The truth is you didn’t want to disappear, but you were already disappearing. Your skin burned clean away, your body no longer recognizable without the flip chart at the foot of your hospital bed. Recovery a matter of flesh, of calling your body back into being.
And because the fire didn’t enter your lungs but did breach your nasal passages, you didn’t have to smell your own skin as you healed. And because you were not without a throat or a voice, and morphine coursed through your veins, you sang and you did not stop. The nurse remembers you for this. Your eerie nightsong.
You sang your body back to your birth. You sang as they harvested skin from one limb, grafted it to another. This is how you began to reappear. The surgeon crafted your ear, your neck, your chest. You sang and you sang and the skin grafts began to take, your body a field broken by spring. By the time you regained the ability to smell, you had been made new. But the flowers at your bedside had lost their scent.
You thought plastic surgeons changed fingerprints, gave people new faces. You thought they aided and abetted the criminally elite, all for a hefty retainer fee, that a hit man might call a plastic surgeon when the tables were turned and he needed a new identity. Plastic surgeons were the medical magicians of new science.
But no one gave you a new face. And although you were lost, you were not anonymous, not by any means. People stared at you. Your new skin, smooth and pink and tender. This is how you began to understand your body as object. You saw yourself in other people’s faces. And although you stopped singing, your body sang on its own and you knew everyone around you could hear it. You couldn’t stop hearing it. You were nineteen years old.
Your daughter needs help climbing into the shower and you are the first one to offer. You move towards the doorway but her boyfriend is already there, and your wife closes the door. Go have a glass of wine, your wife says. Go read your book. Your daughter is twenty-seven and needs help climbing into the shower and you do not understand the sudden need for privacy, remind everyone you used to change her diapers. The door is closed and the shower is running and over the noise you know someone is singing, your daughter is singing, and so you walk into the kitchen and pour yourself something to drink and think you’ll talk to your wife, but she is already out of earshot, in the bedroom, getting out clean clothes and setting up the gauze and the swabs and the sterile solution for disinfecting all the wounds.
So you read about castles. Medieval ones, with buttresses, stone, the works. You read about France, northern France specifically, and you read about cathedrals and imagine the dexterity it took to build those structures. You call to your wife but she doesn’t answer and so you settle back into your book.
Your daughter’s boyfriend helps her into the bedroom, and she is wrapped in a towel, swinging between crutches. You can see fourteen pins the length of her left leg, and you tell her that the wounds look good, offer to help with wound treatment. You used to do this when she was a child. You would set up all the gauze.
You linger in the doorway and you talk about cathedrals and you talk about buttresses. Your daughter’s boyfriend slowly disinfects each pin. I am afraid to hurt you, he tells her, but she urges him on, cleans the pins she can reach herself to show him how. He is diligent and careful and terrified. You want to tell him you used to do this when she was a child, but instead you linger in the doorway and you talk about cathedrals. Buttresses.
Your wife has been living with your daughter for a month now, and you come to New York on weekends. Your job has been to care for your daughter’s dog up in Boston, to hold down the fort. You tell your daughter about the new path you’ve discovered on your walks, the one behind the police station, and you tell her how the winter’s been a strange one, without snow. She smiles at you and absentmindedly begins to wind the gauze around the pins. She can do this with one hand. You mention she might be good at building cathedrals.
Your wife is tired and your daughter’s boyfriend is quiet and the three of you talk late at night once the morphine’s kicked in and your daughter’s asleep. Your wife says everything is going as well as can be expected, that there have only been a few minor mix-ups with prescriptions. You find something to watch on the television, something nobody cares about, and sit and blink at the screen.
David helps me into the shower and then stays in the bathroom to keep me company, though we both know he’s there to make sure I don’t hurt myself. Despite the fact that it’s hard to fall when I’m sitting in a shower chair, David or my mother is always with me. My father visits on weekends. It’s been a month now and I am never alone.
I have two different washcloths: one I use for my body and one I use to clean all the pins. Through daily manipulation, the pins move segments of my femur by widening a break in the bone. This is how a limb is lengthened. This is how I know the strange music of tendons. The wounds, mouths that open and close and re-open around the pins, move too. It isn’t particularly painful to clean them, but sometimes my leg aches and washing is a slow process, made slower by painkillers. Mostly I want to talk all the time, a statement made truer by painkillers, and tonight I want to sing, so David sings with me. Sometimes we sing Salt-n-Pepa. Tonight we sing Positive K.
I got a man, I start, and David picks up the duet with what’s your man got to do with me? I wash the first pin, and then the next, and then the next. I got a man, I sing again, moving on down my leg. I ain’t tryin’ to hear that, see, David responds. But I forget which pins I’ve washed already and so I start again: I got a man.
When I am done I pull back the shower curtain and extend my leg provocatively. Is this my good side? I ask. I think this is funny. Where’s the photographer? I don’t have all night. I’m mugging now, and David is handing me a towel. I can see bones I’ve never seen before, small mountain ranges, emerging beneath my flesh. I know this is hard to look at, I say, serious for a moment. I know this is hard.
David sits on the edge of the tub, wraps another towel around me. He hands me the L-shaped wrench and I engage the device on my leg. Inside me, the break in my bone edges infinitesimally apart. It is a glacial pain.
A year after the accident you go to the neighborhood pool. Your body’s song always humming in your ears, you no longer flinch when you feel others’ eyes resting on your second skin. You are twenty now, and though the major surgeries are behind you, more plastic surgery lies ahead. You are liminal. You are not the boy the EMTs rushed to the hospital a year ago. You are not the boy who flicked the match.
A child is watching you change in the dressing room, is walking circles around you and staring. And so you say, don’t play with matches, kid, even though that’s not what happened, that’s not what happened at all. The kid doesn’t answer. You approach the pool and lower yourself down. You have forgotten what it feels like to be suspended in water, to weigh nothing at all.
Scar: from the Greek eskhara, “scab formed after a burn,” literally “hearth, fireplace.” Or perhaps from Old Norse sker, “isolated rock or low reef in the sea,” from Proto-Germanic sker– ,”to cut”.1 I’ve learned about skin from watching my own harden into the same white sinew that spreads across my father’s chest. Call it rock, call it reef, we are hardened against that which cleaves us.
An infected pin-site rages and will not stop. I feel like I’m burning, she says, like there’s wildfire inside me. There is no painkiller that lessens the heat—the pin is already pinching a nerve, and now the infection—and so she warns you when she is about to move because she knows she will necessarily call out in pain, because any movement, no matter how small, will trigger the heat. And so she warns you, I’m going to sit up now. And you look away, will not look her in the face, cannot look at her. I’m going to lie back now. I’m going to lie back. It’s over.
At three months old, your daughter is still too tiny for a cast-saw to be used. Instead, you must learn to remove the dressings, slowly and with water, from her infant limbs. She is so small this can be done in the bathroom sink. You turn the tap and fill the basin. You lower your baby into the water and she kicks, and then she screams. You work to soften and loosen the casts from her legs, unwrapping her carefully, as one would unwrap something made of glass. She is screaming. You concentrate on your hands. Afterwards, you pour yourself two fingers of whiskey and stand quietly in the kitchen.
Your daughter has the most severe case of teratological type feet the doctor has seen in his career. In the first year of your daughter’s life they will run tests for mental retardation, biopsy the muscle in her legs, explore the depth of her deformity. You will work with your wife and the doctors to make a plan, schedule the first operation when she is five months old.
You know that your daughter’s skin will eventually look like yours, will bear a waxy seal where the knife breaches skin. But she has yet to be opened, does not know anything of surgical knives or scars or recovery. For now, you must do everything you can on your own. You must hold your child in water; you must apply and remove the casts yourself.
When what really happened comes down to this: Late July, a BBQ in the park, a date with the class Valedictorian. Her name is Barbara. You don’t know it then, but you will never see her again after this day.
Your friends are trying to start the grill and you only have charcoal briquettes. You volunteer to go find something to start the fire and end up with a friend in his garage, grabbing a small can of gasoline or kerosene. You don’t know the difference. You don’t think it matters.
And so you put the briquettes on the open grill and slosh what turns out to be gasoline over them. You flick a match. Flames jump skyward and then subside: the gas has burned off and the briquette hasn’t caught. You don’t realize an ember is still burning and so you pour more gas. A flame leaps up and your thumb catches, so you jerk your hand away, spill the can down your shirt. Your chest is burning. Your body is burning and you cannot stop it.
A man in a nearby house sees you ablaze and staggering. He grabs a blanket and sets out across the field. You are rolling on the ground, you are trying to put out your own flames. You try to tackle a nearby stranger around the ankles, think you can pull him down with you and press him to your chest, think you can suffocate the flames with his body against yours. He gets away. You are still on the ground rolling when the man with the blanket arrives and smothers the flames. Your shirt is burned clean away. Your skin is burned clean away.
You lie on the ground in shock and someone calls the EMTs, and then someone is lifting you into the ambulance. You are conscious. You are reciting your information. Your parents are out of town so your mother’s best friend comes to the hospital to be with you. And you, so badly burned the only place they can insert the IV needle is your ankle. And you, tripping on painkillers, out of your mind, singing and kicking and hitting on nurses, and your parents out of town. And your mother’s best friend Lynn, saying, all right, that’s all right, you sing if you need to, and holding the needle in place so you don’t kick that damn IV right out of your vein.
When your daughter is four she asks what will happen after her casts come off, what her body will look like. Like this, you say, showing her your chest and your arms. And this. This is what you’ll look like when you heal.
When she is seven she points to a plane in the sky, the steady stream of exhaust. Look, she says. It’s a sky scar. Like ours. You stand with your daughter as the line of exhaust fades. What it means to be healed.
I am so distracted by the news that I leave a mitten in the doctor’s office and don’t even think to go back for it. Despite all my childhood surgery, my ankles are beginning to fail, even though I’m only twenty-seven. One doctor suggests ankle replacements but warns this is a temporary fix. They have to come out eventually. Then, we’re looking at limb salvaging. Prosthetics may be a great option for you. I let this doctor film me walking barefoot up and down the hallway, let him gather three interns for a teaching moment. I call my father on the sidewalk outside St. Vincent’s hospital. I am crying so hard he can’t understand what I’m saying, and when he finally does, the line goes quiet.
A few months later I am sitting in yet another doctor’s office, this time to see if I’m a candidate for ankle distraction, a procedure that may postpone the need for ankle replacements by at least a decade. It is not a solution but I’m told it will buy me some time. David is with me. I cannot look at David, cannot look him in the face, because I know if I do I will cry. I watch the doctor get excited about my x-rays, show his interns the extent of my deformity. Arthritis like an eighty-year-old woman. No cartilage left.
The procedure has a high success rate. If it fails, it won’t lower my chances of successful ankle replacement down the road. The doctor can lengthen my leg simultaneously, repairing the inch and a half leg-length discrepancy I’ve had since birth. The whole procedure will take about five months. I can’t look at David.
You are up in Boston holding down the fort. It’s been over a month now and your daughter and her boyfriend and your wife are settling into a routine. You call them daily to check in and you tell your daughter about walks with the dog. And then one day the dog collapses. You are a mile from home and her hind legs give out.
The next morning you take the dog to the vet and learn her lungs are filled with fluid. She has a tumor in her heart so large it’s restricting the heart’s ability to circulate blood, to circulate oxygen in the blood. The dog is suffocating from the inside. The vet recommends you put her down that day.
You call your daughter and you are crying. I’m sorry I can’t be there, she says. I’m sorry you have to do this alone. You are both crying. You are apologizing that this happened on your watch. You are both apologizing and crying.
The vet finds the right vein in the dog’s foreleg. You sit on the floor and you pat the dog and you hold her and then she is gone. The body will be cremated. Your daughter does not want the dog’s ashes.
You go back to the house and you pick up all the toys, put away the dog bed. You put the dog’s collar in the car. You will go to New York in a few days. Your wife calls you later that night when your daughter is asleep, and now she is crying. One of the pin-sites appears infected, and the doctor’s office is slow to call back.
You go to bed and you think about the dog, about cremation, about your daughter’s infected pin. You will go to New York in a few days. You will sit with your daughter and you will hold her. You used to do this when she was a child. You will tell her the dog went quietly. You will talk if she wants you to. You will tell her anything she wants.
1. From the Online Etymology Dictionary↩
Rumpus original art by Erech Overaker.