by Eliza Mills
The summer before my senior year of college is muggy hot, and the window unit in my second floor bedroom hums while I sleep, drowning out the street sounds and filling the room with a stagnant artificial chill. The AC is a glaring sign of independent adulthood—solitary and selfish and expensive. Cold air seeps under the crack in my door, leaving a residue of chill in the air directly outside my room. Past that line the house is warm and dense, the heaviness of the heat exacerbated by a housemate’s frequent bread-baking. Early in the dewy mornings I walk in my flat sandals to the train and ride for an hour towards an unpaid internship. On the subway I hold a book open in front of me and don’t really read it, the words shift in front of me as the train speeds and shakes through the city. On the days I don’t work I look for a real job until I am distracted. We all band together, my friends with no jobs and I, drinking cold beer outside in the afternoons, waking up early to go to the beach, sipping super-sized iced coffees and sprawling in the sun, almost never wearing shoes. This is the end of something, we know, the last time for this carelessness, the last summer of our youth.
In the afternoon, Alex and I get high in our bathing suits, bare shoulders pressed against the cool of my bedroom wall. The two of us are tucked under my filmy yellow curtains, blowing smoke up over our heads and out the open window. We slice watermelon and eat it in the sun on the front porch, drinking mint lemonade. The glass sweats in my hand and I wipe the cold water on my bare leg in an X, turning so that my knee touches Alex’s for a moment before they come unstuck. “No one has ever been this unemployed,” he says, and my laugh rasps from the smoke and the sour of the lemons. It’s too hot for anything, and we lie with our eyes closed and the radio on, bound by our stillness.
Alex’s phone rings. Someone says we’re all going to the river, and we peel ourselves from the porch chairs. In the car we sit on laps and play the music too loud until the wheels crack twigs in a dirt lot and we’re untangling ourselves, spilling into the day. The river’s not what I expected, a hike over and down a twisting hill to rust-colored water that obscures our limbs in a bloody wash. It’s wide and deep and full of reeds, but still I drift downstream on my back, splay my fingers in the rush. The trees are tall, bent over the water, the kind that look sleepy because they’re full of some candy-floss white plant. Beneath them I make wide arcs with my arms, floating in the shade, blinking where the sunlight falls through the leaves in dappled spots. We’re all carried like this, arms and legs slipping under the dirty water and back up, surprised and repulsed by a plant that wraps itself around ankles without warning, laughing because this is disgusting, and because how will we ever swim back upstream.
When the river opens up and the current is lost in the lake; two men in baseball caps call to us from their little boat, “Hey! Hey, what are you doing in this water? You’ll all get sick, I bet.” A fishing pole hangs limp over the boat’s edge, one of the men stands, a can of beer in his hand, “You kids are gonna get a rash. I fell in here once and I had a motherfucking rash for a week and a half.” He’s looking down at us as we tread water, squinting against the light reflecting on the surface. “Gross,” we say, and then, “So what?” says one of the boys, and he kicks furiously so that the water turns white and frothy near his feet “So we’ll have a rash.” The man with the beer shrugs and laughs, I picture us all with skin raw and red, but what does it matter, really. The men in the boat turn on a clipped motor and wave at us before they head away, out into the lake.
And something bad should happen, now that they’re gone. Some slimy, sucking, biting creature in the water, some shard of glass in someone’s foot, blood or tears, some kind of panic. But nothing happens at all. We get out of the water where the muddy shore dips in, we brush wet hair from our eyes and walk barefoot through the forest towards the spot where we left our things. My toes curl around pine needles, and I try to make no noise at all. We share a bottle of water, and my body dries, leaving my skin cool and smelling of washed away sunscreen. When we reach our towels, we are dirty and bugbitten, but unscathed. No one has a rash. Still, something is gone, and dull anxiety, panic, races through me. We’ll always be too wise now to swim downstream. There will be so few Wednesday mornings on the porch, hardly any time at all anymore to be carried away, to give in to the current. My ribcage is on fire with this fear, with longing, nostalgia already for my reckless friends and our empty days. This is the beginning of an ending, and, ready now, we dive and come up breathless, we take snapshots. We acknowledge that we’re telling a story. The remembering is indulgent, wonderful; the bursts of it, the days when we live inside the memories we’re making, are beautiful.
We pile back into the cars and let the wind whip though the windows on the highway. We lie in the grass on the side of the road and eat fat tomatoes and crusty bread from the market; we gulp iced tea and air and let the warmth beat down on us, bake us on this black concrete. We are damp and dirty and flushed. Nothing is left of the day and there is only wanting—to be hot and restless and hungry, forever—to walk barefoot in the trees and put too many people in the car.