• One Summer Night

    Steven Millhauser

    Fall 2020

    In the summer of my sixteenth birthday I fell in love with the night. Day after day I waited for the sun to go down. I liked the brilliance and languor of long blue summer afternoons, which reminded me of childhood trips to the beach, but night was my time for visiting Helen. She lived on the other side of town, beyond the high school and the throughway overpass, beyond the park with the gazebo and the picnic tables, in a neighborhood of large houses and towering trees. We had been high school friends since the start of sophomore year, and one day in spring I asked if it would be all right for me to walk home with her. After that, we were always together. I had never had a girlfriend before, though I did have friends who were girls. The thought that I had a girlfriend at last, a real girlfriend who lived in a real house on a real street, filled me with such exhilaration and deep calm that it was as if everything in my life would be all right from now on. We held hands, though only when we were alone. We kissed. Nothing more. I was patient and grateful, content for things to develop slowly over the course of the next hundred years, though at times a restlessness came over me, a tremor of impatience, as if happiness could never be enough.

    The night was ours. I slept far into the morning and worked six afternoons a week at the town library. Helen was taking a summer course in biology, helping her divorced aunt with one thing and another, and spending time at the beach with friends. Sometimes we saw each other in sunlight, but in the day she seemed a little unreal, like an overexposed photograph. At night we sat in her backyard on reclining lawn chairs and talked with her parents before going for a walk, holding hands as we watched our shadows grow longer and shorter under the streetlamps. Later we sat on the couch in the living room, with space between us, while her mother sat talking to us or washing up in the kitchen or bringing in cookies on a tray and her father read the paper or watched TV with the sound turned low. Sometimes Helen excused herself and led me up to her room. Leaving the door open a crack, she sat on the bed with her back against the headboard and told me about her day. I sat facing her, straddling the desk chair with my arms folded on top of the chairback. When the mood was right, I would make my way over to the bed and sit next to her, leaning in for a kiss, while she listened tensely for the sound of footsteps on the stairs. At eleven her parents went up to get ready for bed, leaving the living room to us. At midnight I rose to take my leave, since Helen had to get up early. I loved walking home from the house of my girlfriend in the radiance of the dark blue summer night, passing lamplit living rooms glimpsed beneath partially raised blinds, listening to the quiet rush of traffic on the distant throughway.

    One night when I arrived at Helen’s house, at the end of the red slate walk, her mother answered the brass knocker.

    “Come in, Robert, come in. Helen said to tell you she’ll be back in ten minutes. That was over an hour ago. Some trouble between her aunt and that daughter of hers.” She rolled her eyes and gave a deliberately melodramatic sigh. “Those difficult teenage years. You probably can’t remember how it was back then. But why on earth are you standing there like that? Is this a stick-up? Are you carrying a gun? You can take my money, you can take my life, but please, spare my china. Come in, come in. You’ll catch your death of cold.”

    “If you don’t mind me waiting, Mrs. Chapman,” I said, following her through the entry hall into the living room.

    “Always the gentleman,” Helen’s mother said. She was wearing dark-blue jeans with cuffs rolled up to mid-calf and a light-blue blouse with sleeves pushed up to the elbows.

    On the oval table in front of the couch stood a half-empty glass of wine and a dark wine bottle. Beside them lay an open book, face down.

    “The suburban housewife,” she said, sweeping out an arm, “drinking alone in her Connecticut living room. Can you think of a more perfect cliché?”

    She turned to me. “Sit. Sit. Can I get you something? Some wine? A glass of beer? God, you should see your face. Relax, Robert. Relax. Life is too short. Ginger ale? Lemonade? A nice glass of air? Come, take a load off your feet. She said, collapsing onto the couch.”

    Helen’s mother sat down and took a swallow of wine. She patted the couch and settled back.

    “Roy’s in the city tonight. Some last-minute thing at work. Strange. All winter long I look forward to these summer nights, and once they’re here, what happens? They drive me mad. How can anyone sit still on a night like this? So, Robert. Talk to me. Tell me your deepest secrets.”

    She placed her chin on the back of one hand and blinked at me in a parody of flirtation. She took another sip of wine and leaned back.

    “Well,” I said, “I know what you mean. About these nights. They feel peaceful, drowsy. You want to lie down and close your eyes, like a cat. But they don’t really leave you alone. They keep pushing at you, like a hand on your back. If you know what I—”

    “A hand on your back. Exactly.” She looked at me sharply. “There’s hope for you yet, sir.” She leaned forward and filled her glass. She took another sip and leaned back, closing her eyes. “When I was your age,” she said.

    She opened her eyes. “Don’t you find it stifling in here?” She reached over her shoulder and pushed at her back. “Get a move on, old girl. Times’s a-flyin’.” She stood up. “Who can stay inside on a night like this? Let’s step out back.” She looked at me. “Oh, come on. I won’t bite you.”

    I followed her through the kitchen and onto the wide back porch, which led down four wooden steps to the backyard. I had never been there without Helen, and for a moment it seemed a new, undiscovered world: the blue-white splashes of moonlight under the branches of the Norway maple, the long parallel shadows of the rope swing, the three reclining lawn chairs with backs at different angles, the dark coil of hose around the hook at the side of the porch.

    Steven Millhauser is the author of Martin Dressler, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and We Others: New and Selected Stories, winner of The Story Prize and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He teaches at Skidmore College and lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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