The quarry is full of kids. The bush party is loud with music.
A girl sits at the edge of the water and looks at the waves in the darkness. The water vibrates with the music. She has a beer in hand, and hates it. But she won’t spill it. She’ll keep drinking until it’s done.
It would be easy to join the kids around the fires. When it’s dark, there’s nothing to be scared about dancing, especially if you have beer in you. But she can’t seem to make that happen, and no one – not one single person – comes and suggests that she should try. She’s known some of these people for years. Kindegarten, public school. Birthday parties, high school. But they don’t ask her to join. Eighteen years old, she thinks.
A boy sits on a boulder and looks at the dancing. The kids are moving like they’re one thing, a mat of arms and legs that is being fluffed by a giant. He has a beer in his hand, and doesn’t mind it. But he can’t seem to drink it fast.
It would be easy to join the kids around the fires. When it’s dark, no one can really see you, especially when they’re drunk. You can slip in and out when you choose. But there’s a tragedy in the pit of his stomach that keeps him on the boulder, this feeling that, unfortunately, this is the right place for him. The proper place. Besides, no one comes to get him and suggest that he dance. Not one person.
The party goes into the night, everyone with one ear on the parking lot, in case the police show up. But they don’t. The party goes into the night, that throbbing need for human assembly, there next to the water, alive under the stars, every moment connected, glued together to form a story that goes off in so many directions, a hundred million all at once, some connected and some not.
Andy changes his shirt five times. He selects three different belts before he settles on one. He brushes his teeth twice.
Outside, it’s warm. It’s the tenth of July, two thousand and I don’t care. School is out. The kids are home, safe and away from all that stress, all that thinking of how much they need to learn, where they need to go.
He stops at the edge of his lawn and breathes for a moment. His world, in the end, is beautiful, even if he hasn’t always been part of that beauty.
“Fix my bell?” a little girl asks him. She’s on a tiny bike.
“What?” he asks.
“My bell is broken,” she says, very seriously, pointing. “Why are you dressed so nice? Are you getting married?”
He blinks. “I’m forty-five. Too old to get married. Why is your bike so small?”
She shrugs and points at the bell. Andy bends down to examine the thing as she watches him, impatient to get going again.
Marlow is ready three hours ahead of time, then decides on a snack and drops food on her dress. She changes and leaves the condo. Outside, it’s warm. Hot. July. Some year, some moment in time, who knows which or if it even deserves a name.
Her phone rings, an unknown number that’s easy to ignore. In the parking lot, a van is being unloaded. A tall black woman is moving boxes onto the sidewalk, and catches her eye.
“Moving in?” asks Marlow, wincing at the stupidity of the question.
“Yes. Good place, this?”
“Why’s that?” she asks, stopping. Marlow tells her. It’s a good place, don’t worry. Safe. Nice people. Clean. Excellent resale value. Kids? No, not many. Mostly single professionals, like her.
“I’m not single,” laughs the woman. “Or very professional!”
“Where are you from?” asks Marlow.
The woman’s eyes sparkle, as though for whatever reason, she’s taken a liking to Marlow. “Papua New Guinea. You know it?”
Marlow just stares at her, the tangles of wild hair. The smooth lips. The skin, the eyes. All of her.
June 20th. Some year. Some planet.
Andy goes outside and takes a turn instead of getting onto the bus. People are saying goodbye to each other, many for the last time. High school is done for them. It’s over.
He goes to the edge of the school property and finds the path into the subdivisions.
Marlow is standing at the corner. “Knew you’d come this way.”
They face each other. “I didn’t take it,” he says, eventually.
“I didn’t accuse you of anything yet,” she returns. “Walk together? Last day of school.”
The asphalt is warm with sunshine. Cut grass smell is polishing the breeze.
“You get into college?” asks Andy.
“Yes. You?” He nods. They don’t even tell each other which ones.
Three kids pass on bikes. A school bus rumbles around a corner.
“I hated school,” says Marlow. “Almost everything about it.”
“Especially the people,” adds Andy.
“Teachers more than anything,” she says. “The Principal. The Vice-Principal. Miss. Bradley. I’m just really glad it’s over.”
“College is supposed to be much better,” notes Andy. “Better people, more mature.”
“Is that how it works?” she says. “You get out of high school and you suddenly become mature? I don’t really feel that way.”
He looks at her. “Me neither.” A pause. “I took it. Your CD player.”
“Because I kicked you in the balls?”
“Because you kicked me really hard in the balls while I was tied to a tree.”
“You going to give it back?”
He nods. She nods, too, like it’s done. “I don’t even know your last name,” he admits. “I know I should. But I don’t.”
“And I’m not going to tell you now. It’s too late for that, Andy Woodruff.”
They walk. At the corner store, they buy a slurpee, each of them figuring it’s the last one they’ll ever drink, because adults don’t do that kind of thing. Summer, meanwhile, gets even warmer around them, like it’s a great big blanket wrapping itself around the world to make it feel safe, and as though anything is possible – like this heat is going to last forever, and all the young people in the world will, too.
“This is my house,” says Marlow. It’s a nice place, trees on the front lawn almost like a forest.
Andy takes off his backpack. He takes out the CD player. “I lost your disc, though.”
“My grandmother gave this to me,” she says, taking it. “Ramirez. My last name is Ramirez.”
They stare at each other.
The highway home is longer than you expect. People design roads to not be straight, because if they are too straight, it becomes monotonous. Your eyes start to close. You fail to believe that you’re really needed to drive the car. Straight roads are a recipe for disaster, so the way the world is organized, we take a number of extra curves between here and there. It keeps us alert, but it does make the trip longer. It does make the journey farther.
The open road flies past. Highways and hills. Flocks of birds and little forests. Farmers’ fields and bridges over water courses that are dried up in the July heat. A twist, a turn, a wrong way crops up, but that’s okay. You find your way, the path back home. It’s not really a long drive. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing at all.
Summer passes, Mr. Woodruff. Summer passes, Miss. Ramirez. We’ll never see each other again.
Fall is coming, young people. That season will take you away, so make the most of your time in the sunshine. Sit in a park and talk about what you’re worried about. Neither of you really had any friends. No one really cared about the fact that they’d never see you again. But here you are, in the final summer, getting to know each other. Gaining some understanding of where you’ve come from. Turns out you, Andy, and you, Marlow, have been in the same class since you were five years old. Isn’t that amazing?
July turns into August. A nip enters the cold air. You go to a movie together. But no, you don’t hold hands or anything like that. It’s not that kind of journey. You meet up after your summer jobs often, and have meals together. You visit the corner store and eat licorice. You sit in a playground, swing together, and you each wonder about what it’s like to have a friend in your life, knowing that you’re moving on to a different world where you’ll forget about each other, because there will just be so much else to do – so much life to live. So much to look forward to.
August turns into September being just a step away, and you’re just not sure what this friendship means. You’re pretty sure that it should mean nothing at all, but just in case, you make a promise.
“Forty-five years old, we’re still alone, let’s get together,” says Marlow.
“That’ll never happen,” laughs Andy, and he’s right. It’s just impossible.
“Then we have nothing to worry about,” she returns, shaking his hand.
A week later, fall starts. A new season. The cars are loaded up. The longs trips commence, down the highways, around the curves, up and down the hills, all these directions of travel meant to keep us awake, intended to ensure we’re safe. The season changes. The year gets older, and then turns into a new one. Some number followed by another one, in an age of we don’t care. In an epoch of true incredulity. In the era of promise and hope.
The corner store is still there. She pulls up in an SUV. He shows up in a BMW.
For a while, they stay in their cars and tap on their phones, like they haven’t seen each other.
“Hi,” says Andy, closing his door.
“Glad you came,” says Marlow. “How’ve you been? Good?”
She shrugs. “Me neither.”
They go inside. She buys chocolate. He gets chips. They sit on the curb and eat.
“So this is it,” says Marlow. “I still don’t like you.”
“I always thought you were a bitch,” he returns. Winks. “You know, I much prefer big girls. Really big girls. You’re not big.”
She shrugs. “I like brown guys. Uncircumcised ones. You’re neither.”
They chew on their food. “Want kids?” she asks.
“No.” They nod together, as though collectively relieved.
“Do we do a big wedding?” he asks, and they both laugh.
“I’m keeping my last name,” she says. “And my car. You moving to my city or am I moving to yours?”
“I can work from anywhere,” he returns. “I can move. Nothing holding me to my town.”
“Nothing holding me to mine, either,” she says. “Maybe we should go somewhere neither of us has been.” A moment of silence, each thinking yes, we agree on that. We agree. Let’s go somewhere new.
“This is a really bad idea,” she laughs. “Feels like we’re giving up on something.”
“Something? What something?”
But there’s no answer either of them can make to that. They finish the licorice and the chips. “Maybe we should get a meal. Hotel rooms,” she suggests.
“Maybe we should,” he says. “Do some planning.”
“Planning?” asks Marlow.
“For whatever happens next,” he returns.
And just like that, the season turns. The old one was getting tired. It was worn. It had gone on too long, alone through a world that didn’t care about it very much. The new season has a name. It has a story. It has all the hope of a new age, and puts its arms around the years to come as though it simply won’t let go this time. This time, it will get it all completely right, it says. This time, it will be okay. Promise.