2013 Fiction Prize Finalist
I am tired of data, tired of spreadsheets, tired of life, but I have to be at work in forty-five minutes. Half awake, I put on my glasses, and notice something strange on my arm. Little spots. No, not spots. Strange dark hairs. No, not hairs either. My eyes focus. Plants are growing out of my skin.
“This can’t be good,” I say to myself. I don’t freak out, though. I’ve always been hairy. The little sprouts feel like a new kind of hair, another sign of getting older that I hadn’t known to expect.
I go into the bathroom, poke around in the drawer under the sink, and find the tweezers. I choose a stem at random, one near my left wrist, and pluck it out.
Mary-Mother-of-Jesus-in-a-Bathtub, that hurt.
Where the plant had been, a drop of blood forms on my wrist, like a tiny wet stop sign warning me against further tweezing.
I look at the bit of greenery hanging from the tweezers. It has a short stem, two small leaves, and inch-long roots. What will happen if I leave the rest unplucked, if they keep growing? I go to my computer and do a few searches. “Skin sprouting.” “Plants growing on body.” “Skin plants.” I find nothing useful.
Sitting there, with my hands on the keyboard, I realize I feel a barely-noticeable twinge whenever a new plant sprouts.
I scroll through my phone for my doctor’s number and call her office to make an appointment. “My skin is being weird.” I tell the receptionist.
“Is it a rash?” she asks.
“Sort of,” I say. I don’t feel like trying to explain that I’m sprouting.
“Sort of a rash,” she repeats, and I hear her typing. “She’s not in today, but you can see her tomorrow. 9:30 am.”
“Okay,” I say, and hang up. I can get through a day.
It’s hot out, but I wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt to work. On the subway, I’m sweaty, but once I get to the office, I feel fine. It’s always too cold on our floor, but for once, the icy temperature feels almost pleasant.
In the afternoon, I feel a twinge on my scalp. I go into the ladies’ room, and see that a small plant has sprouted on top of my head. I twist my hair up into a bun to hide it, and go back to my desk.
After work, I go straight to Jerome’s, eager to hear his opinion. As soon as I get there, I take off my clothes and stand in front of him in my underwear.
I expect him to find the plants fascinating. Instead, he stares. “What the. . .What have you done?”
“I didn’t do anything,” I say. “They just grew. Overnight.”
“You have to get that looked at.” He sounds more disgusted than worried.
“It doesn’t hurt or anything,” I say, “but I have an appointment tomorrow.” I get dressed.
Jerome doesn’t tell me it’ll be okay. Instead of hugging me, he keeps his distance. Even when he hands me a beer, he holds it with the tips of his fingers, as if any contact with my skin might contaminate his.
I expect to stay over at his place, but when I suggest it, his wide eyes let me know I’m not welcome. He doesn’t even hug me good bye, just gives me a quick pat on the back as he says good night. I’m sure he washed his hands with strong soap the second I was out the door.
In the morning, I take a shower. As I pat my skin dry, I notice in the mirror that a few sprouts are starting to bloom. I see three blue flowers near my hairline, and a purple one below my right breast. The flowers look so fragile. I hope my clothes won’t hurt them.
I take the subway to the doctor’s office and sit in the waiting room, too warm in my sweater. When the doctor calls me in, I undress and show her the plants. There are more now. They keep sprouting.
“Huh,” she says. She asks if it hurts when they sprout, if my skin itches, and if I have any other symptoms.
“Not really,” I say. I tell her what happened when I tried to tweeze.
She listens to my heart, looks in my ears, and takes my blood pressure. When the cuff inflates, it flattens a few stems against my arm, but they bounce right back when she takes it off. She touches a few of the flowers, and I notice she’s not wearing gloves. It’s probably unsanitary, but at the same time, it feels reassuring. She recommends a blood test, just in case, and asks if I have any questions.
“Do you think it’s infectious?”
“I want to say ‘No,’ but the truth is, I don’t know, because I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I picture Jerome’s disgusted face. “Do you think it’s possible to get rid of them?”
“I could prescribe an anti-fungal, but this doesn’t look fungal, so I’m not sure it’ll inhibit the growth. The side effects aren’t pleasant either. . .nausea, headaches. . .It’s up to you if you want to try it.”
I take the prescription, but after I get the blood test, I don’t feel like going to the pharmacy. I take the train home instead. I don’t call Jerome, and he doesn’t call me.
A few days later, my test results come back: I’m healthy. Jerome finally gets in touch. His text says only: “How’s your skin?”
I realize that I like the flowers more than I like Jerome. I throw the anti-fungal prescription in the trash.
The flowers continue to bloom, and I get tired of hiding them. One day, an early morning call from the office warns that the air-conditioner is broken, and I consider it a sign. Instead of clothes that hide the plants, I wear a sleeveless dress to work.
People stare as I pass them on the way to the subway. I hear whispers and comments as I wait on the platform.
“Yo, check that out.”
“Is she sick or somethin’?”
When I get to the office, my boss makes a comment about my attire and tries to send me home. I point out coworkers in shorts and flip-flops, and tell her I feel discriminated against because of my skin condition. She gets quiet and lets me stay.
A few days later, they move me to a cubicle that gets no natural light. My flowers start to wilt. I drink more water and start taking multi-vitamins. I buy a grow light for my cube and leave it on all day. It’s not enough. I know I’m mistreating the plants, and I hate myself for it.
One hot July morning, I decide not to do it anymore. Instead of going to work, I call in sick and head to Prospect Park. I’m tempted to get naked and wriggle in the mud at the edge of the pond. I bet the flowers would like that. Instead, I sit on a rock near the water’s edge and look at my arms. A few leaves are still limp, but most of the plants look healthier already.
I pinch the stem of a flower on my left arm and yank the whole thing out. My eyes tear from the pain. With one finger, I dig a hole in the dirt next to the rock, and plant the flower. Wincing, I pull another sprout from my arm, and plant that one, too. I pull the third flower from my right ankle. As I plant it, I notice a drop of blood sliding down the side of my foot. I feel dizzy.
Hundreds of blooms remain in my skin. I wish I could give them all a chance at a better life—a life where they’re not attached to me—but I know I’ve hit my limit. I take one last look at the flowers I’ve replanted, stand up, and walk home.
I spend the rest of the summer in the park, baring as much skin as I dare. Whenever I work up the nerve, I pull a few flowers from my skin and plant them. Adults avoid me, but children stare, mouths agape, as if they think the flowers are magic.
When September starts, my skin feels dry. I scratch my arm, and blue and purple petals flutter to the floor. I wake up every morning surrounded by withering leaves. My hairbrush has stems in it. The plants are dying. They’re falling out.
I look almost normal again, with tan spots that could be freckles, except that I never had freckles before. Each dot is a scar from a plant that’s no longer there.
A vague sense of loss settles over me, and I know something has to change. Without a job, there’s nothing keeping me in the city, so I box up everything I own and put it on the street with signs that say “Free.” I go to the bus station and buy a one-way ticket.
The bus fills up fast, but the seat next to me stays empty. I wonder if I still look different somehow, untouchable. A few stops outside the city, a burly man gets on. He’s wearing a shirt that says “FARMY.” He gestures at the seat next to me.
His beard looks like brambles and he smells like dirt. I breathe it in, and watch out the window as, little by little, the Applebee’s and Staples are replaced by pine-covered hills. I think of my plants and pray they’re perennial. Please let them grow back in the spring .