Sunday, January 24, 2010

Memory explosions

(Warning: potentially unsettling content and some very adult language)

Many friends and fans have commented to me that my blog, though full of personal information about me, often feels sanitized. The reason, of course, is that I sanitize it. I have a sense of personal privacy that the blog often comes near to violating, and I also have a great many younger readers of my novels, so I write most of these blog entries for a general audience that might include young teens.

I did not sanitize this entry anywhere near as much as usual, partly to show people that there are good reasons for sanitizing, and partly because I may use a cleaned-up version of this story in an afterword to Children No More. May. I haven't decided yet.

Please stop reading now if you mind difficult images.


A few weeks ago, in the course of our yoga class, our instructor told us to lie on our backs on our mats with our feet together, and then lift our feet slightly off the ground. This simple leg-lift was just the first step in assuming a position. I was focused on the class, distracted only by how fat and out of shape I am, thinking of nothing in particular, and generally present in the moment.

I lifted my legs.

A memory exploded in my brain.

In an instant, with sensations of all sorts flooding me, I remembered being ten years old in the Young Marines. We were out back of the meeting hall, in a wide, sunlit brick alley. We wore our uniforms: pants and shirts starched and ironed and starched and ironed again until you could have cut a sandwich with their creases, brass belt buckles gleaming from repeated hand polishing, boots spit-shined until they glowed, covers as starched and perfect as the rest of the clothing. We were on our backs, the bricks rough and our bodies soaked with sweat. We had to squint against the brutally hot Florida sun.

We were doing leg lifts. Legs together. Lift them six inches off the ground. Hold until the DI was satisfied. On his command, spread them as wide as you could, still six inches off the ground. Hold until he was happy. Put them back together--still six inches off the ground. Hold again. Put them down, never as long as you wanted, and rest for a few seconds. Repeat.

What happened when you failed varied with the DI. The nice ones would stride up to you, bend, and scream at you until you got back to work, maybe even treat you to twenty push-ups.

The DI on the day I remembered was not one of the nice ones. He was an actual Marine rotated back to the World for a short while before heading again out of the country. He dealt with failure quickly and brutally: he appeared at your side, somehow moving lightning fast without ever appearing to run or even picking up his pace, and he stomped on your stomach.

On the day I remembered, I had already failed once. My head was soaked because the water and bits of sandwich I'd thrown up next to me--you never got up without a direct order to that effect, so I was still where I'd been when I'd puked--had seeped under my head. In the seconds when my feet were on the ground, as I worked to relax my stomach I also pondered how I was going to get the stain out of my shirt, because I had only one.

The moment I remembered was when the DI announced that as a special treat, courtesy of Private Van Name's earlier decision to screw the whole platoon by turning into a little bitch of a baby and dropping his legs, we were going to hold our legs for thirty seconds in each position. If anyone's feet touched the ground, we'd do it again.

The exact moment I remembered was when we were nearing the end of the first position, which I knew because I'd been counting the seconds. I was already shaking and breathing hard, which meant the next two stages were probably more than I could handle. I bit my tongue to give myself a different pain to focus on. I tasted blood, and I got mad, really mad. I vowed that I would not let that asshole beat me, that I would not let down my team, that I would hold up my legs until either he got tired of checking his watch or I died. I would not fail. The tang of adrenaline joined the coppery blood, and I smiled at that fucker, showed him my blood-red teeth, and when the exercise was over and he told us to put down our feet, I held them up another few seconds, making sure he noticed, because fuck him, fuck them all, they would not beat me.

He smiled back at me, nodded, and walked off.

In my den, on my yoga mat, all these years later, with a yoga instructor who could not be nicer, all of that exploded in my head at once. I tasted adrenaline and blood, I felt the bricks against my back and the heat of the sun on my face and the sweat soaking me.

I'd never forgotten the leg-lifts, but I'd also never recalled them so viscerally. I have no idea what caused this memory to appear so fully and so violently. It passed quickly, faded back into the kind of vague, out-of-focus scene that most distant memories are, but for a moment I was there again, fully there, gone from my den and back in that alley where I spent so very much time, and I'll probably never know why.


J. Griffin Barber said...

I wonder what went through the DI's mind when he beheld the red smile.

A couple of thoughts spring to mind for the thought processes of that man at that moment. I'm not trying to be belittle that experience, I just can't help trying to figure out why someone would behave in such a manner.

'There's one who's learning what my dad taught me. Hope it's early enough.'

'Damn, that boy scares me. I hope he can't smell my fear.'

'Gee, this is fun. Glad I could help another generation toughen up.'

'There's one that will remember me and the Marines.'

Mark said...

You're not in any way belittling the experience, nor was the experience in any way a pivotal one for me; I have far, far, far worse stories than that one.

My take on the DI's look is that he was thinking, "This one has potential."

amosgirl said...

I wept when I read this post. I don't think I would have made a good soldier.
- amy

Mark said...

I was a good little soldier, but I left. I'm glad I did.


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