Drifter

As cheesy as it sounds, I do remember the day she left for Santa Monica. She packed up her white 1989 sand-cruiser Jeep and headed off to California. It was one of the hardest goodbyes I ever had to make. Vanessa and I were close to say the least. From the day we met we were close. I also knew from the day I met her that she was a runner, and one day she would disappear into the sunset.

Until the day she left for Cali, she had always come back to me, though. I remember one time, we were out on the town, and a guy pulled up on a pretty slick-looking crotch-rocket.

“Hey, baby, wanna ride? I’ll take you to places you’ve never been.”

Without any hesitation, she kissed me on the cheek and climbed on his bike. I stood there a little stunned, but I really shouldn’t have been. Vanessa was a wild spirit, and she could never resist an adventure. She rolled back into town and up to my doorstep two weeks later, wearing new clothes and carrying mementos from the trip in a small backpack.

I happened to be outside when a black ’67 Chevelle pulled up and she climbed out. She handed the driver a twenty-dollar bill, closed the door and came running up to me.

“Alex! I have so much to tell you! I had such a good time…”

I smiled, and again, she kissed my cheek as she walked passed me. She stayed with me for a few days, unloading stories every night while I made dinner, telling me of her time in Utah, or the night she spent in Fargo, among other things. I was glad she was home, but there was a part of me that began waiting for the next time she would drop out of my life and disappear.

She was untamable; I always called her my mustang. She was wild and free, never one to be held in one place or told what to do. She just couldn’t be contained. It was one of the many things that I loved about her. Not that I could tell her that; as soon as somebody told her how much she meant to them, she ran. She was young and refused to be committed or tied down; she needed her freedom.

So I learned to keep my mouth closed, and hoped that she simply understood why I cared about her. I think she did; she would always come back to me, excited to tell me about everything that was going on, and all the crazy things she had done.

I knew I was one of the few solid things she had in her life. No matter where she went, how long she was gone, or what she did, I was always there for her when she came back. I’d like to think I taught her to trust again. She had been through quite a bit by the time we met, and there were nights she spent curled up in my arms, just telling me all the things she was too afraid to tell anyone else. It was never romantic, per say; we were just close. She was easy to love, in a number of ways.

She taught me a lot as well. The biggest thing I learned from Vanessa was never to hold on too tightly. People come and go, and if you cling too tightly to them, it only hurts that much more when they go. She was in and out of my life so much it seemed like she was intentionally teaching me that lesson. Always on the go. She took me with her once or twice, but usually I got a peck on the cheek to let me know she would be ok, and then she was on her way.

Her thirst for adventure took her some incredible places. She called me one day, bursting to tell me that she was taking an impromptu trip to Spain.  One of her work friends had two plane tickets to Madrid and she had one to spare. So Vanessa jumped on the opportunity. She was gone for two months. She called me once a week to let me know she was still alive, intentionally calling when I couldn’t pick up the phone. I think she was afraid talking to me would make her want to come home. I’d never ask her to choke off her wanderlust, but she knew I missed her. Like I said, we were close.

She did that sort of thing every few months. She would take off, usually with a friend or two, occasionally by herself or with a stranger, and just travel. New York, Portland, New Orleans, Vancouver…she went all over. She always came back, filled to the brim with excitement and love of life. As much as I wanted her to stay, that unbridled side of her was what made her so wonderful. She was unlike anyone else. She went where she wanted, lived life the way that she wanted, and when she missed home or she needed a break, she came back. I had to take her as she was, because asking her to stay was like asking a bird not to sing: not only is it impossible, but that part of her was one of the most beautiful things about her.

Then came the day she told me she was leaving.

“I’m going to California.”

“Oh, that sounds like fun. For how long?”

“Alex…I’m not coming back.”

“Like, ever? Will you at least come visit?”

“I’d like to say I will keep in touch, and I’ll visit you, but realistically, I probably won’t. It’s just easier for me that way. I might not even tell you when I leave. I hate goodbyes, I can’t handle distance…it’s just better this way, trust me.”

“No. I can let you go, but you have to say goodbye. You can’t just leave; that ain’t right.”

“LET me go? Who do you think you’re talking to? I do whatever I damn well please, and you don’t LET or MAKE me do anything.”

“I know…I’m sorry. That’s not exactly what I meant.”

I sighed real deep as I thought about the words I wanted to use. I had to be real delicate, or this might be our last conversation.

“Look…you’re important to me. If the day you leave is the last time I ever see you, I want it to be a good memory. I want to be able to look back and be happy with the way we parted ways. It’s important to me. If all I have of you is my memories, I want to be able to cherish them.”

She took a puff off her cigarette as she looked absent-mindedly into the trees.

“Alright. I can understand that. It’s kind of a girly statement, though.”

We laughed, and she continued, “It is! You’re over there baring your feelings, putting everything on the table, and I’m stoic and steely. I am out-manning you right now.”

I smiled and poked her in the ribs. “Fair enough. I’ll close the lid on the emotions box if you promise to let me say goodbye.”

“Deal.”

A few months went by, and she stayed in town, not really going anywhere, hanging out at my place from time to time. We continued to partake in our personal traditions, eating a pint of ice cream together on movie nights, or pitching tents in my back yard and making camp-fires. The thought that she was leaving was always on my mind, but I was able to keep it a distant thought, focusing on the day I was living in, instead of the day that was coming.

That day did eventually come, though. There was no postponing it or pretending it didn’t arrive. Vanessa had stayed over at my place the night before, having packed up her Jeep already, and we spent one last night watching movies, playing board games, and talking about every topic under the sun. In the morning, she fussed over her hair in the bathroom as I double and triple checked that the Jeep was in good shape.

Finally, she was ready. She came outside, and I thought to myself that there was no better image to remember her by. The 10am sun hit her hair just right, and her blue eyes sparkled with the excitement of a new adventure. She walked over to me, wrapped her arms around my neck, and pulled me in close. We stood like that in my driveway for a few minutes, and I mustered up the courage to speak.

“Take care of yourself, Road Warrior. And if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods again, feel free to hit me up or just drop by. You know I’m always here.”

She smiled, but I could see the sadness in her eyes. This was somewhat difficult for her as well. She couldn’t say anything, but she looked at me, pressed her lips together, and shook her head.

As she started to pull away, I held on for a second, and then said, “Love you, kid…”

She smiled that same sad smile, kissed me on the cheek one last time, and said, almost in a whisper, “I know.”

Then she climbed into that sand-racer, turned on her music, and waved as she pulled out of my driveway. I waved back, and watched her drive away until I couldn’t see her anymore. I stood there, facing the street, heavy-hearted, thinking about the wild mustang that had just left my life.

Suddenly, a calming thought overcame all others in my mind: the reason she had always come back before became very clear to me.  I grinned to myself as I turned to go back inside the house. She’ll be back…eventually.

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