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Downstairs bathroom: gray grout gone white with hardened insecticide powder. From the summer I waged war against the ants. Little ones. They slowed and shriveled, dying in quiet heaps behind the toilet. Some ended up alone, heapless, under the sink, on their backs. I brushed my teeth and spat triumphant waterfalls of bluish white down the drain.
            In the mirror: a face that is mine. Eyes, ears, a mouth. Also: a nose. The skin next to my nose glows an aching red and peels away from itself. The skin around my eyebrows snows off-white flakes. The skin at my hairline shrivels into furled scales that I trap under my fingernails and flick onto the floor, where the dead skin settles on the powder-white grout and disappears, paper-thin, like ants into cracked wallpaper. This is the face that the man will see, the second man, sitting across from me at the restaurant. This is the face that he will be asked to love.
            Over in the kitchen: The fridge hums metal and drops an ice cube into its frigid bowels. The scrape of the sliding ice, then the fertile plunk of the final arrival. I prefer not to think about the skin from which hair grows on the top of my head, skin peppered with follicles, skin peeled and peeling, skin that fears itself, tries to escape itself, does not want to be itself. At night, I itch until cayenne-clumps of dried blood accumulate under my nails.
            Once I tasted my dandruff. It tasted like salt and refused to dissolve on my tongue. I never did that again. In the bathroom, the heat switches off. Click. The anti-whoosh.
            Sometimes I think that I will pick myself to nothing. That I will start to coax open a fern of squamous skin and lose control. That I will pull at myself, skin unzipping skin, fern unfurling like a lascivious tongue. That the tongue will lick its way down my neck and down my chest and down my stomach, leaving a wet trail of skinlessness, a red line pulsing skinlessly. That I will start to itch, and itch, and itch, to itch myself away, to itch my itches, to itch the nothing that is left when I have itched. That I will disappear into a loose pile of flaked person. That still I will itch. Sometimes I think that I am all dandruff, straight to my core.
            Mom first bought me dandruff shampoo when I was nine. I had a nightmare about a strange man who strapped me to a chair and massaged tickle-oil into my hair. When I woke up, my hair had indeed been tickle-oiled. On the pillow: a spittle stain, shaped like a dolphin. Also on the pillow: my scalp, grated. Only years later, when my brother showed me Scarface and let me taste his Sam Adams, would I notice the resemblance to cocaine.
            Mom said, I should have known. You’re just like your father. Used to call him Sandbox. Mom said, let me make a trip to CVS. Mom said, why don’t you go take a shower. I’ll grab you a clean pillowcase when I get back. I stayed in bed and wallowed in my own skin. It felt right. Like a cycle had been completed.
            In the mirror: a face that is mine. A half-peeled face. As if someone started opening an orange and then decided against it. I imagine myself spooning CVS-brand dandruff shampoo into my mouth. Bits of it thick around my lips; the taste of itchlessness. I imagine myself smooth like a shiny new car. I imagine eyebrows that never snow, a nose that never reddens.
            The heat clicks back on. From the vent under the sink in the downstairs bathroom: warmth, slithering over my bare feet, winding between my toes. I reach down to itch them. The toes. They swell up big and red when the weather is dry, like fat tongues, like those king-size ants in TV rainforests. I itch them, and they just sit there, big and fat and toe-like, and grip the grout with a force that almost scares me.

On the wall: a poster about eczema, paper lumpy with lurking tape. On the poster: a cartoon boy, pockmarked. Don’t scratch the itch! I think to myself, this cartoon boy will never blink. A dull sadness leaks through me. I text a restaurant address to the second man. See you tomorrow, I write. He sends back an emoji of a thumb. I blink.
            In the corner: a door opening. A foot appears, then a second. He calls my name with a white-coated voice. I follow him into the maze of doors and sterile light. We go into the fourth room. He tells me to sit. I sit.
            He puts a gloved index finger to my brow. His fingers are long and bony, and before he pulled the glove on with a squeak of rubber, I glimpsed a tuft of hair sprouting from the thumb’s knuckle. He draws the pointer across my eyebrow, moving against the grain, skinless eyes eagerly searching for anomalies: pickable things, peelable things, poppable things. Many times I have wondered what kind of maniac becomes a dermatologist. The kids who fry ants under magnifying glasses, cut the heads off garter snakes and watch them wriggle like bits of cursive. These are the kids who go to medical school and choose a career in skin. I look at his gray eyes. I search for emotion, empathy. I find nothing. The pupils are small, the whites slightly yellow.
            He says, some irritation here. The here is a general here, a hand-waving here. As in: you are irritated. Not some separable, nameable part of you. You. I nod.
            There is a world in which I take this glove off his hand. In which I grip a wiry knuckle hair between thumb and forefinger and pull. In which the hair grows longer and longer, unraveling skin around the fingers, down the palm, up the forearm. In which ribbons of doctor-skin accumulate on the white tiled floor, coiled around themselves like garter snakes. In which bone and muscle and organ stretch until pencil-thin and fall as noodles to my feet. In which the room fills with scraps of a life. In which I am left holding a glove and an empty white coat and a pair of lensless glasses, my shoes invisible beneath the mound of doctor. In which I fill this rubber glove with air and pop it with a fingernail. In which I take this white coat and turn it into shreds of fabric, tatters of a surrendering flag. In which I snap these plastic tortoiseshell frames over my knee. In which I undo this place from the inside out, tearing wallpaper, destroying cabinets, throwing chairs, unpeeling psoriatic patients and made-up receptionists. In which I leave my appointment comparatively smooth-skinned.
            Eyes everywhere in my hair, he says, Have you been using your prescription shampoo consistently?
            The ultimate catharsis, I think, is peeling a very small tangerine. Does one peel a tangerine, or does one unpeel it? How can these two words mean the same thing? How can a thing and its opposite refer to the same process? Maybe to peel a tangerine is to remove the peel from the tangerine, whereas to unpeel a tangerine is to remove the tangerine from the peel. When I peel a very small tangerine, I start by pressing a nail through the peel and into the flesh, which spurts juice out at me like blood, throbbing, frantically alive. Then I bend my fingertip and pull from inside the tangerine’s clinging skin, tearing off bits of orange that go flying over my shoulder. I get the dustpan from the corner of the kitchen and scrape up all the peel-bits from the floor. Dump them into the compost bin, where they disappear beneath half-gone paper towels and assorted pits. Sometimes I eat the tangerine. Other times I do not. The point is the peeling, and the smallness of the fruit. There is something pleasing about small fruit.
            I schedule my next appointment with the receptionist. She is almost old; her skin sags over itself. Six months. As I leave, I wonder whether I would have dandruff if dermatologists did not exist. They say solutions create problems. I see myself tying every nailed-down chair in the lobby to a single rope, wrapping it around my waist, running east until I tear this place down.

Across the table: a second man. I can tell that this man has never massacred thousands of ants. I can tell that he has never sprinkled poison in his own home, whisper-shouting die, die. There is a weakness about him.
            Around us: waiters ant-scuttling. Somebody drops a glass. It shatters into specks of light and beetles out across the floor like low fog. Sorry, so sorry. A waiter shuffles over with a dustpan and starts to collect the glinting stuff. He looks uncomfortable with his two legs, as if just moments ago someone severed the other four.
            The second man asks me how long I have lived in this town. Once, in a dream, my head started to itch, so I removed it, set it on the ground, walked naked-necked into the supermarket, bought a big juiceless orange. When I left the supermarket, the head was still resting on the pavement like a big juiceless orange, eyes darting east west east west. I dropped the big juiceless orange, picked up the head, popped it back on, felt the itch return, woke. Seven years, I say.
            We both order salmon. The fish is pink: looks pink, tastes pink. This is delicious, I say. Yeah, it’s okay, he says. His quiet contradiction burns the patch of skin where my earlobes meet my cheeks. Sometimes I forget to moisturize there.
            He is handsome, the second man. When he sinks his knife into the salmon’s pinkness, I feel all itchy on the inside. He tells me, chewing, that he is from a town where the children pass the time by peeling the labels from soda bottles. Ungluing, unsticking: This is the way of things there. Why? I ask.
            I think it’s a kind of fantasy, he says. That everything can be isolated. Removed from any sort of context or function. That a label is a label, and a bottle is a bottle, and neither needs the other to be itself.
            I pretend not to be thinking about whether I need my skin to be myself. This really is delicious, I say, about nothing in particular. Yeah, he says.
            We ask for the check. As we wait, the second man bows his head, picks something out of his nose, flicks it toward the kitchen with a sneaking finger. When he looks back up, I am staring directly at him. He recoils unmovingly. He is ashamed, I assume, of his need to separate himself from mucus.
            Seven years, he says. That’s a long time. His nose is utterly empty.
            Yeah, I say, it is. And you? How long have you lived here?
            Eight years, he says.
            In the dream about the big juiceless orange, there was a sticker on the orange. I have no memory of removing it. In other dreams, I also see stickers: stickers on chairs, stickers on tables, stickers on fruits that are not oranges, stickers on dogs, stickers on people. Also: people who are stickers, all stickers. People whose skin reads Fantastic! and Nice job! and USDA Certified Organic and Dole Ecuador Banana #4011. People I could remove from themselves, sticker by sticker, and there would be no fruit on the inside of all those stickers, no orange, no comestible thing — only an emptiness that was never meant to be seen. But again I do not remove these stickers. I never remove stickers in dreams. Maybe because when I see a sticker in a dream I know that some unspeaking, unspoken part of me has stuck it where it is. Stickers, after all, need stickers. And itches itchers, and peels peelers, and waiters waiters. And vice versa?
            Behind the restaurant: a shadow-heavy dumpster, him, me. His hands tickle their way down my neck. Itch me, I say. Oh, God, itch me.
            Like that? he asks, but I am too busy being itched by the itcher to reply.

Surrounding the parking lot: a red spruce forest, tall and turgid with owls. I stand outside the night-cloaked car, which during the day remains hidden beneath a frenzy of peeling bumper stickers, and look up.
            Above me: the tangerine moon, the skyless sky. Something hoots. Something hoots again.
            And if a corner of the universe folded over itself, drooping, lazy with the weight of vastness? And if I took that folded corner and pulled, constellations curling, the soup spoon warped by heat, the bear snapped in two, the archer bent at the waist? And if I made a dumpling of the universe, an eternal superdense gyoza? And if I smashed that dumpling to a pulp and used it as shampoo, working the bits of galaxy into my raw scalp? And if it worked? If the itch faded into the cosmos? Then what? Joy? Unjoy? What to peel? What to unpeel? What to hold? What to hate?
            In college, there was the moon-faced professor who brought dumplings in for the last day of class. We ate with a strange sort of existential desperation, as if these bundles of dough were all that stood between us and the void. That was the class in which I found myself surrounded by students whose brilliance was lost beneath the oily sheen of their pretension. Like its own layer of skin, itchless, desperately moist with Mason jars and Derrida. I learned to peel it back, to hear their words unadorned, but it was a different kind of peeling. It shared nothing with the peeling of citrus fruits. Some things want to be peeled. Other things resist, cling to their obscurity.
            The first man I kissed was a man from that class, a man two years my senior who introduced himself to me as a speaking subaltern, which I pretended to understand, a man who, like a black hole, crushed me into a nothing-version of myself, spaghettified me, made me feel something so new as to be deadly, then said, this was fun.
            I lower my gaze. Straight ahead: spruce trees bathed in dripping shadow. They, too, are peelable. To strip a conifer of its needles is, fundamentally, to strip it. To leave it naked. I stopped pulling needles from the pines behind my childhood home when I walked into the bathroom and saw Mom plucking hairs from her upper lip, wincing, plucking anyway. I did not want my hands to be tweezers.
            Something hoots. I search for a pair of glowing eyes, but find nothing. The early winter air quivers, cold, crisp, snappable. Soon fingers will split at the knuckles. Already I can feel my skin tautening, hardening like a frozen orange peel. Something hoots again. I text the second man and invite him to my house. I feel stupid and itchy right as I hit send, which I have learned is a good thing. He replies, okay. I smile in the dark.
            In the unfolded sky: a shooting star, small and screaming. Tears through everything. Right before it disappears I remember to make a wish. I wish for itchlessness and itchiness, I wish for infinite tangerines, I wish for a world without ants, I wish for a cursory understanding of Derrida, I wish for a pillow filled with dandruff on which to lay my tired head, I wish for a boyfriend. The flash of light disappears, and the universe is left halved.
            I get in the car. Through the windshield: glass-warped trees, glass-warped moon. With my right hand, I scratch at the passenger seat until the polyester frays into a thready forest of gray. The dumplings were stuffed with pork, I think. The professor made them by hand, pulling and pinching and twisting until the dough did what it was meant to do. I took a dumpling and bit into it, cleaving it in two. Out spilled bits of dead pig, cooked to a second death, peeled of skin and hair and pinkness. The crumbs of meat fell to the floor like stunned ants.)

The same bathroom: twenty toes gripping grout. The second man meets my gaze in the mirror as I scrape an unclipped nail down my cheek. See?
            He catches a bit of floating skin in his hand and almost smiles. I think this is when he realizes that there is something appealing about a peeling. A tenderness. A removal of everything but the innermost, the essential. A kind of physical candor. I am.
            In the mirror: four eyes, four ears, two mouths. Also: two noses. His face neatly clothed in skin. My face undressing slowly, patiently, over and across years, peeling away shreds of fabric. One day, all that will remain is a beautiful, unwanted nakedness. He has seen me naked, but not like this. Nothing is scarier than showing the world a self-rending face.
            Over in the kitchen: the dishwasher wets itself. Plate-bloated. Tomorrow morning I will empty it and it will be skinny like the second man. By noon it will be dry.
            The heat clicks on. I itch a toe with another toe. Searing silence.
            He shifts his weight, says, do you maybe want to leave the bathroom? I itch some cocaine out of my scalp. Can you do me a favor? I ask. When the heat clicks off, he has already started back down the stairs with the bottle of CVS-brand dandruff shampoo that I keep on a ledge in the shower.
            He hands it to me. An itch snakes its way down my throat and into my stomach. I snap open the bottle’s cap, squeeze a tablespoon of the stuff into a cupped hand, put the hand to my mouth, lick.
            Doubled over, sink running, spitting, spitting, spitting. Unbearable taste of plastic and orange peel and used car. His nervous hand on my neck. As if compelled by some oneiric force, as if pulled by the tickle-oil man: I straighten back up. And put my lips, still sour and sticky, to his. Behind him, on the wall: a single ant, creeping, legs like plucked hairs.
            I unstick myself from him. I say, turn around, quick, look at the ant. But by the time he has turned around, the ant is gone.

© Xavier Blackwell-Lipkind 2022 

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