MY FRIEND JENNIFER
When I got the news that my friend Jennifer was dying of cancer, I was pissed. Not pissed that life had dealt her this hand, but pissed that she hadn’t told me. Like any good recovered drunk/ artist/Los Angeles resident and all the self-centeredness that entails, I made it all about me.
Jennifer, senior year, 1992
Jennifer had chosen to post about her diagnosis on Facebook in late January, and by the time I found out about it – from a mutual high school friend – she was already in hospice, and already beyond physical consciousness. I texted her immediately, pretty much knowing that she would never read my words, but holding out hope, like one does when faced with irreversible, unexpected shit like this. Why hadn’t she told me? This is a joke, right? I just talked to her in December! She knows I never read Facebook anymore. What the actual FUCK?
I prayed about it, I meditated about it, and the message came through loud and clear: Hey, asshole, since you’re apparently in the cheap seats, I’ll tell you one more time: THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU. And then I started to laugh at myself. I laughed because 1) I probably would have done the same thing in Jennifer’s situation, and 2) this was demonstrative of exactly how Jennifer lived her life. I read her Facebook post – after avoiding it with a huge helping of denial for 24 hours – and when I did so, I totally understood. Her voice, her humor, her honesty, and above all, her acceptance came through loud and clear. The last thing Jen needed was to contact every damn person in her orbit individually and deal with our sadness, shock or words of encouragement/regret/loss/advice or whatever. She had shit to do. The rest of the world could deal with it on their own time. (As we say in recovery, “Call your sponsor,” which doubles as a spin of the ol’ Texas “Bless your heart.”)
On Friday afternoon, less than 48 hours after I learned Jennifer was dying, she passed. Just like that, she was on to the next adventure. For the last several days, I’ve been cataloging my 36-year friendship with Jennifer Marie Garrett, going from laughing hysterically to crying to cringing to finally grasping just how much she impacted the directions in which my life headed. Jennifer was the only person from my high school class that I stayed in touch with consistently over the ensuing decades, catching up or checking in at least twice a year. When I reached out to her on her birthday in December, she was in Tokyo with her daughter, Kaitie, and she sounded like she was having a blast, completely unknowing of the hard left turn her life was about to take. Jennifer was hardly a saint; she was very much a human being, which was what drew me to her in the first place, because I had no clue how to be a human being. She drove me bananas as much as she inspired me. She was curious. She was opinionated. She was so damn smart. She was funny. She was fearless. And she was fucking fun.
* * * *
Jennifer was the reason I joined the Pflugerville High School speech & debate team our junior year, which led to my following the same path at UT Austin. (The cult-like experience I encountered there dwarfed anything found on our team at PHS.) She excelled at debate – as with everything else in our academic world – but wanted to try dramatic events, since Jennifer was, like me, a theater kid at heart. We started with a literal bang: the first event in which I ever competed was Duet Acting, with Jennifer as my partner, in which I played a social worker (!) trying to rescue a foster child from his abusive, white-trash birth mother, played by Jennifer (!!). Our ridiculously over-the-top scene climaxed with enraged mama Jennifer slinging a chair across the room while snarling “AND I AIN’T KIDDIN’, EITHER!”, a line we continued to use for the rest of her life to take the piss out of whatever current personal melodrama we were experiencing. My lone piece of direction was to chastise Jennifer for pronouncing the word as “eye-ther,” which, to me, sounded way too high-falutin’ for a trailer park resident charged with holding her kid’s hands to a stove. (Shockingly, there were no trophies bestowed upon this legendary performance in competition. Hey, everyone starts somewhere.)
The Four Musketeers: Jen, Me, Bryan, Christine
By the time we were seniors, Jennifer, our friends Bryan and Christine, and I formed a sort of Four Musketeers on the speech team, culminating in what was one of the most formative nights of my life, as well as Jennifer’s (she even wrote a poem about it). Away for an overnight tournament, the four of us met up in Christine and Jennifer’s hotel room – along with a contraband bottle of someone’s parents’ alcohol – for an all-night session of Truth or Dare. Unlike most teenage ToD games, the dares were the least interesting part. What I remember most from that night is that it was the first time I ever got real with people my age; up to then, everything was a performance of me trying to figure out what my classmates wanted, and then acting in kind. The four of us already knew each other way too well – Jennifer’s response to my coming out that year was “Duh. Shocker. And?” – so the only place to go was deeper. Which we did. We asked each other intensely personal questions that no one had ever asked us before, about sex, about family, about our other friends, our desires, our fears, about how people saw us, and how we saw ourselves. As Bryan and I dragged ourselves back to our room around, like, 3 in the morning, I knew nothing would ever be the same. And it wasn’t.
The four of us got even closer, and I knew I couldn’t pretend about anything anymore. I couldn’t pretend, even though I was out and proud, that getting bullied for being a faggot didn’t hurt; Jennifer couldn’t pretend, even with all her achievements, that she didn’t wish she knew what it was like to be one of the cheerleaders. We both disdained and envied the exact same people. We felt morally superior and full of shit at the same time, bristling against the reductive labels all around us and hating the social dynamics in which we felt constrained. We wondered if maybe the football players and homecoming court hated them, too.
This newfound honesty was intoxicating. I found myself pushing boundaries with everyone in my life after that, just to see how far I could go. In fact, gossip about one of our subsequent ToD games with the speech team as a whole got the Four Musketeers called on the carpet by none other than our favorite Honors English teacher, who let us know in no uncertain terms that just because the four of us were ready to act like adults didn’t mean our peers were. She was right, but I also recall more than a few encounters with ostensibly “straight” guys at school who pushed a level of behavior, conversation and innuendo with me as far as they could go without actually copping to any gay-adjacent inclinations that a Varsity basketball player – and there were a few of them – from small-town Central Texas in the early 90’s shouldn’t feel. When one of them rubbed me up and down on my leg in the middle of class under a desk, and I gave him a “What the hell are you doing?” look, he returned a shit-eating grin I will remember for the rest of my life. He’s married to a woman now, but at the time, Jennifer was like, “Why don’t you ask him if he’s serious?” just to stir the pot, and she kept stirring it at subsequent reunions. I have kicked myself since graduation that I never did. Like I said, the lady was fearless.
* * * *
Jennifer and I, at least in school, had a stormy friendship. As much as I loved her, we could fight like blazes, and this was pretty much the case from the second she joined the Gifted & Talented program in eighth grade. I’d already spent a year there, and after some “we’re way too cool for this” students dropped out, Jennifer was selected to join. (She shoulda been there before me.) Jennifer brought me out of my shell; before I met Jen, I was very much the quiet kid who got good grades and sat in the back of the room, never raising my hand lest someone actually notice me. Jennifer steamrolled in like Tracy Flick holding a deed to the place, and I was flabbergasted by her presence. Jennifer was – in the eyes of our classmates, at least – a geek like me, but she was no Back-Row Joe. She was loud, obnoxious, and totally unflappable. She was bossy, she was brazen, and she was never one to stand in line. I loved and hated all this about her in equal measure, which said more about my own shortcomings than hers.
I remember our senior year, while hosting a speech tournament, Jennifer and I got in such a knock-down-drag-out fight, members of our team were genuinely concerned for our mental health. I don’t recall the actual substance of this fight, but I’ve no doubt it was over some combination of her accusing me of being a spineless wimp, and me accusing her of being a controlling shrew (both right on the money). Other controversies included such highly consequential issues as the relative merits of Disney princesses (she was staunchly Team Belle; I was Team Ariel) and our unrequited romantic obsessions (she never understood why I was so hung up on our school’s lone male cheerleader, while I never got her attraction to a – yes – basketball player with, from my perspective, the personality of a two-by-four). Through it all, the trait of Jennifer’s to shine through most vividly – and the one I adopted more and more as I grew into adulthood – was an impatience with any sort of pretense. Jennifer rolled her eyes or offered a snarky assessment of any person or institution she felt was just a little too full of their own manufactured image. Later in life, we debated politicians and public policy like I never did with anyone else. We respected each other’s opinions even as we disagreed, and this was never something we needed to say out loud; it was simply understood. (Sometimes we liked or disliked the same public figures for completely different reasons.)
This was most readily demonstrated when, back during the Obama administration, Jennifer called me up with an idea for a television series that focused squarely on immigration and where America might be headed with regards to this divisive issue and many others. The idea intrigued me, so we hammered out the story, and I wrote the script. This was the first television pilot I’d ever written, and brainstorming with Jennifer taught me how to craft a show bible and map out a series for multiple seasons. Even though it never got produced, I’m still insanely proud of this script, and Jennifer has always carried a “Story By” credit on the title page. (The lead female character was even named after Kaitie.) Jennifer stuck with her Theatre major years longer than I did (before switching to Business), and I wonder where her career would have gone had she more fully pursued the creative arts. She was forward-thinking and concerned with big ideas, an approach I’ve brought to my other scripts. I confronted the truth that no one is the villain of their own story, and I became a more thoughtful, disciplined writer – not to mention human being – under her influence.
* * * *
Many of my memories of Jennifer are triggered by music. Thinking of her these past few days, I pulled up my Spotify playlist of tracks that came out our senior year, and I let the clock roll back: The time we sang Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” at the top of our lungs on the way home from a speech tournament, driving our teammates batty as they threatened to toss us out the emergency exit… Moshing with Joe M. at someone’s random house party to Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole,” the first time I ever heard that song or that band… Both of us singing along in my two-seater to self-consciously naughty ditties like Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” and Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” as if we knew what the hell we were talking about… Listening to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” at her house and actively not knowing what the hell Michael Stipe was talking about, either (pronounced “ee-ther”) …
Vogue-ing with Emily D. at prom
My favorite song of all time also came out our senior year, U2’s “One,” which is reportedly written from the viewpoint of an AIDS-stricken man whose father comes to him in an attempted reconciliation. Even with that in mind, the reason I love this song so much is because the lyrics can be applied to any relationship or situation. I’ve listened to this song thinking about romantic partners, family members, government and religious leaders, and the LGBTQ community. It articulates a truth about how we do or don’t connect with the people in our lives, and the definitions of forgiveness, tolerance, acceptance, and love.
Yesterday I listened to this song again, thinking about Jennifer, and it sounded like an anthem for how she navigated life – her impatience with pretense, her unflinching honesty – and why she remains one of my heroes. The line that resonated for me most is when Bono sings, “You say, ‘Love is a temple, love is a higher law’/ You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl/ and I can’t keep holdin’ on to what you’ve got/ when all you’ve got is hurt.”
That was Jennifer. She experienced hurt like the rest of us. But she never spent too much time nursing this hurt. I see a kind of cosmic symmetry in the short space between her diagnosis and transition. I remember Jennifer looking at me with her patented “Gimme a break” facial expression whenever I wanted to wallow in heartache, and I remember her rolling with every punch life landed, taking what she could learn, and moving on to the next adventure.
So, Jen: I’d say “Rest in Peace,” my friend, but I know you’d just laugh at that. You’re already on the move.