The third time it happened was outside a house party in that peripheral part of town where the summer employees lived. Waitresses, bus boys and hotel valets out of uniform and in scant beachwear laughed about bands, drugs and surfing -- their lexicon of cool so far beyond my grasp that I regarded its speakers with a lusty reverence reserved for the glossiest untouchables. I was 18 at the time and could count the number of parties I had been to on one hand. That and the fact that my family summered on the island did nothing to enhance my social capital with this crowd. Despite the fact that I was technically part of the summer workforce, I was a Baby in a sea of Johnnys. Swaddled in the particular type of self-loathing that arises from unwitting rigidity in the face of wanton merrymaking, I kept my mouth shut, lest I commit an "I carried a watermelon" offense and get kicked out -- or worse, shamed -- for not belonging.
Riding the wave of late-cresting rebellion in that three-month breath between high school and college, I had followed my younger, cooler brother to the site of this nightly ritual. While I was folding cashmere sweaters at a Main Street boutique, he was down by the wharf, renting bikes to enthusiastic weekenders. The bike shop guys were the nexus of anti-establishment cool -- the chain-smoking, board shorts-clad answer to their yacht-sailing, popped-collar counterparts. After nightfall, everyone who was anyone knew to go to the house they rented, where there would surely be beer, bongs and the promise of promise. Isn't that why people attended those sorts of gatherings, anyway? If not to celebrate a birthday or Christmas, the impetus for assembly seemed to be the tantalizing prospect of an experience or liaison, without which any person in her right mind would've just cozied up at home in her jammies with a DVD and some froyo.
My impetus? The Bike Messenger. I didn't know his name or his story. All I knew was that he was older, seemed dangerous and had eyes that sparkled when they met mine -- which had happened exactly twice: Once when I had visited the bike shop to retrieve my brother from work, and again the following afternoon on the docks. I'd been sitting there alone during my lunch break, dangling my feet over the edge and staring off into the distance. It's what I loved most about the island. That suspended sense of being no one, nowhere, tethered to nothing but the wind and the waves. There was not a soul in sight, and then there he was. I don't know that I had ever seen the docks empty at the height of summer. Somehow, though, we were the only two people there that day. It could have simply been that the crowds were at the beach but, engorged as I was on Seventeen Magazine and Jane Austen, I chalked it up to destiny (cue dramatic look to horizon). We held each other's gaze for longer than was comfortable as he made his way from the end to the beginning, and only looked away after he'd stepped off the wooden planks and onto solid ground. For all I knew he was a greasy Casanova who could smell virgin blood from a mile away. But in that moment his presence was poetry. I'd said nothing. He'd said nothing. We hadn't needed to. In the space between us was a tacit understanding we'd meet again -- not because it was a small island or because he worked with my brother, but, naturally, because it was meant to be.
The party had grown rowdy. The Bike Messenger wasn't even there. Overwhelmed as I was (and am) in crowds, I stepped outside into the moonlight, my ill-advised high-heeled shoes sinking awkwardly into the gravel driveway. I had taken up smoking the year before and found great solace in the myriad opportunities it afforded for quiet contemplation. (P.S. Don't smoke. It's bad for you.) I lit my cigarette, inhaled, and blew smoke up at the stars. I didn't see him until after I had finished the first one. I turned my face away from the wind to light the second, and only then did I notice his silhouette resting in a nearby patch of grass, camouflaged by shadows. He'd been there the whole time.
"I saw you at the shop," he said, cracking a smile with his deviously crooked teeth. "And on the dock," I wagered, stepping close enough to see the sharp, geometric outlines of his tattoos.
We both smoked Camel Lights. This obviously meant we were soulmates. Beneath his ink and piercings, I could see that he was steady and sensitive. Beneath my prep school primness, he could see that I was imploding in a Dead Poets Society sort of way. I got his goodness and he got my turbulence, and the rest of the world didn't seem to get any of that about either of us. And so there we sat. A perfect pair of mismatched socks.
What is it about summer that allowed goody two-shoes Sandy to end up with T-Bird Danny and Mount Holyoke-bound Baby to dirty dance her way into Johnny Castle's arms? As Don Henley points out, the steadfast love of a perennial boyfriend is preferable, because it endures "after the boys of summer have gone." LFO underlines this transient nature of the seasonal relationship: "Summer girls come and summer girls go/ Some are worthwhile and some are so-so." Even Grease warns us that, "It turned colder" and, well, "that's where it ends." Given our collective knowledge of how summer love pans out, why do we continue to covet and celebrate it? Why are there countless movies, songs and magazine articles about it? Admit it. The mere mention of the phrase makes you want to hop up on a cafeteria table and break out into song, as your adorable, poodle skirt-wearing girlfriends chime in, "Tell me more, tell me more!"
My guess is that summer is our version of a Shakespearean green world where all normal rules go out the window. The courtly folks leave the unyielding confines of society and skip off into the enchanted forest where they bend genders, trade lovers, cavort with magical animals and employ the inestimable powers of fairy dust and disguise. The topsy-turvy sequence of events that ensues affords these individuals some much-needed clarity, ultimately allowing them to return to the courtly world refreshed and enlightened. The only difference is that, whereas their escapist playground traditionally leads to marriage (e.g. Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander), ours more often leads to heartbreak. Case in point: What Baby and Johnny had could never have existed beyond the confines of Kellerman's. Just like Zack Morris could only be with Stacy Carosi at the Malibu Sands Beach Club. Back in the real world, he was always going to end up with Kelly. But therein lies the allure. Summer love, like the season itself, is necessarily fleeting.
I knew this when I met the Bike Messenger, but I chose to ignore it. I ignored it when he told me his age. And when I met his on-again, off-again girlfriend. (They were off-again. For the life of me I couldn't understand why. She looked like one of the models from my magazines.) I ignored it when our mutual friends warned me not to get involved. And when my brother looked on disapprovingly. I ignored it because the cocktail of dopamine and serotonin and -- let's be honest -- escapism was too good to resist. And so there I was. Fixated on the clock at every family dinner. Faux-casually strolling past the bike shop during every break from work. Balancing precariously on the white porcelain bathroom sink, shaving my legs higher than I normally would and nicking my skin in the process because I was in such a rush to be deflowered.
Maddeningly and, later, thankfully, my tattooed Casanova had better sense than to take advantage of a wide-eyed teenager. (See? Told you he was sensitive.) In fact, I'm not even sure sex was on the table or if I had completely imagined it. In theaters this summer! The New England retelling of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet starring... me. We tend to do that. Create our own narratives. Break our own hearts. The story I was telling was one of star-crossed lovers. The story he was telling was one of a twent-something surfer dude who built bikes in summer, messengered parcels in winter and spoke lovingly about a 4-year-old son he rarely saw.
People contain within them universes. Each person you meet is a portal into a world of which you do or do not want to be a part. And with someone else, someplace else, you can be an entirely different version of yourself. I mean, what if the whole thing started because Sandy liked who she was with Danny? Ever think about that? Maybe Baby's love for Johnny was real. Or maybe she just loved the version of herself she saw through his eyes. His hungry eyes. Sorry. Couldn't resist. We become enamored of ourselves in situations and call it "love" -- or, as I so eloquently put it in a letter the following fall, "the closest thing I've ever felt to love." I know. I'm sorry you had to hear that. It's embarrassing for us all. But I did it. I committed the cardinal sin of summer romance: the drag-out. Sitting alone in my college dorm room, staring out at gothic turrets, I penned a love letter to a guy whose last name I didn't even know. The address read: [First Name] c/o The Bike Shop [Street, City, State, Zip]. I imagine he'd already gone to the mainland for the winter by then. He was probably on a bike somewhere, weaving dangerously in and out of traffic with an important parcel strapped to his back, à la Puck from The Real World. I imagine the other guys at the bike shop laughing and putting the letter on a joke wall or, if there is any mercy in the world, straight into the garbage.
Before that letter, though, before lunchtime trysts by the wharf, before cosmic conversations and awkwardly fraught goodbyes, was the moment that started it all. We lingered in the dark outside that party and talked for what must've been hours. When it was time to go, I mumbled something about insomnia. Suspended in the liminal space between everything I'd ever known and whatever would happen at the end of that summer, I'd taken to lying awake most nights staring at the ceiling, lost in the frenzied hopes and fears that only exist on the blind precipice of imminent change. My Bike Messenger understood. You see, there are certain types of relationships you can only have with strangers. That night we both recognized that this was one of them.
"I don't like it either," he said of sleep. "I always feel like I'll miss something. The world is just... so much." I couldn't have said it better myself. Toldja. Soulmates. Or at least for the time being. That is, after all, what summer is for.