Poke

by Janine Kovac

I put the bottle of vodka on the dressing room table and closed the door.
      “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Lára asked in her light accent. She squinted at me.
      “Of course!” I lied. I’d never lanced another person’s blister before but it couldn’t be too different from the countless times I’d pierced my own.
      I offered her the vodka. Her eyes brightened.
      “I should have thought of that,” she said, taking a swig.
      Primarily a modern dancer, knuckle blisters were new to her. When it formed on the side of her big toe—soft skin unaccustomed to pointe shoes—she didn’t know to pop it to relieve the pressure. Now the vesicle was a dark angry red and filled with blood. Pain and blisters were not an excuse for sitting out of rehearsal, even in Iceland where there were many excuses to miss many things. Besides, I was Lára’s understudy. She was not going to give me a chance to dance for her if she could help it.
      “Maybe you should have a drink too.” Lára handed me the bottle.
      The vodka burned my nostrils and singed my throat. It trickled into a stinging in my stomach that felt like courage.
      
      My father kept his needles in the refrigerator. They were small and blunt with orange caps. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who could inject himself with insulin twice a day.
      “Now don’t go touching these,” he told the twins, who were eye-level with his belly button. “These are just for Grampie.”
      The last I’d heard his diabetes was under control. Maybe this is what he meant by “under control.”
      He lifted his shirt and pinched a bit of skin between his thumb and forefinger. With his other hand, he pointed the needle toward the ceiling as if it were a rocket about to launch. He looked so small and frail, like the neglected grapes in the fruit bowl that had shriveled into raisins.
      “One, two, three!” The needle receded into an abdomen speckled with purple bruises. “All done!” My father raised his arms in a self-congratulatory cheer while my boys burst into applause.
      “Does it hurt?”
      “Nope.”
      “Do it again, Grampie!”
      My father bowed his head like a seasoned performer refusing an encore.
      “Tomorrow,” he promised.
      
      There are three parts to a blister. First, there’s the top layer of skin—the side exposed to the air, which, in Lára’s case was pink and raw, scrubbed fresh by the canvas on the inside of her pointe shoes. On the other side of that skin, there’s liquid pushing up like a balloon filling with air. This is the pressure that causes the pain. Finally, there’s the second layer of skin: the dermis. There are no nerve endings in the outer layer of skin. As long as the needle doesn’t touch the dermis, popping a blister is painless.
      We sat on the floor. I arranged my makeshift surgical tools as Reykjavik’s principal dancer removed layers of leg warmers, socks, tights, and toe pads, unveiling the culprit. It was a garden-variety blood blister, but she didn’t know that. I swabbed her toe with a paper towel dipped in isopropyl alcohol.
      Lára chewed inside of her cheek, staring at her foot as if she expected the blister to erupt on its own while I examined her toe for clues. The epidermis is like a tiny topographic map. There are pores and hair follicles and minuscule wrinkles that look like dry river beds.
      The thickness of skin can be determined by its sheen. The shinier the blister, the thinner the skin.
      
      By the time my husband and I arrived at the hospital for our daily afternoon visit, the doctor had already ordered the tests for our baby, a precaution to make sure that the recent apneas following his surgery were just a fluke. While Wagner squirmed in his isolette on one side of the room, his twin brother lay peacefully on the opposite side, sleeping soundly even though he’d just had his midday meal through his new feeding tube. Our babies weren’t very robust, but at least they were gaining weight and at this rate, they would easily break the two-pound mark by their one-month birthday.
      Wagner’s personal nurse, who stood over him for every minute of her eight-hour shift (minus two fifteen-minute breaks and one thirty-minute lunch break), paused before she spoke to us. I knew that if she had good news, she wouldn’t make us wait.
      “We can’t draw blood,” she said. “His veins keep collapsing. But don’t worry. Cheryl will get the needle in. She’s the best.” She gestured toward the nurse at Wagner’s bedside.
      We had two more months in the newborn intensive care unit with our micro preemie twins but already my husband and I knew that we didn’t have to hug or hold hands in order to comfort each other. We stood side-by-side, just close enough for a breath to pass between us.
      The nurse’s tropical-print scrubs blocked our view of the needle. Instead we looked for clues in our son. His arm was limp and listless, like an old rag.
      My chest constricted. If I exhaled too soon, if I sighed prematurely with relief, the hope inside me would pop. I would deflate and puddle. I bit my lip and dug my fingernails into my skin.
      “All done!” the nurse smiled. “We gave him a drop of sucrose on the tongue. It acts like a painkiller in babies this small.” Her blue gloves snapped as she pulled them off and tossed them in the trash.
      “Don’t worry,” she reassured us with a strong nod of the chin. “He didn’t feel a thing.”
      
      I had only been in Reykjavik for two months but already I knew that the rules were different here. The meritocracy tinged with favoritism that defined my ballet upbringing in the States weren’t part of this world. Here I would always be an outsider, an útlendingur. I could learn the language, marry an Icelander, eat skyr and drink Brennivín but I would never penetrate the barriers to belonging. I would always be on the outside.
      Lára waited for me to begin the operation or at least explain the process. I did not. It gave me a perverse satisfaction to press her patience.
      I took a needle from my sewing kit and a Zippo from my pack of Lucky Strikes. Flicking the lighter, I ran the needle back and forth through the blue flame until the tip turned black.
      Thin skin tears open at the slightest prick. Skin that’s calloused and tough needs to be prodded with a bit of a thrust. As long as I inserted the needle sideways, skimming the top of the skin, the blister would burst. If I nudged with just the right amount of force, Lára shouldn’t feel a thing.
      “Now this won’t hurt a bit,” I said, not sure if that was true.
      
      The shortest way from the BART station to the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House is down Grove Street. Even from here, two blocks away, we can see the stoic opera house and the majestic Davies Symphony Music Hall, the Henry Moore sculpture in its foreground. My daughter and I pass by the main library with its glass windows and spiraling atrium. Next to it, the Asian art museum stands just as proudly, two Chinese dragons guarding the entrance. Across the street is City Hall. Tonight the windows will glow in rainbow colors to celebrate Pride Weekend.
      Banners of ballerinas line the top floor of the opera house and we can see Nijinsky’s Faun, Odette from Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty with her prince. They are a display of rippling muscles and satin pointe shoes. Each portrait spans two stories.
      I scan the block ahead. I’m not sure if I should walk curb side, protecting my daughter from the reckless scooters and bike messengers or walk on the inside to shield her from the puddles of urine and the heaps of bodies. I grip her hand tighter and lead her to the crosswalk. Maybe we should have gone the long way around to the theatre.
      Slumped on the sidewalk, a red-faced woman in a dirty camisole and tracks on her arms bolts upright and punches her friend in the shoulder.
      “Have some decency!” she tells him.
      He has carefully balanced a mirror on his knees. One hand smooths the skin on his neck while the other positions a needle with expert concentration. Guided by the pulse in his veins, his fingers tap around his tattoos.
      The woman nods toward my daughter. “What the fuck are you doing? There are children present! Don’t do that fuckin’ shit in from of them.”
      
      I knew I was stalling but I didn’t realize that this was a strategy—a technique I’d use later in motherhood just before I’d tear off the Band-Aid or pluck out the splinter. There’s so much tension in the air, so much fear, the anticipation of pain. You can elongate that tension, pull it like chewing gum, thinning it out.
      They are waiting for your reassurance. Don’t say anything. Turn your focus inward toward the tiny universe of skin cells, laid out like a grid. Stretch the time out like a final arabesque balance.
      Then, when they exhale, make your move.
      Lára heaved a heavy sigh and closed her eyes.
      I pushed the needle into her toe. There was a slight resistance where the tip dimpled into the bubble. Her skin was thicker than it looked.
      A drop of blood escaped, then puddled. I dabbed it with a paper towel and the blister deflated.
      All done.
      “Thank you,” she said.

Janine Kovac is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches writing workshops and curates literary events. Her memoir Spinning: Choreography for Coming Home was a semifinalist for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize and the memoir winner of the 2019 National Indie Excellence Awards. Janine is an alumna of Hedgebrook and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is the 2016 recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship.

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