After he lost his brother, Jarad Dewing tried everything to release the pain locked inside of him.
Crumpled balls of wrapping paper crackled and burned in the rusty barrel, throwing glints of green flame and feathers of ash into an upward spiral. Twenty-one days it had been, mostly made of snow and sudden sobbing. My surviving siblings were inside, sipping coffee and reminiscing while our children scrambled in the detritus of Christmas morning. I’d come here to burn the garbage. Here, where we’d always burned our papers, my dead brother Luke and I, long as I could remember, in the wet gully by the sumac grove. My boots squelched in the half-frozen muck and my fingertips tingled.
It was all too much, the roiling smoke of memories. I didn’t have any saline left to shed. My throat was raw, my nerves were shot, my intestines knotted and before I had time to think or hesitate I’d ground out my cigarette on the meaty part of the back of my hand, between thumb and forefinger. It sizzled like raw steak on a hot skillet. I barely blinked because the pain wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t unpleasant. Instead, the buzzing whirlwind of chaos in my head was blissfully focused.
I stared at the red hole in my hand. There was no doubt it would scar. A fit of inspiration struck me; I would modify the wound in honor of my brother. I picked a brittle goldenrod stem and jammed it into the glowing embers, watched it flare, then pressed it into my skin next to the blistering crater. I repeated that until I’d formed a small line, turned it 90 degrees, and when I’d finished, and the once-cheerful mound of holiday debris was nothing but a smoking heap, a blistering red ‘L’ stared back at me.
The second time I purposely burned myself, I upped the ante. In the course of my self-immolation, I’d quit a lucrative advertising sales career to become a minimum-wage line cook. The kitchen life suited me: minimal responsibility, surrounded by a crew of miscreants, free to drink and flirt and play with knives and fire, and ruin myself to my scarred heart’s content. I found myself, one blurry night, in a spartan apartment playing Guitar Hero on high volume with a ragtag team of bartenders and fellow cooks, until the police shut us down. In the summer heat I had taken my shirt off and thrown it on a beige futon. Since the discordant karaoke strains of feigned 80’s hair metal had quieted, I looked down at my chest at my first tattoo, faded but prevalent. The word “justified,” with the “t” as a Christian crucifix.
There were two things I always carried in my bag: an Army dogtag, and a Leatherman multitool. The tag was mine and still read “Protestant” on the fourth line. The Leatherman was Luke’s. I persuaded my kitchen manager, wasted on whiskey, to take the Leatherman and hold my old dogtag over the stove — yes, it’s glowing red, that’s how you know it’s hot — and then, here, I’ll clench a towel in my teeth so y’all won’t have to hear me scream — that’s it, just press it against this blurry font, this obsolete statement.
Six months later, the burn still hadn’t completely healed. My chest smelled of camphor and pork barbecue. I only remember the smell. I never remembered the pain, because it was fleeting, like an orgasm or a victory. The pain triggered a quick spasm of synapses that spilled euphoric chemicals into my system. That’s the only thing that stuck, a brutal and brusque relief. The sudden bite and the searing, the crackle of my own architecture clenching in resistance to a choice I’d suddenly made… A smile, and a sigh. That was my ticket out. For a while.
Metal clothes hangers make excellent branding irons in a pinch. My third, fourth, and fifth burns were patterns or icons I’d meticulously twisted with needle-nose pliers to form a nautilus spiral, the symbol for infinity, a monkey’s paw. It was the sumac grove all over again. Every insult upon my flesh was tweaked into art. It had to mean something. The Fibonacci sequence, eternity, evolution, everything I loved to talk about suddenly became an excuse. Like throwing popcorn at a drive-in movie screen: I was never going to hit it, but it felt good just to try.
It starts with the back teeth, the molars clenching. Then the forearms. My fingers undulate as if they’re writing. Eyes close, then open, then look around for something flammable. Something metal, then, something that’ll leave a cool mark and a scar and…
It ends with the realization that the pain won’t evaporate.
Fun fact: charcoal is the burnt remnant of something that’s already been on fire. And it’ll kindle again, if you light it. That twinge is always there. The temptation remains.
I’ve known a few who have been through this, mostly cutters, women who sport pale slashes on their shoulders like badges of courage. They’ll wear halter tops without embarrassment and forget the scars are there. But I can’t forget the symbols I’ve seared into my flesh. Every time I roll my shirtsleeves up, there they are. I’m not as strong as the girls I’ve seen, the former expats from their high-school milieu, who flaunt their stripes and curse the status quo. I envy them, but I won’t show them my chest because it still hurts.
That’s not a metaphor. The hairless pink skin that barely healed is sensitive. It’s still painful. And it reminds me, every day my shirt rubs up against that mother-of-pearl piece of me, that there will always be something there to feel. I can forget the marks I don’t see, I can forget the circumstances that led me to put them there, but at the end of every day, I count them. I make sure I don’t forget how many there are.
Lead photo: Flickr/EmsiProduction