The other night I went to a work event populated by writers and filmmakers, and inevitably found myself sitting next to the lone scientist. This is how it goes: for whatever reason of training, taste, or inclination, my social life is populated by people with vast intellectual prowess and limited social skills.
On this particular evening the seating plan was a relief, because people in the arts are notoriously avaricious. They steal whatever scrap of narrative or credit they can get their hands on, without compunction or acknowledgment. I’ve learned through long tedious experience that it is not wise to tell my stories to another writer, unless I’ve already published the piece. Even then the level of competition is obscene: is it really worth fighting over the crumbs of recognition available for such achievements as “living in Olympia in the 1980’s” “living in Portland in the 1990’s” or “vilified feminist writer”? In a word: no. I grew up in poverty, with cancer. I became a mother in my teens, survived an onslaught of violence, fought my way to safety, and immigrated to a new country. I’m no longer available for a victimization sweepstakes: I won that contest a long time ago, and I have better things to think about now. I’ve taken my tiara to a new tea party.
The scientist in question was the clinical and inquisitive sort who always manages to extract real information about my genetic disorder, multiple cancer diagnoses, and the underlying biological mysteries. Then he gestured to his own face and head, dappled by the flickering candlelight of the dinner party. “I like facial scars,” he said. “I have plenty of my own.”
I looked closer at his skin as he explained that a predilection for skateboarding, motorcycles, and rock climbing had slashed and burned him so many times he lost count of the injuries.
I sighed: he didn’t understand, though he was illustrating the point. It isn’t the scars themselves that matter, but instead, the stories the scars tell. The long thin line bisecting his forehead reminds him of some outrageous adrenaline high, an adventure gone awry but nevertheless something he chose, something he wanted.
The scars on my face are a narrative of captivity, confinement, duress. When I look in the mirror I don’t mind that my face is fucked up, and I do not reflect on the negligence or skill of the surgeons. I do not feel shame, or repulsion, and I do not care what other people see or feel. No. When I look in the mirror I see proof that I have cancer, that I have always had cancer, that there are no answers and no solutions. I am sanguine, not satisfied.
However: it is always good to talk to people who are not frightened by their own mortality.