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Summer of My Youth

Published: July 4, 2014

Silhouette of a young girl against a firework-filled sky. Source: Shutterstock.com /  © Hofhauser

Source: Shutterstock.com / © Hofhauser

I’m of the opinion that nothing is ever truly forgotten. A memory can be submerged below the surface, buried for years, then you smell a specific scent or hear a certain phrase and the memory returns. Not always intact. Never perfect. But somewhat restored.

Summer came back to me that way. After thirty years, she returned as I lay on the floor of my office, pain tearing through my chest and down my arm, dying. I saw her, not in the room with me, but in the hot July sun, her dark hair curled around her finger. Her head was tilted in that way she always used to tilt it when she was flirting, grinning up at a boy at an angle to show off her long lashes.

She wasn’t a hallucination. She wasn’t a ghost. And I wasn’t going crazy as the life left me. It was a memory. God only knows what sparked it, but there she was, and I knew exactly what day it was, too: Independence Day, 1961.

It began with oppressive humidity and the threat of a storm that never came. Dark clouds passed over and away without dropping any rain, and afterward people poured out into the sunshine to celebrate their freedom.

It’s odd, the details that sprang to my mind after so many years. I saw her quite clearly. Her searching eyes. Her delicate hands. Her slightly crooked teeth. They all looked right. But something wasn’t. Something was off. I studied her closely, and it took me only a moment to find it. The nose. It wasn’t hers. It was too perfect. Too…man-made. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Thirty years is a long time to remember something as small as a nose, and a memory so long abandoned can never come back completely intact.

At least the freckles–the design they made on my summer girl’s face–were still there, probably ingrained in my memory from the many nights I spent staring at them, counting them, exploring. I searched for constellations in those freckles as eagerly as an amateur astronomer searches the stars for new wonders. And I found plenty of them.

But I had no time for staring that day. It was a day for activity. Only the bees seemed lazy, buzzing around the blackberry bushes in the afternoon sun. The fat, juicy berries hung heavy on the bushes that ran alongside the fence line behind her house. I plucked one from the nearest branch and gave it to her, then we climbed through the four-strands of barbed wire and took off toward the creek.

I chased her, Summer of my youth. We raced through the neighbor’s field. She liked to think she could beat me and I let her edge ahead.

We frolicked across the grassy expanse, jumping and leaping through knee-high stems until, midway through the field, I bounded over a fallen log and landed on the other side with one foot in a hole. I tipped forward, falling flat on my face, and when I clambered to my feet, lucky not to have broken my ankle, I saw her with a hand over her mouth. She only contained the laughter long enough to see that I was okay.

Why was her nose gone from my memory but her laugh echoed around me as if she were in the room?

*****

The sun beat down on us in the empty field as we returned to a sedate walk. I limped slightly.

“You’ll leave soon, won’t you?”

She didn’t look at me. Her gaze was fixed on the ground in front of us. She bent to pick a daisy when we reached the edge of the field and stopped. She twirled it between her fingers, watching the petals spin like a pinwheel.

“I must,” I replied, losing my gaiety.

The seriousness of tomorrow intruded rudely on the day, disturbing me, rupturing the pleasant bubble of well-being that had ballooned within me during that summer of joy.

“Really?” She cocked her head to the side, the cascading ringlets of her brown hair falling over her shoulder. “You must?”

“You know I have to. If I don’t go now, I never will. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

I reached out and took her hand in mine. The skin, a shade paler than my own, looked ghostly, almost translucent. Blue veins showed just below the surface.

“You won’t come back.”

The words by themselves sounded accusing or angry, but her tone did not. She said it merely as an observation. A fact.

“I will,” I insisted. “I’ll come back for you.”

At the time I meant it, but I never returned.

Why? I worked, I obtained, I grew. That’s the easiest answer. I never ate a wild blackberry off the bush again after that summer.

She didn’t respond. She knew my own truth better than I. She leaned forward and kissed me gently with soft lips still sticky with juice.

“Why don’t you come with me?” I said as I traced a design idly on the back of her hand with my index finger.

She laughed, pitching forward onto my shoulder. “Henry, you know that’s ridiculous.”

And somehow, it was. She wouldn’t fit in where I was going, and she wouldn’t want to. She wanted a simple, uncomplicated life, and I wanted something different. I wanted to own things, to run things, and most of all, to feel significant.

Well, I achieved. I got everything I ever wanted, didn’t I? My name was on the door of the office. My face was plastered on billboards. I was even featured in cheesy television ads. I personified what I always imagined ‘successful’ to be.

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