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The Forty-Seven Stigmata of Rosa Fuentes
How She Learned to Love Her Scars

Dakota William Szaniszlo

Dakota William Szaniszlo is a poet and prosist from Tucson, AZ. They are a committed practitioner of shower-singing, a volunteer life-coach for the dead, an unlicensed self-surgeon, and an avid collector of tossed-out ideologies. They enjoy contemplating ineffable abstraction, dreams constantly, and spends most of their free time on long drives through various mental landscapes. They have been previously featured in various journals including: The Antonym, Canyon Voices, and Punt Volat.

When viewing the body of Ms. Rosa Fuentes, one of the first things that becomes apparent to the examiner is the considerable profusion of scars—not as many as some, yet far more than most. They decorate her flesh like words in a diary, each with a silent story.

Scar #1: Rosa acquired her first scar when she was still an infant, having developed an infection in her lower ventricle, which required open-heart surgery. Owing to the elasticity and resilience of infant flesh, this scar, which runs vertically down the length of her chest, is barely distinguishable, usually going completely unnoticed by anyone but herself.

Scar #2: Her second scar was received at the age of eight. It was the first time she had ever had the wind knocked out of her, and the last time she would ever climb a tree. As she was nearing the top, a branch snapped, and a second later, her arm echoed. As she lay there, staring up at the blinding light of the sun shining through the fiery autumn leaves, desperately fighting to suck in some oxygen, she thought for sure she was dying. Her father found her and scooped her up, taking her to an emergency physician where they screwed a metal bar into the length of her forearm to help support the shattered ulna and radius.

Scar #3: This particular scar came courtesy of an accidental brush with a heated curling iron when Rosa was twelve, which left a permanent mark in the shape of a darkened oval on her upper arm.

Scar #4: The classic zipper-scar from stitches. This unfortunate scar was received on her quinceañera. She did not want a quinceañera. She did not want to wear a big fancy dress, even if she “looked beautiful in it.” She did not want her father to throw a big fancy party and invite all the boys from her school or to parade her around like a pig at auction. She did not want to have to dance with all the men at the party. Most of all, she did not want to have to become a woman. She spent most of the party pouting. Then Leon asked her to dance. He was the only boy she liked. He was tall and handsome, strong and athletic, yet gentle and soft-spoken. He never bullied or teased, never shamed or ridiculed. He also had never before spoken to Rosa. As she followed him to the center of the dance floor, blurry eyes and trepidatious steps, she tripped over a paving stone and her unsteady high heels toppled. Leon spun to catch her, but was too late, her young body was already crashing face-first into the ground. Half the party exploded into laughter—until they saw the blood. The force had shoved her bottom teeth through the skin just below her lip, ripping a hole that took nine stitches to seal. This ended the party.

Scar #5: Rosa had heard about ‘cutting’ from classmates, but she did not really understand it. She was told that some people do it when they are depressed to make themselves feel better. She was not sure if she was depressed or not. She had heard that some people do it as a cry for help, or to seek attention.

She was not sure if she actually wanted attention, or help. She was not sure what she may or may not get out of it. She was not sure of a lot of things, but she knew there was something about the idea of it that appealed to her. One night, at a month shy of sixteen, she took a knife from the kitchen into her bedroom and gave it a whirl. She held the knife with a trembling hand and slid it across her inner forearm. The cold metal gliding across the flesh was exhilarating but did nothing for the arm besides raise some responsive goose pimples. She tried again, gingerly pressing down on the blade a bit, wincing in apprehension. With this attempt, there was left a red mark on her skin, but still no blood, no actual cut. She would have to use more determination. She was fed up with trying. She was fed up with expectations and failure. She was fed up with disappointment. She pushed down on the knife with all her strength and ripped the blade across her arm. The pain was immediate, blindingly so, but as she looked down at her arm, with its embarrassingly long, dark hairs, there was a latency period where there was no blood and it seemed as if that pain was just a false alarm. Then it began to flood. Her entire arm pulsated as a crimson deluge poured out. Her fingers were numb, and she was nauseous and dizzy, and no matter what she did, she could not get the bleeding to stop. She started screaming. Her shrill, animal screeches awoke her parents, who burst into the room, finding their daughter in the middle of what now looked like a murder scene. Her parents were furious. “¿Por qué te haces esto? Why would you do this?” they kept asking. For a moment, she almost felt like she could explain it, but knew they would not understand, that they didn’t really want to know. They got her patched up and took her to a psychiatrist, got her on medication. Rosa learned not to let people see her pain. She learned that suffering had to be secretive and shameful.

Scars #6, 7, 8: The pills did not help. They made her feel unstable, suicidal. They also made her gain weight. She already disliked her appearance, but now she despised it.  Amid a nervous breakdown, or a “teenage fit” as her mother called it, Rosa punched her bedroom mirror, which shattered and sliced her hands in several places. She had attempted to hide it, to avoid disappointing her parents, but the lacerations required suture.

Scars #9-45: The next successive thirty-seven scars were all self-inflicted. She had learned to avoid normally visible areas and had found the perfect canvas in the pudge of the inner thigh. She imagined cutting it all off, whittling it all away—a thought too enticing to ever work. She started with a few small cuts on each side, about two inches long. It made her feel better. It made everything else go away. It gave a name to the pain and made it easier to cope. Throughout the years, it was her regular crutch.

Through stress from high school, college, corporate bullshit, whenever she felt overwhelmed or sad or angry or anything at all, she would just add a few notches. Of course, by all outward appearances, she was successful. Inside was a different story. She still hated herself. She still hated her body. Her scars were a constant reminder of that hatred, and they were starting to add up. Eventually, at the age of twenty-four, she found a support group, people who would listen, who could empathize. They helped her find the right psychiatrist who prescribed her different medications. She changed her diet and her lifestyle, found a new job. Things still were not perfect, and occasionally she would lapse, adding a few more notches, but things were certainly better, easier. She would often tell herself that she was beautiful, even if she did not believe it, that her scars and blemishes were beautiful, that she was worthy of love.

Scars #46 & 47: When she was thirty, Rosa was diagnosed with breast cancer. The diagnosis crushed her. None of her personal growth mattered. None of her struggles amounted to anything. Nothing made a difference. Nothing mattered. God did not care. She felt weak, neglected. Then she got angry. If God would not care, then so be it. She decided to carry on, to care herself despite it all, to spit in the face of the wind, mouth opened wide to swallow the consequences. She got a double mastectomy, went through radiation, and she survived. She watched as the wounds from her surgery healed into large scars across her chest, and she thanked them. Each step of the way she thanked her scars. They would not be there if she had not fought to survive. They were in it together. She would never be made to feel ashamed of her scars, of her body, of her essence. They were her scars. Nobody could take them away from her. Nobody could ever wipe them out with an old tissue and toss them into the wastebasket. Nobody was ever going to be able to kiss them away. Nobody would be able to erase, efface, cover-up, or disregard them. The tears would dry; the pain would fade; the scars would remain. They were her bleeding purple hearts, her medals of honor, her badges of courage. They were testaments to her tribulations, but most importantly, they were her testaments to the fact that she had survived these tribulations, struggling on. They were a physical attestation that she had truly experienced life, and although she may have been left shaken, gasping, maybe a little broken, she still existed in spite of it all. She still felt. She still was. These scars, her scars, were beautiful. They connected her to her past experiences. They connected her to others’ pain and suffering. To empathy. They were a blueprint in braille spelling out the encoded secrets of the world, the prophetic teachings of compassion and understanding. They were invisible links that tied everyone together. They made her realize that the world does not need its scars to be healed, that suffering is not to be met with pathetic sympathy or cold derision, but instead with acceptance, with an open heart and an open mind, with the simple sentiment of, “You can get through this.” Her scars taught her to listen to herself and to others. Most importantly, they taught her to love herself, even when nobody would do it for her, especially when nobody would do it for her.

Eventually, the cancer returned, metastasizing in her lymphatic system, but not for another full thirty-four years of vibrant life. She passed during surgery, and though the final wounds did not have a chance to heal into scars, she was able to face her twilight moments not in fear of death and regret but in awe of life and all she had accomplished.

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