When the phone rang at work, I wasn’t expecting to hear a friend’s mother on the line. My pleasant surprise quickly faded.
The police were at my friend Jamey’s apartment building. There had been a murder. Could I check around the newsroom to find out more?
I called an editor, she didn’t have any names, but she knew the apartment number. I called my friend’s mom back, hoping the number I said would reveal this was all just a mix up.
“That’s Jamey’s apartment,” she told me.
I told my editor that I was pretty sure a friend had just been murdered. She said I should go home. I thought I could make it through the day, but it didn’t take long before I realized I couldn’t shut this detail away in my brain for a few more hours.
I got up and called my wife. Well, not my wife. She wasn’t even my girlfriend. We had been dating off and on for about a year, but were currently in an “off” stage. We had also dated in high school. Neither of us could drive back then, but Jamey would often drive us around town in his little VW bug. I told her over the phone. She was the only person I wanted to talk to about this.
She left work and we met at my apartment. We just held each other and cried.
My friend’s mother called again later. She couldn’t be home until 6 p.m. and her daughter would be home at 5. Could I be there so that if she found out, she wouldn’t be alone when it happened? She wanted to be the one to tell her daughter.
I walked into the house without knocking, as I always did. There was my friend, curled up in a recliner. I got nervous and approached with a “How’s it going?” She smiled and said “Good.”
She hadn’t heard. So began an awkward hour of talking about nothing. This was 2006, before Facebook was mainstream and checking MySpace meant logging onto a computer. Word hadn’t spread to her. When her mom went home, I quietly excused myself, knowing that a life-changing bomb was going to drop. I went to the gym and worked out intensely for an hour. I needed a release.
Here is where things become kind of a blur. Not long after Jamey’s murder, I had a series of strokes. They were caused, largely, by the intense workouts I had been doing for a few months. In fact, there had been moments when my vision seemed to pixelate that had been happening off and on for weeks. Those were strokes. There are parts of that time that I don’t remember at all. I know I was at Jamey’s memorial service, but I don’t remember a moment of it. On the other hand, I remember gathering with friends that night.
I’ve long thought that someday I would write about this experience. Not like this, but a longer, fictionalized version of the story. Something where I solve a problem and hopefully put all this behind me. But the thing about a murder is it’s not over when the cuffs go on the suspect. This isn’t Law & Order, where the guest star of the week is goaded into a confession at the 38 minute mark to wrap things up in time for a zinger from Ice T.
Murders linger over friends and family forever. There’s a trial, where the defense will say things about your friend that you know can’t be true, all in the hopes of freeing their client. You won’t believe them, but they’ll stay with you, coloring your memory of your friend. For some, trust in humanity itself is broken. Optimists become pessimists. For some there’s PTSD. This wasn’t some illness or senseless car crash that took your friend. One moment they were alive and the next they weren’t, because of a choice someone else made.
One gunshot causes ripples that continue to spread out, long after everything is silent.
I haven’t used this experience for the basis for any writing because I think it changed me as a writer. I enjoy crime fiction and tales about murder, but I don’t think I could write one myself. Even though they aren’t real, I find it hard to think about harming one of my creations. I can play Grand Theft Auto for hours or watch countless horror movies, but could I hurt one of my own characters for the purpose of a narrative? I’m not sure that I can anymore.
As a journalist, I have a lot of experience with a form of survivor’s guilt. Every year or so, there would be a round of layoffs and there would be the week of “Will it be me?” fear, followed by the relief that it’s not, mixed with the horror of watching former co-workers cope with the loss.
Amplify that times infinity for an experience like murder. The fear of losing a child is something most parents bury away to allow them to face the world. It’s easy to understand how something like that really happening could just make you shut yourself away or lash out at the world. But I’ve long taken comfort in a comment Jamey’s father made online to another family member expressing anger at Jamey’s killer:
“Hate will help nobody. It just gives ___ more power over anyone that feels it. ___ parents have lost the son they knew also… His place has been taken by some monster they must barely recognize. Of course they hoped their son would get off easier. That is the role of the parent, to be there when the child falls, pick them up, and try to teach them how not to fall again. I feel they knew in their hearts that their son would not get up again. His place has been taken.”
I first met Jamey in middle school and we became friends in high school. He was my first openly gay friend. In the Midwest in the mid-90’s, not a lot of kids were rushing to out themselves. But I’m not sure Jamey ever had a closet. He lived his life on his own terms, always being unapologetically himself.
I mentioned my wife not even being my girlfriend at the time. Jamey’s murder gave us the kick we needed to stop being so foolish about how we felt about each other. Time is precious. And here comes more of the survivor’s guilt. Would we have realized without him? Probably, eventually. But would our bond have been as strong? Would our kids even exist? Do I owe so many of the good things in my life to something so horrible?
Jamey regularly dressed up in drag, calling himself Penelope Starr. When our daughter was born, we picked Penelope as her middle name to honor our friend. Through her, we’ve always got a little bit of him with us.
And I like to think they would have enjoyed each others’ company.