Gravitational Pull

The day after I returned from Iceland, my skin itched—an incessant and invasive itch—below my left shoulder, near my armpit. Iceland, that rocky moonscape with its geothermic steam and its pulsing magnetic fields, relegated to memory. I shrugged and let my sweater scrunch over the spot, over and over, until I saw my students avert their eyes, though if anyone should have license to stare, it should be students studying abnormal psychology.

Desiring to appear tic-free, I blocked my mind against the burning desire to scratch the hell out of my arm. Purely a psychosomatic itch, I told myself. I attempted active interruption of my symptoms by overusing the laser pointer to illustrate my projected lecture notes.

At break, I went into the bathroom and stripped off my sweater to give a prolonged abrasive scrub to my arm. The whole area from the front of my shoulder to mid-bicep was red. Had I gotten Poison Ivy? Scabies? There were no discernable bumps or rash. Just a puckered scab I had forgotten. In Iceland I had hiked the Skollaskard pass under a vast night sky while the low-hanging chandelier of a moon beamed its rays on my path. I slipped a few times on the scree, one time bumping my shoulder on a boulder and receiving a dark gash imbedded with sandy soil. But the rash throbbed near my armpit, a full three inches from the gash. I scratched until pain covered up the itch. That will take care of it, I assured myself. I pulled on my sweater, tousled my hair and headed out.

The itch came back as soon as I walked out the bathroom door. Concentrating on my lectures and gripping that damn laser only intensified the urge to scratch. I rolled my shoulder at irregular intervals, trying to rub the fabric of my sweater against my skin. I could see in my students’ eyes that they were thinking of Tourette’s, which we had covered before the break, or possibly stereotypy, though I always discourage non-client diagnoses.

During office hours, I surreptitiously reached my hand under my sweater and scraped off the first layer of my epidermis with my letter opener à la microdermabrasion. My sweater rose, and judging by Dr. Zahra’s eyes, revealing the hollow near my navel was less than professional. Neither of us had any students in our offices at that moment, and why she always watched me from across the hall had me scanning DSM codes to find a likely diagnosis, despite the non-client rule.

I had to leave the door open per department policy. I rolled my chair back, knocked into the file cabinet, shifted sideways, but there were Dr. Zahara’s eyes, watching through the narrow window alongside the door. I adjusted my posted office hours lower, shoulder level, and Dr. Zahara stood, her eyes scanning the halls and my raw shoulder. I adjusted my sweater, covering the itch, and settled into my chair again under Dr. Zahara’s full supervision, punching and kneading my shoulder, my right arm pressed across my chest, squeezing the itch out, while I flipped dusty pages that revealed no answers.

The instant I reached home I slammed the door and ripped off my sweater. The itch had morphed: A red moon prickled on my arm, perfectly round, rising over the valley of my axilla. I slathered on salve, gently rubbing, trying to make up for my harshness earlier. Though the air smelled of an impending frost, I went on the roof in my tank top. The moon in the sky waxed toward full. The moon on my arm pulsed in orbital rhythm, the sheen of ointment glistening in the November dark. I sat in my summer chair and stared up at the craters in the moon. In Iceland, I rode horseback over the craters and tasted the grit in the waterfall and rolled in the black sand.

My fingers reached to scratch again. The red moon on my skin punctured like a blister and dark gritty sand surged out. I scooped some up and lifted it to my face and inhaled the scent of fire. I had no diagnosis in mind, but the treatment was obvious.

When the plane touched down in Iceland, the tingling moon on my arm sang its own dirge, the buzzing pinpricks vibrated to a low and pleasant hum. I took off my shoes when I found the first patch of unpaved earth and dug in my toes.


Wendy BooydeGraaff holds a Master of Education degree from Grand Valley State University and a graduate certificate in children’s literature from Penn State. She is the author of Salad Pie, a children’s picture book published by Ripple Grove Press. Her work has been published in Emrys Journal Online, Kveller, The Emerson Review, Third Wednesday, Rune Bear and Leopardskin & Limes, and is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly.