Proud Flesh

I have always trusted people with scars. In fact, it seems a bit suspect that a mortal could reach forty without a single ding on the epidermis.

It took one hundred and twenty stitches to close up my father’s right thigh. The scar was a beautiful thing, long as a ruler, the skin there soft and pale. He had two versions when he told me about how he got the scar, both of them embellished until they became my favorite bedtime stories. I would touch that indentation with awe, imagining him brave and young, while he began to tell his story. In one version, the scar came from a bayonet wound, dealt him during hand-to-hand combat during WWII. This was a romantic story in which my mother showed up in an army Jeep and a white nurse’s uniform and stitched him up, right there on the battlefield. I never sought to confirm later whether actual bayonet battles were conducted on Australian soil.

The second version was more mysterious. He would just nod his head gravely, adopt a theatrical baritone and say: “When I came to, they told me the bone was shattered, that they would have to cut me open. They had to put a gold plate in there to hold everything in place. And there it remains to this day.”

Here I imagined a dinner plate made of solid gold lodged forever inside Dad’s leg like a wayward flying saucer. I wondered if it made that leg much heavier when he went up steps or ran. Many years later, my brothers told me that they had heard that my father’s scar was from a football accident he’d had in college. The plate came from a bunch of heavy guys knocking him down and heaping themselves upon his leg, my brothers said. I’m glad Dad decided I was young enough to appreciate the more exciting renditions.

I have always trusted people with scars. In fact, it seems a bit suspect to me that a mortal could reach the age of, say, forty without a single ding marring his or her epidermis. Scars seem noble, and of course are the source of many great stories. I see them as a visible badge of bravery or endurance, proof that at one point, that person was either adventurous or foolhardy enough to get up close and personal with some of the more ferocious protrusions life has to offer. Barbed wire, glass, animals’ teeth, jagged rocks–you don’t encounter scar-makers such as these while sitting in an easy chair in your living room.

My own best scar is almost as long as my father’s was, and I, too, house a plate in my body, though it is neither gold nor round. The scar forms a straight line from my shoulder to my elbow, curving inward slightly, some surgeon’s signature, only for the last quarter inch. It’s a much tamer mark now, flattened and freckled with every passing year, but in the months following the surgery, it was chelated and jagged and looked positively Frankensteinian. I got this scar when I was a little more game for anything; it was part of a package deal that came with falling in love with a man who was in love with hang gliding. This man was one of those who love a challenge, and he was a study in coordination. There was no sport that, given twenty minutes to figure out what was required of his body, he could not command with more than passable proficiency. Kevin had scars on his knees that looked like the puckered, tied-off ends of balloons. These had come from misjudging the distance to the ground when jumping off fences. And he had beautiful, hieroglyphical systems of divots and nicks on his hands from nail-banging and earlier hazards.

When we weren’t riding around on his motorcycle, or a chair-lift, or on bicycles through vacant lots in San Francisco at night, we were riding horses at his friend’s ranch. I had ridden before, but this first time at the ranch the horses hadn’t been ridden all winter. My hands were almost bloody just from the reins digging in as my steed galloped full-tilt for almost an hour. And when the horses finally slowed down to drink from a creek, there was my friend, still in his saddle and ready for the next new dare.

Society makes quick, almost unconscious judgments about people who have multiple scars. They are either thought of as reckless or impetuous, suicidal or just accident-prone. While Kevin thought nothing of leaping off cliffs at Ft. Funston, catching thermals that kept him soaring and so euphoric that he couldn’t stop grinning once he landed; and while he assured me that the sport was fantastic fun and less dangerous than driving a car, I was, luckily, quite clear about the fact that I was a beginner and should learn closer to the ground. After several weeks of lessons, I was just about to try my first solo flight off some dunes at Dillon Beach.

“Always keep your eyes on the horizon,” my instructor warned. “Don’t look at the ground. Easy moves, nothing extreme or panicky, and you’ll be fine.” And I was, during the first few flights, gloriously and confidently fine. “Baryshnikov legs,” he shouted, running alongside me and steadying my craft as I took long, leaping strides across the sand until suddenly, I was lifting into the air, rising, flying, laughing, and trying to breathe all at the same time.

The beach below got farther and farther away, but I wasn’t focusing on it. I was in a world of wind and soaring, a place of both profound serenity and heart-racing exhilaration. I was seeing the ocean from above without being contained inside any loud metal machine. It was strange to trust that little pulls with only my fingertips could steer these mighty wings, that such small gestures could have any sway against a force as powerful as the wind.

I don’t think I panicked when I suddenly dropped twenty feet, roughly and without warning, as if some jealous troll on the ground had yanked me down. And I know I kept my eyes on the horizon, calmly, as I had been instructed, as I tried to correct the problem. Perhaps this is why I was doubly shocked that as I flared, straightening my arms to foist my craft upward so that I could land on my feet, the ground arrived too hard and soon, as if I had been spat out of the sky flat onto my stomach, and left there with sand grating my cheek.

“You okay?” my teacher called, running down to me. More annoyed and embarrassed than anything I hollered, “Fine!” It was then that I realized that my craft sat on my back like some huge bully of a bug, and I could not get up. I had never broken a bone in my life, so I did not know that I would be given a brief reprieve from the pain for the next few hours while all the nerve endings in my broken left arm kindly went into shock. Since the firemen who showed up at the beach were jovial and encouraging, I eventually stopped guarding my arm against intrusion in a fashion that had seemed quite effective for my dogs, by growling and baring my teeth when the fireman tried to move the injured limb. I allowed them close enough to dig some of the sand out of the way and slide a splint under it like some careful spatula under a broken egg.

The hospital workers’ attitude was less friendly, more along the lines of “Oh, here’s another adrenaline addict stupid enough to try to fly.” They said it was a spiral break, my humerus. The next day, I heard that a hang glider had broken his neck at Dillon Beach and that it was now closed to hang gliders due to dangerous winds.

The scar on my arm, though, is not from anything as dramatic as bones ripping through my flesh, but rather due to my own impatience. I am not a good patient, and tend to get morose if forced to sit still or recline for purposes other than writing, cinema, or sleep. When a doctor suggested they put a metal plate in my arm that would allow me to get back to my physical routine in a matter of one week rather than spending six weeks laid up in a cast, and since my income was derived from this “physical routine,” I jumped at the chance. I had originally thought: “How lucky, I’m right-handed and I broke my left arm.” Yet little had I realized that the left hand serves as a steadier, the backup that holds down the orange while the right hand slices, that receives the shampoo so that both hands can scrub, that holds the toothbrush while the right hand squeezes paste onto it. And my left hand hung useless out of the end of my splint like a dead carp. No, the two hands are an inseparable team.

Since I had no health insurance at this time, I believe they must have let some intern work on me for educational purposes, as the scar was an angry, lumpy, red slash for a good two years before it began to settle down a bit. I have always found it surprising how few people ask about scars. If I am sitting across a table from someone and I notice a scar, I know there will be a wonderful or harrowing story attached to it and this is certainly an entry into the makeup of that person. When I saw scars on the wrists of a roommate of mine on a recent vacation, I hesitated to ask, but could not resist touching them. Turned out she’d had a temper tantrum when she was six and was beating on a sliding glass door to try to get her mother’s attention, and the glass in the door was no match for her wrath. My friend Eric has a scar on the meat of his thumb shaped exactly like Nefertiti’s eye, an art-related wound. And Laura landed on her head after springing off a trampoline when she was nine and has a pretty little scar on her scalp where no hair can grow, the scar dividing her mane there like one plowed row in a deep field of wheat.

I would never know as much about the people I encounter if I didn’t know these stories. They always lead to other, more revealing truths. Maybe no one asks due to the fear of being nosy, or maybe people assume that scars have a negative connotation for the scarred, as they have been acquired through pain, and who would want to bring up unpleasant memories in a friend, let alone a total stranger? But the people who have asked about the mark on my arm have instantly endeared themselves to me–though their next question, “Do you set off the metal detector at airports?” has become a little predictable.

I think I realized that a scar is with you forever, is part of your physical presence like eye color or dimples, when my friend’s six-year-old daughter did a drawing of me and there, on the left arm of the me on the paper, was a bold red line.

While I am well aware that not all scars are the result of some outdoorsy pursuit, I still think all such epidermal souvenirs mark a triumph of some sort–even the ones with a sadder story. My mother’s long scar where her right breast used to be reminded her that she had beaten breast cancer. And while only the faintest traces of acne scars are visible on my brother’s cheeks, he can now look in the mirror and know that he somehow survived a hellacious adolescence and lived to mock it. And my friend who has two children, each by cesarean section? Well, I love shopping for bikinis with her; she is understandably proud of those hard-won scars. Surely this is one reason scars have been called “proud flesh.”

But now I am back in the hospital, sitting with a large bandage on my nose–a serious scar in the making, on my face this time, with a very unglamorous story behind it: too much sun. Who would have thought that all those hours we spent as teenagers, slathering ourselves with baby oil, spritzing Sun-In on our locks, lining double-album covers with aluminum foil so that they intensified our sun-worshipping experience, even hosing each other off when the heat got too intense so that we could endure more … who would have thought there would be any repercussions? Who would have thought that lying on our stomachs with our bikini tops undone to minimalize lines for a few magnificent hours was dangerous? These were the days before the words “sunscreen” or “ozone” were in everybody’s vocabulary, when tanned was not synonymous with “sun-damaged.”

I might not have recognized this spot as melanoma, though at this point I was getting quite adept at pointing my dermatologist toward the other “bad” bumps, the little basal-cell dots that needed to be removed, the ones that left only tiny scars, flat as baby rose petals, the ones we called my “sun-spots.” But that one on my nose started to look different and I could no longer just pretend it was a “giant freckle.” Luckily, it was the type of melanoma (though I cried just hearing the word) that doesn’t spread, and they assured me they would get it all. I thought it was ironic, sitting in the waiting room of the plastic surgeon who was to perform the surgery, that some of his clients were waiting for him to remove a scar, while I was waiting for him to leave me with yet another one.

After the surgery, a wonderful nurse told me her scar story. Her mother had died of skin cancer and she herself had a large number of moles, beauty spots, freckles, etc. One day, when she was eleven, with no forewarning, her father picked her up from school, drove her to the hospital, and ordered the surgeon to remove every “discoloration” from her entire body. This was the South in the ’50s, and I guess no one objected.

“That must have been traumatic,” I said.

“For years after,” she said, “I detested swimming.”

Of course I asked to see the scars and she complied, lifting the shirt from her back, and yes–there was that glimmer of pride in her eyes, like a kid showing a friend something scary and wonderful and forbidden. Across her back, in a sort of random symmetry, were dozens of raised white lines, as if someone had started many tic-tac-toe games there with a scalpel, but finished not a one. “Impressive,” I said.

“Yeah, well, my theory is,” she replied, “that life’s too short to worry about flawless skin.”

My stitches have long since been removed and the scar valiantly tries more and more with each passing day to blend in with the rest of my face. I remember planning–since my job involves much contact with the public, and with a small nod to my own vanity–to wear a Band-Aid over my nose for all the healing weeks. Immediately following the surgery, I found it best to avoid mirrors, as the horror-movie aspect of my wound was alarming. Still, scars are markers of time, of specific histories, visible archives that tell stories about where we’ve been and who we are. External scars can be touched, inquired after, their conception embellished upon. It’s the internal scars, the ones we think are invisible, that are trickier to navigate.

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