Ryan Gattis

At the back of my student council class, at Coronado High School, in 1996, he tapped me on the shoulder. Twice.

He said, “Do you wanna play-fight?”

I said, “No.”

And I turned.

I shouldn’t have.

Two periods previous, I’d watched him drop acid in math class.

He faced me as he put it on his tongue. To me, he said, “This ith athcid.”

Later, I didn’t see his elbow before it struck me.

Blackness flashed in my peripheral vision, like a crow passing, and then something inside my head exploded.

Sound left. Ringing replaced it.

I took a step up the aisle, looking down at my soccer jacket, at flecked dots of blood.

I thought: That’s never coming out.

This schooled me on the banality of shock.

Worrying over the inconsequential during an emergency.

I didn’t yet know that my entire face had been reconfigured. That—to hear the Swedish surgeon say—it was a ‘one-in-a-million break.’

The length of my nasal cartilage had been ripped from its notch and deposited on my cheek. It wasn’t a nose afterward; it was a distended hose, from which blood fountained onto the floor, splattered nearby desks.

With cupped hands, the homecoming queen ran toward me.

Much later, I asked why. She said, “I thought your nose was gonna fall off.”

It didn’t.

I had two facial reconstructive surgeries: a closed reduction—which involved that same surgeon denting a filing cabinet with his foot while leveraging his weight onto a thick metal rod, one he’d inserted into my nose, in an effort to force it back; and an open reduction—where I was anesthetized, and my facial skin was peeled away so that the wayward cartilage could be cut into thirteen distinct pieces before stitching them together, into some semblance of straightness.

Further surgery was recommended.

I declined.

Nerve damage took my abilities to smell, to taste.

“You may never get them back,” the doctor said.

But after one year spent recovering, reading—trying to find characters in art who had suffered like me—those senses returned.

I’m grateful for that.

But I’m also grateful for being hit.

For years, I didn’t speak about it, didn’t realize the blessing in this experience. It was an education in pain; it dug within me a well of empathy.

One I needed when I sat with former gang members who knew far worse: to be stabbed on bone, to be riven by bullets, to endure the deaths of family, of friends.

I write because survivors of violence have a silent language we don’t daily share with the world. It lives in looks. Courtesies. Listening. It comes from knowing, beyond any doubt, what it’s like to be bodily broken. And when healed, re-made.

And, in this, is a grave responsibility to share, to say, “I have felt consequences… and this is what I know to be true.”

For those who suffered and did not make it.

For those who might yet rear back, and strike.

 


 

When the task of writing grows inevitably arduous—and seemingly thankless—we must remember why we started. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write,” this introspective project highlights our motives for writing. Share your story and join the conversation. Live events are produced throughout the diverse cities of Orange County and feature author readings from curated essay submissions.

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