A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Summer Fever.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
You emailed me videos of some bands you said I might like because they’re from Cincinnati and I’m from Woodlawn and because the guitar players in the bands are girls and I‘m a girl, even though I only like music that’s been featured in Volkswagen commercials or One Tree Hill finales because I like for a song to come pinned to an experience, not the other way around, which I know you know because we talked about it in your backyard that night the air was thick with Carolina mosquitoes and we used our thumbnails to punch Xs into the bites to keep from scratching them, but still my phone is buzzing with your name, showing me guitar-playing versions of the ladies you like best—dreamy and make up free because they look fine (no, great) without it—like those ladies in their flannel dresses and blunt-cut hair can stand in for what’s been unsaid the last ninety-four days, which is when Gmail tells me was the last time we emailed, that is, of course, until today when you sent me videos of exactly the kind of music I could never bring myself to like, played by women who look a lot like the woman you said was “just a friend” but who showed up at my work wearing the faded Mothers Against Drunk Driving T-shirt you found in a garbage can behind your apartment seven years ago, and which you said was your favorite, the kind of woman I could never bring myself to be because authenticity never looked so natural or beautiful on my skin as it does on hers, which you know because I told you all that that night we drank too much rum, after which you kissed me and I could feel the itchy poison on my legs as all those Xs undid themselves, rising once again into tight, red mounds, which means you that you don’t really think that I might like these bands, you only wanted a way for the touch of your words to find my eyes, even if those words are the names of bands I’m never going to listen to because you’re never again going to brush the hair from my eyes the way you did the night I tasted the salt on your warm shoulders and breathed you in and scratched my legs until they bled.
* * *
In some sort of whiskey-fueled frenzy, I stand up in the pub at 10 p.m. “ICE CREAM,” I demand. My friends eye me warily but do not resist, the lot of us tumbling outside into the echoes of daylight. At home in Los Angeles it would be long dark, but we are skipping down Wexford Street—galloping, really—under blue sky. It was a straight shot here from Chicago only yesterday, yet I feel no pain. Before that there was San Jose, Phoenix, Denver. Not in succession, and with work in between, but in all, fourteen concerts in five cities. I’m here in Dublin to see another two.
At some point—I think it was at the New Year, and in this very town—I scrawled a big FUCK IT on some invisible sky notepad and purchased a large number of tickets—both concert and plane. For what? For this. So I can bound through the streets of Dublin on a bright summer night, T-shirt clad and twirling, surrendered to chocolate gelato, surrendered to the sounds of AC/DC blaring from buskers’ amps, surrendered to this and only this, and screw that white box of an office with five computers and no open windows twelve hours away in California. So I can, in a few days, weep silently to the sweeping of a sweet, soaring fiddle from the stage in Iveagh Gardens.
This might be the best ice cream I’ve tasted. This might be the warmest Irish air I’ve felt. These might be the best friends I have. This country might be my home, if only it was my home, if only I had one. This might be the first stretch I’ve felt alive for more than a few days’ time, this year, these months, this season. Maybe others know what it is to feel at peace in their skin, or in their houses, or in their lives. I can’t say I have. But I can, and I am, and I will.
Summer suits me, I was told.
* * *
The sun is out and the blackberries on the bushes lining the road are shimmering like dark pearls. It’s August in the thirteenth year of my life and we are in Washington State because my grandfather is dying. I am staying in my father’s old bedroom filled with photos from his childhood—a time I barely conceive as possible. Today we are piled into a 1976 silver Ford driving through the outer reaches of Auburn picking fruit for my grandmother to can, turn into jelly, or make into a crumble.
I am new to getting berries from the bush. The fruit I’m familiar with comes from the grocery store aisle, or appears in my lunch flattened into sugary disks and packaged in plastic wrappers. At first, I grab all the wrong ones—the berries that are greenish and sour, or too ripe and mushy. My father looks at the colorful bounty in my palms and plucks out all the bad choices I’ve made. He is an expert berry picker, which is another new fact I’m learning. He can lean in, pull back the tallest branch, and take a handful of delicious fruit in one motion.
My grandfather sits in the car, door propped open and watching us, his feet hanging out over the pavement. From time to time, he takes off his thick black glasses and wipes the sweat from his brow, or sweeps his striking white hair from his face. His home nurse, who called this field trip “crazy,” told us before we left that my grandfather has the finest white hair she’s ever seen and that when she gets to be his age she hopes she has the same color. But she’s young, even I can tell that, and what she says makes me angry in a way I can’t express.
“We need to get going,” my father says.
My grandmother is waiting for her boys to return, and the nurse goes home at seven. We take all the berries we’ve gathered—the good ones my father has picked, the suspect ones I’ve taken—and wrap them in an old cloth in the back of the car. It’s hot, but dusk is settling in and draping the road in a soft purple light.
“Wait,” my grandfather says just as we are about to leave. So we wait together. By the side of the road that summer, we listen.
* * *
Tranquility had been overthrown. Debauchery had assumed control.
They came armed with booze and bass. Hordes of the sleeveless and shirtless. Flocks of bikinis and tankinis. Every word shouted and screamed. Fleets of jet skis stormed the lake.
They had taken the beach.
I dropped my book into the sand and watched the defiling take place. I stood there observing hysteria. It was a spectacle. It was anarchy. I couldn’t blink. I couldn’t move.
“No worries, man. This is all just the order of things.”
The voice snapped me back. I turned to find a skinny, bearded man tilted back in an ancient beach chair.
He kept completely still. “Just trying to revive your mind, man. You were about to go catatonic.”
“The civilized become savages. Not strange, man. Natural process of summer.” He remained motionless. “Grab a seat among the grains, man. Rest those extremities.”
This hippie can turn a phrase. I eased into the sand facing him, arms wrapped around my knees.
“What natural process is this?” I’m like a young pupil seeking wisdom.
He finally moved. He tipped his chair forward, focused his eyes on mine, and then slowly turned his gaze toward the commotion on the beach.
“It’s the Madness of the Full Sun, man. Straight up virus-host thing happening here. The natives have to go full-on frenzy to purge that shit before, you know, before they hear it.”
I didn’t know. “Hear what?”
My board-short brother sat there staring into the crowd. I waited for him to return.
“Apologies. Dropped into the depths, man. Got caught up in the whirlpool of my psyche, you know?”
Right on. “They have to purge it before they hear what?”
He tipped his chair back again until he was parallel with the sand. He stretched his arms out wide and inhaled deeply.
“Before they hear Sirius howl, and these canine days of summer fade away.”
* * *
I took this summer job where every day the word “execute” is used as a casual verb. To be fair, it is often preceded by the word “please.” I am just the execution requisitioner; I have never met the executioner, but I regularly correspond with his assistants. “Please execute two copies,” I type, mimicking the confident vernacular of my predecessor, who may or may not be a Viking. I digitally attach the slated documents and hit “submit,” which, I admit, makes me complicit—an accomplice to the crime of desensitization created by a continental distance from the terror invoked by the torturers’ vocabulary.
The Viking left a legacy of long hair on the desk chair and a tin clock centered on the office wall. It is the size and shape of a shield, armor designed to deflect spearheads, and it ticks as if time were actually marching. Following orders, I type, “Please execute two copies in BLUE ink,” and I wedge a pen between my molars, biting down—imagining an explosion. Nothing happens, except for a sudden but prolonged gust of hot air blowing onto my head from a ceiling vent. The thermostat is imprisoned by a plastic cage, and the key to the cage is jingling in the keeper’s pocket. Outside it is sixty-eight degrees and raining; it is only July inside. Sweat threatens the keyboard. I hear the keeper moving through the corridors and wonder what the Viking would do.
After lunch, I study the screen. I type: Please sign. Please complete. Please facilitate. “Please embrace two copies?” My finger hovers over the mouse, pointed at “submit.” I contemplate the power of language and the language of the powerful. The deceptive ease of appropriation and with the clock at my back, I prepare to face the firing squad.
* * *
I had a dream about you again.
You were writing WISH YOU WERE HERE with giant letters on the roofs of buildings and I was flying over them thinking about you. Then they became alphabet blocks in the window of a store as I walked by. They spelled “Come Home.”
So here I am, at the Chateau Marmont, writing you a letter like it’s 1999 and you still won’t use email.
Maybe I’ve been here drinking iced tea in the courtyard all day and stole the stationery when the concierge wasn’t looking. Maybe I snuck in to go to the pool. Or maybe I stayed here last night with a guy who was a friend of a friend of a celebrity. And I’m writing this on the balcony. Trying not to think about you.
Everywhere I look there’re palm trees. And your stupid face in crowds, dark movie theaters—the other night I thought I saw you cross Hollywood Blvd. walking a dog (I can’t imagine you ever having a dog.)
If I knew the last time was the last time I would have stayed longer. Maybe I would have said how I really feel. But maybe you already know. Maybe you know that all our letters are love letters. Maybe that’s why you don’t write anymore.
P.S. You once said summer was for misbehaving. I wish you were here to see the clouds where I sit, the winds blowing away all my thoughts.
* * *
deep in the meat of your thighs
I found the last drops of tea, salty crumbs, a dried mango slice
the answers to several pressing questions.
making a meal is not easy
no matter how many books read and
list items stridently struck through, the pencil tearing the paper,
the certainty of pages striped with the burnt crispy black of
what’s done is done is done is done is well done
pieces of you hide under my tongue
waiting to pop my pupils
when seeing what could be there is unmentionable
and the summertime cure (a cold glass of water more or less) doesn’t cut the flavor of wanting more than the cupboard can bear.
it gets hot
putting in the hours to create
new organs just to digest you with.
* * *
Sometimes, in summer, I think about Iceland.
I think about the winter I went there. How in the cold months, Reykjavik becomes a crystal city glistening in ice and white. But most of the time, it’s dark. Winter is one long night.
I think about the light. How watching the sunrise in Iceland is like looking at a Rothko painting: as the light changes, the colors bleed into one another so that you can’t tell where one shade begins and the other ends. It is sapphire blue, gray, pink, yellow, orange, white light that only lasts for a few hours, and then is gone. Just like that.
I think about how Iceland is a country of polar extremes, as opposite as night and day, you might say. It is a landscape shaped by glaciers and volcanoes, geysers and waterfalls, lava and snow, fire and ice, chipping away and adding to its mass over centuries.
I think about how lonely Iceland must be, all by itself in the middle of the ocean. It is a place between worlds. I remember walking along the mid-Atlantic ridge, a fault line between two continents. Standing between the layers upon layers upon layers of rock—evidence of destruction and rebirth—I thought to myself what a miracle it is to be walking along the edge of the earth. Neither here nor there.
I think about the blue in the Blue Lagoon. How the water burned my skin and the freezing wind turned my wet hair into ice. I recall standing at the edge of the sulfur water in my aquamarine bathing suit and seeing snow at my feet. How strange and wonderful it was to swim in water that was warmed from deep within the earth.
And I think about the things that are not of this earth, like the lunar landscape and Northern Lights. I once waited in the middle of a snow-covered valley, colder than I had ever been in my life, staring into the velvety blackness and hoping to catch a glimpse of the infinite universe.
I think about these things, and I wonder, was it all just a dream?
* * *
Everyone figured who killed the boy but no one knew. Then no one knew if the boy was actually dead, but everyone hoped against figuring. On that hell-hot last day of July, Boise took off work and thousands turned over the neighborhoods with the cops’ blessing. The photograph on the news had already branded everyone guilty. A boy needs violin lessons and shoes that fit, not a delusional posse. Maybe he’s behind that shed. Maybe under those bushes. Would he fit in the cool shadows or the hot grass? There’s a climbing tree. A swimming pool. Are those eight-year-old footprints fresh? Definitely, he’s hungry and tired. His teacher said he’s an affectionate boy, so one more maybe. Maybe this sundown he’ll come out looking for hugs.
We prayed to find him and prayed not to find him. We hiked up Prospect, past the wooden smiley face, along the wrong irrigation canal and back on down to Big Jud’s. The elders faded in the sun, but everyone shared water and hats. The heat was the only thing to talk about. We looked for something, anything. A cotton sock waited in the dirt behind the Maverik station. It was doll sized, but we reported it. Everyone believed it was the wrong sock but that wasn’t much relief.
When we knew for sure, it was no relief. Robert will always be more than sixteen miles away.
* * *
We could never have been without the long late empty afternoons stretching into evenings that they give you still in the summers in some industries, in this city, a holdover from a more or less civilized time. The words, even now, conjure in me a mouthwatering appetite, an indulgence. Summer Friday. On one of them I ate an ice cream sundae in a diner in Chinatown, hair tangled, cheeks flushed, feeling fifteen. Watching him watch me lick the spoon, outside for maybe twenty minutes before I was in his bed again. It rained that day.
At the tail end of another week I was doing penance; having recently taken a vow of chastity, I sat straight up on his sofa and let him undo the buttons of my blouse one by one, trace the outline of my bra with one lazy finger, but no more. I refused to take off my shoes. Instead of unbuckling his belt and putting my mouth on his like I wanted I took the train far into Brooklyn and lay on the slab like a sacrificial virgin and let a guy with a heavy accent draw on me just above my hipbone with needles that made me dizzy. Exchanging one kind of heat for another. Bandaged, my hurt quantified. The loss marked. When I touch the place far down on my stomach now I think those words, Summer Friday. I think what I might have done that day instead.
* * *
Born and raised twenty minutes away, I am an outsider on this skinny, leg-shaped peninsula.
It’s true that I did survive last winter. That counts for something, but not much. They judge you here not for your summers, but by your coldest days. Their eldest walk the streets swaddled in layers of accumulated cold. They wear it like a shawl in the depths of July, and you feel a freezer door opening as they pass. Summer became the lifeblood of this place when the fishing industry died, but it’s a kind of prostitution to them.
The bricks in town are covered with pink petals, the glimmer of a heroin needle beneath asphalt spattered in seagull shit. In April there were a handful of tourists and by May they became an invasive species. Unsure how to eat the lobster, they rip limbs with ravenous teeth, leave bits of broken claws behind. They hit the beach harder, enjoy the scenery more fervently. Relax themselves to death in this quaint New England town with the mad desperation of men and women who stare at sterile, white walls every other week of the year. I’m not sure what they’re looking for in the T-shirt shops and beneath the barnacle-crusted rocks, but I hope they find it. Otherwise they might end up stuck here all winter, just like me.
A hunched man pauses beside a group of women in yoga pants taking selfies. He has a pair of leather shoes in his hand, and he’s looking at the laces intently, like they’re some sort of miracle. The smell of yeast and opera music from a bakery. Near St. Peter’s wharf, stolen bikes are sold from the back of a truck.
I overhear a whale watch guide while buying coffee:
“That’s why we have a waiver. In the event that any
or Miscellaneous Sea Creatures
Attack any of the tourists, it’s not our fault.”
* * *
I have forgotten the seasons
like a childhood memory.
On the equator,
infinite summer buzzes
and chirps, smothers,
cries at the dust.
You cannot be sure of sickness
because you are always
Spiced with fear,
burned with anxiety,
boiled to the heart.
Summer stretches ahead,
to the long places,
the horizon stubbornly
in its same way,
sunbathing only interrupted
by the rattle of trucks
on overachieving corn.
The world in stasis,
yesterday slithering into
so smooth you
can’t say when either
* * *
We were swimmers in the setting sun. We floated like jellyfish on the surface of the waves, suspended between the ephemeral and infinite, bodies chained to the moment. I imagine my skin shedding its color, my bones weightless in the blue. You and I were voyagers. You and I were friends.
A month before, we had left our homes to fly across the Atlantic, finding ourselves willingly lost in a vast city of stone streets and minarets. We fed our sense of wonder with charter boats to the islands and tickets to ancient mosques; we fed our appetites by pointing at hunks of mystery meat on rotating spits, not trusting our feeble pronunciations. “Dude, we’re in Turkey,” you told me, as I whistled cigarette smoke past my lips, watching a seagull dive-bombing toward the trash floating in the Bosphorus, and I wondered what it was we were trying to escape.
I called you from my apartment window, nervous to hear your voice, uncertain of what to say. We had grown apart like bodies at sea, swept away by opposing tides. I blame myself for moving. The distance between us seems impassable, its roads and bridges demolished and lines of communications severed. I blame you for thinking I’d lost my way. The woman who sleeps in your bed wears an immovable ring; the woman who sleeps in mine keeps her fingers bare.
I stood six shoulders from you at your wedding, watching your anxious smile in the heat of that Memphis summer. You watched her glide down the aisle, glowing bright enough to singe the grass beneath our feet. The preacher spoke of unity, of two souls becoming one. You were a voyager of a different kind; she, the vessel of your love.
I stared, squinting at the sky above the rolling sea. The waves lapped at my ears and I was unaware of your swimming away. I rolled upright and traced your blurry figure along the shore, emerging from the sea and fading into the swaying trees.
* * *
As I lay baking in the mid-day San Fernando Valley sun, coated in baby oil, waiting to obtain that light red lobster-like glow only a sunburn could provide, listening to the new wave of music I thought only I and my close circle of friends were privy to, I considered my very existence. Who was I? What was I to become? Where would the yellow brick road of my life, that I couldn’t quite make out but was surely just around the corner, lead to?
My home life was a shambles but that was all I knew. It was my normal. I trusted the parental units in my life to, if not quite look out for my best interests, not leave me entirely in the lurch. I was left to my own devices for the most part and like any decent explorer I said yes to quite a few opportunities for learning. A hint of anxiety emitted from my pores, competing with the zits that wanted to take up space there, but didn’t seem to be any worse than anyone else’s at that point. We were all cannonballing into the deep end hoping to make a splash.
I had a methodology with my tanning regimen. I would turn over every two songs to ensure I got even color on my front and back. This last time, as the beginning strains of “Planet Claire” came over the radio airwaves, I turned my face and belly button to the sun and heard the front door slam from inside. My brother was home. We’d have to figure out what to do about dinner.
The feeling of the heat on my skin along with the soundtrack from my boom box transported me. My body melted into the clear plastic inflatable raft I slowly floated on by way of gravity or whatever pushed me along on those windless days. My brain slowed and I felt fine. All I could see behind my closed eyes was red, the blazing sun obliterating everything. Burning some peace into my soul.
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.