I hid Snow White figurines in the palm fronds by her swimming pool, and I smiled as she discovered them, wide-eyed and delighted.
I created a monthly paper-clip-bound magazine named Ellen, a serene, brown-haired girl, had her swarthy father's dark eyes and her showgirl mother's delicate lips, high cheekbones, and long legs. She looked up to me, her cheerfully bossy older cousin; she believed that all I said was so.
Little girls are sweet almost by definition, but Ellen was especially—almost heartbreakingly—sweet. When Ellen was 23, living in New York City after college in the late 1970s, she jotted down a man's name in her date book.
Her sweetness was a trait you sensed was permanent, an odd purity within what would become a rocky family. He was a photographer with a fine-arts degree from UCLA; he had studied film under Roman Polanski; he'd recently taught art at a summer camp.
Ellen's case became one of the longest unsolved missing-persons cases in the city's history.
Eleven months later, my mother phoned, drew a deep breath, then said, "The detective just called." She paused.
Our homes were blocks apart on the quiet streets of Beverly Hills, where homes were draped with bougainvillea vines, and movie stars were our neighbors, picking their newspapers off their dewy lawns just like everyone else.
"It's the worst." Ellen's bones had been found at the old Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, New York. Even before that definitive day, during the months when police had concluded that Alcala had been the last known person to see Ellen (and yet still he evaded arrest), the painful what-ifs had set in for me. I would have gone to her Third Avenue walk-up, where a baby grand piano filled the small living room, and watched her long, center-parted hair fall over her shoulders as she played.
She was a gifted pianist who loved music—and a biology major with med school in her future.
We would have walked around my neighborhood, the West Village.
We'd have stopped for white-wine spritzers at postage-stamp-sized tables at sidewalk cafés, surrounded by bums.