(It’s Always Summer When It Starts)
originally published in Pastel Serenity Zine.
He stood at the desk in his son’s room. It only had a few items on it: a red lamp, a baseball with the smudged signatures of his boy’s little-league teammates, and a toy plane——the jetfighter kind.
The boy watched his father spin the toy in his fingers like a pen. It was an F-15 model, archaic in the age of drone and unseasoned commercial space travel.
It was true, he hadn’t known a damn thing about being a father. Being in and out of the boy’s life for all of fifteen years made that clear. When he finally managed his own apartment in lieu of crashing between friend’s places it was easier to have his son on weekends, but by that time the child had grown to fifteen years of age, and having a place of his own hadn’t strengthened their bond. It wasn’t his fault, the father told himself. He’d never had a good example of how to parent either, and so he did the best with what he had. Best involved silence.
Each July first since the boy was old enough to walk they had gone to the airshow to see planes fly above whether life had been going well or not. When the boy was younger he’d sit in second World War planes and smell the aged metal and leather and pretend to shoot down an enemy. In the early years the boy loved it, before he realized his father would only be present in a way he could count on that one time a year. The only photo the father and son had together was in the cockpit of one of the old planes.
The boy’s favorite part of the shows weren't the antique aircrafts though, they were the loud ones; the fast ones; the red, white, and blue F-15’s that flew at noon while the National Anthem blared from a grassy field: The Thunderbirds.
There had not been eye contact between them. The boy was aloof as teenage years afford those blessed with it to be. The father set the jet plane down and pivoted it just like it might park on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The boy rested his head against a pillow that had been picked up from Goodwill on Broadway; it’d been flattened from years of use. He was not far from a man himself. Gone were the days of a child with oversized earmuffs watching the jet planes scream through the skies above leaving satin white trails and he hoped his dad wouldn’t pull out tickets to the airshow, which was a week away.
The father sat near the boy’s feet and leaned his damp palms into his knees. The sun was gleaming and the Summer afternoon was warming outside. The apartment in which they lived was old brick, the kind you find in early neighborhoods around big cities. The sort of buildings named The Roosevelt or The Beverly written in cursive near the front entrances. This complex was The Charlemagne Whitehall. The name can’t fool you, there was nothing ritzy about the rooms at The Charlemagne, an old white fridge, linoleum floors, single pane windows, but the view wasn good from the third floor and the corner apartment looked over the old Denver neighborhood.
There were grass and trees and pleasant things during the day. When you looked far enough out a tall wooden fence was built at the end of the houses. Beyond this fence, designed for visual pleasantry and noise control, was a highway that stretched from the tip top of Texas to the top tip of Wyoming, cutting Colorado along its way. From the other side of the posts came a dull deposit of tire on pavement, like waves of an ocean missing a rhythm.
The boy watched his father squirm in a button-up shirt that didn’t quite fit around the neck. He wished his dad would leave so he could stare at his phone until she texted him. He wanted the weekend to pass so he could get back to her.
Ever since he and Elle ran into each other at the park that May they couldn’t spend a moment apart. She’d been with her mother and the three ate together at the concessions by the boat house. Elle and the boy felt the same about each other and expressed it as so. It might have been the only time in their lives that happened, but they wouldn’t know that then, and so they lived as if they’d never hurt each other. The boy didn’t want to eat dinner or mow lawns in the sun that Summer for extra cash, he didn’t even want to go out with friends because his stomach wrinkled if he missed an opportunity to see her while her parents were out, even for just an hour. He’d been dating Elle for over a month. He loved her, or so they told each other when they kissed goodbye near the corner store before dark each evening.
He hated staying with dad, it meant that he and Elle were far. The boy wished he were older then he could leave for good. Home with mom wasn’t bad; unsatisfying rather. If he and Elle left they could be together anytime, without her parents having her home early, or his mom mentioning sex safety before breakfast. He didn’t even want her to know his dad.
The boy had no idea what he would want to do if he left home but any job would be fine because it would be him and Elle. They could share any old apartment and he could sleep with his face contoured into the back of her neck. If dad can hold down a place, the boy thought, I sure as hell can.
At the airshows the father would tell his son about the day he signed up for the Air Force, but wasn’t admitted because of a disorder with his esophagus. He’d always clear his throat after. I wanted to work on the aircrafts, he’d say. Fix engines.
To make matters worse, time seemed to travel in fast-forward——the father would swear to it, and every year the snowball rolled a quarter-mile-an-hour faster, measured by how tall his son grew. The two never had much conversation, not about football or building fires, and when they did speak it was about topics that didn’t matter any longer. Invalid interests of the boy’s that had been given up long ago in his short lifetime that father hadn’t been present to outgrow with him. Interests that he wasn’t ready to let go of them because if he did it would mean he missed them.
A breeze pulled through the cracked window and circled the room. The father remembered mornings like it at that age: no job calling him to rush off, or vices to tempt, and no future to distract the present. It was a day of just enough white clouds in the sky to burn your gut with the truest romantic premonition: possibility.
I wished someone would have clued me in, the father wanted to say. I wish someone would have given me any warning of what kind of agony was coming after that. But no one ever did.
His father’s face flushed red. Everything but a clear thought ran through his mind. In that moment the man became younger than his son in ways. His focus drew to the window and out toward the passing clouds. There was a reason he came to his son. Everything inside the man told him to retreat, but the father promised himself one drunken night out of highschool with a freshly broken heart, that he’d tell his kid that it all was going to change, unless he could be prepared. There was nothing else more important, nothing changed the course of the man’s life quite like that first rip of the heart some twenty-five years earlier. Friends were lost and feelings dissipated never to return. Everything would be less fruitful than before.
He remembered all of it as he stared at a day just like the one he’d fallen in love for the first time on, because it’s always Summer when that happens and Winter’s cold night without healing snow when it ends. She’d walked away that night without letting him take her home one last time, and as disappeared into the tunnel she took his nerves with her, and if she took his spine too that was okay because he would grow it back by finishing what he’d started with his boy: the one talk.
The father prepared to say: you won’t see color the same, or have talks with your friends like you used to. You won’t even be able to enjoy another nice girl’s company because you’ll have your guard up. And if you ever find someone to settle down with you’ll end up treating each other like shit because she’s likely had the same happen to her, and if she hasn’t you’ll give her the heartache, won’t you?
The boy had sat up in bed. His legs were crossed in front and his phone was behind him.
But the father stood from the bed and looked over the fighter jet toy sitting on the desk next to the window. Above it through the window the wooden fence just barely hiding the highway was waiting. “I forgot to tell you,” he said. “I got an extra if you want to bring your girlfriend this year.” He patted the door frame. The boy would not see the breakup coming late that Fall because there was no way to, and no matter how much he wanted to call his father back to his room; no matter how much he craved the talk that wouldn’t happen and so many more like it, he let his father go.
The gust from the window pushed the photo of his father and he in the cockpit of one of the old planes onto the floor of his room, it had an ash burn on one of the corners. Through the muted noise from beyond the fence, where the highway which would take him back to Elle stretched, the boy looked to see if she’d texted. He didn’t know then that he would have a few more months with her before he’d swear himself that if he ever had his own child he’d inform them about pains he wished he could have been spared by his father. He’d warn them and let them know that they could count on him to teach them because he hadn’t been able to count on anything, not on green Summer days like that one; not other than watching planes pass above once a year.