It was my birthday, but I didn’t feel like celebrating. A year after nine parishioners were gunned down during Bible study in Charleston, forty-nine were dead in Orlando, victims of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. All pundits cared about were semantics, whether to call the tragedy a hate crime or terrorist attack.
To cheer up, I went through birthday wishes posted on my Facebook page. The flood of kindness touched me—particularly from people I hadn’t spoken to in decades. One by one, I acknowledged every birthday wish then procrastinated the day away, perusing old friends’ pages to see what they’d been up to.
The people Facebook suggested I might know brought back memories; curious who else was out there, I looked for Melanie, an old girlfriend. We didn’t last a month—I was 14 and she was 12, total scandal—but we remained friends and loved running into each other the older we got. Which was why I couldn’t believe we hadn’t reconnected.
Melanie reminded me of an offbeat version of Martika in the Toy Soldier video. Her style was thrift store chic. She had an infectious laugh that was all teeth and snorts and shook her entire body. Through a friend, she told me she liked me and we started “going together” over the phone. She was the first girl I made a mixed tape for. As an adult, I imagined her married, a parent to grade-schoolers, bored at a day job, and a lover of what-happens-there-stays-there package vacations with girlfriends.
Surprisingly, but also not so surprisingly, Melanie didn’t have a Facebook page. In fact, she didn’t have a social media trace whatsoever. I admired her for continuing not to play along and broadened my search.
The results that resembled her most across the entire Internet was an obituary dating back to 2002, before social media. The obituary was short and vague, as if written for no one special: age, date of death, time and location of the funeral. I recognized Melanie’s brother as a survivor and knew.
Just as every birthday wish posted to my Facebook page had lifted my spirits, every condolence and shared memory left on Melanie’s obituary page sank them. At the time, her murder had only made the local paper’s daily brief section where it simply relayed the facts: Man charged in fatal stabbing of girlfriend. According to the transcript from the boyfriend’s appellate court hearing, they had only been together two months when he got jealous, grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed her eleven times. The final blow through her heart, he testified, was to “put her out of her misery.” He got sixty years.
Coincidentally, the apartment she was murdered in was across the street from my family’s church, where my daughter would be baptized years later. Church was in service hours before she died and my mother and sister had most likely attended. As if I could’ve made a difference, I struggled to remember what I was doing that day.
I agonized over what to do with the information of her death. I had to meet my wife and worried she’d read the distress on my face and ask questions I didn’t know how to answer. As a parent, I thought about Melanie’s parents, wondered how they survived—I knew I couldn’t. I wished I’d known them better so I could say something. What, I didn’t know.
Melanie’s small digital trail led me to disturbing statistics. The year she died, she was one of a 109 “Texas Women Killed by Their Intimate Partner,” and one of 3,316 killed in the U.S. Nearly a million women were victims of rape and abuse from 2001 – 2009, and violence currently victimizes one in three women around the world.
The numbers angered me. The fact people weren’t hysterical in the streets was disheartening. Such indifference, I blamed, made rape culture debatable, despite victims numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and set the system up for a privileged sexual predator to shirk jail time for the White House.
Forced to question my own relationship with women, I asked myself what I could do differently, how I could take action. Then, as Matt Damon aimed to shoot me on the subway platform from his Jason Bourne movie poster, the reality of what I was up against set in. I felt like a fraud for caring so much and retreated inward, like I tended to do, suppressing the news of Melanie’s death until it was distant, abstract to me.
I didn’t want to accept that Melanie wasn’t around. Middle-aged, Facebook would have been the ideal place to reconnect with her. We’d have liked each other’s pictures, gotten one another’s wicked sense of humor, appreciated where we hadn’t changed.
We would’ve posted birthday wishes to the other’s page, and every now and then marveled at how old we’d gotten.
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