Everything founders in the sea of what might have been. – James Baldwin
“Bay Woman Slain in Utah.” My cousin Pat was that “bay woman,” reduced to a 1999 headline by a random bullet. She was 55. So was I. Now every October when I mark my birthday, she’s on my mind. I consider the latest number on the ascending scale: here I am at 60, 62, 66. That’s how old Pat would have been too. We were born ten days apart—twins born to different parents, we used to say.
When I was six—when Patty and I were six—my family moved from New York to California, following the westward migration of my father’s parents and his older brother, Pat’s father. We rented a house around the corner from my uncle’s family in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights, and for the next two years Patty and I were inseparable. Kissin’ cousins, they called us. Yin and yang. One dark and the other fair, both of us skinny and toothy, the same awkward limbs, the same mouths and lopsided grins. A boy on a bicycle crashed into me on the sidewalk one day during our first year there, knocking a diagonal chunk off my protruding front tooth. Not long afterwards Patty fell and chipped the same tooth. Yin and yang—we brought out the mischief in each other, though she was brash and fearless while I was shy and cautious. Once after the Saturday matinee at the neighborhood Cortland Theatre, Patty made a sassy remark to a couple of older girls—tough ten-year-olds—and they chased after us. Patty sprinted one way, I another; they caught me, gave me a split lip and a bloody nose. I wailed and dripped blood all the way home, where Pat was waiting, grinning. We used to race each other in the schoolyard—I often beat her so this time she was eager to claim her victory.
After two years my family moved again, to Solana Beach, a small coastal town in San Diego County, where another of my father’s siblings had settled. Each summer we would make the two-day 500-mile drive to visit the Bay Area relations, and Patty and I would pick up where we left off. She was still more daring and worldly, maybe from the influence of an older sister; I excelled at stealth and lies. Rather than shrink into her shadow, I exaggerated my exploits and feigned a beyond-my-years sophistication. Once we went to a restaurant in Marin with our parents, and while they were finishing their after-dinner coffee and cigarettes we slipped away and snooped around some back rooms, sharing a pilfered smoke. We found a storage area filled with racks and racks of wine, and we snatched a bottle, not knowing one from another. Pat hid it at her house, and we opened it one night in the basement “rec room” when some boys came over. It turned out to be dry sherry, awful, medicinal tasting, I thought; it was decades before I developed a liking for the stuff. But no one seemed to mind—at least no one would admit it—as we sipped and giggled, danced and necked. Not so wild by today’s standards, but this was the ‘50s, and we thought ourselves so cool.
The vacation trips stopped when we were 14 or 15, and we didn’t see each other much after that. I have a photo dated 1963. She’s in powder blue satin and net with a veil, obviously a bridesmaid, maybe her sister’s wedding? I’m in black with too much makeup and jewelry. I’m pretty sure we didn’t attend each other’s weddings, hers at 20, mine at 22—I would remember, wouldn’t I? Babies followed a couple of years later—Pat’s oldest was two when my Jennifer was born. We stayed loosely connected, but our lives were taking different directions. She had two more children and was an active stay-at-home mom, absorbed in domesticity; I was divorced when Jennifer was two, a single mother of an only child, busy in my work and social worlds. In 1980 Pat and her husband, Jack, were coming to town to visit her mother, who now lived in San Diego. I was going to be away, so I invited them to stay at my house; we would overlap for a couple of days on my return. Friction set in when I came home. Still the assertive one, Pat had taken over. I felt in the way, unwelcome in my own home. She’d washed my kitchen curtains, cleaned in places I’d never touched. Instead of thanking her, I took offense. What kind of slob did Super-Hausfrau think I was? They left the next day.
The last time I saw her was in 1997 or ‘98. I’d recently remarried, and my husband, Don, had never met Pat. We joined her and Jack with Pat’s sister, Carol, for dinner at George’s in La Jolla. Pat was wearing a cobalt blue dress (I see it vividly so don’t tell me if I’m wrong), her hair longish, a warm auburn. I remember our hug—we clung a bit, stared into each other’s eyes and beamed, strays reunited. Don recalls “looking at her, looking at you, then her again, you again.” He found the physical resemblance startling, much more so than between her and Carol. “You looked more like sisters than the sisters,” he told me afterwards.
Pat and Carol had been, for some years then, exploring their family genealogy. Before so much was accessible online it was a challenging and absorbing pursuit involving letter writing and phone calls to strangers, travel to dig up obscure data. Carol tried to draw me in and would send me documents pertaining to our fathers’ family tree. It was fascinating, but not compelling enough to get me involved. When Don and I went to Scotland, she asked me to check on possible ancestors. It seems the Glasgow Airport was built over a cemetery, and some of the grave markers remain at the end of one of the runways. I disappointed her when I declined to spend my one day in Glasgow looking for ancestral remnants.
In April 1999, Pat went to Salt Lake City to visit the renowned Mormon Family History Library with its two million rolls of microfilmed census records and other genealogical documents. The rest of her story survives in newspaper archives and on grizzly websites like Murderpedia and Second Amendment Sacrifices. On April 15, a Thursday, Sergei Babarin—a 71-year-old Russian immigrant, a schizophrenic off his meds—walked into the library and wandered through the building shooting. He even stopped once to reload. Before he was shot and killed by police, he left four people wounded and two dead, a 62-year-old security guard and my cousin Pat.
I wonder about the moments right before it happened. Did she hear gunshots, see him come through the door? Or was it sudden, was she taken by surprise, absorbed in her search? Was she thinking how stuffy it was in the crowded room and how she looked forward to getting back out into the fresh air, meeting up with Jack for a quiet dinner, going home? How do you process something so arbitrary, a senseless death, all those lost years? Our childhood bonds had slackened over time, but she was and is still part of me. Her brutal slaying was an assault to my senses, and even now it continues to seep into my consciousness like leaking battery acid. I’ve asked myself why I’m writing about her and why now. Why her death haunts me more and more as time goes by. Something has brought it to the forefront, maybe something I’m trying to work out for myself. The answer I’ve come up with: mortality, of course. The fragility of life. Memento mori means “remember that you will die.” It could have been anyone; it could have been me. But it wasn’t. And ultimately this is about me. I get older and she doesn’t. The fact rubs on my consciousness like gritty sandpaper.
I recently reconnected with Jack; we had lost touch after Pat’s death, after the initial condolences. He hasn’t moved, hasn’t remarried. He retired a few years ago and opened a barbecue restaurant with his kids. He sent a photo of himself with his adult children and the four grandchildren Pat never knew. I told him I was planning to write about her, and he seemed eager to help with background and details. So while I could verify some of my memories, fill in the gaps, I don’t. Because this is my account, my recollections I’m after, not accuracy. I have the facts—names and dates, outcomes—the rest I pull out of the dusty overstuffed closet of my mind.
I call this a sketch because I conjure only bone fragments, a partial skeleton. Recently in San Francisco I saw an exhibition of David Hockney’s work over the past decade. His oils and watercolors are breathtaking in their scope, color and artistry, but I was drawn to his sketchbooks, a dozen or so of them spread out under glass, their videotaped and enlarged pages running continuously on the wall. I was mesmerized by the bare outlines— trees, paths and rooftops, figures and interiors—essences captured in a line here, a squiggle there. They’re not precise representations, but they’re what he saw, what he wanted to convey. Some sketches serve as first drafts, guides for more developed images; others are complete in themselves. They say what needs to be said. That’s the way I feel about my sketch.
On an earlier trip to the Bay Area, I took Don to the old neighborhood. In spite of the passage of time and rampant gentrification, Bernal Heights retains recognizable landmarks. While I couldn’t recall the exact space occupied by our rickety old house on Banks Street—most of the block had been torn down to make way for condos and townhouses—the sense memories came rushing back. I showed him our childhood hangouts—the elementary school, the library and adjacent playground, the old movie house (now a church). As we walked away, I thought I saw two scrawny girls, matching corners missing from their oversized front teeth, one fair and the other dark, chasing each other around the schoolyard, shouting with wild abandon, both believing their lives would be long and happy.
-- Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of literary journals, including Upstreet, Hippocampus, Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, and Hobart. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. A monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction” was published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.