That summer was the kind of summer that made you itch to get out of your skin, to take off your clothes and stand in the rain, to shower in the blast of a fireman’s hose until your body was shredded down to a skeleton. In short, it was hot. It was blazing and humid and still, and it didn’t even get better after sunset.
I was glad for my job, I promise. It would pay for college textbooks and chocolate bars on the side, and it was easy, damn easy, and would’ve been boring if I hadn’t had the kind of overactive imagination that used to get me into trouble at school. I was glad I had the job, but that didn’t stop me from hating it and its lack of air-conditioning. Day after day after day I sat, sweltering and quietly swearing behind that cash register, obediently counting change and ringing up brand gum and chips and sodas for a plebian parade of people, pretending that my back wasn’t soaked in sweat. Pleasantries rolled out of my mouth as drops rolled down my neck, each one the same as the last. Annoying. Dull. Tedious.
But I was glad for my job.
That summer was also the kind of summer that made you thank your mama and the Creator that you were alive, glad you lived in a place with golden-green trees and periwinkle skies. As I drove home in the evenings at seven o’clock, right as the sun was thinking of going down, the clouds would light up pale cream to my left, pink above me, and lilac on my right, and all across the sky looked like my watercolor phase in the third grade. I would stare at the sky until I was driving right smack over the double yellow line, and then violently swerve back to my side of the road. It didn’t matter too much- my town was quiet, the road was empty, and I had a habit of going slow anyways.
That summer was the kind of summer you promised you would use to finish all your personal projects that took a backseat to studying and partying and sleeping during the term. That summer every day after my shift ended, I would get into my truck and drive somewhere in or out of town; a park, a river, a trail in the woods, a playground, or even the mall. I would bring along my sketchbook and my pencils and pastels and charcoals, and I would spend hours sketching whatever caught my eye. Sometimes it was shitty, and I would rip it up and stuff it into my dad’s pile of scrap firewood. Sometimes I would put it aside to perfect later. Sometimes I forgot that my clothes were damp with sweat, forget the air around me felt like the first level of hell, forget the cramp in my back from the awful chair at work, and draw until I had rewritten my soul into that paper.
So I would drive to work, quiet, in the bright shine of morning, boil quietly at my job in the day, draw quietly until sunset, and then drive quietly home to my quiet family.
I tell ya, it was nice.
Like how I would scrub myself every night to get the grime and sweat off my skin, that summer felt like a clear pool for me to clean myself from the dirt of the real world. It was the kind of summer you didn’t make memories from but you remembered fondly, if vaguely. It was the summer you remember perhaps one thing from.
That one thing came walking into my job late morning when I was doodling a cat on a rejected receipt. Let me tell you, I forgot about that cat real quick. The girl was hot. And I don’t mean hot like how outside the thermometer was challenging any temperature I’d seen on it before. I mean she was hot. She had a body like a coca cola bottle, the 1957 glass kind, and wasn’t shy about it. Her hair was up in a braid all around her head, with little curls all around it, like a halo, frizzy from the humidity. She was wearing a crop top and white jean shorts- I remember that, because no one would ever forget what she looked like--at least, no one who had eyes for her like I did. I had started sketching her on that receipt before I knew what I was doing. It’s kind of rude, I’m sure, to just creepily draw people that you’re intensely attracted to without their knowledge or permission, but by god if I wasn’t going to spend hours on a portrait of her later.
The girl walked up to my counter with two bottles of aloe juice in one hand and a large chunky wallet in the other and set both down in front of me.
“Hey,” she said, staring at me, a little forcefully, which was odd, but to be fair I was staring at her too.
“Hey yourself,” I replied. I rang up her bottles.
“Do you remember me?” She asked. “I mean- I think we knew each other from that summer program at the Y.”
I looked at her again. I didn’t remember her at all, and I knew it was going to be awkward.
“I don’t remember a lot from the Y,” I ventured, but eager not to lose her, I barreled on. “But you should remind me.”
I was trying so hard to be smooth. It might have worked, because she laughed.
“You read a lot, I think. Weren’t really interested in hanging out. But once we got into a really good conversation about what makes a good tree to climb. I don’t know, I always thought we were friends after that.”
I recalled that conversation. Trees, and a girl with short, short hair and glasses. We had disagreed on whether or not large branches were good.
“I think I might know what you’re talking about,” I affirmed, smiling.
“I must not have made a good enough impression.” She stepped forward, and there was a beam of sunlight cutting across her face. Her brown eyes lit up to the color of glowing amber and tips of her eyelashes shone golden. She blinked, irritated, and stepped back again.
“Well, you’re certainly making one now,” I assured her. “I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“Kaya,” she told me.
“Skyler,” I replied. We shook hands and held on a little too long. “So what are you up to now?”
“I’m just hanging out here for the summer, and then off to college in the fall. Graduated high school last month.”
I nodded. “I bet you’re getting a lot of questions about where you’re going, and what you’re going to study, huh?”
Kaya looked up at me with a grin. “Yeah, you bet. Same thing happening to you?”
“It did,” I corrected her, “I’m heading into my junior year, so people care a little bit less.”
“Must be nice,” she confessed. “I’m going crazy.”
I chuckled, and we paused. I couldn’t think of another thing to say. She glanced at the cash register and spent a second pulling out exact change for me. I printed her receipt.
“I’ll see you around, I guess,” Kaya told me finally, and picked up her juice and wallet.
I spread my hands. “Well, you know where to find me.”
She laughed (politely, I think), and left.
The next time I saw her wasn’t at my job, actually. I was lying in the open bed of my truck trying to sketch the bridge over the river I was parked by. I hated drawing buildings, ugly boxy things that they are, but there’s something about bridges that reminded me of animals, fish spines and bird wings and swan necks, that made them look like works of art already. This bridge had cables spreading out from it like sunrays, and it was a pure white that made the sky behind it all the more interesting to paint. I was trying to finish its reflection in the water when Kaya walked by with a kid next to her.
“Yo,” I called. Too quiet, and she kept walking. I tried again.
She turned, frowning, at first looking the wrong way over her shoulder and then finally towards me. I’ll admit I was relieved when she saw me and smiled, irrationally afraid that she wouldn’t remember me- or worse, be annoyed.
“Skyler!” The kid at her side pulled on her arm. She shooed him away and he ran to join a group of children at the water’s edge.
Kaya came up to my truck, rested her arms on my tailgate. Her smile hadn’t disappeared, shining bright below her round sunglasses.
“What are you up to?” She asked. I gestured towards my sketchbook, words having deserted me. I hadn’t planned for anything beyond calling her name.
“Ooooh, Skyler,” she cooed. “This is fantastic.”
“Thanks. I’ve been doing a lot of paintings of this town, making a collection.”
“That’s so cool. How long have you been drawing for?”
I’ve never liked that question. When have I ever not drawn? It’s like they expected me to say, “When I was seventeen days past my eleventh birthday, I woke up and decided I was going to learn to be an artist. Then I picked up a pencil and drew for the first time in my life.”
But a cute girl was talking to me, so I said, “I’ve always drawn, but I got good about five years ago.”
“That’s great. It must be nice to have a talent for something.”
She stopped looking at my drawing and looked at the bridge instead.
“Do you want to come sit here?” I patted the tailgate next to me. She started out of her reverie and agreed. The truck bounced as she settled.
“What do you mean,” I inquired, “must be nice to have a talent? Everyone’s good at something.”
“Oh yeah,” she confirmed. “I’m definitely good at a lot of things.”
“Big head,” I snickered.
“Shut up. It’s not bragging if it’s the truth. I just meant…there’s nothing that sets me apart from the other kids who are good at a lot of things, nothing that defines me. There’s nothing special that I’m good at.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “You think drawing is special? Talk to anyone on the street, any fifth person is going to be some sort of artist. My art is the crap at the bottom of a barrel compared to millions of other people.”
“But you love it,” she told me. “Look at this, your sketchbook. It’s huge. Looks like you draw all the time, like you got a passion for it. Who cares if it’s the best, it’s something special.”
“Nothing you’ve got a passion for? Everyone likes something.”
“I like watching dumb TV shows and eating paninis. I like doing my homework and beating all the other kids in my class. I like a lot of things. But I don’t have a dream, or a vision. I don’t have that gem hidden inside of me that I take out and look at and say, ‘My future is here.’”
“Paninis are good.” I didn’t know what to say. “So I guess you hate all those ‘What is your ten-year plan’ questions, huh?”
She laughed. “Yeah, sure as hell I did. Would write shit like ‘In ten years I will be on the moon, broadcasting to the planet Earth an essay on why capitalism is bad for children’s morals.’ My teachers got so sick of me.”
I nearly choked on my giggle, caught unawares by the ridiculous answer. “You’re kidding, right? Please tell me you actually wrote that.”
“A couple times. Usually it was just ‘in college, getting a job, living in my own apartment’ and the normal kind of stuff.”
I put my sketchbook and pencils behind me, freed my hands. It was getting darker anyways, and I doubted I’d be able to do much else with my drawing. “So how’s that going? You got the college part down, I know. Where are you headed?”
Kaya looked down. “Manhattan, actually.”
“Seriously?” I tipped my straw hat back and stared at her. “You’re going from this town to Manhattan?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going to end up dead in an alley, culture shock, all that stuff.”
“Uh-huh. It was nice knowing you.”
“But I want that change. I don’t see the point of spending my entire life in a tiny space with all the same people, I’ll never learn anything. I’ll never change.”
“You want to change?” I looked at her, the curly hair and curve of her neck. Her reflection was a model, perfection in a single portrait. Now I saw the chaos below her skin, fear and anticipation boiling together.
“For the better. Aren’t people always reaching for perfection? Isn’t that why you draw so much?”
I laughed to break the tension. “Are you saying my art isn’t perfect?”
“I don’t know, are bridges supposed to be crooked?” She smiled, taking the bait.
I rolled my eyes. “I claim artistic license.”
“Mm-hm,” Kaya hummed. “I claim B.S.”
We sat, quiet, watching the sun set over the river. I should have been painting, capturing the clouds, the shadows. She should have been playing with her little brother and his friends. I had the feeling we were both reaching for something to talk about it, but failing, afraid of the awkward silence stretching between us. I thought of sitting at a desk during finals, reaching for an answer that I barely knew, hoping it would appear to me in a burst of golden light.
“So…” I started. “Paninis?”
With a slow roll of her head, she locked eyes with me. “Paninis. My god, this one place in Manhattan had the most amazing panini to ever have entered my mouth. If I could magically transport us there right now, I would do it and you would be forever converted to the panini cult.”
“I think I’ve uncovered the secret of why you decided to go to college in Manhattan,” I grinned.
We talked for another hour.
I didn’t see her again that summer. Every day she crossed my mind, somehow. In the morning when the sun glared down, painfully focused like a disapproving parent, it was hot enough to make me regret the clothes I was wearing, make me run for the air conditioning as bright beams bounced off cars, the wet streets, off everything straight into my eyes. I cringed whenever I stepped out the door, thought longingly of rivers and waterfalls and pools shaded over by banyan trees.
By midday it was still hot, humid and sticky, the clothes I had left clinging to my skin. Sweat ran down between my shoulder blades and I would rake my damp hair back from my face in frustration and think of nothing but how blue the water that day was, and how nice it would have been to strip and plunge into the ocean. Then sun wouldn’t have been as bad once I was lying on a warm stone, soaked through with my legs in the water.
In the evening, the heat persisted, in my house and out. The disappointment of empty ice trays drew sighs. Blankets and sheets were kicked to the end of the bed. Clothes damned, I slept in my thinnest tank top and oldest shorts. I lay on a bare mattress, the warm air softer than any blanket, and thought of the evening lights in the pool, of coming home with wet hair and soft skin, of collapsing into my nest, happy and anticipating of the next day. I thought of her, so tired of this little town, so sick of the heat. I thought of her warm skin, of her flushed ears and sleeves perpetually pushed up. I thought of her, in that moment miles away and already asleep. I closed my eyes and smiled.