Summer romances often turn out a lot like 4th of July fireworks, fast and exciting, colorfully mesmerizing, and invariably short. They almost always end up exploding right in front of you, leaving you confused and hollow inside. That's the way I'd always thought of them at least. For years I stubbornly refused any part of summer romances, I'd seen how they ended time and time again. I'd seen my friends involved in them, blissfully happy for a few months or less, and then abruptly torn apart by them at summers end. "How can anybody be foolish enough to involve themselves in a relationship with an expiration date on it?" I'd think to myself. I likened it to playing Russian roulette with a semi automatic weapon. I made it through all my years of awkward puberty and well into college with this kind of reasoning, arrogantly shaking my head with a kind of self assured amusement every time I'd see a friend get involved with one of these death traps. I'd never have to worry about that kind of messy situation, I knew better. It was an easy mindset to have, until I got involved with a summer fling myself. In the span of two and a half short months, I unraveled all my years of high and mighty careful planning. I learned a lot that summer: about fireworks, men and women, and that hypocrisy is a bitter pill to swallow.
In May of 2010, after graduating from my community college, I moved to Michigan to live and work for the summer. A family cabin on a lake I used to go to as a kid had fallen into disrepair, and I took it upon myself to drive up there and "save it." What better way for a 22 year old man to spend his summer than doing construction work on a lakeside cabin? I pictured myself working a lot, fishing as much as I could, catching a few rays, and just relaxing in general. I never gave any thought to "romance." After all, those kinds of situations never work out, I knew better. Fish were the only thing I was looking to woo that summer. I was determined to keep it that way.
For the first month and a half of my stay at the lake, I kept my eye on the prize and got a lot accomplished. I re-shingled the roof, chopped down a few dead trees with an axe, and after falling through the rotted out ancient deck that graced the front of my cabin, I replaced that as well. My evenings were spent out on the lake with a few buddies, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a couple of fishing poles. I was having the time of my life in my Michigan oasis, weaving a beautiful tapestry of business and pleasure. For once in my life, everything seemed to be going exactly as planned. Then, in almost stereotypical fashion, I met a woman.
It's funny how quickly the best laid plans of mice and men can be altered by a pair of blue eyes and a nice smile. I was painting the exterior of my cottage on a high ladder one day, when I heard a voice behind me ask "Do you remember me?" I didn't, at all, but from my perch atop the ladder I nodded affirmatively and managed to come up with a charming, dashing line. Something akin to "Uhhhh…..yeah…..suuuuree I do. Hey…..you." I've always been smooth. At least I didn't fall ass backwards off the ladder. In talking with her, it turned out I did indeed know her, at some point in my life. She and I had known each other as kids, when I used to come up to the cabin every summer with my family. We'd swim together, catch frogs and turtles, chase fireflies, and do adorable generic childhood things. Her name was Emily.
Catching up with a childhood friend you haven't seen in years is always hilariously awkward, especially when that friend happens to be a different gender than you are. All my memories of Emily involved wading through mud with giant nets to catch turtles. It didn't take a fool to realize that kind of activity wouldn't fly now. After the initial awkwardness, we actually began to have a free flowing, breezy conversation, kind of an "Idiots Guide" to the people we had grown into since childhood. She mentioned that she was transferring to a school on the east coast for college in August. That should have been a red flag. A robot with flashing lights should have burst out of the shadows and told me to pull back the reigns. After all, it was mid June. Only an idiot would try to forge ahead with some kind of ill fated attempt at a relationship this far along in the summer.
Turns out I'm an idiot. After a week or two of hanging out, casual dinners, and romantic, drunken boat rides, Emily and I kind of fell into a relationship. Before I would surrender fully to it, I insisted we set some ground rules. Both of us realized we'd go our separate ways in mid August, and both of us promised it wouldn't be a problem. I felt pretty good about "beating the system." Again, I'm an idiot. I believed, or forced myself to believe that our little arrangement would work out with no unforeseen consequences. For awhile, I had every reason to believe that. The second part of that summer was some of the happiest times of my life. Day after carefree day was spent frolicking around the state of Michigan, almost trying to cram in as much quality time as possible before the end came, as it inevitably would. Part of me actually convinced myself that if we didn't talk about it, the summer would never end. We would stay like this forever. I actually believed that. I often wonder if she did too.
The time in our hour glass slowly drained out, until we were left facing August with a grim, expressionless silence. Neither of us spoke about it, but I could feel the tension and uncertainty rising like billowing storm clouds in the distance. I heard the thunder before I felt the rain. One day, we were sitting on a boat dock in silence, a silence that had become more and more present in our normally talkative relationship, when she finally spoke. In a hysterical outburst of shouting and tears that left me severally flummoxed, Emily began screaming about how I must be made of stone. It was obvious to her that our time together had meant nothing to me; I had never even expressed my sadness about how things were ending, and how I would miss her. She told me these things in a firestorm of obscenity and shouting that still makes me shudder to this day. I was so taken aback I couldn't say anything for awhile. When I finally did find my voice, all I could muster was something about how we said we wouldn't let this thing get serious, how it wouldn't be a problem for either of us when it ended. She didn't take that well. My stupidity is a running theme it appears.
After that romantic conversation on the docks, we didn't see each other for a few days. I knew I was ruining our last days together, but I didn't have any idea what to do. Finding the words to sum up all I wanted to say was nearly impossible, and in the end it wouldn't change anything. Even if I had somehow concocted a moving speech of epic proportions that made angels cry with pure unabashed emotion, she would still be leaving. I decided to write a letter. I've never been the "roses are red" kind of lover letter guy, and that wasn't going to change. I felt I couldn't let her leave without telling her what I was feeling. I didn't want her to feel that she didn't mean anything to me.
I bought a spiral notebook and a bottle of whiskey, and I took my boat out into the lake one night to collect my thoughts. It was around midnight, and all I had to work with for light was an old rechargeable fishing lantern. Out on the lake, beneath the stars, in a boat we'd had so many good times together, I put pen to paper and tried my damndest to express what I was trying to say. After I got started, I found I wasn't able to stop. I wrote furiously, my arm jerking across the page like a two man saw cutting down a large tree. I didn't even look up to take a swig of my Whiskey. "Jack Daniels" just sat there on the seat next to me, watching me toil. I talked about everything I could think of, every minute detail I could remember. I wanted her to know that I'd been wrong, that our time together hadn't been meaningless. The words began just pouring out of me. I told her I could remember how many rungs up the later I had been the day I first saw her, and how blue her eyes were, even from my wobbly perch. I discussed in great detail all of our days together, the baseball games, the boat rides, how on our first dinner date the portly waiter had dumped an entire tray of ice cream on my head by accident, and how I'd never forget how hard she laughed at my frozen predicament. I told her that I'd never look at fireworks again without thinking of her. I told her the coast wasn't really all that far away, and that I could visit her once or twice. I mapped out on the back of one of the pages a route I could take to get there. I told her that if I left after my last Thursday class and drove through the night, I could reach South Carolina early Friday morning. Even as I was writing it, I knew I'd never be going to South Carolina. I knew there was a very good possibility I'd never see her again. None of that seemed to matter. The lies we tell ourselves are sometimes as true to us as anything else in the world. I told her everything I felt I had in me in that letter. In the end, I was telling her goodbye.
I held on to the letter for a day or two. It took up twelve pages of raw emotion and black pen ink. Trying to sum up a summers worth of feeling is a long process, it turns out. I still wasn't sure what to do with it. It was unlike anything I had ever written. I'd never told anybody so much before; I'd never been so honest. I hadn't bothered with sentence structure, with proper MLA formatting; I didn't have a work cited page. I didn't have all those literary tools to hide behind. Just twelve pages of ink smudged gas station notebook paper. In the end, I never handed it to her, I saw her packing up to leave, and when she went inside to grab another bag, I slipped it in her duffle bag on the sly. When it came time for our goodbyes, I hugged her and wished her luck. I watched until she drove away. I walked back to my cabin and sat down in an old rocking chair I had on the deck. I sat there until morning.
Sometimes the things we write tell more than a story. Sometimes it helps us find out who we are or who we'd like to be. Sometimes it expresses how we feel inside when words just don't do it justice. Sometimes it provides us with a flashlight to delve into the murky depths of our emotions and shine a path towards understanding. Sometimes, it's like fireworks.