|We had one rule for that day and one rule only, never spoken or written down, but fully understood by all five of us: no crying. That day was ours, the last of a million summer adventures, and when the morning arrived one of our own would be taken away from us. But never under any circumstances, no matter what was said or how you felt inside, could a tear be shed. We were better than that.
I still go driving sometimes, late at night when The Universe exhumes a buried memory from the crypts of my mind, and I can feel that day perfectly, hear it in every note on the radio, see every part of it through my windshield like a mist clouding my vision, blocking out the rest of the world for a few infinite seconds before the defrosters kick in and it fades away along the breeze…
There we were, five friends marching along a route we had walked a million times before, through the muddy grass in the spring and across the noisy gravel on tiptoe those summer nights when we didn’t want to be caught by the cops.
Tyler leads the charge, rubbing a wad of Skoal Long Cut Apple Blend Tobacco across his gums at all times. He makes me dump out my Aquafina so he can shoot his putrid wads into the empty water bottle when he’s finished. Tyler’s my best friend and yet there’s always something that irks me about him. He possesses the inverse component to every single one of my behavioral traits. While I was the taciturn injun dedicated to peaceful negotiations he was the brash gunslinger laying waste to dusty towns, shootin’ first, pillaging later, swilling the finest of moonshine and bedding every harlot from here to the Wild Wild West. Growing up he was always The Pusher, forcing me out of my carefully constructed safety den while I assumed the role of The Puller, holding him back from making one boneheaded mistake after another. He was the Huck Finn to my Tom Sawyer, the Dean Moriarty to my Sal Paradise.
Following behind us are Cody, Donna, and Kate. Cody’s our team dog. He only needs two things to survive: attention and any song with a bass-synth backbeat to grind against. Donna’s the self-appointed mother of our group, the level-headed one who always knows how to get out of any situation, the one who’s gonna be happily married before any of us have even graduated college. Kate, on the other hand, is a tough egg to crack. She’s always playing a different role for us. Some days she’s a nun, others she’s a Lolita or a damsel-in-distress or a lieutenant or, hell, even a fairy godmother. My feelings for her ebb and flow, usually in tandem with the level of grace that she adopts for her latest character, but mostly we just straddle a strange demilitarized zone between friends and lovers.
We limbo beneath the gap in the iron-wrought gate and step into the horror movie vista where the question blossoming in each of our minds is Who’s gonna die first? Cody’s shaking like a sprung doorstop, knowing the fat kid’s always the first to go and regretting the three tubs of queso dip he imbibed less than an hour ago at California Tortilla. We now walk along a dirt path that snakes through Linfield Distillery, an abandoned distilment factory that has become a rite-of-passage to visit for high-schoolers and college kids in and around the area of Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Our hearts are hammering inside our chests as our paranoia generates a constant symphony of imaginary police sirens within our heads. Could this really be the night the cops check the factory for stragglers? Every shake in the brush and silhouette in the shadows seems to hint at their imminent arrival.
Kate interlaces her fingers with mine while Donna and Cody latch onto each other. Tyler’s the only brave one, walking with his head held high— the position he will one day assume on a battlefield with a rifle laid upon his shoulders. He leads us across the trenches, down a yawning ditch, around a vine-covered shed, over broken shards of glass and through clumps of thorny weeds, all the while rambling on like a wound-up chatterbox as he smacks on his tobacco.
“We’re not allowed to whack off at boot camp,” he says. “They say it’s for self-discipline or something. Before we ship off they’re gonna give us these pills to suppress our hormones. Or is it our testosterone? One of the two. Anyway, they keep us from getting horny so it’ll be easier not to touch ourselves for three months. No masturbating for a whole summer. Man, I’d take waterboarding over that any day. Imagine when I come back and rub one off though— it’s gonna be like a volcanic eruption. And do you know how much I’m gonna get laid when I come home as a fresh marine? When I wear my fatigues around town, whew, all the girls are gonna be all over me!” I roll my eyes.
Tyler leads us behind a mammoth tower and pushes in a metal door. The dying sunlight filtering in through the shattered windows illuminates a shaft stretching up into the stratosphere. A dead bird covered in a sticky slime of blood and feathers lies on the dirty ground. We step over it carefully and charge up the winding metal staircase. Each sound we make echoes off the walls and consumes the shaft, every footfall an explosion, every spoken word a scream. Tyler continues to prattle on.
“So Taylor, you still writing that book?”
“What’s that mean?”
“I don’t know,” I mumble. “I haven’t written in a while. Kinda been blocked.”
“What’s tripping you up?”
I pull up my shirt and wipe the mask of sweat off my face. “My inspiration tank’s running a little low. Along with my confidence. I’m not quite sure if I have the chops to reach the finish line.”
“I once had an instructor with dragon breath yell in my face that I’d never have the chops to become a marine. But I’ve passed all the preliminary tests. And I’m gonna go off and carry a rifle and meet every challenge they throw my way because fuck the odds, man, this is what my heart’s telling me to do. Ya catch what I’m throwing?”
“I guess so.”
We’ve now arrived at the roof of the tower, the top of the world. Tyler steps out across the gravel and we all follow him. I can see his mood change across his face with every step he takes. He reaches the edge of the tower and stares out into the evening air. The navy blue sky is frosted with pasty clouds and tainted by the magic corona of that evening’s perfect sunset. The bloody disk slowly dips towards the horizon.
I watch Tyler as he gazes out into the sunset, the vast world beneath him ripe with countless places to go and people to become. And I think about how he wants to give all that up to become a martyr. It’s supposed to go high school, college, then The Real World. But here stands the antithesis to that algorithm. He never was the smartest at Pottsgrove High School (he couldn’t even be bothered to put community college on his radar), but this certainly doesn’t feel like the right solution to avoiding the land of higher education. I wonder what would happen if I push him off the side of the building right now. He’d fall ten stories and die, but would that be worse than taking shrapnel to the face or being blown to smithereens in a bomb blast?
Then it hits me that in a matter of hours I will have to say goodbye to him for the summer, possibly for good, and I have nothing prepared. How do you say goodbye to your best friend when words and feelings never quite link up the way you want them to?
Tyler spins around, his eyes now mute, somber, devoid of their usual energy. “I wish I could have this sunset forever,” he mutters, “because things are never gonna be like this again.” The music of the night is beginning to shift for him. “Not like tonight, ever.”
The song changes. We’re now crammed into my Jeep driving away from Linfield with the radio cranked up full blast. No one speaks because things are different tonight. It’s the end of an era and that means all taboos are thrown out the window. Tonight it’s all right to wear our shades even though it’s dark out. Tonight it’s legal to drive thirty-five miles over the speed limit. And tonight it’s perfectly acceptable to blast the radio for the entire universe to hear. But we must still uphold that cardinal rule and spill no tears.
We’re in the midst of arguing where to go next—the night is still young after all—when The Song comes blasting out of my radio and we all instantly hush, the opening brass strains serving as the only sounds capable of such a difficult feat. The song is The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get”, a musical panacea if ever there was one. There’s no other song that gets my blood pumping at its mere mention, no other song with more memories of my life stitched into its notes. It gets me high whenever I feel low. It’s the nexus of my life, connecting every plane of my twenty-year existence and marking every major emotional epoch, from middle school Sadie Hawkins speakers to graduation party stereos, from that first day I plugged in my Digimon soundtrack to those long summer nights getting drunk and dancing alone to Dicky Barrett’s cigarette-and-beer-drenched brio with nothing but a shirt on. Da da da da da dun dun dun! Blam! It hits me right in the neck with its sonic dart and I’m incapacitated instantly. My friends and I are religious zealots subscribed to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, but “The Impression That I Get” is our messiah. For three minutes and fifteen seconds the song surges through our bones, defibrillating our hearts and hijacking our off-key vocal chords. None of us have a care in the whole wide world.
When the song finishes Tyler proclaims, “To The Porta-Potty!”
I can already sense what he’s thinking next. Last Fourth of July after launching off fireworks in a parking lot, Cody, Tyler and I drove to a nearby soccer field and ended up attempting to topple a full-sized Porta-Potty onto its side. Many attempts were made, and many muscles bruised, but in the end we never succeeded in knocking it over. But I can see that Tyler’s got vengeance on his mind tonight.
We bounce over to the soccer field and park as far away from the road and the scope of a cop’s headlights as we can. The girls stand back at the car while the boys resume where we left off last summer, bodyslamming ourselves into the seemingly invincible Porta-Potty. A year has passed, but despite the weight and strength the three of us have gained, the Porta-Potty endures our blows like an indestructible golem. Tyler and I even try pushing against it while Cody charges like a boulder into its back, but it holds its own.
Sweating, and feeling like a Mack truck just collided with our shoulders, we call for the girls. They refuse. Tyler goes to talk to them. I’m not sure what he says, but it must be something convincing because a minute later they’re at the Porta-Potty. We hatch a plan: the girls, along with a drained Cody, will try their hand at pushing against the Porta-Potty while Tyler and I will lead a charge from the top of the hill, hopefully summoning enough momentum to topple over the portaloo ogre.
Tyler and I stand at the Jeep waiting for the girls to count to three.
I turn to Tyler. “You scared?”
He knows I’m not referring to tipping over a Porta-Potty. After a second, he nods. “Tomorrow’s like dying.”
He hawks a wad of tobacco into the grass. “I mean that I don’t exist after tomorrow. You always make plans for what you’re going to do for next week or in a couple days or next month, but now I have nothing to look forward to.”
“No,” I tell him. “You have something huge to look forward to. But you got a whole night before that comes.”
We share a look of painful understanding. Then we’re off and running, stripped of our cares, two boys, a stampede of elephants, screaming our lungs out, beating our chests dramatically. Faster, faster. Not even the explosion of red-blue police lights invading the darkness could slow our advance now. We reach the Porta-Potty, leap into the air, channel all of our weight into our shoulders and strike its back. THUD! We ricochet into the grass as the beast begins to lurch. It’s going…going…GONE! We hear a gurgling splash as the Porta-Potty faceplants onto the ground. And the crowd goes wild! We’re hooping and hollering and high-fiving, Tyler flying around like an airplane, all of us too drunk on the night to care if the cops show up at this point.
Tyler, Cody and I converge in a three-way chest bump as the girls procure a bottle of Smirnoff from the back of the Jeep. No shot glasses? No problem. Tyler flips over his tobacco-filled water bottle and draws a line of vodka across the side. Next thing I know he’s taking it up his nose and we’re all losing our minds. Cody, always the choir nerd wanting to sit at the head of the cool kids’ table, follows suit. The girls opt for a more conventional approach and start taking shots straight from the bottle. Tyler attempts to coerce me into snorting some vodka, but I keep my blanket of teetotalism wrapped firmly around myself.
“Come on, ya puss!” he barks. “It’s my last night. Do it for me! It gets you drunk so much faster.”
My pulse is running. Tyler draws another line. I can hear the far-off din of the studio audience cheering. I nosedive. Sniff, sniff, sniff. POW! Back up for air. My right nostril feels like a firework just exploded inside of it. I certainly don’t feel any drunker. My eyes are watering and I’m spinning. The peanut gallery behind me chuckles like hyenas.
We leave the soccer field and head back to Tyler’s house where his parents are fast asleep and his refrigerator is well stocked. Tyler takes me up to his room to give me something. He grabs a black G-shock watch off his bureau and chucks it at me. I catch it at the last minute and check the time. 23:11?
“Isn’t this your watch?”
“Nah.” He holds up a shiny silver watch. “Got a new one. I want you to have that one and wear it every day while I’m gone.”
“It’s on military time. How do you change it?”
“Don’t,” he says. “I synced them both up. This way when I leave, you might not know where I am in the world, but you’ll always know what time I’m on.”
I thank him and we return to our friends. I still don’t know how to say goodbye.
Like a song, the rest of the night comes to me in a progression of sensations and images. Tyler revs up the heating system of his pool, but none of us brought bathing suits. But nothing can deter us from our fun tonight. I strip down to my boxers and cannonball into the night. We throw on music and play “The Impression That I Get” at least a thousand times. 90’s ska-core and bad pop music provide the soundtrack to our revelry for the rest of the night.
Floating in the pool, each of us toasting the summer with a beer can. Green bra straps. Sunburnt skin in the moonlight. Kate. Dripping wet. Her mermaid eyes sparkling up at me. The warmth of those hot tub jets. Kate, dancing in my lap, running her fingers through my wet beard. Kate, pressing her hands against my dripping chest and leaning in for a kiss. I can still taste the way she blew her minty breath into my lungs. Ah, bliss. My head throbs. My bones quiver. And I just want to be her Elvis. As the colors melt together, the two of us become baptized beneath The Music and The Night and The Summer and The Universe.
We turn and see Tyler and Donna back by the pool house. Their lips are locked and her I want you hands are running across his back. She’ll be his last conquest before he leaves. I’m not sure if I’m proud. They disappear. Cody’s practically incapacitated, knocking back his ninth shot beneath the deck table. Kate and I continue dancing in our underwear until the night collapses.
The next morning arrives like a static-filled radio transmission. Through the white noise, the apostles and I gather in the kitchen to have The Last Breakfast together. Donna’s the first to leave, opting for a private moment with Tyler to pay her final respects. Then it’s Cody’s turn. Then Kate’s. Then it’s just Tyler and me at the foot of his driveway, at the end of five years’ worth of Porta-Potty tippings and distillery adventures, with my equivocal goodbye still gestating inside my mental incubator.
“You know, it’s not too late to tell me this is all just one big joke,” I say hopelessly.
“No, this is it,” he says with a laugh. He clamps his hand down on my shoulder. “Everything changes after this. You better write me every week. And never take off that watch. And try to have fun without me this summer. I know it’ll be hard.”
That’s when the dam breaks. I want to tell him that I think he’s wrong. That he’s no martyr, but a selfish megalomaniac. He thinks he’s sacrificing his life for the lives of millions, but what about all the other lives that’ll be destroyed if he dies? What about us? His mom? His sister? His friends? Once he leaves, it’s only a matter of time before all the memories fade along with him. If he never comes back then this place will forever feel deficient, a ghost town barbed with regrets, and our summers will be lost forever.
The words come out a little differently than I had them written in my head: “I’m proud of you, Tyler.”
He hugs me. I can feel the anxiety radiating off his skin.
“You always get to do the things that I only sit at home and write about,” I tell him.
“And you always put into words the things I don’t know how to say.”
“Don’t die.” It’s the only thing I can think of to say next. “And don’t lip off to any of your instructors. I won’t be around anymore to make sure you behave yourself.”
We pull out of the hug and look at each other.
“Listen,” he says, “if I’m gonna fight to make it home in one piece then that book better be ready for me to read by the time I get back.”
I try to draw up an image of how he’ll look once he returns. Jacked up. An eye missing. Perhaps a robotic arm. PTSD boiling in his eyes. “As long as you come back exactly the same as you are now,” I tell him.
“Do you still need to find your ending?”
“Nah, I think you just gave it to me.” I salute him with the hand his watch is now strapped to. “Come back with lots of stories for me, alright?”
“I’ll do my best. And pray that those pills don’t make my weiner fall off.”
We share one last laugh together, the finale to the thousands that came before it. Then I get into my Jeep, sit in silence for a moment and let the past couple hours sink in. He’s gone. I turn on “The Impression That I Get” because I’m going to need it to find my way home. But at his neighborhood’s stop sign I turn left and head in the opposite direction of my house. It’s a disgustingly beautiful day outside and I curse Life louder and louder with every mile I clear. On the return journey I drive by Tyler’s house even though I know he’s gone. I turn right at the stop sign this time. Suddenly my stomach starts to tense up and no matter how hard I try to fight it, everything that I couldn’t express the last day spills out of me.
Then I bawl like a baby the entire drive home.