The Smallest Summer

By Emily Alexander

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The Palouse

The apartment my friends live in that summer is hot and thick, the air lazy, even the cars driving in from the empty nearby country roads seem slow. They don’t own a vacuum, but we lay on the carpet anyway, sit up with crumbs sticking to the backs of our arms. There are better and worse things ahead and behind us, so summer stretches on easily. It isn’t a space we need to fill, so we allow whole days to pass without acknowledging them.

Alex eats a sandwich for breakfast one afternoon, still in his underwear, his chest peppered with dark hair, his belly slouched over the elastic of his briefs. He has shaved his beard because of the heat, and his baby face chews despondently, until Christina reaches around him from behind. She wraps her arms under his knees and lifts him up, his body folded and flailing against her. I laugh from the couch, and the fan hums in the window above my head. This is the only thing I do today, and it feels like enough.

We spend long, hungover days like this. Alex and Christina have two couches and a giant suede bean bag chair that catches sweaty skin and holds it. We take up one space each. I press my feet against one couch’s armrest and my head on the other. All summer I leave glasses of water on tables and shelves, my earrings on the bathroom counter, a few shirts Christina has borrowed buried among hers on the floor, and I love these people in small and big ways.

I think about the months before this; my own bedroom floor and the cold seeping through the window on one wall and the happy, distant voices seeping through the crack under the door on the other. The uncomfortable trapped feeling of being both stagnant and too afraid to move forward, the question of home unanswered in my mouth that whole winter, despite how much I chewed through it. The first bruise of getting older.

Christina and Alex are quoting Bob’s Burgers, talking back and forth with the television. I am quiet because I don’t have anything to say, and my cheek is warm against the itchy couch fabric. I want to say they pulled me out of the longest winter, but that might not be true. I want to say they put me back together, they are the light, the light, but mostly winter just became spring and the days grew wider, like always. They were waiting for me or they weren’t; either way, I got up off the floor to meet them. I stretch my foot out towards Alex, and he tickles it with one finger. When Christina stands up, I hand her my water glass to fill.

It is evening, and the three of us go to my dad’s house and borrow three of the bicycles in his garage. We push our legs and our muddled lungs past the edge of town in the yellow-grey of summer dusk, and by the time we loop around the gravel road’s dust, it is almost dark. There is a mountain behind me, and I once lived in a house with a big, clear view of it from big, clear windows. Now the sky around it is both rosy-cheeked and worried, spitting rain on the heads of farmers and full houses somewhere beyond these visible hills. I think some quiet lightning reached towards the mountain in such a soft and impossible way that I’m not really sure it happened.

I stay behind Christina and Alex, let them lead me forward, their arms and legs bright against the smudge of passing darkness. I imagine them lighthouses. I feel something like a small, lonely boat pushed along by the wind and the big ocean, so I steer toward  them.

The octopus tattoo on Alex’s calf rises and falls with each pedal as we struggle up a hill, and on the way down, Christina’s hair twines through the night, wraps around the approaching dark. As the ground levels, I spread my arms out because I’ve seen it in a movie or something and it feels like a good thing to do. I consider each of them and their chests full of folded notes addressed to someones I barely know.

They are both in love with other people, maybe thinking of them sitting at dinner tables far away, maybe wanting to tuck this moment into their loved one’s ribcage. My own ribs are expanding. We climb the next hill, laughing and gasping, our lungs stuffed with summer air and old smoke, but full nonetheless. I wrote a poem over the winter that said, there is a difference between being heavy and being full, but right now I’m not sure if that’s true. Warm wind. Telephone poles. Trees blurred into whole things, without leaves or broken branches. I am balancing and trying to stay upright. Right now I am staying upright without using my hands, and night unravels around us, the familiar edges of town and the familiar edges of my mouth tangling.

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