By Madeline Corradi
Timara signalled the woman behind the counter to open the exit door for her. Busy with paperwork, the woman failed to notice. She stepped forward and hit her knuckles against the glass. The receptionist looked up at her, smiled apologetically, and finally opened the automatic door. She walked quickly over the cold pavement of the parking lot, only breathing out once she sat safely in her car. She placed her head in her hands, and when she finally lifted it again, the small bronze rose hanging from her rear-view mirror caught her eye. Timara frowned.
Her grandmother had bought the accessory for her the first time they visited Italy together seven years ago. For twelve days in the summer, they had explored her grandmother’s home town. It was called Spezzano Piccolo, and her grandmother had owned a small house close to the water. In the mornings, Timara oscillated between reading young teen novels and Italian cookbooks on the porch with her grandmother and slowly acquired the taste for strong coffee, and after lunch, they shared gelato on the beach. Some days her grandmother used the cozy, pale yellow kitchen in the beach house to teach her how to stretch homemade pasta or make tomato sauce. One night, while they trailed the cobblestone streets, Timara’s grandmother had seen a little bronze rose hanging from a store window and jumped at the chance to purchase it for her granddaughter. Timara had kept it on her keyring ever since, until she bought her first car a year ago and hung it from her rear-view mirror.
It hovered there, taunting her with pain. Her grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this year. The doctors told them the disease was early onset and aggressive. She would lose her memory, and then basic function, within the next few years. She was only sixty-five but progressing backwards. Each time Timara visited the nursing home, the new looming threat of her grandmother’s mortality appeared, suspended above her like a rain cloud.
Now, sitting in the car with a tightening throat, she tried to erase the image of an Italian sunset that was replaying in her mind.
The next day Timara realized she was falling apart. At first, she thought nothing of it, merely writing it off as the annual dry, cracked hands that appeared once December rolled around. It began on her palms, the creases slowly fading behind fleshy whiteness. She hardly noticed it, and so it didn’t mean much to her. But soon the tops of her knuckles had dried out and cracked, leaving them vulnerable to the cold and bloody if she moved her fingers too quickly.
Soon after she noticed her hands, she showered, the hot water piercing her back sharply. She stepped out, barely covered herself in a towel, and stood in front of her mirror. She twisted and saw her entire back covered in bright red, patchy skin. It was dry and flaky in some sections, raw and sensitive in others. Timara reached around, terrified and curious, and touched her skin lightly.
Two days later she sat on her best friend, Cleo’s, couch, trying to figure out how to tell her that her body was raw and peeling all over. Cleo placed a teapot on the coffee table and filled two mugs with boiling water. A tray of cookies sat next to the teapot. Timara thought about the Christmas cookies her grandmother made every year. How the recipe only lived inside her grandmother’s brain and was brought to life by the muscle movement in her hands. How her grandmother would never get to make them again. Timara sat still with her back straight, weary of abrupt movements. Cleo took a sip of her tea and tried to continue the conversation, but Timara found herself unable to give anything more than blunt answers.
“Are you alright?” Cleo finally asked.
Timara shook her head hastily. “I need to show you something.”
Slowly, she removed her thick cardigan, rolled up her sleeves — one by one — and extended her arms towards her friend. They shook, hanging limply in the air above the table. Neither one of them spoke for a moment. Instead, Cleo furrowed her eyebrows as she stared at Timara’s arms.
“Timara.” She paused. “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be looking at.”
Timara’s eyes widened before looking down at her own arms again.
“My skin,” she said. “Can’t you see what’s happening to me?”
Cleo’s eyes penetrated Timara’s, filled with sympathy and worry. Timara furiously rubbed her arm. Little flakes zoomed into the air between them. Still, Cleo didn’t react. Instead, she reached over and put a hand on Timara’s right arm.
“You don’t see anything?” Timara asked.
Cleo shook her head slowly. Timara took Cleo’s hand and started roughly rubbing her hand against the forearm.
“You don’t feel anything?” Again, Cleo shook her head.
“Have you thought about going to see someone about this?” Cleo asked.
Timara didn’t speak for a few seconds. She looked down at her arms and saw the rough patches of peeling skin. She didn’t understand. Finally, she nodded and looked back up at her friend.
“Would you take me to a doctor?”
At the doctor’s office, Timara lifted herself onto the examination table. His words floated from his mouth, but worry pounded against her forehead, making everything harder to hear. It was as if she were underwater. There were only so many things he could have said. Was he questioning the reason for her visit? Perhaps he asked about her last physical, made a cheesy joke, or commented on the weather. She swiftly explained her situation, shedding her clothes as she did.
“Timara,” he began. “I understand this is a troubling time for you and your family, but I’m afraid I can see nothing wrong with your skin.”
It suddenly occurred to her that her grandmother had been in and out of this office for the past few months. She had sat on this table, or had blood drawn, or laid underneath the mechanical MRI dome. Timara wondered if her grandmother had felt as afraid as she did in the doctor’s office, waiting for him to explain the reason she was forgetting how to get home and no longer able to make change accurately.
Timara’s head fell, her eyes failing to focus as she gazed at the floor.
“You have to see something,” she pleaded.
He waited a moment before continuing.
“I’d like to refer you to a psychiatrist, Timara,”
Her body, seemingly independent from reason, pushed off the table. She shook her head.
“I’m not crazy.”
He put his hands up, remaining calm and stern.
“You’re seeing things. I think it’s best if you speak to someone before this gets out of hand.”
She stared at him desperately. Eventually, she swallowed the lump in her throat and surrendered.
“Is there anything you can give me for my skin?”
He hesitated before prescribing her a low dose, medicated topical cream.
For a week, she applied the ointment to her body twice a day. Following the recommended instructions like clockwork, not once did she touch the orange plastic tube of pills. By day three, her pale flesh seemed to be mending itself. She cleaned her house. She went out to buy groceries. The sun seemed warmer on that winter day. But on day four, she awoke in excruciating pain all over her skin. In tears, she lost the will to get up from her bed. Around lunchtime, she stood for the first time all day. While the faint image of the city’s hospital flashed through her mind, all she did with the little bit of energy she could muster was take the tube of medicated cream and throw it into the garbage. She didn’t even shower. Instead, she put on a long-sleeve shirt and a hoodie and covered her lower half in tights and a pair of thick, grey sweatpants. She threw a large scarf over everything, placed a knit hat on her head, then returned to bed and buried herself under the comforter.
She finally awoke — unaware of how long she had been in bed — to the sound of her cellphone. Its annoying, sing-songy tone went off three separate times before something inside her reached over and picked it up.
“Timara,” her mother’s voice erupted on the other end of the line. “What’s going on?”
“What are you talking about?” Her voice was groggy.
“Cleo told me you’ve been struggling with…” Her voice trailed off. “Well, she couldn’t really explain to me what was going on.”
“You’re going to think I’m crazy.” Timara sighed. Her mother insisted she explain.
“My skin is falling off, Ma.”
Her mother remained silent for a moment, and Timara was tempted to hang up the phone when she finally spoke.
“You need to come over. You need to show me this,” her mother said.
“I really don’t want to—”
“Will showing me make it any worse?” Her mother asked.
Twenty-five minutes later, she stepped outside for the first time in days.
On the subway southbound to her mother’s house, she stared silently out the window. Although the majority of the trip was clouded in underground darkness, at one point between two stops, the outside world shone through. She could see rows of houses. Decks and balconies caught her attention. Each house was ragged in some way, falling apart. A broken window on one, a crumbled wooden backdoor, a small balcony full of hoarded junk. As these images rapidly swept past her, it took a great amount of strength not to surrender to the lump in her throat and tightness in her chest.
When she arrived, her mother looked at her harshly and wasted no time in asking the question.
“Did you finally visit your grandmother?” She asked bluntly.
Timara looked up, shocked. Her mother gently took her sleeve in her fingers and rolled it up past Timara’s forearm. Timara watched her mother’s eyes react to the wreckage and sighed heavily, a satisfying breath finally escaping her lungs.
“How long has this…” Her mother trailed off, staring.
“It started right after I went to visit grandma.” Timara rolled up her other sleeve. “No one else has seen it on me until now,”
Her mother smiled sadly.
“Sounds like how I felt after your grandmother was diagnosed. No one else understood how I was feeling… How much it tore me up inside. I never wanted you to see me when it was bad. But I guess you must have… must have somehow inherited it…” She paused. “I never thought you’d—” She stopped then, choking up.
Watching her mother open up, the beginnings of tears glazing over her eyes, Timara recognized pain. The two of them looked at each other knowingly yet said nothing.
“Show me everything,” her mother finally instructed.
Hesitantly, Timara removed the layers hiding her skin. She paused fearfully before unbuttoning the last piece of clothing. Underneath everything, she revealed her half-naked torso. In an attempt to prevent as much deterioration as she could, Timara had taped edges of her own skin to her body. Her torso resembled a poorly executed collage of newspaper clippings, except the only visible headline was a cry for help. Her mother shook her head as her eyes filled with tears.
“Just tell me how to make it better,” Timara pleaded.
“You have to go back,” her mother said. Instinctively, Timara shook her head.
“Honey, I don’t think there is any other way.” Her mother reached out to touch her face, convincing Timara with a comforting caress.
Timara signalled the woman behind the counter to open the door for her. As she entered, her hands clenched into fists on either side of her body. She approached the elevator and used the key card to access it. She stepped out of the elevator on floor two. The nurses recognized her despite the excess clothing, but Timara barely acknowledged them. When she found her grandmother, she rolled her wheelchair into the recreation room. Together, they sat in front of the television.
Timara took her hand. Her grandmother turned her head and smiled, her eyes flickering with recognition like a dwindling flame. Timara smiled back and began to tear up, suddenly picturing her grandmother as a child. Her grandmother had been abandoned on the doorstep of an orphanage in Italy. Her mother had been impregnated by a married man. Perhaps she had lived her entire life harbouring that shame, and as the disease erased it from her mind, it simultaneously passed the memory onto Timara and her mother. Or maybe the loss and sadness was passed from one woman to the other.
When the tears hijacked her body and crying turned into sobbing, Timara tried hard to keep her head forward. Glued to the television. She was unsure how long she stayed after the residents were fed dinner, yet when she left, Timara promised herself to return often, no matter how tough it was.
Back home, Timara stripped herself of the clothing layers and stood naked in her bathroom. Without thinking, she shut her eyes tightly and pulled the tape off her body. She felt pieces of skin come off with the strips. Still, she felt around her body — from her chest to reachable areas of her back — and pulled the deteriorating pieces from herself. Ripped off pieces that were on the verge of falling away and barely touching ones that flaked off immediately. Her feet felt the rough fragments on the floor around them. There were only small pinches of sharp pain every so often. She kept her eyes shut long after she had finished.
Finally, she opened them, revealing skin brighter than it had been in weeks. A sudden gasp escaped her mouth. Her body was covered in small, white scars just as her mother’s was. Timara wrapped her arms around her body and cried softly over the bathroom sink.
Madeline Corradi is a third year studying majoring in English and Cinema Studies. She hopes to continue also studying creative writing and is extremely excited to have this be her first publication.
Photo Credit: Adam Wilson on Unsplash