I found the cyst behind my right ear while fixing my hair before work. The teeth of the comb caught it and my vision went blurry from the pain. Pulling my earlobe down, I leaned forward to look at it in the mirror. The pustule was the size of my thumb.
At work I tried to answer the phone but pressing the handset to my ear made my eyes water. I went to the bathroom to dig at the inflamed skin with my pocketknife and blood ran down my neck, onto the collar of my shirt. I tried to clean it off but for the rest of the day people asked me about it.
I showed it to Jess when she got home. “You should really go to the doctor,” she said.
“If it isn’t better in a few days,” I said.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Every time I rolled onto my right side the pain woke me up. After midnight I got up to look at the cyst in the mirror, pulling apart the skin where I had made cuts with my pocketknife. Underneath the surface of the white bulb I thought I could see something poking up. Grabbing a pair of tweezers, I jabbed at the sore but couldn’t latch onto anything.
The next morning I called in sick to work and lay on the couch, rolling the cyst between my fingers as it bled all over my hand. I watched soap operas while the blood pooled beneath my head and stuck my hair to the pillows. In the afternoon I called the doctor’s office. “You should be seen right away,” the receptionist said.
By the time I checked in at the front counter I was sweating and dizzy. When they called me from the waiting room I had trouble standing up. The nurse took my arm and led me to a padded table, telling me to lie on my side. “It’s a good thing you came in,” she said, looking at the cyst. “This is serious.”
She draped a piece of sterile paper over my head and put a green bucket on the floor beneath me. The paper blocked my view but I could see warm outlines from the
light above me. My breath reflected off of the paper and back into my face, making me feel hot and miserable.
I could only see the doctor’s feet when she walked in. “We need to cut this out,” she said. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said.
I heard feet shuffling as they prepared her equipment and then felt a sharp pain as she made an incision behind my ear. Blood and pus ran down the side of my face and dripped into the bucket. As she pressed harder it went in my mouth and I spit it against the sterile paper. The smell was terrible. “Here it is,” she said, wiggling a pair of pliers into my head. I felt an unsettling movement and heard metal jingling as she pulled them out.
“Lawnmower keys,” she said. “Have you been looking for these?”
“I have,” I said.
“Well here they are,” she said. The nurse took the sheet of paper off my head and wiped away the blood and pus with a wet towel. My eyes adjusted to the light of the room as she taped a bandage to the side of my head. “Doesn’t even need stitches,” the doctor said, pulling off her gloves. They gave me the keys in a plastic bag at the front desk when I checked out.
At home, I showed the keys to Jess. “Where were they?” she asked.
“Inside my cyst,” I said.
“It’s always the last place you look,” she said.
I went outside and slid onto the vinyl seat of the lawnmower. The keys had pieces of flesh stuck to them but the engine started immediately when I turned the ignition. The air was cold, soothing the ache behind my ear.
Photo by Sterling