When I was 10, I moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I hated everything about it. I especially hated the fog of irrelevancy that plagued the city. Nothing and no one mattered there and because I lived there – I was just as irrelevant and insignificant. Harrisburg’s lack instilled in me a deep fear of dying. I feared living an insignificant life and dying in oblivion. Naturally, my fear of insignificance and death spurred an addiction to Investigation Discovery. I tuned in every night and learned that the key to survival was visibility: walking on well-lit streets, parking near mall entrances, being loud, noticed, seen.
I balanced my murder mystery intake with Paramore and J-14 magazines from Giant. The Disney Stars were in their prime. Miley was dating Nick, Demi was dating Joe. Miley was insecure about her cankles, Demi about her gap and Nick and Joe wore purity rings. My access to their lives made me feel better about mine because they had the relevance and significance I wanted. They had security, paparazzi and persistent fans that followed them everywhere. They had access to everything that could keep them safe. Hence, they could never end up on Investigation Discovery. Relevance and significance could, in fact, keep me alive. I just needed to be someone worthy of the worlds gaze. This is how I learned that the key to longevity was celebrity.
I was sitting in the kitchen when my mom (who recently started getting her breaking news from Snapchat) said hay se murió ese basquetbolista y su hija, que triste. My sister nodded. I looked him up on Google and, sure enough, Wikipedia added a date of death. Wikipedia also said he was married, so I made my way over to his wife’s Instagram – private. I was not deterred. I did a deep dive on Google: he and his wife married young, he was a #girldad, there was a rape allegation, people referred to him as Mamba, he retired and there was something called Mamba Mentality. He was a celebrity – maybe even an icon. A dull pain sat on my chest.
As if I did not just learn her name a few hours prior - I thought of Vanessa Bryant all night. I couldn’t sleep. I checked her Instagram again; it was still private.
In fact, I checked her Instagram compulsively, for a day or two, just waiting for access.
I was amongst a crowd of plebians outside the castle walls, waiting for the gates to swing open, waiting to take a look at the gold, invade every room and loot all that was rightfully ours.
When the gates finally opened, I examined her most recent post about Kobe and Gianna, closely. I deduced that she did not write the caption herself; that perhaps, in the midst of this tragedy, someone informed her of the crowd waiting outside and volunteered to do the honors. They drew up a caption to appease the plebs and help the Bryant family preserve some modicum of privacy.
I roamed the halls quietly, careful not to disturb anyone, lest I be kicked out. I walk into every room, touched every item, looked at every picture. Their daughters were the center of it all. I searched their faces for traces of their parents. Natalia and Gianna’s eyebrows were different but they both had their mother’s eyes. They smiled like their mother and had their father’s teeth. I gathered that Bianka was a star and that Vanessa and Kobe had just welcomed a baby girl, Capri. Invading their space made me feel better and I resented Vanessa for not giving me access sooner, for withholding the semblance of proximity that would ease the heaviness of our loss.
I could have easily made my way over to Kobe’s Instagram in the interim but I knew that, unlike Vanessa, he could not comfort me.
Every where in the city, I listened to people talk about Kobe and Gianna. The more I heard about them, the more pictures I saw, the sadder I became. The initial dull pain that sat on my chest graduated to a pang of sorts as reels of Kobe and Gianna’s lives, angel wings and basketball jerseys flooded my feed. The world mourned publicly, and I was dizzy. I decided to mourn in private. I deleted the Instagram app off my phone.
I continued to check Vanessa’s Instagram, like clockwork, from my computer.
The day of Kobe’s funeral, I thought of the many people there and how there was no way he knew all of them personally and just how ridiculous it was to attend a stranger’s funeral. There were cameras everywhere. The funeral was held where he once played. But upon his passing, Kobe bequeathed his duties to his wife. This was Vanessa’s game now.
Despite my desire to distance myself from the kind of people who attend a stranger’s funeral, I was as avaricious as everyone else – ready to feed on what was left behind. I watched the livestream on YouTube. I watched with obsessive closeness as Vanessa spoke to a crowd, of mostly strangers, about two loves of her life. I was listening for a crack in her voice, some kind of evidence of loss in her eyes; or, and this is most likely, the absence of both. I managed to watch this funeral with both bereavement and glaring self-awareness: how terrible it must be to have to share the love of your life with the world; but how kind of her to let us pretend it hurts the same, to let us pretend he is an empty seat at our table.
For some time, I let myself pretend that my investment in this tragedy was due to the nature of it: fathers and their daughters, a crashed helicopter, several shattered families. I let myself believe that my pain and Vanessa’s pain were somehow made of the same dust.
Yet, I wouldn't know the absence that loomed over the spaces that Kobe and Gianna occupied. Kobe would not be an empty side of my bed and Gianna would never be an empty room across the hall. The evidence was damning. No matter how much I wanted to claim this loss as my own, it was not mine.
If I’m honest, I envied Vanessa’s proximity to this tragedy. It meant she could justify her pain. Whereas my distance from it exposed me. I masqueraded around the city like a grieving widow because Kobe’s death affirmed my biggest fears.
I wanted to consume Vanessa’s grief so as to adopt it as my own because I wanted a better reason for my sadness. I, too, had lost something, but it wasn’t Kobe or Gianna.
Celebrities are hosts for the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. I lost a host. One of the few, who affirmed for me that life’s worst and darkest moments could be completely avoided if people were watching; that death and sadness could be circumvented with money and visibility. I reduced Kobe’s existence to a symbol of all that I needed to be true about life and when he died something else occupied that space, something else locked eyes with me. That which I had for so long evaded: the effervescence of my mortality and the cosmic weight of knowing that I cannot, no matter who I become or what I acquire, circumvent life’s only promise.