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How the murder of my best friend made me write ‹ Literary Hub

How the murder of my best friend made me write ‹ Literary Hub
How the murder of my best friend made me write ‹ Literary Hub

My best friend Carolyn was murdered in September 2016. A little less than a year later, I began writing seriously.

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I always kept a diary, and sometimes a short story would pop into my head out of the blue, and I would type it up and file it away with all the other nostalgic crap I was hoarding, and then not look at it for ten years or more. When I was 17, I wanted to write the great American novel, but as an adult I never considered myself a writer.

When Carolyn was 17 and I was 23 – the summer we were inseparable – she showed me her writing for the first time. I can’t remember ever being truly in awe of someone in real life and experiencing the magnitude of their talent.

Carolyn loved books even more than I did. She read voraciously. She was always seeking knowledge and creative practice. I was almost seven years older than her, but she was light years ahead of me. She was just born cool.

After she was murdered, I began dreaming about her. In the first dream, I was waiting in a sunlit room in Florida next to an old rotary phone when a call finally came. Carolyn told me how sorry she was for not calling sooner. That she had been so busy. I asked her what it was like where she was. She laughed and said it was a lot like here. That she had a job and had moved into her new house—and then of course she had to spend all her time decorating and setting it up because she could never settle down until she got settled. “One thing is different,” she said. “Fewer men. Which makes sense when you think about it.” She laughed. “Souls are mostly made of female energy anyway.”

Carolyn always knew she was a writer, but I didn’t find out until the year after she died that I was a writer too.

In the spring of 2017, about six months after Carolyn died, Sarah Gerard messaged me on Facebook. She told me she had something she wanted to ask me. She said it would be best if we spoke in person. We had met about ten years earlier when Sarah’s father dragged her on an art tour of the Raymond James Financial Art Collection. As the collection’s custodian, I led the tour. In the years since, we had both moved to New York from our hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, and had crossed paths from time to time in the section of the Venn diagram where the world of art intersects with that of literature. But we weren’t friends. I told her to meet me at the Shade Bar on Sullivan Street, near my office at NYU. I had an idea what she wanted to ask me. I didn’t yet know how I felt about it.

It was late afternoon, around four or five. Sarah ordered a crepe and a glass of whiskey neat. I drank a glass of Chardonnay. I wondered as I passed if she had ordered the whiskey to impress me. In Florida, in the punk scene, the girls drink whiskey. I didn’t drink much of it at 32. But I recognized it for what it was. A code marker. We were part of the same tribe, or at least that’s how she wanted to portray it.

After our first drink, she told me she wanted to write something about Carolyn. She needed to understand what had happened to her. She wanted to know what I thought. I thought maybe she wasn’t the right person to write about Carolyn. I hadn’t read Sarah’s other works and felt protective of Carolyn’s legacy. I told her if she did, I needed to know everything. I needed to be a part of everything. She told me she wanted to be at the trial. I told her I would be there, too. That meeting was the first of many to follow. I would eventually become the main source for Sarah’s book.

In my second dream about Carolyn, she was interviewed by Terry Gross for Fresh Air. I heard their conversation through the thick glass of the recording studio. Their audio was beamed into the room through surround sound speakers. I was listening more than watching. Terry asked Carolyn if she was OK after going through such a horrific ordeal. She laughed and said she was fine. She said that of course she was in shock at the time of the murder. Shocked and angry. She laughed again. Her laugh, confident and cool and at the same time like that of a mischievous child. She shrugged and said, “I know now that it was nothing personal. It was never really about me. Death has little to do with the person who dies. It has everything to do with those who remain alive.”

In the summer of 2017, Sarah and I went to the Queens County Courthouse to review court documents. The trial was still a few years away, but we didn’t know that yet, and there wasn’t much to review at that point. On the subway back to my apartment, she said something about me being a good writer. I rolled my eyes and brushed her off. She didn’t let up, in that relentless way I’ve come to admire. “Have you ever done creative writing?” she asked. So I told her about my stories. I told her about the story behind my stories. And she told me, “That sounds like a novel. You should write that novel.”

When I got home, I sat down and started writing. And I haven’t stopped since. That was seven years ago. Much has changed in my life since that night. I got married and moved to the Catskills. Carolyn’s killer was tried and convicted. But perhaps the most profound change in my life has been the movement to fully embrace my identity as a writer. Carolyn had always known she was a writer, but I didn’t find out I was a writer, too, until the year after she died. Sometimes I think she’s writing through me. Our minds do the most incredible things to make sense of unimaginable pain.

As the release date of Sarah’s book approaches, I find myself in a whirlwind of emotions. On the one hand, I am agitated with excitement. Intellectually, I can understand how odd it is to be upset about something so morbid. But the prospect of sharing Carolyn’s vibrant presence with the world, if I’m honest, Is exciting for me. This is what I have desperately missed all these years.

In a third dream, I was shopping when I met her in the dairy section. She was so excited to see me that she pulled me into a back room—a sort of employee lounge. There she told me that the only regret she had about leaving early was that she never got the chance to publish her novel. “It was finished and everything,” she said. “Oh well.” That laugh from her again. As if all those things in life were so inconsequential, so silly now. I told her to give me the book anyway, I could publish it for her—she just had to tell me where to look for the pages.

Carolyn, my best friend. She was a force of nature—a tornado of charisma, style, wit, and kindness. She’s not the kind of person whose greatness you can convey in a cocktail party anecdote. I missed talking about her. But it’s hard to tell stories and know they’ll never land because those people never saw the magic in her eyes. Never heard her laugh. Never experienced her uncanny comedic timing or how brilliantly she delivered a joke. They would never know how she smelled of baby powder and magnolias and stale tobacco. That it was impossible to be in a bad mood when she was around. I longed to recreate her presence. I wanted to bring Carolyn back so badly.

Ultimately, that’s all we can do: write down our truth, without regret or reservation.

Through Sarah’s book, I hope Carolyn’s memory will be immortalized. I hope her impact on my life and the lives of so many others will never be forgotten. I hope Carrie Carolyn Coco is just the beginning of a much longer conversation. I hope there will be a million more books about Carolyn.

But with this excitement comes a certain amount of concern.

Not everyone will perceive Carolyn’s story – or mine – in the same way. Some will question the validity of sharing such deeply personal experiences, while others may view the way things are presented differently.

That’s the thing about free speech. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if that opinion is that we are unlikable and our grief is “a little narcissistic and performative,” according to a recent ARC study for Carrie Carolyn Coco. I’ve accepted that this is just the reality of facing reality, especially when it comes to such a hard and personal subject as grief. But it’s not a good feeling to read. To be honest, it made me really angry. I’ve only healed so far.

In battling these demons, I discovered the two things in life that are most important to me: making sure Carolyn’s memory lives on, and becoming the most authentic and best version of myself. When someone reads Sarah’s book, they get a glimpse into the person I am – the good, the bad, and everything in between. And if they can’t relate to my story, then so be it.

Writing is a way to make sense of a fucked up world, to say, OK, you made me bleed, but I’m going to make sure the world knows what you did, and I’ll be damned if they don’t remember.

Art is not a finite resource. Art is a path to healing. With art we tell the future that we were once here. Nothing lasts forever. But through stories we get closer to immortality. So write.

Ultimately, that’s all we can do: write down our truth, without regret or reservation.

And my truth comes with a caveat: You don’t have to read it. You don’t have to like it. But you never have the right to say it shouldn’t exist.

In the last dream in which Carolyn visited me, we were standing in a meadow in the upstate. It was summer, and I sensed her presence but couldn’t see her. I called out, “Where are you, Carrie? Are you here?” I couldn’t hear her answer, but I knew what she was saying. She told me to do the magic eye trick. To squint and relax my gaze. The plane of my gaze blurred like the film over a large body of water on a hot day. Suddenly she came into view. I ran to her and wrapped my arms around her, feeling her body – warm and soft, alive. “You’re real,” I said. “You’re really here.” She smiled. “I’m always here. You just have to know how to look for me.”

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Carrie Carolyn Coco: My Friend, Her Murder, and an Obsession with the Unthinkable by Sarah Gerard is available from Zando Projects.

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