We Were Summer and Winter
A short story
No one could say how long Dillon and I had been friends. His mother and my father had worked together since before either of us were born—I was a November baby, a winter child, while Dillon burst out screaming sometime in July, a summer child. We were always that: summer, and winter.
I can’t say we cared for one another much as toddlers, because I doubt toddlers care for much besides their mothers and their juice boxes. We likely flung our poop like monkeys and bit each other’s ears. Of course, the only moments captured on camera are sweet ones, like splashing in the bathtub or napping with uncanny peace in an oversized bed.
Unlike Dillon, I’ve never had a clear or photographic memory. Things come back to me in spurts—disorganized snatches of film, three seconds long each, that warp over time like wood flooring. I can see myself sitting beside Dillon’s older brother, Mickey, and watching his handsome blond hair float on an invisible breeze, Hook playing in the background. Dillon jumps over the back of the couch, surprising me, and I bite him square in the bicep. There is a fight, and crying. I go back to the movie on the couch.
I remember the outside, in that old house where my family lived, with the swing set and an acre of yellow, dead grass. I woke up there with my head propped against Dillon’s, having played ourselves to exhaustion on the green plastic slide, crawling up and down it, jumping over it, tying ropes to the top and using them as pulleys while never using it for it’s purpose—as a slide.
The day my sister was born, I cried and cried until Dillon’s mom came to get me and take me to Dillon’s house, with its dark blue siding and burgundy corduroy couch. I sat on that couch, sullen, until Dillon found me. We talked in hushed tones about babies, how small and fragile and terrifying they were. He told me Mickey had cried, too, when he was born. It passes. Mickey is his best friend now.
As we grew older, we grew apart. The three blocks between our houses became a mile, and then five miles as Dillon’s mother left medical research for corporate personhood. Five miles doesn’t mean much to me now, but then, with life pressing down on a family from every side, five miles is across state lines.
And so I moved on with a girl’s life, just like Dillon moved on with a boy’s. I had trouble fitting in, tall as I was, taller than any of the boys with whom I went to school. My father was promoted, became some sort of regional manager, and so I left taunting school and joined private school, where there were no boys to tease me about being tall—only girls to tease me about my full lips, or large feet, or undersized bra.
We saw Dillon’s family from time to time, at town events. Fairs, where I watched from the back of the crowd as Dillon played King Lear in the public school play. He locked eyes with me from across the stage, and I saw he was older, almost in high school now, like me. He looked like Mickey had back when we were small, but stronger, fiercer, a little more beautiful—or perhaps it was his King Lear costume. I couldn’t hold his gaze, and embarrassed, I stared at my feet. He had grown into the summer child. I was still the winter, and hibernating.
Then came Cinco de Mayo, where I walked in the parade with my basketball team, and saw him watching me from the stands.
He didn’t turn away when I looked. I’d always turned away before, winter as I was. I resolved not to turn away again.
My first year of high school I had finally grown into someone who my mother believed could handle public school again, and so my parents sent me back. I put on my best jeans, the only ones long enough to reach the floor, and a purple silk top that showed off to everyone how I was the only fourteen-year-old girl with something to be proud of on my chest.
It was strange to see boys again—and in my own school, no less. In my math classes and gym classes and in the lunch room, there they were, shorter than I was, as usual, and with their strange, short-cropped hair.
I knew one other girl at public school, a friend of a friend of a friend, but in the sea of unfamiliar faces I just couldn’t find the one I wanted.
I spun, and looked into a strangely familiar pair of gray-green eyes. Dillon blinked twice, and then three times, as if trying to prove to himself that he wasn’t seeing things.
A long moment passed between us, each holding our lunch trays out like shields, or lightsabers.
“Are you sitting anywhere yet?”
I stared down at my feet, then back up at him, and arched an eyebrow. “Last I checked, I was still standing.”
His eyes grew wide as if I’d insulted him. Great, I thought. The dorky kid with his dad’s sense of humor had vanished in perfect synchronicity with the arrival of his hotness. It just figured.
I shrugged and headed toward the empty end of a nearby table.
“Wait!” A hand landed on my arm. I turned, and all I could think was, Damn, he’s way better looking than Mickey ever was. Dillon pushed some blond hair from his face and grinned at me. “It’s only been a few years and you’ve lost your sense of humor already?”
“I could say the same about you.”
“Come on,” he said, dropping his hand to his side. “Sit with me. Not every day the pretty private school girls come out to play in public.”
His “pretty” joke almost made me dump my milk over his head, but deciding I could use my childhood playmate’s help bolstering my social life, I resisted and followed along like a loyal puppy as Dillon made his way to a table in the back corner.
Dillon’s crowd came in an assortment enviable by Frito Lay snack packs. At one end of the table sat a cluster of theater geeks; in the middle, the standard Kissing Couple, who paid little attention to anything but each other; to their left, a pair of scrawny kids in sweatpants playing Magic cards; and at the opposite end, hipster-goth hybrids decked out in striped elbow-gloves and knee-high boots.
We joined the theater geeks, and the group fell silent.
“Everyone,” said Dillon, throwing a hand over my shoulder as if we’d spent the last six years as best friends, instead of hardly knowing one another. “This is Madeleine. Maddie, this is everyone.”
I gave a pathetic wave. The boys leapt into warm greetings. The girls kept silent, nodding solemnly, their eyes never leaving Dillon.
And so high school began.
That year, Dillon grew into the full of his summer. The only boy in school who rivaled me in height, and growing in the shoulders to boot, Dillon excelled at everything he tried. He had a natural flair for the dramatic, making him a favorite of the drama teacher, Ms. Gilbert. Still hibernating, I hovered on the fringes of his theater posse. Soon I grew out of them, and the punky goths adopted me instead. We shared quietude. I migrated down the table. The distance between Dillon and I grew; five miles had turned to five feet, and the gap had never felt wider.
And then Amber happened. Dillon left our table completely in favor of the volleyball team. From time to time we spotted his blond head bouncing with laughter on the other end of the cafeteria, but that was the whole of it. Theater and goth girls alike pouted. His friends turned their shoulders, and a hole opened up.
I took it.
Sophomore year, the boys began to grow—and catch up to me. I quit basketball to focus on my schoolwork, softening my edges, opening up hours I’d never had before for mall-crawling and study groups. Slowly I stopped being the tall, awkward Maddie who lapped at Dillon’s heels and became Madeleine, the C-cup honors student with an invitation to the prom. I obtained the requisite two female best friends, in whom I confided everything. I went on group camping trips with the punks, and even tried out for theater. It was plain I only did it to spend time with a certain someone, but nobody said anything.
And yet I couldn’t stop watching Dillon across the cafeteria every day with his arm around that red-headed bimbo. I tried to tune out her squawking about getting passed over for team captain, but still it infiltrated me. I studied harder. I aced a minor part in the school play, landing squarely on Ms. Gilbert’s radar.
With all of his flip-flopping, Dillon never abandoned his true love: theater. And so I stayed up late nights watching recordings of Broadway shows, reading off old scripts, and honing the voice I hadn’t even known I had. I began to emerge from hibernation with a mission. I shook off the snow, raised my head to the sky, and howled.
Junior year started with a bang. The punk-goth and theater groups had merged into one, and promptly used our upper-classmen privileges to move to outdoor tables and evict the Magic players and the makeout couples. I primed myself for the next school play: Grease, a classic, where only the most convincing girl could land the prized role of Sandy.
We watched with glee as Dillon and Amber began to dissolve. In study hall, her vapid blather wore on his nerves; in theater class, it became painfully obvious she’d only chosen the elective to spend more time with him, and Ms. Gilbert kindly asked her to take art or choir instead.
“It’s your move, Madeleine,” whispered the friends that had once been his.
Casting was announced on a Friday afternoon. A crowd had formed on the stage, where Ms. Gilbert was due to pin the results to the corkboard at three o’clock on the dot. We stood off to one side, whispering, but fell silent as Dillon approached. I had no doubt he’d land the role of Danny. He’d slicked back his dyed-black hair for try-outs, walked with a swagger, and even tucked a greasy comb into his front pocket for good measure. What left me wondering was whether I’d worked hard enough to be fit for Sandy.
He glanced at me across the small crowd and waved—just a bend of three fingers on his right hand. Careful not to straighten my back or otherwise appear excited at his notice of me, I waved back. For a moment I remembered seeing that wave after a children’s theater production when we were twelve, and I wondered if it had made the wind-up monkey in my stomach go crazy even back then.
Ms. Gilbert emerged from her office with a sheet of paper pressed flat to her chest. The crowd parted like the Red Sea as she went to the corkboard, turned over the paper in front of her where it couldn’t be seen, and stabbed it through with a tack.
A gasp rose from the row of students at the front. I tried to push through, the names on the paper obscured by heads and bodies. My friends thought I was a shoo-in for Sandy, but the bleach-blond student council president made for a closer match in appearance. I saw her standing in front of the paper, her hands raised in glee over her head.
I stopped. Cold started in my lungs and worked its way out through my veins. People clapped Dillon on the back, congratulating him. I’d never worked so hard at anything before—not even basketball. And I’d failed.
Taking a deep breath, I joined the Dillon Welcome Wagon.
“You deserve it,” I told him, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “You’re gonna rock this play.”
Dillon beamed at me. The genuine light in his face gave me tingles.
“We both will,” he said. I balked, but before I could argue, he wrapped me up in a hug. “You’re going to be the best Sandy ever.”
When I’d managed to start breathing again, I walked over and checked the sheet. There it was: my name, next to Sandy Olsen. The student council president shook my hand.
“I was mad at first,” she said, flinging her arms in the air again. “But you’re going to be way better than I would be. You earned this.”
Dillon and I were kids again. Instead of biting biceps, we sat side-by-side on the corduroy couch watching every recorded version of Grease. We took study breaks in my yard, one of us sitting at the top of the slide, the other at the bottom. My father, naturally suspicious of any boys I brought home, invited Dillon to dinner every night he got the chance. Though Mickey had left for college, he came back to visit on breaks. He’d ruffle my hair, saying, “I remember when you ran butt-naked down this very hallway. Wouldn’t mind you doing that again, you know.”
We were all chemistry on stage. Ms. Gilbert gave us minimal direction, opting instead to let the natural flow unfold.
On opening night, our show received a standing ovation.
It was late when I finished changing out of my skin-tight leather pants and removing the inch-thick layer of stage makeup. Behind the gym, the parking lot lampposts bathed the three or four remaining cars in flickering orange light. As I put my keys in the car door, I saw a tiny red glow appear in the dark, two parking spots over.
He glanced up and dropped the lit cigarette, quickly grinding it out with the toe of his boot. I raised an eyebrow.
“Are you smoking?”
“Yeah.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Just a post-show ritual. I guess you wouldn’t know because you usually left before I did last year.”
“I guess so.” I turned the key, then left it. “Are you heading home?”
We looked at each other over the tops of our cars. I hadn’t noticed on stage, where I wore three-inch heels, but Dillon was taller than I was now.
He held up the box of cigarettes and an unfamiliar expression crossed his face. Trepidation. Dillon was never nervous about anything, but he was about this.
“Would you like to join me? It was a really, really great show.”
I didn’t hesitate to walk around the front of my car and stand beside him, back propped against the rear door of his Civic. Together we lit up our smokes and the first thing I did was gag.
“Yeah,” said Dillon, hiding a smirk, but not very well. “They actually totally suck.”
“Just the ritual of it, huh?”
He grinned. It was infectious.
“Rituals mean everything in theater. Don’t you know?”
We stood there for over an hour, cigarettes forgotten, talking about the show. How Ms. Gilbert had cried afterward. How our parents had gotten up and cheered, Dillon’s mom going so far as to jump up and down on her chair—and proceeding to fall over into the vice principal.
The last two students came and went, and soon we were alone in the parking lot.
I peeked at my watch. “It’s almost midnight.”
Dillon watched me, as if he hadn’t heard what I’d said at all.
“I should get going.”
Neither of us moved.
“I really had a great time,” I said, finding it hard to look at his face when he stared so hard at me, like he was grading my pores. “Thanks for getting me into theater.”
“I didn’t get you into theater,” he said, laughing. “You got yourself into theater. You’re a natural.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Don’t play coy, Maddie.” He was the only one who still called me that. I got a tingle under my right ear. He leaned closer to me, and my spine turned rigid. “You were awesome out there. I never knew you had it in you, but there it is. You were meant for the stage.”
My attempt at a laugh came out a stuttering squeak.
“Dillon,” I said, allowing myself to return the lean. “Do you want to… you know, go out sometime?”
“I think our lines are solid,” he said. “Best not to overwork ourselves between shows.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I mean, out out.”
His face fell. My gut followed.
“Maddie, I…” Dillon swallowed. “Amber.”
I bolted two steps back. I’d forgotten all about her. I couldn’t even remember him talking to her on the phone while we practiced for the play after school. Perhaps I’d just assumed they broke up.
“Oh, god,” I said, cupping the side of my face in one hand. “Right, Amber. I’m so sorry.” I fumbled in my pocket for my keys, but remembered I’d left them hanging jammed into my car’s driver-side door. Dillon reached for my arm, but I was already jogging back to my Bronco, my cheeks searing with shame.
“I’m really sorry, Dill.” I yanked open the door and ripped my keys from the lock. “Great show tonight. See you at school on Monday.”
I got in, put the Bronco into gear, and roared out of the parking lot. I almost forgot to go into second because I was too busy realizing I’d been living a lie.
I’d never wanted to be in theater. I’d only done it for Dillon. Now what did I have?
Read the second and final part of the story here.