If I could only remember one thing, let it be this single moment

1016661_10201547573863635_812159393_nOn the dance floor, halfway through our first dance, which we almost didn't even do, the DJ announced that everyone was invited to join us. No one moved. My heart pounded; already it had been too long a time of people staring at us, too much time in the spotlight. So she repeated it, insistently, and I laughed out loud, grateful to her, and suddenly the floor was bursting with people, overflowing with couples dancing. We swirled around in the middle and I gripped my new husband tighter and I saw my parents, my aunt and uncle, all our friends flooding into us, and right then, I thought, "This is it, this is the moment that encapsulates everything." I was so much more affected by that first dance than I ever expected to be. And that is the cool thing about weddings, about big life events, about life in general: what you don't expect to gut you sometimes does, and it's everything.

As the song ended -- Ingrid Michaelson's cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love With You" -- the DJ seamlessly started the next one. Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" had never sounded more beautiful; suddenly, the room was pumped, and I felt electric.

I barely left the dance floor all night.

Je ne regrette rien.

I hear the bells

Sri Lanka, 2006 I tried fresh coconut for the first time in Sri Lanka, sipping the warm liquid straight from the shell, and it tasted like the opposite of how it smelled, sweet and dewy and mild. An impromptu game of cricket had started, and I took the opportunity to rest my feet, my back. Six days of labor were behind me, but two remained ahead, stretched out like impossible scenarios.

In 2006 I went to Hikkaduwa, a coastal town in southern Sri Lanka that had been washed away by the 2004 tsunami. When I got off the plane, a 13 hour flight from London, the air was so thick — it was mid-January, their summer — that it lodged itself in my throat and stayed there all eight days, wrestling with my airways. My hair hung in limp ringlets, thin against my head. Everything everywhere around me drooped.

Crossing the street from the hotel to the line of shops, bursting with tarnished jewelry and buddha statues, was a risk. There are no real traffic laws in Sri Lanka. Limbs hung out of buses where windows should be, person on person; stray hands that rested flat against the rusting bus, resigned to the kind of heat that no breeze can shake.

One night we took a canoe through the river, rounding bends over alligators. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so still. I had never felt more different. We ate a meal I can’t remember in a backyard lit up with torches, but I bet the fish was still on the bone; I bet I thought, this fish survived the tsunami only to be eaten by me, a stray American.

Today I am working on some revisions — converting a series of third person chapters into first — and Mike Doughty is playing on my iPod. For some reason I was really into “I Hear the Bells” that winter of 2006, and when I mixed the cement that week, turning heavy piles of stone and paste over and over with impossible shovels, I sang that chorus in my head; the same refrain over and over. Now I can't hear it without feeling that blanket of heat, that angry sun. That last day, the day of coconut drinking and cricket, the day I watched a group of local kids tease the Aussies and Brits about their game play, was the day my arms gave out. Too much cement, too much shoveling. Too much left to do; what was the point when 15 people couldn’t even build a single house that week, when so many people had lost everything.

The moments of kindness still stick out the most. Afternoon tea breaks, steaming hot and sugary, still the best tea I’ve ever experienced, and the best company — a family of seven, living in a house of two rooms, sharing a single bed, and still offering us all they had, all they could think of. A colleague, seeing my collapse, who said, “You’re good, you’re good, here, come sit next to me,” and every year after that we’d still meet up for lunch in London, until one year we didn’t anymore, and now I can’t even remember his name.

But I remember his eyes and the way they helped me that day. I remember the cement, and the shovels; the ladders we stood on to reach the rooftops, the creaking of my hips each night as I stretched out, sore and stiff. The soupy air. The Buddha statue in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The lapping of the water over my ankles, the sunsets, the tourist bars. The knowledge that I would forget most of this soon, that I’d never see these people again.

Looking east

4788_117277103427_6224336_nIn the summer I listen to Jackson Browne because that was the music of my sixteenth summer, and even then it was old, it was the music of my boss at my summer job, but it played in our store on the best corner of Long Beach Island and I memorized every word without realizing it. My boss loved him so much she even named her son Jackson; I babysat him one winter, in the off-season, and I kept dashing into his bedroom to make sure he was still breathing. Babies are terrifying and also too simple. A few summers later her car wrapped around a tree on her way home. I can’t remember how I found out about it – I suspect my mom broke the news – but I do remember standing around the kitchen of my summer restaurant, hating the looks of sympathy my coworkers were sending me in between waiting tables. This wasn’t about me; I didn’t want their emotions.

I can’t think of summer, I can’t live summer, without thinking about her. Or this: the lingering concern that I spend too much time trying to get back to those July days when a cut of blue air would land on my heart, when the hours drifted by in a haze of cotton, a distant radio, sand tracked on tile floors. Shift work. Lunch breaks. A register ringing. Crushes on the coffee boys, a car that rarely started.

At 16 I swept the floors on an empty August afternoon on the block between beach and bay, after everything had been folded and refolded and straightened and restocked, and waited for night. The doors were open and I rested against them; frowned upon, but the salt air was too tempting, and there were people to watch in the ice cream line. I waved to my boss as she crossed the street in her running clothes. She always liked me; a treat, since I knew she didn’t like everyone. Jackson Browne was playing, of course, and when she entered the store she hummed along.

How many nights did I spend like that, watching the ebb and flow of the island, watching the girls in short shorts and the boys in flannel, watching the others, watching, listening. How many nights now am I hit with a breeze, or a scent, or a song, that swirls and swirls around me until I hear her voice singing that song?

When I go back now, of course it’s different, and of course I try to make it the same, and of course I will forever fail at that. When I drive I drive there, when the stoplights are off and the tide is high, and when I hear summer coming up my driveway I hear that road, that etched sidewalk, that jangle of coin.  In the store where I spent so many summers, after she died a plaque was hung – her photo, her dates, “In memoriam.”

The store’s owners divorced a while back; whoever ended up with the business in the settlement has changed things, renovated, redecorated. The plaque is gone. When I visit it’s so different I can’t even pretend it’s the same. I can’t even pretend I’m sixteen again, learning everything for the first time.

All the girls here are freezing cold

The lights moved over me but mostly, I was thankful for the darkness, the space to embrace some stillness. Next to me, T. was silent, a hand over her mouth, eyes straining to watch the French quartet, whose strings were plucked with something between precision and abandon. They were beautiful. We had just had an overdue conversation -- she's one of those friends we've dubbed "the extra Baden sister" -- that was cut short when the lights went down and the music started. I'm having trouble writing this post, and have stopped and re-started multiple times. I don't want to be dramatic. But it's hard not to be when I think about Tori Amos; my life with her. This weekend I saw both shows at The Beacon; I've lost count, but I think they were shows 41 and 42. (It's important to note my number is actually quite small in comparison to many other Tori fans; I remember talking to some people at a show during my college years who were on their 100th viewing, and that was 10 years ago.)

The thing is, Tori is a barometer for me. She is a photo album. When she sings "Beauty Queens" and leads right into "Horses," I cry, remembering being 16 and 17, sitting on the carpeted floor of my bedroom in front of my 7-disc CD changer; how I was a senior in high school, driving my first car and stalling out on a perfect Fall day, what that meant, who I thought I was. Then she pulls out a U2 cover, and then does a "God"/"Running Up That Hill" (Kate Bush) mash-up, and I think about being 15, or 22, and the same things happens -- a tide of memories.

I hope everyone has a musician, or something, they can mark their lives against the way I can with Tori.

My best girls either came to the shows with me or met up with us beforehand, or after, and it was like I felt the shift happen right under me: that, before, wasn't a memory, but this, here, now, is.

And now Ray LaMontagne is stuck in my head.

This is kind of true! I mean, it's a bit of a downer, but I mostly agree with the sentiment. Summer is over, it says, by the 4th of July; "the plans you made have either fallen through or have been executed half-heartedly and with regret. The failures of the season have already been written in the Book of Life underneath all the failures of summers past."

The timeline of summer has shifted over the years. As a kid, of course, it was decided by school, two bookends that determined when you were free and when you weren't. As a teen, summer started even earlier -- Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend if you worked in a resort town like me, or early May to mid August if you're in college, no matter the weather, no matter how many finals you still had to take. Now, summer is whenever you can get your hands on it.

Already, the official beginning of summer -- June -- feels like a distant memory, clouded by the heat and weight that was July. It's true the sunlight feels different now than it did eight weeks ago; it's true I'm still waiting for a tan that will likely never come, and I've forgotten to buy that new pair of flip-flops I wanted. Unopened bottles of sunblock are taking up space in my bathroom. I haven't yet been in the ocean.


I will be on vacation in 1.5 weeks, finally; a sure-to-be blissful week in a beach house with some dear friends. The island might be half empty (full?), and it will probably feel like we're closing some sort of chapter there, because August always does (in that same way Sundays always do), even as it crawls forward like a lazy spider. So I'm not done with summer yet.

Sing it, Ray.