The Summer Kingdom


In the houses of our forebears we can often find objects that haven’t moved in years: a tube of hydrocortisone that expired in 1988; a wooden animal figurine positioned at a certain angle at the corner of a mantle; a small glass vase only big enough to hold a few wildflowers, stuck for decades to the wood surface on which it rests. It is comforting, of course, to come in here and find that nothing has moved since last time, that nothing has moved in decades.

And so I expect that no one has moved either. It’s hard to imagine that anyone — including myself — has lives outside this small kingdom, because lives outside this kingdom were never part of the code. They were barely talked about, if they were talked about at all. The older we got, the less I, for one, wanted to talk about them. So we turned to the past, freezing our friendships in time like the objects on the mantle. You can admire these immovable things. It is possible to simply admire them. Do old friendships need tending to? Some of them are so hardy that they don’t. They gather dust, but then they’re just dusty. They won’t break if nobody tries to move them.

Exiting the gates, turning right off the dirt road hugged by pine and birch trees, it’s hard to imagine I had anything to do, any purpose, before I came here. I panic: what will I do now? I feel like I’m falling through a sinkhole. My mind adapts so quickly to its surroundings, but there’s that sluice to fall through, from one adaptation to another: away to home, home to away. I have always preferred away.

Away, the stakes are lower, of course. Away, the mundane, embarrassing, or difficult details of home are unknown to all others and obscure to us. Away, we are still ourselves, but some more fun version of ourselves. A half-self. Always a half-full self.

So we put off the end as best we can. We stay too long, we change our plans, we make those plans more difficult. I stare at the blue sky that the trees seem to beckon toward, lush branches outstretched, and I convince myself that there is no sky as blue as this one. I try to hold it in my mind. I try to appreciate it, to thank it. I’m not sure where I think I’m going, where I thought I was going, that I drew such a sharp contrast between that sky and any other. I have seen many such blue skies since, but that was the first.

To be the person who comes and the person who goes, not the person who is always here: it is the easier role, I know that. But it doesn’t always feel that way. I think of how it must seem: I tug the inhabitants to me when I need to, then release them — release them not because I want to, but because I have to. The life they have been building here since they were born exists on the same continuum as our summer kingdom. Mine does not. I drop a hundred floors to home. They just drive a hundred miles east. Everything they need is here. I think everything I need is here, too, but I know it’s not true. Everyone I need, maybe. But that’s different.

The Oxford American definition of ‘kingdom’: a realm associated with or regarded as being under the control of a particular person or thing: the kingdom of dreams.

The kingdom of dreams. In our 1996 family portrait, developed on the panoramic-sized Kodak paper from my disposable camera, one of three I used that summer, you can see my friend way in the shadowy background, swinging on a rope swing, about ten feet off the ground and at a 45-degree angle to it. His t-shirt has a soccer ball on the back, as tween-aged boys’ shirts always do, and he looks positively like a monkey, frozen there, mid-swing, photobombing long before photobombing had a name. In this boring photograph, in which nearly everyone in my family looks disengaged or annoyed, I was searching for some glint of happiness, and was surprised to find it so easily, there, in the top right corner. You can also see another younger boy, my neighbor, holding the end of the swing, looking up at the bigger kid clambering above him. It was my neighbor’s swing, but between kids, seniority always trumps ownership. He would have to wait a little longer to try to climb that high.

Recently that tree, an elm, was cut down to make way for a bigger house. Our house is no longer protected by that tree’s shade. Not everything stays in its appointed place.

Without photographs the memories would not be as sharp. Looking at that huddled form on the yellow rope swing I’m reminded of an entire body of mannerisms, words, jokes, expressions, silences. I’m reminded of the complex person in there, that the complexities were there even back then — age 11. You could say they were the standard glitches of every 11-year-old boy: he is your best friend until his better, male friend arrives for two weeks, during which time he more or less acts like you don’t exist.

But wasn’t there a glimmer of remorse the day he came to collect his sunglasses? I’d held them hostage in my house until such a time as he had to come confront me with the fact of his long, rude absence. But me, a girl, slightly older, years more mature: I was the only one who saw it as a confrontation. He just saw it as coming to retrieve his sunglasses. It was a relationship rooted in disappointment. But it could blossom, like the lone moonflower tucked at the side of his neighbor’s house. We would drop everything to go watch the flower open. Sometimes he would drop everything for me. But how, or why, I could never figure out. There was magic in that place, but I never knew how to use it.

Another relic, or talisman of mine, really: the same form, this time in a blue shirt, huddled again, beneath the picnic table, unwilling to have his photo taken. But even that decision, that pose, betrayed his personality. Now I think he’d stand tall and obediently for a photo, ever the mature adult, as unwaveringly stolid as the day he came to collect the sunglasses.

I wonder why my mind lingers on the sunglasses episode, on that foggy, quiet afternoon when he paused on my porch, the sunglasses held pinched between his fingers, making pleasantries for a minute too long. I clung to silence as if silence, not words, would prolong the inevitable. Then back to his “real” friend, and me to more silence.

There is so much that I don’t remember because my mind had to make room for my other life. Life life. Going back, certain memories are jogged, but only the same certain ones. The others were lopped off years ago to make room for other memories, different memories, not always better memories. Most of my memories are attached to strong emotions: hurt, love. I remember feeling hurt, I remember feeling loved. Most things in between are lost. I retrace the familiar paths hoping that the paths will continue for longer if I just concentrate a little harder. That they’ll curve mysteriously around a bend and then reveal some “new” memory, forgotten for too long. But that is the danger of going back, of dwelling on the old. You think you’re discovering something, but you’re not. That which can’t be recalled should be laid to rest. The body knows that, but the soul can’t accept it.

I’m slightly more sure of what I’m doing now, and I’m slightly less sure that I’m doing it all for him. But the scale still tips back and forth. There is no decisive outcome; there is no winner. I wonder if there ever will be, whether I’ll ever have enough control over the past to let the “right” side — the future side — win. The back and forth motion, the coming home and going away, it indulges the kinks in my personality. When the ball is in my court, so to speak, my instinct is to leave the court. I want to go deeper into these friendships, to keep digging, but I wonder whether I even have the capacity to. If we run for miles and miles and suddenly stop, we do not relish having stopped. Our bodies buckle; we limp with the pain of no longer moving.

I think about the things we’ve done away from the lake and I wonder whether once we get far enough away from its gravitational pull, we spin off our axes, we lose our way. He set off on an ambitious journey on a boat once down south and didn’t make it more than 50 miles before he had engine trouble and had to give up. My life is slow, cautious, productive in fits and starts, successful in fits and starts. Can we be two opposing models of the way we were raised, or do our natures get in the way of the data — invalidate the data? I think we need to just stay there, permanently, to really get anywhere. But he thinks he needs to get away. That’s the right a local has, and that’s his burden. I’m not a local of anywhere.

At that age we held a lot of innocuous anger, and apparently I still do. It was the aggression of young bodies and minds in flux. It was the type of anger that drew us to bad music like Limp Bizkit, which we’d nod to almost imperceptibly as we sat squeezed in the back of someone’s wagon on the way to a weekend activity: theme park, mall, movie. Our frustration found a way of trickling sensibly out, controlled and rational: a flick of a pinball machine; a drag of a stolen cigarette, thwacking a golf ball off the edge of the lawn into the water; diving under the cold and trying to just stay down there, down where the roiling mud made your body invisible to anyone on the surface. My anger would come out, more often, in writing: the handwriting grew larger, messier, more crooked, sentences ending in multiple question marks. Because girls always had questions. We thought boys had answers that they just weren’t telling us, but they didn’t. They never even considered our questions unless we made them. The questions never occurred to them.

And now? All the world has, foolishly, been mapped according to those summer rules. The badges and the scars all settled in to my skin for good years ago, and a similar experience to anything that happened there now yields a similar response. I am the person I became there, in a matter of brief but indelible weeks. I don’t have to try to go back in my mind to be back. I am always back. That is my burden. Friends, you may never leave, but that means nothing will haunt you except the unknown. I have seen some of that unknown. I insist it doesn’t compare to our place — your home. But I think, without even realizing, you already know that.

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