All over town, the soft summer nights are filled with teenagers enjoying their only perfect summer, that glorious space between high school and life, that time when anything is possible and they’re too young to be afraid of those possibilities. Freedom in car keys and bottles and loose curfews. I don’t envy the young much beyond the careless ease of slender, pain-free bodies. If they knew what was coming — if any of us did — they’d be frozen in place, unable to move forward into the pain and the joy. It’s all too much, conceived at one moment. It takes time to live through it all. But I do envy them the warm summer nights spent lazing around the porches of lovely girls, drinking new drinks and wondering what will come next. There may be kisses, there may be more, there may not. Trying to name the stars, debating the profundity of a song, quoting poetry, trying on sophistication like a new suit.
Or maybe it’s completely different now. Who would know? But I know what it was like then, a score and twice-three years ago, and it was sweet. It was nectar.
Though that’s not the perfect night I’d most like to capture. I’ve long thought that I could do no better as a writer than to capture a summer night from when I was one of a bunch of 15- or 16-year-old boys, riding our bikes, hanging out under streetlights and on a series of front porches, bullshitting about sports and girls and especially girls, still something of an alien species to a group of kids that was centered on several families made up of many boys. I can taste the Bazooka bubble gum and the Hires root beer, I can see the fireflies in the high grass of the elementary school ballfield (with its much battered “No Hard Ball Playing” sign on the backstop now reduced by focused pitching to an admonition of “No Hard,” exactly what we thought it should say). I can remember the boasts and the promises, the banter of boys who’ve known each other forever. One of us was going to die, and we knew that, which set an odd tension over these perfect nights, made liars out of all of us when we talked about the future. We couldn’t know then that we’re all liars when we promise the future, so there was guilt about those lies, about what we’d do when we could drive, when we were out of high school, when we went off to college. The friendship of boys — a much simpler thing than with girls, less subject to daily upset. Just because you don’t like another guy doesn’t mean he’s not one of your friends, necessarily.
But when I try to put it down, I can’t quite get it all — the supreme teenage zen of a tank top and cutoffs, perched perfectly on a bike, one sneakered foot against the curb for balance, the other foot idly backspinning the cogs on the bike, occasionally wheeling out into the street, turning the tightest circles possible, back to balance against the curb. I can’t quite describe the tinny, staticky sound of the AM transistor radio, brought out onto Paul’s grandmother’s porch, turned to the Top 40 station but turned way down so as not to wake her, because we could pretty much stay outside until some parent somewhere noticed us, or noticed we were missing, at which point they might send a little brother to fetch us home, or a father would get out in the station wagon, cruise up and lean out the window to check out what we were up to, give a thoughtful puff on his pipe and then announce it was time for his boys to get on home. If we were at one of the places they expected us to be — someone’s front step, the schoolyard, under a corner streetlight — it went nice and easy. If he’d had to drive half the village to find us, harsher direction would be given. Either way, our night would be over and we’d pedal off home to sleep and dream and ready ourselves for another day of baseball and bicycles and bullshitting.
But if you weren’t there, if you haven’t had those sweet nights in your life, I haven’t described enough of the hundred details that went into making such a night: The baseball game — right field an automatic out under our rules, as we’d have to interrupt the game if the ball went over the fence into the street — played until it was too dark to see the ball in the seldom-mowed grass. Wiffleball in the street, using storm sewers for bases. Frisbee, card games at wobbly picnic tables, bike rides to the corner store or to Jumpin’ Jack’s drive-in.
Will the memories of the kids wandering these streets on these soft summer nights be as sweet as ours are?