Bottle rockets are a matter of trial and error. And even after you get the angles set, you never quite know where the next one’s going to land when you strike the match. That’s how these old stories are for me.
It was the summer between junior and senior high, sort of a turning point, so I would have been almost 14. I spent July visiting my best friend Nick who had moved across country to Littleton, Colorado. We had a big stash of bottle rockets, which was pretty exciting because I wasn’t from a fireworks kind of family. You could lose a finger. Put an eye out.
Colorado was like nothing I ever. Every day, the sky was Crayola cornflower blue, never hazy gray, and every night the Milky Way spilled a wide smear of stars above the new neighborhood, lighting the tops of dirt piles, our own private Rocky Mountains. Days were spent riding bikes, tossing a ball, and splitting into two armies for bottle rocket wars on idle construction sites. By day we were big kids on the loose. By night, we were turning into something vaguely different. Or wanted to.
After dinner, as the sun was setting behind Long’s Peak, we’d recongregate beneath the corner street light, boys and girls, and sit on the sidewalk that was still warm from the long, hot day. I was part of the gang that summer, accepted in a way I had never quite managed at home, the way you sometimes can be with people who don’t really know you yet. There were two girls about my age dressed in shorts and halter tops. Cathy was the slim one, pale, quiet. We talked about our favorite classes at school, the books we had read. Cherry was different in every way, always at the center of things, laughing and teasing and shaking like a new puppy. I was sitting next to Cathy but I was stealing looks at Cherry with her head thrown back, spinning – her brown shoulders, her red top glowing in artificial light, making me dizzy.
Come on, I wanna show you something, Cathy whispered. She took my hand and led me. I remember how our shadows lengthened as we slipped away from the group. Taller and dimmer they stretched until we turned between houses, along a high redwood fence, through a gate, and into a backyard with a swing set and an attached wooden play fort. She closed the gate and we stood with our backs against the inside of the fence, breathing, listening. No one had followed.
The Nelsons were out of town, and Cathy had been feeding the daughter’s goldfish. She wriggled a key out of the front pocket of her cut-off jeans and opened the back door. We crept inside, into the dark kitchen where she felt her way to the refrigerator, opened it, and grabbed two cans of Coke. The light of the refrigerator shone in the shape of an isosceles triangle between the dark silhouettes of her thin legs so that when she closed the door I could see the shape glowing red in front of my eyes. I bumped into Cathy and she leaned against me for a second in a way that made me feel excited and flustered, and then she pushed an ice-cold can against the back of my neck and I made a funny startled squeal. We giggled and held each other as we felt our way to the door.
I followed her up the ladder of the swing set and we lay on our backs on the wooden planks, looking at the stars shining through the dry, thin air. There were too many to count, more wishes than all the days in a life. I don’t remember if we said anything. This is when you could lean slowly toward her and kiss her on the lips, but I didn’t know how to make my body move.
And a shooting star streaked across the black sky, breathtaking like no bottle rocket ever could be.