I said goodbye to you on gray spring afternoon 14 years ago in front of Lynnwood High School. You were dressed like a boy that day, the way all of us girls dressed back then, in baggy, sagging blue jeans, a long Army green-colored windbreaker and white sneakers scrubbed clean. You slicked your long wavy black hair down with so much coconut oil that it looked wet, and you smiled big when you pulled me into the school parking lot and said: “Check out my new ride.” It was a white two-door sedan. Your mother bought it for your 16th birthday, and you kissed its driver’s side window, leaving lipstick marks on the glass. You hugged me and said we would go for a ride together soon. At 4’11, you were barely as tall as me.
I let go, and you drove away.
It was sophomore year and your life had finally started to take a turn for the better. You broke it off for good with that good-for-nothing boyfriend of yours and we all breathed a sigh of relief. We knew he beat you. Once, you hid from him at my mother’s apartment. He could be cruel, like the time he convinced your friend to let him perm her hair. He slipped Nair hair removal cream into his so-called “perm” solution and she came to school the next day nearly bald.
You came to school with black eyes and bruises. But you were trying to move on. You filed for a restraining order. You even developed a crush on another boy.
But your ex found out about the crush and showed up at your apartment that morning. He knew your mother worked the night shift. He knew you would be alone. He brought a loaded gun. Pounding on your front door, he screamed for you to let him in. You climbed out of your first-floor window, jumping to the ground and running to a neighbor’s place. He cornered you before you could make it, shooting you twice in the heart. You died on a patch of dew-coated grass before the sun rose, your body sprawled a few dozen feet from the apartment you shared with your mother. He shot himself in the head and died a short time later on your bed.
Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still hear your mother’s bone-searing wails rattling the walls of your apartment, like they did when I visited her the next day, or echoing down the halls of the funeral home as you lay in the casket, your small body draped in a shimmering topaz Indian gown, a red bindi dot on your forehead, eyes closed, corners of your red lips turned upward, as if smiling.
One hundred and sixty-eight people in Oklahoma also died that day: April 19, 1995. The nation would come to know it as the day of the Oklahoma City bombings, a horrific domestic terrorism attack. But to me, it will forever be day you were murdered in Lynnwood, Washington, a suburban town 22 minutes north of Seattle.
Sangeeta Lal, 16 years old, our own victim of domestic terror.
All of your friends stayed glued to the television, waiting for the local news to show your picture, waiting for the anchors to talk about how loved you were. But all we saw on TV were broken buildings in Oklahoma, blood-streaked babies, firefighters, and crying men wearing torn and dust-covered business suits.
Today, Google searches do not pull up your name. You are not memorialized on Myspace or Wikipedia. I cannot even track down an obit in newspaper archives. Your death went largely unnoticed. But I remember you, Sangeeta.
I will always remember.
Even if the real newspapers didn’t bother to mention your name or death, our school newspaper, The Royal Gazette, did, because I wrote an article about you. On the day it came out, I remember a teacher storming into the journalism classroom and unleashing on me: How could I have published such gory details about a classmate’s murder? How dare I upset the school even more?
It was then I realized how taboo the subject of death was, and how scared people were to face it.
I went on to write about many deaths since I lost you.
The questions haunting my mind stayed the same: How? Why?
How can one 16-year-old’s life get snuffed out in a blink, while another went on to celebrate her 30th birthday?
How can one student show up to French class one morning at Virginia Tech University and end up getting shot in the face, bleeding to death on the burgundy floor, while another who was sitting a few desks walked away without a scratch?
How can a drive-by bullet intended for a gang member end up lodged in a 3-year-old’s chest?
Why did that mother, who waved farewell to her 25-year-old daughter, who was headed to work on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, never get to see her again?
Why did those sweet-faced children lose their father when that bridge in Minnesota collapsed?
I have written about all of these people. I have sat with victims, survivors, family members and friends of the dead also trying to grapple with why. I have cried with them.
My thoughts often come back to you. I don’t know if I will ever understand.
You should have been given a chance to graduate, Sangeeta, to fall in love with a good man, to watch your mother grow old, to lose touch with childhood friends and years later stumble across them on Facebook. I can imagine your message to me: “Hey girl, remember me? Lil G? I’m a mom now. Life has been good. Hard sometimes, with this economy and all, but good.”
And I would catch you up on my life in a couple of paragraphs, tell you how much I miss you, how I dream of you sometimes, how I still have funny photos of us back in those days when we used to dress like boys.
And I would remind you of that day sophomore year when you kissed your new car and I just wouldn’t let you go. How I begged you to take me for a ride instead.
Remember that day? I would ask. How we drove for hours, laughing and smoking menthols and blasting TLC on the stereo speakers until the sun rose.
How we swore to each other we would never let that night end. How we swore we would never say goodbye.
In loving memory of you.