Three ridges representing three decades. Three raised and slightly whitened lines, cartography on the skull, miniature mountain ranges in time. I run my forefinger lightly against my forehead; I am five years old again. Brushing my hair back on the left side I turn thirteen. Comb it forward over the crown, I go back only two years from now, to the sharpest but least painful of the trials.
The waxy strips of skin are of great significance. Each scar a turning point, an element of understanding etched right into the flesh.
Once a decade I have to crack my head open.
July, 1983: 4 Stitches. External.
Memory fails but common sense records that it would have been hot that day. Scorching, if subsequent summers can be taken as indicative of a season's entire history. Our house was only weakly air conditioned, a low power unit wheezing downstairs to keep the den--Dad called it the den--bearable while other rooms stifled with little ventilation.
A weekday, a weekend, no difference without school, something I had no knowledge of yet-"next year," Mom said, encouraging and yet perhaps secretly relieved. She'd gotten one out the door, and had been thankful for it. My brother was two years older, a first grader, an early reader already experiencing the dislike of math that would deepen into violent frustration by high school. For now, a big shot, a showoff. But still my big brother, and still good to have him home during the day to play with.
He would still play at that age.
The guest room was located midway between our room and that of our parents, just off center along the gray-carpeted hallway. It smelled of thick dust and disuse, more storage space for outdated furniture than actual bedroom. Deep red and navy linens in a wedge pattern, mahogany trim everywhere--it looked like an out-of-place ship's cabin. No one ever stayed in it. There were no windows, a thoroughly full closet, and barely enough space between the full-size bed and chest of drawers to open them all the way. The drawers contained ancient artifacts of our parents' surreal existence before us, an incomprehesible prehistory of different hair and strange clothes. In all the photographs, they stood alone together, holding hands before exotic, unrecognizable backgrounds, places they couldn't have been. When would they have gone?
The drawers were best left for rainy afternoons, however. At midday in the sun, without leave to go outside, the bed was the best bet for entertainment. Old and fantastically springy, plenty of room for two, the high ceilings allowed for some fairly enthusiastic jumping. This was as much strategy as I would invest in a game at that age. No narrative or make-believe, no ending to be reached other than exhaustion. We clambered up, careful of the loose headboard that rocked perilously against the sheetrock and had long ago left a thin brown smear across its length.
He started. One big leap to get things going, his landing aiding my launch, then vice-versa, attaining greater and greater heights before the acrobatics began. Tuck the knees, hop up; land sitting, get your legs down--the springs twanged disapproval, complained of age and weakness. They didn't like their own noise. Our loud laughter couldn't mask it.
He could almost touch the ceiling.
Then I pitched forward. I knew why. I felt the hand on my back as my toes left the comforter. But there was no time to think about the reason as I fell towards the chest, unable to twist away in midair.
I don't recall making contact. I remember only my mother's much later quotation of my brother's words coming out of the bedroom, at what she said was a leisurely, unworried pace: "I think the baby's hurt," he told her, and took an apple from the fridge.
I emerged, she claims, with blood streaming down my tiny freckled face. She rushed me--one is always rushed--to the hospital where I was examined and put back together with small sutures and instructions to be more careful next time.
There was no next time, not with my brother. He showed no remorse. Called me Frankenstein for days afterward, never indicated he'd done anything wrong. No apology.
The scar is approximately one and a half inches long, above just above the right eyebrow. Twenty years have rendered it nearly invisible.
November, 1991: 5 Stitches. External.
We'd lived in the "new" house for six years already. My brother occupied a room on the top floor, my own was a full floor down. Chanuka came early, or its gifts did--I was embarked on the completion of a 1:16 scale model F-14 Tomcat. The model room--Dad called it the model room--had two workbenches, his own and ours. I built planes, exclusively. My brother built cars.
Alone in the quiet, all members of the family presumably scattered throughout the large house (this one had two unused guest rooms, an unused living room, and a seldom used basement), I worked steadily on, setting a tiny pair of forceps in place to fuse the two halves of the fuselage. A crucial moment in construction. Any disturbance now would result in a nasty seam.
Holding as still was possible, while simultaneously bobbing my head to Hotel California, the song seemingly most often played on the classic rock radio station to which the upstairs stereo was always, always tuned, I settled in to quite literally watch the glue dry.
My father would have told me, had he been in the room, that I should set it down and wait a full twenty-four hours. I had matured beyond Snap-Tite, sure, but not that much.
He called my name. Not my name, but rather, "boys!" His was the sole voice of authority that could reach all areas of the house from a central locaton. There was an intercom system, but it too was derelict. Atop the stool two half-flights up, I frowned in irritation. Perfect timing, you idiot. But the first round could safely be ignored.
The second, louder, could not. I slipped off the stool, model still delicately pressed by the clamp, and trudged off downstairs.
They were in their bedroom. Both of them, sitting on the side of the bed, two feet or so apart from each other. My brother arrived ahead of me. He leaned against the wall.
"Put the model down," Dad said.
"I can't, it'll get screwed up."
He shrugged, gave up instantly. If he looked tired or worn, I didn't notice. My eyes were fixed on the the joints.
"Sit down, boys," Mom suggested. We looked at each other, then walked around to the other side of the bed and sat cross-legged opposite from them. I was closest to the headboard, a long mirrored rectangular cabinet roughly two feet high. It had two tiny doors at either end that would have opened outward had the weight of the unit not pressed the bottom edges too deep into the carpet--gray. Mom spun all the way around to face us; Dad twisted his body but left his feet on the floor. I paid them no real attention.
"We have something to tell you," she said, stopping short. He took up the line, repeated it, but got no further. Not right away. I do not remember who actually said it in the end.
I thought of throwing the model down in anger, dashing it to pieces against the wall or window. But no, that would be punishing myself, and I'd worked too hard. Some reaction was called for; my brother had already screwed up his face and clenched his fists. An adult already in his own mind. He demanded an explanation.
Somewhere in the midst of it, I thought I felt a hand, and pitched forward.
But this time I swayed to the side. Intending to land on the pillow; I instead found a sharp corner. Within seconds a trickle of red became a stream, dots on the light gray comforter blended into a line. Blood doesn't feel hot on your face, I thought. It feels cool. That's weird.
No rush this time. My Father pressed ice wrapped in a washcloth to my split cranium while the conversation went on, solidifying the truth. It clotted. I didn't.
There was no apology.
The scar is roughly two inches long, located on the back left side. My hair renders it undetectable except to the touch.
January, 2000: 7 Stitches. External.
Three wonderful long weeks away from New York, back at the old house in the suburbs of Chicago for the last winter break I'd ever have. Heavy snow had been falling for the last three days, blanketing our absurdly long driveway in a thick coat already pressed to a slick dense layer at the bottom. Graduation coming up. One more semester.
My brother didn't make it home for this vacation, so I wouldn't have to see him. I had the next few days with Mom, then over to my Dad's for another stretch. I set the schedule, divided the days with perfect equity between them. Right now he was with his new family in a neighboring town, enjoying their version of the holidays. Foreign to my experience, but acceptable. The new characters in the show were all generally warm and likable. I hardly gave them a thought, preoccupied most of the time with the alternately thrilling and terrifying prospect of life-after-college.
She waited until my third morning home, until I was already up, out of bed, and breakfasted to ask if I wouldn't mind helping with the snow.
Not at all.
The old blower took some effort to get going. Like all the tools in the garage-in fact, like almost everything in the garage--it was a holdover from my Father's time here, the last moment of which was nine years ago this month. Traces would always remain in pockets all over the house. No, not always. There was a "For Sale" sign at the bottom of the driveway.
Up and running, I turned the controls over to her and grabbed a shovel, new, one of those strangely bent-handled numbers supposed to be less hard on your back. I dug her out a path from which to begin, and we emerged from the slate gray pavement and dank oil stains of the garage into a bright white haze. Two figures alone in the below freezing temperature wearing old coats and Timberland duck boots. I stood a good five inches taller than her now.
I felt good for the strain, the pull on my muscles.
When we reached the top of the driveway, we were both thoroughly exhausted, half blind for the bright reflection and overheated inside our clothes. But the overall mood was silly. I pitched a snowball at her, high over her head, then made short jokes. She thanked me, asked if I would like some hot chocolate.
"Oh yes mummy please could I have some?"
She blushed, I think--it was hard to see her face beneath a scarf and hood. Mother to a fully-grown man. A son, not a child. Old habits die hard. "None for you then, smartass," she laughed.
A snowbank had built up overlooking the backyard. Clean, high, too inviting to ignore. For no good reason, because I felt I had to, I pitched forward. At speed, head first, and straight into it.
A flash of--not light, not stars--but a flash, a jarring momentary loss of reception--waved in a nebula of indistinguishable shapes under my eyelids. My neck crumpled. Dragging myself out, I detected no apparent injury, but kicked at the bank until a spot of solid black -brown appeared. Firewood. A stack of it, a wall, buried in the snow. Ha. I laughed in disbelief as my mother ran up to me.
"Are you OK?"
"A fucking cartoon," I replied. "I'm a fucking cartoon."
She smiled. This time the trickle ran slow and thick straight down my forehead. I saw red in my right eye, and went inside.
We had to call my father to take me to the emergency room, as his was the only car that could handle the heavy snow on the streets. I answered his questions, tried to ignore the snickering. I didn't lie about it, despite my embarrassment, neither to him nor to the doctor who stitched me up and politely asked where the other two scars came from.
"Accidents," I answered. "Just accidents."
I took the stitches out myself when it seemed to me the wound had fully healed.
The scar is just under three inches long, at the very top of my head. Little hair grows there. As I grow older, it will be the only one of the three plainly visible. People will ask, and I will have to take responsibility. I will have to own it. I did it all by myself. It's mine.
I am not sorry.