Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
I haven’t written her name in a very long time. She liked for people to spell it with a “C” not a “K.” Cathy. Cathy and I became friends in the ’80s. She was on the varsity basketball team and I was on JV. I remember seeing her on the bus going to an away game. She was passing around an orange that she’d spiked with vodka. Wow. Smart, cool lady, I thought. I don’t know why she liked me. Maybe it was my three-point shot. (Back then we only got 2 points.) Maybe it was my style: flannel shirt, tube socks, jeans. I knew I liked her ’cause she was like a big sister. She had a lot of “tomboy” friends. And when she introduced me to them, I felt like I’d found my group. Females like me. We didn’t wear girl clothes. We wanted to prove we could do anything guys could do. These were my type of ladies.
I never knew Cathy liked women. Sometimes she liked guys. I wonder if that was part of her cover, though. Today she might have said she was bisexual or perhaps she would have called herself a lesbian. She could have called herself whatever she wanted today. But in the ’80s, you didn’t say anything. There was no discussion about gender. Whatever parts you got, that’s the role you played. When I became a teenager, I never knew that some women loved women in a sexual way. No one told me! As I hung out in my new group, I learned there were secret worlds in the universe. I was about to enter one of them. Upon entry, I saw women flirting with women. I discovered subtle clues to crushes of girls on girls, I saw jealousy flare up between women in empty parking lots, I saw a touch here or there that seemed electric. All the while, I said nothing. And nothing was offered up. Everyone was silent, as if we were an underground crew living two different lives.
I looked up to Cathy. I thought she was cool. I wanted her to know I was cool too. I introduced her to the other side of town. To the faster side of life. To the places where kids swam in public pools, where teenagers hung out on brick walls behind chain link fences. To friends who were “slick,” slightly klepto, drove fast cars, wore stolen leather coats. Cathy and I were both cool, and we were cruising beyond all limits.
A lady appeared one summer with a basketball, loose shorts and freckles on her face. We called her T. When we picked up T, Cathy would ask me to move to the back seat. I’d watch Cathy’s face transform into something colorful and sugary as it melted onto the steering wheel next to T. How happy Cathy was when this new girl rode in the car. T looked happy too, but there was a fear in her eyes that I didn’t understand. I suspected something more was happening than just playing basketball together. But no one would tell me about it. These were times of unspoken and unseen love. Seeing Cathy giddy and innocent around T was all I needed to know. I’d take the back seat as long as I had to. Cathy was in love.
Cathy and I became inseparable. If T wasn’t with us, I rode shotgun. We drank beer together. She taught me how to drive a stick shift in her little blue Honda. At red lights, we revved our engines aside macho cars to initiate a race. We looked fierce but didn’t have the RPMs to put up the fight. We sat by the river and watched the water flow as she hit the high notes to Freddie Mercury songs. We were going places in our little town. She worked at a gas station, I worked at another gas station. When I try to remember Cathy, I can’t remember a lot of details. We were buddies. We got in trouble. We probably partied too much. We had philosophical conversations.
Eventually, we wandered into places we weren’t supposed to go. The places where guns, drugs, prostitution, desperation dominated. We weren’t playing basketball anymore. Trouble was getting more serious. Chemicals other than car fumes were going up our noses. What started out as curiosity was now turning criminal. Cathy was getting towed in by it. Her family thought God would save her. I thought I could save her.
Hannah Gadsby became the hero of many women when her stand-up show Nanette aired this summer. Her voice sounded out like an angel with a trumpet, who then pulls out a bullhorn. I cheered as she professed her hate for Picasso. She proclaimed that the “history of Western art is just the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers.” She talked about connection and how being different is dangerous. I felt a kinship to her right away. My head nodded on its own when she spoke about the number of times someone yelled at her to stop being so sensitive. And, like adding a radioactive cherry to the top of a sundae, she added jokes to serious statements. She said of men telling her she’s too sensitive, “I feel like a nose being lectured by a fart.” She was setting off something nuclear: target Mankind. Armed with tension, punchlines, and her story, she leveled the audience. Hannah said everything Cathy and I could never say in our adolescence. She said everything Cathy should have heard while she was alive.
At the age of 29, Cathy was murdered by a serial killer. She never got to tell her story. I wish I could tell it for her, but I can’t. I can’t say that being alone in the closet killed her, I can’t even really say she lived in the closet. I can’t say addiction killed her. I can’t say forbidden love is where her hope died. Many times I’ve wondered if I hadn’t enticed her to go down the more dangerous roads with me could she have avoided addiction. My story went on long enough for me to try to tell her story. But all I have is a beginning for Cathy. The beginning and the end all in one.
Cathy was a great basketball player, she was a talented piano player, she got all As without doing the homework. Cathy loved babies. She gave birth to two. I don’t know where the pivot happened. Hannah says in her show, “What I would have done to hear a story like mine. Not for blame, not for reputation, not for money, not for power, but to feel less alone. To feel connected.” Hannah, I wish Cathy had heard your story. I wish she heard it before all the addiction and bad choices. I wish she heard it when she was falling in love. I wish she had the chance at 17, to hear you say that 17 is not your prime as a woman. I wish Cathy could have grown up now. Lived in a world where she could be herself. Not had secrets. Watched a female comedian tell her story to millions of people. Heard Hannah Gadsby say, “Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.” I wish Cathy were alive today. I wish I could have told her what you said in one hour on an Australian stage in the summer of 2018. I needed your story, too. I didn’t think back then that our stories would have value. You showed us, Hannah. You showed us that we share a story together. That it’s important not to be silent. That we don’t have to feel alone.
Featured image shows (l-r) Shannon Plumb and Cathy. Images courtesy of Shannon Plumb.