“So, just how big was the knife?” she asked me, sometime during our second interview. “Was it this long?” She held her thin, manicured hands six inches apart.
“No. Longer,” I said and shook my head slightly. My stomach muscles cramped; I looked down at my hands.
“This long?” she asked. I looked up. Her hands were 10 inches apart.
“Yes, that long,” I answered.
I looked out the window. “With a wide blade,” I added, in case that fact was important.
“OK. Good,” she said. I looked back across the desk and saw her smile a little and hunch over, in that way she had; she made a note on her long yellow legal pad. Then she looked at me again. “I’m sorry to have interrupted you . . . go on from there.”
She smiled, patiently. Her hair was blonde and smooth. I couldn’t go on; I didn’t know where “there” was.
To prompt me, she read aloud: “‘We were in the hallway, he was pushing my face to the wall, then he pulled out a knife. I saw the knife out of the corner of my left eye.’” She was quoting me from her copy of the statement I’d given the police. I didn’t have a copy of my statement; I had to “go on” from memory.
So, from there. “I was very scared when I saw the knife.” I spoke slowly, without inflection; I didn’t like the sound of the words I had to say. “My face was against the wall, and I was scared. “Throughout this entire meeting, I had a hard time filtering through all the information in my mind (too much) and giving her only the information she wanted (too little, I thought), only when she wanted it (which often seemed to be at odd times). “He pushed the blade against my arm and said—” I was still speaking slowly and monotonously; she interrupted me easily.
“Which arm—your right or left?”
I made a slow guess. “Right. My right arm. “That was where the scar had been.
“Your right cheek was against the wall. So you were looking to your left . . .” She turned her right cheek to me, patted that cheek with the tips of her fingers and looked back behind her, to her left. This was obviously supposed to mean something to me. “You say here, ‘He put the knife against my left arm.’” She looked back at me, kindly, her eyebrows only slightly raised. Her blouse was shiny; her pen was poised.
“My left arm then.” I’ll never get this right, I thought. “If said it there in my statement, it must have been my left arm . . . “How could I have gotten that wrong? I wondered. “It must have been later that it was on my right arm,” I said, trying to explain my mistake to her. “I don’t really remember. I can’t really see this part exactly. Today, thinking about it right now, I would say it was my right arm. But if it says there left, it must have been the left.” Shit, I thought; I’m babbling. I knew she was growing impatient with my thinking out loud, with my not remembering, with my remembering incorrectly.
She settled back in her chair a bit; her gold bracelet rested on the edge of her gray metal desk.
I went on, “from there.” He held the knife against my left arm. I was very scared.” I was speaking a little more quickly now, hoping she wouldn’t be so disappointed in me. “He said to me/See this knife? ’ I told him yes, I saw the knife. ‘It’s sharp,’ he said.”
I looked up then; did she want to hear about that conversation, the “it’s sharp” conversation? I wondered. She smiled with her thin raspberry-colored lips. Yes, I thought, finally—maybe I’m getting it right, maybe I’m saying the right things. Encouraged, I went on. “After he said, ‘Its sharp,’ he brushed it against my face. I could tell it wasn’t sharp. It was a big knife, but it was dull. I felt really confused again then, confused like I was confused when he first came in, because I didn’t think he wanted to hurt me with the knife, because it was so dull—”
Oh, no; what did I do wrong now, I wondered. She leaned forward, setting her elbows on the desk, cupping her chin in her palms. She was disappointed again.
“You don’t have to say, ‘I didn’t think he wanted to hurt me’ You don’t have to be nice to him. “A short laugh. “Let the jury decide if he ‘wanted’ to hurt you. You don’t know what he was thinking. Don’t try to explain what was going on inside his head. You know what you were thinking, and what happened; concentrate on that.”
“Concentrate on that,” she’d said. But I felt like I could barely concentrate on anything. My mind was remembering everything all at once—jagged shreds and bright flashes of the entire “incident.” And I was having a very hard time distilling these overwhelming recollections down into coherent answers to her specific questions. My memories were so big and her questions seemed so small.
Even when I tried to direct my attention to one specific detail, such as the knife, I still had too many thoughts and not the right answers. She didn’t want me to talk about everything I remembered about or thought I knew about the knife. But “the knife,” for me, was a very broad topic; I could talk about that knife for hours: describe it, hate it, fear it. But she didn’t want to hear all that; she just wanted me to answer her several very direct questions with one short sentence each.
She was making a case. She was attempting, through my testimony, to establish . . . something. She was readying us, herself and me, for a trial. These words, her questions, my answers, would become, in the county courthouse on the appointed date and time, legal evidence. They would enter the official record; they would help decide the outcome of a criminal case.
I didn’t know exactly what she would be trying to argue in court with all this knife talk. Was she going to use it to lay out the sequence of events, so the jury would understand what happened? Or was she going to try to prove that he had threatened to cause bodily harm, so the assault could be classified as “aggravated”?
I didn’t know how it would all fit in. But it was her case. Not mine.
So, once again, from there. “I said, ‘Yes, I see the knife.’ He said, ‘You don’t want me to use this knife, do you?’ I said, ‘No.’ I was, at that point, very scared that he would—”
“You don’t have to tell …”
It was very difficult for me to know what I did and what I didn’t “have to tell” during these several interviews in July 1992, with an assistant district attorney of Travis County, Texas.
The crime had occurred more than two and a half years (32 months to be exact) before these pre-trial interviews. I’d spent most of that time trying to forget what had happened; but now, as a witness for the state, I was being asked to remember all I could, in as much detail as possible—and then to arrange all these memories into a coherent and concise testimony.
Testimony—not narrative. She made that clear several times. I wasn’t supposed to be telling a story up there on the witness stand; I was simply supposed to be answering questions.
But often during these pre-trial rehearsal meetings, I would give long, meandering answers to her fairly simple questions. I didn’t do this to be irksome. I did it, I realized then, simply because that was how I was used to discussing the incident—as a story, with asides and conjectures. I babbled on, too, because sitting there in her office made me so nervous that I had a hard time concentrating on the limited scope of her questions; I’d say everything that came into my head, hoping some of it would be relevant.
And, I think, I answered that way, with those lengthy accounts, because I wanted her, and the jury, to believe me. I reasoned that if I gave enough background and justification for my answers, they would know I was telling the truth.
But she’d never doubted that I was telling the truth. She believed me.
I wonder now if, through my jumbled soliloquies, I was really trying to convince myself that I was telling the truth. Until my meetings in the DA’s office, I’d believed that every detail of this event had been permanently burned into my memory. But through the course of these interviews, I began to wonder if I really remembered anything exactly the way it had happened.
“Let’s talk about this ‘skin tag’ you mention in your statement,” she suggested during one interview. Tag? I thought. I’d called it a “flap” in my statement; Sgt. Bass had suggested “pinch”; but now she’s saying “tag.” Well, OK, tag.
She was staring at a drawing, holding it up in front of her face, squinting at it—the sketch the police artist and I had spent hours making, 32 months ago. As I looked at her, her face was obscured by the fuzzy reverse outline of the face on the paper. I cringed. How can she look at it so long? I wondered.
She made some notes on her yellow pad. “This here, under the eye. Is this what you were talking about here in your statement?” She leaned over her desk, pushed the sketch at me, and pointed to one of the eyes with the sharp tip of her pencil.
“Yes,” I answered. “That black line there. I had the artist draw it in.” She pulled the sketch back and continued scrutinizing it. I looked out the window.
“Was it under his right eye or his left eye?”
Oh, shit, not this again, I argued silently. I answered out loud: “Well, thinking about it now, I’d say his left eye. It seems to me it was his left eye.”
Left eye, right arm. She tortured me with these questions: In order to dredge up the answers she wanted, I had to re-experience everything. This was bad enough in itself, bad enough to make my hands shake embarrassingly (I hid them underneath her desk). But in my imagining, I also had to discern: I had to go back there and then relive it all and observe it. And then, of course, describe it to her.
“You say here in your statement that it was his right eye.” She moved her pencil tip from the sketch to her copy of my statement, to my words, “right eye.” “And on the sketch it’s under the right eye. So I would think it was his right eye?” Her statement was a question; she was waiting for me to agree.
I wasn’t trying to argue with the truth. But that was not how I was remembering it.
I felt unnerved; I berated myself, silently: If I’ve got the eyes screwed up, what else am I remembering incorrectly?
“OK. It must have been his right eye.” I decided to agree with my sworn statement. I figured the statement from the day after was more reliable than what I was thinking this day, two and a half years later. So, right eye it was. I’d have to remember that.
“Now, what exactly was this under his eye? I know you describe it here in your statement as maybe a scar, do you think it was something that would be permanent?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really know what it was. I don’t know if it was permanent. It was like an extra bit of skin under his eye. But I really don’t know what it was.” Of course I’m doing no good here, I realized. What was the answer she was waiting for? I blundered on: “It was just something underneath his eye. I couldn’t see it when he had his glasses on. But I could see it when he had them off. It was just a thing. Like maybe he’d had plastic surgery or had been cut there, just a little cut, maybe.” She was waiting patiently, expectantly. “The reason I mentioned it in the statement was because it was the only thing I noticed that was weird. “Weird? I thought; the only thing weird? “The only thing that would distinguish him from somebody else . . . the distinguishing feature.” Distinguishing feature! That’s a term they use, I thought. Yes, I was proud of myself; I thought that perhaps, finally, I’d said something relevant. But she didn’t write down what I’d said. She had another question.
“So do you think it was something like a rash?” she asked. “Or that maybe he had allergies and his face was swollen? Did it look like an infection that would go away?”
I don’t know, I felt like shouting at her; I can’t even remember which fucking eye it was under. I’m not supposed to interpret motives or guess at medical histories, right? I’m just supposed to state the facts, as I remember them—right? I don’t know if it, the flap, the pinch, the tag, was caused by hay fever or by an old bicycle injury. I don’t even know what it was. I’m even a little unsure now if it ever existed in the first place. . . .
She must have just wanted to know if it were permanent so she’d know if it would be there on his face at the trial. She wanted to make sure I’d be able to identify the defendant in the courtroom as the man who’d held the knife on my (left) arm.
But I wondered: How could I be sure? I couldn’t even define a damned tag—pinch, scar, blotch . . . Perhaps it had just been a small shadow or some kind of a tic. (Maybe he’d just been scowling at me. I began to worry: If I don’t even know what the thing under his eye was, how will I ever be able to recognize him? What if there isn’t anything under his eye at the trial? How will I ever be sure it’s him? And what if it isn’t really him? What if the wrong person is on trial?
I was taking too long to answer her question. She sat back in her chair. Then she leaned forward again.
“Let’s talk about when you were at the line-up for a while.”
Oh, great, I thought; another shaky topic.
“You say you went back to look at him after the other witnesses had left the room? Why?” she asked.
This seemed easy enough to answer. So I was sure it would be hard. But I plunged in. “There were five guys up there, right? Well, after a couple of minutes, I stopped looking at the other four and just concentrated on one guy; I think he was number three.” Oh, no, I thought: I think they’d told me in line-up orientation I was supposed to look at all of them the whole time. Well, I didn’t. “I thought that could be him, but I wasn’t sure. Before I went to the line-up, I was sure I would recognize him if I saw him. I thought I’d just know if I were in the same room with him again. But the police told me it wouldn’t be that easy—people always look different standing up there on the stage, they said. And, after all, six months had passed by the time I got to the line-up.”
She seemed to be getting impatient again. I’d forgotten what question I was trying to answer. “So I looked at him the whole time, and he seemed like he could be the guy. I wasn’t sure. But I felt like I’d know for sure if I could see his face close enough to see if I could see the . . . thing . . . under his eye.”
She gave me a slow nod and slight grin. Maybe now I was on the right track, I thought. I went on. “So after all the other witnesses left, I asked the head cop guy in charge if I could go back, and he sorta stood there thinking, and the defense attorney looked mad, but Sgt. Bass said, ‘Go look!’ and sorta pushed me back up toward the glass. So I went up to the glass, but still I couldn’t see well enough. He was up on a platform and back a few feet. And he had his glasses on. I just couldn’t see his face well enough. I felt sure that if I could see him up real close, I could tell. But I couldn’t see him well enough, so I was never as sure as I could be.” Did she understand that? I wondered.
“So is that why you only gave it an eight out of 10 when the police talked with you after the line-up?”Yes. Yes! I began to think that maybe I was making some sense to her; maybe this was leading, slowly, to the information she wanted.
I continued on, enthusiastically: “Yes, I would have said 10 if I could see the flap. Without the flap I still felt pretty sure, from the voice and the way he, number three, moved his arms . . . but his hair looked really different than I thought it should . . . “ She put her pencil down. I was telling too much again. I tried to get back on track and finish up. “But I thought if only I could see his face, and I could see that thing, then I could give it a 10.” I was glad to see her pencil rise once more.
“So you think if you could see him, the defendant, up close you would know if it was him or not?”
“Yes. But I never got to—”
“If you could now, though
“Could you look at him that close?”
What sort of a question was that, I wondered; could I? “Would I be allowed to look at his face, up close, in the courtroom?” I asked her.
“Yes, we could arrange that. What I mean, though, is could you . . . ah . . . do it?
I understood. “You mean, like, physically?”
“Yes, would you be able to do that?”
“What would I do, exactly?”
“You’d walk out from behind the witness stand, walk up to where he’s sitting, and look at him.” She paused. Then she added quickly, “There will be an armed guard sitting right next to him the whole time.”
Arghhh. Could I do that? I wondered. I stopped to think. The judge, the jury, the lawyers would all be sitting there, watching as I walked across the floor from the witness stand to the defendant’s table. I’d have to peer into his face, search for the scar, see his watery fierce eyes, again. I’d be looking down a crack of earth into Hell, trying to find that damned pinchtagflap underneath the right (yes, right) eye of the Devil.
“Yes, I could do it” I told her. I didn’t know if I could.
During another interview we discussed the “exhibits” (yes, they really use that word), the physical evidence that would be presented in court. She explained that she would hold up several things the police had taken from the apartment that night. She would show the jury my clothing, towels, blankets and the phone.
The phone! I thought; I’d completely forgotten the police had taken our phone . . . but of course.
“I’ll hold up the phone and show how the cord had been cut,” she began to explain.
“No, it wasn’t cut—it was pulled out,” I corrected her. I now remembered all about the phone.
“No, it was cut,” she told me, matter-of-factly
I smiled condescendingly: “No, this I remember vividly; the cord had been yanked out.” Perhaps I was being a little haughty. But it had been a long day. And after all the things she’d known and I’d gotten wrong, I was glad to have something to call her on.
But her ignorance on this matter, I felt, could be forgiven; after all, I’d had a lot longer, that night, to concentrate on the cord. It had taken me what seemed like forever to get the phone off the hook, with my hands tied up like that. When I finally did pick up the receiver, I saw that the cord had been ripped out of the phone. Ripped out.
Sitting there in the assistant district attorney s office, I saw myself then, two and a half years earlier. I was kneeling there on the linoleum, holding the broken phone in my hand. I imagined what he must have done just a few moments earlier: He’d taken the cord in one hand and the phone in the other and yanked them apart. I remember seeing the red and blue and green wires poking out from the base of the receiver, from where he’d pulled the cord out.
She swivelled her chair sideways, leaned over and lifted a large cardboard box onto her desk. She took a phone out of the box. I recognized it instantly: It was, indeed, our phone—a white phone, smudged with black fingerprint ink.
I felt a little sorry for her; I didn’t think she’d like realizing she’d been wrong. How would she react when she saw the cord whole and the wires trailing from the receiver,just as I’d described—instead of a “cut” like she kept insisting?
She held the phone up. She turned it so I could see the cord: It had been cut, cleanly, in two. A short curly white tail dangled from the receiver. There were no wires sticking out anywhere.
No, this isn’t possible, I thought. How, how could I have remembered the tear and the wires so vividly, when really and truly it was a simple cut?
She carefully put the broken phone back into the cardboard box.
And again I pictured myself back there, kneeling on the linoleum. Then I remembered, differently. Yes, this was it: I had picked up the receiver that night, seen the cut, and thought to myself: “Of course, that shithead, he’s cut the phone cord with his fucking knife.”
Yes, that’s how it was, I realized. But how could I have remembered it wrong—and then remembered it right?
How could that be?
The muscles in my stomach twisted.
I sat quietly and waited for her next question.
She was moving piles of papers around on her desk. She smiled down at something she had uncovered; her long fingers folded open a blue and white envelope. “OK,” she said without lifting her head. “Let’s look at these now.”
She pulled a packet of photographs out of the envelope. She looked closely at them and then sorted them into two stacks in front of her. She held one stack out to me. I reached up to take it, resting my elbow on the desk so she wouldn’t see that my hands were shaking. She opened another envelope and continued sorting.
I looked down at the photographs in my hand. The top one was a picture of a woman’s bare back, from her neck down to her waist; there were straight red scratches, like whip marks, down the sides of her back. I felt irritated: Why is she showing me this picture of someone’s scratched up back?
Then: My God, that’s me; this is a picture of my back. How, how could I possibly not recognize a photograph of myself? But all those red marks—I don’t remember there being so many, them being so bright.
I don’t remember what happened to my body. I don’t remember this happening to my body.
I don’t remember about the phone cord; I don’t know which eye, which arm.
But I do remember. I do know. I see it. I can see it all. But what I see doesn’t fit her questions. The answers I have don’t make the right testimony.
Four days before the date set for the trial, the defendant offered to plead guilty in exchange for a 35-year sentence. (A jury could have given him up to 99 years.) The prosecutors accepted the plea bargain, and the case was closed. The assistant district attorney called me at work to tell me; I wouldn’t have to testify.
And so it had been him. He had admitted to what he’d done, to what I had remembered him doing. I had picked the right person in the line-up, even though I couldn’t see his face clearly enough to know if he had an eye tag or flap. I’d remembered enough to know it was him.
But still it’s not quite right. It’s now been four and a half years since the crime, two years since my meetings with the assistant district attorney. And still I can see the phone cord both ways, cut and torn, the way it was and the way I had imagined it. I can feel the knife on my right arm, but not on my left, and not against my shoulder blades. I can see the flap, and I don’t know what it is.
My therapist once asked me, “Isn’t there anything about all this that you don’t remember?” I had just spent our entire session describing, in tangents and circles, what had happened. Her question surprised me; why would I have forgotten anything? How could I? I didn’t think, then, that I’d ever forget any part of what had happened, any sound or sight, touch or shove or scrape.
But I did forget, and am still forgetting. And wherever my memory stumbles, my imagination races in. I know the real sensations, but not the exact choreography.
Now, when I try to recollect the very specific details, I see the assistant district attorney s pen rise in anticipation; hover as I re-imagine, re-think, re-feel; and then fall again in disappointment. The memory doesn’t answer to such questions.