The itch is older than time itself, older than memory or emotion or feeling, older than the red pelt that once covered it in an unbroken carpet.
From the first it was there, slightly off-centered from the zenith along the zigzagging seam separating the frontal bone to the parietal, dormant at times and at others as insistent and demanding as a full bladder. I’d scratch it when I could and ask others for relief when possible, having learned from a tender young age that the intensity of pleasure invoked in the act magnified when others were involved.
Throughout my childhood its appeasement was self-induced, but after graduation and a marriage that quickly dashed itself on the shoals, the itch seemed to recede into the darkness that fell like an eternal night. When at last I met someone who could set me free, the familiar prickling returned, a harbinger of better days to come; that she had sisters who loved nothing more than to scratch my head for hours on end was a bonus. What else could I do but marry her?
Years passed and fell away. Decades. The reddish tint bleached to salt-and-pepper and then to gray, but the pelt remained intact. Receding hairlines, premature balding, the heartbreak of psoriasis—um, hair loss, that is—weren’t issues males in my family line worried about. We kept our hair through thick and thin and died with it. But good genes were no match for the itch.
After a long hiatus it reappeared, and with a vengeance. During quiet evenings I’d skootch down in my big living room chair with one hand holding my Kindle and the other looped over my head, fingers digging at the Spot, as I came to call it. As with any addiction, relief became increasingly difficult to achieve, exponential to the amount of ministrations employed. What was at first a harmless massage evolved into a concerted excavation.
“You’re rubbing your head raw,” Lori would say, giving me one of her looks.
Sheepishly I’d stop. Minutes would tick by, but eventually my hand would creep upward to the Spot and start picking.
As the itch became a living force to be reckoned with, so, too, did her looks. Like a junkie I took to seeking gratification in private, either when she was at work, during my commute, while processing photographs or writing news articles in my office. It’s just a guilty pleasure, I assured myself. I can stop whenever I want.
“You’re rubbing a bald spot on your head,” Lori said.
I didn’t believe her. Not at first, anyway. Surreptitiously I sneak off to the bathroom to glance in the mirror, but everything seemed in place. Frankly, it puzzled me that there wasn’t a billboard with flashing lights, neon accents and a big arrow pointing to the back of my cranium with a “Scratch Here” in pulsating LEDs.
When a scab formed, I dug at it. When it healed, I dug some more.
“You’ve got to stop scratching,” Lori warned.
“I can’t,” I replied.
Finally, with an audible huff of indignation, Lori demanded that I march straight to the mirror and take a hard look. And I did, knowing she was imaging things, or at the least embellishing them. I opened the outside wings of our three-piece mirror, cocked my head sideways, and found a dime-sized patch of naked skin.
I wouldn’t have been more surprised if the roof had caved in. Which, in a metaphorical sense, it did.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, I muttered. How can you be so stupid?
With excruciating slowness I closed the mirror. The face looking back was that of a stranger, one with no self-control or willpower. A loser.
It can’t be, I thought. I opened the mirrors again and looked. It was.
“Well?” Lori asked when I returned to my chair.
“Well,” I snipped testily, “I get to wear a hat for a few weeks.”
I didn’t tell her that a new fear had intruded into my consciousness, a terror that the Spot would not only never heal but enlarge and expand like some hair-eating bacteria. Even worse was the realization that I’d betrayed myself, that I’d squandered my splendid follicular genes for momentary pleasure.
The itch, however, was gone. Which is not to say that all is well, for, as Thomas Kempis wrote in the 14th century, “One habit becomes another.” I’ve traded one set of chains for another, an itch for a mirror, in whose silvered surface the stark and incontrovertible proof of my obsession reveals itself every morning, every afternoon, every night.