Summer, As in Love

by Steve Almond

Appears in Other Voices #38

I want to say that it was high summer. I want to say that the hyacinth were exploding, and that I was in love. None of these things was true, exactly. It was nearly August and the hyacinth was tailing off, brown veins seeping in at the edge of the purple clusters.

But, you see, this was one of those perfect summer days, the kind that burns off all the inconvenient truths, and I was in Vermont, with my new lover, Lil Thorn, and we had risen hot with sleep, slippery in the rude places, desperate to start rutting again.

Oh how we rutted!

Rutted and gasped and tried not to breathe our rotten breath onto one another. And then, toward nine, Lil shambled to the kitchen, with her big lovely strawberry of an ass bouncing after her and fetched us some juice and we gulped that down and let the fructose rev our blood and licked each other until our skin turned ticklish.

It was summer, our first summer, our only summer, and the grass was the color of straw and the oaks on the hilltops wore skirts of black shadow and the lake down below us was an absurd milky blue. Eons ago, a glacier had passed through the surrounding valley, dug out an alluvial trough, which filled with runoff from the winter snows. The water was warm for one month a year, and we were in the thick of that month, lodged in the house of a friend who had left us his key with a note instructing us not to stain any of the furniture.

That was about our only agenda: don’t stain the furniture.

We were students of literature that summer, Lil and I, and we’d brought more books than clothing. Summer was the time to catch up on the reading lists. Our duffles were crammed with Stendahl and Gaskell and James. There was always some book we should have been reading, though we were in the thick of our inaugural lust, bulletproof and glowing with sun, streaked in tanning lotion and dried sweat.

We were still reading for ideas back then, for style. We hadn’t figured out what literature was for, actually, that it was mostly about loss, that without hope there was no risk and without risk there was no danger and that every story, in the end, is about danger. We still believed literature could be reasoned with, I mean.

Lil looked like this: tall, fleshy, with teeth slightly too big for her mouth and a gently bowed underlip. She’d found me somewhere, at some party, and showed me her tattoo. I was certainly ready for a major disruption.

Lil was just back from a year in Sierra Leone, doing relief work. She had the serenity characteristic of someone who has pushed past her surface fears, and this terrified and thrilled me, as did her decadence, her tendency to gorge on the sensual pleasures. The books could wait.

By noon, we had staggered down to the lake, down the steep rickety wooden stairs that led to the dock, with its quaint boathouse, where, of course, we had fucked the previous day, Lil atop a bed of orange life preservers, the rotting beams and boat fuel drifting onto our sweet salty smell and the spiderwebs rising like faint scarves with our exertions.

There was a wooden float a hundred yards out, and we swam out there, with books held over our heads, Gatsby for me and The Lover for Lil. She was insatiable after doomed love, though she said she read Duras because she liked the way the author shaped her thoughts. I was stuck on Daisy Buchanon, winsome and cruel, gazing down at Gatsby’s shirts (all those lovely silk collars) and weeping.

We lay on our backs and held the books up to shade our eyes. And we might have gazed at the pages, absorbed a paragraph or two, but that was it. One of us would shift our weight and the raft would sway and the other would reach out. We could feel the erotic intent, transmitted through the fingertips, and the books would fall away.

In the afternoon, famished, dizzy, we drove to the country store and bought smoked ham and rolls and chocolate bars, and brie cheese, which we slathered onto a frozen pizza. Then we curled up and slept for a few hours and rose in time to watch the shadows of the trees drawn across the lake.

Lil wanted to swim. She ran down the stairs in shorts and one of my long sleeved shirts. I might have noted her precarious gait, the way she nearly stumbled on each step. But her tits were in an uproar, swirling all around; a little clumsiness didn’t strike me as any problem.

She landed on the dock, almost drunkenly, and pulled the shirt off and kicked off her shorts and she was naked there for a moment, tall as a tree and solid, before leaping into the water.

There was no one watching, no one who would have said anything. It was one of those lakes. Folks didn’t buy houses here to spy or complain, but to remove themselves from their duties to the poor.

Lil dove down and her body jackknifed, that her ass broke the surface for a blessed moment. She stayed under for at least a minute, then rose near the shore with her hair dripping onto her chest. Oh that chest! That water! Those pale swollen hips, which shone against her sunburn.

I was astounded at my good fortune, mistrustful, unsure what I’d done to deserve Lil. I thought surely I would be the one who would make too much of our affair, forget that it was summer, just a summer thing.

And then dusk fell around us and we were into the wine, deep into the wine, two chiantis straight from the bottle and thick as blood. It was a kind of greed that Lil made essential. Perhaps she knew what was happening inside her, that certain crucial circuits were, even then, fizzing out.

What I remember, though, is the sunlight lancing down from the stubbled brown ridges, falling across Lil as she fell against the railing of the stairs. And down below the lake, burnished in gold, the color of nostalgia—I can see that now—though at the time it was only a dappled backdrop for our next sex act.

Lil took a sip of wine and her hands were trembling and she reached back to sweep up her fine mess of black hair, to show me the delicate blue butterfly tattooed on the nape of her neck, and to lift her breasts to my caress. She stumbled a little, her knees buckled; I thought it must have been the wine, the sun, our long day of ardor.

She was wearing my shirt again (it was one of my father’s old shirts, actually) and she reached down to undo the buttons and her hands were still trembling. She wanted to undress for me, there against the rail, and her fingertips played at the top button. She tried to coax the button through the hole, once, twice, three times. I thought she was being coy, prolonging the act. But then suddenly she was weeping and I said, What is it? What is it, sweetie? and she shook her head and said, No, nothing, nothing, I’m just so happy, and tried, once again, to fumble the button through the tiny stitched hole.

I reached out to help her, but she pushed my hands away and her eyes, for just a second, flashed. Let me do it, she said. I can do it.

She laughed a little, tried to laugh, but then she was weeping again, more quietly now, and I thought of Daisy, bent in obeisance over those helpless shirts, and how happy it made men to see a woman, a beautiful woman in particular, weep.

And just a little later, when we’d managed to rid ourselves of clothes, she clung to me until we both choked, though when I asked her what it was all about she only shook her wild hair and bit my neck.

I couldn’t have known. She was a beautiful young woman after all, big and pink and vital. And it was summer. You don’t think about such things in summer. You’re in love; you think you’re in love.

And then summer ends and the chilly breath of autumn comes out of the east and the flags of skin get folded into sweaters and it gets worse, the shaky hands, the stumbling, the mood swings, until finally, just before Christmas, she names the thing and it’s the name of some disease you’ve seen on posters, some breakdown in the muscles—one of your teachers in junior high had the same thing, Ms. Rolff, and you can still remember the way her head shook at the chalkboard, and you, teasing her behind her back.

Who was it who pulled away from whom? I still can’t keep it straight. There weren’t any scenes, any blowups. We simply agreed to let the affair run down. She made it easy for me. No talk of loyalty, duty, the things I might have done.

It was only that one day I couldn’t rid myself of, the golden varnish of summer, which, rather than ebbing, ebbing away as the white glare of winter took us under, grew warm and encompassing.

Lil moved on, staggered off to a new program and later, I heard, to an experimental clinic run by a doctor in Mexico. But I was still snagged in that summer idyll, the sun, the clear blue water, her skin—it was my punishment. We never think about such days as they’re happening. We never consider what it means that Daisy is weeping over those shirts, feeling her betrayal before she has enacted it. We never read a book for its deepest human lesson, not in summer.

Instead, we close our eyes and let our lovers step toward us, through the fading hyacinth, the impenetrable dusk. And when their hands tremble, we take them in ours and pledge never to leave them, not now, not ever. Even as the summer ends and the books take on their true, cruel weight, this is the story we tell ourselves and I would trade every word in the English language for the chance, right now, once again, to believe.