I didn’t know what I was doing at the airport.
That was a lie. I knew what I was doing – catching a late-night flight out of Albany International to Phoenix, getting the fuck away from here. The only thing was that I’d arrived at the airport about five hours too early.
I’d been sitting at the end of the dock at the edge of the backyard, staring at the stunning view of the Adirondack Mountains surrounding Lake Placid. One leg was tucked underneath me, the other dangling off the dock, my toes skimming the top of the water on Mirror Lake. I was wearing Nana’s old fisherman sweater, a faded cream color, chunky cable knit with thick sleeves that fell past my wrists. The cuffs of my jeans were rolled up so I wouldn’t get them wet. I hadn’t bothered to put my hair up, and it blew around my face in the breeze. The warm summer air was fragrant with scents that made me ache with nostalgia and longing; my hair smelled like the lemon verbena shampoo in the bathroom, my sweater smelled like Nana, and my skin smelled like you. The breeze smelled like summer, even though summer was dying. I closed my eyes and asked myself what I was doing there.
I’d turned my head to look back at the house. It wasn’t ours, but it felt like it was. It was really Nana’s. It was her last summer, and we all knew it. She invited us to stay with her every year, and we’d never passed up the offer. But this summer was different. This was the summer things changed between us.
Seven years we’d been friends. That was seven summers we got to spend with each other. It was the only time we ever saw each other. We met in Lake Placid when I was thirteen. I was there visiting Nana for an extended stay, sans my parents; you were there for the sleep-away camp your parents sent you to every summer. Our meeting was chance. During the year, I lived in Arizona and you lived in New York City, but Lake Placid was our waypoint. When we met, we fit together like tumblers in a lock sliding into place.
I was sailing on the lake with Nana and Lanie and their small dog, Babushka; you were canoeing with your camp roommates. I’d been coming to Lake Placid every summer since I was five, so I knew about Camp Cattaway, right across the lake from Nana’s house, but I’d never seen you there before. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. But when I saw you – flaming red-orange hair in a long ponytail threaded through the back of a Mets cap, wearing an obnoxiously yellow one-piece – I thought you must’ve been there all along. All I could see at first was yellow, bright as a ripe lemon, and then the hair, shining in the sun. I didn’t know your name yet, so I called you Ginger Lemon in my head. It became your nickname for seven years, and your name in my phone.
Once I got past the colors – you were always such a bright thing – I saw the peaches-and-cream skin patched with neon band-aids (to cover up unsightly bug bites, you explained later) and the constellations of light and dark freckles, the mile-wide smile and the dimples in your cheeks. You were wearing pink flower-shaped sunglasses and a fluorescent orange life vest, the captain at the front of the canoe. You were shouting orders while your roommates did the rowing.
Nana and Lanie waved to your canoe, always friendly to the campers because they were neighbors. My own wave came a minute too late – I was so distracted by the colors of you – but you and your roommates waved back with smiles. Babushka barked her own greeting, and everyone in the canoe cooed at her.
That was the first time we saw each other, but we met officially the next night, at the movies. Nana and Lanie took me to the Palace, the only theater in Lake Placid, to see a new film about a girl and her dog. You were in line for popcorn in front of us, with your roommates and a chaperone from the camp. You turned to talk to your friend. I recognized that red hair before you saw me. When our eyes met, you grinned big and wide. “Hey! It’s you! You had the puppy with the cute ears!” Babushka was a Russian toy terrier, with long-haired ears that stuck up on her head.
Nana laughed, eyes crinkling. “You’re the yellow one, aren’t you?”
“Sure am.” It was your favorite color. “I’m Piper.” It fit you. Better than Ginger Lemon, though you loved that nickname.
I was shy, so Nana said, “I’m Maggie, and this is my wife, Lanie.”
“What’s your dog’s name?” you asked. You looked around, as if Babushka would be there with us. “This movie’s about a dog, so I think dogs should be allowed to come.”
Lanie laughed this time. They both loved you already. It didn’t take much. “Her name is Babushka.”
“Like a Russian grandma?”
“She’s a Russian dog, and I suppose she is a bit old. So it fits,” Lanie said, and you nodded in agreement.
“It’s perfect. I hope I can meet her sometime.” Then you turned to me, and there was that mile-wide smile again. “Hey, what’s up?”
I was still shy, so Nana said, “This is my granddaughter, Sam. Unfortunately, she’s mute.”
That got me to talk. I rolled my eyes and gave her a look. “No, I’m not.” Nana smirked at me, her eyes sparkling.
“Sam. Short for Samantha?” you asked. When I nodded, you grinned. “Cool. Figured I’d ask in case it was short for something else, like Sameera. I know a girl named Sameera and she goes by Sam. Wanna sit next to each other?”
You were a whirlwind, and I almost couldn’t keep up at first. Though I learned to run as fast as you over the years. I looked up at Nana and Lanie. They both nodded encouragingly and smiled.
They knew before I did.
“Okay,” I said.
So we sat next to each other. You introduced me to your camp friends. You whispered to me during the previews, and we shared a bucket of popcorn. At first I didn’t talk. I didn’t know what to say – I was so struck by you, you were like wild lightning in a summer storm – but then during the middle of the movie, when it got sad, you started crying. You reached over and held my hand. Eventually, I started crying, too, and we both kept sniffling the rest of the way through, even though the movie had a happy ending. When we came out of the theater, we both laughed at the tear streaks on each other’s faces. I had a new favorite movie, and a new best friend.
After camp ended that summer, you didn’t want to leave. You wanted to keep hanging out with me and Nana and Lanie and Babushka. So when your parents came to pick you up in mid-July, you begged them to let you stay, and Nana offered a space in her home with us. And the tradition of our summers was born.
During the rest of the year, when we couldn’t see each other because of the distance, we texted and called and Skyped every week. We were always just counting down to the next summer.
Seven years, seven summers of running around Lake Placid, movies at the Palace, you sneaking me into camp, sailing on Mirror Lake, looking for stars in the sky as we laid on Nana’s lawn, letting the breeze wash over us, jumping off Nana’s dock and swimming with Babushka. When we were old enough, we got jobs; you worked as a junior counselor for Camp Cattaway, and I worked part-time at the Palace and part-time as a dog-walker. Every night, we had dinner with Nana and Lanie. We were a family, all of us, and Lake Placid, the summer, was ours, just for us. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. It didn’t matter how old we were or how much time had passed or what had happened during the year (school, new friends, boyfriends, girlfriends); we could always just pick back up where we left off.
Our fifth summer, the one before college, we were in the room we shared at Nana’s house. I was playing Lanie’s guitar and singing. You were hanging upside down on your bed, hair falling to the floor, tapping your feet against the wall.
Nana was sick by then, but she still had time left. She promised us at least two more summers.
My parents had been sending me to Lake Placid on my own since I was five because they didn’t approve of Nana’s sexuality. They didn’t like Lanie, but they didn’t want to keep me from Nana, so they let me stay with her every summer – and I had three siblings, so it was an excuse for them to get me off their hands. But even when Nana got sick, Mom and Dad wouldn’t make the trip from Phoenix. I’d known for a long time that when I went away to college, I wanted to be as close to Nana as I could. You and I were talking about where we were going. I was headed to Vermont, a school two hours away from Lake Placid. You’d been accepted to your dream school in Boston. At the time, you had a boyfriend, and he was going across the country. You were talking about how hard it was going to be to do the long-distance thing, but you both wanted to work for it. I was only half-listening as I tried to fight the strange feeling burrowing in my chest.
That fifth summer was the one when I really started to pay attention, when I really noticed that I was different. I’d been with boys before (I told you every story, because we always told each other everything) but I never really liked any of them. Not as much as I loved you. I always loved you. At first as a best friend, and then, I realized, as something more. We told each other we loved each other all the time, but that was a different kind of love. I didn’t say anything about my deeper feelings. It was easy for me to accept, because I’d spent my whole life growing up around Nana and Lanie, and they taught me what love was like. I didn’t tell my parents. I knew what they would say. They could barely stand the sight of Nana. Finding out that I was the same would have made them think she and Lanie had corrupted me, and they never would’ve let me come to Lake Placid again, even if Nana was dying.
And I didn’t tell you, even though I knew you’d been with girls before (you told me every story, because we always told each other everything). You had a boyfriend, and I didn’t want to lose you. I didn’t tell Nana and Lanie, either, but I didn’t really have to. They knew.
That year at school, I ran some tests, and I took some time to really figure it out. I went out with a girl. She wasn’t you, but she was pretty, and I liked her. It ended by the time winter break came around, but when you and I met each other again the next summer, I knew for sure. And I still didn’t tell you. You’d only just recently broken up with your boyfriend. You said he decided he didn’t want to put the effort into the long-distance thing, even though you’d both said you would try. You weren’t very torn up about it, but I still comforted you. We spent a night cursing his name and watching breakup movies, and then, for a really good cry, we watched the movie that made us friends, the one about the girl and her dog. Babushka curled up on the couch with us.
Nana was worse that summer. We stayed by her side through all of it, comforting Lanie, helping her take care of Nana. We cried with each other on the worst days. Neither of us wanted to lose Nana. In a way, she’d brought us together. I owed everything to her. All of it. And you loved her so much, too. You never stopped thanking her for letting you stay in her house all those summers.
Last year was the hardest, the longest, as we Skyped and called and texted each other every week, waiting for the next summer to come along, praying for Nana to hold out just a little longer. We called Lanie all the time to check in. Lanie always said Nana was doing fine, but we only half-believed her. Last year, I went out with another girl. She still wasn’t you, but she was beautiful, and I almost loved her. I told her about Nana and Lanie and Babushka. About my crazy best friend Ginger Lemon. When I talked about you, I felt guilty, because I knew my feelings were written plain on my face. But she smiled at me. She said she understood. And the funniest thing happened. She said she was in the same exact boat. She had someone she had feelings for, but she didn’t have the guts to tell them. We were both using each other, but we helped each other, too. And when I saw you again this summer, our seventh, I was ready to tell you the truth.
But my words got lost somewhere when we met each other at Nana’s house. She was bad. Lanie wasn’t doing well, emotionally. Babushka was older, too, and she wouldn’t last much longer than Nana. Everything was dying, even though summer was supposed to be a season of living things. Lake Placid had always been our happy place, but now the memories were shadowed. Nana made us all promise not to mope around. It was a hard promise to keep, but because she asked us to, we carried on. We smiled. We laughed. We did the same things we’d always done together – went sailing on the lake, went for walks with Babushka, looked for stars in the sky.
One night in July, I couldn’t sleep. I went out to the dock in Nana’s backyard and sat on the edge, feeling heavy and miserable. I couldn’t lose Nana. I didn’t know what I would do without her. I knew I would still have Lanie, but nothing would ever be the same without Nana. Life would be duller. Sadder. Quieter. Nana had taught me so much about myself, so much about love and life and happiness. And you learned the same lessons. We were best friends, you and me, but Nana was our best friend, too. She and Lanie were our family. The four of us together were a better family than I was with my parents.
I heard the back door open. I knew it was you. You walked up the dock and sat down beside me. I leaned my head against your shoulder, and you hugged me tightly. We both cried.
And then you kissed me.
I wasn’t expecting it. I’d forgotten by then what I was going to tell you at the beginning of the summer. I’d forgotten that I’d meant to tell you the truth. But when you kissed me, I remembered, and it was bigger than before. It was as big as the sadness I felt about Nana, and I wanted so badly to tell you, because you were kissing me, and I didn’t know what it meant.
But I let it slip away again, because I didn’t want to ruin anything, and all I could think about in that moment was how much I wanted you, needed you, because everything was falling apart around us and you were holding me up.
The kiss wasn’t anything more than comfort, a safe haven for both of us from our grief. It wasn’t real. Except I fooled myself into thinking it was.
And you let it go on. You kissed me again, and again. I could taste tears on your lips, and I felt tears on my face even as the breeze dried them on my cheeks. We held each other, clung to each other desperately.
I thought that would be it, that moment on the dock, but it wasn’t. As Nana got worse, every time the sadness threatened to drown us, you came to me, and I held onto you because I didn’t know how to say no. We spent long nights together in each other’s arms, hardly ever speaking. Words would shatter the fragile shelter we’d built around each other. And after a while, I got used to it. I thought we could stay like that, even after Nana was gone. I thought it meant something, because in those moments, when we were together, everything felt like it would be okay. Nana would be gone soon, but we’d have each other. We would always have each other.
Then August came, and the time to return to school. We both knew that if we left Lake Placid, we wouldn’t see Nana again. It would be our last summer. Lanie would still be there, but there would always be something missing, something crucial to the picture. A part of our family would be gone. Two parts, when Babushka passed. And neither of us could handle that. We wanted to stay for as long as we could. We thought that if we stayed, the summer would last forever, and Nana would never die, and things would stay the way they were.
But we couldn’t avoid it forever, no matter how much we wanted to. So I finally said what I’d meant to tell you at the beginning of the summer, because Nana had taught me courage.
“Piper,” I whispered, a week before we were supposed to leave. “I love you.”
You wouldn’t look at me.
You said, “I’m sorry,” your voice choked with tears, and every fantasy I’d deluded myself into believing came crashing down around me. And suddenly I couldn’t look at you, either. You got up and left the house, and I heard you tell Lanie you were going for a walk. Lanie came into my room and asked me what was wrong, because she knew. She always knew. I said I needed some air. So I went outside and sat on the dock, and I re-thought every kiss we’d shared, every moment we’d had in the last two months. And I turned and looked back at the house, and I asked myself what I was doing there.
The next thing I knew, I was booking the soonest flight I could get back to Phoenix. I couldn’t get into the dorms at school yet, so Phoenix was the only place I could go, and it was far. I wanted to be far away. From you, from Lake Placid, from everything. The earliest available flight wasn’t soon enough for me. I packed all my things and I ordered a car to the airport five hours too early.
Lanie was in Nana’s room. I paused in the bedroom doorway, tears clogging my throat, and Nana saw me. She smiled at me, weak and watery. She rasped out, “Don’t go, Sam. Everything will be okay.”
I hugged her goodbye. I knew it would be the last time. I hugged a crying Lanie, and I kissed Babushka on the top of her head. I told them I loved them, and I left half of my heart with them when I went to the airport. The other half was with you, wherever you’d gone on your walk. I didn’t know when or if I would see you again, but I couldn’t think about that. So I left with an empty chest, a hole where my heart should’ve been.
The airport wasn’t crowded, and the relative quiet was too much. I didn’t want to think. If I let myself think, my thoughts would eat me alive, and I wanted to forget. So I put my headphones on and chose a spot near my departing gate to sit. There were five hours until my flight.
I expected, hoped, feared that my phone would buzz with a message from you. It didn’t, and I was relieved, heartbroken, angry.
The five hours passed by in a blur. I got up and wandered for some of the time, exploring the airport, music drowning out my thoughts. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. What I needed was to leave Lake Placid behind, leave you behind, leave my grief behind with Nana. I hadn’t been home since the beginning of the summer, right after school let out, and I missed my rowdy siblings. They would be a welcome distraction.
When the fifth hour arrived, I walked back to my gate and stared out the window at the tarmac, watching the planes come and go. So many people, so many lives, so many stories. How many of them were like mine, I wondered. Like ours.
When they called for boarding, I gathered my carry-on and took off my headphones. It was the only reason I heard you calling my name.
I turned, and there you were, running through the airport, red hair flying behind you, breathless and beautiful. The half of my heart that I’d left with you beat loudly in my chest, and I was alive again.
“Don’t go,” you said when you stopped in front of me. Everyone else was getting on the plane, and I was standing by the window, staring at you as if you were a dream.
“Why not?” I asked quietly. And why not? I’d finally told you the truth, and after seven years and seven summers, everything we’d shared in the last two months, it wasn’t enough.
“Didn’t you know?” you whispered to me, your eyes shining with tears. They were caught in your eyelashes like stars. You smiled at me, and it was like the sun shining, like the first time I ever saw you, glowing in your canoe on the lake. And my eyes watered because of how bright you were, standing in front of me.
You surged forward and threw your arms around my neck, and you kissed me.
And this time it wasn’t just an outlet for our grief.