When men are set adrift, they look for anything to which they can anchor their lives again. Even a simple schedule. Especially a girlfriend.
“So, what do you do?” my dermatologist asks, scanning a form on which my job clearly occupies a box.
Dr. Skin is a middle-aged man with a full head of hair, a remarkably leathery and pocked face, and a striking lack of sideburns. I’m sitting cross-legged on a paper-covered metal examination table. On the plaster walls, citations and diplomas share space with high-definition illustrations of angry red lesions. Looking at them, my morning hunger suddenly disappears—yet it’s the missing sideburns that disturb me most. Without them, Skin’s hair looks like a bicycle helmet.
I’ve been wearing nothing but a thin gown and my underwear for nearly 10 minutes, but we haven’t yet discussed the dry-as-desert rash on my leg. Skin’s assistant, a young Hispanic woman named Marci, is typing on a laptop.
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh yeah? What kind?” he asks
The itchy-leg kind.
“Essays,” I say.
“My girlfriend’s daughter—she’s in high school. She wants to be a writer. Or a journalist. She hates me. But I’m looking to change that. Can you help her? Do you counsel young writers?”
“Hold on,” Dr. Skin says, and pull out his cell phone. He thumbs a few numbers, then puts the phone to his ear.
“Honey, I’m talking to a writer who can help Donna. Hang on.”
Skin hands me the phone. “It’s my girlfriend, Lisa.”
Behind him, Marci rolls her eyes.
After an awkward introduction, I give Lisa my email address, and hand the phone back to Dr. Skin.
He drops the phone in his lab coat pocket and bends down to look at my leg.
“You have kids?” he asks.
“Three—12, 9, and 9.”
“They go to school around here?”
“They live with their mother.”
“Oh, you’re divorced.”
“Oh,” Dr. Skin says, intrigued.
Over the P.A. system, we hear Skin’s name.
“I’ll be right back,” he says, and leaves.
I look at Marci. “Is he divorced?” I ask.
“Still separated,” She says quietly, but quickly. “And he immediately finds this one. She’s been divorced three times herself. I told him—”
Dr. Skin comes back in the room. He tells me to get dressed and types something into the laptop.
“I met Lisa three months ago on Match.com,” he says, grabbing his cell phone again. He pulls up a photo and points it at me like a flashlight.
“She’s hot, right?”
Lisa is a raven-haired 40-ish woman in a tight dress standing next to a shimmering pool. She’s posed unnaturally, as if the photographer told her, “Look sexy!” She reminds me of those Real Housewives on TV.
“Nice,” I say, in much the same way I’d compliment someone’s lawn. “So, about this rash …”
“I’m writing up a cream for you. Twice a day.”
“It’s not a fungus or something like that?”
Skin looks at me like I’m an idiot.
“You’re just dry and irritated.” Correct on both counts.
As I pull on my jeans, Dr. Skin looks at me.
“I live just down the road from my kids. Maybe that’s bad, I don’t know. They like Lisa, but her kid just hates me. I need to show her I’m for real, that I’m all in.”
“Her daughter probably doesn’t hate you,” I say helpfully, “she just hates what you represent.”
She probably hates him as well. Mom’s latest boyfriend is a dermatologist with bad skin? That’s the stuff of great teen novels.
With a blue Sharpie, Dr. Skin draws a week-length time line on the sanitary paper covering the exam table.
“These nights I’m with the kids,” he says, pointing. “These nights are for my girlfriend. But this night here is … for the guys.”
The schedule clearly consoles him—it’s a feeling I recognize and remember, even though I’m hardly a “guys’ night” kind of guy. When men are set adrift, they look for anything to which they can anchor their lives again. Even a simple schedule. Especially a girlfriend.
For all his inappropriate, lust-struck clumsiness, I feel a kinship with my dermatologist. I know where he lives—not the place down the road from his kids, but the messy flophouse in his own mind. A place for men to detox from the expectations that once surrounded and defined them. Some men pass through quickly; others never leave.
Finally dressed, I extend a hand to Dr. Skin. He takes it and looks at me expectantly.
“Take your time,” I say impulsively. “Figure out who you are, what you want, and what kind of dad you are. That’s all you’re supposed to do right now.”
Marci rips off the paper decorated with Dr. Skin’s scribbles, tosses it in the garbage, and rolls out a new one. She then hands me a bag filled with tiny samples.
When I turn back, Skin is showing me the same digital photo of his girlfriend.
“She’s really good-looking, right?”
I can’t believe it. Nor do people to whom I’ve told this story.
A few days later I get an email from Lisa, Skin’s girlfriend, and instantly delete it. I sympathize with the good doctor, I really do. I just have no skin in that game.
Joel Schwartzberg was one of the original contributors to The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood.