Growing up, I had a scar on my face — a perfect arrow in the center of my cheek, pointing at my left eye. I got it when I was three, long before I knew that scars were a bad thing, especially for a girl. I knew only that my scar brought me attention and tenderness and candy.
As I got older I began to take pride in my scar, in part to stop bullies from taunting me, but mainly as a reaction to the assumption that I should feel embarrassed. It’s true, I was embarrassed the first couple of times someone pointed at my cheek and asked, “What’s that?” or called me “Scarface.” But the more I heard how unfortunate my scar was, the more I found myself liking it.
My friends liked it, too. They made up elaborate tales about how I’d gotten it in a fight or from a dog attack. They laughed at their stories and thought I was all the more interesting because I could laugh with them.
When I turned fifteen, my parents — on the advice of a plastic surgeon — decided it was time to operate on what was now a thick, shiny red scar. As my father drove me home from the local mall, he explained that I would have the surgery during my summer vacation, to allow time for it to heal.
“But I don’t mind the scar, really,” I told him. “I don’t need surgery.” It had been years since I had been teased. And my friends, along with my boyfriend at the time, felt as I did, that my scar was unique and almost pretty in its own way. After so many years, it was a part of me.
“You do need surgery,” my father said, his eyes on the road, his lips tight.
“But I like it,” I told him. “I don’t want to get rid of it.”
“You need surgery,” he said again, and he lowered his voice. “It’s a deformity.”
I don’t know what hurt more that day: hearing my father call my scar a deformity, or realizing that it didn’t matter to him how I felt about it.
I did have plastic surgery that summer. They cut out the left side of the arrow, leaving a thinner, zigzag scar that blended into the lines of my face when I smiled. The following summer they did the same to the right side of the arrow. Finally, when I was eighteen, the surgeon sanded my cheek smooth.
In my late twenties, I took a long look at my scar, something I hadn’t done in years. It was still visible in the right light, but no one asked me about it anymore. I examined the small steplike pattern and the way it made my cheek dimple when I smiled. As I leaned in awkwardly toward the mirror, I felt a sudden sadness.
There was something powerful about my scar and the defiant, proud person I became because of it. I have never been quite so strong since they cut it out.
I see them still, the two German SS officers sitting in our sunroom. It was a warm, bright day in March 1945. They were smiling and laughing, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I can picture their faces and their beautiful, shiny black boots.
The officers were visiting my aunt, who lived with us at the time. They seemed carefree as they socialized. I wondered whether they were going to live with us, too, like all the other people who had sought refuge in our house. I resented their presence; I had already lost my bed to some strange “uncle.”
Shortly after my father came home, the officers left. I assumed that my father had asked them to leave because there were no more beds in our house. I had learned early on never to ask questions.
A day later I walked up our road, not really going anywhere. Our closest neighbor lived almost a mile away, and all along the road between our house and the neighbor’s grew big chestnut trees. The trees were my place to be alone, away from the noise and confusion of our house.
As I was walking, I noticed two pairs of black, shiny boots hanging amid the branches. When I looked up, I saw the two officers dangling by heavy ropes, dead.
I did not cry. I did not race home to tell anyone. I just kept walking, and I never climbed those trees again.
That night, I heard someone say that escaped prisoners from the forced-labor camp down the mountain had hanged the officers. One month later, the war was over.
It took me many years to feel safe enough to ask questions, but I never did ask anyone about those men from the SS. The experience left its mark on me to this day, and taught me that the border between good and evil is not always an obvious one, and that life can end suddenly. The smiling “uncle” faces of the SS officers were also the faces of mass murderers, and those men, so alive and carefree one day, were hanging dead from the trees the next.
She is about three years old and was picked up by Animal Control while running stray on a busy street. Her ears droop softly, having never been sliced and forced into fierce points, as is customary for Dobermans. She has a band of scars around her neck in a deep rut — marks of a collar or chain pulled so tight for so long that it cut into her flesh.
I take her outside to get acquainted. She is docile but preoccupied, and rarely makes eye contact. Despite my efforts to soothe her, she seems restless and uncertain, eager to return to the safety of her kennel. Still, I think she might make a good companion, once she gets used to me and has a safe, loving home.
I visit her again the next day to search for some sign that she might respond to my affection. When this doesn’t happen, I am disappointed and impatient. I can’t get past the scars on her neck. I am looking for a dog that can go with me to the nursing home where I work, a dog I can trust around loud noises, wheelchairs, and clumsy hands reaching out to pat her head. The hairless ring around this dog’s neck tells me she has endured long-standing misery and untold brutality. I am afraid she may lash out instinctively if some innocent person moves too fast or gets too close.
A few years later I am diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — cancer of the lymph nodes. The doctors who take care of me are afraid their treatments will leave scars. As the surgeon prepares to remove the lymph nodes in my neck, he assures me that he will use invisible stitches and a special type of bandage that minimizes scarring. When oozing blisters appear on my chest and back from the radiation, the oncologist is adamant that I stop treatment until my skin has healed. He cautions me that I will scar and will never be able to wear low-cut dresses or blouses again.
While I appreciate these doctors’ optimism about my future, I am surprised at the emphasis they place on my vanity. I insist on proceeding uninterrupted with the radiation. There will be time for the lesions to close once the treatment is finished.
I have since adopted a dog that suffered early neglect and isolation. Her scars are not visible, but her desperate neediness and constant anxiety are. With love, time, and the help of an experienced dog handler, she is becoming more secure, and her inherent goodness is emerging. Like a cancer survivor, she is regaining confidence in life.
The Doberman that I did not adopt still haunts me. If I saw that dog now, ten years later, I would take a chance on her. I am no longer afraid of scars.
Two years ago, when I worked as a reporter for a big-city newspaper, I got to know a fifty-six-year-old heroin addict named Mark. Mark lived in one of the worst residential hotels in the city. Its elevator had not worked for at least a year, so Mark, who had broken his hip, had to hobble up the worn, twisted stairway with his walker. The manager charged Mark fifty dollars extra in rent, supposedly because he often had to help him up the stairs. I never saw him do this.
I visited with Mark on several occasions while working on a series about the people who lived in residential hotels. I would arrive at about ten in the morning, just as he was getting up, and bring him some cigarettes or coffee and a doughnut.
“Oh, thank you very much,” he’d gush. “I have to have my sugar and my caffeine and my cigarettes. I’m an addictive personality!”
After I’d left, Mark would have his first fix of the day and then take the bus to his usual destination: a freeway on-ramp where he stood holding a sign: Disabled. Please help. Once he’d panhandled the fifty dollars he needed to buy more heroin, he’d return to the hotel.
Mark was convinced that he would not live in the hotel for longer than another month or two: He had plans. He would get into the city’s methadone program. He would get his belongings out of storage. He’d start up his band again. He had a life.
He’d been saying all this for months.
One day, I ran into Mark in front of the hotel, just as he was returning from panhandling. He asked if I wanted to watch him shoot up. Sure, I said. He was already starting to go into withdrawal — or, as he put it, “starting to get sick.” I followed him up the stairs, listening to him pant. When we finally made it to his room, he melted the small brown rock in a bottle cap and drew the liquid into a syringe.
Then he rolled up his sleeve, and I saw his arm for the first time. It was covered with huge, awful patches of red, mangled skin. Nevertheless, he found a place for the syringe, stuck it in, and pressed the plunger. The instant the brown liquid went into his arm, he sighed. “God loves me,” he said.
When I look back on that time, I feel as if it were a puzzle with pieces missing. I can’t understand why, after seeing the kind of damage she was capable of doing to her own body, I was willing to let her damage mine. The razor blade with the dried blood on it sat on my windowsill for months afterward.
Today I have an inch-long scar just below my right collarbone. It’s shiny and clean. No matter how many times I convince myself to trust, to risk getting my heart broken, that scar will always be there. People sometimes ask about it. I don’t usually tell them how I got it: Too much wine. Too many years of loneliness culminating in that one moment, as if all the desperation I’d ever felt were sitting there on the edge of that razor blade.
She did not force the razor to my skin. I let her do it while I watched, excited and silent. I thought it was passion. She thought it was a promise. Neither one of us had any idea what it was to love and be loved.
“Acne vulgaris” — how I hated that term. “Vulgar” was my mother’s harshest criticism: to be vulgar was to be unlovable. And as an adolescent, that’s exactly how I felt.
I had a form of acne that was profoundly disfiguring. Cone domes gave way to pustules, which in turn progressed into deep cysts, then abscesses, and then draining ulcers. Though my face was relatively clear, my shoulders, back, and chest looked like a volcanic wasteland. I detested my body. I would avoid any circumstance that might require me to remove my shirt. I dreaded being seen and thought my life depended on hiding my condition.
Early on in my illness, I saw a dermatologist who frowned when I disrobed. He stepped away and shook his head, saying, “With skin like that, you’ll never get into the armed forces.”
I felt humiliated, alone, afraid — vulgar.
Years later, when my acne had become much worse, I saw another dermatologist. This man stepped toward me, placed his warm hand on my acne-ridden back, and said, “I see how much you’re suffering. I think I can help you.”
Both doctors gave me the same treatment. It does not surprise me, however, that I began to heal only after seeing the second doctor.
James R. Dykes, M.D.
Durham, North Carolina
I have scars on my arms from my years as a junkie. “Track marks,” they are called. I think of a distant railroad track, its rails rusting like the dirty needles that once littered my apartment.
For a while after I stopped shooting up, I bore the scars with pride. The marks were bolder then, redder and often infected. They were remnants of a life I had chosen and stood by, despite its dangers and stigma. I wasn’t just an addict, I told myself. I was creative, rebellious, strong. I insisted that the madness was not simply the result of heroin cravings. I had chosen to be this way. I was not a victim.
Only my partner at the time seemed to understand; he was an addict, too. We spent our postjunkie days drinking and telling each other the same glorified stories about our past.
Down the street from the apartment where I live now, a homeless woman and her boyfriend have set up camp beside a church wall. He is gone most of the day, possibly doing odd jobs or panhandling in a different neighborhood. She stays next to their cart of belongings, usually reading a book. They keep their area of sidewalk swept, their things folded neatly and covered with a blue tarp. She holds a little sign that says, Long story. Made some mistakes. Please help.
I think about the honesty of those words, written in black marker on cardboard. I think of how, in all my self-analysis and rambling reminiscences, I was never brave enough to own up to the same simple truth.
San Francisco, California
In ninth grade, I was painfully impressionable. One summer evening after a Christian youth-group meeting, I was playing frisbee with my sister’s best friend when I noticed two scars in the shape of letters on her finger. She told me they were the initials of the guy she liked. “You sterilize a pin or a needle,” she explained, “and then you scratch the initials. When it starts to scab over, you have to keep picking at it until it scars.”
For me, this presented no problem. I’d always loved to pick off scabs: not fast, but very slowly, so I could feel the pain.
I took a needle and matches up to my bedroom. Whose initials should I use? Since my mother had left my father, I’d been too preoccupied to think about a boyfriend. I had become a Christian just two years before, and I sometimes worried about my faith. I wanted to prove my devotion, so I etched a J and a C, for Jesus Christ, into the soft flesh next to my thumb.
That was more than thirty years ago. I often forget the scar is even there. I feel sort of sheepish about it now. I learned long ago that faith makes an indelible mark inside the heart, not on the body, and requires no outward sign.
Their names would have been Louise, Thomas, and Robin — my three children who were never born. My girlfriend in college chose an abortion, and two other women I loved did the same. I began to feel there was something wrong with me. Apparently, I was good enough to fuck, but not good enough to marry.
I’m married now, with an eleven-year-old daughter. My dad died recently, and I’ve since grown keenly aware of the importance of family bonds. I still grieve the loss of those children, those families, that different life. A few years ago, I went out into the woods and built a shrine with three little statues. No one, not even my wife, has seen them.
Mom told everyone that she cut herself while drying the dishes: “You try and dry the inside of a goddamn jelly jar,” she said. The white pucker of skin circled her wrist like a ribbon tied carelessly around a package, as if the gift-wrapper hadn’t the energy to do a better job.
Dad’s scar came from a bayonet. The soldier who’d given it to him must have been close enough for Dad to smell him, but all Dad ever said was “Got it in the war.”
My brother T. has a scar on his forehead in the shape of an arrowhead. He told the neighbor boys that it was part of his secret Indian heritage. The truth is I gave my brother that scar with the help of a rock after he called me “fatty” one too many times. The doctors thought he might die, but he didn’t.
My oldest sister, C., used to have a scar on the side of her nose. She says that she didn’t, but she did. She wouldn’t have gotten it if she hadn’t stuck a bell up there just to prove that she could.
J. was the baby of the family and had eyes like a cow: large and bulbous. Before the operation, they thought he was stupid, but it was just that he couldn’t see the blackboard. After the surgery, they called him a genius.
My sister K. was the queen growing up. She still has perfect olive skin, with neither bump nor blemish — no trace at all of the madness that has left her mind as full of holes as a colander.
I came out all right. I’d be better if I’d never taken a bobby pin to my face, but I’m all right.
Los Angeles, California
Maleeka, whose name meant “queen,” was the first woman I met in the little desert village that was to be my home for two years. Her composure, her high cheekbones, and her solemn eyes told me that she lived up to her name. I stayed with her and her family for three months while looking for a house of my own. As a foreigner, I was often an object of ridicule in the village, but Maleeka never laughed or pointed. She calmly and firmly taught me how to speak the language, how to cook over a fire, how to wash clothes by the well, and how to dance and sing.
Maleeka’s husband, a highly honored village leader, had earned the title Hajj, because he’d made a pilgrimage to Mecca. I neither liked nor trusted him, but I had to maintain a cordial relationship with him in order to live in the village.
One morning, about a year after I arrived, I was working in the crowded health clinic when a young girl appeared at my elbow. “The Hajj has thrown fire on Maleeka,” she murmured. Certain that I had misheard her, I asked her to repeat. “The Hajj has thrown fire on Maleeka,” she whispered. “She’s not doing well.” Then she melted back into the crowd. I stood in stunned silence, my tears hidden from view by the scarf that covered my face.
I ran to Maleeka’s sister’s house, where Maleeka had fled. A silent group of women stood outside — no tears, no wailing, no talking. The fire had stripped Maleeka’s flesh from scalp to waist on her right side. Using a clean feather quill, another woman and I carefully removed the charred skin as Maleeka nursed her newborn daughter. Despite my pleas, she did not go to the hospital for fear of police intervention, but her eldest son brought salve from a pharmacy.
I spent the next week at Maleeka’s side, feeding her fluids and cleaning the burn. Amazingly, her face healed well. Her brown pigmentation bloomed from the scar tissue and eventually spread to match the left side, save a pucker of skin on her cheekbone. Yet beneath her clothes, from breast to hip, the skin healed in lumpy, uneven masses that itched and hurt her.
Just before I left, Maleeka summoned me to help Hajja Hooria, the Hajj’s mother, who was feeling ill. When Hajja Hooria opened her dress to show me where she hurt, I saw that the skin between her breasts was twisted with thick scars. I glanced up and found Maleeka’s dark eyes watching me.
Julia L. McDonald
My breasts began developing when I was eleven. Even at that young age, I knew that beautiful breasts needed to be both large and “perky.” I had read in Cosmopolitan that a perky breast was unable to hold a No. 2 pencil in the fold beneath it. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and prayed to hear the sound of the pencil clattering to the floor. But my pendulous breast could hold not just one, but several No. 2 pencils. I was not beautiful. I was not OK.
I observed the perky breasts all around me, unhindered by bras, their nipples poking through flimsy fabrics, demanding to be noticed. My own attempts to go braless were dismal failures. Riding in a car, I grimaced in pain whenever we hit a bump. Boys turned away, embarrassed by my boldness.
Later, I overheard the hushed comments of friends and family: “If only she had worn a bra as a child, she wouldn’t have developed so poorly.” I accepted their twisted logic and saw my unacceptable shape as my own fault. While other women worked to advertise their wares, I began to slump and stoop and never left the house without an agonizing eighteen-hour bra strangling my torso.
By the age of nineteen, I’d made it my life’s goal to have breast-reduction surgery. I’d ruined my body, I thought, and I would fix it. But the surgery was beyond my means. I studied the subject for several years before I learned that some insurance companies would pay for surgery if a woman’s overly large breasts were causing her pain.
Pain? I could certainly tell them about pain!
I entered the physician’s office hunched over and prepared to win an Academy Award: my oversized breasts were killing me! (I didn’t realize that a cosmetic surgeon would need little convincing.)
Before my surgery, I had to wean my infant son from nursing. I asked the surgeon to leave my nipples intact so that my breasts would still remain functional. While nursing my son, I’d fallen in love with the way my breasts filled with milk, the way my son would cry for them, then latch on and be immediately comforted.
As I was being prepped for surgery, I began to wonder if I was making a mistake. Of course, I couldn’t back out at that point. And besides, wasn’t this my life’s dream: to be beautiful, like all the perky-breasted women in the world?
Upon waking up from my surgery, I was sore, bandaged, and sick from the anesthesia. I didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to think about what I’d done. I was horrified to learn that my nipples had been removed, simply because a certain amount of tissue had to go in order for the insurance company to foot the bill.
Going in, I had two large, beautiful, functioning breasts with translucent pink nipples. Now I have two Cs fallen on their sides, crowned with two man-made nipples that will never produce milk, that will never stand erect upon being aroused by a lover’s touch, that will never incite desire when seen through the sheer fabric of a silk shirt on a cool evening. Yes, I can go braless, and for the most part I do. I no longer slouch and try to cover my chest. But what I wouldn’t do to trade these C-shaped scars for those beautiful, pendulous breasts.
My overprotective mother always told me, “That’s just not necessary,” whenever I asked to do anything adventurous. I spent my childhood sitting safely on the couch, and I graduated from high school never having broken a bone or received a stitch — and feeling that I hadn’t yet lived.
During my junior year in college, I met an attractive man, a farmer who had an admirable array of scars and stories to go with them: falling from a treehouse, dog bites, skiing and bicycle accidents. He also had a thirst for life, as if the possibility of injury no longer held any terror for him.
We were married, and while working by his side, I have acquired some respectable scars of my own: the white hook on my arm from the time a sheep jumped in the chute and pushed my forearm into a nail; the C on my left index finger where it got sliced as I held the hookup for the feed mixer; the gouge on my left leg where the skid-steer grapple caught it. I love these scars.
Now I squirm self-consciously as I watch my own three children crash into the world. Lyle fell through a trapdoor, breaking an arm. Tristan got tangled in a calf chain and cut open his head. Elliot dove out of the grocery cart and sliced his lip. I feel a mother’s longing to preserve their perfect skin and limbs. Yet I also want them to throw themselves at life, to be baptized in the bumps and bruises that come with real living. Although I will do everything in my power to preserve my boys’ health, I have decided to err on the side of adventure. If they fall, I’ll pick them up, kiss and hug them hard, and send them right back out.
Maureen E. Bartlett
Norwich, New York
It started in college. Sitting in my philosophy professor’s office, wrestling with Dante, I became aware that I’d been scratching my arm — so much that the skin was almost gone, leaving a raw, burning spot.
Since then, whenever I’m in a situation that feels both intolerable and inescapable, it triggers the need to cut. I can delay satisfying the urge, but in the end, it’s unavoidable.
Most often, I cut to punish myself for some perceived failure or misbehavior. Sometimes it is an act of contrition, a sacrifice of the flesh. Sometimes I cut to bleed out the blackness inside me.
I cut because the physical pain is easier to handle than the emotional hurt. I cut to make my outside match my insides. I cut to ask for help. I cut to have an excuse to nurture myself. I cut to prove to myself that I’m brave, that I can withstand anything without flinching.
There have been times that I cut because I wanted to die, but I didn’t have the courage to do it properly. (My mother has assured me she’ll haunt me in hell should I ever succeed.) The psychiatrists call this “parasuicidal behavior.”
I cut because this is how I think my body should be treated. I cut because I hate my body. I cut to objectify my body, to separate myself from it. I cut to claim my body, to take back my power. I cut to feel control over my situation. Sometimes I cut to block out feelings that threaten to overwhelm me. Other times I cut just to feel something.
I cut for release, because I cannot scream. I cut to express myself, because words feel inadequate and I lack the courage to speak. I cut to tell the world to be gentle with me, not to expect too much. I cut to keep people away. I cut to tell the secrets that cannot be spoken in my family, some of them generations old. (The irony of cutting as a way to communicate is that it must be kept secret. My closet is filled with long-sleeved shirts.)
The scars are just a byproduct — ashes after the fire. It frustrates me that my therapist seems more concerned about my cutting than my bulimia. Purging feels much more damaging to my body, but the scars it leaves are internal and therefore less upsetting to others.
I do not understand why hurting myself is wrong. It seems no different to me than hitting a child who misbehaves or the hair shirts and self-flagellation of penitents in the Middle Ages. The goal of therapy is to learn healthier, more socially acceptable ways of coping, but I’ll give up cutting only when I’m ready, and for me, not for anyone else. For now, I wear my scars with a mixture of shame and defiance, like combat wounds, evidence of the war that I have fought and, so far, survived.
Dillsboro, North Carolina
I was eighteen and still a virgin when I had a severe gallstone attack and had to have my gallbladder taken out. I spent a week at a university training hospital prior to the operation. Every day, a steady procession of young would-be doctors came to take my temperature, check my pulse, and look at my still-unmarked stomach.
The only intern who stood out was the one who accompanied the surgeon, like a silent and watchful shadow. This intern was pensive and brooding, dark and mysterious — a man of smoldering passions, I imagined. He became fuel for my romantic fantasies. I lay in bed at night thinking about his eyes. Though we never exchanged more than a hello, I imagined the two of us trysting in some dark corner of the hospital.
Then came the surgery. I slipped away under the anesthetic and woke to a pain like no other I’d known. I could do little more than roll over onto my side or heave myself up onto the bedpan to pee. The number of interns coming in to look at me now seemed to double, and I was conscious of comments on the beauty of the scar and the perfect incision.
It was three days before I actually sat up to inspect my stomach. One glance was enough to throw me into a major depression. My lovely, still-untouched body — which I’d only recently begun to feel comfortable in and to see as a potential object of desire — was marred by a red, six-inch gash that began just underneath my right breast and ended below my navel. There I was: eighteen and on the pill, with a head full of romance, and I had a disgusting scar where no one could possibly miss it.
Frustrated and feeling sorry for myself, I let the tears flow while I imagined all the passion and romance I’d never taste. I was so caught up in crying that I didn’t even notice the young intern when he came into the room alone. He must have stood and watched me for a few seconds before he asked if I was all right.
I turned and took a good hard look at him, to memorize the love I’d never know. Then I told him no, I wasn’t all right. I was still a virgin, and who the hell would want me now?
To my surprise, this somber man broke out laughing. Then, very softly, he said, “Please don’t worry. By the time someone takes you to bed, he won’t care about the scar.” And he left without even checking my pulse.
He was right, of course.
New Westminster, British Columbia
When I was ten, a drunk ran a red light and exploded into my parents’ new powder blue ’54 Chevy. The impact threw my mother through the windshield, my father out his door, and my grandmother halfway out a rear window. Uninjured, I remained behind alone in the surreal silence of that shattered glass-and-steel cocoon.
After a few seconds, panic set in, and I squeezed through a demolished door. People were looking on with shocked faces. My dazed father was being held up by two men while blood poured from his leg. My grandmother was unconscious but moaning, her face cut badly. My mother was dead; the windshield had sliced her to ribbons.
For the rest of his life, my father had a dramatic scar on his leg. My grandmother’s mouth never was quite right again. Everyone was astonished that I had no injuries — a miracle for which I should be eternally grateful. I was such a lucky boy: I was unhurt; I had no scars.
I sit down on the side of the pool, with my feet in the water. I’m afraid to jump in. It’s not the water that frightens me. It’s the thought of removing my coverup. If I take off my dress, everyone will see.
Growing up, I was taken to a string of dermatologists, all of whom muttered the same diagnosis: “ichthyosis vulgaris” — literally, fishlike skin. From head to toe, my skin was a dry, flaking, sloughing, itching, and sometimes oozing mess.
After each doctor visit, my parents dutifully purchased the latest prescription lotion or cream in hopes that my skin would be healed. Perhaps if I tried hard enough, I thought, if I followed the directions just right, I’d be cured. But somehow I couldn’t do it right. I couldn’t fix it.
I was also fat and wore glasses, and I spent much of my time trying to hide my imperfections from prying, frightened, or judgmental eyes. Worst were the pitying eyes. They always made me feel guilty and ashamed.
Focusing on my grades and my flute kept me fairly sane. Scoring an A in history or immersing myself in a particularly challenging piece of music helped me forget. There was solace, even joy, in a good performance, but there was seldom peace. I still wasn’t working hard enough to fix all that was wrong with me.
That was years ago. I am here at the pool today because my friends keep pestering me to come swimming with them. I have to come, too, because I am now the mother of a four-year-old boy, and I need to teach him that our bodies are beautiful; that we should stand proud because we have this life; that scars are healed wounds; that there are people in the world who will hold your dried, hard hand, squeeze it, and say, “Come with me into the water and play, because it’s hot today and everyone deserves to be cool.” Even this body. Even me.
I take my dress off and hold my breath. Then I plunge down, down into the cool water.
San Jose, California
People glancing quickly at the white scars on my wrists — but not staring, of course — ask, “Did you try to kill yourself?” Some ask with shock or sympathy. Others say it in a mocking sort of tone; I know that as soon as I am out of earshot, they’ll call me a psycho.
What should I say? “Actually, no, I was just cutting myself to get rid of the pain”? Or, “Well, there was this one time when I did try to end my life with a steak knife and my mother’s prescription codeine”? Usually I just shake my head, smile, and change the subject.
No one wants to hear about boils and acne, hatred and anger; about being locked away from your friends and cornered by your mother, who forced you to show her your forearms so she could look for fresh cuts. When people ask about my scars, I don’t think they really know what they’re getting into.
Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin
Though I grew up in the country, my dad was raised in Kingston, New York, and he often talked about being a kid in the city, playing one sport or another. His description of stickball in particular captured my interest. Over and over I would pester him to play just one game of stickball with me, but he always had other things to do.
One Easter Sunday afternoon when I was twelve, we were visiting his parents in downtown Kingston, and I begged my father again to play stickball. Finally he relented. We used an old dirty tennis ball and a broken mop handle. Parked cars served as first and second base, a red-maple sapling was third, and an oil spill was home.
Dad batted first. He invariably hit the ball straight, far, and hard — usually right over my head. I pursued it through each ricochet off car, house, or curb. I jumped over wooden fences and spiked iron gates. I crawled under cars and trucks. Each time I ran back with the ball and found my father standing at home plate announcing a new score: 35 to 0; 54 to 0.
I guess Dad ran the bases. He never looked tired and was always ready to hit again by the time I got back to the “pitcher’s mound.” Maybe he just stood there and counted while I hustled through the neighborhood.
At 105 to 1, I thought about quitting, but my pride wouldn’t let me. I must have presented a sorry sight as I prepared to pitch, shoulders slumped, face wet with sweat, gasping for air, tears flowing. Dad was having too much fun to stop. The last score I remember before Grandma yelled for us to come in for dinner was 200 to 2.
Silent and spiritless, I sat across from my dad at the big oval dining-room table and tried not to watch as he downed three platefuls of macaroni, following each one with a hearty wash or two of red table wine. Mechanically, methodically, I devoured a dozen meatballs and quickly excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I vomited up every last one of them.
It wasn’t the meatballs that made me sick; it was Dad’s gloating face, filled with satisfaction at his latest achievement, oblivious to my humiliation. Maybe he thought, The kid’s gotta learn to lose sometimes. Life isn’t fair. This’ll make him tough. Then again, maybe he didn’t think at all.
After that, rather than play sports for exercise or fun or healthy competition, I played to save face. It didn’t matter whether it was touch football at the park or varsity basketball in college; I didn’t so much try to win as try not to lose. Don’t embarrass yourself, at all costs, was my motto. Even now, any heated competition — sports, board games, a game of cards — will pick at the old scabs. I compete only against myself.
Dad’s dead now, and stickball has been replaced by skateboards, rollerblades, and computer games. Like most dads, I am lousy at those things. I can live with that.
John P. Wojcio
Endicott, New York
I have a tiny, almost imperceptible scar just below my right eye. A month shy of my eighteenth birthday, I was home alone, having recently moved out of my parents’ house, when a man broke in and surprised me in my bed. His intent was to rape me — he unzipped his pants as he approached — but perhaps something about the way I screamed, “No fucking way, motherfucker!” made him change his mind, because he beat me half to death instead. I fought back until he grabbed me by the throat. Then I begged for my life while he alternately pummeled my face and strangled me. Suddenly he stopped, looked up as if he’d heard something, and left.
After the police had come and gone (they suggested that I go to the emergency room, but didn’t take me there), I called my parents. “Are you sure you need to go to the hospital?” they asked. They insisted on seeing me first.
So I got a friend to drive me the three blocks to my parents’ house. When I got there, my father was pacing in the driveway. He ordered me inside and began ranting about what a whore I was — how he’d once driven by my house at six in the morning and seen four or five cars out front. I sat in the kitchen for twenty minutes or so while my father raged and my face slowly swelled to basketball size. My mother just leaned silently on the counter where every morning she read the newspaper and drank her black coffee.
Finally, dizzy and nauseated, I quietly said that if they were going to give me money for the hospital, I’d appreciate it. If not, I needed to be going. My father, who was now on hold with the police station (checking on my story?), said, “Just shut up. You’re not dying.”
My father took me to the hospital and waited silently until the intern wheeled me away on a gurney. I remember feeling fairly certain that he was taking me to some dark recess of that big, cold hospital to finish me off. I began to shake.
I was hospitalized for three days, my eyes swollen shut. The little sore that eventually became the scar under my right eye wept for several days before it began to heal. My eyes, when they finally opened, were a solid expanse of red around blue irises. I looked demonic. Friends later mistook the bruises on my throat for hickeys.
Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve healed from much of the trauma. Self-defense skills and a dog allow me to feel fairly safe. I seldom think about the man who beat me up. The scar below my eye is almost invisible. But that Daddy scar — that’s some stubborn scar tissue.
At the age of thirteen, I had an appendectomy that left a long, ugly scar up the right side of my belly. I had never really considered my belly until I took off the big gauze dressing and saw my skin laced back together with what appeared to be piano wire. They’d also shaved my pubic hair for the operation. The hair was brand-new that year, and I hadn’t wanted to lose it. They’d made me back into a helpless child again. I sat in the tub and looked down at the pubic-hair stubble and the long red incision in my stomach, and I sobbed.
Before the surgery, I’d wanted to live in the past. I’d wanted to be a pioneer girl who wore long skirts and tall boots and traveled by wagon through a darker world lit only by flame, before everything got paved. And yet, if I had been a girl of that time, I would have been a dead girl. That girl in the long skirt would have been buried under a plain gravestone in the wilderness. So I resigned myself to living in the present.
I had also been a girl who wanted to be beautiful when she grew up. But now a hidden part of me was deformed. I might look all right to others, but I knew that I was not. So I resigned myself to being ugly.
I am now forty-three and a mother of two. Nobody gets to see my belly unless I say so. I have never owned a bikini. My stomach is a strange, white, wrinkly thing with the texture of cottage cheese. The scar has faded to a silvery line. Sitting in the bathtub, I touch my scarred belly and remember the stunned thirteen-year-old who took off the gauze and saw herself transformed forever.
The bath water laps at my knees. In the privacy of the tub, my belly has become my trophy. Two pregnancies ripened into healthy children, born of a woman who, in another time, would not have lived long enough to conceive. The long scar stretched for my children until I wondered if it would simply unzip and spill them into my lap. But it held firm, a silvery crosshatching of stretch marks its only complaint. To my eyes, my stomach is a beautiful deformity. Life has reshaped it. The wound has healed into new tissue which holds together to breathe another day.