Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The New Yorker in 2007.
As a kid, I rarely went to the movies. My one memory of a summer movie is of a movie about somebody else’s summer, a nostalgic look back—way back!—to the “Summer of ’42.” I believe the movie is famous for a funny scene about buying condoms, but perhaps all summer movies feature some amusing scene with condoms. I wouldn’t know.
I grew up one of seven children in a family where making plans took up about as much time as executing those plans, and even the most meticulously arranged and carefully orchestrated day failed to satisfy everyone. One person’s idea of a good time always bored somebody else. The older kids were jaded about what the younger ones were just beginning to experience. A piano lesson would be scotched because a trip to the dentist couldn’t wait. Over time, invisible strings slowly tethered one child to the next, and those two hooked up with a third, and so on and so on, so that movement by one led to a lot of jerking of the others, and freedom, if not impossible, was always a tangled mess.
That we all managed to eat together every night and squeeze into a church pew on Sundays was exhausting enough. My general sense was that summer movies, like summer itself, belonged to other people. When friends talked of movies they’d seen—or hiking or fishing trips they’d taken—it sounded to me like bragging. My vacations were vacant, an emptiness filled with feral joys, but still I felt vaguely gypped and carried some resentment at missing out on a part of the year that seemed to have been invented just for kids.
Once in a while, though, I’d be invited along with one of my friends. Most of my official summer fun happened in the presence of other people’s kind parents, but even then I would worry, in a child’s intuitive way, about the aspect of charity these outings involved. I could never quite lose the helpless and bewildering sense that I was merely being tolerated. I’m sure that this sensitivity is fairly common in children, simply because they are so attuned to the dynamics of power, being without it themselves.
My father always made sure that I had money. At the back door, he drilled me on manners, concerned about propriety and appearance in the wary way of men of his generation, men whose parents were immigrants and had a roughness that no amount of time in the New World would ever smooth over. It was like living with a protocol officer, and I learned my lessons, perhaps too well, delivering on these occasions an imitation of a boy, a twelve-year-old martinet. I was hoping to come off as earnest and polite, of course, but I can see now that the effect was probably comic, like watching a monkey bake a cake.
The trip to see “Summer of ’42” involved, to my horror, a casual dinner with my friend’s parents beforehand. I had trouble chewing or swallowing in front of other people and was convinced that I’d choke or else blow milk through my nose. But my friend and his parents ate and talked in a light, relaxed way, with an inflection that was largely modulated by all the food in their mouths. The easy bantering flow of conversation baffled me. It moved too fast. Typically at our house, during dinner, you arranged a syntactically perfect yet cumbersome sentence in your mouth and then gently, slowly, set it in its proper place in the topic at hand. A trowelful of silence worked like mortar; you patted a scoop of it between every sentence to keep the course true. But with my friend’s parents the conversation moved so fluently I could hardly get my thoughts into it, and when I did they seemed outdated and had this orotund speechy quality that made a stupid thud, exactly as if I’d heaved a brick on the table.
On the drive to the theatre—the old Neptune, in Seattle—I sulled up, silent in the back seat, watching out the window as the familiar streets reeled by. The marquee was a brilliant slab of white in the dusk. My friend’s mother wore a batik skirt that flowed softly from her hips like light through a lampshade. She was lovely and sophisticated, and I was infatuated. Questions tumbled through my mind at a frightening pace. I had always used my manners to hide my real feelings, and I blurted out a desire to buy popcorn for everyone, but my friend’s father told me to put my money away. I had been holding a wad of crushed dollars in my fist as proof. By the time the red velvet curtains swept aside and the lights went down, I was glad to be in the dark.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin House, The Paris Review,Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out today and available wherever fine books are sold.