It was on Monroe Avenue in the Bronx, where I lived as a child, beginning roughly mid-street on a significant but not extreme decline, that one day I took flight.
I was wearing shorts and white Keds and, in the way an idea can simulate the movement of the body, I began to run as fast as I could. The street so regular, my Keds so capable, I ran downhill as the wind took up my hair, and I felt, at the last second before it all stopped, only the lightest touch of sneaker to pavement. I was as close to flight as I would ever be.
And then the rubber on my right foot caught the cut of the concrete between slabs and I felt my body rise slightly before it fell hard, landing, all the weight of me that suddenly became significant, on my knees.
I rose quickly, aware that people would surely be watching. Windows would open as the adult sentries who monitored would call out their questions or scream in horror. My friends who lined the avenue and hung near as we adventured side-by-side laughed or, worse, expressed concern and in that concern, their victories; because life then, as now, is a competition.
My knees began to burn. Thick blood dripped down my legs into my socks, turning the edges of my Keds pink, then red.
I walked back to my house, mid-block, trying to ignore the others, trying not to cry, trying not to feel the pain that moved beyond a burn to sharp jabs as my legs moved and the stares of those around fell on me. The wetness of my socks was an embarrassment. I reached the door to the three-story row house where I lived. Mrs. Monteleone, resting with her arms crossed on the sill of her first floor window, rose when she saw me and in her broken English called, “ah, no!”
I remember so much about the ways those particular wounds represented the ensuing acts on the parts of my parents to cure—to treat with products meant for such things (mercurochrome, peroxide, Iodine), the BandAids, the infections, the pulling of crusts, the eventual fade of the wound to scar and then, not even that.
But I don’t remember at all beginning to sob, only that I tried hard not to. And finding as I pulled open that door to home, that my face reflected in the glass of the door was red and puffy and wet. And—that everyone had seen my pain.
Lately I’ve been trying to see myself as others see me. I am sixty years old, five feet tall (I lie a small bit, roughly one quarter inch) and though I believe I am smiling, I know that my lips often don’t reflect that belief. I am at a conference in Pittsburgh and I see myself in storefront windows or in bathroom mirrors or in the uncomfortable looks in the faces of those I encounter in the world of everyday, the faces of those I have just met.
I am a writer and so I communicate best with a pencil, where my body is erased and there are only words. I craft an appearance: I appear as I choose, without the worry of uncomfortable meetings, of presences that counter my own.
But this is a new and changing world. To write is to craft not only a crisp and accurate tale, but to package, to market, to display the whole self—body and spirit and mind. So I worry about that image. And I remember, too, how painful it was to have my writing rejected, to be told by masters, “no.”
I walk down a city street in Pittsburgh near the University and as I pass a storefront window, I note my image is not “sixty-ish,” but younger:—loose jeans (Boyfriend style), red shoes, hanging shirt. Hair as straight as it ever was. My image is a mask. To turn sixty, not fifty-nine and three quarter years, to be sixty, that inch cannot be reversed.
Later in the evening, walking with a friend, we are in a part of Pittsburgh where the outdoor mall South Side Works has been constructed over an old steel mill site, the toxicity of a failed economy covered over with stores that represent the desires of the young. Some of the stores originally housed here at the turn of the new century have already closed: Sharper Image–gone, Ann Taylor Loft, gone too, and a bookstore, a two-story, non-chain, emporium for those who love words, also vacant. We are looking for a place to dine. The mall is a blend of an old-style village square and the upscale sites of contemporary pleasures—cobblestone paved sidewalks, kiosks that tempt.
After my friend and I turned to leave a pub we had just rejected, where the black awnings and heavy glass windows promised hefty burgers and stiff beer but whose air seemed cleansed of aroma, my right ankle landed on a small imperfection in the height of two cobblestones—one just about a fraction of an inch higher than the neighboring stone. For a moment, time stopped. Did I imagine the sidewalk diners pausing to look at me?
I felt myself suddenly unstable. The movement of my body determined by forces other than my will. I fell hard on my knees. The pavement tore through one leg of my jeans, braised the polish off of one of my toenails. My left knee burned.
My friend, knowing my age, said, “Don’t get up right away.”
Shit, I thought.
The couples at the sidewalk tables processed my fall. I could feel their stares, though they were behind me. I imagined their burgers held mid-air, their beers paused at waiting lips. I heard their judgments: klutz, pathetic soul, loser, old…
“I’m fine,” I said, hoping it was true. I stood. My legs worked. My feet held me. I pulled up my jeans on the injured leg. I recognized the abrasion—the sharp, red blotch, the blood beginning to pool.
I am fine, I thought, as we crossed the street.
I said, joking, “I am steel.”
Donna Marsh lives in upstate New York with her husband, Robert O’Connor, and her life partner, Lando, a Yorkie Bichon. She teaches writing at Syracuse University. Currently at work on two essay collections about the loss of her daughter on 9/11/2001, her writing is an attempt to bring Vanessa back to life on the page. “Reaching for the Pearl” appears in the current issue of Stone Canoe Journal.