There's a quarter-inch long scar on the knuckle at the base of my left thumb. It's been there since the summer of 1996, when I sliced it with a Stanley knife trying to trim a notch in a piece of clapboard I had to replace on an old farmhouse I was painting. The rotted piece I removed had stretched beneath a second-story window, and I'd already climbed down from the ladder three times to trim the notch in the new piece the right way: on a makeshift workbench on the ground, not against a rung of a wobbly ladder sixteen feet in the air. But still it didn't quite fit, and there are only so many times a stubborn man will climb down a ladder to do the same simple fucking thing before he decides he's not making that roundtrip again. And so, muttering and sputtering an entirely inappropriate accusation at the piece of clapboard, I pulled out the knife and yanked the blade neatly through the notch and right into my thumb.
You see the future in moments like these. Granted, it's only a split second into the future, but you do see it, in vivid technicolor, as the little voice in your head implores you not to do the thing you are most definitely about to do, and it's always this premonitory flash that plays on a recurring loop in your head as, suddenly almost unreasonably calm, you slowly descend the ladder and dig around in the toolbox for something resembling a bandaid. The best you can do is a roll of black electrical tape, which does the trick both because it stops the bleeding and because it looks ridiculous in proportion to the stupid thing you just did.
I bring this up because, for the last two days, that tiny white scar, for no good reason at all, has itched like a motherfucker. This is nothing new, of course: the half-dozen memorable scars I carry around have all, from time to time, made minor nuisances of themselves, demanding my attention for a few days, casting my mind back to the circumstances of their respective arrivals. A scar is like a pin in a wall map, showing a place you've been, and when someone points to it you invariably find yourself nodding and saying something like, "Ah, yes: Istanbul." Every scar tells a story, and when one itches, you're hard pressed not to scratch it.
The skin is the largest organ of the human body, and by virtue of its surface area and proximity to the booby-trapped, indifferent world, it is the most easily and apparently scarred. Your skin, however, is by no means the only vulnerable organ you possess, and the scars you carry in your heart and mind are no less insistent when they start to tingle. All those non-fatal wounds suffered over the duration of your life leave their marks in a place only you can see, and just like that thin white scar at the base of my thumb, sometimes the itch comes out of absolutely nowhere and lingers while I rehash and reflect. Ah, yes, fucking Istanbul.
Sometimes a cut is deep and broad enough that it scrapes against the scars that came before it, cross-hatching them with fresh abrasions that compel them all to sting at once. This is what we talk about when we talk about despair, and unless you're very strong or unusually lucky, it will almost invariably land you in a place from which you can see no escape, leaving you very much like a turtle on its back in the middle of a busy highway. Once you've been there and made it back, the truth is, nobody wants to hear about the stretches when some or all of it comes flooding back, haunting your sleep and your daydreams alike. Your friends were there, they saw the worst of it and, frankly, why would they want to watch the second act if it's just going to be a mashup of scenes from the notorious first?
Which is part of why I spend so much time alone, keeping my own counsel, or deftly muting it with a twelve-pack of cheap beer. As much as it's managed to fuck me pretty remarkably over the last forty-five years, I am nonetheless rather fond of my mind's finer attributes. Whether your mind is a vintage Montblanc or a blunt and broken Crayola, it is still, in the end, the single greatest resource that will ever be available to you. When you find yourself in times of trouble, don't just let it be: use your fucking head.
And so today, at the tail end of a week of relentless dreams about a girl who was never there, I sit beside the living room window, glaring at the grey, unpromising spring, scratching with freshly cut nails at an itch that won't go away, knowing full well you can pull the pin out of the map, but that doesn't change where you've been.