If my hair is short enough (or parted by the wind in some unfavorable way); or if my face is red enough (which it usually is, regardless of season or embarrassment level); or if the lighting is right; or if you get close enough to the maritime vessel that is my gigantic, empty head; you will notice a big, vertical scar running down the middle of my forehead - an authentic marking with unauthentic intentions, as it all too closely imitates the one Harry Potter sports and treats like some accessory or piece of personal branding or business card. Trust me, it's not that glamorous. But how did it get there in the first place? My scar, dummy, not the boy wizard's. I have no idea or interest in knowing how his got there, though I'm sure many of you do, including the riveting ins and outs of which spell or sorcerer he contended with to come out so scathed. No, this is a selfish post, dammit, and I intend to stick to the agenda here: explaining the unsightly brain-scar that is giving me an eternal hug between the eyes. Geeze.
Fifth grade. Winter time. Recess.
Gearing up in the coat room, us boys struggled by our cubbies with our snow suits for the second time that day, the difference being that this time our mothers were not present to help us hoist and shimmy and pour our pudgy little figures into the insulated torture device. Or maybe that was just me. My grapefruit-sized calves never seemed to fit into my snow boots properly, and by the end of March they always ended up looking like salt-stained wind socks or tarps.
We were already choosing teams for football before we even reached the field. One of my closest friends, Tom, also one of the smartest people I knew at the time, selected me. I always thought Tom was particularly bright - a prodigy even - not because he could multiply double-digit numbers, do long division, give exact change when working the school cafeteria (contrasted with the many times I erred in assuming there were 60 cents in a dollar and gave change thusly, for in my head there were 60 minutes in an hour, which, after all, were the two elements the world valued most - time and money - so they must operate on the same metric system for good measure), pass physical fitness tests with flying colors, return library books on time, or talk to girls without stuttering or tripping over his own two feet and hating every inch of himself for it... but because he always seemed to pick me first or second for football games, and this ranked him pretty high in my book. Tom saw through my doughy, girthy exterior to note my true athletic prowess on the miniature field.
Truth be told, it was because of Tom that my social and athletic standings (often directly correlated, often the exact same thing) went up at an alarming, exponential rate. Dave was picked first?! That means something right there. I don't know what it means, exactly. But there's something there. But it is also because of Tom that I now walk the streets at 25 looking like I'm in between classes at Hogwarts (I don't read the books, really, this is just what people tell me).
At the peak of the game we were up big. So big, in fact, that we tried showboating a bit to impress the couple of girls who had strayed from the larger pack of girls who were busy doing girly things during recess, like being cold or not playing in the snow, much too occupied to watch us champions in snow suits on the grid iron.
Tom called a huddle. We were going long. I was going long. A Hail Mary. The sweet, saccharine stuff dreams are made of in fifth grade (though now I know some guys grow up and never relinquish this fantasy). I had barely heard him yell "hike" before I was running haphazardly down the snow-covered field, flailing my arms as if I had no control over them. Then the pig skin was in the air, and I was sprinting straight ahead, past my ADD-riddled opponent, toward the end zone, with my head turned back over my shoulder to look for the ball.
I caught it. I freaking caught it! Mom would've been proud. But in the short seconds between making that catch and turning forward in my stride, I ran face-first into the goal post. My forehead met the corner of the wooden beam, and I stuck there for a moment with it wedged in me. It cracked me open the way a fresh cantaloupe would look if someone took an ax to it. I fell backward, onto the snow, blacked out and came to only to find faces looking down on me as it started to rain. For as far gone as I was, I could tell something wasn't quite right about the rain: it was thick and clouded my eyes and tasted weird and the only place it seemed to be raining was on my face. Then I rolled over to feel what felt like a garden hose protruding from my forehead, squirting my livelihood all over the snow like some cruel holiday arts-and-crafts session gone horribly wrong, where you're only provided cotton balls and red glue and told to "make something beautiful for your mother." Next came a lot of high-pitched screaming. I guess the girls had decided to brave the snow after all.
When I managed to bring myself to my knees, the crowd's reaction can only be compared to that of people witnessing mauled bodies come to life again as they take to the streets as zombies of the living dead. None of them were willing to help me, and they all stared and shrieked as if I were about to hunt them down and snack on them and turn them into zombies, too. To this day, I have not seen a pack of people disperse quite like that. Pandemic pandemonium. Though I wasn't a zombie (yet), I sure sauntered and staggered around the playground like one. My only goal was to find one of the lunch ladies who supervised recess. Upon finding two of them, they gasped and shouted even louder than the little girls had. Ha-... Halp?! My head. It's. My head is. Ahh! Somehow they got the picture.
What happened next was, and still is, confusing and irritating. I started to lose control of my legs, I'm guessing because I had lost the liter equivalent of a couple 7-11 Big Gulps of blood, or maybe because zombies need to rest a lot because they have such stiff legs and never seem to bend their knees. You know, people can faint that way. Anyhow, with my limp body semi walking, semi being dragged by their arms, I started to give way and turn gray (even more zombie-like!). This was simply unacceptable to one of the women, who insisted I "stand up straight and stop getting blood all over the clean halls." Oh, right, 'cause I can do that. Thanks a lot, lady. Die in a fire.
I had never heard our principal swear before, but I got to that day. With the three of us barreling into the front office and me fading in and out of consciousness, I stuck around long enough to hear her say, "Oh, holy SHIT! What in the... Just what in the hell is going on here?!" It must have been a sight. Then the ambulances came and they strapped me to a wooden board, which I thought was used for unruly patients, which confused me because I surely wouldn't be putting up much of a fight, but I soon found out it served the purpose of keeping my body on the board and off of the parking lot floor. They shined bright lights in my eyes and asked me questions like, "Who is the president of the United States?" and "What is our state's capitol?" and "What is 10 times 10?" and posed challenges like, "Recite every other letter of the alphabet" and "Count by odd numbers," which annoyed me because I never got any of those things right on tests anyway. I needed Tom. But I gave it my best shot, with whatever part of my brain that was still in tact and not stuck like gum to the wooden goal post. Apparently these were ridiculously easy questions, and served as some sort of barometer to escalate the severity of patients' cases if they got X number of questions wrong. I think I passed, or failed, depending on the way you look at it, with flying colors. I went to the front of the line and got right into the emergency room.
The next thing I remember, I was being told that the 45 stitches in my face would come out in due time, and that the crimson, lightning-bolt scar of raw flesh would mend and turn out to "not look that bad." Well there's a vague diagnosis. My mom was pretty strict back then, so you know what she did? After scolding me in the car for playing in the snow so carelessly, we passed the very road we lived on. Where could we possibly be going? I needed to go home. I needed to rest and curl up in blankets and eat Popsicles and chicken noodle soup like all the other kids who smashed their faces in. I needed to learn our state's capitol and what odd numbers meant other than the fact that certain ones were funny or confusing to me. Maybe we were going out for ice cream and Novocaine? Yes, of course! Why didn't I think of this earlier?! We were going for ice cream and Novocaine. To my dismay, we pulled back into the crime scene. Beneath the flag pole, my mom dropped me off at school where I had busted myself open no more than four hours earlier. "Now. You go in and get the homework you missed," she said.
My dad was a little more lax. After being assured that his first son was not dead, the next words out of his mouth were: "Well, did he catch the ball at least?"