Photo by Ivan Gromov
by Meg LeDuc
I began to help her with her homework and learned she had secrets.
Slim, with long brown hair and a locket face, Renee dressed in snappy skirts with a gash of lipstick—and the other kids said the police caught her giving her boyfriend a blowjob in the municipal park. Sometimes, she cried during our high school newspaper class; sometimes, she flared. I was one of the only students, besides her boyfriend, who was kind to her, and—unlike her boyfriend—I asked nothing of her. The long, monotonous days passed, the sugar maples outside blazing like scarlet houses, and then the snow beginning to fly, and she began to confide secrets, big, scary secrets—not least, that an older, male cousin raped her when she was eleven years old.
But she kept other secrets, too. Leaning close on those days in a high-school class, her pale, heart-shaped face nearly touching my lips, Renee whispered, “You put the pain where you can see it, where you can control it.” She paused, murmuring, “Cutting is like writing out your pain on your skin.”
I inhaled sharply, a whoosh of air, then exhaled slowly: a key to the gilt door, my left ventricle. I stared at her arms, shimmering with precise, pallid lines. The scars—they were scars, I realized—shone.
I knew what it was like to huddle on the floor of my bedroom closet, sobbing, as if a Molotov cocktail had shattered in my stomach. In my 12th-grade English class, we were reading Hamlet, and I thought of myself as the Ghost, escaping through a trap door in Shakespearian staging. I had grown up in a chaotic home, the youngest child of five, where the wind seemed to take away my words, trapped between my adoptive sister’s intense rage and my mother’s out-of-control corporal punishment. The house buzzed, furious as a wasp roused from its nest. In my sixth-grade journal, I wrote that I always knew when everyone else around me was angry but that no one knew when I was angry. As I grew older, I spiraled into what I now realize was severe anxiety and depression, fantasizing about suicide—until I met Renee and learned that there was another way to express pain and anger.
Now, sitting in newspaper class, I regarded Renee.
“What do you cut yourself with?” I whispered, leaning forward, twisting and untwisting the cap off a pen in my hand.
“Lots of things,” she said, tracing circles on the desktop with her sparkly pink, ragged nails. “But some work better than others.”
I learned so much in those days. Renee taught me that the flyspeck cuts relieved rage but weren’t detectable. Nobody, especially teachers, would glance at a few scratches on the arms, provided I turned in my schoolwork on time, or if there were more slices, that long sleeves were best.
But my blood bloomed. My heart hurtled. I would learn that slicing and burning skin was a form of translation. I wanted to say, “I’m in pain, and this is the only thing I know how to do that helps…” To me, for a time at least, my wounds signified power.