Wisdom of Scars

“I’d hate to see what happened to the other guy,” the paramedic says to me. He’s on the other side of the velvet rope on the polished faux marble floor. The room is vault-cold and lit low, relaxing. It’s his way of asking. Everyone asks. Never directly, always sideways, half-joking. He shuffles forward a step. I shuffle forward a step.

If this was a Hollywood movie with a buxom young starlet as the distressing damsel and a young buck with a chiseled jaw, perfectly mussed hair, and an improbably sculpted and hairless torso as the would-be hero, I’d be the villain and I’d be robbing this bank. Why? Because I look like one. Where ever I go rookie police officers and bored security guards scrutinize me. I’m not a sadistic, cruel, or criminal person by any stretch of the imagination.

I have, however, been marked by wisdom earned too early. The mark is in the form of a sickle-shaped scar that runs around my left eye, from brow to cheekbone, then down to my jaw. It’s old, as scars go, but still noticeable. People never ask directly because whatever happened to mark a man so on the outside must have carried an awful emotional toll as well.

That’s why the paramedic is joking. I don’t tell him. Because he honestly doesn’t want to know. I just smile and say, “Yeah, you would.” I say this because I’m a big guy and the scar gives my features the aforementioned Hollywood bad-guy menace. It’s comical in a way.

He drops it. They always do. They get the sense it’s a sore subject and they let it go.

The paramedic isn’t here because of the scar. I know he’s a paramedic because of the patch on the shoulder of his uniform shirt says “paramedic” in embroidered block letters. He’s just like me. He waited too long before getting to the bank on a Friday afternoon. He’s in line beside me during that last rush that the tellers hate. He only said anything because he’s a paramedic and he’s used to dealing with people and things that become scars. The woman in front of him looks uncomfortable now; so does he. Good. Serves him right. No sense hassling a perfect stranger about a twenty-year-old scar.

Besides any scenario the paramedic, or the woman in front of him made uncomfortable, could come up with to leave me so scarred is far more exotic than what actually happened.

They see the Giants hat, this being California, and me being the right age, they think of the quake. The coulda-been big one. Candlestick Park, World Series shaker. Freeway collapses, city blocks burning. A terrified little boy, trapped, hurt. Did he lose his parents? No wonder he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Not what happened, not even close. But they think that. They whisper, thinking I don’t know why they whisper.

Or they see my physique, shaved head, and the tattoo peaking out from under the sleeve of my polo shirt. Once again, I’m the right age. They think shrapnel. They think Anbar Province. Operation Anaconda and roadside bombs. Honored fallen and the like. They see me dusty and bleeding, fighting for my life against insurgents or the Taliban. How many friends did he lose?

"Men like him," they think, "do what I never could."

Not what happened, couldn’t be further from the truth. But they think it. I see the misplaced admiration, the respect, the concern, for the young man made so old by the war.

If their mother or father was too liberal with a backhand or a belt, they think my dad did this. Or maybe they think I grew up in a rough neighborhood and I stepped on someone’s toes. They think car accident, fist fight, bar fight, knife fight. Pool cues and broken beer bottles. Gangbangers and brass knuckles. They think diamond rings and jilted lovers. Job site mishap (lucky, I was wearing my safety goggles or I would’ve lost the eye).

Wrong. All of them. Wrong.

It was nothing nearly that exciting. If any one of them would actually come out and ask. I’d tell them.

Just come out and say it. “Hey, how’d you fuck up your face?”

Abandon the bullshit pretext. Just ask me. But you won’t. People love the mystery. The not knowing is better than the knowledge ever could be. Like foreplay but only if foreplay was better than sex. They are - you are - curious. But you don’t really want to know, do you?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the wisdom earned through this scar.

The little bald spot in front of me, casting a glare even in the muted bank lobby lights, steps aside. The teller is a young, right-out-of-high-school girl. She’s pretty in a way that won’t last beyond her first child. She looks at her watch.

“Good afternoon, sir.” She’d rather be somewhere else. She should be half way done counting down, and much closer to going home than she is. She has plans tonight, drinks, dancing, whatever pretty young girls do before they grow up.

“Welcome to -” She looks up. Her words catch in her throat. That base fear born of stereotype and things we aren’t supposed to acknowledge. For a moment, a fraction of a second really, she‘s scared. Then, she wants to ask, but like everyone else, she doesn’t.

I smile.

No one ever really wants to know.