“All I got, all I got is my scars.”
— Basement Jaxx, “Scars”
When I was eight, my uncle and I were driving in a brown, loosely cobbled Buick. I don’t remember if there was a radio, but if there was it would have been playing Fleetwood Mac or the Doobie Brothers. I remember the heater worked well enough to lull me to sleep, wrapped in a fluffy blue winter coat, my pom-pom hatted head against the door that had been too heavy for me to properly close.
Just before my face hit the pavement, I felt, for the first time, that unique panic that squeezes your sinuses just before you meet the ground. I bounced and hit the ground again, this time with my hands to brace me. I began to howl, though more from surprise than anything else. There were horns and brakes and hysterics and strange people. Accusing fingers pointed toward my uncle. Mortified, he gently placed me back in the car. I was completely uninjured, except for a few nicks here and there. I used to have a scar over my lip, but now the only scar that remains is a dime-sized oval on my left knuckle.
Felix Buxton, one half of Basement Jaxx, told Rolling Stone that “Scars,” represented a physical and emotional tribute to the things that stick with us. Mr. Buxton was mugged for his bicycle and though he wasn’t hurt badly, he couldn’t shake the fear. He said, “Scars are the things that stay with you.”
There is very little that we carry forever, but scars belong to us. For better or for worse, we never lose them, never remove them without creating another, never separate ourselves from the event — whether we remember the event or the repercussions.
I kept track of that scar. Up til then, I’d led a relatively unscathed childhood, free of broken bones and jagged edges. When I was 9, my grandmother went away for the weekend. I danced on the hardwood floor. I fell on the hardwood floor. My chin split open in the same place as all childhood chins split open. My grandfather acknowledged the injury, gave me a kleenex, and consoled me with ice cream. When my grandmother returned, she was despondant at my disfiguration. Why weren’t there stitches? It would be scarred forever. And it is. Almost no one looks under there.
In high school, the next door neighbors had a disagreeable, high-strung, three-legged dog named Jamal. She got loose one day and the neighbor asked me to grab her. I grabbed her. She bit me. Now, on my right hand, the most visible and ugly scar on my body sits between my thumb and index finger — 3 inches of raised white hide. At first, I thought it would heal itself away. When it didn’t, I reconciled the problem by reminding myself that I didn’t come from a line of women with beautiful hands.
The golden age of 19 found me traipsing around a college campus in Southern California. That year, I wore London Undergrounds: platform, wooden-soled, rocker-bottom sandals impractical for every occasion. My roommates and I were late for a party. I didn’t buckle my sandals, just slid my toes into the front loops and bounced down the outside steps, impatient. I lost my balance and slid the rest of the way down on my knees. “What are you doing down there,” yelled Besty Friend. She blanched at the blood. “Why didn’t you scream?” Now, the scars on my knees and ankles are corrugated like the metal that edged the stairs. I don’t remember it hurting. I don’t remember anything but being surprised.
And it was about that time when I started making scars of my own.
“Distance, it grows now. You don’t reach for me. All I got, all I got, is my scars.”
In “Scars,” the narrator feels she’s “coming loose at the seams.” And I’m not sure when that started for me, but when it did, I lost my stuffing instantaneously. A lot of kids start cutting pretty early. While I poked and prodded myself when I was younger, I lacked true commitment. I didn’t become completely detached from my emotions until I set myself adrift in the world. I was overwhelmed with the choice to continue to be who I’d been taught to be or become someone that I wanted to be. I broke like a cheap toy.
I tried drinking as heavily as possible. The haze was amusing for awhile, but then disappeared completely. I tried smoking, but the only cigarette that mattered was the first one of the day. Weed made me feel terrible and slow. I already felt slow. Frightened. Numb.
I started with a razor blade. Small cuts. Just for me. While writing. While drinking. Inner arms. I cut myself. I cut my poetry journal. We were the same. It felt the same.
After graduation, I didn’t know where to go. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to stay in California. Though I made it into grad school, the number of figures on the finance package weren’t something I could reconcile. So I started working like everybody else. In San Francisco, the bare walls of my apartment were the true indicator of my charade. Besty Friend brought me artwork for my desolate dump. We had to prop it up on the floor because the concrete wouldn’t take a nail.
Here I graduated to a leatherman. I used the smallest, sharp blade while sitting in my tiny, furniture-less kitchen, the heat from the fridge fan warming the small of my back.
I didn’t last a year there. I quit my job for reasons now unclear to me and promptly ran out of money. I slunk back to Montana.
It’s true that inaction is action. This was not who I wanted to be. I wanted to become whatever that was anywhere but there. Back at home with my grandparents, I started working days for a man with a startup and nights as a snow plow dispatcher. After that I worked as a property manager, answering calls at midnight, collecting late rents, and unclogging sinks. I tried to fill myself with rage, but I could only come up with desolation.
I visited my friends in San Francisco. They had moved on. I was welcome, but superfluous. Late one night during my visit, I broke a glass at the bar. I took a shard of it into the bathroom and made some jagged slashes into my wrists. There was blood on the yellow cuffs of my shirt. I had a hard time explaining. Then the bouncer asked me to go home with him and everyone forgot. I laughed with them; the joke was already on me.
When I moved into my next apartment, I inherited an unused, serrated bread knife from Germany. The knife was so sharp, a light cut barely hurt. So the cuts got deeper and longer.
The doctor asked, “What are those?” I said, “I had to rescue my dog from the rosebushes.” A sales lady asked me about my arms. “Old bed,” I replied. “Pulling it out from the wall and the springs…” I have no idea if they believed me.
I started a relationship. We lied to each other about who we were and what we wanted. Then he left me and I sat on a red carpeted floor with a bottle of white Zinfandel and gave myself the scars that I wear on the insides of my arms today.
“Streetlights, they see me. Who will reach for me? All I got, all I got, is my scars.”
I must have cut myself deep enough that night, because it was the last time I used the bread knife on myself. It now sits in a drawer alongside other knives whose purpose is natural and normal. Its own purpose is now natural and normal. I use it for bread and tomatoes.
I’m not proud of my scars. I’m not ashamed of them either.
It took a long time to claw my way out of that darkness. My mistake was waiting for someone to rescue me when I’d always been capable of rescuing myself. A false sense of maturity had led me to a complacency I had to awaken from before I could escape. By the time I had some semblance of knowing who I wanted to be, I was 25. Even then, things were a work in progress.
The guy and I stopped lying to each other. We tried again. Almost 10 years later, I think it’s safe to say we have the day to day figured out. We escaped to a city where we both want to be. We’re chasing our dreams and sharing them with one another. I feel a lot of emotions. None are desolation.
But when I look down at my arms, I remember that final connection: nothing to something, the idea of pain to actual pain. No one else has to understand them. They’re mine.
All I got is my scars.