I’ve tried to tell the story of Kristin a thousand times. She’s been a dream, she’s been a poem, she’s been a sigh after a long breakdown of tears, she’s been a smile after a brief moment of joy, she’s been a rumor to others before I met her, she’s a legend to those who I’ve met after. “She’s been a leather jacket on the back of a motorcycle,” my husband once said. “You are mistaking her with someone else.” And yet now she’s that too.
Here’s attempt 10001 –
November 1999. I’m home from college for the weekend. We are driving to the home of our friend’s new girlfriend. “We” as in me and the three white boys I had been rolling with for the past few months – my friend Steve, my boyfriend Steve and Travis, the one with the new girlfriend. I had known these boys since grade school but we weren’t really close until this past summer. That’s when we became good friends, the type that wear each other’s t-shirts and know the smells of each other’s homes.
We had been spending so much time together since the summer that Travis pulled me aside one day.
“Listen Nina, we have to talk.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“This is getting too hard, we have to give the Steves different names.”
“You’re right,” I said.
And with that, it was decided. My friend Steve, Steve Levitt, became Leviticus and my boyfriend, Steve Kitt, would become Stevonnegut. Travis and I decided to keep our names with neither Leviticus or Stevonnegut protesting. Travis’ girlfriend had a name too, Kristin, but for a while, we simply called her the Older Woman.
“Did you hear that Travis is dating an older woman? Have you met the Older Woman?”
Everyone had been talking about her – the Older Woman, older as in we were 19 or 20 and she was 26.
I sat passenger side as my guy, Stevonnegut, steered my Jeep Cherokee – the car that my parents had bought for me and that was at the epicenter of so many of our adventures. We were traveling from my suburb, Edison, to Kristin’s Scotch Plains. Our final destination was Northern Jersey, Continental Airlines Arena, to see Phil and Friends, Phil being Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia died four years ago. Phil shows were Dead shows when you couldn’t see the Dead.
As we made our way to Kristin’s house, the suburban homes grew closer, more compact. “It’s this one,” Travis said and he jumped out. The Jeep idled in front of a narrow 2-story home with beige aluminum siding, identical to house next to it save for a bright yellow VW bus parked out front. Grateful Dead stickers were plastered all over it. A large banner sprawled across the windshield, the band name emblazoned in giant all-caps gothic font. A rose nested in the middle of “Grateful” and “Dead.”
The Jeep was dark and all I remember was a rumble from the backseat, this woman placing stickers on our winter hats, each stick accompanied by a high-pitched squeal of glee. She’s the Older Woman? I remember thinking with every squeal. Now I wasn’t the only woman. Now the group was changing. She was a white woman, an older white woman of 26. I was a brown girl, a somewhat younger brown girl of almost-20, my birthday was coming up in a few weeks.
“How many Dead shows have you been to?” Travis asked her as she settled in. “She’s been to over 90,” he said before she could speak.
And even after this introduction, I didn’t really hear many complete sentences from her, just more squeals – squeals of excitement about the music to come and wishes for the set list: “I am hoping for a killer Magnolia!” and squeals about her dogs, Winter and Sativa, two majestic rescues now at home with her mother’s nervous lapdog, Murphy: “Smurfeeee!”
In the face of all that excitement, I felt old. I couldn’t match that enthusiasm if I ever tried.
I remember the show being long. Dead Shows are so long and so white, I’d think but never say. I just focused on the long part. “Bathroom,” I said to Stevonnegut. And as I stepped out, I felt a wave of secret relief to be momentarily away from the wilds of “Space” into “Dark Star” and in the stark neon of the halls. I must have gotten a look at Kristin sometime during that interminable evening but I don’t remember exactly when. She’s forever a blur.
Long black hair done up in white-girl dreadlocks, bouncing with her quick step. Their heft was a counterforce on a petite body, a narrow face with sharp features and wide eyes. And then there were the dogs, not there at the show that night but with her all the days after, jumping up and down and all over her. She was always dressed as if she was ready to walk them. A hoodie, jeans, a couple leashes off the belt loop, a joint or blown-glass bowl buttoned up in some stealth pocket, tinkling as she walked. I remember her always in motion. But I can’t tell you when I first really saw her – not the night of the show, not any other.
Maybe I never wanted to look at her, to look getting older in the face.
I was a 19-year-old brown girl doing her best impersonation of a white hippie. I don’t know if I thought past 20. I could only barely look at this older woman of 26. I could barely look at myself. And I saw any age except ours, mine and the boys’, and anything we were doing beyond what we were doing, tooling around in the Jeep Cherokee, attending Dead Shows and going to college in between, as extremely terrifying. I was a shy girl and found what felt like unlikely community in these friends and then found a greater community in Deadhead culture, people like Kristin, whose ultimate joy was to come together, be kind and generous and love this band.
Dropping Kristin and Travis back to her house after the concert, I felt a difference in the Jeep, a different kind of quiet than when it was just me and the boys, a restless quiet maybe. I was supposed to love that there was another woman now. Now I could be with someone more like me, someone who would make me feel less alone with these dudes, someone who would get me in the way they didn’t. But hearing this girl, the Older Woman, express so much squealing glee, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I was bothered that if she could be that enthusiastic, what did that mean for me? I didn’t want to be that enthusiastic.
Do people like that exist? I wondered. People who seem to delight in cacophonous squeals of joy? Is this a way to grow old? I laughed too, with the boys and with my college friends, but Kristin’s laughs felt different. Happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care, an insistence on joy for joy’s sake. Our laughs, mine and the boys’, were a shared snicker, from years together, years we went to the same private school and hated it and lived in the same town and hated it and loved and hated the same bands, movies, you name it. Her laughter was from a life beyond all that, a life we didn’t know, a life I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
I just wanted her gone. I didn’t feel alone. I felt the only.
“I only knew her for a year,” I say now if Kristin ever comes up in conversation.
I always put this at the end of a sentence, at the end of a list of three:
“I have a friend who was murdered.”
“A random act by a serial killer.”
“I only knew her for a year.”
I want to call this the story’s button, a last line that buttons-up the whole thing: “I only knew her for a year.”
Kristen was dead at 27. In November, 20 years after we first met, I’ll be 40.
On Writing Touch of Grey:
In September 2019 I had begun teaching at my alma mater, Barnard College, and I couldn’t get there fast enough on my first day. Jennifer Finney Boylan had generously lent out her office while she was on sabbatical. I was proud to share space with this iconic writer and activist. Settling in, I was surprised to find atop a teeming bookshelf, a large Grateful Dead dancing bear sign. I found myself looking at it every time I entered. I began to wonder, if Boylan wears Deadhead-ness proudly, why couldn’t I? I texted Travis and Leviticus a picture of the bear sign. “Weir everywhere,” Leviticus texted back.
And then, just as I turned in my office key in December, something terrible happened. First-year Tessa Majors was murdered at a park nearby school. I received email after email regarding the wellbeing of our currently grieving students and how our students will continue to grieve and how we can help them with their grief. I was ashamed that I did not want to read a single one of these emails. For me though, Tessa’s death harkened back to something more personal, something I didn’t want to think about, something I wished I could delete or archive away.
Twenty years earlier, I had met Kristin. Like my students, I was a college first-year. I was not yet at Barnard, not yet so many things. Kristin was 7 years older than me – a stretch of time I found unfathomable. The gap between 19 and 26 felt like a century. What grief taught me is that time, our linear interpretation of it, is a construct. As life takes up space, be it moments of grief, joy, rage, sorrow, so does our relationship with time change, the fabric of space-time bends. This might not be what Einstein meant. Maybe the lyrics from “Touch of Grey” are more fitting: “it must be getting early, clocks are running late.”
I don’t remember much from the night I found out she was murdered. I remember picking up the phone and hearing Travis’ voice on the other end. But after that, much is a blank. I had, only weeks ago, just come out of a psychiatric ward, my first of four stays.
Looking at those emails about our students grieving Tessa’s death, I was bothered that I so didn’t want to deal. I so didn’t want to believe in their grief. Whose grief, I wondered, did I not believe in? Theirs or my own? I realized then, I never really dealt with my feelings about Kristin’s murder. I put all those feelings, along with my entire Deadheadness, far deep down inside of me.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
NINA SHARMA is a writer and performer from Edison, New Jersey. Her work has been featured in journals such as the New Yorker, Flexx Mag, Electric Literature, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Longreads, The Margins, and The Asian American Literary Review. Her most recent essay, “Shithole Country Clubs,” has been named an Editors’ Pick at Longreads. Nina is a proud recipient of the Diversity Scholarship at the Magnet Improvisation Theater. For more on the ties between her comedy and essay writing, check out “Getting in Touch with the Absurdity of Our Lives,” her Kenyon Review interview with Rosebud Ben-Oni. Nina is formerly the Programs Director at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and with Quincy Scott Jones she co-created Blackshop, a column that thinks about allyship between BIPOC people, featured on Anomaly. She has an MFA from Columbia University and currently teaches at Barnard College.