In Skin

Cassie Keller Cole

[watermarked image behind]

People casually shed their skin like amateur snakes. We scatter our scales in sheets, towels, clothes, and even when we shake hands. I imagine the husk of myself lying in the places I have been. Skin is an echo, a still life in pieces.

My layers of skin bother me. As a baby I broke out with eczema that has never completely left. In elementary school I discovered that touching grass, leaves, flowers—basically any plant—with my exposed skin resulted in splotchy rashes across my body. My pimples lingered after puberty; they continue to reflect my stress, hormones, and amount of body oil to everyone around me. My skin burns. I wear SPF 50 sunscreen for sensitive skinned toddlers and still blister. At a carwash in high school I lathered every fifteen minutes; my back scarred. During the summer, I peel; the crust of this large organ crackles along my ears, neck, back, and nose. When I move I can hear my skin breaking. Despite this, I shiver in eighty-degree weather. Throughout a normal day, my skin mottles into bruise-colored goose bumps. I tried to cut them off with scissors when I was little by grabbing a wad of flesh and sawing over the surface. I also scratched off my scabs and sucked my own blood, believing that it would recycle back through my body. I wanted to taste the salty lemon of myself under the skin. I finally stopped these practices when my parents bribed me with stickers and decorative pencils.

So began the awareness of my skin: skin rippling down my legs makes me insecure—I don’t own a pair of shorts. Skin squeaking behind my ears, drying around my ankles, dipping into one dimple on my right cheek, gathering at my elbows and knees, rumpling around my knuckles in an endearing and forgivable way.

My skin, like everyone else’s, is a collection of dead things. It crawls with the corpses of previous days. It marks the time spent alive until eventually it becomes spotted and loose, hanging limp on my bones.  What happens when the skin no longer reproduces itself and finally rots? What happens to everything beneath the skin?

I slither inside of my thin shell sometimes, as if I don’t fit right under its cover. My bones reach outside of their carapace. My fingers are like cloves of garlic pushing beyond the papery wrapping that crinkles away to reveal a slick whiteness. Garlic is not wholly revealed until cut; the spiral of green blinks through only after removing the veils. I love chopping garlic; the crunch of my blade through the small frame reminds me of delving for eternity while watching it leap out at me.

I like to imagine a series of universes that grow inside my confined spaces. I wonder what it would be like to see through the levels of my skin—would it announce the soul with garlic-like surprise? Would it be like the compressed layers of soil? Or, like an hourglass would each day of my skin filter into the next, the divisions disappearing into the shifting mass of sand, leaving no remnants of what went before?

A couple of weeks ago, my sister’s water frog grew out of his skin. That morning he was small and tight in his stretched brown, but in the afternoon he floated loosely along the edges of his vase—the white filmy glove of his old self waving in the water, the pale ghost of his webbed hands visible although transparent. People don’t want their skin to flutter like a fading shadow. Instead of signaling growth, when human skin sags, an end is near—a reminder that our attempts to burst from the current sheath in an untainted nascence are impossible.

When I was fourteen, my older brother leaned out of his truck window and shot a rattlesnake with the .22 pistol he always kept behind his seat. Usually fragments of exploding metal will destroy the narrow body of a snake, but his aim was perfect—the bullet seared right through the temples, leaving the long body unmarred except for a tiny ear-like hole. My brother proudly brought it home, cut off the head, and arranged the body between metal clamps in our garage. He invited me to help him gently slice down the belly. The body ripped open like a zipper before peeling away from the oily meat. It dangled there with the rattles quivering. Outside the cats hissed, repulsed by the scent of venom. For weeks the skin dried, carefully pinned to cardboard and protected in my room. A couple months later, I hung it above my closet. I understand the revulsion of others when they see the display: the remains of a dead animal tacked above my clothes, a jagged line accentuating the absence of the snake’s head. But I am drawn to the smooth pattern of the dark browns and yellows forming small heart shapes that blend into stripes. I love the skin; it still feels alive.