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Golden Dawn, Golden Days
The sun never sets the same way twice— I would’ve loved that phrase as a teenager. It sounds cool, but doesn’t really mean anything, but kinda does— Something to wake up to and then forget. Sunsets in the winter differ from those in the summer, those of my youth differ from those of today, etc. The day my parents could legally marry each other felt different than any before it, but it’s all 24 hours of day and night. I’m glad I’ve heard it now, at least.
This phrase came to me as I locked gazes with the sun, between bundles of clouds and flying reds and oranges and pinks. 30,000 feet up through an airplane window is a nice view, not worth the day or so of excruciating travel pain, but I crossed the ocean for more than the sunset. What was once a dream is now close enough to grab, a new life far from the auld lang syne. I moved my phone toward the window and pulled my plane ticket out of my purple sweatshirt, holding it to the corner of the camera, enough so you could see the beginnings of my name Celeste in the photo, covered by the new glint of my ring finger. A commemoration of sorts.
Maybe 10 years ago, I took my first photo of the sunset, no more than two weeks before senior year. My grandparents owned a cute little house in Wildwood on an island you could bike around in 10 minutes. It was white and bright like every other building on the island, not very wide but moderately long and quite tall— two floors, on stilts —with a well-kept garden on both sides of the entrance and a door you have to step down a stair to open. When I think of summer I think of all my young august weeks on this quaint island and the easy-going laid-back unaware nature slowly fading from red to orange to blue to a sky full of stars.
Every day I pedaled loops around the island, using the breeze to unstick the heat from my face. I biked in the street, as the sidewalks were narrow and bordered with pools of stones, and the only relatively busy road ran through the center and could be easily avoided. Annually, a kid who lived in the corner of the island would host a magic show in his yard, flipping cards in an oversized red cape. This year I stopped on the sidewalk to watch, and this year, he was taller than me.
Biking in the streets meant you could never escape the island’s lovely summer salt, the mix of power line hums, seagull squawks, and the constant fading in and out of front porch radios. Main street led to a single bridge that left the island, the rest of the border walled by waist-high grass lurking with mosquitos. Beyond those walls the sea and then the sky, always so nostalgically blue I wanted to grab it and hold on forever.
When the wind blows, it asks the world a question. The flowers respond with dance and our wind chimes sing. The house across the street prefers a slow burn; the old lady rocks back and forth through a lightly veiled window, only coming out when the younger woman sits on the porch, reading stories to her baby, and the father only appears when the Phillies are on. I enjoyed my time inside watching home improvement shows. I would open all the windows and buoy myself to the rhythm of the breeze, of the tick of the clock, floating weightlessly over balmy notes.
In my own eyes and those of the law, this was my last year as a child, which meant something special needed to happen. So, naturally, the next day, when the sun descended rather relentlessly, I rode the same path as always. Hat on my head and glasses shielding my eyes, I passed the corner store and its dull neon advertisements and the Flintstones-themed mini-golf course to the only other house on the island with wind chimes, home of my favorite person, Phoebe. Every day she would sit on her steps and play her guitar, and I would listen. We would talk for hours, and I always felt bad that I could never listen like her, always acting like whatever I said was the most important thing in the world. And she would never stop playing her guitar, warm twangy strums always resonating with my inner child. The sun colored her hair brighter than usual today, from a normal blonde to a near white, all straight towards her shoulders. Mine also reached my shoulders, but was wavier, and looked faintly brown today. I wished days like these lasted forever, just us and the colors of the world, holding Phoebe with one hand and the sky with another.
I knew I wanted to do something unique, but sitting on the steps and watching the world go by with Phoebe was enough for me. We’ve gone to the same school since forever and hence became good enough friends to coordinate shore time. Sometime after middle school things became more serious, and while my mothers would be happy to know I followed in their footsteps I never heard anything about Phoebe’s parents. Maybe they thought we were friends, maybe they know and don’t care. I just hope she is never forced into the bitter cold world.
On a particularly pleasant morning Phoebe and I ventured off the island into the Crest and up the boardwalk where we rented a tandem bike from an old Italian man. He left to grab the bikes and as we waited, I noticed a key ring on the floor, so I grabbed and hung it on the hook under a golden cross, avoiding confrontation. He returned sometime later blathering on about “kids these days” and I nodded along until he bored himself out and let us go. We set out, once more into the heat.
The sights of the boardwalk— storefronts with shirts that weren’t funny 10 years ago,
Tacky-colored pipes merged into water park jungle gyms and towering twisting roller coasters, hundreds of passing faces that reveal a smidge of their grand lives, and the ever-present glistening ocean and accompanying waves of sand —never cease to amaze me. I was once that kid, running across sun-kissed planks too fast for their parents to walk, taking in copious amounts of sugar and riding the little planes and trains waving to my parents. We stopped pedaling across from a lemonade stand, where they squeeze the lemons in front of you and then dump hundreds of sugar cubes into the cup without mixing. If every cube could fit up the straw at once it may knock out a small child, but I was fortunate (or maybe unfortunate) enough to avoid it throughout the years it was a threat. For me, Its value came in memories, rather than taste.
When the clicks of wheels falling between boards disappeared, I knew we had reached the boardwalk’s end; I also knew because of the massive convention center in front of me. As a kid I would walk my dog Booky down here at sunset and I would play Pokemon Pearl on my Nintendo DS while watching the sky and sea eclipse, losing myself in the soft sounds of another world. I always wondered if someone across the waves stared back at me, if they thought I was looking at them too. The sun shined brighter on me then, back when I ran through my world with confidence, never looking back. We turned around and began to ride the chariot up the boardwalk again, electronic keystrokes now all but a fleeting memory. If I could’ve, I would’ve stopped the sun from setting with my bare hands.
Days later I returned inland with newfound strength to meaningfully waste time. I passed skateparks, basketball courts, jet ski rentals, everything I didn’t care for or couldn’t afford. The mini-golf course here was dinosaur-themed, but I deemed playing mini-golf alone pitiable. I circled around for a bit, through gray streets with gray buildings under a disappointing gray sky. Mere clouds could not best me, however, and I eventually stopped searching the sidewalks for an activity and biked just to feel the static run through my hair.
If the sun was out, I was sure the world would shine in more than just gray; no color, however, can move the world out of its monotonous suburban grid. Houses and stores alike were jammed into squares of land with the occasional tree or bush. I suppose if I looked hard enough, I could find some patch of nature, maybe a park or petting zoo, but as much as I told myself I was looking for something new, I really only wanted more of the same. But the same was kind of boring, and I didn’t come here to do the same, but maybe I did subconsciously…
Before I could come to a conclusion, the electricity building into the atmosphere burst into cold lashes against the sky, and my drab grays began to darken with rain.
My feet moved faster to dodge the storm, but I knew I would inevitably be soaked. Each strike of a frigid raindrop soured my mood. Sinking through damp air, my hair moved around my face until it settled in my eyes, and the once soothing stringy rhythm of nature became scattered with harsh percussion. I tried to block it all out, focusing on the rhythm of the world, of the waves rocking back and forth. But that was too idealistic— the next crash would be my bike against the pavement, and then me, the sidewalk scraping away my flesh. I could feel the blood leaving my body just as much as it coursed through me, and I lugged myself through soggy grass and mud towards a stack of tires. Clothes ripped and stained, sprouts of blood running into thin lines across my limbs, wet, tired, and sad, my body slumped into the center of the tire. If I wasn’t so confident I would have laughed, so crying is all I could manage.
When the sky stopped spinning I sat up and called my parents, and was met with no response. I knew where my house was from here— the world was so flat if I was a couple feet taller I could probably see it. But my head still hurt, and a journey that grandiose overwhelmed the portion that still worked. I walked, one step at a time, like a baby learning for their first time, arms flailing to keep balance against the wind’s wrath. One foot in front of the other, then the other in front of the other, then the other in front of the other…
By the time I turned onto my street, I had become God’s bongo, and he showed no signs of stopping. The spot in front of the house was vacant and the door locked, so I sat on the stairs to rest my soul. I examined the steps the same way I examined the tire I had sat on some time ago, to keep me from passing out. The tire had letters inscribed in the rubber, R, O, T, and A, along with four eagle-esque animals. At the bottom of the stairs was a snake. Before I could even react out of fear or hatred, it slithered down into the grass, and I lost sight of it. I sunk in my misery for a bit before remembering we kept a spare key under our house. Circling the house, I heard a growing distortion— maybe even music —growing louder, until I turned the corner and met an equally soaked and panicked face.
She explained, rather quickly, that her name was Claire, she was caught out in the storm, and she hid under our house to avoid the rain and only that, no malicious intent, and then pleaded for me to let her stay a bit longer so the hermit crab she bought from the boardwalk would be safe. Before asking myself why not I said yes, and I guess she interpreted that as “I want to have a conversation” so she kept talking to me. I noticed the sounds I heard earlier were indeed music coming from her phone, so I asked her if she liked Ichiko Aoba (my favorite artist) and she expectedly said no, so she listed some artists she liked and I tried really hard to remember them but the words just fell sideways off my ears. As much as I wanted to talk about music I could feel my legs failing, so I grabbed the key, said “I think I am going to pass out” and walked away.
“See you later.”
I chalked that up to awkwardness and threw myself on the couch, the faint sounds of Claire’s music echoing from the outside.
In my dreams I was in the back seat of my parents’ car, cruising on a familiar highway, the one towards the shore. The radio was on, playing old songs my parents recognized. One I know comes on, and they begin to explain the song’s backstory as if they didn’t do it every time it comes on. The sun is setting so that it looks like we are driving into it. The road ends and we get out at some place I don’t recognize, and my parents tell me we’re home.
“Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant”
I woke up in my bed, facing a square view of a blazing sky without a cloud to call its own. I planned every action to not rattle my brain, stick-bugging down the stairs till my parents gave me a soft hug and interrogated me to confirm my safety. It hit me then that I left my bike, so I began to chart my journey as I slid on my flip-flops and closed the door behind me.
My feet splashed in the asphalt rivers, lit by the yellow hums of quiet street lamps swarming with moths, all under a raging sky of rose and growing abyss. These hours empty the island, as the young and old sleep and everything in between follows the flashing lights inland. The air is thick and humid, hot in an oppressive way, until the breeze rolls around and sends a sharp chill through my body. I walk towards and then down the main road, past the police station towards the bridge. Perhaps this was my punishment, justice for my confident biking or wishing for my girlfriend’s safety— what heinous crimes. Maybe not punishment, but a consequence nonetheless— Phoebe always says everything happens for a reason.
As I cross the bridge, sprinkles of salt crawl from the docks. I look out across the water, and tell myself it’s high tide, and then realize it may be high tide because I know nothing of the ocean. My eyes continue down the dock until I see him, a man leaning headfirst over the water clinging to the dock by a sole foot. He is in danger, but a still countenance says otherwise, as if he is meditating. For him to hang that far it must be low tide, even the wood has wet marks on it. I pause for a moment; high tide, low tide— it means nothing to me. The man does not see me, but I thank him and keep walking.
I walk until I reach the now empty spot where I left my bike. Within mere hours, the bike I cherished for years and years disappeared into thin air. The sun was setting now and I was left alone on the sidewalk with only a cold breath to call my own. I did not need it; we were leaving tomorrow night and I doubted we would come back much after I graduated, but leaving it behind still hurt. I guess I didn’t have much of a choice.
I wanted to walk more, to try and find my bike or maybe something else, but I knew there was nothing worth searching for. Bars and restaurants filled with old people diluting their alcohol with water and young people and their vices on the boardwalk. I turn and walk towards the reason I crashed, what was once a Jenga-tower of small stones now a puddle of wet rocks. If only I had not noticed it, I wouldn’t have lost focus and I would still have my bike and be warm and happy somewhere with people I loved. I walk with my mind silent for a while, teeth clenched and tears close to forming in my eyes. I began to realize why everything was happening, but could not accept it. Not yet.
The next day the sun rose over the summer’s horizon for the final time, and I began preparing for it to finally set. I spent my final hours with Phoebe, walking and talking, taking in summer’s last grasps of heat. Before heading home home, we detour to the beach to watch the sunset. Reds and oranges dominate the sky’s gradients o’ so elegantly and clouds stretch endlessly in all directions in hot streaks. The bandaids on my hands sink into the sand, and waves come closer and closer until they reach my feet. The ocean is colder than expected, as always.
I scoot closer towards the ocean, and grab some of it in each hand, pouring it over the sand and the water, leaking between my fingers. I wished I could follow the sun, swim out through all the waves so that it never sets, basking in its heat forever and ever. I wished I never had to leave, the sun could shine on me forever, the world forever warm and caring. The ocean is so big and scary, but I would cross it to chase the sun. And then the sun set. I crawled back up to Phoebe and we sat in each other's arms for a while longer, my head against her purple sweatshirt.
The moon rose and stars populated the sky. The air and my feet grew cold. I was scared of growing old and leaving everything behind, of the fire eventually fading. I could do so little; my hands couldn’t do anything other than grasp onto faint traces of the past, and that is all I was, just a stupid child who couldn’t let go of anything. I wanted to cry, and Phoebe whispered something into my ear that made sure everything was okay. So I cried for a while, and then we kissed, and began walking back over the dunes. I turned, one last time, to the only world I knew, and let go of everything. I was free, free to take hold of what mattered most.
In minutes, we will touch down on the other side of the ocean. Phoebe and I will exit and grab our luggage, then drive to our new home, and I can walk to the beach and see the me across the ocean walking her dog, so I know for a fact there are people on the other side, waving back. Now, the sun retreats beyond the horizon, and the gleam of civilization plays its own song, of sorrow and fulfillment, giving and taking, of life and its manifestations. The world’s melody is a fool’s melody. I can finally hear it, loud and clear from my headphones. It was no longer a dream.
“My heart going boom boom boom
‘Hey’ I said
‘You can keep my things, they've come to take me home’”
Indeed, today the sunset was different.