by N.T. Brown
I had twenty-three moles on my back. I knew because I made my friend Claire count them for me.
Are you sure it’s not twenty-four?
What about that one there?
That’s a freckle.
Really? It seems kind of suspicious.
Claire sighed. Don’t you know your own body better than this?
It’s my back, I said. I can never truly see it.
I’d hated these moles my entire life. But my insurance wouldn’t cover their removal because it was a purely cosmetic procedure. That’s what they said: “purely cosmetic.” I tried arguing with the lady on the phone. This involves my mental health, I said. You guys would cover me if I needed a counselor. This is my version of a counselor.
Sorry, ma’am, we can’t do it.
But my self-confidence depends on this. I’m a salesperson. I have to project confidence.
I’m sorry. Was there anything else I could do for you today?
Anything else? You haven’t done anything yet.
Could I offer you a special deal on our dental package?
No, I’m not—wait, actually, yes, you can.
When I scored $600 on a lottery ticket, I immediately called the dermatologist. Most people would have bought a bunch of new stuff, or taken, you know, the kids to Disney and shit. Perhaps invested the money. To me, this was an investment. I was investing in my Perception Of Self, which was a term I learned back in college. My Perception Of Self was much weaker back then because I could never wear a proper bathing suit. I mean, I could, but I was embarrassed.
One time, in high school, I was making out with a guy, and he ran his hand under my blouse, searching for a bra clasp. Then suddenly he pulled away and made this disgusted face. There’s, like, growths on you, he said.
I fought hard not to burst into tears. I wanted to say, They’re just moles, they’re harmless, here, look, touch them, kiss them, I’ll sleep with you if you’ll just put your face on them. But all I could do was give this half-hearted little shrug, as if to say, I realize I’m worthless, but maybe you’ll take pity on me?
I didn’t lose my virginity until age twenty-three because of this. Twenty-three years, twenty-three moles. It made sense. And even then, my boyfriend just sort of accepted them. He wasn’t disgusted, but he examined them sometimes like a scientist studying a newly-discovered animal.
God, you’re obsessed, I would say. Don’t you want to study, like, my tits instead?
I’m not obsessed, he said. I’m just a little… fascinated.
But I didn’t want fascination. I wanted a plain, smooth, completely unfascinating back. And that’s what Dr. Ramaswami was now going to give me.
Well, the doctor said, clicking off his little pen-light, these skin tags aren’t dangerous at all. In fact, the bigger they are, the better. It’s the flat ones that turn into cancer.
Could you maybe say they’re cancer, so my insurance will cover this?
The doctor just stared at me. He had flawless brown skin and white hair. He smelled like a man is supposed to smell—like Old Spice, but not too strong.
I mean, you’re getting paid either way, right? I said.
He did not smile. This is purely cosmetic, he said. There was that phrase again. I wondered if he had spoken to the insurance lady. But, he said, I can remove them for you if you want.
I want, I said.
Have you ever considered Samson? he said.
Is that some new procedure?
No. Samson from the Bible. The fellow with long hair.
Oh, him. I don’t think I’ve ever “considered” anyone from the Bible, except Jesus I guess, when I was like seventeen, but that never really—
All his power resided in his hair, the doctor said. Once it was cut, he was powerless. Just think about that.
So all my power is in my moles? Is that what you’re saying?
Not at all. It’s just something to think about.
I hopped down from the table. I don’t even have any powers anyway, I said.
Claire went with me the day of. I told her I may need someone to drive me home, the anesthetic might make me a little loopy, which was complete bullshit. I just didn’t want to go alone.
First Dr. Ramaswami rubbed a numbing cream on my back. It was the first time anyone had touched my back in a long time. Then I had to lie on my stomach for an hour while it kicked in. Claire sat beside me, flipping through a magazine.
Anything interesting? I said.
That Ryan Gosling, Claire said. Hoo boy.
He’s okay, I said.
Just before the procedure, Dr. Ramaswami injected me with several shots to numb me even more. Then I heard a sound like a bug zapper and he said, Tell me if it starts to hurt. Claire stood up to watch. I couldn’t see what was happening, but the machine buzzed and crackled like a Tessla coil. I imagined them wearing safety goggles back there. It felt like an ant biting me, or sometimes several ants at once. Gross, Claire said. The whole thing took about fifteen minutes.
Dr. Ramaswami said: Keep the bandages on overnight. Wear a t-shirt when you sleep. Do not scratch. Pat dry after shower. Your skin will heal in about two weeks.
Then I paid him $600.
At home in the mirror I twisted around to see. My back was covered in tiny bandages. It felt like someone had put out twenty-three cigarettes on me.
I paced around the apartment. I’d done something monumental, but had nothing to show for it. It was monumental by subtraction. Monument by negation. The absence of monument.
But my moles weren’t monuments, they were pieces of flesh, skin tags, little babies that never did anything wrong and now their raw red stumps were screaming at me, Why, why, what did we do?
I walked to the grocery store, just to get out, and every time I passed someone on the sidewalk I thought, They don’t know the great thing I just did. And they never will. This made me feel triumphant—but also empty.
My fridge was already stocked, so I just grabbed a tub of yogurt. Standing in line, I placed my hands on my hips and realized that my thumbs rested on two of the moles. One on each side. I had always fondled them subconsciously. Now they were gone, and it was disorienting, like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. I didn’t know how to stand. Unbeknownst to me, the moles had dictated even my posture.
I kept a straight face in the checkout lane, but as soon as I got home I sat on the kitchen floor with my yogurt and sobbed into the open tub. Then I ate the tears along with the yogurt.
At work everything went on as usual. I made some sales, lost a few others. Nobody noticed anything different.
I purchased a new bathing suit—the first time I’d worn a bikini since I was a little girl. But when Claire and I went to the beach, I wore my old one-piece that covered my back. WTF, Claire said. She actually said the letters “WTF.” Don’t you want to show off your body, your new body?
I looked at all the blank backs surrounding us, both male and female. Eh, I said. Now I just look like everyone else.
Isn’t that what you wanted?
I shrugged. I tried to change the subject. Did you bring any good magazines?
A year passed. The scars healed. Claire got pregnant and I never saw her anymore. I got promoted at work, but then decided to bail and take another job anyway, one that was closer to home. I rarely thought about the moles, and when I did, it was like thinking about an ex. We had some good times, but in the end it just didn’t work out. It wasn’t them, it was me. I wondered how they were doing these days, but then remembered that Dr. Ramaswami had burned them away and they no longer existed.
I ran into Dr. Ramaswami at the mall, doing some holiday shopping. Hey! I said, as though we were old friends. He smiled faintly: clearly he had no idea who I was.
You removed some moles for me, I said. About a year ago.
He just nodded—he didn’t want to talk to me. I didn’t care.
So, do you still have the moles somewhere? Like in a baggie or something? Do they get stored in a lab?
He stared at me like I was an alien. No, he said. They are destroyed immediately.
Oh, I said. Right. Ha, not like I wanted to hang out with them or anything! Happy holidays!
On a date, I wore a backless dress. I wanted to feel the cold air against my skin. The guy took me to an upscale restaurant, a place frequented by Hollywood types. Halfway through dinner, he pointed at the table behind me. I turned around. It was Ryan Gosling.
Wow, my date said. I knew this place was legit.
For some reason I decided right then that I never wanted to see this guy again.
You like Gosling? he said.
He’s okay, I said, shifting my bare back into Gosling’s line of vision. Maybe he would notice me.
Hey, move, my date said. I’m trying to see what he’s ordering.
What do you care what he’s ordering?
Well, the guy said. What do you care if he sees your back?
I wanted to say, My back used to be deformed, mister, and now it’s smooth like anyone else’s, and I thought Ryan Gosling might appreciate it. But I didn’t say that. Not because I was embarrassed, or afraid of judgment. Because it felt like talking about an ex, and you don’t talk about exes on dates. In fact, if you’re still thinking about an ex, you shouldn’t even be on a date.
So I just downed my glass of wine, grabbed the bottle and filled it up again, and said, I don’t. I don’t care one bit.