Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Sense of Memory

They say that smell is the sense most connected to memory, but I don't remember any smells from that day.

What I remember most is a sound.  The squeaking of their shoes.  Close your eyes at a basketball game and you will hear it: a new high top on a smooth parquet floor.  The staccato squeaking of a sneaker.  I heard their sneakers approaching.  The squeaking of their sneakers.

I remember other sounds too.  The mumbled demand for my wallet.  The timidity in my voice as I swallowed a reply.  The snagging of a zipper as I fumbled for my money.  The fist connecting with my cheekbone, the sound of it just like in the movies: a swoop followed by a crunch.  The cacophony of the bones shattering in my right hand.  Kicking feet muffled by the insulation of my down jacket, the noise of a pillow fight.  Their laughter.  Sneakers again, this time running away.  Keening, raging sobs, crying for my broken body and for help that came, but late.  "Hey!"  The call and then the gentle command of the man who found me: "Hold still, honey."  The questions of the ER doctor.  The words "gang initiation."  (Their source, I can't remember - the doctor? the police officer? the social worker in the exam room?)  My mother's voice on the phone, wanting and not wanting to know what had happened. 

I remember sights.  The almost apologetic mien of the subway station elevator operator as the door closed on the full car.  The face of my watch, just starting to crack from where I hit it against the chalk ledge earlier that day.  The peripheral glimpse of an approaching group: dark, puffy jackets, Michelin men.  The gel, like shellac, in the hair of one of the boys.  Metal.  A gun? a knife? a soda can?  An uneven circle forming around me, like dancers in a depraved Matisse painting.  Crimson rivulets on my hands.  The impossibly bright lights of the exam room in the hospital.  A first glance at my face, a map of injuries, in the mirror of the bathroom.  The instruments in the police car that drove me home.

I remember a taste: the alkaline tang of blood in that part of the sinus somewhere between the nose and the throat, a place reserved for only the most elemental flavors.

I remember feelings.  The dry stillness of the cold air on that December evening.  The softness of my turtleneck, slightly damp from the condensation of my breath.  My heart skydiving into my gut when I understood what was about to happen.  My stomach tightening, bracing.  Pain.  Searing pain.  Bones splitting and splintering.  The rough wool of the gloves worn by the man who helped me.  The wetness of the corrugated paper napkin he used to try to stop the bleeding.  The coarse cotton of the hospital gown.  The tug of the thread the doctor used to sew my face.  The ache of the squad car seat belt against my broken ribs.

I don't remember any smells from that day.  Sights, a taste, feelings.  But mostly sounds.

Mostly squeaking sneakers.

Ten years later sneakers squeak and I always turn to look.  Always a little too quickly.  Looking to see what is coming this way.

What sense do you most associate with memory?  Do you connect different senses with different types of memories (the good and the bad)?

Please visit Momalom for more entries in their Half-Drunk Challenge.


  1. I am sorry for the ominous presence of squeaking sneakers in your life. Memory is a tricky thing. Depending on its content, on its contours, it strengthens us or riddles us with weakness. I think it is very brave of you to get it all down here - and so exquisitely. Maybe through the process of recording this experience, you are releasing it a tiny bit. That is me being hopeful. And likely foolish.

    Gorgeous. I am so glad you were okay. And are okay.

  2. Your bravery in sharing this story is tremendous. I am so proud of you for putting it out there, and so relieved (understatement but can't think of a better word this early) that you came out of the entire experience alright. I, myself, remember almost exclusively in smells and tastes. I can't smell certain things or eat certain things without having a wave of memory smack into me.

    I wish for you a future free from squeaking sneakers and full, instead, of the giggles of Big Boy and Tiny Baby and the love they have for you and the love of Husband and the rest of your family and friends. Keep putting it out there, I truly belive blogging is a major form of catharsis. You are an amazing writer.

  3. This is so powerful, and must have been hard to write. The senses you describe are so powerful, it made my heart rate quicken just to read it. How horrible for you.

  4. I can't imagine how hard this must have been to write. I feel like I relived it right alongside of you. Amazing which senses become heightened in times of crisis. Which things stand out the most. I applaud your courage in writing this and hope that in some way it helped you move past it a bit. And hopefully in time, the sound that today brings you back to that painful day, will bring you to happy a happier place of the sounds of your kids sneakers having FUN in a gym or playground.


  5. Wow. You gave me goosebumps. So, might I ask: is putting it out there...remembering it as vividly as you could...did it help in any way??

  6. For the horror that you lived, that stays with you, that I cannot imagine - you have given us a staggering piece of writing. I hope knowing that eases something, somewhere. And gives you back some piece of self, taken that day.

  7. Oh, Kristen, I am so sorry that this happened to you.

    I came so close to an attack like this in a NYC subway once. I wonder if I will ever have the courage to write about it.

    We teach five fingers of self defense: Think, Yell, Run, Fight, Tell. You are practicing self defense every time you tell this story. Keep telling and telling and telling in all the ways that help you heal.

  8. Darn it to all heck. I closed the tab before inputting the little code. And I LOST my comment! Oh the ARGH.

    So to recreate:

    Can I just copy and paste in what Wolf wrote because those are my sentiments as well. I have many horrible memories but, unlike this, they are the result of my own wrongdoing. They cannot be attributed to the violence, the hatred, the shame, the idiocy and naivete of others. And you? And this? You tell the story of a moment caught in solitude, unfairness, and fear. I do hope you feel bolder, braver and stronger for writing about it. And I hope the din of the squeaking sneakers is muffled just a little bit. Every little bit counts.

  9. Whoa! Gut-wrenching story--you must have been terrified! Wow.

  10. How devastating, Kristen. It's too horrible for words. I also associate memories with sounds and sights, but sounds more than I realize. I feel like, as a writer, my eyes and ears are always open. Thanks for sharing this.

  11. Oh Kristen! You are so brave to put all of your memories into words. I believe that writing heals, and I hope this has helped a little.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  12. Thank you, Kristen. The way that you wrote this was so profound. I'm so sorry this happened to you. Awful.

    I think I do associate sounds with memories more often than i realized. Smells bring me back too, and I suppose it depends on the situation.

    Anyway, you have an amazing gift for writing. Just saying.

  13. I am so Sarah tonight. Lost one comment as I was doing who knows what!

    Kristen - Lynne Marie is right. With every retelling, you are fighting back. You are defending yourself.

  14. Oh Kristen. I read this post earlier today and it's haunted me since. Really I just want to give you a big hug and tell you how deeply sorry I am that you experienced such pain and terror. I just can't imagine. You are so brave, so strong, for sharing.

  15. This is an amazing post. This is exactly what you meant by vulnerable v. personal. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  16. Your writing took me there... except it didn't, because even something this well-written can't even begin to approximate the experience. I am so sorry this happened to you. And so glad that you felt you could share it here.

  17. I cried as I read this. The awful scene that you described hit my brain like a hammer. The sights, the taste, the sounds.

    I am so happy that you made it through okay, and thank you for sharing.

    As for me? Most of my memory is tied with smells. I cannot be around pungent foods because of my association with vomiting. Oh dreadful pregnancies. I am still struggling with food issues because of my smell memory (made it up, like it?: )

  18. How so very awful to have something so personal and emotional and threatening to associate with the ubiquitous sound of squeaking sneakers. Your writing--the pace, the senses the power of it--tells your story as if we were beside you instead of reading it 10 years later. I can only hope that support here is helpful in a way that no one was able to save you from such horror at the time. Thank you for this, Kristen. And I'm so glad Lynne Marie read and commented. A good fit. I hope I never need her Think. Yell. Run. Fight. Tell. But I'm glad to know. I'm glad to know that you survived, that there are resources for fighting and for surviving. That there is a community of support here beyond what I could ever have imagined.

  19. I had just finished my own post for tomorrow, about a similar incident dating back more than 30 years, before visiting motherese and finding this post. I deeply relate, I'm glad you're okay, I'm glad you posted and hope that sharing this awful assault on you might help further transfer the trauma of flashback terror to the storage area of true memory, reclaiming a sense of safety and a lessening of the squeaky sneaker effect over time.

    Somewhere, somehow, we must also understand the fear and absorbed brutality that these kids were shaped by. I've worked with many of these kids and they always seem to have tales themselves that can never excuse, but do tend to explain the pain they dish out.


  20. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read and comment on this post. The details of that December Friday ten years ago this week came to me quickly, confirming the power of the senses to keep a memory alive in our cells.

    My goal in writing about this event was to consign it to the realm of what Bruce calls "true memory" - out of the place of occasional flashback, feelings bubbling up at a familiar sound or sensation. And writing has helped. Looking history in the face, taking control of the memory.

    And I appreciate Bruce's words about the institutionalized violence experienced by my attackers. I have thought more about that than any other single element of the day. I have wondered what events in their own lives, what lack of choices, led them to attack me. And I'm still working on forgiveness. I can forgive the idea, but not yet the individuals. I'm working on it.

  21. Stunning. Through your writing, I feel as if I'm remembering it along with you. I found my entire body tense, my heart racing...hoping that I wasn't reading what I thought I was reading.

    I'm so sorry.

  22. Very well-written Kristen. So, so sorry this happened to you. I think you've hit on something with "true memory." I've written about the hardest days of my life and as I typed it out , it was so real to me. The pain, the sinking feelings. I had myself in tears. But it was good, in a way, to write it. Keeping things in the shadows of our hearts and minds doesn't always help.

    I'm sure writing about it doesn't "make it go away" but I imagine more will come of it. There is something very powerful in writing.

    Great blog Kristen.


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