You schedule an appointment with the dermatologist for the first time in four years because the recent emergence of a flat, brown blob on the left side of your face has given you an insurance-approved excuse to talk about your wrinkles.
Anything else you’d to discuss during this appointment, the scheduler asks?
“Retin A,” you say.
“Do you have acne?” the scheduler asks, her mouse clearly hovering over some insurance billing box or other.
“No,” you say, lacking a self-protective mechanism. “I have wrinkles.”
The day of the appointment arrives. You put on the eye cream you bought three months ago: Eye Hope. On top of it you layer the two-step concealer you bought two years ago: Fading Hope.
Five years ago, you had no wrinkles. You were a redhead with no wrinkles. You had smile lines, heavier on the left side of your face on account of the congenital smirk. Professional contacts questioned your skills and intelligence because you looked so young. You grumbled, but really, you were fine with this.
You haven’t been smiling much lately. But those lines .. well, look at them. How many millimeters deep does one have to be before it is considered a “crease?”
The doctor knocks. Her skin is poreless, like someone spilled a box of baking soda on it.
You show her the flat, brown blob. She touches it.
“There’s some texture there, isn’t there,” she says, taking what looks like a jeweler’s loupe, holding it up to her eye, and gazing through it at the blob.
“That’s a barnacle,” she says.
“Excuse me?” you say. “Did you say, ‘barnacle?’”
“Yes,” she says. “You know? Like the ones on a ship? They’re inherited.”
Immediately, your mind lifts up an image for consideration. You think of Ernest Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, and Paul Hendrickson’s description of it in dry dock: “The wood, marbled with hairline fissures, was dusty, porous, dry. It seemed almost scaly. It felt febrile.”
You think of Gretel Erhlich. “The westerner’s face,” she wrote, “is stiff and dark red as jerky.”
You think of the many raised brown blobs on your grandmother’s skin.
“Barnacle is a truly awful term,” you tell the dermatologist, as she hands you a brochure.
“If you can pronounce ‘Seborrheic Keratosis” you can call it that instead,” she says, explaining that this mat of renegade skin cells is just a harmless wart-like mass you must live with unless you want to cut it off and risk a scar.
You think of the fifth- sixth- and seventh-grade field days, and how at each one you wore shorts and a tank top and not a lick of sunblock for six hours in the Eastern Montana sun, and how you stared at many boys who absolutely did not stare back, not once.
You think of cruising Miles City, Montana for hours on hot July days in a red Dodge Daytona driven by a boy who you knew, just knew, would eventually let go of his bottle of Pepsi, reach over and grab your thigh. The Daytona had a T-top, and you, you did not once think to apply sunblock.
You think of watching, without sunblock, the home opener football game in college on an unseasonably warm September afternoon. You hate football. You only went to that game because you had a crush on a boy who happened to be sitting behind you with his girlfriend, who had a great tan.
You think of the four hours you spent, without sunblock, at the outdoor REO Speedwagon concert in Rock Creek, Montana. You hate REO Speedwagon. You only went to that concert because your boyfriend was 10 years older.
The boys of summer have gone. But you’ll always have something to remember them by: The barnacle.
“Barnacle,” reports Merriam-Webster. “Any of numerous marine crustaceans (subclass Cirripedia) with feathery appendages for gathering food that are free-swimming as larvae but permanently fixed (as to rocks, boat hulls or whales) as adults.”
So they stick to whales, too. Great. Super. Terrific.
Perhaps noticing that your eyes have gone flat, your skin clammy and your pulse, shallow, the dermatologist clears her throat.
“Have you ever seen an old redhead?” she asks.
Your mind, nimble as the newspaper copy boy, now fetches several old redheads. Meredith Palmer from “The Office.” Mona from “Who’s the Boss.” Carrot Top.
You also think of several older redheads you know personally. Hey, they look pretty good. You consider calling one or two and asking their secret, then decide any conversation that begins with you referring to a friend as an “old redhead” is probably destined to fall flat.
“Time to double down on the sunblock,” the dermatologist continues. “Don’t forget your neck.”
“How about that Retin A?” you ask, testily, and the dermatologist leaves the room and returns with a box of Renova samples.
“These are about to expire, but they’re still good for two years. You can have them. Be careful,” she says. “This will burn your face off.”
You wonder whether that’s a bad thing.
“That’s a bad thing,” the dermatologist says.
Renova sells for $100 a tube. These samples could pull serious scratch on the street. You think about going into nursing homes and dangling them in front of old redheads. “Is that a barnacle on your face?” you’d ask. “That’ll be $400.”
Boom. Your MFA financed, just like that.
You stroke the barnacle. It’s a hermaphrodite. Only one more barnacle needs to pop up next to it for it to reproduce.
You decide to keep the Renova. It’s every old redhead for herself.