When I was a little boy, my great aunt, who was always like a third grandmother to me, used to say, "Mark has such beautiful, long fingers. He's going to grow up to be a pianist."
Her sister, my grandmother, would smile and respond, "Or a pickpocket."
I've inherited Nana's sense of humor. And I've always liked my hands. I don't have a lot of features that I consider particularly attractive, but I've always loved the way my hands look.
It's hard for me to believe that it started so early, but when I was seven, in second grade, I had my very first bully. His name was Isaiah, and he used to torment me for "acting like a girl." I remember that he used to pin me to the wall by placing one hand on either side of my shoulders, forcing me to look at him while he gave me "advice" about how to act more like a boy. Sometimes he would spit in my face. I remember how strongly he smelled when he would force himself into my face, like urine, sweat, and clothes that desperately needed to be washed. My parents used to tell me to be nice to him, because his parents had a hard time taking care of him.
We went to a small Catholic elementary school, one classroom for each grade. Four rooms upstairs, and four downstairs. Outside each classroom, in the hallway, there was a row of hooks where we hung our coats, beneath a shelf where we kept our lunchboxes. At both ends of the hallway there was a staircase with old, wooden fire doors on swinging hinges.
One day, I was getting ready to go outside for recess. I hated recess, so I was always as slow as I could be getting my coat and going outside. My last name was alphabetically last, so my hook was the last one before the stairs. Right next to the fire door.
On this day, I did something thoughtless and stupid. I leaned one hand on the door frame while I grabbed my jacket. It's something I see my own sons do occasionally, putting their hands in a door frame where it might close on them, and I know that my reaction to seeing their hands in danger has frightened them. When I see their hands on a door frame, I panic. I scream, and I pull them away.
So there I was, getting my coat, oblivious to the danger. I saw Isaiah's face appear on the other side of the door. He smiled, the same sneer that he made every time he found a new way to tell me how much he hated me.
Then he put his hands out and threw his body at the door, slamming it closed as hard as he could.
I don't remember what happened next. I don't remember the door closing. I don't remember what his face looked like when he saw what happened. I don't remember the pain of the impact on my fingers. I don't remember Isaiah bringing me to the nurse's office.
The first thing I remember is sitting in a chair in the nurse's office, my hand raised above my head, and blood pouring down my arm.
I remember my dad arriving. I remember seeing all of the color drain out of his face. I remember the nurse, making my dad sit down for a moment, to be sure he wasn't going to pass out.
I remember Isaiah bringing my coat and my lunchbox to the nurse's office, and I remember her thanking him for being a thoughtful friend. I wanted to tell her that he wasn't my friend, that he had closed the door on my hand, and that he had done it on purpose, but I didn't.
I remember riding in my dad's car. I remember telling my father, "Please don't take me to the doctor! I want to die at home, not at the hospital!" (It's OK to laugh, that quote is really funny.)
I remember laying on the table and seeing her put a large needle in my hand, the pain going away. I remember trying to see what the doctor was doing, but one of the nurses had me turn my head away.
"Sweetheart," she told me, "you don't want to watch." Instead, she asked me questions about school, about my brother, probably about anything she could think of.
The middle finger and ring finger on my left hand were broken just above the last knuckle. The nails were shattered about halfway down, and had to be removed. I cried when the doctor told me they had to take off my fingernails, and she promised me that they wouldn't be gone forever, and would eventually grow back.
My fingers were a bloody mess for a while. Changing the bandages was painful. The cloth would stick to the scabs, and I could feel my pulse throb in the broken fingers. But just like the doctor promised, eventually the nails grew back and my fingers began to look like fingers again.
To me, though, they aren't the same. I look at the fingers on my right hand, still straight and perfect, and I know that's what my left hand was meant to look like. To me, the fingers on my left hand are crooked. The nails grow at an angle, too wide and then too narrow, and there's a smooth scar on the side of one finger. A few times, I've asked people if they have noticed. The answer is always the same -- if they look closely and compare my two hands, they can see the difference, but they would never have noticed if I hadn't asked.
The only time I think about Isaiah is when my mother mentions seeing his name in the police log. It's clear that she still feels badly for him, the angry little boy in dirty clothes that smelled like urine. Sometimes I want to say, "You know, he assaulted me and slammed my fingers in that door. I could really go through the rest of my life without ever hearing you say his name again, and that would be fine." But I don't think she would understand, so I don't say it. Instead, I listen politely to a report of his arrest and think about that day in the second grade.
I really don't blame him for what happened. My sons were neglected, too, and I hate to think about what their lives would have been if no one had stepped in to remove them from that situation. Somehow, in the nearly thirty years since it happened, I hadn't drawn the connection between his increasing hostility and aggression and his eventual violent outburst.
Maybe I can stop looking at my scarred fingers as a defect. From now on, I'm going to try to view them as a reminder that I made it through those dark years that were just beginning when Isaiah slammed that door on my hand.
If I could go back in time, I would tell that little boy -- 7-year-old me, who kept a My Little Pony in his backpack so that no one would see it -- I would tell him that one day, 23 years later, his partner will take that bloodied hand, slide a wedding ring over that broken finger, and become his husband. On that day, in that moment, a scarred finger will be the last thing on his mind.