*I wrote this at the closing program of the Invitational Summer Institute of the Southern Arizona Writing Project. We were asked to look at some pictures and create a story based on what comes to mind. Mine was an old-fashioned-looking picture of two children standing before an owl-shaped ice cream stand. How this story presented itself is anybody’s guess. It remains a first draft, but maybe one day I’ll work it into a bigger story.*
When I was eight years old, my best friend was Danny Baxter. He lived next door, and he was ten years old. Even though he was ahead of me in school, he didn’t make fun of me like the others did, and he wouldn’t let them do it in front of him.
But I knew how the kids talked and whispered behind my back and pointed at the big reddish-purple birthmark on my cheek—my mom called it a “port wine mark,” but I didn’t understand. Daddy had some bottles of wine in his office, and the label on one of them said “Port.” I couldn’t understand how I got that mark because I never went near that bottle. And I didn’t know why Daddy would keep it if it had made me so ugly.
I knew I was ugly, but it didn’t seem to matter to Danny. He was my protector. Even so, there were times that I’d catch him looking at the mark instead of into my eyes. Usually, if he knew I had caught him looking at it, he’d look away quickly and start talking about baseball or something.
One day, when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, I caught him looking at it, and I got mad.
“Danny!” I stomped my foot to punctuate my feelings. “Don’t pretend you aren’t looking at it.”
Then he looked into my eyes and I saw shame there. I wondered if he was ashamed of me or himself.
“I’m sorry, Maggie. I didn’t mean . . . . ”
“Stop, Danny. Just stop it.” I didn’t want to hear him pretend it didn’t matter. “You’re just like everyone else. You think I’m ugly, too.”
“That’s not true, Maggie. I think you’re beautiful.”
“Don’t make fun of me. You’re supposed to be my friend.”
“I am your friend, Maggie. You’re too sensitive about that mark.”
I cringed to hear him say the word. “Well, yeah! I’m the one who’s living with it. What’d you expect?” I put my hand on my cheek to hide it.
“You don’t understand, Maggie. That mark makes you who you are, but it doesn’t make you ugly or bad or anything like that.” He reached out and took my hand and gently lowered it. Then he touched it.
He actually touched it.
I flinched but I didn’t back away. I watched his eyes as he traced the ragged edges of the mark and then brought his finger to rest gently right in the middle.
I don’t remember anyone ever touching it, not even my mother, but here I stood allowing Danny Baxter to look at my port wine birthmark close up.
“It just feels like you, Maggie, and it’s okay.” He was looking into my eyes again.
He had looked at it. He had touched it and I was still alive. I was still me. And Danny was still Danny.
“Let’s go down to the Hoot Hoot and get some ice cream.” He took my hand as we started down the street.
I think that day was the first time in my life that I walked down the street with my head up, not caring who was looking at me.