It starts innocently enough: you’re at the office with your headphones in or sitting in the living room with the music on shuffle and that song comes on. You know that song, the one that pulls you back kicking and screaming to another place in another year and you can’t fight it. You’re lifted up and sucked through and dropped down somewhere else, somewhere you walked years ago in the summertime. The streets of neighborhoods that held you like arms in the quiet dark have found you again, and they are relentless.
Once more, black top steaming with visible heat thuds against your shoes, and crumbling buildings rise up around you as you walk. Weeds can barely even make it here. Lungs can barely make it here, and you once you thought you might die from all of it, just wilt completely from the heat and the sweat and the sun. Unforgiving! Suffocation took over in a summer you never thought you’d remember, much less return to.
But here you are thanks to that song and you are seeing the parts you never saw back then. This is synesthesia at its best, but it cuts deep, deep. Back porches were sanctuaries from an August storm and now they splinter in your fingers. Porches with a view of the alley and plastic chairs to take it all in were your home. It was there you first knew. It was there you first thought the words that are part of you like a pulse now. There in the thick air and heavy skies, staring at the backs of buildings, wishing for green, getting gray, you knew. With laptop speakers and cold beer for Hail Marys, you knew.
It was terminal then, but now that you’re back everything is dusted in gold. The sunlight is softer, the cool nights come faster, and cramped apartments open up so you can breathe. Streets that once trapped you now let you roam, but where can you go now that everyone is gone? Years and winters have taken friends away and replaced them with ghosts and strangers and ghosts of strangers, but what good are they? Where is the one you bore the heat with? Where is the one you ordered take-out with? Where is the one who never talked during the good parts of songs?
The heat, more tolerable this time, is emptier. Street signs have no meaning anymore. Cafes are vacant. Two cups of coffee still sit on a rickety table, growing cold. The tiny bars are wastelands, and their sticky dance floors soaked through with last night’s whiskey have no charm left, not even the kind that’s more like pity than charm. Sidewalks and restaurants and waiting for the train—it’s all hollow. Friend, we gave it a purpose. Friend, where are you now?
Back then we said words we thought were important. We wrote down words we thought were important. Back then we did what we could to survive in a summer that wanted to choke us: drinking to forget the heat, sleeping to forget the heat, close but not touching. It was too hot to touch but we found ways to feel without touching, like sheets rustling and dishes clattering and ice cubes in a glass. I didn’t know what we had then, but I know now because it all came bursting through the walls just a minute ago when that song came on.
That summertime sadness, I got it.