I was sitting alone in a park on West 14th Street, eating lunch and reading, when Vanessa, my cousin and best friend, left her house to go out for a short walk that Sunday in August. She was home in Massachusetts for the weekend to visit her grandmother and she had to take the bus back to NYC, where she lived and worked, later that afternoon. When she was out walking, we had been texting. I asked her how home was and she replied, “It’s so chill I don’t want to leaveee.”
And she never would leave.
Around 1:15 pm, we were making plans to get tickets for the Patriots game at the end of September. She sometimes went hours without answering a text and my last one didn’t warrant a response, but for some reason at 2 pm I felt the need to reach out and text her again. She didn’t answer. Vanessa’s last text to a friend was at 1:48 pm. I had just texted with her and then she was gone.
As Joan Didion writes in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
I was still sitting in that park, working on a lesson plan, when Vanessa was attacked and killed by a monster. Or a devil. Someone, or something rather, not possibly human or sane. Ironically, I was supposed to teach Hamlet to my grad school class the next day. Hamlet, a play about a character who frequently contemplates the meaning of life and death. Hamlet, a play so much about grief, loss, sanity, revenge, and justice.
Sometime last winter, Vanessa texted me to say that she had such a sad, bad dream about me and she didn’t know what happened, but I got hurt and she was crying and crying. In a twisted, eerie way, this dream came true, but it happened to her instead of me. Her bad dream is now my reality.
The weeks following her death were a nightmare. I remember first seeing Vanessa’s license picture — one I knew she hated — all over the news. I thought she was going to be so mad they used that picture. I really felt that she would find out; she’d be back tomorrow. Vanessa dying is a tragedy, but how she died is another tragedy entirely and it was worse that her family and friends did not have any privacy after it occurred. I received endless calls and messages from reporters and hundreds of friend requests from strangers. I couldn’t go on Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, Twitter, or my Gmail without reading how every news reporter wanted to know about Vanessa in order “to honor her life” instead of “focus on her tragic death.” But really, they wanted this information so they could do their jobs, make their money. They didn’t know her; this wasn’t their loss. My best friend died and in a matter of one day, she became a commodity. Just another sad news story. Vanessa and I often joked about getting famous, but it wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
All I wanted to do in that moment was call Vanessa to tell her the news, hear her laugh, and talk about how ridiculous the whole thing was- how it was straight from a movie. I wanted to ask her what I should do. Like I always did. If this had happened to anyone else in my life, it would be Vanessa getting me through it. Vanessa was my person for all life, love, beauty, and fashion advice. Sometimes I’d ask her such trivial questions like what should I be for Halloween or if I should buy this dress. Other times, I’d ask for her advice about work and school. I had recently been stressed about teaching material I wasn’t very comfortable with and she talked me through it. She not only made me feel that I could do it, but that I was the best person to do it. No matter the question, she always had the answer.
People often asked us if we were sisters. Even though she was my cousin, I considered her my sister. Growing up, she was the one who introduced me to makeup, “cool” brands, eyebrow waxes, and hair straighteners. She helped me write my first cover letter and my speech for my sister’s wedding. We still traded clothes. She was my other half. My better half. And she was going to change the world; she was already well on her way.
So how could something so horrible happen to someone so kind, so beautiful, so smart? That question has no answer. Selfishly, I thought about my own future after she died; how life would be unbelievably dark and lonely without Vanessa. How would I live in this crazy, cruel world without her? How could I be anyone good without her? We were supposed to grow old together. We talked about having matching cape houses, traveling to Italy again, starting our own Youtube cooking channel. When we got married and had kids, our daughters would be cousins and best friends- just like us. But we won’t have that. My future looks very different now.
Sometimes, people die from rare illnesses, unexpected overdoses, natural disasters, or tragic accidents. Sometimes, by the hands of evil people. One cannot compare the causes of such losses. As much as we think we can control our lives, some things are far beyond our control. You see sad stories in the news all the time, but you’ve become immune to them. You always try to rationalize why it must have happened to that person- he was careless, it was late at night, she was drunk. You create these excuses because you think something like this could never happen to you, your family, your best friend … but then it does. Your privilege does not save you. The bubble you live in will not protect you. Sometimes, evil pervades- no matter your race, gender, or class. No matter where you live. Vanessa left her house to go for a walk. Not in a dangerous area. Not at night or early in the morning. It happened on a sunny, Sunday afternoon on her own street, half a mile from her house. She did nothing wrong that day, but it didn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter.
Our world is not safe. It’s especially not safe for females. But if you can do one thing in the wake of Vanessa’s death, it’s to spread awareness. To start, I urge everyone to take a self-defense class. Even if you don’t think you need to, please, please do. We can’t live our lives in fear, but we must be prepared and educate ourselves so that we can conquer this kind of evil.