Summer nights can never be as good as they were when you were young. The feeling of freedom after the the last day of school that stretched across three blissful sunburnt months doesn’t quite have an equivalent in adulthood. When I reminisce about my childhood summers, I think of the smell of sun and sweat on my skin after playing outside all day long. I think of the sizzle of sparklers, their sulfuric scent lingering in the air, or cupping our small hands around fireflies and dropping them into mason jars, little pieces of summer we wished we could treasure forever. I think of the arctic chill of our basement and how we’d seek refuge from the damp heat by spreading the couch cushions out over the floor to build a giant bed, and watching Nick at Nite reruns for as long as we could keep our eyes open. Midnight felt so late and so adult.
The end of each summer was marked by the annual carnival. For several days in August, kiddie rides, games of chance, concession stands, and funhouses were erected in the park in the heart of our little suburb. My siblings and I looked forward to it for months, and when it finally came around, we spent our days there shoving cotton candy in our mouths and riding the giant swing ride over and over. At the end of the night, we’d crawl sleepy-eyed into the backseat of the station wagon clutching cheap stuffed animals won playing carnival games. It was the highlight of my year.
As my summers accumulated and I advanced towards junior high, life became all about friends. My tight crew of besties and I rode our bikes all over town on long summer days, creating our own Goonies adventures to shake up sleepy suburban life. We bought candy by the fistful at the 7-Eleven that would fuel late-night sleepover conversations. At 3 a.m., tucked in a sleeping bag on a friend’s basement floor, summer nights had the effect of a confessional, a sacred place. We talked about our deepest feelings, confessed secret crushes, and gave in to the most outlandish dares. In the morning, it all felt like a dream, our secrets safe and stowed away with the moon.
Summer still ended with the carnival. But instead of playing games and riding rides, the focus had shifted. We were more interested in running into other kids from school and seeing who had coupled up or broken up over the last few months, triumphs or casualties of summer. When the sun went down, that magical feeling slipped over us–the exciting sense of not knowing what would happen next. There was the possibility that the crush you’d confessed to in the darkness of night might see you, smile at you like Jason London in Man in the Moon, and ask you to go on the Ferris Wheel. Likewise, there was no greater heartbreak than when the carnival packed up and left town with all of your wishes still unfulfilled. When it looked like no one would be asking, I worked up the courage to go alone on the Kamikaze, a ride that shuttled you in giant, nauseating upside-down loops. I screamed at the top of my lungs while “Come Out and Play” by the Offspring blared through the ride’s shitty speakers, and I felt like a badass.
Summers took on a whole new level of gravity when we began college. Now, summer was a season of returning home to a life put off to the side while classes were in session. These months were alcohol-drenched. We stopped going to the carnival, and the pinnacle of the summer shifted, occurring around kegs instead of in line for the Gravitron. On quieter nights, we’d walk between our houses, too old to worry about curfews, cherries of cigarettes glowing in the dark like fireflies trapped in mason jars. Confessional conversations happened amid stacks of empties and abandoned quarters games instead of sleeping bags and 90210 posters.
And then, people stopped coming home for the summer. Jobs replaced summer freedom–real ones, not the 6-hour shift of scooping ice cream or life guarding for minimum wage of the past. The cycle of seasons felt like it accelerated a little bit more each year, like a record playing on the wrong setting. I drove past the carnival one August in my early 20’s, and it looked smaller than I remembered it. It seemed loud, gaudy, and overrun with kids. No magic accompanied nightfall; it only made everything look kitschier.
Years have become decades, and my early memories have lost their sharp edges. But though I can’t recall the names of the carnival rides, what I’d order from the concession stands, or the color of my Huffy bike, I can still remember the way my heart would race when I saw the carnival trucks pull into town. Or the feeling of pure joy of being on my bike, standing on my pedals as I accelerated towards the center of town where the rides were set up, flanked by my best friends. It was our first taste of freedom–to be able to take ourselves anywhere, powered by the adrenaline pumping through our veins with each spin of silver spokes.
I wish I could have bottled that feeling all of those years ago, like a firefly in a mason jar. To once again feel that youthful freedom and the delicious possibility of how any given night might end. I’d open the lid and breathe in the smallest sample in order to make it last.