Eczema, Exoskeleton

by a contributor

Sally J. Johnson

It’s the slow scratch and peel, then pick. It is redder than shame, my skin.

I have memories of oatmeal bathtubs, of things not so natural smeared on me. Since I was a baby, my mom tells me. But I couldn’t absorb any of it. A child’s disorder, the doctors first said, something to grow out of.

I cannot tell you how many too-small sweaters I have now but still this same, scratch-riddled skin. This white flag of surrender I sewed in the night. It says, I couldn’t stop the scratching, not in my sleep, no, and not in any state of mind.

Then came creams and shots of steroids. Relief in the smallest of ways, I remember a doctor telling me I’d come out smelling like a rose 24 hours after the first shot. She did not mention I would need another every 3 months. She did not tell me this behavior would be able to kill my kidneys.

I let go, began again. My skin a perpetual spring, but blooming instead was this body that couldn’t hold onto its coat.

A man who once told me he loved me said my eczema arms were beautiful. When it came time to know he was a liar above everything else, I felt my white scars burn into me further. Felt the way a fabrication lines in your skin like stitches, and started tearing them out.

Quick cold showers, creams and calamine; I could always feel my skin tightening around me. My body a boa constrictor. No to dryer sheets, conditioner, fabrics and face products. I learn my limits. Do not go to a water park or the ocean. Do not eat bread. Do not believe boys who tell you your flaw is beautiful.

As a child I remember self-awareness. Seeing that kid in class and his dark inner-elbows. Seeing everyone’s elbows. Then putting on makeup over my patches, piecing together a new color for me, one that didn’t show the signs. But it flakes away and friends ask what happened. Children ask what happened, what terrible fire was there that swallowed me up whole and spit me out split all open like that.

This summer I submerged myself into the Atlantic Ocean ready for that salt-in-wound sting and I found it, but I kept swimming through burn. I wanted the waves to wash away old skin, so I could start over. But I come out of chrysalis daily, and am still just a crawling thing, with skin too sensitive to stay put.

I will always wait for my single skin-shedding day, the one where I’m no longer a child. When I hole up inside myself and stop the scratching, when a layer forms around me; love or something like it.

When, like a cicada in spring, I split down the middle, bust through my body and leave this skin behind.

Sally J. Johnson is the Managing Editor of Ecotone and the Poetry Editor of Atlantis. She is an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her poetry can be read in Fogged Clarity and The Boiler Journal.

See Sally’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.