Ian S. Maloney*
Her wrinkly hands touch my forehead. She places her glasses on her nose, hung from a chain around her neck. I pull my hair back as the doctor looks at the ghostly blue crease on my head. My mother waits in the seat next to the desk; she clutches her purse and taps her feet. My father waits in the car, smoking and listening to sports radio.
“He came back from football camp with it…it just seems to get darker and more pronounced every day since. We thought it was a pinch from the helmet.”
I remain silent. I keep looking around as the doctor moves her finger across my forehead and then into my hairline where my hair has stopped growing.
“There also seems to be another one coming into shape on the side in the hairline.”
“Does it feel differently?”
“First one in the center feels dry, sometimes. The other one feels weird. Like a twinge, every now and then. Can’t really explain it. Feels like my head is changing.”
“Was it the helmet, doctor? I think he suffered a concussion in that damn summer camp and they let him keep playing.”
“To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what it is, yet. I have my suspicions, but I don’t think it was trauma. I don’t think it was from the helmet, although maybe that didn’t help.”
“It just happened?”
“I believe so, but I want to get a second opinion on it.”
I stare around the office. A diploma in a frame on the wall, a neatly arranged desk with family pictures. A desktop computer turned off. A small sink with antibacterial soap, filled half-way. A Picasso painting, hung next to a Marc Chagall.
The doctor looks intently. She doesn’t appear to fully understand what it is. If she does, she’s not saying and not absolutely certain. This has me fidgeting. I adjust the sleeves of my shirt and re-tussle my hair to cover the scar.
She moves back to the desk and sits and begins to write notes.
“I see your hair covers it pretty well. I didn’t even see it when you walked in.”
“Yeah, I don’t want people to see it, really.”
“He’s been keeping it long. Sometimes you can’t even see his eyes.”
“So, I’m going to give you a referral to my medical school. I have a suspicion what this is, but I’d like one of my colleagues there to give it a look this week, if you don’t mind and verify what I think.”
“Sure. Whatever you think best.”
“I’d like you to see Dr. Jerry Shupack, NYU Medical Center. Best person to see in the field in New York, in my humble opinion.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
A week later, Dad and I are driving from Brooklyn to NYU Medical Center. We’re through the Battery Tunnel and heading to the FDR Drive. Dad’s a chain-smoking exterminator, who has road rage and profanity tirades. He’s quieter today, asking me a lot of questions. Sometimes, it’s about school, about sports, about friends. I feel the nervous energy from him and it’s not normal. He’s nervous and he’s not nervous about anything. I take deep breaths as we park the car in the midtown lot. It’s busy on the street and we grab a pretzel to split from a sidewalk vendor, before we enter. We’re an hour early for the appointment.
Medical students in white coats pass, so too do people in blue scrubs and hair covers. Patients file through the revolving doors in groups, many with anxious faces. Some carrying balloons and flowers. We ascend on the elevator and two parents are holding a newborn baby boy. The elevator is quiet. I adjust my hair repeatedly with every slight breeze to avoid anyone looking at my head. The baby squeaks as they get off at a different floor.
There are two of them on my head. Whatever they are. I can feel the groove developing in my hair—the sense that something is taking over my skull, a channel digging into my brain. My centerline looks blue. It has a curve to it, but perhaps not as pronounced as the one developing under the surface of my left forehead. This one feels weird and my fingers run over several times a day. I’m wearing my varsity jacket—my mop of brown hair falls down over my blue eyes. We wait in a room of soft brown and floral prints on the wall. The receptionist is pleasant and we don’t wait long.
We don’t have insurance, so dad pays for the visit with a wad of rolled up cash from his jeans pocket. He signs some forms for me with a Parker pen from his shirt pocket, perched next to his pack of red Marlboros and a toll receipt.
A nurse comes in and escorts us in. The view from the office is staggering. A sea of small people circulating on the street below, like ants marching to and from, from point to point. I can see the East River and Brooklyn in the distance.
Dad is quiet, and I’m nervous. This whole thing is weird. Everyone is on edge. I have a mystery growing on top of my head and I feel it dipping down through my cranium and into my brain. I wonder if it will stop. Maybe there’s an easy answer. I don’t think I’m playing football after this. Probably stick to baseball. I wonder if this doctor can give me something to make it stop and go away. Has to be a cream or a lotion. Something to make it stop and go away. Or know where and when it will stop. The lines direct down my face towards my nose and eyes.
Dr. Shupack enters and shakes hands with both of us. He has a student behind him, a young woman.
“Hi, Ian and Mr. Maloney. My student is going to be in here. Is that ok?”
“Let’s see, a referral. Tell me a little about how this developed.”
I tell a quick story about football camp, a tight helmet, a concussion. Then, a mysterious blue, faint line. And another one to the side, beginning to feel like a dent.
“All right. Let’s give it a look.”
I raise my hair, and he looks at my forehead. His fingers touch either side of my head and he peruses the lines with his fingers like he’s scanning them for certainty.
“Any sensitivity at all?”
“A little on the side one.”
“Wow, that’s the sabre’s cut.”
“Yes, it’s extremely rare. It’s called linear scleroderma.”
When he says this last word, my dad’s jaw drops and he blink repeatedly. He pulls his hand to his chin and knits his brow.
“No, no, no, not that type. I’m sorry. It’s linear. It’s contained. It’s not life threatening.”
Dad nods and nods some more.
I’m still holding my hair. Life-threatening lingers in the room.
“En Coup de Sabre. We need to run some tests. It’s incredibly rare. Cases reported tend to be one in one million. And I’d like you to come back and see my colleagues and students next month for a conference…If you don’t mind. We don’t know as much as we’d like to know, simply because it’s so rare to find.”
I have a cut in my forehead. A rare one, as if someone took a sword and marked my skull down the center and to the left. I don’t know fully what this means, or what it foretells. I know, as we walk past the receptionist, and make plans to visit more medical students and doctors in a few weeks, that I narrowly escaped a death sentence and I am sixteen.
My head has a sabre’s cut in it. I didn’t hear about a cure. Don’t think there is one. Something was said about plastic surgery as a possibility. I’ll have to live with it. No easy answer. No cream. No lotion. No make it go away. Only monitoring. It might grow. It could continue down into my face. And, I’m going to hide it for as long as I can.
“One in a million. That’s incredible and shocking. But, whew, it could have been so much worse. Right?”
“Guess so. It’s not going away.”
“No, no it’s not son. Going to live with it and see how it progresses.”
It may be shocking, but it doesn’t feel very incredible. Only wait and see if it gets worse. Live with it. Die with it. Who knows? Feels like some mystery just divided my head in two, and I wouldn’t be able to pull my hair back ever again. People will stare, wonder what it is or what happened. Dad has a strange air of relief as he lights up a cigarette on the sidewalk. I walk with him slowly to the car, walking into the uncertainty of living with a sabre’s cut.
Editor’s Note: We found an interesting 11 minute YouTube video of en coup de sable. Worth watching!
*Ian S. Maloney, PhD is Professor of English and Director of the St. Francis College Literary Prize at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, NY. Ian is a member of the Literary Council of the Brooklyn Book Festival, as well as Community Outreach Director for the Walt Whitman Initiative.