It’s easy to think that just because time has moved on, because it is no longer then, our adolescence, fifteen years ago, that the world has evolved a lot. The 14-year-old girl, a ringer for a famous beach volleyball player, is crouched on the bench in front of my house, trying to hide from whoever is currently “it” in the hide-and-seek game she’s playing with her summer friends, which include, generously, her three brothers ranging in age from 10 to 17. She seems so much older than 14, so much more mature, organized, and ambitious. But her world is still hide-and-seek and sneaking junk food from her mom’s kitchen to the house three doors down, and watching movies on a friend’s iPad, and yelling nonsensical things every now and then through the high screened windows at the front of the house, which can be heard by the grownups sitting in big colorful chairs outside on the lawn, and which make them smile.
Summer is a respite for the hard work of life — life as a teenager. But for us, summer is an escape from the hard work of life.
The girl’s mother has deep crows’ feet from so much smiling and laughing. Being outside. But I’d never venture a guess at her age. It seems irrelevant. Age looks good on her, like a badge of all she’s done. She competes in triathlons, as does her husband. They might be the perfect family. There can be no dark secrets in their world, I’m convinced. They are so content. The husband spills wine on his shirt and just smiles with his mouth closed, his eyes downcast, as if something someone’s said has made him want to laugh and he’s trying very hard not to. He walks slowly, like an athlete, into the house to change. His eldest son is almost as tall as him now. They don’t look alike, until you see the way they walk. Then they are unmistakably father and son.
Tonight the tide will be high at nearly midnight. The resident comedian in the group, the boisterous one up from B—–, suggests skinny dipping. Everyone chuckles, and tries to elbow in on the joking. But he always has to have the last laugh, the punchline. When his new girlfriend says she doesn’t think she knows anyone well enough yet to go skinny dipping with them, he says, Don’t worry, you’re in C—— now. Men from C—— don’t notice things like that. Nudity, he means. The circle roars.
The tall son is drinking beer out of a tall, clear mug. His mother calls it “soda.” When it’s turned dark an hour and a half later and the mosquito coils have started to wear off, he’s still sitting with us. The men are preparing a chimney at the edge of the chairs to ward off the mosquitos more effectively than the coils or bug spray can. Now that it’s dark, a roaring fire seems appropriate. His mother is shocked that her eldest is not somewhere else. I can’t believe he’s still sitting with us, she says, when he goes inside to refill his glass. He actually finds the grownups entertaining. We marvel at this. But there’s really no one else his age around. We’re more than ten years older than him, which is hard to believe. We don’t feel ten years older. We don’t act ten years older. He probably doesn’t think we are. The man from B—– asks if I’m my friend’s “little friend from the city.” I hadn’t realized I was “little,” but I take this as a compliment for some reason.
We still have no bigger plans than this place. In ten years, where will the boy be? Back here, with a new baby? It’s hard to believe time will pass at all. Gather up all the time that has passed when we haven’t been here, and it seems like a lot. But once you come here, and spread out all that time and look at it, it all seems like insignificant little vignettes, old photographs whose exact settings are hard to place.
The memories formed here, on the other hand, tend to set into our minds. In so much uniformity, every event, every change, seems more eventful, seems a bigger change. When I come here I feel certain that a vagabond life is not for me. Or rather, I want to distract myself in those non-summer crueler months doing whatever will make the time pass quickly. Then I’ll come back here and summarily talk through the events of the past nine months, then move on, say, Anyway…, and ask what we should do. And what will we do? Not play hide-and-seek.
The thing about a summer community is that you leave your secrets back on the turnoff from the paved road. No one really knows what’s happening in your life, unless you choose to tell them, no doubt selectively. You can tailor yourself just the way people tailor themselves on the Internet. No one really needs to know that you’re broke, say, or that you cheated on your spouse this past winter. No one minds if you’re broke. No one would care much if you had cheated. The point is that you’re immune to judgment — from anyone except your parents, that is, and maybe your siblings. It’s summer, for god’s sake: limbo.
The events of the past nine months — real life, I suppose you’d call it — are just as unimportant to us grownups as they are to the teenagers. We live in the now, too, just as the teenagers do. We sort of think we still are teenagers — and so, even, do the parents of the teenagers. It so happens that any criticism that is levied against us by our parents seems to involve words like teenager: immature, irresponsible, even reckless.
They might be right. Let’s examine our resumes. One of us doesn’t make enough money, isn’t as far in her career as she should be. She wishes everyone would accept that she is in the middle of the ride, as the song goes. People think that by coming here, she is running away. She wants them to understand, as she kicks back a fourth glass of cheap Argentinian Pinot noir, that this place, the destination of so many runaways, is her muse.
Strangely, older adults seem impatient. They want to flip through the young adults’ stories and get to the end already. They want the young adults to be old adults.
Another one of us is in school, almost finished. She will get a good job, everyone hopes, with this advanced degree, and fly away to a more exciting place. Her parents wish she would Go, just go somewhere. Get out of C——. She is too responsible to do that, at least so far. She can count on one hand how many reckless things she’s done in her life. A couple of them were done with us.
Another is currently on the phone with the government of a faraway country, being interviewed for a job. He drank a little too much before the interview began. The other two of us look down on this. Yes, it was to quell nerves, but it probably led to worse results than he would have had if he’d just gone through the thing sober and nervous. They asked questions about difficult situations that might come up on the job, what he would do in those situations. We tried not to listen to what was happening, but caught things like: It’s been awhile, but…, and: Ah, I’d have to think about that for a minute. We cringed through the French doors, where we could only make out his left arm and his hand fiddling with a candlestick on the dining room table.
Once off the phone, once free again, at least for a few more days, we don’t seem to know how to let loose the way the teenagers do, the way we used to. We find it harder to lie, harder to conceal bad deeds. Smoking pot is combined with walking the dogs. But we look down at the ground as we say we are going to walk the dogs. We look guilty. Drinking impairs judgment, but it also impairs our ability to pull the wool over the older grownups’ eyes. There is no point in rebelling if you can’t actually enjoy it.
One lectures the other about a smoking habit. The smoker responds: It’s summer vacation. The other wants to say: It doesn’t work like that anymore. She wants to say: Vacation from what? He hasn’t worked in more than a year. In the circle of chairs earlier, or possibly earlier in the week — it’s all blurring together — he had sat with his aviators on, facing the sun, which still had hours to go before it would set, and said something like: I really don’t like working, and grinned with his lovely, expensively straightened white teeth, straightened partly so that he would have more chances in life, better chances in life. And I grinned at him because I was thinking: I don’t either. Of course, the tall kid wasn’t there at that time, and if he had been, we probably would have feigned more ambition, or just diverted the conversation to his hopes and dreams. He and his athletic sister are so full of promise. We are half-full of promise.
But I can at least fake a sense of responsibility. I was working this summer, earning money, putting in at least a few hours a day, amped up on too much coffee and nourished by the priceless view in front of me. While sitting at the computer one late morning, writing, I watched my jobless sidekick march in front of me, his jaw set as stiffly as an ancient Roman bust. I knew what had happened: he had just been over at my neighbors’ getting high. I knew it because he became steely-eyed and serious whenever he smoked up. He was walking back home, robotically, to try to accomplish something with the rest of his day. To apply for more jobs — punish the thought. His fear, his rudderlessness, deflated me. I could see how impatient he was for 3 o’clock, when it was acceptable to start drinking again. When had he become this? And when had I? Or was it just … summer?
I loved to watch the kids playing hide-and-seek in the evening and I tried to figure out the rules of their game. It involved yelling a safe word, “hammock.” The hammock, I supposed, was some sort of base. It made me smile. It didn’t make me nostalgic for the past. It made me glad that kids “today” do the same things that we did when we were their age, not even that long ago. Though they had iPhones and iPads and laptops, they barely used them down here. Why would you? Even the biggest tech junkies surrendered their weapons when they arrived. The things that happened on them suddenly seemed irrelevant. It was stuff you looked at to pass the time when you were forced to be somewhere less beautiful than this, somewhere where you were expected to work, burdened daily by bills and longstanding commitments and the future.
But here: it was never supposed to be boring. So it saddened me when some of us felt the need to heighten things: drink too much, get high in the morning, binge on television shows. All I could do to prevent that was get us excited about the things we used to do: try to swim improbable distances without dying of fatigue or hypothermia; play games; play cards. But no: what we were supposed to do now was sit, drink, talk, stare at the setting sun, or, alternatively, be too busy with our high-powered careers to have time to come here, or show up just for a week or so with our spouses and babies. We didn’t have any of those things: not spouses, not babies, not high-powered careers or even careers at all, really, yet.
As for sitting, drinking, talking, and staring at the setting sun like a retiree, I could do that forever. But we squirmed in our heads as we tried to do it, even as we tried to still our minds with drink. We were too conscious of the fact that we were being examined, scrutinized, or else we were self-examining and self-scrutinizing. Society wanted so much of us. Our parents, sitting inside just a few dozen feet behind us, wanted so much of us. Sometimes it was more risky to leave secrets at the door at the beginning of the summer, especially if you couldn’t contain the fact that you had something to hide.
What were we hiding? Simply the fact that the more time we spent here, the less we were able to imagine constructing a life anywhere else. We almost seemed to deconstruct our lives here, dismantle them, make things messier so that it would be harder to leave. We wanted to be shipwrecked. And we weren’t very good at hiding the guilt we felt for wanting to be. You can hide guilt in drink, in drugs, at least temporarily. But there has to be a master plan, or else the guilt, or the tools used to suppress it, will consume you. We hadn’t figured that part out yet. They — the elders — were beginning to think we never would. But together, our shared failure to launch looked better. It looked prismatic. We each brought a little dusting of hope into the circle. If we combined that hope, perhaps we could concoct something better than this simple, blissful idleness. But it was still too soon to know. All we could do now was try to be a little better than we were last year. To come back next summer a little braver, a little happier. I, for one, knew I could only do it if I was sure that they’d be here, braver, happier, waiting for me.