I write nonfiction to make sense of things. I piece together this memory with that one, laying them out like a jigsaw puzzle until everything makes a whole, turns into something I can look at and say, “Oh, yes, of course. Now I see.” But sometimes, no matter how I lay out the pieces, I cannot make sense of the memories. Nothing fits together to make a coherent whole.
And so I have debated whether or not I can write about Brandon Villegas, the 18-year-old boy who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the shooting range on Yosemite Parkway sometime after 4 p.m. on April 23. The other question was whether I should write about Brandon, whether such an article might cause further pain for the many people who loved him.
But not writing about Brandon would be worse. It would suggest that Brandon was not important, that his memory has diminished, in a week’s time, to such an extent that he does not merit my attention. Not writing about Brandon would be an insult, I think, and so this column will be about Brandon, though it is impossible to convey in words all of that I am thinking about Brandon now.
When piecing together a story about someone, one always starts with the facts. One usually begins with the birth and ends with the death, though in many ways people are formed before they are born and in many ways their stories continue long after they have died.
The last time my family saw Brandon alive was on the evening of April 22. We detected nothing then that led us to fear that Brandon might take his own life the next day, though of course now, looking back, everything about the evening of April 22 carries new meaning.
Over the past few days, I have been thinking a lot about that evening. I have tried to limit myself to the facts of that evening, like a detective. One fact is that Brandon had won a student of the month award, an award my eldest son Casey had also won, and on April 22 both boys received their awards, along with about 20 other kids from schools in the Merced Union High School District.
This is another fact: Brandon sat with us at the awards ceremony, and after the ceremony Brandon went to dinner with us, where he and Casey saw some kids they knew. Brandon shared a mozzarella stick and chicken strip platter with our youngest son, Everett.
Another fact, which isn’t as relevant to April 22 but is relevant to the platter of chicken strips, is that Brandon was a picky eater. In the eight years or so that we knew him, he always ordered chicken strips, even at the renowned Phil’s Fish Market in Morro Bay. Brandon was also health conscious, and would not drink soda. One fact I would like to remember but cannot is whether or not Brandon ordered a soda on April 22, as knowing what he drank might be an indication of whether or not Brandon still cared about his health, and thus might provide some clue to Brandon’s state of mind.
That evening at dinner, Brandon sat next to Everett and across from Casey, and the next night, a little over 24 hours later, Casey and Everett saw Brandon again, only this time he was lying in a bed on life-support.
And so the facts, the pieces of memory, don’t add up to a logical picture. In one memory, Brandon is laughing in response to something Casey said, and reaching for a mozzarella stick, and then a few hours later Brandon is only a body, the real Brandon having left Earth forever.
So perhaps it is better to tell you about Brandon himself. Brandon was irreverent and smart, and he made people laugh, which is why he was so well-liked. Brandon was kind. It was something one sensed about him right away, and because he was so kind he captured hearts instantly, without even trying, because the good in Brandon was so clear.
Brandon was gifted. He taught himself to play the piano by ear, and he played beautifully. We have an old upright piano at our house, and, with a few exceptions from occasional visitors, Brandon was the only person who ever played it. He played it every time he visited us, though I noticed he did not play last time he was over, and now I wonder if that was a clue to Brandon’s state of mind.
Brandon was also a talented swimmer. At swim meets, if I saw him after he’d won an event, I’d say “Nice going, kiddo,” and Brandon would grin. His smile was infectious.
After Brandon died, Josh Fluetsch gave Casey a framed photograph of all three of them together. In the photo, Brandon is sitting between the other two, their arms are around each other, and they are all wearing swim suits, their hair wet and tousled, and they are all, of course, smiling. I cannot look at the picture – at Brandon in the picture especially – without smiling.
But of course there is so much more to know about Brandon, and that is another reason why it is impossible to make sense out of Brandon’s story, a story about a kid who seemed to have so much potential, but who believed he had nothing to live for.
As I said, though, no one’s story ends with their death. We always leave things behind – a piano, a photograph, a certificate for being a good student. But we also leave behind things that are not easy to name or define.
Brandon had so many friends, so many people who loved him. I knew Brandon because he was part of a large group of kids, many of them swimmers and water polo players, who hung out together. He was also part of a smaller core group of kids, which included Casey and Josh, who have known each other for a long time and who have spent many weekends together, moving like a giant amoeba through and between their parents’ houses, one amorphous mass of teenage boys making noise and scattering stuff – wet towels, bottles of Gatorade, socks and shirts – as they moved from room to room, laughing.
On the Monday after Brandon died, Casey and Josh stayed home from school. They went out for an early lunch, and then they gathered a few more boys who had known Brandon, and they spent the day together. When I got home around 2 p.m., they were playing basketball in the driveway, their shirts draped over a nearby bench, music blaring from a speaker set up on a chair.
They were giving Casey a hard time because he had lost whatever game they were playing, and they were all laughing, and I could not help but think that Brandon should have been there. I left to go buy them cold sodas, and when I came back they had moved from the driveway to the kitchen, where they were playing a board game.
I watched them for a while, wishing Brandon could have been there, thinking he should have been there, getting a little mad at Brandon for not being there. I knew that they all were thinking about Brandon, too, but they were also working out how to live without him. They’ll find a way to do that, but Brandon will always be a member of their group, at once both present and far away.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.