self-torture

through my amazing memory

There’s a part of my brain that is sectioned off to remember things that hold absolutely no value for me.

For some reason, periodically, since I was a child, I’ll be doing the most mundane thing, and my brain will say to me, “I’m going to remember this moment for the rest of my life.”

And I do.

To this day, I remember thinking that when I was standing by a dresser looking down at a ring that I was wearing.  I remember sitting on the floor of a department store holding a few straight pins in my left hand.  I remember standing by the swings in school on a day there was an eclipse, and being told that some girl fell off the swings and broke her arm because she stared at the eclipse and the eclipse broke her arm.

It’s not that I remember these things like, “Oh, there was this one time…”  I remember them vividly.  I remember the smell of things, what I was wearing, what the weather was like, how my stomach felt about the situation.  I don’t know why my brain chooses to remember them.  What’s unfortunate is that sometimes I’d like to just forget about these things and fill that part of my brain with more useful things– like history or geography or something.

I think that’s the spot that it has taken over– my history and geography spot, because I don’t seem to know much about either.  That’s why world events are so enormous to me– I don’t really have a concept of where they are talking about or why these things are happening.  I understand the United States well; I’m pretty sure I know all of my capitals.  I had a puzzle when I was four that was a map of the U.S., and when you lifted a piece, you saw the capital underneath.  I thought Boise was the coolest word back then.

But in school we never really studied history or geography.  I was in a lot of gifted classes, and mostly they had us reading or doing reports on scientists, or– for my entire fourth grade year– just put on musicals.  I’m serious.  We only did musicals.  And I remember just about every single thing we learned that year.  It would have been much more beneficial to my SATs if we had studied a little math or geography, but instead I still know every single word of every single battle hymn, I know that Longfellow had a daughter he referred to as “Edith with the Golden Hair” (that was my part), I know how to sing “Lovely Hula Hands” with some very convincing hula dance type stuff, I know all the words to just about every Oliver! song, and I can sing “Three Little Maids” and still hear my teacher screaming at me that I was “scooping” the song, instead of raising my pitch.

I had no idea what “filled to the brim with girlish glee” meant, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to scoop it.

The teacher I had that year was a tyrant.  She would scream and yell in this thick Irish accent so loud the classroom windows would rattle.  I was terrified of her, and because of that, I remember every single thing she ever taught me.  I remember when we all wrote away for local newspapers from around the country so that we could hang them up around the room for Parent-Teacher Day.  We never read the papers or studied them, she merely hung them on a rope.  I got mine from Connecticut and wanted to show my parents, as they hadn’t been back home in years. We lived in a hotel at the time (my father was the manager), and little did I know that afternoon the housekeeping staff thought it was just your local California paper and threw it away.

And my head still echoes with her voice shouting, “Oh, you and your maids!”

I remember the time that I had forgotten to do my homework– I hadn’t really forgotten, I didn’t hear her make the assignment– and I got so worried she was going to yell that I started getting sick and started crying.

I should mention at this point that when I was a very young girl I was pretty much like Steve Martin’s kid in Parenthood.  “I lost my retainer!  I lost my retainer!”  Yeah, that was me.  Very high-strung.  Constantly worried about getting in trouble.

Anyway because I looked genuinely sick, I was sent to the nurse before we ever got around to my homework.  In the nurse’s office a woman sat down on my bed to talk to me.  I’d never seen her before, and I never saw her again, but I remember what she looks like exactly.  She looked just like Rose in “The Golden Girls.”  And because she had such a kind face, I spilled exactly what I was terrified about.  I didn’t want my teacher to yell at me.  She wiped my tears and told me that I should go out and enjoy recess with the other kids and to not worry about it.  Everyone makes mistakes now and then.

I played Chinese Jumprope until the school bell rang, and I got into the line.  We were walking back into the classroom when I was pulled by my arm out of line.  My teacher pushed me against the wall and leaned in towards my face.  “If you have a problem with me or if you forget some stupid assignment, you come to me first before you start blabbering all around the school that I’m a witch, do you understand?  Do you?  I’m not a monster.  I’m not going to bite you.  Don’t you dare tell people that I’m scary, do you understand?”

To this day, I don’t trust Betty White.  Even if she is an animal rights activist.  She’s got loose lips.

I also remember vividly times that I was punishing myself.  I can recall every feeling that I had when I was in the first grade and I coveted my friend Wendy’s smiley face stamp.  I wish this memory would leave my head forever.  I had just moved to this school, and Wendy was the only friend I had.  But she had this really cool pencil box, and inside she just let her crayons go wherever– I mean, it was really a mess in there.  Some of the crayons had the paper ripped off– sometimes she would sharpen both sides of the crayon!  It was terrible.  And in the middle of all of that art supply neglect was this perfect, tiny, yellow smiley face stamp.  I wanted a stamp so bad.  You could stamp your hand, your friends’ hands, your papers, your pencil box– you could stamp the other side of the stamp!  So many options.

I knew that Wendy kept her box in such a disarray that she wouldn’t even notice it was gone.  Plus she obviously didn’t understand how cool it was, what with the way she treated it and all.  During one particularly intense hour of snowflake making, I asked if I could borrow her crayon sharpener.  She would just dump all the crayon shavings into the box.  Horrible.  So when I went in to return the sharpener, I plucked the little smiley stamp to safety.

And instantly felt terrible.

I guess I was wrong about how Wendy felt about the stamp, because within fifteen minutes she was at the teacher’s desk.  “Has anyone seen Wendy’s smiley face stamp?” the teacher asked.  Wendy looked pale and sick.  I knew I had to keep quiet, because stealing is very bad.  I didn’t know what to do.  I debated keeping it, but knew that I couldn’t really be Wendy’s friend and know that I was the one who took her stamp.

At home that night, I waited until I was alone in my room and took the stamp out of its hiding spot in my closet (in case the cops came to search the house, you see).  I couldn’t take the pressure.  I hardly slept that night.

The next day I plopped it right under her desk when she went to the bathroom.  When she came back I told her that her shoe was untied, and when she leaned down she saw her stamp.  She never even noticed her shoe wasn’t untied.  She skipped up to the teacher to tell her that she had found her stamp.

The next school I went to I had an even worse experience.  One day we had a guest speaker.  He was going to talk to us in the music room.  We sat in our classroom and waited, while a teacher explained to us that we were about to see arrowheads, and that they were very old and rare and expensive.  There were some that we were going to be allowed to touch, and some that we couldn’t.  We had to walk with our hands behind us for half the time, and then we could touch the others.  We got in line and started walking into the music room.

I still remember the blue sheet that covered all of the tables in the room.  I remember some of the arrowheads were under glass. I remember when the glass stopped, and there were the arrowheads that we could touch and hold.  They were very smooth and cold.  Some were really sharp, where your finger would prick a little if you touched the top.  One was so tiny I thought it was the cutest thing I’d ever seen.  We were all very quiet while the man talked about his arrowheads.  Then we kept the line going and had to wait against the wall outside the classroom for the others to finish.

I remember being deep in thought, thinking about Indians, and imagining them all sitting around like Mom and I would sit and do our cross stitch together, and one Indian would hold up an arrowhead to another and say, “What do you think?”  and the other would say, “I think it’s going to far to the left.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he’d say, and then toss that arrowhead to the side, and it would one day become one of the “touchable” arrowheads.

That’s when I realized that my hand was clutching something.  I looked down and saw that I was holding two arrowheads.  One was the tiny one, and another.  How did I get these?  It looked like I had stolen them, but somehow I had just forgotten to put them down after I was done.  They had made such a big stink about not stealing anything, and here I was looking like a big thief.  I couldn’t bring myself to go back inside and return them because I’d sound like a liar, “I don’t know how they got in my hand, I’m awful sorry.”

I kept them in my sock until I got home (in case the cops showed up to search my pockets).  I was trying to figure out what to do with them.  When I got off the bus I looked towards my town house.  Some construction was going up in the field that was next to where we played tag every day.  I knew what I had to do.

“Mommy, look what I found when I was out playing.  What is it?”

My mother held them in her hand.  I was almost free.  “Look at these pointy stones.”

Yeah, Ma, pointy stones.  Throw them away.  Just throw them away.

She showed my father.

“These look like arrowheads,” my father said.  “They’re worth money.”

“Should we call the museum?” Mom asked.

“No,” I said, “I want to keep them.”

Dad put the arrowheads on this mantel we had for my mom’s little knick knacks.

“I’m sure it isn’t,” my dad said.  “That ground’s too shallow to find any artifacts in there.  Probably just rocks.”

Just rocks.

Rocks that have made me feel guilty since I was six.

I still imagine the arrowhead guy going home after the presentation that day, pulling out his arrowhead polishing rag and going to put the stones back in their places.  He freezes as his hand goes towards the box.  “Where’s Tiny?  And where’s Pointy?  Where are they?  WHAT HAPPENED TO MY ROCKS?  NOOOOOOOOO!  HANG ON, TINY!  I’LL SAVE YOU!”

I still feel guilty, isn’t that horrible?  I’m realizing that most of these things that I’ve never forgotten aren’t necessarily meaningless, but just have me filled with such guilt that I feel like I’m sort of cursed to remember them.  It hasn’t even stopped me from things I shouldn’t do– when I was in high school I used to be able to steal anything I wanted, and to prove to the cool kids that I could, I would take requests for what they wanted.  That’s terrible, I know, but I knew I could do it and get away with it.

I don’t steal anymore, but you’d think with these kind of guilt-thoughts going through my head, I wouldn’t have stolen so many rings from the mall kiosk when I was fourteen.

So why does my brain choose to keep these memories so vivid?  To torture me, I’m sure.  I think another part of it is to remember what it’s like to be a kid– how huge and small the world is at the same time.  How everything you do seems to affect the rest of the world.  I still never look at an eclipse because I’m afraid of the damage I’ll instantly do to my body.  I hate smiley faces (a month ago a co-worker brought me a sheet of smiley face stickers– I had to put them in a desk drawer).  I really hate my fourth grade teacher.  But I know how to sing “Three Little Maids” without scooping.

And that’s a skill, man.

Leave a Reply