From as far back as I can remember our family would spend the summers in the home near Hartford. Every year through the end of middle school I would come home on the final day of class to find the station wagon parked in front of our brownstone, loaded and ready, glowing in the early summer heat. My brother and I crowded into the backseat, our pasty legs knocking together, and our father drove us on past the city limits. I remember watching him with a sort of reverence. He had the face of a boxer, his jawline sharp as glass, and dark eyes that seemed to take in everything and nothing all at once. On these drives he would stop for nothing, his meaty fingers gripping the wheel with a firm tenderness, manipulating it this way and that. He would tap his calloused fingers, a thrumming which drove my mother into a silent fury. I noticed a slight smile on his face as this all transpired.
The sun arced lower in the sky as the roads became narrow and curvaceous, and as we pulled into the gravel driveway the house appeared wholly bathed in sunlight, the red exterior beaming in the crepuscular glow. As we approached, the gravel crunching underneath, I always entertained a vague notion that we would round the bend and discover that the house had completely disappeared, only an open plot of land overlooking the river remaining, and that we would simply have to turn around and return home. After working myself into such a frenzy, the appearance of the house always seemed like something fantastic and sublime.
‘Well isn’t that something,’ father would say, stretching his arms and eyeing the lawn as we scrambled to the door. I always flew up the stairs as quickly as my legs would carry me to my room, eager to rediscover all the treasures left the year before. I found my spyglass waiting for me right as I had left it, and I set out the back door in search of a perch from which to watch the light and life fade into the evening.
As these were the general trends of most summers at the house, I feel I ought to describe the one that holds most clearly in my memory, the final one I was to spend there. That time stands so vividly in my mind, like a diamond held up to a bright light.
It is also here that the seeds of my first love were sown. On that first morning I woke as the light was beginning to creep through the latticed shades, and I soon become aware of a wholly unfamiliar voice rising from the patio to my window.
‘Oh it is just so so lovely to have some company!’ exclaimed the voice. You couldn’t have picked a better time to come. Our dear Lisa will be so glad to have some fresh faces around. I do worry about her being awfully bored sometimes…’
I slid to the edge of my mattress to the window that overlooked the entirety of the yard, the trees framing the lawn, the river circumscribing the shore. Standing on the covers I was able to just peak down.
‘At one time our Matches here was all the company our little girl needed,’ said the woman, gesturing to the terrier slumped by her side. ‘But I suppose it’s only natural that a young lady like Lisa should want some friends to keep her company.’
At this she sighed and threw her head back, letting her long silver hair fall over the back of the chair. Much to her surprise, as she looked up, she found my curious eyes watching over the scene from above.
‘And who do we have here!’ she cried with delight, prompting mother to gesture me down to make her acquaintance. I soon found myself face-to-face with this strange woman, our neighbor as it turned out. She had ruddy cheeks, a pronounced brow, and an aquiline nose – yet the quality that stands among the rest after all these years is her deep blue eyes. She shared these eyes, in which there seemed to live an inexpressible tragic element, with her daughter, and to this day I have yet to come across such eyes
‘Matches seems to have found a new toy,’ she said, as the dog I had seen lounging at our neighbor’s swollen feet was now bouncing around me in circles, nipping at my calves and nuzzling me with his wet snout.
So it came about that I found a companion who not only delighted with me in exploring, but also brought me closer to my heart’s first true love. In the mornings we would set out in this or that direction, always bringing my telescope, and rarely returning before dusk. I had recently discovered among my brother Jason’s things a beautifully illustrated edition of Candide, and this too came with me, always in search of an El Dorado of my own.
One particularly fine morning, as we were rustling through the trees, Matches chasing squirrels and robins, we found ourselves by the neighbor’s tennis court, where Jason was engaged in a grueling match against the neighbor’s daughter. I immediately recognized those unmistakable eyes, although here blazing and alive, at that moment locked and squinting as she tossed the ball skyward. In that instant, as the ball hung suspended in a sunbeam and the wind grazed this creature’s white skirt, I too felt my heart suspended, ready to rise forever or fall at her feet. Matches bounded back and forth along the fence as I clung to the metal lattice, and by the time the set was through my chest was thumping so viciously I thought it might burst. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she finally took notice of the two of us.
‘Oh dear now what’s this, you’ve gone and found a new friend have you?’ she spoke, her voice even sweeter than I could have ever imagined. ‘And I thought I was the only one for you my sweet! Who’s this you’ve dragged along?’6
My brother shot me a look that to this day I cannot place. Matches sat panting and wagging with the simple joy only a dog knows, and I introduced myself and explained our circumstances. At this she frowned.
‘Hmm, no I don’t know if that’ll do for me. I’m too jealous to share his love I think.’
She popped the gate, and before I knew what was happening I found myself being pulled away from the fence, Lisa running behind Matches, clutching me in tow. Those hands! Straining to hang on to those ethereal fingers, I hurried without thinking, only once glancing back to find Jason looking on with a knowing smile. The remainder of the afternoon passed in moments, as I was only aware of the immediate garden around me, Lisa lobbing balls with her racket, Matches racing to the bank of the river and back. I only noticed my father when Lisa turned and observed him standing on the patio, rigid as timber, staring into the uncertain middle ground. Knowing that I would soon be called in, I turned every fiber of my attention to the sublime beauty who seemed to hold everything in her orbit. The trees and the evening birds even seemed to organize themselves around her, and in her magnetism I felt something strange and novel rising inside me.
The next day, and the following, and again the following I began each morning in the same way. As if greeting the new day, the word “Lisa, Lisa, Lisa” echoed quietly from my lips. Each fresh sighting of her, my delightful love, seemed wholly wonderful and surreal. Whether watching her from the window, focusing my telescope as she walked by the river with Jason (did he know what sort of beauty he was in the presence of ?), or bouncing by her as she teased Matches, I never ceased to feel that I had gotten away with some great trick. I knew she viewed me as younger, a mere boy even, but I resolved to prove to her that I was the only one worthy of her love. I began formulating a plan in my mind, determined as I was to win her over completely. This plan involved my going out to the country club, (which incidentally brought me even close to Lisa), toting my wooden racket and practicing for a hours and hours against other boys, or otherwise volleying against walls, so firmly bent toward my goal.
These days were rewarding and filled me with joy. Yet on a few occasions I was met with incidents I could not easily shake. My father, avid golfer that he was, would too spend his days at the club, joining the other men for a round or two. Between matches and rallies I would often spot him striding along the fairway or standing at the tee. His body wound and released like a coil, unleashing a graceful force. One day, however, as I was jogging off the courts, I noticed not only his face, but also the unmistakable visage of Lisa. She was holding one of his clubs (a wood if I remember correctly) and rocking her hips delicately. What grace! The whole world seemed to stand still as she raised her club before giving the ball a good solid whack. I was too far to see or hear much of consequence, but following her shot I witnessed my father step towards her and take her wrist in his hands. Adjusting her position, he placed himself behind her, mimicking her stance as she rocked back and forth in time with him. She seemed to let slip a smile. Not knowing what to make of this, I tried to turn my mind back to my tennis game. The sun was beginning to set, but by the time I had walked back home I had still been unable to shake the image of my father and Lisa locked together on the green. To turn my thoughts away from the whole strange incident I flipped through the pages of Candide, wishing for a Pangloss of my own to guide me. Finding only some solace, I eventually posted myself at the window, taking in the evening air, watching the birds chasing each other in endless circles, only to disappear into a bush sooner or later.
Yet I soon forgot my troubles, and July was upon us like a carnival. Everything was so alive and full of the most splendid color! Even the grass seemed greener, the robins redder, their songs so full of delicate harmony. They spoke a language of love that I longed to learn. I would awake from the most wonderful dreams of castles and princesses, so enthralled with the magical escapes that I was able to conjure in my sleep. The only peculiar thing about these dreams was that I myself never seemed to be the heroic knight or the swart prince. I instead found myself in the role of a page or lowly servant, or in one case even a horse! However, I still managed to look upon our little house in the country as a castle of sorts, and was content beyond all reason.
The long sunny days always grew more exciting as the 4th of July approached. The daylight allowed me the time to improve my racket skills, and I began quickly transforming into a wholly new creature. My hands were growing strong and calloused and dark, and I was on my way to certain success. On those rare days when the fair summer rain kept me indoors, I would burrow in some crevice, often with Matches at my side, and chronicle all that I could, hoping to capture those passing sparks. The terms with which I sought to express the rapture inside me always seemed to fall short of their mark, but nonetheless I searched for words that might hold some sort of truth.
All this excitement came to a head in the form an Independence Day celebration in our very own yard. I remember watching as neighbors came from this way and that, a portly man and his son hoisting a grill, a redhead mother stringing lights along the fence, all transforming our little plot of land into a world of its own. This was the first year we were to host the party, and I was unwound in anticipation of not only getting to be at the center of the action, but also knowing that Lisa would be there to see me in my finest hour. She would surely be wearing the most beautiful and delicate sundress, and I would ask her to dance, taking her by the hand and waltzing under the starlit sky. The thought of being so close to her, holding her soft hands - it was almost too much to bear!
On the day of the party I woke in such a frenzy that I had to make myself scarce, so as to avoid being a nuisance. I crept out with my racket and decided I would spend the whole day playing tennis against as many boys as possible, so as to build my confidence. I won every match I played that day, every game elevating me further, every swing taken with my dear Lisa not far from my mind.
When the time came, I raced home, planning my arrival so as to find everything just springing into action. I walked through the front door, down the hall, through the kitchen, and to the back door. Admittedly, as I was pushing through the entryway, I was gripped with the terrible thought that the party had been cancelled, that there would be no festivities, no fireworks, no music – no last dance! This thought built so quickly that by the time I found myself reaching for the doorknob I was almost certain I would find an empty garden, devoid of all the preparations that had sprouted over the week. Yet, swallowing my nerve, I pushed through the door.