“Did you see that kid on table twelve?” Beth asks me.
“No,” I reply.
“Take a look.”
I peek around the corner and take a quick look at the table. A teenage boy is eating dinner with his parents. His face and neck’s covered with a swarm of angry red pimples. Acne vulgaris.
“Oh, poor kid,” I reply, wincing.
“Man, he has really bad acne,” Beth says.
I take another look. The boy eats sullenly, staring at the table, while his parents try vainly engage him in conversation. I experience a sense of déjà vu.
“Yeah, he’s got a bad case,” I reply, “I can relate to what he’s going through.”
“You had acne when you were his age?” Beth asks.
“I had horrible acne when I was his age,” I say, “Worse than his.”
“Oh yeah, when I was thirteen I woke up one morning to find my face, neck and back covered in zits.”
“That must have been horrible,” Beth says.
“Oh, it was. I was the first in my class to get it. All the kids made fun of me.”
“Ouch,” Beth replies.
“It was so bad there were days I didn’t want to go to school,” I continue, “The kids were merciless.”
I hearken back to when I was a skinny awkward thirteen year old boy. Everyday someone, even friends of mine, would taunt me. Comments like, “Try washing your face sometime,” “Pizza face!” or “That’s what you get for jerking off,” were de rigueur. Even now, twenty four years later, it’s still a painful memory.
“Kids can be cruel,” Beth says sympathetically.
“Unbelievably cruel,” I reply, “But looking back I realize now they were just afraid.”
“Afraid?” Beth asks quizzically.
“I was the first kid in my class to get acne and I had a really bad case. My classmate’s were just verbalizing out their fear of it happening to them.”
“But you didn’t know that at the time,” Beth says.
“Hell no,” I say, “Later, when the other kids got it, the teasing eased up somewhat, but it never really ended till midway through high school.”
“It can have a really devastating effect on your self esteem. I mean I was thirteen, just getting interested in girls, and, well, you remember the whole peer pressure thing.”
“I remember,” Beth says.
“It’s only now, as an adult, that I realize what a negative impact it had,” I say.
I look back over at table twelve. The kid’s still staring into his food.
“When did your acne clear up?” Beth asks, “I’d never know you had it.”
“It cleared up my sophomore year in college,” I reply.
“That long?” Beth says.
“It was a battle. I had to go to the dermatologist every week for years.”
“Every week the doc would dig out the blackheads, shoot medicine into my face, and put me under a UV lamp,” I say, remembering.
“Every week?” Beth asks.
“Just about,” I reply. “I used to call it my weekly torture session.”
“Didn’t the doctor give you medicine?” Beth asks.
“Well, I took antibiotics for years,” I reply, “But then Accutane came out and that finally did the trick.”
“Well it worked,” Beth says.
“That reminds me of a funny story,” I say, grinning, “About when I first started going to the dermatologist.”
“Tell me,” Beth says.
“Well my doctor was Polish. Since he spoke Polish most of his patients were Polish immigrants,” I begin. “There was a big picture of John Paul in the doc’s waiting room, Solidarity banners hanging on the walls, I mean it was Polka Central.”
“Well this doc’s waiting room was standing room only. There’d be fifty people crammed into this little room and there never were enough chairs. It was normal to wait two hours until the doctor could see you.”
“Oh man,” Beth says.
“It was the pits. I mean the magazines were all in Polish and the English ones were from 1968.”
“But what was really odd was how quiet it was in the waiting room. No one spoke. Everyone looked really embarrassed. And, already mortified by my acne, that only made the situation worse.
“Well those people had bad acne like you,” Beth says.
“No,” I reply, “they didn’t and that’s the strange part. I’d be the only teenager in the room. The rest of the people were adults – even old people. And none of them had acne.”
“That is weird,” Beth agrees.
“So, being an observant kid, I brought this fact to my father’s attention while we were sitting in the waiting room.”
“What did he say?” Beth asks.
“He told me to shut up and wait till we got to the car.”
“And then what happened?”
I remember this moment like it was yesterday. Dad and I are driving home from Dr. Polka in our 1978 Maverick.
“Dad, why did you tell me to shut up back there?” I ask sullenly, breaking the awkward silence.
My Dad clears his throat. “Uh, son, Dr. Polka doesn’t just treat people with acne,” he says.
I stare at my father. He’s smiling. He always smiles when he’s nervous.
My father swallows hard. “Dr. Polka specializes in treating venereal disease – especially syphilis.”
“What’s syphilis?” I ask. Yes, I was that innocent.
My father explains it to me. Being a teacher he also draws on references to Henry VIII and Edgar Allan Poe.
“Ugh!” I say when he finishes.
“There you have it,” my father replies.
Suddenly I have a very appropriate teenage response – I start laughing hysterically.
My father busts out laughing too. We laugh all the way home. And when we tell Mom what happened she starts laughing. My little brother just stands there mystified.
After that my father always referred to Dr. Polka as the “Polish Clap Doctor.” It was a family joke for years.
And I was never embarrassed sitting in that waiting room again. Why? Because I knew. And knowledge is power.
“So that’s the story of Dr. Polka,” I say.
“That’s too funny,” Beth replies.
I haven’t thought of Dr. Polka in long time. After a good chuckle Beth and I get back to work.
I’d like to say that everything after that day in Dr. Polka’s office was rosy, but it wasn’t. Having bad acne sucked big time. But I got through it.
As I walk down the aisle the pimply faced kid looks up at me.
“Things get better kid,” I telepath, “They get better.”
And they do.
But as an afterthought I add,
“Just don’t get the clap!”