Defending Elsinore

by Saundra Sorenson

It was a season so epic that a friend and I later superimposed our memories of it to the tune of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” That was the summer I slept in the park a lot.

Never on the grass, of course; mainly I’d crash out on the thrust of the outdoor stage, the annexed area erected so that Hamlet might have a little more room to play around with during his flights of insanity. My set-sitting buddies and I dragged out a mattress — I believe it was Ophelia’s — and lay out in front of heavy wooden thrones and dark, twisting Gothic pathways.

The local Shakespeare revival troupe had offered theatrical training to the high school-aged among us, and for the price of some hard labor and long nights, we joined up. Call it a form of indentured servitude, but for a group of teenagers without cars, unencumbered by employment, what else was there to do?

It may be counterintuitive to put yourself on display — while asleep — in the name of guarding props (by their nature, things that imitate more valuable things), and the fact that the stage happened to represent Elsinore made protecting it seem even more futile. (Norway was just going to get it in the end.) But the stage is like a baby, and you can never leave it unattended.

Set-sitting duties were equally divided among cast and crew, but otherwise the theatrical social system was stratified: The real actors with real sets got to play on the main stage of the amphitheater, but for the student performers there was The Grass: inconsistent terrain outfitted with leftover flats. When our best attempts at brick-effect painting produced a finished adobe-colored backdrop, we lovingly referred to the set as “Little Mexico,” and it served as the first line of defense against us and the rest of “the bowl” during our late nights onstage.

So how does one pass a night of stage-defending in a public park?

We ate, often junk from the Circle K (the only store open late into the night) and only when we could call up one of our less vehicularly-challenged friends.

We climbed into sleeping bags and repeatedly rolled down the hill at the back of The Grass.

We played several rounds of BS, the card game that taps into one’s intuition about human nature. Rounds became borderline abusive, and calling a friend’s bluff with “BS!” became a longer proclamation, often branching into personal insult.

We gathered around the 10-inch screen of my Watchman TV, and in the wings of the stage held marathon showings of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (watching B-grade ’60s-era sci-fi flicks? Cool. Watching The Brain that Wouldn’t Die with a running commentary by two sarcastic robots and an endearing human? Cooler.)

We met with the cops once or twice; they just came to check up on us. There were no “brushes” with law enforcement. We didn’t drink. We didn’t smoke anything. It’s hard now to imagine an all-night sleep deprivation activity without the benefit of chemical enhancement, but there was none. (I was yet to discover coffee.) Exhaustion led to slight depravity and the occasional good-natured hallucination.

And there was no rule on the books that said we couldn’t call in some reinforcement, like The Johns — a group of eponymous classmates who, in a nod to Rush, played 20-minute-plus riffs which they assured us would only be “like, three minutes long,” pieces that lyrically consisted of the refrain, “The stars, the stars … ” Long before I knew the official definition of trance music, I thought I had categorized it during one of The Johns’ late-night jam sessions.

To look at our herd sprawled around the darkened set — asleep? Reenacting the final scene of Hamlet? — it was hard to believe that only one of us was actually responsible for the early a.m. watch. Surprisingly, people are often willing to sit in the middle of a darkened city park with you and burn the midnight oil simply for burning the midnight oil’s sake.

It would be perfectly bittersweet to say that once the festival was over, my co-stars and I all parted ways and at most gave each other awkward salutes in the halls of our mutual high school. But this is not The Breakfast Club: I went to junior prom with Malvolio and senior prom with Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Feste helped me move apartments during college. Oh, and I saw them last Memorial Day.

Our post-Shakespeare Festival affinity made being healthy, middle-class teenagers in a safe, beautiful town … bearable.

Light and shadow

by Molly Freedenberg

My campers don’t want to go to sleep and I can’t blame them. It’s hot and stuffy in the bunk, which has baked in the Simi Valley sun all day. And outside it’s magical: bright stars in a dark sky, the smell of eucalyptus and earth carried through the canyons on a dry wind, the surreal other-worldliness of camp life, and the pure electricity of nighttime in summer.

I’m glad I’m not them. At 17, a mere four years older than most of them, I’m a counselor, which means that once their day is over at 10 p.m. my night can begin. As my co-counselor tucks the girls in, I slip out the screen door and into my summer romance: A fellow counselor I knew as a camper, whom  I only know as Billy from Philly, is waiting for me at the playground. A short walk through the still-warm dust and a shorter traverse through dewy grass and his lips are on mine, his hands groping for the hem of my skirt. The moon is full and the only sound is the night birds and us.

I used to imagine a night like this, as a young camper hoping for summer love. And it was exactly as I expected: romantic, sweet, clandestine. But it was also several things I didn’t expect: scary, reckless, out of control. I’d gotten so caught up in my fantasy that I’d forgotten to ask if I was ready for a casual hookup with a near stranger. Once I realized the answer was “not really,” I was already having one.

This shadow side was something I hadn’t planned for. And yet it wasn’t an entirely new theme. As long as I could remember, I’d been seduced by the magic of summer nights. As a kid, it was slumber parties. Later, houseparties. Long sunsets and talking until sunrise. Wearing gauzy fabrics and open-toed shoes. Air on bare skin and cool dew on warm patio furniture.

The possibilities always seemed endless.

And they were. Parents were at work or on vacation. We had nowhere to be in the morning. So possibilities were endless — for fun and for danger. Which is why some of my life’s pivotal moments, for better of for worse, have a summer night backdrop: my first kiss, yes, but also the first time I smoked a cigarette or snorted speed. Late nights meditating in an outdoor sauna and late nights bingeing until my stomach hurt. Moments of great freedom, like swimming naked in a warm ocean, and moments of great helplessness, like being led to a bathroom by a boy who couldn’t hear the word “No.”

The August before I started junior high, I got almost no sleep at night. Anxiety and a sense of impending doom kept me sitting vigilant, playing solitaire on the computer and mentally cataloguing every noise until dawn released me from the agonizing duty. That summer, nighttime was torture.

But one of my favorite memories took place at nearly the same time three years later: a nocturnal adventure that took my friends and me from a tree house near Mission Oaks to the beach in Ventura to a hilltop construction site with a view of the Grade. There was something about sharing our youth and new independence at a time when most other people were sleeping that made it even more special. The nighttime, it seemed, was special. Private. Uniquely ours.

I realize now that those moments weren’t necessarily special because of the night itself, but because night’s lens magnified them. The insomniac August was probably pre-pubescent angst twisted into panic attacks. The later illustrious adventure was its flipside: independence and camaraderie producing euphoria because I was finally beginning to settle into my skin. By day, those experiences were one small part of the world’s large machine. By night, they appeared in reality as they felt to me: the only thing in existence.

Like adolescence itself, those summer nights were wrought with confusion and ambivalence, excitement and trepidation, great realizations and character-building setbacks. All larger than life and therefore all scenes that would form the backbone of my own life story.

It’s why, even at 28, even though I now know better, I still believe in their magic. But now I approach them more carefully, remembering that their beauty is also their danger. It’s the place where my fantasy about Billy from Philly can come true. But it’s also the place where I have to face whether I really wanted it to.

Clan of the night-seekers

by Stacey Wiebe

Night was a black portal to anywhere through the screenless bedroom window. On the other side, the possibilities went on forever, like the stars.

Day, on the other hand, was a flat, 40-acre expanse of sandy dirt scalded unrelentingly by a sun like a warlord with a grudge. We’d never seen the likes of it before. By day — after day, after day — the heat crept up to 113 degrees without fail, without shade, without a whisper of mercy.

Invasive and dry, the heat was a dirty hand creeping up under summer’s pretty pink skirt — if the skirt were worn by a mute girl trapped in a mobile home with no air conditioning. We weren’t mute and we didn’t wear skirts, but my sister, Shannon, and I were trapped. In a mobile home. Without air conditioning. All summer. It sucked.

Along with our parents and our dog, Blue, we were what Central Valley natives call BATs, or Bay area transplants — which means most of our young lives had been spent in a place with real stores and a milder climate. For instance, it was never so hot there, in our house with the real fence that kept wild things out, that the asphalt melted back into tar and blistered your toes. It was never so hot that your mind just couldn’t think anymore and the heat was so unreal you spent half the day trying to understand that it can actually be that hot.

It was the summer of 1988, the summer I would turn 13 not long before Shannon would turn 12. It was our second summer in the valley and the last summer our parents would live under the same roof. It was the summer of divorce, paired with extreme heat. Throw in a few ounces of bitterness and pain, and you’ve got a cocktail called disaster.

If our house in the Bay area was the first image of civilized life burned into the backs of our eyelids, this new place, this Central Valley we’d never heard tell of, may as well have been the African wilds to Shannon and me, complete with sandy soil, ridiculously mean-spirited sunshine, not a scrap of shade and more coyotes than people.

And if the coyotes — little howling, cat-eating dogs, the likes of which we’d also never seen before — were the yelping hyenas of the valley, Mom was the gatherer of our clan, the peaceful caretaker who went off to work every morning to collect the dollars we’d need once we moved off the farm and into a house without Dad in it.

The hunter, then, was Dad.

He’d rise early and go scowling off into the morning, which lead to more scowling by afternoon, followed by additional scowling at sunset, in the evening and well into the night. This hunter-Dad we’d never met before was also wild — a shadowy figure of unpredictable danger who scowled and cursed from beneath the brim of a ball cap and clearly hated everything about all three of us. Armed with poison, he preyed on the gophers that spoiled the hay crop, but seemed to be hunting for something we couldn’t name and didn’t have.

The coyotes were sneaky but loud, which meant that the quiet, scowling new version of Dad was the most dangerous animal in this new world — other than Blue, who turned into a complete pig-killing, turkey-maiming maniac the moment his paws hit country soil. In this new dimension of life so different as to be wholly unrecognizable, our mild-mannered Siberian husky morphed into the worst kind of psychotic killer: the kind who escaped at all hours only to return with blood on his lips, various body parts in his jaws and zero percent remorse.

That left Shannon and me, two hapless members of the clan with little to do, and 5 p.m. — the time, a few days a week, when those 40 acres of baked land became 40 acres of sprinklers in full irrigation mode. Five o’clock was past the most unbearable heat of the day, but comically hellish all the same. The relief when the water struck was instant and cause for much celebration and dancing every single time. Sure, there were the surrounding silent almond orchards with shady trees about to be shaken naked for the harvest, but no true heat-repelling buffer. True to form, Mom bought us a Doughboy swimming pool with her very first paycheck. The water was hot by afternoon, but it didn’t matter.

Besides 5 p.m., Shannon and I had few hobbies. They included finding new ways to stay cool; finding new ways to avoid or, conversely, annoy Dad; frequently changing our sweat-drenched T-shirts; lying around listlessly in various states of consciousness; lying under the house with Blue, when he wasn’t off murdering things; teaching ourselves new and exciting mind games and/or lying to ourselves to deal with the maddening heat (“It isn’t that hot” or “Hey, I kinda like it,” for example) and waiting for Mom to come home so we could beg or cajole her to take us somewhere with air conditioning.

It wasn’t long before Shannon and I had a system. We’d be up by the time Mom left for work, when we’d start cleaning the mobile home — which wasn’t a trailer and was almost a real house. It shook if you ran or even walked heavily, but Shannon and I shared the biggest room we ever had.

The room had a huge, square window that was just a black hole at night. There were no city lights, no streetlights, no lights of any kind at all. When the window was open — and it was, every scalding, itchy, steamy night — there was no sound but the coyotes in the distance and nothing to see but the stars. Outside, on the endless acres of flat land, the night was as unpredictable as ever. Inside, it was relief, a sanctuary from the worst heat, from the threat of greater harm to the clan (people can’t fight when they’re asleep) and a break from the chain of pain that started all over again when the sun came up.

Our morning routine consisted of inventing “ways to cheer Mom up when she gets home,” which was usually dusting, vacuuming, dishes and the like. We got it done before the heat came on, but it was usually 80 or 90 degrees by 10 a.m. or so. We took turns with the vacuum. Shannon would move stuff so I could vacuum underneath it one day. I would move stuff so she could vacuum underneath it the next.

We tried to entertain each other. It was too hot to bicker as usual — though we did brawl (I lost) after she told me I looked fat in my bathing suit. And I seem to remember breaking a pair of headphones by smacking her about the torso repeatedly with them. Oh, and she did manage to cut off my airflow by jamming my neck between a pair of couch cushions. But despite the occasional slugfest, we had a mission to fulfill, and that mission was getting the hell out of the house.

When Mom got home, she’d climb out of her sleek, midnight-blue ’86 Trans Am with her dark, feathered hair and her Kools cigarettes and usually let us talk her into taking us to town. Shannon, being better at begging than I am, usually took the whining duties. I, on the other hand, used reason and appealed to Mom’s common sense. It almost always worked. It wasn’t like Mom wanted to be there, either.

Then the three of us — the three musketeers, the three of us against the world — would escape together, in air-conditioned comfort, to anywhere. Once, at a Longs drug store, I stood at the entrance with the sliding glass doors and walked back and forth, in and out, so I could feel the cool burst of air hit me again and again.

At night, we’d stare through the bedroom window into that mysterious, colorless void. It was eerily quiet, strange and heady and completely unknown — but it proved that there was still a place or a time or a season where the roadmap wasn’t clearly marked. It was a place where the daily routines that break you could be shattered and reshaped into something better.

Away from the maddening sun, which illuminated the life that was but not the life that could be, the night and the possibilities of change were practically a promise.

The lost summers

by Matthew Singer

As with just about everything in my life, my feelings toward summer are best exemplified by a scene from The Simpsons. In “Bart of Darkness,” the titular yellow-pigmented 10-year-old breaks his leg just as the family has purchased an aboveground swimming pool. When he realizes wearing a cast means he won’t be able to go near water for the next three months, Bart laments that he’s going to “miss the whole summer.” Homer’s reply: “Don’t worry, boy. When you get a job like me, you’ll miss every summer.”

Sadly, I’ve already reached that point in my life where summer no longer exists.

Sadder still, I don’t have any fond memories specifically tied to that hottest, freest, most beloved time of the year. And for me, that’s the gloomiest thing about June: As kids half my age are off cultivating the experiences that make up entire episodes of The Wonder Years, I’m stuck with the realization that it’s too late for me. For all intents and purposes, summer never existed.

And don’t try to console me with that stuff about how there is no such thing as “seasons” in Southern California anyway. Yeah, I know it’s pretty much a year-round beach party here. But when I say summer never existed, I’m not talking about climate change; frankly, I couldn’t care less about being able to see the leaves change colors in autumn. (Believe me, I’ll take an 85 degree Christmas over having to bring a pickax and a pack of snow dogs with me just to get my mail during winter as long as I live.) What I mean is that summer, more than any other earthly phenomenon, is a philosophical construct more than a natural one. It represents socially acceptable irresponsibility at its most glorious — a period when nothing that came before matters and everything afterward is so far off it’s not even worth thinking about. At least, that’s how it is when you’re a teenager, when nobody expects anything from you. By your mid-20s, you’re supposed to be on your way to establishing some reasonable version of a life. You can no longer take a couple of months to just check out of reality, lest you wind up sleeping in the street. Or worse, on your parents’ futon.

And that’s fine. That’s how things are supposed to progress. What concerns me, though, is that I cannot remember if I ever fully took advantage of those years when I was allowed to run wild in the streets. Maybe I did. But when I look at the summers of my youth (well, younger youth), absolutely nothing pops out at me as being all that memorable. It’s like that “tree falling in a forest” metaphor: If you can’t remember something, did it actually happen?

Oh, I do have some memories specifically tied to summer. Traveling to Yellowstone National Park with my parents and having all of us spontaneously decide, in the middle of one sleepless night, to cut the trip short and return home the next day (hey, when you’ve seen one geyser, you’ve seen them all). Having to go to summer school because I couldn’t meet the minimum proficiency standards for math, only to learn, about two days in, that they lowered the standards, thus freeing me. Putting my friend’s car in neutral at the top of Palm Street at about 2 in the morning and repeatedly flying down the hill because there was nothing better to do. Then driving past the Ventura Inn and speeding off as some guy — who’d apparently gotten in a fight with a flight of stairs and lost — approached us, shirtless and pants unzipped, with blood all over his face and torso. Then following an ambulance. Then going to my friend’s girlfriend’s house, where my other friend slammed a pie tray full of whipped cream into his own face, only because, well, it was summer, we were in high school, and nobody expected us to do anything more productive.

But all of those random moments don’t add up to anything other than random moments. There’s no weight behind them, nothing that seems symbolic of anything. And now I can’t go back. That was then, this is now. I’m working on establishing a “career,” and for me, summer just means slightly warmer weather, reruns on television and the sneaking suspicion that, somewhere, I’m missing out on something.