The Summer of Reality

This story was part of the collection of writing samples I submitted for the Creative Writing Scholarship contest at Arkansas Tech University in Spring 1999. I placed 4th, so I was pretty excited about that. The scholarship paid for my books for my first year in college. 

The Summer of Reality, 1999

The last day that I was ever fifteen, I went to the mall with my Mom, my aunt Carrie, and my best friend Melanie.

Earlier that morning, I mailed a letter that could change my whole life if the receiver decided to at least humor me. During the previous school year, I had developed a crush on a new boy named Mike. He was everything  I wanted and so wrong for me. He seemed like the perfect guy, except for the fact that he was nervous and tongue-tied around me, which did not help in our getting to know each other.

The mall seemed better than usual, or maybe it was just my birthday money burning a hole in my pocket.

“So what are you planning to do this summer?” Melanie asked me to take my mind off of the slow restaurant workers. “You never did tell me where you’re going for vacation.”

“We’re not sure yet, but I think we’re going to Alabama, Mississippi, and possibly Florida,” I told her, wishing that our conversation could switch to serious matters such as the letter to Mike.

“Maybe you’ll get to see the ocean,” she said. She smiled. “Or maybe you could even see a lighthouse. Then it would all be worth it.” She knew my fascination with lighthouses and old ships, among other things.

I decided it was up to me to change the subject. “Do you think Mike will answer my letter? Tell me the truth, do you think he’ll even read it?” I asked desperately.

She hesitated, but then answered. “Honestly, Pearl, I think he’ll read it, but he would never in a million years answer it. He’s got this chip on his shoulder put there by the morons he hangs out with, you know that as well as I do,” she said sympathetically. “You deserve better.”

Our conversation ended then, and we decided to go back to the music store. I finally decided to go back and purchase the CD I had looked at a dozen times since we got there. My spirits were lifted when the cute checker recognized me. How could he not, as many times as I had been in the store? He even switched places with another checker so that he could ring up my CD.

I was feeling pretty great as I strolled casually toward the door. My thoughts were premature because before I could get out of the store, the theft detector alarm starting going off. I looked around, wondering what was going on. I surprised to find out that the alarm was sounding for me.

“Pearl, what did you do?” Melanie asked with a bewildered look on her face.

“I didn’t do anything!” I said, feeling extremely embarrassed.

The cute checker came running over to me with a magnet in his hand. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” he said. “I thought I held the magnet on there long enough but I guess not. I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay,” I mumbled, wishing the floor would open up and swallow me whole.

He ran the magnet over the detector several times, and each time it continued to set off the alarm. Only after we took the entire detector off, did we realize that there was another detector shoved halfway inside the CD case. The checker apologized several more times before Melanie and I left the store. The last time, without setting off the store’s alarm system.

My Mom and aunt laughed about our unbelievable story all the way home. At that time, I was still blushing from the embarrassment of the whole ordeal.

“I probably looked so stupid, standing there like an idiot,” I said on the way home, still obsessing over the incident. “But he looked pretty dumb too in front of his manager.”

“Hey, some guys think blushing is cute,” Melanie whispered.

“Yeah, but knowing my luck, he probably isn’t one of those guys,” I said.

“You never know,” she said.

Days, then weeks, and eventually a month passed by and I  still had not received a reply to my letter. I remained hopeful every day, but my hope for a reply had almost completely faded by the end of July.

When vacation time finally came, I was psyched. The whole idea of seeing the ocean for the first time and the possibility of seeing a lighthouse stuck in my mind the whole way through Louisiana, and on to Mississippi. We drove through the Civil War Memorial Park in Vicksburg. It was really interesting to see all the monuments.

We arrived at our final destination, Biloxi, Mississippi, after a detour to the beach at Pensacola, Florida. I wish we could have stayed there longer, but it was too hot. The sky really did seem to touch the ocean, just as Melanie had told me. The sand was so white that it hurt my eyes to look at it. I imagined how beautiful and mysterious the ocean would look at night, under a full moon, with the beams from a distant lighthouse flashing.

We collected a few seashells, as I am sure most of the other tourists did when they were on the beach. Sand was covering the floor of our car when we finally reached Biloxi. That was where I saw a lighthouse for the first time ever. It was so beautiful I could barely speak.

As we rested in our hotel room before dinner, I thought a lot about the summer with all that had happened and still could happen. It had definitely been a summer of firsts. My first time to set off a store alarm, my first time to visit the states we went through, my first time to see the ocean in daylight, and most importantly my first time to see a lighthouse that was not in a photograph. Later, though I did not know it then, I would add three more firsts to my list.

“Why don’t we go eat at one of the casinos?” Wayne, my stepfather, said with the ‘great idea’ look in his eyes.

“Wayne, they won’t let Pearl and Kathleen in, they’re underage,” Mom said.

“Sure they will,” Wayne said. “As long as they don’t gamble and we don’t gamble while they’re with us there’ll be no problem.”

So we ate at the casino, my first time ever to set foot in such a building. The food was really good, but what I remember the most was what happened when mom and my younger sister Kathleen went back to the buffet, leaving Wayne and me to talk.

“Our waitress has a really neat accent.” I told him as she walked toward our table.

“You should tell her that,” he said.

“I can’t do that!” I said as she arrived at our table.

“My daughter thinks that you have a neat accent,” Wayne told the waitress. “We were wondering where you’re from.”

The waitress was clearly flattered with Wayne’s inquiry. She was from the Philippines and had been working at the casino for almost ten years. What flattered me was that Wayne had called me his daughter and not his stepdaughter. He had never done that before. I knew that he cared a lot about me, but it was different from the way he cared about Kathleen. Not that I was jealous or anything. In fact, I loved him very much.

Later that night, I got my wish about seeing the ocean at night under a full moon. The air felt so clean as it entered my lungs, and I felt even cleaner as it left. Everything was silent except for the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.

“I bet the people who live here don’t even realize how beautiful it is,” I said.

“You’re probably right,” Mom said.

I made a wish on the one bright star that shined down on us, the evening star, as some people call it. To this day, I have never told anyone what I wished for that night. I doubt I ever will, I would not want to tempt fate or anything. The night ended after I wrote my name in the sand and watched the water wash it away. I left there feeling more alive than I had ever felt before.

The trip home seemed longer than before, and it rained almost the whole way. When we finally got home, I was glad to be there. I had no idea what the rest of the summer had to hold, but I knew in my heart what I hoped for. Most of all I wanted my wish to come true someday, but would it? Only time could tell.

Fun fact: This story isn’t completely fiction. The names have been changed and conversations changed slightly, but the events happened. Do you want to know what happened next? No response from “Mike” to the letter and “Pearl” moved on. What about the  wish on the star? It came true. That lonely 16-year-old girl on the beach wished to meet the man she was supposed to marry by the time she turned 23. For further explanation, read my other post about my love history

The vacation also inspired some of my artwork from High School.

Deck of U.S.S. Alabama. Artwork created 1998 based on 1997 photo.
“Deck of U.S.S. Alabama” High School Artwork created 1998 based on 1997 photo.
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“Torn” 1997, High School Artwork

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