I was eight years old the afternoon my stepdaddy cut my face. In my mind, already too old for saying stepdaddy, but he liked the way it sounded—that it made clear who was in charge. We were sitting at the kitchen table in my mom’s bungalow, my three-quarter-time house. I had asked for help with math homework, the pages of my binder spread out neatly between us, but I didn’t believe his answers. For awhile by then I was often finding myself in trouble for thinking I was smarter than everyone else. Listen, I started, my teacher said, but he silenced me with a look that let me know there was a lesson to be taught, but not to him.

Stepdaddy took out his Leatherman and pulled the blade from the fold like he was unwrapping a candy bar he’d been looking forward to all day. He touched the tip to a spot a few centimeters away from the corner of my mouth, his eyes ready to meet mine when I glanced up, trying to gauge without giving away my fear how serious he was. It took a beat for him to finally apply a little pressure, only piercing the skin after he’d told me no remainder, as if there was something in his mouth that needed spitting out.

For years, I wondered if this was the moment that darkness entered me—worming its way inside at the place where my too-round cheek was sliced, still waiting for the day I’d finally lose that baby chub and thin out into a beauty, into a little mirror of your mama, without the sagging. I can’t remember a time that existed—though surely there must have been one—before the nervous anticipation I carried around for that swanning, my stomach always twisted like the knots from my Girl Scout manual I’d never learn to tie, no matter how many times my fingers fumbled against the rope—a sour mix of dread and delight that left me feeling permanently nauseous.

This is why I was even asking him about long division in the first place, because I was usually in the clinic by the time math rolled around, right after lunch, the school nurse always sighing loudly as I trudged down the hall toward her door in my scuffed Keds, every territory a place I couldn’t quite fit in—bad or a little less bad; we don’t always get glamorous choices.

I leaned back in my chair without a sound—I took what was coming. But Mom cried when she saw the blood: A fragile heart, my stepdaddy liked to say, which from some people might have been a compliment but from him was a kinder way of saying weak. The cut wasn’t deep, the blood more for show—a few drops he blotted gingerly with the plaid cuff of his shirtsleeve. The type of man who never minded a stain, something that maybe, once, I found admirable.

It took only a sleep or two for the little wound to close, but it healed puffy. Throughout the day, while sitting distracted at my desk or giving half of my attention to the TV from the couch, whenever I’d notice the tightening, I’d widen my mouth as far as my jaw would extend until the tender skin split, opening the cut again and again, wanting to remind him for as long as I could—hoping for a scar. What happens when no matter what we do, no matter how much blood we let or pages we fill, there isn’t enough proof?

I want to be a good person, so I write to get out all of that darkness. I understand that the energy has to be spent somewhere.

Here is something else to understand: When all of the land you’d like to build your safe house on is poisoned, the dry, wild grass full of fat spiders that sit patiently in wait, the soil nearly dust and ruined for growing, you’ll figure out how to become invisible for long enough to wedge your mother’s sterling silver letter opener between your ribs like an expert, skillfully dismantling the bones—and that’s how you have to think of it, not my but the—to craft your own damn safe house right there inside your body. Sometimes we are tasked with building both inward and upward at the same time.

Half a year ago, I read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Chicxulub” in The New Yorker for the first time, and it took me until I was most of the way through to realize I was reading fiction. The story, of a father who has just learned of his daughter’s death, is so compelling and earnest that, though the piece is clearly labeled within its genre, it didn’t occur to me that there was even a chance it wasn’t true until I happened to glance up at the website header. My gut reaction was to be weirdly disappointed, and that’s of course terrible, because it means that, even if only for a flicker, I was sad that someone’s daughter hadn’t actually died.

But the root of my disappointment was that I felt somehow mislead—I was shedding tears only a few paragraphs in, struggling in real life to cope with the weight of this supposed stranger’s unbearable loss. For Boyle, though, and far more so for me and other readers, this is a gift. It takes vulnerability to write like that, and it takes vulnerability to read like that as well. The willingness to practice empathy is often a type of bravery. It’s something we could probably all use a little more of.

By the end of the piece, it didn’t matter to me anymore what genre I was reading, though I was, in the story’s final moments, relieved for this imaginary teenager and her imaginary parents, comforted by the fact that their grief was only ours to pull from the page. And I hope now this calls you to wonder—what does it matter if my stepfather never touched me in a way that was unkind? Or even if I have a stepfather? Isn’t there still some truth to be found here? This is why I write.

Kirsten Clodfelter
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