Personal Essays

Our Faded Summers

It may be something in the sunscreen, but funny things happen during summer: dehydration, Lyme disease, brief romantic flings. Collected writings of love lost and won (but mostly lost).

Andrew Womack and a Pariah

The summer after my sophomore year in high school began six weeks late. Along with a number of my peers from my school and two neighboring high schools, I was stuck in summer school.

From year to year, the three high schools in the area would alternate which would host the summer session, and this time it was held at the one nearest my own. Though close to home, it was still foreign territory, inhabited by kids who sure enough resembled those in my own classes—similar haircuts, the same T-shirts—but with different faces. The effect was that, while it was still high school, the cliques so painfully erected over the past few years were effectively removed—at least for a brief moment. Everyone was a stranger, and there were no consequences. And so between classes you would see preppies speeding off-campus with punk-rock girls, goth guys with heavy eyeliner feeling up cheerleaders, and me, getting furiously frenched in the corridor outside health class.

She was an ex-girlfriend of a friend of a friend, perennially clothed in a too-long Cure T-shirt, and she attended the same school I did. I knew her vaguely, and we were surrounded by people we didn’t know, and who didn’t know us.

Though a year younger than me, she was adept at stealing vodka from her parents’ liquor cabinets (and those of others), and knew it was better to take the entire bottle than to pour out part and fill the missing contents with water. Every day, when classes would end in the afternoon, we’d drive to her house, climb the stairs (“It’s OK, my parents never come up here”), and go into her bedroom. (“But my mom says we have to leave the door open.”) She was wise, if that’s the word, beyond her years, and much of that through trial and error. After all, there must have been a reason—a prior incident perhaps—that required the door be kept open. (Though “open,” as far as I knew, she interpreted as “ajar.”)

After classes ended and summer vacation began, I tried calling her, but only got her mom (this was the first time I’d spoken to her, in fact). I didn’t hear back, so tried again a few days later; again I only spoke with her mom, who said she didn’t know where she was, then gave me a gentle brush-off. (“You seem nice, but…”) Though it was the first time I’d been broken up with by somebody’s mother, it didn’t sound like the first time she’d had to do it.

I wasn’t heartbroken—in fact, I was relieved. It had gone unspoken that this wasn’t going to last, and this was proof. Once back at our own school that fall, we’d frequently pass each other between classes, exchange a furtive smile, and keep walking.

Jessica Francis Kane and a Lingering Question

My childhood Augusts were spent in Connecticut. My father, an academic, took off most of the month and we decamped to my grandmother’s house in the woods of Lyme. Home of the disease, yes. But rather than avoid ticks, my family made a habit of avoiding people. Although we went every year to the same place, we never saw anyone socially. Thus the summer I was 14, the significance of attending a cocktail party was not lost on me. My parents showered and dressed carefully. My grandmother made an hors d’oeuvre. My brother and I registered these actions the way one would a summer cold snap. Strange, but refreshing.

The guest of honor wore a wig and thick beige nylons. She sat in a chair by the window and although she smiled and talked and even had a gin and tonic, she never got up. Her son, a dark-haired boy of 12, didn’t stray far and brought her a shawl when she complained of a chill. My father, whose emotional gauge was most like my own, had a drink or two more than usual that evening, and I learned later from my mother, who did most of the clarifying in those days, that the lady in the wig was dying of cancer.

My brother, the most social of us all, struck up a friendship with her son, Kevin, and began disappearing for whole afternoons. The rest of us stuck to our usual routine: reading, walking in the woods, swimming in the most remote places we could find. Toward the middle of the month, my brother revealed a secret. Kevin had a crush on me and planned to give me a kiss, his first, at the top of the Ferris wheel at the Hamburg Fair.

Now this was fascinating and not entirely unwelcome news as it would be my first kiss, too. I didn’t return the crush, but he was cute and I felt sorry for him.

When the night came, my parents took their fried dough to an isolated part of the fairgrounds and my brother and I wandered off to the rides. We met up with Kevin, who was dressed nicely, cowlick combed down. He asked me if I’d like to ride the Ferris wheel, I feigned surprise, he helped me into the bucket seat, and we were off.

No one would have guessed I was the older child. I chattered and giggled while he quietly pointed out landmarks of his hometown. At the crest each time, I started talking to fend off any advance. The fifth time around, the moment he finally tried to kiss me, I disappeared into my purse and came up offering a piece of gum. Then the ride was over.

I’ve told myself over the years that to kiss someone out of pity is a mistake, but I wish that night I’d had the poise to make an exception. This is what haunts me: What if Kevin wanted to tell his mother he’d had his first kiss? She died that winter. I hope he found a more confident girl in the fall.

Rosecrans Baldwin and a Mystery Man

When I was about nine my grandfather gave me The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, 37 stories plus The Hound of the Baskervilles. All the original Strand illustrations were included. I was smitten. I probably stayed up 37 nights in a row to finish, but since I was nine, the affair was short and I forgot about Holmes shortly after—probably I moved onto some other boyhood obsession (Spiderman? John Bellairs? Exploring in the bathtub?). Now, this summer, in his dressing gown, Sherlock has left his digs on Baker Street and come to Brooklyn.

The affair, you can say, begins innocently enough. One day my wife asks me if I’ve ever seen the Granada Television Holmes series—beginning in 1984, with the astonishingly well cast Jeremy Brett as Sherlock, they filmed 44 episodes. When she hears I haven’t seen a one, we begin renting them through Netflix. Dotty, devoted, I start to fear we’ll run through the lot too soon.

Then things get worse. I discover “the game,” a decades-old exploration of Holmes and Watson’s world wherein readers—often extremely clever readers—pretend Doyle hardly existed, that if he has any claims to the canon of mysteries it’s only as Watson’s friend, and, assuming all the stories to actually have occurred as Watson relates them, they pen books and articles to explain away any inconsistencies or holes that would be allowable were the stories fiction, but impossible since we take them to be fact. It’s a deviant, extremely pleasurable world. Suddenly readers have a way to play Sherlock themselves and apply his methods; if Watson’s wife once called him James instead of his proper name, John, then was it simply a mistake? Or was she addressing someone else in the room, an interloper unseen? Was it a wifely nickname, or some ingenious clue? I read the reports enthralled, and when I find Leslie S. Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes on sale at the Strand—an oven-sized, expensive two-volume set possessing much scholarship achieved in the game—I lug it around Manhattan on a muggy August day (for three hours) like some four-ton totem I have to be worthy of before studying when I’m home.

Holmes, you are my secret crush, my private idol. Our affair doesn’t include a lot of tongue, but I find it touches on secret, slightly embarrassing thrills. The boyhood fancy has become a treasure I expect to last a long time, no less amusing for reading but much richer in returns. As Edgar W. Smith wrote, “[Holmes] is the personification of something in us that we have lost or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent, and self-assured; it is we ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable content…That is the Sherlock Holmes we love—the Holmes implicit and eternal in ourselves.”

My grandfather, the one who introduced me to my beak-nosed lover, was a passionate Holmes fan. In one caper, he wrote a bogus business article and submitted it to the Harvard Business Review to see if he could get it published. It was, and the evil corporate director quoted was one Professor James Moriarty.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad and a Pen Pal

The summer after seventh grade, a girl I liked moved to Anchorage, Alaska, from our hometown in Florida. We had been in some classes together, including the one designed for nerds. But unlike me, she looked good in the de rigueur jean jacket of the times and ran with the popular students who practically lived on the beach. I mostly admired her from afar, and when she flirted with me, it was in the supercilious way reserved for negligible boys. I didn’t mind.

I gave her my address before she left. To my surprise, she sent me letters that summer. “Hey, Batman! This is Batgirl reporting,” she wrote. She told me about how in Alaska it didn’t get dark before midnight and that she’d met a girl with bad body odor. She joked about saving herself for me. It was a running joke between us. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to subdue these uncontrollable urges,” she wrote. I looked forward to getting the letters. They were funny and smartly written and the most contact I had ever had with a girl I liked. I collected them in the same Mylar sheets I used to preserve precious comic books.

Then the ensuing letters revealed things I didn’t know about her. She’d open by talking about the upcoming school year (“I’m gonna take a foreign language for my elective, either Russian or French”), but she’d also include angry, candid details about her family life. “I know every husband and wife have sex, but are they as loud as my parents!!? Do they have a vibrator handy at all times…and do they leave it so their kids can find it!!?” She complained about her real father, who occasionally called and never visited. “My mother,” she wrote, “used to be my best friend. Now she is my best enemy.” Over the course of that summer, my crush transformed from the dreamy girl who teased my nascent desire into a girl who had angst, resentment, and pain that, at the time, I couldn’t understand. She had become alien and terrifying. At some point the letters between us stopped. I didn’t look at the mailbox expectantly anymore. I returned to drawing comic books and raising hamsters in my spare time.

Choire Sicha and a Spanker

I’d often spend my under-employed San Francisco afternoons outside at the screaming-busy Café Flore. When the cold summer fog came in, I’d head home, just across Market Street. There, I’d watch it get dark.

On one of those evenings, now a dozen years ago, my doorbell rang. It was a redhead who worked at the café. He had come to return a baseball cap that I’d left behind. The hat was white and red.

I’d thought so little of this hat that I couldn’t even place it.

The redhead was taller than me, a bit over six feet, handsome, just on the athletic side of scrawny, with cute round glasses and a hoard of those tight and slick-smooth T-shirts in worn green and blue.

Over the next few weeks, sometimes I wore the hat, and then I thought of him.

Because I was very hazy, it didn’t once occur to me to question how he knew where I lived. And I don’t remember when we next talked. But it was probably at the café. I had gotten bold enough to flirt with him in those weeks.

“Did you notice,” he asked me, “anything different about the hat?”

“No…” I said.

“I jerked off in it,” he said, with a leer.

After that, I went out with him for a few weeks, or perhaps a few months. “Went out with” meant, at that time, that I would go over to his house and he would smoke pot and we would have sex. He was very much into spanking, and I felt, as I did with nearly any man who paid attention to me in those days, a fairly worshipful affection for him. After we no longer continued this arrangement, my affection became a burden that, it seems to me now, lingered overly long and heavy, particularly in light of all the circumstances.

Sarah Hepola and a First

I spent the summer of 1988 with my 18-year-old cousin in her suburban Michigan town, getting drunk on peach schnapps, smoking dope, and generally engaging in all sorts of debauchery off limits to the nice eighth-graders in my conservative Texas town. I wasn’t even 13 years old—shy and bookish, with a propensity for too much eye makeup—although my figure, much to my confusion, was an easy 17. Looking back, I probably had my pick of the horndogs we played “I Never” with in some abandoned parking lot. But my sights settled on Scott Peterson—19 years old, with shaggy brown hair and the high score on Galaga. One night, after we’d both had too many Coors Lights, he cornered me and asked me the most romantic thing I’d ever heard.

“Would you kiss a guy with dip in his mouth?”

I had never kissed a guy, period. “Of course,” I said, hoping to sound more 14 than 13.

“I’ve never met a girl who would kiss a guy with dip in his mouth.”

I couldn’t imagine why. I loved dips—especially ranch.

What followed was a tongue lashing that tasted of tea leaves and beer. Was it good? It didn’t matter. I was finally engaging in the wild, glorious bounty my girlfriends had experienced at family weddings and church camps.

“Call me tomorrow,” he said as I left, digging his hands deep into my stiff, peroxided hair.

At the time, I thought it was the romance I’d always hoped for; instead, it was the romance I came to fear.

I called the next day and left a message. Nothing.

I called the day after that. “Scott’s in the shower,” his mom told me. “He says he’ll call you back.”

He never did. After a week of waiting around, perfume and eye liner at the quick, I gave up. Was I too young for him? Was I a bad kisser? I never knew. All I knew was that I never saw him—not that summer, or ever again. Four years later, when I returned to Michigan for my cousin’s wedding, she told me Scott had stopped by the house, asking about me. He left his number.

Of course, I never called.

David Leite and an Organ

She called to me like a common harlot in a parking lot: Hey, half price, Big Boy. Just for you. Interested but skeptical, I hesitated. I couldn’t believe how cheaply she was selling herself. I walked back and forth, sizing her up. Plump, firm, ever so slightly jaundice colored. Just how I like them.

When the young woman behind the counter caught my eye, I pointed to the Hudson Valley foie gras. “Is that for real?”

She nodded. “A special deal.”

Politically tainted goods, I thought. She’s trying to unload her stash before the PETA police bust her. But $38 a pound was a steal, especially in the tony, second-home mecca of Millerton in upstate New York. The one-and-three-quarter-pound liver cost an astonishing low $66.50. There was enough to indulge my fetish for the next seven days.

Only one thing stood in the way of a lost week of organ love: I was on my way to spend the day with friends, and the foie gras had to remain very cold. Walking in with it meant one thing—sharing. If only I hadn’t scared off the last of my vegetarian friends with my pronouncements that vegans should be put on an island until all they have left to eat was each other and then we’d see how vegetarian they truly are, I’d have the liver all to myself. But, no, carnivores abound in my circle. Carnivores with unfortunately good taste. I made a quick calculation. There would be plenty for the five of us, and perhaps a few extra scraps for me if I cooked, a responsibility everyone was glad to hand over.

The first slab slid into the hot pan and shrunk away a bit, as if turning a shoulder, suddenly modest that I was seeing it splayed naked. Like most sex, the act was hot, a bit violent, and over in no time. Afterward, there were five perfectly seared slabs of unconditional love. Cooling in the pan was the evidence of our encounter: a golden, viscous liquid—pure, unctuous liver fat. Despite the others looking on, I dragged my finger though the fat and took it to my lips and licked. They turned away from the bald-faced display of live food porn.

At the table, I smiled at my plate of foie gras garnished with grilled peaches and a drizzle of warm maple syrup. It seemed to smile back. No one can tell us that our love is disgusting, mon cher, I whispered in my heart. Je t’aime.

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers