WHEN I WAS in college, my friends and I were inspired by the Dirty Harry movie Dead Pool to make a dead pool of our own. It involved making a list of celebrities that we thought would die in the next year. We each carefully scribed ten names and then sealed each of our lists in separate envelopes. The plan was to open them all together in a year and who ever had the most celebrities on their list would win. It was tasteless and ghoulish, but we were eighteen. At eighteen you think you’re bulletproof even if a guy from your dorm drinks too much Corona and falls off a balcony at the Holiday Inn in Daytona on Spring Break.
Kurt Cobain died in April of 1994. His body was discovered on April 8, but the time of death was determined to be three days earlier, when, according to the police report, Cobain injected himself with a lethal dose of heroin and then shot himself with a shotgun. The reports of his death were broadcast on television and radio as breaking news. I found out while sitting with my friend Erica in the upholstered chairs clustered in conversation groups on the first floor of Pepperdine Law School.
“Did you hear? The singer from Nirvana died,” another friend said as he joined us in the cluster. Cobain wasn’t the household name then that he is now. Then, he was only the singer from Nirvana.
My friends and I were all between classes in our third year of law school.
“Died?” I asked.
“Killed himself. Shotgun.”
We didn’t say much else about it. There wasn’t much else to say. We went to our next class.
Erica and I had both seen Nirvana live in Los Angeles. I had let everyone I knew know how I felt about the quality of their live show: It sucked. The sound quality was terrible and Cobain’s vocals were unintelligible. In my mind, they couldn’t compete with a live set by Soundgarden and Chris Cornell, compatriots from the Seattle grunge scene, nor ever hope to come close to Metallica’s …And Justice For All tour.
The story developed into a massive media orgy on television over the following days. It was well known in our class that Erica and I listened to metal or hard rock or, by that time, grunge. People came up to me and asked if I was okay or how I was dealing with the loss. As kids we had watched adults fall apart when John Lennon was shot. Reporters were already referring to Cobain as the voice of our generation—my generation—whether I thought so or not.
“I’m fine,” I would say, remembering my tirades after that ill-fated concert and my frustration at the fatal wounds that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had dealt to the bands I loved like Guns N Roses. I hadn’t suffered a loss. His family had suffered and would continue to suffer. His bandmates must have been shattered and anxious over their own futures as they grieved the loss of their friend. But not me. I was fine.
The only real death my group of friends dealt with in any complicated way the year of the dead pool had nothing to do with those sealed envelopes. Valerie was a viciously beautiful girl with perfectly straight ash-blonde hair. One of my guy friends desperately wanted to go out with her. All of my guy friends wanted to sleep with her. She was the daughter of wealthy parents whose wealth was of unknown origin—not unusual in Miami. (One of my friend’s uncles had an “important government job”’ in Medellin, Columbia. Another’s was an “emerald importer” from the same region. They were friends. Their families were not.) Valerie treated me the way that I believed all beautiful, rich girls reacted to us regular girls. She was snide and entitled and could barely be bothered to glance in my direction. She drove a brand-new BMW that her parents had given her as a high school graduation present.
Valerie and I weren’t friends, but in a different way that I wasn’t friends with most of people that lived in my dorm. She was someone I knew and someone who knew me. She was always around. She was in one of my classes, so I would see her in the mornings in her sweatpants slouching into the wooden theater seats. I would see her at meals in the Mahoney cafeteria. We had a waffle iron station that was popular and always had a line. I don’t know if she actually ate a lot of waffles, but I remember her being in that line. She was one of those people who populate your college life who make up with familiarity what they lack in fondness.
One night, after a group of us had been dancing at Sports Rock in South Miami, Valerie drove that BMW into an ancient banyan tree lining a quiet street in Coral Gables. Looking at the pictures of the wreckage in the paper in the days following the accident, we knew that, whatever the cause—reckless speed most likely—it had been horrific. Anyone could tell that from the mangled wreckage of the BMW. It was unnaturally contorted. Bent in ways it shouldn’t be bent. The roof was unrecognizable. Every window was wrenched and shattered.
The one detail that stuck with us then, and stays with me now, is that the force of the accident sheered off Valerie’s head. I have no idea how we found out that someone we knew had been decapitated. Did someone know one of the Coral Gables cops? Did the information come from a med student who was in the hospital when Valerie’s body came in? Did our R.A. hear it on the eleven o’clock news? It just suddenly became a fact—this thing we all knew. My stomach still turns when I think about it. One minute we’re dancing to Exposé and the next minute she’s not even a whole person anymore. She’s a former student, a former friend, a former body with a head.
Months later, my friends and I gathered on the floor of one of our dorm rooms to watch Remote Control, the television quiz show on MTV. The producers had done a contestant search on campus at the beginning of the school year. It had been a big thing for us since this was a time when it was a major deal that we had cable boxes in our dorm rooms, and Remote Control was part of MTV when MTV still felt new and rebellious. Valerie was the only person from our school to make it through the auditions. There she was, months after her death, shiny blonde hair and all, smiling and failing miserably on cable television. If you knew her, if you had known her, you could see her frustration and annoyance at not winning, at not getting what she wanted, at not being the center of attention. If you didn’t know her, I don’t think she would have made any impression at all—just another pretty co-ed loser on a game show that traded in pretty co-eds.
Early in 2014, the television station KIRO reported that the Seattle Police Department had processed four rolls of previously undeveloped 35mm film taken at Cobain’s home following his death. A cold case detective had been assigned to the case because of the high profile and the approaching twentieth anniversary. The photos were released by the police department and instantly circled the world on the Internet. The pictures are dark, grainy and tinged with sadness and waste. There’s a close-up of a cigar box with his heroin paraphernalia. There’s the suicide note pierced with a red Bic pen. One shows a close-up of Cobain’s driver’s license and his wallet. Several are snapshots of the police themselves. One in particular shows a detective staring into the sepia-toned middle distance before Instagram made sepia filters cool.
After KIRO broke the story, CBS News filed information requests for all of the Cobain investigation documents and the police turned over a mountain of information including a handwritten note—separate from his suicide note—that had been in Cobain’s wallet. The note refers to Cobain’s wife Courtney Love as a “bitch” who was “siphoning” his money for “doping and whoring.” This note, like the photos, went viral instantaneously.
Media outlets have pounced on this story catapulting Cobain, Love, and Nirvana into the whirlwind of social media scrutiny. I came across the story because I noticed that “Kurt Cobain” was trending when I checked Facebook. I read the note on my iPhone. Initially, some of the crime scene photos on the CBS site had the Pinterest “Pin This!” button.
Seeing the images after all of this time reminded me of sitting on that floor watching Valerie on Remote Control, in a way that watching Nirvana videos had never done. These were intimate and personal, albeit morbid, pictures. These pictures had a connection to a real-life breathing person. Just as Valerie has been a real person in my life. Maybe not a friend, certainly not a loved one, but a real and tangible person. Seeing her on television knowing what had happened to her had been a jolt.
Realizing that I knew exactly where I had been and what I had been doing when I heard the news about Cobain’s suicide surprised me. The images of the flotsam and jetsam of his tragic death humanized him in a way that even the best Rolling Stone article could not. And here, twenty years later, I was reminded of not only that terrible day in his life, but also the very same day in my own.
I believe in ghosts. I’m not talking about the Travel-Channel-electrometer-Egon-Spengler-type of ghosts, but the chill and the fright that can come from memories and shadows of the lost. In Pompeii, archeologists have been able to use the outlines of human bodies, buried alive in falling ash and lava, as injection molds to make perfect casts of the victims in their last moments as the volcano erupted. Hundreds and hundreds of shoes, left behind in the Nazi concentration camps, fill an exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Since the beginning of human existence we have left echoes of ourselves for the people who come after us. Those echoes reverberate even louder in the face of tragedy or violence. The whispered hints of unfulfilled promise hiss from the shadows. What was gives way to what might have been and the loss replicates on itself over and over again.
A hundred years ago, there might have been one or two photographs of a person taken during his entire life. Before that, hundreds of millions of people passed through time without any visual record of their existence. Today, Instagram claims that over twenty billions photos have been shared through their app. Over sixty million photos are being shared, on average, every day. One app. One digital format. With sixty million photos a day. How many of those two hundred million plus “monthly actives” die every day, leaving behind filtered selfies at the beach and groups shots from the after-work happy hour at TGI Fridays? Who of the left behind do those snapshots haunt?
We never opened our dead pool envelopes. Time passed and friendships and allegiances shifted and they were forgotten. I would like to say that we abandoned the exercise because we realized how tasteless and gross it was to place bets on some else’s mortality, but that wasn’t it. I would like to say that it was because, in the wake of our classmate’s gruesome death, we were mindful of the temporal and delicate nature of life. But that wasn’t it either. The truth is we were eighteen, and simply focused the spotlight of our collective wisdom elsewhere.
The other truth is that Valerie isn’t her real name. I didn’t change it out of some sense of respect for her shattered family or those she left behind, but because I don’t remember it. I remember her and I remember the accident. I remember Remote Control. I remember all of that because it affected me. The tragedy and the television show haunted me and still do. Without either, I might not have remembered her at all.
I did a Google search for her. It came up empty. I couldn’t find any digital record that any of this had happened at all. The vast internet machine did reveal that Ken Ober, the host of Remote Control, is dead. He died in 2009 at fifty-two, remembered with a Gawker headline that read “Rumors of Ken Ober’s Death Turn Out to Be Sadly True” because there had been a flurry of online activity claiming that the reports of his death were a hoax. But nothing about a University of Miami undergraduate rent in two late one night in Coral Gables.
I asked one of my friends about it. He recalled the accident “now that you mention it” and the Remote Control auditions but for him there was no connection between the two.
He asked me if I was sure they aired it. “It would be kind of creepy to show a game show with a dead contestant,” he said, and rightly so.
“Back then, how would the producers have known if no one told them?” was my reply.
I knew what to look for when I searched YouTube videos of old episodes. I remember exactly how she looked when she appeared on the show. She sat in the middle recliner and was the first contestant eliminated. I furiously scanned clip after clip for a glimpse of her blonde hair and her entitled smirk.
Most of the videos were uploaded by former contestants or friends of former contestants with titles like “Todd on MTV Game Show Remote Control 1988” or “Rich in the audience on mtv remote control 1989.” I hoped a stranger had been able to do what I—someone who knew this girl, someone who knew that she had died, someone who understood that seeing her on television had meant something—hadn’t been able to do. I hoped she would be there in the background of someone else’s memory, captured by accident, not as a ghost, but as a living, breathing person with a name.
I looked and looked, but she wasn’t there.
Of course it is easy to find Kurt Cobain online. He’s there, living and breathing, with his shaggy blonde hair and scuffed Converse All-Stars, the same sneakers he was wearing when he died. Cobain’s voice and art and pain and death are well documented. Twenty years later, I’m left wondering why the crime scene photos and that note—that horrible, wretched note from his wallet, so unlike the suicide note and the mythology of his love for Courtney—disturb me more now than I imagine they would have if I had seen them then. I wasn’t a teenager when he died, like I had been with Valerie. But that year my life was on the knife’s edge: choices I made then have affected me every day since. Few days go by where the whispers of doubts and hints of insecurities don’t slide from the dark corners of my life relentlessly hissing “what if” and “if only.” Memories degrade. Milestones disintegrate. My own alternative endings and rewritten narratives lurk in the dark, like the Seattle Police Department’s cache of undeveloped crime scene negatives, far from the harsh light of online overexposure. In the end, the only person those ghosts can haunt is me.