Belfry

Once again I’d forgotten just how smart he was. Too smart.

“Like, you wanna wash your face or something?” He raised his eyebrows.

For a second I considered running with it: Wash what? There’s no makeup on this flawless, sunny complexion of mine. What you see is what you get, so, uh, like me now because you’ll wake up next to a fucking goddess who doesn’t need a touchup.

But I knew he’d catch it. Maybe even swipe a finger across my at-best-dewy at-worst-greasy T-zone, rub the ochre film between his hands. Formulate thoughts about what this means about my self-esteem, re-convince himself to lower his standards to include that untouchable tier of girls with low self-confidence and pancakey faces. These boys, they weren’t like the ones from high school—bumbling, clumsy, sweaty but sweet when they first touched you. These kissed woodenly, with dry lips, just a step in a procedure.

And they definitely knew if you were wearing concealer to bed.

A little too late, I said no. “It’s fine—I’m kinda tired, ya know?” My voice rose three pitches, as if I was turning down an invitation to go out. “I do this sometimes.”

“You sure? You should wash it. It’s good for you.”

But bad for us. “Yeah…no…I just—don’t like taking off my makeup in front of guys. Haha!” I spun away from him.

He said nothing. 

My mother used to scratch her shins until they bled. During the drier winters of her youth, they would peel slightly, leaving individual flakes sticking up that she would feel whenever she ran her hands along her legs. When she took of her pants, they scraped off in a cloud of skin cells. Once she noticed them, she had to get rid of them. She locked herself in her room, rolled up her pants, and went to town. But when she plucked one off, ten more would crop up; when she cleared one square inch and went on to the next, they mysteriously took over the original area. The task was never-ending. Maddened by the millions of individual scales attached to her body, she’d give up and scratch roughly at her shins, trying to scrub all of them off at once. When she bled, she only felt satisfaction.

Shortly after I got my first breakout, I stood in front of the mirror. The damn things on my face hurt. They were red. The skin on top of whatever crap was beneath them was stretched tight. I leaned in, inspected the little mountain range protruding from my head. I pressed the top of a zit. It turned white, then returned to its tomato shade.

I’d put toothpaste on at night—what my older sister had told me to do—and wiped with a steaming hot washcloth—what my parents had done all throughout their teenage years. But nothing went away.

I hated waiting for something I hadn’t asked for to go away. My body had turned against me. None of my friends had this issue. I’d lost control over one of the most intimate parts of my life to some foreign invader. I saw the way stranger’s eyes slid lazily over the bumpy planes of my face when they walked past me in the hall.

So I learned to take matters into my own hands. At first I only left small pink marks, which were flat and easy to cover up. But the more I looked, the more I found, and the more I picked, the more imperfections there actually were. My partner in crime was a tiny round 10X zoom mirror I’d picked up at Wal-Mart. After everyone went to bed, I sat and twisted on the bathroom counter, trying to get at spots on my lower back until the faucet left an imprint on my butt and my vision blurred. I was there for thirty minutes, then an hour, then two, at two a.m. Alone in my room, I’d subconsciously run my hands over my face or my back, feeling for any hard bump or sore spot to scratch at or try to pop. I picked at scabs, the little volcanoes underneath them, flesh-colored bumps, black spots I saw as dirt stuck in my pores. Even scars, if I thought one might have something under it.

When I pick, I feel proactive. I focus, searching, scanning, pressing, testing, pushing. Attacking. I feel like I’m making myself better, moving closer to perfection. I leave my body and reality. There is joy in the rupture and release in the blood.

I remember the day I told the first person outside my family. A random FoCo Friday my freshman year, sitting upstairs with my closest friend so far, a girl who’d grown up five minutes away from my PTA-Neighborhood-Wal-Mart-bubble of a suburb in North Dallas. I’d never spoken to her before coming here. I was down to my mango chunks, she to her canned pears. We were in a particular phase of getting to know each other that produced massively revealing and embarrassingly personal dinner conversations. They frequently culminated in absurd philosophical conclusions (about the meaning of life, death, love, babies. GPAs. Self-worth. Olivia Palermo’s Instagram. Our unbecoming obsessions with trashy reality TV.)

I mentioned it like it was a habit I’d long kicked. “Yeah, like, I used to do this thing…where I would pick at my face…like, I had really bad acne.”

She was unmoved, forking off a quarter of an especially fibrous pear. “Oh, really…”

“Yeah. Lots of people pick at their pimples, right? But for me it was like, really bad. Like, I would pick for hours…on my back and stuff too…”

She glanced up at me, and I felt her naturally roving eyes taking in the small grooves and inconsistencies in texture across my face. I chewed my mangoes evenly.

“But your skin looks fine.”

I laughed and said I was wearing makeup. “Well, it’s not. I mean, not that I do it anymore.” For a second, there were bloody tissues and T-shirts. The bag of Band-Aids I had stashed in my makeup bag. Lymph fluid. The little gold cap platelets liked to form on top of picked spots, trying to shield raw skin from further damage before I broke them off too. I swallowed. “I just have some scars and stuff. That’s why I have to wear makeup.”

For a while, I did stop, freshman year. Because I was in a one-room double, and I swore I was turning over a new leaf when I started college. I didn’t realize this was actually more of a tree I was trying to uproot, burrowed into my core.

I still do it now. Because I have the inside room of a two-room double, and I get stressed.

In high school, I had other close girl friends (formally BFFs) who I married on Facebook in seventh grade, who I giggled with about “what it’ll be like when we’re 20,” who I took AP French and driver’s ed with, who danced with me at prom. No doubt they’d noticed the first pink bumps that cropped up on my chin and forehead in middle school, then the angry red sores I attempted to mask in tinted Clearasil cream the color of Oompa Loompas. I don’t know if they saw anything beyond normal, adolescent acne. They said nothing either way. For some reason I never told them, feeling the concept was too bizarre for them to understand, thinking they’d pity me, saying “Oh, no…but, really, are you gonna be okay?” as if I’d skinned my knee falling down and just needed to get up. 

Homecoming in Texas is an outrageous affair. Junior year’s event imbued Facebook with hundreds of group photos—first of the girls in their dresses, then of the guys in their too-large suits, then of the guys with their arms looped around the girls’ waists and dopey smiles on their faces in front of some rocky-looking waterfall or abnormally green forest or shockingly large Hummer limousine. One of the girls was particularly insistent about trying a specific “back” pose—all the girls side-by-side in a line, hands around each other’s waists, with backs to the photographer. I presume she thought it particularly Pintrest-y.

The moment she started describing the pose, I started sweating—and I was already the sweatiest person there, out in what felt like 200-degree sun in mid-afternoon in the middle of a residential park, trying to maintain my balance in $20 Charlotte Russe heels that were sinking into the ground. She started instructing us and we all rotated stiffly, clasping our hands around each other. Some of the girls tossed their curly hair over one shoulder, exposing their clear, white, feminine backs to the camera. I tried to release the tension in my muscles underneath the long sheet of hair I left covering my back. I tried to decide what would look more suspicious: refusing to put my hair to one side, or the little brown splotches all over my back which would be tagged Kimberly Mei and delivered to my profile, garnering 68 likes.

A click, a flash. “Beautiful, ladies!” The smooth white backs around mine trembled slightly in excitement. I shifted. “Okay, now turn around.”

That night, when everyone was getting smooshy in the limo after the dance, I felt my date’s hand creeping up my backside. I pressed back into the seat to stop his advance and grabbed his hand back into mine. He looked woozily at our interlocked fingers, then back into my face, confused. I waited a moment, impassive, keeping my eyes slightly narrowed in drunkenness and nonchalance. Finally, having either rationalized what had happened or accepted that he was too far gone to really think, he pressed his face into my chest. I exhaled.

In fifth grade, I transferred to a new school and developed a crush on a boy in my homeroom, who had long eyelashes and huge blue eyes I couldn’t look at for very long. When I stole glances at him across the sea of beanbags during afternoon story time, I felt some kind of electricity between us, but I soon discovered that he was, in fact, dating someone from the class down the hall.

One lunchtime my friend Yeayoung corralled up the class and pitched a new idea: she was going to create “the book,” a booklet with pages for each person in the class. Underneath each name would be twenty blanks. “The book” would be passed around to everyone in the class for people to write down what they thought of each person. The only stipulation was that the comments remain totally anonymous.

All of us sucked up the idea, of course, being on the cusp of puberty and welcome to anything that would stir up some sort of cross-gender drama.

Once “the book” had made its rounds, Yeayoung reclaimed it and distributed the pages back to their owners. As best friends, we hunched together over our own pages and eventually singled out the only scrawly handwriting that could belong to the boy I had a crush on. He commented on everyone’s blank 7, Yeayoung said. I looked down at mine.

Kinda hot.

Really. Just don’t wear makeup like Do you really
Think people actually care what you look like
Use yellow-toned foundations. Drugstore ones are too pink
Kimberly I have a budget
You spend too much on makeup
Acne.org Moving this thread to the Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation forum…

***** Poll: Would you go out with someone with acne??????*****
CLEAR SKIN IS YOUR BIRTH RIGHT
GOD, PIH is RUINING MY LIFE!!!!...Everything I’m doing to get rid of it
I can’t wear spaghetti straps
Desitin Aloe Vera Apple Cider Vinegar
But why can’t you just stop
New makeup tutorial for you guys!! Flawless foundation routine using all DRUGSTORE products this time
Would you mind if I took a look at your skin
No, it isn’t a keloid scar, it’s just hypertrophic because
Keloids grow
Won’t it sweat off?
But I’ve seen you without makeup
Mom got tattoo cover-up on my prom dress trying
to put it on my back
40-Day No Pick Challenge – Starting NOW!!! We can do it!!!!
Suicide threads
It’s on the OCD spectrum,
Dermatillomania

I hate the mania part

 If my body is a temple, my face is a roof, and makeup is gold paint. The roof I desecrate weekly, monthly, shear off in small flakes. Sometimes large pieces I scrape and clamp, till tension rods expose tarnished red grain underneath, a cellular matrix that tries to regrow but is gum underneath the elements

If my body is a wonderland, my face is a meadow, and makeup the Miracle-Gro. The grass I raze weekly, monthly; whole yards of tenuous yellow-green hairs yanked from their dark dermis. The air shimmers with the powder of smashed dandelion heads, settling on naked earth that gives life again, but slower.

If my body is a temple, my face is the roof, my brain’s the belfry, housed in the roof, that tiny thing, or a minaret, but either way it’s the same—

When it begins it never stops

Bells roll in all directions

Speakers scream static Shudders

People come out of their homes as

Spires pivot the buttresses extend the curlicues unravel to smash in the windows