02/19/2013 06:34 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

From Oral Fixations to Metaphysical Pimples: 'Skin'

An earlier version of this short story originally appeared in the literary magazine "322 Review."

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 D.C., 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 been forced to confront the paradox of my omniscience.

A Nonverbal Understanding

The chances are slim -- less than 1 percent, actually -- that I would have become omniscient if Judy Bronstein hadn't formed a connection with a simple, quiet boy nearly 40 years ago.

The quiet boy rubbed Judy'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, Judy wondered idly whether he could read, and then what her parents would think. Neither mattered, really. Judy 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, squeezing lemon pulp between their fingers. The boy never bothered to remove the seeds that fell in, so Judy didn't, either. When, hands over kitchen bowls, their elbows bumped, the boy would quietly touch her arm with his sticky, sour palm.

The last time that Judy saw him before she left for college, they were entwined against the wall near his old erector set. It occurred to Judy 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 Judy a conflicted love of the simple. When she went to college, she cultivated an appreciation of Descartes and Hume, but a 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 her mother buttoned the bodice of her lace dress, 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, Judy 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 Judy 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 on. When she purred softly to him, his lips clamped down on her nipple. She pulled 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, so what did she know? After a few minutes, she dozed off again, and Matthew's fuzzy head lolled back onto her chest.

Breastfeeding reminded Judy 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 he would hurt her again. She continued 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 percent chance that Matthew Gilson would be fettered with an intense oral fixation. When, at 5 years old, he refused to stop sucking his thumb, the probability jumped to 99 percent. As a 7-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 and his teacher gave him a detention. His father lectured him about fitting in and then grounded him for two months.

As Judy 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 10-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 made a soft non-sound, like 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, and she liked that he liked it. She sensed that he had a secret, and 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. He'd met her at the horse track when he was in town for a family reunion. 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 incorrect.) As luck would have it, she happened to be an educator and became Cath's homeroom teacher after the move.

Cath put her scissors down. "Hey."

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

"I'll clean up."

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


His hands flitted toward the scissors on the countertop, but didn't touch them.

This short, skinny girl knew that the best way to curry favor with her father was to pull out a mitt and ask him to toss in the street. She watched documentaries about military fighter jets and trimmed her own hair to prove she was low-maintenance.

Her father told himself he'd be able to unload the burden of his infidelity if only he had a son as a confidante; Cath came close enough that sometimes he nearly gave in. But not quite. Though her breasts were still only nubs, he 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. In a whiff of prescience, he watched Cath grow closer to his wife as she had questions about makeup and boys and tampons.

Cath tousled her hair in the mirror and 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 holding the 900-page hardcover book that Matthew had given me in English class as we sat on the bumper of an empty 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 three weeks earlier.

Matthew was chewing on the end of a pen, and his lips closed over it softly. 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 then against the smooth title page. I was about to flip to the table of contents when Matthew coughed. He wiped at his mouth, 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.

"OK," 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. Despite her criticism, I was 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. When 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 Matthew in English class and breathed 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 little 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."


"Nothing personal."


But I didn't believe him. When he bought me a 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 there we were, in the parking lot. I looked down at my doodled-upon hands. "Thanks," I said again. "I needed to hear you say it."


"No, it's OK."


"Thanks for the book."


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.

A Cyst Grows in Manhattan

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 this occasion, I sat on the edge of a brown-and-blue comforter as Sebastian touched my head. To his credit, he had made small talk for two whole hours before asking about it.

On the same night, in an old-fashioned sitting room on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., a cat rubbed up against the door post and watched Matthew, who 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 learned 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.

A Happenstance Chain of Events

Five years since we'd last seen each other, 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 New York apartment, I wouldn't 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 D.C., Cath convinced me I was beautiful as I was and shouldn't hide my swollen bump behind bangs. As she cut, I stood barefoot on the cold, dirty tile, and listened to the grainy sound of my hair snapping apart. The longest wisps brushed against the tops of my ears.

That act alone bumped my odds of omniscience from 5 percent to 73 percent.

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 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 learn about his oral fixation for another 12 hours, when I became omniscient.

"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 still, 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, and 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 Me Burst on the Greyhound Bus

Matthew reached into the cupboard. I leaned against the peeling 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?" he asked. I chose the white tea.

As he set the water to boil, he 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 was annoyed and needed me to return. It was late, I didn't have a key and she wanted to go to sleep.

"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. The tea tasted like hot water. I traced my fingers over the ceramic jungle while I thought about pustules and third eyes.

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

"OK," 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. 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 -- without the cat dander or the conference in D.C., 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 my personal paradox.

But one last puzzle piece was required: 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. Although I like 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, it's impossible for me to lose a game of chess.

Naked Sophocles

I sat in the kitchen of the house I shared with Matt. It was cleaner and had nicer Formica than his old place. My 16-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 percent 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 percent chance that we would date successfully, a 68 percent chance that my job would allow me to transfer to D.C. and a 92 percent 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.

My pimple used to protrude outward, though these days, there was nothing left but a small scar. Sophocles, meanwhile, 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, as though my pinkie toe were encased in warm jelly, but I let 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 grades on written assignments when he was older.

"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. 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 less important than my relationship with our son. So instead of answering Matt, I said, "You should shave, sweetie."

Back in the 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 old for this?"

"Why don't you ask him?"

Matt hated when I acted like Sophocles was a real person. "I'm sure he has a lot to say," he retorted. I took a cue from my son and kept quiet. "Did you know that he has a girlfriend?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Does she talk?"


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

"It's possible."

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 is an attractive young man now," 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 ago, I had chosen a cheaper set of bowls in preparation 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 almost two decades. Did this, in fact, affect me? I didn't entirely believe my own answer.