If I were more disciplined I would write a Yelp review for my mom’s primary care physician, “The Referral Queen of Crown Heights.” I went to see her for a rash, or more precisely an accumulation of red bumps on my upper back, right below my neck and a little bit on my shoulders. Now I was due to see my third dermatologist. The first one had given me a cream, the second a biopsy. I could still feel big bumps from the extraction on my shoulder.
The Referral Queen chatted in a gossipy way with my mom, right in front of, and about, my face.
I’d arrived alone. It still felt like the receptionist knew me as her daughter. The other people in the waiting room were all Hasidic or Orthodox women. They made me feel very aware of my knees and elbows, which I wasn’t guilty about except I thought they might judge me for not keeping them more presentable if they were to be exposed, like if you’re going to be immodest, at least be well shaven and moisturized. I liked to see them without their men here, they reminded me of the young Orthodox women I would see at Wal-Mart upstate when they came out in droves on Saturday nights after the sun set. Those women were stylish and pushed the boundaries of modesty, shorter skirt with opaque tights to cover their knees, but colorful tights—opaque, but not without personality. They probably shaved consistently and always moisturized.
This doctor spoke Russian with my mom but I thought it seemed accented; I don’t think she was Russian but I didn’t know where she was from and I always forgot which countries were actually in the Soviet Union and which ones were just behind the Iron Curtain.
When she looked inside my ear with the corded pointy thing it felt good to have something cold in it. She first said she couldn’t really see past the wax which was really embarrassing but she kept looking and said she could maybe see something, maybe a pimple? Was everything wrong with me going to be acne? She couldn’t say for sure what it was without clearing out all the earwax that she couldn’t see past, so she declared, as if telling herself, that she was going to have to irrigate. That sounded great to me, actually, the pressure was really intense now that she’d taken the ear scope out and thrown the tip into a biohazard container, so I was looking forward to the idea of unblocking my ear and imagined a gush of water rushing out of it, maybe a fish, was it like irrigating your nose? It was taking her a minute to gear up and now I could see a referral coming as she paced around, perhaps trying to remember what went into irrigating an ear.
She found a coffee mug in a cabinet, looked at it and said, “Mug.” Like it was one of the things she would need for the minor procedure. That made sense to me, the rushing water that was blocking my ear would probably go in there, and the fish. But on reflection I felt more bad for her than for me, or maybe a little scared, and I interrupted her on an inhale, offering, in English, “Do you want to just write a referral?” She released the breath like she was in yoga class and looked so grateful, “I think that would be best.” Namaste.
“So true!” I thought, when I saw the Humans of New York caption. My own doctors were all identifiably Russian (or Soviet, or Iron Curtain) in that they were kind of judgy and mean and I was scared of them, they all seemed rich but in the gaudy way New York Russians are, with houses in New Jersey or on Staten Island and imported Italian fashions that I could not imagine Italian people wearing. My cousin was a doctor; I wondered how her bedside manner was. I knew she liked expensive clothes and referred at least to herself at prior weights as “a cow.”
The second dermatologist, a small blonde with a cartoon voice, wasn’t Russian though my Russian friend had recommended her. She could hardly hold back her shock and judgement that I washed my face with soap. She cut cylindrical pieces from my skin for the biopsy and gave me an allergy test that came out normal. Pretty much every time something was wrong with me or hurt it turned out to be nothing, that way.
I went to an Ear Nose Throat doctor one morning a few days after getting a referral. The pain hadn’t subsided and I was sleeping on my left side to try to ease the pressure, which was hurting my left arm. The doctor looked a lot like the smoking doctor from Humans of New York and wasn’t that friendly, he sort of just got right to it with little announcement or fanfare. It was a little unsettling to not get to mentally prepare but it was more unsettling to mentally overprepare with the tentative Referral Queen. Suddenly he was irrigating, which did not involve a coffee mug or rushing water and was more like a digging procedure with a scrapy tool and a paper towel. I thought he was scraping was to be able to see better what was wrong with me, to confirm my infection, but he didn’t stop scraping for an uncomfortably long time. Eventually he broke the silence to state that I had a lot of earwax. I imagined my feet being up in stirrups and my gynecologist scraping my vagina and stating that there was a lot of wax in there. I needed to go see my gynecologist, my mom wanted me to go to as many doctors as possible this summer, with my dad’s good insurance that wouldn’t work anymore when I moved. He scraped and scraped and scraped and when he was done he didn’t show me the paper towel that all the wax had gone onto like I’d hoped, like when you glance at the tissue you blow your nose in, or toilet paper after wiping. He also didn’t write a prescription as I didn’t have an infection, I didn’t even have a pimple. I just had a lot of earwax. Where my ear felt stuffed before it now seemed too empty, I could hear what sounded like the ocean but what I thought was my brain sloshing around in its cranial liquid. I had a hard time balancing as I walked out of the office. I didn’t have a copay or need a follow up appointment.
At home I washed my face with acne face wash and held a shell up to my right ear so it sounded like the ocean all around me. It smelled salty from my window, I could see the beach from my room, but I didn’t leave the house for the rest of the day.
The first dermatologist was in walking distance of our apartment, around the corner from the Russian supermarket. He was gruff and unconcerned about my back and gave me Metrogel for my face. I didn’t ask him to remove my moles like my dad wanted me to. My dad had gone to him to get moles and skin tags and the like removed, he was kind of obsessed with parts of the body that could be removed, or really just teeth and moles. He liked to say he was an amateur dentist, as a kid I would hide my shaking teeth from him so he wouldn’t reach into my mouth and pull them out. In high school I hated the mole at the back of my neck, if I had my hair up in class it felt hot like laser eyes behind me could look at nothing else. But I was scared to remove it despite that and even though my dad mentioned it all the time, which was probably for the best because I ended up feeling fine about it and never thinking about it at all. That happened to other parts of my body too. I used to have a shiny nose, not oily but really shiny in an obvious way. I weighed what I do now but it felt fatter. I had red stretch marks on my hips. There were red flaky parentheses of skin around my mouth that needed their own thick layer of moisturizer. All those stopped being worries, in time.
I worked on the weekends and didn’t see a lot of friends in the summer, even though it was going to be my last chance to consistently hang out with most of them. My job was a five-minute walk from the apartment, a 10-15 minute walk in the peak season crowds, which subsided once I got to work—our plot of storage container food shacks and curated graffiti-ed handball walls was tucked behind Nathan’s Hot Dogs and next to the Thunderbolt roller coaster, and people usually thought it was closed. Our busiest day that summer was the Mermaid Parade, it was raining and windy and glittered sequined bodies were ordering fried fish by the dozens but it was taking so long that we were also issuing refunds for delays.
One guy came back with a near empty container saying his fish was undercooked. My coworker Rex who was the fry cook rolled his eyes unsubtly but we made a new one and then he came back with a near empty container again saying it was too late, he was already feeling sick, so we gave him a refund. I think he cheated us out of two orders and got his money back too but I still worried he’d get us in trouble with the Department of Health or write a bad review on Yelp. Rex was not working well under pressure and the fryer was getting cold fast from all the food so it probably was undercooked, I just didn’t get why the guy ate it all.
The freak show was on the same block as my apartment building but I had never gone. Rex was a carnie with a lot of friends who performed in the show or worked at the freak bar, they would come by and get free food that I didn’t say anything about. I enforced the extra tartar sauce costs money rule if my boss was there or I wanted to, like with people who complained both about the prices and that we didn’t take AmEx. Not so, for the Coney Island native in his late 70s whose girlfriend or wife looked like the prostitute from Futurama, she paced around behind him in a pink Juicy velour tracksuit while he ordered. He never gave his real name for the order, which he mentioned as if to spark a Rumplestiltskin curiosity about his true identity. His go-to alias was the name of an Orson Welles character from an Orson Welles movie. At the end of ordering he would lift his plain trucker hat to wipe sweat from his bald head and reveal the Ed Hardy-esque tiger tattoo on his forehead, which looked really fresh. When his food was ready I’d wave to him and give him an extra tartar sauce.
Rex came to work from Harlem and he was always late. One time he locked me out for hours because he alone had the key to the padlock. My boss was at her other location in Williamsburg and had to drive over with the spare in her tagged white van that matched her tattooed arms, she got there before Rex even woke up but didn’t fire him because she was too busy to find good help. Another time Rex messed up switching the propane tank behind the container and we almost died trying to light the fryer. He didn’t get fired that time either but I got promoted to manager and got a raise to $12 an hour, and fantasized about the storage container exploding all the time. I learned how to cook everything so I could take care of things on my own when he was late. The uniform was a crewneck so no one could see the rash on my upper back, which I thought might make people not want to eat food I made even though I wore gloves. I wore a cap that covered my face well enough, though it was red and that probably didn’t help matters.
During the week I sat at home and read recipes but didn’t make them. I wasn’t being anorexic, just lazy.
I went to see a new gynecologist. At my old one, a slideshow of Before and Afters for cosmetic procedures I didn’t know were options played while I waited in a frontless paper hospital gown. The doctor had severe snakeskin heels and looked like the combined After of all the procedures on the slideshow. I think she was Armenian but she spoke an English and Russian combo to me. When I had asked for birth control two years earlier she’d asked about my boyfriend and I said I didn’t have one, to which she replied, “Why do you need birth control?”
The truth was that in a recent lusty moment I’d told my not-boyfriend not to use a condom and that it was ok because I was on my period, which we both knew wasn’t logical but ignored. Then we ignored it in a series of lusty moments for two more days, and then I thought about it and bought Plan B for $50. A better reason to get birth control was that my periods were still pretty irregular from the time that I was eating either 200 or 5000 calories a day with no in-betweens in the year before.
But I didn’t want further questions so I just shrugged and she prescribed me Lo Lo Estrin with raised eyebrows. My new doctor didn’t own the practice, a man did, he was the doctor my mom had heard about but I was glad to learn he was on vacation and I could see the woman. She had curly hair, wasn’t too skinny and wore sensible shoes. She spoke English and was nice about me being “sexually active” which didn’t translate to Russian as well as “Why, do you have a boy-friend?” anyway. I did have a boy-friend at that point though we had never gone back to using condoms.
This doctor wanted to change my birth control prescription to a stronger one, with one “Lo” instead of two. She said it would help with the acne on my face, which I hadn’t mentioned.
I called my boyfriend when I walked home from work on weekend nights, usually around 11, after the fireworks. In Oakland it was his dinnertime and pre-game time as well and he was distracted on the phone so I’d usually end our talks before I’d even finished the short walk home, which made me feel lonely. I kept my hand pressed to my pocket with the tips for the day and weaved through crowds holding giant plastic containers of daiquiri and watching the man whose sporty car had doors that opened like a beetle’s wings. It was covered in bright blue lights and blasted rap and I think it was his way of making money but I never looked long enough to feel like I had to pay him. When I got home I often wouldn’t shower even though I was drenched in sweat, fish, oil, beer batter, and soapy water. I’d brush my teeth and squish the microbeads of my acne wash hard onto my face. I’d write Good Night, Love on Facebook Messenger to my boyfriend and try not to wait for a response because then I might not sleep until the next day.
The scars from the first biopsy didn’t heal that well and now I had two raised white circles on my shoulder. The third dermatologist was a nice young Russian man who spoke English with me, my cousin would definitely be friends with him and maybe even want to date him. I wondered if he was born in the US like me or moved here as a child like she did, I remembered her dating someone who she felt close with because they’d immigrated at similar ages but they broke up. He did a biopsy on my arm instead of my back, removing a huge looking cylinder of flesh that I worried wasn’t even one of the bumps we were trying to learn about, but he was the doctor and I didn’t say anything. I’d had really bumpy skin on my arms since I was a child and that wasn’t fixable though it had gotten better. I knew I would have another round white scar.
Sometimes I’d invite friends to come while I was working which was great because I could treat them to free tartar sauce and not have to talk to them anymore when I didn’t want to because of work. Some high school friends stopped by during the Mermaid Parade but it was so busy all I could do was say hi. One of them was really dressed up, with a red Ariel wig and everything, she was becoming a veterinarian. I had wanted to be a vampire. A girl from college came up to the register one time and I said her name because I knew it but she didn’t know mine or couldn’t recognize me well under my hat. For some reason I tried to encourage her to order something from me even though she was a vegetarian.
On a day off I walked around Coney Island with my childhood best friend. We did the Nathan’s photobooth in black and white which made my acne look less prominent. We ordered hot dogs, I had never eaten there before even though I’d seen it from my window for 10 years. I got a beer too and after pouring it the young woman looked like she’d forgotten something, knelt down, and came back up with a lid and a straw for it. Everyone working there was a young Chinese person and they all had accents. It struck me as strange and interesting because that wasn’t the demographic around here but every time Nathan’s came up and I tried to retell that it came out sounding racist and got looks. My boyfriend was half Filipino and made fun of me for saying that I could tell the difference between Asian people, including when Chinese people were specifically Cantonese. I had brought it up as something I found distracting in American movies and shows, where Asian people were cast pan-Asian even when they were meant to be a specific kind of Asian, but it didn’t help that I said my knowledge was based on going to a 70% Asian high school.
Because I worked on the weekends I didn’t go upstate at all that summer, where my childhood best friend lived in the bungalow next door to us. A few years before, one of my first summers spent mostly at home, I was watching TV after work and not eating before heading to my dad’s apartment on Brighton Beach. I heard dishes rattling in the kitchen and saw the light fixture in the living room swing. When I didn’t feel shaking anymore I stepped outside of the apartment and thought of the word for earthquake in Russian, which was basically “earth quake,” to ask my neighbor if he’d felt it too. Everyone had come out of their apartments so I didn’t need to ask. Even though it was over I changed in a sudden panic and ran down the 20 flights of stairs to get out of the building. I walked quickly along Surf Avenue as far as I could until I had to choose between the boardwalk and walking under the elevated train and then I paused to think. Later that summer there was a hurricane that was luckily going to be on a weekend so we could go upstate as usual and count that as evacuating without my mom taking work off. I was the last one who would be home before we headed up, so it was my job to make sure all the windows were closed. I fantasized that the force of the wind and rain would be so strong that it would blast through all the windows. I moved furniture away from the windows, took down pictures from the walls, and lay a standing lamp down, certain that it would be knocked down. The hurricane turned out not to be that bad in our area and when we came home I had to explain that it was I who had felled the light, not Irene.
Sandy was a much worse storm that didn’t fall so conveniently on a weekend. My mom and sister lived at my grandma’s apartment for two weeks. I missed that and missed their search for my dad who wasn’t answering his phone during the storm. They went all around looking for him when it was safe and found him passed out in the stairwell of his apartment building with a bottle in a brown bag.
To move to California I was driving with my friend, which was a secret from my grandma. I called her from Pennsylvania or Ohio and said I had landed. We left at the end of August before the summer season was over for the seafood shack, which stuck my boss with Rex alone. The week before I left my uncle invited me to come by his office in the afternoon; he was a counselor for addicts though he’d been a doctor in Russia. I used to write his treatment plans for $10 each. He brought me into his office and had me sit in an armchair. We chatted casually in Russian. I was feeling a bit flushed and suspicious but responded honestly that I was not nervous about my relationship, or leaving New York, etc. I couldn’t go so far as to say that I looked forward to not living in New York and being away from my family, since he was part of that family. He paused for a moment and stated that I seemed fine. After another beat he shot out of his chair and brought his face close to mine and wondered aloud, “Then what is all of this about?” I didn’t have that answer.
In Los Angeles I looked for a job. I finished my antibiotics and took my birth control. My boyfriend’s mom and I watched the premiere of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and she complained that the love interest was named Josh Chan when he was clearly Filipino, even though her Filipino mom was half Chinese with a Chinese last name. I cried in the bathroom while she was at work and I had nowhere to be while the housekeeper cleaned. I switched bathrooms when she needed to clean that one. I read recipes and made them for dinner. I saw my boyfriend twice a month and talked to him more now that we were in the same time zone. I got a car and car insurance and a AAA card and a California driver’s license. I didn’t get health insurance and hoped I wouldn’t need it.
I looked up my old work on Yelp to make sure the guy from the Mermaid Parade still hadn’t ruined our reputation, and found a picture of myself in a red bandana dipping shrimp into egg wash.
My rash went away and my face cleared up.