When I think back on the memory now, and every time I have in the past twenty-five years, I see my bare feet running up a grass-covered hill. Both feet are a shimmering dark brown from the summer sun and still wet from the pool they were submerged in moments ago. Their tops are unblemished, without the popping purple veins that come with age or chipped paint from one too many missed pedicures. The toenails shine with their own porcelain hue. If I flip the frame of this memory upside down, like a slide, I see the soles of the feet, smooth but tough, worn like soft leather or a cat’s nose.
My board-like body has begun to curve. There is a swoop at my waist, a rounding in my thighs. My breasts are high and swollen and unfamiliar. No matter how fast I run, I am becoming a woman. As I run, my breath heaves in and out. My chest is slender—but I know I had breasts by then. They appeared when I was 14, and in this memory of this particular summer, I am 15. My board-like body has begun to curve. There is a swoop at my waist, a rounding in my thighs. My breasts are high and swollen and unfamiliar. No matter how fast I run, I am becoming a woman.
“Are you seriously leaving right now?” I hear my sister Cricket yell at my back.
“You’re crazy!” Charlie, our dearest childhood friend, calls after me.
The two of them stand waist-high in a swimming pool along with my cousin Margaretta. Chlorinated crystal blue water flickers around their waists. Charlie clutches a red plastic ball and all three wonder if I will return to our volleyball game. Then Margaretta says, “Let her go. She’s in love.”
I am in love, and so I don’t look back. I run.
I run to the top of the hill where I grab a door with a rippling screen loosely secured in its frame and lurch through into the main kitchen. I pause only to cram toes around the thongs of my flip-flops and jam one leg into my cut-offs as I hop on the other. Spurts of steam burst from the industrial dishwasher down the hall and the metallic smell of raw meat emanates from the cook line. I slide my T-shirt over my head and nearly collide with a waitress and her two pots of coffee, regular in one hand, decaf in the other. I don’t slow down. Out of the kitchen and into the air-conditioned dining room I run. The large room is quiet but for the clinks of waitresses filling dish boxes with dishes covered in thick dried chicken gravy and thin shrimp skins stacked near smears of cocktail sauce. Thirty minutes ago, this room was bustling with blue-haired ladies, frail and feeble, a smattering of men shaped as question marks among them, who clambered aboard lumbering buses that brought them from their senior-living facilities to Allenberry.
For 70 years my family has run Allenberry, a rustic resort property nestled among the cornfields of rural Pennsylvania. My grandfather visited the property shortly after World War II and promptly fell in love with its grassy fields, pine forests, apple orchards, and the gurgling creek that skipped along its southern border in the shadow of South Mountain. For the cost of her Camry today, my aunt is known to tell inquiring guests, my grandfather bought Allenberry and went about transforming it into a getaway destination. He converted the 18th-century limestone barns into dining halls and banquet rooms, turned the farmhouses into inns, and built quaint cottages. Through the years, he (and then my father after him) added a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a fine-dining restaurant. In a curious move, my grandfather also built a summer stock theater on the property, hoping the entertainment would draw guests to our remote location. This was the theater I sprinted toward now.
Outside the main dining room, I zipped past the front desk, past a family checking in for the weekend, dashed across the property’s main road, and tore up to the theater, past the large brass bell that half an hour ago rang, its archetypal ding-dong resonating throughout the property, alerting us all that the play was about to begin.
I had heard that bell as I stretched my body along the sparkling pool to save the red plastic ball, to tip it with my fingers and thrust it back into the air. After all, the moment the ball landed on the water’s surface, all was lost. Our efforts as the imaginary U.S. Olympic Circle Water Volleyball Team would be dashed, and the Russians would win. This was the 80s, and we were teenagers. We knew a thing or two about the Cold War and The Day After. In our endless game of circle volleyball, to keep the ball in play meant keeping communism at bay. Nothing was more important. Nothing for me, that was, except to hear Will McColloch sing.
Will was 33 that summer, tall and gentle-eyed, the actor playing Lancelot in Allenberry’s production of Camelot. During the show’s four-week run, I caught every performance of his solo, “If Ever I Would Leave You”, which, I had timed it opening night, began thirty-three minutes after the theater bell pealed. No matter where I was on the property, I was at the theater thirty-three minutes after that bell chimed to hear Will croon his love song.
And yet I was almost late. I pulled open the bright red barn door and barreled into the dark theater lobby. On tiptoe I sneaked to the back of the house and there I saw him, perched on an upstage riser. His thick, brown hair, long enough that it feathered at the sides, shone under the stage lights. His costume, a billowy gray tunic with silvery trim, accentuated his soft blue eyes. Where the tunic ended, the bulge of his man parts was visibly tucked snugly into his muted gray tights—a sight that embarrassed me, but I pretended it didn’t. I refused to acknowledge my own adolescent immaturity.
Next to Will, Guenevere sat sidesaddle in her gold brocade gown with her fake, flaxen hairpieces wrapped around her waist. As Lancelot, Will wooed her and she gazed at him lovingly. I knew this was only pretend. Still, there was a woman who stood between Will and me: Victoria, his wife.
They met here at Allenberry several years ago, in a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She played Nurse Ratched. At first I adored Victoria. With her blonde bob, deep tan, chiseled features, and long, slender limbs, she looked like she could be on Days of Our Lives. But then I fell in love–in honest-to-goodness, all-consuming, burning love–with her husband. There was nothing to do but despise her. All the same, she didn’t matter so much this summer because she had stayed in New York City, and I was right here 30 rows from Will.
Gingerly, Will lifted Guenevere’s chin with his fingertips. I lifted my chin, too, as though it were my face his fingertips caressed. He took a deep breath and began to sing.
If ever I would leave you/It wouldn’t be in summer/Seeing you in summer/I never would go/Your hair streaked with sunlight/You lips red as flame…
I slipped two-thirds of the way down the aisle, past the blue-haired ladies fanning themselves with their programs, and then stopped. I didn’t want to get too close and risk distracting Will if he saw me—although secretly, I knew that he knew that I was there. More than that, I knew that he knew that I knew that he sang this song for me, and that he always did.
But if I’d ever leave you/It couldn’t be in autumn/How I’d leave in autumn I never would know/I’ve seen how you sparkle/When fall nips the air…
I leaned against the theater wall. My T-shirt, soaked through from my long, wet hair and bathing suit, clung to my back. I rested my head against the ladder that reached up to the spot booth and wrapped my hands around the ladder’s side rail.
And could I leave you running merrily through the snow?/Or on a wintry evening/When you catch the fire’s glow?
The moment was enough, but still, I dreamed of the impossible.
After spending their childhoods together as best friends, Cricket and Charlie fell in love that summer. One evening, Cricket and I sat at the pool’s edge waiting for Margaretta and Charlie. We watched the sun—violet, rose, and golden—sink beyond South Mountain.
“What do you think about when you think about Will?” Cricket asked.
She explained that when she fantasized about Charlie, which she did often if not always, she imagined their future together—their wedding, their first home, their family. So what did I envision when I thought about Will, she wondered, a married man more than twice my age.
“Yes, I see,” I said, “I imagine Will leaving Victoria and waiting for me by freezing himself, like with cryogenics.”
Cricket turned to me, her head cocked, eyes squinched. I saw she was skeptical, so I broke it down for her. I played the same scene over and over again in my mind: A bunch of scientists in white lab coats lowered Will into a metal cylindrical container with dry ice swirling out of it. The scientists then secured the lid and trapped Will inside, where he would remain until I was an appropriate age, like 25 or 28 or whatever.
“Kinda like Han Solo?” Cricket asked.
“Kinda,” I said.
I knew she still had her doubts, but she nodded anyway, understanding what love can do to a person’s reason.
Will moved downstage center for the final verse. His voice rang out over the rows of little old women and reached right into my heart, squeezing it.
If ever I would leave you/How could it be in springtime?/Knowing how in spring I’m bewitched by you so.
His voice cracked. The “so” note was too high for him. I couldn’t help but cringe but then I steeled myself to be there for him no matter his failure. His chest heaved as he sucked in air to reach for the big finish. I held my breath.
Oh no not in springtime/Summer, winter, or fall!/Oh, never would I leave you at all!
The bus ladies clapped, appropriately, uncommitted. Some checked their programs to see when intermission would come so they could use the restroom. I applauded, too, but with restraint. If I didn’t rein in my applause, I would slap my hands wildly together and burst into sobs, not because I was sad, but because the love was too great.
After the show, and after the actors drank at the bar before they returned to their housing, I rode my bike around Will’s cottage. In the warm night air, under the large maple tree, along the edge of the sky-high cornfield, over the bumpy lawn below his window, I pedaled my bike around and around. That night, I listened to Will sing again at the evening performance. After the show, and after the actors drank at the bar before they returned to their housing, I rode my bike around Will’s cottage. In the warm night air, under the large maple tree, along the edge of the sky-high cornfield, over the bumpy lawn below his window, I pedaled my bike around and around.
As I circled, an older, veteran character actor who shared the cottage with Will appeared at the front door.
“Jackie,” he said, speaking to me through the screen. “Jackie, my dear.”
I was so startled I almost toppled over on my bike. My heart became frantic.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the older actor asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. What was I doing? I only wanted to be close to Will. “Nothing,” I said. “Riding my bike.”
“No good can come of this,” he said. “Go home.” He stepped back and disappeared from the screen.
From that night on, I stayed in the shadows and made wider circles around the cottage, in hopes that no one would see me.
Over the years, when we got back together, Cricket and Margaretta retold this story again and again. For a time, Charlie was with us, too, but then he wasn’t, not after he promised to marry my sister and then broke her heart, shattering the image she had of their future. After that, it was only us girls, remembering our Allenberry summers. Cricket and Margaretta laughed and laughed as they thought about how ridiculous I must have looked, circling the cottage night after night on my bike, the actors inside watching me. I let them tease me and as they did, I recalled the joy of holding a singular feeling. My love for Will was raw and uncomplicated. He and I had no negotiations, no commitment to sort through, nothing to spoil the heady feeling that swelled within me and made me dizzy and stupid, young and alive, riding my bike in circles past his window.
At the end of the summer, Camelot closed. Will didn’t return to Allenberry for several seasons, and then I went off to college. Seven years later, I returned to Allenberry to do a play. Will came to visit. I don’t remember why exactly. After the show, he and I went for a walk. He had moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting there. Once I heard an actress talk about how much work there was in LA. She made it sound as though acting jobs grew on trees.
“So you’re working all the time?” I asked him as we walked along the patio overlooking the pool, the silhouette of South Mountain in the distance. He mentioned an episode of some procedural he had done. I asked if that was all he had done.
Work was harder to come by than I might think, he told me. In fact, he now made most of his living by doing other actors’ taxes.
I imagined Will filling out tax forms and my belly twisted.
We continued to walk, turning behind the main kitchen where we heard the hum of the dishwasher, then along the edge of the cornfield and past his old cottage. Eager to change the subject, I asked him what else was going on.
“Well, things aren’t going very well with Victoria,” he said and slipped his hand into mine.
“What do you mean?” I looked down at my palm enveloped in his large hand and felt my insides twist tighter.
“Our marriage is no longer working,” he said, sounding very pragmatic.
“Won’t you guys work it out?” I asked. I knew divorced people, but I had never been privy to the inner-workings of a failing marriage and didn’t want to be.
“I don’t think so,” he said, tilting his head back to look up at the stars. Then he squeezed my hand.
I wanted to believe that squeeze meant nothing, but I was no longer 15. I pulled my hand away from his and wrapped my arms around my chest. Some time would pass before I was able to sort out the feelings that arose in me in that moment, before I could clearly identify the betrayal I felt by Will treating me as a woman and no longer as the foolish girl in love who dreamed of cryogenics.
Some time would pass before I was able to sort out the feelings that arose in me in that moment, before I could clearly identify the betrayal I felt by Will treating me as a woman and no longer as the foolish girl in love who dreamed of cryogenics. Nearly twenty years have passed since that night. Each year as summer approaches, Cricket, Margaretta, and I exchange emails to see if we can meet back at Allenberry, but we live all over the country now and our lives are too hectic. Frankly, the pull to return has diminished over the years. The property has aged. The dining halls are outdated. There are cracks in the pool. Allenberry is fading away, and so more and more I will my small and sun-filled home in California to be my Camelot.
The other day, quite by accident, I saw Will on TV. It was late in the evening. I was folding laundry and half-watching some scandal-driven prime time show, and there he was, in a guest-starring role. When I looked up and saw him on the screen, I froze, holding my husband’s T-shirt in my hands. He was playing a manager of a ritzy hotel. His hair was gray at the sides. His voice was higher than I remembered. He had six lines in one scene. He was good and forgettable. I rewound the scene so I could watch it again. After it replayed, I didn’t rewind a second time. I watched the rest of the show and put the laundry away. I thought about emailing Cricket and Margaretta to tell them I saw him, but I was too tired that night and forgot to do so the next day, because, although it was my Will on the screen, it wasn’t the Will that had mattered to me all these years. The TV-guest-starring Will and even the hand-squeezing Will were simply codas to a story that really wasn’t even about Will my knight in shining armor. It was about the summer I was 15, before my driver’s license, before sex, when I was no longer a child and not yet a woman. When, for one brief shining moment, I was frozen, a ball tossed into the air, suspended over a cool blue pool, floating in time.
* * *
This piece originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Hippocampus Magazine.