1st Place Extra Fiction Contest
Attack of Las Quetas
by Toni Margarita Plummer
The dermatologist lifts the gown as she needs to, checking my limbs, my stomach, my back. Her hands are pleasantly cool, and she speaks intermittently of the various marks and spots on my body.
“This is fine.”
“I’m not worried about this.”
When she is finished, I sit up on the crinkly tissue paper and pull the gown closed over my chest. Dr. Baer is attractive, with blond hair, fair skin, and a wide face that needs no makeup. I detect a very slight accent. Maybe Eastern European. She hardly smiles, and I wonder if she thinks Americans like me smile too much.
I first met her two years ago, when I felt something buried in my right palm. She numbed my hand, dug out the mass while I looked away, and stitched me up. When I returned later to have the stitches removed, the nurse praised the perfectly even sutures. Now Dr. Baer has opened up her own office.
“If you come back this month, we’re giving facials half off with all skin cancer screenings.”
I am used to getting my facials done at a salon under the 7 train where a woman threads my eyebrows in quick, heated licks and squeezes the pores on my nose until I want to curse, all for $20 and a tip. Rather than ask the price of the discounted facial, I say, “That’s okay.”
“Just call if you change your mind.” Dr. Baer zeroes in on my face. “I see some extractions I could make.”
I nod politely, sure I will not call. The word “extraction” takes me back to geology class, where we learned about removing things from the ground, usually valuable things.
“What about these?” She catches me off-guard, her hand moving to my neck. “Have you thought of removing them?”
My hand follows hers, finding the familiar nubs. It had not occurred to me to ever ask a doctor about my longtime skin malady.
“Insurance wouldn’t cover it because it’s cosmetic, but I could remove them for $100. I’d freeze them off. You have a lot so we could do it over two visits.”
I have not been keeping up with my neck situation, and the idea of having someone else take care of it is appealing. I agree, and she finally smiles.
I don’t remember when they first appeared. But one day I must have noticed them. Then I noticed the necks of my great aunts, which were spotted with dark pouches of skin, some quite plump and shiny like rubber. Las tías were sedentary women, keeping to the shade during family parties, sometimes erupting into cackles over a joke in Spanish I did not understand. I spoke little to them, my mother serving as the link between generations by handing me clothes they had crocheted for my dolls and telling me to say gracias.
Mamá’s neck was also afflicted, but I learned she had a way of dealing with it. She began sitting me down at the kitchen table every several months. She would pull out a long, dark hair from her hairbrush and make a slipknot. I’d tip my head back, exposing my neck like a supplicant of Dracula, and she would slip the hair-lasso over one of the little sacs and pull until it stung. I was always happy to feel that sting. It meant she’d caught one. She’d pull more hairs from the brush and tie up the rest, whichever ones were not too small and close to the skin. And then she’d take the scissors and snip the ends of the hairs so they wouldn’t hang so long. Out in public, I would cover my neck, and over a few days the strangled sacs would harden, go dark. It was easy then to pinch them off. Sometimes I would drive my nail through their centers and feel them come apart like earth.
Some might call them skin tags. A date I had in college called them growths. You could even call them tumors, technically. But I always preferred my mother’s word for them—las quetas. Short for etiquetas de la piel. I led a mostly English life, but that was one of the words I did not translate.
I accepted las quetas as my inheritance, like my dark, straight hair and long eyelashes. They were passed down through generations of women. Women of Mexican extraction.
Mamá did not want me to move out. She thought I should live with her until I got married, whenever that might be, like my engaged brother was. But I was eager to be out on my own. In my new apartment, I tried to do what my mother did and tend to my quetas like weeds in a garden. But I did not know how to do a slipknot. Foolishly, I double-knotted my ties, an inferior method. The hairs came undone before I even got in the shower. Most of las quetas were impossible for me to grab hold of in the first place, because of the incompatible angle of my hands and neck. I’d stand in front of the mirror, frustrated at another failed attempt, longing for Mamá’s hands at the same time I cursed this trait. I was reluctant to ask her for help. The ritual tying of las quetas was never scheduled. It was just something that happened when we were both home at night. She would gather her supplies and beckon me, “Míramos tus quetas.” And the reason I was not home at night anymore was because I had chosen to leave, against her wishes.
The proliferation of las quetas weighed on me. I would find myself tugging on them. They itched. I considered simply cutting them with scissors. But when I raised the blades to my skin, I imagined a fount of blood pouring out my neck, saw myself passed out on the floor, my unsympathetic landlord standing over my body and telling himself he would keep my deposit.
My brother’s wedding was in a few months, and he had cruelly informed me that las quetas could not count as my anonymous plus one. So Dr. Baer’s offer was well-timed. That is what I thought at first.
For the first round of cryotherapy, Dr. Baer approaches me with a pressurized metal can. She aims the little straw pointing out of it like a gun. “Ready?”
She said we were freezing them, but it burns. It burns like hell. I am grateful I won’t have to endure the scorching of them all in one visit. My neck on fire, my mind turns to thrift. There doesn’t seem to be much technique involved. I try to sneak glances at the lettering on the can. Is this something I can buy myself and enlist a twisted friend to wield?
“All right. You’re all set. You can make the next appointment a few weeks from today.”
“Will there be scaring?” It’s a silly question coming after the fact, but I can’t help myself.
“There shouldn’t be. But if there is, I can take care of that too.”
Back in the waiting room, I see myself in the mirror. The red-hot riot of my neck. Mamá’s tying was a gentle smothering by comparison. This is something different. It is chemical warfare. It is cigarette burns. My neck is inflamed, but the result is the same. Over a few days, las quetas harden and fall off. A smooth neck is within reach.
The second visit begins like the first. It is no less painful, and I find it hard to believe there are still so many left.
Finally Dr. Baer steps back. “One more to go.” She hands me a mirror and points at the brown spot just below my collarbone.
“Is that one of them?” I ask, feeling the familiar bump. The skin is slightly raised there, the spot shaped like a cameo. It is nothing like the ones on my neck. There is no stalk, nothing to pull.
Dr. Baer nods, her blue eyes boring into mine.
I imagine how the burn will feel there, on my chest, but I also think of that mark missing. It’s the mark I see in the mirror every day, in pictures of myself. For it to disappear… “No thank you, I need to keep that one.”
She watches me, and I instinctively finger my remaining queta, protective.
At last she sighs, as though she is the one who has been getting her neck singed the past fifteen minutes, and sets the can back on the counter. “You’re all done.”
I know my future sister-in-law’s favorite color is red, but a red bridesmaid dress strikes me as tacky. Make it red tulle on red satin, and you have something unholy.
The dresses are sleeveless, so we wear tulle shawls to cover our bare shoulders during the church ceremony. In the church restroom, I remove the itchy fabric, glad to be free of it. But my relief vanishes when I see my neck has broken out in some kind of rash. It must be the cheap fabric of the shawl. We’re about to take group photos, so I have but little choice to redon the offensive garment. A rashy neck would not be tolerated.
We arrive at the reception hall for cocktail hour, and my neck is flaming. I don’t want to remove the shawl though. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I flee to the restroom, certain I am breaking out in hives. There I see it’s worse than I feared. I am bright red, and not just that, but I see something small, something brown on my neck. It can’t be, I think. They were all gone. But it’s there, and as I watch it, it grows.
I think I must be seeing things. But la queta is there, and it is becoming too big to be imagined. Panicked, I run into a stall and sit on the toilet seat. Someone knocks on the door.
“Estás bien?” My eardrums are pounding with blood, and I can’t even make out the voice.
“Sí! I’m fine!” I am not fine, but what can I say? I nuked my quetas and now they are returning to exact revenge?
La queta continues to balloon. I can feel it. I will die here, I know. I will die a virgin sitting on a toilet in an unbecoming dress. La queta will grow until it absorbs me, the lesser lifeform.
But the stall door bursts open. There stand las tías, and by their faces I can tell they mean business. Without hesitation, one punctures the giant queta with her crochet needle while another ropes it with a loop of yarn and the rest of the women yank. I think I am going to pass out from terror when there is a deafening pop and blood splatters us all. Grasping my neck, I look down to see the severed queta lying on the floor.
My mother steps out from behind las tías and looks at it on the tile. “There is more than one way to skin a cat.”
“How did you know?” I ask, gasping, incredulous.
Tia Meche, the eldest, scoffs. “Mi’ja, tú eres una de nosotras. No necesitas decir nada.”
Mamá pulls me out of the stall and holds my hands out to the sides. “At least the blood blends in with your dress.” Las tías start to cackle.
Toni Margarita Plummer was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother and white father. She is the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe, won Honorable Mention for the 2019 Reynolds Price Prize in Fiction given by the Center for Women Writers, and was a finalist for the inaugural Tomas Rivera Book Prize. A Macondo Fellow and graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC, she is a contributor to the anthologies East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte and Latina Outsiders Remaking Latina Identity. Plummer lives in the Hudson Valley.