When I was twenty, my cousin Cara was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. We were both attending college in Florida at the time. I was at Rollins in Winter Park, the posh suburb of Orlando, and Cara was at the University of Tampa. But the two of us couldn’t have been farther apart. Throughout childhood, we had been as close as sisters, but as newly-minted young adults, our lives had diverged dramatically. Even now I can’t think of her death as a singular event—indeed, the unfolding of life, the linking of seemingly insignificant choices to their inevitably larger, earth-shifting outcomes—makes that impossible. For I have become good at many things, but I was never good at guilt.
For me what happened to Cara began on the Monday before she was killed, the first week of March 2000. She called that evening; it would be the last time we spoke. “I want to tell you something,” she said, “before all of our relatives find out. It’s so embarrassing. I’ve really screwed up this time.”
“Did you get kicked out of school?” I asked, thinking, she’s pregnant.
“I had an abortion.”
I said little as she pieced together the choppy events, her life akin to an afternoon talk show. I had reacted with the same poised indifference the year before, when she had confessed to me about her drug overdose. Her friends left her in the street, flopping like a fish after she’d taken too much GHB, or liquid Ecstasy, at a nightclub; “g-ing out” they called it. I had just stared at her and the calm way she let the details emerge. Her main concern had been what sort of lie she could make up to explain the emergency room bill to her parents.
But that Monday night, she sounded adamant about getting her grades back up, and studying abroad the following year. “I’m a little worried, though,” she said. “After I told my boyfriend off, he threatened to call my parents and tell them everything. He didn’t realize they already knew. I won’t even tell you all the other craziness he’s told me.” She then, of course, proceeded to do just that. I’d never met Cara’s boyfriend. Even as she told me he’d threatened to hurt her after he’d found out about the abortion, my thoughts drifted to the Modern Lit assignment due the next day. I agreed that it sounded like she needed to sever ties with him, and that she had also probably done the right thing by not having a baby, deciding to stick out college. And I was sure she’d be fine.
“My friends and I were just in Orlando to party last weekend,” she said. “Cyberzone. We got so wasted. I didn’t have your number, but I’ve got to come and visit soon.”
“I’m really pretty busy,” I said. “Mid-terms are next week.”
When I hung up, I told my roommate, “If my cousin Cara calls asking for me, tell her I’m not here.”
I might feel guilty now, looking back, except for what I chose to do next that night. And to think that at the time, my actions had stirred up uneasiness, youthful suspicions of betrayal—actions which, had I chosen not to take them, would certainly haunt me now. Just a year older, I felt a sense of birth-order seniority and responsibility. I told myself if her parents didn’t know yet that she’d had an abortion, it would be one thing. But they already knew. They were just sleeping with rosary beads wrapped around their clenched fingers, praying their daughter wouldn’t end up in hell.
So I dialed my parents and held my breath through the rings. When my father answered the phone, I told him about Cara’s abortion. Just as I had told him about her overdose the year before.
What I didn’t know was that my father would tell my mother, or that they would call an aunt, who would pray for my cousin whom we had all suspected was rapidly heading down a troubled road and had been for a while.
So I’d acted on a gut feeling. Yet I never could have imagined where it all would end.
Friday morning of that week, I attended my nine a.m. class with a slight hangover; I was in an especially good mood as I had met someone the night before, soon to be my first boyfriend. When I returned to my dorm, I checked my messages from the night before. Ten voicemails, all left by my parents, imploring me to call home. By the third or fourth message, I exited and dialed, trying not to panic. Dread twisted inside me for whatever bad news I was about to find out as my father picked up.
The word murdered did not have a place in my active vocabulary. I repeated the word and it sounded foreign on my tongue, as if I didn’t know what to do with it. Just as Cara was no longer pregnant, she was no longer the voice on the phone from four days before. She’d been stabbed, the way you stab a piece of meat; my God, no one ever stabs anything alive, I recall thinking. But her ex-boyfriend had stabbed her to death in a Tampa parking lot where they had agreed to meet and exchange personal items. She was dead and had been dead for more than twelve hours. At the time of her death, I was her only blood relative within twelve hundred miles, and I had been singing along to a CD, dressing to go out for the night.
I wandered out of the dorm to one of the gazebos by the lake, and wept.
Later, a friend handed me an article from the Tampa Tribune website: Man kills girlfriend in hospital garage, attempts suicide. The lead: “A man suspected of killing his girlfriend in the parking garage of Tampa General Hospital apparently attempted suicide by hurling himself into rush-hour traffic, police said.”
I remember the showers from that weekend, how I longed for the hot water to wash the horrific events down the drain, but as I learned more details, I only had more scenes for my imagination to repeat. As the water pooled on the tile, I saw my cousin’s blood pouring over the concrete. “The man, conscious, told police that he had done ‘terrible things’ and said the stabbed woman was his girlfriend, Tampa police said.” The newspaper lines echoed every time I thought of Cara’s killer. Terrible things.
Perhaps the funeral is where I exhausted my share of shame: that I should have been in Florida the previous semester to watch over Cara instead of studying in England, and a thousand other things. Why hadn’t I reached out to see how she was doing when I returned to Rollins? Then at least she might have felt she could call me when she discovered she was pregnant. Thinking about the last few lonely weeks of her life made me sick with guilt.
In youth we can be quick to judge, and I resented my relatives’ tears. They were crying for an angelic girl they once knew, or so I thought, not the crude-spoken Cara who had rattled off her story over the phone a week earlier. She had been regularly using drugs: marijuana, acid, Ecstasy, and who knows what else. I had known she was hanging out with the wrong crowd since she’d started college, but I didn’t say anything, because what could I have said that would have stopped her behavior? In a way, she had been lost already. Perhaps she was too lost to ever find herself.
So, too, I dreaded the procession up to the casket and the line that ended at my aunt and uncle. What could I say to them? Look at how your daughter ended up? Where were you the last two years of her life in Florida? Where were you the last decade when you left her home to babysit her siblings from the age of nine? What could I say when I walked off the plane from Orlando, while my cousin arrived in a box?
They dressed Cara in an odd dark green blouse with a high-buttoned collar to hide the gaps that had opened her neck and spilled out her life. It looked like something purchased in a store for a woman my mother’s age, the collar almost Puritanical.
In the end, I said nothing to my aunt, uncle, and cousins, because I couldn’t. There was no one to blame except the individual who had carried out the act himself.
What I couldn’t understand then about grief was that my relatives were mourning more than I could yet imagine—how they could foresee, unlike the rest of my cousins, how we would grow up, attend each other’s weddings, welcome newborns—that it was the greater loss of a lifetime never to be lived, rather than the nineteen years that had been taken, which had been the focus of my preoccupations.
In the years immediately following the murder, and after the young man who killed Cara succeeded in ending his own life while awaiting trial, I reasoned as best I could. Cara’s death was the result of a series of poor choices that had spun her into a perilous situation, and poor choices determined cause and effect. She might have ended up an addict, I thought, unable to escape such an abyss. I reasoned one possibility after another until I couldn’t reason anymore.
My cousin, once a childhood best friend, has disappeared almost entirely from my memory, and worse, from my emotions. Now, there is—nothing. Just absence. What do you call it when even the weight of loss has disappeared? When all that’s left is the lightness of absence.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in The Paris Review Daily, The Southern Review, The Globe and Mail, Green Mountains Review, The Good Men Project Magazine, among many others. Her short story “Shadow Boxes” won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation, and was a finalist for the 2012 Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship at the Carson MacCullers Center. She recently completed her first novel, set in South America. Find her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.
Q: Your opening line is gripping. What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The most unexpected aspect to arise during composition was the ending. I had written a memoir of Cara’s death about six months after the event, which I filed away for years. I had been too close to the experience for the requisite amount of reflection to take shape, although I’m grateful that I recorded the sequence of events as they unfolded, as well as my thoughts and emotions at the time, since my memory of those is fuzzier now. From that long, rough, raw essay, I trimmed several thousand words until I got to the essentials, and was left asking myself—how does this matter, now? I was not expecting to arrive at absence and a meditation on what that really means in terms of loss.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’ve filled notebook upon notebook with writerly gems over the years, but one of my favorites was given to me by Doug Glover, my instructor at Vermont College. In one of his monthly letters critiquing my fiction, he asked, “Where are the great stories of love and death?” I still find myself writing that across the top of my notebook pages, whether I’m sitting down to begin something new or stuck. Another phrase I hold dear—I can’t remember where I heard this, but I love how it applies to character, that your job as a writer is to “hold their feet to the fire.”
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Too many to count, of course! But in terms of pivotal moments in my evolution as a literary writer, I would say Edith Wharton—I vividly remember writing a long paper on The Age of Innocence for 11th grade Honors English, the immense satisfaction of delving into her work, and thinking, this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life, study and write literature. Reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on the eve of grad school set the bar as far as what can be achieved in the novel form; that said, I’m a great admirer of Margaret Atwood’s novels (namely The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace) and believe she is one of the greatest novelists working in English today. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for revealing the advantages of the linked story form and especially for capturing small town America. And also Flannery O’Connor, not only for her mastery of the short story, but the wisdom and advice in her essays and letters on writing: Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: Both. I cherish solitude, and the majority of the time I write sitting on the red couch in my living room, the coffee table cluttered with index cards, printed drafts, books to review, mug of green tea, etc. All my nonfiction is composed there, because I don’t write nonfiction by hand. But if I’m writing fiction, specifically first drafts, I’m writing longhand, and so alternate between the couch and a select group of cafés. The hubbub of public places used to bother me, but at some point during the last few years that has changed, and on some afternoons I feel almost summoned to certain places. And I love to edit hard copies outdoors. I’m a Florida transplant, and there’s nothing I crave more than the sun, fresh food, the bustle of people going about their day—in the words of Hemingway, a “clean, well-lighted place.”