John Brandi 9 p.m., Sept. 17
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"To leave the world a bit better"
We used to drive around, too young to really have any place to go. Leaving the parking lot of punk rock Denny's, we rolled our windows down and sang along to Crystal Gale's "Don't it make my brown eyes blue." I say sing along but what I really mean is I sang along and Vanessa sang over. She loved to sing. She could never hit a single note; it was the most uncanny thing. I often wondered if she could even hear the nuance of the notes the way she sang in that single tone, enthusiastically flatlining the whole song, using volume to try to overcome what she lacked in tonality. "Tell me no secrets, tell me some lies," we belted as our long blond hair billowed from both sides of the car window doing a steady 80 down the 8. The song would end and we would push repeat on the CD player.
I met Vanessa when she was working at Parkway Plaza. In our friend's apartment on First Street in El Cajon, Vanessa mentioned that she was driving to Georgia that summer. I casually offered to drive with her. I had never met her before but it was the kind of thing to do when you were 20-years-old and had just finished reading Kerouac. I asked her how tall she was.
"Six foot three," she replied.
I liked that she was even taller than me and that she also had a sense of adventure beyond the chaparral we were so used to. I grew up in Santee before it had stores, during the time when its supermarkets were all turning into churches. Vanessa lived in Jamul on a piece of property that was big enough to have an old shed that we called the "general store" and its own lake, which was really a pond. We'd spent all of our lives in the east county and we both wanted to live someplace that had more seasons than fire season. We didn't know where we wanted to go but we knew we wanted to go.
That summer, my mom dropped me off at the Greyhound depot downtown and staring at the clock that had no hands inside the terminal, I was surprised she was letting me get on that bus to go and meet Vanessa, who was already in Georgia. I promised her I would be careful. Four days later, I was in Georgia with Vanessa and another friend from San Diego. We would drive from Georgia to Pennsylvania to go to the wedding of another San Diego friend where we stayed in what seemed like exotic wooden cabins. At night we walked in the forest with the Pennsylvanians who had a wonderful time scaring these girls who had never been in a real forest before, who lept at the sound of every cracking twig sure it was a bear approaching to attack. Thick in the forest, we climbed a water tower and Vanessa and I looked up at the dark sky, so far removed from city lights, trees all below us like a tarp of black velvet, so unlike the dry brown brush of home. This was what the kids out there did when they were bored, they explained.
After the wedding, we dropped our friend back off in Georgia and we got on the 10 west, pressed play on Crystal Gale. We stood on the edge of the Mississippi together talking about how much we loved Twain. We waved at truck drivers who went past and then tried to drive steady with us, laughing as Vanessa stepped harder on the gas pedal pushing us ahead. We were asked by waitresses in diners if we were sisters and sometimes said yes. But by the time we hit the state line in Arizona, we had had had it with adventure. I no longer thought it was funny that she couldn't hit the right notes in any song and she told me to leave her alone in a restroom somewhere on the 8 east. I sat in the car for fifteen minutes by myself glad to have some privacy while she stayed in the bathroom, thinking about how much I was annoying her. We were overjoyed when advertisements for the next exit had the marketing for a Jack in the Box posted, as though this were the true mark of the west. We wanted to go home.
Back to our lives, our retail jobs, we talked about getaway plans. Vanessa thought maybe her mom knew someone in England and we could get jobs working at a hotel somewhere in the countryside over the summer. I agreed that we should do it. We took our classes at Grossmont College together and studied at night at The Living Room, in the college area. We got our letters notifying us that our transfers to San Diego State University had been approved at the same time. In fact, Vanessa was out celebrating. I had just gotten off of work at Barnes & Noble at Grossmont Center when my mom called to tell me.
I didn't even call my boyfriend that night because I knew that telling would make it true. I stayed up all night with my friend from work, afraid to go to sleep as if the night could hold off what had happened. I knew that after sleeping the comprehension of her being gone would flood me all over again in the morning and I could not bear to know it, to have to learn it again. I wanted to go and sing karaoke the night after her funeral, to do "Copacabana" because it was her favorite but nobody thought it was appropriate. It probably wasn't.
Starting that fall, I went to State. I didn't know anyone there and because she was supposed to go with me, I made it so that she did. I was proud of us for having made it there after all those years of community college and so I kept her with me in that silent way we do with the people we don't get to keep with us otherwise. I worked three jobs and took mostly evening classes and didn't make any new friends the three years that I was there. I graduated with Honors and as I stood under the severity of the southern California sun causing us all to sweat through our compulsory black nylon gowns, I told her in my head, a habitual occurrence by then, to look at me as I crossed the stage, shook hands, and finished.
I moved to France a couple of years after finishing college, Germany the year after. I am doing a Ph.D. in New York City now and I come back to Santee every summer and winter to see my family and old friends. I never go to Singing Hills to see Vanessa when I'm there. I haven't been back to her plaque there since the first time I saw it despite my thinking of her almost every day. There are certain burdens for the one who leaves.
The etymology of the verb "to leave" reminds us of the complicated nature of our being. It comes from the Middle English leven, from a formation in the Old English that signals a remainder, what is left behind, and is related to lave, which describes the motion of a river or sea, flowing and moving against things. The word leave means to go in one context but to stay in another and reminds us that these are not absolute movements. I am reminded whenever I come back to the San Diego that I left that much of me is still there, which always strikes me as strange. I finds parts of myself that I have forgotten when driving down Lake Canyon looking at the coyote filled hills--parts left. Leaving and being left. It just sounds like strange verb formations now. I left and I could not leave her. Or, let me try this again, she left us but so much was left. I will not find her anymore in El Cajon than I will in any other city, which is to say that I always find her. What she left goes where I go, like the water in a sea or river, contributing to the movement of the larger body of water. I always hope that where I take her is someplace she would have meant to be as well.