by Julie Hodges
My life changed one night twenty years ago.
It was a cloudy, summer night, dark, even with the full moon. I had almost reached my building. He must have known the shortcut college students took because he waited for me to walk past his hidden form. He came up behind me and pushed me against the nasty brick wall behind the diner, right next to the trash dumpster. His arm hooked around my neck. I remember the sour smell of half-drunk milkshakes in the New York summer. He pushed up my blouse and groped my breast like he was going to rip it from my body. I felt the burn of the knife cutting my face. The cut distracted me from noticing he had taken my backpack. A shaft of light had allowed me to see the white flesh of his arm, and a tattoo that read, “Anarchy Rules.” Before he ran away, he shoved my face back into the brick. My backpack held my money, phone, and personal journal.
That man gave me my scar. It stands out proud, like a raven on virgin snow. It spans the distance from the left corner of my mouth past my left ear and its, now non-existent, earlobe and ends inside my hairline, where the cutting began.
I had always been a peaceful person, positive, the happy-go-lucky sort. I refused to be ruled by fear, by hate. He changed me. I bought a gun and learned how to use it. Street fighting classes were fun. I imagined my attacker’s head, smashed, his brains spilling onto that dirty alley.
I was in the laundromat when I saw the tattoo. The man was in a wheelchair. He knew right away who I was. “I did that, didn’t I?”
I nodded for a long time, trying to restrain myself in the public place. It wouldn’t have been smart to reach into my purse, point a gun at him and blow his brains all over the row of dryers.
“I was a desperate, street kid when I attacked you. I did lots of things I’m ashamed of. I don’t deserve forgiveness.
“What happened?” I pointed to where there should have been legs.
“After I got clean, I joined the army. Stepped on a landmine in Afganistan.”
“Hm.” That was all I could say. I glared at him. My brain buzzed and my heart beat through my chest. My breath, quick and shallow, made me feel dizzy. For the past twenty years I’d carried a handgun with me, in case I saw him. Could I kill this man now? It could be that life had given him a more significant scar than he’d given me.
“I’ll accept whatever punishment you decide on.” He pulled paper and pen from his bag and started writing. His hand stretched toward me, handing me a note. “So you’ll know where to find me.”
He balanced his load of dried clothes on what remained of his lap and left. I slid down the front of a washing machine to sit on the floor. My unbalanced load of laundry knocked me around from behind.
His name was Robert Eldridge. He had written his street address, phone number and email address underneath his name. I stared at the note, reading the information over and over. What an incredible stroke of luck. Or was it? I couldn’t decide. I don’t believe in coincidence, so why, twenty years later, did we meet?
When my laundry was finished, I folded it and tied it to my bicycle for the ride home.
I put away my clean clothes and got a box out from under my bed. I found the journal dated right after the attack. Reading my journal entries forced me to relive the ordeal. I had written about the attack in several more journals. What had I done to myself, reliving the attack day after day for years?
When the attack happened, I was in my last year of college, studying broadcast journalism at NYU. I wanted to be on television, telling my audience what was going on all over the world. I had the looks and the brains. After the attack, my grades plummeted and I failed most of my classes. I never went back to school. Sleeping too much and missing out on life was the new norm, as was losing my apartment and the love of my life. Today, I am a freelance writer, which is how I pay the rent for my roach-laden studio apartment. I don’t work outside my apartment, and stay inside unless I need to shop or do laundry.
I didn’t know if I could let go of the hatred I carried in my blood. Yet, it had stolen my life. Life could have been pretty good, had I let something other than painful memories bubble up whenever I encountered a mirror or touched my face. Hate and fear had stolen every present moment and my future. But, I was sick of hate and fear. I took a deep breath and uncovered the mirrors in my apartment. In harsh light and the bathroom mirror, I examined my scar for the first time in years.
The next morning I called Robert Eldridge. “I will be there in thirty minutes.” I hung up, assuming he knew who I was. The weight of the gun on the strap of my purse burned my shoulder as I walked the thirty blocks to his apartment. I didn’t know what I would do when I saw him again.
My face was wet with sweat and tears when I got there. I wiped my face with my hands and knocked on the door.
He opened the door wide. I stormed into the aparment and turned toward him. “Why’d you get sober and enlist?” I glared into his eyes, finding it took some effort.
“It was the only way I knew I might become a man.” He gestured toward the kitchen table. “Please, sit down. Want some coffee?”
“No.” I sat in one of the plastic chairs at the kitchen table and clutched my purse to my chest. I felt the solid weight of the pistol pressing hard against my left breast, assuring me it was still there.
I looked around. The apartment was small, bargain furnished, but neat and clean. He wasn’t a thug without taste. His apartment was more of a home than mine was.
Robert came out of the kitchen with a mug of coffee for himself and rolled up to the table across from me. He took a sip from the mug. The rich, earthy odor of the coffee heightened my senses.
“I read your journal and…”
“You what?” My face turned red with anger. I sat up straight on the edge of the chair. Ready to lunge.
“Sorry.” He shrugged his shoulders. “What you wrote about your boyfriend made me cry. I’d never had love. I felt an emptiness I didn’t know was there. For the first time, I felt guilty about a crime I’d done. I was too weak to return your stuff. I was afraid to face you. It was the last crime I did. Stay here. I’ll be right back.” Robert left the table and went into what I assume was the bedroom. I heard a closet door rumble along its tracks. He came back and slung my backpack onto the table. “It’s all there, even the money.”
I sat frozen and looked at him, my jaw slack. I grabbed my backpack and unzipped the large compartment. It contained a couple textbooks, a notebook, and my journal. It still had a pen clipped onto the cover. The smaller compartments held my old cell phone, my wallet, everything was there. I looked across the table at him. “You kept it?”
He looked at me through a mist of tears. “Yeah. You inspired me to be a better person. I’m truly sorry for what I did to you. I wish I could take it back. This is the best I can do. I knew I’d see you again. Don’t know how, I just did. So I kept your things. When I went into the army, I boxed it up with a letter to get it to you if I didn’t come back.”
“Okay, thanks.” I stood up and put my backpack on my back, where it belonged. “I have to forgive you, for me, not for you.” I got up and walked out. I was glad to have my stuff back, even though part of me was still angry.
I walked home, my mind deep into plans for my future. I even smiled.