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BEST OF SUMMER / MEMOIR

Season Of Renewal

June 01, 1997|AJAY SAHGAL | Ajay Sahgal is author of the novel "Pool" (Grove Press). His last article for the magazine was on the origins of a pastrami sandwich

June is here, and it is the end of another year. I am well aware that some would call June the middle of the year, but I never have, and it seems I never will. The calendar may put it at Dec. 31, but it's all over in June.

Just ask any schoolkid. There's a sense of excitement in the air as June rolls around. Everyone's more likely to misbehave, and there's palpable near-chaos, not unlike that in Havana on New Year's Eve in the final hours of 1958 as Fulgencio Batista's regime expired. The kids are in control, like Castro's rebels, pushing the envelope of what's considered acceptable, testing their impending freedom. There is talk of summer plans, dramatic and tearful goodbyes. The yearbooks arrive, invariably signed the same way.

Have a nice summer, see you next year.

From kindergarten through graduate school, my internal clock was set this way: The year started in September and ended sometime toward the end of June. And what about July and August? Were these venerable months, named by noble Caesars not part of the year? Of course they were, but in a different way, a way that is sometimes referred to as "downtime," something quite different and separate from the rest of the year.

I remember kids who couldn't wait for summer vacation, couldn't bear those seemingly endless last weeks of school, kids who kept countdown calendars taped to the insides of lockers, crossing days off as they elapsed. Summer camp was waiting, or that annual trip to some relative's place on the other side of the county, the state, America. Every June, these kids were ecstatic at the thought of no homework, no class schedules, no teachers telling them what to do. Summer, to most, meant freedom. They could, they thought, do anything they wanted to do.

Summer meant something else to me. I liked school, liked classes and homework. I liked being around other students, team sports, homecoming games and winter dances in the gym. I liked terrible school plays and tests and quizzes, spelling bees and science lab. School meant the bustle of classes, books, friends and enemies, learning something new every day, soccer practice and important games. School meant living in The Now. And its yearly end in June meant having to look to other things.

Have a nice summer, see you next year.

We lived some distance from most of our school friends, and both of our parents worked. Without the structure and activity of school, summer became a time for quiet introspection. I read a lot in my room while my brother played an entire season of imaginary baseball games in his. There was camp for a few weeks. There were reruns on TV. There was also, thankfully, something in our backyard that took up the majority of our days--a swimming pool.

Each morning, as early as we were allowed, we dove in and emerged only for lunch and its standard 20-minute post-lunch-anti-stomach-cramp mandatory waiting period and when our parents arrived home for dinner. Sometimes we played together, sometimes we'd swim in our own little worlds. We made up games, with those constantly changing rules that only children could come up with. We'd involve the sometimes-reluctant dogs and always-reluctant baby sitters. We'd go into a kind of trance in and around the water, our skin pruned, our hair smelling constantly of chlorine, our skin getting darker from the sun. Evenings, I could see the water from inside the house, finally calm after a day of child-made waves. We'd sleep deep and hard those nights, tired from splashing and laps and underwater endurance contests and myriad dives and jumps, from climbing the ladder for the slide over and over and over again.

I missed school, missed my friends, but I needed the time away. You grow up at school, are shaped by your experiences there. In the third grade I found an interest in girls; in the the sixth grade I had my first kiss. And so on. But things happened so fast back then, things changed so quickly (and I with them) that there seemed no time to process it all. Summer always gave me that opportunity to slow it down a notch, to take stock, whether I knew it then or not.

There is a kind of meditative state I can only get by looking at the perfectly smooth and glassy surface of the pool on an already hot summer morning, knowing that in seconds my entire physical state and my surroundings will change. I know I am jumping in. I know I have made that choice, but it's always a surprise, that surge of adrenaline that makes my heart pump faster in those fractions of seconds that I am midair, that solitary thrill I get when I realize the inevitability of that moment. I am inexorably moving from the world of the dry to that of the wet.

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