Everyone knows the year ends in September. No matter how old we are, we're all still students. Summer's indulgences have to be paid for. Long weekends go the way of the long evening sunlight. School's about to begin. We have to go back somehow. We feel it in the shorter days.
Or maybe there are two years in every year. The business year begins in January and runs till Labor day. And then there's a short private year, a dispensation, the old harvest time stretching from Indian summer to the Winter Solstice. The trio of months when we reach for each other and dig vertically into the stratum of our lives. What's been done, who did you love, who forgive, what charity was given, what's the record say? The Jews know it. Rosh Hoshanah. Yom Kippur. Consider. Repay. Repent. All souls must.
When I was a boy, at the end of the summer, we would drive to Philadelphia, where my mother had grown up. We wouldn't stay with what was left of her family, we stayed with her friend Mercedes.
My dad when he spoke her name hit the first syllable. She and her husband lived in a fine old house with an endless backyard, at the absolute edge of which was the biggest trampoline I'd ever seen.
I'd never seen a trampoline. Or a big backyard.
I'd jump on it for as long as I could. When I got too ambitious, the sprung circle came up and hit me in the face. I can still feel it. A comfort. Like a smack from a big brother. The adults were in the house, Mercedes' children were older, in the garage or up in the attic, smiling or playing albums. I didn't want to know. I just wanted to leap. To fly. From euphoria to hard reality and back, every time I hit the canvas. I didn't want it to stop.
It was one of the few vacations I remember being repeated. I went to camp every June by myself for a few weeks but as a family we rarely left Pittsburgh. I suppose my mother was looking in on her sister to make sure the cousins got off to school or were fed and clothed. I had two cousins a boy and a girl but my aunt had 10 dogs and, depending on the season, 20 or more cats. Kittens by the horde that I use to chase from room to room like tiny buffalo. It was heaven. I remember finding some calcified dog shit propped up on a 18th century side table and not thinking this was a big deal. A leftover, left up on the leftovers of my mother's family's wealth. Federalist era antiques and fecal matter. And gin. My inheritance.
They were all about the age I am now, my parents, my aunt, and their friends. Late 40s, early 50s. My mother's father was 13 years younger than his nearest sibling. My mom the youngest child as well, and not pregnant with me till she was 38 which made me the youngest by far. Most of the generation I was born into by that time was in HS or even college. My cousins like Mercedes' kids were doing acid or cranking the Sabbath, unfazed by sex and swearing and cruelty. I trailed along, the last of the last of the last. Or more often, I just hid.
Main Line Philadelphia homes didn't have tv rooms. Nobody buried themselves in a man cave or binge watched ....anything.... the concept didn't exist. You didn't arrange the family furniture to look a screen. You entertained. You triangulated chairs and low tables for drinks and the best advantages of the drinkers. A tv went into the corner of a kitchen or on a shelf in the library where you might curl up and watch the news before you went to bed or a PBS show or the occasional golf game. TV was unseemly. I have no memories of the thing on in the day in my parents' house. I can't think of much I ever did that met with deeper disapproval than watching Spiderman cartoons after school or reruns of Green Acres followed by Gomer Pyle followed by ....oblivion....and parental distaste. Their title songs to this day stir up in me a kind of illness. As if for a decade or so I'd been member to a mindless cult. The river bottom of my life giving up its poisons.
You could apologize for being stupid or selfish or cruel. You could make up for such behavior and redress. But to my parents and their families, you couldn't get back the time you spent in front of a television. To them reality was still hovering somewhere in the late 50s, conditioned by their depression era parents who had lived by the round of cocktail parties and clubs, dancing and correspondence. Even a telephone was something to be used sparingly. Something alien. Make a date and go visit someone. Live. Be in the world. Be seen. Rise and contend.
So it's unusual and almost sweet that my memories of Mercedes' home revolve around her cosy couch encircled library and me in it curled up and allowed to watch the US Open as the adults cheerfully snuck in and asked after the score, or caught a few points, drinks in hand. The transgression of watching. It's stayed with me to this day. The happy sin my parents permitted me centered around a tennis match.
I'd been a Connors' fan- mostly I think because I had the same bowl cut - but that late summer I couldn't take my eyes off McEnroe. There was something else going on here than the boyhood focus on winning, losing and trying to pick between the two. He swore like the older kids. He was all thrust and hair and adolescent rage. There was something about the shape he made at the serve, the insistent 3 dimensional vector he'd cock himself into before arching into space and finding the ball. The grunt, the heat of it, and the fury of his desire to play.
I saw myself watching. I understood that this was a time in my life. A thing. I was changing, people were beginning to look at me differently, I could see that. Something was about to be expected of me that they weren't offering to explain. I pretended I had some idea but in truth I was like a 12 year old reading erotica. I saw the beauty in the blueprints but I had no idea the kind of sweat it would take to build the frame.
So even now, every year, though I smile mid-February to see t shirts and sweat and sunburns when the Aussies open the season, and I will always lust to see the French Open in person and get some red dust on my skin, though I know Wimbledon is the jewel in the crown of tennis and if allowed I'd probably break with my habitual Puritanism - don't touch that Oscar it's not YOURS!- and lay down on the blue green lawns if no one was looking, to me it's the sloppy, loud, concrete girdled Open in New York I'm most fond of. Its rough democracy. Something done well in a rude American way. The clamor and glitz happening just as the year dies. The last circus to trundle out of town. And one that one can't follow.
It comes back every September. A hot sliver of memory -like the last bit of scent on scarf a girl gave you a decade before- the nicotine on her fingers - from inside the house of a woman with an odd name I may have met three times and who my parents might only have called an acquaintance. Folded up in her turkish hideaway in a grand home, watching the young men who would be the last of my childhood heros show me what men could do. Our elemental best. What we had to do.
They examples I would always hold against myself in my mind. I could feel it- my legs getting longer, the thighs touching now, the dark hair curling out against my skin, the shoulders my mother's friends keep reaching out to hold and say, "Ah, see..." And deeper than that, something in my bones, waking up, that wasn't me but something I now had to carry. That what we are, we have to become.
And there is McEnroe a man awkward at everything but rushing a net, playing the hardest game on earth, becoming oddly for me the very image of manly grace but also of manhood's sometimes justified and sometimes terrible fury. And that the two rarely exist without the other.
I guess that's one definition of being a man. You become your own other. Your own destroyer. You possess it within you.
Each man kills the thing he loves? I doubt it. I think most often we kill the thing we learned too late to love. Ourselves.