On the last Thursday in July, I went to the dermatologist. She is the wife of an important academic leader, whose picture appears frequently in the local newspaper. He is known for speaking for a long time at inaugurations, openings, dedications, and other mind-numbing events. His wife, my dermatologist, has an office in the gentile section of the Old City. It is an area that reminds me of the Dahlem district of Berlin, with trees, fine buildings, and the lingering air of empire. A receptionist of great beauty, with painted eyebrows and a blush of rouge, greeted me. With reserve. Her eyes took in my face, my hands, and the spot on the end of my nose. She asked me to be seated. A thin woman with a rash on her face moved to the far end of couch. I nodded to her, thanking her. She smiled, sadly.
In a while, the thin woman with the rash was summoned to enter the doctor´s office. The door closed behind her. In five minutes the door opened and the thin woman came out, with tears in her eyes. She handed the lovely receptionist with painted eyebrows a slip of paper. The receptionist read it, then gave the woman a stern look.
“You are to take three kinds of creams.” She spun around in her swivel chair, leaned over, and opened a low cabinet.
Tubes of medicinal creams, some in boxes, some not, fell out. The revealed patch of skin between her blouse and skirt was as pale as a baker’s compost. A little east of her spine, I saw a tattoo of a beetle. It was ascending. Its right side had an extra leg. That made seven in all. I thought the extra leg might have been for luck. Except that the area around it was red and inflamed. She rooted around in the cabinet, this lovely beetle-backed receptionist, with the painted eyebrows. More tubes of cream, boxed and un-boxed, fell out. She snatched up one tube, then another, and finally the third, which had lain hidden at the bottom of the pile, and in back.
She spun around again, wrote something on the slip of paper, and said, “That´s 3,000 pesos for the cream, 500 pesos for the consultation. 3,500 pesos in all. Read the doctor’s instructions carefully.”
She placed the three boxes, so that they were parallel to the sides of the desk, and exactly the same distance apart. I divided the total charge by ten, to get an estimate, in dollars. The thin woman with the rash stood as still as stone. The lovely receptionist spun around again, showed her beetle, and shoveled the rest of the spilled creams back into the cabinet, drumming them against the metal rear panel. I started to count the beetle’s legs again, but it was too late, and she spun back around.
“I only have 500 pesos, “said the thin woman. “I don´t have any more.”
“Fine,” said the receptionist. She scooped up the three boxes, spun around again, and with intimidating force threw the three boxes of creams back into the cabinet. The thin woman hesitated, then lay ten 50-peso notes on the desk, one on top of the other, askew. Perhaps to prove it was all she had. The receptionist snatched them up and put them in her purse, then sat Katrina-like, Day of the Dead, as if the transaction were over. The thin woman, her eyes glistening with tears, turned and fled out the door and into the hallway.
I stood up, unsure.
“Sit down, “the lovely receptionist snapped.
I sat down. A buzzer buzzed. “You may go in,” said the receptionist.
The doctor met me at the door. Her skin was gray with patches of pink. Her hair fell to her shoulders and was dyed black, with streaks of ultramarine blue. I found her exceptionally attractive. Her diagnosis was grave.
“You have to burn all that damage off your face. You will not be able to sleep much at all for two weeks. Your face will be red and open sours will appear. Slice open five centimeters of an aloe spear. Smear the juice all over. Generally speaking, there is no relief. Each of the three tubes I´m prescribing costs $130 US dollars. I will give you a break on the visitation. 450 pesos. That will be 4,545 pesos. Please pay the receptionist. She will give you the creams.”
I divided by ten. She began writing out the prescription and instructions. I asked if I could use the bathroom. I locked the door behind me. I peed a pitiful nervous stream. I opened the window and climbed out. I walked down an alley. As I turned the corner, I saw the receptionist in the clinic door. She held a piece of paper. I broke into a run. I was just getting my stride, when she knocked my feet out from underneath me. I landed hard on the pavement, face down. She sat on my back. She reached the paper around and held it in front of my face.
“You should have a little more confidence, “she said.
She let me turn over, but still sat on me. Each of her exposed knees – lovely in shape – had a red caterpillar tattooed on it. She held the paper in both hands, in front of my face. Too close for me to focus.
“What is it?” I asked, trying to move my head back away from the paper. She adjusted the reading distance for me.
“A list of alternative treatments,” she said. “Follow the directions.”
I saw a column of images on the left, in red. Each one showed a creature. In the middle was the dose required. At the far right was the application time. The first image looked like a cockroach, then, going down, came a worm, an ant, ant eggs – I supposed – a bee, a wasp, a crayfish, a fly, two types of beetles, and then the largest, what I assumed was a locust. At the bottom were small curved egg shapes.
“Maggots,” she said, tapping the bottom of the page. “They are the best thing for your skin. You don´t need to buy all those creams,” and she let the paper flutter down onto my chest. She reached in my pocket. She found 500 pesos, and added them to her purse, which was strapped across her chest.
“If you were twenty years younger, I would ravish you right here.” She said something else with a sweet smile, but a bus passed at that moment, drowning out her voice. I could not help it, my eyes grew moist. She got to her feet, modestly, placed a shapely leg and her low-heeled shoe on my crotch, and wriggled them suggestively, then turned, and walked away.
I stood up, dusted myself off, and studied the list with ever increasing concentration, as I walked slowly, with the flow of traffic, toward the center of the Old City – an area that doesn’t really remind me of Berlin at all.