Three scars brush my face. Two visible. One hidden. The first scar cuts across the orbital—the rim of the eye socket—fractured during a mugging on Easter Sunday. This scar is crescent in shape, like the sickle moon.
The second scar—the result of a laceration to the chin—was etched into me when I fell to the pavement after being knocked out, either with a gun or a club. After I blacked out, I recall so little except for waking up in the hospital with a male nurse peering down at me.
The third scar—masked behind my eyebrow—is from a lancet, from the plastic surgery to fix the fracture around the eye. The surgeon said that my eye was sinking. Either have the operation, the surgeon said, or risk looking like a Picasso.
Before the surgery, a nurse hooked me up to an IV drip. Through the drip, anesthesia oozed into my veins. The burn of the anesthesia prickled through me, like thousands of thorns, until the burn reached my eyes, which saw, before closing, the handsome young surgeon looking down at me, his blue eyes seeming to reach into mine.
The morning after the Easter assault, wounds stung with dirt ground into skin. A slash on my right palm from falling. Lacerations on my abdomen, from being kicked while I was down. My ribs, cracked. A swollen shoulder, the flesh above the collar bone bulging upward like those of musclemen, the ones who look like they do anabolic steroids.
The morning after, my hair could not be cleansed of asphalt and earth, no matter how hard I washed. Two times. Three times. The slow drip of the faucet into the full tub like a metronome, keeping time with my mind trying to remember an event that felt like a shipwreck, like a galleon spilled across the ocean.
The morning after, I stared into the mirror, into my face red with gashes. I stared into my grey eyes bloodshot and somber, accusing me of walking a certain way out of a certain bar.
“Fag,” I heard voices saying as I stared at myself. I couldn’t look away. I told myself that by forcing myself to look at my damaged body I would remember what happened.
As I stood at the mirror, I looked down at the gash, like a bite mark, on the knuckle of my middle finger. I saw myself striking one of the assailants in the mouth. In that moment, I felt my knuckle skinned by teeth. I felt knowledge, not book learning but pain knowledge from youth: the lived experience that taught me how to throw a punch.
“You were drunk when it happened,” the tall, white Police Sergeant said, peering down at me, folding his tanned, tattooed arms across the light blue shirt of his uniform.
“I had a few,” I said.
“Who was with you?” he asked.
“A friend,” I told him.
“Male?” he asked.
“Female,” I said.
Lonely on Easter and away from family, my friend, a visiting scholar from France, asked for company. We had two or three cocktails at a gay bar. Left at 10 p.m. Embraced at the corner. Me in a black sweater and grey jeans that would, the morning after, be splattered with blood. Her in a cute auburn-brown dress that matched her hair. At the corner, she turned north. I turned south, each of us fading into the curtain of fog sliding in from Lake Michigan. Unharmed, she saw and heard nothing.
“Do you think they were targeting gay men?” I asked the Police Sergeant.
He was silent. A tough cop of Chicago, the Police Sergeant didn’t want to touch that matter. After shaming me for being drunk, he wanted my attention focused on the race of the assailants.
“Were they black?” he asked.
I looked down at the gash on my knuckle. As I sat there with the buff, middle-aged Police Sergeant looming over me, his hot minty breath falling on my face, I saw the image of two teenage men, both taller than me. The young men asked me something that I couldn’t recall on command. In the hazy darkness of what little memory I had, I remembered their voices but not their faces.
The Police Sergeant found a record of the ambulance coming to get me. As he rehashed the details, I remembered the EMT: a blond woman with a husky voice and very strong arms. In my concussed state, it seemed like the ambulance was floating, like an ambulance fairy with a halo of light around it.
When the Police Sergeant mentioned the EMT, I saw the outlines of the young men who beat me up. I saw the sweatshirt of the one I punched.
“One of them was wearing red,” I said.
“Red?” he asked. “That’s all you got for me?”
“Yes,” I said, examining the lined face of the white Police Sergeant, with his military buzz cut, remembering that I had met him once before.
I met the Police Sergeant three years prior because of an event unrelated to my Easter walloping.
One August evening, around dinner time, I returned from a work trip. On a bright, clear day, I enjoyed from the plane a pristine view of the sky and earth below. On the descent, I saw the Midwestern metropolis where I’d made my home. I saw its shimmering skyscrapers perched on Lake Michigan. In my mind’s eye, the towers of the city seemed poised to tumble into the lake’s blue abyss.
The plane landed. I got my luggage. I hailed a cab to take me to my neighborhood, a pocket on the city’s northwest side next to a corridor of shuttered factories and warehouses, a pocket of the city not yet swallowed by the waves of gentrification. As the cab pulled onto my street and up to the curb, I saw an altercation in the park across the street from the two-flat where my husband and I lived. I saw a teenage male swinging a gun. I saw a crowd of teens gathering around him. But I tried not to see them.
I left the cab with my bags. I sprinted to the front door. I quickly searched my pockets for my keys. I could not find them. I was locked out. I called my husband—an immigrant from Latin America, a preacher whom I heard singing hymns on the day I met him—to let me in.
“Hey, that guy is calling the cops!” the boy with the gun screamed and pointed to me.
As the boy began advancing across the street toward the house, my husband appeared. He opened the door and let me in. Our next-door neighbors, whose clucking hens I coveted, telephoned the police. From behind the blinds of our front window, my husband and I watched as the cops arrived and the crowd of teens dispersed into the night.
As the days wore on, the hot August evenings echoed with the sharp, popping sound of gunshots. Gunshots fired into the park while kids were playing soccer, while kids were swinging, while young girls ate ice cream from the trucks that blared the refrain from Cielito Lindo: “Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores (sing and do not cry).”
My husband, our neighbors of the coveted chickens, and I went to the alderman’s office. We pushed the alderman and the Police Sergeant—who would later shame me after I was assaulted—to deal with the situation. We told them that a gang had begun frequenting the park after a murder earlier in the year. They folded their arms, unmoved by the requests.
“I mean, there are shots being fired into the park while children are playing soccer,” I said.
“Well, it’s not like those kids are perfect angels, if you know what I mean,” the Police Sergeant said.
I could feel my face turning red.
“So fucking racist!” I shouted.
“You got the time?” two teenage men asked as they stepped out of the dark alleyway of memory. They were so young, or at least their voices seemed so young. So harmless on that evening of Easter Sunday. I thought them handsome. I felt buzzed. I felt generous.
“Yes,” I said to them.
I wore the watch of my deceased maternal grandfather, David, who tried to be a father to me in my dad’s absence. As a young man, David was a welterweight golden gloves boxer. When he was 18, he went off to war in the Pacific. Near the end of his life, he opened up, telling stories of atolls full of human bones. Atolls where prisoners of war were marooned and left to die. Places a person couldn’t walk without finding a foot, a femur, a skull.
When my parents were still married, when my dad was beating up my mom, David and my dad, who was the larger man, came to blows more than once. I remember my dad’s face all bloodied. David didn’t have a scratch on him. When I was six and my mom kicked my dad out for good, I cried. David taught me not to cry. He taught me how to fight: plant your feet, clench your fists, hold knuckles close to face. Elbow follows knuckles. Keep arm straight. Get hit. Hit back harder. Once, when I was ten, I told him that in catechism the priest said that Jesus asks us to turn the other cheek. David told me to go smack the priest and see what happens.
“What’s the time?” the boys, the hardly men, asked. Or so I recall. I looked down at David’s old watch.
“Hand over the watch,” they said, yanking me into the alley.
“The watch?” I asked.
“Fucking now!” they screamed.
“This means something to me!” I pleaded. “Take my wallet.”
I felt a blow to my eye. I hit back. A fight began. One of them grabbed my right arm and yanked it behind me and held me close to him, an unkind embrace from behind. But my left fist threw a hook, my knuckle hitting the other on a front tooth. Blood came out of all three of us. I almost broke free.
But, then, something, not a fist, perhaps a gun, struck me on the crown of the head. I went down to the pavement. Then, down further into the depths of unconsciousness.
At the police station, I learned that someone saw it happen. Someone anonymously called it in. Someone must have spooked them.
“You’re lucky someone called 911,” the Police Sergeant said, as I looked down at my naked wrist where David’s watch had rested.
From David—with his homesteader roots and his working-class mentality—I inherited the belief that you never complain, that you accept your fate because you believe it to be God’s will. You take pride in your bruises. You laugh away pain.
My husband said, “When you tell people what happened, you laugh, like you are laughing at yourself. Like laughing it off will make you seem tough.”
The reaction of my elderly grandmother, David’s widow was, “Dear, were your nice Sunday clothes ruined?”
My motherly gay doctor, learning of the assault, rushed to embrace me, all aflutter like a distraught hen swooping in to protect her chick. He said, “Sweetie, it’s not your fault.”
One of my former professors, whom I saw in the weeks after the mugging when my face looked very bruised and banged up, said, “It’s a shame. You always look so put together.”
My boss, to whom I recounted the theft of my grandfather’s watch, to whom I recounted that my grandfather wanted me to be tough, said, “Well, maybe, you have your evidence.”
The punch begins in the feet. A cousin to the jump, its springing motion is more subtle, like the prologue to a jig. The power for the punch swells up through the legs to abdomen, then from the chest to the arm. The punch entails contradictions. The legs must be relaxed while the upper body is like a shell—elbows in close, thumbs down, knuckles tight. Protect the head. When there’s an opening, throw a hook. When there’s an opening, feel his lips.
When David died a year before the Easter walloping, none of his sons wanted the watch he was wearing. A Seiko with a metal wrist band and little gilt hands. I’m doubtful about it having any real gold. After it was stolen, I looked up the model. About $150 bought new. The resale value, at most, thirty bucks.
Before David died, I had his eulogy ready. I knew well the story of great sacrifice that I would tell. He raised me. He taught me how to be a man. He went into debt in countless efforts to save my mother from poverty and meth addiction and incarceration. He searched for her, his prodigal daughter, until the end. Before David died, when he was in the hospital on his last legs and not making much sense, he called from hundreds of miles away, his voice quavering, to ask me to figure out where my mom was. He asked me to check the bars, the ex-boyfriends, the local jail. In his demented final days, he was forever waiting for her to come back home.
Giving the eulogy brought no tears to my eyes, which was his way. I’d made peace with his dying and, in the end, was thankful to be released. Over the years, I’d spent thousands flying back and renting cars to drive off toward the steep thunderheads on the western horizon of the Great Plains—all to see David, all to repay him everything I felt I owed to him.
Minus my being gay, which David eventually accepted, I’d become the man he wanted me to be. Masculine enough. A fine education. A white-collar job. Not stuck in the low-wage rut of my dying hometown, which trapped my mom. But the man he wanted me to be never felt quite right.
I am no perfect angel.
In the weeks leading up to the assault, I’d been pining for a man with whom I’d fallen in love. A man who was not my preacher husband. A man who I knew in my heart didn’t love me. Not in the way I loved him, with my love morphing into the beguiling demon of asymmetrical craving.
I’d met the man when I was away for a few months for work. My preacher husband and I had a fight before I left. He said that I was free to do whatever I wanted, that when I got back, we’d sort out a schism, a moving-on. It’d be hard because we had things in common: two whining Siamese cats, a house full of the artifacts of our loved ones, an imprint on each other. For my part, I’d miss the preacher’s singing. His hymns in the shower. His Madonna karaoke. I’d miss the stories of his grandmother, an illiterate peasant from the highlands of Honduras who once to protect her grandson did, in fact, slap a predatory priest.
The other man with whom I had fallen in love while away for work was towering. Middle-Eastern by origin and bearded. I saw him at the gym. He followed me to the locker room. We chatted. He said that in the weight room I had “eye fucked” him.
I had, no doubt, eye fucked him as I squatted 180 pounds plus the bar. Glancing sideways, I admired his towering presence, his face in profile. To me, he looked Hellenistic, like one of Alexander’s generals.
In the locker room, he said I was the “perfect size.” A “knockout.” Such pretty lines.
I bought them. We went to dinner. Assholes on the street shouted “Isis” after him. After we had dinner, he drove me to where I was staying. He leaned in to kiss me. I turned away. I jumped out of the car.
I almost ended it there. But I needed him. I needed his greater height, his broader shoulders, and his unyielding confidence. His stature hid his giving a damn.
To each other, we revealed our physical imperfections. For him, his skinny legs. For me, my undeveloped chest. I asked him to help me develop my bench exercises. He did, putting aside for those moments at the gym any pretense of romance.
“You don’t accelerate when you press the bar,” he said, peering down at me, my back flat on the bench. “You’re too timid. The proper form requires an explosive motion, like a punch.”
When I met this man, his father, a conservative Muslim man, was months away from dying. My grandfather, a pious man who was like my dad, had just died. Months after I met this man—on the occasion of his father’s death and two months before my Easter walloping—I told him in a voice message that I loved him. I did not hear back.
Before this death, we ate dinners and talked literature. We talked about how we both had wanted to be artists yet we weren’t. How we each, in our own unique ways, had followed the paths acceptable to our fathers.
“It’s sort of sad, isn’t it?” he asked one night, looking down at the ponderous mashed potatoes on his plate. “Both of us living lives we don’t really want.”
On the one night that we were intimate, he saw my grandfather’s watch. We were in bed, our limbs entwined, his chin resting on my shoulder, his breath touching my ear. The little gilt hands of the watch caught the lamp light coming in off the street and glimmered.
“I like your watch,” he said and kissed me.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Chris Phan
This story was a semi-finalist in the 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction, and is included in our special contest issue as one of the top, overall 10 stories.