Monday, July 18, 2005


As many people on the street, on the T and on the television have pointed out, it's hot outside. I spend all year waiting for the heat to kick in, and when it's finally here I'm sitting in front of a fan in a stinky tank top and ugly shorts, bitching about it. I walk down the street, my feeble lungs trying to wring some oxygen out of the humid air, and moan. Then, like a child raised in fine Catholic fashion, I feel guilty. I've waited through blizzards, monsoon-intensity rains and blistering winds for the time when my armpits have that smell when the deodorant starts to lose the fight and my shirt sticks to my back from the sweat. This winter I flew to Florida to have a taste of the sun on my skin. In short, this is why I live in New England. I love the heat since it's a limited resource for me.
Last week I got up and the air was heavy, the sun was burning through the haze to scorch Bostonians like bugs under a magnifying glass, but a breeze blew enough to make my window fan sound a transmission that needed shifting, and it felt like summer mornings when I was in high school. I worked as a summer recreation counselor, so I'd show up at the elementary school early in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to bring the kids somewhere. Sometimes it was places that sucked to go to on a hot day, like Fenway or the zoo. Most times, we went somewhere air conditioned or with a large body of water. I was enough of a child myself at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen that the trips still appealed to me. I'd show up in my Fakenstocks with my Wal-Mart Winne the Pooh beach bag, the sun just beginning to singe my skin, the air just beginning to get heavy, and prepare for the day. It was a great summer job for me. Being a counselor combined my love of the beach with my innate ability to relate to kids. Some of the kids, such as the girls in junior high with their Bonnie Bell cosmetics and shrieking laughs drove me insane, but the kids I spent most of my summer afternoons with meant a lot to me. I'd get my roster of kids to chaperone, usually the trio of hyper brothers, the eldest of which hit on me nonstop, the youngest of which was adorably earnest, the chatterbox girl who was furious if I ignored her (I was told by a friend that she reminded him of me), the younger brother of one of my classmates, my brother, and the brother and sister who lost their father only a month before.
My friend who teaches at my old high school told me that the boy who lost his father was recently talking about a girl named Amy who used to babysit him. My friend teaches high school juniors, which shocked me. I imagine that the kids ended up in the same vortex as the classmates I never see-- they're exactly the same as I left them in 1999. I remember the boy and girl who lost their father (he had an aneurysm in the shower) and how beautiful the kids were, the girl especially. She had almond shaped eyes that just seemed to understand everything they looked at with a perfunctory glance. My friend who was a counselor and I would marvel at how beautiful she was even at age six, and how mild-mannered she was. She wasn't a shrinking violet, but she got along with all the kids, which if you remember being a kid, is hard to do.
I remember my friend and I went to the trailer park where the family lived. The kids' mother was always nice to us when she picked them up, and it affected us both to hear about their loss. The mother planned to go back to school and get a business degree so she could get a better paying job, and she smoked the entire time as she confided to my friend and I how worried she was now that her husband was gone, how she didn't know how she could work, support the kids alone, and go to school. It affected me more, given the fact that the kids were about the same age that I was when my father died. My friend and I took the kids out for a while to let their mother have some time to herself. We went to the grocery store to pick up some things for her, and the kids spotted a package of pre-sliced cookie dough.
"Cool," the boy said. "Cookies."
His sister just smiled, taking in the cookies with her deep brown eyes.
My friend and I looked at each other, and we picked up the cookie dough and set it in the basket with a small package of steak. We cashed out, and reemerged into the steamy July air. We got back to the kids' house and gave the two bags of groceries to their mother.
"Thank you so much. This means a lot to me. How much do I owe you?"
"Nothing," I said.
"No, really. How much was it?"
"Don't worry about it," my friend replied.
"Thank you both so much." I could tell she meant it. It's odd how I wanted to pick this family up, save them from the small trailer, the noise of the state highway outside, to help them more. But in that moment, a package of steak and some pre-made cookie dough and a moment's peace was all they needed. I will never forget the look in their mother's eyes when we told her not to worry about the small bill.
There are kids I'll always remember from my adventures as a summer rec counselor-- the kid who ran full-speed into the wall of the gym, breaking his arm so severely that the bone poking up was visible under the skin; the little boy who got separated from his group only to find the bus with the help of three bikini-clad college girls who were carrying a large bucket of rocks he found on the beach; bitching about parents who were never on time to collect their kids; the trip to Riverside (Six Flags) at the end of the program when our boss would allow us to stay at the park when the kids were on their way home-- but what I'll remember most is the family that I felt I actually helped. I miss summers spent outside with actual interaction with people. As much as I enjoy my job, I crane my neck around to catch a glimpse of the world outside and sigh in the cool air, wishing I was outside bitching about the heat.

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