The Day After Diagnosis

Carlyn Lynch
I've tried to start this column three times, three times in two days. Even now I'm struggling to find the strength to punch these keys as my brother leaps from the hearth with an actual flame screaming, "Let's burn her." I'm half laughing, half whimpering in self pity. You see, yesterday I was diagnosed with Scarlet Fever. That's right, a disease I've always understood to have afflicted people who wore 'dressing gowns' and used the word 'betwixt' instead of 'between' still exists in the new millennium. Who knew?

Well, now I know. I know all too well the stinging burn that accompanies the unsightly red rash winding its way across my body. I've become a walking pariah, one who my own flesh-and-blood brother wants to burn at our modern-day stake (a gas fireplace) and I definitely look the part . Along with consuming practically all of my epidermal real estate, my rash has gobbled up my desire to preserve any aspect of my physical appearance. I've been holed up at my parents' house for four days and with each day my leg hair gets spikier, my face progressively more broken out with mounting stress and I haven't flossed…I always floss.

When I have had to venture out into the world of the clean-shaven to go to the doctor or find sustenance, I've scowered my childhood closet for anything I can put my legs and arms through. As you can probably imagine, the clothing I've left in said closet is a hodge podge of high school volleyball jerseys, multi-colored jeans and ill-fitting shirts given to me by great aunts. This little conundrum has been incredibly helpful in shrinking my self-esteem to the point that it can fit in the breast pocket of the hand-me-down blazer with shoulder pads I'm wearing now…Nice.

So, when my mother kindly offered to pay for a manicure/pedicure for me this afternoon to make me a tad easier on the eyes, it seemed about as futile an effort as braiding King Kong's back hair. However, I've never been one to turn down a free spa service, so I wrapped myself in full coverage winter wear and set out to meet the 90 degree day.

When I arrived at the nail salon, I half-heartedly chose my polish and scanned the waiting area for a magazine that would allow me to A. (avoid eye contact) and B. (keep my idle mind from thinking the crazy, irrational crap that inevitably surfaces after one too many sick days) but there were none to be found. Jenny, a Vietnamese nail technician, ushered me to my place at the end of the row of pedicure chairs. Jenny and her coworkers were deeply engulfed in Vietnamese conversation and I immediately resented the woman next to me as she thumbed through the only magazine in the place, leaving me to feel out of place.

Soon, the moment came when Jenny had to roll up my pant leg. I winced as I looked down at my raw skin and then at Jenny's face to gauge her reaction. She seemed unfazed…a hazard of the profession I guess. My gaze wandered over to my neighbor's leg, an older lady, her translucent skin revealed a road map of veins and capillaries. My resentment for her softened as I realized she needed to bury her thoughts and eyes in a magazine as much as I did.

It wasn't until Jenny swept the first coat of polish onto my big toe that her brow furrowed and her expression soured. "Too light," she said, "This is too light for summer, won't work…Come on." Too confused and fatigued to protest, I shuffled behind Jenny to the polish display case where she chose a bright pink color and put my "Peach-a-boo" faux pas back on the shelf. I've never been a fan of pink, but she was excited about it so I grinned my consent and Jenny finished the job. They looked nice and I thought how nice it was for her to act like the tint on my toenails was all that stood between me and the cover of Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Jenny then passed me to Vivian, who would handle my fingernails.

Vivian promptly vetoed the nude color I'd selected for my hands. 'We' ended up going with "Bubble Bath." It looked really nice too.

Fingernail painting turned out to be a much more intimate affair than my casual fling with toenails. Vivian and I were in our own corner of the salon and, through happy coincidence, were in that balanced state where she wanted to talk about her life and I wanted to ask her about it.

I learned that she was 33, a year shy of completing her Master's in Education and terrified of actually becoming a teacher. She told me that she constantly struggled with feeling inferior, like she had no business being a teacher because English wasn't her native language.

This inferiority complex had been fueled by a white, racist ex-boyfriend who had told her she ought to thank white people every day for any opportunity she gets because white people conquer everything. That's why she needed to come to America, the land of the (white?), to make something of herself. "That really stuck with me," she said.

Instinctively, I attacked this kernel of 'wisdom' and the asshole who bestowed it with the fervor of any decent human being with a liberal arts education. I made her laugh at him and at herself for believing him and, I think, made her feel better.

For the first time in days, I engaged in a meaningful exchange with another human being. It felt good to make myself useful and dish out some sought-after advice. After a period of isolation, discomfort and being scared to touch anyone for fear of infecting them, nothing could have had as therapeutic of an effect as the comforting the shy woman who held my hands as she told me her story. It was so gracious of her to pull me out of the center of my own universe and relieve me of my symptomatic self loathing.

I left the salon itching my rash with freshly painted pink fingernails and felt a little better.