I have only vague memories of my own desires before the age of 14. These, largely, are my assumptions: that I wanted little more than to play video games, watch baseball and drink blue Kool Aid. There was also something ephemeral involving girls, but I didn’t — and, to a greater extent that I’d like to admit — much understand it beyond the fact that females with pretty faces made my stomach feel like it was eating itself. But ambition was foreign to me. Life at that age — at least if you’re middle-class, white, male, south Georgian — is fairly cut and dried, and if I got to stay up and watch a PG-13 movie, I felt like a boss for the rest of the month.
This, though, I do remember: I wanted a pocket knife. I think at the point I began to covet one, I already owned a Swiss army knife, which was cool, but at that age and limited cognitive capacity I had little use for any part of it that didn’t employ a cutting edge; I lost the toothpick the first week, the tweezers the second week and mangled my toenails with that stupid trimmer the third.
What I wanted, simply, was a lock-back knife. I remember, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, why: the sleek, old-world-meets-alien look of it — turned sideways, it could have doubled as a scout ship in a 1950s sci-fi B-movie — the little notch in the top of the blade that let you ease it out of the handle and, best of all, the satisfyingly loud CLICK when you gave your wrist a little whip, snapping the blade fully out and into place. Maybe that was it, really: the finality that sound implied, the statement it made. The sound of something ending or beginning.
Whatever the reason, I finally got one when I was about nine years old. It had a real wooden handle with a five-inch blade. It sounds like a fairly dangerous “toy” for an adolescent, but you have to remember a couple of things: 1) this was south Georgia. A nine-year-old owning a squirrel-murder knife is as normal as a Dagestani owning a pet sparring bear, and 2) I bugged my parents to no end about this. I can’t remember exactly, but I think they may have made me sign a waiver before I was allowed to open it and use it. Either way, the responsibility was mine, and they had built-in plausible deniability.
Here’s what I’m leading up to: I was out in the yard one day, stripping bark from the limb of a tree. Again, not sure why — maybe I was still wrapping my head around the notion that plants were alive, and was mystified by the fact that wood, underneath, was pliable, pulpy, soft. Maybe I just had latent, mildly destructive tendencies. Who knows.
Of course the knife slipped. Of course it did. To this day, I don’t remember seeing it slip, or seeing it bite into my left index finger. I remember feeling something, but it was a dull pain, more akin to stubbing a toe than cutting deep into flesh. But that’s what had happened. I noticed it a few moments later, when my finger kept hurting. For some reason, it hadn’t started to bleed yet, and I’m not sure why, still — can you cut so deep that you won’t bleed? Not sure. But I remember very clearly being able to move the skin apart and together, seeing the raw layers underneath.
It may have started to bleed at that point — I’m not sure — but I never cried. Not once, which is a miracle in itself (I was sort of a wuss as a child). And I think about this, now, as our society moves toward a more tolerant culture in general, and as small pockets of resistance fight for what they perceive to be certain rights. We are so adamant about our liberties, yet so rarely are we cognizant of how they intersect with the liberties of others; even more rarely do we take the time to learn how to wield those liberties (two great examples are Obamacare, a wonderful government program that will prove to be as important as Medicare, but that was rolled out with all the grace of a drunken chimp playing “Gears of War,” and the legalization of marijuana in Oregon, which forgot to set any regulations in place).
We are, all of us, such children. Clamoring, and clamoring, and clamoring, without any thought regarding the implications of our actions. And it takes such introspection, such hindsight, to see the open wound.