Experiences mark you.

When we recount the past, most of it consists of moments so small that they slip through a sieve, or even cheesecloth. They don’t stick. But some moments do, the memories that brand us.

When I was about four, I threw a knife at a neighbor boy in a fit of anger. I watched a lot of Lone Ranger in those days and maybe I had seen too many cowboy-and-Indian battles that pitched men with rifles against men with blades. (The Indians always lost.)  I was mad as hell and yelled at the neighbor from the end of our walkway. Then I cocked my arm, holding the point of a kitchen knife, and flung it end over end, just like I’d seen on television. After it hit him in the calf, I was stunned. There was blood and screaming.

When I was eight, I was walking myself to school, up the steep sidewalk of Edgar Street overlooking Portage Bay, through the diagonal pathway of Roanoke Park and down the alley that I had been shown to use as a shortcut to reach the bridge over the freeway that you had to cross to reach Seward Elementary. An older boy was ahead of me a little. He said something mean. I said something back. With three older brothers, and their friends around, I learned to give as good as I got. At the street corner where we waited for the light to change, he whirled around and kicked me in the groin, right where you’d kick a boy for maximum effect. The pain exploded me. I felt the pain fly out from my pubis, from my belly, from my chest, from my head, out into space and quickly back again with a second wallop of intense pain, then waves of it. It ripped the breath out of me and I crumpled to the ground, couldn’t stand, couldn’t walk. When I got to school I was still crying. I thought something had been broken. My third grade teacher took me into the cloakroom outside our classroom and asked me to pull up my dress and pull down my panties to show her. This hurt even more. Having to pull down my panties for my teacher. I blamed myself for talking back to the older boy, for egging him on until he hurt me. And I was ashamed, terribly and awfully ashamed to have to reveal this private part of myself to my beloved teacher, fearing it would change her view of me forever.

When I was twenty, I got really drunk at the end of finals. My roommate had left for her family home in California. I was alone in our townhouse, heavily asleep. I felt a movement at the end of the bed, and opened my eyes. A blond haired guy from college was sitting there, taking off his shoes. I knew who he was, at least that his name was Bill and what fraternity he was from. I’d been introduced somewhere along the line when I was dating (if you could call it that) a guy in his house. I asked him what he was doing. He calmly answered that he was going to sleep with me. Oh god he is going to rape me. The phone was on the other side of the room, past him. At the end of finals in an apartment building emptied of  students, no one would hear me if I screamed. Nothing was within reach to defend myself. He told me he had been watching me, had seen me leaving dressed for a dance. He described what I wore. Said I looked pretty. He told me he loved me. I told him with a slur that I was too drunk to sleep with him. I closed my eyes, laid back down. He was quiet. I feigned sleep. He did not move. And at some point, I fell asleep. I awakened a little while later and opened my eyelids the tiniest slit to see if he was still there. He was gone.

When I was forty-eight, I moved my Dad to California. He would turn eighty-nine that year. I had lived almost all of my life fearing he would die from a heart attack, ever since the big one that upended our lives when I was five. His cardiovascular surgeon had told us, five years earlier, that he would probably have five years with this one. He didn’t say “before it kills him” but my brothers and I finished the sentence in our head. And then, strangely, unbelievably, seven years went by. He lived for seven years.

I often say everything I learned, I learned the hard way. I learned I have a temper. I learned my temper can provoke. I learned I am not invulnerable. I learned I am not always in control.

You cannot know me unless you know these things about me.

[Post script: I started an MFA at Bennington in Creative Nonfiction on June 19. As I write this, I should be at a lecture given by one of the graduating seniors. Instead, I am thinking about meeting people here – hearing their experiences and getting to know them. I started thinking about how we have all been marked, long before we arrived here. Some have tattoos; some in a foreign language so that others cannot read the message. We are all tattooed. You just can’t always see them. So I’m writing, writing instead of listening. And I’m gonna keep writing.]


1 Comment

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One response to “Markings

  1. Kristi Peterson

    Betsy, listen to me. You are gifted. You pair words with absolute brilliance. If you never apply this skill, insight and talent to writing a best-selling novel, just know that you’ve given a gift to yourself (and the limited audience who gets a peek).

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