Two houseflies stun themselves against the hot bodies of fluorescent tube lights. An old man with the face of a basset hound fights to keep the phlegm inside. The innocuous humming of weak fan blades pauses the silence. Newspaper corners are soggy with palm sweat. A young boy in capris hums along to the song on tv. There is only so much air- conditioned air to go around. Three brothers step outside. The door opens and invites in warm puffs of wind. The last brother didn’t latch the door proper. Idiot. Some look down at the floor and count the number of restless foot taps per minute. Others don’t bother looking away. Still others wait for girls to cross their legs to entertain themselves with the possibility of an actual pussy. A tubby fifty something, prescription in hand, presses past the sitting crowd rubbing his crotch in unwilling faces. The man behind the reception desk picks his nose and inspects the findings before flicking it absentmindedly.
Middle aged women fan themselves by swinging their napkins in clockwise circles, dampness staining their dark breasts.
Men pretend not to stare. Men stare.
There is one nurse to attend to twenty-seven people. I’ve counted. Her plait hangs from her nape like a braided rope slick with coconut oil, only frizzier. “Mishra ji, doctor will see you now.” She’s tall, with coarse dark skin and her teeth are yellow with plaque.
I realise I have been fixating on her blackened lips, peeling at the sides. I look away. “Sir Shantanu ji, ready ho jaao, aap next ho.” She has a South Indian twang; speaks with a lisp.
A collective exhale of air from noses.
Here come the tired and angry whispers.
We’ve been waiting for two hours now.
Sit down, pull your pants up. Is this doctor even good?
Fuck’s sake we could’ve gone to the clinic in Vasant Kunj.
It’s hot as balls.
Don’t use that language. Don’t take your frustration out on me.
This bastard lets the ladies go in first.
We’ll be here all day.
The door opens and a tiny bell sounds. Our backs straighten, our heads turn sharply, we all look up from our mobiles and papers.
Any movement is exciting.
The man with a stained, limp collar pressing the up button for the elevator. Hearing a seven year old girls’ flip flops slap the marble walking to the water cooler. The sound of water hitting the walls of the plastic cup. Folding the appointment letter to make a crease…
I hear my name.
Pavlov’s dogs turn to look at me. I stand up and pull my leggings closer to my ankles to hide the stubble. My right hand instinctively pinches the skin above my waistband. Bony. Good.
I have seven minutes to parrot what’s wrong with me before the doctor becomes apathetic. He’s a kind, balding man with silver strands of hair on both sides of his skull that makes him look like a retired eagle. He has also been on the receiving end of my sobbing wrath. The first time I went to see him my forehead was all pimples with some skin. The first question he asked me was why I had come to see him. I believe my exact words were, can’t you fucking see? I regret that. He’s a nice man. A patient man who cleared my skin.
“Oh hello, baccha. Come, take a seat.” I sit on the stainless steel stool with my feet together, just enough so my thighs are elongated.
“Let’s have a look now.” He cups my face and inspects the scars, the red spots dotting my cheekbones and the small hairs sprouting on my cheek.
“This is better, haina, much better. But we want you to glow, yes.”
He writes down the same pills and ointments and face creams.
I used be to on Diane 35 for my skin when I was twelve, will that work now? Diane 35 is a contraceptive pill commonly used to treat inflammatory acne. I wasn’t having sex when I was twelve years old. I am now. And I really don’t like condoms.
He clucks his tongue, “your body will not respond to the same medication,” and continues scribbling.
Oh, of course, I was just curious. I’m pleased with myself for feigning ignorance. He scrawls with such fury that I imagine the spring in his pen will fail him. I’m waiting for him to look up at me so I can leave his clinic with some measure of false hope of glass skin.
After twenty-nine seconds, he does. “So, what is bothering you?”
My eyes flit towards his Rolex wrapped on his wrist. I only have three minutes.
I mentioned this earlier, but I have had stretch marks since I was 14 and this wouldn’t have bothered me if they weren’t everywhere and I don’t wear dresses because they’re on the back of the knees and I’ve never worn a bikini because they are all over my bum and upper thighs and I’m starting to get some on my inner arms as well and the creams you gave me do not work and when my skin is dry they look really ugly and they’re whiter than my skin so it’s impossible to hide them and I was wondering if I could get plastic surgery?
His mouth is upturned. I assume it’s because this is not the first time he has seen me frantic and desperate. He asks me to show him my worst affected areas. I lift my t-shirt and hook my thumb in the waistband for him to see the white stripes beginning at the side of my waist. He probes at the skin by stretching it. It bothers me how dismissive I am of foreign fingers on my body.
He motions for me to sit down.
I want him to say, YES, I’LL GET YOU A SKIN GRAFT RIGHT NOW.
“Beta, there is no surgery for stretch marks, and creams are your best bet.”
He must have registered my face falling. He sighs. “…we do have this lady who does a laser treatment, but it’s expensive and painful and will take about..”
When can I start?!
He presses a small white button on his desk. “Sister, is Preeti in today?” “Yes, sir.”
“Ok, you will have to wait for half an hour outside and sister will take you into the treatment room. We’ll start with one side today to see how your skin reacts, ok?”
He smiles at me and I return the smile.
When he scurries out of the room, I take my cue. I walk to the reception desk and hand the man the paper, making sure my fingers don’t touch his.
The chair I was sitting in is empty and I find it oddly reassuring. It doesn’t have arms so I rest my elbows in my lap. Sitting poised takes awareness so I slouch and slide down the chair. Shantanu ji is in the sofa next to my chair. His belly inflates and deflates every time he sighs. He looks at the nurse when he does. He wants her to know he doesn’t like waiting.
I have a half hour. I think of all the times my stripes have made me feel ashamed in my skin. It starts running like a highlight reel.
I was taught that the tiger stripes on my breast and the tributaries running down my thighs and the dimples in the skin of my bum have two choices – foundation, or jeans even in a Delhi summer.
I remember when I was straddling him in the dark on a September night and he ran his fingers over the white stripes in the crease of my upper thigh I wish he had said that my body was as beautiful naked as it was in tight jeans but he said that he didn’t really like stretch marks although he didn’t mind them on me and I remember exhaling from my nose because thank god I could still get his dick hard even with the ugly stripes that I hid in black leggings.
I remember I had gained weight during my board exams because I was having cheesecake for breakfast and my lunches and dinners were three big bags of corn puffs. I was sitting cross legged on mama’s side of the bed with my History textbook reading chapter ten, page hundred and thirteen. Papa turned from his laptop screen and slapped my right thigh. “Thunder thighs, eh?” he patted it twice more and smirked at me like I had already failed his exam. My hands got hot and stuck to the plastic cover of the textbook. To go to the bathroom that night, I ran across my room. I didn’t want to see my thighs wobble in the full-length mirror.
I was taught that people would have the permission to stare and ask and comment if a hard night gave you war paint under your eyes, if you spill out of your skinny jeans, if your arms and legs and thighs and butt aren’t skinny and smooth to the touch.
I was taught; lumps and bumps and scars and stripes will scare boys away.
This is enough to convince my nineteen-year-old self to have them burned off my body.
I look at the ticking hand. It’s only been fifteen minutes. People shuffle in their seats, sigh at the clock and cough uncomfortably. The old man continues coughing, his face coloured red with strain and the vein in his temple pronounced. I stare at him blankly. He is the only noise in the room. He perhaps becomes aware of intent eyes on him and waddles to the bathroom, dropping his pink files. The lady sat next to him looks at the files. She reaches into her purse and takes out a filer. She starts to even out her manicured nails. The diamond on her ring finger is the size of my fist. I get up from my chair and keep the files on his chair. The old man comes up behind me and nods in silent appreciation. His white kurta is creased and has a brown stain on the back.
I hear my name.
“Come come, Preeti is ready for you.” She mutters something under her breath about how this is a long day and it’s hot even with the air conditioner running and the job doesn’t pay enough and her husband is a dick.
So, can I go in? I point to the small room with a red light atop the door. It says operation theatre.
“Wait here ah, I’ll go see if the machine is ready.” Sister points to a set of plastic white chairs with arms. It’s been forty-five minutes.
I wander up to the small pharmacy nestled in the nook of the clinic. It has boxes of tablets and bottles of cream stacked up to the ceiling. I feel a sneeze coming on and I figure it’s the dust hiding in the stacks.
I walk out and Sister pops her head out the operation theatre. “Take off your slippers and wear one of the those,” she motions to the shoe rack in front of me.
The sandals are all brown and black. I take one from the bottom shelf and leave mine in their place. I slide my feet into them and sweat soaks my toes. I try not to think of its overuse by unclean stranger feet.
I step inside the room, and a small girl no older than me is standing with a white wand in her hand. She smiles. “We’ll start with the upper thighs, take off your pants.”
I’ve been half naked in enough doctors’ clinics for this request not to faze me. I oblige and lie on the reclining bed. The paper lining its length tears.
She moves the massive machine closer to the bed. “Now tell me if it pains too much, I’ll lower the setting because it’s your first time.”
“Ok, ready?” The wand shines with a bright red light.
She presses the cold device into my right thigh. There’s a beep and a sizzle.
I wince and my legs twitch.
“Too much?” She retracts the wand.
No, it’s alright, keep going.
She does the same a couple more times beneath the area.
Ok, give me a two-minute break.
I put one earphone in my left ear. I nod at her. I see the wand approaching my thigh and my body swerves to the left.
She smiles and grabs my right knee to hold my leg in place. Fuck.
I wonder how many naked bodies she sees during her shift. I wonder if I’m her ugliest patient.
Beep. Sizzle. Beep. Sizzle. Beep. Sizzle.
My stretch marks are being burned off my body.
I scroll through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. The pain doesn’t shock my body anymore.
It is much cooler in here. The draft of the air conditioner hits my naked legs and the stubble gets harder with goose bumps.
“So, what do you study?”
“Where do you study?”
“Are you here on summer break?”
Three questions and she realises I do not want to talk while she makes my flesh sizzle.
It’s been twenty minutes.
“Right, that is all we will do for today.”
I look down for a miracle. I only see big swollen patches of red skin and buried underneath them, my white stripes.
“Don’t worry, this should subside.” She rubs aloe vera on my thigh.
“Ok, you can put your clothes back on, I’ll step out.”
Do I pay at reception, or to you?
“Sister will make a bill at reception for you for each session.” She closes the door behind her.
I wiggle into my leggings. I walk to the reception. The man is playing solitaire on his computer.
I hand him the cash.
There are new faces in the waiting room. They sigh at the clock, swat mosquitoes with their files, mutter into the rear end of their phones.
The doctor said to book the next appointment in four weeks.
“We have April 3rd, 1 o’clock?”
I remember being on my school football team. We played with the boys’ team in the summer. It wasn’t that they were even remotely attractive, but it was me who had to be perfect. Each time I overtook them on the field in my jersey shorts I sent out a silent prayer to a God I don’t believe in.
Let them not see the back of my knees.
Brinda Gulati is a penultimate year Creative Writing student at the University of Warwick. She was most recently the Coordinator of TEDxWarwick 2018. She is also the Founding Editor of the university wide publication, Patchwork. Brinda has had poetry and essays published, most notably, for The Sunday Times. On May 8th 2018, she was voted the Most Influential Woman On Campus 2018 by The Tab Future 100. Her favourite poem is ‘Funeral Blues’.
Header image by Sara Shakee