I live in New England, it’s getting to be winter (we’ve already gotten some snow), and I have very dry skin. Hence, this story.
Music this time is Really Rosie by Carole King. I listened to this album countless times as a child, and recently recorded the cassette. I just uploaded it onto YouTube today, because until now it wasn’t particularly accessible. (A number of the songs were on YouTube, but I don’t think all of them were, and no videos had the full album.)
Dry skin. That was all. Everyone has a bout of dry skin every once in a while. Especially me, I lived in New England, where the winters were long and cold and dry. And it was getting to be about that time of year.
It started on my face. The corners of my eyes and mouth got slightly dry, cracked from the frequent opening and closing, and thus became irritated. My eyes had always watered a lot, but now the the salt water seeped into the cracked skin near my eyes and got inflamed. It was painful, for the few days it persisted. But for the rest of the week I put on a facial creme, and before long it went away.
But a few days later it came back, elsewhere. On my arms and chest and neck and back and especially hands, the skin became cracked and dry and flaky and constantly shed. When I looked at my forearms, in disgust, they resembled pale alligator skin.
One day I took an Epsom salts bath. It was nice enough, I played an Isaac Asimov audiobook as I soaked, but I couldn’t help noticing the constantly increasing amount of dead skin floating in the water. I rubbed my hands, and little flakes of skin scrubbed off into the tub. I rubbed them again and sent another layer of skin into the water. Another, and another. I became mesmerized by it, sending down layer after layer after layer of skin.
I got out partway through the bath, turning on the hot water to refresh it, and dropped in some scented oils. Maybe it would soothe my skin, but at least it might soothe my nerves. My hands felt noticeably lighter since I got out, and that concerned me.
I settled in, enjoying the new warmth and the soft lavender scent. I resumed my audiobook, closed my eyes, and tried to sink deeper.
But I seemed to have stretched out the skin on my back uncomfortably, it was burning how it feels when someone gives you an Indian rugburn. So I sat up, brought my back out of the water, and reassessed it.
It was still burning. I tried to bear it, ignore it, for the rest of the bath, but that hot sting was always there in the back of my mind. When I got out and turned around and looked in the mirror, a large swath of my back was bright-red, almost like I had been lashed.
Within an hour, though, it had gone away, and I didn’t bear it any more mind.
I had begun, almost unconsciously, just picking away at the skin on my hands when idle. Like others might click a pen, I tore off little sheets of skin. Occasionally, I’d bite away at it when I couldn’t get a good grip with my fingernails, or just for the salty sweat-taste.
My skin soon became outright painful. If I moved in the wrong way a sharp stinging would erupt from my skin, like being sliced by a very sharp knife, or a papercut. The way your nose gets sometimes in the dry winter. A “crack”, they call it. Because, normally, it’s just one specific little location.
But for me, it wasn’t. A week after the stinging started, my whole hand had it. Touch anything, even just move, and it would feel like my hand was being sliced up by uncountable razor blades. Then, before long, it spread. I was paralyzed by my skin. Any movement had instant punishment. I even made my speech as minimal as possible.
But despite the pain, my habit continued. Picking off little bits of skin whenever I was idle. But it was no longer just thin sheets of skin. They had thickened, deepened. It was like picking off plates of skin. The layer of skin beneath was young and supple. It was skin that should have had several months to go before reaching air. And when I looked at the area I had picked it from, there was an obvious depth change between the normal, scaly skin and the too-fresh skin. It was like a crevasse had been opened up.
Looking at the less-affected areas of my body, I realized that I resembled people with harlequin ichthyosis. Red, and with skin separating like continents from pangea.
Then the itching began. Perhaps it was because of the freshly exposed skin, perhaps it was just a side effect of the dry skin to begin with. Either way, it was intolerable. Itchiness to the point of pain. It hurt when I didn’t scratch it, it hurt when I did.
Wearing clothes, at this point, was out of the question. When you’re like that, clothes are like a coating of needles, all pricking down into your skin. Laying down to sleep was nearly impossible, as the sheets had a similar effect as clothes. I slowly became accustomed to sleeping while standing, usually leaning against the wall with the smallest amount of my shoulder as possible.
One day, upon waking up, I found a slippery, thick sheet of something on the floor below me, white on one side and red on the other. During the night, I soon found, a large section of my skin, from my legs and waist area, had completely sloughed off. The now-exposed flesh was bright red and continually painful, as you might expect of an area that had had its skin removed.
Oddly enough, though, there was very little bleeding. I could see that the surface was slick with blood, but none of it dripped down from it. I would have expected a practical fountain of blood gushing forth, but I was in no risk of dying from bleeding out. Initially, when I found that, I was relieved. Later, though, as my waking mind gradually came to grips with what had happened and the ensuing pain, I decided that was a curse. If I could have just bled out – if I had just bled out in my sleep – then this would be over. For the past month my life had gradually decreased in quality, and it was now at an all-time low. But no, my death would not be that simple, it would not come so easily.
I dared not move, dared not breathe, for the risk of infection was evident. Open flesh with no running blood to rinse out contaminants, just sitting there, body temperature, with access to oxygen. I was a human petri dish, and aware of that fact. I stared at the flesh, analyzing it with panic, watching for any change in color or unusual growth that might indicate an infection.
An hour later, I dared touch it. As I brought my hand towards it, the brittle skin around my wrist separated, and the skin on my hand slid off like a glove onto the pile of skin already at my feet. I saw bones, tendons, capillaries. I am not a weak-hearted man, but at that sight my head spun and my skin blanched further. I leaned against the wall, the pain that caused overridden by the pain around my legs and hand.
I focused on breathing, on coming up with a plan. But no plan came to me. Once my vision was no longer blurred and spinning, I stood up straight again. With that movement, however, came a wet tearing sound, like pulling the skin off of a raw chicken. Moments later, fire erupted from my shoulder. I turned to look at the wall behind me, my dry neck resisting the twisting, and saw a section of the skin from my back, what I had leaned with, clinging to and slowly slipping down the wall.
Instinctually, I moved. My feet shifted as I turned to look at the wall, and slipped on what used to be skin. It astounds me that something so dry could at the same time be so slimy and slippery. I tried to catch my balance, reaching out grasp for anything, but nothing was there to support me. I fell onto the ever-growing pile, all parts of me that were now touching something screamed with pain, and I writhed.
Oh, did I writhe. I couldn’t not. Unless you’ve been flayed alive before, you cannot imagine the feeling. You cannot say you would do any differently. And with every movement, strips and sheets and layers of skin – sometimes pulling off the connected flesh, sometimes not – tore off of my body onto the floor. Before long, I was one of those drawings you see in anatomy books, showing what humans look like underneath their skin. All exposed muscles and veins and arteries and bones and tendons. I was the Skinless Man.