There were a lot of people in my high school who didn’t like me, but of all of them, Jenny Finley might’ve despised me the most.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she’d say, sheer hatred beaming from her eyes.
“I’m not looking at you,” I’d respond, confused because I really wasn’t looking at her. As an adolescent and as horny as I was, somehow Jenny Finley didn’t do it for me. She always looked angry and she had brown hair that seemed like a wig, or like it had been blow dried at extreme heat for months. More importantly, even more than that hair, she was mean.
“Oh God,” she said. “The way you look. He’s such a pervert. What’s wrong with him? He’s disgusting.”
I would try to explain myself. “Well, I-”
“Don’t even talk to me!” she’d yell and her friends would laugh. “You hear how he’s trying to talk to me? And why is your face like that? Why don’t you fix it? Go see a dermatologist or something.”
What Jenny would, on occasion (frequent occasion), refer to was what my dermatologist described as “cystic acne” or “acne vulgaris.” My sister referred to it differently, saying “it looks like you have a marble growing out of your nose.” To my peers, my face was a “mine field.” I wasn’t sure how it had happened. Sometime around the 6th or 7th grade my face just exploded like a bag of potato chips ripped open too quickly. Enormous pimples developed on my nose and all over my chin. From there it spread, moving across my face’s landscape like an army, taking over the land and claiming it for country “Whitehead.” I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. At night, my mother would wash my face with a warm washcloth and then put Oxy on me.
Oxy, though, was no match for what I had going on. At school the kids were brutal, though undeniably creative. Once after Biology class, they gathered around me in the cafeteria. “Look at that thing behind his ear,” someone said, referring to huge zit that had somehow chosen to pitch its tent behind my right ear. “Look at the size of it…I think he’s budding.”
“He is!” somebody else shouted out. “He’s budding! That pimple’s gonna pop off and turn into another him!”
“It’s not acne! It’s asexual reproduction!”
Leaving the cafeteria, I took my hand and squeezed my earlobe as hard as I could. I felt the thing rupture, sending thin watery blood all over my fingers. This is how my pimples were – they didn’t pop like normal zits. Hence, I didn’t squeeze them very often. I wanted clear skin, yes, but I didn’t want to bleed to death.
One of my good friends was a guy named George, who had enormous glasses and a pin head and yet was still somehow higher on the nerd totem pole than I was. Although he was my friend, he had a fondness for hurting me, literally. For fun, he’d take the palm of his hand and push it against my face. I would feel the sting of my acne being pressed into my skull. It was like having a face full of canker sours. “Shit!” I’d yell. “Stop it!” I learned quickly that, in high school, there is no phrase more ineffective than “stop it.” For all the good it did, I might as well have demanded “do it again!”
George would only press harder. About halfway through the school year, he told me he wanted to make a bet. What provoked him was my assertion that I would be able to clear my skin up by the end of the school year. George didn’t know that I had a new dermatologist, and that he had just prescribed me Accutane, which I viewed as some sort of miracle cure. I’d heard whispers in the past about Accutane. My former dermatologist had debated it. “We could go Accutane,” he would say, “but…well…let’s not go that extreme. Maybe some good antibiotics would be a safer option.”
It was like Truman trying to decide whether or not to drop the bomb. Accutane was the be-all-end-all, fury-and-rage, nuclear detonator of acne medications. Now, thanks to my daring new doc, I had that weapon at my disposal. I didn’t think my acne would stand a chance, and thus I engaged with George in discussions involving a bet.
“I bet you that your face isn’t clear at the end of the school year,” he said. “I bet it looks exactly the same.”
“Fine,” I said. “Bring it. What are we betting?”
George was clever. He wasn’t interested in monetary things; he was more focused on humiliation. “If your face doesn’t clear up by the end of the year, you have to go up behind Jenny Finley and pinch her butt.”
“Done!” I proclaimed. I don’t even remember what he was supposed to do if I won. It didn’t matter. We shook hands, and with that the bet was placed.
Accutane pills were larger than other pills I’d taken. They were big and yellow. Each packet had a picture of a pregnant woman crossed out in red, like what a cigarette would be inside for a “No Smoking” sign. Every time I’d pop a pill, the large yellow bullet would come bursting through the pregnant woman as though she’d just given birth to an acne medication. This alarming warning was because Accutane was known to cause birth defects. It also had a whole litany of other side effects. Depression, dry eyes, bad night vision, arthritis, nausea, cancer, death, dislike of jazz music – you name it, I’m sure Accutane caused it in somebody. I didn’t care though, because as much as I’d hear about the adverse effects, nobody ever said it wouldn’t work.
School carried on the rest of the year as badly as it had ever been. No girls would talk to me, which greatly impaired my chances of scoring a date. My grades were awful. At home, acne commercials would come on the television, with pictures of people who looked like they’d broken out in hives or had been given a rash by Satan.
“See,” my father would say, “you shouldn’t worry about your skin so much. You’re way better than those people.”
“I don’t want to be in the same conversation as those people!” I’d yell, because I was a hysterical and moody teenager. “That would be like going up to a chubby guy and pointing at a whale and saying, ‘Oh, you’re way thinner than that thing.’”
Then, of course, there was Jenny Finley, who I couldn’t avoid due to our English teacher’s seating chart. She continued to tear me apart at every opportunity, as viciously as anybody ever had. She bothered me more than the others because she wasn’t funny and was more to the point. Instead of making some kind of clever analogy (like how one boy told me it looked like a girl ‘just had her period’ on my face – witty!), Jenny Finley would bombard me with short declarative statements. “You’re creepy and disgusting,” she’d say, or, “I can’t even look at your face. It’s painful to have you sitting in front of me.”
The end of the year was fast approaching, and when I saw myself in the mirror, it was clear that I was going to lose the bet. What the hell, Accutane? It hadn’t made me better. It didn’t make my skin smooth like a baby’s, unless the baby we’re referring to has chicken pox. I would go on to take Accutane for awhile longer, but the miracle would never come. Years later, in 2009, Accutane would be pulled off the market entirely, after a bunch of people sued the pharmaceutical company, claiming that Accutane had given them bowel disease. They won millions of dollars and, just like that, Accutane was gone.
On one of the last days of school, George wanted to cash out our bet. “There’s Jenny Finley over there,” he said. “You know what you have to do.”
I looked at her ass. It was fat and filled her jeans like polyester in a teddy bear. I imagined taking a knife and cutting her butt and pulling out white, fluffy polyester as though I was emptying out a stuffed animal. “What are you doing?” George asked impatiently. “Go and pinch her ass!”
Apart from the simple fact that she would likely have killed me if I went through with it, there was something greater and more important at play. Everything that she said, that I was a creep and a pervert and a disgusting human being…the only comfort I had was in telling myself that she wasn’t right. Jenny Finley was mean, but she was also wrong. I looked at her from across the hallway, standing with her prissy group of friends. There was no way I was going to justify her bullshit by touching her inappropriately. I hated her too much to do that.
“I’m not fucking doing it,” I told George.
“You lost the bet! You have to!”
“Well, it’s not happening. You can go fuck yourself.”
The school year ended a few days later. I passed most classes with Ds. George whined endlessly about how I didn’t hold my end of the bargain. With the coming of the summer, Jenny Finley disappeared from my life, just like Accutane would later vanish. We didn’t have any classes together the next year, and after that was graduation, and with that done, we were free to become strangers. People would like each other more, I think, if they really got to ignore each other better.