Seeing Scars

Concert crowd
Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

At the Iggy Pop show, he stood so close I could have traced the five points of his skin stencil with my tongue. But I didn’t dare. Crammed into the venue, the air thick with impatience and weed and human stench, the boy with the star branded on his left bicep loomed over me like a sublime mountain, inspiring both awe and danger. But I was willing to climb. To cling.

I was a shadowy blonde in faux leather pants. He was sweet buzzed angel skull. He was cheekbones angled to impale my soft and simple heart. I raised the stacked heels of my boots off the floor to briefly share his atmosphere, to inhale the synthetic garden of his freshly laundered white t-shirt, the top notes of sweat blooming underneath.

A few months before, my long-distance boyfriend had dumped me. He was at a huge state school, getting deep into dance music. I was at a small liberal arts school, getting deep into existentialism. When we broke up, I coped by daydreaming about the pompous tool in my creative writing seminar who pronounced “Hesse” like the Germans did. His “e” wasn’t silent nor was his want for attention. His thinly veiled fiction read like flaccid Hemingway. Yet, I stared at his sun-brown neck, roped in a tacky hemp necklace, and imagined my hands there instead. My mouth, even. And now here I was, finding another way to cope.

Boys were how I defined myself, how I found my contours, how I gave myself shape. Only in their presence could I figure out how to embody meaning, how to take up space. Boys were how I told my story.

The boy with the star branded on his left bicep pouted as he took another drag of his cigarette, not in an obnoxious way but in a sensual way that left me entranced, that had me not only stealing glances but hoarding them for later when I was alone and could indulge my appetite for rampant fantasy. His lips curled around the filter in the purest expression of ennui I’d yet to witness. There was no artifice to him. Just a genuine weariness bordering on Zen. He was breathtaking.

To be branded was to be claimed, to be permanently owned. Who owned this boy? Who’d laid claim to him? And why couldn’t it be me? Most likely self-definition came so easy; he’d gone to these extremes to forge himself as anything but ordinary. He wasn’t looking to belong, to be held by this world. Instead, his branding marked his liberation.

The boy with the star branded on his left bicep sang along to “Ziggy Stardust” like the rest of us while we waited for Iggy to take the stage. He exhaled a perfect plume of smoke and then rested his sleepy gaze on my watchful face. He kept it there—a lingering look of appreciation that stopped oxygen from flowing, that stalled time. I met his eyes but tempered my blood-bursting need. All I wanted was to be seduced but I knew that to be seduced, I had to put myself on display—although not too much and only the parts that counted. I primed myself for his pleasure: a sweet smirk here, a sleek strand tucked behind the ear there, an intensely bored appraisal of the stage followed by another sweet smirk, culminating in a subtle jutting of the ass. During this performance, I fashioned the me I wanted to be wanted by him. I told myself I could only be this way because he was there. I didn’t know how to be otherwise.

The lights cut out. The room hummed with dark potential. Iggy, the shirtless maelstrom, whirled toward the mic. I tried to locate the storied injuries on his body, the mapping of his self-destruction. Iggy was notorious for public acts of self-mutilation. In the 70s, he’d provoke his audience by carving into his chest with shards of glass, with drumstick, with anything that would draw blood and then eyes to the site of his self-inflicted drama. But his deep Miami tan obscured most traces of past harm. They’d faded with time. Like everything else.

It was spring break when my long-distance boyfriend called it off for good. We were both home in our shitty south Florida town. I’d spent the weekend with him and his family celebrating Cambodian New Year, assisting with the preparations, cross-legged on his kitchen tile at dawn wrapping spring roll after spring roll while he slept. He tried to break it off that evening but I wore him down with my tears, pleading and rolling myself into a pity ball in his blankets while he shushed me and kissed me into quiet. A few days later he called and insisted it was over. I kept him on the line for hours, wailing on the floor of my teenage bedroom, afraid I’d disappear with the dial tone. To lose the long-distance boyfriend was to lose a version of myself: bubbly and breezy, conventionally happy and fond of normalcy. Even though we didn’t have much in common anymore, even though he told me I had the musical taste of a middle-aged man, even though he found my movie taste a bit too dramatic, a bit too dark, even though he strummed an acoustic guitar and played treacly Goo Goo Dolls covers, I liked being his easygoing girlfriend easily liked by everyone. Basic but happy.

When we finally hung up, the sun had vanished. I remained on the floor, a trembling mass of animal noise, clawing at my carpet in the dark. No one else was home. My dad was out on a date. My brother was out doing drugs. So, I took a pair of kitchen scissors and scraped them repeatedly against the inside of my wrists like I was raking fertile ground. Until I felt like myself again, until everything stung pink and red. Another cliché to add to my story. Another colorful detail I could call to mind when I wanted to remember the quality of this heartache. When I wanted to remember this version of myself, passionate and unhinged. When I wanted to remind myself that the hurt had been real, that I had been real.

The next day I inspected my pastel scrapes, the puny indents on my wrists. A mild pain simmered if I pressed hard enough. No scars because it was never that deep.

Iggy howled and growled about losing himself in his favorite place. That’s where he and I differed. I had no interest in being annihilated through a good fuck. I wanted to be remade and remodeled, created anew each time I watched a hot boy come. I wanted to recognize myself as his favorite place. Construct myself as his new home. Good bones. Warm and inviting.

It was bodies upon bodies now, crushing and colliding. And then it was Iggy’s sweaty and sinewy back slipping through my fingers as he floated across the pit of frenzied flesh. And then it was “The Passenger” and its propulsive la la las sending the throng speeding in every direction until we all lost sight of the familiar. And then the house lights came up and bodies were at rest and the boy with the star branded on his left bicep and pouty lips and sleepy eyes tapped me on the shoulder and flashed his gap-toothed grin. Hey, I want to talk to you, he said. Let’s get a drink.

No boy had ever been so forthright and direct before. There was always a catch or something to second-guess, some tedious subtext to read (What does it mean when he says…when he asks…when he doesn’t say…when he blinks?) and by the time I’d gleaned its meaning, it was tainted by all that previous uncertainty. But the boy with the star branded on his left bicep had no time for innuendo. His wants were explicit and transparent. His wants were basic, base even: to talk and to drink. With me. Me. Me. Me. He wanted me. A story unfolded in which I was the clear object of desire, passive but willing. At the time, I thought it was the only tale worth telling.

I flashed him my real smile while an embarrassment of romantic tropes flashed through my mind:

  • A sloppy last call where we shared our traumas and dreams in equal measure.
  • A stumbling across empty beer bottles into his arms before fucking on his filthy mattress against the hard, hard ground, some punk band poster sneering above our heads. Black Flag. Maybe Danzig.
  • A post-bang cigarette while I nuzzled against his forever blemish before asking him what else hurt. Like, really hurt, deep down. And he’d joke, Looking at you, while I pretended he meant it.

But then I remembered I came to this concert with my dad’s cool ex-girlfriend who was waiting in the lobby, who was ready to drive me home. My dad’s cool ex-girlfriend who kept her distance throughout the show because she remembered what it was like to be a 20-year-old girl set on setting her night on fire. Plus, being pushed around in the eye of male aggression wasn’t her idea of a good time. Not anymore, at least. So, when the chaos took hold, she excused herself from the throng, satisfied with admiring Iggy from afar.

The boy with the star branded on his left bicep was hungering for my reply. A wolfish smile ready to devour my words, my face, whatever I was willing to give him. I couldn’t transform completely in the wake of his want. I was still the shadowy blonde in leather pants, shy and unsure of everything. A good girl who wouldn’t keep her dad’s cool ex-girlfriend waiting much longer no matter how badly she wanted his hip bones grinding against hers until morning.

I handed him a bouquet of sorrys, already wilting in the smoke and grime. I couldn’t bear to look at his mouth and eyes so close-up and defenseless, absorbing my polite lame idiotic good girl excuses, uncovering the mousy loser beneath the sleek and the smirk. I turned away without another word and dragged myself through the rowdy horde to my dad’s cool ex-girlfriend. There was no looking back.

My dad’s cool ex-girlfriend said I could have stayed, should have stayed. She would have waited. But she didn’t understand. I couldn’t beg her to ditch me in that seedy venue, abandon me to the boy with the star branded on his left bicep and never return. I wanted to wander in the fog of his iris, traverse the lean of his limbs, taste the chewed bubblegum expanse of his scar, for as long as he’d let me. I’d accept living in a crummy apartment complex in Fort Lauderdale or wherever he was from. No matter how sketchy or illusory, he offered the promise of a new life, a new me. Sure, I could evolve on my own but in ways that I could predict, that I could pre-determine. Where was the fun in that? Constancy was a lie. And a bore.

Walking out into the parking lot glare beneath a starless sky, I emerged no different than I was before. I’d failed to become someone new. Hot. Wildly different. I tried to console myself. Maybe it was better to leave him waiting and wondering about what could have been. Maybe, in this way, he’d never forget me. Maybe in this way, I’d never forget the cooler and unequivocally desirable me that stood center stage for those few hours. Maybe this was the only ending that made sense. An ellipsis of possibility forever trailing behind me, chasing me into the arms of the next boy who could end the interminable sentence of being myself.

For the rest of the summer, it was Raw Power on repeat—while finding a job, while hopped up on NoDoz and ploughing through library books, while printing out pixelated photos of all the actors I fantasized about taking inside me, taping them to my bedroom walls so they had no choice but to invade me with their vacant Hollywood leers. Gimme danger, little stranger, and all that.

I longed to lay my heart on the burning sands that Iggy snarled about. I wanted to blister and bleed and feel myself shrivel beneath the careless heat of another body. But there was no one to pin me down, to mark me, to claim me. I was free, unfettered, and far too knowable to myself.

It wasn’t about seeking security or quelling insecurity. It wasn’t even about love most of the time. Rapture or heartbreak. Whatever came first, I’d take it. Same difference. Both, an opportunity for transformation. Both resulted in a maiming, a guaranteed othering, a surefire way to emerge unrecognizable from who you once were. Forever changed.

Even now, decades and decades later, happily married and solidly in love, I perceive myself as a staid and predictable thing, pining for a force to alter her course, to shake her complacent trust in who she is and who she will always be.

Even now, sitting side by side in a darkened theater before the previews start or standing under the shower directly in front of him, my nakedness now sapped of its novelty, I sometimes implore my husband, “Hey, hey! Look at me!” while I strike a vixen pose and dole out a cheesecake smile, waiting for him to focus on the whole of me and make something new out of it. I don’t have to look to him to find me but without him, I’m bound to deceive. To regard myself inaccurately, incompletely. Unfairly. Most days if it were up to me, I’d be a floating brain, a wandering consciousness. Invisible. I’m tired of casting myself into something cohesive and static and worthy. When someone else assigns me a role, it’s a wondrous jolt to the ego. When I regard myself, it’s hard labor.

That summer I touched the places where the boy with the star branded on his left bicep should have been, but it wasn’t the same. It felt like tracing the lines of desire when all I wanted was a way to color them in. So, instead, I fleshed out the story, the story of him, of me, of us in that moment, the memory searing a bit deeper with each retelling. I told it to friends, to myself over and over and over, to keep the wound fresh, to remain unhealed. To sustain the pain. So the girl I once was within his view wouldn’t fade away. Not just yet.

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