The summer before college, rashes bloomed on Patricia Wang’s skin. Rough patches appeared on her hands and thighs, then stretched into leathery, weeping blotches. Every night, Patricia smoldered into her pillow, heat pricking her inflamed neck. Sweat needled past her skin, stinging the welts she left when she scratched herself.
One morning, her body crusted over entirely. A new layer of skin mummified her as she slept, cocooning her arms to her sides. Then it stretched across her eyelids, welding her vision shut. Her parents discovered her just before noon — taut and unmoving, scarcely breathing underneath her new shell.
As their daughter lay prone in the hospital, Frederic Wang consoled his wife with silly fantasies. Maybe Patricia would be beautiful when she emerged. Her leathery exterior would peel in clean strips, revealing a glossy, white body. Rich men would flock to her with courtship offers. She’d have the best answer to how was your summer.
But Patricia didn’t get better, not even when dermatologists blasted her with corticosteroids, not even when surgeons pried at her leathery exoskeleton. She barely felt the dull poke of their scalpels and needles as she lay in her hospital bed. Part of her wondered if this was what it was like to grow older, to learn something fundamental about the universe. As the weeks passed, that theory began to seem less and less convincing to her.
While Patricia was cocooned, life continued for the Wangs. Alice kept showing houses to rich Californians, and Frederic continued to work needles into his patients. He often wondered if acupuncture and herbs could cure his daughter, as if she’d ever had the stomach for his dark, oily tinctures. As if his fine needles could puncture the shroud she’d drawn around herself.
Frederic saw Patricia in the mornings before going to work at the clinic. Alice visited her daughter at night, on the way home from showing properties in Yorba Linda and Brea. Every week, she’d strip the hospital bed of its sheets, replacing them with blankets from Patricia’s childhood: pink ballerina prints, stylized zoo animals. Then she would sink next to her daughter, this mummified thing, still swaddled in her quilt from home.
Sometimes she stayed until two in the morning, guarding Patricia’s body. The women of her family all had bad skin. Her mother’s eczema had never healed, leaving her hands scarred after years of kitchen work. As a student in Taichung, Alice herself had lain awake most nights, skin aflame.
Her body had always been a barometer for her insides. Alice knew better than to show her anger, but it would manifest on her skin anyway. One week after the Wangs had immigrated to California, eczema had frozen her entire face into a pink, flaky grimace. Frederic had eventually wrestled her to a community doctor, who’d pinched her left buttock — hard — so she wouldn’t feel the two-inch steroid injection in her rear.
“Let’s go home,” Alice had insisted on the car ride back, mouth cracking. “I’ll buy the plane tickets myself.”
“Isn’t your skin bad everywhere you go?” Frederic had replied, face perfectly smooth.
For twenty years, Alice had endured the scorching summers and droughts, the bone-white faces of their neighbors. She drove her clients down bleached interstates, the sun burning dark splotches onto her arms. Broke into hives when she used American sunscreen, her skin blistering with heat. When Frederic got laid off from his engineering job, she’d paid for his acupuncture classes with the money she made as a babysitter, then as a math tutor, then as a real estate agent.
“Look. Early signs of melanoma,” she’d declared at the dinner table one night, exposing her freckled arms to her daughter and husband. “The doctor said I might get skin cancer.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Frederic had said.
“Yeah, don’t be so dramatic,” Patricia had echoed, though there had been fear in her eyes — the only thing that had kept Alice from saying more.
Now Alice ran a hand across Patricia’s skin. This place was to blame, the charred trees and towns, the faces that made Alice’s blood boil every time she drove home. No wonder her daughter had wanted to hide inside herself. Alice would do the same, if her insides were more hospitable.
It took two months for Patricia’s skin to slough off, leaving tender pink patches in its wake. By the time Patricia finally opened her eyes, the school year had already begun. Her parents were at work, and her hospital room was empty. The Santa Anas whistled and howled against the window.
A week later, the doctors discharged her. Her parents picked her up with tears in their eyes. Patricia found their concern embarrassing, but she didn’t speak. There was no explaining what she had gone through, and her parents wouldn’t understand even if she tried to tell them.
Reheated lotus root soup awaited her at home. Her mother sat her down at the dinner table and served her a bowl. Her father slouched into her parents’ bedroom. Then Alice sat down next to her, looking like a few layers of her skin had fallen off too.
“This is the last time I’ll ask you,” she said. “Why did this happen?”
“I don’t know,” Patricia said. Her thoughts felt distant, moving under her skull like deep water.
“Tell me the truth,” her mother pressed.
Patricia didn’t answer. The two of them sat in silence — Alice staring at the mounted clock, Patricia lowering her head above the steaming bowl. Finally, Alice said: “We should never have stayed in this country.”
Patricia swallowed a half-chewed bite. “That’s stupid,” she wanted to say, but maybe her mother was right to be angry. Maybe Patricia herself had been angry — at her parents, suburbia, the life that stretched out predictably before her. But no single reason accounted for what had consumed her, made her want to curl into herself forever.
True to her word, Alice didn’t bring up the situation the next day, or the day after that. Now Patricia saw that her mother lived inside a cocoon too, one of silences and age-old grudges. When her parents dropped her off at her dorm room several days later, Patricia kept thinking that her mother would pull her aside, dispense some great revelation. But Alice simply fussed with the bedsheets, then hugged her daughter goodbye, face unreadable.
What could Alice have said, anyway? Sometimes you really do need to crawl inside yourself to survive. I understand, I really do. Or I gave you your bad skin — like my mother before me, and her mother before her. Like us, you need to learn to live with it. Or if it were up to me, I never would’ve given birth to you. I’d have kept you locked inside of my body forever, so the world never gets a chance to tear at you. But there were some things that Patricia herself needed to find the words for. If Alice had ever learned those words, it was in a language that she was forgetting — a language that came to her sometimes in dreams or memories or exclamations of pain, but less and less in her waking life.
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