It was the kind of summer where falling in love was a prerequisite. I was seventeen and it wouldn't rain on the Georgia coast for two months. Lovers strolled through gift shops without the intention of buying anything, content to simply get out of the heat for a few minutes, half-hearted pokes through clearance racks enough to justify their presence to the teenaged sales kids swiping through their dating apps behind the cash registers. Sweaty hands slick with sunscreen clasped on the boardwalk while longboarders weaved in and out of foot traffic with the kind of reckless abandon that seems entirely normal when it's a hundred degrees and clouds have passed out of public consciousness.
Everywhere I went, couples dominated the landscape. I'm not sure if there are atheists in foxholes, but in my experience there are no singles in a heatwave. Except for me, of course. My bike was about half a foot too short for me since my late growth spurt in the fall, but it was my only form of transportation and I rode it all over the island that summer. I wasn't actually from Tybee. My parents moved there a week before I graduated high school and so my triumphant final summer before college, my last hurrah with my high school friends...turned into a long car trip the morning after graduation. Destination: no friends.
"It's not like there aren't any young people on the island," my dad said, looking into the rearview mirror at my slumped form.
Strictly speaking, he was correct, but I didn't exactly have a lot of time to make those friends before I'd be departing for New Hampshire and college when the friend-making would start over in earnest. So I rode my too-small bike. I went from one side of the island to the other, and back again. I rode on the sand at low tide, my wide, mountain bike tires sliding uncomfortably. I rode the boardwalk and I rode behind all the station wagons and hatchbacks with surfboards mounted on the top rack, the smell of mids wafting through cracked windows. If nothing else, I was going to head to college with incredible calves.
Most days I stopped at Vinnys for two slices of pizza. I left my bike leaned against the front window so I could see it from the bar.
"You know, technically you aren't supposed to sit at the bar."
Vinny was perennially-sweaty, and wore his floral shirts unbuttoned to his navel. A pencil was behind his ear, and he wore an impossibly dirty gray hat of undistinguishable origin backwards over his thinning black hair.
"Well...I suppose I could eat somewhere else…"
I gestured broadly at the restaurant. I was the only customer; most of the tables still had chairs piled on top of them. A fan whirred lazily by the empty hostess stand.
"Point taken. Slices?"
I nodded. Vinny's was one of the few places that was not insufferably full of summer lovers, mostly because it wasn't full of any kind of customer. Being one of the very few restaurant owners who had the luxury of owning the building his restaurant occupied, Vinny was in an enviable situation. He took poor advantage of it. His food was not good by tourist standards, which made it inedible by human standards. I was just out of high school cafeteria food, and also burning thousands of calories a day by riding my bike in circles, so it didn't bother me so much. I didn't love his food, but the atmosphere was perfect.
I was looking down at my phone when he came back and slid my plate in front of me.
"You know those apps will rot your brain."
He pointed his spatula at the side of his head.
"Listen to me. Vinny knows. They'll rot ya."
"I'll take it under consideration."
"While you're at it why don't you bring some of your friends in here? As much as I appreciate your patronage."
"Don't have any. Well I do...but not here."
This invitation to personal conversation caused Vinny to put down his spatula and twirl the pencil behind his ear in what was a surefire prelude to a speech. I had to ask him for more parmesan cheese to make him leave the room long enough so the speech would never happen. I could take my boring summer with no friends, but I drew the line at the worst pizza chef in Tybee, Georgia pitying me. When I was finished eating, I paid Vinny and cruised down past the tourist shops with such estimable t-shirt slogans as "Tybee? Try, Me!" and "The Sun Fried Me Tybee" which was accompanied by a clip art quality image of a sunburned man with a beer belly giving an aw shucks grin.
When I got home it was quiet in the house. A stack of broken-down boxes was three feet high by the front door.
"Hello? Mom? Dad?"
"In here honey!"
They were in the sunroom at the back of the house that had an "ocean view" if a tall person squinted hard enough at one corner of one upper window. Dad had a beer and mom had margarita in front of her on the coffee table. The latest Danielle Steel was folded on her lap. Dad was playing an app game. He put it down when my mom cleared her throat.
"Would you sit with us please, Stephen?"
This was not good. This was not good at all. The Danielle Steel book was bookmarked and placed near the margarita. My dad pocketed his phone. I searched my mind frantically for what I'd done wrong recently, but my days were all so predictable and boring in Tybee that I couldn't imagine I had even broken a rule, which was sad in and of itself, but made the stern looks on my parents' faces all the more puzzling.
I took a seat in grandma's rocking chair across from them and stared at my hands. I reached for my pocket but remembered my phone was on the kitchen counter and I drummed my fingers on my legs.
"Stevie buddy," my dad began. "How are you doing?"
"Fine. I need to shower."
"What Ric- what your father meant to say is, are you settling in here?"
I didn't know how to answer the question so I said nothing.
"Honey, we're worried about you. We never see you. You go out on that bike and then you're gone all day."
"I'm not doing drugs if that's what you're worried about."
I saw the briefest of I told you so glances pass from dad to mom, but she didn't miss a beat.
"We aren't here to judge you."
"Not at all, buddy."
"Am I in trouble?"
"On the contrary," mom said. "We have some exciting news for you."