Long before I ever had a boyfriend, I fantasized about nuzzling up to some as-of-yet-unnamed gentleman’s shoulder as we lay on an open sleeping bag, fireworks above and between us, as the Fourth of July celebration commenced on a newly dark evening. Every year, I would hope and pray and wish that, come the second week of summer, I’d have someone to snuggle, someone to hold as I watched those familiar patterns of light dance across the outline of the Rocky Mountains.
When my mom and I traveled back east for my college musical theatre auditions, we spent the Fourth at my great aunt and uncle’s house in Pennsylvania. While the adults played cards and ate ham sandwiches upstairs, I watched the broadcast of the Boston Pops synchronized to a delightful celestial shower of red, white, and blue by myself downstairs. In my loneliness, I took an afghan from the couch and laid it on the tiled basement floor. Soon my imaginary handsome stranger appeared, this time taking over a red corduroy throw pillow, and for the duration of the Star-Spangled Banner, I was transported into my dreamland.
Like the fireworks outside of Grace Kelly's and Jimmy Stewart's hotel room in "To Catch a Thief," my Fourth of July reverie is chaste but bursting with innuendo. And it has served as the pinnacle of romance for most of my life.
I assumed that surely my dream would come true at some point, especially given that I had lived in Washington, D.C. for seven years. D.C. is arguably home to one of the best Independence Day celebrations in the country. Just as people from around the world flock to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, people come to D.C. for the fireworks. And, as any Washingtonian will tell you, the Fourth is amateur night.
You can’t drive downtown, the subways are beyond crowded, and if you head out on foot, you’ll likely be sardine-ing it with drunk undergrads and foreign tourists who bewilderedly search the Tidal Basin for any remaining cherry blossoms. There’s no room for blankets, no space for cuddling, no square inch of the National Mall not mired in the remains of funnel cakes and empty soda cups.
The Fourth in D.C. is simply a madhouse.
One year, my then-boyfriend and I decided to cycle from our apartment just outside the District border into the city to experience this truly American tradition, lest we move away before we’d had a chance to check it off our Bucket List. It had been a hard summer; we were not in a good place. But, like our valiant forebearers, I pressed on, sticky from the ever-present humidity, exhausted from our fights, but hopeful that the fireworks could ignite a spark in us again.
Somewhere near the Ronald Reagan Building, the air changed. Blame it on the distinctly European architecture or the fact that we were on our bikes, but for a moment, I thought we were back in Italy where, a year earlier, I was studying Italian language and culture on a scholarship from the state of Tuscany.
After graduation, my boyfriend had joined me in Lucca, a medieval city encircled by a 12-foot tall, 12-foot thick wall with a giant metal gate designed to keep out the nearby armies of Pisa and Florence. In the little towns dotting the Tuscan countryside, andare in bici -- to cycle -- is the fastest, most efficient form of transportation, and we gladly rode the cruisers provided by our charming bed and breakfast in the countryside through the iron gates into the city.
Mid-afternoon, we stopped at the home of Giacomo Puccini (my favorite composer), took some photos, and enjoyed a gulp of that glorious acqua dall'Italia.
When I turned around, my boyfriend was missing.
I biked this way and that, all around the surrounding blocks and the main streets leading to that part of the city. He was nowhere to be found. Cell phones in Europe at that time were expensive, so we'd come here without them.
And it was getting dark. My only choice was to bike out of the city and toward the B&B -- if I remembered how to get there.
I panicked, mostly because before my boyfriend had arrived, I’d been groped several times while traveling by myself in Italy, and I didn’t much feel like reporting another hearty boob grab to an unsympathetic poliziotto. I was crying, too -- I had lost him and didn’t know how. As I biked through the narrow passageway to the left of the city gates, low and behold, who was waiting outside the wall but my boyfriend, worried that I’d been abducted or worse.
John Fogarty happened to be playing a concert in Lucca that night. We biked back to the bed and breakfast in the twilight listening to "Red Moon Rising" echo throughout the countryside.
In D.C. the following summer, the soundtrack was a slightly different brand of Americana: the unmistakable treacle patriotism of Lee Greenwood. But the air was the same -- electric, with that familiar scent of sulfur simmering beneath it all. I tried to nuzzle into my boyfriend's shoulder, finally putting a face -- a someone -- to the shadowed figure in my mind's eye. But as we watched the fireworks, my boyfriend gripped our bikes tighter than he gripped me.
A person can disappear so quickly -- before you even realize they’re gone.
The fireworks were finished. And so were we.