A month after you die, I develop a skin tag under my armpit. When I lift my arm to put on a shirt, it winks at me in the mirror; cream-beige on the base, pink around the edges, and brown at the tip—a flesh-ombre that disgusts me. I pinch it between my index finger and thumb, dig my long nail into the center and tug, willing it to detach. All I get for my effort is a line of blood under my nail, and the beginning of a purple bruise.
You had a lot of skin tags – sometimes a small nodule on your arm, or a spot on your outer thigh, or a larger wart-sized piece on your neck. You told me when I breast-fed, I would grasp your skin tags like little arm-holds – your body, my favorite climbing wall. When I grew older, you named these skin tags after characters in the Bible and told me their stories before they fell off. “This is one is Abraham,” you said, pointing to the bigger of two skin tags clustered on your shoulder, “bending over his son Isaac to kill him, before the Lord stayed his hand.” One time when Daddy came home late from work smelling like the lady next door’s perfume, you pointed at the blackened skin tag on your knee that was close to falling off and said, “This one is Judas, the traitor, who betrays the one he loves most.” That evening Daddy went straight into the bedroom without kissing me hello.
The night I find my skin tag, I have sex with my fiancé. When I raise my arms over my head in a theatrical attempt to look like I am in the throes of pleasure, I see him do a double-take mid-thrust. He notices the dark speck of protruding flesh under my arm. “What’s that,” he asks. I wave him off, not wanting to break his flow by telling him it’s you, watching us.
People say skin tags can be the first sign of cancer. Doctors tell patients you are supposed to go in if you see an unusual number of skin tags erupt on your skin—kind of the skin’s way of informing you your body is in distress. But you have always had skin tags; it is a natural condition of your body. Later, I would wonder if this meant your body was always in a state of distress but at the time, like the doctors, I was not concerned when new ones sprouted on you. You even stopped going to the doctor’s office to have them removed. Instead, you bought a smelly spray, aimed the nozzle at the tip of the tag, and blew cold chemicals onto the surface of your skin, so cold that the area around your skin tag would turn pink, then blue. A few days later the tag would fall off. Sometimes, walking around the house barefoot at breakfast, I’d feel a bit of hard, dead skin stick on the bottom of my toe, and I would encase my toe in a sock and bring you to school with me. I enjoyed knowing I was carrying a little bit of you with me throughout my day.
I mess with my own skin tag and it becomes infected. It busts open at work and the pus crusts on the seam of my shirt, a fortress of discharge. There is a morbid comfort in knowing I have an injury no one else can see—at meetings, coffee breaks, and printer runs—and when I raise my arms, the tiniest scent of rot wafts into my nose.
You did get cancer, and I wondered if the skin tags did it, or the chemicals from the skin tag remover did it, or something else entirely. When I took you to chemo, I asked if the chemicals smelled like anything. We both sniffed the bag of red chemo drugs and winked at each other slyly. No smell, you whisper. No smell, I concur.
The chemo drugs killed everything in your body—there were no more skin tags and it was as though your skin did not have the energy to produce any extra protuberances, did not have the will to regrow, resigned to its fate. The one thing the chemo drugs did not kill was your cancer. You got weaker every day, and I would hold your hand and point at imaginary skin tags on your hands and neck.
“That one is Moses,” I would say, “Leading his people to a hopeful new life.”
The night you died, I dreamt you and I were drowning in a sea of skin tags, bulbous bits sprouting everywhere, expanding over our arms and legs and faces and necks till we could no longer breathe in the flood of flesh, the nodules encasing us forever.
My skin tag falls off. But because I have scratched at it, I develop a scar, the skin beneath, darkened and marked—a strange splotch, a freckle with a past, a part of you I carry with me. We wink at each other every morning.
Vanessa Chan is a Malaysian writer who writes about race, colonization, and women who don’t toe the line. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Conjunctions, The Rumpus, X-R-A-Y, Porter House Review, and more. Vanessa is a Fiction editor at TriQuarterly Magazine, an Assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel, and an MFA candidate at The New School. This follows a 12-year career in public relations, including most recently as director of communications for Facebook. Her writing has received support from Tin House, Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, Aspen Words, and Disquiet International. She is at work on a novel about spies and family.
Artwork by: Alex Loup