You did what you could during the Virginia summer days to either sit by a pool or on a beach or avoid being outside altogether, and at night you reclined on the porch or in the yard and let whatever small breezes the night could strum up wash over you, cooling your sweat. Otherwise, you were inside all day and all night, cooled and even frozen by the artificial cold air that pumped through every building in town. The South is inhabitable because of air conditioning, so thanks be to it, but that doesn’t mean I liked it. It made the divide between inside space and outside space stark, and rendered traveling between the two spaces painful.
Yes, the bulk of my summertime hours were spent playing inside, watching movies with my brothers, playing videogames, reading books. But that isn’t very romantic. And summer should be romantic! It should be beaches and treehouses and walks in the woods. And it was, sometimes. For a week here and weekend there, the air cooled down, I was forced outside, and an idyllic childhood summer unfolded.
Summer technically started on the last day of school, but it really started the first day of vacation. A few days after we cleaned out our lockers, my brother and I would dump the contents of our bulging backpacks and refill them with novels and sketchpads, journals and drawing pencils, Walkmen and favorite CDs. Seven days in a condo on the Outer Banks of North Carolina marked the beginning of our freedom. We’d swim in the pool, sneak into the hot tub, watch premium cable, roast on the beach and dive into waves. My brother, lucky inheritor of my mother’s olive skin, would darken throughout our time in the sand; I was a child of my father’s Soviet-bloc kin, pale and fair, and would come back to the condo red and begging for aloe. In the mornings my father and I would walk down the highway a bit to a small bakery and get cherry turnovers and tiny key lime tarts. The couple who owned the bakery were tickled to see us each year, and always said they couldn’t believe how much taller I had gotten. My success in growing warranted a cookie; sometimes they gave me two.
On days that we didn’t spend in the waves, we went on drives up and down the island. I’d stare out the window and fantasize about owning a saltwater clapboard cottage on the beach. The destination was Hatteras, the end of the island where there was a tall and iconic lighthouse that we’d climb. We’d walk on the beach near the nature preserve and stare at the surf, the scariest on the island. The currents there were rough and ripe with riptides; plenty of people had died trying to prove their swimming strength on these beaches, and we knew even wading a little bit in would be just about the dumbest thing we could do. But my brother would still threaten to run in, and I’d threaten to tackle him, and then we’d fight until our parents said it was time to get in the car.
When the week at the beach ended, we’d come back to Virginia and fall into a routine of playing inside until the heat broke each evening, then rushing outside for a few hours of fun before it got dark. On summer nights in high school my friends and I would get ice cream cones and blended sugary confections and walk around the one street in town that felt like the center of something; the indie movie theater, video store, and most of the restaurants worth going to were there, plus it bordered the neighborhoods where anyone remotely hip would live. We’d wander around, ice cream melting quickly, and then we’d perch ourselves on the old church steps, or on the benches in the playground, or on the curb if our normal haunts were taken. We’d call the boys we hung out with sometimes and try to get them to come out, and we’d gossip, obviously, but mostly we’d just wait for our government teacher to walk by with his dog. He was the youngest male teacher at our school, and the only one we could harbor any type of crush on. When he walked by he’d slow, but not stop, and say, hi, ladies, how are you this evening, embarrassed to encounter us in the world. We treated him like a cross between someone we might pin-up on our walls and someone we might easily seduce if we had only five more years — and some sexual experience — under our belts. As he walked away we’d giggle and go back to licking our ice cream cones.
M. had a tree house in her backyard and a trampoline, and the temperature in her backyard was marginally cooler than the rest of ours because her house was on the river. One night, high on the heat, we jumped and danced on her trampoline until we were dizzy, then retired to the tree house where we stayed up late eating junk food and speculating about all the fun we’d have when we were older. We passed out in a big pile of tangled blankets, sleeping bags and limbs. We woke in the morning soon after the sun rose and rendered the tree house uninhabitable, and then we retired to our respective houses to sleep away the morning and wile away the day until the sun started to set again and we could reconvene.
The heat almost always subsided when night fell, but sometimes it would break earlier. There were days when it would get so hot and humid that it felt like it couldn’t possibly get worse. And then: the sky would open up in a clap of thunder and water would rush down to the earth, pounding the pavement and the trees and cooling everything down. I would sit on the porch with my mom and try to guess where the lightning would streak across the sky, and, spotting it, count the seconds until the boom. When the time between the light and the sound got too small, and the storm itself too near, my mom would declare it time to take things inside. I’d sneak upstairs and open the window in my bedroom just enough to hear the rain pound the tin roof outside. If we’d already eaten, I’d try to fall asleep to the sound of the rain — not a difficult feat — but if it was early, I’d just lay there in bliss until the storm passed, and then I’d run outside to walk around in my bare feet in the puddles, careful not to step on the worms who had appeared on the pavement.
Everyone left for a few weeks each summer; you had to, or you’d forget how to run and play and be outside during the day without getting dizzy. A few times a summer my family would leave early and make the eight-hour drive up the eastern shore and over to the mountains of central Pennsylvania, arriving at my grandparents’ house in time for dinner: stuffed cabbage and pierogi purchased from a Polish lady down the street. A glider on the porch was covered in old quilts; I lounged there and read Nancy Drew and murder mysteries until my father or my brother or my grandfather forced me to put on some shoes and go for a walk in the woods. My grandfather had a big stick he’d use for hiking and, my dad claimed, warding off bears. My brother and I would jump over tiny creeks, drunk on oxygen and the possibility of adventure. We’d go left to the trail that led to the old mine shaft, right to the highway, straight up to the summit. The best walks, of course, were the ones that found us lost with dinner time closing in. This only happened when grandpa stayed home. He knew the trails, but dad liked to get lost as much as we did. Later we’d get lost on our own, or with older cousins leading the way. Finding our way out of the woods on our own was a great accomplishment, the details of which were shared — and exaggerated — excitedly over dinner.
My grandparents’ backyard was study in aesthetic perfection: a white picket fence enclosed the kind of colorful and sweet garden that bumblebees and songbirds loved. The yard, like the house, was long and narrow, and in the back was a gingerbread-cottage of a garage filled with forgotten boxes and whatsits; we’d sneak in, our stomachs nervous to find a treasure, or a mouse. The side yard housed a pergola woven with vines bearing raspberries and concord grapes. My grandmother worked hard to harvest the fruit, and the freezer was full of huge plastic bags of raspberries. My grandfather liked them on vanilla ice cream, but I liked to stand in front of the freezer and pop them one at a time into my mouth, keeping them there until they melted, or my mother shooed me out of the kitchen because I was wasting energy, and kids should be outside in weather this nice anyway.
Down the alley and across a few streets, a woman named Mary had a hunchback and a candy store. When we got older, we were allowed to go alone, a great privilege for a couple of city kids who weren’t allowed off our block. We’d come back from our expedition with small paper bags filled with loot: swedish fish, mini cones with marshmallow ice cream scoops, wax bottles filled with sugary syrup, long sheets of paper affixed with multicolored colored candy dots. The stock never changed, and the dark, musty shop smelled and looked the same year after year. For a child, there is little difference between old and very old, so Mary never looked that different to me, either.
I don’t remember our drives back home, but they happened. I’d usually wake up just as we were crossing the bridge over the bay. I’d stare at the water, black in the night, and be happy I lived by the river, by the bay, by the ocean. Once home I’d get out of the car and stretch, and breathe in the sticky sweet air of Virginia before heading inside to greet the dog. I’d always sleep so well after a trip, back in my own room, in my own bed. In the morning, if it was nice, I’d call my friends and we’d go to the beach and talk about all I’d missed. It was nothing, really, but sweet nothings.
Logan Sachon might go outside right now even though she’s a grown-up.
Photo by Vironevaeh, from Flickr.