It begins with one appointment for a full-body check at a husband-and-wife dermatology practice. They come recommended by your mother, her skin, too, an ever evolving galaxy of stars that can’t be trusted. Your mother advises you to see the wife, she’s great, she’s really nice. You receive this suggestion as code: that lying beneath a stiffly starched cloth as your nipples harden in the metal room is a secret saved for a female physician.
You book an appointment with the husband as a feeble assertion of your defiance.
You tell him as he begins to lift the sheet’s corners and put them back in place that he could just take the whole thing off if it’s easier, and you mean it, but just for convenience sake. He tastefully declines. He then finds a mole on your back that has him utter, “I don’t like this” in a Russian accent, and you laugh thinking he’s finally expressing some personality, only to realize he may have had the accent all along.
He performs a shave biopsy on the spot. He brings you back a week before your honeymoon to excise the margins. You ask if you can keep the chunk of skin he took from you, he assures you that he understands the appeal on the way to saying no, and you at least take a picture. He sees you again in six months, then a year, then in another year.
Of course you find a concerning mole late in your pregnancy, and of course your insurance has changed. You book the first available appointment, in a faraway office, with a woman who keeps a silly word for a last name, but lives quite seriously. And as she maneuvers the starchy cloth over your body you make your offer for her to set it aside entirely. She lowers her arms and gives you a concerned look, affords a gentle lecture on modesty. Her earnest delivery cradles you in a grandmotherly care that utterly endears her to you. Minutes later you find her pulling out an iPad and asking you to cover your nipples with your hands so she can document a prominent mole on your breast. The contrast from the moments-prior sermon charms you, and you’re disappointed to find she would retire the following month. One last thing before you go, she freezes a mole off your back.
You’re referred to her colleague, another woman with a made-up name, and you visit her office several months after giving birth. She appalls you with her brashness, her hurried pace, her slack mannerisms in a seeming show of importance; her assistant holds eye contact in an unspoken, ongoing apology. The tension felt from the flimsy code of conduct permits you to fully engage with a creeping musing: that there must be an agreement among dermatologists to remove a mole from somewhere the patient couldn’t possibly see at every visit. And she does. But, too, does she condemn three more markings: one on each breast and a third about an inch to the right of your still-healing cesarean scar.
You theorize her sentencing of your tenderly located moles as a power play but tuck your instincts away. With sincerity, you ask this childless, post-menopausal dermatologist increasingly desperate questions regarding the implications of breast excisions on breastfeeding. She meets your concern with patronizing nonchalance. You look to her assistant for something, anything, and learn only of this meek young woman’s hope to have children one day. You call the pediatrician on your drive home, receive her blessing and vote of confidence to proceed. You imagine the pediatrician prevailing in a physical altercation with the dermatologist, and that feels redeeming.
You visit the office a month later for the procedure. You breastfeed your daughter before leaving home, one last time before the unknown. You arrive and notice it’s somehow humid and cold at the same time. Your eyes dart around the empty waiting room, an open book unread in your lap. You’re called to the back, undress except for your socks and shoes, and your entire body begins to shake nervously under the familiar rigid sheet. The dermatologist lets herself in the room, you make your ritualistic proposal for her to do away with the sheet altogether. She accepts. She lays you back and administers lidocaine in the three most sensitive parts of your body you could imagine. She then leaves you exposed in that metal room—except for your socks and shoes—for what adds up to twenty-three minutes. Without lifting your head, you run your fingertips over your linea nigra, still there, still professing you a woman divided.
She returns to clear land on the sacred site of your abdomen. She moves on to hunt a mole on a soft side of your breast. Her final act is to claim part of your identity from your chest.
You quietly dress and numbly navigate home. You ponder how far the Dermatologist Agreement might be pushed. You assume those moles had been benign all along. And, just as the bruises begin to slip from purple to yellow, you mourn when the results come back clear.
Christen Russo holds a BA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. There, she served as a contributing writer and managing editor of The Original Magazine. She founded the Exchange of Words poetry reading series (2014-2016). Her poetry has been on display in Panza Gallery (2020) alongside her fellow mother-artists of the Lioness Collective, as well as at the Carlow University Art Gallery and Youngstown University Art Gallery (2021) as part of the Anthropology of Motherhood series.