A Better Place Than My Best Fantasy

WHEN I think of Melanie, I think of myself, the way I was when I met her, and I think of what knowing her did to me. I think of her and I am 12 again, frightened at the thought of introducing myself to a stranger, a summer person from New York, wild and foreign to my Maine sensibilities. I think back and I remember seeing her that first time, her hair all disheveled, her limbs long and tan. I remember her wide-set eyes and her steady gaze. I remember a look that made me feel as calm as she was, a look that made it OK to intrude on her perfect world.

Perhaps it was that magic spot. The old yellow cottage, named Cheerio, with the white trim and green shutters, was perched at the edge of two realms: the one, dark and primeval, set in tall evergreens that let little nickels and quarters of light fall through; the other, all sparkly sun and wet seaweed, rosehips and salt air. Most of the cottage lived in the shadows, but the glassed-in porch jutted bravely out onto the granite boulders that plummeted down to the high tide mark. That porch, I later discovered, seemed to be forever washed in light, reflecting lapping waves in the glint of unfiltered ocean sun.

I first spotted Melanie just outside Cheerio, at the edge of those two worlds. ``Go introduce yourself,'' my mother had said. ``You'll like her.'' I had never introduced myself to anyone, that I could remember; all my friends were the kind that you just have, without knowing from where.

I wanted not to find her, to be able to go back to my mother and tell her that I'd looked everywhere, but Melanie wasn't at home. Then I'd be able to get back to the book I was pretending to read while I returned to my daydream-in-progress, probably about a boy or a contest won or being adopted into a family where everyone got along and no one made me feel like a mistake.

But I wasn't so lucky. There she was, squatting on the edge of light and dark, huddled with two boys in a tight circle, studying something in the dirt at her feet. I approached, wavering my usual waver, wondering if I could escape before they noticed me. I had all my weight on my back foot, prepared to spin around and retreat, when she looked up.

``Hi,'' she said.

``You must be Melanie. I'm Kristin. My mom's next door visiting the Thayers,'' I blurted out, all in one breath. I twisted my flat ponytail around with fingers that needed something to do.

``Well, hi,'' she said again. ``This is Chris and Timmy. My brothers.''

``Hi,'' we all said at each other.

And then, without a word, they made room for me in their circle, and all our attention went to the smooth piece of earth where the red carpet of pine needles had been swept clear. It was a spot filled with an odd assortment of playthings: a jagged balsa-wood airplane wing, burnt around the edges; a bottomless paper cup, also singed around the base; an Archie comic book. There was the remains of a roll of caps, the kind that come in a red paper strip and fit into the empty chamber of a cap gun - except that there was no cap gun, and on this soft spot, no rocks to pound the caps against. But still I could smell that sulphur and 4th-of-July smell of caps that had been exploded.

``We were just experimenting,'' Melanie said, pointing at their sacrificial offerings with the large magnifying glass she held in her hand. Chris opened the comic book to a new page.

``Look, Mel, there's a Jughead,'' he said, snatching the magnifying glass from her hand. Then he smoothed the page flat on the ground and, tilting the glass this way and that, higher and lower, finally found the right angle and distance. A spot of light bounced across the page toward Jughead's unsuspecting face. Smoke rose from his left eye first, then his right.

``Isn't that cool?'' said Timmy. He was the baby, six or seven, all knees and elbows, his eyebrows arched up in a look of permanent delight.

``Never mind him,'' said Chris. ``It's just Timmy's new word. He thinks everything's cool.'' I agreed with Timmy more than I dared let on, so I stared at Jughead's eyeless smile and smiled back.

I don't remember what happened next, or how long I stayed. I don't remember meeting Melanie's mother or father, though it seems as though one or the other of them must have been standing in front of an easel, paintbrush in hand, pondering the color of the water in Kissing Cove that very day.

I don't remember the first time I went inside the kitchen with the cast iron sink and old-fashioned pump, the shelves lined with mouse-proof coffee cans, relabeled with Day-Glo markers on masking tape. I don't remember my first trip through the middle room, where the stuffed owl with the glass eyes kept watch from its perch and where the Franklin stove kept us warm later on, when the night air got chilly. I don't remember the first meal I ate on the porch, at the table covered with crafts projects, drawing pads, college handbooks, French horn lessons, Mad magazines, New Yorker cartoons, all yellowing in the bright sun.

I don't remember the first time Melanie's father read us a story out loud after supper, or the first time her mother sketched us playing charades by lamplight. I don't remember my first night in the loft, where we slept all together, all the kids, in beds that sagged and creaked and under sheets that were soft and frayed, listening to the wind and the water and talking, words that floated in the dark, until we drifted off to sleep.

What I remember is the way that day, and that summer, and all the summers that followed, are one, with no start or finish. I remember them that way, even though the bleak winters that separated them, when the days grew dark and Cheerio was deserted, are still arranged in perfect chronological order, each memory hooked one to another, report card by report card.

Certainly, there are ways to carbon-date those summer memories, by the movies we saw and the music we listened to. I could figure out which 4th of July outing went with which summer, if I wanted to. But I've always resisted, because the whole of them together, all the black fly seasons and mackerel runs and lobster festivals and union fairs, feels richer and more wonderful, more like one thick blanket, heavy and warm on my shoulders, when I keep them all together, all one, the way they were to me when summer was gone and Melanie was away.

MELANIE got married last fall. Even though I knew about her wedding plans from my mother, I was still surprised when she called me and asked me to be part of the wedding party, to ``stand up for her,'' as she put it. It had been so long, we'd lost track, I hadn't been back - and yet. A wedding at Cheerio, in that place where the smells of pine pitch and salt air and paint thinner all joined together, was too potent, too perfect, to miss.

And that night at dinner, with the glassed-in porch reflecting back at us in the candlelight, I made a toast to Melanie, and to Cheerio. To lunar eclipses and meteor showers. To comic books and paintbrushes and stories told in the dark. To time marked by tides. To my favorite wintertime daydream. To a place that was better than my best fantasy. And to summers that gave me my first hope for real, not imagined, happiness.

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