It was my eighteenth summer, late in a languid August that was taking its time turning into September. I remember the muggy air, the angry red skin of my friend’s shoulders, the incessant, unrelenting flies that buzzed around us; all signs that this stifling summer was nowhere near ready to surrender. And that evening, before the heat had broken, the sun hanging low in the sky, we all made one last trip to the top of the great hill that stood just off the motorway and overlooked our town before we all left to try and assimilate into the real world.
We carried blankets and cases of beer and that unique feeling of first-time freedom that only comes from finishing high school, but it was as if I was far away from them, as though our excited laughter was carried to me on the wind. I could see us as tiny black dots moving against the vast expanse of blue sky that surrounded us, and a sort of preemptive nostalgia tingled in my fingertips; I knew then that one day I would look back on this evening, buzzing with heat and sticky with anticipation, as the moment everything changed.
We sat with our jumpers tied around our waists, our bare legs and feet stuck out in front of us as the sun began to set. We drank beer steadily between fits of laughter caused by our compulsive reminiscing, and by the time the sky was darker, the sun seeming impossibly huge and orange in contrast, we couldn’t stop touching each other; we hugged and held hands and lay our cheeks on each other’s shoulders as if this was the last physical contact we would ever get, as if we had to soak up all the closeness possible before the sun went down. It was the perfect goodbye, all warm skin and soft edges and that gorgeous sky that faded from blue to orange to pink and purple and blue again for hours until everything was dark.
We wrapped ourselves in the comfort of our memories, knowing that when we trudged back down the hill in the morning we would leave them all behind. We gazed down at our town, a cluster of lights off a motorway that would be indistinguishable from any other cluster of lights off any other motorway to anyone but those of us who called it home, and I wondered if the concept of ‘home’ would ever be so simple as it had been before now, before everything changed.
“Do you think any of us will still be friends in ten years?” said a girl’s voice, one that I knew immediately and could instantly match to a face in my mind. I pictured her face as it was in that moment: dark frizzy hair that was impossible to style, acne on her wide forehead, hazel eyes framed with smudged black pencil eyeliner. I had seen that face grow and change and mature for seven years; I had seen tears stream from her eyes in sorrow and water snort out of her nose in laughter. I remembered when she used to have braces on her teeth, and when she had worn a ring in her nose, and red lipstick every day to school even though she always got told to take it off. But I couldn’t picture that same face ten years older; I couldn’t imagine her with laughter lines or greying hair or even without the last of her acne.
In my mind she would be forever eighteen, sitting on top of this hill looking over the one place we would always know better than any other, talking and laughing with the others I was sure to lose contact with once we were suddenly given a choice over whether we saw each other or not. The five of us sitting nearest to the girl who had asked looked around at one another and smiled genuine smiles that to me seemed to say that, either way, whether we kept in contact or never spoke again, our friendships were pure and real and irrevocably important during the stage of our lives that was now coming to a close, and that was what mattered.
We gazed out across the sea of lights, and I knew that we were all feeling the same weird concoction of emotions, a strange mixture of fear and excitement and nervousness and hope and sadness, and through it all the only thing I couldn’t work out was whether or not I was ready for it. The future. It seemed as ephemeral as the lights twinkling far below us, each one small and insecure on its own. I lay back on the grass and stared up at the stars, somehow so much more comforting than the lights of the town, and as sleep crept over me I was filled with the quiet suspicion that everything was going to be okay.