I met Christian on the first day of high school in our newspaper class. At our public charter school in the Miami suburbs, we were part of an academically driven crew who took AP classes and filled the ranks of the National Honor Society.
Chris was a brilliant artist who wanted to be a doctor. He was the friend I called at 11 p.m. on a Sunday when I had no idea how trigonometry worked because I was brain dead, and he’d tell me how trigonometry worked and then assure me that I wasn’t brain dead. When he got his car junior year, I was a common fixture in the passenger seat: to the mall, to the movies, to the occasional football game.
Chris was in a rough spot during our last two years of high school. He called me sometimes almost in tears and said he didn’t know how to believe in God anymore. I never really knew what to say. I think I said that faith was something I just felt. He would be quiet on the other end. Mumbled thanks.
Graduation arrived, a blur of photographs and flashes and family members tugging at our limbs. I don’t remember saying goodbye, but I knew that I’d see him again: at Thanksgiving, over Christmas, next summer.
A few weeks into my freshman year of college, I saw a Facebook post that said that Chris had been missing in Gainesville, Fla., for over 24 hours. He had moved to Gainesville a couple months earlier to start his first year at the University of Florida.
It was a Friday night. One of my suitemates was ironing her hair; the other two were running between our suite and the bathroom in the hallway, the door slamming every couple minutes. Can I borrow your red lipstick? Does this skirt look okay? Should I wear a different bra?
The destination was a party on the fifth floor: freshmen with solo cups, texting and shrieking and pouring each other shots of cheap vodka. I went for a few minutes, which was enough time to wish happy birthday to the host and get dragged into the edge of a group selfie.
A few people asked why I was leaving. “I’m heading to bed early.”
Surrounded by wanderers in slacks and mini skirts, I started walking in circles around Old Campus, calling any person who had ever known Chris or could have spoken to him in the past couple days. I recalled the Facebook message he had sent me ten days before. I never answered.
I stood outside Battell Chapel, leaned against the flowerpots near the doors, and called his phone repeatedly though it went straight to voicemail. I left messages crying, “Chris, please, please, please, come home.”
Chris was gone. He was lost. Check the hospitals. Check the jails. There were search parties, rescue teams, dogs, police, friends, strangers, his extended family — everyone in Gainesville, trying to find him. He was last seen with a high school friend of ours, who said they’d gotten into a fight and that he’d dropped off Chris on the side of a road. Every night, I’d go online and see pictures and articles, tweets, and status updates.
After a few days, I knew that the odds were that if Chris were found, he wouldn’t be alive. We weren’t looking for Chris; we were looking for his body.
That semester, I was taking Intro to Black and White Photography. Each week, we had to take two to three rolls of photographs. While Chris was missing, I couldn’t do most of my work because that required sitting still. So I’d grab my camera and go on walks. One evening at the beginning of October, almost two weeks since I’d seen the first Facebook post, I headed toward East Rock and walked among the Victorian homes just beyond the School of Management.
I took photographs of trash cans lining the sidewalk. The sharp shadows of buildings at sunset. I kicked up piles of fallen leaves and took shot after shot — kicking — shooting — kicking — trying to demolish the pile, to see what was below. I was trying to find him.
Three weeks after Chris went missing, his body was found in a wooden area 60 miles south of his University of Florida dorm. That high school classmate and close friend, the one who’d said he’d fought with Chris, had murdered him after he learned that Chris was dating his ex-girlfriend. They were both 18 years old.
My first month at Yale started out as it does for many freshmen: walking around campus in temporary cliques, figuring out where to go by following other people who didn’t know where to go. Friday nights in dirty frat houses I never revisited, trying to find at least one person that I knew — the girl I spoke to after the class I shopped on the first Wednesday or the guy who sat across from me in that seminar.
The beginning was auditioning for performance groups and developing crushes on boys with long-distance girlfriends and North Face backpacks. I got tapped for WORD, my spoken word group, and gained the audacity to call myself a poet.
In that first glorious month, my neck was always tilted up to admire the gothic architecture and the magic of it all. I wanted to be a beat reporter for the Yale Daily News and write plays and act and design sets for the Dramat and be an art major and participate in environmental activism and move off-campus junior year and become a vegan.
I knew that I wouldn’t do all of those things, but I was so eager to find my place.
At the end of September, I saw an article that said that our close friend had been charged with first-degree murder after they found Christian’s backpack inside of a suitcase in the back of that friend’s bedroom closet. After I read this, I threw on a sweater, walked in circles around Cross Campus, and then had a panic attack on the floor of a bathroom stall in the Berkeley South Court basement.
I don’t remember much about the days following the murder charge. I remember the New Haven rain. The trees were green. I remember crossing Elm Street without realizing that cars were coming, and that I had to run to the sidewalk before I got hit, and I thought about how close I was to such a messy thing, how I kept myself alive and here.
I was at Yale, but I was also calling my friends from home, where everyone had begun driving up to Gainesville on weekends. Nobody knew what to do, but they were there. I told my dean, my FroCo, my spoken word group, and my therapist at Yale Health. I found comfort from some friends and endless support from professors, but I didn’t know how to be present at dinner. I didn’t know how to spend more than an hour working on anything.
I just knew that I needed to write. Even now, I don’t know what else to do with this but write about it. Looking back on my journal entries from the days following the murder charge, I see an entire page that reads “How could he kill? How could he die?”.
When I write for myself, I don’t try to come up with some sense of finality because there is no closure from a thing like this. All I can do is keep trying.
Sometimes I imagine my sister life: what Yale would’ve been like if this hadn’t happened. Would I be more involved with theater? Would I be a beat reporter? A vegan activist? Who would I love? What would define me?
I’ve since set these questions aside. To deal with trauma, you learn to manage, to get by. For me, that meant taking photographs of Christian’s room and our high school when I went home over Thanksgiving break. It meant spending time doing whatever made me happy. Distraction can be useful, and Yale is full of them: plays, improv shows, coffee-shops, funny people, attractive people, kind hearts.
Still, nobody knows what to say when I tell them about this, and I don’t blame them. When I went home for the funeral, I realized that I wouldn’t have known, either. Someone we loved had been mercilessly killed, and killed by someone we all knew. What can you say?
At the church service before the burial, I went up to hug Christian’s parents. “I can’t believe you came!” his mother said.
Christian had his mother’s eyebrows: beautiful and pointed. The way they frame the face made both their faces look perpetually worried. I remember seeing those sad eyebrows of hers and saying, “I’m sorry. I am so, so, so sorry.”
We talk about violence all the time at Yale, and, if Chris hadn’t been murdered one month into my time here, I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought.
One day in my section of Major English Poets, we were discussing Wordsworth. Our professor had initiated a discussion of the unexplainable, sudden death of one of Wordsworth’s elementary school teachers. I couldn’t feel my hands. I put them in my lap and started clicking my pen so furiously that the boy to my right kept looking at me, but I didn’t care.
How does the sense of unfathomable loss contribute to the text?
Everyone else was taking notes, trying to find the lines, thinking about a response. I was remembering the rain and crossing Elm Street and those sad eyebrows.
“How does Wordsworth allow his proximity to violence illuminate his life and experiences?” my professor posed.
Someone in the class chimed in about trauma. He said that, from his understanding, it was possible that someone who came from an inner-city background and was exposed to a great deal of violence could, perhaps, become desensitized to it.
I thought about the town where my family lives and its golf courses. Doral, Fla., is beautiful with palm trees and backyard pools and country clubs. Chris is buried there. When was the last time I asked mom to stop by and leave him sunflowers? I was covering my face with my hand. I stopped clicking the pen.
I remember getting angry. I didn’t raise my hand. I just started talking. I remember trying to keep my voice level and saying something about how this loss was real, and it was haunting, and Wordsworth was probably trying to make sense of this loss in any way that he could. I kept saying that this stuff happened to real people from all sorts of places and Wordsworth was probably trying to make meaning because what kind of meaning can you make from things like this? The room was quiet for a moment before my professor said, “Adri, you make a good point…”
After they lowered the casket, people began to throw things onto it: flowers and cards and even whole notebooks. Before leaving the house that morning, I, on an impulse I didn’t understand, grabbed a few sheets of paper. Standing in the cemetery, I took out the paper and gave sheets to two other close friends so we could write something. Our chance to say one last thing.
All I could think to write was, “I love you. I promise I’ll write for you.”
I never figured out how to tell people about how Chris died. I still don’t know why I even try when it’s impossible to convey everything that happened. I can’t explain our suffering and loss in a poem or a photograph or an essay. When I try to tell people about this — even my family — many of them try their best to make it go away. They remind me that Chris would have wanted me to be happy. They remind me that at least we found him, or at least it’s over, or that I can’t let this ruin my life. Time heals all wounds.
I know I will get better at handling this trauma, but time doesn’t feel linear to me anymore. It’s been two years, but my friend is still dead, and my other friend is now in prison after ruining his life and altering so many others. I don’t know what meaning to make from this, or how to talk about this, or how to get better. I only know that it is hard to talk about this, and I can’t pretend that it’s easy. I only ask for patience. I can only promise that I’ll try.