My brother and I hid the marks of my father’s discipline beneath long sleeves and jeans, even during the heat of summer. Plain with brown, bowl-cut hair framing a round face with pale blue eyes, I wore jeans and T-shirts and hand-me-down blue turned grey sneakers. Mostly our backs were zebra-striped from an old leather belt which was easily hidden, but now and then something unique would be added to our collections.
The first such injury I remember was a lopsided circle that looked like a small mouth latched its teeth to my skin. I told people an alien from Star Trek (the original) came down to Earth and bit me when I tried to say hi and then it ran away and disappeared in a shower of light.
The real story was less fantastic. I popped a metal cap from a coke bottle on the edge of my father’s workbench. The cap wobbled its way under the car so I left it. I was five or six. The next afternoon my father spotted the top and parked half in, half out of the garage. He bellowed for Chris and me. Held between his fingers, he moved the cap from my eyes to Chris’, demanding who left it. I lifted a timid hand. Chris took off. I lost him in the sunlight as he flicked his bike into gear.
I picture this now in a cartoon fashion, the cloud of dirt spitting out behind his tire. He was Roadrunner; I was Coyote. Dad was the anvil. So many times Chris dodged trouble while I blundered right into it. It is not surprising we were never close. I lament the loss of that relationship. I try to resuscitate it. But my text bubbles go unanswered and I am left with memories of a slow-motion cloud sifting over me.
My dad pressed the metal cap against my nose. I smelled the sweet syrup turning sticky on the underside. “Do you know what this can do to my new tires?”
“No, sir.” Chin tilted down, eyes wary beneath lashes.
He gripped my arm in his scratchy finger tips. He pressed the bottle cap into the skin of my forearm explaining how it would puncture the rubber of the tires. I watched his thumbnail go pressure-white Inadvertently, I hissed between my teeth, the cap twisting, scarlet beads racing down my arm.
“Never do it again.” He walked off into the house, door slamming, hanging tools dancing on the wall with the force.
My mother gently excised the cap from my skin. Cleaned it with alcohol and painted it with iodine while I screamed into a knotted towel (one we kept for just that purpose). It took weeks to heal and the scar stood vivid on my tanned skin. A small section of it still remains, but it is so integrated into the age marks and freckles on my arm it is hard to discern. The jagged blurred line is discolored compared to the skin around it. The scars of age camouflage the scars of circumstance. Some scars, though, are more resilient than others.
My most prevalent childhood memory is my mother turning away, her head drooping as she shook it slightly, her only hint of non-conformity to my father’s punishments. The sense of abandonment as I stared at her hunched shoulder blades permeates every interaction in my life. I am forever trying to make her turn toward me.
I thought my family was normal. Adopted at birth into the Conn household because it was believed my mother could not have children, my father informed me at age five that I was adopted. I believed his lie that adopted children are less and can expect less. I remember my mother’s solemn agreement. I don’t believe she actually nodded, but the set of her lips and her downcast eyes were more of an assent than if she spoke. Now as horrific as that may be, it did allow me to escape with part of my psyche unscathed. Though I did not understand why my household was so different, I did have the normalization of being adopted. I could be treated this way; I was less, because I was adopted. It fit into the five years old mind.
At 19 I went to college, spent extended time on my own and came to the realization that my family was not normal.
“What do you mean that scar is from a belt? Parents don’t do that.” stated my roommate when she noticed a still-angry red scar on my back.
“What the hell does that matter?”
Startled, I became much more careful when changing around her.
My idea of home and family shattered with nothing but books and movies on which to base a different reality. My personal fairytale became when I was old enough, I would find better. The hardest part, when I found the “better,” was allowing myself to believe my worth. That remains a constant struggle.
I wake up every morning. I kiss my wife, my dog, my two cats and I tell them I love them. I press two fingers to my lips and then rest them on my reflection in the mirror and say “I love you.” I stare long and hard. I trace every visible scar with my eyes, tell myself I matter and I am more than marks on skin. They outline my story, but they aren’t the story. I remind myself I matter. I am beautiful and smart and I will chant that to my friend’s daughters as I walk them into pre-school, because they need to know it before they’re 30.
I will not see the mirror again until the next morning. If I happen to see myself in a reflection again during the day, I will say a silent “I love you” and then turn away, because image is a myth. Reflection is distortion, not reality. Light reflects. Darkness does not. I need to acknowledge my darkness, the darkness my family gifted me, to retain my worth and my sanity.
Two years after my alien bite and in the fall of 1979, while toted from the garden to the garage in a cart pulled by my father’s lawnmower, I learned to fly. He told me to sit down. I was—mostly. He thought I wasn’t listening so he slammed on the brakes to either scare me or tan my butt. I flew out.
A collage of gravel and metal preceded an impact of white static stars. Numbness engulfed me as I landed on the ground, the smell of gas a tart pumpkin in my nostrils. My father killed the engine, stopping all but a rushing in my ears. For a moment I wondered how the whites of his eyes grew so large and why spittle was flying from his mouth like a rabid dog; his jaws flapping; his face taut. I had hit the lawnmower with my face.
Our riding mower was a metal box with an engine propped on its tail, a seat on a pedestal in the middle, and a steering wheel tilted toward the seat in the front. He attached a cart behind the engine on a ball hitch. Yellow flaking to rust, the cart was an oversized wheelbarrow. When he hauled things throughout our half acre yard, the mower blade was in the raised off position with the blade guard up and locked to let him maneuver. The tip of the blade could be seen bobbing as we bounced through the yard.
I did attempt to stop my catapulted flight from the cart. I burned my hand on the engine as I panicked mid-air. I have two blister-like white scars on my hand from that attempt. When I am nervous I run my fingers over them, scratch at them. I remind myself there are worse things.
Dazed after my flight, my eyes stared at the back tire tread. The smell of rotting grass and hot metal surrounded me. The blade danced away from me into the under cavern. I rolled to my stomach, pushing up. Blood droplets fell on the back of my hand. I stood and touched my face wondering why my lips would not form words. I stumbled toward the garage as my fingers slipped along my right cheek. The roundness dropped into a wet gulley and then dipped back out. My face was dented. Dad you dented my face! These words never felt sunlight or wind. My mother rushed out of the basement wearing her angry pout. Mom, my face is dented. I thought at her. I pictured a cartoon of myself, features warped and sagging. Maybe the clip of Daffy Duck being shot in the face by Elmer Fudd flashed through my mind in those dark seconds of disbelief. I started to cry. My face would stay dented. I would have a fold in my face the rest of my life. I tried to push my tongue against my cheek and wondered why there was no resistance.
Pulling my hand away I noticed my fingers were sticky and warm, red flowing like watercolor paint down my arm and off my elbow. It settled darkly into each crevice of my palm. I ran for the basement door, through the garage, past my brother who was heaving in the corner by the tool bench.
“I want to see!” the first garbled words I had pushed through a half working mouth.
Previously frozen, my mother sprung to life spinning me into the laundry room, grabbing a towel and holding me over the laundry sink simultaneously. My mother was never particularly maternal, but she was a nurse and crisis was her playground.
A part of me still blames her for this “accident.” Though skilled in the art of stitches and I.V.s, she was inept at stopping the cause. Her lips would press in a deep pink line whenever my father burned red and she would head to the kitchen for a lowball glass. I don’t drink. Every time I see alcohol poured over ice, my stomach clenches and I turn cold.
I struggled against being tilted over the sink. I wanted a mirror.
The tears evaporated. Pain did not exist. Later it was explained to me how nerves respond to trauma by cutting off sensation. The body on overload compensates by shutting down. The brain ceases to register what it cannot measure. I remained manic in my belief that I must see my face. It was dented. The reality of the situation my mother wrestled to keep silent. My face had split like a ripe melon, rind to seed. Later, her diligence dulled with me drugged, I overheard talk of purple muscle and the white of bone.
Is it bad that I wish I could remember how it felt? If the numbness had a silvered edge with soft bells in my hearing and a prickle to my neck? What I remember is void.
As I attempted to catch glimpses of my dent in the faucet or the knobs for hot and cold, my mother stopped cleaning my cheek and instead pressed a pale blue towel, flowering burgundy, tight to my face.
I was eight and in third grade. An average eight years old female is approximately four feet tall and around 58 pounds. I was not. Always the overachiever, though I was just over four feet in height, I was close to 100 pounds. Despite this, my five foot four, 120 pound mother picked me up, my head to her shoulder like I was a newborn. She forcibly kicked my father toward his car parked closest in the garage and not blocked by the lawn mower clicking its countdown to engine cool.
A clipped “Now” resonated off the cinderblock walls as she ordered my brother into the back seat. My father sat behind the wheel and after one protest of blood possibly meeting his leather seats, he started the car, his ears ringing with her shrill “I don’t give a fuck.” This is the only memory I have of my proper blonde, Caucasian, unimposing mother using the F-word or going toe-to-toe with my father. Despite being a bleeding mess, I was impressed.
My mother never interceded with my father’s discipline. After incidents where we landed in our bedrooms, she would sit on the edge of the bed, dab a cloth over an injury or explain to us in clipped precise words that we shouldn’t hold it against our father. He couldn’t help the way he was. I must admit, his transgressions though not easy to tolerate, were much simpler to process than hers. I wanted the anger, the “fuck you,” the rescue of a mother who would throw me into a car with my most prized possessions and not look back. I practiced many times in my head popping my pillow out of its case and shoving into it my favorite books, toys, and stuffed animals as we escaped into the night. In the end, at age 21, I left alone watching the lights of the house blur into the horizon.
We careened down Miller Hill and around the blind curves of Cogan Station toward Williamsport Hospital Emergency room. Later I learned my mother intermittently pinched my father’s arm as he drove and his speed increased with his pain level. Somewhere on High Street a siren and lights blossomed behind us. The wail outside the car matched the one that had begun raging inside my head. Our car pulled off onto a shoulder. The red and blue lights matched well with the smoldering purple rising on my father’s neck.
A Pennsylvania State Trooper, uniform starched to attention, walked up to my father’s window. Stooping a little to take in the contents of the car he studied us over the top of gold mirrored sunglasses. “What seems to be the issue here? I clocked you at 58. This here is a 25 mile per hour residential corridor.”
I could almost hear my father’s voice asking what the hell a state trooper was doing in residential zones, but he restrained himself somehow. “We are taking my daughter to the hospital.”
My mother leaned forward. “Sir, I’m a Registered Nurse and we need to get to the emergency room, please.”
“Now I understand you feel that you have to rush, but if you didn’t require an ambulance then you need to follow the traffic laws. I’m willing to give you just a warning—” This is when my mother leaned me forward and peeled off the towel. I felt like I was sucking pennies. That natural pain block didn’t seem to work for terry cloth ripped away from a drying laceration.
Despite my tearing eyes I looked squarely at the officer and pronounced loudly, “I dented my face.”
Mouth agape, he disappeared toward his vehicle and shouted that he would give us an escort.
I recorded 26 trips to hospitals as a child (Williamsport, Divine Providence, Erie County Medical Center, and Danville Children’s Hospital)—five surgeries, eight “procedures,” two major illnesses, and the balance of visits to the emergency room. I hold onto a medical file from childhood with a hand scrawled note: “unsafe home situation?”—the obvious motivation for a hospital shell game. No one ever came to remove my brother and me from our home.
Delivered screeching to the hospital parking lot my mother raced us inside. Most of the rest of that trip and the next day after were a drug induced haze for me. The only clear memory after the I.V. and first round of injected pain killer was a large silver needle aimed at the corner of my eye. I thought suddenly that this is what it looks like to be run through a sewing machine. They gave me floaty drugs and I waited as my parents went off to talk. Chris finally gave me a mirror weaseled from a nurse.
Taking a deep breath I raised it and saw trailing down my cheek a parade of 8 black spiders. Black threads tied in knots around edges of skin in half inch intervals. My eye was blackened into a bruise that flowed over the right half and bottom of my face, the side of my face swollen, including the corners of my mouth. “I could’ve been a contender,” I wheezed at my brother. He snickered though he was still pale green which the hospital lighting did not favor.
The shadows of my parents edged toward us. I handed back the mirror and pulled the sheet to my chin, closing my eyes. Chris retreated to a nearby stool and watched his feet. My father shook my shoulder.
Over the next few years my mother and father inspected my face at least once a week. The right cheek remained in a perpetual state of flush, the scar a purplish worm sunbathing across it. I was subjected to cocoa butter and vitamin E, sunscreen and make-up whenever an event could not be avoided. My mother sent notes requesting that school photographers have me stand staring off at the distant right of the room so only my left side was photographed. My classmates dubbed me Scarface and DG for “damaged goods.” Already a wallflower, this sealed my recess fate to the depths of art and calculus in a tiny classroom near the front office.
At the age of 10 my parents paid thousands of dollars for plastic surgery on that scar. I think my mother reached breaking point after two years of answering the questioning stares of strangers. The scar grew redder by the year, became shiny like Rudolph’s nose. This my father could not abide and so he paid for the surgery that would mute it and hide it within the curve of my face so the eye “glanced beyond” as the surgeon stated.
I did not want surgery. As a child I enjoyed the attention of nurses and candy-stripers (teenage hospital volunteers), but at the same time the hospital terrified me. In a folder in my drawer I have the “good patient” certificates from that surgery. They gave them to every child under 12. There are 22 “I had a shot” badges. My arm screams thinking about it. My bicep twitches. I seethe at both my parents for subjecting me to further trauma. I see now it was necessary, but that does not diminish the feelings of inadequacy associated with needing to be fixed.
Denied the right to acknowledge pain or discomfort in any way I resorted to control and observation. I wouldn’t shiver in the cold if I could control my breathing or if I focused on the frost on the window. I wouldn’t flinch from the descending belt or hide from my father’s bellow if I focused on the color that would crawl up his neck or the way his white teeth flashed in the sun. I began to focus on minute details of the world around me. Every event I developed in my mind like a Polaroid and at night I would examine it again, file it, lock it into memory. I trained myself to not speak, ever, waiting until a question was re-asked and a respectable amount of time had elapsed to make sure I wouldn’t interrupt with my answer. In school I excelled because it was a matter of control and another form of observation. I took in every ounce of knowledge anyone would bring me. I thought then that it was because I wanted to be praised, to be accepted, to have that warm glow from a teacher as a smile beamed my way. True, but the deeper reason: I sucked in information because I needed to know why. Why was my father like a villain in a comic book and why was my mother always silent? Her lips pressed in a line, hiding green-grey teeth, corners of her mouth turned down and always that slight whisper of a hum when something met with disapproval. I do that hum now and I smack myself whenever I hear it. She believed in whiskey sours and silence. Whiskey sours to cool my father’s rage, entertain neighbors, and to lull herself to sleep each night. Silence to maintain the status quo.
I didn’t want the surgery, but I never said anything and the time eventually arrived. I found myself in a yellow walled hospital room awakened at four a.m. when the nurse turned on the fluorescent over my bed. I woke to damp garlic wafting up my nostrils. She hung over me, checking my temperature, my blood pressure and my pulse. Throughout her administrations she kept up a running commentary from “how are we this morning?” to reading off my vitals. She disappeared and returned with an I.V. I shrunk into the bed. I.V.s were a nemesis of mine. They could never be set the first time. Plump arms swallowed childish veins. Every trip to the hospital resulted in red pinpricks in my arm creases like mosquitos had been set against them. My mother had taken to strong-arming nurses into letting her put in the needle. She always hit the vein on the first try. But mom wasn’t there yet. The surgery was scheduled for seven a.m. and in the early 80s that meant sleeping over in the hospital the night before. My parents never stayed with me in the hospital. Not even when I was four and in for over two months with rheumatic fever. But they always gave me a new stuffed animal for company.
I crushed my new Snoopy in the crook of my non-tubed arm. Orderlies came in the room and put an elastic paper hat on me. They put one on Snoopy as well since he would accompany me to the operating room. He even had booties and a face mask. Around 6:30 a.m. the doctor came in with a blue marker and drew dotted lines and dashes on my cheek, a map of what needed to be done. To me it looked like he drew a freeway on my cheek.
The nurse entered with three syringes on a tray. She prepared to inject them into my legs. The first was to keep blood clots from forming. It burned and made my leg cramp. I cried and was reprimanded because I might ruin the blue marker map. I breathed in deep and swallowed the saltiness. Two more needles stung deep and flooded my muscles with burn. Things became soupy then. My mother arrived as the bed moved from the room. Or maybe I was flying and the bed stayed behind. Buzzing filled my ears and my mother was there even when they put the mask on my face that I fought because I felt it was trying to suffocate me. It was not air they made me breathe, it was musty tin. I couldn’t think or count. I slipped into insignificance with my mother’s voice echoing, “Be good now.”
When I woke the side of my face throbbed to the rate of my pulse. I tried to roll over but my head was weighted like a bowling ball. All sounded was muted. A muffled “mom?” leaked from my throat. No answer. I blinked my eyes, or so it felt in my mind, lightly shook my head to clear it, but everything swirled red static over black in front of my eyes. I couldn’t see. I was blind. I started whimpering as a nurse came in chattering on about how well things went. My whimpering spiraled to a squeaking rant that I was blind. The nurse went a strange silent. Not being able to see her, I thought she left and I was alone so the hysterics went up a level. Before I started bumping wall to wall trying to escape the room, soft hands rested on my shoulders and a sound like a flattening tire filled the room. She was shushing me.
“Sweetie, they are bandages.” She took my hands in hers and rested them gently over my eyes so I could feel the swath of gauze hiding the world from me. “You’re fine. You just have to put up with it for a few days.”
I ran my fingers along my mummified head. Felt my hair sprouting out the top. My ears were partially covered which explained how sound came to me bent and filtered. My mom visited shortly after I settled into the bed again. She gave me more clinical reasons for everything. Luckily the bandages hid my expression—though my tongue was free. I bit it to keep me from sticking it out at her. My father never came to visit.
My memory of my father is a shadow—a shadow in the middle of the night, a shadow descending, a shadow in my peripheral vision that materializes into red stars behind my eyelids and copper on my tongue. I didn’t miss him in the hospital. I wanted to miss him. I still want to, but like the feelings of family, that isn’t meant to be. It may seem strange that I want to miss him. I miss the idea of him at every wedding I attend and every time I see a father with a daughter perched on his shoulders. I never felt what they feel, but I have longed for it. In that I feel more damage from him than any beating he ever gave.
Swathed in bandages after my surgery, I tumbled blind for four days. Mostly, it was just Snoopy and me. In those four days of blindness I learned a new way to maneuver and cope. I walked all over the hospital, my head a vase of gauze with brunette hair spilling out the top. To this day if I get lost, I will close my eyes and cock my head to the side and wait for the darkness to prompt me. Healing involves a time of blindness—time where there is no past, no present. Where you shuffle forward and prod the world with a toe searching for a new direction.
When I was older my mother told me the particulars of my surgery. I learned that with the first shallow incision the interior layers of tissue blossomed red, raw, and lightly hemorrhaging, explaining the purplish hue my cheek had retained for more than two years. When this came to mind again as an adult, I realize it was all of me—years of damage still weeping beneath the surface waiting to be opened to light where each layer could be painstakingly healed. The original wound took 8 stitches to close. The surgery took 187.
I noticed no change after what the surgeon considered a glorious success. At first, I was sad. Over time, I adopted my scar. I came up with a snappy explanation and laughed at stunned looks. The one time my parents had not intended to inflict harm they had. It became my badge of honor. A badge, I realized after years of silence, I was not required to hide. This is when I began stitching together the weeping shreds of my childhood.
My scar is not so noticeable now, 37 years after surgery. Rosacea has risen to claim it, but my scar has denied the natural camouflage and has settled into a thin line of contrasting bluish white. Sometimes years will pass before friends notice it embedded in the permanent blush of my cheek. Though many portions of my childhood bludgeoned me into conforming to an abnormal family, anger has long since been abandoned. Revenge was never an option. I chose an option that many say was overly giving, but I felt was the only direction to take. I forgave. I don’t visit on holidays. I don’t call or pretend at a relationship, but I did move beyond it. I accept my mother’s cards on birthdays and holidays now, after years of tossing them unread into a shredder. But I am still waiting for an explanation and an apology that doesn’t come after four glasses of wine.
When I was 24, an old woman, stooped and toddling, stopped me in the mall. She told me that she hoped the person who had done such a horrible thing to me had gone to jail. I told her they had, because I realized my parents had always lived in a jail of their own making, even more so after my face alluded to their infractions. Eventually this, among other family history, fed the depression that claimed my father’s life. Stitch 126 tied and healing.
by JJ Conn
JJ Conn is currently working on a graphic memoir and is entering her second year in her Creative Non-Fiction MFA at University of New Mexico. She lives in Albuquerque, NM, with her wife, their spoiled pitbull Malcolm, and their two rather cantankerous cats, Pez and Jacks. JJ won First Place for the Joseph Badal Prize for Fiction Writing. This is her first publication.
About the Artwork
The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.