I am 13. It is summer and I am a free-range chicken.
It’s not a “hot, sweaty, two-weeks until school starts up again” summer. Instead, it’s an “early, budding, every day in front of me” summer, and I am crushing hard on a boy from New York.
His parents own a little house in The Groves so their sophisticated city kids can experience carefree country life without subways or honking or sizzling cement. Life without wafting sewer steam, or wet gum stuck to the soles of their shoes. Two glorious months of splashing, casting, and cannon-balling, along with a few terribly irritating mosquito bites, just to balance things out. Hazy, humid “lake life” that serves to slow the roll.
Back then, this boy is everything Taylor Swift sings about now.
While my grandmother sleeps, I get lost trying to find him. My purpose, it would seem, at age 13, is to simply slather on the baby oil and keep my eyes peeled.
He has a nice boat. A Ski Nautique. It is the 80s, so he takes it out by himself while his mother sips vodka with her eyes half-closed on her cushioned, white wicker lounge. He whips it around like he’s tricking on a skateboard, unbridled, unburdened, and teenaged reckless. He trolls along the shoreline. His hair is much too long. His sinewy muscles glisten like those of a young, living Kennedy in the sun. He too is looking for something, and I decide it’s going to be me.
This Candlewood Lake summer is a Camelot summer. Idyllic, carefree, pubescent, unsupervised.
While my grandmother sleeps, I spend most of my time longing to kiss and be kissed by a lanky 17-year-old stranger who doesn’t pronounce his r’s. I am not old enough for a real job in town, and my thighs haven’t even met each other yet.
I sneak out after dark to join the older kids doing older kid things at their older kid parties. I desperately try not to f*ck up my chances with Boat Boy, who somehow already knows where to show up when the sun goes down. I act older, but a heavy dousing of Love’s Baby Soft gives me away. I am Lolita and he is god.
Pale moonlit nights with nothing but shadows dancing on the water will be foreign in a few months time. Right now, they are everything. I am present and hopeful and wild, and I will remember. I will remember exactly what it feels like to be on the cusp, to think I know what love is. I am lost, but searching. I carry no compass. There are no directions or diary entries for these first-time feelings, which is precisely why I’ll remember the details.
My eyes grow wide when my brother’s pretty friend shows me her weed stash. There are several aromatic buds housed inside a small, wooden, elegantly inlaid box with a lid that slides open. It knocks me back a step because she’s also on the honor roll, has professional parents, and goes to church. As she expertly rolls a joint in front of me, licking the thin paper and twisting the ends, my little-kid world cracks open, creating a minor seismic shift that pushes me, unwittingly, toward the weary but wise adult I will someday become. Her face looks innocent when she inhales and passes it my way.
In August, my dad will find six half-smoked joints in my old middle school flute case and question me like a seasoned detective trying to solve an investigation. There will be accusations. There will be a mountain of evidence. There will be facts and admissions. I’ll get in trouble. Upon cross-examination, I’ll throw my older brother right under the bus to save my own ass and serve less time in the clink.
This is the summer I cross a few bridges. In the fall, I will feel experienced and worldly, which is exactly the kind of bad-ass sophomore I want to be.
And then, suddenly, I am blinded by the light. Boat Boy is nonchalantly standing there, taking a small hit. He holds it, and coughs. He has one hand in his pocket, and he’s effortlessly wearing flip-flops with $100 ripped jeans. City cool meets country casual. Jesus Christ.
While my grandmother sleeps, someone presses play. In every teen coming of age story, there is a minor character, the music wizard, who creates the soundtrack for our memories, and mine is no exception. We go from “Freeze Frame,” to “Shake it Up,” to “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” We weigh in on whether Sting is an actual perv or not.
“Want to go for a walk?”
While my grandmother sleeps, we walk every inch of my neighborhood, The Trails. It’s dark and I am ripe for picking, but he is the one who’s sweet. He tells me about his college plans. We laugh about something stupid someone said at the party. He promises a ride in his flashy boat and I am butterflies and fireflies and mute. My brain does not send the necessary electro-signals for open-mouth talking, and even when it tries, my stubborn tongue refuses to cooperate. So he does the talking, and I do the listening. He holds my hand, and I feel pretty.
While my grandmother sleeps, we sit on a knoll by the clubhouse under a deep, purple sky filled with stars. I see a fish jump near the dock, and I point. Instead of looking, his lips are on mine. It is brilliant and delicious, so I let myself be devoured. No compass, no keepsake, just a lip-locked moment in time, seared upon my mind. A teenage dream come true that hammers a significant notch in my timeline.
A Candlewood Camelot summer.
And I think my grandmother is sleeping, but she is not.
Back at our house, in her little bedroom with the avocado green shag carpet, she lies awake, waiting in the dark. One by one, she counts her blessed beads.
While I am being held and holding out upon the wet grass, she whispers her sweet prayers.
They are the prayers that bring me home.