It was the driest of summers. Children dreamed of pitchers of iced tea, sticky cherry popsicles, and the mischievous bubbles of carbonated sugar. While the heat did its best to smother the swelling laughter and scabbed knees, summer was still summer.
Dawn blushed upon her suburban heaven. Every Bobby, Danny, and Timmy would get two golden pancakes and a glass of orange juice. Parents would depart with packed lunches and chaste pecks. And then youth raced to overtake the first light.
Black asphalt beat back flat basketballs and swallowed blistering rays. John and Jake were playing a thoughtful game of swinging sticks and rocks. Jane was applying lipgloss. She was mesmerized by slippery strawberryness. Younger children were plunging their hands into the grit and soil – little fingers reaching, searching for a worm or two.
You were not swinging a stick nor racing across the lawn. You were not searching for dried up annelids nor singing to the latest radio hit.
John, Jake, Jane, and so many others were not your comrades. This was not your home. This was not your summer.
Because so many miles away it was night. If you closed your eyes you could feel the soft lull of a makeshift hammock. Your brothers would have been tucked away – a sweltering evening could knock out even the rowdiest boys. What did their eyes look like again? Like shiny pieces of stone. Their cheeks, ruddy but always washed clean by her. And she would lean on the door frame when you came around the corner, and you would run because there was no one who could prepare a more loving meal, give a more tender embrace, gift a more precious love. You would see the tiny waves of skin threatening to lap up citrine eyes. She would be tired. And then you would be gathered in the soft arms of familiarity. Sung to sleep by the cicadas and kissed by the black-blue of the night. But even as you dreamed this – a memory of something felt and lost – you knew the enormity of the present. Dusky midnight turns away its yearning visitor yet again.
Your hands clutched a sudsy plate and you blinked. Where were you? Oh, that’s right. Squatting next to a tub, neck corded with knots. This establishment doesn’t run itself, the manager reminded you. She smiled with a crinkle between her brows when you dozed off next to the industrial sink. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t dock your pay by two whole dollars. You ducked your head and kept silent. Unsaid expletives and curses tasted bitter in your mouth.
Patrons out front, dressed in white and nautical blue, sipped from china cups and preened in simpering tones. His Jenny had gotten into the State University with a full ride, no less. Of course they could have afforded the tuition. And yes, he had mentioned at least a dozen times that they were renovating their quaint bungalow. There was a swirl of wine, a suggestive tone and a breathy laugh. You listened through a thin door.
You scrubbed that summer. You stayed in that back room, eyes watering through steam and soap. No sick days, and a bloody nose was remedied with a bit of cotton.
The evening released you to the sidewalks. Thank God! It was a family dinner night. Fried chicken and lemonade had coaxed in the boisterous inhabitants. You let your shoulders drop an inch and your hands were curled loosely by your sides. Your gait still had its distinctive lilt and your bag was swaying in a simple dance. Your stiff posture was abandoned, and while you weren’t smiling, your mouth was soft. The irony! Alone when others were around, and so full when they were absent.
But this was all understandable. Because the names of your peers could never pass through your broken speech. Silence was so much more forgiving. If only they could hear your quick wit in your mother tongue. Remember when you wrote poetry? And rode a little motorcycle? Living then was like music in all its sweetness and subtlety. But that summer had too much sweetness, and it began to give you a headache. When there was sugar dripping from every shop and dish it depressed you to think of the few pennies you and your brothers used to collect to purchase a bit of candied fruit.
That summer! Is it painful for you to recount that loneliness? Tell me, how did you not grow to hate that place? How did you not grow bitter? You were once so starry-eyed, naive, and lost.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.