Friday, August 20, 2010

Remembering Natalie

The summer before my senior year in high school Madonna was on the radio, a new drivers’ license was in my purse, and I had the breath-stealing, tantalizing awareness of being on the precipice to freedom. I had plans. They might have been vague and ill-defined, but they were my plans, born of a vision I had for the woman I wanted to become. Besides, vague and ill-defined suited me. Life specifics are overwhelming and scary for a seventeen year old.

Looking back, I think of the summer of ’85 as the time when my instant of innocence vanished. Consumed as I was by my teenage social life (which was, admittedly, shaky at best) and senior year anxieties (the ‘didn’t study for the test’ nightmares were a regular occurrence, especially since I very often didn’t) it never occurred to me that my perception of reality was not exactly reality.

I think lots of kids have those kinds of feelings at that age. The future is poised to unfurl before us, yet we still cannot see the road clearly. What I did not realize, what nobody realizes in their instant of innocence, is how completely the world might shift. And once it shifts, it stays that way.

I was in between jobs that July, having just finished a stint as a waitress at the local Friendly’s restaurant and waiting to start my new cashier’s job at the grocery store. Mostly I spent my time at home, talking on the phone, swimming in the pool and being a general nuisance to my parents (from an evolutionary perspective, I was right on target for them to happily kick me out of the nest).

We had already finished dinner and cleaned up the kitchen that warm summer night when I heard the sirens. I didn’t think much of it, it was just background noise. Until the phone rang. My father answered and talked to a friend of his, and when he hung up I could tell he was upset. Standing in the kitchen, replacing the receiver on the wall phone, he turned to me.

“That was Chet,” he said slowly.

“What did he want?” my mother asked.

I knew from the look on his face something had happened. Chet had a police scanner and would sometimes call us with updates on crime in our little town. It was a small town without a lot of crime so most of the time he just called to talk. That particular night was different, though. That night something had happened.

I felt a moment of fear before my father spoke.

“He said someone’s been hurt. A young person.”

“Car accident?”


“Who?” I asked, my mind numb. Someone I knew?

Impossible. That did not happen in my world. It did not. Not.

“They’re chasing the guy who did it right now.”

There was a frozen hesitation when, looking at my parents I saw the worry in their eyes. Worry and something else, something that I have come to believe was part fear and part relief. Fear about what was happening, relief that I was home safe with them.

This is where my memory gets foggy. At some point soon after the phone rang again. The details of what had happened were relayed, and by the end of the night most kids from the Watertown High School class of 1986 knew.

Natalie Guay had been murdered.

Her killer, a jilted boyfriend, had tried to escape but was later caught by police.
The attack was brutal. It is trite to say that many peoples’ lives were torn apart that night, but that is exactly what happened.

Twenty five years ago, yet that summer has been replaying in my mind recently. This is a loss that has echoed through the decades, one that should not be forgotten.

And so we remember. Remember that girl from that small town taken too early, remember that people are not what they seem, and remember that some choices are not ours to make.

How could this have happened?

In school, Natalie was a quiet girl with a shy smile. I have no idea what kind of student she was, but I have sense of what kind of person she was. Natalie was nice. I don’t mean ‘nice’ in that way that sometimes says ‘boring’, I mean ‘nice’ in the kind of way that she was sweet, always said hello, would never deliberately hurt anyone, and had an ability to deal with her school tormentors with grace (one particular boy comes to mind, an equal opportunity bully that the producers of after school specials like to document. I wish I had had the courage to stand up to him, but unfortunately, I didn’t. Nobody did.).

I cannot remember if I spoke to Natalie’s family the night of her wake. If I didn’t, it was because I was uncertain of what to say. The unimaginable had happened, and I felt like there was nothing I could do to ever make it better.

It occurs to me now, all these years later, that the night we graduated high school must have been hell for the Guay family. I can only suppose it was an evening of what-ifs and might-have-beens.

But I can say this: the class of 1986 did not forget. Natalie, we were angry that you had to die, especially the way it happened. You should be with us in the world today, raising a family of your own and pursuing your dreams. But know that what we are left with, the memory of your quiet smile, has stayed with us.

Natalie was among the first of our class to be lost, but certainly not the last. In remembering that summer, her life and her death are spread in front of us as a part of the tableau of 1985. For most of us from that era of Watertown’s history, Natalie is a part of who we became. She reminded us, in life and in death, of the importance of kindness. She showed us to be better than the bullies. She taught us to be careful who we trust. And today she is a poignant reminder of our deep connections to those around us and the profound effect we have upon each other’s lives.

Natalie, you are remembered.