Minutes after dropping off my uncle for his eight-hour shift at Burger King my aunt ran a red light.
“Stop! Stop!” I yelled.
She looked at me, but seemed to look through me, as if someone else had taken control over her body. She turned to face me with a blank stare and what appeared to be a smile on her face. Then, she kept going.
Instinctively, I checked for my seat belt and realized that I wasn’t wearing one. We were seconds away from hitting a car when I tried reaching for a handle, but the old Nissan didn’t have one. I closed my eyes for what seemed to be an interminable second of silence. Then, when I opened my eyes, reality came rushing in, as if somewhat had fast-forwarded a movie. The sound of crushing glass and metal hitting metal overwhelmed my senses and the blood’s iron mixed in bitterly with the remains of the milkshake we had gotten just minutes earlier.
“I can’t see,” I said, trying not to panic as blood flowed, covering my vision.
“What?” My aunt asked, also in shock. “Are your eyes okay?”
I reached and felt my left eye and was relieved to know that it was still there.
“My eyes are okay,” I said. “My eyes are okay,” I said a second time, mostly to reassure myself.
When the paramedics arrived and asked, “Whose skin is that stuck in the windshield?” I nearly fainted.
My knees buckled when I saw a few layers of my skin attached to the cracked glass. The amount of blood now made more sense. I had a gaping hole nearly the size of one of my fists on the left side of my forehead. The paramedics assured me that I would be okay, but as they rushed me to the hospital in the ambulance, I knew that nothing would ever be the same.
My aunt sat with me in the ambulance. She couldn’t stop shaking and her faced was covered in tears.“Don’t die!” she wailed, uncontrollably.
I knew that she felt guilty because she caused the accident, but also because my parents were living in Cuba and she was my legal guardian. How could she tell my mother, her sister, that she had almost killed her son? While the paramedics administered an IV and tried to cheer me up, I kept trying to keep my aunt calm. “I’m okay,” I repeated over and over again. “Really, I’m okay.”
I had to get a total of four surgeries, all of them painful in more ways than one. My second surgery, which was the most invasive one, consisted of placing two silicone bags underneath my skin. There was one bag above my left eye and the other one on my left temple. These bags got inflated once or twice every week by two tubes that protruded from my scalp.
This process is known as skin expansion and my doctor told me that it was invented by a surgeon who had an epiphany while his wife was pregnant. He noticed that as her belly expanded, so did her skin, therefore having extra skin. By applying the same technique to patients who needed plastic surgery, he revolutionized the field.
By the end of the month, I looked like the Elephant Man. The bags were now the size of two softballs being birthed out of my skin. My surgeon promised to make me look better when it all was finalized, but at that time, I avoided mirrors for as long as possible. The first time I looked in the mirror and saw how stretched my skin had become; I felt a wave of depression instantly wash over me. The first thought that entered my mind was, am I ever going to have a girlfriend? Am I ever going to get married? I was two months shy of 17 when the accident took place, so the opposite sex’s opinion of my appearance was high on the list.
Then I thought of my two cousins, who were like my sisters, and how someday they would meet someone and get married. They didn’t have any scars. They didn’t have what looked like two bulging tumors over their faces. As for me, I would probably live in a dark room, away from civilization. I would be the black sheep of the family. They would talk about me in whispers and wonder what could have been if the accident had never happened. They would talk about all the potential I had, until one day they would talk about me no more.
I thought about these things often for than long month, waiting for my skin to stretch enough so that they could perform the reconstructive surgery. Once the surgeon performed the final surgery, I was left with one scar that ran all the way from my hairline to my left eyebrow.
In fact, part of my left my eyebrow hair is still missing. I had the option of going back in for more work, but I was done. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I was tired of going under the knife.
While this process was going on, I did attend school for a couple of weeks. This was before the bags were in and all I had was the skin draft and a massive patch covering it. The doctor told me that I couldn’t get any sunlight on my skin graft, so every morning I would readjust or apply a new patch before heading to school. I was essentially wearing a huge bandage on the leftside of my face.
The first time I returned to class after the accident, one kid in class said, “He got shot in the head!” and the entire class laughed and looked at me. I was in too much pain to even care at that moment, but it did bother me to see my teacher with a smirk on her face. Because I was still recuperating from the surgery and bruises, I made it to class a few minutes late. This same teacher made me walk to the cafeteria, which was significantly far away, so that I could get a pass for my lateness. As I walked, other kids in school would point at me, while others would ask me what happened. After a few months of complete strangers asking me what happened, I began to have fun with it and tell them stories of being involved in a bar fight.
I have learned to live with the fact than when people look at me, they always notice the scar first. On most days it doesn’t bother me. It’s been 15 years now, so I’ve gotten used to the stares and the questions. But every once in a while, I do wonder what I would look like “normal.”
I can’t even remember the last time I saw a picture of myself where the scar wasn’t in it. And when I look at pictures of myself, I always look at the scar first. It jumps out at me, like an anomaly, even after all these years. I may have gotten used to the inappropriate questions and looks, but I still haven’t gotten used to the scar itself. Sometimes I forget I have it, but then I look at a mirror and there it is, a reminder that I survived the accident. And that’s the best way to look at it. I’m a survivor.