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Why Did I Start This Blog? By Patty MacDonald

This is the post excerpt.

I wanted to start this blog in part to share the ups and downs that are part and parcel of my ongoing attempt to pen a memoir based on my friend’s cold case.

I also want to reach out to try to find a community who is interested in connecting with me on my journey to try to get some movement on my friend’s cold case.  I’d like to know if there are other people with whom I might commiserate who are friends of individuals whose cases have also gone cold.

It’d be a bonus to get input from writers who are interested in or have written in the true crime memoir genre.

Mostly, I wanted to get the word out about my friend’s case because it is my way of saying she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

My DOJ Dead End

When I wrote the Department of Justice (DOJ) I was hoping to find some information on Patty Vance. Unfortunately, they found nothing I can have access to. I wanted to post this because anyone can write the DOJ in his or her state to compile information about someone. In my case, I’ve adhered to the belief from the beginning that information is power. If I can use a bit of what I’ve heard or read to prompt one of the cold case investigators to reveal more information, then my effort has been worth it.

Sadly, this effort only lead to a dead end. Here’s a copy of the letter. Maybe someone can use the link provided to start his or her search for a loved one.

Dear Sir or Madam:

This correspondence is in response to your online request form submission dated July 7, 2019, which was received by the California Department of Justice (DOJ) on July 8, 2019, in which you sought records pursuant to the Public Records Act contained in Government Code section 6250 et seq.

Specifically, you are seeking: “I am looking for any record I am privy to under the name of Patricia Vance, DOB: June 30, 1961. I have her death certificate already.”

Absent a request for representation, DOJ responds solely on its own behalf and not on behalf of other agencies.  We have searched our records and legal indices and found no records responsive to your request.  You appear to be seeking records that are not in the control or custody of the California DOJ.  We have no obligation or ability to provide public records that are not in our custody.  (Gov. Code, § 6253(c).) 

Please note that the DOJ is not the depository for records for the entire state of California.  The scope of our records related to individual citizens is limited to matters that fall within our Department’s purview.  If you wish to review records that are in the custody or control of another state or local agency, you should direct your request to that agency.  For example, vital records such as birth, death, marriage, and divorce records may be available through the Department of Public Health, Office of Vital Records (OVR).  Please review the information at the OVR website to determine if the record you need is registered with the OVR and if the request processing time frames meet your needs.  The OVR website is located at:  https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CHSI/Pages/Birth%2C-Death%2C-Fetal-Death%2C-Still-Birth–Marriage-Certificates.aspx.  They may also be available through the County Recorder or County Court, depending on the nature of documents sought.

In the event that you are seeking criminal records, the Public Records Unit is unable to produce criminal history records as they are exempt from disclosure pursuant to Penal Code section 11105. Penal Code section 11105 expressly authorizes the Attorney General to disclose state summary criminal history information to law enforcement agencies for law enforcement purposes only, or to the person who is the subject of the record.  If an individual wishes to review their own criminal history records, they would have to submit a personal request.  Information relevant to obtaining Criminal History Records may be reviewed on the Attorney General’s website at: http://oag.ca.gov/fingerprints/security.

We hope this information has been of assistance.

Public Records Coordinator
California Department of Justice
Office of the Attorney General
916.210.6183

How To Go “Up the Ladder”

When I decided to make contact with the law enforcement agency that was handling Patty’s cold case, I was ultimately told that I should “go up the ladder” if the help I was receiving wasn’t satisfactory. So, I realized I didn’t exactly know what “up the ladder” might look like. Should I just make contact with the detective’s immediate boss? Probably. But how was I going to find out who that was? When I was finally able to track down an organizational chart for the SFPD, it didn’t detail every employees’ position in the hierarchy. But it was a start. 

Then there was the descriptions of how the different offices within the SFPD are organized.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office

This office investigates and prosecutes crime in San Francisco and supports victims of crime. It’s made up of prosecutors, victim advocates, paralegals, and other support staff. The office contains three major departments: the Operations Department, the Special Operations Department and the Support Services Department.

I’m only interested in knowing about the Operations Department, so that was the only department that I researched. This is what I found.

Operations

The Office’s Operations Department is responsible for prosecuting violent crimes and lesser offenses committed within the City and County of San Francisco that diminish the livability of our community. This Department is led by Chief Assistant District Attorney Sharon Woo and includes the Criminal Division, Victim Services Division and the Collaborative Courts Division. The criminal division is organized into 10 units and files approximately 3,300 misdemeanor cases a year and 3,300 felony cases a year. The Criminal Division is divided into 9 different units, including: misdemeanors, preliminary hearings, general felonies which includes narcotics, domestic violence and physical elder abuse, gangs, sexual assault, child assault, juvenile, and homicide. Marshall Khine is Chief of the Criminal Division – Horizontal Units, and David Merin is Chief of the Criminal Division – Vertical Units.

Investigations Divison

District Attorney Investigators play a critical role in prosecuting offenders. The District Attorney’s Bureau of Investigations (DAI) is composed of sworn peace officers who work closely with our prosecutors to fully develop documentary, physical, and testimonial evidence for trial. In addition, DAI also investigates certain types of White Collar Division cases. James Kerrigan is the Chief of DAI.

The upshot of all this is that you have to educate yourself about how the system works if you want it to work for you. I can’t say if going “up the ladder” is the answer for me right now. But at least I have a better idea what that means. So one of the steps in researching the progress of someone’s cold case is to know how to contact an officer’s superior if you’re not getting any results. The truth is, in my situation, all the detectives I’ve spoken to seem as though they’re doing their best. There is actually no need to reach any further except as an act of desperation on my part. I wrote this mostly because it might be informative for someone else. 

On Redemption

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” – William Blake

Everyone is capable of redemption. I heard these words today while listening to “Writer on the Road.” Amen. I don’t mean it in a religious sense, however. Maybe “being forgiven” is the better expression. Forgiveness seems to be what I’ve struggled with most during this project.

People have continually asked me to provide the “why” for my attempt to get Patty’s file dusted off. Especially after they hear that I felt betrayed by her. I want to tell them it’s because it’s my way of forgiving her. But I assume they wouldn’t understand. If they did, they wouldn’t ask in the first place. 

Recently, I was thinking about the potential audience for the book (should it ever see daylight). And then I attended a writer’s event during which two memoir writers stressed the importance of making your story universal. I have trouble identifying what might be universal in my story. The concept of betrayal? Haven’t we all been wronged by a friend, or done wrong by a friend? Maybe not. But a lot of us have. And haven’t those very same people struggled with either forgiving the betrayer or forgiving themselves for betraying someone else? That’s all I can come up with.

It’s tricky business mulling over how to forgive someone who’s passed away. But, again, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. Not everyone relives the past. Some, like me, do. I’m here to tell you it’s easier to forgive people once they’re gone. Somehow, either with the passage of time, or the passing of the person, you become more empathetic. Or once you grow older, you’re capable of more nuanced thinking. And that is essential to forgiveness. I’ve been accused of being a “black and white” thinker, but I long to see the world in shades of gray. That is what I’m after in this project: the shades of gray. 

Just like Detective Cunningham said the last time we spoke. He believed that the perpetrator was not a stranger. He also believed in redemption: 

“…apparently she might have messed with the wrong person. And that doesn’t make her a bad person overall. She never got a chance to redeem herself. Because this person took it into his own hands to take her life away.”

I know Patty would have redeemed herself given a chance. She was a good person. She was a complicated person like most of us. She made bad choices like most of us. Still, she deserved to be forgiven. He had a big heart. Her big-heartedness shouldn’t get lost in the story.

The Illusive Autopsy Report

Is the autopsy report public record? That was a question I had at the beginning of this project, but didn’t research that intensively. Here’s a little more of the low down:

Autopsy reports are generally public records. There are exceptions for (1) deaths from natural causes not referred to the coroner and (2) reports pertaining to criminal litigation, and others as directed by court order or subpoena.

California law bars the copying of photographs taken for the coroner at the death scene. They are available for use only in a criminal action or proceeding that relates to the deceased, or as a court permits. So getting the photographs that accompanied Patty Vance’s medical examiner’s report is out of the question. I can’t say if photographs exist. They should. And probably it’s for the best that I don’t see them.

Most states exempt from disclosure law enforcement investigatory records. And often the autopsy report is considered one of these records. Just as it is considered a medical record in some states, which precludes it from being public information and is governed by privacy laws.

Whether a particular document can be withheld under this exemption in a particular state will depend on the circumstances. In addition, the scope of the investigatory records exception varies among the states. Some of the variations include whether the exemption:

1. is limited to active investigations or prosecutions (such as in Louisiana, La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 44:19);

2. gives law enforcement agencies discretion to release investigatory records (such as in Mississippi, Miss. Code § 25-61-12) or entirely prohibits their disclosure (such as in Vermont, 1 Vt. Stat. § 317); or

3. restricts access only when certain factors exist, such as when disclosure would (a) interfere with enforcement proceedings; (b) constitute an unwarranted invasion of a suspect’s, defendant’s, victim’s, or witness’s personal privacy; (c) deprive someone of a fair trial; (d) disclose a confidential source or investigative technique; or (e) endanger the life or physical safety of law enforcement personnel (for examples, see laws in Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, and Kansas (Alaska Stat. § 40.25.120, Idaho Code §§ 9-340B(1) and 9-335, 5 ILCS 140 § 7(1), and KSA § 45-221(a)).

Some states also have statutes prohibiting disclosure of a record when disclosure would invade a person’s privacy. For example, Hawaii, Illinois, and Kansas prohibit disclosure of records that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, and Kentucky law requires a court order before disclosing a record that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 92F-13(3), 5 ILCS 140 § 7 (1)(b), KSA § 45-221(a), and Ky. Rev. Stat. § 61.878(1)(a)).

Other provisions may be relevant to whether these records can be disclosed in some states. For example, Washington prohibits disclosing information revealing a victim’s identity, without the victim’s authorization, if it would endanger a person’s life, safety, or property, and Florida prohibits disclosure of information containing a person’s confession until completion of the person’s criminal case (RCW § 42.56.240 and Fl. Stat. § 119.07).

Are autopsy reports available to the public? The cause and manner of death is a matter of public record and can be released, unless release of such information will hinder or harm an ongoing criminal investigation [Iowa Code 22.7(41)]. The remainder of the information contained within an autopsy report is confidential and treated as a medical record.

Obtaining California Autopsy Reports. … The pathologist then prepares a written autopsy report. An autopsy report is public record in California unless it is deemed to be confidential under public-records exemptions because it is being used in a pending criminal case.

What’s in a coroner’s report vs. autopsy report?

A coroner’s report is the report produced further to an investigation by a coroner identifying the deceased person, the date and place of death, and the causes and circumstances of death.

A coroner’s report is the report produced further to an investigation by a coroner identifying the deceased person, the date and place of death, and the causes and circumstances of death. In some cases, the report may also contain recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths. This document is public and available to anyone who requests it.

Autopsy reports are appended to the coroner’s report. Other appended documents include the toxicology report, the medical record and the police report. Coroners use these documents to produce their reports. Access to these appendices is restricted and is allowed only if applicants can show that the requested document will be used to uphold their rights.

An Overview of Death Investigation

At all death scenes there are two scenes: location(s) of the incident and the body itself. If a crime is suspected, the incident will belong to the investigating law enforcement agency; and the body, together with all items on or about it, will belong to the medical examiner’s office. The agencies will work independently of each other with overlapping goals. The death investigator has certain responsibilities and a duty to pursue those responsibilities. The body is exclusively under the custody and control of the death investigator. Until they arrive on scene, no other person can touch, move, or remove the body or those items on or about it. The assessment includes complete photography, documenting wounds and injuries, or lack thereof, rigor and livor mortis, body position and relationship to the scene, and condition of the body due to postmortem interval and environment. If the body has been moved, possibly to a remote area, there will be another crime scene at the place the death actually occurred.

Medical records are a very important component of a death investigation and may be referred to in the autopsy report. In addition to medical history, these records may include mental health history, prescription and medication history, family history, and social history. It is important for the medical history to be shared with the forensic pathologist at the time of autopsy or as soon thereafter as possible. What might be seen as a fall and head injury at autopsy may instead be a spontaneous bleed with previous history and consequential falls.

Autopsies are valuable and are a component of a complete investigation, if one is performed. All violent, suspicious, unnatural, and unattended deaths are investigated (these account for a small percentage of reported deaths). A preliminary investigation, statute, and protocol will dictate if an autopsy is performed. The authorization of the autopsy depends on the circumstances of the death and the protocol of the medical examiner’s office. The autopsy consists of the gross external examination (detailed examination and documentation of the body), gross internal examination (detailed examination and documentation of the organs and internal body structure), toxicology tests, and microscopic examinations. The external examination is head to toe and includes measurements of all wounds, scars, marks, tattoos, and condition of the body and structure.

The internal examination is what is often thought of when “autopsy” is mentioned. This surgical procedure includes the in situ examination of the organs, removal of them with weights, and complete external/internal examination of the organs. This examination also includes the assessment of bullet trajectory, wound tracts, ligature markings, etc. One area of specific forensic pathologist training is wound (all injuries and trauma) examination. Specimens of each organ are collected for microscopic examination, part of the anatomical and clinical certifications preceding a pathologist’s forensic certification. At the conclusion of the autopsy the functions of the forensic pathologist and death investigator temporarily separate into two different tasks. The death investigator will submit his report, detailing the findings of his scene investigation, evidence review, and medical records review. The forensic pathologist will review the death investigator’s report and case file to finalize his autopsy report and certify the Cause and Manner of Death.

Autopsy reports are not casual or interesting reading material. They are very informative when reviewed with all concurrent investigative reports and evidence. All autopsy reports follow a general format as approved by the National Association of Medical Examiners (thename.org). Although they may differ in appearance, the general content format consists of: Diagnoses, Toxicology, Opinion, Circumstances of Death, Identification of the Decedent, General Description of Clothing and Personal Effects, Evidence of Medical Intervention, External Examination, External Evidence of Injury, Internal Examination, Samples Obtained – Evidence, Histology and Toxicology, and Microscopic Examination. When the autopsy report is reviewed by the lay person their focus is on the first four items, as these are the summary of the remaining medical details of the report. It is important to review the report and all of the information contained therein for the complete picture. It is also important to understand what is in an autopsy report before we can begin to decipher all the latent and patent information it contains.

Circumstances of Death

This section consists of one to two paragraphs briefly describing the perimortem circumstances as known at the time of autopsy. Autopsies are often performed within 24–48 hours of discovering the body, with the full medicolegal and law enforcement investigation ongoing, medical records have likely not yet been received or reviewed. This narrative is important because it summarizes initial investigative findings and hearsay reports of witnesses, it also includes evidence found at the scene, such as: projectiles, syringes, paraphernalia, disarray of the scene, vomitous, etc.

Death certificates and autopsy reports contain personal identifying information and clinical information protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. These documents are used, for example, by the families of the deceased for settling estates, bereavement and closure, and genetic counseling of relatives. Insurance companies, public health and law enforcement officials, and the legal community also have legitimate claims to this information. Critical ethical questions have not yet been settled about whether and when this information should be public and under which circumstances making this kind of information public incurs benefits, harms, or both. Additional considerations include which organizations—the media, academic institutions, or government agencies, for example—are best suited to interpret these questions and respond to them.

Legally, ethically, and clinically relevant, however, is that MEs and coroners are not “covered entities” under HIPAA. To be clear, all MEs are forensic pathologists in appointed positions, while coroners are elected officials. State-to-state variations abound: sixteen states do not have laws requiring coroners to have specific training requirements, and four states require them to be physicians though not necessarily pathologists [7].

AMA Journal of Ethics:

For example, in some states (e.g., Kentucky [11]), if a death is determined to be a coroner’s case, an ME or coroner has the authority to order an autopsy without obtaining consent from the deceased person’s survivors and to release information about the cause and manner of that person’s death to the public. Is this ethically appropriate, particularly considering the legal, ethical, and professional standards that typically apply to patients’ rights to have their PHI protected? Which protections should be afforded to the deceased and to a deceased person’s loved ones? How much value should be attributed to survivors’ distress?

O, BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?

After four years of waiting, Patty’s brother finally accepted my friend request. I think it’s her brother. His birth date seems right. I’m so grateful. Somehow his accepting translates in my mind to at least he doesn’t hate me. Or hopefully that means he’s not pissed at me. All he may know about me is that I wanted to step in and buy a grave stone for Patty because she didn’t have one. I’m assuming he’s the owner of the plot. He might have heard via the grapevine — meaning Holy Cross cemetery — because he bought and placed a stone finally.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to visit it. But it’s going to be the first thing on my agenda when I go back to visit California. That and talking to Detective C at the Hall of Justice. I don’t think he’d refuse to meet with me. But that is the fear. That speech I’ve rehearsed in my head a hundred times about how the police are basically in the citizen’s employ is destined to stay in my head. I’m too much of a coward to confront law enforcement.

While watching “Blue Bloods” last night, the daughter of the Police Commissioner, Niki Reagan, said that “you’re either on one side of the law or the other.” She didn’t mention how you could change sides. I’ve found myself shuffling off my in-your-face attitude that worked for me in my youth. Now I’m all deference and gratitude. I used to lump them together, now I realize there are just bad eggs in the bunch. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t rubbed up against any of those. 

I wrote a note to her brother asking him to confirm that it is or is not him. Maybe that’ll take another four years. Who knows. Still, I was hovering for a full day after I found out he’d accepted my friend request. I don’t even know what I’d ask him first. How did things turn out for her son? How were the last four years of Patty’s life during the time we were estranged? Clearly some of those years were not so great. I could say the same for myself. Did she push away her family like she pushed me away? Is there any fucking chance that her case is going to be solved? Maybe he has some inside knowledge, some hopeful tidbit since he is a police officer himself. Not only that, but a friend of Detective C. Or maybe he knows just as little as I do. I really just want to talk to him. 

15 Minute Rule

It’s been almost a year since I started volunteering for Street Safe, an outreach program for women living or working on the streets of Albuquerque. Two months into the gig in the middle of summer the Executive Director (ED) gave a presentation at the Santa Ana Star Casino about trafficking on the reservations. After the day was done I followed her around the casino.

We made a few loops around the gaming floor then sat on a ledge in front of a faux waterfall. It felt strangely peaceful. The ED pointed out suspected traffickers weaving between the slot machines all while she sipped on a chocolate milkshake. This was all in a day’s work to her. I, on the other hand, struggled to adopt her nonchalance, trying to appear as if I wasn’t staring. I badgered her about how she handled her job. Specifically, I wanted to know how to avoid getting attached to the women.

“When I was a medic, we had a 15-minute rule. Patch them up, and send them back out into the world. That’s all you can do.”

We are out in the heart of the war zone on Friday nights for two hours. It feels like longer some nights. Just two weeks ago I parked a half block away, encountering a trio hunched against the wall. One girl was using her hoodie to cover the crook of her arm while she shot up. I reined in the fixer in me and walked past. I recited the 15-minute rule to myself.

Then I tried to sort out why this bothered me so much. Here is one reason: There should be clean, safe, convenient, supervised rooms for girls like her. If Vancouver can do it, why not Albuquerque? Options for rehab — if a woman chooses to get help — even better.


B Side



Researching the circumstances around Patty’s murder brought me back to our old stomping grounds. The area around the civic center was now a picture of contrasts. It gave me whiplash walking past. 

Back in 1975 it wasn’t the sparkling gentrified center of all things high culture. Sure, there was the opera house. But it, like the rest of the major buildings, appeared grungy after more than forty years of neglect. The Plaza — the golden pate of city hall’s rotunda at its western edge — was flanked by rows of chugging fountains in a pool gleaming with pennies. The rectangle of turf surrounding it was covered in litter: candy wrappers, cigarette butts, take-out cups, aluminum pull tabs. With a keen eye, the odd hypodermic leapt out. The homeless camped out and were sometimes lumped together with the hippies under the umbrella of undesirables. It had cleaned up in the intervening years, since Patty and I slummed around. Little by little the homeless got shunted further up Larkin Street and away from Market. Researching the circumstances around Patty’s murder brought me back to our old stomping grounds. The area around the civic center was now a picture of contrasts. It gave me whiplash walking past. 

These days on one side of Larkin a psychedelic dragon shod in sneakers guarded the door to the Asian Art Museum. On the other side, a row of tents hugged an abandoned building. With only a sidewards glance I could see through a slit in a tarp a woman fumbling to inject herself in the crook of her arm. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Whoever said that was pretty damn insightful.

Patty and I used to start each school day in the Marina district, but would inevitably end up in this very spot where most of city government resided.  Our question of the day was “to ditch school, or not to ditch school?” We spent many an hour slumped outside our junior high, sucking down cigarettes and weighing our options. My protestations against cutting school were pointedly half-hearted. 

“I don’t want to flunk eighth grade. But I haven’t even started the book we’re reading in English. And those hard chairs they make us sit in. Ug. What’s playing at the movies?”

Never mind that I’d as good as flunked English and we’d be sitting in hard seats all day at the theater. Patty would flash me an “I’m in” smirk and off we’d go. A triple feature was the ultimate. If we had a dime bag of dirt weed, even better. 

A block over from city hall five movie theaters were clumped together on the south side of Market Street. We called it the movie district. In the early 70s X or XXX films were shaking their money makers with titles like Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat, but a few hold outs like the Strand and UA offered up PG or rated R fare. We’d panhandle four blocks north on Geary Street in the theater district, then lug our coins to the movie district. We were beneficiaries of the trickle down effect long before Reaganomics entered the popular vernacular. 

One day we lucked out. Sparkle was playing on a double bill. We could sit for hours through movies like Enter the Dragon and Shaft. But we yearned for stories that spoke to the experience of girls. Sparkle followed a girl group, Sister and the Sisters in 1958 Harlem. The plot braided three stories, but we followed one more closely — that of Sister. We tracked her every move. When the screen lit up our faces we’d look over and give one another a little nod. Isn’t she something? Look at how she demanded attention. We tensed our shoulders as Sister’s man, Satin, lured Sister, into his world of violence and heroin. We emerged from the theater, blinking into the sunlight. We were tired and sore. But satisfied.

“Sister sure was pretty.” I raised my voice over the buzz of traffic. 

“Yeah, she’s sexy. Why are we so flat-chested?” Patty pressed her palms against her breasts. 

“It doesn’t matter. Even when we grow some, we’ll never be beautiful like her.”

“Speak for yourself.” Patty hiked up her yolk-sized bumps of cleavage.

She looked disappointed. 

It seemed our way of defining ourselves was by what we were lacking. At least Patty had her hair. I wasn’t sure what I had. Mythology swirled around redheads — they were witches, temperamental, and untrustworthy. Judas, Christ’s betrayer, was portrayed with red hair. 

Then again, there was the stock character of the redhead as sexpot. From femme fatales to Clara Bow many a red-head has been painted as a temptress. To me, the rarity of red hair made Patty distinct, her look one-of-a-kind. She was able to turn heads with that mane alone. Perhaps she didn’t have the traffic-stopping allure of Sister, but she had a sole beauty. Not everyone recognized it, but I did. 

Whenever that red hair of hers put on a spell people, I was happy to give her the spotlight. For as often as I craved attention, more often I was content to remain invisible. The last thing I wanted was to be walking alongside Patty while she played with her breasts in the middle of Market Street. This was San Francisco in the 70s. You could stroll the streets, daisies painted on your tits and not a soul would take notice. Still, I was paranoid. I didn’t want anyone staring at us. When I scanned the crowd, no one was. Proving either that I was paranoid or overestimated the appeal of her hair. 

We hiked three blocks to the bus stop gabbing about Sister and her style. We agreed neither of us could pull off a white gardenia behind the ear. The girl group eluded to The Supremes, but the parallels between Billie Holiday and Sister smacked you between the eyes.

Two weeks later the two of us descended on Tower Records, a mega-store a block from North Beach. From the parking lot we smelled fish, poking our noses in the air like alley cats. The odor wafted from the docks at Fisherman’s Wharf — from vats of steaming crabs and the brackish water of the bay. I bought the album Sparkle with that week’s allowance. Aretha Franklin glowed on the cover, wrapped in a white stole and encircled by a metallic silver frame. Her face looked regal, the perfect image to mint onto a coin. We fought over who’d hold the album on the bus ride, ultimately cradling it between us.

Once at Patty’s house, we leaned out her bedroom window smoking, listening to the songs. We spread out on her double bed — our raft, so to speak. We borrowed two white slips from her mother. Patty had a pair of elbow length gloves stashed behind her training bras. During the A side of the album she was Sister. I was Sister on the B side. We gestured the moves we remembered from the movie, fishtailing our arms and wagging our hips. I Get High, Sister Williams’s lament about her descent into heroin addiction made me shutter. The line “woke up this morning, looking back over the darkness of my life” nailed my very own mornings. It was a rarity to wake up without feeling that nothing about my life made any sense. 

“I don’t see why I can’t be Sister all the time. You can be Dolores.” Patty refused to give up the one pair of gloves.

We both stared down at the record player, the needle stalled at the end of A side.

“It’s my album.” I tugged at the gloves.

Her face arranged itself into an expression of mock hurt. I relented. The hypnotic beauty of Sister was too difficult for me to pull off anyway. Besides, I did more closely resemble Dolores, the shy, self-righteous sister. I was a B side. I was the inferior one. Not in a bad way. In the way that everyone can’t be hit material, a chart topper. Besides, just the idea of being in the spotlight made me squirm.

Sister’s funeral half way through the film never came up in conversation between Patty and me. We never questioned our fixation on her. Sister was a popular culture trope — the self-destructive woman. We were seduced by her, but more than that, we related to her. Sister wanted out of a life she saw as oppressive. Yet she knew getting out was a long shot. Heroin had a way of making you forget your own long odds. 

The way we put Sister on a pedestal wasn’t the only red flag. Maybe it wasn’t even a harbinger of things to come. Not everyone followed in the footsteps of those they revered. But the revered wield power over us. Especially over us impressionable types. Shortly after we saw Sparkle, it was as if the two of us set off our detonators. We yearned so desperately for happiness we tried anything. After my own one failed experiment doing heroin my junior year, I nodded off the following morning during a Chemistry exam. I woke to find my cheek pressed into my desk, a string of saliva wetting a blank spot on the quiz where a written response was expected. On the heels of a less-than-stellar semester I dropped out of high school for good within the week. Patty was dead a year later.