It’s mid-morning the day before New Year’s Eve. You’re running post-Christmas errands. Circling for a parking spot so you can exchange a book at Powell’s. You head down to the North Park blocks where you’re usually lucky and grab a space between Davis and Couch.
The edge of the park is muddy, the grass trampled, so you walk in the street toward the meter. A skinny man, body taut as a bow string, is walking past the playground. He has straggly brown hair like a disheveled halo and he is yelling, “You bitch. You fucking whore. You cunt.” That t is like an axe chop, and the force behind the words makes your chest tighten, but there are plenty of people who walk around raving these days. Besides, you have a list to get through, and you can’t help him.
You shouldn’t, but you look at him and your eyes meet. His eyes are wild—he’s on something, off something, maybe both. He shouts, “I’m talking to you.” You. He has picked you.
You’re at the meter now. He stops and faces you and shouts the same words—bitch, whore, fucking cunt. You fumble the quarters, thinking just get the ticket, get the ticket, as if ordinary motions will keep you safe.
He walks toward you. Your body buzzes. Run and you might provoke him and you can’t outrun him anyway. You have MS, and a pinched nerve in your back. He paces sideways and keeps shouting. If you just follow the rule and ignore him, he’ll go away. You get two quarters in the slot, give up on the third, hit the Print Receipt button. He’s right at your elbow. He got there so fast. He thrusts his face at you and shouts, “I was sexually abused as a child.”
You could yell back, “So was I.” But you’re afraid.
He says, “You old woman,” contempt like spit on your face. He has called you whore, bitch, and cunt, but it’s old woman that gets to you. He grabs the strap of your purse. Your elbow clamps down, your hand grabs the strap. You yell, “Help, help,” your first words, and hold on. He looks surprised, drops the strap, and runs back into the park.
There’s blood. It is so red. The metal piece at the end of the strap is hooked in your right palm just below the pinkie. There’s a flap of skin and a deep gouge. A woman and man approach. You are whimpering, holding out your hand like a child, saying “I can’t get it out.” The woman winces and tries. It doesn’t budge. You are woozy from the blood, but you can’t stop looking. The man lifts one edge of the piece, wiggles the thicker part, and your hand is free. Blood runs along the lines in your palm, spots your purse, and drips on the grass. You say, “Thank you.”
The woman says, “I work at a clinic just over there. You can get cleaned up. At least get some gauze.”
You are still clutching the parking stub. “I’ll get a ticket,” you say. The man takes it and you say, “Please lock my car. My laptop’s in there,” and point at the car. He says, “Do I need the key?” You shake your head no. He nods and walks toward the street. The man who threatened you is gone. You didn’t see which way he went.
The woman puts her arm around you and walks you toward Burnside. You keep trying to turn in doorways, thinking they must lead to the clinic. Blood drips from your hand. You are trying to tell her what happened, babbling about how mad you got when he said, “You old woman,” and that you are glad he didn’t get your purse and that you have always felt safe in Portland and that you park there all the time. Your hand throbs and you are wobbly.
At the clinic, a man says, “Could you get off the carpet?” You didn’t notice the carpet. There are three red spots. The woman turns you over to another woman and is gone before you can thank her. The other woman—she has silver grey hair in a page boy style and a grey dress—leads you to a small table and sits with you and listens. You are proud that you notice what she looks like. You’re a writer and you’re supposed to be observant.
Someone brings gauze. The grey-haired woman asks if you want to call the police. You tell her you’re going to call your husband and fumble for your cell phone. She tells a woman behind the front desk to call the police. You don’t want them called, but you haven’t been in charge since the man picked you.
The man who said to move off the carpet asks what happened. He says, “I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, but I’d like to know.” You want to laugh because telling the story is how you make sense of things and nothing is making sense.
A police car pulls up and then drives away. The grey-haired woman starts to stand, then sits back down, looking confused. She shakes her head and says something about the police not tying up traffic. You wait.
A policeman appears. He’s big with gear and he has a little spiral notebook just like on a cop show. He takes your statement and commiserates and you feel the need to entertain him because really it must be such a small thing that has happened compared with what he sees every day. You are embarrassed that there wasn’t a knife and keep lifting the gauze. The policeman says, “I’m getting queasy,” and half smiles, then says, “Not really,” and laughs. Later you realize he wanted to distract you from the wound so he could get a statement. It isn’t really the story he wants, just and then, and then, and then.
He says the wound needs stitches and calls a medic. You don’t deserve a medic. Not when your own purse made the wound. A fire truck pulls up and a medic comes in. He wraps your hand. He doesn’t want even the facts. It’s not his job.
Your husband comes through the clinic door wearing his bright blue rain jacket. You want to bury your face in that brightness, but he stands back and you can’t reach him.
You apologize to the cop for not having a better description, for not even knowing the color of the man’s pants, just Portland winter camouflage. The cop says, “People go into protective mode when they’re threatened. They stop observing.” But he won’t stop asking if the man stayed in the park or ran out the other side. You’ve read enough police procedurals to recognize the technique. Ask the question enough times and the victim will remember. But you don’t.
Your husband takes you to the ER. There is shouting and pounding from a room on the left. Enough, you think, no more crazies today, and want to walk out. The tolerance you used to feel is oozing away with the blood.
A nurse cleans the wound. It is ugly, the two edges of the flap raw and puckered. You say to the doctor, “Make my day. Tell me I don’t need stitches,” and she shakes her head and says “Sorry, you need stitches.” She says the shot will hurt a bit. It hurts enough for you to moan and breathe fast and finally say, “fuck,” and then apologize. The doctor says it’s okay, but she doesn’t look as if she likes you very much. She says, “How did you fall?”
You don’t want her stitching your hand if she doesn’t know what happened so you tell her and the nurse about the man in the park. They ask if he cut you and you are embarrassed again that there was no knife, even though they look concerned. You show them where he ripped out the purse strap and how the metal piece must have caught on your hand. The piece has red smears.
Your husband says, “The stitches are green,” and smiles because green is your favorite color. He is trying to make you feel better. You’re not ready to feel better. The stitches are bristly. They make the tear look worse. The nurse wraps your hand in lots of gauze. You ask him not to wrap the little finger and ring finger together so you can write. The nurse and your husband chat about how little can be done, even if the police find the man—the revolving door of psych wards, and meds, and no support systems. You try to care.
Two days later, you’ll return to urgent care to have the wound checked. They’ll say it’s healing well, take away the gauze, and cover it with a Band-aid. Underneath the Band-aid, the dark stitches still bristle, and old blood edges the tear. Now no one will ask what happened. You need people to ask. If enough people are horrified, it won’t matter that there wasn’t a knife.
Each time you tell the story, you struggle for the right word: assaulted, accosted, attacked. Your husband says, “The metal piece is like a carabiner,” and you hug him for giving you the right word. If all the words are right, you might be back in charge.
Riding with neighbors in the elevator, a couple you don’t know, you will tell them about the man in the park. They will be horrified and say words they think are right. You will be soothed for a moment. But no matter how many times you tell the story, there will never be a knife.
Author’s Note: Although the experience described in “You Can’t Stop Telling the Story” happened to me, it’s written in second person to both draw the reader into the story and to give distance from what can become an obtrusive “I” in memoir writing. I chose present tense for its immediacy; I wanted any reflections the narrator had about the event to be near ones, not ones distant from what happened.