Excerpted from Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, available now from Belt Publishing.
By Britt Julious
Summer is fleeting and so am I. The me of a good summer is as temporary as the leaves on the trees, the thick viscosity that glides across our limbs we call “humid air.” It is as temporary as a gelato cone, the remnants of which I’ll lick off my fingers and down my hand and even across the tattoo on my arm some time later today and tomorrow and for the rest of the days when the heat feels equally brutal and rejuvenating.
When the me of a good summer arrives, I try best not to acknowledge it. To see the fulfillment of hot days and cold drinks pouring down my throat is like spotting an animal in the wild. This momentary thing is lovely and great until it is gone. In reality, I am trying to recapture the me of my youth.
I say I grew up in two places, and that is somewhat true. Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, is where I spent the majority of my time. We first lived in an apartment before purchasing our own home on the southwest side of the town. But, maybe through the lens of nostalgia, I recognize Austin as my home too.
…It’s difficult to discern most things from one’s early childhood. The way memories form during that time is that suddenly something or someone is a part of your life and that is that.My grandparents live in the Austin neighborhood in a beautiful and traditional American four square house. There, the sidewalks are wide and easy to maneuver. Sometimes I pounce across the concrete of my current hood, crimping my limbs against storefronts and light poles so as not to take up space as others—young mothers with rowdy children and strollers, packs of girlfriends out for a night on the town, aggressive young men looking not for a hand, but a pair of breasts and an ass to grab—pass me by.
But in Austin, I remember how wide the block seemed. Sometimes I sat down on the sidewalk and from my line of vision, the houses reached far beyond where the eye could see. Even now, when I visit as an adult, I can see the history there. When we moved to Oak Park, my sister and I tried to play outdoors, but we largely played inside. This was different than in Austin, where the freedom and joy of girlhood played out on sidewalks and in backyards. When I say there is history there, I mean there is a history of childhood, of innocence, of the power of play. Our Oak Park block was quiet, but in Austin there was there there. There was the energy born out of time enjoyed. It was something I didn’t know I needed until it was not there.
Strongest in my memory is a young girl named Nicole. She lived down the street from my grandmother. She had long, dark, curly hair and a pinched face that I thought was lovely at the time, but makes me wince now. I’m not sure why.
She was older than me, but didn’t seem that way. I followed my older sister Kourtney around like a shadow and Nicole in turn did that to me. A part of me was secretly thrilled by this. No longer was I reliant on the whims of someone else. Instead, my ideas of fun, my actions, my words held precedence in the mind of another person. I was a leader who knew it but never got the chance to show it. It was not lost on me too that her name was my sister’s middle name. There was a lineage in our girlhood, from the second name of my kin to the first name of my friend.
We played together in summertime, mostly. I was out of school and my parents needed our time to be spent. I remember this not because of the weather, but the amount of play. School is a blur, but summers stand firm in my mind. Play happened when the sun was heaviest. Friendships formed heaviest during this time too.
She followed me around to the corner store where we purchased cheap candies. She followed me a half a block down to the woman who sold sno-cones from her front porch. She followed me as I got into inappropriate arguments with my grandparents’ next door neighbor, Mr. Underwood, about things he said that I found dumb. She followed me even as we ran up and down the block. I was a chubby kid, so I think she slowed down to follow me when we did that in particular.
The more my family settled into our life in our house in Oak Park, the less the Austin neighborhood felt like a home…My family was building a new narrative for ourselves.I don’t know when we met, but it’s difficult to discern most things from one’s early childhood. The way memories form during that time is that suddenly something or someone is a part of your life and that is that. So, suddenly Nicole was a part of my life. Suddenly she was there and I didn’t question it.
Right now, I am thinking about my grandparents’ large backyard. There is a rose bush square in the middle, surrounded by lush grass. My grandparents would inflate a kiddie pool and fill it with cold water running through a hose and we’d jump around and play. Nicole never really said much. Instead, she let me do the talking and talk I did: about how I knew mosquitos had it out for us, about how much better orange slices were than chocolate, about why my grandmother made the best macaroni and cheese in the world and no one could say differently to me.
Most importantly though, Nicole was an actual friend. She was there and she listened and she didn’t question one’s intentions. She was present. She laughed harder than anyone I knew and stomped her feet when she was stressed. She was human and viable.
“I hate when you are not here,” she used to say and I felt the same way.
When you are a child, you need people like that in your life, and when you are an adult, or even just on the cusp of becoming one, you realize how difficult it is to find that in others. Suddenly, the realities of the world strike hard and fast and don’t let go. Suddenly, there are responsibilities and sadness and men, hovering over your mind and your limbs, eager to take and take and take until they don’t need you anymore. If you find a friend like that and you are not seven, you must hold on to them as much and for as long as possible. The world doesn’t spin for young women with sturdy ground to walk on and grow.
The more my family settled into our life in our house in Oak Park, the less the Austin neighborhood felt like a home. It was a quick, five-minute drive to my grandparents’ house, but even that seemed too far away. Houses create homes and homes create new narratives. My family was building a new narrative for ourselves. There was a fork in the road and we took a different path, one that allowed us to fulfill lifelong dreams but also separated us, however slowly, from the things we once knew.
“You know, Nicole always asks about you,” my grandmother would say to me when I visited as I got older.
“So?” I would respond.
“Don’t you want to say hi?” she asked me.
“Why would I do that?” I would respond and then curl up on the couch with my heavy head placed solidly on my grandmother’s lap. I was there to visit my family. I was not there to see other people. My grandparents’ home and in turn, the Austin neighborhood, became a place I went to and not a place I came from. It was not me anymore.
But I did see her one day. My grandmother was particularly convincing and so I walked down the street, but I couldn’t remember where she lived. The houses hadn’t changed, but they all blended in with each other at that point. An American four square was an American four square was an American four square. The only thing I recognized on that block was my grandparents’ home, shining like a light against the blurred structures surrounding it.
Black girlhood is summer. It arrives quick and dies just as fast. Suddenly we are young women, even if we don’t feel it, even if we know intrinsically there is life left to live.There were people on the porch of one home, an older woman and a young man, and they looked at me as if they knew me, and not from a pleasant experience. They looked hard and long and I tried to keep their gaze until I looked down, exhausted by the weight of their stares. I walked back and when my grandmother asked if I said hello, I said yes. She never truly asked me about it again.
I am not sure when girlhood is lost, but I am sure of all of the ways I tried to recapture it. I began to dance as a young girl and the more I danced, the more in control I felt. These are my legs that bend and curve, my arms that flex. Freedom stemmed from the control I gained and to dance was to be free. I didn’t recognize it then, but I pushed through the grueling rehearsals with the knowledge that once I learned a routine, it would become something I could call on at a moment’s notice. At any moment after, I could become this powerful being in control of my movements and myself, unhurried or torn apart. My movements were choreographed and not choreographed. When I had a moment to move about the floor on my own terms, that is when I felt most alive. It was a moment without judgment, just sadness and anxiety and excitement manifest through a pirouette, a switch leap, a flick of the wrist. As I got older, I leaned in to this activity. Each performance was a temporary girlhood high, a me reclaimed, a sense of self and empowerment found.
Black girlhood is summer. It arrives quick and dies just as fast. Suddenly we are young women, even if we don’t feel it, even if we know intrinsically there is life left to live. In childhood, we are given the freedom to firmly be ourselves. There is nothing too high or too far or too great for us. No, instead, everything is within reach. It’s not just innocence. It is, I think, a true sense of self. It is ourselves at our most actualized. As adults we will do whatever is necessary to recapture that feeling. I still feel it now, that desire to recapture the me of my girlhood. It is also why our friendships feel truer in that time than maybe any other time in our lives. Unburdened by the weight of the world, we are free to be ourselves.
That is why summer feels so precious and why Chicago summers especially feel so critical. When people say Chicago summers are better than any where else, they are not lying. I feel that deeply in my bones. It is Chicago summers that shaped me, made me confident, made me into a strong and capable woman before I ever really knew it.
Britt Julious is a journalist, essayist, and storyteller. Her writing has appeared in Esquire, ELLE, GQ, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vice, Pitchfork, and many other outlets. She’s a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a regular contributor for Vice’s THUMP. She also hosts The Back Talk, a podcast featuring original stories from women of color. She is working on a book of essays.