Nonfiction by Colette Au
By the time I had forgotten how to wake up without crusts of blood underneath my fingernails, I chose the needles. To this day, my mother tells this story with maternal pride: how I chose to see the allergist myself and what a smart, brave little girl I was at only six years old.
I knew vaguely what this doctor was going to do to me. He smiled down at me with big teeth with that smile-grimace that adults have when they do things for your own good. That didn’t comfort me, but I wanted to stop the bees crawling in my skin that kept me scratching all night. My favorite striped pajamas had extra long sleeves that my parents tied with hair ties before bed, using cloth to keep my nails at bay.
The nurse patiently explained it all to my mother, about the needles covered with bits of food that would enter my blood and my skin would grow red with hives if I were allergic. The pale hairs on my arms tingled as the nurse swabbed the lengths of my inner arms and I resisted the urge to drag my frenzied fingernails across the soft skin there. She asked, “Do you want to keep your eyes closed while I do this, sweetie?” I closed them, not wanting to see any more of my own blood. The first prick near my shoulder seared me with more white shock than pain, but I was six and I felt stupid. The hot tears started by the tenth or eleventh prick. Thirty-six needles in all. The second time I chose to visit the allergist, I felt the prickles in my eyes before I did on my arms.
* * *
I secretly hated plopping the same sandwich with the same square of cheese on my lunch tray every day. Tuna was off the list for me, they said. I memorized it because I was the only one who could remember (I learned that when my dad tried to feed me strawberry jam). I could only watch when the other kindergarteners gulped down their cups of milk. When they asked me why, eczema and allergy weren’t words they understood. They assumed I was a picky eater and my idea of vegetables was extraordinarily broad. I only knew that milk was bad, just for me, so I couldn’t drink it. These were the rules I was born under, but instead of leaving the table when seafood was served, I started to hold raw carrots up to my nose when my mother was cooking dinner. I could smell carrots, even if I couldn’t eat them.
I comforted myself with the thought of pink scars on my neck and in the creases of my elbows, fingers and knees. I loved looking at my back in the mirror when there were no stinging nail tracks to see. I was almost ready to get new pajamas. I was ready to tuck myself into a new skin.
My sister came back from a friend’s house, triumphant, and told my mother, “I had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and breakfast! I wish I could eat them forever!”
I indulged myself with a slice of bread slathered thickly with honey. The bees raised me after all.