Across my right palm runs a scar that pretty much obliterates my heart line. I don’t know squat about palmistry, but from what I’ve been told, that heart line’s original trajectory made me out to be pretty much a cad: self-centered, a hedonist and not a good candidate for fidelity. Interestingly enough, the shape of my new, artificially induced and extended heart line indicates the exact opposite qualities: empathy, a romantic nature, and loyalty in relationships.
This raises an intriguing question: which is the real me? Can we graft learned behavior on top of our fundamental nature? Can we change our destiny? The stars impel, they don’t compel, goes the old maxim. So maybe there’s some wiggle room there.
It was summer before my junior year in college. No question, at the time I was a pretty miserable specimen of humanity: a narcissist, as only a 20-year-old is capable of being; not reliable in relationships; a stranger in the strange land of adulthood into which I’d been thrust. In other words, a typical college student.
I was sleeping on a couch in a house that had anywhere from 10 to 20 people coming and going at all hours of the night. I was, as they say, self-medicating to a horrifying degree—
“Wanna do some of these?”
“What are they?”
“I dunno. They’re purple.”
“Sure, why not.”
I was rising before dawn to work a construction job for which I’d spent my entire life not preparing for. (Before that summer, I’d always thought Manuel Labor was a Mexican.) No, I was not getting a good night’s sleep. Ever. Yes, my health was suffering, though I didn’t much notice. Nor did I pay attention to a couple of blisters on my palm that rose, and broke, after a day of constant hammering.
This was on Friday.
That weekend, they started itching. Then they started swelling. Then they started hurting. On Monday I went to a Navy doctor who said I had Cellulitis, wrapped up my hand and gave me a bottle of Demerol. By Thursday I was eating the last of the Demerol like it was candy and banging my head against the wall to try and tolerate the pain.
So I went to the Navy hospital in Pensacola, where I was told “Cellulitis can be painful.” I asked if the doctor could just look at my hand anyway. So he took the wrapping off. My hand was the color of dark bricks, with odd white splotches throughout. The doctor stared for a moment, then said, “Ok. So I’ve seen your hand. Wait here.”
While I was waiting, a doctor and nurse walked by in the hall, then poked their heads in. “Are you the one with the textbook case of cellulitis?” My reputation had preceded me. They, and a few other hangers-on, gawked for a minute or two, then I was admitted.
Another doctor examined me, wasn’t sure what I had going on, gave me a bunch of painkiller and left me alone. Then at 9 p.m. that night he came back, for no other reason than he was bothered by the cellulitis diagnosis. He poked me with a big needle that felt like it was puncturing an eggshell. That was bad, I thought. I should have felt something. He pulled out a thick glob of white, creamy goo, sent it down to the lab, and within 15 minutes I was being prepped for surgery.
When I woke up, I was still on the table as they were wrapping up. “How bad was it,” I asked.
“About a nine and a half on a scale of ten.”
The next morning my hand was wrapped in softball-sized bandages. Small portions of my fingertips were visible. When the doctors pressed them, and saw them go back to pink, they seemed enthusiastic. “Can you move your fingers?” I managed maybe 1/32 of an inch. That made them ecstatic. I later learned that at that point, they were still undecided as to whether they’d let me keep my hand.
“When they cleaned you out, it was like squeezing a toothpaste tube,” a corpsman later told me. “That shit eats your muscles and turns them to mush. It was already in there too long.”
Turns out, those muscles were more developed than usual, due to the fact that I played guitar and practiced finger picking daily. I was literally saved by the music. That, and the fact that my doctor had been pulled out of a high-end practice in Chicago just three weeks before. The Navy was drafting physicians then, during those Vietnam war years, and I got the luck of the draw. Another doctor might well have waited until the next day, at which point he’d have likely lopped off my hand.
For two years my hand felt like it was made of stone, though on-going guitar exercises were undoubtedly therapeutic. And yeah, I had the necessary confrontations with the vagaries of reality, and how random outcomes can be.
I’d been lucky.
But about that transformed heartline. I wish I could say that I had a major epiphany, that my better nature mystically emerged and made a new man of me. Truth is, I’m still kind of an asshole, albeit not full-time. I’ve developed some admirable instincts over the years, accomplished some notable results, both in my relationships and in the world. Even shown some healthy traces of empathy.
I’m aware that in some parallel universe, I’m still butchering my relationships, never having evolved past that infantile state. Perhaps, in that universe I no longer even exist, having been erased through my own reckless stupidity or by someone teaching me a well-deserved lesson. In another universe I’m walking around without a hand. Whether, in that world, I learned to triumph over adversity or spent my life embittered by the unfairness of it all, I could not say.
Because in this life, I dodged that bullet – many bullets, if I’m to be honest. And so I’ve come to this place, an imperfect man, dealt some imperfect cards at the outset, but having made some smart bets on them, smart enough that I’ve learned a thing or two, with a scar that is a constant reminder that the paths we take are driven mostly by coincidence, and knowing how different they could so easily have been.