Early in October 1971, six young women in Vancouver, students at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, went to a dance one evening. Their names were Gerry, Gail, Linda, Laura, Gemma, and Eileen. Deciding the dance wasn’t any good, they went instead to Linda’s place, and “we all had quite a good time.” Adding to their enjoyment were two bottles of rum.
I know this because Gerry told me about it in a letter, which I still have. She’d moved to Vancouver in September from Fort St. John, a small town in northeastern British Columbia where she’d always lived until then. She was now in her first year of a two-year X-ray technicians’ program at BCIT. She was also quite near the end of her life.
I met Gerry in August 1970. I was almost sixteen, living in Clifton Park, New York, a small town in the radius of Albany. Gerry, almost seventeen, was visiting with relatives not far from where I lived, and I encountered her one day at the outdoor basketball court where she’d been watching us play. I don’t recall how long she’d already been visiting, but I do recall that there was exactly a week left to her visit. That evening I took her for a walk in the development, and a weeklong, youthful romance began.
After that we corresponded for about a year and a half, from September 1970 to late 1971 or early 1972. It was I — then a twelfth grader — who broke it off, telling her in a letter that I didn’t think we should keep writing (more on that later). My last letter from her is from November 1971; it makes no mention of any end to our correspondence and in fact expresses a good deal of affection. I had thought that, in response to my (stupid) letter saying we should stop writing, she’d sent me a regretful reply; but if so I haven’t been able to find it.
However, it’s clear from some temporal gaps that I’ve indeed lost some of her letters, and it’s possible – probable — that she did send me such a regretful reply, since it wouldn’t have been like her not to reply at all.
It was last April that I decided to write a short story based loosely on the Gerry episode — both the brief romance itself and the not-so-long epistolary aftermath. How I came to the decision to write a story about something now so distant in both time and space is a story in itself, but not relevant here. (I wrote a good deal of fiction until 2003 and this — with a couple of small exceptions — marked the first time that I returned to doing so in earnest.)
Before starting the story, I thought it would be worthwhile to get back in touch with Gerry. Both in itself, and possibly to help revive and clarify memories. Back in the early 1970s, one wrote letters by hand — in Gerry’s case, on stationery; in mine, probably on any old paper — and waited a week or two for them to traverse the distance between northwestern Canada and northeastern America. But now there was an Internet, and I Googled Gerry’s full name along with “British Columbia.” The second item that came up, from the site Ancestry.com, told me that she had died in Vancouver on June 13, 1973 — at the age of nineteen, about a year and a half after our correspondence had ended.
I was, naturally, taken aback by this. One would be in any case; but it seemed, in Gerry’s case, all the more incongruous since she was an active, upbeat, very mentally healthy person.
So it was even more disconcerting to find out — using clues from her letters and further online inquiries — that she was a murder victim. On that night, June 13, 1973, Gerry — having graduated with honors as an X-ray technician — was walking a friend to a bus stop a few blocks away from another stop where they had missed the last bus. The perpetrator had no personal connection with Gerry but was lying in wait in the darkness. Apparently after her friend had gotten on the bus, he came toward her; she tried to run away, but he chased after her and shot her. An apprentice house painter who had stolen the gun from a house he was painting, he was finally apprehended three years later, convicted, and sent to prison.
Now her letters are in a neat pile on my piano in Beersheva, under an obituary with a picture; I can’t think of a lonelier phenomenon. It doesn’t take a feat of forensics to realize that the pages are the same ones she touched — long ago in her room in Fort St. John, in her room in Vancouver; the handwriting uniquely hers among all people who ever lived; the ink the same as when she put the letters in envelopes to be sent to “Pete” in his New York State town.
She writes from Fort St. John:
I played liar’s dice, I was the second biggest liar — I think I got it from you! … [alluding to self-aggrandizing tall tales I told her during the brief courtship]
My courses are kinda lop-sided — easy ones this semester — hard ones next. …
Thanks for your letter I was really sorry to hear you’re even thinking of committing suicide. You’re lots of fun to be with, and very very handsome. I’m not kidding either. …
I got your letter today. It was a really good letter and I think you’re really neat. …
It was beautiful out that night — no snow. We all went to a party at Duncan somebody’s (can never remember his last name). It wasn’t a bad party actually — although it wasn’t the best I ever went to. …
You never told me you were Jewish but it doesn’t come as any great shock! To me religion doesn’t matter in the least, it’s the person inside that counts! …
Christmas day, we opened our presents. It was quite funny actually, I got 3 pairs of pajamas, a housecoat, slippers and an alarm clock. It seems rather strange to me. …
And from Vancouver:
Guess what! I just arrived in Van this morning at 8:00 a.m. What a hassle — it rained all the way. The bus ride took 22 hours. … I had a nice bath and put my clothes in hangers and in drawers and stuff. I register for B.C.I.T. tomorrow. … Right now I’m sitting on my bed, and I decided I should write you, and let you know my new address. …
In her new home, starting a new phase of life, she signed that letter:
And further from Vancouver:
Saturday, Cath woke me up and asked me to go to their cottage at Crescent Beach with Joan and her cousin Sue. We had a great time and we cooked our own meals and all sorts of good stuff. We walked along the shore when the tide went out and collected seashells and rocks. …
I’m taking six subjects this term. Apparatus and Image Recording is great fun. We have been shown the X-ray machines in the Radiography room, and we have learnt how to load and unload films into the cassettes in the dark room. …
Writing in Technical Context is a crummy course. It deals with Technical Writing, such as brochures, etc. The only reason I like it, is that it’s the only subject with male people. !!! …
Well Pete — (cutie-pie) take care of yourself, and WRITE SOON!!!
And I disdained her. At seventeen, I was experiencing something of an intellectual revival after years in which I defined myself, and — more importantly — wanted to be defined mainly as a basketball player. Looking at Gerry’s letters, it seemed to me she wasn’t any sort of intellectual, not someone who would study literature or philosophy, go in for exquisite phrases and fancy thoughts. No, she was someone from back then, someone I’d met at a basketball court.
In other words, I now — of course — went too far in the other direction.
And it wasn’t only that. At the same time – conversely — I felt embarrassed that I, still a high school kid, was now being written to by a “college girl.” I thought we would grow increasingly apart, and I would become more and more inadequate at responding to what she was telling me.
I missed, of course, the emotional intelligence, and how exceptionally personable, sweet, and kind she was. How deft she was at navigating between the friendship between us and the lingering romantic dimension, sometimes subtly, surprisingly, and delightfully blending them. Most of all, her loyalty; loyalty to someone she’d only been around three or four times in the course of a week, someone youthful, raw, and often foolish, but whose better potentials she seemed — unlike all others at the time — to grasp so easily.
To this loyal person, with her pure affection, her “Your friend eternally,” I responded a few months later by dismissing her from my life. It’s almost as bad as knowing what happened to her.
What happened to the killer, how long he lived in prison or if he was ever released, I don’t know. I know what didn’t happen, since Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976 and the last execution there was in 1962. Is it fair that he continued to live? By my lights, not at all. He robbed Gerry of everything this world has to give.
All she could have been beyond the age of nineteen, the children and descendants she could have had, will never be. As a politically and historically conscious Jew born in 1954, the phenomenon of murder has been all too present for me; but in a sense I haven’t known what it is until now. Three great-uncles of mine were murdered, but it was before I was born and I didn’t know them. So were friends and relatives of friends and relatives both here in Israel and on 9/11, but again, they were people with whom I lacked a direct connection. But I did know Gerry, however briefly, and it has a different kind of impact.
She was a year older than me, and so, as long as I’m alive, it will always be the time when she, too, should have been alive. Consolations, healing thoughts? There aren’t any. At most a hope — of eventually reaching a vantage from which what she lost in this world will seem less important compared to her enduring spiritual beauty.