“We don’t have time for this!” Art, Reilly’s father, shouted. “We’re almost home. Can’t you hold it?”
“Dad!” Reilly hollered back, his muscles tense, beads of cold sweat popping out on his pockmarked forehead. “It can’t wait!”
“Jesus Christ, we’re already a half hour late,” Art muttered, and swerved his old Subaru off the New Jersey Turnpike into an old rest area that’d been closed for as long as he could remember.
“If the door’s locked, you can sh*t outside around back,” he instructed, as Reilly bolted out of the car and waddled across the littered parking lot toward the men’s room. “Poor b*stard’s not gonna make it,” he thought.
“Please don’t be locked, please don’t be locked, please d–” Reilly thought, clenching everything he had to avoid a humiliating disaster.
The door to the bathroom was not locked. Not anymore, at least. An old Master Lock lay in pieces on the chipped tile floor. There was no electricity; the only light coming in was from the clearly-unwashed skylights. The air, if what he was breathing could be considered such, was thick and fetid. Used.
None of that mattered. The nearest stall was open, and a grime-caked, waterless toilet, beckoned. He barged in, dropped his pants, and let go.
He sat, his elbows on his legs and his hands pressed against his eyes, until his body allowed him to move again. He sighed with relief and moved his hands, finally taking in the filth of the room around him.
It’d been a long time since anyone had cleaned the place, but not long since it’d been used. With a feeling of disgust, he glanced over to where the toilet paper should have been.
Then he saw it.
“What the f*ck!” Reilly exclaimed, pulling the front of his shirt down and clamping his legs shut.
“It’s just an ingrown hair!,” my sister insisted. Then it encysted. Three weeks later, she was in the hospital having a pint of sludge sucked out of her armpit. If she’d lanced it early and not left it alone, she could’ve saved herself a lot of pain and suffering.
It was that memory from a decade ago that made me pay very close attention to the swelling right where the corner of my lower jaw met my neck. It’d always been a sensitive spot for me. Whenever I shaved, that one area invariably ended up being a swollen mess of ingrown hairs. It was miserable.
I had a system that helped a bit: cleansing the area before and after shaving, shaving with brand-new blades, and making sure to shave in the direction the hair grew. It brought my outbreaks down from every time to every other time; not much, but better than nothing. When the most recent swelling showed up, I didn’t think much of it and treated it like any other ingrown hair. But it got worse.
Remembering Lynn’s nightmarish experience in the hospital, I wanted to take action quickly. I went to the drugstore and bought a package of lancing needles. Back at home, I swabbed the area with rubbing alcohol and poked the needle into the area of the swelling. It bled quite a bit, but the swelling didn’t diminish. I squeezed hard and pushed the needle a little deeper. More blood, and a little bit of other fluid.
When I let go, it hurt more than it had, but the swelling appeared to have gone down a little bit. When I shone my bright desk lamp against the skin, I could see a few thick, black hairs trapped under the surface. I imagined how they were growing in backwards; twisting and weaving their way along the underside of my neck as my immune system attacked them. The thought turned my stomach. I took a few Advil and went to bed.
I woke up in pain. The swelling had gotten significantly worse and my throat had started to hurt on that side. I ran my fingertips over the bulge and felt the swollen follicles. I turned on the shower and brought a couple lancing needles with me.
I poked and squeezed and expelled what had to have been a cup of blood and yellowish-orange fluid. I looked at the mess on the shower floor and told myself that if it didn’t get better in a couple days, I’d have to go to the hospital. Just like Lynn. She’d never let me live it down after the way I’d teased her after her own issue.
The thought of Lynn’s smirk compelled me to do two things: one, I promised myself I wouldn’t tell her about what happened, and two, I’d do everything in my power to make sure I fixed the problem before I needed to go to the hospital. My neck throbbed as if it were agreeing with me.
Feeling the hairs still lurking under my skin, I wiped the fog off the mirror and examined myself. The swelling was the size of a baseball. Swallowing was intensely painful. I was determined to get this fixed.
I remembered Lynn had told me that when she went to the hospital, they had to do more than just stick the thing with a needle and drain it. The cyst had been too deep for that. They needed to make an incision and hold it open for all the muck to come out.
I checked my needle supply. There were a ton left. Knowing they were the only sterile things in the house, I decided they’d have to do. I doused the area in rubbing alcohol, then began dragging the needle across the swollen lump.
It bled, but not a crazy amount. When I felt the needle getting dull, I opened a fresh one and continued. The discomfort was significant, but not agonizing. Having relief from the pressure was almost enough to overcome the pain.
When I was about three-quarters of an inch in, the pain became severe. I gritted my teeth as I pulled the needle across the flesh, waiting for the rush of gray-white pus from the cyst created by that horrible ingrown hair. After another few millimeters, the needle struck something firm. Finally. I poked and prodded at it, and that same yellowish-orange fluid started to leak out.
With a rush of confidence brought on by the intense desire to get this all over with, I reached in with my thumb and forefinger, pulled, and squeezed. An explosion of agony made the world grow white, then gray. I felt something dangling against the skin of my neck, and I passed out for a minute. Fleeting lucidity returned and I used it to dial 911 before passing out again. I woke up in the hospital.
It turned out I did, indeed, have some seriously-ingrown hairs. My doctor said they were some of the worst he’d ever seen; he even recommended that I grow a beard so I wouldn’t have to deal with them so frequently. But the ingrown hair wasn’t why I was in the hospital.
The good Lord saw it fit to give me a throat infection right around the same time that ingrown hair had gotten inflamed. The lump, while partly from the hair, was a swollen gland. In my search for the infected root of the ingrown hair, I’d carved the lymph node out of my neck and squeezed it until it ruptured.
No way I’m telling Lynn about this. No way in hell.