She Was an American Girl: Notes Towards an Elegy for a Murdered Friend
I’ve just come in from my evening walk with my twelve-year old Labrador, who loves winter more than any other season.
The snow is everywhere tonight: soft, heavy flakes, the kind that stay on the ground for at least a few days. Drifting, it shimmers like a necklace of luminous cultured pearls around the brilliant jewel-toned holiday lights, frosting the silent streets of the neighbourhood with a caul of pure white.
It’s still falling outside the windows of my study as I write this. The room is dark except for the flickering blue firelight of my laptop—an oblique invitation to any ghost that might choose to visit me as I type.
Especially her ghost. Especially hers.
It’s five days before Christmas, and I miss her with a sharpness I haven’t felt since the night in January when a friend called to tell me that she was gone.
One of the functions of almost two years of COVID has been the compression and distortion of time itself. Events that feel like they happened yesterday actually happened a year ago. Memories that seem years old are in fact from this past previous spring or summer.
There’s an anesthetic quality to that warping of the continuum, but it also lays traps for the heart and mind. Thankfully then, we have newspapers to help us keep track. They preserve timelines unsentimentally, unsparingly.
For instance: this headline in the Desert Sun newspaper on February 9th, 2021, reads: “Palm Springs woman’s death in January ruled a homicide.”
It’s the sort of headline most of us, me included, have seen a thousand times over our lives. We usually scroll past them with barely a thought other than the occasional how sad for her family and friends.
The article itself contains standard observations about the body being found in the woman’s home, how it was initially “considered suspicious” before “further investigation determined it was the result of a homicide.”
Further along, the article details how loved she was by her friends and how generous a contributor to her community she was. Even her name, “Jennifer Dillon,” was unremarkable in its all-American spareness.
Still, I can’t imagine any stranger reading it failing to be struck by the accompanying photograph—a snapshot of a woman of fifty-nine with soft, short hair touched with silver, and a kind, joyful smile that explodes from the frame like sunlight after a rainstorm.
I met Jenny in Palm Springs, on Christmas night, 2010, at a dinner party at the home of my best friend, film director Ron Oliver and his then-partner (now husband) Eric Bowes, whose close friend she was.
Ron and I have been friends since 1987, when a well-meaning friend thought I should meet a screenwriter acquaintance of his whose film Prom Night 2: Hello Mary Lou had just been released.
As it happened, Ron and I hated each other on sight, for reasons we rarely divulge outside our circle of friends. We gritted our teeth through the dinner, and only just before dessert was offered did we start talking about our high school years. Both of us had disliked those years intensely, and we suddenly had something in common. We spent three more hours talking and left the restaurant that night with the seeds of a solid friendship planted.
Writing in Logical Family: A Memoir, the novelist Armistead Maupin addressed the time-honoured tradition of LGBTQ+ folks leaving the occasionally oppressive circle of their origins and making chosen families of their own. “Sooner or later,” Maupin writes, “though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.”
Over the past thirty-odd Christmases together, Ron and I have put together a family. It’s a small circle that has included our respective spouses, Ron’s mother and sisters, and a small handful of loved ones who’ve likewise gathered in California with us at Christmas in a decades-long cycle of familiarity and ritual repetition. The word “friends” simply doesn’t do it justice; words matter, and “family” is truly the only word.
And into my corner of that world of our chosen family that night came Jenny.
As clichéd as it sounds, our eyes did meet across Ron’s crowded living room. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was mutual fascination at first sight. I don’t even remember who introduced us, only that we were laughing within minutes, and after an hour we felt as though we’d known each other for years.
At some point we reached out and touched each other’s hands. I don’t remember what we were discussing, but I remember perfectly the instinctive click of perfect mutual comprehension and connection that led to it.
Gins and tonic make me loquacious, and I must have forgotten her name. When it came to say goodbye at the end of the night, I gushed “Dear, dear Karen. How wonderful to have met you tonight. I so enjoyed our talk. I hope we see each other again soon.”
There was an epic moment of silence, then she deadpanned, “My name is Jenny.”
Everyone burst out laughing, including she and I. She acquired a new nickname: Dear, Dear Karen, abbreviated over time to DDK, and both nicknames, and their origins, became part of our Christmas family lore.
From the first, DDK fascinated me. I adored her. She reminded me of something that felt very much like home.
Our Palm Springs “set” is heavy on creative folks—writers, actors, film directors, musicians. Jenny and I both have activist histories—hers in community organization, mine in journalism, which established a welcome commonality of language between us.
Jenny was a fourth generation San Franciscan, who had marched for gay rights when it mattered most. By the time I met her, she couldn’t have been more of a part of her Palm Springs community, but I loved that ever-so-slight Northern California edge and directness that occasionally made me think about transplanted east coasters.
At some point every Christmas, Jenny and I would move off to one side of Ron’s patio and engage in an intense political discussion. Since we were generally of one mind, the discussions were always enriching, never combative. Jenny had an astute, incisive political mind, and she was nobody’s parrot, but we were so perfectly politically aligned that it often seemed as though we could sort out America’s problems in an afternoon.
The rituals of the holiday were a sort of ballast, including those that were hers and mine alone. She had a full life of her own, and was beloved by many other friends, all of whom have their own stories of her, but some routines were inviolate.
Jenny would stop by the house with her dogs on the first morning after we arrived. Ron and Eric would be at the gym, and my husband Brian would be out exploring Palm Springs. I love those silent desert winter mornings on the patio, with mountains in the distance. Jenny and I would drink our coffee and have lovely long conversations that were often remarkably deep considering the compression of time.
She cooked and baked like a professional, and I always budgeted a minimum five-pound weight gain from a combination of her homemade treats and those of Ron’s sister, Jane. There was a lovely delicacy about her cooking that somehow perfectly complemented her otherwise outdoorsy, practical mien.
Jenny was passionately committed to animal welfare, particularly dogs. She had a Dr. Doolittle touch with them that almost miraculous to witness: an open-hearted kindness and stillness of presence to which they responded in kind.
One year, a last-minute dog adoption was arranged by a mutual friend. The evening I went in to meet the new addition, Jenny was protectively positioned over the puppy’s bed, hovering like a godmother, while the puppy closed his eyes in rapture under her soft touch.
For several years, as a group, we’d drive into L.A. on the 23rd of December to do some Christmas shopping, all of us wedged into a rented SVU of one sort or another. I loved sitting near her, or next to her on those trips.
We had by then developed an entire wardrobe of facial expression that could launch a conversation between us without either of us ever saying a word. Whether it was the gaucherie of a visiting guest, or a family member repeating a story he’d told many times over the years, or something that moved us, or something that made us laugh, we got it.
Christmas Eve was spent at the home of a legendary film star who is loving to, and beloved by, his friends, and generous to newcomers. We spent Christmas morning opening gifts on Ron’s patio. Jenny’s wife, Athena, would join us later in the afternoon, and everyone was gone by 3:00 p.m.
On Christmas night, we all dressed to the nines—Jenny, always smart and vaguely handsome in velvet smoking jacket and tuxedo trousers, with a natty bow tie—and trooped off to dinner at a historic Palm Springs restaurant.
The year my widowed father came to Palm Springs to spend Christmas with us—the one where he and I managed to say the wrong things to each other with a deftness that shocked and horrified me—she commiserated with me after he’d left.
“He means well,” she said. “I can tell. He’s proud of you, but he doesn’t know how to talk to you about it. It’s hard but try to be patient. He loves you.” When I told her I doubted it, she patted my hand and said, “Trust me.”
The Christmas after he died, Jenny held my hands in hers. She understood the complexity of love and loss, and the variegated shades of mourning, better than most. She gave me a bracelet that year: a circle of miniature baubles in the bright metallic shades of our mutual, halcyon suburban 70s childhood Christmases.
For a decade, friends, new and old, came to Palm Springs and shared in our holiday. Some came back, others disappeared into the vortex of years. They circled around our unchanging core chosen family like planets. They left, but we remained. We, all of us, lived an entire year’s worth of memories during that week.
On the last morning, she always stopped by Ron’s house to say goodbye to us before we left for the airport. Mixed in with the exhaustion of a 25 hour a day week and our eagerness to get home, there was always the sureness of it all happening again after another full year of life.
Our last Christmas together, 2019, was no different. Kiss, hug, Travel safe, see you next year! And, from me, I love you, DDK. Be well.
The police arrested a man on August 25th of this year. They charged him with Jenny’s murder, and with second one. The police believe that the murders occurred during foiled robbery attempts.
As ghastly as that would be in its cruel, criminal banality, I hope it was that random.
Selfishly, I can’t bear the thought of any hate, or rage, or malevolence being directed at her in her final moments. Since I first heard, I’ve been haunted by a nightmare loop of repeating mental images: Jenny trying to summon the gentleness and kindness that was her baseline, despite her terror. Jenny trying to calm the monster in her house, trying to reason with him. Jenny’s last thoughts being about who would look after her dogs.
I know nothing of what happened except what I’ve been told; but, like everyone who loved her I feel, endlessly.
One of the greater brutalities of COVID-19 is that it’s even rendered grieving virtual. Three of my dearest friends lost their fathers in the first six months of the lockdowns. In one of those cases, the loss was devastating enough, and personal enough, to normally have warranted getting on a plane and offering love and comfort in person.
Collective grief is most naturally expressed—and expiated—by gathering to mourn the loss together. It’s a ritual as old as human history. It’s how it’s meant to be. Cruelly, the circumstances concomitant to COVID-19 have made it impossible for us to gather properly for Jenny.
Tonight, as the snow falls outside, I need to hear her name spoken aloud in the darkness of this room, even if I must speak it myself. I’m desperate to read her name on paper, even if I must type it out myself: Jenny.
An elegy is like writing a loved one’s name in sand, on the waves; but it’s no less important for its impermanence. We write so there’s a record, so people know our loved one was here. In time, the pain of loss recedes, but we have their names, their faces, and the memories.
Decades after my own eventual death, someone might find a photograph of Jenny in Palm Springs in December among my papers.
They’d see a see a tanned, soft-butch California girl with a radiant smile and eyes the rich, warm hue of the best Quinta de Ventozelo port. She might possibly be wearing a hat. There would likely be an adoring, adorable, awkward-looking yellow dog or two hovering nearby.
They might even find DDK scrawled on the back, with the date, and briefly wonder what the initials stood for. I’m confident they’d never guess.
What they won’t know is this: they’ll never know how I came to measure the years by the incremental advance of the silver in her thick hair on those “first mornings” of years of Christmases, when she dropped by the house for coffee with me, or the way the morning sun glanced off the surface of Ron’s pool on those mornings and lit her like a black and white Herb Ritts portrait.
They won’t know that in the early years of our friendship, even in private, our greetings were boisterous; in later years, they were softer and more tender because we knew those mornings were inevitable, and we just melted into each other’s presence as though the previous Christmas was yesterday and not twelve months in the past.
They won’t know that by the time she was murdered, she had become such a part of my world—especially my Christmas world—that the thought of it not including her had literally never occurred to me.
Jenny’s last Facebook DM to me was on the evening of January 10th, 2020.
We’d been discussing Christmas 2021, our first lockdown Christmas, and how much we missed each other, and what a disruption in the natural flow it had been. We were still feeling the sting of each other’s absence that night almost two weeks after Christmas.
Yes, lots of sadness this year! she typed. We will gather again. It’s just hard not knowing when? She added a “crying” emoji, and a heart.
I replied with a heart, because we both knew what we were saying, and even those silly generic symbols were weighted with the ballast of our conjoined history in that moment.
A few weeks later DDK was gone, ripped away from us by someone monstrous, someone cowardly, someone terrible; someone who punched a hole into our lives and left the light to bleed out on the floor.
Jenny was right, though—it was very, very hard not knowing when we’d gather again. The only mercy is that neither of us knew the answer to her question on that snowy night in January when reunions still seemed to be an endlessly renewable resource and growing old together as chosen family was the only plan we had.
Photo credits: From the collection of Michael Rowe
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