The scar never properly set. It was a straightforward, common surgery that left me with a six-inch scar resembling a piece of train track drawn in a child’s clumsy grip. Puffy ridges of pinkish-white skin crested along a newly created fault line that began just under my rib cage and ended above my hips. I was ten when the doctors figured out that the mysterious stomach aches that came and went were due to gallstones. Ten years old carting around a malady more suited to a 40-year-old. At the time, I was the youngest patient with gallstones the surgeon had ever encountered. Considering that he looked like he had been practicing medicine since the Battle of Gettysburg, I was inclined to believe him.
“We’ll just take the appendix while we’re down there,” he told my parents with a cheerful wink. “Better to get it before it causes any problems down the road. Think of it as two-for-one deal.” Everyone chuckled.
My parents scheduled the surgery for early summer, just after school let out. It was more convenient for everyone. I wasn’t given too much to go on about this whole extracting-a-couple-of-major-organs deal except that I would be put under anesthesia and wake up good as new. Any questions? Yeah, only about seventy billion. To be fair, I suppose my parents wanted to keep the anxiety level—theirs and mine—at a reasonable level. I didn’t need to be any more freaked out than I already was imagining stones, as in, literally, rocks, pebbles, bits of ancient, calcified meteor material somehow lodged in this weird, mostly useless primordial organ. Simple was better. Ignorance was not exactly bliss, but definitely helped me sleep at night.
I didn’t know that I would wake up feeling as if I were swimming under a sea of cotton. I didn’t know my throat would be a block of sandpaper. I didn’t know that there would be so much pain, as if a dump truck filled with ten tons of cement were parked on my abdomen. I didn’t know that I would have this gnarly new scar ornamenting my young body. I had never even needed a couple of stitches for a dog bite or epic bike wipe-out.
This was 1980-something. Medical technology was the equivalent of a zygote compared to what it is now. Today that same surgery would leave a barely traceable laparoscopic incision no bigger than the size of a microchip implant. And it wasn’t like I could Google “gallbladder surgery scars” to know if my scar was “normal” or would come up in a related search under “gallbladder surgery scar disasters.” This war torn peninsula of tissue suddenly unearthed on my stomach was hostile territory. I felt oddly ruined in some way, my body given some kind of new definition without my input.
“Here,” my mother said, handing me a small jar. I was standing in the bathroom inspecting a fresh crop of acne on my chin. Was there no part of my body determined to rebel?
“These will help.” Inside were a handful of Vitamin E capsules. A nurse friend of hers told her Vitamin E helped reduce the effects of scar tissue. She palmed one and pierced the small, yellow plastic with her finger. I watched the viscous liquid pool at the opening like honey. “Just rub it on,” she said nodding in the direction of my abdomen. It had been a couple of months since the surgery. The scar had taken on another life form. The light, consistent pressure from my clothes flattened out the still-malleable tissue, widening it slightly, while the rest of the scar remained slightly raised and rounded. It had come to resemble one of those unusually large, garden-variety earth worms after an unfortunate encounter with someone’s bicycle tire—half of its eggplant colored body smooshed, the rest of it intact.
“It will help,” she said, trying, making an effort.
“Help what?” I said, surly, baiting her. She sighed.
“Get better. Look…nicer,” she said, losing patience.
“It’s stupid,” I said, relishing the disappointment and irritation that flooded her face. Youthful antagonism for the win.
“Well, maybe you’ll change your mind,” she said, washing her hands before putting the jar on the back of the bathroom sink and walking away. I wouldn’t. I didn’t. No one was going to tell me what I could or couldn’t do with my body, even if that meant feeling like a mutant for the rest of my life (drama). This scar was not just, literally, a part of me, it said something about me, the surgical equivalent of getting bangs or wearing a cross on a necklace. The operation wasn’t my choice. How to deal with the imprint it left behind was.
Seven years later, I was at a new GP’s office for a regular check-up.
“What the hell happened here?” he exclaimed, chucking whatever he knew about bedside manner out the window.
“I had my gallbladder out,” I replied, dredging up the same “tone” that I had used with my mother. I added in an eye-roll for good measure. After all, the surgery was in my file, the one cradled by the doctor as he came in the exam room.
“I know,” he said, “but, boy, they really made a mess of this. I could clean it up for you if want.” I was silent. He gingerly poked along the scar’s edges, sizing it up the way a carpenter measures a beam before cutting. “You want to be able to wear a bikini someday, don’t you” he said in an attempt to sweeten the deal. It didn’t.
“Yeah, I’ll think about it,” I said, which was another way of saying “I’LL SEE YOU IN HELL, PAL!” (drama). He shrugged and continued with the examination.
I wish I could say that at seventeen I was a badass feminist living a credo about resisting the influence of patriarchy’s repressive feminine ideals (seriously, that’s how we talk. No wonder there’s never been a Feminist Barbie that comes with a colorful tote bag and a 1,200-page report on the wage gap). But actually I had grown weirdly protective of my Franken-scar. I wanted it to remain messy and strange and a little puzzling. That felt right to me. That felt closer to the real story it had to tell, not the one that others wanted to hear.
The scar is quite faded now. The skin is blanched, the color of an oyster’s belly. I notice it casually from time to time—soaping up in the shower, hunting for rogue moles, or putting on suntan (did you really think six inches of crinkled, puffy skin would stop me from wearing a bikini if I wanted to, good doctor?). It never set properly and that, too, has always felt right to me.