Love & Sex

Scarred

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Dealbreaker

Sometimes, straddling my husband in bed, I drag my fingertips down his chest, over the smooth pale skin of his torso and then up again to his collarbone, down the center, over the scar. The scar is seven inches long, shaped like an exclamation point with its period floating an inch below, pink like his nipples, fat and flat like an earthworm that has been slowly sinking, over the last year and a half, deeper into his body. It is a little wider in the middle — I think, perhaps, from the rib spreaders. Maybe that is where the surgeon's hands went in.

"Does it look okay?" he usually asks.

"It's sexy," I say. The Christmas tree lights hung above our bed reflect off my wedding ring. He had the open-heart surgery seventeen days after we were married, when he was twenty-five and I was twenty-three.

When it was new, the scar was puckered from the stitches on the inside; they'd sewn him up like the seam of a pillow. His sternum had been sawed in half and wired back together with twistie ties. He wasn't allowed to drive for six weeks for fear of damaging the bone before it re-knit, but when he came home from the hospital five days after the surgery, we had sex anyway, me precariously perched on top and making sure not to touch his chest. I was afraid I would slip and cave him in like a trap door or the flaps of a cardboard box. Everyone would say, "Well, what did you expect to happen?"

But I was leaving in nine days — I had to fuck him while I could. We had scheduled both the wedding and surgery during my winter break from grad school. One plane ticket, that way — I was living in New York and he was still in Kansas, and I had to get back for the spring semester.

When he came to New York to interview for jobs three weeks later, he was still in his recovery period. You couldn't tell with his shirt on. In bed, I pulled his undershirt off and studied the new ridge running down the center of him, the new skin — soft and hard at the same time, both alien and him.

"Are you still attracted to me?" he asked.

I kissed his belly and licked the scar from bottom to top, dragging my body across his newly healed chest.

He moved to New York and we moved into our own apartment and I watched the scar sink into his chest. With my nose pressed between his pecs and the scar under my lips, I could feel his heat rising against my face and smell him all around me — the same smell I fell in love with when I first met him, when I was sixteen and he was eighteen and his chest was hard and flat, like skin over slate. He had been 5'8" and 113 pounds and rebelling flamboyantly against his parents and adolescence and I had thought him sophisticated and eccentric and some sort of embodiment of sex. When he told me the aortic valve in his heart was deformed, I considered it the metaphorical root and physical manifestation of his unhappiness — and a turn-on. He was doomed, the Byronic hero I had been looking for.

Back then, he lived as if he wouldn't live long, with a fast little sports car he drove at parked cars and cement pillars, dodging them at the last minute, and a propensity for feuds and conflict. He was the first boy to introduce sex matter-of-factly when making out with me, rolling on top of me one night as we kissed in his bed, his body between my bent legs, the possibility of the act both unspoken and unsubtle. I felt light-headed panic when I realized I was about to do too much, and yet there was the opportunity to do even more. My fingers and feet and head were numb and seemingly inoperable as all my nerve-endings shrank inward toward my stomach, the nausea of over-stimulation coursing upward, catching in my throat and making it hard to breathe, hard to say no, to say anything at all, especially when there weren't any questions being asked.

We didn't do more than kiss that night, but it was the first time I spent the night with a man, slept in the same bed as if we were lovers, and I fell asleep with my head cradled comfortably by his hard chest in a way I could never get right with anyone else after, no matter how many pillows I propped around us or how many times I positioned my head. We were lovers soon, but there was an after, and others. Byronic heroes might be good in bed, but they can't be bothered with routine relationship maintenance, and it wasn't long before it had been a long time since we had spoken.

Meeting him again, years later, when we had both lost some of our adolescent desire for doom, I noticed the new layer of muscle between the skin and bone of his chest and that same smell. Lying with my head on his chest in a hotel room that Thanksgiving, I listened to the blood leak from his valve, his heartbeats a steady whoosh instead of thumps, and he told me he would have to have surgery someday. His heart would harden soon, the muscle overworked from pumping harder to compensate for the leak, for the valve flaps that wouldn't seal tight. The surgeon would replace his aortic valve with his undamaged pulmonary valve, and his pulmonary valve with a cadaver valve. It would take six to eight hours. He hadn't decided to do it yet. We had sex in the shower, lying in the bottom of the tub while the water rained down on his back and dripped over his shoulder into my face, pooling beneath me while the hard white walls hemmed us in. He screamed when he came, and the water murmured behind him. He didn't fuck like a man with a heart condition. He was more like a steam locomotive. His heart doctor asked after me at his appointment the next spring."Well, I really like her," said my boyfriend, "and I like to really like her, and sometimes it gets, well, vigorous.""Ah, yes," said the doctor, looking off as if remembering someone else. He was still a young man. "How vigorous? Have you ever passed out?""No, but we take breaks.""Taking breaks is good. Do you ever feel like your range of vision is narrowing?""No, but sometimes I feel sort of dizzy."

"Well, there's one kind of dizzy, and that's good. There's another kind of dizzy, and you know what to look for with that."It was true; he had been trained since he was a little boy to recognize the signs of his own heart failing.Tracing his finger down his chest, he began to ask me, "How do you think I'll look with the scar?""Just the same," I said. "Same blue eyes, same red hair, same lips."

I was spending the summer with him, but about to leave for grad school. He decided to have the surgery that winter, during my break from school, so I could come back for it.

"I don't want to have it without you," he said.

"I don't want you to have it without me, either," I said.

I was jealous of all the girls who had had him between the first time I'd met him and the second, during the time we were apart while I was in college and we weren't speaking. I was jealous that he had touched them, even as he held back the best and worst parts of himself, and jealous that they had been there to feel even some superficial part of him while he held himself from me. He had been afraid of everything I wanted. These girls who'd lain beneath his jackhammer hips in some version of the position I had once taken, his pelvic bones so hard and sharp through his skin that they had bruised the insides of my thighs, down deep, where bruises don't show — they had wanted less, at least from him, and seen less in him. They had been there to see him grow out his hair and cut it off, change schools, change jobs, change cars, change apartments, change from an angry, over-sensitive adolescent to a conscientious, over-sensitive man, without ever really seeing inside him. They did not talk about his cardiology appointments more than they had to. I wanted to have been the one having sex with him when he was nineteen and twenty and twenty-one and twenty-two, the one sitting beside him in bucket car seats, the one moving with him from apartment to apartment, the one talking about the changes taking place inside his chest. I would have asked — I was the one who had fallen for his malformed heart in the first place. This time, the change was mine, as I felt the others should have been.

After the surgery, after the wedding, it seemed like he had been remade just for me, for the start of us. He had been cracked open like Adam and resurrected like Christ and now, after seven hours without a heartbeat or breath, he was cured, fixed, better than as he was born. His heart would claim the cadaver valve sewn into it, cover it with its own tissue and forget that there had ever been another. My husband had never been with another woman with the heart he had now, the heart I could feel beating hard and steady against my breast as he pressed against me. Only I had touched his newly marked skin, with the vampire bite scars on his neck from the multi-line IV and the exclamation mark on his chest.

The scar has sunk in segments, from the top down. It is now half-sunk. Sitting on my husband with my fingers on his chest, I report changes and progress. I tell him, "More of it's sinking," as if he can't see it. He never examines it in front of me; it is my scar to keep track of.

"It's down to here," I say, marking the spot with my finger.

"Good," he says.

He would just as soon the scar fade away; it is a strange addition for him, and he misses his unmarked chest. But I would have kept it raised a little longer, a ridge that I could find through his shirt with my hand on his chest on a subway platform, a welted line to follow with my fingertips and tongue, a more visible reminder of the changes we made together. When we were younger, I had liked him for being a little bit broken, imperfect. We have traded his malformed valve for the scar and a few extra decades, but tracing the new tissue, I see that it is a little crooked, imperfect too, still him — now us, both mended and remade.

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Scarred for Life: A Painful Affection

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS


Scarred for Life: A Painful Affection  

by Stephen Ausherman  


I

am not a masochist. Never was. True, I have deliberately
accumulated more than two dozen permanent cuts and burns in the
past fifteen years, and the bulk of the scar tissue was induced in

sexual situations, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a masochist.

    

I created my first scar at a high school party fifteen years
ago. With five or six of my closest friends watching, I fashioned a
brand out of a coat hanger, heated it over a candle until it glowed,
then pressed it into the back of my hand. As the wire sank in, my
skin whitened and rolled aside like soft wax. It crackled and hissed,
and I pushed until it wouldn’t sink any deeper. I did this three
times, until I had a wound shaped like a backward Z. It was supposed
to be an S, for Shelley, the object of my affection in a doomed long-distance relationship.

    

The feeling of hot metal pressed into flesh is one to be
savored, though not necessarily experienced often. The sensation is
immediate and blinding, though it induces more panic than actual pain.
The worst of a third-degree burn comes long after the iron strikes. That
much I’d learned through a week’s practice with cigarette lighters
and smaller pieces of wire. So when the time came, I managed the

entire procedure with an expression of indifference, no worse than
removing a splinter or trimming fingernails.

    

My friends seemed thoroughly unimpressed. One asked
how I thought I’d feel about the scar in ten years. I told her it would
probably stop hurting by then. Fifteen years later, I look upon it
without regret, but I’m still not certain why I did it.

    

Several factors were at work, I’m sure. Scars fit in with my
punk aesthetic. My clothes were torn and I wanted the skin to
match. But I was fascinated with scars long before I knew anything
about punk rock. In fact, I was still listening to Sugarhill and
Grandmaster Flash when I first started noticing the scarred
members of a certain fraternity on a nearby university campus.
I didn’t know much about them. They were the Q Dogs, but my
friends and I called them the Omega Brothers, for the prominently
raised omega-shaped scars on their biceps. Back then, at age fourteen, I
wanted one so bad it hurt.

    

Younger still, perhaps ten, I had my face painted at a street
fair. When the woman asked what I wanted to be, I told her a
“beat-up guy.” She didn’t understand, so I instructed her to give me
a black eye, stitches across my forehead and a bloody nose. I was
so impressed with the results that I became the beat-up guy again
on Halloween.

    

The point is, I wasn’t so much interested in the pain as in the
results. And the results weren’t always sexually motivated. They just
seemed that way as I grew older. But that’s still something different
from masochism, as I understand it.

    

Masochists, at least the ones I know, receive pain during
sex to increase sexual arousal. It turns them on, and some claim
they can’t have an orgasm without it. I, meanwhile, was pursuing a more
asexual feeling of invincibility. I wasn’t feeling any pain — it can’t be pain
if it doesn’t hurt. Under other circumstances, it would have hurt, and I was
very aware of that. But that, too, was part of the excitement: I was able to

withstand an infliction that would, under normal
conditions, bring me to my knees. I was, for the moment, superhuman.

    

Two years after my initial scarring, and fully recovered from
that long-distance relationship, I enrolled in a small Christian college where
I met an extraordinary woman. Early on and throughout the ensuing romance,
I allowed her — encouraged her — to punch, slap, bite, kick, spit on and
strangle me in order to distract me from the pleasure I felt, to slow me down and
give her time to reach another orgasm or two. I told myself I did it for her.
And as long as I maintained that belief — that it was purely for her — nothing
seemed wrong.



Of course, she didn’t know that. She had no idea what effect she
was having on me. I went as far as faking an orgasm and feigning
exhaustion. Then, after a few minutes of the tender postsex
cuddling that she craved so much, I would pretend to become
aroused again, claiming it was a response to her delicate intimacy,
when in fact I was ready to pick up where I left off simply because
the pain had subsided.

    

The illusion, of course, was that I had amazing stamina, as
well as a rare ability to share intimacy after orgasm, which suggested
that I found tenderness and brutality equally arousing. I knew it
was a dishonest way to conduct sexual congress, but thought to myself that
what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

    

This endurance tactic didn’t always work. Occasionally
the pleasure of sex was enough to completely override the pain,

and the resulting orgasms were unbelievable. Timed right, pain and
orgasm would simultaneously flood my brain with dopamine, adrenaline or
whatever endorphic cocktails my nervous system stirred up. The sensations
often reverberated throughout my body for an hour, sometimes
longer.

    

It felt like too much caffeine, but not as nauseating. I would
become so jangled that every nerve ending screamed out for more stimulus.
It didn’t matter what sort, as long as it was strong. The problem,
however, was that by then my capacity for receiving pleasure had been
genuinely exhausted. That left the other option: the continuance of pain.
And this could lead to other problems. My girlfriend would be back in cuddle mode while I was
breaking out the candles and cutlery. More often than not, I’d have
to wait until she fell asleep, then sneak out of bed to quietly play
with razor blades.

    

In these moments I inhabited a rare state that took considerable
effort to reach, and one that had a momentum of its own. It’s the feeling
you have when you win a race and keep on running. Or when you can still
feel the rhythm after the music has stopped, so you keep dancing
even though you’re the last idiot on the floor. It’s a free round of
drinks when you’re already drunk.

    

But, of course, my behavior was not without its problems. Sometime
after my girlfriend finished law school and I began grad school, the

violence escalated beyond our control. My bruises, burns and lacerations
were too obvious, especially when they began appearing on my face and
neck. Once, a professor kept me after class. She was “reaching out to me”
and “offering to help.” She sounded like a high school counselor, and I
was mortified. That’s when I decided to stop. I haven’t engaged in
sexual violence since. Now, grown older and more experienced with the
subtle nuances of pain, all I have to do is bite my lip.

    

A therapist, if I ever thought I needed one, would probably say
my predilection was an attempt to displace some hidden pain that stemmed
from childhood abuse
which developed into a dependence on systematic humiliation. Nonsense.
I grew up in a happy, caring home where the most harmful thing was the
television. In fact, if I did harbor any deep-seated disturbances, they
may have been inspired by a new breed of heroes in the idiot box.

    

My two favorites were The Six Million Dollar Man and the
Incredible Hulk. Steve Austin crashed his own jet, losing three limbs
and an eye in the process. He was a man barely alive until they rebuilt
him — better, faster, stronger. David Banner intentionally exposed himself
to gamma radiation, then was often beaten into submission before he
transformed into the Hulk. What did these men have in common? Both
gained inordinate strength from near-death experiences.

    

The message was simple: Suffering makes you stronger. No
pain, no gain. And if scars are evidence of the pain you’ve endured,
then what better way to prove your strength than to display them.
It’s a playground ritual for children, and a scene memorably
portrayed by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss in
Jaws. Juvenile, yet effective.

    

This playground ritual is exactly what the Omega Brothers
engaged in. Their prominent display of keloids was proof of their

strength. Strength of their unity, their commitment to each other.
Their scars said: “We sacrificed healthy skin tissue to strengthen our
brotherhood.”

    

At the occasion of my first public display of self-scarification, my intentions were the same, but the message was
quite the opposite. My wound said: “This is proof of my individuality,
for no one else among you is strong enough to inflict such pain
upon yourself.” Ultimately, however, my stunt failed. Imitators
quickly followed suit with scars that declared: “We, too, are strong.”

    

Still, I continued to create scars that declared the strength of my
love for certain women, scars that held the secret that I was
willing to suffer for their pleasure. And it’s these scars that I’m most
proud of. Once I was so impressed with the scratchmarks a girlfriend left across my
shoulderblade that I immediately had her etch them in permanently with a
hot butcher knife. Twelve years later, they’ve faded some, but these four parallel
lines are the most beautiful I have to show.




©1998
Stephen Ausherman
and Nerve.com