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October 19, 2018 Nonfiction

Notes On Scarring

Jonathan Gleason

Notes On Scarring photo

The first thing I realized was that my legs weren’t broken. My hands were bleeding, my knees were throbbing, and on the ground I noticed two faint red spots like stray brush strokes, but I was alive. It happened in slow motion, my friend, Gabe, said later when I asked him what he’d seen. Everyone says that, probably because it’s true. My life didn’t flash before my eyes—I didn’t have time for that—but fear did sharpen me into the moment. I saw it happen in frames rendered at the pace of a slide reel.

Here are a few: we were waiting at the crosswalk. We were half a block from home. We were almost across the street when a car accelerated into a left turn and plowed directly into me. I took one step back trying to move outside the car’s path. Instead, I only managed to turn and face it straight on like a matador facing a bull but with none of the bravery. I was pushed backwards, my hands pressed into the aluminum of the hood. I was trying hold back all that momentum at once. The dark undercarriage opened up like a yawning mouth. Don’t slip under! I thought. Then I was flying, rolling, in the street, launched by the sudden grip and release of the hood. My shoe sailed off my foot, spiraling through the air. 

* * *

I’m unlucky. A man had a heart attack one night while I was working as a lifeguard. I was once on a bus that was taken hostage at gunpoint. I was hit by a car in Brooklyn. I’ve learned that these things are simple, until they’re not. First, there’s an emergency. I respond or I don’t—those are the only options. But after, the world keeps turning. Things complicate themselves. The wife of the man with the heart attack screams and throws herself on her husband’s stretcher; paramedics have to pry her away. The man with the gun is suffering a psychotic break; his gun isn’t real, but he gets shot anyway. The man in the car drives away and leaves me on the side of the road, like an open wound, like the ragged end of a question. Why?

The first thing your body does when injured is bleed. It’s a simple, passive action: the skin is broken, fluid dynamics go to work, blood leaks into the world, a bright red signal that something is wrong.

It only took a moment for us to realize the car didn’t plan on stopping. It paused, maneuvered its way around me, and kept going. I don’t remember getting up, but suddenly we were running—me uneven in one sock, Gabe waving his arms like some enormous bird in the twilight. It seemed natural, if useless, to try and chase the car down, but it outpaced us in a second, ran a red light and vanished around the corner.

A car speeding away is an encouraging sign that something terrible has happened. After it was gone, I lay back down on the sidewalk. I couldn’t calm down. My heart was racing. I was shouting, I’m fine, I’m fine….but I think I’m in shock. I think I need to go to the hospital.

We couldn’t afford an ambulance ride, so Gabe called a car instead. As we waited, a British tour group fetched my boot and handed it back to me. I sat, dumbstruck on the cement, looking at the shoe like a baby examining its hands. Proof of impact, I thought, and as I sat there, it wasn’t my bloody kneecaps or my pounding heart or my jacket sleeves quickly staining red that made it all real, it was the mere fact of my shoe in the street.

Gabe took one of the the tourists’ numbers and a short video of them describing what happened. Came around the corner an’it this poor bloke ’ere, one of them said. Gabe paned to me. I was pale, sitting up on the ground, my legs in a wide V, wondering is this smart or amateurish? We weren’t sure. We were guided by pop culture and only the most general sense of what to do. Then the car arrived, and a police dispatcher on the phone said officers would meet us at the hospital.

* * *

Quickly the body stops bleeding. It seals off the damaged area to prevent infections. I imagine my wounds like ripped fabric, tight cords of collagen strung along mouths of blood. The control and cessation of bleeding, I hear the process described like this online. The phrase sounds utilitarian, militant, lawful, not like the vagaries of the body or the extremes of acute trauma at all, but I suppose control and cessation is exactly what happens.

We sat for hours in a hospital waiting room, under a loud TV playing an endless string of commercials. Around us men dozed off in their plastic seats, and every half hour a security guard would come around to wake them up. Some seemed injured, others seemed like they’d come in from the night looking for a place to rest.

From my makeshift bed—right leg stretched across a blue bench —I dutifully answered the police officers’ questions: the make and color of the car, the name of the cross streets, the pattern of the traffic lights. We made little models with our hands. They turned to get the orientations right. It felt like local astronomy, charting the specific arrangement of machines and bodies. 

When asked, I said I remembered the driver’s face: white, round, hair clipped down to the scalp—short and even. Are you sure? Demanded the older of the two officers. Absolutely! I sensed there was something important about being certain here, even if I wasn’t. And I was trying hard to match their brusque authority with my own fake confidence. As I spoke they wrote everything down. It felt official, objective. Then they thanked us and left.

* * *

Scars are the body’s memory—hieroglyphs of old trauma. I have a scar on my thumb from a deep rope burn I got sliding down a zipline when I was young and a scar on my left index finger where I cut into it with a potato peeler. Now I have a patchwork of minor scars covering the base of my palms, my knees and one elbow. I know these things happened because of the residue they left on my body, but the details are blurry. Memory is an imperfect vessel. I can’t believe we trust it at all.

It wasn’t until after the police left that Gabe asked, wasn’t the driver wearing a hat? He had run with the car for several paces after it hit me. The window was down. Maybe he got a better look at the driver than I did. And I thought he was a brother? Light skinned latino? He added.

We were quiet for a moment, commercials buzzed along over our heads. I had been so certain about what I saw and couldn't square this new information with my memory. We approached the topic like a sleeping bear. If that’s true, I suggested, he could have been undocumented. Gabe nodded. Yeah, I’d thought about that.

***

The truth is I don’t know who the driver was or what he looked like. I never found out. All I have are my fractured, imperfect snapshots. An instant through the glare of a windshield that becomes less precise everyday. I’m trying to write about someone I’ve never met, which means I’m really writing about myself, and what to make of these scars. 

What I do know is that as the car bent its reckless course down the road into stopped traffic, I could not imagine that man’s fear. That’s the funny thing about suffering: its mythology says that it will make us sensitive to all other pain, but my suffering was not expensive, it was isolating. It grew like a thick, mute callus around me. In the moments after the hit, while I lay on the ground, I could only imagine the driver as cold and arrogant, running away because he knew he could, disregarding my body, mad that I’d gotten in front of him. I was full of rage, and I imagined it into him.

I looked at you and begged you to stop, I pictured myself saying, someday, in an imaginary courtroom. I’ll never forget your face. I am not normally so vindictive, and of course I did forget, but crying in the hospital waiting room, I needed these fantasies of control and safety. I needed to seal this wound. I needed vindication to equal justice. It never does, but simple things are always easier to feel. 

I’m angry I got hit, angrier at the idea that someone would leave me on the side of the road without knowing how hurt I was. I’m not trying to justify that, but what reason do we give people to stay when they’ll be punished for it? It’s never as simple as being hit. There is a tapestry of fear and pure chance and feeble attempts at justice that radiate away from these moments. I too would have run if it meant another day with the life I’d made.

* * *

Online I searched for the phrase why do we scar? I kept encountering some version of the phrase scars represent the final phase of the body’s healing process on sites advertising discounted laser treatments and expensive moisturizing creams. They all drew from a single source, but none of them supplied an adequate answer. I wanted to know why this tough, fibrous skin? Why not what was there before?

Eventually, we were directed to a tiny room subdivided into three sections by a beige curtain. Next to us was a Guatemalan couple. When we came in, the man was explaining in scripted English how he had gone out to buy food for his family and was assaulted. Buying food for my family. It was such a beautiful lie. I listened as the same couple discussed in mumbled Spanish how he’d really been mugged selling pills. I listened to a woman in another compartment make loud, cryptic phone calls to someone she called tio about her condition. 

When a nurse came to check on the couple, I heard her ask the man how much he made each week. Then she corrected him, gently, saying, no, you make $300, it’s the maximum you can make for our free insurance. I felt fragile and touched by this because I had health insurance, because the doctors had made it clear I deserved to be there. Multiple people patted my foot and said good when I told them I got the license plate number of the car that hit me. They treated everyone else with skepticism. 

My treatment was brief. A doctor came and gently tapped my hips, neck and spine. Does it hurt here? here? here? Just my knees, I said. Then an orderly wheeled me into another section of the hospital. In the hallways people groaned on gurneys abandoned like liferafts. I was given nine x-rays and a tetanus shot. I was given instructions to call back in a few days for my medical records. And finally, five hours later, we were sent home. 

A scar is the body healing imperfectly: forgiving without forgetting. Scar tissue is different from the surrounding skin because it forms rapidly to prevent infection, so while normal skin tissue is constructed of fibres that are oriented randomly to each other...the very same fibres, in scar tissue, are oriented in a single direction, parallel to each other. 

On a couch in his living room, Gabe cleaned my wounds with witch hazel and gauze. He let me sleep in his bed so my leg could lie straight. In the morning, everyone went to work and there was nothing for me to do except look out the window at the intersection where I’d been hit. It was strange to see it in the daylight. As I packed my bag and limped to the subway, I wondered if the traffic camera on the corner actually worked.

Back home, I got a bill in the mail for a thousand dollars and my knees healed into shiny patches. Everyone wanted to know what happened. I tried to tell the story properly, but I could never strike the right tone. There were the gorey details—my palms rubbed to bloody disks, a protective cyst swelling under my kneecaps—and there was the morality play of it—can we forgive him for running?—but life is never pure tragedy, never just a lesson. I’d been hit by a car, sure. It was big and white, and for a moment it swallowed the whole world. But afterwards, I’d sat on the sidewalk stupidly looking at my boot. There was humor, and there was indignation. There was both drama and melodrama, and there were no discrete edges to those feelings.

Scar tissue is different for everyone, and it’s impossible to determine what a scar will look like before it’s formed. One night a friend who works as a chef in Paris rolled up his sleeves to show me his arms, which were intricately decorated with fat purple scars. Some of them were old and mellow, others were fresh and angry. They were scattered across his flesh like droplets of scalding water. He called them the price of a living. I think he meant his living—working as a chef in the food capital of the world—but I liked it either way.

I recounted my story one last time to another detective on the phone a few days after I had returned to Columbus. When I finished he told me to be patient. These things can take a long time. It’s been months, and I’m still waiting. I hear that scars can take a year to fully mature, and they never fade completely. But every day the patches on my knees get a little bit smaller, and every day I forget a little more. Maybe a long time means never, and I just haven’t learned to read between the lines. Maybe I just need to follow his advice, to be more patient. Maybe I’ll never hear back. I know my body will heal but will never be exactly the same. I think I can live with that.
 

image: Aaron Burch


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