When We Still Knew What It Meant to Be Kids

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Krista Varela


Dirty pool
Photo Credit: Éole Wind

That summer before high school, the desert was ruthless.

The weeds had become overgrown, shooting up through the ground to graze our ankles and lodge themselves in our socks when we’d run outside. They sucked the ground dry of its nutrients, leaving cracks in the dirt like the cracks on our chapped lips.

The sun bruised our skin red. Our shoes baked on the pavement, the plastic on the tips of our shoelaces melted as we dragged them across the sidewalks.

The hot winds blew and tried to stir things up, but nothing changed; dirt and sediment settled on the bottom of the stagnant swimming pool, turning the water murky and thick.

There were days when it was so hot, our dreams flickered in front of us like mirages on the blacktop, disappearing the closer we got to reaching them.

And yet, there was still the mural of horses painted on the front of your house; mustangs and appaloosas, spotted browns, whites, and blacks, bucking and prancing through a field of lush grass and unfastened wooden fences, an entire other world painted against a pink wall—giving us hope that there was life beyond this place we were living.

*

Do you remember how we met? I’m not sure who was the first to say hello in that year before high school. We shared a lot of the same friends back then, because you were in band, and I wished I had been cool enough to be in band. My parents had just officially divorced, still battling custody issues while they fought about my dad’s drinking, and my mom couldn’t afford for me to rent an instrument. I still hung out with the band kids anyway. But the fact that your parents were divorced too was what drew me to you at first; I didn’t know anyone else who had a family like mine.

We spent much of our free time roaming around your neighborhood and exploring the alley because we were on the threshold of something, but we didn’t quite know what. Mostly I think we just tried to stay out of the house so that your mom wouldn’t make us do chores.

You also introduced me to a lot of music I had never heard before. We spent hours listening to your stereo because iPods didn’t exist yet. We’d play music with the volume turned all the way up, and your mom would pound on the wall for us to turn it down when she was hungover and had a headache.

Before we knew each other that well, you asked me once if I had ever been molested, but you didn’t use that word. It was in that shy roundabout way that kids ask when they’re not sure how to talk about things—do you remember what you told me? You confessed that your grandfather and uncle had shown themselves to you before with a strong smell of whiskey on their breath. But you could already hold you own. You knew how to handle and talk to drunken family members in a way that I hadn’t learned yet. “Put that thing away, old man,” you’d said. I never told you, but it scared me when you told me that. It scared me when I’d see your uncle at your house with a beer in his hand, and I’d wonder if he would try it again. I knew I wasn’t as brave as you were.

We were at your house once, just the two of us, watching a movie. You got up and went to the kitchen to get something to drink. You probably don’t even remember, but you asked me if I wanted a wine cooler from the refrigerator. I had never tried alcohol before. I didn’t know what to do. I never told you, but when you asked me, my stomach seized up in knots, worried about what we were capable of, even though it was no worse than what I knew other kids our age were doing. It’s not like you were offering me the wine in the cabinet above the fridge, or the bottle of gin under your mom’s bed. We’d both grown up watching our parents drink and saw the emotional extremes that came with it—the carefree elation and the utter despair, the hard fall from one to the other. That was the moment I realized that could be us someday, so overwhelmed by life that it was the only way to cope.

I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t know then that our first drink together would be almost a decade later in Las Vegas celebrating our twenty-first birthdays. But at thirteen years old, I just wasn’t ready. “No, thanks,” I said, and you came back to join me on the couch with a glass of water instead.

*

My dad would tease you about the different colors that you’d dye in your hair, and you’d tease him right back. None of my friends had ever done that before; they were always too intimidated by his gruff voice and sarcasm. My dad knew that your own father wasn’t around, and he tried to fill in as a role model in your life. Even though he spent night after night taking shots of tequila while he cleaned up the bar that he owned and only saw us a few times a week, that had to be better than being away from your kids across the country right? My dad still asks about you, says he loves you like a daughter.

My mom loved you too because it was impossible not to, but she probably thought you were a little too wild for me at times. Remember that evening at my house when we sprayed the walls of my room with hair glitter from a can? I never told you, but my mom pulled me aside before we took you home and asked me if we had been drinking. The smell from the aerosol can had smelled like alcohol to her. I’m not sure if she believed me when I said no, even though I let her smell my breath. There were days after that when I’d be sitting in my room, and the light would catch just right, and the glitter would sparkle on the walls.

*

That ruthless summer before freshman year, we were in your backyard swimming in the pool. The radio was on, and “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley was playing. I knew the song because The Ataris had recently come out with a cover of it. Your mom was outside with us, barefoot on the patio, and she was dancing with her eyes closed and a cigarette in her hand. She swayed side to side, slowly waving her arms in the air, and there was something so beautiful about the way that she moved, as if the song could have played forever and she’d have just kept dancing. Your mom had gained weight since I first met her, probably from the alcohol, and her face had stretched into wrinkles from smoking so many cigarettes and worrying about paying the bills, but in that moment you couldn’t see any of that.

Before school started, your mom lost her job, and she stopped nagging you to clean the pool. She couldn’t make her mortgage payment so you would probably have to move, so what was the point of keeping it clean anyway? I was surprised by how quickly it got dirty. In a matter of weeks, the bottom was completely covered in muck. The longer it went, the less clean water there was, and eventually, you couldn’t even see two inches below the surface.

We managed to get a block of dry ice from the grocery store once. Chipping off pieces onto the pool steps, we watched the water around it bubble and the dirt scatter, leaving a small ring of clear water around the ice. There was something so dangerous about handling the dry ice ourselves, but there was something so harmless about placing it in the water, and something so comforting about seeing a small bit of clarity in an entire pool of filth.

*

The desert was ruthless that summer, but the fall was even worse.

I remember the day your mom died. It was just after Halloween. I was in freshman English class, and I got a slip calling me into the office. I was led to the counselor’s office, where I saw you sitting at the table with someone I didn’t know. Everyone was looking at us with gentle smiles, in that way that people do when they know bad news before you do, looking at us if we were fragile and already broken.

You were in shock; you weren’t crying. Maybe you had finished crying before I got there, or maybe you couldn’t cry yet. The reality that our lives had changed permanently wouldn’t sink in for a long time. Until then, alcoholism was this vague term that we knew our parents fit in to somehow, but just referred to the everyday bullshit that we had to put up with, like when your mom slept in every day until noon or when my father got road rage for no reason at all.

But after that, alcoholism became real—a real disease that caused liver failure and bleeding ulcers and took parents away from their children.

The next day was my mom’s birthday. I asked her if I could see you that night. I could tell she was disappointed that I wasn’t spending her birthday with her, but she understood. Somehow it didn’t seem right to celebrate with my mom when you could never again be with your own. I think about you every year on November third, a day that was both a beginning and an end.

*

We’ve never again had a summer quite like that one. You moved across the country to live with your dad, down south where the air was wet and thick. Life still wasn’t easy, taking care of another parent that bounced around from one job to the next holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, but you managed. You knew how to hold your own. A few years later I left the desert too, to spend my summers gazing out into the Pacific and share my new home in rolling green hills with cows and wild turkeys. But I still watched from afar as my own dad lost so many things because he refused to throw out the bottle of tequila on his desk: his job, his driver’s license, half of his front tooth.

The last time I drove by your house, the mural of horses was gone. The people living there now painted over the entire wall with a dull gray. Perhaps the horses moved on to greener pastures.

Every time I hear “The Boys of Summer” on the radio, I think of that summer when we still knew what it meant to be kids. I think of that day we spent in the pool, swimming until our fingertips wrinkled and the tips of our noses turned red. I think of the smell of chlorine, the sound of cicadas singing in the trees. I think of the hot concrete, the way our feet burned as we dashed across the yard to turn up the radio. When I hear that song, I picture your mom, and wonder if she too was thinking about being a teenager when life feels both so immediate and so nostalgic. I can see her so clearly, her brown hair shining in the Arizona sun, in that eternal moment, dancing.

pencilKrista recently graduated with her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. She currently resides in Concord, California with her partner and their miniature dachshund. This is her first publication. Email: kdvarela[at]gmail.com

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