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Summer nights

A visit by my nephew -- up from sweltering south Texas -- reminded me of the seductive power of summer nights.

My three sons and their cousin have been spending summer weeks together since they were babies, and as they have grown into teenagers, their nighttime excursions into our darkened neighborhood have cemented their bonds.

Last week, they slept half the day, lounged inside during the hot afternoons, tolerated dinner with family, then began making preparations for their nighttime ventures. The week before, on a trip to the San Juan Mountains, the four of them spent every night, from full dark to 1 a.m., soaking in a hot tub beneath a million unsullied stars.

Home now, at twilight they begin to dress and gather their things in anticipation of darkness and their release into the night.

Together, they ride bikes and skateboards to the neighborhood milkshake stand, where they scan the crowd for girls, then claim an empty parking lot for hours of uninhibited bombast and skate tricks.

On a night when they have not come home by midnight, I walk down the alley behind my house to retrieve them. The alley has no light and I am barefoot; I have to carefully feel my way toward the corner streetlight ahead.

Cold, cracked pavement gives way to dirt and an occasional rock as my feet remember the forgotten skill of night roaming. Nights of kick-the-can with neighborhood kids; breaking off from the pack and hiding behind a garage, my toes soothed by the hard-packed, cool, damp earth next to a wall where the sun never shines and grass doesn't grow; a blind race across a darkened backyard to the street and the can, urgent mother warnings flashing through my mind: You could run into a wire and break your neck. Watch out for tree limbs; you could poke your eye out; dew-soaked, freshly cut grass coating the sides and tops of my feet in fragrant clumps; a big toe, stubbed raw on the edge of the rough asphalt pavement.

I find my sons and their cousin at the elementary school playground, where they sit atop the monkey bars, their long legs dangling, sandals dropped to the sandy surface below. They are talking to a neighborhood girl and her little brother, escaped out their bedroom window because their father doesn't allow them out at night. The boys promise not to awaken sleeping neighbors and to come home soon.

I walk back down the alley and sit on a bench at the far edge of my backyard, still craving and soaking up the cool darkness, the irresistible combination of summer and night.

From a backyard across the way, a splash and murmurs echo from the aboveground pool that entertains a pack of kids all summer long. This year, some of them have grown old enough to drive off in cars, then drive back home with a load of friends. I imagine the creeping, water-slicked arms of one of them, embracing a friend from behind, the blind thrill of the recipient and the giver -- unseen by everyone else, felt and known only by one another, beneath the water's surface.

A breeze rustles through the row of lilacs at my back and rushes across my face. In daylight such a slight breeze would barely be noticeable, but here, in the dark, the cool air sweeps across my skin as surely as a hand, then disappears. In the distance, the scratch of skateboard wheels. My sons are coming home.

We linger in the backyard and they trade stories of what they've seen, what they've done. They plan tomorrow night aloud, then go inside to eat and join their glowing late-night companion, the television.

I stay outside a while longer, remembering a summer romance a few years back when a man from my past visited me and we walked the streetlit sidewalks late at night to keep our bodies moving, to tire ourselves out.

I remember junior high summer nights and the protective darkness that allowed fingertips to touch and join without comment or embarrassment.

I remember hearing my daughter cautiously close the front door at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., just a few years back following a summer night out with friends, lounging on sun-heated rock slabs in the deserted Garden of the Gods.

Finally, I stand up to go inside, knees and back stiff. I wonder why I don't do this every night, sit outside beneath the stars.

When, I wonder, did I stop loving the dark?

First published in summer of 2000, when the author's sons were young enough to consider a late night out on a bike a bona fide adventure.

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