Late Summer by Isabella Barrengos
In the opening beats of “Late Summer,” Isabella Barrengos writes, “Over the course of summer, Roland’s anticipation of seeing her again had grown even greater than his anticipation of college.” As readers, we don’t yet know much about the young woman who occupies Roland’s thoughts—Hannah, a character possessed of an easy coolness—nor do we fully comprehend the exact nature of Roland’s expectations for his interactions with her. But soon, Barrengos begins to masterfully layer interiority, backstory, and scene, using this anticipation as a driving force of the narrative.
Roland and Hannah share a relationship with which many of us might be familiar: two kids—now young adults—thrust together because of the friendship between their parents. The result is a lifetime of shared vacations, Roland’s and Hannah’s lives spiraling away and intersecting again year after year. This joint history marked by absences, not only in physical space but also in what they do not say to one another, creates tremendous potential for conflict and heartbreak and longing for the readers as well as the characters. But it’s one moment of past convergence that pushes both Roland and Hannah into a liminal space that allows Barrengos to craft superb tension.
In her author’s note, she offers this insight: “My writing often investigates liminal states on a personal level [ . . .] I develop characters undergoing an ambiguous change internally, whether it’s discovering their sexuality or quietly preparing themselves for their freshman year of college.” Using this liminality, she succeeds in slowly and carefully ratcheting up the tension by revealing exposition organically and allowing the characters to move one step closer to finally addressing the feelings between them. In this way, Barrengos offers a stunning portrait, full of subtlety and realism, that still manages to maintain its grip to the very end.
Written in lean, sharp prose of incredible warmth and specificity, “Late Summer” envelopes us, allowing readers to feel fully present in each scene. We smell the moldy basement and heady pot smoke, hear the parents upstairs, clomping around, wine-drunk and jovial. We feel the space between Roland and Hannah grow and recede, grow and recede, like a heartbeat between them. Will he share what’s on his mind? Will she reach out her hand? In the basement of the summerhouse at the Cape, they watch movies endlessly each August. One almost wants to pop in a DVD of a Hitchcock film just to watch Roland and Hannah react. The director famously said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Here, Barrengos’s use of anticipation gives us that terror—terror at the idea of growing up and in recognizing the stakes present in finally expressing ourselves to the people who’ve most impacted our lives. —CRAFT
The smell of weed did nothing to calm Roland’s nerves as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He found her, the smoker, splayed out with a book on the long end of the couch in a bright blue swimsuit with a woven blanket tossed over her legs.
“Hey.” Hannah could’ve said this to the characters in her book, based on how deeply bowed her sunburnt face remained in the pages, but Roland figured she was talking to him.
“Hey.” He stalled by the entrance to the basement and took in the familiar scent of mold hiding beneath the weed. Over the course of summer, Roland’s anticipation of seeing her again had grown even greater than his anticipation of college.
“Congratulations, high school graduate.” She sounded older.
“Thanks.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and took a step closer. “Congratulations, college student?”
She shrugged and returned to her book like they were all caught up now. Roland took a seat at the opposite end of the couch, careful to maintain a safe distance from her. He’d imagined a warmer reunion—it had been a year since he was last in this basement with her, and back then there was no distance between them, no unsaid words. He felt around the cushions for the remote to turn on the television mounted on the wall across from them.
“Could you not?” She waved her book at him.
“What about Caddyshack?”
“We’ve seen Caddyshack like seventeen times.”
“Exactly, that’s kind of what we do.” Roland nodded to the sparse stack of DVDs on the low shelf beneath the television. Hannah’s summerhouse was supplied with a limited but tasteful collection of her father’s favorites, including Caddyshack, Airplane, and Tommy Boy. Every August, they watched these movies on a loop.
“Well, I’m reading.”
“Well, I didn’t bring a book.”
Hannah stood. The blanket slipped to the floor and exposed her long legs, burnt an apple red along the backs only. Roland watched her stomp across the room, her footsteps silenced by the dingy carpet. She bent over to thumb through the shelf, stocked not only with DVDs and board games, but also books.
To distract himself from the soft curve of her skin slipping out of the bottom of her swimsuit, Roland looked out the glass doors to his left, which opened onto the backyard. The stretch of grass, as wet and green as algae this time of year, was framed by a thick patch of trees descending the slope on which the house was built. Beyond that, Roland caught a quick wink of the pond where Hannah had certainly gotten her sunburn earlier that day.
“Here.” Hannah tossed a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at Roland’s face and he caught it just in time. Paperback, thankfully.
“Seriously?” He flipped through the waterlogged pages with disdain. “This book came out literally a decade ago.”
“As opposed to Caddyshack, which came out almost two decades ago.”
“It’s a kid’s book.”
She stared at him like this wasn’t an issue, plopped back on the couch, and returned to her own book. Roland could see the author but not the title from his vantage point: Virginia Woolf. Hannah was a year ahead of Roland in school, but he often seemed decades ahead in age. He didn’t like days like this, when she accentuated that gap—hardly paying him any attention, nearly miffed by his arrival, giving him a children’s book. He thought they were past all that. He thought last summer had been different.
Roland couldn’t focus on Harry Potter. Hannah’s blanket had slipped around her knee in such a way that the inside of her thigh was visible, as smooth and untouched as a cloud. She leaned forward to retrieve the half-finished joint she’d balanced on the edge of the coffee table. Roland watched a parade of smoke escape her lips as she took a hit and then passed it to him. She noticed his eyes shift from her mouth to her thigh.
“Did you want some?” Roland knew she referred to the perfumed offering pinched between her fingers, but they both knew he was staring between her thighs. He wondered if she were playing with him, but as always, he got nervous and simply took the joint.
“Should we really be getting high, just before dinner?” He took a tentative hit.
“It’s fine.” Hannah coughed. “Ever since I went to college, my parents have been really cool about what I do.”
“Well, I’m not in college yet.”
“You will be in like a month, you’re fine. Your parents aren’t exactly sticklers anyways.”
They listened to the stomp of their parents’ feet upstairs as they all talked over each other, oohing at the changes Hannah’s mother had made around the house since last summer.
“Yeah, my mom brought an entire case of wine over for the month.” Roland paused to take another hit of the joint before going on. “We’ll probably be the most sober people at the dinner table.”
Hannah laughed. Roland stopped breathing for a moment.
Roland Shoemaker and Hannah Holden never went to the same school or had the same friends. They were from different parts of New England, and spent eleven months out of the year living entirely separate lives. But his parents and her parents had been close friends since college, and so, every August, Roland and his family drove out to the Cape and spent the month at the Holdens’ summerhouse.
That night, the families gathered for a dinner of crab cakes on the deck overlooking the pond. Hannah’s parents sat on either end of the rotting, wooden table, while Roland’s squinted into the sunset on one side, he and Hannah backlit on the other. They were both served wine without question.
Roland and Hannah were more or less quiet as their parents caught up. Hannah’s mom had remodeled the kitchen since they were last in town; Roland’s parents were finally going to Italy next spring. Roland picked at his dinner, hyperfocused on coming off as sober. Hannah’s dad asked him if he was excited for his freshman year at Colgate. Roland replied slowly, overarticulating each word.
Hannah pressed her foot on top of his beneath the table. He looked at her for the first time since they’d sat down. Her eyes were black and wide, the sun robbing them of their depth. She smirked at him and asked his mom about her new job in order to shift the focus away from Roland and his bloodshot eyes. It was the first kindness Hannah had shown him since he’d arrived.
Roland returned his gaze to his food and inspected his reflection on the back of his fork.
“Hannah,” Roland’s dad leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table, “do you have any advice for Roland’s first year?”
Hannah finished chewing before she replied. Roland couldn’t tell if she was searching for a good answer or if the weed was hitting her as much as it was him. “Go to all the orientation events. Join every club. I know that’s not cool in high school, but in college everyone is looking for friends. Ask around about the good professors. You should really take classes based on who’s teaching.”
Hannah looked at Roland’s father for her entire monologue while Roland looked at Hannah. Her lips were chapped; grease from the crab cakes glistened on her chin like liquid gold. The table was quiet until Roland realized he was expected to respond.
“Thanks.” His voice sounded weak and tinny. He cleared his throat. “Noted.”
She looked at him and pressed her foot on top of his again. This time he pressed his other foot on top of hers. She allowed it for a moment before pulling away. Roland wondered at how things could look ordinary above the table while so much occurred beneath.
Roland used to share a room with Hannah during their visits. They stayed up past their bedtimes and exchanged ghost stories. Hannah nestled under her sheets as she clutched her stuffed elephant; Roland curled up on the trundle bed below her as he gazed at the glow-in-the-dark stars smattered on the ceiling.
But when the kids hit puberty, their parents thought sharing a room was improper and put Roland in the guest room down the hall. Though an indisputably better sleeping arrangement with a queen-size bed to himself, Roland had slept terribly at the Holdens’ ever since.
Of course, last summer, it was Hannah who’d snuck into Roland’s room late at night, ducked under his covers and took advantage of the expansive bed. He slept just fine then.
But now, Roland woke up late, bleary-eyed and hung over. The house was empty when he came downstairs. A note on the kitchen counter read: Down at the pond. Join us, sleepyhead!
He pulled on a pair of yellow swim trunks and a white T-shirt, snatched a paddle board from the garage, and threw a towel over his shoulder. He took the short walk through the trees to the pond barefoot.
“You slept in,” Hannah said from the thin strip of beach their property was permitted. She was alone, reclined on a striped towel too short for her body so her feet snuck into the coarse, wet sand. Woolf shielded her face from the midday sun.
“I’m not a morning person.”
Roland laid his towel out beside hers and sat down with his arms laced around his knees.
“Where are the parents?” Roland nodded to the abandoned beach chairs beside them, already knowing the answer.
“Took the kayaks out.”
She propped herself up on her elbows and rested her book facedown on her chest. She wore a black bikini today, and Roland noticed the nearly invisible line of hair that ran down from her belly button and disappeared into that mysterious triangle of fabric.
“What are you looking at, buddy?”
He snapped his eyes up to her face, now pinched from the sun. Her freckled nose was peeling and the skin beneath her eyes was just slightly less flushed—she must’ve worn sunglasses the day before. Her black hair was streaked with red from the sun and dried to a crisp, certainly from spending the last two months here. He hated how she called him buddy.
“You keep staring at me.”
“We’re talking, so I’m looking at you. It’s polite.” Roland glared as his cheeks flushed.
“Oh, it’s polite to stare at my body?”
Roland was about to drown himself in the pond, but then she smiled at him, showing off her father’s dimples and her own unique gap between her front teeth.
“You’re fucking with me.”
She fanned herself with Woolf, sending her baby hairs into a frenzy of maenadic dance along her brow. He finally caught the title: To the Lighthouse. He’d hoped it was The Hours so he could talk to her about it. He read that one for AP Lit last year.
“Sorry my parents were drilling you last night.”
“It’s fine,” Hannah said. “I like talking about college.”
“You know, you haven’t asked me about it at all.” Hannah’s legs strayed off the beach towel and she sat up to brush the sand off her calf.
“Didn’t think you wanted me to.”
“I never said that I didn’t.”
Roland looked at the pond rather than the riddle next to him. A clear day, the blue sky and still water played reflective tricks on one other. Trees bordered the entirety of the pond, with brief strips of cobbled beaches woven along the edge like a running stitch. If he blocked out the second homes dotting the surrounding hills, Roland could imagine this place just so, hundreds of years earlier.
The sound of their parents echoed through the quiet as they jumped off their kayaks toward the center of the water. They looked like children from here.
“Perfect cure for a hangover, I guess.” He rubbed his pounding temples, developing a new admiration for his parents.
“Nobody drinks like middle-aged rich people.”
They laughed. He’d never heard Hannah call her parents rich. Always known, but never said.
“You sound…older,” Roland said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Like, your jokes,” he fumbled. “I don’t know, you’re all mature.” He attempted to turn his compliment into a joke: “Rising sophomore, and all.”
“Whatever, rising freshman.” Hannah lay back and returned to her book. Her brisk retorts, her narrowed eyes, the way she obstructed a majority of her face with her book, reminded Roland of the summer she turned ten and decided they couldn’t play make-believe anymore. Hannah told him it was for kids and spent her days tanning on the deck and painting her toenails. Eventually she got bored and went back to roughhousing with him again, but Roland wasn’t sure if she’d grow tired of playing adult this time around. Because she wasn’t playing. She always seemed more eager to grow up than he was.
Everyone trickled back to the house by late afternoon, only to discover very little food in the fridge. Roland’s mother sent him to the supermarket with his father, giving them a detailed grocery list on a piece of scrap paper.
His father drove while Roland fiddled with the radio from the passenger’s seat. They rolled down all the windows to overwhelm the stale rental-car smell with the humid scent of a summer’s crescendo outside. As they pulled onto the highway, Roland’s father brought up his impending first day of school again—his parents could hardly talk about anything else these days.
“You know, going off to college wasn’t always such an ordeal,” he rambled. “My dad dropped me at the curb in front of the dorm, said goodbye through the window. Now there’s a whole weekend of activities.”
“You guys don’t have to stick around or anything, if you don’t want to.” Roland wanted them to stay, but he would never admit as much to his father.
“Of course we will. I better be able to, with what we’re paying in tuition. I’m surprised they don’t host a lobster dinner for us—”
Roland’s father grumbled into his beard as he turned up the radio on a Linkin Park song. Roland leaned his face toward the window in hopes the breeze would soothe his new sunburn. The trees along the road were so lush and vibrant, as if someone had come through with a paintbrush.
They turned off the highway and slowed along a main street lined with drug stores, nostalgia shops, and seafood restaurants. They pulled into the supermarket and parked by a row of abandoned carts.
Greeted by crisp air conditioning inside, Roland pushed the cart while his father squinted at the shopping list like it was written in hieroglyphics.
“What the hell are endives?”
Roland shrugged. “Anchovies?”
“No, look at this word.” He turned the paper so Roland could see, then sounded out the first syllable of the word: “En-dives.”
“No clue, Dad.”
“I’ll call Mom.”
“Why don’t we just ask someone?”
They flagged down a teenager younger than Roland in a blue vest who sent them to the produce aisle. Roland’s father inspected the tight bundle of red and white leaves with alien suspicion.
“Oh yeah, Mom puts those in salads sometimes.”
“Right.” He threw the endives into the cart. “Lettuce can go bad and make you sick,” he said, unprompted. “If it’s soggy or dark in certain spots, you toss it, okay?”
Roland helped bag the groceries at checkout, a habit he’d developed as a child. They loaded the groceries into the trunk and Roland snatched the keys from his father to drive back. His dad couldn’t help pointing out a blind spot between the windows as Roland pulled out, warning him about the dangers of reversing. Roland found the closer he reached college, the more last-minute, somewhat irrelevant advice his father had for him.
Roland sighed. “She’s fine, I guess. You’ve seen her as much as I have.”’
“That’s not true.” His dad shook his head. “You two are always hiding away in the basement.”
“We’re not hiding away.”
“Hey, I was eighteen once.” His father often resorted to this particular catchphrase. “I think it’s hilarious that you guys think we don’t know what you’re doing down there.”
“What?” Roland found himself more horrified by the fact that they weren’t doing what his parents thought they were doing.
But then his father smiled. “Eyedrops, buddy, they’ll do wonders.”
“Oh.” Roland blushed. He focused on the road, half-prepared for a lecture, but his father seemed unbothered and went on.
“You and Hannah good?”
Roland stopped at a red light and fidgeted with the AC.
“She’s kind of been doing her own thing,” Roland confided after another minute of silence. He would’ve preferred seeking his friends’ advice on the issue—they were more filled in on his history with Hannah anyways—but they were all on their own family vacations with limited cell service and a waning investment in one another as they all prepared to separate for college.
“No, it’s just we used to watch movies together. Now she just reads.”
“Maybe you could talk to her.”
Roland tightened his hands around the steering wheel. “About what?”
“Well, it took me months to ask your mom out. I thought I was being so obvious when we talked in class, but it turns out, she had no idea I liked her.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing, nothing.” His father surrendered with a wave of his hand. “And you’ve got plenty of time. That’s what college is for. To try out different things, meet people. Just so long as you’re smart about it.”
“Dad, if the next thing on your list is the sex talk, I swear—”
“What?” His father laughed. “No, it’s not.”
“Really?” Roland turned off the highway and back onto the winding roads of the Holdens’ neighborhood.
“Do we need to go over that?”
“Okay. because we can, if you want. No shame in it. There’s nothing wrong with being a late bloomer.”
“Dad.” Roland tried to look unbothered, but couldn’t help notice that his father had jumped to the “late bloomer” talk as opposed to the “be safe, use protection” talk. It turned out his parents really didn’t know about everything that had happened in that basement.
His father turned up the radio and they listened to the classic rock station for the rest of the drive.
The endives wound up in a salad after all. They all ate at the kitchen counter as a storm rolled in without warning and turned the sky a swollen gray. The parents recalled (no-doubt slightly edited) stories from college, which left Hannah and Roland fairly quiet through dinner again.
They escaped to the basement afterward and smoked late into the night, well after the storm passed. With an entire couch cushion between them, Hannah seemed more interested in the weed than she was in Roland. Despite her earlier protests, they turned on Caddyshack, if anything so they didn’t have to talk. The dialogue of the movie competed with the laughter of their parents upstairs as they probably finished another bottle of wine.
“I would totally fuck Bill Murray,” Hannah said, her face momentarily obstructed by the smoke escaping her lips. It cleared and Roland noted the renewed sunburn fanning across her cheeks.
“Really?” He glanced back at the screen, where the actor swung his golf club at a row of flowers.
She winked at him. “Funny guys finish first.” Roland could never tell when Hannah was teasing him and when she was flirting. She probably didn’t know either.
“Do they?” He didn’t know what else to say. Or what she wanted him to say.
“Don’t beat yourself up, Roland. You’re funny sometimes too.”
Roland extinguished the butt of the joint against a coaster on the coffee table as he attempted to think of a clever retort. “Thanks, Hannah” was all he said, with more anger than cleverness.
“You know, you don’t have to be so weird around me,” she grumbled. “It was one time, like a year ago.”
Roland kept his eyes trained on the movie. He could tell she was staring at him, inspecting him. He felt the blush heat his cheeks.
“I didn’t think I was being weird.”
“Well, you are.”
They watched the movie for a bit longer. Hannah fidgeted with the drawstrings of her sweats.
Roland eventually said under his breath, “I kind of thought you were being weird.”
“Me?” She yanked an elastic band from her wrist and pulled her hair back into a ponytail. “I’m being the matureone.”
He grimaced. “Well, I can’t help it. You’re older than me, remember?”
They both looked to the television again. Roland’s eyes stung, so he took a final hit from the joint to look unfazed and unaffected—just like her, apparently. It was one time, like a year ago, she’d said. Like that one time hadn’t been building up all month, like she didn’t tell him she’d miss him when he left with his parents the next day. Like she didn’t call him three times during her college orientation to confess how homesick she was.
The room softened as their favorite scene in the movie came up—an iconic misunderstanding between Bill Murray and his Scottish manager. They both laughed as hard as they did the first time they saw it as kids.
Hannah kept her eyes on the television and spoke softly, taking advantage of the brief and fragile armistice between them. “Can’t we just go back to how things were before?”
Roland crossed his arms and nestled deeper into the couch cushions. Based on the tense quiet he allowed to return to the air, Roland was more hurt than he realized—more hurt by her it was one time and funny guys finish first comments, the way she tried to skim over last summer. Even now, as she asked to return to the way things were, she was asking him to forget.
“That’s all I’ve been trying to do, Roland. Get things back to normal.”
“Normal means we can talk to each other.”
“I didn’t realize you wanted to talk.” Roland jerked his head at her book sitting on the table. He’d never been so jealous of an inanimate object.
“We read it for English class last semester, and I didn’t understand a word. I barley spoke during discussions. It was so embarrassing, I thought I’d try reading it again to see if it makes any sense.”
“A little. I can’t tell if the weed is helping or hurting.”
Hannah frowned. “I was just worried that after what happened last summer, you thought that would continue. So, I wanted to come out of the gate and make it clear we’re friends.”
“Just friends.” Roland said quietly, swallowing his fantasies that he’d always known were just that. After her three panicked phone calls last August, she stopped calling him all together. He only found out through their parents that after a bit of a rocky start, Hannah was loving college.
“You’re my friend, Roland. And you’ll see, you’ll go to college in a month, and you’ll meet a bunch of girls and make friends. You’re going to love it.”
Roland finally looked at her. She was facing him, a hand against her cheek, her eyes bright despite the weed and dim lighting. A selfish part of him wanted to remind her of her first few weeks in college when she wasn’t loving it so much, when he was there for her. But he realized the kindest thing he could do was forget that part. He told her she was right: everything would be better when he started college too.
She exhaled and returned her gaze to the movie, but not before thanking him under her breath. They both knew he was doing her a service. They were mostly quiet for the remainder of the movie. Roland rolled another joint. Hannah took the first hit, her lighter decorated with little flower stickers.
After a while, Roland nodded off. He woke up just as the explosion knocked Danny’s ball into the hole. He felt a weight on his shoulder and turned to find the space between him and Hannah had disappeared—she now rested her head against his collarbone. He listened to her breath and recalled that same sound from when they’d shared a room as children, her heavy exhales soothing him to sleep in that trundle bed. He looked down to discover her eyes were wide open. She showed no real sign of having ever dozed off.
“Didn’t mean to nod off.” Roland yawned, testing her.
“Me neither,” she lied and kept her eyes on the screen.
Roland let it be. They stayed close like that and watched the gopher dance, watched the credits roll, like any other summer.
Raised in California, ISABELLA BARRENGOS studied writing, anthropology, and classics at Bates College in Maine and now resides in New York. Her work has been featured in Your Impossible Voice, Capulet Magazine, and Wild Garlic.
Featured image by Christine Caswell courtesy of Unsplash