Barry raised his face to the sign on the door, just enough to read the words printed on the plain piece of paper, Survivors with Scars group meeting. Wednesdays, 7-8:30pm. He was in the right place, though late by just over twenty minutes. He lowered his face and hesitated; wishing he could use his tardiness as an excuse for not going in at all. But if he did, his mom would be disappointed.
Nora Allen didn’t need any more sadness or worry, especially because her only child was a coward; too afraid to even show his face to a group assembled especially for people like him. He had to do it. He was decided. He was going to do it. He couldn’t disappoint her again.
But despite his resolve, it still took several slow minutes until he’d gathered the courage to open the door and walk in. His hands shook as he did so. He shoved them into his pockets in frustration as he walked inside the room. He kept his eyes resolutely looking downward, his face turned toward the floor as much as it could be without walking into anything, while he moved into the room.
He wore a baseball cap with a long brim, positioned so the shadow of it fell on his face. He also wore a hoodie with the hood up, over the hat. His favorite hoodie used to be red. He never wore it anymore. It brought out exactly what he was trying to hide; highlighting the parts of his face he wished no one ever had to see. The hoodie he wore now was a dark navy blue.
Most of the clothes he wore were dark blue or black now, despite how much he used to like bright cheery colors. He didn’t want the attention anymore. He never felt cheery anymore.
Subdued colors suited him better now, he thought, even if it meant he got mistaken for trying for a goth or emo style. He’d never cared about fashion. Now he just wanted to wear whatever would get him noticed the least.
If it’d been up to him, he would have let his hair grow long and unkempt too. There was no way he was going to a place to get his hair cut now. No way he was letting a stranger’s hands come that close to his face. No way he was going to stare at himself in a mirror while they did it. But his mother insisted he keep his hair neat and cut it herself. He felt guilty about that. But it was better than the alternative.
Even without long hair, Barry had found the hat and hoodie combo sort of worked. If he kept both on, kept his head down, covering and shadowing his face as much as possible, people that just glanced at him wouldn’t notice. Anyone that looked at him longer than a split second could still see it, of course. There was no covering it up entirely. But every time someone looked passed him and didn’t stop and stare, Barry was thankful.
So Barry kept his head down as he made his way into the room. He could see there was a circle of chairs, most occupied, in the middle of the room. But he didn’t look up to see further details.
Someone was talking. Someone that used a slightly snarled accent in their words, common to the rougher sections of their city. Barry noted absently he liked the sound of the voice, but pushed the thought aside to focus on the words.
“So I finally did it. I finally let him see me with my shirt off, after dating for over six months and having had sex with it on a dozen times. It didn’t…he didn’t…”
The man talking paused and Barry saw him shift in his seat. But Barry didn’t dare look up to see any details. For once not just because he didn’t want his face to be seen, but because he didn’t want to interrupt.
“It could have gone worse.” The man admitted, continuing, “I keep reminding myself of that. He didn’t act disgusted or anything. But he…he acted like they weren’t even there. Like he couldn’t see them. Like my scars didn’t exist. I know he saw them. I know how I look. I know there’s no missing them, once my shirt is off, even in dim lighting. I know he was ignoring them on purpose.
“But that…that’s not what I want! My scars aren’t…they don’t define me. But they are a part of me. They’re a part of who I am, and why I am who I am. Pretending they don’t exist is pointless and an obvious lie. I hate being lied to. I hate being pitied or handled with kid gloves.”
The man stopped talking and the room was silent for a few moments, as if everyone was waiting to see if he’d continue.
“Have you talked to your boyfriend about these feelings?” someone eventually prompted. They sounded confident, but gentle, in their question. So Barry guessed that was the group facilitator, a licensed psychologist.
“No.” the original man answered, his voice sounding colder than before. “There was no point. I found out the next day he’d been cheating on me for over a month. He tried to apologize, but I punched him and broke his nose. After that, he admitted fast enough that I was more work than I was worth…that I had too many issues for him to deal with. My scars just being one of them. We won’t see each other again.”
Barry winced in sympathy, as did several other members of the group.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Leonard.” The facilitator responded. “But I remind you that you are worth it, if that was ever a doubt in your mind. You demonstrated a good sense of that self worth by not accepting his apology. Of course I can’t officially condone violence. But I am glad you stood up for yourself.
“Is there anything else you’d like to share today, Leonard?”
The man must have shaken his head, even though Barry didn’t catch the movement, because the facilitator thanked him again and asked who was next.
Barry guessed this was as good an opening as he was going to get to join the group. He moved closer, still keeping his head down, and hesitantly took an empty chair.
“I see we have a new group member.” The facilitator greeted him. “I’m Doctor Conrad. Would you please introduce yourself to the group?”
“I’m Barry. I…I’m sorry for being late.”
Last names weren’t necessary or asked for at these meetings. Barry was grateful for that.
The group of people in the circle of chairs around him returned a chorus of ‘Hello Barry’s. None of them sounded angry.
“It’s alright. If you can be on time in the future, we’d all appreciate it. But even if you can’t, you’re welcome here. Just come whenever you want to.”
Barry nodded gratefully, keeping his head down. She didn’t ask him to look up.
She didn’t ask him to remove his hat and hoodie. Barry was thankful for that too. But he still felt that politeness dictated he take them off anyway. They might stare, but he wouldn’t be judged here, he told himself.
They wouldn’t ask him how it happened. They wouldn’t ask him if anything could be done to make it look better. They wouldn’t ask him how well he could see now. They wouldn’t press him for details. It was up to him, totally, how much he shared here. That was what he’d been promised when his doctor urged him to go to this meeting.
Still, Barry found himself frozen in the chair, unable to raise his arms to take off the headgear. He took a moment. No one rushed him. Then he remembered the man who’d spoken before. Leonard, Barry remembered his name. He could share something that intimate with them and here Barry was afraid to even show his face.
That realization was enough to give Barry the courage to do it. His hands shook, but he managed to pull down his hood and take off his hat. He returned his hands to his lap and knew he was crushing his hat in them; his fingers digging into the stiff fabric. But he couldn’t manage to loosen them.
Barry finally raised his head and looked at the group around him. Some had visible scars on their faces, Barry wasn’t the only one. But his was the worst. Theirs were lines, slashes, here and there, across foreheads or cheeks. One whole half of Barry’s face was pockmarked, his flesh an angry mess of red, pink, and white. His eye on that side was clearly damaged too, far too white and cloudy.
Barry knew everyone there was looking at him, taking in his scarred face. Several people flinched in surprise, but they did a fairly good job recovering quickly. No one looked away in disgust. No one gasped or made those clicking noises of sympathy that Barry had grown to hate.
Barry noticed them all, but his focus was on the man sitting directly across the circle from him, the man that had spoken before. He had no scars on his face, though that didn’t surprise Barry. He had said his scars were hidden by his shirt. Barry tried not to be jealous of that ability to hide them.
The man was gorgeous, Barry realized with a tightening of his stomach. Beautiful face, close cropped silver hair, just the right bit of stubble on a strong chin, bright blue eyes. Those eyes were looking straight back at Barry. For a moment, at first, they were cold and closed off. But then he took in Barry’s face and that changed.
Leonard didn’t look at Barry with disgust, or pity, or even sympathy. But in those ice blue eyes shone acceptance. Simple acceptance of Barry’s face, exactly the way it was.
No one; not his mother, not his friends, not his doctor; had simply accepted Barry the way he was since it’d happened. This man did. He asked no questions, had no expectations of him. He simply accepted him there, with them, as he was.
Barry clenched his hat in his hands harder and forced himself not to start crying in relief.