Speaking of Summer
by Kalisha Buckhanon
Summer first taught me how sex felt. And here I am.
The heat is no telling. I can not pinpoint if it is the radiator, or Chase, or Mama and Grandma’s spirits boiling or—worse come to worst—Summer’s.
I burn up so hot, even when I untangle from the maroon crochet blanket I know well and, indeed, have always wanted for myself. But Summer got everything. She was always first in line. Soon as Grandma put the final knot into place, right at corner edge of a sly rouge border I had to squint to see and now can never miss, Summer curled up in the blanket without waiting for Grandma to say what she wanted to do with it. Summer did not ask me if I wanted to toast myself inside it, too. Later that night, and we were both ten, the down feathers in my comforter may as well have been gossamer. I kicked it off and caught cold that Illinois winter, the stinking and barking kind. Summer took the blanket to camp. It was hot and she didn’t need it. She dragged it to every sleepover with her separate friends I was not invited to know. Finally, she took it off to college.
I know I am not at the point of night sweats. I have read about the perimenopausal thing online. I became so intrigued I surfed the net about it for nearly a week and missed one of the few deadlines I ever have in my journalism career. The syndrome didn’t apply to me, I decided. Instead I am in bed with a man in an apartment we can not control the heat in, and I am still in a bit of shock my sister is dead so I am sure my temperature is off. Chase thinks I love it when we spoon, tight with my spine bones sunk in middle of his ribs, his hairy thigh on top of my hip. But his affection smothers me. Summer had been my sister, after all. Our comfort to each other over her sudden passing involved greeting her friends and family together before we fell into her bed on the day we were just supposed to be packing up her books. I am not proud. I can not flaunt like he can. I cannot so easily speak of her paintings still up on the wall, or stand arrested in praise for the published magazine photography she framed, like she hears me. Chase still does.
I can see how he feels less numb and more entitled. He, not I, had been the one closest to her day-to-day for the last three years, helping her pep up from what she called the misery knocking on her forehead and ringing her ears. He had called her self-portraits of her beautiful figure dressed in nooses and self-inflicted stab wounds “art,” helped her submit them to journals who always declined. It was her family and friends who unfairly accustomed to the alarms, cries for help, smoke signals. Now, we are still frozen in disbelief. Chase is taunt with relief. But it still does not make us right for this.
“Any more ice cream?” I call aloud, without knowing I have. Since the #7 bus runs all night it makes more sense than usual in Harlem for me to walk to the bodega alone, in sweats, doused-on chapstick and bedhead, a little lotion on my hands slipped through the bulletproof window slit. A person is always standing at the corner bus stop.
The boy who works until sunrise still calls me “Miss Summer.” He has a crush, based on two years of history he shares with my sister and not me. I never correct him.
When Mama came to visit her big girls all grown up in New York now, she cringed to see us leave out after midnight to buy orange juice and milk and eggs for the morning. She couldn’t understand how every need in life wasn’t clouds and mileposts and winding roads away, and early closing time to boot. She regarded the plastic black sacks we brought in with suspicion, like they held babies kidnapped from the nearby Harlem Hospital nursery. It was part of her “wild imagination” Summer inherited, their eccentric personalities the relatives called it, their “You just don’t understand her” gossip shields, their bond together and against me, their needs for some real outside therapy and inner-pain management most black women stay too proud to take as often as needed…
My latest craving has been Haagen Daas vanilla Swiss almond flavor.
I guess it will be known as Summer’s flavor, now. As Mama coughed herself to final sleep, my flavor was Neopolitan. It was something organizing about moving my spoon cross the carton from white to pink or brown to white or pink to brown, depending on the brand. Summer’s flavor is much simpler, and much less fattening. Since it takes so long to suck the chocolate off the nuts stuck in the ice cream, I eat much less of it.
Maybe a tumbler of ice cubes and lemon can do the trick, and give me an excuse to get from out under Chase. I feel dry and nasty-mouthed. Yes, it is the radiator. Its hissing and spitting taunts me. Over and over it flares up throughout the middle of the nights, gives me alarm in the morning. I never adjusted it, but left it just as Summer had. Knowing her, she wanted her bedroom piping hot as a sauna, so she could sweat under multiple layers of pajamas and burn calories in her sleep. For me, it is enough to have high room temperature and a man in bed with me. The combination of both is unusual.
I sit up in Summer’s four-poster canopy bed, its cherry posts and two-tier bookshelf headboard out of character for me. I miss my simple Ikea twin on a bamboo box spring, and no headboard. It fits my personality and budget, as Summer and her friends and I have dismantled and hauled this bed so many times it feels like an old friend. When I slip his arm from around my stomach, Chase turns over to the edge of the bed. He growls, stretches and sucks his tongue before he goes quiet and immobile again. He never snores. He makes decaffeinated mint tea at night and Godiva chocolate coffee in the morning. He has yet to leave the toilet seat up or lose the toothpaste cap. He loves to cook. He can. This does not stop him from ordering in and tipping well. Other than crushing me in spoons after sex, he keeps to his side of the bed and never hogs the covers. He refuses to call me by my real name: ‘Autumn.’ Outside of bed or the couch or the shower and bath, which I prefer as my time alone, he teases me: ‘Fall.’ It could be that his ex-girlfriend had called me Autumn, and it helps him forget her and the facts. I like it though. He says it like it is all I have ever been called.
At the ledge of the kitchen door and with my eyes on the microwave’s time—3:21—I realized I have tip-toed down the hall and I am naked. Not even a robe, in January. But, I am not cold. Not one footstep remembered, but I have made it quickly. And I turn for some reason to see, staring me in my face, pinned up in its 8 x 11 drop shadow frame, in black-and-white, another story of Summer to join the many others flopping around in my brain these days…
Whenever Mr. Murphy came by to visit Mama when Summer and I were girls, we had to shine our faces and be quiet and act ‘normal’ as Grandma put it. We had to sit in our downstairs bedroom with dolls or books and a fairy tale 45” set on the toy record player, and make sure we wore either newer shoes or socks with no holes in them, and keep them on so the bottom of our feet would not look dirty. We had to “Act like you got some sense” and “Don’t you embarrass us now, y’hea me?” We had to “Ma’am” and “Sir” and “Please” and “May I?” We had to keep our elbows off the table and not stuff our mouths. We had to not kick each other under the table, or insult one another.
“Murphy a good man,” Grandma said. “That’s all your mama need. Soon as she get a good man, quit being hung up on y’all daddy, things’ll turn round in here.”
No more pottery smashed to a cement floor out back in the shed. No more neighbors knocking to peer in and whisper: “You guys okay?” No more feasts one day and famines the next. No more retrievals way too early from our Catholic school classrooms. No more no-shows to pick us up after school when the others were all gone, so that we had to color quietly in the chapel while the confessors straddled in after dark.
Mr. Murphy first drove Trummel Lane to our house in his recently-upgraded Cadillac, with a briefcase and recommendation to us from a woman my mother swam with at the Y. He was a salesman. Insurance: dental, medical, life, employee benefits and even end-of-life care or premature burial planning. I answered the door when he rang the bell, on a Sunday few hours after we got back from church in town. Grandma watched him walk down the steps into his car, turning to wave right before he opened his door and started the gentle engine. Grandma sucked her teeth and called him “Slick.” It didn’t stop her from sticking his little red and white business card on the refrigerator under a green ‘M’ alphabet magnet. “Murphy go good with money,” she said.
We all knew his face already from the State Farm sign at the barbershop on Court Street, which he shared an office with. I had also seen his face in the phone book and on the billboard just over the junction tracks past the dog food plant, if we went to church in main town where we had to pass it. Cole Murphy—black jacket, yellow tie with gold clip, white handkerchief, bald head and centipede-long moustache. He looked so much older than Mama. She never bought a thing from him. But she gave him some German chocolate cake with coffee that first time—and the next time, and the next.
Pretty soon, he stopped coming by in the daytime with his briefcase. He showed up at nighttime with bouquets hidden in light green paper. And, Mama had on type of clothes she wore to church, beige leather pumps to match her camel suede purse. He cut the still air in our living room with his voice, smooth and burly, like he could have voiced-over Moses or Abraham or King David or Noah in a television movie. She left right at time she was normally in front of the television to watch Video Soul or Lifetime for the night, with Salem lights in her hand and rollers in her hair, a pot of Lipton’s tea on the nightstand with a bottle of vodka next to it.
On those nights, I never coughed and Summer was calm. We ate with our plates in front of the television. When Grandma was knocked out on the couch finally, we turned down all the lights in the house and pretended like we were sleep. But, we were making silly jokes and impersonations of people we knew under the covers, giggling until we had to go pee or sneak milk. We started to wait later and later to hear Mama’s heels slide up the steps, the screen door pulled back and the front door wind chimes sound.
When we both turned ten, same year Grandma made the blanket, a tornado warning whisked through our Illinois plain just as we had opened the closet to put on her galoshes and raincoats. I was all set to go to Pizza Hut, as Mama promised. We heard the sirens in distance of a charcoal sky, and that was it. Summer stomped up the stairs inside. I brooded on the porch in the swing. After a bit of time Grandma fussed me to come inside from the lightning, but I ignored her. I saw the Moynihans and Calhouns and Davises, the few families who parked trailer homes a few acres away near the bridge over the river. The parents and the kids raced past our winding lane in their pick-up trucks—tarp stretched over the beds and tires whisking gravel. Mr. Montgomery’s German Shepherds howled in the front yard, hindquarters in the air and oblivious to his calls. Then into our vulnerable enclave, rather than out of it, just outside of town and down rural road a few oldest trees and new telephone wire landmarked, came Mr. Murphy in his Cadillac. He met me on the porch.
“Heard somebody’s got themselves a little birthday today,” he said.
I saw the two bags he carried. Carson Pirie Scott and Kroger’s. A checkered derby covered his head. The first few sprinkles dotted his tan trench coat but his umbrella was still folded down. It was already our birthdays, so we had on good shoes and socks. We oiled our faces and knees. By now, it was automatic to flaunt our best manners and forward our best faces when Mr. Murphy came by. We were maturing, and wanted to.
Turned out Mr. Murphy had not noticed we were maturing, given what was in the stiff Carson’s bags. But at least the two wild-haired and brown dolls we pulled out of long cream boxes stood up to our knees when we set them down on glittery round display bases, with their handmade taffeta and chiffon dresses and real pearls in their ears and ivory barrettes. Each came with a certificate and not a little orange sticker. Their sudden place inside the china cabinet brought out the worst dishes, to be put in the attic.
That night a few shots remained in a disposable camera my mother had picked up from one of her aunt’s weddings (a third, or “Honey there’s hope!” as the distant relative proclaimed when she came by our place setting at the reception in a downtown hall). One of those shots is Summer and me over the pre-made Kroger’s sheet cake. In the background Mama blows up a pink balloon and Grandma looks off-camera like she heard somebody walking through the door without knocking. Mr. Murphy took the picture.
Even when we had no pinkish gray sky, or weather horns, or vanished birds, Mr. Murphy set his hat down on the table until he put it back on his head the next morning. He soon bought a new coffeemaker, more bags and boxes for us, a pottery wheel for my mother, a Hover round for my grandmother, and more booze for the china cabinet.
With Mama calmed, Summer and I started to talk about separate paths, beyond amused faces encircling us to marvel at our resemblance and point out their plans for our future: actresses, models, dancers, a singing duo. We saw other jobs on television—Oprah, Columbo, Julia Child, Christa McAuliffe, Diane Sawyer and Anita Hill—we felt were better for us. I was already writing stories, and she was already painting pictures.
Still, we wanted the cherry-smelling chapstick and dipped our fingers into the more expensive lotions in the bathroom to smell like apples, pears, and honeydew. We wanted hair down our backs and the shoes that clicked from heels in the back. We wanted dresses, we wanted less time outside in sand and grass and more time in front of mirrors and inside our closets. We wanted to be on a diet. It was both of us. Not just her.
But it was only her who told Grandma something about Mr. Murphy in the middle of the day and me too, in middle of the nights. When she rubbed and rubbed against me with just underwear or without, and played with silky pubic hairs I got before she did. And Mama only told Summer “I’m sorry” for what she heard too right before she died.
Ever the artist, Summer reproduced the picture of her first birthday with Mr. Murphy in black and white, inside a cream matte mount and copper-colored pewter frame I see on the wall beside me. I know the balloons are pink because I remember the day, the moment, the scene, the tendrils of lightning before the clouds shattered and Mr. Murphy set his hat down on the table to ready to stay the whole night. What I will never know is why he chose me and not her, and why that means I am still here and she is not, and why I must be so close now to the man she loved once, who made her forgot so much about Mr. Murphy we thought Summer would never be so sad and angry all the time again.
By the time I know he is out of bed and there, Chase already has his hands on my shoulders and his chest against my back—a pained pal, and comfort, and a friend indeed. None of our friends know of this relationship.
“Who you talking to, sweetheart?”
I didn’t know I am talking. And so I am sleepwalking. Again.
“You a’ight?” Chase wants to know, turning me to go back to Summer’s bed.
He will slip out early, so no neighbors see, so no friends know, so no one I need to speak of Summer with sees us and misunderstands. We never felt this way before Summer left us both, leaping into whirlwind of delirious memories and undue shame. I go back to bed and remember what I first awoke for. Water. The heat returns. Chase does not hear me ask him to move over or please leave me alone, just for little while.