As far back as I can remember I’ve had this scar on my face. I’ve always believed that the memories you make as a child, even as they become cloudier with age and distance, are what shape you as an adult more than anything else. Especially now. It sounds elementary, like one of those things everyone knows and agrees with, where there’s so much of a consensus that no one even bothers to question it, an unequivocally universal truth. But think back to your earliest childhood memory. How old were you? Where were you, and who were you with? What was the weather like that day? What did you see and smell and touch and taste? What did you feel? Maybe that memory, stored deep down in the recesses of your brain, slipped into a yellowing file folder inside a dust-caked, rusted out file cabinet, the kind where the drawers don’t really work the way they’re supposed to anymore so in order to open one, you really have to give it some thought, and then pull up on the drawer as you open it, or push down, or pull to the left or to the right with great force, enough force to give yourself a sharp, sudden headache in an acutely specific area. The drawer opens, and some dust flies into your eyes, causing mild irritation. Some of it gets into your mouth too, and while it doesn’t really taste like anything, it’s still gross. You find the file folder, right where you left it, give it a nice, gentle blow so that you are now in control of the dust, and crack it open. So, do you like it or do you not like it?
The most vivid part of the memory, the one thing that has endured and stayed with me, is the ceiling of the emergency room. A drop ceiling that, even though I could tell was white, was mostly dimly lit, like the inside of a room when it’s about dusk but all the lights are still off because you haven’t gotten up to turn them on yet. Around the ceiling were glimmers, this part I don’t remember well, they may have been regular incandescent light bulbs, that seems most likely, but I can’t be sure. In my head they resemble small, cloudy orbs, distant suns in a universe too expansive for my three-year old brain to comprehend. There were people, doctors and nurses and my parents I presume, but their faces now have little to no distinguishing characteristics, just skin and noses and mouths and eyeballs with looks of grave concern. The fishing hook had lodged in my face, into my pale, doughy, still-developing skin, pretty deeply. It was close to my left eye, just below it in fact, probably not anywhere that would cause damage to my vision but it was probably too soon to be sure of that.
The nearest town to the property, Holopaw, had one traffic light, one gas station and one restaurant where old ladies in faded pink uniforms served the few locals, as well as passersby driving west on US 192 toward Kissimmee or Orlando, east toward Melbourne or the Atlantic Ocean, or south on US 441 toward Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, plates of gooey biscuits and gravy and crispy home fries and strong black coffee. This was an area of Florida that time, development and investment had largely forgotten, the old Florida, the inland Florida that’s as much a part of the cultural and aesthetic American south as Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi or any of those other states where the heat would kill you if you’re not adequately prepared for it, where everyone drove trucks caked in brownish-gray mud and drank cheap canned beer and shot guns at gators and squirrels and rabbits and snakes and bobcats and coyotes and fished and never left or wanted to leave. That’s the Florida where most of my family is from and has lived for several generations. The thing about Florida is that it’s full of transplants in the larger cities and especially on the coasts, professionals and retirees and military contractors and college students and technology workers with no drawl to their voices, no camouflage in their wardrobe, no sunburn on their necks, and no idea that inland, amongst the brush and the dry, yellow grass and the cypress trees, are people of the land who were born there, have never traveled anywhere else, and will die there, upon which all of their neighbors will attend their funeral.
A couple of my uncles and aunts and cousins lived next to each other on two large land parcels down a dirt road in rural Osceola County. Two doublewide trailers sat in the center of each land parcel, separated by a rusty wire fence that I knew better than to be around. It was about eight acres total, I think. The front was large and grassy, great for kids to run around in, which my younger sister and all my male cousins — she was the only girl out of all of us — often did. The back behind the trailers was shorter, with a shed on each property and, at times, various cars and boats and tractors and trailers in various degrees of disrepair. A narrow canal, about 30 feet wide I’d guess, inched up against the area, with the occasional pine or cypress tree perching over the water and offering shade to bass, brim, turtles and lily pads. It was back here where we’d congregate most, the adults and kids fishing together, sometimes all day, catch and release. My cousin Christopher was three years older than me and, since I had no big brother of my own, I idolized him, despite the fact that he likely rarely, if ever, wanted me attached to his hip, you’d have to ask him, but at these big gatherings, if I wasn’t near my parents I was near him trying to do whatever he was doing. I wasn’t quite big enough to fish unassisted, I don’t think, so I just sort of wandered aimlessly around the area, peering across the water, walking with the abandon of any child who recently learned the skill, unconcerned. At that age kids need sleep and food and love and that’s it, really. They’ll learn on their own provided there isn’t some sort of mental or environmental encumbrance. That day I learned I shouldn’t walk behind people when they’re fishing, or at least I should pay better attention if I do, the same sort of attention I’d pay when crossing a street. I don’t remember the hook lodging into my face from Christopher’s fishing rod, or any adult running to save me, though I’m sure they did. I don’t remember how the piercing of my skin felt or how much the wound bled. I don’t remember the weather that day, but it was probably nice, clear and hot, the sun bright, the air thick, like most Floridian days are. I just remember the ceiling.
As I’ve aged and my skin has died, peeled off and replenished itself, the scar has faded. Most days I never notice it, and often even forget under which eye it is. All told, as far as facial scars can go, I lucked out okay. It’s really only visible under certain types of light, like that harsh florescent light used in cubicle-filled offices or airport bathrooms. The kind of light which exposes deep physical flaws in even the most attractive people, their faded purple eye circles where their skin is rapidly, uncontrollably and irrevocably thinning, or acne deep below blotchy skin of red or yellow shades, or patchy beards or crow’s feet around the eyes and mouth, which society tells us are unattractive and undesirable attributes, that in order to achieve true beauty we must vaguely resemble emotionless porcelain dolls, the kind your aunt collects and keeps in her guest room which of course you have to sleep in when you visit and they’re all staring at you while you lie in a uncomfortably lumpy, unfamiliar-smelling bed. Those lines in particular, those “flaws” have always seemed to me to be an indicator that that person has laughed a lot in their life, that they’re a person who is fun to be around, who knows a lot of good jokes, who doesn’t take life or themselves too seriously, who is happy or at least used to be. One of the lines on my face has far more painful roots. Hell, I could’ve put an eye out. But I’m here. I can see just fine. I can laugh about it. But I’ll never look in a mirror or at a drop ceiling again without that first childhood memory flooding back.