Her weapon of choice was a steak knife and his his own fingernails. While she restricted the use of the knife to the privacy of her own home, his fingernail travelled with him where ever he went like a portable relief system. Ironically, it was she who openly and proudly displayed her scars while he hid his from the public. When they first met for their date, he immediately notched her arms covered in neat rows of blood red scars and pulled his sweater sleeve down over his knuckles to further hide his own marks.
She talked animatedly and neither of them brought up the topic if her scars until a nosy waiter did a double take and stopped to ask about them. To his surprise, she answered the waiter’s inquiry with the truth, confidently stated without a hint of shame or bashfulness.
“I cut myself sometimes,” she said and the waiter was visibly taken aback then looked as if he were the victim of some prank. But when she continued to stare at him with those dark doe eyes, the waiter’s smile fell and he mumbled an apology before scuttling off. She turned back to her date with a laugh.
“People can be so silly,” she chuckled and took a swig of her beer. He returned a small smile and sipped his whiskey.
The waiter wasn’t the only one who was taken aback. He had never met anyone who was so open about their self harm. He himself hid it away from the world, embarrassed that it showed his utter weakness to deal with life. Though he believed his own scars to be beautiful, he only allowed himself the luxury of admiring them once in a while, usually when he hadn’t indulged in the habit for a while. He would stare longingly at his arms and legs which were covered in what looked like burns — they varied in shape and size and colour depending on the extent of his agony at the time of their birth — and he would smile down at them as if they were his own children. He was fond of them and, though he was embarrassed of them, he was still proud of them because they were the physical manifestation of his turmoil.
He looked across at her and found himself staring rudely at her scars. They were all approximately the same size and covered her pale arms in an orderly fashion. They reminded him of the stripes of a zebra, but somehow more beautiful. He looked up at her and caught her smiling at him. She looked down at her scars with that same smile — proud, motherly — and ran a hand along the scars of one arm. She did this slowly, letting her fingertips feel every raised bit, scar and scab alike, then ran the hand back down the same way.
“I don’t believe in hiding them,” she explained. The tone of her voice had changed and there was now a hint of melancholy there. He shrugged his shoulders and took another sip of whiskey. He wanted to tell her that he admired her for her bravery. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her scars, how they only added to her beauty, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He knew if he did, he’d have to talk about his own scars and he wasn’t ready to do that, yet. However, a small part of him suddenly wanted to. He suspected that she would understand him like others hadn’t and he considered at least giving it a try, but his nerves took over and he remained silent and continued nursing his whiskey.
“I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable,” she told him staring him straight in the eye. Her face was beautiful — plain, unremarkable, but lovely for it’s normalcy. She didn’t try to be more than she was, she just was happy to be. The sincerity of her apology alarmed him and sent him feeling like the villain who has just stolen from a child for sport. Before he knew what he was doing, he shook his head and pulled up one sleeve to reveal his beloved scars.
“I actually totally understand,” he mumbled, avoiding eye contact, but watching her from the corner of his eyes. He expected her to be surprised or to at least give him the sympathy he hated but had come to expect, but her face remained unchanged except for that smile. She stared at his arm and then reached over and ran her fingers along his scars. They felt different from her own: while hers were raised, his were flat and looked at if they were drawn on his skin. If there weren’t so many, she would’ve assumed they were just birth marks.
“Let’s see the other one,” she nodded towards the arm still hidden under the sleeve and, though he was reluctant at first, he obliged her request. She stared at both his arms and ran both hands over them simultaneously. “They’re so lovely,” she gushed and he actually found himself blushing.
“Yours are beautiful,” he managed to whisper, still avoiding eye contact. She threw back her head and laughed loudly and for a split second he was alarmed.
“You’re too sweet,” she replied and he noticed a tint in her cheeks as she looked down fondly at her own arms. “I’m fond of them. They scare others sometimes, but they mean a lot to me.”
“Why,” he blurted. And after a second of regret he was suddenly glad he asked. He’d never discussed self harm with anyone and he was curious to see if others who did it had similar reasons as he did. He wondered if there was room to bond with someone over something like this, something that, to him, had been so private and a means of isolation from the world.
She didn’t reply straight away and instead took a few moments to stare at her scars, feeling them again while she pondered her response. When she finally replied it seemed to be with a hint of reluctance. “Well,” she started then stopped again and was silent for a few more moments. He began to say it didn’t matter, that she didn’t have to tell him when she suddenly blurted it all out. “It’s the bodily actualization of my mental torment. It’s the solidification and entrapment of fleeting emotion that allows me to become an observer to my own suffering and better understand it.”
He sipped his whiskey in silence listening to her. He thought he heard her voice tremble at the word “suffering” and his heart went out to her. How clearly he knew the misery of suffering. The indomitable sadness that seemed like it will never end, that weakened him mentally and physically and made him wish he knew the way to permanently end the suffering and never finding one. The cloudiness in the mind and the falling apart of all insulation allowing his feelings to be exposed to the crudeness of the world, like an exposed nerve that is constantly being disturbed. The memories of those awful times when he wanted nothing more than to be buried away and left to die pricked his heart and he felt that familiar urge to scratch rising in him. Instead, he downed his whiskey and relaxed with the buzz that began in his head.
“Bodily expression of pain has been looked down upon in our society since around the 17th century, but before then self harm was a sign of moral repentance,” she stated excitedly. “And then in places like Africa and South America it has a deep societal tradition of aesthetics.”
He stared at her and looked as if he was trying to halt a smile but failed. He looked away before he replied, “I never thought of it that way.”
“We need to minimize its taboo,” she stated flatly and full of confidence. He realized then just how lonely he had been. He had sat at this exact bistro so many times before with only a drink and a book for company and often would leave the book unread as his mind was pulled into the unfortunate reality of his emotional isolation. Sitting across from this woman now he couldn’t believe how grossly he had ignored the extent of his isolation. He had been trapped. But now, with just those small words, he felt like he had finally answered a knock on his soul and this woman had been on the other side, waiting patiently with a smile.
“Mental health is such a taboo, but physical health is a readily available excuse and so when I started wounding myself I was saying, ‘See! I really am unwell!’” she continued. She was brushing her fingers along her scars again as she talked. “I’m actually embarrassed to say I’m surprised to learn that there are so many different reasons for self harm and and the more I talk about it with likeminded people, the more they find themselves less embarrassed and more willing to admit their weakness. Or rather, what they perceived as their weakness.”
She was right: the more she talked about it, the more willing he was to share his own experiences. “For me, it’s mostly a form of therapy so I can let my racing mind take a breather,” he told her. She looked up and smiled at him.
“Then don’t stop. Fuck everyone else and their preconceived notions about self harm. They don’t understand a fraction of the agony that surges through our bodies that forces us to resort to this. They don’t understand that it’s a balm, that it actually helps, and that if it helps us it can’t be bad. They want us to feel better, but they want it done on their terms: the terms of individuals who, in their worst nightmares, couldn't imagine what we go through.” She had reached over and was holding his wrists, exposing his scars. “I love this,” she stated, emphasizing each word.
He was frozen in shock and aghast at this woman. Where had she come from and where had she been all his life? What good deed had he committed to be rewarded with the opportunity to cross her path? He released his wrists from her hands and held hers instead, rubbing her scars with his thumbs. She stared at him while he pondered everything she had said and while the idea of exposing his scars and inviting the world to question them was terrifying, he felt he could do it with her on his side, cheering him on. He glanced at those arms covered in deep symmetrical markings, then up into her face which stared back expectantly. Letting the weight start to slide off his shoulders he smiled.