A small red Honda nears the crest of a bridge as the setting orange sun blazes behind it, glinting in the rearview mirror. Strands of a Dave Matthews Band song emanate from within, barely audible as the notes are snatched out the open window by the salty ocean breeze.
The three girls inside sing along raucously, gleefully, wildly; as though they can’t be loud enough. The girl in the passenger seat waves to three shirtless boys wheeling rusty bikes up the uneven sidewalk to their right. These three girls are the epitome of insouciant youth—joyous and free. Their laughing faces are adorned with the bright smiles of unjaded innocence and pure elation.
One of those faces was my own. I can still see us today, like a moving snapshot burned into my memory. I sit at my college dorm-room desk, miles away from the beach and years away from that summer. Heavy snow drops silently from the gray, cloud-filled sky framed by my window. It seems so long ago, and I’m so far from Sea Isle City, New Jersey, but I can still feel that moment, see it, hear it; if only with my memory.
The three of us– myself, Anna, and Rebecca– took hundreds of pictures during those three months. Mine are packed away in a box in my yellow bedroom at home. We were three best friends who had just graduated high school. We had been emancipated. We’re adults! We’re finally in control of our lives! I remember thinking giddily. But in all honesty, my thoughts didn’t remain centered on the level of profundity and seriousness my life had taken on for very long. In fact, those thoughts seemed to exit my mind as the three of us exited the mainland. As I waved to those cute boys that balmy June day, one realization superseded all others. This summer, I remember deciding with a grin, will be one to remember.
And it was. It was the best summer of my life, and I know that I will probably never experience another summer as indescribably unforgettable as that one. I don’t mean to get caught up in reminiscing. I have a term paper due, and I’m 21 now, not 18. But when my life is more stressful than fun, and when I have more obligations than vacations, sometimes it’s impossible not to get caught up in memories of those wild summer nights at the shore.
I open my desk drawer and take out the picture I haven’t looked at in years. It is of the three of us after we had come home from sneaking out late one rainy beach night. We’re soaked—hair forming wet, wavy tendrils, dripping water. Our eye makeup is running– black smudges under our eyes. The photo was totally candid and taken by me as a teenager, when I fancied myself an amateur photographer. In actuality, I was more like a paparazzo. It’s slightly out of focus, and my arm is accidentally in the shot. Rebecca is laughing hysterically, her eyes closed, unaware that her current state of disarray is about to be recorded for permanence.
Looking at the photo detaches me from my dreary winter surroundings, and I can still remember almost everything crystal clearly. I’m suddenly drawn back into our story from that summer, and it’s as though it never ended.
“Welcome to Sea Isle City,” Rebecca, the oldest of the three girls and the driver of the little red Honda, read with a smile as they approached the familiar sign. “How amazing is this gonna be?!” Chrissy shrieked, running a hand through her curly, wind-blown blonde hair. “I mean last summer was awesome, but this year….we’re 18! We graduated! And were freakin’ driving up here by ourselves…” “Well, I’m not 18 yet…” Anna, the youngest of the girls, pouted. She was the baby both literally and figuratively, and Chrissy and Rebecca always joked about how they were forced to take care of her. Hopefully she’ll grow up a little bit this year, Rebecca thought, narrowing her brown eyes as she remembered the countless past annoyances she had endured because of Anna’s immaturity and indecisiveness. I’m done being her mother. This summer, she decided to herself as she gripped the steering wheel a little tighter, is all about me.
From the front passenger seat, Chrissy breathed deeply, savoring the crisp air and freshness of the place she had been in agony without all winter. The sight of the tall marsh grasses shimmering in the breeze and the tiny docked boats bobbing gently up and down was ultimately comforting. Her family had owned a house in Sea Isle for as long as she could remember, and coming back here at the beginning of each summer was like coming home. I need something to drink,” Rebecca announced as she careened haphazardly into the parking lot of the 7-11 on 49th street. “I’ll come in with you,” Chrissy offered as Rebecca turned off the ignition and adjusted her hair in the rearview mirror. “Aw, I have to stay here all alone?!” Anna protested, only half joking. “I think you’ll survive,” Rebecca laughed with a roll of her eyes.
A few hours later—after the girls had arrived at Chrissy’s beach-front shore house and labored over the hair, clothes, and makeup for hours—they left and stepped out into the night. The sound of the ocean was loud and clear, crashing on the beach only a couple yards in front of the house. A few younger kids sped by on bikes in the street, and the sounds of exuberant laughter and squeaky tires rang out into the engulfing black calm. The girls were in their summer-time uniform of jean skirts and tank tops– Chrissy in pink, Anna in white, and Rebecca in brown. They walked the few blocks to the boardwalk entrance and joined the midst of chattering voices and strumming guitars that combined with the incessant ocean waves to form the soundtrack to their summer nights.
After spending hours on the boardwalk, during which the girls caught up with a bunch of old friends (and made some new ones—who were, for the most part, hot boys) they realized how late it was getting. “We gotta be home by 12:30 tonight, guys,” Chrissy said. “My parents said just because it’s our first night and all…” “12:30!” Rebecca shrieked. “Were eighteen, not eight!” Chrissy shrugged. “I’m sure they’ll be more open to us staying out later in the future if we get in on time tonight.” Anna and Rebecca grumbled in annoyance, but began to head back to the house..
The boardwalk grew more desolate as the girls walked home. Except for a rare biker or two, they were alone with the sound of the wind whistling through the shrubs and the ocean crashing on the dark, deserted beach. The glow of the full moon made up for the weak and flickering streetlights that lined the boardwalk; the previously refreshing ocean breeze was now stinging and harsh on their sparingly-clothed bodies. Rebecca shuddered as goose bumps began to appear on her cold arms. “It’s freakin FREEZING!” “And we still have 15 blocks left to go…” Anna moaned.
Suddenly the still of the night was broken with a thud and a splash. “What was that?!” Rebecca asked, looking all around. Chrissy glanced behind them and noticed a broken balloon on the gravelly asphalt, surrounded by a growing pool of water. “Someone’s throwing water balloons!” She shrieked. She watched in horror as a red balloon went sailing through the air and landed smack on Rebecca’s head. Rebecca stopped and stood in shock as the ice-cold water dripped down her face and hair. Anna stifled a giggle. “I’m gonna KILL whoever just threw that!” Becca yelled, looking all around for the perpetrator. “I’m soo sorry,” a deep male voice called out. A tan, shaggy-haired surfer guy emerged from the bushes in front of one of the houses on the boardwalk. “That was my little brother; he’s such an ass sometimes.”
“Thanks a lot!” Rebecca said in annoyance, glaring at him. “That water was freezing cold.” “Yeah, I’m really sorry, I’ll go in there and yell at him right now…” Chrissy saw as a slow, reluctant smile spread across Rebecca’s face. This boy was far too cute to stay mad at. “Mike, what are you doing out there?!” The girls heard as a tall boy with spiky dark hair and a striped polo shirt appeared on the deck, immediately followed by another boy with light brown hair. Chrissy looked at Anna, grinned, and silently thanked Mike’s annoying little brother.
An hour later the girls had arrived home and made plans to sneak out and meet Mike, Dan, and Andrew later. “All I gotta say is that sucks that you got hit with a water balloon, Bec….but look how it turned out?!” Anna said as she flopped down on the bed with a bowl of Doritos. Chrissy checked her cell. “It’s 2:30. We better head out if we’re gonna meet them soon on 55th.” The girls went out on the deck to plan their escape route. They all looked nervously at the approximately fifteen- foot- drop to the ground from the deck railing. “How did we climb down this thing every night last summer?!” Chrissy said, flabbergasted. “Umm…why doesn’t Anna go first?!” Rebecca suggested with false cheeriness. “No way!” Anna replied. Chrissy sighed and laughed to herself. She could tell it was going to be a memorable night.
After the girls had managed to navigate their descent down the deck (and live to tell about it), they began their walk through the sleeping town. As they crossed 56th street, they could see the three boys drawing near, reduced to black silhouettes by the glare of the street lights behind them. “Heyyy guys…what’s up?” Rebecca said, feeling slightly awkward. “You all dried off?” Mike asked with a smirk. Rebecca hit him. “Yeahh, yeah, shut up,” she said in pretend annoyance. “So um…where are we gonna go? What are we gonna do?” Anna asked. “We could…take a walk on the beach…” Chrissy suggested, stumped for ideas.
They headed up the long path to the beach, surprisingly talkative. The boys had more personality than it had initially seemed, lived only about 20 minutes away from them in Pennsylvania, and were also former high school seniors about to go to college. Chrissy and Dan hit it off, as did Rebecca and her water-balloon assailant, which forced Anna and Andrew to bond.
The deep, soft sand shifted underneath their flip flop-encased feet as they traversed the long stretch of desolate beach. Seemingly out of nowhere, tiny rain drops began to splatter on the sand in front of them, turning its smooth shiftiness into packed clumps. “It’s starting to rain…” Rebecca observed with a groan. All six of them were unprepared when the benign drizzle turned into a raging downpour, the cold drops battering their shoulders. “Oh my god!!” Anna shrieked, laughing. “AAh!” Chrissy screamed, covering her hair with her hands. “Let’s find somewhere to get out of this!” They all ran, squealing and laughing, up the pathway to the street and off the beach. A boom of thunder seemed to shake the little town like an earthquake, and the flash of lightning that followed illuminated the dark skeletons of the houses. The six eighteen-year-olds were completely soaked by then, their clothes sticking to their bodies and their feet squeaking in their wet rubber sandals.
“What’s that?” Dan asked, pointing to Marita’s, an ice-cream place near 60th and Landis. “There are chairs under that awning there…” The six of them ran for cover, slipping and sliding on the concrete. They ducked under the awning and breathed a sigh of relief to be out of the torrential downpour.
They sat down in the cheap plastic chairs as the rain pounded on the plastic above them, amplified, echoing with powerful resonance. It slid off the awning like a tiny river, glinting and reflecting in the white streetlight behind it.
They talked for a while, their clothes slowly becoming damp rather than soaked. The topic of college was brought up, and their conversation veered from flirty and superficial to deep and slightly melancholic. “It’s so weird to think about how different everything is going to be…” Rebecca began, uncharacteristically serious. “Yeah,” Chrissy said. “Like, certain things you know are inevitable and are gonna happen to you eventually—like college and graduating and all that—but when it actually happens it feels so bizarre and surreal.” “It’s so weird,” Anna said, looking anxious. “We’re adults now. Our lives are going to totally change. It’s like we’re leaving our whole life behind and starting new or something.” “What if it doesn’t get any better than this?” Dan said quietly. “I mean we’re going to be old and have jobs and responsibilities—we’re never gonna have the chance to just be free like this again.” The previously talkative group fell silent. “But we’ll always have this,” Chrissy said. It dawned on her that this was what it was about—appreciating all the simple moments in life; and all the uneventful evenings that turn into eventful early mornings. No matter how much she grew up, or how far apart she grew from her friends, this moment was perfect, and she knew she would never forget it.
Sitting just out of reach of the rain with her two best friends and three random hot guys at 4:00 am, it dawned on Chrissy how lucky she was. This is one of those moments where it’s not about looking ahead to the future and worrying about what’s going to happen next, she realized. It’s about right now. She looked at her best friends, talking and laughing with three total strangers, and was struck with the sheer exhilaration and absurdity of the moment. I have to get a picture! She thought. Even though we look like shit, I want to always remember this. She was overwhelmed with the bittersweet elation of this night, this summer, and this year. She tossed Dan her camera. “Get a picture of us!” She said, pulling her friends toward her. “Aww Case! I look awful! Is my mascara running?!” Anna asked. Casey surveyed her friend’s black-streaked cheeks dubiously. “Absolutely not. You look beautiful. Come on!”
They fell together, giddy and silly. Rebecca was laughing hysterically at something and was totally unprepared for the picture. Anna, on the other hand, was primping and preening, unaware that her smeared dark eyes made her look like a drag queen in a downpour.
Chrissy knew that she would always treasure this picture. There was something beautiful about it, and the feelings behind it, even though they looked less than perfect. The flash went off and froze the three best friends in that moment, black smudges under their eyes and all.
[Also read Casey’s essay, “What is…the Summer?”. ]