We all come back for it, me and Andy and Markus and them. Even Chris, sometimes, like when the Olson kids played for Paul and Lynn and even Andy sang a little and New York didn’t seem so far away from Port Orchard. We come for the music under the apple tree, and the view of the water and the tiny downtown and the fireworks once it’s dark enough, and for the brick-patio-sometimes-turned-dancefloor, depending on the year, tucked against the house where you make bobbing circles with Grandma Nestby and the Bulthuis nieces and Kurtis who’s always drunk and high and perfect. It’s like wedding dancing, but with more red and blue to balance out the white. We’ve had twenty-five years of this? Thirty? The twinkle lights in the apple tree started not too long ago, maybe four or five or ten years, and some of the people are new, too, but I see my old pastor here, and the family who owns the pizza place, and Joe who helped with youth group and led my small group, and I remember being known.
“I brought my boyfriend to perform with me this time because he’s super talented and can play anything, but I’m just gonna sing because I’m lame and don’t play guitar.” She doesn’t wear shoes. Maroon knee socks and thrift-store shorts, and I imagine a place for her in my own high school class. Choir? One of the pre-hipsters lost in small-town Washington? Weird kid? “I wrote two of my own songs this year and one’s angsty because I’m a teenager, but one’s sweeter so I’ll start with the angsty one and end with the sweeter one because you guys aren’t all angsty teenagers and yeah.”
Her music competes with years apart, and I find myself telling Mrs. Bulthuis about my new job during the sweeter song. I hear about their remodel, a new bathroom in the house where I learned to play Risk and Settlers and watched The Matrix for the first time, and I realize I haven’t seen the house in a year, or maybe two. The sweeter song ends and we keep talking while someone else sings something from a musical, but we’re still a better audience than we’d be for Joni Mitchell or John Denver. Tonight, we’d rather hear their songs through voices we know.
There’s a whole world here: church friends planted between the offering and the sermon and cultivated in parking lots and potlucks, teachers who graded misspelled essays and coached us on the move from junior high to high school, parents who let us build campfires on their beach and sleep on wrestling mats in their garage. The rope swing still hangs by the pickleball court, and new children play there, the same games Andy and I played, maybe, leading them in laps around the house and into the small corners of the yard I stopped seeing long ago.
“Do you remember that Risk game we played on the train?” Harrison stops me on my way from the cooler. “You killed Nick—well, pretty much—and Christina finished him off—”
“We made him wear that I lost to a girl shirt!”
My memories have texture here. They get bigger, and I can feel them, and I discover who I used to be.
“You should stop by the church next time you come back,” Joe tells me. “We knocked out a wall in the youth room and fixed up the kitchen.”
“Are you still leading a small group?”
“That was a special group of guys we had. You, and Mitch, and Ryan,” and we dredge up names I haven’t said since high school. “I’d like to get another group started,” Joe says, “but you need guys who can get serious with it.”
The apple tree shines, and someone puts on Springsteen before the fireworks start. New girlfriends, new jobs, new lives. Missy is pregnant, and Markus is married, and Micah owns a house. Someone’s kids wrestle on the lawn in front of me, as blond and grass-stained as I used to be. I don’t recognize them. Bob, my old AWANA game leader, doesn’t recognize me.
Friendships measured in decades cluster around the firepit and the heat lamp, and we watch a few early fireworks spurt up like buttercups. Someone plays God Bless the USA through the speakers, and a smoking dandelion blooms. I should get home soon. Drive back, sleep, and drive to work. Markus and Micah have already left. We can’t afford to keep pretending.
“I wish I could see fireworks like they do.” Emily nods to the kids.
“I know. I forget to pay attention most of the time.”
One of the girls stops wrestling and clings to a passing dog. She rubs her face into his fur and coos his name like a song.
“Can you imagine? What are those loud lights? Why do people do this? They’re seeing this for the first time.”