I remember my first zit with startling clarity. I was thirteen and it was a large round bump protruding from the top of my forehead on the right side with a big white dot that seemed like it had something to tell me.
My family and I were in Ireland at the time of the zit’s arrival. It was the biggest vacation we’d ever taken. My parents chose Ireland because they had a special connection to it. They were engaged in front of a hotel in Sligo and my mother’s father owned a house in the county of Kerry. My parents wanted us to get a sense of our heritage. I find it ironic that they gave me a name that sounds like it belongs to Ireland’s British oppressors, but I am really quite Irish on both sides.
We traveled all over the country for two weeks. I tied my hair back every day because there was just too much of it and I had not learned how to tame it and let it out if its cage. Even tied back it could be a mess, so I smothered it down with greasy white pomade. I had bangs that I slicked up as best as I could and combed over the right side of my face. That nasty white pomade that seeped from my hair to my skin was probably the reason I got a big zit in the first place.
Of course I was embarrassed by the zit, but nobody mentioned it during the first few days when we were adjusting to the spongy ground, dull rains, and old stones of Ireland. About halfway through the first week, our rented blue Volvo station wagon was hauling itself up a narrow Irish road that cut a passage through a mountain. I was looking out the window to my right admiring how the clouds cast shadows on an otherwise mutedly sunny patchwork of green and brown farming fields in the valley below. Something, I cannot remember what, diverted my attention and caused me to make a snide remark to my sister. She snapped back, “That is a disgusting big zit on your face.”
The car filled up with silence; I was fuming with anger. This was back when I was allowed to hate my sister—before I only felt guilt and sorrow for her condition. A little while later, on the same drive, my mother must have noticed me creep my fingers up behind the veil of my curly bangs and poke around the zit out of insecurity. “Don’t pick at it, you’ll only make it worse,” she warned from the front seat.
For the rest of the damned vacation my sister kept ridiculing me about it and my mother continued to scold me lightly if she noticed me touching it. I couldn’t help it. It was a new concept to me and my fingers were drawn to exploring it. My dad never mentioned the zit. He just kept on driving our little car on the snaking Irish roads, only stopping to pull off when a tour bus came blundering down in our direction, eating up all of the road. God, I love him sometimes.
The zit, along with my sister, put me in an awful mood for most of the vacation. Every grey rock castle was the same. The flocks of off-white sheep dotting the countryside were repetitive. The food was tasteless and the tables were sticky with spilled ale. The most fun we had was visiting my grandfather’s little white house that seemed to be plopped arbitrarily in the midst of untouched mountains.
His house was a short drive from Watertown, where we took a fishing boat out to visit the island of Skellig Michael and were caught in a storm. Fifteen-foot swells of dark Irish sea rocked our rickety old boat and sprayed our faces as the waves crashed across one another. My mother screamed with each rise and fall of the boat for a quarter of an hour until conditions worsened. Then she started saying her Hail Marys and her Our Fathers because surely just screaming wouldn’t be enough to save us from sinking. My sister and I failed to see the very obvious danger of the swelling ocean water. We called a temporary truce and laughed our heads off like a pair of old friends, feeling as if the billowing ocean was just a ride at an amusement park. My father has always said that he was a salty fisherman in another lifetime. He stood gazing mystically over the side of the boat, interrupting himself only to take part in his daughters’ delight.
We forgot it all—the laughter and how we could have capsized—as soon as we got to shore. When we touched ground my sister chuckled a bit, so I did too, guessing we were still laughing like we had the boat. But instead she turned around and teased, “I wonder if salt water is good for zits!” I didn’t have the curse words that I have now, but I used their polite equivalents in my response and I was told to behave.
Later, when we were eating dinner, my mother whispered in my ear that she had bought acne cream for me. She had snuck off to another aisle and got it when we had stopped at a sort of convenience store on our way to Galway. I shoved her off me and refused to use it. Truthfully, though that oversized pimple really bothered me during the trip, getting rid of it made me a little apprehensive. I guess something like the first zit on a teenager’s face is a thing that we shouldn’t really get rid of. It has to happen. It has to appear from deep inside the skin and erupt like a stinging volcano with a message of change. We have to get older.
I finally popped it though, in the weeks after we flew home to the states. It was an accident. I was lightly pressing the sides of it when—pop!—it exploded. I already had a bigger one forming on my nose. But there was no jeering from my sister.
We came back from Ireland at the end of August. By September, my sister was ill. Nobody knew how or when or why her infection started. My guess is that she spent too many hot July days playing in the murky, bacteria-ridden lakes of the Helderberg Mountains earlier that summer.
Our whole family changed when she got sick after Ireland. We started acting like cautious skiers who, terrified, had accidently found ourselves on the precipitous slope of a black diamond course, falling down for years and years. Those were my teenage years. All that stress and plenty of zits. I swore for a while I could still see the scar from where the first had been. Of course I could. Ireland was the last place she was alive. Maybe she started dying while we were there. But it felt like after.
Ireland was the last place any of us were alive. We had all fallen off the boat that day and drowned in the frigid chill of the Irish sea.