Often, it’s premature, a stab of optimism somewhere in March when the sun momentarily shines marigold yellow instead of winter’s milky white.
Eagerness and a hint of desperation guide the flinging off of fleece-lined shoes and thermal socks, the scrambling through piles in the farthest back corner of the closet.
Toes creep forward hesitantly, out of practice, fat pink inchworms up the footbed of those cheap-o plastic jobbies bought impulsively at Rite Aid last July.
The onus of summer falls squarely on toes No. 1 and No. 2.
Between them, the flip and the flop, the steady anchor amid all the shenanigans to come. At first, it feels a little weird — too wide, maybe, too plastic? — like the toes have forgotten how to accommodate summer freedom. The skin’s a little tender there in the between, made wimpy by winter.
But then, the toes remember: how to slightly, slightly curl in grip with each step, how to bend up to keep the flip-flop dangling off the end of an insouciantly crossed leg, how to seek like radar for the one that slipped off and got away.
Toes No. 1 and No. 2 do their jobs, and slap slap slap summer begins.
Exit 28, two miles ahead.
Signal right, decelerate, circle left, circle left again. At the end of the off-ramp, the church parking lot, the soccer field, the supermarket (and the reason for this errand: milk, gallon-size Ziploc bags, hamburger buns, Clorox). The stoplights, the movie screens, the fabricated metal, the tacos, the premium unleaded, the bedroom sets for sale.
Exit 28, one mile ahead. Time to think about slowing down.
Speed up. Don’t exit right, don’t circle left, don’t park and lock and peruse aisle seven.
Keep driving. The sky is huge and electric, the clouds are chasing their shadows across naked plowed fields, the deafening jet stream of air racing into rolled-down windows is as warm as a shout of laughter.
The dash-dash-dash of yellow lines down the middle might be Morse code asking, “What’s out there?” or advising a spectacular frenzy for the horizon. There’s barely room in the lungs for air, with all the feral summer restlessness growing there.
Exit 28, a half-mile ahead.
Summer smells like coconut — not the real kind, the impossible-to-get-into fruit, but the fake kind. Summer smells like fake coconut smeared onto warm skin, with a dominant top-note of chlorine and Cheez Whiz nachos and puppyish little boys.
Summer smells like the iron tang of blood and the medicinal, antiseptic zip of Band-Aids, and the sweet fruit of lip gloss as comforting kisses are administered.
Summer smells like a puff of exhaust as the lawn mower starter is yanked, and another puff of exhaust as the lawn mower starter is yanked again and — DANG IT — another stupid puff of stupid exhaust as the stupid lawn mower starter is angrily yanked again.
Summer smells like accidental wine as forgotten cherries and peaches rot in double time and the fruit flies swarm. It smells like the horrific moment of lifting the lid of the big, green trash can outside and tossing the bag inside it as fast as humanly possible.
Summer smells like oily DEET and the algae funk of river water. It smells like medium-rare meat and laundry detergent resurrected to second life by body heat and sweat. It smells like roses in bloom.
Summer smells like the acidic zing of tomatoes warmed all day by the sun, and softened asphalt, and the WD-40 sprayed onto the swamp cooler to stop it squeaking.
Summer smells like burned sugar and melting chocolate, and the smoky campfire as sparks dance into the warm indigo sky.
“Are you bored? Is this you being bored?”
“How is that even possible? You get to sleep until 10:30 every morning! You can do anything you want! All day long!”
“Do you even know what I’d do with that kind of time? I’d learn how to play the guitar. I’d swim in any water I could find, including puddles in the parking lot. I’d build something. I’d paint something. I’d get on my bike, and I’d ride until I forgot where I live, and I’d stop for ice cream, and I’d find some shade and sit in it.”
“You are wasting this precious gift! By sitting inside and playing video games! Look at that blue sky! Look at that sun shining! It’s the most beautiful day in the history of the universe and you don’t have to spend it under fluorescent lighting. It’s yours to enjoy!”
“Do not come crying to me when school starts and you don’t have any free time and you wish it was summer again. You have no idea how fast it goes. And then one day, you wake up on a summer morning and it’s glorious and then you remember: Oh, yeah. I have to go to work. Go. Go! Get out there! Seize this day!”
Hoo, boy. Be brave. Be strong. Here we go.
Car door open, slide with greatest hesitation into the driver’s seat.
The tender skin on arm’s underside accidentally bumps the inside door handle, and bacon sizzles. How does it go again? Is it first-degree burns that are worst, or third? Regardless: owwwwww…
The air inside the car weighs a million pounds and is the blast of a hair dryer set to supernova. There’s no breathing this air, there’s only the dying, shallow gasps of a fish on a griddle.
Touch the steering wheel? Forget it. Experiment with creative driving instead: steer with the index fingernails at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, the other fingers fanned in a supportive sunburst behind them.
Air conditioner dialed to 11 offers no immediate relief. It’s merely as loud as Vulcan’s bellows, and seemingly as hot.
Greatest sympathies to the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s a terrible thing to melt.
1 stick, 3 to 4 feet long
1 flat rock, palm-sized
5 cups mud
2 boxes Pop Tarts, any flavor
1 pair scissors
4 video games
2 to 3 books, frivolous
Dash of siblings/cousins/friends
Directions: With stick, poke at mud. If necessary, plunge in hands; fling it up, smooth it down. Take rock, mosey to river and skip it. If rock sinks, scour the bank for another, and another, and another. With pillows, take a nap. Next, eat a Pop Tart. If there’s an audience, cram an entire one in mouth to the snorting amusement of all. Share Pop Tarts. Use scissors to cut a bunch of weird stuff out of paper, then cut own bangs. Loll on couch and read books. Play video games until bickering annoys parents. Skulk outside. Race skateboard up and down sidewalk; accept inadvisable dare to do something dumb on it. Call mom crying. Point hose at siblings/cousins/friends, soak them until they wrestle it away. Shriek repeatedly. Cram all ingredients into summer and bake at 95 for two months.
Pro: Inside is awesome.
Con: Outside, the sun is shining. And it’s summer in Colorado. And you can’t throw a rock here without hitting some fit, be-Gore-Texed outdoorsperson who is only too willing to proclaim passionate love for the outdoors and quote Edward Abbey and swan around in full Greek tragedy mode at the very thought of not being outside.
Pro: Inside is cool, on account of the air conditioning, and outside is hot, on account of it’s summer.
Con: This conversation:
Co-worker (on Monday): What’d you do this weekend?
You: Sat around inside and watched two seasons of “Breaking Bad.” What’d you do?
Co-worker: Well, I raced up to Silver Jack Reservoir on Friday night and pitched my tent. Then, I got up at 4 a.m. and climbed Uncompahgre Peak. Then, I rode Kokopelli from Fruita to Moab, and finished the day off by weeding my garden and harvesting its bounty. It was a magical weekend. I love summer in Colorado, don’t you?
You: Boy, that Walter White’s sure a baddie, huh?
Pro: Inside, you can sit directly under the swamp cooler vent in your underwear. Outside, the police frown on this sort of behavior.
Con: There’s “I wear sunscreen religiously” pale, and pasty “I sit inside” pale. The latter is no good.
Pro: Inside is cool. Outside is not. The end.
First, sliced, fresh tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper. And more sliced tomatoes, topped with fresh mozzarella and a sprig of basil. Cucumbers and onions tossed with white vinegar. Sugar snap peas. Spinach salad with blueberries and sliced strawberries. Kale, sauteed in olive oil.
Corn. On. The. Cob. With butter. Lots of it. Angels sing hallelujah.
Eggplant, peppers and zucchini — cubed, skewered and on the grill. Green beans sauteed with pine nuts. Sliced radishes, sliced carrots, dipped in salsa verde. Cherry tomatoes in a bowl like popcorn. Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and a garnish of pansies.
Green chile. GREEN CHILE. On everything, always, forever.
Watermelon: chilled, sliced, juice down chin, seeds spat flamboyantly. Sliced peaches in a bowl of cream. Peach cobbler. Apple crisp and apple pie. Cantaloupe and nectarines. Pears tossed with pecans and goat cheese.
Stay for dinner, summer. You’re very welcome.
Into the pool, into the summer lake. A toe at a time, inch by excruciating inch of goose-bumped skin, or just jump the heck in. You get used to it, eventually.
Leisurely strokes, a stately dog paddle, nowhere to go but through the smooth water. The top 6 inches are warm, but down the length of your body the water cools. Little currents and eddies swirl and twist. Nothing is motionless, and then you flip over.
It takes a second to get the balance right, the floating, before you can relax. Ears submerged hear the bubbling and swishing, and then the stillness, the hushed weight. Any movement at water’s surface jostles your head and ripples over your shoulders. Arms like kelp wave and dance weightless.
Look up. Then close your eyes.
Somewhere in all this, you end and the universe begins, but the boundaries don’t feel so distinct here. The blurring of lines, the smoothing of edges, one into another, and you float along.
There’s what the calendar says, and what we know instinctively.
The calendar says Sept. 21, but somewhere in our primordial programming, we sense when summer’s winding down.
The yellow No. 2s in the stores, the scorched bluegrass, the tired petunias, the sun rising later and later and later — the signs we recognize, the harbingers. School buses rumble through neighborhoods at 7 a.m., laden boughs droop with apples, football players sweat through practice.
And then there’s this: dusk on a side road, sky pink and purple, passenger window down, arm out and dancing in the currents like a sound wave. Heat radiates up from the pavement but the air is cooling. It looks like summer, it smells like summer. The summer anthem is playing on the radio for the millionth time. It still sounds OK, if a little tired, too.
Then, a tickle on the back of the neck or somewhere in the region of the heart, and a certain knowledge: Summer’s here, but it will not stay.