A long time ago in a town far, far away…
Small town Northern California. Full of University students, bicycles, arcades and double decker red busses that belonged in another world. The town where being a latch key kid wasn’t scary at all. The town where I could walk home alone in Kindergarten or go to the library by myself. The town that had a Star Wars parade. That kind of small town. That was a long time ago.
I remember the parade, our picture made it to the local newspaper and to my Grandmother’s scrapbook.
But this story isn’t actually about a parade, the local paper or the small town that once was. This is a story about a little girl, a brave girl, a love of Star Wars and a brutal murder. True Story. Not exactly a good one. One I haven’t really told, yet because apparently I wasn’t ready. Now I am and I didn’t have a choice.
Sitting in the basement sorting Star Wars Destiny cards it came back to me in a strange way. I felt it falling down a memory chain like a Plinko puck on the Price is Right, or that pinball that you know you are going to miss with the flipper and not be able to send that shiny ball away. This was one of those moments where the space was there whether I wanted it to be or not. The crack began to show and the thought, the memory found the little space and worked it’s way to the forefront of my mind. This was more than just my Monkey brain, this was something I hadn’t really thought about in over thirty years. That seed had been long lost, I think on purpose. But when you are open and the space is there, sometimes even the tiniest of crack lets a long lost seed through. This memory seed tumbled a long way, weaving through thirty years of living life to burst through the crack and land on my tongue like a bitter pill. I had to google before I could swallow. I probably shouldn’t have. I googled your name, Sabrina Gonsalves.
It really happened. Damn it. This wasn’t about going on a roller coaster that you believe was a thousand feet high and went a million miles per hour even though it’s just not possible. This really happened. This wasn’t swearing that the bee that stung you was the size of a silver dollar, or that you caught a fish the size of your arm. This wasn’t a case of my little brain exaggerating anything. I know that memories are fragile and imperfect at best, and as kids we often warp our own realities to make sense of the world in both ugly and beautiful ways. I thought that was the case, that I had made sense of this memory. I was wrong, really wrong. This, this was worse than I actually remembered. This was worse than what I had been told. I wish this was a case of my little brain exaggerating. I wish I could warp the memory back into something beautiful to make it better but I can’t.
I was five and you were only eighteen, but back then I didn’t know how old you were because it didn’t matter. It does now, you were just a baby. You, in those days were younger than my own babies are today. Younger than my own, a perspective that hurts. As a kid I just thought you were amazing and kind to me. I saw you as fun, strong and brave. You made sure I had fun every day at summer daycare. I remember a hot day on the slip and slide. I have no idea where the water came from or if there was even a hill at all but we all took turns, even you. We were sliding and crashing in the hot sun into blades of cut grass that stuck between our toes when we stood up. That grass always made me itch. It seems now that we must have played for hours, but that could be a case of kid time where minutes can be hours and hours can be minutes. I remember on that day that I saw a bit of blood on your thigh that another girl pointed out. You just jumped up and said I”ll be right back I have to go take care of this. Simple. Not a big deal to me at the time, but I know now that as a teenage girl that might have felt like the end of the world. Now, I know what was happening. It even feels awkward to write about. But you just handled it, not embarrassed not a big deal. You just took care of it. A strange memory to stick but it did because in that moment you were somehow brave to me.
I remember sitting on blocks of ice in our swimsuits, timing to see who could sit there the longest, because it was silly and something to do on a stupid hot sweltering day. That was back in the days when you could do an activity like that. We couldn’t do that now. We laughed out loud a lot as we counted the seconds to see who could freeze their butt the longest. Silly innocent fun. I remember playing every game and that you made sure the girls got to play with the boys too. Baseball. Dodgeball. Kickball. Being my tomboy self wasn’t an issue for you as it had been for me in school. I remember being grateful for you and for that, even then.
I couldn’t let this memory go, of you and the Star Wars summer. So in a sad and almost manic way, I dug through the old photo albums my grandmother had put together all those years ago and found the newspaper clipping. And now, I see the photo of the parade. Your face is hidden but I remember holding your hand, my Tusken Raider, a fellow fan and my protector.
I remember seeing Star Wars. As you damn well better know, Star Wars has the rolling screen of yellow words to start the glorious epic. When I first saw that movie I couldn’t read and I was frustrated. At four years old I remember knowing with an undeniable know that I had to learn to read. Words, those scrolling yellow words, suddenly became important to me. The Epic music that still gives me goosebumps paired with those letters were giving a message I didn’t understand. I was so not ok with not being able to take in the whole experience (even if I couldn’t articulate that at all) and that was not ever going to happen again. Star Wars made me want to learn to read and that was only the opening. Magic.
There she was. A heroine like I had never, ever seen before…or since. She was beautiful with her hair and smile. She could shoot. She was smart. She was a smart ass too. I was so immediately enamored with my Princess. That’s not to say the lightsabers or Vader or Ben or R2 or…or, or the rest of the amazingly awesome holy cow this is the coolest stuff I have ever seen, didn’t blow my mind apart. I mean it’s f’n Star Wars how could it not. I was hooked. I was a fan before I knew what that really meant.
Your hero of choice evolves as we do. But as a tomboy of a girl on the best of days, I got to have a heroine. I wouldn’t get to have Ripley for years down the line, years after all…
I so wanted to be Princess Leia, but you know when you’re five and don’t have a team of make up and hair artists, or the money for the outfit, you do the best you can. I almost wore a tutu and a Darth Vader mask like I did around the house. But I wanted to be my heroine that day. So I got dressed and at least pretended I was her even if I din’t quite look just like her. You were there, in your awesome costume holding my hand. A photographer for the paper stopped to talk to us after taking our picture. We made it to the paper. I remember the parade, I can recall the costumes. July of 1980 there was Star Wars everywhere. Just like now.
You obviously understood. You got it. You dressed up. I like to think you believed in the power of Star Wars and the joy it gave you too. You made me realize it was super ok for a girl to not only love whatever fandom, but whatever part of it I wanted to love. I see that now. Just now. Just today. At least that is how I am choosing to see it. Part of my love of Star Wars came from holding your hand and knowing I was not alone. Thank you.
Fast forward to December 1980 after a summer I still remember. At the time I didn’t know all of the details, not too many, but probably more than I should have. My mom believing that I should be treated as an adult, told me you had been murdered and that something had happened to your head and that you wouldn’t be coming back. Yes, you were murdered. That word became a real part of my tiny broken heart and vocabulary. Hearing that news may have been the moment that I realized monsters were real even if we couldn’t see them. I suddenly knew there were monsters, not the ones in the closet or under the bed because those no longer mattered. At six I learned that the monsters are around us and that one had stolen you from the world.
I googled it. I googled your name because adult me wanted to know what actually happened. Your boyfriend was with you and killed too, I didn’t remember that. There was a van. I read the gory details I didn’t really want to know. It was awful, more than just awful, it was evil. There are no words, I’m so sorry.
For decades they never found the monster. But, sometimes there is justice and we can at least wish for peace. It took 32 years but they found him. He was convicted. Paper justice. Flimsy, paper justice. Hopefully peace.
An evil bastard stole a Star Wars friend. Somehow, sitting with this now, I am even more…sad, disappointed and angry about the what if’s. What other little girls hand could you have held and welcomed into the fandom? What if you had been able to see our new heroines? How would you have reacted to learning Luke and Leia are siblings, or that our Princess became the General? I am choosing to think that somehow you see it. I hope you think it’s all as epic as I still do. I hope too, that you’d hold a wee ones hand in a parade dressed like Rey.
This memory fell through a tiny crack with such force that when it landed, that bitter pill I chose to swallow, rattled me like an earthquake from the inside. I have had to walk away from writing it more than once. I have read and edited more than I ever did in grad school because it feels so important, but I have to be done. I’ve teared up more than once, smiled more than that. It rattled me to be grateful. It rattled me to be happy, and rattled me to recognize a gift. I see now, after all this time, that life is even more fleeting than I even really understood. I see too, that whatever brings us joy that we can share is a gift. There is joy in the memory too, because it also reminded me of a fandom, a glorious life long fandom. It is a gift really, to share a fandom and be a part of whatever Nerd Herd you have found and it should not be taken for granted. Teach the wee ones that they too can squeal and be proud without being perfect. Hold their hands. Let them know they are not alone.
We get lessons all the time when we pay attention and listen. The pathways to the lessons aren’t always pretty. This time the pathway was not pleasant, but the lesson sure is. Remember to be grateful for each day. Remember to be grateful for each birthday I see with my kids.
Remember to be grateful for Star Wars and for summers.