Summer only ever happens all at once. No matter how many hints the weather gives, how slowly the temperature changes, how many thunderstorms punctuate and exclaim through the transitional months rolling over at the bottom of winter, the only way it begins is that one day you wake up and realize it has already begun. One early morning it's already light and it's already summer; you're late, and everybody else is already there.
Summer, like every other well-known good thing in life, is something everyone else is doing better than you. The first long weekend of summer, with its parties and picnics and slow mornings, is something someone else gets right. The urgency and rush of these newly green days, this time when everything is so ripe as to begin to wilt, is the nervous sense of everyone else already having figured it out. Summer is a game of catch-up, a constant feeling of being left behind. Somewhere someone else is actually having a holiday weekend; you are just trying to get from one place to another, just trying not to upset anyone, just trying to get home. Even the parts that go right, when a group of friends from different friend groups happen to all harmonize and get along, when the trains run smoothly and the weather holds and your hair looks good and your shoes from last year still work this year, even those moments feel like a quotation, settling at angles into the idea of holiday weekend, hoping no one catches you trespassing here.
This past weekend was a long sprawl of parties and faces and water bottles and outfits and trains, one place to another, exclaiming over the weather, exclaiming over food other people had made, buying popsicles at the bodega that melted before we could eat them. The backyard at the party at a friend's house edged sweat down the nape of my neck, but the heat broke long before it became anything approaching disgusting or sexy or both. We gathered up the food on the picnic table, the drinks and the plastic plates and the hamburger buns and carried it inside, full-armed efficiency, before the rain arrived. This is the first year of summer parties when I’m not drinking and it’s strange and awkward, all elbows and too much space between words. I sat on the floor without feeling charming about it, and went home early, the sky getting grey and heavy back above the center of the city, as the cab sped up the parenthetical arm of the West Side Highway. I was sleepy and sentimental and tried not to think too much about Hudson Yards when traffic stopped us alongside it, or about years ago when late at night I used to sober up before bed by going running alongside what was then half a train-yard and half a construction site, and how I never dreamed it could actually be finished. I felt so certain then that everything would be the same in-progress scaffolded mess forever, that I could count on the same ugly things, the same nowheres.
We had gone to another party the day before, and we went to another party the next day. It was that kind of weekend--not just for me, I mean, but that that’s what Memorial Day Weekend is, the starting gate at the first edge of summer. It is not possible to go to enough parties, to see enough friends, to be loved or wanted or in demand or tired or drunk or attractively sweaty enough, to stand near enough pools or enough backyard grills. There is absolutely no point to parties, but this is the time of the year that cries out for them. All of a sudden I am compelled to buy a bunch of stuff and frantically clean the house, to send an email bcc'd or un-bcc'd (un-bcc’d is better, the way and the light, this is what we are doing this year) to too many people we know and then hope that summer will for a few hours actually feel like summer, younger and more hopeful than any of us likely are, that by assembling a bunch of people and a bunch of food and a bunch of drinks in a room, something will happen.
The wild hope of something happening is the underlying thesis of summer, the baseline that plays steady beneath the heat and the Fridays working from home, the empty weekends, the stuffy car-rides with the air-conditioning cranked up, the restaurants setting their tables up on desert-stretches of sidewalk and the bars with their open backyards crowded and sweating, the late-night walks home, the drinks wet in plastic cups, the crumpled shorts, the crowded beaches at the ends of subway lines. Things are supposed to start happening now, in the transformative, imaginary way of summers. The myth of the school year, which influences far more of us than only those who are still in or ever went to school, dictates that summer is a chrysalis: We disappear into it, green closing up around our shoulder-blades, and we emerge again almost three months later, irrevocably changed, gloriously unrecognizable. Summers in adulthood aren't at all like this, and even summers as a kid aren't like this really, a fact it took me much too long to learn. Some part of me still believes in these languid, saturated months as an alchemical formula into which one could dip one's leaden school-year self and rise out shining, glittering gold and un-ruinable, value magnified.
Graduations proliferate in New York at this time of year, spilling into the subways and the parks, crowding the sidewalks with flapping silken polyester gowns in school colors, purple one weekend, baby blue the next. For a day or two anywhere you look someone is clutching a diploma and flowers, overwhelmed and weighed down with things meant to signal achievement, crowded with family and friends flapping like birds, made awkward and un-streamlined as a unit of congratulation, clogging up the eight-lane highway that is Manhattan. I've written before, probably too much, about how growing up on the campus of a high school means that the school calendar is the closest thing I understand to a religion. These are my high holy days, these few weeks and again, in photo-negative, the ones at the end of the summer, as September rouses itself to make everything new.
The school-year calendar is about beginning and endings, escapes and triumphant returns. Like all religious calendars, it is about parties, which are always a form of myth-making in one way or another. All celebrations are flimsy and invented; they do not stand up to scrutiny, they fall apart if considered with cold logic. They exist because we want to believe in them and because we want to believe in anything at all. Heat and humidity compel us outdoors, to stand in backyards, to awkwardly gather people from different social circles and make them make small talk with one another, to hope for a night that ends with the last most loyal friends gathered in the kitchen, sitting on counters and drinking everyone else’s drinks, arguing joyfully about something inconsequential. This is the hope that life proceeds as a recognizable narrative, and therefore that there are reasons to celebrate; that things are still new, that change is still possible, that achievements are not futile, that our actions exist plotted on an upward rising course. These are all fictions, which is why we have to bolster them up with parties, to tell ourselves that the word summer means something even to those of us who connect only to the natural world when it offers narrative convenience, when it agrees to be about us, to once again cough up all its robust and well-trod metaphors.
Thomas and I walked home late at night on Monday, fifty blocks or so up through a glittering half-empty Manhattan. The days are as long as cats now, but also in New York in summer, nighttime never actually seems to arrive. The light only makes it to a sort of fuzzy purple and then stops there, telling you to stay outside, to say goodbye longer. Bright nights invite restlessness and easy conversation that loops back on itself. This is the time of year when the city feels like a Frank O’Hara poem. This island of side-streets and brake-lights gets larger, bluer, sadder, it swings and rolls and hums, greens thick everywhere, sliding in from the edges. It sets the chaos downtown and over the bridges aflame in long sunsets. Time collapses; everyone is working and yet it feels like no one is doing anything. Everyone is waiting. It’s almost here. It’s almost green enough. There is a mouth-watering sense of almost, all night and all through the thick-aired days, holding our breath, leaning forward for months on tiptoe at the edge of something about to happen.
It’s too warm four floors up so I go outside to try to make the weather feel like the weather rather than like my own body, sifting the avenues to find a breeze that says I’m allowed to be part of it. I know too many people and not enough people, so I put on shoes and go to whatever thing someone else is doing. I throw myself again at this open-armed time of year, hoping this will be the summer that finally changes me, that acts as the green world from which I can emerge months later, back out of August long-limbed and beloved from all sides, freshly remade and ready for another year of fictions, ready for one more weekend full of parties that celebrate nothing.