Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
By Anna Wilking
What is it about the summer that helps to foster lust and love? Summer nights are downright dangerous in their sultry warmth. It’s the season for flings and hookups, to start new relationships and perhaps even revisit old ones. All those days at the beach, in the park, riding bikes, at outdoor concerts, farmers’ markets, and rooftop parties provide opportunities to widen social circles and make new connections. As summers come and go, and as I build new memories of lust and love—some fleeting encounters, while others last longer—I think back fondly to my first summer romance.
It was the summer of 1992, just after my sophomore year of high school. My friends and I headed to the beach for a week-long vacation to be lightly supervised by my older cousin—an artist who lived in New York City and who was impossibly cool. Our daily routine consisted of packing the car, and with all our windows down and Bob Marley blasting out, racing down dusty winding roads, skidding across patches of sand to a screeching halt at the beach.
Our big canvas bags were flung over our shoulders, overflowing with bottles of leaky sunscreen, paperback novels, a few hastily-prepared tuna fish sandwiches, bottles of lukewarm water, towels, beach blankets, and a stereo (more Bob Marley). We’d march down single-file onto the sand, already so hot at 10:00am that we would hop along as if jumping on coals, to claim that perfect beach spot—equidistant to the crashing waves and dunes behind us.
One day as the hours melted into the late afternoon and the light turned golden, we watched three guys trudge onto the sand, plopping down next to us. As teenage girls we were gifted with laser focus and hawk-like observational skills, all for sizing up potential suitors. We dreamed of romance, and as our budding sexuality reminded us, of sexy things, even though we weren’t quite certain what those things were yet.
He had slate gray eyes and overgrown light brown hair that fell into his face as he talked. I couldn’t make out what he was saying to his friends, but he was speaking animatedly with his hands and everyone laughed after an easy pause. It was early in the summer, but he had already developed a deep tan, making me wonder if he worked under the bright sun.
My mystery babe began tossing a Frisbee with his friend, still under our inspection, as my group of friends and I exchanged furtive glances with one another. This was all too good to be true, as we hadn’t made any new “friends” on holiday yet. Suddenly, the Frisbee landed with a thud, right next to my towel. I got up uneasily and wished for the best as I sent the Frisbee in what I hoped was their general direction.
I was mortified to discover the Frisbee sailing into the sea, nowhere near their slim athletic silhouettes. My friends started laughing and I jumped up, embarrassed that I had misjudged my throw. I jumped into the ocean to grab the Frisbee to redeem myself, but when I came up for air, mystery babe had beaten me to it. He held the Frisbee up in the air. “Looking for this?” he said with a wide grin, chuckling at me. I smiled back and muttered “Sorry about that…”
His name was James and he was working a landscaping job, tending to the manicured lawns of the summer elite. I expressed my envy, as I was just in town for a week. He explained that his best friend owned a house in the community and they had decided to come and make some money during the high season. We continued to chat. I found out that he was from Connecticut and attended an all-boys Catholic private school. He was also entering his junior year that fall.
We stood in the churning sea for a moment more, but by this point, my nerves got the best of me. A lull eased over our conversation. I wasn’t sure what else to say, though I was equally exhilarated and horrified at the thought of spending another minute talking to James, the landscaping babe. My flight/fight response kicked in and suddenly I dove into the next wave and caught it into the shore. I turned around and gave James a quick wave as I ran to lay back down with my friends, who wanted the sentence-by-sentence breakdown of our conversation. I was met with lots of squeals, laughter, and teasing. We analyzed again and again (and again) the exchange and agreed that if we could have gone back to do it all again, I would have at least gotten his number or said something so flirty that he would have known to ask for mine.
We returned to the beach the next day. I was downtrodden to discover that James with his slate eyes was nowhere to be found. The beach was filled with the families and couples that had accompanied us over the past week. We only had one more day left. Would I see him again?
We had to make the 2:00 ferry. There had been a whirlwind of activity that morning as we packed and cleaned, preparing the house for its next guests. My cousin herded us into the car and as we drove into town, I felt a tightness in my chest. We would soon be on the boat home and this summer’s beach adventures would be over. As we bumped along down the cobbled main street, I sighed loudly and my friends all chimed in with taunts about how landscaper babe had broken my heart.
We were sitting at the corner, about to turn into the parking lot, when I heard a knocking on the back window. My friends and I turned around and I gasped. “It’s him!!!” My cousin was not amused, as we were about to miss our boat. “Stop, stop, please stop!” I pleaded. Now James was running behind the car. “Who is this guy??? You’ll miss the boat!” my cousin had just one responsibility for that afternoon. “Stop the car!!!” It came out of me so forcefully, even I was taken aback. My cousin swerved to the side of the road and came to a jerky stop.
I got out of the car and ran towards James. This was my perfect movie moment. Was this even happening? We hugged and he gave me a kiss—right on the mouth! I couldn’t believe it. I was soaring. I heard my cousin call my name, yelling at me to get back in the car. I explained to James that I was catching the ferry and leaving the island. He took out a piece of paper and thrust it into my hands—asking for my phone number and address. I scribbled out my info. and gave him one last hug. I got back into the car and the race to the ferry continued.
We missed the ferry due to my encounter with James. My cousin refused to speak to me for the rest of the afternoon. We ruined her plans and had to take a ferry that night instead. I sat with my friends as we replayed what happened over and over (and over again). I didn’t care if my cousin was pissed, I sat elated as I pondered my prospects with James.
It turns out that James wrote me a letter, as he had promised (this was 1992, before email or social media). It started a “snail mail” correspondence that lasted for several years. I used to wait eagerly for his letters, my address written with his looping cursive. Sometimes passionate, sometimes banal, James’s letters arrived at regular intervals, giving me a glimpse into his world of teenage angst. We were both figuring out our way through high school, a place that was at times confusing and hostile.
James and I saw each other several more times. Once I drove with a friend late one night to visit him in Connecticut for a couple hours. The next summer we arranged to see each other at the beach. We shared a magical weekend together (which, I should point out, involved nothing more than making out and heavy petting). It felt right to see him on the beach, running after Frisbees again.
Eventually James and I lost touch. We each went off to college and became busy. Our lives changed. We changed. New loves entered our lives and we were ready to let go. I may have let him go, but I still treasure his letters. I keep them in a box at my parent’s house. They remind me of my first summer love—of a more innocent time when a brief exchange on the beach blossomed into a “vintage romance,” reminiscent of the Victorian era.
Anna Wilking holds a PhD in cultural anthropology and is currently getting her MSW at NYU to become a clinical therapist. She teaches courses on gender and sexuality at NYU and Brooklyn College and hopes to open a private practice for couples and family therapy one day. She is a documentary filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.
Social media handle: @avwilking