The Weird Summer is Over

My hometown comes straight from Updike, and I left it after that weird summer. I had a week of rest, and then 218 miles down the coast I was back in a car from the same set of stories, open windows and no music. The driver was singing to himself something from memory.

But I was actually in a taxi approaching the outer limits of Baltimore on the way home from my first day of work. And in a way, that itself parallels the weird summer more than any Updike reference. Work had just ended–my summer internship at a lifestyle magazine, and my real summer job, the one I’d been at for six years, lifeguarding at a pool full of Updike children. But I was back at it now, September: same tweed dress, same intern position, same sense of propelling forward when my body wanted to stop moving and rest, let my skin absorb the feeling a little more.

You’re wondering why I keep calling it the weird summer.

At my lifeguarding job, we call two summers ago “the one when Mark died.” Mark, our supervisor, didn’t really die. But he did fall twice in two days and resign. He left our town of curving narrow roads set against a harbor that liked to meet the sky in pinks and oranges. He left the four of us, just eighteen, to run a pool with zero direct supervision.

We took that and ran with it. The four of us, a group bound tighter than water molecules, ran with it in a cerulean pool and at swim meets that soaked our suits through and in the last hours of shift, when the sky was turning colors and everything was quiet, except for the muted laughter of someone you’ll remember in a different moment than this one.

I was always so focused on his laughter, but I wanted to stay away.

Well, he had a girlfriend, so I kind of stayed away. He was part of the group, so I tried to stay away. We flitted around each other like schoolchildren, pulling each other’s pigtails. Except our pigtails were long looks and hands on knees, nothing as innocent as kids because we were eighteen, and we didn’t feel like kids anymore under the sun of that summer that Mark died.

“Are you excited for school?” he asked me near the end, on the verge of that fateful September. When I look back from the backseats of cars in Baltimore, I see that two summers ago really was the last innocent summer. We were eighteen. Nothing real had happened. We were on top of the world at the pool, I swung around the deck in my red bathing suit and bronze skin, but the world hadn’t really started yet.

That was the last summer that I remember as summer as it’s supposed to be. The three months of summer are bookends, the only part of the year separate from all the other months, the only three months you remember with a wistfulness that is wetter and hotter than the nostalgia with which Updike remembered his childhood autumns. That was the final true summer, because the summer after my freshman year of college was a train wreck before it even started.

He hurt me. That’s the simplest way to say it. Emotional rot, disaster, whatever other descriptors I could use, those three words say it all.

“You used me,” I said, but I would still do anything for him.

So if there’s then and…then again, if there’s good and…very bad, where did that leave this new summer? To be the weird one. To be the one with parallels.

I arrived home in May with duffel bags and a heart of ice in hand, because I used sophomore year to build moats and walls, as all wounded girls do. This summer would not be a disaster; I would learn.

Three days a week at my first internship, panting to know everything. Four days a week back at the pool that started it all, molded my best summers. Now there were ghosts in the concrete, in the light, but there also weren’t. It would be okay.

This summer was not a disaster, but it was weird. As I gained, I was losing, because in the sadness of the last summer and the missed content of the first, I had seen the poignancy of everything, and now I struggled to see poignancy in anything. This summer was grayscale. The hills we drove through in my best friend’s car had something I couldn’t grab onto this time. The beginning of this year meant beginning the second half of college. I failed my road test. I couldn’t sleep. Something in my chest was missing. Chopped and left to wither, no magic, lost childhood. That was it. As I left those summers behind, sitting three hours a day on commuter trains, becoming something of an adult in the heat between midtown buildings, I wanted my childhood summers back.

I didn’t get them back. It should be obvious. I have thousands of pictures from all these summers on my laptop, and I still go back to them when I’m sad, to look at the skies again and remember. You can’t get lost time back. You can’t get anything back, no matter how much you reject moving forward in one way while sprinting ahead in another. A pool deck, city streets, cotton candy skies and steam rising off August sidewalks, parallels. Updike spent a whole collection of stories in parallels and all he ended up with was words.

And then the weird summer was over and I was in the back of a cab moving forward again. For real this time–there would be no parallels at school this year, no reason to slip back into wanting, no childhood summers or bookends to be nostalgic for. My cab driver wasn’t speaking. He wasn’t playing music. He wouldn’t close the windows. The windows didn’t even have panes to roll upwards and block the highway air. My hair had come out of its coif.

Maybe that’s where the nostalgia comes from: Not from weeks that seem opposite and cosmically arranged, but from moments in the backs of cars you never imagined you’d be in, with a soundtrack of silence instead of the song you listened to when you were eighteen and in love. During the weird summer I thought I’d needed a rush of movement to push away what I really wanted: for the one I’d let go to step around a corner and come pouring back onto my pool deck. But now that summer was over, 218 miles down the east coast was too long a corner. He didn’t need to come back. He doesn’t.

We spend whole years waiting for summer. We spend whole lives trying to get summers back, if you have a persistent attachment to summer like I do, if even ending a sentence with “all summer” is romantic for you too, if your tongue wraps around the words like mine does, sweetly. We think back to the happy one and the sad one and our breath catches. We are afraid that without some extreme emotion to make it memorable, we won’t remember a moment with clarity. We are humans. We are afraid. We want to remember.

We can look for clarity. I try to every day. I admire people who don’t search for signs or parallels, don’t ask for cosmic maps of then and now or here and there, who don’t pass someone on the sidewalk and look back a hundred feet later and think, “How did they get there?” But I have to, because it’s exactly when I’m not looking that I find what I need.

Don’t be afraid. Ease back into the scratched fabric of a taxi and breathe. It is 5:32 in the evening at the tail end of a season that will be closing soon, until next time, because even though the childhood sky is lost, summers will always be bookends. The sun will set earlier now, and in this moment you have to close your eyes against it. The backs of your eyelids are pink.

Maybe all we really need is this.