Once upon a time, we had summers. We had nothing to do but watch the wind sweep across the fields, and clouds creep across the skies. We made mud pancakes in the scorching sun, and the older boys had pocket knives with which they carved pieces of wood for whatever purpose all afternoon. The lucky ones had model airplanes with cloth wings and propellers that spun on rubber bands. We ran after the plane all day until it inevitably got lost somehow. We searched for them like our lives depended on it. We often got into trouble trespassing in other people’s yards. We did dangerous stunts trying to recover airplanes from rooftops and power lines. One time, we stumbled on a dead cat. Once, a friend nearly fell into the waterway. Then there was the time I found the girl.
It was a garden dotted with manicured hedges. She was huddled behind two bushes trimmed in the shape of domes. I startled when I came face to face with her when I crawled through a crack in the fence. She put a finger on her lips to silence me. Dirt had settled on the streaks of tears on her face. Her dress was torn at the shoulder. There was blood between her legs covered with dirt. The airplane was just beyond her naked feet.
“Are you hurt?”
She shook her head.
“If you’re cut you should wash it.”
She put a finger on her lips again and said nothing.
I dug in my pocket for a cookie. It was broken in half so I gave her half of it. She took it and nibbled at it as if she feared even the sound of eating it might alert some enemy.
I reached for the airplane when there was a man’s voice from the house.
“Who’s out there?”
I could see the girl jumped. She objected silently when I stood up.
“Me, sir. I was looking for the plane.” I held up the airplane.
“Well you found it. Get out of here.”
“Wait,” he said, as I turned to leave. “Is there anyone out there with you?”
“Two of my friends are looking for the plane on the other side.”
“Alright. Get out.”
He shut the door before I could say anything else.
I looked at the girl. She said nothing. I gave her the other half of the cookie and left through the crack in the fence.
I learned later that she was the daughter of mister so-and-so who had moved into the red gabled house down the street not long before. I caught a glimpse of her, once or twice, in a clean dress with tidy hair, but never had the chance to talk to her. They moved out again within a year. I never learned her first name.
Many years later, I was a married man with a serious job wearing a suit and shiny shoes. I was sitting in an airport one time when a youngish woman suddenly sat beside me and addressed me by name.
“Excuse me? Who are you?” I said.
“You’re the boy with the airplane, aren’t you?”
A jet engine roared past in the distance.
“Or was that your brother?” she said.
“Oh,” I said. I could see the resemblance. “That was me.”
“I never thanked you for the cookie.”
“That’s quite alright.”
“It’s funny, isn’t it? All this time, it nagged me that I never said thank you. I hope I didn’t bother you.” She smiled.
“Oh, no. It’s quite alright.”
She was a small thing, tidy and thin, wearing a shapeless one-piece dress just like before. Fragile looking and sad all over. Even her pumps looked defeated. I was overcome by the urge to hold her, to tell her and show her that everything was alright.
“I remember too,” was all that I said.
I haunted her house. I tried to see her. I wanted to know why she was bleeding and whether she was hurt. I had an urgent feeling about her that I could not process. It stuck in me like a fishing hook and never left.
I did not know what to ask.
“It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said.
I looked away for a moment and she disappeared like the mist. I looked around but could not find her. After a while I wondered if I had dreamt it.
And that is how endless summers never add up to endless lives. We chase after the wrong airplanes.