“Ear Scars” was originally published in February 2008 (Issue 161) of Thieves Jargon.
There is a burning sensation in my ears and I go to the Ear-Nose-and-Throat doctor. The nurse puts me in a nude-colored room and makes me take off my shirt. I see no reason for this, it’s my ears that hurt, nothing else. I can feel her eying me, my skinny arms, the uneven patches of hair. She weighs me and looks me up and down, writing notes on her clipboard. She takes my blood pressure, squeezing so tight I think I’ll burst. Then she releases me and tells me I’m normal.
But I don’t feel normal, I say. When the words come out, the backs of my ears rumble and my voice sounds like it could break.
You’re as normal as they get, she says moving a little closer to me. She smells like the color pink. Her voice falls like rain.
The pink nurse leaves and the ENT doctor comes in a few moments later with another clipboard and pen.
My ears are burning, I tell her.
Maybe someone’s talking about you.
I look at her. She smiles and winks. I say, who would be talking about me?
It’s just an old joke.
Do you think excruciating pain is funny? I want to know what the hell is wrong with me.
She puts her cold hand on my bare shoulder and looks back into my ears.
How did you injure yourself?
Aren’t you supposed to tell me that?
No, I mean, in the past. How did you get this scar tissue?
What? (I don’t know what she’s talking about).
Did you fall? Plastic surgery?
No! (She’s freaking me out).
Well, something must’ve happened. Maybe it’s related to the burning you’re feeling now. If you can’t be honest with me, I won’t be able to help you.
Her cold hand is still on my shoulder. Look, I say, I never injured my ears. I never even had an ear infection as a kid. What is going on?
She looks at me with a kind of half grimace. These scars look like they happened early in life. Maybe even when you were a baby. Perhaps you just don’t remember. Maybe we should do some tests.
I walk out of the office. But first, I let her do her tests. She pokes and prods and the burning continues. On my way out the door, the pink nurse gives me a secret smile. I put it in my pocket for later.
* * *
I pick up the phone. Ma, did I ever get in an accident?
You call me out of the blue and ask me this question? How about a little hello first?
I moved forty miles away from my mother when I was 26. She’s called me every day in the past three years. I say,
Ma, I don’t have a lot of time. I just need to know if I ever hurt my ears.
I don’t know what you’re talking about. You were always a healthy baby.
Who said anything about being a baby? Ma, was I dropped?
Of course you weren’t. What do you think I am, a bad mother? I call you every day, don’t I?
If I was dropped and if I have scars because of it, I have the right to know. It’s my head.
I think about all the bad things in my life that were the result of my head injury. Maybe if I hadn’t fallen when I was a baby, I would be an A student. Maybe I’d be with the love of my life. Maybe I would be able to fistfight.
I hang up with Ma and call the pink nurse for my results and she puts me on hold. There is music playing, a song I haven’t heard in some time. The song is “Holding Back the Years” by Simply Red. The music plays into my ear, just for me, my own private performance, whispering into my drum. I catch pieces of the lyrics: “When somebody hears… listen to the fear… the arm of mater… wasted all those… sooner or later…” It’s a song that I never thought I loved and it takes me into a corner of a cafe once upon a time. I know it must’ve been a long time ago, sometime before I left home, because I can’t remember the last time I was there. “Chance for me to… nothing here has grown… keep holding on… so tight…” The song hits in the same kind of way now as it did then. This is not where I’d hoped to be, is what I thought. Back then it was a cup of coffee gone cold. I remember staring into the black liquid and seeing my face warp with the vibrations. Now it’s the same song playing into my ear through the receiver that I clench too close, digging it into my skin, the burning blazing with each note.
Listening, I don’t want her to come back. I don’t want her to interrupt the song. I feel like I need to hear it more than ever. I wonder if there is a way I can stay on hold longer. Delay the inevitable. But right when Red sings, I’ll keep holding on, holdin’, holdin’, holdin’, ahhhhhhhh—she comes back on the line. She is trying to help me but unable. Sir, there is nothing I can do. Sir, you will have to call back tomorrow. Sir, I’m going to hang up now. And looking at the ceiling, the walls surrounding me, I wonder, how did I end up here?
The burning in my ears becomes unbearable. I get two ice packs and sandwich them in between the muffs of my headphones and strap them on. I think about listening to the song again. I wonder how it would sound through ice. But I don’t own a recording of it and my ears hurt too much to listen anyway so I sit with the ice water melting down my neck. Water running down a neck is a very unsatisfactory feeling. There aren’t many times the neck is wet when the rest of the body is dry. I can only think of sweat and tears.
Ma calls and says, I’m dying.
I lift the ice from my ears and hold the phone up. What?
Trying to what?
To be a good mother.
Did you hear me?
Ma, you are a good mother.
She starts crying. I just know one of these days you’re going to leave me. I know you’re going to run off with some young thing and forget all about your poor mother.
Stop it, Ma. No one’s going to forget about you. I hang up and put the ice back on my ears and try to sleep. I dream about the pink nurse and wake up in a puddle of melted ice.
* * *
The next day I go back to the ENT doctor’s office. The women behind the counter say there’s been a lot of talk about me. The pink nurse winks and comes around to greet me. She touches my hand.
We still don’t know your results. We might have to do more tests.
I tell her, I don’t have long. I’ve already been waiting too long.
She comes in close, whispers into my hot ears and says, I’ll see what I can do. She goes back behind the counter and into an alcove and I think she is talking to the ENT doctor, I can feel her cold hands squeezing, but their words are muffled. I strain to hear and my ears throb.
The pink nurse returns to me. She smiles and I want to capture her.
Here you go, she says, and hands me a paper slip, then takes it away before I can grab it.
Wait, she says, looking around the office, then takes my hand. She leads me through a series of doors until we get to a private room. She closes the door and locks us in.
Listen, she says. We’re not supposed to be here.
Where are we supposed to be?
She shakes her head. I touch her hair and pull her head toward mine. She moves away.
No, she says. You might be contagious.
I thought there was nothing wrong with me?
You never know with these things.
She hands me a prescription. I can’t read the writing. The paper smells like bubblegum or Pepto Bismal, I can’t decide which.
Come back in a week, she says, and leaves without showing me the way out.
* * *
I go to the pharmacy to get the cream for my ears and there is a revolving display of cassettes with bright orange stickers on them. They are on special. And there is my song, sandwiched between Huey Lewis and Miami Sound Machine. I buy the tape.
I go home and unplug the phone and play the song over and over, rubbing the cream on my ears. I lie on my couch looking out the window watching the sky darken, the night setting in. The song transforms. Instead of taking me back to that old café, it’s reminding me of now, lying here with my ears beginning to cool, the sky changing color. I’m creating a new memory.
I reach into my pocket and bring back the secret smile from the nurse. Water falls down my neck and I shiver at the sensation. The music stops and the tape machine clicks its final pop. My heart stings with the vibration. I feel a burning desire to get up and turn the song back on but I can’t make myself move. My ears ring in the silence.
* * *
It is quiet in my apartment for the next few days. I’ve never heard anything like it. It is so peaceful that I think I can even hear part of a bird’s song from a neighboring yard.
Then I remember that the phone is still unplugged. As soon as I plug it back, it rings.
Where have you been? Why haven’t you answered? I’ve been going crazy over here!
The phone was broken, Ma.
Just because I turn my head for one minute—one minute! I’m not a bad mother! You’ve always been a good son. What’s wrong with your phone?
Don’t hate your mother.
Don’t neglect me.
You drive the girls wild, I know that. You’re a good listener, a woman needs that. You were always a good baby and never complained.
A good son!
I’m going to have to put you on hold.
I click the receiver. There is someone on the other line. Hello?
I’m calling to check up on you.
It’s the pink nurse. I recognize her voice falling like rain.
How are you feeling?
I search for the words: quiet, still, ringing, remembering, listening, holding. I say: I’m fine.
I’m not. You gave me your rash.
But we never—
It’s on my neck, my throat. It hurts to speak. I’m hanging up now.
The phone clicks and I can’t get her back. I click the receiver and Ma shouts, you’re a terrible son! Don’t leave me!
I hang up and unplug the phone.
* * *
The next week I go to the ENT doctor’s office but the pink nurse isn’t there. Instead, the cold-handed doctor comes out from behind the counter. I can see you now, she says.
I follow her through a series of doors and into the same private room that I was in with the pink nurse.
She shines a flashlight into my ears. How are they?
Much better, I say, though they still tingle now and then.
Is there anything you’d like to tell me?
I’m not a bad son. Am I contagious?
She smiles and tugs my ear with her cold fingers. No, she says. You’re perfectly normal.
When I walk out of the private room into the office lobby, the overhead speakers play “Holding Back the Years.” There are several nurses wearing pink smocks, talking on the phone. I wonder if someone is on hold and listening to the song like I was. I listen until it gets to the part where Red sings, “that’s all I have today, that’s all I have to say” and then leave the building.
At home, the world is silent. I begin to relax but my throat is dry. I swallow and cough but the tickle won’t go away and my neck begins to itch. I feel her cold hands tugging my ears, soothing. I plug the phone in and call to make an appointment.