque waters and uncomfortable proximity to chemical plants, but the stretch of the Schuylkill that runs between Manayunk and the art museum is renowned for rowing. I took to jogging the river path that summer as a means of stress relief.

At first I could make it only as far as Fountain Green, a wooded drive about a mile down the path. By the time I got there I’d feel utterly ruined, light-headed and uninspired by the statue of General Ulysses S. Grant mounted on horseback. There were always rowers in the water, mostly crew teams from nearby universities and members of the private clubs that line Boathouse Row. They cut through the water with great force, heaving in synchrony while they sailed against the current. Often a coxswain urged them from the back of the boat, shouting times and directions through a bullhorn. They were too fast for me to keep up with, and I had to remind myself to stop racing them.  There was no point in lamenting that they had the advantage of combined strength, while I was ambling along with nothing other than my own body to propel me forward, constantly announcing its limits. The only thing I liked about jogging was the realization, when it was over, that my physical distress had caused me to forget whatever I’d been fretting about before. It was a thirty-minute reprieve from my neurosis.

My thoughts came back quickly when I walked it off on the path one day and the first one was of Andy, who would fit in so perfectly on one of those boats. I could see him driving the oars backward, his gaze fixed and his body engaged. Except now, I thought, Andy is in the other boat with me, the one with Rochefort and the prison escapees and his fellow Marines. We are staring at each other in the dark, and we are not speaking. There are only two oars among us and limitless squalls ahead.

Maybe the judge didn’t need to know how Andy and I were acquainted. I could still say that Andy had showed me kindness when I didn’t believe I deserved it. He wasn’t the hero that everyone wanted him to be, but he wasn’t irredeemable either. I walked up the hill, past the sculpture of the tiger about to attack, and toward home. The words in my gut were beginning to take shape.

 

Nicole Banas’ writing has appeared most recently in the Iowa Review Online, the Missouri Review and the South Dakota Review.

SEE THE ISSUE

SUGGESTED CONTENT