Tennessee and Space Invaders

I don't typically find the work of Haruki Murakami to be relatable. His writing is beautiful, certainly, and his complex plots are enrapturing, but magical realism tends to keep readers at arms' length. Reality stands on shaky legs in Murakami's world, and he freely blurs the line between dreams and waking—or even life and death. However, after finishing the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle last week on a long flight, I felt kinship with this mystical man for the first time.

Without probing too deeply into the plot, suffice to say that the main character, Toru Okada, mysteriously acquires a small blue mark on his face about halfway through the book, after magically transporting himself through a stone wall at the bottom of a dry well. Toru is also nicknamed “Mr. Wind-Up Bird” by an enigmatic young neighbor, which is a reference to a magpie, a bird that is only able to recognize itself in a mirror test when a mark is applied to its face. Toru is initially frightened by its appearance, and embarrassed, refusing to leave the house, but gradually comes to accept his new reality and show himself to the world. He later learns that other distant figures in the novel's unfolding drama—separated by both time and space—bore a similar mark that altered the course of their lives and allowed them to transcend worlds.

My mark is not on my face, nor is it blue. It is a scarlet splotch with uneven edges, shaped like a cross between the state of Tennessee and a Space Invader. It sits low on my neck, just to the left of my throat. It turns blood-red in the summer and fades to a quiet pink during colder months. For the first decade of my life, it was something I rarely noticed. It was just a part of me, like my unruly hair, blue eyes and pigeon-toed gait. However, once I started middle school, the blemish could no longer be ignored. The location, color and size of my birthmark made it a prime target for teasing, even though I didn't know what a hickey was the first time someone called it that.

I had never even kissed a girl, let alone reached the level of hormonal mania associated with giving and receiving hickeys. Considering that I was a bookish, self-identifying nerd, the older kids likely knew I wasn't some prepubescent Casanova on the sly, which apparently made the mockery even more amusing. Furthermore, I was a musically inclined kid, heavily involved in choir, band and drama, so those same bullies also liked to call me gay, years before I really knew what that meant, or why someone would think of it as an insult. I just know that my birthmark made me different, even in a small, superfluous way. I still remember the first time someone called me a faggot from the back of the bus. There were always new angles of attack—Who gave that hickey to you? Was it Sarah? Or Emily? Or was it your mom? Did you let a boy suck on your neck? What else did he suck on? Who would even want to kiss you? I bet you did it to yourself...

I was fumbling awkwardly in that transitional age between not liking girls and really liking girls, so I always tried to deny it. As I learned, however, bullies don't care about facts—just reactions—and there wasn't a positive “spin” I could possibly put on my crimson stain. Instead, I started hiding it whenever I could. I tossed all my t-shirts with stretched-out collars and refused to wear polo shirts. I made it clear to my parents that all future clothing purchases had to have a tight neckline. I began to compulsively tug on the back of my clothes throughout each day, ensuring that the fabric hugged up to my throat at all times. I tried hiding the mark with makeup, rubbed on every kind of lightening cream I could find, and even researched the cost of having it surgically removed.

I didn't wear a V-neck again until I was 25.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the mark on Toru Okada's face doesn't clearly symbolize one thing; at times, it signifies an incomplete task, while at others, an inner darkness or suppressed power. In the book, it is described as a living thing, variable in both temperature and intensity, responding to emotions and the mindset of its bearer. The mark isolates Toru, but also drives him deeper into his own story, leading him closer to his ultimate goals—true peace and an unbroken heart.

My birthmark doesn't allow me to pass through walls or escape into alternative worlds, but it has had an undeniable impact on my life. Its effects have not always been subtle, but they were difficult to identify until I gained the perspective of age. That mark introduced me to the toxicity of unwarranted cruelty and homophobia. It forced me to sharpen my instincts when it came to choosing friends, or picking battles. The rosy smudge on my neck encouraged me to master my own words, and taught me that there is no need to be stronger than a bully, simply smarter. I trained myself to ignore the taunts of lesser men. That being said, that mark remained as an unhealed wound that ran deep, laying the foundation for undeserved insecurities and body image issues that still test my psyche to this day. The link between my physical appearance and my worth in a social environment, albeit a self-destructive bridge, was forged too early and too well to be completely dismantled.

I returned to wearing shirts that showed my neck about 6 years ago, and the mark has nearly receded back to invisibility when I stand at the mirror. Unlike magpies, I can recognize myself without the mark. It defined me for years, it seems, but my newer scars tell far more relevant truths. Even so, when I meet new people, I can't help but clock the quick downward flick of their glance, or a quickly furrowed and released brow. Some people even go so far as to ask whether it's a burn or a scar. I suppose it is both, and neither. I can't control their curiosity, just as I can't control the mark's presence on my skin, but I can control the story. So, when some memory of the blemish rises to the surface, or is summoned by a stranger's innocent question, I take away the power still left in that stain when I answer:

“This? Nothing. Just a beauty mark.”