The photo arrived innocently. A look-what-we-found-in-a-box. A reminder of a high school classmate who died driving to the bars just over the state line, where the drinking age was 18 instead of 21.
When strangers ask where I grew up, they're surprised when I say Illinois. They say they hear Wisconsin in my voice. That's how close that border was. We were blends, all of us, of those two states. We drove up to party all the time, sometimes smart enough, and flush enough, to take cabs. But not always.
The night Vera died, she was supposed to give me and another friend a lift home. I left early, with someone who seemed more sober. The snapshot breathalyzers, the cop-like calculations we all make when we drink, still. My other friend went home with someone else too. Plans came together and came apart easily at that age, when you never knew who you would meet or what would happen.
When the news came to me the next morning that Vera's car had collided with a tree, my other friend and I felt the horror and the relief at the same time. That we had made, accidentally, the right decision.
I was recently reminded of these choices after a story told to me by college girls. Listening to them talk, the morning-after forensics, reminded me how easily it is to lose track of one another, even with cell phones. How the girl code and "hos before bros" can melt away when you pour the wrong substance on it.
And the relief I felt about making the right decision that night in Wisconsin slips away from me now, on Memorial Day. Because how is it the right decision to leave someone else, impaired, behind?
I think of Vera whenever I see a roadside shrine, the balloons bobbing in the wind, the stuffed animals clinging to trees and rocks. Every makeshift cross reminds me of how the people who serve this country do so many things right.
It's not the girl code we need to remember, but the battle code. You don't leave the fallen behind.