The dermatologist looks young—maybe in his early thirties, maybe younger. Fresh-faced. And shorter than Ally, so when she sits on the exam table, she towers over him.
Her face broke out about three weeks ago. She’s never had acne before, she explains. She isn’t sure how specific to get with the dermatologist, what he wants to know, if she should talk about how she was washing her face on the night of July 4 after watching the fireworks from the neighbor’s balcony with the kids. Or how, when she put the kids to bed and looked in the mirror, she thought she looked flushed. Or how the next day she noticed little pinpricks on her cheeks, a cluster of blackheads on her chin and nose. Within a week, her face exploded.
“Just like that,” she tells the dermatologist. “All at once. Is that how it happens?”
He doesn’t answer. With a light strapped to his head, he looks like a deep-sea diver. (She is a monkfish, an octopus, some horrible-looking squid.) She closes her eyes as one gloved hand caresses the plane of craters covering her skin, the other cupped firmly under her chin as if he is about to kiss her. Finally, he stops, takes off his gloves, and asks, “What products do you use on your face? Are you taking any prescription drugs? Do you touch yourself?”
She tries not to laugh. He has a high voice that reminds her of a cartoon character. Soap and water. No drugs. No, she doesn’t touch her face.
He nods, then writes a prescription for tetracycline. If she gets headaches, he says, she should stop taking the pills immediately and call the office.
“What does a headache mean?” she asks.
“It means there’s water on the brain,” he says, putting his pen back in his pocket.
“What does water on the brain mean?”
“It means there’s water on your brain.” He smiles as if repeating the words once again, it will all make sense.
At home, Ally takes her tetracycline, then faces the paperwork for the house. The inspection last month revealed termites.
“I didn’t think Utah had termites,” she’d told the inspector, a heavyset man who came recommended by Ally’s neighbor, Jennifer Harmsen.
The inspector shrugged and said, “Well, those are termites, and last I checked, we were in Utah.” He handed her a sheet of paper with the cost of the proposed project circled: $6,292.
“Is this urgent?” Ally asked, shielding her eyes from the sun.
The inspector was backlit as if in a movie. He moved slowly and with purpose, almost elegantly, a habit earned, she imagined, from climbing ladders and shimmying under eaves.
He shrugged again. “I wouldn’t say it’s urgent. I wouldn’t say it’s not urgent, either.”
In the margins of the notes from the inspector she writes: Call Sam. Sam’s her ex-husband. He will need to know. She won’t make it sound urgent. She’ll make it into a funny story. She’ll tell him what the dermatologist said. When did everyone turn into a Buddhist? she’ll say. When did specialists start speaking in koans?