It has been about 20 years since I’ve stood under a street light with boys. Considering all the ways the world has changed for teenagers — things like never knowing the frustration of a land-line’s “busy signal,” and the invention of energy drinks — I like that this one rite of puberty still exists. At least in our neighborhood.
The girl next door is 15-ish — right at the apex of her primo standing-under-street-lights-with-boys years. Next summer, if I’m still up to speed on my social evolution, she’ll graduate to hanging out with boys in the Taco John’s/Dairy Queen parking lot. The year after that, she’ll probably be drinking something blue at the quarry two blocks away, spending Sunday mornings trying to dislodge pebbles from her hinge joints; twigs from her hair.
Almost every night she skips onto the front porch, hoodie, jeans, bedazzled cell phone in hand, and squints up the street where, inevitably, the same two boys are loping toward her: one lanky, like there are extra elbows in there somewhere; one shorter, with better hair. I haven’t figured out which one likes her and which one she likes, but for the sake of a tranquil summer, I hope both are the same person.
They stand under the light for hours, hours. Sometimes murmuring, sometimes laughing. Shuffling. It is, on one hand, so sweet, so wholesome. Norman Rockwell’s “Girl with Boys Under Street Lights.” But there is also this other level. Sexual tension in a slow cooker. Where a certain look can inspire journal entries for weeks; an arm, accidentally brushed, will feel phantom touches for an entire day. There is no rush or urgency. They’ve got an entire summer to get to the meat of it. As far as they know, they’ve got the rest of their lives. A teenager’s horizon is so much longer, so much cleaner for not knowing the shit that can obscure the view.
“One of those boys is a wingman,” I said to Chuck. “It can’t be fun for him to hang out for five hours every night … talking.”
“What else is he going to do?” Chuck asked. “Maybe it’s more fun than hanging out by himself at home.”
Chuck used to hang out under this same street light, I should note. No word on which boy he was in the scenario. If I had to guess, I’d say he has been both. So have I.
There is such a ritual to this: Girl steps onto the porch at a certain time, wearing her summer uniform; Boys walk toward her with a casualness that must, must be a theater trick. They time their approaches so they meet beneath this light on the corner. And then they start talking. There must be something that happens at the end of the night, too. Curfew looming large, conversation quickened, boundaries pushed. After 4 hours, 45 minutes of small talk, things ramp up the way things always ramp up when there is a deadline, a designated end-point. They go separate ways, not bothering with a, “tomorrow?” because it’s a given.
Twenty-some years ago, it was me under a street light. I liked the skateboarder, and luckily he liked me. First he would come rolling around the corner, down the sidewalk across the street his body slouched into a thin S. Vuarnet T-Shirt and baggy knee-length shorts made out of something water resistant. Teal Converse high tops, and bright white ankle socks. He was tan, and he had calves like lean chicken drums. Blond hair feathered on the sides, a spike along the part, wispy bangs. A gap between his front teeth, greenish-blue eyes. While he was relatively anonymous in the halls of his public junior high, he was everything to me. Kyle.
He would do laps around the semi-cul de sac. Circling, circling for hours sometimes. Sometimes he would skate away, and come back on his bike and circle some more. I’d watch from the front picture window. Sometimes hidden behind the curtain. Sometimes standing boldly at the center, leaning on the wooden frame. I’d watch him as long as he was out there, but we would both pretend we didn’t notice the other one. Such an elaborate choreography.
Eventually, I’d go sit on the driveway and ignore him some more until he cracked, and skated to my house, stopping in front of me. Squat on his board, rolling back and forth as we talked under street lights. I remember bits of things we talked about, an inside joke about a tucan, and another about airplanes. Roxette, INXS, Beastie Boys. His favorite movie was “Aliens.” He loved “The Three Amigos.” At the end of the night, he would pass me a note folded into a triangle. One of my favorite day dreams was that we were in the woods, and some older boys forced us to kiss each other.
In his notes he pleaded with me to French him. Maybe as a birthday present. How much longer? Are you almost ready? I can remember the second it happened so clearly: His skin smelled like sweat and outside, and there was this foreign thing in my mouth. Like taking a too-big bite of something, or adjusting to a new retainer. And then it always went like that. A preliminary period of talk, followed by kissing, kissing, kissing. Packed against each other awkwardly in winter coats, pawing at each other through gloves, sprawled out on top of the pop-up camper or on the wooden steps that led into house. Jumping apart and faking conversation when my dad opened the door. For the next 11 months, we did this every night for three hours. I was 13, and then I was 14. I skipped phone calls and slumber parties, unwilling to be without Kyle.
I like knowing what is in store for this girl and these boys under the street lights, and exactly what it feels like to feel like that. All that anticipation for something you don’t have the life experience to visualize or define. How she must walk into the house every night with a little smile, reliving the best part of the conversation, the one nugget he dropped that let her know he likes her, too. That eventually they can shake the wingman, they won’t need him as an excuse anymore. But it’s going to take awhile.
I feel like a fortune teller, with a better view of a young girl’s future than she has of her own. Or, for that matter, than I have of my own.