It’s funny how something so common and insignificant can become such a meaningful signpost in a person’s life.

Last night I went to a birthday party for a close friend’s grandmother. Her name is Doreen, or Granny, and she turned 80 on Tuesday. She is a sweet, small, spitfired Irish woman, who probably would punch somebody out for calling her 80 years young. Thankfully, it wasn’t that kind of party.

Ryan (my friend) lives in Pecan Plantation, a gated development on the outskirts of my hometown. Pecan is like a little town unto itself, filled with retirees who choose to go only as far as their Cadillac golf carts can take them and couples who have moved away from the city to begin their families. Over the years, many of my friends have lived in Pecan, and I’ve come to know this development as well as my own neighborhood.

To gain entrance to Pecan, you first have to be called in to the gate. Now, my last name is. . .unique, and I became easily recognizable to the guards. As I drove into Pecan last night (for the first time in a loooong time), the on-duty guard was a man who has been working that gate for years. And years. And he remembered me. “Michelotti!!” he said. “Long time no see!!” And so we chatted. I now know about this man’s health issues, the fact that he thinks Bin Laden is personally responsible for the bronchitis he had last week (biological warfare has hit Granbury! Look out!!), and that he knew he would see me again. It was telltale of how often I used to drive through that gate, stopping briefly to give my name and make small talk with the guards, only to drive on to whatever lured me to Pecan in the first place.

Usually, it was my best friend, Jill. I drove through that gate many times for Jill. The first time I was allowed to drive my car to Pecan all by myself, I drove triumphantly up to the gate and introduced myself to the guard. When we were 16, and she called me one winter afternoon after a fight with a boy, yelling and cursing, I drove the 15 minutes to Pecan, pausing quickly at the gate to offer my name and an apology for Jill’s brusqueness with the guards, and made my way to her house to be her emotional punching bag for a little while. And the afternoon she called me to tell me her mother’s cancer had come back, the stop at the gate was a moment for me to collect myself. The guards seemed to sense the tension of the situation, and silently let me pass.

Each stop at the gate had a purpose. Many have a clear place in my memory. I remember when I stopped at the gate after Jill’s mother’s funeral. I remember the guard (the same one from last night) coming to my car, squeezing my hand, and offering his prayers. And I remember knowing in my heart that he meant it.

Not every visit to Pecan was for Jill. Some were for Ryan, some were for the little girls I babysat for, and there was one that was just for me.

When I was 17, I was leaving Pecan after babysitting one Saturday night. I was driving home, so tired because it was after midnight. My stereo (the City of Angels soundtrack) was playing loudly to keep me awake and my windows were down. It was 12:13 on my clock, which meant it was really 12:03. I remember just driving, counting the minutes until I could be in my bed.

Then there was smoke. Rancid smoke. I can still smell the smoke; it poured into my lungs, filling my car with the putrid scent of burnt rubber mixed with my own fear. Things start blending at this point. There was a car on the side of the road, and about ten feet away from that car was another. It happened so fast. The smoke was so thick.

I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t even been driving for a year really. I couldn’t remember what you were supposed to do if you passed an accident. If another car had stopped, did I have to stop? My mom was expecting me. I was so tired. So tired. I didn’t want to turn around. I didn’t want to go back into the smoke.

So I went home. I saw the taillights of the car that had stopped to help, and I went home. Because I was tired.

I’ve replayed this scene in my head over and over again. Except in my do-overs, I stop. I stop and I go to the car that hit the tree, and I hold her hand. I tell her that I’m sorry.

The next morning my phone rang. My phone rang, and someone spoke words I couldn’t understand. She was dead, she said. At 12:02. She hit the tree, she said. In her car. Just fell asleep. Did I know? Had I heard? Had I heard about Venetia? 12:02. Hit the tree. Fell asleep. Venetia is dead.

In my head, the scene plays again, except this time it starts at the house where I was babysitting. This time, I don’t stand in the driveway chatting with Mrs. Knapp. This time, I leave right away, and see Venetia driving on the highway. I honk and wave, and she wakes up.

I went to church that day. My mom drove me. I whispered something about seeing an accident, and my mom looked at me sharply and said she was sure it wasn’t the same one. I went to the church and people cried, and I was silent but in my head I was screaming the question I was too afraid to ask out loud: Where? Where did it happen?

In my head, I can see another scene play out. This time I leave the house early, and her car hits my car. I’m the buffer, and she lives.

We played tennis together. I saw her a week before it happened. She told me she loved me. We both liked yellow. I was on her Chrysalis. She used to let me win. I used to let her win. Our games went on forever because we were both trying to let the other win. She loved butterflies. Everyone loved her. She was beautiful. She loved me. It was my fault.

I left church. I got a ride home, and got into my car. I hadn’t cried. I started the car, and my stereo blasted words at me. “You are pulled from the wreckage by your silent reverie. You’re in the arms of the angel. May you find some comfort here.” Sarah McLachlan didn’t know. I turned off the stereo and I drove to the tree she hit. I knelt down. I touched the tree. There was glass cutting my knee, but I didn’t notice. I touched the tree she hit. I smelled the smoke again. And the first tear fell.

In my head, I see the whole thing play out. This time, she follows me home. She stands there, yelling at me, begging me to stop for her. Why didn’t you stop, she screams. Why?? I thought you loved me. I thought you were my friend.

I can’t see through my tears anymore. The salt has made my eyes swell together. Maybe it’s so I can’t see the faces of the people who miss her so much. I wear sunglasses to her funeral. Keith Grissom jokes that I have a Jackie O. thing going on. I scream in my head that it’s my fault. I scream in my head that I’m so so so sorry. I don’t cry at her funeral. I can’t see. I try to hide inside myself, but I can only smell the smoke again.

I manage to open my eyes enough to see her coffin at the gravesite. I feel my way up to it, touch the velvet flowers on its surface, and smell the smoke again. I start to sway. Someone leads me under a tree, into the shade. Someone hands me water. I think that I don’t deserve water. I try to tell them it should have been me, but I’m being shushed. They don’t know. I see her mother, and I’m so sorry in my heart.

In my head, I see it all again. This time, I stop my car and walk over to the jeep. I see the sight nobody should ever have to see. It’s my punishment. I hold her hand and I tell her I’m sorry.

She was beautiful. She was so much to so many people. She was only 16. She and I wore the same perfume. And I’m so sorry. So so sorry.

I saw her mother last night, at Ryan’s grandmother’s party. I tried to stay in the other room. She didn’t know. She doesn’t know. I want to tell her I’m sorry. I want to tell her that I don’t play tennis anymore. I want to tell her that if I could have one do-over, I would choose that moment. I would stop. And she wouldn’t have been alone.

I see it one more time in my head. This time, I stop and walk to the jeep, but nobody is there. The smoke clears, and I know she loves me still. I know it isn’t my fault. But I’m still so sorry.

Last night, I drove through Pecan again. I drove past Venetia’s house and whispered that I was sorry. I drove past the tree (or where it used to be before they chopped it down), and stopped. I stood there, waiting. There was no smoke, no sound. Just my memories. And Sarah McLachlan. “In the arms of the angel. May you find some comfort there.”

June 13, 1998. Seven years. I’ve been sorry for seven years now. I’ll always be sorry. I remember everything.

She was so beautiful. And I remember the last thing she said to me. “De Colores. I love you.” She liked yellow. We played tennis. She smiled. And she loved me, too.